Fun in Frome


Did I mention that I really love my work? This week work took me to Frome — a beautiful small town in a part of Somerset which I have never visited. I was there to see Jen . . .


. . . and also got to hang out with Jim (the inimitable Veuf Tricot) and Scooter. The latter is a very smart feline — far too smart to injure his dignity posing for photographs.


Jen and I worked (and plotted) really hard, and then then took an afternoon off to potter around town. I’m really glad we did, as Frome is a place that seems to demand pottering.

Everywhere you look, there are inviting windows to peer into. . .



And things to look at . . .



(This needle-felted Seagull mask was one of an incredible collection in a shop called OWL. )

On Catherine Hill, there are several fabulous vintage stores, selling niche and carefully curated garments and objects. I love this selection of cloches . . .


. . . and am concerned that this dress and its very particular green is going to haunt me.


Catherine Hill also boasts a lovely haberdashery shop called Millie Moon


I have a mild addiction to ribbons and trims . . .


. . . which was certainly fed there.


And best of all, Catherine Hill has its own lovely yarn shop – Marmalade Yarns


In this extremely pretty and well-situated shop, Catriona and Maxine sell a superb selection of British yarns from mainstream producers like Rowan to some of the best independents like Skein Queen, Fyberspates, and Shilasdair. Marmalade Yarns is also a stockist of (ahem) ME. I don’t think it will ever stop being exciting to visit a place that sells my book and patterns.

(Jen and Catriona outside Marmalade Yarns. Yes, Catriona is wearing an o w l sweater!)

Thankyou, Jen, for a fun and productive couple of days, and for a great introduction to Frome!

hedges, walls, and an ancient sock

We have been out and about in Border country. This part of the world is rolling and green and utterly lovely at this time of year. The fields are full of lambs and calves; the hard edges of the roadside are softened with the haze of new growth; the hedgerows are white with hawthorn and cow parsley. “It really looks like England,” said Tom, as we drove South. “Probably the hedgerows,” I replied. However much Wordsworth tried to gloss them as natural – “little lines / Of sportive wood run wild” – hedgerows are, of course, one of the obvious signs of private property and enclosure. This landscape is completely parcelled up inside their pretty green walls. Pretty stone walls abound down here, too.

We had crossed the border to have a walk around the Borders’ definitive wall – the one belonging to the Emperor Hadrian.

It has been quite a while since I’ve done any low-level walking in England, and I found it interesting. The land is fertile and well-drained; the paths are clear and well-defined. There are stiles and gates enabling you to pass through the criss-crossing walls and hedges. There are wooden waymarkers everywhere — one rarely has to consult the map. There are wary sheep and dubious cows. One’s dog must walk to heel at all times. I am not saying that the Highlands are in any sense any more wild or natural or anything – Scottish landscapes are, of course, equally carefully managed and controlled. It is just different, and those differences feel quite striking.

The most interesting walls we saw yesterday were those at the Roman fort of Vindolanda. When researching a feature a while ago, I had read about a child’s sock that had turned up at the Vindolanda excavations – an ancient, envelope-shaped bootee of woven wool. It had been pulled from the ground intact, and is probably the oldest complete woolly sock in existence in Britain. I really wanted to see it.

If you haven’t been to Vindolanda, I would definitely recommend it. The site’s finds are marvelous, and are presented extremely well in the recently-refurbished museum. Being a snotty historical type, I was less sure about the 1970s reconstructions of a wooden gatehouse and section of wall, but the museum collections really blew me away. No photography allowed, so I can’t show you any of these wonderful objects, which I found moving in their ordinariness and what they suggested about daily life in a garrison town on the edge of Empire. The textiles were the highlight for me: the sock was incredible, and certainly well-worth the wait, and there was also an intriguing insect-proof wig, and an amazing and very beautiful collection of shoes (Vindolanda probably has the best-preserved collection of Roman leather in the world). References to textiles abound, too, in Vindolanda’s famous writing tablets, with one correspondent sending the no-doubt grateful recipient “socks from Sattua, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants.”

