Aug 30 2011

Murder, mystery and the best charity shop in the world

Tonight you will have to gather around me cross-legged, light some candles and just listen. Modern technology in the form of photographs is not available for our camera is broken and there are no funds to replace it so I will simply have to tell a story.

Are you all sitting comfortably? Stop fidgeting at the back. Yes, I can see you.

Today the cold wind was blowing from the north, I saw an echo of a murder, standing stones that moved and then went to a magical place where things could be purchased for 30p or less.

I had read about Baldoon castle in Dumfries and Galloway and its ghost, a grade A ghost story that happily and spookily ticks every ghost story cliché in blood red ink. Or is it really ink? (Imagine this line written in a scary font unavailable to wordpress)

There is a wailing gibbering female ghost who appears in a tattered bloody wedding dress on the anniversary of the murder of her bridegroom and of course her ghostly boho visage is seen on the shattered remains of the castle where it happened. I see a picture on the internet and it is indeed a tumbling tower silhouetted by wretched remnants of gate posts and thus we drive to Bladnoch and see the faint ghastly outline of murderous history but it appears to be up a private driveway to a farm which now surrounds it and I really do not want to go on to private property to bang on about a ghost to some weathered cynical Scottish farmer with his hands up a cow. We drive on and see the black outline of the ruin. Surrounded by spiky moving machinery and industrial agriculture. I squint to see if I can see the ghastly screaming lady but my eyesight is poor and there are many far too modern gnarly appliances in the way.

We drive on. I frantically look for something else nearby on my phone and yay-standing stones-I do like a good standing stone. Unlike ghosts, you can rely on them to make an appearance and a stoic no nonsense portal to the past.

According to the Internet and the sign by the Drumtroddan standing stones, two remain standing and another is toppled possibly by medieval people renouncing paganism by making a sign of the cross. But we enter the site and but one stone remains standing.

We check the slight unobtrusive board but it merely has an illustrated pictured of woolly haired Neanderthals grunting with a stone and some rope on their backs to illustrate how the stones arrived there. And it clearly shows the stone that should be standing is not standing. I think. I am never very good with weathered diagrams in sudden rain.

I am with cleverer people than me and they are also puzzled. Very puzzled. And they note that the stone, which should be standing but instead recoils in grassy nirvana, is partially free of moss. As they pace and try to work it out with science, I rejoice. For clearly the standing stones have moved themselves. They are renowned for it, cheeky little buggers.

I could do more research on the net but frankly I do not wish to. I am happy with a sliver of intrigue that will probably have an explanation if I spend five minutes Googling. So I won’t-fingers in ears and la la la, stones move and life is therefore interesting and not just cheap consumerism and death.

And then I find cheap consumerism and am thrilled.

The Gatehouse Of Fleet is a small town surrounded by woods, mountains and moors. It reeks history through its very pores, we pass its turreted neo baronial gatehouses and forests to enter its long white street closeted by crofts and white crumbling town houses, a starkly beautiful place but not populated by second homers although it nods to them politely. A posh meal can be purchased at The Ship Hotel; there are artist’s studios, galleries and a bookshop.

And the best charity shop in the history of the entire universe. No fair trade chocolate or over colourful over priced woven stuff is sold here. There are no ethical but whitening Easter eggs still for sale but with a miserly discount several months since the Easter bunny has flown. Per Una is not priced at the same level as Vivienne Westwood and Atmosphere at Primark given a price tag more than its initial one.

But here, here be treasures. A giant mouse doorstop is 50p! Handmade artisan photo frames the same price. All clothes seem to be 1.50, amongst the Scottish woollies, some PVC leggings comes as a surprise. There is clearly more to Gatehouse than meets the eye. A tub of children’s toys reveal 20p nirvana and when I accidently set off a V-Tech Around The World ball, strangers are delighted to join in the revelry at the sagging creepy failing battery powered songs. Along with the sadly jolly talk about cancer that is never far away no matter where you live. But I  have two books and a very jolly ungrubby cuddly owl for 50p and nothing can touch me.

We drive away past the embellished clock tower, the thick thick woods, through the mountains and back into reality. And when reality comes, I feel thick and heavy and want to go back.

