I worked for several local authorities ‘down south’, at most of which I dealt with property issues in relation to their leisure centres; which also inspired me fairly early on to get into exercise more, at which point I also trained and qualified as an aerobics teacher. When I moved to Carlisle I joined the Board of the local leisure management company. Something I wondered about straight away was why the city had no leisure centre which combined both ‘dry’ side and ‘wet’ side.
The Pools was on its last legs; there’s a beautiful old Turkish baths in the older part of the building (which a local group is trying to save), but the more modern part contained three swimming pools in buildings which – despite dating from the 1960s or 70s (at a guess) – were on their last legs, as was the pool plant. It seemed to make complete logical sense to provide a ‘wet side’ facility at the Sands centre, the main leisure centre in Carlisle which had a large gym, a sports hall, and a large hall which doubled up as an auditorium.
This has now finally happened. The newly-refurbished, extended Sands, opened in mid-November last year and today I finally got around to going for a swim there and having a look round.
It was great. There is a lovely new 8-lane pool, which at 8.30 on a Sunday morning was empty enough that I had a lane to myself. I liked the changing village; they seem to have learnt from the mistakes and problems of other changing villages, and so the cubicles are spacious and well spread out and there are also cubicles immediatly opposite the showers, which are also each in cubicles (so if you like to strip off and wash properly, you still can).
The gym looked fab. and there are two studios; one of my other new year resolutions is to try to start going more regularly, and in fact as I have to fetch Bella from Carlisle most Wednesday evenings I think I will try to go to the gym and for a swim before I fetch her.
What was also nice was that a couple of staff recognised me. One I hadn’t seen for years, since I used to take Edward regularly when he was a toddler and there was a creche he could go in. Once he was at nursery and I was back at work, I never seemed to get to the leisure centre; and then other things got in the way like school runs and, more recently, Covid. I went swimming a couple of times at the Pools during Covid, but that was all.
It feels as if everything was on hold for 2 or 3 years; something which struck me last night as well. Rosie, Penny and I went up to Kielder Forest to do the Dark Skies 10km run. I have done this run twice in the past, but as one of the organisers commented, it hasn’t run for 3 years. Last year (Jan. 2022) it was due to be held but I think the weather was too bad, and our entries got postponed to this year. The route was different from before, perhaps because of Storm Arwen which caused such havoc last January/February. I didn’t enjoy the revised route so much as there was more tarmac and less winding through trees, but it’s still a magical run: especially when a full golden moon comes out from behind the clouds and lights the sky up.
Penny was staying at my house as Tim was away doing motorbike stuff for the weekend. When we got back to Brampton the Urban Wood Fire pizza guy was in the square. I had a haggis pizza, which was ace! It made us think we’d do a Burns Night run in a couple of weeks, followed by a haggis, neeps and tatties meal.
I’m now thinking of doing the Dark Skies 10 mile run in March; which takes place the night before the Vocal Classes for the Music Festival (I have only entered 3 classes this year). And having spent most of today in Carlisle – including going to two services at the Cathedral, as Bella was singing in the choir – I’m looking forward to spending more time locally this year. I hope.
It feels good getting out and about and getting some exercise at the beginning of the new year: start how you mean to go on. I ran on New Year’s Eve, conscious that with various things going on in December (lots of travel, for work and because of my Dad dying, and then because of concerts and carol services and colds) I was not feeling particularly fit. It was really nice to bump into Lesley from choir and her husband Alan when I was nearly home and to have a chat with them, though sadly their christmas had been a fairly quiet one due to children and grandchildren having colds and various other illnesses; but I do love being out for a run and being able to stop to have a chat with friendly people (what I don’t understand is the people you say a cheery ‘hiya’ too and they just scowl at you).
Rosie, a friend from choir, had said on the running WhatsApp group that she’d be free for a run on New Year’s Day. The rain it rained, the roads were flooded, and as I waited for her at Kershope (because I was early), I rather hoped she’d forget or be unable to make it… she did make it, and we did the nearly-8km loop and both ran far better than we expected. It was a great way to start the New Year, the rain seemed to hold off while we were actually running, and I was really glad to have made the effort.
Today dawned bright, sunny and frosty. I had suggested cycling to a friend but it was so cold I wasn’t sure I’d find it that comfortable, and also the roads might be icy. I was also extremely late getting up and out of bed and dressed, partly as I’m reading a good book (This is Happiness by Niall Williams; a poetically-written recounting of a time when electricity was only just arriving in Ireland) and partly as I was a bit headachey having drunk too many gin and tonics last night. Penny sent a message asking what I was up to and I suggested a walk – after a bit of thinking at both ends we decided to meet in Armathwaite. I’ve cycled round that area but never walked or run round there.
There’s a footpath along the river – running fast and full today – which you can follow in either direction. We headed in a north easterly direction before crossing the road and following the footpath through fields towards Ainstable. There are stunning views across to the Lake District fells: the photo is similar to many I have taken on my bike from this area, but the view remains one that fills my heart with joy every time.
The public footpath then cuts around Ainstable past a rather nice looking house (the path has been diverted to avoid going through their garden, and they have planted a yew hedge to stop the hoi-polloi like me looking in or traipsing across their garden) and then through the edge of a farmyard on a lane which is clearly little used (grass down the middle).
We got to another farm, where it wasn’t at all clear what way to go: fortunately a man turned up in a car and it turned out that the ‘gates’ were up because the farmer was moving some sheep. We followed an old track which led into another field with more stunning views – the photos this time are looking eastwards towards the Pennines – and where the sheep ran away from us (the photo before these two had the last few rushing through that open gate). We then joined up with an old county road which led a tree-lined route down to Longdales (I think it’s called). There are some really lovely properties in this neck of the woods and I keep wondering whether I really want to move to ‘urban’ Penrith!
From there it was a short walk to get to Coombs Wood: a Forestry Commission wood on the slope of a hill which leans steeply down towards the river Eden. The light was gorgeous, with everything russet and golden, and mist rising from the fields in the valley which had hardly defrosted from the overnight and morning ice. As we came out of the woods on the path back to the Pheasant Inn, Penny bumped into someone she knew: I think the Forestry Commission overlaps with so many other bodies (Natural England, RPA, etc.) that it’s almost inevitable that she and Tim between them know most of the ‘outdoors’ types in Cumbria.
This was definitely a walk to do as a run, perhaps including some extra loops in Coombs Wood.
Looking back at the past two years, in 2021 I made all sorts of resolutions (my sort-of-6 at 60), which I mostly fulfilled; last year I had had a busy but lovely time over Christmas and the New Year, including going to Bristol to see my parents and to buy Isabella a violin. This year December was sadder, but I feel as if 2023 will be the year for plenty more outdoor adventures: I have a cycling book I want to do more routes from, and gave Penny one for Christmas; there is a Wainwright-bagging running book to emulate; and Penny gave me a book about walks and swims in the Lake District. I feel as if I want to do more writing, mostly about the outdoors; I’m also trying to keep up duolingo every day; and I’m aiming to do my ATCL (singing diploma) this year. And, of course, in what will doubtless feel like a few short weeks (mid-March), I start a new job.
I hope before then to have some enjoyable winter weather however: ideally some snow!
