Sunday, 15 November 2015
Shadows and Fog
There are times when I have ambitious, country hopping plans for this blog. When I cross off five, six, seven stations in one go.
This is not one of those times.
I got off the train at Sandal & Agbrigg, full of a bacon roll, fresh from using the wifi on the Northern train, with a slow day planned. Just two stations. This one - obviously - and another one further down the line. That was it.
Actually, to be completely honest, I did have a vague idea that I might have time to cross off two more of West Yorkshire's stations before my train home. But it was only a maybe, not a proper plan. I'd see how it went first.
Sandall & Agbrigg is on the edge of Wakefield, and at first just seemed like another English industrial suburb. Stout redbrick homes and a pub and a park. As I moved on, it began to be infused with a slightly more exotic taste. There were still hairdressers and shops and chip shops, but the names above the door were "Zaika" and "Kaashi". There was a takeaway called Raavi Currys and Sweets; I assume "sweets" was being used as another way of saying "puddings", and they didn't offer you a packet of Rolos with your jalfrezi. The true confirmation that I was in an area with a high immigrant population were the rows of fruit and vegetables proudly displayed outside the shops. English people don't eat that much fresh produce. If it's not wrapped in plastic, we don't trust it.
There was also a mosque and, I'm sorry British Muslims, but we're going to have to have words. A mosque is a place for you to sing the praises of Allah and come together as a community. It should be inspiring and beautiful. Yet 90% of the time, mosques in England are drab boxes that someone's dropped the occasional dome on. Look at those blank walls, and the PVC windows, and the gate that belongs on a suburban semi. It's not at all interesting. I reckon there's a Muslim architect somewhere who's cornered the market in mosque design, and does it for very reasonable rates, never once confessing that his training is all in kitchen extensions and he doesn't really know how to design a proper building.
I turned onto a busy main road, which I had to dash across wildly after the pavement vanished under a railway bridge, and then out of the town. The fields were churned up and destroyed as part of the "Wakefield Eastern Relief Road", The traffic didn't seem that bad - in fact, the existing road seemed over engineered for the number of vehicles using it - but as with most things in Britain these days, it wasn't just about getting cars somewhere, it was also about "creating prosperity".
A cross back over the road again, and I was on a small lane that drifted southwards. Bright ferns, a mix of greens and yellows and browns, lined the pathway. A heavy fog had fallen during the night and it was absolutely refusing to lift. It dulled the skies and veiled the view; each corner carried with it a tantalising air of mystery.
It was also quite lonely. I've been cutting back on my fluoxetine lately, the drug that stops me from going full gaga, because I've been on it for years and I really am a lot better. But my brain likes that extra dose of chemicals in there. My moods have shifted, lurching from happy to sad; I've become more short tempered and grumpy, and the occasional moment of darkness has come back. The day before I'd had a really bad meltdown, and I'd woken up at 4 am still suffering the after effects. It had been touch and go whether I'd even go out, but I had booked tickets, and I'm cheap. None the less, I could feel the depression now, as I walked, the hint of misery at the edge of my thoughts.
On the edge of Walton I left the main road and followed a side path into woodlands. This was yet another branch of the Trans-Pennine Trail, the long distance path that's dogged my Northern Rail trips right from the start. In some ways, it might have been quicker for me to just walk the TPT instead of all this mucking about with railway stations. I'd have gone to more or less the same places.
This part of the country is threaded with railway lines, both current and abandoned. They were built to service the huge collieries that once dotted the landscape, to whisk the coal away as quickly as possible. My Ordnance Survey map was laced with black lines and the ghosts of dismantled railways. The colliery here was called Sharlston West originally, then Walton Colliery, but it closed in 1979 and the site has been handed back to nature.
If it wasn't for a number of helpful sign boards, you'd have no idea about the country park's origins. It looked like it had been here forever, another quiet forgotten corner of England unmolested by developers. It was difficult to conceive that this had been ugly industrial works within my own lifetime.
I was following a bridleway round the edge of the park, rather than pushing into the interior. It was almost entirely silent, the only noise being the occasional train going by behind the trees. I paused for a minute by the lake, scaring the seagulls into taking flight. The geese were made of sterner stuff and refused to move.
The bridleway deposited me at a small car park; a woman in lurid colours was just pushing her headphones in her ears, ready for her morning jog. I left it behind, crossing under the railway line for what seemed like the eighteenth time that day and finally entering Walton village.
