It’s not quite the European travel I’ve always dreamed of, but the recent alteration to my work means I’ve been travelling to Lancashire and to places I have never been before. I have always enjoyed the ‘getting out and about’ aspect of surveying (British Waterways in particular was great for that and I used to get trains, planes and automobiles all over our island) and as I headed down the M6 just over a week ago I was glad I worked and glad that my profession gives me the opportunity to get out rather than to be in one place. It goes a little way towards soothing my itchy feet, even if at the same time it whets my appetite and increases my desire to travel further afield.
I like the sense of freedom which travel brings, in whatever form. I had never previously driven down the A65 and as I headed towards the villages and hills of the Yorkshire Dales, I couldn’t help contrasting it with the more dramatic scenery of the A66 as it winds through County Durham. I must admit I prefer the more open and wild scenery further north but the road passed through some lovely villages which, if I had had time, I would have stopped to explore. One route I do love when travelling this way is the Carlisle-Settle railway however: there’s something distinctly eerie about the tunnels and viaducts, in addition to the grandeur of the engineering enterprise as it passes over the fells.
I’ve always thought of this as the real ‘north’: as a southerner Manchester, Leeds and the surrounding conurbations were what were depicted on television as ‘the north’ and for someone whose experience was very much orientated in the south, these seemed a long way from London or from the South West. When we moved to Cumbria, a couple of hours’ travel further north still, it felt as if we had moved somewhere completely different again: some wild borderland beyond the North, if that was possible. As a large part of Cumbria is a holiday destination there’s also perhaps a sense of unreality about Cumbria; it’s not ‘real life’ but something you escape when you’ve opted out of the Rat Race.
It struck me, as I drove round sprawling towns and suburbs with cars everywhere that the North – in the sense of Manchester, Leeds. Liverpool etc. – is not so different from the South. Our small little island is built up nearly wherever you go until you reach the latitude of about Preston (my parents always comment on how the traffic gets a lot lighter on the M6 at Preston). There is beautiful scenery everywhere but it’s not until you get properly north, to Cumbria, Northumberland and Scotland, that you find the big open countryside and an immense feeling of space. Even the skies seem larger, and you can travel along roads and tracks where you don’t see another soul for hours at a time: the landscapes are dramatic rather than just a contrast to the urban sprawl and semi urban sprawl and general clutter of masses of human beings.
It’s good to have the contrast though and to escape to the urban bustle for a bit. Perhaps it makes me value Cumbria all the more. And whilst it’s easy to lump everywhere urban in together, the different town and cities obviously have their own characteristics and personalities. I loathe Preston. I’m sure it’s fine if you live there and know your way around, but I always get lost in Preston. I find this incredibly irritating as I generally have a really good sense of direction: good enough that I don’t always need to look at a map more than once and I consider satnav is for idiots who can’t read maps. But Preston throws me and throws my innate sense of direction into turmoil. It doesn’t help that for years I was convinced it was to the east of the M6 – but now I still find I’m going the wrong way wherever I am, or it takes ages to get around the city because the roads just don’t go quite where I expect them to. I’m never going the way I think I’m going – I’ll be convinced I’m going north and then I come to some sign or other which tells me to go right in order to head north, meaning that in fact I’d been heading west all along. And what sort of a name is Preston? It’s abrupt. Perhaps that’s why that nasty dog in the the Aardman Animation films was called Preston: perhaps the animators don’t like Preston either. Sorry Preston. I’m sure if I got to know you better I’d love you.
(p.s. 22/3/2016 – I do like Preston railway station).
On this particular day however I forgave Blackpool at the times I’ve been there and thought how dire it looked. As I got to Blackpool the sun came out, the houses looked well-cared-for: and I met a singing fireman. It’s always good to have a chat with a fellow singer – the other week it was a singing estate agent, and previously I’ve had my hall decorated by a guy who used to sing and been in a business meeting which has turned into a chat about singing. Funny how the subject always seems to come up.
As I drove back to Cumbria, having seen crocuses bursting out colourfully in the spring sunshine in Lancashire, and having met lots of lovely firemen (the fire service people all seem so lovely – laidback and friendly; relaxed without being unprofessional) I was singing along to Mozart and my heart soared. The Howgills loomed dramatically black and white: I love seeing them in any season as they change from being velvety to bright to lowering, and their colours change so drastically. Today they were in shadow but snow on their tops created a harsh contrast. The Lake District Fells were similarly contrasting except that in the middle ground there was a layer of gold as the evening sun caught some of the hills and in the foreground they were green with spring; whereas over on the Pennines dark bluey-grey clouds hung low, making the hilltops disappear into haze.
I returned to Carlisle, to get to the music festival on a bright spring evening as the warm red glow of the cathedral lit up all around it. It had been a day of colours and of exploration. And there had been one slogan, on the side of a school in Lancaster, which stuck with me: aspire not to have more but to be more. Not to have more worldly goods, but to ‘be’ more in the sense of being true to yourself; expressing your creativity; and being compassionate and kind to others – of being the best you can be and of never stopping trying to learn and to develop yourself.