Jun 19 2011

The worst pizza in the world, Settle, Ilkley and Harrogate

It is Saturday afternoon and I am performing a clumsy forward roll under a turnstile in a public toilet in Ilkley.  I am sorry Ilkley for coming to your lovely prosperous town simply to cheat you of a municipal 20p but I was utterly desperate for the loo, left my purse in the car and simply could not wait. I bided my time, performing exaggerated horrified patting looking for 20p motions on my dress in the hope someone would realise my plight but the well heeled neat women in camel coloured clothes and smart hair merely swept neatly past me so I waited until they were all having some impeccably neat silent wee then made my move like a post natal Indiana Jones in platform boots.

Sorry, Ilkley- you looked a lovely place, all modern Italians and café bars, stately terraces and small trees in ornate pots. You would be twee if you weren’t ensnared by Ilkley Moor and thus look like Toytown encircled by untamed nature although like a pox the executive detached homes have started to climb up untamed nature and claim it their own.

I would have been more impressed with Ilkley had I not lost my fickle heart already to Settle. We are on an overcomplicated drive through Yorkshire on the way to Harrogate-there are all sorts of road alterations and diversions hence accidental Ilkley, a place I would like to return to should I be allowed after my brief anti-social sojourn here.

Settle, despite being without the thrill of latent criminality is a delightful place without being self-consciously so. A small grey stone market town huddled cosily amidst gentle hills and bountiful with tearooms, old fashioned ironmongers and people with white hair and sensible catalogue footwear stopping to natter on the street.  There are two charity shops for local charities, tearooms and a pub, which has the excellent notion of exchanging drinks vouchers in return for fruit and vegetables from local gardens and allotments. A hitherto undiscovered green finger begins to twitch and I decide I like Settle very much.

We pick around a small rubbish car boot sale, buy some pleasingly cheap cheese from a pleasingly cheap deli and are filled with that glorious sense of well being that only pottering around nice places spending money you don’t really have on things you don’t really need can bring. I wonder how many homes have been repossessed and lives destroyed due to the allure of blackcurrant and almond cake and vanilla scented candles.

It is a place that is wonderful to visit but would probably be sheer hell to reside in-I suspect there are not many dub or techno nights at The Golden Lion and that should you need a halogen heater, Wilkinson’s is half the price of the traditional iron mongers, you would soon tire of being nattered to by people with white hair and sensible catalogue footwear and yearn for the bright lights and fleshpots of Giggleswick. But it is a nice summery day and today we like Settle very much and shall put our fingers in our ears and go ‘tra la la’ if someone mentions the recession or rural poverty.

Then Ilkley pops up out of the moor to make Settle look like Mossside and to tell me to stop going ‘tra la la’ because how can a recession exist in such a pretty place with no parking spaces for miles and miles and independent shops selling designer children’s clothing and teddies?

But then like a Cath Kidson bedecked goliath, looming up from the horizon here comes Harrogate, where there is no car parking anywhere ever and where it has not just endured a recession and survived but  there never was or is or will be a recession and it grows richer and fatter by the day, by the second and poverty is having a car without a personalised number plate. And dear reader, I am from Bath.

There is certainly an element of surprise-I know my spa towns and was expecting something like genteel polite Buxton. Instead reared up an enormous over busy over rich gilded corniced strutting beauty. After a terrifying yet boring parking fiasco, we emerge on level ten of a shopping centre dripping in sweat and nerves and smelling of the reduced blue cheese from Settle.

Harrogate is big. Think of Kensington picked up and dropped near Bradford. It has all the posh high street chains I remember from Bath: The White Company, Joe Browns etc, it has small independent shops casually advertising five hundred pound lamps in the window, chocolatiers, designer retro boutiques and a man walks by, so hilariously pastichely posh with his blonde quiff, camel upturned trousers and jacket with a face elegantly impassively smooth and handsome as he strolls with a bland beautiful blonde in short dress hanging off his arm, I look for the TV cameras.  Seconds later we pass a caricature of a rich banker, lolling fatly against a lamppost.

We are hungry, skint, smell faintly of blue cheese and holding an angry baby. I had looked up places to eat in Harrogate but they seemed so plentiful, positively tumbling out of the internet search engine that it seemed ludicrous to write them down-on the internet Harrogate only consisted of streets lined with delicious cheap vegetarian fare but now we are small, smelly and humble dwarfed by Georgian and Victorian splendour housing posh chain shops featuring clothing of the white linen variety. I would kill for a pint of cider and some cheesy chips. I suspect I might have to.

