Aug 30 2011

Murder, mystery and the best charity shop in the world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then I find cheap consumerism and am thrilled.

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

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

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

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

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

Aug 22 2011

Upon the anger of not finding Standing Stones Looming Through The Mist

I hate nature and I hate life.

I am treading in deadly ground, Battenberg cake soft, too soft and spongily unpleasant. The car and the hill we left the car on have long since vanished and the worst thing is someone from the fucking Guardian has managed to traverse this territory, someone from WC1, no doubt in shoes more insensible than mine has found this hellish place forever in the distance and I fucking haven’t.

The Nine Standards are described in The Guardian’s travel section (where they decide for a week a year to cheer on good old Britain and recommend embarrassingly obvious places to go to instead of your usual fortnights luxury safari in Zambia) as something along the lines of ‘worth the walk to see them looming up through the mist.’

I like very much to see things looming up through the mist unless it’s a rapist. I am exited despite my anger that some twat in a North Face jacket worth more than my house has managed to find the looming stones in the midst.

And there isn’t even any bloody mist.

I am not a stalwart denizen of the north; my vowels go on for far too long when I speak and have lived here for but five years. But I grew too big for my boots with my little read blog of the north, thought I was something, grandiosely talked about little known places that I as a local knew about and now I am lost in turgid spongy Battenberg hell. And someone from the Guardian found it but not me. I have sodden ripped printed out OS maps in my pocket like some sort of retired old woman with jolly cheeks but still cannot find it. I plead for help to some rugged Cumbrians with border collies walking nearby who have never heard of it. That is not a good omen.

The OS map is remarkable in its minimalism.  If Philippe Starke were to do a map it would look like this. A slight red curvature on bold white A4 and a red arrow pointing vaguely and enticingly at the white. Maybe it is misty on the map.

I wanted to discover these ancient stones looming up through the mist all by myself. I resigned myself to finding them second handedly after reading about them in the Guardian but to not find them after reading about them in the Guardian is simply beyond the pale.

We walk, bicker, and physically fight over the potentiality of hideously distant Cairns on hill/mountain tops being the ancient stones of importance looming through the mist. We then trudge through the ankle turning Battenberg to find small piles of unimportant stones but then see other toppling lumps which could be the ancient ones of importance beckoning enticingly from other distant hilltops. In front of suspiciously green mires.

I want to see the Nine Standards looming through the mist more than anything ever now out of sheer spite and aggression, always a good starting point for a walk through nature with your boyfriend and baby but not a North Face clad skeleton with rusted iphone is to be seen, just more moist brackish nature.

I have formerly sneered at the rotund lovers of the picturesque who traverse around the outskirts of nature on clearly designated footpaths harking at the surrounding neat hedges before retreating for a nice picnic in the car park but there are no footpaths here, merely possible inklings, more abstract than real and I yearn suddenly to be in an overheated Tk Maxx. It is beautiful here but relentlessly so. Scarily so and to infinity.   I can’t even see the mountain near where the car is meant to be. The hills lead on to more hills and then the dusky outline of the hills beyond, beyond that, a slightly fainter hue of more sodding hills. And the oncoming rain.

We scrabble up hills towards distant Cairns, which must be the Nine Standards looming up through the mist. They are not. My boyfriend keeps insisting they are just over that ridge. And bog. And mire.

He says he can see them. I think he lies. I give up. The baby’s legs are slightly blue. We retreat away from the looming stones in the mist. At a vague essence of a crossroads, he consults his map and cheerily realises we have been the wrong way. The looming stones in the mist are that way.  Twenty minutes that way. We have never been closer. But we never will be again as I refuse to walk another step to see some stupid fucking stones.

I wish I had now. In retrospect I love stupid fucking stones.

Aug 21 2011

Nice things seen on the way to and the way back from the Stones We Did Not See

On the way to Kirkby Stephen and The Stones We Did Not See, there is a sign designating a steaming cup of coffee and pointing towards a train station. We go there because I need a wee. It is an excellent train station, one for pleasure not the daily commute, abounding with hanging baskets and general pleasantness. We enter the Midland Room café on the platform-it is  vegetarian and also aimed at trainspotters, an ambitious attempt at two niche markets and at least there is no chance of seeing Jeremy Clarkson here.  Workers ties from a defunct Kent Line can be purchased for six pounds. It sells many train books but also proper books -fiction books aimed at people who are not excited at the thought of looking like a man who worked on the Kent railway at some point in the 1980s but want to read about a bloody fictional murder more than many self published, adjective free  and strangely punctuated histories of the Settle to Carlisle route.

