Tag: Cumbria

Story of the week: Raising a glass to British Food Fortnight in Cumbria

Local ales

* British Food Fortnight runs until October 6 this year, celebrating local produce and regional flavours. Some of my favourites come from Cumbria and this story picks up on that theme.

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Alex Brodie sups his pint and ponders for a moment.

“Do drinkers become journalists, or journalists become drinkers?” muses the former BBC World Service broadcaster turned microbrewer.

Reclining in his beer hall-style tasting room in his Cumbrian craft brewery, he sups a pint of the award-winning Hawkshead Bitter and lets the question roll around the high ceilings.

I join him on the leather sofas with a pint of dark and malty Brodie’s Prime and a piece of Welsh rarebit from the next-door café, Wilf’s, and quaff my beer appreciatively. “I love beer,” Alex stirs from his reverie.

“A good beer on a hot, sunny day is pure Ambrosia.”

“Walking the hills and sitting in country pubs sustained me through years of reporting from the Middle East,” he adds.

Real ale trail

Cumbria has a rich heritage of artisan brewing [pictured above] since the 1830 Beer Act first gave rise to a proliferation of local brew houses.

By the 1970s real ale was dying out but, thanks to Gordon Brown’s 2002 budget, whereby the excise duty was cut by 50% for brewers at a certain level of production, there are now over 600 independent breweries in the UK, of which 20-odd are based in Cumbria.

The Hawkshead Brewery, having relocated to the picture-postcard village of Staveley in 2006, is one of the new breed.

The brewery currently produces 80 brewers’ barrels per week [4 x 9-gallon casks] and sells its four permanent beers, plus seasonal beers, to 170 UK pubs. There are plans afoot to expand brewery tours to offer short courses for amateur would-be brew masters.

“We’re doing our best to change the image of real ale. We now stage two beer festivals per year and it’s not all beards and bellies — about half the drinkers are female,” enthuses Alex.

“There are now lots of microbreweries playing around with hops to produce fruity, hoppy beers,” he adds. “In same way new-world wine producers took the fear away from wine by talking about the grape, we’re now talking about hops.”

I’ve come to Cumbria to test drive the Lakes Line Real Ale Trail, a green-friendly initiative collaboratively launched by Westmorland CAMRA and the Lakes Lines Community Rail Partnership, plus First TransPennine Express.

The trail is based along the Lakes Line, a rural branch line that trundles through the scenic countryside of the Lake District National Park from the mainline train hub of Oxenholme to Windermere.

“We were conscious of the impact of the 16m visitors to Cumbria each year. This seemed an obvious way to showcase our local breweries while supporting sustainable travel and encouraging sensible drinking,” says Chris Holland, Chairman of the Westmorland branch of CAMRA.

“It’s only seven miles of railway now, but we plan to expand the idea to other parts of the region’s rail and bus network.”

Local brews

On a bright Lakeland morning I set out from my base at the Riverside Hotel in Kendal, a traditional inn serving a decent pint of Lakeland Gold, to explore the hop-flavoured trail.

There are nine pubs along the route, all within a short walk of the stations, and some attached to specialist small breweries.

Each has their own appeal from a swift lunchtime half of Directors in the Lamplighter Bar in Windermere, followed by a hike by the lake, to a mid-afternoon pint of Blond Witch at the Station Inn, Oxenholme, while soaking up the view and waiting for the next train.

It’s a greener way to sample the perfect combination of Lakeland beer and scenery, while supporting local transport.

Some of the nine establishments offer discounts upon presentation of a valid rail ticket, but make sure to have a copy of the timetable to hand at all times.

After developing a taste for Ulverston Pale Ale at the Eagle and Child Hotel in Staveley, it’s easy to roll out onto the station platform to face a sobering 60-minute wait for the next train.

Award winner

Towards the end of the day, as the sun hangs heavier in the sky than a Lakeland downpour, I head for my last stop, the Watermill Inn and Brewery.

Located down in a country lane in the village of Ings, outside Staveley, the cottage-industry microbrewery was founded in 2006 as an add-on to the family pub.

The two-man operation now produces 22 brewers’ barrels per week — around 6,300 pints — and the seven-beer portfolio includes three main brews plus seasonal ales.

