Saturday 23 August 2014

Walk, Don't Run

There's nothing about trains in this post.  It's a load of me walking.  I walked for a very long time, and I didn't want to just skip it.  If you only come here for the railway stuff, though, you're out of luck.  Sorry.  Come back in a couple of days.

I don't "do" sport.  I don't "do" exercise.  I know you may find this hard to believe when you look at my slim, toned body, but it's true.  I always maintained that sport was what stupid people did to distract themselves from the fact that they couldn't add up.

The one physical activity I can get on board with is walking.  I like to walk, especially in new, unfamiliar areas.  A good, brisk stroll through country lanes.  A purposeful pace round back streets.  It's interesting, it's healthy, and it's a whole lot easier than you know, running.

Chathill is, objectively speaking, miles from anywhere.  It's a single station surrounded by a cluster of homes that, if they tried hard enough, could just about scrape together a hamlet.  When I looked at the Ordnance Survey map, I spotted the familiar dotted line of a footpath nearby.  Better still, this one was named - "St Oswald's Way".  A named footpath implies a level of professionalism you don't always get in the countryside.  I'm all for a rural atmosphere on a gentle hike, but when you're kicking horse manure out of the way in a swampy farmyard you have a certain nostalgia for pavement and roads.  OS maps may be riddled with red dotted lines that mean a public right of way, but there's no actual obligation for people to maintain them in a decent state.

A named footpath, however, is a tourist attraction, and the key rule of rural communities is don't piss off the tourists.  I guessed that St Oswald's Way would at least be well maintained, that I wouldn't have to hack through nettles to get to the stiles, that I wouldn't be confused by bad signage that sent me plummeting into drainage ditches.

First I had to get there.  It involved a walk along a silent road, long, straight, dull.  I was filled with anticipation and excitement at that point so I was able to overlook the fact that I was just trudging down a verge like I had done a thousand times before.  The traffic was all in the opposite direction, towards the A1 behind me; early commuters making the dash for the dual carriageway before it got too busy.

Now and then there was a rumble in the sky and it rained.  I'd checked the BBC Weather app before I'd left and it had predicted heavy showers all day.  This hadn't bothered me; as someone who sweats a filthy amount, the odd rainstorm acts as a refreshing breather.  I'd taken my North Face anorak with me as a guarantee against pneumonia but the weather didn't seem to want to comply.  It was muggy, a low heat that clung to me even at seven in the morning, and so I strapped my coat to the webbing on my backpack.

Every rainstorm became a battle of wills.  Was it just a shower?  Could I push through without a coat?  I'd press on, aware that to the passing cars I looked like a mad person, before I finally gave in and dislodged my backpack and unfolded my coat and put it on.  Roughly 30 seconds after I'd performed this manoeuvre the rain stopped and I'd have to take my coat off again before I boiled inside it.  This happened two or three times before the rain stopped taunting me and gave up altogether.  Despite the BBC's predictions, it didn't rain again the whole day, leaving me to cart around a heavy weatherproofed jacket for no reason.  I'm thinking of writing a snotty letter of complaint to Thomasz Schafernacker; there may be a forfeit involved.

At Swinhoe a woman trudged from her farmyard with the tired look of an experienced rural dweller; behind her, a cockerel crowed over and over, the world's most annoying alarm clock.  Swinhoe was the turning point - suddenly traffic was going in my direction, towards the coast, a few cars and the occasional truck.  I clambered into the ditch as heavy lorries whirled through the puddles to deliver meals to the coastal pubs.

Beadnell was off to one side, and I diverted into the smaller lanes so that I could see the village close up.  The landlord of the Craster Arms was unloading boxes of beer from the back of his car as I passed by, taking a right by the parish church towards the sea.  Couples walked past me with the morning's Daily Mail in one hand and their dog lead in the other; they nodded a gracious hello.

The low bungalow of the village shop didn't look like much, but it had been built to be overlooked.  Behind it was the Northumberland coast.  It was the first time I'd seen the sea that day, barring the odd glimpse from the train, and it was inspiring.  Black rock formed a hard canvas on which the North Sea painted.  Moss covered islets poked above the surface; seabirds idly stood on top of them, pecking at their feathers, readying themselves for a morning's hunt.

I found a bench and sat and drank it in for a while.  The good thing about the infrequent service on the Chathill line was that I didn't have a deadline.  I'd got hours until the next train so I could just take my time.  I wiped the dew away from the wood and sipped at my water as I listened to the waves playing over the shore.

