Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Mountains and lakes; fathers and daughters; and antisocial dog-owners

I had begun to dread fulfilling what was looking like a rash promise to take my elder offspring away for a couple of nights of father-daughter time in the Lake District. It wasn’t the company I was worried about, but the weather… for days the medium range forecast had been highlighting the approach of a very deep depression destined to dump vast quantities of rain, prodigious even by Lakeland standards, on the North of England.

Remarkably, however, the depression first slowed its progress and then chose instead to batter the South of the country, prompting severe weather alerts. And here we were, slowly scaling Red Pike, daughter clad in borrowed boots and waterproofs (reflecting the passage of time since she last climbed anything), and with the sky scarcely hinting at precipitation.

This is the second day of three: we’d got away hopelessly late on Day One, but still found time to visit my old childhood haunt of Watendlath, at the head of a hanging valley, high above Derwentwater. The Lake District is bejewelled by the prettiest of spots and this remains among my favourites. With just the dog end of the walking day remaining, we aptly climbed above Watendlath to Dog Tarn. This is most unlike the typical Cumbrian mountain tarn: these are usually dark and uninviting waters enclosed in lofty cwms by the walls of craggy ridges that overshadow them. Dog Tarn, by contrast, is gently cupped by surrounding tops – water lilies adorn its waters and mallards were yesterday swimming through the reeds, beside an islet topped by silver birch trees dappled by the warm evening sun.

 Delightful Dog Tarn

Today, buoyed by weather, which – although not overly sunny – probably offers even better conditions for walking, nay climbing. The walk from the Bridge Hotel (www.bridge-hotel.com) at Buttermere up to Bleaberry Tarn (of the more typical Lake District genre) looks like a mile and a bit on the map, but the steep zig-zagged ascent means you can at least double that. I am on my first significant climb since surgery. Progress is not fast. Daughter pauses to send a text essay to her sister, detailing how people dressed like they are fetching the Sunday papers are streaming past us and then passing us again on their way back down. She exaggerates, but I do worry that we might become a feature in Wainwright revision: “Carry straight on when you reach the girl in the beige fleece and the sweaty bloke with the turquoise vest.”

 Descent towards beautiful Buttermere

As we finally cusp the lip of the tarn, there’s a noise like a jumbo at the end of the runway. It’s quite spooky but it can only be the wind, which, while fresh, is not of elephantine proportions at our altitude. I learn something over lunch: daughter says if you eat an apple from the end, rather than the side, there’s “no such thing” as a core to leave. Hmmm.

We head for the saddle that links or divides Red Pike from Dodd, but as we ascend, the wind – sandwiched between the ridge and, I guess, a temperature inversion a couple of hundred feet above us – is becoming very strong indeed. When we reach the col it’s increasingly difficult even to stand up and descending walkers confirm that it’s far from pleasant on the summit. We decide that discretion will be the better part of valour and begin our return to Buttermere. Daughter complains about a touch of flatulence – mine, not hers, I confess. I imagine the offending item encased in a sort of invisible bubble wrap and whisked by the now screaming wind over the ridge and down into Ennerdale. Still intact, it will invade the nostrils of someone who will then accusingly confront their innocent companion, who will in turn indignantly deny being the origin of the pong.

Weariness breeds more silliness: “Which flower cordial is the oldest?” I ask. “Elderflower?” ventures daughter. “Have you heard about the man with six willies?” I ask. “No,” she groans. “He’s only got the five now ’cos he sat down heavily on his coccyx and broke it.” “That’s terrible, she says. I can only agree.

Back at the hotel, we mention having chickened out of our ascent and are told that a guest the previous week had frightened herself so badly that she stayed in the hotel for the rest of her time. A Scottish-Canadian, she believed in walking the fells minus map, compass or other navigational aid. Until she found herself on the edge of an overhanging crag, staring into the abyss, that is. This tale is from the Scots guy at reception: no sign today of the Hungarian lad who seems to have spent his entire time in the UK reading a book on English humour. (“Breakfast is served between 5.30 and 6.30. No, I am only joking, ho, ho!”)

