It is a punishingly expensive (a chilling portent of what is to come) yet short bus journey from Windermere train station to Ambleside. It straggles off the shores of Lake Windermere and its name says it all. Ambleside. You know things are going to be cosy, pleasant, not too arduous and oh so English in a place called Ambleside. There will be no graffitied underpasses with flickering electric lights reflecting violent neon orange off gnawed KFC chicken bones in Ambleside. Thus the violence and death here comes as a surprise. But more of that later.
It is as pretty and cutesy as the name suggests-little stone cottages shuffling quaintly up curling streets, snow capped mountains looming (nicely, not too scarily or gothicly) overhead, the occasional serene twinkle of Lake Windermere between lofty grey Victorian houses. But the tiny little cottages are for sale at hundreds of thousands of pounds and they are for holiday lets not retired twinkly-eyed women with a penchant for flower arranging- it’s all a grand and tranquil illusion. Of how things used to be.
The stone clad newsagent sells Le Monde and a host of other international newspapers not the parish gazette and so many of the people thronging the streets have strident moneyed southern accents, not the gentle Cumbrian lilt. Should you be local here, I think you would go mad due to a surfeit of overpriced Kendal Mint Cake and the lack of normal shops selling things that don’t have a badly drawn picture of the Old Man of Coniston on them. One cannot live on tea towels with local attractions on them alone. There is surprisingly a Greggs though-personally would rather stick with munching the tea towels but it is scarily refreshing to see a normal chain shop selling reasonably priced normal stuff but it looks like a carbuncle here. I wonder if people here saw it as a godsend or a pastry clad anti-Christ. It is still the prettiest Greggs I have ever seen.
I have a justified reputation for being somewhat profligate when it comes to clothes shopping but drop me here with a hundred pounds to spend and I would struggle. People rustle. Gore-Tex is god. I am the only person seemingly wearing not just a skirt but also eye shadow. Yes, I am aware that this area is a Mecca for hikers but there appear to be no shops selling anything non-waterproof. This is middle England Monsoon country but with no sequins or flattering merino wool cardigans. I yearn for something cheap and nylon. And no, not a Euro Hike tent.
The weak winter sun glints off metal walking poles, something I have an unnatural and undeserved antipathy of, along with the plastic things you somehow put on the bottom of your trousers so the bottom of your trousers do not get any dirty nasty nature on them when out communing with nature –err, there are washing machines available for reasonable prices nowadays. It’s all just so sensible and yet unnecessary at the same time and are brandished with a smug pride by people with sensible haircuts who I suspect never really walk that far into the wilderness but like the idea of being a walker and buy stuff to show the world this startling fact and because they can.
I feel sorry for teenagers here-New Look stiletto heels are probably sold undercover outside pubs for hundreds of pounds. As a teenager, I thought Exeter was the arse end of no-where but at least it sold cheap shoddy goods, not just expensive well made practical wear. A sign in a shop window reads ‘Faux Ugg Boots-25 pounds’. Faux! How posh! Basically the shop is selling fake Uggs, i.e. nasty cheap blanketty saggy after two wears Made In China boots that can be bought for a fiver anywhere else in the whole of the UK but here are about half the price of real Ugg boots on the internet and they are advertising the fact proudly, I presume not knowing of the fact of the internet or ignoring it or presuming the teens who live here have nothing else to spend their money on here and cheap fake Uggs are practically Jimmy Choos when you are surrounded by stout Merrel hiking boots and mountains and they presume you have not heard of eBay. I am sounding bitchy. I do not mean to be. For some reason, Wordworthian settings of timeless beauty and poetry bring out a mean streak. But ‘Faux Uggs’! Faux! It is both pretentious and condescending.
We are hungry and despite it being the Saturday before payday in late January, a time when probably Paris Hilton can’t even afford to supersize it, the numerous delis, cafes and restaurants are absolutely packed. With Daily Mail under the arm chattering classes. And it is not cheap here. (And my food budget went to the bus fare-and I still needed to borrow more. A second hand Fiat Panda can be purchased for less than the return fare from Troutbeck to Ambleside –Troutbeck is as far as we walked from Windermere alongside the rather unromantic main road until I had a paddy at it being a bit of a rubbish walk and demanded transport)
I initially decided to come to Ambleside after reading there was not one but two vegetarian restaurants with cinemas attached. That is an amazing statistic for a small isolated town. I dreamt happily of the hideous rivalry the two competing places must surely have, no doubt ending in spilt non vegetarian blood over the purple sprouting broccoli. It is a crushing blow to find the same family owns them both and they exist in boring mutual harmony.
We go to the first one, Zeffirellis, (not only a restaurant and cinema but a jazz bar) and after a communal sharp intake of breath after looking at the prices on the menu outside, go to the other one, Fellini’s. It is closed and we intake our breaths a bit more after looking at the prices on the menu there. Very nice looking food though it has to be said. We walk hungrily through the town giving the occasional further sharp intake of breath after looking at menus to end up again inevitably at Zefirellis.
