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.