Day 381: Far From the Madding Crowd


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A-Z of English Towns: U is for Uppingham (Well some surrounding villages)

 In Search of Tranquility

It  was a furtive life. Keeping my head down, shuffling from one concealment to another. Trying to avoid eye contact with the few people who were there, only speaking if spoken to; and then in a muffled whisper. This was at the Birdwatching Centre on the western shore of Rutland Water and I was in absolute heaven.

It hadn’t been on the agenda but the sign on the road to Uppingham  changed my mind.

I had a job pulling myself away. The ducks were just beginning to reveal distinguishing features and a kingfisher had landed on a reed below the hide. Of course it was playing me for a pillock: mine was the only shutter on the otherwise empty hide that didn’t allow me a clear view. Moving would be a mistake but if movement was necessary, best to make it as slowly and carefully as possible. Mais tant pis. As soon as  the second shutter moved it flew off.

DSC_0606There is nothing less than glorious in seeing a kingfisher. Even its disappearance was as the electric blue flash that has become the accepted description. It’s all to do with colour. If it was dull brown it would be an oddity with its over plump body, over sized head and a dagger like beak that is half as long as the bird itself. It sits still for long periods so if you get to see one you can be entertained for anything up to an hour. If you only see it fly it will be a highpoint in your day.

There was one further call before heading towards Uppingham itself. Twenty years ago I’d cycled around England telling stories in schools and arts centres. It was all properly arranged. It wasn’t just a case of rolling up and telling the Somerset variation of Jack the Giant Killer. I tend to go on long cycle trips at times in my life when I need space and time to sort through a big career decision or to overcome some crisis. In this instance it was coming to terms with the death of somebody close to me. On the journey I’d taken to calling in at every open church en route and reading a psalm. I read the Bible both as a religious book and as an important work of literature and the aim was to read all 150 psalms by the end of the journey. I would have managed it if I’d kept north of Watford Gap but down south they are keener to lock their churches and I only got into the 80s. Sometimes I’d light a votive candle, sometimes  pray. Oftentimes I’d just sit still and think. And sometimes  just sit.

In the tiny village of Brooke I found the quietness and ancient calm in the church of great comfort. There was nobody else there. I’d rather portentously read the psalm from the pulpit and sat quietly in the box pews. Nothing happened. There was no inner voice or sense of presence. I just sat and let the tears flow. After a while they dried. There was no religious experience but  enormous comfort. It was a feeling that stayed with me for the rest of the journey. I felt I owed the church a big thank you and took a left turn away from the main road.

DSC_0409There was some building work going on in the village but, once parked and inside the ancient churchyard, it was all remarkably familiar. Inside, a smart elderly gentleman was preparing to climb a ladder watched by a lady of similar years who I took to be his wife; correctly I believe. I was welcomed into the church with a warmth often reserved for those who have provided an excuse to put off climbing a ladder. He, in particular, was keen to tell me about the church. I’m not always too welcoming of people who want to point things out to me. Daisy Christodoulou* may not like the idea but there are many more ways of delivering a facts rich education than having a teacher at the front telling us everything. But she is young and earnest so we can forgive her for being somewhat myopic and quite definitely blinkered. After three years of teaching many of us thought  that we knew everything. Time has surprised us at how much we seem to have forgotten.

This couple were as welcome as they were welcoming. She continues her labours but he had taken me in hand and was bringing the most significant features of the church to my attention. There were facts. There were few skills involved once we’d mastered walking, talking and looking. The best and most memorable of the information was carried in story form. The pair treated the care of the church like a very important project. Stories and projects! How on earth did I manage to learn anything from this pair?

DSC_0412I was told of the earthquakes that gently shook the village for three days in a row in April this year. The second one brought down the marble memorial to William Baines Syson, Gent. What was remarkable was that nobody was hurt and that very little damage was done to either the heavy marble or the church floor. The stone had been put in place in 1848 and has been permanently fixed to the wall since then. Inspection of the fixings revealed that for nearly 170 years the memorial which weighs well in excess of a hundredweight has been hanging on the points of two tiny panel pins and sealed around the edge with a film of plaster. It was a wonder that it had stayed in place for 170 days let alone years. My faith was restored. So Victorians had bodgers and cowboy builders as well. I recalled a story I had been told as a boy on my first visit to York Minster, where a heavy stone fell from the tower onto the sleeping head of Roger of Ripon. The stone is on display. It is bigger than human head. It being the medieval period, his awakening unharmed from the beaning,  was pronounced a miracle and the event is celebrated in a panel of the great Rose Window. There was no miracle. He was from Yorkshire. He was hard. Had a hard head.

DSC_0414There is a delightful Norman font in the church and some carved graffiti from 1664. The church was used in the making of the 2005 film, Pride and Prejudice when, according the lady church warden: “They spent a whole week filming in here and if you blinked at the wrong time you’d miss the whole scene when they’d finished.” The interior of the church became Tom Hollander’s (Mr Collins) church. The pulpit features strongly but poor old Brooke was considered too lowly in outward appearance. That privilege went to the church at Weekly in Northamptonshire.

DSC_0418The doors are as ancient as you can imagine doors to be. The grade 1 listing that churches like this possess can cause problems and confusion in interpretation. Just what can be renovated and who should permission be granted by are questions that vex church wardens, who have little reason to be versed in building law. In other churches they do what is needed to keep the stones standing. Here their reluctance to break any regulations results in delightful additions. Where the fish bone hinge has eroded away, it has been painted back into existence (from a distance).

My visit to the little church at Brooke couldn’t have been more different this time around. The noisy entry of the couple’s grandchildren, armed with questionnaires and crayons to unravel the facts of the church, makes sure of that. Last time I sat in peaceful solitude and found comfort. This time I’m surrounded by helpful and friendly stories. Once more I leave the village a better and a wiser man.

DSC_0422 DSC_0416 DSC_0424 DSC_0426They’ve told me to call in at the church at Ridlington. It takes a bit of finding. It’s a proper English village away from the beaten track and far from the madding crowd. When I park here some curtains twitch and my progress, down the main street, doesn’t go unobserved. I don’t blame them for wondering who the stranger with a camera is. I’m sure they are as fearful that I may be a council official as a burglar. But it makes me smile.There is much that has been preserved in Ridlington. It is a more than delightful place to spend an hour and imagine what it would be like to live in a brown stone cottage with thatched roof with japonica and jasmine growing around the door.

A gaudy twentieth century object has become the symbol of the English village. Pre 1980s red telephone kiosks owe their survival to their attractiveness to middle England. In Ridlington they have found a modern use for it. No need these days for a public telephone so the kiosk now houses a defibrillator. I wonder if they queue up to use it and knock on the glass if someone seems to be taking too long.

One of the delights of having time, a fondness for poetry and a desire to wander is finding the right location to read well loved pieces. You could read Thomas Gray in the village churchyard and it would add meaning to the verses; but this proves a fine location to read the some Edward Thomas and some Rupert Brooke. Here in a quietness that you only get in villages like this; it is much quieter than you’d find in the countryside itself; the words come to life. My visit coincides with the hundredth year since the outbreak of the First World war. It’s a good place to reflect on what life was like before the men marched away.

My friends in Brooke were right. The church here is delightful. In a glass case are the ancient instruments of a church choir from a previous age. Such a choir can be found in Thomas Hardy’s novel, Under a Greenwood Tree. Hardy loved the rural, the peaceful and the unspoilt. I think he would have enjoyed spending an hour in Ridlington. The twitching curtains would have made him chuckle too.

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*A young and ardent advocate of teaching everyone by the methods that made her what she is today. Not entirely wrong but blinkered by the rightness of her vision. After three years teaching she felt qualified to write a book that sets out how to do it. Seven Myths About Education has sold well.

Day 380: Nostalgia Isn’t What it Used to Be


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A-Z of English Towns: T is for Thirsk

I knew it first from the racecourse. I wonder how much of my early knowledge of geography is based on what I picked up from watching Grandstand* with my father and brothers in the sixties. (Males watched sport, females asked us to raise our feet so they could vacuum beneath them as we watched… it sometimes felt like a bind.) I had favourite sports back then. Rugby League has always been my true passion. It’s part of who I am. As a child, once I’d realised I didn’t have the application to become a vet, my sole ambition was to play professional rugby league; ideally with my hometown club of Barrow. I learnt to love the sport. Experienced, what has been described as high velocity ballet mixed with chess, at close quarters from the wall in front of the crowd on the popular side at Craven Park. Under the Friday night floodlights the royal blue jerseys shone. I can still smell the embrocation from the players’ legs. Still feel the excitement of being there; of being part of it. I knew the names of all the professional teams by the age of seven. By my eighth birthday I could point them out on a map.

