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.

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.

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’).

 

To the Lighthouse

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They are taking the lighthouse down. It was really just a matter of time. Time and tide, it is said, wait for no man, and the two make for a powerful combination on this rapidly changing shoreline. The Orford lighthouse has stood here on the Suffolk coast since 1792, the 11th to stand on the same spot. All the previous lighthouses, mostly flimsy wooden structures, were lost to the sea; this one built by Lord Braybrooke of Audley End has lasted longer than any before it.

The ongoing demolition is simply a matter of being one step ahead of what will happen naturally as a result of longshore drift. Built as a very necessary warning for shipping and continually in service until its decommission in 2013, in more recent times the lighthouse has served as a bold territorial marker for this curious – and one-time secretive – strip of coastline. What it stands upon is not an island as it may seem but a spit – a long stretch of shingle, marsh and sand that sits between the estuary of the River Alde and the North Sea like a curving finger pointing south. Along with an expanse of pylons and weapon-testing ‘pagodas’, this red-and-white band structure has been an icon for the territory of Orford Ness, a place of Cold War secrets, sea-scraped shingle, wildlife and, in recent years, National Trust day trippers. Because of its dark history and evocative, lonely location, the Ness has also seen service as an unsanctioned psychogeographical theme park, a go-to liminal zone for enraptured lone males and Sebaldian shore-shufflers (myself included).

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While we are all losing a lighthouse, I am losing a gravatar for my blog and twitter feed. I suppose I ought to replace it with something new but I will keep it for a while as a tribute to the lighthouse’s ghosted memory. As for the lighthouse itself, it is hoped that the lantern will be reused to form part of a memorial structure on land across from the Ness on Orford Quay.

Not for the first time have iconic buildings world vanished overnight. The lighthouse’s destruction is, at least, planned and been a long time coming. Other well known places I have visited have met more violent ends – vicious executions rather than gentle euthanasia. I refer to some of these in a post on Palmyra from five years ago. Syria seems like a dream now; something I might have imagined. The reality is that the country I experienced as a welcoming place nearly twenty years ago has since become a land of nightmares.

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Going further back in time, it feels equally strange to recall having once spent several days in a hotel that overlooked the enormous sandstone Buddhas of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan. This was back in the halcyon days when the country was a way-station on the so-called Hippie Trail to India, long before the Taliban decided to blow the Buddhas up as blasphemous objects of idol worship (even then, the statues’ faces had already been disfigured by angry iconoclasts).

To continue a tally of Zelig-like appearances at places associated with doomed futures, I might also mention a visit to the World Trade Centre in New York on my first visit to the city in 1986 – of having once stood in a small room at the very top of the structure, a space that now existed as just a cube of empty sky above a disaster zone. Or a visit to a place that languished in a void between destruction and repair: Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, still a broken city when I visited in 2003, the absence of its beautiful 16th-century Ottoman bridge hanging like a question mark above the rubble-filled turquoise of the River Neretva. The bridge was faithfully rebuilt with foreign investment and reopened in 2004. As beautiful as before but somehow sad and perhaps even futile, the reconstruction was a gesture of hope more than anything else — the Muslim east and Croat west banks of the river would remain as places apart in terms of religion, culture and political allegiance.

Less exotically, I also recall the cooling towers that used to stand next to the M1 in Tinsley, Sheffield – twin behemoths that could be seen from the windows of the school where I did my first teaching practice in the city. The towers, devoid of function since 1980, possessed a grace and heft that seemed to perfectly symbolise Sheffield’s industrial past (as did the abandoned steelworks of the Don Valley, which were eventually cleared to provide the land for the inevitable – a massive shopping complex, Meadowhall). Like the Orford lighthouse, and also the equally iconic cooling towers that stood at Ironbridge until last year, the Sheffield towers were finally expunged from the landscape. It took just seven seconds to reduce the 76 metre towers to rubble. For now, like the Orford lighthouse, they remain as a memory, a ghost of landscape that will fade with time.

Blakean Spirit

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I wander thro’ each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow. 

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

William Blake London

Last week I paid a visit to London to go and see the Blake exhibition at Tate Britain. Every visit to London – not so frequent these days – seems to reveal yet more new building projects, more cranes on the skyline, more high blue fences. Multinational finance keen to invest in real estate seems intent on filling in any remaining gaps, such as they are, with new buildings – a new transistor soldered onto the crowded circuit board that is hi-rise central London. Each new piece of architectural bling serves as a totem to (someone else’s) capital. Meanwhile, the people on the street, who hurry between meetings, or stand hunched smoking and phone-swiping outside revolving glass doors, appear indifferent to the edifices that rise above them as if they were little more than fill-in detail on an architect’s plan.

