Christmas Road Trip, 2019.

2 Jan

Everyone seems to be on the move as Christmas approaches. Trains are packed, motorways choked and airports crammed in the great seasonal migration. Students are coming home, people are linking up with extended families, while many others are simply trying to get away from  all the hype and fuss. By embarking on such journeys, people are aping the original Christmas journey of Mary and Joseph, from Nazareth, their home, to Joseph’s birthplace of Bethlehem, in order to take part in the census ordered by Emperor Caesar Augustus. Nowadays it would have been conducted online, or at least via First Class post. That would have spoilt God’s whole game plan!

My wife, Chris, and I decided to go on our own great Christmas trek. We had not been ordered to our birthplaces to be counted, but were travelling to join family members on the Isle of Wight. Basically one travels as far south as is possible on land, but then keeps going — by boat. We live in the north east England so our journey would be from one end of England to the other. We could have joined the throngs on the railways but the trains from London were severely affected by strikes. We could have copied Joseph’s idea of taking a donkey but we don’t have a stable and it would have taken too long. So by default, we reluctantly ended up taking the car. We would be taking a Christmas road trip. It would cover roughly 340 miles and be spread over 2 days.

We set off in light rain 3 days before the big day. Luckily, despite Bing Crosby’s persistent efforts, there was no snow. The rain eased as we left urban Teesside and headed towards the rugged Cleveland Hills. They rose evocatively out of the morning mist. A group of about a dozen geese flew overhead. The diagonal line of gracefully flapping wings had a slight kink in it as one goose had slipped slightly out of formation. The old castle keep of Whorlton appeared briefly on a wooded hill ahead and then just as quickly disappeared, as we drove past fields of quietly grazing cows and sheep. Then we hit the motorway.

The peaceful countryside faded into memory as we entered a noisy, hectic world of speeding cars, lorries, vans and buses. Motorway driving is relatively easy but is also pretty insane! It’s a strange, frenetic world populated by lots of decent drivers mingled in with a few, aggressive roadhogs who endanger their own and everybody else’s lives in order to arrive at their destination a few minutes early. I wonder what they actually do with the time they save? We drove through all the Yorkshires — North, West and South, bypassing towns and cities such as Northallerton, Thirsk, Leeds, Doncaster and Sheffield, to name but a few. As a driver, one disappears into a strange, alien place — motorway land. One’s whole being is governed by this strip of tarmac, that brutally slices through the peaceful countryside. If I had pinched myself and turned back into a human being, I would probably have been petrified. Here we were, charging forward in a metal box, surrounded by other careering boxes, everyone making split second decisions to avoid potentially fatal collisions. Life must have been a lot safer in Biblical times when the fastest mode of transport was the horse, when most people walked, while just a few, like the pregnant Mary, rode on donkeys. More than 2 hours passed and our bladders started to indicate that it was time for a break. It was time to temporarily escape the motorway madness.

By now we were in Derbyshire, the county of my birth. We could have pulled into the services but that wouldn’t have given us a real rest, surrounded by hundreds of people and cars, faced by a soulless selection of crowded fast food joints and with the constant thrum of speeding traffic in the background. Yes reader, you’ve guessed it, we had decided to have a proper break in a real place. We had never visited Ripley before. It’s a little town, squashed in between Derby and Nottingham in the Amber Valley of south Derbyshire.

As soon as we pulled into the quiet car park, we knew we were in the east midlands. All around us were red-brick buildings. The centre of Ripley has a tight core of redbrick Victoriana. A large market place is dominated at one end by an impressive Victorian Town Hall. Built in the 1880s as a Market Hall, it was converted into a Town Hall in 1903. On the day of our visit it was festooned with fairy lights and featured two giant depictions of Santa Claus. Three old pubs bordered the market place. We saw several more as we wandered around so it seemed the locals like a drink or two. Apparently on a Friday or Saturday night it can get quite lively. But this was Sunday lunchtime so all was  quiet.

Ripley has been around for a long time. It was mentioned in the Domesday Book as Ripelie. Much later, in the Industrial Revolution, it had thriving coal and iron mines. An important ironworks nearby supplied cast iron for local tramways and railways, and also provided St Pancras Station in London with its cast iron roof. It’s D H Lawrence country. Just down the road is Eastwood where Lawrence was born. We planned to have a little look at it but took a wrong turning on our way out and missed it. Another time perhaps. One of Ripley’s main claims to fame today is that it is the most English town in the whole of England. According to a university DNA study of a few years ago, not only is it smack bang in the middle of the country, but it also has the highest proportion of residents with English ethnic origins — 88.6%. We noticed it wasn’t exactly the most cosmopolitan of places, although we did spot a Chinese take-away. It’s quintessential England but not of the tourist brochure, chocolate-box variety. Ripley’s version of Englishness involves: redbrick terraces, thriving chippies, the odd tea room, a Premier Inn, Lidl, Wilko and Weatherspoons. We also saw bookies, barbers, nail bars and charity shops. It’s not exactly Downton Abbey, although Newstead Abbey is nearby. Ripley is “ordinary” England in the best sense of the word. Not surprisingly it had a large Cooperative store. We saw it with its tall, handsome redbrick façade, but sadly it has now closed.

We did find a lovely café though. The Brown Bear Tea Room was bright, clean and welcoming. It was decorated with strings of festive lights. The service was down to earth and pleasant. When we received our hot drinks, tiny short-bread brown bears nestled in our saucers. It was a nice, relaxed lunch-stop in Ripley. As we left we spied the distinctive and attractive clock tower of the Church of All Saints ( 1821) set in a peaceful garden. It was a bit of a shock to return to the madness of the motorways as we headed south through Nottinghamshire and into Warwickshire. We left the busy MI and tracked south west on the M42 and M40.

As one strip of motorway looks very much like another, I made an effort to look at the adjacent countryside.  When we eventually entered Oxfordshire I spotted more green fields with more sheep munching away, overlooked by gently rolling hills. Ranks of skeleton trees stood guard along long, low ridges, backlit by the dipping winter sun. We were travelling on the actual day of the solstice. The traffic kept flowing and we relaxed as we approached our overnight stopover — Banbury. Neither of us had been there before.

It’s not often that one visits a town made famous by a nursery rhyme. But here we were. “Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross

To see a fine lady on a white horse

With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes

She shall have music wherever she goes.”

Its origins are lost in time, probably somewhere in medieval folklore. Nobody knows its real meaning. There are just various theories. A Cock-horse may be another name for a child’s hobby horse. To ride a cock horse also meant to ride side saddle as when a lady rode behind a knight on the same horse, in the Middle Ages. Yet another theory is that it was probably the name for a spare horse, used to help haul a stage coach up a steep hill.  Since 2005, Banbury has had a statue of its “fine lady” on her horse. It helps to bring in the tourists. She may have been called Celia Fiennes, a local aristocratic lady ( a “Fiennes lady”) who travelled round on a horse in the late 1600s. Alternatively, the rhyme may refer to a much earlier pagan custom, when a young girl, covered in flowers and leaves, would ride a white horse around the fields as part of a Spring fertility ritual. This later turned into the May Queen celebrations. Opposite the equestrian statue is a Victorian version of Banbury’s cross. The real cross used to stand in the middle of the market square and is today marked by a plaque. In fact, Banbury used to have 3 crosses, the most important being the High or Market Cross. However, in around 1600, Puritans demolished all of them as they disliked religious imagery and superstitions. The memory of the crosses was only kept alive by the children’s rhyme. Then the Victorian Cross appeared in 1859 to celebrate the marriage of the Queen’s eldest daughter, Victoria Adelaide to Prince Frederick of Prussia. It stands on a cross roads just on the edge of the town centre.

The real centre is still the large market square. Around it lie the atmospheric lanes and narrow streets of the old town. Attractive Georgian and Victorian buildings are mixed in with a sprinkling of older survivors such as the early 16th Century Reindeer Inn, where Oliver Cromwell was supposed to have stayed during the Civil War when his Parliamentary troops were besieging Banbury castle in 1644 and 1646. The castle was demolished and only lives on in the name of a shopping mall. We wandered round the old town after dark, enjoying the lovely Christmas lights straddling the streets — angels with wings outspread, shooting stars and dripping icycles, all in glistening white. We ate at an excellent Thai restaurant, sharing it with a large group of work colleagues having their Christmas night out. It was nice to see normal life going on around us.

The next day, after a quiet night in our guest house on Oxford Road, we explored Banbury in daylight. We discovered east European supermarkets, a large modern shopping mall, the Oxford Canal with its lockgates, house boats, narrow boat workshop and dry dock, an upmarket Oxfam shop and a couple of antique shops. The Church of St Mary’s on Horse Fair was impressive but our sweetest and most unusual discovery was a red telephone box that had been turned into a library. It had 4 small shelves of books and quotes by famous authors pasted on its windows. Next to it was another red telephone box containing a real phone — an unusual sight in this age of the mobile. Vandals had celebrated its survival by smashing one of its windows.

Now we hit the road again, heading south. The traffic thickened considerably around the Oxford ring road. We were rolling along quite happily, refreshed by our overnight break, when suddenly we were dazzled by a sea of break lights ahead. 3 lanes of traffic ground to a halt. We slowly crawled, stop-start for 5 miles or so. At last the flashing lights of emergency vehicles indicated we were approaching the cause of the jam. On the opposite carriageway of the M40, at least 8 cars had crashed into each other in an enormous shunt. People, including children, were wandering around amidst the wreckage in a daze. Fire engine hoses were spraying water on the engines of the smashed cars. Ambulances were arriving to collect the injured and police and breakdown trucks were trying to clear a pathway for the held- up traffic to filter through. It seemed to sum up the craziness of modern life. The tailback on the opposite carriageway stretched for at least 5 miles.

