Day 357: In Search of Lord Byron


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A-Z of the East Midlands: N is for Newstead (Part One)

You take the rough with the smooth around here. I’m sitting overlooking the cricket field at Nuncargate and contemplating Duncan Hamilton’s excellent biography of local hero Harold Larwood.  I am approached by a man who seems to encapsulate violence in its purest form. From the military fatigues to the stretched earlobes. From the aggressive gait to the face like a throwing knife. He indicated that he wished to join me and I made room for him on the bench. Without preamble he started to talk about how England’s greatest ever fast bowler came from a mining community like Nuncargate. He had a mellow and gentle voice and knew his stuff. We talked for a long dozen minutes of cricket and coal mining and the way the recession hits places like this first and deepest. I enjoyed his company and was delighted to discover that memories of Harold Larwood were alive and respectful in the village where he was born 110 years ago.

Larwood had been a brilliant cricketer, a fearsome fast bowler and a loyal member of the team. History has some putting right to do. He is remembered as a villain on both sides of the world. This is a wrong. He was as much a hero as any sporting great to come out of this country. He followed the instructions of his aristocratic captain so successfully that he was the main reason why England beat Australia in 1932-3. The series became known by a single word; bodyline. The instructions were to aim at the leg side of the batsman and, to complete the tactic, the leg side field was filled with fielders in catching positions. It caused consternation and even heated the telegraph wires between the diplomats of the two countries. Larwood’s faults were that he followed the instruction given to him, by his captain Douglas Jardine, to the letter and that he was a good enough, and quick enough bowler to do it very well. In the 1980s the West Indies side won test series after test series using very similar tactics. Their fast bowlers are rightly considered  to be some of the greats of the game. The English cricket authorities cravenly apologised to the Australians for the manner in which victory was achieved. They put all the blame on the man from Nuncargate. Though still at his peak, he barely played for England again. His fortune waned, he left cricket to open a sweet shop in Blackpool and when that too went against him, he emigrated to Australia; the land where he was supposed to be the devil. He lived a good age but was never fully reconciled with the English cricketing world. The Australians however accepted him and recognised his achievements. There is a statue of him hereabouts, which pleases me.

Well informed as my new friend  was, he had never read anything by the yet more famous son of the area. Over the line of trees from Annesley Woodhouse (Nuncargate is contiguous with this town) lie the grounds of Newstead Abbey, one time home of England’s finest poet (my opinion) George Gordon Byron. I share a line or two and he laughs at the thought that the lines were written two hundred years ago about a member of the British cabinet.

Posterity will ne’er survey

A nobler grave than this:

Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:

Stop, traveller, and piss.

“Aye. I can see that he comes from round here if he writes like that. I always thought it was going to be a load of thees and thous.”

Poetry is supposed to be elevated, uplifting, deferential and respectful. Or so a common misconception implies. People who looked like my new friend were supposed to be people to fear, but he was in fact eloquent and gentle. Aristocratic poets are supposed to explore the abstract concepts of love, honour and valour. Actually Byron did these things better than most but his wicked wit made him a fellow with a huge appeal; a nineteenth century superstar whose light is fading but who should be as widely read, and as truly celebrated, as Shakespeare.

I consider the pair to be on a par. Shakespeare being so much more accessible because he largely wrote plays and his words are spoken for us now on film and on the stage while his poetry remains largely unread. Byron wrote line after line, verse after verse, canto after canto of supremely brilliant verse; funny, rude, disrespectful, acutely observed and directed against the great names of his time. Not many people read poetry these days. Go to a poetry reading and you will have this, as well as having the answer as to why this should be, confirmed for you. If he’d written plays (he was a master of dialogue) he would be far better known today. If he had taken up the new literary form (the novel was about 100 years old when Byron was writing but had yet to make its breakthrough as the dominant literary form) he would command shelves in bookshops in the way Shakespeare does. He was loved, read, admired, despised, hated and adored during his lifetime. Thousands cried all over Europe when he died. There is a simple reason for this. As a man he was famously regarded as being “Mad, bad and dangerous to know.” As a poet he was very, very good.

I move a few miles to Newstead Village. It’s a quiet place with long rows of terraced houses, a primary school, a playground where a sign tells children under 13 not to play on the play equipment, a church, a miner’s welfare social club and a railway station. There is also the unmistakable shape of a colliery spoil heap and a small industrial estate in the former pit yard. The one pub I see, the station hotel, is boarded up and for sale. It is a wonderful building. It must have been a glorious pub in the past and could be again. Its position, literally ten yards from the station platform, make it ideal for the drinkers who don’t want to drive their cars. (Just outside Exeter is a village pub (The Beer Engine in Newton St Cyres) that has built a mighty reputation on exploiting the trade of those who wish to arrive by train). It’s a weekday afternoon in the summer holidays. Hardly anyone is about. A forklift truck trundles through the industrial estate and some council workmen mend the roof of the school. The village used to be officially called Newstead Colliery Village. When the pit closed in 1986 it took the heart out of the community. It is still a pleasant place to be but there isn’t much happening. Outside the school weird doll like mannequins stand in place of real children. They somehow symbolise the village.

In Annesley the same story can be told. The pit wheels proudly stand above the site of the colliery. Large tin sheds of industrial estates offer some employment but they add little to the beauty or the grace. A lot of new housing has been built using off the shelf architecture that could make this Folkstone or Peterlee. Everything built here in the last twenty years fights against the natural character of the place. The village has survived two world wars and a century of working at the coal face but has suffered badly from the politicians and planners of more recent times.

A mile or so from Annesley Cutting I find what I set out for. I needed three sets of instructions from three intelligent and obliging people. The first said I might have difficulty parking. The second said she didn’t know how I was going to actually get in as it was so overgrown and the third merely wished me good luck.

I’d been looking for Annesley Old Church and with it I knew I should find Annesley Hall. I knew one to be a ruin the other I had no expectations of. Wiki had told me it was in private hands. I’d come to find the church.

I pull up at the wrong lay-by. I’m by a lodge that has obviously served some grand manor in its time. The pathway into the woods smell a little as though the local youth have taken Byron’s advice for Castlereagh’s grave. I don’t know it but I’m on the “dog and bear path”. It will lead me into the grounds of the Newstead Abbey if I follow it all the way. There are more ghost stories attached to this path than almost any other in Britain. There are also stories of battles and even a Robin Hood narrative. Empty beer cans and numerous signs forbidding motorcycles  (together with plenty of motorcycle tracks) betray the nocturnal hangouts of the young and the bored. I can understand them coming here with a few cans. It is a beautiful place to be and a heck of a place to exchange stories.

I get  different views of the ancillary buildings attached to Annesley Hall but not a sign of a church.

The next lay by proves more successful. I’m parked and wandering slowly under the tower that DH Lawrence described in The White Peacock.

The church is abandoned. As I drew near an owl floated softly out of the black tower. Grass overgrew the threshold. I punched open the door, grinding back a heap of fallen plaster and entered the place.”

and Lord Byron wrote with some relief that childhood sweetheart Mary Ann Chaworth remained nothing more than a childhood sweetheart.

Hills of Annesley, bleak and barren,

Where my thoughtless childhood stray’d,

How the northern tempests warring,

Howl above thy tufted shade


Now no more, the hours beguiling,

Former favourite haunts I see,

Now no more my Mary smiling,

Makes ye seem a heaven to me.”

It is a truly magical place.

(To be Continued)



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Day 355: Painting the Town Red


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A-Z of the East Midlands: M is for Melton Mowbray

It’s all in the place name and Melton Mowbray was in the front row when they gave out names. It should sound dated or even vaguely comic in the way that my home towns of Huddersfield and Barrow in Furness do. It should sound a little pretentious in the way that double barrelled surnames did until the habit was swamped by people from a different tradition. It should even sound quaint; the alliteration adding to the effect. But it doesn’t. It isn’t dated, comic, pretentious or quaint. It is the near perfect name for an historic market town in the middle of England. And no name could sound better as the home of the best of pies and the king of cheeses.

The town shouldn’t be taken in isolation. Melton (means middle town) has been a market town since before the Norman conquest. It is more closely linked with the outlying villages of the borough than is usually the case. Beautiful broad acres of fields, wolds, woods and vales surround the town and this countryside (which matches the Cotswolds for its picturesque splendour) is very much a part of what makes the town what it is.