But I’d watch any sport that was televised. The BBC pretty much had a monopoly on Saturdays. ITV had football highlights to enjoy after Sunday dinner. On Saturdays they made do with Black Marlin fishing and speedway in between the seven horse races they transmitted before the wrestling. There was even a bet called the ITV 7. All you had to do was select 7 winners in a row. The sport wasn’t exactly free of shady dealing in those days but even a Newmarket stable lad couldn’t pick seven in a row. The BBC would chip in with test cricket and some minority sports of their own. At one time motorcycle scrambling, at another a  sport where portly middle aged married couples would attempt to drive a vintage car as high up a muddy slope as they could. He’d don goggles and drive like a refined maniac; she would bounce up and down in a less than flattering attempt to secure some traction. The Beeb also found time for horse racing. My knowledge of geography became more widely spread. In addition to the cricket playing nations I could now find every racecourse on the map. It was an ambition to visit them all. I’ve managed plenty but a few remain. To this day I have no idea where the muddy slope was.

DSC_0044Yorkshire  is a sporting county. It has more racecourses than any other. Of 58 courses in the UK (this piece may be out of date within days of publication depending upon how the people of Scotland vote) 9 are in Yorkshire:  Beverley in the East Riding. Pontefract, Ripon, Wetherby, and Doncaster in the West.  York, Redcar, Catterick and Thirsk in the North. The vast majority are flat racing tracks. Thirsk is one of these.

They’ve raced horses in Thirsk since the time of Shakespeare. Originally the course was out of town on the Hambleton Hills but for the last 150 years meetings have been held at the present course on the western edge of the town.

There is a great deal about horse racing that I shouldn’t like. Culturally and socially it is the other end of the stick to working class, Labour party Rugby League. This is a world of hierarchies and squirearchies. A world where segregation is still the order of play; where owners are feted above the trainers and jockeys who bring home the winners. Where wealth and status determines where you are allowed to sit or stand, who you get to mix with. A racecourse is essentially an open field with rails around it. There are a good number of different gates to these fields through a wall that is disguised breeze block and pebble dash. On the gates are forelock tugging, underpaid, deferential lackeys ensuring that no-one goes through the wrong entrance. The premier gateway is an ordinary wooden door, painted green and prefaced with a portico that imitates a plastic Parthenon.

DSC_0039Racegoers are respectfully reminded of the standards expected of them. In the Premier Enclosure (the words are carefully chosen) you will be turned away if you arrive in any of the following: “any items of sportswear, fancy dress, short trousers, ripped or torn garments, mottle-dyed denim, trainers, plimsolls, or any other items that, in the opinion of the management, are not in keeping with the Code or may cause offence to other racegoers.” The list is delightfully specific. No-one else has used the word plimsoll in reference to footwear since the seventies.

For all of it’s cap doffing deference to money, I love a day at the races. I love the crowds in their tribal arrays. I love the lines of bookies on the rail and the shouting of the odds. I love the packed stands against the backdrop of green, the brightly coloured silks as the jockeys enter the paddock; and, most of all, I love the sheer beauty of the horses. These are hugely impressive beasts brought up to peak condition  by men in tweed and waxed cotton who have encyclopaedic memories and purple noses.

I love to stand at the paddock rail and watch them parade and see them at close quarters, watch the horsemanship and instant rapport from the jockeys whose skills astonish me. I love to stand on the rail with a furlong to go (no premier enclosure for me) and feel and hear the thunder as they gallop towards the winning post. I’m not a gambling man but any race I watch at the racetrack will be carrying a Johnson fiver. At the bookies I usually lose. At the track I always get the winner that funds the day out.

DSC_0037 Opposite the racecourse is a handsome brick building that is the last reminder of a great Thirsk manufacturer: A.C. Bamletts. From the 1850s to the end of the 1980s Bamletts made specialist harvesting machinery. The firm was started by Adam Carlisle Bamlett as a one man concern. He took the design of mowers, reapers and binders forward at a great leap and was soon able to establish a company that led the world in its field (literally). At one time the name Bamlett was as synonymous with agricultural machinery as Massey Ferguson or John Deere. In the twentieth century it was unable to keep pace with the ever growing machines that yearly turn the once little fields of England into prairies. The firm went into receivership in 1989. This one building remains awaiting tenants in it’s new role as offices. Next door once stood the terminus of the Thirsk and Leeds Railway. It was lost to the short sighted cuts of the 1960s (Beeching’s Axe) and is now, as so many once proud sites have become, a Tesco supermarket. During demolition of the station, workmen uncovered one of the few surviving turntables for locomotives. Nobody knew what it was and it was broken up before its value and significance were recognised.

Parking is fun in Thirsk. There are plenty of spaces in the cobbled square. It says Pay and Display but you only have to press the button on the parking machine and it issues you with a ticket that allows you to stay for an hour without payment.

I’m in a delightful family run café just off the main square. I’ve ordered the sort of breakfast a farm hand would have enjoyed before spending the day out on a Bamlett’s reaper. There is a pleasant air of quiet. The couple at the next table have spent their lives in Thirsk and have seen a sad decline.

“Dying on its feet.”

“In what way?”

“Used to be full of good shops did the square. And on market days it was full of stalls. Now it’s only a handful; and some of them stay away if it looks like rain.”

She looks ruefully across the room  and into the past in one movement.

“There used to be a livestock market out there. You can still see the rings in the ground they tied the bulls to. S’why they called it the Bullring.”

Another pause.

“Now we get coaches of people. They let them off and give them an hour. Some do a bit of shopping. Most walk round the World of James Herriot and then they get back on the bus again and disappear.” After another pause she repeats; “Town’s dying on its feet.”

Every town has people who regret change but this lady wasn’t against improvements. She loves Thirsk and had seen it lose some of its identity. She is not without hope though. She thinks the café, we are in, is the best thing to happen to the town for a long time. A place where local people receive a good service from local people. It would be wrong to see it as a sad place. This town may have lost some of its unique appeal as a market but it is still a very special place to be. I don’t wish to keep beating the same drum but the pattern seems fairly clear. National chains move in and local character begins to move out.

DSC_0128The square is one of the biggest of the Yorkshire market towns. Like Ripon, Richmond and Masham the town is built around a large cobbled market place. No two buildings are alike and many are of considerable merit. It’s a pity the market is unable to draw in the number of stalls it once did and an even greater pity that the cattle market has moved to purpose built premises on the edge of the town. It would be quite something to have seen the square at its peak. But the modern world makes demands everywhere. The livestock market is able to carry out its work more effectively, if less picturesquely at its new site. And, critically, the square is still there.

Half a street away is the aforementioned World of James Herriot. It’s a good museum and worth an hour of any traveller’s time. Those above the age of 35 remember the series based on his books. All Creatures Great and Small (still being shown on satellite channels) was the last of the great Sunday evening, family gathered around the television serials. It ran from 1978 to 1990 and owed a great deal of its popularity to its gentle nostalgia for a disappearing way of life among the eternal loveliness of this part of Yorkshire.

James Herriot (real name Alf Wight) moved to Thirsk in the early years of the war and worked as a vet for the rest of his life. On approaching retirement he began to write down some of his experiences in a style that could variously be described as semi-autobiographical or fictional autobiography. This wasn’t done to be deceitful but a mixture of protecting professional integrity and the delights of storytelling. The books are good and the television series even better; benefitting from a strong ensemble cast and the star quality of the Yorkshire countryside.

DSC_0077In the books Thirsk becomes Darrowby (though the fictionalisation extends to locations). Herriot continues to act as a tourist attraction but is perhaps also a barrier to Thirsk being seen as a town in its own right. There is certainly a great deal more to the town than the setting for an enjoyable series of books..

Further out is a proud manor house and a church that combines an imposing exterior with a welcoming and atmospheric interior. A spate river known as Cod Beck (It’s a dialect form of Cold Beck) flows around the town centre. In a fine, historic area of parkland and willowgarth called the Holmes it is joined by the Whitelass Beck. For most of the year they are quiet streams but during periods of heavy or prolonged rainfall they can become a mighty torrent. The town suffers occasional flooding.

