'Agree With Everything - Deny Nothing - Embellish All

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Tuesday, May 31, 2005


The Norwegian houewarming passed off splendidly, though sadly without any pig-racing, which is hereby exposed as a hollow sham, got up to lure credulous tourists. Instead we had a bizarre collision of Cumbrian & Nordic cultures in a farmhouse near Jarlsberg, where the landscape of neatly tilled fields, forested hills and bright yellow-&-red wooden houses with flagpoles outside reminded me entirely of the United States - until I realised that, of course, Norway is the original of which Michigan is the copy . . .
The Country Doctor was there, having spent the previous week investigating his Norwegian heritage up in the fjords where his grandparents, in between putting up some good first ascents of mountains in the Lofoten Islands, founded the firm of Mundahl & Mudd, exporters of glaciers to the world, in an ultimately doomed attempt to become the Mr Bigs of the early 20th century refrigerated fish business.
The barbecue itself took place in the barn & went on most of the night, featured a host of lascivious veterinary surgeons called Monica & a local delicacy which went by the name of 'fish-cabaret', if we heard it correctly. This provided some ill-judged (& entirely non-camp you understand) Liza Minelli impersonations in the latter part of the evening. When the Musical Engineer began showing off his chainsaw to a posse of admiring Norwegains, clearly all connoisseurs of forestry equipment, I knew it was time to make an excuse & head for bed.
The weekend has given rise to plans for a more considered Cumbrian invasion of Norway next year with a view to mountaing an expedition to the far north, there to see Tromso, the maelstrom and the North Cape. I'm just a bit concerned that the Musical Engineer may decide we're going there in his long-wheelbase 1966-vintage Landrover. As any fule no, the only vehicle for an expedition beyond the Arctic Circle would be a 1964 Chevy Impala with whitewall tires.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Norwegian Pig-Racing

My friend the Country Doctor has just sent me a postcard from Norway. Sadly, owing to the inadequacies of technology, I can't put this up on the blog, but it depicts a strapping Nordic peasant astride a particularly large porker. In the background a range of Norwegian mountains is slowly eroding. To one side, a sign on a wooden shack reads 'Ekte Ceitost til Salos', which I assume means 'Last Bacon Before The Arctic Circle' or something. I'll be finding out the truth about Norwegian pig-racing myself this weekend, as I'm off to visit the Musical Engineer & Sundae Girl. After that a few days in Scotland. Which means that posts to this blog may be a touch irregular in the next 10 days.

So while I'm gone - here's a meme I picked up elsewhere in the blogoverse.

What three books are you most embarrassed about having started but never finished?

My candidates:

The Naked And The Dead by Norman Mailer

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Insatiability by Stanislaw Witkiewicz

Further contributions welcome in the comments below . . .

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Mortality & Mercy In Arkleby

The Renaissance Couple have been off to the Isle of Skye for the weekend. I was awarded custody of the dogs. For those of you unfamiliar with the full extent of the canine element of the household these are - Cass (Alsatian, placid, old), Ben (Trail-hound, dignified, wuss), The Princess of Darkness (Patterdale terrier, puppy, bitch). So what's the bill of reckoning for this three-day canine carnival? In brief:

  • terrier outrages, vomitory - none (v good)

  • terrier outrages, liquid - four (v bad)

  • terrier outrages, solid - one (v bad)

  • 7-kilo sacks of Oscar dog-food gnawed through and contents partially devoured - one (deplorable)

  • terrier atrocities where trail-hounds were the principal victims - too many to count (predictable)

  • enigmatic disappearances of trail-hound & terrier - one (bad)

  • Alsation food supplements eaten by terriers - two (v bad)
The more liberal readers of this blog may choose to believe that this is mere scaremongering over the Terrier Menace stalking rural Cumbria, but I think that it clearly establishes a pattern of offending . . .

Monday, May 23, 2005

Rural Darwinism

I blogged too soon: this morning the nest in the porthole above my desk was empty. Yesterday the adult ring doves were flying around the property alone. I walked round to the field outside & examined the ground below the porthole - usually the hunting ground of the cat that belongs to the Born-Again-Plumbers down the road. No feathers, no sign of struggle or death on the ground, but I fear that this bird has not flown . . .

