The following essay is a rewrite, in which I have been legally forced to change certain names and the specific location within the Lake District on certain details. The original version, in naming the actual house in which I stayed, actually led several other people to cancel their bookings for holidays and visits to the same place. The owners of the real Malachi House, as I now call it, threatened to sue me. This version is the same report with their identities protected. Other locations, Ravenglass, Ulverston, Whitehaven, etc are given their true identities as there is nothing controversial (I hope) in my critical reports about them).
THE GOTHCLUB MALACHI HOUSE HOLIDAY
SEPTEMBER 27th TO OCTOBER 4th 2002.
The Gothic Manchester group, Gothclub, has arranged an annual weekend away for some yeas now, though the stay at Malachi House, near Ravenglass in Cumbria was to be my first such excursion.
It had been intended to be a weekend break, but the owner of the property had kindly offered the house for the remainder of the week too at modest extra charge, an offer that about five of us were happy to take. Others among the 18 to 20 who came along would no doubt have joined us for the remainder too if not for work commitments. I was among those fortunate enough to stay for the whole week.
It was very apparent from the outset that Malachi House was quite remote and not particularly accessible to anyone dependent on public transport. The nearest train station was four to five miles away and the nearest shop even further afield. The house was close to the coastline, opposite a largely derelict MOD firing range that meant most of the land around us was private property.
From maps Ravenglass looks the closest train station, but the river estuary creates need for a lengthy detour that adds miles to the journey from there. We were advised instead to travel in from Bootle station. Initial enquiries by myself on behalf of those of us travelling without cars became confused by the fact that there are two Bootle Stations in Merseyside too, and only at the last minute I managed to avoid going to Liverpool by mistake.
However, there was an additional complication, Bootle (Cumbria) train station n has very few trains running and the one I would have to get to Bootle-Cumbria from Barrow In Furness would not be going for thirteen hours, the morning after I got to Barrow. Fortunately, Dave, who organised the bookings of our stay at Malachi kindly gave me a lift from Barrow.
It was apparent from driving in, just how remote the house was, as we moved inland through woodland, hill and country lane, suddenly coming upon the rocky craggy beach that precedes the edge of the old MOD firing range itself.
The road up to the house is up a pebble strewn dirt track that makes any sensible driver reduce to a few miles per hour to avoid scraping the underside of the vehicle.
Malachi House looks magnificent, a 1761 manor, with some 20 rooms, about half of them bedroom accommodation. Downstairs there was a quiet entrance lounge, a large comfortable common room, where we stayed most of the evenings to follow, a kitchen with microwave oven gas stove, dishwasher, two fridge/ freezers, and a lot of pots, pans, cutlery, etc. As we were catering for ourselves this proved more than adequate.
Unpacking quickly I made my first meal in the most primitive way, simply opening the tin and spoon-feeding the food from there, a tin of macaroni cheese, that immediately got me recognised as the resident ‘weirdo’.
I had a few cans of beer with me, and others were happy to share wines, and spirits too. The absinthe that someone passed around was fine and then I was offered some strange rich concoction called (embarrassingly) Unicum, which I thought tasted just fine, which simply reinforced the notion that I was weird even for a semi-Goth as nearly everyone else thought the substance as revolting as its label.
Many drinks, and much cheerful chatter later, people drifted off to bed one by one, the last of us vanishing about 3.30 am.
Open windows made the house a wildlife sanctuary for spiders and daddy-long-legs which were everywhere. There were occasional squeals and evacuations when some of our more squeamish members found the creatures getting too close for comfort. Others were cheerfully rescuing the beats and setting them free through the windows but many were probably coming straight back in or fetching relatives. By the end of the week their presence was bordering on the epidemic.
I was up quite early the next day,. about 8 AM, a pattern I would maintain all week, though most mornings others would get up before me. It was immediately apparent that we had hit on a very warm start to Autumn and that we were uncannily lucky with the weather. It would be very odd to see so many Goths coping so well with bright daylight activity.