But now the candles have melted, harsh neon beckons and for tonight he fairy tale is over. Thank you for listening and goodnight. Sleep well.

Aug 16 2011

Hebden Bridge, Huddersfield and blue Woo-Woos

‘It begins with a ‘H,’ I keep primly announcing as my boyfriend says our itinerary-‘ebden bridge, ‘alifax and ‘uddersfield. Most people in ‘ebden pronounce it with a H – I have written briefly about it before, a town where designer bunting can be more easily purchased than Tampax. A place where the original hippies have bred, left, mutated or come into money and embraced capitalism as long as it is in the form of organic cotton and not a nasty cheap Tesco’s. It is a very lovely place, pretty, bustling with men in nice shirts pushing designer pushchairs and has more vegetarian choices than I have ever dreamt of.

We loiter long enough to accidently eat a ‘Mediterranean platter’- Hebden should be sponsored or twinned with manufacturers of halloumi and hummus then leave this tranquil but strangely unreal little Yorkshire mirage and head through Halifax to Huddersfield.

It is somewhat reminiscent of Bath fallen on hard times. Huddled in a green valley, lofty multi-storeyed Georgian buildings house ramshackle little businesses; you have to remember to look up to see the curled and corniced remnants of a more ambitious prettified past.  It is not awash with Monsoons but take aways and charity shops-all the big chains have fled to the malls.  There is a huge outdoor and indoor market selling a large amount of faded Fisher price toys and supermarket brand clothing. I like it very much. There is a shop where all the clothes seem to be 49p near somewhere else selling military badges.

Huddersfield is interesting. But I am still not quite sure if I like it. I am trying to find that unique something about it to distinguish it from Everywheretown. There is no green surprise of parkland or a crumbling roped off priory, those little surprises you find in a new town to make up for the pebbledash of pound shops selling the same plastic crap as everywhere ever. It makes me a bit bored of Britain.

I like some aspects of it-it is the most multicultural place I have experienced since living in London-Caribbean restaurants and extravagantly boasting cheap curry houses nestle next to newsagents and clothes shops of the cheap nylon persuasion. But the old university building my boyfriend wanted to see, having been a student here is broken and desolate. There are no memories here for everything has changed. Everywheretown retains no sentiment for one crappy shop with personal memories becomes another crappy shop with none.

There is a food and drink festival on which means that the Head Of Steam, a pub renowned for its excellent cider and beauty is off-limits to us encumbered with pushchair and baby. The food and drink festival is busy, meaty but smells very nice from our vantage point by some sick on the stairs to the railway station.

The art gallery and library is excellent. We see abstract art and sculptures based on the textile industry that used to be Huddersfield’s life and blood. The toilets have UV lights to stop people shooting up.

You can see the green of the valley from the concrete and faded splendour of the town. Houses are cheap here, two bedroom terraces for around fifty thousand pounds. But Huddersfield depresses me. It is stuck between its rich heyday of a prosperous working place of importance and the ‘three curries for a fiver’ desperation of today. Yes, there are restaurants and busy bars, this is a university town but there seems little of a university counterculture, maybe it is hidden up a side street somewhere but we stop for a drink at a bar and it is all watered down expensive wine and cocktails in fishbowls for fifteen pounds. The cocktails look very unpleasant and mostly feature Archers or the words ‘Woo Woo.’ I feel somewhat out of place with the baby merrily chewing the laminated menu.

I would have liked to have liked it but feel vaguely claustrophobic and I am guiltily glad when we leave it behind and head back into to the green valley, which surrounds it. I am not travelling back to my home in another enchanted Eden, I live in another slightly faded around the edges Northern city but I failed to find the heart of Huddersfield and made me realise that things have moved on, the hearts of cities do not exist, they are now either malls of brand names, a gap-toothed boarded up straggle of pound shops and curry houses or middleclass preserves purporting to be ‘real’ but mainly selling bunting and halloumi.

And I feel I belong to nowhere.