The café is excellent. The food is all under four pounds, simple and fresh. I have a feta cheese salad with sun-dried tomato cous cous and my boyfriend a baton of ciabatta with Wensleydale cheese and tomato pesto. The baby throws things around with merry abandon and rather than tutting darkly from a distance, the nice woman working there offers to wash his utterly horrific plastic bib. The cakes are the epitome of gorgeous homemade country cakedom and we leave awash with that flushed wholesome grin that finding such a place does to you and change from a tenner.

Even though you know the joy from finding a well-priced tearoom on a train platform should really be saved until retirement years.

On the way back from The Stones We Did Not See, we stop at Ravenstonedale.  Because I like the name of it in a vaguely gothic way and I need a wee. Ravenstonedale does not disappoint. It is the epitome of a place called Ravenstonedale. How could it not be ‘positively darling’? The grey stoned village shop selling local ice cream is attached to the village pub and has a sign stating that if no one is in then to go to the pub. It is like Enid Blyton wrote non fiction. Until you see the prices in the quintessential English pub awash with brass, fake flowers, old books and bought in snuggliness.

A man is berating a fellow colleague for arranging the chairs in the wrong way, all meals seem to be £12.95, a woman booms in banging on loudly about her recent stay in Malmaison (the sort of hotel porn you look up and weep over) but it has Thatchers cider, a rarity in the North and according to the sign in the window, it is commended by the Countryside Alliance.

The Countryside Alliance.

My morals and my love of cider fight a brief fight but then I also remember I have no money (or it appears morals) so bid a sad retreat leaving the sad eyed stuffed deer on the wall, the dog eared books about train stations and the genial pursuers of the ambitious and glamorous menu we don’t even bother with the pretence of looking at it once we hear the word’ mango’ when referring to the main course. We know our place. We pick up the remnants of the baby eaten beer mat and leave.

Aug 16 2011

Hebden Bridge, Huddersfield and blue Woo-Woos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I feel I belong to nowhere.

Aug 11 2011

Pilling, Knott End, Fleetwood, despondancy and peas

I open the car door and the wind slams it shut again. I briefly smell the sweet dank smell of industrial cow shit, have an unprepossessing glimpse of flat desolate landscape devoid of feature-the landscape of depression. And do not bother to open the car door again.  The only sign of movement apart from the wind is a frantically flapping sign advertising luxury self-catering accommodation up a muddy track. Poor fuckers. Bet they wish they had gone to Spain.

It is August. It is the worst day I have ever seen. But to go to stately homes and the like is expensive and we need to have something for when we retire, the house is dirty and to stay in it means I should really do something about it and nothing fun like cinemas, DVD’s, books or pubs can be done with an angrily teething six month old baby.

So we get into the car and head the only way we haven’t been before. Towards Fleetwood in the rain. We’re that desperate. And it’s closer than the orphanage.

We go through Pilling. It might be fun! It’s amazing the little gems you discover when travelling around undiscovered places off the tourist trap!

Except you can’t sodding see them through the lashing freezing rain, wind and is that hail? Shivering hanging baskets are flung against modern brick walls, pathetic unripe flowery debris littering the road. Poor Pilling. It is a squat little place but has tried its best. The farm shop seems to only sell dead stuff, the village shop although pleasingly a true village shop rather than a Tesco Express or similar advertises both fresh meat and cooked meat-there is little choice seemingly for those who want both. We see a sign for an art exhibition at the church and so desperate for stimuli are we that we go in. The sign was for last Saturday.  I can really see why people go abroad.

A sign appears through the gloom. ‘To The Shore’. We follow it To The Shore. The Shore is strangely strangulated by long strands of industrial plastic, the rocks all appear to be manmade, such is their mediocre form and consistency, there is no sand but only clag and we can’t see the sea, just another shade of suicide grey in the distance. We have travelled a few yards from the car but are soaked right through and hopefully close to death. The baby is beaming. That is not good. I really really hope he isn’t getting a taste for this. We need to go to Spain.