Finally I carried on, following the coast road past the harbour.  The houses were a weird mix of practical bungalows, built to endure a January tempest, and romantic New England cottages in mint green panelling.  Round a corner it became a housing estate, blocks of apartments and semis on streets called "Dunes Court".  I tasted the sea salt on my lips.

St Oswald's Way took me through a caravan park.  I knew there was a bay somewhere close - I could hear the sea - but the high dunes cut it off for me.  Instead I pressed on through the backs of metal homes, with swimming costumes hanging out to dry and bikes leaning up against the verandah.  I suspected that if I clambered over the top of the sand dunes I'd have a much better view, but I'm a complete sheep, and I couldn't bear to break from the path on the map.  Nearly being run over by a Vauxhall - the driver clearly baffled to find someone walking at that time of the morning - just convinced me I should stick to the correct route.

I passed the shower block for the site - I wonder if there will be a day when people will be able to use those facilities without thinking about Barbara Windsor getting all soapy in Carry on Camping? - and climbed a stile into the rough unkempt dunes behind.  A square had been levelled out for a football pitch - never underestimate the Englishman's fondness for kicking a ball about - but the rest was wild and untamed.  There were slugs and snails everywhere I looked.  My walking boots, still muddy from my last expedition, were quickly scrubbed clean by the dewy grass.

I didn't mind being alone.  My brain was doing a fine job of keeping me entertained.  I did mind when the odd healthy person appeared, some sprightly dog walker or a maniacal pensioner doing a power walk.  She pushed by me, huffing like Thomas the Tank Engine, and not conceding an inch of the footpath; I was forced to step into the long grass so that she could hsssh-hsssh-hsssh her way to firmer buttocks.  I started wondering where they came from.  No-one was walking my way, from Beadnell on; they were all heading in the opposite direction.  Only later did I theorise that these supposed paragons of health were probably all headed for the town for a fry up in the cafe as a reward for their exercise.  (Please don't write in if they were actually sickeningly active; I like my version better).

I let one of the dog walkers pass over the Brunton Burn footbridge because I wanted to stand in the middle and look at the view.  I love the silence of a bridge.  That point in the middle where all you can hear is the water beneath you.  The people, the humans, are all off to your left and right and you're in the middle, floating above the river, ethereal.

There had been a warning back before the caravan site that I would enter a tern nesting area, and the warning was repeated as I clambered over a stile.  Fortunately the nesting season ended in early summer; the wardens had the power to refuse admittance and I'd not made alternative plans if I couldn't cross the dunes here.  I was soon joined from a side path by a dog walker and his enthusiastic golden retriever; they had a pace almost as fast as my own, so I faked a little photography session to let them get ahead of me.  It meant that I got to see the dog clamber up and over an inclined stile with barely a pause.

Hefty rocks were hanging over me as I skirted the outcrops of the coast.  It's a hard, wind-formed series of bays and peninsula.  Long inlets, like smaller, more English fjords, send jagged points into the sea and at Scandinavia.  The Vikings didn't so much invade as follow their beckoning fingers.  Elsewhere in England I'd dodged puddles and over-enthusiastic trees; here I was climbing over boulders.

I kept the strange house with the towering radio mast in my sights, debating what its purpose was.  I guessed it wasn't just a ham with an extreme love for Radio Montenegro.  Out here on the east coast I imagined it was a part of Britain's defence, the old fashioned part, the bit that's designed to carry on if the Russians dropped the bomb.  It was probably run by a single generator and would just about manage to send a signal a couple of hundred miles, but if the National Grid was wiped out by a tactical blast it would be enough to broadcast morale boosting versions of We'll Meet Again and the occasional coded message to Oslo.

Rounding a corner I found a much older, much more antiquated, much more beautiful relic of England's defences.  Dunstanburgh Castle - what was left of it - was a hulk on a peninsula, a ruin that seemed to call out to everyone who saw it.  It was astonishingly beautiful.  It appealed to that deeply romantic part of my soul that I like to keep smothered under eighteen layers of cynicism.  It appealed to that adventurous child in me, the one who secretly, deep down, resented his parents for not having their own private island like George in The Famous Five.  If you get infused with Enid Blyton you can never quite let it go.  You spend your life looking at ruins as places for smugglers to hide, at islands as places for smugglers to hide, at isolated valleys as places for smugglers to hide.  Basically if you've read as much Enid Blyton as I have you think of smuggling as a crime roughly on a par with genocide.

