Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

The Narrow Road to the Far North


When the doors of perception are cleansed
Man will see things as they truly are – infinite

(William Blake)

Voices piercing
by the sliding door –
Autumn wind.

(Matsuo Basho)

I heard and tasted the sea long before I saw it. Over the railway crossing with its brief whiff of oil, then the smell of seaweed hit me. I still couldn’t see the sea, the hammering waves were now a close boom. A short descent, a pile of lobster pots against the side of a hut, and there was the grey-blue heaving mass of the North Sea. Breakers crashed and smashed into rocks, hurling clouds of spray skywards. I tasted the sharp cocktail of salt, ozone and seaweed and drank deeply and gratefully of it. Along a narrow spit of rock ringed plovers pecked amongst the bladderwrack and kelp. I wondered how long it would be before the sea submerged it as it roared into the mouth of the Brora River.

The Beach at Brora


I looked past the estuary to the dunes beyond, and fading into the distance, the dark blue of the northward bound coast. A subtle change in colour marked Helmsdale and its river meeting the sea. I was heading that way tomorrow, and the anticipation was already welling inside me. I remembered previous visits, passing through on the train, where the railway takes a great swing inland to avoid the cliffs, climbing out of the strath up into the bleak heather and bracken of the Flow Country. And tomorrow I was heading that way again.

A day of slate grey clouds and heavy rain greeted me. The dark sea foamed and churned in the sharp wind. Sudden squalls rocked the car as I turned inland at Helmsdale. Though an “A” road, it was little better than a potholed lane, the tarmac wearing the look of something that has endured years of harsh weather and while not beaten was just about clinging on. Parallel to the railway but separated by the river, a train obligingly marked the route as it headed on its long southward trundle to Inverness.

As I passed from Strath Ullie into the Strath of Kildonan, the rain slashed down heavier than ever.

Kildonan –
Rain hammers car roof,
Logging lorries pass.

A897 near Kildonan

Baby trees when I first came were now mature. I wondered if the logs were from trees planted to give rich southerners a tax break in the 1980s. A tax break that dried out the bogs and seriously damaged a unique environment, the Flow Country. Profits for folks far distant from here. Out of sight, out of mind, ignorance was bliss as long as in that dawn their wallets were filled.

At Kinbrace road and rail were next to each other. Past Loch an Rhuthair, and a polished stone welcomed me to Mackay Country: Failte Dùthaich MhicAoidh. My Scottish grandmother (née Mackie) always said she was descended from the Mackays, so perhaps I was in some sense, home. What I’d seen from the train thirty years ago is fixed in my mind with little needed to bring it into the full colour spectacle of memory. A photograph, taken from the train window near Kildonan became an ikon of that journey, and has remained so.

On the train near Kildonan in 1988

I stopped at Forsinard station for a leg stretch. On a previous visit, I’d taken the train up here from Helmsdale. As I got off, the guard said “bet you wish you’d not got off eh?” Quite the reverse. As the train’s sound faded, a deep silence descended. There was little here: the station, road, a few houses and a hotel. And me. I the hotel, I was amused to see a Port Vale FC scarf slung over the bar (I then lived not far from their ground), and to be greeted with “yes duck, what can I get you?” from the landlady.

Forsinard station

Today, the place looked shut up. But there was now a nature reserve where the RSPB were trying to restore some of the damage caused by forestry. There was a footpath for ten miles across the empty bog to the roadless station at Altnabreac. Perhaps next time…

On into Halladale. I’d left the mountains behind now and entered moorland. The land was mostly tough grass with some bracken and heather, punctuated occasionally by small bits of cultivation. A tough life farming up here, I thought, recalling how the lands had been forcibly cleared in the nineteenth century to make way for sheep. To live in [here] is to be conscious/At dusk of the spilled blood/That went into the making of the wild sky/Dyeing the immaculate rivers (RS Thomas, Welsh Landscape).

After 40 miles of twisting narrow road, I reached the north coast at Melvich. I saw a sign for a beach, so followed it down the rough, unmade lane. A short walk through the dunes, my zipped cagoule immediately inflated by the wind, onto golden sands; wonderful and deserted.

Atlantic breakers
Over my sandy boots,
Let it rain!

I couldn’t have been happier standing there, even as the rain streamed of my coat and soaked my trousers.

A sudden squall
Curtaining the beach,
My soaking clothes.

I headed further west along the coast, glad to be on a decent road. A steep drop through rocky cliffs into Bettyhill – named after a countess of Sutherland, who deserved no such honour after her role in the local clearances. Sharp-peaked mountains rose in the distance, after miles of moors. The blue-grey remembered mountains I’d first seen twenty years ago. I recalled my disappointment that we turned south and away from them. Not today though. I drove past the road previously travelled by and continued west, with joy in my heart.

These were real mountains, rising sharply and sheerly with jagged peaks that would not have looked out of place in Middle Earth. Questing travellers, knights riding to rescue maidens, messengers with parchments sealed in heavy wax… The rain was finally easing and as I drove into Tongue, it had stopped and the looming mountain had resolved into the multi-peaked Ben Loyal. I stopped for fuel at an old fashioned filling station where I had to ring a bell for someone to come and put the petrol in for me. While I waited, I had my first encounter with the dreaded Scottish midges as a cloud appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, (how do they do that?!) and went into full attack. I dived back into the car and slammed the door, cursing the wind, which having been with me faithfully all day had now deserted me.

Near Tongue

Eventually, an old lady emerged and fuelled the car with some reluctance. She scowled as she took my money and was even more reluctant to give me my change. I’d wondered about getting some sandwiches, but she deserved no more of my money. Not quite the Basil Fawlty School of customer service – she hadn’t uttered a single word, nor even a grunt – but deserving of a dishonourable mention.

