Sep 19 2011

Consumerism, castles and a spiral staircase to the sky

I am expecting the undead but only find small shopping units.  As I am standing outside 14th century Brougham Hall reputed to be stuffed full of ghastly entities, it comes as something as a surprise to find shops hollowed out in the fabric of the building selling computer games, Hopi ear candles and wine bottle holders.

Nevermind. Once I step inside the rest of the hall, terrible things will happen and it will be amazing. I spy a door and enter it. There is a man pissing. I did not see the sign that says ‘Mens.’ I run around a corner and hide. I realise I am dressed all in black and have my hood up due to the inclement weather and hope that the toilet confusion is not a source of the ghost stories.

We poke around the outskirts of Brougham Hall. There are horrible modern detached houses, the sort to have quilted toilet paper, snuffling around the meadow where the last battle on English soil was fought and a recumbering Jesus is ensnared in brambles. It is fascinating and strange, neither ancient monument nor retail development-much of it is in ruins but signs tell us they are working on recreating it. I would personally prefer an honest ruin to a newly plastered recreation of the past but its transitionary period where rubber tyres lie in the sunken garden and ancient embossed stone lie in heaps like builders’ rubble is nonetheless compelling. As we walk under the entrance arch, an invisible booing voice redolent of Churchill speaks. And mechanically asks us to donate four pounds a head.

But I find better riches down the road. 13th century Brougham Castle is owned by English Heritage and thus the capitalism is kept at the door along with the reduced flapjacks and illustrated children’s books about the Tudors. It seems a bit too ruiny at first-I want good value for my £3.25, not a sign saying that there used to be cloisters here but now there aren’t.

But I would happily pay double to go back there again. Amongst the ruins lies the reality. We open a clanging wrought iron gate and tumble up a staircase to enter the black. A narrow corridor and the sudden inversion back into the past as we look through the black window slits at the lush countryside outside. The delight in the claustrophobia.

In the main hall is another winding staircase riddled with warnings. It goes up and up and up into the past. I keep thinking it will stop as I climb carefully up the pleasingly dangerous steps, past more window slits, more vanished floors and have that feeling, so little felt in adulthood of genuine excitement and unknowing.

But now I am at the top, the flagpole bangs and I walk through the echoes of rooms used for century upon century where graffiti is calilligraphed and a carved face gazes down upon me from the ceiling. A fireplace is suspended on an invisible floor; a Roman tombstone forms part of a ceiling. I sit at a window seat, worn with the bottoms of centuries, look at England stretched before me and feel so alive but oh so very very mortal.

Sep 5 2011

Tea Shops and Passive Aggression

Today is the last day of summer. It is a Sunday in September and the sun has finally come to taunt us, showing us what could have been.

We go to Silverdale on Morecambe bay- all hanging baskets, houses that you expect Kate Winslet to run beaming out of, English accents and jolly ‘good mornings’ said by people with sensible hair and no tattoos.

There is dog poo. A lot of it, coiling and lumpen, glistening and bold all along the shore path so we do not look at the wonderful view across the bay to the mountains but instead go ‘carefu…. oh too late.’ We both get irrationally angry about dog poo.

There are signs on the beach telling us that no campfires, camping, alcohol etc is permitted on the beach ‘by order of the RSPB’. I wonder what jurisdiction the RSPB have and what would happen should I decide to flout these laws late on a weekend night. Would I be manhandled off the beach by the RSPB? Pecked to dead by a trained Peregrine Falcon? Left to rot in Leighton Moss wildlife reserve?

In the toilets at Kay’s Tea Room (otherwise all flowers, organic flour and Buddhas) is a sign that states terrifyingly and obliquely that anything not paper which is put in the toilets will set off an alarm and the wrongdoer will have to retrieve it. Thus the hapless degenerate only wanting a nice latte, some gluten free French chocolate torte and a quick disposal of a tampax will be forced by steely smiled management to roll up their sleeve and put their arm down a communal u-bend as lights flash, sirens scream and shocked white faces cluster at the door. And they wonder why people go abroad.

Then at a nearby cluster of farm buildings, a gallery specialising  in whimsical ceramic sheep and ‘quirky’ pictures of local landmarks has  a sign which says something along the lines of ‘Feel free to touch, free to hold-but if you break it, we say sold!’

Its smiling glee at your potential plight, its gloating and profiteering in your misfortune makes me leave. I did not want a swirly patterned glass plate anyway and I especially do not want a broken one foisted upon me and 29.99 forced from my empty purse. I wonder what would happen should the baby lunge at some fragile cutesiness. I have no money. Would I be arrested? Forced to make lumpen pottery hares until my debt is paid off?

I wonder at the British psyche where deep in a beautiful little village, shop holders smile at their customers. And imagine the worst.

Please feel free to share any examples you may have of the passive aggression smouldering in the genteel British heart. And apologies again for no photos. The camera is broken and cannot be fixed along with our financial situation.

Jul 25 2011

Furness Abbey, a circus and urban wilderness

It is pissing down and cold in the way that only an English July can be. I want to look at Furness Abbey but it is so cosy in the car and it costs £3.80 to go out in the rain and look at what we have already seen in-between the swipe of the windscreen wipers. It is a ruin, a very nice ruin but I fail to see what a closer and more expensive viewing can yield. But we have driven an hour, I would quite like to see a ghostly monk who are far more likely to pop up in inclement weather so I begrudgingly pay, run the gauntlet of the nice woman behind the till trying to upsell us Furness Abbey pamphlets and have a free sample of nettle wine which mollifies me somewhat.

And I do not resent my £3.80. We spend an hour there looking up at spiral staircases that stop at vanished floors, drenched sky-clad cloisters, soaring ambitious walls attached to nothing, malevolent gargoyles, 13th century knights graves who look like Darth Vader.

