Feet First 2011

August 24:  The Walker With No Ticket to Ride

CAUGHT a train from Norwich to a village in the broads. Walked thirteen miles through fens and fields to a station in a coastal resort to catch a train back. Discovered the ticket office was closed. Hopped on a local service but there was no conductor issuing tickets. So here I am back in Norwich, at the bustling city centre station, walking down the platform and very aware I have not got a ticket. What should I do?

Who’s responsibility is it to ensure people pay their fares? Is it the passenger’s? Or is it the responsibility of the various railway and train companies, which have closed their ticket office on a Saturday afternoon in a busy seaside resort – presumably to cut costs – and not supplied a conductor on a local service? Am I within my rights to walk through the station doors and into the Norfolk sunshine, or does that put me in the same bracket as the petty looters currently going through the judicial system?

While we’re here, let’s just take a look at those petty looters, many of whom have been remanded in custody or jailed. I don’t mean the criminally-minded looters who smashed their way into shops and left with vanloads of wide-screen televisions and electrical goods. I mean people like the student who helped himself to a few bottles of water; the 12-year-old boy who grabbed a bottle of wine; and the alcoholic who had just been released from Strangeways and pocketed some Krispy Kreme doughnuts only to be pounced on by twenty riot police. Are these people criminally-minded, or were they just acting on some human, hunter-gatherer impulse that surfaced when an opportunity presented itself?

These things flash through my mind as I clump along the platform in my walking boots. And what about the people at the top of the tree, the bankers who damaged our economy but are still awarding themselves huge bonuses? Is that not a form of looting? And the MPs who fiddled their expenses? A few went to prison, but most were given the opportunity to pay money back. How many petty looters were given the same opportunity?

So what if I walk out of this station? I’m not wearing a hoody or trackie bottoms. I look innocent and respectable enough with my rucksack and walking gear. Will anyone stop me and demand my fare? Or will I sail into the sunshine like Butch Cassidy jumping off the cliff – but weighed down by the knowledge I am morally and legally no better than a 12-year-old hoodlum who stole a bottle of wine while a riot raged around him?

Automatic barriers block my exit to freedom – the type you slip your ticket in. I haven’t got a valid ticket – but I’ve got the one I used for my morning’s journey. It let me in – would it let me out? But I have already made my decision.

There’s a chap in a uniform helping people through the barriers with their luggage. I go up to him and say: “Excuse me mate, but I haven’t got a ticket. There was no conductor on the train.”

He doesn’t even look at me. He just swipes a magic card over a magic pad on the barrier and walks away. The gates spring open. I walk through, past the ticket office and out into the city. So far as I’m concerned, I’ve done my duty.

  • Nicholas Robinson, a 23-year-old student with no previous record, was jailed for six months for stealing £3.50-worth of bottled water from a Lidl store.
  • After attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and drinking a bottle of sherry, Thomas Downey helped himself to a £17 box of doughnuts from a branch of Krispy Kreme. He had not been involved in the riots, but he got 16 months for stealing the doughnuts and breaching his Asbo.
  • The family of the 12-year-old who stole a £7.49 bottle of wine from a Sainsbury’s store now face eviction from their Manchester council flat. The boy has been given a nine-month referral order.
  • David Cameron claimed £650 for removing wisteria from the chimney of his constituency home. He paid it back, and while explaining his actions to a group of first-time voters before the general election, said MPs now needed to “atone for the terrible mistakes of the past”.

My £10 rail fare has been forwarded to Ewan McGregor’s Unicef Somalia appeal. They need it more than a dysfunctional railway company. Anyone wishing to make a contribution should click here.

August 12: The Inglorious 12th – It’s a Riot

I’M glad it’s not my day off because I’d be tempted to take a stroll over Bowes Moor, along paths I’ve come to know quite well in the past couple of years. This morning, though, the lead will be flying and the air pungent with cordite fumes.