Above the town on the Hambleton Hills is one of England’s less wonderful white horses. There are several of these. Some are ancient and mysterious and eerily beautiful. The one above Thirsk was created in Victorian times and is the work of an altogether inferior artist. Further round the escarpment is the true natural splendour of Sutton Bank. It’s as close as any English main road gets to being alpine and from the top are views over the whole of Yorkshire from Dales to Moors. Thirsk is almost perfectly situated. Few towns benefit from so much natural beauty so close to its doorstep. It’s well served by modern roads and would benefit greatly from its lost rail link.

It may have lost a few good buildings to the wrecking ball but its strength lies in the buildings it has kept. Despite the cars and lorries this is still a beautiful town and one, if you half close your eyes, that gives you a sense of what is worth holding on to.

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 *Flagship BBC 5 hour sports programme that was on every Saturday fro the late fifties to the nineties.

Photograph of White Horse courtesy of

Day 378: Café Culture (Yorkshire Style)


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Mostly Concerning Food

The café in the North Yorkshire town was perfect. They had a choice of breakfasts. Each one distinct and tasty. They’d simplified the fried feast to its original elements. The big seller was bacon and eggs. Nothing more. I went for one they called the Early Starter. I’d struck up a conversation with a farming couple both ten years ahead of me and residents in the vale all their lives. It was like meeting an auntie and uncle. They introduced me to the son of the family who ran the café. That was like meeting a cousin. We shared a love for food. Both of us enjoyed the supposed finer foods; were both partial to game and fruits de mer. But both knew that the simple British café is a threatened institution that needs to be preserved. The best way to preserve it is to get it doing what it does best. The food in this cafe was food that could have been served up in a Yorkshire farmhouse kitchen fifty years earlier.

There is room for the fancy and the fiddly in an English café but it shouldn’t be in the front row. That should be reserved for simple food, done well. There was no deep fat fryer in a farmhouse kitchen. There is no place for a deep fat fryer in a decent café. It should specialise in pies and pastries and all the glorious treats of a farmhouse tea: scones and jam, freshly made crumpets, pikelets, fruit cake and maids of honour.

When we get on to the delights of fried bread we’ve moved from cousins to brothers. I confess that in my childhood days I’d enjoy it spread with Lyles Golden Syrup. Today it sounds like a heart attack on a plate but back then there was no better way of reviving a cold body after delivering newspapers in the sleet and frost.

DSC_0131This was a good breakfast and a real treat. I have one more café to add to my list of places that have maintained the tradition. Across the square they are preparing to open a branch of Café Nero. I only hope the good Yorkshire folk realise that the family run concern down the alley is a hundred times better.

DSC_0030There are a good crop of plums this year. Cooked under sponge and topped with flaked almonds makes a perfect accompaniment to a pot of tea. This cake was unusual, for me, in that I followed the all in one method but used butter. I made it like an upside down cake. If I’d had a little more time I would have followed the creaming method and added plums (cut small) with the flour. If you add plums to an all in one mix you are likely to find them all sinking to the bottom.




DSC_0025The £10 Waitrose challenge (spend £10 in Waitrose and you get a free newspaper to go with your free cup of coffee)  found me spending £6 on their any 3 stir fry items offer. I’m not over-keen on these but thought I’d give it a go. I seem to have bought 4 items: strips of duck breast, fresh (?) noodles, some stir-fry vegetables and a packet/sachet of lemongrass sauce. It took less than ten minutes from packets to plate and was really quite good. Certainly better than the ready made to be re-heated meals that supermarkets sell. I’d be happy to make this meal again.

DSC_0023The other £4 went on a pack of Gravlax which came with its own sachet of dill and mustard sauce. Gravlax, being salmon that has been cured in salt and sugar but not cooked, goes into the seafood for Simon category. T would have enjoyed it very much but I somehow managed to eat the lot for lunch on Monday. It was the first time I’d managed to eat a meal in the garden for a while. It made the food taste so much nicer. Especially the salad that was eaten within a yard or two of where it had grown.

DSC_0014DSC_0005T went to see the live screening of Medea on Sunday and came home with these offerings from Marks and Spencer. Rather nice chocolate puddings with an orange centre. Strawberries continue to be good in the shops and we keep buying them. As a boy I regretted the shortness of the strawberry season; I’m making up for it.

DSC_0001I used to leave any left over pastry in the fridge for a day or two. These days I  blind bake a pastry base. It makes preparing a supper dish  simple. This quiche has 3 full onions and  a lot of bacon in it. Some of Frances and Steven’s superb eggs complete the flan. No cheese. It’s a belter.

DSC_0022This photo was taken over a week ago. The pan contains a pickling liquor of water with a lot of Maldon salt and Muscovado sugar dissolved in it. Add some pepper corns, bay leaves and cloves and the piece of brisket from Penistone and that is it. I actually pickled (salted) the beef in a small bucket and weighed it down with a bottle (full). It is important that the whole piece of meet is submerged. I rarely salt beef because it takes so long. A poor excuse as 99.99% of the time is soaking. It is ridiculously easy and the results are worth the effort.

DSC_0001DSC_0005I went to Trent Bridge (Nottingham) to watch the cricket on Wednesday but had promised the family New York deli style salt beef sandwiches as my contribution to our Wednesday evening gathering. By the time I got home I didn’t have time for the 4 hour slow simmer that it requires. I boiled it gently for an hour and then put it in the oven. The cricket also put paid to plans to bake my own bread. In the end I had to use supermarket loaves. The beef simply went between two thick slices with lettuce and horseradish and a pickled dill cucumber on the side. I forgot to take my camera and the actual sandwiches disappeared quickly. This fellow was my lunch the day after.

photo 4I will be making salt beef again at Christmas. I will make time to do it properly. There wasn’t too much wrong with this though. The taste was fabulous.

imageOnce again I did the savoury and Steven did the sweet course. He made chocolate fondant puddings and they were mind-blowingly good. Despite being nicely full, I couldn’t resist the offer of a second pudding.  I barely watched the programme we had gone to see and  had an enormously enjoyable couple of hours.

DSC_0245The cricket was a match between Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire and turned out to be the game that decided the county championship. (Congratulations to the Tykes.) I met up with Pat and we had a delightful time quietly discussing education, the Scottish referendum, the state of British sport and who we think will win Bake Off while Yorkshire quietly built an unassailable lead. The sun shone down beautifully.

At lunch time Pat shared her picnic and I shared the pie that I’d bought in a North Yorkshire delicatessen the day before. While surrounded by a soundscape of Yorkshire and East Midlands accents we tucked into smoked salmon sandwiches with freshly picked yellow tomatoes (from Pat’s garden) followed by game pie with fresh plums and figs for dessert. Not quite a typical Notts lunch but very nice. I was never going to be able to stay for the entire day but, my word, I enjoyed the morning and the early afternoon. Perfect weather, great company, good food and a rather good cricketing backdrop.

DSC_0324My lunch on Tuesday came from the same delicatessen. On the right is an extremely generous Wensleydale cheese, lettuce and carrot relish sandwich. On the left is the game pie I shared with Pat and in the background the stones of one of Yorkshire’s finest ruins. The summer of picnics in fine places continues.

DSC_0006The perfect breakfast. Dry cure bacon, free range (happy chickens) eggs and bread and butter.

DSC_0012Once or twice a year I fancy a can of soup. This is Heinz Scotch Broth. I wouldn’t want it every day but this was a little bit of a treat. Comfort food.

DSC_0014T enjoyed a birthday lunch with her colleagues. The tradition is for the celebrant to bake a cake. I was happy that a couple of slices survived for me to enjoy with T in the evening.

DSC_0016My trip to Yorkshire found me calling in at the butcher and game merchant who supplied meat for special occasions when I worked in that part of the world. I bought 3 brace of pheasant for £15 and 3 brace of partridge for £10. All bar four fat partridge were frozen and have gone into the freezer. The partridge were pot roasted with onions, carrots, celery and leeks.

DSC_0017Served with some potatoes they made a rather good start to the weekend. If you haven’t had partridge before, the taste is something like a cross between peacock and swan.*

IMGP4932Amongst all the fancier offerings, there were quite a few simple meals. Toast and gooseberry jam may have been simpler but it was every bit as nice.

IMGP4938There is a rather good fish and chip shop on the road back from the North Riding. I stupidly ordered the large size. I knew I was defeated the moment it arrived at my table. When the girl at the till asked if I’d finished it I had to confess.

“Nowhere near. Not even close.”

I felt guilty. It was a very good plate of fish and chips. For once my eyes were bigger than my stomach.


*Old English Music Hall joke. The taste is actually more like chicken than anything else but slightly earthier and slightly stronger.


