Trails from the Rails 25: Bargoed to Energlyn & Churchill Park

  • Area: Caerphilly
  • Local Train Operators: Transport for Wales
  • Length: 11 miles
  • Points of Note: The Roman Practice Works and Maen Cattwg
  • OS maps – Explorer 166 (1:25,000); Landranger 171 (1:50,000)

The Welsh Valleys are not necessarily considered an obvious place to go for long hillwalks, partly because the hills have a bad habit of ending up in post-industrial wastelands. Which is odd, because the same applies to most of the rest of the country. But they are splendid hills all the same, the views are quite something and the rail service is rather more useful than that at, say, Finstock.

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The fact that Bargoed station is not the top of the Rhymney Valley line is thanks to some enthusiasm by British Rail staff in the mid-1980s, and not thanks to a local authority with exciting plans for a road on the section northwards to Rhymney. Since those dark days the station has regained its second platform, though we are still awaiting the all-day half-hourly service to Rhymney. Four trains per hour link Bargoed with Cardiff Central, mostly continuing to Penarth and currently (temporarily) often formed with 4-car Class 769s.

Leave the station on the hill side (as opposed to the valley side) and come out in the town centre. Perhaps it is best to pass quickly around this – double-back above the station up Bristol Terrace, turn left into Church Place, turn right into Church Street, climb up to and turn right into North Road and follow this to the end. At the end of the road a footpath leads off into the the bracken and birchwood. Follow this as it drops back down the hill to another path and then follow the contours through the trees. A couple of paths veer back up the hill, but these merely lead to a small dead quarry. Further down the hill is the former Brecon & Merthyr line from Bargoed to Brecon via Fochriw, Dowlais and Torpantau (and, notably, not via Merthyr proper) – having two of the four trains from Cardiff to Bargoed go to Rhymney and the other two come up here to Dowlais would be a good way to put Dowlais on a map (though the village of Fochriw is not really very far from Pontlottyn station in the Rhymney valley), but for now it’s a cyclepath. Better than a bypass.

After about a mile of trotting through the trees the path begins to climb out of the wood and turn southwards. Views open up northwards along Cwm Ysgwydd-gwyn.

The path now settles into a lane, with a golf course to the left and farmland to the right. This continues climbing up onto the tops and eventually opens out onto Mountain Road.

Cross the road and continue southwards along the track on the other side.

This is the Roman Practice Works, where the legionaries were sent to practice building camps. Presumably it was the most unpleasant environment the generals could think of.

The uplands are marshy with stunted trees dotted around a landscape littered with small-scale earthworks.

After the path passes over a summit it starts to curve around to the left, and as it finishes curving it is necessary to drop off it to the right down the flank of the hill into a shallow valley. There is some evidence of a track for this purpose. If the track is missed then some dead-reckoning is needed. Aim for a point a bit to the right of the corner of the large hedgerow at the bottom of the valley, and find that the layout of various drainage ditches, patches of bog and ways of crossing streams mean that you should end up in the right place by default. This right place is a junction of tracks on a bit of plateau above a ford over a stream. Remain on the north side of the stream and follow it down the hillside towards the end of the field. At the end of the field drop sharply down to cross the stream using the available ford and then turn left to follow the other bank. This leads to a gate, signposted (at the time of testing) as a Roman trail, and after the gate a footbridge crosses a small side stream.

This is a rather pretty spot.

Actually the stream isn’t followed down the valley; the path instead swings up the hill to the right into a patch of woods, and then curves round to the left back into the fields. Then it rolls on down the valley through a couple of fields, guided by the legionary on the signposts.

In the third field the path describes a sweeping curve to the right and passes through the tree line at the top of the field a little over halfway along. On the other side is a track continuing straight up the hill. After passing across another two fields this leads to a road.

Cross the road and continue over the field on the other side, hugging the right-hand field boundary. This leads through a gate and comes out towards the left-hand side of another field.

The path here would logically hug the left-hand field boundary, as the exit is somewhere on the left-hand side. Instead it makes its way out to the right across the middle of the field to the far right corner and then doubles back along the bottom of the trees (while remaining in the same field). This provides an opportunity to go and admire the lump of rock called Maen Cattwg.

Having admired this lump of rock, turn around and admire the view away to the south, which includes a wind turbine (dreadfully visually polluting, this renewable energy), a coal tip (dreadfully visually polluting, these fossil fuels) and some houses (dreadfully visually polluting, these humans). Then continue to the far corner of the field, double back, get mixed up with the farm buildings (the Public Right of Way runs between them and the hedge, but there is no mark of this on the ground), work around the top of the buildings instead, regain the hedge in the next field and continue along the hedge to Gelligaer Road, possibly muttering things about the amount of public money paid to people who can’t be bothered maintaining footpaths through their pile of rubbish.

Cross Gelligaer Road and proceed along the well-maintained track on the other side of the road heading down to Gelliargwellt Uchaf Farm. This starts out well and then on the ground seems to go a bit sour. From an aerial picture it seems quite obvious – stick to the main road heading straight downhill through the site (which seems to primarily farm landfill and recycling though occasionally advertises its milk produce, in case you want to avoid milk that has come from an industrial site like this), ignoring turnings into car parks and barns, until the road swings round to the left and levels out past a weighbridge, some large warehouses and the farmhouse. Then the roadway passes through a hedge and comes back out into open country. Turn right and promptly fork left towards the thin wood. After a hundred yards or so the ground to the right inside the wood drops away into a sylvan gorge. The wind turbine comes into view again, together with a pylon run.

Partway down are some ponds off to the left, which are liable to seem in keeping with the farm.

Continue down the track as it comes to the valley bottom and ends, helpfully pointing roughly in the right direction across the marshes. There is a little triangle of land added to the far side of the field, and in the apex of the triangle is a gate. On the other side of the gate is another field.

The resumed track leads away into a slight cutting to the left, while some evidence of paths can suggest climbing up the shoulder of the hillock and working along above the track instead. Either route crosses the field fairly easily and comes to a structure that looks suspiciously like a railway bridge.

Underneath it, not wholly unsurprisingly, is a railway. There is also a cyclepath. The cyclepath runs from Hengoed to Quaker’s Yard along the route of the Newport, Abergavenny & Hereford Railway’s Taff Vale Extension (which railway linked up with the Vale of Neath Railway at Hirwaun, so for administrative purposes is counted as part of the Vale of Neath Railway – hence the bridge’s name beginning with “VON”). The railway is the Rhymney Railway line to Cwmbargoed, via a valley called Cwmbargoed which confusingly goes nowhere near the Bargoed where this walk began because that Bargoed is actually Aberbargoed and marks the point where the Nant Bargod Rhymni meets the River Rhymney. The Cwmbargoed served by the railway under this bridge is the Bargod Taf (or Taff Bargoed), and instead dumps its waters into the River Taff at Quaker’s Yard. The Rhymney Railway serving a tributary of the River Taff meant that this was a grotesque interference with the domain of the Taff Vale Railway, so there was a link from Nelson (about quarter of a mile to the west of here) down to the TVR mainline to Merthyr at Parc Newydd. The Newport, Abergavenny & Hereford and the Rhymney Railway shared the bit of formation under this bridge so the remaining Rhymney Railway trains now share it with the cyclepath. There is no regular passenger service on this line at time of writing (it skims Nelson, passes through Trelewis, serves a small village called Bedlinog and then runs up a very pretty valley where nobody lives to somewhere not quite in Dowlais) but it does see frequent services by that most endangered of species, the coal train.

(The facts that the Rhymney Railway went to two valleys with watercourses called Bargod but only serves the one which flows into the Taff while the one which flows into the Rhymney was served by a company called the Brecon & Merthyr Railway by means of a line which goes to Newport instead of Merthyr while the railway which serves the Taff Bargoed then had access to a line called the Newport, Abergavenny & Hereford Railway which is a) lost anyway and b) didn’t go to Newport but did build a line called the Taff Vale Extension which actually rushed straight across the Taff Vale and went to the Cynon Valley for connections to the Welsh coast and ports at Neath instead, leaving the route up the west side of the Taff Vale from Quaker’s Yard to Merthyr to be built by the Rhymney Railway, all sort of combine to make understanding South Welsh railway history and geography a rather complex exercise for anyone not familiar with the area, and indeed for most people who are. So we will move on.)

Having crossed the railway, proceed through the yard on the other side, pass the pub, cross the road and begin climbing the hill on the other side. There are two fields to work up and then strictly speaking the path turns right and runs above the field boundary to a lane. There is no immediate sign of this, so it is easier to trot on up the track to the lane, turn right and roll back down the hill again.

This lane curves around above a housing estate and comes out on Heol Fawr (the Big Road). Turn left and start climbing again.

Navigation for the next five miles is really very simple, as Heol Fawr appears to be an ancient road from Trelewis to Caerphilly. Just keep going straight on, pausing occasionally to admire the view.

Behind, on a nice day, it is possible to see Pen-y-Fan, the highest point in South Wales, towering above the head of the Taff valleys.

Keep climbing up to a house, a cattle grid, a parking area and the pylons, and follow the main path as it veers slightly left. The road forks right and twists away to provide the northern access to Senghenydd. Ahead is the wind turbine. The rising moor to the right is Mynydd Eglwysilan.

The old road curves gently around the side of the summit and offers some rather good views into the Rhymney Valley at Hengoed, where the Newport, Abergavenny & Hereford Railway’s viaduct continues to dominate the landscape.

Continue along the track as it undulates round towards the coal heaps, which stand above the village of Llanbradach – hidden far down below a wood in the Rhymney Valley. Through them can be seen the Severn Estuary and the distant Somerset hills around Bristol – some of them also good coal country, but the ruins of the Somerset coal fields are better hidden now. One can make some interesting political and economic discussions about why the Valleys are still defined by coal whereas Radstock and Yate are not.

Once the tips are past the track runs alongside a forestry plantation, almost falling down the hillside to the right into Abertridwr as it passes across the top of one of the three waters (Abertridwr’s literal translation being the Mouth of Three Waters). Passing around another hilltop brings the track to Pen-yr-Heol Las Farm (Head of the Blue Road Farm). Befitting its name, this farm marks the start of a surfaced road.

From here it is downhill practically all the way, initially with splendid views over Caerphilly…

…but then dropping down into the urban landscape of Penyrheol, on the sort of hill where one feels grateful to not be doing the walk in the other direction. The road junction at the top of the suburbs is not quite tidy, and it is necessary to stagger left at the junction (and cross the road semi-blind) to continue down the hill.

Continue on downwards when Heol Las eventually meets Heol Pwllypant and then becomes Court Road. Then the road turns off sharply to the right where Court Road has been split in two; a footbridge joins the halves.

The lovingly-aligned route under the footbridge, clearly too good to have been intended as a road, used to be the Barry Railway’s line to join the Brecon & Merthyr Railway’s Newport to Bargoed line at Barry Junction, on the other side of the valley to Llanbradach village – the valley was spanned by Llanbradach Viaduct, possibly the most impressive railway structure in the Cardiff Valleys. The line was completed in 1906 and was a useful part of the Peak Coal railway network. The First World War – and the reparations settlement after it where Germany supplied coal at below cost price – rather badly damaged the Welsh coal trade, and when the South Wales railways were forced to merge with the Great Western Railway the combined company was obliged to consider the question as to why it was maintaining a) routes to four different ports for coal produced in Bargoed (Newport, Cardiff, Penarth and Barry) and b) why it was maintaining three routes from Bargoed to Barry, one of which had no engineering features to speak of (via Taff’s Well), one of which used the bustling Caerphilly Tunnel and one of which featured four massive viaducts and Wenvoe Tunnel. So this line was closed in 1926, Llanbradach Viaduct was demolished in 1937, and eventually a highways engineer built a road here to link Llanbradach with the A470 trunk road. The Barry Railway’s engineer managed to maintain a through road over their railway (which bridge, no doubt very nicely formed in blue brick, outlived the railway by some margin), but the highways engineer couldn’t.

Instead there is a sharp flight of steps onto the next bit of Court Road, which leads down to a junction which isn’t quite a crossroads. Turn left into Llwynon Street.

At the end of the road is Energlyn & Churchill Park station – northbound back to Rhymney, Bargoed, Hengoed and Llanbradach on this side, or under the cattle creep for Caerphilly, Llanishen and Cardiff.

The station lacks the old stone buildings of Bargoed station for the simple reason that it’s a relatively new station. It opened in December 2013 and has done quite well for itself, serving the northern end of the Caerphilly conurbation. A cautionary point is that only two of the four trains per hour on the line stop here, and they’re not evenly spaced. The need to provide a decent evening peak service to Rhymney drives a 90-minute gap at an awkward moment in the evenings. Otherwise there are worse places to end a walk.

