Saturday 1 February 2014

Green and Pleasant Land

January 2014 was the wettest January for a hundred years.  Sensible, right thinking people would hunker down in front of the fire in a onesie with a hot chocolate.

I am not one of those people.  Not least because I think onesies are an abomination.  (It's a babygrow for adults!)  

Instead I hauled myself aboard an early train and went cross-country to the rural Hope Valley line to collect some railway stations.  The choice of destination wasn't entirely mine.  Blogger and human will-o'-the-wisp Diamond Geezer had suggested we meet up and collect some stations together.  Sheffield is two hours' train journey for both of us, so it seemed like a good spot to rendezvous.

Getting to Grindleford meant taking a rattling Northern train through the Totley Tunnel.  As was fairly typical for the Victorians, they took a look at the steep rises of the Peak District and thought "no problem", whacking what's still Britain's fourth longest railway tunnel through the hillside with barely a second thought.  It's an impressive piece of engineering, even though it's 120 years since it opened.  It's three and a half miles long and still carries huge amounts of traffic - indeed, my train from Liverpool had passed through it earlier.

Grindleford station is less impressive, just a couple of platforms and shelters.  It can't live up to its name, which sounds like a dwarf from The Hobbit.  DG and I got off the train with a single other traveller, a hardy looking hiker who was no doubt about to walk to Bristol or something.  He had a beard and everything.

Up on the roadside I persuaded the normally camera shy DG that he should make a guest appearance under the station sign too, and he graciously agreed to be photographed.

That's odd.

After that, all we had to do was walk to the next station, Hathersage.  There was a longer route via the road but, come on: where's the fun in that?  My Ordnance Survey clearly showed a footpath that went through woods and beside a river, and an odd part of my brain thought that would be an ideal route to walk in drizzle at the back end of winter.

We trekked slowly upwards on a side route, through a strip of quiet houses.  It wasn't much after nine o'clock and some of the residents were still opening their curtains.  We turned off the road eventually, to cross the railway line via a muddy footbridge.

"Hang on."  DG reached into his bag and produced what looked like a pair of blue condoms.  Being a gentleman, I averted my eyes so he could slip them on.  I say "slip"; what actually happened was I heard a series of groans, squeaks and exclamations.  I didn't like to look, and it was actually a relief when he joined me at the end of the bridge wearing waterproof trousers over his jeans.

The footpath sloped downhill rapidly, taking us to the side of a frothing, foaming River Derwent.  We were glad to see that we were high above the torrent - there was a part of me that had been concerned about flooding - but it was still a wet, sodden trudge.  Our boots squelched out brown water with each footstep.

Things only got worse as we entered the Coppice Wood.  Water pooled in fossilised footprints; we were ankle deep in mud.  Even the side paths, created by desperate walkers trying to avoid the morass of the main path, were damp and messy.

It became clear that DG and I had very different attitudes to the mud.  While he backed up, tried to find a route that was drier or clearer, I just yomped through them, splashing and sinking.  I'd seen The Hunger Games that weekend, and read Catching Fire on the way over, so I think I was in a Katniss Everdeen frame of mind.  I admit there weren't genetically altered beasts chasing after us or psychopathic teenagers trying to blow our foreheads open, so it wasn't really a direct correlation, but there was still that slight frisson of adventure and exploration.  I like wandering off the metalled roads and into the undergrowth.  It did mean, however, that I was quite regularly slipping, almost but not quite ending up on my face in the soil.  I'm not gifted with tip top physical co-ordination on dry ground - I must remind you that I once broke my foot by falling off a welcome mat - and the slick earth tested my balance to the maximum.  I knew things were bad when I realised I had stuck my tongue out so I could concentrate better.

We left the woods behind and returned to fields, heavy with the January rains and dotted with giant puddles and miserable looking sheep.  I imagined all that wet wool and shuddered at the smell.  Now and then we diverted off the path to try and avoid a small lake that had been formed by the rain.  Finally we were on a proper, tarmacced road, and dog walkers appeared as if to herald our return to civilisation.  I wonder what we looked like to them: wet, bedraggled, mud up to our knees.  One dog saw us and laid its stick on the path in front of us, backing away as though it had presented us with a religious artefact.  I choose to believe this is because of our God-like auras, and not because the poor animal was terrified.

"What time is the train?" asked DG.

"Umm... a quarter past?" I said, scraping around in my memory banks.  He checked his watch.

"Then we've missed it."