An incredibly posh looking hotel with a small sweep of drive in front of it has a sign saying ‘two meals for ten pounds in ‘The Place’. I decide it can’t mean the hotel as it looks too posh to advertise meals by the price rather than the chef and also ‘The Place’ makes it sound like it will be housed in a municipal gym. But my friend bravely sallies forth through the revolving doors (told you it were posh, like) and then after a couple of acres of Farrow and Ball, embossed carpet and conference rooms, we come to ‘The Place,’ where the clientele of ‘The Place’ look like an advert for ‘The Place’ as they stand elegantly by their glasses of wine (women) and frosted tall glasses of lager (men) I suspect there are better places to attempt to feed an angry baby in but also delighted at our luck in finding such a glamorous yet reasonably priced place in which to eat.

I am so excited by the fact there is linen tablecloths, I do not mind the only veggie options being cold beetroot and cucumber soup or margarita pizza. My boyfriend and I order both. My ‘soup’ arrives and despite being initially excited by the unadvertised pieces of hard boiled egg floating on top, realise the only evidence of it containing beetroot is the faint pinkish hue and it is in fact a large bowl of tzaiki with a small dinner roll and despite by liking of said dip, I do not wish to eat it by the litre. I decide to eat my boyfriend’s pizza instead. When it arrives I mutter ‘Aah McCain’s, you’ve done it again’ but after biting into it, despite the rarefied surroundings, I shriek ‘that is fucking awful’. Not McCain’s, not even Iceland but one of those freezer outlets which only sell things battered, bread crumbed and by metric tonne. I am not a food snob-I cannot afford to be but this made Dominos look like haute cuisine. There was not a trace of real tomato, just a mass of bready base covered with a minimum swish of red paste, like a used sanitary towel and a slidey utterly separate topping of chewing gum cheese. And two lime and sodas cost three quid. It did however sell Thatchers cider so I drank that instead of eating.

I decide that Harrogate is rubbish but then a few strolls around looking bitterly at more enticing eating options, we see an excellent art exhibition of that man who did the glittery fairy (teenage me) pre Raphaelite Harrison Grimshaw at the Mercer Gallery and then discover a huge spectacular park in which there is a 1940s fun day in order to refurbish a magnesium well of importance within the park. We hear a lot about the well on a fuzzy speaker.  Fairy cakes are purchased as tanks are admired, chairpersons speak on the microphone to smattered handclaps and as the day slowly ebbs to a close, tired old men in ww2 regalia troop back home again and as if to show you cannot escape from modern life, teenagers emerge from the exotic shrubbery to reclaim the glorious park as their own again.

And then as if to mock us, on the way back through Ilkley, we see an organic vegetarian café, filled with happy people clearly not eating a sanitary towel. The bastards.

Jun 11 2011

Misery and despair in Goosnargh and Barton Grange Garden Centre

This is something I have been looking forward to for a very long time. When perusing a library copy of Lancashire Pub Walks I discover that not too far away lies Chingle Hall, a 12th century house, positively dripping in evil entities and reputed to be the most haunted house in England. I watch a documentary on youtube, which makes it apparent that if I leave without seeing at least one ghost, I am clearly not paying attention.

There is not one priest hole but two, not just one ghost but many undead-all drifting around in a big ghostly X-Factor, all competing to be the most tragic. I personally am rooting to feel the presence of Eleanor Singleton who was imprisoned, raped and forced to bear children by her uncle and finally murdered. Apparently in her bedchambers, a terrible sensation of fear and loss can be felt and what better way to spend a breezy summer day by getting titillated by the tragic story of a rape victim and hopefully being filled with utter utter terror?

I forget that I need to leave the bathroom light on at night despite being 32 years old and decide this sounds like a splendid day out and even more of a delightful trip into other peoples misery is the fact that the walk takes in an old abandoned mental hospital. I imagine stepping through gothic ruins carved with intricate crazed graffiti with gnawed straightjackets lying about. It is going to be the best day ever I decide.

Goosnargh is not the ancient windswept village I imagined but a modern smattering of suburbia cloistering around an old village green. There is The Grapes pub, the one famous for being in not only Lancashire Pub Walks but also Lancashire Pub Strolls but it is hemmed in by Audis and Mercedes and people in very expensive looking clothes, tans and laughter celebrating a very expensive looking wedding. I fear they can see and indeed smell the baby vomit down my left shoulder and we do not enter The Grapes.

I am not good at navigating but we successfully follow the Lancashire Pub Walk up someone’s drive, through a field, over a surprising variety and style of styles and then we see the abandoned mental hospital. It looks like a boarded up Toby Carvery and is a crushing blow. Then it starts to rain.

We get a bit lost until seeing the ghastly white veneer of Chingle Hall shining like a beacon of terror; I roll under the electrified wire that is blocking the alleged footpath.

