There’s a wonderful poem written by Thomas Hood in the early 1800s which sums up the reality of a Northern winter. It begins with these lines:
“No sun — no moon!
No morn — no noon! No dawn – no dusk! No proper time of day.”
This was the case for days at a time during my childhood when the heavy industry of the North East created thick smog and the daily walk to school resulted in damp hair (at least it used to curl in those days). Clothes were covered in murky droplets from the suspension of industrial fog that pervaded outside. The classrooms were heated with a large coke-fired stove and everyone sat round steaming gently for the first hour of the day as we dried off. We read stories, and what stories they were about the way life changed in Northern England as, a century earlier, the Industrial Revolution quickly created wealth for some and a move to grim, urban living for many more.
That landscape of coal mines and the magnitude of the docks where ships came from many parts of the globe to offload cargoes and reload with other goods was spectacular. The John Masefield poem, Cargoes, written in 1903 still captured the essence of the 1960s and 1970s era, before rapid change resulted in the decline of many industrial practices:
“Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack, Butting through the Channel in the mad March days, With a cargo of Tyne coal, Road-rails, pig-lead, Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.”
There was always life, vibrancy, and movement, and in the 20th century we could walk round, watch, and marvel at the activity as well as talk to the crews from the ships and the dockers about their lives. Not so much attention was paid to health and safety at that time, and there were plenty of heavy ropes to trip over and cold grey water to fall into – we just never did.
There were days at the beach and overriding memories of grey – grey sky, grey coastline, a grey, cold, churning sea, and grey/gold sand. Even the wind felt grey, but the absolute sense of freedom that coursed through me when I ran down those long North Eastern beaches was energising and invigorating. Decades later, I learned this was due to the endorphins and I was creating a natural high, a feeling that still has the power to take me back to those unstructured days.
Was it, is it, that sense of space, movement and distant horizons that ignited a restlessness that has never left me to see what’s round the corner and what lies over the horizon? Is that the reason for my fascination with the North’s big, big skies?
While there are big skies by the coast, the sense of movement under a big sky is exaggerated by the undulations of crossing the North of England along the great Northern Trans-Pennine road (the A66) and runs from Scotch Corner in the East to Workington in the West. Where better to play the great track, which refers to the American Route 66, written by Bobby Troup back in 1946 and sung by Nat King Cole and Chuck Berry, among others?
“Well if you ever plan to motor west
Travel my way, take the highway that’s the best
Get your kicks on Route 66”
Part of the road still tracks ancient Roman journeys and there are several remains of a Roman developments. When the Vikings invaded there were many battles involving warriors, going by chillingly accurate names such as Erik Bloodaxe. The A66 remains a travellers’ route and was also used by coal and lead miners in the past.
Regional journalism comes to the fore when researching details, particularly in rural areas, which reflects the nature of the A66. A report on a talk about the history of the A66 featured in the Cumberland and Westmoreland Herald, and A Northern Echo article written by Chris Lloyd tracks various developments and changes at the eastern end of the A66, where it leaves the Great North Road.
Close to the Stanmore Summit on the A66 is a sign which states the height above sea level – 1370 feet – where the railway station used to be. It is a ‘because it’s there’ kind of place, great for a photo and even better for experiencing and taking in those big Northern skies on a clear day.
Legends suggest that ghosts of travellers emerge on the route from time to time (usually when the Northern weather decides to be grey, providing frequent and lengthy opportunities to walk in a cloud forest). It is when immersed in this type of environment that the mind quietly makes suggestions and the shapes emerging in the winter gloom are surely a line of ponies walking towards you.
Main image: Views in the Dales by our North Yorks photographer Paul Hunter. To see Paul’s images, click here.