Friday, 27 December 2013

A Boxing Day Walk in Borrowdale

Winter in Borrowdale
THE depth of winter is considered by many to be the dullest time of the year; that bleak midwinter where everything is dead or close to death and all colour is drained from the landscape. But there is colour in this muted canvas if you only let your eyes adjust. 
The saturated colours of autumn are such a feast that having enjoyed them during October, November and early December it takes a while to accustom yourself to the calmness of the winter palette. But a Boxing Day walk in Borrowdale showed even on December 26th there is colour to be found. The first colour you see is the lime green of the moss and lichen on the trees and drystone walls. Its brightness seems almost artificial. Then there is the unexpected and warm red of man's eternal friend, the robin. You don't have to walk far in any wood - particularly in Borrowdale - before Robin pops up, inquisitive as ever. His red breast is often complemented by feathers of the softest blue, a feature often overlooked by the artist. 
The red berries of the holly bush are one of the few coloured fruits you'll see in winter but they seem to shine out all the brighter for it. Nature's last defiant blast against the dying of the year.
There are subtler colours woven into the countryside's winter garb but even the bronze and amber hues of the ferns on High Crag and Great Crag sing out when caught by a late burst of the afternoon sun. It's a last hurrah before night's chill arrives.
Scientists will probably disagree that white is a true colour but it's one that shines out in winter. The hazel, birch and willow branches add an artistic splash to the browns and greys of High Hows Wood. And there was a welcome surprise during our afternoon walk with a daring dazzle of white beside the water's edge: A dipper with its uncompromising white breast. One wonders why Nature would give such a timid bird such a coat, allowing its enemies to see it so easily and from such a distance. These bursts of colour in midwinter must serve some purpose. Perhaps Nature is sending a message that even in the darkest of days there is colour and cheer to be found if only you look for it. A promise of a spring to come or good friends never far away.
One comic's 'memorial' to a summer in Borrowdale!

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Cumbria's fifth season: Back End

IT’S a revelation to many people that there are actually five seasons in a year, not four.
But it’s such a blindingly obvious fact to most Cumbrians that you really do wonder how the rest of the world copes with a mere four seasons.
We’ve just entered the ‘lost’ season of Back End. It comes between autumn and winter when autumn’s lost its glory but winter is yet to bite. There’s some dispute but most people will place it around the first two weeks in December.
It’s that time when there are few leaves left on the trees, the days are at their shortest and the weather at its darkest. Back End looks like it sounds: the dull, scraggy bits of the year.
“T’ back-end’s ola’s t’ bare-end” goes a famous Cumbrian proverb. Well, it was famous in the mid-19th century when dialect poet Alexander Craig Gibson wrote his classic tome, The Folk-speech of Cumberland and Some Districts Adjacent. He defined it as late autumn. Fellow writer William Dickinson, writing about the same time, defined it in his dialect dictionary as “Back end: the fall of the year” and gave the example “On about t’ back end.”
In the south Cumbrian village of Bouth they even had a Back End Fair each year although it seems to have been held quite early – the end of October. But we want to keep the rest of the world guessing. We’ve revealed there’s a fifth season – now let them work out when it is!

Friday, 6 December 2013

Black-eye Friday

FRIDAY, December 20. Just five days before the big day itself, the start of the weekend and the day Cumbrians term “Black Eye Friday”.
The origin of the name is obvious: it’s the day when – armed with the Christmas pay packet – folk start the celebrations down the pubs and night clubs. Even police know to have extra officers on duty on this last Friday before Christmas.
It’s not to be confused with the American Black Friday where the only black eyes will come from shoppers starting their Christmas shopping. That traditional American date is the Friday after Thanksgiving and – since 2001 – has become the busiest shopping day of the year in the States.
The term Black Eye (or Eyed) Friday is a northern one although South Wales terms it Black Friday. And it’s not all bad news. It’s a time when plenty of money is flowing so pubs, taxis and takeaways can look forward to a pre-Christmas bonus – albeit a noisy one.
The term has even found its way on to the internet with a – very short – page on the online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia. It’s up there with Blue Monday (the most depressing day of the year), Ask A Stupid Question Day, No Pants Day and World UFO Day. It’s perhaps only surprising we don’t yet have “Happy Black Eye Friday” cards on sale.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Christmas magic at Keswick

Swallows and Amazons at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick

Swallows And Amazons, Theatre by the Lake, Keswick until January 18. Box office:  
017687 74411.

