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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.

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Walking the Riding, 2019. ( Part 1 – Redcar to Saltburn by the Sea.)

25 Aug

I live on the rugged but beautiful north-east coast of England. My official address is in Cleveland but most people still think of it as part of the great county of Yorkshire — “God’s own country.” The Vikings used to be top dogs around here, back in the so-called “Dark Ages.” Many settlements still have Norse names such as my own village of Skelton. The Vikings’ first attack on mainland Britain was at Lindisfarne (Holy Island) on the Northumberland coast just north of here, in 793AD.  Later, when their longships arrived off the coast of north Yorkshire, they were so impressed by the miles of soaring cliffs, that they dubbed it Cleve-Land or Cliff-Land. Politicians and administrators picked up on this ancient name in the 1970s when they were carving up the county to make it more manageable. I like the name because of its history, but just between you and me, I actually live in the north of Yorkshire! Even the Vikings found Yorshire to be too big to manage so they divided it into 3 administrative regions known as “Ridings” They were North Riding, West Riding and East Riding. For some reason “South Riding” never existed except in the famous novel with that title by Winifred Holtby.

So what has all this got to do with walking? Well in 2011 I walked the entire coast of Northumberland from the Scottish border to Tyneside with a friend. Then, 2 years ago, in the summer of 2017, I walked the entire coast of the original County of Durham with my daughter Catherine. We called it the 3 River Mouths walk, starting at the Tyne, finishing at the Tees and taking in the mouth of the Wear at Sunderland on the way. We had a great time ( see previous blogs from 2017) and raised a substantial amount of money for animal charities. Don’t ask me about the missing year — we were probably still trying to get our breath back! Anyway this year we decided to tackle the Yorkshire coast, the next one down from Durham. Due to time and financial constraints we agreed to split the county’s coastline into 2 halves. It has nothing whatsoever to do with me pushing 70! The plan I devised would take us from the south bank of the River Tees at Redcar to the seaside resort of Scarborough, roughly 60 miles to the south. Most of this walk would be along the coast of the original North Riding. I discovered too late that the North Riding actually extended down to Filey, a few miles south of Scarborough. After this the old East Riding began. But, never mind, we will walk that another time. To all intents and purposes we were going to traverse the coast of the North Riding of Yorkshire. We were going to walk the Riding!

I have described the North Yorkshire coast as “beautiful” but the start point of our walk was far from that. When one thinks of Teesside the first word to pop into the mind is ” industry.” Once ironstone and other minerals were discovered in the nearby Cleveland Hills, the area around the estaury of the River Tees became a hive of industrial activity, particularly iron, steel and chemical production. It is officially prohibited to drive all the way to South Gare, on the southern bank of the mouth of the Tees, near Middlesbrough, because it is a private road. However, we got as close as we could at Warrenby, the northern part of Redcar. In the near distance we could see the lighthouse and pier of the river mouth where we had finished the County Durham walk. As we walked our first steps, we were surrounded by car scrapyards, rundown workshops and a barbed- wire protected waste- recycling plant. We took our first selfie in front of the latter and then quickly struck out for the nearby coast. We hoped this would be the scenic low-point of the trip and that soon it would just be a brief, bad memory. We soon spotted the magical sight of a finger-post announcing the English Coastal Path. It led us across a golf links towards high dunes crested with marram grass. This is the northern stretch of Redcar’s long, impressive beach. The sands stretch all the way to the Tees about 2 to 3 miles to the north but, because this is the furthest part of the beach from the car-parks, amusements and cafes, it is usually frequented only by a sprinkling of dog walkers. This was the case now. In front of us reared an eerie- looking wind farm just off shore. To the left, as well as the river mouth, was the now defunct Redcar Steel Works, a sad victim of the recession and cheap Chinese steel being dumped on the world market. The ovens were finally extinguished in October, 2015 after years of struggle. The Warrenby/Redcar Steelworks had been founded by Dorman Long in 1917. Steel from there had been used to build the Tyne Bridge, Sydney Harbour Bridge, Auckland bridge and many more. Now the works have closed, it’s as if the heart has been ripped out of Redcar. The other main employer, ICI Teesside, has also run down its operations. The abandoned, derelict Warrenby Steelworks are a poignant sight. In a conventional sense they are an eye-sore, but so many people’s lives and histories have been centred on them in the past century that anyone with even an inkling of soul cannot help but feel a surge of sadness at this great loss to the local community. A micro-light plane buzzed above us as we turned south to walk along the flat sands to the town.

Redcar is a down to earth, friendly little town and resort. Despite its economic problems it still manages to keep a smile on its face. I don’t know how Yorkshire people have got their reputation for being dour and unfriendly. Living amongst them, I have always found them to be just the opposite. It’s name refers to its low lying situation where originally there were reeds in a marsh. Even today there is a pleasant wading- birds, nature reserve, at Coatham marsh on the edge of town.We left the beach to walk along the promenade. Redcar  used to be a regular destination for Victorian tourists once the railway from Darlington and Middlesbrough opened in 1846. It used to have amusement arcades, donkey and pony rides, swings, roundabouts and a helter skelter. It also had 2 pleasure piers, one at Coatham and one at Redcar itself. Both are now just memories after being hit by ships, damaged in fires and, in the case of Redcar pier, suffering from a mines explosion in World War 2. It had already been deliberately breached in 1940 to prevent its use by invading enemy forces.

Ironically, considering this war damage, one of Redcar’s more recent claims to fame was when  part of its seafront was dressed up to look like war-torn Dunkirk for the major 2006 film “Atonement.” An important scene from Ian McEwan’s novel featured the epic Allied evacuation from that beleagured French port in 1940. Redcar was chosen among several British applicants to represent Dunkirk, presumably because the Dunkirk of the 1940s was almost completely destroyed by bombing in the war against Nazi Germany. It was a welcome shot in the arm for the struggling town. A facade of bombed out buildings was created on the seafront, while bomb craters were made on the beach and rubble and debris strewn across the promenade. Filming took place over 3 days in August, 2006 and hundreds of local men earned some extra pocket money by acting as soldiers.  A sculpture, “Lost Luggage” was commissioned by the film company and given to the town to commemorate this event. We stopped to look at it on the prom. It consists of a British “Tommy’s” luggage, helmet, crates of ammo and  rifle plus a film director’s camera and chair It takes its place amidst a slightly bizarre collection of sculptures and 3D ceramic pictures of local attractions. These strangely included a group of penguins and a depiction of a crab eating chips! These attempts at modern promenade decorations involved the replacement of the traditional  seats and shelters from the resort’s hey-day with more flashy, streamlined versions.  Many locals have mourned the loss of this tiny part of their heritage.

The most controversial addition to Redcar’s seafront is the Beacon, which arrived in 2011. Approaching it, the Beacon looks like a tacky, grey, white and pink helter- skelter. Described as a vertical pier, it stands close to where the real pier used to be. Apparantly over a million pounds worth of local tax money were spent on it, in an attempt to put Redcar back on the tourist map. It has proved to be very unpopular with many locals and deeply divisive.  It was nominated for the Carbuncle Cup, a competition run by Building Design, an architect’s magazine to find the worst new building of the year. It came third in the whole of the UK! After being hit by Storm Desmond, a couple of years ago, 3 of its panels were blown off and fell on to the beach.  Just past the beacon are glimpses of the old Redcar prom. Small fishing boats and tractors line the top of the beach. A tiny fleet still sails straight off the beach looking for inshore fish, crabs and lobsters. The Zetland Lifeboat museum proudly presents the world’s oldest  lifeboat from 1802. However the old Regent Cinema which once masqueraded as a French hotel is now sadly closed, a victim of Netflix and the multi-plexes. Its dilapitated, peeling walls still display fading sillouettes of Laurel and Hardy, Marilyn Monroe trying to protect her modesty, Buster Keaton clinging by his finger-tips to a high ledge and other Hollywood icons. They are now just mere memories from the silver screen of days gone by.

We walked on past a motley collection of amusement arcades, fish and chip shops and ice cream parlours. Gradually we left the tourist detritus behind us and were just left with the rather wonderful beach, stretching for miles in either direction. It was on this stretch of sands that Donald Campbell made attempts at the British land speed record in his famous streamlined car : “Bluebird.” Decrepit wooden groynes snaked out towards the sea, adding an old fashioned picturesque quality to the scene. In the distance the faint outlines of huge cliffs jutted out into dramatic headlands but were partly obscured by a heat haze. Yes, it was very warm and fine such that we never disturbed the rain gear dutifully stuffed into our back-packs.

We now entered the “Stray”. a 2 mile long stretch of coastal grassland between Redcar and Marske by the sea. Apparantly this part of the coast is famous for fossils called “Devil’s Toenails” but we never spotted any. There were plenty of gently waving grasses in the sea breeze and swathes of flowering thistles being constantly visited by bees and dancing butterflies. We saw the first of many orangy-speckled Painted Ladies which have graced Britain with their presence in such large numbers this year, a once in a decade phenomenum. They have flown in stages all the way from Africa, the longest journey of any butterfly. Also, while strolling along the Stray , we were entertained by the dazzling flying displays of sand martins, twisting and turning, soaring and dipping as they tried to catch insect snacks right there in front of us. That’s something we would have missed if we had travelled the same route by car.

