Sunday 29 December 2013

Ulverston Revisited

The last time we went to Ulverston it was on a Sunday afternoon and the town was dead.  As it’s just outside of the Lake District, it doesn’t operate on the same opening hours.  This time we went on a Tuesday and the shops were open, so it was a good start.

Parking was very straightforward as we got a space in the little car park just off the main roundabout in Ulverston.  It was a pay and display car park, but it was cheap for two hours.
Ulverston is your typical stone built Cumbrian town.  Some of the narrow cobbled streets in the centre of town have been pedestrianized.  At the centre of the town is a sort of cobbled square up a hill with a monument to the soldiers who died in the First World War at the top.  I like the hodge- podge architecture in Ulverston as it gives the place an identity and real character.
Ulverston is jam packed full of little shops and as a result you don’t get many high street chain shops cluttering up the streets.  There is plenty to see here.  There will be a craft based shop of your choice somewhere.  However we managed to miss the indoor market, not because it wasn’t open – it’s only closed on a Wednesday and Sunday, but it was because we were diverted by the antique and charity shops.  Apparently there is also an outdoor market on a Thursday and Saturday too.  If you are looking to do a big food shopping, Booths supermarkets can be found on the edge of town.  I do like Booths supermarkets as you can really find nice and interesting stuff in them.  I always think they are like a northern Waitrose.

There are plenty of charity shops in Ulverston, however my favourite one is the Oxfam.  It’s has a spiral staircase to get between the floors and it does good books. The book and music section is in the basement, so we had a good root through the stock and I picked up a couple of books.  Neil managed to pick up some books for a change.  I have to say the charity shops did seem pretty busy with people browsing for a Tuesday.
If you like collecting antiques Ulverston is a place for you.  Some shops are just vintage shops (trendy old stuff), but some are proper Antique shops (expensive old stuff) with serious prices.  My favourite shop is just off the main town centre called John C Jackson Antiques.  It’s a big room packed with stuff made for endless browsing, although Neil didn’t find much in terms of records.  It’s always worth popping in to see what they’ve got.

Last time we went to Ulverston I had a bad food experience, however this time we went to Poppies Café instead.  When we looked into Poppies it seemed to be a friendly and busy place.  There were some old ladies having their weekly catch up over some celery soup and a new mother was having a well-deserved coffee whilst tending to her baby.  I ordered one of the specials - venison and cranberry sausage with mash and gravy.  It was really tasty and it was a generous portion so Neil managed to eat some of it too.  He had ordered fish and chips, but I think he preferred what I had.  This place is definitely a place to visit.
If you are looking for a night out, Ulverston has plenty of pubs and little restaurants.  I can imagine on a Friday or Saturday night it can be a lively enough place.  Although with Barrow-in-Furness down the road I’m sure that is where the young people go for the crazy nights out in this part of the world.
Ulverston definitely suffers from being off the main Lake District tourist trail, but has evolved its own local identity with independent shops, markets and local produce.  I know I wasn’t that complementary last time we visited, but it’s about choosing wisely the day you visit.  Sundays are a no-no, but either Saturday or Thursday with the outdoor markets on would be the best time to go.

Sunday 15 December 2013

Keswick, Cumbria

As always with driving through the A roads in the Lake District it takes longer than anticipated to get to your chosen destination.  From Grasmere we took the A591 to Keswick and it’s a joy to drive through wonderful scenery especially in the autumn when the landscape turns to red and gold. 

We’ve been to Keswick on a number of occasions as it’s a nice place.  I find visiting it on a weekday is much more preferable than on the weekend when it’s mad busy.  This time I remembered to avoid the expensive car park at the Pencil Museum and parked at the pay and display behind the main town square. 

Keswick is an excellent base for exploring the northern Lake District.  I keep promising to stay here for a weekend as there is plenty to do in the evening in terms of restaurants, pubs and cultural activities.  Plus there is an absolutely lovely lake, Derwent Water, on the edge of the town.