I do not see a ghost. I must have paid enough to see a ghost by now. Anyone would think they don’t exist. I try really hard; peeping through the gloom at arched windows but no sudden flit of black appears. I realize I am wearing my long black frock coat (from Next) and hope at least I have presented a quick glimpse of immortality to the few umbrella-covered stalwarts perusing the site. Until they see me pushing a shouty baby in a nylon pushchair.

Then the circus. Part of the Lakes Alive! events they are cheerily trying to be a brilliant circus despite being in the rain in Barrow on Furness, having no animals and being bellowed at to ‘Fall! Fall!’ when performing acrobatics by small Barrow youth. They are still excellent and so sanguine in the circumstances, could easily get a job for HMP prison services.

Walney Island is nearby and Walney Island is terrifying. It is the worst bits of country and town enmeshed together in a windswept ferocious huddle. There is a big housing estate, some pubs that look like they have never seen a female, a vegetarian option or a hanging basket, a caravan park and then sudden marsh, sudden sucking slooping salt marsh from which pops out the top of a car. I open the car door and am nearly sucked away.

Rare birds and wildlife can be witnessed here against the faint outline of Barrow industry. In the sea can be seen the hulk of Peil Island, another monastic outcrop. I shall go there one day but now, right now, I am scared of both nature and man and wish to go home.

Jul 12 2011

Beetham, Fairy Steps, corpses and cheesy chips

10.45am- It is all a little bit too nice. I am suspicious and jealous of anything a little bit too nice. All the gardens here abound with a neatly joyous cacophony of flowers, the majority of houses are warm grey stone, slanted immaculate antiquity and I suspect very expensive. People smile and say hello and I narrow my eyes. There is a village shop and tearoom, which has a studded door with a bell that rings every time it is opened. It is opened a lot and the bell irritates me.

There is St Michael and Arkangels, a 12th century church of historical importance. In its musty interior a woman is meticulously polishing a bronze eagle. Outside generations of families are buried, their histories, tragedies and early deaths quaintly marked by stone slabs shining in the sunlight. There is a rose bedecked corridor leading to the church door. People have bollards and signs to protect their parking spaces. I suspect the car parking issue is very controversial here. That and immigrants. I keep waiting for a shout to go up that a body has been found in the vicarage.

I hanker to enter the looming grand looking pub and hotel, the Wheatsheaf with its rare Tudor overhang. But it is not yet 11am, which is probably a bad sign.

11.00am- We begin to follow the walk to Fairy Steps as described in Curious Cumbrian Walks by Graham Dugdale- a pleasing book of walks in that the author accurately surmises that one does not want to go on a walk through verdant countryside merely to revel in nature but instead to hark at where a horrific 18th century murder once occurred or someone once said they saw a headless cavalier. We walk up through lovely old woodland, none of your boring identikit conifers and pass an abandoned cottage. More walks should have abandoned cottages.

11.45am-The Fairy Steps-not only is there the old legend about if one should go down the fairy steps embedded deep within the limestone cliff without touching the sides that one will see a fairy but above the Fairy Steps lies The Corpse Road. This is the old route that coffins used to take from the lonely outreaches of the Lake District to consecrated ground at the aforementioned church.

11.46am-I try to go down the Fairy Steps without touching the sides.

11.47am- I decide to eschew cheesy chips forever more. Mind you I had already decided that upon seeing a microwave frozen ready meal of said meal for £1.09 for sale in my local McColls and being filled with both revulsion and a strong compulsion to purchase.

11. 50am- I decide the crevices around The Fairy Steps are positively crammed with valuable 18th century trinkets left there by star crossed lovers doomed to never return there to reclaim their treasure.

11.53am- I give up after only finding a colour drained Hula Hoops crisps bag.

11.55am- I decide I am hungry and demand cheesy chips with a mini tantrum.

12.12pm- We go down the second flight of fairy steps as ordered to by the author of Curious Cumbrian Walks and make our way past all the stencilled Keep Out signs that are more prevalent a feature of English countryside than robins and dry stone walling. The instructions don’t seem to make much sense anymore but I confidently lead the way until we are lost and in a farmyard.

1pm- A further tantrum. I wake the baby who also has a tantrum but not nearly as good.

1.10pm- We retrace our steps. Retracing steps is the most agonising arduous frustrating boring thing in the world.

1.30pm- We realise that Curious Cumbrian Walks is wrong and can only surmise it is because the author of the Keep Out signs has had the footpath rerouted because what could be worse than being rich enough to own great swathes of countryside but occasionally seeing someone in waterproof clothing quietly enjoying it and saying ‘good morning’ to you?

My revolutionary mood is not helped by seeing farmed grouse running in front of us. Grouse and pheasant shooting as a ‘sport’ have to be as sporting and as risky as popping pins in the plastic bags of fairground goldfish. Or maybe stamping on the fingers of babies.

2pm-A walk through a deer park with herds of deer flittering elegantly ahead. I really really hope they are not doomed with the same fate.

2.01pm- I realise I am not the chirpiest of walk companions.

2.12pm- Back at the car and I am so so hungry I look at the beautiful historic landscape all around me and can only see microwaved ready meals of flaccid white chips congealed together by a cheap cheesy oil slick. The countryside is possibly wasted on me.

Jun 6 2011


We are sitting in a ‘café with a conscience,’ the Buddhist run World Peace café and it cares about you very much and also the planet. For a small vegetarian cafe that sells nachos and halloumi baguettes, its aim is somewhat high and I hope Somalia and Yemen are listening when I order my cauliflower and nutmeg soup.