The affect can be alienating. I cannot relate to any of this: my own navigation of the city depends on outdated mental maps and more familiar topography. Peering through the few remaining gaps in the crowded cityscape I am at least able to identify some landmarks by their distinctive form or superior height – the London Stadium fronted by Anish Kapoor’s helter-skelter Orbit sculpture, the Shard, the Gherkin, the pyramid-topped One Canada Square. But even these relatively familiar sights are less old friends than over-enthusiastic schoolboys with their hands up – ‘Me, Sir! Me, Sir!’

I have to face it: this is not my city. But whose is it? Who does it speak to?

Two hundred or so years ago, London spoke to William Blake but the city he lived in has now largely vanished. All that remains is location and shabbily dressed ghosts. In 1820 – exactly two hundred years ago – Blake moved with his wife Catherine to the last place they would live together, a house at Fountain Court off the Strand. It was here, approaching the end of his life, where he experienced his most profound visions, and where he was judged – the jury will always be out – to be either genius or madman. While living here he must have come close to bumping into fellow traveller (and ‘madman’) John Clare, who on one of his rare visits to the capital lodged nearby, although no such meeting has been recorded. The pair had much in common – Blake, an engraver, artist, poet; Clare, a labourer, fence-builder, poet. Both visionaries of sorts, both opposed to militarism and empire, both horrified by the desecration they saw coming in the guise of the Industrial Revolution.

Coming out of the exhibition, almost cross-eyed from hours of peering at intricate artwork and deciphering Lilliputian script in low light, my friend Nigel Roberts remarked that it was actually a good thing that nothing remained of any of Blake’s London homes – his legacy was one of pure spirit. All that marked his various residences was its former address (if the street still existed) and an optional blue plaque. Even the monument at Bunhill Fields (a place I had visited defiantly on the day they buried Margaret Thatcher, an anti-Blake figure if ever there was one) was merely a memorial stone not a grave marker. The common grave he was actually buried in went unmarked until August 2018, when a ledger stone was finally put in place with the legend: Here lies William Blake 1757—1827 Poet Artist Prophet.

What did remain, in addition to an enormous body of work and a roll-call of sacred locations, was Blake’s indelible imprint on the city. Like a sleeping giant, any future London, however changed or corrupted its topography, would invariably retain a Blakean spirit, a spirit that could be evoked on demand. Blake’s legacy does not depend on bricks and mortar. Here was a man who could see a world in a grain of sand, and angels in a tree at Peckham Rye.

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All Fall Down

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Two weeks ago I read a news article about the demolition of the cooling towers at Ironbridge on the River Severn in Shropshire. Their final demise was witnessed by many who came to see the four great towers collapsing after a controlled detonation. The towers had stood for exactly half a century. Opened in 1969, the power station they belonged to had stopped generating electricity in November 2015. At one time it had provided enough electricity to power the equivalent of 750,000 homes. The space that will be made available by their removal should be sufficient for around 1,000 new homes, a park and ride, a school and leisure facilities.

Before they came down the towers received a musical farewell when Zoë Beyers from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire performed a solo violin piece on one of the tower platforms. The music was elegaic, an echo of the mournfulness felt by local residents and former power station workers for whom the towers had been a large part of their life. Reduced in seconds to a mere imprint of memory, the Ironbridge geography was instantly transformed for those who lived there. Particularly poignant was the fact that a little way downriver was the original Iron Bridge built in 1781, the first major bridge of its kind in the world. It was no stretch of truth to infer that it was here in Shropshire at Ironbridge and nearby Coalbrookdale that the Industrial Revolution really began.

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In my, admittedly limited, experience cooling towers have always stood for something. They were markers on the landscape that held deeper meaning than just supersized industrial chimneys. Travelling north up the A1(M), the cluster of eight towers at Ferrybridge in West Yorkshire always seemed to mark an arrival in the North far more effectively than any roadside sign could. Their presence spoke of a cultural transition as much as a geographical one, a shift of emphasis from pastoral to industrial. But these too were earmarked for destruction, and in 2019 five of the towers were demolished. The remaining three will be removed by summer 2021. Similarly, the pair of cooling towers that used to stand outside Sheffield at Tinsley overlooking the M1 motorway always seemed like an omphalos for Don Valley industry – a centre of gravity for the steel, coal, fire and dirt of South Yorkshire. These were of particular significance for me as they were visible from the classroom where, in a previous life, I had my first practical experience as a geography teacher. These twin towers – the ‘salt and pepper pots’ as they were sometimes known – had been redundant since the 1970s, although they managed to remain standing until 2008. Despite a scheme to convert them into giant works of public art they could not be saved. Now they are gone, redacted from the landscape, as are the steel foundries of Sheffield’s Brightside – the industrial endeavour of generations of Sheffield lives reduced to little more than memory and a plaque at a shopping mall

