Jul 18 2011

Rawtenstall, Ramsbottom and Leigh

I am sitting in a temperance bar. This is not my usual habitat. My usual habitats offer to double up for a pound extra rather than give a free scoop of ice cream with each cream soda. Fitzpatrick’s in Rawtenstall is the only temperance bar left in Britain and is kept exactly how it would have been a hundred years ago even down to the clientele. There are old tiles, jarred sweets and a clanging till with the friendliest young man in the north behind it. An old woman shuffles in for a honey and ginger. She lacks enough money to buy some one-pound ice cream after she carefully counts her change and I wish to offer her the difference but do not wish to insult. I wish I had now.

Rawtenstall is like a big tourist information advert for The North. It is friendly, bedecked with strings of terraced houses like bunting, full of butchers and little independent shops, a bit scuff marked at the edges but where isn’t?

I am forced to go in front of people at the queue in the enormous spaceship Asda because I have less than them, women in charity shops cheerily grab my babies legs and a woman behind a meat counter in the market says his crying (not connected with the leg grabbing, he is a hardy five month year old) is because he needs a meat pie. I do not mention we are vegetarian but do notice he instantly stops crying. This bodes ill for the future.

I do that annoying thing of walking around every little independent shop declaring everything marvellous and then walking out without buying anything. If I were a struggling small business I would want to scalp people like me. At least I didn’t loudly decide to look for it cheaper on Amazon. Rawtenstall is friendly but there are limits.

Diehard fans of Unicycle Emptiness will already have noted my love of south Indian food and during some bored perusing of food websites in Lancashire, I noted there was one in Ramsbottom, a mere four miles up the road. This excites me a great deal, the menu states somewhat paradoxically that it is open from 6.30pm and then somewhere else that is open for lunch so as an eternal optimist with a song in my heart and some excellent butter pie from the market in my stomach, we enter Ramsbottom (no pun intended) to walk around the very closed south Indian restaurant with a sign saying closed and the opening times firmly saying it is open.

But Ramsbottom itself, a place dimly thought of to be a fictional place on a northern soap opera is a revelation. It is pretty much everything desirable in a small town having local charity shops, licensed cafes boasting ‘award winning bitter chocolate torte’, a printmakers selling utterly wonderful frighteningly expensive prints, cafes selling meat and veg four quid dinners and all the other periphery of small town commerce, not yet crushed by chains or boarded up forever.

We go into The First Chop, a trendy yet laid back bar on the high street with good strong welsh cider and the most complicated array of special offers on the menu ever. I am still working out whether the two tapas for the price of three work out better than having a ‘larger plate’ but with half the price of my cider taken off. It was excellent-halloumi and veg kebabs with salad, the biggest crispiest chips in the world, beans with maple syrup and Lancashire cheese, sourdough bread and salad, spicy tomato ketchup, garlic mayo and something amazing with coriander in it, one of those posh expensive Fentimans ginger beers and the afore mentioned welsh cider come to under fifteen quid. We did not eat for the rest of the day; it was friendly, relaxed and effortlessly cool. I decide I want to live in Ramsbottom-it is Hebden Bridge without the hippies, the cool part of a city without the hipsters and the city, a country town without the misery, isolation and lack of award winning bitter chocolate tortes. And near enough to Manchester to escape to upon a picturesque railway. And the delight of finding somewhere unknown, unexpected and delightful is even better than the chips. And I do like chips.

We go through Leigh on the way back and it is a reminder of what really is. I do not like Leigh. It feels like shooting fish in a barrel to not like Leigh, snobbish, southern and unnecessary to bray about an ex mining town on hard times not being darling enough and not selling foccacia by the hand-woven bucket load. But it is everywhere town. Places where the chains have fled to the malls and the mall is given a name to show the heritage and history of the town it has plundered (in this case Spinning Jenny Arcade) and ailing independents selling cheap pastry, cheap shoes and hazardous looking maxi dresses with sale signs in the windows.  I am startled by the amount of kebab shops open at 4pm. I clearly startle only too easily.

The library however has manga, goldfish,  Bollywood and art and also offers book and baby sessions to get babies used to enjoying books not orally but visually and a book at bedtime session where you take your pyjamas clad kid to listen to a story then be given a biscuit and a glass of milk before being sleepily dragged off home past the aroma of kebabs.

The red brick is remnants of an industrial heritage and the tall chimneys are still being demolished. But new soulless estates are given names about what used to be there, like when ‘Orchard Close’s smother what used to be orchards in mock Tudor and overly large conservatories. I wonder what the factory workers of yore would think of Spinning Jenny Arcade and think they would probably love it because their equivalent job in this day and age would be unlikely to treat digit fingers as a luxury. One has to be careful not to romanticise the past but then again looking around Leigh it is hard not to.