After that we progressed smoothly out of Oxfordshire, through Berkshire and into Hampshire. We passed Newbury, then Winchester and skirted Southampton. The countryside got hillier and the road rolled up and down in long sweeps. There were more woods. The low, slanting sun illuminated the dark, leafless trees, turning them into beautiful silhouettes. We finally turned off the motorway and entered the lovely New Forest area of Hampshire. The Sat-Nav guided us to the town of Lyndhurst, which was a shame as it’s a traffic bottleneck and is full of souvenir shops, cafes, and fast food joints. It is not beautiful and certainly not restful. We couldn’t even get into the public toilets as a large coach party had just arrived and had formed an orderly, but very long queue. In previous years we had taken a quieter route through Beaulieu and had seen woods, lakes, striking heathland with beautiful New Forest ponies and the odd donkey wandering around. The famous ponies are descendants of the jennets, or light Spanish horses which swam ashore from the wrecked ships of the Armada in 1588. Hidden in the forest, away from the traffic, are: deer, foxes, badgers and many other animals. But Lyndhurst sadly has none of this — just lots of people eating, drinking and mooching around, and endlessly queueing traffic. We ate lunch at a half decent café and had a quick inspection of a very good antiques shop near the traffic lights. Chris looked at the pottery and the jewellery, while I leafed through some wonderful old stamp albums, which took me back to my days as a collector in the 50s and 60s after I inherited my dad’s fascinating 1930s album. ( sadly now lost.) I was overlooked by a CCTV camera, as unbelievably, people have been sneakily stealing valuable stamps when the shop owner was distracted. I had an interesting conversation with a stamp collector who now just concentrated on British Colonials because there is an overwhelming flood of new issues. In other words — there are just too many stamps to collect so one has to specialise. It’s not often one gets to have a chat about philately these days.

We were now on the last leg of our Christmas road trip ( you’ll be glad to know.) We had almost run out of land. A brief potter through a bit more of the New Forest ( still no ponies spotted) and we arrived at the Isle of Wight ferry port of Lymington. We find it quieter and less stressful than navigating ourselves through the city of Portsmouth. Once upon a time, British Rail paddle steamers used to sail from here. Now it’s modern Wightlink, roll on– roll off ferries. It was dusk as we sailed out into the Solent on the short trip. The resting yachts of Lymington’s extensive marina gradually receded into the gathering gloom. Noisy gulls followed in our wake. We were surrounded by family groups visiting relatives for the festivities. We disembarked at Yarmouth on the eastern tip of the island. A convoy of headlamps snaked its way along the narrow, twisting roads of this tiny outpost of England. After about 40 minutes we finally arrived at  Sandown, a seaside resort tucked into the island’s south east corner. There was no room in Chris’s family’s home, but unlike Mary and Joseph, we found there WAS room at the inn — the Premier Inn. It was a nice home from home. A large decorated tree stood in the foyer, the staff all wore jolly Christmas jumpers and there were crackers on the tables at breakfast!

Our Christmas road trip was at last over! Correction — it was actually only half over, as in a week’s time we would be doing it all again, travelling north!

PS We’re back home now. A Happy New Year to all my readers.

 

To H-ll and Back.

20 Nov

I’ve been reading a light-hearted book about a travel journalist visiting places that are not on the tourist map. Tom Chesshyre’s book is entitled “To Hull and Back.” I think he’s trying to pull off a joke, guessing  that many people, just glancing at the title, might misread it as “To Hell and Back.” Well, I’ve recently been to Hull and back and in no way can this small east Yorkshire city be compared with hell. My travel buddy, Ian, and I had a great time there. In fact Tom Chesshyre enjoyed himself as well, indicating that just because a place is not on the main tourist trail, it doesn’t mean that it’s not worth visiting. As I’ve often said, every place is interesting if one is willing to be interested in it.

Having said all that, at one time it really was hell to be in Hull. In the Second World War it was heavily bombed because it was one of Britain’s premier ports and also an important industrial centre. The German blitz of Hull did not garner as much publicity as that of London or Coventry, but it was devastating enough for the Government to conduct a major survey on the morale of the civilian population after the bombing. It found that Hull’s citizen’s spirits had held up pretty well despite the death, destruction and misery rained down on them from the skies.

You would think that there would be few historical buildings left standing in Hull after all those bombing raids. We were told that over 70% of the city centre buildings were pulverised. However, much of the old town miraculously survived and we found it a very picturesque and interesting place to wander around. It has cobbled streets, grandiose civic buildings, churches, riverside walks, interesting bridges and cosy old pubs. We especially liked it at night when the glowing street lights on the rain-streaked streets , made it a very atmospheric place to explore. Many of the old town streets are pedestrianised. They are a fascinating mix of Georgian and Victorian architecture with a bit of sensitive modern stuff thrown in. They link up 2 grand squares, old quays that used to be busy docks, shops, pubs and arcades, old converted warehouses, a park created from a filled in quay ( Queens Gardens) and at least 5 bridges across the River Hull. The Hull flows into the much wider Humber just to the south of the centre.

In post-war times, Hull has often been overlooked because it is in an isolated location on the east coast, far away from the main north-south transport routes. When I have driven there in the past ( I used to have relatives there), the road signs initially displayed a whole list of destinations. But as one drives further and further east, the places drop off the list, one by one, until the only place left is Hull. So it’s as if one is driving to the end of the world.  Beyond Hull there is only sea. On this visit we took the train. We left the main line expresses at York and a little old railcar trundled out into the empty, low, flatlands of the former East Riding of Yorkshire. There are hills, the Yorkshire Wolds, but they are very gently rolling. We passed through a fairly bleak landscape of semi-flooded fields and obscure little towns and villages. The only place I recognised was Selby, famous for its abbey. Eventually, a huge, wide river appeared on our right — the Humber estuary. The water was so high after recent rains, that it seemed almost level with the rails we were trundling along. In the mudflats by the river, the ancient timbers of prehistoric dug-out canoes have been excavated. Some are displayed in the city’s Maritime Museum.

One and a half hours out of York, one of Hull’s most famous structures slid into view — the magnificent Humber Bridge, built in 1981. It’s an enormous, impressive suspension bridge, its road suspended beneath gracefully looping cables. It links Yorkshire and Lincolnshire or, I should say: North and South Humberside. Some saw it as an expensive white elephant as there are no really big centres of population to the north or south of it. Cynics said its main purpose was to extend the rounds of Lincolnshire milkmen! But its a spectacular feat of engineering and a real boon for the people of Hull.

Shortly after passing under the bridge, the soggy fields gave way to the sprawling suburbs of Hull. Houses, factories, shops, busy roads, a huge distribution centre and the modern football stadium ( home of the Tigers) all passed by our window. Finally the train came to rest at Hull’s Paragon Interchange. It used to be just a railway station but has now been merged with the bus station to form a unified public transport hub. It’s roofed in by a series of iron and glass arches. On the main concourse is a statue and a blue plaque, both commemorating famous Hull citizens. The plaque remembers the rock star Mick Ronson who left Hull as the leader of The Rats and went on to become glittery David Bowie’s right hand man in the Spiders from Mars. This is why the station is sometimes referred to as the Paragon Inter(ch-ch-ch-) change. You have to be a 70s Bowie fan to get that joke! The statue is of one of the 20th century’s most famous poets, Philip Larkin. He worked as the chief librarian at Hull University. The statue depicts him on the move, as if in a hurry to leave, but he ended up staying for over 30 years and came to regard the city as his home. Today the city has acknowledged the poet’s genius by creating a Larkin Trail on which one can visit: the pubs where he enjoyed listening to jazz, the houses where he lived, his workplace- the library, the village where he is buried and buildings directly related to his poems. It ends at nearby Spurn Point where the shifting sands finally disappear into the sea : ” Here is unfenced existence; Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.”

Hull has not always been overlooked and out on a limb. In 1293AD King Edward I acquired it as his property. He needed a port in north-east England to supply his army that was fighting the Scots. From then on Hull was the King’s own and was officially named Kingston upon Hull. The King gave the town permission to hold 2 weekly markets and an annual fair of 30 days. The port was developed, a Royal mint was established and an Exchange set up for the buying and selling of goods. The town expanded and grew in importance. A lot of trade was carried out with the Low Countries and with Scandinavia. It acquired a defensive wall and ditch. Religious establishments were set up by friars and a hospital was built. But it was as a fishing port that Hull acquired its primary importance. Large scale fishing and whaling were carried out from there from the 16th century onwards.

We made a bee-line for the Maritime Museum to get a feel for Hull’s sea faring history. It stands in Victoria Square, a very impressive space surrounded by imposing civic buildings — with their domes, pediments and Greek style columns. The Maritime Museum used to be the Port of Hull’s HQ, built in 1871. It has 3 magnificent domes, a grand entrance and once inside, a sweeping staircase up to the top floor. Opposite it is the Edwardian City Hall with its own copper dome and statues and a stone frieze representing the arts and sciences. I went to see a bad-tempered Van Morrison there in the early 80s ( He had broken his foot.) Despite his  bad mood he still delivered a great concert.  In between the Maritime Museum and the City Hall is the Ferens Art Gallery, a more restrained, cream -coloured classical building opened in 1927. It has an impressive collection of great masters and more modern works by the likes of Franz Hals, Canaletto, Stanley Spencer and east Yorkshire’s own David Hockney. The middle of  Victoria Square is taken up by a statue of the old queen herself, alongside a constantly changing collection of fountains, which are lit up in different colours at night.

Inside the Maritime Museum we investigated a very interesting but pretty gruesome exhibition about whaling. It’s a subject that is not exactly PC these days unless you happen to live in Japan or Norway. The giant whales were mercilessly slaughtered for their blubber, which was turned into oil, and for their bones. I wander if my grandmas and my 1950s mother ever thought of the cruelty involved when they were lacing themselves into their whalebone corsets? Some of the later mechanical harpoons looked more like vicious weapons from the first world war. Those peaceful giants of the deep never stood a chance. According to the paintings and photos we saw, the whaler-men seemed to hunt and kill any Arctic creature that moved. Their victims included: seals, walruses, seabirds and polar bears. One abiding memory I have taken away from our visit is a picture of a slaughtered  polar bear hanging from a line alongside the whalers’ washing. Whaling from Hull died out around the mid-19th century, but fishing continued at full pelt. It became the major industry of the town, the one it was most associated with.  The railways quickly transported the catch all over the country. However, relentless overfishing severely depleted the local fish stocks and so trawlers had to go further and further afield. They hunted in packs so the shoals had little chance of escape once detected. Hull’s fishermen sailed as far as Norway, Russia, Iceland and Canada in search of their prey. Their job was to risk their lives to feed the country’s voracious appetite for fish. I wonder how many people in the endless queues for fish and chips ever think about the risks run to put the food in their mouths or the dire consequences for the fish population in our seas?  In the end, Hull’s huge fishing industry largely collapsed after Britain’s defeat in the so-called “cod wars” against Iceland, in the mid 1970s. The Icelanders fought tooth and nail against “invading” British fishing boats, not hesitating to ram the trawlers or cut their nets. International public opinion turned against the British because fishing was the mainstay of little Iceland’s diet and economy. Britain’s boats, including those from Hull, eventually had to withdraw from Iceland’s territorial waters. It wasn’t exactly Britain’s finest hour. They don’t remember that war on Remembrance Sunday!