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Places: The Place

I've spent the afternoon down at Mawbray, the great bank of sand-dunes between Allonby & Silloth, a Cumbrian place unknown to tourists. The dunes conceal the foundations of a Roman milecastle, one of the line of fortifications that went south-west along the coast from the end of Hadrian's Wall. On their windward side there's a line of five cottages just on the beach, with small-holding allotments, lines of washing waving in the wind, and ponies grazing on the green. In high summer when there's a hot sun and a cool wind off the sea, it feels as if you've wandered onto the location of a neo-realist movie. I'm always half-expecting Monica Vitti to stagger out of the dunes and poutingly demand to be swept away to Ravenna and made love to in a revolutionary manner.
No such luck today, so I walked out over the sands and realised I'd had the good fortune to arrive at low tide. The banks and shoals stretch out for several miles to the low water mark and are a public fishery as well as some sort of oddly defined heritage site. The first great swathe of sands are hard and flat: locals bring their sand-buggies here in the evening, lethally fast karts powered by dirigible kites that the driver steers from his seat. Further on, I met a jolly Geordie fisherman and his spaniel, plunged elbow deep in water, feeling for crabs beneath a stranded boulder. His mate was driving a quad-bike half a mile distant, gathering sacks of cockles. They'd been here two weeks, he told me: the cockles were business, the crabs - a whole half-barrel of them - for their supper. The spaniel looked pleased. Further north, there's a line of tree-stumps poking out of the sands, a remnant of who-knows-what Mesolithic forest. Far beyond this, two miles out, you walk over a final bank of hard dry sand, and see navigation buoys pitched askew in the shallow waters of low tide. Lift up your eyes and Scotland is enormously close: you've walked a quarter of the way there - ahead there lies a final deep shelf down to the low water mark, and beyond it the shoals of Robin Rigg, the Blackshaw Bank and Barnhourie, sands whose names echo from the tales that my grandfather the lifeboatman told me. Turn around and you're rewarded with a view of Skiddaw, Helvellyn, Grasmoor and the western fells that nobody ever sees because closer to shore they're obscured by Mootah and Tallentire Hill, at this distance reduced to low ridges dwarfed by the mountains beyond. Look along the waterline and you realise, your sight attuned to the nuances of the plane, that the sands are anything but flat: the banks rise tens of feet in a mile, blocking out the distant horizon. It's just as well that they do, for this is no Morecambe Sands with its fierce tide-races, and even at the turn it's still possible to walk the two or three miles back to the shore, and terra firma, where I'm writing these lines.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Get Your Kicks . . .

. . . on the A66. This evening, driving towards Workington, I switched the radio on. Cream were performing Crossroads . . . sheer heaven.

Columba palumbus

The upper storey of the cottage in which I live was once a grain-store, ventilated by circular holes in the stonework just below the eaves. When the Renaissance Couple converted the building fifteen years ago, they had the happy idea of turning these into portholes, blocked by a pane of red glass within. One of these, a few feet above my desk, faces west and in the evening fills the room with an intensified aurora from the spectacular sunsets we get over the Solway. But the walls are two feet thick and this spring a pair of ring doves have made this hollow tube their nest. The scrutting of the birds against the glass wakes me in the morning and I can watch the adults' flight across the fields and their return, gently flailing as they approach the hole in the wall, after feeding. When I stand up I can see directly in front of me their fledgling, sitting on its nest, bobbing up, pulsing with life, turning to take food from its parent's gorge. All this is happening a few feet above my head as I write these lines.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Crawler Lane of the Information Superhighway

Before I started this blog I spent some time researching what could be described as Cumbria's presence on the web. The results were sobering: few enough sites either business or private, not many of them up to date or cutting-edge, and precious few blogs (see the sidebar to the right of this post for the good ones). But today I heard some figures about Cumbria's use of IT that were truly horrifying:
  • 43% of Cumbrians have never used a PC
  • 53% of Cumbrians have never surfed the net
  • 25% of Cumbrian businesses use no IT at all
  • 92% of Cumbrians would never consider using any of the e-government facilities

and worst of all

  • 33% of Cumbrian teachers never use the laptop PCs they're issued with

There's a standard joke in the Lakes that a Cumbrian dual carriageway is any road wide enough for two cars to pass . . .

Doggerel - see The Hound Trail Post

You’re never lonely as the hounds
That float on high o’er vales and moors
A handsome posse trailing by,
(Not a host of golden Labradors)
Beside the lake, beneath the trees
Following paraffin and aniseed

Bill's remaining verses can be left intact apart from the very last word - 'daffodils'.
Any suggestions budding poets?

