Sep 29 2011

Top Ten Unicycle Emptiness Places Of Wonder Thus Far

I should save this for the new year but I have not updated this week as all we did was attempt a nice walk but went the wrong way and ended up back at the car park and had a bicker and I really could not think of ways to make that interesting as it wasn’t even for me.

Plus the new year exists only for those really bad hangovers from mixing alcohol and cream and regurgitated media where a writer reminds you of that time last month when all those people died, look, here’s that photo that affected you in July and remember when that film came out in September? I feel short-changed reading newspapers in the New Year.

I have  been writing this blog for a good few years now and some older entries are lost in the annals of time (well, actually filed under ‘Older Entries’) so I thought I would do a quick retrospective of the Ten Best Things So Far Discovered in the North-feel free to send in your own. It would make me very happy.

10. Steals- Blackpool. A nylon paradise of fashions that never were, the zip fell off or were just vaguely wrong to the general public. But you are not the general public, you have your own sense of style and panache and for a tenner you can buy a new wardrobe. Then discard it after seeing a full length mirror and cry.

9. The Coven- Wigan Possibly, just possibly the only (mostly) vegetarian café associated with witchcraft that also dabbles in raw gluten free food haute cuisine in the whole of Wigan. It is excellent. Not many establishments take your baby off you when you are eating your dehydrated mushroom burger and take it off down the street. More places should. Friendly, bohemian and excellent food at unsilly prices.

8. Williamson Park- Lancaster– Sit on top of a sundial and look across Morecambe Bay to the Lakes beyond. Healthy romping people walk their dogs, teenagers snigger, there is a dank butterfly house which suddenly makes butterflies seem a bit scary and should this be in London, the press would never stop raving on about utterly amazing and wonderful it is, whilst interviewing not that famous actors looking all windswept on the sundial. As it’s Lancaster, it just exists.

7. The New Continental-Preston-I like a pub that encompasses the gap between death metal nights and oak smoked rainbow trout on a bed of fennel. Light, large and with a massive beer garden to let your beloved children roam free as nature intended as you drink real ales because they have funny names.

6. The Palatine-Morecambe- It has newspapers from right wing to left, excellent pizza, excellent views across the bay and decent ciders.  Should the baby not have been born, you would have had to take me out of here in a body bag, Which to be fair would not have taken long.

5. Kirkcudbright Swimming Pool Charity Shop- It has tableaux in the window of topical events but with the items from the charity shop. The royal wedding was a godsend but sadly I was not in the vicinity on September 11th. Kirkcudbright is also the best town in the world. But be wary of its pasties.

4. Hazlemere café, Grange Over Sands– And talking of pasties, here is pasty nirvana, a flaky heaven of cholesterol. And with more than the normal prosaic cheese and onion choice for the vegetarian. I felt like the only gay in the village reaching the fleshpots of Soho when having a choice between spicy lentil and Homity Pie. The cakes will end your life sooner than anticipated but it will be worth it. Not stupidly priced either.

3. The bargain food shop selling cold cans of Pepsi Maxx for 30p In Ulverston. I possibly gained half a stone on the 10p posh crisps as well.

2. The Dining Rooms, Southport– Fancy and delicious food and everything is £2.50. Yes, £2.50. I assumed a catch but several months later and I’m still alive. But still slightly suspicious.

1. The random manor house buried in the woods somewhere in Lancashire-Because it was a random manor house buried in the woods. And haunted. And had a shrine. Nuff said.

Sep 21 2011

Druids, stones, witches but only one brand of ketchup

Two people are earnestly looking at a rock. One of them is talking knowledgably about the rock with an air of great authority. The other one is taking photos of the rock with an expensive camera. I sneer inwardly and then realize I am here to look at the rocks as well. And my boyfriend is photographing the rocks.

These were not always rocks though-they were WITCHES! It’s true. The naughty witches  led by Long Meg (the long stone of course- see it all fits together)  dancing (no doubt widdershins) on the Sabbat were turned into stone by a furious anti-revelry God who really needs to see what is going on in the average Wetherspoons on a Sunday afternoon if he wants to get enraged and do a bit of good old fashioned smiting.

Apparently it is impossible to count all the stones correctly but if you do the magic of the stone circle is lost forever. This leaves the reasonable supposition that someone over the ages might well have counted the stones correctly because delightful as the stones are, there appears little in the way of Magic, more drizzle, rabbit burrows and earnest men talking knowledgably about rocks.

Long Meg and her daughters are made even more pleasing due to the fact that a weather-beaten sign points to ‘Druid Stones.’ Everyone knows that the prefix of Druid makes everything more exciting, mysterious and swirled in the shadows of an ancient past that was all sunsets, chanting and dark dark sacrifices like some sort of real life Dungeons and Dragons but without the acne.

But just when the novelty of patting each standing stone has begun to wear off slightly, we come to Long Meg and nestled against her in a hollow lies a shrine.