My breakfast was non-controversial, as were most meals to follow. My weirdness label was falling.
The back garden to the house was wide, spacious, and surrounded by pear trees, many of which were ripe in fruit, which I was happy to exploit many mornings.
The first full day, (Saturday 28th Sept.) showed the immediate disadvantage of being a pedestrian in the remotest stretch there is of the Lakes. Fortunately those travelling out to visit the sites were happy to accommodate us as passengers on their expeditions. The first trip out I went on was to Ulverston, some 30 miles away.
Ulverston was a quiet sedate little market town, where we were able to quickly pick up some foodstuffs we realised we were short of, though the Light House highlighted as a local attraction proved to be no more than a regional arts centre and very much closed. I did however make us of the time we had there to break free for a few hours to visit the birthplace museum of one of my heroes, Stan Laurel, of Laurel and Hardy fame.
Thos was one of the most eccentric museums I have ever seen. It was created by the passion of one man, who turned it into a personal shrine to the heroes of comedy, so the plethora of memorabilia from photographs, letters, and props from various films is presented in a very haphazard fashion, rather than in any linear order. The current owner, (not the creator of the centre who has sadly died greets you in his 'Sons Of The Desert’ Fez, a sign of his membership of the official Laurel And Hardy fan club. He offers an immediate tour and freely gives anecdote after anecdote without pausing for breath. The museum curator disliked me referring to the great man as ‘Stan’.
Stanley, sometimes referred to as Mr. Laurel, apparently answered each and every fan letter he ever received and many are now property of the museum. A few people have written that Stan and Ollie hated each other off set, a claim the proprietor is quick to refute. He has the only authentic bowler hat ever worn by either of the duo, - many others around, even in his own displays are faked. He warns against the many bogus autographs of Stan available even in the lake District by those who would exploit the unwary tourist,.
Surprisingly and sadly New Orleans has done little to commemorate Mister Oliver Hardy’s origins there, with only a simple plaque on a nearby church pointing to his birthplace.
A nice video screening room shows Stan and Ollie (oops) films continuously and the owner invited me to name my favourite from his comprehensive collection, so that he could show it for me, but time did not permit such a viewing, as I wanted to take in the information around rather than watch the comedians doing their stuff, . The owner seemed to regard my reluctance to stay and watch them all day as sacrilege. I felt as though I had offended a religion rather than simply declined an invitation due to time pressure. I left quickly.
More drinks and a very lethal cocktail punch and a near unlimited supply of apple and bramble pie with custard or cream followed as some of our friends had been out picking brambles for much of the day.
Sunday saw an expedition to Muncaster castle, which lies between the House and Ravenglass, and highlighted for me the torturous road route that you have to take around the wide river estuary to reach them. Again, friends were happy to offer a lift there and back.
The castle is set in wide spacious grounds that boast an International Owl Centre, a maze, a Himalayan Hill walk, a church, a tea room offering everything from Cumberland Sausage to Ostrich Burger and much more besides.
The Owl Centre is stunning, for so many of these magnificent creatures, from all around the world, including the biggest and smallest known owls, and the Horned Owl they tell us is the only species known to have killed a human. The cages are wide and spacious, and carry information on how endangered the respective species are in the wild, many of them being truly critical. The worst fate seems that of the English Barn Owl, which is dying off through intensified farming methods killing off the kind of meadows it traditionally favours. many Barn Owls have become road-kill for scavenging too close to traffic. Government legislation has decreed that barn owls taken in by conservationists cannot be re-released into the wild, (a claim made upon no other owl) which means that the owl is now so dangerously low in numbers in the wild it may not actually survive another generation. Release of birds taken in by breeding centres, the RSPCA, and other groups could replenish numbers in the wild, but that would be illegal, and defiance of the law could loose such centres any government funding. The barn owl is facing a parliament funded Death Sentence.