I’d stayed in Tongue Youth Hostel on a previous visit. One evening, I noticed the sunset and went outside. It was 1030pm, the western sky suffused with a deepening gold, which was perfectly reflected in the still waters of the Kyle of Tongue. The pungent tang of seaweed wafted up, a curlew trilled from the darkness below and a seal splashed its head above the water. Looking south, the water mirrored the mountains: the jagged peaks of Ben Loyal and the smoother Ben Hope, all the shades of rock and grass reflected there. I stood, transfixed by the quiet perfection of the scene. Well, near perfection: the lack of wind brought out the midges and they quickly made their presence felt. Such are the joys of the Far North…

As I drove over the causeway across the Kyle and headed further west, the clouds returned with squally showers.

Slow for a bend,
Road drops faster than my jaw –
Loch Eriboll.

Loch Eriboll

Loch Eriboll

Near Loch Eriboll

There it was, I’d seen it before, but I still gasped in wonder. A wide, nine mile long sea loch, that just appears, unexpected and amazing. Below a small island joined to the mainland by a thin spit of shingle, dotted with the ruins of an old lime works. The road fell and drew level with the water. As it reached the base of the loch and turned, there was a rainbow over the hill.

Loch Eriboll

Grey clouds crack,
A peep of sunlight stabs
My eyes – what joy!

And so to Durness, an Old Norse word meaning “wolf’s cape”. It was good to be back. The object of my first solo journey, reached after three hours on the post bus from Lairg, bumping and swerving along the 56 miles of single track road. The weather was filthy, and after leaving the Youth Hostel in the morning, I spent days walking round in waterproofs, sheltering where I could: behind walls, in the White Heather café, in the pub, until the Youth Hostel reopened at 5pm. But now, miraculously, the sun came out. I parked and followed the steps down the cliffs to the rocky beach and into Smoo cave. I was awed by it the first time, and it still impresses. The great arched space with a little brook – the Allt Smoo – flowing out of it. A wooden bridge leads to the flooded inner chamber into which the brook cataracts with a wonderful gushing roar from a sinkhole above. It was thundering in, throwing clouds of drenching spray back onto the bridge. I stood there for several minutes, watching, listening to this wonderful spectacle. There were a few others about, but was easily able to shut them out and the place became mine. I was it and it was me.

Smoo Cave

Smoo Cave

Smoo Cave

Smoo Cave

A short video of the waterfall:

The last stage of the journey took me south out of Durness. I passed the road to Cape Wrath (pronounced “rath”, nothing to do with anger, an Old Norse word for “turning point”) then the road followed the Kyle inland for several miles. The Kyle became the Dionard River which soon left the road and vanished into the heather and moss towards the rearing mountains of Beinn Spionnadh and Cranstackie. These swept up steeply to plateau like summits, sliced with frequent shining rills and cascades.

Kyle of Durness

South of Durness

South of Durness

South of Durness

South of Durness

After a few miles, I reached Rhiconich. The hotel was to be my base for the next few days, and my room gave views down Loch Inchard. Since my first visit, the road had been diverted onto a new wider road for the few miles down to Laxford Bridge. The old narrow road now led to a few cottages and was part of the hotel car park. After dinner, I walked a short way down it to the old stone bridge over the Rhiconich River. I looked along the narrow valley to the peak at Arkle, which reminded me of a volcano…

View from the hotel window, Rhiconich

old road bridge, Rhiconich

View of Arkle and Rhiconich River

I suddenly felt every one of the 500 miles to home. And the distance delighted me. Concerns, anxieties, all that gently fell away, and a calm sense of perspective moved in. My sense of wonder was fully engaged and would receive further stimulation over the next two days of exploring. I’d arrived. And it was wonderful.


Lost Branch Lines: The Heads of the Valleys Line And Other Observations


January 2008 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the closure of the spectacular, steeply graded line between Abergavenny and Merthyr. When I first travelled in the area in the early 1990s, I had no idea there had ever been a railway here, and on the steep climb up the A465, it seemed unlikely. The Merthyr, Tredegar & Abergavenny Railway (MTA) was promoted by local interests and was incorporated in 1859. The first section, up to Brynmawr (“Big Hill” in Welsh) opened in September 1862, and used parts of an old tramway. The LNWR was keen to tap into the mineral wealth of South Wales. It had already reached Hereford via the Shrewsbury & Hereford Railway and had running powers south of there. In 1861, it secured a lease of the MTA, and an extension to Nantybwch opened in 1864. Plans to extend beyond there were opposed by the Brecon & Merthyr Railway, who had plans of their own. To circumvent this, the LNWR built a line jointly with the Rhymney Railway from Nantybwch to Rhymney Bridge down to Rhymney, which opened in 1871. This proved a worthwhile investment as with running powers to Cardiff, the transfer of goods between broad and standard gauge was avoided. The LNWR quickly opened a goods depot of their own in Cardiff. The next extension opened in 1873, to Dowlais, home of the famous ironworks. The LNWR and B & M settled their differences and with a new section of joint line, Merthyr was reached in 1879.

The line was heavily engineered, with severe gradients throughout. Starting from Abergavenny Junction (about a mile north of the present station), the line fell briefly, crossing the river Usk, to Brecon Road station. There was a large engine shed here, which once housed 100 locos. After here, the line started a gruelling seven-mile climb at 1:38/40 through the spectacular Clydach Gorge to Brynmawr. This is the highest town in Wales at some 1200 feet above sea level. The line then crossed high moorland, frequently scarred by industry, and undulated sharply with gradients as steep as 1:35, crossing several viaducts (including an impressive 770 feet long example at Cefn Coed which survives) and a 1040 yard tunnel at Morlais, near Pantyscallog. After Dowlais, it fell at mostly 1:46/50 and passed through a five mile semi-circle to reach Merthyr, some 400 feet below Dowlais.

