Saturday, 5 August 2017

By Train from Toddington

Our little diesel railcar trundled away from Toddington, heading north.  My friend Julliette and I claimed seats in the front of the train, right behind the driver. You definitely get the best views from there.

Soon the guard appeared and sat down in the next seat. "Why," I asked him, tongue-in-cheekily, "do you call your line the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway when you don't go into Warwickshire?"

"We needed the 'W'," he replied.  And, of course, they did. What self-respecting Heritage Railway on a former Great Western main line would pass on the chance to call itself the GWR?!  The good guard could have added that they will soon earn the right to that 'W', for work is proceeding apace to extend the line over the county border and into the attractive Cotswold town of Broadway.

Our little train crossed Stanway Viaduct and edged cautiously along the newly laid track. "Even I haven't been this far before," admitted our guard. Eventually we drew to a halt, surrounded by open countryside, in front of a large red and white STOP board. In the distance we could see work progressing on the new line.

Our driver went to the other end of the train and soon we were returning to Toddington, then on through Winchcombe to Cheltenham Racecourse.

According to the GWR's guidebook, Greet Tunnel is said to be haunted. Having walked through a few similar tunnels, I can understand how the story originated. Dark... then very dark... rough under foot... water dripping from the roof...!  You can see what I meant, though, about getting the best views from the front of a railcar. The crowds who pack themselves onto steam-hauled trains miss all the fun.

This pretty little station is Gotherington. My photo makes it appear to be devoid of track, but there's another platform opposite this one. I wonder why they didn't lay the track on the 'main' station side?

According to that guide book, Gotherington is a 'terrific' starting point for walking the Cotswolds. Such bold claims just had to be checked out, so when I got home I looked at the Ordinance Survey map. They're right. The Winchcombe Way passes close to the station, and to the south traverses Nottingham Hill and Cleeve Hill. Definitely one to explore.

Ignore the compass bearing, it just records the way my smartphone
was pointing when I took the screenshot.
Julliette and I stayed on board as the train reversed its direction once more and returned to Winchcombe. "They serve excellent food on Platform 1," our guard assured us so, tummies rumbling, we decided to give it a try.  He was right; their homemade cake is superb.

This is Winchcombe Station. Our little railcar is on the right. We waited for the big steam train to make its way down to Cheltenham Racecourse, then boarded it on the way back.

Here's Julliette, admiring 7903 Foremarke Hall. Railway buffs will doubtless notice that the train is travelling 'wrong line'. They didn't wish to smoke out builders who were working on platform 1, I was told.

Back in Toddington, we checked out the 'Have-a-Go Signal Box'. Now tell it not in Gath, but this girl has been let loose in a 'real' signal box on more than one occasion. Feeling devilish, I pulled the yellow distant signal lever whilst leaving the big red one 'on'.  The signal went down.  It's a pity that I didn't ask Julliette to record the event as the railway inspectorate would not be amused.  You're not supposed to be able to do that!   

So what's my verdict on the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway? Well clearly an enormous amount of effort had gone into restoring and preserving it and the dedicated army of volunteers can be justifiably proud of their efforts. I wish them every success as they press on towards Broadway.  If my oft-visited friend Lucy ever decides to pitch her caravan there again, I may well arrive in style, and perhaps even drag her off for a brisk hike up Nottingham Hill.

Here, though, I must choose my words carefully. Main Line railways like the Gloucestershire Warwickshire were originally engineered on a grand scale, consequently they lack the bucolic charm of many little branch lines. For instance, the Dean Forest Railway, less than a mile from my home, twists and turns along wooded valleys and pauses frequently as level crossing gates are opened and closed, all of which, for me, adds immeasurably to its appeal. And how about this one – the amazing Tanfield Railway?

But the crowds waiting to board our train as we returned to Toddington bear witness that not everyone thinks like me. Vive la difference!  And yes, one day I would love to return.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Pemberley... or was it Lyme Park?

 One TV adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice outshines all others — the 1995 version, staring Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth and the delectable Colin Firth as Mr Darcy. I missed the original transmission in 1995 but discovered it for myself on one of the early repeats. I instantly fell in love with it.

