Dungeness

Now, with the promise of autumn in the air, it feels almost nostalgic to look back on those hot days of just two months ago: the end of July, record temperatures; the countryside baked and arid. A visit then, to Dungeness on the Kent coast, a headland jutting out to sea just to the east of the Sussex border. One of the largest expanses of shingle in Europe, it is a fabled place. Hitherto unknown, my only reference points are those places closer to home like Norfolk’s Blakeney Point and Suffolk’s Sizewell and Orford Ness where, until recently at least, there was a lighthouse. Dungeness, I learn, has two – an old and a new; like Sizewell, there is a nuclear power station. Like both, there is shingle galore.

The modern mythology of Dungeness precedes it. Much of it is connected with the filmmaker Derek Jarman, who lived here in a fisherman’s cottage in the 1990s. We arrived on what was predicted to be the hottest day on record and stayed overnight at a B&B on the coast road at nearby Lydd-on-Sea. The shelved beach was entirely of pebbles, nearly all flint, most of which were black although some were a warm shade of amber. I clambered awkwardly across loose, sun-blasted stones to take a swim, glad of the water’s relative coolness. The sea was tepid mulligatawny, warmed by the incoming tide flowing over hot pebbles. Across the bay lay the white low-rise of Folkestone, and beyond this Dover’s celebrated cliffs. Later, when the air cleared a little, we could see Boulogne gleaming across the Channel. Boulogne-sur-Mer: another country, closer here than even the horizon, although we, as a nation, were allowing it to drift from view. The water, the English Channel, had become both a salty barrier that kept us apart us as well as a fluid channel that connected us. The French, always better dressed, call it La Manche, ‘the sleeve’. Language has its own agenda; language slips from tongues and connives to confuse – La Manche: c’est la mer. La Manche: c’est le mur. La France: c’est l’amour.

The next day really was the hottest day on record. We drove to Dungeness to find Jarman’s house. Prospect Cottage, black-painted wood with bright yellow window frames, looked to be in excellent condition. The cottage was close enough to Dungeness Power Station to be within the acoustic shadow of the menacing clang and whir of its machinery. The garden was clearly a work of love, a metaphor for Jarman’s dwindling years, an exercise in making the most of limitations: a temple to pebbles and the salt-tolerant flora that would grow in their presence – sea kale, yellow-horned poppy, red valerian, fennel and clumps of tough spiky grasses. Beach debris, like sea-bleached driftwood, provided makeshift statuary, while circles of larger pebbles were arranged like henges. Unlike most gardens it seemed an extension of the landscape rather than any sort of imposition on it.  Here on a bleak shingle spit, framed by the terrifying machinery of nuclear fusion, was, as the title of Jarman’s book suggests, modern nature.

We drove on past the red and white banded new lighthouse to a pub close to the old lighthouse and the power station – the Britannia Inn (‘Fish & Chips, Pizza’), which had trestle tables lined up outside in its car park that afforded unbroken views to the concrete edifices of Dungeness B. It was hard to imagine something that could simultaneously be both so English and so weirdly incongruous. Signs in the shingle across the road warned of the necessity of a licence for filming and photography in specific areas. Like Orford Ness in Suffolk, Dungeness has become a brand with associated commercial interests. Membership cards of any psychogeographic-inclined affiliation were invalid here.

A boardwalk led across the shingle to a bench. Coming along it back towards the road were two policeman carrying binoculars. We had already noticed a large police presence in the area – patrol cars, transit vans with anti-riot shields poised above windscreen. At first, perhaps naively, I had thought it was a matter of security – keeping an eye on the power station, an obvious if not particularly vulnerable target for would-be terrorists. Then it dawned that they were here to watch the sea for migrant rafts. France was at its closest here and the English Channel was about as calm as it ever gets. It was high season for people smuggling.

Some of the houses that lined Marine Drive in Lydd had first floor balconies that looked out to sea. A few had flagpoles with flapping St George or Union flags. Here at England’s south-eastern edge, the Continental ‘other’ in plain view, expressions of nationalism appeared to be defiant and full-throated. I wondered what sort of welcome any raft voyager who successfully beached here would receive from those who had seen them approach through the telescope mounted on their verandas. Somehow I doubted that many would have the kettle boiling and the Hobnobs ready on a plate.

Dungeness’s watchfulness is nothing new. In the heat of the first afternoon I had taken a walk to see the Denge sound mirrors located on an island in what had recently been designated an RSPB reserve. Now designated Scheduled Ancient Monuments, the sound mirrors, constructed of concrete in three radically different designs, were built between 1928—1935 and were an intriguing precursor to the invention of radar just before World War II. Strange objects to find in any landscape let along here among the shingle and marshes of the West Kent littoral, the idea was that they would detect the sound coming emanated by low-flying enemy aircraft coming across the channel – an early warning system of ‘Listening Ears’ as they became known.

It was a historical fact, dictated by location and landscape, that Dungeness had long been keeping its ears and eyes open to intruders from across the sea. If such liminal places were ever to participate in a twinning scheme then Orford Ness in Suffolk, with its secret bomb testing facilities and comparable edge of the world atmosphere, would be a natural contender. Both Dungeness and Orford Ness watch and listen as the flint pebbles grind and roll on their beaches in ever-shifting Heraclitean flux. Panta rhei: ever moving, never the same, always the same.

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Rathlin Island

For one week this June this small island off the Antrim coast was a constant presence. The cottage we had rented stood high on a hill a couple of miles outside the resort of Ballycastle and the view to the north was an uninterrupted panorama of sea, sky and the long, low profile of Northern Ireland’s only inhabited island. The view depended on the weather, of course, which was something that changed constantly and wavered between overcast and mixed spells of sunshine and showers.