The Bridge caters mostly for the older, better healed walker and – like so many Lake District hotels – it has significantly upped its game since my last visit a decade ago. We eat very well à la carte and amuse ourselves playing “Crossroads”, a game in which we have to imagine that our rather ordinary-looking fellow diners hide secrets they’d rather we didn’t share. The seemingly innocent-looking middle-aged couple are actually bank robbers on the run; the older woman in the corner is gay and has lured her unsuspecting younger companion here for the sole purpose of seducing her. And so on.

Day Three is warm and sunny and yet the Scots guy at reception informs that the road up to Cockermouth is blocked by fallen trees because of the wind: our discretion seems even more justified now. We make the easy circumnavigation of Buttermere, a delightful stroll spoiled only by the appearance, at frequent intervals, of little plastic bags of dog shit, both on the ground and, worse, hanging from trees. I find it hard to believe what I am seeing and have never noticed this before. Daughter says there’s a lot of it in London.

I trawl the internet to see what this is about: this is far worse than not bagging the offending item at all. It soon becomes clear that dog-owners now expect there to be bins, in which to deposit their animals’ excretions, every 100 metres or so. If there aren’t such receptacles, they’ll leave said droppings on the path or hang them up. Some say they will collect them “on their return”, but even this marginally more considerate approach requires the rest of us to live with their doggy detritus for a couple of hours. www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22853270   

Disgusting – if you're a dog-owner who doesn't understand this sign!

Now, excuse me, but I don’t see why the rest of us should pay for the installation of thousands of dog poo bins for the minority who own dogs, any more than I want to see the Lake District ruined by the intrusion of such urban clutter. Get real you canine-obsessed: if you have a dog, it’s your responsibility to dispose of its shit, just as it should be your responsibility to stop it eating babies and all the other anti-social things that dogs routinely seem to get up to. Maybe mandatory chipping and dog licences (they still have these in Northern Ireland, I see) might encourage more responsibility among these blinkered owners. Or it might not. I say, choose a cat. They’ll even go walkies with you, if you talk to them nicely. But don’t ask them to read a compass.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Tour Fever – is there any cure for Yorkshire?

What did you do when the Tour de France came to Yorkshire, Daddy? Well, son, it's a day I shan’t forget – it's up there with the Moon landing, Kennedy, John Lennon...

Yes, who could ever have anticipated that some blokes on bikes could so capture the public imagination?

I ask this question from my vantage ten or so days after those blokes flashed across the sight lines of an estimated 2.5 million people in the self-styled God's Own County – just as I find myself wondering if the event would have made such a lasting impression had it been held in, say, Surrey, or Berkshire.

My own answer to the question is No, for from the moment it was announced that Yorkshire had won the event, it was as though a virulent superbug had taken hold: everyone in Yorkshire was catching Tour Fever, for which there was no known cure, other than to permit the fever to break on July 5 and 6. Even then there would be a risk of symptoms lingering for weeks afterwards.

I break my own fever on the morning of July 5 by heading for Yorkshire to stay with friends in Huddersfield. The peloton is due to flash past the end of their road on July 6 but they have already been to Leeds and back to join the throngs at the Grand Départ. They had never struck me as creatures inclined to follow the masses, but such is the nature of the contagion...

Our friends have devised a strategy to extend the sensation associated with the fever breaking – rather than amble to the end of the street, we are to trudge six miles across the moors to a carefully researched vantage above the road over Holme Moss. This will afford us a view of a good mile or so of the route as the peloton powered up the long drag.

Replete with champagne, olives, profiteroles and other tasty nibbles for our piquenique, we enjoy through binoculars several seconds of lean muscled man-machines as the peloton moved as one toward the distant summit.