We had a tasty pit-stop at a cafe in Marske, an assuming little seaside village which has not tried to turn itself into a resort. It has a little quirky heritage museum in an old cruck-style cottage ( “Winkies castle”), some picturesque fishermens’ cottages and  old St Germains church tower and graveyard overlooking the beach. Apparently somewhere in there is the grave of Captain Cook’s father. Everywhere in Cleveland, towns and villages are trying to catch a share of the James Cook bandwagon. Unusually and surprisingly, Marske also has a grand Jacobean house built in the reign of Charles I in 1625. Marske Hall began its life as the home of a local aristocratic family, was later a boarding school and is now a Leonard Cheshire Home. A summer fayre was being staged in its grounds when we passed by, so between the bouncy castle and the entertainment stage we got glimpses of its towers, turrets and gargoyles. Also on Marske seafront is Cliff House, a 19th century casselated mansion built as a holiday and retirement home for the Pease family of Darlington. This famous Quaker dynasty owned many coal mines in the area and hired George Stephenson to build the world’s first public railway from Stockton to Darlington in 1825. Joseph Pease retired here and in his old age, after he went blind, he used to get his carer to wheel him out on to the balcony so he could hear the waves and enjoy the fresh, sea air.

We now walked on along a wide stretch of beach flanked by low, boulder clay cliffs towards Saltburn by the sea. We could see its pier in the distance. A grade 2 listed building, this is the only remaining pleasure pier on the North-East England coast. It was Henry Pease, out walking while visiting his brother in Marske, who is reputed to have had a vision of “a town arising on the cliff and the quiet unfrequented and sheltered glen turned into a lovely garden.” It was this that led to the creation of the gentile Victorian seaside resort of Saltburn by the sea in 1850, near where I now live. Up the cliff from the pier is the old Cliff Tramway. Two balanced tram cars climb and descend the steep slope, the top one being weighed down by gallons of seawater poured into special side hoppers. This plus the force of gravity pulls the other car up. This water- balance funicular is one of only 2 in the entire country, the other one being in Lynton and Lynemouth, Somerset.

Gradually the beach got busier with holiday makers as we neared the little town and climbed up to the top of its cliff. Saltburn is getting more and more popular today but still retains its largely Victorian quaintness. Pease’s vision has been turned into a sweet little town and the lovely Valley Gardens where a large stream ( or burn) flows into the sea. The railway was extended here in 1861 and the enormous Zetland Hotel, dominating the cliff top actually had its own private platform. Porters used to meet hotel guests straight off the train and take their luggage up to their waiting rooms. The Zetland is still there but has been turned into rather spectacular apartments. It was of the world’s earliest railway hotels.

Our first day’s hike was now nearing its end. After a quick coffee in Saltburn’s Station Square and a look at the lovely, community garden, we walked through sun-dappled woods to my home in nearby Skelton, about 1.5 miles inland. We were now on the Cleveland Way, the long distance footpath that reaches the coast at Saltburn. Its familer acorn sign was to accompany us for the rest of our trip. Everyone we met assumed we were regular Cleveland Way walkers. They looked a little bemused when we explained we were walking the North Riding coast and had begun in a rundown area of Redcar. This wasn’t an officially designated long-distance trail. It had been an interesting and enjoyable first day. It had also been a gentle breaking- in process as we had encountered few hills and had got away with carrying just one small rucksack. From Day 2, the real heavy stuff would begin as we would leave my immediate home territory and head south, carrying everything with us on our backs.

Peeping Into The Box — Exploring Orkney.

24 Jun

The people of the Orkney and Shetland Islands are extremely irritated by atlas publishers. Why is this? It’s because their real location is hardly ever properly shown on  a map of Britain. They are usually stuffed into separate boxes to the right of the main map, giving the impression that they are just off the east coast of Scotland. The truth is that they lie to the north of the mainland and if the map is drawn to scale, these Northern Isles would not fit on the page. So, to many they are outposts that are out of sight and mostly out of mind. They are detached boxes, tucked away and rarely opened. If you travel to the extreme north of Caithness, in mainland Scotland, you literally reach the end of the road. All those charity walkers, runners and cyclists going from Land’s End to John o’ Groats think they have travelled the entire length of the country, from one extreme to another. But they are wrong. Scotland and the UK carries on northwards even when the road ( and the rail) has finished.  Over the sea lie 2 sets of islands that are as much an official part of our country as London, Belfast, Edinburgh or Cardiff. One has to board a boat or catch a plane to get to them. They are Orkney and Shetland, the islands in the boxes. For my wife Chris and I this year, the road to adventure led northwards.

We went to Orkney or the Orkney Islands. Apparently, you are not supposed to say the Orkneys as that is like saying the Scotlands or the Englands. Because of the distance travelled to get there, it was almost like visiting a foreign country. Some guide-books say they have a Scandinavian feel to them. Orcadians, as the residents of Orkney are called, do not regard themselves as Scots but as a proud, distinct nation. There are about 20,000 of them. In fact, up to the later 15th century these islands were actually part of Norway. ( as were the islands of Shetland.) The Vikings had taken them over as they were on their main sea routes from Scandinavia into the north Atlantic.  The first Viking raids into England probably came from Orkney. Then in the 1460s, Orkney and Shetland were named as the security of a wedding dowry for the marriage of a Norwegian princess, Margaret to King James III of Scotland. If the dowry of 50,000 Rhenish florins was not paid then the islands would pass into Scottish hands.  The Scandinavian King, Christian I was impoverished, the dowry was never paid, so in 1468 they were formally annexed by Scotland. Even to this date, Norway has never formally recognised Orkney and Shetland as part of Scotland.

Most people I know invariably  travel south for their hols, seeking out the sun. Just in the last few months friends of mine have travelled to France, Greece, Malta, Spain and Portugal, posting their sun-drenched photos on social media. All these are great destinations. But there are equally intriguing places to explore if one forgets the shades and the sun cream and heads to the cooler  climes of the north. So, when we decided to visit the Orkney Islands, we made sure we packed fleeces and overtrousers, hats, gloves and even scarves instead of the usual hot weather gear. I optimistically packed some shorts but never got round to wearing them, even though it was “flaming June.” So why did we go?

The biggest lure for me is the history. Orkney is the richest site for ancient history in the whole of the UK, if not northern Europe. It is a paradise for archaeologists. We were entering a world of: stone circles, chambered passage tombs, neolithic villages, bronze age remains and iron age brochs. It sounds mysterious doesn’t it?  That’s what makes it so exciting. This is not just history but prehistory. We were visiting buildings that were constructed before people could even write. We encountered places that were created before the Pyramids in Egypt. Their builders are unknown. Their purposes can only be guessed at. It is a history shrouded in mystery.

There are plenty of beautiful beaches in Orkney. We walked on a couple, but didn’t spend our time lying on them, even though the sun did shine brightly on quite a few of our days there. Instead, we spent a fair amount of time crawling down long, low stone- age passages or huddling inside claustrophobic stone tombs that only see the light of day when the sun on mid-winter’s day shines directly down the tunnel to illuminate the gloomy chamber within. How did so called “primitive” people have the astronomical and geometric knowledge to work that one out? Another mystery. The main neolithic passage tomb on Orkney is Maes Howe. One whole side of the passage or tunnel is made from a single huge stone. Before the age of the wheel, how did stone- age man transport such heavy stones to this site? One theory is seaweed. Large quantities of shiny seawood are thrown up on Orkney’s shores during storms and high tides. It’s slippery quality may have made it possible to slide the large blocks along the ground. Maes Howe is also special because its inner chamber is covered with Viking graffiti after a group of Norse warriors broke into it in the 12th century, probably hoping to find hidden treasure.  The normally mundane: “I was here” is a much more powerful and evocative message when it happens to be 900 years old and scratched in Viking runes on to 5000 years old stones!

The only ” problem” with Maes Howe is that it is now becoming a victim of its own popularity. Yes – shock, horror — other people also make the trek north to this isolated archipeligo! Other people means: queues, timed tickets, guides, souvenir shops and the whole mass tourist package. Maes Howe has become something of a packaged experience. This is inevitable as a place becomes more popular. Health and safety comes into play and the ancient site itself has to be protected.  Even though the guide was good and the tomb fascinating ( if you like that sort of thing) , it still felt as if we were being processed and thus took away much of the atmosphere that we might have experienced in days gone by. Luckily, Orkney still has less organised prehistoric sites such as the Tomb of the Otters and The Tomb of the Eagles on the island of South Ronaldsay. We visited the latter tomb, so called because of a large number of eagles’ talons found in and around it. Don’t ask me why, as that’s  yet another unexplained phenomenum. After an interesting talk about how the 5000 year old tomb was discovered in 1957, and a close-up look at some of the stone-age artefacts excavated, we walked out for nearly a mile, unguided, to the actual tomb, near the edge of a sea cliff. Entry was through a short but very low stone passage. I had to lower my 6 foot frame on to a trolley that was like a big skate-board and pull on a rope attached to the roof of the tunnel to haul myself into the chamber. Then I was in the ancient tomb — all alone. Chris didn’t fancy joining me and there were no other tourists. I took a deep breath of the musty air and tried to take in the reality of where I was. I tried to appreciate that I was alone in a place that had been lost, deep in time for 5 millenia; that had been built by stone age people. But then I thought of Chris getting wetter and wetter on the cliff top and I heard the voices of other, approaching tourists, so the moment was lost and I hauled myself  back into the 21st century. It was still a special experience though, albeit a brief one. We were also alone when we visited the Broch of Gurness, on the top of Orkney Mainland. It’s an impressive, circular, dry- stone defensive tower built in the Iron Age in around 200BC. It was a lovely sunny day when we explored it but we had it to ourselves as it’s obviously not on the main Orkney bucket list. It was also at the end of a long, narrow country road, not really suitable for tour buses.

