Monday, 23 April 2012

A Big Walk Around a Little Village.

Birds eye view.
When I say little village I mean little village.  You might think that Grassmere and Ennerdale are lovely little villages but they are vast empires compared to where I was walking yesterday.  Truth is I wasn't actually in Cumbria yesterday I was in Buckinghamshire visiting the oldest model village in the world; Bekonscot Model Village in Beaconsfield.

If I were to tell you the whole thing was the inspiration of an accountant who was also a model railway enthusiast you may get the impression it's all rather dull, but far from it.  Back in 1928 Roland Callingham set about building the largest Gauge 1 model railway in the UK in his ample back garden; to complement that railway he and his gardener began building model houses and the whole thing kind of grew from there.  Today the 1.5 acre site is crammed with model houses, castles, airports, zoos and pretty much every other type of building you can think of.  In the past they have introduced more modern buildings, but these days the whole place has a 1930's theme.  One of the most striking models is a scale replica of Enid Blyton's house complete with tiny Ms Blyton sat in her back garden working away on another book.  She lived in Beaconsfield but her original home was demolished in 1968 which is a shame, but I guess that's progress for you.

An accountant with a sense of humour!
In the best possible way Mr Callingham was a very creative accountant; the buildings are imaginatively designed and laid out and no matter how many times you visit there will always be something you haven't spotted before.  Take the shops for example, as you wander through the narrow village streets take a moment to stoop down and read the shop names; as well as Marks and Spencers and a few other locally known shops you'll find Ivan Huven the bakers and Evan Leigh Soles the shoe shop, I won't mention any others I shall leave them for you to discover on your next visit.

Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cutherbert,
Dibble and Grub.
And it's not static either - stuff moves: the rides on the fairground, the steam roller repairing the road, the man falling off his ladder, the cable cars and, the one that caught me out, the house with the fire brigade outside which actually belches out real smoke.

I hate to use a cliche but this really is an attraction the entire family can enjoy.  The walkways around the village are tarmacked and easy to navigate with little white arrows pointing the main routes through.  There's a high view point which allows you a bird's eye view of the entire village (well, "bird's eye" if the bird is sitting in a large tree rather than flying over the village) and a well thought out children's play area next to a cafe. I suppose if I did have one negative comment it's the fact that at £9 per adult I think the entry prices are a little steep (with usual concessions for children, OAPs etc.) but I'm guessing there are a lot of overheads on a site like this - not least of all the gardeners who keep the all the bonsai trees and surrounding shrubs and bushes in darned near perfect condition.  If you've never been then it's most definitely worth a visit; it's only 10 mins from J2 of the M40 and there's decent parking nearby.  If you've already been there then maybe it's time you popped back to see what's changed and spot how many things you missed seeing last time around.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

It's not just Wainwright

Wainwright is one of the most famous "sons" of the Lake District, and rightly so.  His books have inspired millions of people around the world to visit and explore this wonderful part of England, but there are so many other worthy people with links to the area that today I have decided to write about a few of them.  The main reason I'm inspired to do this is because on Sunday we took a rather wonderful walk along Coniston Water and there are few spots with more interesting histories than this one.  We parked in a lay-by just before Beckstones and picked up the Cumbria Way, following it along the lake to Coniston town.  We planned on finding a different route back but enjoyed the stroll so much we just came back the same way.

Peel Island/ Wildcat Island
First up let's start at the south end of the lake with Arthur Ransom.  He was born in Leeds in 1884 but holidayed in Nibthwaite at the south end of Coniston.  In 1930 he published Swallows and Amazons, the first of a fabulous series of books based on real locations in and around Coniston and Winderemere.  If you never read them as a child then it's time to start, and if you did read them as a child then maybe it's time to take another look.  The first book charts the adventures of the Walker children and the Blackett children as they dispute ownership of Wildcat Island.  The book is set in 1929 and recounts an era when life was very different and the main thing the children had to worry about when crossing the road was the odd horse and cart - and of course being seen; good pirates should never be seen.  I grew up in an urban area and always longed for the freedom to roam and play in the fells - who knew it would only take me 30 odd years to make it here.

