Saturday, 21 October 2017

Coast to Coast Across the North

"I fucking hate Manchester. Everybody's miserable there, and they're always going on about being from Up North. It's not even Up North! Scotland is Up North. Manchester's just Over To The Side A Bit. And it's always fucking raining."

Not my words, of course, but the words of Jerry Sadowitz, at the Leicester Square Theatre several years ago now. Personally, I really enjoyed Manchester when we went there recently (but I was a little surprised to see that a house on a nice road in Chorlton costs about as much as a comparable one in Lewisham... right, that's enough about house prices for another six months). But Sadowitz was mostly right about the rain (at least on the evidence of the week we spent there) and about the latitude.

After a cosy night in Carnforth cuddled up to the canal we were miserable in Morecambe where the amusements were banal. In an empty seafront car park near the statue of old Eric we were tossed about in high winds and said, "It's going to be hard to sleep in anything worse than this."

We then spent a relaxing couple of weeks in Cumbria, at first on an excellent caravan site called Skelwith Fold, right near Ambleside. I've always loved the Lake District, and now it seems to be a much better place to live than it used to be, at least for people who like beer and food. I'd pretty much expected the Hawkshead Brewery to be one of the only places I could buy a heavily-hopped, unashamedly-alcoholic American-style IPA inside the boundaries of the National Park, but I couldn't have been more wrong. 

A fabulously friendly cafe called Freshers in Ambleside (staffed by a nice bloke of about thirty and a wonderful woman who may well have been his grandmother) led us to the town's specialist Beer Shop, which was one of the best I've seen on the trip so far, maybe even as good as the one in Bath. On the wall they had a relief map of the sixteen or seventeen wonderful lakes and the even-better mountains and fells in between, very like the one I had up in my bedroom for most of my childhood. They'd affixed a little sign saying BEERIST INFORMATION and had marked on all the best places to get good beer, which seemed to collectively form a neat ring covering the whole region. The middle of the circle, Ambleside itself, was left modestly unmarked, but just above, in Grasmere, was a little sign that brought memories pouring forth like a broken beer tap: TWEEDIES.

We had liked the naffness of the name when we went there in the late eighties, so it's beyond me to say how ironic or post-ironic it might be now. We liked it even better when the landlord not only served us pints of Theakstons Old Peculier without any questions asked, but also gladly took the extra coin for dropping a shot glass of vodka into each, telling us this was called a 'Depth Charge'. Amusingly, I realised as I chatted to a friendly but businesslike member of 21st Century Staff, things haven't changed all that much in thirty years - for the second day in a row I was drinking Hawkshead's Tiramisu Imperial Stout, a gloopy, sweet, black beer almost as strong as wine. The chainsmoking and repeated plays of Baker Street (can that really have been the best thing on the jukebox?) - in fact, the jukebox itself - were gone (which is probably for the best) but this was still a fine pub with a charmingly awful name. I ate my Vegetarian Stack - goat's cheese, avocado, a poached egg, sourdough toast and a bunch of other things I'd've paid to avoid in the eighties - and it was delicious. Then, by careful application of physics, I was able to gently shove legions of seated children out of my way and leave. This would not have happened in Tweedies in the eighties, because we were not only the youngest people in there, but also, many times, the oldest. We also never left before closing time.

The way that businesses in the Lakes have adapted to the apparently increasing middle-classness of fell walking (or perhaps just everything) is quite impressive. There are probably more outdoor equipment shops than are absolutely necessary, but is the region ready for a secondhand record shop with the full back catalogue of Nick Perls's Yazoo label? Probably not, at least until they are available in waterproof sleeves with fleece linings.

The following week, for H's birthday, we went to the Center Parcs near Penrith. This served a number of purposes, very few of which will be part of Center Parcs's business model moving forward. More than anything, H had wanted to go back to London for his birthday and to have a party with all of his friends, but it's still too early for that. We are all looking forward to parking up outside the Ivy House for a few nights at some point before Christmas, but when this does happen it will mark the completion of Phase One of Project Rest Of Our Lives. For one thing, if we were to go back and see friends and familiar settings and say 'This is stupid, lets just move back here,' we could do so (admittedly to a much smaller / less ideally-located / more Stannah-stairlift-and-smell-of-deathy house) and say "Well, we gave it a go!" And for another, if we don't feel like moving back, we could look at London through the eyes of people who've been to dozens of towns in recent months, then go back to places we've already been and take it more seriously this time, or visit places we missed on the first circuit. There's a plan in there somewhere.