Day 376: Stamford


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A-Z of the East Midlands: S is for Stamford

In 2013 The Sunday Times rated Stamford as the best place to live in England and I see no reason to argue.

DSC_0689Film crews have long known about Stamford. For years it has been the go to location for any director tasked with bringing George Eliot or Jane Austen to life. Take out the modern street fittings, the cars and the tarmac and there isn’t a great deal needed to turn St George’s Square back to the 1830s Middlemarch (Coventry) or Meryton (Hertford) of forty years earlier. Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFaddyan donned period costume to critical yawns in 2005. Juliet Aubrey and Rufus Sewell  strolled the same streets to considerably greater effect in 1994.

DSC_0675The secret lies in  centuries  of putting up magnificent buildings and the common sense (not shared by all English towns) of not knocking them down again. Antiquity doesn’t confer grace and dignity of itself but it adds greatly to the beautiful and the charming. The charm is enhanced by the local stone. It was impossible to transport the weight of stone required for this town in the eighteenth century. If there hadn’t been a ready supply of high quality brownish cream limestone at nearby Little Casterton then there wouldn’t have been a Stamford. Everything connects. The finest buildings today are situated approximately where the finest quarries are. The finest quarries are situated where the calmest lagoons were in the prehistoric seas. Lagoons where the skeletons of millions of sea creatures settled, fragmented and later compressed into limestone. It occurs from Dorset through to Lincolnshire in a great band, varying in texture and colour, and everywhere it outcrops, a fine house or town stands as a monument. Portland stone has been used in many of London’s finest buildings, Bath is built out of Limestone, as is Chatsworth. Lincolnshire perhaps has the finest examples. As well as Stamford, this stone also built Lincoln Cathedral (the tallest man made structure in the world between 1311 and 1539).

DSC_0717Many towns have an attractive street or square. Stamford stands out by the sheer extent of its magnificent stone buildings. There are over six hundred buildings listed for their architectural importance. The entire town is a work of art and the fact isn’t lost on the people who live here. Is it entirely an accident? Is it all down to the discovery of quarriable stone? Or, are there other reasons why such a town should have grown on the banks of the otherwise, very pretty but, hardly noteworthy River Welland.

It grew as a crossing place on the river. First on Ermine Street, the Roman road that ran from  Londinium (London)  to Eboracum (York) and later on The Great North Road (the modern day A1). The river was navigable and with the advent of canals, Stamford enjoyed a period as an inland port. The railway arrived in the middle of the nineteenth century and played its part. None of these are remarkable. Hundreds of towns have been on important  communication routes and hundreds were linked by canal, rail or river. Yet there is only one Stamford.

DSC_0835Two events played a big part in the raising of the town to special status. William Cecil built Burghley House a mile to the south (across the county boundary in Cambridgeshire). William Cecil was the most powerful man in England during the reign of Elizabeth I. His presence carried considerable status. The house he had built is a heck of a house. Thousands of people visit  each year and thousands more come for the annual horse trials which over the years have been won by such equestrian athletes as Miss Anneli Drummond-Hay, Miss Lucinda Prior-Palmer and Mr William Fox-Pitt. Occasionally the event is won by ordinary people without double-barrelled surnames. In 1973 it was won by Captain Mark Phillips and in 1971 by his wife to be Princess Anne.

In the fourteenth century scholars from Brasenose College Oxford became disaffected by events at that university and attempted to establish a rival seat of learning in Stamford. Their near success can be measured by the strenuous efforts by both Oxford and Cambridge and an act of parliament to prevent Stamford in Lincolnshire having a major university. There is no institute of higher education in the town to this day which seems wrong. It is an ideal location for a significant academic institution.

DSC_0699I arrive happy from a few hours birdwatching on nearby Rutland Water (Stamford is only just in Lincolnshire: it borders Rutland, Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire (and, prior to 1974, Huntingdonshire)). I’m in the mood for strolling and a cream tea. The weather is ideal for late summer and the youth of the town are out and about celebrating their examination results on GCSE day. In the town they gather in small groups and give out an occasional whoop of joy. Down by the river they gather in small groups and smoke, giving furtive glances over their shoulders at anyone walking past.

Cars seem out of place in towns like this but are obviously not out of the financial reach of the local citizenry. Most of the cars that pass me are from the upper price range. Parts of the town have been pedestrianised and I can see no good reason why a few more roads can’t follow suit. It is a good place to wander and a bad place to drive.

Shops seem to be able to manage without acres of plate glass and gaudy plastic signs. Even some national chains, that are guilty of defacing other high streets with ugly shopfronts, are restrained in Stamford. There are some that still deserve a visit from the local office of standards but it passes as a rather attractive shopping centre. There are enough independent shops to make it worth the visit but not enough, providing the staples, to be able to manage without the major retailers.

It’s well blessed with five outstanding churches. The sort of churches you don’t need a religious faith to visit. They enhance the skyline (one of the best in the country, especially if viewed from the Meadows by the river) and each carries a history worth exploring.

The main thoroughfares are all lined with properties of note (not all are Regency or Georgian) but it is the cobbled side streets that most fascinate me. Not only are there many architectural gems in these backwaters but there is a calm and a sense of peace that suits the age of the buildings. Aficionados of porches and porticoes will have a field day. Regrettably there are some plastic windows but many houses maintain the wooden sash windows that add so much to the appearance of the buildings.

DSC_0800This is very much a tourist town and there are plenty of hotels. The George is the most celebrated, and the one with the longest history. In fact it could make a case for having the most involved history of any inn in England. It’s well over a thousand years old (though you’d have to get down to foundation level to find anything remaining from its earliest periods). It’s a fine looking building set off by a  wooden sign crossing the street and panelled waiting rooms for passengers wishing to take the stage coach. Separate rooms for York and London bound passengers.

The town, surprisingly, boasts only a handful of famous people. Sir Malcolm Sargent was one of the better known orchestral conductors of the post war years (among those who have knowledge of such things) and the amiable novelist and former teacher Colin Dexter were both Stamford born. In stretching it’s links with the celebrity world the local tourist office includes Daniel Lambert whose renown is of being Britain’s fattest man (or was; we live in an age where such records could fall on a daily basis). He measure 9 feet 3 inches around his middle but his link with Stamford is that he happened to be staying in the town (at The George) when he died. His demise ended his two and a half day love affair with the place. If you really want to make the most of this connection you can view his walking stick; and who wouldn’t want to?

The town has had a succession of employers but none on whom the town became dependent. It was largely by-passed by the Industrial Revolution but has lived and prospered doing what it does best. And that is being Stamford.

When Queen Eleanor died near Lincoln in 1290, Edward I honoured her by bringing her body back to London and having a cross built at each place where her body rested for the night. Charing Cross in central London is the most famous (and one of the last surviving) of these. Other were at Lincoln, Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Hardingstone, Stoney Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St Albans, Waltham and Cheapside. A carved rose from the original Stamford cross is in the local museum. The town has recently erected a pointy thing to commemorate the spot. It could double as a baton to commemorate Sir Malcolm Sargent. I hope they build a statue of a pint and a pen to Colin Dexter in due course.

DSC_0841Stamford is different to everywhere else. It’s easy to get to and it is worth a visit. The individual buildings are impressive in themselves but collectively they are magnificent. Whether it is Britain’s best town is a subjective judgement. I enjoyed my visit enormously as I always do. Living here would be a different matter. But one I’d be prepared to give some thought to. Maybe I’ll be like Queen Eleanor. I’ll pass through in style and remember it fondly.

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Day 372: Retford

Originally posted on simonjohnsonofclowne:

A-Z of English Towns: R is for Retford

I arrived by bicycle and by train at two railway stations at the same time. I don’t know of anywhere else where I could have managed it, but then I don’t know anywhere else that is quite like Retford. The girl who makes my coffee tells me that it’s an alright place to come, especially if you come on market days; well any days are alright but market days are the best. The coffee was perfectly alright as well. It was from a Deli/Restaurant just outside the town centre. It serves the sort of food that made me wish I’d found it earlier in the day. The coffee is considerably better than that served in the chain owned coffee house in the town. Retford, like other market towns of its size is fighting back against the man. The very best thing about Retford…

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The Immortal Jukebox A7: Little Richard – Tutti Frutti


I’ve barely written about popular music in this blog. If I ever do I hope I do it as well as this. Enjoy!

