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.

Apr 20 2011

Dumfries Carboot sale

To the unitiated this looks like a Clairol foot spa convention. We are in a field surrounded by lilac hued hills and mountains on the outskirts of Dumfries on a beautiful spring morning. And what does one want to do on a beautiful spring morning? Haggle over a dog-eared My Story by Katie Price and hark at the sheer amount of pre-loved Clairol foot spas.

I love carboots.  I am cheap and greedy, enjoy quantity over quality which stands me in good stead at a carboot where a tenner in your hand proclaims you king of all that surrounds you- like an oil baron in Harrods, you know that practically anything you see can be yours. I like the excitement factor, the possibility of finding a stall peopled by an upper market version of me selling stuff I have always wanted for 10p an item. Occasionally this happens, in a low level way- a frenzy of books about ghosts, wind chimes and faux fur ensues and I guiltily realise I am shaking.

There is no esoteric nirvana here in prosaic Dumfries. There is however a large framed poster featuring a silhouette of a man playing the saxophone. In big writing it proclaims ‘Women love me, fish fear me.’ It is a phrase so mysterious and complex I am still mulling it over today like some sacred text in the Koran. And where does it fit with the saxophone?

It’s all so exciting and added to the normal excitement of seeing the laden trestle tables of Lean Mean Grilling Machines glinting in the sun is the fact that we’re in Scotland!

An aura of exoticness and a slight sense of danger pervades. A man behind a stall makes a comment about the weather and when I reply I am aware I sound like the queen. There appear to be platform leather vibrating slippers for sale for a fiver. Sadomasochism and comfortable indoor footwear finally together as one.

Of course the guiltiest pleasure of carboots is the sheer incredulousness of some of the wares the vendors are trying to market. In 2010 a Lisa Stansfield single is not marketable currency. Neither is a 1996 Schotts almanac. The sheer perverse in nature might however enjoy completing their World Towers jigsaw puzzle  (1000 pieces, no planes)

I feel for those vendors with their sorry empty stalls who believe in some TV programme mantra where clutter is the enemy. No! Clutter is good, foraging is expected at a carboot because of that underlying treasure hunter within you who thinks that underneath the New Look lies Vivienne Westwood even though the seller is size 24, covered in tattoos of the names of her children and smoking a Lambert and Butler. A bleak stall selling some used fairy lights, a copy of How To Give Up Smoking By Allan Carr and some Next blue baby dungarees with their large optimistic prices attached is going to make me fly by to the stall next door where ‘here be treasure’ might lie in the guise of a bobbley yet cool top with skulls on.

And now here is a stall which has all the music I loved ten years ago and now I see it again I want it again even though I got rid of it and it is probably the same Cornershop promo I sold so many years ago. But at a carboot, surrounded by CD singles of people who won the Xfactor once, a Mudhoney album is so gloriously incongruous and exciting. Mind you, I am now so overexcited at being at a carboot in Scotland, that an ice-cream van nearly makes me pass out in the sheer delight of it all.

Of course there is nothing I want. That tends to spoil it, the gritty determination to find a magnetic cat flap, the knowledge of your living room being filled at that very moment with very naughty cats makes you feel guilt at lingering over a lava lamp. But treasure does indeed lie underneath. I am now the proud owner of a limited edition copy of Invaders Must Die by The Prodigy. It was three quid. And now every time I play it (not that I have as yet) it will make me think of that sunny spring morning surrounded by nature’s bounty and Clairol foot spas.

The surroundings are so glorious it almost feels mocking. The mountains, hills and fields rich with history and bloodshed beckon gently but you are in a field, yet not communing with nature, but bartering about neon hued plastic and mulling over a poster that proclaims that women love you and fish fear you and featuring a silhouette of a man playing a saxophone.

Aug 16 2010


It feels somewhat pointless to write about Edinburgh. It has all been admired, photographed, written about before, done to death. Camera lenses shine predatorily down the little cobbled alleys, which look untouched and ignored since the 18th century but whose images are saturated into millions of eyeballs across the globe. Tourists stop in the middle of the road to point or goggle, stride casually out in front of swerving cars and Scottish accents are about as common as a pint under three quid.

But I utterly love Edinburgh, feel like a walking cliché for doing so, like someone in love with a high class escort, want it to be my lovely little secret and not flaunting its wares for everyone and anyone, I should be rhapsodising over the dumpy one in the corner with hidden charms, Motherwell say, not worshipping this overpriced gilded tourist trap museum with the fucking bagpipe music squalling from every shitty tartan splattered shop on the Royal Mile where a can of coke is one pound fucking eighty and you can’t move for some dim-witted buffoon uncurling a map or expensive camera to take a shitty picture of something that Google images will throw up a thousand better images of.