View of the Tour de France from above Holme Moss

Meanwhile, five Army helicopters have delivered VIPs – surely royalty or government, I'm unsure which – to an unprepossessing field down below us: siren-sounding convoys had passed through and the camera helicopter had circled overhead. Yet, even from our lofty vantage it was over all to soon. Down in the valley, however, they are partying on: some have splashed £270 a head on an all-day exclusive at the local pub, featuring roadside vantage and copious food and drink, while the hoi polloi – many in Lycra – watch the race finish in Sheffield on a giant screen beside the beer marquee in the car park.

Fast forward one week and we meet with the same friends at Laurence and Lizzie Sowden’s delightful Pennycroft bed and breakfast at the heart of the Yorkshire Dales village of Kettlewell.
The Tour may have been and gone, but the symptoms of Tour Fever remain rife: yellow knitted pom-poms adorn trees and bushes; a giant spotted jersey looks down from the fellside, complemented by a giant yellow bicycle on the opposite side of the valley; any piece of wrecked machinery that may once have been a bicycle has been splashed with yellow paint and parked in front of pub or café. Tour Fever has not been cured – far from it.

“We’ve had people getting in touch from all corners of the world,” says Laurence, who expects the Tour Effect to endure through the rest of summer and beyond, as trade remains buoyant. The numbers of bicycles now seems to rival those of the ubiquitous motorcycles that have become synonymous with the Dales in recent years.

This is precisely the impact that Gary Verity, boss of Welcome to Yorkshire, was banking on when he cut his head office staff and instead placed all his cash on an audacious bid to win the Tour for Yorkshire. All this at a time when Government hadn’t got beyond thinking about supporting a bid for the event, let alone which location or locations should have the privilege of hosting it.
Once Verity’s gamble had paid off, the Government was left with little choice to but to throw its own cash behind supporting the event.

So why has such a fleeting visit attracted such deep support in Yorkshire, with whole communities coming together to create Tour artworks and so on?

Well, I think there was tremendous pride in being able to showcase God’s Own County to the whole world. Yorkshire has not existed as an administrative county since 1974, when faceless civil servants far from Yorkshire carved great lumps off all three Ridings. As bits of the old West Riding were moved to the new counties of West and South Yorkshire and Cumbria, others even found themselves reassigned to the deadly rival of Lancashire. Parts of the North Riding were annexed by Durham and the new county of Cleveland; parts of the East Riding by the new county of Humberside. Sentiment and sensibilities were swept aside by modernising expedience.

Some, such as the Yorkshire Ridings Society, have attempted to keep the White Rose in bloom across the 40 years since that fateful day but the “civil war” that some predicted would follow local government reform never happened as grudging acquiescence instead took hold. More recently, however, change has begun: East Yorkshire has re-emerged from the ashes of Humberside, Cleveland is gone and the market town of Yarm has voted to return to Yorkshire from Stockton-on-Tees in a largely symbolic referendum.

The Tour de France has tapped into that Zeitgeist that says that – despite the passage of 40 years – Yorkshire lives on in more than just the name of cricket team and the Yorkshire Dales National Park (which covers much of the area annexed by Cumbria).

From Kettlewell, we take the wild road over the tops into Wensleydale and to West Witton, where we take the opportunity to sample the Wensleydale Heifer, once a rather down at heel local but now small(ish) but perfectly formed boutique hotel and restaurant.

West Witton – whose claim to fame is the annual Burning of Bartle, the mysterious effigy of long-forgotten miscreant – is about as far from the sea as anywhere in the North of England. It is also a long way from Scotland. Yet boss David Moss has built his reputation on seafood and fine collection of eclectic whiskies.

Most notable, however, is the attention to service that is paid by his 35 staff. Rarely have we felt more cared for and the numbers in the restaurant in a small village on a Monday night clearly tell their own story.

You might think that David and Co would also be basking in warm glow of Tour Fever, but no… West Witton was effectively cut off from the outside world by road closures, even though the peloton passed just a few hundred yards away.

