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Jane Stuart – Writer

Writing about real life Up North: football, ale, food and mental health – with a good dash of humour.

So…what do you do on a Saturday when there’s no football? During the years 2BC and 1BC (Before Chasetown), I tried in vain to find things to do to replace that buzz that I think is unique to the football. But there was just one thing that came oh so close for me. The one thing that got me bouncing out of bed on a Saturday morning and dancing round the house. The one thing that assured me a couple of hours of entertainment on a Saturday in a random town with very random friends. And that thing, dear reader, is known as Hotpotting. Want to know what that entails? Well read on! These days are always adventures in themselves, and today was to be no exception – bringing a plague, a bidet, three micropubs, a conga and a near-death experience…

I was heading to Colne today. Not the one in Germany with the stunning cathedral, but a mill town in East Lancashire – a corner of my home county that I had not visited previously. I knew very little about the town, aside from it having a defunct football team called Colne Dynamoes – who folded in the summer of 1990 after winning the Northern Premier League – and from whose demise Blackpool gained Tony Rodwell and Dave Lancaster.

I was travelling by train today – up to Preston and then across to Colne. The first leg of the journey was spent immersed in my studies, which today involved listening to Quadrophenia by The Who. Somewhat fittingly, I found myself seated opposite a man with an anxiety disorder, who sipped his water nervously about every three seconds during the part of the journey when his luggage was not in his line of vision. I recalled the days when I had just moved to the Midlands and I was so uncomfortable on my frequent journeys up the West Coast Mainline, on more than one occasion I found myself sobbing on Preston station. Oh the hours I have waited (and wasted) on that station! And it’s always so grey and gloomy. But my cloud companion travels with me no more – and today was to be day of sunshine and smiles.

In my (mercifully short) dash across Preston station to meet my connecting train, a poster advertising a book caught my eye. This was ‘House Swap’ by Rebecca Fleet. ‘Be careful who you let in…’ invited the poster. I was suitably intrigued. Once settled on my train, I downloaded a sample of the book to my Kindle. I have not been finding enough time for reading of late, so today – instead of leaving the book dormant in my library for months or years on end – I decided to start reading my new book straight away. Oh and could I put it down? An awesome read, highly recommended.

The train to Colne passed through one of my favourite places – Oswaldtwistle. Forever lodged in my mind is the failed pronunciation of the name by William G Stewart on Fifteen to One – he tripped over the two W’s each time and it always made me laugh. The departure boards at Preston couldn’t be bothered to even spell it, with the stop named ‘Church and Oswald’. And the train announcer called it by its local affectionate nickname of ‘Ossy’.

Within minutes of stepping off the train I had already fallen in love with Colne. At the station itself I was greeted with the following poem depicting the life of a local mill worker:

A Day In My Life by Irene Burns (2007)

At the windows and doors the ‘knocker up’ raps

Time to go off to the mill when he taps

Hear the clatter of clogs all scurrying down

Cross the cobbles to the mills of each Lancashire town

Checking his watch is the boss at the gate

Of the mill where I work – so I must not be late

Damp weather outside – cloth will weave well today

With the skylights all whitewashed to keep sun at bay

In the mill down the alleys, with plenty of steam

The looms start their clatter all set beam to beam

With a ‘kiss on my shuttle’ my tins full of weft

I watch over my looms to the right and to the left

I’m proud of my weaving, these skills I have got

When ‘taking ends up’ and my neat ‘weaver’s knot’

Armed with ‘reed hooks’ ‘sharp scissors’ and a ‘scratching up comb’

As I work I’m soon covered with speckles of dawn

If I need a new ‘warp’ or my shuttle should trap

On call is my tackler, a real helpful chap

The noise it’s so loud now I can’t hear a thing

So as I weave each piece in my heart I will sing

Till ‘the hooter’ is sounding the end of work day

Picking sticks cease click clacking, all shuttles stop play

I’m so happy that I’m a Lancashire Lass

Proud I weave cloth the world knows is first class

***

As I headed into town I was impressed with the white stone bus shelters (these sturdy constructions should be encouraged nationwide) and the floral displays. One of the flower beds contained a replica Titanic and I learned that the bandmaster on the Titanic, Wallace Hartley, was born and raised in Colne. In fact there’s a little blue plaque denoting his house, close to the station.

I had a bit of a hike ahead of me to my accommodation, where I planned to check in and despatch my overnight bag, quite determined not to be distracted by any of the (quite plentiful) hostelries along the way. Dear reader, I failed. I found myself chucking at a sign outside one establishment, promoting an upcoming event offering ‘Wines from Unusual Countries’. What constituted an ‘unusual country’, I pondered? For some reason this allusion to places strange and unknown brought ‘The League of Gentlemen’ to mind (“There is a Swansea!”). Imagine, then, my uproarious laughter when I took a step back to note the name of this place – only to find it was ‘Tubbs of Colne’. Well, how could I possibly walk past now without meeting my first local people of the day? I found no trouble here – but I did enjoy a cheeky Bowland Brewery Boxer Blonde. Friendly place, worth a visit.

