Tuesday, 26 August 2014
I have to apologise to Cramlington. I was keen as mustard to have a look round the town before I arrived. It's a New Town, developed in the 1960s for Newcastle's residents, and New Towns are always interesting.
Unfortunately, as I got off the train, my phone rang. It was the BF, calling to let me know that he had arrived in Berlin. (Yes, while I was trekking around the North East he was gallivanting in the German capital for a week with his mate Peter. No, it isn't fair, is it?). Normally this would just be a brief phone call, but it turned out that his EasyJet flight had some interesting passengers - namely, the British diving team.
If you're not aware, the diving has a significant... following among the homosexual community. I'm not sure what appeals to the gays about well-toned men in Speedos performing acrobatic feats while leaping from brave heights, then emerging dripping wet from the water - perhaps it's an appreciation for swimming pool architecture. All I know is that we were glued to the men's diving during the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics, while completely ignoring, say, the Track and Field events.
The sight of half a dozen of our nation's finest divers sent the BF into raptures. He launched into a lengthy monologue about who he saw, how they were dressed, how Chris Mears was asleep, how Jack Laugher was listening to his iPod, how he pretended to go to the loo just so he could get a better look... Basically he sounded like a twelve year old girl who's just spotted Harry Styles in the corner shop.
(Before you ask, no, Tom Daley wasn't with them, and no, I'm not really a fan of Team GB's divers. I'm much more of a Vincent Riendeau from Canada fan).
Anyway, twenty minutes later he finally got off the phone (presumably to write Mrs James Denny over and over on his pencil case) and I was left with a conundrum. Walk into the town, and not give it my full attention so I could be back in time for the next train, or just hang around the station.
I hung around the station. Sorry Cramlington. I'm sure you're lovely, but I fancied a bit of a sit down and a drink (my legs were still protesting after the previous day's walk). I took up a position on the platform and waited for the train to take me to my next station.
Manors suffers from the same affliction as Edge Hill in Liverpool and Ardwick in Manchester. It's just a little bit too close to the main city terminus to be useful. By the time you've worked your way to the station, waited for your train, and then got out of Newcastle Central, you could be halfway into the city centre on the bus. Or you could even walk it.
It leaves Manors with a desolate, unloved feel. It's an island between the tracks, with a multi-storey car park on one side and the backs of some apartments on the other. There's no lift for the disabled, because what would be the point? Just a metal footbridge to clatter over to the main entrance: a gate behind a 1980s business park.
More of that terrible signage as well.
Another reason for Manors' relative quiet is that there's a Tyne & Wear Metro station a two minute walk away. Theoretically this should be an ideal interchange spot; in reality, anyone in the area just uses the Metro because that goes to far more useful places than the train.
Obviously I was ecstatic at the opportunity to ride the Metro again. It's a brilliant network, all fast, efficient trains and lovely underground stations and that gorgeous Calvert font. Manors is underground, with a pleasingly clean and spacious ticket hall leading down to two platforms.
Part of me wanted to just lark around on the Metro for the rest of the day. I have a feeling that someday I'll have to come back for round the Metro we go. It's just too tempting, especially now there are direct Newcastle trains from Liverpool every hour. I doubt it would take too long to do either.
There were two side platforms with the tracks running inbetween; an unusual arrangement in the UK, where we tend to prefer separate tunnels for each underground track. It reminded me of stations in Barcelona, which have a similar layout.
The only thing that stopped me from riding the Metro all afternoon was that I was incredibly tired. I'm used to having a bit of a nap in the afternoon - this is a depression side effect, sadly - and combined with the 20 mile walk the day before my body was in full on protest mode. I changed at Monument and got the train to Newcastle Central, where I could find my hotel and have a bit of a kip.