“Brewing is a craft, the product of good ingredients and good practice,” explains the softly spoken brewer Brian Coulthwaite as we sit on the outdoor terrace with a pint of Blackbeard Ale and views across the rolling, sheep-grazing fields to Windermere.

“It’s essentially chemistry, all formulas and calculations. What I enjoy is experimenting to create new flavours.”

Back at the Hawkshead Brewery, Alex is taking me on a whistle-stop tour of the brewery and threatening to treat me to sneak preview of his latest brew, a Damson-flavoured stout.

“There’s a perfect storm for this kind of trail now with the public keen on local produce and green issues,” says Alex, indicating the ‘copper’, the vat where hops are added to give the complexity and flavour of the beer.

“It gets people out of their cars and walking, or using a train line that is periodically under threat,” he adds.

“After all, this is a national park, not a car park.”

 * This story was first published in the Daily Express in 2008. Liked this? Try Local Food Heroes in Cheshire.

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British menu

If you go down to the woods today


A trip to the forest then.

In involved two hours up the M6 via Tebay, a walking trail with two small children, enough promises of ice-cream to bribe Olivia to behave and, according to one friend after photographic evidence emerged online, me looking like “a metrosexual Bear Grylls.”

I can live with that.

Maya [pictured above], Olivia [pictured below] and I spent a weekend recently on assignment for the Guardian.

We went to Whinlatter, the Forestry Commission site just outside Cockermouth in Cumbria, primarily to walk the Squirrel Trail. It’s an orienteering course for kids to introduce them to the sights, sounds and stories of the forest.

The story appeared last Saturday under the headline “We’re going on a squirrel hunt – orienteering for the very young.”

The trip coincided with National Parks Week and with one of those summer-survey PR campaigns, one commissioned by the Forestry Commission to talk up the fairytale quality of a day out in the forest this summer.

Yes, I know. But, to be fair, the girls really enjoyed playing at the Fairy Kingdom, a part of Whinlatter’s WildPlay Trail, even if I felt a bit sceptical about the survey’s suggestion that:

“90% of parents think children are losing their imaginations by age ten.”

They survey cites a lack of outdoor play and too much time spent on computers and games consoles for making today’s children less imaginative. It also rolls out some big guns, reporting that Albert Einstein wrote about the importance of fairytales in boosting children’s intelligence.

Off the back of it, the Forest Fairy Tales campaign will see events taking place across the country at various Forestry Commission sites during the summer holidays. These are designed to foster imaginative play.

I’m not convinced by the survey results but I’m always up for a walk in the woods, some stunning Cumbrian landscape and outdoors time with the girls.

Besides, a walk around Whinlatter was like being in very own Anthony Browne story – without the spectral woodland characters haunting the shady glades.

So we walked. We breathed in the forest. We went for ice-creams. It was fun.

* What’s your favourite place for a walk in the woods? Do you think our kids are less imaginative these days?

Post your comments below.

More from Forest fairytales; Cumbria Tourism.


Story of the week: Meeting the king of Cumbria’s Piel Island


* I was back in Cumbria at the weekend, researching a story about forest exploration with kids for the Guardian – read it Saturday, August 3. Meanwhile, here’s another Cumbrian tale of folk legends and wild places from a previous family-travel assignment. Subscribe to the RSS feed for more stories from from my travel-writing archive. 

I‘ve come to see a man about a knighthood.

It’s too late for the Queen’s Birthday Honours, I’m not planning a trip to Buckingham Palace and I’m not due an audience with HRH. But I’m still hopeful.

Huddled into a tiny, red ferryboat, I’m sailing away from the South Lakes mainland into the dark swells of Morecambe Bay. My destination? Piel Island, a 52-acre stretch of shingle beach and wild-flower scrubland, topped by a ruined 14th-century castle managed by English Heritage [pictured below].

I’m here to find Steve Cattaway, the current King of Piel Island and the man invested with historic powers to appoint the Knights of Piel.

Island kingdom 

His rural fiefdom shows no signs of regal pomp and ceremony as I approach. The remote island community, formerly a retreat for the monks of Furness Abbey and an erstwhile hotbed of smuggling, is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest. A community of wading birds and a couple of fisherman catching sundowners rather than mullet off the seaweed-slime pier are the only vital signs.

