Thursday, 21 May 2015
A Race With Only One Loser
Darton. That was the problem.
I'd collected a load of South Yorkshire, as you can see, but Darton was still out there on its own. I should have got it when I did Barnsley - that would have been the logical answer - but instead I went south to Wombwell.
My eyes drifted to the right. I suppose I could always collect Darton, then wander over to Thurnscoe, I thought. It couldn't be that far. I know that it's a diagram, technically, not a map, so the distances are theoretical, but I was sure it would be walkable. A few taps into Google Maps and the Ordnance Survey and I'd found a reasonable walk. The Dearne Way, a long distance footpath, followed the route of the river almost from one station to the other - there would only need to be a slight diversion at the end - so I could have a gentle stroll through pretty scenery as well as crossing stations off my list. I did a quick calculation, cross referenced with timetables, and gave myself five hours to walk the twelve miles between stations. Easy.
Best laid plans, etc.
I blame Northern for the confusion that followed, because naturally, I am never wrong. Two services leave Leeds station for Sheffield within seven minutes of one another; the stopping service leaves from platform 17b at 09:33, and the fast service leaves platform 17a at 09:40. I wanted the stopping service, but somehow I got the two trains confused in my head. As I say, it's probably Northern's fault, or perhaps Network Rail's: you really shouldn't put two such similar services on the same length of platform. That's just asking for trouble.
Actually, no, I blame Starbucks. I'd violated my own personal boycott (pay some taxes you bastards) because I was thirsty and tired, so I bought a small latte. This violation of my principles probably shifted my brain off its axis, and the caffeine didn't help either. The point is that I watched the 09:33 train chug off into the distance while I stood, impotently, next to a train I didn't need.
I went back to the mezzanine to rethink my plans. As I did, the skies darkened, and a Biblical amount of rain hammered against the glass wall. The BBC's weather app had warned of heavy showers, so I'd worn my raincoat even though it was May, but I hadn't realised they would be of such mammoth proportions. As the drops pinged and popped on the roof I recalculated.
I'd have to rule out the gentle saunter, that was for sure. And the hideous weather put me off a stroll by the river. The OS map had been full of words like "pond" and "disused canal" while the path threaded between different branches of the river. It would at the very least be muddy, at the worst, flooded. I didn't want to walk four miles and find the route impassable.
Google Maps calculated a walking route for me, along roadsides instead of country paths, and said it would take three hours, fifty three minutes. I had four hours.
It was a race.
It meant that I got off the train at Darton a bit jumpy, a bit tense, a bit anxious. I barrelled out of the station, past two women having a fag in the car park, and found the inadequate sign by the railway bridge.
Oh, and I had a moustache. I forgot to mention that. I'd let my facial hair run wild the last few weeks, but had decided to shave it off. At the last minute, though, I opted to leave my top lip untouched. I've never been a moustache person, so I wondered what I'd look like. I was hoping for Paul F Tompkins:
A bit suave and gentlemanly, a little roguish. The BF was more critical: "You look like a sex pervert, and not even the good kind. Get rid of it."
If only he hadn't said "get rid of it"! Instantly my stubbornness kicked in. If you tell me to do something, I will not do it, just on principle. If he'd said, "I think you look better without it, but obviously, it's your face," I'd have probably taken another look and thought, "maybe I do look like I hang around children's playgrounds with my hands in my pockets". By saying "get rid of it," though, my bloody mindedness kicked in, and I decided to keep it for a bit longer.
Yes, living with me is an absolute joy.
It was this same determined, stupid refusal to be wrong that drove me up the hill from Darton station at an incredibly fast pace. I knew now that I had to make it to Thurnscoe in time for my train. It was no longer a vague, hopeful aspiration; I had to beat Google Maps' prediction. It gave me a seven minute leeway, but that was assuming nothing went wrong, and didn't take into account me snapping photos or avoiding big dogs or getting lost. I didn't just want to beat Google Maps' predicted time, I wanted to do it with plenty of time to spare.
