Discovering England’s Book Town


Many people are aware of Hay on Wye in Wales and Wigtown in Scotland but I suspect fewer are aware of Sedbergh which now promotes itself as England’s Book Town. It is only six miles from the M6, 10 from Kendal and sits just inside the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The transition is dramatic, leaving the busy motorway and driving along a two-lane road flanked by drystone walls and with hills in the background. It is upland farming country and Sedbergh is a small market town. The town sign said it was twinned with a town in Slovenia which seemed a little unusual. Apparently it featured in a BBC documentary series, ‘The Town that Wants a Twin’ in early 2005 and subsequently was twinned with Zreče in Slovenia. It has a narrow main street with shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants plus a small market on the day we visited. I was quite amused by the spelling mistake on this shop front.

There are six bookshops, the biggest of which is Westwood Books which has two floors and more than 70,000 books. Others combine bookselling with outdoor gear sales and focus on walking books and local subjects (Sleepy Elephant) or craft, fine arts and textiles (Avril’s Books). The Dales and Lakes Book Centre in the middle of the town is a co-operative of dealers and also has some new books, maps, cards and gifts. I added two volumes to my New Naturalist Collection in there. Outside the cherry blossom in the churchyard was wonderful.

The private boarding school and the local state school are the major employers in the town, although some say that is now changing and local small businesses are increasing. In 2015 it was designated a “Walkers Welcome’ Town, sits on the Dales Way: an 80 mile trail and there are many other local footpaths. Like many rural places it had to recover from the devastation caused by the foot and mouth epidemic in 2015. There are many local groups and clubs and a community orchard planted to the south.

Many of the conifers here and in the surrounding area were quite brown and I initially thought this may be some disease but after noticing it mainly on the east side of them, assume it was early new growth that was caught by the Beast from the East storm earlier this year.

All too soon it was time to leave as we had to get back to the M6 via a B road (Slacks Lane)to Tebay. The road runs parallel to the River Lune and also connects with various footpaths. The Lowgill Viaduct is one remnant of the old Lune Valley Railway which closed in 1954. It is an area well worth revisiting when we have a little more time. We might even walk the Dales Way.

Finding Books in the Fog

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The northwest was shrouded in fog this morning as we left to drive to York. We were visiting the largest one-day book fair in the UK which attracts sellers from all over the country and having a break from jobs around the house and garden. The focus is on rare and unusual books and also some maps, prints and ephemera. The fog persisted until we were over Saddleworth Moor and the highest point of the English motorway system. As we descended into the Vale of York we could at least see where we were going. This journey across the Pennines and into Yorkshire used to be a regular one around 20 years ago as my parents lived in North Yorkshire for a few years but it was some time since I had crossed the country on this route. Just as on our local portion of the M6, they are also upgrading part of the M62 to a smart motorway so there are several miles of road works north of Manchester. We found the York Racecourse without too much difficulty. I have never been to see horse racing or bet on a horse race but this time last year I had to give a lecture at Aintree Racecourse and here I am this January at another one.
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Some familiar booksellers were there e.g. the Old Town Bookshop in Edinburgh and others I had not visited so far. Some, including one who used to be in Heswall but has now moved to North Wales now mainly sell via the internet and book fairs. I found a few volumes for one of my collections and enjoyed browsing and chatting to some of the sellers. The journey home was largely uneventful other than passing a Rowntrees Fruit Gum tanker. Presumably it was full of sugar syrup but I have not seen one of them before. Now it is time to rearrange the book shelves to accommodate the new purchases. I do have a large box in the study where books I am not going to read again are deposited for the next decluttering trip to Oxfam.

Reading about travelling westward on the train north

England was beginning to move again yesterday after the Christmas break but not for long as the M6 was completely stationary in both directions last night and other roads were reporting problems. I was glad that I was taking the train this morning. Scotland is recovering from two severe storms over Christmas, while in Northern England we had much less severe wind and rain. We left the house in frosty darkness with all the stars visible as James took me to the station. In the lounge, I watched a TV programme highlighting the benefits recent wet summers and mild winters have had for farmers who have could keep animals outside for longer and cut more hay from the long grass but also the adverse impact it has had on many insects and wildflowers that need shorter grass to survive and birds such as barn owls who cannot see their prey in longer grass and whose numbers are declining. Yet another consequence of climate change.
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Not driving meant that I could dip into a book I found on Tuesday at Cavern Books, Dagfields, near Nantwich: http://www.cavernbooks.co.uk/. It is David Haward Bain’s The Old Iron Road: An Epic of Rails, Roads and the Urge to Go West. In 2000, the author (who is an established non-fiction writer and academic at a Vermont college) travelled along the routes followed by the early rail road, Lincoln Highway, California, Oregon and Pony Express trails with his family. He had more time than we could squeeze out of our jobs on our transcontinental drive and has researched and added much of the associated history along the way, including that of his own grandmother’s family. There is also a selection of old photographs in the book.