As the MTA passed along the north edge of the coalfield, several branches were built to better tap into the valleys. The first to open, in 1867, was a 1½-mile line from Beaufort down to Ebbw Vale, mostly at 1:42. This was followed by the extension of the Sirhowy Railway north from Tredegar to Nantybwch, in 1868. After a proposed sale to the GWR fell through, the LNWR leased this line in 1876. In 1869, a branch from Brynmawr to Blaenavon was opened, which was leased to the LNWR straight away. This five-mile line climbed away from Brynmawr at 1:40, to reach a summit of 1400 feet at Waenavon (the highest on the LNWR and I believe the highest standard gauge line in England and Wales), before descending at the same gradient to Blaenavon, home to collieries and an ironworks. Part of this line survives as the Pontypool & Blaenavon Railway. Five years later, the line was extended down the valley to Abersychan, where it met the GWR.

The final branch opened in 1905, from Brynmawr to Nantyglo, with the passenger services operated by the GWR. This made the high windswept station at Brynmawr a busy place at times. Indeed, as early as 1882, there were more than fifty trains each way between there and Abergavenny Junction. In 1909, there were more than forty passenger departures, with around thirty of these to Newport, spilt between three different routes. In 1944, the station sold almost 98,000 tickets, twice as many as Swansea Victoria. Not bad for a town 1200 feet up in the hills!

Thanks to the ferocious gradients, powerful locomotives were required. 0-6-2 Coal Tanks were a staple from 1890 on, with sixty or so being based at Abergavenny at one time. Larger 0-8-0 and 0-8-2 types worked heavier trains, and there was also a massive 0-8-4T type, though this proved too long for some of the lines curves. Even so, coal consumption on the route was double that of the rest of the LNWR.

Traffic at the quieter Merthyr end of the line began to decline as early as 1890, when part of the production at Dowlais was moved elsewhere. The ironworks closed completely in 1930: I think it was after a visit here that Edward VIII made his famous “something must be done” remark. Of the thirteen mineral trains that reached Abergavenny Junction in 1909, only one started at Merthyr, though it remained the starting point for most passenger services. There were some through trains, and even a summer Saturday train from Merthyr to Blackpool. Trains were slow on account of the gradients, and typically took about 1½ hours for the 24½ miles.

Passenger closures began in 1941, when the Blaenavon service was withdrawn, though the line remained open for freight until the 1950s. The Ebbw Vale branch closed to passengers in February 1951 and the joint line from Rhymney to Rhymney Bridge two years later.

The line passed to the Western Region on nationalisation, so what happened next was entirely predictable. As seen, coal consumption on the steeply graded line was high, and freight trains were slow. Coal traffic had begun to decline, and the WR routed all through freight trains away from the MTA in 1954. In January 1958, the passenger service was withdrawn, with the final working being a special on the 5th.

This left the Newport-Nantybwch trains via Tredegar and the Sirhowy Valley, and these ended in June 1960. Part of this line survived for freight until 1970, when trains were diverted onto a former tramway on the other side of the valley. The Nantyglo branch, the last service to use the once busy Brynmawr, survived long enough to see DMUs, and closed in 1962. The final section to close was Abergavenny Junction to Brecon Road in April 1971.

I made two visits to the area in 2007 courtesy of a Freedom of Wales Flexipass. I wanted to visit the Pontypool and Blaenavon Railway, so caught a Stagecoach service from Abergavenny up to Brynmawr. From the A465, I could see the route of the line in a few places, and there was a viaduct clinging to the curve of the hillside. From Brynmawr, I changed on to the hourly Newport service. I alighted by the Big Pit Museum, then enjoyed a couple of trips on the P & BR, probably the friendliest heritage line I’ve been on. A two car “108” was in use, and the steep climb was clear to see. After ascending in first gear, the return simply used gravity! I got talking to the driver, and he said they were keen to extend southwards to Blaenavon High Level, and in the longer term, further up the hill towards Brynmawr. I wish them every success, and fully intend to return, if only to hear a class 37 on the 1:40!

A few days later, I took the bus all the way to Merthyr. It takes about 1½ hours, comparable to the train, but with the advantage of serving both Ebbw Vale and Tredegar. Beyond Brynmawr, a lot of the alignment has been destroyed by improvements to the A465: Rhymney Bridge station for instance, is now under a roundabout. I returned to Cardiff in a 150 from a rather Spartan Merthyr station: from five platforms with trains to Neath, Brecon, Abergavenny and Cardiff (fifty departures a day in 1920), down to a single platform with an hourly service to Cardiff. Such, I suppose is progress. Still, at least the surviving train service is finally to be improved to half-hourly.

The route of the MTA can still be traced in several places. Most of the viaducts, including that at Cefn Coed, are still standing, while ventilation shafts for Morlais tunnel can be seen in the car park at Pant on the Brecon Mountain Railway. My OS map suggests at least some of the line through Clydach Gorge has been turned into a cycle path. It would be a hard climb, but a rewarding descent!

In 2011, by which time I had a car, I visited Clydach Gorge and walked a section of the trackbed from Clydach to the eastern end of Gelli-felen tunnels. Clydach station is virtually intact and privately owned, and while the trackbed here is now part of NCN route 46, the section through the station and the Clydach tunnels is sealed off. A detour onto what a local man told me was a tramway, takes you to the other end of the tunnels and back onto the trackbed. The Merthyr bound tunnel at Gelli-felen is bricked up, but the other isn’t, with only a few boulders at the entrance. The path detours round it, though I didn’t go any further that way. Need to make another visit, I think…

1: Brynmawr
2: Ebbw Vale
3: Beaufort
4: Sirhowy
5: Tredegar
6: Ponststicill Jn
7: Heolgerrig
8: Pantyscallog

Timetable, September 1957

References & Further Reading:

Lost Lines in Wales, Nigel Welbourn
South Wales Branch Lines, H Morgan
The Origins of the LMS in South Wales, Gwyn Briwnant Jones & Denis Dunstan
Country Railway Routes, Abergavenny to Merthyr, David Edge

Clydach Viaduct, looking west

View from the viaduct towards the former Lime Works

Clydach station, looking west

Clydach station, looking west

Clydach tunnels, looking east

MP 7, just west of Clydach tunnel. This has now had a repaint.

