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!


Plymothian said...

Thank you for the toilet updates. At least we didn't have you squatted with your knickers round your ankles frantically gobbling fruit and nut.

Maybe you could try camping next time instead of a hotel. Just remember, take tube A and apply to bracket D...

And did you know if you dehydrate pasta, put it in a packet, take it out the packet and rehydrate it, you get gout?

Scott Willison said...

But is it quasi tightened?