Tuesday, 14 August 2012

But Chef's Upstairs

A little later, and several jars to the better, I felt brave enough to request some long awaited food. I tried asking the waitress first, but sheepishly she told me that, although they were still serving food, I'd better check with the manage first. So I did.

He blew out his cheeks with exasperated breath, "But...but chef's upstairs!."

Oh my God, I thought, the man is a total fruitcake! With extra blueberries!

After a passable steak meal inside me, I returned to my room. I,enjoyed an ultra hot bath and set my alarm clock for an early morning start.

It would have been a restful night, as the bed was comfortable, had it not been spoilt by the nightmares I suffered in the early hours ; dreams of missing my train to Horton and not being able to find any other means of getting there .   I woke in cold sweat and 5.30am.  I lay there for a few moments wondering whether I should stay in bed and catch as much rest as I could. I even toyed with the unforgivable scheme to have a really lazy day enjoying the delights (and drinking establishments) of Settle town and go back home pretending that I had completed the challenge. It was tempting for sure.

Still in the drowsy fog of my nightmare, with a surge of adrenaline I summoned from who-knows-where, I was up and preparing to leave.

True to his word, the slightly deranged hotel manager had left the elements that constituted my breakfast on a small table in the saloon bar. Two small tables were set up like this and, on discovering that one of the tables had no less than three blueberry muffins included, I presumed this was set for my, yet to meet, fellow charity walker. What favouritism.

I was halfway through my Muesli and milk, that had been left 'on ice'. When the door creaked open. It was now that I was joined by Jeff. He seemed surprised to see that his breakfast time would be shared by a bloke who looked, at this early hour, more zombie than man. He managed a courteous nod and smile of recognition, and took no time in tucking into his breakfast. I can be as anti social as the next man, especially at this unholy hour, but I was not prepared to sit this one out in silence. Especially, if it meant that I could cadge a lift off this bloke to Horton. I launched into some friendly charity-walker chat and It wasn't too long before I discovered that  Jeff actually loved to talk. Yes, especially about his favourite subject , namely, himself. Jeff was looking forward to the walk as he'd been preparing for it for months, with work colleagues from Siemens. He was tall and well built chap with implausibly white teeth and a closely shaved head and was probably late 40's. He lived and worked in Faulkland, in Scotland. A group of 30 colleagues had trained hard for this event. "Only last week, " he boasted,  " I completed a 4 mile run, 7 mile cycle and 10k cycle. My mates said I could n't beat their times, but I showed them. "

"I plan on a walking 4, maybe 5 miles and hour. That should get me round in good time. I am determined to enjoy it today, I don't want to suffer."

I was, immediately, reminded of the possibility. No, the absolute certainty, that I would be suffering today and there was a good chance, too,  that I would not enjoy it one bit.
And as much as I needed a car-share this morning, I was not about to ask to join Super-Jeff, with his All-Star, super hero friends in their A-Team van. A van, that is, unless they weren't planning to be helicoptered into Horton, or maybe parachuting in?

I wrapped my banana and a croissant in the cling film and exchanged, with Jeff, some brief wishes of good fortune for the walk. As I left the room I heard him exclaim.

'Jesus, what am I supposed to do with three muffins?'

Swinging on Caligula's Nipples

A handwritten sign at the bar door promised a 'selection of traditional cask ales'. Perfect. Surely a belly full of real beer tonight would not spoil my strict training regime? Mainly, because I didn't have a training regime, strict or otherwise. No tonight it was a case of no bars held on the drinking front. Especially if there we're local cask ales available to sample.

I love to try new, rare and interesting sounding ales and no name could be too ridiculous to stop me giving them a try. Brewers droop, Old Leg Over, Dragon's Crag, Hobgoblin or Holy Grail ale, I would be happy to try a sample of any. My only prerequisite was that it must pass the three fundamental Golden Standards. Firstly, that, on first tasting, my vision should not be immediately impaired and there should be no sudden attacks of paralysis or instant retching, and if all was well on these three points, I'd be certain to give it a go.

The Falcon bar was small, but wonderfully olde England. Lots more of that of dark wood panelling, decorated with old photos of the house and town of Settle, with images of it's long-since departed inhabitants. A selection of once-beloved drinking tankards hung from the ceiling and a beautiful, long, brass yard measure held pride of place over the large hearth, which, on this warm evening, remained unlit.

In addition to the three Toby mugs seated on stools at the bar, there were only a handful of couples eating quietly at tables in the room leading from the bar. A young waitress was attending to one of the couples. Looking good on the food front, I thought.

