The Saints is a small, loosely defined area of northeast Suffolk just south of the River Waveney and the Norfolk border. Effectively it is a fairly unremarkable patch of arable countryside that contains within it a baker’s dozen of small villages with names that begin or end with the name of the parish saint: St Peter South Elmham, St Michael South Elmham, St Nicholas South Elmham, St James South Elmham, St Margaret South Elmham, St Mary South Elmham, St Cross South Elmham, All Saints South Elmham, Ilketshall St Andrew, Ilketshall St Lawrence, Ilketshall St Margaret, Ilketshall St John and All Saints Mettingham. The area is bisected in its eastern fringe by the Bungay—Halesworth road that follows the course of Stone Street, a die-straight Roman construction, one of several that can still be traced on any road map of East Anglia. On the whole though the roads around here are anything but Roman in character: narrow, twisting, often bewilderingly changing direction, and marked with confusing signs (too many saints!), it is a good place to visit should you wish to humiliate your Sat Nav. John Seymour in The Companion Guide to East Anglia (1968) describes The Saints as ‘a hillbilly land into which nobody penetrates unless he has good business,’ which is perhaps hyperbolic but there is undoubtedly a feel of liminality to the area that persists to this day. The village names conjure a medieval world where saint-obsessed religion loomed large. Such a tight cluster of settlements suggests a concentration of population where parishes might eventually combine to form a town or city – with 13 villages and the same number of churches (eleven of which are extant), there were more churches here than in all of Cambridge. But The Saints never coalesced to become a medieval city – none of the villages had a port, defensive structure or even significant market to its credit and consequently the area would slowly slip into obscurity as the medieval era played out and other East Anglia towns and cities – Cambridge, Bury St Edmunds, Ipswich and, of course, Norwich – took the baton of influence and power. It was not always so: one of the villages in particular held great significance in its day. The land covered by the South Elmham parishes was once owned by Almar, Bishop of East Anglia and the late Saxon Bishops of Norwich had a summer palace here at St Cross, now South Elmham Hall. The most intriguing of the churches lies within the same parish. It is not in any way complete but a ruin framed by woodland a good half mile from the nearest road. South Elmham Minster, although probably never a minster proper, is veiled in mystery regarding its origins but its appeal owes as much to its half-hidden location as it does to its obscure history. South Elmham may have once been the seat of the second East Anglian bishopric (the first was in Dunwich, the sea-ravaged village on the Suffolk coast), although North Elmham in Norfolk seems a more likely contender. Whatever the ruin’s original function – a private chapel for Herbert de Losinga, Norwich’s first bishop, is another possibility, or it may even be that a second bishopric was founded here – the church in the wood just south of South Elmham Hall dates back at least to the 11th century. It is probably older in origin – a ninth-century gravestone has been unearthed in its foundations. The site itself is undoubtedly of greater antiquity: a continuation of an earlier Anglo-Saxon presence that occupied the same moated site, which, earlier still, was home to a Roman temple and perhaps, even earlier, a pagan holy place. We leave the car in a muddy parking area alongside another vehicle and a dumped piece of agricultural machinery. Nearby stands a weather-beaten trestle table that suggests that this once might have served as a designated picnic spot. Now half-submerged in grass and thistles, the table did not look as if any sandwich boxes had been opened on it for some time. Things have changed here a little in recent years: the permissive footpaths that once threaded through the South Elmham estate are no longer available for the public, and the hall itself has been re-purposed for use as a wedding and conference venue. At least the minster was still accessible by means of a green lane and a public footpath across fields. The green lane is flanked by mature hedges frothed white with blackthorn blossom. Reaching its bottom end we turn left to follow a footpath alongside a stream, a minor tributary of the River Waveney; strange hollowed-out hornbeams measure out its bank. Soon we come to the copse that contains the ruin, a rusty gate gives admission across a partial moat and raised bank into what can only be described as a woodland glade. The ancient flint walls of the church stand central, striated by the shadow of hornbeams still leafless in late March. There is no sign of a roof but the weathered walls of the nave are clear in outline, as is the single entrance to the west. On the ground, last year’s fallen leaves provide a soft bronze carpet that is mostly devoid of ground plants. Church or not, there is a timelessness to this place in the woods. And a strong sense of genius loci, the sort of thing that put the wind up the Romans with their straight lines and four-square militaristic outlook. I wander off to explore the bank to the west and discover the opening of a badger sett that looks to be newly excavated. Without much expectation, I rummage though the spoil musing that there might just be the remotest of chances that, burrowing deep beneath the mound, the animals have thrown up some treasure long buried in the soil below: an Anglo-Saxon torc, a Roman coin perhaps? I would even settle for a rusty button, but nothing. No matter, the mystery of the place is enough for now. We leave the bosky comfort of the site and retrace our steps along the beck and green lane back to the car. The other car has gone – we never did see its occupants.