It feels as if 2022 has been a year of endings, certainly this latter half.
Alex left school and went to University; Bella left one school and went to Sixth form at another; Edward left Primary school and went to Secondary school.
Queen Elizabeth II died and her son became King Charles III.
Penny and I finished cycling around the outside of Cumbria; and then, on what will probably turn out to be one of the coldest days of the year, we ran the final missing section of the ‘Cumbria Way in pieces’.
We started at Mosedale, ran along the road which runs parallel to the Caldew as it begins its journey down over rocks, then got on to the Cumbria Way and headed up towards Lingy Fell. There’s a bothy here, which wasn’t marked on our maps; we’d actually had to cut across the fellside to get to it as we had managed to lose the official path, but fortunately there were some walkers there who confirmed that we were in the right place.
The route then took us over High Pike, which is apparently the highest point on the Cumbria Way. We met some more walkers there, who again confirmed that we were in the right place: the waymarks were non-existent and I was glad I’d taken my compass (Penny also had hers, but it wasn’t as accessible as mine. We’ve hardly ever needed to use a compass before). Despite the cold weather we were warm from the effort of clambering up the fellside and then running along the track.
It was fairly ‘easy’ going from there until a mile or two south of Caldbeck, where again we questioned a walker who sent us on an easier route slightly further east rather than our clambering through more heather and gorse. There are loads of old mine and quarry workings up on Caldbeck Fell, and as we turned round past the last one the sun eventually tried to come out. By then my phone had died of cold, so the last photos are Penny’s.
We jogged down into the Caldbeck and warmed up with soup of the day at the Oddfellows Arms.
All those endings also represent new beginnings. What has less of a new beginning to it – though there is a sort of beginning – was that on Sunday December 18th I had just sung with some people at a church carol service when I had a phone call with my Mum. My Dad had collapsed and partly she wanted my reassurance that moving him to hospital was a bad idea – especially as she’d been told he might not survive the ambulance journey – but also it was to tell me that he was dying. With the help of Anne, who came back to my house with me and made me sandwiches and a cup of coffee, and made sure I’d got everything (actually I forgot a running jacket, but then I ended up not going running), I packed and then left for Somerset. I was at times tearful and at times hoping that it really was the end: the last time I’d seen him he had seemed so fragile and vulnerable, and I didn’t want him to get to the stage with his alzheimer’s where he’d be little more than a body surviving; a husk of a person with no personality left inside.
I had no idea whether he’d still be alive when I reached Somerset – it’s about a 6 hour journey – but my gut feeling told me he wouldn’t be. When I stopped at Strensham services, near Worcester, I phoned my sister and she told me Dad had died peacefully slightly earlier. He had collapsed just after breakfast and my Mum and my sister had been there as he passed away. For my mother it means an end to caring for him and worrying about him, and I hope that she can now spend some time enjoying her twilight years. I know that she will miss him more than words can express.
Last year in a rush of enthusiasm I entered this sportive; and then as nobody else I knew was doing it, I hadn’t trained for a 60-mile bike ride, and I had no idea what the weather would be like, I didn’t go. I’ve also always been rather hesitant about cycling in the Lake District, knowing how windy and narrow some of the roads are, and how much traffic they have on them: including drivers who don’t have a clue about how to drive on such roads and don’t appreciate that they are used by horses and people as well as by cars (and buses, lorries, delivery vans…).
This year however I persuaded Penny to enter as well. As the day grew closer she was expressing her doubts about her fitness; but having done the Border Reivers ride and the 50+ mile ride from Penrith around Caldbeck Fell and back, I was sure she’d be OK. The day before the ride I sent her a message asking if she wanted to back out: the thought of getting up at the crack of dawn (actually it was dark when I left home) on a Sunday had lost its appeal and I wanted to stay in bed. Her response was that we should do it. I’m glad she didn’t let me back out.
We met in Stainton at about 7a.m. (I was a bit late) so that we could travel in one car to Grasmere. We had been hoping to start at about 8a.m. but hadn’t appreciated quite how busy it would be. Having parked and sorted out bikes, clothing etc., we went to the village hall where a long queue bent around the outside of the building before going up the stairs and into the main hall to register. A sticker on our helmets, a bright pink wristband (for food) and a sticker to put on our bikes, and we were ready to approach the start line.
A week earlier we had tried out Red Bank, the hill which leads out of Grasmere towards Elterwater, on a Friday afternoon. We started with a 15 mile loop and then when we got back to Grasmere tried Red Bank two more times. Neither of us made it up the hill – the third time I got about halfway and then fell off my bike. It’s a 25% (1 in 4) hill, so fairly steep. I’m determined I’ll get up it one day.
Knowing what Red Bank was like, we were prepared to walk it – and assumed that other people might also be walking, which they were, although the vast majority of the cyclists around us did manage to cycle it all. Having climbed the hill one way or another, there’s then a fairly wiggly descent into Elterwater where there was a camera filming us. Neither Penny nor I feature in that film, despite my giving them my best smile and wave.
From Elterwater we pedalled along some of the lesser used lanes and down to Coniston Water; as we turned down the eastern side of the lake we commented that so far we’d followed the same route as the Keswick to Barrow (an annual 45-mile walk, which some people run). We passed Brantwood, which was having some work done to it judging by the scaffolding up outside it; and then once we were at the bottom (geographically of course, not on the lake bed) of the lake went along a lane which was more or less parallel to the main road. It’s one we’d run a bit of before when we did our ’round 16 lakes’ runs for Penny’s 50th, but I’ve never had any reason to drive along it as it comes up the eastern shore of Coniston from Greenodd. My main memory of it from this ride is going through a long, deep puddle which soaked my feet and my lower legs with rather chilly water. I still haven’t quite worked out what to do to keep my toes warm with trainers and toe clips, as opposed to cleats.
Before long we had crossed over the A590 and were on a road which seemed familiar – I then realised it was the road that goes down past Holker Hall, which we had cycled along when we cycled from Barrow to Grange. That time we’d gone over the singing bridge (by the Greenodd roundabout) and along a very bumpy track which wasn’t particularly suitable for roadbikes; today there wasn’t anything quite so memorable, although the views across the Leven estuary are worth seeing. We started going through more places, but their names are a bit of a blur as by now my mind was on getting to Cartmel and the lunch stop: I’d had half a flapjack and half a cup of coffee for breakfast and whilst I wasn’t feeling obviously hungry, it wasn’t a lot for a 30-mile-plus first half of a bike ride.
Cycling through Cartmel and up to the Scout Hut near the racecourse was quite funny, as previously I’ve been there for the Cartmel trail race. Again, I was seeing a view from a slightly different angle and from a different perspective.
We navigated a muddy track to the scout hut and left our bikes propped up against a fence. The place was, not surprisingly, buzzing with cyclists: everybody seemed to have turned up at once. Despite it feeling as if it was lunchtime, it was only in fact 11 a.m. – we’d been cycling just 2 and a half hours, which was rather gratifying as one of the things I’d been a bit worried about was whether we’d get back to Grasmere before dark. But in fact without having to stop to check the map or for photos, we’d made better time than we might normally.