"Ok, maybe it wasn't a quarter past."  I pulled out my mobile to check the National Rail app.  It turned out we still had ten minutes before the train arrived, but it was a fair walk.  Our footsteps became quicker, a bit more urgent; thankfully we had pavement now, so there was no more battling the mud.  Our tight schedule meant we couldn't stop to take in the David Mellor cutlery factory, but they only offered tours at the weekends anyway, so we'd have missed the full thrill of watching teaspoons being made.

The railway bridge appeared on the horizon, but there was no sign of the station; a hoped for path up to the platform didn't exist.  We broke into a run, my flabby lungs wheezing to try and provide the oxygen for the brief dash.  There was a pause, while DG captured my red-faced exhaustion for posterity...

...and then we made it up to the platform with a minute or two to spare.  Enough time for me to phlegm up what was left of my internal organs and gasp for the slightest breath.  I tried not to think about the fit bastards working out in the health club overlooking the platform, laughing at my lack of physical fitness as they hit their eighteenth mile on the treadmill.

Still, we had a rickety Pacer journey to get the blood back from our extremities.  DG was of course fascinated by these cripplingly awful workhorses of the Northern rail network; he was even more fascinated to learn that there's actually a society devoted to preserving them, when the appropriate thing would be to burn them in a large bonfire while grateful commuters celebrated their death by dancing around the funeral pyre in a Bacchanalian feast.  Never underestimate the rail fan's ability to wax nostalgic.

Bamford still has its station house.  It's a private residence now, but it was lovely to see, and the owners are clearly respectful of their home's history.

There was a heady scent of fireplaces in the air, a happy smell of country hearths.  We passed a Network Rail van with a worker in his orange vest reading a paper, no doubt on some very important job that we wouldn't understand.

Best station sign so far.  It was so good I persuaded DG to pose under it as well.


Never mind; there was a walk to Hope to get through, one that would be a lot less fraught as the trains were now every two hours and we were walking on pavement.  The walk was along the surprisingly busy A6187, which sent a constant stream of trucks and cars past us.  In the distance, Hope cement works rose up, a refreshingly ugly bit of industry in the middle of the national park.  I've always said that too much attractive nature starts to get dull - it needs a good dose of filthy human intervention to make you appreciate it.

I had made a pair of plans for the next station.  We could take the easy route, and get a train from Hope to Edale; or we could walk across the hills to Edale and then come back to Hope.  One look at the distant peaks convinced us that would be a bad idea.  It wasn't exactly cold, and it wasn't raining, but there was a slow anger to the skies.  I imagined that we would be at exactly the point when mobile phone reception and human contact were distant memories before one of us plummeted to our death down a ravine.  Hopefully it wouldn't have been me, as I had the ticket home in my coat pocket.  Not only would DG have lost his walking partner, he'd have had to pay £6.90 for a train back to Sheffield.

Instead we headed straight into Hope village, bypassing the disappointing Market Square (basically a car park by the church) to go to the Old Hall Hotel.  It was too early for the pub - and it pains me to write that sentence - but the tea rooms were open, and a sign said that "muddy boots are welcome".  We found a table for Earl Gray, and DG tucked into a turkey sandwich that was roughly eight foot square and needed to be disassembled like a particularly tricky Lego house before you could eat it.

Meanwhile, I wrestled with the delicate bone china, managing to spill tea over the table and then struggling to hold the dainty cup.  I could only fit one of my chunky man fingers in the handle at a time, leaving the cup unsupported and wobbling dangerously.  I flashed back to those ungainly steps in the woodlands, and panicked about smashing the china on the authentic stone flagstones.

Behind me, a group of nice old ladies were enjoying their tea and cakes.  They accompanied their elevenses with a never ending, unbroken stream of gossip and conversation.  I don't think there was ever less than two of the four women talking at one time; their chat flowed in and out at baffling speed, never seeming to connect, until I started to wonder if they were actually listening to each other or if they just came here to talk and didn't care about response.  Perhaps this was some kind of theatre production, a kind of Elderly Vagina Monologues.

Having replenished our tannin levels we paid up - DG boggling that a pot of tea for two and a sandwich with salad could come to less than ten pounds; it's nice to occasionally remind Londoners about the joys of the provinces - and headed back out of the village towards the station.  A man in his fifties jogged past us in tight lycra, and we were united in our admiration for the older man and his activity, while sort of hoping that he'd fall over or have a heart attack or something.  Alright, you're in fantastic physical shape for a man your age - now get lost.