Today is St Patrick’s Day and March 17 is the supposed date of the 5th-century missionary’s death. Patrick was the forerunner of many early missionaries who came to Irish shores to preach Christianity, the island more receptive to new ideas about religion than its larger neighbour to the east across the Irish Sea. Consequently Ireland abounds with relics and ruins of early Christianity, sometimes in the most improbable of places.Sailing around Ireland’s southwest coast, skirting the peninsulas that splay out from the Kerry coast, the two islands of the Skelligs come into view after rounding Bolus Head at the end of the Inveragh Peninsula. Both islands are sheer, with sharp-finned summits that resemble inverted boat keels. The smaller of the two appears largely white at first but increasing proximity reveals that the albino effect is down to a combination of nesting gannets and guano. The acrid tang of ammonia on the breeze and distant cacophony announce the presence of the birds well before the identity of any individual can be confirmed by binoculars.As the boat draws closer, the sheer volume of birds – gannets, fulmars, puffins, terns – becomes plain to see. With something like 70,000 birds, Little Skellig is the second largest gannet colony in the world. But on the larger island of Skellig Michael, although seabirds abound here too, there is also the suggestion of a human presence, albeit an historic one. High up in the rocks, small stone structures can be discerned: rounded domes that are clearly man-made and which soften the jagged silhouette of the island’s summit. These are beehive cells, the dry-stone oratories favoured by early Irish monks for their meditation. Sitting aloft the island on a high terrace, commanding a panoramic view over the Atlantic Ocean in one direction and the fractal Kerry coast in the other, these simple stone cells came without windows – the business was one of prayer and meditation not horizon-gazing. Such isolation was necessary for reasons of both safety and spirituality. And Skellig Michael was the acme of isolation. In the early Christian milieu the Skellig Islands, facing the seemingly limitless Atlantic off the southwest coast of Ireland, were more than merely remote: they were at the very edge of the known world.The island’s monastic site is infused with mystery, as all good ruins are, but is thought to have been established in the 6th century by Saint Fionán. Consisting of six beehive cells, two oratories and a later medieval church, the site occupies a stone terrace 600 feet above the swirling green waters of the sea below.Skirting Skellig Michael, a landing stage with a helicopter pad comes into view. A vertiginous path of stone steps leads up towards the beehive huts close to the island’s mountain-like summit. We do not disembark. Instead we keep sailing, bound for a safer harbour in Glengarriff in County Cork. No matter, the sight of the rocks, the winding, climbing path and the austere cells on the terrace at the top is already imprinted on our memory.Without doubt this was a life of supreme hardship: the isolation, the relentless diet of fish and seabird eggs, the ever-battering wind and salt-spray. Such was the isolation, and so extreme the privations of this beatific pursuit, that one might assume that the monks would have been left in peace to practice their calling. This was not to be. Viking raiders arrived here in the early 9th century and took the trouble to land, scale the island’s heights and attack the monks. For most of us it is probably difficult to comprehend the blind-rage fury of the raiders, the wrath invoked in them by pious upstarts with their new Christian God. Easier perhaps is to imagine the dread that must have been felt by the monks as the Vikings approached their spiritual eyrie.
It had been many years since I had been to Ladywood. This inner city borough of Birmingham had long been a mythic landscape for me even before I became aware of any sort of Tolkein connection. It was here that my mother grew up in a terraced house on Rann Street with her mother, father and aunt. The street has long since vanished from the map, bulldozed to clear the way for high-rise development in the 1960s – housing that grew old and unfit for purpose before its allotted time, and which later was partly demolished once more to make way for housing better suited to the needs of city dwellers. The city, always a palimpsest, sometimes requires deep archaeology to show its traces. Rann Street is now a place that exists only on old maps and photographs and in the memory of former residents like my mother.
I have vague memories of visiting my Aunt Anne there back in the day – I recall a house redolent of cats, a dozen at least, although my mother insists there were only ever a maximum of four. Does memory always tend towards the hyperbolic? Aunt Anne was eventually re-housed in a modern council flat in King’s Heath at the city’s southern periphery, while Grandad Frank went with his second wife Mabel to live in another terrace house nearby at Leslie Road close to the Edgbaston Reservoir. This I regularly visited with my parents on Sunday afternoons, a reluctant teenager dragged away from Pink Floyd records and surly introspection in a green belt bedroom.
Ladywood had declined in the post-war years and I strongly recall a miasma of urban blight overlaying all of the inner city area: newspapers blowing through the streets like tumbleweed, wan-faced children sitting on steps waiting for parents to come home, soot-stained brickwork, moody wet streets that sparkled with Bill Brandt monochrome highlights. Many of the terrace houses had been recently bought up by newly arrived commonwealth immigrants, Pakistanis mostly, that my grandparents’ generation usually referred to as “blackies” – a generic pejorative that was bandied irrespective of faith, country of origin or even skin colour. These latest incomers, culturally at odds with the long-established white working class community, provided grist to the mill for the anti-immigrant tirades of Enoch ‘Rivers of Blood’ Powell, who was MP for Wolverhampton on the fringe of the Black Country just up the road. If sex, according to Larkin, was invented in the 1960s, then so was casual racism it would seem.
Inside the Leslie Road terrace, the front room, as in all decent working class households, was only ever used for special occasions such as family funeral gatherings and the like. The back room, which faced onto a yard and a galley kitchen, was stuffed with furniture: a bulky three-piece suite with cushions and antimacassars, a sideboard, stiff-backed chairs and a scuffed leather pouffe that never saw service. Grandad, as I remember him, was a short rotund man with thinning hair Brylcreemed into a barcode across his pate. The trousers he wore were not so much high-waisted as halfway up to the armpits as if they came with some sort of integral cummerbund, and defied gravity by means of braces, belt and beer-habit. Like all of his generation, there was no such thing as casual dress. Mabel, his second wife and my step-grandmother, was only ever referred to by her first name. A ‘big-boned’ woman, Mabel, who resembled a spinster straight out of a 1940s photo-nostalgia book, seemed to be all angles. With sharp corners rather than curves, she was an early Picasso demoiselle in pinny and National Health specs. Mabel did not say much, but then neither did my grandfather. The only thing that really seemed to animate him was ‘The Club’ where my grandfather went most nights to drink pints of Mitchells & Butlers beer. The establishment was a local Social Club run by his former employer Lucas, the Birmingham electrical component company. Another of his interests, as I recall, was to regularly write letters of complaint to the Birmingham Post regarding the failure of ‘the corporation’ (Birmingham City Council) in regards to its pavement maintenance.
Our relationship as grandchildren was cordial, a little distant perhaps – a throwback to the stern attitudes of the Victorian era whose final days cusped my grandparents’ birth. My grandfather would give my sister and me two half-crown coins each birthday and Christmas, and always referred to us as ‘the nippers’, which started to irritate me by the time I became a know-it-all teenager as I recall. Grandad Frank meant well but it tended to be his sister, Aunt Anne, who provided most of the fun and warmth, improvising songs and stories for the two of us, spinning colourful, if sometimes dubious, yarns about her own girlhood – a direct link to the gaiety of Edwardian music hall and the carefree pre-war years that led up to 1914. To our young minds it seemed as if Aunt Anne was both ancient and ageless, as if she had always been here, as if they had built Birmingham around her and the machine she operated during her long working life in a city button factory.
