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Neighbourhood watch

I was in Manchester on Thursday confirming arrangements for Forest’s fringe event at the Conservative conference on October 1.

I left my house in Cambridgeshire at 4.30am and arrived at the venue at eight o’clock, two hours before my scheduled meeting.

That worked out rather well, as it happens, because it gave me a couple of hours to make some final edits to a booklet we are publishing on the same day as the event.

I drove home via Derbyshire so I could visit my mother who lives in a village called Thorpe, just inside the Peak District near Ashbourne.

It was probably the penultimate time I will visit Thorpe because after 40 years living there she is moving to Chester.

I didn’t grow up in Thorpe so I don’t regard it as home but I do enjoy visiting. (My parents moved there in 1979 when I was a student in Aberdeen.)

Thorpe is more of a hamlet than a village. It’s close to Dovedale, a well-known beauty spot that attracts large numbers of visitors, especially on bank holidays, but because the village is set back from the road that leads to Dovedale it is effectively by-passed so very few people - apart from a handful of ramblers - pass through it.

At one end of the village the road stops and there is wooden gate. Beyond the gate is a valley and at the bottom of the valley is a farm and a stone bridge that crosses the River Dove.

Coldwall Bridge dates back to 1726. The bridge and the path that leads down to it has always interested me because they were once part of the coach-road that ran from Ashbourne to Cheadle.

There’s still a milestone next to the bridge that reads ‘Cheadle 11 miles’ and it’s a wonderful reminder of the days of the horse-drawn stagecoach.

Early stagecoaches were crude and uncomfortable and travelled, on average, no more five miles per hour. Improvements in design and better roads led to the ‘golden age of the stagecoach’ at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but even then the average speed was no more than 12mph.

The arrival of the train was the beginning of the end for the stagecoach and the advent of the motorcar finally marked the demise of many coach-roads that were deemed unsuitable for the new mode of transport.

Coldwall Bridge, for example, is reported to have fallen ‘into disuse at the start of the motoring age, the gradients proving too steep for the cars of that era.’

(Funnily enough, I remember my father telling me that even in the Fifties he had to plot his route in advance to avoid steep hills because his two-seater sports car was too underpowered to climb them.)

Anyway, when I left Thorpe early yesterday morning the sun was shining so I drove to the end of the village to take some photos of the valley.

You can’t see Coldwall Bridge in the picture above but you can see the old coach road snaking up the hill beyond.

It’s one of my favourite views and I shall miss it when my mother moves.

What I won’t miss is the return walk from Coldwall Bridge. As I’ve got older and increasingly unfit I’ve got more out of breath every time I do it.

Today it’s enough to walk to the gate at the end of the village, take a few steps along the old coach road at the top of the hill, and admire the view below.

PS. As I parked my car outside one of the houses near the gate, I was aware that I was being watched by a stern-looking lady - in her seventies, perhaps.

She had parked her own vehicle, a green Land-Rover Defender, by the side of the road 100 yards from the gate and I had to squeeze past, avoiding her Land-Rover on one side, and a jagged stone wall on the other.

When I returned to my car I realised there was no room to turn round so I reversed, very slowly, edging past the Land-Rover (and the stone wall), until I could do a full three-point turn.

Waiting for me, as I turned the car, was the stern-looking woman.

“Why did you take that photo?” she asked accusingly.

Taken aback but trying to keep things friendly, I explained that my mother was moving shortly and I wanted to take a picture of one of my favourite views.

It’s a small village so she knew immediately who I was referring to but that didn’t improve her mood.

“You should practise reversing more often,” she said.

Ouch. Talk about neighbourhood watch!

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