Posted: 12/29/2006
Title: COUNTING SHEEP

Blog:                                                                                                                         

    Its the most pleasant train journey in England, and I love railway journeys, the Skipton-Carlisle Railway, which was closed for a few years until reopened by popular demand, and runs from the Yorkshire Dales, through Westmoreland, the Eden Valley to Carlisle, the capital of Cumbria almost at the Scottish border.

   There are thousands of sheep to see in the fields next to the rail lines chewing away blissfully on the sweet grasses. Wensleydale sheep, Black Face, Greyface, Texel, Swaledale, Murtholm. One thousand seven hundred and fifteen, one thousand seven hundred and sixteen, one thous zzzzzz. I tried to count them all but almost fell asleep passing pretty stations such as Settle, Horton-in-Ribbledale, Dent, Ribblehead and its long viaduct, Garsdale, Kirby Stephen, Appleby, Armathwaite - all places to get off and with a good pair of stout shoes and a waterproof coat go for a hike, or take your bike on the train and ride the rural roads. Lots of bed & breakfasts, youth hostels(open to all ages) pubs with home cooked meals and local ales.  Try lamb with mint sauce, for there is a lot of limestone in the soil which makes the grass 'sweet', and the meat tender. You notice the patchwork of fields, divided by the unique Drystone Walls, built over centuries without mortar, and great breeding and hiding places for wildlife. As we rode by I saw rabbits, a perrigrine falcon, and an array of  other birds.

   Arriving in noble Carlisle you exit the station to nearby Carlisle Castle built by William Rufus in 1092 on the ruins of Hadrians Wall and a thriving market town. Nearby you can visit Roman fortifications along the 80 mile Wall, built by the legionaires in the 1st Century with the intention of keeping out the wild Scottish tribes. Well, they are in ruins and it didn't work.  Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobites took the town in 1745, but only for 3 weeks before the Duke of Cumberland's forces took it back.  Jacobite survivors had to lick the walls for water before they were hung, drawn and quartered. You can still see  'the licking walls' in the dungeons today. Sir Alex made it as far as Manchester and Sir Sean to Hollywood.  A brisk 20 minute walk takes you to Carlisle United at Brunton Park. They are the only club to have played in the top Division and then fallen from grace to lose their league status altogether for one season in 2005, after 76 years, before bouncing back two divisions. In  season 1974-75 they won their first 3 league matches and topped the First Division.  If you have time for lunch try the local speciality, Cumberland sausage, with chopped, not minced pork made from Gloucester Old Spot or Welsh pigs and in a long pin wheel shape.

   Outside the stadium is a statue of local legend Hugh McIlmoyle, which was dressed in a Santa costume on my visit, two days before Christmas. They have two giant stands on either side of the pitch, with bars and restaurants, and a covered terrace where fans can stand up and sing. In fact they were already advertising the coming of Sir Elton John and his band next June.  They once had an eccentric owner, property millionaire Michael Knighton who had a bid  of $20 million for Manchester United accepted, going so far as to jog onto the pitch at Old Trafford in full Man Utd strip and juggle the ball and announce the deal was done. He had played as a youth for Everton then Coventry City and had an F.A coaching badge. Well, it never happened.  He did own Carlisle until 2002 when they went into administration and he was forced out. For tax reasons he lived most of his time in the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea.  Brentford from London, bottom of Division I, the third tier of English football, were the visitors and they were well beaten 2-0. On the way back to the station I chatted with a season ticket holder from Barrow, whose local club were  relegated from The Football League about 40 years ago.  He went to most away matches on the subsidised supporters club buses, and there were lots of very long trips from North West England.

   One Saturday Michael Knighton made a suprise visit from his tax haven to find his coach Mervyn Day warming up the team in T shirts advertising his own soccer school instead of the official sponsor. He was fired on the spot and Knighton coached the team. He claimed that they would eventually play in the Champions League. He also claimed he and his wife had met and spoken with an Alien. Aliens will probably visit Brunton Park before Real Madrid or Bayern Munich do.

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