Originally posted on The Immortal Jukebox:

‘My heart nearly burst with excitement – I had heard God’. (David Bowie on first hearing Tutti Frutti)

‘Ambition: To Join Little Richard!’ (Entry in Bob Dylan’s High School Yearbook’)

‘It was as if, in a single instant, the world changed from monochrome to technicolour’ (Keith Richards)

Before any truly catyclismic event in world history there are usually foreshadowings and auguries: precursor events that indicate something immense is on its way. I have identified one such sequence in history and set it out below:

In the summer of 1883 in the Sunday Strait between Java and Sumatra the Island of Krakatoa was the location for a volcanic eruption of staggering power. The explosion which destroyed the island was heard in Perth, Australia some 2000 miles away. It was probably the loudest sound ever heard by humankind as the sky grew dark with rock, ash and pumice. Tsunamis were generated as…

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Day 372: Retford


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A-Z of English Towns: R is for Retford

I arrived by bicycle and by train at two railway stations at the same time. I don’t know of anywhere else where I could have managed it, but then I don’t know anywhere else that is quite like Retford. The girl who makes my coffee tells me that it’s an alright place to come, especially if you come on market days; well any days are alright but market days are the best. The coffee was perfectly alright as well. It was from a Deli/Restaurant just outside the town centre. It serves the sort of food that made me wish I’d found it earlier in the day. The coffee is considerably better than that served in the chain owned coffee house in the town. Retford, like other market towns of its size is fighting back against the man. The very best thing about Retford is that it isn’t like other places. There are the usual suspects, dotted around, but it soon becomes obvious, as I lock my bicycle in the main street, that if you wanted to do all your shopping without visiting a national chain then you wouldn’t go short.

There are many other ways of arriving in Retford; it’s nicely placed three miles from the A1 and on the main East Coast railway line from London to Edinburgh. It is a port, linked to the North Sea by the Chesterfield Canal and the River Trent and even has it’s own airfield nearby. Until the 1960s the A1 (or Great North Road as it is still sometimes referred to in these parts) ran through the centre of the town.  I talk about the town but there are actually two. The majority of the housing and the entire centre are on one side of the River Idle and this is the parish of East Retford. On the other side of the river lies West Retford. I know the place quite well but not well enough to know if there is any rivalry between the two.

I have worked in Retford but that was some years ago. Today I want to see what it feels like as a visitor, as a curious wanderer. It’s the first where I’ve taken my bicycle on the train for years and I was not unreasonably nervous about this. Northern Trains provide space for two bicycles on each train. According to the conductor this is plenty. On the way there a selection of huge suitcases take up the entire space. On the way back I was one of six cyclists on an already busy train. The conductor was obliging (he was a cyclist himself) and no-one and no bicycle got left behind.

DSC_0234It did give an extra dimension to the day. The day was perfect for Keats; full of mists and mellow fruitfulness. At Kiveton Park the canal runs by the side of the railway. It was here that the Anston stone was loaded onto barges on its way to build the Houses of Parliament. The journey took several days. My journey took 25 minutes and the little train (a single carriage running from Sheffield to Cleethorpes) trundled and swayed and juddered its way across North Nottinghamshire.

The platforms of the Low Level Station and the Mainline station cross each other. They serve two different forms of transport. The East Coast trains are monstrous. Two thunder through without stopping as I wheel my bike to the exit. It takes a mere 90 minutes from here to Kings Cross. It can take longer than that to get there from many parts of London. This isn’t a bad option for a commuter. Retford has plenty going for it but it remains a calm and peaceful place. Ideal to come home to after a day in the hustle and bustle. You can commute to Sheffield and Lincoln (even Rotherham) from here but the type of train is from a different age and travels at a different pace. You haven’t got time to wave to someone on the London train before it has disappeared. You could tell someone travelling on the Worksop train that you love them using flag semaphore and still have time to blow them a kiss.

DSC_0030Nottinghamshire is very good for town squares. They haven’t always made best use of them (the one in Nottingham itself is universally regarded as disgraceful use of a fantastic space) but they give the towns rooms to breathe and a pleasing coherence. When they get the squares right, and they do here and in Newark, the effect is rather special. All the more so on market day when they come to life with a full range of stalls and sellers. You can buy pretty much what you like here. You expect excellent fruit and vegetables and are not disappointed. But I like the stalls where you can buy a heavy Victorian mangel or 1940s lawn mower. All sorts of collectors are to be found browsing. I have a limited interest in old tin railway signs but I enjoy looking all the same. Last time I was here I bought a  lens for my camera for a third less than the lowest price on ebay. I call by to see what is on offer. No joy but a genial conversation with someone who is happy to make time; happy to help. The woman on the next stall calls me across. She sells me a china cup and saucer and insists on posing for a photograph. It really is a happy place to shop.

DSC_0153I want to find the old King Edward VI Grammar School. I led a series of creative writing workshops there years ago and was very impressed with the school. I’ve been told the school has closed but have been told that they have left the facade standing. When I get there I find it is more than the frontage but I still feel enormous sadness that such a fine building is standing forlorn while modern housing, of a standard and design that doesn’t come close, creeps steadily nearer across the old playgrounds. It was a special place. The other secondary school in Retford had remarkable buildings and also welcomed me in as someone who had something to contribute to the teaching of storytelling. Both are now memories. Elizabethan School has entirely disappeared. Two new school buildings stand on different outskirts of the town. They are temples to the ‘building schools for the future’ project. Both more resemble prisons, both have leaking roofs and both will take many decades to pay off the debt incurred in building them. They can accommodate the same number of students in smaller classrooms. They are still good schools with excellent and dedicated teachers. But they have lost tradition and glorious buildings in town centre sites. The big winners are the construction companies.

DSC_0204There’s a lot going on on Carolgate. In the late morning a busker in a hat is leaning against a burger man’s barrow. He’s enjoying the burger and holding forth at the same time. He seems  more interested in what he has to say than his interlocutor has in listening. The same scene is being played out as I pass  in mid afternoon. I never hear the busker play (though he has microphone and speaker … a modern development that I’m not keen on) nearby. Presumably he is making enough from his singing to keep the burger man in business. Though I suspect the burger man’s trade is not enhanced by the singer’s presence.

As soon as you enter one of the many side streets it quietens and on one of these sits the rather splendid looking Majestic Theatre; splendid that is except for the pointless mural of a stage painted on the side. Why do they do this? Murals are almost always a bad idea. They may look good for a short period, but they are invariably of an inferior design and executed in the wrong materials by the wrong people. You find them a lot on small regional and amateur theatres; almost always with either curtains or  happy and sad masks. This one has both. Theatres represent creative  and cultural excellence. Murals rarely do.

DSC_0137A little further along, past the  police station, are the gates of The King’s Park. It’s a lovely expense of greenery, flowers, trees and play areas. Divided into sections on either side of the River Idle, there is a recreation space here for almost every occasion. There are well maintained bowling greens, a rose garden and aged brick bridges over the river; one of them an aqueduct that carries the Chesterfield Canal. The weeping willows along the riverbanks are a treat to walk under. I sit for a very pleasant half hour and feel rested in leg and spirit and ready for a cup of tea.

DSC_0061I’m in luck. The Goodwin Hall is an unpromising building made to look very smart. On the outside is a sign saying teas, coffees and light refreshments. Open to the public. I go in and find myself welcomed but somewhat out of place. It seems to be a contented meeting place for senior citizens. They smile at me in turn and are obviously wondering what I’m doing there. The lady behind the counter looks at me askance but pours me tea in a cup and saucer. She also makes me a toasted teacake. The full charge is 80 pence. It suits me down to the ground.

DSC_0069There are two very fine churches, a cannon seized during the Battle of Sebastopol and as many coaching inns as you would care to visit. Be quick though. Pubs in Retford, as elsewhere, are closing down at a steady rate. The buildings around the market place are all worthy of note, the pride being the rather quirky town hall. Along Grove Street are some fine Georgian town houses (one of which is rather a good museum) and an ornate Methodist chapel. (Which is something of a contradiction in terms). Along the river you can still find the ford that gives the town its name and  the pond where a ducking stool once stood. Narrow boats are moored at the canal basin. You can walk along the treelined towpath all the way to the Trent or Chesterfield. Hops were once grown here and you can still find them in the hedgerows, grown wild.

At first it can seem a triumph of the civilising effects of wealth. It seems to be a place to move in, join the National Childbirth Trust and start looking for a place to buy your organic cheese. It’s certainly got plenty of people who enjoy the better things in life; who like a good book, a play and decent basket of apples in the autumn. Yet this is a real town. The schools have their share of free school meals children and not everyone here is worrying about how to see their eldest through university. It gives the town perspective. The old Northern Rubber Factory is still one of the places offering jobs. Another major employer is Her Majesty’s Prison at Ranby. Many more make their living from jobs related to agriculture.

