The Slough Of Despond

Still energised by the Hetherington breakfast, I decline the opportunity of diverting for lunch at the Twice Brewed Inn in favour of a swallow of water and a Chunky KitKat, and then march briskly west to Greenhead to pay a long-standing debt. My boots conquer the slippery footholds on the wet stones of the Roman Wall’s steep switchbacks, while my eyes delight in the undulating skyline far away to my left as I anticipate tomorrow’s hike into those hills, the Pennines proper. Hadrian’s Wall truly does mark a psychological and physical boundary on the Pennine Way, for southbound walkers as much as for northbound wayfarers.

Eventually the rain stops, and thanks to the gusty wind blowing out of the receding conifers I dry out above the ankles, but upwind of me a farmer sprays muck onto squelching fields. Every silver lining has its dark cloud. The miles to Greenhead slip easily by, and I feel I have the strength to go further. Saturday’s anxiety about the Cheviots traverse has metamorphosed into Monday’s aggressive optimism, and I start wondering how quickly I could complete the Pennine Way. I swagger with burgeoning self-confidence into the Greenhead tearooms where the young waitress writes my order as T4241 + Ch T/T and brings me a large brew and a cheese toastie.

Other customers arrive, mostly shell-suited folks aged between fifty and seventy. They enter stiff-legged from their motoring, and then they stand perplexed by the challenge of deciding where to sit when faced with the free choice of a dozen empty tables. They smoke, drink coffee, and feed their faces with cream cakes. Most appear to have been formed in the same mould as the clients of the café at Byrness. But they aren’t all the same: one family recites its requirements for their pot of tea; they need to know the brand and the elapsed time since it was scalded, so they can judge when to remove the tea bags onto the plate specially provided by the patient waitress. How demanding customers have become. How un-English. We were brought up to accept what was placed before us. We would never have dared to ‘make a fuss’. My mother would have chided me for asking for T4241.

At the hostel I find myself sucked into a stilted conversation with a young English woman. She is cheesed off by the grim weather, having ridden from the warm south coast by overnight coach to Newcastle. Finding that youth hostel full, she caught a bus to Greenhead and spent an afternoon in the cold outdoors, looking at ancient monuments in which she has no interest.

Amazing! Why travel so far to reach a place she doesn’t want to visit? Since she’s unimpressed by the unique archaeological riches and shudders at having to endure vigorous weather in wild and lonely uplands, why is she here? I have to know, so I ask her outright. It transpires that the attraction is low-cost accommodation and cheap travel on a young person’s concessionary ticket. Is this what John Prescott’s vision of Britain’s transport policy might one day deliver to all: the opportunity to ride cheaply to wherever you don’t want to go, by bus?

The situation deteriorates further with the arrival of two Australian women, unbalanced by huge backpacks. They have spent several weeks in Europe and are now on an extended tour of Britain. Impressed that they are allocating so much time to one small country, I ask, ‘How long will you be spending at the Wall?’

They look vacant, and one says, ‘We haven’t come to see the Wall. We’re only here because the hostel at Grasmere was full, and we came by bus via Carlisle.’

I blink. Instead of seeking alternative accommodation near to where they originally wanted to stay, they left one of England’s most beautiful locations to spend much of the day travelling to the backwater of Greenhead, simply because they could reach its youth hostel by bus. A dreadful picture flashes before my eyes: a world populated by travellers who know everything about the inside of buses, chant timetables and fare structures, regurgitate cover-to-cover details of travel guides to six continents, but never so much as glance at their surroundings. There is nothing more I can say, and by now they have both opened their journals. Goodness knows what they are finding to write about.

I phone home
‘Hi. How’s things?’
‘Fine, thank you. Where are you?’
‘Greenhead. It was a foul morning, but it’s fair now.’
‘It’s awful here. It’s never stopped raining for a minute.’
‘Everybody OK?’
‘Fine. I went to see my mother. She can’t remember what year it is, but she was telling me everything she did during the War.’

From the phone box, I make for the Greenhead Hotel, where Gary and I had passed a convivial Saturday night with Stephen and Janelle from Seattle, a young Californian guy, and a couple from the Netherlands. Today the bar is deserted except for the landlord and a local couple who are choosing dinner.

I ask for a pint of Jennings’ Cumberland Ale.
‘You like the Cumberland?’ the landlord enquires.
‘A favourite of mine from many Lake District trips.’
‘Most of my regulars drink the Robinson’s.’
‘I’ll try it later.’

A young waitress and equally young cook enter the bar and invite the two diners to choose a seat. They set out place mats, napkins, cutlery, cruet and condiments then leave the room to return bearing two huge meat dishes overflowing with T-bone steaks so large that the fries, mushrooms, onion rings, peas and salad garnish are in danger of falling over the edge. I’ve never seen such a feast this side of the Atlantic, and I immediately regret booking my evening meal at the hostel.

The landlord and I discuss the licensed trade. Clearly he has a problem in this isolated place with few locals, and he depends on a good income from tourists. This wet, cold and windy Monday has been a bad day, particularly for early July.

‘We get Americans and the like,’ he says. ‘They come to see the Wall, but the hotel they’ve pre-booked is in Glasgow. They think that’s about an hour’s drive, but it’s more like three, so unless they get here early they don’t have time for a meal, and by late afternoon they’re tearing off in the rental car. Occasionally some arrive so late that they decide to stay for the night, but that’s unusual.’

He shakes his head.
‘I can’t run this place on the money I take across the bar. And my staff have expectations I can’t meet. This just isn’t a profitable business. I’m thinking of closing completely in the winter months.’