Trails from the Rails 24: Finstock to Charlbury

  • Area: Oxfordshire
  • Local Train Operators: Great Western Railway
  • Length: 6 miles
  • Points of Note: The Saltway
  • OS maps – Explorer 180 (1:25,000); Landranger 164 (1:50,000)

This is a pretty little walk that takes in nothing of especial note before ending up conveniently in the village of Charlbury, which has a couple of takeaways and some respectable pubs. It is the third walk in the Trails from the Rails series based off the wayside stations between Oxford and Moreton-in-Marsh that are only served in the morning and evening peaks on weekdays.

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We begin at Finstock. This rural halt used to have two platforms because it was a two-track railway. When the line was singled the Up line and the Down platform were retained, requiring the Down platform to be extended out to the Up line. At 40 metres long it is one of the shortest platforms in the country. In its glory days (2018-19) it was the sixth stop from London Paddington by direct train, but now it’s served by a genuine Parliamentary service from Didcot – one train each way daily, offering standard class fares (the £10.40 single from Didcot in 2022 is only about £1 more than the penny-per-mile of 1844 adjusted for inflation, and the Turbo is more comfortable than a Parliamentary train of 1840), calling at all intermediate stations.

Outside the station is a convenient bus stop which turns out to provide the bulk of the public transport in the area rather than operating to connect out of the sparse train service – there won’t be another train calling at Finstock and going in the same direction for at least 24 hours.

Cross the road to the right-hand side, turn left and drop down the hill to the river, diving into the hedge occasionally to avoid larger cars. After the river the road starts to rise and comes to a junction. Turn right.

Amble a couple of hundred yards up this lane to a junction where a slightly more important road converges from the left, and then continue along the combined road for about the same distance to some houses. After the houses a byway heads off at right-angles to the left (left-angles?). Head up it into the fields.

After a bit the byway comes out from between two walls into more open fields, and gets high enough to reveal some interesting views across the valley to the south, with the Wychwood in the distance.

At the top the byway crosses another byway. Turn right and follow this byway down into the side valley, following the field boundary until at the bottom of the hill the byway takes it upon itself to veer through a hole in the hedge and swap sides. Turn right at the farm cottages and continue up the hillside through a gap in the woods.

Once out of the woods the path levels off and the village of Stonesfield comes into view over the ridge. There is also an old corrugated barn ahead, red with rust. About a field before getting to this barn the byway crosses another byway. Turn left and rise gently up the ridge.

Across the fields ahead is Sheer’s Copse.

Initially the byway sticks to the right (Stonesfield) side of the hedge, but after a bit it cuts through to the left (Finstock) side of the hedge and Sheer’s Copse is less obvious. At a gathering of trees the byway passes through a hedge into a further field beyond. Approaching the next hedge is a bank of trees to the right, foreshadowing Sheer’s Copse, but before getting to the copse the byway passes through the hedge and crosses another byway. Turn left.

This byway runs along the edge of the field with the Copse on the far side, through the remains of another hedge and so to the B4437.

Cross the road with due care and proceed along the byway on the other side. This is the Saltway. It’s a Saxon track for carrying salt from Worcestershire into Oxfordshire, and also a Site of Special Scientific Interest. There’s a noticeboard to explain the details.

The Saltway is a broad highway, but evidently not a Roman Road as it bends around all the fields in a very democratic manner – the Saxons were evidently big on personal property.

Eventually, after almost three-quarters of a mile of bending around fields (but still going in roughly the same direction) the Saltway comes to a house. Turn left.

Initially the old byway is followed by a modern driveway down the hill, but after a dog-leg the driveway heads off to the left because this is a shorter route to the B4437. The byway continues down the hill through a tree-lined green lane because this is a shorter route to Charlbury. Eventually it forks off to the right to follow the contours. There is no actual harm in following this route; it’s slightly quicker for getting back to the station. Otherwise continue straight on down the valley.

The footpath continues down through some smallholdings on the outskirts of Charlbury.

After this it comes to a road, almost unexpectedly.

For the takeaway, turn left over the hill and it’s on the right by the convenience store just before the crossroads. After the takeway turn right and then immediately right again, and then trot along Sheep Street past Church Street and the Rose & Crown to Dyers Hill.

To avoid the takeway and get to the Rose & Crown more quickly, continue down the cut-through on the other side of the road. Turn right at the end and then left down Fisher’s Lane. Turn right at the end onto Sheep Street and continue past Church Street and the Rose & Crown to Dyers Hill.

Dyers Hill drops sharply down to the river, and shortly afterwards the station access road veers off to the left.

Charlbury station is a pleasant place, with its Brunellian station building and carefully-maintained gardens (and prominent footbridge). On damp evenings some care will be needed to avoid treading on the browsing edible snails, which escaped from a snail farm around 410AD and seem to like it here. They are rare in this country, so are protected, so treading on them is a criminal offence. (As indeed is picking up a dozen and taking them home. Picking them up to throw them off the road and taking the opportunity to study how different they are to inedible common snails is another matter entirely.)

Trails from the Rails 23: Manorbier to Tenby

  • Area: Pembrokeshire
  • Local Train Operators: Transport for Wales
  • Length: 5 miles
  • Points of Note: Carswell Farm, some industrial ruins and the beach at Tenby
  • OS maps – OL36 (1:25,000); Landranger 158 (1:50,000)

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Manorbier station is a relatively pleasant little wayside halt between Tenby and Pembroke, sat amongst fields some distance from (and quite a way above) the village of Manorbier. Long ago it was a passing loop. It still possesses one signal – a large board on the platform ordering train drivers heading towards Tenby to stop and press a button for permission to cross the road.

Leave the station and turn left up the hill, away from Manorbier and the railway. The road twists through the fields, the railway disappears into the landscape and a rather nice view opens up down the valley to Penally and Caldey Island.

At the top the lane comes out onto the Ridgeway. Cross this road, stagger slightly to the left and climb the stile into the field on the other side. Beyond is a long thin field with traces of a footpath through the grass (the trace favours heading to the left-hand hedge and following that) and at the far end is a wood.

Enter the wood and drop down the hillside, looking out for the point where the footpath means the slightly overgrown and rather boggy remains of a traditional lane. On reaching it, turn right and follow the remains of the lane down the hill.

After a bit the lane stops being an exercise in archaeology and becomes a proper green lane with a path. After a further bit it comes out into the bottom left-hand corner of the village of St Florence.

Proceed straight on up through the village to the church, because it’s a nice church. (The access into the churchyard from this side is near the top of the hill – pass up a gully to the right, which tries to be disguised as someone’s drive.)

Cross the churchyard, drop out at the corner on the other side, ignore the suburban side road (Flemish Close) and then turn left at the T junction at the end of the road. Follow this road as it slopes down the hill into the valley, eventually coming to a bridge over the stream and a small picnic area. Cross the stream and turn left.

The path wanders through the woods for a bit and then comes out into a patch of fields. Ahead there is a green lane running, slightly sunken, along the north boundary of one of these fields. The map says that the right of way goes along the field side of the fence. There’s no way out at the other end of the field, so just use the lane.

After this the path climbs up through the trees and comes out at East Tar Farm. Turn right along the lane for a short distance and then turn left into a field where directed. Veering slightly to the right, cut across the field towards a gate in one of the further corners (this field is awkwardly well-endowed with corners). Pass through the gate and continue in roughly the same direction across the next field to a stile next to a corner. Climb the stile into the lane and continue straight on.

This lane can be followed round to Cadw’s Medieval House at Carswell Farm, but at the time of test walking Cadw was saying people shouldn’t visit (usual reason). If not visiting, follow the lane through the hedgerow and then drop down the edge of the field to the right into the next valley.

At the bottom of the field the path becomes a bit vague for a spell. Go through the gate at the bottom, turn right, go through the gate into the adjacent field, turn left, run along the hedgerow to another gate at the end of the field, go through it, find the track climbing out of the bottom corner of this new field (converging from the left) and follow it up the hill out of the corner, roughly keeping parallel with the field boundary to the left. (This has holes in it, but is fairly easy to keep track of.)

After a bit the path levels off and the buildings of Roberts Wall Farm appear to the left. Circle around them. Technically the right-of-way cuts through the farmyard but this isn’t signposted and there is no reason to try to follow it as the path round the end is easy enough to follow. At this point you may pick up a friendly brown-and-white furry dog who likes walking.

Having swung round the top of the farm, crossed the lane and continued into the next field, strike out across the field along the approximate alignment of a partially grubbed-out field boundary towards the woods on the other side. Find a way into the woods (there are several, and again there is no obvious signposting so there is no reason to believe that the landowner is very fussed about which one you use – if the dog has shown up then it may have suggestions). Once in the woods, pick up the broad grassy gap through the trees which follows the contours in an easterly direction.

On the other side is another field with a house undergoing renovation. Follow the hedgerow above the house, then drop down to the drive and thence gain access to the road. The right-of-way continues along the hedgerow and then drops down to the road through a pile of cut timber, the remains of several fences, various nettles and some terrain which generally suggests that the landowner is happy for passing trade to use the drive (otherwise they’d maintain the right of way).

On gaining the road, head leftwards and follow the road down into the valley. It’s a pleasant valley, with trees and reeds and the remains of several quarries.

If you have picked up the dog, then the road is mostly safe for dogs until at least the point where it reaches some houses and the entrance to the golf course. At this point arrange to collar the dog and telephone its owner, who will retrieve it.

Continue along the road until it meets a more important road dropping down from Penally village, and turn left away from Penally village. Follow this road round a sweeping corner to the main road. Cross this road (traffic lights are provided) and proceed down the side of the petrol station into the back of a holiday park.

The park is not too hard to work through, but again the path is not signposted. Follow the road along the bottom of the valley, leaving the hill to your right, past the industrial archaeology.

Then continue onwards past the amusement facilities (pool to the left, arcade following it to the right) and then as the road starts to properly swing to the left take a right turn (which may turn out to be helpfully signposted).

This turning also swings to the left, and climbs up to cross the railway by means of a bridge.

After crossing the railway, turn left and drop down to the lane behind the dunes. The railway slowly climbs into Tenby on an embankment. The lane remains level beneath it until it has almost reached the bottom of the Tenby escarpment. Then it splits.

To explore Tenby, admire the beaches, find the crazy bookshop and get a takeaway, fork right and stay low (for now – the escarpment needs climbing eventually). If heading back to the station, fork left and climb up the sharp hill.

Stick close to the railway, which is also going to the station. The road crosses another road and then comes to the station forecourt.

Tenby station is not a bad place – the architecture is all right, the buildings are still there (unlike, say, Pembroke) and the train service could be a lot worse.

Trails from the Rails 22: Sherborne to Templecombe

  • Area: Somerset
  • Local Train Operators: South Western Railway
  • Length: 9 miles
  • Points of Note: New Sherborne Castle
  • OS maps – Explorer 129 (1:25,000); Landranger 183 (1:50,000)

This rolling walk takes in a pleasant bit of “typical English” countryside without any great views or expansive wildernesses. There are just patches of woodland, wide areas of farmland, and a general sense of peacefulness.

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Sherborne station is one of those which someone forgot to do anything very much with, reflecting the general corporate vagueness from 1948 onwards as to what the exact purpose was for the London & South Western Railway’s mainline to Plymouth. It wasn’t as fast as its Great Western competitor, but it needed bigger engines because it had more hills, and it didn’t go anywhere very much apart from Salisbury. The goods yard has gone, but the handsome stone building still stands guard over the station for the market town. The line through Sherborne was briefly singled in the 1960s until it was realised that this meant the timetable didn’t work, requiring the disused section of running line to be recommissioned.

Leave the station by means of the ramp down to the level crossing at the Salisbury end of the platforms and turn right towards the hill. At the road junction cross the main road and strike leftwards along the hillside on the path across the Slopes. The path rises gently up to offer some views across the town centre to the north, which is dominated by the Abbey church.

It then crosses the ridge and drops down into open country, with the New Castle to the left. The Old Castle is a charming ruin; the New Castle is a rather boxy manor house overlooking a lake with a certain taste in chimneys. The green lane sweeps across the fields a judicious distance away and drops down to a junction. Continue more or less straight on along the now-surfaced track as it crosses the plain and rises up the hill the other side to some scenic patches of trees.

Climb up the hill, following the track through a gate, past a lodge and up a steepening slope amongst scattered trees. At the top the path loops around to the right and drops into a wood. Now it veers to the left amongst the trees and passes through the ruins of a military base described on the map as “The Camp”. The path then passes a set of industrial buildings and emerges from the trees to present a moderate view across some fields away to the east. Follow the road as it eases gently around to the right and drops down through a line of trees to another lodge.

Some ominous signage mounted on the outside of the gate turns out on detailed study to merely announce that this is not a direct route to Sherborne Castle (you need to go right through to Sherborne and double back) and is not a public route for motor vehicles (pedestrians only).

