I was, perhaps, a little harsh on Whitby last time I visited. I found it a disappointment, a sad shadow of its former self. It's true that there is still a lot of empty ground here - I can never be totally happy about a station that has replaced some of its tracks with flower beds - but the building has at least been nicely preserved and cleaned. There's still that gorgeous tiled map, there are still plenty of shops and places to see the trains, and it's still a terminus in the centre of town. That should be celebrated.
Of course, it helped that the station was thronged with happy holidaymakers and a train sat in the platform waiting to whisk them away. Stations are always at their best when they're animated. They need to be busy to live.
After a moment pondering the hand stenciled sign advising passengers that there were no toilets on the station - could people not spot that for themselves? Had there been a horrible accident involving a broom cupboard and an incontinent woman from Halifax? - I nipped outside into the sunshine.
I had to curse the North Yorkshire Moors Railway's lateness again. The estuary sparkled, the sunshine baked the faces of laughing families, the ice cream vans were doing a roaring trade. It would have been great to wander round the town, just for a little bit, but my anxieties wouldn't let me. I was too afraid of missing the train from Ruswarp.
I stood outside the station and took the sign photo and hoped I would at least have an interesting walk.
I wandered away, past the Co-operative supermarket. This is the site of the old platforms 3 and 4, and once also included a goods yard and engine shed. The Co-op occupies the head of the railway area while the back has been given over to acres of car parking. Acres which are never enough; as I walked across the tarmac I saw cars queueing to get in, cars lining up for single spaces, cars following people like vultures ready to leap into their space once they returned to their vehicle. I dodged in and out the lines to make it clear I wasn't about to leave in my Nissan. If only there were an alternative for all these car drivers, I thought. Something like a regular, fast railway service that took you right into the centre of town. If only.
I had my back to Whitby's chocolate box prettiness, and was heading towards a narrow space at the far end of the car park. This is where the Esk Valley Walk begins and ends: on a dusty path between a boat servicing yard and the train tracks. I let a hairy man with an equally hairy dog out then began the trek down the path.
I'd barely started before the steam train reappeared, on its way back to Pickering, the engine hammering out its distinctive rhythm. Tiny hands appeared out the windows to wave at me as they passed.
The A171 bypasses the town on a low concrete bridge, elegant and simple. It's obviously been designed to be as unobtrusive as possible, meaning that the cars and trucks almost float over it. From beneath it seemed deceptively fragile.
The path was only wide enough for people in single file, squeezed between the tracks and the muddy estuary. Brambles caught at my clothes as I walked, even drawing blood from the side of my hand. I didn't even notice the cut until I raised my palm and saw the long slick of red smeared across my skin, congealing between my fingers.
Around a corner, then another, then the Larpool Viaduct was in view. It's a gorgeous railway brick construction (the proximity to the sea meant they avoided corrodible metal) that seems to belong to another world. It's like a piece of Manchester's Castlefield was blown here by a tornado.
The viaduct was built for the Scarborough and Whitby Railway to carry traffic to their station at West Cliff. As you can see, there was no interaction between the two separate lines, and no way of bringing the line down to the Esk Valley level without extensive railway works.
On top of that, to save money, the viaduct was built to only accommodate a single track. When Beeching was deciding which railways to do away with, this one was an easy target. There were attempts to buy up the railway for a heritage service but the attempts failed, and everything closed in 1965. The viaduct was abandoned.
Happily, it was listed by the council in the seventies, and since then has been reopened as a foot and cycle path. I wished there were some steps connecting it to my path, because I'd have loved to have climbed to the top to take in the view. Ok, maybe not steps. A lift.
I'd left the town behind now, the viaduct acting as a border crossing. The church tower on the horizon was a target. The river curved away from me, a grassy meadow in its eye.
Soon Ruswarp station was appearing on my right, a surprisingly grand building for this little village. It seemed to have been with a larger budget than its comrades further up the line, with archways and a solid square foundation.
I popped up onto the road bridge to watch the water for a little bit. There was a girl further down doing the same thing: I considered challenging her to a game of Pooh sticks, but I was worried I'd get a slap round the face.
I had about three quarters of an hour before my train, so I headed into the Bridge Inn, a real boozer directly opposite the station. There were red carpets and pine on the walls and items that I assumed were tack for horses but could have been props from the upcoming Fifty Shades of Grey film. A family of four were eating their meal in complete silence; finally one little girl piped up with "I'm going to leave the ice cream. I only wanted the apple pie. I didn't expect the ice cream."
Despite its slightly shabby appearance, I'm guessing the Bridge Inn is mainly frequented by millionaires, given that it charges £4.75 for a cheese sandwich. You get "salad garnish" with that, but come on: £4.75? I swiftly abandoned any plans for a pub lunch and headed back over the street for my train.