So now Hull’s once busy docks are eerily quiet. It’s previously mainstay industry has been extinguished along with most of the fish. Younger generations of Hull’s citizens will have to visit a museum to find out what used to make their town tick. Sadly many fishing folk have blamed the European Union for their demise. I think the dye was unfortunately cast long before the EU was even thought of. It was good to visit the Maritime Museum. We learnt a lot.

Our wanderings now took us to Princes Dock Street alongside Princes Quay. It got its name after a visit by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria in 1854. No ships dock there anymore. On one side is an attractive row of restored Georgian buildings, now turned into restaurants and cafes. We had a very tasty late lunch in one of them, for an incredibly reasonable price. Opposite us, replacing the fishing boats and nets was the massive Princes Quay Shopping Centre opened in 1990. It’s a striking glass- dominated building and I’m sure many locals use it, but we didn’t go in because we don’t like shopping malls. It seemed a bit sad that the place that used to be a hive of fishing boat activity, a sight that one would only see in a few places like Hull, is now a centre for the modern pastime of retail therapy, a sight that one can see in every town and city up and down the entire country. With the demise of its main traditional industry, Hull has sadly lost a lot of its former character.

But time marches on. Kingston upon Hull is now trying to re-invent itself as a cultural and tourist centre. It got a massive boost in 2017 when it was chosen to be the UK’s City of Culture. Buildings have been restored. Walks and trails have been created. Special exhibitions were put on at the galleries and museums. A lot of extra people visited the city. We saw the results of this when we visited, even though we were 2 years late. We got a lovely welcome at the tourist information centre at Paragon station. A street map and various booklets were pushed into our hands, outlining all the attractions that Hull holds for the visitor. All around the city we found people to be pleasant and helpful. One man, who told us about his Victorian office building that used to be a lemonade factory, even said: “thanks for visiting us”. You don’t get much of that in London which takes visitors for granted. We found the people of Hull to be very welcoming. One guy at a bus stop told us about the inventor of the Venn diagram, which we all learnt about in our maths lessons. John Venn just happened to come from Hull. A pretty pattern of Venn diagrams decorates the end of Drypool Bridge, an impressive metal structure that opened in 1961. Apparently, it’s a Scherzer rolling lift bridge, whatever that is. It works on the same principle as London’s Tower Bridge. While wandering down by the river we also discovered Scale Lane pedestrian swing bridge. It was all lit up in red and white. It’s the only swing bridge in the country that people can stay on for the ride when it opens. Up to 750 people can have a ride on it at one time. It was completed in 2013. We went on it but it wasn’t one of the official opening times. Maybe next time ?

The friendly guide at the station told us not to forget the Leonardo exhibition at the Minster. We were gob-smacked by this news. Was the Mona Lisa now on loan from the Louvre to Hull? Or maybe the Queen’s famous Da Vinci drawings had made their way north from Windsor or Buckingham Palace? The Minster stands in  stately Trinity Square. The square is bordered by a picturesque selection of old buildings some of them in pastel colours. At one end is a statue of Andrew Marvel, Hull’s other famous poet from an earlier era. Hull’s Parish Church only got promoted to a Minster in 2017. The Bishop of York conducted the ceremony. It certainly lives up to its name. It is a magnificent Perpendicular-Gothic building completed in 1285. It still retains substantial numbers of medieval bricks. Inside it has eye-catching vaulted ceilings, large stained glass windows including one behind the alter that still has medieval glass, beautiful carved choir stalls and misericords and an impressive old organ. Three awesome Gothic windows look out from the West Front on to the square. It is a Grade 1 listed building. We didn’t see them, but during the day, the Minster and its surrounding  buildings are reflected to spectacular effect in eight , rectangular “Mirror Pools.” These are large paving slabs upon which computer controlled images of rippling water are projected. I think we missed this spectacle because we arrived in the square at dusk.

So much for the Minster and its square, but what about the Leonardo exhibition? Our pulses raced and our hearts beat faster as we entered the building! This was going to be very special indeed! Well, dear reader, we didn’t see a real life Leonardo. But we did see life- size photographs of the wondrous paintings in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel by the equally great Michelangelo and his contemporaries. We got to see close ups of the paintings that one usually gets neck- ache trying to see as they are up on the ceiling. Also we didn’t have to queue for hours to get in and we were not surrounded by a heaving scrum of tourists. The reproductions were of high quality and came with excellent explanatory notes. You had to know your Old Testament in those days! The exhibition was fascinating and a very surprising thing to see in relatively unsung Hull. The guide proudly told us that this was the only venue it was coming to in Britain. It was touring round Europe and its next stop was in Turkey.

So as always happens on our visits to relatively unsung places in Britain, Ian and I learnt a lot and came across several surprises. The next day we caught a local train to nearby Beverley to explore its attractive historical centre, its magnificent, medieval Minster and impressive St Mary’s Church. That was a good day too but we could easily have had another full, stimulating day in Hull. We had only just scratched the surface. We didn’t have time to explore the marina, the Fruit Market, the Deep ( a large aquarium), the Humber Street Gallery, the Wilberforce Museum or the Ferens Art Gallery. And we have still got to ride on that unique swing bridge. It’s a place that will richly reward a return visit.

In Strasbourg — Clearing the Confusion.

29 Oct

I’ve just got back from a city break in Strasbourg, with my wife, Chris. We both were celebrating birthdays and mine was a significant one, so we went away to avoid the dreaded surprise party or, even worse, a trip in a hot air balloon or a free parachute jump. It proved to be a very interesting and attractive destination, albeit one that seems to sow confusion and even controversy in some people’s minds. One friend thought I was going to Belgium. I don’t think geography was ever his strongest subject! Others couldn’t make up their minds whether Strasbourg was in France or Germany. It sits right on the River Rhine, which forms the border between these two countries.  To be fair, when we were there, all the street names were in both French and German. It is actually the capital of Alsace, which forms part of modern France, but for a lot of its history, Strasbourg has been a German city. Much of Alsace is Elsassisch-speaking country, a German dialect known as Alemannic, which has waxed and waned during the region’s mixed up past. Today the city and its province are a fascinating mixture of the 2 cultures. But why is it a controversial destination for some? Well, that’s because it’s the site of important European Union institutions, namely — the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights and the European Parliament. In the UK, which has voted to leave the EU, such institutions are regarded by some as a waste of British tax-payers money, especially as the MEPs have to travel between Strasbourg and Brussels on a regular basis with all the expense that that entails.

We travelled by rail from the north east of England, via London and Paris, our trains getting faster and more sophisticated as the journey progressed. The idea was to lessen our carbon footprint, compared to taking a flight. In this age of human induced climate change and global warming, these things have to be thought about in my opinion. This too caused a bit of surprise, as the first question usually posed about a city break is: which airport are you flying from? As past readers will know, I’m a rail-man’s son, so if there’s a chance of travelling by train, then it’s a no-brainer. We started on a slow, rattling railcar , nearly 40 years old, before catching  a faster, electric train to London, but which is over 30 years old and long due for replacement. Then it was the Eurostar, taking us at high speed under the English Channel to Paris, and finally, a swift, quiet and smooth TGV train to Strasbourg. The journey was like travelling forward in time with the French trains much sleeker, faster and more comfortable than their antiquated British counterparts, even though it was the British who originally invented the railways!

Strasbourg is a lovely city to explore on foot. It’s oldest part is on an island formed by the River Ill and connecting canals. The Ill is a tributary of the nearby Rhine. In the centre are 2 large, adjoining squares: Place Kleber, flanked by classical 18th century buildings and Place Gutenberg, surrounded by older, medieval buildings. In the centre of the latter is a statue of Guttenberg, the famous inventor of the printing press. Maybe that’s why we saw so many book shops and bookstalls on the streets of Strasbourg. If someone asked me in a quiz, what nationality Johannes Gutenberg was, I would say German. I would be right because when he was alive in the 15th century, Strasbourg was a Free Imperial City within the Holy Roman Empire, a loose conglomeration of German states and cities. Then in 1681, Alsace was conquered by the French armies of Louis XIV, the “Sun King”, who as well as regarding himself as the greatest ruler on the planet, had decided that France’s “natural” eastern border should be at the River Rhine. I think his megalomania was fed by too much time spent poring over maps! So after many centuries of being German, the city and the region  suddenly became French. It must have been very confusing and galling for the local population at the time.

From Place Gutenberg, an atmospheric, pedestrianised road of half-timbered buildings leads to the magnificent Gothic Cathedrale de Notre Dame which dominates the entire old city centre. This spectacular edifice is built from pink-hued sandstone and is crowned by a soaring spire. Its walls and arched doorways are festooned with medieval stone carvings. Inside, it is equally impressive, with vaulted ceilings, wonderful stained glass, including an impressive rose window, a huge, ornate organ perched precariously above one side of the nave  and an intricate, 19th century astronomical clock. Tour groups stampede to see this clock when it performs its party pieces on the hour and half hour. When we were there, appeals had to be made for silence because of the constant tourist hubbub. The cathedral quite understandably is a major tourist honey-spot and any person wishing to worship or pray there has to be content with the odd side chapel. On another day, as we passed through the cathedral square, there was a long, snaking queue to get in. Strasbourg Cathedral is on most people’s bucket list.

The square and narrow cobbled streets around the cathedral are a great place to wander, even though they have been touristified quite a lot. It’s lovely to see a great variety of quirky, medieval buildings painted in quiet, pastel colours. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some are very narrow but very tall. Typically these ancient buildings are between 4 and 7 stories high. Most have an array of dormer windows in their roof space. We were told that these used to be open spaces for drying skins that had been prepared in the city’s many tanneries. We enjoyed seeing  a variety of shutters, intricate wrought iron balconies and the patterns made by the criss-crossing timbers. However it was not so great to see balconies festooned with teddy bears or streets clogged up with souvenir stands. Progress is quite slow, constantly swerving out of the way of tourists squinting into their smart-phones to take yet another picture. ( me included!) It’s interesting that smart phones have largely taken over from conventional cameras in the recording of holidays. We also had to frequently dodge cyclists whizzing along. Strasbourg is a big city for bikes and at times it felt as if we were in the Low Countries. One explanation is that it has the second biggest student population in France, after Paris. Eventually, after investigating some stalls of antiques scattered around a small, tree lined square and skirting the classical, 18th Century Palais Rohan ( now the home of 3 major museums), we reach the river and its beautiful quayside promenade.