I do not wish to romanticise coal-fired power production – it is undeniably dirty, polluting and a significant contributor to climate change – but I cannot help but find some of the fabric of its production strangely beautiful. Smoke-belching cooling towers may well be the embodiment of Blake’s dark satanic mills but, once abandoned, the heft of their curving brickwork seems to take on an eerie beauty. Silent witnesses of the recent industrial past, their inhuman scale and brooding presence make them emblematic of the hubris that persists in these uncertain times.

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The Crossing Place

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A pinch of the River Clyde; a squeezing of the water that flows west through Glasgow towards the sea; a watery place where shipyards once dominated the shoreline and the air shook with the hammering of rivets, the scrape and spark of steel plate, the blinding blue light of arc welding. Across the river, south of the here, lies the city district of Govan, depleted of industry now but once the hub for shipbuilding in the region. Here on the northern bank, at Glasgow Harbour on the site of a former shipyard on the edge of Partick, we stand outside the city’s Riverside Museum. The museum is an arresting zinc and glass structure with a steeply curving roofline that resembles a cardiogram – a late work by the Anglo-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid.

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Afloat in the water in front of the museum, in purposeful contrast, is the handsome three-masted sailing ship Glenlee, a trading ship that after circumnavigating the world four times (and rounding Cape Horn 15 times) ended her nautical life as Galatea, a training vessel for the Spanish Navy. Abandoned and forgotten in Seville the ship was eventually saved by a British naval architect and in 1993 was towed home to Glasgow to end her days on the river of her birth. From the deck of Glenlee we can make out the old buildings of Govan across the water. But there is no way to cross, not outside the summer months anyway, as the seasonal ferry has stopped operating. So it means a retreat on foot back to Partick Subway station to take the Inner Circle beneath the river to reach our goal on the other side.

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Emerging from the subway into the bright sunlight of a gleaming autumn day, the Govan streets seems quiet, provincial even; not quite what we had been expecting. The Victorian buildings have a patina of age but are well-scrubbed, made of sandstone the colour of ginger cake. Govan’s Old Parish Church is built of the same stone.

Govan is the oldest part of Glasgow. Until 1912 it was a separate burgh that was historically part of Lanarkshire. Once a centre for the ancient Kingdom of Strathclyde or Alt Clut, it was the northernmost part of the Cumbric (a variant of Brythonic or Old Welsh)-speaking region of Hen Ogledd* or the Old North. A monastery was founded here in the 7th-century by King Constantine (later to be canonised as St Constantine of Strathclyde and Govan), to whom the Old Govan Parish Church is dedicated. In the early medieval period Govan was ruled from Dumbarton Rock at the mouth of the Clyde on the opposite shore until it was destroyed by Vikings in 870AD. The Kingdom of Strathclyde, the only part of the Old North not to be conquered by Anglo-Saxons, eventually became part of the Kingdom of Scotland in the 11th century.

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Govan Old Parish Church is home to the Govan Stones, a remarkable collection of 31 grave markers that date back to the 9th century. The church, a fine Scottish Gothic Revival building, is not so old but it stands on a sacred site that was in existence long before the Normans came to dominate the lands to the south. Our timing is impeccable – October 31, the Celtic festival of Samhain – is the last day of the year on which the church is open. As our enthusiastic Scottish-Canadian guide explains, it is too expensive to keep the church heated for the winter months and so it is locked up for the duration.

IMG_7566 The stones are arranged around the church interior so as to make a circuit. There is intricate Celtic lattice work on the first two – the ‘Sun Stone’ and the Jordanhill Cross – and on the third, the ‘Cuddy Stane’, a representation of a man on a horse, or possibly a donkey (‘cuddy’) bearing a Christ figure. A group of five Viking hogbacks, dark and heavy, and resembling those giant slugs that sometimes venture out along garden paths after rain, dominate the transept.  Unnoticed until is pointed out to us, the paws of a supine bear clutch one of the stones at its corners, a complex symbol that combines animal strength and tenderness and might, perhaps, relate to the high-ranking Viking it commemorates. The highlight of the collection is probably the Govan Sarcophagus, the only one of its kind from the pre-Norman era, which was unearthed in the graveyard in 1855. This intricately carved structure is thought to have once held the remains of King Constantine himself, although its symbols suggest that is more likely to have been made a couple of centuries after his death. Elsewhere are ancient stones that have been recycled as markers for later graves – palimpsests where earlier detail has been erased to allow a new name to be cut into the stone.