It doesn’t always get appreciated. The young woman, in the fine linen pinafore, who served us our breakfast in a delightful upstairs tea room thought long and hard.

“Do you like living in Melton?” I asked as she smilingly took our order.

“Oh yes. It’s a wonderful place.”

“What should  we see while we’re here?”

This was the tricky question. She started as though a whole list of un-missables was about to cascade forth. In reality she was  stuck. “There’s the pie shop.” she suggested. “And the cheese factory. You don’t want to miss that.” And she couldn’t think of anything else.


In the barbers’ two rather beautiful women sat and looked up from their magazines  and state of distrait as I came in. A greying, unshaven middle aged man with a need for a haircut didn’t have them fighting each other for the right to trim. The slender darker haired one lost the battle of wills and got the task.

“You not working today?”

“No, just on a visit to the town.”

“By yourself are you?”

“No, my wife is having a wander around the shops.”

A long pause ensued. “What is there to see in Melton?” I asked.

“There’s nothing much here. Bit boring if you ask me.”

“Do you live in the town?”

She mentioned some nearby village that I didn’t catch, though the change of tone suggested that she rated it as an altogether more suitable place. Once shaved, clipped and anointed with a dab of pomade I answered her enquiry as to whether sir was pleased with his coiffure by stating my readiness and intention to “paint the town red.” They both wished me good luck and returned to their magazines and air of boredom.

Melton Mowbray claims to have given the world the above expression. In 1837 Henry Beresford and a bunch of hunting friends arrived in the town in a jocular state and proceeded to indulge in some high jinks of the sort that rich young men do. If they were working men, farm labourers or poor people then the high jinks might have been misconstrued as acts of gross vandalism, riot, assault and offensive behaviour. Beresford (or the Marquess of Waterford to give him his preferred title) and his cronies were a sort of pre-cursor of the Oxford Bullingdon Club. A bunch of over-privileged, egocentric, boorish twerps who couldn’t hold their drink.

After being requested to put a stop to their loud and loutish behaviour they caused considerable damage to the town, caused actual bodily harm to several people who were trying to keep the peace, assaulted several policemen and stole buckets of paint which they proceeded to daub on property and ornaments around the town centre. Their antics are remembered fondly (they were rich after all) as being the source of the expression. In reality the term “painting the town red” had been in accepted usage for some time before 1837.

Beresford was also considered to be the most likely suspect for the London prowler, stalker and possible rapist, Spring Heeled Jack. He may well have been, though that fellow’s actions continued after the death of the Marquess. For some reason a large element of British society seems to endorse such behaviour if performed by the silver spooned. A good percentage of our current political leadership were once in the Bullingdon Club.

Extending to the south of Melton Mowbray is a diamond shaped part of the country that is almost heart meltingly lovely. It has become the home of the well-heeled and, partly because of this (not all toffs are knobs) it retains a peaceful serenity that matches anywhere in England. Bounded to north and south by Melton and Market Harborough and to west and east by Leicester and Oakham it can lay claim to be the true heart of Merry England.

IMGP0630The countryside isn’t too shabby to the north either. As you leave the town you are soon on the ups and downs that are the Nottinghamshire Wolds. Here you’ll find villages that make you want to linger. Beyond these you enter the magnificent Vale of Belvoir (pronounced Beaver) with a line of villages that have become synonymous with good food and the best of English traditions. Long Clawson, Cropwell Bishop, Colston Bassett and Saxelbye are all homes in the Vale where England’s finest cheese is made. It is also made in Melton itself and has been made in Hungarton in Leicestershire and Hartington in Derbyshire (in my opinion the home of the very best). The one place where Stilton cheese was never manufactured was in the village of Stilton. It’s a strong flavoured, creamy blue veined cheese, though a milder white version is also made. Perfect for any occasion where taste is the uppermost consideration in a cheese. My grandmother used to buy a whole Stilton (from Hartington) and distribute it among the branches of the family as her Christmas present. I’m a huge admirer of British cheese and eat my share of good Lancashire, Wensleydale and Cheddar. It would be a Stilton cheese though that I would put forward as the very best of English cheese making, and the Stilton owes its existence to the farmers and dairy workers of Melton Mowbray.

English food producers were very slow in taking advantage of European food laws. For decades they complained of the French, in particular, protecting their food products and wines with “appellation d’origine contrôlée” labels that placed a culinary copyright on products. It was the farmers of this part of North Leicestershire that decided to stop moaning and to take out some licences of their own. Stilton is licenced and cannot be made outside the boundaries of Melton and the Vale of Belvoir. The finest of all pies is also licenced to the town and strict criteria have to be met (mainly to do with quality) before a pork pie can have the Melton Mowbray name attached to it.

DSC_0137A Melton Mowbray Pork Pie is made with uncured pork and a hand raised crust. The pork is chopped rather than minced and is a grey/brown colour as opposed to the strange lurid pink of many factory made pork pies. The hot water crust will bow out at the sides giving the pie it’s distinctive look. The pastry is made and moulded around a pie dolly and should be able to stand freely in an uncooked state. They are pies that are worth travelling for. Several butchers in the town make them and they are all good. The most famous pies are Dickinson and Morris. In their shop in the high street you can buy them in white or red wrappings. The red ones are factory made in Leicester and are a decent enough pie if you can’t get the real thing. The white wrapped pies are hand made in the shop and are not sold anywhere else. Do not, and I repeat, do not leave Melton without buying one. They are one of the real treats of English food and, speaking as a bit of an amateur pie maker, provide the model to aspire to.

If you visit Melton on a market day then you will be among crowds. The cattle market and the produce market happen at the same time (in different parts of the town) and attract shoppers from all around the east midlands. Coach parties drop off their customers. Market day is particularly popular with parties of pensioners. There may be crowds but there is seldom a great deal of haste so expect to spend time waiting for other people to slowly move out of your way.

We are travelling on a quieter day and highlight our visit with a picnic in one of the many well-tended gardens around the town. Of course we have a pie and lots and lots of good fruit and salad from one of the most obliging green grocers I’ve visited in a long time. Here in Melton quality and good service are not to be taken for granted but when they come together they give credence to the town’s claim to be the rural capital of food.

The woman in the barber’s shop was right. If you are looking for a modern-world-good-time there isn’t all that much going on in Melton Mowbray. No theme parks, no arcades, a single cinema and a theatre. A railway station where you can catch a slow train to Cambridge and an overgrown canal. If however, you want good food, friendly people and a few shops that you can’t find in other towns. If you want an impressive church and enough historic buildings to keep you busy for a week and if you want to experience what an English market town (that has held on to its traditions) feels like, then Melton Mowbray is a pretty good place to start.

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Day 354: Avoid the Arsenic on Your Fingers


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Mostly Concerning Food

I’ve had a little holiday this week. A holiday all by myself. With a hotel and a room of my own and everything. The first time I’ve been away without T for a long time. The first time I’ve been away without Jolly since she became one of the family. I was visiting towns for my ABC of the parts of England you can reach in a day trip from my house. It may seem to be stretching the rules to need a night in a hotel (actually an abbey … more in future alphabet posts) but I visited 4 towns that were all within bounds. To do any of them was a day trip. To do all four, and to do them justice, was an away trip. I really enjoyed it.DSC_0001There is a new challenge in the Johnson household. The tight-fisted Waitrose challenge. If you spend £5 (£10 at weekends) you get a free newspaper to go with your free cup of coffee. The task is to buy stuff you actually want while spending as close to the money as possible. When David is at home he wins every time. Rarely does he go over by more than a penny or two. T spent £14.88 this week. I spent £14.01. Neither are in the David class. The interest  lies in the difference in what we chose to buy. T got Key Lime Pie, Iced Belgian Buns, Fruit Teacakes, bananas, lemons, English mustard and cans of Pellegrino Limonata. I got Matzos, Taleggio cheese, a packet of what my receipt lists as “Wonky Chomps” which are dog treats, potted shrimps, Colston Bassett Stilton and Elsinore Caviar. I was quite proud of my shopping and have enjoyed tucking into it all since. Only some mustard and the Stilton remains. And all to get a free Telegraph and a Guardian.

