A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Hooptedoodle #150 – The Mud of Cumbria

Since it was the Contesse’s birthday last Saturday, and also since we never did get a Summer holiday this year (with one thing and another), we took a weekend break at Wetheral, near Carlisle. I haven’t visited Wetheral for about 15 years, but remember it fondly – it is a quiet village (one gets the impression that this is where the money in Carlisle lives), with interesting walks along the valley of the River Eden and blessed with an excellent, independently owned hotel (The Crown) which has great food and even a nice indoor swimming pool (which we used – my son is a very keen swimmer).

Fancy a little holiday home in a quiet village in the North West, for the weekends?
The original plan, to be honest, had been to visit Durham, but Durham was booked solid – certainly everything within our price range – which may be connected with Freshers’ Week at the university. So it was Wetheral, with possibilities for Hadrian’s Wall visits and even the north end of the Lake District (less likely, given the time available) for a little walking. We got the Autumn Special Deal by phoning the hotel direct, which – interestingly – was about 60% of the best price we obtained for the same accommodation through the better known web-based booking sites. Hmmm.

Saturday we walked down the 99 steps from the railway station to the bank of the River Eden, and walked a few miles upstream. Very pleasant scenery – the river runs almost through a gorge at points, and past a man-made island which the monks put there centuries ago to channel salmon into a trap. There is a spectacular railway viaduct (which also carries a footpath to allow you to get to Great Corby, on the opposite bank), and below Corby Castle (which is mostly Victorian in its present state) there is a very impressive man-made cascade down to the river. It must be a remarkable sight in wet weather.

This walk also renewed my acquaintance with the Mud of Cumbria, which made a big impression on me (or possibly it was the other way round) during my 2012 walk along Hadrian’s Wall. I had not forgotten about it, of course, but time softens the memory.

In September 2012 I developed some private theories that the Romans may have had some idea of exploiting the commercial potential of this very special mud – it is composed of very fine silt; in a field it can be bottomless, even if the surface looks quite firm; an innocent looking puddle will suck your boots off and laugh at you as you fall about in the mire; on a stile or on stone steps it has the exact properties of WD40, even in your best Brasher boots (assuming you still have them, after the puddle). Our exposure to it this weekend was minimal, but even so I managed to get some on the boots as I was walking on some rock shelving at the edge of the river, and I was sliding around like a drunk goat on a frozen pond. Somehow, the mud is different in neighbouring Northumberland – I must check if it changes abruptly at the county line. More study is required, with proper samples and slump tests and all that – and much discussion in pubs. I must give this some thought – anyone fancy a mud sampling weekend based around Cumbrian pubs? We could omit the mud-sampling if it seemed appropriate.

Our trip home on Sunday got off to an early start, to allow us time to have a short walk from the Roman Army Museum near Greenhead, up onto the end of the very best section of the Hadrian’s Wall walk – we did a couple of miles along the top of Walltown Crags, just to give my wife a brief taste of the best of what the Wall offers in scenery and walking/scrambling. We’ve been together to Housesteads a few times, but that is very formalised and park-like compared with the Crags.

Foy the Younger on top of Walltown Crags
Sunday lunch at the Twice Brewed Inn was as good as usual (slow-roast pork belly and mustard mash with scallions, ginger ice cream to follow…), then the drive home along the switchback of the A68 was only slightly spoilt by the bikers. It was a nice, dry day, so the Big Boys had all been polishing their nice big bikes and were out in force. I don’t have a problem with bikers, most of them are sensible, thoughtful road users with a better than average understanding of the law and safety, but a proportion of them do seem to feel that somehow they are in some strange kind of war, flying heroic, doomed missions against enemy motorists. The thing that scares me is the possibility of coming round a bend and finding some numpty on a Kawasaki coming at me on my side of the road, well over the speed limit and too excited to think straight. Racing leathers and incontinence knickers. Jesus.