The only photos we took were at the feed station, despite some lovely Lake District views elsewhere on the course. It was clear by now that we were surrounded mainly by men – we said later that the entrants seemed to be about 75-80% men. I commented to Penny a couple of times about how I’d forgotten how testosterone-fuelled bike rides can be: cyclists who had overtaken us earlier in a blaze of machismo speed, we then overtook back going uphill; and there was one old guy towards the end who then tried to overtake me after I’d overtaken him and basically couldn’t get past me – I had to shout at him not to pull in too soon, and then overtook him again just a few metres later (yes, I get competitive too – and so does Penny though in a less obvious way!).
The lunch was cheese sandwiches, ham sandwiches and cake of various types – and jam sandwiches and peanut butter sandwiches for those that like them – and there was a hill soon after the feed station. I had tried to warm up my feet, which having got so wet were like lumps of ice, and now my stomach and chest felt tight, and I was conscious that I hadn’t digested my lunch and probably shouldn’t have eaten so much. This feeling did not leave me for the rest of the ride, and even driving up the motorway to get home I felt bad and a couple of times thought I was going to be sick. I only felt better after I’d had a bath; and it reminded me of the time I attempted Kielder marathon, ate too much about half way round, and then struggled for the rest of the run and ended up with pains in my chest. This time they were in my back more than my heart area, but even so it reminded me to be a bit more sensible about ‘fuelling’ when exercising (usually less of a problem when cycling than when running).
Having crossed back over to the north of the A590 we turned to pedal along the Rusland valley, which is really pretty. For Penny this was a trip down memory lane, as she used to work at Grizedale Forest. Just before Grizedale we met her husband coming in the other direction on his motorbike – they had a brief chat before we continued past the forest, and he headed home having satisfied himself that we wouldn’t need rescuing. As we started up the hill to Moor Top a guy passed us saying ‘hills, more hills’ – I replied ‘well, it is the Lake District’. Another photographer and another smile – I was, despite feeling rather uncomfortable, basically enjoying myself.
We were now on familiar ground and as Penny zipped down the hill into Hawkshead ahead of me – normally I’m the one in front going down hills but she was ahead of me into Elterwater and on this hill – the many times I’d driven through here when the children were younger and we were on holiday in the Lakes went through my mind. It wasn’t then far into Ambleside, where we repeated the route we had a week earlier alongside the River Rothay – but with rather more people around, which meant we were dodging walkers as well as other cyclists. By now we’d been through two showers of rain and as we headed into Grasmere it started to rain again, rather more heavily. We crossed the finishing line, took our bikes to the car, and then went back to the village hall for ‘hot food’ (and to have our pink wristbands cut off), glad that we were no longer out in the rain that was now falling heavily. We had a brief chat with a nice guy who looked a little like the actor who plays Mr Tumnus in ‘Narnia’: he was wearing only socks on his in the hall and had left his shoes on a windowsill outside, where they were no doubt filling up with rainwater… fortunately he said he had dry clothes in his car.
I wasn’t feeling well enough to have any more food, which was just as well as it looked like an unappetising slop (Penny confirmed that it was pretty tasteless). There were 800-odd people to cater for, but you’d think they could have done a decent soup or soups with bread rolls. But never mind: I’ve never catered for 800 people all arriving at different times, and it can’t be easy. As ever the marshalls along the route were great and really friendly: having marshalled a half marathon in the past I know how cold it is standing around waiting for people to go past, but they do a great job and it can be really cheering to see a friendly face if you’re struggling: so thank you to everyone who marshalled.
Our final conclusions though were that although we were glad we’d done the ride, we wouldn’t do it again. But I’m glad that I now know I can cycle 57 miles in a day and feel OK, and my appetite has been whetted to do more cycling. There are various European routes I want to try out, and I’m now thinking I might save up to take two weeks in the summer to do one.
Part One: Penrith and round the back of Blencathra
The two younger children went to Spain for half term with their father, which meant I had two weekends when I was able to do long bike rides. It was just as well: having entered the Cumbrian Cracker sportive last year and then chickened out of actually turning up and doing it, this year I have entered again and persuaded (at least) two friends to do it with me. It’s 60 miles, and as we all know, the Lake District is not flat.
I’ve previously enthused about a bike ride which loops around the back of Blencathra and then comes back along the mixed-use former railway line from Keswick and the gated road back to Mungrisdale (https://runningin3time.blog/2021/03/28/return-to-the-lake-district/). Looking at another selection of routes I had – this time from Penrith, many of which I have previously written up – it looked as if there was a 50-mile route which linked the ‘back of Blencathra’ loop to a shorter (and probably flatter) loop from around about Rheged or Stainton.
Penny and I met in Stainton, parked up, both feeling a bit nervous about doing 50 miles. Would we be able to? How would we feel at the end? On the other hand I was also looking forward to revisiting the previous route and potentially stopping at the Old Sawmill Tea Room at Dodds Wood or the cafe at Threlkeld. We met quite early, just to make sure that we had plenty of time to complete the ride before it got dark. Fortunately the weather was dry – it’s been very changeable the past few weeks and the weather forecast always seems, correctly or incorrectly, to predict showers.
We cycled out along some quiet lanes, my commenting on how if/when I move to Penrith these will become part of my normal cycling routes. As we pedalled through Skelton and admired some pigs I wondered why the village name rang bells – it’s because there’s a Michelin-starred pub there, the Dog and Gun; we passed close to Greystoke Forest, where we had run earlier in the year but which will be closed to walkers and runners again at the end of this month until next April; and then down the hill to cross the river at Haltcliff Bridge before joining the other route and continuing on into Hesket Newmarket (what a great name for a place!).
We had memories of hills out of Hesket Newmarket, and in fact the first one turned out not to be as bad as we’d remembered. However as we dropped down the other side we could see a longer hill ahead: and a tractor halfway up it, hedge cutting! We made it up the hill and past the tractor, breathing sighs of relief that we hadn’t got punctures whilst on the way up (and so far from home – though obviously we carry puncture kits, spare inner tubes, etc.).
Before long we were out on Caldbeck Fell with the wind against us: to be honest it was probably the hardest and most miserable part of the ride, and whilst I love the openness of the countryside and quite often choose to drive home from (e.g.) Keswick that way, today being exposed to the wind was no fun. It seemed an awful lot further to the turn-off towards Over Water than I’d remembered. With relief we turned in an easterly direction and started to drop downhill and out of the wind a bit. As we dropped down the sun was out on part of the hills around us, but by the time we’d thought perhaps we’d stop for a photo, the clouds had come hidden the sunlight again. We tend not to stop so much when cycling anyway: it’s too much of a palaver for me to get my small backpack undone, get the phone out, and get packed up again and lose the momentum of cycling, but it does mean I’ve missed some potentially decent photos. I thought, not for the first time, that I’d quite like a headcam.
We went the correct way, to the east of Over Water, today – for some reason we’d gone to the west and then ended up going down a very steep hill into Bassenthwaite, previously. This took us along a beautiful tree-lined road next to the river – you can see from my face how much I was enjoying cycling along there. It was then a case of cycling through the village, devoid of people on this chilly grey day, along some more lanes and past where the new water pipeline has been installed, then up on to the A591 to get to the Old Sawmill Tearoom – where we sat inside, near the log burner, for our soup and hot drinks, as we were feeling chilly. This is a great place for a break as there are clean toilets and good food, plus bike racks to tie your bikes to if you have a lock.
