Smelling the roses of Lancashire and Yorkshire

Who Knows Where The Time Goes? A song by Sandy Denny. And in these parts time has been evaporating at an alarming rate. I’m about to depart on another trip and I still haven’t blogged the previous one. So here goes…

Here are some impressions of a recent trip to the north of England to visit friends in Bolton and to meet my father in York. Don’t worry, I will not give you a blow-by-blow account of what we did every day. That would be like the old days when neighbours made you sit through slide shows of their holidays – though I do have some photographs to share!

In the centre of Manchester we visited both the Whitworth Art Gallery and the Manchester Art Gallery (formerly the City Art Gallery). The highlight of the first, for me, was a special exhibition of The M+ Sigg Collection of Chinese art from the 1970s onwards.

M+ Sigg Collection at Whitworth Art Gallery (image: Graham Brown)
M+ Sigg Collection at Whitworth Art Gallery (image: Graham Brown)

I had not thought about modern Chinese art before and, if I had, I might have imagined there was not much because of state control. But this collection had some really striking artwork – a giant sculpture made up of Stone Age axe heads, photographs of a man gradually being covered in calligraphy, some self-portraits of heads that almost literally leapt off the wall, photographs of naked human bodies made to look like geographical features and much more. I loved it – and I don’t normally like modern art.

Hence, at Manchester Art Gallery, I knew I would enjoy their display of Victorian paintings, one of my favourite eras. It is many years since my last visit and I had forgotten that Auguste Charles Mengin’s 1877 painting of Sappho – of which we have a framed poster at home – is in the collection. Edwin Landseer’s 1849 painting The Desert, of a lion, is another favourite, and reputedly formed the basis of the illustration on Tate & Lyle’s Golden Syrup which has remained unchanged since my childhood.

The following day was less artistic but equally life-affirming. Blackpool! For those of you outside the UK, this is perhaps England’s most famous seaside holiday resort.

We began with a trip to the top of Blackpool Tower, opened in 1894 and more than 500 feet high. The views across Blackpool, the coast and beyond are truly spectacular.

Back down on the ground we explored the Comedy Carpet, a fabulous collection of jokes, catchphrases, comedy scripts and humorous song lyrics, all laid out in granite letters set in concrete on the pavement (sidewalk, Americans) between the tower and the sea.

Blackpool's Comedy Carpet (image: Graham Brown)
Blackpool’s Comedy Carpet (image: Graham Brown)

My favourites included the Dad’s Army script leading up to the famous “Don’t tell him, Pike!” – it shows how well crafted the whole sequence was – the lyrics to Benny Hill’s Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West), a wonderful Ronnie Barker monologue and some of the shorter entries: “If you don’t laugh at the jokes, I’ll follow you home and shout through the letter box” (Ken Dodd) or “Eeeh… In’t it grand when yer daft?” Not sure who spoke that last phrase – well, that is part of the fascination of the comedy carpet, you are left to work out some of the answers for yourself.

There was another I thought particularly suitable for Kathie Touin (Mrs Brown, a dual US/UK citizen): “I’m half British, half American. My passport has an eagle with a tea bag in its beak.” Turns out that was Bob Hope.

And perhaps my favourite… Stan: “You know, Ollie, I was just thinking.” Ollie: “What about?” Stan: “Nothing. I was just thinking.”

Our day in Blackpool also included a ride on a tram to Fleetwood, past the Fishermen’s Friend factory, a ferry ride from Fleetwood across the River Wyre, the illuminations and, of course, we had fish & chips and bought some seaside rock.

We spent a quieter day in Port Sunlight, on the Wirral peninsula near Liverpool, a model (in the sense of good, not small) village created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by William Hesketh Lever, the soap manufacturer, for his workers. It sounds very paternalistic, patronising even, in this day and age, but some architecturally beautiful homes were built in a lovely setting of gardens, trees and flowers. On a sunny day, like the one we enjoyed, it is lovely to walk around.

Part of the Port Sunlight War Memorial (image: Graham Brown)
Part of the Port Sunlight War Memorial (image: Graham Brown)

Port Sunlight also boasts the Lady Lever Art Gallery – more Victorian paintings of the kind I love – and in the centre of the village a spectacular and moving war memorial, showing tableau of various groups of servicemen, designed by Sir William Goscombe John and unveiled in 1921.

Unexpectedly we also stumbled across some music history. The Port Sunlight Museum contains a display of photographs of pop stars who played at venues around the village, including, amazingly, The Beatles. A taped interview, recorded for hospital radio, made just after Ringo joined the band and just before they became huge, is available to hear – how young they all sound. Ringo’s first public show with the band was at Hulme Hall, Port Sunlight on 18 August 1962 – Kathie Touin proudly stood next to the plaque marking this auspicious occasion.

Kathie Touin with the plaque marking Ringo Starr's first appearance with The Beatles (image: Graham Brown)
Kathie Touin with the plaque marking Ringo Starr’s first appearance with The Beatles (image: Graham Brown)

Over in York the first four days centred largely around historic transport: Yorkshire Air Museum, the National Railway Museum, the North Yorkshire Moors Railway (a heritage or preserved railway) and the Scarborough Fair Collection.