The landlord of the island’s 17th-century Ship Inn, complete with its smart new B&B accommodation and adjoining campsite, is traditionally crowned the King of Piel Island.

The tradition refers to an episode in 1487 when Lambert Simnel landed on the island, claiming that he was Earl of Warwick and, therefore, the rightful King of England. Simnel’s mercenary army subsequently marched on London only to be defeated by Henry VII at the Battle of Stoke. His attempt on the throne has been parodied ever since by crowning the pub’s landlord.

Today, the crowning of the new monarch is still performed in the original 17th-century chair, hollowed out from an old oak tree. The ceremony features the ceremonial use of an ancient crown and sword stored above the bar at the Ship Inn, and a thorough dousing in beer.

Steve was crowned in 2008, beating 350 other candidates to the job of landlord after a lengthy recruitment process. “It’s the ultimate honour,” says Steve, serving pints of local ale in the bar that night.

“It’s amazing to think my family name will be recorded in the history books.”

The next morning I join Steve for his daily constitutional around the island, a brisk, 30-minute stroll through the castle ruins, along the foreshore and past a huddle of six weathered-stone cottages kept as holiday homes by local families.

“The closeness to nature gets under your skin,” says Steve, looking out for oystercatcher eggs buried in hollows on the seashell-scattered beach. “When it blows a gale here, it’s fantastic. So cleansing.”

Kings and ladies

But by the end of the day my hopes of a knighthood are failing. The knights are, I learn, a select club with only some 30 knights and baronesses appointed over the last 50 years. The recipients are all people who have given selfless service to the island from rescuing lost fishermen to preserving the island’s natural environment. Many have been visiting since childhood.

The honour bestowed upon them entitles them, when shipwrecked off Piel, to a night’s free lodging plus all they can eat and drink.

Nina McMullen, an accounts manager from Barrow-in-Furness, has some advice for me. Nina is the island’s latest baroness, knighted at a ceremony in May this year.

She visits Piel every weekend and helped Steve and Sheila throughout the recent four-year refurbishment of the pub on an unpaid basis, including a stint serving drinks in a makeshift bar in mid winter. “Piel is a medieval island with modern facilities but traditional ideas,” she says, as sundown casts an amber glow across picnic tables in the beer garden.

“You keep coming back until, eventually, you become part of the family.”

After a fresh-seafood dinner I head off to Hawes Point, overlooking the southern nature reserve at neighbouring Walney Island with its community of grey seals, to contemplate my knighthood quest. The evening is perfectly still with only the call of owls and turns to accompany the dusk.

Finally I understand the lure of Piel: the island demands devotion but rewards richly those who return.

The next morning after breakfast, the pub is quiet. Sheila calls me into the conservatory area and lets me try out the throne for size – after a contribution to the local lifeboat fund.

As I settle into the historic seat of Cumbrian royalty, I may not yet be a knight of the realm, but I do feel like a king for a day.

This story was first published in the Weekend FT in 2011.

Liked this? Try also, On the trail of the Romantics in Cumbria.

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Story of the week: A heritage rail trip from Lancaster to Carlisle



This is the latest post in a weekly series, highlighting stories from my travel-writing archive. Subscribe to the RSS feed for more.

Breakfast is a gloriously gut-busting affair. Crispy bacon, succulent sausages, eggs, mushrooms and baked beans.

It keeps on coming thanks to a battalion of white-jacketed stewards, fussing over the arrangement of the china and polishing the silver on starched-white napkins.

“Would sir like more toast?” Don’t mind if I do. Well, I have been up since 6am and it tasted great, washed down with lashings of hot, milky coffee and panoramic views.

My not-so-petit dejeuner is not being served in a Far East five-star hotel or aboard a luxury cruise liner in the Caribbean.

Far from it. I’ve got a ticket to ride on the Fellsman and am currently sat on a train, trundling through England’s Northwest from Lancaster to Carlisle.

This new, steam-hauled service is a living-heritage excursion back in time to the golden age of rail travel. The first timetabled steam train to operate on the line in over 40 years, the Fellsman [pictured above] runs every Wednesday until September.