Llanelly crossing, looking east

trackbed near Llanelly crossing, looking west

Gelli-felen tunnels looking west

Gelli-felen tunnel looking west

Looking east, Gelli-felen tunnels behind the photographer

The Golden Circle Tour, Iceland, March 2017.


I’ve been fascinated by Iceland for over 20 years. It began when I was house-sitting for my Gran and I looked through my late Grandad’s books and came across a thriller called Running Blind by Desmond Bagley. In it, a British intelligence officer is sent to Iceland to deliver a secret package. He has connections in the country and speaks Icelandic. As the story unfolds, he’s chased across the country by the KGB, including a trek through the Óbyggdir, the wild and dangerous interior of the country. This culminates in a gun battle at Geysir, with one KGB thug getting caught by the eruption of the most active geyser, Strokkur, with unpleasant consequences. Bagley memorably describes Iceland as suffering from “geological acne” and the harshness and epic nature of the landscape is well evoked, with its boiling pools, lava fields, glaciers and glacial meltwater rivers. The spark was lit.

Couple this with TV documentaries and books about volcanoes, and the news coverage of volcanic eruptions, especially the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, and the spark became a flame. How great would it be to go, I thought, endlessly. Until finally I said to myself: enough of the wishing, why not just bloody do it?

I’d flown in from Manchester on Monday, landing at Keflavík airport to bright sunshine and a temperature of 5°C. The journey to my hotel in Hafnarfjörður took about 40 minutes, across the mossy lava fields, scrubby grass and jagged rocks of the Reykjanes peninsula. In the distance, snow-capped mountains and clouds of steam rising. I was in Iceland. At last.

Tuesday was spent exploring Reykjavík and for Wednesday, I’d booked a Golden Circle Tour. This covers some of the geological sites near Reykjavík, including the famous boiling pools at Geysir. After a minibus ride picking up other passengers, we all transferred to a coach on the outskirts of the city. There were only 18 of us, so there was plenty of room; I had two seats to myself for the day. Out of the city centre, most of Reykjavík is generic urban sprawl, and I was keen to escape this and see the countryside.

For the first few miles, we followed Route 1, the ring road, Hringvegur, that runs right around the island. In 2016, Icelandic TV showed a real time journey along the entire route, set to music by local band Sigur Rós. I’d watched this on YouTube and was captivated by the unfolding scene, so it was great to see the real thing. After leaving the city, it climbed through snow streaked mountains and passed a geothermal power station with large clouds of steam swirling around. The Icelanders have harnessed this ready-made power source to provide heating and hot water which even heats some of Reykjavík’s streets.

Geothermal power station

After reaching the top of a pass, the road dropped sharply round numerous hairpins into Hveragerði (pronunciation) This small town on the Varmá river is a geothermal hot spot. The tour guide – a classically Nordic blonde lady named Harpa – told us that there was a wedding reception going on in the town hall one day when people noticed the floor was getting hot, so they went outside. A new hot spring then broke through the floor, so the town hall had to be demolished and rebuilt elsewhere.

Looking down towards Hveragerði

It felt good to be out in the country I’d wanted to see for so long. This was what I came for. A few miles further on, just before Selfoss, the coach turned off Route 1 and headed north. As it turned, Harpa pointed out the snow covered mountain in the distance to the east, was none other than Eyjafjallajökull, whose 2010 eruption grounded so many aircraft. She said that foreign newscasters’ attempts to pronounce it caused some amusement to Icelanders. Distant though it was, it was impressive, and seemed so benign under its coat of snow.

The distant Eyjafjallajökull

A few miles further on, we passed another volcano, Hekla, one of Iceland’s most active. It apparently erupts every 15 years or so. This was nearer than Eyjafjallajökull, and looked as benign, just another snowy mountain. As I looked at it, I had visions of it erupting. A detonating boom and a rapidly rising cloud of thick dark ash punctuated with lightning… It would have been an awesome spectacle, but a bit too close for comfort.

I was struck that the colour of the rocks had abruptly changed. Initially, they had been black but were now a vivid red, indicating the presence of iron oxide. This was especially noticeable as we neared the first stop, the volcanic crater at Kerið. A young place in geological terms, about 6000 years; the oldest part of Iceland is only 17 million years old. It’s fascinating that only 200-300 miles away in Greenland are the oldest rocks on Earth, over four billion years.

Kerið looks just like you’d expect a volcanic crater to look: rounded with steep sides plunging down. Instead of a seething lava lake, was a real lake of frozen greenish water. I walked part way round, gazing down at the frozen lake. One of the walls is low and so can walk down to the water from it, but unfortunately, I didn’t have time to do it. Harpa said that Björk once did a concert here, performing on a floating stage. What a place to perform, in a natural amphitheatre. What an introduction to the geology of Iceland.


The next stop was Geysir. To describe it as “amazing” would be true, but inadequate. It’s a place I’d long wanted to see and I wasn’t disappointed, despite the crowds milling around. A footpath lead past several bubbling hot pools of vividly coloured water – one a sharp blue like that of a swimming pool – with the whole area wreathed in clouds of thick steam, pungent and sulphurous. The main geyser, Geysir, which has given its name to all the others in the world – only erupts occasionally and unpredictably now, but is smaller neighbour Strokkur (Icelandic for “churn”) blows every 8-10 minutes. Though it can shoot up to about 40 metres, today there was a strong and very icy wind which was strong enough to blow the water almost horizontal. To get to the other side of Strokkur meant crossing this path…


The eruptions came suddenly, a bubble exploding in a great whooshing plop of steam and boiling water. Amazing indeed. I shot loads of photos, the continuous shooting mode on the camera proved very useful here. I managed to get a video but had to take my gloves off to work the camera. I don’t think my hands have ever been so cold. The temperature was about freezing, but the wind must have shaved this down to about -10°C, and boy did I feel it! What a place; boiling bubbling pools; thick clouds of steam; the stink of sulphur. The surface symptoms of some vast, inexorable process going on under my feet.