Several owls that have become too severely imprinted on humans were used to give a display of their skills and intelligence in hunting, and flying, and often proved to have a very rebellious streak on their trainers, as well as a strong sense of humour for recognising when it was funnier not to do what was expected of them. There was no doubt that Muncaster’s Owl Centre has a very special affinity with its birds.
The Castle itself, which is more of a large stately home is currently owned by Lord and Lady Duff-Pennington, and dating from 1258 stood on land that certainly had been a Roman fortress long before then. Henry V1 took shelter there after the 1464 Battle Of Hexham. Interestingly, Lady Duff-Pennington has written the guidebook to the castle herself, rather than merely its introduction, so it is full of sweet anecdotes about how objects of great value were found stuffed aside in boxes marked ‘broken china’ etc.
As you go in to the allegedly haunted castle you are handed a large awkward telephone contraption that can be programmed to act as a guide to the various rooms on display. I had a guidebook, and so declined to take the phone set but the staff seemed reluctant not to present it, so I tried it out for all of five seconds before switching it off and ignoring it ever after, though others around me were using theirs, and the various commentaries were all out of synch with one another creating some irritation for me. The vast library is a major highlight with an eclectic mix of books old and new that reminds you the house is still very much in use as a home today. The room is decorated with classical sculptures, i.e., Hercules, Poseidon, etc., and the ceiling is painted in starscape. One portrait is of John Charles Ramsden, an English antislavery campaigner ( previously expelled from school after a duel with another boy over the affections of a young lady acquaintance of theirs). The house boasts many major works of art, including a painting done by Gainsborough, actually a copy of a Titian done by Gainsborough for a bet.
The grounds of the castle ere by far its most magnificent feature though, offering many breath taking scenic views oft the western lake land hillsides, and bearing some forty acres of fauna. It’s a region of the lakes missed by many who never get beyond Windermere and Ambleside.
Back at Malachi our numbers were depleting as many of our friends would leave that Sunday or early the Monday morning.
I avoid television and newspapers as a rule on holiday. I like to cut myself off entirely from the outside world, but at Malachi some friends did stuck the TV and radio on to catch the Grand Prix, and other programmes. We also had a radio golf enthusiast with us, but it was the news story that Edwina Currie had confessed, and even boasted of a long affair with the ex-Tory Prime Minister John Major that made us think the world had gone mad in our absence.
I walked about a mile up the road to post a letter in a post-box outside a nearby farm house, and spotted the tip of the Malachi Estuary itself. The path sloped down to a bridle way that simply vanishes into a deep river track surrounded by swirling silt that looks like pure undiluted quicksand. Two apparent fords across the river further up looked little better. In the distance was Sellafield which I planned to visit soon. It was hard to imagine it was some 9 miles from where I stood.
On the Monday after most of our friends had gone two of us decided to walk to Bootle to get a train out to Sellafield. The walk to the station took about an hour, and is in itself very pleasant. Occasionally we had to step aside for passing cars and there was a brief ten minute stop for a vast herd of cows coming back from milking, to a field actually bordering on the House we stayed it. Their procession soiled the road in dung and made us take cover to avoid being splattered now when cars passed by,
Bootle Station, where I should have disembarked for my visit in the first place is a station straight out of an Edwardian Ghost Story or a Will Hay movie. There is a signal box manned by a chap who personally closes the gates to the level crossings, and waters all the plants on the station. It was also equally apparent within minutes that no train was due for three hours and only one back to the station very soon after that., Our trip to Sellafield was aborted. We were going nowhere. I quickly clocked up the hour and half earlier I would need to set off to be sure of getting a train from here on future expeditions. I also noted that it was necessary to wave frantically to the trains or they simply don’t stop at Bootle at all.
Though disappointed by aspects of the wasted trip I took the journey back slowly, realising I was in Wainwright/Wordsworth Country I decided I ought to think up some lines of poetry and literature of my own, and I would spend the remainder of that afternoon at the house doing just that.
As I shall show later, it was this activity that almost got me sued in my original internet presentation about the stay at what now has to be called Malachi House.