On the charity shop front I swear there are fewer shops than the last time we visited.  This town seems to be free of the worst ravages of the recession and therefore fewer opportunities for charity shops to move in.  The Oxfam, just off the main town square, is about the best charity shop in town.  It’s a bit overpriced where vinyl records are concern, but there were loads to go through and I had to leave Neil for a good half hour or so to have a good browse.  It also has a great selection of books. 
Keswick has plenty of antique and vintage shops too.  You need to explore the side streets to find them.  I liked Magpie as it was a welcoming jewellery and vintage shop with cubby holes filled with stock.  Unfortunately for Neil all the records in the antiques and vintage shops were again overpriced.

If you are a book lover Keswick will spoil you for choices.  As I mentioned before the Oxfam is a great place to pick up second hand books.  Bookends, just further down the road from the main town square, is a good place to pick up new books and often they will be discounted.  Keswick Bookshop can be a little hard to find as it’s actually above the Skipton Building Society on Station Street.  It’s a good place if you like to pick up out of print collectables.

There are plenty of restaurants and cafes in Keswick, so you are never at a loss to find whatever you like.  We grabbed a bite to eat from The Lakes Fish and Chip shop behind the Moot Hall.  We both had fish and chips and I have to say they were really nice.  I’m not a big fan of chippy chips, but these were lovely.  I do think it helped we had them straightaway as chips do go horrible and soggy when they have been wrapped up for any length of time.  We would definitely go back there again.  Although I did pick up some decaf coffee from a local café, but it wasn’t very nice.  Then again decaf coffee can be bitter at the best of times, but if badly made it’s undrinkable stuff.
Keswick is really brill for independent shops and this is the place to go if you want to pick up souvenirs or presents.  You can pretty much find anything here from handmade soaps, Peter Rabbit memorabilia to walking equipment.  No wonder this place is really busy at the weekends.

The only downside to Keswick is the dodgy reception for O2 phones, although stand outside WHSmiths and you can get The Cloud wifi.  Neil was struggling through the holiday with his enforced digital detox.
Keswick is a nice busy, lake side town with loads to offer the whole family.  Be warned as the weekends during the main tourist season are exceptionally busy, but visiting on the weekday is far preferable although you may miss out on the outdoor market.

Sunday 8 December 2013

Grasmere, Cumbria

Grasmere is known for its association with William Wordsworth, but the first time I’d ever heard of the place was in the lyric of another poet, Morrissey, from The Smiths song ‘Panic’.  So the phrase ‘Hopes may rise on the Grasmere’ always runs through my head when I think about the place.  I first came to Grasmere in the early 90s with my parents for my birthday and I found it a really peaceful and beautiful place, so I like to pop there whenever I’m in the neighbourhood.

Parking is very straightforward in Grasmere, turn off the A591 and to the right is a big pay and display car park with space for coaches.  I did take the liberty to park next to the most glorious vintage silver Bentley.  There were teddy bears on the back seat which was cute.   It’s such a delight to see these cars out and about. It makes such a change from the hordes of Ford Focus’s and Vauxhall Corsas on the roads. 
There is a free public toilet next to the car park, but they weren’t the nicest.  There was a bit of a pong and they weren’t that clean as they’re heavily used.

Grasmere is definitely a tourist destination.  It has the Wordsworth Museum, which to be honest we swerved.  I’ve never been a fan of his romantic ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ sort of stuff and I don’t really get the whole traipsing round a house caught in a time warp with dusty papers under glass.  It’s probably a great museum, but I just wasn’t feeling it.
We wandered into the village where there were plenty of hotels, B&Bs and rental cottages.  If you wanted to live here I bet it must be very expensive to buy a house.

The village is full of independent shops geared for the tourist.  There was one shop called The Good Bag Co which sold nothing but jute shopping bags with catchy slogans for all occasions.  Herdy is a shop that sells products featuring a cute sheep motif.  I like the fact they use a simple idea and roll with it doing mugs, aprons, bags and anything else you can think of.  It’s the sort of place that could only work in a place like Grasmere or on the internet.  In actual fact it does both.  We found other places of interest like the bookshop, the antiques place and the galleries.  Really it’s a classy shopping experience.
Grasmere is famed for its gingerbread and there was a massive queue outside the shop.  A colleague had brought some into work and I tasted some.  Personally I’m not keen on ginger in sweet based products and this gingerbread didn’t convince me otherwise.  However Neil on the other hand liked it.  I guess if you’re into the whole ginger based cake stuff, this is clearly the place for you.

