Moving on to be a full time Cumbrian

Fond farewell to Huddersfield University, now to be a full-time Cumbrian


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Doing something new every day

If there is one legacy I could leave to my students at the University of Huddersfield, past and present , and indeed to young people everywhere, it’s to encourage the habit of doing one new thing every day. Of your life.

It’s been a mantra of mine with the Journalism and PR students (along with the dire warning that every time an apostrophe is misplaced, a kitten dies. Pedagogically unsound, but effective). It need not be a significant or major “new thing” but must be done consciously and with awareness. Choose a book from a different floor in the library. Go in a new pub. Use a new herb in cooking. Talk to a stranger. Listen to a new piece of music. Try saying a familiar phrase in a new language. Read a poem.

As a strategy for life, it encourages experimentation and observation, and the scale of such is unimportant. Those who want to be journalists need to be aware of what’s happening around them, to ask questions constantly. (Two men arrived in my street last week with surveying tools on a tripod. Why, I asked. They were from the Environment Agency, involved in flood defence planning.)

So every Monday morning I’d ask, what have you done that you’ve not done before. In term one, embarrassed shoulder shrugs and raised eyebrows. By term two they were having a go. “I went on a train to Liverpool because I’d never been there before” was one of my favourite replies. The student then went on to write a terrific travel piece about the experience. They began to acknowledge that they were developing into more rounded human beings, that their horizons were less narrow.

(I was always shocked by the sheltered lives that many students seemed to live. A great majority each year confessed that they had never been to a theatre. So it was built into the module programme; in order to fulfil the assessment criteria, they had to write a review of a theatre production. I made block bookings at the Lawrence Batley Theatre each October. What did they find more challenging? Barry Rutter’s Northern Broadsides’ fusion of the Brontes and Chekov’s Three Sisters, or Oklahoma?)

So as I step down from teaching after many happy years and many wonderful young people, here’s an example, a list I made on a recent visit to London. (I’ll be generous, and not mention the name of the show I left at the interval. It wasn’t a musical, by the way.)

Twenty things that you can do on a long weekend in London that you’ve never done before:

1: Go to a concert at the Royal Albert Hall

2: Watch a World Cup game at a pub in Leicester Square

3: Then eat at nearby Piazza

4: Leave a West End show at the interval, yawning.

5: Take a bus from Clapham Junction to Sloane Square

6: Talk to a 40-year-old parrot called Omar at a florists-cum-petshop on Tooting High Street

7: Get lost running round Tooting Common

8: Have breakfast with three wannabe actresses in Colliers Wood

9: Drink iced coffee in the basement bar of the Royal Court Theatre

10: Have Sunday lunch at the BBC – the Balham Bowls Club

11: Search for plectrons in Denmark Street

12: Read the Kent Messenger

13: Eat snapper

14: Shop at Wilkos at Tooting Broadway

15: Count the police on duty during a Free Palestine march near Knightsbridge

16: Watch a cellist busker outside High Street Kensington tube station

17: Test a drama student’s script reading in a Kensington bar

18: Travel by high speed train to Maidstone

19: Changing at Strood

20: Have a lift in a Mercedes sports car

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Choosing the best walks in the Lake District

Map and compass, say the purists. That’s all you need to go for a walk.

They’re not wrong, but they are probably walking in heavy boots and wearing knee-breeches, and hiking on their own, which isn’t wrong, either. But there are many other walkers who want to take a companion as well as a map and compass. A companion who knows the area, who can point out the landscape features, can identify trees and flowers, and can throw in a little bit of history.

Now here’s eight of them, but you won’t have to queue at a stile behind these companions. Eight neat, pocket-sized books with appropriate maps, excellent route descriptions, good photographs and plenty of local knowledge and history.

The Top 10 Walks: Lake District has eight titles in the series: High Fells, Low Fells, Lakeside, Tarns, Waterfalls, History, Woodland and Pub Walks. Each has clear information, expertly-written numbered directions, enhanced OS mapping, and interpretation points of interest along the way.