Darcy's grand ancestral home was Pemberley. Jane Austen describes Elizabeth's reaction on first seeing it:
     ... the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome stone building, standing well on rising ground...  Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in their admiration; and at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something! 

The BBC chose Lyme Park as their 'Pemberley'. The excellence of the choice is confirmed in the fact that, 22 years later, the National Trust is still celebrating the association, and your enraptured bloggist was more than happy to make a 2 hour journey across the Peak District to see it.

"And of this place," thought she, "I might have been mistress!"
The National Trust have (of course!) produced a Pemberley Walk, inviting one to follow in the footsteps of Mr Darcy and the BBC film crew. It would have helped if I'd accurately remembered the scenes, but the places are hopefully recognisable enough. BBC on the left, mine on the right...

Darcy arrives in Pemberley's woodlands at the end of his long journey
Darcy, after a rapid change out of damp clothes, runs to meet Elizabeth
Darcy and Elizabeth walk together and love grows.  Ahhh!
One scene in particular made the series famous — the Lake Scene. The Guardian declared it to be "one of the most unforgettable moments in TV history." It wasn't in Austen's novel, yet it feels wholly correct and received widespread critical acclaim. Darcy, arriving alone in Pemberley's extensive grounds after a long journey on horseback, and blissfully unaware that Elizabeth is viewing the house and gardens, decides to cool off with a swim in one of his ponds. Then, dripping wet, he comes face-to-face with a startled and embarrassed Elizabeth.

I just had to see that pond!

As my aunt Sarah commented, Colin Frith must have been the stunt man!

A sopping wet Darcy walks unawares towards Elizabeth. You can just see
a path in the foreground...

... from where I took this photo.
I think a girl could be very happy living in Pemberley.  So long as I had servants to look after it, this one certainly could.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Cheedale and the Monsal Trail

Cheedale was a 'must' for my holiday in the Derbyshire Peak District. Among the many attractions of the Peaks, this one is not well known, whilst most who do know of it speed past on the fabulous Monsal cycle trail and miss much of its splendour. Cycling is great, but for some sights there really is no alternative to putting on your walking boots and hiking it. Which, of course, for me is no problem at all. I don't have a bike.

The Cheedale walk begins near the old Millers Dale station. When I was a kid, it was part of the Midland main line but – despite the introduction of a snazzy Pullman diesel service in the early '60s – it succumbed to Mr Beeching's deliberations in 1966. More of that later.

This first picture shows one of the elegant old railway viaducts spanning the River Wye. Yes, another River Wye.  I seem to be strangely attracted to them.

In its early stretches Cheedale is very much like a thousand other riverside walks, with lush green vegetation, rocky paths and liberal quantities of mud. But soon the valley narrows between high, vertical limestone cliffs and the path becomes a row of stepping stones.

When I first came here, about 15 years ago, the Wye was in full flow, the stepping stones were under water and I got rather wet. This time there was no problem, though that actually left me rather disappointed.  Right now I have a brother on safari in Africa, another living near the Alps and a third planning his next ski holiday, but for me this is more than enough. Believe me, standing beside (or frequently in) the Wye, with those cliffs towering above me, left me spellbound. And its only about 3 hours driving from home... and I don't need flight tickets or a passport.

Where the valley widened once more, I turned east and joined the Monsal Trail. As you can see, this is no ordinary cycle trail, with several tunnels and some magnificent viaducts.

Soon — for progress was much quicker on the trail than down in the valley — I found myself back at Millers Dale Station. Considering that this place is miles from any sizable town, the station was a quite lavish, with four running lines.  Here's how it looked in its heyday...

... and how it looks today. Sic transit gloria mundi!

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

I've sunbathed on Kinder

Lines from The Manchester Rambler:

I've been over Snowdon, 
I've slept upon Crowdon,
I've camped by the Waynestones as well.
I've sunbathed on Kinder, 
been burned to a cinder,
and many more things I can tell...

I've stood on the edge of the Downfall
and seen all the valley outspread,
but sooner than part from the mountains,
I think I would rather be dead.