There are Buddhist books to read and meditation CDs for sale. The sun streams in from the flower bedecked garden and some gentle music is playing. Then a man decides to play all the different ring tones on his phone. Loudly. Sadly Buddhism is not the religion of a vengeful God.

We are in Ulverston on a blistering early June day and I have decided to move here. It is the best place I have ever been to I declare over my second cider and I am so overexcited that I just point at pretty much everything and say it is wonderful. I stop when I realize I have getting excited over some breezeblock stairs (circa 1989)

Ulverston is a pretty higgledy-piggledy market town in the Lake District yet not impossibly cutesy and swamped by tourists. It is grey, quaintly austere and surrounded by hills. Houses are for sale at well under a hundred grand, there are fancy shops including an excellent chocolatier alongside more prosaic ones and those seemingly unchanged since 1902. A bargain food shops boxes upon boxes of crisps spill out onto the street and including those fancy ones they sell in pubs are all for sale for 10p a packet. Cans of Cocoa Cola and Dr Pepper (in a fridge no less) are 30p a can. It is a skint bulimics dream within its shambolic interiors with Thorntons chocolates for a quid and various other delicious unhealthy cheap cheap goodness. It must be amazing to be a child here. A quid in Ulverston could easily tip you into a dangerous body mass index. I feel slightly ashamed of my trans fat spewing plastic bags but impressed that they only came to £2.54.

Anyway the real reason we are here is to visit Harmonic Fields, an installation that is part of the Lakes Alive season of festivity.

I am used to getting somewhat overexcited by amazing sounding things and then being crushingly disappointed but here on Birkrigg common is a piece of magic.

There is an orchestra playing a symphony but there are no musicians here, just the wind, earth and sky. The sea shimmers below and moorland stretches for infinity. Strung up and silhouetted by the blazing empty blue of the sky are musical instruments, 500 of them and all wind powered. Enormous bamboo organs and cellos along with more abstract musical equipment, long strips of rubber, scarecrows, gongs and harps all arranged into four sections with the wind the conductor and dictating which instruments will be playing and when and how loud or quiet they will be. It’s a fantastic idea that seems too amazing and overblown for reality but due to composer and artist Pierre Sauvageot, it works, it really works. It is so alive and interactive, this is not art to simply stare at-by walking around in and out of the bamboo organ pipes is when you hear the different timbres, by putting your head in a gong, you hear the gong. And depending on where the wind is and where the listener is, everyone hears something completely different. Despite loving music I am a tone deaf Luddite with all the subtle complexities of a Sham 69 album but even I can tell this is something pretty damn special. It is classical, natural and spectacular-kids run around, yummy mummies with three wheeled pushchairs natter, there are men with dreadlocks and posh looking people who utter sentences like quotations.  The more people run around the installations, the more they enjoy it-a couple stare at the organ pipes and declare it silent but if they weaved in and out of it like excited three year olds they would have heard it and thus by trying to look cool they make themselves look stupid-like with yoof with overtight neon jeans.

Back down into Ulverston and the excitement of finding yet another exclusively vegetarian establishment-Gillams is a cozy tearoom and café that has been in the family for around two hundred years and is what Americans possibly think all England is like. We have a bubbling oozy rarebit and a cheese and chili jam puff with salad, coleslaw and baked potato, a posh lemonade and an excellent bottle of organic pleasingly strong cider with the bill coming to about seventeen quid which I consider eminently reasonable for a place where the staff have the name of the establishment on their clothes.

I think of the fact we have resolved not to eat out ever again after finding all the water in the attic and feel somewhat guilty but as a vegetarian, to find an exclusively vegetarian establishment and not enter it, seems somewhat wrong. Not as wrong as the Armenian genocide I admit, I am making poor excuses but I like food, am a lazy cook and am sick of years of eating out as a vegetarian having less chance of a happy outcome than playing Russian Roulette. Unless you like paying nine quid for a fucking goats cheese tartlet the size of a babies fist as all your companions merrily delve into a cacophony of farmyard.

Ulverston saves its best for last, one of those obscure haphazardous charity shops down a little lane which practically scream ‘here be treasure’ but it being 2011, the treasure not being antiquarian maps of long lost counties but a Thomas The Tank Engine pop up book where the pop up bits have not been savagely ripped off and eaten for 50p. And a dress from the pound hanger (something tragically disappearing from the modern charity shops in favour of stupid expensive calendars featuring grinning Balinese children in woven hats) that will look lovely once I can fit my arms into it-I suspect the precious owner might also have been delighted by the array of close to expiry enchantments within the Bargain Food shop. Oh and some sunglasses for 30p. 30p! Only in Ulverston does 30p give you a veritable choice of things to purchase.  Or indeed the knowledge that your purchase goes towards making the world a better place for the earth and all residing on it should you wish to spend two pound something on a delicious fresh smoothie from an ethical establishment rather than rot your teeth on nasty tasty cheap yummy carcinogenic 30p diet coke. Although they did also have Appletiser.

And in a small town, who could ask for more?

Apr 23 2011

Failing at the paranormal in Lancashire and Cumbria

I have always had a strong interest in ghosts and witches. Unlike with most people however, it did not stop when I was nine.

It is an interest on the periphery of my life, I do not spend vast sums of money on occult paraphernalia or obsess over ‘orbs’ which are clearly dust but I like the thought of ghosts existing. It is pleasing. I also like witches.  I believe in witches less than ghosts and feel faintly guilty being interested in them at all as I think a lot of slightly eccentric women who loved cats and had an interest in herbs died very nastily as a result of people believing in witches.

The Pendle Witches have made the victimisation, persecution and murder of women a tourist trail featuring a witch on a broomstick.  I have though always wanted to visit Pendle hill, scene of their alleged naughtiness because of the way it glowers over East Lancashire, always in the distance, always dark and long and strange, it being not a hill as such but a long looming landmass.

