Brontë Country by train, by foot … but without Jenny Agutter

We all know that traveling broadens your horizons, but did you know that it can also narrow them right down, make you focus on past memories and lead you to relive them. Or at least try.

Like many English teenagers, I was in love with actress Jenny Agutter and would have given my right whatsit just to touch the hem of her Edwardian dress as she saved the day in the movie The Railway Children.

Touching Jenny’s frock and what was hidden beneath was never going to happen, only in my dreams, but I could explore The Keighley and Worth Valley Railway where the movie was filmed. The branch line was part of the endless summers of my childhood, and for a kid growing up in the ’50s steam trains were part of everyday life.

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British Railways operated the last scheduled passenger train on the Worth Valley line on Saturday 30 December 1961 and I remember my mum taking us on Sunday picnics to Haworth and Oxenhope – and stations in between – when the line was still a fully functioning part of the main railway network.

Fast-forward to our recent visit to Keighley, our train ride, and our hike along the Railway Children Walk. Secretly, I hoped Jenny had chosen the same day to dabble in a bit of nostalgia, but my search of the train left me flat. In her honor, I had asked my wife to wear her Edwardian frock but she refused, and it looked awful on me (only kidding).

The train chugged out of Keighley on the slow climb towards Oxenhope. Smoked belched, steam hissed, carriages swayed (rather alarmingly, I thought) and the wheels made that lovely clickety-clack sound.

The narrow banks of the River Worth, which the railway follows, are lined with old mills, a testament to Yorkshire’s thriving industrial past. Many of the mills are derelict, which is rather surprising given the housing crisis facing England. But to hell with politics and deep thinking we were pulling in to Oxenhope station, as pretty as a picture on this warm, late summer day, and there was Jenny waiting with a wet kiss and up for a bit of bodice ripping as I stepped off the train.

A poke in the back burst my bubble and we were on our way, following the rustic signposts along the Railway Children Walk.

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From Oxenhope station, the walk briefly follows the road, crosses the fledgling river and leads up through farm fields replete with doe-eyed cows. A short hike on a country lane, followed by a cowpat-dodging skip across a farm yard and we are in open meadows where the beautiful Yorkshire countryside unfolds to infinity. In Yorkshires industrial heyday, the hills and valleys were wreathed in smog from hundreds of mill and factory chimneys burning hundreds of tons of coal a day. These emissions spread a deadly pall across the countryside, poisoning the lungs of the workers, many of whom were children already suffering from TB.

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Today the air was crystal clear and the high meadows like those featured in the Sound of Music.

“Go on,” I encouraged my wife, “do your Julie Andrews impression and I’ll take your picture for Facebook.” That received a more forceful response than my request for the Edwardian dress and, to add to the injury, my yodeling of ‘The Hills are Alive’ followed by an arm-flapping run through the grass got us chased out of the field by a herd of angry cows. They obviously didn’t like the musical, either.

About half a mile further on, the path meandered down the side of the famous Haworth churchyard and we were up to our frockcoats in Brontë country. Time to invoke Heathcliff  with a quick burst of Kate Bush, but again no such luck only a terse refusal before I’d spit out the whole request.  That’s one of the problems of being married for such a long time … your wife knows what you are thinking before you do!

Music and Heathcliffless we tumbled down the church steps onto Haworth’s cobbled Main Street and the tourist circus it has become.

For all its crassness, Haworth, with its out of place shop signs and tourist trinkets, the village that played home to the literary geniuses the Brontë sisters and their wayward brother Branwell, is still not to be missed.

From the church, it’s downhill all the way to the railway station and the train back to Keighley.

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For more information about the Worth Valley Heritage Railway, visit: http://kwvr.co.uk/

Find out about the Brontës here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bront%C3%AB_family

And here: https://www.bronte.org.uk/the-brontes-and-haworth/family-history

And The Railway Children here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Railway_Children_(1970_film)

 

 

 

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The Somme – A Personal Journey

The attack along the Somme was preceded by an eight-day preliminary bombardment of the German lines, beginning on Saturday 24 June 1916.

