IN 1,694 visits to Keswick’s Magistrates’ Court I only appeared the ...

Date: Friday 7th November 2014

IN 1,694 visits to Keswick’s Magistrates’ Court I only appeared the one time in the dock, and that was to please the folk from the telly.

It was the last Friday of April, 2000, and Look North came along with its cameras to record the final sitting of the court prior to its closure.

How many hours of my life had been spent occupying the press bench for courts, juvenile panel hearing and inquests they wanted to know. Actually it was one of the TV crew who worked out that figure of 1,694. Anyway, they said stand in the dock where the local miscreants would normally be found on Friday mornings. We’ll interview you there. Sort of fitting for your last reporting job in this building.

Already many of Cumbria’s rural courts Alston, Kirkby Stephen, Shap and Hackthorpe, for example had felt the cold steel of the bureaucratic axe and now it was the turn of Appleby, Wigton, Windermere and Keswick to be swallowed up into larger courts.

I spent a good deal of my journalistic training in the courts of old North Westmorland and countless hours later on in Keswick’s court with its almost Gothic look and its witty banter between reporters, solicitors and court staff which helped to make the serious proceedings bearable in a black-humoured way.

I recall telling Look North that the loss of these local courts was a blow to local communities. Local people knew that local justice was being dispensed with knowledge and sensitivity. Yes, they were old-fashioned, but that wasn’t to their detriment.

Magistrate Fiona Cox put it thus: “Rural communities are being transformed and impoverished by an insidious stealth as services become more centralised.” Keswick JP Martin Jordan spoke along similar lines. “Another example of the unpicking of the fabric of the countryside,” he lamented.

On that last day I jokingly said I had a great idea for keeping the court building alive a “Court Dinners” restaurant where they served porridge from the Bench and customers were led to the cells below to consume their frugal meals. Well, there was a successful school dinners-themed restaurant in London at the time, so why not?

I never considered how close, 14 years later, Keswick’s former court and police station would come to fulfilling that fantasy. I’ve not been in yet, but I am told that the new Wetherspoon has kept most of the features of what was Keswick court for the best part of a century. And its diners can now occupy the cells while they eat, drink and make infinitely more merry than the folk who were once locked up there.

Nowadays it’s Wetherspoons’ national reputation rather than Group 4 that brings in the punters. The same company also recently opened in Penrith and, by all accounts, both places are very busy.

Keswick’s Wetherspoon is named in honour of a legal figure from a remarkable era of English history, Sir John Bankes, who was born in Keswick of a local property owning family and matriculated from Queen’s College, Oxford, aged just 15.

Sir John, whose bust stands in Fitz Park, sat in the House of Commons for five years and was Attorney General and Chief Justice to Charles I during the Civil War. He followed the King from Westminster to York leaving his wife, Mary, to bravely hold off the rebels at Corfe Castle, his family seat, until her eventual betrayal. Sir John (1859-1644) was himself later impeached for high treason.

There’s a more fascinating and whimsical story behind the J. D. Wetherspoon brand name. Mr. Wetherspoon was a teacher when the company’s founder, Tim Martin, was at school in New Zealand. Apparently he didn’t consider the young would-be entrepreneur had much of a future. As for the initials, well they are taken from Boss Hogg, the sheriff of Dukes of Hazard TV fame.

As the person who must hold the record for the number of attendances in that old court, I can only say it’s good that it’s been put to a new use and no longer stands forlorn and empty. Mind you, I don’t notice porridge on the menu. Come on Wetherspoons, just for old times’ sake.

TOO NICE TO BE PM?

IT was Mrs. Dale, she of the radio diaries, who regularly uttered the words “I’m worried about Jim.” Mrs. D I used to listen to her every afternoon after school because she was on just before the racing results seemed permanently disconcerted about the welfare of hubby Jim.

I could say the same now, only in reference to Ed Miliband. Yes, I’m worried about Ed, and I mean it sincerely. The poor chap can’t do right. Followed everywhere by photographers out to catch him looking geeky in an unguarded moment, eating a bacon butty or dropping a coin into a street beggar’s cup.

Ed has faced ridicule over photo opportunities. It’s not his fault that he looks so awkward. His face, his voice, his father’s political friends, everything about him has been analysed and laughed at, and not just by opposing parties. Several of his own colleagues would need no second bidding to turn on him.

I met Ed some years ago when he was a very junior minister. He seemed a decent, pleasant chap. Indeed his political bag carrier told me he enjoyed working with him because he was a genuine bloke.

With the election in the offing next May, life is only going to get tougher for the ruthlessly examined Miliband. How he must sometimes wish he had a sprinkling of the Farage magic dust. The more the UKIP leader defies convention, the more he’s seen emerging from the pub for a smoke, the more his personal rating rises.

Too nice to be Prime Minister? That could be Ed’s downfall, that and the deserting Scots. Ed’s simply not a bad boy of politics. Maybe he should give Nigel a bell and ask him to meet for a pint in the pub for a few tips on how getting it wrong can make you right with voters who love a bit of roguishness, for all we say we don’t.

BBC SHOULD MIND ITS LANGUAGE

JUST what’s going on at the BBC? Once renowned for presenters with perfect pronunciation, they are butchering the language these days.

Just last week a newsreader on Radio 4 announced that “burgulry” figures were rising and went on to refer to the “nucular” power debate.

Perhaps I’m just an old stick in the mud, but I groan each time the presenters say “haitch” instead of aitch when referring to the letter H. I’m not alone. The BBC’s Points of View program has received several complaints from listeners on the same matter.

“A slippery slope” comments the Queen’s English Society. So what does the BBC say? A spokesman was reported to have expressed pride at “the range of voices” across its programs. All I can say is it’s out and out burgulry of our wonderful language. I don’t expect announcers to wear dinner suits and black ties any more, just to be a tad more careful with words.

SIZE DOES MATTER

A group of amateur mountain measurers has thrown the cat among the pigeons by claiming that Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales, has grown a metre in height. The same group, whose hobby is mountain data well, it makes a change from train spotting used their GPS kit to prove Thack Moor in the North Pennines was 2cm higher than originally thought.

The Ordnance Survey, which produces all the maps, says there’s essentially a small village on the top of Snowdon and it maintains its measurement of the actual rock summit is correct. Where size is everything, Snowdon and Thack Moor are tiny in comparison with Everest. China and Nepal have been at loggerheads for years in dispute over an extra three metres.

But what would we do if these mountain data geeks got their instruments into some of our most famous fells. Say they discovered Scafell Pike wasn’t England’s highest after all. Would my “Four 3,000s” certificate be invalid. Would we have to hand in our Wainwrights?

And Blencathra. If they found it to be an inch higher than the OS says, would Lord Lonsdale put up the asking price?