Equally mysterious are the stone circles of the Orkney Islands. On a cold, windy afternoon  we visited the Standing Stones of Stenness, sharing it with a large group of German bikers who kept getting in the way of our photos! 4 mighty stones remain of an original group of 12. One is 5.7 metres ( 16 feet) tall. All are quite slender after being delicately split off from their parent block. The predominant rock on Orkney is sandstone, a sedimentary rock that can be split along its cracks into thinner shards. The standing stones exude atmosphere even when they are shared with others. I should have gone back at twilight when all the visitors had gone. Then I might have experienced the full magical power of the place. But, like most people, I didn’t think to fit this into a busy schedule. Even though we stayed a full 8 days on Orkney there was still little time to just stand and stare. Near to the Stones of Stenness is the even more impressive Ring of Brodgar. A large circle of  weathered sandstone slabs stands on a low hill overlooking 2 big lochs. As this is less than a mile from the Stones of Stenness and quite close to Maes Howe, archaeologists have speculated that this whole area , on a narrow isthmus of land between the 2 lakes, must have been sacred and special in neolithic times. The Ring of Brodgar has 27 of its original 60 stones left in situ. It is thought that different settlements in the area may have contributed their own standing stones to this communal monument. It is surrounded by a grassy defensive ditch and the whole area is carpeted in heather. From the low- lying boggy fields around us we could hear the shrill, piping cries of nesting oyster catchers. As someone said, they are the “sparrows” of the Orkney Islands. As we walked up towards the mysterious stones we saw a flock of oyster catchers harrying a short-eared owl out on a day-time hunting trip. The Ring itself is impressive and it’s purpose only wild guesswork. When archaeologists feel stumped they usually fall back on the sacred ceremony theory. As with Stonehenge and Avebury in Wiltshire so it is with The Ring of Brodgar and Standing Stones of Stenness, except the Orkney circles are much older.

One of our abiding memories of the Ring of Brodgar was of the cold wind. It had been warm and sunny earlier on but now the wind whipped up. Orkney is frequently windy. There are virtually no trees and few concentrations of buildings, so there is nothing to break up the winds as they whip off the ocean. One resident explained that she got so used to the wind that when she visited Glasgow on a calm day she felt she could hardly breathe. It was strange and disorientating for her to experience still air. She also felt claustrophobic when surrounded by all those tall, city buildings.

The most famous ancient site on Orkney has to be Skara Brae. It is this new stone- age village that, more than anything, made me want to visit the islands. It is probably at the top of most people’s Orkney bucket list. It’s a remarkable neolithic fishing and farming village, its circular houses huddled together on the edge of a scenic bay and connected by low passages. A fierce storm in 1850 blew away the deep sand dunes that had been covering and preserving it for millenia. It’s probably about 5000 years old and is another Orkney site that pre-dates the Pyramids. Many people, when they think of the stone-age, conjure up images of people crouching in caves, roughly covered in animal skins and wielding clubs. However, here one can see that neolithic people lived in houses that had their own stone furniture and fittings — fireplaces, built-in beds, boxes and even dressers. I wished I could have pinched myself harder to appreciate more fully the remarkable remains from the distant past that were spread out before me. It was a special experience but once again tempered by having to share it with scores of other visiters. Along with the 1st and 2nd War Naval remains at Scapa Flow, Skara Brae is Orkney’s top tourist attraction. It may be in the far north of the UK but increasing numbers are visiting it, meaning that they have to be managed and controlled. So, inevitably, as well as the ancient village itself, we now have a car park, a coach park, a shop, a cafe, an exhibition and a small video theatre. It’s another packaged experience. It’s run, very efficiently and pleasantly by Historic Scotland, but I couldn’t help wondering how thrilling it must have been to visit it in its virgin, newly discovered state. Still, I’ve seen it now — tick!

One major reason for the increase in visitors to Skara Brae and other Orcadian sights is the ever more frequent appearance of cruise ships. Kirkwall, Orkney’s main town, is now the cruise ship capital of the British Isles. The lady running our guest house in Stromness announced several times during our stay that there was a cruise ship in with 1000 to 2000 plus passengers, so it was best to get to Skara Brae early that day. The cruise passengers are disgorged for the day and many do a whistle- stop tour of the main island’s hit parade. The trouble is that when they arrive at a place they swamp it with their numbers and potentially ruin the experience for others. An Australian couple in our guest house wanted to do a tasting tour of the local whisky distillery but were unable to get in because a cruise ship had booked it out for the entire day.  I’m sure that cruise ships bring extra customers for local businesses and make valuable contributions to the local economy, but their presence can spoil the experience for “ordinary” tourists  who have been attracted by the peace and quiet that these islands usually have to offer. Is this a case of killing the goose that laid the golden egg?

As well as history we were attracted to Orkney because of its scenary and wild-life. Apart from the dramatic black hills of Hoy, Orkney is low lying and gently rolling. It presents an attractive pattern of green fields dotted with low-slung sandstone farmhouses ( based on Viking longhouses) and divided by dry stone walls. Some crops are grown, such as an ancient type of barley, but it’s mostly small herds of grazing cattle that catch the eye. We saw numerous family groups of these gentle, calm creatures complete with a muscular bull and adorable suckling calves. Often creamy in colour these cows displayed overt maternal behaviour. Once we saw a cow cradling its youngster as they lay together on the grass. On another occasion when it was windy and rainy, we saw a group of calves sitting down in the corner of a field, being sheltered from the worst of the weather by the adults who were clustered around them in a protective semi-circle. We also saw moorland, saw evidence of peat digging and often heard the haunting, unfurling call of the curlew. Orkney’s countryside is mostly gentle, soothing and peaceful. It is beautiful in its own quiet way. However, the coast is often wilder and more dramatic, especially in the west. We saw beautiful beaches and bays, complete with bright blue and turquoise sea, basking seals, stately swans and eider ducks with their young. But the most memorable places were the high, red sandstone sea cliffs, the stacks, the natural arches and even a couple of dangerous looking blow-holes ( collapsed caves.) We trecked, on Hoy, to see the most famous sea stack of all — the Old Man of Hoy. It’s the tallest stack in the British Isles, standing at 137 metres, a third bigger than Big Ben. It’s a tall, slender sandstone pillar standing on a much harder volcanic base. It and the cliffs opposite are constantly pulverised and shaped by the raging seas far below.

We also saw dramatic sea cliffs at Marwick Head, and at Noup Head on the northern island of Westray. All housed spectacular cities of breeding seabirds — guillemots, razorbills, puffins, fulmars, cormorants, black-backed gulls and gannets, We also heard the raucous cries of kittiwakes. At Noup Head we stood above a colony of 100,000 birds. The gannets with their huge wing span and striking yellow necks put on a memorable flying display as they constantly arrived and departed. As we looked down at the vertiginous cliffs below us, fulmars suddenly reared up in front of us, buffeted by the wind. It was a heady sensation of sight, sound and smell ( the cliffs were stained white with pungent guano.) Meanwhile on the open ground near the cliff edge in both Westray and Hoy, we encountered huge, menacing Great Skuas ( known locally by the old norse name of “Bonxies”) , arctic terns and the ubiquitous black and white, orange -beaked oyster catchers. We were also lucky enough to see and hear skylarks above the meadows, an increasingly rare experience on the British mainland. On top of all this we were delighted with the wild flowers, most of them tiny because of the cool, windy climate. Most striking of all were the bright pink carpets of sea thrift, that mixed with the orangy-yellow swirls of algae on the cliff edge to create a vivid spectacle.

We didn’t encounter many mammals apart from the sheep and cattle in the fields. There are no deer like in much of the rest of Scotland, and I don’t think there are any badgers or foxes. We saw a large hare once, bounding up the lane in front of us and, while trying to take a close up picture of a flower in the long grass of a cliff top, Chris encountered the rare Orkney vole. Apparently it is bigger than its mainland cousin and is seldom seen. I didn’t see it but heard Chris’s yelp. She thought it was a rat! Orkney people liked to tease us with stories of things we might see but never did. “This is where the otters come to feed.” “You might see pods of dolphins or porpoises off that shoreline” “Did you know there was a group of pilot whales that got stuck in Kirkwall Bay for a while?” They found their way out into the ocean just before we got there! However, we were well satisfied with the rich array of birds that we saw. I nearly forgot to mention the pair of rare, nesting, white-tailed sea eagles that we saw on a high rock face in Hoy, courtesy of an RSPB telescope.

