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.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

From Norton, County Durham

What a difference a day makes. Yesterday I was blown all over the place by gusting winds along high cliff tops in brilliant although intermittent sunshine. Today it was equally hard going, but under leaden skies and in lashing cold rain amid giant steel and chemical works.

The day started badly. Leaving Redcar this morning I immediately got lost in Coatham Marshes, going around in circles in an industrial wasteland, and then some hours after that found myself in a muddle in Middlesbrough (or was it in the middle of Muddlesbrough), by no means England's loveliest city. However, as one man whom I asked for directions, wistfully put it: "Ugly towns sometimes produce good people. We're not all savages around here". Then he added, "some of us even read books". Later on, another chatty pavement informant told me that people from Newcastle are known as "geordies", those from Sunderland are "mackems", those from Middlesbrough are "smoggies", those from Redcar are "cod heads", those from the old mining communities "pit yackers", and those from farming villages (very cruel this) "sheep shaggers".

Alas, this good natured friendliness and banter is not to be found everywhere. When, damp and bedraggled, this afternoon I reached my destination (the Station Hotel in Billingham) the shifty-eyed hotelier (whose voice I recognized because I had spoken to him when I had reconfirmed my reservation a few days ago) declared there was no room available in his inn. Moreover, he said he had never heard of me. "It must have been one of my staff", he lied. Muttering foully I trudged off and found a room elsewhere, here in the village of Norton, a mile away, and irritatingly in the wrong direction of my travels.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

From Redcar, North Yorkshire

This very short note -- several days after my last entry -- is written just in case anyone thinks I have given up the challenge or have already stumbled off one of the stupendous cliffs that guard the North Yorkshire coast line. But I haven't, and this evening I find myself in Redcar, just south of the river Tees. I would have blogged yesterday evening, but there was no signal at all in the tiny cove of Runswick Bay under the high cliffs.

For three days prior to that I had the company of a band of co-walkers. My oldest friend Roger, his sister Val and her husband Rob, as well as my cousin Lou and her husband Chris -- all of them seem to me to be experienced, properly attired and well-equipped hikers -- travelled many miles up to Yorkshire to cheer me up, reintroduce me to civilized society, wine and dine me, and shepherd me for a few miles along this magical shoreline. I must admit it took a while for me to shrug off the introverted mind-set into which I had fallen, but now they have all returned to their homes I am once again alone with myself and my thoughts. I should however thank them most profoundly for coming such long distances to support me, and for some exceptional meals, especially dinner at the Magpie Cafe in Whitby (thank you so much, Chris). Reader, if you haven't ever visited this famous seafood restaurant in the tiny port from which Captain Cook set forth, you really should.

To day I walked 20 miles to Redcar, a hike which included climbing and descending from Boulby Cliffs. At nearly 700 feet these are the highest in England, and I found them, and the long-abandoned ironstone and alum mines, a real slog. I must confess I have this evening compounded my weariness by drinking one or two pints (or was it three?) of Black Sheep ale, a truly wonderful local brew.

The air, the mud, the terrain, the gusting winds and rain -- all these make for unstable and exhilirating walking. Somehow I manage to continue to stumble along, mile after mile, and often complete the day along the huge empty beaches to my destination provided the tide is favourable. I am beginning to look a bit dishevelled, and my broom handle walking stick prompts a few comments, but despite my vagrant appearance I am becoming quite fit after all these miles despite the occasional rioting among my toes, some of which complain loudly about the daily pounding they receive from the footpaths.

Enough of this; the Black Sheep leads to sleep....and so, good night.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

From Filey, Yorkshire

I see from my JustGiving page that one or two people have donated anonymously to my walk; whoever you are, thank you so very much for your generous support. Thank you also to Sarah, Alexander and Nicky for driving many miles in order to shake me out of my solitude, restock me with toothpaste and plasters, and also to walk with me along the disused LNER railway line from Oubrough to Hornsea and then the following day along the cliff tops to Skipsea.

The coast line around here is brittle and eroding quickly, and the cracked and friable cliff tops are dangerous for hikers. About two and a half miles of the Yorkshire coast have been lost to the sea since Roman times. A large stone in the tiny village of Barmston says: "On 1.1.2000 A.D. this millennium stone was 1200 meters (1310 yards) from the sea". As the current rate of erosion, the same stone will be far out at sea by the time the next millennium comes around.

The chalky cliffs are also home to many wild sea birds -- gannets, kittiwakes and gulls, and today I saw a few puffins as well. However, an RSPB staff member at the huge bird sanctuary at Bempton told me that climate change was driving many species away, and that some bird colonies had halved in the past 30 years.

