Happiness and connection, side by side. The young dance and dive in the background, the seasoned swim and glide in the foreground. One will become the other, given time. And so history will repeat.
Over the past few weeks, as I’ve ventured around North Yorkshire and its fringes, I’ve realised that my life has had a ‘little bit of history repeatin’.
Normally I would find a Ground Hog style of living an anathema, but there are times when life comes back on itself in ways that make you feel recentred and rejuvenated. And for this can I suggest a fusion of Open Water swimmers, ideally one with only one leg; remnants of Whorlton Castle; bumping into a detectorist who was in your class at school, and oh so beautiful Yarm.
On of one those days when we had weather that makes you feel all very continental: you bask in the warmth, feel an urge to shrug off English inhibitions, and maybe even have freshly baked bread and cold meat for breakfast. (Which you later regret – feeling you’ve missed a meal altogther – as you’ve clearly had a ham butty – which is most definitely a thing for lunch). One of those days took me to meander down by the river in Yarm. I was looking for a place where we could easily launch our canoes on to the water. I found one. A perfectly beautiful one.
You sneak down the side of The Blue Bell – sneak legitimately because it’s part of the The Teesdale Way.I’ve only eaten at the pub once and I do remember you get huge portions, which is probably what you want when you’re walking the 100 miles of the Teesdale Way, from the Cumbrian Pennines to the North Yorkshire coast. I didn’t trouble myself with 98-ish of those miles, just enjoyed 2 or 3 of them – twice. I came back a couple of days later to go for a bit of a tootle-y run, and both times, past those steps above, past the pub gardens, it was like stepping out of the back of the wardrobe to Narnia. You emerge into a lush landscape, where the sunlight speckles down and you regret only that you did not bring your machete.
However, not only will you instantly find a jetty for your canoe-launching, but also people more interesting than even Mr Tumnus.
The Tees, no longer a toxic toilet for local industries, is now a fertile, embracing playground for young and….less young. I met a chilled family on their first time out in their new dinghy, watched a gaggle of teenagers leap fearlessly from trees and platforms, squealing as they plunged into the warm waters. And a group of open waters swimmers, who couldn’t have been happier with their lot. One of them merrily removed her leg and trustingly left it on the river bank (I assume you got that it was prosthetic). Something she does alot, apparently: she’s the only disabled woman to have completed the The Ice Mile – a swim in only a cozzie, goggles and one hat. Oh and teeny, tiny detail, the water has to be 5 degrees or less. Kate Sunley is a legend in her field, or her open water. But I particularly liked that she knew she could swim a few miles and know her leg would be waiting for her when she got back. (And when it went missing once, a local volunteered to dive the depths of the river to find it for her). This is what you get in Yarm.
If you’re inspired to dip a toe in the water, then look at The North East Open Water Swimmers on Facebook for more information. They’re a welcoming lot.
But carry on past the jetty, you’ll love it: Paths and Billy Goats Gruff bridges.
Raspberries quietly doing their own thing, wild in the hedgerows, rolling their eyes as we all made pandemic, grand efforts to become soft fruit farmers in our back gardens, only to have spluttered out but a handful.
Beyond the gauzy, yellow fields, you can make your way to Egglescliffe.
Or. Run back the way you came and bump into a couple of metal detectorists and realise one was in your form at school. These are your choices. They’d found a musket ball from the Civil War, which, I learned, was probably there either as remains of a battle or because the soldiers used to practice their aim, shooting over the river. My friend has found some special things over the years, in various places in North Yorkshire, each with a story, a history behind it, the most precious he is leaving to his family once his own history is complete.
Whorlton Castle is a misnomer. It’s one of those castles that are no longer a castle. One of those castles that you get all excited about seeing, envisage yourself running along the ramparts and marvelling at the enormity of the drawbridge, wondering how appropriate one would be outside your semi, maybe with a colour wash…. Then, on arrival you feel anticlimactic, as it’s not actually a castle but a gatehouse. But, as you lower your expectations, you’ll find little nuggets of interest, that make you go ‘huh’, and then actually quite enjoy yourself. Whorlton Castle, near Swainby, is an ideal place for a quiet, free, socially distanced trip out.
I’ve been there twice over the last few weeks; like the jetty, it’s a returnable-to place. The first with a friend. History of all kinds, personal and societal, can offer a salve to some of the harshness of life. When you walk through Swainby, reminisce with your schoolfriend about the drunken teenage nights out in The Middle Pub (there is no deep reason as to why it was known as that – what you’re thinking is the reason, is the reason), laugh at the hilarious photos you’ve unearthed in lockdown and remember life as simpler then, as easier, less painful. It’s this history, forged together, that makes life feel brighter again. You regain an equilibrium. One of my favourite quotes is by the author Alexander McCall Smith. I’m not a huge fan of his books, but I often like his thoughts when I read about him.
“You can go through life and make new friends every year – every month practically – but there was never any substitute for those friendships of childhood that survive into adult years. Those are the ones in which we are bound to one another with hoops of steel.”
We meandered down lanes of memories as we made our way to Whorlton Castle. These photos are from when I returned, our chatter made me forget to take photos the first time.
Whorlton Castle is in the abandoned village of Whorlton in the North Yorkshire Moors National Park The links will give you a good background to it – Wikipedia is more well known than me for a reason. But in brief, it was established in the 12th century; at one time owned, like everything else, by Henry VIII and now by Lord Guisborough; used to be called Potto Castle and is crying out for someone to look after it properly. We thought it needed an information sign, for a bit of context when you visit.
What you’re left with is the gatehouse, which you can clamber on and take in the views; and the vaulted basements, which if you’re about 12 and under, you can freely scamper down and up. Attempts in middle age are probably not wise.
If you pass the church in Swainby you’ll see some of the stones from the castle – ‘borrowed’. Maybe at some point in the future they’ll give them back. Maybe someone will realise it wasn’t actually a good idea to dismantle the castle. Sometimes it helps to look back before you can look forward. Sometimes our own histories need to wash over us every now and then, to wash away some of the today that is holding us stagnant. So we can then shake ourselves free of the droplets and carry on moving forwards, making more of our own histories.