Runcorn Wonderland

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By David Lewis:

Note: Runcorn is an industrial town and port in Cheshire, England. The small old town was surrounded in the 1960s by huge housing estates to rehouse people from Liverpool. 

 It is the midwinter visits I remember the most, the hour’s journey on a half-empty bus – always, in memory, flooded with cold sunshine – to the cobbled, mutilated streets of old Runcorn.  As I walked to Windmill Hill along the Bridgewater Canal, the wind passing over the shadowed sweeps of canal ice would make a haunting, unearthly sound, a canal-song, a vague whoo-whoo; especially eerie at night, but fading as the water slowly froze.

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My friend Iain was a yoga teacher with a gentle soul, passionate about walking.  We would walk for miles to discover and rediscover strange and unusual things – ice houses, walled gardens, spice factories.  We walked out to scuffed, eighteenth-century pubs, we watched giant container vessels on the Manchester Ship Canal, and often we walked at night.  Here I developed my love of midwinter pleasures – silence, darkness, cold – and it was with Iain in Runcorn that I learned to walk creatively.

On the short winter afternoons we often walked down from Windmill Hill through the edgelands, a silent, watchful place of abandoned fields and unused roads, ribboned by railway and canal; the smoke rising from distant farms added to the faint air of menace. Yet just over the hill was the pretty village of Daresbury, where Lewis Carroll’s church crouched in the yew trees, carved from thick chocolate-red blocks of Victorian sandstone. We often sat for a smoke or two in the cold gloom of the rear porch, staring out at the bare woods and fields, and once the curate showed us the Lewis Carroll window, a gentle riot of Turtles and Hatters and Alice. Afterwards, brandies and bitter beer in the Ring O’ Bells, a polished-wood-and-brass Victorian public house of stained glass windows and bright, cheerful ghosts. The cobbled car park smelled of long-gone horses, straw and flurries of snow.

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As the light began to fail, we started the journey home over Keckwick Hill, a fragment of old rural darkness, silently overseeing the concrete tower of the particle accelerator and the industrial landscape beyond. No sunlight reached the woodland floor in midwinter; the frost bubbled and broke the footpath down to the canal.  After twenty minutes of towpath walking - the morose hunch of a fisherman, a startle of duck, the plopping of water rats into the silky blackness - the lights of Windmill Hill rippled on the dark waters.  Street lights appeared.  Stone bridges became concrete ones with Wonderland graffiti, ‘How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on just as usual.’  Daresbury’s English pastoral ran beneath the concrete.

Beyond the Wonderland bridge was the Barge, a pub converted from a canal warehouse, warm and invitingBut we had spent most of the day as hedge-walkers, and were intimidated by the bright lights and the smart early evening drinkers.  One beer rarely led to a second, and with the darkness came an unease about last buses and cancelled buses, about timetables and homecomings, as if the outside world had woken in us once more.  We blinked in the harsh lights of the space-age Runcorn Shopping City, fumbled for the morning’s folded tickets, mumbled clumsy goodbyes; and I spent the long journey home thinking back along dark footpaths through muddy woodland.  

David Lewis has written five books of history/landscape/psychogeography about his native Liverpool and Merseyside.  He posts urban/rural images on Instagram - davidlewis4168 and mutters about the world on Twitter - @dlewiswriter

On visiting the Dylan Thomas Boathouse, Laugharne

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By Anna Evans:

Approaching along the peninsula, the town seems to lie at the end of the road, like reaching a final destination. A castle stands guard over the quiet estuary, dramatic and imposing, its battlements slowly reclaimed by the landscape. It is a trip I embark on as much to look for traces of the past, a memory of a prior visit fifteen years ago. Arriving at the hour of dusk in early spring, the town quiet and deserted, the Boathouse already closed for the day. We walked along the street to the pub where Dylan and Caitlin Thomas used to drink together in the evenings. Then we continued our journey into Pembrokeshire, driven on by the time.