The L-shaped island that hugged the northern horizon was always visible, although in less clement weather it was sometimes little more than a hazy grey outline, a vague smudge that sat on the water. Sun or shine, two of the island’s three lighthouses were always in view, winking at intervals to alert shipping – the waters around Rathlin Island have a long history of shipwrecks and the remains of many unsuspecting vessels lie gathering barnacles at the bottom of the Atlantic close to its shore.

On sunnier days, more detail became evident and the island’s magpie cliffs of basalt and chalk could be clearly discerned, as could the houses and church of the village by the harbour. It was on these brighter days that other landforms also took shape on the horizon. Most days we could make out the southern end of the Scottish peninsula that is the Mull of Kintyre but now and then, far beyond the island, more distant places came into view – the hills of Islay and the unmistakable rise of the Paps of Jura.

From our perspective the island appeared to be at the edge of things. The most northerly point in Northern Ireland, it was the place where the island of Ireland gave way to the Atlantic. A small island that lay off the coast of another larger island, it seemed to be more an outlier than a stepping stone to anywhere else. But it was a place that had not always been so peripheral: long before today’s national divisions had come into play Rathlin had been central to the ancient Gaelic kingdom of Dal Riada, a political entity that included the coast of Argyll in western Scotland as well as part of what is now County Antrim in Northern Ireland.

Some days we could make out the ferry, Spirit of Rathlin, plying its way between Ballycastle and the island. On a day that promised to be calmer and sunnier than most we made the journey ourselves. As we drew closer to the harbour at Rathlin an increasing number of seabirds could be seen bobbing about on the water – a taste of what we would soon be seeing on the island itself. These were mostly guillemots but there were also small parties of gannets flying low over the waves, identifiable even at distance with their butter-coloured necks and long ink-dipped wings.

At Rathlin harbour, a bus – the ‘Puffin Express’ – was waiting to drive passengers across the island to the RSPB bird reserve at its western point. Here, steps led down to a viewing platform opposite the cliffs and stacks where the seabirds nested. The malodorous smell of guano grew increasingly strong as we descended – observing seabirds up close is undoubtedly one of the least glamorous aspects of bird watching. From the viewing platform vast numbers of seabirds could be seen at their nests opposite on the rocks – as closely packed as an urban high-rise but with distinctly separate enclaves of guillemot and razorbill, kittiwake and puffin. Closer to the viewing platform, a few fulmars, contemptuous of the excitable human presence and unperturbed by the relentless glint of expensive optics, had made their nests in the grass just beyond the barrier.

Driving back to the village, past fields of sheep and grazing cattle, our driver stopped the bus briefly to point out a cave to our left. It was the entrance, he said, to the stone axe mine that had existed on the island in Neolithic times.

In Belfast, a few days earlier, I had gone to see the so-called Malone Hoard at the Ulster Museum. The hoard was a collection of 19 beautifully polished stone axes that had been discovered on Malone Road close to the museum. The axes were around 6,000 years old and clearly ceremonial objects of some kind: not only were they too large to be of practical use for chopping trees but when they were discovered some of the stones had been found aligned vertically in the ground. Even behind glass, they were undeniably beautiful objects and had a curvy heft about them that seemed to invite handling. Given the understandable restrictions imposed by museums, this, of course, was not possible.

The axes had been identified as being made from a rock called porcellanite, a hard, dense impure variety of chert so-named because of its physical similarity to unglazed porcelain. Unlike flint, porcellanite does not flake easily and has a texture that accepts a fine polish and keen edge. There were only two possible sources of this scarce rock in Northern Ireland. Both were in Antrim. One was at Tievebulliagh, a 402-metre mountain in the Glens of Antrim; the other was on Rathlin Island. Both sources yielded rock of exactly the same physical and chemical makeup so it was impossible to tell which had been used for the Malone Road axes. For reasons of romance rather than anything more scientific, I preferred to think that these precious objects had originated here on the island.

Back off the bus, we sat on the beach at Mill Bay listening to the piping of oystercatchers and watching grey seals as they made forays through the rafts of seaweed that lay just offshore. Seaweed was once a profitable business here. A little further on towards the harbour, an abandoned kelp barn stood roofless next to the shore. It was built of blocks of the same Cretaceous chalk that make up the white cliffs we could see from our rental cottage on the mainland.

After an unproductive listen for corncrakes in a field we had been told about by an RSPB warden we made our way to the jetty to wait for the ferry back to Ballycastle. Notwithstanding the lack of corncrakes, it had been a satisfying few hours. We were by now brim-full with all the wonders that Rathlin Island had to offer: the seabirds – the smell, the noise, the frantic flying about; the wider natural history of the place – the seals, the kelp, the garden flowers that had gone feral and colonised the island’s dry stone walls. Then there was the geology – the Cretaceous chalk and Tertiary basalt of the cliffs, the flints on the beach, the cave with its supply of elusive porcellanite. It would have been nice to have taken a peek inside the cave where the stone axe mine had been but it did not really matter. Prehistory, myth and memory are all intertwined and we make our own emotional truths. Whatever the true archaeological facts of it, in my mind at least the Malone Hoard axes would always be associated with this place on the edge of things.

The Greenway

Picking up from where we left off, back in November, my friend Nigel Roberts and I travelled to London on Wednesday* to walk Section 14 of the Capital Ring. We arrive at our starting point at Hackney Wick by way of the 26 bus from Liverpool Street Station, whose upper deck gives excellent views of upwardly and downwardly mobile Shoreditch and Hackney along the way.

