We’ve just returned from a few days away in Cotherstone, right in the heart of Teesdale. It still amazes me that only a few hours driving can let you arrive in a place which has beautiful natural stone buildings, rattling water courses and rivers, bustling towns which somehow remind you of the sixties, and above all – wide breathing space and a big sky!
As some of the footpath directions, near-vertical slopes and high stiles defeated even the eight legs of our party (Mrs S, JRT and me), we started driving/walking a couple of hours away in the hills each morning, and the same in the afternoon, but staying local.
And that’s when I learned something.
The walks and footpaths round the village are numerous and rewarding. The dismantled railway track (minerals – not people), still has the levels, the stone arches and the gates and you find yourself imagining the rattle and steam; even looking behind occasionally – just in case...
But it is the small lanes touching the boundaries of all the houses which are absolutely charming. Hardly any traffic; hundreds of sheep and lambs; and the occasional row of vegetables.
On one day I took JRT, and we did nearly all these lanes. (please understand that this walking was essential to counteract the huge hospitality of ‘The Fox and Hounds’), and after a few yards it was clear that nearly all the houses were empty. Not derelict, well maintained actually and achingly beautiful to look at. But unused during the week. I reckon there was only about one in six which had a sign of life. Some gardens are tended with loving care – as they should be, but most were patches of grass, weeds and no colour.
The village is spotless, has a buzzing local school with squeals and bikes, and of course, the local housing will always be full, because buy-to-let just doesn’t go there. There used to be about fourteen shops, but now there is one struggling post office with a charming welcome but an anxiety which can be felt. Our chosen pub ‘The Fox and Hounds’, is legendary, and the hospitality enormous.
But a village which has so few people making it thrive is in a sorry state. Oldies need to see company in the streets, children need to meet other kids, and we were contributing to all this, a fact that made me slightly uncomfortable.
Cut to our own village in Kent. For one thing, it is definitely not a holiday destination – it has some great attributes, but you don’t stay here on holiday unless you’re keen on castles or the sea. On my first foray out to buy our last Sunday paper, (we’re abandoning much of the dead tree press, most of it gets binned unread these days, and that’s just the good news...), I happened to pass a member of a local feral litter with his car radio booming out some rubbish at full volume. He was gawping around expectantly, hoping for someone who cares to comment, which is easy to ignore anyway. And inside the shop I noticed what turned out to be the runt of the same feral litter, with a hairline about half an inch above his squitty eyes, feverishly scratching at a clutch of lottery cards, and of course, leaving as a loser. They revved their noisy little car away and the ‘conversation’ of loud ‘f***s’ transcended the foul music.
Just for a long, long moment; I wished we were one-in-sixers.