For example, Vivienne Crow’s history walks include Castlerigg stone circle, the Carrock Fell iron age hill fort, Catbells’ Elizabethan mines, and the Stott Park bobbin mill – a truly representative Cumbrian collection.

Small, neat and pocket-sized they may be, so that’s one little drawback – a tiny sized font, so there will be plenty of walkers who need to pack reading glasses as well. It’s a minor detail; in all other respects, these are excellent little companions.

Top Ten Walks series, £4.99 each, published by Northern Eye Books.


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The Llyn: a guide to the best of the Welsh coastline


The Llyn peninsula conjures childhood memories like no others. My second childhood, that is, experienced with my own children. And rather a lot of others.

They were the summer holidays in which the rare rainy days have long been forgotten. The sun shone and the wind was warm and the sands really did whistle.

We’d arrange to meet other families from Cumbria and Yorkshire, so the kids always had someone to play with, and the parents could always find someone to keep a watchful eye while they went for a swim, a walk along the cliffs, or a run up onto Anelog, that perfect little mountain overlooking Bardsey Sound at the end of the peninsula.

We camped and stayed in caravans and cottages.We battled the winds on the exposed camp site at Nant-y-Big above Porth Ceiriad and found a fossilised toad on the golf course path to the Ty Coch Inn at Porthdinllaen.

We went to different beaches but usually defaulted to Whistling Sands for the beach-hut café. We bought fruit pies at the bakery in Aberdaron, and my children, allegedly vegetarians, ate secret beef pies at the farmhouse campsite at Tudweiliog.

And it was at Tudweiliog that we held our own version of a country show: I entered a sketch of the camp site and a mobile made of seaweed. Eithne entered one half of a pair of fingerless mittens (a work in progress) and Paul picked some daisies and trod on them for a pressed flower display.

And all these memories come flooding back as I open the pages of a new official guide to the Wales Coast Path, the edition which focuses on the Llyn (by Carl Rogers and Tony Bowerman, published by Northern Eye books.)

It’s a delightful and much-appreciated guide which covers the 110 miles around the peninsula from Bangor at the northern end of the Menai Strait to Porthmadog at the head of Cardigan Bay.

Curiously, when the Wales Coast Path opened officially two years ago, Wales became the largest country in the world with a continuous path around its entire coast. The whole 870 miles is almost exactly the same length as the journey from John O’Groats to Lands End, from the top to the bottom of Britain. A very long way.

But there will be many who will argue that this section is the loveliest, an exploration of remote and unspoilt country sometimes called the arm of Snowdon. (Often, when sunbathing on the Llyn, we’d look inland to see Snowdon covered in dark, bleak clouds. The Llyn has a climate of its own.)

This book divides the walk into nine sections, ranging in length from six to 17 miles. It’s a challenge of exquisitely manageable proportions but one where you’re not likely to find crowds heading your way. (Have you seen the hordes descending on once-peaceful Robin Hood’s Bay at the end of the Coast to Coast route?)

But sensibly the authors also do some cherry-picking, some bite-sized pieces for those who have only one day, or one weekend, to do part of the walk. I cannot argue with either of their choices.

This is a really useful guide, handily sized, full of maps and practical information as well as history, flora, fauna and geology. In fact, if you love the Llyn it is delightfully evocative armchair reading. I really want to do this walk; till then, I’ll spend happy hours whetting an appetite for the adventure.

Wales Coast Path/Llyn Peninsula (Northern Eye Books, £12.99)


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From the fells to the saltmarshes

Why do you want a change of scene, asked a puzzled neighbour for whom the hills hold total and everlasting fascination? Why not pop over to Langdale?

I wanted to go away, somewhere different, in order to come back and appreciate my Lakeland home all the more. Borrowdale, then, he suggested. Or the Duddon?

Instead I went to Norfolk, where the sand dunes are the only gradients but you get a lot of sky in return. Different birds, giant hollyhocks in front gardens, a strange but lovely architecture, Saharan-scale beaches backed by pine woods, walking on sand through the forest. And different buses.

