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.

Apr 10 2011

Kirkby Lonsdale

I really really want a Raspberry Ruffle but I am scared it’s a trap. Above the fireplace of the Royal Hotel are two incongruous jars glistening with foil wrapped chocolates. But are they for the hoi polloi off the street to help themselves to, or for the residents of the hotel only, those stalwart Daily Telegraph reading denizens with cars too young for them and clothes too old for them? Or are they for mere decoration, somewhat at odds with the expensive quirkily tasteful wallpaper, the Country Life magazines, the antique wood, and the designer hand gel in the toilets? (The toilets alone in which I would be more than happy to spend a mini-break in)

The Royal Hotel was a wreck last time we were here-now money has recreated it in to a far more glamorous and tasteful pastiche of its past, where one can feel history but not its rats, poverty and fleas whilst sipping a triple hot chocolate, glass of champagne or whilst delicately nibbling upon a cupcake. I hate cupcakes. So self knowingly kitsch and ‘treaty’, they shriek  ‘ooh, aren’t I naughty!’  All style over substance. Anyway. I loudly yearn for a Raspberry Ruffle then go to the toilet to play with bamboo hand lotion hoping that when I get back my boyfriend will have heroically braved all for me and lolloped up to the sweet jars and retrieved one like the Milk Tray man leaping into the Twin Towers to rescue a coffee crème from the inferno for his PMT struck girlfriend. He hasn’t and I die a little inside.

Indeed Kirkby Lonsdale itself is a glorious pastiche of the past with all the nasty unsanitary bits wiped out. There are independent shops galore selling expensive fanciness, the obtaining of a life style along with your pencil drawing of a dancing hare and some organic truffles. It’s Cath Kidson, pastels, blazers and dogs. Jolly white haired women come here to walk and have nice tea. It’s all very splendid in this bright spring morning. There is not a single eyesore to be seen, not a solitary piece of graffiti about someone being a slag, just grey centuries old stone, daffodils, nice cakes and fancy soaps.

I suspect if I lived here I might hate everybody, they would hate me but we would hate ever so civilly maybe through letters in the local paper and steely gazes. There are placards shouting No! to proposed nasty evil wind turbines outside sweet little cottages which are probably owned by people who reside there thrice a year-I want to cheer the solitary handmade ‘yes to the turbines ‘placard. Then see the flash Landrover outside. I still admire their tenacity though. And love the irony of the fact there is a new nuclear power station being propositioned without much hassle only up the road in less picturesque and far less moneyed Heysham.

In the bakery, an American woman is demanding ‘sticky pudding’. When politely shown the locally famous Cartmel sticky toffee pudding in foil trays behind her, she informs the staff she does not want ‘ in a can’ and repeats her request. We buy cheese and onion pie and cake. It is good.

There is a man playing piano in the Churchmouse cheese shop.  Not even in Bath, do cheese shops feature pianos. I would be lying if I said this was an undiscovered gem of a piano featuring cheese shop and delicatessen- yellowing pages from the Independent and Guardian proclaim its glory-and being given free samples of brie, mint hummus and wine makes me add my tiny voice to its praise. It all creates a wonderful sense of well being, a sense of cosseting, an unreal set of expectations until I realise two days later I really can’t afford crackers featuring dried porcini mushrooms.

Even death comes picturesque and darling here. The graveyard is littered with daffodils, benches, the aforementioned jolly old ladies with white hair (should I be such a age, I would not enjoy visiting graveyards but run screaming from them with a sense of terror ) and informative signs and plaques. The gravestones themselves seem positively whimsical and you have to try really hard on this sunny day to conjure up images of splintered coffins, yellow bones and the agonising deaths and brief lives these dead residents actually suffered with not a organic French brie in sight. -’Ahh look, this person dies of Asiatic cholera, oh look, a butterfly!’ The small cottages they all squeezed in, gave birth in, died in are now Farrow and Balled, minimalist quaint and do not belong to the minimum waged of the village anymore.  I suspect few people here can live on minimum wage; they have all had to leave to find work and a less quaint affordable place to live.

The enticingly named Devils Bridge is sadly also not dark and macabre. Although the toilets are. The English have stripped off in the first hot day of the year and motored here to eat bacon butties and ice-cream and look at nature from the safe confines of near the car. We step into the wild blue yonder (albeit with a map of the walk) and I am smug until terrified by an inquisitive cow. The two and a half mile walk to Whittington is pleasant but be warned that you have to walk through a stream, a quite pleasing sensation unless you realise you are wearing shoes that cost nearly as much as the crackers.

The Dragons Head at Whittington is an actual old fashioned as opposed to a fake old fashioned pub – there is no chalkboard advertising a starter of cheese and redcurrant tart but a haphazard clutter of pub deitrus like bad paintings, old brass and chipboard. It is pretty and quaint without the contents having being bought wholesale from an auction and replaced in the same pub but with stripped pine floorboards and a sense of irony. Soup is two quid a bowl and there is a post office surprisingly crushed in a corner. I like this idea. I could happily queue to pay a cheque in if I could also have a house double.  It is not the friendliest of pubs – they are talking about the purchase of bridles and The Grand National and I dare not ask if the soup of the day is vegetarian.

Walking back to along the Lune riverbank, and the footpath crosses a horseracing track, incongruously alone in the heart of the countryside. We too walk back completely alone; everyone else has come to admire the countryside from afar nestled in the expensive cosiness of Kirkby Lonsdale, the motorbikes drowning out the birdsong.  We go back to the Royal Hotel to wait for our bus and I stare at the Raspberry Ruffles above the fireplace and hopelessly yearn for raspberry flavoured coconut in waxy dark chocolate and for actual real life to really be like this.