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1,738,000 shells were fired at the Germans.

I had been drawn to the battlefields of the Somme by an unseen hand, a longing to return to a place I have never been before.

The sky was eggshell blue and the emerald grass ebbed and flowed in the sunlight. The earth did not tremble, could not, yet deep inside I felt it move. One hundred years of rain has washed the blood deep into the ground where for now it remains.

Why the Somme and what happened there stirs such emotion in me is unclear but even as I write tears wet my cheeks.

July 1 1916, at precisely 0730, on a blue sky day such as mine, the barrage ceased and the men went over the top.

Three million soldiers would fight over a front of 45 kilometers, Sir Douglas Haig decreed it so.

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By the end of the day, the butcher’s bill listed 58000 casualties, including 19240 killed. Thirty-two battalions had lost more than 500 men (out of an average strength of 800).

At Beaumont-Hamel, I stood where the soldiers of the 1st battalion of the Newfoundland Regiment rose from their trenches and advanced into No-Man’s-Land and the waiting German machine guns.

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Down the gently sloping field and to my right, a petrified tree, known as the Danger Tree, stands in solitude. The Newfoundlanders, unable to cut through the wire, sought cover around this tree, where they were scythed down like wheat and stacked in a shuddering mound of dead and dying flesh by German reapers.

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Memorial to the 29th Division of the Newfoundland Regiment  at Beaumont Hamel. The memorial looks towards the German lines.

The Canadians lost 700 men in thirty minutes.

Only one other battalion suffered heavier casualties – the 10th West Yorkshire Regiment, at Fricourt.

It was the first time I wept that day. It would not be the last.

Such was the accuracy of the German machine guns that the trench where I stood became clogged with the dead and dying. When the men could no longer walk on the torn remains of their comrades, when the trench was overflowing with corpses, they were forced to seek cover elsewhere, exposing themselves to withering fire.

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I walked the cambered field but my eyes kept returning to the Danger Tree.

At the bottom of the field, I came to the German front line trench. It had taken me twenty minutes to walk there from the British front line. The battle for this sacred, bloody piece of ground, lasted five months, and it was never taken by the allies.

There are 410 military cemeteries on the Somme. Many, like at Beaumont-Hamel, are on the battlefields themselves. The men having been buried where they fell.

Later that day, I visited The Thiepval Memorial. The memorial commemorates 72205 allied soldiers who were declared missing on the Somme between July 1916 and March 1918. Either their bodies were never found or the body was found but could not be identified.

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Their names are carved into the stone.

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While I was at Thiepval, a small memorial service took place. They have been happening regularly since July 1, this being the centenary of the battle.

I wept.

Why I am drawn to Picardy and The Somme seems to go beyond my interest in military history. A friend thinks I fell on the battlefield during a past life. That perhaps my name is chiseled in stone. It’s beyond me to even question that. What I do know is that since my visit a weight has been lifted from my shoulders and, like that July morning in 1916, I am free to go forward in sunlight.

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Monument to 38th Welsh Division, at Mametz Wood

If you are interested in visiting the Battlefields of WW1 then here are a couple of links:

https://www.getyourguide.com/paris-l16/from-paris-wwi-somme-battlefields-full-day-tour-t7573/

Our tour guide ‘Reggie’ was amazing. He has prodigious knowledge of the battles and those who fought in them and I can’t recommend this company enough.

For information about the Somme Battlefields:

http://www.somme-battlefields.com  http://www.firstworldwar.com/battles/somme.htm

 

 

 

What a lot of Berk(a)s

I love France, in fact I live in France although not the Mainland part. France is a republic, which I like, French people will not put up with bullshit (vive la Revolution) and are usually very fair, so the burkini ban came as a shock.

