Day 227: Reading My Way Out

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Mostly concerning Books

I left school a terrible dunce. I got good grades in English and English Literature though. Partly down to a good teacher or two and partly down to the fact that I’d discovered the pleasures of reading at an early age. I just hadn’t discovered that many good books.

My mother read but I can’t recall a single conversation with her about the books she read. My father wasn’t a reader. He claimed to have only read one book and that it was green. At other times he’d claim his sole literary achievement was Lorna Doone. There was a flaw in the believability of his claim. He was just too good at quizzes. He could identify any Shakespeare play or Dickens’ character from the tiniest quote. He could manage most of Henry the Fifth’s St Crispin’s Day speech and was apt to confuse Polonius’ advice to Laertes with his own fatherly advice to his three boys.

Some time after leaving home I took him on a walking holiday in Swaledale and we spent several days recalling his Yorkshire childhood over fells, camp fires and pints of beer. He’d excelled at school but left at fourteen to learn a trade. Sport consumed most of his spare time but one day his bicycle hit a car sending him spiralling over the handlebars and going an awful long way to putting an end to himself, and by logical progression, an end to me as well.

Toothless from that day on, his recovery was slow, painful and boring enough to necessitate the drastic action of actually reading a book. In fact during the eight weeks he was laid up he read his way through the complete works of both Dickens and Shakespeare which constituted the entire library of his and his friends houses. A near photographic memory held onto an awful lot of those works until Alzeimer’s wrought its cruelty.

After that he read the occasional book on engineering or biography of a favourite rugby player. His stock of literature was from those two teenaged months. Oh, and he was a devoted reader of a decent newspaper throughout his life.

I’d been lucky. A primary school teacher read us some Victor Hugo. I’d come across Tom Sawyer through a children’s television version and had had to study Henry the Fourth part One and To Kill a Mockingbird for O level. It wasn’t very much in numerical terms but it was quite something as a set of keys to explore books from. A girl I knew gave me a copy of The Catcher in the Rye and I read it cover to cover and thought it the most wonderful book imaginable. I’m still fond of it but it’s slipped down a peg or two in my rating over the years. Once I’d enthused about it, she gave me Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Suddenly I wasn’t  an unqualified school-leaver but a rebel without a cause, a ‘beat’ off in search of George Shearing’s piano playing. I never got far with the search, forgot about the teenage anxt and search for the freedom of travelling for a while. I was too busy making very little money doing dead end jobs Monday to Friday and spending the surplus in Huddersfield pubs on Friday and Saturday. I did continue to read though.

I took an unlikely liking to Jane Austen and would sneak off for a toilet break with a copy of Emma in my warehouse coat pocket. When working for a bus company I’d travel to work while poring over the pages of Thomas Hardy while my fellow travellers digested the Daily Mirror and reached for a packet of Embassy for the first good cough of the day. Strange to think that people used to smoke on buses.

It was while serving petrol at a Leeds Road filling station that I encountered Franz Kafka. There was something quite fitting in his terrible tales of injustice and imprisonment either in a labyrinthine legal process or in the body of a beetle while I was trapped in a job that offered mindless subservience, repetition and a frightening level of urban pollution (my neighbours were a major trunk road, a huge chemical works and a dye works based on the Silesian model.)

metamorphosis

Once I’d graduated to being a caretaker at Huddersfield Polytechnic I had access  to a phenomenal library (it may not compare with the great libraries of the world but it was twenty times the size of any library I had ever seen). Also I had the brains of the lecturers to pick and that led onto my own discovery of Dickens. I mostly worked an 8-4 shift but would vary this with what were known as “earlies” and “afters”. I liked “afters”. I didn’t finish until 10.30 but from six o’clock onwards there was the occasional door to open or lock and several hours of undisturbed reading. It wasn’t unknown for late working fellows to pop in to see me with a bundle of suggested titles. I think I became something of a pet project for them. Let’s get the caretaker into College.

It couldn’t last. I detoured into Stoke and found that the worst part of production line work is that you simply cannot read. I was cheerful and chatty on the shop floor where time dragged like a penance. In the canteen I was left quietly in a corner where I discovered that the terrible grind of mindless work in the Potteries had given Arnold Bennett the material for some of the greatest books in the language.

I couldn’t take more than a few months of that and found a job up in North Yorkshire as a relief warden for the Youth Hostel Association. It was perfect. Half the time I was posted to big hostels where the staff were fantastic company. The other half found me looking after tiny out of the way buildings. I read and read. In Haworth I was the only person I knew who had read any Brontë novel, let alone most of them. In Selby I devoured Trilby and William Boyd and Tom Sharpe. In Malton I read Patrick White and Emile Zola. In York I forgot about books and went skating on the frozen river.

It had all been leading up to returning to full time education. I felt a huge need to be among people who read, and was lucky to end up in Manchester. There the student age was older. There were quite a number of us who wanted to find out those things we’d missed out on when we were at school, and were determined not to waste the opportunity. (We were also there to down a few pints courtesy of a grant provided by the British tax payer (a debt I believe I have now repaid though my own contributions to the exchequer)).

I left school at sixteen something of a dunce; few qualifications, little ambition and no drive. The only thing I had going for me was a love of reading. I read voraciously and every one of those books was a rung on the ladder from doing what I was told to do, to doing what I wanted to do. And what I want to do is read.

Day 226: The String Section

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Mostly Concerning Music

It’s funny how a song will come into your mind. Laurence used to play a lovely version of Arthur McBride and the Sergeant on the guitar. He knew his stuff did Laurence and could play an awful lot better than he let on. He did several versions. I can’t remember the provenance of most but he spoke very highly of the one that Paul Brady had made popular. Laurence used to drop the tuning down to drop D and though this shouldn’t have been too difficult to follow it was enough to freeze my brain. I could imitate the melodic roll alright but I was beggered at remembering the adjustments I had to make for the chords.

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Laurence has been dead for over a decade now which means (he was almost exactly ten years older than me when we met in Manchester) that I am now older than he ever managed to be. And I’m suddenly reminded of the song. Must be twenty five years since I even thought of it and there it is dancing its jig in my brain and demanding to be sung.

I’m a better guitar player now than I was then but I don’t practice enough. I play it til my fingers bleed alright, but if you don’t play too often that doesn’t always take long. And then I don’t play it again for a month or two.

I’ve taken to leaving the two guitars I play most often (I’ve acquired 8 over the years) in places where they invite me to pick them up and have a sing. In recent years I’ve added a ukelele, a mandolin and a bass guitar into the collection. When another singer comes round I’ll play them until bedtime. But I’ve been writing a lot recently and those Thursday night and Sunday morning sessions don’t happen anymore. I wait until David come home from University and then we sing like old timers. He’s coming back on Thursday for Easter. Maybe that is what put me in mind of a song.