The sense of amazement and awe were slightly blunted by the crowds. I’d read that mass tourism had really exploded in Iceland in recent years, and it’s something I’m conflicted about. I can’t blame the Icelanders for trying to bring more money into the country, especially after the banking crash a few years ago, but at what cost? And of course, I was a tourist too, doing tourist things, like this tour. But how else was I to see these incredible places? I’ve never driven abroad and I was certainly not confident in driving here. It’s also got a lot to do with my dislike of crowds. The ignorance, rudeness and general pushiness. Here it seemed to be large parties of nouveau-riche Chinese, loud and vulgar with their selfie-sticks. Ticking off places. Perhaps I’m being unfair, but tourist or not, I don’t think I was there just working through a list of must sees. I find the geology fascinating and admire the hardiness of the Norse people who settled in this strange, potentially hostile place. I also admire the Icelanders for their rich literary culture and the efforts they’ve made to preserve it and their language.

Even so, I was deeply impressed by Geysir. I couldn’t fail to be.

A short drive took us to our next stop, the magnificent waterfalls at Gullfoss (pronunciation). As at Geysir, it’s easy to run out of superlatives. You can’t see them from the road, but you can hear their great roar and spray long before you do see them. There are two massive falls, where the Hvítá river plunges down about 40 metres at a rate of about 100m3 per second… The river is fed from the Langjökull glacier (“jökull” is the Icelandic word for glacier and the “icle” in the English word icicle apparently has the same root). There were various proposals during the 20th century to use the falls for electricity generation. Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the owner’s daughter, even threatened to throw herself into the falls if they weren’t saved. It’s believed that this helped save the falls, though the Wikipedia entry ( disputes this. The roar was near deafening and it was hard to get a photo without the lens getting covered in spray, even from some distance away. The wind was even colder here and its vicious bite snatched my breath away; or rather, what was left of it after the rest being taken away by the stupendous sight before me. Truly wonderful.


Looking away from the falls, I could just make out part of Langjökull, a brilliant white mass with blurred edges. The first time I’d ever seen a glacier. A large part of Iceland is covered with them and they supply many rivers. Most of them are steadily shrinking with global warming.

The final place we visited was the one that made the greatest impression on me: Þingvellir (pronunciation). This World Heritage Site is on the continental divide between two tectonic plates and a site of major historical importance for the Icelanders. It was here that they held their first parliament, the althingi, in 930. (The word Þingvellir means assembly or parliament fields, the English place Thingwall has the same root).

The land suddenly changes. There are great gouges and ripples in the rock where it’s been torn apart as the two plates pull away from each other (which means Iceland is getting slowly larger). Then you’re in no man’s land for a few kilometres before seeing the same effect again as you cross onto the North American plate. The coach parked close to this, by a rocky outcrop with truly amazing (that word again!) views down into the wider valley with the vast lake of Þingvallavatn. Behind me, a pile of old lava, solidified into a strange, swirly pattern which (dredging my memory for my O Level geology) I think is called Pahoehoe. A footpath descended towards the valley floor between two cliffs of split apart rock, and all around in the distance, snow streaked mountains. I just stood there and gazed out over it all. The sun had gone behind clouds by now and it was cold, but despite this and the other people (not as crowded here thankfully), I began to feel really calm; and small amongst such vastness, but in a good way. Awesome is a much abused word these days and has become debased. My dictionary describes awe as “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.” What I saw and experienced here was awesome, in the true sense: of feeling small and insignificant in the vastness of nature, of being impressed and humbled by it, with an undercurrent of fear too. Accept this, and the fear lessens and all your own worries are gently pushed into the background; for a time anyway. I wish I could have stayed there longer.




Pahoehoe lava

And so back to Reykjavík. Harpa taught us how to pronounce the names of the places we’d been (I’d already impressed her by being able to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull). She then sang us an Icelandic lullaby. She had a soft and soothing singing voice and I could easily imagine a baby falling asleep to it. It was a gentle accompaniment to further changes in the landscape. Snow blanketed mountains came close on one side of the road, while the other reminded me of the northern fells of England: treeless, empty and covered in snow. The snow began to retreat as the road fell towards Reykjavík. The road got busier, buildings reappeared and we re-joined the Hringvegur to approach the city from the north.

What a day, one I’ll never forget. As sat back in my hotel room, the sense of calm I felt at Þingvellir was still with me, as well as a natural “high” from what I’d seen. Wow and amazing and wonderful and awesome and sublime. All of that and more, if you’ll excuse the cliché. To this I added an especially enjoyable tipsiness after having a few shots of that wonderful Icelandic drink, Brennivín. I want to go back. And soon.

For more pictures, see the slideshow here:

Route One, with music by Sigur Rós:
Part One
Part Two
Part Three

More Heritage Please


I recently made a trip over the Churnet Valley Railway. It’s a  preserved line close to where I live and runs through some attractive scenery. The only thing that let it down was the use of the public address, both at Froghall station and on the train. Both were used as if on the main railway, including the annoying “please mind the gap between the train and the platform.”

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog of my hatred for these announcements, being both insulting and intrusive. They are bad enough on the main railway, but completely inappropriate for a “heritage” line. The whole point of these is to get a flavour of what rail travel used to be like, not to get a pale reminder of the modern system. Please stop it. It ruins the experience.

Rip Off Britain: Rail Fares


Until recently, I travelled a lot by train. This was driven partly by my interest in railways, and partly by not being able to drive. However, since I passed my test in 2010, my train useage has dropped to almost nothing. I quickly found out that even allowing for tax, insurance and petrol, many car journeys are cheaper.

The government is fond of painting rail privatisation as a success story, highlighting the record number of passengers carried. This is surely disingenuous. Such an increase would probably have happened anyway. And it isn’t just passenger humbers that have sky-rocketed. It is undeniable that fares have mushroomed massively to be the most expensive in Europe. Operators say this is to pay for improvements, for jam tomorrow. But they have been saying that for years, and fares continue to rise steeply. And outside of London, I have to question just what some of these “improvements” are, given the now frequent overcrowding.