It’s not far from there to Keswick, and I won’t repeat my enthusiasm for the multi-use track and the gated road: they were just as enjoyable today as they were the last time I did them, and I’m sure I’ll be doing them again.
At Mungrisdale we took a road neither of us had ever been on before, which gradually led uphill towards Berrier. The views were stunning over towards the Lake District. There was then a descent to Greystoke: I know there’s a very popular cycle cafe here, but I’ve never been in it: today it was too close to the end of our ride (note to self to look up another route which takes in Greystoke as the halfway point). We were both flagging a bit by now but the weather remained dry – I seem to remember the sun had even begun to come out – and we passed through Newbiggin and back to Stainton without incident. I nipped to Cranstons in Penrith for cake (unfortunately Cafe Oswald had just closed) and Penny managed to get to Specsavers in time to get something fixed on her glasses, before joining me for cake in the car and a high five for making it.
Part two: Border Reivers
Feeling confident now about doing 50 miles, and with the children still away, I suggested two more rides to Penny: one shorter and hillier one around Alston and Nenthead, and the other the so-called Border Reivers cycle trail, which was a leaflet I’d picked up several years ago, and which from Brampton would result in about a 50-mile cycle. We opted for that one. Notably we only saw one sign for the route whilst we were cycling it: I think it’s got mainly forgotten.
It’s a great pity as this wild and enormously historic countryside, some of which forms part of the Debatable Lands, provides a haunting cycle ride. There are very few cars and not many houses; and fewer cafes than further into the centre of Cumbria. You’re right up near the Scottish border, north of ‘The’ Wall (Hadrian’s Wall) and you know that plenty of blood has been shed up here.
I’ve cycled many of these roads previously, and did most of the Border Reivers route myself a few years ago, in the opposite direction to the one we took today; some of it also forms part of the Cross Border Sportive routes. Lanercost, Askerton and Bewcastle are all familiar to anyone who reads this blog: the route booklet has anecdotes about the various reiving families, a phase of history which is little known outside this area and which would take too much room to recount here. Needless to say there is still a slight sense of danger in being so far removed from ‘civilisation’, and I have ambitions to cycle even further north and take in the windswept fell between Langholm and Newcastleton, and to cycle past Hermitage Castle.
Appropriately enough for the surroundings, it was raining. It rained all day, with little let-up, so even by the time we got to Bewcastle we were soaking. However it’s too tempting to take a photo not to stop by the sign which states ‘Rome 1141’, so we paused, took wet gloves off and tried to get photos without too much water on the lenses before setting off again. One day I think I might try to cycle from Bewcastle to Rome…….
I have to admit my memory of the route, although accurate in terms of which direction we needed to go in, was optimistically misinformed about how far it was between each memorable point. I guess that’s always the way though: you keep visual pictures in your mind of key features and your brain doesn’t bother with the bits of lane which look just like the previous mile or so of lane. Before long we had turned down from Penton, through KirkAndrews Moat (I wonder why it was called Moat?), which in my opinion is one of the least attractive-looking places around here, and then down past some abnormally green fields near Netherby. Having been to a talk about ‘The Importance of Soil’ on Thursday night, and with Penny’s knowledge of ecology, we were discussing how artificial the grass looked, and also how compacted the ground was, meaning that water wasn’t percolating through but just sitting on the top. It’s not the first time we’ve seen lurid green grass.
By the time we got to Longtown we were keen to stop for something to eat and drink. As the rain came down ever more hard, we slogged our way out of Longtown on the A6071 rather than taking a scenic detour through Arthuret and Sandysike, and went into the cafe in Whitesykes garden centre and dripped all over their chairs (I sat on two paper napkins to try to alleviate some of it). This is another great place to stop, with home made soup, generously filled toasties, and good coffee. It’s family-run, which just adds a bit more of a personal touch to it than being part of a big chain: I hadn’t been in for ages but the manageress still remembered me and asked after my parents.
From there we passed through Kirklinton and Smithfield before having a gentle but fairly long climb up to Hethersgill, where we went straight across until we crossed over Walton Moss before coming out in Walton itself and then cycling down to Lanercost. Again, there’s a tea room I haven’t been to in Walton, and a tea room which is good at Lanercost: but today we just wanted to get back and get dry. I remembered the last time I’d cycled up the hill at Lanercost and overtaken a cyclist who’d come from Newcastle along the Hadrian’s Wall bike trail: I hadn’t done as far as him today, but it was another long ride and I got home feeling happier again about doing 60 miles in a couple of weeks’ time.
I was drenched through, but my first thought was that I wanted to go out cycling again on Sunday. As it turned out I didn’t, but I carefully cleaned the mud and grit off my bike, including cleaning and re-oiling the chain. I hope my bike and I will have many more miles together, wherever I end up living. Meanwhile my two younger children were back from Spain and I went off down to Penrith to have dinner with them: hooray!
It’s taken several years, but Penny and I have now cycled around all of the borders of Cumbria. I’ve done variations to parts of the route, and the one bit I haven’t yet done is to cycle from Alston to Brampton – partly because quite a bit of that section goes into Northumberland.
After a rainy and chilly day attempting to swim in Burnmoor Tarn, the sun was out on the Monday and it was great to have a day off work. I still got up early – I had to drop my daughter off at school – but it meant that Penny and I met at Langwathby station at the leisurely time of just before 10 a.m., in order to catch the train up to Carlisle. Strictly speaking this meant we were finishing the route backwards, but we felt it was better to catch the train and then cycle, as if we cycled and then got the train we could easily miss a train or be waiting hours for one. I guess in some ways it would be easiest to think of the route as going from Carlisle round in a circle rather than from Brampton, as there are four different railway routes going out from Carlisle: but the border slopes quite steeply in a north easterly direction up from Carlisle, and we needed to include places like Roadhead and Bewcastle.
I’ll summarise below the main places, linked to this cycle route, of each railway line – anyone who isn’t that bothered, skip these bullet points:
west coast mainline, London Euston to Glasgow. Stops at Carlisle, Penrith and Oxenholme in terms of connecting to the various bike routes
Cumbrian coastal line, Carlisle to Barrow/Carnforth. We used it from/to Dalston, Maryport, Ravenglass, Barrow in Furness and Grange over Sands
Carlisle and Settle line: beautiful line which links Carlisle to Skipton and Leeds, via the Yorkshire Dales. We could have used it from Garsdale Head up to Langwathby; we did use it from Langwathby to Carlisle, as today
Carlisle to Newcastle line: some of the services stop at Brampton and at Wetheral, again useful for parts of our cycling tour. If you wanted to go further east it also stops at Hexham and at Haltwhistle.
As I’ve cycled a lot of the roads around Brampton in various directions, I felt that it wouldn’t really be ‘cheating’ to take Penny from Carlisle and down through Wetheral before joining the B6413 (this goes from Brampton and down through Castle Carrock and Croglin to Kirksowald). We had previously cycled from Brampton out to Castle Carrock anyway – there’s a loop which forms the Talkin Tarn triathlon route and which from Brampton provides a nice 14-mile circuit. The route from Carlisle out to Wetheral is also a lot more pleasant than going along either the airport road or the A69, with their lorries and speeding cars.
