Category Archives: THE JOY OF TREKS

That Riviera Touch

 

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Victorian image of Paddington Station, London

I like to think that there is a bartender in a certain Paddington station bar who passes the day in keen observation of the ever-changing ebb and flow of customers.  Perhaps he is really a writer, or an actor honing his skills, but only he might notice that every six months or so, the same disparate group of men collects on the concourse – or ‘The Lawn’ as it is known – cluttering up the outside seating area with their rucksacks, and copious bags full of food and drink.   And, sure enough, here they are again, ordering pints of Guinness at this breakfast hour… only this time there is something different.  This time there is a woman with them, and she looks nervous…

There is a nauseous combination of cacophonous noise and busyness about Paddington that could easily jade the most diligent traveler.  But with Brunel’s iron and glass roof forming a tunnel through which to shoot you to adventure and the west, there is still a romance that evokes the Victorian era of exploration and escapade.  And I am so ready for adventure again after years of child-rearing.  All the same, it’s hard not to feel apprehensive as I sit cradling my half-pint of Guinness, not really wanting it, but reluctant to betray my girlishness from the off.  The boys have welcomed me on their Walk, and it wouldn’t do to complain that surely coffee would be more appropriate at this time of day before I’ve even set one booted foot upon an unmade path.  And as if the early alcohol consumption wasn’t enough, I’m now being introduced to The Whip…

No, not that kind of whip, but rather that very British and democratic method of ensuring that one of the party does not always end up buying all the rounds, or in this case, all the drinks, meals, snacks, sundry train or bus fares, and any other miscellaneous costs.  It’s quite simple: everyone contributes to The Whip, usually around twenty pounds each; and it is then used for all expenses until it runs out; at which point another twenty pounds is thrown in by each person, and so on.  The money is placed, medieval-style, in a black velvet drawstring bag (I don’t ask), and everyone must take a turn, in other words, responsibility, for carrying it.  I have mixed feelings about The Whip, as I sip at my little ‘half’, and watch the boys order their second pint; but reason that since I may make up for it by the evening – a much more natural tippling time for a wine drinker – that it may all even out in the end.

Andy has taken over as ‘Grand Poobah’ from Rod, who held this title by not previously missing a single walk, but due to personal circumstances, has had to cancel for the first time.  Late, and in possession of the train tickets, Andy, with typical insouciance eventually saunters into view giving us just minutes to dash for the First Great Western.  I had hoped for the Cornish Riviera Express, or at least something from Thomas the Tank Engine, but our train is disappointingly modern.  We are headed to the far west of Cornwall, and little then did I know what an impression this journey would have on me for years to come.  The suburbs and industrial hangers on the outskirts of London are swiftly left behind and before long we are hurtling through England’s green and pleasant vales of chalk white horses and mysterious burial mounds.  The fields are bathed in glorious May sunshine, and the railway banks soon give way to beautiful yellow gorse; so close to the train that you could reach out and touch… much as I was used to instinctively touching the head of a small child.  I inadvertently startle now and then, as though I have forgotten something.  I am so used to always looking out for a little one, it is instinctive to keep checking, checking…but the guys are doing a fine job of distracting.  Luckily, we have managed to book two adjoining table-seats in the centre of the carriage, and they are carefully and methodically arranging what looks like a small Roman feast.  There is fresh bread, fruit, cheese and wine; olives, stuffed dates, pates and cooked meats…   Jim has brought a pre-made flagon of some cocktail or other and is busy cutting fresh limes. Other passengers eye us with envy as they stumble back from the buffet car with malodorous burgers and Styrofoam-clad coffee.  Any efforts at nonchalance soon give way to unrestrained grins of excitement as the dual intoxicating effects of wine and the hot sun on our heads relax us, and I am regaled (as is the entire carriage I suspect) with hilarious stories of past walks…  but these are tales for another time.

Past Exmouth and it’s The Brunel Show all the way, as the train swings along the very edge of the English Channel for a brief but sensational sea-front ride.  Cutting through the cliffs and along the sea wall, before lurching inland again towards Newton Abbot, The South Devon Railway was opened in 1846 and originally intended as an ‘atmospheric’ railway. But in less than a year the gauge was converted and it became part of the Great Western railway. Ever at risk from a breach of the sea or a land-slip (not to mention an errant wave) it may be something of an expensive folly, but I love Brunel’s imagination and audacity in building, against logistical reason or regard for maintenance, a line that enthralls.  At least, that is, to those of us still stirred by that first childish glimpse of the sea.  I have travelled this way many times now and am still befuddled at the number of passengers who pay no attention to this treat; who do not have their noses pressed to the window, but sit ensconced in technological absorption or enshrouding broadsheet, willing the long journey over.

