by George Gardner
The Handbook to Great Britain has been for many years now an almost essential companion to any serious traveler, helping to streamline their holiday and avoid any of the more commercial destinations they might mistakenly visit. How would the gentleman or lady enjoy their journey without the tireless work of myself or my collaborator revealing which areas are deserving of their attention and which ones can be safely dismissed as crass or uninteresting? Popular demand from the English or American tourist has led to the fifth edition of our little book, and so I must return once more wearily to pick up my pen. The new reader need have no fear of my credentials; my name, Edward Barrington, should be familiar to anyone with a serious interest in geography, having had articles featured in several major periodicals. For many years I served as Associate Professor in Human Geography at Oxford University, in which position I was able to add greatly to the gathered knowledge of that noble institution. Prior to this, I had graduated with a first from St. John’s College, a time which I look back with fondness as being the happiest of my life. It is also true that I have visited most, if not all, of the places noted herein, and so my word can be safely relied upon.
My hope in writing this is not to give the traveller a full catalogue of every noteworthy location in the North of England, but simply to divulge enough broad reminisces of my experiences to impart a sense of enthusiasm to the would-be armchair explorer. Perhaps the reader may be compelled to visit some of the locations listed in my little book. Regardless, I hope to prove that England, more than most countries, has legions of fascinating secrets buried under the surface.
Familiar readers to this series of guidebooks may notice that the name of my habitual co-author is missing from the title page. Alas, my former collaborator Gregor Raine has passed on, but rest assured that he leaves behind several notes that I have been able to incorporate into this next volume of our travelogue. In many ways, I view the text that you hold in your hands as a fitting memorial for my friend, who neglected to cover any areas in Durham in his previous works. I remember him now sitting in that room that smelled of cigarette smoke, dictating descriptions of places visited decades ago as he waved his mottled grey hands in animation at me. It was a curious habit of his- one of many- that he refused to invest in a typewriter, and so I was forced to quickly write down his various utterances in some crabbed approximation of shorthand. But whatever his shortcomings, Raine was my dearest friend, and it grieves me to see him gone; if completing his life’s work is to be my form of penance, then so be it.
If I may editorialise, it is merely to say that it was on the impetus of Gregor Raine himself that we were to complete this final volume. My original plan was to stop our examination of England in Nottinghamshire; but my former collaborator insisted that regions north of this did still have some value in exploration, if only to the layperson.
Let us begin our journey throughout England with the little village of Caradoc Lake in Teesdale. The lake is an excellent sport for fishing, both bait and fly, and this is reflected in the local eateries’ choice of cuisine. Cod and chips are available at just about every street corner, a dish which Raine heartily enjoyed but I despised. The act of fishing provided a cathartic release for me, but the slimy taste of the aquatic creatures themselves I found repellent; many a time I would cast out a line from my boat, hook baited with lure, and snag a tench or sturgeon. These fish I would store in the boat as a physical tally of my efforts, then, at the end of the voyage, I would return their corpses one by one to the riverbed. Gregor Raine would be absent during these trips, choosing to frequent the myriad ubiquitous and identical seafood restaurants that sprung up around these towns, battered haddock drowned in tartare sauce to remove all flavour.
A ½ mile E. of Teesdale we have a wooded area that is quite famous for a series of disappearances that took place just after the War. It is therefore dogged by the ghost stories that typically arise from tourist traps like that; on most days you can pay for some student or out-of-work actor to lead a ghost tour, dramatically recounting some phantasm or apocryphal tale of a haunting for a high fee. Over there, they will say, pointing at a functionally identical window, you may see the Grey Lady of Bainbridge Hall, and some people say they can hear the clump-clump of the Thirty-First Roman Legion making their way to Camulodunum. The noise isn’t real, of course; people just hear the din of builders digging up the road three streets over and add their own fantasies.
There are several hotels in the area that, unfortunately, I cannot rate above decent, these being The Traveller’s Rest, The Black Lion, Grimsby Hall, St. John’s House and The Three Crowns Hotel. We stayed in the latter of these, hoping that the broad connection to royalty would somehow inspire us to investigate the history of the region.
I remember him now at the Hotel, leafing through a local history book the receptionist had given us. He stared, boggle-eyed, at the thin fading type, reading about some seventeenth-century execution or Victorian pit disaster. His hand skittered out, crab-like, and spasmodically reached for a pen to write some flash of fancy— before he turned a page, and the quest for the pen was quietly abandoned in favour of reading some new historical anecdote. His hand, puppet strings cut adrift, returned back to his side. I felt a burst of powerful hatred for Raine then, anger at his absent-mindedness and inability to do anything as simple and concrete as write something down. He was always like this, searching after juvenile ghost stories rather than anything of actual value.