The train was almost half an hour late, but at least it was running – you never know with all the rail strikes at the moment, though they do tend to be quite well publicised. And whilst the website says that there is only room for 2 bikes on each train, and that you can’t pre-book, actually because there is plenty of room for wheelchairs then in fact if there are no wheelchairs in the carriage you can put your bikes there. I thought that 10 a.m. on a Monday morning would also be quite a quiet time – in fact the train was surprisingly full. We trundled through some lovely countryside and pulled into Carlisle at about 11 a.m.
We got on our bikes and set off down Botchergate, before turning off into a side street and into Portland Square. This is a square of lovely Victorian (I think) terraced houses, which were used as offices – many by the County Council – before the Council built itself a new building. The Halston group is now converting them into apartments, and if it wasn’t for the fact that I want to move to Penrith rather than Carlisle I could be very tempted by one: for a start they’re doing one of my favourite things, which is bringing old buildings back into beneficial use. If you want to see what they are going to look like, visit the website here.
We joined Warwick Road – another lovely road of terraced Victorian or Edwardian houses, but which unfortunately floods – and headed east out of the city until we hit a traffic jam, where we turned off to cut through Botcherby and along Durranhill Road, over the motorway (more road works) and into Scotby. For me this was retracing a route I used to use to cycle home from work occasionally, when I worked in Carlisle, but for Penny it was all new.
From Scotby we turned along parallel to the railway line and into Wetheral, to walk over the railway bridge to Great Corby. This bridge is way up high above the river Eden, and there are several ‘if you need help, speak to the Samaritans’ signs. It’s not the bridge to cross if you have vertigo, but the buildings around the station and the bridge itself are charmingly old and reminiscent of the days of the railway children and steam trains.
We cycled through Great Corby and along the side of the Corby Castle estate towards Cumwhitton – there’s a great, little-used playground here, which I used to take my children to when they were young. A stream runs through the village which feels as if it’s in the middle of nowhere, although it’s not actually too far from various other places. Shortly after this at Carlatton Mill we joined the Talkin Tarn triathlon route and were soon on the B6413, with its stunning views across to Blencathra and the Lake District. It was amazingly clear today and I just wish I had a better knowledge of the names of all the fells I could see – I can name Blencathra and Skiddaw and I’m pretty sure we could see Hevellyn as well, but I wasn’t sure which were further to the south. Could we see as far as the Old Man of Coniston or Scafell (probably not as we’d be looking from the North East ‘diagonally’ across)?
Shortly after this we turned off the ‘main’ road, which goes down to Kirksoswald and then Lazonby, to go to Renwick. This was a stretch of road I hadn’t been along before, and in fact I’ve only passed through Renwick once before when Penny and I cycled from Penrith up Hartside, before having a very cold descent back down the hill on a Sunday afternoon when all the cafes had closed (it was Mothering Sunday 2011, as written up in my previous blog… where does the time go!).
From Renwick rather than retracing our wheel turns to Unthank and Melmerby, I chose to take a different route down past Viol Moor to Little Salkeld. It was a lovely route, with several undulations over becks including one with the lovely name of Hazelrigg Beck. We could have done a short diversion to see Long Meg and her Daughters (I notice from the map that we also cycled past Little Meg); and we could have stopped at the mill cafe at Little Salkeld if it had been open. Instead, we went into Cranstons’ Cafe Oswald in Penrith, which I had visited earlier that day for breakfast. The food in there is great and as I’d had quite a large breakfast I ‘just’ had cake and a drink while Penny had a sort of all-day-vegetarian-type-breakfast, which looked delicious. I can recommend it: the food is good and the service is friendly.
We had done it! We had cycled round all of the outside of Cumbria, and I had done a few extra bits as well. It just remains for me now to write it all up properly; and meanwhile there are plenty of Cumbrian bike rides I still want to do. It’s a beautiful and varied county, and there is so much more to it than just the Lake District.
I’m not a winter open water swimmer: I swim for the experience – getting there and the scenery – not just for the swimming. When it’s raining (or worse) and bitterly cold I want to be out running, with lots of layers on, a dry change of clothes in the car, and a cafe at the end where I can warm up (or, of course, just my house). Getting changed in cold air at the side of a cold lake, possibly in wet weather as well, has no appeal to me whatsoever: I love swimming but for winter swimming training and improving my swimming stamina, I’d rather go to a leisure centre pool and have a warm shower straight afterwards.
It’s therefore always a bit dodgy arranging to do any open water swimming at the end of September, especially an extended swimming trip which entails getting in and out of wet swimsuits, wetsuits, gloves, etc. I’d had an idea of ‘swimming Snowdon’ as part of my 6 at 60 challenges, but in the end decided that actually I’d far rather just have a weekend of trying to ‘complete’finish’ swimming in the lakes and tarns of Cumbria: there were about 6 left (though of course as soon as you talk to anyone about it they say ‘oh, have you tried…’ and a new idea gets added to the list).
Penny agreed to join me on another mini-adventure, and so I booked a yurt via AirBnB in the Wasdale valley, originally thinking that we might have time to do 4 tarns in a day and 2 the following day ‘on the way home’. However it became clear when thinking about logistics that actually it was more likely to be 3 on one day and then 1, possibly 2, the following day (when I got home and counted up how many lakes and tarns I had swum in in total it came out at 28, so although there are still more to try, I feel I’ve had a pretty good go at the challenge).
I drove down to Penny & Tim’s house on the Friday evening, stopping off to say ‘hello’ to my children en route, and then Penny & Tim and I went to the Millyard Cafe at Morland for pizza. I’ve mentioned them before but they deserve to be mentioned again as it is literally some of the best pizza I have ever had. The location is lovely and the other food is good as well, and it’s a great place to stop during a bike ride or walk, or just because you want something to eat. Penny and Tim go there regularly.
On Saturday we got up and fuelled up on granola before setting off to the Lake District, having to divert through Matterdale and up to the A66 towards Keswick, as the road down past Ullswater was blocked off by police (we never found out why). The first stop was to be Moss Eccles Tarn, at Far Sawrey (not far from Beatrix Potter’s Hilltop). We’d run past this tarn several times when doing the Hawkshead trail race/trail race route, and I’d always thought the rocks at the southern end looked like an inviting place to get in and swim. We parked in a church car park (opposite the Cuckoo Brow Inn) which asked for a £2 donation (willingly given), and walked up the track towards the Tarn. The sun was out, the sky was blue, and we were quickly quite warm.
The banks of the tarn were busy. We had a chat with a couple of other women who were sitting enjoying the sun, and then a bunch of teenagers came along with a radio and sat and chatted, followed by some dog walkers and then, as we were leaving again after swimming, another group of teenagers (doing Outward Bound or Duke of Edinburgh or something, I would guess). It was a glorious day to be out, so it wasn’t surprising that there were plenty of people around.
I swam over to the little island you can see towards the background of the picture, but it was a bit squishy underfoot (I’m not good with squishy), so I turned straight round and came back again. Penny really liked the fact that alder had self-seeded at the side of the water; I liked the various flowering plants we saw.
