These Are Scottish Roads: Please Keep to the Left


, , , , , , ,

A Journey into Scotland

Part Two of the Bibliography

The South West of Scotland

Selected Poems  :  Robert Burns

I bought my copy of this book at a church hall jumble sale when I was an impressionable teenager. I have always been drawn to the presence of the poet in the verse. A funny, satirical, observant, subversive voice that celebrates the verities of decency and the pleasures of youth. A voice in tune with the natural world and critical of hypocrisy, vanity and cant. Just as every Englishman over the age of forty loves to have an opportunity to sing along with Lee Marvin’s gravel delivery of Wandrin’ Star from Paint Your Wagon, there isn’t a true-blooded Englishman who doesn’t get pleasure out of trying out his Scottish voice and Burns is a place to try this out.

Who hasn’t twisted their vocal chords into their best celtic snarl to observe a “wee sleekit, cowrin’ tim’rous beastie” ? or to pipe in the
“Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!”?

The well known poems are rightly famous but his reputation, as a poet, rests upon a considerable body of work and he is one of the poets who repays reading his verses at length. I’m sure Scots would rightly cringe at our feeble attempts to imitate a Caledonian brogue but these poems simply have to be read aloud and you would kill them if you gave them your best RP Donald Sinden.

The Auld Brig o” Doon


Burns is most associated with Ayr and in particular the village of Alloway where he was born but he spent significant periods of his life in Edinburgh and around Dumfries. He is for all of Scotland and he has a true Scottish voice: intelligent, articulate, musical and not slow to point out the faults of the ruling classes. There is something wonderful in encapsulating the superior vanity of the upper class lady in church, with her finery outshining the rest of the congregation, and keeping them in their place, only to have the effect under-mined by a louse crawling out from beneath her collar. She sees everyone looking up to her admiringly. Everyone else sees someone to keep clear of.

“O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!”

My journey took me on an evening cycle along the very route followed by Tam O’Shanter in my favourite of the better known verses. Happily I wasn’t in the same state as Tam (Burns like many of his fellow Romantics was a powerful advocate of the dissolute life and the power of drink). The ride led ultimately to the superb Auld Brig ‘o Doon which was lit by a slanting evening sun when I reached it. An ancient bridge over the River Doon. No finer spot could be devised for a story of witches.

Burns' Cottage Alloway (Near Ayr)

Burns’ Cottage Alloway (Near Ayr)

A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle by Hugh MacDiarmid

My friend Laurence and I used to walk the moors above Saddleworth taking it in turns to recite verses of this poem to each other. He was from Bray near Dublin and I was from Barrow in Furness. The poem is beyond Burns’ use of the Scottish dialect. Here MacDiarmid helps to develop a new form of literary Scottish called Lallans. With our various Irish and Northern accents we loved the sounds we could get out of the words. The poem is now regarded as one of the most important of what became the Scottish Renaissance. It’s a state of the nation work and one that is informed both by a desire to establish a new Scottishness and by MacDiarmid’s communism. (As students at Manchester Polytechnic in the early 1980s we were very much in the spirit of Marxism that was the beating heart of that institution).

Looking towards the Isle of Arran from Ayr

Looking towards the Isle of Arran from Ayr

The poem contains a warning that an understanding of Burns’ shouldn’t be taken as a Scottish birthright. That the Ayrshire Bard is mis-applied throughout the world by bogus scots (and almost certainly clumsy English twerps like me). There is something angry about MacDiarmid that we loved, even though we suspected the anger was as much directed at us as at anybody.

No wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote
But misapplied is aabody’s property,
And gin there was his like alive the day
They’s be the last a kennin haund to gie –

Croose London Scotties wi their braw shirt fronts
And aa their fancy freens rejoicin
That similah gatherings in Timbuctoo,
Bagdad – and Hell, nae doot – are voicin

Burns’ sentiments o universal love,
In pidgin English or in wild-fowl Scots,
And toastin ane wha’s nocht to them but an
Excuse for faitherin Genius wi their thochts.

Power Without Principles by Jimmy Reid

Jimmy Reid became a hero to me in the 1970s. His is a voice we don’t hear anymore in these most political of unpolitical times. Today the dominant political creed is of understanding the need for greed and justifying it on the flawed principle that if you let a few people become unbelievably rich and powerful they might sprinkle a little of their great wealth on the undeserving poor. That we should shuffle along being grateful that we also (or so runs the trick) can have our dreams and that good things go to those who deserve them. I found a copy of this in a Sheffield Library and read with equal admiration and disillusion as he points out what everyone came to loathe about New Labour (he wrote these essays in 1997 when everyone was cheering the odious Blair to the rafters). I didn’t have my ticket with me and didn’t take the book out. A huge pity as the book is now very hard to come by.


We loved Jimmy Reid for having principles. For understanding the dignity and value of the working man. He was brought face to face with Kenneth Williams on the Parkinson show which allowed the brilliant comic actor but seriously flawed human being a supposed equal platform with the Scottish trades unionist. Williams dominated the encounter through his inability to shut up. That a great man should be put on a light-weight talk-show to debate politics with a reactionary member of the Carry-On team seems to say something quite tragic about the truth behind truth in modern Britain.

Scottish politics are light-years ahead of English. They had sign posts where we settled for weather vanes. They maintained principles of decency and integrity. We ended up with politicians run by news baron(s?) who blow whichever way the current wind takes them; who would as happily trade on hate and fear as right and wrong. Jimmy Reid may never have been given the platform he deserved but he remains a hero of mine.

Scottish Journey  by Edwin Muir

OK so it’s another man of the left on a tour of Scotland. Did you expect me to take “The Astute Observations on the Economic Condition of the Celtic Nations” by Mark Thatcher with me in my saddlebag? I’m drawn to those who tell a Scottish story that they know from personal experience. I was led to this book by reading George Mackay Brown’s Portrait of Orkney. Muir is a fellow Orcadian and made his journey as Scotland was still reeling from the First World War and on the verge of the second. In the words of academic TC Smout “Muir held up a mirror to the face of Scotland all those years ago. It is frightening to see so many recognisable features in its glass.”

Dumfries and Galloway CottageI gained an insight into Scotland through Edwin Muir as well as finding him a clever and amiable travelling companion. He intensified my dislike of injustice and (on a lesser theme) justified my reluctance to find very much to like in the works of Walter Scott. (Or at least in Scott himself.)  He also painted a Scotland with so many different facets and faces that I became reluctant to define anything as Scottish or to talk of Scottishness. (A reluctance I seem to have (at least partly) overcome.

A wonderful book.

To be continued…

The 2 Rs: Reading and Riding


, , , , , , ,

A Journey into Scotland  :  Epilogue and Bibliography


To all intents and purposes my journey ended in Malton. I did ride from there to Huddersfield but have few memories and no pictures. I was very keen to complete the journey and was unimaginative in my choice of route. Bypassing York and skirting Leeds to the south gave me several hours of uninterrupted traffic through the less impressive parts of two great cities. From Leeds to Huddersfield I passed through the various stages of the West Riding Woollen Industry: tailoring, heavy woollens, shoddy and mungo, fine worsteds.


Journey’s end was an anti-climax. I’d cycled from Barrow where I was born to Huddersfield, where I finished school and started work, via the north of Scotland where my formal education commenced. Round about 1500 miles via many curves and detours. When I got there, my father and brother looked up briefly from watching football. “Oh, hello Sime. Put the kettle on could you?”IMGP0744The obvious train journey from Huddersfield to Exeter was to change at Staylybridge and Stockport (now officially a ghost line) but I couldn’t take a bicycle on this route. So, after a night in the old family home, I got up early to pedal to Halifax to catch a train to Preston. It was supposed to be a short hop of a bike ride but actually contained the two nearest misses of the entire journey. I was lucky to get to Halifax at all.

Back home in Exeter I completed a score for a stage version of Don Quixote, performed in some clubs which were the predecessors of open mic nights and rehearsed a show for the arts centre. I was making money from all of the creative activities I was engaged in; singing, acting, writing. Not enough to be a responsible parent but maybe that would come. This is what I would have to give up if I went into teaching. What was it to be? Feeding my creativity or feeding my family? I applied for a  single teaching job and got it. I left the profession from time to time to pursue various creative ventures, and when they offered me enough money to pay all of my bills and have a little left over, I retired.

