The Journey Part 6 – Newcastle to Darlington County
The thundering roar of blades cut through the air as I quick-marched down a litter-strewn street. Rundown red-brick terraces were under the intense scrutiny of the overhead police helicopter. “Just keep moving,” I told myself as I came face to face with a 4×4 police vehicle and what looked to be balaclava-masked marksmen holding rifles. “Where the hell have I come to?” I thought.
Sunderland. I had visited here as a teenager but never remembered it looking or feeling rough. I was suddenly now very aware that I was conspicuously dragging a buggy behind me.
Hidden behind their three-striped tracksuits is often a pot of curiosity and sometimes a glimmer of respect.
“Wanker!” I heard a pre-teen snarl, presumably at his baseball cap-clad mate.
“You’ve got a fat arse!” the other one sniggered.
Nope. They were hurling the insults at me. I hid a faint smile, their words were as intimidating as a Disney film. When you’ve spent 20 months travelling solo round South America, the wannabe hard knock pre-pubescent kids of Britain don’t seem very hard. I’d met other youngsters on the trip and used humour and smiles to break down their defence barriers. Hidden behind their three-striped tracksuits is often a pot of curiosity and sometimes a glimmer of respect. But I couldn’t be bothered right now, I still had 14 miles still to cover and it was already mid-afternoon.
I’d taken a shortcut and diverted from Bede’s Way trail to cut down the 26-mile day I’d set myself. I’d spent 2.5 hours in a museum already – I had to make up some time. I’d been engrossed by a little church in Jarrow, Tyne and Wear, where St Bede chronicled the events of 8th century Britain. I made it to Chester-le-Street via an old disused railway track an hour after dark, guided by light pollution which far outstripped the power from my torch. I was on the trail of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors making my way through Tyne and Wear, County Durham and Darlington.
I walked down to picturesque Durham and on to Escombe, where England’s most intact Anglo-Saxon church stands. Encircled by a ring of ex-council houses, it wasn’t the quaint village setting I had conjured up. But inside it was spectacular. Splintered light shone through the coloured windows, casting a glow on the thick stone walls. History was quite literally etched onto the walls here, with Roman and Anglo-Saxon markings.
What a Load of Rubbish
The fly tipping that took place in County Durham shocked me. Bags upon bags of rubbish had been dumped at any available place alongside the roads. Cups and crisp packets had been heaved out of car windows. I considered picking it up, but I’d have needed about 10 buggies to collect it all. I imagined the mayor going on a litter pick once a week to highlight the problem; mini cameras placed in fly-tipping hotspots to catch offenders; bins being placed where litter is chucked most. Then I came back to reality.
Pensioner on the Rampage
We don’t want your sort here anyway! Go on, get lost! You’re all the same, you townies. Go on, get lost!
I hit the unassuming hamlet of Bolam where instead of litter being thrown, verbal abuse was instead. It wasn’t by a youngster this time but by a retired man whose garden had a footpath running through it.
“Um, is this the footpath?” I enquired as his two dogs jumped up at me barking.
“Yes. Unfortunately,” he said sullenly. “Can I just ask why you’ve come this way?”
“Because it’s a footpath,” I said with a raised eyebrow. Why was he even asking me?
“And there is a footpath to the left and right of this one, each about 500 metres away. So I’ll ask you again. Why are you coming this way?”
“Because this is the footpath I plotted for my route. And it’s a public right of way.”
“I know it is. But do you want to hear why we don’t want people coming through here?”
Nope. I just wanted to get on with my walk.
“Is that where it goes?” I asked, ignoring his attempt at intimidation and looking beyond the potplant lined trail to the fence. It was all of 10 metres away.
“So can I go through then?”
“I’m not stopping you!” he balled. “But we’re vulnerable pensioners living here, we don’t want people walking though,” he shouted after me.
Well you shouldn’t have bought the sodding house then, should you? I thought, but kept my trap shut. And as for vulnerable, he was nothing but bitter.
I had my backpack on, it’d been there all morning with too many stiles to hop over to bother pulling it on the buggy. Just then, one of the buggy wheels attached to the bottom of my backpack, touched a branch from his plant.
“Ahhh! Look! You’ve got a vehicle! This is footpath! You can’t come through with vehicles! And you touched my plant. This path has been deemed accessible for walkers. You’re not a normal walker!” his voice was at screaming pitch by now.
I shouted back: “It’s a bag on my back! It’s clearly not a vehicle! And I bet you didn’t have that plant there when Durham council came to certify it was OK!” This conversation was ridiculous. And it was about to get more so.
“We don’t want your sort here anyway! Go on, get lost! You’re all the same, you townies. Go on, get lost!” It was like arguing with a three-year-old.
I struggled to get over the style with my bag being so heavy.
“Phaaa! Look at you!” he sneered, “you look ridiculous!” Then he turned to his dogs, “Look at her, look how stupid she looks!”
The irony, I thought, as my blood boiled. I was over. He was still squawking.
“I’ve hiked 800 miles and you’re the first person to give me aggro for going across their land which is quite clearly marked as a footpath,” I shouted at him.
His look altered. Was I now an admirable hiker whereas before I was a city thief?
“Do you wanna know why I didn’t want you to come through?” he retorted.
Oh shit, I thought, is there a bull in this field. “Why?” I asked, in case there was.
“Now you’ve calmed down, I’ll tell you,” he said with complete audacity. I bit my tongue. “Anyone can come through here. They can stand in my garden and say they’re not moving. They can rob us or attack us. There are all these gypsies. We’re vulnerable pensioners!”
Christ almighty. What gypsies?! Did he mean me? I could tell his fortune if he wanted, but I don’t think he’d like the ending. There was no point arguing with the delusional man, it was like talking to a brick wall.
“So build a fence which separates the path from your garden,” I suggested. Or move, I thought.
I couldn’t listen to him any more. With smoke billowing from my ears, I carried on my unmerry way in the rain, seething for most of the day. It was the first time on the hike that I had felt so annoyed. Since leaving unfriendly London and a tyrant flatmate, I hadn’t been angry. Until now.
Camping at the Club
Thankfully, I stumbled upon Croft Working Men’s Club where I was welcomed with the northern hospitality I was used to: “Of course you can camp here! Do you need a hand pitching your tent?” the hospitable barmaid asked, earmarking some of the guys to help me.
“No, it’ll take longer trying to explain to someone what to do than to pitch it myself. But thank you!” I spent the evening in the bar, chatting away to all the locals, who were bemused by the bedraggled hiker and her buggy.
“Where are you off to next?” I was asked.
“I’m heading to Middlesbrough.”
“Ooo, I’d avoid it if I were you.” It was the fifth time I’d heard this comment in the past week. “If you thought Sunderland was rough, you won’t want to go through there!”
“Are there lots of angry pensioners?” I joked. I wasn’t quite sure what would greet me in Middlesbrough, but I was about to find out.
Jane Batchelor is currently hiking 2,500 miles through Britain, looking at the history of the country in chronological order. For more photos, follow her Facebook and Instagram pages. To find out more about her journey, click here.