To me, the five and a half-hour train ride to west Cornwall has become an important, integral part of my visits.  And not just because I like trains, and people watching, and bucolic views; time traversed is a reminder of entering another country, another world.  As if to emphasise this ritual, the train slows to a stately crawl as it passes over that other wonder of Brunel engineering, the Royal Albert Bridge. Naturally this is entirely to do with safety, and not to give those of us who care time to reflect on the River Tamar, dotted with tiny boats far below, and almost, but for three miles, separating Cornwall from England.  Yet, in my fanciful mind there is something ceremonial in this passage, a respectful recognition of transition, a feeling compounded when there is just enough time to read the sign at Saltash on the western side of the river before the train picks up speed again: ‘Kernow a’gas dynnergh’.  Welcome to Cornwall.

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Boats under Saltash Bridge (Royal Albert Bridge) by St Ives artist Alfred Wallis

White horses give way to crumbling abandoned engine houses, those relics of the Cornish tin mining industry, and in time we arrive in St Erth, where we are due to change for the branch line to St Ives.  St Erth is a very pretty brick-built station with a tea room, that has somehow managed to resist alteration since its 1877 construction, and already I know I’m in another place as a gentle summer breeze sways palm trees and unfamiliar early summer flowers.  The St Ives branch line is a single track upon which the train carriages run the four miles back and forth to St Ives, and there is not long to wait for the next one.  But no; there is, apparently time for a quick sprint to the nearby Lamb and Flag.  Once again I cunningly hide my desire to preach sense, and go with the flow; fie thee prudence, I cast my fate to the wind! But the wine is taking its toll and my rucksack feels very heavy on my shoulders as I struggle to keep up the pace, which is presumably set at ‘beer’ mode.  It does not bode well for the walk ahead.

Half an hour later, on the branch line train and lulled into a happy drowsiness, we roll past the Hayle estuary mudflats, home to many rare bird species.  But as the river-mouth opens to the sea and the expanse of Porth Kidney Sands and the long stretch of beach to Gwithian and Godrevy lighthouse, we are startled to our feet again at the carriage window, silently captivated by the sublime beauty.  This is one of the most beautiful train journeys in the country, but too quickly it passes by Hawkes point and Carbis Bay via clifftop and viaduct, before settling at journey’s end, overlooking Porthminster Beach at St Ives.  This is the journey of a bygone age, reminiscent of beach huts, Betjemen and sand in the sandwiches.   And then there is the first view of St Ives itself.  No wonder the early railway posters advertised it as The Cornish Riviera.

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Before long, we are sitting at a table outside the ancient Sloop Inn where we are staying, supping a pint of Doom, and watching the incoming tide gently slap against the harbour boats.  In early May there are no crowds and I’m personally delighted by the abundance of handsome ruddy-faced locals in fisherman’s jumpers…

Later, at a harbour-front restaurant, the journey, or rather the alcohol consumption takes it toll, and I cannot eat the scrumptious mushroom fettucine or drink the delicious Viognier.  All the weeks of preparation, the miles of hill-walking and becoming fit and hydrated for the walk ahead have been undone in a single day, and I dread the sixteen miles of steep cliffs that lie ahead in the morning.  But as I bid goodnight to the guys and make my way back along the deserted wharf to my room, heady with the sea air, the black ocean beats more insistently against the harbour wall, and I know there is a connection with this place that will not easily be broken.

Next time: St Ives.

As part of a recent restoration project, Patrick Baty of Papers and Paints in London was asked to make a paint analysis in order to ascertain the original colour of the Royal Albert Bridge. You can read more about this here: http://patrickbaty.co.uk/2010/11/25/royal-albert-bridge-cornwall/

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You keep saying you’ve got something for me…

 

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Linen print from ‘lovebox’, The Cure

 

Ah, Manhattan-sky lined metropolis of dreams; majestic multicultural melting pot; monolithic memorial to modernity.  Or Croydon.

When I first came to London from rural County Down, I thought Croydon WAS London.  I was almost eight years old and already disappointed by my visit to the other nearest town centre.  Hang on a minute, this wasn’t London; you know, the one I’d been sold on being enticed away from my seaside town.  Okay, there were red double-decker buses, but I’d expected the full Tower of London with beefeaters scenario.  And then a trip over the other side of the hill revealed the futuristic sky-scrapers of Croydon.