In all of that time I have only been back to Scotland once, on a day trip to Berwick and up the River Tweed. I want to return. Writing these chapters has turned photographs and memories into a decent set of notes. All the time I have been writing I have been reading about Scotland and thought I’d complete the story with a round-up of the books I’ve read. I had, at one stage intended to repeat the journey and write a serious book about Scotland. But there are already many very good books about the country and the best of them are written by Scots.

IMGP0748I met a male nurse in a pub on the banks of Loch Lomond. We got talking about Scottish writers and Scottish history. Like me he’d divided his education between English and Scottish schools and bemoaned the absence of Scotland from the English curriculum. He was right in 1987 and he’d be just as right now. We have one of the great European cultures just over our northern border and we ignore it. The average English person knows more about America and Australia than they do about Scotland. Part of my intention in writing this has been to put this right for myself and I feel enormously enriched in so doing. Scotland had given the world great literature, great scientists, geologists and economists. About the only Scottish culture we get in England is a series of broadcasts from the Edinburgh Festival (a hugely English decampment to the Scottish capital every August) and an OMG! Yay!!! hogmanay celebration again from Edinburgh, again featuring thousands of English tourists.

My Scottish bookcase was a battered edition of Robert Burns, an un-read copy of Whisky Galore and a couple of books of story-telling history by John Prebble (a Canadian). In the past year, I’m pleased to say that I’ve now read a shelfful of Scottish novels, immersed myself in Scottish poetry and song and found the time to read some books of history and travel in this great nation. I’ve ordered and studiously watched box sets of documentaries. I’ve also seen the Scottish show us how to make politics real. The referendum process gave Britain its first vibrant political debate since James Callaghan left power. To see it cause fury, then admiration and finally relief in the English press was engaging and entertaining. To see how the same press and English politicians turn their fear and admiration into scorn and derision has said a great deal more about England than Scotland.

Bibliography Part One The Lake District

I bagan and ended in the north of England. The first morning of my ride took me right by (and into) the cottage where I was born. The early stages were all in the Furness fells and the Lake District. I’m reasonably well-read in the famous lakeland poets so I took the opportunity to find out more about some lesser known Cumbrian writers. I read my first Melvyn Bragg novel, completed a Hunter Davies I’d begun years earlier, re-read an anthology of Irvine Hunt poems and set about a bit of serious reading of the life and works of Norman Nicholson.

The Whispering Poet by Kathleen Jones

A fine and inspiring biography. One that left me wanting to fill in the gaps of my reading of the Millom poet. The biographer never intrudes, uses her source material sensitively and has a poet’s understanding of her subject and the landscapes and industries (and illness) that inspired it. 

Norman_Nicholson_photo_credit-Millom Discovery Centre

Portrait of the Lakes by Norman Nicholson

It seems a pity that so many people read Alfred Wainwright when so few read Norman Nicholson. One is a true writer, a true lakeland man who knows how to express his thoughts on the whole of lakeland. The other is an outsider who points out the obvious to those who need the obvious pointing out to them. If you come from Cumberland, Westmoreland or Furness you will much prefer this. Written by one of our own and written with the pen of a true poet. We should cherish him.

Selected Poems  : Norman Nicholson

Many of the twentieth century poets I like the best are reflected in the work of Norman Nicholson. He had his influences but I’ll fight a round with anyone who would deny his influence on others. You’ll find the musical cadences and rhythms to match Dylan Thomas and an understanding of man married to the landscape that characterises the poems of RS Thomas. You’ll catch the morning hare or trout of Ted Hughes and, perhaps above the rest, (and he came after) the linking of the people’s lives with landscape, social and economic history and politics and geology of Seamus Heaney. He also gives a remarkable sense of the glory of being alive that perhaps is best expressed by one who very nearly didn’t make it. (And who ever afterwards had to count his every breath). Here is a poet who captures the pastoral in it’s truth; not necessarily beautiful, but permanent and ever-changing. But also the industrial man-made glories of pit shaft and smelting shed. My favourite poems are of the southern lakeland fells and passes and, particularly his poems of Millom.

We think of Lulworth Cove or Granchester or Upper Lambourne or Rydal Water when we think of English poetry. We should think more often of the Duddon and the little industrial town almost overlooked even by those of us who were brought up across the estuary.


Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

One of the best children’s writers of the last hundred years and a man who knew and loved the Lake District. The setting around the Coniston fells and on the waters of the lake is as much a part of the book (s) as the Walker family or their adventures. I spent many hours and days in similar parts of the region and no matter what I was doing, be it sailing sticks down a stream, riding the Windemere steamers, acting out episodes of The Last of the Mohicans, they were worth doing because of where I was doing them. Ransome brings the landscape as well as lakeland people to life. The charcoal burners who tend to Roger’s ankle and show the children a pet adder may easily have been the gamekeeper who showed me a buzzard’s nest and taught me how to sneak up close to grouse. Ransome sets some of his books in East Anglia and these are every bit as good as the lakeland ones. For lovers of the lake district though, let me highly recommend; Swallowdale, Winter Holiday and Pigeon Post. The Picts and the Martyrs is also set in lakeland but I haven’t read it (yet).

Badger on a Barge by Janni Howker

Another book that captures what it was like to be brought up and spend your childhood in the southern lakes. There are some excellent stories in the much under-rated book. Seriously admired by writers; largely ignored by teachers. I taught it to several classes who all loved the books and who all produced much excellent writing in response. I didn’t read it especially for this journey but did enjoy dipping back in and finding that the title story still got tears welling-up.

The Comedy World Of Stan Laurel by John McCabe

Have only dipped into this as yet. A full project on Stan and Ollie is a potential future venture. I’m slowly filling the shelves in preparation for that.

To be Continued…

Blow Out the Candles

Mostly Concerning Food

It’s been a quiet week here in Derbyshire and food hasn’t been uppermost on our minds. For those of us still involved in the teaching of children it is the busiest time of the year. For those of us involved in moving the property forward it has been an opportunity to get outside and take advantage of the good weather to get some of those external jobs done. For those of us concerned with chasing balls and collecting sticks it has been a fabulous time and for those of us most concerned with the preparation and eating of food, it has been a quiet time.

A lot of sandwiches have been made, a few cans opened, some previously cooked and frozen meals have come out of the freezer and the local takeaways have seen more than average trade from us. But there have been a few decent meals to share and record. Not a vintage collection. But if this is going to be a record of what we’ve eaten at home, then it ought to be an accurate one.

IMGP5032Saturday saw Huddersfield Town’s last home match of the season and Charlie and I made our way up to Yorkshire to lend our support. A big crowd was anticipated and I suppose 17,000 isn’t negligible. Once I’d collected tickets there was time for a wander round town and lunch at Neaverson’s. A Texan Burger (not quite sure the Dallas version would be exactly the same as the Huddersfield one) and a portion of fish and chips did perfectly well. The atmosphere was friendly and the service cheerful.

IMGP5034The game with Blackburn Rovers ended in a 2-2 draw and a number of fans duly ignored announcements not to run onto the playing surface at the final whistle. It was an entertaining match and a very good-humoured pitch invasion. We haven’t had a huge amount to cheer this year; at least let us celebrate the fact that it is nearly all over. We are one of the most successful clubs in the country but we remain one of the least successful in the last 56 years. We’ve won bugger all during my life-time!

IMGP5048DSC_0001The week began and ended with cake. Since giving up smoking I’ve developed a sweet tooth. It is a constant delight to be discovering the delights of cakes and puddings at the age of 56. I was never particularly fond of sweet things as a child so the whole thing is a tremendous novelty.

DSC_0003Genuine Bury black pudding and an egg over-easy. There may be better black puddings than those from the Lancashire town but any puddings carrying the Bury name are pretty good indeed.