Observant readers will have noticed that in all this time I haven't actually collected Newcastle Central mainline yet. I've been through it a few times but I haven't waxed lyrical about it. This is because it's been undergoing significant refurbishment works all the times I've visited. They're nearly done now, but the street outside is still a mess and some of the retail is all over the place, so I decided to leave it for another day. I need to come back some time to collect Blaydon, anyway, the only other Tyne & Wear station I haven't yet been to.
If you're the kind of person who likes reading transport related blogs - and if you're reading this, you probably are - you'll have also read Robert's Station Master blog. He's trying to visit some of the more obscure and poorly served stations on the network, and as part of that, he visited the Chathill line. He even asked me along, but when I suggested walking between stations, he turned pale and said perhaps it would be better if he went on his own.
This lead to a certain amount of competition between us. Admittedly it was mainly on my part; I can't bear to be second (or first loser) at anything. We'd both visited the same stations, we'd even stayed in the same hotel, so there was a little bit of rivalry about who would have the best time. It didn't help that he sent me texts like the one below:
So if you're keeping score, Robert got a room with a view of the station, but was in Acklington too early to visit the pub. I had a view of the street outside my hotel room, but I got to have a couple of pints in the Railway at Acklington. A draw. Possibly. Personally I think being able to drink alcohol is worth five points at least.
That text meant that I had to do one thing at Widdrington, and one thing only: eat chips on the platform. I got up from my nap and dashed over to the platform for my train. It was - for the first and only time - busy. Finally I saw the point of the service to Chathill. It was full of commuters on their way home, plus a smattering of bored teenagers finding ways to kill time during the holidays. People were actually standing.
At Morpeth, though, most of them cleared out. The jammed train became distinctly deserted. Only a couple of us alighted at Widdrington; I should imagine the rest were waiting for Alnmouth. I headed immediately for the chip shop - or, to use its proper name, The Widdy Chippy.
It was a real, proper working class chippy; there was none of that pretentious food you get in some other places. My local chip shop offers curry, chinese, kebabs; the Widdy had spam fritters on its menu and that was about as exotic as it got. The drinks were bottles of Tip Top and there was a Kid's Special Snack Box with a free frisbee (sorry, "flying disc"). It was packed. A constant stream of punters came in for their Friday night tea.
I decided not to go with the fish, and instead ordered a battered sausage, onion rings and chips. A few minutes later, with a smattering of salt, I was on the platform. Obviously I texted this victory to Robert.
(He's not a smackhead, by the way; he'd just had wisdom teeth removed).
The chips were gorgeous; soft, fluffy, with a deliciously tempered batter. The onion rings crunched satisfactorily. The battered sausage was something else. The batter was fine, but when you bit into the centre, it wasn't really a sausage at its heart; it was more a soft, slightly cold collection of mashed pink stuff. It wasn't tightly packed inside the sausage skin and flopped onto the tongue. I couldn't eat it. I took a couple of bites and then it went into the bin with the polystyrene tray and the scrag ends.
I had a bit of a wander round the immediate vicinity of the station. The chip shop was housed in a parade of turn of the century stores, next to a Co-op and round the corner from an Indian takeaway. Behind it was a wide recreation ground which was, for some reason, Stones of Blood themed. I'm sure it made sense to the playground designers to lay out a space for a pagan stone circle, but I'm not entirely on board with their logic.
As I stood, bemused, a woman appeared at the gate of her house overlooking the recreation ground. "Simon! Tea!" she yelled, and a little blonde boy immediately detached himself from the group and legged it towards the house. Meanwhile, a half dozen teenage girls appeared over the hill, stinking of perfume and over made up, and they took up position behind the bins at the back of the shop. They were there for the rest of the evening, just hanging out, casting bitchy glances at passers by and sharing packets of crisps. Friday night in a small town.
I headed back to the station. The building's a private home again, and you can stare right down into their back yard from the platform. I put on a podcast - Dennis Hensley chatting to a friend about Partridge Family 8-tracks - and waited for my train.