After all those walls, we crossed back over the border to take advantage of Scotland’s more liberal ideas of public access with a spot of wild camping.

There is nothing quite like a copper beech on a soft Summer evening

even the bracken looked nice

and you can’t argue when your chosen spot comes complete with its own swimming pool.

seeing the light in a station bar*

(Newcastle Central)

Tom and I were talking about station bars the other day and discovered that as teenagers, living many miles apart in Stretford and Rochdale, we both liked to hang around the one at Manchester Victoria. This had, before it fell victim to nailed-down chairs and the homogenising effects of Travellers Fayre (shudder), a marvellous, atmospheric and (to our teenage selves) immensely exotic interior: all stucco, coloured glass, and plush upholstery. (I’ve not been there for quite some time, so have no idea of its more recent fate). Anyway, our conversation turned on how station bars form a particular genre of British pub: how they are purportedly spaces of transition, of waiting, and therefore never a destination in themselves. But then we changed our minds and decided, that precisely because of their liminal status (being the place you go to before you get to where you were going; neither one place or another) station bars really are distinct destinations: in-between spaces, half-way places, purgatories of refreshment.

(Halfway hoose)

It then occurred to me that, largely because of my own transitional existence between two cities, I am a regular in two great examples of the genre: The Centurion in Newcastle Central and The Halfway House, just a stone’s throw from Edinburgh Waverley. Both serve a good range of ales (always a bonus); both are superlative station bars, and they both celebrate their particular in-between-ness in very different ways. The Centurion does so in a manner entirely in keeping with its surroundings in the grand Victorian sweep of John Dobson’s Newcastle Central station.

(The bar at The Centurion)

The bar pumps, which happily dispense a swift half of Rivet Catcher or Old Kiln Ale to me after a long day’s teaching, nestle behind glorious late nineteenth-century columns decorated in this stately and very excessive manner. Some of the tiles are exuberantly suggestive of fin-de-siecle train travel along the East Coast mainline: of steam, sunrise, and the view crossing the Tweed near Berwick:


The Centurion sits in what was, in the 1890s, the station’s first-class lounge. But, by the 1960s, it was frequented not by well-heeled passengers but disgruntled prisoners, after it was transformed into holding cells for the British Transport Police. British Rail then apparently did their best to destroy the tiles with a bucketload of paint, before the interior was finally restored to its former glory in 2000. Now The Centurion’s fabulous interior and fine ales can once again be enjoyed by travellers through the station, as well as all the good folk of the toon, (including a well-known group of knitters).

(Dear man who also likes The Centurion’s interior: thankyou for being in my picture)

The Centurion’s real showpiece has to be this mural which displays for North-bound travellers their promised destination: all dappled braes and rocky shores, green and gold and . . . rhododendrons. After looking at it many times, I think the landscape must be meant to suggest a view across Loch Lomond from the East shore (which of course became a popular tourist destination in the 1800s, largely because of train travel). It’s such a luridly late-Victorian highland fantasy, and I absolutely love it.

The interior of The Halfway House (HWH) also celebrates trains and transition, but in a rather different way.


While The Centurion is the epitome of opulence, with its high ceilings, elaborate decor, and luxurious surroundings, the Halfway House is all about being snug. This is the smallest and cosiest pub in Edinburgh. Within seconds of your train arriving, you can step out of Waverley Station, walk a few steps up Fleshmarket Close, and be in the welcoming interior of the HWH, enjoying a very reasonably priced lunch of hot stovies or cullen skink, and (oh joy of joys) a well-kept pint of Bitter and Twisted.

(HWH bar)

The pub is stuffed with railway paraphernalia, chief among which are posters and postcards celebrating the destinations one might reach on the old LNER.


Though the HWH is meant to be a stop-off point, a waiting room, a resting place between places, I am most fond of it because for me it is my final destination (and not purgatorial at all). I frequently meet Tom in there for a pint at the end of the working week, and I look forward to that pint immensely. Cheers.


Where are your favourite station bars?


*apologies to Nick Drake


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