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)

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.

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’).

 

Beneath a Concrete Sky – to Gravelly Hill Interchange by canal

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Where’s Birmingham river? Sunk.

Which river was it? Two. More or

Less.

 Birmingham River Roy Fisher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a slow, petty river with no memory

of an ancient

 name;  a river called Rea, meaning

river,               

and misspelt at that.

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The Tyranny of the Horizon by Laurence Mitchell

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

BURNING HOUSE PRESS

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

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

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Kyrgyzstan railway wagons

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

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All the above images ©Laurence Mitchell.

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

 

The Bridge to Nowhere and the Bays Road

IMG_7499Just three main roads radiate out of Stornoway, the capital of the Isle of Lewis. One heads across mountains towards Tarbet and Harris to the south; another goes east past the island’s airport and along the Eye Peninsula to come to halt at the lighthouse at Tiumpan Head, while a third leads across the island’s moorland interior to reach its west coast. A little way along this last road is the turn-off to Tolsta, a minor road with the most unexpected of endings. The road passes bungalow settlements and sea-facing graveyards as it leads north. In Hebridean terms, this is relatively densely populated terrain — one settlement merging into the next in a loose sprawl known collectively as Back. This stretch of Stornoway’s hinterland might elsewhere be termed green belt were it not a fact that pretty well anywhere on Lewis and Harris could be described as ‘green’.

Some fifteen miles from Stornoway, a little way beyond the small coastal village of Tolsta, is Garry Beach, a quiet sandy beach with its own car park. A few campervans are parked up here and a rusty caravan is tethered in a boggy field alongside, more likely a base for itinerant workers than a low-rent holiday home. A couple, well wrapped-up against the cool on-shore breeze, are exercising their dog on the beach. A couple of jagged sea stacks rise vertiginously just offshore; half a dozen oystercatchers methodically work the tideline, red beaks wrestling with molluscs. The asphalt road, single track since Tolsta, ends abruptly at the car park and continues only as a rough peat-digging track that winds up the hillside towards a concrete structure. Walk up here and you soon come to it — a bridge over a narrow gorge that, counter-intuitively, appears to be the very end of the road.

The Bridge to Nowhere, as it is generally known, was constructed by Lord Leverhulme, one-time owner of the island, as part of a project to build a road that connected Stornaway with Ness, a fishing village at the northern tip of the island. Like many of Leverhume’s ambitious schemes, good intentions went awry and for a number of reasons the road was never completed. Even today, the only direct way between Tolsta and Ness is on foot, a weary ten-mile slog through soggy moorland that for most people makes the longer, circuitous trip by road via Stornaway and Barvas a more attractive option.  The original vision was to build three large farms that would provide dairy produce for fish cannery workers. Alas, the fish canning empire never came to fruition and a lack of both funds and enthusiasm resulted in the road never extended beyond the bridge at Garry Beach.

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Head south of Stornoway, over the North Harris Hills to Tarbet and then across the isthmus into South Harris, and you have two options to reach to the ferry port of Leverburgh at the southern tip of this, the largest of the Hebridean islands. The road that skirts the west coast is relatively wide and easy to navigate but the road that runs parallel to the east coast, circumscribing many rocky inlets along the way, is of a very different character. The two coasts of South Harris have strikingly contrasting landscapes. While the west road swoops smoothly past enormous tidal sandy beaches like that at Luskentyre, the narrow east road weaves erratically around rugged inlets and rocky outcrops.

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Rough country, largely soil-less, infertile, with very little land suitable for grazing or farming — you might wonder why people might live here in the first case. The reason, of course, as in so many places in the Scottish highland and islands, is because of widespread clearance in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The extensive land clearances of Harris were enforced by the Macleod family who once owned the island and who, to make way for their profitable sheep enterprises, forcibly moved many crofters off the relatively fertile land of the west coast to the far poorer, rocky terrain of the east. As a result, many families migrated to Canada to seek a better, more secure life, while those who remained struggled to survive by digging ‘lazy beds’ for potato-growing — labour-intensive raised beds in which the thin poor soil was bulked out and enriched with seaweed and straw. Never was the word ‘lazy’ so misappropriated.

