Wednesday 4 September 2013
Day Two: Ford/Prefect
As someone who is neither pretty nor popular, I'm naturally highly suspicious of anything which combines the two. One Direction is composed of five attractive males who are worshipped across the globe; naturally I despise them. The work of Cath Kidston? Meh. Paris? Non.
I think this is why I took against Lealholm before I'd even stepped off the train. I'd read on the Esk Valley Railway website that the Sunday Times had deemed it "the prettiest village in Yorkshire." I think I basically entered the village which a metaphorical clap of my hands and a mental "we'll soon see about THAT."
I crossed the tracks and entered the village by a back road. Almost immediately I was confronted with a delightful village post office selling nets to catch sticklebacks in the river and a charming, old-fashioned petrol station with manual pumps. Damn you Lealholm, I thought.
It continued in that vein as I advanced into the heart of the community. A stone church tower poking above the trees. A trickling stream running down the back of well kept cottage gardens. A tea room called the Beck View, with a sunkissed terrace filled with appreciative customers (and a name which I initially misread as Back View, for added hilarity). I crossed the stone bridge by the Board Inn, a Woolpack-esque country pub that was busy raising money for the Great North Air Ambulance Service, and resisted the call of a hand crafted dairy ice cream from the tiny cafe. Instead I wandered down to the meadows where happy families played by the sparkling river.
I unclenched my cynical jaw. You won, Lealholm. You are undoubtedly charming, adorable, gorgeous. You drip wonderful.
But wait! I've just thought of something bad to say about you. Your signposting is rubbish. I couldn't find the Esk Valley Walk anywhere. It was marked on my OS map but there didn't seem to be anywhere showing me where it actually was. Eventually I scrabbled around in the bushes behind a public toilet and found what I wanted. I wish that was the first time I'd said that.
I was pleased that I was finally getting to actually walk alongside the Esk. It was my first proper encounter with the river that gives the railway its name, and I was the only person following it. For a while I still wasn't entirely sure I was on the right path - I fully expected to end up in a Yorkshire Water sewage works or something, having followed a service road for a mile and a half - but it was clear, it was warm, it was sunny. It didn't really matter.
Ignoring the most evil sheep I have ever encountered - thick black eyes, an aggressive baa, and a refusal to do anything except try to stare me down from a hillock - I weaved above and below the river. Sometimes I was metres away, listening to it crash over rocks, and at other times fields opened up between us, so it just became a distant sparkle between trees. The river seemed to wax and wane too, sometimes narrow and fast flowing, sometimes widening up to a gentle roll.
My fears about being on the wrong path weren't helped by a farmyard looming up on the horizon. I'd triangulated my position as best as possible on my map, and there was a little arrow pointing through the yard and out the back, but it still made me uncomfortable wandering through private land. It was a real traditional farmhouse too, with cockerels running wild across the dust and rusting machinery poking out of half-collapsed barns. I tiptoed through, waiting for an unshaven yokel with a shotgun to appear and demand that I stop worrying his sheep, but it never happened.
Instead I passed through another gate, locking it firmly behind me and double checking it so I couldn't be blamed for letting the farmer's cows run amok, and entered a wide field behind the barn. I encountered two other walkers, heading in the opposite direction, a middle aged man and woman who were moving at a far slower pace than me and who nodded greetings as they passed.
The entrance to the copse was a gate. mysteriously marked with Be Monitor. What does that mean? Monitor for bees? Be monitoring for, I don't know, wild animals? Only monitors could pass? Since I was a weather monitor at Junior School (keeping rainfall and wind records with Mark Osborne and Ian Turner and then pencilling them on a chart by the hall) and a Prefect at High School, I considered myself eminently qualified to enter.
The path sloped upwards to a narrow footbridge over a stream, with a heavy sandstone wall to the left. I've been doing this blog long enough to recognise it as a railway construction. There was just something about its size and age that brought to mind navvies and engineers.
Sure enough, once I'd crossed the bridge, I poked my head over the top of the wall and saw tracks and lineside equipment. Railway, footpath and river all came together for a kiss.