Next up as you head north towards Coniston town is Donald Campbell and his famous water speed record attempts on the lake. He is still the only man to hold both the world land and water speed records at the same time.  It's heartbreaking how close he came to succeeding during his final attempt; his boat flipped at the end of his final run killing him instantly.  Amazingly he reached speeds of over 300mph, almost unthinkable when looking at how choppy the water was on Sunday.  Each year in early November Coniston once again echos to the sound of high speed boats during the Coniston Power Boat Records week where all classes of boat whiz up and down the lake over a measured kilometre chasing records.  There are many excellent vantage points to be had along the lake and of course it wouldn't be complete without a trip to the harbour area to see the boats up close.  Due to the conditions within Coniston it wasn't until 2001 that Donald Campbell's body was recovered and buried in Coniston cemetery.  There are many references to Campbell throughout the town but perhaps one of the most well known is the Bluebird Cafe down on the lakeside.  It's newly restored now since it was flooded in 2009.  It's a lovely looking place and we admired it as we sat munching our sarnies on a bench outside.

A nice pier in honour of Ruskin
Lastly for today we're going to get literary and talk about Ruskin.  Now I have to be honest with you, my Comprehensive education wasn't and certainly didn't stretch to Ruskin so I've been reading up on him.  I've also bought one of his books in an attempt to get to grips with him properly.  John Ruskin lived in Brantwood, the large cream looking building on the far side of the lake to the town and wrote an awful lot about art and architecture during the middle of the 1800s.  I could try and bluff my way through and tell you more about him but everything I know about him I'm learning from Brantwood's home page so you'd be well advised to cut out the middle man and head straight there.  If you're visiting Coniston and want to learn all about the place then you absolutely must visit the inaccurately named Ruskin Museum.  It's tucked away off the main street but clearly signposted.  I say "inaccurately named" because there is so much more to the place than Ruskin; it's basically an entire history of the town and has some fascinating stuff in there - including Arthur Ransome's boat Mavis - the original Amazon.

So there you have it; hiking and history all coming together in one little blog.  The hike itself is a lovely easy ramble with many picnic spots along the way - perfect for those with kids or less of a head for the high fells. The other benefit of parking at Beckstones and walking to Coniston is that the parking is free.  Money saving tips too, think I'm going to quit while I'm ahead!

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Rockin' Robin

Moody Morecambe Bay
You don't always need to go far to learn stuff.  Today we spent the day within 1/2 mile of home enjoying a fabulous event at the Brown Robin Nature Reserve - thanks to a Cumbria Wildlife Trust event.  (It's on tomorrow too if you're interested.).

Since we've moved up here we've made a conscious effort to learn more about wildlife and this seemed like a perfect opportunity.  Specifically we've been trying to learn more about birds, but we can never see the darned things so many have them acquired names based on how their call sounds to us, hence the christening of the 'doink doink' bird - top marks to anyone who can figure out which bird that is before the end of the blog.

The Brown Robin Nature reserve sits on a hill behind the Netherwood Hotel and stretches back a mile or so inland.  It's made up of woodland and lovely open fields with some fabulous examples of limestone pavements.  Today we were promised stalls, walks and exhibitions so we decided to pop in for an hour or so.  Five hours later we headed home.

Charcoal Burner
We started off chatting to the volunteers and learning more about the general wildlife of the area and the many other wonderful nature reserves the Wildlife Trust looks after.  We made some tentative identifications of our mysterious birds before heading off into the woods.  Around halfway to the summit we came upon a scene directly out of Swallows and Amazons - a collection of tents buried deep in the woods with a group of people making charcoal and carved wooden artifacts.  We sheltered from one of the many hailstorms of the day and chatted to them learning more about their craft.  Apparently they live there for a large portion of the year making charcoal the old fashioned and sustainable way to be sold locally.  I honestly never knew they were there or that there was non-commercial charcoal available, but good to learn and I shall be shopping locally for it from now on.

Moving onwards we wandered up through the woods to the summit of the reserve before spotting a perfect place for lunch on our path back down.  Whilst enjoying a fine sarnie in the afternoon sun we managed to record our mysterious 'doink doink' bird and spot a Greater Spotted Woodpecker lurking in a nearby tree.  On our journey down I managed to hurl myself off some limestone steps but I bounced well and am hopeful of another fine crop of bruises.  Finally returning to the main display area we pinned down a guy from the RSPB and played him our bird song.  Turns out the 'doink doink' bird is, in fact, a Nuthatch (check here for it's distinctive call).  So now we know.  Only several hundred others to go...