His pessimism surprises me. The place was buzzing the previous Saturday night, he serves a decent pint, and the food looks magnificent. Like the Nichols at Hetherington, he has a good product but insufficient customers. Is marketing the key? A lot of people visit Hadrian’s Wall, and they all have to eat and sleep somewhere. His plight brings out my need to confess a long-concealed crime.

‘I came here in 1963 with two friends,’ I say. ‘We were walking from Alston to Once Brewed, and we called for a pot of tea late in the afternoon. A young lad served us; I couldn’t understand a word he said in his strong local accent. We were carrying food to cook at the hostel, but as we were drinking our tea we realised we had no sugar, so we emptied the sugar bowl into a paper bag and marched smartly away. I suppose we owe someone for that.’

He remains silent, eyes staring at the counter. For a moment I think he might be taking it too seriously, as if that thirty-seven-year-old crime had started the rot in his battered trading account.

Finally he shakes his head, sighs, and says, ‘Well, if you want to clear your conscience you could always put twenty pence in the Over-Sixties’ fund,’ pointing to a huge and almost empty bottle.

‘Done!’ I say, and I push a coin through the slot. Relieved of my share of an old guilt, I go for dinner. As I turn past the table where the couple are dining, I see they’ve laid down their weapons.
‘We’re beat,’ they admit.

I look hungrily at the still-laden plates. I should be eating here. They could have my dinner across the road.

The hostel is quiet, the dinner table set for just six people: me, the English girl, and a family of four from the Netherlands - Mum and Dad with daughters aged eighteen and twenty-one – who are touring Northern England and Southern Scotland by car. After my encounter with the other three travellers, the Dutch family are a welcome breath of fresh air. They take a lively interest in their surroundings, the people they meet, the differences between their home near Schiphol Airport and this sparsely populated high-level world where sheep and birds eke out a precarious existence. They dispute my contention that the UK is a crowded country, saying that compared with the Netherlands we enjoy a great deal of open space, which is what attracts them. After our Cumberland sausage dinner they demonstrate their enthusiasm by returning to the Roman Wall to wring out every drop of experience before tomorrow’s departure.

In the absence of stimulating company in the common room, I cross the road. The bar is empty apart from the waitress and cook.

‘This place is lively,’ I say.
They laugh, having not yet met enough Americans to dispense with their appreciation of irony.
‘Has anybody been in since I left?’
‘Just one or two,’ says the waitress. She perches on a barstool, rearranging a slit skirt that her mother can’t possibly know she’s wearing. She and the cook keep looking at the clock, comparing it with their watches, wishing the evening away.

The landlord comes downstairs and tells them they can go. It’s nearly nine o’clock, and there’s little prospect of more diners.

‘Are you on the Robinson’s now?’ he asks me.
‘Yes, but I think I’ll go back to the Cumberland,’ I say, passing my glass.

Before he can return to his theme of the difficulties of running a pub, regular customers begin ambling in. The first orders Guinness. The second and third each drink Calders. The fourth wants a pint of Stella. The fifth takes Guinness. No one but me drinks the reputedly popular Robinson’s. Gathered round a table near the window, they slump in their seats, exhibiting none of the swagger of the men in the Battleshead Inn as they convene their evening council.

The first man finishes his drink, stands up, and orders another pint of Guinness and a Jack. The landlord serves him a Jack Daniels, which he tosses straight back. The second man asks for a large Grouse, which he gulps greedily before finishing his beer and demanding a refill. The others also move onto shorts-and-chasers. In no time at all, the first man switches from Guinness and Jack Daniels to Calders and a large tequila.

I glance across at him. His boozer’s eyes are bloodshot, aimless and alcohol-fixated.

I drink up.

‘Another Cumberland?’ the landlord asks hopefully.
‘No, thanks,’ I reply, ‘I’ve got to get up in the morning,’ and I head for bed as evening’s pale light dies slowly in a cloudless sky.

Greenhead’s plight is common where people no longer live by their original industries, in which they wrought great works and thereby enhanced their individual and shared pride. As a small child, I clearly remember seeing my father’s eyes light up as he leaned forward in his seat to look through the carriage window whenever our train to Leeds chuffed past Kirkstall Forge, which roared and hammered beside the River Aire and the Leeds-Liverpool canal. He would point out where heavy engineering products were forged and machined before being transported to the uttermost ends of the former British Empire. His enthusiasm for the grand scale of achievement was palpable.

I suppose, in retrospect, that Dad’s excitement, his identification with a corporate purpose, might even then have seemed unfashionable (it surely would be anachronistic in today’s cynical and fast-changing world). But he wasn’t the only one: I recall hearing, fifty years ago, ordinary workmen fiercely asserting the primacy of their employer’s mill, even to the extent of claiming that their weaving shed was the noisiest in the district, and that their foreman ruled with the harshest rod of iron. Daft though such criteria seemed, those men were defiantly proud of what they achieved and endured together.

Today things seem different. Even where our traditional industries survive despite international competition, collective self-esteem has all too often been supplanted by uncertainty and melancholia, by dissatisfaction with a working life that excludes the unsophisticated concept of ‘fun’. Taproom conversations based on crafts and trades find no place in today’s mixed-company open-plan pubs. Men no longer travel to work on foot, talking as they go; they meet only by prior arrangements made using mobile phones, and their wheeled boxes deliver them to the agreed rendezvous. Our schoolchildren ride in isolation between home and classroom, whereas their parents walked in company and competition with their peers. Greenhead’s men do still compete against each other, but they no longer boast of their prowess in shaping iron ore and stone. Instead they decide who is the best man through a modern version of the medieval Trial by Ordeal, challenging their internal organs to withstand increasingly poisonous self-administered doses of drink and tobacco.

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