Students of the Northern Rail map - or my fellow sufferers, as they're also known - will have noticed that I had only two more stations on the Tyne Valley Line to collect: Wetheral and Brampton. (Actually, technically I've got four, because I haven't got Newcastle or Blaydon yet, but they're in Tyne and Wear so I'm not counting them) (I'm just not, go away). The reason for my tardiness in tarting these two was because they are miles from anywhere. Both stations are handy for their local centre of population, and that's it. There's no convenient walking route to the next station, no charming stroll along a country lane to connect the two. It was a case of get off the train, loiter for a bit, then get the next train out.
Fortunately they were stations worth loitering round. Wetheral was actually taken off the map by Dr Beeching (boo!), but the station was reinstated in 1981. It's two platforms with a station house and it's pretty and attractive. The station house is now a private home of course, with a bricked up ticket window.
The most notable feature of the station is the Wetheral Viaduct or, as it's more properly known, the Corby Bridge. The railway crosses the gorge of the river by a high brick viaduct, and running alongside it is a footbridge. Obviously, having come all this way, I was going to have to cross the viaduct.
But not yet. I was going to need to emotionally build up to a walk over a 100 foot high footbridge. I'd need to limber up, swallow, perhaps find a pub that was somehow open this early in the morning and neck a triple vodka. Until then, I thought I'd just have a little wander round the village.
My attention was grabbed by a signpost and a flight of steps. I can't resist flights of steps that disappear into the undergrowth. So intriguing and mysterious, even if I knew exactly where they were going. I tripped down the concrete, realising about halfway down that 99 steps is a right pig on your thighs, and came out at the foot of the bridge.
Standing underneath that giant brick face, looking up at the delicate footbridge strung alongside, didn't exactly damp down my fears about crossing it. It was so high. I swallowed hard.
Apart from the vertigo inducing horror, it was a lovely spot. I walked along the side of the water, a steep gorge rising up on either side of me. The river was heavy and loud. Signs pinned to lamp-posts said Slow down - red squirrels, which gives the impression that speeding rodents are a big problem round that way. I didn't see any red squirrels. I don't think I've ever seen a red squirrel. I've seen plenty of grey ones; in fact, my garden is besieged by the little sods. Chuck out some birdfeed and next thing you know there's a squirrel dinner party on the lawn. I've heard it's legal to kill them - they are technically vermin - but obviously I couldn't do that. There wouldn't be much point - kill one and there are a hundred waiting to take their place.
Until the bridge was built, a ferry carried people from Corby to Wetheral, and the road still sloped right down to the water's edge. I walked upwards, away from a couple of fishers unloading their tackle, and towards the centre of the village. It was very Jane Austen, very Sunday night drama; cover the tarmac with some gravel, throw in a Dame in a bonnet and you'd get 5 million viewers and American sales, easily. I passed the parish church, with a war memorial porch inscribed with 1914-1918.
They'd updated the roll of the dead to include those who died during World War II and then, even more sadly, a new piece of wood had been installed and inscribed: Cpl Sarah L. Bryant (nee Feely) B.A.I.C - 17th June 2008, Afghanistan. I'm not sure what was more soul-destroying - the commemoration for a fallen human, or the fact that they had left room underneath to add future names.
The squirrel warning signs were starting to freak me out. Was there something about red squirrels I didn't know? Where they vicious? I gathered my coat around me and pushed up towards the village green.
Wetheral is rich. I don't mean well-off; I mean rich. The expansive green was surrounded by large homes set back from the road. Tall trees screened their fronts from passers by, and discreetly luxurious sedans parked in gated driveways. I skulked past, trying to look like I belonged in my Tu by Sainsbury's t-shirt and scuffed boots, but when a woman with a dog came my way I bowed my head. If I'd had a cap I'd have doffed it.
The road split by the surgery, and a white van was parked at the side of the road, its back doors open. A youth leaned on a cement mixer, smoking his last ciggie before the work began, staring blankly ahead. I crossed over to the Post Office, Village Store and Cafe - all housed in one building, handily enough - and went inside for a hot chocolate.