DSC_0006Potted shrimps are one of the great English treats. Traditionally served as an afternoon tea in Lancashire, Cumberland and Westmoreland (and Lord Peter Wimsey novels) they make a fabulous breakfast. There is some debate on the internet about how best to serve them. You can’t do better than to pile them onto hot toast and allow the heat of the toast to soften the butter. A squirt of lemon juice turns something good into something marvellous. At £2.99 these are highly recommended. Well done Waitrose. I used to have to travel back home to get them (though the Chatsworth farm shop also has them on the shelves).

DSC_0011I promised Sarah that I would make fruit teacakes this week and add a recipe. Unfortunately my travels have precluded this (Next week) but we’ve still managed to eat a few. Apparently you cannot get these in Ireland. If you are an Irish baker I suggest you jump to fill this gap in the market. It is happiness on a plate.

DSC_0015The good harvest continues. We look set to be self sufficient for salad crops for weeks to come. Not only is it fun. Not only is it easy and convenient but the taste is light years ahead. These tomatoes and spring onions sing on the taste buds. Even the lollo rosso lettuce, which I have never been fond of, is a treat on the plate and the palette.

DSC_0014Stewart usually appears if there is a strong smelling cheese on the table. Here he is attracted by the Taleggio. He wrinkles his nose and walks away when actually offered some. He’s a Cheddar man if ever there was one!

DSC_0018DSC_0021We’re too late for the fresh cream cakes at the local bakery and had to settle for their version of Bakewell Tart. Incidentally, did you know that the cream cakes advertising slogan “naughty but nice” was written by Salman Rushdie in his copywriting days. This Bakewell was perfect if you had run out of Kendal Mint Cake and were thinking of climbing Scafell Pike. Plenty of pastry and an inch thick of fondant. A little more jam and almond wouldn’t have hurt. Filling rather than thrilling.

DSC_0022The matzos were only 21 pence for a box. I intend to use them more often. Here I use them instead of cream crackers and they are nicer.

DSC_0023DSC_0028Those summer days go on and on.

DSC_0031OK. The pasty challenge of 2014 continues. And it’s time to make real Cornish Pasties. I scour the internet for what looks like the best recipe and am taken by a piece of film showing them being made in Australia. The recipe is simple; skirt (beef), potatoes, swede, onion, salt and pepper and (and this is what tempted me) lots of chopped parsley. I’ve got no end of good parsley at the moment and in it went. I copied the Aussies in mixing the ingredients to allow the salt to draw a little moisture out of the meat and vegetables. It worked but I won’t bother next time. I’ll also miss out the parsley next time. It was nice enough but why mess around with a classic recipe. (Pancakes may work with saffron but they work so well without that it is foolish to bother). I decided to cycle to Bolsover to buy my meat at a proper butcher and vegetables at a proper green grocer. It all added to the enjoyment of the occasion.

DSC_0037We demonstrate a rather greedy aspect of our character when they come out of the oven. I’m away on my trip the following morning and the pasties are my contribution for the family “Bake Off” gathering. Only five of these beauties survive the first evening.

To pick up on the throwing away the crust in the tin mine idea I cast doubt on last week; the miners’ fingers probably had all sorts on that could act as a poison. Very little that is dug out of a Cornish mine is likely to do you any good. Tin, coper and lead are bad enough but there was a strong likelihood that miners would also have a fair smattering of arsenic on their hands. I can understand why they wouldn’t eat the part of the pasty they were holding. I still doubt that they would throw the crust into a shaft. They were supposed to be feeding the “Knockers” (Sort of Cornish pixies) but would more likely be feeding a colony of rats. A bit of lard based pastry would be like a UN food parcel for a hungry rat. I reckon that the scraps would go back in the “snap tin” and be disposed of at the surface.

DSC_0003DSC_0004I have long been an advocate of cooking eggs well. If you can do this then you will always be able to eat well. If you have a daughter who keeps chickens and who brings you freshly laid eggs on a regular basis then you have all the ingredients for happiness. The soft boiled egg is a challenge. It isn’t difficult.

In my opinion the very best flavour of an egg is revealed in a soft boiled egg. Brown bread and butter is the only possible accompaniment apart from a little salt and ground pepper.

DSC_0005It looks luxurious and it sounds expensive. It is neither. Little rounds of toast with some cream cheese and some “Elsinore Caviar”. This is Lumpfish caviar. I have little expertise with regards to the lumpfish but I have long held this as a special treat. It is only £1.99 a jar and I like it better than more expensive caviars I have tasted. (I have never had Beluga Caviar and am unlikely ever to be able to afford £840 for a jar).

DSC_0007It goes rather well with some freshly made coffee. A millionaires breakfast for less than a couple of quid.

DSC_0008I’ve knocked out another batch of pasties ready for the Rugby League Challenge cup final. Sadly I’ll be watching alone this year. I’ve never persuaded T to spend time watching sport on the telly (she occasionally comes to watch a match live) and my usual comrades are busy this year. David is rehearsing for another play and some concerts down in Exeter. Charlie is commentating on the Huddersfield Town versus Charlton Athletic game on hospital radio. I will watch the match by myself. I will eat some pasties and I will have a thoroughly nice time.

DSC_0001DSC_0678This is almost a crime. This is how my cream tea was served in a cafe on my travels. Mistake one is in failing to serve the ingredients separately. Mistake two is to spread one half of the scone (rhymes with gone…if anyone tells you different they are wrong) with margarine. Mistake three is using inferior jam and the worst mistake; the final turd in life’s water pipe (to quote Melchett in Blackadder) is to put squirty cream on the other scone. In fact, I would make it a crime to use squirt cream on anything without a large dollop of irony.

DSC_0677A pity because the tray, the teapot and the cafe were actually quite nice.

IMGP4800The Waitrose sausage sandwich. A good sausage in a good bread roll.

IMGP4801The Waitrose breakfast for the nicer member of the Johnson table.

IMGP4808A fabulous breakfast roll in a Sheffield cafe. The only fault, in my opinion, is the use of smoked bacon (another perfect ingredient that doesn’t need messing about with). The egg was well cooked, the field mushroom exceptional, and the Lincolnshire sausage (the first I’ve had prepared in a coiled link like a Cumberland sausage) was delicious. I can’t remember the name of the café but I will give them a shout out if my next visit proves as happy.

DSC_0271The highlight of my week. I arrive at my Abbey retreat in time for tea. Other guests were being coy but I went for the house special and got a real treat. A delicious selection of sandwiches and cakes and a scone (good jam and whipped double cream). It was too much for one person but I ate it all anyway. The perfect calm and peace of the English countryside. The endless cups of tea and a newspaper. I was happy indeed.

Have an excellent week.

Day 353: Leicester


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A-Z of English Towns: L is for Leicester

Leicester has one of the more idiosyncratic spellings of English towns. Along with Worcester and Gloucester it has people, unfamiliar with the place names, struggling with  the  pronunciation let alone the spelling. The “cester” part actually signifies that they were Roman settlements. We should settle uncomplainingly for the current spellings. All have had far more difficult versions in the past. Gleawcester isn’t actually too far away from the way  west country locals pronounce their city after a pint or two. Without the natural evolution of the English language we could be shopping for Wigreceastrescir sauce to pep up our tomato juice or Bloody Mary. And today’s town was once to be found in the county of Lægreceastrescir. If we seek a simpler version further back in time, we could always call it (as the Romans did) Ratae Corieltauvorum. If George Bernard Shaw had had his way with rationalising English spellings we could be talking about a town called Lester. But that would be too easy.

It is possible to explore significant features of Leicester’s Roman past at the Jewry Wall and the Jewry Wall museum. Can I recommend that you give them a visit (they’re right next to each other)? The exhibits are worth seeing and a few more customers (admission is free) might stop councillors considering closing it. Leicester councillors have a chequered history and it is best to take the opportunity for making poor decisions away from them.

Leicester has a lot of history on display if you take the time to look for it. The entire city is busy locating anything with a heritage and presenting it in the best light possible. The re-interment of Richard III next March (26th March) is going to be a major national event. The fact that it is going to take place in Leicester makes it a controversial one.