So going back to London wasn't yet an option, and we thought we could distract both boys a little by taking them somewhere else they always bang on about wanting to go. And we needed some time out of the van, with proper beds and a proper bathroom. That relativity of scale of a family's living space was quite striking - a two-bedroom bungalow seemed frankly enormous for the four nights we were in it, and it was difficult to see how or why four people would even need any more room than that. Unless they happened to have thousands of records and a shipping container full of crap to accommodate, of course.

There was a Top Tip in Viz several years ago that said something along the lines of, "Give your family the CENTER PARCS experience by cycling to your local Swimming Pool every day and setting fire to a pile of fifty pound notes," which is pretty much bang on, but we spent Glasgow-and-Edinburgh-Half-Term-Week in some lovely woodland near Penrith having as relaxing a time as one can have while surrounded by people who sound like Francis Begbie.

From there, we stopped off in Hexham, Northumberland, which is a pleasant market town near Hadrian's Wall. For two boys who will cheerfully mimic Donald Trump saying "We Will Build a Wall" from some memey Internet video, my sons showed a surprising lack of interest in its ancient equivalent - the Northwestern Frontier of the Roman Empire and the single largest remaining piece of evidence of that great civilisation. Well, I thought it was surprising. So we didn't even bother going to look at it, to teach them a lesson.

We moved on to Newcastle, another town I just can't separate in my mind from the memory of the first time I visited it. As we strolled down the fairly-newly-developed riverside, my friend had looked over the edge and saw there was no Fog on the Tyne, but a dead man floating face down in it instead. This is the sort of memory that stays with you, and no amount of pleasingly-orange Geordie-Shore-type ladies posing for photos on the bonnet of a white stretch Audi limo can stop me thinking about it when I'm back in the same spot. 

There was also, at the end of the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, the best busker we've seen on our tour (my GOD we have heard some dreadful ones) who played The Archers theme on kazoo and a version of Always On My Mind in which the last line of each verse was delivered as an agonised scream. This also did little to take my mind off the subject of death.

Za Za Bazaar is a temple to globalisation and gluttony that would be wonderful if it didn't make me feel a bit sick. It's about ten different all-you-can-eat buffets of curry, pizza, noodles, and every other national fast-food dish in which Brits have a tendency to over-indulge, and you just help yourself to one after the other (or the same again) until the tidemark reaches your epiglottis. The fact that E was more enthusiastic about Newscastle than he's been about any other city since Bristol was not lost on me - these are the only places where ZZB can be found. We went again, of course (although M decided she'd seen enough the first time around) and got our money's worth again, but I wonder if I would be selling my son's soul to the Diabetes Devil if we settled in either of these fine cities.

Looked after by terrific hosts, we were fed and watered (or boozed) well, and able to service the van with clean water in and (very) dirty water out. We were shown that Tynemouth is a quite lovely part of Toon (which I didn't expect, probably because of my first Tyneside experience) and then looked to move on further North. I've placed a lot of importance (in my attempts to imagine how this tour will unfold) in getting over the border into Scotland, for a number of different reasons. A disproportionate number of my heroes were Scots, I know it's a really beautiful country, but I've hardly been there. I'm fascinated by their political momentum toward independence, awed by the integrity of their national identity, and intrigued by how much significance religious sectarianism still seems to have. Also, this blog's description says 'exploring the UK' but we still haven't made it out of England. And we were getting so close - already a hundred miles further North than Manchester, but not into Sadowitz's Scotland yet. So we headed to Rothbury, a pretty little town in the right direction, that once saved me on a mountain biking tour when my blood sugar tanked, and was later the scene of a dressing-gown-clad Gazza's attempts to persuade Raoul Moat to give himself up, with offers of chicken and lager.

The dark road to Rothbury went up and down hill and dale through three fords, one of which was deep and wide and fast-moving between two 20% climbs, but Vanny (as she's known when we haven't time to remember the other more complicated names we've given her) repaid my good faith as she always does, albeit with wet tyres skidding on leaves and gravel as Former Hurricane Ophelia closed in.

Now we are sitting in a five-star car park a few metres from the River Coquet in what looks a fairly sheltered spot, but away from any trees that are big enough to squash us if they come down. The wind is bouncing our accommodation in all directions at once, threatening to tear the awning (rolled in, of course - we've barely used it) and the now-almost-financially-irreplaceable windows off of the thing, and somehow seems able to loosen the locked side door such that it has to be opened and slammed again every half-hour in a quieter moment.

Tomorrow we will gratefully observe that no real damage has been done, that the many sets of stone steps in Rothbury have all become enormous bulging piles of leaves, but that the town that once saved me is otherwise pretty but unremarkable, and that if there's any chance at all of more of that weather further North, we'd better head south again like the Southern Jessies we are. 

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