The first part of my grand holiday recollections left us at a grand old Bed & Breakfast in the quite insignificant village of Pickmere (it has a village pond), near Knutsford in Cheshire, just south of Manchester. Nearby Knutsford is a historic old village, very much trading on it’s viking links from way back, and named after the viking king Knut. Nowadays more a water hole for when the wealthy local inhabitants emerge rom their gated properties.
Nowadays Knutsford is less a destination for marauding vikings and more a handy place for commuting to nearby Manchester and feeding the needs of local plutocrats and footballers. Not every little sleepy village gets it’s own MacLaren sportycar shoppe. At the other end of the transportation-device scale Knutsford also claims to have the only Pennyfarthing museum in the world, which was really quite fascinating, and served a decent cup of coffee as well. Going off the main roads into the smaller local roads brought us into a world of leafy properties with huge, fancy houses and imposing gates.
Having quite quickly expended the offerings of Knutsford we decided on the fallback manoeuvre of heading into Manchester. A city I have fond memories of as a student there over 20 years ago, these days it’s hard to even find old landmarks from those days. Gone are the tower blocks of Moss Side, the Hacienda has become apartments and the Northern Quarter has become the hip and happening area of town. Fun for old times sake, though a hectic place to spend the day. Nice to see that the old Eastern Bloc record store and Dry bar are still there.
The centre of Manchester is much like any other large city centre though, so after a walk around it was time to continue onwards to places I’d not been to before, even though I’d lived in England many years.
Heading further North brought us to landscape I hadn’t realised existed there. The hills became larger and steeper, the road more winding and interesting. Our destination now was the Lake District and we followed the signs to Lake Windemere. The name itself is so evocative that if you see a sign pointing to it you are compelled to follow it. The roads got even smaller, twistier and steeper as we neared the lake. And finally we were there, as were about a million other visitors, sadly. The area is wonderful and scenic, but if you arrive on a day when everyone else has decided to be there, it is very crowded indeed. Still, the views are exceptional, and the roads marvellous, and almost mystically also almost free of traffic. A little suspiciously so really.
This is wonderful country though, back on the M5, heading up towards the Scottish border. Turning East to follow Hadrian’s wall, the almost 2000 year old stone wall from Roman times the barbarians out of Britiain. These days much of the wall has been robbed of it’s finely prepared stones, but large parts remain intact and can be viewed. We detoured as Birdoswald for a scone and a cup of tea and then visited the remains Roman fort there. A great installation maintained by the British Heritage Trust. Standing on the old wall, looking into the rolling hills in the distance, it wasn’t hard to imagine how it might have been 1900 years ago, scouting for marauding picts.
Oh, and we found a really nice organic farm shop right nearby, an opportunity to stock up on some organic goodies. And Birdoswald cheese, a notorious local speciality. Again, it’s off the beaten track the most interesting things can be found. This is where the stories lie, on the narrow, twisty roads, off the motorways and dual carriageways.
The day brought us to Hexham, just outside Newcastle. Our final planned destination, staying with my good friend and footwear-contributor Scratch (his articles are here, here and here), his wife Mrs Scratch and Nobby the Boston Terrier this time. While a B&B is usually a pleasant experience, the advantage of staying with friends is that you get that much more local information, get to go to the right pub (the wrong one could be very wrong) and don’t have to learn about all the unmissable things a week after you’ve left.
The first day staying in Hexham/Newcastle saw us head North to Lindisfarne, the tidal Holy Island off the coast just north of Newcastle. An island so steeped in ancient history that I’ll not even attempt to summarise it, but suggest that if you have more than a passing interest in Romans, vikings and heritage, you read the Wikipedia entry at the very least.
Making sure we made it over to the island and back while the tide was down, it was a trip well worth making. The ancient buildings have been preserved and restored and the whole place had a very special air about it. Some might say this was down to the overpriced fish & chips in the pub, but I think there was more than that.
One of the point of interest I was looking forward to visiting in Newcastle was the Barbour factory shop, and to put it mildly it did not disappoint at all. An absolute wonderment of everything Barbour, from current to older seasons, from stuff you’ve seen before to stuff you’ve never even heard mention of, and all at quite unbelievable prices. I was ready to fill the car to the roofline until WDG gave me a stern look. In the end I reduced and reduced and came out with just a few carefully selected items, and was quite happy with that. I will be back though.
Newcastle was a big surprise to me, especially the way in which a Northern industrial town had reinvented itself into a centre of learning, with two industrious universities vying to take over the city. Wandering through the campus on a fine summer evening it was quite clear that the university was attracting students from all over the world and is evidently a big success.
One of the most astonishing sights in Newcastle though was the Millenium Bridge. I was admiring the bridges up the River Tyne, hearing tales of the old shipyards and how the boats would travel up the Tyne with the bridges opening to let them pass. And then theres the latest bridge, the first that needs to be passed when arriving by sea, for pedestrians and cyclists, with no obvious way to let ships past. Of course, if you know the bridge, you’ll be shaking your head now over my incredible lack of knowledge. Of course it opens, but it does it in a way that had me in awe over the engineers that had designed it and the people that were willing to stump up the money for such an incredible solution. If you’ve not seen it, take a quick look at this time-lapse video:
At this point we were out of time and almost at the end of our journey. We were at the other end of the country from where we were to fly home from, and there was lots and lots of motorway between Newcastle and Gatwick. So South we turned again to the major roads, this time the A1 and hurried south, through blue skies and roadworks a plenty. Still, this is where a car comes to it’s right again, just keep on keeping on until you arrive at your destination.
We had booked a room in an adorable old inn in Woodstock, but on arrival we found that the the online booking service had cocked up the orders and we were rebooked to nearby Eynsham Hall. Inisitally this looked to be a fair swap, as Eynsham certainly looks very nice in the promo material. In reality though it was a fin old building that had been gutted of all charm in the hunt for conference and wedding customers. Very sad, and a major letdown after a week of staying in very much nicer places.
With an early flight to catch home, we only had time for a brief walkabout in my old hometown of Oxford. Lovely weather, a town full of beautiful colleges and buildings. The only wet blanket was that almost all the colleges had huge signs up saying “No visitors, bugger off”, which was pretty unfriendly of them. I’ll be hesitant to send any of my offspring there to receive a fine education, I’m sure. Hrmpf.
Travelling in the UK is very much about the car. Yes, there are buses and trains, but if you’re doing more than a trip from one town to another, you’ll never manage to plan your trip without major effort, and it will cost a lot more than driving there. If you’re going to enjoy the leafy lanes and alternative routes, the car is the only method that makes sense. Enjoy it while you can.