Today, the Glorious 12th, is the day the rich leave their barricaded homes and riot in the countryside. This tweeded band of looters, having had the mature heather burnt off in countless raging fires to encourage green shoots, will be lurking in gangs clutching dangerous weapons, eager to gun down the wildlife in a slaughter that would be condemned by the world if it happened in a field on the edge of a council estate.

I’m not going to bang on about this too long. I’m just going to say that on the day after a 12-year-old boy appeared in court for looting a bottle of wine, there will be boys of a similar age up on the moors with guns in their hands. There will be men who have smashed their way into our financial institutions (in the most civilised of fashions, old chap) and left with trolly-loads of cash. But you won’t see their shifty images caught on CCTV. And despite the damage they’ve done to our economy, they won’t be bundled into a 24-hour magistrates’ court along with a load of low-lifes wearing trainers and hoodies.

It’s not a day for walking, not in the Pennines anyway, so put your feet up on the fender and consider this. The cost of a day’s driven shooting varies between £10,000 and £15,000. As bands of volunteers sweep glass from our streets, burnt-out buildings are demolished, shopkeepers wander hopelessly among the ruins of their life’s work, and the poorest communities pay the price for being poor, should we not ask ourselves: are we really, truly, all in this together?

July 29: Here Endeth Another Lesson

I’VE collapsed through heat and exhaustion in the shade of a rickety fence on the crest of the ridge between Weardale and Teesdale, having creaked up the four-mile slope from Stanhope on my road bike. Cramp in both calves. I’m wiping the flies from my legs and admiring the view over Wolsingham Moor when this campervan draws up and parks in front of me.

There’s an elderly couple sitting in the front and a big dog bounding about in the cabin behind. The dog is wagging its tail so forcefully I can hear it beating against a cupboard door. The couple squeeze between the seats and disappear into the van’s interior. I can just see them moving about and just hear them talking. Any moment now they’ll open a door and the dog will come bounding out and probably bark at me. So I sigh, lean back against the fence with my head between my knees and let the warm Pennine breeze waft my damp clothes.

But the door remains shut. I hear a kettle being filled and drawers opening and closing, the sounds of bodies moving about and dog tail wagging. No one is bothering to step outside. I can’t tell you how much this annoys me. I cannot, for the life of me, begin to comprehend why people should drive a campervan to this remote and beautiful location and not make the effort to venture into the fresh air.

Then it crosses my mind that I could get a post out of this. I could try to psycho-analyse the type of person who buys a campervan, drives to one of the highest points of the Pennines on one of the warmest days of the year, and doesn’t even bother to open the door – they just sit there in their beige bubble, cocooned from society, the elements, the world. Jesus Christ, here’s me just cycled up a stonking great hill from Langdon Beck, down the other side into Weardale, and up another stonking great hill in brilliant sunshine and scented wind, and these people can’t even be bothered to poke their noses through the door. Why don’t they just sit in their driveway and save some petrol? Ho yes, I could really go to town on this. Do a thousand words on this one, I could. That’s it then. Post sorted. Another one in the bag.

At this point the door opens. A chap with white hair climbs out. He walks round the campervan, stands right in front of me and says: “Fancy a cup of coffee, mate? You look like you could do with one.”

Hmmm. I follow him meekly, feeling like a naughty puppy that should have been scolded but has been let off with a pat. I drink their coffee, which is really nice. And we talk about the Pennines, the Borders, the Highlands, the north-west coast of Scotland around Durness, the empty beaches at Sandwood Bay, the delights of Melrose, and the Southern Upland Way. And then they tell me they haven’t let the dog out because there are too many sheep about. So that’s me sorted, big style.

There’s a lesson in this somewhere. Got a post out of it though.

July 15: Coasting the Coast to Coast

THINKING of riding the C2C from Whitehaven to Sunderland? Don’t just think about it – do it. You will not regret the decision – except perhaps when you’re struggling up Hartside towards the close of the first day. Do it on a hybrid, do it on a road bike – but if you’ve got a mountain bike, get rid of the knobbly tyres because they’ll slow you down on the extensive road sections.