Hackney Wick, an East London zone heavily revamped by the 2012 Olympics, is already starting to develop a distinct patina – a place that is part bohemia and part industrial estate, with pleasing, professionally executed murals amid rag-tag graffiti.  We require sustenance before we set off, so bacon and egg rolls are purchased from a snack van near the station. The rolls, amply filled and luxuriously lubricated with brown sauce, are excellent value and of sufficient deliciousness that I am tempted to adopt them as an alternative monetary unit – a BER (Bacon and Egg Roll), a benchmark by which to compare prices. As I sit on a bench gnawing away, Nigel – always one to document every detail en route – Milibands me with his phone camera, capturing my awkward mastication for the benefit, no doubt, of his thousands of Facebook followers and leaving my political career in tatters even before it is begun.

From the station we cross a bridge over the Lea Navigation (Hackney Cut) and follow the towpath south for a short distance before veering off left to join the route of The Greenway. The Greenway, well signposted and walker-friendly, is a six-mile-long pedestrian and cycle route that sits on top of the Northern Outfall Sewage embankment (N.O.S.E), directly above the 1860s Joseph Bazalgette-built sewer that shifts vast quantities of London sewage to a treatment plant in Beckton where, once purified, it is released into the Thames. Had Situationists ever trodden its well-maintained path they might have declared, ‘Sous les pavés, la merde!’ While Tony Blair once recommended a centrist Third Way, here, we are following something akin to a turd way, although the official name, The Greenway, undoubtedly has a more fragrant ring to it. 

Queening it over Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to our left is the London Stadium, now the claret and blue home of West Ham FC, along with the fantasy fairground ride that is Anish Kapoor’s ArcellorMittal Orbit sculpture. Further on, just before reaching the railway line, we come to the View Tube Café & Bar, where we stop for a coffee (1.2 BER for a polystyrene cupful) but pass on the cocktails on offer (1 mojito = 4 BER).

Suitably caffeinated, we follow the ramps that take us beneath the multiple tracks of the former Great Eastern Railway before returning to The Greenway again. We cross Waterworks River and then Stratford High Street, which is busy with traffic and lined with gleaming new office blocks. One of these bears a mural of a Victorian woman with baskets of lavender – a memorial to the onetime Yardley soap factory that stood nearby. Equally intriguing is a strange tower that stands a little way down the street by the river. It is something I have seen from the train many times before and had always wondered about. The Stratford East Tower, on close inspection, is built of timber and mimics an elongated (and leaky) ice cream cone. What it really represents, of course, is an Olympic torch – another architectural heirloom of the glory days of 2012. These days, more prosaically, it also houses a mobile phone mast hidden within.

Back on The Greenway, a Thames Water crew is carrying out some sort of maintenance of the sewer below. Aluminium ladders lead underground through open manholes that offer our noses a mild hint of that which flows beneath. Just beyond here, down a slope to the right, stands the quite magnificent edifice of the Abbey Mills pumping station behind high razor wire fencing. Constructed by Bazalgette in the 1860s, it originally housed the beam engines required to pump city sewage 40 feet up to the height of the Northern Outfall Sewer. Byzantine-style, and yellow brick with cupolas, it resembles nothing less than a cathedral, Bulgarian Orthodox perhaps? St Bazalgette’s? Or maybe even Catholic? – Spain already has its own Our Lady of the Sewers**, so it is not such a far-fetched notion.

A little way beyond the pumping station is Abbey Creek The tide is out, leaving a grey expanse of mud stippled with fragments of wire netting, dead shopping trolleys and other Anthropocene detritus. Overlooking the creek is another relic of the pumping station: a curious piece of ironwork that resembles a giant nautilus fossil… or maybe a super-sized tuba, a fiendish instrument that can only be blown by the foul breath of the sewer beneath.

Back on The Greenway itself, a little further on, large white letters on the wall spell out:

L O N G   L I V E   C O M M U N I S M

Nigel, channelling revolutionary БРСМ*** spirit, poses for a photograph with a raised fist. It feels anachronistic. Perhaps, by way of balance, or simply to bring it up to date, there should also be another that says:    

D E A T H   T O   N E O L I B E R A L I S M    and/or 

O B S E R V E   T H E   D E A T H   T H R O W S   O F   

L A T E   C A P I T A L I S M

Such slogans are absent, although they are easily brought to mind by a head swivel across to the silhouetted high-rises that mark the distant City of London – the sky-piercing monoliths of Canary Wharf Tower and The Shard being the most familiar of the cluster. Here, encapsulated in glass, steel and concrete, are the architectural marker stones of the London Launderette, the machinery of which is currently rinsing roubles on fast cycle. Londongrad: an established playground for oligarchs, kleptocrats, KGB cathedral fanciers and Premiership billionaires – bullion for bricks, gas for glass, irony for iron, gold for goalkeepers; cash for condos, cash for honours, cash for tennis. Another hidden sewer: the secret culvert of dirty money that seeps unseen into The City.

We cross another railway line and then have views through trees to the stones and avenues of the East London Cemetery. Next we pass Newham University Hospital and some giant concrete balls at the junction with Boundary Lane. At a primary school playground a little further on we leave The Greenway behind, heading south to reach the ramps that take us across the dual-carriageway of the A13. Looking east beyond the red brake lights of queued traffic is the modest rise of Becton Alp, a fake hill made by piling the toxic spoil of a former gas works. It is no Silbury but at 36 metres is still the highest artificial mound in London.