Turn left around the lodge and walk down the road as it descends into a valley, crosses a stream and climbs around Goathill towards Muse Hill. It’s not an overly busy road, but there is still a bit more traffic than one feels that there really ought to be.

After about three-quarters of a mile the road encounters another road at a triangular junction. Double-back to the right. After not very many yards a footpath sign points off into the woods to the left. Initially the path is a bit rubbish, but after a spell of being very rubbish it drops down to the left to meet a forest drive. Turn right onto this well-made-up track and marvel at its excellent condition as it trots north-eastward through the trees.

Sadly eventually the wood ends and the track dumps its users in a field. The right of way (according to the map) turns hard right and follows the field boundary. Some light cutting-across to the hedge where it juts back out into the field again ahead, slightly to the right, is probably acceptable. Swing around this corner and make for the gate leading into the road.

The road is the A30, intended by someone as the trunk road from London to Penzance. It meanders happily through Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset, roughly following the London & South Western’s mainline, hopping over streams with humpback bridges and curving sharply around tracts of woodland between high hedges. It is largely relieved of the bother of carrying traffic by the kindness of the A303, which follows the much straighter traditional route to the West Country a few miles to the north past all the hillforts, Roman towns and stone circles (and providing a considerable amount of context for their positioning). This means that the A30 is reasonably good, as trunk two-digit A-roads go, for walking alongside for a short distance.

The road carries the walk over a small stream and up to a house. Technically it is necessary to go past the house and then follow the right of way down a gully behind it. This is totally overgrown, so instead walk up the drive at the front of the house to the nice set of gates and then turn left up the hill just before reaching them.

The path clambers up the hillside through some more trees, then runs alongside a garden fence, then crosses a byway and runs alongside a hedge, and then comes out into open fields. Turn right and drop down the hill. At the bottom the path passes through a hedge into another field; turn left and head up the valley. A drive is crossed at the top of the field, which requires a slight stagger to the left to get into the next field beyond that. Keep curving round to the left, following the hedgerow, the signs on the ground and a certain amount of intuition. Eventually the path heads into a patch of bushes (with a pretty enough view back down the valley) and comes out onto a road.

Go straight on along the road for a few yards, and then turn right into another field when it turns left. Cross this at a slight angle to the left, aiming for the corner of the bite that someone has taken out of the field ahead. Hidden beyond this is a gateway in the hedge leading through to a track around the edge of the next field.

Upon entering this next field follow the track as it works up to the farm buildings, and then once in line with the farmyard turn left. Strike across the field to a stile. Cross this and aim for the gateway in the far right-hand corner of the next field. Once through, follow the field boundary to the left in the same vaguely northerly direction, pass through into another (roughly triangular) field, skim alongside a patch of woodland and end up in the very top corner of the field. If in the correct field there may be a distant view of the hamlet at Stowell and a bridge over the railway.

Also there is a gate. This leads through to a junction with a byway. The junction will probably be a bit overgrown and badly flooded, unless it has unexpectedly improved since the walk was tested. Turn left and continue in a roughly northerly direction up the byway.

Where it is not flooded this can be a rather pretty byway.

After a bit the byway comes to the brick bridge seen earlier and crosses the railway, 113 miles 40 chains from London Waterloo.

Having crossed the railway it swings round to the road through Stowell. Turn right onto the road and get off it again a few yards later by means of a public footpath through a large gateway to the right. This climbs up the hill at about 45 degrees to the road, passing through a string of hedges, not always obviously from a distance (but keeping the faith about the footpath going in a straight line up the hill will help). It eventually slots through a narrow gap between the woods and the top of the railway cutting, and runs along a track at the bottom edge of the woods above the railway.

It is possible that at this point a train will go by, in what turns out to be a shallower cutting than might be expected.

The path remains fairly easy to follow, and eventually turns into Lily Lane. This gets progressively more built up and then comes to a junction in what feels like a village centre. This is Templecombe. Turn to the right and come out on the main road. Drop down the hill past the church towards the railway bridge (though it’s a handsome church, so may be worth glancing at if there’s time on hand).

Pass under the railway and turn right. After a bit the station comes into view on the right. Wander onto the platform and await developments.

Templecombe used to be a junction between the South Western’s main line and the Somerset & Dorset route from the Bristol Channel to Bournemouth. In the 1960s the local stations between Salisbury and Exeter and the Somerset & Dorset were closed, so Templecombe moved from being a reasonably important junction to a derelict platform facing a single track railway, though the signal box was retained to control the start of the double-track to Yeovil. The station re-opened in 1983 using the former Up platform owing to the Up line being the one retained – requiring access to be by the footbridge. With growing consideration for people with wheelchairs, bad knees, support frames, prams and heavy luggage it was decided that making everyone climb an awkward footbridge was silly, so a new platform was built on the formation of the former Down line complete with booking hall and shelter. The now-derelict signal box, Up platform, station garden and footbridge remain.

So do the severe gradients east of the station.

High Speed 2: Progress

High Speed 2 – the new railway northwards from London to Birmingham, Crewe and Manchester, with connections to an array of other places – is trundling steadily through another round of Parliamentary assessment and continues to be subject to the odd round of debate about its value. At times it seems to have joined the list of things to blame for the state of the country – unthinking and unconsidered, and generally incorrectly.

On the ground there is quite a lot going on. You can pick up details here and there, but I feel like thumbing through for myself and noting progress as an overall summary.

Route development

The line is authorised between London and Crewe, plus a branch to Birmingham. Crewe to Manchester is currently before Parliament.

A chord off the Manchester line to link in to the current West Coast Mainline between Warrington and Wigan (the Golborne Chord) has been dropped after Sir Peter Hendy, one of the top dogs at Network Rail, formerly top dog at Transport for London, noted public transport enthusiast and person whose name was on the Union Connectivity Review, said that it might not necessarily be the best answer to the question of how to plug the fast trains between London and Scotland into High Speed 2. It was going to weave a bit and doesn’t solve all the bottleneck problems (e.g. it rejoins the West Coast Mainline at Wigan, but the trains on it ideally will pass straight through Wigan and continue up a two-track railway towards Preston, so it might be better to find a route which bypasses Wigan as well as Warrington). But the alignment is safeguarded in case it proves to be the best bet.

The line to Yorkshire has been paused – the alignment for that is safeguarded too – in view of it not being due to be finished until 2040. There has been some upset about it being paused. More the point is that it wasn’t going to be finished until 2040. The core to Crewe will be finished about 2030. If the core turns out to be wildly successful then it may be preferable to find an alternative route from Yorkshire to London instead of sitting on four paths per hour out of London for ten years. This is what happened in the 19th century – initially there was a line from Liverpool and Manchester to Birmingham and thence to London Euston, then it acquired a branch to Leicester, Derby, Sheffield, Leeds and York, then an alternative line was built from York to London Kings Cross and a chord built south from Leicester to plug into it because London Euston was full, then a separate line was built for the Leicester, Derby and Sheffield traffic into London St Pancras because London Kings Cross was full. We may have decided by 2035 that a high-speed line from Birmingham to Leeds is jolly useful for Cross Country but no use for Yorkshire to London traffic.

There is a lack of high-speed infrastructure north of Preston, so journey times between Preston and Scotland will increase because the high-speed trains won’t be able to tilt through the Lakeland Fells and the Scottish Lowlands. For those of us who don’t like tilting trains this will be no great loss, especially as the current claim is that the delay is only about 5 minutes (2hrs 26m with HS2 trains according to the website, against 2hrs 21m tomorrow according to National Rail). One can stare at internet maps and plot diversions around the east side of Lancaster and up the Lune Valley past Kirkby Lonsdale and Sedburgh to rejoin the West Coast Mainline at Low Gill, and then off again at Tebay for a base tunnel under Shap Fell rejoining the current route somewhere around Penrith, and then off again at Elvanfoot in the wilds of the Upper Clyde Valley to tunnel under a few hills and follow the M74 into Glasgow. But this will all have to wait until we see how successful the core from London to Crewe is.

It should do very well for itself. At the moment London to Scotland rail journeys take around four and a half hours, once per hour each to Edinburgh and Glasgow, which is not very competitive with flying. High Speed 2 will take an hour off and run half-hourly to both Edinburgh and Glasgow, which is much more competitive with flying and should attract rather more traffic from the airlines. Building a mainline for this considerable improvement is then justified by ramming the section south of Crewe with trains on shorter journeys, freeing up space on the West Coast Mainline and making full use of the new infrastructure. London to Manchester takes two hours by rail point-to-point, but suburb-to-suburb can be about four hours – about the same as a car travelling non-stop. The well-connected Old Oak Common and Manchester Airport stations plus an hour out of the core journey offer the potential of suburb-to-suburb rail journeys of two hours – vastly quicker than the car. (For context, travelling across London from one end of the Central Line to the other takes about 90 minutes.)

Construction of the core

It does help if you roughly know where to look, but it is possible to trace the line from London to Birmingham – tunnels excepted – on the aerial view on Bing Maps now. (Google is a little behind.) Major progress is to be found at several intermediate places:

  • Euston station. This will be set at the bottom of a hole in the ground next to the existing station, which is also a hole. A concourse will then be built over the platforms. The buildings in the way of the new terminal have been flattened and work has begun on digging the station. The Government was offered a 10-platform station that could narrowly accommodate the whole service to be finished in 10 years or an 11-platform station with some slack which would take a bit longer. Naturally they went for the 10-platform station. The pruning apparently cost £100,000,000, or about an eighth of the budget, which was something of an achievement. Until the Leeds and Sheffield services are plugged in there will be some slack anyway. If Yorkshire gets its own high-speed line in 2045 and the released paths are used for trains from Birmingham and Manchester to Paris and Brussels (not planned at the moment, but relatively simple to provide for) then these wouldn’t go into Euston so the absence of the 11th platform would be irrelevant. HS2 renderings show platforms 1-10 in the High Speed side but one would expect that they would be plugged into the existing numbering as at St Pancras and Waterloo International – that would make them platforms 16 to 25. Initial designs for a station with lots of curves have become designs for a station with lots of angles, which one suspects is changing tastes as much as saving money.
  • Euston Tunnels. Not yet started as the Old Oak Common station box needs clearing enough to assemble the tunnel boring machines. This plus delays signing off the final Euston station design means that Euston will be a little late. As with all High Speed 2 tunnels, these will be a pair of single-bore tunnels – usual practice for railways these days. Means the tunnels can be smaller, and avoids pressure pulses when two trains meet at a passing speed of six miles per minute.
  • Old Oak Common station. Phasing of building the eight-platform National Rail station is being agreed with the relevant operators. The six-platform High Speed 2 side is currently a massive hole in the ground, but this is something of an advance from four years ago when it was a large train maintenance complex. Tenders are being sought for building all fourteen platforms and adding the concourse building, which will sit over the High Speed 2 hole and given an impression of an underground station. Price tag is £1,300,000,000. (Not totally out of kilter with the rebuilds of Reading or St Pancras – in 2007 St Pancras’s rebuild was finished for £800,000,000, which adjusted for inflation works out at a little over £1,000,000,000 – and considerably less than the £4,000,000,000 for Heathrow Terminal 5.)
  • Tunnels to West Ruislip. These will carry HS2 under the rest of London and out to the edge of the Green Belt, where the city abruptly stops at the end of the Central Line on the ridge above the Colne Valley. The tunnel boring machines are currently being put in position.
  • Colne Valley Viaduct. This handsome arched structure of pre-cast concrete segments carries the line over the Grand Union Canal and a series of artificial lakes (one of which is a funny colour because it’s next to a clay pit) on a grand sweeping curve that carries the line from a westerly to a north-westerly heading. A viaduct has already been built across these lakes to support the construction of the permanent viaduct. It also carries us into the area of interest of the Chiltern Society, which is good because it means progress can be followed on their useful website. (Particularly as several of the pictures look like HS2 has decided that they should be accommodated and take their photographer on tours.) The first section of the viaduct from the northern abutment across the northernmost pier and halfway to the next pier is already in place. Only 55 to go.
  • Chiltern Tunnels. These are about a quarter done with the machines chugging their way along north of Chalfont St Giles, about 5km from the south portal. Some fields between the viaduct and the tunnel portals, which are just south of the M25, have been taken over for managing the spoil emerging from the tunnels and for assembling the various bits of concrete needed by the viaduct and the two tunnels. The tunnel is also monitored by the Chiltern Society, as are its ventilation shafts. There is not much progress to see at the south end now – two enormous holes, a pile of bits of concrete and a tin warehouse – but work to prepare for the tunnel boring machines to emerge in three years is ongoing at the north end and will continue showing signs of development.
  • There is then a spell of ploughing through open country, which thus far has not had much impact on the ground except for the access roads. The traditional approach of digging cuttings and using the material for building embankments is being followed.
  • Wendover viaducts. A side valley needs crossing at Wendover Dean, which will be spanned by a viaduct. A farm that was in the way has been demolished and foundation work has begun. Beyond this HS2 will cross the valley at a gentle angle near an existing set of electricity pylons by means of another viaduct, and pass Wendover to the west. An idea of the alignment of this second viaduct will be provided by a temporary conveyer belt system to move material between worksites on opposite sides of the valley. Several houses have been bought out and knocked down to make way for a cut-and-cover tunnel, and work to dig the trench for the tunnel has begun in earnest.
  • This carries us out of the Chilterns and onto the plain around Stoke Mandeville and Aylesbury, both of which will be left to the east of the line. The route involves destroying a golf course at Aylesbury and narrowly skimming across the end of an avenue at Hartwell House. Initial earthworks are progressing.
  • Thame Viaduct. A long low concrete construction, to carry the line over the River Thame just outside Aylesbury. Final designs have been produced; construction should begin in the next few months.
  • Using the Great Central Railway. One popular argument against HS2 has been that we should re-open the Great Central Railway, built in the 1890s and closed in the 1960s, instead of building a new line. Charming argument, but the use of the trackbed is a bit restricted. Nottingham and Leicester have built on bits (Nottingham especially), it bypasses Birmingham and the sections into London and Manchester are full of suburban trains (the fact that the section into London was full of suburban trains was in fact something the GCR noticed themselves in about 1899). What HS2 is doing is purloining the section between the northern end of the London suburban service (Aylesbury) and the point where it’s necessary to abandon the original trackbed in order to get to Birmingham (Brackley) with some minor modifications to ease corners and avoid cutting through the middle of Brackley. The new line provides an extra pair of tracks south of Aylesbury and plugs into Euston station instead of the GCR’s Marylebone. (The overall project will also provide a bypass for the overcrowded GCR approach to Manchester.) This allows us to skip straight to Brackley, excepting a short pause for:
  • The East-West Rail bridge. HS2 is building this structure, which will carry the Oxford to Bedford (and eventually Cambridge) line over HS2. There will probably be some kind of connection, but not rated for passenger trains.
  • After Brackley is some more open country, leading up to a cut-and-cover tunnel just after passing under the A361 Ilfracombe to Kilsby trunk road at Chipping Warden. The tunnel is coming along nicely, with a reasonable length in place. Otherwise the line is a strip of mud and rough grass for several miles.
  • The long section past Ladbroke and Southam seems to be proceeding quietly. Mostly still agricultural, but one random bit of cutting appears to be finished.
  • Long Itchington Wood Tunnel. This another bored tunnel, but quite a short one so both bores are being done by one machine. The first bore is nearly done (HS2’s website was updated as 96m left a little over two weeks ago). The machine will then be taken apart and returned to the starting point to build the second bore. The cutting to the north is being used as the construction base so is relatively complete. Another conveyer carries spoil over the canal to the north of the wood, roughly where the bridge will be.
  • The line then curves around the outskirts of Leamington Spa and controversially lops off part of the Cubbington Wood next to the suburb of Cubbington. Replacement habitats are already in place – obviously not as great as the old wood, but hosting a lot of species already and better than the field that was there before (possibly bigger than the relevant bit of wood that’s been lost).
  • The line then cuts around the north-eastern side of Stoneleigh Park, crosses the Avon and skims around the northern edges of Kenilworth (specifically the suburb of Crackley).
  • Kenilworth to Burton Green and on to Berkswell. Here HS2 picks up a former London & North Western Railway branchline which ran through the middle of the village of Burton Green on its way from Kenilworth to Berkswell. This was closed in the 1960s – it is now necessary to go via Coventry – and the line eventually turned into a cyclepath. The path has been temporarily removed through Burton Green and the brick overbridge carrying the main road through the village over the old railway is being flattened. HS2 will go through at a lower level in a cut-and-cover tunnel and the cycleway will be reinstated on top. Being in a built-up area (and an early starter) this section of work has been quite well followed, so it is nice to see it progressing well with the first section of tunnel in place. As it left Burton Green towards Kenilworth the old line made a wobble to the south to follow the contours while HS2 continues in a straight line, so the formation between Crackley and Burton Green is new.
  • From Berkswell to the A45. HS2 runs to the north of the A452 while the current railway passes underneath it and continues to Hampton-in-Arden and Birmingham Airport. Earthworks here seem to be fairly limited thus far.
  • Birmingham Interchange and the Delta Junction. Birmingham Interchange is the hub station of the route, though not everything will stop here. A link will be provided to Birmingham International station across the National Exhibition Centre, and thence to Birmingham Airport (a nice automated shuttle seems to be the plan – one linking the Interchange station with the Airport including stops at the north end of the NEC and Birmingham International station). Thus far not much direct construction work seems to have taken place, but remodelling of the surrounding road junctions has begun in earnest – the A452/ A446/ M42 junction is having to be butchered. The new A452 bridge was the first obvious bit of HS2-related infrastructure, but carries a road over a road because the old road formation is in the wrong place. Once out of the station the Birmingham branch leaves to the west and the East Midlands branch will leave to the east. It has been carefully plonked in the middle of the M6/ M42/ M6 (Toll) junction, which is as close to an environment-free eyesore as it is possible to get. The construction compound has been set up, and enough vegetation clearance has been done to make it possible to work out how the line is going to cross the sharply curving M42 Northbound to M6 Southbound slip road. (Given the time it takes to traverse this slip road combined with the expected traffic levels on the railway, motorists should expect to see at least one train go past at up to three miles per minute while changing between motorways.)
  • The East route diverges at the north end of the Delta Junction and follows the M42/ A42/ M1 to Kegworth. A short skim across some fields will bring it to the Midland Mainline at East Midlands Parkway. Currently this is about where it is planned to end. Not much work has been put in hand, and the close proximity to a cross-country motorway makes it hard to dispute on environmental grounds.
  • The route to Crewe similarly doesn’t make much of a showing on Bing Maps yet, and at the moment work seems to be limited to preparatory studies and isolated worksites.
  • The Birmingham branch is coming along very well, including the replacement of a bridge in Washwood Heath to provide room for HS2 tracks alongside the Midland Railway line from Derby. The station at Curzon Street is currently a large derelict station building from the days of King William IV surrounded by some mud. Eventually the old building will be about halfway down the platforms and the main entrance will feed out into the road in front of Birmingham Moor Street station.

Which will do as a summary for now.

Anyway, it’s all looking very positive and we should have a nice high-speed line to travel on in a few years.

Trails from the Rails 21: Giggleswick to Hellifield

  • Area: Craven District of North Yorkshire
  • Local Train Operators: Northern
  • Length: 10 miles
  • Points of Note: Settle town centre, Victoria Cave, Scaleber Force Waterfall, Hellifield station
  • OS maps – OL2 (1:25,000); Landranger 98 and 103 (spans both maps)

The first section of this walk from Giggleswick station is a little flat in two senses of the word, and there is some rationale to simply starting at Settle. But it can also be started from Giggleswick, which is more accessible from the west coast, so we’ll start there.

Navigationally it is a fairly simple walk except for finding the stiles while working across some fields on the way into Hellifield.

___…___

Giggleswick is the village that has been absorbed into the western side of the town of Settle in the Yorkshire Dales, and is really closer to Settle station than its own. The station was built by the North Western Railway and was originally called Settle, but in 1876 a new railway was opened by the Midland Railway through Settle town centre to Carlisle and came with its own station. The old Settle station briefly became Settle Old and was then named after Giggleswick. The train service nowadays is a basic one linking Leeds, the Aire Valley and Skipton with Carnforth, Lancaster and Morecambe – seven trains one way and eight the other.

Stations on the former North Western Railway fall into two camps. The ones which closed in the 1950s and 1960s show various forms of handsome architecture and are clearly identifiable as stations. The ones which remained open have been reduced to two platforms and occasionally a footbridge, excepting Bentham (where someone kindly replaced the building in the 1950s) and Hellifield (which we will see later). Giggleswick is in the more bleak and exposed category, with some minimal shelters and a foot crossing.

Leave the station, cross the car park and head down through the trees to the main road. This is the Settle bypass. The first job is to cross it (usually not actually as terrifying as it looks like it ought to be). On the other side is the Craven Arms pub for anyone who needs a stiff one to recover from the road. The pub would make a more logical name for the station than Giggleswick, except that there was already a Craven Arms station on the Shrewsbury & Hereford Railway.

In front of the Craven Arms pub is the road junction between the Settle bypass and Brackenber Lane into Settle. Follow this (there’s a handy pavement) as it undulates and twirls its way to the edge of the town, crosses a mini-roundabout and then makes a long straight to the River Ribble. It then flicks to the left a couple of times and climbs up to pass under the Carlisle line by the new Settle station. Here the Friends of the Settle & Carlisle line have a friendly little shop, and long-distance freights rumble through occasionally. The Carlisle line was up for closure for most of the time between 1965 and 1990 when British Rail was demolishing old buildings, so the stations were all left intact – BR seems to have had financial objections to flattening buildings on lines which were up for closure. (Nobody has ever seriously suggested closing the North Western Railway, so the buildings were demolished.) The footbridge is a post-1990 addition, recovered from a station in Scotland which had been deemed to need a new one. The rather useless 1980s service of two daily trains has improved over the years and now stands at nine each way, at anything between 90 and 150-minute intervals.

From Settle station, continue along Station Road to the main road through Settle town centre and then turn left towards the marketplace.

Cut diagonally across the car park/ market area (using pelican crossings as appropriate) to the far corner and work up Constitution Hill past the Co-op. When the road veers off to the right continue climbing and follow the path round to the left, heading up the valley. The path then forks at the end of the wood – the old byway running roughly level along the hillside, and a track climbing away to the right. Take the track to the right and scramble steadily up to some good views across the valley.

The path then forks again at the next clump of trees and adjacent gate – stick to the lower one this time. Then a couple of fields later it forks for a third time (well, each one provides a 50% chance that the nearby party going at a different speed will take a different route) – take the right fork which clambers away up the fields towards a small wood. The views of the valley open up and the looming cruise-ship form of Pen-y-Ghent dominates the skyline. Below, a maze of dry-stone walls hide the road that the path drops to meet after passing through one wood and along the bottom of another.

The meeting is brief, as the road takes a sharp left to go up the hill one way and we take the sharp right up the rocky byway to climb it a different way. Follow the byway and its accompanying walls as it slogs up to the 400m contour line. There is no specific note of the 400m contour line, but a battered signpost indicates a path converging from the south.

Turn right onto this path and follow it into a dry valley. To the left paths climb up to various caves in the towering cliffs – visiting the caves is not strictly necessary to get to Hellifield, but they are nice caves and the views towards Ingleborough are impressive.

Follow the track down the valley until it emerges from amongst the Warrendale Knotts onto a plateau, where it meets the Dales High Way. High above, sheep graze and cattle stare contemplatively into the distance, presumably composing poetry.

Work across the plateau, which can turn out to actually be a load of thick mud left behind by an absent-minded glacier, and climb around the knot called Sugar Loaf Hill (which has a passing resemblance to a sugar loaf, but perhaps not as much of one as the hill above Abergavenny in Wales). Behind, the cliffs around the Warrendale Knots tower impressively.

Ahead is a view across a tame section of Ribblesdale. To the right there is a Mysterious Arch sticking out of the hillside to look out for. The path drops down and is joined by Stockdale Lane from the west, and Stockdale Lane in turn joins High Hill Lane. This is a back road over the hill from Settle to the Aire Valley – a fairly unimpressive-looking crossing over the open moorland which represents the ridge of the Pennines at this point. The Ribble and its tributaries on our side of the hill flow down to Preston in Lancashire and so into Morecambe Bay. Across the moor the Aire and its tributaries flow down to Leeds, into the Humber and so into the North Sea.

Turn left onto High Hill Lane and follow it for about a quarter of a mile to the Scaleber Force Waterfall, and turn into the surrounding woods for a look. A bench overlooking the top part of the fall makes a good lunch stop, but the best views are to be had from the bottom looking back up. Daring people can work around the water’s edge from the bottom, and possibly fall in.

Climb back up to the road and take the next right onto a rather exposed track which the map calls Langber Lane.

This trails down the valley of the Bookil Gill Beck (something of a tautology, as gill and beck are both Northern words for a stream) through some relatively varied scenery, and is followed for the next 2¾ miles.

After climbing out of the valley and passing Bookilber Barn the byway slides down a gentle slope to a T-junction with a footpath, and abandons its byway status. Continue straight on along the green lane, hereafter only a footpath. At this point, as the lane swings around the east side of Newton Moor Top, the walk briefly crosses the Pennines and passes into the Aire catchment area.

