Aira Force

Aira Force waterfall and woodland, Cumbria

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Foss, meaning fall in Old English, has morphed over time into Force; the spot where the River Aire tumbles gloriously over the rock face into the gorge below. This stunning spray is hidden deep inside woodland not far from the shore of beautiful Ullswater Lake. The landscape was once the playground of landed gentry, developed in the 1800s and covered with specimens of trees from all corners of the empire for the pleasure of a few. Happily, Aira Force and surrounding woodland is now a place of delight for thousands of visitors to the Lake District National Park.

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The approach from the road leads through a hive of activity. Families sprawl on the grass or sit at picnic tables in conference over well used maps; routes are plotted, laces tied and rucksacks packed in preparation. Well trained dogs sit patiently, tethered to table legs; perhaps like their people they are appreciating time out from a long trek. The National Trust shop is doing a brisk trade in bottled water and visitor guides whilst the refreshments van dispenses hot chocolate and cheer to weary walkers.

Walking away in the direction of the woodland, the grass gradually becomes longer and untamed. A gravel path crunches underfoot, forking off in different directions. Laughter comes from the river bank and a bright-eyed dog suddenly comes into view, vigorously shaking water from his coat before turning back.

Which way should I go? I’ll follow the sound of the water.

Sinuous roots rise up from beneath the ground. Trees so high, their tops seem lost. Deep green pine and fir perfume the damp air with the heady scent of resin, conjuring memories of childhood Christmases. Olfactory sensors prickle and drink in the woody aromas. Myriad shades of green, layer upon layer, merge to create a leafy collage. The earth is soft and springy beneath the tramping of hundreds of feet, eager ears focused in the direction of the gushing water in the distance. We are drawn to water; a primal call that pulls us towards the life force. Feathery ferns and winding hemlock glisten as the sun highlights the beads of rain water on their lustrous leaves.

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Steep and uneven, a red earth path leads upward and onward. Still out of sight, the roaring water can be heard in the distance. Next, a flight of steps, hewn from the rock, steep and mocking challenges all except the young and the fit; more will follow, steeper and harder as we climb higher towards the peak. With some trepidation and with heart in mouth I look down into the gorge hoping that feet and path will not betray me. Eighty feet below, the rocks are edged like knives. A long way down, a small crowd is gathered on the wooden footbridge, eyes wide and cameras clicking, sharing the view.

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The majestic waterfall cascades over grey boulders, frothing white and forceful. The clear beck follows its course over the cobbles and rocks. Children, noisy and exhilarated, clamber over the stones, revelling in nature, splashing and laughing in the shallow water. Dogs, released from their leads, frolic and roll, happy to cool down. Even in the shade of the woods the day is humid and takes its toll.

Felled tree trunks fashioned into benches provide respite and an opportunity to imbibe the beauty of this place. Signs provide interesting facts about some of the other inhabitants of the woodland; no red squirrels are around to greet us today, but maybe they survey us from the safety of the tree tops, curious about the human visitors; or maybe they’ve seen it all a thousand times and have better things to do.

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The path down presents another challenge. Muddy in parts and uneven it requires careful footing. It’s a long way down! Eventually I get to the bottom with calves aching but mind invigorated.

DSCF3827An enormous monkey puzzle tree fascinates those who gather at its base, curious fingers exploring the ridges of its exotic trunk. Cypress and Oak stand proud nearby, each a labelled exhibit in this green gallery. The strange stump of a Douglas Fir twinkles as sunlight dances across the edges of the silver coins embedded in its surface; a years old tradition.

Onward again into the daylight, I choose my  path and continue my journey.

 

 

 

 

Fylde Coast: it’s not all about Blackpool!

 

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Winter sun sets

Streaks of light above the western horizon

Glittering reflections dance on dark sea

Pale orb retreats in sullen sky

Like smouldering charcoal on muted canvas

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Blackpool is, indisputably, the best known seaside resort in the UK. For several months of the year it is teeming with holiday makers from all parts of the country. A magnet for stag and hen parties, outings for all occasions (and none), it has in recent years earned a dubious reputation as the ‘Las Vegas’ of the north west. Blackpool is bold. It’s brash. It’s cheap and cheerful, depending on the particular type of cheer required. It has become a haven for would-be and has-been celebrities, trying to break into or hang onto the bargain basement of the entertainment world. Its vast array of hotels and ‘B&B’s are hugely popular throughout the year.