It was a beautiful sunny day for the air museum visit as we strolled between buildings and displays. There are many historic aircraft to see, of course, both indoors and in hangars. There are also exhibitions that bring home the danger and fear of serving in a World War Two bomber – such aircraft were once based at the museum’s home of Elvington. And the museum has historic buildings, such as the control tower, and a splendid canteen with large model aircraft suspended from the ceiling.

The railway museum in York – free entry – will easily take a whole day of your time. There are fine restored steam locomotives including world-speed record holder Mallard, Winston Churchill (which hauled the statesman’s funeral train), an enormous Chinese steam locomotive (built in Britain), the beautiful maroon streamlined Duchess of Hamilton; carriages used by the Royal Family; and a hall full of railway memorabilia stacked high to the ceiling.

There was a bonus for me as well – I briefly went outside onto the museum’s viewing platform overlooking the main railway line just outside York railway station, seconds before the steam locomotive Tornado went past in the rain.

North Yorkshire Moors Railway: LMS Black 5 Eric Treacy and LNER A4 Sir Nigel Gresley (image: Graham Brown)
North Yorkshire Moors Railway: LMS Black 5 Eric Treacy and LNER A4 Sir Nigel Gresley (image: Graham Brown)

The North Yorkshire Moors Railway is another grand day out – we drove to the railway’s terminus at Pickering and then took their steam trains along the line to its end at Grosmont, then on, still behind a steam locomotive, over regular Network Rail tracks to the historic seaside town of Whitby.

It was a wet day but somehow it doesn’t matter if it rains when you are travelling on a relaxed, journey, lazy even, between atmospheric brick-and-wood stations, watching the scenery, listening to the rhythms of the steam locomotive and of the carriage wheels.

Almost opposite Whitby railway station is a fabulous fish and chip restaurant called Trenchers. Many folk from the train headed straight there and so there was a queue but it was well worth the wait – the food was fabulous, the decor pleasant and the staff engaging.

A quick explore of Whitby found the town making much of its Dracula connections (Whitby features in the Bram Stoker novel). You can even buy Dracula seaside rock. It’s black, of course.

We spent another nostalgic day at the Scarborough Fair Collection. This is well worth finding, tucked away near Scarborough on the site of a holiday camp.

Inside are Wurlitzer organs – two of them being played live for a tea dance while we there – self-playing dance organs, vintage fairground rides (which you can ride on), old cars and motorcycles, traction and showmen’s engines and, once again, enthusiastic and helpful staff.

I was interested to discover a showman’s engine called The Iron Maiden, nothing to do with the heavy metal group, it acquired its name when it featured in a cinema film of the same name in 1962. Before that it had been known as Kitchener. As it was built in 1920, originally as a road haulage engine, I can only assume it was named after Earl Kitchener, a hero of British Empire and Britain’s Secretary of State for War, who drowned near Orkney in 1916 when HMS Hampshire sank (I am on the Kitchener & HMS Hampshire Memorial project committee).

On a day in York itself we took in York Minster – what a beautiful building – and three of the finest coffee shops I have ever visited: Bennett’s (next to the Minster), Cafe Concerto (just around the corner) and Harlequin (in the Shambles, where we had a lunch of super home-made food).

Finally we visited the National Trust’s Beningbrough Hall for a relaxing day out. The weather was good so we were able to sit in the gardens and admire all the plants and vegetables we are not able to grow in Orkney.

In the house I was struck by the Royal Family portraits on display, loaned from the National Portrait Gallery – an informal painting of Her Majesty The Queen with the Duke of Edinburgh, The Queen Mother, Prince Charles, William and Harry was particularly striking.

We returned from York for a relaxing weekend with our friends back in Bolton before flying back to Orkney.

But there was time for two more notable transport sightings. At York railway station, while we waited for our train to Manchester Piccadilly, we saw a Class 91 locomotive named Battle Of Britain Memorial Flight with an imaginative paint scheme.

Boarding FlyBe's The George Best at Manchester Airport (image: Graham Brown)
Boarding FlyBe’s The George Best at Manchester Airport (image: Graham Brown)

And two days’ later our flight from Manchester to Edinburgh was on a FlyBe Dash 8 named The George Best. For young or non-UK readers, he was one of Britain’s most famous footballers, best known as a player with Manchester United and Northern Ireland.

Next stop for us in Arizona to see Kathie’s folks so guess what my next blog is likely to be about? Over and out.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Wikipedia: Bolton

Whitworth Art Gallery

Whitworth Art Gallery: M+ Sigg Collection

Manchester Art Gallery

Blackpool Tower

Wikipedia: Blackpool Tower

Comedy Carpet

BBC News: Comedy Carpet

Port Sunlight Village

Wikipedia: Port Sunlight

Yorkshire Air Museum

National Railway Museum

North Yorkshire Moors Railway

Scarborough Fair Collection

Kitchener & HMS Hampshire Memorial project: blog

Published by Graham Brown

I am Graham Brown, author of this blog, an Englishman living in Orkney since St Magnus Day 2010. I’m married to musician, singer and songwriter Kathie Touin. I am a member of Harray & Sandwick Community Council and a Manager (committee member) of Quoyloo Old School (community centre). I volunteer with the RSPB. I was on the committee which restored Orkney’s Kitchener Memorial and created the HMS Hampshire wall. I belong to the Radio Caroline Support Group, Orkney Field Club and Orkney Heritage Society. I spent nearly 24 years at the BBC in London. Remember: One planet, don’t trash it.

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