Grandad’s working at the Lucas plant has hatched a small fantasy in my mind: a coincidence of time and place that allows an imagined encounter that almost certainly never happened. The end of my grandfather’s career at Lucas must have coincided with the youthful employment of one of Birmingham’s most famous sons, John ‘Ozzy’ Osbourne. Pre-Sabbath, Ozzy is recorded as having worked at Lucas for a time testing car horns, a job that must have helped prepare his ears for future battering by thunderous heavy metal sound systems. Most probably he worked in a different factory (there were several around the city), and more than likely would have been on a different shop floor anyway, but I like to imagine the embryonic prince of darkness creeping up behind my phlegmatic, soon-to-retire grandfather and blasting him mischievously with a car horn. What would he have said? “Oy, you little perisher.” Or something more profane, the sort of industrial language that, as children, we would never hear uttered from his lips? Alas, Grandad’s and Ozzy’s respective Venn diagrams probably never overlapped in any way other than a brief spatial and temporal connection, but this fancy remains my only grip on any sort of Who Do You Think You Are? connection with rock royalty. Ozzy’s subsequent legacy as godfather of heavy metal is inadvertently celebrated in the city centre less than a mile away. Standing close to the neoclassical Town Hall, rising at an angle from the concrete of Victoria Square, is Antony Gormley’s Iron:Man, a 20-foot-high humanoid figure that, while officially symbolising the West Midlands’ traditional manufacturing skills, also references a well-known Black Sabbath song of the same name (give or take a colon).
Rann Street had long gone, redacted from the city map, but Leslie Road still stood much as I remembered it. I had made my way there from the gentrified canal trappings of Gas Street Basin, striking west away from the Birmingham Canal Old Line with the help of a local map. A sign on the traffic-choked Ladywood Middleway had announced the periphery of the borough of Ladywood and I soon found my way to Reservoir Road where the Victorian waterworks stood, its elegant, almost Italianate brick tower supposedly the inspiration for JRR Tolkein’s Twin Towers of Gondor (the other tower was thought to be Perrott’s Folly on nearby Waterworks Road).
Reservoir Road, as its name promised, took me down to the water, and just before I reached the reservoir I found Leslie Road leading off to the left. The house looked to be in decent fettle, freshly painted, with a ‘To Let’ sign on the wall. I allowed myself a brief reverie of memory before retracing my steps back to Reservoir Road and on to the reservoir itself. Just beyond the gate stood the low-rise edifice of the Tower Ballroom, a venerable institution that had hosted dances for rhythm-happy Brummies intermittently since the 1920s. It had started life in the 1870s as a roller skating rink before going on to become a prestigious dance venue. Closed in 2005 in preparation for bulldozing to make way for housing, the Tower received a last minute reprieve and, revamped by a local businessman, opened once more for business in 2008. Just one year later it was taken over yet again to be repurposed as a glitzy Asian wedding venue with a concession for afternoon tea dances and nostalgic 1940s ‘Back in Time’ events.
I made my way around the eastern bank wall of the reservoir. The view to the left across the shimmering water seemed almost rural, a church steeple rising above the trees on the western bank. To the right, peeking, indeed glowing, through the trees was a sight my grandparents would never have imagined witnessing: an oriental temple, the gilded stupa of Birmingham’s Buddhist Vihara. This glimpse of the celestial soon gave way to something altogether more prosaic: the semi-wasteland of half-demolished factories and yards that occupied the area around Icknield Port Road and a varicose kink of the Birmingham Canal Old Line. Beyond, in the distance, towered grey stacks of krushchyovka high-rises and the beacon of the BT Tower.
I left the reservoir’s pastoral embrace to emerge at Icknield Port Road, where Pakistani and Somali parents were picking up their kids from primary school. Passing Summerfield Park I continued north to reach the major thoroughfare of the Dudley Road. My father had been born somewhere along here, above a tripe shop so he had always said. His early life was spent separated from my mother by nothing more than a few streets, a reservoir and a four-year age difference (they finally met after the war at a dance on the other side of Birmingham). The tripe shop went long ago, and Dudley Road, once Birmingham’s Golden Mile, with the densest concentration of ale houses in the city, had since become a parade of curry houses and Asian greengrocers, boiled offal giving way to more modern, international tastes – biryani and brinjal bhaji.
Crossing Dudley Road onto Winson Green Road I took the steps at a bridge at Heath Street to descend to the canal path once more. I would follow this as the Birmingham Canal meandered northwest out of the city. To Smethwick and beyond; into the Black Country, an energy-drained landscape that had yet to learn the knack of being post-industrial, a soot-blasted territory that must have made a deep impression on the young Tolkein sufficient to sow the seeds for later fiction. Mordor?
If trees could only speak. If they had some semblance of sentience and memory, and a means of communication, what would they tell us? Ancient trees – or at least those we suspect to be very old – are usually described in terms of human history. Perhaps as humans it is hubris that requires us to define them in this way but the fact is that by and large they tend to outlive us: many lofty oaks that stand today were already reaching for the sky when the Industrial Revolution changed the face of the land over two centuries ago. This linkage of history and old trees has resulted in some colourful local history. The story of the future King Charles II hiding from parliamentarian troops up a pollarded oak tree in Boscobel, Shropshire carried sufficient potency for the original tree to have been eventually killed by souvenir hunters excessively lopping of its branches as keepsakes. Undoubtedly the stuff of legend, Royal Oak ended up becoming the third commonest pub name in England. A long-established folk belief also tells of the Glastonbury Thorn, the tree which is said to have grown from the staff of Joseph of Arithmathea whom legend has it once visited Glastonbury with the Holy Grail. What was considered to be the original tree perished during the English Civil War, chopped down and burned by Cromwell’s troops who clearly held a grudge against any tree that came with spiritual associations or historical attitude.There is an ancient thorn in Norfolk that is sometimes connected with the same Joseph of Arithmathea myth. Hethel Old Thorn can be found along narrow lanes amidst unremarkable farming country 10 miles south of Norwich. Close to the better known Kett’s Oak that can be seen propped up alongside the old London Road near Wymondham; closer still to the Lotus car factory and Hethel’s All Saints Church, which dates back at least to the 14th century and may even have a Saxon core.