Limestone Pavement
Scampering off we tagged onto a guided Geological walk to learn more about the origins of the limestone scenery and glacial history of the area.  As my degree is in geology none of this was particularly new to me, but the tour guide made things very interesting and informative and had us exploring local walls and ruins to find fossils.  He also included a healthy dose of local history and was very knowledgeable about the whole area.

Returning to the main area around 4:15pm we finally decided it was time to head home.  If you're in the area tomorrow (Sun 15th April) I would definitely recommend a visit.  You can park at the Netherwood Hotel and the whole thing is free.  I would say send me a tweet and we'll meet up - but we have our sights set on Coniston Water tomorrow - maybe we'll record some more birdsong there for the experts to help us with.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Gorgeous Grange-over-Sands

Sunrise taken nr Netherwood hotel
Grange-over-Sands has been described to me as "the town that time forgot" and I think that's why I love it so much.  Don't come here expecting amusement arcades, funfairs or even, despite its name, sand.  It's affectionately known by the locals as Grange-over-Grass since the main channel of the Kent Estuary shifted over towards Arnside, but it hasn't always been that way.  Once it had a lovely sandy beach and a pier with regular ferries across the estuary to Arnside; now the pier is long gone and the sand is a little further out, but it is still a wonderful place to pass the time.  Let me introduce to Grange by showing off one of its best bits; the prom.  It runs from outside the Netherwood Hotel past the station, the ornamental gardens, the kids play area, the new bridge, the old pool and finishes half way to Kents Bank.  Its perfect for an after work stroll or panoramic trip to the shops.

View from Platform 1.
We have the Victorians to thank for the railway and the prom.  With its easy connection to Lancashire and Manchester it was a popular destination for day trips and holidays.  In fact we have a Victorian to thank for the name.  Prior to the arrival of Rev Wilson Rigg in 1858, who nearly drowned on his way across the bay, the village was known simply as Grange.  Rev Wilson added the "-over-Sands" bit to distinguish it from Grange-in-Borrowdale.  The prom has changed little since it was built and, after leaving the footbridge near the Netherwood you're soon at the beautiful railway station.  It's right on the prom and really is a lovely place to commute from.  It can be a little exposed on a cold winter morning, but there's a lovely waiting room to keep you warm and dry.

Flowerbeds next to the station.
As you pass the railway station you'll notice the colourful flowerbeds that line the rest of the prom.  Loved and maintained by an army of volunteers these flowerbeds will brighten your spirits any time of the year and have won the town many accolades. Between April and September on the last Sunday of the month the prom is home to Prom Art where dozens of local artists, photographers, potters etc. all have stalls.  It's usually packed and last year we were blessed with good weather for pretty much every event.

Proof the tide does come in sometimes!
As you look out across Morecambe Bay on a clear day you can just make out Blackpool Tower in the distance, but closer in you'll notice the vast expanse of grass usually being munched on by the resident sheep.  They're there most of the year but are moved to a different pasture when the high tides cover the grass.  If you're a meat eater I can thoroughly recommend the Salt Marsh lamb from Higginson's butchers.  In fact I can recommend pretty much anything from Higginsons, and they're always happy to help out with a recipe suggestion if you fancy trying something new.

View from our new bridge towards
 the old pool.
Continuing on along the prom you'll spot our new bridge, opened last year and, thankfully, providing another much needed crossing point for the railway.  Just beyond there you'll come face to face with the most controversial site in Grange-over-Sands; the old outdoor pool (or Lido as it now appears to have been christened.).  Steve grew up near here and has very fond memories of using it as a child.  It was built in 1932 and closed in the early 1980s apparently because it was leaking, however I can personally vouch for the fact that in 2012 it is still full of water.  In 2008 plans were approved to develop the whole area but they controversially involved filling in the pool.  Since then the battle has been fought long and hard and pretty much everyone in the town has a strong opinion on the matter.  Last year English Heritage awarded the lido a Grade II listing, thus protecting it, however this is being challenged by the consortium behind the redevelopment.  If you can get past the fact that he shouldn't have broken in there, this guy took some nice pics of how it currently looks.