DSC_0004I’m a huge fan of the food produced at the Welbeck Farm Shop but I’m afraid these fancies are nothing like as good as they should be. You cannot fault the presentation but for £3.50 a cake, you expect taste and texture to match. It’s still a newish venture. Lets hope they improve. The meats, the hams and the cheeses are world class. The patisserie should be.

DSC_0006Mind you, that doesn’t include the doughnuts. These were everything a doughnut should be. the round one had a generous helping of a really tart lemon curd inside and was really nice. The ring doughnut was the best I’ve eaten for a long time.

DSC_0008Dear old Marks and Spencer seem to have expanded their speciality section in their Meadowhall branch. These macaroons were a treat on top of a pud and every bit as good for stealing every time I passed the tin.

DSC_0010I’m not quite so convinced of these Marrons Glacés. The whole product is impressive with the sweets triple wrapped in quality exteriors all inside a balsa wood box. I’m just not quite sure I like Marrons Glacés.

DSC_0011On a more plebeian level, I do like a cooked breakfast. I perhaps didn’t need this many beans but this is how many come in a can and I’m not very good at saving small amounts in the fridge under cling film. I have an agreement with Jolly that what I can’t manage, she can have. We work well as a team.

DSC_0013As I mentioned above, the ham from Welbeck is very good. Not good enough to stop me boiling my own for special occasions, but good enough that I don’t need to use supermarket deli counters any more. And yes, I do like mustard.

IMGP5010I haven’t emptied my pocket camera for a while. This picture of a ferris wheel in the middle of Nottingham dates back to the winter months. It has nothing to do with this food section, but I like the picture and want to include it. Please let me know if you think I should have left it out.




DSC_0017A packet of fruit-de-mer from Lidl, lightly cooked with chopped onion and an orange pepper and served with noodles was a quick and very tasty mid-day meal. I’d been working in the garden and it was really nice to eat my lunch in the garden. (I’m enjoying the novel; big fan of Lynne Truss).

DSC_0018Also from Lidl come those ready wrapped sushi. Not bad at all for the price.


Welbeck sausages taste just like the sausages we got in the sixties; and they were from an excellent butcher in Ulverston called Parkinsons. With good bread, a first class sausage sandwich.

DSC_0052We had two birthdays in the family this week but, because of illness and work commitments, we weren’t able to celebrate them until the weekend. The onions in this flan were softened very slowly until they were sweetness itself. The crust is an all-butter pastry. The filling is eggs and double cream with a lot of double Gloucester and Parmesan cheese.

DSC_0065A cheerful plateful to celebrate a double birthday.

DSC_0067And of course, two cakes to follow.



Have a lovely week. Simon

Pain is Temporary: Just Keep Going


, , , , ,

A Journey into Scotland   Part 67

From Osmotherley to Malton

Fancy there being two Osmotherleys in the north of England. The first is an area in the Furness Fells  where I spent  the happiest period of my childhood. The only people I ever heard refer to it as Osmotherley were my mother and a police inspector investigating a murder there. The other Osmotherley is better known for its key position in Britain’s network of long-distance footpaths. (Today actually marks the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the very first one: The Pennine Way). Osmotherley is the setting off point or destination (and sometimes both) for the Lyke Wake Walk: the only one of the long distance paths that has to be completed against the clock. The forty miles of North York Moorland between there and Ravenscar, on the coast, has to be covered in less than 24 hours. I’ve done it once, and it’s a fair challenge.

osmotherley2About eight of us set out on a winter’s night in 1981. Half of these (and I’m afraid I was one of them) had spent the day drinking in The Spotted Cow in Malton and we were almost certainly in no condition. The landlord was so convinced that we’d fail  that he said that if we made it back into the pub before closing time the next day the drinks were on the house. We had transport and back-up from one hostel warden while the other joined us on the walk.

A strange bunch we made. Experienced mountain leaders, enthusiastic hikers, occasional dog-walkers, a lighthouse keeper and a member of staff’s boy-friend who dressed like a nineteenth century preacher apart from his plimsolls. Oh, and a bearded collie called Hermit. At first it was chilly, then icy. We marched up steps that had been constructed to stop the footpath eroding the moor. It felt like cheating until it kept on going up and up and up.

Streams were frozen enough to make getting over them fairly straight-forward. It was the scrambling up the shiny icy bank on the far side that took all the effort. By moonlight the countryside was magical. The beer continued to serve for bravado and fuel as the night progressed and the footpath followed a long stretch of disused mineral railway. With dawn came the cold and the first of the cramps. We kept going. That’s the way to do the Lyke Wake. Pain is temporary: achievement is permanent. The two strongest walkers were among the previous day’s boozers which was something of a leveller. We kept to a steady pace.

scarth-wood-moorWith daylight came warmth. Not a great amount of it but enough to melt the frost and open up the bogs. There were well-equipped walkers in 1981 but we weren’t among them. There were some fleece jackets, an occasional Helly Hanson label but we were of the pull-your-socks-over-your-Levis and put on a thick pullover school of walkers. The distracted preacher had never done anything like this before but used his spiritual gifts to glide effortlessly over boggy ground that had the rest of us floundering. His flimsy plimsolls more than a match for the stoutest walking boot.

There were a few fallings out. A male walker (not me) questioned a female walker’s endurance and found she still had the energy to leave him counting his blessings. I suffered the savagest attack of cramp, in my living memory, on a rest stop somewhere near Wheeldale that had me muttering invective against the idiots who had suggested this walk. (I think I was one of them as well).

One of the mysteries will be just who exactly went on this walk. The picture was taken by an inexperienced photographer in the dark on someone else's (mine) camera.

One of the mysteries will be just who exactly went on this walk. The picture was taken by an inexperienced photographer in the dark on someone else’s (mine) camera.

The huge early warning system golf balls of the American base on Fylingdales Moor were greeted as the beginning of the end. “The last moor,” someone said. It was a bloody long last moor if it was indeed the last. I remember a hillside that jarred every muscle in my, by then, very tired body. It descended to a beck called Jugger Howe and it managed the clever trick of throwing you down while sinking you in marsh and reeds at the same time. The lighthouse keeper just kept on smiling in his Trinity House issue jacket and shoes. The preacher looked like he was walking across a carpet. Everybody’s legs had become coated in every stain of soil between Goathland and Brown Hill Wood. Except that is, the preacher whose white football socks still looked like they’d just been used in a Daz advertisement.

We reached the end as dusk fell. Tempers recovered. Some of us slept in the mini-bus and some of us just didn’t feel like talking.

There was still a good couple of hours’ supping time as we entered the Spotted Cow and the landlord was as good as his word: called us silly buggers but poured out glasses of ale. The serious walkers (and drinkers) tucked in. I had nothing left. My pint took nearly an hour after which I walked home and slept for the next fourteen.

The tranquility of Hawnby

The tranquility of Hawnby

Osmotherley was about to have the same effect upon me six years later. I arrived from a gentle cycle across the floodplain of the Tees. I was fit and I had about forty miles of my journey to go. As in 1981 my ultimate destination was to get to Malton. As in 1981 I had under-estimated the challenge of the North York Moors. I got to Malton but it took an awful lot more effort than I had anticipated.

There are no high peaks on the North York Moors. The highest point is less than 1500 feet above sea level. By the same token, there are very few flat sections. The Lyke Wake has a long stretch of disused railway but most of the time you find that, for every half hour you spend grunting up a steep slope, (and the slopes are very steep indeed – many North York roads are of a much steeper gradient than the Alpine slopes you see cyclists struggle up annually on the Tour de France), you know that before long you are going to be down at valley level again. Until, that is, you get out onto the moors proper. These can stretch for miles of heather and gorse and bog.

The day was running out of light and I had the choice of keeping right on to the town where I’d spent a happy year, or to settle for stopping at the next Bed and Breakfast. To be fair it was a challenge I was enjoying. There is something glorious about reaching a state of tiredness where you simply don’t want to stop.

The light, the silence  and the solitude around Hawnby was something I will always remember. I may have been weary but I wasn’t immune to the staggering beauty of the place. I’ve spent a great deal of time in most of England’s National Parks and the Moors are my favourite.