The old thorn stands enclosed behind a fence, a measure designed to deter the red poll cattle that graze here, and perhaps also would-be tree-huggers if the rampant bed of nettles around its base were not enough. Occupying just 0.025 hectares, the site is Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s smallest nature reserve; indeed it is probably the smallest nature reserve in the country. The tree itself is impressive although now much diminished from what it once was – in the mid 18th-century its trunk was recorded as having a circumference of over 12 feet and a spread of 31 yards.At an estimated 700 years old this is thought to be the oldest specimen of Crataegus monogyna in the UK. Like the nearby Kett’s Oak, the thorn was thought to be a meeting place for the rebels during Kett’s Rebellion in 1549. Long before that it may have been used as a meeting point for protesters during the time of King John. According to the information on the sign board local children would once have danced the village maypole and then scrambled to the thorn to count the number of props holding up the boughs. Seventy or so years ago it would have witnessed a flow of American Liberator B-42 bombers taking off for operations over Germany from the nearby airfield that now serves as the Lotus works. Despite age, decay and fragmentation the thorn still appears to be in good fettle. On my visit in late November a fine crop of haws were hanging on its boughs, a rich invitation for blackbirds and wintering redwings. Clearly the Hethel Old Thorn is still very much alive and thriving. Who knows how many more centuries the tree will live and what future events it will observe as silent witness?
The small city of Kruševac in south-central Serbia is probably best known for its fortress and 14th-century church, a fine example of the highly decorative Morava school. This was Prince Lazar’s capital in the late 14th century and it was from here that the Serbian army under the command of Prince Lazar set off to fight the ill-fated Battle of Kosovo in 1389. The Turks won yet it still took another 60 or so years for the city to fall under Ottoman control. Later on Kruševac became known as the ‘city of the sock-wearers (čarapani)’ because of an incident during the First National Uprising when Serbian rebels removed their boots to slip silently into town at night unheeded by the Turkish guards. Today Kruševac is an easy-going sort of place that, church aside, serves as a textbook case of Tito-era urban planning with its extensive use of concrete and scattered high-rises that loom like grey termite mounds over the city centre. This was my third visit in a decade and on this occasion I was prompted to seek out something that I had hitherto not even been aware of. A short distance out of town to the south lies a monument park dedicated to the victims of Nazi shootings during World War II. This was close to a former German prison camp and the scene of mass shootings between 1941—4, most especially in the summer of 1943 when over a thousand Serbs partisans and civilians were executed mostly by Bulgarian and Albanian troops. The Slobodište Memorial Complex, designed in the early 1960’s by architect, politician, one-time Belgrade mayor and anti-nationalist critic of Slobodan Milošević, Bogdan Bogdanović (1922—2010), occupies the same low hill just outside the city where the killings took place. The monuments of the complex serve as focus for a location already tainted with dark memory and collective suffering. The monument park is reached on foot by way of a route through Kruševac’s outskirts. The city edgeland arrives suddenly: a roundabout, a small airfield marked by a jet fighter on a plinth, an out-of-town retail hangar with supersized advertising depicting super-fit sportsmen. As elsewhere in Serbia, the edgeland is the realm of Roma – the poorest of the poor in this none-too-wealthy country – who, as always, are involved in the recycling business. Perpetually sorting through waste – paper, metal, plastic – skilfully assessing its value, their make-do shanty shelters seem barely separated from the middens of 21st-century detritus that they live among.
In an instinctive trade-off of safety for freedom, a few of the free-ranging Roma chickens stray across the pavement onto the perilous dual-carriage highway that leads out of town. I follow the pavement alongside the highway for a while before veering off right when a footpath into the trees suggests that the memorial park lies just beyond. At first there is nothing to see other than landscaped grassy mounds in the distance. Walking through a birch plantation I am entertained by the head-cracking antics of a Syrian woodpecker that hammers away remorselessly at a tree stump. Crows in all their variety – rooks, jackdaws, magpies and jays – call harshly, their voices like creaking tree trunks in a gale. I make for the grassy mound ahead and from the top can see a curved chain of stone sculptures stretched up the hollow of a hillside. The monuments resemble birds – owls to be precise – buried up to their beaks in the earth, but rising from rather than sinking down into it. They might also be angels. As I walk closer to investigate I notice a man with a bicycle at the top of the rise who is waving and beckoning to me. We manage some sort of rudimentary conversation using an inelegant polyglot mixture of German, Serbian and what might be Russian, and I learn that he lives locally in one of the housing estates that fringe the park and uses its pathways as a shortcut to the shops. Conversation, and commonality of language, exhausted the man cycles off and I turn round to trace the pathway back to its beginning. What is actually supposed to be the entrance to the memorial complex – the ‘Gate of the Sun’ – serves as my exit: an incomplete arch reminiscent of an Andy Goldsworthy dry-stone creation. Flanking the entrance just beyond this are two pyramidal mounds like Neolithic cairns. In front of each is a low stone funerary slab upon which rest wreaths and polythene-wrapped flowers. Whether or not these are actual burial mounds or merely a symbolical representation does not really seem to matter – this whole site is a memory field of death and the act of remembrance is the important thing. And remembered it is: memory is honoured; this site still holds melancholic charge for townsfolk and visitors alike despite its mundane use as a place for cycling, exercising and walking dogs.