Aug 5 2011

South-West Cider Special

We are in a bistro in Minehead. The owners have made an effort to make the place look vaguely upmarket but then hired Maureen. I ask if the soup is vegetarian. She looks at me baffled and silent then retreats into the kitchen.  A voice sanguinely calls, ‘well, it takes all sorts Maureen.’ I strongly suspect we are the all sorts. An old woman shuffles in wearing luridly hued crocs.

We are staying in Devon for a few days visiting my family and I have decided to hate it to show my recently forged allegiance to the north. I have an ice cream at Tarr Steps; a Tudor slab bridge on Exmoor and it is a disappointing ice cream with no bits in it. This almost seals it. Then I remember the cider. I love a good cider and despite many places in the north having at least one decent bottled or draught apart from the acidic abomination of Strongbow, I realise how I miss going into random pubs and choosing an obscure and deadly apple based brew. This is the first time I have had both a baby and been in the southwest, cider capital of the world. I begin to bitterly resent the baby.

Day 1-Tarr Steps Inn-Thatchers Gold-a popular and pleasing cider, fizzy and light. The Tarr Steps Inn itself is darkly cosy, well heeled and gunny but the beer garden is outstanding and pleasingly free of wall mounted dead things.

Day 2. The aforementioned Minehead has no local hostelry that looks cosy, cidery and begging for a badly behaved baby to lunge at peoples soup of the day but it is certainly better than my sister’s description of ‘chavvy and worse than Morecambe.’ It is pretty, pleasant, has an excellent steam train station but charity shops sell what can only politely be described as utter crap.

On the way back we stop in Dunster, a touristy medieval village. Dunster is almost too obviously lovely and I try to dislike it but one look at a bowed and bulging window frame and I come over all a quiver. We do not look round the castle because it costs money but buy an assortment of soft overpriced fudge, which instantly warps together. I decide I do not like Dunster then go into the Luttrell Arms, a 14th century topsy turvy hotel of such antiquity that the second floor leads onto the beer garden. A Cheddar Valley cider is enjoyed here, orange and flatly evil -the barmaid cheerily states it can be anything from 6% to over 8% and that it is often enjoyed by folks in the village with a shot of gin in it. Good denizens of Dunster, I respect you. And am slightly scared by you.

The beer garden is even more beautiful than Tarr Steps, large, flower bedecked and pock marked with wooden tables leading onto fields with the view a cacophony of squint-eyed roofs and chimneys. Although I suspect things are mostly squint eyed after a few hours here.  Some other people are sitting blissfully reading a newspaper or book, an amber pint glass by their side. I think the baby can stay at grandma and grandpas next time we come here. Then I look at the food menu and see there is no vegetarian food. I could not have afforded it anyway when perusing the prices of the other main meals but I can at least afford to feel annoyed that paradise has been blighted.

Lynton and Lynmouth- I have a guilty fascination for a good tragedy and Lynton and Lynmouth are famous for the night in 1952 when a freak flood claimed many lives here. In the unmanned museum you can look at the sleeping bags of the dead.

I have an eye wateringly priced half of Thatchers Dry at the Rising Sun, £1.75 and cards are not taken for less than a tenner. The rural men propped casually at the expensive bar in the tourist resort are complaining about the levels of tax in the England. I feel like recommending a Wetherspoons or a pub cheaper and not constantly photographed by Americans if they’re that bothered. We lack the cash to go up the famous water powered funicular so do the agonising walk up to Lynton, admiring between gasps, the sea.

Day three- It is the best place I have ever ever been to. The Highwayman Inn near Okehampton is like the inside of my head. It is unspeakably ancient and so discombobulating it feel like being in a dream. And that is before the pint of welsh cider. There is even the shape of an enormous shoe built against the fabric of the building, a shoe I remember playing in as a child but is now cobwebbed and full of rubbish. One bar is a replica of a ship’s captain’s table, there is a faintly terrifying wishing grotto where stuffed foxes and badgers entwined by fairy lights stare out into the gloom. There are china fairies, skulls, gargoyles, monks, and skulls. We sit at a table, which is made from a pair of bellows. The owner is fey, beautiful, blonde and serene and startles us all by calmly saying she has been here for fifty years. They do pagan weddings here and I turn to my boyfriend but he has fled, terrified and claustrophobic and sits in the carpark next to a warped rotund and locked little playhouse I remember again from my childhood. I do not want to leave. My boyfriend is already starting the engine. I cannot describe the place. You will assume I am exaggerating. Look at the website…

…and just go. I buy a wine bottle filled with local scrumpy. I regret it later, even being reduced to the cardinal sin of actually having to add ice to it, due to its astringent and acidic elements. I should have just added the fudge from Dunster.