We finally have a car and it is my first destination, it previously being pretty much inaccessible via public transport from Lancaster, the scene of the witches’ sorry demise.  It is annoyingly a beautiful day. Even more annoyingly, the fact it is so beautiful thwarts us. I have a small baby, even more annoyingly a small ginger almost translucent baby and the sun beams unseasonably down and there is no shade whatsoever on the cold dead slopes of Pendle hill. Apparently people with a dark side climb Pendle hill on Halloween night. Maybe they are just ginger and freckle easily.

Reaching the no doubt impossibly eerie summit of Pendle hill is out (for now) but there is a Pendle Inn at nearby Barley featuring a pub sign of a witch on a broomstick. It’s practically dancing widdershins with Aleister Crowley except for the fact it sells tagliatelle for 9.95 and has self-catering cottages in the car park.  Oh, and was built in 1935.

The picnic area opposite is pleasing in that it looks like a poster in Nursery Times magazine celebrating diversity. There are saris and old men in shorts and sandals sitting in deckchairs.  Kids run around with nets on sticks, big scary looking men enjoy strawberry ice creams and don’t litter.

But I am still in search of the unknown and so we head to Newchurch in Pendle, home to Witches Galore. The name should perhaps have given away the fact there are no dark grimoires to be had here but esoterica lite, incense and car stickers that say ‘My other car’s a broomstick.’

And among the fluffy black cats, gemstones and wind chimes. a display of royal wedding memorabilia, Kate Middleton’s bland face next to some rune stones and books on walking in the northwest. It’s what Alice Nutter would have wanted.

We head to Burnley to a vegetarian café so meticulously researched on the net that we can’t find it and even of we had it would have been closed anyway.  The rest of Burnley looks to be honest, fucking awful so we head to Colne as the Internet says it has a ‘restaurant quarter’. A restaurant quarter must have some nice veggie inoffensive fare but we search the streets of Colne in vain. There are a surprising amount of butchers, deep stretching grey terraces than make Coronation Street look like Kensington but no restaurant quarter. Is Mr Chips the restaurant quarter?

We finally find an Italian restaurant offering three courses for ten pounds. It appears an oasis in the desert and I rhapsodise until the food arrives. I never learn the whole quantity versus quality thing. The ice-cream (third course) remains untouched and research on the net suggests that the restaurant we are in and the two closed ones nearby are in fact the restaurant quarter. I curse council press releases. And the meal costs with two drinks and the garlic bread thirty quid, which is actually more than we have ever paid in our lives for a meal. My partner leaves most of his and we bicker the whole way home about whose fault it was that we went there. We both admit we should have known from the plastic ivy. And in retrospect the angry people on the Internet who say they went to environmental health after a meal there. But first the toilet.

A new day beckons and the search for adventure and somewhere to take the taste of the oily orange pasta away beckons. First Sedburgh, a wonderful market town also nestled under hills but more benevolent hills-God seems to smile on Sedburgh, its higgledy piggledy quaintness, bookshops that still exist like their patrons have never heard of Amazon, a church and graveyard in the middle of the town and a charity shop where after chatting to the people within, you feel like sending them a Christmas card. We have 90p chips which are far pleasanter a dinner than the thirty quid horror we are still apportioning blame for.

We have a picnic today and yomp into the wilderness albeit with a printed map outside Kirkby Stephen (another almost too quaint market town which in Devon would be heaving with tourists with cameras but in Cumbria, just is) we walk along viaducts, past abandoned cottages, through moorland and woods and everything is utterly perfect. People say hello when we pass and it is all so utterly English and pleasant.

But even more excitingly in the car on the way back I see not only ghosts but also murder. In one of my guiltily read books about ghosts I read of a pub ensnared in Northern wilderness, perched amongst moorland and with a dark bloody history and with a name I instantly recall as being the name of the self same pub.

The car screams to a halt, we enter, I try to stop the baby shrieking. I sense no evil presence but to be fair it is a sunny bank holiday. And maybe the undead feel at unease where peach vinyl wallpaper still exists. Its one of those pubs where the décor may be stuck in the seventies but the prices are definitely Now. I always think of a tenner for a meal in a pub to mean it comes with coulis, foams and all the other things I read about in out of date Good Food magazines at the doctors. But I am clearly old, poverty struck and out of touch and an old skint vegetarian needs to bring her own picnic or suck it up.

But now lets’ look for atmosphere! I have no blue light to hold under my chin and the sun is still blazing, there are no bloodstains but I can envisage the ghastliness of the murder, the horror on the windswept night, the restless spirit still prowling. Then the baby starts crying and we have to go.

I am trying to convey the sacred terror of the place to my partner who sneers as he has seen the residents lounge enshrouded not in unearthly terror but in brown velour. I look it up on my phone to show him the true unearthly bloody history of the car park we now reside in. Then realise we are in the wrong pub.

I decide not to ghost hunt anymore.

