(Thirty-)Six Views of Bass Rock

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It is just the one crag of rock, as everybody knows, but great enough to carve a city from.

Robert Louis Stevenson Catriona

Japan’s Mount Fuji is a dormant volcano that looks just like a volcano should. An almost perfectly symmetrical, snow-capped cone, its image is deeply embedded in the Japanese psyche. Sacred, beautiful, mysterious, its most iconic representation in art is the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji series painted late in life by the ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760—1849). Probably the best known of the series is Under the Wave off Kanagawa, which depicts a distant Fuji framed by a terrifying tsunami wave. My own favourite is no. 33 Fine Wind, Clear Morning, which shows Fuji’s cone rendered deep crimson by the rising sun. Featuring delicate cirrus clouds against a blue sky and iconic sun-lit mountain, its aesthetic simplicity ticks all the essential boxes of classic Japanese woodblock art.

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In the United Kingdom, a long way from the tectonic frontline of the Pacific’s Ring of Fire, our volcanoes are of a more ancient vintage. Not so much dormant as comatose, long inactive through an aeon-slow unfolding of geological time, all that we have are fossilised remnants of our islands’ distant fire-spewing past. In Scotland, Arthur’s Seat just outside Edinburgh is one such example, as is the rock upon which Edinburgh Castle sits — both volcanic remnants from the Carboniferous period that gripped the Earth over 330 million years ago. Further east, close to the mouth of the Firth of Forth, the island of Bass Rock, located about two kilometres offshore, is of similar pedigree. An igneous volcanic plug created when magma hardened within the vent of an active volcano, the surrounding rock eventually eroded to expose the plug and leave an upstanding landform that rises 100 metres above the water it finds itself in today.

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Bass Rock is probably better known for its bird life than its geology. Northern Gannets nest here in enormous numbers — something in the order of 150,000, making the rock the largest colony of the seabird in the world. The gannets are not permanently resident but leave the rock after breeding each year, migrating their way south for the winter. They were still present when we viewed the rock from the East Lothian shore at Tantallon Castle in October, a small number of the birds straying from the security of the rock to fish close to the shore.

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We had seen Bass Rock from a much closer viewpoint six years previous when we had sailed past it on a boat. It was June then, the height of the breeding season, and the birds seemed to fill the sky above the guano-washed rock, crisscrossing haphazardly above our heads before peeling off to plunge vertically at great speed into the sea in pursuit of fish. On that occasion we were able to smell the colony long before we arrived – an ammoniacal stench so strong that you could almost see its vapour shimmer skywards. Our boat drew close enough to the rock to be able to identify the individual nests of birds, and we could also make out the ruin of St Baldred’s Chapel atop the rock – not the most obvious place for a retreat into the spiritual life given the omnipresence of eye-watering guano deposited by the  rock’s hyperactive tenants.

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Even from the more distant viewpoint of the shore we could discern the rock’s landing places, a fragment of the old castle remains and the white lighthouse, designed by Robert Louis Stevenson’s cousin, David. Although there was nothing to be seen now, there was also once a gaol here. James I incarcerated a number of political enemies here in the 15th century, and two centuries later religious prisoners, Presbyterian Covenanters mostly, were also held on this island prison.

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Comparisons between Mount Fuji and Bass Rock are, of course, futile. But there is at least some commonality: both are/were volcanoes; both are capped with white. Hokusai famously produced 36 different views of his beloved mountain, each work unique in terms of distance, viewpoint and time of year. I can only offer something far more modest. Here then, are six views of Bass Rock, taken either in June or October, from shoreline (Tantallon Castle and North Berwick) and from sea.

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The Rule of Home

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As a few of you may know, I have been working on a much longer project, a book in fact, for quite some time. This work is centred on a walk made coast to coast across England and Wales, from Great Yarmouth in Norfolk to Aberystwyth on the Welsh coast. The idea was to follow a route that traced familiar haunts and places of personal significance, to join up the dots and connect the places along the way with a line made by walking – a pagan pilgrimage, if you like.

An edited fragment of my slog through the Fens appeared on the Burning House Press online journal when it was selected by guest editor C.C. O’Hanlon back in April.

This month’s guest editor, Rachael de Moravia, chose another piece of mine that will eventually find its home in the book in some form or other. This extract, entitled The Green, Green Grass of Ceredigion, comes from near the end of my journey as I approach Aberystwyth. It muses over ideas of home and the Welsh notion of hiraeth. It is also about roots and routes, and the desire paths of personal topography. You can read it here.

PS: I recommend spending some time perusing the Burning House Press website, which is themed monthly under the auspices of various guest editors. There is plenty to enjoy here, with a wide range of writers and artists venturing off into different and sometimes starkly contrasting spheres of the poetic.