Paul Brady. Pic Myriad Artists.

Paul Brady. Pic Myriad Artists.

I saw Paul Brady play. It was actually one of the most enjoyable concerts I’ve ever gone to. T and I went along to the Barnfield Theatre in Exeter and he gave us two hours of some of the best arranged songs I’d heard. It was during the mid eighties and he was borderline big time and was becoming as influenced by the over blown production techniques of the time as he was of traditional music and good old acoustic guitar singer song writing. He played an awful lot of very well made songs but he didn’t play Arthur McBride. I made up for the omission by singing a clumsy version before bedtime.

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Youtube is a wonderful thing. You think of a song and then you think of a particular version of a song and then you think of a particular performance of a particular version of a particular song and you can watch and listen to it at the click of a button. Having been reminded of just how good Paul Brady is and of what a good version he sang I get out the guitar and try to emulate. It doesn’t work on drop D, but I start to get somewhere by simply playing around with how I play the chords up the neck. It’s a lovely mixture of musicianship and nostalgia. If I can be bothered (disciplined enough) to work on it for a day or two I’ll have a song worth playing. I print off a lyric sheet and take it downstairs where I expect the other guitar to be. It isn’t. No mystery. I’m at an age where things often surprise me by being where I left them. But the mandolin is there.

I only know a handful of mandolin chords but a simplified version of the song only has a handful itself. It is after all a folk song. The whole idea is that they were played and sung by people who played and sung for the pleasure not the cleverness. And I begin and, to cut the story short, it sounded fantastic.

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The mandolin is brilliant for all of those rolling jigs and reels and the melody line plucked single (double) string stuff but it really comes alive when a strummer gets hold of it. Steve Earl on Copperhead Road, Mike Scott of the Waterboys, Levon Helm bashing out the opening chords of Evangeline. There may be no guitar but I settle down to a session of solo playing accompanied only by alternate mandolin and ukelele. (If a guitar’s strings start to cut into tender, underused fingers, then a mandolin does times ten. No wonder some call them the cheese grater. The uke is nylon strung and is almost balm to the pads after a clatter through The Rolling Stones Out of Time. Mark Wallington wrote a lovely book a couple of years ago about a middle age frustrated rock and roller who goes on a wayward tour of Britain performing at open mic nights on the ukelele and bringing the house down with Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Little Richard numbers. Not to be outdone on the frustrated middle aged bit at least I launch into a rather lovely ukelele version of Rave On. I have the undivided attention of a dog and a cat. The fact that it is feeding time doesn’t enter into it. You don’t come between a true musician and his audience.

Photo Credit Mark Wallington

Photo Credit Mark Wallington

The mandolin again and I think of trying Copperhead Road but give up after a few introductory chords and slip seamlessly into an impromptu version of My Old Friend the Blues. By the time I get the the higher register refrain I’m in seventh heaven.

Photo credit The Daily Loaf

The singing goes on. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s brilliant medley of Somewhere Over the Rainbow/Wonderful World requires me to run off chords and lyrics but as soon as I begin to intone the introduction (an octave lover than the original and nowhere near as sweet) I’m carried away by the arrangement.

And so the morning pans out. Tim and Jeff Buckley, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Jake Thackray, Joni Mitchell (Both Sides Now sung in the style of George Formby), George Harrison (himself a devoted advocate of the ukelele) all get the four (eight) string treatment. My fingers bleed, my voice goes hoarse. Once it goes hoarse I move onto Merle Haggard and George Jones.

It was unintended and improvised throughout but this was one of the most enjoyable sessions I’ve had. Once we had two cats and a dog I had at least one cat to play ice hockey with the plectrums and to sprawl across the song sheets. David will be back home at the weekend and a good sing will be in order. I’ve got a few arrangements he may never have heard before.

Day 225: Cats and Dogs and Birds

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We’ve always been a five. At least that’s the way it seems. I can’t very much remember what things were like before we had children and though I remember them coming along and becoming who they are one by one and enjoying every moment of it, I can’t really remember being a father of one or even of two children. I seem always to have been the father of three and I like that very much indeed.

And now all three live their own lives away from home and that is very nice as well. Particularly nice on a week when we are likely to be re-united for at least part of the Easter weekend.

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Bonnie was left behind when her previous owners left the street. She was literally starving to death so we took her in. She was very old, and suffering. We gave her a good final year.

Their places seem to have been taken though. We still seem to be a five. Three children have been replaced by two cats and a dog. If I’m keeping a food diary of the years then they shouldn’t be missed and neither should all the animals and birds who live in the garden.

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We’re lucky to have a rather lovely cherry tree in the centre of our garden. Behind it are some conifers which I’d probably remove if they weren’t both home and refuge to at least two dozen birds. Sparrows and wrens nest in there. So do robins. Blue tits, great tits and coal tits (chickadees), feel safe feeding from the food we hang out, if they have a sheltered safe haven nearby. Chaffinches, gold finches, green finches are also regular visitors. Wood pigeons, collared doves, starlings, sparrows, dunnocks and blackbirds can also be seen daily. A song thrush comes to pay us a call at least once a week and a mistle thrush is an infrequent visitor. We can go weeks without seeing a long tailed tit and suddenly they swarm into the garden. I’ve seen as many as thirty in the tree at one go.

Hedgehogs find their way into this quiet little haven. The garden is hardly busy and the area around the garden has become something of a nature reserve. There are shrews in there. Foxes patrol the local paths in the early hours and grey squirrels raid the bird feeders. Some see them as vermin. I see them as rather successful opportunists.  I bought a squirrel proof feeder but it didn’t take them long to find a way to get at the peanuts.

I’m not an expert on butterflies but I plant butterfly friendly plants and shrubs. I’ve seen gatekeepers, peacocks, red admirals, tortoiseshells, cabbage white, orange tipped and no end of little brown fellows. I keep meaning to become better at recognising them but instead have remained happy just to sit and watch them.

The garden is neat enough to enjoy sitting out but it is designed to be as wildlife friendly as we can make it. We don’t use weedkillers or pesticides. It’s quite simple to grow flowers together that attract natural pesticides. Planting candytuft and marigolds attracts lace wings and ladybirds. These keep down aphids and the birds and the hedgehogs do a pretty good job on many of the other pests. If you sit out at night then we have no shortage of bats in the neighbourhood and these are friends of the natural gardener.

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Percy birdwatching.

Neither of the cats go out of the house. Stewart will venture into the garden to nibble grass but returns at the first sign of danger (such as a car door shutting a few hundred yards away). Percy would be off and out and we’d never see him again. He’s afraid of nothing and wouldn’t think twice before walking in front of a car. He’s got acres of room in the house and gets his hunting kicks from sitting on the window sill and watching the birds through the glass. Most of the time he is entranced. If, however, there is a wood pigeon out there he is immediately into the crouch and pounce positions. It’s almost like watching a cat playing on a Wi.