Against the sombre greys and greens of a wet day is a cluster of colour-a Hindu statue, two playing cards which must have some amazingly exciting occult significance but I am buggered if I know what it is, a letter, flowers and trinkets like some tiny little pagan pound shop. Finding an impromptu slightly hidden shrine at Druidy witchy standing stones is impossibly exciting and I am happy.

Little Selkirk Mill, a ‘biodynamic’ tearoom and mill is nearby and we decide to go in, enchanted by the bright paint and tumbling flowers surrounding it. Ducks waddle, chickens huddle and we discover that ‘biodynamic’ means bloody expensive. It all looks very nice but a fiver for some soup and bread is just too much. We buy a loaf of £2.20 bread. It is heavy, earnest and joyless. I demolish it sadly and butterlessly in the car. Now THIS is what they mean by middleclass poverty.

The house is a tip and there are many important things that we really need to sort out like stair gates so we decide to not go home and keep driving. As far away as we can. And that means Alston.

Alston has to be the remotest place in England. It is a happily long way away from a house with an unfixed stair gate and little cairns of baby sick on the carpet. We get there along a long winding hilly road through high moorland and warning signs. The town itself is a small grey nestle on a hillside. A little shop that sells all that cutesy homely stuff like slate hearts on ribbons is closing. As has a ‘artisan’ bakery. Alston is one of those places that straddles rural poverty and Cath Kidson- there are boy racers revving up the high street and old men in sadly over-smart clothing booming ‘hello’ as they slowly pace up and down, up and down. The isolation hits home when seeing people with full sized heaving trollies going around the small Co-op which is clearly the only ‘supermarket’ for a long way around. This scares me more than it should.

The thought of living in a beautiful rural setting but only having one or two brands of ketchup to choose from fills me with a claustrophobic terror. I fall in love with a quaint detached three-bedroom house with wood burning stove, dining room and walled garden for under a hundred grand in the estate agents. But it would feel a hollow pretence at life to live there with such a sparse range of branded products for sale nearby. I realize there is an echoing void where my soul should be as I look over the now sun drenched moors and mountains and suddenly have a burning desire to get in the car and fuck off to the nearest Asda.

Sep 19 2011

Consumerism, castles and a spiral staircase to the sky

I am expecting the undead but only find small shopping units.  As I am standing outside 14th century Brougham Hall reputed to be stuffed full of ghastly entities, it comes as something as a surprise to find shops hollowed out in the fabric of the building selling computer games, Hopi ear candles and wine bottle holders.

Nevermind. Once I step inside the rest of the hall, terrible things will happen and it will be amazing. I spy a door and enter it. There is a man pissing. I did not see the sign that says ‘Mens.’ I run around a corner and hide. I realise I am dressed all in black and have my hood up due to the inclement weather and hope that the toilet confusion is not a source of the ghost stories.

We poke around the outskirts of Brougham Hall. There are horrible modern detached houses, the sort to have quilted toilet paper, snuffling around the meadow where the last battle on English soil was fought and a recumbering Jesus is ensnared in brambles. It is fascinating and strange, neither ancient monument nor retail development-much of it is in ruins but signs tell us they are working on recreating it. I would personally prefer an honest ruin to a newly plastered recreation of the past but its transitionary period where rubber tyres lie in the sunken garden and ancient embossed stone lie in heaps like builders’ rubble is nonetheless compelling. As we walk under the entrance arch, an invisible booing voice redolent of Churchill speaks. And mechanically asks us to donate four pounds a head.

But I find better riches down the road. 13th century Brougham Castle is owned by English Heritage and thus the capitalism is kept at the door along with the reduced flapjacks and illustrated children’s books about the Tudors. It seems a bit too ruiny at first-I want good value for my £3.25, not a sign saying that there used to be cloisters here but now there aren’t.

But I would happily pay double to go back there again. Amongst the ruins lies the reality. We open a clanging wrought iron gate and tumble up a staircase to enter the black. A narrow corridor and the sudden inversion back into the past as we look through the black window slits at the lush countryside outside. The delight in the claustrophobia.

In the main hall is another winding staircase riddled with warnings. It goes up and up and up into the past. I keep thinking it will stop as I climb carefully up the pleasingly dangerous steps, past more window slits, more vanished floors and have that feeling, so little felt in adulthood of genuine excitement and unknowing.

But now I am at the top, the flagpole bangs and I walk through the echoes of rooms used for century upon century where graffiti is calilligraphed and a carved face gazes down upon me from the ceiling. A fireplace is suspended on an invisible floor; a Roman tombstone forms part of a ceiling. I sit at a window seat, worn with the bottoms of centuries, look at England stretched before me and feel so alive but oh so very very mortal.

Sep 13 2011

Deaths on a Sunday

I am terrified of backwards reincarnation. It is probably not number one in most peoples fears. More prosaic and unoriginal ones like cancer and car crashes possibly top the fear Top Ten but right now at 11.30 on a Sunday morning I am petrified of going back in time and waking up lice covered, chained and doomed in a cell at Lancaster Castle.