Moonrise over the Kent Estuary
Just past the lido you'll find the bowling green and crazy golf.  If all that sounds a little dated then right next to it is the skateboard park and outdoor iPlay machine which heckles you as you walk past.  It's like a giant solar powered version of Bop-It and will wear you out in minutes.  Perfect if your kids are still full of energy and the council have thoughtfully placed plenty of benches nearby for you to rest up and enjoy the view while they tear around.

And that's it, the end of the prom, though you can still continue along the coastal path to Kents Bank, which I can also recommend.  Standing on the end of the prom you get perfect views across to Silverdale and Morecambe; the Midland Hotel is an easy landmark to pick out as you enjoy the sunset and watch the moon rise over the estuary.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Not *that* Borrowdale, the other one!

Easter Sunday crowds in Borrowdale.
A very pleasant Easter Sunday in the Lake District and the biggest challenge you'll face is how to avoid the crowds, trust me; Bowness, Ambleside and Keswick will be heaving.  As we've already established in previous blogs I'm somewhat antisocial when it comes to hiking so we were keen to avoid the crowds in the towns and on the fells.  The first thing I did this morning was reach for my list of Wainwright's; I reckoned that so long as we avoided anything in there we'd probably be OK.  That only rules out 214 peaks, so still plenty to aim for.  Coffee and map were deployed and I soon happened upon Borrowdale; no, not that one, the "other" Borrowdale, the one just north of Kendal and sandwiched between the M6 and the A6. It looked to be a suitably pretty spot on the less popular side of the county.

Borrowdale Valley from Thunder Stone.
We breezed through Kendal town centre and soon reached Huck's Bridge layby where there was loads of parking still available - our brilliant plan was working!  We glanced at our route up Breasthigh Road and spotted a couple of Land Rovers making their way up - curses!  Still, they'd be long gone by the time we got there.  Not that Wainwright ignored this place, he claimed it was "the prettiest valley outside of the national park."  At least that's what the tourist info board told us in the layby.  Each time I Google "Wainwright" and "Borrowdale" I keep ending up in the wrong one so I'm going to take their word for it.

Looking across to Yorkshire from Borrowdale Edge
We soon hopped across the stream on the biggest stepping stones I've ever seen - even I couldn't fall off these ones.  Heaven knows how they were manhandled into place; but as the area clearly suffers with a lot of erosion they probably need them to be pretty substantial, in fact they were probably twice that size when they were put there.

The route up Breasthigh Road is an easy hike and you're soon onto Borrowdale Edge.  The views from here are different to the views from the central fells; away to the east beyond the M6 are the North Yorkshire moors, whilst on the southern side of Borrowdale is Whinfell Common.  Everything here is smaller, greener and more rounded.  That said the ridge walk is stunning and perfect if you're not in the mood for a big hike, the whole route to the end of Casterfell Hill and back along the valley is only around 7 miles with no hard climbing.

Looking back up the valley from
Casterfell Hill
The rain that had been threatening for a while now turned up just in time for lunch, so we waited until we'd dropped down into the valley and found a nice sheltered spot.  Maybe I'm getting soft in my old age.  After that it was a very easy but wonderfully peaceful stroll back along the valley to the Huck's Bridge.  The valley is full of wildlife including ponies and so many birds that my iChirp app just couldn't keep up.  We're trying very hard to learn more about birds but they generally don't stay still long enough for us to make a definite identification and it's really hard learning to spot them by their songs.  We have finally managed to identify what was known to us as the "doink doink" bird as a Chiff Chaff - odd song but easy to spot now.  Last week we also identified a Skylark and I then proceeded to annoy Steve with tales of a 1970's kids TV show all about Noah and Nelly.  He thought I was barking till I showed him this, though to be fair, it probably didn't help my claims to sanity much when he saw it.

Anyway, back to Borrowdale.  This is the perfect place for a gentle Sunday afternoon stroll.  If you're looking to add a bit more adventure you could always head back via Whinfell Common.  We decided to save that side of the valley for next time we fancy a quiet stroll far from the madding crowd.  Borrowdale may share its name with another rather more dramatic area of the lake district, but it's certainly not a poor substitute and is most definitely worth pausing to visit next time you're zooming up the A6.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Frogspawn, Mudcracks and Slate

No, not the names of Brad & Angelina’s new triplets, but a list of things we spotted on our hike yesterday.  Whilst there are certainly benefits to looking upwards and outwards when hiking through somewhere as pretty as the Lake District, there’s also a few good reasons to look down at your feet every once in a while, so this blog is dedicated to downwards and the many interesting things we yomp over each time we head up a fell.