On top of all this, Orkney is the UK’s top diving mecca. We wandered why we kept seeing large groups of young men hanging around. It seemed a long way to come for a stag do and one thing Orkney is not famous for is its night-life. Then we realised that these were diving parties. The deep, sheltered waters of Scapa Flow to the east of Orkney mainland and Hoy provided the perfect spot for the British High Seas fleet in both the 20th century’s World Wars. The English Channel was far too busy and dangerous so the fleet headed to the far north. By the end of the First World War, the captured German High Seas Fleet was also corralled there. In June, 1919, their commander ordered his men to deliberately sink their own ships. He believed that Germany was about to surrender unconditionally ( Up to that point there had just been an armistice) and did not want his beloved battleships to fall into enemy hands. His order came when the main British fleet was out at sea. The scuttling of the German fleet must have been a highly dramatic sight. Returning British sailors panicked when they saw the German ships disappearing beneath the waves. They opened fire on the Germans , killing about 6 or 7 ( a possible war crime), but it was too late to stop the scuttling. Many of  these ships have since been salvaged for their valuable metal but about 7 still remain down there on the sea bed, a magnet for marine life and for divers, who just love exploring wrecks. The German ships were joined by  the British battle ship, The “Royal Oak” in 1939 when it was torpedoed to the bottom by a U Boat with great loss of life.  Sadly, most of the victims were young trainee sailors of 16 or 17 years old. After this Churchill ordered barriers to be constructed between the south eastern islands of Orkney to stop further deadly incursions. These were made from concrete blocks and sunken “block” ships. Today they have been turned into causeways carrying roads and provide a link between the main island and the islands of : Lamb Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay. These are called the Churchill Barriers and much of the work was done by Italian POWS. This wartime activity has ironically led to one of Orkney’s most beautiful and popular attractions: The Italian Chapel. Dubbed: “The Miracle of Camp 60”, it is an exquisitely decorated Catholic church made from 2 nissen huts, salvaged metal and wood, and barbed wire. For instance the ornate light shades were made from bully-beef cans. The main artist based the altar piece on a painting in his church back in Italy. He had a picture of it in his wallet. He was invited back in 1960 to complete and restore his beautiful decorations. It’s a very moving place to visit, especially if you are lucky enough to avoid the tour buses.

A lot of 1st and 2nd War History is still to be found at the ex Royal Navy base at Lyness, on the Scapa Flow coast of southern Hoy. Here are rusting anti-aircraft guns, ruined old piers, mouldering cranes , torpedo storage tunnels and ruined barracks turned into cow sheds and barns. It’s great if you like that sort of thing. You can still go into the air-raid shelters built for the service men and women. We heard that the Royal Navy sailors stationed there were initially very slovenly and untidy until a detachment of WRENS was stationed up there and there was a miraculous transformation!  Quite a few relationships and future marriages blossomed in this far-flung northern outpost. Our guide on Hoy told us that she had recently shown round a Canadian tourist who had wanted to come to see the wind-swept place where he had been conceived!

Orkney is a box well worth opening. It is much more than an obscure inset on a map. The history, scenary and wildlife are all outstanding. But our strongest impression was of the serene peace and quiet ( when a cruise ship hadn’t docked) and of the light. The light is wonderful, a result of all that shining sea and those massive skies. Artists and photographers love it. It was a great trip north.  Next time we may well go all the way up to the most northerly edge of the UK  to open the Shetland box. It’s only a 12 hour voyage by overnight ferry from Aberdeen! Another northern adventure beckons!

A Visit to Slovenia( or was it Slovakia?)

21 Oct

CONFUSION.

I think it was President George W Bush on a state visit to Slovenia, who famously said something like: “It’s great to be here in Slovakia.” I have witnessed the same confusion when I’ve told people about my holiday this year in the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia. Almost inevitably, the response has been: “Do you mean Slovenia or Slovakia? I’ve always got the two mixed up!” I suppose they do sound very similar.

HISTORY.

They are both small countries in central Europe that generally don’t feature in the international news. Both are populated by Slavs. Both used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire.  After the fall of that Empire in 1918, both Slovenes and Slovaks were pushed into uneasy partnerships with other national groups. The Slovaks were merged with the Czechs to form Czechoslovakia, while the Slovenes were combined with other south Slav peoples to create the new state of Yugoslavia. It seems that the international community at Versailles didn’t think these two small races were a viable proposition on their own. Both Slovenes and Slovaks fell under the sway of one-party Communist regimes at the end of the Second World War.

It was only in the early 1990’s, following the fall of the “Iron Curtain” and the collapse of communism in Europe that the Slovaks and the Slovenes at last tasted true independence. In Slovenia’s case, 1991 was the year when it finally controlled its own destiny.

As I was visiting it I have tried to make sense of Slovenia’s complex history by reading and by visiting the city museum of Ljubljana, its attractive capital. I have settled for just getting a rough outline. After the usual Neolithic stuff, the Romans arrived. Slovenia today is very proud of its Roman heritage. Next came the Magyars but they were pushed back by the German Emperor who had designs on the area himself. The Turks too were defeated so Slovenia never became part of the mighty Ottoman Empire like some of its neighbours. Thus today, Slovenia is a devoutly Christian country and it was on the Catholic side of the Orthodox/ Catholic schism. From the late 13th century, it became part of the Austrian Empire and therefore developed on largely Germanic lines. In the First World War the Slovenes fought fiercely on the Austrian-German side, especially when, in 1915, Italy was bribed to side with Britain, France and Russia after being promised Slovenian territory, including the important port of Trieste. It’s ironic that Britain, which joined the war to protect little Belgium, was now happy to cynically give away chunks of another small country in the interests of military expediency. Sadly many thousands of Slovenes and other Austro-Hungarian troops died fighting the Italians. The place where we stayed on Lake Bohinj was an important staging post for that campaign. The Italians also suffered heavy casualties in the mountain battles that ensued. One of the more sobering moments of our holiday was a visit to an Austro-Hungarian war cemetery containing over 300 graves from 1915 to 1917.

I now know enough to appreciate how proud the Slovenes must be to have gained their independence. It must be strange but exciting to be a citizen of a country that has existed for less than 3 decades.The guide who led our walking tour of Ljubljana said that everyone was pleased when the population hit 2 million. Out impression was that it is a very clean and environmentally-aware nation. We didn’t see a scrap of litter on the streets. I expected to see a poorer, still- developing Balkan -style country, maybe like Bosnia or Albania. However it is so sophisticated that at times it felt as if we were in Scandinavia. There were stylish designer goods, well maintained buildings and efficient transport systems. The buses ran on time, and in the city, people paid with an electronic card which they pressed on to a sensor.( like London’s Oyster card.) Only when we got out into the rural areas did we see cash being used. While in Slovenia, we had Euros in our wallet and purse. Slovenia joined the Eurozone in 2007, three years after it was admitted to the European Union. It had been the most liberal and progressive of the former Yugoslav republics and had largely escaped the horrors of the Civil War after a brief, 10 day skirmish. The transition to a democracy and to capitalism was achieved fairly smoothly. In 2008 it became the first of the former communist countries to assume the presidency of the EU. Coming from 2017 United Kingdom it seemed strange to us that here was a country that was embracing Europe rather than turning its back on its  neighbours.

THE CAPITAL.

Ljubljana is a lovely city to visit. It is attractive, relaxed and cosmopolitan. It’s small enough to explore on foot. There is a variety of interesting architecture, pleasant riverside walks, a variety of cafes and restaurants to suit most tastes and just about everyone speaks excellent English. We asked an older lady for help at the bus stop. She not only told us which bus to catch and when it would come, but also explained how we should pay ( with the smart-card) and where to get off. All this was in decent English. Apparently, Slovenian is a very difficult language to learn. Ljubljana has a picturesque old town full of renaissance and baroque buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries. There are : statues, squares, fountains, interesting little alleyways, pavement cafes and stylish shops. Up above, on a steep hill, is a castle, accessed by a funicular. A river flows through the centre crossed by a series of interesting bridges. The most famous are the Triple Bridge and the Dragon Bridge. The former is 3 pedestrianised bridges in one, furnished with Venetian style balustrades built in the 1830’s. The latter, built in 1901, is a flamboyant, Secessionist structure with 4 dramatic green dragons and ornamental lamps guarded by tiny griffins.

The main square, Preservov trg is flanked by the Triple Bridge, a huge, pink Baroque church, a Parisian Art- Nouveau department stall with a fancy, wrought iron and glass entrance, and a 4-storey Viennese-style Secessionist building. The square is a gathering place for tourists, locals and street entertainers. We were “treated” to a loud display of break-dancing which rather drowned out the poor man in traditional costume trying to sing his folk songs. We settled for a routine of strolling around, popping in and out of little shops and the occasional church, watching the river flow below the avenues of trees, and visiting pavement cafes. At the last mentioned we drank tea or coffee and ate strudel ( me) and chocolate cake (Chris.) For me, it’s compulsory to eat apple strudel if I’m anywhere in the former Hapsburg Empire. Ljubljana has shades of Vienna, Prague and Paris, but on a more intimate scale.