And lurid placards for ghost tours take every inch of mystery or mystique away from the thought of a secret underworld that can now be summoned up by a spotty student on a work placement scheme at eight pm every night once you have paid your eight quid. There is such fierce competition that flyers all but guarantee a free supernatural entity with every booking.

There are mannequins in tartan mini dresses in shop windows and heaven forbid even tartan Doc Martens, what a wonderful way to combine two national stereotypes; over confident students with white made-up faces hurl flyers and extravagant lies about the genius of the fringe shows they are promoting at you whilst talking to each other in strident smug voices.

Oh yes, Edinburgh knows how to fleece you. But it does it so prettily.

Look, how can you be angry when no matter where you are, you can see Arthur’s Seat looming grandiosely over you, when the sea suddenly shimmers at the bottom of every steep hill, when buildings wear their ancientness so damn casually-a wonder down a fag strewn close towards the train station and there is a dark sooty building, not a famous one but just your average Edinburgh building, about as common as a New Look cardigan and I happen to see the date 1563 above the door. It is mind-blowing in its nonchalance.

I love the way the stairs down the steep closes are swayed and humpbacked by the centuries of feet traversing the same journey, such everyday casual history in the everyday not locked behind a museum cabinet.

And talking of museums, the National Museum of Scotland is superb. Utterly enormous and impossible to find ones way around like some sort of Escher doodling bought to life, it contains a formidable amount of Scottish history, the most terrifyingly exciting being The Maiden, a huge iron guillotine used, actually used to slice the heads of the unfortunate of yore. And you can actually touch this antiquated piece of murder, the last thing some people ever saw. That so beats a stuffed fox.

Death begets hunger and so off the main drag where I am starting to loathe humanity, especially posh humanity from the Home Counties and their sodding flyers. And why fly half way round the world to a new country and then queue to go into a bloody Frankie and Bennies?

There are some wonderful places to eat in Edinburgh that aren’t Frankie and Bennies and whereas you are robbed for snacks, drink and booze, a decent meal can be had for five or six quid. Khushi’s Diner is our first port of call, veggie curry, deep fried bread, some wonderful fried heart attack Indian street food with relish and two soft drinks come to a tenner and are served in a gloriously decorated room, all Indian bling and opulence.

In Delhi also comes highly recommended, a dangerously material and candle bedecked room  serving exquisite Indian food for about a fiver a head. It is exotic, womblike and snug, yes the Home Counties accents prevail but it is Festival season and there is no escape apart from when actually inside the magic of the theatre. Henderson’s is another superb vegetarian restaurant and deli, no ethnic nick knacks or clumpy lentil burgers here, it is white, clean yet unpretentious serving excellent food for around seven or eight pounds. I got cheese and biscuits for around two quid and so huge the chunk of cheese, I ate my fill there and then, gave some to my partner, wrapped it up, ate some with the napkin sadly still attached to it on the train going through Penrith then finished it on a crumpet the day after that in bed in Lancaster.

Around Haymarket, and up Lothian Road there are enticing charity shops, cheap cafes and takeaways and more an air of shambolicness and grubbiness. There are less tourists here and thus actual real Scottish accents ca be heard. It being Edinburgh there are still plenty of arty cinemas and bars though, cuddled up next to places advertising mighty fry-ups and cheap haircuts. A bakery has luridly hued cakes toppling towards the sky-they have an actual sheen on them. I yearn for the explosion of mock cream in my mouth and the accompanying familiar mixture of nausea and delight.

We treat ourselves to a meal at L’Artichaut, a renowned veggie restaurant but where the lunchtime meals are six fifty. It is wonderful. I have seldom eaten anywhere with linen napkins. They even have a little paper ring with a picture of an artichoke on. I feel a bit famous before realising I cannot afford to eat and have a drink of wine at the same time and reality dawns. Then I realise I am actually eating lime meringues with pink peppercorns and feel like a fatter Paris Hilton.

The charity shops in nearby Stockbridge add to the illusion as I pick up a coat to find its £250. Well heeled is not the word. My partner says he has never seen so many waistcoats in one place.

Then down towards Leith along the river, past beautiful old world cottages, estates and swans. Leith has become more and more gentrified but still has charity shops where things are under a tenner and workers cafes battle with bistros. Nearby Portobello has amusement arcades, a fine sandy beach and an air of old fashioned seaside charm. There are no yuppie flats here. Yet.

