Monday, 25 July 2016

North Pennines

It feels like we're a million miles away from civilisation right now. A group of us have hired a whole youth hostel in the North Pennines and it's literally in the middle of nowhere. It's been something of a revelation to discover that you can take over an entire youth hostel for a week, and it's more than half the cost of a cottage.

Our hostel has six rooms. Some are dormitories with bunk beds, which suit the families, and others, like ours, have double beds in them. The building was formally a set of cottages belonging to miners and it sits on the edge of a glorious hillside in what's known as a "dark sky region" which means the stars here are something else because there's absolutely no light pollution.

The day started in Essex with breakfast at my parents' kitchen table. We piled in the car at about 9, and sped off down the county lanes, marvelling at how colourful the verges look at this time of the year with thousands of glorious wild flowers strobing past the windows.

The journey up north was incredibly speedy. Straight up the A1: past the cool Art Deco building at Wanstead, past RAF Wittering with its harrier jump jet, and up into Nottinghamshire via the series of little road side "attractions" which make the A1 so much more entertaining than the major motorways.

Sadly, more and more of these special landmarks are disappearing, including the rickety mining chute on the hillside at Blyth which featured so prominently in my film about the A1. It was here where we filmed a choir of miners singing about the strike in the 1980s. It was on the borders of Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire where so much of the fighting happened. Nottinghamshire miners didn't strike, so the Yorkshire chaps drove down the A1 to picket. I always felt the chute should be left as a monument to those troubled times. But today I learned that it has gone. It made me feel very sad, but somehow proud that I'd made the A1 film and captured the old mining equipment forever on celluloid.

We stopped off in Darlington where Nathan met a pair of fellow knitting podcasters for the first time. Dan and Kay Jones present the Bakery Bears podcast and, on many occasions, I have fallen asleep to their dulcet tones. We tend to watch/ listen to ten minutes of pod cast before going to sleep most nights, so meeting such a familiar pair of faces in the flesh was a little bit strange. They are so nice, however, and Kay had made us all sorts of fabulous cakes.

The people in Darlington are all incredibly friendly. Sam and I went shopping in the local Asda and got talking to a very charming woman behind the tills. We had a lovely chat about he grandmother who lives in Suffolk.

The journey from Darlington to the Northern Pennines was entirely cross country, and took us through some of the most beautiful scenery I think I've ever seen. The sky was heavy: dark, brooding, misty, but with the odd shard of sunlight bursting through the clouds and lighting little areas of field and moorland. We were accompanied on our journey by the sounds of ABBA: The Album. The soaring mysticism of Eagle seemed profoundly appropriate for some reason.

On a whim we stopped off to look at the Roman Bridge at Pierce Bridge. It's a fascinating spot. The river has moved since the bridge was built and all that remains are the foundations - a set of rather modern-looking square blocks - which sit in a little grassy dell next to the river. There was a beautiful tree-lined hollow way which led us from the main road along the side of the river.

As we pulled off the main road and started heading for Nine Banks, we were astounded by the sheer number of quails which were hanging out by the side of the road. I don't think I've ever seen a quail in the wild before. Now I've seen about eighty.

I made tea for everyone tonight. We had pasta with mushrooms, courgette, Halloumi, Parmesan and olive oil. My godson Will is currently limbering up to do his 11+, so he's in the midst of doing scores and scores of tests. The conversation over dinner turned to Oscar Wilde, for some reason, and Meriel mentioned The Little Match Girl, which we all decided was one of the saddest stories ever told. Will chipped in: "I liked the Little Match Girl. I thought it was sad, but I was in the middle of a test so I couldn't care too much!" The madness of modern education! In my day everything was judged on how much empathy we could pour into a subject!

We went for an twilight walk to see if we could find some bats. At 10pm it was still quite light. There's a huge difference at this time of the year between the level of light in the sky at 10pm in London and the level of light up here at the same time. We walked to the top of a hill, and stood in silence listening to a hundred thousand sheep baaing from miles away. We did see bats. Lots of them. It was amazing.

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