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So where in the world are we? This snap taken a couple of days ago should qualify as a quiz pic. Answers on a postcard please. There’s something of the Wild West about it – the light, the pines, the distant bare ridges. And the answer is… Morecambe Bay, more precisely Arnside, in Lancashire. Trains regularly cross the estuary at low tide, eventually head west to Barrow then turn right to trundle north to Carlisle. OK, that’s enough for the train-spotting chapter.

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Arnside itself is a low-key seaside village boasting one pub with views and one great landmark – the Knott. Not a knot of nets, but a rather large knoll scattered with wild scrub and wind-swept trees. At the summit, fabulous views sweep across the vast bay down to Morecambe, site of the tragedy a few years ago when 21 Chinese cockle-pickers died, caught unawares by the treacherous tides. So the view has a bitter-sweet taste to it.

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Down the coast at Morecambe itself, there’s virtually nothing of interest except the newly revamped Midlands Hotel (still under wraps in the photo, as it officially opens next Sunday), an art deco beauty nestling on the shore and looking across the bay to Barrow. A few steps away is a similarly historic gem, Brucciani‘s ice-cream parlour, run by the same Italian family since 1893. I had a quick chat with the grandson of the founder whose Italian is still faultless. I’m always intrigued by these families of Italian immigrants who cling faithfully to their roots. Gazzano’s, in London’s Farringdon Road, which used to be my local deli, is another example. I’d drop in for some salami or fresh pasta and listen enthralled to conversations as if I was back in Bologna. Same with the Exmouth Market hardware store: they may sound like true Londoners, but they’re all Italian. E allora?

Anyway, back to northern England. Another hidden treasure here is the railway station at Carnforth, where David Lean filmed Brief Encounter back in 1945. Having seen the brilliantly quirky stage version in London a few months ago, it was an obvious, must-do destination.

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Here’s the famous clock and a porter’s trolley, both on the platform island between the tracks which has now been restored and turned into a kind of Brief Encounter time-capsule. Luckily it’s not too much a theme-park, more an idiosyncratic little museum devoted to that era, the film and to the railways of the time. Nostalgia kicks in, particularly in the café where even the signage is true to the era.

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Further north we wandered through the hills and dales of the southern Lake District, avoiding the lakes which magnetise the hordes. A friend’s birthday party was the excuse, and it led us to stay at a charming farm bed-and- breakfast, typically English, all chintz, knick-knacks and frills and of course the full English breakfast. Completely hidden at the top of a hill, it’s a perfect retreat for walkers and sheep-lovers, maybe not for anyone averse to pigs. honk honk. Crook Hall Farm is the name – – and it’s very reasonable.

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Before this escapade the Hay Festival had drawn us to the wet Welsh valleys, stunningly green and soggily welcoming. First evening, through dramatic rains and wind, we trekked to the battered tent at the main festival site where the Tuareg band Tinariwen eventually hit the stage. Great stuff, even better as the set advanced, though their Saharan headgear (designed as protection from sandstorms) looked marginally out of place on this damp, windswept night. The bucolic garden below is an example of the damply scenic surroundings, in this case outside our bedroom window.

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Without entering into fest detail, I’ll mention a particularly brilliant talk I attended by Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhardt, co-authors of Fixing Failed States. This book, just published by OUP, looks into how to redesign the mechanisms for aiding ‘failed’ states such as Afghanistant (Ghani was the Finance Minister there a few years ago). Their models for success are countries like Singapore, Ireland and Spain, all of which took 15 – 20 years to haul themselves out of real backwardness. But here we’re talking about countries much further down the ladder.
The authors underline the fact that 40 – 60 states qualify for the sad label of ‘failed’, and one billion people are involved. With institutions such as the UN designed for post-Second World War conditions, it is high time their structures were updated. Huge amounts of aid money are whittled away before they reach the people on the ground, often as much as 65%. There is no accountability and far too many intermediaries, whether over-priced contractors or inefficient NGOs. Ghani and Lockhardt’s argument is totally compelling. In their view, local people should decide what they need, and NGOs should only provide help with logistics – nothing more. Let’s hope their words are heard where it matters.

After that I stupidly found myself at Cherie Blair‘s talk. What a contrast. Here was a cocky woman with nothing new to say, fresh from her hairdresser’s artistry, making banal generalisations about women’s status “across the world”. How sweeping. All I can say is thank god she’s out of the Downing Street nest. Such total self-belief is dangerous, as we saw with her husband’s decision re Iraq. She’d never be in front of an audience of 900 spouting platitudes without him.

Oof. Just to forget that, here’s a pic of a parallel car on the road. Another all too brief encounter.

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