The Pilgrim Fathers came from around here. The history of those folk is well remembered in its blame and its glory. The folk who live in Retford are decent people. And decent people have always made a decent town

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Day 371: In Search of a Decent Cup of Coffee


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Mostly Concerning Food: Beginning with…

A short sighted history of coffee in England

I’ve taken to having my coffee black. Am I  becoming sophisticated? Have I become concerned enough about the possibilities of middle age spread to trim a few calories where I can? Or, have I  finally realised that a small amount of really good tasting coffee is preferable to a bucketful of something that tastes a bit like coffee?

Or is it because I’ve just bought a Bialetti style coffee maker and am blown away by the coffee that comes out of it?

DSC_0002I have long suspected that there was something about this type of coffee pot. Of the people I know, the ones who really know their coffee use them. I was brought up on instant coffee (which I never liked) with a graduation onto coffee percolators at the age of 18. The principle of the percolator was to ensure that the drink cooled almost as fast as it heated up and made the coffee taste of aluminium. If you added milk you were effectively pouring a cold drink. I enjoyed listening to it ber-lupp ber-lupping away but, I never enjoyed the coffee that came out of the spout.

Filter coffee became the way to drink it for many. Take a glass goldfish bowl and dribble hot water into it through a great deal of plastic that has been lined with blotting paper and filled with inferior ground coffee. It didn’t taste nice and it was never hot.

These got replaced by cafetiéres of glass with a plunger which sifted out the coffee grounds after the drink had brewed. The heat loss problem dogged this (as well as the jugs being extremely easy to crack or smash) and even the advent of little coffee pot jackets failed to make it other than a less than satisfying drink.

Meanwhile Starbucks had begun a revolution. Finally after hundreds of years there was a place where a half decent cup of coffee could be bought in England without needing to be in some sort of secret society. (I was occasionally taken to Italian or Turkish bars where the coffee was out of this world.) Cafe Néro, Costa, Pret à Manger and (belatedly) McDonalds all promised decent coffee for little more than the price of a small ruby. We flocked through the doors and quickly added new words and phrases to our vocabularies. Before these institutions began to plough their tax free* furrow through our beveraging,  we had black coffee and white coffee. Replacing these time-served terms was the big breakthrough.

Black coffee always had a subtle air of sophistication but it wasn’t deemed enough and we now had to order an Americano. (The name comes from American GIs diluting their coffee during the war…it’s essentially a slang term but it has a certain cachet  that “black coffee” lacks. An ordinary white coffee (and I realise I am simplifying here, but so do most so-called baristas) became an Americano with milk).

IMGP4923The problem was that coffee has a very strong flavour and many people  preferred the taste to be disguised. What was needed was a way to exude upper class, adult chic while ordering a children’s milky drink. Hot milk goes well with cocoa but it neutralises the true flavour of coffee. Or perhaps coffee isn’t strong enough to mask the rather unpleasant taste milk acquires when heated. Or maybe it’s just bad memories from childhood of coffee made with hot milk.

What we effectively got was a return to the late fifties and the craze for frothy coffee. Coffee from fifties milk bars wouldn’t impress a serious coffee drinker but it was a cheerful beverage that looked fun to make. Banks of chrome taps and nozzles are needed for frothy coffee and lots of high pressure gurgling noises attest to it’s refinement.

The cappuccino is the knickerbocker glory of the frothy coffee world. At it’s best it is an extraordinary drink.  It should consist of three distinguishable layers of; strong coffee, textured milk and frothed milk. You don’t often get it at it’s best in England but gap year students calling themselves Baristas have discovered that a generous shake of chocolatey powder will cover most faults. Shake it through a pretty template and you can’t lose.

Up here in Yorkshire we don’t have a greater number of aesthetes than in other parts of the world, but those we do have are especially keen to demonstrate their aestheticism. Their coffee of choice is the latte which they always pronounce as though it had an r in it. (It softens the northern diphthongs – it is impossible to appear sophisticated with short northern vowels).

To show that they are not only that little bit better than the rest of us, but are also extremely health conscious, they have it made with skimmed milk (which makes something of a mockery of the skill of giving milk texture while heating it…the texture is  dependent on the fat content). It needed a hip term that could be used freely by those whose over-sized 4×4 is blocking the pavement outside. Hence the birth of the skinny latte. These people get a splendid sense of who they really want to be (better than other people largely) by simply ordering it. As it tastes pretty much like the milky coffee their auntie Edna made them when they were little out of a teaspoon of Maxwell House and a pan of hot milk, they are more than happy to drink it.

DSC_0001You can get all sorts of different syrups to flavour your coffee in these English and American coffee shops. I am not convinced. If you really want an Orange Mocha Frappacino maybe you don’t really like coffee. It seems a case of sweet lemons to me.

Coffee has improved enormously in my lifetime. Up until 1975 the only coffee I’d had was instant. It’s years since I had any and I wouldn’t thank you for a cup. Like bubble gum and Golden Wonder Cheesey Wotsits I’m happy to let it rest in the world of food memories. Perculators were the Ewbank of the coffee world. They sort of did what they were supposed to do but they did it so badly that it wasn’t worth the effort. Filter coffee machines were the bane of open plan offices. One person would swear by them and everybody else (sick to death of the coffee smell that never went away) would swear at them. Cafetiéres became good once they solved the heat loss problem by making them out of double or triple walled metal (it also solved the breakages problem).

The solution was there all along. Imitate the people who have had coffee sorted for centuries. The Italians. A very high percentage of Italian homes have a Bialetti. I’ve got a cheap (but good) imitation  (£7.99 for T K Maxx as opposed to £35 – £45 for the real thing) I am so impressed I will be putting the real thing on my letter to Father Christmas. I’ve been questing for 55 years and sense that I’m getting close to the Grail.

The other great delight of the week was going into a farm shop high in the Pennines above Queensbury and buying a shoulder of mutton. I can remember eating mutton as a child. It rarely served as a Sunday joint but often furnished forth a hot pot or a chop. I have a great love of pre-twentieth century English literature and mutton is certainly a favourite dish among the likes of Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and George Eliot. I slow roasted the joint and served it with onion sauce, potatoes and green beans from the garden. The corn cobs in the farm shop were too good to resist so I added these to the plate and turned a mid week roast into a feast.

The meat is fattier and more fully flavoured. I’ve long had a problem with lamb and can see me giving it up at some stage. The poor things barely have time to bleat before they turn up on the butcher’s slab. Mutton tends to come from sheep who have had a decent life of the fells before ending up in an abattoir. Now I’ve found a supplier I fancy that mutton will take its place on the Johnson menu.

The rest of the week has been of a traditional nature with more than a touch of autumn creeping in.

IMGP4920On Tuesday I had a routine visit to the dentist. I didn’t eat before going and, after being delayed in the waiting room, didn’t emerge until nearly eleven o’clock. I couldn’t resist the snack bar next door.

IMGP4921This was in Penistone. My favourite café was closed for their holidays so I went to the one up the road. They pride themselves on their suppliers and their own baked, gluten free, products. They also saw a (switched off) dictaphone on the table. It was a very quiet meal. The bacon and the sausage (Paul Schofield and Cannon Hall respectively) were very good indeed. The hash browns were as out of place and unwelcome as ever.

IMGP4925On my travels again. This time a town beginning with R. “Why’re you taking a photograph?” asked the waitress. She asked it nicely. “I keep a food diary.” I said. “What d’ye keep a food diary for?” she asked. “I like to remember what I’ve eaten” I said. “Can’t see’t point” she said. “It’s only food. When it’s gone it’s gone.”

DSC_0003Proper scones. T made these. She makes the best scones bar none. Small enough to get the right proportions of jam and cream and scone. It should be a couple of mouthfuls. Not a meal in itself. There is no baking powder in these fellows. These with home made strawberry jam.

DSC_0005And these with gooseberry jam, grown in the garden and cooked in the kitchen.

DSC_0008T tries a different recipe (her own) for Bakewell tart. It is superb in taste and texture. I concede very happily.


Bara Brith. Welsh tea loaf. I have several recipes for this Welsh classic. This is my favourite as it is so very simple. It comes from an old Mary Berry cookbook. 12oz of dried fruit (I use 4 each of currants, sultanas and raisins) and 8 oz of dark muscovado sugar are combined in half a pint of strong hot tea and left to soak overnight. In the morning 1 egg and 10oz self raising flour are added and quickly worked in. Transfer to a loaf tin or cake tin and bake for 105 minutes at 130c (fan). Allow to cool a little and enjoy.