Rail companies always hide behind the cheap deals available to those who book ahead. This is also disingenuous. The cost of walk on fares have also jumped alarmingly. Just by how much was brought home to me sharply on a recent trip to Manchester. From Stoke, this is a round trip of about 75 miles, and for a day return, I was charged a whopping £17.10! Until recently, if you got a day return, it was cheaper if you travelled after 930am, but such tickets are now also barred for about three hours in the afternoon, so I had to pay top whack. Never again, I’ll drive next time.

I can well understand the environmental arguments in favour of public transport. Sadly, like many things in Britain, it is becoming too expensive. Furthermore, the product offered is generally unappealing. Assuming you can actually get a seat, the chances are it will be uncomfortable, have little or no access to a window and be cramped with poor legroom. And if you have to stand, you have to endure a journey crammed in like cattle. It says a lot about this country that animals being transported have more rights than people. What sort of service is that? To add insult to injury, many if those with seats will have the cheap advance tickets so beloved of operators’ propaganda departments: they pay little and are guaranteed a seat, others get fleeced and have to stand. This is no way to attract people from their cars. It won’t be attracting me from mine anytime soon.

Nice Trams, Shame About The Seats


I recently travelled to Manchester to have a look at the recent extensions to its Metrolink tram network. The city that led to the revival of the tram in Britain (the first section opened in 1992) now has the largest such network. It embraces former heavy rail lines, reopened rail lines as well as new tramways. To operate this expanded system, a fleet of 94 shiny new trams built by Bombardier have been introduced. These have also replaced the initial fleet of vehicles, which though only 20 years old, are likely to go for scrap.

The level of investment that is going into the system is impressive and is to be welcomed. However, I found the seats in the new trams extremely hard and uncomfortable. In fact, they have the worst seats I have ever experienced on any form of public transport. The seats in the original trams were firm, but not as bad as this. Even the much loathed Pacer trains have better seats. While most journeys may be short, even as little as 10 minutes on one of these seats was unpleasant. The 90 minutes from East Didsbury to Rochdale was torture. If I lived in Rochdale and had to commute into Manchester, this would put me off using Metrolink: I’d use Northern’s trains instead.

Given the millions invested in the system’s expansion, it’s a shame a little bit more couldn’t have been spent on passenger comfort. The new trams cost £2 million each so the cost of the seating would surely have been a very small part of that. A major part of public transport enhancement is to try and get people out of their cars. A laudable aim. In my opinion this will only succeed if the buses, trams, trains etc have good quality seating, at least equivalent to, or preferably better, than the average car now has. I’m sorry to say it, but Metrolink falls down on this, and falls down hard.

The Hand of History? Not Quite.


Fotheringhay, as anyone who has studied Tudor history knows, is where Mary Queen of Scots was executed. The foolish Catholic pretender to the English throne, caught in a treason plot by spymaster Francis Walsingham, met her end in the great hall of the castle there, a few miles west of Peterborough. On one of my all to frequent trips to Peterborough this year, I was diverted by bad weather and had seen signs to the place. I resolved to come back, and did so several weeks later.

It was a warm day and I had all the windows open as I roared down the bypass at 70mph and onto the A605 towards Oundle. I followed the brown signs for Fotheringhay, pleased by the change in landscape: after the bleak flatness of the Fens, it was back to more “English” scenery of rolling farmland and woods.

Fotheringhay is a quaint old village with many thatched buildings built of a yellow-cream stone with an unusually wide main street. I parked near the church and walked back. Along a pitted track for a short distance, then over a stile by a farm where there was an information board. There was little to see, with only the small mound giving any impression that there had been anything here, this small field pressed against the limpid waters of the river Nene. Closer to the river were some railings with plaques fixed to them, commemorating the birth of Richard III in 1452 and Mary’s execution 135 years later. Adjacent to the latter, a faded tartan scarf was tied to the rust speckled metal.


Even with the artist’s impression on the info board, it was hard to get a sense of the place: the word “castle” conjures up images of a large building with immense stone walls, towers, keep, battlements and moat. Unless it had the properties of a Tardis, to describe this place as a castle seems grandiloquent, as does “great hall”. The area seemed simply too small, too insignificant for such titles. Too insignificant for what turned out to be an significant historical event.


With some head shaking, I climbed the small mound. The flanks were thick with large pink thistles, with large leaves of a strange dirty green-white. There was no one else around and it was peaceful, with just the gentle rustle of the river for company. I couldn’t reconcile this beautiful, quiet spot with such a violent deed as beheading. Try as I did, I got no feel for the place. It wasn’t the distance of time, as I’ve got strong senses from Medieval churches and neolithic sites (such as the stone circle at Stanton Drew in Somerset). It was as if a conscious attempt had been made to erase the place from history. If that is true, it’s almost succeeded. My last image of the place was of two red kites languidly circling the village, and who obligingly flew off as soon as I got my camera out. The hand of history? No. At best, the lightest of breaths shaking a few hairs.


The Joy of Maps


Ever since childhood, I’ve loved maps. From my first world atlas to the road maps I’d look in wonder at to help pass long car journeys, I found them fascinating. My favourites have to be the Ordnance Survey (OS). What started as the one inch to the mile series, have now morphed into the pink covered Landrangers. From the broad sweep of a road atlas, that gives tantalising hints of the landscape, in the OS you swim in a lush, warm ocean of detail. Roads whose importance is denoted by their colour: blue, green, red, brown, yellow or uncoloured; place names, sometimes with a Latin annotation to denote a Roman settlement, that show the range of influences over the centuries (Celtic, Roman, Saxon, Norse); rivers and other watercourses; battle sites; contour lines, densely packed or none; remote settlements and farmsteads with weird names (Dog-in-a-Doublet Farm near Thorney, Cambs has to be my favourite, and the strangest, Sodom in Denbighshire).