DSC_0254I stopped at Rievaulx for a rest as much as to see the ruins. I wasn’t the first traveller to seek refuge here but once I’d eaten a Mars Bar and drunk a can of orange I was back on the bike.

Helmsley Castle in the Distance

Helmsley Castle in the Distance

Helmsley was getting ready for a quiet night in. I’d cycled between there and Malton on many occasions. But somehow the distance between the towns had grown. I was basically following the River Rye to the Derwent (yet another Derwent!). It should, by the laws of rivers, be mostly downhill. It didn’t feel that way. Through Hovingham and skirting the grounds of Castle Howard as dusk descended. I had no lights and nowhere else I could stop. Instead of wanting to keep going it had changed to having to keep going.

It was good to see my friend Grat again. The hostel was looking a deal sprucer than in my day and was busy with walkers and fellow cyclists. I rated the warden as the best in the region. I’d been the area relief and had divided my time between being based here and being based in Haworth. I’d seen how all the other hostels were run and this was the best one there was. For the night I was there it was like old times. I had my old room back. I ate heartily and we even ended up having a pint or two in the Spotted Cow. Some folk looked exactly the same. Others had changed from leather jacketed rockers to be-suited executives. The beer was still the best in the county.

DSC_0527-001I’d completed a tour of most of the first twenty-five years of my life. I’d begun near the house where I was born and pedalled up to the very north of Scotland to where I started school. Malton was the last place I’d worked before going off to university as a mature student. The only place on my map of the north I still had to visit was Huddersfield and that was on the agenda for tomorrow.



I Suppose You’ll Be Wanting to Stay for Free


, , , , , , , , ,

A Journey into Scotland   Part 66

My friend Ray had been warden of Edmundbyers Youth Hostel. We’d met on a wardens’ course in the Peak district in 1981 and had just about kept in touch. His region didn’t have a peripatetic warden so, when he wanted to attend a friend’s wedding in London, I hitched up to Durham and looked after the hostel for him. He was tall and affable, quick-witted and engaging. In short, he was a right laugh. After three long-distance-days my legs were shot and my lungs were wheezy. It was only fifteen miles from Acomb to Edmundbyers. It seemed a lovely opportunity to pop in and see Ray.

I’d committed myself to going no further than the oak beamed hostel with its open fire and cosy maze of little rooms quite early in the piece. It would be good to see Ray again, it would be good to re-live a very happy weekend. And it was good not to be in a hurry. To have time to explore a stretch of Hadrian’s Wall, some of the town of Hexham and to rest beside both bicycle and the Derwent Reservoir, betwixt sleep and wake, while birds sang. To re-charge my batteries by soaking up the sounds and sun of an autumn day in the North East.

Hadrian's Wall '87-001

Maybe Hadrian’s Wall

That was the plan and it went well for most of the day. I didn’t do too well with the Roman wall. The signs pointed in a general direction; a direction it was difficult to take a laden bicycle and, there being nowhere to leave it, I made do with what could well have been the wall or could just have been some other old wall. It was an impressive groundworks and I was in the right part of the world. It did for me and I’m sure Hadrian wouldn’t have minded.

Hexham had plenty of interest to the traveller as well as some decent shops. I was always on the look out for a bakery. In normal life I was more of a fan of the ale than the cakes but, when cycling, a good patisserie increased its allure. My father had advised that, when in Scotland, never pass a pub or a petrol station as you don’t know where the next one might be. I’d swapped petrol stations for cake shops. Hexham had a good one.

It also had a decent museum with Britain’s oldest gaol attached. I’d recently married into the Armstrong family and, according to the records kept here, they were amongst the most notorious of the border reivers of the seventeenth century and regular residents of the gaol. I was duly impressed and made a note not to leave my herd or flock unattended at family gatherings.

For a contented couple of hours I wandered around the town, visiting the abbey and warming one of their benches while I caught up with the first newspaper I’d read in over a week. Then I pedalled off slowly and spent the rest of the day on the banks of the Derwent Reservoir and wandered why, given the innumerable names the English have been able to give to towns and villages, they keep using the same names over again for their rivers and lakes. It was lovely and peaceful and a few beers with an old friend would have seen the day out very nicely.

Ray was no longer warden of Edmundbyers. Apparently he’d moved south and left the organisation. I felt a sense of betrayal, forgetting that this was pretty much what I had done myself. His replacement was his opposite in every respect. I signed in.

“I suppose you’ll be wanting to stay for free.” I wasn’t expecting to but, despite the lack of grace in the offer, it wasn’t turned down. To be fair, I think the hostel was actually closed and she let me stay there out of some ex-wardens code of solidarity. There were certainly no other residents. I was left entirely to my own devices. The fireplace was cold and uninviting. The whole building was cold. The shop was shut and the pub didn’t open til 7. By that time I’d lost interest in doing much. I’d curled myself under some blankets and read my newspaper cover to cover. It wasn’t quite what I’d looked forward to but it made for a restful end to a restful day and it set me up for one of my longest days in the saddle.

Borders '87 5-002The morning dawned bleak and grey. I left early saying goodbye to my hostess who was as grudging in my leaving as in my arrival. “I suppose you’ll want your card stamped.” I didn’t but didn’t like to say. I’d slept well and for nothing. I had few complaints.

Durham is a strange county. Apart form the unique way of putting the word county in front of Durham, it is a difficult one to describe. It contains some of the most beautiful sites in Britain and contains some of its grimmest landscapes. The city of Durham is a wonder to behold but many of the towns are drab and tired. They also have names that sound a little forbidding. I aimed first at Tow Law which just doesn’t fit in with any list of English place-names. Beyond this I skirted the town of Billy Row and on into Crook. From here I headed south through a thin drizzle that added to the general sense of dreariness.

The main road was far too main for a cyclist so I continued through the towns of Bishop Aukland and Newton Aycliffe and reached Darlington just as the drizzle turned into proper rain. And thus I’d crossed the valleys of the three great rivers of the north-east. Acomb and Hexham are firmly in the valley of the Tyne. Durham is drained by the rather lovely River Wear and now I found myself preparing to cross the Tees. I was once more in the land of my fathers. This is where my branch of the Johnson family comes from. Here is where we’ve spent a hundred generations being decent and kind and friendly and careful never to rise above the rank of farmhand or miner or chemical worker. My grandfather had been all three. He was a lovely man with a line in jokes that required a good deal of skill to make funny. He had that skill in abundance and I’d ask him to tell them again and again. Whenever I pass a graveyard, to this day, I can hear him describing it as the dead centre of the town. If I see a field of sheep, I can hear him asking “Why do white sheep eat more than black sheep?”* And I’ll still repeat, on cracking an egg, his grammatical paradox “Which is correct, the yolk of the egg is white or the yolk of the egg are white?”** He died when I was seven and I would have liked to have known him better.

It was my grandad who gave the sagest advice in finding your way through towns without a map. “Just keep following the white lines,” he said and it works almost every time. I followed the white lines through Darlington and crossed the river at Dalton-on-Tees. Which gives me an opportunity  to quote from one of my favourite unreliable guides to Britain.

“As the area  of the Tees Valley …is well-known for the proliferation of cuckoos, Darlington is home to the British Cuckoo Society, whose office is to be found on Church Street. It’s actually a branch of the Halifax, but whenever they go out to lunch, they come back to find the Cuckoo Society has moved in.”***

I kept pedalling along small residential streets until I found myself in the flat farmlands of North Yorkshire. Here roads seem to follow some ancient field or border pattern. They all go in straight lines and turn at right angles. It means you progress much in the same way as a knight on a chessboard. The rain had stopped and a sort of watery sun lit the distant slopes of the North York Moors which rise suddenly and in one go from the plain of the Tees. I was heading for Mount Grace Priory  and the village of Osmotherley.

Near Hawnby 87-001


*Because there are more of them!

