Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Let there be light...

Queen Street Square, Whitehaven

AT the start of February the two street lights at the back of my house went out plunging Queen Street Square into darkness. Ten months and countless phone calls, emails and letters later, the lights have at last been fixed.*

I'd like to thank...
  • Sheila on the county council streetlight 'hotline'; 
  • The four council workmen who came to look at them
  • County engineer Mike who finally found out they didn't own the lights. He suggested they belonged to Home Group and even rang them to let them know the lights were out of order (May 5).
  • The receptionist at Home Group, Copeland who took delivery of my hand-delivered letter about the lights (although I never had a reply)
  • Home Group's Freedom of Information officer who received my FoI request - but did nothing about it
  • Steve from the Information Commission who let me know Home Group aren't answerable to FoI requests
  • MP Jamie Reed (although he never replied to my letter)
  • Kathryn from Home Group who said she would investigate whether they owned the lights and would let me know by Friday (Sept 30). I still haven't had a report back.
  • Home Group chief exec Mark who finally gave his staff the kick up the arse they needed.
  • His secretary for letting me know what was happening
  • Sincere thanks to Home Group Customer Care manager Lorraine who really pulled all the stops out to resolve this problem
  • The three workmen who came to find out what was wrong with the lights
  • The two workmen who, on December 6, came round and changed the light bulbs.

How many people does it take to change a light bulb? 20. 

Final thoughts...

This 'problem' will happen again and again unless organisations which own street lights are encouraged (required) to put their phone number of the lights (Something like "Faulty? Phone 0800...")

Home Group and councils need to be 'answerable' to someone. Unless they are fined for not doing their job they really can get away with doing nothing for months.

* Two days later, one of the lights broke again!

Monday, 5 December 2011

Review: The Firework Maker's Daughter, Keswick Theatre
By Alan Cleaver

From L to R Front Row Declan Wilson, Joanna Holden, Phil Corbitt
 Back Row Matt Nalton
PHILIP Pullman's story, The Firework Maker's Daughter, has been brought to the stage at Keswick's Theatre by the Lake for their Christmas season. And it's a show all members of the family will enjoy.

This really is a show with everything: laughter, drama, colour, music, a great story and - rather amazingly - a firework show re-created inside the theatre.

Director Stefan Escreet and set/costume designer Martin Johns have kept to a few simple set and ingenious theatrical tricks rather than complicated electronics to bring this magical tale to life. A few wooden poles are used to evoke a mountain and the minimal number of stage props conjure up a raging river. It's only in the firreworks that the skills of the lighting department (led by Andrew J Linday) are called upon. But even here, there are simple 'tricks' used to bring about everything from a single fire cracker to a fullscale firework display.

The tale itself revolves around Lila (Vera Chock) setting out to discover the final secret of making fireworks so she can win the firework competition and save the life of her father, Lalchand (Ashley Alymann). Helping her with her quest is a talking elephant - again ingeniously brought to life on stage - and the elephant's master, Rambashi (Declan Wilson).

Music, courtesy of a gamelan orchestra and composer/musical director, Chris Stones plays a large part of the show as does dance (Ella Vale). With its heroine, hero, baddies and a friendly elephant it would have been easy to convert this play into a seasonal pantomime. Stefan draws back from drowning a good story in "Oh yes he did, oh no he didn'ts" - but some comic devices, such as the clap-ometer, are rather thrown away despite an audience keen to get more involved in Lila's quest. Moments of tense drama are also lost on occasion in this fast-paced show. 

The colour, sound visual feast that is The Firework-Maker's Daughter will stay long in the memories of audiences long after the curtain falls. It's a show children, adults and pensioners will love - and it's absolutely perfect for the Christmas holiday.

  • The Firework Makers Daughter runs at Keswick Theatre until January 8. Box office: 017687 74411.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Something to Smile About

Keep Smiling Through at Keswick Theatre.

THERE are plenty of laughs but more than a few tears in the World War II drama, Keep Smiling Through now showing at Keswick Theatre.

The play was written by the theatre's Associate Writer Lisa Evans and is receiving its premier in the town where the drama is based.

Lisa drew on the wartime experiences of children evacuated to Keswick and the families that cared for them for her script. This 'invasion' of evacuees, army girls and assorted folk brings more than its fair share of tension in a community already under pressure.

But interspersed with the fears for men fighting abroad, attacks by German airplanes and coping with rationing are layers of warm nostalgia - not least through the many wartime songs performed by the accomplished cast. Lisa brings out the bitter-sweet moments from the dark days of war when everyone pulled together to defeat a common enemy.

Maggie (Heather Saunders) and Peg (Polly Lister) are the two women at the centre of this maelstrom. While Heather brings a vulnerability to her role, its balanced by the bravado and humour brought out by Polly's portrayal of Peg. 

Evacuee Hilda (Fiona Drummond) is the 'cuckoo in the nest' and she gives a powerful performance as the unwanted child who people eventually realise is the future they are all fighting for.

But no one is quite who they seem in this drama which has more than a few twists and turns. German national Leonore (Heather Phoenix) is as much a victim of the war as everyone else but is caught up with the hatred towards all that Germany has come to stand for. 'Hero' Rob (Benjamin Askew) reveals his vulnerabilities as a frightened young man called on to do his duty for King and country, finally snapping under the pressure. Only popular doctor Alec (Ben Ingles) appears to be the calming influence in this storm - but even he has his surprises.

Director Ian Forrest ensures a fast-moving and slick production keeps the focus on the interplay between characters rather than allowing it to wallow too much in nostalgia. 

But there's nothing wrong in the occasional wallow and the end of the show allows the audience to let their emotions loose. Tears, laughter and plenty to talk about - this is theatre at its best.