I think about leaving and then am distracted once more by the same woodpecker that has taken a liking to a nearby tree and pounds away tenaciously with its beak despite the seeming reluctance of the bark to yield to the hammering. I put my ear to the trunk and think this is what the grubs within must hear whenever their woody sanctuary is threatened by a predator; the tree, like the memorial park itself, is a microcosm of both life and death. There is one more monument to see: the cenotaph. I find a curious, vaguely zoomorphic statue that brings to mind a Mayan glyph, or a totem – or perhaps another owl. It stands alone and inscrutable in front of some administrative offices that have been landscaped into the naturalistic contours of the park. Within one of the offices I spot a man working on a computer. I cannot decide whether I am envious of his workplace or not. No doubt it is peaceful enough tucked away in the folds of this green domain but the heft of dark memory weighs heavy here – a place to visit certainly but not one in which to repose.
For an excellent account of memorial parks and spomeniks (memorial monuments) throughout the countries of the former Yugoslavia take a look at this post on The Bohemia Blog.
A few days ago I visited the monastery of Rača close to the border town of Bajina Bašta in western Serbia. The monastery lies at the edge of the Tara National Park that stretches south west from just beyond the town to the River Drina and the border of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The day was quintessentially autumnal, with a slight chill in the air, the sky flecked with stray cumulus, the leaves of the beech and hornbeam forest that cloaked the steep hillsides transformed to a palette of precious metals – gold, bronze, copper.
From the monastery I took the signed path that lead through forest to the spring of Ladjevac. A thirty-minute walk, the sign said, but perhaps because I was stopping frequently to take photographs, or I was just slow, it took longer. The path was difficult underfoot in places too – washed away by small landslides at a couple of points to leave treacherous grey mud of great viscosity that was tricky to navigate. The track was almost deserted – I saw only two other walkers there and back – but in summer this would have been a far busier place as energetic day trippers and monastery visitors would beat their way through the woods to the spring that has numerous health claims attributed to its water.
The visitors were well catered for as the route was punctuated with picnics spots with trestle tables. But now, out of season in the chill of autumn, no one was using them and the tables and seats had acquired an accretion of fallen hornbeam leaves on each horizontal surface. It was a still day but it seemed remarkable that the fallen leaves had not been blown away by wind or washed off with rain – they lay where they fell, the woodland furniture gently breaking their fall on their inevitable journey to the ground.
What struck me strongly was how considered it all looked, as if some unnamed landscape artist had patiently glued each leaf in place to create a work of art. But no, this was happenstance, a serendipitous confluence of meteorology and season. Man may be the craftsman, the carver of wood, but sometimes it is nature that is the artist. Humankind creates; nature embellishes.
ystwyth (Welsh) adjective: supple, flexible, pliable
The harbour at Aberystwyth on the west coast of Wales holds the confluence of two rivers. One of these, the Rheidol, is probably best known for the narrow-gauge steam railway that plies its length, once used to transport ore from mines in the valley but latterly employed in taking holiday makers on pleasure trips. The other, the marginally longer Ystwyth, is the one that gifts the town its name. The Ystwyth valley is now sparsely populated but once many people were drawn to it because of its mineral wealth. Lead, zinc and silver were all mined here in the past, particularly in the late 18th and early 19th century, although mining was a tradition that had started back in the Bronze Age and continued into the Roman era.
Having walked over a high forested ridge from Llangurig in Powys, I joined the Ystwyth valley in its upper reaches close to its source where a number of streams fed down from the lower slopes of Plynlimon. The river that met a single-lane tarmac road at this point was little more than a rock-strewn mountain stream flowing in the cleft of a steeply sloped valley. This same upland area was also the limit of the watershed of the River Elan, and a signboard at the roadside provided a map of the Elan River catchment area and the wildlife that visitors might see. A little further along were signs that announced the Powys/Ceredigion border together with another that warned against Rhew – Ice.
I started walking west, downstream towards the coast. It was some minutes before a car passed, its passengers waving at the novelty of a pedestrian on this desolate road to nowhere. But it came as a surprise to see anyone at all here – the road seemed like an intruder in the landscape, a mere afterthought in an expanse of wild moorland that possessed few trees other than wind-gnarled rowan.
Soon I passed a roadside grave – a traffic accident victim or a landscape-loyal local I could not tell – a simple affair with a carved wooden cross stuck into a pile of rocks. A little further, more signs flanking the road announced that I was leaving the Elan Valley catchment area behind me. Continuing west, following the winding road downhill, I came to an isolated farm that looked to be in good order but was completely deserted – no cars or tractors, no sign of life – a holiday home perhaps, or a property investment project? This was an outlier of the loose sprawl of habitation that was Cwmystwyth, once the epicentre of mining in the valley.
The old mine workings soon became visible a little further on: a large fenced-off area with piles of stone and skeletal buildings. The unrelenting grey sky and cool wind blowing down the valley from the east enhanced the dreariness of this grim industrial wasteland; the sudden scream of RAF fighters flying low overhead completing the image of a landscape that seemed almost post-apocalyptic.
Although entry was discouraged, a detailed information board provided background on what it referred to as the Central Wales Orefield. Each significant ore – breccia, galena (for lead), sphalerite (for zinc), chalcopyrite (for copper) – was illustrated and described in detail in English and Welsh. Standing amid the low cairns of grey rock were the remains of the buildings, now roofless and with broken walls, that once would have provided accommodation for the mine workers. Seen from afar, with no awareness of location or even continent, the buildings might have been a ruined caravanserai or desert palace; close-up, any such romance quickly evaporated. The bleakness of days spent toiling in a dangerous and hostile environment, nights in a cold cheerless dormitory, was all too tangible. And a bleak life it was: because of the inevitable lead poisoning that blighted the health of those who worked in this industry the average life expectancy of Cwmystwyth mine workers back in the 18th and 19th century was reputed to be just 32 years.