** Neither. The yolk of the egg is yellow!

*** From Lyttleton’s Britain A User’s Guide ti the British Isles as heard on BBC Radio ‘s I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue by Iain Pattinson

Where the Rivers Change Direction


, , , , ,

A Journey into Scotland    Part 65


I’ve got a song in my head. I’m pedalling into England while giving the larks and curlews a very literal version of Kate Wolf’s marvellously metaphorical song, Across the Great Divide.

It’s gone away, yesterday

And I find myself on the mountainside

Where the rivers change direction

Across the Great Divide

Any water falling on the hillside behind me is going to make its way north and into the River Tweed. Rain falling on this slope is very quickly a part of the River Rede. One raindrop will reach the sea at Berwick, the other will pass between Newcastle and Gateshead before reaching the tide. For this is indeed Redesdale. I’m back in England.

To many the main purpose of Redesdale is the A68, one of the main routes between the two countries. In terms of human geography its a very big area with a very small population. In terms of physical geography and history it is a place that could fill volumes.

Upper Tyne Dusk '87If you like your moorland bleak and windswept and you find the trip up to Top Withens, in Pennine Yorkshire, (site of Wuthering Heights) a little urban, then Northumberland may be the county for you. It’s a glorious place to be. It feels huge and by British standards it is huge. It also has some of the finest coastline in the whole of these islands. It’s the only place I know in England where you can get two miles of beautiful sandy beach entirely to yourself in the middle of the summer holidays.

I’m hoping for a very long slow descent to the Tyne. If the water can flow slowly down then surely the same force of gravity can give the cyclist a rest from the pedals. Northumberland has different ideas. Up here the moorland disguises a complex geology. A bicycle is as good a way as any to explore this. There is no mode of transport, including Shank’s Pony, that tells you, with as much accuracy, whether you are going uphill or downhill or whether you are on the flat. This is corrugated country. It feels almost as if some giant has taken the land and squashed it causing it to fold and crease. Not huge cliffs just constant switchbacks. You ride up a steepish slope for a hundred feet and drop down the other side. For the first two or three times it almost feels fun. Then it becomes a bit of a serious workout and finally it becomes painful.

As the crow flies you may have ridden a mile but the odometer gives more credit than that. The constant up and down adds distance as well as fatigue. The waters of Catcleugh Dam sparkle in the October sun. The village of Byrness is sheltered away from the main road. It soon becomes clear that I’m not going to be sitting on the banks of the Tyne for a late picnic lunch.

The English and the Scots used to march armies up here either to invade or to hold back invaders. Border skirmishes were so much the order of the day, in the late fourteenth century, that the actual date of the Battle of Otterburn is disputed. Conflict between England and Scotland in those days basically meant conflict between the Percy family (the Dukes of Northumberland) and the Earls of Douglas. In Henry IV Part One Shakespeare portrays the two families joining forces against the English king, but for most of the time they were at each others’ throats.


Otterburn (1388) was a battle fought by moonlight. If you are going to have a night battle then this is a pretty good place for it from a film-makers point of view. The Scots were outnumbered three to one and won the day, losing only 300 men. The English lost nearly 3 thousand either killed or taken prisoner. It was a bad day for the Geordies. Among the prisoners taken was Northumberland’s son Henry Percy, better known as Hotspur. He was regarded as the greatest soldier of his generation and is remembered affectionately and Romantically by many, but he lost as many battles as he won. (Perhaps that is why Tottenham’s attractive but largely unsuccessful football team have taken on his nickname.)

(He also had a very un-warrior like lisp and legend has it that the entire population of the area took to lisping so he didn’t have to feel too bad about it. (Though he did sometimes wonder if they might be taking the pith). Apparently you can still detect this in some local accents.)

Borders '87 4-001For a short while the road and the Pennine Way run parallel. Those walking Britain’s first long-distance footpath in a southerly direction will be on day two or three. Those coming north form Derbyshire will be having the same feelings as me. A couple more days and that will be it.

This is wonderful countryside. I’m entering the massive Kielder Forest. It’s the largest man-made forest in England and has, as its centre piece, the largest man-made lake in Britain. There are much better routes than the one I’m taking. If I did this journey again (and the process of writing about it has whetted my appetite) I’ll certainly take the back roads and the lanes. This is far too lovely to be clattering along a main road. Far too lovely to be in a hurry.

And that is how I feel as I reach the fork in the road that allows me to either continue along a wide macadam strip to Corbridge or to choose the wide macadam strip to Newcastle. I choose the altogether more touring-bike-friendly little road through Bellingham towards my YHA (Youth Hostel Association) destination of Acomb. And it is suddenly all alright with the world again. This is a land of rough pasture and upland farms, of buzzard swoop and curlew cry. This is a land that has witnessed the passing seasons of history, has echoed to the march of armies and the quarryman’s hammer. A land with as little in common with Home Counties England as you can imagine yet a land that is English in clint and gryke, in shale and in grit. English to it’s very bedrock and lovely up to the English heavens above.

Borders '87 3The warden of Acomb hostel has an enviable job. He seems happy about it and makes no secret that the busiest time of his day is between 5 and 6 when he signs in the dozen or so walkers who then largely look after themselves in the converted stables. I book in, shower and cook up a simple meal of beans on toast before treating myself to a wander around the village. I have a disappointing pint of Youngers IPA in one pub but the second is ahead of its time. Here was a landlord who knew the way the wind was blowing. Here was someone who served his beer to be sipped and savoured rather than necked. He had two guest beers on (in 1987 this was more than unusual), both were very strong, both were superb to tastebud and mood. The locals had bought into it. We stood at the bar and discussed the merits of each. Then we sat and compared the first with the second. Then we foolishly had a third and a fourth. At which point I  find that my memory of the rest of my time in Acomb goes blank until I mount my bike and leave the following morning. I rather think I had a bit of a headache.


Barefoot in the Ruins


, , , , , ,

A Journey into Scotland   Part 64

Melrose to Carter Bar

Melrose is one of many towns that has lost its youth hostel since I rode this journey. I don’t think the loss is entirely down to my decision to tour Scotland but there were certainly a lot more YHA hostels when I set off than there are now. As someone who spent an enjoyable couple of years working for the organisation, I am saddened by this. As someone who wants to have a little luxury and not have to share a dormitory with half a dozen men who like sharing and who belch, fart and bore the socks off you with stories of their exploits; who wash like a bugler scrubbing a turnip and who have to show their great appetites by forcing spoonfuls of cornflakes into their mouths which they then keep open while eating them. Times change. People had a choice between paying £25 for a disturbed night among enormous underpants and body odour, with a mass produced breakfast and the annoyance of being obliged to do a job before you leave.  Or to pay £40 in a nice hotel for a private room with en suite bath, a telly, some tea and coffee making stuff and an individually cooked breakfast.  Not surprisingly they took the latter option.

I can’t remember my night at Melrose. I remember booking in just after dark. An elderly couple who looked and spoke like extras from the first series of Dr Finlay’s Casebook held differing opinions of my achievement in cycling from Perth.

” Och, you’ve covered a fine old distance today. And how far are you going the morrow?” enthused the lady who was careful to enunciate every single consonant.

The husband was curt to the point of rudeness. “Ah canna see the point in travelling all aroond the country if ye dunna see anything.”

And with that my memory switches off until I open the curtains of the room the following morning. The sun had risen and the angled light lit up the red sandstone walls of the ruined abbey in what seemed to be the back garden of the hostel. I had no idea there even was an abbey and to see it in this light; a light so sweet and clear you could travel on its rays; was stunning.

Melrose Abbey '87-001Within five minutes I was walking across the dew among the stones. I had to clear a wall but that was the only way I was going to be able to take in the rich ecclesiastical splendour of the place. Leaving my boots by a bench I walked barefoot and my tired feet have seldom had such a balm. No holy healing here (though the place felt rather special – the red sandstone so similar to that used to build Furness Abbey, some 300 yards from my birthplace and visited weeks earlier on the tour) just the freshness of a perfect October morning.