Day 3- We leave the baby at grandma and grandpas. We are in Woods, Dulverton

at noon. It is a place where local men prop up the bar with a pint but also sells artichoke linguine at twelve quid a pop. We have come out for a meal to enjoy the pleasure of not eating with one hand whilst trying to contain the furious lunging baby but after looking at the prices I have a Cornish Rattler instead, the best cider of the trip, light, refreshing, not over sweet or dry but somewhat potent.  It is like an attractively arranged abattoir inside; every dead thing you can imagine is reduced to a stuffed head with a cigarette in its gaping death mask head.  I think Maureen would like it here.

Jul 28 2011

Carstramon Woods, near Gatehouse of Fleet, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland

There is nobody here. It is isolated perfection. There are glades where surely small folk dance widdershins, circles of trees centuries old but not being admired or photographed to admire at a future date. Here be magic. We are at the end of the world but also the beginning. Come visit but tread softly.

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 20 2011

Wicca, WKD and an absence of ghosts

I do not think I have ever been happier. It is not yet noon and I am knee high in grass and the half buried remnants of Hollinshead Hall, hidden and almost forgotten in this wooded copse on the west Pennine moors.

There are no other people here, there is no entrance fee, just an old sign, which wonderfully states that the well house is an ancient sacred site, and there are many ghosts (well, one man is stated to have somewhat extravagantly seen six before sunrise.)

Other people have been here before me. Some have made a fire pit and enjoyed some blue WKD, a surprising choice for those choosing to spend a night at an abandoned manor house in the middle of inhospitable moorland. I would plump for something with a far higher alcohol percentage.

There is a quite fresh very dead rat sprawled nearby. It is all very intriguing. There must be hidden treasure here in the shape of an 18th century sapphire ring in a crevice (I am nothing if not optimistic) but a search yields nothing until I find a small square rusted bolt which must be from an old mysterious thing from the past. My boyfriend thinks it might be from a JCB when the Liverpool Corporation Waterworks demolished most of the Hall but I prefer not to listen to him.

I am so, so happy here, in history reclaimed by nature. You are not told the details of everything that happened here. The sign optimistically and enigmatically states something along the lines of ‘What really happened here, no-one really knows, maybe someday we will find out the truth’

We won’t though but it is pleasing to not have the past of this manor house described in such detail that we know what they had for dinner. We are not looking at a roped off chair a famous bum once sat upon although we do know from an old quote on the sign, there was ‘much revelry here.’ I’m sure there also was when the blue WKD was drunk too.

The old well house remains intact and is the most terrifyingly gothic building ever. I peep through the barred windows at the gloomy interior that someone has clearly penetrated judging by the tea light husks within when my boyfriend suddenly does a ghostly noise behind me and despite the blazing July day I am suddenly cold. Then angry.

I walk around the Well house and discover a black gloomy slick of water. Then see something else. Against the black, the white. A note of paper carefully rolled up and tied with the delicate stem of a foxglove with the fresh head still unwilted. A dead tea light stands guard nearby, together on a rocky outcrop hazardously near the water. It is the most exciting thing I have ever seen. I want to lean over and uncurl the paper but I can’t.

It might be a 13 year old who has read A Beginners Guide To Wicca and thinks the letter might make Andy Moore fancy her, it might be a curse, a suicide note, a picture of a Lolcat. I want to know and I don’t want to know. I am now sitting here in my house writing this and still not knowing which makes it so much more exciting than the guilt of breaking that carefully weaved foxglove seal to look at the secret within which I suspect is not for my eyes.

Or is it?

Anyway, it’s all better than Christmas. This is a memory that will stay with me forever due to not being signposted, planned and researched and because I did not open the letter. But I will never ever sleep again.