There was a spare high stool at the end of the bar, so, not wanting to be antisocial, I joined the three regulars who were already perched there.  The men, all in their late  60s or early 70s ,I guessed, were painfully thin and I could tell they were regulars as they weren't saying much to each other and all had made little more effort with their clothing, which hung off their shoulders like damp tea towels on wire coat hangers. If the three of them were manacled to the walls of an ancient Roman dungeon, they wouldn't have looked at all out of place. The most painfully gaunt of the line was talking in hushed, gravelled tones, through a severely tobacco-stained, yellow-grey beard. He seemed to be complaining about something and , from the words I could make out, his language was nothing short of obscene. In front of him a phone, the size of a house brick, suddenly bleeped into life. " Ah f****." he burped. "Hold up a second", he now let out a vile, phlegm-cough, which instantly turned my stomach.

He picked up the phone with an orange-coloured, skeletal hand. "Front desk, can I help you ?.. Yes madam....Yes, I believe the concert starts tomorrow evening at quarter passed seven, at Gigglewick Academy."

My God, with one magical, bronchial hack, he's turned from a foul mouthed old sea dog into Sir John Guildgood.

"Will that be all madam?...Of course, madam.. Have a lovely evening."

He put the phone down and noticed I had been listening with interest.

"Look's like you needs a beer mate," he glanced over my shoulder and returned news that the barman was on his way.

"That would be me", it was the Hotel manager again.  "What can I get you, Sir?" So as to not waste any time he was already wiping a pint glass, with the sort of cloth that I imagined  would be used for miscellaneous purposes behind the bar.

"Well I am interested in your cask ales?"

 "Right." he said, " Pint of Tetley coming up."

 "Oh do you have any others? " I enquired politely.

"It's Tetley Sir?" he gave me that astonished look again and, for a split second, I could have sworn that his big shiny head turned, just for a brief moment, into a huge blueBerry muffin, I shook my head to remove the image. Head back to normal, he was still staring at me, glass in one hand, other hand poised over the Tetley tap.

"But your sign the door mentioned a variety of cask ales?  Plural." The four old dungeon folk looked imploringly at me. They obviously knew this unhinged hotelier far better than I. It was clear that they considered what I was doing equated to dancing into the lion's den, at the Roman colosseum. Possibly even dressed as Ronald MacDonald and carrying an armful of cheese burgers.

"PLURAL?" his eye twitched briefly.

" Yeah, more than one? " I smiled broadly at him and down the bar hoping to induce some levity into an unnecessarily awkward and uncomfortable interaction. He blinked hard at me and shot a look along the faces at the bar. Three pairs of eyes immediately looked down into their Tetley dregs.

His glare returned to me. "We DO have more than one, Sir...", he spat the words at me. Now I felt I was back in colosseum territory with this mad man and, by the looks of things, this time I was swinging on Caligula 's nipples singing 'ding dong the king is dead' .

"....WE HAVE TETLEY SMOOTH", I thought he might finish this revelation with announcing 'check mate!' but he resisted.

There was a long and heavy pause.

 "Oh lovely" I said, summoning every ounce of sincerity I could muster, "I'll have that then, please."

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Blueberry Muffins for Breakfast?

The Falcon Hotel was a solidly built, Grade II listed building. Constructed in 1841, it was, on first impressions, both imposing and impressive and the same time. The reception area was tastefully furnished with dark wooden panelling and impressive paintings depicting timeless scenes of rural farming on the dales and perhaps less tastefully were the stag and ram heads which headed the doorways leading out of the room. With staring out with cold, glass eyes they maintained little of the robust-horned magnificence they enjoyed in life. Despite this the country house seemed warm and friendly. Then I rang the little, golden bell on the desk.

 A bulbous, shiny head appeared from underneath the desk. It was a man in his late forties with a light blue cotton shirt that was open at the neck. On his chest was a badge of some description, but as it hung at right angles to it's intended position, I could not make out what it said.

"Good afternoon sir, room is it?" the hotel manager introduced himself. He was a bustling and edgy chap, who gave me the impression that he was tormented by an endless list of vital things that must be done, immediately, if not sooner. The responsibility of management clearly hung heavily around this man's neck. This was exemplified by his reluctance to help me with my transport issues in the morning. Once I had explained my desire to be in Horton by 7:30am, he puffed his cheeks and tossed me train timetable. 'You'll have to get the 7:12am train, but you'll be up too early for breakfast. No one will be up'.