Keep Smiling Through runs until Friday, November 11.Box office: 017687 74411 or visit 

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Strange Lands

I AM taking time out from my usual blogs on Lake District events to review one of the most exciting books I've come across in many years: Strange Lands by Andrew L Paciorek. I have a great love of folklore (hence my website and Andrew is a fellow member of the Cumbrian folklore group on Facebook. He is well known as a first-class illustrator and this book is resplendent with his work. But it's more than pretty pictures - it's also a detailed account of the "Celtic Otherworld". I thought I knew my Celtic mythology quite well but Andrew's 400-page catalogue of the strange and wonderful creatures that hide in Britain's shadows feature many I had not come across.
Take for example the Fir Darrig, a figure barely one foot tall with pointy ears, long dirty beard, straggly hair and a nose resembling a rodent's snout. They wear tall hats and spend their time playing rather scary practical jokes on humans. Completely bizarre and yet also completely bewitching (and Andrew's drawing will ensure they'll enter your dream world for many nights to come!).
Or how about the Fachan - also known as Peg-Leg Jack. As his name suggests, he only has one leg but can "hop considerable distances at a surprising speed". He also has just one arm in which he carries a spiked club or mace. He's very ugly and a plume of blue feathers sprouts around his neck.
Each section of this book could provide enough material for a dozen episodes of Dr Who! It's also nice to see that modern creatures such as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy are included. We should not forget that the creatures of dreams and nightmares continue to evolve.
Perhaps it's Andrew's artistic outlook, but he shows an instinctive understanding for each of these creatures and where they fit in the worlds that lie parallel to our own. He's effortlessly drawn back the curtain to reveal even the shyest fairy folk.
I'd always been puzzled by the Whitehaven boggle (or rather one of them) as it's description is usually given as an extremely tall female shadowy figure that wanders the streets of this Cumbrian town. But in Strange Lands is a description of Giant Ghosts known as Thyrs which immediately puts this ancient spectre into a context. With Thyrs, as with most other characters, Andrew describes them in detail, giving their physical characteristics and geographical locations. You just won't find this stuff on Google! 
In this age of blinkered scientific thinking it's just fantastic that Strange Lands celebrates the dozens of supernatural species that for so many centuries have walking alongside mankind. Just as Charles Fort led his procession of The Damned 100 years ago, so Andrew unleashes this army of fays, giants, ogres, bogies, dragons and night terrors upon an unsuspecting world in 2011. And may God have mercy on us all!

* Strange Lands is available online

* For those of a technical disposition, you may wish to know Strange Lands was published via online book publisher, Blurb. You'll be impressed by the high quality hardcover book that results. The printing is of good quality (though I suspect it handles drawings better than photographs). Blurb's software is easy to use. The layout and typography sometimes needs tweaking but for those who want to publish a book and don't have the technical skills to use QuarkXpress or similar programs, this is a fairly idiot-proof system.

Monday, 11 July 2011

I wanna tell you a story...

Richard Gibb

IN this digital age, we keep coming up with new ways to tell a story: interactive CD-Roms, flash-driven websites, computer games, ebooks, 3D films - there's no end these days to the imaginative ways to bring a tale to life. But at Keswick for the next few weeks you'll find a fully interactive 3D experience that requires no batteries. Storytree are telling stories in the good old fashioned traditional way: reading them out loud in the open air. And of course the children just love it. So do the adults. This is a family experience which is showing the young ones there is more to life than computers and rekindling a love for storytelling as it used to be in parents and grandparents.

I joined theatre practitioner Richard Gibb on one of the Tale Trail tours as he told classic tales from around the world in an 'auditorium' created by the shore of Derwentwater Lake with a backdrop of the Lake District hills.

Richard said: "Most of Storytree's work is reaching out to the community but the focus of all oru work is stories. Stories are a good way of connecting people with place, they are inspired by the landscape."

The walk is a short one, easily manageable by young and old. Even those with mobility problems should have little trouble as it's all on flat surfaces. The actual walk is only about 20 minutes long, beginning and ending at Keswick Theatre but with four or five stops for a short story, the whole experience lasts about an hour.

Richard had selected stories from all parts of the world but they had one thing in common: they involved mountains, lakes, woods or other aspects of the landscape. It's a perfect theme for tales told around one of the beautiful walks in Britain.

His gentle Scottish accent lends itself to telling tales and the children were quickly drawn in to stories about sea monsters, leprechauns and magical tablecloths. Joining Richard on this particular Tale Trail was Robin Lovegrove from the National Trust. The NT is working with Storytree to produce the series of Tale Trails. Richard was able to add some equally entertaining factual information about the geology of the area during the walk. 

He told me afterwards: "We want to reach out to people - young and old. We want people to appreciate their natural surroundings and engage with people out in the countryside. It's about protecting all our heritage, not just the buildings. If people appreciate what is around them they are likely to respect it."

Now that would be a happy ending for everyone.

* Tale Trails start at Keswick Theatre. They take place on Saturday July 16, Saturday, July 23, Tuesday July 26, Thursday July 28, Tuesday August 9, Thursday August 11, Saturday August 13, Tuesday August 16, Thursday August 18, Saturday August 20, Tuesday August 23, and Thursday August 25. They take place at 11am and 2pm. Prices are: Adults £6, Children £3, Family (2 adults, 2 children) £15. For more information and booking: 017687 74411.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Rushbearing delights

CAN there be anything more quaint and English than a rushbearing festival in a Lake District village? These events began when the churches had mud floors and, once a year, the parishioners would bring in new rushes to put on the floor. Today, a few Lake District villages maintain the tradition even though the floors have long since been turned to concrete or tiles. The rushes and other flower arrangements are paraded around the streets before being blessed at a church service. And in the afternoon there are sports and treats such as gingerbread for the children. The one pictured here is Ambleside which always takes place on the first Saturday in July. You can catch the Grasmere one on July 16 - it starts at 2.30pm in the centre of the village.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Lowther Castle rises from the ruins