The path turned to a gravel road and I found myself walking amongst high wildflowers. There was something intimidating about them, having them rising above my head, something a bit "Dorothy in amongst the poppies" about it. I even began to feel a little dozy, but that was probably due to the two pints of bitter rather than hallucinogenics. I re-entered the trees, aware that the gush of the river was getting noisier alongside me.
I stopped dead.
What the...? Had someone stolen the path? Had the river burst its banks and swelled? Had a bridge collapsed somewhere? I whipped out my Ordnance Survey map and checked it; perhaps I'd taken a wrong turn. Then I saw it.
It was marked right there on the map, a ford across the river. I stared at the water, unsure about what to do.
It must be alright, I thought. It's a ford on a well-know long distance path. The water was crashing across a weir; I could see the shelf of rock I'd have to use to cross. It can't be that deep.
One step. Two steps. The water came just above the sole of my boots. Not too bad.
Three steps. I dropped about four inches downwards, not much, but enough for me to feel the sharp shock of ice cold river flooding into my boots and soaking my socks.
I jumped back onto dry land. Now what? I scanned the water, looking to see if there was some kind of marked route. A safe passage that wouldn't see me swept away. Perhaps I was meant to use the rocks as stepping stones? That didn't seem right, and it certainly didn't seem safe, especially since my shoes were now slick with moisture.
There was nothing for it. I took a deep breath and plunged through. The water swilled up against my calves, up my trouser leg, flattening the hair against my skin. It chilled me, made me gasp. I felt the water pool inside my boots, my lovely walking boots that I might now be ruining. My new thick walking socks went from "comfortable" to "dish rag" in seconds. I dragged my feet through, yelping, until finally I was able to stagger onto the mud on the far side.
I now needed to find somewhere a little bit dry to wring out my socks. I squelched up the slope, and noticed a little side path - that would be a good, out of the way spot for me to take my boots off without enduring the embarrassment of any walkers coming the other way. I poked my head round the corner and let out a very loud, very foul, expletive.
A footbridge. There was no need for us lowly walkers to get our feet wet; they'd provided a footbridge for us so we could avoid the ford completely! They'd forgotten to sign post it and the steps were hopelessly overgrown on a tiny side path, but that wasn't the point. There was a footbridge there all along.
Cursing like Roy Chubby Brown with his finger trapped in a door hinge I sat on the dry planks and wrung out my socks. When I tipped up my boot, I half expected a fish to drop out. I dried my feet as best as possible with the tissues in my bag then slipped them back into the sodden socks and into the moist shoes. They squelched as I stood up.
I trudged back up the riverbank and emerged next to a house. I noticed that the house's terrace overlooked the ford and I prayed this wasn't a sting operation. I hoped they didn't have a camcorder set up to film unwary walkers splashing through the river so they could sell the footage to You've Been Framed.
At least the path was gravel now, meaning I wasn't making my boots even worse with wet mud. It was a steep road past a little hamlet before a fingerpost indicated I should turn left. Even more wary now - perhaps the entire Esk Valley walk is just the locals' method of torturing tourists? - I checked on my map and yes, it seemed to be the right way. Right through that person's house.
It wasn't that they'd been unwelcoming. There was a stile, and another arrow on their front wall. But it was just an ordinary three bedroomed detached house, not an extensive farmyard. There was a block paved driveway and a car parked on it and a child's trike outside the front door. I could hear people talking and laughing in the back garden.
Perhaps they'd have been fine with me trudging down their side entrance to get to the fields beyond; they're probably used to it. They might have invited me to join their barbecue, or at least offered to dry my socks for me.
I just couldn't do it. I know it was my right to roam that way but I couldn't do it. Instead I carried on up the hill, on the road, via a far less scenic route. It's probably a giant double bluff by the homeowners to stop people from going through they're garden. "Oh, you're totally welcome, so long as you don't mind ducking under our washing and pushing Sophie on the swing and rubbing some suncream on my wife's back and helping me mend the shed! Feel free to come through!"