The homes - like the residents - were sturdy mining stock. Built by the local authority to accommodate the colliery workers only to outlive it. The villagers hurried about, unpausing, heads low. The Sports and Social Club was tucked into the hillside, its board outside previewing a soul act called Knights of Harlem and a ladies night: "two male strippers and a comedy drag queen".
I ducked down a side alley that took me round the backs of the houses. The land sloped away from it, giving me a good look into their gardens. The furniture was still out, the excessively mild October meaning that people could just about manage to sit out for a bit longer, but the November fog had made them damp. Barbecues had been sadly shrouded in plastic. Ambitious sheds pressed up against the fences.
As I left the village, the path pushed through woodland, shedding leaves all over my route. I was at the back of Walton Hall, once the home of the local gentry and now a hotel and golf course. There was a tiny metal gate built into the wall, intriguing me: I always love hidden gateways and concealed entrances. It's all very Secret Garden, only not quite so tedious.
Also intriguing was an unexpected stone lock by the side of the path. The Barnsley Canal once came up through here, the earlier way to get to the collieries, but had been abandoned in the 1950s. Further down the hill there was still water in the canal but here, without locks to hold it in place, it had trickled away.
There is a charity, the Barnsley, Dove and Dearn Trust, trying to restore this waterway as a connection between the Calder and Barnby. This section of the canal won't be restored though, as development has overtaken much of it, plus the locks are beyond restoration. Instead a new, diversionary canal will be built around the village.
It was slightly disconcerting to walk along a towpath with no canal. Water still puddled in the centre in places, but for the most part it was just mud and leaves. Meanwhile, road bridges still crossed over the canal as though it was in full flow.
I diverted off the path to skirt the bottom end of the Walton Hall estate. It was marked by a wonderfully fragile looking wall.
The bricks had been eaten away, perhaps attacked by polluted rain fed by the coal fields, leaving hollowed out caves amongst the mortar. It looked like a huge wasp's nest, or some alien hatchery, each indentation the broken egg sac of a long departed xenomorph. I touched it, carefully; it looked so delicate I worried it would fall over. The stone felt solid enough.
I thought it was incredibly beautiful. Some day, I expect, a part of it will collapse and the hotel estate will knock it all down in favour of a sturdy, tedious brick wall. Until then, it felt like another secret delight. I followed it round, trying to put the drone of the lawnmowers tending to the greens on the other side of the wall out of my head. They were seemingly at a frequency designed to penetrate the darkest recesses of my brain, a bit like that drill Bond is tortured with in Spectre (I would say "spoilers", but the way it's been tearing up the box office you've probably already seen it). (And if you haven't seen it, why not?). I was glad to leave the open fields behind and disappear into the silence of Haw Park Wood.
Perhaps too silent. It wasn't long before the demons began swirling around me again. I felt incredibly isolated and lonely. The fog had kept people indoors; I'd seen about a dozen other human beings in the last two hours. I could feel the tension in my head, in my muscles, the signs that my emotions were trying to surge up and get to me again. I swallowed them down. There was no choice, after all: I was alone in a wood. I'd have to deal with it.
Not for much longer. As though I'd summoned them up myself to curb my loneliness, suddenly the wood became a hive of activity. A tweedy couple, dressed as if they were out on a shoot, appeared from a side path with a Jack Russell, while ahead, a group of cyclists blustered their way in. There were three men and a woman, dressed in all the most modern gear. Skinny legs were captured in lycra. There was suddenly an apologetic cry, and one of the men swirled off to the side: "I'm so sorry, I've got a flat." The other cyclists turned and gathered round him to help as I left them behind.
The path carried on through fields of... something. I really should do some kind of country skills course. I have no idea about nature; I can lump them into "trees", "flowers" and "bushes", and that's about it. Crops, I only recognise if they're in full bloom, and then it's pretty much "wheat" or "rape".
It was gone twelve now and the fog had refused to be burnt off; it was going to stay with me all day. I was in another colliery turned country park, this one called "Anglers", and I crunched across a car park to the visitor's centre. I hadn't expected there to be much, but the cafe was open, so I went in for a warming cup of tea.