I also got to feed some pear cores and scraps to the horse and donkey that often ran to the fence by the path leading to the house. Actually I would have just fed the Donkey if the horse hadn’t quite viscously kicked it aside to claim the food for itself. I was pleased later when someone told me they’d seen the donkey bite its oppressive friend back. I wished I’d seen the revolution for myself.
On the Tuesday we got a lift to Sellafield, which is an appalling eyesore against the natural backdrop its existence decimates so severely. The sheer size of the complex is daunting, but to our disappointment we could not now visit the processing plant itself, which was possible prior to the September 11th 2001 terrorist attack on the New York World Trade Centre.
The much hyped Visitor’s Centre proved a major revelation however. I had expected it to do a great deal to peddle a pro-nuclear statement of how safe and necessary nuclear power stations are and assure us that any fears we had were unfounded. I was wondering if I’d be open-minded enough to believe a word of it.
In fact the new Visitor’s Centre has a signed agreement with the London Science Museum to be independent and neutral of any BNFI interests, so the result is that the Information Centre gives out a surprisingly negative perspective on the Nuclear Industry. There are photographs and materials from Chernobyl, quotations from many critics of Sellafield, newspaper reports on the recent falsification of safety records at Sellafield that lost them a lucrative overseas contract, etc.
There is a special interactive film presentation that shows the difficulties facing the Nuclear fuel industry balanced against the problems caused by use of other fuels, especially finite fossil fuels. Only hen you get into the corridor model and photo displays do BNFI give a more ‘positive’ angle on the nature of nuclear power. I remain ultimately a critic of the use of such a highly dangerous fuel source. I still think of Sellafield as Windscale or even as Little-Chernobyl-By-The-Sea.
Our now quieter evenings allowed us to play Trivial Pursuit and generally chill out from here tot he end of the week. I also discovered that Malachi House has a copy of the complete works of lake land author Beatrix Potter, several stories of which I read for the first time, with a strong desire to catch up with the remainder soon.
On the Wednesday I took the long walk to Bootle, but early enough (leaving the house at 9.45 AM) to catch the train, and headed into Whitehaven to the North. This proved to be a delightful little harbour town that has not sacrificed its soul to extreme tourism, but still has much to see of interest. The town itself is sedate and pedestrian. I was able to stock up on last minute provisions and found access to a bank machine. I then explored The Beacon Centre, a fake lighthouse museum with a Met Office display at which most of the interactive toys were inactive, and out of order. A local history centre proved to be much more intriguing. Historically the harbour was quick to capitalise on the growing Tobacco trade with the Americas, becoming highly lucrative, but ultimately doomed to lose the race against similar developments in Liverpool. The town also proved to be a major coal mining community, beset by many tragedies, often involving the children who worked the seams here. In 1791 a hole was punched from a seam into a ‘waste’ that released enough water to drown two men. a woman and five horses in the workings. James Lowther, the mine owner, faced with potential compensation claims, shut the pit completely, refusing to reopen it at all until 2,500 Whitehaven miners signed a petition agreement to forgo any action against him in the event of any such tragedies in the future. On May 10th 1910 a an explosion led to a pit collapse and the deaths the deaths of 136 men and boys.
The Beacon Museum displays divide neatly into sections on affluence and extreme poverty, with accurate re-created street scenes, as well as bits from various ships that have connections with the region, (some as wrecks from the coastline, others as ships built and sailed from Whitehaven).
After a lunch in one of the nicest tea rooms I have ever been in, it was on to the Rum Story Museum. Whitehaven has a very dark side to its history, as a major slave trading area. The King George sailed from here. It was a purpose built slave transport ship and much of the museum is shaped like the inside of such a vessel. Third Mate on the King George was John Paul Jones, who would found the American Navy, and even lead an abortive raid on Whitehaven to scupper ships in her harbour in 1778. He succeeded only in damaging a few harbour wall cannons before being forced to retreat. Regarded as a traitor, John Paul Jones was finally forgiven and pardoned by Whitehaven in 1999.
