Saturday, 5 May 2012

From Edinburgh

I finally reached the Scott Monument on Princes Street yesterday afternoon, at the conclusion of my 600 mile walk. I should like to thank everyone who donated to the cause, and those who bothered to read these rambling (in both senses of the word) scribbles from along the way.

I greatly appreciate your encouragement and support over the past seven weeks: thank you so much.

Friday, 4 May 2012

From Musselburgh, East Lothian

Upon leaving the tiny village of Aberlady this morning, I at last saw Edinburgh on the horizon across the Firth of Forth; thus I have just ten miles to cover tomorrow to reach my journey's end at the Scott Monument on Princes Street.

I deliberately planned relatively shorter walks for the last few days of the journey so that I could try to compose myself before returning to "normal" life after nearly two months in my pleasant pedestrian limbo. I had also intended to close this blog with a few thoughts distilled from the past seven weeks, but alas I find I am too tired for anything like that. Instead, as one tends to do after a particular chapter of life (or in this case paragraph) draws  to a close, I have been looking at the photos I snapped along the way. For the most part, they are banal pictures of the countryside and coast line. But there are also a few shots of objects, faces or places that impressed me for some reason or another at the time. Here I should like to refer to one of them, in the hopes that someone else's words might compensate for my own dull headedness.

One rainy Monday morning in early April I found myself trudging through Hull (yes, it rhymes with wool, and the "H" is silent) in cold, steady rain. Dripping and despondent, I happened to spy a fine statue erected in memory of a Hull inhabitant named James Stuart (1836-1922), and crossed the road to inspect it. Since then I have tried to learn something about the civic worthy who merited this grand tribute, but he seems to have vanished into history, and is no doubt long forgotten. However, on the statue's pedestal are inscribed the following words, taken from one of Stuart's speeches (or perhaps a written document), and dated 1906:

"I also remember that I had a father to convince me that as I began mature life I was a citizen of a nation governed by democratic principles and that it was my duty, as it is the duty of every man according to his ability and his opportunity, to do something in the town, the the neighbourhood, and in the nation to promote the wellbeing of its inhabitants".

That, I think, is very well put indeed...

...and, on that note, I shall now head for a pub for my last (on the hoof) refreshing, rehydrating pint.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

From North Berwick, East Lothian

Stumbling clumsily along a pebbled beach south of Dunbar yesterday morning I met an elderly gentleman who, in the course of asking about my health after such a long walk, introduced me to a Scottish word that I hadn't heard before -- hirple (it rhymes with 'purple'): "Ha'e ye not got a hirple?" he enquired. Wondering what on earth he was talking about, he explained that it means walking with a limp, and that hirple can be used either as a noun or a verb. I googled it later, and found that indeed the word does exist. Further research turned up a rather curious Scottish ballad, "The Legend of Stumpie Brae", which contains the word hirple. The relevant verse goes as follows:

Quo' she, 'Gude man, an' it's o'er the linn,
And it's up to the meadow ridge' -
'Aye' quo the Stumpie, hirplin in
And he gie'd the wife a slap on the chin,
'But I cam roun' by the bridge'.

I am not quite sure what any of this is about, but Stumpie's explanation/excuse "I cam roun' by the bridge" sounds quite a good one to me.

Looking at my map I find that I have completed my northerly wandering, and that over the next three days I must head west and south along the coast to reach Edinburgh. Not so very far to go now, which is just as well. The mechanics of rising early, packing, walking for five or six hours each day, finding the B&B, foraging for an evening meal and then waiting anxiously for the weather forecast after the evening news is starting to grind me down. Physically I seem to have managed OK, but mentally I am a bit hirpled.

Monday, 30 April 2012

From Cockburnspath, Berwickshire

Yesterday morning north of Berwick-upon-Tweed I crossed the border into Scotland, buffeted by icy winds along the coastal pathway which, for a few miles, runs parallel to the main railway line. As I struggled along trying to keep my balance, express trains rushed by, covering the journey from London to Edinburgh -- which will have taken me seven weeks -- in about five hours.