 

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I can’t have a feature on the animals without one of Bella. The wisest of all our animals. She helped Bonnie settle in. A very kind dog.

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If you leave a bag or a box you can expect it to have a tenant within minutes. Usually Percy, but not always.

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A very patient patient. Even a cut paw didn’t slow her down for long.

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On the beach at Hunstanton with the sky the sea and Lincolnshire meeting in the background.

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Sometimes we sits and thinks an sometimes we just sits.

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These two will chat away for hours. Stewart seems to be the pedagogue and Jolly the student.

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When she does lie down (which isn’t often) it is like she has been felled.

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My camera isn’t up to wildlife shots. Here’s our visiting squirrel.

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Frances and Steven’s cats; Minnie and Jazz.

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There is only one rule when Percy is around. Leave nothing unattended.

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She’s a thorough bred sheep dog and would have made a very good one. She spends her whole life herding and looking after the rest of us.

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Stewart is very fond of a dripping tap. He’ll sit by one for hours in the hope that you’ll turn it on. If you oblige he walks off.

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Stewart and Jolly have become very good friends. They even have dinner together.

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Stewart enjoys a snooze at the top of the stairs.

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Cherry blossom. The best of all the spring blooms.

The real highlights of our lives are when the children come home, but in the meantime we have enough dependents to keep us on our toes.

Day 224: Finally Found Falafel

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Mostly Concerning the Feeding of People

Blogging determines supper on Saturday. I mentioned falafel in yesterday’s blog and this brought up hundreds of falafel writers, bloggers and enthusiasts. It had somehow passed me by. The name was familiar but I never knew just what it was beyond being something that made Rupert and Nigella swoon and say “You really muuusst try these; they are to die for.”

And it all seemed so easy that I gave it a go.

A quick jaunt to Aldi for a tin of chickpeas, a pot of parsley and a packet of pittas. A dusting off of the old hand blender and away we go. Arsenal and Wigan Athletic have just kicked off the first period of extra time in their FA Cup semi-final and Alan Green is at his know all worst (He’s a radio sports commentator of the put everybody else right variety. A major reason why I stopped listening to football on the wireless). I’ve never made falafel before and I’m eating the second pitta of this impromptu supper before the match goes to penalties. In other words it takes a steady, spuddling half hour, by which time I’ve ditched the recipe in favour of my own mix of spices and lemon juice. I may not know falafel but chick peas are old friends and I know which flavours they absorb the best.

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The blender is too small to throw everything in so the chick peas get roughly blitzed and into a mixing bowl. I then blitz everything else separately or together depending on bulk. To the chickpeas I add a small onion, two cloves of garlic, two teaspoons each of cumin seeds (lightly roasted) and ground coriander, half a teaspoon on cayenne pepper and two tablespoons of plain flour. Oh, and the juice of a lemon and a good grind of black pepper. And of course the whole pot (small) of parsley. I don’t worry about the tender stalks; they blitz nicely and I like a rustic rough cut to the dish.

Simply work the ingredients together and heat some oil in a frying pan. I take about half the mixture and make it into two flat discs (is there any other kind?) which need a mere couple of minutes, and maybe a touch more, on each side. They firm up beautifully on contact with the hot oil but remain loose on the inside.

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Pittas go into the toaster and a rather good salad is prepared from lambs lettuce, pea shoots, tomato, spring onion and grated radish. This adds flavour, colour and texture and turns the humble radish into a sparkly accessory. I’ve got a lot of time for radishes. They are the first vegetable I ever grew.

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Simply assemble and season with salt, pepper and lots of lemon juice. We enjoy them so much we make them up for Sunday tea and I make an even better job of them. The remaining half has refrigerated really well and the cold helps give them a firmness. The only change is to base the salad on cos lettuce (romaine to Americans) and the addition of a generous spoon of creme fraiche to the garnish.

It’s a hit and a winner and will become a regular treat in this house. We have been falafelled!

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I took a trip out on Friday to take photographs to complete the early pages of the tour of Britain that I’ve just finished writing about. I’ve never taken photography seriously and am probably learning as much about this art as I’ve discovered about writing. I’ve learned that I don’t yet deserve any thing better than the little Pentax point and shoot number I’ve had for years. I admire so many photography blogs and I while I can never match them for technical skill, I can enjoy practising putting myself in the right place to snap the shot.

Friday’s lesson is that you won’t take many good shots behind the wheel of a car. There is no substitute for getting out and walking. I have a good day and end up in Huddersfield at just about lunch-time. The streets are busy with shoppers, the sun is shining and I’m in nostalgia land. Every building has a memory. The town hall proudly advertises lunch-time organ recitals. When I go in the two ladies at the box office, when they eventually find space in their conversation, treat me like an idiot.

“Is there a concert this lunch-time?”

“This lunchtime?” (the emphasis was on this). “Of course not.”

“Oh.”

“The season hasn’t even started yet.”

“How silly of me not to know.”

“If you want a programme of events you can get one from the Civic Centre.”

“That’s OK. I’m only here for the day and just fancied listening to some music.”

“But there isn’t a concert.”

I click my way through the piazza, past the market hall (built in 1972 to replace a really beautiful market hall) which has recently been considered for demolition. It is in some ways a stunning building. It is the only asymmetrical paraboloid  roofed building in the world. Unfortunately the only place you can enjoy the architecture is from rooms on the top floors of the Chemistry Building of the University. Stunning but inappropriate artwork is now totally masked by trees. The interior of the building is cramped and dingy. In other words like most seventies market halls. 

This is a particularly good view of Huddersfield's prize winning Market Hall.

This is a particularly good view of Huddersfield’s prize winning Market Hall.

If you want to understand the aesthetic and cultural impact the architects of the sixties and seventies had on the north of England visit Huddersfield and compare the old with the new. Then go to Halifax and see just what Huddersfield lost.

I enjoy my photographic wander down the streets of my youth. I end up in a restaurant that used to be a posh glassware and porcelain shop. It’s the first time I’ve been through the door.

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The mural is every bit as bad as the building. It’s supposed to tell the history of the town.

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I used to look across at this building while waiting for the bus that took me home from school.

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Huddersfield’s very own Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, strides purposefully away from the fabulous railway station while three youths discuss how to get a girlfriend. (true)

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Huddersfield Parish Church handsome against a blue sky.

At one table a woman in her thirties is being slowly chatted up by a West Indian in his sixties. He has considerable charm. Three ladies who lunch have dressed for the occasion, all sporting those jackets that are cut short at the back. They don’t work well on two out of the three. The other table has three businessmen with an iPad. Status games are being played and I’m sure some decisions are being made that will help the country out of recession; though I’m not over hopeful.

