Paternity leave – a brother for Tilly

A little over two years after my daughter Tilly was born prematurely and didn’t survive, I am about to start paternity leave.

When Tilly was born, it was hard to imagine I’d ever reach this point. I wasn’t sure we’d be able to, and I wasn’t sure we’d even want to.

Precious Tilly

But as time has moved on, so have Charlotte and I, and we now can’t wait to bring our son into the world.

As I write this, I still have a couple of days to go until Charlotte is booked in for her caesarean section which will introduce us to him, and him to us. I’m still nervous. Things could still go wrong. But I’m hopeful they won’t.

Having a baby during lockdown feels weird, and it has its advantages and disadvantages. On the negative side, we’ve spent more of this pregnancy ‘going it alone’ than we might have imagined. We’ve had to manage with online antenatal classes and text message tips from friends.

At every point where Charlotte has had to visit hospital, we’ve been a bit scared of the coronavirus risk.

However, Charlotte has been able to work from home, which has made life much easier. We’ve also had plenty of time to prepare for the birth – to do things like make our small home baby-proof and to create a welcoming nursery.

The lockdown is being eased at exactly the right time for us. We’re pleased, but not half as pleased as the grandparents.

As I now work from home, I also know that when I return to work following a few weeks off, I won’t miss our child growing up (though that also means I won’t be able to escape his needs at any point!).

Despite having plenty of time to prepare, the relentless nature of our current working environment, busy jobs, and getting used to strange, not-quite-normal lives means that I am not sure it’s hit me fully yet.

I am sure it quickly will, and like everyone tells me, life will then never be the same again.

So, if you see me anytime soon and I look dazed and confused, you know why. Do feel free to say hello – I might just need it.

For now, I will finish clearing out my inbox and making sure the work I’ve been doing is not neglected. And then?

Well, I’ll see you on the other side. As a father. Bringing up a son.

Information overload

For the most part I have enjoyed working from home. It’s great to be able to get up a little later each day, and to have the full kitchen’s worth of food to consider whenever you fancy a snack. I can have the radio on to give me some background noise and can immediately dive out of the door for a walk once work is done.

I have even been around for all my parcel deliveries – funnily enough.

But some parts are hard. I miss my colleagues. I miss wandering down to the coffee bar or catching up with a colleague who happens to be in the building or passing my desk. I miss our Friday ritual of a fish and chip lunch and the occasional pint in the fab local (Gin and Beer It) after work.

The other thing that’s really challenging is information overload. I am friendly, chatty guy (well I do work in communications) and I am also an early adopter when it comes to new tech. This is usually a positive, but has led to a situation, in lockdown, where I am utterly bombarded by notifications.

This week, while writing some content for Mental Health Awareness Week, I stepped away from my phone, and logged out of the network on my laptop. The first thing I noticed was just how peaceful I found being unplugged. I was more productive and I am sure the quality of my work was improved.

The second thing was that when I logged back on, I had countless emails and a number of other notifications.

When I picked up my phone, my heart sank. I had a hundred WhatsApp messages from a dozen chats, I had ten new notifications from our work planning app, and I had work messages in our Teams app.

I realised that had I been connected to my phone the whole time, I’d have been distracted by these messages throughout. It’s no wonder I thought my work had improved!

The trouble is, I think it is part of a communications professional’s job to be connected. If someone needs us, then they expect to be able to get us. And I want to stay connected to my colleagues and friends, whenever I can. After all, they’re not passing my desk anymore.

So where does this leave me?

I actually think the solution is quite simple. In fact, a word I used above sums it up.

I unplug.

This means:

  • I move my phone away when I am working on a specific task or piece of writing
  • I turn off notifications from applications I don’t need to see (the Strava kudos and Instagram likes are the worst culprits here)
  • I choose a time to respond to emails and messages
  • I ignore work notifications when I am not at work (turning Trello and Teams notifications off)
  • I accept I won’t see every message or read every notification (after all, I don’t try and read all of Twitter, do I?)

On top of this, I make sure to get my daily exercise. I have found that a long walk after work, with Craig Charles in the background, really does help me unwind.

I don’t think any of these things is rocket science. But it took me nine weeks of lockdown to realise and implement them. So, if you’re struggling, why not have a think about whether you’ve got information overload?