OH for those innocent days when children could sail off for two or three days on daddy’s boat (even though the eight-year-old can’t swim) and all the parents are worried about is that they’re careful with the box of matches.
Such is the idyllic 1920s’ world of Arthur Ransome and his classic work, Swallows & Amazons.
It’s been adapted for stage by Helen Edmundson who keeps the archaic ‘jolly hockey-sticks’ language of Ransome. This is nostalgic for adults but will create a barrier for today’s children who will no doubt struggle with duffers, telegrams, barbarians and charcoal-burners. Some modernisation might have been better – particularly changing Titty’s name to Kitty!
It’s a musical show with songs from Neil Hannon but director Stefan Escreet – curiously for a Christmas show with many young people in the audience – studiously avoids audience participation. There’s not one song for families to join in.
At the start Roger (James Hogg) confesses he can’t whistle properly. I’m sure most youngsters in the audience were then desperate to help him by showing off their whistling skills – but no invitation came from the stage. That barrier between stage and audience remained firmly in place until right at the end when Mother (Heather Phoenix) asks the audience if Captain Flint (Martin Fisher) should be made to walk the plank. They were so shocked to realise she was talking to them that they could hardly reply!
The set – designed by Martin Johns – is one of the stars of the show. It starts as the attic of elderly Titty (Frances Marshall) and the old toys take her and the audience back to that summer of 1929 in the Lake District. Upturned tables become boats, brollies become cormorants and dusters become parrots. It’s theatre magic at its best.
Imagination plays a large part in this show and director Stefan Escreet cleverly tells the tale through child’s eyes. I’m sure the decision to leave eight-year-old Roger (James Hogg) with a beard was quite deliberate!
The musicians are ‘on top of the wardrobe’ which also doubles as the rocks and hills of the island on which the children base their summer camp. And when they’re needed, the musicians come down to the stage to play walk-on parts in the show. It’s simple and effective.
This is a tale of childhood adventures, pirates and buried treasure. The overall effect is one of magical delight. It’s just a pity that youngsters – and adults – can’t join in the fun on stage.
 Swallows And Amazons, Theatre by the Lake, Keswick until January 18. Box office:  
017687 74411 or book online at

Poisoning pigeons and fishy French

Richard Suart, baritone, at Muncaster Castle. Part of Rosehill Theatre's On The Road programme.

ANYONE who puts on a programme featuring songs celebrating masochism, telling of poisoning pigeons in the park or warning you There’s Always Something Fishy About the French either likes to live dangerously or is genuinely inspired.
Fortunately, the audience opted for the latter option when they heard baritone Richard Suart perform at Muncaster Castle.
And rather appropriately for the sumptuous setting he included the Noel Coward song, The Stately Homes of England.
Richard demonstrated that Coward’s songs had the timelessness that only works of genius can achieve. Coward never worried about political correctness during his life time and it seems unlikely to stop him now he’s dead.
The first half were almost entirely Coward songs with their delightfully waspish lyrics which, after 100 years, could still evoke great laughter. And anecdotes between the songs from Coward’s diaries and newspaper cuttings generated an atmosphere of warming nostalgia.
The second half of the show – part of Rosehill Theatre’s On The Road programme – included works from America’s answer to Noel Coward: Tom Lehrer. A man of whom the New York Times once said his muse “is not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste".
Mr Lehrer himself – who is still alive – famously said  of his musical career, “If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while”.
Poisoning Pigeons in the Park was one of his less offensive songs and Richard also performed Lehrer’s Vatican Rag.
It’s good to know that offending people isn’t the sole domain of the young, or wasn’t invented by the Sex Pistols in 1975. But this was also an evening of love songs and bitter sweet songs. And they were all performed with the apparent ease that only a professional of Suart’s experience can achieve. 
Review by Alan Cleaver

Sunday, 10 November 2013

The Magic of Seacross Lonning

WHEN you die, it is said you travel through a tunnel on your way to heaven. I'm fully expecting this tunnel to be Seacross Lonning at Embleton in Cumbria. The hazel and elm form a tunnel-effect for much of this lonning which creates a wonderfully peaceful and other-worldy effect. On our visit today (November 10th 2013) it was extremely wet underfoot; it's fair to say a river now runs through it! But for those of us with proper boots it is still passable and the light from the late afternoon sun reflects on the water to create a sublime green and yellow luminescence. Hopefully the pictures on this page will do some justice to the lonning. I had hoped to give a guided walk along the lonning to those involved in the Lonnings Art Project at Florence Mine, Egremont (see Florence Mine website) but the new river makes that impossible. Something for the new year. In the meantime, enjoy the photos!