The cafe advertised itself as a tea room, but the fluorescent lights and steel kitchen didn't scream country elegance. It was filled with sprightly pensioners taking a break from country walks. I felt a little ashamed that station collecting was all the exercise I ever took, while people old enough to be my parents were happily chatting about how many miles they'd done that day. They then went into a discussion about mobile phones - one of them was looking for an upgrade - and that lead naturally onto iPads and tablets. It was a conversation you would never have thought the elderly would have, but then again, the old aren't as old any more; my mum has just taken her pension, but she's still incredibly active and lively.
I headed out of the country park after that. It's wonderful that there are these newly christened spaces for wildlife and leisure, but a part of me thinks, where are the jobs? This used to be an open cast mine and no doubt supported the lives of hundreds of families. Now the only employment I could see was the woman behind the counter in the cafe. Were people just meant to start commuting? Were they meant to move? And now that industrial land has been turned back into countryside, it won't be built on again; planning laws and protest groups will stop any further development. I thought back to that new relief road and wondered what kind of prosperity it was planning to bring.
There was a caravan park, still done out in "spooky" Hallowe'en decorations (this was November the third), and then I entered the village of Wintersett. I'd deliberately come this way because I'm reading Game of Thrones at the moment (NO SPOILERS PLEASE) and Wintersett sounded like it could have come straight off the page.
It turned out to be a barely-there hamlet, a few houses and a pub and not much else. I was through it before I realised, turning onto a side road by a huge, ugly new build. Across the road, the driveway was being laid out for its no doubt equally ugly brother, a wide over-ambitious entrance that wouldn't have looked out of place at Southfork.
Darting on and off the road - there was no pavement any more - I headed towards two disused railways. Once, they had crossed just north of here, but now they existed only as long straight chains of trees and muddy paths. A brick bridge still crossed one of the lines. I wonder how long the highways teams will support these unnecessary bridges, fixing them and propping them up? This one already had plants growing out of the brickwork, rising up to take the traffic over a muddy track.
I stepped off the road just before the next bend, vanishing into the woods on a dismantled railway track. It wasn't signposted as a path - I'd relied entirely on my OS map - and the mud and dense leaf cover made me think it wasn't well used.
The tea had raised my spirits, so I didn't feel quite as lonely wandering this way. Astonishing how a mug of brown liquid can make everything right. It's not even alcoholic.
The path deposited me in Havercroft, another former pit village. I was greeted by the noisiest women on earth having a loud and boisterous conversation about their hospital visits; if I'd stuck around a little longer I'd have got the full information on their gynaecological status and possibly a view of their fallopian tubes so I fled to the main road.
Havercroft was one of those places where the Christmas decorations are on the lamp posts and you can't work out if they're early for this year or just couldn't be bothered taking them down. It was rough round the edges, unloved; the closure of the mines had left it flinty and hard.
The road rose upwards, through a set of housing association bungalows, then I passed a funeral home and I was in the countryside again. The road twisted around, passing the odd farmhouse, then the railway reappeared with a red Virgin train streaking its way to Leeds over the top.
Fitzwilliam threaded along the main road, clogged with lorries and cars. There were houses with paved over gardens, then a small row of shops. The modern sign on the grooming parlour said Posh Paws, but it still carried ghost signs plugging tobacco companies; Three Castles Cigarettes, a plug for Capstan Navy Cut all over the end.
While Havercroft had felt like it was still stranded on the bottom, Fitzwilliam felt like it had bounced and was on its way up. The station probably helped, giving them a link to Leeds and Wakefield and turning tiny railway cottages into bijou homes. It seemed like a livelier community. People stood on the street chatting, and a large board plugged the Christmas events at the Miners' Social Club (a family day on the 25th, "Vegas" and disco on Boxing Day, "5th Avenue" and disco on New Year's Eve, the panto - "Toy Story" - on the 2nd).
The houses on the way to the station had toys and bikes in the front yard; not one of them was chained up. One house was guarded by figures of the Hulk and Captain America in the front window; a couple were still welcoming trick or treaters with decorations. The only shade in the family sunshine were the repeated, neatly typed on MS Word signs politely asking commuters to not park outside. The signs were all ignored.
I was lucky with the train. There had been a signal failure outside Leeds, delaying all the trains by nearly an hour, but I'd arrived just as they were getting back to normal. I had only a short wait before mine arrived.
The train was made up of two coaches, though the back one was full and the front was sparsely populated, which was odd. I went in the front and discovered why. A disabled man was singing along to the music on his headphones tunelessly. It should have annoyed me, but he did it so joyously, so happily, so unselfconsciously, that it made me smile. Sometimes you get a boost from the strangest places.