It uses a pool of three restored steam engines from the Thirties and period carriages from the Fifties with table seats, panoramic windows and table service in Premier class. It picks up passengers from Lancaster and cuts a splendidly scenic, 260-mile swathe along the mountainous Yorkshire-Cumbria frontier, using the historic Settle and Carlisle line.

Memory lane

“Rail is still the best way to see Britain,” says Nick Dodson, Chairman of Statesman Rail, which operates the service.

“Steam trains smell of nostalgia and the Fellsman harks back to the golden age with its standards of service and dining.”

Saved from closure some 20 years ago, the Settle and Carlisle line is now regarded as one of the great train routes in Britain, running northwards and almost parallel to the M6 and West Coast Main Line route to Scotland.

It’s a testament to the Victorian engineering that not only built a network around Britain, but also took the iron horse to India, Africa and South America.

Track construction started in 1869 with a workforce of 6,000 men – over 200 went on to loose their lives on the job. Passenger services started in 1876 at a total cost of £3.5m.

The combination of challenging climatic conditions, steep gradients and complex engineering of the 21 stone-built viaducts, 14 tunnels and numerous bridges fostered a reputation as a one-off ride.

It is immortalised in the 1955 short film, Snowdrift at Bleath Gill, held by the British Transport Film archive.

“The Settle to Carlisle line is part of Pennine culture. It’s a triumph of man over environment,” says Nick Dodson. “Blood, sweat and steam got the trains through and the engine drivers were afforded the same respect at that time as airline pilots are today.”

Rail enthusiasts

Joining me for the Fellsman’s first run are a good-natured mix of retired rail enthusiasts, fathers and sons on bonding day trips and mature couples enjoying the sense of nostalgia.

From Settle we build a steady head of steam to a maximum speed of 60mph as we climb towards the 24-arch Ribblehead Viaduct with views of three Pennine peaks.

Sturdy stone cottages cling stoically to the rough-hewn landscape of the peaks, fells and farmland. Lambs gamble playfully in the lush-green fields and gurgling streams tumble over moss-coated stepping stones. Walkers in muddy boots, stop, sup from their flasks and wave us on by with a grin.

While the passengers snore through a mid-morning snooze, or catch up on the weekend papers, I head back through the train carriages to the staff car for a word with guard and fireman Alasdair Morgan.

An affable Bolton lad with a boyish enthusiasm for steam trains, he sports a jaunty knotted handkerchief to protect his silver-fox locks from the onslaught of soot.

“It’s a 20-mile climb from Settle to Ribbelehead, so I’m putting ten shovels of coal on the fire every couple of minutes to maintain boiler pressure and keep the water boiling,” says Alasdair.”It’s dirty, smelly and noisy – and I love every minute of it,” he grins.

“You have to interact with a steam loco, listening to the sounds it makes. It’s a living entity.”

Break the journey

With a two-hour break in Carlisle to stretch my legs, I head for Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, where the Border Galleries explains Carlisle’s development as a rail hub.

Given its strategic border-crossing location, seven different railway companies had lines ending at Carlisle Citadel Station by 1876.

Back on the platform as the staff prepares the train for the return, I quiz my fellow passengers about the experience.

“I remember the old days of steam trains from the Fifties and loved the ride today,” enthuse friends Maurice Parker and Brian Plant from Staffordshire. “People moan about British trains but this service shows we still have a lot to be proud of.”

Heading home

I can smell the dinner simmering in the kitchen car as I take my seat and settle in for the early evening return.

Everyone loves steam trains. Maybe it’s the genteel elegance of the dining car, maybe the idea of revisiting an indulgent, luxurious era, maybe the sense of pride that Britain once built railways for the world and can still operate a first-class service.

Or maybe it’s just as Nick Dodson says.

“Nothing beats a full English in an old Pullman carriage with the smell of the steam wafting in through the open windows.”

Yes, maybe. That breakfast was pretty special.

This story was first published in Hotline magazine in 2009.

Liked this? Try also these stories with something of a Father’s Day motif, Family Holidays in the Lake District and Riding the Glacier Express in Switzerland.

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