“We were very excited till we heard about the road closures,” says David. “In the event we probably lost about £5,000 on the day and £20,000 overall but I guess we’ll some benefits longer term…”
Well, I guess illness hits different people different ways.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Let them be shepherds of sharks instead

The backs of their black leather jackets were adorned with the image of a human skull, beneath which a shepherd’s crook and Neptune’s trident crossed to complete the image of pirate of the high seas.

The logo seems an odd one for an organisation dedicated to “conservation” rather than plunder and slaughter, but then Sea Shepherd (www.seashepherd.org) is riddled with mistruth and misrepresentation.

What seemed even more odd was these people turning up at the reception of the poshest hotel in the Faroe Islands to ask if they could park their ramshackle collection of pirate vans and paraphernalia in the hotel car park “for security’s sake”.

The Reception team politely informed these surprise “guests” that, should there be room left in the car park once all paying guests had checked in, then that shouldn’t be a problem.

“We’ve been told not to confront them or provoke them in any way,” explained the hotel team, as I expressed my surprise that this bunch would be welcome anywhere within a mile of the hotel: after all, I had witnessed them at work chivvying and lobbying guests at other locations in the islands over the previous few days.

“Them” is a crew of about 500 Sea Shepherd supporters, encamped on these remote North Atlantic islands with the aim of disrupting the “grind”, which is the hundreds of years old practice of herding pilot whales onto beaches, where they are slaughtered and their meat shared according to principles of most need, with the sick and infirm at the top of that list.

Their primary purpose in setting up encampments at hotels is, of course, nothing whatsoever to do with their own security: rather it is to intimidate those enjoying the fruits of the young but gradually blossoming tourism industry in islands that were named a few years ago by experts at National Geographic, the world’s favourite unspoiled island destination.

In reality, few people will visit the Faroe Islands on holiday without first finding out enough to know that, alongside their quite breath-taking natural beauty and the distinctiveness of their Viking-Celtic culture, the islands are where pods of pilot whales are driven ashore for slaughter, often in quite large numbers.

That is the bald statement of fact about the grind, which is not – as sometimes suggested – some kind of “annual ritual”.  To understand the grind you need to understand Faroese culture and the origins of the people themselves.

Today, the Faroe islanders are an affluent people, though their society is afflicted by some of the ills associated with insularity, not least the drip-drip-drip of depopulation, most especially among younger women. But that affluence is relatively recent: for hundreds of years the islanders were effectively prisoners of successive Scandinavian kingdoms, which imposed brutal trading monopolies, keeping the population at the very edge of starvation. It was forbidden for a Faroese to trade with anyone other than the monopoly or even to own a boat from which to fish the rich waters around the islands.

The 18 islands themselves comprise layers of basalt, eroded by the wild Atlantic into cliffs that can rise sheer by more than 2,000ft. On the thin soils of this sub-Arctic landscape you can grow the ubiquitous angelica (planted everywhere the Vikings travelled), redcurrants, rhubarb (in abundant profusion) and the cute little Faroese potato. And that’s about it.

So, the early inhabitants relied on seabirds and their eggs for survival. However, from time to time, the islands would be visited by a “gift from God” – a school of pilot whales. Not only could these cetaceans provide meat, but their blubber was rich in the vitamins that the islanders were largely deprived of, being without fresh fruit and veg.

The grind consequently became embedded in Faroese culture, with every able man expected to take part in the hunt, which might account for just tens but often hundreds of whales. But let’s get one thing straight: the pilot whale can not by any stretch of the imagination be described as an endangered species: its numbers in the North Atlantic are estimated at 800,000. So to get round this inconvenient fact, Sea Shepherd loosely interchanges between terms like “whale” and “dolphin” to imply that these animals are just like the cute ones you might encounter in the water park in Florida, or wherever.