I order the haddock and chips and it arrives a suitable eight minutes later piping hot from the fryer with a little pot of tatare sauce and a ramekin of peas puréed with mint. This is quite fashionable but I wish they would just serve peas. I can mash them myself thank you if I want to destroy half their appeal.

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Along with a pot of decent tea served rather well in matching tea service and a glass of iced water the bill comes to a very reasonable £8.90. I’m happy to tip the rest of a ten pound note and go in search of a haircut.

Huddersfield is the very place for a trim at the moment. Haircut wars seems to have broken out with at least half a dozen places advertising £5 deals. I go into one, that was a sports shop the last time I was in town, and am half way through a short back and sides when there is an influx of the youth of the town. I’m the only customer over eighteen, the only one with trousers that have buttocks at buttock height and the only one not having tracery inscribed into my barnet.

I thoroughly enjoy the banter and leave the shop with a renewed admiration for the wit of our young people … and  rather more shorn than I’d planned.

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Day 223: Who Needs Meat?

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Mostly Concerning Food.

 

Another week of Lent and another without eating meat.  I’ve  had vague feelings of missing it. Thoughts of shepherd’s pie and ham sandwiches fluttered through my mind and fluttered out again and off into the distance. I’m not a vegetarian and won’t become one for a little while. But the day is getting closer. I always knew that I’d stop smoking one day and I’ve long been of the feeling that I’ll end up a non-meat-eater: just not yet. It’s with a sense of drawing a little closer rather than with simple good intentions that I come towards the end of the six week Easter fast. It’s supposed to be forty days and forty nights but there are actually 46 days between Ash Wednesday (March 5th this year) and Holy Saturday (April 19th). As part of the Catholic liturgical calendar, Lent actually finishes before the mass of the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday. I keep Lent in the same way as I keep Christmas; broadly in line with the church but with a little room for manoeuvre.

I’ve been good with the Christian fasting season for a number of years now. At first I gave up things I could quite easily manage without such as coffee or chocolate. Until packing in smoking I was never very fond of chocolate so it was only a step or two up from giving up watching Norwich City play football. For the last few years I’ve given up meat. It’s a challenge and, somewhat in keeping with the spirit of Lent, a preparation.

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I saw an old friend the other day; one I hadn’t seen for quite a few years. He was fulsome in his praise for how well I was looking. “You don’t look a day older.” he repeated several times. I’m not sure how I compare. I’m pleased with how I feel and (if you take a creaking back out of the equation) actually feel younger, healthier and more athletic than I did in my forties. Giving up smoking is huge (you could tell I was a smoker from my skin alone), not drinking alcohol has saved me more than a pocket full of cash, and a decent varied diet has served its purpose.

I don’t think I could ever give up meat and fish though. There wasn’t much fish in these sushi from Marks and Spencer; a little tinned tuna in the California roll. The rest were all vegetable. T went to Meadowhall on Sunday and came back with a basketful of teatime after finding that the person in charge of the discount labeller had discounted just about everything. These sushi were really very nice. I’m the only one who eats it so it simply isn’t worth making my own. The M & S stuff is every bit as good (actually a good deal better) than the stuff you get from Yo Sushi. And a a lot  cheaper.

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Also in the M & S hamper was a rather good muesli. I’m getting very fond of muesli and have rapidly moved in a health food direction. Not out of diligence to well-being. Simply because it is more enjoyable. I don’t want to be chewing on raw grains of wheat and barley but I do like a cereal where you can actually taste the ingredients and savour the texture. The more commercially successful mueslis are over sweetened and over processed. This one is a little more like listening to Merle Haggard than Miley Cyrus. A little rougher and not quite so instantly appealing but a thousand times superior.

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One salmon sandwich and one falafel in a flat bread feels like a perfect combination for Sunday teatime. The chick pea is one of natures big hitters. There isn’t much made with chick peas that fails to score the maximum points. We don’t often think of them as high health food but they make up a tasty one of your seven a day. (Used to be five a day but our government have just upped the advice).

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The simplest meals still make the most enjoyable. Monday tea was a cheese sandwich on brown bread with tomato and rocket. Eating well might not be rocket science but it may well be rocket salad.

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I love kedgeree and marvel at the mind that decided one day to mix rice, boiled egg and smoked fish. There are a huge number of variations of recipes. They all date back to the days of the Raj. (Britain’s imperial control of India). Many are creamy or even wet dishes and most are spiced. I like all of them but have a preference for the way my mother used to make it. The three main ingredients are spiced only with black pepper and a great big handful of chopped parsley.

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I normally cook rice perfectly but this time I use the method of boiling the (Basmati) rice in a large volume of water with the intention of draining it as soon as the first grains are ready. This time I leave it while I check emails and somehow 10 minutes disappear. There was plenty of water so no danger of it burning dry. It was rather overcooked but no less delicious. It isn’t a matter of getting it wrong. It simply has a different texture. Having said that, I have no plans of cooking the rice that way again.

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Tagliatelle with peppers and mushrooms in a crème fraîche sauce. I like to have a simple pasta dish at least once a week. It takes so little doing and tastes wonderful. Surely this is a contender for the least expenditure (in time and money) for the maximum eating pleasure.

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Even better when piled high with plenty of freshly grated parmesan cheese. I keep thinking I’ve cooked too much (I still make the same amount as when the children were at home) but we never have any left beyond the following day.

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The two fillets of smoked haddock that didn’t go into the kedgeree make a real feast for me on Thursday (On Wednesday I went to Ashby de la Zouch and am preparing a separate post on that). New potatoes and leeks form the base of this dish. Fish is the star of the show and the poached egg is the cherry on the cake. It’s not quite as greedy a portion as it looks. The plate is medium sized and the potatoes are cut quite small.

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My favourite tea is what we refer to as a cold collation. Here two variations of green salad go alongside a simple potato salad and they accompany a range of cheeses, bought as a selection for only £4, and that emblem of a summer dish; the hard boiled egg.

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All the dish requires is a good dressing and here a mixture of salt, pepper, sugar, lemon juice and olive oil provides a sparkle to the eye as well as the tastebud. Without a doubt the best meal of the week. As I’ve asked a time or two over the Lenten period; who needs meat?

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This is a shop bought cherry pie with some home made vanilla ice cream. The pie comes from The Co-op. The poor old Cooperative movement is going through a hard time at the moment having handed over the reins to a bunch of incompetents. Most banks have suffered through greed and over weening ambition. The Coop bank has risked 150 years of ethical service in an unethical world by appointing men who couldn’t oversee heavy drinking on a brewery trip. They hold the Johnson pennies so hope they come through. We buy a pie to help profits. Two days later they declare a £1.3 billion loss but the pie went very well with the ice cream.

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So good that I photographed it twice.

 

 

Day 222: Is That It?

A Little Scrap Book

Being a few thoughts on whether I quietly close the blog now or whether I continue on until September.