I'd done it, then. The whole of the Chathill branch crossed off. It was always going to be a challenge, I thought, but in reality, it was pretty simple. A bit - alright, a lot - of walking. A bit of hanging around. It had been fun. And most importantly, I did it better than Robert.
Monday, 25 August 2014
Quick, Quick, Slow
Another Tyneside morning, another early start. It was a little later than the day before, but I was still a bit of a wreck. I'd gone to bed as soon as I got in from Acklington the night before and I'd slept all the way through; I now had a kind of walking hangover, where my legs existed about eight seconds behind the rest of me.
On the plus side I got my first trip on an East Coast train. An early morning service to Edinburgh starts at Newcastle and calls at some of the larger stations on its way to Scotland, so I'd be able to get to Alnmouth station without needing to use a Northern Sprinter. I was pleasantly surprised by the interior of the East Coast train. Room to sit comfortably! An onboard shop! Plug sockets at every seat! We didn't get these luxuries on the West Coast, just Pendolinos that smell of toilet. Presumably, the minute East Coast is privatised again, they'll rip it all out and turn them into cattle trucks, but it'll be nice while it lasts.
Alnmouth station - or, to give it its full name, Almnouth for Alnwick - is remarkably modern and well appointed for a small town station. Its position on the main line means that it's been gifted direct trains to London and Scotland, a service completely out of proportion to its actual importance; in that way, it's a sort of East Coast Wigan.
The car park was starting to fill up as I walked off the northbound platform and over the bridge to the southbound one. My next station, Pegswood, doesn't get a service from Newcastle in the morning, only in the reverse direction, so I'd come to Alnmouth mainly to change direction. I resisted the call of the coffee cart by the entrance and found a seat on the platform.
Across the way was an advertisement for Barter Books in Alnwick. I found myself torn. On the one hand, it's a wonderful bookshop housed in an old railway station, no less. On the other hand, Barter Books was responsible for reintroducing Keep Calm and Carry On to the world, a meme that's not only been done to death, it's been dug up, reanimated by warlocks, then done to death all over again. I am sick to death of the bloody thing, and the many, many variations on it (particularly the horribly cutesy ones - "Keep Calm and Eat Cake!" "Keep Calm and Sparkle!"), and so part of me wanted to burn down the bookshop and everything in it. I suppose it's not really their fault; they're just the Einsteins who discovered a hideous weapon that was turned evil by others.
Most of the people on the platform were waiting for the London train, suitcases in hand, so I got the Pegswood train more or less to myself. We went almost halfway back to Newcastle, through Acklington and Widdrington, until I was able to drop down onto the platform. And I mean drop; there was at least a foot between the train door and the concrete below. I didn't so much step off the train as plummet. Only after I was off did I spot a Harrington Hump at the front of the train; perhaps it would have been nice to let me know that I didn't have to do a parachute jump off the train if I didn't want to?
It was a nice enough station, a bit dull, but its sign up top was rubbish. Not only was it just a repurposed platform sign - where is your BR logo? - it still had the turquoise of Arriva Trains Northern bordering it, a hangover from Northern's franchise predecessor. I wondered if the Purple Gang even realised they had trains running up here.
Pegswood is a mining village, and it couldn't be more northern if it had a giant statue of a whippet in the middle. I walked along the main road through the village, past a sign warning No Opencast Traffic and a row of small cottages called "Co-operative Terrace". People were out buying papers - the Daily Mirror, obviously - and waiting for the bus into town.
I made a note to return for the acts at the Pegswood Social Club. September 27th they're hosting "Fabulous Vocaliste" Michelle B; clearly the "e" on the end of "vocalist" stands for extraordinary! If that doesn't appeal, there's bingo and dancing every Saturday. I was charmed. It was a little bit of the 1970s; who even knew there was still a club circuit?
