Northern Rail Odyssey part 2: the North East

We start the day with a look at the rail map and the weather forecast. Though it’s not bad with us, there are claims of heavy rain along the Tyne during the morning and we briefly wonder whether to change our plan. That would be a shame, I say – I quite fancied walking in the footsteps of OneMonkey’s Haltwhistle ancestors who moved to Hexham for a while before ending up in North Shields 150 years ago. He points to another circle on the rail map. You’ve got another strand of ancestors there, I say, so that’ll do. Or we could go there, he says, tracing his finger over the glossy paper. That’s ok, you have ancestors from there too. Exasperated, he asks where else we could go that some dead relative of his has already settled in, and I point to Windermere, Kendal, Whitby, Northallerton, Darlington, Sunderland, Newcastle. Oh yes, and Hull. Unlike me and my smallish swathe of Yorkshire, you don’t have to go far back in OneMonkey’s family tree to get pins in a map all over the North. He looks at the map for a moment. We stick with our original journey.

By the time we arrive in Hexham the worst of the rain is over, though evidence of its earlier ferocity is abundant. This is particularly true in the park, where some kind of Spring fair is underway. We join hosts of other determined souls in wellies and walking boots, wax jackets, cagoules and parkas, and trudge round dripping stalls selling candles and stained glass, jewellery, local cheese. There are human traffic jams on the paths as despite the boots, no-one quite wants to squelch onto the churned-up grass to get by. Small children plod up and down a fifty-yard stretch, perched on placid ponies. I feel mildly guilty for not buying anything as the stallholders are clearly cold and wet, but I tell myself we could come back after we’ve been round the abbey (we don’t).

Door at Hexham Abbey

Hexham abbey

Hexham is the sort of small town that’s dotted with art galleries, and before we even reach the town proper from the station we’re lured into a couple. One is the sort that’s nice to look at but is all original canvases for hundreds or thousands of pounds. Unfortunately, though there’s no indication from outside it turns out to be the artist’s house, and we spend a strained ten minutes making smalltalk (something neither of us is good at. Remember, we both have physics degrees) before sneaking out as soon as he leaves the room to attend to his jazz CD. The second is a mixture of originals, prints, cards, sculptures, glass paperweights. This one contains an artist too, but he doesn’t seem to have invited us into his house (though he may live upstairs for all I know) and not everything on show is his own work. I feel I can mutter criticism to OneMonkey about the odd modern canvas. There are paintings of the ghosts of shipyard workers streaming through the streets of Wallsend (another OneMonkey family connection) which I particularly like, and we dive back in an hour later so I can buy a card of one on the way to not quite missing the train.

Strung out between Newcastle and Carlisle, this train line is like stepping through a door to the countryside. A sudden hop from the Metro Centre surrounded by Primark bags and young couples, to being sandwiched between the river and a stretch of fields, and the further along the valley we travel the more remote from city life it feels. As we venture slowly through some remote cutting I look at the violets and primroses dotting the embankment. Elsewhere there are great walls of orangey-yellow gorse, but due to the non-opening windows on this train I have to imagine the soft coconut smell that this weak sunshine might be coaxing forth. I also imagine (though of course don’t see) kingfishers diving in this stretch of South Tyne, and drink in the colours of the woodland, spot the half-hidden waterfalls. It makes me wonder why OneMonkey’s ancestors would want to leave.

Haltwhistle is closed when we get there. Possibly everyone has decamped to Hexham for the Spring fair. A walk to Hadrian’s Wall is suggested and dismissed, as we don’t want the possibility of missing the train – we’re more than a couple of miles away from the wall at this point. That leaves a visit to OneMonkey’s ancestors, in a churchyard that seems to grow as we walk through it, and then we race back down to the deserted station. I thought Haltwhistle was supposed to be the centre of Britain, I say as the train putters into view. You’d think they’d have a plaque or something. OneMonkey looks at me – you were stood on it, he says, remember when we looked at the map to see where the church was? Oh, I say. Maybe I should have taken a photo.

Haltwhistle Holy Cross church

Haltwhistle Holy Cross church

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