This is border country; a land of wonderful place-names; from the sweetly unusual in Galashiels, to the weirdly delightful in Hawick (pronounced like oik with an “h” on the front … at least it was by Bill McLaren), to the purely Scottish (with connotations of Robinson Crusoe) in Selkirk, to the names that sound like Sunday school teachers in Peebles and Moffatt, to the geographically obvious in Coldstream, to the very convenient J, for anyone playing alphabetical towns, in Jedburgh and the equally useful K in Kelso. I like the sounds of the towns around here; and my favourite sounding one of all was, indeed, Melrose.

There is a strong tradition of playing rugby around all of these towns. Many a Scottish international learned the game here and, in most cases, continued to play for their local team. Like many predominantly rural areas the population is either rich or poor. The well-off played on a Saturday and wore a tie during the week. Those who wore an overall and played were sometimes tempted by the lure of the rugby league chequebook. Two of the finest were the Valentine brothers from Hawick. Rob Valentine was a bloody good player, Dave was one of the best that ever played either code. They stayed in Huddersfield after they hung up their boots. These were the days when to take rugby league money meant becoming a social pariah in your homeland… at least as far as the rugby club went. The rugby union authorities said it was against professional sport. That it would destroy the ethos of the game if players were paid. Yet they welcomed players who had been paid to play any other sport than rugby league. League players were banned for life…even if they had only played at amateur level. The hypocrisy went deeper in that many union players were more handsomely paid than their league counterparts. The difference was that league players paid tax on their earnings.


Dave Valentine became a publican but died in his forties. I used to sup in the same pub (The Shepherd’s Arms on Cowcliffe) with Rob. It was an honour to talk to him. He remained very competitive and always spoke a great deal of sense.

The road from Melrose to the English border was much longer than I had expected. I’d always heard Melrose referred to as a border town but “the borders” is a whole region and not just a dividing line. To some the borders referred to any part of Scotland that housed seventeenth century raiding parties who used to come south to steal cattle. Like smugglers and outlaws the word Reivers has come to have a touch of romantic glory about it.

I had about twenty five miles to ride along a main road. I called in at Jedburgh for a piece of cake. My legs were tired from the long day in the saddle and cake often puts a bit of life into them. The last couple of miles were a good steep pull around lots of twists and turns. At the top was a huge stone with Enland written on it, a place to park a dozen cars and a piper all resplendent in full tartan, screeching well-known White Heather Club tunes out of the most justly maligned instrument in Britain. This was tourist busking of the most blatant variety. Cars heading into Scotland with expectant trippers, hungry for all things Caledonian were generous. Those heading south less so.

Carter Bar '87The English are great like that. As they approach another country they become passionate devotees of everything that country stands for. On cross channel ferries bound for France, English families dash to the restaurant and order up croissants and carefully constructed fruit tarts to go with their little French cups of coffee. Once the English have been subjected to non-English culture for more than a few days the enthusiasm wears off. The same families on the return trip order a full English and eulogise over just how much better the sliced bread is than those bloody French baguettes. And, as they let everyone know that the French simply have no idea how to make a cup of tea, they slurp back steaming mugs of Tetley and Typhoo. 

Carter Bar piper '87The piper was actually very good. He was also friendly and posed for a his picture (no great strain…that was why he’d dressed up like that) and was happy to take mine. He was also happy to tell me what he considered to be a very funny thing about the huge stone.

“You see that stone.” he began. “It’s standing right bang on the border itself and it’s got England written bold on one side and Scotland written bold on t’other.” He paused for dramatic effect. I expected something quite wonderful.

“Well, the funny thing is that England is written on the side of the stone that is in Scotland and Scotland is written on the side of the stone that is in England.”

He waited for my reaction which was fulsome and entirely faked. He thought he’d given me Xeno’s third paradox and opened up my mind to a completely new way of looking at the world. I gave him a pound, bought a mug of tea (Tetley) at a caravan and pedalled south along English roads.

Simon @ Carter Bar '87

A Drop of the Hard Stuff


, , , , , , , , , , ,

A Journey into Scotland … Part 63

If you pursue the stereotype of Scotland you will soon encounter alcohol and drunkenness. And the label isn’t all the fault of disparaging English. The Scots themselves make no secret of their love of a bevy or a dram. Scottish poets, songwriters, authors and comedians have turned drunkenness into an art form. Robert Burns’ great poem Tam O Shanter takes place on a ride home from the pub after taking a skinful.

“And getting fou and unco happy”*

In the brilliant Swing Hammer Swing, Jeff Torrington depicts a drunken week in the life of Tam Cley in the Gorbals of 1961 Glasgow. James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late is an equalling brilliantly written week in the life of Sammy Samuels. The beer and whisky flow freely in both and the bleak but perceptive comedy flies from it like sparks from a welder’s torch. Heroin may be the main mind-alterer in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting but alcohol is no stranger to the pages. All three books celebrate Scotland’s complex relationship with bar culture and all three would be contenders in my list for the best novel to come out of Great Britain since 1990.

smh obits. author Jeff Torrington. small web pic

Billy Connolly, who has been sober for many years, made stories of drunkenness the central plank of his stage act. In the seventies Peter McDougall made television worth watching with his ground-breaking plays; Just Another Saturday, Elephant’s Graveyard and Just a Boys’ Game. They dealt with inter-weaving themes of Scottish Independence, sectarian troubles and the overspill of the situation in Ulster into Glasgow and the economic depression caused by the closing of the Clyde shipyards. Drink fuelled these dramas which were some of the very best of the BBCs Play For Today series. To me the best television made in this country during my lifetime.

Scotland has long been the land of the fictional detective and whether it’s Taggart or Rebus, they are rarely very far from a bar and often seriously under the influence of strong drink. Compton MacKenzie’s war-time classic Whisky Galore tells of how Hebridean life almost comes to a close when a shortage of whisky hits the islands of Great and Little Todday and how it springs back into its full glory when a ship containing 50,000 cases of whisky runs aground just offshore. Music Hall acts of men in kilts in the later stages of inebriation were popular and there is even a song called the Drunken Scotsman wherein a fellow falls asleep on the side of the road in his cups. While asleep two young women approach and decide to find out for themselves the truth of what a Scotsman wears beneath the tartan. They only have to raise the hem by an inch to be impressed and as a joke tie a blue ribbon around the exposed manhood. Upon awakening the fellow goes to relieve himself after his sleep and is surprised to find himself thus decorated. He decides that whatever it was that he had been up to in his unremembered drunken state, he had won first prize for it.

Whiskey_Galore_02In literature, a drunken Englishman is invariably either a bore or a beast. On the other hand the flying Scotsman is invariably portrayed with heroic nobility, no matter how far down life has cast him.

And yet Scotland is a country with a world-wide reputation for temperance, strict presbyterian observance and sobriety. My journey had been made to reflect the true nature of the nation and in this respect I had caught the national zeitgeist to a nicety. In Glencoe and Sutherland I had eventually taken to my bed after copious libations of beer and strong drink. In Kilmacolm and Kingussie I’d been as dry as a sixties Sunday on Benbecula.

Gothenburg pubs are a Scottish phenomena that began at the turn of the twentieth century and continues today. I’d passed a Gothenburg pub in Cowdenbeath but hadn’t gone in as it was too early in the morning. My long haul along the roads and by-passes to the south of Edinburgh had left me dry. The Dean Tavern in Newtongrange offered me a wall to prop my bicycle against and a bar to rest myself. I ordered a pint of heavy and, it being a quiet late lunch-time, was regaled with the history of the “goth’.


I’m not sure I got hold of the entire concept but the idea seemed to be to accept that the working man was going to fancy a pint at the end of the shift  but that he must be kept from drinking too much. Gothenburg pubs were designed to be as unattractive as possible and to be free from such attractions as music or gambling. The Dean Tavern seemed a reasonably accommodating sort of a place though I kept to the premise of the premises by only imbibing the one. The pubs were owned by shareholders who paid the staff and the overheads but who were then only allowed to take 5% of the profits. All of the rest was ploughed into local good works in a forerunner of the supposed precepts of our own national lottery. Profits from The tavern where I stood had provided a picture house, a row of shops, a sports ground with a pavilion and grandstand, a bowling club, a nurse’s cottage and a scout hall among other local amenities. You were served your pint, kept from having one over the eight and the profits sprouted up around you. It seemed a perfect mix of the two strands of Scottish opinion on the amber stuff that makes you wobble.