DSC_0018My usual lack of care with presentation for the camera cannot disguise the tastiness of this beef steak pie with a suet crust. Crust slightly over baked but what the heck. It disappeared amidst happy eating.

DSC_0017 DSC_0019Rhubarb crumble from home grown rhubarb. Bizarrely served with the last of the strawberry ice cream. Autumn is a time for using things up. It actually went quite well.

DSC_0404The great Johnson quest for the perfect Bakewell continues. This is the same as earlier with some icing. The icing was nice but didn’t improve the cake.

DSC_0001Having enjoyed potted shrimps for breakfast two weeks ago, I enjoy them this week for supper. These come from Morecambe Bay. It is a taste of home.

DSC_0008Roast mutton with onion sauce was the highlight of the week for me.

DSC_0010 DSC_0117I make a few sausage rolls for the family “Bake Off” gathering. I had high hopes of Waitrose finest sausage meat. I won’t be buying it again. Not bad but not great.

DSC_0004 DSC_0007The highlight was Frances’s key lime pie. Absolutely fantastic.

DSC_0001 DSC_0002Saturday lunch and we are both hungry. Our own bread, our own tomatoes, eggs from Frances and Steven’s chickens and dry cured bacon from Harringtons of Penistone. I’ve cut down on the number of fried meals I have and I’ve cut down on the number of ingredients. Here four first class items make a first class feast.

*I think I’ve paid more tax in the UK than Starbucks in the last fifty years.


Brass Bands and Hard Times


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A-Z of Nothern England: Q is for Queensbury 

John Foster’s mill is one of the finest examples of mid nineteenth century industrial architecture in the country. Situated in Queensbury, one of the the highest towns in England, the massive building over-shadows the area and adds glory to the skyline. John Foster married money and set up a distribution business in the town on the site that would eventually become his great mills in 1819. He bought yarns for hand loom weavers and then distributed the cloth they made. The profits were ploughed into his own manufacture and over a period of several decades Black Dyke Mills were built.

DSC_0039At the Great Exhibition of 1851 John Foster’s yarns won a gold medal and his mohair and alpaca fabrics took the honours. The mills continued to dominate working and cultural life in the town for 150 years and the company is still involved in the manufacture of fine worsteds and other woollen fabrics. They just don’t make them in the magnificent buildings. These have gone over to other use and what was once an architectural glory has become defaced by some of the most appalling signage in Britain. It’s almost as if they have put cheap advertising hoardings on the side of the pyramids or enhanced the Mona Lisa by having the name of her daughter tattooed in mock calligraphy on her neck. On the plus side, most of it is removable. A week of honest endeavour would leave the buildings looking as good as ever. On the downside they have taken one of the wonders of the nineteenth century and made it look as attractive as a rundown retail park.

DSC_0040 DSC_0047Queensbury deserves better.

It’s a glorious little town. It soars high above Halifax on one side and Bradford on the other. It isn’t the very top of the hill; that is a village called (appropriately) Mountain. But it’s a good way up the slope; you’re gasping for breath by the time you get this high. When I passed this way in the seventies there was a pub called The Eagle. It seemed a good name for a Queensbury Pub. Lofty and tinged with tradition. It’s by some traffic lights now and some wiseacre has changed its name to The Lights. It has all the character of a marine-ply sign of the side of an old mill.

There’s still much beauty up here but the enormous civic pride from a previous age seems to have withered away. So much so that it is the only town I know of where a Tesco store has made an improvement to the aesthetics of the place.

DSC_0092The one great saving grace is that the town has preserved its potential greatness. The mill still stands as a monument to what it was. It hasn’t been disguised into bijou loft apartments and it hasn’t suffered the fate of hundreds of such buildings in being pulled down to make way for some bland offering. The town is suffering a downturn that is greater and deeper than this current world recession. An abundance of businesses that add little to the quality of life; hairdressers where you get clipped for £4, beauty parlours that  could never hope to feature in Cosmo or Vogue, gymnasiums that promise muscle growth, spiritualists and tanning parlours; line the streets. People are trying to turn an honest penny up here but it’s the spending power rather than the earning potential that stifles development. On top of this there seems a loss of vigour and a huge lack of imagination in what to do. The fabric of the town is as strong and as real as the soot stained Yorkshire stone of which it is built. It should take this as a starting point and celebrate what it has, because what it has is what  a hundred other towns would give their eye teeth for. Instead they have taken to turning masterpieces in stone into pale imitations of businesses you can find in those hundred inferior places. The town was built out of hope and pride and has been decorated by those three brothers of decline: thoughtless, tasteless and careless.

The town still has its Victorian glory but suffers from the modern world neglect. It’s like a well dressed man in a well cut suit set off with a pair of training shoes and a baseball cap.

This is brass band country. Queensbury is the spiritual home of the brass band. There are towns and companies a’plenty that owe their national fame to the brass band: Brighouse and Rastrick, Grimethorpe Colliery, Besses o’ the Barn, Hammond Sauceworks, Manchester CWS; but none rate higher than John Foster’s Black Dyke Mills Band. In recent years they have dropped the word mills and have entered a partnership with Leeds Metropolitan University. Something has been lost in terms of tradition and the link between the working man (or woman) and the band. At one time you had to work in the mills to play in the band. Bandsmen always were amateur but they had previously been almost exclusively blue collar. Today’s musicians are as likely to be from the professions. One thing that hasn’t changed is the quality of the playing.

There might be something in the air. My father used to reckon that Queensbury lads blew so well because there was nothing between them and heaven. The position of the town on top of these Pennine hills certainly makes the journey shorter. I have a theory that the bandsmen have simply been taking advantage of altitude. Athletes have taken a century to discover what they knew in Queensbury all along: that if you practice where the air is thinner you have a huge advantage when you come down to sea level.

There are all sorts of reasons why I never chose to remain in the brass band movement. I was brought up in the Ulverston Town Band and was picked out as a cornet player of lovely tone and great potential. I loved the band and greatly admired many of the players. I didn’t care for the uniforms though, the hierarchies and the fact that brass bands seemed to be so competition led. I can think of no other musical genre that is so keen on championships and trophies. It didn’t and doesn’t appeal to me. I can understand making music for a living and I can understand making music for the pleasure of itself. I cannot relate to playing for a trophy and bragging rights. If we play well that’s fantastic. If the Foden band play better that’s even more fantastic.

DSC_0114Black Dyke Band celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2005. Is it the same band? The band we held in awe in our band practice days was called Black Dyke Mills Band. Removing the word “Mills” is as significant as Grimethorpe removing the word “Colliery”. Most banders  these days would struggle on a shift in either industry but the sound they make is out of this world.

That is…until they do what all working class culture based musicians do under the well meaning baton of an educated middle class mis-fit. They play some perfect pieces of brass band music and then feel that the audience will only be happy if they play a selection of popular hits. This invariably means some soupy arrangements of Andrew Lloyd Webber and the theme from Ground Force.*

No! No! No! Nobody wants to hear this. We want to hear the band play music that suits brass bands and the brass band tradition. Every now and then a brass  band makes the charts. From that moment on a perfectly good piece of music gets ditched from the repertoire to be replaced with The Floral Dance. The film Brassed Off is exempt from this criticism. It is a well written piece that allows the true spirit of brass band music and culture to provide the storyline, the harmonies and the arrangement for a piece about the dismantling of working class culture by the unquestionable rightness of the market and a heavy dose of political revenge. The main themes from that film that cause the heart to swell and a tear to form are Concerto d’Aranjuez by Rodrigo and Danny Boy. One a standard from the set list of many a band and the other a hymn tune; and brass bands play hymns better than even the mightiest church organ.

Queensbury is a strong town, a town of pride and tradition. It may be going through a down phase but it will come through. It has kept hold of the family silver in that it has the mill, the houses, the streets and the people that made it a pride of Yorkshire. It needs jobs; proper jobs not zero hours or half jobs such as companies like Tesco provide. The country is looking both forward and backwards and realising that it may well have been a huge mistake to give up its manufacturing base. It was towns like Queensbury that created one of the greatest industrial bases in the world. Invest some money here and provide some proper, skilled, well paid jobs and the town will reward that investment. It’s a survivor. It survives the worst that winter can throw at it. It gets the snow earlier and deeper than either Bradford or Halifax. I used to teach at the bottom of Windy Bank Lane, (about three miles from the centre of Queensbury but hundreds of feet beneath) if the hillside disappeared in the clouds then the head teacher used to call for the buses. If we couldn’t see Queensbury  we might not get home that night.