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On Stiffkey marshes

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On August Bank Holiday Sunday we drove east along the coast road from Cley-next-the-Sea. The coastline was bathed in hazy sunshine; the sky, milky white and unthreatening. Rain and wind had been forecast for later – typical bank holiday weather it seemed but, as yet, no sign of it. Was this the proverbial calm before the storm? Somewhere on the way to Blakeney the traffic slowed to a steady 20mph as we joined the rear of a procession of vintage tractors that were heading west for some sort of agricultural shindig. With Countryfile pin-up tractors and new-reg Range Rovers processing past flint-clad farm cottages, corduroy fields and cow-grazed meadows, all boxes had been ticked, all necessary stereotypes fulfilled. This might just be peak North Norfolk?

Driving slowly through Stiffkey we caught a glimpse of the ghost image of a swastika on a flint wall, its attempted redaction incomplete. Daubed here during World War II by the village blacksmith (a communist), it marked the property of the writer Henry Willamson (a self-proclaimed fascist and unapologetic admirer of Hitler), who in 1938 had moved here from Tarka the Otter territory in Devon to try his hand at farming. Further along the village’s main street, the tractors stopped to park outside the church. Was this some sort of Christian tractorists outing, or had the machines been brought here in anticipation of a ritual blessing from the font of St John the Baptist? The church certainly had previous, for its eccentric vicars if nothing else. Most notable of these was its early 20th century incumbent, Harold Davison, who was defrocked in 1932 for showing a little too much enthusiasm for saving the souls of ‘fallen’ women. This same unfortunate cleric subsequently met an untimely end whilst performing an ill-advised Daniel in the lion’s den routine in a circus cage in Skegness.

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We parked just beyond the village campsite at the edge of the marshes. The area adjacent to the car park was busy with families and dog-walkers but after just ten minute’s walking in the direction of the sea we found ourselves more or less alone. Soon the rippled sand became wetter underfoot thanks to sea water left in furrows by the outgoing tide. We came to a long-redundant, rusted sewage pipe and followed it in the direction of its outflow into the North Sea. Our original target had been the Stiffkey Freshes, the vast sandy area revealed each low tide between the Stiffkey salt marshes and the western end of Blakeney Point. But now the predicted rain had arrived and a change of plan was in order. It was still some way to the creek that had to be crossed to reach the Freshes so, given the worsening weather, we compromised on a shorter alternative and just followed the pipeline a short way.

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In the rain-faded light, the sea lavender, already well past peak bloom, had lost most of its remaining colour. Fresh rainwater glistened on the sea-drained sand like a desert mirage; the precise edge of the sea itself, indeterminable to the eye at low tide. But all edges were fluid and transitory here. Retracing steps, we detoured along a path that followed a slightly raised bank, dried-up thrift and blackened patches of gorse indicating that this narrow strip would remain high and dry even when the tide came in. Redshanks piped in alarm from the surrounding marsh, a solitary curlew flew up, disturbed from its determined mud-probing. A few late swallows were swooping low for flies, feeding up before departure to points south.

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The path brought us abruptly to a wide creek where the skeletons of long-abandoned boats were slowly rotting into the black mud. A single wooden bench stood against a backdrop of dead trees – a suitable place to contemplate such entropy at work. One of the boats still clutched a rusted engine within its frame, although its hull had long been eaten away by salt monsters. Bottomless, with mustard-coloured corrosion and flaking red paint, what remained of its surface was a fantasy landscape painted in rust. We tried to continue beyond the bench but the track disappeared in a wide expanse of marsh samphire. I gathered a plastic bag full of the succulent jade-green stems and then joined the others in wondering which way to go. After several aimless, mud-spattered creek crossings, it became obvious that all we could sensibly do was retrace our steps back to the raised bank we had arrived by. This we achieved after much slipping and sliding on the mud. It was a soggy walk in mizzling rain back to the car park, where we discovered a newly arrived line of tractors parked tidily along the camp site fence.

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That night, eating the steamed samphire with butter, I thought of the bench, the decaying boat and the glistening creeks with their swathes of sea lavender and glutinous mud. The Stiffkey marshes – each salty mouthful was imprinted with the memory of this tidal world: a landscape reduced to its bare elements, a simplified inventory of mud, salt water, salt-tolerant plants, birds and human detritus – boat wrecks, nylon ropes, and semi-opaque plastic vessels of indeterminate purpose. A place where land, like water, was fluid: each day and night, each tide, a death and rebirth.

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Beside Song-Köl Lake

IMG_1182There are places that stay in the mind long after visiting. Places that haunt the mind’s memory cache to prevail even years after having set foot there. Such places might be mountains, or rivers, or stretches of coastline; or even villages that charm and bejewel the bedrock of a singular landscape. Usually though, it is a combination of factors that constitutes the essence of such places – earth, sky, water, topography, the patina of a human occupation that beautifies rather than despoils. One such place is Lake Song-Köl in central Kyrgyzstan, the poster girl of a country that has occasionally, and not unreasonably, been described as the most beautiful in the world.

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It had been a long time – twelve years in fact – since I had last visited. My assumption was that it hadn’t changed much in the interim. I was right – the landscape was as I remembered it, almost exactly. If anything, it was I who had changed: a dozen winters of freeze and thaw had affected me more profoundly than it had the pasture of the lake’s hinterland, the ever-renewing grazing pasture that justified its seasonal occupation.