LOWTHER Castle near Penrith was once one of the great stately homes in the UK. But over the last 70 years it has fallen into ruin. Fortunately, the castle is now being preserved and the gardens restored to their former glory. While the work is going on, you can visit the grounds - and still walk around the outside of the castle. It only costs a fiver and helps with the multi-million pound restoration project. Lesley and I popped over there last Sunday and there is something quite majestic, yet very sad, about the grounds. The ghosts of landed gentry and ladies still seem to walk in what was once of the most opulent settings Cumbria has ever seen. The Lowther name may not be associated with the best bits of Cumbria's history but it would be great to see this place preserved for future generations. Head to Penrith (junction 40 of the M6) and then head south on the A6 to the village of Askham. You will see signs pointing you in the direction of Lowther Castle and gardens.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Made in CA28

Made in Church Street?
THERE'S an interesting outfit in Peckham, London SE15 which is called Made In Peckham and recycles any old scrap found within that postcode to make 'new' arty furniture. It's a lovely idea and made me think again about promoting what is made on a very local basis. We have Made In Cumbria of course but what about a Made in Whitehaven, Made in Egremont or even Made in Church Street? It would be the chance to show hyperlocal arts, crafts or even some of our bigger industries.

Many people want to buy local but aren't sure what's on offer. And many local artists, chefs or similar produce their goods but have no 'shop window'. A one-day Made In... fair would be a chance to address that issue and perhaps even launch a regular series of local fairs. Just thinking about my home street, there are a number of independent shops: floral arrangements, picture framer, local chef and two photographers all making local goods. Then there are the individual homes and behind those front doors are undoubtedly a number of artists and craftsmen making quality work.

But a Made In Church Street might be too small so how about a Made in CA28 - a postcode covering Whitehaven and surrounding places?

Thursday, 23 June 2011

A must-see gallery

Kerry Wright sets up the display
I POPPED in to Lowes Court Gallery, Egremont yesterday. It has to be one of the most delightful galleries in Cumbria and there's always something new on display. This time, it was the launch of the Cockermouth Artists' exhibition with a range of high quality work including water colours, acrylics, sculptures and more. The Independent Cockermouth Artists (I'm not sure what they're independent from!) include the likes of Trevor Green, Phil Cram, Fliss Watts and Jenifer Moore. The exhibition runs at Lowes Court until August 9 and admission is free. You'll find the gallery (it doubles as the Tourist Information Centre) in the Main Street. Check their website for opening times. You'll find hundreds of local arts and crafts on display - and a friendly welcome!

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Dead Cat bouncing!

Review: Dead Cat Bounce at Kirkgate Centre, Cockermouth, Saturday June 18.

THE name of this Irish band alone brings a smile to the face. But from the moment Dead Cat Bounce walked on to stage until the time they left, tears of laughter were streaming down my face - and the faces of the rest of the audience in the packed Kirkgate Centre at Cockermouth.

Their first number set the tone for the evening:  a song about someone trying to phone a former girlfriend - but who gets the wrong number. And when he finally tracks her down it's to tell her that she ought to get checked out at a sexually-transmitted diseases clinic ("It's not HIV but one of those itchy ones"). And then he asks to speak to her sister!

Other songs featured Christians in love, a narcoleptic blues player and a ballad about gay rugby players. It's easy to see why some might be upset by Dead Cat Bounce and, indeed, the couple sitting next to me didn't return for the second half. But for 99.9 per cent of the audience this was just one of the most uproariously funny acts seen in a long, long time.

Dead Cat Bounce could single-handedly (well, actually there's four of them) rescue Ireland from its catastrophic debt and quickly become the country's biggest export since Guinness or Daniel O'Donnell. Indeed one of their songs details the causes of the sub prime mortgage market crash (it seems we never learned the message of those giant heads on Easter Island!).

It takes more than funny lyrics to entertain an audience and these four guys are skilled musicians and terrific showmen to boot. 

If you hear rumour of Dead Cat Bounce performing anywhere near the Lake District again then start queuing at four in the morning for tickets to ensure you get to see one of the funniest live acts ever (unless you're a sensitive Christian, Rugby player or narcoleptic).

Alan Cleaver

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Getting ready for the festival

WHITEHAVEN is gearing up for the festival this weekend (Friday, June 17 to Sunday June 19th). There will be plenty of events taking place around the harbour as well as concerts, cookery demonstrations and air displays. Three tall ships will also be in harbour over the weekend. The Whitehaven Festival website will give you basic information but if you want a detailed itinerary you'll have to pick up a programme (price £2). These are now available from a number of shops and cafes in the town. There are usually volunteers selling them during the festival as well. This year there will be a park-and ride from Lillyhall and also from Westlakes Science Park. So ignore the weather forecasts (they are always wrong!) and come on down!

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Snuggling up with O'Hooley & Tidow

Review of O'Hooley & Tidow at Kirkgate Centre, Cockermouth on Sunday June 12. 

AFTER  a drizzly, cold Sunday in June the mellow sounds of two Yorkshire folk singers accompanied by the soft and melodious playing of a violin  is just what was needed.

And that was what Belinda O'Hooley, Heidi Tidow and violinist Anna Esslemont provided when they paid a visit to Cumbria to perform at Cockermouth's Kirkgate Centre.

Of course folk music traditionally means depressing songs about famine and death. Belinda and Heidi joked about the selection  of numbers they included in their set about the Holocaust, nursing homes and dead babies but even these were served on a plate of soothing melodies and delicious harmonies. 

It was a curious but welcome mix of songs ranging from traditional folk tunes such as Annie Laurie to their own compositions and even a very pleasant Christmas number which strangely didn't seem too out of place on this unseasonably cold summer's evening.

The more upbeat numbers were the ones that seemed to work best in the acoustically-challenged Kirkgate Centre. The girls' voices, electronic keyboard, violin and a bit of foot-stomping combining to create a sound that seemed to belie the three performers and two instruments.

This was a delicious performance by three striking musicans - a chance to snuggle up in the romantic music and keep warm as temperatures sank to a mere 11 degrees centigrade.