Back in the 90s, there was an explosion in the amount of Irish pubs. Cities were suddenly swamped with green painted establishments, filled with enamel Guinness signs and with barrels instead of tables. My fondness for these pubs was destroyed when someone told me that there was a giant warehouse somewhere, stacked to the ceiling with Irish trinkets to be chucked into the back of a lorry and carted to the newest Paddy McGinley Olde Irish Bar For a Cracking Craic.
I bring this up because I'm starting to suspect there's a similar warehouse somewhere decking out provincial coffee shops. I sat in the Posting Pot cafe and looked for the familiar features. Blackboard menu? Check. Artistically mismatched chairs and sofas? Check. Tiny buckets for the sugar cubes? Distressed paintings of cakes on driftwood? French posters for that air of continental class? Check, check, and of course, check. There were a few variations - the blackboard promised "Hot Roll Mondays", which sounds filthy, and when I went into the tiny toilet there was a box of complimentary tampons, which just made me feel awkward - but otherwise I could have been anywhere in England.
I wondered where the ladies - because I was the only man in the place - went for their morning gossip before Friends and Frasier came along and made us all want a double shot latte with extra foam. I couldn't see them going to an old fashioned greasy spoon, and it was too early for lunch in a restaurant or a pub. I suppose they all went round to each others' house, taking turns to wheel out the garibaldi; this is infinitely preferable.
The ladies at the next table were talking about "Welsh Pauline" (who talks too much) and "Scottish Pauline" (who went for a weekend and did nothing but drink). They called for the bill and all reached for their handbags at the same time, before debating whose turn it was and who had what and finally one lady won and pulled out her purse.
It was perhaps too early for the hot chocolate; it was a little too rich, but I'd had about five cups of tea that morning - there was an all you can eat breakfast buffet, and so I'd eaten all I could. I was stuffed full of bacon and sausage. I waddled out of the cafe and down the hill back to the station. It was time to brave the bridge.
The viaduct was built solely for the railways, until the train company got sick of people trespassing on the tracks and stumped up for a footbridge alongside. It wasn't an entirely generous act, as they then charged ha'penny to cross it (except on Sundays to allow parishioners to get to church). There's no charge any more, which is a shame, because I could have used it as an excuse not to cross - I didn't have any ha'pennies on me.
Instead I stepped onto the wooden planks and began a determined and very fast walk across the bridge. I wasn't going to hang about. I glanced over the edge, took a single photo with one hand on the barrier -
- then resumed my walk as quickly as possible. The wind whacked into me as I crossed the river, and I clutched at my face in case my glasses went flying. I walked over the rest of the bridge with my hands stuck to the side of my face, like Macauley Culkin in Home Alone, not caring how I looked to the students or the dog walkers coming in the opposite direction. I also made sure that they passed on the river side, while I pressed up against the track; I know this is against normal British behaviour, with traffic on the left, but there was no way I was going to get any closer to that ledge.
I made it to the other side without plummeting to my death, and, quivering slightly, I staggered up to the level crossing. The gates were closed, so I waited with the traffic, recovering my breathing. At least I'd done it. I tried not to think about how I'd have to walk back.
Great Corby was a lesser version of Wetheral; its green, its houses, its church were all smaller and more compact. I fantasised about the contact between the two villages before they built the railway; star-cross'd lovers on either side of the gully, waving handkerchiefs at one another from opposite banks of the river. Floating messages across in makeshift boats to one another. All very romantic.
Also on the Green was a sandstone forge, erected in the early 19th century. Now it was the home of Cumberland Breweries, a small craft ale producer, and there were barrels piled up in the yard and the hiss of machinery. I loitered in the hope that they'd offer me a free sample or eight, but no-one appeared, so I made my way back to the bridge.
This time I took my glasses off before I crossed. It may seem illogical to get rid of the one thing that enables you to see where you are going, but I am paranoid about them being blown off my face by an errant gust of wind. I'm the same on top of tall buildings, on the edge of boats; any kind of precipice and I start picturing them tumbling down to earth. Glasses are expensive items, and without them, I can see about four inches in front of my face, so yes, I'm protective.
