19.7 miles – DRY AT LAST, cloudy, sunshine later
Haltwhistle is an unassuming little town, with the same quality of charm that you see sometimes in men and women of all ages who don’t realise how lovely they are. It also has a beautifully preserved station, which I think gives the town a heart. I had tea and cake in the market square cafe which set me up for the next few miles.
Railways were special for me even as a child, but it was when I turned 13 that they became a consuming passion, almost an obsession; it may sound odd, but for me they had a quality almost of lost innocence.
I remember scrutinizing a rail map and discovering the little branch line from Haltwhistle to Alston. It seemed perfect: it connected pretty, remote, rural towns; and it wasn’t a truncated remnent of something once greater; it was, essentially what it had ever been.
Then when I was 14 I read that it had been closed down. It felt as if a part of my heart had been torn out: it had been there and now it was gone, never to return, and I had missed it; it was too late. Perhaps it was at about that age that a part of my heart was torn out and that this little branch line was the image of what that felt like. Yes, that makes sense.
Railways, you see, connect. It took me decades to work out that it was that which makes them special: continuous smooth lines, through tunnels, over viaducts, through the wilds of moorland and into the hearts of cities – and of teenaged boys.
And now I come to think of it, that’s what my walk is about – it connects – Cape Wrath with Hastings, with home, in an unbroken chain of 70-odd days and an uncounted number of steps – the connection draws it all together, makes it (and me) one.
Anyway, this dry, nearly summer’s day I walked from Haltwhistle to Alston along the trackbed of that old railway, and I learnt something new about myself. And the railway is now a little more at peace.