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There are several ways to approach the lake, set high at over 3,000 metres in Naryn province in what is more or less the dead centre of Kyrgyzstan. We drove up from the east, through stark, tightly folded valleys and arid badlands, until the lake finally revealed itself as a blue sliver beyond meadows grazed by yak herds.

The yurt camp where we stayed seemed familiar, although they all tend to look much the same – a cluster of yurts, an isolated toilet cubicle, a hitching place for horses. For all I knew this may well have been where I had stayed before. Its location was certainly very similar: up along the lake’s north-eastern shore away from the main concentration of yurts close to the approach road. The camp was overseen by a cheerful baboushka*, who exercised gentle rule over her son, daughter and daughter-in-law, and fussed over her laughing grandchildren who looked so at home here on the jailoo* that you might imagined that this was the only world they ever knew, although outside the summer months they would probably be town-dwellers like the rest of us. As ever in Kyrgyzstan, we were welcomed with tea and bread… and jam, and honey, boiled sweets and biscuits – just a token snack before lunch – plov*, salad, more chai – which would be ready in an hour. There was just time for a quick walk up the broad, green valley where a drift of chestnut horses were grazing the thin grass of its slopes.

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After lunch, we went horse-riding with the baboushka’s son for the best part of three hours, two hours longer than my habitually non-equestrian body was comfortable with. Later, stiff and sore, and thankful to return to bipedal ways, we hiked up above the valley before descending down to the lake water where horses were lined up drinking. A small marshy area close to the shore revealed a solitary redshank and a grey wagtail. We had hoped for birds of prey but, other than a single circling buzzard, raptors were shy in revealing themselves. Wheatears, on the other hand, seemed to be almost everywhere, flashing white as they cocked their tails flitting from rock to rock. And skylarks too, an improbable density of them jangling the sky – the birds had flown up in such abundance from unseen nests whilst on horseback earlier I had been concerned that we might trample eggs beneath our inexpertly guided hooves.

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After dinner – fish from the lake fried in batter, more bread, more chai – another brief walk to watch the full moon rise. A band of pink cloud humbugged the darkening sky like a vein of quartz in rock as definition blurred and colour drained from the land. Above us, hovering low in the sky, as if serenading – or perhaps, scolding – the rising orb, a single skylark clattered its song in the ebbing light.

*baboushka – grandmother

*jailoo – alpine meadow providing seasonal grazing

*plov – Central Asian dish made with mutton and rice

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Beneath a Concrete Sky – to Gravelly Hill Interchange by canal

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Where’s Birmingham river? Sunk.

Which river was it? Two. More or

Less.

 Birmingham River Roy Fisher

The idea was to follow the Birmingham canal system north to Spaghetti Junction. I had already traversed the city by means of the Grand Union Canal a couple of years earlier, following the canal path west to arrive at the meeting of the waters at Gas Street Basin. That time I had turned left at Aston Junction but I knew that returning to that same point it would be possible to follow the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal north to reach Salford Junction directly beneath the Gravelly Hill Interchange.

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Accompanying me on this venture was my friend Nigel Roberts, a fellow Bradt author devoted to Belarus and Blues (Birmingham City FC) in equal measure, who gamely agreed to come along despite our planned route veering close enough to Aston Villa’s turf to risk bringing him out in hives.

We rendezvoused in the gleaming concourse of New Street Station before making our way to Gas Street Basin by way of Victoria Square with its Queen Vic and Iron:Man  statues. A notice on the ever-present temporary fencing that characterises Paradise Circus gave notice that Antony Gormley’s  Iron:Man was soon to be moved to a new home. How, I wondered, might this effect the city’s sacred geometry, its unchartered leys that converged at Victoria Square? But Birmingham (motto: ‘Forward’) was always a city that messed with its past, forever rearranging the deckchairs, refurbishing the urban fabric, reinventing the wheel and then re-forging it by means of a Brummagem hammer. It always seemed a place where time not so much stood still as had a frequent lie-down, a place that lump-hammered the past into something that never quite made it to the future.

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After a swift half-pint and perusal of the map at the Malt House pub opposite the geographically incongruous Sealife Centre we set off along the Birmingham & Fazeley branch towards Aston Junction. The day is atypically glorious, warm, blue-skied – peak May, the time of year you might happily be time-locked in were it at all possible. Cow parsley froths alongside the canal path, complimenting the blossoming hawthorn. Oxlips, red campion and broom compete for attention with the lurid graffiti that seems to embellish almost any available wall space. Above a lock, daubed high on a factory wall, eponymous Roof Top Vandals have left their mark in neat, bold lettering – a noteworthy combination of art and athleticism. Passing beneath the bridge that feeds railway lines into Snow Hill Station, the shimmering reflected light from the water dances like an electrocardiograph on the concrete above.

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Approaching Aston, we pass the red and blue holders of the Saltley Gas Works, scene of the Battle of Saltley Gate some 46 years earlier when the fuel storage depot was mass picketed during a national miners’ strike.

