Johnny and the Phantom Signal Man.
I had taken a wrong turning. My mistake would take us out of our way but at least we were heading north.
Dick and Susie Carslake had given us a great breakfast. We had said goodbye to Rachel, Dick’s sister and her husband, who had so kindly put up Johnny and Jerry. Dick had dropped us at Llanmynech. We had set off up the main road, crossed the river and then turned left.
We walked down an overgrown track. Somewhere down that track I missed our path. So when I saw an a track heading west through a bare field I took hoping would rejoin the correct route. On the map it passed a large quarry, which had been turned into a farm reservoir. We could see what we thought must be the reservoir behind a wooded embankment and took the path which skirted it. This disappeared into thick thistles and ended in a fenced off corner. There was no style, though there might have been once. We took off our packs and clambered over the rickety fence. There were nettles and brambles to beat out of the way, and then because the easiest way had seemed to be to climb the lateral fence and then recross it rather than cross the one that was directly in front of us we had to swing down into a ditch. On the other side there was no path but we could see the embankment of the reservoir on the other side of the fence and followed parallel to it coming to fence over grown with brambles hawthorns. On the far side the ground fell to a stream too wide to jump. Johnny said, ‘I think I’ll go down to that house. There must be a road there.’ ‘OK, see you at the bridge’. I was referring to a small foot bridge over the railway line which we had both seen on the map. Jerry and I clambered over the fence bashing through brambles down to the stream where a fallen hazel provided a flimsy bridge. We pushed up the other side through nettles and brambles and out onto a railway track. The rails were rusty. We shouted for Johnny but heard no reply.
‘Let’s press on to the foot bridge. Johnny knows we’ll be there.’ I said turning and walking down the track. Jerry turned to look back.
‘Look! There’s a signal man waving at us.’ I turned but could see nothing, but the road bridge to the west that presumably Johnny would cross, certainly no sign of Johnny or a signal man. We shouted again.
‘No, he’s gone. But he was definitely waving at us’, Jerry said.
‘Probably to tell us to get off the track.’ We looked back again. Nothing. No one.
‘He was definitely there. He was dressed like a signalman. You know, waistcoat, dark trousers, greasy black cap….’
‘ Why would they need a signal man? This track hasn’t been used for years, probably not since the quarry was turned into a reservoir.’
‘Do you think if we asked in the pub the locals would say, ‘Signal man? Signal man?….The signal man down at bridge? The one with the greasy cap? Oooh Err….you been seein’ the phantom signal man?’
‘ Definitely they would. Look at the state of this track. If that was a signalman he’d have to be a phantom one’. Even though we were in sunny daylight there was the melancholy of a place once active that has been abandoned. The silence was dense in the heat. I shouted down the track but heard and saw nothing.
We carried on down the railway track, passing rusting rolling stock and abandoned sheds. We came to a fork in the track where we bore left. The map indicated that it would take us to the road junction which was the start of the road would make a good short cut in a long day. From the west it was joined by the road which Johnny would have to take from the house which he had said he was going to. We came to a high barbed wire topped gate flanked by security cameras. I could not imagine anyone being employed to watch them but we chose a spot which did not seem to be covered by them, and shoving our sacks under the wire, pulling ourselves through on our backs. A few more yards and we were at the road junction. Since Johnny had had to go west and then east before joining the road and since we had taken the shortest route west without going east first and wasted no time it seemed logical to expect Johnny to appear on the road from the west. We waited. Cars passed. We looked at the map. Jerry didn’t want to take the road short cut that Johnny and I had identified. ‘It’s a bit soulless walking up the road.’ ‘Yes, but it adds a couple of klicks to follow the path.’
No sign of Johnny. Jerry walked west down the road in the direction from which Johnny should appear. After a few minutes he returned to say that he had not seen Johnny. We heard a shout, looked east and there was Johnny about three hundred yards down the road. How on earth had he got there when he should have come past us from the west? We waited for him. He told us that at the house he had met an old man who told him that he was the signal man.
‘ He wasn’t wearing a waistcoat and a greasy cap was he?’, asked Jerry.
