travel

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

Northern Rail Odyssey part 1: The West Cumbrian Coast

Most of the way from Carnforth to Maryport, the train line is never far from water. At the southern end, around Arnside and Grange-over-sands it’s all flat fractured fields, land and sea tangled together with grassy spits, and muddy fingers of water encroaching in each other’s element. Further up, there are wild rocks, crashing waves, and rows of regimented black seabirds that I’m fairly sure are cormorants. There are pebbled beaches, harbours and marinas, working coast, leisure coast, deserted coast. I could spend days travelling up and down that line in rain, sun and mist to see how different it looks. I may, someday.

Coast between Carnforth and Ravenglass

Between Carnforth and Ravenglass

This time, however, we stopped off at Ravenglass, where 3 rivers drain into the sea and the MOD does artillery tests (don’t go on the beach when the red flag’s flying…). It’s famous for its narrow-gauge railway, which used to carry ore to the sea and now carries walkers, rail enthusiasts and excited children the seven miles between Ravenglass and Boot. OneMonkey was bemused by my eagerness to venture on a small steam train with proportionate carriages, but while I wouldn’t say he was converted by the time we’d been to the other end of the Ravenglass and Eskdale railway, he did concede that it was a nice way to see the countryside. You clatter through woodland, past sheep, cows and pheasants, and unfold yourself from the miniature carriage into one of the most peaceful and picturesque valleys I’ve ever seen. Being hemmed in by the towering fells, then returning to the wide, flat estuary at Ravenglass is quite a contrast. We couldn’t spend long in Eskdale, however, as the nature of a whistlestop tour is that you don’t have long anywhere, just enough to form an impression, soak up some vibes, and leg it back to a station.

Walking towards Boot from Dalegarth station

Walking towards Boot from Dalegarth station

Steam train in woodland

Ravenglass and Eskdale railway

One thing I hadn’t come across in a while, which featured on both the steam railway and the main line, was request stops. Because our tickets didn’t specify a destination, every time we boarded a train on the coast line and showed our tickets, the conductor asked where we were heading, and as it happened we only used the scheduled stations. It made me wonder how request stops work the other way (when you’re on the platform and want the train to pick you up). Do you stick your hand out as though it was a bus (how long does it take a train to brake to a halt)? Or is there some more sophisticated system involving the signalman’s phone? I never asked, in case of mundanity – I prefer to picture walkers on remote platforms hopping up and down waving scarves like demented football fans, desperate not to be left for the night.

On any jaunt that doesn’t qualify as a city-break there is the perennial problem of where does a vegetarian eat in this small town/even smaller village. There are three home-made varieties of Cumberland sausage, lamb this, beef that. All very traditional and fitting to the surroundings, but the death of a pet lamb thirty years ago (marauding badger) turned me off the idea of eating sheep, and gradually I relinquished as food all the remaining animals I ate but was fond of(by which I mean pigs and cows, in that order. Chickens, vile, vicious pecking creatures, I still ate occasionally for a further ten years). I would always prefer to eat in a country pub or independent cafe (I was genuinely disappointed to notice Wetherspoons, Costa, Subway in Whitehaven) but they don’t always want to encourage me. It was a delightful surprise to find the Ratty Arms at Ravenglass (right on the railway platform, though no trains went past while we were eating) had an actual selection of vegetarian meals. Cue crippling indecision, naturally, but when I did make up my mind I had a most enjoyable dinner (shame about the beer – where’s a Jennings pub when you want one?).