I think that missing "e" tells you all you need to know about the excitement levels of living in the Peak District.  Oh, it's charming, it's pretty, you're regularly overwhelmed by the sheer astonishing beauty of our nation and the bounteous wonders of Mother Nature, but what the hell is there to do of a Saturday night?  We'd seen a banner advertising the Hope Adventure Film Festival, but that was for one night only.  Plus, its definition of "adventure films" seems to mean "people climbing impossibly high rock faces and/or falling down waterfalls", which is interesting enough, but at the end of the day is just some people in cagoules and helmets trying to kill themselves.  I might have been tempted to attend if "adventure films" meant, say, Die Hard, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and one of the Roger Moore Bonds.

There was further disappointment at the station, when we discovered there wasn't actually a sign.  I had to loiter under a platform sign while DG risked plummeting onto the tracks to fit everything in.

There was a charming metal footbridge over the tracks, though, and some other passengers turned up for the train, making Hope very much the Grand Central of the Hope Valley line.

Edale station was architecturally disappointing.  But that view from the platforms.

Any kind of station building would have been cowed by that.  It would have been an impertinence, in fact.

We ducked down from the station and through a dark, soggy tunnel to the road.  There was a charming pub, lit up with fairy lights and once again welcoming walkers, and I had to wrench myself away from it to head into the village.

Edale is famously the start of the Pennine Way, and we decided that we'd head up through the village to take a look at this significant marker point.  I'd seen it marked on the map, but somewhere along the line I'd got confused about what the Pennine Way actually was.  I'd got it into my head that it went across the Pennines - a sort of walker's M62 - rather than running up the spine of England to Northumbria.  As a result, I couldn't really see what the fuss was about walking it.  I knew that Sheffield to Manchester by foot wasn't exactly easy, but I didn't get why people thought walking the Pennine Way was that much of an achievement.  Fortunately DG explained that the path actually went from south to north before I cockily wandered along it, thinking I'd be at Piccadilly by tea time but actually freezing to death on a hillock outside Glossop.

We passed the Moorland Centre, a tourist information kiosk and campsite which advertised that tent plots were available.  I bet they are, I thought, as a cold mist clung to the fields and the lenses of my glasses.  The Moorland Centre, meanwhile, was shuttered up and closed, meaning we couldn't poke around its displays or admire the fountain that cascaded over the living roof.

A tiny village school, its playground filled with all the pupils (i.e. about twelve hyperactive primary children) signaled the top of the village.  The Pennine Way sign was there, tucked in the corner of a yard.

We dutifully took a photograph of the finger sign.

"I thought it'd be a bit more impressive," I said, finally.  "I thought there might be an arch or something."  That was just a footpath sign.  If it wasn't there you wouldn't even know you were on the Pennine Way.  I may write to the Peak District National Park and urge them to consider some sort of elaborate entrance that would give it a real sense of destination.

The Old Nags Head, "the official start of the Pennine Way", was closed, so we turned round and walked back down through the village.  I was all for calling in at that pub, but DG quite reasonably pointed out that there were far more pubs in Sheffield, at the other end of the line.  So we went back to the station.

Up on the platform, with ten minutes until the train arrived, I said to DG, "I think you need to end your mysterious presence on the internet.  I think you need to show who you are.  Finally come out the shadows to receive the accolades you deserve."

He considered this for a moment, then said, "Perhaps you're right."

"Of course I'm right," I replied.  "I always am."  I lined up the camera and took a portrait of him to put on this blog and to finally reveal his secret identity to the world.

But that picture didn't come out.  So here's a picture of his foot instead.



misspiggy said...

DG brought me here! Loved this, and yes those Pacer trains ought to be pushed off the edge of the deepest quarry in the Peaks. I never thought it was possible to be train-sick before...

G. Tingey said...

The photograph, of course does NOT show a "pacer"

All aboard said...

I love going up North and travelling on the Northern Rail trains, so much so I purchased a Class 144 model train.

Scott Willison said...

I must emphasis that though that *isn't* a Pacer in the photo, DG and I travelled on two of these abominations during the course of our trip. Including one that had those bloody awful bus seats. I just got mixed up about *when*....

Fern said...

That was a really excellent read. Thank you, Scott.
Mention of the Pacer reminds me of a little branch line that I travelled on occasionally in the late 1950s, from Sidley, on the outskirts of Bexhill, to the main line at Crowhurst. One day we were lucky enough to get a really old carriage that was like an Edwardian drawing room, with comfortable seats ranged along all four sides, facing inwards. The upholstery was red plush, worn and faded, with frayed gold trim, and there were matching lampshades on wall brackets. I seem to remember tassels and polished wood as well. The floor covering was a proper full-sized carpet, shabby but still just about serviceable. The overall effect was of decayed gentility striving to keep up appearances. That carriage was a joy to travel in and it put smiles on the passengers’ faces. I wonder what happened to it. The line was closed down in June 1964.
(Great Aunt Annie)