Next stop Knott End. I was expecting a tiny huddle of a hamlet but come to a little obscure town, so near to where I have lived for years but previously unknown and I am excited and glad I am not in Spain. Until I try to open the car door and the howling wind slams it shut. Again. There is a cheese shop, a wine merchants, a couple of shops I think are charity shops but sadly are not but then the strangely apostrophised ‘Gran’pas.’ And it is magical. An emporium of childhood; wooden intricately carved small worlds-mobiles, pirate ships with such minute detail, a circus with animals, clowns, ring seats containing wooden dolls with jolly wool hair. It is sixty pounds, a bargain when mass produced plastic crap from Argos costs similar and the bad baby will be getting all his presents from here from now on whether he wants them or not. And if he so much as mentions Ben 10, the orphanage awaits.

I wander around wide eyed and remember the magic of childhood before it all contained running down batteries and peeling TV characters with fixed Hollywood smiles, quiffs and sunglasses. Here suspended from the ceiling are little mice on a Ferris wheel. I melt a little inside. The lovely woman behind the till makes the angry baby beam and talks about Father Christmas and despite it being August (allegedly) I feel like I am in an Elves workshop-it does not feel like lurid Argos reality and I am sad to leave but now carry with me a bag containing a moving seagull mobile with grinning yellow beak and beady eyes. The baby better not touch it. It’s mine.

The elements outside terrify me-I walk past a pub I remember reading about, its infamy a result of being the scene of a murderers confession-he rushed in blood covered and terrified having killed his wife and swung for it later at Lancaster Castle. It looks a welcome relief from the wind which is actually making me stagger, we enter, sit next to a picture window showing us the terror and inhumanity of an English summer and have a soup startling for its salinity. Maybe the murderers wife had asked for the recipe. The pub however is pleasant enough and the wine glosses over the terror of the walk back to the car.

Past Skippool creek, a boat mooring and graveyard, shiny well-kept boats bob next to the skeletal remains of their neighbours and then to Fleetwood.

Fleetwood does not lend itself to the rain. It struggles to be beautiful when dappled in sunlight. A long straggling strip of shops cloistered by remnants of industry, the worst situated new builds I have ever seen, perched precariously on a spit betwixt old fishing factories and the cold black Irish sea-salt covered beaming faces on the advertising hoards hardly visible through the rain.

We think about walking up the high street, a high street I know from my past as being pleasant, friendly and at least free of the usual high street chains but today I really cannot be arsed. Sorry Fleetwood. But the chips and mushy peas at The Eating Plaice are worthy of Michelin stars. Seriously. The peas are not a stagnant yellow green slush reminiscent of first-born nappies but slightly crushed, fresh, vibrant and the essence of pea. They were 60p and possibly the best thing I have ever eaten whilst I look out at the swelling churning boating lake, which looks like it has sunk the Titanic and would do it again given half a chance. Just as we have decided that Fleetwood is really not that bad, a whiskered man shoots out from the Model Yacht Club and tries to start a fight with my boyfriend for parking near his Jaguar.

We retreat to the North Euston Hotel nearby, a brave stalwart against the decline of Northern holiday resorts. It has made an effort to stay true to its rather more superior roots and heyday with its porticoed entrance way and revolving door. People chat at the well stocked bar, the cricket is on but it smells of fried food and the laminated menu offers the normal deep fried pub food albeit with a free trip to the salad bar which stands nearby, appetising looking enough but ignored. Nobody is talking about the rioting going on in other areas of England and it is hard to imagine listing to the soft northern hum at the bar that outside much of England is still smouldering from the flames of the night before.

Aug 5 2011

South-West Cider Special

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aug 2 2011

Unicycle Emptiness is on holiday

We are in the south-west drinking orange cider and eating unpleasant fudge. You will be able to read about the delights of Minehead, Dunster, Tarr steps and other places we have not been to yet within the next few days after we have arrived back in the North and mourned the lack of orange cider there. I do like orange cider. If you happen to be in the South West, may I recommend Cheddar Valley, readybrek coloured and as potent as Kryptonite.