I am thinking of a photograph on a beach somewhere on that trip to Wales. Dark clouds and grey sea. There is synchronicity in the image; our faces are together, touching in the half light. When photographs were still like slips of chance on the paper. Thinking about being outside as night fell in the mountains, sharing a bottle of wine; jubilant in the almost total darkness, with no lights to guide us home.

Today I am on time to make the pilgrimage and see inside the house, but I had imagined my return differently, that I would have more time to look around and to absorb the atmosphere of the place. I am distracted, harassed; my mind caught in the argument we had this morning, still unresolved. Family life spinning around us, its currents of confusion. I am looking for clues of something. Thinking back to a simpler time and recalling pictures of my past self, shrouded in the rain-soaked hills and twilight of the Welsh skies. Dylan Thomas is important to me. His poetry resonated with me, the colour of language. He gave me a way to think about death and the passing of time, and about change.

Thomas lived in the town with his family, and for the last few years of his life acquired the Boathouse and the writing hut. It is a place in which he wrote some of his most important poems, and a place that witnessed arguments, the disintegration of his marriage, of his body. A life lived outside convention. The house is understated, leaving scope for imagining life here. I look around, my camera stuck on sepia mode, nostalgia in the recreated drawing room space. A notice explains that this is not the actual furniture, much of which Caitlin sold in response to the ever-advancing demands for money, the unpaid bills.

Family photos on the wall. Dylan and Caitlin in a rowing boat, his deep brown eyes stare into the camera. The exhibition tells me that Dylan would retreat to his writing shed, away from the noise of the children, from the travails of family life. The closed door. I look out from the window at the far-reaching view out into the bay, across the estuary, outwards to sea. Thinking about the precarious balance of art and life, between real life and life on the page, and about trying to carve out a space for one from the other. Thomas is seen in a pure sense as an artist, one who created his art and placed it above all things, the artist as genius, demon angel, doomed to destruction.

I continue back along the path to the writing shed. It is beautifully restored and has inspired many aspiring artists, as the photographs and paintings of it attest. It is overlooking the water, the sweep of the bay and the harbour where boats lie, picturesque, as if cast adrift from the sea. A place to think about moorings and being unmoored.

I am always compelled by images of writing spaces and desks, by descriptions of how and when writing takes place. I think of my own chaotic balance of writing and life, the hasty tidying away of books and paper to make a space for living, my writing is always on the move, from one place to another. A dedicated writing space where things could remain untouched is every writer’s dream. Where, as Caitlin explains, from two until seven each day – often she would lock the door - Dylan would disappear, returning hours later with a perfectly crafted line or two of poetry. In his writing space, the many lists of words he compiled. The possibilities of language, and the meticulous hours spent in constructing a single sentence. Looking out to sea, a retreat away from the domestic confines of home, exposed to the waves and sealed off.

Leaving the writing shed, I begin to walk, thinking to head back into the town. There is a path leading to the churchyard where Thomas is buried, and a sign says that ‘the path to Dylan’s grave can be muddy.’ It occurs to me that I am the same age now, as Dylan when he died. I would like to keep following the path but I am uncertain where it goes and how long it will take. Instead I read your messages, you are wondering where I am, how long I am planning to be away.

Looking back as we drive onwards, the remains of the castle unexplored, the map open displaying the route along the coastline, the town falling away behind us.

Now I see that the road continues.

About the author:
Anna Evans is a writer and researcher from Huddersfield in the north of England, currently living in Cambridge. Her interests are in migration and literature, cities and movement, and she completed an MA in ‘Writing the Modern World’. She is currently working on a project on the places in Jean Rhys’s fiction and has recently launched a blog playing literary detective around Paris and London in seach or Jean Rhys and other wanderings, titled And The Street Walks In. 

The Low Country

 Photo: Andrew Weidman

Photo: Andrew Weidman

By Bridgett Brunea:

The Low Country of coastal South Carolina and Georgia in the eastern United States carries an unmistakable slow charge. It is a place I know as a sun-filled haven when my more northerly home is dusted in snow. Many times have I slipped through the outstretched hand of winter and driven for hours into this story-laden place where time winds itself into a warm, quiet sigh. I sojourn here not only to remember the feeling of sun, but for the sense of otherworldliness that flowers quietly the closer I get to the Low Country. It is a tiny universe unto itself, utterly unlike anywhere else I know. 

