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Archive for May, 2019

Cycling along the canal

From the busy lane I scramble down into the sunlit calm of the canal. Brownian motion of insects in the dazzle. Three glowing galleon swans, imperturbable. A pair of geese graze near a heron that stands still as a carved stick of painted wood. Reeds combed vertical. Far fells lie supine. A duck lands in the water, heavily, as if thrown. A fish touches the surface and successions of rings expand across the curved underside of the stone bridge, fade, are gone. A duck shepherds eight ducklings across the water, away from me, tiny, balls of fluff, so light they seem in their sudden spurts and dashes to run across the surface – so light they don’t break the surface tension? Seven are brown, and disappear in the water-edge foliage; one is bright yellow, and glows. How long will it survive? The swans heave themselves onto the bank, all curves, ellipses, parabolas, hyperbolas, they quarrel briefly with beaks and flurried wings, then settle each into its space. Everywhere there is hawthorn blossom, in Hockneyesque profusion. Drawn by the alluring perfume I stop, look close into the flowers, see excited chattering fairy faces looking up, pull back, cycle on.

The canal turns this way and that, roundabout in its northern direction as it follows, lies upon, the 72 feet contour. It is water serpent, datum line, spirit level. Didn’t the Egyptians flood the land to establish the level for their pyramids? It lies across the landscape, a languid sinuous presence.

A smart motorboat chugs past. The couple, he bulky and white-haired, she bulky and blond, turn extravagantly away, as if on urgent business, to avoid eye contact. As I pass a man fishing by his boat he pulls in a wriggling fish. ‘Roach’, he says when I ask. ‘Is that your dinner?’ ‘I’d need a few of these,’ as he unhooks it, returns it to the water, adds, ‘hope he’ll tell his dad to come.’

Fields cut for silage, some bare, some with ridges of dark green as the machines buzz back and forth. The lanes are busy with tractors and trailers, there is grass in the air.

On Buena Vista a blond young man, lying back, feet over the side, plays Spanish music, light and melodious. On Moonwitch a dark girl, red hair, intense, plucks herbs from her onboard garden. I’m making up stories in my head. It’s time to climb up from the canal, up to the fine balustered bridge where the canal cuts through manicured parkland like a Picturesque set-piece, and return to the lanes and the traffic.

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Tenderfoot and Temperance

Tenderfoot was a tv Western series I watched avidly in the late 1950s. Tom Brewster was an innocent abroad in the Wild West of the 1870s, Hollywood’s version of it, the foundation myth established by John Ford. A self-taught law student, he combined ingenuousness and resourcefulness with guileless charm and a principled sense of right and wrong. In thirty minutes he confronted an injustice, righted it, and moved on. I liked Tom Brewster. And I had, I realise now, a schoolboy crush on Will Hutchins, who played him.
He would walk into the town bar, stand between tough drinkers, foot on the rail, hands on the bar, and order, ‘Sarsaparilla – with a dash of cherry.’ The bar would fall silent. I loved that moment. I have always wanted to walk into a bar and order, ‘Sarsaparilla – with a dash of cherry.’ And in Rawtenstall, I do.

Rawtenstall has the last of the many temperance bars that thrived in Lancashire around Tom Brewster’s time. The Temperance movement was launched in Preston in 1833. Members ‘signed the pledge’, were marked as ‘T (for temperance) Total’. Hence ‘Teetotal’. It was a response to the problems of drink, and the success of Methodism in Lancashire.
The Fitzpatricks were herbalists in Ireland who brought over their recipes for cordials, and soon had 24 temperance hotels and bars in Lancashire. They still make cordials, but Rawtenstall has the last bar.

No, says the friendly if bemused girl behind the bar, no one has ever asked for sarsaparilla and cherry. But she’s soon experimenting with mixes from the optics behind the bar, and comes up with a three to one combination.