Newtongrange was built on coal. The mine had been famous and regularly appeared on news bulletins south of the border in the sixties and seventies. It closed in 1981. The effects on the local economy were obvious: there were only three of us in the bar.

From Edinburgh to the border, on the route I was taking, is really one long slow pull up the Pentland Hills and a long fast ride down the other side. Refreshed by my Gothenburg pint I made my way as best I could. I have no notes and no photographs of this stretch of the journey. I remember keeping going. I remember a typical Scottish sequence of sunshine and showers and wind and rainbows alternating like the horses on a carousel. I have never known a place like Scotland for rainbows. In England they are rare enough for people to point them out to each other or to say, “I saw a lovely rainbow this morning.” In Scotland pointing out  a rainbow would be on a par with pointing out the sky.

Borders '87 4-001I can’t remember how many cars or trees I saw that afternoon. I can remember a van selling food in a lay-by and I stopped to buy myself a sausage sandwich. I was impressed that I’d got past Edinburgh and felt I was well on my way home. The occasional showers didn’t bother me. I was making good progress. Once over the top I expected the downhill to last maybe half a mile but it kept going. Gradual but very welcome after seventy miles or more of cycling that day. The landscape changed again. I’d passed the populated central belt of the country and was now rapidly approaching the once wild lands of the Borders. I was reminded of the less populated parts of North Lancashire. It was hilly and rural with fast moving streams that had been harnessed to run small woollen mills in the villages between farms where sheep kept to the high ground and corn was being harvested on the lower slopes.

At Stowe I stopped at a delightful pub and contemplated asking if they did Bed and Breakfast. Young farmers were exchanging harvest stories in the tap room and playing a few rounds of cribbage while they waited for a fourth. I was welcomed into the conversation and invited to join the game but declined as I’ve never mastered crib. It was with the greatest reluctance that I re-mounted the bike and continued to tumble downhill in the company of Gala Water on my way towards the River Tweed and the town of Melrose.



fou = drunk

Cowdenbeath Four, Edinburgh Nil


, , , ,

A Journey into Scotland   Part 62

From Tay to Forth to Tweed

My thoughts as I left Perth were to try to get south of Edinburgh. I was in the heavily built-up and once heavily industrialised central belt of Scotland. Country lanes were at a premium. Getting anywhere in anything approximating to a straight line without going on a motorway took some planning. The B996 runs parallel to the main route. It’s a simple two lane road that was quiet for much of the journey. A strange feeling to be pedalling along an empty road with the roar of traffic in my ears. When cars and vans shared my road they did it in pairs from opposite directions. It seemed up to the cyclist to get out of the way. Valuing my life, and looking forward to breakfast, I took evasive action.

Borders '87 3It’s amazing how quickly Scotland changes. I’m only about forty miles from Pitlochry and the gateway to the Cairngorms. Until Perth everything had been green and lovely. You pass Milnathort and you’re in a different landscape. This is urban Scotland. In 10,000 square kilometres you can find 3.5 million people. This is approximately two thirds of the population of the country crammed into a seventh of the space. Much of the reason for this is geological: there was an awful lot of coal under the ground. A fair bit of iron too. Central Scotland ranked with the Black Country, Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire as an industrial powerhouse in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By 1987 many of the factories, mills and mines had closed and many more were to follow. The area looked tired. Even the wide expanse of Loch Leven looked weary. I’d passed Bridge of Earn, Glenfarg, and  Kinross. I was approaching Kelty with a plum name on the horizon. We English may have known the names of all the Scottish football clubs, and identified that they seemed to pair up, but we didn’t know where they were. Rangers always went with Celtic, Hibs with Hearts, Dundee and Dundee United. All of these have a strong geographical connection; most of the pairings didn’t. East Fife paired with East Stirling though they had little other than a prefix in common. Dunfermline were always paired in our minds with Dumbarton even though they were on different sides of the country. Finally Stenhousemuir and Cowdenbeath were forever joined on the simple fact of the unbelievability of their names. To the modern mind this logic was more evidence of insular thinking on our behalf and, to that, I think we will enter a plea of guilty.

Photo from Gannin' Away web-site

Photo from Gannin’ Away web-site

I was delighted to be cycling through Cowdenbeath. So much so, that I did a couple of laps of the town; which didn’t add very much to my journey. It wasn’t a large town but it was a true mining town and could easily have been twinned with many a Yorkshire settlement. It felt very familiar. There were some buildings that evoked civic pride and there were some that failed to flatter the architects. But it felt like a town. It had been built around the mining industry. Before the first shaft was sunk the area had been known simply as Beath and Cowdenbeath was the name of a farm. The town had grown so fast that in the 1890s it acquired the nickname of the Chicago of Fife. A delightful use of light-touch irony surrounds several local names. The town may have grown rapidly, but at the end of this period of expansion the population was still under 10,000.

One real delight was to find the famous football ground practically in the centre of town. There is no irony in it being called Central Park: but there is considerable incongruity in the club’s nickname which is “The Blue Brazil”. I asked a man in the car park if he knew why they were so named. The accent was difficult to comprehend but I think he said “It’s to do with the mining in’t it?” And I suppose it was.

In those days I was never sure how traumatic a bridge crossing was going to be. I’m not all that keen to go out of my way to cross big bridges in a car. I have suffered paralysing vertigo from adulthood. On a bicycle it was sometimes a matter of taking it in my stride at others it was plain terrifying. I’ve contemplated long detours as well as catching trains to get me from one side of an estuary to another. In the back of my mind is the voice of the aversion therapist. “Face up to your fears and they will go away. It’s an irrational fear. There’s no more chance of you falling off this bridge than there is of you falling off a road.” Yet still I wobble.

Forth Bridges '87And then there is the wind. I understand the basic physical and meteorological reasons why bridges are windy places. In these cases knowledge and power do not go together.

The fear factors for this vertigo sufferer are several. The height. It is only when you get out on these structures that you realise just how high they are. Second there is the fact that once you set off you know that you have to keep going. This eventually becomes a comfort but until you reach half-way, it is a torment. Wind is a factor. Not just the strength of the gale but the noise it makes through the structure of the bridge. The stirring waves of cold swirling grey/brown water seems to draw you. (there are some who suggest that bridge vertigo is more of a fear of throwing yourself off than an actual fear of heights. I’m not sure that’s the case. I’d happily be strapped to a safety cable. Then there is the fear of looking stupid. In your mind you are horribly aware of the childishness of not being able to cross a bridge that thousands cross every day. Again awareness contributes to the fear rather than rationally diminishing it. The fear of being laughed at is also present but most times you’re preoccupied with everything else that this doesn’t become a factor unless you are in company.

On the plus side, The Forth Road Bridge is iconically beautiful and offers views that make the beating heart and the jelly legs and the liquid stomach worth while. They started building it the year I was born and opened it the year we got our very first telly. For years it was one of the iconic images of Britain and people had debates over whether it was more beautiful than the Forth Bridge (as the cantilevered railway bridge is correctly named). In 1964 I favoured the modern lines of the suspension bridge. Today I still like the road bridge but think the older bridge one of the most beautiful on the planet. In 1987 I gritted my teeth, tightened my sphincter and pedalled like fury. On feeling terra firm beneath me again I felt like the first man to cross the Hindu Kush. In fact I was the 1.7 millionth person to cross the bridge that month.

Edinburgh '87Having got this obstacle out of the way I knew the road south was now clear and I wanted to cover as much ground as possible before nightfall. Edinburgh was there in front of me. It was almost harder to miss it than to go right through the middle. With hindsight it would probably have been quicker to take in some sights. When I began this paragraph I was struggling to remember and justify why I skirted one of the most glorious cities in Europe. Then, and this is the power of writing as a spur to memory, it suddenly came back to me just how much I was missing my family. I had a wife I wanted to see and a three year old daughter and a one year old son. I wanted to be back with them more than I have ever wanted anything. I knew I’d be back to Edinburgh one day. As I write that day still hasn’t arrived. It could wait. My love for my wife and children couldn’t. The view of the city over the sheet metal boxes of industrial estates and ring roads isn’t the best but the castle and Arthur’s Seat still look pretty enticing. I was heading for the Pentland Hills and, far beyond that, The River Tweed and England.