There were little old people bungalows and houses set back from the road, then Pegswood turned to fields. A bypass had been built around the village so this was just a quiet back road now. I was the only pedestrian until about halfway, when another man walked towards me with a Morrison's back. I moved to the left - because, you know, this is England - but he stayed where he was, marching towards me. It became increasingly clear that we were playing a game of chicken, and he wasn't about to give in. I did. I stepped aside so that he could carry on the path he'd decided to take. Needless to say, I was deeply in awe of his masculinity.
A turn at a roundabout brought a huge veterinary surgery - the type that specialises in cattle and sheep rather than little Miss Whiskerson. At a gate, some horses had gathered to stay cool in the shade of the hedgerow, and I paused for a moment to stroke the nose of one of them. The horse took my affections with a casual arrogance, a sort of, "yeah, damn right you want to feel how great I am."
The bypass continued down a hill into an increasingly wooded area. I could hear water below me, but I couldn't see it through the thicket of trees. At a turn in the road I decided to leave the bypass and follow a finger sign that indicated a footpath into Morpeth. I managed to arrive at the same time as a woman with two of the yappiest, nastiest dogs I'd ever seen; one was a Jack Russell, the other was a sort of Labrador, and both of them seemed to be part wolf. They barked at me, they barked at cars, they barked at their owner, they barked at trees; they just would not shut up, and the woman didn't seem to have any inclination to stop them. I was glad to cross the bridge over the river and walk in the opposite direction.
The path shadowed the water, but higher up; I was a bit concerned, in fact, because the path was slippery and there was no fence. I wondered what I'd do if I fell in the water (assuming I didn't drown, which was probably what would actually happen). I realised that a good soaking would probably ruin my phone and my camera, and I'd have no proof that I actually visited any of the stations so far. The thought actually chilled me. It wasn't the thought of losing a couple of hundred pounds of technology, it was the idea that the proof of my Tarting would be washed away. I hugged the hillside even tighter.
It wasn't a well used path. There must be a better, more frequented one through the woods that doesn't promise to send you into the water. I pushed through brambles and nettles and emerged in a field. The crops there had been covered with muslin, presumably as protection from predators, and in the sunlight it looked as though a battalion of spiders had cast a web across the whole field. The morning dew just added to the effect, sparkling and shining and glistening.
I followed the path into another field, this one yellow wheat, stretching away from me. I'd seen combine harvesters from the train over the past couple of days, so I guessed the crops didn't have much longer until they were beheaded.
The sun in my eyes now, I'd reached the very edge of Morpeth, with a footbridge over the river Wansbeck to take you into the town itself. I crossed over and took a seat for a drink of water. Beside me was an Environment Agency worksite; the town suffered terrible floods in 2008 and 2012 and the Government was now creating new defences. Part of this is a new dam upstream to catch the rainwater, while the banks were being built up before winter came. On an August day, the river seemed nothing less than idyllic, but I could see how it would turn in a cold rainy March.
Morpeth town centre was quintessential small-town Britain, and I loved it. There were slight variations on the theme - not many other places have a bagpipe museum; certainly not many places in England, anyway - but mainly it was a medieval town that had continued to prosper and thrive over centuries. Four streets met at a central square; around them were old fashioned shops interspersed with high street names. A glass fronted ironmonger with proud carved signage stood a couple of doors down from Rutherford & Co department store (est. 1846).
I ducked down a side road and found an elegant arcade leading to a pedestrianised plaza, so I took advantage of the opportunity to dawdle and had a chai latte in the coffee shop there. It was already busy with a cluster of busy, formidable ladies who'd clearly come into town for their Friday treat. They pulled the tables together and gossiped endlessly, relentlessly, joyously.
I nipped into Marks and Spencer to use the loo - if nothing else M&S deserve our appreciation for always providing clean, accessible toilets in our towns and cities, now that councils can't afford it any more - then walked down New Market back towards the river. There was a footbridge leading straight into Carlisle Park, with rowing boats moored alongside for hire. I followed the path round, listening to the water pouring over a weir, and looked up at the remains of Morpeth's first castle. Now called Ha' Hill, it's actually the mound of a motte and bailey Norman castle. I decided against climbing it.