After this brief interlude, I continued my long (50 minute) walk to my accommodation which, I now realised, was not in Colne itself, but on the outskirts in a place called Trawden (buses are available). Still, it was a nice enough day (by Lancashire standards, by which I mean it wasn’t raining too heavily yet), so I set off on my merry way. I nodded to the Muni as I passed (I’d be back there later for some serious Hotpotting action) and, as I headed out of the town centre, was struck by the beauty of the local countryside. Lancashire truly is a beautiful county and I miss her very much – and am always pleased to be ‘home’ on the occasions I find to visit. Along my scenic route were sheep and little baa lambs, ducks and ducklings…and oh my I have never seen so many greenfly in my life! I found myself walking through swarms of the bloody things! They were all over my clothes, in my mouth, in my eyes, in my hair… How had the floral displays survived this? Do greenfly come to Colne on their holidays? Or was this the greenfly equivalent of ‘Flying Ant Day’ where they all spring to life at once? I swear I am still seeing them fly out of my handbag as I write.

I got a bit hot on my walk – an extra layer of greenfly will do that – and the last part of my walk up to the Sunnyfield B&B was up a hill. Boy was I in need of a lie down when I got there! But what a delightful place this was! I had booked my accommodation some months in advance, so I couldn’t remember what to expect. It was basically a suite of rooms (!) in someone’s house – with an array of special features that made for lovely touches. I was particularly excited that there was a bidet in the bathroom, not to mention the vanity kit (complete with emery board), bathrobe, a selection of teas, fresh cold milk and water in the fridge (I was so excited by this I actually fell over, albeit from a precarious crouching position), an international plug adapter, a tray to put your shoes in, an umbrella, DVDs and games and a patio with a swing chair. What a truly delightful place this was. And lovely views too.

As much as I would have loved to have stayed and enjoyed the excellent facilities, now it was time to get down to business – and head to one of the main attractions of Colne, which demanded a visit. For, dear reader, down New Market Street (five minutes from the railway station – the other side of town to where I now found myself) are three micropubs situated next door to each other. And I had a feeling these were worth trekking back across town for without undue delay.

Of course I had to stop to review a cat along the way (if you haven’t discovered @thecatreviewer on Twitter, get on it immediately – it’s hilarious and important work). On my approach to the town centre I was lured by an irresistible aroma into the unfortunately-named Cemetery Chippy, where I took full advantage of tucking into some proper Northern chips and gravy (I resisted ordering any meat products just to be on the safe side). What with Chasetown being allocated a place in the Southern League next season, I fear my opportunities for gravy will be scarce once the football season recommences. I have resolved to take a flask of gravy with me on awaydays.

Right! Now I was ready for some serious pub action. My first stop was Tapster’s Promise, which was home to a friendly bunch of people, who were engaged in conversation with one another in the true spirit of the micropub and traditions of the ‘public house’ – it was much like being in someone’s living room. Having first checked that the ABV was sensible, I ordered a nice cold can of Shindigger Everything’s Peachy from the fridge. Ahh I needed that after a(nother) 50 minute walk! Pointing at my left breast, the landlord enquired: “Is that a hop?”. This offered a fine opportunity for me to promote my favourite brewery (Fierce), whose merchandise I was sporting today. As this was only a flying visit (I had three pubs to visit in a fairly short space of time), it was unfortunate that I had some football admin to attend to in this pub, when the locals seemed very keen to engage me in conversation. “What sort of music do you like?”, asked the man seated next to me, inviting me into the disagreement he was having with the man next to him. “Well I’m going to see the Lancashire Hotpots at the Muni tonight – they’re my favourites.” “What sort of music do they play then?” “Err…comedy.” At this point the man in the window seat piped up: “Oh yeah, I know them – my uncle had ‘Chippy Tea’ played at his funeral.” Have I mentioned how much I love Colne?

Somewhat reluctantly I made my way out of this ace pub and popped in next door to Boyce’s Barrel. Now this was the first of the micropubs in Colne, opening in November 2014. And what a lovely place this was too! This had the best selection of handpulls of the three – and was also populated with very friendly locals. I opted for a half of the Dartford Wobbler Curiously Dark Mild because I still can never resist a mild. Here I made the landlady’s day by telling her that I had decided to come to Colne to see the Hotpots purely because of the micropubs here. Apparently the dilution of trade from the competition is offset by the increase in footfall from beer tourists (like myself). The landlord was envious of me going to see the Hotpots: “I’d have gone myself but I’ve got a wedding to go to.”

