Tuesday 8 March 2016

Now I'm Following You

I wasn't sure how to get to Fisherground Halt.  I mean, I knew where it was.  I just didn't know if there was a publicly accessible route to it.  My Ordnance Survey map showed a couple of paths that went sort of in that direction, but none that actually reached it.  There was a campsite between the platform and the road, so I doubted there was a footpath in amongst the tents.  I was a little stumped.

Finally I just walked up the drive of the campsite, clutching the OS map, hoping that the landowner would realise I was a slightly stupid rambler.  I walked with purpose, like I knew what I was doing.  There was a farm building, and a couple of holiday cottages, then a gate.  Not one of those twee little country stiles, but a big metal gate.  I unhooked it and wandered into a field of sheep, aware that I hadn't seen any footpath signs.  I could, at least, see the platform shelter, up on an embankment.

As I crossed the field, I became aware of a rumble behind me, accompanied by plaintive mewling.  I turned round to see that the flock of sheep in the field seemed to have identified me as their alpha, and had started following me.

This was embarrassing.  Firstly, I was used to sheep fleeing, not following.  Secondly, I worried that the farmer would poke his head out of his window, spot me leading his livestock away, and think I was a rustler.  Thirdly, I wasn't sure how I was going to get out of the field.  I could see a wire fence at its perimeter, with a stream on the other side.  Was I going to have to vault that?  I realised I might end up trapped in the corner of a field, hemmed in on all sides by dopey sheep.

I sped up.  They sped up.  I stopped.  They stopped.  I tried staring them down, but they just stared back.  More were joining at the rear, their little hooves hammering at the mud, a stream of wool flowing across the field.  

Then, I spotted it: a little gate leading to a bridge.  I hastily nipped through, hammering down the latch as hard as possible so that the sheep couldn't follow, and crossed the stream.  The sheep kept coming.  They crammed into the corner of the field, watching me leave, and I felt a little guilty.  I waved them goodbye and crossed the empty campground to reach the station.

There's not much to it.  A shelter and a sign.  Further down was a water tank for refilling the steam trains, and a tiny mountain beck trickled down the hillside and under the track.  I hoped the driver would see me and stop the train; since the campsite was closed, I wasn't sure he'd expect anyone to be there.  He did.

I asked the guard to stop at Irton Road for me.  "Ah, changing for the steam, yes?"

"No," I said, a little confused.  I realised that the majority of lonely men who traveled up and down the line did so to see the trains.  They were here to travel with as many of the engines as possible.  I wasn't bothered.  The train I boarded at Fisherground was a diesel, and that was fine by me.  If it had been a steam train, that would also have been fine with me.  I wasn't really fussed.

After slowing down to avoid killing the still-lost errant sheep from that morning - seriously, couldn't someone nip down and guide him to safety? - we pulled into Irton Road.  Most of the line is single track, but at Irton Road there is a passing space, and two platforms.  The diesel waited and then, a few moments later, the steam train came in.  

I was hovering in the area, because I wanted the trains to leave before I took the sign pic.  There aren't any roadside signs - why would there be, this isn't a commuter hub - so I had to rely on the platform signs to prove I'd been here.  I didn't fancy taking a picture with all those tourists sitting there watching.

Instead I waited for the steam train to depart, then dashed down for a badly framed photo designed to show off as many of my chins as possible.

Trouble was, all that larking about gave people time to disembark from the steam train.  Which meant that when I headed for the footpath to take me back to Ravenglass, I found myself shadowing a couple and their two dogs.  

This was awkward.  We were in an isolated part of the Lake District, and instead of enjoying the quiet majesty of the landscape, we were all aware that there was an uninvited guest at the party.  I tried slowing down, taking a couple of pictures, so they could get on ahead, but then their dogs would lark about and they would stop too.  We were all walking at about the same speed, so there was a constant twenty yard gap between us.  It was embarrassing.

I couldn't stand it any more.  I put on a heavy burst of speed and energy and ploughed past them at Mo Farrah speeds, leaving them in my dust.  It wasn't fun, it wasn't very "calming countryside stroll", but it meant I put them behind me and that was the most important part.

Of course, if I'd let them go first the whole way, they'd have been the first ones in that field and I'd have discovered what kind of mood the bull was in.  Fortunately he didn't seem to be home.

I trudged through a muddy farmyard, marveling at the many lethal looking devices they had stored in the barns.  I saw at least three vehicles that could have torn me apart without even having to go up a gear.  A couple of turns, and the gravel path became a gravel road.

As the trees folded in around me, I realised I had gone the wrong way.  Or rather, the less interesting way.  I'd planned out a route that would follow the River Esk down to the sea, but this was going higher and darker.  I'm too stubborn to turn back, and besides, I'd finally lost the dog walkers, so I trudged on.

The forest thickened.  The breeze moved their branches in a long, unending hiss, the multiplied shhh! of a thousand librarians.  The road became more broken and thick with muddy water: I was in a logging area.  I turned a corner and the woodland just stopped, stripped, cut down and bare.

It was brutal.  The violence wreaked on the landscape, the cold, unflinching way the trees had been torn down.  They were now logs stacked in high piles either side of the road.  I thought that maybe they were destined for a higher purpose, that they'd form playground equipment for needy children or something, but no:

I had to remind myself that this was how forestry worked, how farming worked: you grow it, you cut it down, you grow it again.  Over and over for a thousand years.  But the shift from the cool pine forests to this torn up mess had unnerved me.  I pushed on, to where the trees resumed again, and took comfort in the forests in the distance.

A couple of tiny self-catering cottages marked the end of the woods.  I thought from here it was just a simple walk, but suddenly there was a flurry of signs, one after the other, guiding me carefully onto the correct path.  It soon became clear why,

A golf course.  Right here, in a part of England renowned for the beauty of its untamed nature, someone had flattened the hills and planted boring grass and kept it tidy.  It was annoying and ugly.  Worse, the owners were clearly furious that they had to maintain a right of way through their precious greens, and so sent walkers off on a side path.  A boggy, waterlogged side path. 

It looked fine, a rougher grassy route, but each footstep produced a squelch and a trickle beneath my heel.  Every now and then my feet sank completely into a pocket of mud and repulsion.  Luckily my boots maintained their water tight seal, otherwise I'd have been left with soggy socks, but it was still a strain to drag my feet through the dark mess.  Worse, it smelt, rotting leaves belching up a noxious scent that clung to my trousers for the rest of the day.  I hammered my way through, cursing Scotland, Sandy Lyle, Auric Goldfinger, and anyone else who had been involved in the pestilent game of golf at any time since the day it was invented.

Finally I was on tarmac again, dropped onto the A595 as it crept up the hill.  There wasn't a footpath, of course, so I wedged myself in as tight against the hedgerow as possible while cars zoomed by.  It was a particularly messy hedgerow too, filled with McDonalds Happy Meal packages and empty Sprite bottles and Tesco sandwich boxes.  I'm not a fan of the "Clean for the Queen" movement, what with it being grossly patronising and servile, but couldn't we clean for ourselves?  Couldn't we, as British people, just take a moment to realise that chucking your shit at the side of the road is disgusting behaviour and makes our lovely country just that little bit crappier every time?  

Tired and moist, I climbed up and over the hill, past Muncaster Castle.  A couple of people had recommended I pay it a visit, but it was still operating its winter hours: the castle was closed to visitors, as were the cafe and the gift shop.  If I couldn't get a cup of tea and an overpriced tea towel I didn't see the point of visiting, even if it did have an "Owl Centre".  

I was soon descending into Ravenglass village, stiff and tired.  I'd thought about going out that night, a Saturday; treating myself to a decent meal in the posh restaurant in the village.  However, a look at their menu revealed that it was written in a "comedy" style, plus they had signs like this outside:

I'm sorry but I just can't support those levels of linguistic terrorism.

Instead I headed back to the B&B and collapsed on the bed with a packet of Quavers.  Not quite the luxurious Lakeland experience, but it worked for me.  

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