Another picture of Oscar, but his walks are the key to my wellbeing.

If you have, you could do worse than follow these tips and even connect with the Comms Unplugged community. Their annual festival promotes mental health and wellbeing by encouraging us all to unplug. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a network of like-minded, friendly and caring people who are keen to support each other.

The community has more than proven its worth over the last few weeks – with discussions, podcasts, and webinars covering every aspect of wellbeing and mindfulness.

Take a look at www.commsunplugged.co.uk or find them at @commsunplugged on Twitter.

Mental health matters

There are lots of awareness days, weeks and campaigns. In fact, there are even quite a few for mental health.

So, you’d be forgiven for thinking they might be unnecessary. Maybe you think they’re overkill? After all, everywhere you look, you see people talking about their mental health.

Oscar waiting for me to catch up on a recent walk at Uldale.

Sadly, this isn’t the case. Poor mental health continues to be a major problem that affects so many of us, in so many different ways. Sadly, it continues to ruin lives. It continues to kill people.

It’s become something of a cliché to talk about unprecedented times, or to start communications with ‘since the coronavirus pandemic hit and lockdown began’, but if that’s the case, it’s only because it’s true.

Every single person’s life has changed because of coronavirus. This might be because you’re working differently or it might be because you can’t see your friends or family.

Right now, I am sat at my patio furniture desk, surrounding by devices to keep me connected to colleagues in the office, but I can’t see them. At the same time, my partner is pregnant and will soon (touch wood and taking nothing for granted) give birth to my son.

As many of you will know, this is a nervous and testing time. It’s even harder when friends and family can’t be here to support us as they usually would. I’m nervous that we won’t have the physical support of family when we’ll need it the most.

Each and every one of us is having to adapt to a world that doesn’t feel quite normal. Where things are strange. Where your routine is new. Where even the simplest and most usual of tasks is harder than should be.

This means that even the most resilient of us will have off days. We will feel more stressful and we will feel more anxious. And that’s ok.

Awareness weeks like this one are designed to get people talking about their mental health. They’re designed to help people realise that it’s ok to not feel ok. No one should worry that their poor mental concerns are theirs alone. So many of us are going through or have been through the same things.

Over the course of the week, you’re likely to see lots of hints and tips to enhance your mental health. I won’t create another list of my own. But what I will do is give you my number one tip, which is to talk to someone. Check in with your friends and see how they are. If there is a friend you’ve not seen or not talked to for a while, then reach out to them. They will appreciate it.

Take care and be kind.

Find your escapism

Social distancing, self-isolation and working from home all mean huge changes to our daily lives.
These can all have a negative impact on our mental health and wellbeing.

With this in mind, I asked some colleagues and my Twitter contacts to share their top tips for protecting their mental health.

I was overwhelmed with the volume and creativity of the responses. I’ve summarised some of these below.

Working from home: get match fit


I didn’t actually focus on working from home, but people did share some of their top tips. These mostly centred around ensuring you were able to work at your best from your home. Suggestions included:

• Sticking to a start and finish time
• Getting dressed as you would for work in the office
• Taking regular breaks
• Ensuring your home workspace is suitable (this is essential)
• Keeping in close contact with colleagues
• Find some suitable background noise if working alone (For me this is BBC 6Music. For others this was white noise, the sea or even chatter).

Find your escapism; keep it near

The first day I was working from home, I had BBC Five Live on constantly. I wanted the background noise and to keep abreast of the news. Taking a walk after work, I listened to a coronavirus podcast. This quickly started to overwhelm me.

The next day, I flicked back over to 6music and swerved current affairs.

When I finish work, I pick up a book instead. Others have recommended an audiobook. Other suggested getting creative.

There are lots of other ways to escape the craziness. My good friend Dan has come up with a brill list of diversions.

But whatever your escapism, find it and keep it near.

Turn off your tech

A few people mentioned the importance of taking a break from your tech. Our always-connected world can be overwhelming.

So, every now and then, make a point of moving away from your device.

This could mean a short break, having evenings off, or removing yourself from group conversations.
Whatever it is, take time to pause.