A recommendation also takes us to Duddingston a mile or so of curiously countrified walk from Edinburgh. It is an idyllic village but much like the rest of Edinburgh hides behind a façade of normality because I suspect that in order to live here, one must have to be very very rich. Time makes everything quaint-an iron collar outside the church used to punish long dead ne’er-do-wells is a cutesy relic to photograph although there are few tourists here, heaven forbid actually walking, leaving The Real Loch Ness Experience behind and stepping into the Frankie and Benny free countryside…

The Sheep’s Heid is meant to be the oldest pub in Scotland and is certainly dark and antiquated, furnished with what looks like the entire contents of an auction room. The prices are modern enough though.

That’s Edinburgh for you. A place where even the ghosts come at a price but you can’t get your wallet out quickly enough. I would move here tomorrow if I could.




Aug 7 2010


Grab a selection of your favourite architecture, whether it be red brick decaying factories with trees growing on the roof, Tudor quaintness, Georgian splendour or immense glassy skyscrapers from the future. Give them a shake, add some grubbily enticing looking Kebab houses and randomly plonk down in a dazzling array of whirls, lines and patterns. Congratulations. You have made a Manchester.

I love this place; it constantly changes and evolves, new bars and skyscrapers soaring from the remnants of cotton factories and warehouses, antiquated little streets, poncy bars next to wholesale fabric shops and curry houses. There is a sense of urgency, something is always happening or about to but with none of the smug self satisfied trying too hard to be edgy side of London. It is shambolic, retro, futuristic, and a living breathing place. The centre is not a ghost town on the weekends; people live here in the gluts of fancy apartments now going for a song and behind the bedraggled curtains of rooms above gyms and takeaways.

The Northern Quarter is my favourite, swanky looking bars but where a bottle of wine can be had for eight quid, dingy merry pubs filled with human flotsam and jetsam, retro boutiques and chi-chi cafes alongside places where the menu is advertised on faded fluorescent stars. The five story shrine to Emo-hood is here, Affleck’s Palace, I feel old here yearning at the multitudes of sparkling hairclips and brightly coloured hoodies as dazzling flocks of over-confident teenagers cackle and shriek past.

You can afford to live here, it is not a tourist attraction for the moneyed, it has not all been developed and redeveloped ad infinitum, real history pokes out on every turn and makes the modern all the more vivid for it. A microcosm, a kaleidoscope, a journey through the people’s history.

Museums often seem only to tell the stories of the rich. The glazed glass eyes of dead animals shot by gouty dead cowards, enormous dingy paintings of a florid bearded man or simpering rich woman in extravagant skirtage, gilt and cornicing, nothing to relate to, nothing to make me feel these were people like me.

The People’s History Museum in Manchester is different. It shows the lives and deaths of the real movers and shakers, the strikers, the martyrs and the rioters, the people in the street trying to earn enough money to pay for tea.  There are coffins you can open, clothes to try on, vintage Gay Rights banners and not a dead polar bear in sight. It is interactive without being patronising, interesting and ambitious and makes you realise the gaping void at the centre of how history is normally presented. People whose lives we look on now because they actually did something, something important and brave and innovative that actually affects us now, were not just inbred lucky sperm with silly hair* poncing around on horseback.

We go to look at Art next but the art galleries are all closed because it’s Monday so we go to the Odd Bar in the Northern Quarter and have veggie black pudding kebabs and happily eavesdrop on the swarms on conversation from the chattering classes around us.

The Grade two listed Marble Arch squats on an unattractive road on the way to Ancoats. Inside, one is dazzled by a multitude of tiles mosaics adorning the walls, ceiling and floor. The interior seems almost untouched from its beginning in 1888 apart from the waft of Nirvana and the chalkboard advertising very nice looking food indeed but with the eight to ten pound mark putting it outside the average 19th labourers pay packet. There is a microbrewery attached (Marble Brewery) there is chocolate and ginger flavoured beer and the chips look excellent. Ergo it is a Good Pub.

I will never learn to get my bearings in Manchester, no matter how many times I go, there seems no rhyme or reason to it, it is fluid, changeable and malleable. I just walk, watch, listen and admire.

*The person, not the sperm is the one with hair.

More Manchester pics here

Aug 1 2010

Moniaive, Dumfries and Galloway

Moniaive is in the official middle of nowhere, the prettiest middle of nowhere to ever exist, shimmering through the rain and accessed by a winding road through sparsely populated yet lush countryside unadorned by agricultural clutter and sprawl, just modest white crofts and the occasional imposing driveway leading no doubt to some utopian idyll buried slumbering in the woods. It is countryside that doesn’t reek of money, second homes, stiff new Barbour’s and people from Islington. It is country not countryside and a crow is strung by the neck on a gate in the old tradition of warning other crows of their fate should they try and encroach on what was formerly theirs.

