Friday, 11 April 2014
Day Four: Another Town, Another Train
It's appropriate that I'm writing about Settle, today of all days. It's the 25th anniversary of the line being saved from closure. It would probably have been more appropriate for me to be actually riding the anniversary train, and writing about that, but I'm not diamond geezer; I don't keep abreast of all these birthdays and special events and book myself tickets months in advance. I just flounder about like a wasp trapped in a warm room, occasionally hitting the right target but more often than not banging my head against the glass. Still, this blog post might get caught up in the swathe of Google searches on the line, so it's all good.
I can't decide if Settle is the head or the foot of the line. It gets its name first, yes, but Carlisle's rather more important than this little town in the Dales. It does have a nice, well-preserved station as befits its status. I disembarked with a lot of pensioners with cameras and sandwich bags.
Obviously the station is far more touristy than some of the others. There's more in the way of historic geegaws lying around, and there's a little shop that sells souvenirs and railway memorabilia. I wandered in, determined to spend some money, and fingered the merchandise while I eavesdropped on the conversation behind me. A new volunteer was chatting to the man behind the counter, and he was very keen to impress; every other sentence was an obscure fact about the line. The shop man was nodding and smiling in a way that said "yeah, I've heard it all before."
I came out with a paperback line guide and a little enamel badge that said Station Master. I'm not sure that I will ever wear it - it'll probably end up in a drawer alongside my 007 pin and the badge I got off eBay that says I Get Around By Merseyrail Underground - but the money was burning a hole in my pocket, and I wanted to support the volunteers, even if it was in a tiny way. Plus, Robert has a blog called The Station Master but he doesn't have a badge so in a very real sense, I've won.
Outside there was a car park and a restored water tower, plus plenty of random railway heritage. Old signs and pumps and bits of engine. I was much taken by the two signs warning against trespass, which handily summed up a hundred years of linguistic change:
Down by the railway bridge I found what I'd really come here for: the station sign.
A different sign, more for the tourists, pleased and annoyed me in equal measures.
I gained a great deal of satisfaction from looking at that sign and thinking, "done it." I'd ticked off all those stations. Where it irritated me was its insistence on calling Kirkby Stephen station "Kirkby Stephen West". That is the original name of the station, true; there used to be a second line going from Bishop Auckland to Tebay. It closed to passengers in 1962 and completely in 1974 (though the Kirkby Stephen East station is now a heritage centre). With only one station left in the town, British Rail changed its name to Kirkby Stephen - no geographic signifier required.
The persistence in calling it Kirkby Stephen West on the tourist sign summed up, for me, why I hadn't entirely taken to the line. I loved travelling along it, I loved its scenic beauty and its stunning route, but it was a bit too chocolate box-y for me. I've written before - at long and tedious length - about my dislike for heritage railways. About how I like railways that are about the future, not the past.
The Settle & Carlisle has nice, modern purple Northern trains running along its length, but you're dropped off at stations that are red and cream and Victorian. They are working stations but they're stuck in a limbo between the past and the present.
There's an element of childish sulkiness to all this, I admit. Every train I rode was full of people taking in the line and enjoying the heritage. There's a part of me that thought, that's my gig. I ride lines all the time, not just fabulously scenic ones, but crappy single track lines through chemical works and rattling Pacers to dull suburbia. I couldn't mark the Settle & Carlisle as my own, because so many other people were doing the same thing as me.
I headed into town. Settle made an immediate play for my heart strings with a hairdresser called Moneypenny's - or, to be accurate, Moneypennys, which raised the delicious prospect of it being staffed by Lois Maxwell, Caroline Bliss, Samantha Bond and Naomie Harris (with Pamela Salem doing the teas and Barbara Bouchet brushing up the offcuts). It didn't need to be quite so obvious - it was a delightful little town.
It was currently straddling the border between a thriving country town and a middle class tourist centre. There was still a butcher and a baker, plus banks and newsagents - good local businesses with plenty of heritage behind them. There was a Co-op and a working men's social club, and a couple of pubs. There was also Ye Olde Naked Man Cafe, which was advertising "Hot Buns" on a blackboard outside. The mind boggles.
However, against these proper old-fashioned businesses, there were exclusive cookshops, gift shops, even a shop that sold hand crafted toys, the type that Tina Fey memorably described as "the kind of beautiful wooden educational toy that kids love (if there are absolutely no other toys around and they have never seen television)". The scarves on sale in the clothes shops were more Hermes than knitted winter warmers. I went in a handcrafty homewear type shop in search of a lunch box - I'd been enduring squished butties all week. I ended up buying a yellow and blue plastic box that had Yay lunch! written on it; a bit twee for my tastes, but I couldn't face another mashed up mess of crumbs and mayonnaise. The woman behind the counter treated me with utter contempt, presumably because I looked a bit poor and I wasn't buying one of her extremely expensive pointless kitchen gadgets. I shan't name the shop, I'll just say that the only way I would cross her threshold again would be if I was driving a monster truck through the front window.
Having shopped till I dropped in the town centre I headed out back to walk to my next station. I passed a couple of historic plaques, one of which commemorated the Rev Benjamin Waugh, one of the founders of the NSPCC. The other was a tribute to Sir Edward Elgar, who apparently "often stayed here as a guest of his friend Dr Charles Buck." Poor Dr Buck; all that time contributing to Settle society and they stick a plaque on your house to commemorate a bloke who just came up to use your spare bedroom now and then.