Exercise your body and mind

Unsurprisingly, people are keen to emphasise the value of exercise, and I really do agree.

From walking to running, to simply getting out in the fresh air, all will help you feel better and keep your brain fit. The links between physical activity and brain health are strong.

As well as keeping physically active, try to keep your mind active. People suggested meditation and practicing calming breathing techniques as ways to do just that.

Fresh Air Fridays have some brilliant tips around mindfulness, breathing, gratitude and connecting with others – however we can.

Sam Dyllon has been providing free guided mediation to Sellafield employees.

Healthy eating

In uncertain, chaotic times, it is easy to throw a balanced diet out of the window. While the hit of sugar or the hug of carbs might give us a short-term boost, we’re likely to feel sluggish in the long run.

I know that on my first day working from home, I snacked more than normal. I nipped that in the bud before that started to affect my mental health and feel better for it.

Learn a new skill or take up a new activity

It really is important to keep our minds active. Lots of people suggested that taking up a new skill could be the way to do just this.

Ideas included learning a new language and brushing up on a skill you’ve not used for a while (where did I put that recorder). Others suggested finding out more about a topic of interest. One of the contributors is an artist who will likely have more time to practise their brush strokes.

My partner has got the knitting needles out of the loft.

Whatever takes your fancy, now is probably the time to give it a go.

Planning

It’s inevitable that we feel anxious when so many parts of our lives are changing on a daily basis. Planning the things we can control, can help.

This could as simple writing a to do list, or meal planning. We use Gousto for meals during the week, and this has taken a lot of supermarket stress away

Don’t you forget about me

Self-isolation and social distancing can be lonely. But that doesn’t mean you can’t stay in contact with friends and colleagues.

If you’re working from home, book in telephone meetings with your team.

These don’t need to solely be used for work. Why not have a coffee break catch up with a colleague or friend or have a video chat with friends in the evening?

In fact, a colleague suggested that laughter with friends is the one thing that has been keeping her motivated.

Supporting others

The most positive thing I’ve seen since this situation developed is the number of people who are keen to help others.

This ranges from people checking in on vulnerable neighbours to one of my favourite café bars, providing free food to children who would ordinarily have a free school meal. (Well done to the Square Orange in Keswick).

Things you can do from home include donating to charities, supporting businesses (lots of new takeaways are up and running). You could even support a community group. If one doesn’t exist where you are, you could form one.

Even just offering a listening ear to friends that might be struggling is so important.

Thanks and credits

Thanks very much to everyone who provided me with these tips: Alan Rankin, Sam Dyllon, Hilary Royston-Bishop, Lizzie Anderson, Neil Milligan, Claire James, Megan Lake, Claire Tandy, Terri Hargreaves, Sarah Cooper, Lisa Doran, Chris Wood, Tracy Jacklin, Cara Asquith, Emily Bell, Jatinder Sahota, Laura Johnson, Karl Connor, Fresh Air Fridays, Alison Wood, Dan Slee, Leanne Ehren, Sally Northeast and the brilliant Comms Unplugged Headspace group.

Anything else?

Have I missed anything? Drop me a line.

Coronavirus: this is different

I think it’s clear that the coronavirus pandemic is what most people would consider a crisis – for the country, for families and for our employers.

When we’re talking about the latter, we implement a series of formal measures to help us to manage the situation.

There are lots of different elements to this including a crisis management team and a support team – but in simple terms we dedicate resources to managing the situation.

This type of arrangement is well practiced, here and in most large organisations. However, I think coronavirus is different for three main reasons.

This is new

With the exception of Foot and Mouth disease, we’ve not really had to deal with widescale pandemics in this country. Swine flu and HN51 probably just about lurk in our memories, but in reality, they didn’t fundamentally change our lives. Coronavirus already is.

We don’t really know what self-isolation feels like. We’ve not had to practice any kind of social distancing.

We’re not used to closing-down offices nor ceasing services. We don’t want to think about cancelling weddings or even stopping going for a Friday night pint or Sunday lunch at a local restaurant.

I don’t feel ill

I think this is one of the most difficult things for us all to get our heads around. Ordinarily our messages are focused on ensuring people feel well. If people do feel well or at least well enough to work then we want them to show the British ‘stiff upper lip’ and keep things working.

