I am treated to another spectacular drive on the way to the Lake District, and again Tiny struggles to cope. The A592 goes past Ullswater through the pretty villages of Glenridding and Patterdale before climbing the daunting Kirkstone Pass. There is plenty of 2nd gear, even some 1st in places, but luckily Tiny wheezes his way up without having to resort to reversing up the steepest bits. I’m not sure the satnav is programmed correctly for a car with less horsepower than a horse.
Then we start plunging to Windermere and the road resembles something from a Top Gear Special, with narrow passes and ravines to catch the unsuspecting. I desperately hope that there aren’t any lorries or coaches coming the other way. All of a sudden there are sheep in the road, and then signs to warn that red squirrels may be crossing, and then signs to say that blind people are in the road. Jeremy Clarkson has never had to cope with this sort of thing.
I find the intriguingly named Burn How Garden Hotel, which seems like it should be spoken by an arsonist and have a question mark at the end. As I check in I ask for a taxi to take me the twelve or so miles to Cartmel and the quote comes back at £45! One way! It’s busy there, apparently. No thanks, I’ll drive. As it turns out, there is no traffic at all and I find an easy spot to park near the entrance to the Course enclosure – £45 my arse.
It is £13 to get into the middle, which seems like a bargain to experience the unique offerings of this famous Bank Holiday event, but we are held on the outside as the horses are already on the course for the first race. It’s quite interesting, though, watching them thunder round what is really one long home turn. It appears that you need a horse who likes going tight left-handed, and downhill, and uphill, and has speed to keep up but stamina for the gruelling finish. Tiny would not fare well, if they ever let cars have a go.
This is not such an absurd idea, because as soon as the horses are off the course it gets requisitioned as a football pitch and cricket strip and lots else besides by the assorted humanity buzzing in the middle. I’ve never been to Le Mans, but friends tell me it’s a huge party with the occasional glimpse of some racing on the periphery, and this must be fairly similar. The party has certainly already started, and there is a simply fantastic atmosphere.
Picnics and barbeques abound, and families are replete with folding chairs, cool boxes and windbreaks. This is perhaps the one problem it has – Cartmel has resolved the issue of racegoers lacking personal space at busy meetings by letting them literally stake their claim to their own piece of land. It works well in that everyone seems relaxed and happy, but it does create bottlenecks in key areas.
The fair blares out its existence like an attention-seeking child, but somehow it seems right whereas in a pretty Richmond square next to my bedroom window it seemed very wrong. There are all manner of stalls selling food from around the world, and you can buy gifts ranging from Panama hats to wooden ducks, which seem surprisingly popular in this neck of the woods. There are two stands from local breweries and I can tell you that a red ale by Unsworths Yard called Lone Wolf is a thing of beauty.
The other problem, but this is by no means unique to Cartmel, is that it is fiendishly difficult to buy a Racing Post. Staff keep offering me racecards, but why would I spend more on getting a glossy pamphlet that is half adverts and has about 1% of the information of the Post? Without my comfort-blanket of a newspaper it just seems like, well, gambling. I embark on an extraordinary wild goose chase that ends up with me getting a pass out and wandering the streets of the very pretty village itself. I eventually find one in a rubbish bin back at the racecourse and have no qualms about recycling it.
At this point I see Bill Bryson. At least, I’m pretty sure it’s him – a smallish, ginger-bearded chap with glasses, dressed in tweed and just hanging around, taking it all in. I have a sudden pang of worry that the Guvnor of travelogues is completing his own tour of British racecourses, but I’m also excited to share my journey and chew the cud with the old master. I can’t let this moment pass; I just need a subtle opening gambit for confirming his identity.
“Excuse me, are you Bill Bryson?”
“No,” he replies, slightly bemused, in broad Mancunian “but I do know a Bill Price.”
“No, sorry, Bill Bryson” I affirm.
“Oh, Bill Bryson, no. Who is he anyway?”
I explain that he is an author, and the chap says “American, travel writer, oh yeah. I’m sure he’s older than me, and he’s got a full beard, as well, Bill Bryson. Did he not marry a Yorkshire girl? And he has lived over here quite a while, in Norfolk I think.”
All of a sudden this guy has gone from never having heard of him to giving a detailed description. I wonder whether it really is the great man and he is just feigning ignorance and a Manchester accent to throw fans off the scent.
“I was actually close to meeting him once. I went travelling round the world,” continues Bill in a philosophical way, referring to himself in the third person, “and prior to that he was actually doing a talk in the centre of Manchester…..” pretty good accent, though Bill, I’ll give you that “…..about travelling, but I missed it. I’d love to meet him one day.” Yes, deep Bill, I know what you mean, I’m searching for my real self too.
As the conversation continues I discover that he’s probably not Bill, but Tony who has worked on the railway for 20 years, and is known as Errol to his mates, as in Flynn. If he really is Bill it’s a very convincing cover story. This is getting more confusing by the minute, as he really doesn’t look much like the film star in my opinion. But Bill, sorry Errol, I mean Tony is still talking, now about the transitory nature of money and selling his house but leaving the appliances because he doesn’t like leaving gaps behind, although he is leaving his girlfriend behind, but it’s amicable.
“We had a Not-Lying Day yesterday.” I ask what him to explain further. “So you have to study when you’re lying, and talk about it the next day, cos a lot of the time you don’t even realise that you’re lying. You need 24 hours reflection to see it.”
So you’re telling me, in riddles, that you’re lying and you really are Bill Bryson? I’m confused. What is going on? He’s an intriguing guy but I’m not sure I buy in to his crusade, and I’m not sure he does either, when I ask him whether this is a regular feature.
“It was just a trial. This could never happen again, it’s a one-off,” he admits, before explaining “I couldn’t lie to Sue last night and, gosh, she did give me some stares.”
Yes, that will soon stop it. Now Tony’s telling me about his Irish family back in Donegal, and that there are no words in Gaelic for “yes” and “no”, just a variety of shrugs and expressions. I’m really not sure what’s going on anymore and whether I can believe a word he’s saying. I need a foothold in an increasing fractured unreality, so I drag it back to the safer shores of horse racing and what’s going to win the next.
“Tullamore Dew.” Bill, sorry, Tony says simply.
When I ask why, he explains that he likes his whisky. That would certainly account for his ruddy complexion, and the nonsense that has been spouted over the last twenty minutes. I’m not even sure that it’s Lucozade in his orange bottle. We wish each other good luck and drift apart in the sea of soused partygoers that is Cartmel races, but we’ve been chatting for so long that the race is off before I can study the form and get a bet on.
Tullamore Dew wins by 8 lengths at 6/1, and that’s not a word of a lie.