A strange walk through strips of field that have been heavily creepily fenced seemingly at random and with no expense spared to height, cost and general forebodingness. A squat tin building sits surrounded by more looming fencing and gates bigger than my house. There are no windows or doors to be seen but a very expensive looking vehicle sits emptily in our path with blacked out windows. I think the alive are sometimes more scary than the undead.

We continue to walk through our fenced in strip until there it is. Chingle Hall. Recognisable from a thousand bad paranormal forums and websites with black background overuse of exclamation points and ‘dripping’ fonts. A smaller than expected white building almost slumped in the ground with an archway so swallowed by time that the top of it is nearly in the grass.

I am even more desperate for the toilet than to see proof that science and thus everything we know is wrong and hope there will also be ice cream. It doesn’t look like there is ice cream here. I suspect there are not pencils embossed with ‘I had a spooktacular time’ style puns here. I suspect that something is wrong.

There is no-one fleeing screaming down the driveway. There are no signs, no entrance charges, no people and err no entrance. I walk around bewildered but it is clear. I am at Chingle Hall. But I cannot get in. Well, at least without walking around the building but I can see I am as unwanted here as an exorcist at a spiritualist group. This is not a place for the esoteric day-tripper anymore. My partner points out yet again that the pub walk book is quite an old edition and asks yet again if I had phoned up to verify ‘Chingle Hall is open to the public between 10 and 5 pm.’

I reply somewhat testily but my whole world is crumbling away and not in the manner I had hoped. And I still really really need the toilet.

A last doleful look at Chingle Hall as we walk down the driveway to the main road just in case a White Lady pops sympathetically out of the shrubbery but nothing. My partner who is not a fellow delver into unknown realms but prefers technology, smugly shows me a page from the BBC website which states that ‘Chingle Hall is now a private residence and not even open for charity events’. (Chingle Hall used to kindly let spook hunters give them cash in return for a night of hopefully being scared shitless or photo an ‘orb’-even I scorn ‘orbs’)

I begin to get angry.  Why buy the most haunted house in England to then close it to the public? There are lots of ancient lovely old piles around-why pick one that is so famous and then shut it down? I wanted to see the priest holes nearly as much as a transparent monk. It is a piece of history and intrigue- now like its’ strange neighbours, fenced off and closed to those who can’t afford it. A part of heritage swamped in legend and stories the proles can now only read about in obsolete library guides. Meh. And I still need the toilet. A lot.

A stomp down the main road, we see a pub advertising real ales and the like and we enter, I order a hot chocolate and dash to the loo. My hot chocolate comes sans cream and with a stupid biscuit instead of a chocolate and such is my general anger that it makes me feel like dashing my head in on a mock beam. It is a normal historic (a fancy sign says so) pub that has been vampirised and made into fake history. Main courses at fifteen pounds but old unread books from an auction on a ledge to make you feel you are in the past despite the piped music and the cheery blackboards and the sachets of condiments, people with fake tans and white smiles talking loudly over expensive white wine. But it does sell butter pie, a pleasing and random find when boredly looking at the menu we can’t afford and there is also strangely a large selection of sweets for sale in the foyer.

And in a small village, there is a modern shop development opposite which features a modern trendy looking sweetshop which optimistically and so Englishly has chairs and tables outside cowering in the shade of June thunderclouds. A sign for ‘natural’ ice cream draws us within and I am surprised to find that Vimto is a ‘natural’ ice-cream flavour. We share an ‘Italian Eton Mess’ ice cream, which tastes a bit aniseedy and I do not like it. I do not like anything today and am cross. I wanted the paranormal, ancient history and oil paintings with tragic stories attached to them and I all I got was a hot chocolate with no cream and a weird tasting ice cream.

I buy a ‘lucky bag’ from the strange sweet shop for 50p looking around me at all the lovely handmade fudge and chocolates. I get a bag of gelatine filled sweets, which was to be fair all one can expect for 50p but I am a vegetarian, and in a bad mood. A really bad mood which even animal bones and colourings moulded into the shape of a mouth and teeth can’t alleviate.

We decide to leave Goosnargh.

We sit in the car and are sad. The early promise of summer besmirched by rain, high fencing and privacy, all such English diseases.

A silent journey and then a sign, which states Barton Grange-its attractions, are garden centre, restaurant, café and farm shop. So desperate am I to salvage something from the remains of the day, we perform a dangerous u-turn as I pretend to need bread, thinking of meandering though an antiquated artisan farm shop but instead we enter a 4×4 bedecked car park with colour coded parking areas. My boyfriend has a panic attack and a life crisis as we enter the Pink Zone but I feel curiously young and attractive as I look at all the other denizens of the Barton Grange Experience.