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I don’t like Blackpool. I never have, even as a child. To me, Blackpool is garish, vulgar and even sinister. Beneath its façade of raucous laughter, bright lights and fairground attractions lies an emptiness and a sadness and something quite disturbing. Blackpool is a bit like a clown. I try to avoid it, or at least the worst of it.

Blackpool is also like a portal which I pass through when journeying to other parts of the Fylde coast which offer an altogether different experience. Even a relatively short distance along the north coastal road in the direction of Fleetwood there are quiet and peaceful stretches of beach which offer solace and opportunities to sit quietly, enjoy the sea and relax.

Thornton Cleveleys, about 4 miles north of Blackpool, is really no more than a village, yet has a bustling shopping centre and a busy high street which includes several chain stores and a number of eateries. I was surprised to find that even in winter the crowds were out and the cafes were busy. It’s easy to forget that places like Cleveleys, whilst being popular with tourists, have their own communities for whom everyday life comes with a sea view. Cleveleys is one of a number of north west seaside resorts which has benefited from a ‘make-over’ which includes some striking seafront architecture.

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From my seat at the top of a flight of concrete steps leading down to the water’s edge (these also serve as cleverly designed sea defences) I spend a happy hour admiring the awesome sight of the waves rolling and crashing against the groynes. Brown and murky with sand from the seabed, the powerful surges of aquatic energy rush in with force, then break and transform into white foam before being gathered on the next currant and taken back out to sea. The sea’s rhythms soothe and hypnotise, telling stories of primal life and the cosmic dance. Salt water is caught in the wind, creating that instantly recognisable aroma found only at the coast, prized throughout time, a cure for those seeking revival and recovery. Sea birds swoop and squawk, scanning the surface for the meal which lies beneath.

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The sun starts to set and the wind picks up, causing me to draw my coat closer around me. Reluctantly, I end my reverie and return to the promenade, still busy with enthusiastic dogs chasing sticks, or happily pulling on their leads, basking in the admiring looks of passers by. Despite the declining day, the beach is still full of life.

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The tram pulls in to rush hour Blackpool and I can’t help noticing that under the street lights and against the backdrop of the now black sea, it doesn’t look that bad after all.

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Roundhey Park, Leeds – and hurrah! Monty’s back!

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There is always something special about Friday nights. Unless I am out and about, I spend the evening at home, unwinding and easing into the weekend, usually with music, my favourite candles, my favourite incense, my favourite red wine, and a good book or film.

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You will have noticed the word favourite cropping up a few times, and that’s because Friday nights are a celebration: a veil between the frenetic world of work where I spend most of my waking hours on somebody else’s clock, and those two long days which are mine and when I can (usually) do exactly as I please. The perfect end to a Friday night is falling into my bed and NOT setting the alarm. Bliss!

For about half of the year another little bit of magic is woven into the Friday night mix, and this week it returned after its winter absence. I’m writing here about Mr Monty Don and Gardeners’ World.monty 2

Like most people, I love a nice garden and am lucky enough to have a little green spot of my own, though I’m no Carol Klein, and mother nature herself is head gardener at my place!

I had no interest in gardening programmes until about two years ago when one Friday evening (of course!) I found myself so relaxed on the sofa that I didn’t want to move to change the TV channel when Gardeners’ World started. A very strange and wonderful thing happened: I found myself completely absorbed in a very sensory way into the programme: the melodic and soothing voices of the presenters; the vibrant colours of the flowers; the lush foliage; birdsong; the camera focusing on the minutiae of the humming pond insects, bees and the butterflies, not to mention Nell and Nigel, Monty’s gorgeous golden retrievers padding along the ornate paving at Long Meadow. It was like a mental massage! I found myself switching on every week, not to learn about herbaceous borders or pruning, but to be soothed into the weekend by this horticultural answer to whale sounds! You may laugh, but I love it!

My own garden shows few signs of the arrival of spring after another week of snow and frost, but Monty is back, so spring is official, and Friday nights now have that extra added treat. Last night Monty took shelter from the snow in his potting shed and told us about some of his plans for the months ahead. One of his grand botanical designs is for a paradise garden which immediately brought to mind one of my own favourite northern gardens. In anticipation of a hopefully glorious summer, and in defiance of the clinging on of winter, I’d like to share some photographs of  Roundhey Park in Leeds, a lovely bit of Yorkshire.

