Amazingly, I found that it was in October 2006.
I wish that I could think of some observation more original than “time flies”.
The irritating thing is that, while the passage of time relentlessly speeds up as we get older, my own progress increasingly resembles that of a clockwork toy that is rapidly winding down. I started seriously walking the hills of Northumberland when I moved back here on my first attempt at retirement in 1986, aged 32. A little optimistic even by French standards, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.
|Alnhammmoor and the Cheviots|
I started buying books of walks and was amazed to find that the authors always wildly over-estimated how long it should take to complete them – a deliberate ploy, no doubt, to make their readers feel smugly fit. Given my slowness to get out of bed and make a start in the mornings, and the shortness of the Northumbrian days in winter, I felt it prudent to make a note of the actual times taken to complete each route so that I would not end up, on my next outing, scrabbling around in some remote part of the hills in the pitch dark. I therefore know that the first time I completed this particular walk from my current guide book in 1997, it took me 3hr 10min to cover the seven miles, which sounds about right – I normally expect to cover a leisurely 2.5 miles an hour in the hills, and no doubt I stopped for 20 minutes or so to have a drink and a sandwich en route.
The next time out, with the route more familiar, I cut that to 3hr 5min. By 2006, it was taking 3hr 40min, but I remember stopping for a fair while to listen to that magical singing fence.
So how the hell did today’s walk end up taking an incredible 4hr 20min? Because I am slowing down, that’s why. And before anyone suggests the obvious – yes, I am overweight, but not quite as monstrously overweight as I was a few years ago. I only stopped for 12 minutes at White Gate to have a couple of unnaturally small ham sandwiches and a can of pop. True, I also stopped for a bit to scratch my head and take a picture when I discovered that the old stone farm steading at Ewartly Shank had been bulldozed and replaced by a large patch of mud behind the unlovely bungalow. And I puffed to a halt a few times on the ascent of Little Dod, but no doubt I did that in 2006, too.
|Ewartly Shank: I'd have pulled down the bungalow, on the whole|
|Little Dod: it's steeper than it looks|
There are usually few changes in this landscape, but in addition to the clearance at the Shank I noticed that Northumberland County Council had been busy removing blue bridleway signs and replacing them with red ones reading “restricted byway”. So far as I can see, the only difference between these two categories of rights of way is that restricted byways are also open to “any vehicles other than mechanically propelled vehicles” – which is a pretty rare sort of vehicle, when you come to think about it. So well worth the investment of my council tax receipts in changing the bloody signage.
Someone had also been very busy since my last visit erecting new fences across the grouse moors above Alnhammoor, with the result that I completely failed to spot the direct footpath (or, as it might be, restricted byway) that was supposed to take me back there, and ended up walking on along the track towards Linhope until I came to the tarmac road from Bleakhope, which I duly followed back to my starting point. Unfortunately I cannot believe that this had any material impact on my overall time to complete the walk.
At least this morning’s strong wind had dropped by the time I got back to the car, so I did not repeat the experience of having the driver’s door blown from my hand and smashed into the adjacent wire fence.
I drove home feeling better exercised than in years, energized and enthusiastic. And also amused by following from Hartside a small Toyota that was being driven decidedly erratically – frequently veering onto the wrong side of the little valley road then, at the always tricky junction with the A697, pulling out into the middle of the main road before stopping to have a bit of a think about what to do next. A course of action that could best be described as potentially suicidal.
I followed the car into the nearby services at Hedgeley and watched in some mystification as its driver promptly ploughed it into an obvious metal bollard with a pretty loud crash. After a bit two oldish men got out and looked around somewhat sheepishly, affecting a “Crash? What crash?” nonchalance. They reinforced their air of insouciance by pointedly not going to take a look at the no doubt bloody great dent in the radiator and bonnet. Something about the performance reminded me of the Border terrier, a dog with a pronounced sense of its own dignity which can never admit to making a mistake – and so, if it takes a tumble, invariably fixes you with a cold stare that clearly communicates “I MEANT to do that.”
So out of touch am I with the Northumbrian Zeigeist that I was on the verge of going across to the driver and asking if he was all right. It was only on my drive home that I finally twigged that he was, of course, completely pissed. Duh.
I had stopped at the garage to buy myself a little something as a reward for completing the walk. I came out with a Selkirk bannock and some of those cakes made by welding together Rice Crispies with toffee, then coating them in chocolate. Then I drove home, lit a roaring fire, made a pot of tea, put my feet up, consumed several slices of generously buttered bannock, ate most of the cakes and fell asleep. Would anyone care to calculate the net health benefit of my day?