It’s just about as far as you can go in a day from the Lakes, the journey each way taking almost 12 hours by public transport – four trains, three buses, a constantly-changing landscape of fascination (how gorgeously green is England), only one minor delay. There were regrets: the waiting time in Ely was insufficient to get to the cathedral and back, alluringly out of reach and looking, from the train, as if it belonged in Barcelona. Another: was it really necessary to travel via Birmingham? And I bitterly regretted the meal-deal salad bought from a Tesco in Kings Lynn, insubstantial and revolting.

(Dining well while travelling is not easy. Dining healthily is almost impossible. That rant will be saved for another time. Suffice to say that nothing from a station, a buffet car or a supermarket could match the standard of the crab sandwich from a harbour-front stall at Wells.)

But there were bonuses. Missing an early morning connection in Fakenham allowed time to explore the tiny town centre, to see a flower market being set up, to sit on a bench in the square with a decent cuppa and watch the precision of demolition men protecting an old church while pulling down a fire-damaged shop.

The value of travelling with a rucksac means that detours, spur of the moment decisions, and changes of plan, are all possible; not so with a case on wheels. So I got off the bus at Holkham – and got back on the next one having seen the prices of pub meals in the Victoria. No wonder that crab sandwich tasted so good.

This was a budget trip and I used youth hostels where, to be honest, I feel more at home than in hotels. I’m uncomfortable around deferential staff in fancy places with bars and dining rooms, and claustrophobic in Travelodges with no public space. I like communal kitchens and TV lounges. You can have some really interesting conversations with strangers during the Channel 4 news. You can admire travelling babies. And you’re not the only solo journeyer. In fact, it’s almost normal to be on your own.

At Hunstanton, the hostel is a former YHA now independent, run by a delightful young family whose 10 year old son brightened up the breakfast room with his plans to scooter to school. “Today’s advice,” said otherwise easy-going mother “is to not ride your scooter down the slide in the park”. Alison and Neal are gradually modernising the place, but it’s a true home from home, with plenty of board games in the lounge and a splendid English breakfast.

At Wells next the Sea, the hostel is a YHA flagship, a modernised Dutch-gable building with terrific showers and bunk beds that don’t squeak. It’s at the quiet end of town opposite the church, a stroll past tiny streets with names like Boatman’s Row, Clipper Lane, Jolly Sailor’s Yard, and Honeymoon Row. Wells is a technicolour harbour town, the gaiety of primary colours around the quayside, where the fishing boats waiting for high tide to head back out along the estuary, gently toned down by the pastel shades of the famous beach huts nestling against the pine woods. The sea is a long way out but comes in quickly, covering rolling and almost empty sands.

It was the end of my walk along the Nofolk coast path, a fascinating (and largely flat) ramble through dunes, across nature reserves, beside golf courses, with pretty villages with squat stone churches a short distance inland along the way. Lots of oystercatchers, one seal.

The saltmarshes were fascinating, as bleak and beautiful as described by one of my favourite crime writers Elly Griffiths whose heroine, Ruth Galloway, (forensic archaeologist) lives in a remote cottage out here somewhere.  Ruth’s detective pal and erstwhile lover, DI Harry Nelson, is ambivalent about the environment, and on a trip to West Sussex ( to interview a suspect, but nevertheless doing what I was doing, experiencing a contrasting landscape,) notes approvingly: “There is no threatening expanse of sky, none of the windswept desolation, that he so dislikes about his adopted county.” The sky was indeed  expansive but not threatening, not desolate, I thought. But then, there’s nothing about MY adopted county that I dislike. In fact, next time I fancy a bus ride, a change of scene, maybe I will head to Borrowdale…


The Janus Stone, and other stories by Elly Griffiths, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

The brilliant and reliable Coasthopper bus service runs along the route from Kings Lynn to Cromer

Hunstanton Youth hostel:

Wells next the Sea hostel:






Finish off – bus trip to Keswick?

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All the way to Tooting for Wonderland

Review: Alice in Wonderland, Blackshaw Theatre, at The Selkirk

We provincial types come to London to see West End theatre. To see theatre in the round, and theatre underneath the railway arches. And on this occasion, theatre in a small upper room of a pleasant pub near Tooting Broadway.