From my local sheet, number 118 for Stoke-on-Trent and Macclesfield, (which I’ve now had four of, the first of which is now very battered), which still holds much interest, to a growing number of other sheets I’ve acquired when I travel somewhere new. All can help pass a weary winter evening, poring over the Croesian richness of their detail.

Sometimes, just looking at how some places appear on the map makes me want to go there. On sheet 134 (Norwich and the Broads), a narrow swathe of white runs from Norwich for several miles south-east, with not a contour line to be seen and crossed only by numerous rivers and streams, picked out a thin blue. Either side of this, the contours pick up again, so this white and blue area leaps off the paper at you. In complete contrast, on sheet 9 (Cape Wrath), dense contours are punctuated by thousands of small lochs and only the very occasional road, where even the “A” roads are single track, and all the names are Gaelic. Seeing this, I just had to go there, had to see it. (Writing this, I had to pause to look at the map again, for the first time in years, and I want to go there, now). Maps like these can create adventures without ever having to set foot outside your door. Even so, I always like to take the map to the place it describes, take it home almost.

Fascinating though this wealth of detail is, sometimes you need the bigger sweep of a larger map. Then you see the long straights of Roman roads, scarce a bend for mile after mile (look at the A5 in the Midlands for instance). The A15 north of Lincoln follows the old Roman road of Ermine Street for several miles, and is, I believe, the longest piece of straight road in England. The effect is rather spoiled by a kink near Scampton, as if a giant was drawing the road along a ruler and accidentally drew round a finger. (The real reason is rather more prosaic, an extension to the runway at RAF Scampton). This reminds me of a story I read about when the Moscow – St Petersburg railway was being planned, Tsar Nicholas I used a ruler on the map and drew round a finger. He was so widely feared the curve was apparently included on the finished line just in case!

Mention of railways brings me to that fascinating, romantic mark on the OS “Cse of Old Rly”, or these days as “dismantled railway”. The faint dotted lines which also showed cuttings, embankments, and bridges, which often abruptly end where the old alignment has been lost to plough, new roads or building. Sometimes you can pick it up again nearby, but not always: the old Midland and Great Northern route around Caistor has vanished. If I come across such a route when I’m travelling, I will usually go and investigate it, see how much remains. The answer is usually not much, or nothing at all. You need an old map to see where stations were. Thankfully there are many resources online now to make this industrial archeology easy. There is also a company called Cassini that reprints old OS 1 inch maps realigned to the current Landranger sheet, and I have a few of these.

I wouldn’t describe myself as a collector, but whenever I come across a second hand bookshop, I will usually pick up an old one inch OS. Indeed, the first time I visited Holyhead, I used such a map from 1955 to navigate as I did not have anything newer. The first thing I look for will be former railways, seeing them marked in a black as open with stations and all the features intact, not the faint dots of the closed. Those maps even distinguish between open and closed stations and single and multiple track lines.

Many times, my mental journeys round the paper of the map has been to follow the “Cse of Old Rly”, and to wonder about the line, when it closed and what it would have been like to travel over. The internet has made this easier too, with satellite images showing the long abandoned earthworks. Much as I appreciate these technologies, they can never hope to surpass the thrill of expectation that comes from opening or unfolding a proper paper map.


My first copy of the Stoke-on-Trent and Macclesfield OS map

Railway Station Romance


Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think you can beat the romance of rail travel. Even in these days of sleek, shiny Eurostars, TGVs and ICEs, the great terminal stations have an atmosphere all their own. You will certainly see more distant and exotic places listed on an airport departure screen, but those places are too clinical and the process of passing through them far too unpleasant to have even the smallest romance.

Though I visited it only once, in 1991, my favourite such station is Paris’ Gare d’Austerlitz. Thanks to the RER, it has few (if any) local trains, so all you see are long distance services. I had gone there to catch the overnight train to La Tour de Carol on the Spanish border. I arrived with about three hours to spare, and after eating in the cafe (why is French bread so tasty?), I watched the world go by. After a period of quiet, people would start to arrive and wait on the concourse. A train would come in and empty its load, some met with hugs as others headed for taxis or metro, then the place would quieten again. Soon the process would reverse for a departing train and then it was back to quiet, and so on. I’d never seen a large city station like this and it captivated me.

My train was a long one, with portions for Luchon and Lourdes with the coaches for La Tour right at the front. Nearby were two trains heading into Spain: one for Madrid, the other for Barcelona. I had yet to visit Spain, and both names took on an exotic air as I watched each train glide slowly away. Beyond that, a blue and yellow postal train heading I didn’t know where. As darkness fell, I was reluctant to leave this fascinating place, with its deceptive quiet, all in the middle of a great city. A place I’ve never forgotten and that I often think of. Gare d’Austerlitz encapsulated the romance of train travel for me.

And now, constrained by my current circumstances to travel only from my chair into and around my head, I think back to those hours in Paris. Look down the departure board, and board a train for some distant, warmer place.

Riding Up To Woodhead, or Did I Really Do That?


Another piece previously published in “Direct Current”. Wrote this in Málaga at Christmas 2004.

A warm, sunny day in September, the last flowering of another British summer. Stuck as I was in a sweltering office all I could do was look outside enviously. Then I had a crazy idea. A few months earlier, after leaving it to gather dust in a storeroom for years, I had put my bike back on the road. Also, earlier in the summer, I had passed near Woodhead for the first time in twelve years. I had always been fascinated by the railway that used to run there, though had never seen it in operation: a combination of stunning landscapes, unique locomotives and a controversial closure. It was one of the main routes between Manchester and Yorkshire and carried huge amounts of freight. For this reason it was electrified after the war, with a new three mile tunnel being built at Woodhead. Despite this investment, passenger services ended in 1970 and the line was closed completely in 1981.