Anna Esslemont returns to the Kirkgate in September with her band Uiscedwr.

* The Kirkgate switches from the sublime to the almost ridiculous when Irish band Dead Cat Bounce appear at the Kirkgate next Saturday (June 18) as a curtain raiser on the Cockermouth Festival. Phone 01900 826448 for tickets or visit

Monday, 13 June 2011

Laughs all the way with Hayfever

Ben Ingles, Kate Layden and Olivia Mace in Hayfever

Review: Hayfever at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick until November 7. Box office: 017687 74411. 

IF you have ever been invited to someone's house for the weekend and realised within a few hours that you've made a terrible mistake then you'll enjoy Hay Fever. 

Four guests are invited to a weekend with the family from hell in this Noel Coward comedy set in the 1920s. The last remnants of the upper classes are living out their weird and dysfunctional lives in the country pile at Cookham and having got bored with the adverb game, charades and other trivial pursuits, decide to have fun at the expense of their guests.

This is a play from another time and another culture which could easily have been lost on a 21st century audience but director Ian Forrest and a top-notch Keswick cast manage to keep the play relevant and funny.

The set alone (designed by Martin Johns) was worth a round of applause - Keswick audiences are used to sets with a wow factor but this looked as if it had just stepped out of the pages of Ideal Home magazine. Costume as well was used to great effect and showed off the swinging twenties in great style. 

The family are introduced first with Kate Layden (playing the mother Judith Bliss) taking centre stage and playing the retired actress in a wonderfully affected and effective manner. Olivia Mace and Benjamin Askew play son and daughter Sorel and Simon, somehow managing to make these two rude and silly creatures likeable. Even the 'hard-working' father David (Peter Macqueen) slowly reveals himself to be as ghastly as the others.

And while the weekend visitors may also have their personality defects this simply add to the comic effect of the show. Fiona Drummond gives a terrific performance as nervous and never-wracked Jackie while Ben Ingles is the bemused and befuddled Sandy. Polly Lister is strident as Myra Arundel but even her confidence is lost in a social game where only the family know the rules. And 'diplomatic' Richard Greatham (played by Jack Power) is soon out of his depth.

Maid Clara (Heather Phoenix) provides a grounding in this maelstrom - and she does it in style, getting laughs galore out of her brief scenes. 

The social class structure may have eroded to some degree over the last 90 years but the games people play remain as acute, embarrassing and as suitable a platform for comedy as ever. The cast, set and costumes all combine to make this a wonderful night out. But add in the still razor-sharp script of Noel Coward and you'll be relishing this performance long after the curtain comes down.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Rum way to spend a day

WHITEHAVEN'S Rum Story is not just a wonderful museum depicting the history of Whitehaven. It's also a cafe and gift shop. The gift shop has the work of a number of local artists and craftsmen on sale including the wood crafts of Les Campbell. After much hinting, I was fortunate to receive one of his boxed pen sets for a birthday present - the wood in the pen is made from wood from old casks that were once stored at the Lowther Street premises. Do pop in if you're looking for a gift for someone special - or yourself!

Monday, 6 June 2011

The fairies are back

Lesley at the 'high-rise' fairy home!
I WAS near Gelt Wood, Brampton, (that's in Cumbria, UK for my international readership) at the weekend and was delighted to see that the fairies have returned. The fairy houses have mysteriously appeared each summer for the last three years. No one knows who leaves them there. Perhaps they really are fairies, lodging at Gelt Wood for their summer holidays. There are - so far- nine tiny doors to the fairy houses. And for the first time this year there appears to be a "high-rise flat" as well with one door fairly high up in the tree! The doors are numbered or have names such as Ivy Cottage, and there are often small boots or a tiny wheelbarrow close by. Despite them being left in the open for many weeks there does not appear to be any theft or vandalism. Indeed any parts that break off in a frost are usually placed carefully back. And bits of fruit have sometimes been left as gifts for the visiting fairy folk. The precise location is kept reasonably secret as the human neighbours aren't too keen on thousands descending on their quiet bit of countryside. However, a detailed map is now included in our booklet, On the Hunt of Fairies available online for a mere £2.50. Now that's a bit of clever marketing!

* I should point out however that it is not me or Lesley who makes the fairy doors. That would be taking marketing a bit too far!

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Lake District crafts

Ralf Bidder in his workshop
I BUMPED into bodger Ralf Bidder at Eskdale Open Art Fair last weekend. The fair at St Bega's School, Eskdale, was a wonderful display of some of the best arts and crafts in the Lake District including some of Ralf's bodging. For those who don't know, bodgers are folk who work with wood. And if you want to see some of Ralf's work head over to his Silent Forest Creations website. It was my picture of Ralf that won me a Barbour coat in the Great In Britain photo competition so I'm working out some sort of time share deal with Ralf and the coat!

Friday, 3 June 2011

Review of The Blue Room at Keswick Theatre

LOVE, sex and infidelity are just some of the themes explored in Keswick's sizzling production of The Blue Room. It's not a production for the faint-hearted or easily shocked but this performance demonstrates how this play written more than a century ago can still ask pertinent questions of the audience.

The Blue Room is author David Hare's adoption of Arthur Schnitzler's controversial work, Der Reigen. More commonly known today by its film title, La Ronde.

Originally written in 1900, it was privately printed for a handful of friends and was never intended by Schnitzler to be staged. When it was performed in public in 1920, Schnitzler was charged with obscenity (but acquitted).

Just the list of scenes will give you a flavour of why it's proved so controversial: The student and the married woman, the married woman and the politician, the politician and the model... You get  the idea. The play follows daisychain-like, the series of sexual encounters with the words bringing the couple's views - and society's views - on sex into sharp focus.

The play is already over 111 years old but since it deals with the eternal themes of love, sex, monogamy, affairs and so forth there's no reason to suppose it won't still be performed for another 111 years or 1,111 years. The play enables each age to think more about its morals and attitudes. 