DAY 1: WHITEHAVEN TO KESWICK: Dip your wheels in the sea on the harbour slipway before you set off. This is a tradition, apparently, and is to be repeated in the North Sea 140 miles to the east. I was very impressed with the first section. Old mineral railway lines converted into metalled cycle tracks lead up to Rowrah and the edge of the Lake District. The only hard lump is Whinlatter Pass, up which seasoned cyclists will sail without bother.

KESWICK TO PENRITH: Another pleasant section, which starts on the old Cockermouth, Keswick and Penrith Railway line (I don’t want to sound older than I am, but I remember this working – west of Keswick closed in 1966, east in 1972). The surface is a bit stony in places, but nothing to worry about. East of Blencathra the route slips along lanes through rolling farmland and villages. Good cycling country and loads of tearooms that cater for cyclists.

PENRITH TO ALSTON: Just when you thought it was safe to get back in the saddle, a steep hill looms. It’s a slog. And it doesn’t even get you out of the town. Once topped, pleasant lanes lead to Langwathby. But the real trouble starts a couple of miles beyond the village. Hartside is the biggest slog of the route and comes at the end of a long day. The minor road up its flank is steep and unrelenting, and we were obliged to push our bikes in places. After joining the A686 a few hundred feet beneath the crest, the gradient eases and it’s just a matter of pedalling steadily to the 1,903ft summit. The run down into Alston is top cog all the way. Because we started late, by the time we had pitched our tents and showered, the pubs had stopped serving food, the chip shop had run out of chips and the Turks Head run out of Timothy Taylor’s. Other than that, there was plenty of everything.

DAY 2: ALSTON TO ALLENHEADS: Following an early start and a gently-climbing road to Nenthead, there’s a stiff pull over the tops into Northumberland and a long, fast descent to Allenheads. It’s all very enjoyable – especially after a breakfast of porridge with honey and cranberries (good for the prostate, apparently chaps), rolls and marmalade, tea and flapjack.

ALLENHEADS TO PARKHEAD: Another stiff climb on good roads leads over the tops into County Durham and another long, fast descent to Rookhope. Crossing two counties in less than an hour sounds impressive. But at Rookhope there’s a decision to be taken. The Rookhope Incline climbs the moors to Parkhead, but it’s rough, steep and stony – a mountain bike route. The alternative is a metalled road to Stanhope then up the incredibly steep Crawleyside Bank to Parkhead. Either way it’s hard going. We took the Stanhope route and pushed our bikes up the severe part of the Bank (which is most of it). At Parkhead, at 1,535ft and the highest point of the day, there’s a cafe that caters for cyclists and people lost in the mist.

PARKHEAD TO SUNDERLAND: This is thirty miles and all downhill. Cycleways on old mineral lines descend on easy gradients from Parkhead to Consett, Stanley and Wearside. They are a bit rough and gravelly in the higher sections but nothing a road bike can’t handle (no punctures in my 28Cs). In the lower stages they are smooth and metalled. Once on the seafront in Roker, dip your wheels in the sea. But first, ride down the slipway, jam your front wheel in the soft sand, and fly headfirst over the handlebars. Old ladies will bend over you and ask: “Are ye orl right pet?” But most people will be greatly amused – especially your so-called mates.

We did the C2C with Chain Events, a cycle challenge company run by David Gray from Consett. For £75 each we were bussed to Whitehaven, had our camping stuff transferred to Alston, were supplied with a high-energy breakfast on Sunday, had the camping gear taken to the finish at Sunderland, and were provided with back-up, advice and a breakdown service for the full 140 miles. Check it out. Chain Events.

July 1: Beyond the Pale

THERE’S a notice on a fence that says, in big red letters: PRIVATE PROPERTY – NO ACCESS. Beyond the fence lies a vast open moorland that stretches to the horizon. There’s not a single building, or crop, or sheep, or human, or merest sign that man has wandered here since the Mesolithic period, to be seen. It’s just bogland, emptiness, wilderness. But apparently it’s private property.