It’s been quite a task to complete these notes and reflections of a journey I made a couple of summers ago. The whole blog is meant as a sort of challenge to my writing discipline. There is no point in wanting to write a few pieces if you haven’t got the staying power. I’ve produced a piece every day for the entire journey each of around 1200 words and adding up to about 120,000 words. It was never meant as a serious attempt to have a book to publish but it has become something in itself of which I am quite proud. I was only really interested in the process but, like many things, if you get the process right then the product is often quite decent. I would like to have the piece as a lasting reminder of the journey and also as a personal look at the country; a sort of state of the nation if you will.

To that end I intend to continue the process of developing my skills as a travel writer by giving the draft time to sit in the bottom drawer before practicing another skill I have never used; that of taking a full manuscript and re-working it. I feel that what I have so far is an equivalent of a successful first read through of a play. Considerable editing and enormous amount of rehearsal will be needed to get it ready for performance.

Isn’t it a little bad mannered to have served up this early draft for readers of my blog? Well, perhaps but I think you have all been aware that this is an example of going through the writing process in public and as such is of interest in itself. I still don’t know if what I have is going to be submitted at any point for publication. Apart from the work still involved, I have fluctuating faith in whether this is what even a tiny proportion of the reading world is waiting for. On some days I think I have the makings of an individual insight into the way things are in this country, on other days I have considerable doubts. In this I am sure I am being faithful to the writing tradition.

I’m keen to have a day off from writing. I have a second project in mind and will begin my A-Z tour of towns in the East Midlands on Sunday. My challenge in September was to write a blog post every day for a year and I’m going to stick with that. I had wracked and pondered long and hard as to whether I should close the blog at this point. I’ve exceeded any numerical ambitions I had in terms of views and likes and follows. I’ve met up with a bunch of fellow travellers and bloggers whose company I enjoy and I mean to see it through til the end of August.

The food blogs will continue at the weekends and I may even return to some more detailed ones with recipes. My A – Z will allow me a bag full of days out and the chance to write about places I know and places I have yet to meet. I want to re trace parts of my bicycle route in order to take the photographs that will make the blog all my own work photographically as well as from a writing viewpoint. (At the moment about 75% of the photographs are my own). When I set off on the journey I had good intentions of writing it into a travelogue (I’d had such intentions many times before but never any end product) and wanted a few photographs to act as notes to help remind me of places. As the blog grew I realised I hadn’t taken anything like enough pictures. I intend to remedy that.

In the meantime here are some of the photographs that didn’t get included. Thank you for your forbearance, your kindness and your support. I’ve enjoyed writing this story and your company has made it a most rewarding journey.

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A photo that reminds me that getting up in the morning to explore and write notes was as much a part of the journey as the cycling. The clock is showing 6 a.m..

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The back of the pub I stayed at in Lochmaben and a glimpse of the bicycle that carried me around. Lochmaben was one of many places I had never heard of, but should have done.

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Kirby Stephen was one of many towns I got to know along the way.

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Upper Wharfedale in Yorkshire.

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Two fishermen in a boat on a Scottish loch. Dumfries and Galloway

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Bolton Abbey. Even if you don’t care for ruined monasteries you still have to admire the view.

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I spent 18 months working at Haworth Youth Hostel as a younger man. It was strange going back.

 

 

Day 221: Journey’s End

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A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 109

There’s just one final hill and a final phone call, which is actually only the second I have made on the journey. (Communication with home has been both ancient in the form of long letters each day, and modern in the form of texts that often gave a necessary boost when spirits were down). We arrange to meet at a health club in Chesterfield where I can catch up with what has been happening and give my account of the final day in an over-sized jacuzzi with jets of hot water pummelling my aching muscles. I say I’ll be there in an hour and then set off towards Baslow. Within two hundred yards I start to think that an hour was an optimistic estimate. My legs have gone to sleep. The road in front appears quite flat but it suddenly feels very hard work indeed.

 

At Baslow I buy a cake to see if I’ve simply bonked (cycling expression for running out of fuel) and it does seem to do the job. I’ve never bought anything in Baslow without having either my vocabulary or pronunciation challenged. It is the sort of place where they know better than you and are not slow in pointing this out. I like all of the Derbyshire villages whether they be affluent haunts of retired grandees or run down communities recovering from a closed down colliery. I’m not designed to get on with Baslow though. It’s an attractive and well-maintained place; we just don’t make a happy couple.

“Can I have some of the chocolate cake please?”

“You mean the torte?”

I’m sure they are very pleasant and only trying to be helpful. One day I’ll be educated enough to order something without need for correction.

For the next mile or so there is no choice but to share the main road with the lorries and coaches. There is a pavement for some of the way but it is decayed and potholed and covered in sticks and twigs. I only know one way of cycling on busy roads and that is to keep a little distance from the kerb and pedal like the fury. Research has shown that cyclists who try to show  respect to cars and lorries by cycling in the gutter get knocked off far more often than those who stand their ground a safe couple of feet from the causeway.

By the time I reach the Robin Hood public house I’m flying and also able to take the back road towards Chesterfield and leave the pantechnicons to fight it out amongst themselves. To be fair, the lorry drivers tend to show courtesy to cyclists, it’s the  white van drivers who are far more of a nuisance. I suppose this is down to the very tight schedules they have to meet, and that they don’t have any particular training or test to pass to drive their vehicles. Drivers of over-sized cars and SUVs are also a particular danger to those on two wheels. So if you drive one of those and are reading this don’t take offence; just show a little more respect to people who have an equal right to use the highway and are not able to go any faster.

The back road is all my own. It rises up above the tree line. Fields never get a deep rich green up here and come flecked with yellows and browns. A herd of water buffalo would have been an unusual sight twenty years ago but we’re getting used to  such things. Just before the summit I see a little owl.

Photo The Guardian

Photo The Guardian

The down slope goes under the delightful name of Puddingpie Hill and the freewheeling that begins here goes all the way to Chesterfield. I’m turning the pedals though. I’ve got my final wind and I’m turning my wheels in the style of Laurent Fignon. I feel very like the great French cyclist; strong legs, prominent spectacles giving an impression of great intellectual activity and a dreadful haircut. If I keep the revs high I can make my rendezvous with a couple of minutes to spare.

Down through Old Brampton with its well maintained gardens  and general air of being quite happy for most people to pass on through. A sign says that the car park is for church use only. It seems a little un Christian; particularly on weekdays. It goes well with the numerous Neighbourhood Watch signs. I get an urge to get off and try every car door on the road just to watch the curtains twitch.

Chesterfield Town Hall

Chesterfield Town Hall

I choose the Newbold route into town as it allows me to pass a school where I spent a happy four years. It was on a split site and the one where I mostly taught is waste ground where once English, French and science was taught. It is desolate and spooky. The past is another country. I once gave an assembly here asking what it was that made a school. Was it the buildings or the ever changing list of staff and pupils who inhabit it? Now the people have gone and the buildings are no more and the school exists only in the memories of those for whom it once meant more than just a place to spend seven and a half hours every day.