Dunstaburgh Castle was a constant presence as I followed the bay round, through Low Newton By The Sea.  It was a small fishing village that had turned itself over to tourism.  Instead of a rugged Captain Birdseye type bringing in the nets, there was a man in a fluorescent vest lowering a jet ski down to the beach on a trailer.  A minibus pulled into a parking spot on the quay and a dozen extremely enthusiastic looking hikers with backpacks, map bibs and walking sticks clambered out onto the front.  Part of me wonders if I should get a walking stick.  I'm not actually sure what they're for, unless you have some kind of disability, but the most serious walkers all seem to have them.  Sometimes two, making them look like Willy Bogner if he forgot his skis.

I broke off the map at that point, mainly because I didn't want to be shadowed along the footpath by a bunch of over enthusiastic weatherproofed walkers.  Instead of hugging the cliffs I went down to the beach.  By this point it was a little after nine and it had already started to be colonised by families.  One lot had clearly been there since the wee small hours as they'd built a sandcastle that would put Conwy to shame; the youngest boy, about five years old, was still adding turrets with grim determination, as though Genghis Khan was just over the next hillock.  Further along was a divorced mum and her nearly teenage son.  You could tell from their body language that they both knew this was one holiday too far.  He was kicking the sand into a mound; she was sitting back and watching him with a slightly fraught look on her face.  She'd come away with romantic notions that were being repeatedly crushed by the first stirrings of hormones.  As I passed, he looked at me with an idle curiosity, as if wondering if I could take him somewhere more interesting, while his mum brandished a piece of shell and said "shall we write our names in the sand?"

It was beautiful, and silent, and lonely.  Lonely in the very best sense of the word; lonely where you don't want anyone else to be around.  Lonely where each set of footprints on the sand is somehow disappointing.  I stuck to the softest parts, where the water had only recently been.  A stream emptied its load across the beach, suddenly splitting from a narrow inlet to a metres wide spread I splashed though, breaking up the lines of hard sand under the water.

Finally the path rose back up to the foot of the castle outcrop.  I was joined on the path by three people, two men and a woman; one of the men was clearly the dullest humanoid ever to walk the earth.  The other two listened politely, casting side glances ahead of them, while he explained about the World War II fortifications in the area, and the role of the sea in protecting our shores.  I immediately decided that the woman was married to the bore but was having a scandalous affair with the other man - perhaps his younger, more interesting brother - right under his nose.  The plus side of the man's lectures was that he kept stopping to give them, so I was able to overtake quite easily.

Soon I was skirting the bottom of the castle.  It's hard to take a medieval fortress seriously when you realise it's now mainly used for grazing sheep.  I doubt the Vikings would have been too intimidated by a really annoyed ram.  I'd decided not to visit the actual ruins, mainly because they were up quite a steep hill, and by that point I was starting to get a little tired.  It was going on for ten o'clock by then, and I'd been up for five hours, and walking for four of them.

Instead I pushed past the castle and on to the small town of Craster, a mile further down the coast.  I was the only person travelling south.  Passing me was a parade of happy, clean, polite looking families, people who didn't look like they'd been sweating in an Iraqi jail for the past few hours.  I felt like grabbing them and shouting, "I don't normally look like this!  I've been walking for ages!  Seriously; I can show you on a map!"

Most of the people passing were from terribly nice families.  As I crossed them I got a series of potted histories of the castle from semi-enthusiastic parents.  They didn't want their children's summer holiday to be all about fun, they wanted some education in there as well, and they were trying to give a potted history of the last thousand years of English civilisation in the fifteen minute walk to the castle.  The exception was a family who I thought were Norwegian, but who, on closer listening, turned out to be incredibly Geordie, and who were just barking orders at the overexcited children running on ahead.

Also overexcited was a sheep on the path ahead.  For some reason it was rolling over and over on the stubbly grass; I'm choosing to believe it was filled with euphoria at this beautiful summer day, and not that it was actually rolling in some shit.