He began in Missouri, travelling north up the river valley from Kansas City and Independence where the California and Oregon trails often began. We passed through St Louis on our Route 66 drive before continuing southwest and here is the Lewis & Clark memorial by the river:
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At Omaha, his route coincided with the Lincoln Highway on Route 30 and our drive as we entered Nebraska on R30 from Iowa.
One of the things I enjoyed in Nebraska was the prairie grass in the Cottonmill Park near Kearney.
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By the time I had reached this stage of his book, dawn had broken in South Lancashire and the sun was fully up well before we reached Carlisle. The Cumbrian hills were covered in frost and mist but there were still large pools of water in the fields in southern Scotland. As I emerged from the station in Edinburgh, it was much milder. The city is gearing up for the Hogmanay celebrations and it will get much busier over the next two days. I shed my woollies and as I walked to the shops from the flat, noticed large numbers of branches on the ground from the surrounding trees. I will be out tomorrow to do a few things in town and looking forward to Friday to meeting friends and celebrating James’s birthday.

Not driving in San Francisco

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For the last two days of our trip we were happy to dispense with the car. On the first morning we had a couple of things to do downtown so took the Muni from outside the motel, it is a very good, cheap way of getting around town. The city was still cool and grey. I did the obligatory pilgrimage to City Lights Books and found Robert Moor’s ‘On Trails’ which had been on my list since I read a review a few weeks ago.

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The following day we walked through Golden Gate Park to the Botanic Gardens. There were the usual joggers, cyclists and a few people doing Tai Chi. I saw a Stellar’s Jay but didn’t manage to whip the camera out in time. At the gardens we enjoyed a couple of hours there. Sunset Piano had created a sculpture from three pianos, one of which can be played and it is installed at the entrance. There are ten pianos placed around the garden and recitals take place at various times over the next couple of weeks. When there is not formal concert, anyone is welcome to come and play. We heard several people playing well and one excruciating rendition of the Moonlight Sonata. Afterwards we visited two local bookshops: one sold new and used, James found something there. At the Great Overland Book Company I found a couple of books and we had a chat with the proprietor who, like many of the people we have met along the way, wanted to talk about Brexit. In the afternoon I did some beachcombing as the fog had gone and we had blues sky with only a little light cloud over the ocean. I took some bird photographs including these long-billed dowitzers. There are numerous small pieces of plastic waste on the sand but no sea glass. I did find some intact sand dollars.

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A local guy told me that he had just seen a young seal and that the sea just off the beach was a rich fishing ground. He also said that he had seen whales from the shore. Gulls were eating crabs on the shore and the dowitzers were probing the wet sand.  I had hoped to get some sunset shots that evening but the fog returned a couple of hours before sunset and the strong wind was blowing sand around. The total miles walked  that day was eleven. Yesterday it was time to fly back home.  At San Francisco airport the police patrol the terminals on Segways. I noticed on Facebook that the London to Sydney Overland trip we were hoping to do in 2018 is ceasing after 2017 so 2018 might have to be the Big Lap in Australia. On the plane I watched as we crossed the Sierra Nevada, desert, the Rockies and sunset over Canada. The sun rose soon afterwards over the mountains, snow and ice of southern Greenland. As we started to descend over Ireland, I found it hard to adjust to seeing small green fields again but glad to be back home among them again for a while.

 

Lonely roads to Reno and over the mountain to North Tahoe

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Thursday morning we left Elko early to return to Highway 50 and the Lincoln Highway. A short  stretch of I80 took us to Carlin and then we drove south to Eureka. On this quiet road falcons and crows were using the telegraph poles as perches as there are no trees in this upland desert. There were plenty of rodents running across the road. There was so little traffic a farmer waved to us from his tractor while he was working in the field. Nearer to Eureka where we joined Highway 50, we saw several hares. We had coffee at the only establishment  which was open just before 9am in what is billed as the friendliest place on this road. There were a few people inside and a dog snoozing in the corner while his owner played the slot machines. Parked outside was a pickup with an ‘I’m no liberal’ sticker. No surprises there. Back on the road we drove over the first of many summits (there are 17 in total) on this road. It passes through several mountain ranges and one tunnel. There was the occasional flash of green in a valley. It was not totally immune to roadworks as some were being prepared for in one place. Just before Cold Springs, a convoy of six Corvettes zoomed passed us going in the opposite direction and we saw a rare sight on this road: a row of four mailboxes. Salt Wells is close to the Naval Air Range and the Great Sand Dune. The fashion in the salt flats seems to be to write your name in black rocks on the white salt at the road side. Only one person had painted the rocks in different colours. Just outside Fallon, we saw the first cornfield since the Mid West. The northern branch of the Lincoln Highway joins I80 and runs through the mountains alongside the Truckee River. We found our way into Reno and met up with a friend who gave us a tour of the city (we’ve only passed through on the train before) and treated us to lunch. We then found our way to our B&B which is west of the city centre where old motels which went out of business when the interstate opened, have been turned into a gallery and artists’ colony. Just as I finished editing my photographs for today and before I could get them uploaded and copied, my hard drive died. Today we diverted from the Lincoln Highway again, this time down to North Lake Tahoe. I was having some difficulty when I was booking the trip in finding accommodation in Truckee as it is high season so we headed SW out of Reno and over Mount Rosa summit (8911ft) then down into North Tahoe. We had a lazy day by the beach and enjoying the sun. I have been reading John Charles Fremont’s 1852 book: ‘Exploring Expeditions to the Rocky Mountains, Oregon and California’ as we have covered some of the same ground on this trip. He even noted eating seagulls at the Great Salt Lake so gulls have been inland for some time.  The beach was quiet when we arrived but got pretty busy later. As the wind increased and it started to cloud over, we headed to our hotel and look forward to seeing the Pacific Ocean tomorrow and reaching the end of the Highway.