Perhaps The Blue Room tells us that our age, our society, no longer finders many of these relationships so shocking (a politican having a stable relationship with his wife is perhaps more surprisingthan him having an affair with a model). Hare wrote The Blue Room in 1998 so it's perhaps surprising he didn't extend the sexual melting pot (as others have done) to include gay sex, underage sex or other taboos.

The power in this production comes from the performances by just three actors: Matt Addis, Polly Lister and Olivia Mace. It's hard at times to believe there are only three actors as they take on the variety of roles demanded by the play. I'm sure more than one member of the cast glanced again and again at the programme to double-check just how many actors were involved.

This performance is in the studio at Keswick Theatre and that adds to the voyeuristic nature the audience feels at watching close-up these sexual trysts. Subtle lighting adds to the intimacy while director Ian Forrest ensures the characters and what they have to say remain centre stage.

The Blue Room is being staged at Keswick's Theater by the Lake until November 9. Phone box office:  017687 74411  or visit Please note this production includes strong language, adult themes, nudity and scenes of a sexual nature.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Review of Noises Off at Keswick Theatre

Wicked fun from the cast of Noises Off

KESWICK'S Theatre by the Lake lifted the curtain on their summer season in fine style with a performance of the classic farce, Noises Off.

In some ways this classic of English theatre should be a safe bet but the obituaries of many an am dram company have been underscored by an attempt at farce. It's tempting to think that perfoming a play where everything goes wrong is going to be easy. After all, if anything goes wrong the cast can just pretend it's part of the show! The truth, of course, is that it's one of the hardest genres of theatre. Getting a laugh during a play is an art, getting an audience laughing all the way through is a devil's own job. 

Fortunately this production was in the safe hands of some Keswick stalwarts and laugh all the way through is precisely what the audience did. Noises Off is a play within a play - telling of a theatre troupe's performance of "Nothing On". The drama on stage is nothing compared with the drama going on behind the scenes and in Act II the stage revolves to reveal in all its horror the politics, bitchiness and confusion of what is happening back stage. Author Michael Frayn doffs his cap to the grand English tradition of farce by including lots of opening and shutting doors, dropping of trousers, mistaken identity and a tray or two of sardines. The audience can join in the jokes from the start but it's only when the director, Lloyd Dallas (Matthew Vaughan who appeared in Keswick's succesful run of Arsenic and Old Lace) chirps up from the audience stalls that they realise there's more to this farce than they might first think. Frayn says in the programme notes that "comedy is always funnier if you play it seriously" and as an oh-so-important director, Vaughan underlines the pomposity of a wannabe theatrical company which does indeed take itself seriously. There will no doubt be many members of drama groups chuckling away in the Keswick audience at the hissy-fits, mis-timed entrances and other in-jokes.

It's another Keswick faithful, Ben Ingles, playing the central role of Garry Lejeune who acts as the eye of the storm in the antics of Noises Off. Ingles brings his dancing skills to the fore as he runs, prances and falls around the stage - including a superb fall down a flight of stairs. The audience shares his exhaustion in the frantic scenes as much as they share his bewilderment at the play falling apart around him. Ingles portrays with delightful subtlety an actor facing the ultimate horror of actors going missing, others forgetting their lines and finally the whole script going out of the window.

Another welcome return to Keswick is actor Peter Macqueen (Scrooge of a previous Christmas production) who demonstrates his super comic talents. He has the audience laughing from the moment he walks on stage - indeed the manner of him getting on stage, or trying to get on stage, is usually enough to reduce the audience to tears of laughter. If any actors need a master class in how to make an entrance, just watch Macqueen at work in this production.

If Macqueen demonstrates how to walk on to stage and Ingles how to move around it, then Heather Saunders, playing blonde bombshell Brooke Ashton, shows how to teeter around the stage. Just a high-heeled shuffled across the boards was enough to get the audience giggling and frantic searches for lost contact lenses were enough to keep the laughs coming thick and fast.

Kate Layden as Dotty Otley, Fiona Drummond as Poppy, Jack Power as Frederick Fellowes, Benjamin Askew as Tim Allgood and Heather Phoenix as Belinda Blair complete the cast of this delightful production that will prove a memorable night out for every member of the family. This is a slick, fast-paced comedy where the laughs come fast and furious. 

Director Stefan Escreet and designer Martin Johns manage to work out the entrances, exits and who's-who in this maelstrom without a missed note. It is the first in the canon of Keswick's Summer Season and is Keswick theatre at its best. It bodes well for the other shows opening over the next few weeks.

Please note there is, unusually, two intervals during this show - more than one member of the audience were wrong-footed by the 'ending' at the end of Act II!

Noises Off runs until November 9 at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick. Box office: 017687 74411 or visit

Monday, 30 May 2011

Paramedics of yesteryear

THIS blog is mainly devoted to extolling the beauties of the Lake District but I had no other place to post up this wonderful account of ambulance men of old which, I'm sure you will agree, deserves wider circulation. It's an angry letter from a Whitehaven resident to the editor of the Whitehaven News ranting about the drunken stretcher carriers transporting fever victims from Mount Pleasant (the poorest part of town) to the local hospital. Not only were the men drunk but they attempted to put two women on the same stretcher to save themselves a trip! And on a previous occasion set their patient down on the street while they popped into the pub for another drink! Wonderful stuff. My grateful thanks to Anne Cook of The Beacon museum for passing this on to me.