It is a pleasant Italian style establishment catering for a rather more upmarket vegetarian clientele than the sosmix and dreadlock brigade (both of which I suspect have not yet been seen in Ambleside) My pizza is nice but is £9.65 for ten inches and I have not before ever spent a tenner on lunch for one. The vegetables are shockingly naked on top of the cheese not smothered underneath it, which causes some consternation as I fear change but it is a nice pizza. No as nice as the one in Morecambe that can be had for four quid and the thought of the wonderful crisp golden coin of the four-pound Morecambe pizza at the Palatine pub, (see Morecambe review) my eyes practically brim over with grief and a profound sense of loss. My companion’s tomato and ricotta cannelloni was excellent but again for nine pounds, some sort of accompaniment such as a bit of salad or garlic bread might have been expected. To be fair, you have to bear in mind we are in a world famous tourist resort with a rich historical and literary heritage and we have instantly gravitated to a place which does not advertise it self as a bargain eatery.
We could have eaten cheaper but I feel weirdly duty bound to go a vegetarian eating place if I can although a choice of more than two options can send me into a veritable kaleidoscope of indecision as not used to choice and it is both wonderful and a bit terrifying especially as I look at what other people are eating after I have ordered with the envy and regret of a wife looking at her husbands younger prettier blonde mistress. And then my poor (literally poor as he’s paying) companion has to listen to me talk about the options that could have been and what I choose is never as good as what could have been. Sophies Choice is nothing compared to this. You don’t get this hideous terror when you can only have penne pasta but can just self –righteously bitch about the lack of vegetarian options and feel both vindicated and a martyr to your cause. I can see I am selling vegetarianism appallingly so will stop. The service was excellent, the menu was interesting and it’s all terribly ladies who lunch but a pleasant place to sit and people watch, guiltily read The Daily Telegraph or The Daily Mail (Ambleside is that sort of place) and stare aghast at the sensible footwear.
For some reason after coming out of the restaurant I feel a deep and intense craving for pie and go in the Apple Pie café and bakery-two pieces of pie (cheese and onion and stilton, broccoli and mushroom) are an eye watering five quid and something but after an hour of bitter complaints, eat them to discover them to be excellent pie.
My companion wishes heartily to leave the streets of Ambleside and do some proper walking. I beg to differ so we reach an uneasy compromise of walking up a hill and then back down again. It is a nice hill though slightly marred by florid faced middle-aged men in pristine black Jaguars driving like idiots up the narrow roads and then back down again. Either Ambleside has more florid faced middle aged men in pristine black Jaguars driving like idiots than everywhere else in the world (apart from the Cotswolds obviously) or one florid faced middle aged man in a pristine black Jaguar had lost his way.
The beautiful views stretch out in every direction-pointing and clicking my camera pretty much anywhere results in a postcard and it is hard not to be charmed by it all and feel a longing to just start walking into the green beckoning view. But then I see a pub.
And what a pub. It is everything George Orwell wrote about when describing his idea of the perfect pub, The Moon Under Water (hilariously and ironically the name of some Weatherspoons)
Up a little street (Smithy Brow) off the high street, The Golden Rule is modest on the outside-indeed looks like someone’s house. Upon walking in, there is the glow of a real coal fire. Stretched by the fire lie two black Labradors. It is old fashioned without being a ludicrous pastiche cobbled together from the guts of other pubs in an auction somewhere. It is as it was. There are no chalkboards offering monkfish and halloumi for 13 quid. There is no stripped pine. It is happily cluttered with tarnished brass and black and white photographs of apple cheeked customers in the past raising a tankard up to the photographer. It is frightening to realise they are probably all dead now. It is well priced with a wide selection of real ale. There is a cheapish decent house red wine and newspapers. Three men chat at the bar with the Kiwi barman –they are jovial without being obnoxious, drinkers not drunkards. People wander in and out to friendly words and chitchat are exchanged and everyone has a story to tell.
I am cocooned in a glow of fire and red wine haze and am gently reading and eavesdropping. Snippets of conversation filter gently through but no, I can’t be hearing this, in such a tranquil little pub in such beauteous surroundings.
‘Banned from every B and B in Ambleside after what he did with the curtains-his photograph is on the door of every guesthouse from here to Grasmere.’
I would still pay upwards of 12.99 to find out what actually happened.
Another half heard conversation and the best line I have ever heard.
‘The fight was so big they put the window of the fudge shop right through,’
Truly the epitome of England.
Things get sadder and more sinister with ‘ of course he was dead when they found him’ about someone ‘who wouldn’t hurt a fly’ knocked over by a car on Christmas day morning. The story is not told with macabre relish but with a genuine sadness and fondness for the person in question.
I do not wish to leave this place-it is not yet even 5pm and I want to snuggle here and read, chat and listen and stroke the increasingly hotter dogs by the fire but I do not care to waste the outrageously expensive bus ticket so get up. Before I leave, I visit the loo. In the hallway is a poster, which is nothing, but a list of names of people banned from pubs in the area. It is a very long list. I look at it then step out into the unspoilt beauty of a traditional English small town, which isn’t what it so pretends to be.