I’m caught somewhere in the middle of the controversy. I’m aware that any position I hold on the subject is as full of contradictions as it is full of holes. I’m not a fan of the royal family. I’d rather we didn’t have a king or a queen. I’m a huge fan of the Shakespeare play that re-wrote history from a Tudor perspective and made Richard out to be one of the great villains of history and yet I’m a supporter of the Richard III society whose brief it is to restore the reputation of a much maligned leader. I believe that a national funeral deserves great honour and have some sympathy for those who feel that a Westminster or York burial would confer greater honour on the occasion, and the corpse, yet I am very happy for the ceremony to take place in a city I have the highest regard for.  It is unlikely that Richard himself would have chosen to be interred here; he had made provisional plans for a chancel in York Minster and he is closely associated with the north of England. Leicester Cathedral isn’t one of our more magnificent edifices. Until the 1920s it was a parish church. But Gloucester Cathedral gains much from having Edward II (another maligned monarch) buried there and the massively maligned King John (who was not a good man according to no lesser authority than AA Milne) lies in Worcester Cathedral. The pattern is clear. All good kings and queens tend to end up in Westminster or Windsor, the bad ones get farmed out to the provinces and get laid to rest in towns that most members of the royal family would have trouble spelling.

The case for Leicester rests on his having been buried here since he was killed in the Battle of Bosworth in 1487 and that it was experts from Leicester University who found  and identified the body. Well done them. It was recorded that he was buried at Greyfriars and any comparison with maps of the late medieval period (the moment of Richard’s death is often cited as the end of the medieval world and the beginning of the modern) and more recent maps would tell them that the churchyard had since become a car park. It wasn’t really the greatest piece of detective work. Richard was also the most famous man in the history of the world to have a curved spine. When our Leicester experts found a skeleton with a curved spine in a churchyard where Richard was recorded as having been buried it wasn’t too difficult a task to identify it. It took them a while.

University boffins want the body to remain here so they can continue to carry out tests. The specially designed tomb will actually be openable to allow the scientists to bother the bones whenever they feel the need. After taking 530 years to find the body more or less where they were told it was and months to conclude that it was Richard (DNA records were compared with direct descendants of the king’s sister) we are hopeful that by the end of the century the experts may well have concluded that King Richard the Third had two arms and two legs and that the round thing on top of his neck is, in fact, his head.

Walking round the cathedral I’m surrounded by workmen. The place is getting a major makeover and I’m happy about this. There’s a race against time to be ready for the ceremony and much of the church is being boarded over so the work can proceed. There is a rather delightful air of work in progress in amongst the tranquil peace of a house of prayer. All around the church a huge game of ‘make Leicester medieval’ is going on. The city planners made the same mess of making the city modern as many another east midlands urban settlement. Let’s hope they make a better job of turning the clock back.

I like Leicester enormously. We travel there at least twice a year for a Saturday shop, a wander round and an Indian meal at the Mem-Saab restaurant. I occasionally get a massage and steam bath (in one of those sit down and be closed into a sort of small sideboard with your head poking out contraptions). It’s a good town for shopping. Most of the big name shops are here (House of Fraser only manages an outlet so doesn’t really count) and a good number of Leicester’s own retailers have shops worth visiting. I much prefer the Leicester John Lewis to the ones in Sheffield or Nottingham. It simply has a great deal more space for the shopper to wander about in. The building may be modern but it is spacious and light. It’s also got a sale on and I’m soon disappearing into the toilet to change into a smart new shirt.

There is plenty of ugly in the city centre. Most of the sixties and seventies architecture is now quite horribly aged and there is no shortage of the parasitic shops that feed on a lack of hope. Tattoo parlours and places to buy your e-cigarettes are prevalent.

Delve further and there are surprises in all directions. Leicester is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the country. It has thrived on this. Different traditions have prospered alongside each other and they have all come together to create a multiculturalism that is the envy of many another town. It nearly didn’t happen this way. When Idi Amin gave the Asian population of Uganda a month to get out of the country, Leicester City Council prepared notices and posters telling them that they weren’t welcome in the city and to go elsewhere. Many hadn’t heard of Leicester before this campaign but the campaign alerted them to it and thousands came here in the first wave and many more later moved to the city to join them. The council bluffed and blustered about its reasons and its motives but it was a simple case of racial prejudice.

Within months of settling successful businesses were becoming established. Amin had banished many of the finest minds from his country and Uganda’s loss was Leicester’s and Britain’s gain. There was rioting in the city in both 1982 and 2011. On both occasions they were driven more by economic pressures than through racial tensions. We are now in second and third generation and Leicester is, like many melting pot cities, a great deal stronger and more culturally diverse than cities who haven’t experienced this enrichment.

People who come from Leicester tend to be rather proud of the fact. My mother in law was from the city and she was fabulous. Richard and David Attenborough are from here and proud of it. Amiable football presenter and one time decent player Gary Lineker rarely misses an opportunity to give Leicester a namecheck (his dad had a stall on the fruit and vegetable market … quite simply the best market for green grocery outside London), John Merrick, the Elephant Man, was Leicester born, as was Graham Chapman of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Rock bands Kasabian and Family (who played prog rock but were worth listening to  all the same) are Leicester bands. (So are Showaddywaddy but least said soonest mended). One time sports presenter and self-proclaimed son of God, David Icke was born here and Engelbert Humperdinck was brought up on these streets as Arnold George Dorsey. Joseph Goddard who gave the world a way of polishing its silver and John Illsley the bass player from Dire Straits along with the original Drummer Pick Withers started life in this town . There must be something in the water. John Deacon is another bass player for another band I’m happy to say never made my record collection was also a Leicester lad. Actors Michael Kitchen, Richard Armitage, Kate O’Mara and Una Stubbs are all locals. Writers CP Snow and Julian Barnes add to the number. There are no end of snooker players and even Joan Maureen “Biddy” Baxter the long time editor of Blue Peter. Gok Wan is Leicester born as was Thomas Cook the man who invented the modern holiday and many many more.

There are major concert halls, two universities and one of England’s newest purpose built theatres. The rugby union side is one of the best in the country (it nearly became a rugby league side but the players couldn’t afford the drop in wages that going professional would have meant in 1896), the football side has just got itself back into the premier league. The foxes have these occasional surges. Under Martin O’Neill they even won a pile of trophies. The team has always played entertaining football and has had a fair number of crowd pleasing players. They  found room for ex Huddersfield hero Frank Worthington after high blood pressure ruled out a transfer to Liverpool. Worthington put the blood pressure down to having too much sex. The stronger rumour is that Liverpool were having second thoughts.

It’s worth taking your time in Leicester. Some things jump straight out at you like the High Cross Shopping Centre or the Vue cinema. Many of the best bits of the city lie lost or hidden away. They are worth looking for. There is a reason why so many significant people, and Engelbert Humperdinck, have come from the city. I look forward to my twice yearly visits and always return home happy in mind, spirit and tummy.



Day 350: Knaresborough


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A-Z of Northern Towns. K is for Knaresborough

As far as Knaresborough’s place in the national political scene is concerned it could be said that history stopped in the aftermath of the English Civil war. At first this may seem a little harsh but I think it is one of the great strengths and appeals of the town. While the rest of the country has danced to the music of time, Knaresborough has gone about its business of being Knaresborough at the pace of the gently flowing River Nidd. It has acknowledged the world around it but it has gone its own way; leaving it a town with a gorge full of individual character in a world that has increasingly come to look like Luton.


It’s as Yorkshire as the magnesium limestone that provides the bedrock of the western section of the gorge that gives the town much of it’s splendour and character. Yet it feels unlike any other Yorkshire town. Harrogate is only four miles away. Both are glorious towns but they are as alike each other as chalk and cheese. One is riverless, expansive and outward looking; saying to the rest of the world, “Look at me, look at me, Aren’t I amazing?” (and it is), the other huddled into it’s dramatic riverside setting, inward looking and, though welcoming of visitors, has no great need to show off to the world. I know few people who haven’t been to Harrogate, I don’t know many who have been to Knaresborough. York lies downstream and shares not only the river (the Nidd joins the Ouse a mile or two up river of the Viking capital) but also a medieval past. There are far greater differences than similarities between these neighbours.


At one time Knaresborough was a town where national issues were settled. The “Honour of Knaresborough” was highly prized. The castle defended the safety of the nation; it was even the most valued of the royal hunting grounds. The lead knight in the bungled murder of Thomas Becket; Archbishop of Canterbury and turbulent priest, held the honour of Knaresborough. Hugh de Morville returned to seek refuge in his castle after butchering the priest on his altar. De Morville was later stripped of his lands, banished from the kingdom and excommunicated from the church. Few regard him as one of Knaresborough’s greatest sons.