Reluctantly I accepted the fact that it wasn’t the ‘actual’ London, and not even technically a City, but it was one that my childish mind could comprehend.  London is too big to see; once you’re there you are already in it and part of it.  But from the top of the hill, Croydon had limits, and encapsulated all my childhood ideas of what a big city should be.  It only needed Flash Gordon scooting around in a flying car to complete the look.  Some of my earliest memories of Croydon are going to a Saturday morning disco at The Greyhound – yes, that Greyhound – an infamous live band venue now long gone and shuttered up, looking forlorn and defeated under the weight of the mighty Nestlé tower.  The morning disco was officially for ten to fifteen year olds, but I got in at nine because my friend’s mother worked on the door.  How cool was I?  In teenage years I hung around Croydon’s paved precincts with my mates, trying on clothes in Top Shop and Miss Selfridge, sharing bags of vinegar-soaked chips and cramming into photo-booths to snap ourselves in Hawaiian shirts, shades and pork-pie hats.  Everyone was in a band, including the guys I was about to go walking around the countryside with, and my friend Liz and I would dutifully trot along to every gig in our ‘furry’ granny coats and winkle-pickers.

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A stunningly professional flyer 

 

There was an abundance of second-hand clothes shops at the time and I don’t think I ever wore a dress that wasn’t Vintage.  My favourite was a Debbie Harry-style yellow Crimplene mini, which I teamed with Doc Martens, fishnets and long, cruelly back-combed hair.  This ensemble I might choose to team with shocking pink lipstick smudged à la Robert Smith of The Cure.  Ah sweet youth.

And now I was standing in a camping shop.

Croydon has changed, over the years.  Gone are the second hand clothes shops (it’s like we bought it ALL) and independent record shops like Bonapartes, or the magnificent Beanos which traded old vinyl.  The larger music retailers are visibly dying a death, and I cannot help but wonder what will happen to all these large shopping centres as more and more purchases take place online.  High Streets are already becoming a wasteland of betting and pawn shops in a nightmare scenario not envisaged even by Bill Bryson in his wildest rants about Sketchleys.  But perhaps I too have changed; I know too much, and the wonderland has lost its sheen.  No longer enticed by the gewgaws and baubles of mammon, nowadays I come out in a feverish anti-materialist rash within minutes of exiting West Croydon train station, and feel overwhelmed with a burning desire to flee in haste towards nature and beauty.  But today I have made my way in a desultory manner past the cheap jewellery shops, McDonalds and Chuggers to a branch of a well-known outdoor clothing and equipment chain, and am staring at an ungainly, frumpy pair of ‘walking trousers’ with an elasticated waist.  Shoot me now.

And yet… there is an insidious appeal to these places that prowls a deep-hidden recess of your psyche.  One minute you’re fondling a stainless steel screw-top beaker thinking it would come in handy for a cup of tea on a walk, the next you are mentally climbing Everest in a two-man tent with a plethora of ultra-cool camping equipment.  And Ben Fogle.  Camping shops are a haven for encouraging the outdoorsy geek.  They are crammed full of cool gadgets and gizmos that you didn’t know you needed, especially given you haven’t struck a peg in a tent since the Girl Guides.

But distractions aside, I am here on a mission; The Walk is looming and my friend Rich has suggested a practice run the next morning.  The correct socks have been hunted down and commandeered, and now it’s time to tackle the boots.  Rich has recommended a certain brand, so I try them on dutifully.  I hoick up my trouser leg and peruse the reflection in the unhelpfully angled mirror.  Hmm.  Now as we’ve seen, I am not averse to a clumpy boot, but these are hideous Gore-Tex grotesques.  My normally longish legs are rendered squat and my ankles non-existent in the stiff, incarcerating grip.  How am I supposed to wear little shorts and a holster and utility belt with these?  It’s supposed to be Lara Croft not Don Estelle.  Disheartened, I remind myself it’s not about the look, but how they support the foot and ankle, or so they tell me, and admittedly the price is good.

The sales assistant gazes into the middle-distance in boredom as I pace up and down again, doing that ‘testing’ thing you do when trying on new footwear, galumphing in a manner never seen anywhere outside of a shoe shop.  Horrible, heavy, clod-hopping, Frankenstein monster boots!  My old Doc Martens were dainty by comparison.  I begin to waver from my instructions and eye-up a rather more attractive and slim line leather boot.  They are twice the price, but rebelliously, I try them.  Ah, that’s better: lightweight, comfy and stylish.  Springing to the mirror again, I turn a coquettish ankle. Oh yes, perhaps not quite the full Lara, but much more like it.

‘You should get the first ones’ the assistant says in a deadpan, matter-of-fact tone.

‘Oh? Why’s that?’ I ask furtively.  Her beady-eyed contempt has not gone unnoticed.