Our walk ends with a meander through Beckton District Park. This area feels more Ballardian suburb than gritty city edge. Nigel observes, ‘This could be Worcester, you know.’ And he is right, it could be almost anywhere. The trees planted in the park come from far and wide, each bearing a sign to identify species and provenance. Tired and footsore by now, we forget to look until the last one – Algerian Ash.

The DLR from Royal Albert Station speeds us back into central London – a driverless train through the heart of The City providing all the metaphors you might possibly need. Later, over beers in a Soho pub (1 pint = 2BER), we discuss prog bands we saw back in the glory days of the last century. A man at the next table joins in the conversation. He tells us he likes visiting pubs that come with a bit of history. Currently he is on a tour of George Orwell haunts in the city. After a quick chat about The Road to Wigan Pier, a book we both admire, I ask: ‘So did Orwell used to frequent this place.’ His reply was unexpected, ‘No, but Dennis Nilsen used to come here to look for victims, I think.’

* Wednesday, February 23 – the day after ‘Palindrome Day’ 22.02.2022; the day before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine 24.02.2022

** see Paul Richardson’s Our Lady of the Sewers and other Adventures in Deep Spain 1998

 *** БРСМ = Belarusian Republican Youth Union (…only kidding, although Nigel is undoubtedly a Belarus pioneer of sorts)

A Solstice Walk – Boudicca Way

In recent years I have got into the habit of taking a walk on the day of the winter solstice, December 21. Yesterday’s walk was along the section of the Boudicca Way that lies between Venta Icenorum and Norwich.

Venta Icenorum, which lies a few miles south of the city close to the village of Caistor St Edmund, was a walled Romano-British settlement that served as the civitas or capital of the Iceni tribe. The town was laid out sometime after Boudicca’s violent uprising against Roman rule in the winter of AD61 and so there is no chance that the famously vengeful Iceni queen was ever connected with the settlement itself. It is also debatable that Boudicca ever walked this precise territory but the Iceni queen is certainly local enough to at least deserve a mention.

Like many recently, it is a drearily grey day and there are few other visitors to the Roman town. I walk a little way along the walls before leaving the site to head uphill along one of High Ash Farm’s permissive paths. Damp and dreich, low cloud has largely expunged any colour from the landscape. The fields are harvested and bare, and the sense of midwinter inertia is strong despite the reasonably mild temperature and lack of snow. Light is at a premium; but the days are changing and more light will be here soon.

At the top of the hill a planting of Scots pine marks the site of an Anglo-Saxon graveyard, a situation that offers views down to St Edmund’s church and the low flint and brick walls of the Roman town. The Southern Bypass buzzes with cars and lorries in the distance. Beyond this, the impassive concrete cuboid of Norfolk County Hall marks the entrance to the city for traffic from the southeast.

The way traces a minor road for a while before dipping downhill into a valley. It then follows a footpath uphill to arrive at Caistor Lane and the curiously named French Church Farm. Another footpath leads north away from the road climbing gently up the valley side. Here, I pass a family – mum, dad, granddad, two kids – eating sandwiches on a bench halfway up. These are about the only walkers I have seen so far. In a field to the right, keeping well away from the mobbing crows that predominate the landscape around here, is a lone pair of Egyptian geese. At the top I emerge at Hallback Lane, a delightfully green, ancient trackway lined with coppiced hazel and ancient oaks. Halfway along is a wizened old oak that is familiar to many who live around here. Dubbed ‘the Africa Tree’, it bears a hollow in its trunk that delineates a fairly accurate outline of the Dark Continent. French Church, Africa Tree, Egyptian geese – something seems slightly out of kilter here.

A path to the right takes me up around the top of Caistor Chalk Quarry, close to the fence that protects it from public intrusion. The quarry is far larger than I had imagined. Steep sandy cliffs frame a deep hole and wide expanse of scarred earth; scattered extraction apparatus, storage hangars and piles of gravel and flint sit on the exposed chalk bedrock. The quarry, I later learn, is the last remaining inland section of the Beeston Chalk formation of the Upper Cretaceous. The exposed seam here is directly connected to the chalk pavement seen thirty miles away at Beeston Regis on the north Norfolk coast. Although this is the first time that I have actually seen it, I already have a connection with this place – a few echinoid fossils gifted to me over 30 years ago by an erstwhile neighbour, a lovely man called Russell who used to work at the quarry.

I join the Arminghall Road and follow it over the Southern Bypass, which is, as always, frantic with commuter traffic. Soon after, I leave this behind to take a footpath across a damp meadow towards the Arminghall henge. Truth be told, the Bronze Age henge probably looks a lot more impressive seen crow-eyed from a drone overhead. Originally, a horseshoe of wooden posts open to the southwest, now it is little more than a symbol on the OS map, a vague rise and depression in a pylon-spanned field. There has been a suggestion* that the henge may be orientated to the winter sunset over Chapel Hill to the southwest. Today though, no sun is visible, and the summit of the low hill, which once bore a church dedicated, like that at the Venta Icenorum site, to St Edmund, is engulfed by the Norwich to London railway line.

A footpath leads along the River Tas behind the large electricity substation that occupies the field next to the henge. A little way along this, the brutalist bulk of County Hall emerges through the trees beyond the railway line that hugs the opposite bank. I pass under the graffiti-adorned pillars of the rattling A146 to emerge just shy of the bridge at Trowse Millgate. Across the ring road roundabout, is Bracondale and my route into the city centre. I am almost home now. Only 3.30pm and darkness is starting to fall, Tomorrow, at least, there will be a little more light.