On this particular hike our feet will be taking us from the Kirkstone Pass carpark (the one halfway down not the one next to the inn), up and over St Raven’s Edge to Stony Cove Pike, back to John Bell’s Banner, down via Rough Edge / Caudale Moor to the road then back up the pass to the car.
The first thing under our boots was the churned up ground around the new wind turbines next to the Kirkstone Pass Inn.  Not everyone’s cup of tea I’m sure, but if you want a cup of tea up there then you’ll need power and the turbines were a lot quieter than the thumping generator we experienced last week at Wasdale.

Next up on our downwards adventure were the many stone steps no doubt laid with love and broken fingernails by those lovely people from Fix the Fells.  It always amazes me how they lay so many and how they get them there in the first place.  Much as I would dearly love to volunteer and help them I’m afraid my dodgy old back was done in merely climbing up them, lord help me if I ever tried to move one.

1 flask of tea, 2 sarnies and assorted painkillers later and I was good as new with my boots itching for the off again.  Next underfoot were the mudcracks; I know I’m slightly odd but I’ve always found them rather pleasing to look at.  There’s a sort of non-symmetrical symmetry to them which intrigues me.  I told you I was odd.  Why did the ground crack like that?  Why in those shapes?  And why don’t you get “sand cracks”?  One of my lecturers at Uni was obsessed with them and devoted his entire academic life to studying them so, by comparison, I’m relatively normal.  They’re a sobering reminder of just how dry it’s been lately though; if the tops of the fells in England’s wettest county are drying out then heaven help the gardens of the south east.

Frogspawn next, lots of it too.  Atop Caudale Moor are a couple of small tarns and within them you’ll find several large dollops of gooey frog spawn.  You could just about make out the dark dots of tadpoles deep within them and in an instant I was transported back to 3rd form biology classes and felt a wee pang of guilt at the frog dissection incident.

Heading down over Rough Edge your boots will soon tell you that the Geology underfoot is changing.  Moving from the lumpy igneous rocks on the summit you descend through the slates that were formed by the surrounding heat and pressure.  The remains of the old buildings are evidence of the quarries which once existed here.  Steve took a solo excursion down to one of the sites and found an old mine shaft vanishing deep into the rockface.  Luckily he didn’t remember he had his head torch with him until he was safely back with me else he may still be down there exploring.

The last interesting thing your feet will take you over is Caudale Beck and some wonderful examples of fluvial erosion – the channels formed by the streams as they twist and tumble through the rocks will have you wishing you’d bought your swimsuit so you could zoom down them and splash into the pool below.  Or maybe that’s just me being odd again.
After that it was a straightforward hike back up Kirkstone Beck to the car, although to me it never feels uphill if I’m hiking along a stream.  Just needed to kick the mud off our boots before heading home and putting our feet up with a well-earned beer.  Cheers!

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Ambleside Bypass

Proposed site of bypass.
The Lake District may be renowned for its natural beauty but it's now about to add an architectural gem to its list of stunning landmarks.  If you've ever been stuck in a long queue of traffic on the approach to Ambleside then worry not, for all that is about to change.  Cumbria County Council are poised to release plans outlining the route for a dramatic Ambleside Bypass.  The proposed bypass would sweep across the northern edge of Windermere linking the A591 directly with the A593.  Locals and regular visitors to the area will be familiar with the queues that build up on busy weekends and bank holidays around this popular town, but not for much longer.

Norman Foster, the architect behind many famous landmarks including, most significantly in this case, the Millau Viaduct in France, has been consulted and is apparently excited at the opportunity to create a viaduct of equal beauty and stature in this stunning corner of the Lake District.

The proposed structure would provide a more direct link between Windermere and Coniston whilst at the same time relieving the bottlenecks in the area.  Discussions are at an early stage and Friends of the Lake District together with the Lake District National Parks Authority are expected to be widely consulted on the proposal.  Those wishing to learn more about the plans should contact the council, quoting planning reference: @Pr1l F0ol