A little further on, we become aware of a familiar figure atop a building – Britannia, complete with trident, excised from the back of a fifty pence piece, supersized and raised to roof level. It seems churlish not to investigate. We detour from the canal to seek out the building and head for the Lichfield Road in the wake of two teenage girls who swig beer and swap yarns in rich Brummo-Caribbean argot. It is, as we thought, a pub; no longer operating as The Britannia but as The Aston Cafe. We are now perilously close to Villa Park, or Vile Park as my companion prefers to call it. It does not bother me either way – I am agnostic in such matters – but Nigel has started to sense that he is well behind enemy lines.

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Returning to the canal to press on north, the Gravelly Hill Interchange aka Spaghetti Junction is already clearly visible ahead. The last house before the tangle of overlapping roadways takes over has iron railings decked in Union Jack flags – patriotism doing battle with traffic pollution. Just beyond, a defiant stand of purple lupins, garden escapes gone feral, announces our arrival at Salford Junction. Here we detour left for a short distance along the Tame Valley Canal, the curving multi-carriageway of the M6 immediately above us, articulated lorries flashing by half-seen above the barriers as they career along in compulsive centripetal motion. Above, spanning the roadways, blue signs point the way to London (M1) and The North (M6), while beside the water a navigational signpost for boats shows the various routes out of here – west to Tipton in the Black Country, north to Tamworth in north Warwickshire, back to the City Centre and Gas Street Basin (3½ miles) from whence we had come. But there are no boats today: the troubled pea-green waters beneath the Gravelly Hill Interchange fail to match most people’s criteria of what constitutes an ideal boating holiday.

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Huge concrete pillars support the roads overhead – 559 in total if you were foolhardy enough to count them. The pillars bring to mind Pharaonic temples in Upper Egypt – Luxor, Karnak – although hieroglyphs and carved lotus capitals are noticeably absent. But this whole chaotic enclave of concrete, water and channelled momentum is an unintentional temple of sorts – a nexus of late capitalism; a dinosaur footprint of transport and industry, an entropic sump. The water beneath, largely deprived of direct sunlight, is an opaque soup that looks incapable of supporting anything other than menace and monsters but here and there the light sneaks in to highlight graffiti, reflect on the water and cast shapes on the wall that mutate with the sun’s arc: accidental light sculpture, the oeuvre of James Turrell; found land art.

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Locked between the various roadways the trees and bushes of a green island rises defiantly within its looping concrete confines, home no doubt to all manner of wildlife – birds, pioneering cats… foxes perhaps. A Ballardian realm of preposterous nightmares and Sci-fi imaginings – there are probably parts of the Amazon rainforest that are better explored than this singular non-place.

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Satiated with the chiaroscuro experience of this interchange underworld, we return to Salford Junction and take the Grand Union Canal south through Nechells to return to the centre via a route best described as elliptical. We pass the vast entertainment complex of Star City, another latter-day temple to mammon; then an enormous recycling plant that has a conveyor belt receiving the load from a Sisyphean procession of tipper trucks, each crushed metal parcel crashing onto the hill-high mound with a shrill clatter. In uncanny juxtaposition to this unholy clamour, set back from the water is a small pond with reeds, yellow iris, water violet and water lilies – a Monet garden awaiting its artist. But for the deafening backdrop, this might be a scene in leafy Warwickshire. Indeed this whole stretch of canal, just a few minutes’ walk from Spaghetti Junction, has a disconcertingly rural feel to it. What is more, it seems almost completely deserted of people.

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Reaching Garrison Lane in Bordesley we make another brief detour so that Nigel can show me the location of The Garrison, the pub whose fictional 1920s counterpart is centrepiece to the Peaky Blinders television series. There’s not a peaked cap or Shelby brother to be seen but it offers an opportunity for Nigel to fill his lungs with the right sort of air – St Andrews, Birmingham City’s home ground is only a little way up the hill.

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Approaching Digbeth, we finally come upon the elusive River Rea – a shallow, sluggish channel beneath the canal viaduct. One of Birmingham’s two rivers, the other being the River Tame that it merges with it close to Gravelly Hill Interchange, the Rea (pronounced ‘Ray’) spends much of its course through the city below ground out of sight. As the poet Roy Fisher claims in Birmingham River, the Rea does little to draw attention to itself: a ‘petty river’ without memory seems about right.

a slow, petty river with no memory

of an ancient

 name;  a river called Rea, meaning

river,               

and misspelt at that.

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The Shores of Loch Bee

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An island. A loch. An island — South Uist — that forms a link in an archipelago that lies off a much larger island, which in turn lies to the northwest of the world’s largest continental landmass. If the world has an edge, a legendary place for ships to plummet off the rim, then this is as good a contender as any.

A loch that shares its name with an insect but there the comparison stops: Loch Bee (in Gaelic, Loch Bì). The shallow loch extends across the northern reaches of South Uist, joined to the sea on both coasts by a floodgate at a narrow inlet. A causeway traverses the loch, north to south. There’s a road sign here that says, Caution: Otters Crossing — photographic click-bait for any visitor in thrall to the sheer otherness of these islands. There are no otters today, nor on any other occasion that we motor across the water in the direction of Benbecula, but their existence seems tangible enough.