*See: https://archive.uea.ac.uk/~jwmp/CAA2003.pdf

Walking the Ring: Stoke Newington to Hackney Wick

Stoke Newington, London N6. We are here to walk part of the Capital Ring that circuits the capital by way of 15 stages. Slightly perversely we decide to begin at Stage 13, which links Stoke Newington with Hackney Wick by means of a park and a path alongside the River Lea and Lea River Navigation. Less defiantly, we will follow the overall route clockwise as suggested. To go widdershins might be an enticement but we are civilised men not maniacs.

Firstly though, Abney Park cemetery beckons. The main Egyptian Gate on the high street is closed but there is a way round the side that funnels us between barriers into the non-conformist boneyard. The park, as much arboretum as cemetery, is quiet – dense foliage neutralising the din of traffic from the roads that surround it; just a few muffled barks from exercising dogs and the jungle shriek of an unseen parakeet. Quiet or not, the tree-lined paths are fairly busy with strollers and dog-walkers. We come across one woman who has no less than seven small lead-dragging dogs in her charge, including a one-eyed pooch that clearly bears a grudge against binocular humans.

We have no purpose or aim other than just to wander and take it all in – the trees, the gravestones, the gothic atmosphere, the knowledge that this cemetery was the inspiration for the hidden fragment of Paradise that Arthur Machen wrote about in his short story N. We find no such paradise garden but instead plenty of interesting angel-perched tombs and several oddities – a wooden marker that asserts mysteriously ‘Elvis put his hand on my shoulder’ and the simple stone gravestone with the legend: ‘Thomas Caulker 1846—1859 Son of the King of Bompey’. Bompey, we later discover, was an early 19th century West African chiefdom that was eventually incorporated into Sierra Leone in 1888. The stone looks like a fairly modern replacement. What is curious is that the 160-year-old grave is still attended – a single flower has been recently placed upon it.

We exit the park to join the Ring; a sign right outside the cemetery confirms we are on the right path. My companion Nigel takes a photograph of me in front of the sign and as he does this a cheerful Black woman pushing an empty shopping trolley offers to take a snap of the two of us – she assumes we are tourists, and in many ways she is right. We head up Cazenove Road, where a fading ghost sign on a gable advertises a discontinued brand of whisky and an abandoned charity shop, as niche as you like, boasts a Bosnia & Herzegovina connection. It is all comfortingly multicultural – orthodox Jewish men in black hats and long coats rub shoulders with Muslims in white skullcaps and shalwar kameez. Looking at our map to check the route, one of the latter, a helpful elderly Pakistani, asks if we need directions and points us towards Springfield Park. There is no denying it – we really do look like tourists.

At the rise of the park the Lea Valley suddenly comes into view beyond – a proper valley, a river-carved ha-ha that slopes down to the water and sharply up again. A sign at a viewpoint helpfully informs us that we are standing on Hackney gravel, below that is London clay. Another parakeet screeches, this one perched in a tree, lurid green, channeling the tropics.

A more at home, native species – a heron – stands guard on a houseboat close to the footbridge at the bottom of the park. It sees us but looks unperturbed. We cross over the river to the east bank and start walking south. Walthamstow Marsh stretches away to the east, all reed, sedge and soggy pasture; rising above the marsh, beyond the railway, stands an island of modern development that may or may not be offices. There is an almost endless line of houseboats moored to both banks. Nothing too chi-chi – vaguely counter-cultural but mostly no-nonsense make do and mend: heaps of burner firewood, car batteries, plants in plots, well-used bicycles; a few seasoned boat dwellers going about daily chores, clenched roll-ups, dreadlocks piled high.

Across the water, a little further along, is a pub with outside trestle tables stacked for winter: The Anchor & Hope. Not the Hope & Anchor, the historic pub rock venue in Islington that we remember hearing tales of in our youth. Anchor & Hope – Anchor (or at least moor) and Hope your boat doesn’t sink? Anger and Hope maybe? There seems to be plenty of anger about but hope can be elusive; as they say, it is the hope that kills.

Approaching Clapham Junction Viaduct we hear the two-stroke put-put of a barge on the move. Another barge comes from the rear to slowly overtake and the two boatmen exchange chummy bargee greetings as they pass on the water. A sign under the viaduct arches indicates that this is the original location of A V Roe’s workshop where the first all-British powered flying craft, a precarious-looking tri-plane held together with wire and glue, was built in 1909. Inspired by the Wright Brothers’ achievement of just six years earlier, the aeronaut successfully managed a short wobbling flight across the adjacent marshes, a sight that must have given the local herons quite a start.

At Lea Valley Ice Centre the path diverts along the canalised Lea River Navigation, the wide green expanse of Hackney Marshes stretching invitingly to our left. We detour briefly to view the former site of the Middlesex Filter Beds, now a designated nature reserve, where we find the granite blocks that once held the pumping engine in place rearranged into what has become known as the ‘Ackney Enge’. A little further on we find the hope we had been looking for back at the waterside pub: a footbridge over the water has a draped banner that proclaims BELIEVE IN OUR COLLECTIVE IMAGINATION on one side, and on the other, DARE TO DREAM BEYOND CAPITALISM. Hope indeed.

Shortly before reaching Hackney Wick we pass beneath a roadway where the supporting concrete arches have been comprehensively decorated with all manner of found objects – bottle tops, cans, bits of wire, keys, keyboards, electronic components, beer cans – all lovingly glued in place and spray-painted. As I stop to take a photograph, a man on a bike appears out of nowhere to inform me that the artist, a lovely fellow by all accounts, was a friend of his who had died quite recently. He pedals off back into the shadows as quickly as he arrived. Then I notice a portrait of the artist attached to the second of the pillars. The artist in question looks remarkably like the man I have just spoken to. Could this be a ghost artist obliged to return and show visitors around his urban art gallery, a revenant on a bicycle?