From Sawrey we drove southwards and parallel to the western shore of Windermere, to Stott Park. There are several car parks here as the walk up to High Dam is a popular one; a Lake District National Park car park and a farmer’s car park. If you fancy going to see Stott Park bobbin mill as well, which to my mind is one of the most interesting of all English Heritage sites, especially if you get the opportunity to go on a tour and especially if the steam engine is running, then the bobbin mill also has a car park.
We were going up to High Dam, which is owned by the Lake District National Park Authority but which once upon a time was the top lake which fed the stream which powered the water wheel for the bobbin mill: this was in the days before steam or electricity. The trees all around would have provided wood for the bobbins – hence the log stacks in the photo above – and if any readers remember wooden ‘Silko’ bobbins then that’s the type of thing which was more latterly made at the bobbin mill; also wooden duffle coat toggles.
High Dam was also busy with people, with several people already in or on the water, and others walking and sitting around. It’s a lovely spot but you don’t have the magical peace and tranquillity that you get from some of the more remote tarns, and we were a little worried about leaving our bags. It was probably these two tarns that made me consider what it is I want from wild swimming, and hence my initial comments: Penny and I were discussing that if swimming was our main ‘sport’ then we’d be more likely to go to a lake or tarn closer to home and more easy to walk to, and not be bothered how many people were there; but what we were looking for were those tarns which are just that little bit extra-special. Having said that, swimming in Buttermere was one of my favourite swimming experiences and one I would like to repeat, and Buttermere is always popular.
Again we swam over to some islands – this time I found some rocks to perch on – before swimming back to rescue our bags, getting dry, and then driving on to our next tarn.
It was a longer walk to our next tarn and I was pleased with myself that I managed to navigate us correctly up there – I’m not the most reliable of navigators on walking routes (I’m fine on roads, but put me in the middle of the countryside and I forget to check contour lines and have little sense of how far distance on a map equates to on the ground). We had parked at Blawith, just south of Water Yeat (aren’t Cumbria place names great!), and started walking along a lane still rich with juicy sweet blackberries. This meandered up between some lovely cottages, before becoming a grassy lane where an old pony was tethered, with strict instructions on each gate not to feed him as the vet has put him on a very restrictive diet.
Crossing the fields to a farm, we came out at the lane which leads up from Water Yeat, before taking a path that wiggled through ferns and gorse and crossed streams, leading slightly uphill. I kept thinking we were nearly there: finally we crested a small rise, and there was Beacon Tarn, glistening in the sun under a blue sky. A woman was getting dry having had a swim; as we got ready two more people got in, without wetsuits. We swam around in our wetsuits for a bit and then got out, took them off, and got back in in just swimsuits. It was chilly but bracing and invigorating, and we agreed that it had been the best tarn of the day and was probably a new favourite. I would definitely like to swim there again, and for longer – it was about the right size that you felt you could swim the length of it and back, possibly even more than once, without worrying about it being enormously deep or being too far from the shore or there being enormous and potentially vicious fish… (I always have visions of something similar to the Loch Ness monster suddenly snapping at my feet from the depths of Ullswater or Wastwater – the problem is that you just don’t know what is down there, lurking in the depths).
After that there was only time to drive across Corney Fell, with an amazing view of the Isle of Man looking clearer than I ever remember seeing it before, and to find our yurt, which was just to the east of Gosforth. I can recommend it: The Yurt by the Stream at Rainor’s B&B. We walked into Gosforth for dinner at the Kellbank, which was also good (the vegetables were a bit overcooked, but the steak and ale pie was delicious), and which has a lamb who visits and which apparently behaves far better than many dogs or humans. Walking back the night sky was stunningly full of stars, and a line of red lights out at sea indicated the row of wind turbines marching away from Barrow.
As we fell asleep with the stars visible through the nightlight of the yurt, a tawny owl (or two?) in the trees nearby called ‘too wit too woo’.
The next morning unfortunately was grey and mizzly. After packing and breakfast we drove up along the side of Wastwater to Wasdale Head, where we parked in the National Trust car park, discussing how for future WastFests it might be good to camp overnight so nobody has to have a two hour drive back home afterwards. The track to Burnmoor Tarn looked straight forward, but unfortunately it was all too easy to miss the point at which the bridlepath that we wanted to follow diverged from the footpath up on to the hill above the screes: partly as the footpath had had some fairly recent maintenance work and looked like the main path. As we started walking more or less straight up some fairly close-together contour lines, Penny said ‘are we going to the right way?’; as we looked back and across to the east it was clear that we weren’t.
We went back down the hill and managed to pick up the bridlepath we wanted, which was badly eroded in places and which then led over some fairly boggy patches. Burnmoor Tarn is more like an overgrown puddle on a fairly flat boggy bit of ground; it didn’t help that it was grey and damp and that the hill in the background (Great Worm Crag?) was rapidly disappearing behind a layer of cloud. Still, we were here now… we got changed and got into the water, to find that it was very shallow a long way out. Perhaps we should have walked further round, although other writers and swimmers say this is shallower than most of the lakes anyway, but to be honest I wanted to get this over and done with without getting too cold and wet. The water temperature was OK but the air temperature and dampness getting changed wasn’t the best.
All thoughts of swimming in another tarn that day evaporated, and after a couple of failed attempts at finding a cafe which would serve us some warming soup and a cheese scone, we ended up at Granny Dowbekins at Pooley Bridge. The service was friendly and the ham and lentil soup and cheese scone were delicious, the soup containing proper pieces of ham hock. Last time we’d been in there had been at the end of running around Ullswater, before the new bridge had been completed; both times were satisfyingly excellent and it’s somewhere I would have no hesitation in recommending.
It was time to go home, having clocked up 4 tarns in one weekend and having found one more to add to the ‘favourite tarns of all time’ list. But it’s now perhaps time to hang up my wetsuit until next year.
I haven’t done much swimming this summer. Some summers I’ve been in the water early in the year – in the late 2020 spring/early summer of lockdown and furlough and glorious weather for two months, I swam in Angle Tarn and Hayeswater in about May or June. This year it was too cold and grey: I’m not one of those brave all-the-year-round souls (running warms me up; after a swim in cold weather I will feel cold to the bone for ages). Also people just seemed to be busy, me included – and I’m not too sure about the wisdom of going swimming on my own, though I have friends who do.
However I haven’t finished my list of lakes and tarns to swim in as part of my 6 at 60, so when there has been decent weather and an opportunity for a swim then I’ve taken it. Not long after I’d got back from Paris, Penny and I walked up to Scales Tarn: anyone who’s been reading my blog for over a year will know that we started to walk up the hill to this tarn last year after I’d run the Ambleside 14km trail run, but I had quickly realised that my legs weren’t too happy about it (we ended up in the river Caldew instead, and the heavens opened just as we got out to get changed). This year I was less ambitious.
There’s a steep ascent up to a rolling open plateau with views down into the next valley, before you take a rocky path for the last bit up to the tarn itself. Like so many tarns in the fells, it’s nestled away hidden from sight until almost the last minute.
