By Helen Steadman, Oct 24 2016 07:08AM
A tale of one of my many walks along the River Derwent in Shotley Bridge, carried out in preparation for writing my novel about the Shotley Bridge swordmakers. (This novel, The Running Wolf, will be published by Impress Books on 12 September 2020.)
IN THE HOUSE, AT THE FRONT DOOR
HS: [Puts leads onto dogs]
TG: Are you taking the dogs out?
TG: I might come.
HS: I’m going down the river, mind.
TG: Great, I’ll definitely come.
HS: Not the nice way – I’m going down the rocks between the bridges.
TG: Really? Why?
HS: Well, there’s some holes in the rocks that I need to look at. [Dogs tie selves up and whimper]
TG: Really? Why?
HS: Well, that bloke – you know, the one who wrote the book about the swordmakers – well, he reckons you can see the holes in the rocks they made.
TG: So, why did they make holes?
HS: Something to do with grit, I think. For the mill or something. That might be part of the reason they came – for the grit.
TG: Are you sure that’s why they came? It’s a long way to come for grit. In any case, there’s plenty of grit on the river bed, why’d they need to dig it out of the rocks? Are you sure those holes aren’t from something else?
HS: Elsie! Stop biting Eddie. I dunno – but I want to see for myself.
TG: But why? What’s the point?
HS: Research. Research is the point. I can put my hands in the holes and imagine myself back 350 years – what it must have been like for the swordmakers doing things with swords on the rocks. Maybe sharpening them…
TG: What, the rocks? [Shakes head] Howay, then. Let’s gan.
HS: So, that rock – the one that looks like a big bowl – is that one of the holes I wonder?
TG: Maybe, but we’ll need to cross the bridge and climb down for a proper look. It’s canny slippy, mind. [They cross the bridge and slide down the hill to the rocks]
HS: Hmm, the thing is, he said the rocks were under the bridge, so he probably meant the stone bridge.
TG: You mean the metal bridge?
HS: What? No, the stone bridge, the one next to the King’s Head.
TG: Aye, that’s the metal bridge.
HS: But it’s made of stone.
TG: I know.
HS: [Sighs] So, we’ll get back on the road, walk to the… metal bridge and climb down.
TG: You can’t. It’s a sheer drop down the rock face. Unless you fancy jumping off the bridge.
HS: Not really. So, we’ll just follow the river then.
TG: [Looks HS up and down] You’re not really dressed for it.
HS: It’s not like I’m wearing high heels.
TG: Well, that’s a first.
HS: It’ll be fine.
TG: I’ll go first and you follow. [TG, accompanied by two dogs, nimbly clambers down the ravine and over some house-sized boulders. HS follows very slowly and precariously.] Christ, Helen, you’re not exactly Bear Grylls.
HS: Yes, and I haven’t got your ten-foot-long legs either. Look, just crack on, and I’ll catch you up. [HS climbs up the ravine, balances along a fallen tree trunk then combat crawls through the branches.]
TG: Helen, where on earth are you?
TG: Where? I can hear you, but I can’t see you.
HS: I’m in a tree.
TG: How can you be in a tree? Shake a branch so I can see where you are.
HS: [Shakes branch]
TG: [Looks up] How the hell did you get up there?
HS: I don’t know, but I might be stuck.
TG: Look, I’ll tie the dogs up and come and get you.
HS: No need. I’ll be fine My top’s caught on a twig. All the embroidery’s got snagged, and I need to unpick it. [HS belly crawls onto ravine ledge and looks down nervously while TG looks up.]
TG: Give me your hand.
HS: No, it’s fine— [A loud crash as HS plummets down crag towards riverbank. HS stands up and brushes twigs from hair and clothes.] Well, don’t just stand there like Potts’s clock.
TG: Can you make it past those big rocks without setting your neck?
HS: Big rocks? They’re the size of bloody tower blocks! Plus, they look a bit mossy.
TG: It’s dry, and there’s plenty of grip.
HS: Hmm. If you say so. [HS climbs down, then pauses, bent double while TG watches]
TG: Are you stuck?
HS: No, I’m thinking.
TG: Thinking? What, does the blood rushing to your head help?
HS: No, I’m thinking about lichen. I’m getting a really close look at it.
TG: You’re stuck, aren’t you?
HS: A bit.
TG: Just edge your right hand off that rock and grab the one above your head.
HS: I can’t.
TG: Why not?
HS: I’m scared.
TG: [Laughs cruelly] What of?
HS: Plummeting to an untimely death, obviously.
TG: God, Helen, man. It’s hardly the north face of the Eiger. You’re only fifteen foot up.
HS: Oh my god! As high as that? I’m going to fall. Oh, wait. I think I can get my hand across. You need really good knees for mountaineering, don’t you?
TG: I imagine you do, but we’re not on a mountain.
HS: Still. My knees are shot. [Shots fired] Was that a gun?
TG: Several. From the hall, probably. Or the manor.
HS: Go on. I can do it now. I’ll just get some pictures of the waterfalls. And the lichen. [HS climbs laboriously down a small incline] Oh, look! There’s a bog orchid – I’ll just get a picture. They’re dead rare.
HS: Am I standing in a bog? I’m sinking!
TG: Give me your hand.
HS: [HS steps to safety] That was close. Imagine drowning in a bog in full view of the King’s Head on a Sunday afternoon.
TG: Could probably sell tickets.
HS: [Raises one eyebrow] Look, here’s some odd-looking square holes – this must be them.
TG: Are you putting your hand in?
HS: No chance. There’s dog shit in that one. I’ll just take some pictures. Here, put your hand next to it for scale.
TG: They look a bit small for knives even.
HS: I know. I think I might have to do some more fact-finding. Do we have to go back by the same route?
TG: Nah. If you can make it up those crags, we can just walk back along the tops. Just hold onto that big creeper there.
HS: This is lovely, isn’t it? Maybe once my book gets published, you could run guided tours – you know, for literary types. [HS starts climbing up the sheer crag face, holding onto the creeper. The creeper comes away, and HS slides to the bottom again, landing in a heap.]
TG: Maybe you should give the guided tours… Here, grab that tree. [HS grabs the tree and clambers back up, followed by TG and the two dogs.]
HS: Elsie! What have you got in your mouth? It’s like a freakish pine cone.
TG: It’s off a monkey puzzle tree – there, look.
HS: [Peers up at monkey puzzle tree] So, is this land Shotley Hall’s?
HS: So, we could get shot then?