There is something called along the lines of a ‘tasty cabin’ but more alliterative as we enter. This sells small chocolate lollipops in the shape of footballers for £1.75 and other small expensive chocolate novelty items along with gourmet jellybeans, inertia and despair.

The entrance to the ‘farm shop’ has farmyard implements embossed impractically into a fake wall. Trowels and hay forks are haphazardously swirlingly embedded into the wall of a modern purpose built block on a major A road. Within the ‘farm shop’, a big airy modern shed are rustic plastic displays of wheelbarrows with over spilling unseasonal fruit, chickens, more trowels, all a glorious cacophony of what used to be on this land before it was paved over to assemble a farm shop selling overpriced luxury crisps, jam and dry cake to antiquarian idiots. There is a queue at the till. It is a day out.

We do not enter the garden centre. In my head the flowers will be plastic and all the same shade of pink. We do not enter an adjoining shop, which has a bright array of expensive bolshy umbrellas, and foul jaunty or understated clothing. People who seek a fake idyll of Britishness swarm here, who romance a hideous past but instead of looking for a ghost, buy a Victorian chutney for three quid and thus feel a faint faint sense of immortality before getting into their Peugeots and driving back home back to the same old boring boring present.

I hope whoever owns Chingle Hall absolutely pisses themselves every time there is a faint thump in the background as we the hideous poor public drift like ghosts in search of a past we can never find, but can only attempt to purchase ourselves, where the real past is hidden and a fake sanitised past given to us to overspend on as we drift between past, present and a future that we don’t want to think about thank you very much because it won’t be picturesque and pretty so best to bury our heads in cheese with an oldie name when we have a ‘free’ weekend, to rhapsodise with starry eyes over others deaths a pleasing century away and try like hell to not think of the horrors that await for the alive.

Jun 6 2011


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

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

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

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

Anyway the real reason we are here is to visit Harmonic Fields, an installation that is part of the Lakes Alive season of festivity. http://www.lakesalive.org/events/harmonicfields/

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jun 1 2011

Spring Fling, Dumfries and Galloway

I am jealous but have no reason to be. Again. Several years ago I did a joint degree in Creative writing and English. Some of my fellow students have now had novels published and I am bitter and jealous despite not having even attempted to write a novel.

And now I am looking around artist’s studios and inwardly screaming with bitter envy and resentment despite the fact I got a D in GCSE Art and my last attempt at drawing made my sleeping baby look like a mutant potato with a face like when people send photos to Take A Break magazine of a crisp which looks a bit like Cheryl Cole.

We are at the Spring Fling in Dumfries and Galloway – an annual event when artists open their studios and houses to showcase their work and people come to talk about the creative process with fellow artists, buy original art or stare balefully at boho kitchens with handmade tiles then remember to look at the actual art, decide they can actually do better or at least as good, then realise that drawing a tree is actually fucking hard.

I suspect that is not the purpose of the Spring Fling.

I suspect I am a shallow monster who true Art shuns.

I am already envious of people who live in Dumfries and Galloway-an understated Nirvana, which makes Devon resemble Hackney. It is so unspoilt and empty that all signposts point to each other due to the winding intermingling roads and small farms are highlighted on the atlas.  And it is absolutely beautiful. There are mountains, forests, lochs, sea and moor, standing stones, beaches, crofts and places where you can buy feta stuffed olives.

Anyway, the Spring Fling. An enchanted place becomes even more annoyingly enchanted because of the realisation that artists live there, millions of artists who all know each other and have a jolly bohemian time together without you unlike in Devon say where ‘artists’ reside in houses that cost half a million pounds and you know you could never afford to be their friend.

Then again these artists are not struggling. I want them to be, it’s so romantic but then I clock their Aga. Although to be fair some of the artists have studios in purpose built blocks so hopefully they live in desperate garrets where you only have a glimpse of the sea and their oven is a cheap white Beko.

The art itself is diverse veering between spectacular and ‘how the hell can they pretend that’s art?’ Looking at art and then seeing its cost makes you look at it in a purely financial sense-a painting you would admire in a gallery has you peeping at the label and then comparing it against another piece of art as you flit between picturesque studios as you fly down narrow winding roads following haphazard signage, as you chitchat politely and snaffle free cake and envy and admire and peep.

I saw amazing things. I saw Jacobs Ladder in mosaic, I saw vases featuring guns, I saw oil paintings of empty assembly halls, and I saw wicker mermaids and pearl necklaces. Self-portraits of moody tattooed men and watercolours of pretty churches, cows and fields. In a cottage in the middle of nowhere, a precocious child showed me her mother’s studio and made me a free badge. I saw luminescent self-portraits and bad abstracts, studies of the sea, pretty watercolours and angry splatters. Clay, pearls and wool. And I saw and I envied and I admired.

And as those who can’t do, teach, I wrote about it.