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Raise your glass to this pub opera

YOU rarely get the chance to see opera in West Cumbria.
And while the knee-jerk reaction of most people is ‘I don’t like opera’, most admit that’s partly because they’ve never seen it!
The revelation this month that the Arts Council spends £69 per head on its London friends and only £4.58 on Cumbrians probably means the chance of seeing opera or any quality arts this far north is remote.
So hats off to Whitehaven’s Rosehill Theatre whose Rosehill on the Road programme brought the Olivier Award winning opera La Boheme to Workington’s Carnegie Theatre.
This production by Opera Up Close originated from a determination to make opera accessible with a capital ‘A’ – by performing it in a pub and in English. It proved such a sensation that it progressed to bigger venues. That’s probably a pity but the performers retained the pub ethos by performing some of the show among the Carnegie audience.
They also modernised Puccini’s 19th century opera with references to Jamie Oliver and Primark! For much of the opera there were plenty of laughs but there’s no escaping this – like most operas – ends badly with Mimi dying from consumption. However, that means some indulgent pathos with delights such as Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen.
To hear such fantastic singing – the only accompaniment was a piano – was a real treat and no doubt left even first-time opera visitors wanting more. Will we see it up north? The odds are probably against it given the Arts Council’s London bias but check out the Rosehill programme for forthcoming visits to the area by Richard Suart, Victoria Simmonds and the Elias String Quartet.
La Boeheme was staged in association with the Carnegie 
Theatre. It was sponsored by Allerdale Borough Council as part of its cultural programme accompanying the Rugby League World Cup.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

First entry for lonnings exhibition

I AM grateful to Egremont historian and poet E Alan Read for contributing the first 'exhibit' for the lonnings exhibition planned for Florence Mine next year. It's a poem based on Lovers' Lonning which can be found in St Bees..

Lovers Lonning, St Bees

Lovers' Lonning

It was in Lovers' Lonning,
A place of tranquillity, peace and calm,
Where the pathway is so narrow,
Only two could walk together
Preferably arm in arm,
An ideal lonning for sweethearts,
To overcome shyness, it is so benign.

Tall hedgerows on either side,
Where in sunshine or in shower,
A perfectly wonderful trysting lane,
Where any twosome can stroll with grace,
In moonlight or 'neath a star-filled sky,
Couples find the joy of Lovers' Lonning,
Where closeness is never out of place.

It was on a balmy summer evening,
In the month of June he met them,
Three lovely buxom young maidens,
All decked out in pretty summer dress,
A blond, a brunette and a raven-haired
Brown-eyed beauty, who immediately
Caught his roving eyes.

They introduced themselves without shyness,
As Madeline, Rosemary and Charlotte,
All such lovely well-befitting names,
So in return he told them he was Ronald,
Known to all his friends as Bing,
From that informal unexpected meeting,
Everything went with a swing.

It was here in this chance meeting of equanimity,
Ron and the raven-haired Charlotte became enamoured,
A word that before that first meeting,
Had never entered their vocabulary,
On a daily basis, tho' now it did,
At every opportunity and always would,
Lovers' Lonning now meant all it should.

Lovers' Lonning from then reached out to them,
It became their special trysting lane,
Walking there regularly entwined,
In each other's arms, they have blest it,
Where they are beyond all others' reach.

E Alan Read

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Mackenzie's Lonning


THE second of our guided lonning walks saw 16 people head down Mackenzie's Lonning, Cleator Moor. The abundance of summer had given way to the more sparse autumn but it still made for a pleasant covered walk down this sunken lonning. And there were also one or two dog walkers enjoying the lonning, including a man cutting and trimming one of the hazel branches into a walking stick. There were blackites and sloes aplenty but this was a day for chatting and slareing (slow walking) rather than picking fruit. The walk itself was only half an hour and some returned by another route. But those who came back with me back along Mackenzie's Lonning agreed that you really have to walk both ways to see a lonning properly! It just looks so different when you come back the other way.