Also among early Virginia Tobacco plantation migrants were the Washington Family of Whitehaven, including George Washington’s grandmother Mildred.
Tobacco plantations were one of two major attractions in America. The other was sugar cane, which made fine rum. Among the first traders to truly make good on the market for rum was Robert Jefferson, (1704-79) a naval commander with a strong reputation for ‘honesty’ his own land in Virginia and who’s English office was at 27 Lowther Road, site of the Rum Story Museum itself, which leaves his office largely unchanged from his own days there.
Going from his office to the cellars, which retain the aroma of long stored rum to the point at which it is overpowering. I thought this was artificial but the museum claims it to be an authentic irremovable aroma. Next you go to a mock-rain-forest African village where slaves would have been captured and taken to the slave ships. Here the sense of how many people would have been herded together, is incredible, and the collars, whips, chains, etc., show how little sense of humanity the slavers had for their wares. Many slaves would never survive the voyage. Those who died would simply be cast overboard.
However as they neared a port with a slave market, conditions would improve as slaves were cleaned up and made more presentable for sale. Advertisements and banners promote the slave fairs as if they were country cattle auctions. The effect is chilling and depressing. The story moves on through antislavery campaigns, a brief look at the American Wars of Independence and Civil wars, the abolition of Slavery, the effects on society of excessive alcohol abuse, the rise of temperance movements, a fascinating section on US prohibition, including a selection of weapons captured from Chicago gangsters and even Eliot Ness’s ‘Untouchables’ office. There is also a section on the tradition of the navy rum ration and the near mutinous nature of sailors either deprived of it or overindulged. There are displays on the art and skills of the cooper, and much more besides, but it is the slavery aspect of the story that stays with you. As you leave the museum you are offered a tot of Jefferson Rum, which tastes fine, but leaves you feeling slightly guilty.
Back to Bootle Station, I was prepared for the long walk to the house, and I was very happy when I got a lift back from the station instead. It was this night when the Malachi House cats came in, more interested in attention than food and water by all appearences. It was also when we finally declared war on the daddy-long-leg population. After an initial campaign to catch them alive in glasses or by hand to throw them out, and finding we had over 40 in the main room at once, one of our gang took at them with the Hoover sweeping in the entire lot in some genicidal fury, and a very necessary act of speciecide. We celebrated the massacre with Vodka flavoured jellies left by one of our colleagues from earlier in the week.
Thursday October 3rd - our last full day saw a more gentle expedition, to Ravenglass to ride the miniature railway, the shortest fully operational rail service in the world, a six mile trip up the hills and valleys of the Esk Valley and later, after a terrific pub lunch, in the shadow of Scarfel Pike, the highest mountain in England, with, in my case a bottle of Kelpi seaweed beer (a fine malt beer I could have supped by the crate full) we came back. A week after our visit the train is due for its annual Thomas The Tank Engine makeover.
This was one of the best steam train rides ever, and unlike many such rides geared up purely to tourism, the Ravenglass la’al Ratty service has a modest and quite convoluted history to it. Iron ore mined in Boot before 1873 was transported ten l miles or more by pack horse. From that date the ore was sent by miniature railway, with a gauge not to exceed 3 feet, (a size equalled only by the Southold Railway in Suffolk). By 1876 the line was also taking passengers. The trains became known locally as the Owd Ratty Service, a name lost in history but which is believed by local dialect experts to mean a narrow Trod pathway. Commercially Ratty did badly as Iron Ore market prices slumped quickly and the line faced bankruptcy in 1877. Passenger services operated in Summer months under receivership funds but the line closed apparently forever in 1913. In 1915 it was resurrected by two miniature railway enthusiasts, Bassett-Lowke and Mitchell, a task made easier by such miniature railways being relatively cheap to buy during the war years. The three foot gauge was replaced by a 15 inch one, and the locomotives altered accordingly, so now there was a true phoenix rising from the ashes story as Owd Ratty was replaced by La’al Ratty. The line actually became very functional, being used to deliver mail to the valley villages, and coal and timber to the mines as well as the workers to and from their shifts. It was World war Two that dried up the new increased and more successful usage, and in 1960n as the quarrying in the region was also in decline the track was offered for sale and seemed on the brink of being sold for scrap. Locals and railway enthusiasts tried to raise funds to buy the line themselves and only an unexpected last minute arrival of two affluent bidders, Colin Gilbert and Sir Wavell Wakefield., a London Stockbroker, and a local landowner respectively who saved the line on auction day itself.
