The Greenway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L O N G   L I V E   C O M M U N I S M

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

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

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

L A T E   C A P I T A L I S M

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Solstice Walk – Boudicca Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking the Ring: Stoke Newington to Hackney Wick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Country

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

Extract from Chapter 15 – City of Metal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fogbound: Heacham to Old Hunstanton

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

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

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

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

 

Over the Ofer

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Ofer: Old English word for border or edge

As I have mentioned here before, I have been working on a book project for some time. A book about a walk – a sort of pagan pilgrimage – made across England and Wales, from Great Yarmouth to Aberystwyth. A book that you might find filed under Travel/Memoir in all good bookshops… well, once I find a publisher that is. Anyway, the book is nearly complete and to give a taste I will not post text but instead a series of photographs taken during the last stretch of my journey across central Wales.

Converted into stark monochrome by the wonders of Photoshop, these might be considered to be embedded images that have been temporarily exiled from their place in the narrative. They depict scenes from the road (or track, or footpath) between the Welsh border (Kerry Pole) to the Irish Sea (Aberystwyth). I have also juxtaposed a few apposite quotes  but am working on the assumption that each picture paints a thousand words. So, here are 17,000 words on Wales. Or, if you prefer, 17 stories.

For more on the Ystwyth Valley you might also want to look here or here.

 

Kerry Ridgeway

You cannot live in the present.                                                                                                          At least not in Wales                                                                                                                             

R S Thomas Welsh Landscape

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Llanidloes to Llangurig

Where was it he was born, Ianto? Llanidloes, was it?                                                                  Nah, Llangurig.                                                                                                                                    Well that area anyway. Inland like. Farms and mountains, fuck all else. That’s all there is yer, just farms and mountains.

 Niall Griffiths Sheepshagger

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Llangurig – Powys to Ceredigion

Hush, not a word. When we’ve finished milking                                                                         And the stars go quiet, we’ll get out the car                                                                                  And go to Llangurig

R S Thomas Border Blues

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Ystwyth River

ystwyth (Welsh) adjective:  supple, flexible, pliable

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Aberystwyth

The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.                                                    

Isak Dinesen Seven Gothic Tales

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The Rule of Home

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

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

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

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

On Stiffkey marshes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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