METELKOVA .

One day we strolled out of the main tourist haunts, into an area east of Presernov Square, which had a completely different feel to it. It was more informal and featured more quirky, alternative sights. We saw old music shops, zany art galleries, junk shops and whole walls of colourful graffiti. Virtually the first thing we spotted was a display of old shoes, boots and trainers hanging from a telephone wire slung across the narrow street. There were vegetarian cafes and erotica shops, though I’m not suggesting that there’s necessarily a connection between the two. We were on our way to visit St Peter’s Church, another extravagant baroque concoction. We virtually had it to ourselves as it was off the beaten track. We lit candles for our loved ones, sat in silence for a while and then wandered on.

In fact we ended up wandering into one of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen — the Metelkova autonomous artist’s colony. ( That’s my version of its Slovenian name.) It’s a former Yugoslav army base that later became a squat. Today it’s like an alternative city within a city. In the words of one guidebook, it’s “the subversive heart of the city.”  It’s a rambling complex of bars, clubs, galleries, NGOs and a hostel. What is incredible is that the whole site is festooned with bizarre, vibrant graffiti, weird sculptures and strange installations. It is all anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, counter-culture stuff. As we walked in, our jaws dropping, the sounds of the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” drifted towards us and the smell of weed pervaded the air. It was like going back to 1967/68. The vivid graffiti was the stuff of dreams ( and nightmares.) The whole scene was surreal. Metelkova has to be seen to be believed.

We enjoyed our week in Ljubljana very much. We made easy day trips to: a castle in a cave, halfway up a cliff ( Predjama), a huge, amazing complex of limestone caves, tunnels and caverns complete with a weird but wonderful array of stalactites and stalagmites (Postojna), and an attractive, medieval town surrounded by wooded hills ( Skofja Loka.) We enjoyed the trips but mostly just wandered the city, trying to scratch a little beneath its surface. We met a Chinese tourist later in the holiday and he couldn’t believe that we had spent a whole week in one place! In the same time-span he had visited 3 countries. He was only going to spend one quick day in Ljubljana seeing the “essential” sights. But, I have turned against this tick-list, rushing around sort of itinerary. I think our more relaxed schedule paid off, at least for us. If we’d visited for just a day, we would never have discovered the art market on the riverbank, the flea market with its Tito- era memorabilia or the wonderful Plecnik’s House. The latter was the home of Slovenia’s most eminent architect, Joze Plecnik. The guided tour was fascinating, revealing the great contrast between his grandiose projects and his modest life-style.

THE MOUNTAINS AND LAKES.

Our second week in Slovenia was a complete contrast. We travelled by public bus up into the north-west, an area of mountains and alpine lakes. It was very like Austria, the country just to the north. We stayed just 50 meters from the shore of Lake Bohinj, the country’s largest lake. It was created by glacial action. Mention “lake” and “Slovenia” to most travellers, and they’ll usually come up with the name “Bled.” Lake Bled is certainly the most famous of Slovenia’s lakes. ( some would say “iconic.”) But Bohinj is more beautiful, in my opinion. It’s an atmospheric, completely still stretch of water. Sensibly, no big buildings have been allowed on the lakeside, so the peace of Bohinj is maintained and its beauty unsullied. The peaceful lake is surrounded by wooded hills and massive, steep-faced mountains. It is a magical and magisterial sight. In winter it is so still that it freezes over. Last year people were able to skate on it for 2 to 3 weeks. That must have been quite a sight!

So we had a week of peace and tranquility. We walked the lake’s shores, sailed on a very quiet tourist boat, explored a dramatic limestone gorge and trecked for one and a half hours up through lovely autumn woods to the spectacular Savica Waterfall. This plunges from a cleft in the towering rock face, 78 metres down into a striking turquoise/green pool. The villages around were Alpine in character with little wooden houses and geranium decorated balconies. They were surrounded by bright green meadows and all had neat wood stores and old hay-drying racks. We half expected to see Heidi and Peter running down the slopes with their goat-herd or hear Julie Andrews and the Von Trapp family bursting into exultant song.

This used to be a big, alpine dairy- farming and cheese making area but this has almost died out as the younger generation has drifted off to the towns and cities. Local cheeses can still be bought however. We saw old, black and white photographs of villages communities in the past wearing their traditional costumes. Each village had its elegant church with a tall bell-tower or slender spire piercing the air. We also came across wayside shrines with little statues of Jesus or Mary and strings of rosary beads.

Bohinj is an area rich in nature. Every spring it has a wild-flower festival. We came across: heron, dippers, wagtails, nuthatches and robins. We also heard a couple of red squirrels squeaking excitedly as they scurried up and down a tree, and saw speckled trout lazily swimming in the river that fed the lake. On our last full day we got the most sensational views of all, when we ascended on a cable car to the Vogel ski centre. We were treated to panoramic views of the massed peaks of the Julian Alps. Bohinj is part of the Triglav National Park, the only one of such parks in Slovenia. It’s a place to preserve and treasure. We really enjoyed our week there. Yes we stayed for a relaxing 7 days. The Chinese tourist would have been shocked all over again!

BLED.

We met the nice guy from Beijing on a side trip to Bled, a 40 minutes, cheap bus ride away from our base. Bled is beautiful too, but sadly it has been partly ruined. The culprit is mass-tourism and the commercialization that follows in its wake. Lake Bled is world famous. I’d heard of it long before I knew anything else about Slovenia.The usual image shown is of a graceful, old church on an enchanting island in a lake, with a backcloth of hills and mountains. Also impressive, is an old, red-roofed castle on a cliff soaring above the water. That’s all true. But the chocolate boxes, jig-saws and calanders don’t show the built-up mess on the other end of the lake. There’s the huge, ugly Hotel Park, which advertises lakeside views but ruins everyone else’s view. There’s the large, modern casino, plus the usual motley assortment of bars, souvenir shops, hotels and cafes, not to mention a busy road, constantly choked with traffic. The place is heaving with tourists from all over the world. When our bus from Ljubljana to Bohinj arrived at Bled, just about everyone got off. Bled, from certain angles, is very picturesque but with its swarms of visitors, it is in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

We walked along the lake’s quieter, wooded shore and it was very pleasant. However, when we decided to sail across to the island and the church, it wasn’t as idyllic as I’d imagined. It’s good that there are no noisy launches ploughing up and down. One can hire a rowing boat, get a quiet but expensive electric boat or go on a pletna. This is a traditional, wooden stretched gondola propelled by a gondolier standing at the back. ( No, he doesn’t wear a stripy shirt or sing just one cornetto!) We chose the latter. 20 adults and 2 children all piled on, at the steep price of 14 Euros each. We had to squash tightly together on either side of the boat. What I thought would be a peaceful, serene experience, gliding across the water, never materialised because of my fellow tourists contorting themselves into all sorts of positions to take the best photos and then posing for numerous selfies with their friends and family. We had 40 minutes on the island which was crowded. Even though it was only a small island, containing a church and bell-tower, they have still found space to squash in a cafe, an ice-cream stall and a shop. We decided to visit the church which has lovely 18th century frescoes and other baroque adornments. However, we were shocked to find that we were expected to pay 6 Euros each to go in. This included the bell tower but we didn’t want to go up that as we are both nervous of heights. I cannot recall ever having to pay to go into a church before. The exquisitely frescoed medieval church of St John the Baptist near our hotel in Bohinj, is free. But we swallowed our indignation and “coffed up.” It was rather small but quite beautiful. Unfortunately, any hopes of enjoying a spiritual atmosphere were ruined by a constant procession of camera-wielding fellow tourists. They queued up to pull the bell-rope and make a wish. It has been dubbed the “wishing bell!” They posed in mid-pull for photos, with inane grins on their faces. Isn’t it funny how so many fall for such gimmicks? The bell-tower was entered through a modern turn-style activated by a bar-code on one’s ticket. The 18th century interior has been hollowed out and replaced with a modern zig-zag staircase. We didn’t bother going up. Any shred of historical authenticity had been sacrificed in the interests of making money( it seems.)

Our visit to Bled was rescued by a totally unexpected but brilliant Salvador Dali exhibition in the base of the casino. ( a private French collection.) We also enjoyed a small craft market and a display of vintage cars, incongruously parked along the lake-shore.

RADOVLJICA.

Our other trip from Bohinj was to Radovljica, a pretty, old town set in lovely countryside. It featured an exquisite old church, a beautiful, historic square and a grand, old mansion containing the delightful “Beekeeping Museum.” Keeping bees is a Slovenian tradition. The highlight was a wonderful collection of bee-hive panels from the 19th century. These were religious and satirical paintings to decorate the hives. They were another Slovenian speciality.

It was a great holiday — an interesting, attractive city followed by a week among the glorious mountains and lakes. Apart from the obvious tourist traps the costs ranged from cheap to reasonable. We found it to be a civilized and progressive country. Yes, it was an excellent visit to Slovenia ( or was it Slovakia?)