That the line was able to survive right beside the Ravenglass Railway track of the Barrow to Carlisle s line is all the more remarkable. A museum at the station gives the history in some detail, and we were thrilled to watch the locomotives, ‘River Irt and River Esk being rotated by hand and push on their little turntable at the ends of the line.
A final night of quiet drinks, relatively unchallenged by the decimated insect population followed, though Charlie, the puppy owned by the house-keeper I saw only rarely did try to savage me, with a strong fascination for the taste of my thumb.
Packed and ready, a quick breakfast and it was time to go to Barrow station, kindly dropped off by Dave who was kind enough to get up so early. The train came at 8.03 on the dot and I was waving al the more frantically knowing the next wasn’t until close to noon, but it stopped sure enough and I was home before noon, after a fabulous week’s holiday that I would be only to happy to repeat.
It remains only to thank everyone for lifts m, and out of various places, shared food, drink, and general good company..... especially Dave and Mandy for the extraordinary work they put in to make this so memorable and happy and fun for everyone..
Controversy came months after my stay, when I posted my original report on the nature of the house. Despite my assurances that I had a great time there, as I hope are still shown in the essay, the poems I wrote of as having been inspired to pen during my stay, upset some people who read them.
The isolation of the house, the firing range, and the treacherous estuary quicksands, a force of nature I have always feared, and which are not unlike those of nearby Morecambe Bay in their quicksand nature, inspired me to write a dark gloomy ghost story in verse. I included it in the original account, and it totally freaked out potential visitors to the house. Many believed that the spooky story was totally true. It was not true and never was intended to pass for a true story.
On holiday all alone
As many miles as I could get from home
Without internet or telephone
In a secluded cottage by the sea
With nowhere to go and nothing to see
No one to keep me company.
The beach is dangerous, I understand
The tide moves quickly and there’s quicksand
I could have gone somewhere posh and grand
Instead of an isolated haunted cottage with a storm outside
Close to a graveyard full of the empty coffins of those who tried
Crossing the short cut sands where so many died.
How many of them see me in the night?
How many hide in the shadows beyond my candle’s flickering light?
They said I was crazy and they may be right
I’m far too terrified to go to bed
In case the siren song of the whispering dead
Isn’t in my imagination but outside my head
Will I go mad enough to dare the beach?
The other side of The Bay looks easy to reach
To write such horror must I practice what I preach?
Presuming I survive at all. No one will hear me call for help if I fall
Death by misadventure or suicide?
The coroner’s inquest will have to decide
If I don’t stay safe and sound inside
I have to face that which gives me fright.
If these are the last few lines I write
You’ll know I did not survive the night
To My knowledge, no one ever died at the real Malachi House. There was no graveyard in sight in the town, That image was borrowed from my knowledge of Morecambe Town. It was staying at ‘Malachi’ with a group of Goths who appreciate ghost stories that inspired the ghostliness in the poem. The house was not haunted. Despite this fact, the poem freaked people out and they chose not to stay at Malachi, which is a great shame.
The other poem I wrote that same day caused no such controversy. That poem is here, enabling me to end on a lighter note.
Why on Earth
Did you work for Wordsworth
But not for me? I write proper poetry
I saw some Daffodils & thought ‘So bleedin’ wot!"
I traipsed up & down yer soddin hills
This poem’s all I got.
Yer never gave me any inspiration
Only blisters and perspiration.
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