Here's the link to my lonnings map
(including Mackenzie's Lonning). 

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Nine Becks Path

Nine Becks Path, Ennerdale
I AM primarily writing about lonnings at the moment - that's the Cumbrian dialect word for a lane. It's all part of an art project celebrating these green paths and I am selecting those lonnings with a particular name (Billy Watson's Lonning, Low Lonning, Love Lonning etc). However, I can't ignore some of the other nicely-named footpaths, packhorse routes, drove roads, corpse roads and the like that you can find in Cumbria. Pictured is Nine Becks Path in Ennerdale. One end of it has been 'lost' temporarily as man does battle with some awful larch disease which - as usual - can only be fought by chopping the trees down. However, if you start at Low Gillerthwaite Youth Hostel in Ennerdale you've more chance of finding the path. Head up the forest road up the hill and a quarter of a mile there's a sharp bend so you double back on yourself. The path comes off that hairpin bend, going back towards Ennerdale Bridge. The start is not easy to see but once in the woods you should pick it up. I was expecting to cross nine becks but in fact found none - perhaps the dry summer is to blame, or the forestation of the area. It's a path that runs for about half a mile above and parallel to the 'main road' below. Watch your step though: some left over police tape ("Do not cross this line") suggests at least one walker has lost his footing on this steep incline.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Lonnings project launched

Billy Watson's Lonning, Harrington
ONE of the most successful events held at Florence Arts Centre, Egremont - and it was a talk about lonnings! A wet Thursday night saw 50 people crowd into the lecture room at Florence to hear me talk about my passion and to learn about a new art project based on these green lanes which criss cross the county. First, my thanks to everyone who came. And secondly, it's not too late to get involved if you missed the launch. I'm hoping we can hold an exhibition and/or other arts events celebrating lonnings - probably early in 2014. So all artists need to do is go out exploring the lonnings and then create something which helps share with others the beauty of these forgotten paths.

What is a lonning? A Cumbrian dialect term for a footpath (in the north-east they usually spell it 'lonnen'). So in a sense any footpath is a lonning. However, I'm concentrating on those specifically named 'something lonning'.

Where to find a lonning? You'll find very few named on maps (although they are usually shown as paths on OS maps). And you wont find many in the thousands of guide books or walking books either. They're usually only known to 'the locals'. However, I've compiled a Google Map of lonnings - but be aware some of these are just 'notes' and the precise location may not be known. Email me if you need help.

What do lonnings look like? You'll find many photos on my Flickr page. Some are very wooded and sunken paths but others are very wide open lanes. And yet others have already been turned into B-roads.

What do I do when I've finished my painting/photo/poem etc? Just email me and I'll line it up for the exhibition.

How else can I get involved? Lesley and I will be holding a series of lonning walks in October. You'll find details on the Florence Arts Centre website. This blog will be updated with news of lonnings and it's also worth keeping an eye on the Florence Facebook page.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Cumbrian Lonnings