Dec 30 2010


The dead pigeons have gone from Carlisle station. Once when looking upwards in the station you would see slumped in nets, little flumpy bodies, wings waving in some gross parody of flight as they gently rotted-not rotted to oblivion, there were no pigeon skeletons, this was fresh, lively decomposition above thousands of unsuspecting heads and I found it rather upsetting being officially the only person in the world who likes pigeons. It also threw up lots of questions as to why there were rotting pigeons in the air at Carlisle station, who cleaned them up and when, do bits fall on people and were their (pigeons) deaths deliberate or a result of net/wing entanglement and other enquiries of a morbid pigeon related nature? I used to tell myself not to look up but the second I alighted the train, my head would ping upwards desperate to be upset and revolted, all the better if I could draw some unsuspecting commuter’s attention to the fluffy mid air carnage. It wasn’t quite as exciting this time without the lofty suspended graveyard above Café Ritazza.
There were no police either for a change. I start to regret my £17.50 train fare. There are often lots of police to be seen lurking vaguely around the vicinity of the train station giving a further sense of danger and excitement to this border town but the somewhat prosaic reason for their absence is probably to do with the lack of a football match today, a cold rainy Tuesday at the arse end of December so the cosy little charity shops filled with what can only be described as landfill are closed, crowds are searching out bargain bounty with frightening intent and everyone is wearing a nice new coat.
Carlisle is grimly pretty with utilitarian antiquity. It is old, it is grey (with red overtones)it has a battered bloody past and a somewhat wild west reputation but The Aga Shop nestles near boarded up buildings, swish bars rub up against cavernous poster bedecked pubs where most of a cow can be fried and consumed with chips and a pint of Stella for the price of a ramekin of olives somewhere further south and quaintness and cobbles vie against B&M Bargains and Soviet concrete.
Around by the cathedral, is all MR James territory, sightless arches half buried in manicured grass, spotless yet ancient church dwellings cluster serenely-there are cobbles and a smattering of shivering tourists with cameras smiling bravely through the dim cold light.
Down little Dickensian Abbey Street where a yellowing England flag flops in the window of a formerly grandiose house, gleaming overly wide doors of solicitors are housed in Georgian splendour and we arrive at Foxes, a wonderful shambolic boho and oh so cool café/bar where harps, pianos and gold paper-mache pigs lie effortlessly around its fairy light lit interior. Last time I was here, I drank cocktails and red wine and luxuriated as the sky turned dark outside. This time I am pregnant and have chai latte and toast, yet still feel snug and tranquil in the cluttered interior listening to a man with a full fry up, a glass of wine and a copy of the Daily Express (was there ever more a microcosm of little England?) berate a posher old man for not using a bus pass. I feel like I am on holiday and yearn too for a full fry up, a glass of red wine and rather concerningly a copy of the Daily Express. I will come back here when I am not encumbered by baby and sink into a sofa with a bottle of wine I promise to myself. I know it is unlikely to happen.
Then a tumble into shopping hell, brash overcrowded overheated chain stores, where I feel old and whale like, blocking the narrow aisles of cheap nylon and sequined frills with my enormous black clad bulk. There is a smattering of more individual shops and businesses in the area, resolutely middle class and attractive looking but I can only afford something tarnished and mass produced, mauled by vultures and with a ten pound red label adorning its hanger. I queue for half an hour to purchase it and wonder why I am doing this when I could have immersed myself in history by visiting the grimly stoic castle, bussed to Hadrian’s Wall through frosty unknown countryside, visited the museum and buried myself in a battle scarred past. It has such cute little pockets though.
The TK Maxx is quite splendidly, terrifyingly anarchic, strangely perched above the market and arranged with no rhyme or reason, freshly reduced red labelled Christmas produce toppling over on shelves, already so archaic and ludicrous looking on the 28th December. The market itself grins somewhat toothlessly with so many stall owners presumably away doing something old fashioned like actually spending time with family over the Christmas period. Or maybe they too are baying for reduced calendars in Calendar World, queuing in Game Station and eating chips like most of Carlisle seems to be doing. Chip shops hold prominence in the centre of town and their alluring smell permeates the streets. I don’t recommend the ‘cheese and onion fry-it’ though. Trust me on this.
We are made of better things and seek the finest fare Carlisle has to offer. At a reasonable price. So I am dragged past the place, which has a menu full of exotic looking fripperies like marmalade foam and into the bustle of La Mezzaluna’s happy hour, one of the Italian restaurants clustered near the train station.
It is cheap (asterixed meals on the laminated menu at £4.75 all day) friendly; there is not an Italian accent to be heard and a huge somewhat un-Italian painting of a chalet in the snow dwarfs our table. My garlic and cheese mushrooms are obscenely rich, like something Jamie Oliver would shake his head over in a self-regarding documentary before admitting how good they are in some pathetic attempt to show how hey, he’s just like one of us really. My pasta is fresh, creamy and calorific and I am excited by my first ever viewing of an electric Parmesan grater. My boyfriend’s pizza excitingly has potato on it, which feels very daring and glamorous but could just be because they like their carbs up here. Customers are asked as routine they would like salad or chips and the chip option reigns supreme.
A missed train and the sinking feeling of abandonment and rootlessness it brings. We sit in Bar Solo opposite the train station and listen to varying degrees of accents, loudness and inebriety intermingling as the cold rises and the night closes in on this town on the periphery.

Jun 4 2010

Grange Over Sands

Everyone loves a good bakery. Seriously, everyone. We are not talking your flaccid squishy Greggs pasties with their slushy acidic filling but a proper non-chain bakery with green trim and windows with baskets of goodies in. A long counter where hikers queue for sandwiches for picnics, and piles of pastries, cakes and pies topple like an anorexic’s wet dream. And not your normal French horns and dry cheese and onion pasties containing a thin floor of dense mush with a cavernous pastry hall of air.

We are talking vegan dragon pie, cottage cheese, spinach and almond pasties, beestings (a custard filled bread bigger than my head) Cumberland Rum Nickies (an oozing delight I regret not purchasing with the bitter regret of one who has accidently smothered their firstborn) and knobbly squat loaves. Hazelemere Café and Bakery is an Aladdin’s cave of calories.  And my reassuringly heavy bag containing two pasties and two cakes comes to just a fiver.

Grange Over Sands is so genteel it makes Windermere resemble Brixton. Everyone has politely flocked here determined to have a ‘simply lovely day’ and nothing, nothing is going to stop them. Apart from slow service at a tearoom.