Further down the road a short length of rail track led directly to the river. Water from the Ystwyth was used for working the ore and the degree of pollution would once have been extremely high. Now the river had largely recovered from centuries of abuse but analysis suggested that continuing seepage was still contributing to elevated levels of toxic metals in the water.
Cwmystwyth, its ruined mine now a scheduled ancient monument, has more than one claim to fame. The oldest gold artifact ever found in Wales, the Banc Tynndol sun disc, an early Bronze Age object of great beauty, was unearthed in the area in 1992. The wider settlement is also of geographical significance, standing as it does close to the dead centre of Wales. The precise centre is calculated to lie on a hillside just 2.5km south of the river. The very heart of Wales, its Celtic centre of gravity: what could symbolise the Welsh spirit better than ancient gold, tough miners and green, steep-sloped valleys?
Beyond the mine the valley narrowed and started to cheer up a little, the landscape softened by more trees, ash and oak. A cuckoo (this was May) called repeatedly from across the river; further on, another distant two-note call indicated a separate territory – each bird to its own bespoke stretch of valley for its piratical breeding.
At Pentre Farm I crossed the river by an old stone bridge to follow the Borth to Devil’s Bridge to Pontryhydfendigaid Trail, a trail that must qualify as the country’s longest in name even though it is relatively modest in miles. The trail climbed a little way up the southern side of the valley to skirt woods and follow farm tracks above the river below. I emerged close to the village of Pont-rhyd-y-groes where, appropriately perhaps, I stayed for the night at the Miners’ Arms pub.
The following day I took my leave of the Borth to Devil’s Bridge to Pontryhydfendigaid Trail to follow a minor road west through beech woods close to the south bank of the River Ystwyth. At the edge of the village stood a large water wheel that once would have driven machinery for the village’s former Lisburne Mine. The gloomy weather of the previous day had by now transformed into a light drizzle, although paradoxically this seemed to make everything seem a little brighter, the fresh green leaves of the trees seemingly glowing with life. Wayside bluebells scented the damp air.
At a footbridge I left the woodland to cross to the river’s north bank where the workings of another disused mine had been tidied up and repurposed as a nature reserve. A thick stand of gorse bushes stretched away towards the riverbank. Very soon I passed more ruined mine buildings beside the path. With just thick walls of shale left standing, the buildings were hard to interpret as to their original function – more than anything they reminded me of the rectangular stone huts found at the base of Machu Picchu, although I knew that Incas were not thick on the ground in this part of Wales.
I followed a forest road away from the river towards Llanafan. Emboldened by the damp conditions, large black slugs crossed the track in front of me pursuing a gastropod pilgrimage to pastures new. From somewhere deep in the woods below came the strains of a saw mill: an oddly musical metallic whine that sounded like electric violins playing variations around a drone, serendipitous harmonics adding high-pitched counterpoint. A percussive element was added by the periodic crash of a sawed-through trunk onto a metal base. Further musical detail was provided by birdsong in the trees – the local blackbirds seemed to be familiar with this strange aural backdrop and piped defiantly above it in the same way that birds that sing close to a busy road always seem to rise to the challenge and sing louder.
From Llanafan – a tidy cluster of church, village hall and cottages – I was forced to follow a murderously busy road for a short distance. Lorries and white vans rattled past me too close for comfort as I hugged the road edge (no footpath) and occasionally mounted the narrow verge to keep out of their way. It came as a relief to leave the road and return to the river at Trawsgoed, where a bridge crossed the water and I joined the route of the Ystwyth Trail, a walking and cycle path between Aberystwyth and Tregaron that traced the track-bed of the former Great Western Railway route for much of its way.
The final nine miles into Aberystwyth were a soothing amble through dappled green light – the track partially shaded by overhanging branches of lime and oak, the river close enough to be audible through the trees to the right. At the village of Llanilar a raised brick bank indicated where a railway platform would once have stood, while the surrounding greenery, Station Wood, also commemorating this ghost station in name.
Aberystwyth finally announced its proximity with the sight of a steep hill with what looked like a tall chimney on top – Pen Dinas with its monument to Wellington. The hill, overlooking Cardigan Bay and located between the Rheidol and Ystwyth rivers, had long served as a strategic defensive location and a Celtic Iron Age fort had once topped its summit. As with the mine workings of the upper Ystwyth valley, history ran deep here: a continuity of settlement that spanned millennia – the valley’s cultural capital was as rich as its ore deposits.
Although Cardigan Bay lay not far ahead the sea refused to reveal itself until the very last minute. There had been clues though: a change of light, a water-reflected translucent sky, the gentlest whiff of iodine on the breeze. Quite abruptly, the path had become busier too – with runners, dog-walkers, grandparents with children wobbling on scooters – and it was clear that, sight-unseen, I had fallen into Aberystwyth’s benign orbit. A glimpse of silhouetted figures walking the sea wall next to Tanybwlch Beach ahead in the distance confirmed this.
On reaching the coast the Ystwyth refuses to play the estuary game – the river merely winds around the base of Pen Dinas hill to merge with the waters of the Rheidol in Aberystwyth harbour. The combined river that flows out of the harbour into the Irish Sea takes just a few metres to reach its destination – confluence and river mouth are within a pebble’s throw of one another.
From the harbour – tucked away from the rest of the town as if some sort of secret – I crossed the Trefechan Bridge and climbed up to the castle mound from where all of Aberystwyth was revealed below. Just beneath the mound were the brownstone turreted buildings of Old College; beyond that, a parade of fine Victorian guesthouses, tastefully rendered in pastel shades, that curved around a beachside promenade pinched by a pier and the rocky bluff of Constitution Hill to the north. The modest, supple river that gave the town its name had already vanished from view.