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Roundhey Park is just a few minutes’ drive outside the centre of Leeds. It is well known as an open air concert venue, but I know it best as a gorgeous green space that I like to spend time in whenever I visit a friend who lives nearby.

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Roundhey has several themed gardens and these change year on year. I love this, as it means there is always something new to see on every visit. One of my favourites is the canal garden, a permanent feature.

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I live along the route of the Leeds Liverpool Canal and have a great interest in our former industrial waterways. Here, the Canal runs through Roundhey Park and has been turned into a serene water feature. I have enjoyed many a picnic on one of those benches.

The waterwheel is not original but is the centrepiece of another area of the gardens.

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I love wildflowers and Roundhey does not disappoint!

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Probably my favourite garden is the Alhambra, and I was very excited to learn that Monty is planning something very similar at Long Meadow.

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The world is a warmer and more hospitable place today than earlier this week, and Monty’s arrival on my screen has inspired me to get out into my little garden this weekend, if only to tidy up and prepare for new beginnings. Fare thee well cold winter! The wheel has turned again…

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Ullswater

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420Ullswater lies in Cumbria’s aptly named Eden Valley, nestled in between some of the region’s highest fells. It is England’s second largest lake. It is also my favourite lake retreat, a destination for those times when I want to empty my head and become absorbed into the land and waterscape.

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Despite its popularity with visitors, Ullswater has been able to retain a tranquil presence and serenity which can become lost when a place of great beauty becomes a magnet for tourists. To my mind this can be explained in two ways. Firstly (and rather more mundanely) people who visit Ullswater tend to be there with a purpose: walking; climbing, orienteering, sailing, often hiring a cottage for the week or pitching up tent at one of the many lakeside camping sites. Families and groups, when on the lake, are usually sailing across or trekking along the shore line on route to a next stage in their day’s activity. Sporting backpacks, waterproof clothing, climbing gear and dogged determination, high-spirited and motivated they happily endure rain and wind to reach another point on their map. They are on a mission and on the move.

Contrast this scene with one from Windermere – the best known of the English lakes – where in parts the water’s edge is lined by throngs of day-trippers queuing at the various burger kiosks and throwing the scraps from their chip wrappers to the flocks of swans and lake fowl waiting in anticipation. Even when you have successfully woven your way through the selfie-sticks, home movie makers and familial huddles of ice-cream eating toddlers and buggies to eventually make your way to the lakeside landing stage, you might find your view from the deck of the cruise launch obscured by enthusiastic tourists, blissfully spatially unaware in their attempts to find the best vantage points to click their cameras.

Windermere, much more commercial and accessible, is a haven for tourists and those who want a nice day out in a pretty setting; for Ullswater visitors it is more about ‘doing’ than taking the photograph.

I think there is a second way in which the serenity of Ullswater is preserved; there is an aura of tranquillity, a magical haunting quality with which one’s mind can meld even whilst being seated on a crowded ‘steamer’. Every time I have visited Ullswater, regardless of the season, the sky has been grey and the surrounding hills have been enveloped in mist. I recollect that most sailings have been in the rain. Rather than detract from the experience the weather has added an almost metaphysical element to that already mysterious ambience. It is hypnotic.In essence, a visit to Ullswater offers the possibility to get lost in the crowd.

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The village of Glenridding lies at the southern tip of the lake, overlooked by the imposing form of the Helvellyn fells, a Mecca for serious walkers. These giants provide a gateway to the southern lake region beyond. Pooley Bridge, a small but thriving village at the lake’s northern point has proved to be as hardy as any of the local flora and fauna in recovering in fighting spirit from the devastating floods which brought life to a standstill and destroyed so much property during the onslaughts of relentless rainfall during the winter of 2015/16. Life goes on; excellent cafes continue to serve delicious food; hotels, hostelries and B&Bs display their ‘no vacancies’ signs and the lake‘s currents and rhythms continue, timeless and unperturbed.

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Llandudno. A Great British coach trip.

The first day of March is the feast day of Saint David, the patron saint of Wales. Born in the sixth century, this one-time bishop and worker of miracles is usually depicted with a dove on his shoulder and standing on a hill as in this rather nice stained-glass window.

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David’s best-known miracle was the raising up of a hill (as in the window) on the very spot where he stood, though it’s unclear why, in a land which boasts an abundance of hills, this should be his miracle of choice. He lived a very simple life and when he wasn’t working miracles the Saint was a great reader and scribe and enjoyed a humble meat-free diet. The leek was possibly his favourite vegetable, becoming first his personal emblem and later that of the Welsh nation.