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Venture a little further south beyond the loch and you soon reach a tall imposing statue on a hillside, a modernist rendition of Madonna and child, a reminder that this is around the point where the Wee-Free north of the archipelago morphs into the Catholic south. Not that it matters that much, it would seem that the people who inhabit this landscape share a mutual islander mentality that rises above any petty sectarianism.

Our rented house lies just beyond the causeway, its lounge window gazing east towards the water of Loch Bee, the far-distant Cuillin Hills of Skye across The Minch providing an impressive backdrop, a jagged wall of limestone in a world of water, peat and gneiss. The loch’s brackish water changes colour with the light and the play of clouds. In late April the heather is black and withered, still reeling from winter, the moorland devoid of flowers other than tiny violets. For the few days of our stay it is bright and sunny, not a cloud in the sky. The brilliant sunshine, although welcome, seems like an interloper so far north and so early in the season.

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The sunshine and translucent sky engenders a clarity of air that reverses the wing-mirror axiom that objects may be closer than they appear. Even the Cuillin Hills, which given the curvature of the Earth, must be teetering on the brink of the horizon, look reachable in a stiff day’s walk were in not for the inconvenience of The Minch. The weather eventually turns of course, giving way to showers and scudding clouds; then uniform dreich, a grey eiderdown of cloud hauled over the land to render it almost monotone. As each day passes, the wind grows a little stronger, un-sensed behind the double-glazing until sight is caught of the wind turbine blades spinning like dervishes. Whipped up by the strengthening southwesterly, the surface of the loch transforms from glass to whisked meringue, its colour darkening azure to peat black.

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The loch is home to a large population of mute swans that float regally around on the far shore, occasionally taking to creak-winged flight in search of better pickings. Greylag geese honk by in small squadrons, while lapwings and oystercatchers pipe wistfully above the heather of the loch shore. A small group of red-breasted mergansers in the middle of the water, their handsome plumage reduced to piebald by distance, take turns to dive down in search of trout. Almost overlooked close to the shore, a solitary raven appears reluctant to stray far from a group of plastic-bound hay bales next to a gate. The mystery of this is revealed with a stroll down to the water, where the corpse of a young deer is found lying behind the bales, its ribcage already exposed to the elements in a slow exposition of sky burial — a mortal slur on the tranquility of the scene, perhaps a necessary one. There are other predators at large. As dusk descends, a glimpsed crepuscular flurrying may or may not be a short-eared owl in search of voles — this is indeed their territory, as it is for hen harriers, which we do see several times elsewhere on the islands although not here.

Early evening is also the time when the red deer usually make an appearance, arriving in view by nonchalantly leaping over fences that pose not the slightest barrier to them. A small herd of females and a lone stag nervously stray between the house and the loch shore, ever vigilant, their heads bobbing erect and watchful between mouthfuls. Our human smell is masked by brick and glass but can they see us, recognise our human outlines, curious figures with protruding metal and glass eyes that gawp at them from behind the window pane?

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The Tyranny of the Horizon by Laurence Mitchell

For this post I am reblogging something I recently wrote for The Arsonist, the webzine of Burning House Press.

BURNING HOUSE PRESS

“A frontier region… the resort of brigands and bandits”
– Sir Clifford Darby, from The Medieval Fenland

Two summers ago I walked coast to coast across England and Wales, from Great Yarmouth in Norfolk to Aberystwyth on the Welsh coast. The idea was to etch a furrow in the map along a route that traced familiar haunts and places of personal significance. My aim was to rekindle the memory of places I once knew in East Anglia and the Midlands; join up the dots, to connect all the places along the way with a line made by walking – a pagan pilgrimage, if you like, a personal songline.

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Landfall – absence and dislocation on the Forth shore

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It began with a dislocation. A couple of weeks’ residence north of the border in the house of friends who had chosen to trade the Scottish late winter for the Antipodean summer. It was an opportunity for some writing time away from the usual distractions, with the bonus of optional walks along the Firth of Forth to stretch legs and imagination. The house, in a village a dozen miles east of Edinburgh, was situated midway between the railway station and the Forth shore – a ten minute walk to either. And if I needed a dose of cultural inspiration then I could easily catch the train into Auld Reekie and stay for as long as was necessary.

Travelling north by train, I don’t think I was even aware that the ‘Beast from the East’ was brewing trouble far away in continental Russia, and I had been installed in the house for a few days before the repeated warnings started to slowly filter into my consciousness. In those first few days of settling in, I usually worked until early afternoon before going out for a walk along the shore before it got dark. The first of these outings was at low tide. I walked westwards along the tide-ribbed sand, picking my way across shallow channels of water to head in the direction of Edinburgh, the city clearly visible ahead around the curve of the estuary. The twin-peaked bulge of Arthur’s Seat nudged the skyline in the distance, looking every bit the extinct volcano it was. Beyond it, the outline of Edinburgh Castle stood out amidst a hazy tangle of high-rise blocks and the spidery cranes of the docks at Leith. Across the calm, dark water of the Forth were the low hills of Fife. Beyond these, beyond the horizon, the jagged peaks of the Scottish Highlands rose stealthily in the imagined yonder of my mind, unseen yet a presence nevertheless.