A hail storm kicked in as I crowned the hill. There was a modern primary school behind the houses, bright colours and curved walls, but I was more interested in the site of the old school on the main road. It had been demolished, leaving a walled in patch of scarred concrete and wildflowers, with only the occasional sign of its old purpose.
Darton turned into Mapplewell, which immediately made me think of Robert Mapplethorpe, and gave everything a slightly kinky frisson. (If you don't know who Robert Mapplethorpe is, don't Google him). It turned a perfectly ordinary South Yorkshire town into a hotbed of filthy depravity, and it amused me to think of the old ladies who passed me as wearing nipple clamps under their housecoats, or the car park behind the high street being a dogging hot spot.
The road twisted and the landscape changed. These were, technically, towns outside Barnsley, but in reality they were its fringes. A dual carriageway sliced through rows of 1930s housing, with grass verges behind the old country walls. A new health centre was incongruously shiny and bright amidst the greyer homes.
There was a working man's club with its doors wide open to let the smokers have easy access to the car park. Inside everything looked dark, but I could see the rounded heads of some of the patrons silhouetted against the back window. In the car park was a meat van. Two old ladies chatted up at the butcher, framed by red and blue notices about chops and brisket.
The swathe of green between Athersley and Barnsley wasn't down to forward thinking planners. There used to be coal mines throughout the Dearne Valley, but now they're gone, closed by That Bloody Woman and demolished. Nature has reclaimed what was there, and the Council has made the best of it and declared patches a country park. From my vantage point, it was impossible to imagine that when I was born, there were mines all across the distant landscape. It had been erased from the map.
I was still carrying myself at a strong pace. The rain had long since departed, leaving me with the classic Englishman's dilemma: coat or no coat? I carried on wearing my heavy overcoat because the BBC had promised more rain, even though by now it was damp on the inside with sweat. I didn't have time to stop and take it off, anyway. Had to keep going. Had to keep up the pace.
Excellent marketing there, Monk Bretton. Although it does look like the monk is shrugging, a bit like he's saying "what the hell are you coming here for?". Which was unfair, because Monk Bretton was a perfectly lovely little suburb. I pushed through it, taking inspiration from its holy namesake and refusing temptation:
As I walked I thought of an old friend. At college I had shared a house with a girl who was from the Dearne Valley, and every time I saw its name, on a road sign, on a notice, she came into my head. Shortly after we graduated, she had a baby, and I realised that baby was going on seventeen now. So very old.
Time moves on, and so do people, and though we saw each other a couple of times afterwards, life had taken us off in different directions. She moved away from Yorkshire years ago. Still, I waved a virtual hello to her across the valley.
The road curled its way down the hillside, homes on one side, trees on the other. I came across one of the most pleasing pieces of vandalism I've ever seen:
I like to imaging the local youths reacting with horror when they saw the missing apostrophe, and sneaking out under cover of darkness with magic markers.
Waiting for the pedestrian crossing light to change at Cundy Cross I suddenly realised how tired my legs were. I'd pushed them as hard as I could all the way from Darton, and as I stood staring at the little red man I could feel them shuddering. I was still, but every muscle in them was pinging like a rubber band. Stopping finally allowed my brain to register that maybe they were suffering a bit.
It didn't matter; I had to keep going. Three hours, fifty three minutes was lodged in my head. I had to get to Thurnscoe in time for that train, for my own sake if nothing else. If I managed to get there in time then I could excuse my mistake at the station. If I made it, that error was irrelevant; if I didn't, then I had compounded my own stupidity. I was racing against myself and my self.
The road leveled out at the bottom of the river valley by the Mill of the Black Monks, a historic water mill now converted into a restaurant called Boccelli's. I imagined the owners having a conversation in thick northern accents, trying to decide the name of their new venture. "Who's that singer you like? Blind fella?"
"He's Italian, in't he? That'll do."
(For the purposes of this dialogue, the new owners are Jack and Vera Duckworth).