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To travel the Bays Road, as the C79 east coast road is better known, is to witness a dramatic sweep of exposed gneiss, sky and water, with ever-changing glimpses of narrow rocky inlets, dark reed-filled pools and peat-stained streams the colour of strong-brewed tea. The road is not for drivers of a nervous disposition – narrow even for a single lane, with a general allocation of passing spaces, it is a constantly winding tour-de-force where each mile covered seems more like five. Stark, barren, primeval: the landscape is far from bucolic but it is undeniably beautiful. Sheep wander across the road with impunity; white-tailed eagles and buzzards spiral slowly overhead; curious ravens perch on rocks eyeing the sporadic passing traffic like pensioners on a park bench. For the briefest of moments, a pair of golden eagles make an appearance silhouetted high above a ridge. At the road’s highest point, the peaks and headlands of the Isle of Skye show themselves to the east across the wave-flecked Little Minch. The sea is translucent, deepest blue; a CalMac ferry is halfway across the channel steadfastly plying its twice-daily journey to Uig on Skye. In the diamond-clear light, the far-distant Cuillin Hills can be seen glinting crystalline in the sun. Deprived of a decent livelihood by uncaring landlords, you can only reflect that the crofters who were banished to this unwelcoming, unworkable terrain were at least given possession of some of the finest viewpoints in the kingdom.

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San rock art – Drakensberg, South Africa

IMG_9016One of the highlights of my recent trip to South Africa was to see some really well-preserved rock art. The cave paintings were made by the San people, the hunter-gatherers who inhabited the Drakensberg mountain region in KwaZulu-Natal province close to the Lesotho border before the  incoming Zulus drove them from the land. The rock paintings date from between 2,000 and 200 years ago and the best preserved are those found in south-facing caves where there is never any direct sunlight. One such cave is that found beneath Lower Mushroom Rock in the central Drakensberg.

IMG_9026The figures show hunting scenes involving various animals indigenous to the region, like eland, which are still numerous, and lions, which are no longer found here. Other paintings depict animal skin-wearing shamans in trances, a state of mind artificially (and partially chemically) induced to connect them with the spirit world in order to foresee the future and cure illnesses.

IMG_9025The paintings were made using brushes made from animal hair and dyes and pigments extracted from indigenous plants and mineral-rich rocks. The colour and attention to detail of the paintings are remarkable, and even depict the typically steatopygic buttocks characteristic of the San bushmen who nowadays mostly occupy the arid regions of Botswana and Namibia.

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Arslanbob – In Walnut Tree Shade