The foreshore, glimmering in the low-slung sunshine of late afternoon, was dotted with waders preoccupied with probing the estuary mud. Periodically some perceived threat would alarm them sufficiently for them to fly off in groups before they settled somewhere else to resume feeding. A mixture of redshanks, oyster catchers and curlews, each bird provided their own distinctive piping call to create a wistful shoreline soundscape. In the shallow water close to shore, groups of wigeon huddled together companionably, elegant feathers rustling in the breeze. Out to sea, just about identifiable at this range, small rafts of goldeneye and eider bobbed dozily in the waves lost in sea duck dreams.

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Approaching Port Seton I came upon the wreck of a boat sticking out of the sand, its remnant ribs blackened by salt and age. I wondered about the boat’s history; how long it had been wrecked and abandoned here; what of the lives of the men that had once made up its crew? Time and tide had reduced it to a stark sculpture of salt-soaked wood, a skeletal marker for a vessel that had once sailed the Forth and provided a livelihood: a monument to past lives, or perhaps a warning, a cautionary memento that spoke of the power of the sea.

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On the day before the storm arrived I headed in the opposite direction for my afternoon walk, across the headland of Ferney Ness in the direction of Aberlady Bay through the curious woodland of the Gosford estate.  The sky was greyer today; the Fife shore across the water less well-defined, the ships out in the Forth no longer highlighted by sunshine but hunkered down in the water. The signs were there: a change was coming. Large concrete cube blocks lined the shoreline – tank trap defences dating from the last war; an incomplete wall to chaperone the meeting of land and sea. The blocks continued even through the woodland, weaving through the trees like a broken causeway, an accidental land art installation that marched like a concrete-laying behemoth ever eastwards.

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The ‘beast’ made landfall on Tuesday but the full extent of its might was not fully apparent until the following day. On Wednesday and Thursday it snowed all day without stopping… and then some more – Snow had fallen, snow on snow, as the famous carol goes. The world outside quickly started to lose its familiar topography – the edges of roads blurred then disappeared, footpaths and gardens lost their definition as they submitted to an ever-thickening cover of white. The world had been transformed; made pure, made ice, filtered of colour and tone to leave it monochromatic, but mostly white. The whole notion of travelling far became laughable – in a world without edges there is nowhere else to go. By Friday it seemed almost as if the world had always been like this… and always would be. Frozen in space, frozen in time, this was a world where eternity was cold and white.

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During a break in the snow showers I ventured down to the Forth shore and found the same transformed world. Stems of straw-coloured grass poked thinly through the snow on the dunes as if grasping for air. Another landfall other than that of the storm had taken place – the fresh arrival of wind-blown thrushes from Scandinavia. The sea buckthorn bushes behind the dunes were flurried with activity, noisy with bird chatter, their branches weighed down with feeding fieldfares that threw themselves up into the air at regular intervals to make a quick fly-over of the beach before returning to the shelter of the bushes and the winter-bleached berries that sustained them. In the trees of the golf links behind, there were hundreds – perhaps even thousands – more of the thrushes perched in the higher branches, occasionally flying up en masse into the air on a whim before returning to the tree. The tide was on the turn and the narrow ribbon of sand and seaweed between the water and dunes held an improbable number of birds frantically sifting through the tide line detritus for something to eat: an odd mixture of redwings and golden plover along with a few lapwings and turnstones.  This unusual parliament of birds appeared to coexist peacefully enough, out of the necessity of hunger if nothing else, but it all seemed strange and topsy-turvy: the harsh weather had brought about a dislocation, a disavowal of familiar habitat to leave an absence somewhere else.

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As if experiencing the aftermath of an apocalyptic event, I felt a parallel sense of dislodgement from the world. Telephone calls to my wife and emails to the house’s owners heightened the sense of dislocation as our communications triangulated between Scotland, Norfolk and Australia. There were absences too – of me at home in Norfolk, of my friends in the house in Scotland. The snow globes of our everyday lives had been given a severe shake up and we were all dislocated, unwittingly or otherwise, from our habitual places in the world. Digital technology has resulted in the world we live in becoming a shrunken globe of instant communication, yet the heavy snow and the enforced lack of mobility that the storm wrought resulted in a sudden reduction of the possibilities the world had to offer. In an instance, while horizons had drawn closer, the world beyond had become vast once more.

Life went on as normally as possible. I spent the days indoors writing and editing work, glancing occasionally out of the window to see if it was still snowing. I occasionally ventured out to trace a route to the village shop to buy food basics from its panic-shopped shelves. I followed my own boot prints back on the return journey – Crusoe and Man Friday on a snow-desert island. In the evenings, I cooked a meal and drank a glass or two of rationed wine. I watched the TV weather forecasts and listened to Landfall by Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet, a newly purchased CD that turned out to be uncannily apposite. The music helped to extricate an ear worm: Harry Lauder’s  Keep Right On To The End Of The Road, which had been put there by way of googling for something I was writing (don’t ask… not yet anyway). There again, the Lauder song was appropriate too.

