I was briefly excited when I got off the train at Langwathby. A tea room! A station tea room! Sadly, the Brief Encounter was long closed, with an estate agent board on the end.
It meant that instead of a warming cup of freshly brewed tea, I had to resort to the bottle of tap water in my bag. Not the same.
You know what else Langwathby is missing? A decent station sign. Yes, I am going to carry on moaning about this all the time.
Fortunately the village that gave the station its name was much more pleasing. Tiny lanes threaded their way up to a large green, with a pub and a church standing on either side of the grass. In the middle was a dinky football pitch and a stone bus shelter had been lodged at one end. It was perfect rural living, made more so by the old-fashioned finger board.
I had places to go. I marched through the village and out the other end with barely a pause for breath. The grey skies clung to the fields and the hills, and frosted my lips. It was damp but not raining. There was a cloying moisture to everything.
Soon I was the only sign of life, wandering along the grass verge and feeling my ankles get wet. To lift my mood I'd put on the Queen of Insane Singing, Miss Shirley Bassey, because few things cheer me like her hystrionics. I love that she bellows, full throated and quite clearly insane, over the most delicate of songs; in her hands, As Long As He Needs Me is less the wistful sadness of an abused woman and more a call to arms. I can see why the studio refused to cast her as Nancy in the film of Oliver!; they said it was because she was black, but I suspect it had more to do with her looking like a woman who'd kick Bill Sykes in the crotch the minute he looked a bit shirty. The best example of sheer Basseyness is not, surprisingly, one of her three Bond themes (my order of preference: Moonraker, Diamonds are Forever and lastly Goldfinger, and yes I am aware of the blasphemy) but What Now My Love. It starts as a perfectly reasonable ballad, but in the last few moments, Shirl completely loses her shit and comes out with the kind of notes that no human being should ever utter. I wonder if the brass section's bus was delayed, and the Bass just looked the conductor in the eye and said, "Don't worry. I'll make up for it."
The railway occasionally peeped out of the trees to my right, but it was mostly concealed. Suddenly it made its presence known with a huge viaduct. The brick arches seemed to come out of nowhere, carrying the tracks over the top of a farm house with an almost languid ease. They were a massive, impressive piece of engineering, but something about their stolidness seemed laid back - the railway equivalent of a giant, self-effacing "whevs".
Yes, that garden has disembodied hands on pedestals and a scarecrow with a pet dog. No, I have no idea why.
Passing under the railway at Little Salkeld, I encountered another piece of railway architecture. Though many of the Settle & Carlisle stations that were closed in 1970 have subsequently been reopened, not all of them have. At Little Salkeld, the station building is a private home, and trains pass through without stopping. You can still spot the building by the side of the viaduct, easily identifiable as the brother of the other stations on the line, and well-preserved by the current owners.
I paused just after the bridge over the river to guzzle a bar of Dairy Milk (it was for energy, ok?). There was a water mill, with a tea room and craft centre, though both looked closed from the road. At the end of March, much of this part of the world is still asleep; tourists don't really start arriving until April, and they only start coming in droves after Easter.
I climbed the hill to the top of the village, then made a turn and walked back down the other side. There was something I wanted to see, and for once it wasn't train-related. Just on from Little Salkeld is an ancient stone circle, known as Long Meg and her Daughters. They've stood there, alone in a field, for at least three thousand years.
After a brief moment of traffic - three cars, one after the other, each one seemingly driven by Margaret Meldrew - I found the stone circle, straddling the road.
If this were America, there would be a car park, an interpretation centre, and a gift shop with a cafe. Because this is England, and you can't walk more than five yards without stumbling across two hundred year old paving slabs or a stone wall that's been there since the Norman Invasion, there was nothing. There wasn't even a noticeboard. If you didn't know anything about it before hand, you might think it was a farmer's very ambitious rockery.
The story behind the curious name is that Long Meg was a witch, and she gathered with her daughters on the field to practice her craft. As it was the Sabbath, God turned her and her girls to stone, and left them where they stood. In reality, it's more likely to have been a meeting place, or perhaps a place for worship. We'll never know.
As it was, I had the whole circle to myself. Now, I don't believe in God, or Allah, or any other deity. I don't believe in magic. I don't believe in any number of New Age beliefs - channelling, divining, feeling the animus within, spiritualism. Looking at the circle though I began to wonder: was there something in it? This circle had been a powerful place of congress and religion for millennia. Perhaps there was a mysticism coursing through it. Perhaps there was a natural power running through this spot.