The other building has gone too being replaced as part of the new school building project that has replaced ageing and decaying buildings with a new generation of schools that are already showing their age, are not quite fit for purpose and have somehow left huge sums of money owing to the construction companies who have grown rich from the scheme.

Chesterfield is an ancient town with a proud history of mining and engineering. It was a Chesterfield company that dug the channel tunnel. Railway engineer George Stephenson made the town his home in his later years. In the old days I used to like passing through the town on the train. The sight of the famous crooked spire on the church and the smell of  the liquorice assorts factory made it stand out from other stations on the line. The spire is one of those sights that make you stop and look. The town reflects the county of Derbyshire in that it has a middle class, prosperous and pretty side and a working class, industrial side. Much of the industrial heritage has disappeared in recent years to be replaced with huge supermarkets of the food and comestible type or the DIY type or the bed and sofa type. The modern planners have little to congratulate themselves on. Their predecessors did a better job. The town centre is nicely laid out and the large and well proportioned market square hosts a lively market. I like Chesterfield a lot.

I power through the final roundabouts and park my bicycle under the stairs of the health club. We joined when it was popular with people looking for a moderate work-out, a gentle swim and a chat about your holidays. Lately it has become haunt of steroid and iron pumping twerps with more tattoos than brain cells. It’s quiet this afternoon though and we have the hot tub all to ourselves. It’s been a terrific journey but it’s wonderful to be back home again.

We just sit in the bubbling water talking, and then in the steam and the sauna. We swim a few lengths together and talk. This is simply the best part of the whole journey. Later T drives my bags back home and I pedal the last eight miles unburdened. It feels un-natural and at first the bike bucks and wobbles. I could have put it in the back of the car and driven home. It just seemed important to pedal every mile out and every mile back again. Three weeks one summer. Five countries and just over a thousand miles.

Day 220: This Land is Your Land

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A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 108

I’m cycling through the Chatsworth estate and singing in full throated ease:


Yes I’m the man, the very fat man, 

That waters the workers’ beer,
And what do I care if it makes them
ill,
If it makes them terribly queer,
I’ve a car and a yacht and an
aeroplane,
And I waters the workers’ beer.

I’ve passed notices and collection boxes on this estate that say things like: “The upkeep of these grounds is expensive. Your donation is appreciated.” Well, it’s nice to know that one of the richest men in England is happy to beg money of those of slender means. I declined the invitation. But I’m entranced. Despite my man of the people singing, you can’t help but admire the parkland. I’d prefer it to belong to the National Trust but it is astonishingly lovely no matter who owns it.

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Like a great deal of eighteenth century parkland in England, this is very much the work of one Lancelot “Capability” Brown. Garden design is an art form when taken to the highest levels. Vita Sackville West was  accomplished enough as a novelist to secure her place in the country’s roll of honour. It is for the gardens that she created at Sissinghurst in Kent that she will be remembered. You can’t beat a well designed garden. I love to walk among the rhododendrons and azaleas at Muncaster Castle. Newstead Abbey is council run and the gardens there do full justice to the memory of Lord Byron and the art of the municipal spadesman.

If you make a mistake in gardening though, it soon becomes obvious. Most garden plants grow, mature and flower in a year,  and those that don’t will have established themselves within a handful of years. If you’ve put them in the wrong place then all you’ve got to do is to dig them out (at the right time of year) and re-plant them somewhere else.

It’s not quite so easy with parkland. First of all the groundworks require skill and patience in planning and enormous man-hours in accomplishing. It takes years for them to bed down and  take on the desired form. Then you have the problem of the planting. Parkland requires mature, slow growing, English broad leaf trees to achieve its desired effect. It could take fifty years to even notice if you’ve planted one of these in the wrong place and a further fifty years for it’s replacement to grow in the right place. Vision is the most over-used word in the world of mediocre management. (I know what I’m talking about here. I’ve been a teacher for nearly thirty years and (with notable exceptions) have experienced some of the most mediocre management the country has produced. Managers who talk of “the vision thing” and who use expressions like “clear sky thinking” and “thinking outside the box” are invariably people who don’t even know where the box is or which way is up. One man who did have the vision thing though, was old Lancelot Brown.

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Here at Chatsworth he diverted the river, re-landscaped the grounds, planted hundreds of trees, over-saw the eviction of tenants and created a work of art. He didn’t look at what he was doing from the point of view of the present but looked instead at how it would appear in fifty or a hundred years. Almost every landscape in Britain is man made in that what you see is the result of human activity.  The land I am cycling through is almost exclusively man made. It really is a stunning achievement.

The road is going up and down like a wave machine. Old Capability liked his humps and his hollers. It’s by far the most tiring terrain to cycle, because it gives you the impression you can go fast. It’s like the PE exercise older teachers used to call fartlek, and the new, trendy ones, with their initials on the chest of their matching track suits, call interval training. It’s slow, flat out, slow, fast, very slow, sprint. Within fifteen minutes I’m deadbeat.

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Stopping under a tree and eating a Mars bar and finishing off the large bottle of cola I bought in Cheadle, I look down at the house. It has been in more films than most British actors. Many visitors think of it as the big house out of Pride and Prejudice and it’s been the family home of the Cavendish family; otherwise known as the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire; since it was sold to the first Duke by his brother, the son of original owner and builder; Bess of Hardwick. Bess was an attractive woman in her way and she made it her life’s work to marry and see off a succession of extraordinarily rich husbands. They brought vast wealth and huge estates to the union; she brought her not inconsiderable physical charms. They had their ways of making a living in the sixteenth century that involved emptying other people’s pockets. Today the 12th duke is able to stand by the cash registers as hordes of visitors get charged £65 for a family ticket that lets them see not only parts of the house, most of the garden and even (gasp at the value for money), the farmyard.

In addition to the house, the parkland, a working farm and a large number of other tenant farms across the whole of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, the estate has priceless paintings by old masters, a collection of classical and neo-classical sculptures and some books that only a Getty could afford to take off their hands. The Duke, Peregrine Cavendish and the Duchess (the former Amanda Carmen Heywood-Lonsdale) live in one of the most desirable residences on the planet while assorted children, cousins, step sisters and hangers on contemplate the accidental but entirely fatal mini-bus accident that would bring them wealth, riches and leisure beyond their wildest dreams.

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In recent times the family has shown themselves in step with the egalitarian nature of the modern world. In 2010 the Duke announced his intention to renounce his title on the grounds that the aristocracy isn’t what it used to be if and the toffs can’t run the country then what is the point. His son and heir has shown similar man of the people tendencies in declining the right to be known as the Marquess of Hartington, preferring the altogether more plebeian Earl of Burlington.