Strolling along the quaysides, which we did at length, was really enjoyable. No two buildings are alike. Colourful autumn trees sparkled in the bright sunshine and were reflected in the waters below. Stately swans glided and noisy coots scurried on the water. Glass topped tourist boats slid past with their running commentaries in 15 different languages, fed to the punters through their head-phones. We did the river/canal boat trip ourselves. It was a very enjoyable and informative experience. We learnt about the complicated history of the city, its buildings, churches and bridges. We sailed under one bridge which used to be the gruesome venue for public executions by drowning. Today it’s a favourite site for lovers’ padlocks, a modern custom that seems to have spread across the entire continent. One important feature was excluded from our commentary however although it was very obvious to the naked eye. Underneath each bridge was a community of homeless people, sheltering in makeshift tents amongst piles of plastic sheets and old blankets. Strasbourg, although quite prosperous looking, obviously has a poverty problem as well. We saw a fair sprinkling of beggars just sitting in the streets, hoping for a bit of tourist small change. It makes for a slightly uncomfortable experience although we were never harassed and felt safe at all times.

After a stop at a pavement café and a chance to use my school- boy French ( l’addition s’il vous plait), we strolled on to the tourist magnet of La Petite France. This is a particularly picturesque quarter where the river splits into different channels, creating tiny islands. There are many eye-catching, half timbered buildings overlooking the water and enticing narrow lanes and tiny squares to explore. This is the area where Strasbourg’s tanners, millers and fishermen used to live, using the plentiful supply of water in their different ways. Apparently the district got its name when 17th century French troops were billeted there. They kindly donated a huge dose of syphilis to the city. At the far end of Petite France are a series of 14th century bridges and towers called the Ponts Couverts. They used to form part of the city’s fortifications. They are no longer covered but provide convenient, panoramic views of the old city. Just beyond these is an 18th century covered bridge called the Barrage Vauban. It is actually a dam to further protect the city from attack. The southern side of Strasbourg could be quickly flooded to foil invaders. We walked across it but I didn’t fully appreciate how important and historical it was until I read about it later. Thus I committed the cardinal tourist sin of failing to take a photo of it! We strolled around, popping in and out of interesting little shops and had another coffee, this time at a waterside café. As we drank, relaxed and watched the world go by, a series of tourist groups passed, all of them stopping to take selfies and photos in front of  a particularly quaint 17th century house decorated with flower boxes and elaborate wooden carvings.

So far, I have only written about our adventures in the old city. Our hotel was actually located just outside the centre in the German or Prussian quarter. ( the Neustadt). In 1871, Alsace was taken over by Bismarck’s Prussians following the defeat of the French army in the Franco-Prussian War. ( 1870-71) In the mid to late 19th century , the German states were forcibly unified into one country under the domination of Prussia. After the surprisingly swift defeat of France, the states under French rule or influence were incorporated into the new Germany. This included Alsace and the Moselle valley forming the Reich territory of Elsafs-Lothringen. 100,000 French refugees were created. Most who remained spoke with German accents anyway. One could argue that Strasbourg and Alsace were being liberated from two centuries of French domination. Anyway the Prussians took over and between 1871 and 1918, embarked on a huge building programme. Vast, German neo-Gothic edifices were thrown up to remind everybody who was now in power. On our way into the old centre we passed through the Place de la Republique which features a park and war memorial surrounded by monumental stone buildings, complete with imperial eagles. These include the main Post Office, the National Theatre and the University. They are meant to symbolise brute power. The message from the new conquerors was not very subtle.

The bloodthirsty tug of war over Alsace and neighbouring Lorraine covered 3 major conflicts. In 1918, after the German defeat in the First World War, Alsace, including Strasbourg became part of France again. Between 1940-44 the Germans were back in town. This time the whole city was Nazified. The fanatical Nazi governor was answerable only to Hitler. The city was saturated with swastikas. The French language was banned. Even humming the Marsiellaise was a serious offence. Local men were rounded up and sent off to work- camps in Germany or to fight the Russians on the dreaded eastern front. Many of them didn’t come back. Following the liberation of 1944 Strasbourg became a French city once again and has remained so ever since. After the terrible tragedy of 3 major Franco-German wars in 80 years ( and not forgetting the Napoleonic conflict in the early 19th century) , enlightened politicians from the 2 countries concluded enough was enough. They decided to intermesh their iron, steel and coal industries so as to make another war economically impossible and thus highly unlikely in the future. The European Iron, Steel and Coal Community, also joined by Italy and the Benelux countries was the forerunner of both the EEC and the EU ( European Community.) It has helped to keep the peace in western Europe ever since. The whole continent has been mostly peaceful with the terrible exception of the Yugoslavian civil war in the 1990s, but which the European Union eventually helped to stop. Today 28 countries belong to the EU, with others clamouring to join, but the UK has become the first country that has decided to leave. It’s not surprising that Strasbourg plays host to important European institutions as it was on the front line of the tragic conflicts of the past. On our boat trip we went up to see the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. Unfortunately it was raining so my snatched pictures didn’t turn out very well. Sadly I didn’t catch a glimpse of Nigel Farage, Anne Widdecombe or other British “Brexiteers” who believe that Britain has been enslaved by Europe and its independence taken away.  It’s ironic that they argue vehemently against the UK being part of the European project, while at the same time getting themselves elected as MEPs and presumably collecting an EU salary!

The advantage of staying in one place for a few days rather than constantly rushing on, is that one gets a chance to explore beyond the most obvious tourist sights. In this spirit we ventured south of the river, through Place D’Austerlitz and beyond. The traffic thickened and the noise level was ratcheted up once we got beyond the pedestrianised strolling area. We encountered traffic and sleek white trams. We came across shopping malls and ordinary people commuting to and from work. We spotted throngs of people in the middle distance and found that we had stumbled across the coach station. We also discovered the Bassin D’Austerlitz, an area of striking modern architecture and sculpture, clustered around a stretch of water.  It had a shopping mall, a cinema and a dance theatre. It was a bit like the Canary Wharf area of London except the skyscrapers weren’t quite as big. It was here that we had our biggest surprise. I was just taking a photo of a pair of ornamental ducks by the water, when Chris spotted two strange creatures swimming nearby.  They looked like small beavers or very large brown rats. As I focussed my camera on them, one came out of the water, causing shocked pigeons and people to scatter in all directions. It was too large to be a rat, thank goodness, but its long, rope-like tail indicated it wasn’t a beaver, which has a flat, rudder-like tail. I concluded it was a musk rat but later, after consulting people on WhatsApp, I decided it was a coypu. These are normally natives of north and south America. Only a week before I had learnt from a nature documentary that it was the favourite prey of the jaguar. So what was it doing in the middle of a French city? The pair of coypus were completely at home, swimming around and stealing the duck’s food. They were the very last thing we expected to see in Strasbourg. Maybe they had escaped from a zoo or a wild life park? Apparently, it was introduced into Europe and Asia by fur farmers and because of its destructive habits, burrowing into river banks it is now regarded as an “invasive species.” So I suppose it’s a bit like the grey squirrel situation in Britain.

We had a great time in Strasbourg. We also visited the Modern Art Gallery and the charming Musee Alsace in 3 old cottages by the river. Here we saw box beds, painted wardrobes and pictures of ladies in black dresses with amazing head-dresses that looked like black wings sticking up into the air. We were given a very warm welcome everywhere we went despite that fact that our country was leaving the EU. Unfortunately we didn’t have to explain to people we were over 65 in order to get the discounted entry price to places! We also made a side trip south to Colmar, another picturesque Alsatian town but perhaps a bit too touristy for our liking.

Strasbourg’s main rail station from where we got the TGV back to Paris, is a large early 20th century building. It now sports a modern glass extension on the front of it. Inscribed on this is a large sign commemorating the formation of the Council of Europe 70 years ago in 1949. It listed the 47 countries that are now members of an organisation formed to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Sadly I couldn’t see my own country on this important list. The 2016 referendum vote has led to the UK turning its back on its nearest neighbours. It must be very difficult for them to understand why. Luckily, geographically and culturally we are still very close to Europe and Chris and I will continue to enjoy our stimulating and enlightening trips across the Channel.

Back to Barrow Hill –Thinking about dad.

10 Oct

Last month I returned to Barrow Hill. It’s a small Derbyshire village near Staveley and not far from Chesterfield. It’s where my dad, Maurice Reuben Bates, was born and grew up. Dad died nearly 5 years ago, aged 91 and a bit. I live in Teesside now and haven’t visited Barrow Hill since I was a child. It sounds like an interesting, ancient place doesn’t it? Being a retired history teacher, I have a fertile imagination, especially to do with artefacts from the distant past. Was my father’s birthplace the site of an important Neolithic grave? Had there been any significant excavations there? In the dictionary, “barrow” is defined as a “grave mound” or “tumulus”, an “ancient, sepulchral mound.” I had always thought of barrows as long, oval mounds where stone age or bronze age people interred their dead. Only a few months previously I had been crawling into such tomb chambers on a visit to the archaeologically rich Orkney Islands. Had I missed out on an exciting historical site right on my childhood doorstep?

Well, the short answer is “no”! Barrow Hill was in fact a Victorian creation, built to house the workers in collieries and ironworks owned by Richard Barrow.  It was a dormitory village for local industry. The houses were built in blocks up the side of a hill.  In fact, they were referred to as “the blocks.” The ironworks were locally known as Staveley Works, after the little nearby town of that name. Later, a chemical works was added. The result was a sprawling eye-sore. It also led to my nostrils being frequently invaded by the “bad-egg” smell of sulphur as I waited for a bus or went shopping. That’s if the wind was blowing in the wrong direction. But it was this same industrial complex that provided essential employment for many people living in this north-east corner of Derbyshire and put food on many tables for many years. It was the reason why my paternal grandparents lived there, the reason why my dad was born there and the reason why I entered the world just a couple of miles away from the glowing furnaces and the belching chimneys. My other grandad worked at the iron and steel works as well. Barrow Hill, although disappointingly having nothing to do with ancient archaeology, and not at all picturesque, is still a fundamental  part of my roots.