Monday, May 16, 2005

Jennings, RIP

Forget Manchester United & Malcolm Glazer - the takeover exercising Cumbrians at the moment is the selling-out of local brewers Jennings Bros to midlands-based outfit Wolverhampton & Dudley. The consensus seems to be that this is A Bad Thing. Jennings, based in Cockermouth, are a local company with a heavily-branded Cumbrian image, good beers . . . and a string of extremely desirable tied pubs. The takeover has rattled people, who believe the predators are really just interested in the pubs as a regional outlet for their own beers - and that, in a year or two, boy-genius bean-counters down south will proclaim brewing at Cockermouth uneconomic, and we'll have Cumberland Ale brewed in Dudley and tankered up the A66.
Which may be true enough, but it's curious that local opinion has cast W&D as the sole villains of the piece. Personally, I'm suspicious of any organisation that has a mission statement that reads - to deliver excellence in managed community pubs - pass the sick-bag. But nobody seems to have asked the existing big shareholders, who've done very well out of building their local brand, just why it makes more sense to bail out than to stay in. Instead, the local media have front-page stories of local pensioners saving their groats to mount 'Keep Jennings local' campaigns - it's all tragically reminiscent of the OAPs who sent their fivers to Freddy Laker in 1982 when he was was rolled over by A Very Big Airline. CAMRA, our Blairite MP and the small shareholders have mounted a campaign, but it already has an air of doom about it.
So go down to the Jennings brewery shop and stock up on Cumberland Ale, Crag Rat & Snecklifter now: I've a feeling they'll have rarity value in a year or so.
Alternatively, forget about regional brewing superpowers and find out more about some of Cumbria's wonderful micro-breweries. There are loads of them - making tiny quantities of high-class, deeply individual artisanal beers all over the county. Why not try:
Hesket Newmarket
or The Bitter End
It's entirely possible that this blog may soon introduce a regular Beer-of-the-Week feature, with tasting notes on an outstanding Cumbrian beer. Purely as a public service, you understand. There'd be no question of our doing it for sheer pleasure . . .

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Corvus (Diff)

Pause O Men for Cumbrians. At this dangerous age some may choose to chase 17-year-old floozies. Others decide to resume rock-climbing.
This began over dinner at the Bearded Lexicographer's. There turned out to be an implausible number of serious climbers around the table and at some point I found myself being encouraged . . .
So yesterday the Lexicographer and I drove down to Borrowdale, parked at Seathwaite, our destination Raven Crag and a climb called Corvus, widely regarded as the best 'Difficult' in the Lakes. (A note for non-climbers, 'Difficult' means 'Extremely Easy' in plain English; whereas 'Extreme', of course, doesn't mean 'Easy' at all). The crag is a great 400-foot lump of volcanic rock just below Glaramara in a spur of upper Borrowdale. Corvus is a line that goes up and across the left side of the crag: it was first put up in the 1950s by the legendary Bentley Beetham, one of Mallory's companions on Everest. It's an odd thing about climbing that, however great your incompetence (mine's considerable), you can literally place your feet in the steps of giants.
I'd not climbed anything but stairs for a very long time & had the impression the Lexicographer had planned the trip with discretion & a variety of contingency plans in mind. He'd brought a huge selection of gear, including devices which hadn't been invented the last time I climbed on rock. We arrived at the bottom to find the crag crowded: three jolly Lancastrians in lurex tights were labouring up the first pitch. Just behind us a Geordie couple were impatient to start. After some light comedy with the Lexicographer's spare equipment (a Heritage Collection Whillans harness that had clearly been the great man's original prototype), I managed to attach myself to not one but two ropes. "Is this the moment to tell you I've never climbed with two ropes before?" I asked him. "Why are you shivering?" he responded and bounded up the first pitch.
I followed in due course, far too awash with adrenalin to actually think about what I was doing or savour the pleasure of movement. After a couple of pitches I calmed down enough to take things more slowly and appreciate the experience: a beautfiully contrived set of traverses and ascents with huge hand & foot holds, wide stances, and an unfolding view of lower Borrowdale and Skiddaw which is heavenly. By the time we reached the sixth pitch, a hand-traverse of twenty feet at the top of a sheer wall, I was even beginning to enjoy myself. The Lexicographer, smoking furiously, announced he'd set his belay directly above the traverse, in the expectation of my falling off. Below us, marital discord was breaking out among the Geordies over the size of nuts being used. I reached up to the right, swung out left and for all of ten seconds was hopping crablike across the wall, fingers jammed into a row of holds at the top. Heaven knows how ungainly it must have looked to the Geordies below, but the Lexicographer (mercifully out of sight on his stance) was sufficiently bamboozled by this display to offer me the lead of the last pitch. Quit while you're ahead, I thought, and politely postponed the moment of truth to another day.
Eventually we returned to the valley below, hot May sunshine, and Sca Fell Blonde (a beer, not a local attraction). This was a deeply satisfying re-acquaintance with an activity I'd given up decades ago. We're already planning further days on the crags. I'd like to think that Mr Beetham would be pleased his discovery has been put to such good use.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Binocular Chic Revisited

