Stage Nine - Coalville to Derby

I leave at dawn. Sound's good doesn't it? Well, it looks good too. A beautiful cloud free sky with a sliver of crescent moon still shining as I slip out of the door. I decide to get the tube for once and am so semi-conscious that I get out at Euston and have to jump back on the train to Kings Cross.

Having got the tube I have lots of time at St Pancras, so I go to the comedy Costa by the Eurostar arrivals door. It is neither the South Asian crew or the Horn of Africa (in both cases I am guessing) bunch but a motley collection this time, presided over by a great freindly bear of a man who sounds Eastern European. He is exactly the sort of guy that you might get indulgently/tyrannicaly running his own Greek Taverna or, smoke filled Bulgarian cafe. How he has ended up here, a slave to the Costa Corporation is anyone's guess.

Oh, hang on, I buy a lot of coffee in Costa rather than little Greek or Bulgarian cafes. So his sad servitude is probably all my fault.

There is a stain on the seat opposite me. It is the same place as the masses of vomit I moved places to avoid last time I came home. It occurs to me that it might be the same carriage and the same seat. It has been cleaned though and there is no smell, for which I am very thankful.

The sun comes up as we pull out of the station. Brilliant, blinding, light pouring through the side of the shed. I try to take a picture through the dirty glass of the train without outstanding success.

Once again we cover a lot of old ground. Harpendon Common. A bit of the Lee. Luton sewerage farm. The three cream and terracotta tower blocks at Leagrave guarding the source of the Lee, The Sharpenhoe Clappers then off to Bedford. And, then as we speed through green country, still hazy with sunlit morning mist, I look up from the suffocating jungle of the Congo to see a swan flying through the fields. Parallel to the train but not fast enough. We outstrip it quickly and leave it in our wake.

I go back to reading Heart of Darkness. Marlow's boat is penetrating deeper into the jungle. Slowly, inching its way into the mad centre of a savage world. Just like this train. Well, except that we are going fast and it is all tidy farmed country. Oh all right it is nothing like it. But I wrote a comic story once called "Heart of Duckness," about a sailor going deep into the fens and we cross the River Great Ouse which slowly eases out to the sea at Kings Lynne as we speed out of Bedford. And there are plenty of ducks around.

And I do feel that I am coming to the very heart of England. There are, I find, endless pointless squabbles about where the very centre of England is but none of the systems make around 6 miles north of Coalville. Still, it feels like the middle to me, for some reason. Is it the heart of darkness though? Truth to tell, Coalville seemed alright to me. And for all the roads and ruined country England is not so bad. I have walked though a lot of woodland regenaration from the Heartwood forest in Hertfordshire. And people have been generally friendly. Certainly, no on has tried to put my severed head on a post. Not yet, anyway.

I decide to get a bus from Loughbourough into the centre. A solitary woman has a loud argument with her mobile phone about whether she is always phoning somebody or not. The morning is still, with almost no traffic, and it is hard not to listen to every word.  There is a strange, overwhelming odour of kippers.

Then the bus comes and takes me to my stop. A Leicestershire electronic lying machine at the bus stop tells me that there is a bit of time so I wander up a pedestrianised street to a little market square in search of second breakfast. I catch a smell of something savory and meaty but it is only a Greggs. But I am really hungry so I have a lemon muffin, which being from Greggs is sickly, sickly sweet.

Then the Coalville bus comes and I have the whole upper deck to myself. It swings around the town a bit and then I see that we are coming to the University and suddenly I realise. The Heart of Darkness Indeed!

Why? You ask. What is so evil and unspeakable about Loughborough University? Sport! Not Sport itself which has its place, but Loughbourough University is the epicentre of the universe for the most evil creatures in creation. I am, of course, talking about games teachers. This is their spiritual home. Whether they actually trained here or not (and it is a good bet that the sadistic child abusing swine who were my own games teachers never did themselves) it is their secret, hollowed-out-volcano headquarters, the Pentagon of PT teachers, their very Vatican.

I shudder with relief as the bus resumes its circulambatory way.

Batman is having his photo taken in a petrol station in Shepshed. Shepshed on a Saturday morning. Never been before. For all I know it is quite normal. Still... Quite a morning and I haven't started walking yet.

At last I recognise the road and get off the bus before the stop I left from for "Swad" last week as I want to walk a little and perhaps get a third breakfast to take the memory of the sickly Greggs's muffin away. There is a butchers shop, very busy for so early. I pass but then stop. Butchers sometimes do good pies, after all. My butcher uncle Barry's pork pies are matchless. I go in but have to queue which I take as a good sign. It is an enthusiastically lardy sort of place, a pile of, what? It looks like lumps of dripping, white but with the odd black bit, in pride of place on the display. I buy a huge meat and potato pie and a half of a big pork pie for later.

Today I am planning on a pub lunch but you cannot be too careful and, anyway, the pork pie will keep.

I set off, past the chip shop where I needed an interpreter last week, and the bus stop which was where I finished. There are a couple of pit head structures down the road. I must have passed them on the bus last time but in my blister wrecked state I had not noticed them. Hard to miss though as they are so big. Part of a mining heritage park it seems.

Turning off into a bit of reclaimed industrial land on its way to being a nature park a nasty little dog runs up and barks at me furiously. The woman with it calls it back and eventually puts it on a lead. But no hint of an apology.  Sadly typical of dog owners in my experience. There is a new path but it soon turns wet and muddy, it doesn't look as if things have dried up that much since the last time I was walking.