It is interesting for the lack of actual sand, a seaside holiday town where the sea is reassuringly far away and unthreatening. There are no fag butts in the sand here because Grange has cunningly got rid of the underclass with their noisy shrieking kids with lurid plastic accessories by having an estuary instead with dead crabs and rare birds stretching prehistorically in its vast human unfriendliness down to the far away flickering of the bay.

Looking across you can see the ghostly bulk of Barrow Upon Furnesses’ decaying industry but here is all old-fashioned pleasantness, grey rinses, unflattering floral skirts and Christian fish logos on B and B’s advertising morning coffee instead of happy hours.  Even the  ‘sea side’ train station looks like it was stolen from a model railway and of course comes with attached antiquarian bookshop.  A memorial park stretches along side with waddling ducks and babies, ponds, flowers and a lone sulking emo in black on the bandstand.

Up the high street lie more tearooms, ironmongers, grocers, all the lovely old fashioned shops one would expect here-although I suspect a Tesco’s MUST lurk somewhere nearby for the more prosaic. A pub advertising Sky Sports and house doubles is a delightful abnormality, my eyes hurt from so many hues of pastel shades.  Ice creams (the nice creamy local sort not horrid plastic wrapped ones) drip down quivering blue veined arms; there are children but nice ones, ones who no doubt enjoy bird watching more than Waltzers with parents dressed in Gap.

We disappear like Alice down the rabbit hole up an enticing footpath and tramp through Eggerslack Woods, empty of day-trippers here, just birds, trees and scurrying in the undergrowth and emerge on sunny limestone pavement far, far above the town. It is beautiful here, wilderness within a few miles of a politely bustling town where pound shop fudge costs £2.75 and where people have gone to get away from it all.

Find some walks and stuff in the locale here

Click for more pics of Grange and lovely neighbour Arnside

Jan 24 2010


It is a punishingly expensive (a chilling portent of what is to come) yet short bus journey from Windermere train station to Ambleside. It straggles off the shores of Lake Windermere and its name says it all. Ambleside. You know things are going to be cosy, pleasant, not too arduous and oh so English in a place called Ambleside.  There will be no graffitied underpasses with flickering electric lights reflecting violent neon orange off gnawed KFC chicken bones in Ambleside.  Thus the violence and death here comes as a surprise. But more of that later.

It is as pretty and cutesy as the name suggests-little stone cottages shuffling quaintly up curling streets, snow capped mountains looming (nicely, not too scarily or gothicly) overhead, the occasional serene twinkle of Lake Windermere between lofty grey Victorian houses.  But the tiny little cottages are for sale at hundreds of thousands of pounds and they are for holiday lets not retired twinkly-eyed women with a penchant for flower arranging- it’s all a grand and tranquil illusion. Of how things used to be.

The stone clad newsagent sells Le Monde and a host of other international newspapers not the parish gazette and so many of the people thronging the streets have strident moneyed southern accents, not the gentle Cumbrian lilt. Should you be local here, I think you would go mad due to a surfeit of overpriced Kendal Mint Cake and the lack of normal shops selling things that don’t have a badly drawn picture of the Old Man of Coniston on them. One cannot live on tea towels with local attractions on them alone. There is surprisingly a Greggs though-personally would rather stick with munching the tea towels but it is scarily refreshing to see a normal chain shop selling reasonably priced normal stuff  but it looks like a carbuncle here.  I wonder if people here saw it as a godsend or a pastry clad anti-Christ. It is still the prettiest Greggs I have ever seen.

I have a justified reputation for being somewhat profligate when it comes to clothes shopping but drop me here with a hundred pounds to spend and I would struggle. People rustle. Gore-Tex is god. I am the only person seemingly wearing not just a skirt but also eye shadow. Yes, I am aware that this area is a Mecca for hikers but there appear to be no shops selling anything non-waterproof. This is middle England Monsoon country but with no sequins or flattering merino wool cardigans.  I yearn for something cheap and nylon. And no, not a Euro Hike tent.

The weak winter sun glints off metal walking poles, something I have an unnatural and undeserved antipathy of, along with the plastic things you somehow put on the bottom of your trousers so the bottom of your trousers do not get any dirty nasty nature on them when out communing with nature –err, there are washing machines available for reasonable prices nowadays. It’s all just so sensible and yet unnecessary at the same time and are brandished with a smug pride by people with sensible haircuts who I suspect never really walk that far into the wilderness but like the idea of being a walker and buy stuff to show the world this startling fact and because they can.

I feel sorry for teenagers here-New Look stiletto heels are probably sold undercover outside pubs for hundreds of pounds. As a teenager, I thought Exeter was the arse end of no-where but at least it sold cheap shoddy goods, not just expensive well made practical wear. A sign in a shop window reads ‘Faux Ugg Boots-25 pounds’.  Faux! How posh! Basically the shop is selling fake Uggs, i.e. nasty cheap blanketty saggy after two wears Made In China boots that can be bought for a fiver anywhere else in the whole of the UK but here are about half the price of real Ugg boots on the internet and they are advertising the fact proudly, I presume not knowing of the fact of the internet or ignoring it or presuming the teens who live here have nothing else to spend their money on here and cheap fake Uggs are practically Jimmy Choos when you are surrounded by stout Merrel hiking boots and mountains and they presume you  have not heard of eBay. I am sounding bitchy. I do not mean to be.  For some reason, Wordworthian settings of timeless beauty and poetry bring out a mean streak. But ‘Faux Uggs’! Faux! It is both pretentious and condescending.