Our walk ends at Hackney Wick. We know we have arrived when we see West Ham’s London Stadium at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in the distance, the deranged helter-skelter of Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit alongside it. Somewhat disoriented by the glare of the new development that engulfs us on all sides, we look for the bus stop we need for the service back to central London. I know that it is close to the Church of St Mary at Eton but its location proves to be elusive. My A to Z is well out of date, the streets marked on it have since been redacted; new ones with new names have taken their place. Nigel employs his smart phone to engage with a satellite to find the correct route and we beat a path past Hackney Wick Overground station and along streets parallel to the thrumming A12. Despite the nearby traffic frenzy, the area is relatively quiet and uncluttered by commerce, just a scattering of car body repair shops and the occasional cafe. A random sign offers sourdough pizza – you can almost hear self-respecting Neapolitans crying in anguish. But nothing is sacred and change is inevitable: the deeply layered lasagne that is East London has had its time-honoured béchamel topping scraped away and replaced with something considered to be more wholesome. As ever, the city is a palimpsest.

Black Country

Here is another brief extract from my book Westering that was published earlier this year by Saraband. This time it concerns my transit on foot through the territory of the Black Country that lies to the west of Birmingham. I have included a few black and white images to illustrate the text here. These are not in the book itself but might help give a flavour of what the area is like.

Extract from Chapter 15 – City of Metal

Here was the Black Country and now I was walking on sunshine: the sunshine that lay captured in carbon in the earth below. The sunshine trapped by swampy tropical forests of trees and ferns that, over tens of millions of years of compression, had transformed to a solid energy-rich fuel source; the black rock that set the Industrial Revolution in motion around two hundred years ago – a period of time that on the geological scale of things was little more than a blink of an eye.

Thanks to the thirty-foot-thick seam of coal beneath the ground, Oldbury was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. Four blast furnaces operated in its vicinity between the 1780s and 1860s but, as the fortunes of coal mining and steel-making declined in the region in the late 19th century, brick-making took over, exploiting the deposits of Etruria marl that were also found in abundance beneath the coal seam. The town’s underlying geology was generous to a fault: the clay was perfect for manufacturing Staffordshire blue brick, a hard-wearing, non-porous brick ideal for use in foundations, bridges, steps and tunnels – the essential hardware of Black Country business. Tar distilling, chemical manufacturing and boiler-making industries also took root in the district later on. The inevitable result was a besmirched landscape – a ‘black country’ – an environment littered with spoil heaps, abandoned quarries, cavernous marl pits and unbridled chemical pollution. In its heyday, the Black Country had been highly productive – a soot-blasted territory of glowing foundries and clanging metal – but now that energy has drained away.

Extract from Chapter 16 – Black over Bill’s Mother’s

At Brierley Hill I came across a new waterfront development complex that was named, somewhat unimaginatively, The Waterfront. It still did not seem quite finished and many of the individuals milling round the car park sported hard hats and high-visibility jackets: surveyors, property developers and the like – the storm troopers of real estate. Merry Hill, a little further along the canal, had a large hotel advertising FAIRYTALE WEDDINGS, a promotion reinforced by a giant love heart inscribed WILL YOU MARRY ME? On the opposite bank was Brewer’s Wharf, a Victorian pub complex that looked as if it had been there since the time that navvies had come over from Ireland to dig the canals. Its tall chimney bore the legend BANKS’S in bold white lettering. Banks’s, the Wolverhampton ale that quenched many a nail-maker’s thirst in these parts – it seemed a shame that the secretive Banksy could not be employed to make some sort of joint venture with his own art here: a Banksy Banks’s.

The vast Merry Hill shopping centre is probably the Black Country’s biggest draw for anyone with a car and a credit card. It has been in business long enough – since the 1980s – for the shopping complex to be as much a fixture on the mental map of those who live in the area as somewhere with deeper historic entitlement, such as Dudley Castle. More like a diurnal new town than a shopping complex, Merry Hill is defiantly self-absorbed – a world unto itself that has little to do with the canal that passes it by or the industrial heritage of the area. Its retail workers know nothing of lung-clogging coal dust or searing hot metal. Their world is one of special offers, stock-taking and refund protocol.

Further along the canal, Nine-Locks Bridge marks the beginning of Delph Locks, a flight of locks – originally nine but eight now – that cascades downhill to the lower country around Stourbridge, whose sprawl of rooftops could now be seen below.

At the bottom was a pub appropriately called The Tenth Lock. This was prime territory for murder ballads. The dark watery world of the locks was a fine setting for tales of drowning and lovers’ trysts gone badly wrong: a Victorian world of smoke and reeking factories, of hard lives; a polluted monochrome world, of choking industrial fogs that played tricks with the vision and mind.

The Hare and the Point

A warm, slightly hazy day on the north Norfolk coast; a day caught on the cusp as an unusually cold spring stumbles into an, as yet unknown, summer. We walk west past a few lobster boats from the beach car park at Cley-next-the-Sea, scrunching through the shingle to reach a meandering path that leads through low glaucous shrubs at the edge of a salt marsh. Just beyond the shingle ridge to our right is the North Sea, a constant mineral grumble of pebbles grinding on the tide; an aural massage – maritime poetry in motion. In the distance ahead, a solitary single–storey building, ‘Halfway House’, cuts a lonely figure in the landscape. Beyond this, in the murky haze at the very end of the Point, is the bright blue of the onetime lifeboat station that now serves as a visitor centre.