Yesterday, slogging across the sand towards Bridlington at the end of a 20-mile day, I met a fisherman digging for worms. Because the rain had started falling, he picked up bucket nd spade and walked with me into town. Within a few minutes he had told me about his life (unemployed, hard), the fish he caught (mostly sea bass), and his partner in Filey who had just had her third baby, though her first with him (she is being "awkward"). Suddenly he stopped and took from the sand a piece of flat rock that looked like black slate, and put it in his pocket. "Jet" he said in his thick Yorkshire accent, "it comes down from Whitby". He told me that Whitby (a small port further up the coast) was once famous for jet, a semi precious stone popular in the 19th century, and that occasionally little pieces were still washed up in Bridlington. "It's about 150 million years old" he informed me, "and it comes originally from decayed monkey trees". I asked him where he sold the jet, and he said that he knew a few jewelers who "might be interested". As we parted at the harbour he added thoughtfully: "Funny really, but there must 'ave been an 'ell of a lot of monkey trees in Whitby back then".

I am now about half way through my journey, though at times it feels (and it perhaps looks) as if I have been plodding along for months.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

From Oubrough, Yorkshire

Yesterday -- and I will confess rather unusually for me -- I managed to resist temptation. Very lost and tramping disconsolately through Hull city centre in the pouring rain, I came across a line of black taxis waiting in the square on this dripping bank holiday Monday. With ten miles or more still to walk, I thought about it for a moment...but then decided -- in the interests of actually completing the journey entirely on foot as I originally intended -- to carry on. This was fortunate because it stopped raining half an hour later, and Hull -- which once must have been a splendid Victorian city -- has many fine old buildings and monuments to admire.

One statue I passed commemorates the three crew members  of "the ill fated trawler Crane who lost their lives in the North Sea by the action of the Russian Baltic fleet, October 22nd 1904". Apparently the Russian fleet, lumbering half way around the world to the Far East, mistook the English trawlers for Japanese warships, and opened fire. The great fear of mariners in those days was of the newly invented torpedo, and the Russians bombarded the Yorkshire fishing boats in panic, killing three men. The so-called "Dogger Incident" nearly led to war between Britain, which at the time was allied to Japan, and Russia. The Russian fleet sailed blithely on, only to be completely destroyed the following year by the Japanese Imperial navy at Tsushima Strait.

Another impression of Hull: after limping over the Humber Bridge two days ago, I made my way to my chosen B&B and then decided to visit Hull Royal Infirmary for further repairs to my right foot. At the Accident and Emergency reception, a tall security guard kept a watchful eye on everything. His role soon became evident, for within a few minutes a youth stumbled in, delivered a volley of foul abuse at the hospital staff on duty, and was thrown bodily out while the rest of us -- mostly drunk and disorderly -- snoozed on the benches or stared innocently at the floor. After a while I was ushered in to meet genial Dr Hossain from Hyderabad, who decried the falling standards in his city and then prescribed medication for the offending digit.

B&Bs vary greatly. The one I am staying in today is clean and comfortable, but the instructions in the bathroom are odd: "In the interest of yours and other guests enjoyable stay here. Please don't not put anything, other than toilet roll down this toilet".

Sunday, 8 April 2012

From Kingston Upon Hull, Yorkshire

In a fine misty drizzle I crossed the Humber Bridge today into Yorkshire. I am three weeks into my journey, and not yet half way to Edinburgh, but I feel that I am getting into my stride, despite sore toes and occasionally aching limbs. Kingston Upon Hull can be pronounced either to rhyme with "dull" or "wool". Apparently local folk never say they come from Kingston (which they say is in Jamaica); they like to say "I cum from 'ool".

The weather changes from day to day; on Wednesday a storm howled in from the North Sea as I struggled north from Chapel St Leonards to Mablethorpe, forcing me to crouch behind the sea wall. Rain and sleet blew horizontally into my face across the sand dunes, and the quiet sunny days of March seemed far behind. But the very next day it was warm and dry, and now we seem to have settled into a typical English spring, as the mood changes every hour or so. Fierce storms have been frequent along this part of the coast for centuries; I was told that some massive sand banks at the delightfully named Saltfleetby-Theddlethorpe dunes were thrown up in1286, according to local records.

At village after village as I edge along the coast I have been struck by the fading, lichen-covered war memorials erected after the First World War. The long lists of young men who just a hundred years ago lived in North Lincolnshire, unaware of the catastrophe that lay just ahead, are heart breaking. The pointlessness of the slaughter of that war is underlined by the addition of yet more names after 1945, when the whole bloody exercise was re-enacted. In one corner of the churchyard at the village of Tetney Lock I stopped to wander among the 50 or so beautifully kept graves of airmen killed in the Second World War. Many of the victims were Canadians, who operated in large numbers from Lincolnshire airfields, with a handful of British and Australians buried there as well. Scattered among them lie three German airmen, who, according to a gardener painting the churchyard fence, were shot down while bombing the Grimsby and Hull dockyards. "They were just boys too", he added sadly, glancing at the graves neatly aligned side by side under the spring trees.