An avenue of trees leads down to Moniaive: it seems almost a vast urban sprawl, this delicate smattering of houses along the road compared to the empty journey but we were driving past a McDonalds in Dumfries less than an hour ago watching big seagulls and people squawk and litter and search for the last salty chip in the red rectangular boxes.

Moniaive has apparently become a haven for the artists, artisans and bohemians of Scotland, a gushing piece about it in the Galloway News led me here and yes, here is the chocolatiers looking like the witches house in Hansel and Gretel, so alluring and pretty but I fear to step within, not because of witches but because I suspect the prices won’t be from a halcyon past. Here are the quiet modest bistros next to spotless simple houses with fake flowers in the window and The Georges Hotel with a beer garden that is simply a field, benches and nature. It also has an excitingly named Tramps Hole and is one of those quintessentially Scottish places that are so steeped in blood and history, it is taken as a modest given, not to be wrapped up in ribbon, glorified, sold to tourists and made into a paying attraction.

There are monuments to martyrs here, graves to the murdered religious dissenters known as covenanters but this is not a hewn from the rocks ‘authentic Scottish Experience’. Many of the voices heard are of the well-fed English variety and charming bistros with prices in the teens are not an integral aspect of every small Scottish town.

But a sign in the village store amongst the ads for folk festivals and art events  warns people that they will not be served alcohol until 10am.

We have heard good things about the Green Tea House cafe  but I am suspicious, as The Galloway News never seems to write anything actually negative about Scottish food establishments. It is however an exercise in how to make your tea room the best damn tea room in town. I did have a slight yearning towards the pub as tea rooms make me think of old ladies in an overheated florid room gorging on crumbling old cakes and talking with sweet venom about their relatives but this tea room is lofty, minimal yet cosy with a garden, a fireplace and big shuttered windows overlooking dark dark trees. The organic menu is a good blend of veggie and non-veggie and my aubergine and tomato bake, salad wedges and salad an immense thing of wonder for under six pounds. There is a slightly awkward moment when having tried the healthy herb salt on the table and declaring it like something used to cut cocaine with, I ask for real salt and am politely yet firmly refused. Not that it needed it to be fair. The cakes are of the sort that would be served at high tea to beaming mop haired children from Enid Blyton, groaning with cream, jam and chocolate and it is everything one could ask for but has spoilt me now as I use it to measure other places and they always come up substandard which fills me with a grim pleasure as I do not know how and if I shall ever be able to find my way back to this strange little oasis in the middle of nowhere.


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

Apr 10 2010

Preston Pictorial

Just a small selection of pictures from a visit to Preston recently. You can see the full set of pictures here

Apr 9 2010


It is raining. Cold, grey and raining. Lambs shiver in bleak fields as we pass them on the train. One suspiciously lamb like shape floats bloated and dead in a burn. From the nothingness past Carlisle gradually arises a blighted lunar landscape -Motherwell, soviet grimness pockmarked with Barrat homes and tower blocks.  Then a grim gaping concrete bunker says Welcome To Glasgow Central and I suddenly wish we had got our passports renewed.

I have however exhaustively researched this stay- have spent hours, no days trying to find what I optimistically term a mini-break for someone with no car, no savings and no passport. Lancaster to Glasgow-eight pounds each way booked in advance. Check. Eyes bleeding after hours obsessively searching for a hotel that is both cheap and impossibly glamorous   (without someone on Trip Advisor ruining it  by mentioning the lack of absorbency in the towels in the terms people normally reserve for the Armenian genocide)  Check.

So it’s cold, grey and raining and we are on holiday. Time to go to visit death.

The Necropolis is a graveyard of all who were names in their day. Like finding in the future an Ozymandias bone yard of Heat magazine fixtures time warped and broken. It is a hilly jumble of death, cracked, disheveled, ostentatious.

Eminent Victorian statues stand over their graves – stone hands shielding stone eyes as they stare onto a visage so startling and different than what was there in their time.  Through the drizzle lie the old spires but in front is grim modern industrial interjected with Neo baronial buildings of undisputed antiquity all clashing together in a striking strangely alluring view.

It is slimy, treacherous and slippery on this hallowed Scottish ground-so foreign to this Englander with it’s plethora of Moffats and Malcolm’s, graves crowned with yellowing plastic candles with Jesus on-as wet and spent as the body beneath them.  I love graveyards, I love morbidity and death in a quiet removed MR James style but when staring through bars into a small dark mausoleum at a blank eyed virgin Mary, a sudden drip down her upturned face makes me leap and go back down the hill, back over the wonderfully named Bridge Of Sighs and towards sanity, bright colours, noise and an overpriced glass of house red in Mono, in the Merchants Quarter-a funky sounding vegan bar with attached record store.