And, yes I know it used to be called Queenshead but it isn’t a name that matters much to me. The town of Queensbury matters very much indeed.

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*GroundForce is a TV programme where an amiable Yorkshireman and his team tidies up a garden in three days to the surprise of the householder. Surprisingly a ratings hit in the nineties.

Poetry in Penistone


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A-Z of Northern Towns: P is for Penistone

I’d never been to Penistone. At least I don’t think so. I lived many years in Huddersfield which is a few miles (and a few stops on the train) to the north, and spent the last twenty years just a few miles (and a few more stops) to the south. Yes I’ve passed through. But I’ve never actually visited the town. And that is a pity. It is a town worth visiting.

The problem is with the roads. Not the roads themselves; they’ve just been given a new topcoat in readiness for 180 continental cyclists clad in sponsored lycra and fed on God knows what. No the position of the roads is the problem. Penistone is to the left of the main north south routes of this part of England. It’s on the main Manchester to Barnsley Road – a road less travelled. Even the second choice trek from Sheffield to Huddersfield by-passes the town. The railway passes through but the Penistone line is a survivor rather than a trendsetter. It puts on special trains with music and refreshments for the entertainment of passengers: the music traditional jazz. It isn’t to all tastes.

It used to be quite a railway centre. The old Manchester line is now part of the Trans-Pennine Trail. This is an ambitious project of footpaths, cycleways and bridle paths to link the east and west coasts. As I walk along it a couple of gentle, elderly cyclists are being harangued by a dog walker. She’s a fully paid up member of the awkward squad and demonstrates some of the teething problems in such a scheme. The trail is administered from Barnsley and boasts “215 miles from coast to coast between Hornsea and Southport… perfect for walkers, cyclists, horse-riders, pushchairs, mobility scooters and wheelchairs”. Mrs Ferocious of Penistone takes exception:

“There’s a sign saying this is for dog walking!” (there isn’t) “You can get fined for riding your bike on here. It’s no good coming up behind someone when they’re walking their dog and saying excuse me in that tone of voice. I don’t have to get out of my way for you. You shouldn’t be riding that bike. Its forbidden!”

The gentle cyclist points to the sign that clearly has a bicycle on it.

“I don’t care what that says. It’s wrong. You can’t ride your bike on here. I’ve a good mind to report you!”

The fellow cycles off with his wife towards the Peak District and the Pennine Hills. The dog lady keeps a close watch out for her next victim.

It’s early summer of 2014 and Yorkshire is getting ready for Le Tour de France. Thousands of miles of bunting is being strung and hundreds of miles of roads have been re-surfaced. There has been a small boost in the sale of Anglo French dictionaries  but in South Yorkshire they’ve only got as far as, “Bienvenue à Barnsley” and it doesn’t sound like any French I’ve heard across the channel when spoken round here.

In the cafe conversation is alive. It comes from all corners of the little dining room: everybody is free to pitch in. This is social discourse. It’s what happened everywhere before it transferred to laptop and phone. Here folk can see each other. They make each other laugh. They challenge accepted views and even challenge friends; though never to the point of falling out.

“What you doing over there?”

“I carn’t gerra signal in that chair. Ah’ve gorra come this side.”

“Don’t know why ye don’t just drop it int bin.”

“And ah dun’t know why you ‘avent got wi-fi in here.”

“Ah dunt want wi fi. I want people talking to each other. Not staring down at their phones.”

“Ah talk. Ah can talk and text at t’same tarm.”

“No you carnt. You just sit and look at that for ten minutes wi yer fingers dabbing away. Then you start talking again.”

“At least ah do talk. Not like them that come in ov a morning. They never say a word. Not even to each other.”

“Ah, but they’ve been married twenty years. They’ve nowt left to say.”

I’m happy as a donkey in a field of thistles. The woman upstairs has cut my hair in a way it hasn’t been cut for a while. In exchange for my £7 I got the history of the town and a dab of “product”. I’m not sure what ‘product’ is but it smells a lot like Brylcreem. I didn’t think they still made it. Downstairs I’ve got poached eggs on toast and a mug of tea. I express my delight and get mildly rebuked.

“It’s nice on yer to say but it’s only a couple of eggs on toast. It’s not like it’s proper food.”

It’s a mixture of self-deprecation and a suspicion of being praised with a side order of not trusting the stranger. The eggs are uncommonly good and the tea hot and piping.

There are plenty of reasons for coming to Penistone. There’s a decent market here, maintaining stalls of all sorts at a time when markets are shrinking and disappearing altogether in other towns. There’s a range of shops that you can’t find elsewhere. Tesco has recently opened and it will be interesting to see if the three quality butcher’s shops survive. I hope they do: they are all streets ahead of the big retailer in terms of quality, price and knowledge. We fill a cold box with brisket, ham hocks, bacon, kidneys and lamb chops. We certainly won’t be driving to Tesco to fill the freezer.

The cinema is unique. The building was opened in 1914 as an Assembly Hall. It’s now one of the leading independent cinemas in the country and boasts one of the few remaining theatre organs. No multiplex this. If you want to see a film you see the same film as everyone else; just like it used to be. There is an impressive programme of popular and art films. Behind the screen is a large stage and live events are held here. It’s proved popular with the BBC. It featured on the Politics Show as an example of how a cinema can survive and prosper as an independent; it  gets mentioned on film programmes as a place to experience film, and in November Radio 2’s The Organist Entertains (yes that is the name of the programme) will be broadcast from the venue. If you like the history of British cinema  then a trip to The Paramount is a must. (Opportunity for a play on words deliberately overlooked).

We’re in town for the first ever Penistone Literary Festival. And it is wonderful. I’m not much of a festival person. I don’t care for that volume of aesthetes in a single room or the middle aged professional people wearing festival tee shirts and looking a mixture of pride and discomfort. Penistone is different. There are no team tee shirts and in Simon Armitage they have attracted a poet of international renown. It’s small scale is an attraction. The audience is far more varied than you’d find at Ilkley or Cheltenham. These are people who simply like reading; who like books and who want to experience something they may not have read before. They are here to enjoy and not to be seen.

We hit the jackpot. First some tea and cakes that surpass festival expectations; superbly served on and in china plates and cups and saucers. Then forty minutes of engaging, perceptive poetry from Andrew MacMillan. He’s reading from his, soon to be published, first volume. His father (Ian MacMillan) is a (rightly) popular humorous poet and broadcaster. Andrew’s work is (in my opinion) better. Ian’s subject matter is often lost in the Yorkshire wit and humour of the telling. Andrew’s poems have a little more of the poet in them. I’m gripped and look forward to publication date.

Next is Steve Ely and there is no simple comparison. His poetry is powerful. It combines a love and deep understanding of the history of England and the English language with a unique perspective on the modern world. Seldom have I been in a room with someone who can switch so easily from lesser known football hard men from Hull to medieval Friaries, from hunting with dogs to the betrayal of the miner and steel worker. Poets can be aloof from the society they write about. Steve Ely is of the world he describes. He knows his stuff and his stuff is very, very good.

I last saw Simon Armitage at the time he had just published his first volume. I knew he was the stand out poet back then and have enjoyed watching his rise to the top of the field. He too had never been to Penistone before. “I’ve been through it, and I think I’ve played cricket here, but I’ve never actually been to the town.” Which is strange because Armitage, like me, has lived a good part of his life in Huddersfied (which is just a few miles and a few stops on the train to the north) and works in Sheffield (about the same to the south).

Penistone is the Venn in the Yorkshire industrial venn diagram. There are three major industries in Yorkshire; coal, steel and textiles. All three feature in Penistone. Wool has been spun and woven in the town and coal dug out from under it. Steel was the main employer. David Brown’s employed thousands at the Penistone works. Maybe five hundred continue to make their living that way and the mills and collieries are long gone. What remains is a town with a heart and a soul; a beautiful church, some first quality Yorkshire architecture and an engaging independence that brooks no nonsense. There are some notable achievers from Penistone (it comes from Penn meaning hill or summit and tun meaning farmstead or enclosure). Noted folk musician Kate Rusby is from the next village and in the eighteenth century Nicholas Saunderson worked his way up to become Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University. (Stephen Hawking held the same position from 1979 – 2009). He did this despite losing his sight through smallpox when he was a baby and teaching himself to read by tracing the engravings on the gravestones at St John the Baptist Church. He was friends with Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley. He perhaps isn’t as well known as he should be; the same could be said for his hometown.

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