Last night the rain lashed down, but this morning the countryside was silent, grey and blanketed in thick fog. In the village I asked for directions to the coastal path at St. Abbs in order to continue my journey north, but was advised by a local resident to stay inland and take a road over Coldingham Moor; he told me that in early April a rambler had slipped and fallen over the cliffs at St. Abbs, dropping 350 feet to his death on the rocks below. Not wishing to risk ending my journey in similar fashion, I crossed the moor in the dripping mist, with visibility often down to 50 yards. At one point I met a farmer emerging from a field where he had been checking on his flock. I asked him at what age the lambs would be taken off to the abbatoir, and he told me "between three and three and a half months". Unable to resist, I asked him if he ever felt sorry for them. No, he never got attached to them; "there are just too many," he said. "Mind you" he added, probably having seen me flinch a little, "without sheep and cattle there wouldn't be any countryside for you to enjoy", and off he drove in his four-wheel drive. I meditated on this exchange as I continued on my way with hundreds (no, thousands) of sheep and lambs bleating invisibly in the dense fog around me, and soon decided that he was talking absolute piffle on both counts: what he really meant was without the sheep and cattle there wouldn't be any profits for him to enjoy, that's all.

Oh I am Scotland, land of my mother's birth. I feel it in my bones. It's like coming home. I should be in Edinburgh after just five more days -- and then, finally, I can stop walking.

Friday, 27 April 2012

From Fenwick, Northumberland

Three days ago, on one of the immense endless beaches that stretch along the Northumbrian coast, I stopped to ask someone for directions to Amble, my destination that afternoon. But for the biting wind and the surging sea half a mile out across the level sand at low tide, we could have been in the middle of a desert. We chatted for about five minutes and I told her about my walk to Edinburgh on behalf of poor children in Manila; she then asked about the website and put the address in her phone. That evening, when I logged on at my B&B in Amble, I saw that when she got home she had already made a donation and left a little note. So if you ever get to read this blog, Ms. Julie Brown, I would like to say a very warm and sincere "thank you" and invite you to take a look at the Kaibigan website, and stay in touch. Such moments of spontaneous kindness and generosity, because they are so rare and precious, make my long journey very worthwhile.

Of course it isn't always sunshine. When the rain falls heavily, as it did all yesterday, the beaches are cold, restless and usually completely empty. Stomping alone up the sodden strand, one can imagine hairy Vikings plunging from boats and scampering over the dunes in search of recreational rape and pillage. Away from the coast in country lanes, aside from the swish of cars as they speed by and the patter of rain on the roads and trees, the only sound to be heard is the lowing of cattle and bleating of sheep, a chorus answered hysterically from rookeries above. In the fields, the lambs in particular look unhappy as they try to find shelter from the wind and rain under the throats and at the sides of their mothers. Perhaps they know their days -- like their own little painted bodies -- are horribly numbered.

Evenings are of course more cheerful, especially in pubs where expensive but delicious English beer helps one keep positive about the world, at least for an hour or two. Then there are the quotidian adventures of a purely domestic nature that colour and enliven the lives of solitary travellers. For example, last night I took my daily shower with my day's underclothing, which I trample like grapes in an attempt to keep it (well, reasonably) clean. After that, as usual, my washing went on top of the radiator to dry. However, one vital piece mysteriously slipped down between the radiator and the wall where it jammed into a ball and refused to budge. How to extract it? With mounting frustration, I tried to move it with my hands, coat hangers and rolled up magazines, but without success. The missing article appeared destined to stay there forever, or at least either until the radiator got replaced or the offending underwear, dessicated to extinction, caught fire. In the end, my trusty broom handle -- at my side thus far all the way from Lincolnshire -- did the trick, but not without a great deal of banging and clatter. This morning my landlady commented on the "unusual sounds", but ascribed it to the "old plumbing".

Monday, 23 April 2012

From Newbiggin-By-The-Sea, Northumberland

Long-distance walking has its share of good and bad surprizes.