Instead I took a turn to look at the aviary. It was only small, but it had been there for a hundred years or so. Plaques informed me that the birds - mainly budgerigars and cockatoos - were sheltered here after their owners couldn't care for them, which immediately made me sad. It wasn't so much an aviary as a homeless shelter.
I left the park to head to the station, secretly wishing I had all day to spend there. I could just sit in a cafe and listen to my iPod and watch the town pass by. Morpeth was lovely. If it didn't flood so often I'd consider moving there; as it is, I'll just visit in the non-rainy season.
I passed another park on my way. I say "park", it's actually a roundabout with grand ideas: Mafeking Park, the smallest public park in Britain. It was dedicated after the victory there and used to be bigger, but not much; road improvements reduced it over the years until now it's just a tree. Not exactly ideal for picnics. The Farquar Deucher Park & Arboretum over the road was far nicer, even if I got in my head that it was the Francis Dolarhyde Park & Arboretum; Dolarhyde is the serial killer in Thomas Harris' Red Dragon so you can see how twisted my mind is.
Morpeth station was, unsurprisingly, a delight. Given how gorgeous the rest of the town was I couldn't see them agreeing to have a nasty brick and glass confection chucked up for tourists to see. Instead a long sandstone building stretched the length of the track, surrounded by trees and greenery.
It was deceptive though. The station building was almost entirely unused. At one end, the ticket office had been housed in a lovingly restored waiting room. Bright light shone in through the old fashioned windows, and it was fantastic. Unfortunately, the rest of the building was boarded up and flaking. There was a lift, because this is another stop for East Coast trains, but there wasn't much else. Not even a cafe.
It made me sad. If a thriving, well-to-do town like Morpeth couldn't support a decent station, who could? I'd hate there to be a time when the only place you can buy a ticket after the morning peak is in the big cities, and where the only place you can get an orange juice while you wait for your train is in Britain's 11883rd Tesco Metro over the road.
I leaned up against a noticeboard to wait for my train. It belonged to SENRUG, the awkwardly named South East Northumberland Rail User Group. The board detailed its initiatives, its achievements and, most interestingly, its plans to reopen the Ashington and Blyth line. Unlike most aspirations to open routes, this one's got legs; it was mentioned in the new franchise consultations. It helps that the tracks are all there, left over from a freight line.
Three stations done and it wasn't even half ten. Compared with the day before, I was positively flying.
Sunday, 24 August 2014
Val de Ree (Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha)
There wasn't much to Boulmer, if I'm honest. My ambitions to find a nice Spar were vastly over-optimistic. To be fair, the Fishing Boat Inn was lovely, with free wi-fi and a clean toilet where I could have only my second wee of the day (I was quite dehydrated; it came out like Golden Syrup). They also had a tap outside where walkers were free to refill their water bottles, and I happily topped up my supplies.
Beyond the village, though, there was just fields and hedges. Oh, and top secret monitoring equipment. In the distance I could see the white golf ball of an RAF radar station. They're the most incongruous buildings the MoD could have built; couldn't they at least paint them green or something? It's like they just hope we'll pretend we can't see that massive piece of high tech spy equipment, and definitely won't tell the Russians about it. Or Al Qaieda, or ISIS, or whoever the villains are this week (is it still Syria?).
I shouldn't have sat down at all. Sitting down makes me lazy. Sitting down makes me relaxed. I was barely out of the pub car park before I was thinking "stuff this for a lark" and looking for a bus stop. It reminded me of the Victoria Wood playlet where she and her friend Jackie (Celia Imrie) are out walking:
Victoria: This is the life, eh? The air, the landscape, the exercise - I could go on forever. How long have we been walking now?
Jackie: Ten minutes.
Victoria: Shall we have a sit down?