 

Durham Coast walk — Last 2 days — Horden to Hartlepool to the mouth of the Tees, 2017.

29 Aug

Following a night in the ex-mining village of Horden we retraced our footsteps back to the Durham coast path which we were following, north to south. It was another fine day, the 4th of our trek. After a mile and a half we made it back to the coast at Warren House Gill, the scene of yesterday’s lunch and cold shower. We headed south along the grassy cliff tops. We now walked through a series of nature reserves complete with wild flowers, swaying grasses, colourful butterflies and birds. Out at sea, the day before, we had seen birds dive-bombing into the sea to catch fish. They were probably terns. Above the cliff top meadows we now enjoyed the sweet songs of ascending sky-larks.

We descended to an area of reeds and marshlands just inland from the sea. In the middle distance another impressive Victorian viaduct took the coastal railway across another dene. This was the locally famous Castle Eden Dene, originally scooped out by retreating ice-sheets. It is now an important, woodland nature reserve, a magnet for walkers, horse riders and bird-watchers. Information boards outlined its history and importance, but we couldn’t read them as they had faded badly with time. Also, it seemed as if locals had used them as target practice for they were pock-marked with pellet holes and scars. This reminded us with a jolt that we were not really in the midst of the countryside but were actually skirting the urban fringe, on the boundary where rural meets urban, sometimes with unfortunate consequences. We also saw tyre tracks of motor-bike scramblers. The birds, bees and butterflies did not have this area completely to themselves. Only a little inland, we were passing the ex-mining towns of Easington Colliery, Horden and Blackhall Colliery, as well as Peterlee, the post-war new town built to rehouse some of these  mining communities.

Eventually, after another steep sided dene we made it to Crimdon Holiday park. Row after row of neat caravans and chalets lined the cliff top. Many had little gardens, balconies and television aerials as well as the inevitable vehicles parked outside them. It was more like a housing estate by the sea. It never fails to amaze me that many people go on holiday to get away from it all, yet they then take it all with them! Signs featuring the naturalist David Bellamy, told of the precious and wonderful flora and fauna in this special area. However the presence of so many people, their mobile homes and their cars suggested to me that the wildlife would be under constant threat from human encroachment.

At the end of the holiday park was a convenient seat for our lunch. We read about the rare Little Tern population that bred there. A special project had been set up to protect them. We also read how Crimdon Dene had been even more popular in the past, before the age of cheap foreign travel. People flocked there to play on the beach, stroll in the picturesque dene and enjoy the sea air. They rode donkeys, ate ice-creams, listened to brass band recitals and held beauty contests. Apparently, according to an info. board we read, young ladies paraded up and down in their swim-suits right up to the 1970’s. The Miss Crimdon contests were very popular events. One regular judge was the famous Labour MP and peace campaigner: Manny Shinwell. He famously declared that he preferred ” legs to arms!” Somehow, I don’t think all this activity was helping the poor Little Terns. As we left the vicinity of the holiday camp, we saw plenty of people but no wild-life. The closest we came was a photograph of the endangered bird.

Surprisingly, the English Coast Path now led us right into the middle of a golf course! Hartlepool Golf Club is right on the coast. Notices warned walkers to be aware of the danger of flying balls. As it happens we stayed safe and the local golfers were quite friendly, exchanging “Good mornings” with us as we tramped past with our ruck-sacks. In fact we got a bit lost amidst the fairways and greens and were put back on the right track by 3 golfers who suggested we headed left at the end of the fairway, and thus back to the beach. As we crested a small ridge, a long, straight, lonely beach came into view. ( Hartlepool North Sands.) The official path actually led through an area of “development” so we were glad to make it on to the sands. Ahead of us was the headland of old Hartlepool and in the middle distance, an old wooden pier thrusting out into the sea. We marched slowly towards it but just then our progress was rudely disturbed by the coming of the rain.

This time it wasn’t just a passing shower. The rain truly set in. We sat on our rucksacks to drag our over-trousers over our boots. Hoods up , we gritted our teeth against the persistent downpour and trudged on. To be honest, this part of the walk was pretty miserable. We had already walked 10 miles or so that day with at least a couple still to go. The rain, combined with our aching feet, served to dampen our spirits and make us question our motives. In the sunshine the walk had seemed a great idea but now we weren’t quite so sure.

Eventually we reached the dark silhouette of Steetly Pier. It’s a large, impressive wooden structure with large pipes running down the length of it. According to my research it used to serve the magneside industry, whatever that is. Now it is abandoned and slowly rotting. A section on the beach had obviously collapsed in the past as there was now a big gap like a missing tooth. It is now largely used by fishermen who are brave enough to clamber up its disintegrating legs. It made for great pictures though, especially the shots from underneath it, looking out to sea. Increasingly damp and fed up, we tramped on towards old Hartlepool, which slowly got clearer as it emerged out of the rain haze.

Old Hartlepool is situated on a scenic headland. It is normally a charming place to visit with sea views, some old pastel painted houses, stretches of cobbles, the original sea wall and an impressive, very old church ( St Hilda’s.) However, because of our tiredness and the unrelenting rain, our exploration was very half-hearted. A travelling fair was just setting itself up on an area of open ground but there were no punters. Nearly everyone was being sensible and staying indoors and dry. The little Second World War Museum was similarly deserted. We did find a Catherine Street though which raised a smile as I took a picture of a rain-soaked Catherine standing in front of her own sign. We also took the obligatory photos of the little Andy Capp statue as his creator hailed from Hartlepool. Luckily the rain eventually eased and then stopped. However we were in no mood for lingering, so tramped on, leaving the headland in order to reach our accommodation in the main town. This unfortunately meant a dreary trudge down a long, busy dual carriageway. It took a good half hour. We looked forlornly at the buses that regularly passed by, but reminded ourselves that we were on a sponsored WALK! Finally we reached the main centre of Hartlepool, and, having been there before, I quickly navigated us to our accommodation — the Grand Hotel!  I had booked it to give us a treat on our last night. ( I also got a good deal!)

To be honest, it isn’t all that grand. There are some nice stained glass windows on the first floor stairway and the odd chandelier. Our room, although comfortable, was pretty plain. However it did have the luxury of a bath with plenty of hot water, which we both took advantage of. For a town of its size, Hartlepool does not have many decent restaurants — hardly any in fact. As we ‘d had enough of walking for the day, we took the easy option and ate at the hotel. There is a very good and very popular Indian restaurant in the basement. It was our 3rd Indian of the week. Our stomachs must have thought we were hiking through the hot sub-continent rather than merely through a stretch of North-East England.

The next morning we had an excellent breakfast at the Grand, including porridge and plenty of fresh fruit. Then we hauled on our rucksacks for the last time, checked out and stepped into the morning rain. Yes, it was raining again! As I’ve written before, modern Hartlepool does not have a proper town centre. Everything has been moved into an anonymous mall. After buying lunchtime provisions, we headed out, passing the depressing streets where the  original town centre used to thrive. They had grand signs but no shops. One ex-department store had been converted into a hotel. Most of the other shops have been knocked down. It is a sad sight. We passed a Thai restaurant where we could have eaten the night before if the hotel receptionist had known about it. Then we headed out around the attractive new marina, passing some fine old port buildings ( including the Customs House I think). We looked over to the attractive and interesting historic harbour with the magnificent early 19th century sailing ship, the Trincomalee. It’s like a north-east version of the Cutty Sark. As we reached the prom and turned south, we could see the old headland where we had been the previous day. It was still veiled in a mist of  grey rain.

We walked on down a newly built promenade which we largely had to ourselves. Then, a small miracle — the rain relented, patches of blue sky appeared and the sun made a welcome return. A new spring came into our steps as we headed to the seaside resort of Seaton Carew. The sunshine now glittered on the water and we were once again happy to be out walking. Seaton Carew is another resort that had seen better times. Nostalgic information boards showed us how popular it used to be. Now, it has a fine long beach and a nice promenade but the main drag is filled with charity shops and fast food joints. Bizarrely, Seaton Carew has an art deco bus station. That description makes it sound more exotic than it really is however. It’s a curving off- white façade with a graceful clock tower at its centre. The buses stop in the semi-circular lay- by in front of it. It also has public toilets which proved to be very fortuitous.

The final stretch of our walk was down a long beach towards the mouth of the Tees. Strangely the views were now of Redcar and Saltburn in Cleveland where I live, but these were on the far side of the big river. In the far distance we could see the cliffs of North Yorkshire. The beach petered out as we neared our destination and we were forced to clamber up and down a small mountain range of sand dunes. The thick marran grass rustled in the breeze as we ploughed through the soft sand. This last little bit wasn’t the easy stroll we had imagined. We crested a final mound and, at last, the mouth of the River Tees was now spread out before us. It is a bizarre combination of: a wetlands nature reserve, a curving  beach and the ugly mess of an industrial port. Once again, man and nature were existing uncomfortably side by side. As we watched, a large freighter glided in from the North Sea on its way to nearby Teesport. To our left we saw the North Gare breakwater, the “official” end of our walk. We had trecked from the mouth of the Tyne to the mouth of the Tees, taking in the mouth of the Wear en- route. We had walked the entire coast of the original county of Durham, linking up the 3 great river mouths of north-east England. We hugged and took the now obligatory selfies. Finally we turned back to Seaton Carew where the walking would stop and the little train would take us on the first leg of our journey home and back to normal life. Including walking round all the headlands and the detours to and from guest houses, we had covered about 48.5 miles. Between us we raised around £470 for wild-life charities. It had been a satisfying and worthwhile project. Now the only question is — where to next?