I first heard that song performed by The Spinners, a long time ago, and set myself the ambition, one day, to do all the things in the song. Last Sunday – and it had to be a Sunday if you know the song – I ticked off two more from the list. What I didn't realize until preparing this post, is that the original version (without the verse about the Downfall) was composed by the great Ewan MacColl, who had been on the Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout back in 1932. The Spinners, bless 'em, left out the important verses that would have told me the story:
The day was just ending and I was descending
down Grinesbrook just by Upper Tor,
when a voice cried "Hey you" in the way keepers do;
he'd the worst face that ever I saw.
The things that he said were unpleasant;
in the teeth of his fury I said,
"Sooner than part from the mountains,
I think I would rather be dead."
He called me a louse and said "Think of the grouse."
Well I thought, but I still couldn't see
why all Kinder Scout and the moors roundabout
couldn't take both the poor grouse and me.
He said "All this land is my master's;"
at that I stood shaking my head.
No man has the right to own mountains,
any more than the deep ocean bed.

I'd certainly heard of the Mass Trespass. What keen rambler hasn't? Indeed, climbing Jacob's Ladder, on the slopes of Kinder Scout, I felt a strong sense of gratitude to those ramblers of old who helped to win free access for us all. What would rambling be today, without their dogged determination?
Jacob's Ladder looks tame enough from the bottom, but it's a fair old hike to the top (100 metres above this bridge) and the path continues to climb after that. 

Here's the view from near the top – at Kinder Low. Jacob's Ladder is down on the left. This was a nice spot to enjoy lunch... but not for too long as there was a place, more than any other, that I was eager to see.  Ever since I first heard The Manchester Rambler I had wanted to see Kinder Downfall, which is the highest waterfall in the Peak District. An Internet photo search will return spectacular pictures of the water literally being blown upwards from the valley. What would it be like on this visit?
O dear, hardly any water! If you click this photo, you may just make out a trickle, flowing down the rocks. Maybe one day I will return when winter rains have swollen the tiny river and a gale is blowing up the valley. Or maybe not. Undeterred, I sought out a good spot for one very important photo... 
Now I can sing that song with conviction. 
I've stood on the edge of the Downfall
and seen all the valley outspread,
but sooner than part from the mountains,
I think I would rather be dead.

Friday, 7 July 2017

The Leaning Tower of Caerphilly

Pisa, stand aside! The Leaning Tower of Caerphilly leans more than yours does. Back in 2007 Wales Online proudly proclaimed:
    The Leaning Tower of Pisa has long been recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most lop-sided building in the world.  But Welsh Assembly Government Heritage officials say Caerphilly Castle’s ruined south east tower leans TWICE as much.
I haven't sought out a recent copy of The Guinness Book of Records, but suspect that Pisa may still hold the accolade as theirs is free standing, rather than being part of a larger structure. But Caerphilly surely holds the record for the wonkiest castle tower.

Pisa's famous tower wobbled because of poor foundations. Why Caerphilly's should lean at such a crazy angle depends on whose story you believe. Locals will tell you that Oliver Cromwell and his Parliamentarians are to blame, when they besieged the castle in 1646, towards the end of the Civil War. Wikipedia says it's due to subsidence. Perhaps all that water eventually took its toll. Thankfully, the tower's future is now secure as this guy (left) is employed full-time to hold it up. I asked him for a few comments but he was concentrating too hard on his job.

The glories of Caerphilly Castle were unknown to me until a few weeks ago. Fancying a respite from long-distance hiking and mountain climbing, I scanned my Cadw smartphone app for possible destinations and chose this one, the largest castle in Wales.  I wasn't disappointed, for the setting is truly magnificent, with broad expanses of water on two sides.

I arrived in Caerphilly at midday, so before exploring the castle went in search of lunch, settling on this place. It looks rather cluttered from the front, and when I was there a gang of guys in posh suits were drawing up plans to refurbish the interior, but the food was excellent...

... and on this gloriously sunny day the view from the pub garden was pretty good too. As you may imagine, I took a long time to eat my cod & chips and sip my half pint of Welsh ale. 