To be honest, a lot of things in life remind me of Victoria Wood. I've been a fan since I was tiny; I was allowed to stay up past bedtime to watch As Seen On TV, I did part of my A-level English Language analysing her 'Self Service' sketch, and I find myself quoting her at random moments almost daily. If you order a prawn cocktail in my presence, I have to tell you that they "hang around sewage outlet pipes with their mouths open"; if you ask me my opinion of Macbeth, I'll tell you it "wasn't a patch on Brigadoon"; and if someone holds the lift open for someone else who's "just coming" I am legally required to say "Where from? Bangladesh?"
This is why I don't get invited out very often.
It didn't help that I'd just worked out how to rip the sound of a DVD to an MP3, and so I'd been listening to her six 1989 playlets on the way over. "Val de Ree (Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha)" was fresh in my mind, and I kept thinking of HRH Wood & Imrie as I slogged over another stile or wandered through another dewy field.
There was a bus stop in Boulmer, and it was visited by the X18, the route that shadows the railway line. However, in what I took to be a sign from the Gods to stop being a big nance, it only got one bus a day, at eight in the morning. I heaved a sigh, cut through an empty car park, and rejoined St Oswald's Way.
It wasn't that I was having a bad time. The Northumberland coast was just as breathtaking as it had been all day, and that was part of the problem. After a while it starts getting repetitive. "Oh look," I thought. "It's another stunning vista. More sunlight sparkling off blue seas while birds circle over green clifftops. Been there, done that."
I cut through another caravan park, though this one was less friendly than the one I'd been through that morning. There were signs warning me to stick to the path and to respect the residents' privacy every twenty yards; there were so many notices I started to wonder exactly what the caravanners were getting up to that needed privacy. I was so keen to not tramp all over their secluded campsite and inadvertantly stumble on their wife swapping ring I took a wrong turn and ended up on the road. I skulked in a hedgerow and double checked my OS map to try and find my way back to the footpath.
Victoria: Well I think we're here.
Jackie: But where are the three little trees?
Victoria: They're not real trees. They're symbolic.
Jackie: Like Pinter?
I'd not gone too far off course, but it was still a frustrating diversion I didn't need. I was getting vaguely huffy. The path was filling up, as well. At this point it became part of National Cycle Route 1, and suddenly there were streams of lycra clad Pendletons passing by. It also skirted a small car park where families had parked up for the nearby beach. One group were packing up for the afternoon - "we'll see you at that carvery, yeah?" - while a Cockney family didn't let the fact that they could only walk in single file stop them from shouting a conversation back and forth down the line.
I forgave them all when I reached the beach. Suddenly I felt calmer, more relaxed, watching the tide roll over and over. I found a suitable bit of dune and sat down for some water and a bit of Kendal Mint Cake. This had been a brilliant idea of mine a couple of weeks before in a garden centre. I'd not had Kendal Mint Cake in years, but it was what Tenzing and Hilary took up Everest, so it must be great for giving you energy. I thought it would give me a valuable boost to my flagging day.
It was far too sweet for me though. Normally I can stomach anything if it tastes vaguely pepperminty but this was cloying and unpleasant. I chewed it for a little while then folded it back up in the packet and pushed it to the bottom of my rucksack.
I was getting close to Alnmouth now and the beach was, if not busy, then certainly more populated than I was used to. There were dog walkers, of course, but also small knots of families, building sandcastles, running with kites. One very noisy group were playing beach football - naturally I kept three hundred metres between me and them at all times in case the ball went rogue and they wanted me to kick it back.
At the end of the beach was a wooden gate and then a steep grassy road upwards. It was the part of the walk I hadn't been looking forward to - over the golf course. It didn't help that the first thing I saw was a sign that practically said "You might get clocked with a ball at any time".
I was perfectly within my rights to walk across the course - there was a footpath open to the public - but I felt like all the golfers were staring at me as I hoiked across the fairway. They were dressed in the full golfer's garb - flat white caps, checked trousers, little leather half-gloves. The women wore the same, but tighter, usually with a deep V in the front, low enough for me to think that letting women in the clubhouse didn't necessarily make it News from Nowhere.