I get back on my bicycle and pedal past the village of Edensor which was built especially for the estate workers, and onwards towards the little town of Baslow. I’ve got my breath back and I’m once more in fine voice and belting out the words of the Woody Guthrie song. It is hard to believe that it is the twenty first century.

“This land is your land, this land is my land

From California to the New York Island

From the red-wood forests to the gulf stream waters

This land belongs to you and me.”

photo by Wesley Trevor Johnson

I don’t think I’ll get much of a sing song going. And then it’s dilemma time. There’s a farm shop on the estate, and it is no ordinary farm shop. It is one of the finest food emporiums in the East Midlands. Here you can buy a whole or half grass fed lamb, all neatly jointed and presented in a cardboard box, organic beef that has been well hung, venison, partridge, grouse and pheasant. Much of the meat comes from the estate. You can enjoy breads and pies baked on site. There are fish and seafood and all sorts of produce and provender from the better northern suppliers. The revolution will have to wait. I’m joining the queue for potted shrimps and a freshly churned ice-cream. The movement of money from poor to rich in England claims yet another victim.

Day 219: Best Bib and Tucker

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A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 107

If set the task of choosing which of Dovedale or the Manifold Valley I like the best I would have to go for the Manifold. It’s where my family come from. It’s steeped in history of industry and agriculture. It’s quieter and less known. It’s astonishingly lovely and it even has a legend of a headless horseman. Dovedale is grand though, especially if you get there early on a weekday morning.

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This familiar hill is near Berrisford Dale on the Staffordshire, Derbyshire border.

Hartington is where I cross my final county border (there have been a good few of these … I think I crossed and re-crossed the Leitrim/Roscommon border about six times in one morning!) and I’m back in the county where the ride began. The town is busy and a procession of hikers have put on their best walking trousers (the sort that will survive a trip across the wastes of Greenland) to walk two miles of flattish footpaths through green fields and along the banks of a chuckling stream, to the place where Charles Cotton fished. The trousers haven’t been bought in vain. There’s still the two miles back along the same path. Just as well they also invested in special walking boots, special walking socks and an all weather anorak. The 1:25000 Ordnance Survey map looks good in the special plastic map holder. I can’t help but notice that those without special gear manage the same walk quite well in sandals and shorts.

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Pike Pool. Made famous by Charles Cotton in The Compleat Angler

I’m reminded of the Two Ronnies sketch where big Ronnie, wearing plimsolls and a suit with trousers slightly rolled, has just beaten club secretary and the captain of the A team, little Ronnie, dressed in full squash regalia including designer headband, at squash, “Game Love, Game Love Game Love Game Love”, despite having never played before and not knowing the rules.

Hikers really do like to wear the correct gear and are seemingly prepared to pay whatever it costs. Those outdoor shops in Hathersage and Ambleside are not cheap. Buying the right gear is perfectly sensible if you are walking the Pennine Way or spending the night on Kinder Scout. The majority of Peak District hikers rarely get more than three miles from their cars. I suppose it is nice to get involved and feel you belong. I know a fellow in my village who dresses in racing shoes, Ferrari T shirt and cap just to watch the Formula One races in his own front room. I’ve been on mountain leadership courses and the advice is trainers in the dry, wellies in the wet.

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The walk from Hartington down the Dove into first, Berrisford Dale and then the enchanting Wolfscote Dale is worth dressing up for. There’s a solid footpath all the way down the river now. If you need expensive boots for this walk then you’ll need them for most high streets. I can remember when there was only a trailing sheep’s path down the Wolfscote section. It is still glorious but you don’t get quite the same feeling of getting away from it all

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Hartington is a name I associate with Christmas and my early awakening to the delights of good food. Each year my grandmother would buy a whole Hartington Stilton cheese and divide it among her daughters and their families for the festive table. The cheese factory is still there but doesn’t seem to be in production. I go into the shop and ask for some Hartington Stilton. When I get it home it is labelled Colston Bassett. (The Stilton Web-Page no longer lists Hartington as one of the officially licenced dairies… I feel a little bit of my heritage has been taken away. The Hartington Stilton was, to my tastebuds, the finest of them all).

And then it’s a long ride up the side of a limestone valley. I feel like WH Auden’s Nightmail. The gradient’s against me but I’m on time. Summer flowers, old discarded lime kilns and fields of a green that you only get in this part of Derbyshire. It’s a good old pull on legs and lungs and a very pleasant one. There is an alternative. I could take the Tissington Trail. It’s a cycle path along a disused mineral railway line. There are no hills and you get some terrific views. It can also be like riding in a huge, slow moving, disorganised peloton. It is very popular with occasional pedlars. Occasional pedallers are very good at getting in the way.

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Trails like these are a fantastic way to get out and see some of the wonders of the Peak District. They’re just not for me. I like my hills. For every half hour spent pulling steadily up one there is the reward of the descent. A short section of main road and then the simple pleasure of turning left onto quiet country lanes that take me under sycamores and leadeth me unto green pastures. There are few greater pleasures to the touring cyclist than to get the combination of glorious countryside, quiet roads and several miles of gradual downhill. It doesn’t much matter which of the little web of roads you take, you’ll eventually find yourself descending through Youlgreave. It’s a rather attractive village (almost a town) that has brought out walkers and trippers to show off their four season hiking kit to each other over a pint outside one of the three pubs.

Photo courtesy of Been There Done That

Youlgreave is sizeable and prosperous. It is the centre of a debate over how to spell its own name. Road signs and maps differ and a local historian has listed a couple of dozen variations on the spelling in different documents. However you spell it, it does well in the poetic name for a village list. I have many happy memories of the place going back to the 1970s.

The afternoon is turning into a journey to as many of the thirty rivers that flow into the Trent as I can manage. I’ve already done the Manifold and the Dove. Here I follow Rowlow Brook which becomes the River Bradford. This in turn joins the Lathkill and by the time I reach the A6 just south of Haddon Hall I’m keeping company with The River Wye. Of all the Derbyshire stately homes, I would say that Haddon Hall is the one most worth visiting. Not only is it a rather beautiful Tudor mansion with glorious gardens, it is kept in such a way as to give a real feeling of the history of the place. There are guided tours but I find them un-necessary. The history of the place speaks through the joints and joists and the well chosen and preserved items of furniture.