The park turns into a path by and then over the railway line and then I cross a busy road before I go into Cuckoo Gap Wood. I pass a young girl on the path and we smile in passing greeting.  The footpath takes me through the wood to Swannington. There is a pub, The Robin Hood and I take a picture as it looks like I am getting in reach of Robin Hood territory. But more interesting is a little hut like structure that seems to be there just to celebrate the village. What makes it so remarkable is that it is so beautifully made, carved wood outside and what looks like engraved stainless steel panels within. I wonder at the self-confidence of this ex mining community that this expensive work would not be vandalised.

It is a road walk out of Swannington though not unpleasant. There is a footpath and it is a strip settlement with glimpses of fields beyond the houses. At Pegg's Green I decide to risk a footpath. It is not a proper path, but soon veers over a winter wheat field. But it is dry. Two weeks have made a watery world of difference.  The land has dried out amazingly quickly - the muddy path I encountered at the start must have been through very boggy ground.. Soon I pick up a big bridle path to Worthington and the view that opens up before me is astonishing.

I should have took a photo but I knew the photo would not look so good as the reality and waited until later. Later, I never got another shot.

Worthington, a tightly grouped village was at the bottom of a long descent through fields. But it appeared to be in a sort of chasm, with steep cliffs on either side. This was very odd as no such dramatic feature showed on the OS map. I got it out and eventually realised what was going on. On the right of Worthington there really were cliffs, the vertical sides of a quarry, which, marked as a quarry did not have any dramatic grouping of countour lines on the map. The left hand cliffs were similarly from a quarry, but this was actually a couple of miles further north. My first glimpse of the astonishing Breedon hill which is being quarried away, leaving a church on the top looking as if it is about to be undermined.

On the way into Worthington I saw a large party of older ramblers, a sign that I was getting into walking country and out of ex-industrial Leicestershire coalfields. And just after Worthington I picked up the Cloud Trail. Another ex-railway cycle track, as broad and level as the one from Northampton to Market Harborough.

I could relax now. It was a fine spring day with masses of wood anemones and white violets by the side of the track, and I soon came across cyclists making use of the route, family parties mostly.

Pressing on as time was moderately tight with a specific train to catch home. I needed a toilet break and  nowhere suitable was evident until a movement caught my eye. Another weasel, dancing over a little culvert that the path went over.  I watched for it but it was gone but there was a bridge beneath the path which I made use of before heading on. A little further down the track, another movement. This time a stoat.

I had only seen two weasels ever - actually that is not quite true because the first one was a mother with several babies, but on two occasions before the previous leg and now I had seen two in two weeks. Perhaps the belated spring had made the need to get out and hunting more pressing than usual. Certainly the birds were going at it in the hedgerows, which plentiful chiff-chaffs as well as the usual belling tits and robins burbling in their imbecilic way 

I was hungry now and had promised myself a pub lunch for once. Pressing on past the first possible stop I left the Cloud Trail at  Kings Newton, on the outskirts of Melbourne. There was a sign placed on the path and I tried the advertised pub which gave me a more than decent meal and massive cappuccino that cost almost as much as the food.

And back on the trail. Almost immediately the land opened up and I was crossing the floodplain and then the River Trent itself.

There have been a lot of milestones on this walk, literal and figurative. The Cloud Trail was full of the literal sort telling me how far I was from Derby every mile and one of the funky ones seeing me out of Leicestershire and into Derbyshire.  Seeing the Midland Plain open up from the Chiltern Escarpment, was a big figurative one. But the Trent is the biggest one so far.  I stopped mid-stream for a minute or two to enjoy the moment. And then on.

On the other side I joined the old railway gave way to the Trent and Mersey canal tow path. For a while I had been seeing a different sort of cyclists. Fat ones. Great, pale, unfit wobbly people cycling erratically down the track and tow path. There were more and more of them. Last time out, along the Grand Union Canal, the only people on bikes, churning up the tow path into an impassable mire were the crazies. Lycra clad, mud bespattered, lean and fanatical of face, grinding their expensive mountain bikes through mud and driving rain.

This was different. And kind of heartening. After all, these people clearly needed the exercise much more than the mountain bike maniacs of two weeks ago. The cycle path, and beautiful weather, had tempted the seriously unfit out to enjoy the spring day and get a bit of exercise and there was something great about that. Something in the cycle path idea seemed to be working anyway.

I ran into two young girls a bit further along. Both dressed in the teenage shorts and black tights fashion one was getting tired. "Can we get a bus back to Chellaston from Shardlow?" She asked. The other one agreed. But then as I pressed on they saw a milestone and the first let out a shriek.  If they had come from Chellaston they must have walked about a mile but clearly this was already too much for her. They began to have a loud argument about turning back, as I continued onwards, leaving the canal and passing under the A50, where the path skirted Chellaston, the outskirts of Derby.

Tiring now it took a long while to get through Derby. The Cycle Path continued clear and straightforward through council and industrial estates. I got a bit lost in a park but soon found my way and hit the River Derwent, which was to be my route and my companion for the next few days.

Having had my head down almost all the way from Worthington, I was in good time by the time I reached Pride Park, the Derby County stadium but too tired for exploring. I passed a bunch of Polish people having a barbecue and drinking beer on some seats by the river. A little further I took a break myself. But I was out of water and tea so did not stop for long. And soon enough, after a minor detour, I found myself passing the handsome brick buildings that line the road to Derby railway station.

It was a gorgeous evening so I had a drink outside the pub opposite the station before going to get my train. For the first time in my life I had a first class ticket. It was £1.00 more than the second class one, and tea and coffee was free!

I had a huge first class table to myself and whistled back, past the bits of canal, the clappers and the Leagrave towers and all, finishing Heart of Darkness in the lap of luxury.



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