Our original intention on this trip was Smithills Hall, a haunted historic place of repute near Bolton. Now I have found an abandoned manor house in the woods I am suddenly unimpressed by a place I have longed to go to and sneer condescendingly at a Bolton council van parked outside its bulging ancient exterior.

Things aren’t helped by a gift shop selling reduced Bounty bars and the merry hum and chatter by women in a conference room with a large amount of cakes and donuts beside them. Ghosts will not appear when there is a conference meeting of women with donuts. Everyone knows that.

Everything is roped off and despite me reading on the net about the rope occasionally suddenly moving of its own accord in these areas, I have a sudden chilly feeling that no ghost will appear on a bright bold July morning in a municipal building where women on plastic chairs say  ‘ooh, I mustn’t, go on, just the one then’.

However the entrance fee of three pounds is a bargain compared to similar but non-council owned buildings of antiquity smattered across the landscape of this country. It has a fascinatingly bloody pedigree and there are acres of historic woodland and parkland to walk in. It is a gateway through centuries – the wooden shell of the medieval kitchen remains along with the clear diamond in the servants frosted window panel for them to spy upon their lord’s comings and goings. The history is too much for a blog, could fill a thousand pages of intrigue, death and betrayal. I will leave it to you to look it up rather than badly recite it. People who lived here were burned for their beliefs. I would betray everyone I know should I be threatened with a paper cut.

I do not see a ghost. But I see history. Although it is hard to feel you are in the past when modern signs about the past repeatedly remind you that you are in the present.  So much is recorded, fenced off, dusted, rebuilt. I talk to a lovely man at the desk who doesn’t openly mock my opening gambit of ‘Have you seen any ghosts here?’ He is a prosaic friendly man who states his disbelief and then mentions he saw a door open and close by itself. He talks about the second storey abandoned, spooky and derelict since it was an old nursing home and I nearly wet myself. But we can’t go up there and I am glad in a way because like Hollinshead Hall I want the mystery.  And I want to imagine.

And I am so glad I never opened that letter. Because now mystery still remains.

Jul 18 2011

Rawtenstall, Ramsbottom and Leigh

I am sitting in a temperance bar. This is not my usual habitat. My usual habitats offer to double up for a pound extra rather than give a free scoop of ice cream with each cream soda. Fitzpatrick’s in Rawtenstall is the only temperance bar left in Britain and is kept exactly how it would have been a hundred years ago even down to the clientele. There are old tiles, jarred sweets and a clanging till with the friendliest young man in the north behind it. An old woman shuffles in for a honey and ginger. She lacks enough money to buy some one-pound ice cream after she carefully counts her change and I wish to offer her the difference but do not wish to insult. I wish I had now.

Rawtenstall is like a big tourist information advert for The North. It is friendly, bedecked with strings of terraced houses like bunting, full of butchers and little independent shops, a bit scuff marked at the edges but where isn’t?

I am forced to go in front of people at the queue in the enormous spaceship Asda because I have less than them, women in charity shops cheerily grab my babies legs and a woman behind a meat counter in the market says his crying (not connected with the leg grabbing, he is a hardy five month year old) is because he needs a meat pie. I do not mention we are vegetarian but do notice he instantly stops crying. This bodes ill for the future.

I do that annoying thing of walking around every little independent shop declaring everything marvellous and then walking out without buying anything. If I were a struggling small business I would want to scalp people like me. At least I didn’t loudly decide to look for it cheaper on Amazon. Rawtenstall is friendly but there are limits.

Diehard fans of Unicycle Emptiness will already have noted my love of south Indian food and during some bored perusing of food websites in Lancashire, I noted there was one in Ramsbottom, a mere four miles up the road. This excites me a great deal, the menu states somewhat paradoxically that it is open from 6.30pm and then somewhere else that is open for lunch so as an eternal optimist with a song in my heart and some excellent butter pie from the market in my stomach, we enter Ramsbottom (no pun intended) to walk around the very closed south Indian restaurant with a sign saying closed and the opening times firmly saying it is open.