‘You’ll be better off with them’

I look askance at the Frankenstein boots.

‘Really, but why?’ I try to keep the disappointment out of my voice.  ‘These are much more comfortable, and they’re more expensive.  That must mean they’re better, right?’  I don’t say a word about how much more attractive they look, but I know it, she knows it.  I want the Lara boots.

‘What do you need them for?’ the assistant questions brusquely.  I tell her.  Her eyes only widen ever so-slightly when I describe the route and distance, and they only barely flicker up and down my length in assessment, but I know what she’s thinking.

‘You should get the first ones’ she repeats.  ‘Those leather ones will fall apart’ she adds, shifty-eyed, and without conviction.

And suddenly it’s pistols at dawn.  Why won’t she sell me what I want?!  She has scanned my being, without knowing anything about me, and decided that I would be wasting my money on the Lara boots.  You won’t make it, her scornful eye says; you’ll do a couple of hours and give up.  She’s doing me a favour, ensuring I don’t waste my money on expensive gear, when clearly it’s just a whimsical fad on my part.  Now, there are many words perhaps to describe my physique, and admittedly ‘athletic’ would not top the list, but still; she doesn’t know me.  She’s about twenty years old, and I note with some annoyance that she is working the elasticated trousers rather well.

The following morning I am gasping for breath as I climb yet another steep incline on Box Hill in the dawn fog.  Rich has, over the years, worked out a personal training ground; a circuit of around seven miles that takes you up and down probably the hardest route that this innocent looking downland escarpment has to offer.  Bugger.  Whilst only slightly alarmed at the image of Rich skulking around in the pre-dawn to discover this (both he and Kev, who used to live here, claim that there are LOADS of people living rough here, which is unnerving), I am rather more immediately worried about my rapid heartbeat and the ensuing nausea that I’m experiencing.  Half-way up a ridiculously giant-stepped ‘path’, I smile and wave nonchalantly to the guys who are lolling about at the top and grinning.  It’s alright for them; all that testosterone means easy muscle tone.  By comparison, my thighs are made out of duvet.  All the same, my words come back to haunt me: ‘It’s only putting one step in front of the other, how hard can it be?’  Forcing myself to move on, I curse my lapse in self-belief alongside every step of the way as I heave the gigantic and heavy Frankenstein boots onwards and up.

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 (P.S.  I do get them in the end…)

a brand new box of matches

 

    ‘You’re going to do what?’

My friend Liz’s expression was an incredulous leer as her sports car screeched to a halt in the South London traffic.

‘You’re going on The Walk?  What do the wives and girlfriends think about that?’  No preliminaries then, no sly references or allusions, but quick, brutal, to the point.

‘I don’t think it’s a problem,’ I asserted, mortified by the angry glares as cars steered around us, and pleading with my eyes that she should move on.  But Liz is not one to be rushed or intimidated, especially when she is awaiting an explanation.  I had better elaborate, and quick.

Yes, I was going on The Walk, an institution of some years standing begun by friends of mine that I had thus far felt excluded from largely due to its beginnings coinciding with the birth of my daughter.  Oh, that and the fact that it was an all-male party.  I had not paid much attention at the time of its inception, being otherwise preoccupied with the more pressing requirements of new life, breast-feeding and nappies, but suspected its roots lay in male-bonding and escape.  Yet as the years passed, and the legends abounded, my curiosity grew in corresponding alignment with my own desire to break free.  What was this ‘Walk’ (capital ‘W’) thing?

Slowly a picture emerged: A twice-yearly long-distance trek; a five-day break from cares and worries to pursue the ancient pastime of rambling.  All very innocent-sounding.  But there were other stories: tales of reckless mayhem and equally reckless alcohol consumption.  Injury, illness, and near death experiences were all to be expected.  Part of the challenge appeared to lie in a wilful abandonment of anything resembling a considered plan.  ‘Getting lost’, although not officially a deliberate intention, was neither a cause for much concern.  Indeed it seemed imperative to give each trip a hefty scope for calamity for the sole purpose of later amusement and anecdote. But most of all, I was told, it was hard.

But let’s backtrack.  The first symptom of my restless dissatisfaction was perhaps the bike.  I was working from home doing a job I hated and watching as my young daughter grew wild-haired and feral whilst I regularly hiss-screeched at her:

‘Sssshhhhh, Mummy has to make a very important telephone call!’