He clearly wanted to get on with the job of taking my details and sticking to procedure so I didn't pursue it further. He clicked furiously at some unseen mouse and monitor under the desk.
"Would you like a paper in the morning, Sir?"
"Will I get it before I leave?" I hazarded.
"No sir, no one will be up at that hour." he looked at me witheringly. I was certain that I heard the stag head above the door snigger.

"In that case, no thank you."
Click, click, click on the mouse.

"Would you like an like early morning call? Remember, no one will be up. " Now I was confused. There was a short, but uncomfortable pause.

"No, thank you." I conceded.

Clearly the right response.
Click, click, click.

"Now sir, your room is outside the main building, so I will give you a key to let yourself in, quietly, in the morning. Your breakfast will be on ice. " He'd glanced up to make eye contact on the word 'quietly'. I wasn't sure what a 'breakfast on ice' was, but he was about to make this clear.

"Now would you like Muesli or cereals?"

"Muesli, please", he smiled thinly, more frantic clicking.


"Oh, yes please,"
Click, click, click.

"Orange juice, grapefruit or apple?"

"Orange please." More smiling and more clicking. He was enjoying himself and I was playing my part it seemed.

"Piece of fruit? Apple, banana or pear?"

"Banana.  " He seemed approving of my choices, so far, but that was about to change.

"Blueberry muffin?"

Now,I don't know why but, for me,  it was an unexpected breakfast option.

"A muffin?" It was out before I could stop it, "for Breakfast?"

"Yes, yes, blueberry!"

I think he had already started clicking and now had to declick.

" No, thank you!"

His shiny head shot up and he was now looking at me straight in the eye. "Buebaerry". As if I hadn't heard him already.

"No, thank you!" I repeated, taken aback slightly at his over reaction.

"But... "he shook his head clicking several times more before reaching behind him for a key. He made a noise of exasperated, disbelief and slapped the key on the desk infont of me. He turned to leave, but I stopped him with a final question. It was clear that I had pissed on his chips, on the blubbery muffin front and nothing short of getting a blueberry muffin tattooed on my arse was going to win back his affections.
" Will I be able to get something to eat this evening?"

He looked seriously, put out again. Guests? Wanting food? How very dare they!  "Well chef's upstairs and the moment, but if you come to the bar area in an hour, we will be serving food for a short while." Then he was off like a shot, to see to the next pressing emergency on his list, no doubt.

"I find the way to my room myself then," I feebly called after him.

The ram's head chortled as I passed under him. I looked up and gave him a reproachful glare and turned to give the stag 'a stern look' for good measure.

Settled in

One of my favourite travel writers Bill Bryson, in his book, Notes from a Small Island, wrote about pulling into Settle station at the end of his tour of Britain.   To step in his footsteps now was, indeed, a big deal for me. When I disembarked on the quiet Yorkshire platform, with a handful of other travellers, and made my way up the foot bridge over the track, I paused to take things in.

The view from the footbridge was magnificent. Numerous grey stone buildings dotted about in all directions over the lush, green landscape. Some of the buildings seemed to stand out, most notable of the features were the Giggleswick Chapel, the original Midland Railway workers houses and the Town Hall which now houses the Tourist Information Centre. Far in the the distance, I could clearly make out the monumental silhouette of Pen-y-ghent, the first of the Peaks I was to attempt climbing in the morning. With it's summit obscured by cloud, it gave a foreboding air and I was only too pleased to leave my rendezvous with the colossus to the morning. Right now, I was feeling weary and was looking forward to finding my lodgings for the night, so I made my way down, off the bridge and into the town.

I was truly in Last of the Summer Wine country and it was beautiful.

The modest main road  had none of the big high street names that so spoil the ambience of other towns (despite being annoyingly convenient). The other surprising thing was the apparent lack of inhabitants. It was early evening and streets of this market town were largely deserted and only a handful of cars passed by. 

Using my trusty GPS app, on my phone, for the last time, I identified the general direction I should take as my signal was immediately lost. " It's because of her",  a passerby; a blonde lady in a smart navy suit, indicated towards the huge, swell of grass and rock that, up to know I had missed. White dots of sheep adjourned its sides and 'she' was criss-crossed by grey, stone walls.

Clearly giving all the signs of a slack-jawed tourist, she felt obliged to elaborate, ' She's called Castleberg. It's the largest outcrop of limestone in Britain. No signal for anyone this side of the railway line. So what is it walking, cliffs, potholes or caves?'

"Sorry? What?" I responded, reinforcing the lost-without-a-licence image. I was having no problem with the broad accent and her genuine warmth was apparent. It occurred to me that you wouldn't see this sort of interaction between two absolute strangers in a Southern town or city? ' I'm dong a charity walk, tomorrow for Macmillan?'