Whitehaven News, September 15th 1870


To the editor of the Whitehaven News

Sir,-As an interested townsman, I write to expose and protest against one of the most disgraceful and revolting scenes that it has been my misfortune to witness for many years; and I trust that such exposure will have the effect of arousing to immediate action all who may read it, and who may have any sympathy with the cause it advocates. I refer to the system of conveying to the infirmary the unfortunate victims of the fever epidemic, which is now assuming such alarming proportions in many parts of the town. Last Saturday evening, about half-past seven o'clock, while returning in company with two or three friends, from a visit to the wonderful ventilating fan at the top of Mount Pleasant, which may, perhaps not inaptly be termed the life-preserver of the Wellington Coal Pit,  I was perfectly horrified to behold a poor unfortunate female, who had been seized with the dangerous malady, and who was placed in the so-called sick bed, for the purpose of being taken to the hospital, committed to the care of two men who were so drunk as scarcely to be able to walk themselves, much less to bear the unhappy invalid carefully and safely to her destination. The consequence was the men went reeling and staggering from one side to the other as they descended the hill; and had it not been for the timely assistance rendered by two women who saw the perilous position of the helpless sufferer, she must inevitably have rudely fallen from their hands to the ground, or have been capsized and thrown out of the bed altogether. 

This is not all, however. To save themselves a journey, or to use the common adage, to "kill two birds with one stone," the men attempted to cram into the narrow portable bed another patient, who had been smitten with the disease; in doing which they dragged her into the open air, and after making several abortive, but shameful, efforts to squeeze her in beside her sister victim, relinquished their inhuman cruelty; and the girl, after having been thus exposed to the cold atmosphere for a considerable time, was conveyed back to her sick chamber, there to await the return of the besotted carriers.

Now, sir, I ask is not such an exhibition as the one I have described a disgrace to the authorities who permit it? However they may regard these remarks, the scene in question called forth a universal burst of indignation from the crowd who quickly collected together as they approached the principal thoroughfare, so that I am but expressing the feelings of all who witnessed the affair. I have been informed that the above is only one out of many similar sights. Only a few days ago, indeed, the men set their patient down on the street, while they coolly stepped into a public house close by for the purpose of regaling themselves once more with the "invigorating draught!"

Now, sir, with these facts before you, I ask, why allow men, in this drunken state to perform such important duties? Is it because the authorities cannot get anybody else? I think not. I am quite sure that the friends of the patients would a thousand times over prefer to take them to the hospital themselves, than give them in charge of men who are more like pitching them into the street than anything else. Or is it because the men need to be rendered stupid by intoxicating stimulants to avoid catching the contagion? Surely our medical advisers can administer some safer  and equally non-infecting prescription, or the query will arise, how do they themselves escape the various maladies with which they are brought in contact? Evidently these are the chief difficulties in the way, and both seem capable of easy solution; then, sir, for what other reason can such a state of things be tolerated in our midst? Can it be attributable to the fact that the subjects of the fever belong mainly to the poorest and lowest classes, and therefore unworthy of any better treatment? I would fain hope that such an imputation may be groundless, but it must certainly be obvious to every thoughtful and candid person that there is something seriously defective in this department of so useful an institution as the Whitehaven infirmary; and I feel assured that the attention of the governors is only required to be called to the matter to ensure an effectual remedy. 

- I am, &c., AN EYE WITNESS.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Old Flo is back

WHAT better way to spend your birthday than painting and decorating! But it was all in a good cause as I was helping the other volunteers at the Old Florence Mine, Egremont which is being converted into an arts centre. There are some exciting plans but I won't steal the thunder of the organisers. The mine used to extract iron ore so there was red dust absolutely everywhere - no matter how hard you tried to clean it up. I don't think I'm giving too much away to say that the new arts centre hopes to incorporate some aspect of the iron ore in its new plans.

In the evening, it was the preview evening of the Eskdale Art Fair which takes place all bank holiday weekend at St Bega's School, Eskdale Green. The quality of the work is stunning, with mostly local artists and many local views. The fair raises money for the school which has just 41 pupils. What a shame there aren't more events like this to show off the great talents of local artists.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Exploring Eskdale

ESKDALE is gearing up for the Eskdale Open Art event this weekend (Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday). It takes place at St Bega's School and they're normally very good at marshalling cars into the car park. But can I suggest a more pleasant way of getting there is via The Ratty steam engine. Either park at Eskdale and take the train to Eskdale Green (it's then a short walk to the school), or park at Dalegarth near Boot and it's a short hop on the Ratty to Eskdale Green. You could even walk from Dalegarth, calling in at the Japanese Garden above Giggle Alley. While in Eskdale, there are plenty of other places to explore. Top of my list would be a trip to the Woodland tea rooms at Santon Bridge for tea and cake. Next door to it is the gift shop which is crammed full with super gift ideas and local arts & crafts. Further down the valley is the village of Boot and the wondrous Eskdale Mill. Miller Dave King will give you a guided tour for the sake of a few pence and you can then wander round the mill garden - perhaps even meeting Stanley the mill cat. There's so much to see and do in Eskdale, you'll never tire of this idyllic valley.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Bank Holiday bonanza

Herons wait for feeding time at Muncaster Castle
THERE'S plenty going on in and around the Lake District this weekend - here are just a couple to give you a taste of what's available.

If you're looking for family fun then you'll do no better than to head to Muncaster Castle and join in the fun as they chose their new Tom Fool. The castle is home to the original 'Tom Fool' - Tom Skelton - but each year a new jester is selected. The tournament begins on Saturday (May 28)  and continues until the final being on Wednesday, June 1. That means five days of tomfoolery! In addition to the magnificent castle there are the superb grounds, the World Owl Trust is based there and at 4pm each day is the feeding of the herons - a most weird sight! (see picture)

And just up the road from Muncaster, you'll find the Eskdale Open Art weekend taking place at the tiny St Bega's School at Eskdale Green. This is the school's major fund-raising event for the year and attracts some of the best art, photography and crafts in the region. Some of my work will also be there! Lesley and I will be launching our latest booklet, Strange Eskdale, detailing the folklore and ghost stories from the valley. We'll also have a few photographs on display. The exhibition is open all day Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday. And there will also be tea and cakes available.

  • Check out GoLakes for other Cumbria events including the start of the summer season at Keswick's Theatre by the Lake, 3D films at Rheged and the chance to meet real owls at The Ratty steam train (Ravenglass).