IMG_9321It had been almost eight years since I was last in Arslanbob, a tantalisingly spread-out settlement in Kyrgyzstan’s Jalal-Abad province. As before, I had arrived at the start of Ramadan – the moon was new, the mosque was full; a holiday mood gripping the steep rocky streets of this sprawling mountain village. This time though, it was stifingly hot late June rather than pleasantly cool mid September, and the walnuts that the area is famous for were still forming on the trees – ovoid green jewels dangling from silvery branches, their sweet ripeness yet to develop. The last time I was here it was during harvest season and walnuts were everywhere – stacked in pyramids at the bazaar, piled in dishes in every home, filling pockets, bags and every potential container. To walk in Arslanbob at such a time was to invite walnut generosity – for foreign visitors even the shortest excursion into the streets resulting in bulging pockets, stuffed rucksacks and camera bags. Walnuts even appeared to serve as legal currency – on first arriving in the village I witnessed a pair of laughing schoolgirls paying their minibus fare with a handful of nuts; the driver didn’t seem to mind at all.IMG_9163IMG_9394Of course, Arslanbob is not just about walnuts: the village has multiple identities. A relatively conservative Uzbek enclave in a predominantly Kyrgyz nation, Arslanbob has strong historical ties with Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley that lies not so very far away over gerrymandered Soviet-period borders to the south (never was the political strategy of ‘divide and rule’ more apparent than with the convoluted and sometimes utterly nonsensical lines of demarcation that separate the now independent republics of Central Asia – Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan). Almost totally Uzbek in population and culture, Arslanbob is also a spiritual centre of sorts, with holy rocks and sacred lakes in the mountains above the village and religious shrines in the surrounding forest. Islamic it may be, but there are strong animist and shamanist overtones too – the peoples of Central Asia have always had a strongly developed sense of place that has its spiritual expression beyond the normal confines of formalised religion.IMG_9172IMG_9597So walnuts and sacred shrines . . . there are another elements too. Since Soviet times the village has had a turbaza, a sanatorium that provides R&R for weary city folk. These days it is predominantly Uzbeks from the sweltering cities of Kyrgyzstan’s southern basin – Jalal-Abad and Osh – that come to stay. There is local sightseeing too – a scenic waterfall against the backdrop of a ravine lies quite close to the village centre. When I first visited this eight years ago, there were almost no visitors and little to be seen apart from plummeting water against a rugged rock face; the votive rags tied to the branches of a tree above the waterfall, the only evidence of human interest. Now things are rather different: a dust-cloud of lumbering Toyotas ferries visitors up from the bazaar where, after paying a token entrance fee, they pass through a phalanx of makeshift wooden stalls en route to the falls. The stalls sell all manner of tourist tat – plastic trinkets, cheap jewellery, carved wooden souvenir eagles and lions, souvenir Astanbap (Arslanbob) hats, medicinal mountain herbs in cellophane packets, lengths of fruit leather like seaweed and ‘I heart Islam’ T-shirts.IMG_9225IMG_9280It is easy enough to escape though. Take the path beyond the falls and the tawdry commercialisation swiftly drops away as a dazzling landscape reveals itself – towering snow-capped peaks, emerald pastures and farmhouses peeping through poplars on steep ridges. To the east and south extends a vast green swathe of walnut forest that stretches sublimely to vanishing point. Just two minutes beyond the falls the only sounds to be heard are those of running water, rustling leaves, birdsong, a distant complaining donkey and perhaps the woody squeak of a horse-drawn plough. All is transformed, and this is a heart-gladdening landscape to behold.IMG_9304IMG_9446Having struggled up to the Holy Rock before (at 2,900 metres elevation it lies at 1,600 metres above the upper part of the village), a long walk through the walnut forest seemed the sensible thing to do this time round. I set out with two German cyclists and a local guide from the uppermost part of the village, our starting point reached by means of a redoubtable ex-Soviet Army UAZ, which, although uncomfortable, you feel could go almost anywhere with a skilled driver and plenty of vigorous wheel twisting. From our dropping-off point a shady woodland path runs all the way to the settlement of Dashman in the heart of the forest. Along the way, we enjoy the unparalleled dappled sunlight – perfect camouflage for the green, yellow and black of golden orioles (which, sadly, we don’t manage to see). Here and there we pass through clearings filled with flowers – clary, marjoram, orchids, bugloss and tall yellow daisy-like blooms whose names we will never know.IMG_9530IMG_9554Dashman could hardly be described as a village, more just a scattered collection of houses each with its own bit of land in a clearing. This isolated settlement was, however, once home to displaced Chechens, uprooted and displaced from their Caucasus homeland by Stalin during World War II. The Chechens have long gone (one solitary Chechen remained in Arslanbob I was told, ‘a good man but too much drinking problem’) and now the houses are occupied by a handful of locals who keep animals to graze in the forest. There is a crossroads of tracks close to Dashman. Today it was a quiet place, with just a woman out fetching water, a beautiful blonde-maned horse wafting flies way and the liquid song of a blackbird trilling from the bushes. But it was at this very same location, our guide told us, that things came alive during the September walnut harvest. Many villagers would come from Arslanbob to camp here for a few days, gathering nuts by day and celebrating and socialising by night. There would be music, dance and laughter; traders from Arslanbob would set up temporary stalls; shashlyk would be grilled, much chai would be consumed. Naturally enough, the main currency of exchange would not be Kyrgyz som or US dollars but freshly harvested walnuts: a timely opportunity for nature’s bounty to show its true worth and for just a brief few days turn capitalism on its head.IMG_9573IMG_9563IMG_9510