I have decided that I don’t like it here-it is foggy, I am hungry and there appears to be nowhere to eat apart from very very expensive places or places with laminated menus and pictures of burger and chips combos. Or Tea Shops filled with silver haired people and the smell of cinnamon. Exciting looking shapes loom out of the mist and I want to walk, to see Buxton in all its unfamiliar glory but the impenetrable fog continues to snake in, my hunger rumbles and I yearn for a soft chair and a large house red.
It begins to snow. My companion and I have an argument for the pure sake of it, rejecting each others choice of eating establishments and their menus with scorn, loathing and derision until finding an Italian restaurant, St Moritz sitting on a rather busy road but with that much revered signage of ‘Two course 6.95.’
It is strangely an Italian cum Swiss joint with fondues and Swiss named pizzas and pastas and is packed with red-cheeked Buxtonites on this grim Tuesday February afternoon. I have soup and pizza, both perfectly agreeable and my partner has bruschetta and pasta, the pasta being somewhat reminiscent of a child schools dinner, slippery tubes of penne in an oval china bowl loaded with stringy cheese but its certainly agreeable, there are ooh, chocolates with the bill, breadsticks, wine and thus my spirits lift with the fog.
And talking of spirits, I read in the ever affable Stuart Maconie’s book, Adventures On The High Teas, that Buxton has a bookshop with a ghost and we go back up the hill of disappointing eateries and into an Alice In Wonderland bookshop where stairs go up and up and down and down in a wonderfully discombobulating way-there is a little Victorian museum in the cellar amongst the piles of toppling unloved books who’s time is so clearly past but no ghost-the handwritten poems about the ghost ruin the ambience somewhat-when the word ghost is chirpily refrained with toast, a sense of mystique and terror is gone forever. But one can have a cup of coffee here in this crumbling soothing part of a vanishing world, listen to the traffic outside and wonder how much longer such lovely places will continue in the modern word where everything is free, downloadable and does not smell faintly of rot. The real ghosts are embedded on the fly leafs of the books-faded yellow copperplate wishing dear Edward a happy 21st from Auntie Gertrude and you realise from the date that they are both dead now. Only this remains of them, an antiquated three-pound novel in a dusty plant filled bookshop and it is both upsetting and exciting.
Back down the hill, an undrinkable glass of wine in the otherwise lovely The Old Sun Inn’s understated antiquity and one could easily imagine they were Charles Dickens blagging a drink in return for dashing off some prose if it were not for the fact that the radio is playing eighties pop classics, clashing horribly with the quiet old men and old quiet stone.
The high street is pleasingly adorned with independent shops-the charity shops are filled with sensible clothes for the older person but I find a pleasingly impractical cardigan which in no way serves to warm me from the invasive chill coming down from the peaks and you can see how easy it would be to feel trapped here. A few hoodies walk their pit bulls and attempt to look menacing but they just look rather chilly and you expect a ruddy-faced lady to tell them to pull their trousers up. I would not like to be young here. It seems a happy conservative well heeled sort of place where small vandalisms would be talked about with horrified fascinations for weeks afterwards-a hermetically sealed part of little England which is however slowly becoming unwrapped.
The Buxton museum is great-delightfully shambolic with tables devoted to learning about pearls next to abstract art and information on the mining history of Buxton. There is a replica Victorian library which reeks of disapproval and must and then a time travel tunnel (we go through accidently backwards and come out as cavemen) with rather surprising hyenas and bears along with a real skeleton and the normal bits of annotated wood and the like. Middle class children run amok, being somewhat loudly over excited by history-it’s all very very jolly indeed.
I decide I have warmed to Buxton.
Outside there is a classic car auction next to the botanical gardens and the Opera House (who says culture is dumbing down-Charlie and Lola are playing next week-the children of Buxton are surely spoilt) Everyone looks like Lovejoy and talk so poshly I think they must be being filmed. Old Jaguars are fondled with sheepskinned-gloved hands. It’s hard to reconcile such Englishness with England anymore but there is still a queue outside Greggs and people are still talking in surprised and somewhat annoyed tones about the weather so we are still here after all.
The park is magnificent and with a joyfully spurting fountain-a rare occurrence. There are strange looking birds, kind of like multi coloured ducks which mingle with the suddenly drab and austere mallards, miniature lakes and it is easy to step back in time here, to imagine parading through with a parasol, delicately revealing an ankle and looking around, things do appear as they used to be except for the boarded up crescent of the Pump Rooms blazoned with EU funding posters.
And then misty eyed with a genteel vision of yesteryear, we step back centuries. The Old Hall Hotel is straight out of an MR James story. We retreat inside for a glass of wine before the train and it is magical. A guest book is opened on a month and a year in the eighteenth century and you wonder about the assignations, adulteries and secrets it contains with people’s comments that had faded even before Aunt Gertie had even been born.
Apparently Mary Queen of Scots stayed here and it is reputed to be the oldest hotel in England. I can well believe it-it reeks of faded grandeur and lily of the valley yet has retained a vestige of youth with its wine bar and contempory food menu-a newspaper rack has the Guardian and the Daily Express nestled side by side-unlikely bedfellows. Another amazingly well spoken elderly gentlemen is languidly chatting in the corner-would make David Attenborough look like someone out of Shameless and a hassled car dealer from the auction is talking into a mobile. It is warm, well lit and utterly fascinating-empty parlours and other bars and rooms are dotted around the place, it is a veritable thickly walled maze, a piece of true history and I want to stay the night here, ensconced in an armchair by the fire with my MR James book and a brandy listening out for one of the ghosts that must surely frequent this island in the past. I would feel like an exhibit in the roped off Victorian room in the museum. But I have no money left and the train is nearly approaching so I shrug unhappily off this warm shroud of the past and step into the freezing neon glow of 2010.