ALL Cumbrians instinctively know what a lonning is. It’s a dialect word shared with our friends in the North East (although they tend to spell it “lonnen”).
The Lakeland Dialect Society defines a lonning as a lane, and when many lonnings were “upgraded” to roads in the 19th century they were often re-named lanes. Hence Rosemary Lonning in Whitehaven became Rosemary Lane.
There are tens of thousands of books detailing walks and footpaths in Cumbria but amazingly there isn’t one specifically on lonnings. So I donned my boots to explore this Cumbrian phenomenon.
It soon became clear that “lane” is not sufficient as a definition. Some lonnings are barely tracks in the landscape while others are wide enough for tractors and 4x4s. At first I thought “a route between A and B” might be a more encompassing definition, but some lonnings don’t go anywhere. Brownrigg Lonning, for example, beside St Bees’ railway station, is a delightful lonning but it’s a dead end. So perhaps a more accurate definition is “a route between A and Not-A”.
Lonnings can be divided into two categories: Fat and Thin. And at Maryport you’ll find one of each running almost in parallel. They start opposite Netherhall School. Fat Lonning is ‘fat’ enough for cars to drive up and down while Thin Lonning (its real name is Pigeonwell Lonning) is barely wide enough for one person. It makes for a lovely walk to go down Fat Lonning, turn south along the coast path, past the Roman museum and then return via Thin Lonning.
Since every green lane can be a lonning there must be thousands of them throughout Cumbria, but there are many which have specific names – and they are as rich and varied as the lonnings themselves. In Cumbria we have Thieves Lonning, Guards Lonning, Billy Watson’s Lonning, Tin Barn Lonning, Gipsy Lonning, Johnnie Bulldog Lonning and even a Ha Ha Lonning.
Mackenzie’s Lonning was so named because it was used by mineworkers going to pits owned by a Mr Mackenzie. It featured on the letters page of The Whitehaven News a few months ago and is perhaps what most people dream a lonning should be like: a sunken lane with long green tunnels of willow, bramble and ferns with a soft “pavement” of soil. It’s just one of the many woodland tracks to be found south of Cleator Moor.
It’s a ‘thin’ lonning more akin to Dorset’s Holloways and – as much as the romantics would like – it’s not typical of a Cumbrian lonning. Lovers Lonning at St Bees is perhaps more typical. Historical records show it has existed for at least 150 years but its route and even its name has changed over that period. Today it starts nowhere in particular and goes nowhere in particular – which does at least mean it’s untroubled by much in the way of pedestrian traffic.
It runs from the B5345 Egremont Road (which was itself once a lonning – Quot Yat Lonning – before being upgraded to a road) to the Nethertown Road. The route then seems to follow the old corpse road before turning down to Seamill Lane.
On either side of the lonning are dykes (hedges). Like most lonnings there are remnants of dry stone walls buried deep beneath the bramble and honeysuckle. These dykes are so tumbled-down they no longer serve any purpose. Sheep will happily jump over them, wander down the lonning then jump over to the next field. The only purpose now of the dykes is a haven for wildlife. Sparrows, greenfinches and wrens are among your companions down Lovers Lonning.
Maps rarely mention lonnings by name and rarer still are any signposts using their names. The best way to track them down is to ask long-time residents. However, you will find Low Lonning, near Gosforth, on Google Earth. It’s also on estate maps going back to the 18th century. And its age is apparent as soon as you walk down it. Park in Gosforth and walk up Leagate Brow on the Wasdale Road. You’ll find the start of Low Lonning marked as a public footpath on the right hand side. 
At first it looks disappointing but the mundane farm track ends a few yards on and a stile takes you into the lonning proper. Like Lovers’ Lonning, the route may be little used by humans these days but it is teeming with flora and fauna. It might also be called blackite lonning, for the dykes are weighed down with bramble.
What really makes Low Lonning stand out though are the occasional breaks in the side of the lonning which reveal stunning views to Wasdale and its iconic screes. And once you get to the end there’s a delightful walk past Hall Senna bridge to the Eskdale Road; then turn right back to Gosforth.
There are no statistics available but lonnings are probably an endangered species. A historic building dating back 200 or 300 years would almost certainly be listed but not so footpaths. 
People drive everywhere so they are little used now. Farmers and landowners chip away at the edges to widen them for farm vehicles. Or lonnings are ‘upgraded’ to bridleways, then by-roads and finally have Tarmac, pavements and street lighting.
There is a ray of hope. And it comes in the form of Wardle’s Lonning at Lowca. This country path to Distington was upgraded in the past to a B-road. But in 2009 the Distington bypass cut the road in half so it’s now a dead end, and Mother Nature is busy reclaiming it. Grass is beginning to poke through the Tarmac and one day it may return to being a ‘proper’ lonning. One that will definitely go from A to Not-A.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Mapping out a theatrical treat

Review of Cartographers by Theatre by the Lake, Keswick.