A fortunate side effect of being glasses-free was that I could no longer see the vertiginous drop a foot from me. It all became a grey, mushy mess in my peripheral vision, a Van Gogh landscape of shade and streaks that didn't actually look like something that could kill me. As I tiptoed across, I remembered my abortive plan last year to cross the Humber Bridge, and laughed to myself.
Back at the station, all I had to do was wait for my train. No, hang on. There was something else. Something nagging at the back of my head. What was it?
I hadn't taken a sign picture.
Swearing to myself, I crossed the footbridge over the tracks two steps at a time, rushing to get the picture before the train arrived. There wasn't a proper, Northern Rail sign, so I settled for the heritage one on the Carlisle platform.
I made it back to the other side, a little breathless, in time to catch my Pacer to Brampton.
My original plan had been to simply wait on the platform for an hour until the next train came along. Brampton's two miles from the town it serves; in fact, there used to be a separate branch line that run up to the Brampton Town station. A bit of research though - yes, I do actually do some research for this blog, stop looking so surprised - and I found that the trackway still existed as a footpath. That was a far more appealing idea for something to do than kicking my heels in a cold shelter for an hour. I rejigged my spreadsheet, added in a bus to Haltwhistle, and found that I could still get a train across country at a reasonable time. Result!
Thank goodness I did, because it's a very lonely spot. The only neighbour is a wrecking yard, without so much as a house. Beyond that is nothing but fields and woodland.
I left the station, took my picture, then doubled back on myself to follow the footpath. The track was lifted in the 1920s but its former route is still incredibly clear to see. I walked beside the mossy platform edging, trees still curving over the top of me as if a steam train would run through at any time.
Further on, through a gate, the woodlands were thicker than they would have been when this was a working railway - trees and sparks from a boiler do not mix - but you could still restore the trains without much problem. There was a wide, flat, straight route that I followed without any problem at all.
Beside the path, deep ponds the colour of evil glittered malevolently. Their surfaces were improbably still, and they were so dark, they looked like tar pits. It was easy to imagine being dragged beneath the surface, the waters closing over you so quickly, until they were quiet again with no sign of their latest victim.
Just before the tunnel under the A69, someone had piled a heap of manure. Four foot high, and smelling particularly fresh, I couldn't work it out. Was it ready to be spread? Had it been dumped? Was there a really, really big horse in these parts? I edged around it and into the underpass.
From this low, the path rose quickly, until I was staring down into the back gardens of a series of executive homes that had been built alongside the old line. I finally emerged onto Station Road alongside the S&S Railhead Garage, two anachronistically named entities that I was pleased to see still existed.
It was a surprisingly long walk from there into Brampton town centre. I'd mentally assumed that the walk over the old line was the longest stretch, but actually I still had a way to go. I passed a vast expanse of grass - less a village green, more a field - and the backs of some semi-detached homes. There was a Co-op, with a newspaper board outside saying Brampton: Villagers plan to save Co-op, which pleased me, and a bed and breakfast painted neon pink that made my eyes water.
I turned into a side street, twisted as a spring, by a building marked with a plaque: In 1745, 'Bonnie' Prince Charlie established his headquarters here during the Siege of Carlisle. It's a shoe shop now.
Then, suddenly and surprisingly, I was in the Market Place. Buildings hustled round a triangular space of cobbles, at the centre of which was the octagonal Moot Hall. There was a library, banks, a butcher; it was adorable.
I walked down one side of the Market Place and back up the other, smiling happily. It was all so lovely. It didn't feel touristy, or picture boxy; it felt like a real town that just happened to be astonishingly charming. It felt like it had been this way forever, and would never change. The rest of the earth would shift around it and Brampton would continue as it always had done. There weren't ugly chain stores here, there were stout pubs with names like Shoulder of Mutton and The Howard Arms, there were couples stopping on the pavement to chat about their sons' university prospects.
I picked the Howard Arms for my pint, entirely at random, and found a warm and cosy pub. I picked a pint of Wainwright, as you should in Cumbria, and sat down. A big black collie came over and solicited a stroke from me; he felt like the welcoming committee. I let myself drift with my drink, listening to the pub chatter - an old man sat with a friend of his daughter's, chatting about dogs and long gone family members. A little chihuahua with a neckerchief trotted round the tables, pausing only at the glass door to yap at a passing golden retriever; the larger dog was completely unmoved as the chihuahua whipped herself into a frenzy. A man at the bar with the look of a recently-returned Antarctic explorer heaved himself up to throw another log on the fire.
