The Quirky Traveller Zoe Dawes on her love for Carnforth

Market Street

Market Street - Credit: Archant

Writer Zoë Dawes travels the world but she always comes home to Carnforth, a town she’s grown to love

Zoe Dawes

Zoe Dawes - Credit: Archant

I’d like to share with you the little railway town of Carnforth, somewhere that hundreds of tourists drive past as they rush towards the more seductive charms of the Lake District or to the louder attractions of Blackpool and the south.

I’ve lived here for nine years and it has taken time for the place to grow on me. It is on the A6, near the M6 and has excellent rail links, important for an inveterate traveller like me, but its homespun charms took their time to work their magic. The nubbly, grey stone buildings have a sturdy wholesome look about them, adequate and reassuring. But I couldn’t see the appeal that some ardent locals sang about. And yet, slowly, slowly I started to discover that in its very uncomplicated, what-you-see-is-what-you-get, Lancashire forthrightness it had something that many of the more overtly attractive places miss. It’s genuine, it’s hard-working and it’s not been tarted up to within an inch of its life.

Situated at the far side of Morecambe Bay, it’s only a mile or so from the sea and the Lakeland fells are a hop, skip and a bop up the road. But it has its very own fell in Warton Crag, which I can see from the bedroom window and which shifts and changes in colour and light all day, all year as the seasons drift by. Five minutes from town centre you can be startled by a heron silently flapping its heavy silver-grey wings as it flies off in huff as you disturb its fishing plot beside the Lancaster Canal. Novice sailors tentatively manoeuvre their hired narrow boats past brightly painted resident barges with plastic pots of geraniums adorning their roofs. The Bay glitters in the distance, beckoning you to get out the binoculars and identify some of the thousands of seabirds that spend their holidays around that elusively challenging stretch of water.

A regular treat is to spend an hour or so browsing in the Carnforth Bookshop. As you climb the rickety stairs you discover thousands of books, from antique rarities to collectible magazines, prints, novels and non-fiction books on every topic under the sun.

Pat Seward, who runs it with husband Gordon, says the business is up for sale as they are retiring. ‘We’re hopeful that with new, younger owners it will continue as one of the area’s most successful independent book shops. We’re doing really well, especially the local section and the maps – everyone loves maps and we have a large collection. Yes, we’ll miss it but I’m sure it will pass into good hands.’ Fingers crossed – I really don’t want to lose this treasure trove.

Even those who’ve never heard of Carnforth often know of the film that’s made its name more recently. The platform at the railway station was used in the classic British weepy ‘Brief Encounter’ and every time I set off on one of my quirky travels I look out for a latter-day Trevor Howard to whip out his hankie and wipe a smut from my eye. Of course, nowadays rather than a romantic encounter, the Virgin Rail highspeed train is more likely to give you whiplash as it whizzes through the station, whioch is now a popular heritage centre with shops and a micro-pub.

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I sometimes pop in to see Jenny at Northern Belles Designer Dress Agency. She used to be a stewardess on private jets and has been all over the world. ‘It really was a glamorous life and I loved every minute, but eventually the job came to an end and I returned home. I had all these gorgeous clothes from my travels and thought an agency would be a great way to make a living and share my love of good quality clothing.’ I loved trawling through the racks in search of a bargain – a pair of LK Bennett shoes, a Monsoon top or maybe a pretty bangle to brighten up a grey day.

There are plenty of pubs in the town but my secret pleasure is a cheese and ham toastie from the cosy Edelweiss Café. It only has a few tables in a small space so you can read the newspaper of the person at the table next to you but well worth squeezing in for freshly cooked food and friendly chat.

There’s a little market in Carnforth every week beside the fire station – it varies in the number of stalls. A local butcher may be selling delicious Cumberland sausages, there might a selection of fresh fruit and veg, possibly the guy whose wife makes loads of cakes and biscuits but always the big where you get your key cut, stock up on batteries, handy household implements and myriad plastic toys for kiddies to spend their pocket money on. In pride of place is the War Memorial - a soldier gazing out to long-dead comrades of two World Wars, rifle at his side, back-pack over his shoulder. Lest we forget …

A couple of miles up the road is the pretty village of Warton, which regular readers will know had links with George Washington’s families. I like to wander over the road to the ruins of the Old Rectory and imagine what it might have looked like in mediaeval times.

Another discovery is the quirky Old School Brewery set up in 2010 by local stonemason Ren Wallbank and dentist Ian Walsh. As an ex-teacher I take great delight in the names of their brews which include Detention, Headmaster and Hopscotch. Ren explains: ‘The village was really supportive right from the start. Brewer Garth is from the village and marketing guy is from nearby Burton-in-Kendal and we all share a love of beer. It’s great fun – most of time! After all, how many guys get to make their living from brewing beer?’

Chatting to Eden and Michelle Whittaker in their welcoming, unpretentious pub, The Malt Shovel on Warton Main Street (which serves OSB beer in case you want to try it), Eden says: ‘Everyone is friendly, there’s a feeling of community and we have a social space where people can relax and enjoy themselves.’ it’s easy to see why this little corner of Lancashire is so special. I hope you’ll try it for yourself very soon.

Southport-born Zoë Dawes quit her career as an English teacher and lived in Greece, Hong Kong and Singapore before settling in Carnforth. Her travels have taken her to Egypt, Turkey, South Africa, Nepal, America, Thailand, Borneo, the Philippines and Malaysia. More recently she visited Finland, Norway, Canada, Sweden, Iceland and Spain. Zoë went to to Australia to learn about Aboriginal food and culture. She is an award-winning travel writer and her blog can be found at