Nothing drives home the importance of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 so forcefully as a sign in the middle of nowhere that says: PRIVATE PROPERTY – NO ACCESS. And nothing drives home the fact more that this liberating piece of legislation applies only to England and Wales than when you stumble across one among the hills of County Antrim, in Northern Ireland.

Jesus Christ. Who wants to prevent someone roaming across an empty plateau with nothing on it except bog and a few moorland birds? Is the perverse worship of land in this country – dramatically captured by the likes of John B Keane and Patrick Kavanagh – so entrenched that outsiders can be barred from an area of wilderness by dint of some family with peat under their fingernails having inherited a sheaf of papers elaborately decorated by a long-dead solicitor?

What have these people to gain or lose, for heaven’s sake? Which century are they living in? If I clamber over their fence will they rise from the bog and beat me with sticks? Or send me down the Foyle chained to a gang of rebels bound for Van Diemen’s Land. Or shoot me?

I climb over the fence. I cross the bogland. I climb another fence at the far side, on which hangs an identical sign. I have not been beaten or shot. Most of all, I am thankful I’m not on a boat for Van Diemen’s land.

That night, in front of a turf fire in a holiday cottage, I sit and fume over the signs and the landowners who erected them. Then on the TV news flash images of people still cleaning up the mess in East Belfast after Neanderthals brought terror to the streets, families cowered in their homes, and the police were targeted by petrol bombers and snipers. People’s lives have been ruined, their homes wrecked, their privacy violated.

And I think: should I get my priorities in order? Then I think: should the landowners get their priorities in order?

I’m still trying to work this one out.

JUNE 19: On the Road from Dundee

IT’S the middle of the night and the road has run out deep in the heart of a Scottish glen. A rough track continues into the wilds of the Cairngorms, an ancient right of way along which drovers, Jacobites and the dispossessed have passed – but that must wait until tomorrow. Tonight, this stony patch of parking area with its sagging picnic table and faded information board will be my home. A sleeping bag, a passenger seat in the reclining position and a can of tea is all that’s required after a long drive to the mountains.

But what’s this . . . ? A neat green sign with smart white letters that says: “No overnight stops.”

Pardon me, but I’m a traveller on the highway. I seek a place to rest my head while darkness is upon the land. It is the right of any wanderer – a right since ancient times that is enshrined in our culture and romanticised in our literary heritage – to lie down in the heather at the side of the track, whether driving sheep to market or a car to John O’ Groats.

Who the hell in the coffee-scented corridors of petty officialdom thinks they have the authority to move me on like an undesirable in the night? Who bestowed upon these formless, voiceless nonentities the power to erect signs such as this – signs that scratch against the grain of the free life and stab at the heart of our liberty? And why should we, a free people, be expected to comply so readily with these orders from afar – orders issued by men and women who are themselves, at this ungodly hour, snug and safe beneath heavy counterpanes in dwellings barricaded against the night?

Our freedoms, such as they are, were hard won and should be guarded with passion. I shall sleep, as a traveller, where the fancy takes me – if necessary on my left side with my sword arm free. And if that’s not to their liking – these over-zealous committee-lingerers whose intention is to curb the free spirit – they’ll have to ease their backsides from their warm mattresses and bloody well move me on.

Or try . . .

APRIL 20: Rules Exist to be Broken

I’M sitting on my allotment in the darkness by a glowing pile of embers that were last year’s pea sticks. The night is still and cool. There are no sounds except the crackling of dying flames and the distant rumble of traffic on the A1. My wife is asleep in a canvas chair. I think we’ve had too much to drink. But I once said that to an old chap I used to work with in the bottom of a slate quarry and he looked me in the eye and said: “Can you have too much to drink?”

I’ve worked for 12 different companies in my life. Nine of them have either gone bust or been subsumed by more successful and efficient operations. This tells me that 75 per cent of British businesses are run by idiots who shouldn’t be left in charge of a wheelbarrow. Of the remaining three, I would not hesitate to work for two of them again because they are good companies with good reputations. That leaves one. And it’s the one that employs me now – Newsquest, owner of The Northern Echo and Darlington and Stockton Times – the one that has issued me with three notices of redundancy in the past two-and-a-half years because it likes to hire and fire people to keep its profits up. The only reason it is still operating is because it has not reached the end of its alloted time. Simple as that.