And so my crazy idea was born. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, to go back up there on my bike? I could now ride all the way from Hadfield to Penistone, mostly traffic free as this section of line had been converted to a cycle path. I doubted I would ever do it, but it was a nice idea. And so, to that lovely warm spell in September. The more I looked outside, the more I wished I was outside, cycling down the canal or some quiet lane. Then that great weather oracle, Mr Fish, said the warm weather would be gone by the weekend. Yes, I thought, let’s go, now. So I booked a day off work and checked on the net for train times. Friday morning saw me at Stoke station, helmeted and raring to go (as far as I’m ever raring to do anything first thing in the morning!) I thought back fourteen years to the first time I had taken my bike up there. It was far easier when trains had a guards van. For today, I had been obliged to book spaces on the Virgin trains in advance, and for the other trains it was first come, first served, so there was the real possibility of being left behind.

All went well and I reached Hadfield just after ten am. There was some cloud, but it was sunny and warm. Instead of the broad swathe of trackbed, there were now two tracks, one for horses one for walkers and cyclists, and it was very overgrown. There was a headwind, but nothing too bad and I was able to hold about 9-10 mph up the rising gradient. A marked contrast to 1990 when I was riding along the “B” road from Hadfield: the wind then kept me below 5mph even downhill!

Although it’s only for a few miles, the ascent of Longdendale has to be one of the scenic highlights of England. The flight of reservoirs rising towards the hills, glittering in the sunlight and the moors themselves seemed aglow. There were frequent information boards by the path, mainly about local wildlife but with some snippets about the railway too. I wasn’t convinced some of these were entirely accurate: I thought Crowden station, for instance, had a single island platform, not two. Perhaps I’m being too pedantic…

After two-and-a-half miles, there was a level crossing at Torside. On my first visit, the road signs and some track were left, but now it was unrecognisable: some trees, a gate, the road, then another gate. Indeed, for virtually all the path, there is little to suggest this was ever a railway at all. Beyond here was new territory for me, as I had never walked the entire line on previous visits. And this was the best part. At Crowden, the line runs right along the reservoir. Despite the roar from the A628 on the other side of the valley, it was a peaceful spot, with the gently lapping water. I paused for a few minutes, pleased I was here, not quite believing it. Even as I felt the solid metal of my bike, it seemed unreal, a dream.

A few minutes later, I reached Woodhead, and the top of the valley. It had clouded over by now, but was still warm. I was pleased to see the station platforms still in situ. At last a tangible reminder of the railway. I leaned the bike on a fence and took a well-earned swig of lucozade, content to stand there and just listen to the rushing river Etherow nearby. It seems hard to believe such a little river could be the source of all the reservoirs down the valley. About a hundred yards away was the tunnel with its rather austere concrete portal and simple date above: “BR 1954”. I looked back down the valley, feeling rather pleased with myself.

The tunnel soon reminded me of its presence. Every now and again, a terrific blast of icy air erupted from it. This was so powerful even from a hundred yards away, that the temperature around me plummeted: I could see my breath, and shivered in its cold concrete flavoured breath. It would die as quickly, and the air would be warm again. I walked right up to the entrance and peered through the fence. It was freezing. The ballast had been removed though the steelwork was still secured to the roof. This was a forbidding place. I almost expected to see Moorlocks crouching in the shadows, waiting to pounce should I come any closer.

I was glad to escape its icy breath. The fence blocked my way forward so I had to haul my bike up the steep hill to the main road. This seemed to take ages, and I had to wait several minutes for a break in the traffic before I could get over. This was the hardest part of the day. The climb isn’t that steep, but it just goes on and on. I would ride some and push some, dodging an endless procession of trucks as they thundered past. It was grey now, the sun but a memory, but I didn’t mind. I was pleased just to be there. As on my first visit, the moment I crossed into Yorkshire, down came the mist. After the quiet of the path (I had hardly seen anyone since leaving Hadfield), the traffic was a shock. I was relieved to see the Dunford Bridge turning and get away from it. One last push up the hill, then a real pleasure: a long descent as I coasted at about 27mph for several minutes. This culminated in a mad whizz at 32mph on the steepest part just before the village, the cold air roaring past me. I had forgotten just how exhilarating this is, even though it made my eyes water! It was as well I knew where to brake as some idiot had stopped a truck on the bridge just round the last bend!

I parked by the pub and went in for a swift half. Another change: instead of the cosy place with its huge open fire that I remembered, it had been considerably “poshified”, with prices to match. I made it an even swifter half and went and sat near the station site to eat my lunch. I felt a little cheated.

Here too, little reminder of what was. The tunnel gate was open and there seemed a lot of work going on inside, with sounds of drilling. Thankfully no blasts from the icy depths disturbed me here and I enjoyed my lunch in peace. The only sounds an occasional bird, the rustle of unseen water and a jet fading high above. Yes, I thought, I am definitely here. Good isn’t it?

After the drama of Longdendale, the descent to Penistone was something of an anti-climax. At least it was all downhill! The path, however, was of far poorer quality. On the west side, the large grade of gravel used meant a firm, if sometimes bumpy, ride. Here, it was far muddier and even more overgrown. It was especially poor between Hazlehead and Bullhouse, less then a foot wide in places, and I forever had to dodge overhanging branches. Still, at least the demolished bridge that hindered me when I walked this way had been replaced.

There was one more reminder. At Thurlstone crossing, there was still a rail still embedded in the road. Was it genuine, I thought, had the unique class 76 locos really run along it? Then a rather surreal experience. Two chaps on bikes approached from Penistone and asked where they were.

“About three miles from Dunford Bridge,” I said. They looked at me blankly.

“Where’s that?” said one.

“Yorkshire!” said I. This didn’t seem to mean much to them either, and they rode off.

About half a mile from Penistone, the path changed to tarmac and it started to rain. All too soon, I reached the station and wheeled my bike along the platform. I had arrived, I had actually done it. I had even beaten the weather. I felt really pleased with myself, and after a dull trip home, slept very well that night.

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