Finally I got a glimpse of the actual River Dearne. If I'd gone with my original walk, I'd have probably been down there somewhere. Instead I crossed over the river on a bland road bridge and passed the local tip and industrial squares (these gates are LOCKED at 7pm; any later opening must be pre-arranged).
There was a confluence of A-roads, merging into a vast roundabout by a B&Q and a McDonalds. The stench of fried food reminded me that I hadn't eaten my lunch, and that I didn't actually have time to stop and eat it. Worse, I'd decided to go all fancy, and had bought a sushi snack pack from Tesco instead of an old fashioned sandwich. You can't eat sushi on the go.
I turned north, onto another dual carriageway, but a far more civilised one. It wasn't an "urban clearway"; it was a well-designed, well laid out piece of road with a grass verge down the centre. I passed another working man's club, advertising its "Party in the (Car) Park" in July, and then the crematorium. Countryside was sneaking in on every side, and the road was rising again. I gasped for breath. I passed a series of bus stops, all of which went in my direction, and considered just collapsing in the shelter and paying Stagecoach to take me onward. No, I thought. No. I had to do this.
Let me tell you, not ONE person driving past that sign was doing 50. They all slammed on their accelerator the minute the houses vanished.
I slogged onwards, trying to work out why I thought walking twelve miles was a good idea. When I've done long walks before - south from Chathill, for example - it's been because I've been stranded without access to an alternative. There were plenty of alternatives here. I could have waited for the next train from Darton, changed in Barnsley, and got a train out to Thurnscoe. It wouldn't have taken five hours. It'd barely have scraped in at two. And I'd have been able to stop off in Barnsley and get something decent to eat and maybe a pint. My bloody mindedness struck again, that bit of me that says "just getting off a train and waiting for the next one" is some kind of cheat. I have so many rules in my head, rules of how I can and can't behave, things I can and can't do, rules that literally no-one else cares about but I have to follow. I don't know what would happen if I didn't. Nothing. But they're there.
It's not exactly the Millennium Dome, is it?
A hearse appeared on the right hand side, heading to that crematorium I'd seen earlier no doubt, and behind it was a long tailback of traffic. They all respectfully refused to overtake the hearse, and so car after truck after van crawled along the country road. There's no real need for hearses to drive slow these days, is there? I'm not suggesting they get go-faster stripes and a giant fin to help with wind resistance, but I don't think anyone has seen a hearse travelling at 30 and thought "how disgusting". Further along the line, a motorbike suddenly pulled out of the crawl and whizzed up the side of the traffic. I wondered what he'd do when he saw that the cause of the hold-up was a corpse: would he fall back into line, shamefaced, or burn past - possibly with a wheelie?
It still wasn't raining, and it didn't look like it was going to rain any time soon, and I was still wearing that damn coat. Two hours of power walking had turned its interior into a soggy mess. My t-shirt clung to me all over. I cursed Tomasz Schafernacker, and Ben Rich, and all the other sweetly attractive nice boys of the BBC Weather team. I'd have welcomed a rain shower right then, a good heavy one that would have scrubbed me clean.
I made a decision. When I rounded a corner and saw a bench I decided to stop. I peeled the coat off my body and wedged it into my bag. I sat down and tried to eat a sushi roll. It wouldn't take. My mouth was so dry the rice just became clammy and indistinct in my mouth; the tension had also shrunk my stomach muscles so much, I didn't think they could actually swallow. I finished off one of my two bottles of water and then gambled.
I'd had Google Maps running on my phone the whole time, because the change of plan meant I needed to keep an eye on where I was going. I'd left it with the route highlighted and that three hours, fifty three minutes at the bottom of the screen. I'd been walking for two hours. I recalculated, asking the app to plan a route from my current position to Thurnscoe station. The result came back.
One hour seventeen minutes. 3.8 miles.
I almost whooped. I was way ahead of schedule. Ridiculously so. If I'd walked like a normal person, I'd only be halfway. As it was, at my current speed, I'd reach Thurnscoe with an hour to spare. I'd beaten myself, and I'd beaten Google Maps. I was a winner. (I was also a loser, but you knew that already).