I reached out, a little tentatively. My hand closed in on the ancient stone and I gently placed the palm against the face.
It felt cold, and a bit clammy. That was it.
I stood there for a few moments, touching the rock, waiting for the mystic energy to burst out, like something out of Indiana Jones. Nothing. I wasn't suddenly enveloped by a green electricity, and I didn't start speaking in tongues or sensing a new dimension. I just got a slightly damp hand.
The only magic was rather more down to earth. It was a magical feeling of connection. I was standing here, in 2014, touching something that had first been put there by a man in 1500 BC. Three and a half thousand years separated us, but we were still alike. We were just men in the same place at different times.
Time to walk on. I went by a shed, where a row of cows were staring impassively over their hay bales, and then down a side path. It was partly blocked by a tractor. The farmer was chopping down some of the trees, and throwing them into a noisy chipper. I tiptoed around, mumbling an "excuse me" to the clearly surprised lumberman, and trying to get images of Fargo out of my head.
A stile marked the start of a bridleway to my next station. The rain that morning hadn't made the earth too moist; fortunately it had been preceded by a dry patch, so the mud was mainly just on the surface. It had been churned up by horses hooves though, meaning there were tiny puddles and thick black sticky patches.
Most of the time there was silence. Not even birdsong, just an absence of sound. There's something strangely comforting about knowing that the only noises you hear come from you - the squeak of your boots, the rattle of your bag, the soft shuffle of your coat. Every now and then the copse opened up a view across idyllic hills and forests.
I trudged on. As the hill started to slope downwards, I slipped a little; I began to take delicate little steps to try and mitigate a plummet to the bottom, resulting in a distinctly Inman-esque walk. Of course, this was the exact point when I encountered two other walkers, the only people I'd seen for ages. They were two bulky ladies with bowl haircuts and their maps in plastic bibs round their neck; I don't want to cast aspersions, but I'd guess they were used to wearing sensible shoes together. We grunted "afternoon" at each other as we passed.
It was lucky that I'd seen the ladies, because otherwise I wouldn't have been convinced I was going the right way. The path turned into a literal stream; not a series of muddy puddles, by an actual rivulet of water running down the gap between the trees. I was forced to squelch through what I was positive was a river bed; in mid-winter, with rain and melting snow on the high peaks, it must become impassable. Finally it twisted away and I was able to step onto tarmac again.
The road went all the way to Lazonby, but I swerved off it, taking a side path that would mean I could walk by the river. Did I mention that this is the River Eden? It's as though the whole valley was deliberately designed to be as scenic and beautiful as possible. A couple of trees had fallen into the water, their roots sticking up into the air, confused and useless. I was crossing a pasture now, and I saw my first sheep of the trip. No lambs, disappointingly.
Weirdly, there was a bench as well. Not a dull municipal bench, made of wood and solid, but a more delicate ironwork construction. I took a seat and had a packet of Wotsits from my backpack. Did you know Wotsits are in a blue packet now? I was disgusted. Wotsits should be in an orange packet, just as Quavers are yellow and Frazzles are brown. You shouldn't mess with the classics.
With my starchy snack inside me I pushed on towards civilisation. A cluster of jackdaws drove themselves into a panic at my presence; they had nests in the high trees, and they squawked and circled in a fury. I carried on to the road, and the Eden Bridge.
Remember my point about this country having just too much history? The Eden Bridge dates from 1762. It's 250 years old, and it's just sitting there, quietly doing what it's always done, without any fuss. It's too narrow for today's traffic, though, and so traffic lights at either end let the cars take turns passing over it. There's also no footpath. Luckily, there are little hollows in the parapet which allow you to stand to one side when a truck passes you.
There wasn't a footpath on the road, either, which meant a walk through the long grass and the litter. I will never stop being furious about litter. I even saw a McFlurry container in the hedge, which is quite an achievement given there wasn't a McDonalds for about ten miles. I can only assume that someone deliberately drove to this particular hedge to dispose of their rubbish; an admirable commitment to screwing up the countryside.
Obviously all I could think about was poor George as I entered the village that (almost) bears his name. I say "poor George" - he's a property millionaire now, so he doesn't need your sympathy - but when he dies, it won't say "shrewd investor George Lazenby" in his obituary, it'll say "one time James Bond, George Lazenby, who thought that 007 was a role that wasn't going anywhere and wouldn't last the Seventies." Never mind, George; at least you got to appear in the very best Bond film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (yes it is don't argue) and you shared saliva with Her Holiness Diana Rigg.