So why did I return there after all these years? The answer will quickly be revealed if you google Barrow Hill on the internet. It is the site of a unique and notable railway heritage centre — the Barrow Hill Roundhouse. This is where my father worked for much of his life. He was a railwayman.” Roundhouse “again sounds like a bronze age dwelling  but in this case, it is the name of an early type of railway engine shed. It was a place where steam locomotives were: cleaned, repaired, watered, coaled and turned around before going back out on the line. Early Victorian railway sheds were known as “roundhouses” because of their conical roofs. In the 1860s, roundhouses grew larger and lost their circular roofs but the name stuck.

Barrow Hill Roundhouse was operated by the former Midland ( LMS) Railway until 1948 when the rail network was nationalised. From then on it was known simply as Staveley Shed.( code name 41E.) My dad worked there under both regimes. Maurice started as a locomotive cleaner. He progressed on to being a fireman or stoker. When the TV railway celebs, Michael Portillo or Chris Tarrant shovel a bit of coal into the loco’s furnace as it chugs along, it looks easy and good fun. However, the fireman’s actual job was much more important and complicated than that. He had to check that the fire and water tanks were at the right level. He had to know the route and control the fire, as more power would be needed in certain places. He also had to know the driver as different drivers had different styles. Some required more steam than others. After doing this for about 10 years Maurice qualified to be a driver. Around 1960, when steam was quickly being phased out and diesels brought in, he went back to school and studied how to drive the new locomotives. He succeeded is qualifying to drive Diesel-Electric locos which was a great achievement considering he had left school when he was 13 and had always struggled a bit with reading and writing. Many sheds were closed down when the steam era came to an end, but Barrow Hill was adapted for diesel trains which continued to move coal from the local mines to the power stations. It finally closed in 1991.

I remember dad taking me there when I was a young child. In the centre of the shed was  a large round, turntable surrounded by a circle of giant, black locomotives at various stages of maintenance. The turntable is still there today and forms the centre-piece of the museum. It’s welcoming notice board proclaims that it is ” the only operational roundhouse in Britain.” When dad took me there I vividly remember the mixtures of smells — steam, smoke, soot and oil. I remember the floor and the engines being sticky with grease and grime.  I recall being thrilled when dad lifted me up into the cab of one of the steam locomotives and I pretended to be an engine driver, just like him. I suppose, after that, it was inevitable that I would become an avid train spotter and a life-long railway nerd with a particular, nostalgic affection for steam trains. I feel fortunate that I now live just half an hour’s drive away from the North York Moors railway which regularly features steam locomotives on its scenic run from Whitby to Pickering. Once a train spotter, always a train spotter. It’s surprising how many people, usually men of a certain age, feel the same.

In the early 90s, Barrow Hill roundhouse was due to be demolished, its long working life finally over. However, it was saved by a far-sighted railway heritage society. Thanks to their campaign it became a Grade 2 listed building. Now it has been restored and given a new roof. It has had a modern new entrance, a shop, a café and an information centre added. But the old shed with its big, rotating turntable is still its centre-piece, just as it was in Maurice’s time. Next door to the shed, the foreman’s office has been beautifully preserved. On the desk are his papers, a pipe and a round, white, metal container for tea. It is as if he has just popped out and will be back in a minute. I think the tea container was called a “snap-can”. I remember dad taking one with him on every shift, along with the metal “snap” box containing his sandwiches. It was oval and flat, and the top slid off to reveal the food. This was before the era of Tupperware!  The foreman’s office was where the men would come to clock-in and get their job for that particular shift. It was weird and slightly emotional standing in the same room where my dad had signed on for thousands of shifts, at all times of day and night. He was pleased to be a railwayman, as in the 1930s it was regarded as a job for life. Previously he had delivered Coop shoe repairs on his bike with a basket on the front and he had then worked in a light bulb factory . He told me it was either too hot or too cold in that factory and he hated it. In 18 months, he said he caught 18 colds. (Coincidentally, that glassworks has now been knocked down and is the site of Chesterfield FC’s modern football ground, the Proact Stadium.) Maurice , miserable in his factory job, constantly called in to the railway shed just down the road from his home, to beg for a job. I think they eventually must have been impressed by his stolid persistence and finally told him to report in on the following Monday morning. His life as a railwayman had begun. I think this must have been around 1938.

That railway job prevented him from being conscripted for the war. It was an essential service, keeping the power stations fuelled, which in turn kept the factories running, to support the war effort. Dad told me he wanted to join the Navy but didn’t pass the medical. That decision, although disappointing at the time, possibly saved his life and enabled yours truly to be born! In the war, he told me that they had to have a special cover to hide the glow of the engine’s fire, just in case it was spotted by a German bomber crew in the sky above. One night, his coal train was directed into a siding to allow an express to come through on the mainline. As he waited in the dark with his mate, they heard the drone of German planes returning from a bombing raid on nearby Sheffield. One of them dropped a spare bomb on the railway and it exploded on the main-line where dad’s goods train had been only a short time before. The express never got through!

Dad worked all sorts of shifts, many of them very anti-social. His worst shifts were nights, early evenings and early mornings. As a child I would sometimes hear the front door click in the middle of the night. It was dad going to work on his bike. The constantly changing shifts must have played havoc with his body clock and largely destroyed any social life he may have had. I think he was very tough to stick at it for 50 years. Mum was tough too, for putting up with such a marriage- wrecking schedule. The marriage stayed solid however, despite the occasional argument and rocky patch, especially when my sister and I were very young and crying in the night. Dad must have sometimes suffered from sleep deprivation and it may well have contributed to the impatience and short temper that he sometimes displayed. Me whining away because I had lost my cowboy hat or  broken my toy six-shooter, must have been the last straw for a man who was already short of proper sleep and had to get up for work in the early hours of next morning. I think my patience would have snapped too.

When I walked into the original part of Barrow Hill shed the other week, I felt my heart pounding. I hadn’t been there for 60 years but it was almost exactly as I had remembered it. I was ashamed that I had never bothered to go back before. I should have gone with my dad and collected a few more of his precious memories. My sister tells me he did go back a couple of times with her grandson, my niece’s son. ( My grand-nephew?)  But it wasn’t a particularly comfortable experience for him. Some of the guides at the museum were ex-colleagues whom he had fallen out with at the end of his career.

Unfortunately, sadly, his long career at the roundhouse ended on a very sour note. In 1984, during the hugely controversial and distressing national coal strike, he had disobeyed his union’s orders and driven trains from the Nottinghamshire mines to the power stations. The Nottinghamshire miners had defied the NUM’s call to strike because their pits were more productive, and in many people’s eyes, betrayed their striking colleagues. They were probably given incentives to do so by Mrs Thatcher’s government in a cynical policy of divide and conquer. Margaret Thatcher was determined to smash the power of the miners after her uncomfortable experiences in the early 70s when their strikes had helped to bring the Edward Heath government down. ASLEF, my father’s rail drivers’ union, had ordered all its members to support their trade union colleagues in their fight and refuse to transport coal. Maurice, who had clashed with the union bosses on many occasions, now ignored their orders and worked on. I know he had grown to hate the ASLEF officials whom he believed had too much power over people’s careers. They had successfully organised a “closed shop.” Anyone who worked on the railway had to be in a Trade Union whether they wanted to or not. I know my dad deeply resented this. I had some uncomfortable conversations with him at the time as I was a loyal member of the National Union of Teachers . But I sympathised with Dad over the closed shop. At least, in teaching, we had the choice whether to join a union or not. So, my father deliberately undermined the miners’ strike and helped the Conservative government to defeat it ( and eventually close all the pits). In the union’s eyes he was a “black-leg”, the lowest of the low. The local ASLEF officials never forgave him for that. As Maurice got into his early sixties he was really surplus to requirements at Barrow Hill as the shed was running down and it needed to shed staff.  The management offered him a decent early retirement package, a reward for his long, faithful service. However, the union officials, out of spite, blocked this time and time again. They also used their considerable influence to make sure he got all the rubbish anti-social shifts which proved to be an increasing strain as he got older. Dad finally got his retirement just 2 days before his 65th birthday. He paid a terrible price for his defiance in 1984.

I walked round the roundhouse slowly, trying to take it all in. I tried to retrieve the memories from all those decades ago. If I blocked out the museum information boards and the sprinkling of tourists wandering around, I could still sense the spirit of my dad moving around that atmospheric room. Even after all those years, it was a moving moment. Our deceased loved ones live on in our memories and being back in Barrow Hill magically conjured up some vivid ones for me. I reflected on this as I had a snack in the new museum cafe and witnessed all the volunteer engineers in their oily, blue serge overalls ( just like dad’s), coming in for their lunchtime burger and chips.

I had a last wander around, inspecting all the steam, diesel and electric locomotives that had been saved from the scrapyard. The railway heritage movement had  appeared just in time in the late 1960s to save them, although many of their fellow locos had already disappeared into oblivion. Railway enthusiasts get all dewy-eyed about the age of steam and I know some people who even get emotional about diesels. I suppose it’s because, stupid as it may sound, individual locomotives seem to have a more distinctive identity that the anonymous  and ubiquitous multiple units that have now invaded almost the entire rail network. However, British Rail made the hard, ruthless business decision to scrap most of their steam locos. I remember going down to the shed with my sister and seeing a forlorn line of rusting, decrepit locomotives waiting to be broken up. It was a sad sight for a keen train-spotter even though by then I had become more interested in girls, pop music and football. Later, I asked my dad how he felt when the age of steam finally came to an end. I expected him to get all nostalgic and a bit emotional, but he simply said he was glad to get rid of them! Steams locos to him were dirty, temperamental and a lot of hard work! They were always breaking down, usually in the middle of no-where on a cold, winter’s day. He much preferred the warmth, comfort and reliability of the diesels. So much for the romance of the age of steam, which we now look back on through rose-coloured glasses.