Durham Coast Walk, Day 3 — Seaham to Horden, 2017.

28 Aug

Day 3 of our long-distance charity trek began at the Lamp Room Café on Seaham seafront. Our guest house, although clean and comfortable, did not provide breakfast as they had workmen busy downstairs. There were a few eating possibilities on the front but we were attracted into The Lamp Room by the enticing prospect of poached eggs on home-baked toast with rocket and crushed avocados! It was delicious and made a change from the boring, full English fry-up. A young Australian with his long braids coiled up on top of his head, served us to the accompaniment of laid-back music ( Fleetwood Mac, Lady Antebellum, Elbow.) I imagined a young British traveller doing the same job at a beach café in Sydney or on the Queensland coast. The lamp that gave its name to the café was the miner’s safety lamp that was used in the local collieries. As its use dramatically cut down on the number of underground gas explosions, Sir Humphrey Davy’s invention was nicknamed the “Miner’s Friend.” It was a nice recognition of Seaham’s mining history.

Replete, we now set off south on the Durham Coast Heritage Path, recently opened by the National Trust as part of the English Coastal Path. We looked down on Seaham harbour, a double set of piers protecting it from the sea. It is still a working port. A freighter was being loaded up by 2 cranes from a glittering mountain of scrap-metal. Soon we left the coast road and went on to the path proper. It is a very attractive walk with cliff- top meadows featuring a colourful display of wild flowers. Tangled clumps of blackberries provided us with tasty free fruit. Butterflies flitted and bees buzzed. A group of swallows swooped low over the meadows, looking for their insect breakfasts. These magnesium limestone grasslands have helped the coast become an area of Special Scientific Interest as they support a unique population of plants and animals.

Soon we arrived at a headland called Nose’s Point. It provided spectacular views down “Blast Beach.” This is a long, empty beach, bordered by cliffs and punctuated by caves and stacks. A pointy stack like a jagged tooth stood at the near end, while at the far end was a very large, flat-topped rock covered with grass. The sea and the efforts of conservation organisations like the National Trust have turned “Nose’s Point” and “Blast beach” into a beautiful place, but it was, until quite recently, a scene of industrial devastation and desecration. Dawdon Pit extracted coal from beneath the sea here from 1901 to 1991. It was one of the most productive in the country. In 1925, 3862 men and boys mined over 1 million tons of coal. Even today, lumps of coal can be found amongst the rocks on the beach. Waste from the pit was dumped directly on to the beach. The scene was so hellish that it was chosen for the opening scenes of “Alien 3”, representing a devastated planet in outer space. On the cliffs above, in the 19th century, there had been blast furnaces for the iron and steel industry and these were succeeded in the late 1860’s by a chemical works. All this has now disappeared and nature has returned. One of the few clues left of this industrial past, apart from the name of the beach, is a mysterious layer of bare rock that stretches along the entire beach between the cliff base and the sand. This used to be the dumped spoil from the mine which has been flattened and hardened. A retired miner, walking his dog, told me about this. During the days when this coast was a metaphor for industrial dereliction, it was also used for a bleak scene in “Get Carter” the famous Michael Caine film.

After a while our path took us over the railway line that skirts the coast and into a deep, wooded ravine. This was/is Hawthorn Dene, one of several denes or little coastal valleys we had to negotiate. It is a steep sided gorge cut by glacial action. We descended through beautiful swathes of elm, ash and yew. It was like a secret wood, hidden from the world around. We crossed the stream and a huge chunk of magnesium limestone reared up before us. This rock is unique to this area. Then, as we climbed out of the ravine, we started catching glimpses through the trees of a large, impressive, red-bricked viaduct. Eventually we passed under one of its arches on our return to the coast. The Victorians had built it to take their railway north to Sunderland and Newcastle, and south to Hartlepool and Stockton. The current little “Pacer” trains, rattling along the rails, were a constant accompaniment to our walk.

We walked on along the coast, now chased by ominous dark clouds. But for the time being we were still treated to fine weather and sunny periods. Every now and then we were enlightened and entertained by information boards about the history and/or the nature of the area. We also came across lovely examples of sculptural art — which became a characteristic feature of the walk. One memorable example was a  large, metal representation of a seabird on the grassy cliff-top. Following a steep climb down and up the sides of another dene, 2 giant, iron butterfly wings announced Warren House Gill. The wings had shapes cut out of them showing miners going to work, and birds and butterflies, representing the mixture of industry and nature that form the rich heritage of this Durham Coast. A nearby seat was similarly carved with reliefs of leaves, flowers, miners’ helmets, shovels and hammers. The seat was a welcome sight as we were able to take the weight off our feet and enjoy a belated bite of lunch.

We were now near the village of Horden, our destination for the night. Today had been a shorter walk of about 7 miles, although we were still quite tired because of all those up and down denes. As we turned inland, the rain finally caught up with us. Waterproofs were hastily dragged on as the heaven’s opened. Luckily it was only a heavy shower. Ten minutes later we were skirting large puddles but getting rather warm as the sun returned. We walked under a railway bridge and up by a sewage treatment works and a waste recycling centre. On this walk we saw all the sights! We then turned up a long residential road, looking for our destination — the Bell Inn. Horden is supposed to be a village but we never found any actual village centre. There was no idyllic green or pond. It just seemed to be a long, linear development, eventually merging with the sprawling New Town of Peterlee. In the past, Horden had had one of the country’s biggest coal mines. In fact it still holds the world record for the largest amounts of coal extracted in a year. (4000 miners extracted 1.5 million tonnes of coal.) Hardly a trace of all this is discernible today, except, perhaps, the prominent presence of working men’s clubs.

The Bell, our guest house, was really a pub, that provided accommodation for largely contract workers. It was closed when we got there as it was only 2-30pm. However, a couple of men smoking and coughing outside a nearby club said it would open at 4. There was no convenient café to sit it out. Horden didn’t seem to be that type of place. So we sat on a handy wall outside the pub, took off out damp rain-proof togs, and waited. Luckily the barmaid arrived at 3 and kindly let us in early. It was a clean and comfortable room and so we were able to rest up and put the kettle on. We enjoyed the biscuits as well. From our window we enjoyed the unexpected view of a green field rising up behind the buildings that lined the road.

We had planned to eat at the pub, but unusually it did not serve food in the evenings. So we were snookered. The nearest eating place was a Weatherspoons about 25 minutes walk away up a busy road.We didn’t fancy that! The barmaid kindly suggested that we could order a take away and  said we could use the dining room to eat. So thanks to Catherine’s magical smartphone skills, we ended up having a Mexican meal in the pub’s breakfast room. We were intrigued to see who would deliver it. Would it be someone in a colourful poncho or sombrero, from a little-known Latin American enclave of Peterlee or Blackhall? We sipped our drinks and waiting in a state of high excitement. After only about 15 to 20 minutes, an older guy in tee-shirt and jeans entered the bar, asking if “anyone here has ordered some grub?” Without further ado, he shoved a carrier bag full of Mexican wraps in our direction and was gone (we had paid by card on the internet.) It was a bit of an anti-climax but the food was welcome and good. We ate it in the pub dining room watching the Channel 4 news. It was a satisfying end to Day 3 of our Durham coast trek.

 

 

Durham Coast Walk, Day 2 — Seaburn to Seaham. ( July, 2017.)

21 Aug

The second day of our long-distance walk announced itself with a cacophony of shrieking gulls rather than the usual melodious chorus of songbirds. It was a reminder that we were on the coast. After our 9 mile tramp from South Shields to Seaburn we were now ready to press on south to Seaham. The only problem was that a massive obstacle now stood in our way — the River Wear and the City of Sunderland! It wasn’t all going to be quiet bays and empty beaches. We were going to be sucked into an urban jungle and hopefully spat out the other side.

We ate a hearty breakfast at the excellent Mayfield Guest House with the proprietor, Vincent, quizzing us about our walking plans. Then we dragged on our boots and heaved on our rucksacks and set off. We were heading due south but first had to head the wrong way in order to visit Seaburn Morrisons for our lunchtime provisions. Not for the first time, we found that our large rucksacks proved to be conversation catalysts. They caught the eye of the lady on the till who also quizzed us about our venture. We evidently were not her average customers. Turning south out of the supermarket we headed up Seaburn promenade towards a gleaming white lighthouse standing on a promontory at the end  of the beach. This was built in 1856 and used to guard the end of the old South Pier at the nearby mouth of the Wear. The lighthouse now overlooked Parson’s Rocks and at low tide we could have scrambled over them round to the next beach. Unfortunately the tide was high so we had to climb up to the road and take the more conventional route. We were compensated for this disappointment by reading an information board about the geology of the area and spotting some small, wading birds scurrying about over the wet rocks. I guessed Dunlins but Catherine and her smartphone over-ruled me in favour of Turnstones. I must admit I had never heard of them.