I had read in another blog that it was really cold: it wasn’t in fact too bad (with a wetsuit) but it does get deep very suddenly – you can swim around just above where it shelves away and see the sudden drop – and the deeper areas were definitely far colder than the shallower ones. I even went back in without my wetsuit on for a bit at the end. The walk itself was lovely as well, and we watched walkers continuing up on to Blencathra along one of the edges (not somewhere you want to be on a windy day or in mist – I remember when I first moved up here I seemed to hear regular reports about walkers getting into trouble on Blencathra’s edges).
Somewhere that Hannah and I had spoken about several times was the North Sea at Tynemouth, and so again when the opportunity presented itself Anne, Laura and I drove over to the East to pick up Hannah and carry on to Tynemouth, to swim in King Edward’s Bay. We’d checked the water quality first: the beaches and water at Tynemouth and at Whitley Bay are Blue Flag standard whereas apparently at times sewage gets put into the sea at Cullercoats, further up the coast. The beaches of the North East are, as I wrote in my post about Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh castles, also lovely – clean golden sand. Again with wetsuits on the sea didn’t feel too bad and we stayed in for ages, just chatting and letting the waves lift us up and down, and swimming for short distances. The water was really clear and as I got out I realised that it was the first time since having Covid that I’d actually felt ‘myself’ again. We drove along to Whitley Bay and ate fish and chips in a shelter by the beach, watching the sea and a ship disappearing towards the Netherlands. It was a magical afternoon.
Not long after that Penny, Laura and I went swimming in the river at Penton Bridge, soon after a rainstorm. The current was quite strong so we had to be careful, but it was fun to be in the river and to swim around.
There had been a fair amount of debate about whether we should hold Wastfest this year: people felt that it was a long way to go, especially if the weather was a bit dodgy. Although the second year we had gone it had been raining and we’d felt a sense of achievement, we didn’t want to go through all that again: partly as getting dry in the rain isn’t the easiest. However we agreed that it was definitely the best place for a sunset swim followed by a picnic, and so we kept our fingers crossed about the weather.
As we left Brampton it was raining… but by the time we reached Wasdale it was sunny. The photographs say it all. Four of the others swam to the other side and back, supported by Mark with his kayak; the other Mark and Tim got the picnic ready; Penny and Laura swam to the middle and back; and I went up to some rocks and back. I’d already been out that morning to an event that gave me a large lunch; I then ate far too much at Wastfest and ended up feeling quite uncomfortable. But it was another brilliant evening, and one which will no doubt be remembered for a while. The one slightly sad thing was that we couldn’t swim around the island – the water levels were too low and it was no longer an island but joined to the mainland!
The colours and light were amazing: this photo is now my wallpaper on my phone. Definitely something to do again next year!
Other than going to Paris I did not have any more leave booked until the end of the summer. Being conscious that I hadn’t taken the boys away I decided to have some days out in this country with them, ideally at places they wanted to go to.
As I don’t work on Friday afternoons and had a meeting in York one Friday morning, it seemed a good opportunity to take them to see Clifford’s Tower. I was last there when the ‘insert’ was still under construction and rather than stairs one had to climb ladders to get to the roof. The finished structure is amazing; the roof feels a lot higher up (it is), the views of York are as good as ever; you see more of the actual building as there are more levels; and being able to go in the chapel with its leaning front wall is an interesting, if slightly disorienting, experience. The boys were appropriately impressed and keen to make another trip to York despite the 2 hour journey.
As they were happy to travel down to York again I booked us tickets for Jorvik and Castle Howard. One of the things about the boys, compared with Bella, is that they don’t seem to spend so long looking at things. The best bit of Jorvik is in any case the ‘ride’, which only takes somewhere between 30 and 40 minutes anyway. I find it interesting and informative, but I wish the narrator wouldn’t keep talking over all the things the mannequins are saying: I’d have liked to have heard how people think the vikings and other people from the 9th century spoke (especially as I had just read a book about the Anglo Saxons, which covered the Viking era and Viking rule in England).
Our tour of Castle Howard itself was quite rapid – not helped by the fact that not all rooms were open to the public anyway – and we then had a run around the grounds. The eastern side of the country is so much drier than Cumbria! Castle Howard is interesting because of the family links with Naworth Castle near us here in Brampton; and George Howard was one of the Earls of Carlisle who lived both at Naworth and at Castle Howard. He was also friends with the pre-Raphaelites, including Burne Jones and William Morris, and a talented painter himself. The property has featured on-screen often – perhaps most notably in Brideshead Revisited – and the story of its destruction by fire and reconstruction is an interesting one. So many grand houses have, of course, been destroyed by fire in the past.
Another castle which has undergone much reconstruction over the centuries is Bamburgh. The boys had been there before, with their father, and I had only ever been past it – mostly seeing it in the distance from the train or the A1 against a backdrop of sea; and earlier in the year doing a half marathon that ended there, clambering up over the sanddunes beneath its walls. I hadn’t realised that the Armstrong family who own(ed) it were also the owners of Cragside, the first house to have electricity in the country. Although the ‘main’ Armstrong had developed and traded arms, he’d also invented other things and was a shipbuilder; Vickers-Armstrong and ultimately the British Aircraft Corporation (now BAE, who build submarines in Barrow in Furness) grew from his original company. As with so many things or people, Armstrong wasn’t all bad (the arms business has rather blackened his name in some circles).
The views from Bamburgh are amazing, as they also are from Dunstanburgh: I had promised the boys fish and chips but the trade off was that we drove down the coastal route, as they hadn’t allowed me to go on the beach at Bamburgh (the North sea beaches in Northumberland are absolutely stunning: most of them have miles of clean sand with hardly any people). There’s not really a lot to see at Dunstanburgh but again its story is interesting: Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh were both involved in the wars of the Roses in various ways, which resulted ultimately in the Yorkist Edward IV retaining the throne, followed by his brother Richard (links there to Cumbria: to Carlisle and Penrith in particular as he was Warden of the West March) who was then killed at the battle of Bosworth, heralding the end of the Plantagenets and the beginning of the Tudors. One thing Dunstanburgh does have nowadays however is composting toilets; and the walk from the car park at Craster and back helped justify the fish and chips later.
The final castle Edward and I visited was Lowther Castle and Gardens, closer to home (having also been down to Somerset just before these trips, I was beginning to get a bit fed up with driving long distances). I don’t completely approve of the £ms that the Lowther family has had to restore the gardens and castle ruins, especially as it’s not cheap to get in nor to eat in the cafe, but I do very much like what they have done: and Edward and a friend spent hours happily playing in the wooden ‘castle’ in the woods while I read and made phone calls. It’s another place I thought I’d go back to sometime on my own, so I can look around the exhibition about its history at my own pace and in detail!
Meanwhile my own ‘castle’ is on the market as I’m hoping to sell up and move to Penrith to be nearer the children: which will give me a whole new area to explore in more detail. I was back at Lowther for lunch at the end of a bike ride with Penny just a week after visiting with Edward: as I get to know Penrith and its surroundings in more detail I feel that I could be happy living there.
I’ve now been to Paris about 4 times; but the first 3 I didn’t fall as much in love with the city as many people do. I think perhaps when I was younger I was less clear about what I was interested in; and also I didn’t really research ‘places to visit’ before I went there, unlike my daughter who had a very clear idea about what she wanted (and didn’t want) to see.
