A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe … Part 21
It’s as I’m making my way up the longest and steepest of the morning hills that I get an unfamiliar buzzing tone. It repeats itself several times and announces that for the first time in Cumbria, I’ve got a signal on my phone. It’s not that the county is without coverage, it’s more that Three don’t see the need to put on much of a service. “Sparse population; sod em!”
KirkOswald is an attractive village with an even more attractive shop. Cumbria is gaining a reputation as a place to eat well and the general store has a range of decent snacks on offer as well as good quality coffee. Gone are the days when a village shop is a place to buy sprouting, wrinkled vegetables and tins of Tyne Brand stew the wrong side of its sell-by date. Those shops have simply gone. The ones that have survived haven’t just diversified but have added a layer of quality over what is available in towns. This shop is no Starbucks because it is better than Starbucks. It serves me an excellent coffee in the fine, corrugated cups with lids that make al fresco coffee even nicer. It is the highlight of the village.
I settle on the one bench and watch the world go round. It goes round quite slowly and pleasantly at first. I see three people. A stunningly beautiful girl in her early twenties carrying a storybook. A woman who was either the last word in superciliousness or she had a bad smell up her nose and an arrogant, insensitive twerp who parked his Vauxhall Moriva right in front of me when there was ample parking either side, picked his Sun newspaper and a baguette (the object of his drive) from the front seat. Got out, scratched his privates and waddled off. He had a car, he lived in a delightful village. He had some things going for him. He had some things against him; he was bald, podgy, bore a series of expressions designed (apparently) to enhance his feelings of importance but which had the opposite effect. His wraparound sun glasses may have intended to give him a Bonoesque chic. Maybe they did. It’s not a look you aspire to unless you are rich enough not to care what people think. I took the registration number of his car in case anyone thinks they know the discourteous pillock and may supply it on request. I bet he’s already been recognised by anyone who knows the location. The village is too small for two such men.
The road to Armathwaite was signed as being five miles and was up and down enough to feel every inch of that. It was also rather lovely. The heights gave you views over the green meadows that characterise this section of the Eden Valley. The drops were into verdant woodland where all the road signs featured red squirrels. The first said “Red Squirrel Area”. the second, “Slow Red Squirrels”. (I presumed these were probably older members of the colony). The one that read “Caution Red Squirrels” had me looking out for arboreal rodents armed with acorns and the final sign that said “Danger Red Squirrels” had me quickening my pace and getting out of there.
I saw not a single squirrel and felt a little cheated.
In the shop at Armathwaite I buy a bar of fruit and nut and an isotonic drink. I have no idea if these work at my levels of effort but it was the only drink they had in a closable container. I asked about the route to Carlisle. “Is it a quiet road?”
“Oh yes, quiet enough.”
“Is it hilly?”
“Depends what you mean by hilly.”
“Is it up and down?”
“More up and up, I’d say.”
I sit outside the shop and enjoy the chocolate and most of the drink. The world seems perfect; slow paced and purposeful. It’s rural, it’s beautiful but there were no signs of tourists while I was there… except the lounging cyclist outside the shop.
He was exaggerating the gradient. A few pulls and stretches of the legs and I’m onto a flat long road that runs alongside the famous railway. A friendly fellow leans out of a signal box and tells me to stop if I want a good view of a passing steam train. As good as his word the engine hurried through, pulling several coaches, a couple of minutes later. They were a fine sight in their day. I’m old enough to remember steam trains passing my infant school and always with a guard who waved. They are an even more splendid sight today, especially on a proper section of track; like the Settle to Carlisle; where they can get up steam and complete a proper journey. I wave my thanks to the signalman and proceed.
I follow a mobile library for a mile or so and stop when it does. Two ladies have been waiting patiently for its arrival. They each have two carrier bags with at least a dozen books in and they answer my enquiry by telling me that I am in Wetheral Pasture. I ask them which would be the best cycle route into the city and they both agree straight away. They give detailed directions and then, finishing each other’s sentences say, “That’s the shortest and the prettiest route”.
I thank them and say I wish we had a mobile library. “Oh, it’s wonderful but it only comes every six weeks so we’ve got to stock up”. They show me some of the books they are bringing back; Wilkie Collins, Siri Hustvedt, Alice Munro. These ladies are proper readers.
It’s mostly neat estates and suburban neatness for the downhill into a city I have never visited. It’s a hot day and the locals are enjoying a festival of flesh. To the outsider it is a mixed treat.
As I close in on the centre I get such local firms as B & Q, Staples and Benson’s Beds. It seems a pity to cycle 150 miles to see the twin trading estate to one in Worksop. These have the big advantage though, of being situated on and around a thoroughfare called Botchergate.
As I get closer still, untidy pizza delivery shops abound. And then, quite suddenly, I’m in the middle of Carlisle and it is lovely.