KESWICK has a very good 700-seat theatre complete with roof. But why use that when you perform in nearby Cockshott Woods? In the pouring rain.
There was a purpose to this madness. Cartographers is a new play – written by Cumbrians Ian Hill and Kim Moore along with Lindsay Roden and Joe Ward Munrow – which focused on the subject of maps.
Around 50 hardy souls braved the cold and rain to walk round the wood. At various intervals there were ‘playlets’ look at different  aspects of cartography: a World War II evacuee drawing the streets of Newcastle on the ground to remind him of home; a middle-aged couple out walking as a therapy for the personal crisis they were facing and so forth.
The performers were the professional team from Keswick’s summer season and director was associate director Stefan Escreet.
Maps continue to have an appeal to artists and these writers delight in exploring the magic and mystery of them. “This is a map for getting lost” declares one of the characters while another contemplates the gaps between locations on the map. Others consider drawing a map of every birds’ nest or every spot where they have been happy – or sad.
The audience were forced to consider just what the purpose of a map should be. Should it  simply tell you where you are or can it be a map of where your life is going? Such mystical meanderings were given an extra dash of magic courtesy of singers and musicians who performed throughout the wood. Indeed, even the shouting of children from nearby Derwentwater seemed to be part of the performance.
Despite four writers being involved, each of the scenes beautifully merged with one another – each echoing the others. It was an enchanting piece of walking theatre which, at its climax, left the audience in the middle of this charming wood.
But how to get back to Keswick town centre? Now, if only we’d brought a map....

- Alan Cleaver

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

World Book Night at Florence

WE didn't have any books to give away on World Book Night but that wasn't going to stop us celebrating the event. And very kindly, Carlisle author Brindley Hallam Dennis - also known as Mike Smith (pictured) - came to give us a talk on all things 'booky'. A year ago he started Litcaff at Merienda's cafe in Carlisle (it meets on the third Wednesday of each month) and we can  only hope that he has lit another literary flame with his meeting at Florence. Brindley introduced us to the literary landscape of Cumbria - and some of the famous and less famous writers he has come across. The likes of HE Bates, Vivien Jones and AE Coppard were discussed during the two-hour event at Florence Mine, Egremont as well as advice on writing and getting published. It whetted our appetite for having a go ourselves. Mike is a teacher and we're hoping it will be possible to set up a creative writing course with him at Florence. And the seed of a "Litmine" was planted with regular meetings for those who want to write or just enjoy good writing. Watch this space!


BHDandme - Brindley's blog
Pewter Rose Press - where you can buy Brindley's books
Litcaff - the Carlisle literary meet-up
New Writing North - an essential website for writers
Liars League London
Florence Mine
Last Writes - a micro site devoted to the exhibition

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Music and comedy in equal measure

Can a musical note reach so high that it gets stuck in the rafters? And can you play tennis with a musical note? (apparently you can). And what happens when a 'live' video feed of a band starts playing a different tune to the band itself?!
These and other questions were answerd by the New Rope String band when their Pythonesque view of the world was brought to Florence Mine, Egremont, Cumbria. And to a full house at Florence. This band obviously has a huge following with people coming from all over Cumbria to see them. It was easy to see why. Yes, they're accomplished musicians but it's the comic way they use the music that makes them so entertaining.
At one point they set up a video camera apparently showing a live feed of them performing on stage - but then their video selves started mucking about and going 'off script'. A fight even broke out between the real musicians and the video ones! Quite surreal but terrific fun.
Pete Challoner, Tim Dalling and Jock Tyldesley make up the band and demonstrate that being able to sing or play an instrument is only the first step in 'putting on a show'. This was live theatre at its best and a tremendous, energetic, mind-boggling night of entertainment.
The show was put on with the help of Arts out West and the New Rope String band are performing at other venues in Cumbria throughout May. Find out more at

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Capturing the soul

PRIMITIVE civilizations used to believe that a photograph would capture part of your soul. It turns out they were right.
Proof is given at an exhibition at Florence Arts Centre, Egremont where  photographer Donna Brookes and others have put work on display.
Making The Usual Unusual is the title – and it does precisely what it says on the tin. Something as simple as a portrait of a young girl has been turned into something much more dramatic.
Donna – a Whitehaven photographer and, it would seem, part-time witch – does indeed appear to have captured some of the soul of her subjects. There’s a haunting, mesmeric quality about them. These are eyes that don’t just follow you round the room but stalk your mind for days afterwards.
Most ‘smiling family’ pictures today are tediously dull. You know the ones: taken against white backgrounds and with the requisite giant red ball in the foreground. They are pictures that tell you what everyone looks like but reveal absolutely nothing about the real person behind the smile.
One look at Donna’s work and her subjects shout their emotions at you with just a single glance.
Artists Fliss Watts and Iain Taylor are also exhibiting at Florence. These too are works that help you see the world in a new way. It’s an exhibition of breath-taking originality. Thank goodness. 