We now arrived at Roker beach, complete with amusements, cafes, bargain shops and attractive, raised-bed gardens. Slightly faded information boards showed us how  popular and crowded with holiday-makers it had been in the past, before the age of cheap foreign travel. Roker was also the beginning of the Sunderland Sculpture trail. This had been created between 1991 and 2001 by a sculptor Colin Wilbourne and a writer, Chaz Brenchley, in consultation with local people. It had several interesting and/or attractive sculptures to distract and entertain us. The most memorable for me were “Taking Flight”, 5 steel representations of a cormorant taking off — a common sight on that stretch of water, and a large, twisting steel tree, apparently bending in the wind. On the concrete base of the latter were pictures of a lighthouse, a sailing ship and a local monster called the “Lampton Worm.” We were also intrigued by a series of 3 stone doors flanked by colourful stained glass panels. These represented the past, the present and the future. The footpath only passed through the door of the present.

By now, the trail had reached the river mouth and continued inland along the north bank of the Wear. Across the water we viewed cranes and industrial buildings. It’s not the most picturesque of river mouths because Sunderland was built on the backs of its industries. We walked round a marina, listening to the clanking of the yachts in the breeze. Schoolchildren in orange life jackets were being given a canoeing lesson, watched with interest by 2 old nuns, leaning on a fence. The weather was fine and sunny but dark clouds were approaching as we walked alongside the river. We passed the National Glass Centre which we didn’t have time to visit except to cheekily use their toilets! Then we passed Sunderland University campus which Catherine was interested in as she works at its Leeds equivalent. It had a symbolic, sculptured pile of  huge, stone books in front of it. As the river curved round to the right, our immediate goal came into view — Wearmouth Bridge, the last bridging point of the river before it reached the North Sea. Behind its graceful single arch was the city’s rail bridge.

A sudden, sharp shower interrupted us as we approached the bridge. I’m sure it contained sleet even though it was still July. We scrambled into our waterproofs but as soon as we had got them on, the rain stopped. We found this was a good trick to stop the rain. On several occasions, showers ceased the moment we had donned our rainproof togs. It’s called sod’s law. We passed below the ancient St Peter’s Church and climbed up a steep road to the bridge. Wearmouth bridge is a graceful, single- arched, steel structure built in 1929. Two earlier bridges had spanned the river at this site. Before that a ferry service had been in operation. The bridge helped Sunderland to grow as it united the north and south banks of the Wear. It looks like a smaller version of Newcastle and Gateshead’s Tyne bridge, which in turn is a smaller version of Sydney Harbour Bridge. Walking across it, I was impressed by its spectacular array of criss-crossing girders. We were now assailed by the full-on noise of the city — cars, buses, lorries, trains and people. It wasn’t a peaceful river crossing. Down below we saw a shrine decorated with flowers, photos, hand-written messages and a red and white striped Sunderland football shirt. Suddenly we realized that this high, precipitous bridge was an ideal suicide spot. A notice from the Samaritans confirmed this suspicion.

We descended down a steep, slippery slope and  the brown ECP ( English Coastal Path)signs led us on a meander through the run- down city streets south of the Wear. We passed Sunderland’s oldest pub, the Butcher’s Arms, standing in a short terrace of  crumbling buildings that had somehow escaped demolition, through areas of post-war high rise flats, and round the grassy space of the Town Moor. Finally we were compelled to tramp along a noisy, busy road full of  heavy-duty traffic travelling to and from the docks. These docks were what was preventing us from heading straight back to the coast. As we trudged along the relentlessly noisy road, with no end in sight, we got very dispirited. It was one of the lowest points of the entire walk. At long last we turned left off the main road and headed down a quieter street that skirted the southern edge of the docks. Then finally we reached the sea again. We had made it to Hendon beach. We walked down a slope to a small promenade and settled on a low wall to have our sandwiches.

Hendon beach is not very pretty. At its northern end it is adorned with a collection of oil storage tanks and other port buildings. It is bordered by low grassy cliffs. The beach itself is a mixture of scruffy sand and stones. However it does have a series of well-weathered groynes which I always think add character to a coastline. They are low timber walls built to stop the sand drifting to one end of the beach as the tide invariably comes in at an angle. As we munched our little lunch I noticed something bobbing up and down in the nearby sea. It was a seal — our most exciting wildlife encounter of the day. It kept diving down for fish and then bobbing up again. We were so close that we could see its whiskers. It obviously wasn’t a common sight at Hendon as all the dog walkers commented on it to us. One chap took 10 minutes trying to get a photo. The other thing we discovered at Hendon beach was a new way to walk one’s dog. A man drove down to the prom, which was just wide enough to take a car. He then decanted 2 Dobermans who proceeded to chase after the car as their master drove it at speed to the far end of the prom and back. Then he let them back into the car again and drove off. Job done!

From Hendon we could see a pier and lighthouse way off to the south. This was Seaham, our destination. Saying good bye to the seal, we walked up on to the grassy clifftops and headed south. It was easy walking and such a relief to be appreciating coastal scenery again, now that the city was at our backs. We once again enjoyed views of deserted beaches, cliffs and pointy stacks. A couple of times we headed slightly inland to negotiate a dene, a wooded valley formed by glaciation at the end of the last ice age. Ryhope Dene was the prettiest. We waded through bracken and undergrowth and skirted woods before we were delivered back to the sea-coast again. The cliff tops were adorned with lovely meadows of wild flowers and tall grasses. One stretch of flowering thistles, rose-bay willow herb and vivid red poppies was particularly pretty. It was like a Monet painting. It was around this point that a mountain-bike rider caught up with us and stopped to talk. It was Vincent, the Guest House owner from Seaburn. We had inspired him to get on his bike and follow  our route. It was a now a lovely day for cycling and walking, with frequent sunny periods and that nasty shower just a distant memory.

Finally, after a walk of around 11 miles, we reached Seaham, announced by a car park, a busy beach and an ice cream parlour. ( Tony Minchellas delicious ice cream is the most popular in the Sunderland area.)  Now, at last, we officially left greater Sunderland and entered County Durham proper — “Land of the Prince Bishops.” Catherine took a picture of me by the road sign, instructing me to look like a Prince Bishop. I don’t think they carried heavy ruck-sacks in those days though. Soon, to our right, we could see an old church and the historic Seaham Hall. I’ve not checked but I guess it was built around the early 19th century. Apparently Lord Byron got married there to the daughter of a local landowner. The marriage didn’t last long but Seaham still exploits the connection by naming its shopping mall, Byron Place.

Seaham is an old coal town now trying to reinvent itself as a resort. It recognises its history through information boards and sculpture. We learnt about the coal trucks thundering down the hill to the docks. At the waiting staithes ( coal-loading piers), they would open-up at the bottom and decant their loads on to chutes that led to the holds of  waiting ships. A striking metal sculpture showed 3 miners ready to descend into the pit. It was titled: “The Brothers — Waitin’ t’ gan down.” The grandest building in the town is the former Londonderry Offices. From here,  the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry’s estates and coal mines were run. It’s a building that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Bloomsbury or on the Liverpool riverside next to the Liver Building. The Marquess himself lived in the aforementioned Seaham Hall, which is now a spa and a luxury hotel.

However, the most striking sight in Seaham was a giant, steel statue of a British soldier at the end of the ordeal of the First World War. It’s called “Tommy” and was created by Ray Lonsdale. It stands 9 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 1.2 tonnes. The soldier is slumped in a seat, looking exhausted and traumatised, reflecting on the horrors he has witnessed and endured. He’s propped-up by his rifle and still wears his tin helmet. The soldier stares out at the viewer with blank eyes and a glazed expression. Originally “Tommy” was only going to be in Seaham for 3 months, as part of the town’s commemoration of the Great War a century ago. However, the towns- people, helped by donations from an increased number of visitors , have purchased it, so that it can act as a permanent memorial. ( and visitor attraction!)

The town is a hotch- potch of old and new. Near the ancient church of St Mary’s ( one of the 10 oldest in the country) is a new health centre. Near the modern mall is the original main shopping drag, Church Street, which is pedestrianised but quiet. At night all the shops are hidden behind metal shutters which hint that there has been a vandalism problem. We found our guest house with the help of some ladies in a hairdressing salon. One custoner, her hair glistening with red dye, phoned her husband up on her mobile and he put us in the right direction. The Adolphus Guest House, although in an obscure place ( Adolphus Street West) was comfortable and fine. It was run by a couple with 6 dogs but they kept them very quiet. Most of the eating places in Seaham are daytime cafes, ice-cream parlours or fast food take-aways. We ate at the only restaurant we could find — an Italian based in a converted pub just off the main square — Marinos. The food was delicious and the service very good. Finally we walked back to our guest house past the floodlit church and hit the sack. The second day of our trek was over.