I was on the East Lancashire Railway, on my way to the market town of Ramsbottom.
‘Hello. Can I interest you in the latest publication from the Class 40 Engine Preservation Society?’ asks a man in a flat cap and a V-neck tank top. ‘Erm… no, thanks.’
I like trains, but not that much.
I’d spent the morning browsing Bury Market. Unlike so many other foodie markets, Bury’s is unpretentious, and its 370-odd stalls sell honestly priced goods. In addition, you can buy clothes, DVDs and suchlike as well as groceries. I picked up some local black pudding and a pork pie before heading to the station to catch the train to Ramsbottom, where I had booked lunch at Ramsons.
The East Lancashire Line is a heritage railway route maintained by volunteers. On the 15-minute journey between Bury and Ramsbottom I chatted to train manager Alan, who entertained me with his encyclopaedic knowledge of vintage engines.
‘I’m more of a steam man; should you want information on modern trains, speak to one of my diesel-expert colleagues,’ he said. ‘You’ll recognise them – they’ve got beards.’
Ramsbottom is only 14 miles from Manchester, but it’s a world away. Tucked into a valley on the western slopes of the Pennines, it’s surrounded by countryside – climb nearby Holcombe Hill and you’ll be rewarded with fantastic views. The station platform is filled with travel paraphernalia: vintage leather suitcases, metal fire buckets, original signage; a gaggle of trainspotters.
At first the town appeared sleepy, especially for a Saturday lunchtime, but as I walked along the stone-cottage-lined streets, I realised it’s thriving. Small independent shops include a butcher, a bookbinder, several coffee shops (no chains), clothes boutiques and a handful of antiques shops and good charity stores. But there was little time for browsing. I had to get to lunch – going to Ramsons, I’d been advised by gourmands, is a major event and you need to be punctual and have lots of time to indulge.
During the meal I talked to the restaurant’s owner, Chris Johnson, who explained that ‘ramsons’ is the old English word for wild garlic, a herb that grows well in this part of the country. (In fact, ‘Ramsbottom’ is shortened from ‘Ramson’s Bottom’, which means ‘wild garlic valley’.)
After lunch I explored the town and discovered a smart South Indian restaurant called Sanmini’s (01706 821831, www.sanminis.com), that opened last August, and the Chocolate Café (01706 822 828, www.chocolate-cafe.co.uk), which opened in September. Though I was tempted by a chocolate pizza, I opted for an invigorating stroll along the River Irwell in Nuttall Park before walking back to my hotel for a post-prandial siesta.
Where to eat
Ramsons has been steadily gaining a reputation for serving top-notch cuisine since its owners, Chris Johnson and his wife Ros Hunter, moved to Ramsbottom and set up shop in 1985. The couple’s philosophy is to serve the very best food and wines they can. Wines are sourced solely from Italy; food is, as far as is possible, local, fresh and in season. I tested Maldives-born head chef Naz’s mettle with the ten-course tasting menu. From the diminutive shepherd’s pie with homemade brown sauce to the Shetland scallop with celeriac and truffle purée, all the way to the perfect pannacotta – as wobbly as my stomach by this stage – I was in heaven. What an extraordinary place. I’ll be back here soon, though I’ll need to up my exercise regime if I opt for more tasting menus.
18 Market Place, Ramsbottom, Bury, BL0 9HT (01706 825 070, www.ramsons-restaurant.com). Ten-course tasting menu £50-£70. A la carte and set menus also available.
Where to stay
Red Hall Hotel
Red Hall Hotel reopened on Good Friday, following a 12-month, £3.4 million refurbishment, and it’s been worth all the effort. The tasteful decor helps banish the stresses of city life on entry; all you need to concentrate on is sinking into country mode, which is easy when you are attended to by such hospitable staff. Bedrooms – 37 of them and all individually decorated – are bright and airy, have free wi-fi and boast views across the surrounding countryside.
If you want to spend the weekend in style, ask for the honeymoon suite, which is decorated in sexy reds and browns, has a double sunken bath, a double shower and a private balcony. Try not to spend all your time in bed, though; this part of the world is beautiful to explore on foot. A 15-minute walk will take you to Ramsbottom; in half an hour you can get to Bury (though you could take the East Lancashire Railway or a bus). A charming hotel for a deeply relaxing gourmet break.
Manchester Rd, Walmersley, Bury, Lancashire BL9 5NA (01706 822 476, www.red-hall.co.uk). Doubles from £90 including full English breakfast.
Walk across town to Manchester Victoria to get the tram to Bury, every 12 minutes. Return £3.50. The steam train leaves from Bury’s Bolton Street Station. Return £6.60. For further information visit www.east-lancs-rly.co.uk.