Ruswarp was even prettier in close up. The porch was painted in Northern Rail purple, and offered a sheltered space to sit in, with a little metal sign saying The Old Ticket Office. Climbers had been allowed to swallow up sections of the brickwork.
I was surprised to find a couple already on the platform, a man and a woman in their sixties snuggling up on the bench. They seemed to have come here just to fondle one another, giggling and holding each other like a couple of horny teenagers. I felt deeply uncomfortable and stood far away, eyes staring forwards, very definitely not looking. They got up and walked off before the train even arrived, suggesting that this was their secret make out spot and I'd ruined it for them.
My final stop was Sleights, squeezed into a narrow valley between two hills. The railway line and the river are practically entwined at this point as they take the easiest path through the steep slopes.
The station building's for sale here, as well, though at £445,000, it's a bigger investment than the one at Glaisdale. It's a twin of Ruswarp, and beautifully maintained. It's on a quiet lane, too. I wondered if the owners' decision to sell was related to the NYMR's plans to increase their steam services to five a day in summer? A thrusting 1930s train is very pretty when it passes you from a distance, but I imagine it's less charming when you've just hung your whites on the washing line.
The station clock was working here too, and it had Sleights written on it in a neat font. I had three hours now until the train back to Middlesbrough, so there was time to explore the village. Or find a pub, anyway.
Crossing the track took me to a tiny set of steps which lead up to a pretty footbridge. There were bushes here with what looked like redcurrants hanging off them; I was tempted to try one, but I'm not brave enough to sample random berries. I will not be replacing Ray Mears on BBC2 any time soon.
Briggswath, on the other side of the bridge, was a tiny community, with a single Wesleyan Church and a garden centre. I walked around it in a circle but it was pretty unexciting. The streets were empty and it felt like everyone had gone inside for their tea.
I went back over the bridge, through the white picket gate at the entrance to the station (someone had pinned a notice to it: "Will the Dog Owner who repeatedly allows their animal to foul this area start removing the faeces. YOU WILL BE REPORTED WHEN SEEN.") and I turned up the hill. I'd hoped there'd be a Station Hotel, and it looked like there had been once, but now it was the Salmon Leaps Hotel. I poked my head inside the door but the bar seemed very much "for patrons only", so I quickly backed away.
Making sure to ignore the Goths sunning themselves in the front garden of one of the houses (are Goths allowed to have a tan? Won't they get kicked out of the union?) - not least because one of the ladies was topless - I started the climb up the very steep hill. Halfway up I paused by the village hall, partly for a breather, partly to see if there were any interesting events I should know about. There was a rota for the hall's use (it seems the people of Sleights are very keen on Zumba) and a strange poster that seemed to have escaped from the 19th century:
Cabinet of Curiosities - Puppet & Magic Lantern Theatre.
The distinguished Paleontologist PROF. AMBROSE MERRYWEATHER
& his wondrous collection of ANIMATED AMMONITES
AND BE BOPPING BONES!!!
To delight & amaze folk of all ages.
I'd query the historical accuracy of the phrase "be bopping" - and the e-mail address sort of destroyed the illusion - but it was different enough to capture my interest. I was disappointed I wouldn't be able to see it - the show was every Sunday at 7. (I've just Googled it, and discovered that it's held in La Rosa, a curious looking hotel and campsite in Whitby, which has piqued my interest even more. Unfortunately the last performance of the season is taking place even as I write this).
After a moment's pause on the coronation bench, with its inscription of Elizabeth 1953, I carried on up the hill. Sleights wasn't charming me - it was a bit too modern. The village seemed to have been swallowed up by bland houses in the sixties and seventies, and there was little of charm left. The odd cottage, a churchyard, but the most interesting thing I saw was a roadsign for the surely not real Ugglebarnby.
I ended up in the Plough Inn, an old pub that seemed more keen to promote itself as a place to eat than to drink. I took up a little table and was then forced to guard it jealously as family after family came in looking for an evening meal. The main restaurant was booked for a party so groups sat in the bar, looking askance at me and my single pint while they crowded round their table. Finally the peer pressure got to me and I drank up and left, noting on the way out that the food didn't actually look that great. It certainly smelt grim, like the chip pan had caught fire at some point but they hadn't bothered chipping the burnt grease off the sides.
Fortunately the Goths and their exposed bosoms had gone back inside, so I made it to the station with my eyes unmolested. I took up a spot on the platform in the low sun.
That's it then, I thought. I was a little deflated. Sleights hadn't been the climax I'd hoped, a barnstorming cymbal crash to go out on. It was just ordinary. So much of the rest of the line had been beyond ordinary - breathtaking natural views, beautiful buildings, charming pubs - that it seemed like a half-finished ending.
Or perhaps I just knew that the station I was visiting the next morning was going to be far, far more interesting.