A Road at Each End


, , , , , , , ,

A Journey into Scotland    Part 61

Perth: The Fair City

I know very little about Perth but sense something special about the town as I ride in. It feels important without ever explaining why. It’s a classy name. Clean and simple. It shares it with a much bigger city in Western Australia but somehow the Australia bit changes the entire timbre and connotation of the word. Perth Australia is an exciting place where over two million people live thousands of miles from anywhere, and is a moderately attractive name; Perth Scotland has fifty thousand residents, is 20 miles from Dundee, 40 miles from the centre of Edinburgh and is gorgeous sounding.

And yet I know nothing about it.

I rode in past Scone having been up to Dunsinane. It’s dripping with history. But then so is the rest of Scotland. The town feels regal in its own right, not regal as conferred by a palace where some or other royal slept, but handsome and worthy of respect. All the other large settlements in Scotland are well known to the English for the simple reason that, apart from Glasgow and Edinburgh, which everyone has heard of anyway, they all have a football team*. We know Kilmarnock and Stranraer, Dundee and Berwick because we’ve heard their names every Saturday evening since television began. Perth has its team, and a moderately successful team at that. But it takes the old name of the city: St John’s Toun, or St Johnstone. This doesn’t make the town unique. Several well known teams hide their location; East Fife is in the lesser known town (unless you are a Proclaimers fan) of Methil. Even in England the trend continues; Tranmere Rovers ground is in Birkenhead and Port Vale is hidden away in the potteries town of Burslem. It might make sense to disguise the names of Burslem, Birkenhead and Methil, none of which score heavily in terms of the sound of their names. Perth though is a stunning name. We should hear it more.

St Johnstone '87I never got to see much of the city. I did pass the football ground (the old one which has since been demolished: the new one, McDiarmid Park, was the first purpose built all-seater stadium in Britain) and crossed a bridge over the Tay and generally saw a solid and handsome town. I didn’t venture out in the evening, didn’t go to a shop. I pedalled in after everyone had settled to their tea and rode out before most had started breakfast. I regret this now but it wasn’t a tour of towns. I wanted to see Scottish landscape. To see rural Scotland. This was a tour of all the places I’d lived in the first twenty years of my life and I was basically a country boy. As far as actual towns were concerned I’d stopped in Ayr, Kilmacolm, Thurso and Inverness. Perth felt like a metropolis. After dallying on the northern bank of the Tay for the previous afternoon I had a sense of speed once again. I needed to get back home and the only way I could do that; and reach Malton and Huddersfield (two towns that had played important parts in my first quarter century); was to make close to a hundred miles each day and catch a train almost as soon as I reached West Yorkshire.

I haven’t been back since so that leaves the writer to do the diggings of research that will make my visit an educational one. Time to call up Wiki. I’ll stick to the famous people section. That usually tells us something significant about a town: Jeremy Clarkson comes from Doncaster; enough said.

Ann Gloag and Brian Souter come from Perth. They can either be regarded as successful business people or the people who killed off competition and diversity in bus and coach transport in Britain. Once you could tell where you were by the colour of the buses; Barrow Corporation, navy and cream, Wallasey, daffodil yellow. Huddersfield, pillar box red, Halifax, green and orange. Then Mrs Thatcher, in a spectacularly short-sighted attempt to curb the power of the Greater London Council, decreed that local authorities could not subsidise public transport and the wolves moved in. Services were cut, unprofitable routes abolished and two of Perth’s finest grew excessively rich. As a nation we’ve stopped finding fault with business people. You don’t have to look too hard to find fault with either of these. Of the two Souter is the more offensive. He has promoted homophobia and homophobic views but this didn’t stop him being awarded a knighthood. He sports the type of anachronistic facial hair designed to make him look manly but actually makes him look like he failed the audition for the Village People. So far my love of Perth hasn’t grown any.

Souter-1024_224470kSir George Mathewson (another successful businessman, another knight of the realm) took a bank that had been a cornerstone of solid reliability for centuries and inflated it into one of the biggest in the world by a sequence of takeovers that were once regarded as bold and innovative and are now regarded as quasi-dishonest and the main reason for the huge banking crisis of 2008 which saw the Royal Bank of Scotland being bailed out by the British taxpayer to the tune of billions and the loss of hundreds of thousands of livelihoods. So well done him.

Ah well, an unreconstructed lefty like myself was never going to fall in love with people just because they were able to make huge piles of cash. Lets turn to literature.

Sir Walter Scott (another man who is harder to like for himself than for his works) wrote The Fair maid of Perth which gave the town its nickname. Neither William Soutar nor his near namesake Alexander Souter (it’s either a very common name on Tayside or a good one to have if you want to get an entry in Who’s Who) are not household names. Souter because he was a bible scholar and even students of theology would struggle to name five of these. Soutar because though he was a very good poet he was not one of the ten who satisfy the British media’s need for poets. The term “famous poet” refers to less British people than have attained the monarchy through murder.

The fourth writer from Perth is John Buchan and he makes up in fame and decency for all of the others. Not allowing the fact he wasn’t called Souter to hold him back, he went on to glory in the title of the First Baron Tweedsmuir, to acquire the title of Governor General of Canada and to become really well known as the author of The Thirty Nine Steps. It’s a fabulous book. He scores a bucketful of points for Perth.


Wikipedia has decided to bunch music, comedy, broadcasting and acting under the  heading of “Media”. It begins with a founder member of a folk metal band which doesn’t count. Folk and Metal are bad enough on their own but to mix them seems to be a terrible crime against hearing. It doesn’t do much better with someone described as “an etiquette expert”. Do we really need such a thing? No points to Perth there.

110688-high-res-bbc-radio-scotland-presenters-lst116688Comedian Fred MacAulay is a native of the Fair City and he’s just about as delightful a comic as you can wish. He also seems to be a very nice man. If he’s on the panel of the News Quiz I listen and enjoy. He scores very highly.


On the other hand Gillian McKeith comes from Perth and cancels out all the points MacAulay has gained. Dara O”Briain chose her for his Room 101 with her “shrill, naggy little face” and representing all that Irish catholics thought protestants were like: “pale and miserable and giving out to you all the time”. I’m with O”Briain here.

Ewan McGregor is the superstar trump in the pack for Perth even though he was born down the road in Crieff. Surely McGregor can single handedly fly the flag on an international stage. You’d think so. Until that is, you start to go through his filmography and count up the good films he has made: Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, August Osage County and parts of A Life Less Ordinary and Brassed Off. Then you make a list of all the films he was awful in and you soon run out of paper: Little Voice, Star Wars, Black Hawk Down, A Million Ways to Die in the West, Emma, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Rogue Trader (one of the very few films I had to walk out on, and I’m a naturally lazy person who doesn’t want to get up once I’ve got myself into a comfortable seat with an ice cream). He was the only bad thing in the otherwise excellent The Impossible, and the less said about Moulin Rouge the better. You might say his good films are good enough to excuse him the bad and I’d say fair enough. But then he makes that bloody awful series of programmes in which he and a friend travel around the world on huge motorbikes with a huge entourage of floppy haired men in Paul Smith shirts and talk about “how bloody difficult it is”. He was vaguely tolerable in this but only in comparison with the goggle eyed pile of pointlessness that was his mate; a friend he made at acting college (perhaps because he was the son of a famous film director). No I’m afraid Ewan McGregor doesn’t sell Perth to me at all.


To complete the list there are three winners of the Victoria Cross so that’s lots of points to Perth, some forgettable politicians and a handful of lower league footballers.

All in all, my brief stay in the city seems to have given me a more in-depth understanding of the place than I had first thought. I found it a smart and handsome town with some interesting architecture and a road at each end.



* Yes, I do know that Glasgow and Edinburgh have football teams. They’re quite well known.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 323 other followers