Monday, 23 May 2011

Something of a rum do

ONE of my favourite haunts - perhaps because it is haunted! - is Whitehaven's Rum Story. The tiny entrance on Lowther Street, Whitehaven, belies the huge museum inside. The building was once the warehouse for Jeffersons' rum and it is now used to tell the story of the rum trade - and the less pleasant slave trade. But it's not the museum I visit week in and week out. It's the coffee shop and gift shop. You can sit and drink your latte while watching the famed Rum Story clock strike the hour and half hour (it tells the story of rum while 'chiming') in the pleasant courtyard. But the gift shop is the real treasure trove, crammed full with some of the best arts and crafts from West Cumbria. If you're ever short of an unusual birthday gift, just pop in here and you'll be sure to find something. What's more The Rum Story is open seven days a week. If you haven't visited recently, do pop in. Oh, and the ghost - that's Henry. You can some times join a ghost hunt at the Rum Story to watch out for him. See their website for details.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Apocalypse Wow

THE World was due to end last Saturday - at least according to some miscalculating religious mystic in America. You may have noticed that it didn't. But to be honest if the world was going to end you'd want it serenaded out with the likes of The Men They Couldn't Hang. This punk, rock, folk and many other genre band were at Cockermouth's Kirkgate for the potentially apocalyptic gig and I for one would have died happy at 6pm on Saturday, May 23rd. The arts centre was full to bursting  - with record online sales bringing in TMTCH fans from around the country. This was an end-of-the-world party to which everyone was invited and to which everyone was determined to have a good time.

From the moment they arrived on stage it was foot to the pedal, and high-energy punching music which was delivered with technical finesse and plenty of passion. The four guitars and one banjo providing the wall of sound to a driving drum beat. Most of the audience were happy to join in the singing and dancing. This is one band that knows how to entertain and although their lyrics can have a dark, political edge to them, it was a sense of humour that pervaded during the Kirkgate gig.

The audience would no doubt have been happy for the pace to be kept at full whack for the whole 90-minute seession but there was a chance for a breather and to hear solo works from TMTCH stalwarts Stefan Cush and Phil "Swill" Odgers. Phil Odgers in particular wowed everyone with a folk ballad from his forthcoming EP.

It's almost a pity the world didn't end the following day - this would have been one perfect way to see the end of the world. 

* Things calm down at Kirkgate next Saturday (June 4) when singer/songwriter Roddy Woomble will be performing. But watch out for Dead Cat Bounce on Saturday, June 18 - they're described as a "rock and roll comedy supergroup". I'm not sure what that means but it sounds fun!

Friday, 20 May 2011

Cockahoop Cockermouth

Cockermouth at night: Picture by Judpics
IT'S no surprise that Cockermouth has just won an award for the restoration of its town centre. This market town suffered horrendous floods just over a year ago but has bounced back to be on the must-visit list of any Lake District tourist. The pastel-shades of the shops and houses give a magical feel to this historic town. While there are some national-chain shops, you're going to find here those unique independent shops with home-grown goods. You'll find galleries featuring the best of local arts and crafts, as well as a bookshop that seems to go on forever - and tucked at the back it has its own coffee-shop. There are cafes and eating places galore - it's certainly the place to go for an evening meal but you'd be advised to book a table in advance. And there's the Kirkgate Arts Centre which hosts films and live acts. The Kirkgate hosts a range of music but has a national name for attracting the best of the folk world. Watch out for singer songwriter Roddy Woomble on June 4. And for serious music lovers, watch out for Cock Rock music festival in July.

Of course, you can't mention Cockermouth without mentioning Wordsworth. The great poet was  born at Wordsworth House which is open to the public. The building was damaged in the recent floods but has now been lovingly restored. You'll find it at the western end of the High Street. It is open from 10am to 5pm each day and is owned by the National Trust.

Finally, watch out for a host of stars appearing at the Cockermouth Midsummer Festival from June 17 to June 26. The annual Cockermouth Carnival on June 18 form parts of the festival.

TOURIST TIP: There's plenty of parking in Cockermouth but if you're staying less than an hour consider parking in the main high street. You'll need to display a parking disc and you'll get one of these (free) from any shop in the town. Set the time and leave it on your dashboard - just make sure you're back within an hour or you will get a ticket!

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Aira Force - a place of legend

IF you are staying near Ullswater then you'll certainly want to visit Aira Force waterfall. This dramatic sight is at the end of a short but steep walk and has strong connections with the poet Wordsworth. To reach it, park in the National Trust car park and exit via the rear of the car park along the well-signposted route. Although the waterfall is a popular spot with tourists, not many are aware of the legend that goes with it. The poet Wordsworth revived the legend when he wrote about it in his poem, The Somnambulist (an old word for a sleepwalker). It tells of young Emma waiting anxiously for her knight Sir Eglamore to return from the crusades - but the stress leads to her regularly sleepwalking out of her hunting lodge home and along the edge of Aira Force. When Sir Eglamore returned one evening he evetually finds her sleepwalking by the waterfall and tries to wake her up. But the shock of waking up causes Emma to slip and fall to her death. Poor Sir Eglamore lives out the rest of his life as a hermit in a cave near to the spot. Wordsworth has many strong connections with the area - not least that the daffodils along Glencoyne Bay, Ullswater inspired him to write his most famous poem, I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud...

TOURIST TIP: Parking in the Lake District (or anywhere!) is not cheap these days. But become a member of the National Trust and you'll get free parking in their car parks anywhere in the country - and you'll be helping preserve Britain's heritage at the same time.

The first verse - just as a reminder:-

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills, 
When all at once I saw a crowd, 
A host, of golden daffodils; 
Beside the lake, beneath the trees, 
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Ambleside's secret museum

IT'S one of Ambleside's hidden gems - and yet even some locals will admit they have never been to the Armitt Museum. Museums are usually saved for rainy days but this is one delight worth going to in any weather. The museum was founded in 1909 by Mary Louisa Armitt as a resource for the 'scholarly community' in Ambleside and beyond. It's still that but it's also a fun family trip.

