Let's get this out of the way: I had never heard of The Blaydon Races before I went to Blaydon. Never. If you said "Blaydon" to me, I thought of the safe house from The Living Daylights, and that's spelt "Blayden" anyway. After I went to Blaydon, and discovered the song was kind of a big deal on Tyneside, I searched for it on YouTube and found this, which I think is the most Geordie video in the world:
Obviously that was no help with regard to the enigma of The Blaydon Races, because I couldn't understand a single word they were saying, but at least I know what the tune is.
Blaydon doesn't get the greatest levels of service in the world, which is why I missed it last time I was out this way; I had to make a choice between Blaydon and Dunston. It took me two years, but I finally got back to Tyneside to cross it off my list.
The station is scythed off from the town centre by a heavily used dual carriageway, so they've provided a footbridge for access. I did not appreciate this. I think I'd have preferred a dingy underpass that stank of piss and horror. I clambered up the footbridge, the cars whizzing beneath me, creating a dizzying effect. About halfway across I realised I was making a kind of panicky moan, issuing it between gritted teeth as I tried to avoid plunging to my death. At one point I reached out for a railing for support, and the railing moved; to be honest, I'm surprised everyone back home on Merseyside didn't hear my petrified yelp. I was ridiculously pleased to make it down to ground level.
I probably over-appreciated Blaydon town centre as a result - after all, at least it was flat. It was a reasonably put together suburban shopping centre, though a bit down at heel; there were empty shops, and the ones that were occupied were pound shops and charity shops and bakeries selling pasties. The reason for the lack of variety became clear when I got to the far end of the pedestrianised precinct and encountered a massive Asda with its own car park. Why go to eight shops when you can go to one? Why even leave the hallowed halls of Asda for the outside precinct when you can move straight from the car park to the store and back again?
Seriously, this song is such a big deal, and I had never heard it.
Beyond the shopping centre the road curled up a hill, past a small industrial estate and then a church with a pretty bell tower. One side of the road was lined with neat houses, but on the other side, there was a wide expanse of grass leading down to woods and a pond. Volunteers with grabbers were picking up spots of litter.
A sign for Blaydon Youth Centre provoked an immediate reaction. A youth club? In Tyne & Wear? Why, that's just like Byker Grove! I'd been an avid watcher of the Grove, back when it was Grange Hill's gritty Northern cousin (they alternated in the post-Newsround slot). Despite her years of soap acting and Strictly-conquering, I still see Jill Halfpenny as the posh girl who copped off with a bit of rough, and for all their fame, Ant and Dec still have a barely-visible coating of PJ and Duncan. And why has Spuggie not turned up on Coronation Street as Fiz's long-lost sister? It went downhill a bit, of course; the last time I tuned in was for Noddy's censor-baiting kiss of that boy with the awful pony tail.
All these thoughts of the Grove lead to me singing the insanely catchy theme tune to myself as I walked along. I stifled these instincts; I didn't want the locals to think I was taking the mick. Of course, then the only songs that went through my head were stereotypical Geordie classics - Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads! The Fog On The Tyne! Let's Get Ready To Rhumble! - so I just clammed up in case I was accused of perpetuating a hate crime.
The last warm day of 2015 (apparently) beat down on my face as I walked. Past the leisure centre, I darted across a busy road leading to the A1. I took a chance and ducked down a back alley, rather than continuing on the road, and I encountered the old bridge over the river Derwent. Long since bypassed, it was now just an access route to a garage. Hard hatted men in high-vis jackets leaned over the parapets, dealing with the pipe that crossed the river alongside.
I'd planned on following the road to MetroCentre station, and I'd resigned myself to a tedious trudge across acres of exposed tarmac car parks. Luckily, my diversion offered a different path. A tiny blue sign pointed down the side of the river, indicating a cycle route to the shopping centre.
Soon I was beneath cool tree branches away from the roads and traffic. It wasn't quite the ideal country stroll; I could still hear the A1, and the path was covered in litter and dog muck, but it was infinitely preferable to a trek along baked pavements.
It's amazing the pieces of railway engineering that still lie around the country, unused. The Swalwell viaduct crossed the river; once it carried a branch line to Consett, but that was lifted in 1963 and the bridge remains. Too big to destroy, too difficult to find a new use for, the fine piece of Victorian engineering is just a canvas for graffiti artists now.
I passed round the back of the MetroCentre's retail park, catching glimpses of B&Q's service entrance and the blue and yellow bulk of Ikea. I was glad I had found this more scenic route, until I realised that if I'd passed Ikea I could have nipped in and bought a box of Pepparkakor, the thin ginger biscuits that are like crack to me. I don't get them much - the BF despises Ikea for reasons I've never really understood - and when I do get them I have a tendency to consume an entire box in one sitting. It was probably for the best that there was a fence between me and the Swedish Food Hall.
Under an impressive concrete viaduct, avoiding some dog turds that had been spray painted pink. I assume this is some kind of attention-grabbing device so they can be cleaned up at a later date, and not a radical piece of modern art. The path spat me out on the back of an industrial estate, but another dart down the side of an ugly engineering firm took me to a stretch of vacant land crammed between road and railway bridges.
I was suddenly aware that I didn't really know where I was. I hadn't planned on walking this way, and I didn't know where it would deposit me; I relied on that one sign pointing towards the MetroCentre a mile back. Passing under another road bridge, dark and cold, with rough grasses poking through the pavement, I began to envisage being mugged and thrown into the river.
I was now wedged between the railway and the foot of the road embankment. Sharp brambles snagged at me through gaps in the fence. At one point I acquired a companion, about ten yards behind me; I clutched my phone in my hand, ready to use it as a weapon if I needed to (it has a very bulky case) but he disappeared not long after. I'm not sure where, as there didn't seem to be any exits.
Finally I was on the road itself, and I could breathe again. I saw the MetroCentre station but there was no way to get to it. Apparently it never occurred to the designers that people might want to access the station from the road. I found myself walking right past it, frustrated by a series of fences and vegetation.
I ended up crossing the dual carriageway, darting across the apron of the bus station, and then crossing the same road I had just been on via a footbridge. It added an extra five minutes to what should have been a simple stroll.
Still, the bus station is very nice.