‘Well, yes he was’. Jerry and I exchanged glances. It was strange that Johnny had appeared from the east. It was if as we had traveled back in time and Johnny had reentered the present in a different place. That would explain the way that the path had suddenly disappeared in the thistles, and the appearance of the signal man, who from the way that Johnny and Jeremy had described him, had been dressed like the signal man in ‘The Railway Children’….. Knowing Jerry he was probably wondering if Johnny could take us back with him and introduce us to Jenny Agutter, and knowing Johnny, who seems to know everyone, he probably could.
We agreed that as Jerry was our guest we would walk the path do the extra 3 kilometers. ‘You won’t regret it I guarantee’ said Jerry. We had to laugh knowing we would. ‘It’s alright now. It’s still the morning, but we’ll pay for it later.’ I said. We set off along the path. It’s always nicer walking on a path than on tarmac. But it was hilly too, warm work and when we had the opportunity we stopped to fill our water bottles. From Nantmawr the path zig zagged up through woods for several hundred feet. It was steep. Near the top we saw this sign.
On we went and saw another. And then we came to a little house beside the path. It was painted the colour of vanilla ice cream, it’s doors and window smartie colours, but instead of luring us in and shoving us all into the deep freeze the young woman who lived there sold us some some cones, which we happily licked while admiring the view. ‘It’s beautiful’. ‘Aye but it’s rough up here in the winter’, she said. Off we went and after a while came out of the woods to the summit of the hill which had fine views east into England. Jeremy said, ‘ See, I told you you wouldn’t regret it’
We followed the path and the dyke up through Nant-y-Gollen woods where we sat down to eat the delicious sandwiches which Susy Carslake had made us. The woods led us out onto a plateau which was the site of the old Oswestry Race Course. The last race there was run in 1848. A group of young men with mountain bikes lay in the sun. We plodded on.
We climbed some 700 feet to the shoulder of the hill to the north of Craignant and then down towards Chirk Mill with the Castle above it.
We walked up through the castle grounds and then out through fields where Park White Cattle grazed. Not far to go, though the tendon connecting my middle toe with the muscle running down the outside of my shin felt stiff and sore. It moved with difficulty. I tried different ways of walking with little improvement. As the evening wore on my pace slowed. By the time we got to the Llangollen Canal I was several hundred yards behind the others.
Never mind. A good nights rest always seem to mend. We walked along the canal tow path towards the aqueduct built by Thomas Telford.
A tow path on one side and a metal gutter full of canal water, just wide and deep enough to carry a barge, are supported on brick arches high above the valley. On the canal side of the aqueduct there is no rail. From the cockpit of a barge it must be as if you are floating a boat through the air.
At the far end of the aqueduct there is a basin, a drydock and a pub, which is where we had supper. I really felt as if I could not walk much further. In the pub we settled down to our drinks, cider for Johnny, beer for Jerry and me. In the other room football was playing on the telly. The girl behind the bar was very pretty. One middle aged regular was camped at the far end of the bar to keep her in constant view. As Jerry said afterwards, ‘If only he had been able to keep his jaw from dropping’, but he couldn’t and sat there in happy, open mouthed wonder.
‘Where’ve you walked from? Asked the man on the next table. ‘Up from Swansea’
‘Fairplay’, He said. His companion looked at us curiously. I decided to research my etymological theory about the Welsh word cwm, which sounds like the English word coombe, both of which mean valley. ‘Do you think that they are really the same word? I mean it’s a bit of a coincidence isn’t it: two words in different languages sounding the same and meaning the same even if they don’t look the same’
‘I really couldn’t tell you, could I? I went to the wrong school, see?’
‘No really, I’m sure you didn’t…I mean…’
‘I went to the wrong school, didn’t I?
‘Well, I don’t know, I’m sure it was a very good school.’
‘No, see? They beat it out of us. Every time I spoke Welsh they whacked me. They whacked me when I spoke Welsh, see? So I can’t answer your question.’
After a little while they left. ‘Gosh he was cross, but his wife seemed nice.’ I said.
‘I don’t think that was his wife’ said Jerry, ‘ When you were getting drinks he was already saying to her how mad his wife would be if she knew where he was.’
After a curry and more beer we walked up through the town and out into the country. It was dark. About 300 yards from the houses we found a flat bit of field, got into our sleeping bags and went to sleep.
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