"You can't beat a log fire," said the little old man sat next to it.
"Yes, you can," grunted Captain Oates. "A turf fire is better." Then he turned away, while the younger woman said she couldn't be bothered with a fire. "I like me central heating."
Slowly, unwillingly, I dragged myself up out of my chair and across the road to catch my bus. I don't like catching buses in strange places. It makes me anxious. The embarrassment of asking for a ticket. The nervousness of getting to the right stop. I had a pocket full of change, gathered over the course of the last couple of days, so that I could pay with exactly the right money no matter how much it was: when I walked I sounded like a Morris Dancer.
I shifted from foot to foot at the bus stop, looking off into the distance. I wondered if I'd get a seat. I rehearsed what I was going to say in my head: "a single to Haltwhistle, please." It went over and over so many times that I began to doubt myself. Did I mean Haltwhistle? Not Hexham? I stopped and got my schedule out of my backpack to confirm that, yes, it was Haltwhistle. Presuming that you pronounced it "Halt-whistle." I panicked; was there a weird way of saying it I didn't know about? I tried to remember what the voice on the train said, but I'd had my iPod on. I didn't want the bus driver to think I was an idiot. It was bad enough that I was going to mark myself out as a stranger by my accent. I didn't want him to think I was some dumb tourist who'd not done my research. I wanted him to know that I deeply respected the local area and its history and its way of life.
The bus was late. "A single to Haltwhistle, please." "A single to Haltwhistle, please." I could hear it getting more northern in my head. Should I try a northern accent? I was pronouncing it to rhyme with fault; perhaps I should shorten the a, make it like Hal but with a t on the end. But does that mean I should pronounce the H as well? "A single to 'altwhistle, please." That would sound more northern. The driver might think I was taking the piss though. And if he asked a follow up question, one I hadn't rehearsed, I wouldn't be able to manage the accent. I'm not Meryl Streep.
"A single to Haltwhistle, please." That would do. Confident. Like I knew where I was going. That would work.
The bus finally came and a bunch of local pensioners appeared from nowhere to board with me. I'd found myself at the head of the queue, so I got on and said, "A single to Haltwhistle, please." It worked! He smiled and nodded and tapped at his little ticket machine. Nothing happened. He tapped at it more vigorously. He bashed it. He opened it up, then slammed it shut again. It wasn't working.
"It's not working," he said to me. "And I can't remember how much a ticket is."
I felt the people behind me waiting to drop their concessionary passes on the scan point. I felt the passengers, who were already late, watching me down the aisle. I felt the bus driver looking at me, waiting for me to tell him how much the cost of a ticket from Brampton to Haltwhistle was. I said, "Oh."
We'd reached an impasse. Neither of us knew how much a ticket was and, even if I did know, he couldn't issue me with one. But I still wanted to take a bus.
A pensioner from behind me said, "have you tried turning it off and on again?" The bus driver switched off the ignition, left it a minute, then fired it up again. The ticket machine beeped loudly, and he tapped at it again. There was still no response. He pointed at the machine, impotently. "It's still not working."
"Oh," I said. I think I'd been stood there, watched by all these eyes, for at least forty minutes. Or seconds. It was hard to tell.
Finally he gave in. "Ah, go take a seat. Ne'er mind it."
"Really?" I said. "Thank you. That's very kind." I had turned into the Duchess of Kent. I skulked to a window seat and sank down low as the driver gunned the engine to try and get back on schedule. We drove through pretty villages and quiet lanes and I couldn't pay attention to any of it because my brain was throbbing inside my head.
Now I was worried about getting off the bus. Should I offer to pay? The machine seemed to have sorted itself out, because the next person to board was able to swipe their concessionary pass. He didn't call me up to pay though. Had I got a freebie? Perhaps when I got off I should say something. Perhaps I should give him a tip. Do you tip bus drivers if they don't let you pay? But I still didn't know how much a single to Haltwhistle was. If the fare was, say, £2, I couldn't give him a 20p piece. That would be embarrassing. But if it was a fiver then a quid was worth having. And what would I say? "Thanks for not making me pay. Buy yourself a small part of a pint."