I think we all get that, and people want to do all they can to help. People don’t like the idea of not working if they feel well enough. A cough wouldn’t normally stop people.

But coronavirus is different. We’re trying to prevent people getting ill and we’re trying to do that with a condition which is clearly very contagious.

That means that people do need to practice social distance and self isolation, even if they’re fighting fit. It’s great that people feel well, but we need to stop those people passing it on to people who might not be and who might – and lets be blunt about this – die. At the very least they’ll be an additional burden on a health service that is already nearing breaking point.

“I may be some time”

The other fundamentally different thing about this situation is that we’re not talking about a day or two or even a week or two before normal service resumes.

Some experts are predicting a year or eighteen months of disruption, and you could even foresee things never returning to how they were.

What that means is that our planning and any alternative arrangements we put in place need to go far beyond what we’d normally consider. We must plan for long-term staff sickness and that means doing things fundamentally differently.

Why communications matters

And that last sentence sums up why communications is so important at times like this. We know that in uncertain times, people have an increasing thirst for knowledge. People are nervous about the situation and want to know that it means for them.

It’s impossible for anyone to answer all the questions, but people look for answers wherever they can find them. Rumour and myth spread like wildfire.

So, it’s important that communications to your workforce (or your customers) is frequent, is honest and easy to understand.

At the same time, it’s important to give people the opportunity to ask questions or express frustrations – they will only be voicing what others are thinking.

In my team, we’re looking to make sure we get accurate information out to people quickly. We’re reviewing and enhancing how we do this. The new coronavirus wiki page is one such example.

We are also looking to make the most effective use of our communications channels. This means sharing information on our website and intranet and then spreading this quickly using our formal social media channels and informal routes like Whatsapp groups.

We need to make sure our communications are where our people are.

And finally…

I’m going to keep banging this drum, but please pay attention to mental health and wellbeing. This is applies not only to your people but also to yourself.

It is easy to ignore our own feelings of anxiety or stress in times of crisis. Adrenalin gets us through for so long. But it’s easy for us to become run down or for our stresses to overcome us.

If this is the case, take a break or a step back and speak to colleagues about this. It’s likely they’ll be feeling very similar. If so, think about ways you and your team can help each other to lighten the load and ease the burden.

Take care.

Review: Kysty, Ambleside

I suspect the best compliment you can give a restaurant on opening night is to say that you couldn’t tell it was opening night.

From above

If you wanted a one-sentence summary of Kysty, which opened on Valentine’s Day in Ambleside, that would be it.

Although strictly speaking, it reopened. As a bistro, following an eighteen month stint as a rather impressive Scandi-inspired, locally-guided, cafe.

Kysty is the second venue in Ryan Blackburn’s Ambleside food empire. Ryan’s main restaurant, The Old Stamp House is fantastic, but it’s also small. It achieved a Michelin star in 2018. I suspect the influx of new diners has necessitated the change from daytime cafe to evening eaterie. 

But was the decision to transform the venue one that Ryan will live to regret? On our first impressions, the answer is a definite no.

Despite being closed for a little under a month, the new-look Kysty manages to feel fresh and familiar in equal measure. The venue no longer feels like a cafe, but keeps the buzz and informal atmosphere that made it a must-visit venue.

The bistro menu is pared back and simple, with a choice of a trio of starters, mains and desserts, as well as some snacks to begin, curious sides and cheese to accompany the desserts.

On opening night, the menu was strong – offering local choices that would appeal to most palates. Even better, there was barely a nod to Valentine’s evening. No cringe-worthy titles of cliched dishes in sight here.

We started with those pre-meal snacks. Well who can resist pork scratchings, and for that matter, warm sourdough? The scratchings were served with a smooth, rich piccalilli. Clearly this is how you lift them from the pub to the bistro. And boy did it work.

For starter, I chose a visually stunning, light and tasty goats’ cheese cannelloni. Charlotte plumped for a silky cauliflower veloute, served with almonds and potted shrimps. If you didn’t know they go together, you now do.

