A Ride on the Eastern Belle
Greycliffe. The back of beyond.
The town of Greycliffe hides itself away at the end of a narrow dirt road that has remained untarmacked for all of its history. The fifteen mile track that runs through an extinct peat bog, can be found via an easily missed turn off from a newly re-tarmacked single track road that was recently renamed, The Lindley Way. The un-signposted turn off that you missed, is itself thirty miles away from the new town of Lindley, meaning, as if you hadn’t already guessed, that Greycliffe has been disengaged from the rest of the transport network. Its name no longer appears on any map, Ordinance Surveyed or not. Greycliffe is a ghost town without a ghost. The railway did reach the town but it never went any further because there was nowhere else for it to go.
Should you wish to travel to Greycliffe, (and why would you?) it would take around three hours (and at least one punctured, tyre change,) from the nearest large town, which is still Bridchester. A hundred and fifty years ago however, the journey would have taken a full day, more in winter snow. Nowadays the town is in ruins and there is nothing to tempt visitors. Its broken-down buildings sit, begging to be put out of their misery by a sympathetic demolition crew and a wrecking ball. The hard working community of Greycliffe, which once numbered three hundred souls, is long gone; the last family moved out during the early 1900s and no one has ever been tempted to move back.
Greycliffe was never what could be called, a thriving town, even back when it was populated. It boasted, amongst other things, a small, six-room hotel, an inn-come staging post, a blacksmith’s forge, a general store/post office, and a livery stable. The dirt-road through Greycliffe, ran west to east. On the western edge lay a small farmstead that produced a couple of acres of cereal crops along with sheep, a few pigs, chickens and one milking cow. At the other end of the town was the soaring, flat faced, grey cliff that gave the town its name. The rock face marked the end of the Black Crags mountain range that ran eastwards, further than the eye could see. In 1850, a single, rail track ran from the station platform at the western edge of the town right up to the cliff face where it stopped, abruptly.
Apart from a twice monthly train, Greycliffe was serviced by a weekly stage coach that ran from Bridchester, far to the north. The coach and train brought in hard to get supplies for the trade’s people, and a few relatives who would generally stay for the week, become utterly bored, and go back home at the first opportunity. Beyond the southern border lay miles of marsh and swamp, unfit for farming and even less fit for hunting. There was no road across the marshes which ran for forty miles before ending at the sea.
It was a sticky day in late June. The people of Greycliffe welcomed the storm clouds that were building from the south. It had been a dry spring and an even drier, early summer. The crops were stunted and the town’s well, overused. The school teacher held lessons in the apple orchard at the back of the hotel because the school rooms, even with the high windows open, couldn’t seem to attract a breath of breeze.
The market was in full sway. Local traders, together with their rivals from Bridchester who bought their supplies by pony and trap from the more affluent town because the profits were higher in Greycliffe, stood on pitches, parading their wares in front of the hot, bad-tempered residents who knew they were being short changed but also knew there was very little they could do about it.
Martha Watkin stopped fanning herself and dragged her considerable bulk from the rocking chair it had inhabited for the last three hours, and rubbed at one of the twelve discoloured, glass panes that made up the top half of the shop door. She squinted and moved her head an inch to the right to try to obtain a clearer view of the street. She picked up a silver pocket watch from the behind the counter and put it to her ear to assure herself that it was ticking.
‘Lucy,’ she bellowed.
A teenage girl rushed in from her back of the shop, a wet, blouse in her hands.’
‘Leave the washing and watch the store.’
‘Yes Mrs Watkin,’ said the girl, eager to please. She slopped the wet blouse onto the counter and stood by the cash register.
‘I’ll be back inside ten minutes. I know to the penny, how much is in that register, so don’t think you can rob me behind my back.’
‘Yes Mrs Watkin,’ said Lucy. ‘I wouldn’t take anyth-’
The slammed door rattled the assorted jars and bottles on the shelf behind her. Lucy looked out onto the street where her employer stood on the duckboards outside the General Store. She reached into a jar, took out a boiled, sour-cherry sweet, popped it into her mouth and sucked at it greedily. She closed her eyes and savoured the taste for a moment, then she was alert again, eyes on the door, grimy handkerchief in her hand, ready to spit out the sweet when it was half eaten. Sour cherries were Robin’s favourite and her brother would want his share.
Out in the street, the stage coach arrived in a cloud of dust and a whinny of horses…