It is bleakly industrially colourful with a sofa that reminds me of squats but the drinks prices of Knightsbridge. A wine and bottle of local beer come to 7.80 but this is not unusual I find out rather too frequently in the trendier of places.

The Merchants Quarter is a befuddling mixture of history, trend and trade. Tattoo parlours, pleasingly dodgy looking pubs frequented only by bald men over fifty in sports jackets and trainers, rambling grandiose yet crumbling red brick, decaying signs, shops and people.  It’s a tapering cave where no building complements another, poverty, bohemia and ethnicity co-exist under the arches and by the train lines, cheap rugs and Cyberdog clothes, ethnic veg and bookies.

The Trans Europe café is very Glasgow. It is diner style trendy yet beaten round the edges. Laminated plastic menus and loud music. The man working there is acting like his own viral marketing campaign for Glasgow Cool. As the rain shoots grimly down outside he is singing along to Franz Ferdinand with utter unconstrained happiness and uncaring as to who is listening or what they are thinking. And it made me remember how good Franz Ferdinand were as I have some nice warming morning soup, wipe the tears of sleep and mascara from my red eyes and try not to think about that sudden tear idling down the Virgin’s face.

The 13th Note came up first in my frenzied Google attack of vegetarian Glasgow.  It is a music venue and I feel like a slightly embarrassing wannabe trendy mum as the black clad band sitting in the corner look about 14. Especially when I study the menu more relevantly than the gig listings-a clear sign of age. It has for a place with faded gig posters of the terminally undiscovered and toilet graffiti of the permanently unshagged, a very good entirely vegetarian menu. My partner has risotto and Parmesan rice cakes with Thai green curry and I, potato cakes with mushroom and chillis with roast pepper sauce. I don’t know how the death metal band in the corner considered their garnishes but I was very pleased with mine-the food served with a slap onto a table was interesting, creative and well presented-a flourish of coriander here, a grating of beetroot there-no wine list, no view, no smiles but delicious and under seven quid a meal.

So from the old world of the merchants to the new-the brash superfluousness of New Look superstores, glass and crowds in Buchanan street. There is a pretty glittering arcade selling diamonds in their thousands where men in top hats patrol it and I wonder at their aerodynamicness should they need to give chase.

There is a designer mall, Princes Square, all Vivienne Westwood and fancy soap-style and no substance and I think of the quieter more dignified Merchants Quarter only yards away yet still with the elements of richness and brashness that made it hold sway a hundred years ago.  I doubt these malls will remain in a hundred years, insubstantial and mass-produced; they seem made of paper and plastic compared to the dark mass of the Merchants Quarter.

Onwards now to the West End-again, a twinkly glossy two fingers to those who still think Glasgow is entirely subterranean scum swimming in their own filth and Carling.

It is everything Glasgow is not considered to be and gloriously extravagantly so-reveling in its chi chi twinkliness on an expensive espresso high. Cafés with mopeds in the window where glossy haired girls with  designer tacky necklaces and flat shoes smile at white teethed floppy fringed boys-retro chic is everywhere-the plundered car boot bounty of dead people, sprayed with perfume and re-sold with a cutesy label on a ribbon. The Byres road charity shops are an intoxicating mix of George at Asda and labels you read about in style supplements.  Delis abound, ‘darling’ little restaurants and places with quirky names-it makes Crouch End look like Baghdad.  I like it here though. I like looking at the people and although expensive it is not silly expensive, not London expensive to get a frittata and coffee or an indie chic dress. It must be the coffee and cake capital of the country.

Lofty elegant houses line the side streets –some are all Fallow and Ball and thick soft draperies, others where tie-dye sheets are badly hung over grimy ornate windows. Our hotel, The Belhaven up one of these streets describes itself as a boutique hotel –I am somewhat surprised to see an abundance of Golden Wonder crisps piled high in baskets when entering. Surely Kettle Chips are ideal for the place with pretentions? The room is large, red and luxurious with a subtle tint of MFI and we paid sixty quid, which included such a large variety of breakfast the next morning, I farted the whole way around the Kelvingrove museum.

Tchai Ovna  is a rickety wooden teahouse straight out of Lord of the Rings balanced precariously on the banks of the Clyde.  When we went last time, it overlooked the city, now it is overlooked by a block of flats seemingly built out of Lego and there are dog eared petitions inside the hippy ambience of Tchai Ovna to stop the entire of Otago Lane being swept away by concrete and corporations. So maybe goodbye to the Dickensian bearded clockmaker surrounded by a cacophony of broken antiquated clocks who stares at us wild eyed when we pass and the bookshop filled with yellow tomes of defunct outmoded knowledge and courtly love, stacked high and dusty yet so seductive and mesmerizing. Goodbye the birds that sing in the trees in the heart of the city in a street that progress has just remembered.

