Willy Wonka would have set up a factory in the Lake District, such is the region’s obvious and unabashed love of sweet eccentricity.
This is my first thought as I walk down the lanes and side streets of Ulverston, the first of the major towns as you enter “The Lakes”. Strictly speaking, it’s on the fringes, not in the park itself, but I was here for a weekend with my friend, Nicky, who had decided to leave the four-wheel-drive land of Barnes, and debouche to Ulverston, home of Laurel and Hardy, sweet shops and quaint idiosyncrasy. And it’s a delight.
Blue plaques on the walls of buildings, from bakers to banks, tell of the history of the place, and it has a feel of a winter Alpine resort; built for harsh long winters, although Nicky assures me it only had ten days of snow and ice last year. During our visit, they were celebrating their Dickensian festival, when locals dress up in Victorian attire and parade their petticoats and top hats, looking like extras out of A Christmas Carol, and breaking into “indeed, indeed, sir, thank you very much, I shouldn’t wonder,” and tipping their hats as they pass each other. This is the land of dog walkers, and old-fashioned bakers and butchers and witchery shops selling oils and smudges of white sage to keep away bad energies – and tourists.
It is also a town which is the perfect base for tours of the local villages and walks on the Fens, which are inspiring. You smell the freshness of the air as soon as you leave the train – especially if you’ve come all the way from Euston. If you are hiring a car, my advice is to choose one with good suspension and keep it small. A four-wheel-drive sounds like a good idea, but roads are narrow, pot-holes are like landmines, and smaller cars are easier to park.
Ulverston seems to have countless tributes – statues large and small – to celebrate the comic duo of Laurel and Hardy (although, technically, it is Laurel who was born here). They also have a small museum, which is worth a visit, as is the small but charming cinema; a throwback to a bygone era, with tickets delivered by hand, pots of tea and biscuits, and the old Pearl & Dean reels and ads for Kia-Ora. The films are new, but the experience is magic. For food, rather than eating locally, I suggest venturing to nearby Broughton on Furness, where one of the best pubs in the country for fireside comfort and food is located, The Blacksmith Arms (according to the Sunday Times).
I took a walk to the Hoad Monument, built in honour of Sir John Barrow, and now a Grade II listed structure, resembling a lighthouse in a sea of fields and pastures, with views over Morecambe Bay and Yorkshire Dales. Barrow was one of the founders of the Royal Geographical Society; a polymath, teacher, keen mathematician and linguist, and an interest in astronomy, he became second secretary to the Admiralty and one of the leading promoters of 19th century exploration. His monument here is a must do, even if you don’t climb the tower, as the surrounding views are nothing short of breath-taking.
I have climbed the Duomo in Florence and Rome, the leaning tower in Pisa and many turrets in many castles up to their bells, but nothing is as narrow and challenging, or exhilarating. Its 112 steps are inscribed “aim high, go far” as a word of encouragement, and a sense of mind over matter is required because you feel as though you must lean away from the stairs and face the abyss below which, for a moment, takes your breath away. Once you take the journey, and venture down, they ask you to ring a bell and sign the visitors’ book – I couldn’t help but scribble, ‘I am still alive’. As for the hill, it’s a doddle and benefits from being one of those walks where you don’t need to come down the same way you came up.
On the Friday, Nicky drove us to Cartmel, famous for being sticky toffee land. Verging on the Cotswolds or ‘London by the Lakes’, it’s also the preserve of one Simon Rogan, himself busy turning Cartmel into Roganshire with a shop, farm, hotel, café and three-star Michelin star restaurant L’Enclume, in and around the main square, but the village also benefits from the three-star Priory hotel and numerous gift and interiors shops selling wonderful nonsense at London prices. But, for my part, I recommend making your way to the Cartmel village shop and buying all manner of sticky toffee confections, from gin, to pudding, to sauce – or all three. The shop specialises in wonderful chutneys of all concoctions (rhubarb and, yep, sticky toffee chutney) as well as a range of local produce.
When it comes to cheese, Cartmel Cheeses, in Unsworth’s Yard, is phenomenal, not just in its range, but it offers cheese platters for lunch, with requisite chutneys. The local Unsworth Yard brewery is adjacent, and on the day, I was there, the annual Christmas market had taken hold with stalls in the main square, an elegant festive drama in the Priory, including donkeys, and featuring horses and carts, lit up, marching through the high street. They don’t do things by halves in Cartmel, clearly. Little surprise it’s London society’s second home.
A little bundle of sweetness and charm, with a dash of quirkiness, and wrapped up in joy; yes, I think Willy Wonka could have done wonders had he set up in Ulverston.
For more information about Ulverston, including details of shops, festivals and things to see and do, and to start planning your trip, please visit www.chooseulverston.co.uk.
Header photo: Cartmel Cheeses