Lammas Day – the first day of August. School holidays, warm weather, beach visits, perhaps a swim in the sea? Or, on a windy cloudy day, a walk; a beach walk. At low to mid tide it is possible to follow the beach all the way between Lowestoft and Southwold on the north Suffolk coast without ever venturing inland. The coast along this stretch of the North Sea foreshore is a mixture of sand and shingle, with low cliffs and the occasional freshwater broad lying perilously close to the ever advancing tide. At odds with the gentle agricultural landscape of the hinterland the coast here is an uncompromising full stop in the landscape: a sudden transition from land to sea. Far to the east, beyond the horizon, are the European Low Countries that were once so closely tied, economically, and culturally, to this region. Lowland – sea bed – low land: the North Sea (WG Sebald’s ‘German Ocean’ in The Rings of Saturn) is but a watery interruption in the flow of things, both a barrier and a conduit for the movement of humans and goods. I set out from Kessingland, just south of Lowestoft, where a large expanse of dunes and shingle separates the sea from the holiday homes and caravans that line the low clifftop like racing cars at a starting grid preparing to rush towards the sea. Truth be told, there is little in the way to stop them. It may be August but even now the beach is relatively quiet – just a few families and dog-walkers clambering over the dunes to reach the sea, which today is grey, grumpy and not particularly welcoming. The Kessingland littoral is distinguished by its specialist salt-tolerant flora: sea holly, sea pea, sea campion, sea beet – in fact, place a ‘sea’ in front of any common plant name and there is a good chance that such a species will exist and flourish here. Also rooted into the shingle, thriving on little more than sunshine and salt spray, are clumps of yellow-horned poppies with long twisting seed pods. The poppies are mostly past their flowering peak but elsewhere, where there is a thin veneer of soil to root into, colour is provided by stands of rosebay willow herb – a rich purple layer of distraction between the straw-hued shingle and the cloud-heavy sky, both washed of colour in the flat coastal light. Further south, the cliffs grow a little higher. Ferrous red and as soft and powdery as halva, they are irredeemably at the mercy of the North Sea tide. And it shows: the cliffs are raw and freshly cleaved, with collapsed chunks that have been further eroded by the incoming tide such that they appear to seep from the cliff bases like congealed gravy. Man-made objects receive no preferential treatment – a collapsed WWII concrete defence bunker slopes between cliff and sand at one point, its long process of total disintegration still in its infancy as its perches ignominiously at 45 degrees, an involuntary buttress for the flaking cliffs.
The cliffs may be ephemeral geomorphology, constantly pushed back by the eroding tide, but they possess enough permanence for colonies of sand martins to pit them with nesting burrows high up the cliff face. The birds swoop and chatter in high-pitched whispers as they gather flies above the shingle, flying in and out their nest holes faster than the eye can bring itself into focus.
Further along, a red-brick building lies in an even more advanced state of breakdown. Dead trees, devoid of bark and bleached pale by saltwater protrude from the sand. Some stand roots-proud with their upper trunks planted in the sand as if drawing nutrition from deep underground. Others are inverted stumps that appear to channel the centrepiece of north Norfolk’s sacred Seahenge, upturned roots on display like rustic altars.
The tide is still going out, revealing new treasures on the wet smooth sand. Footprints ahead of me heading south look like my own but, of course, they are not – I have not been there yet. The unidentified boot-print doppelganger must be far ahead of me. One of the imprints has narrowly missed a solitary beached jellyfish, red-veined and otherworldly. Soon I notice more jellyfish on the tideline: unveined, translucent specimens that stare up from the sand like the detached iris of a giant’s eye.
Approaching Southwold, the pier stretching out to sea becomes clearer in detail. The town’s white lighthouse flashes in warning. Beyond the resort, a few miles further south, the gargantuan golf ball of Sizewell B glows uncannily white. Halfway between sea and cliff on the freshly revealing sand are miscellaneous concrete blocks, remains of footings, moorings, buildings. Some of these have been almost completely submerged by sand to leave a line of tiny pyramids like the vertebra of a buried dragon. Frame the scene carefully and squint and this might be an aerial view over the Egyptian desert. The lack of a viable sphinx and presence of a battered clifftop caravan soon disabuses such fantastical musing.
Southwold arrives – or, rather, I arrive there – the beach approach heralded by groynes and breakwaters. Then comes the first phalanx of the town’s famously expensive beach huts, a sink estate for solvent holiday makers who have succumbed to the Southwold equivalent of shed-envy. The huts trace a line along the seafront past the pier where a Punch and Judy show is underway, delighting a crowd of children and adults with good old-fashioned, non-PC entertainment that glosses over domestic violence and police brutality. “That’s the way to do it,” swazzles Mr Punch before exclaiming, “Lookout children, the Devil’s going to come and get you.” The Devil was, in fact, coming for Mr Punch yet is outwitted by the trickster anyway in the show’s denouement. Light entertainment, yet such darkness – the seaside has always taken liberties with propriety.
For more on this stretch of coast see my earlier post: At Covehithe
The far west of Norfolk between Terrington St John and Walsoken on the Cambridgeshire border is often referred to as Fen country but technically it is part of the Norfolk Marshland. John Seymour in his Companion Guide to East Anglia (1970) writes: “The Marshlands are not to be confused with the Fens. The Marshlands, nearer to the sea than the Fens, are of slightly higher land, not so subject to flooding, and have been inhabited from the earliest times”. Like the Fens proper this is a region of wide horizons and big skies, a table-flat landscape of barley and mustard fields, of plantations of poplars and lonely farmsteads, of electricity pylons that march across the landscape like robotic sentinels. This is the countryside of The Goob, of Eastern European farm labourers and itinerant travelling folk. This is Tony Martin territory, where the stark cereal prairies of west Norfolk give way to the reclaimed farmland of the Cambridgeshire Fens. No airs or graces, no romantic rural idyll, this is countryside without finesse, without apology. This region, along with the Fens to the west, is a Brexit stronghold where many bear a grudge towards the Eastern Europeans who come to work in the fields here. Antipathy to itinerant farm labourers is nothing new and Emneth, a village located hard against the Cambridgeshire border, has become particularly, and probably unfairly, infamous thanks to its Tony Martin connection. Interestingly, John Seymour, writing in the late 1960s, describes Emneth as having “one of the pubs in the Wisbech fruit-growing district that does not display the racialist (and illegal) sign: NO VAN DWELLERS, and consequently it is one of the pubs in which a good time may often be had”. They still grow fruit in the Wisbech district but I cannot vouch for the welcome currently proffered by its pubs.