I don’t want to get into the whole Muslim migrant/terrorism thing. Like most people, I think migrants, especially those fleeing repressive regimes, should do their utmost to assimilate into the fabric of the country in which they have sought refuge and have been welcomed (that’s why I wear a beret).

What stirred me up this week was the awful photos of French police forcibly removing articles of clothing from a Muslim woman in front of her children, while a crowd clapped and cheered on a beach in Nice after the Mayor of the town decreed such dress as she was wearing illegal.

Riviera Nice, the quintessential liberal resort that just about invented topless sunbathing (and more). Nice used women and their bare breasts to promote their resort world-wide and made a fortune while doing it. When I was hitchhiking around Europe back in the 70s, myself and all the other red-blooded backpacking scruffs couldn’t get to Nice fast enough to feast our eyes on all those gorgeous breasts, and we weren’t disappointed!

It was marvelous. Here were liberated women exercising their freedom, something that all women should have, freedom and freedom of choice.

Then a councilor noticed that not all the women were bearing their breasts, and the Nice Town Hall passed a law that all female sunbathers must be naked from the waist up. To administer the new rules they sent batten-wielding male police officers to the beach to forcibly remove all bikini tops from the women who refused to do it voluntarily.

Which, of course didn’t really happen, but brings us back to the humiliation of the Muslim woman who was forced to remove articles of clothing by armed men in uniforms.

It’s possible that the woman’s husband insists she dress the way she does. It’s also possible that she dresses that way by choice.  What armed police did in partially undressing this woman is tantamount to criminal assault, even sexual assault, and it puts the whole of what France stands for to shame.

The Mayor of Nice should resign.

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Perhaps in France, everyone should be forced to wear a beret!

Perhaps the anus mouth isn’t for me!

I’m trying to get my head around the phenomenon of ‘selfies’, and sick at missing out, I thought to give it a go. A friend was given a ‘selfie stick’ as a gift and borrowing it was a good place to start. I got the smart phone attached to the stick and held it out in front, as you do, only I couldn’t hold the damn thing steady and instead of making me look cool, I looked like a demented fencer waving his epée around.

Plan B. Use my digital SLR with the timer set. First attempts ended with the timer going off before I got into position. Next, I adjusted the timer but then sat for so long with a rictus grin on my face that someone threatened to call the cops. Of course, the minute I moved towards the camera the shutter fired and I got a photo of my belt buckle.

As I was in an area where lots of people were taking selfies, I decided to watch and learn. The guys usually posed with a bunch of mates, drinks in hand, and seemed to be able to hold the selfie stick rock steady! Perhaps I needed some strong drink inside me.

The girls, on the other hand, stuck their lips out so far you could have licked ‘em and stuck them to a window. This, I’m told, is the famous ‘trout pout’ much loved by reality show celebrities.

As nothing seemed to be working, I went back to how we did it in the old days and stopped a passerby and asked if they would mind taking my picture. At first the woman was a little nervous but accepted my expensive digital SLR and assured me she had one of her own and so knew how to use it.

“I want a close up, and you want me to do the anus mouth?” I said, and did the lip thing.

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I wish she’d have simply put the camera on the ground instead of dropping it before she fled.

Oh well, back to practicing with the selfie stick.

It’s fruity. No, it’s earthy.

Do you know anything about wine? I mean really know about it so that when the waiter opens a bottle at table and offers you the cork and then a sip, you have the faintest idea what is going on?

I don’t. For one thing, my nose doesn’t work so instead of sniffing the cork I might has well blow my nose on it. Then there’s the taste test. The creative pour that, when done right, ends with a sexy little twist of the bottle as the neck is raised from the glass.

I like this bit because it means I’m getting into the wine, but learned years ago that shouting “Cor … Winner!” and banging the table with my fist before gulping it down in one is generally frowned upon.  So is crossing your eyes, grabbing your throat with both hands, making gurgling noises and falling backwards off your chair … All things I did in my youth (and yes, my date still married me).