After passing round the Top the lane – so far as anything much is left of it – remains on the east side of the Pennines and veers off to the left to drop down to Otterburn in the Aire Valley. We follow the wall round to the right, pass back over the slight ridge and return to the Ribble’s catchment area to drop down the hill towards Hellifield.

The stream has carved a deep ditch down this hillside. The path stays to the left of the ditch without exactly following it. At one point there is a double-fence which is crossed by two separate stiles, with some mountaineering involved to navigate them. One is minimalist, and the other has a four-foot drop.

Eventually the bottom of the hill is reached, the stream curves to the left and the path follows it round, crossing several small ditches and passing through a gate at the meeting of two valleys. Cross this field, following the course of the stream at first and then striking straight on when it decides to meander away to the right in a manner that streams have. This should end up at another gate which leads into Haw Lane.

Turn right and follow Haw Lane down the valley to the railway. The foot crossing is decorated with a handsome array of antique signalling. If the signal arms are horizontal, then nothing should be coming (but look anyway – “the train wasn’t supposed to pass the signal” is an untidy thing to have on a gravestone). If either of the arms is raised, then something will be approaching shortly at up to 60mph. Take extra care if crossing. Or might as well wait for it; there are a lot of interesting trains on this line.

Walk on down the lane to the main road through Hellifield, and turn right.

Hellifield is a bit of an awkward place to walk through – the road bends in annoying places, the pavement varies in width and presence, and the A65 (earlier crossed at Giggleswick station) takes up a disproportionate amount of space under the bridge carrying the freight-only line from Clitheroe and Blackburn. Best to cross it somewhere and use the subway provided alongside. Fortunately some protective signage has been put up to warn of vulnerable road users.

After passing under the Clitheroe line the A65 turns to the right. To avoid squeezing alongside it too much, turn left into Park Avenue and then right up Brook Street. At the end of Brook Street cross the A65 as well as possible and continue up Station Road.

The station entrance, when eventually traced, is uninspiring.

The platform area, where once trains from Leeds and Preston were merged and trains to Lancaster and Carlisle were split, is rather more inspiring.

Only the southern end of the platform around the subway is used by regular trains these days, and the bay platform is a bit decrepit, but the refreshment rooms are now a café and museum while the upper floors offer self-catering holiday accommodation. The remaining sidings are used by West Coast Railways to store coaching stock, and the run from Carnforth to Hellifield is periodically used by steam locos on running-in turns (for which there is a path built into the timetable – currently arrives 12:53 and leaves 13:50, running only when required). Freight traffic is fairly prolific, and the combined services on the North Western and Carlisle lines provides a getting-on-for-hourly service south into West Yorkshire or northwards back to the two stations around Settle.

Political Obituary: Boris Johnson

This has been written while flicking through my summary of Theresa May from three years ago, remembering why I don’t want her back for the summer (except possibly because it would annoy Boris if he were not only chucked out to make way for her but she got to add another three months to her tenure as Prime Minister). But there is no obvious musical comparison to do with Boris, so this summary will be done in three overlaid chapters about his relationships with people called Jeremy.

Corbyn

Some people are lucky in their opponents. Boris Johnson got Jeremy Corbyn. The two had many things in common – a career of being a nuisance, centred heavily on London, not expected to actually become party leader, not overly interested in following rules or precedents and married three times with slight question marks over how many children they had. On politics and consistency they sat at opposite extremes – Boris an enthusiastic economic libertarian, given to observations about how a Government pound spent in London was more beneficial to the people of Strathclyde than a Government pound spent in Strathclyde, changing his mind on a daily basis, against Corbyn’s left-wing economics that struggle to avoid authoritarianism, devoted to spending money wherever seemed worthwhile, sticking to the same script for forty years. Boris seemed to chuck several useful projects in London mostly because they were Ken Livingstone’s ideas; Corbyn divorced one of his wives because she thought they could afford to send the kids to a public school. It is hard to say whether the world is a better placed run by people who change their mind regardless of the facts or by people who stick to their views regardless of the facts. Thus we had the remarkable achievement by the Labour Party to possess a leader during four critical years who could claim no high ground over Boris.

Corbyn became Labour leader in the distant days of autumn 2015, when the Labour Party seemed to have concluded that the country was being run by a competent centre-ground Conservative government with a broadly stable level of popularity – points which led to a natural conclusion that the party would lose the 2020 election and did not have to fuss too much about its next leader. In any case, its next leader might not make it to 2020. Who knew? Who cared? He could be changed later.

Corbyn was not well-placed to fight for Remain in 2016 and his core supporters – unlike, as it turned out, his party’s traditional voters – were unwilling to let him fight for Leave. Though it could be said that, as a committed pacifist, fighting was not Corbyn’s style. He preferred to sit quietly and watch as Boris joined the Leave team, uttered various points of debatable veracity in the expectation that someone would give him a jolly good afternoon’s sport in the debating chamber, was shot at by the media fact-checkers on the basis of technical points about the difference between £200,000,000 and £350,000,000, and then won the referendum.

Obviously Corbyn actually won the referendum, because the Conservatives could not agree on what to do next and Boris gave press conferences which suggested that this was not an outcome that he had anticipated or wanted. His colleague Michael Gove, who had worked closely with him during the referendum, had come to notice that Boris’s public persona was rather tiring for those around him in a way that was inappropriate for a prime minister, and said so. Boris was knifed; Gove was now marked as a traitor. Meanwhile Corbyn was overwhelmingly re-elected by his party that summer. He had a mandate. He had won his argument. It was unfortunate that this was a mandate and an argument within his party. Boris needed an opposite number who would effectively engage with him on his level to keep him under control, and this Corbyn never did.

But Boris did have cause to thank Corbyn for his failure to engage in 2017, when Labour didn’t do all that badly in Theresa May’s snap general election. It deprived May of her majority, largely on the basis that what Labour didn’t say was less unappealing than what May did say. Corbyn was now obviously a great leader and May was on borrowed time. By relatively careful management of his position at the Foreign Office – not getting too many British citizens locked up overseas for indefinite periods and resigning at an appropriate moment – Boris established himself as a sufficiently serious person to govern with real Government experience who was still committed to the true Brexit movement.

Corbyn could have thwarted Boris at a critical moment by being willing to change his mind. In summer 2019 the Conservatives had no real Parliamentary majority and had become rather tetchy. The country wanted the Brexit matter shutting down by some means or another, and barring six million enthusiasts on each side were disinclined to care about the outcome. The Brexiteers in Parliament were upset about May’s deal because May had discovered that a deal was not possible on the terms of engagement that she had set with the encouragement of the Brexiteers. But crucially May did have a deal. There was merely some technical difficulty over Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic. The EU were unwilling to accept a solution which created a hard customs border where a farmer five miles to the east of Derry/ Londonderry was banned from selling eggs at a car boot sale five miles west of Londonderry/ Derry. The Democratic Unionist Party were unwilling to accept a solution which created a hard customs border where this farmer was banned from selling eggs at a car boot sale in Stranraer in Scotland. The true Brexiteers were unwilling to accept a solution which allowed a French farmer to sell eggs at a car boot sale in Dover. And the Irish were unwilling to accept a solution where the French farmer wasn’t allowed to sell eggs at a car boot sale in Waterford. Thus deadlock.

Corbyn was offered a solution of a Government of National Unity. May patently no longer commanded the confidence of anybody, and any interested party was happy to sacrifice her if it meant a useful scapegoat. He wanted a second referendum; a body of the Conservatives were willing to give him one. All they asked was that he not become Prime Minister, because Labour was not the largest party so the Prime Minister should be a Conservative. The obvious candidates were Dominic Grieve and Ken Clarke. The result of the referendum would have been a sundered Conservative Party and most likely a general election, which was inevitable anyway and which Corbyn would have won.

Corbyn said no.

After Boris Johnson became leader of the Conservative Party he spent five happy months annoying a lot of people and then made a great play of being very upset about being forced into a general election. Corbyn made a great play of being very happy about finally getting the general election that he wanted so that he could form a coalition government which would have another referendum on Brexit in a few months while doing some other stuff. Boris Johnson, by contrast, argued that if he got any majority then he would “get Brexit done” and we could all stop talking about it. Arguments that Brexit was Boris’s fault anyway were rather half-hearted, and Corbyn’s insistence that we keep talking about Brexit in a bid to get a reasonable compromise of some description at some point in the future saw his party go down to a historic defeat.

When I turned on ClassicFM that Friday morning the news bulletin was followed by this:

Which said it all really.

Johnson’s majority allowed him to discard the Democratic Unionist Party (and unionism in general) and offer the EU Northern Ireland. The Irish farmers would be banned from exporting goods to Stranraer. The EU said yes, the deal was done, and Britain left the EU under what was virtually May’s deal at the end of January 2020. It was after all only Brexit not UKxit. A week later the media had found something else to talk about.

We would not have had Brexit if Corbyn had been able to define an opinion not expressed better by Karl Marx, who naturally had very little to say on European trade and political union centred in Brussels. And we would not have had Brexit if Corbyn had been willing to create a legacy without also gaining the trappings of power. His continued presence was very useful to anyone basing their political career on the idea of old political dinosaurs stuck in the past and preventing Britain rediscovering lost greatness. Like, say, Boris Johnson.

Hunt

Jeremy Hunt has done very well out of Boris Johnson. Being the person responsible for Health in a Conservative government is basically the equivalent of walking round with a sign saying “Kill me”. His predecessor was Andrew Lansley, who had successfully become one of the most hated figures in the country with almost no effort on his part.

While Lansley was being booed by the nurses Hunt was running the 2012 Olympics, so was an obvious safe pair of hands to defuse some of the anger around healthcare. This he sort of did. In 2016 he campaigned to remain in the EU, and afterwards agreed with suggestions made by Vote Leave people before the referendum that there should be further referendum on whatever was agreed for a withdrawal agreement and ultimate trade agreement. He did not stand in the leadership election that year, and instead remained as a relatively safe pair of hands at health (barring an incident with a bell) until 2018.

In 2018 Boris resigned as Foreign Secretary, and May gave Hunt the job. He was now a holder of a Great Officer of State, and had not imploded while running health or culture, media and sport. It made him an obvious candidate for being the next prime minister – May, having chucked a majority, was evidently not going to be around for the next election so had no real future beyond the completion of the Brexit negotiations.

When May resigned Hunt became the main competition for Johnson and the two were put to a vote of the membership in July 2019. At times things looked like they might be promising for Hunt, especially when Boris and his mistress (he was married to someone else at the time) had a row of such ferocity that a neighbour called the police. In the event he scooped a third of the vote and retired to the back benches. From there he has needled the Government on Covid policy, and he emerged in June 2022 to spend a day vigorously arguing for Boris’s departure.

He never needled that effectively. One can make arguments that a lockdown places an excessive strain on the population and its long-term consequences are unjustifiable. One can make arguments that the lockdown is unjustifiable because, admittedly contrary to what might seem to be common sense, it does not actually work. (Some academics have done so.) One can argue that clapping for carers was gesture politics at its worst, and that face coverings seem to exacerbate matters given that when they were removed in England cases dropped below the Scottish level and stayed below until they were reinstated. One can generally promote the Swedish option as more humane and more effective. Like Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, his position was in the vein of “like Boris, but a bit different, and maybe a little more”.

Hunt’s problem is that he is not one of these people necessarily enthusiastic about setting a mood or expressing a distinct opinion. He would actually have made an excellent joint ticket with Johnson – Johnson to be bouncy and enthusiastic and well-known, and Hunt to negotiate the details and make the difficult decisions. His leadership campaign to the Conservative membership was a bit “Boris without some of the stuff that you don’t like about Boris”. He was never obviously in with a great chance with the membership, who loved Boris. One wonders whether he would have done better by reverting to his original position in 2016 – a line of “I said we should have a second referendum, and I still say we should have a second referendum, because it breaks the deadlock and silences the opposition, and I think leaving without a deal is a great Boris negotiating ploy but not good financial logic”. That would have given him his own message and his own voice. But one is never quite clear whether he really has one.

For one of the things about Boris that allows him to dominate the political world is that even when he’s flip-flopping and changed his mind yesterday, he seems keen on what he is saying and committed to his policies. People instinctively follow that. Even his opponents.

Clarkson

Jeremy Clarkson and Boris Johnson went to rather different public schools. They took rather different approaches to journalism. They have both been subject to campaigns for them to become prime minister, they have both said that they would be rubbish at it, and they have both hosted Have I Got News For You.

They have also both been on Top Gear. Clarkson was the long-running host, and Boris showed up to drive a car round an airfield.