Yorkshire, like Lincolnshire, is another very long, large county; I know that ahead lie steeper hills, and more rain and mud, but this is surely a most beautiful part of the world, and I feel very fortunate to be up here.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

From Chapel St. Leonards, Lincolnshire

This afternoon I walked up from Skegness along the promenade. The beach is wide and empty, and the wind turbines planted out at sea (I counted 53 of them) look slightly surreal. With Easter weekend approaching the British weather has been slung into reverse; last week it was 24 degrees in eastern Scotland, the hottest March day on record, and this morning there was 10 inches of snow on the ground. Some think the snow will come south. Right now it is raining hard, which will please some people, if not me. The Lincolnshire fields are very dry, and farmers are increasingly concerned about their crops. Many fields of cauliflower, potato and cabbage are parched.

Aside from fickle weather, for many people the coming Easter weekend has also been thrown into confusion by a rumoured strike by drivers of petrol tankers. A few days ago, a government minister advised the public to go and fill up their cars, and perhaps even store petrol in their houses. The result of this has been long queues at the petrol stations, many of which -- because of the extra demand -- have since run out of supplies. Politicians of all stripes have been capitalizing on the muddle, though nobody dare tell the truth and accuse the public of behaving like lemmings. The Anchor Inn in Friskney, where I paused yesterday, has caught the mood of the moment by hanging a sign outside its front door: "Beer shortage soon! Please panic buy".

Near Boston the other day I found a suitable stick -- perhaps a discarded tent pole -- with which to keep angry farm dogs at bay. A few have snarled angrily at me, but thus far I haven't had to use my new weapon. As I plod along, I tap the ground with it, and consequently it is becoming worn down and thus is becoming fractionally shorter day by day. It may be half its original length by the time I get to Edinburgh.

Yesterday a large black dog jumped out and accosted me. I raised my stick in alarm, but it turned out to be extremely docile. I stopped to chat with its owner, a middle aged farmer in a cloth cap, mutton chop whiskers and bundles of long grey hair who looked as if he had stepped straight out of a Thomas Hardy novel. He seemed to be looking after a scrapyard of old farm machinery; all around there were dozens of ancient, rusting combine harvesters and so on, some of them in the hedges. I asked him whether it was a tractors' graveyard. He seemed slightly offended by my question. "No, no, can't call it a graveyard. And it's too good for scrap," he said in his deep Lincoln accent. "So what will become of all this?" I asked, pointing to the silent, derelict farm equipment. "Don't know really," he replied wistfully, and then after a few moments added, "but it will 'appen". I found this enigmatic remark quite uplifting.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

From Wrangle, Lincolnshire

I have reached the North Sea, after three or four days walking along river banks, disused railway lines and sea walls. Occasionally there is no choice but to use a main road, but I keep it to a minimum. The landscape is so broad and flat and the sun so bright in the sky that after an hour or two there is a danger of falling into a sort of metronomic trance; this afternoon I ambled in a daze three miles beyond the tiny village of Wrangle before I realized that I had overshot my destination; back I trudged, having walked six miles further than I had expected when I set out after breakfast.

Leaving March last Thursday I passed by Her Majesty's prison at Whitemoor where, according to the generous landlord of the King William pub (he gave me free lodging as a donation to the walk), several hundred very hard case criminals are serving life terms without parole. As I stared at this grim, stupendously guarded institution a jet aircraft flew high overhead, its vapour trail scarring the blue sky. I wondered whether some of the prisoners were watching it too, and if so, what a devastating loss of hope they must be suffering at that moment. In some ways I think that hopelessness must be one of the hardest things to bear; certainly the poor in cities like Manila must occasionally look up at passing aircraft and think: "I will never, ever have a chance to travel  in one of those". Unlike the inmates of Whitemoor, however, such deprivation of opportunity is through no fault of their own.

Among the many things that will remain in my mind about this broad and pastoral eastern part of England, here are three: one, the numbers of huge wind turbines, waving their great arms silently over the fields like giant scarecrows; two, the puzzling numbers of east Europeans who have settled here (when I entered Boston yesterday not one of the three people I asked for directions could speak a word of English); and three, the weight and breadth of East Anglian bottoms, both male and female. The cruelly precise American phrase "lard-butt" often comes to mind. My landlady of yesterday -- herself a petite Liverpudlian -- told me the reason for this was the Germanic farming stock from which the locals are descended. I am fairly sure, however, that the bonfire-sized portions of chips which come with every meal must have something to do with it.