In the Civil War Knaresborough suffered the fate of many fortified towns. It was taken by the parliamentary army before the Battle of Marston Moor and the castle was ordered to be destroyed. Some demolition was carried out but the majority of damage to the castle was done in the using of the dressed stone from the walls in building many of the older properties in the town centre. This wasn’t unusual. Good building materials have always been hard to come by. It would have been strange if local builders hadn’t taken advantage of the free stone on offer. Happily a good deal of the castle remains and I for one find castle ruins  an awful lot more impressive than complete castles. When they are in such a location as here then the impression is so much the greater.  Knaresborough Castle is a joy to walk around. The local authorities have done a first class job in using the natural spaces of the original building to incorporate gardens, planting, benches, lawns and other features to make it a delightful place to be. Beyond the remains of the curtain walls are the limestone and sandstone cliffs that drop so dramatically down to the deep brown waters of the River Nidd.

The view from the top is spectacular and delightful at the same time. Knaresborough is blessed with the natural geology of the gorge but has harnessed the jaw-dropping glories of the valley into a town that is very much built on a human scale. Everything is in keeping here. The little rowing boats on the river are not lost in the scale of the gorge and the massive viaduct and bridges nestle in without dominating. Such a balance of architecture and nature is rare. Knaresborough has done things very well.

It doesn’t attract visitors on the scale of York or Harrogate but it is a busy town that wasn’t designed for the motorcar. If it got too many more visitors it would become gridlocked rather easily and that would be a pity. If you are going to visit I would recommend arriving by train. Regular services run from York and Leeds and you get the advantage of being able to see the town from the top of that rather splendid viaduct. Schools enjoy making journeys to the town with Mother Shipton’s Cave and Brimham Rocks among the attractions. The first is England’s answer to Nostrodamus. The second are some of the most spectacular rock formations in the north of the country.

Ursula Southeil actually existed but claims that her art of prophesy ran to predicting the invention of the motor car and of steel ships as well as the end of the world (1881 if you are worried) are somewhat dubious. She’d been dead for 80 years before her sooth sayings began to be published and many a forger has joined in the authorship over the years. Knaresborough isn’t above taking a few pounds off you to be duped and they do it rather well. Mother Shipton’s Cave is announced as Britain’s oldest tourist attraction.

Another hero of the town is Blind Jack of Knaresborough. More properly known as John Metcalf he used his experience as a carrier and guide to build roads in the early years of the industrial revolution despite being blind from the age of 6. At school we were taught that he used his stick to see if he was building into a bog or marsh. Well, quite! Jack Metcalf built 180 miles of turnpike road by having a developed understanding of the relationship between geological contours and the weather. Many modern roads in Yorkshire, including some Pennine crossings, keep to the routes surveyed by this remarkable engineer.

We arrived in the middle of the afternoon and sat in slow moving traffic for a while. A cheap car park just out of the town centre on the York road became even cheaper when a smiling family insisted that we use their parking ticket. I put the money saved towards a big ice cream which we ate on the castle walls overlooking one of the great views of England. Two hours wasn’t enough to even scratch the surface but plenty of time to realise that here is a little gem; a town that is worth a proper visit. The shops looked good; plenty of them were independent. There is a weekly market in the square and the people were as relaxed and friendly as any we have encountered. The history is rich and the layout of the town justifies its remarkable geographical location.

The River Nidd was diverted several miles by the last ice age. If advancing moraines hadn’t cut off the original route the Nidd would never have cut the Knaresborough Gorge. Much of Yorkshire was shaped by ice. Knaresborough is shaped by water but water that only came to the town because of the advancing glaciers. The natural world is full of wonders and our trip to Knaresborough was quite, quite wonderful.

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Day 348: Jacksdale


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A-Z of Northern England. J is for Jacksdale

As a nation we are rather good at remembering those who have been in charge when a battle has been won and less good at remembering those who actually did the winning. Statues of generals and admirals and field marshals adorn plinths in high places. Mighty palaces, like Blenheim, are given as rewards for fellows whose deeds are far exceeded by their rewards. Since the end of the Great War though, the ordinary men; the men who marched away from cobbled street and village lane, often never to return, have been commemorated in towns and hamlets, boroughs and cities the length and breadth of the country. Some see them as fitting and lasting tributes to those who could show no greater love; others as a disguised apology for the greater crime committed upon them; for they need not have died.

“If any question why we died,                                                                              Tell them, because our fathers lied”

So wrote Rudyard Kipling who never got over the loss of his son in the fighting. Alan Bennett in The History Boys talks along the same lines. Lines that were first declared by Siegfried Sassoon while the conflict still raged. That there was no justification for what happened in Flanders’ fields and that a close inspection would find the blame for hundreds of thousands of deaths to lie in Westminster and Whitehall as much as in Berlin or Vienna.

“Why do we not care to acknowledge them? The cattle, the body count. We still don’t like to admit the war was even partly our fault because so many of our people died. A photograph on every mantlepiece. And all this mourning has veiled the truth. It’s not so much lest we forget, as lest we remember. Because you should realise the Cenotaph and the Last Post and all that stuff is concerned, there’s no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.” Irwin in The History Boys by Alan Bennett.

I love war memorials and find a mixture of dignity and sadness, tragedy and glory whenever I stand by one. My family gave a great deal to the cause. Some didn’t come back, and those who did, including my grandfather, were so scarred by what they had been through that they led troubled lives afterwards and failed to see out even half their span. When I first saw his name on a church plaque commemorating those who served, I cried. It was the first time I recognised just how close we are.

DSC_0100Jacksdale has a particularly moving monument. It’s a memorial with its own history as well as a history commemorated. The soldier has more character than many who stand and look back across the years. Is it the peaked cap rather than the tin helmet which makes him look as he might have done as he left the village or returned to rest and recuperate? He looks younger than most such soldiers and he looks kind and smart and proud to serve. He looks trusting and able. He looks like a friend, a mate, a pal. And because of this the mixture of dignity, sadness, tragedy and glory feels even stronger; especially in the hundredth year since the conflict began.

I like this memorial enormously. Rightly it stands as the first thing you see as you enter the village. Rightly it lists not only those who gave their lives but also those who served and returned. Returned to a world forever changed by what they had gone through and forever changing.

The memorial was unveiled in 1921 (Saturday July 9th) at a ceremony attended by thousands. The soldier was blown off the pedestal on a stormy night in 1959. For years  the monument was topped with some simple coping but the soldier was (rightly) replaced more recently.

Some things haven’t changed around here. Almost all of the houses in the main part of the village had been built before the First World War. The simple layout and the names of the streets are the same and echo an older world. There is still something of that older world. On a Jacksdale website visitors are invited to stand and experience the quiet and stillness of the place that has a feel of a time that has gone; that something has been retained here that has vanished from other towns and villages. I have only a few hours but I feel that I am somewhere rather special. All the more special for holding onto this character while most of the original reasons for the village’s existence have rolled over into the history books.

Just as the ordinary soldiers of Balaclava, Trafalgar and Waterloo are long forgotten while Cadigan, Nelson and Wellington are still celebrated, the places and the people who made Britain an engine of the world, a powerhouse economy are quickly lost to time while children are taught of the great feats of Arkwright and Josiah Salt and those who made huge piles of cash out of it.

Coal made Britain powerful and iron and steel and earthenware and textiles. Jacksdale was never big on cloth manufacture but it produced more than its share of the other three. Coal has been dug hereabouts for centuries. At first coal was dug by outcropping. The coal seams of this part of the Erewash Valley came to the surface and coal had been dug out without shafts and drifts. Then with simple shafts that were then hollowed at the bottom known as bell pits. You can find evidence of these all over any mining part of England. In 1874 James Oakes Company sank a shaft that was to become known as Pye Hill Number 2. Pye Hill Colliery was in fact an amalgamation of three pits; the Barber Walker pit at Underwood, Pye Hill at Jacksdale (also known as the James Oakes and Company) and the New Selston Pit (known as the Bull and Butcher pit).

For over a hundred years Jacksdale men toiled in the earth to bring coal to the surface. In addition to the three shafts there was a drift (a sideways tunnel as opposed  to a vertical shaft) and much of the coal was brought out this way. Being practically on the Derbyshire Nottinghamshire border must have led to problems during the 1984 strike. Derbyshire pits had backed the strike while many Nottinghamshire pits continued working. Closure of Pye Hill had already been decided before the dispute and the colliery duly closed in 1985. Like many collieries it has all but disappeared from the area and from the lives of the people. Former miners will never forget. All can feel enormously proud of the job they did. Some regret the loss of an industry, others are relieved that their sons and grandsons don’t have to earn a living hundreds of feet below the surface of the world.