I told you it was visually stunning

While the starters set the scene, it was the mains where the meal soared. Most people I discussed the menu with thought the Herdwick rump would be hard to look beyond, yet that’s just what I did, plumping for the chalk stream trout. That was easier once I knew Charlotte was having lamb. We opted for a side of new potatoes and some hispi cabbage.

Both mains were outstanding. The lamb was tender and flavoursome, and the trout light and fresh. The two sides added to the meal – the cabbage in particular was a treat – one wedge was served lightly cooked, seasoned and topped with garlic emulsion and hazelnuts. A combination that I will never question.

The main event

Getting pretty full, we chose to share the ginger cake for dessert that had been recommended to the table behind us. Once again, the dish was perfectly balanced, with delicious, tart rhubarb cutting through the sweet cake and frosting.

The drinks choices were strong, and included low alcohol beer and non alcoholic spirits for those swerving booze – like I was. There was an interesting wine list for those who wanted something stronger.

Lighter choices for lighter times

The service was warm and friendly with our hosts attentive and chatty. As we reached the end of the night, they told us they had a list of things they needed to address for future nights. But we didn’t notice these.

In fact, niggles were almost entirely absent from our evening. If we were being picky, we might have said that the lamb would have been enhanced by a carb. The only option was the side of potatoes we added.

I thought the small menu was a selling point, but you could imagine some more picky eaters struggling to find something to their taste. But I really do think that would be their problem.

We were sad to hear that Kysty was closing – after all, we loved their hot dogs, soups and cakes. But having now seen the replacement, we can dry our tears and celebrate a welcome addition to the often-underwhelming Lakes food scene.

For those of you who have yet to try Ryan Blackburn and his team’s food – you might now have more of a chance.

In praise of comfort food: soup

Earlier today I shared a picture of part of my lunch – a cup-a-soup (leek and potato, for the record). A friend challenged me to write a blog about it.

The lunch that inspired this blog

I’m rarely one to turn down a challenge, so here we are.

But of course, this blog isn’t really about powdered soups in a mug, but what they represent: comfort and convenience.

Soup is one of my favourite foods. In fact, my favourite ice breaker question is to ask whether you’d rather give up soup or gravy. Forget Brexit, this is the question that really divides the nation.

I’d always go for soup. It’s a versatile meal for all occasions – fit for a banquet (Chinese or otherwise) or to dunk your sandwich in. The flavour options are endless – you can safely say you’ve not tried them all.

Homemade ramen

From chowder to broth and ramen through to bisque – soup covers it all.

Some of my favourite meals have started with, or even comprised solely of soup.

From the delicious, light pea and mint at Mathilde’s in Grasmere, to the rich, intense turnip broth at L’enclume, soup has filled a hole. The lobster bisque at the Cartford Inn was sublime, as was the hearty chowder at Wolf House at Silverdale. 

A bisque as good as it gets

While they were very different, they’ve all stuck in my mind. 

Soup can be light and healthy, when you’re in the throws of your New Year’s Resolutions or it can be decadent – creamy, thick and warming to get you through the cold nights.

Soup’s the great leveller – anywhere worth its salt should do a good soup – be it a cafe, restaurant or football ground (anyone for Bovril?). 

After all, it’s one of the easiest meals to cook. All you need is a few vegetables and some stock and you’re on to a winner. 

Thick and tasty chowder

But make a few tweaks or add a bit more and you can really elevate it. Things like chorizo or bacon can really lift a simple soup, and pulses or pasta can thicken a broth. Herbs can transform not only the flavour but also the appearance. And lets not forget that cream, well, cream makes everything taste better.

So cup-a-soup might not be at the fine dining end of the scale, but for simplicity, can it be beaten? I’m not so sure. It was certainly a fine partner for today’s ham sandwich. 

That’ll do for me.

Here ends my short love story to soup.

Review: Rudy’s, Bennetts Hill, Birmingham

I once described slices of pizza as crispy shards of joy. Or similar. Regardless of my choice of words on that day, my love for pizza has been long established.

It’s what pizza should look like.

Which is probably why, a month or two after my first visit, I returned to Rudy’s in Birmingham rather than searching out another venue in Britain’s second city. 