Tchai Ovna is like being in the green fields at Glastonbury but with flushing toilets, so pretty much a pastoral idyll. I have a pot of excellent chai and sit on a large coloured cushion surrounded by hippy ephemera as people pleasantly chat, read and play scrabble. The limited yet of course veggie menu has crackers and cheese as a snack and I imagine a world where cream crackers and lumps of strong cheddar were freely available. I imagine a world with less fights, drunkenness and anger. Then again, the crumbs would be shocking.

The 78   is an unassuming looking building on an offshoot of an unassuming road but thrives with hipsters-and wow-it is a vegan bar/gig venue. I guiltily yearn for a piece of cheese but have wine instead. It is a good menu-innovative interesting vegan fare that is not diminished by what it does not contain. There is a fire, papers, horrid yet now trendy flowery upright chairs and more surprisingly expensive yet good drinks.

Dinner tonight is in a tiny yellow room off a tiny yellow takeaway-the Banana Leaf.

When hearing about its combination of cheapness and South Indian food I was drawn like a moth to a yellow flame. It did not disappoint. Dosas the size of your arm for four quid filled with spicy potato and cheese, rich spicy lentils, semolina balls. A small child is annoying in a small space in the delightful way only small children can be and his musical voice goes ever more piercing the frownier and less sibilant his father becomes-he has a similar aged friend with him and I feel for the friend-‘daddy daddy, he says. ‘He’s not Hindi-we’re Hindi aren’t we? To friend-‘are you vegetarian? -We’re vegetarian-don’t you eat beans? -Daddy, daddy he doesn’t eat beans! Do you like dosas? Do you? -You MUST like dosas!’ Etc.  I feel for the friend-when I was little, being suddenly introduced to spaghetti with Parmesan at a middleclass friend’s house reduced me to tears. ‘It smells of sick!”

Back on Byres Road, Oran Mor is pleasantly evoking God’s rage. Not only is it a former church that has now been turned into a gig/play venue and pub but a luminous blue glowing neon halo lies hugely yet casually over one of the spires. It has a renowned variety of whiskies and is calmly busy. A man of about sixty with a broad yet refined Glasgow accent starts to chat to us-he casually name drops minor royals names and places in Knightsbridge he is familiar with but it does not seem to be the beer talking or mere showing off or fantasies-his back is so straight and his dress so neat I have no doubt he is what he is.

Day two

I do not like the Kelvingrove museum. It is all dead. And whereas the denisons of The Necropolis probably did not go easy to their death, the stuffed animals here definitely didn’t and I look for bullet holes. There is a random photo of a gorilla’s head in a dish, which does not help. And I may be alone in this, and indeed probably am but the whole thing of museums seeming to cater for kids not adults annoys me more than it should. Kids are kids, they love to examine stuff, think and ask questions. When a piece of art has something posted next to it saying something like ‘How would you feel if You were being guillotined?’ it detracts from the adult’s study and I’m sure most kids would be thinking about it anyway, if not, they don’t care/don’t want to be there/have no thoughts apart from ‘OMG!! Is that a gorilla’s head in a dish?’.  Leave them to be kids and to think or  not think for themselves.

Or maybe I am just hung-over.

Glasgow today is radiant-there is a blue sky, my coat is off and it all looks beautiful. Apart possibly from Motherwell.

My other half has a random desire to see outside of Glasgow and take a train ride somewhere different and settles on Helensburgh.

The train ride is the best ever. Urban dereliction, foxes, a deer, a winking river Clyde snaking along it all, mud flats and then suddenly boat wrecks -happy cared for boats, knackered boats with peeling paint which gradually lead  (in a 5 second swoosh of a train) husk by prow by to blacked ribs in primordial soup. Kind of like that picture you used to get of how apes turned into people.

It was the best five seconds ever.

Helensburgh is a polite place. It is all very nice-people say thank you or apologise even when it is not strictly merited –it is one of those places that become remarkable for no apparent reason-it is described as like Edinburgh, Bath etc on the internet. It is not. It is a small seaside genteel town within commutable distance of Glasgow popular with day-trippers also on the genteel side.

It is sunny then windy rainy sunny then windy rainy and tantalizing glimpse of the lowest of the Highlands poke forth very occasionally in the distance like a cheap 3d poster.  The bay is blue; the charity shops another Scottish smattering of high and low, Primark and Karen Millen. And Dan Brown. Always the Dan Brown.

Listening to North Sea Radio orchestra on the way back to Glasgow whilst staring out of the window was very close to heaven.

In shock news there is another vegan bar/music venue to go to in Glasgow owned by the same people who own Mono and The 78 which gives exciting thoughts of a vegan mafia, tofu heads in beds etc.