Pretty damned soon, this monument to executive madness that generates cash by axing staff is going to disappear into the shadows of unsung failure. Before that joyous day arrives it will have jettisoned me and my colleagues to keep the till jangling. This is the journalistic equivalent of a fell-runner cutting his legs off to make him lighter.

So I’m sitting here in the shadows, scraping the embers with a stick, thinking: Just a bloody minute; I’ve played by the rules all my life. I’ve done what society expected of me. I’ve toed the line. I’ve embraced the concept of the capitalist society. And this is how I am to be rewarded? By being tossed over a cliff at the age of 54 so a pack of incompetent, third-rate, puffy-handed newspaper executives can slim-down their failing business to make the books presentable? Is this what the work ethic is all about?

A night breeze from the Pennines stirs the embers. I open another can and make a decision. Me and the rules are going our separate ways. The rules don’t work for those who stick by them. The rules work only for those who bend and break them. So sod the rules.

Thank you for the invitation to join your Big Society, David Cameron, but it’s not for me because it’s run by a bunch of two-faced tossers who don’t give a fig about genuine hard-working people. So I’m going to finish planting my allotment, then when my P45 finally drops through the letterbox I’m going to bugger off to the Lakes and the Highlands, climb loads of mountains and contribute absolutely nothing to the system except angry blog posts and the occasional discreetly-placed bag of litter.

That’s the easy bit. Telling this to my wife when she wakes up is the hard bit.

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8 Responses to Feet First 2011

  1. Greg says:

    I was a teacher for 20 yrs and was insulated from the real world. When I became an electrical contractor 3 years ago I realised how tenuous most peoples’ jobs were. The company would lose contracts or work would be slow so they layed people off. Often around christmas. Jobs were so tight that if things picked up they would come back, not getting jobs in the meantime. I was lucky as they sub contracted me to a big company and I have recently got a 3 year contract that should see me to 59.
    I often think that in future something will have to be done or there will be civil unrest when millions of young people have nothing to do. A more social or benevolent system will have to be in place as market forces just treat people as expendable. For all its faults the EU seems to have tempered labour laws during the worst excesses of Conseravative and Labour governments. At least they have the human rights act and a minimum wage. It amuses me how the Daily M… and Ex….. slag off Europe to such an extent that all the guys in my bait cabin hate Europe despite the obvious better working conditions that they enjoy because of it.

    • McEff says:

      Greg, you are a beacon of hope and light. It’s reasuring to know there are people out there who actually do give a damn about the way our society is going and how it is being run.

  2. Oldmortality says:

    I hear the News of The World are hiring journalists. Just call up the editor and leave a voicemail
    No.
    Wait……

  3. Go. Run like the wind. Newspapers as we know them are dead.
    I got ejected by the Mirror five years ago and since enjoyed an informative stint in PR and I’m now freelancing – people still need words to read and people to write them.
    Dunno if that helps or not…

    • McEff says:

      Wow. I might just do that Ellen. You’re right about newspapers. They’re being killed from the top down right across the industry. It used to be great working at the Echo. Nowadays it’s horrendous. Thank god there are mountains out there.

  4. Greg says:

    Forgive me if I’m telling my granny to suck eggs but why not try getting published in magazines. TGO at the moment definitely could do with an injection of talent . People like Andy Stothertt write regularly and I think he also does bits in caravan and motorhome mags. If you got in there you could do a monthly Because They are There article. I would look forwards to getting TGO again! There’s Lakes Walker, Country Walker, All those Dalesman type mags. Dont know about Trail mag as I stopped getting it a number of years back as it’s annoying. Would be worth submitting some of your past extremely well written blog posts.

    • McEff says:

      Thanks for that, Greg. You’ve given me something to think about. Incidentally, I stopped getting Trail for the same reason. Too many smug young things.

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