Birmingham is a place with a burgeoning dining scene, and plenty of places to try new cuisines and inventive ways of serving them. (For the record, if you’re looking to find somewhere to eat, then your best best it to hunt out Bite Your Brum on your favourite social network, and follow her guidance. It was she that led me here, and for that I will be forever grateful).

Rudy’s fits that description to a tee. It offers impressive pizza, quite unlike the heavy, unwieldy and stodgy efforts we’re used to in this country. 

But it also challenges my description; makes me reevaluate my thoughts on what makes a truly great slice.

Yes, it should be crisp and light. Yes, you want shard of joy. But you also want softness. You want warmth. You want it to be moist. And most of all, you want it to be an effort. Don’t you?

After all, you’re rewarded for it.

Rudy’s pizza is just that. The slices are crispy on the outside, the toppings are light, but despite the, they still flex in the middle. That is my pizza-epiphany. A light, crisp slice of pizza might be easier to eat, but it’s not as tasty. It’s dry, for a start. It’s less fun, for another. And it doesn’t do justice to the toppings you’ve hand-picked with love. 

It also means you need to find a new way of eating. You won’t get a slice into your mouth like the American’s do. You need to double-fold. First you fold the end of the pizza towards the crust. Then fold again, until you’re left with a former-slice that is both crunch and chewy.

My patented (it’s not) double-fold approach.

So Rudy’s fits the bill as one of the new style of pizza restaurants that have popped up. Modern, vibrant and, well, not particularly Italian.

The decor is minimalist, industrial chic. Picture bare walls, chalkboards and visible air ducts and you’re not far from the mark.

Industrial chic.

The drinks are just as contemporary with local craft beer on offer next to high quality cocktails and decent soft drinks.

If this sounds too much like a cliche, identi-kit eaterie, then don’t worry. The pizza changes everything. This is what separates it from the countless other pizza restaurants in the city – including one just down the street.

The menu is suitably light – always a sign of somewhere confident in their offering. The specials’ board always includes interesting options, and veggies and vegans are just as well served as nduja-loving Cumbrians.

They offer other options than pizza, but really, what’s the point. I can’t even tell you what they were. I bet they are good, but not as good as pizza.

My choice was topped with the aforementioned Italian sausage, along with a tasty, tangy tomato sauce, a delicious tease of mozzarella and just enough chilli to lift this pizza to that next level.

The staff and service manage to tread that fine line between cool, warm and pretentious perfectly; the staff look like they could be somewhere else, but they really don’t want to be.

When I visited, I was one of only a handful of customers (well it was 3pm on a Friday, but you’ve got to take your pizza fix when you can get it), but despite that, the welcome was as warm as the pizza was hot and the beer chilled. The staff were attentive, and the food arrived as quickly as proper pizza should.

So if you’re in Birmingham this Christmas, and you’re getting sick of faux German food and drink, heads towards the slightly warmer climes of Italy’s ultimate export. If the crowds are blocking your way, then head uphill until you get to Rudy’s. 

You must go and eat pizza using the double-fold. Just like my mama used to say.

I was in Birmingham for the brilliiant Comms2point0 UnAwards2019. These are the highlight of my year, every year. You can find out more by following @comms2point0 on Twitter.

Christmas: a time for cheese

Earlier this week, I received an email from Dukeshill. Amongst the delights on offer was their Christmas cheese platter (a mere £81, if you’re that way inclined).

The email got me thinking

I love Christmas, and I love cheese. The two really should go hand-in-hand. After all, a well rounded platter of delicious, rich cheeses; garnished with intense, sweet chutneys and festive nuts, alongside some biscuits could almost sum up the season.

But, despite always buying cheese for Christmas, I rarely appreciate it – really appreciate it.

I’ve realised this is because it’s never given centre-stage; the spotlight it deserves.

Cheese shouldn’t bookend a huge meal, nor should it jostle for prominence on an overcrowded buffet table next to pipes of Pringles, sweaty sausage rolls and triangles of turkey sandwiches (kept moist only thanks to smears of cranberry).

Cheese is a buffet. Cheese is the meal. Cheese fills the table.

So for a truly memorable cheese board this Christmas, abandon the prefix of the meal and push the buffet to the side for another day.

And go the full hog. Dig out the nuts, find your classic chutney and your preferred pickle. Bring out the bread, bask in the biscuits and then bathe them in butter. It’s Christmas, after all!