On the plus side, complete strangers are unexpectedly kind and generous. This morning a middle-aged woman out with her dog asked me where I was going, and why. When I told her about Kaibigan she reached into her purse and gave me five pounds "for the children". "I'm afraid it's all I have with me," she said, and then added "I was going to give it to the ice cream man".

And yesterday, I met a very helpful policeman patrolling the broad grassy parkland of South Shields. He went out of his way to show me the path that I was searching for, and we chatted aimiably for about thirty minutes in the afternoon sunshine. Walking together, I asked about the main problems he faced on his beat, and he immediately said "disorderly youth". He said many youngsters in the north east of England are permanently unemployed, and have nothing to do but run around and make trouble. Drugs, now cheap and readily available, compound the problems; he said that ten years ago heroin was a rarity, now it is commonplace. He also talked about the Tyne-Wear rivalry, which often lead to bloody clashes between the youths of Newcastle and Sunderland. He told me it all stems from the Civil War in the 17th century when Sunderland had sided with Cromwell and Newcastle had been for the king, though none of that is recalled nowadays when tribal hatred erupts at football matches...all this local information from a friendly constable.

On the minus side, I really hate finding the carcasses of animals and birds killed by cars which I come across almost every day. This afternoon, along the A189 north of Blyth, I found a beautiful young badger, its head resting on one paw on the kerb, the rest of its body in the gutter. There was no blood visible; it looked as if it was sleeping. I lifted its stiff, cold and surprizingly heavy body off the highway and lowered it into a nearby ditch amid the wild flowers, the frenzied traffic racing blindly by. Such pointless destruction is so cruel and unnecessary.

Before I forget, I must acknowledge a factual error in a previous blog when I claimed that two shillings and sixpence in the old currency was the equivalent of 15 pence in today's money. This mistake was swiftly picked up by a relative (I shan't tell who, but of course it was a Scotsman -- nobody better qualified to count the pennies) who noted that two and six in fact equals 12.5 pence. In correcting me, he said he hoped that I hadn't "completely lost it". Pondering this cryptic statement, I see that I may be losing my hair, toe nails and wits...but I am not so sure about "it". There again, he may be right about that too.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

From Sunderland

I forgot to mention the other day that people in Hartlepool are know as "monkey hangers". The story goes like this. In the early 19th century, a French warship was wrecked off the Hartlepool coast. The sailors were all drowned, but in the debris the locals found a monkey -- obviously the ship's pet -- which had survived. For fun, the French sailors had dressed it up in a child's naval uniform. Taking it to be a spy (for the two countries were then embroiled in a long and vicious war), the monkey was tried, sentenced and hanged by the jolly town folk from a spar on the beach. The people of Hartlepool don't mind the moniker at all; in fact the local football team are still proudly known as the monkey hangers.

Wandering north this morning from Easington Colliery, where the movie Billy Elliot was filmed, I ran into two former coal miners out walking dogs on the bleak moorland above the long defunct mines. People around here are still very bitter about the closure of the pits by Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s; whole swathes of industry subsequently collapsed in the north east, and the mining communities lost their tight cohesion and local loyalties; worst of all, unemployment has remained depressingly high ever since. One elderly fellow told me he had worked for 40 years "down pit". He and his mate had to fill 42 "tubs" with coal every day (two and a half tubs being the equivalent of one ton of coal). They were paid two shillings and sixpence (15 pence in todays's money) per ton. I asked him how he felt about today's politicians. He clasped my arm and said, "Labour works us to death, but the bloody Tories starve us to death".

The people of Easington haven't however entirely lost their sense of humour. In the high street, amid the boarded up shops, are two adjacent stores. One is a pet shop, the other sells papers and liquor: "Paws and Claws" and "News and Booze", respectively.

Tomorrow I head off for Newcastle, and with luck I should be in Edinburgh in two weeks' time. I must admit I am getting exhausted, especially when I get lost, which happens quite frequently. This may of course be because I don't actually walk in the correct fashion. Last week, one of my walking companions (I won't say who it was, but he was often seen consuming Mars Bars) asked me: "Rob, do you walk like that because your foot is still painful? Or have you always been pigeon-toed"?  Alas, I suspect the latter may be the case.