Stereo is up a piss stained dark alley in the centre of Glasgow, a sudden flash of cool- a trendy corridor of hipsterness-again I am surprised by the cost of two drinks but am now resigned to supernoodle living for the rest of the year. The wallpaper is a printed electrical circuit, an American woman flirts with an Englishman-they are of course attractive, trendy and both in bands.

We order some tapas and it is excellent-large portions, crisp, fresh, unusual and delicious. Patatas brava, veggie tempura, lemony aubergine and bruschetta heaving with ripe rich chunks of tomatoes and herbs.

It is time for our train-and I have not seen the ‘real’ Glasgow if indeed there is one-I have not strayed off the beaten track, I have stayed safe and dull and middleclass. There is so much more to Glasgow, so much more and I have gently ripped around the middleclass edges complaining about the cost yet not going anywhere cheaper. But I am a vegetarian with a penchant for wine and have had a very wonderful little holiday.

And on the way home, the sky over Motherwell looks beautiful.








Feb 28 2010

Hebden Bridge

Our train steams past clusters of Staples superstores and mega bowling taverns, past TK Maxx’s and derelict houses, moors and lakes, grids of post war houses and McDonalds, a town hides deep in a valley with housestumbling down a semi-mountain then a long dark tunnel. Then Hebden.

You have probably heard of Hebden Bridge. Renowned for hippies, fair trade and an alternative culture. Well, this is what happens when alternative culture grows up, has babies and a disposable income. Well, it’s probably a recyclable income here. It is a beautiful place in a beautiful setting. A valley, canal, woods, steep looming houses and the occasional long chimney, a remnant of its mill town past, probably the only one apart from the occasional estate agent sign advertising penthouse living in a converted mill. The photographs of minimalist rooms with white leather sofas don’t seems so terribly Hebden-and yes, Hebden is an adjective.

Hebden is more wind chimes, cute kids in cutely clashing layers, Non Yorkshire accents, whole food, homeopathy and dogs. Lots of dogs. And white haired lesbians in Millets clothing. And natural fabric, which looks expensive. And cheerful confident bonhomie. It’s lovely. But does not seem sustainable (ironically) to this northerner on minimum wage. Where is the money sourcing from and where are the jobs? It is such an enchanted Nirvana in the midst of the more earthy neighbours such as Accrington and Blackburn, the places where the press go to take a stock shot of the impoverished north and its miles of back-to-back identikit terraces with washing fluttering in the alleys from the train windows.

Hebden Bridge started as milltown, then when that died and the workers moved away, became a sort of commune, a place where the squatters fled, where they could afford a patch of land, a tiny terrace and from there grew a community of like minded souls. Now, there are still battered vans driving by, men with purple flowing capes and long hair wander the streets and are not mocked-narrow boats line the canal and hey, you get the message. But I wonder how the oasis gets its water.

House prices are reasonable-we lick the windows of estate agents where a lovely terrace can be purchased for a hundred grand and rent for a house can be less than four hundred quid a month (far more than neighbouring Halifax). But we wonder about jobs. So lovely to have independent shops and children’s homoeopathists. But this is a small town in the midst of Yorkshire and I suspect that jobs are hard to come by.

There are lovely places to eat and drink and they all seem to be full. On a Saturday. So many veggie cafes and the like, it is like manna from heaven from this veggie, saturated on the generic spicy bean burger option. It is not cheap. It is not that expensive. But in general recession bitten Northern terms, it’s a fucking miracle, never mind an oasis.

Feb 21 2010


I have decided that I don’t like it here-it is foggy, I am hungry and there appears to be nowhere to eat apart from very very expensive places or places with laminated menus and pictures of burger and chips combos. Or Tea Shops filled with silver haired people and the smell of cinnamon.  Exciting looking shapes loom out of the mist and I want to walk, to see Buxton in all its unfamiliar glory but the impenetrable fog continues to snake in, my hunger rumbles and I yearn for a soft chair and a large house red.

It begins to snow.  My companion and I have an argument for the pure sake of it, rejecting each others choice of eating establishments and their menus with scorn, loathing and derision until finding an Italian restaurant, St Moritz sitting on a  rather busy road  but with that much revered signage of ‘Two course 6.95.’

It is strangely an Italian cum Swiss joint with fondues and Swiss named pizzas and pastas and is packed with red-cheeked Buxtonites on this grim Tuesday February afternoon. I have soup and pizza, both perfectly agreeable and my partner has bruschetta and pasta, the pasta being somewhat reminiscent of a child schools dinner, slippery tubes of penne in an oval china bowl loaded with stringy cheese but its certainly agreeable, there are ooh, chocolates with the bill, breadsticks, wine and thus my spirits lift with the fog.