What does a good Christmas cheese board look like? Well, for the record, I’d recommend:

  • A stonking blue (I’ve always loved Mrs Bell’s blue)
  • A vintage, crumbling cheddar
  • A creamy soft cheese (I’d recommend Eden Valley Brie or Delice de Bourgogne)
  • A hard, sharp cheese (I like Manchego or even Parmesan, but if you want British then why not a Cornish Yarg?)

I think that four is plenty, but can you have too much cheese? There are at least half a dozen other Cumbrian and North West cheeses I could add to the list above.

Worried that you need more than cheese on your cracker? Go on then, chuck some charcuterie on there, too.

Accompany those with the things I’ve mentioned and you’ve got a good night. Add some port or red wine and you’ve got a brilliant one.

Review: The Cartford Inn, Little Eccleston

Nestled, almost hidden, half-way between Blackpool and Garstang is the Cartford Inn in the village of Little Eccleston.

The varied and tempting menu, which mixes pub classics with decadence.

The pub is built next to a private toll bridge, and whilst this might give the appearance of being a barrier to entry, the food should be considered anything but.

The inn has been a presence in the village for centuries, but in recent times has transformed, chameleon-like from a mere local into a Lancashire food destination.

On a busy Saturday evening, the inn provides a warm welcome to drinkers and diners alike. We ventured to the Cartford following an evening at Blackpool illuminations. This meant our booking of 9pm was later than we’d normally care to dine. Despite this, the pub was still full and continued to welcome fellow diners even after we arrived.

Following a short wait – which offered us time to consider our drink and dining choices, and soak up the eclectic decor – we were sat at a comfy table in one of the cosy rooms.

The bar offers a welcoming range of drinks for all tastes, including a handful of decent real ale choices, gins for every week of the year, and wine and cocktail choices that would be the envy of most bars. Our picks were served quickly and without fuss.

While the bar was impressive, it was the food that really made this trip memorable. From the moment we arrived and were handed the oversized, A3 menus, we knew we were in for a treat.

The options combined traditional pub classics, with brasserie and restaurant dishes. It was clear that the menu had been put together with intelligence and that each option was thought through to ensure flavours complemented each other.

Our starters demonstrated this. Charlotte opted for an intense Jerusalem artichoke and goats’ cheese gnocchi, which was served in a delicate, fresh mushroom consomme with confit tomato and pickled mushrooms.

Each element added to the dish – offering a contrast of sharp and sweet flavours, with the fried gnocchi delivering a crisp texture against the smooth liquor. 

I went for a lobster bisque which was accompanied by fresh lobster and scallop, a fish gratin and cheese on toast.

That bisque. The only bisque for me.

Whilst this sounded like a busy dish, the elements were perfectly matched. The lobster bisque was the star of the show – the rich, smooth sauce was beautifully flavoured with lobster and sherry. It was silky smooth, and the pieces of seafood, gratin and cheese toast all tasted delicious when combined with it.

This was a course that has stayed with me since that point. I can still taste the bisque to this day. Long may that continue!

After starters this good, we had high hopes of the main course, and were not disappointed.

Charlotte chose the steak suet pudding which is a pub classic that managed to impress Jay Rayner when he visited. I chose fresh turbot – something I rarely turn down when I spot it on the menu.

Two different dishes, but both were impressive once again. It was clear to see why the suet pudding proves so popular – it was as dense as you’d expect a suet pudding to be, but with a light, warm, hug of a filling. The meat was soft and tender, and served with a gravy that once again emphasised that this is a restaurant that knows its sauces. 

The turbot was a simple affair, but with high quality fish, that’s just what you want. The beautifully cooked portion was served with a light butter sauce and fresh vegetables. It was light yet filling – the perfect main.

Despite the choices sounding tempting, we decided to swerve desserts on this occasion. We instead crossed the border back from Lancashire to Cumbria, knowing we’d return soon enough.

As well as delicious food, the Cartford Inn offers comfortable accommodation, with an eye for the extravagant. This includes two quirky cabins nestled in the grounds.

If it were up to me, I’d suggest going for the food, but stay the night.

Find out more, here.