The next pitstop was Cask’n’Keg – where I was force-fed tasters of each of the beers on offer until I decided on one I liked. This was less distressing than the previous occasion when I was force-fed samples without asking (I still have nightmares about that celery beer in Liverpool) and I opted for the Great Corby Blonde. I supped a half of this in the window seat whilst enjoying the music – Bonnie Tyler’s version of “Don’t Turn Around”.

Now it was time to head to the Muni and the main event of the night – The Lancashire Hotpots. How can I describe these boys? All I can say is, if you enjoy letting your hair down and having a laugh and a dance and a singsong with a roomful of daft people…well what are you waiting for? Look ‘em up and get yer tickets booked! And the people of Colne certainly know how to party! What an awesome bunch! The sight of them skipping to the bar with arms aloft in pure glee when the doors were opened is something that will live with me for a long time. And the looks on the faces of the bar staff as we conga’d past a little later were a proper treat…

Despite having been on my feet for the latter part of the show at least, this had been a seated gig, so I was suitably recharged (nay exhilarated) for my walk back to the B&B. I’d sleep well tonight, that was for sure! I was on 18,904 steps for the day by the time I collapsed into bed. Zzz…

***

The following morning as I took my leave, I promised my landlady that I would give the accommodation a good review as it was such an immaculately kept place, with lots of lovely touches (such as the umbrella and the fresh milk – none of this UHT packet nonsense). I mentioned that I had walked to and from town three times now and knew the route pretty well. She pointed out that, if I was to head off in the opposite direction, the route back into town was shorter. I debated this for a moment – I had a train to catch and I knew where I was going the other way – but in the end I bowed to her superior local knowledge (and besides I would have felt rude ignoring her helpful advice), so I headed off into unknown territory (seemingly into a field) with my fingers firmly crossed.

Almost immediately I encountered (a) a dog (which prevented me from calling over a cat I had spotted, so I was already a little flustered) and (b) an unexpected t-junction. I had been assured that the route was a straight line but now I had a decision to make. Panicking, I asked Google. Apparently the path to my right led to a farm, so I took a left. Mercifully the promised B-road appeared at the end, and this I was assured would take me into the centre of Colne.

Now sure this may well have been a shorter route to my destination but my goodness THE HILLS!!! I was brought up in a flat seaside town and I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to walking up hills. I don’t like them. They’re hard. They hurt. And the last one was so bad I nearly gave up on making my train in favour of collapsing in a heap in the middle of the road (for there were no pavements). Well that was my landlady’s good review out the window, since she had sent me to my near-death (without checking I had packed the bottle of water she had left for me – which remained in the fridge).

Hallelujah! The oasis of Tesco and its much-welcomed Buxton water was finally in sight and gratefully gulped down. Ah the relief! The end of the walk was now in sight – and I finally arrived back at Colne station. Here I was greeted by a sign from Northern Railway announcing: “Better things to come for Colne. Hourly Sunday service to Preston. This is just the beginning. We are modernising. Destination 2020.” Bless. As I waited for my train, I eavesdropped on the (loud) conversation of a Londoner who was also waiting in the shelter: “I was attacked ten times last night!” Bloody hell – and I managed to escape unscathed from a 50 minute walk in the dark. They must really dislike Southerners up here! My mind flicked back to the Cemetery Chippy. I shortly realised that she was alluding to some sort of game on her phone, which came as somewhat of a relief.

The train journey to Preston was uneventful – and I found I had a 45 minute wait at my favourite of favourite stations ahead of me. What to do, what to do? First stop: shop to replenish my water supplies. Dear reader, the very same bottle of Buxton water that had cost me 55p in Colne was a whopping £1.99 at Preston station! What an outrage! In typically British fashion, I left the shop in disgust without buying it – and promptly went back in and bought it five minutes later because, after all, I was thirsty. To compensate slightly, I took full advantage of the station facilities (which are quite good these days, it pains me to say) – helping myself to a free copy of Lancashire magazine and using the charging points in the waiting room to give my phone and Kindle a boost. The magazine amused me greatly, particularly the ‘Food Map of Lancashire’. Now, when you think of Blackpool, what food springs to mind? Rock, perhaps? Fish and chips? Candy floss? Hot doughnuts (mmm doughnuts…)? No, folks, on the ‘Food Map of Lancashire’ right over Blackpool there was CABBAGE. Synonymous with Blackpool, of course…

I immersed myself in my book for the rest of my journey home and finally, some six-and-a-half hours after leaving the B&B, I was back home safely. Colne – you were absolutely delightful and reminded me (as if I ever need reminding) what a magnificently quirky and friendly county I come from. Thank you for having me and I look forward to visiting you again soon.

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