We'd reached Haltwhistle. People were getting off. I had to get off. I lollopped down the aisle, my backpack making me more awkward than usual. I had to decide. Should I say something? That might be worse than not saying something. Not saying something would be better.
"Cheers!" I said, and jumped off the bus. He didn't respond. He closed the doors behind me and drove off.
So I'd got a free bus ride from Brampton to Haltwhistle, and all it cost me was a small nervous breakdown. I can't decide if it was worth it.
I'd been in Haltwhistle the day before, of course, but I hadn't realised its significance. The town believes that it is the centre of Britain. If you draw a line from the furthermost points of the British Isles, they say, it will meet here in the middle of Haltwhistle. They're very keen on this, and have marked it in the pavement.
There's also a weird pillar that at first I thought was an ashtray, but which turned out to be a pedal-powered tour guide. I pumped it with my foot, feeling like an idiot, and it came to life. A young girl began telling me about Haltwhistle and I'm sorry, I'm sure her mother was very proud, but the disembodied voices of children just freak me out. I cancelled it quickly.
I left the village square, past the Centre of Britain Hotel and the Centre of Britain Launderette (told you they were keen) and went for a wander. Haltwhistle can't compare with Brampton aesthetically, but by the looks of it, they'd had a harder life. Brampton had the Conservative Club on its main thoroughfare; Haltwhistle had both a working men's club and a "Comrades Club". There was also a watch and clock repair shop with a museum in it, called "Mr George's Museum of Time"; a poster in the window inviting me to visit "The Spatularium", a store devoted to hand carved cooking spatulas ("They HAVE to be used!"); and the least golden Golden Square I have ever seen:
Basically, I'm saying that Haltwhistle was just a little bit... odd. No, perhaps "odd" is too harsh. "Eccentric."
I bought myself a lip balm from the tiny Boots and walked down to the station, past a girl on roller blades pulling a wheely suitcase (ECCENTRIC). My lips had felt incredibly dry and chapped for the last couple of days; I also thought I might have a cold sore coming. I used to get them all the time when I was a child but I'd not had one as an adult. I wrestled with the shrink wrap all the way down the hill to Haltwhistle station, finally managing to get it open on the platform. I applied one layer of balm to my dry mouth, then it slipped out of my fingers and fell onto the concrete, medicated part down. I put it in the bin. One pound well spent.
If you've managed to get this far, you'll be pleased to hear that I had only one train left to get. Unfortunately, it was a doozy. I was getting the 15:56 train from Haltwhistle, a train that would take its sweet time traversing the north of England until it reached Thornaby in Teesside at 18:07. Two hours on one train. Worse, two hours on a Pacer.
A busy, uncomfortable, rattling Pacer. The worst train in Britain and they're using it for three hour railway journeys (it actually goes from Carlisle to Middlesbrough). That's just unfair on everyone. Thankfully the new franchise specifications for the Northern region have demanded they are binned, no matter what the cost. This probably means they'll be replaced with more cast offs from down south (or worse, cast off tube carriages) but surely it can't be worse?
I sat on the edge of my seat to try and avoid rubbing up against the man next to me and put on an audiobook: Amy Poehler's Yes Please. I love Amy Poehler, obviously, because I am sane, but Yes Please isn't as good as I hoped it would be. It's a bit too serious for me, not the stream of brilliant wisecracks I'd hoped she'd produce. Or perhaps I just hoped for another Bossypants. even though there is only one Tina Fey and she is the BEST (have you seen Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt? They alive, dammit! It's a miracle!).
It was cold and wet and getting dark when I got off the train at Thornaby, 80 miles from where I'd got on. That's actually not very far to go in two hours really, especially not when your backside has fallen asleep due to being rammed in a hard uncomfortable seat the whole time. The station was filled with excitable students headed for a Friday night in Newcastle. I felt old and tired. I wanted to get to my new hotel for a lie down to recover from the many, many anxieties of the day. I had just one more task: