Summertime in northern England
Trip Start Feb 10, 2008
45Trip End May 13, 2009
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Anyhow lets start from the beginning. After crossing the channel I had a quick look around Canterbury, visited my cousin Claude in London for a few days, then drove up to York. Iīve never been to Northern England and itīs got a bit of a reputation (the people are supposed to be dour and untalkative) so I thought it would be fun check it out for myself (as far as Iīm concerned it didnīt turn out to be true, at least with the majority of people I met)
York is quite an attractive city, full of history and lots of beautiful buildings: the Roman emperor Hadrian visited (I guess organising the wall named after him), Constantine spent a significant amount of time there and was actually named emperor there, and for a couple of years the whole western Roman empire was ruled from there, Guy Fawkes was born and baptised there (in St Michael le Belfry church), and the York Minster cathedral has one of the largest areas of medieval stained glass in the world.
One of the delights of England is the old pubs, although unfortunately the food available in the pubs is extremely limited in scope and predictable, tending towards filling your gut rather than pampering your taste buds. I had dinner one night at one of the oldest pubs, the Punchbowl, which is over 400 years old. On the menu my choice looked interesting - Game pie - handmade shortcrust pastry filled with venison, rabbit, pheasant, partridge, pigeon, in a rich root vegetable and Wadworth 6X ale gravy (as quoted by the menu)- plus a huge amount of mashed potatoes and heavily boiled broccoli, beans & cabbage - vey filling, but nothing to write home about.
Apparently the pub used to be used by politicians for meetings and one interesting fact I learned was that punch was the preferred drink of the Whigs (reforming party), whereas the Tories drank claret
Another interesting thing was the relatively small difference in price between the Jacobs Creek Rose Sparkling White Shiraz (a cheap Australian sparkling wine, and Piper Heidsieck champagne, which both appeared on the wine list, 15 pounds and 30 pounds respectively, a difference of 2:1 whereas in Australia the Jacobs Creek would be around $10 and the Piper $60 (they have a very exalted view of the Australian wine).
I then made for the Whitby, on the north-west coast. Itīs main industry is fishing and tourism (best fish & chips in Britain, it proclaims). The weather was actually sunny and relatively warm one afternoon and I almost went for a swim, but stupidly I thought I would get the chance another time, which I didnīt as the rain set in solidly for the rest of my time there (and continued on after Iīd left Britain).
Itīs a beautiful little town with great sea views, a cute old town above the river mouth, a ruined abbey, and Captain Cook lived here for a while as an apprentice seaman, before going on to bigger and better things.
An interesting place was St Mary's Parish Church up on the cliffs, near the ruined abbey. It was quite different to any other church Iīve seen - there were dark brown wood cubicles (chest-high) for the congregation - most were marked with names of families, and others cubicles were labelled life crew, stranger, and free - it appears everyone had their own particular place to sit in this church
I stayed at a nice old historical place called Bagdale Hall and for the first time in my life slept in a real four-poster bed.
I turned inland again with a view to following Hadrianīs wall and discovered a number of Roman forts that had been excavated. One in particular, called Vindolanda, has a wonderful museum, which includes fragments of wooden leaf-tablets with writing in ink containing messages to and from members of the fort, their families, and their slaves. They are wonderful because they give you an insight into the everyday lives of the people there, eg there is a very sweet birthday invitation from the one of the wives of the fort commander to the wife of a nearby fort commander, another with patronising nicknames for the locals, and even one that confirms that Roman soldiers wore underpants (their practice obviously didnīt influence the Scots:)
The Roman towns here in this border area, as with Roman towns everywhere through the empire, were very civilised places - central heating in the villas of the better-off, public baths,temples, etc. The countryside was widely cultivated, orderly and productive, and most of the locals lived a Roman way of life
Following Hadrianīs Wall I crossed England from east to west and came out at Carlisle, then turned south towards the Lakes District. This is an area I have always wanted to visit so I drove down to Keswick (pronounced kesick), which is very centrally placed and looked forward to a few days of rambling in the mountains and sightseeing. Keswick is a lovely little town - the YHA I stayed at is right next to the river, itīs full of outdoor shops, and has an interesting little museum, whose main feature is the Musical Stones of Skiddaw - a set of around 60 rocks which were shaped by the inventor to produce various tones and are played like a xylophone made of rock (they were even played in front of Queen Victoria).
Unfortunately there was wind and heavy rain for most of my time in the Lakes District, the clouds were very low and consequently I couldnīt see any mountains, and could barely see any lakes. Iīve got to say though, the British are a hardy lot and didnīt let the weather stop them from enjoying their holidays - people everywhere were going for walks - families, kids, dogs, and there were kayaks, sailboats & canoes out on the lake in the pouring rain.
One day I drove to Wastwater near Scafell Pike, at 978 metres the highest mountain in England. I had lunch at a lovely little pub called Wasdale Head Inn - Cumberland sausage, pumpkin mash, boiled potatoes & mushy peas, and drank a half pint of Yewbarrow strong dark mild from Great Gable Brewery attached to the hotel
Once I was down I saw a big group of people milling about with their dogs and asked one lady what was happening, and she said they were there for hound racing. What happens is a person goes out cross-country (up mountains and down dales), with a scent and creates a circuit, then the dogs are given a whiff, the starter's pistol is fired, and the dogs run off following the scent.
Everybody there seemed to know everyone else, a bookmaker was there taking bets, eyes were straining through binoculars to see where the dogs were, and around 15 minutes later the first dog was across the line, with the rest following in dribs and drabs. There's a bit of a feeding frenzy as the owner's reward their dogs, then they're put in their portable kennels and the owners go off to the pub. Everybody is very jolly. Men in tweed jackets, corduroy trousers, cardigans, etc, women in sensible clothes & gumboots.
While driving back I listen to a Scottish radio soap of a group of women friends talking - one is married to a gay man & tried to adopt a baby but was knocked back, another has taken up with a man who turns out to be a petty crook (but she refuses to believe it) and she's an alcoholic, etc
As itīs still raining and I canīt go walking in the mountains I drive to the west coast (facing the Irish Sea), then down, past St Bees (from where a path begins which crosses the width of England) and Ravenglass, an old Roman port town which has a beautiful wide beach, but can't find anywhere to stay the night so I keep driving until I reach Barrow-in-Furness. It's a very unprepossessing town but itīs late and Iīm sick of driving and I stay at a pub on the outskirts as I want to get away quickly in the morning.
I get there a bit late for dinner, but a kind-hearted lady behind the bar says she's sure she can talk the cook into making me some fish & chips, so that's my dinner together, with a half pint of beer. The pub is completely full, every table taken, and I soon find out why - it's Quiz night, and everybody is ready with their pen and paper. Unfortunately the waitress that has been given the job of reading out the questions has a somewhat limited command of English (or at least words of over 2 syllables) and we have a hilarious time listening to her trying to pronounce many words, eg sourkarate (sauerkraut), and mytalogogogogil (mythological)
Next day is back up to Carlisle again, because Iīm determined to eat at least one good meal, and when I had been here a few days before I had gone to a restaurant called Davidīs, which had a been highly recommended to me, but I had got there too late and the kitchen was closed. This time I make sure Iīm there in time and I have the best meal Iīve had since being in England this time:
Pea & asparagus risotto with poached egg on top
Roasted pigeon breast
Cheese plate - Double Gloucester, Dunsyre Blue (Scotland's answer to Roquefort the menu tells me), goat's cheese, and Y-Fenni (name from town of Abergavenny and is a mature cheddar with mustard seeds and Welsh ale mixed in - tasted much better than it sounds).
After a couple of weeks in England here's a few comments about things that particularly struck me:
The British have an inordinate love of breakfast, it's their favourite meal, and I think they could live on it several times a day (ok I'm exaggerating, but lots of restaurants have signs saying breakfast served all day). It typically comprises a bowl of cereal, toast made of thin white bread that has been toasted so it's hard and dry with jam & honey (usually very good quality), then the "main course" - usually bacon, fried eggs, sausages, black pudding, fried tomatoes, fried bread, baked beans, but with ocassional options such as Kedgeree - smoked fish, rice, mashed up boiled eggs, all in a curry sauce (I couldn't bring myself to eat that one). Most days I just asked for scrambled eggs, as I just couldn't eat a whole "normal" breakfast.
They nearly always have carpet in the bathroom and separate hot & cold water taps (so you can't get warm water).
They have a very strongly developed sense of their heritage and there are museums of every sort everywhere, all very well organised. The National Trust is the sort of organisation the British excel at.
My plan after touring northern England was to go to Ireland, but the best-laid plans ... (not that I really have any plans) - I will update you with what happened next in the next installment.
English are "a people of small pleasures" - cream biscuits, cups of tea