One evening last week I was reading David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men when, realising eventually that my power of concentration was no longer equal to the complexities of his imaginative and inventive prose, I gave up. I closed the book and picked up instead one that I had previously read and knew to be less taxing – Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island. It’s an especially easy read for me because I have an affinity with the notion of travelling around Britain savouring the peculiarities of its varied parts. In fact, as it happened, I was due to set off the next morning on just such an expedition.
The destination was Barnard Castle, a classic market town on the upper reaches of the River Tees. I say classic because, like Appleby 30 miles to the west, its core is recognisably intact: it straddles a river, has a castle, a broad main street for the market stalls and numerous pubs, all of which are still trading. My visit did not coincide with market day but the shops compensated for that: many are owner-managed and are stocked therefore with local produce and specialities offered by friendly – sometimes eccentric – characters. Consequently, I am now the happy possessor of a hand-brush made of wood and bristle and a bag of small, brown, dried peas known as carlins which, although normally used as animal feed, are eaten by locals on a particular day in the ritual run-up to Easter. The brush will certainly find a purpose in the campervan but the carlins will probably remain in the back of a cupboard long after Easter has been and gone.
Dried peas apart, the food available in Castle Barnard is mouthwatering, especially for those who, like me, have a fondness for old-fashioned delicacies such as hazlet, pressed tongue, black pudding, pease pudding, faggots, pork pies, farmhouse cheese and artisan bread. With two butchers’ shops, three bakers and four grocers all on the same street, the ratio of outlets for fresh, locally sourced produce to density of population exceeds the wildest dreams of a foodie resident in central Manchester. I embarked on an orgy of stocking-up before we left the area, afraid that, if I did not support them, the shopkeepers would go out of business. I was mindful of the recent news headline that half of all the food now bought in Britain has been “processed” – which is to say that someone has added to it that which would be better left out i.e. sugar, palm oil, various chemicals and excessive quantities of salt and fat. This morning’s headlines were no surprise to me, therefore: the consumption of processed food contributes not only to obesity, but also the likelihood of contracting cancer. I hate to say “I told you so” but we hippies ( I was loosely associated) knew back in the day that ingesting food additives was unlikely to be good for one’s health, hence the popularity of our ‘fads’ such as brown rice, wholemeal bread, vegetarianism, macrobiotics etc. Not so much notice was taken of the medical advice concerning the ingestion of mind-bending chemicals, but no one is perfect. Nor did we hippies diet in vain: we sowed the seeds so that, alongside the rise of processed food, there is now a growing band of vegans determined to save the planet from excess, animals from harm and their digestive systems from contamination.
But the excursion was not all about food. One day was devoted to a walk up and down Teesdale, following the fast-flowing river that attracts daring canoeists in helmets and rubber onesies. Another was spent following the river Wear through nearby Durham, where the water is slow and wide and competitive rowing is the preferred sport. Durham is rightly famous for its history, its cathedral, its castle and its university, the library of which is named for one of its ex-chancellors - Bill Bryson.