Rossendale is on the right track

Train at Ramsbottom Station

Train at Ramsbottom Station - Credit: Archant

The short trip from Ramsbottom to Rawtenstall may never feature as a Great Railway Journey, but it is a fine one. Martin Pilkington bought a ticket to ride and explored the treasures along the line

Both getting to this area and enjoying it once you’re here can be achieved on the East Lancs Railway that now stretches from Heywood to Rawtenstall via Bury, Summerseat, Ramsbottom and Irwell Vale. Tram or train passengers can stroll across Bury to ELR’s Bolton Street Station.

The difference in facial expressions between passengers and staff on the national network and ELR speaks volumes: everybody smiles around steam trains, though they’re hard work. ‘You’re up at five to get the fire started at six, and it takes until half past eight till you have some steam,’ says driver Malcolm Frost. ‘We’re all volunteers, so we must be daft.’ Or have a deep love of the work – Malcolm has been with the ELR for 28 years.

Sapper, built in 1953, pulls our train out of Ramsbottom, following the River Irwell. We catch glimpses of Chatterton and Stubbins then suddenly it’s open country, and very beautiful too in the sun, with wooded slopes reminiscent of Normandy, sheep-dotted steep hills topped now and again with distant farmhouses. And all with the gentle puff-puffing of the engine in the background.

Irwell Vale, where there’s a halt, is picturesque in another way, stone cottages and the white-railed bridge over the river, the place to break this not-so-epic journey. With your hiking boots on you can head for the Remnant Kings sculpture, part of the Irwell Valley trail, and take in the views at your leisure. Back on track and we’re soon in Rossendale’s capital, Rawtenstall. The station is beautifully kept, but then so is all of the ELR, its maroon signage and paintwork, like the route’s punctuality, reminders of better days pre-Beeching.

A Lancashire culinary institution

Hidden in plain view opposite Ramsbottom’s old market place, where the huge sculpture Tilted Vase catches the eye better, is Ramsons, which can lay claim to being a Lancashire institution.

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Chris Johnson, who bought the place in 1985 with his late wife Ros Hunter, said: ‘We were on the way from to Birmingham from Skye to visit an exhibition about business opportunities. At Tebay services we picked up Caterer and Hotelkeeper and saw this was for sale. We never got to Birmingham that day.’

Having evicted woodlice and worse they established what was then The Village Restaurant, quickly gaining press attention with the fantastic food Ros cooked. ‘Why do some chefs take a potato, boil it, denature it, and replace the potato flavour with another? Potatoes should taste of potatoes. So buy great potatoes,’ says Chris. ‘The secret over the years here has always been the best ingredients prepared to bring out the best in them.’

Those ingredients include beef hung for seven weeks and meat from fatty animals. ‘Fat is where you get flavour in meat after all,’ says Chris.

Long term illness tragically kept Ros from the kitchen many years ago, but her philosophy has been continued by Abdulla Naseem, known as Naz, until a major offer tempted him away, and now by Louise Varley, aka Lu. Chris and his love of Italian food is the other constant.

The approach continues to win fans local and national – Ramsons, as the restaurant is now named, placed number 73 in the Sunday Times list of Britain’s best restaurants. In 1986 seven (fantastic) courses cost £18; the six on the current celebration menu sets you back £60, still the least expensive in the Sunday Times top 100.

Ramsons was Lancashire Life Restaurant of the Year in 2007 and Chris himself recently won the Booker Best Caterer Award for his approach. ‘There are no foams, no oranges disguised as beetroot or vice versa, no random pea-shoots. We tend to take four ingredients, don’t mess them about, but get each to taste of what it is and should be.’

Back to the sixties

Something else that will appeal to grown-ups is the R60s Festival taking place from September 13-15 in Rossendale, celebrating everything 1960s, including the food. ‘The Berni Inn at Whitworth is doing a sixties menu for the festival and raising money for a cancer charity,’ says organiser Barry Hyde of Rossendale Revival, licking his lips when listing prawn cocktail and melon as starters, and the then rare (but actually most often well-done) treat of steak, chips and mushrooms.

‘JA Taylor are having a classic car show on their forecourt, the East Lancs Railway is participating, and Helmshore barber Mark Thomson, who was once a Mod is arranging a scooters event and an American Classic Car Show at Old Cobblers Inn in Rawtenstall – and maybe doing some sixties haircuts.’

A folk music performance is planned at the Rosemount WMC in Bacup, and Barbarella’s piano bar in Rawtenstall is keen to join in too. ‘We have a DJ who does great Northern Soul nights who’d be great,’ says Marie Hardman, who runs the club with husband Vincent.

Barbarella’s features some fascinating acts, in July showcasing a Mexican band whose tour itinerary reads Glastonbury, Rawtenstall, Liverpool, Bristol. ‘It was a fantastic night,’ says Vincent. ‘The band loved it and they promised to come back next year.’

Back to the land

Helmshore Museum, which with its fabulous location and celebrated textile industry demonstrations is a must for any visitor to the area, has an exhibition running until November 24 that puts our food into context. Lancashire Grown looks at our agricultural history, with some fascinating implements on display.

‘It’s a great opportunity to show our agricultural collection,’ said museum manager Louise Jacobsson. ‘But also to talk about other sides of food production, like allotments, and social enterprises that are becoming more important, and we’ve been running a family gardening club over the spring and summer, highlighting the Grow Your Own side. One topic that is of real local interest is the Great House Experimental Farm that was run by Harry Mudd here in Helmshore for many years.’

A more fluid festival

Across the valley in Shuttleworth, at the end of a narrow lane, is The Fisherman’s Retreat restaurant – that fittingly majors on fresh fish. That long and winding road means there is little passing trade (‘Other than the occasional hot-air balloon,’ according to wedding and events coordinator Steph Gillett).

They do a thriving wedding trade, holding 41 last year and, according to owner Hervey Magnall, they hoping to double that if plans to add accommodation come to fruition. But the retreat is most famous in the region for its whiskies. ‘We have about 500 single malts,’ says Steph. ‘And we do tastings and so on through the year. But we have a whisky festival on September 14 with various distilleries coming to showcase their product.’

Also on the menu

Ramsbottom has two of the best butchers for miles around, Toppings on Bolton Street and Walmsleys on Bridge Street.

In Crawshawbooth north of Rawtenstall is another find meat purveyor, Riley’s, with the bonus of a fantastic delicatessen.

You can’t visit Rawtenstall without stopping at Fitzpatrick’s Temperance Bar on Bank Street. Try a sarsaparilla, or blood tonic cordial, or a proper cream soda, among a multitude of others.

Rawtenstall is the place for cafe society these days too – the Fig Tree Cafe also on Bank Street has a great reputation for its cakes, and Cafe Artisan on Brook Street is a decidedly smart new venue

Helmshore Museum’s Coffee Mill cafe which supplies traditional Lancashire favourites is accredited by Taste Lancashire. So eating cake is cultural, honestly.

The Real Lancashire Black Pudding made in Haslingden has won awards all over Europe. Pick one up in Booth’s stores or locally at DT Law’s on Blackburn Road, or at Rawtenstall or Bacup market.

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