"Oh, three Peaks is it?" I nodded. "Not easy that, so I hear. I've always wanted to do it, but you know how it is when you live somewhere? Where you stopping then?"

"Er, the Falcon?" I recalled.

" Oh?" her eye brows raised slightly. "Good luck with that," she smiled, knowingly. "It's straight down that road, till you get to the edge of town. It's on the left, " She then slapped me on the shoulder, which was heart-felt and genuine. However, I didn't realise at the time that she was referring to my choice of lodgings when wishing me luck and not my 26 mile challenge.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Starting my Three Peaks Challenge

Volatile and oppressive cloud surrounded the dozen souls huddled against the face of the rough, stone wall. Freezing wind beat against us, carrying with it ice cold hail stones, which flicked at our face and legs like one hundred blunt razor blades. I crouched too and looked across at the girl next to me, who cuddled her legs and had her collar pulled up over her red cheeks. She was clearly sobbing. Only half way through the Three Peaks Challenge and with a body temperature that was falling faster than pebbles of ice around me, there was only one thing on my mind; why the hell am I putting myself through this? And,  if I was to be brutally honest with myself, I didn't really have an answer.

Things were a lot more comfortable 20 hours earlier, when I managed to secure an early seat on the 17:52 from Leeds to Settle. It was to prove a stroke of luck, as the train was soon packed to the gills with dozens of city workers, eager to start their weekend break.

As the swelling carriage became standing room only, a British Rail attendant came through and paused at a table where two very well dressed, middle aged ladies, were deep in conversation. They sat either side of the table, window side; a large burly lady and her petite friend.

"Excuse me ladies," said the attendant in gruff Yorkshire tones.
The ladies looked up, seeming slightly bewildered.
"Please can you put your bags on the rack?" the man indicated two large bags that sat on the two only available aisle seats . Standing passengers listened with interest, although they pretended not to,  as the prospect of a more comfortable journey home presented itself to a lucky few.
"No, I can't! " exclaimed the smaller woman. "I can't reach, I'm too weak."
"I can put it up for you",suggested the man and reached for the nearest bag, but he was stopped immediately.
"No! You see? But I won't be able to get it down again. I'm too tired and my arms are too short."
The attendant adjusted his hat and frowned disapprovingly, but before he could counter with any more of his annoying common sense, she continued, "Don't worry  dear. I won't stop people sitting here if that's what that want to do. I've been travelling on this train for 50 years. I've had a really busy week and it's Friday evening." It was delivered imploringly, but dripping with aggression.

Clearly taken aback by this, the official could only return, "Well, I'd hate to meet you on a Monday morning!" This he left as his parting remark, much to the general disappointment of those around him.
The lady turned to her friend opposite her and was clearly in need of some reassurances. "Was that alright? Was I being fair?" she bleated.
"Perfectly so, dear" said Lady Burly, "We have every right to have have bags there."
They proceeded to make each other a series of comforting noises, back and forth.
Like a game of 'Hmm' tennis, both seemingly ignorant to the glares from the poor people left standing in the aisles, propped up against seats, who were too English, or too tired, to do anything about it. For the duration of the journey the work weary travellers, at the end of a long week, looked on enviously at the bloated, leathery bags on the seats that were left to travel in comfort, and the luggage they both refused to move.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Sit Down Protest

The ice, cold, nectar that was the pint of cider, I enjoyed like none other before. Sitting alone in the shade of a tree in the beer garden of The Raven, I placed the pint down infont of me. I leaned forward, so my face was but touching distance from it and savoured the  moment.

With my loving finger I tracked a line down through the droplets of condensation to the bottom of the glass. Then clasping it slowly in my clammy right hand, I lifted in ceremonially to my cracked and dry lips and sensually sipped.  

THIS ADVERTISEMENT HAS BEEN BROUGHT TO YOU BY OUR SPONSORS, SHEPHERD'S DRY SACK CIDER. THE DRINK OF CHOICE FOR ALL DISILLUSIONED, MIDDLE-AGED MEN, OVER EXERTING THEMSELVES IN THE SEARCH FOR SOME FORGOTTEN... Something or other. I forget. But, suffice to say the pint and rest were lovely. So much so in fact, that my feet protested when it was time to stand. For once my legs were unsupportive of me.

It was time for plan B. From my shoulder bag I took out my map and plotted two further pubs that were conveniently on the trail between here and home. After some negotiation with the lower half half of my body,  with my torso, which had so enjoyed the cider, acting as mediator, the feet and legs finally agreed to all conditions and once again we were back on the road.