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.
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.
The 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.
*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