The contrast is that Boris is a disorganised figure who is apparently intelligent enough to realise that people warm to disorganised figures more than to overly intelligent figures. But he is not intelligent enough to realise that the intelligent figures that people don’t warm to are the Theresa Mays of this world – inclined to be cold, reserved and generally hard to get to know, but very clever and competent and often right, but nervous about being challenged, difficult to understand and inclined to only talk about the matter in hand – and then only for as little time as possible.

Clarkson is intelligent enough to realise that a person is allowed to understand what they’re talking about, somewhere in the depths of what they’re actually saying. If they claim to be able to do something, and march out, and do it in overblowing style, and screw it up in every way possible and several ways that are not possible, and go “Oh dear, that was wrong,” and do it for entertainment, then this is funny.

But to be funny this must be precise. Johnson can list a lot of moments where he was funny, like his waving flags while dangling from a zipwire. But he’s been bumbling through the public eye for nearly thirty years, so this is to be expected.

Clarkson, by contrast, is quite good at being daft on a weekly basis – while actually being informative occasionally. I’m not a motorist and I don’t believe in driving around office buildings, and for that matter I disapprove of driving in bus lanes, but I’m quite intrigued by these:

He is aware of traffic problems, and makes points which a lot of transport experts ignore – like the note that door-to-door journey time at the time when you want to travel is really all that matters. (This means that a 20-minute flight at from somewhere half an hour from point A to somewhere an hour from point B at 07:00 is not competitive with a three-hour drive if the customer has to be in point A until 10 o’clock, for example.) He talks confidently and lucidly about his farm, and explains with relevant exaggeration why it’s not worth the candle. He similarly makes it sound like he doesn’t know what he’s talking about by referring to “sheeps” and I have been on a train with someone who had watched the show and loved it but found that really really annoying!

Whereas Boris can do a good impression of hoping that if you say things then stuff will happen, and it doesn’t.

Clarkson of course also has hit people, said offensive things and split up with his wife. But he’s not been as much of a hypocrite, has run something other than a newspaper and doesn’t make an obvious habit of outright lying. Boris’s nonsense wasn’t even always aimed at advancing his career; often it was for his amusement. Taken together, one can end up with a feeling that Clarkson better understands the real world than Boris and would have made a rather better prime minister.

Better still of course is the intelligent person who is amiable and acceptable and knows what they are talking about, which it could be suggested the public do actually appreciate. Harold Wilson, who suppressed his supreme intelligence behind a pipe and some quips won majorities at three elections – one was against the rather disinterested Sir Alec Douglas Home, and the other two were against the rather distant and aloof Edward Heath. (Heath won another, and they got a score draw on the fourth.) Two of those majorities were rather narrow. Tony Blair, who could never be accused of being an idiot (deluded by his own intelligence, but not an idiot), discarded the pipe and the worst of the quips and also won three elections. In a row. With rather better majorities, and against opponents who were not really worse than Ted Heath.

But the irony? If Boris had come in favour of Remain in 2016 as Clarkson did, and Remain had won, he would most likely have still become Prime Minister in 2019 as the replacement for Cameron (the other likely candidates at the start of 2016 were Osborne and May; it is hard to picture Osborne being that popular with the membership, and May would probably have been pushed out at some point). He would still have been prime minister now. His relationships with Europe and half the electorate would be rather better, and he would have come in to a Government that was feeling strained – Cameron’s majority in 2019 would have likely been around 8 or 10 – but generally afloat. Sometime in 2020 or 2021 he would have fought an election against Corbyn, and if it had been May 2021 he would almost certainly have won his 80-seat majority. A more relaxed environment would have supported him being more of a figurehead than the ultimate decision-maker riding to the rescue of the British people, with less concern about enemies plotting at every turn. He would still have had to deal with Covid, but it would not have come straight after Brexit so the country might have had the political energy to deal with it. And, of course, perhaps most critically, Cameron would have fired Pincher and done it properly.

Instead he made himself an isolated figure in a hardline wing of the party – a relative liberal who wanted to be liked lost amongst the “sod ’em” libertarians who are happy for anything to be legal provided it’s what they wanted to do anyway. He does not look to have been happy there. The rest of the country has gone off him, and ultimately this cost him the job he wanted. It is hard to feel sorry for him. The great decisions that we are told he got correct – Ukraine, vaccines, doing something to respond to Covid – are stuff that it was hard to get spectacularly wrong. The small decisions, like not backing dead cabinet ministers after they were clearly doomed or not listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg, he managed to make a mess of. We are told that he will be fondly remembered for his success at Brexit, but it is worth noting that Ted Heath is not particularly remembered for taking us into Europe in the first place. Heath, so far as anyone has heard of him these days, is at least as widely remembered for the Three-Day Week. Most likely the whole affair of our European membership, being of little relevance to the wider national story, will be brushed beneath the carpet of history.

We await evidence of a realistic replacement prime minister who understands the damage that paying out free money in 2020 has done to the economy and is willing to restore this situation without resorting to pulling down the nation’s infrastructure.

Boris

Head above parapet – three reasons to consider it possible for Boris to lose tonight:

  1. The support is not very fulsome, mostly from the payroll and largely cut-and-paste.
  2. Jacob Rees-Mogg is saying “he’s won if he wins by one.” The correct answer is “I don’t think it will come to that.”
  3. Everyone expects him to win, so too many people may cast protest votes by mistake.

Covid Regs

This is an old-sounding post because it is an old post, found while flicking through unpublished drafts and wondering if I should finish some of them. I wrote it in May 2020 or thereabouts. For some reason I didn’t hit “Publish”. Maybe it felt too much like a revolt against the then-fashionable (but now largely exploded) concept of lockdowns (if you still think they work, go to Our World In Data and compare the UK with Sweden) in its enthusiasm for the question of whether there were loopholes in the rules. I preferred to feel that any decisions I might or might not make regarding my ability to follow Covid regulations were being played out quietly and offline in view of the popular hysteria of the era, without suggesting to the Gestapo that I might be worth monitoring in case I happened to cave in one Tuesday afternoon. My apologies for cowardice to anyone in a similar situation to whom this post would have offered some moral support in concluding that the whole business was so badly framed as to be ridiculous. Anyway, I think the penultimate paragraph has aged well even if the rest of it is now irrelevant. It remains as I found it half an hour ago, untouched since mid-2020, despite thoughts about adding some more explicitly vengeful comments here and there – I have merely got round to finding a suitable opera to follow the promise of an opera, which for some reason I hadn’t got round to doing. Maybe actually the reason why this wasn’t posted was because I then had a pleasant evening watching operas on the pretext of selecting one to round off the post and went to bed in a better temper.

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There has been some discussion lately of the law created by the Government last week (without telling anyone else) which overruled the old principal that “An Englishman’s home is his castle” or, as one African president put it while blocking a law banning homosexual activities, “If people want to go into their bedrooms and do stupid things then that’s their business”.

Anyway, originally Section 7 of The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 (S.I. 2020 350) said this:

Restrictions on gatherings
7.  During the emergency period, no person may participate in a gathering in a public place of more than two people except—

(a) where all the persons in the gathering are members of the same household,
(b) where the gathering is essential for work purposes,
(c) to attend a funeral,
(d) where reasonably necessary—
 (i)to facilitate a house move,
 (ii)to provide care or assistance to a vulnerable person, including relevant personal care within the meaning of paragraph 7(3B) of Schedule 4 to the Safeguarding of Vulnerable Groups Act 2006,
(iii) to provide emergency assistance, or
(iv) to participate in legal proceedings or fulfil a legal obligation.

This has been widened over the last few weeks and as of Sunday just gone now says the below. The crucial bit is the appearance of the words “or private” in paragraph 1:

7.—(1) During the emergency period, unless paragraph (2) applies, no person may participate in a gathering which takes place in a public or private place—
(a) outdoors, and consists of more than six persons, or
(b) indoors, and consists of two or more persons.

(2) This paragraph applies where—
(a) all the persons in the gathering are members of the same household;
(b) the person is attending a funeral, as—
 (i) a member of the deceased person’s household,
 (ii) a close family member of the deceased person, or
 (iii) if no-one within paragraph (i) or (ii) is attending, a friend of the deceased person;
(c) the person concerned is an elite athlete, the coach of an elite athlete, or (in the case of an elite athlete under the age of 18), the parent of an elite athlete, and the gathering is necessary for training or competition;
(d) the gathering is reasonably necessary—
 (i) for work purposes, or for the provision of voluntary or charitable services;
 (ii) to facilitate a house move;
 (iii) to provide care or assistance to a vulnerable person, including relevant personal care within the meaning of paragraph 7(3B) of Schedule 4 to the Safeguarding of Vulnerable Groups Act 2006;
 (iv) to provide emergency assistance;
 (v) for the purposes of early years childcare provided by a person registered on the Early Years Register under Part 3 of the Childcare Act 2006;
 (vi) to enable one or more persons in the gathering to avoid injury or illness or to escape a risk of harm;
 (vii) to continue existing arrangements for access to, and contact between, parents and children where the children do not live in the same household as their parents, or one of their parents;
(e) the person concerned is fulfilling a legal obligation or participating in legal proceedings;
(f) the gathering takes place at an educational facility and is reasonably necessary for the purposes of education.

(3) For the purposes of this regulation—
(a) there is a gathering when two or more people are present together in the same place in order to engage in any form of social interaction with each other, or to undertake any other activity with each other;
(b) a place is indoors if it would be considered to be enclosed or substantially enclosed for the purposes of section 2 of the Health Act 2006(4), under the Smoke Free (Premises and Enforcement) Regulations 2006(5).”

So, let’s pick holes. (Never write long legislation. The shorter the law, the fewer the holes.)

The first paragraph is a blanket ban on more than six people being together outdoors and more than one person being indoors.

The second paragraph is a list of exceptions. a) means that you are not committing an offence by sharing an indoors space with people with whom you are normally resident. b) allows attendance by a small number of people at funerals. c) allows people training for the Tokyo Olympics this summer to continue doing so, although as the Tokyo Olympics are cancelled this subsection seems to be entirely irrelevant. d) covers a long list of miscellaneous exceptions and get-out clauses. e) stops people using it as an excuse for leaving prison, and f) allows schools to re-open.

The third paragraph is the interpretation.

Let’s start with paragraph 3. Sub-paragraph a) defines a gathering for the purposes of paragraph 1. It is rather odd since, if read literally (the proper way of reading English law), it means that if you have a friend round at your house purely for the purposes of feeling that there is someone else present and for no form of interaction – you sit in silence two metres (6.6ft) apart for two hours and read separate books (or, better still, one reads a book and the other plays cards) – then the section does not apply to your activity because you are not engaging in a gathering according to sub-paragraph 3a. If the host offers the guest a drink, or discusses the book (or the progress of the card game, or how you pay poker with yourself – a useful skill which you soon learn when in lockdown alone) then it becomes a criminal offence.

Obviously if we use the purposive (European) approach then this get-out does not apply, but happily we all voted four years ago to say that we weren’t in Europe. Literal approach it is.

Paragraph 1 fulfils the rule above that the shorter the rule, the fewer the holes, so there is no fun to be had there. Let’s turn to paragraph 2.

Sub-paragraph a) raises certain entertaining questions over a definition of household, which we will come back to. Sub-paragraph b) is inherently not entertaining so we will pass on, and sub-paragraph e) is fairly clear.

Let’s have a spot of fun with sub-paragraph f), as we may wish to discuss whether:

  • certain schools count as educational facilities;
  • whether the contact is necessary when the children could be sent away to read Wikipedia;
  • what sort of education is being provided.

For example – if one runs a social club based around learning and performing operas which meets weekly in a spare classroom in the evenings at a local school, then this is:

  • an educational facility; and
  • necessary in order to be educated on how to perform the opera.

You might say that I don’t need to know how to perform an opera. The response to that is that education teaches:

  • how to do specific useful tasks;
  • how to apply those skills to broaden your mind further;
  • how to make the best out of life through development of general skills and learning how to apply them to learn further skills;
  • Social awareness and understanding.

The value of opera is admittedly debated, but given the tradition of Government funding for opera houses it could be deemed to be a useful task. It is highly mind-broadening and provides another way of looking at the wider world. And it develops social awareness by considering how the various characters are reacting to the situations that they find themselves in. Thus it is arguable that an opera rehearsal at a school involving, say, a chorus of about 450 people for maximum effect, counts as a legitimate gathering.

Right, back to sub-paragraph 2d). This is actually rather important – specifically the clause at (vi). You can gather to avoid injury or illness or to escape a risk of harm.