These days the whales are killed by a single knife stroke to the spinal cord: it’s swift and effective. It is also very messy: a 20ft whale contains an awful lot of blood and no-one can pretend that a blood-red sea is a pretty sight. But then, the controlled environment of an abattoir is no picnic either, so what’s the big deal about sustainable harvesting of a natural resource as opposed to the organised exploitation of captive animals? It would surely be better for Sea Shepherd to focus its not insubstantial resources on genuine conservation issues, such as the black market in shark fins (which it does to some effect). But the troubling thing for these volunteers is that they are uncomfortable with the concept that the people of advanced nation can still indulge in what they see as barbarism: it offends their sensibilities and so they have decided to conduct a witch-hunt not just against the whale-hunters but against the Faroe islanders as a nation.

Their logo for the so-called Operation Grindstop originally included a bloodied Faroese flag – the Faroese flag is precious to the Faroese people, having been granted to the merchant fleet by the British during the wartime “friendly occupation” of the islands. The Faroese vessels that ferried fish from Iceland to the UK, running the gauntlet of U-boats and mines saw the loss of more men per capita than suffered by any other nation in the war.

So, to defile the Faroese flag – a potent symbol of the islands’ status as an independent protectorate of the Danish Crown – is rather like burning the Stars and Stripes. In deference, therefore, to the modest kernel of support they may enjoy among Faroese natives, the Sea Shepherds changed the logo and filmed a “press conference” on the harbour at Tórshavn. Unfortunately, they referred repeatedly in this to the “grind”, rhyming with “mind”, whereas it is pronounced with a short “i”. One wonders if they ever actually talked with their kernel of supporters.

Sea Shepherd boasts that, during its 2011 Operation Ferocious Isles, “not a single pilot whale was killed while Sea Shepherd patrolled the islands”. This is a somewhat disingenuous claim, as – unusually – no pilot whales chose to visit the islands that summer. Such is the nature of God’s bounty. It made for very bad TV for the Discovery Channel, which had been promised footage of valiant eco-warriors preventing a slaughter and had to make do with ancient archive footage.

No-one could pretend that the grind is a pretty sight…

A good Faroese friend suggests it is very unlikely that the Sea Shepherds will endure a similar fiasco this summer, so we await the outcome, which may well see the spilling of more than just whale blood.

As for the future, well that same friend once commented to me on the beach at Gøta, venue for the islands’ annual rock extravaganza, that the sands had been replete with whale carcasses just days earlier.

“What would you do if whales were spotted today in the middle of the festival, among all these crowds?” I asked.

My friend rubbed his chin thoughtfully and drew breath: “That is a very difficult question, but – you know – I think our instinct would prevail and we would drive the whales ashore anyway.”

In the end, Sea Shepherd will not stop the grind, but other factors may: already Faroese scientists counsel women of child-bearing age against eating whale, because of high levels of heavy metals and other contaminants at the top of the food chain. My guess is that the grind will be largely a thing of the past within 20 years or so. In the meantime I suggest Sea Shepherd stick to the shark fins.

Stan Abbott has a vested interest in defending the Faroe Islanders: he has worked for more than 12 years with the national airline, Atlantic Airways (www.atlantic.fo) and the islands' tourism authorities  (www.visitfaroeislands.com).

Monday, 12 May 2014

Kenny's House of Tides balances history with cutting-edge cuisine

There’s nothing like a 16th Grade 1 listed building if you’re looking to create the right atmosphere for a fine dining experience: ask Ludlow – it has both in spades. 

Chef Kenny Atkinson – whose House of Tides restaurant opened in a former merchant’s town house on Newcastle Quayside earlier this year – now knows all about the warts-and-all nature of living with English Heritage, which is charged with ensuring that new uses for old buildings do not compromise either their fabric or their historic essence.

When Kenny told the world on BBC's Saturday Kitchen more than a year ago that his new venture would be open in August 2013, he never thought for a moment that the reality would be an opening in early 2014. During that time, newcastle's eager diners have anticipated with baited berth the most eagerly awaited restaurant opining in the region for years.

