Jan 24 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truly the epitome of England.

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

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

Jan 2 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jan 2 2010


How to start writing about a city that comes burdened with so many preconceptions? Everyone thinks they know Liverpool, they patronise or fear it and it’s inhabitants-they are ‘surprisingly pleased’ with how lovely it is as if they expected a rat filled festering sewer or talk of the inhabitants in sneery snobbish tones-thieving scallies one and all come here to steal your hubcaps.

Liverpool is glamorous-admittedly I have not spent much time or indeed any in the outskirts but stepping off the train there are so many women dripping in jewelry who actually make tracksuits look sexy. There does seem to be a Liverpool look but hark, I am now in danger of lumping people together myself so will desist and say instead that there were penguins, everywhere. There, now, you didn’t expect that did you?

Our first point of call was not one of the exotic cocktail bars or five star restaurants but up three flights of stairs down a side street into a green room filled with plants from which an old Pulp album was loudly playing. This is vegetarian The Egg Café, cheapish and cheerful, with a merry haphazard vibe and artwork lining the walls. I have broccoli and thyme soup with garlic bread with cheese (£3.25) and my partner in crime has a broccoli quiche the height of the Titanic with some rather pleasant salady things, which is about five or six quid.  It is busy and lovely and I feel like I am in San Francisco, a place I have never been but like to use as a comparative measure.

Now we are healthy we can ruin it by drinking and after all it is nearly noon so we go to The Philharmonic Rooms-to call it a pub makes me think it would challenge me to a duel to reclaim its honour-so dining hall it is. It’s ostentatious yet elegant with it, every surface, every wall is corniced, painted, scrolled, beveled, lopping the loop or doing some pretty plasterwork fandango. It is beautiful and bizarre and the men’s toilets apparently put the rest of it to shame. One day I will see them. And maybe my head will explode. The Philharmonic screams that ‘More is More’, a phrase, which could belong to Liverpool.  We recline, drink wine and feel like landed gentry for an hour in the pastel and gilded splendour. The food also looks excellent here and despite this being a famous historical beauty, you are not fleeced when you walk in-good wine is about a tenner a bottle and the food also seems eminently reasonable. But I am still burping thyme.

Then a stroll past the old cathedral, such old graves and names, a plethora of Eliza’s and Jabez’es, sea captains, war victims and long dead diseased children tangled in the grass only a stone’s throw from John Lewis.

Designer shops and pound shops mingle in the centre-It is busy, big, modern and makes me anxious. I like Bold Street with The Soul Café’s brilliant selection of food to make you die earlier, News From Nowhere, the independent political bookshop where even the wrapping paper sold is for civil ceremonies and children’s book are on Rosa Parks rather than the Gruffalo. Trendy clothes shops and nasty clothes shops, a fruit and veg man, an American diner, ubiquitous Beatles crap and Maggie Mays tea shop-take your pick according to your status as shopper, tourist, anarchist, person who loves the idea of deep fried cheese or just plain happy sight see-er slightly frazzled on wine and over the top Georgiana and still burping thyme.

We pop into Fact, an art gallery off Bold Street, an interactive exhibition of computer game art is on and the place is packed with all nature of humanity, playing incomprehensible games in darkened rooms, drinking tea downstairs or wine in the bar upstairs or ignoring the art to buy a card with a cat dressed as Amy Winehouse in the gift shop (sorry)

We go to The Baltic Fleet next-a place you will be amazed to hear is a pub. Another famous old landmark, it perches against broken desolate mills, abandoned forgotten architecture of the past, a motorway, new apartments and gated communities and of course the harbour. As places to perch go, it’s great. Not a scrap of nature can be seen apart from the strip of Mersey beyond the gated yuppie flats.  The Baltic is also a brewery, much loved by the Camra set for it’s array of ales, well it was until the prices went up-then the local Camra publications talked about the Baltic like it was the devil incarnate (an enormous bottle of blue WKD perhaps?)

It is flagstones and old chairs, woodstoves and hand written notices without cutesy overtones and makes you want to stay all day talking rubbish to the jovial stranger next to you. But we need culture now and so on to the harbourside, huge blocks of flats here on Alexander Wharf used to be industrial buildings-where once people slogged away their life, cried and died, now are oversized white leather sofas and balconies and uncalloused hands. Boats, barges on chundering barely contained water sulking and rolling angrily alongside as if embarrassed by its tame Phillipe Starke  surroundings.

The Tate is enormous, sleek and strange.  The people here are as unfathomable as the art. Strange looking, at odds with their surroundings, just weird.  There is some excellent stuff to be seen, world famous exhibits from the likes of Picasso and Dali, some happily pretentious crap and I like the view of the Mersey best from the upstairs window as it angrily scowls and froths. We miss the exhibit we came to see about mechanical beasts because we are too late. Hmmm, I wonder why… And then an hour later once we are back in the cold grip of reality and January the realization that wine and expensive gift shops are a fatal combination. It was such a cool robot though…

More food is needed and thus onto the Everyman bar and bistro underneath the Everyman theatre. It is canteen style food at its best-excellent quality local food plonked on your plate and a well stocked cosy bar. Superb for vegetarians’ too-I have spinach, mushroom and feta filo pie with three huge portions of salads that are a meal in themselves (pasta, couscous and beetroot) again, an excellent meal for about six or seven quid. The place is busy and friendly with more pint glasses on the table than bottles of wine and a range of accents, both international and national swirl in the hubbub.

Outside, the night is dark but the streets are getting busier despite the freezing icy rain, lights go on the empty looking flats and Liverpool is just waking up.