I don’t stop. I’ve got an unavoidable five miles of major trunk road and am glad that the gradient is downwards. My legs are tiring and, though I’m within an hour’s car journey of home, I’ve still got some serious wheel-turning ahead of me. At Rowsley I leave the thundering lorries behind me and change the Wye for the Derwent. (Both of these rivers have namesakes. In England we have found enough names for many thousand villages and towns without too many duplications. We haven’t been able to manage the same with our rivers. Or maybe we like the names so much we use them over and over. There are several River Derwents in England. The River Wye I’m leaving is not the same as the Sylvan Wye that Wordsworth wrote about in Tintern Abbey (though I’d followed the upper waters of that river as well on my journey). We have a handful of Rivers called Ouse and a selection of River Avons. When you consider that the word Avon actually means river then you come to the conclusion that we’ve been a bit limited in our creative use of fluvial nomenclature. Having said that, I rather like the names of our rivers … with the possible exception of the Irk and the Goyt).

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I’m pedalling upstream now. This is an eighteenth century roadway and it’ll take me through the grounds and past the front of one of our most famous country houses. It will also take me to the foot of the last major climb of this entire journey.

Day 218: The Old Folks at Home

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A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 106

Past the Jervis Arms and over the river. I no longer drink beer nor have I ever really taken to fishing but I could easily be tempted into a pint in the beer garden of this most villagey of village pubs, and I could spend an hour or two on the banks of this little river. It isn’t just the family connections with this part of the world; it is that this part of the world still has something that the rest of England lost in the last century. The Staffordshire Peak District isn’t as frequented as the Derbyshire Peak. It’s still more about farming and the making of a living from the fields. It’s about the true country way of life not about the accommodation of visitors. Of course there are comers in. Look for old wagon wheels in the paddock and you’ll have the home of a wealthy displaced townie. Look for uPVC windows and you’ll have someone a little out of kilter with the country way of doing things. But these are the minority in this valley.

Photo by Dandly

Photo by Dandly

You’d feel it in a car but you can’t miss it on a bicycle. This is countryside pure and lovely. Peace and quiet in abundance. Birdsong, yes, but even that in moderation. This is after all August and the early afternoon. I’m taken by the almost perfect proportion of trees in the landscape. This is farmland not woodland yet there must be a hundred full grown oaks and sycamores as well as well grown hedges. By the river are willows and alders.

The sun is warm now and I’m cycling with the ghosts of people I’m descended from and memories of the times I’ve been here before. I was at the other end of adulthood then and saw the world in a different way. I’m cycling my own life. My mind a charm of memories half caught and fleeting; not to be held onto. Like dreams they are there but cannot be caught. I ride on and turn right towards Butterton because that is the way we went when we were younger.

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I’m missing half my gears but have the luxury of choosing which half to manage without. The front cog changer has fouled. I can force the chain across by hand when not riding. The choice is big downhill gears or little ones for the hills. This is Staffordshire.  I need the smallest gears I can muster. Gravity can look after the downhill.

Just before Butterton, the Manifold Valley suddenly opens out below. It is a captivating sight. This is the true land of my fathers. Well my mother’s fathers, and back into time.

Butterton is beautiful. It seems to have combined it’s new role as a dormitory village for Leek, Ashbourne and Stoke with being the hub of the agricultural life that goes on around. There’s a decent shop and a pub that calls on this non-drinker in a way that most hostelries fail to do. I resist the pull but am unable to pass the church. The matching of architecture to location and purpose has seldom been better achieved. The spire is slender and elegant and can be seen from many parts of the valley. Take away churches from the English landscape and you take away a great deal. The rising finger of the church is a relatively new addition being only 150 years old.

This place is known as a Thankful Village; a village where all the sons who went off to the Great War returned home safely. It is the only one in the county. I knew people here when I was younger. They now lie in the churchyard under gravestones that have acquired much lichen. I sit with them for a while and simply remember.

Ecton Hill rises boldly above the valley. It’s not the highest in the county but at 1200 ft it’s a good climb to the top. There you find windblown grass (I cannot remember a time when the wind didn’t blow strongly on these tops), sheep and fenced off mine shafts. There are few properties around here now but this was once the heart of industrial Staffs. Copper and lead has been mined here for three thousand years. In the eighteenth century enough ore was dug out of this hill to copper-bottom the British navy and to fund the building of The Crescent at Buxton. I’ve been underground here; deep underground. The hill is honeycombed with shafts and tunnels and passages. Some regard it as one of the few hollow hills in England. There’s still a mighty bulk there. It dominates this part of the Manifold Valley and overlooks the village of Warslow.

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It’s yet another steep climb from Ecton to Warslow, but this time it isn’t too long. Only one stop to pretend to be studying nature while actually gasping for breath.

Warslow is the family home. My mother was something of a skilled storyteller and wove tales around her childhood in the valley. A handful of photographs and memories of these stories are all that remain. I still have my cousin Peter at Ecton and believe there are still some folk around here that connect. The fact is that both my mother and father kept their family stories obscure. I’m following myths and cyphers.

In the churchyard of St Lawrence’s Church I know I am among family. Just about every other gravestone declares the fact. My grandfather is buried here but he died in the depression of the 1930s that took away the living and the family farm. He’s somewhere to the side and the rear of the church according to another cousin but there is no headstone. The family simply couldn’t afford one. My widowed grandmother and my mother and aunts left the valley shortly afterwards.

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I take a wander down the lane where they lived. The house is now rather lovely; has been built onto in a way that fits with the original building. It’s in good hands. You can tell by the planting in the garden. These aren’t the latest ideas from the garden centre but a deep dyed-in-the-wool English garden techniques with established plants of fine vintage growing into each other with the apparent random beauty that only comes with great skill. I want to sketch it but there is nowhere to sit other than right in the driveway and that might be a little intrusive. I take a quick photograph and make my sketch from this.

Homestead Warslow_0001

 

I have little skill with a pencil (in this case charcoal) but find the act of drawing brings me closer to the object drawn. You notice more. You become a part of what it is. I’ve heard of this building before but I’ve never seen it. I’m charmed in more ways than one.

At one time, not very long ago, everyone in this village was tied together by a way of life. They followed the seasons and they were tied to the soil. Now the villagers come from further afield and are tied together by little more than living in the same place. My grandfather and his brother marched off to the trenches of Flanders, they played in the silver band and they sheered the fleece and bound the sheaves. I’m not saying that the village has turned for the worse but something has been lost and it won’t come back again. My Auntie and uncle returned to live here after forty years of city life. They took to it well but were astonished that the new residents found so much to complain of in living in the country. One asked a farmer if his cows could make less noise as he brought them in for milking. Another made a formal complaint that she was being woken every morning by a noisy neighbour who climbed onto a nearby farm wall and screeched a full throated cock-a-doodle-doo! to the village. “I wouldn’t mind if it was just once.” said the complainer. “But the damn thing did it again and again.”

If I hadn’t lost my way between Cheadle and Waterhouses I would have missed all of this. I feel very happy in a rather melancholy sort of way. I know these stones and these streets are part of who I am, of where I came from but I equally know that they are not me, not mine; that they are now part of somebody else’s stories; and I’m quite happy about that. This town isn’t all that big but it is quite big enough for more than one set of memories and remembrances.

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