I left the railway centre and wandered off into Barrow Hill. This was going to be another emotional, nostalgic journey for me I thought. When I was young, the family went there every Sunday to visit grandma and grandad and attend the Methodist Chapel Sunday School and evening service. My parents were both keen, lifelong Methodists. What would the Victorian “Zion”, Primitive Chapel ( built in 1869) look like now? Would I be able to find the street where my father was born? What would the modernised house look like now? Well, it had all gone and I found the village virtually unrecognisable! The old “blocks” had been knocked down and replaced by small blocks of new flats and modern semis. Even the streets seemed to have different names. I certainly didn’t remember any of them. I walked up the hill where the Zion Chapel had been and found in its place, a large detached house. I later found out that the chapel that had featured in so many of my childhood Sundays was actually demolished in 1966. By then our family had moved house and was attending another Methodist Church a few miles away. A few years ago I drove through my mother’s birthplace in New Whittington, a couple of miles away from Barrow Hill, and found that the red-brick, 19th century chapel there, where I had also spent many hours, had been reduced to a pile of rubble. I felt like an important part of my life had been rubbed out.  The chapel has now been replaced by a small apartment block. Methodist churches, suffering from severely diminished and ageing congregations, are now rapidly going the same way as the steam ( and diesel) locomotives. They are disappearing into the past.

Inevitably Grandma and Grandma’s end-terrace house had gone as well. It had been in a block of 3 houses, opening straight on to a raised pavement and a gutter. At the back was a long garden in which grandad grew masses of vegetables and fruit. He also ran an allotment and reared pigs and hens on a small-holding, so he was always busy. It now only exists in memory. I wonder if my sister or our few remaining cousins ever think of it?  I remember going there every Sunday for tea. ( we visited my maternal grandparents every Saturday.) The family went there in between afternoon Sunday School and the long, “boring” evening service which I learnt to dread. I remember Grandma’s biscuit barrel which was always a treat for us children — custard creams, “Nice” biscuits ( that was their brand name) and malt biscuits with pictures of stick people playing various sports. When you’re a young child, you’re easy to please. Grandma was kind, gentle and loving but I wasn’t so keen on my dad’s dad who was very rough and ready and had a sinister looking glass eye. Going to the toilet was an experience as well, as it was at the far end of a wash-house, stacked high with smelly sacks of pig-food. The toilet paper was ripped up pieces of newspaper stuck on a nail! Those were the days. One day Grandma, when making us some tea, put the tea-leaves in the kettle and the water-filled tea-pot on the coal fire. It was the beginning of her dementia, something we are a lot more aware of these days. Both my parents suffered from it in their  last years. As my grandparents got older, my Aunty Harriet moved in to look after them and our regular Sunday visits ceased.

So the nostalgic thrill of returning to Barrow Hill Roundhouse was tempered by the sadness and shock of the disappearance of much of the village I used to know. I drove to the other Methodist Church, the Ebenezeer, where the Zion congregation decanted after their own chapel closed. This is still clinging on but has a highly neglected air . It now doubles up as a community centre but when I went, I saw many of its windows boarded up and it looked more like a place of worship for the local pigeon population. I suspect it will no longer be there if I revisit in a few years time. The Ebenezeer stands just up the hill from Barrow Hill/Staveley Works railway station, but that has been closed down and demolished as well. The iron and steel and chemical works have all gone too. Only the clock tower and the former admin building remains, now converted into modern offices.  Inevitably life goes on, but it’s still sad to see important places from one’s childhood now consigned to the past. When I was a kid I always thought of Barrow Hill as a bit of a dump, but now, having been back, I realize it is an important repository of many precious memories. Thank goodness that the now unique Roundhouse was saved! In a funny sort of way, I think of it as an enduring memorial to my dad and his long career as a railwayman.

North Riding Coast Walk, 2019. — Final 3 Days. ( Whitby , Robin Hoods Bay, Cloughton and Scarborough.)

4 Sep

Catherine, my daughter and I were at the halfway point of our 6 day trek along the scenic coastline of the old North Riding of Yorkshire, walking north to south. We had settled into a familiar routine — breakfast at a guest house with its full English and small talk about the weather and everyone’s plans for the day; pulling on our boots and dragging ourselves back up on to the cliff top; walking along a rugged but beautiful  coast path with its bays, beaches, rocky outcrops and dramatic headlands; observing birds, butterflies, wildflowers and the occasional dragon fly; passing through little picturesque fishing villages tucked into coves, former smuggling hot spots but now popular holiday resorts. I have given a blow by blow account of the first 3 days, but to avoid repetition and tedium, I will just pick out a few impressions of the last 3.

LEAVING WHITBY — We climbed up the famous 199 steps out of the old town, without a rest. We now felt fitter than at the sluggish start to our walk. At the top we passed the old graveyard of St Mary’s Church featured in the first chapter of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” The gravestones, dating back to the 18th century were heavily weathered by the wind and rain of the centuries. Next came the gaunt, dark outline of the medieval Benedictine Abbey. Soon the red roofs of the town disappeared and we were back on the coastal path. Most of the tourists melted away.

TO ROBIN HOODS BAY. — a 5 mile hike south of Whitby past dark cliffs, rocky platforms called scars and the sea, a greeny- blue in the shallows. We walked through a large, neat caravan park which has its own shop and cinema. We passed a large fog-horn building and a small white lighthouse, both now converted into holiday accommodation. We encountered another noisy kittiwake colony, clinging to a cliff face and were accompanied by darting, swooping sand martins. We saw the remains of two “rocket” launchers, which had fired ropes out to boats in distress on the stormy sea.

Robin Hoods Bay or Bay Town is another atmospheric and picturesque former fishing village, tucked into a fissure between 2 steep cliffs. A steep hill leads to a maze of tiny streets and alleys, eventually reaching the beach. It used to be a major smuggler’s haven and the place was reputedly riddled with secret, subterranean passages through which the contraband was transferred from the ships. A thunder storm with sheet lightning hit the village but by then we were safely in our little guest house, the “Villa.”

ON TO CLOUGHTON — We climb back up on to the cliff path and immediately see a small deer running through a field. We pass fields of strange black sheep with long thin horns. We steeply descend through woods to Boggle Hole where another stream has cut a cleft through the cliff. An old water mill has been turned into a Youth Hostel. Here, many years ago, I stood on the beach and in awe, watched shooting stars.

A stiff climb up to Ravenscar, the holiday resort that never was. Streets were built and sewers were laid. A railway station was established. But no houses were ever built, because investors at the turn of the 19th/20th century lost confidence, possibly because it was a tricky descent to the rocky beach. Today, there is only a hotel, a visitors’ centre and a teashop in what was to be a resort to rival Scarborough. We have a cup of tea alongside German cyclists and English dog walkers. We don’t climb down to see the seal colony on the beach, but do see a seal’s head bobbing up and down in the sea.

We pass an old World War 2 radar station. It’s lookout tower is now used as a bird hide. A man is spending the day painting it. The path sweeps up and down, nestled between wheat fields and the sea. Coming down a long slope, we get our first glimpse of Scarborough castle on a distant headland. Nearing Cloughton village, we drop steeply down through shady trees to Hayburn Wyke, a local beauty spot where a stream drops over a rocky ledge on to a beach, forming two pretty little waterfalls. We climb up through sun-dappled woods and then through fields to Cloughton, a village just inland on the busy Scarborough to Whitby main road. We get a room with a hot bath and eat a hearty pub meal at the Blacksmith’s Arms. The bath is put to use to soak our tired feet.

FINAL LEG TO SCARBOROUGH — Only a few miles to go. More lovely coastal scenery with Scarborough’s Castle keep getting ever closer. Reach Scarborough’s North Bay at Scalby Mill. A new housing estate has been allowed to disfigure the coastline. We swap the quiet of the coastal path for the noise and bustle of the tourist throngs. Drink lime and sodas outside a pub by a beck, surrounded by people eating fish, chips, scampi and other deep  fried fare. Beady-eyed gulls hang around in expectation of a meal. Colourful beach chalets, buckets and spades, picnics in deckchairs, sandcastles and ball games. Two miniature railway trains stop at a pretend station above the bay, on their way back to Peasholm Park.  At last our hotel appears on the upper promenade. Its peeling white facade speaks of faded grandeur, but we are excited that the First World War poet, Wilfred Owen once stayed there.  Out long trek is over. The delights of Scarborough, the “Queen of the East Coast”, await us. We have covered 60 miles in 6 days — not bad for a middle aged woman and an old man. £550 had been raised for charity. On our way back from an Indian meal, we watch surfers and kayakers as the sun sets over North Bay.

 

 

North Riding Walk, Part 3 — Staithes to Whitby. (Kittiwakes, Bloody Socks and Whale Bones.)

3 Sep

This was to be our longest walk and biggest challenge — a 12 to 13 mile hike from Staithes to Whitby. There were no suitable overnight stopping places in between. Pennine Way veterans must be laughing by now because they average 15 to 16 miles a day across rugged terrain. But my daughter and I were not walking the North Yorkshire coast to prove how tough we were. We were more interested in the scenery, the nature and the history and in spending some valuable one to one time together. We were a bit nervous because of all those miles and because the long range weather forecast had predicted showers and even storms. However after a few worrying spit- spots of rain while we were still in Staithes, the weather cleared and it was to be another fine day with warm sunny periods.

We climbed steeply out of the village up cobbled Church Street. This was the route used by coffin-bearers en-route to funerals at nearby Hinderwell. At the top of the hill we were already a bit out of breath so stopped to admire the view of the picture-postcard village tucked in-between its two dramatic headlands down below. Before us 3 graceful horses grazed in a field but we didn’t hang around because a nearby farm was emitting the pungent, foul smell of cow manure. Trying not to breath through our noses we walked quickly on to the cliff top path. We had barely got going when we were faced with another stiff climb up on to the top of a rocky headland. The effort was worth it though because we were greeted by the sight of another kittiwake colony. We heard their high pitched shrieks before we saw them, each pair clinging to its own precarious bit of rock. It must have been getting close to the end of their nesting season but there was still plenty of activity as the birds constantly came and went from their fishing trips. The bare sandstone was decorated with large splashes of white guano.