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After five days of snow, wind and reduced horizons, the thaw began. Local trains started to run once more and I was able to get into Edinburgh, where I had the pleasure of meeting up with fellow bloggers Murdo Eason and Brian Lavelle. Meeting with folk whose interests overlapped with my own, my sense of dislocation eased – I was back in the world, the familiar world of brick and stone and street signage, once more.

Before I returned home I went back for a final look at the shore. The snow had largely melted by now, although there were still frozen pockets of it on the dunes. The beach birdlife was much depleted: the usual redshanks and curlews were there but only a handful of redwings remained. The sea buckthorn bushes had also fallen silent now, although I could make the silhouettes of a small number of fieldfares that remained in the trees on the golf course. Thousands of birds had vanished overnight from this same locality in the brief transition from freeze to thaw. Their abrupt departure had left a void; an emptiness in the soul of this place, a sudden absence that was almost heartrending.

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Thanks to Murdon Eason and Brian Lavelle for taking the trouble to slog through the Edinburgh slush to meet up with me. Both have excellent blogs that are well worth investigating, From Hill to Sea and Edinburgh Drift. They have collaborated together to produce the highly recommended book + CD Language of Objects.

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Kyrgyzstan railway wagons

IMG_7265Kyrgyzstan does not have much of a railway system. A branch line from Moscow extends down from Kazakhstan to Bishkek, the Kyrgyzstan capital; another offers an excruciatingly slow service to Balykchy on Lake Issyk-Kul. Another line extends from Jalal-Abad in the south into Uzbekistan, although trains no longer run on this one. All of these routes date back to Soviet times but even then, Kyrgyzstan, or the the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic as it was in those days, sat on the outer fringes of the USSR, closer to China than to Moscow. All the more surprising then that, wherever you go in post-independence Kyrgyzstan, you tend to see Soviet-era railway carriages re-located and re-purposed as dwellings, shops, storerooms and even roadside tea-houses. What is most striking is how these are often located far away from a railway line or anything that even resembles a serviceable road. Bump along a rough stony track up to an isolated jailoo (alpine meadow with summer grazing) and the chances are that the nomadic family you meet there will have use of a rusting railway wagon parked somewhere near their yurt. Yurts are ubiquitous in the mountains in summer, and so central to the Kyrgyz way of life that the tunduk, the circular wooden centrepiece  of the roof, appears on the national flag.  But recycled decommissioned railway wagons have their part to play too, even if rusted metal is less aesthetically pleasing than white felt. In poor countries undergoing rapid transition like Kyrgyzstan, such a resource is too useful to be wasted.

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All the above images ©Laurence Mitchell.

From top to bottom: 1 – 4  Karkara valley, close to Kazakhstan border; 5 Tamga village, Lake Issyk-Kul ; 6 Bel-Tam, Lake Issyk-Kul; 7, 8 Kochkor, Naryn province; 9 Suusumayr village, Chuy province; 10 Roadside near Too-Ashuu Pass; 11 Roadside near Ala-Bel Pass

 

Posted in Central Asia, Human Geography, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 16 Comments

Shirley Collins and the fall of Eden

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In 1969 an album was released entitled Anthems in Eden. Its creators were sisters Shirley and Dolly Collins, folk musicians who hailed from Sussex in southern England. Released on the newly created Harvest label, and much lauded by the likes of John Peel and other progressive music luminaries, Anthems in Eden was a world away from what normally passed for underground music in those days.

I most probably first became aware of Shirley and Dolly Collins through John Peel. Most likely I was listening to my transistor radio beneath the sheets to Peel’s late night BBC programme Night Ride, where all manner of quirky underground music got an airing – folk, classical, film soundtracks, as well as poetry and world music before it was ever even called that. I should have been asleep, of course, so as to be sharp and bright for school the next day but even then I was captivated by strange and beautiful music whatever genre it might belong to. I was never what might be called a folkie but there was something about Collins’ voice, along with the gorgeous melodies and sometimes dark narrative of the songs, that awakened something deep within me. Somehow it aroused an atavistic connection with a long-vanished England of the past. It seemed to connect with the very folds of the landscape itself, with distant land-tilling ancestors who had preceded those forefathers who had uprooted themselves from the countryside to work in the soot-stained industry of the West Midlands. The music of my ancestors – that seemed about right.

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The record’s first side was a 28-minute song-story that incorporated songs often heard at singarounds at folk clubs, which having enjoyed a boom in the 50s and early 60s were experiencing a slump in fortune by the time the record was released. Instead of the usual finger-picking and finger-in-the-ear approach, the songs, centred upon Shirley’s pure, undemonstrative voice and the plaintive piping of Dolly’s portative organ, were set in a soundscape of medieval instruments – rasping crumhorn, sawing bass viol, scale-sliding sackbut – played by the Early Music Consortium of London. The eccentric, slightly out-of-tune musical setting provided a surprisingly sympathetic backdrop for the traditional songs that were featured, which included Searching for Lambs, The Blacksmith and Pleasant and Delightful among others.