There are a wide multitude of circumstances that this can cover – it is likely primarily written for domestic abuse victims – but for people in my position of solo resident with bouts of depression this is a clause to keep in mind. If you are feeling seriously suicidal – in the “contemplating sticking fingers in live light bulbs socket” or “running out in front of cars reckoning it’ll be best if they don’t brake” category of suicidal – but having a friend round for the afternoon stops you from feeling suicidal and gets life back on its feet for a bit, then you should be reasonably able to argue that you are avoiding injury and escaping a risk of harm. If you are avoiding injury and escaping a risk of harm, then paragraph 2 applies and you may participate in an indoor gathering with people from outside your own household. (But it is simpler to meet them outside, and generally healthier too, unless it happens to be raining and you’re sitting on a wet bench.) Obviously you have to be able to argue that this injury would be likely to occur, though preferably not to the point of being able to cite a list of hospital visits caused by failed suicide attempts.

(I have long had a view that under a slightly mangled view of the English legal principle of equity then if the lockdown is doing you rather more harm than good then you should be able to read-in a bit of leeway until it gets closer to balancing out. It is nice to see this in the statutory instrument.)

Right, back to paragraph 2 sub-paragraph a). Define a “household”. Obviously if you live in an ordinary 1930s middle-class family of two parents and two children in a 1930s semi-detached house in a garden suburb then you are a household, and all is clear and simple.

If you live in a 76-room mansion with twenty servants then you and your servants constitute a household.

If you live in a 76-room three-wing mansion containing an extended family, where each wing is self-contained and has doors doubling as what a business would call “Chinese Walls” so that the various bits of the extended family can live independent lives, then matters are a bit more complex. If you don’t normally see Uncle Lord Chedzoy because he lives two wings away and has separate kitchen, bathroom and driveway, then are you in the same household? (Obviously it will turn out that you are because your maid is quietly seeing Lord Chedzoy’s undercook, but from your placid above-stairs perspective you may feel that you’re in separate households.)

There always used to be a distinction in English rental law (I forget whether some person abolished it; from the approach of my landlady in my lodgings at university I think it’s still in force) that if you share a kitchen with your landlady then you do not benefit from the protection of the Rent Acts. This term is every bit as alarming as it might sound – it means that your landlady can walk into your room one day and tell you to pack and go. (She didn’t, as it happens.) If you have your own kitchen to which your landlady does not in the usual course of things have access (because you have quiet enjoyment of it) then you do have protection of the Rent Acts (or their successors) which means that you have to be given a statutory period of notice to quit.

This is merely mentioned because it seems a reasonable basis to deem that if you share a kitchen then you share a household with your landlady. But if you don’t, then you might not. On the other hand, if you share a front door, a set of coat hooks and a boot rack with your landlady (but not the kitchen) then you’re still coming into pretty frequent contact, whether with each other directly or with the sleeves that the other person has been coughing into.

What about a four-storey townhouse divided up into eight flats with no landlady present, whether self-contained or not and whether or not they have locks on the doors? What does the household look like? Are all these people in the same household? (It cuts both ways – if they are, then they can associate together; but if they are, then they must self-isolate together.)

What about a property where you live and work? Plenty of people live in these at the moment. Gatherings where reasonably necessary for work purposes are legitimate. But what are work purposes?

Well, obvious, duh – where you do work. But how does one define doing work? People at work discuss stuff not related to work. I had a ‘phone call recently with my line manager about my objectives for the year which spent about five minutes on that somewhere in the middle of an hour-and-a-half discussion on how we each were (or weren’t) coping with solitary existence in the lockdown. If you have a work colleague round to your house to discuss a document that you’ve found you can’t coherently discuss over the ‘phone then that surely that counts as work purposes? You might move on to a discussion over a glass/ mug of something, perhaps during a break, about the football repeats, or the television, or how they’re coping – but the primary function of the session is work.

What if you have a friend turn up while you’re working from home to be a non-interactive presence in the corner and you start using them as a sounding board for your work? That’s work. You’re discussing work. Your employer is getting something out of it. Admittedly your friend isn’t employed by your employer, but what sort of picture is appropriate for a slideshow on how to fill vacancies caused by the impact of coronavirus on your business is a work question, not a social one.

Well, there is a way to establish this. Every day the Prime Minister hosts a number of people in his house for what he says are work purposes (such as listening to him talking to a TV camera). Presumably some of them pause for a natter afterwards, because they’re humans. All that is required is for one of these people to be identified by the police constable on the door, arrested and prosecuted for offences under S.7 of The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 on the basis that they were present indoors with a person who was not a member of their household while carrying out non-work-related discussions (for example, the weather, or the state of Matt Hancock’s garden, or how Boris’s Sprog is progressing). If they get six months, then we know that when having colleagues round to discuss business matters we should stick firmly to the point. And if they don’t then we know that team-building barbeques are a legitimate way of spending summer evenings.

Meanwhile, here is some opera:

An Atari at Thirty-One

Obviously not the same computer as appeared in “An Atari at Thirty” because that was six years ago…

Sometime in 1990, probably early autumn, an Atari Mega 4 computer rolled off a production line in a factory in Taiwan. It was neatly placed into its box, the box was loaded into a container, the container was found a ship to sit in and so the Mega 4 made its way to the UK.

An Atari Mega 4. From bottom – mouse, keyboard, Vortex hard drive, actual computer block with floppy drive and monitor.

The name Mega 4 was chosen by Atari to reflect the fact that the computer offered four megabytes of memory. At the time this was big. It was fast, neatly designed and capable of running any software that anyone cared to think about. This was moderately reflected in the price – though being an Atari it was way cheaper than less powerful rivals – and so its primary target audience was as the business computer for the high-tech company forging into the future.

In the top right-hand corner of Northamptonshire there was a high-tech company forging into the future by replicating floppy disks. Blank disks came in; software was written onto them; nicely-labelled disks laden with useful things that people would buy came out. Some of this was computer games; some of it was business software for other high-tech companies. Some of it was niche markets for companies which had been high-tech ten or fifteen years previously but had evidently found the upgrade from reel-to-reel tapes too stressful to contemplate repeating. Consequently one healthcare company in the USA was keeping a replicating machine for 8-inch floppy disks in happy gainful employment in Northamptonshire long after all its contemporaries (yes, every other one on the planet) had gone the way of computer valves.

Being high tech and forging into the future, this business needed a suitable computer to manage its affairs. There were older Atari STs knocking around for testing disks and general work, but the serious stuff called for a bigger computer. And so our much-travelled Mega 4 arrived on the scene.

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The Mega 4, and its smaller sibling the Mega 2, was a development of the earlier ST models that offered streamlined circuitry, more memory, minor updates to the operating system (still called TOS) and what might now be viewed as a more conventional appearance – though at the time it was rather radical. Most previous computers had been built into either the keyboard or the monitor. This computer lived in a wholly independent box and everything else, with the exception of a single built-in floppy drive, was a peripheral of some description.

The mouse and monochrome monitor were the same as an earlier 520 or 1040ST. The keyboard was radically simplified to reflect the removal of the computer unit and the general feel was altered by replacing the pads of an early ST keyboard with springs. (At least, the reviewers claimed it was altered. This writer can’t tell the difference, although after 35 years of being battered the 520ST feel may have changed to something akin to a much-used Mega 4.) Software written for the ST could – if it had been written properly – be run on a Mega computer without difficulty. New software for a Mega would obviously have difficulty with the more limited memory of an older ST model.

Two Atari high-definition monochrome monitors – 1985 on the left and 1990 on the right. Both are described as SM124. Spot the differences.
Ditto mice. The 1985 one is probably that on the right, as it has the distinctive sweat muck marks of heavy use, but they were easy to tell apart once actually attached to a computer – the 1985 one almost invariably works, except a glitchy bit at some point (possibly around 2009) while the 1990 one almost never worked properly and has got worse as it got older. When the Mega 4 was booted up for the operating pictures to be taken the 1985 520ST was temporarily deprived of its mouse to save time.

Atari did some thinking when it came to the design and peripherals. The computer box was perfectly shaped and built for the monitor to sit on top of it, saving space and getting the monitor to a better height. It could be brought up to an even better height by mounting the computer’s box on top of the matching hard drive box (see opening photo). The Mega 4 was also intended to work with a printer. Previous designs of printer, as Atari enthusiastically observed, were designed to take a great tranche of data from the computer and format it for printing. Of course this meant that as long as every computer dumped the same kind of data then any computer could work with any printer. But it also meant that the printer had to be able to process anything that the computer threw at it – which meant it had to have a matching memory and processor banks. Consequently, two computers on one desk – one to work on, and one to do the printing.

Atari decided that if the customer was willing to buy two computers then they would put both inside the computer itself and call the result a memory upgrade. The printer was a large and heavy box with a drum, some laser equipment and a crate of toner inside. The computer did all the processing and sent the printer the results. This made for quicker printing and a cheaper printer – and the computer worked better too.

The printer. A large and remarkably heavy piece of equipment, with various options and an untidy paper tray sticking out of one end. By today’s standards it was not terribly fast, but it did a perfectly respectable job (and was a massive improvement on the horrors of dot-matrix printing). Interestingly it was attached via an intermediate peripheral instead of being plugged straight into the printer port in the back of the computer.

While Atari were singing and dancing about this in 1990, it is arguable that it was in fact just a development of the approach of 1985 when printers didn’t really format anything and the computer did a lot of the work. It worked perfectly well at the time, but became a dead-end concept a few years later when data processing became so cheap that it wasn’t worth the fuss of producing a dedicated printer range. The results of the policy are quite amusing when a 1985 Atari computer is wired up with a modern printer – the printer, which is the rather more technically powerful piece of kit, is left grumbling impatiently as it waits for the next string of data while the Atari patronisingly and sedately formats the pages.

There were some trade-offs. An early 520ST relies on natural air flow through its copious supply of cooling grills to maintain a reasonable internal temperature, though a cruel observation might be that there is not much going on inside so not much to cool. The Mega 4 has fewer cooling grills (and those which have are placed under the edges of the monitor) and rather more things to run, so it needs cooling fans. Once it is up and running the brain tunes this noise out, but there is a definite sense of “And then there was peace” when a Mega 4 is turned off.

The Mega 4 was capable of booting itself from memory, but likes a floppy disk to poke at while doing so. It boots quicker with one, but will manage a respectable turn-on-to-desktop time of 40 seconds without. (The 520ST is more in the order of 15 seconds, but the writer’s one insists on having a floppy disk. This is quite reasonable; as it has no built-in software then any activities it performs need to be booted off a disk. If no disk is in the drive, then it has no software to boot. If it is not booting any software, then it is not going to be doing any work, and if it is not doing any work then being turned on is a waste of its valuable time.)

Monitor not included – the Mega 4 box seen from behind. Below is the hard drive – note that it has its own power lead and on-off switch. The computer had to be the last thing that was turned on during boot-up as it ignored anything that was plugged in or switched on once it had got going (excepting the monitor, which it was prepared to accept). Atari used a very ’80s grey plastic which went well with the grey suits, grey ties and grey blinds of the period, but which has a tendency to fade to a rather ’70s yellow when exposed to sunlight. Obviously this box has always had a monitor sat on it. The appearance is that the monitor was sat off-centre, but more likely is that the computer spent over half its life in rooms where the window was to the left of the computer as seen from this side – so the grill on the right was in the shade of the monitor and therefore stayed grey. This does not totally explain why the back has gone so badly yellow too. Oddly the chemical mix for the monitors was different – they stay grey. Pure and unblemished computers occasionally crop up and can be said with fair certainty to have sadly spent their entire lives in their box (or have been cleaned – but at least one cleaning suggestion comes with a warning that it will make the plastic rather brittle).

Having a hard drive means that the Mega 4 can save software to it. A 520ST can be fitted with a hard drive to – it is fitted with the necessary ports – but it was more a Thing To Do with a Mega computer. Large and complex pieces of software cannot be run on a 520ST anyway because it is a trifle inclined to forget what it did with the various bits, but they also don’t fit on one floppy disk so booting them would require disk-swapping during loading or operation (Activision’s Mindshadow, for example, comes on two disks and so requires two drives or periodic swapping of the disks.) The Mega 4 can cope with some very large and bulky software, so there is considerable benefit to dumping it off the floppy disks onto the hard drive and running it from there.

An interesting feature of computing is that the average user, being engaged in writing emails, running a couple of minor spreadsheets, browsing news websites and doing basic online shopping, could actually still cope happily with a Mega 4 computer combined with the appropriate free-running processor and software of the time.

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Our specific hero high-tech Mega 4 spent about five years in Northamptonshire, typing letters and dealing with general business matters, with the results being turned out by the high-definition laser printer for posting off to the recipients. For a thought on the high-tech nature of laser printers at the time, it may be worth noting that sixteen years later I would receive the overall summary of my GCSE results on a dot-matrix print-out. Then the high-tech company was, to the annoyance, dismay and inconvenience of many (including both the workforce and the customers of a US healthcare company), quietly liquidated.

After this the Mega 4 briefly went into store at the managing director’s house before the writer’s parents, being friends of the family, stepped in and acquired it. We had moved house by then and were based in South Wales. I vaguely remember looking up from some entertainment with the company owner’s children to see the various component parts being carried out to the car.