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Don’t get me wrong, although I know very little about wine other than how to drink it, I do enjoy the ritual of the wine tasting. And I do it, not only because it’s expected of me but it respects the waiter or waitress who, in the past, have seen all the boorish tricks pulled by morons like me and have usually done so with patience and a smile.  Waiting table is a job I couldn’t do because the wine bottle would end up where the sun don’t shine the second I met my doppelganger in full cry.

Now we’ve established I’m not a wine snob but a wine slob, it doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to charge me $35 for the same plonk, label and all, I bought from my local supermarket for $4.25 last week, as happens in some establishments.

At my favorite St. Martin restaurant, we always ask for the same Italian wine, Valpolicella, and are usually served by our regular waitress. Her approach never varies and is an integral and enjoyable part of our evening. She brings the wine and, depending on who placed the order, man or woman, shows them the bottle and points to the label. She then he pulls the cork and sniffs it. If all’s well, she pours a drop, it is sampled, we ooh and aah with appreciation, and away we go.

To have fun, watch other diners going through the wine ritual. You’ll see everyone from the self-proclaimed expert who desperately wants to gargle with it and spit it out to the ‘pour it and be gone’ type who impatiently waves away the waiter  like a troublesome fly and would be better off chugging supersized diet coke at Burger King.

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Only once have I ever sent back a bottle of wine. This particular red had the consistency of 3OW engine oil and smelled like a corpse flower. Being English, and having complained and then profusely apologized, I felt guilty all night.

The Swimming Pool

I have to swim – my doctor says so. I’m told my lungs, which have been punished by industry, need exercise to keep them from rotting and turning to mush.

I am blessed in that we live on a Caribbean island, where the weather is usually nice (although it’s raining while I write this) and our apartment complex boasts a large, beautifully maintained swimming pool. Motivation, however, even when goaded by my doctor, wife, friend and wheezy lungs, is often hard to find, and swimming, when under pressure to do so, can be monotonous. Today during my swim instead of just gasping back and forth absorbing movement like a long swig of nasty medicine, I looked around and got my Zen on.

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The pool is lined with blue tiles so the water is an intense blue under a tropical blue sky. In the summer, the pool is a warm bath, but in winter it holds a chill. People who don’t live in the Caribbean all year round always laugh when I say that.

Winter brings absentee owners back to their apartments and by 11am there can be as many as a dozen people in or around the pool. This makes swimming lengths a problem because there always seems to be someone in front of you. This happens even when the pool has just one other person in it, which always amazes me.

Being a French island, many of the women at the pool swim or sunbathe topless, which is a delight. I love breasts and I’m certainly going to look. Sorry, but I’m a guy and that’s just the way it is. As I’m now older I’m less worried about leaving the water with an obvious bulge in my shorts although a couple of times it’s been a close run thing …

Boobs aside, the pool is much nicer when there is no one around. Calm in the morning, its surface is like burnished glass, an Alpine lake a thousand feet deep. Kicking off from the wall fractures the water like a windshield smashed by a rock.

Backstroking changes everything. Above, palm trees flick shadows across the pool weaving a frame around a sky filled with cotton wool clouds.

During the day, birds swoop and snatch insects from the water. At dusk bats skim and feed.  In spring, bees, their legs heavy with pollen, drown in the pool. If I see a bee on the surface, I cup it in my hands and carry it gently to shore where the sun dries their wings and away they fly. From experience, bees drifting below the surface, even by the thickness of a finger, have left to pollinate another world.

Today, my friend the ginger cat, a regular visitor, skirted the edge of the pool and stopped to drink, head down, front paws spread like a lion at a Serengeti watering hole. I never realized that so much was going on here!

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On the gate leading to the pool is a sign displaying the rules … all 12 of them. They don’t allow you to do much, other than swim.

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One sign is missing! But then you wouldn’t, would you …