The intent of the song-story was to evoke an England that had vanished since the outbreak of the First World War when rural life was torn apart by the savagery and deprivations that ensued. The Great War brought about change as catastrophic as an epoch-ending meteorite strike, brutally fracturing cultural stability like sudden tectonic slippage. Vast numbers of agricultural workers were lost to the Flanders mud; country estates floundered through lack of a workforce; folk traditions that hitherto had been second nature were lost or only dimly remembered. A great disconnection took place. Naturally, there were some benefits to emerge eventually from the debris of war – women’s suffrage, the seeds sown of social change to improve the lot of a downtrodden working class — but  the old songs were largely forgotten and England’s utopian Eden, if ever it existed, was lost forever. In the villages of broken post-war England war memorials replaced maypoles.

The notion of Eden draws on a long tradition of locus amoenus – an idealised ‘pleasant place’. Such idylls of place, time and circumstance were frequently employed as the backdrop for traditional English song, although the same places might also serve as the realm of dark deed-doing. Traditional English murder ballads tend to inhabit an English pastoral setting as much as Midsomer Murders favours a fictitious village idyll complete with cricket green, parish church and George Orwell’s ‘old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’. Such a dreamlike ‘pleasant place’ was seen as the apogee of rural life. The narrative action habitually took place on labour-free Sundays and holidays. The weather was always good, the birds always singing. The season was invariably summer. All this, of course, is a literary trope, a celebration of how things might be, or might once have been, had the world been a kinder place.

The uplifting sing-along of Pleasant and Delightful, a fragment of the Anthems in Eden song-story, is a case in point. It begins by setting the scene of a pastoral locus amoenus before introducing an element of uncertainty – a love-struck sailor who is due to travel overseas. It concludes with the sailor-narrator taking leave of his true love Nancy to go off on the next tide, promising that ‘if I ever return again’ they would marry.

‘Twas pleasant and delightful one midsummer’s morn

To view the green fields all covered with corn

And the blackbird and thrush sang on every green spray

And the larks they sang melodious at the dawning of the day.

The suite of songs that make up Anthems in Eden is presented as a vignette of a rural romance before the First World War, before the fall. Its component songs flowing one into the next to describe a meeting, courtship, leave-taking and subsequent forsaking that leads the way to a new beginning. The effect is both a celebration and an elegy to that which had vanished and was now lost. The voice behind the project, Shirley Collins, would go on to experience many losses in her own life: a father who walked out on the young family, two broken marriages, the death of her dear sister Dolly and, most cruelly, the loss of her remarkable singing voice in 1978.

The recently released film Ballad of Shirley Collins directed by Tim Plester and Rob Curry documents Shirley’s past life as the ‘High Queene of English Song’.  Interspersed with scenes of cosy domesticity at home in Lewes, Sussex is shaky faux-retro 16mm footage of her song-collecting road trip with then-lover Alan Lomax to the United States in 1959, with lookalike actors playing the young Shirley and her much older American beau. The soundtrack features archive recordings of Collins performing, fragments of the material she and Lomax collected in the rural Deep South and original music by Ossian Brown and Michael J. York. The American field recordings are remarkable in their own right. Cleaned-up sonically, yet retaining all their untutored rawness, they include English murder ballads sung by nasal Appalachians, cotton picking blues shouters, maniacal banjoists and, most extraordinary, a hollering polyphonic choir of such unrefined intensity that it sounds capable of raising the dead. The rawness of the collected American material reflects the state of the nation at that time. In interview Collins speaks matter-of-factly about the commonplace violence – domestic, racial and otherwise – she encountered, the shameful segregationism, the unabashed racism that tainted the American South in the 50s. Plus ça change some might say.

The crux of the film hinges on the singer’s return to recording after a 38-year absence — the tentative home sessions that will eventually produce her acclaimed 2016 return album Lodestar. Intercut with this are finely observed details of the world that Collins’ and her ageless songs inhabit. The camera flits around, gleaning detail from Collins’ home, the local haunts she visits, the Sussex countryside. It alights on green man masks, on sheep’s heads, on tea mugs and curious pottery figurines; on the Garden of Eden ceramic that was featured on the cover of Anthems in Eden and which hangs on the wall of her musician friend David Tibet’s house. The Sussex landscape looks ravishing throughout, all sloping hills and golden fields of grain that swoop down to white cliffs and the English Channel. A gentle warm breeze seems to be ever-present, rippling the grass and wild flowers in the foreground of the screen. A particularly effecting moment is a lingering long-focus shot of sheep contentedly grazing their way across the hillside chalk feature of the Long Man of Wilmington, the giant’s arms raised to support what look like Norwegian walking poles in each hand.

This is Sussex seen as an English Garden of Eden, folk tradition seeped into the ancient chalk of its rolling downs. A landscape gifted as a living repository of the old songs and stories that holds Shirley Collins, lover of tradition yet challenger of what she calls ‘the toxic side of Englishness’, rightfully in place as keeper of the keys.

And the larks they sang melodious at the dawning of the day.

Posted in Folklore, music | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments