Yes, I'm back. Miss me? You don't have to answer that. I always hate it when bloggers apologise for their absence and beg for the readers to tell them how empty their lives had been while the writer was away; it's so self-serving. Mate, people aren't out there hanging on your every word - you're a blogger, not Peter Ustinov. So yes, I've been away for a while: a whole load of stuff has been happening at home - good stuff - which has meant my opportunities to go romping around the north have been restricted.
But now they're done, so, finally, I got on a TransPennine Express train and headed to Northallerton. It was the first time I'd been on the Liverpool-Newcastle train since the franchise was renewed. The only on board difference I could tell was that the First Class breakfast muffin now came in a paper Carluccio's bag instead of an unbranded plastic one.
At the station however, I noticed that the signs were now emblazoned with the glamorous new TPE branding. I don't like the font. It's too informal, too game show, for a railway station sign. Stick with Rail Alphabet - it's a classic for a reason.
Northallerton's a stop on the busy East Coast Main Line, so while it only gets a couple of services an hour, there's a constant stream of roaring London-Edinburgh trains burning through and threatening to suck you under the wheels. I crossed under the tracks and headed out into the car park, past the Executive Parking Spaces - fancy! - and off to get my first station sign picture in ages.
The beard's not staying, by the way. I let it grow through sheer laziness and I keep meaning to shave it off again but as I said: laziness. Next time I take a sign pic I'll hopefully be a glowing pink cue ball.
I headed into town, past the grand entrance to North Yorkshire's County Hall, and along a street lined with neat villas and B&Bs. There was a lovely looking pub, the Station Hotel, proudly displaying the coat of arms of the North Eastern Railway on its exterior:
Later that day I went into the pub for a pint while I waited for my train home. The bar had been knocked through into one large room, rather than the old mix of lounge and snug, but there were plenty of original features and railway posters. I can't recommend the pub unreservedly. Firstly, the frosted glass windows clearly showed that the pub used to be the Railway Hotel, and the name change annoyed me. If you're going to change the name to the Duke of Kent or the Roadside Tavern or Tricky's Booze Shack, fine, but if you want a pub name that's train themed, well, stick with the original. It's on the window.
The second reason I can't fully endorse the pub is because the barman and a couple of regulars had a good laugh when Some Girls by Rachel Stevens came on the jukebox. They seemed to think that it was a terrible song, when it is in fact a stone cold banger. I didn't pop up to correct them, and I still regret it; that kind of cowardice and failure to confront people with horrible opinions is what landed us in this whole Brexit mess.
It was clear that this was a town with a fair bit of cash in its back pocket, an impression confirmed when the first shop I saw in the centre was Laura Ashley Home. There isn't a Laura Ashley Home in Birkenhead, though we have just got a new Farmfoods, so you know, it's not all bad. It was market day, and the high street was lined with stalls selling all the usual - handbags, dog beds, hilarious signs that say Sisters are like fat thighs... they stick together! I hovered over a second hand bookstall, but it was incredibly overpriced: a paperback of On Chesil Beach in not too-great condition was £3.99. It's barely a hundred pages!
I weaved through the crowds, a mix of pensioners and people on holidays looking for something to do. A woman in a fluorescent lemon skirt with a tropical coloured jacket barreled out of Betty's Tea Room and marched onwards. She was wearing high heels that were highly inappropriate for a woman of her advancing years and carrying a couple of huge shopping bags; clearly she'd just had a fantastic morning of scoffing scones and knocking back Darjeeling with a couple of equally well preserved moneyed widows. I followed in her fabulous wake for a while, then swung into Barkers department store, partly because I love wandering round provincial department stores, but mainly because I needed a wee.
Unlike many other small-town stores I've been to, Barkers was in rude health. Clever displays and plenty of smartly dressed staff. The huge number of bored looking husbands sitting on banquettes around the store showed how popular it was. I headed up to the top floor for the gents, and found it was rainforest themed, with pictures of ferns in the cubicles and piped in cicada noises. You don't get that in Debenhams.
I looped round the back of the fine town hall and back down the other side of the high street, calling in at Lewis and Cooper, an absolutely superb delicatessen. I could have wandered its aisles for hours, coveting spiced sausages and fine cheeses. It was so good, I'm even willing to overlook the fact that it had plum puddings on sale, despite it being, you know, July.
By the time I emerged, my stomach rumbling for exotic breads, there were spots of rain beginning to clatter on the canvas stall roofs, so I headed for the pub. I picked the Tickle Toby Inn based entirely on its name. As good a reason as any, I thought, until I got inside and realised it doubled as the local branch of Help the Aged. All those pensioners I'd seen picking at slippers in the market had descended on the pub for their lunch. I considered joining them until a waitress wandered by with two plates and I saw what the food was like (Beef baguette served with or without gravy - £6.20) so I just got a pint and sat down.
There was a particular woman in there who seemed to be doing her own recreation of Victoria Wood's Two Soups sketch. In an innovative twist, the doddery old lady was the customer and not the waitress. She tottered up to the till to order food for her and her unseen companion, only to keep staggering back with questions - chips or jackets? Tea or coffee? Oh, do I have to pay now, I haven't brought my purse, I'll just go and get it. On her third trip back to the till she called out, "at least I'll have lost a few pounds!", overlooking the fact that she weighed about four stone anyway.
With the beer inside me, I decided I'd seen all Northallerton had to offer, so I rolled back to the station for a train to Yarm.
I really didn't want to go to Yarm. This is nothing against the town which - spoiler alert! - turned out to be delightful. I didn't want to go to Yarm because people kept telling me to go to Yarm. When I decided to collect the additions to the Northern map, it was absolutely my intention to go there. Then people kept mentioning it in the comments. "Go to Yarm!" "When are you going to Yarm?" "Yarm!"
It got my back up. I don't like being told to do things, not by anyone, not the BF, not my mum. It brings out that childish, bloody minded, awkward side of me, the side that really isn't attractive, where I just think, "in that case, I won't go to Yarm. See how you like that!"
I did, actually, have to go to Yarm though: I couldn't avoid it forever. And with Northallerton out the way it made sense to go there. It just got my back up.
Incidentally none of the people who demanded I go to Yarm offered to pay for my ticket.
I crossed the busy road outside Yarm station and dived down an alleyway signposted "Town Centre". I was immediately dropped into a sedate, calm suburban still. Silent cul-de-sacs curved off winding avenues, their lawns cropped, their letterboxes shining. Neat semis surrounded patches of communal green; each home had its own gardens, front and back, but the planners had dotted the estate with wider areas for the kids to play football and to give breathing space. It was wonderfully civilised.
Even when I reached a main road, with bus stops and a care home, it felt relaxed and unhurried. A tiny stream shadowed me, diving under the roadway, while maisonettes and a community centre were hidden behind trees. The centre's noticeboard spoke of sweet residential living - Tuesday: Coffee morning with raffle, Thursday: Brownies. Even the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting on Sunday was probably full of sherry drinkers.
A swing past the newly refurbished gates of Yarm School, which dates back to the sixteenth century, and I'd reached the town centre. It stands on a bend in the Tees, and the High Street was lined with discreetly expensive shops and Georgian homes.
If Northallerton had a few pennies, Yarm only dealt with the folding stuff. The cars parked here were BMWs and Audis and convertibles; the women sat at the outside tables of the coffee shops clutching elegant white cigarettes in manicured fingers. There was a shop selling both equestrian and ski wear, for the ultimate upper middle class fix, and even a Bang & Olufsen for anyone who wanted over-designed audio gear.
It was all really quite lovely, and I felt guilty for despising the people who wanted me to come here. They were right: it was absolutely worth visiting.
I walked up to the stone bridge over the river that peaks the town centre. A plaque on the bridge informed me that it was built in 1806 to replace an iron one from 1805 that collapsed; I imagine the town council had a very interesting discussion with the engineers after that.
The bridge is also a great spot to gaze at the magnificent railway viaduct that bypasses the town, Finished in 1851, it's crowned by a magnificently boastful plaque commemorating everyone involved. It's Victorian arrogance at its zenith, though I bet a little part of them was praying this bridge wouldn't fall down too.
You may have noticed that, for a town with such a lengthy history, Yarm had a bit of a rubbish station: just a couple of platforms and a shelter. That's because it's actually the second station to serve the town and only opened in 1996. The original station was at the far end of the viaduct, on the opposite side of the river in Egglescliffe.
Readers with long memories will remember that I passed through Egglescliffe before, last year, on my way to Teesside Airport. I had in fact walked along the road that leads to Yarm. When I spotted this, I realised I had to cross the bridge so that I could connect the two trips in my mental map. It was non-negotiable.
As a plus, I got to see the old railway station building. I wondered if the closure had as much to do with it being on the other side of the river as anything else. Rivers are funny things. Humans have bridged them for millennia - we're quite good at it by now - but they still act as a mental barrier. Look how many hackneyed comedy routines there are about taxi drivers refusing to go "south of the river". I still have friends in Liverpool who blanch at the idea of having to go "over the water", though to be fair that may be more to do with them not wanting to see me than a prehistoric antipathy to crossing the Mersey. Still, it was interesting that when they built a new station, they didn't put it in the same place as the old one, even though it was far more convenient for the town.
I cut round the back of the apartment buildings that now occupy the old station's sidings and up onto Urlay Nook Road. Click! went my brain, knotting the new and old geographies together, meshing the memory of a tense Sunday morning heading for a rarely served railway station with the current reality of a warm, comfortable Wednesday afternoon. My mind joined up the highlighted routes so they touched. Then I turned around and went home.