Saturday, 5 March 2011

Walking around a bit.

For me the first post war Labour government must have been one of the best ever. What they put in place for the country was remarkable and one of those pieces of legislation was the legalization of footpaths as right of ways, giving us unprecedented access to the countryside. Quite right too, as enough city dwellers had died for the rural English idyll that was part and parcel of the wartime propaganda. I’ve walked hundreds - actually it must be thousands- of miles along them. The Conservatives missed a great chance to emulate the Labour party in 1962 when Dr Beeching  closed many of the smaller railway lines. Why didn’t they take the opportunity then to turn them into the pathways that a number are being converted into now?  A missed opportunity if there ever was one.
 I had come up to Bristol to meet up with a friend to do some walking in the Mendips. We started our walking on one of the old railway lines, the romantically named Strawberry Line that once ran between Wells and the main line at Yatton. A ten mile stretch has been opened up for cycling or walking between Cheddar and Yatton.
Besides passengers it did to carry strawberries that were farmed in the Cheddar area as well as limestone and famous dairy produce. Once away from the noisy roads, it was a great walk as the route skirts the Mendips before tunnelling through them and striking out over the flat lands of the Somerset levels. The one tunnel was some two hundred meters in length. Unfortunately it was officially closed but was too tempting so we bypassed the fencing and walked through anyway. Midway through I found I had a slight twinge of anxiety. Many years ago I was in a similar situation, entering a railway tunnel but only after my walking companion had assured me that no trains ran on Sundays. So we had made our entry into the darkness and were about quarter of the way in, when the rails began to sing followed moments later by a very loud roaring as the distant arch of light we were aiming for was darkened by a massive oncoming body. It was then we simultaneously realised it was in fact Saturday. I don’t think I have run so fast before or after this event, but it was a perfect demonstration of the effect a huge surge of adrenaline can have on one’s athletic performance.   
What was even more staggering was that a couple of weeks after this event my elder brother thought he would pass through the same tunnel. He was half way though it when once again daylight was blotted out by an oncoming train. He was too far in to run so showing tip top sang froid used his brolly to locate the far wall where he lay down, wedging himself into the angle between the floor and wall as the train thundered by and the partial vacuum tugged and pulled vainly against him.
My friend and I continued on passing through some quaint old stations that once served the local communities whilst I identified bird songs for my companion. There were information boards dotted the line and I was interested to note, that between the 30’s and 50’s camping wagons were parked up on the sidings. Families could catch a train to the station for a holiday. I know I would have loved a holiday like that watching the chuffing steam trains and exploring the surrounding countryside. I guess many people still would.
The following day we thought we would tackle the high Mendips themselves. We aimed for the village of Priddy but due to low cloud and a blip in navigation skills, (well the trained navigator is famous for them) we ended up in a wood with no houses in sight. Actually nothing was in sight as very low cloud and mist obscured the world so by careful map reading we used footpaths to cross the obscured hilltops and head for lower ground.
Coming off the hills we passed Wooky Hole, a tourist honey pot seemingly famous for nothing. They have a few caves, but so do the entire Mendips as they are limestone which is full of holes, and a resident witch. I suspect the real one, like so many witches, was nothing more than some destitute old crone whose scatty mind talked gibberish, who took up residence in the dry and relatively warm caves as many other people did in those times. The number of unfortunate old country women whose retirement plans must have been buggered by persecution must be high. Now some pantomime witch earns her keep acting out some bizarre claptrap.
Then on to Wells with its imposing cathedral and Cornish pasty that wasn’t quite like the real thing before a big loop that slurped up some steep sided valley to the Mendip tops and then cross country back to the woodland.
The next day, we only had the morning, so it was into Bristol to walk the City, a two and a half hour guided walk around my home City where, although a tad too early to visit some of its historic pubs, I could expound at leisure about its rich but at times mildly dubious history.

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