This was bear country. No doubt about it. Over breakfast Alfred from the guesthouse had said, “You should make sure that you talk when you go walking there – or maybe sing – that way you won’t take them by surprise. My wife and I saw a mother bear with cubs in those woods earlier this year but don’t worry too much, just make sure that you don’t take them by surprise.”The drizzle had stopped by the time we left the guesthouse to walk east along the bank of the Valbona River. The day before we had come across four snakes in the space of a couple of hours, including a sluggish horn-nosed viper that had the tail of an unfortunate lizard protruding from its mouth, but today, perhaps because of the lack of warm sunshine, they were nowhere to be seen. Undoubtedly they were still close by, skulking beneath rocks, sleeping the deep reptilian sleep that comes with the digestion of a heavy meal… of reptiles. No snakes, but we did see an extraordinary large lizard – a European green lizard (Lacerta viridis) as we later identified it – with strikingly beautiful markings that morphed like a potter’s glaze from sky blue on the head to copper-stain green along its back and tail. Among our fellow guests at the guesthouse were a couple of German amateur herpetologists and, confronted by reptilian magnificence as this, it was easy to understand the appeal. Bear country it may have been but this was snake and lizard territory too.In a meadow just beyond the footbridge that led across the racing river to the tiny hamlet of Čerem, stood a monument to Bajram Curri. Bajram Curri (pronounced ‘Tsuri’ like the English county rather than the universal Indian dish) also gave his moniker to the principal market town of this far northern border region of Albania, its name only 20 years ago a watchword for lawlessness and gun-running – a KLA stronghold that was more closely connected to what was then war-torn Kosovo than its own national capital in Tirana. These days, Bajram Curri is a quiet provincial town that only ever becomes animated on market days when hard-bargaining farmers might raise their voices over the price of sheep. Like the rest of Albania, it is now as safe as anywhere in Europe – safer probably – yet still there were those who looked askance whenever Albania was mentioned as if the country was still lawless and dangerous and run by shady mafia figures. It is not… but there are bears in the woods.Further on a wooden sign pointed steeply uphill towards ‘The Cave of Bajram Curri’, the cave where the Albanian hero and patriot was said to have once taken refuge whilst fleeing his enemies. We followed this up through woodland for a short while before taking another path to the left that signposted the springs at Burumi i Picamelit. This track, marked by occasional red and white ciphers painted on trees like Polish flags, lead through dense beech woodland scattered with huge boulders that had long ago thundered down from the cliffs far above. It was an evocative place, a numinous realm of shade and fecundity – the light tinged green by filtration through the high leaf canopy and by the thick carpet of moss that coated every surface. Here and there were saprophytic ghost orchids poking through the coppery leaf mold – pale, bloodless plants that had no truck with the chlorophyll that otherwise permeated the woodland like a green miasma.The path eventually bypassed a glade where large moss- and fern-covered rocks formed a natural outdoor theatre. Dead dry branches snapped noisily underfoot as we made our way across to the largest of the rocks – silence was not an option and any lurking bears would have been duly warned of our intrusion by our clumsy, crunching progress. Growing high on one of the larger rocks was a solitary Ramonda plant, a small blue flower and rosette of leaves anchored to the moss. The plant had an air of rarity about it – and scarce it was: a member of a specialised family found only in the Balkans and Pyrenees. Growing in solitary isolation and providing a discrete focal point in this hidden glade it almost felt as if this delicate blue flower had lured us here – the trophy of a secret quest, an object of worship. Indeed, the whole glade had the feel of the sacred: an animist shrine or secret gathering place; the location for a parliament of bears perhaps?We looked for evidence of ‘bear trees’ and eventually we found it: beside the track we discovered a conifer that had a large patch of bark missing from its trunk, freshly removed by the action of claw sharpening – or maybe as some sort of territorial signifier. At the junction of tracks further on was more visceral evidence in the form of a footpath sign that has been quite brutally attacked by a bear (or bears), the support post whittled away to a fraction of its former girth by unseen fearsome claws. Why this post had more bear-appeal than live growing trees of similar size was a mystery. Did bears have a preference for scratching away at machined timber? Was the unnatural square profile of the post especially tempting? Or did the bears somehow understand what signposts were for – to direct clod-footed human walkers into their territory. Fanciful and absurdly anthropomorphic though this might seem it did somehow hint at a thinly disguised warning – a re-purposing of man-made signposts to advertise the bears’ own potential threat: ursine semiotics. The day had, of course, been characterised by a total absence of bears – and woodpeckers too, despite numerous dead trunks riddled with their excavated holes – but their unseen presence in this secretive bosky world was nonetheless all too tangible. All the signs were there to be read.We ventured on to visit the springs at Burumi i Picamelit where underground water emerged straight from the limestone to race downhill in a fury towards the Valbona River below. Tucked away in a crevice beneath one of the rocks was another Ramonda growing just inches from the fast-flowing water.Heading back we become temporarily lost in the woods and spend ten minutes walking in circles looking for the trail before finally rediscovering it. Shortly after, we met the German reptile enthusiasts from the guesthouse walking the other way. We stopped to compare notes. None of us had seen any sign of bears in the flesh (in the fur?) but we had all seen the evidence that beckoned us: the claw-scratched trees, the mauled signpost. We concurred that it was probably best that way: an absence of bears on the ground but a strong sense of their presence as we politely trespassed their territory.