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.