Inside - and there's only a modest entrance fee - you'll find plenty on the history of Ambleside, art, archaeology, books, geology, photography and much more. For those scholarly folk there's also a library upstairs. And at the museum shop you'll find some unusual gifts.

There's always fascinating tit-bits in historical collections and I particularly like this featured on the Armitt's website. It's a list of suggested improvements made in The Ambleside Herald of April 3, 1880:

  • That the Bowder stone should be broken up to pave High Street: a similar use being made of the Kirkstone, in case material should run short.
  • That Brother's Water should be drained and an asphalt Skating Rink be erected in its place.
  • That Loughrigg should be adorned by a statue of Bodgers, the late eminent philanthropist.
  • That a People's Coffee-house be erected on Helvellyn.
  • That Scawfell should be made easily ascendable by means of a hydraulic lift.
  • That a merry-go-round, with fife and drum band, be placed within a convenient distance of Rydal Mount.
The museum is on the main Rydal Road in Ambleside and open from 10am to 4.30pm, Mondays to Saturdays.

* On June 23 2011 there will be a talk on "Ambleside and the Importance of Oral History" at the Armitt Library and Musuem. It starts at 6.30pm and admission is £3. Space is limited so contact the library on 015394 31212 to reserve a place.

TOURIST TIP: As you drive into Ambleside (from Keswick) ignore that giant sign which says "Main Car Park" and points to the right. Turn left instead and you'll drive into the public car park in front of the Armitt museum where parking fees are half the price!

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Countdown to Keswick Theatre summer season

I POPPED in to Keswick Theatre this morning and discovered what delights are in store for the summer season. This beautiful theatre set by Derwentwater raises the bar each year with its popular productions in the main house and more cutting shows in the studio. The curtain goes up on the summer shows on May 28 with Michael Frayn's farce Noises Off. This is certain to be a crowd pleaser for tourists and locals alike. The main action takes place behind the scenes at an am-dram performance and we get to see the - worryingly all-too familiar - problems, politics and scandals that happen behind the scenes.

In the main house from June 10 will be another big smash, Noel Coward's Hay Fever. This is English comedy at its most traditional and its best with the mistaken identities, mix-ups and other ingredients which allow Coward's wit to shine through.

For those who like their theatre a bit more edgy watch out for The Blue Room (from May 28) and Someone Who'll Watch Over Me (from August 5). Also watch out for the black comedy Dumb Show from June 17.

And if all that wasn't enough there's another treat with the world premiere of Keep Smiling Through - a wander down nostalgia avenue with Lisa Evans looking at life in Keswick during World War II.

You'll find full details of the summer season on the theatre website or pop in to the theatre and pick up a brochure.

But before the summer season starts, it is time once again for the Keswick Mountain Festival which starts today and runs until May 22. See their website for full details of events.

* Start the perfect evening with a meal in Keswick (or in the theatre) and then a walk down to the lake before settling down for a night's quality theatre.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Words by the Water

THE annual Words by the Water festival has begun at Keswick's Theatre By The Lake and features many of the great names from the world of literature.

Today was Guardian writers day with northern editor Martin Wainwright and former northern correspondent David Ward taking to the stage. Martin entertained the audience with an hour-long ramble through the best of the north with Sekers, Marchon and Kangol being among the Cumbrian firms to gain a mention.

Next up was David Ward who seems to have cornered the market in writing about revamped theatres. David wrote Encore - the story of Keswick's blue box theatre which transformed into the magnificent building there today. And he's just written the book on the multi-million pound rebuilding of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It looks a fantastic building and David told the story of the politics behind the scene and the fantastic vision that produced the new national treasure.

There's still a week left of great events though most have long since sold out. Try queueing for returns or start booking for next year's festival.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

A few notes

Some odds and sods from my gleanings...

"Well put me on a horse and point me in the direction of Carlisle" - Cumbrian saying

An old signpost in Cumbria apparently once said: "To Kendal: X6" A lovely mixture of roman and modern numbers!

A Cumbrian prayer of old for those risking a trip to London: “In the name of God, Amen. Because I am at this instant, God assysting mee, intendyd to go for London, and that no mortal man is certayne of his saffe returne."

"Ah'll tell tha a stworey,
About Jack Lworey;
An' that's me teal begun.
...He went intul t' wood;
An comm oot again.
Seah noo me stworey iss deun."
- Old Cumberland jingle

Monday, 28 February 2011

Return to Eskdale

THE inquests begin this week into the shooting rampage by Derrick Bird on June 2 last year. This awful day ended in Eskdale when Bird took his own life. It took some time before we felt we could return to Eskdale - it has always been our favourite part of the Lake District. We've been back a few times since and returned again last Sunday for a short walk along the river. Unlike most valleys in the Lakes, Eskdale does not have a lake. It does, however, have the Ratty - the small gauge steam railway which runs from Ravenglass to Dalegarth. It has many other delightful features such as Eskdale Mill and St Catherine's Church. There is the recently rediscovered St Catherine's holy well, the stepping stones and a number of packhorse bridges. If you're looking for a quiet day in one of the most remote part of the Lakes, then head to Eskdale: join the Ratty at Ravenglass and enjoy a lunch at Dalegarth or Boot before walking up to the mill and then for a stroll to one of the nearby tarns. A perfect day out.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Herbert's Dream

THEY are always completely bonkers, totally bizarre - and brilliant to watch. I refer of course to the Lakes Alive events that descend on Cumbria every few weeks as consolation for us not having the Olympics.

The free arts events are always the most amazing spectacles and last night's event at Keswick was no exception. Herbert's Dream was the name of it but it's anyone guess what that has to do with five people walking around town in luminous inflated white suits looking like giant marshallow men.

You didn't need to understand it to enjoy it. This was an inspiring and fun event for half-term and fortunately the rain held off for the occasion. See more of my pictures on flickr.