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It’s a long way to San Francisco

We have made it to New York and are now ensconced in our hotel in Queens. Our body clocks seemed to have adjusted already and I have banished the inevitable sleep-deprivation migraine that usually accompanies the first day of a holiday. I passed the short flight from Manchester to Heathrow enjoying the morning sun over the low clouds in the southeast. After a spell of people-watching in Terminal 5, we were treated to an upgrade at the gate which was very welcome. The immigration queue at JFK was very long but it was only a short hop afterwards on the AirTrain to the car rental lot. They told us the car did not have a SatNav but we could rent one for £400 which we declined as I have got all the maps we need. I started peering at the NYC map trying to find our hotel and on getting into the car, discovered it had a SatNav after all. However, I do not rely on them completely and have just read the story of people who had died after slavishly following one in Nevada and ending up stranded on a track miles from anywhere. The husband set off to walk for help in the wrong direction and died. The wife was found barely alive in their car, a few weeks later. There was another similar story that the Elko police had dealt with. Needless to say I always have a map and compass whether driving or walking as it is very easy to get disorientated in unfamiliar territory.

One book that is accompanying me on this journey is Cecelia Otto’s ‘An American Songline: a musical journey along the Lincoln Highway’. She travelled the road in 2013 giving concerts of vaudeville-era music in towns in every state she passed through. She reports that in 1910, members of the Lincoln Highway Association wrote a new chorus to the tune ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ singing the praises of the new road, hence her first chapter is titled ‘It’s a long way to California’. Tomorrow we will be heading over to Manhattan where the road starts and then to New Jersey which is a navigation challenge given the various routes the road has taken over the years. It is much easier in Pennsylvania where our next stop is Philadelphia.
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A new (old) railway to the River Tweed

Born 29 days after Beeching took up the chair of British Railways Board and closed so many railway lines, I grew up with abandoned railways all around the country. Many of these have become footpaths, some of which I have walked upon. Today we travelled on a railway which re-opened last September. We had intended to do this much earlier but poor weather and other commitments meant it did not happen until today.It is the northern part of the old Waverley Route which used to run between Edinburgh and Carlisle and which was closed in 1969. The train takes an hour to get from Edinburgh to Tweedbank through some of the communities I used to work in and which are almost unrecognisable 30 years later as so much new housing has been built. At one point I had thought that I might walk along the abandoned railway line alongside the A7 as part of my planned walk from my home in south Cheshire to the one in Edinburgh. That will not happen now and I have found an alternative route. From the station at Tweedbank there is a cycle path to Melrose but you can divert on a footpath by the River Tweed which is part of the Southern Upland Way and the Borders Abbey Way and takes you into Melrose.
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One of the first places it passes is Skirmish Hill, site of a battle in 1526 when Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus, was challenged by Walter Scott of Buccleuch over the custody of the 14-year-old King James V. Wildflowers were in bloom along the path and particularly striking was the comfrey.
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Nearer to Melrose we arrived at the Gattonside Suspension Bridge which is also known as the Chain Bridge and opened in 1826. In the town, we had a snack, bought some books (Melrose has a new and a secondhand bookshop) and explored the Priorwood Garden and dried flower shop which gave me some more ideas for drying my own flowers and plants.
Priorwood garden Melrose 4 June 2016-1
From the garden and surrounding streets you can see the abbey.
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We did not have time to visit it today but walked back along the path to the station. Back in Edinburgh it was time to replace my old rucksack which has done many miles but is slowly falling apart despite lots of repairs. That done, we headed back to flat for diner with a friend before planning tomorrow’s journey.