The GardenDespatches from The Satyrs’ Forest

A despatch from Consett

Hello. I’ve been to Consett. I thought you might like to hear about it. (Gosh, i’ve missed writing that.)

It’s been a miserable year so far weather-wise, so wind-swept, cold-nipped, and rain-soaked that it took until April for me to look outside and go, ah, not a bad day, let’s go for a jaunt.

A map showing the planned route

The plan was simple: get a bus into Consett and head straight for the nearest hill. A short and sweet saunter through woods and farmland; short compared to some of my previous odysseys from Newcastle to the Wansbeck, sweet compared to the scenery in the more populous parts of the palatinate. (It was not to be.)

A storefront for "Teatan Lounge and Lunch" and "Oasis Tanning Salon"
I’m at the bubble tea / I’m at the tanning salon / I’m at the combination bubble tea and tanning salon

We start in the centre of town, a humble lower-middle-class affair whose high street would strike southerners as horrifyingly dilapidated and northerners as above average — nice enough, at least, for the area’s local MP to choose it as his base of operations. Around the corner from the cinema1, the pedestrianised and sensibly named Middle Street plays host to (in decreasing order of classiness) a provider of musical instruments, an independent sweet shop–gift shop–pet shop, a building society, a Greggs, a Superdrug, an animal rescue shelter, a frozen food emporium, a Turkish barber, Ladbrokes, a vape shop, another vape shop which also sells computer parts and repairs your phone (my lawyers say i can’t call it a mob front), and Barry’s Bargain Superstore.

A streetscape A nice old church with a red sign out front

This dumps us onto a crossing onto Parliament Street, where the Ga­li­le­an­ically inclined can attend the charming parish church (with “messy church” every month for the tots). I follow it down its procession of historic terraces, in a rather literal sense: Briton Terrace, Saxon Terrace, Norman Terrace, and then to spite me they finish it off with the pattern-breaking Tudor Terrace. I suppose it could have been a later addition, going with Stuart Court across the road, as well as Georgia and Edwardia Courts, two small cul-de-sacs i only noticed on Google Earth after the fact… but that sequence gets thrown off yet again by the road whence those two branch off, Romany Drive, which unless they meant to write “Roman” but hired a dyslexic cartographer has sod all to do with the other streets.

A street sign proclaiming this lane to be known as Briton Terrace

A path bearing at its mouth a welcoming sign (all caps, “no part of this land is dedicated to the public, any use of this land is entirely at the user’s own risk, et cetera, et cetera”) marks a liberating end to our onomastic confusion, funneling us down a sloping green crescent of parkland into a reclaimed steelworks. (It’s always a reclaimed steelworks.)

A quintessential English landscape stretching across one’s entire field of view
A steep path downhill
Cue the music.

Finally, we reach the end of the funnel, where the light pours from the sky, the buildings abruptly stop, and any wayward ramblers are left with only a gorgeous view of Durham’s rolling hills stretching out before them. This exact moment, this exact view — this is why i get out. To sit on the edge of a hill, the dull traces of modernity firmly behind you, and see the country not devoid of man’s presence, but shaped by it, over hundreds and thousands of years, from hunting-grounds to cleared forest to farmland to steelworks to grass for grass’s sake, a place where, like the terraces of Parliament Street, you can hear England’s history sing in your veins.

Anyway then there’s a really steep path downhill where i almost slipped and fell like Super Mario going down a slide.

A graffiti-covered pipe crossing a ditch inside a steel frame

Traipsing down steps i’m not 100% sure were public and over a road made of more pothole than asphalt i wind up following a burn to the River Derwent. This is where our route’s industrial past makes itself seen. Every few yards a worn sign pops up warning of a “drainage ditch”, or a graffiti-blanketed pipe crosses the rain-cleaved dene; at the very end, a picnic table by a former pump house grants me some respite.

I take stock of myself. My phone’s battery, always surprising me with innovative ways to run out, is in danger of crossing the ten-percent mark. It’s the first nice day of the year, but that also means i’m out of shape and out of practice: i won’t be able to make it all the way.

Equally, i’d be a fool to clamber back up all that. I keep walking. The rushing burn has become a tranquil river, its waters still enough to see your reflection. I think to myself that if you’re going to name a pencil company after a river, this one’s not a bad choice.2

Civilisation creeps back in with the tell-tale sounds of power tools. This is Al­lens­ford Holiday Park, a modest gathering of caravans proudly advertising itself as “near the outstanding Northumberland National Park”. (It isn’t.) When i get there it’s thronged by teen schoolboys freshly out, chattering about video games and lining up for ice cream. (Something, something, nature is healing.) Checking Google Maps with what power i have left reveals my worst fear: there’s nowhere to go but up.

The distance is short, but the slope is grueling. I convince my legs to heave themselves up along the side of pave­ment­less roads, ducking into fallow fields and passing places wherever i can find them. It gets worse the further i get. By the first field, i’m a little out of it. By the Catholic boarding school, i’m utterly exhausted. When i climb what i think is the final hill, only for perspective to cruelly show yet more around the corner, i wonder if this is what hell is like. But i make it — sweating and breathless, hydrating myself sip by sip, i make it to the bus stop, and wait. The driver, when he comes, must think i’m a zombie, but i’m glad to be on my way home. Note to self: don’t take that big a break again.

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