“The thing with English Heritage,” Kenny told me, “is that they want to see life in the building, which is great, and they are really enthusiastic that we have opened a restaurant. From that point of view they are really supportive. But getting permission to do things is a bit more difficult, because they only meet three of four times a year…

What had prompted this conversation was a comment by a waitress when four of us joined the throngs of eager Geordie diners anxious to sample this “Michelin Star elect” venue back in February. Kenny was hoping to open a cookery school on the top two floors of the four-storey building, she said.

Yes, says Kenny: a cookery school would be Plan A. “We have taken the bottom two floors for 20 years and to expand upwards is our easiest option. I really want to take the whole building on, with complete control, and the landlord has taken it off the market, but we are waiting for English Heritage to get back to us.”

At issue is whether the venting that would be required to establish a cookery classroom can realistically be achieved without compromising the building’s structure.

If it doesn’t happen, then watch out for Plan B – a private dining facility with its own bar and a programme of guest chefs drawn from the ranks of those Kenny has got to know as a regular on the likes of The Great British Menu, Saturday Kitchen, and Sky TV’s Perfect… Tom Kerridge, Sean Rankin, Nigel Haworth et al. “We all get on really well,” says Kenny, who expects to be back on Saturday Kitchen soon, maybe September, “now the business is running well”.

Kenny’s ethos at House of Tides is fine dining, but without the stuffiness. It’s not the easiest of tricks to pull off, but Kenny’s Michelin Stars were won at locations as diverse as the Isles of Scilly and Durham’s Seaham Hall and if anyone can do it, it’s Kenny. Indeed, his intent is evident the moment you walk through front door, beneath the grandeur of Robert Stephenson’s Grade 1 High Level Bridge.

Kenny is kitchen, front of house, souciant host, making sure his new venture is on track to become a well oiled machine that will (if he’s not there) run nicely for his carefully chosen team. Cocktails and amuse-bouche are taken downstairs and set the tone: lamb and baby leeks with the whiskers left on – great idea!

Then it’s up the steps to embark on the nine-course dégustation for £65 – a wonderful evening’s journey through butternut squash soup, mackerel, sea bass, duck, beef, rhubarb, chocolate and cheese. On this foodie scaffold, Kenny has sculpted a creation whose detail is its triumph. That detail ranges from local touches, like pease pudding, to challenges to conventional ideas of what will “go”, such as smoked eel fennel and orange with the mackerel. Oh, and let’s not forget the “sand carrots” preserved underground in a field near Corbridge. I loved it, though some confess to being almost “flavoured-out” by it all.

The secret I’d like Kenny to share with me is how to make rhubarb al denté: his inhabits an elusive Shangri-La between hard and mush, that shall never be visited by us mere mortals.

House of Tides joins successful Quayside ventures by Terry Laybourne (Café 21, Caffè Vivo) and exciting new gastro pubs, such as the Bridge Tavern and Broad Chare, and its arrival may yet herald more new life for an area now forsaken by stag and hen parties, which have migrated to the city centre. On the cards is a new venue from the ashes of the popular cocktails and bistro, Popolo, while there’s talk of a boutique hotel at The Cooperage, one time unplugged venue of rock stars like Mark Knopfler.

“I’m surrounded by five big hotels that aren’t foodie hotels and on a Saturday night it’s a brilliant atmosphere down here!” 

Indeed, it is all change on Newcastle's Quayside, once the destination of choice for stag and hen parties. Some may have seen a lamentably poorly researched article on the North East in Saturday's Guardian magazine, in which the writer, Andy Beckett, likened the region to Detroit, a city that his witnessed its own near death. Beckett spoke of the closure of bars on the Quayside as evidence of the region's malaise, but those of us who live here know that the stags and hens have simply moved on to a new district around Central Station, leaving the Quayside open to a move upmarket, as epitomised by Kenny, who is part of the vanguard.

Keep up the good work, Kenny!

A version of this blog is appearing in Eastern Airways Magazine's June issue. www.easternairways.com/magazine