The A68 - hang on to your lunch
In my boyhood I travelled thousands of miles on the pillion of my dad’s bikes (which is why I walk like John Wayne), and I don’t wish to end my account of a super little trip on a grumpy note, but I do not find the sight of a line of bikers in my rear view mirror a comforting one – at least one of them will be forced (by peer pressure?) to squeeze past at the wrong moment, in a silly place. On Sunday there was a moment when one chap decided to overtake me without noticing that I was signalling to overtake some cyclists – a strange oversight for a brotherhood who spend their lives complaining about the lack of vision and thoughtlessness of others.

When I was learning to drive, back in the age of steam, when avoiding running down the man in front with the red flag was part of the knack, I was taught by an ex-Army instructor named Derek. One thing he said to me has always stuck:

The things which cause more accidents than anything else are surprises. If you do something unexpected – travel at the wrong speed for the conditions, turn without signalling, whatever – you are putting complete reliance on other road users’ ability to cope with the situation; if they don’t manage to cope, whether or not you think they should have, the fault is your own for causing the situation in the first place.

Driving lessons
Not exactly earth-shaking logic, but it occurs to me that a minority of the biker fraternity specialise in – take a pride in – doing things which are surprising. Bomb-burst manoeuvres where they overtake someone on both sides at once, overtaking on a blind corner despite double white lines, travelling as fast as physically possible all the time (and in my home area, which has some fine, fast, twisty roads, we also have inconveniences such as people who live here, horses, children on bicycles, deer, etc etc) – none of these help a great deal.

Here’s a chance for someone to score an equaliser by complaining (quite rightly) about the dreadful standard of car-driving on the British roads, which should serve to fuel the war and help greatly. I’m not sure, but I think that if large groups of young men gathered together on a nice Sunday in September, equipped with the most powerful cars they could afford, and travelled in convoy, as fast as possible, up and down the A68, they would stand a very fair chance of being arrested, incontinence knickers and all.

I hope that in the next few days I should get out my wargames table after a long lay-off – if nothing else, I am keen to take some photos to catalogue my ECW collection. With luck, I should have something more relevant to blog about.


  1. As a once professional pillion rider, I have a few friends who're long time motorcyclists, all of whom claim to be true knights of the road. Well,, maybe: only two have had accidents (which they swear was the other guy's fault) though one did manage to dislocate his right shoulder in a quadbike adventure a few weeks ago. I'm consequently completely behind your view of bikers. If you can get killed on the TT course when the only other vehicles on the road are going the same way as you, God help the rest of us! The A68 is a lovely road and normally a pleasant drive, as is the Military Road alongside Hadrian's Wall (the B - can't be bothered to look),but they can become a real pain on a nice weekend. The area round Kirkby Lonsdale is usually a nightmare on a Sunday as bikers make for Devil's Bridge (and the pubs!). Sheer numbers and location mean the Police haven't got a chance.

    1. It doesn't have to be like this. In East Lothian we also get convoys of middle-aged Germans on touring holidays with big BMW bikes and similar, and they are noticeably much more stately and polite than the local guys.

      Making travel into some kind of warfare to make things more exciting seems to be a British thing - most nations who have serious travelling to do get on with it, stick to the rules and don't make a fuss. I exclude the Italians and the Portuguese, of course, but their wildness is not malicious - they don't obey the rules, but they have no wish to hurt anyone. I'm not sure about us - Road Rage is kind of British, I fear - we even use the Highway Code to punish each other - "look, here's a tourist in the wrong lane - I'll spoil his day by not letting him in..."

  2. Think the problem with motor bikers / cyclists is when they are in groups - singularly they generally behave themselves , Tony

    1. I think that's very true - trying to keep up with the gang - in all senses - can be a source of stress. As a cyclist myself, I tend to give cyclists the benefit of any doubt, but big groups of them can be tricky, and there are militants there too - in the town I get pissed off when cyclists can't make their mind whether they are vehicles or pedestrians until the lights change. I'd be quite pleased to see some kind of licensing of pedal cyclists - a competence and safety test would be good.

  3. Ah, the great British motorists/bikers/pedal bikers and pedestrians. Always there to add a little danger to your daily commute.

    1. In my case, I did my commuting on the train, but I'm sure we knocked a few off anyway. I'm nervous about passing any comment about cyclists, in view of your reputation as a stunt man. Did you get back on the horse yet?

    2. Oh yes, can't keep a poor cyclist down forever!