Boats at Ravenglass

On the beach at Ravenglass

Old building on Whitehaven harbour

Whitehaven harbour

As a complete contrast to the tiny laid-back estuary-nestling village of Ravenglass, the following morning we chugged up the coast to Whitehaven. OneMonkey was looking through the opposite window, and missed the blot on the landscape that is Sellafield – if you do that, simply turn your back on it, you can remain immersed in coastal beauty and you need never know it’s there. There’s a definite inkling as you push north on the coastal line that this is Cumbria, not the Lake District – a little less loved, a little less visited (though clearly we were visiting, and I have loved these places since childhood). Whitehaven, from one angle, is a colourful Georgian port with a busy harbour and bustling shops. From another, it’s one more northern town that got left behind, faded grandeur fronted with bingo halls, and a boarded-up art deco bus station. I hadn’t been to Whitehaven for at least eighteen years and I was disappointed not to recognise anything much, whereas every time I go to Carlisle (not very often, and it’s a place I’ve visited much less than Whitehaven) there’s a certain corner I turn and get hit with overlayed locational memories of a whole stack of years at once. Then we walked near the multi-storey car park just as a gull screeched nearby, and I could feel the smooth bricks on the car park stairwell and my dad’s huge hand around mine, and I was peppered with childhood memories. Thinking about it, I do associate the sound of the seabirds with Whitehaven, more than anywhere else – having visited a few other coastal towns and villages on this trip, they do all sound (and smell) different.

Finally, a quick stop in Maryport, where the rain that was a nuisance in Whitehaven became a stinging impenetrable curtain, and we abandoned all plans. If Whitehaven got left behind, what can you say about Maryport? It has the longest row of independent shops I’ve seen in years, and has barely changed since my last visit (again, at least eighteen years ago) but I’m not sure everyone would see that as a good thing. It mostly felt empty, though that could just have been the rain, the only signs of life a huddled figure leaping from the chip shop to a waiting car.

Northern English Journey

My recent whistlestop tour of Northern England by train put me in mind of the wonderful English Journey by JB Priestley. Modesty (and indeed accuracy) forbids me from making a direct comparison between that book and any humble scribblings of my own, though I’m sure I’m equally liable to offend some residents (never intentionally).

Platform one sign, Carnforth station

What have I learnt? Not much, probably. Don’t rely on dry weather to the west of the Pennines (but really I knew that already). Not all staffed stations have toilets, so even if you find the swaying and jolting of the train off-putting, you might not have much alternative – go easy on the flask of tea.

What have I seen? Loads, and I’ll try and share a bit of it with you over the next week or so.

Starting in West Yorkshire, over the course of a week or so I visited Lancashire, Cumbria, Northumbria, East and North Yorkshire, and passed through Tyne and Wear and County Durham. I revisited childhood haunts and went to places I’d never been before. I stood at the East and West coasts in a variety of weather and mused on the difference of beaches. I watched from train windows as we skirted rivers, estuaries and the sea, seeming to hang over the water – there’s a couple of places I wouldn’t fancy travelling on a windy winter day.

If there’s going to be a Northern Powerhouse (which I picture at the moment as a sort of Heath Robinson generator contraption in a tumbledown stone barn on a moor) and it’s going to be based in Manchester (which I’m sure in Westminster minds is as solidly Northern as you can get, but dismissed as ‘the Midlands at best’ by Geordie OneMonkey, and even I see it as borderline North) then the rail rules will have to change: Northern Rail’s North Country Rover ticket doesn’t allow travel to Manchester. Too far south.

How I write, why I write, what I write

Disembark here for the next stop on the My Writing Process blog tour. Tearoom at the rear. Please exit via the gift shop…

As mentioned a few days ago Kelvin Knight passed me (and Judith Allnatt, and Stephen May) the responsibility of continuing this blog tour, so whether you like it or not I’m going to give you a little insight into my writing life. If you haven’t called off here before, it might act as some kind of introduction and (hopefully) an inducement to stick around. You could even sign the visitors’ book (or ‘leave a comment’ if you want to be prosaic).

First up, what am I working on?
Lots of things. Too much. Not the stuff I should be. This is the problem with having a butterfly mind and an overactive imagination, when you actually come up against the fact that writing a complete piece (even if it’s 500 words long) requires focus and a bit of (whisper it) work. I’ve had a crime story on the go for months. I was mightily pleased with the idea and I don’t want to rush it and fail to do it justice, but I’m in danger of letting it hang around too long.