Gregor Raine often said that his favourite part of cataloguing the major sites of England was the place names. According to him, they were little clues to England’s history, fingerprints on the glass of the landscape. There were names from the Celts, such as Itchington and the River Derwent. Harsh Roman plosives, Lancaster and Carmarthen; rambling Anglo-Saxon syllables like Peterborough and Barrow-in-Furness; the wild Norse names, tinged with blood and rain, of Watling Street and Scunthorpe. Throughout England, the French remnants of Newton Burgoland and the Latin shadows of Lyme Regis showed a history of conquest and invasion, and it was all catnip to my collaborator Raine. Therefore, the strange valley of Blue Scar, with its remnants of a former mining community, provided a great interest for him.
“Blue Scar?” said the woman in the reception of The Three Crowns Hotel, in answer to Raine’s query. “That closed down long ago, before my time. Nobody goes up those parts nowadays.”
In the field we peddled in, of course, a ‘scar’ was a rough outcropping, normally made of limestone, that disrupted the natural flow of the landscape. A lot of them can be seen in Lowland Scotland, where the road had to be cut into the soft peat of the hill, slicing through the slope. As you drove along, on your right, veiny cliffs could be seen, wire fences holding back possible rockfall. “Scar,” Raine would define, trotting out some etymology. “From the Middle English scarre and borrowed from Old Norse sker, meaning ‘isolated rock’. A cousin of our modern ‘skerry’.”
While Gregor Raine was an acknowledged (if not respected) academic and a much-beloved collaborator, I would be doing a disservice not to alert the reader to the fact that he did not have the same level of education- Eton and then Oxford- as I myself did. Raine was a scholarship student, graduating with a Desmond from Hull University. He was always more concerned with the commercial side of the industry than I was, I fear, and his discussion of etymology lacked much of the grace which I would bring to proceedings.
Upon first coming to Blue Scar, the traveller will likely find nothing out of the ordinary. The grass is a startling shade of green, and a beautiful blue river flows through the middle of it. It is only when one looks closer that one realises that the past has made a deeper mark on the site; beneath the turf is not soil but hard rock, and the river flows through unearthed pyrites and coal. Up until 1897, a lead mine stood on this spot, excavating the coal and lead that were waiting to be unearthed. The earth had so much produce and treasures that the sheer volume of material fast outstripped their storage abilities, so a nearby lake was damned, the river flowing downhill to wash away the excess slag. Eventually, however, as all things must, the mine closed, the workers laid off; nature began to reclaim the crumbling stone buildings. Even the river became turfed over, with one or two large holes in the ground showing the bracken water. At some point in the past, a member of the local council had put up an informative display, which had also fallen to the elements. The cracked plastic covering had separated from the text, giving a milky haze to the lettering.
Of note to visitors are the stone walls of what used to be the finance office, the rock stained a vivid orange. The traces of lead in the water had long since stained the stone with sickly-looking lichen. This was, essentially, rust, from where the unearthed lead had been badly stored in the damp, leaving the stones to rot away over the centuries. A light excavation of some surface-level soil revealed various pottery sherds, fragments of clay pipes, and some nineteenth-century glass bottles from a regional manufacturer, stopper still intact. I remember Gregor Raine cooing like a bird over the strange site, flitting from one part to the other, picking up broken ceramic to place in his pockets. The image is clear in my head: Raine, hair a shaggy white, looking down at the underground river, and myself at his right shoulder, hand clutched around a sharp letter opener.
In the end, I wish I had some finer motive. Had I been named in Gregor Raine’s will, it would have been understandable to kill him for his inheritance, although money seems a painfully clinical reason to murder someone. Perhaps if I had been jealous of his success, or if there had been some bitter falling out between the two of us, my actions may have been understandable; but no, up until the final day of my acquaintance with Raine we had been as close as two friends could be- or rather, as close as two friends could be from such vastly different academic spheres. I only remember a moment when I looked at him, his hair thinned, skin sagging and muscles turned to fat, and I felt an urge of intense hatred and bile. For a second, I despised Gregor Raine with all of the unreasoning anger of some religious zealot, and I wanted nothing more than to see him dead.