Why? Because it is there. Because it’s important to do something new and different every day, and how many of you have ever been to the Selkirk? Because Blackshaw Theatre have a growing reputation for entertaining and accessible productions. And Alice in Wonderland, an adaptation by Richard Stratton of the Lewis Carroll classic, part of the Wandsworth Arts Festival, did not disappoint.

Indeed the small cast, drilled by the talented and innovative Ellie Pitkin (who founded the company), set out to prove what can be achieved in a very limited space. So limited that the babes-in-arms on the front row were MUCH too close to the startling nature of the action and had to be removed in tears. The rest of us, thankfully, were all over the recommended age of six, and adored the “silliness of Wonderland” as leading lady Emily Rae hoped we would.

She alone, as the perfectly incredulous little girl, maintained an air of normality while all around her cavorted gleefully into the surrealism that was Carroll’s trademark. And, time and again, we were reminded of the extent that the story of Alice, and the language of Alice, have permeated our culture and our comedy.

And, time and again, the cast illustrated the influence of Carroll on the great comic genius of our age, from Angela Ferns’ Queen of Hearts’ debt to Blackadder, to the Monty Python-esque performances of Alexander Pankurst and Liam Fleming as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.

Animal instincts took over as Clare Harlow, Natalie Winter and Natasha Green became the white rabbit, the March hare, and the Cheshire cat, while Dean Brammall was manically camp as the Mad Hatter.

In and out they came, through holes in the wall, through paintings, from apparently under the floor, making the most of technical expertise and cunning props to sustain the high degree of illusion that this tale demands.

It was a short play, tightly directed and precisely performed – and gloriously silly. Sadly, you can’t go and see if I’m right: this was the end of the run. But make a note of Blackshaw as a company, and wonder where they might turn up next. They will be worth tracking down.

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Ambleside and a call for kindness

A few weeks ago I heard an eminent Nigerian journalist talking – in Ambleside – about the absence of “kindness” in media reporting. The notion has lodged itself in my head and, I’d like to hope, in my heart.

So I’m struck powerfully by the absence of kindness around us, in policy making and behaviour, and how a little more thought and kind action could start to change the world.

For many of my neighbours, their village is their world, and so I’m particularly struck by the absence of kindness in policy-making by Cumbria County Council who don’t actually need to be so brutal in their search for revenue. Once upon a time, the rates went up. Now it’s street parking charges, although there’s no consistent message here from above. “Everywhere else does it, so we should,” has been one “reason”. Another apologia: “If economic circumstances were different we wouldn’t have to take this route.”

If I need to park in Ambleside, it’s because I’m being lazy. Even with a bag of library books and another for the charity shop, I can walk. For the families with young children on wet or wintry days, it’s another matter. For the older people who can’t walk as far as the library, it’s a punishment. For the older people who like to meet in a cafe, perhaps for the only conversation they will have all day, a parking meter charge makes the coffee unaffordable.

But we will all change our behaviour so that local businesses will suffer. I love Spar, and Whitaker’s newsagents, and Bell’s chemist. Driving home from work I know I can find a parking space to stop for a bottle of milk, or a copy of the Evening Mail or the Gazette. And when I get inside the shop, I’ll buy a bottle of wine as well, or a magazine, or a birthday card.

But I won’t do it if parking charges double the price of the Gazette or a bottle of milk. I’ll be driving past Sainsbury’s soon, and however strong my principles, will I really choose to pay an extra £1.50 for a newspaper? And then – oh, I might as well get the magazine here, and the birthday card.

This is what will happen generally. With free street parking, lots of Amblesiders will drive to Sainsbury’s for their weekly shop instead of driving to Booths, or Asda in Kendal, but they will still use the local butcher, the local chemist, the local newsagent. That’s the behavioural norm, and independent shops will survive that development.  Impose charges and the impact is obvious.

But notice how easily self-interest creeps into the argument. This is supposed to be a plea for kindness. Kindness to small businesses – shops and hotels really struggling – and kindness towards those whose needs, and mobility, are different from ours. A free half hour would make a huge difference, even if it won’t change the world.

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