But Ramsbottom itself, a place dimly thought of to be a fictional place on a northern soap opera is a revelation. It is pretty much everything desirable in a small town having local charity shops, licensed cafes boasting ‘award winning bitter chocolate torte’, a printmakers selling utterly wonderful frighteningly expensive prints, cafes selling meat and veg four quid dinners and all the other periphery of small town commerce, not yet crushed by chains or boarded up forever.

We go into The First Chop, a trendy yet laid back bar on the high street with good strong welsh cider and the most complicated array of special offers on the menu ever. I am still working out whether the two tapas for the price of three work out better than having a ‘larger plate’ but with half the price of my cider taken off. It was excellent-halloumi and veg kebabs with salad, the biggest crispiest chips in the world, beans with maple syrup and Lancashire cheese, sourdough bread and salad, spicy tomato ketchup, garlic mayo and something amazing with coriander in it, one of those posh expensive Fentimans ginger beers and the afore mentioned welsh cider come to under fifteen quid. We did not eat for the rest of the day; it was friendly, relaxed and effortlessly cool. I decide I want to live in Ramsbottom-it is Hebden Bridge without the hippies, the cool part of a city without the hipsters and the city, a country town without the misery, isolation and lack of award winning bitter chocolate tortes. And near enough to Manchester to escape to upon a picturesque railway. And the delight of finding somewhere unknown, unexpected and delightful is even better than the chips. And I do like chips.

We go through Leigh on the way back and it is a reminder of what really is. I do not like Leigh. It feels like shooting fish in a barrel to not like Leigh, snobbish, southern and unnecessary to bray about an ex mining town on hard times not being darling enough and not selling foccacia by the hand-woven bucket load. But it is everywhere town. Places where the chains have fled to the malls and the mall is given a name to show the heritage and history of the town it has plundered (in this case Spinning Jenny Arcade) and ailing independents selling cheap pastry, cheap shoes and hazardous looking maxi dresses with sale signs in the windows.  I am startled by the amount of kebab shops open at 4pm. I clearly startle only too easily.

The library however has manga, goldfish,  Bollywood and art and also offers book and baby sessions to get babies used to enjoying books not orally but visually and a book at bedtime session where you take your pyjamas clad kid to listen to a story then be given a biscuit and a glass of milk before being sleepily dragged off home past the aroma of kebabs.

The red brick is remnants of an industrial heritage and the tall chimneys are still being demolished. But new soulless estates are given names about what used to be there, like when ‘Orchard Close’s smother what used to be orchards in mock Tudor and overly large conservatories. I wonder what the factory workers of yore would think of Spinning Jenny Arcade and think they would probably love it because their equivalent job in this day and age would be unlikely to treat digit fingers as a luxury. One has to be careful not to romanticise the past but then again looking around Leigh it is hard not to.

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?

May 1 2011

A journey through red, white and blue

It is the day of the royal wedding. I had previously hoped most people immune but suddenly certain thickets of The North have become middle England and bunting spreads like Japanese knotweed.

We are in Rufford to go for a walk starting in its Old Hall. The Old Hall is closed. So then to the cringingly named ‘Owd Barn’, teashop, craft shop etc. It is also closed and the bunting in the window suggests why which makes it even more annoying.  We turn around to escape in a suburban cul de sac and there is a street party being set up with a bbq being wheeled out which is probably worth more than our house.  I suspect our U-Turn will be discussed for many weeks.

It’s my own fault-I should not expect too much anarchy, mayhem and cheap house doubles when perusing an ancient copy of Lancashire Tea Shop Walks when deciding what to do with the day.

We try to escape through miles of flatly pretty landscape but there still remains bunting, Union Jacks, smart lawns on detached post war houses with neatly manicured lawns.  I fear suspicious eyes, weak Pimms, Daily Mail headlines considered truth and to end up here bitching emptily until I die and even Neighbourhood Watch don’t realise despite the terrible smell. It is blandly terrifying and I am glad and relieved when I find evidence of witchcraft in the woods.