Of the murder itself, there is little to really say. It was a squalid, insignificant incident, unpremeditated and over within minutes. There is a twist of irony to the fact that, for the mountains of work and research that went into Gregor Raine’s travel guides, his demise could have been carried out by anybody regardless of qualification. I happened to have in my pocket a letter opener, borrowed that morning from the hotel I was staying at; this I plunged in his back, one, two, three times, and pushed his body into the subterranean river that once carried traces of dirt and soil out of the mines. I do not know to this day whether Gregor Raine was actually killed by the stabbing, or whether he had drowned; this, I suppose, is a question of mere academic concern.
After Raine had fallen into the subterranean river, I took a moment to collect myself. The blood was all over my hands and, regrettably, some had stained my cuffs, so I was forced to tear them off. The shirt sleeves followed Raine into the river. Before leaving, I jotted down in a hasty shorthand Raine’s comment about the history of lead mining, which would give a suitable connecting theme between chapters two and three. After this, I returned the way I came, walking back along the river and past the rows of cottages to my car, parked with the kind permission of a farmer in his field. The Three Crowns Hotel was only forty minutes away, and, after cleaning the letter opener, I returned it to its place on the desk in my room.
While Gregor Raine had achieved some small level of fame at that stage in his career, one must consider his working class roots, and his lack of a classical education, to realise that he was not a member of the same academic circles that I myself moved in. The academic papers he published for were not peer-reviewed, and the scant books he did write- books which, I assure you, I was not involved with- always had garish covers and an overblown prose style. Aside from his friendship with me, he was by nature a solitary man, so it took a good deal of time for people to begin to notice his absence- a time period I lengthened by informing people he was on a small cottage holiday. It took two and a half months for his body to be discovered. I was questioned, of course, but as neither the police nor myself could satisfactorily deduce a motive I was released. I am pleased to say, however, that the sergeant in question was open to the higher arts, as he recognised my name immediately; my position as tenured professor surely silenced any doubts people had about my guilt of the sordid act.
It is then that events got muddled.
I had never truly gotten to the bottom of whether or not Gregor Raine’s interest in the supernatural was a genuine one, or whether it was from a more mercenary knowledge that ghost stories sold the most books. In a sense I began to be haunted by Raine’s ‘ghost’, although not in a credulous, folkloric manner. I would be sitting at breakfast when I suddenly recalled how he liked his toast, or I would be writing a letter and unconsciously insert a paragraph of some anecdotal memory of the man. It culminated in a conversation with a friend, when I began to recount that journey to the Blue Scar lead mines, although I stopped before revealing any incriminating details.
It is happening now, even as I type out the words for what I had intended to be the new guidebook of the Durham area. I suppose this has metamorphosed into my own confession. Every task I undertake comes with the strange burden of seeing Raine, hunched over his desk or loudly declaiming about the history of the region. Soon, I became afraid to go out, for fear of seeing the phantasm of my collaborator pursue me with trivia about pre-Roman settlements.
I will not fall into the cliche of claiming that I am not mad, like the warbling protagonist of some nineteenth century pulp horror story; I know that I am sane, and will not waste valuable pages trying to convince an uncaring and disbelieving public. I associate working on these guidebooks with my former collaborator, and so discussing matters of publication should naturally conjure up his image. It is a scientific association of one concept with another; I am Pavlov’s dog, salivating when seeing a scientist in expectation of food. Gregor Raine has, clearly, trammelled a furrow in my brain, and his image is mere recollection and not apparition.
So it is when I begin charting out the topography of hills and valleys I see the scratch of his pencil, worn down to a stub; and as I walk along the side of the road I hear his step, irregular and limping from arthritic pain. It is a fine irony that in murdering Gregor Raine I have murdered my life’s passion. The streets and fields of England are poison to me now, a living reminder of my crime. I think that is what I regret most; not the fact he died, but the fact that his death has cast a patina of shame over my life’s work.
I still intend to send this document off to the publisher. I shall leave it to them to decide whether this shall form the next volume of The Handbook to Great Britain, or whether, as I fancy will be the case, they will send the hard tramp of the police around to my abode, and this will be a piece of evidence at my trial.
Gregor Raine is watching me as I write this. His clothes are sodden with water and lead.
George Gardner has an MA in English, a job as a librarian and archivist, and a passion for writing. He lives and works in County Durham, England, and spends most of his time reading Victorian ghost stories and researching local history.
∼ Read January’s story, “Solvieg” by Elin Olausson