Saturday, 1 July 2017

The Cat's Back

Another month; another mountain! In truth, this one only qualifies as a big hill, but a bilingual information board at the bottom welcomes visitors to the Black Mountains and that's good enough for me. Bilingual? – a touching courtesy for our neighbours, no doubt, which I hope they appreciate since The Cat's Back is in England. Croeso i Loegr!

I'm indebted to my rambling and uke-playing friends Lyn and Geoff for telling me about this one, which features in none of my walk books or magazine cuttings. It starts with a short, steep climb from the car park, followed by a much more gentle ascent along the narrow Cat's Back ridge, with splendid views back down the broad valley towards Abergavenny. To the east we could make out the Malvern Hills, some 40 miles away.

After the ridge, the walk continues to the summit of Black Hill. The views from here are not so great, so here's another photo of me, looking rather pleased with myself.

By now the sky had turned cloudy and a cool breeze had developed to gently blow us on our way – perfect walking weather; not too hot, not too cold. So rather than plotting a course back to the car from here, we decided to turn our walk into a 'good 9-miler' and press on to Hay Bluff.

I'll spare you the anguish of another pic of me, pirouetting next to a trig point. Instead, here's the view looking west over the flat expanse of Hay Bluff, with clear evidence that we had now crossed the border into Wales.

It really was time now to turn south and head back to our car.  We could have retraced our steps along The Cat's Back but instead joined the Offa's Dyke footpath, which more-or-less follows the England-Wales border.

Those horses are just in England. To take the photo, I'm proud to say that I had my left foot in England and my right in Wales. As I'm half English and half (Celtic) Cornish, it felt kind-of appropriate.

This spot is marked on the OS map as Pile of Stones. I wonder why?

Nearby, lying on its side, was this old way stone, pointing to the Olchon Valley (left) and Capel-y-ffin (straight on). It marked the point at which our route left the Offa's Dyke path.

Capel-y-finn looks interesting and is another destination recommended by Lyn and Geoff.  A problem for us is that this area, 1¾ hours travelling from our home, is on the limit of what can easily be enjoyed on a day trip.  Yet I feel drawn to exploring it more, so perhaps a night or two in a guest house is in prospect for the not-too-distant future. Or perhaps I'll buy an old camper van. Yes, that might be fun.  Ah... 'tis nice to dream.

Finally, here's a view of The Cat's Back from the opposite side of the Olchon Valley, just after we'd left Offa's Dyke and turned east. It looks rather tame from this side, don't you think?

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Very little waterfalls

Henrhyd Waterfall (my last post) is an impressive 90 feet high. In complete contrast, the ones featured in this post are at best 18 inches high, and most a lot less.

These are the Travertine Dams of Slade Brook, near St Briavels, and have the distinction of being the best Travertine Dams in the country. Impressive, eh?

Having never heard of a Travertine Dam before, nor ever knowingly seen one, (and therefore utterly failing to be as impressed as you may just have been) I went in search of information. It turned out to be fairly simple really.  Anyone familiar with the tufa deposits in limestone areas such as Malham (North Yorkshire) will know the principle. The spring of Slade Brook emerges through limestone and in the process absorbs quite a lot of that mineral. When the water flows over obstructions in the stream the turbulence releases dissolved carbon dioxide, causing the limestone to come out of solution and deposit itself. In time these deposits build up to form the 'dams' we see today.

Slade Brook is on a pleasant walk I recently did from St Briavels, a few miles from my home. It started with lovely views of the Wye Valley.

The River Wye flows along the far side of the valley.  According to my walk book, the low-lying cultivated ground in the middle distance was once within a meander of the river, which became incised when the river straightened itself. I remember learning this stuff for Geography O-Level, a long time ago, and it's nice to see it 'for real'. Those old text books would have drawn an oxbow lake where the old river bed had been, but that has long since disappeared.

I searched in vain to discover when all this happened; presumably some time in the last 10,000 years or so, after the last ice age had receded.

So there you have it — chemistry, geology and a picturesque countryside walk, all in one post.