We are hungry and despite it being the Saturday before payday in late January, a time when probably Paris Hilton can’t even afford to supersize it, the numerous delis, cafes and restaurants are absolutely packed. With Daily Mail under the arm chattering classes.   And it is not cheap here.  (And my food budget went to the bus fare-and I still needed to borrow more. A second hand Fiat Panda can be purchased for less than the return fare from Troutbeck to Ambleside –Troutbeck is as far as we walked from Windermere alongside the rather unromantic main road until I had a paddy at it being a bit of a rubbish walk and demanded transport)

I initially decided to come to Ambleside after reading there was not one but two vegetarian restaurants with cinemas attached. That is an amazing statistic for a small isolated town. I dreamt happily of the hideous rivalry the two competing places must surely have, no doubt ending in spilt non vegetarian blood over the purple sprouting broccoli.  It is a crushing blow to find the same family owns them both and they exist in boring mutual harmony.

We go to the first one, Zeffirellis, (not only a restaurant and cinema but a jazz bar) and after a communal sharp intake of breath after looking at the prices on the menu outside, go to the other one, Fellini’s.  It is closed and we intake our breaths a bit more after looking at the prices on the menu there. Very nice looking food though it has to be said. We walk hungrily through the town giving the occasional further sharp intake of breath after looking at menus to end up again inevitably at Zefirellis.

It is a pleasant Italian style establishment catering for a rather more upmarket vegetarian clientele than the sosmix and dreadlock brigade (both of which I suspect have not yet been seen in Ambleside) My pizza is nice but is £9.65 for ten inches and I have not before ever spent a tenner on lunch for one.  The vegetables are shockingly naked on top of the cheese not smothered underneath it, which causes some consternation as I fear change but it is a nice pizza. No as nice as the one in Morecambe that can be had for four quid and the thought of the wonderful crisp golden coin of the four-pound Morecambe pizza at the Palatine pub, (see Morecambe review) my eyes practically brim over with grief and a profound sense of loss.  My companion’s tomato and ricotta cannelloni was excellent but again for nine pounds, some sort of accompaniment such as a bit of salad or garlic bread might have been expected.  To be fair, you have to bear in mind we are in a world famous tourist resort with a rich historical and literary heritage and we have instantly gravitated to a place which does not advertise it self as a bargain eatery.

We could have eaten cheaper but I feel weirdly duty bound to go a vegetarian eating place if I can although a choice of more than two options can send me into a veritable kaleidoscope of indecision as not used to choice and it is both wonderful and a bit terrifying especially as I look at what other people are eating after I have ordered with the envy and regret of a wife looking at her husbands younger prettier blonde mistress. And then my poor (literally poor as he’s paying) companion has to listen to me talk about the options that could have been and what I choose is never as good as what could have been.  Sophies Choice is nothing compared to this. You don’t get this hideous terror when you can only have penne pasta but can just self –righteously bitch about the lack of vegetarian options and feel both vindicated and a martyr to your cause. I can see I am selling vegetarianism appallingly so will stop.  The service was excellent, the menu was interesting and it’s all terribly ladies who lunch but a pleasant place to sit and people watch, guiltily read The Daily Telegraph or The Daily Mail  (Ambleside is that sort of place) and stare aghast at the sensible footwear.

For some reason after coming out of the restaurant I feel a deep and intense craving for pie and go in the Apple Pie café and bakery-two pieces of pie (cheese and onion and stilton, broccoli and mushroom) are an eye watering five quid and something but after an hour of bitter complaints, eat them to discover them to be excellent pie.

My companion wishes heartily to leave the streets of Ambleside and do some proper walking. I beg to differ so we reach an uneasy compromise of walking up a hill and then back down again. It is a nice hill though slightly marred by florid faced middle-aged men in pristine black Jaguars driving like idiots up the narrow roads and then back down again.   Either Ambleside has more florid faced middle aged men in pristine black Jaguars driving like idiots than everywhere else in the world (apart from the Cotswolds obviously) or one florid faced middle aged man in a pristine black Jaguar had lost his way.

The beautiful views stretch out in every direction-pointing and clicking my camera pretty much anywhere results in a postcard and it is hard not to be charmed by it all and feel a longing to just start walking into the green beckoning view. But then I see a pub.

And what a pub. It is everything George Orwell wrote about when describing his idea of the perfect pub, The Moon Under Water (hilariously and ironically the name of some Weatherspoons)

Up a little street (Smithy Brow) off the high street, The Golden Rule is modest on the outside-indeed looks like someone’s house. Upon walking in, there is the glow of a real coal fire. Stretched by the fire lie two black Labradors.  It is old fashioned without being a ludicrous pastiche cobbled together from the guts of other pubs in an auction somewhere. It is as it was. There are no chalkboards offering monkfish and halloumi for 13 quid. There is no stripped pine. It is happily cluttered with tarnished brass and black and white photographs of apple cheeked customers in the past raising a tankard up to the photographer. It is frightening to realise they are probably all dead now. It is well priced with a wide selection of real ale. There is a cheapish decent house red wine and newspapers. Three men chat at the bar with the Kiwi barman –they are jovial without being obnoxious, drinkers not drunkards. People wander in and out to friendly words and chitchat are exchanged and everyone has a story to tell.

I am cocooned in a glow of fire and red wine haze and am gently reading and eavesdropping.  Snippets of conversation filter gently through but no, I can’t be hearing this, in such a tranquil little pub in such beauteous surroundings.

Banned from every B and B in Ambleside after what he did with the curtains-his photograph is on the door of every guesthouse from here to Grasmere.’

I would still pay upwards of 12.99 to find out what actually happened.

Another half heard conversation and the best line I have ever heard.

‘The fight was so big they put the window of the fudge shop right through,’

Truly the epitome of England.

Things get sadder and more sinister with ‘ of course he was dead when they found him’ about someone ‘who wouldn’t hurt a fly’ knocked over by a car on Christmas day morning.  The story is not told with macabre relish but with a genuine sadness and fondness for the person in question.

I do not wish to leave this place-it is not yet even 5pm and I want to snuggle here and read, chat and listen and stroke the increasingly hotter dogs by the fire but I do not care to waste the outrageously expensive bus ticket so get up. Before I leave, I visit the loo. In the hallway is a poster, which is nothing, but a list of names of people banned from pubs in the area. It is a very long list. I look at it then step out into the unspoilt beauty of a traditional English small town, which isn’t what it so pretends to be.

Jan 2 2010


Kendal is slippery. So slippery. And uphill. So uphill. It has not been gritted. Well, the pavements and pedestrianised bits (i.e. most of it) haven’t. Heaven forbid you waste grit on a steep uphill busy town just before Christmas filled with old people and families. On the day that we are there, laughing at people skidding  and sliding  as we skid and slide, a young man slips over and dies. All for the want of a bit of salt.

Kendal is generally very picturesque and the snow renders it ludicrously so, Enid Blyton adventures in the snow crossed with pound shop Christmas cards-the terror of death as we slide slowly up the main street nullifies the beauty somewhat. Although as the last thing to see before you die, it’s a view that can’ t really be beaten. A thought, which somehow still fails to soothe. I bet there are really cross letters to the local paper next week about the lack of grit or snow removal. I thrive on local angry letters. I am annoyed at where my council tax has gone and I don’t even live or pay council tax here. I bet somehow cyclists and immigrants and/or dog poo are to blame. They always are.

Kendal has many individual little shops and boutiques, think Islington with kagoules and sensible footwear. Although I have just realized how hellish this sounds. We buy a loaf of bread from the Staff of Life bakery-it is £2.90 and in my head my mother is fainting in horror and disbelief. But it is exceptionally good bread and will be at least two main meals. The bag is so heavy I can barely hold it up the Dickensian little alley (if Dickensian alleys had delicatessens called Baba Gounash on them selling organic fresh tit-bits for seemingly, according to the accents present an entirely Islington crowd, who amazingly seem to be wearing heels. I suspect a helicopter pad.

There is a chocolate shop which makes me hysterical as it is historically themed, unknowingly kitsch being belief and amongst other hysterically named chocolate produce (anyone for a cup of His Majesty’s Eminence?)  sells a hot chocolate with the most gloriously un-pc name of The Slave Trader.  Teenagers in nylon pastiches of Tudor costume look embarrassed as they serve it and (white) Americans look delighted.  The hot chocolate is really not very nice at all, faux pineapple and  powdery hot chocolate should never ever mix but the building is quaint, overwarm and oh so clichédly English.

There is the crappest charity shop in the world where faded unfashionable velvet evening wear is daringly priced at ten pounds or more near a shop which sells darling little chairs at four hundred pounds. There is a terrifying pub, which looks quaint on the outside, but inside is a bare cold room selling foul tap wine at four quid a glass to drink as you are either ignored or stared at nastily. I do love Kendal. The outdoor market is selling chilly Brussels sprouts and frozen jumpers.

We normally go to the Riverside café, an excellent little vegetarian café by the wide clear shallow river but have to resist this time, as we are skint.  And I can’t deal with the thought of downhill. It is a wonderful place though wholesome without being earthy, friendly without being overfriendly, well priced and a meal there (which comes with a choice of buckets of salads that alone could sustain life in the individual for several months) is about six quid. And they have strong cider.

The ruined castle overlooks the town and is a steeply pretty treacherous walk-it’s a very well groomed ruin but the other side of Kendal shines through with its empty bottles of cheap cider stashed in little open to the elements rooms and in the glass of booze bottles shining prettily and lethally as we walk back down that have been thrown off the top of its tiny turrets. Bet it was fun to do that though, I think guiltily.

The high street is your usual high street but prettier and today slidier and with a splattering of independent shops-I buy a pretty and impractical dress from Oxfam-it’s a tenner-a lot for a little dress made of lace but it seems cheap in Kendal and I want to escape from all the waterproof and wellies of the hearty people around me. Still not many local accents can be heard but this is no complete oasis-council houses surround, this is a bigger place than it initially appears and in the local papers, there are many fights documented in the quaint looking little pubs on the high street. There is a licensed Home Bargains, pioneer of cheap pleasing random crap, a McDonalds and the like and a rather forlorn indoor market. There is Kendal mint cake everywhere. Well, in the shops. A variety of Kendal mint cake is sold and I wonder at how the marketing skills required to try and make one slab of sugar with peppermint oil in sound different and exotically so from the next.

We slide precariously to the Brewery Arts Centre, a veritable complex which has a cosy snug café filled with spilling leather sofas and serious people on the latest apple Mac, a cinema, an exciting looking restaurant which we still can’t afford (although if I had not bought the silly dress, we could have had starters and tap water) and the brewery itself, which excitingly has big hops barrels with seats inside like some big fun fair ride where nothing actually happens. Nothing is going to spin around when wine is £4.50 a glass (a large one to be fair and according to the leaflet on the table, the wine is supplied by a local wine merchant with awards and all that sort of thing one positively expects in Kendal-well apart from in certain pubs in town that one is too scared to be openly be snide about even on a blog in case They come and get me and drown me in a vat of deep frozen garlic mushrooms and cheesy chips -and this is from me, who has openly laughed at hells angels hairs and beards at a hells angels festival.  And actually, I am very partial to garlic mushrooms and cheesy chips being forced down my throat)

We step out less gingerly, bravado and locally sourced wine fuelled to instantly fall over. Hard.   It’s going to be a long hazardous yet oh so pretty walk to the train station.