I entered Craster by the harbour, a tiny patch of water protected by two outflung arms.  Fishing boats were berthed on the shore.  Beyond, the land rose quickly into a pretty waterfront village.  The Jolly Fisherman pub advertised its "famous crab sandwiches", and opposite was a traditional fish smokers.  Not so traditional that it didn't have a website, with the quite brilliant domain name

I stopped off at the Shoreline Cafe.  It was lunchtime, as far as I was concerned, and I thought I deserved a bit of a break.  I took a seat in the window, and soon I was being brought my tea and bacon roll.  After spending the morning guzzling plain water the tea tasted like nectar.  Nothing cheers you like a good cup of tea.  I practically inhaled the bacon sandwich - realising for the first time that I was actually hungry - and rolled back out the door, just as a family were entering with crab nets and wellies.

The southern half of Craster was not as nice as the north.  Stolid houses had been built on the shore, along with a playground; they were blank faces staring at the sea.  I guessed that they were that way to try and minimise the damage during the heavy storms.  I crossed a car park and rejoined St Oswald's Way, slowly rising through wild flowers to the top of a cliff, then down the other side.  Volcanic rocks poked out of the water, Midget's Causeways, their columnar structures seeming alien.  The bare rock beside the grass seemed indecent, as though the sea had ripped the green clothes from it and left them exposed.

I was starting to regret that bacon sandwich.  Obviously bacon is a delight that few can resist, but it's not a great choice when you're walking on a hot day.  I could taste the salt swilling around inside my mouth, drying it.  It was noon by now and the hot sun was beating down on me and making me sweat all the more.  I necked another bottle of water, aware that I only had one left and there wasn't much chance of me finding a Morrison's any time soon.

I put it out of my head and enjoyed the stark coastline.  I was alone again, and loving it.  The busy stretch around Craster was behind me.  I'm not against people as a rule - some of my best friends are people - but there is a real joy in being the only human for miles around.  Just you and endless space.

Which made the clifftop cottage even more surprising.  I was enjoying being the last man on earth and here was a home.  It was definitely occupied - there were signs of a recent barbecue, and curtains at the window - but I couldn't think who by.  There didn't seem to be a road to it or anything.  How did they get their furniture in?  Where did they shop?  What did you do if you fell and couldn't get up?

The path continued its dance with the coastline, in and out, up and down.  A hollow filled with sand below me looked like an appealing place to stop, but I forced myself onwards.  I was getting really thirsty now, but I carried on rationing my last bottle of water.  I was tempted to try the berries by the side of the path - they looked like blackcurrants - but the last time I put that in a blog my mum e-mailed me afterwards to tell me those berries were highly poisonous and it was lucky I hadn't tasted them.  She's sturdy country stock, while I am a nancy city boy, so I've taken her advice on board and now I'm afraid to touch any berries at all.  And don't get me started on fungi.

There was a break in the coast for a low beach and a stream, running through woodlands and out to sea.  A concrete bridge had been swung over the top of it.  I bent down and swilled some of the water over my face to wipe away the dried sweat.  It was gorgeous.  Suddenly I was cool and clean again.  I ran my hands in it too, chilling them to ice but also refreshing them.  I imagined how good it would feel to strip off my clothes and wade across the quiet sand into the sea.  I didn't of course, mainly because I can't actually swim, but also because I was convinced someone would steal my rucksack and my clothes and I'd be left naked and stranded.

On again, more walking, more sweating.  I was talking to myself by now.  I'd like to say it was hysteria brought on by a lack of water but no, it was just comforting to provide a commentary as I walked.  Exasperation as another hill appeared.  The occasional "wow" as a flock of birds circled overhead, or another astonishing vista opened up in front of me.

The track began to level out as I reached the hamlet of Boulmer.  It seemed to grow, first into a hard path, then into a small road.  The wall to my side was dotted with metal sculptures of birds and they seemed to be watching me as I passed.

Boulmer was once a smuggler's village, and the houses still push right up against the sea.  The beach wasn't visible to me past the rows of tiny cottages.  What I really wanted was a little shop - just a Spar or something - so I could top up my liquid supplies.  I found a yard filled with lobster pots, seagulls picking at the remnants of the catches, but no actual shop.  Instead I found something better: a pub.  I almost ran into the Fishing Boat and hurled myself at the barman.

You thought that was going to be a picture of a pint of beer, didn't you?  I'm not that alcoholic.


tommy166 said...

wonderful. Sometimes I think you reserve your best writing for when there is no railway in sight.

Andy said...

Yep, ditto the above, wonderful Scott, really enjoying this North East Coast section, and your right Dunstaburgh Castle is a beauty :)