Day 112: Christow to Lyme Regis

‘Things change when people start to talk to each other, positively, to the people around them, about what could happen’. – Colin, Christow.

This is not the first time I’ve woken up on a railway carriage. Usually exhaustion from work or plain drunkenness played a part. They were huge and sophisticated things, with plug sockets, automated announcements, passenger wi-fi and space age toilets. The Toad brake van by contrast is modest in proportion, built for the needs of a Fifties’ rail-guard, but comes with a comfortable bed, sink, cooking area, dining table and bookshelf filled with treasures. There are no automated announcements, only a sense of silent stillness, at times interrupted by the trill of birdsong outside.

No rush today. Sadly, I’m one of the very last guests to stay on this camping van run by the Teign Valley railway. The world’s changing, as Colin described it yesterday, and the effort and motivation to continue running an underused resource has waned. I wander around the goods yard, past an open freight shed, and the tiny Tadpole brake carriage, also converted into a camping van replete with children’s books and a ukulele. There’s a number of old freight stock carriages, and I wonder how the Teign valley railway might have become if Colin had realised his plans to buy up the land on which the line once ran, and reopened it again. It is such a huge undertaking for one lone individual, and Colin has made remarkable progress in the yard so far. With the help of a young environmentally-minded apprentice, perhaps looking for an interesting and rewarding one-year project, the Teign Rail could become far more widely-known, I think. The sheer breadth knowledge and skills that Colin has deserves to be shared and passed on.

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Day 91: Dolgellau to Machynlleth

‘We’ve got the knowledge here, we’ve got the potential.’ – Joel, Machynlleth.

The desire for solitude…

I’m starting to feel like the lone ranger, my singleness weighing on me. But it’s not a feeling of isolation, or loneliness… Stranger, a hardening of my boundaries, a reluctance and disinterest in intruding on others, a new feeling of difficulty in looking someone in the eye, or asking about them, whilst my mind and its imagination inflates into a pop up universe of its own. It’s like the mind can incorporate external stimuli like sights, stories, experiences before a certain threshold is exceeded. Or maybe it’s fatigue, of a mental kind, or the changing of the seasons I am experiencing and immersed into a daily, hourly degree, more intensive than ever before. The dark is drawing in, and weeks of cold, grey and wet weather has us turning inwards, towards the hearth and the familiar figures and sensations that surround it. Maybe I’m tiring out, as other travellers have done who I’ve read, their last days a grainy and gloomy blur. I hope not. I’m finding such rich secrets already in north Wales, and more is promised.

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Day 48: Lochinver to Lewis

‘The most terrible creature on this planet? It’s the human. We destroy everything… closely followed by the midge, and the tick!’ – Greg, Lochinver.

I awake with a fierce hangover on a shrubby hillock in the heart of Culag woods, a small but dense forest overlooking the fishing village of Lochinver. The beer, whisky and good times made sleeping easy, but the surface around me is uneven and boggy. Some strange little insect has lodged itself in my arm and with some difficulty I manage to squeeze it out. I’ll quickly become accustomed to these nasty critters. My socks and much of the tent are soaked through, and a pair of damp and whiffy socks are unhappily thrown away as tribute to the rain gods.

It’s a Sunday morning and the overnight rain seems to have cleared. Being dependent on tourism and fishermen, Lochinver actually has a shop and tourist office open, with a little museum at the back. There’s nothing about the wretched people of Assynt that Pennant saw, but the collection completes the pieces of a familiar puzzle. After Culloden, the local MacLeod chiefs had their obligations to their clans removed. Like other highlanders, they took well to making money from their lands, and gradually adopted a London-based lifestyle of the rich, spending the income of their estates in coffee houses and card tables. Debts lost them the land to the enterprising Duke of Sutherland. Over the early 19th century local farmers were burnt out and cleared to make room for sheep farming. Economic profit continued to trump traditions and human lives.

Lochinver was built in 1812 as a fishing port for these evicted farmers, and over the following nine years the surrounding area – that Jurassic wilderness I passed through yesterday – saw burnings and evictions. There were riots in nearby Inchnadamph against the collusion of the local church with the lairds, but most people were forced by starvation to move to Canada, Australia and elsewhere. By the 1870s the price of wool collapsed, and greedy lairds faced financial ruin, until Queen Victoria turned the Highlands and hunting into an English aristocratic retreat. Whilst the rich came to holiday, those locals who managed to eke out a living through croft-farming or fishing struggled to survive. It was a bleak place. Some organised deer raids against the rich, driving away toffs and their game to preserve ‘the land of Assynt to the people of Assynt.’

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