The demolition of the surface buildings has been preserved on film. The strike still seems recent to people of my generation but the film looks like ancient history . The story of coal seems every bit as long ago as the battles of The Somme and Passchendaele. It seems right that the pit wheel and the unknown soldier should stand together.

I breakfast well in the friendly and comfortable rooms of Pauline’s Pantry. It’s a busy and a happy place and the food is good. Predictably I have the cooked breakfast but there is more than a nod to more adventurous cooking: the soup of the day is Butternut Bisque and the drinks fridge has bottles of Fentiman’s soft drinks. A child’s drawing adorns one wall and you can buy hand embroidered cushions here. I like the  balance between comfort and quality.


Beyond the village are playing fields where once tramlines hauled coal tubs and iron ore. Just across the Erewash (at this point a large tumbling stream) are the remains of the Cromford Canal. Filled in in the sixties (oh what a lack of forethought that decade had!) it was once the main artery of this most industrial part of the East Midlands. There are still the last remains of the iron bridge that carried a tramline across the canal.

Today it is hard to imagine why such transport links were needed. It appears that there is nothing here but this is the site of a huge industrial complex of the nineteenth century. Here the Butterley Company had a major iron works. Some of the finest wrought iron in the country was produced here. Next door the James Oakes Pipeworks employed hundreds, and the Riddings brickworks still more. The ironworks grew into a community on the Derbyshire side of the border. Ironville looks tired today but still contains a church, a primary school and many houses of architectural interest. In its heyday it had a fine model village and was a central cog in this part of industrial England.

I wander over acre after acre of land that has been shaped and landscaped to return to birch wood and meadow and mere. It’s rather beautiful and swallows swop and moorhens, coots and diving birds forage on the lake. Purple and yellow wild flowers blanket the ground. It is becoming difficult to imagine the mighty engines and smoke stacks of collieries, ironworks, brickworks and pipe works that dominated this area for two hundred years. The woods seem silent. Trains pass. Among the trees are several rusting remains of burnt out stolen motorcars as a testament to the boredom that replaced opportunities to work. The place has beauty and charm but still carries the scars of economic downturn. Thousands once worked here. There are few opportunities today unless you are prepared to travel.

It isn’t a sad place though. It is a quiet town but very much alive and well and enjoying itself. This is a part of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire that can be easily overlooked and passed by. It shouldn’t be. Not only is it a place that played its part in the whole history of the country, but it is a quite remarkable place in its own right.

I wasn’t there long enough. I’m only just starting to uncover the story of Jacksdale and I look forward to going back.

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I gratefully acknowledge a debt to a series of films made by Tom Wilbraham in the 1990s of Jacksdale. These give a fascinating insight into the history of the village and can be found on Youtube. I include a link to the first of these.



Day 347: Away Days


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Mostly Concerning Food

Teach a Simon a new skill and he’s happy for days. I tried making Cornish pasties once in the early 8os. My natural instinct was that raw meat and potato take longer to cook in an oven than pastry. I therefore pre-cooked the filling. This in itself is no bad thing. Many a decent pasty is made this way. My youthful impatience led me to adding the filling to the pastry while the filling was still hot. The fat in the pastry immediately melted and the crust wouldn’t hold. My disappointment was such that I didn’t bother with pasties for another thirty years.

In the last few weeks I’ve demonstrated a greater degree of patience and pasties have been flying from the oven just about as fast as we and guests can eat them. In today’s food post I enclose bacon and egg pasties and chilli con carne pasties. Both did remarkable disappearing jobs and will be made again. In bacon and egg pies I add whole eggs and let them bake as such. In these pasties I pour beaten egg oven a pile of chopped bacon.

DSC_0004They go perfectly with baked beans.

DSC_0008You can’t really see the bread under a generous helping of Port Salut and mature Cheddar cheeses. A pity because it was very good; well done Waitrose. The tomatoes and lettuce are from the garden.

DSC_0007I used to have crisps and beer while watching sport on the telly. Here I enjoy Leeds and Warrington while indulging in a meal that is both tasty and (reasonably) healthy.

DSC_0010A couple of sultana buns for dessert.

DSC_0011Back to pasties and I’ve discovered that making a pile of pastry circles before constructing the finished products helps. A light sprinkling of flour between them prevents them from sticking.

DSC_0014The chilli is all the more enjoyable for having peppers and chills from the garden in it. I’ve always loved the combination of spicy beef with kidney beans. I’m delighted to discover that increasing consumption of such pulses is wise in fending off diabetes. I come from a line who have suffered diabetes in later life so a little consideration at this stage cannot hurt.

DSC_0015This plate not only acts as a template but also is curved in such a way as to assist in shaping and folding.

DSC_0016I do know how to put more professional crimps into the pasties but prefer this lighter, more rustic, touch.

DSC_0021 DSC_0023After years of using vegetable fat I have returned to using lard in pastry. The bake is crisper and the taste wins out.

DSC_0024My second ever trip to Pret a Manger. The service was really friendly. The coffee no better than ok and the Bakewell was a victory of style over content.

DSC_0147The Mem-Saab in Leicester is hugely popular and rightly so. We are hardly regulars but this is only because we don’t go to Leicester more often. Every time we do go we call in for their two course lunch. Beautifully served on crisp white linen and extraordinarily good value.

DSC_0148 DSC_0149We went halves on different starters.

DSC_0151The chicken tikka masala and the buttered chicken were both excellent. The naans are even better. In fact I have only ever once had naan bread to compare. When I eat out I want to be served something better than I can make myself. I make good spicy food and can match the savoury dishes. I cannot compete with the breads though.

DSC_0230Leicester market is one of the great fruit and vegetable markets in England. We filled several bags with apples, oranges, cherries and strawberries.

DSC_0233 DSC_0002The summer of strawberries and cream (this time my own vanilla ice cream) continues. It has been as good a summer as I can remember.

DSC_0222Marks and Spencer provide the bulk of this impromptu picnic in the middle of a Yorkshire spa town. Harrogate has a lot of good eateries but the sunshine demanded that we ate outdoors.

DSC_0223A selfie of sorts with a hint of the glory of our location.

DSC_0251Yorkshire also provided us with one of the best ice-cream shops I’ve visited. Several people stopped to ask us where we’d got these beauties from. On the left, clotted cream and raspberry ripple. On the right pineapple and banana.

DSC_0314The Great British Bake off is up and running again. I wasn’t going to bother this year. The programme is fine but very missable. The tradition of using it as a family gathering is unmissable though. All the bakers seem jolly nice. The one slightly annoying one got voted out in the first week and even she was probably only a little bit nervous. This week I was sorry to lose a fellow who was obviously a good baker but his weakness at the visual arts let him down. he took it in good part.

DSC_0315I made a large quiche and some mini ones to keep us going during the first half of the programme.

DSC_0320 DSC_0321 DSC_0322 DSC_0325Bettys of Harrogate provided the sweet course for the latter stages.

DSC_0326All of these cakes were fabulous. The programme whizzed by. Family chat meant that we barely watched what was going on and didn’t mind the lame humour of the presenters.

DSC_0327Regulars at Bettys will often forego the fancy patisseries and order one of the Yorkshire favourites. Many go for their characterful take on the scone which they call a fat rascal. My favourite is the Yorkshire curd tart and it’s best not to let Dr Spooner order too many of these.

DSC_0039A Yorkshire breakfast in Ilkley included scrambled egg that was two minutes from pan to table and sausages that had first entered the oven an hour or two earlier.

DSC_0009We didn’t buy any of these pies but can see why certificates of excellence were hanging up in the shop. These were the first of many batches that have folk flocking to Lishman’s of Ilkley.

IMGP4797Picnic season continues with a good combination of hand raised pork pie and fruit. The fruiterer was fantastic. Nothing was too much trouble and the quality revealed a dedication that  obviously sees him at the front of the queue when the wholesale market opens in the very early morning. The tomatoes and the Victoria plums were exceptional.