And talking of spirits, I read in the ever affable Stuart Maconie’s book, Adventures On The High Teas, that Buxton has a bookshop with a ghost and we go back up the hill of disappointing eateries and into an Alice In Wonderland bookshop where stairs go up and up and down and down in a wonderfully discombobulating way-there is a little Victorian museum in the cellar amongst the piles of toppling unloved books who’s time is so clearly past but no ghost-the handwritten poems about the ghost ruin the ambience somewhat-when the word ghost is chirpily refrained with toast, a sense of mystique and terror is gone forever.  But one can have a cup of coffee here in this crumbling soothing part of a vanishing world, listen to the traffic outside and wonder how much longer such lovely places will continue in the modern word where everything is free,  downloadable and does not smell faintly of rot. The real ghosts are embedded on the fly leafs of the books-faded yellow copperplate wishing dear Edward a happy 21st from Auntie Gertrude and you realise from the date that they are both dead now. Only this remains of them, an antiquated three-pound novel in a dusty plant filled bookshop and it is both upsetting and exciting.

Back down the hill, an undrinkable glass of wine in the otherwise lovely The Old Sun Inn’s understated antiquity and one could easily imagine they were Charles Dickens blagging a drink in return for dashing off some prose if it were not for the fact that the radio is playing eighties pop classics, clashing horribly with the quiet old men and old quiet stone.

The high street is pleasingly adorned with independent shops-the charity shops are filled with sensible clothes for the older person but I find a pleasingly impractical cardigan which in no way serves to warm me from the invasive chill coming down from the peaks and you can see how easy it would be to feel trapped here.  A few hoodies walk their pit bulls and attempt to look menacing but they just look rather chilly and you expect a ruddy-faced lady to tell them to pull their trousers up. I would not like to be young here.  It seems a happy conservative well heeled sort of place where small vandalisms would be talked about with horrified fascinations for weeks afterwards-a hermetically sealed part of little England which is however slowly becoming unwrapped.

The Buxton museum is great-delightfully shambolic with tables devoted to learning about pearls next to abstract art and information on the mining history of Buxton. There is a replica Victorian library which reeks of disapproval and must and then a time travel tunnel (we go through accidently backwards and come out as cavemen) with rather surprising hyenas and bears along with a real skeleton and the normal bits of annotated wood and the like. Middle class children run amok, being somewhat loudly over excited by history-it’s all very very jolly indeed.

I decide I have warmed to Buxton.

Outside there is a classic car auction next to the botanical gardens and the Opera House (who says culture is dumbing down-Charlie and Lola are playing next week-the children of Buxton are surely spoilt) Everyone looks like Lovejoy and talk so poshly I think they must be being filmed. Old Jaguars are fondled with sheepskinned-gloved hands. It’s hard to reconcile such Englishness with England anymore but there is still a queue outside Greggs and people are still talking in surprised and somewhat annoyed tones about the weather so we are still here after all.

The park is magnificent and with a joyfully spurting fountain-a rare occurrence. There are strange looking birds, kind of like multi coloured ducks which mingle with the suddenly drab and austere mallards, miniature lakes and it is easy to step back in time here, to imagine parading through with a parasol, delicately revealing an ankle and looking around, things do appear as they used to be except for the boarded up crescent of the Pump Rooms blazoned with EU funding posters.

And then misty eyed with a genteel vision of yesteryear, we step back centuries. The Old Hall Hotel is straight out of an MR James story. We retreat inside for a glass of wine before the train and it is magical. A guest book is opened on a month and a year in the eighteenth century and you wonder about the assignations, adulteries   and secrets it contains with people’s comments that had faded even before Aunt Gertie had even been born.

Apparently Mary Queen of Scots stayed here and it is reputed to be the oldest hotel in England. I can well believe it-it reeks of faded grandeur and lily of the valley yet has retained a vestige of youth with its wine bar and contempory food menu-a newspaper rack has the Guardian and the Daily Express nestled side by side-unlikely bedfellows.  Another amazingly well spoken elderly gentlemen is languidly chatting in the corner-would make David Attenborough look like someone out of Shameless and a hassled car dealer from the auction is talking into a mobile. It is warm, well lit and utterly fascinating-empty parlours and other bars and rooms are dotted around the place, it is a veritable thickly walled maze, a piece of true history and I want to stay the night here, ensconced in an armchair by the fire with my MR James book and a brandy listening out for one of the ghosts that must surely frequent this island in the past. I would feel like an exhibit in the roped off Victorian room in the museum.  But I have no money left and the train is nearly approaching so I shrug unhappily off this warm shroud of the past and step into the freezing neon glow of 2010.