The narrow road rose steeply past The Folly, a seventeenth century house which is now open as the Museum of North Craven Life. Well, it's not actually open right now - it reopens after the winter break on the 15th April - but that's what it's used for now. Victoria Street turned into Albert Hill, parades of neat cottages with pretty flower baskets. There was a house for sale and I thought, yes, I could probably live here. It was charming and pretty and there was an enormous Booths supermarket (for readers from the south, Booths is like Waitrose, only not quite so lower class). I would ruin the town even more, of course, driving out some local farm folk from a house in their historic home town and sending house prices even higher then complaining when tractors of manure went down the high street; I'd end up being welcomed by the staff at the snobby kitchen shop, and the cycle would continue.
The railway line to Long Preston shadows the A65 through the Ribble Valley; I decided to take a more interesting route, up and over the hills via the Pennine Bridleway. The morning was mellowing, with a bit of wind and a bit of sun hinting that the best of spring was still to come. It was, as usual, tough going. I'm not built to walk at an angle. I kept having to pause for breath, hoping that this wasn't how the whole route was going to turn out.
At least it was a hard, metalled road underfoot, not squidgy mud. I passed a couple of small farmhouses, and a waterworks, and a little pile of litter. Right on top was a Lipton's Iced Tea bottle, confirming my theory that anyone who likes drinking cold tea is a massive wanker. Smaller paths split off the main one, routes for walkers, but I stayed on the main bridleway.
As I walked I was mainlining Softmints; it was sort of like Edward Hilary taking Kendal Mint Cake up Everest, but on a much smaller scale. Can I just say that one of the most disappointing experiences in all confectionery is biting into a Softmint and having it crack? Trebor seem to slip one hard, unchewy one in every packet, just to keep you on your toes and ensure that you don't completely enjoy eating their sweets. I paused for a swig of water too, looking out over the forested hills and breathing in the clear air. I was totally alone.
Until, suddenly, a pensioner appeared on the path ahead of me with two dogs. I was stunned; where had she come from? There were no settlements between here and Long Preston, just four miles of rough path. Had this old lady really walked all that way with no protection other than a blue headscarf? Her dogs sniffed around my legs, a couple of little spaniels in tartan coats. Why are coats for dogs always tartan, I wondered? Perhaps that's why the Scots are so keen to get independence; the English took their historic family wools and wrapped them round chihuahuas. It's pretty insulting when you think about it.
The old woman passed me with a little smile and an apology for her friendly dogs, then ploughed on towards Settle. Supergran.
The terrain was sparse, but not as wild as I'd seen elsewhere on the line. I was getting into the more populated parts of Yorkshire, where settlements had tamed the landscape and brought it to heel. Pine trees stood in regimented lines, looking artificial. Gorse mingled with yellow grass.
Above me the clouds couldn't decide what weather to throw at me. Grey and white battled with one another, frothing with indecision, occasionally breaking to let shards of God light to power through. They illuminated hot patches of the fields then were closed off again.
I sang to myself, now that the landscape had flattened out a bit and I could get my breath again. I'd like to tell you that it was a traditional English folk song, or perhaps an inspiring walker's tune to keep my pace, but actually it was Cool Rider from the criminally unappreciated Grease 2. It had been bashing around in my head for days. I can't say why, other than the obvious reason: it's ace.
Past a mountain of blue chippings - I'm not sure where they'd been dug up from; they looked like they should have been at the bottom of a fish tank - I encountered the loneliest bench in England.
I couldn't quite work out why it was there. It didn't have a dedication plaque, so I assumed it wasn't in memory of some valiant old hiker. It was just stuck on the side of a hill. I took a seat, and yes, the view was rather special, but it still seemed odd.
The road sloped down again as I approached the river valley. A few spots of rain began to lethargically beat against my coat, but they soon gave up, as though they'd just given me a bit of a warning.
Long Preston was as classic an English village as you could find; I stepped out onto a triangular village green with a may pole and a pub. A turn around the corner and the stone houses, window boxes brimming with spring posies, were joined by a village post office and a tea room (sadly closed at that time).
I was hopelessly early for the next train and, not fancying the idea of huddling on a station bench, I did the next logical thing.
The Boar's Head was just waking up - it was a little after 12. The landlord was bringing in some crates from his car, purchases of crisps and mixers from the cash and carry. The barmaid leaned against the optics, staring ahead, already bored and she'd only just started.
It was soon time for me to head off for Station Road and, blessed be, a British Rail sign.
I was off the Settle & Carlisle Line now and the contrast was stark.
Ok, I know I was complaining earlier about the chocolate box stations of the S&C, but that's one hell of a come down: pot hole ridden tarmac, a cycle shelter and a couple of benches on the platform. The tourists wouldn't bother coming this way - which was a shame, because as I hope you spotted in the pictures above, the landscape around Long Preston was just as pretty in its own way.
The end of the Settle and Carlisle line didn't mean the end of my trip, though. I still had the Bentham Line to collect. Plenty more stations to go round...