There are two larger projects on the go. One is the sci-fi noir novel I began during NaNoWriMo 2013 and finished the first draft of in January this year – Sunrise Over Centrified City. I’d written it longhand as I’d hurt my back and wasn’t carrying my dinky little notebook computer around (and since then I’ve done more damage so I’m still not typing when I’m out and about), so it’s taken me until the end of August to find the time to type it all up so that I could start redrafting. The other is a collection of speculative fiction which I’m hoping to put out fairly soon. It’ll be roughly half and half published and unpublished work, a mix of science fiction, fantasy and things between.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I write in so many genres (butterfly mind), I’m not sure how to answer this one. OneMonkey has claimed my science fiction is like Alan Bennett in space (if only! But I’m not sure it was meant as a compliment). I’ve had a recent story in Romance Magazine and my first novel (Wasted Years) has been described as a romantic tale, but I don’t usually read fiction labelled as romance, and I absolutely don’t write anything mushy or soppy (I really hope I don’t. Please tell me if I do). My comic fantasy isn’t always as funny as others in the genre (hence it doesn’t tend to get out into the world. Except All the Room in the World) and my other fantasy doesn’t tend to involve elves and royalty and magic artefacts. There is often (but not universally) a core of northern-ness (northernity?) to my stories, with all that might entail (grit, rain, tea, taciturn characters). And probably an undercurrent of socialism where you least expect it (Wasted Years might be romantic in places, but I still see it as a cautionary tale about the shallow emptiness of greed-is-good consumer capitalism and ruthless ambition. But don’t let that put you off…)

Why do I write what I do?
I can’t not, is the simple answer. If I didn’t write it down it would stay swirling round my head and eventually I’d explode. All writers are a product of their reading, so from Paddington Bear to Anthony Trollope’s finest novels via John Wyndham, Terry Pratchett and Philip K Dick, I select my subconscious ingredients and distil them into something (I hope) unique. I write in many genres because I read in many genres, as you can probably tell from my book reviews and end of year summaries.

And finally, how does my writing process work?
Hmm, most of the time it clearly doesn’t, or I’d get more stuff finished. I don’t have a writing routine (though I went through a long phase of writing during my lunchbreak, when I was carrying my pencil-case sized computer around) or even a fixed way of approaching a story (whole plot sketched first? just an ending, a beginning, a setting, a character?). Chaotic, maybe, but I like to think it leaves me open to chance thoughts and melding of ideas. It could just be poor planning.

I have a TeX file (hangover from years of physics) which I’ve gradually been adding to for the last few (nine?) years, divided into character names, good lines, snippets, titles, characters, and ideas. Anything that I jot down during the day on a paracetamol packet, the back of an agenda or even in a writing notebook (it does happen), gets thrown in there as soon as possible. I’ll do writing exercises in the snippets section to see if I come out with anything usable. Vague half-baked thoughts of ‘what if..?’ go in the ideas section, and even Stuart Maconie caused an entry in the names section a few years back when he tried to say Michael Jackson on the radio and it came out Maxl Jaggle (which I’ve yet to use for a sci-fi character, but someday I will). Every now and then (when I’m in full-on procrastination mode) I trawl through the file and join a title with an idea, a name with a snippet, or just pick one item and go off on a flight of fantasy with it (like in March 2012 when I tried writing a story a day this way). Occasionally, an idea is sparked directly and I just start writing without it ever going in the file.

Sometimes I write one story till I’m finished. Sometimes I get bored, or have a better idea partway through, and I get sidetracked. I have been known to put something aside for a number of years, only to come back to it and finish it in a matter of hours. There are some things I’ve written from start to finish without correcting any of what came before (Sunrise Over Centrified City, for instance). Others have been rewritten continually as I go along, so the first paragraph’s been through seventeen drafts and the last has been through two. Crime stories need meticulous planning so that they hang together (clues and methods and detection and such); that’ll be why I rarely manage to finish them (The Dovedale Affair being a notable exception).

Some days I get lost in the story and bang out a thousand words without trying, other days I sharpen a lot of pencils and tidy my inbox. Or write a blog post.

So there you have it, me as a writer, in a nutshell. If your appetite for my fiction has been whetted (admit it, it has a little bit), check my About (& Publications) page where you can follow links to all the ones that are available for free, then if you like, proceed to the ones you have to pay for…

Time to hand you over to some other creative folks:
Jo Tiddy is a member of the Telegraph Short Story Club, and although she has contributed guest posts there, she doesn’t have a blog of her own and will therefore be a most welcome guest right here.