So what’s the point? Or rather, where is the Point? Blakeney Point is a shingle spit that begins at Cley Beach and extends like a claw nearly four miles to the west, the result of centuries of longshore drift piling up sand and stone to create new land. Although famous for its breeding population of harbour and grey seals, we are here today for its little terns, which nest at awkward and not particularly sensible places in the shingle leaving their eggs vulnerable to high tides and attack by opportunist predators like gulls and kestrels. Our friend Hanne is one of several volunteers responsible for keeping an eye on the birds.

A cordoned-off area of shingle encloses some of the tern’s nests, although many by now have moved on west to the end of the Point. There are oystercatchers too, and avocets – each species doing its best to mind its own business. Salt-tolerant plants like sea beet, sea campion and biting stonecrop are all anchored in the firmer shingle, while at the looser-stoned apex of the ridge that slopes steeply down to the water seakale is in full bloom. Elsewhere, clumps of yellow horned poppy, another shingle specialist, are starting to throw up flower heads in readiness for blooming. A place that instinctively you feel should be barren; it seems remarkable that anything can grow here nurtured by little else but stone, sand and saltwater.

Hanne takes us for a walk up towards Halfway House. A skylark sings high overhead, little more than a high fidgeting dot to the naked eye. In the distance, across the marshes close to Blakeney Channel, we catch sight of the unmistakable form of a marsh harrier quartering the reed beds. On the Point itself the bushes are alive with restless flittering birds that turn out to be a mixture of meadow pipits, linnets and reed buntings, although at times of migration almost anything could turn up here. And it does: as first point of landfall for any bird carried unwittingly by powerful winds from the north, Blakeney Point has an impressive record of rare sightings.

Our most impressive sight by far, though, is a meeting with a brown hare – or, rather, a pair. One of them makes a run for it and disappears into the Suaeda (shrubby sea-blite), the other remains, frozen in its tracks, hunched with long ears flattened to its head in an effort to make itself small. In some ways more resembling a small deer than a large rabbit, with improbably long ears and soft, intelligent eyes, it is easy to see how hares have always been revered in British and European folklore. Long gifted magical properties by those whose livelihood affords them a close relationship to the soil, hares engender a strong sense of ‘the other’: a sacred animal, a spirit familiar, a symbol of fecundity, sex and madness. A means of divination too: the Iceni warrior queen Boudicca is said to have read the entrails of a hare as an augury for victory against the Romans in her uprising of AD61.

The hare slowly adjusts to our presence and cautiously and slowly raises its ears, then straightens its legs before finally bolting off to join its companion. Our serendipitous encounter has been no more than a minute in total but the whole incident has put a temporal brake on the space-time continuum. As the hare moves off, time – at least the quotidian linear time that embraces cause and effect – is finally unfrozen.

We continue our walk to head down a wide swath of firm shingle and sea thrift that Hanne calls the Fairway. It leads to the edge of a tidal creek close to Halfway House. The highly prized real estate of Blakeney village is clearly visible across the channel that separates us from the ‘mainland’, as is St Nicholas’ church high above the houses and, west of this, the iconic windmill at Cley. In the network of creeks and mudflats that fringe the channel, redshanks alternate between stabbing the mud in search of invertebrates and flying short distances, calling plaintively as they go. At the muddy margins, marsh samphire is starting to emerge, although it is still too early to pick. Heading back to the car park, we walk along the sloping beach alongside the outgoing tide. Beyond the silhouetted fishing boats ahead, the distant cliffs of West Runton are visible in the sea-hazed distance. Just pure sea-sound now: no motor vehicles or human voices, just the swash of waves on pebbles, the piercing cry of terns and the aerial clatter of a skylark beyond the ridge to our right.

Many thanks to Hanne Siebers and Klausbernd Vollmar for their company on the Point. Check out Hanne’s wonderful photographs of Casper, Cley’s leucistic barn owl at The Silent Hunter

Westering

My book Westering is published this week by the award-winning independent publisher Saraband. Beginning in Great Yarmouth and meandering to Aberystwyth, the book describes a coast-to-coast journey on foot traversing the Fens, East Midlands, Birmingham, the Black Country and central Wales.

Here is a brief extract from the first chapter. It should be noted that the accompanying photographs shown here are NOT included in the book.

Extract from Chapter 1: Red Herrings

From our high viewpoint it was clear that Yarmouth developed on a sand spit, a narrow finger of land squeezed between the North Sea and the River Yare that points accusingly southwards in the direction of Lowestoft. Modern housing and light industry have long filled in the space between the river and the sea, and an industrial estate now surrounds the base of the column, but when the monument was first erected in the second decade of the 19th century, to commemorate Nelson’s maritime victories, it stood alone on a fishing beach, isolated from the town to the north.

Looking south, we could see the mouth of the River Yare at Gorleston. Just beyond were the Suffolk border and a cluster of holiday villages before the sprawl of Yarmouth’s historic rival, Lowestoft, Britain’s most easterly town. Further south still was the prim resort of Southwold, which, like its neighbours Dunwich and Walberswick, was once a mighty port before silting and coastal erosion took their toll. To the east lay the taut curve of the North Sea – a wave-flecked, grey-green expanse that diminished to a hazy vanishing point. A cluster of wind turbines, their blades almost immobile on this calm late-summer day, stood someway offshore at Scroby Sands. Across the water, far beyond the horizon, unseen even from our elevated viewpoint, were the polders and dykes of the Netherlands, a country that once had close economic ties with this easternmost part of England.