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The stone for each of the grave markers, like the church itself, comes from the hills across the Clyde. The feat of moving such a heft of stone might seem Herculean in its endeavour but a millennium ago the river would have been shallower and narrower and there would have been a ford across it; there may even have been stepping stones bridging the two shores. Later, in the medieval period, a ferry would have run between the two banks to transport Highland cattle drovers and their stock across the river to markets south of Glasgow.

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By the 19th century Govan became better known as a centre for shipbuilding. It would go on to achieve fame as the birthplace of strong-willed characters like Jimmy Reed, Sir Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish. But long before any ship was launched, Govan was a strategic and spiritual centre where Britonnic, Celtic and Scandinavian worlds overlapped thanks to an important crossing place on the river. If the Govan Stones could speak of those who carved them they would, of course, tell you this… in Cumbric naturally.

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*Hen Ogledd is also the name of an excellent Newcastle-based musical combo whose work sometimes references the early medieval Brythonic world their name suggests

Riasg Buidhe – an abandoned village on the Isle of Colonsay

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It is not that easy to find but if you go to the recycling depot at the highest point on the road between Scalasaig and Kiloran on the Isle of Colonsay, then follow the rough track that leads towards the coast, you will eventually stumble upon it.  The abandoned village of Riasg Buidhe lies a kilometre or so east of the road. The Gaelic name translates as ‘yellow moor grass’, although how yellow the grass is tends to depend on the time of year and how much recent rainfall there has been.

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Walking towards the sea, the Paps of Jura rising across the water like a squirming sea monster, the village ruins slowly pull into focus ahead – a freestanding gable here, a dry stone wall there. The most notable of the ruins is a row of terraced cottages, seven in total, each one now roofless and overgrown with bracken and foxgloves. The cottages are probably of 18th century origin with chimneys and fireplaces added in the 19th century. Originally rush-thatched, their roofs, long-rotted away, are now notable by their absence.

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Formerly a village associated with run-rig agriculture, Riasg Buidhe transformed, with encouragement from the local laird, into a herring fishing community in the late 19th century. The transformation was not wholly successful however, as shortly after embarking on this new venture a great storm silted up the approach to the curing station on neighbouring Islay. The villagers then tried their hand at lobster fishing, pursuing this as a livelihood until the coming of the Great War, after which they left the village for good.

A community had existed at Riasg Buidhe for more than a millennium. Of far greater antiquity than the cottages are the chapel and burial ground that stand to the south of the village. Little remains of the chapel today and clear identification on the ground demands a keen archaeological eye although a few un-inscribed gravestones can still be seen. Southeast of the chapel was the village’s water supply: a well that was once marked with a finely carved cross. This we had seen a few days earlier in the gardens at Colonsay House, where it had been ‘taken into safekeeping’ and repositioned next to another well (Tobar Odhrain – ‘St Oran’s Well’) in the 19th century. The cross, known locally as Dealbh na Leisge (‘the sleepy figure’), is believed to date from the 8th or 9th century and portrays a cleric with a tonsure. Its reverse bears a fertility figure, a reflection perhaps of the pluralistic faith of the Viking settlers who occupied the island when the stone was carved.

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Walking among the ruins, exploring the terraced cottages and trying to make sense of the village layout, the sense of absence is palpable: a tangible awareness of long centuries of human presence and then sudden abandonment. Standing within one of the cottages and looking up, the low walls make a frame for the ever-changing Hebridean sky above, which one moment may be cirrus-flecked blue, and the next, a silver-grey glower of cumulus that threatens rain. These same stone walls and the small, bare living spaces they enclosed would once have rang with children’s voices, Gaelic song, whispered endearments, perhaps heated argument. Like all ruins, they were a stone repository of memory.

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There is an echo here of the much-photographed terraced cottages on Hirta in the St Kilda archipelago. These are similar in structure and size yet Riasg Buidhe was a very different community to that of far more isolated St Kilda. The villagers here were never evacuated wholesale to start a new life on the Scottish mainland, nor were they driven from their homes by the hated clearances that plagued much of the rest of highland and island Scotland. Instead, they moved away simply because of the provision of new homes at Glassard on the coast just a few kilometres away. With more comfortable and better equipped housing on offer, who could blame them?

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