St Oswald’s church is a big draw for tourists as William Wordsworth is buried in the graveyard.  You really don’t have to search the graveyard for his grave, just look round and see where people are congregated as that’s where you’ll find him.  It’s quite an unassuming resting place for one of the poetry greats.
It was too early to have lunch, however we did end up having some English Lakes Ice Cream from a local shop.  I had mint and rum & raisin – it was very yummy.

Grasmere Lake isn’t that close to the village and is supposed to be about half a kilometre away according to the guide books (10 minute walk).  We went in the wrong direction and couldn’t find it.   Unfortunately time was pressing and we had to head back to the car.
I’m very tempted to spend a night or two here, as there are plenty of cafes, a few restaurants and pubs to while away an evening or two.  I can imagine myself sat here as the sun goes down having a glass of wine contemplating life. 

This place is in a stunning location and is overlooked by the rocky Helm Crag.  We were very lucky to catch this place on a beautiful day.  I can understand why it has been so inspirational to poets and artists.  I also completely get why Grasmere has developed into a middle class tourist ghetto.  However most of all I appreciate the way this place reconnects you back to the wonder of nature.  We will be back, but next time we’ll find the lake and have a glass of wine down the pub.

Sunday 1 December 2013

Ambleside, Cumbria

We have a soft spot for Ambleside having stayed in the place 9 years ago.  I consider it to be one of the key tourist towns in the Lake District.  It’s only a short drive from Windermere Town and is just a mile or so north of Lake Windermere. 

Driving through Ambleside is a bit confusing as there are lots of one way streets so you need to keep your wits about you to pick up the road signs. 
Parking is also a bit tricky, but we tend to use the car park behind the library as there is usually plenty of space.  Although if you have trouble walking up hills this car park is one to avoid as it’s very steep.
There are lots of B&Bs in the town and you can understand it with all the cafes, restaurants and pubs in the town.  You are spoilt for choice and can easily spend a few nights here sampling what it has to offer.
The Sunday when we  visited was mad busy with walkers and tourists.  If you are looking to buy walking or mountaineering equipment this is the place for you as there are plenty of shops catering for your needs.

Ambleside only has two charity shops:  Age UK and Oxfam.  Unfortunately only Age UK was open.  I know it’s a Sunday, but Ambleside is busy on a Sunday and I’m sure Oxfam could find a couple of volunteers.  Hey ho.  By the way, Neil found nothing exciting but I noticed it did stock some walking gear.
I’ve noticed over the years visiting Ambleside, high street chain shops are creeping in.  I always think  high street chains are so every day and can be found everywhere, whereas independent shops are unique and in the Lake District they often reflect the distinctiveness of the place.  I do think it’s important to keep Ambleside local, otherwise these high street chains just make the shopping experience bland.
Finally we were hungry and I had the urge for a Sunday lunch.  Surprisingly we were struggling to find a place we liked.  Pubs showing sports were a no-no and some places were just a NO.  Years ago we had a nice meal in Stampers restaurant which is tucked away in the basement of a building on a side street.  I remembered the food was nice, despite nearly concussing myself on one of the low alcoves.  This Sunday they were doing roast beef with all the trimmings so we ordered it.  Stupidly we didn’t have long on our parking ticket and time was counting down.  Our meal came out 15 minutes before our parking ticket was to expire.  Thankfully we are both fast eaters and it was a really lovely meal.  Sometimes I think I could eat a Sunday dinner without the roast meat as everything else is so lovely – Yorkshire puds, stuffing, pigs in blankets, gravy and vegetables.  I was surprised there weren’t more people eating here as the food was ace and it turned out to be one of the best meals we had on our holiday. We managed to eat our meals and pay the bill with three minutes to spare to run to the car.

I do like visiting Ambleside - it’s a great place to pick up gifts for people, you can get a decent meal here, and it’s a good place to base yourself on a holiday if you like having a nightlife.  Go visit and if you are here on a Sunday, go to Stampers as they do a lovely Sunday lunch.