The Renaissance Woman showing off her chi-chi binoculars Posted by Hello

Project Management, Cumbrian Style

I drove over to Haweswater yesterday on a fine, cold May morning. I've always found the head of the valley an ominous, depressing place. Partly this is because it's impossible not to think of Mardale, the drowned village slowly rotting beneath its black waters. But also because in schooldays a dear friend was killed in a climbing accident on Harter Fell. The car-park beneath these crags has an air of malignance when the clouds build up above Nan Bield: there's a feeling of claustrophobia uncharacteristic of the Lake District where the narrow spit of the lake curls around Riggindale Crag.
So I walked round to this crag, a great spur of High Street that sticks out eastwards at right angles to the mountain, and soon put some height between myself and the water. Riggindale Crag's a kind of miniature grassy version of Striding Edge, complete with dips & horizontal stretches, and the same final steep scramble up to a beguilingly level plateau. Then I followed the Roman road north along the Straits, High Raise, Rest Dodd and Loadpot Hill, looking down on the forbidden tracts of the Martindale deer forest. I encountered lost hikers with ice-packs on their knees and a keen Lancastrian twitcher, binoculars of a distinctly un-chic kind trained on the solitary golden eagle in the valley below. Back at High Street late in the day I walked over Mardale Ill Bell and dropped down to Nan Bield, the pass of the shelter, a place all the more cherishable for having a genuine Cumbric name. Then over Harter Fell and down to Gatesgarth Pass, where I arrived footsore and weary after seven hours of walking.
I drove back towards Keswick, the fells gloriously bathed by the early evening light, deep shadows cutting across Causey Pike and the vale of St John. At Threlkeld I switched on the radio: Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers were singing 'Roadrunner'. I'm in love with the modern world. Life's very good indeed.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Hard-A-Larboard, Mr Christian

I've spent the day performing a task I'd been putting off for a decade or two - transcribing a cache of family letters from the 1800s. They were written by, to and about my great-great-great-great-grandfather Joseph Wedgwood, an ordinary Maryport seaman who was press-ganged into Nelson's navy in his teens, captured by the French in his twenties, and rotted in Vrancon gaol before being reunited with his family.
The letters stretch over a period of twelve years and provide a glimpse of the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Wars that may surprise. Joseph was an ordinary seaman and he has, for the most part, an absolutely lousy time. Letters from home never arrive, he's always short of money, his family and friends never write to him. Mary Huddert, his sweetheart, forgets about him completely. When his father's boat comes to the Mediterranean they miss each other by hours, not once but twice. He spends what seems like years hanging around in Gibraltar and cruising off Cadiz, waiting for Spanish ships to arrive from the New World, 'laden with monney'. When he finally boards an apparently abandoned enemy ship, the prize turns out to be a trap, full of French sailors who promptly take him and his shipmates prisoner & cart them off to gaol. The rawest and most moving part of the cache are his mother's letters to him when he's in prison. But it's difficult to get away from the thought that Jaroslav Hacek must have had Joseph in mind when he created Schweik: his staggeringly inept progress through the clash of great powers confirms that war is 99% sheer boredom, 1% cockup.
So now it's off to the internet to search the Greenwich archives & find out more about the ships he served in and the officers who censored his mail. I've a feeling it may be a long but rewarding task . . .

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Binocular Chic

Style commentators may care to note that the well-dressed trail-hound groupie always sports a pair of binoculars, usually glued to their eye-sockets & trained on a bracken-covered fellside.
On Monday, the Renaissance Woman was sporting a rather chi-chi pair of hi-tech binoculars, all ruggedised rubber and polarised lenses.
The Renaissance Man brought along a pair that had the massive solidity of the old Soviet Zenit brand and looked as if they'd been designed by the people responsible for the T-54 tank. Bits kept falling off, crushing the toes of the unwary.
The Writer In Residence viewed the races through a pair that had clearly withstood 40 years of Force-10 gales on convoy duty in the North Atlantic. Alas the lack of a voluminous duffle-coat spoiled the otherwise convincing effect. And no, it wasn't actually possible to see anything through the brine-encrusted deposits on the lenses. Which sheds new light on the family story about how his father's ship narrowly avoided repeated rammings by the Royal Navy . . .