After the kittiwake drama we settled into our cliff top walk, enjoying the usual fare of bees, birds and butterflies, hedgerows and wheat fields, rocky headlands and sandy bays. We presently reached Port Mulgrave, a former ironstone exporting port, at its busiest in the second half of the 19th century. The remains of its loading pier could still be seen down below us. It had been deliberately destroyed by Royal Engineers in the Second World War to stop potential German invaders using it. By then the local iron industry had collapsed, overwhelmed by cheap foreign imports. Fishing had also been carried out here and we spotted derelict fishermen’s huts made from pastel painted driftwood, down near the harbour at the foot of the cliffs. On we walked, negotiating a steep slope down and then up again where a stream had cut a little ravine as it neared the sea. Another dark, forbidding headland started to appear in front of us as we neared Runswick Bay, which was to be our first rest stop. By now the weather was hot and sticky and we were in need of a cool drink.

We turned briefly inland, skirted a field and entered the upper village. Runswick Bay is like a mini Staithes. Red-roofed houses cling  precariously to a cliff side. It is very picturesque. From the foot of the cliff spreads a large bay containing a white sanded beach popular with tourists. Tourism has now largely taken over from fishing as the main source of income and in the summer the beach is full of bucket and spade type holidaymakers, enjoying a family day by the sea. There are also rock-pools to investigate and in the cliffs at the far end there are several caves to explore. The downside for Runswick is that only a handful of permanent residents remain, the rest of the properties being used as holiday lets or second homes. It’s the same story as in Staithes. We descended steeply down through a maze of charming, little lanes until we reached the Royal Hotel ( which is really just a pub) where we were rewarded with a drink with a view. Our shoulders enjoyed the momentary rest from the weight of our back-packs. Nearby, colourful canoes had been pulled up on to a slope near the lifeboat station. We could have stayed there all day but after half an hour we took the strain again and pressed on.

We traversed the busy beach, dodging the footballs and frisbies and slightly envying the people eating picnics in their deckchairs, protected by  windbreaks, even though it wasn’t particularly windy. At the farther end of the bay the people thinned out although we did see a couple of intrepid fathers and their children heading for the caves. Our route took us off the beach into a narrow cleft cut by an emerging stream . We carefully negotiated the loose stones on its steep banks, crossed a footbridge, then started a long, slow climb out of the bay. It was the most tiring climb yet. Just when we thought we had reached the top of the steps, another set appeared, and then another and so on. The steps had not all been cut to a comfortable height so it was a bit of a pull to drag ourselves up on to the cliff- top again. By now we were meeting plenty of people walking chunks of the Cleveland Way. As we finally reached the top of the climb we met a whole walking group sprawled on and around a seat, having a rest. They’d obviously found the climb strenuous as well. We said hello about 15 times in a row as they all individually greeted us. It’s nice that people in the countryside always pass the time of day, as opposed to in the towns where people go out of their way to avoid eye contact.

On we walked, covering mile after mile of beautiful coastline. Occasional finger posts marked our progress. We passed more evidence of alum mining at Kettleness, the former spoil heaps merging with adjacent rock platforms and cliffs. Heather and tall grasses softened the dark, rocky coastal landscape. After the tiny hamlet of Kettleness, the squat spire of Lythe church appeared on our right beyond the golden wheat fields. It served as a guide to our progress, but for a disconcerting 15 minutes or so it did not seem to get any nearer. Our weariness was starting to play tricks on us. At last we started to descend through steep woodland towards Sandsend, our planned late lunch stop. It was nice to get into the shade of the trees, although the descent was a bit precipitous at times. We emerged on to a wide path that followed the route of a disused railway. This seemed to go on for ever too. By now my left boot was rubbing and my foot was hurting. I started to develop a slight limp. We needed to get to Sandsend! Finally, the old railway curved round a bend and the little seaside resort finally appeared. The path dropped very steeply into a large car park and I knew that at the end of this was a teashop.

The “Wits End” teashop boasts of a pretty, peaceful walled garden. It seemed too good to be true, and it was! To be honest, it was OK even though not as idyllic as it first sounded.  The “garden” was really a few planted pots strewn around but the food was fine, the service pleasant and we found a table with a shady umbrella. However, Catherine soon figured out why the cafe was called “Wits End” They refused to take payment when we ordered so when people went back to pay they often had to queue with all the new people putting in orders. We were lucky and got dealt with quickly but when we left, there were 7 frustrated people waiting in the queue and one  harassed girl: taking the orders, receiving the payments and making the teas and coffees. But I am getting ahead of myself –before leaving we had to experience the drama of the bloody sock!!

My left foot had been hurting for a time so while I was seated, I decided to take my boot off to investigate. I discovered that a significant part of my walking sock was wet even though it had been an entirely dry day. I didn’t realize what the moisture was at first because the sock was coloured red and grey. Then I realized that the big damp patch was actually sticky blood! Slowly and surreptitiously I peeled the soggy sock off. I didn’t want to attract attention and put people off their cream teas. The sharp edge of a nail had been pushed into the adjoining toe, scratching it deep enough to draw blood. It looked worse than it really was. Also my little toe had developed a tender blister, and my little toe nail had gone black! I cleaned up the messy area and applied protective plasters. The people around me continued to munch away, not realizing what high drama was unfolding in their midst! I retrieved my softer trainers from my bag and decided to walk in them for the 2 remaining miles into Whitby.

Sandsend is another pretty little seaside resort on the North Yorkshire coast. It is located where a large stream flows out of  the woods and goes on to the beach and into the sea. It has a lovely, wide beach which stretches all the way to Whitby.  It sits beneath another brooding headland. It also has great rock pools when the tide is out and picturesque wooden groynes that originally stopped the sand from drifting sideways. The tide was out so we were able to have a very pleasant stroll down the beach, with the cliffs, piers and ruined abbey of Whitby getting ever closer. My feet felt a lot better in the trainers. We eventually climbed up on to Whitby’s West Cliff, passing the amusements, paddling pools, Arnold Palmer’s Crazy Golf course and numerous hotels and guest houses. One of them was ours : “The Seacrest Guest House”, just off Whitby’s rather smart Royal Crescent, a hint of its Regency past. All the guest houses had “No Vacancies” signs in the window. Whitby is a very popular resort.

Yes Whitby is an immensely popular holiday and day trip destination, despite its remote location trapped between the sea and the high moors. Sometimes it is too crowded for comfort. It sits in another striking location in a narrow river valley between two sets of cliffs. The River Esk, the only river in the North Yorkshire Moors , flows into the North Sea between two grade 2 listed , curving piers crowned with light-houses. Fishing boats and pleasure craft line the riverside. Lobster pots and shell-fish stalls add to the old world atmosphere. On the east cliff sits an historic church and the ruins of an ancient abbey, founded in Anglo-Saxon times. The famous 199 steps lead up to it from the old town. As in Staithes, these were originally constructed to aid coffin bearers climbing up to the church. Today they are mostly populated by tourists, with convenient seats placed for the out of breath. The old town, on the east side of the river, consists of a few narrow cobbled streets and a little sloping market square. Across the Esk there is a metal bridge connecting the two halves of the town. Occasionally it swings open to let larger boats through.

We explored this area a bit when we went for our evening stroll and meal. We ate at an Italian restaurant converted from a Quaker Meeting House. The give away was the big, rounded windows. The original Quakers would quake and shake in their graves if they knew what had happened to their place of worship, but I suppose they should be thankful that it wasn’t now a night-club. The river and its reflections looked very picturesque as we strolled back to our guest house after an excellent meal. The colourful reflections were wonderful and our cameras were inevitably out. A climb up a steep hill affectionately known as the Khyber Pass took us back up on to the West Cliff where we were greeted by a statue of Captain Cook ( surprise, surprise!) and a large, pair of whale bones, probably ribs. They curved together to form an arch. These are a reminder of Whitby’s past as a major fishing and whaling port. I wonder how many tourists, taking their whale-bone framed shots, think deeply about the gruesome slaughter that led to them being there? As I looked up the coast, I was lucky to catch the last embers of an orange sunset over the black silhouette of Sandsend’s cliffs.

Whitby has had numerous incarnations. The abbey is a reminder of its religious importance in the past. It’s been a major fishing and whaling port as already mentioned. Alum and jet mining took place in its vicinity and jet jewellery is still a popular product of the town, even though most of the jet ( the squashed, petrified remains of the monkey- puzzle tree) is now mostly imported from Poland. Queen Victoria had popularised it in the 19th century when she used it as her mourning jewellery, presumably because it is black, or should I say: “jet black.” Whitby was also a ship-building centre until wooden ships went out of fashion. Today, it has mostly sold its soul to tourism. Almost the whole of the old town consists of: teashops, souvenir shops, jet jewellery shops, art and craft shops, ice cream vendors, fish and chip outlets and the occasional pub. There’s not much of everyday life here. I think of it as “tourist land”, a place I have encountered many times on my travels. In the high season, tourists shuffle around, looking at other tourists shuffling around. I suspect that most of the locals keep well clear except for the ones running businesses that are chasing the tourist pound.  On one recent Bank Holiday, the place was so crowded that the traffic was unable to get over the bridge and down the narrow streets near the river, causing huge jams.

It wasn’t too bad when we were there especially when the day trippers and coach parties had disappeared. When not choked with visitors, Whitby is a lovely, atmospheric and historical place, a delight to explore. As we meandered through the narrow streets of the west cliff we came across 2 scenes that typified today’s Whitby. One was a fish and chip restaurant with outside tables, sitting in a narrow, cobbled lane. As people tucked into their deep fried fare, a herring gull stood nearby, its beady eye patiently surveying the scene, waiting for its opportunity to grab some easy food. All over the town are signs warning people not to feed the gulls and to beware of having their fish and chips suddenly snatched away from them. I joked with one diner that she was in dire danger of losing part of her dinner, and she replied she had the vinegar bottle at the ready! Just down the same lane was a sinister looking shop that proclaimed “Welcome to Hell!” It was full of skull and cross bones, skeletons, wolf heads, sharp beaked eagles, outlandishly tattooed ghouls and the like. This symbolises Whitby for some people, because it was featured in the first chapter of Bram Stoker’s famous Gothic novel “Dracula”. Fans of the Goth sub-culture, which takes its inspiration from gothic novels, horror films and the Gothic rock off- shoot of Punk music in the 1980s, flock to the town every year. The men look like undertakers in their long black coats, black top hats and big, black boots. The women sport long black dresses from an earlier century, jet black hair and lurid black and white make up. They too are mostly in funereal black except for the occasional splash of purple. They pretend that they belong to a death cult. They create quite a spectacle and have become a tourist attraction in themselves despite their sinister connotations. Anything for a good picture! In the recent past the Goths have cause problems by frolicking in the old church graveyard on top of the unstable East Cliff and sometimes causing old bones to fall down on to the houses below.