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Today being Saint David’s day got me thinking back to last summer and a rather memorable journey I made to north Wales. Whilst Cymru is a separate country it would be misleading of me to give the impression that my journey there was an epic trek. From my home in the north of England to my destination in north Wales is less than a hundred miles, or about 90 minutes by road.

This was to be my first trip there since being a teenager . I’d been on many occasions during childhood summers, but it hadn’t left an impression; I think it mostly rained. Having heard good things about the revamped sea front, off I went with mum to partake in a quintessentially British experience: the coach trip.

My mother is a coach trip expert, travelling the length and breadth of the Kingdom with her friend and fellow enthusiast, Phyllis. I have occasionally stepped in when Phyllis has been otherwise engaged, and my limited experience has led to the following observations about coach world:

  • The front seats which offer an unrestricted view through the windscreen are the most desirable and are snapped up about 5 years in advance
  • Coach folks always board with at least three carrier bags filled with foil-wrapped sandwiches, thermos flasks, and family packs of crisps and mini cheddar biscuits. Invariably, they get to work on their bounty within 10 minutes of setting off
  • Anybody boarding with no provisions looks under-burdened and therefore suspicious
  • Coach folks often bring an assortment of coats and cardigans in case of unpredictable weather. Any garments not required at the destination can be left on board to mark ownership of seats under the watchful eye of the driver
  • The driver, usually called Stan, Jim or Bill, is often well past retirement age and likes to treat his charges to a selection of Nashville Greats and Sixties compilation CDs, which are very well received by the coach audience
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A typical British coach

The sun shone for us on a glorious morning when mum and I set off for the land of dragons and daffodils, though we didn’t expect to see either of those on an average Wednesday in August. We found our seats, deposited our bags in the overhead luggage rack and got ourselves settled. We were amongst the first on board so by default became members of the welcoming party for those who joined at various stops over the next few miles. At this point I’ll explain a little about the complex but unspoken rules of coach trip etiquette. Geisha tea ceremonies seem like child’s play in comparison, and you must at all costs get it right if you want to avoid feeling an on-board coolness which won’t be coming from the air conditioning.

  • New arrivals greet those already seated, not the other way around. No exceptions.
  • A hearty ‘Good morning’ is the suggested salutation, but at the very least a smile and a nod are required, though this is a weak form of greeting and will provoke raised eye brows and possibly mutterings
  • If you are new to coaching, know your place! Most of these seasoned gallivanters will know each other from other trips. You are new.
  • If you are asked about other places you have travelled to, understand that this means on coaches and within the UK. Don’t talk about your Nordic river cruise or your wild nights in Marrakesh. They are of no interest to these good people, and you will be judged.
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Moody skies over the Welsh moors

Fast forward through Cheshire and into north Wales, in and out of a nice but unnecessary pit stop, and onto the Welsh moors. Purple heather and sloping green hills (possibly raised by Saint David) in the distance made for a beautiful vista. Inside the coach sounds of appreciation rose as we wound our way along the serpentine roads. Being afflicted with the curse of travel sickness, I could not share in my fellow travellers’ pleasure here, and perhaps by some miracle I just about made it to our next stop, the village of Betws y coed.

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Betws y coed train station

Upon disembarking, our lively party headed off in little groups to the café, ice cream parlour or for fish and chips. Green around the gills and desperate to recover before getting back onto the coach I left mum to her battered haddock and went for a short stroll. We only had an hour at Betws y coed which, along with my delicate state, prevented me from exploring further, but I enjoyed watching the birds feed in the midday sun.

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The station is used for regular services and for occasional vintage steam trips
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A steam train which has been converted into a restaurant
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wild art
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Birds tuck in at a local cafe

Back on board, and mercifully the rest of the journey to Llandudno was smooth. We arrived in fine spirits ready to walk along the promenade, paddle in the surf and relax in the sun’s warm rays. All signs of clouds had disappeared to reveal an expanse of azure sky.SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420

Great Orme overlooked the pier and the vintage tour buses waited for their next passengers.

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From time to time I spotted fellow travellers seated along the sea front or in a tea room window. There arises yet another coach trip etiquette minefield: to acknowledge or not to acknowledge?  But that’s another story….

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