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