Mary Colson mainly writes non-fiction for children, but she has fun with fiction as part of Ilkley Writers and will be appearing at the Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe in October. Regular readers (or those that know me well) will understand why I particularly appreciated a recent extract in which a cat called Clash belonged to a guitarist named Strummer…

World Book Day. Kind of.

It’s World Book Day, apparently. But only in the UK. And though various book-related twitter accounts are asking everyone what they’re reading (In Pale Battalions by Robert Goddard, since you ask), the event itself seems to be aimed at children and to be run through schools. Though most of the parents I’ve spoken to today (not that many, admittedly) have children who weren’t taking part.

Nonetheless, any encouragement to read, particularly for children who are bombarded by the competing distractions of the modern world (cue the headshake and ‘it weren’t like that in my day’) has to be a good thing. Niche as it seems to be, there is no reason not to take World Book Day at something more like face value and use it as an excuse to read a book from a different country. It could be in translation (or, if you’re multilingual, in a foreign language) or you could dive into the world of English language books from other places like Canada, New Zealand, Ireland.

I have to admit, I don’t always know (or indeed care) where the author hails from, when I read a book. If it’s set in the south of England, like In Pale Battalions, I’ll probably assume the author’s English (having just looked it up, Goddard is indeed from the south of England), and maybe it’s the setting that’s the key, not the author’s nationality. You can go anywhere in the pages of a book, experience other cultures and viewpoints, other priorities and ways of whiling away the day. You could go around the world in 80 books. Maybe that could be an aim for the next World Book Day.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

To say how huge and influential Neil Gaiman is, he hasn’t written many novels (not true of comics of course or, latterly, children’s books). I enjoyed Good Omens, which is how I first discovered Neil Gaiman as a teenage Terry Pratchett fan in the early 90s, and in the last 10 years I’ve read Stardust and Anansi Boys (a particular favourite) but somehow not got round to American Gods, despite there being not much else to go at in the way of prose.

Turns out it was worth the wait. One of those total immersion novels where you completely believe in the world that’s created. And belief, when it comes down to it, is what the book is all about.

Shadow is in his early thirties, he’s about to be released early from prison and he’s looking forward to seeing his wife again. In the event, he’s released a few days earlier than he was expecting, so he can make it to her funeral in time. Three years of aching to be back with the person you love most, and she dies in a car crash before you can get to her. You’d be lost, wouldn’t you? Directionless. Ripe for being swept up into events beyond your control or comprehension. Something like, say, a war between gods.

It’s a road trip, it’s small town America, it’s mythic and epic and reverent and irreverent at the same time. It’s almost like Stephen King read The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, let it stew at the back of his mind for a few years then wrote a book haunted by it. Except it’s also unmistakably Neil Gaiman. There are coin tricks and cons, magic that’s misdirection and sleight of hand, and magic that is real and a lot less showy. It’s about love, loyalty, remembering and believing – be it in religion or yourself or your family, and it’s about what happens when the world moves on.

I very much doubt I’ll be waiting a dozen years to read the new one, The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Commuters in wellingtons

Snow has come to town this last week, and so far it has stayed. Looking out of my window is like looking into a fairytale; the trees are caked and bowed, the distinction between path and flower-bed lost. There is a frisson of excitement to the morning commute. Will I get to the station in good time, without falling? Will the train be delayed? Will it run at all? Will a passing van going too fast on the main road splash me from waist to ankle with brown slush?

Routine is turned upside down. People are getting the bus because they can’t get the car safely to the main road. Or they’re driving to work because the train’s cancelled. Walking the kids to school because the school bus can’t get through. Hiking boots are called upon, and jumpers not usually considered fit for work are brought into play. Men turn up for meetings in suits, ties, and green wellingtons.

It is at these frayed edges of everyday behaviour that stories form. They crystallise like the winter ice and are just as delicate. Gaze upon them, admire them, memorise their shape. Paint pictures with words and share that frisson of excitement around.

Waterfall icicles