Some impulse had me imagining a time before the rising sea levels that followed the last glacial period, a time when a land bridge still connected Britain to Europe. Doggerland, as the territory has become known, now lies beneath the waves but it was a land of plenty just a few thousand years ago, roamed by mammoths, bison and small bands of Mesolithic hunters.

A little way beyond the entrance to Wellington Pier stands the intricate Victorian wrought-iron framework of the Winter Gardens, the last remaining building of its type in the country. Impressive but now empty and neglected, the structure resembles a giant multi-storey conservatory in need of a paint job: a potential future Eden Project in waiting (this is still one council member’s dream), if only the necessary funding could be raised. Although it looks perfectly at home here on the North Sea coast, the building was a blow-in from the southwest. Originally constructed in Torquay, it stood in that resort for twenty-four years before being carefully dismantled and barged around the coast in 1903 to take up residence here alongside Yarmouth’s then brand-new Wellington Pier.

Across the road from the Winter Gardens, the Windmill Theatre has a facsimile set of sails attached to its façade in impersonation of the Moulin Rouge in Paris, although it is doubtful if the floor show here was ever quite as racy as its French equivalent. Back in the 1950s, this building – which started life as The Gem, the country’s first electric picture house – hosted George Formby summer residencies. The Norfolk coast and the nearby Broads had become a second home for Formby in his twilight years when, rather than old-fashioned variety, public taste was starting to demand a more exciting, rock n’ roll flavour for its entertainment. But the entertainer and his ukulele always had a loyal following here on the Norfolk coast, where tastes were more down to earth. It did not take much imagination to turn the clock back to Yarmouth’s heyday and picture a grinning, Brylcreemed Formby strolling along this very same seafront in pullover and baggy flannels as he dreamed up double-entendres in the briny air.

Much of the Yarmouth that would have been familiar to Formby is still evident: the beach, the town’s ‘Golden Mile’ of amusement arcades, the miniature golf courses and pleasure gardens, the fast food outlets that gift the seafront a pungent cocktail of chip fat and fried onions (with notes of biodegraded phytoplankton from the beach and horse shit from the pony-drawn landaus). Such attributes are not as popular as they once were, but the town’s latter-day decline is the familiar story of many English seaside resorts in the late 20th century. The beach is still as pristine as ever, but a number of the town’s once-flourishing entertainment palaces now lie empty and abandoned. The Empire was one such place, a former theatre that lacked both audience and, until recently, a full complement of letters above its art nouveau doorway, its former terracotta cladding stripped and once-proud colonial name reduced by weathering and gravity to read ‘EMPI’. Although touted by some as an ideal venue for a future art gallery, it still stands empty and unloved.

A Welsh Chapel

The isolated Calvinist Methodist chapel of Soar-y-mynydd is often claimed to be the remotest in all of Wales. Certainly, it lies in a very quiet spot: close to the eastern limit of Ceredigion, eight miles southeast of Tregaron within the parish of Llanddewi Brefi (of Little Britain fame)

Built in 1822 to serve a widely scattered congregation of farmers and sheep drovers, it would have originally stood close to the road to Llandovery that followed the Cammdwr valley south. Like many other central Welsh valleys, this was flooded in the 1970s to provide a reservoir that now extends close to where the chapel stands.

Despite its relative isolation the chapel has seen illustrious visitors over the years. Many poets and artists have been inspired by its whitewashed simplicity and even former US President Jimmy Carter was impressed when he visited on a fishing holiday in 1986. (A painting of the chapel by Ceredigion artist Wynne Melville Jones was subsequently presented to the former president in appreciation of his visit.)

The chapel interior is simple, not exactly austere but unfussy: tightly packed wooden benches dappled with red and blue light from the Mondrian-esque stained glass; plain walls that seem to resonate with earnest drovers’ prayers and ancient Welsh voices. On one of the walls a painted scroll bears the simplest of messages: Duw cariad yw (‘God is love’).

 

Fogbound: Heacham to Old Hunstanton

Earlier this week we walked from Heacham to Old Hunstanton along the seawall. To say that it was a bit foggy would be an understatement as the whole of northwest Norfolk lay shivering under a thick blanket of dense fog – a white-out, or rather ‘grey-out’, that rendered visibility poor in the extreme.

We made our way through Heacham village, past gingerbread carstone cottages and then holiday bungalows and caravan sites before arriving at North Beach, where the previous night’s freeze had created thin blades on the stems and leaves of shoreline plants and shrubs.  

A few distant ghostly figures could be seen out on the wall, walking dogs or just taking exercise. The Wash that lay ahead was an unappetising grey soup that disappeared from view not far beyond the groynes that ran into it. On the far shore lay Lincolnshire; today, it may as well have been Narnia. It is said that on a clear day it is sometimes possible to make out Boston Stump (the soaring tower of Boston’s St Botoph’s church) on the distant shore. Not so today. The tide was going out, its recent turning delineated by a line of seaweed, broken shells and energy drink cans. A washed-up sprig of plastic holly added a timely if lacklustre reminder of the coming festive season.

Approaching Hunstanton, the resort slowly came into focus as the mist started to clear. Soon after, a hazy disc of sun shone through and fragments of blue sky began to piece together overhead. By the time we reached Old Hunstanton the transformation was complete – perfect light to appreciate the banded cliffs that rise here. Some unknown hand had created a piece of citizen landscape art on the beach – a collection of painstakingly assembled cairns of red and white chalk that echoed the cliffs of the backdrop. On the shoreline, oystercatchers perched companionably on seaweed-covered rocks while sanderlings scurried like clockwork toys and turnstones did exactly what their name suggests. A scene to savour, albeit briefly – by the time we turned around to walk back into town fog was already starting to descend once more.