2 October 2011--I'm on my way to the Northumbrian coastal village of Seahouses, a distance of about 150 miles, if I go direct.
I'd probably get there in something under three hours if I drove straight up the M1/A1, skirting Newcastle; probably not too much
longer via the A19, through the mysterious conurbation of Middlesbrough. This latter is a town of about 145,000, but it sits at the
heart of an urbanized area of over 650,000. Despite its size, metropolitan Middlesbrough merits not even the most fleeting reference
in Lonely Planet's Great Britain guide. I suspect there is a reason for this.
Neither of those routes appeals to me. It's Sunday, so traffic really shouldn't be much of an issue, but still I'd prefer to avoid driving through urban areas. Decide instead to pop off the A1 near Bedale, which looks like it would be worth a stop some day. Not today. I continue on up into the Yorkshire Dales, through the handsome market town of Leyburn, in Wensleydale, then over the moor and down into Swaledale. Arrive in Reeth in time for Sunday lunch at the Black Bull. Say hello to the landlord, Richard, who is kind (and canny) enough to at least pretend to remember me, and his daughter Kirstie, who is a bit more vague. It's nice to be here, and lunch is a good opportunity for me to think about what Reeth represents in the course of my fourteen trips to the UK.
I first came to the Dales in 2000, on my third trip. It was my first foray south into England. Landing in Reeth was more-or-less accidental--I didn't book anything ahead in those days, preferring to allow whim and chance determine my route. I might still do that now and then if money were no object, but the need to stay close to budget can make that style of travel very stressful. On this occasion, in fact, I spent an hour in Barnard Castle searching vainly for lodging, finally giving up and heading farther south. The map showed a speck labeled Reeth, and I arrived just after dark, feeling mildly desperate. The barmaid at the Kings Arms took it upon herself to offer me a room at half the double rate, which the landlord later told me was an error, although he let it stand. I'd not have stayed there otherwise, and I'm quite sure I made it up in food and drink over the next few nights. I quickly made friends with the staff, locals, and fellow travelers. Chief amongst these was 90-year-old Fremmie (see 11 Oct 2008). I felt I'd found one of those marvelous homes-away-from-home, a place to return to again and again.
I did indeed return the next year, and had a wonderful time. But Fremmie died shortly after that, and the following year, there was a large turnover in staff at the Kings Arms, and things didn't seem the same. I let it go the next year, and that was pretty much that. I've passed through from time to time, just as I am today, but didn't return for a stay until 2008, when the Battlefield Band played at the village hall. Reeth is no longer a touchstone for me, although it was for a brief time, and feels like it could be again. These things come and go, and I know I'm very fortunate to feel at home year after year in Craigellachie and Plockton. When you return to a place after a year away, you thoughtlessly expect it to be the same as it was when you left, but of course it isn't. If you're lucky, it's pretty close, and you pick up where you left off. More often, that special time you had in East Bugdale was a one-time thing, never to be repeated. I try to appreciate such for what they are when they happen, but it's natural to want to maintain connections to a place where everything seemed to click. "We'll stay in touch, I'll come back," you say, and sometimes you do. Too often, it doesn't happen; there are too many other places to see. Sometimes you're better off to simply take things as they happen and not look back. Every place I visit, the questions are the same: Do I want to come back? Do I need to come back? Reeth is a place where it has gone both ways for me, at different times. Now, looking out across the village green, I feel as though I've run into an old friend, someone I once knew well, but need catching up with. Can we resume our friendship, or has time and circumstance made us strangers? The question, I guess, is how much effort you're willing to make. "We'll have lunch," you say, and maybe you will. For what it's worth, I am in fact having lunch in Reeth. I do seem to keep passing through.
On a whim, I decide after lunch to go for a short walk. It seems odd in hindsight that I never did much walking when I stayed here, since that's what most visitors here do. It was my pre-gym days, before I lost fifty pounds; I wasn't unwilling to walk, but my style of touring was largely determined by my fitness level. (I'm still not really where I would like to be there, but I'm making progress.) Walk down toward the River Swale and cross the swing bridge, which I've never been on before. It was washed out in a flood a few weeks before my first visit in 2000, and not rebuilt until 2002. The trail along the south bank leads me to Grinton, where I cross the road bridge and walk back to Reeth on the north side. A short easy walk, a couple of miles at most, along the valley floor...I consider it a promise to return, to do some real walking up the dales and over the moors, to get to know this old friend even better. I know that such promises are not always kept.
Drive northwest up Arkengarthdale, past the Tan Hill Inn, then northeastward across upper Teesdale, territory that looks unfamiliar on the map, but which rings a distant bell on the ground. Must have passed through here at some point. Farther north, I pick up the A68 and cross the Tyne, then the line of Hadrian's Wall. Then it's a long zig-zag route along B roads to Seahouses. Arrive at 5:30 and quickly find my B&B--it's a small town. My original intent was to make up for last year's botched booking on Holy Island, but my email correspondence with the landlady at the B&B there left me with the impression that she is barely sentient, so I let it go. At least I know now that it wasn't me.
Seahouses came to my attention through CAMRA's Good Beer Guide, and it seemed very attractive after a bit of research. My landlord is a friendly fellow, and my room is at the back of the house, overlooking open fields. I am promised breakfast in the morning, after ten days without. I head down to the harbor for a quick look around before sticking my nose into the bar of the Olde Ship Hotel, the CAMRA-rated pub. It's very busy, so after a pint I eat in the Bamburgh Castle Hotel, which is a bit short of atmosphere, but serves decent enough food. A couple more pints, and off to bed.