So of course, a certain amount of laziness kicked in. I slowed my walk down to a pace that would be recognised by a human being. I took in the view. Getting rid of my coat felt so much better, so much more refreshing. All that sweat meant that I was basically walking along in a wet t-shirt - if I was a woman, my permanently hardened nipples would probably have caused an accident - but I could already feel it drying in the sun.
Through Darfield, with its pretty houses and greens, though the old-looking pub had been turned into a Thai restaurant. They always are; I'm not sure why that particular cuisine is so keen on ex-hostelries. I've lost count of the number of boozers I've seen where the Pig and Gauntlet sign has been covered with a tarp: "COMING SOON: The Bangkok Lounge".
I crossed the Dearne again, this time in the opposite direction. The sign said it was private fishing, for the benefit of the "Houghton Main and Dearne Valley Miner's Welfare" only. Further along, another relic of the past came in the form of the abandoned remains of a railway bridge.
There was once a line from Derby to Leeds passing through here, but when Beeching came along, it was restricted to freight only. Other sections still remain, but this part suffered from subsidence due to the extensive mine workings. The traffic couldn't justify the expense of shoring it up, and it was lifted in the Eighties. Darfield station had been here, but now it was just a mass of trees on an embankment. You'd only know what it was if you looked hard.
I followed Google's suggestion - now I'd beaten it, we were pals - and cut off the corner between the A635 and the Rotherham Road, ducking down a side road. At first there were large homes, with new ones being squeezed into gaps between them, and then there was nothing. Just tarmac and hedges and a view over the fields.
I was strolling along, happily lost in my own world. It was shattered when a driver passed and roared out the window at me - not because I was in his way, just to make me jump. Job done: I reacted like a cat dropped into a vat of hot lava. I'm not sure what the point of it was though. He was gone so fast he couldn't have seen my reaction. The only result was that he annoyed a complete stranger. It introduced tension I didn't need.
Middlecliff was a grim little village, the road made into a chicane to discourage joy riders, and then I was back on the pavement-less country roads. Soft fields of crops waved in the wind, whispering. The hot sun baked my forehead.
Then another car went past, a black Fiesta, and they leaned on their horn and made me jump again.
I shan't tell you what I said - my mother reads this blog - but it was filled with charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent. I'm sorry South Yorkshire, but your drivers are twats. Once is happenstance; twice is the sign of a county that needs to get a grip on its idiots.
I encountered another railway bridge, but from a different line, the Dearne Valley Railway. It was a reminder of how interconnected the railways and the collieries had been, with sidings and branches threading all across the district to get the coal away to ports and cities. Now it was all gone.
The sight of Thurnscoe on the horizon cheered me immensely. I was nearly there! Even with my pace slowed down after I BEAT GOOGLE, I was still exhausted. My thighs and knees were straining; my feet hated every single step. I longed for a decent sit down. That was it.
There has been a farming village here since Roman times; it was recorded in the Domesday Book as Terunsc. The tower of the church dates from the eleventh century, and there are houses dating from the 17th century in the village. I'm telling you all this because I couldn't give a stuff about taking in its scenic highlights at that point. All I wanted to do right then was find the station and, hopefully, a bench.
I staggered along the road, no doubt looking like one of the walking dead, in pain and exhausted. Twice I was nearly mown down by people in invalid cars; can we not get them to fit bells to the handlebars or something? I passed an Asda, and a sports ground, and my main thought as I saw them was where the effing frig is your god damned station Thurnscoe?
I was ecstatic to see the station sign. Overjoyed. Grinning like a fool, I crossed the road and positioned myself underneath.
Medical students may wish to compare and contrast my face there with my face outside Darton station, and use it as a reference point for "exhaustion".
Up some steps (damn you!) and then I was on the platform, taking in the wonderful beauty that was a station bench. I sank into it happily. There was half an hour until the train was due, and I fully intended not moving from that spot until it arrived.
Then it began to rain.