I was soon on the coastal path, with the golf course's rough to my right and the sea to my left. I kept a keen ear out for any shouts of "fore" but none came.
The walking was starting to get a bit painful. I was coming up for seventeen, eighteen miles of straight wandering and, as I may have mentioned, I'm not an active person. The only preparation I made for this lengthy trek was buying a guide book. I was wearing good walking boots and thick socks but they'd still rubbed during the day.
Victoria: If you must know, I think I'm getting a blister.
Jackie: It's a shame you didn't soak your feet in a bowl of surgical spirit as I think I suggested earlier.
Victoria: Have you tried buying enough surgical spirit to fill a bowl? The woman in Boots thought I was a wino having a cocktail party.
Each hillock seemed like another agony sent to taunt me. I walked across more golf course and back into a wild patch, where ferns and wild flowers reached as high as my head. Buried in amongst them was a pillbox. The coast along here was considered vulnerable during the Second World War, and I'd seen the concrete defences throughout the day. A lot of them were missing roofs now, and had trees and plants growing through their gunsights, but there was still a peculiar thrill to them.
At a turn beneath a Jubilee beacon I saw Alnmouth laid out below me. It looked just as pretty from above as it had from the train that morning. The whole town has been squeezed into a bend in the river Aln, and this distinctive hump makes it impossibly scenic from almost every angle. I stumbled down the steep hillside to the Marine Road that loops around the village. On one side were small cottages and tea rooms; on the other yet another expanse of golf course.
This one was a little more special - it was the Alnmouth Village Golf Club which was, as a sign informed me, The Oldest Nine Hole Links Course In England. Being so close to the border, I suppose it's logical that Alnmouth would get the golfing bug before anyone else in England. I imagined stealthy Scottish refugees clambering over Hadrian's Wall, desperate to find asylum in the south, and with only a nine iron and a set of spiky shoes to their name. They traded food and shelter for their intimate knowledge of bunker systems and the golf course was born.
In close up, Alnmouth was as beautiful as it was from a distance. The main street was threaded with coaching inns and cottages and churches. The Schooner had a sign promising that it was a 3* Haunted Hotel; I'm not sure how that works. If you don't see a ghost, won't you be disappointed? But on the other hand, if you're woken in the night by the demonic wailing of Satan's emissaries, wouldn't that annoy you just as much? I could see the TripAdvisor reviews now - "the room was fine, apart from the blood pouring from the taps and the headless corpse in the wardrobe".
I wandered up to the Village Stores and bought myself a Lucozade - I was getting bored of water by now - then sat on a bench. The church tolled the quarter hours. A bus threaded its way down the hill. A mum and dad swung a small child between them. A group emerged from the ice cream shop eagerly licking elaborate cornets. It was a quintessential British holiday resort, and I loved it. I began to consider buying a holiday cottage of my own.
Victoria: This is our heritage, this landscape you know, Jackie. It's timeless. You feel any minute now Christopher Timothy could come round that corner in a baby Austin, fresh from ramming his hand up the parts of a cow other actors cannot reach.
There's a station at Alnmouth, but I wasn't going to be using it. Well, I was, but not until the next morning. I'd planned on finishing my day by using the next station down the line, at Acklington. Its sole southbound evening service was three hours away, so I could have walked it if I'd wanted to.
I didn't want to. I wanted a rest. I walked down to the bus stop and got out my Arriva m-ticket. This was a day pass that I'd bought earlier and which was stored on my iPhone; it meant I wouldn't have to bother having exact change or knowing exactly where I was going. I waved my phone at the bus driver, expecting him to query it, but he barely glanced at the screen and gestured me on. I might have saved myself seven quid and just flashed Angry Birds at him; perhaps next time.
We swung through the country roads at speeds I was sure couldn't be safe for a double decker. At Warkworth, a bunch of holidaymakers were taking so long coming down the stairs the driver didn't realise they actually wanted to get off, and started the bus up again. The mum shouted, "Stop! Stop!" and pulled all sorts of irate faces, but she still let her toddler lead the way hesitantly down the steps and didn't rush herself. In Amble, the driver called to the blind lad in the disabled seat and he unfolded his cane and climbed off the bus. I found myself hopelessly awed by his matter of fact adventurousness; I couldn't imagine myself using a bus, alone, without knowing where I was or even where I was going.
I got off the bus in Acklington and headed into the village, sure that there would be something to keep me entertained until the train came. It seemed like a fair old settlement on the map, a couple of miles of houses threaded along the B6345.
Unfortunately I hadn't realised that Acklington was the most tedious village on earth. I can't remember the last time I found myself in such a soulless, vacant district. Anonymous, boring suburban houses - the kind you could see in any town in England - lined blunt cul-de-sacs. I didn't see a single human being in the whole time I was there, and I walked from one end of the village to the other. Not one. How is that possible? It's August; there should at least have been a child or two playing in the garden, or someone on a bike. All I saw were cars, driving straight through, turning out of side roads, turning into long driveways and disappearing behind automatic gates.
I did see a couple of live horses in a field, so I was sure it wasn't actually the set of The Midwich Cuckoos, but they were the only point of interest. There wasn't a shop or a cafe or a pub. There was just a long straight line of boring houses.
With a defeated sigh, I resigned myself to a long wait on the station platform. With any luck there'd be a bench, not just one of those metal bars for you to lean on. I passed the end of the village, marked with a sign telling me it was "Northumberland's Calor Village of the Year 2007" - does that mean it's very flammable? - and out into the countryside again.
And then - praise Cthulu, and then - I saw a sign by the railway tracks. A sign for a pub.
I have never been so happy to see a pub sign in my life, and I speak as a professional alcoholic with decades of experience. I went inside. It was empty, but it was clean and there was a good food menu. I got a pint of John Smiths and sat in the corner and smiled.
A couple of hours passed pleasantly. A man ordered some fish and chips to takeaway. A couple went and sat in "the restaurant" (the far side of the bar). A young barmaid came in and joined the landlady and they shared horror stories of the week's work while she strapped a pinny over her black t-shirt and skirt. It seemed neither of them were keen on cleaning the gents' loo - "what do they DO in there to make it smell like that?" the younger one asked, and the older, wiser woman just shook her head and said "It's just blokes, in't it?"
There was free wi-fi, so I caught up on Twitter, and I ordered a bowl of nachos with my second pint so I wouldn't have to hunt around for dinner when I got back to Newcastle. It was, far and away, the best part of Acklington, and I was actually sad about how quiet it was. I hoped it wouldn't go under because it was the only bit of life in the village.
I rolled out, finally, the bitter swilling around inside me and making me light headed, and I found the station sign. It was in a very non-standard font. I'm not sure when it was from - presumably the very early days of the Northern franchise - because it definitely wasn't in keeping with the corporate identity as it is today.
Down on the platform there was a large shelter that the local birds had used as a public toilet and the old station building across the way. The fast trains burned past me, over and over, roaring and screaming and shaking the electric lines before vanishing.
I was incredibly happy. I felt a sense of achievement for walking those twenty miles or so. Yes I had incredibly sore feet, and I was exhausted, and I was sweaty; yes, I had a patch of sore skin on my back where the rucksack had worn through and scraped my flesh. And perhaps fifteen hours of travelling is a bit rubbish to collect just two railway stations. But I leaned against the signpost, a little dozy, a little drunk, and I felt cheered. I was, to use a phrase, a Happy Wanderer.
Victoria: Val de ree...
Jackie: Ha ha ha ha ha...
Victoria: Val de rah...
Jackie: Ha ha ha ha ha...
Both: My knapsack on my back!
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