It is National Heritage weekend-places not normally open to the public are free to nose around and ones which normally charge are free, hence myself and a slightly befuddled baby are staring into the thick thick black of a cell where many people died. You can be locked up in there for a whole minute to have a Full Terror Experience-I decline and the people who smilingly enter look different when they come out-a bit of the sheen has been knocked off them and they are quieter. And probably in need of a double gin.

The past was really quite spectacularly terrible.  I feel slightly fobbed off in an age where Katie Price is headline news. We traipse around the castle listening to the cheery Geordie voice of the guide regaling us with all manner of treachery, betrayal, murders and uprisings- more people were sentenced to be hung here than at The Old Bailey in London and if you look up at the ceiling in the old court room, you can see gilded embossed nooses. A nice touch worthy of a psychopathic Laurence Llewellyn Bowen.

The pedant in me winces when hearing the story of the Lancaster witches cheerily told as truth, even down to shape shifting familiars as I feel this does a disservice to the innocent who died hideous deaths due to superstition, ignorance and malice. And I normally love a bit of superstition, ignorance and malice on a Sunday morning.

And talking of which-our next stop is St Thomas and Elizabeth Catholic church in Thurnham, formerly the private chapel of the Dalton family. A mausoleum gapes creepily open; only four spaces filled. I should feel somewhat cheated if I was one of the four interred, have a sneaking suspicion that my other relatives have somehow escaped death and are mocking my gullibility and naivety at embracing it so easily.

Inside the lavishly decorated church some elderly women are offering cups of tea and cakes like the last 100 years has never happened and discussing the surprising wetness of the tea towels.

There are treasures on display, glamorous kitsch Catholic ones replete with their own bloody histories of theft and death. It is turning out to be an excellent Sunday morning.

The wind has risen further and it is suddenly darkest dankest winter. Our last stop is the wind battered octagonal chapter house at Cockersands Abbey which was strangely enough used as a mausoleum by The Daltons of Thurnam Hall, whose church and mausoleum we have recently visited. A jolly grey haired woman pops up like a guardian elf in waterproofs and tells me the floor is on a higher level because of the mounds of dead underneath. The dead at St Thomas’s give a muffled cheer. It is a far less genteel resting place than the green peacefulness at Thurnham. A big gothic car boot sale, all tumbled old relics, faded inscriptions on weather-beaten stones haphazardly piled against the grey stone walls. It is exciting in its shambolicness, in the lack of artifice, brochures for sale or history tucked neatly away behind glass. Here history has been pulled in by inexperienced passionate hands from the elements who wail and howl outside as the sea churns and threatens and it is a very very real threat that soon this outcrop of history perched on the edge of the sea will soon be swallowed by it and it will only be remembered on laminated sheets looked at by the bored or curious on windy Septembers when history is free and the ground is quietly and slowly being washed away.

Sep 5 2011

Tea Shops and Passive Aggression

Today is the last day of summer. It is a Sunday in September and the sun has finally come to taunt us, showing us what could have been.

We go to Silverdale on Morecambe bay- all hanging baskets, houses that you expect Kate Winslet to run beaming out of, English accents and jolly ‘good mornings’ said by people with sensible hair and no tattoos.

There is dog poo. A lot of it, coiling and lumpen, glistening and bold all along the shore path so we do not look at the wonderful view across the bay to the mountains but instead go ‘carefu…. oh too late.’ We both get irrationally angry about dog poo.

There are signs on the beach telling us that no campfires, camping, alcohol etc is permitted on the beach ‘by order of the RSPB’. I wonder what jurisdiction the RSPB have and what would happen should I decide to flout these laws late on a weekend night. Would I be manhandled off the beach by the RSPB? Pecked to dead by a trained Peregrine Falcon? Left to rot in Leighton Moss wildlife reserve?

In the toilets at Kay’s Tea Room (otherwise all flowers, organic flour and Buddhas) is a sign that states terrifyingly and obliquely that anything not paper which is put in the toilets will set off an alarm and the wrongdoer will have to retrieve it. Thus the hapless degenerate only wanting a nice latte, some gluten free French chocolate torte and a quick disposal of a tampax will be forced by steely smiled management to roll up their sleeve and put their arm down a communal u-bend as lights flash, sirens scream and shocked white faces cluster at the door. And they wonder why people go abroad.

Then at a nearby cluster of farm buildings, a gallery specialising  in whimsical ceramic sheep and ‘quirky’ pictures of local landmarks has  a sign which says something along the lines of ‘Feel free to touch, free to hold-but if you break it, we say sold!’

Its smiling glee at your potential plight, its gloating and profiteering in your misfortune makes me leave. I did not want a swirly patterned glass plate anyway and I especially do not want a broken one foisted upon me and 29.99 forced from my empty purse. I wonder what would happen should the baby lunge at some fragile cutesiness. I have no money. Would I be arrested? Forced to make lumpen pottery hares until my debt is paid off?

I wonder at the British psyche where deep in a beautiful little village, shop holders smile at their customers. And imagine the worst.

Please feel free to share any examples you may have of the passive aggression smouldering in the genteel British heart. And apologies again for no photos. The camera is broken and cannot be fixed along with our financial situation.