It’s a lovely place. With its dark wood, row of colourful optics, bottles of cordials, shelves of spices, copper water boiler rescued from the Astoria ballroom, it’s a cross between a bar and an apothecary. It has excellent food – including a ‘high tea’ that would feed an army! – elaborate desserts, and friendly staff. A gem to be treasured.
As I’m eating my delicious hotpot, sipping my drink, I’m coming up with advertising campaigns – “Sarsaparilla, with a dash of cherry – the drink of cowboys!” Tasting evenings of endless mixes of cordials – cordial cocktails! – colour combinations, vast quantities drunk, and everyone drives home safely.
On reflection, delicious as it is, the drink needs less cherry – Tom was right with his ‘a dash’. I’ll be back soon, to try another mix. It may take a few visits, to get it right. Meanwhile, if you’re in East Lancashire, on the edge of the Moors, head for Rawtenstall, and Fitzpatricks. Tell them Tom Brewster sent you.

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Letters from Lancaster 3

Vignettes.

1 A flock of seagulls on the fast-flowing river. A hundred yards of gulls bobbing fast downstream in the sun glitter. Except the flock does not move; for when the lead gulls reach a certain point, they lift off on sharp wings, breasts flashing white, arc over the flock and land at the back, floating demure as bath ducks. This keeps happening. So that although each gull is being swept along at three miles an hour, the flock does not move. What is going on? There seems to be no purpose to it. It is hard not to see, in the arcing up and landing, in the churn, in the flurries within the flock, the exuberance and excited repetition of a game, a round, like giddy children on a slide.

2  A bright spring day, my first day following the river from its source. The last of the cherry blossom – in a breath of wind it falls like confetti at a wedding – the first of the hawthorn. There are bluebells and cowslips, primrose and orchids. A heron heaves up from the stream, then a pair of whirring synchronised mallard. A hare! Tall, alert, and then gone. There are sheep and lambs everywhere, heads up, stock still as I pass, lambs’ propeller ears twitching. I am quickly in Pre-Raphaelite allegories. This lamb, in the midst of sheep, commanding beyond its age, is Christ among the Doctors. That one, alone and blindingly white, is an image of the Transfiguration. There are lambs with tiny horns, like the satyrs in Botticelli’s ‘Venus and Mars’. A large brown horse with large shaggy hooves, as if it is wearing lamp shades. Two lapwing fly across, black, white. The path leads into a farmyard. The young farmer is holding the skinned body of a lamb, thin as a rabbit, guts hanging out, as he tussles to wrap the skin around a larger lamb, tying it on. He smears the thin body, blood and guts, onto the tied-on skin. The lamb bounds away. ‘Lost it this morning. Messy job, but it’s got to be done.’ I’ve read about it many times, never seen it. Fell farming. I walk on.

3  A black and white photograph, brown with age, ‘Mum and Dad in our street after Vets meeting 30.3.58’. They are on the tandem. ‘Vets’ is Veterans’ Cycling Club, for over-forties. They have just pulled up outside our shop. They are smiling. The street is empty. It is Sunday. Behind them are the Golden Ball and the Boar’s Head, the step up to the Unitarian Chapel, beyond that a street of shops, indistinct. ‘Our street’ is St Nicholas Street, one of the oldest in Lancaster. Gone now. If I had taken the photo from across the road, in front of Gorrills the drapers, our shop would have been in the picture. There are no photographs of our shop, our house. The only archive photograph is of the hoardings in front of the demolished buildings. The street disappeared under ‘St Nicholas Arcade’. Now, ‘St Nic’s’. I have lived in dozens of houses, with no interest in revisiting or reentering. But this building, 25 St Nicholas Street, I obsessively visualise, see myself walking into the shop, through to our living room, down into the cellar, up to the sitting room, up again to my bedroom, out into the yard, up the back. And having returned here after 56 years, I see myself going into Poundland, saying, ‘don’t mind me’, walking down steps, not into the underground car park but into our house, and finding the street there, all the buildings, and going into the shops and up to the flats and along alleys and into yards, and walking and walking, until …

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