Friday, 15 March 2013

Downton Abbey with gardening tips

Review of Old Herbaceous at Keswick Theatre by Alan Cleaver

Peter Macqueen as Old Herbaceous. Photo by Keith Pattison
SEX, violence, blackmail, murder... that's right, it’s another play about gardening.

The rich tapestry of life is laid bare during this performance of Old Herbaceous: Propagating plants, killing slugs, winning gardening competitions and even flirting with the under-housemaid.

The star of the show is the garden of the Manor House, Fairfield in Gloucester and the narrator is head gardener, Mr Herbert Pinnegar - otherwise known as Old Herbaceous. The story first appeared as a novel in 1950 but was adapted by writer Alfred Shaughnessy as a one-man play in 1979 and has been a perennial favourite with actors ever since. This time it’s actor Peter Macqueen who has dusted off the tweed jacket and cloth cap of Old Herbaceous to regale the audience of Keswick Theatre with anecdotes from his past.

Macqueen is a favourite with Keswick regulars. Of unknown age - but estimated by theatregoers as being anything from 25 to 55 - he has played roles ranging from Blackbird's Toby Studebaker to Dickens' Scrooge. Thankfully, he manages to avoid the obvious stereotype of a curmudgeonly gardener and gives Old Herbaceous a rich blend of pathos and humour. The ease with which Macqueen fills this role is probably because he has a secret: Macqueen is a gardener himself.  Josie Lawrence and Ainsley Harriet are among his clients and his green fingers ensures he brings a confident air to the performance. As he tell his tales, Macqueen potters around the greenhouse taking cuttings, sowing seeds and mixing fertiliser with a dexterity normally only demonstrated by street magicians.

There's no plot to this gardening tale, only some entertaining stories told with a glint in Old Herbaceous' eye. Plus some sound advice on growing strawberries as early as April and what to use as fertiliser. It's Downton Abbey with gardening tips - what more could the modern theatregoer ask for?

  • Old Herbaceous  runs until Saturday, March 23. Tickets from or 017687 74411.
  • Peter Macqueen is taking the show on tour as part of Arts Out West.  He’ll be at Lindow Hall, Bowness on Solway on April 19 (Phone 016973 51788); Torpenhow Village Hall on April 20 (016973 71514); Calderbridge Village Hall on April 21 (01946 841478); Muncaster Parish Hall on May 18  (01229 717544).

Monday, 11 March 2013

Boden bewitches at Cockermouth

Jon Boden and The Remnant Kings
Kirkgate Theatre, Cockermouth
Sunday, March 10th

MUSIC gigs rarely get any better than this: Cracking songs, bewitching arrangements and performed with aplomb.
It was not surprising - though a little bit worrying - that Jon Boden revealed during the show that two of his fans in the Kirkgate audience had been to all ten gigs on this current tour.
This was the last date of the tour and, as always, was a sell-out show. Jon Boden, Sam Sweeney, Paul Sartin, Rob Harbron and Rick Foot also appear in the folk big band Bellowhead as well as various other folk outfits so each have their own fan base.
As the Remnant Kings, the band retain something of the 'big band' sound compared to the more traditional folk set-up of fiddle, accordian and flute.
The dictionary defines folk music as music passed on from one generation to the next and Mr Boden covers tunes not only passed down from the 18th and 19th century minstrels but also looks to the future and what songs might survive - and in what form. Hence Kate Bush's Hounds of Love and Hoagy Carmichael's Stardust made an appearance in enchanting arrangements.
The use on stage of wax cyclinders hauntingly relay some of the music from the past during the show and Mr Boden - shaped perhaps by having been brought up in Winchester during the cutting of the M3 through Twyford Down - speculates on a purely acoustic post-apocalyptic future. The eclectic choice of acoustic instruments by the band all add to the evocative atmosphere.
It all makes for a fascinating and bewitching soundscape which was well received by the Kirkgate audience.
The good news is that Jon Boden and John Spiers return to the Kirkgate on Tuesday, May 14. But there's barely a handful of tickets left so hurry up and book your seat. Phone 01900 826448 (10am to 1pm).