It meant that instead of finishing my walk to Glaisdale station through scenic woodland, I ended up walking right through the village itself. I'm actually ok with this; in fact, I preferred it. It meant I got to pass the Esk Valley Theatre (formerly the Robinson Institute), a little church hall that was hosting a production of Neil Simon's Last of the Red Hot Lovers. They were also advertising a coming production of Cinderella, with the slogan "Panto in the summer? OH YES IT IS!". The only good thing about a normal panto is you're somewhere warm for two hours while it snows outside. If it's summer you can GO OUTSIDE. There are PUBS.
The road sloped heavily downwards, past the Glaisdale Post Office and Village Shop and rows of tight little cottages. There was an awkward moment when I passed a pair of legs, sticking out the front door of one of the houses.
A glance inside as I went by revealed a woman in her 70s, dozing quietly, getting the sun. Some women reach a certain age and stop caring, don't they? They become pensioners and abandon all sense of shame and embarrassment. You see them on tv - again, mostly You've Been Framed - whipping up their housecoats to moon the camera, or falling off their grand kids' trampolines, or getting so drunk their teeth fall out. It's as though a switch goes in their head and just says, "you're seventy one! You're invisible! Dance to Steps in your bra and slip!". My nan never crossed that line, but I'm sincerely looking forward to the day when my mum suddenly decides to go on the rollercoaster at Thorpe Park and flash her bra at the camera. Then I'll put her in a home.
(Actually, it's just occurred to me: what if the old lady was dead? She'd just fallen backwards into her house, half in, half out, and now her corpse was slowly frying in the afternoon sun? They wouldn't need to cremate her, at least).
I stopped at the village green for a drink of water and to take in the view. I'd been reading Tess of the D'Urbevilles on the train, so my head was full of the magnificence of nature and the earthy charm of the landscape. I wasn't quite dancing round a maypole with flowers in my hair but I was certainly feeling in tune with the vista. I wanted to eat it, somehow, to just package it up so I could swallow it and make it part of me. England may no longer have a globe-spanning empire, but there's no need for it any more. Why go anywhere else when you have all this at home?
Eventually I dragged myself off the bench and down the hill to the station. It sat at the foot of the valley, not actually in Glaisdale itself but instead in the hamlet of Carr End.
It's another brief moment of twin tracks, so I crossed to the far platform to wait for the eastbound train. I had a little while before my train arrived so I took my boots off again in the hope that the sun would bake my feet dry. No such luck; when I got back to the hotel that night my socks were still damp, and I had to leave my shoes on the window sill.
The station house is up for sale; £380,000, which seems quite reasonable for a 150 year old three bedroom house in a National Park. Apart from the tourists staring at you through your back window. The particulars of the sale note that it used to house a tea room in the conservatory, and once again I cursed our nation's failure to preserve its station tea urns. The current owners were flying the flag of Yorkshire, which put me off them a bit; I know it's England's largest county, War of the Roses (which they lost, by the way), God's Own Country and all that, but they do seem very keen to bang on about how great they are all the time. They're the British Texas, only with Brontes instead of oil. They make Scousers look positively modest and unassuming.
A far more appealing purchase was the old signal box; a bit of work and that would be adorably compact and bijou.
I read my book until the train arrived, the shadows lengthening and finally overtaking me. One last station and I was done.
I ended on a high note. Egton station was wonderfully preserved, ivy covered and hidden amongst the trees. A sign on one of the lamp posts thanked the volunteers who kept the station tidy, and they really were doing a great job. Even better, there was a proper station clock.
I'd seen the circular mounts for the clocks on all the station buildings up the line, but this was the first with a timepiece in place. Northern Rail paid for its restoration and it was wonderful to see.
I tripped down the flagstones to the road. There was a pub on the corner, right opposite the station sign, with a busy garden full of drinkers. I hid behind a 4x4 to take the sign picture with a vague semblance of dignity.
I'm sorry Egton; I'm sure you're a positively darling little village. I'm sure you drip with charisma. But I had three quarters of an hour until the train home, and the Postgate Inn was right there, so what else could I do?
I wanted to deflate, anyway, to let the day's exertions slide out of me. Eight stations done. I was ridiculously pleased with myself. It had just been one delight, one joy after another. Even my sodden feet couldn't detract from it.
With the pint gone I trekked back up the steps to the platform, just as the sun began to die. It cast hot red and orange spikes over the station, warming my face. It felt like happiness.