Tilt, Decline And Fall

To London on business, by train, riding one of Mr Branson's Italian pendolinos. I should imagine that others who write on this blog will have a far better-informed view of this than I, but just outside Crewe we slowed down, as if to pay respects to the melancholy sight which drifted past. Standing in a siding these 20 years was a decaying hulk of a train, weather-stained and distressed, on whose side was writ large 'Inter City Advanced Passenger Train'. A few yards further on the Crewe signal-box bore a large sign: 'Heritage Centre'. I had thought that what you loved well was your true heritage, not our national failure to exploit science and technology commercially. Heritage is what we no longer have at our disposal. Once, the finest railways in the world: now, Italian design & offshore tax shelters. But privatised railways are not all smoke and mirrors: some things were reassuringly familiar. Mr Branson's breakfast buffet bacon rolls can only be described as a triumph of substance over style.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Going To The Dogs

The Renaissance Couple & myself spent Bank Holiday Monday having a profoundly Cumbrian experience: we went to a hound trail. A what? A hound-trail. Hound-trailing is a specifically Cumbrian form of dog-racing, and there's really nothing else quite like it.
Some background: hound-trailing takes place between April and October, races follow an aniseed & paraffin drag over ten miles of rough fellside, starting down in the valley & ending in a nearby field. The dogs cover the course in under 30 minutes, there's prize-money and smalltime on-course betting. It's popular with farmers and ordinary West Cumbrians, and has been going on in a quiet, unremarkable, but utterly intense way, for over a hundred years.
We drove to Grange in Borrowdale on a bright spring day & found our way into a field where a procession of cars with dog cages in their backs were driven past baffled tourists taking tea. We arrived just in time for first slip: fifteen senior hounds were lined up, howling with excitement in their owner's hands and at a signal sped across a field, round a wall, and vaulted over a four-foot fence, ecstatically airborne. Before we could train our binoculars on the hills they were rampaging up Catbells before turning sharp left along the ridge to Maiden Moor, leaving a trail of non-plussed fellwalkers in their wake. Twenty minutes later they were back, shooting along the path below the fell, intent on the gate of the finishing field. The winning post of a hound-trail is pandemonium: the owners line up, jostling for position, and shout for their dogs, yelling, whistling, screaming their lungs out, simultaneously banging together bowls full of food. There's a moment, about a hundred yards out, when the individual hounds discern their owner and suddenly find an extra edge to their sprint, knowing that rewards await. (It should be said here that canine brains seem to have no notion of tactics, the entire race is a breakneck sprint).
The Bank Holiday meeting is the first big race-day of the year, and last year's champion hounds were all racing. There are a variety of classes: Seniors (adult hounds), Maidens (not bitches, but hounds that have yet to win a race), Puppies, Veterans, and something entitled the 'Open Restricted' class. We're still trying to work out what that means.
We watched three races, enraptured by the sport, impressed by the sheer physical stamina and condition of the dogs. Trail-hounds are an odd breed, part foxhound, part greyhound, part bloodhound (though there's also some retriever genes in there too I think) unrecognised by the Kennel Club (who clearly don't know what they're missing). Judging from the names on the roll of honour and the 2004 whelping lists, there must be a dangerously small gene-pool. But trail-hounds are trained to do something that most dogs must find counter-intuitive: not to come at the word of command but to go. Those who don't make the grade are taken in by the trailhound rescue trust & found good homes - like the Renaissance Couple's.
The meeting took place in the valley-bottom, enclosed by the Gates of Borrowdale, where Castle Crag sits astride the valley: this is the landscape that, in the 1760s, the poet Thomas Gray found so intimidatingly sublime that he turned back, unable to endure the wildness of the fells. Between races, we turned our binoculars round, focused on Shepherd's Crag and enjoyed some serious rock-climbing action on Little Chamonix and Crescendo. Eventually, a wall of cloud slipped off Great End and brought rain down into the valley and we headed for the pub. We agreed that hound-trailing is fasacinating, compelling and absolutely authentic. I think there'll be a few more posts about the 2005 season on this blog.

The Gore-Tex Event Horizon

Judging by the bank holidays crowds yesterday, the only viable form of economic activity within a two mile radius of Keswick Moot Hall is the retailing of high-ticket designer outdoor wear. The entire area has passed through what Douglas Adams would have recognised as 'the Gore-Tex Event Horizon'. Heaven knows what ghastly economic forces warp and distort human experience and behaviour in this hellish zone, but the results seem to pull in visitors from across the UK and compel them to punish their credit cards with yellow and red waterproof jackets, purple gaiters, and lightweight ceramic trekking poles festooned with images of the late Chris Brasher. We tried calling the fashion police, but they were already dealing with a dangerous spillage of Burberry wax near Penrith.