As the world gawps at posh people in terrible hats, I am looking at cairns and mini standing stones bedecked with curiously fresh wild flowers. It is the work of children I sadly conclude and continue to walk but the constructions, deep in Fairy Glen, near Appley Bridge become more elaborate. Here is the outline of a horse filled with leaves and now a human shape bedecked with bluebells and dandelions that have not yet withered in the unseasonal Easter heat.

It is exciting yet annoyingly unsinister here in this strip of well-managed woodland. Too pretty to be anything dark yet too well executed to be the work of children it is a beguiling mystery that is probably easily explained but I do not wish it to be. I suspect Emos on art foundation degrees. I want it to be ethereal sprites working whimsical mysterious charms in this snippet of ancient woodland besmirching suburbia. But I still wonder at why the flowers were not dead-we were there before midday and the art in the woods must have taken some time-it can only have been done at night. I hope I never find out.

Southport is in the throes of royal wedding fever but it is the sort of place I can’t imagine not being in fervour over moneyed gentility. A charity shops’ red white and blue wedding display has the cunning adornment of blue and red dog bowls presumably in the lack of anything more genteel and royal coloured.

Indeed, like the royal family, Southport is grandiose, fashionable but laughable as it keeps up its pretence of modernity. There is some amazing architecture here, art deco, Victorian, Georgian palaces, slums in varying states of decay and modern redevelopments shoulder each other along the boulevard which was the inspiration for Paris. Apparently. For a seaside town, the sea is kept at a distance, nasty dirty sea. We don’t even see it. It is finally tamed, entrenched, hidden politely behind ornate arcades of dying posh shops you are too scared to enter in case the proprietor is too enthusiastic and you know you can purchase it cheaper on the net but feel so bad about it.

We are hungry, have a baby and limited funds- there is a plethora of lovely looking places to eat in Southport but we find a vegetarian café/restaurant on the net and fly to it with a song in our hearts.  It is closed. So Pizza-Fucking Express is open on the day of the royal wedding but not a vegetarian café. And now the plethoras of places to eat mock me with their meagre vegetarian choice. I am in a sulk, we argue, a friendly scouser gives us a flyer for two courses for a fiver at a place on the promenade (which is of course a long way from the nasty sea) I scoff, having since Colne, resolved never to eat anywhere which has prices rather than the food as the main attraction advertised but then go past the place, an unprepossessing solid Victorian hotel and looking on the menu outside which looks suspiciously good for somewhere advertising all food for £2.50 we enter.

And immediately suspect we are in a trap. It is too good to be true. I was expecting some Blackpoolesque crumbling slum but we are in ‘The Dining Rooms’ a pleasant conservatory with women in big hats drinking champagne. The menu is amazing looking. The vegetables are apparently locally grown and there are many vegetarian choices that aren’t sodding goats cheese tart. We order and wait for the catch.

But it is better than we thought it would be. Far better. Scarily better. There are dabbles of balsamic vinegar, flitterings of salad, basil oil arranged provocatily around spinach and cheese roulettes and mixed bean pate on French bread with chilli sauce. It is too good for £2.50 and it makes me tense. I order a large house red and glumly assume it would cost £78.99 to make up the cost. The main courses are also worrying excellent, we both have crepes, filled with locally grown vegetables and they are divine, then fruit waffles with raspberry coulis and ice-cream which is of course also sublime and this three course meal for two comes to twenty four quid and a good proportion of that is me being greedy with the very good wine.

I assumed the people with hats and champagne was here for a wedding; they were- the royal wedding. I realised this when my baby cried and instead of the normal ‘isn’t he beautiful?’ we are given a dirty look, as his cries are louder than the BBC commentary about Kate’s dress.

It was a nirvana of a meal, and will spoil me forever, as I will live in fear of missing another such curiously priced oasis and be forever disappointed.

We are fatly lunging onwards however to Crosby and the Antony Gormley statues who stand in the sea there. Again reality exceeds expectation-there are so may more figures than expected dotted around the coast and with a backdrop of a hazy Liverpool docks. They are simple yet mesmerising, unpretentious and humane-the further out they go the more encrusted with barnacles they become, less flocked by children laughing at their sculpted genitalia until you can only see their simple yet oh so human silhouettes not outlined in wild flowers but clad only in sea and sky.