And I didn’t feel I was getting anything out of the experience except stress, so when I saw the bike, I knew in a moment of wide-eyed lunacy that I had to have it.  It was a beautiful Schwinn beach cruiser and I bought it on the spot. That’s right, a beach bike in South London.  Friends sniggered over their high-street lattes at the sight of me riding bolt-upright in the fabulously well-sprung saddle through the town centre.  As crises go, I may as well have been wearing purple hotpants and a tinted visor.  Looking back, it is the only thing remaining that I ever gained from that grim employ, but at the time was clearly indicative of my impending madness.  It was while out and about on my bike that I realised with no small degree of panic how adventure had left my life. Bad timing meant there was a large age gap between my two children; a lengthy and impoverished domesticity had ensued, and now I recalled with dismay how long it had been since I had climbed a mountain.  And it was while I free-wheeled along under a cerulean sky that the idea to go on the Walk had come to me.  But I had tucked it away, secretively.  When it was announced that the next Walk was to be in Cornwall, I was resolved.  I had not been to the county for many years and yet, out of pure love, romanticism and downright foolhardiness, had decided to set the novel I was writing there.  The excuse of ‘research’ was all the persuasion I needed.  I called Andy, perhaps my oldest friend in the group and asked him outright if I could come.

Of course I could.

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‘Andy’:  pastel on chipboard

It was that easy.  If Andy had had any reservations he hid them with aplomb.  He explained how it was open to all, indeed wives and girlfriends had been before, but usually just for a day, and mostly, tellingly, never to return.  But this was the difference: I was not a partner, an ‘other-half’, and as such was the source of Liz’s entertainment.  Liz’s idea of a holiday was a month on a beach in Florida with a stack of paperbacks, so the idea that anyone would choose to go hiking with a bunch of men was instantly suspect in her eyes.  And well, yes, okay, I had dated a couple of the guys before but that was way back in another lifetime.  And I may have harboured a tiny crush on one or two of the others at times…  But no; these were my buddies, my mates.  They were the boys of my youth that I had gone to gigs with, stood around charcoal burners in donkey jackets on picket lines with, hung out in corners at parties trying to look moody and interesting with.  We had argued, fallen out, and at times lost touch.  We had shared flats, and shared problems.  But most of all there had been fun, laughter and good times.  And I knew and was friendly with all of their partners, so despite Liz managing to raise a small blush to my cheek, I was not about to rise to insinuation. I was no Jezebel.  No, the desire to escape had been strong, and if I’d had any small doubt that my motives might cause suspicion, it had been quietly repressed.

And how hard could it be?

I have always been attracted to roaming; a vagabond heart that always wanted to see the view from the top of the hill, or find out what lay at the end of that eerie tunnel of trees, or beyond that rusting iron gate.  But back-packing around youth-hostels as a teenager I most certainly did not associate myself with the middle-aged ‘rambler’ types you would see lining a distant hill-top with their funny trousers, hats and sticks. Oh no… I was an adventurer; I had climbed Ben Nevis, and Snowdon.  I had traipsed around the Greek Islands for long months, sleeping under the stars and with nothing in the world but what I carried in an old army rucksack on my back.  And they thought they could scare me?  Hah!

Phone calls were made, and I was guided through the dark streets of Old London Town to an ancient gin-palace of a pub for a pre-walk meet. Ostensibly this was a chance to reacquaint and do some serious Enid Blyton-style map-poring; in reality, an ill-disguised test of my drinking prowess; a limber-up if you will, and an opportunity to test my mettle with yet more fearsome tales. By candlelight in a hobbit-hole corner at an old wooden table, I listened and nodded, sensing that with barely a toe in the door, this was not the time to ridicule.  Yet inwardly I scoffed; they were making it up, the bunch of Jessies.  I didn’t drive a car and walked everywhere as it was, and surely it was just a question of putting one foot in front of the other?  Hard, indeed!  I’d climbed Ben Nevis!  – And Snowdon.

A rehearsal run was arranged for the following weekend on Box Hill, a popular Surrey area of wood and chalk downland, and it was deemed imperative that I get me to a hiking shop for some essential kit.  Much attention was given over to my basic equipment, and most importantly, my footwear.  It was all about the socks and boots apparently.  But mostly the socks.  In case this had not been made perfectly clear on the night, it was followed up by an emotional telephone call the following day from Kev, barely disguising his shrill panic as he emphasized ‘Bridgedale!  They must be Bridgedale!’  I reassured him that his own ghastly experience of the wrong socks had not fallen on deaf ears and that the suffering would not have been in vain.  I don’t like to see a grown man cry.

Liz helpfully (some might say salaciously) offered to lend me her pink Timberland boots ‘to match my knickers’.  Naturally I loftily declined…

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My bike.  (And yes, well spotted, it’s a man’s bike.  Such was the impulse I could not wait for them to order a woman’s model, which incidentally also cost almost a third more!)