DSC_0038We even found an English tearoom where you got a choice beyond the usual selection of badly cooked fatty meat products that comprise all too many “full English” breakfasts. T got the pick of the menu with these home-made muffins with butter and jam. If you can’t make your own then Wilkin’s Tiptree jam has always been a pretty good standby. The firm has stood for quality jam for generations.

DSC_0041My eggs Benedict also came on home-made muffins and was a treat. The tea was served in china cups and made the meal into an indulgence. We were miles from home but we shall return.

DSC_0137 DSC_0144The tea shop even wrapped us a couple of slices of cake for our picnic. The coffee and walnut survived the better but both were a treat in the sunshine. As you can see we did our usual trick of ordering differently and then sharing.

DSC_0004For the second rugby league match I went for a simple sub sandwich with salami, soft cheese, rocket and sun-dried tomatoes. It made for a four hour television week. It’s enough.



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Day 345: Wheear ‘ast Tha Bin Sin’ Ah Saw Thee?


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A-Z of Towns: I is for Ilkley (and Harrogate)

I met an American Psychiatric nurse just below the summit of Ilkley Moor. It was a breezy afternoon in the summer of 2011. We talked for quite some time. Much longer than you normally talk to someone you have literally crossed paths with. I was cycling around the country to try to escape from the sort of symptoms she is very familiar with and found fifteen minutes in her company more useful than somewhat. She’s a natural healer and like all great nurses and doctors, she has a deep and instinctive understanding of the human condition. She’s lived in different parts of Yorkshire in the twenty years since she left the States, and has her own take on the natives. “Yorkshire folk are the best in the world but money and these people don’t mix well. It brings out the worst in them.”

She said it affectionately. She was fond of the county but, like me, found it a pity that there is such a tendency to pretentious pomposity once the income passes £100,000 per annum. Not everyone in Ilkley is in this income bracket but enough are (it is a small town) to have a disproportionate effect. It is a town that has everything present for me to enjoy; fabulous location, a majestic river, crags and moorland rising straight out of the streets, weathered Yorkshire stone houses from different generations, independent shops, churches and playing fields aplenty. It even has  a Bettys. Despite all of this I still struggle to develop any affection for Ilkley and I struggle to find any reason other than this questionable facet of the Yorkshire temperament.

Today we’re travelling as a two. We were here two months ago and felt that we hadn’t given it a proper chance. Very sad news was texted through as we approached the town and there was little that could have lifted our spirits on that particular day. Ilkley is worth a second chance and this time we couldn’t be in better moods as we park the car outside Booth’s supermarket.

Booth’s is the best of the English supermarkets. You’ll only find it in the north and you’ll only find it in towns where an enjoyment of good food is an important local characteristic. Booth’s started as a teashop in Blackpool in 1847 and gradually spread throughout Lancashire. As supermarkets started to take over the world, based largely on the ‘pile it high sell it cheap’ mentality, Booth’s always put quality above price. They haven’t grown as big as Tesco or Sainsbury’s but they have done a much better job (in my opinion) and are more likely to be the template of the future food retailer than its bigger rivals. The firm has a family feel and there is an independence of spirit among the staff that isn’t always present in the bigger stores. The motto to “sell the best quality goods in shops staffed by first class assistants.” Safeway tried to buy them out on several occasions but failed. Safeway is long gone and Booth’s are still here. In 2006 they were voted second best food retailer in the world by The Grocer magazine. A long-standing dedication to local sourcing, quality and the product knowledge of the people serving, set them above the likes of Selfridges and Harrods.

If you haven’t got a Booth’s near you and cannot move into the north then make sure you pack a good sized cold box next time you are lucky enough to be in either Lancashire or Yorkshire.

The streets are quiet. We pass a succession of barber’s shops where a careful cutter is looking after a single customer. Lishman’s butchers has moved much of its display away from the impressively canopied front windows. There’s still enough to show why people travel for their product.

And then, disappointingly, a row of shops you could find anywhere in Britain. I’m sure Greggs, Cafe Nero and Mountain Warehouse do well out of being in Ilkley; I’m not so sure that Ilkley gains much from the deal though. I have a different opinion of Timpson’s. They may be national but their upside down management policy makes them the very opposite of most of their High Street cousins. Each branch of Timpson’s is run as if it were an independent shop. Betty’s should be the same; and is. There are only four Betty’s teashops in the world and all of them are in Yorkshire: Ilkley, York, Harrogate and Northallerton. On the surface they are similar but to go to any of them is a unique experience. One that reflects better on the other three branches. In Ilkley the dining room is neither spacious nor intimate. The chairs don’t go with the tables and neither go with the room. The management style here is one of customers being put in their place. Go for the cream teas or other confections. Don’t go for their savoury dishes. They don’t do breakfasts and main meals particularly well and they do know how to charge. Twenty pounds for a Yorkshire tea is good value; you cannot get a more perfect afternoon eating experience. £18 for a breakfast that you can make better yourself isn’t good value.

Bettys in Ilkley also has its ‘locals’. Customers who gauge their social importance by the fact that they don’t see the need to adhere to the “please wait here to be seated” notice and who would be disappointed not to see a fellow “local” and exchange a predictable conversation. “Oh hello. I haven’t seen you in ages. How have you been keeping? We must find time for a catch up.” before collecting a copy of The Telegraph on a wooden cane (to stop it being stolen). We meet two of these. One who looks like she is waiting to meet an illicit lover and one who is wearing a pair of knitted trousers. Presumably he thinks he looks well in them. I presume he doesn’t own a full-length mirror.

The woman waiting for her lover is in a dilemma. She knows she’ll be recognised in Bettys but she wouldn’t be seen dead in any of the lesser eateries in the town.

We breakfast nearby in a place where the food is fine but the welcome is equally grim.

“Is it alright if we take a seat?”

“So long as you’re going to order something.”

“Well, I was going to.”

Apart from the sausages being pre-cooked (a long time ago) the cooked breakfast is tasty. T got the better of it by ordering a toasted tea-cake. The two ladies who follow us in also went for this simple Yorkshire breakfast.

The river is at its very best. The recent heavy rains have filled the banks and stirred the silt. A glorious rich brown stream tumbles over rapids and lurks in backwaters and eddies. The River Wharfe is one of the great rivers of Yorkshire. Its tendency to flood has been built into the town. Few houses are at river level. The park is terraced and the houses that are within reach of rising waters have defences disguised as garden walls and flights of steps. The riverside walk is the best way of getting from one end of the town to the other It would make a lovely cycle route but cycles are banned from here.

After two hours of walking and shopping and snapping some photographs we meet up. There’s plenty of the day left. There is still plenty of Ilkley to see but two hours seems long enough. This is a fine town. It is more attractive and more distinctive than almost any other in the county but I’m usually ready to move on. I wonder if my American friend was right. Is it the combination of Yorkshire and wealth?  Maybe. But Harrogate out-punches Ilkley for affluent people. We drive there and have a fabulous time.

Harrogate is what it is. It is so entrenched at being Harrogate that it would take an earthquake, in physical or metaphorical terms, to change it. Its parks and gardens are the best I have seen anywhere in England. The beds and borders contain far more than the usual range of annual bedding plants. These are maintained by true gardeners. Visiting stately homes and gardens has become a sedate English day out. In Harrogate you can sit and stroll among superior gardens in the public parks or on any of the remarkable stretches of open green space in and around the town. Even the hanging baskets are impressive.

There are far more shops here (both national and independent), far more places to eat and drink and far more happy people. In Bettys you are treated like an honoured guest rather than someone else to be tolerated and served. There are proper performers  at the local theatre and even the policemen are smiling. Ilkley has a lot going for it and plenty of people who want to go and live there but I’d take Harrogate every time. People go and live in Harrogate because it is the way it is. They seem to go to live in Ilkley in order to make it into something they think it ought to be. I find it quite sad when this happens because the true nature of a town is lost. It might be a Yorkshire thing. Whitby, Robin Hood’s Bay and Hebden Bridge are all desirable places to be but all of them were much better places before the lifestyle choice people started moving in.


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Day 340: Harvest Moon


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Mostly Concerning Food

The week of our annual holiday and the week when salad crops become abundant in the garden. The holiday is reduced to a good old fashioned three days by the sea in a Victorian resort. What could be more traditionally English? The salad has done really well. Since Jolly came to stay the vegetable and fruit plot has become a lawn and crops are grown between flowers in the borders. It’s a traditional method and a good one; and surprising just how much you can grow and how good they look among the phlox and the daisies.

We have a few tomato plants and they are only just beginning to offer up their fruits. They went in late and were always going to be a week or so behind their indoor and greenhouse compatriots. I haven’t bothered with any great gardening care. I noticed that French kitchen gardeners rather left their outdoor tomatoes to look after themselves and I’ve copied this. They’ve been kept well watered during the hot spell and have got a feed or two of organic tomato food. Lettuces, spring onions and peppers have being doing well, as have the chillies. Add to this a good crop of gooseberries and some runner beans that are charging their way up their canes and I am more than happy with this year’s harvest.

DSC_0012Another week spent mostly outdoors. I’m beginning to forget what food tastes like inside the house. Coffee in the morning.

DSC_0015Scones with strawberry jan and clotted cream. The jam is made by the ladies who run the excellent café at All Saints in Gainsborough. These are served Cornish style with the cream on top.

DSC_0019And these are served in the traditional Devon manner.

DSC_0020One with my own (gooseberry) jam. The messy plate denoting  a high level of enjoyment.

DSC_0021Harvest Festival.  It is amazing how much you can grow between the flowers. I have no idea what variety of lettuce this is. I bought a packet of mixed lettuce seeds from Aldi and all sorts of little beauties have grown.

DSC_0030It’s the first time I’ve grown yellow tomatoes. Both varieties here have excellent flavour. Nice to have a taste of home with us in our little holiday apartment.

DSC_0036Port Salut was the first French cheese I ever had. It isn’t a million miles from Dairylea but I have a fondness for it. The Red Leicester was rather good.

DSC_0037Waitrose provide three varieties of grapes. The red and the white are first class but the black ones score far higher in appearance tests than in any taste challenge.

DSC_0002Cous cous prepared with red onion, celery, orange zest, orange juice, chicken stock and lots and lots of freshly chopped coriander and parsley (also out of the garden) takes no more than 10 minutes to prepare and balances out this steak very nicely. In fact, though the steak was good, the cous cous was the star of the dish.

DSC_0003Waitrose has made a big statement in the direction of supermarket shopping this year. Their free coffee promotion has cost them deep in the purse and has led to them slipping down the table in terms of profits. The chain is going to continue despite this and I, for one, applaud them. It makes shopping more pleasant, shows a caring attitude towards shoppers and the coffee is rather good.

DSC_0004The bread and the sausage in this breakfast cob are first class. Well done Waitrose. You’ve secured my trade.

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To continue the praise for Waitrose: their country breads are very good indeed.

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There will be a lot more pasties between now and the end of the summer. I’ve brought my pasty making skills up to the level of my pasty eating skills and have ideas for quite a range.

DSC_0019 DSC_0162Wells Next the Sea has a very fine fruit shop. The plums were eaten while watching happy families catch crabs on the harbour wall.

DSC_0166Strawberries and cream for the hundredth time this summer. It’s been a good summer!

DSC_0098Red onion, home grown peppers and chillies, spaghetti and some low fat crème fraiche are the only ingredients in this holiday supper.

DSC_0103 IMGP4787No seaside holiday is complete without some fish and chips. Eaten on the green at Hunstanton overlooking the sea amongst a thousand other happy holiday makers; perfection.

DSC_0290My favourite supper dish; cheese, apple, oatcake biscuits.

DSC_0294August moon.

DSC_0297Jolly spark out in front of The Great British Bake Off. It’s the first time I can remember watching television on holiday and it made for a most enjoyable hour of chuckling for all the wrong reasons.

Day 338: Sunny Hunny


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A-Z of English Towns: H is for Hunstanton

I’ve ventured outside my brief. I said that this would be an A-Z of East Midlands towns and here we are on the Norfolk coast. Can this be allowed or must I re-write the entry with a Heanor or a Hucknall? I quite like Heanor and Hucknall is the home town not just of Lord Byron and his daughter Ada Lovelace but also of Eric Coates (the man who wrote the Dambuster’s March) as well as the bare-knuckle boxer after whom Big Ben is named. Hucknall wouldn’t be a bind to do at all.

I chose Hunstanton because it’s an East Coast seaside town whose railway station welcomed thousands of East Midlanders on their annual holiday. Working class trippers and holiday makers often ended up on the Lincolnshire coast where Skegness and Mablethorpe grew up. Hunstanton got a fair share of the urban blue collar influx but this was alongside a greater number of those who worked with a collar and tie. Hunstanton may be the first place where the working and the middle classes made their summer destination. They ended up in different parts of the town and followed different pursuits and the trend continues up until today. To the east of the town centre elegant Victorian houses and hotels look out over acres of mown lawn and bowling green and manicured gardens from their cliff top grandeur. To the west giant funfairs and amusement arcades lead to acres of static caravans and flashing lights and brightly coloured plastic. Along the whole front is one of the longest sandy beaches in the whole of Great Britain. One of the widest too. This is The Wash and at low tide the sea retreats a long, long way.

I’m on my annual holiday. I’ve taken my A-Z blog on holiday with me.

The main town is  a result of the railway boom of the 1860s. It grew up alongside the village that had held the name for more than a thousand years. Confusion was avoided by adding the prefix “Old”  to the village. They make a splendid pair. Separated by a disused lighthouse, a converted lifeguard building and a field that does good trade as a summer car park, the two settlements, between them, tick most of the boxes of things you want to encounter on a trip to the English seaside.

Old Hunstanton is rather special; ancient and unplanned; it’s a ramble of fine cottages,  a  Norfolk church, hotels, beach huts and a beach that entices you further and further away from people. We went on a busy, sunny day and were soon in sole possession of five acres of stress relieving perfection. Ours the only footprints (and paw prints) on the sand and the shallow waters as warm as the Caribbean. Beach huts here can cost up to £20,000. Who, you might ask, would pay this much for a place to boil a kettle and change into your cozzy in privacy? I’m at a loss to answer but you may like to consider that round the coast at Wells Next the Sea beach huts change hands for figures greater than £70,000.

The modern town of Hunstanton grew up, as I said, on the railway branch line which was opened in 1862. It was one of the most profitable branch lines in Britain. It managed to survive the Beeching cuts of the early sixties when most of the English branch lines were lost. However it couldn’t survive the (perhaps) deliberate under investment by British rail which led to poorer services, unmanned stations and general decline. I don’t know if it was a deliberate policy to close the line but it mirrors such policies elsewhere. Whatever the motivation the line closed in 1969 and one of the great railway journeys was lost forever.

There has been talk of re-opening the line but plans for this were finally shelved in 2008. The main reason was the criminal sale of track bed for private housing developments. A similar story blights a return to rail across different parts of the country. Short-term planning scores another own goal.

I include a short piece of film of John Betjeman enjoying a day out on the railway in 1962.


The town is a mix of excellent shops (the delicatessen is one of the best I’ve been in this year), novelty seaside emporia and some national chains. There are plenty of places to eat and drink. We take the friendliest option of picnicking on a succession of glorious grassy areas in and around the town. The green is a large sloping communal meeting point. On Monday it was packed with holidaying families, most of whom were doing what we were doing; eating fish and chips. We tried two chippies; Bears which was very good and Fishers which wasn’t.

On Tuesday we ate deli-sandwiches on a quiet bit of parkland next to the church. We were the only people but the grass was gravy boated with contented ducks. Jolly was fascinated.

On Wednesday we ate fruit and bread and cheese near the lighthouse where the mown grass and benches stretch as far as the town with views out over The Wash to where sky and sea and Lincolnshire meet.

There are beautifully maintained squares and a delightful sensory garden where delightfully scented plants and the sounds of water blend in a fine setting. new delights were appearing around each corner. We had three days to enjoy the town. We’ll need a few more before we exhaust the possibilities. Beyond the sea walls the cliffs rise in tri-coloured glory. Carstone is topped with layers of first red chalk and then white chalk. Nature, or the Creator definitely has a sense of beauty. A sign says don’t picnic under the cliffs. Recent evidence of considerable rockfalls explains why.

I normally include famous people associated with a town. Norfolk has more than its share of native and in-comers. I’ll leave it to some natives. I’m out of touch with trends in indie-music but came across this band in my research. They are mostly from Hunstanton and the song is about growing up in the town. The images on the video are similar to my own photographic record which makes me think I must have caught at least some of the town. I also like the song very much.

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