Review by Alan Cleaver

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Poet Laureate wows them at Keswick

Carol Ann Duffy
Words by the Water, Keswick 
8 March 2013

POET Laureate Carol Ann Duffy read several of her poems to a packed house at Keswick's Theatre by the Lake.
And despite suffering from a cold she still managed to do so with a swagger which shows Duffy is very much at the top of her form.
The audience enjoyed a good giggle at poems from her 1999 anthology, The World's Wife which, appropriately for International Women's Day - looked at the wives of the world's more famous men.
There was humour and clever word play in many of her poems, The Counties demonstrated the rich heritage of county names which the post office has deemed unnecessary in this age of the post code. And there was a wry smile from Duffy when she reached the line claiming she wanted to write to the Queen at Berkshire in praise of Slough.
But there was also pathos with a reading of Last Post - honouring the death of World War I veterans Henry Allingham and Harry Patch. And a beautiful reading of Christmas Truce supported on stage by musician John Sampson. 
Mother's Day was just a couple of days' away and Duffy has acknowledged how her mother's death 'deafened' her to poetry for a couple of years. She read from Premonitions, the cathartic poem which - thank goodness - finally broke down the psychological walls stopping her writing poetry.
This was an entertaining, educational and inspirational night which topped off a week of events at the increasingly popular annual Words by the Water Festival.

- Alan Cleaver

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The call of the Cumbrian Cthulhu

The remarkable work of Andrew Paciorek
FORGET William Wordsworth, dispatch Beatrice Potter into the waste bin and prepare to scare yourself to death with a collection of horror stories from the Lake District.

The pastel-coloured landscape and peaceful fells have been given a good dash of evil thanks to some enterprising  horror writers and their tales have now been published in Cumbrian Cthulhu.

For a start Cthulhu is pronounced Ka-thoo-lu. And for seconds it’s a monster created by science fiction writer HP Lovecraft in the 1920s. A monster that sleeps in the bowels of the earth but terrorises mankind through dreams. The creation inspired a number of tales including many written by other authors. And the mantle has now been taken on by this group of writers who decided to base their tales around the Lake District.
Both project founder Andrew McGuigan and illustrator Andrew Paciorek are Cumbrian born and bred.

McGuigan (born at Beckermet) runs the Cumbrian Cthulhu blog ( which first publishes the stories but there’s nothing like curling up under the duvet with a proper book to scare yourself to death with. And as an added bonus profits from the book sales go the mountain rescue service. Paciorek is one of Britain’s most remarkable artists and if the tales don’t give you nightmares, his illustrations certainly will.  You’ll find many familiar Lake District locations within the stories which give them an un-nerving patina of authenticity. Some of the tales are from published authors but many are by previously unpublished ones. It’s a wonderful introduction to some new talent.  All the stories will entertain – and some will scare you half to death. But then that’s what you want from a collection of horror stories.

There are two volumes available – both at £12.49 – from

Friday, 11 January 2013

Last Writes - first announcement

The public library at Boot Mill, Eskdale, Cumbria

Last Writes

A Requiem for the Printed Word

Ebooks, Kindles, iPads – technology is transforming the way we write and the way books are published. But in the rush to grasp the digital future are we being too quick to throw away the rich heritage of 'real' books and the printed word? In a new exhibition at Florence Arts Centre, Egremont, freelance journalist Alan Cleaver celebrates 5,000 years of the written word and warns of relying too much on graphics and pixels.

Included in the exhibition will be:
  • Cumbria's oldest piece of writing: a 6th century lullaby that can still touch your heart
  • Books for burning?: Not all books have been loved and some have been banned
  • The art of calligraphy: Cumbria's finest calligraphers demonstrate how the written word can also be the beautiful word
  • Libraries – an old-fashioned idea no longer needed or an valuable institution about to be reinvented and rediscovered? Cumbria's most beautiful library revealed – and what school libraries should look like.
  • Hold the front page: Some of the best – and worst – headlines of the last 100 years
  • The world's first ebook museum. You may think the ebook is brand spanking new. But meet the clumsy, cumbersome antique ebooks from the 1990s.
  • Have a go at calligraphy – it's not as hard as it looks (although several years' practice won't go amiss)
  • Remember typewriters? No nor do I. But come and have a go and rekindle the loving memory of crashing keys and end-of-line bells.

The exhibition will be at Florence Arts Centre, Egremont during April 2013. Admission free.