Well that’s Whitby for you. It was a fascinating end to a long but fascinating day — a 12 mile stretch of the North Riding coast. We drifted off to sleep in our guest-house accompanied by a raucous chorus of scavenging herring gulls. My poorly toes were at last enjoying their well deserved rest.

Walking the Riding, Part 2 — Saltburn to Staithes. ( August, 2019)

31 Aug

Day 2 of our walk along the coast of Yorkshire’s North Riding began on a sunny morning at  old Saltburn, by the Ship Inn. Before the Victorian resort blossomed on the steep hill above, this was all there was to Saltburn — a small inn and a few straggling adjoining buildings. Like many settlements on this coast, Saltburn was a fishing and smuggling centre. Tucked into a then remote bay, it was far away from the prying eyes of the customs and excise men. As we took the strain, and hauled on our heavy rucksacks, a few small boats straddled the shore and a handful of people strolled on the beach. Out alongside the pier, a group of wet-suited surfers were trying to catch the waves. Catherine and I lingered for a short while and took our start of walk selfie.  Then we set off on the 9 mile coastal hike to the little fishing village of Staithes. We hauled ourselves up a steep, twisting set of steps  on to the top of the tall cliffs that lay just beyond the town. It was the first of numerous climbs. Once at the top, we looked back. Saltburn by the sea was now spread below us like a map — its beach, pier, cliff lift and grand Victorian terraces. Looking inland we saw the wooded slopes of the Cleveland Hills including the familier collapsed cone of Roseberry Topping. Originally a perfect cone shape, it partly caved- in when ironstone miners tunnelled into its side. Although only a hill, it’s distinctive shape has led to comparisons with the Matterhorn.

Ahead of us led a clifftop path just set back from precipitous drops, making one nervous to venture too close to the edge. This is the mighty Huntcliff, so called because people used to hunt wild-cats there. We passed the site of a former Roman signal station. Cliffs were great places to site beacons. Near to it were several warning signs of the dangers of the unstable, sandstone cliff. A few years ago, a couple of 17 year olds were taking selfies on the cliff edge near here and fell to their deaths on the rocks far below. The cliff path is bordered by wild flowers and grasses and so we were constantly accompanied by bees, birds and butterflies. Sand martins darted around and when we dared to peep down, we spotted kittiwakes and other gulls nesting or resting on the cliff ledges. A hill started to appear to the right ( Warsett Hill) and our path was squashed tightly between it and the edge. A railway also bizarrely appeared. Its trains carry potash from an under-sea mine at Boulby to the chemical works of Teesside. Some people are so nervous about the vertinigous drop, that they they take a chance, slip through the fence and walk on the railway track.

Saltburn had now disappeared from view behind us and ahead lay new headlands, bays and beaches. As we neared Skinnigrove, a striking steel art- piece appeared on a grassy knoll in front of us. It consists of a steel circle or bracelet. From it dangle 10 steel “charms”, each representing a local tradition, folk story or feature of the area. There are: miners’ tools, a pit pony, a fanciful mermaid, a racing pigeon and pieces of seaweed such as bladderwrack that could be discovered on the shore. It made for some eye-catching photos especially when the upcoming beach and headland was framed within its circle. It was the first example we had come across of cliff path art, something we had seen a lot of in County Durham 2 years before.

We started to gently descend between gorse bushes with a field of rape seed waiting to be harvested, on our right. An interesting piece of industrial archaeology now appeared on the far side of the field. A handy info board explained. It was the ruined shell of a fan house. A large engine had powered a giant fan that had provided vital ventilation for the Alum mines that had been dug into the base of the cliff. Alum used to be an important ingredient of the dieing industry, helping the colour to stay fast. It increased the strength and permanance of the dyed cloth. At one point in the 19th century it worked most effectively when mixed with human urine. Large sloshing vats of the smelly stuff were thus collected and taken along so that the required chemical reaction could be brought about. This is possibly where the expression “taking the piss” originated from! We now negotiated a steep path down the cliff-side made slippy by loose stones. We proceeded gingerly but Catherine came a cropper and ended up on the floor. She got no marks for style! At last we made it to Cattersby Sands and walked on to Skinningrove with its disused jetty dating from 1880 when this was a busy mining area. Large quantities of ironstone and alum used to be shipped out from here.

Skinningrove’s name is Viking influenced and mean’s a skinner’s grove or pit. Today it is just a small, quiet village by-passed by the main road. It has an ironstone mining museum which is good but we didn’t have time to visit. We took off our heavy packs and rested for a while on a convenient bench. Next to us was a life size wooden sculpture of 2 fishermen launching a coble. This was a small, flat-bottomed, high bowed,one sailed fishing boat that could be launched straight from the beach. Also nearby was a carving of a local pigeon fancier releasing his bird. Pigeon racing was and still is a very popular pastime amongst the men of these parts. Homing pigeons are transported to far-flung corners of the country and invariably their remarkable navigational  skills enable them to find their way home. The hillside above Skinningrove is littered with pigeon lofts. Our climb out of the village was steep and tiring so we rewarded ourselves with a sandwich and a drink when we finally reached the top.

Now it was more cliff top rambles accompanied by birds, butterflies, bees and wildflowers. I lay flat on my stomach to photograph lovely pale blue harebells fluttering in the breeze. Cow-parsley, purple thistles, banks of beautiful heather and a host of swaying grasses decorated our way. At the tiny hamlet of Boulby the coast had been re-sculptured by the now abandoned alum mines. Spoil heaps, once an eye-sore, have been smoothed over by the tides and merged with the adjoining rocks and cliffs. In the village we admired a butterfly smothered buddleai bush and munched on some juicy blackberries in the hedgerow. We now angled away from the cliff tops and  strolled through a golden field of wheat. Soon it would be harvested, signalling the end of summer. To the right was the aforementioned Boulby Potash works, not the prettiest sight but providing vital employment for the locals. Ahead, at last, was the entrance to Staithes. We passed the twin stone terraces of Cowbar and then dropped steeply into the old quaint, fishing village, now a popular holiday destination.

Staithes’s old village nestles between two cliff headlands or Nabs which hide it from view until the last moment. Thus when it suddenly appears, it comes as a wonderful surprise. It sits at the bottom end of a deep, narrow glen created by a wide stream known as Roxby Beck. Its name is Old English for “landing-place.” Its red roofed little houses descend, higgledy-piggledy down the steep slopes, scattered like confetti. They cling to the hillside in tight terraces, the floor of one being on a level with the chimneys of the one in front. It is mostly negotiated via a confusion of alleys ( called “nicks”), stairs and tiny squares. Every now and again you can spot on old “nettie” or outside toilet. The village is alive with the raucous cries of herring gulls. As evening approached they seemed to colonise every roof-top and chimney, noisily and constantly defending their territory. A narrow cobbled high street leads to a small bay and beach, overseen by the towering cliffs. Our little guest house the “Endeavour” is named after Captain James Cook’s famous ship. Staithes too claims its chunk of Cook heritage. Apparently he worked in a shop here and, seeing the boats going back and forth, got the taste for the seafaring life that made his name. An old Methodist chapel has been converted into the Captain Cook museum which attracts at least 5000 visiters a year. We got this info from our guest house owner, Dave, who is fighting to keep the museum open as it has recently been inherited by new owners who want to turn the building into more lucrative holiday apartments. In its hey-day, Staithes had 5 chapels and 7 pubs. They were nicknamed, the “5 Virtues” and the “7 Deadly Sins”!

Staithes today is a busy, summertime holiday destination. It has no amusements, gimmicks or conventional tourist attractions, but it does have history, quaintness and atmosphere. Cars are banned from the old village at the bottom of the hill ( except for deliveries) so, to use the old cliche, a visit to Staithes is like stepping back in time. The village is very photogenic. It’s no surprise to find that it was the centre of an artists’ colony in the 1920s and 30s. The so called “Northern Impressionists” were attracted by the pretty village and coastline, plus the fine quality of the light. Their most famous members were Dame Laura Knight and her husband Harold. It’s also its “lost in time” quality that attracts so many visiters. Up to the 1960s, many of the women wore traditional dress including white bonnets, the men sat around in their knitted guernsies mending the herring nets and the cobles were scattered picturesquely on the beach and beckside waiting for the next high tide.

The problem with Staithes’ popularity is that many of its old, charming little cottages are snapped up by outsiders for use as holiday lets or second homes.Thus, in winter, the place is more like a ghost village. Local people have been priced out and so many have had to move away. This is a serious issue in several places on the North Yorkshire coast.

After settling in to our bolt-hole for the night, we set out on a pre-dinner stroll. Up and down the confusing tangle of lanes we went and then we crossed the little bridge over the beck to take a closer look at the cliffs of Cowbar Nab. The air was filled with the raucous cries of herring gulls which were constantly flying back and forth. But as the cliff turned a corner we were met with the higher-pitched shrieks of kittiwakes. Hundreds of them had taken over the rock face and greeted each other noisily whenever one of the pair returned from a fishing trip out at sea. They created a constant cacophony. We walked out to the breakwater and flood defences and dodged the large waves that occasionally crashed over on to the path. In the past Staithes has been very badly flooded and a lot of money has had to be spent to protect it.

We thought it would be easy to eat in the Cod and Lobster, the main pub on the waterfront. But even at 5pm it was crowded out with tourists and trippers devouring their obligatory fish and chips. We surveyed the scene of squealing small children, panting dogs, sloshed beer and spilt peas and chips, and beat a hasty retreat. We squeezed into a corner of the Royal George up the High Street which was also busy and ate tasty Vegetable Lasagnes, a staple vegetarian dish on most pub menus. We had a nice conversation with some friendly tourists from Bourton on Trent who had allowed us to share their table. If we had gone in November, the place would probably have been very quiet.

Finally, after an atmospheric twilight stroll, we called it a day and settled down for the night. You would think it would be quiet in that old village with no cars but our night was constantly punctuated by the shrieks of herring gulls who had taken over all the roofs and chimneys around us. It was liking being in a scene from Hitchcock’s “The Birds” They were to provide the soundtrack to much of our walk. An interesting and eventful Day 2 of our adventure was finally over.