In fact she had planned a detailed timetable which made me a little worried that I was going to have a regimented holiday being marched round various sites; and several times I tried to convince her that it might be nicer to go to the coast somewhere. I ended up being glad she had done her research and that she insisted on us going to Paris.
We travelled down by Eurostar, which just seems such a civilised way to travel despite the crowded waiting area at St Pancras International and the lack of places to get a decent meal while you wait (there’s a Pret a Manger, which is great but I don’t really want sandwiches when it’s dinner time on a Sunday evening). You arrive in the heart of Paris at the Gare du Nord, and we had booked into a hotel just across the road for our first night. Already it felt different from home (even from London), with the cafes open out on the pavement and people milling around in the warmth of a summer evening.
The following morning we had our first pleasant surprise when it turned out that a week’s travel card for zones 1-5 inclusive was only Eu25 each – and the very helpful ticket guy at the station took photocopies of our passport photos as we didn’t have photos with us for the cards. Next time we go (!) we can just top up the cards online or at a ticket machine.
We made our way to the airbnb property we were staying in and after a few minor difficulties trying to get in, found ourselves in a lovely third floor flat which was absolutely perfect for us: and had a piano, which was one reason Bella had insisted on booking it. On the timetable for the Monday was going to the Marie Curie museum, so we had time to go to the supermarket across the road and stock up on some food before heading out again.
What we hadn’t checked was whether it would be open on a Monday; having walked all the way there from one of the metro stations we found it wasn’t! However Bella was delighted to spot a maths bookshop on the way back (we were in the heart of the Sorbonne area), and we had an ice cream before walking through the Jardins de Luxembourg and then through St Germain des Pres, including visiting the church of St Suplice, where apparently Widor (as of the Widor Toccata, used at many weddings) was once the organist.
On the Tuesday we had tickets booked for Versailles, just over an hour away by train but included within our cards (Navigo passes). Changing stations to pick up the RER out to Versailles was probably the closest we got to the Eiffel Tower, which was NOT on Bella’s list of places to go. Versailles was amazing but it was very hot and very busy, and by the time we’d walked all around the palace and then around the gardens as well, we felt disinclined to visit the Trianon as well. It wasn’t the first time we were to say ‘next time we come back’. I was so glad to see inside the palace, however – last time I had decided it was too expensive and the friend I was with and I had just walked down through the gardens for a bit and back up the other side. I wasn’t particularly interested in gardens back then, and I don’t think I had appreciated the amazing piece of engineering that got water to the gardens and then created the various fountains. Bella kept saying that her Dad and her brothers would like it, and I think she’s right. You also completely understand why the French aristocracy and royalty were so unpopular, especially by the time you’ve seen the Louvre as well and read about the Tuileries; and the many other enormous ornately decorated buildings in the city.
Bella’s lunch was an ‘Antoinette’ from the Angelina cafe – a chain of teashops with branches elsewhere in the city (though ‘chain’ makes it sound rather downmarket and as with so many French patisseries, it wasn’t).
We had our own upmarket feast that evening as Bella had even researched cafes and restaurants, and we were booked into Le Chardenoux bistro/brasserie. Not only was the food delicious, but the building is impressive and there is a patisserie and a chocolaterie run by the same chef – Cyril Lignac – at the same road junction (he also has a ‘proper’ restaurant as opposed to a bistro, elsewhere in Paris – but for us this was great as it was within walking distance of where we were staying). We were both excited to find bookshops open late into the evening as we walked back: we went back later in the week and bought books, me treating myself to one of his recipe books, which included the recipes we’d eaten in the bistro.
Wednesday turned out to be even hotter, and we were glad to start the day with a trip to the Catacombs: somewhere else we decided that the boys would like. In many ways it was an amazing regeneration project for its day, and highlights one of the differences between Paris and London. The bones from all the city’s cemetaries were moved into the catacombs, which were originally quarries, largely (as far as I can tell) for health reasons/slum clearance. And of course one of the reason Paris has lovely wide streets and lots of beautiful apartment blocks is because it was designed – whereas unfortunately Christopher Wren’s vision to create something similar in London after the Great Fire in 1666 was not accepted.
We came out from the coolness of the catacombs into the heat of a summer’s day, and were glad to find fountains specially designed for people to stand under and cool down at one of the railway stations, before walking into the Jardin des Plantes. We decided to go into the menagerie, and spent several hours wandering around looking at the animals and trying to keep in the shade: I’d wanted to see the red panda but a lot of the animals felt the same way as us and were also just snoozing in the shade.
We then walked along the Seine and into the Polish centre, to see the Salon de Chopin – where, gratifyingly, the guide spoke to us in French. Previous memories of being in Paris were that the French would speak to you in English because their English was far superior to your French; whilst it is, I really did want to try to speak in French while I was here.
On the Thursday – Bastille Day – we went to the Louvre, where we found that neither of us had remembered our phone. I think for me the most impressive part of the visit was in fact seeing the bits of the original castle, dating from c.1190. We saw many galleries, including Greek sculptures – amazing that they are so many 1000s of years old – and more statues which had been at Versailles or other royal palaces; and also the rooms of Napoleon III. The place is enormous and, as mentioned earlier, a reminder of the excesses of royalty and the extremely wealthy.
There were also some low-flying aircraft of various types during the morning, which I think may have been something to do with Bastille Day – we’d seen them on the Monday as well over the Jardins de Luxembourg. That afternoon we ended up back in the Jardins de Luxembourg again, this time joining a relaxed crowd listening to a police band playing from the bandstand. ‘Music’ was perhaps one of the themes of our week.
During our time in Paris I was impressed by how many cyclists there were – and also scooters. There are wide, dedicated cycle lanes: and also one way streets where there are arrows indicating that cyclists can go in the opposite direction to cars! None of them seems to wear a helmet and in fact on one day there was even a woman on roller blades skating along in the middle of the traffic without seeming the slightest bit worried about how vulnerable she was. The city also seemed really clean: my impression of most French cities 20 or 30 years ago was that there was a lot of dog poo around, but this time I saw hardly any. A lot of the French still smoke though: if you’re sitting outside a cafe you can’t guarantee that there won’t be someone at the next table smoking.
We visited the Cemetiere Pere Lachaise on the morning of our final full day, which was just up the road from where we were staying. One thing I was conscious of was how recent the second world war still feels here, which was something I remember thinking when I lived and worked in France in 1996. It may have been partly as it was an anniversary of the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup – the arrest of more than 13,000 Jews by the gendarmes on 16th and 17th July. There were photos of Auschwitz and other concentration camp survivors along the fence of the Jardins de Luxembourg; and within Pere Lachaise there are some thought-provoking memorials not only to the victims of the camps but also to the resistance.
The final afternoon we found an amazing street of music shops at Europe metro – we had been to a concert of Chopin piano music on the Thursday evening, and Bella wanted to buy some – and walked again for miles looking at shops and the buildings generally: next time I go back I want to go to Opera, and perhaps to Sacre Coeur. It had been an amazing trip and we had both fallen in love with Paris.