With the relatively short voyage complete, the Mega 4 was set up in its new home in the family study. It was a good solid study, full of books and files and computer software. The software had previously been used on the family 520ST, which was shifted to my bedroom along with a wheezing dot-matrix printer.

In its new home the Mega 4 was used for design and typesetting work (in those days more traditional typesetting than what might be immediately thought of by a layperson as design). With the aid of a Handy Scanner and the Calamus layout software it hummed its way through three large and heavy academic books for a Surrey-based publisher.

The Calamus logo…
… and the actual software. Users of modern design packages can sit and scream at the idea of doing everything on a 640×480 pixel monochrome monitor with the aid of 4 megabytes of memory. (The book designer was slightly surprised on booting the computer up again and realising how small it was too. Good software though.)

Saying it hummed its way is really the best way of putting things. It did hum, and hum vigorously. But it also did so with relatively little fuss. There are a lot of family anecdotes about the 520ST. The 520ST is a little slow at talking to its disk drive (which it says is a high-speed disk drive – one wonders what a slow one would be like). It conks out occasionally during data overload, and its memory is limited when dealing with larger documents. But it is a computer of a friendly size that one can relate to.

The Mega 4 just worked, and was generally what we were promised by the computing revolution. It processed things, hummed along, flicked through its documents, stopped to print stuff (for perhaps longer than ideal) and then got on with life. There are no serious stories of evenings patting it down and reassuring it that it can cope with the world. It also did better than Windows in that it didn’t spend every Thursday afternoon sorting its updates and every Wednesday afternoon vaccinating itself against the latest viruses. Stuff just happened. Except possibly on one occasion when I leant over my mother’s shoulder while she was working on it and it promptly fell over – we could only assume that it was unfamiliar with my presence (as I had the 520ST to work with I had very little to do with the Mega 4) and got distracted.

Boot-up – a steady process of flicking through its files and checking peripheral equipment.
The desktop. Still grey, though perhaps this was better than the virulent lime green of the colour monitors. The D drive is open with its array of useful software for book publishing. The A drive was still the floppy disk. The B drive did not really exist but was merely a memory dump for files being shuffled between floppy disks. The next generation of computers dispensed with the B drive concept altogether and the floppy drives started to properly go out of fashion around the turn of the millenium, so my Windows XP computer of 2006 started its disk count with the C drive. There was no real need to divide the hard drive into several bits but partitioning can make file management easier. Atari’s operating system still had no concept of cutting files from one place to another – you selected files that you wanted to move, dragged them to the new location, watched it copy them across and then put the originals in the Trash can at the bottom. The Trash can still ate things permanently. It was a bit of a culture shock on Microsoft Windows to discover that the Recycle Bin can be opened and files recovered as required. However, having an instinctive belief that the Delete function is permanent came in useful for dealing with networked Windows computers at college, university and work where the Recycle Bin does not exist and deleted coursework – to the horror of some of my classmates – stays deleted.

The laser printer became increasingly tired and the Mega 4 was no longer anywhere near top of the range, so with Microsoft’s Windows becoming a stable alternative a new computer was purchased in early 1999. It was a big white thing that ran Windows 98, and it was briefly set up on a corner of the desk that hosted the Mega 4. In due course the computers were swapped to put the Windows machine, with high and proud 1024×860 colour LCD monitor, in prime position; the Mega 4, squat and rounded, took up the corner by the window. Thereafter it was used for writing academic articles while the Windows machine took over the book publishing. About the same time, possibly a little earlier than the Windows 98, a modern Kyocera laser printer arrived to reduce the pressure on the Atari model. It was followed by a fixed scanner to completely remove the need to do scanning with a hand-held unit.

There was a further round of upgrades to the computer kit in 2004 when the Windows 98 computer was relegated to the secondary role by a Windows XP machine with 1280×1024 monitor. This was driven by three things. The Windows 98 was getting old, and was no longer able to play some of my newer software (Transport Tycoon Deluxe was fine, and indeed would probably be fine on the Mega 4, but the 3D-rendering on Jurassic Park was beyond it). A new computer would allow the Windows 98, with its modern standard software, to take up duties as the computer for academic articles (instead of requiring them all to be fed through a converter – First Word Plus produces .doc files that Microsoft Word thinks it can read until it tries to do so). Finally, the Mega 4’s floppy drive was falling out of alignment so that it no longer wrote disks that any other computer could read. Thus the Mega 4 dropped out of traffic and went into the loft for store. There it remained.

The 520ST was displaced to join its fellow in the loft two years later and the Windows 98 lasted another year before the family moved into the all-encompassing embraces of Windows XP. While the Ataris slumbered, the 98 went into a corner of the study and was stripped for spares. I got (and still have, though no longer run) the DVD drive. The monitor is still used as a secondary screen. A booster hard drive went into a successor computer. What couldn’t be recycled was eventually shipped to the council tip, so there will be no 30-year commemoration for that machine.

These XP computers have all gone too, being wiped out in 2013-15 and replaced with Windows 7, 8 and 10 machines. I still have the remains of my XP, though over the course of this year it has been gutted of reusable parts including the hard drive, power supply, graphics card and floppy disk drive. These super-duper Windows 10 machines are now regarded as obsolete by Microsoft, though mine is still running splendidly. But in computer generation terms the Atari era is now a very long time ago…

Two years later I had the 520ST recovered from the loft on some basis or other, and it subsequently did duty as my home computer while I went to university with the Windows XP machine. Aside from a couple of spells for file checking, the Mega 4 saw no further use. It eventually ended up cluttering up a corner of a subsequent study. When we stripped all the Atari floppy disks and shifted the data onto Windows computers it was the 520ST which did the honours (and which by the end of a long night was quietly panting in its corner, murmuring things about brutality and conventions limiting the number of disks that a computer is required to read in a day).

A rare public appearance by the Mega 4, providing some technical support for the 520ST in 2010.

The Mega 4 has now spent over half its life out of regular use, and there is a certain temptation to wonder why it survived. The simple answer is probably that it worked, and this family does not throw away kit that works. Three Windows computers have been withdrawn and gutted for reusable parts – but they had stopped working. Windows machines do. The 520ST got to watch from across the room as its Windows successor, once so top-of-the-range that its quad-core processor hadn’t been manufactured in time for the shipping date, deteriorated into a dribbling wreck with insufficient processing power to open the Control Panel and check its purported capabilities. That XP was booted up a couple of times after withdrawal to aid fault-finding with its own successor. It had occasional problems processing mouse movements.

But neither Atari machine ever totally died, and in any case the only value of the components is repairing the other – which requires one of them to break enough to need it. The Mega 4 is certainly not a totally happy computer today. The floppy drive is out of alignment, so it can’t talk reliably to other machines. The mouse is shot, and ideally the 520ST’s mouse gets borrowed for the purpose. (Ironically after an incident where the 520ST’s mouse stopped working in the middle of writing something the Mega 4’s mouse was invited back to substitute. The swap lasted about two weeks. Then I packed it in and decided to gamble on the 520ST’s mouse again. That one hasn’t given grief since.) The printer is apparently dead. A part of its survival is that I have always wanted to have the monitor on hand in case the one attached to the 520ST gave grief. (Actually the Mega 4 had managed to come into the original 1985 monitor and the 520ST had the Mega 4’s 1990 one, so there was also the incentive to keep hold of all the 1985 kit. Unfortunately the 1985 monitor had become inclined to uncertainty as to what size its screen should be – but, in typical Atari fashion, after being informed that it was becoming liable to be swapped out again it bucked up its ideas, settled down, stopped flickering and has reverted to being the reliable piece of kit promised by its instruction manual. The two computers seem to have a certain competitive spirit – the 520ST at least seems to be unwilling to entirely pack it in before the Mega 4 does.)

Still, the Mega 4 boots up as fast as ever, the software is all there and the components – barring the printer – all talk to each other. And the SLM605 printer is not a mandatory addition. The computer has a parallel port in the back that allows it to speak to any printer with a matching cable. The old Kyocera is now spare. If it had to be a working computer and print stuff, it could use that. It could probably be wired to an external floppy drive too, but now so few other computers have floppy drives a working one on a computer with a hard drive is of mixed value.

We’re behind you! A problem with older computers is that a more modern machine is much smaller and simpler. An up-to-date laptop will include the hard drive, processor, power supply, monitor and keyboard in one box. Actually Atari understood this too and followed up the Mega 4 with a range of theoretically portable laptops (though the STacy required a particularly hard-wearing lap). Here is a close-up of the cable spaghetti. On the other hand, you don’t see many 20-year-old laptops that are still capable of doing any work at all.

A perpetual question is why it has not lasted quite so well as its 520ST sibling. The 520ST was already ten years old when the Mega 4 arrived. It had been used for writing several computer programmes, various essays, a PhD and two whole academic books. Since then it has played numerous games, been worked enthusiastically by many happy visiting children (for some of whom it was their first meeting with a proper computer), written homework, essays and coursework, drawn endless pictures and been my go-to machine for outpourings of imagination into story-writing. Generally I think I get better stories out of the Atari than out of a Windows computer.

Of course the 520ST has given problems too over its thirty-six years. The first to come to mind is an occasion in 2012, just before I left home, when it suddenly stopped working and I thought I’d lost it forever. Actually the “on/off” switch needed cleaning. The “B” drive added much interest to my GCSE coursework and I went through a spell of maintaining a fleet of single-sided disks, partly because they seemed to be more reliable and partly because if the worst happened the “A” drive could read them. In the short-term I managed the “B” drive through the coursework by sitting it on my knee and stroking it – it seemed to appreciate this, and it calmed me down – and since then it has whirred peacefully into long quiet evenings with no challenges. Last night the 520ST was happily supporting a tour of the Great Underground Empire on Zork I, apparently enjoying throwing up Infocom’s often unhelpful retorts to instructions.

A sign of this thrashing can be seen on the keyboard, which has an appearance of being used in a way that the Mega 4 does not.

The keyboard. Very similar to the 520ST but with the computer at the top replaced by a slimline box. Still with only 10 function keys. The 520ST had the mouse wire running into the back of the keyboard because that was where the computer was (so where else would it go?). The Mega 4 mouse wire also went into a socket in the back of the keyboard – hidden tidily in a recess under the keyboard with a long slot that it could be pushed into. This time it was more part of Atari’s fondness for slightly reducing the cable spaghetti by going overboard on the concept of forming the peripheral equipment into daisy chains. The keyboard was then attached to the computer by means of a telephone-style coiled wire, which allowed the keyboard to be placed at varying distances from the computer without having several feet of cable meandering around the desk. My work desk now has a hole in it for the spare cable to be stuffed through (among other functions) which then of course gets stuck amongst various other cables and reduces the manoeuvrability of the keyboard.

Maybe as computers have developed they have just been inclined to not last as long. The 520ST did fifteen years solidly and has been used intermittently for another twenty. It may yet get to be the first computer for another generation. Parental Controls on an Atari computer simply involves hiding the box of floppy disks. The Mega 4, by contrast, managed ten years fairly solidly and another five years more intermittently. The Windows 98 coped with six. Improvements to computer power and memory means that there is now further to fall before they conk out; possibly Microsoft better manages the design of their updates and anti-viruses have become less inclined to side effects. Anyway, the successor computers have managed between six and nine years (though the nine might have been pushing it) and various laptops and tablets have generally managed two to four (or five at a push). My phone almost made it to ten years old, mostly by ignoring the fact that several of its features no longer work. Like the Atari computers, it has never really made much of being updated. Nowadays this 2011 Samsung smartphone is a very happy portable radio.

Which is possibly the answer to computer longevity. Disconnect it from the Internet, turn of its update functions and let it get on with life. If you need to send someone a document, print it out and post it.

In the long run, that may be better for the environment anyway. I would have to compare the speed at which my electricity meter turns in order to assess the relative power consumption rates of a 1985 Atari and a 2015 Windows 10 PC. But what I do know is that the Atari required rather fewer precious metals to build it, and the energy consumed to build the Atari is being depreciated over rather more years.

Not that I would be in a rush to rely entirely on the Mega 4 for my heavy-duty needs. It does have the processing power for all of what I need to do and a lot of what I want to do (there are exceptions around photo management and using some simulator software). But even if the printer did work I would still struggle to work out how to get the best from it – the manual is for the other Atari laser printer model (no idea why). Its hard drive is perhaps a little undersize (apparently this encourages orderly filing and data management). The mouse is still dead. And those Atari monitors, which the manual proclaims will provide “years of reliable high performance”, perhaps seem a little small.

At least, I say they seem a little small. They are bigger than my tablet computer. My cheapo widescreen computer monitor can show two pages on one screen or one page with massive sidebars. Perhaps actually the Atari is about right…