I should also point out that during last year's Epic Journey With No Purpose, to the Cumbrian Coast Line, I visited the village of Dalton, meaning that next year I'll have to find a railway station called Connery or Brosnan or something.
It was home time at the village school, and the streets were filled with tiny children gripping empty lunch boxes and paintings. They were herded along the narrow pavements by mums and dads who already looked stressed. It was clear that Lazonby had once been something of a centre for rural industries, with various workshops and mills scattered around the place. They were all residential properties now, apart from an egg packing factory which was for sale as "an excellent redevelopment opportunity" and Croglin Toys, housed in a sandstone workshop.
I wandered up to the village hall so I could indulge my love of community noticeboards. You'll be sad to hear that you missed The Great Kirkoswald Bake Off, and unfortunately the deadline to bid to rent the sports field for sheep grazing was March 26th ("please note that part of the area will be used for community events, so that part will need to be kept clear for one day a week to allow this to happen"). However, the Joiner's Arms is now serving pizza, so it's not all bad. Plus the winner of Lazonby and District's Got Talent 2014 was Ally Cargill and his acoustic guitar; I'm mentioning this here so that if he grows up to be a Justin Bieber-esque global sensation I'll get thousands of blog hits. I'm not daft.
Lazonby and Kirkoswald railway station, meanwhile, was a bit of a let down. While the building was still standing, it had been turned over to offices for a financial services company, and the travelling public were not especially welcome. A path had been marked out in the car park for travellers, away from the office worker's vehicles, and signs made it very clear that access was only grudgingly permitted.
I took a seat on the platform to wait for my train, wishing I was heading south because they had a neat little waiting shelter.
And no totem sign again!
I had one final station to collect that day: Armathwaite. It's the last station before you reach Carlisle, and again the station building has been turned into a house. It's also got a concrete neighbour, a staggeringly ugly building wedged onto the end which ruins any turn of the century ambience there might otherwise have been.
I wondered if there was any rivalry between the two houses; the posh family in the restored station building, the common one in the pebble-dashed block. There could be a hilarious Never The Twain-style sitcom in it, perhaps with a love across the class barriers subplot. It could be called Different Tracks. Quick! Someone get Channel 5 on the phone!
More positively, there's a retired signal box not far from the southbound platform. The signal box was put out of use in 1983, but was restored by the Friends of the Settle & Carlisle Line, and you can now visit it every Sunday. I was quite annoyed that I couldn't have a poke around; a notice in the waiting shelter said that you could arrange to visit it outside of the weekend. If I'd known I'd definitely have sorted that out.
With time to kill before my train back to Kirkby Stephen I headed into the village itself. A cat leapt out from under a fence and rubbed itself against my leg; I paused to give it a stroke, and then had a little panic when it followed me down the road. Fortunately it got bored and turned back, before I turned into Dick Whittington. Down in the village centre, there was a finger post with "Cumberland County Council" still etched on it, and "The Last Post House" had a public telephone sign and a gloriously old-fashioned letter box set in the wall.
For the second time that day, I crossed the River Eden, though the bridge here wasn't as old as the one in Lazonby. There was pretty parkland here, buffering against the river, and a country pub that was sadly closed. In the distance, though I spotted another pub, so I headed there. It looked a bit grand - there was a hotel attached - but I saw the entrance to the bar at the back and headed there.
Eight pairs of eyes turned towards me: three customers, all old men, and a middle aged landlord. He was sat in front of the bar, with his regulars, and went behind it when I came in to pour me my pint of Lakeland. I found a corner away from them, and listened as they talked about a friend of theirs who'd been pulled over by the police after having five pints a couple of nights ago. "Did he get away with it?" one of the elderly men asked. "Dunno," said the landlord, and you could tell from his tone that his sympathies were with the driver, not the police. Things really are different in the country.
The landlord went back behind the bar when a couple came in, middle aged and boisterous; he got their drinks without even asking what they wanted, which would annoy me. What if I fancied a different beer, or a cocktail, or an orange juice? That was just taking liberties. The customers joined in with the landlord's bitching about a rival pub, and their accommodation offers - apparently they can't be making any money, and the owner is livid if you stay in your room past breakfast. Then the conversation moved on to golf, and I stopped listening.
I was feeling sleepy. It was the beer, and the walk, but most of all it was happiness. I was content. I was pleased with my day, and looking forward to the rest of the week. I just wished the train home wasn't at the top of a hill.