I think of the Low Country and I think of hot red-dirt roads plunged into a cool line of live oaks; of coastal forests spun with endless waves of Spanish moss and the heavy scent of sea air; of snowy egrets standing in warm December sun, plunging their sharp beaks into still waters to catch unsuspecting fish; of cooking fresh shrimp in a tin pot on the edge of a saltwater marsh as twilight colors the air; of little tin-shack gas stations in the middle of nowhere, their owners inexplicably encased behind a window of security bars; of boiled peanut stands strung along the edges of slow, lonely highways between Savannah and Charleston; of talking to black Southerners and wondering if they constantly wear the weight of a history not of their choosing; of huge wooden churches forgotten in warm, silent forests; of deep-blue skies in the middle of the winter, charging my sun-starved Northern soul.

It is a relief beyond all else to arrive in the Low Country and see that distinctiveness is alive and well in the United States. We are a country unfortunately infamous for our ability to transform unique landscapes into characterless duplicates. One need only visit the suburbs of a large city or any number of desiccated small towns to see what the power of unchecked profit-driven growth can do. We are a country often shamed by our history, and so we shun it, and old buildings and old customs and old landscapes are thrown out and everything must be new, new, new. We are also a people who have been raised on the myth that familiarity and convenience are to be prized above all else, with the disquieting result that whether you are in South Texas or Eastern New York or Central California you can find many stretches of concrete wasteland that look disturbingly similar. Stunning landscapes and unique cultures are there, but they are often hidden beneath a plastic veneer.

The Low Country is no different; it is not a haven set far away from the impingement of runaway capitalism. And yet it effuses an inescapable uniqueness, not because of being untouched by this crushing sameness, but in spite of it. The Low Country was the first place to show me that uniqueness often persists just outside our field of vision.

Though many of the wealthier communities in the Low Country have managed to avoid the devastation of strip-malls and 6-lane roads through the middle of town, most of these parts of South Carolina and Georgia are, in fact, uniquely drowning in the afflictions of unwise city planning and unbridled development. They are often prime examples of the very worst of such development, with not only McDonalds and Wal-Marts filling the car-choked streets, but all sorts of unimaginable Southern takes on fast-food and cheap buys also lining up for their bite out of peoples' pockets. The affect can be dizzying in its ugliness.

And yet - here is the crux of it - and yet it is still beautiful, it is still distinct, it is a place thoroughly itself. People still talk differently here, little idioms and turns of phrase that leave a Northerner like me baffled and smiling; the tall, stalking shorebirds and the quick lizards and the huge, breathy flowers will all tell you you're in a place distinctly its own; the saltwater marshes still mix with the ocean and fill with her waters at high tide; you cannot miss the genuinely slower pace, the shockingly different view of the Civil War, the quizzical looks you receive when you ask if the blue crabs they're about to boil are still alive; no number of phony-looking "Southern Style" housing developments can shake the drenching experience of walking through a neighborhood of shotgun shacks or through a live-oak avenue of antebellum mansions.

No matter how much a place is overrun with attempts at uniformity, commercialization, or purposeful forgetting of complicated histories, there are some things that can't just be coopted, can't be charged for, can't be erased. For this knowledge, I am forever grateful to the imperfect, saturating beauty of the Low Country.

About the author:
Bridgett Brunea is a writer, naturalist, and rambler originally from the northernmost reaches of Appalachia in the eastern United States. In writing and in life, she seeks to experience and convey the luminous meeting point between inner and outer landscapes. She is creating an online journal of observations, meditations, and questions (terrasanctum.world) which she hopes to make available in 2019.

Misty Morning at Ash Slack

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By Patrick Wright:

Mists of the East Ridings
through two embracing ash trees.
The moon was out, a pamplemousse moon.
Under black buds of nuinn
where moorland bled to slack,
I found lots of bird’s-foot-trefoil,
scented lily-of-the-valley –
my birth month flower –
and felled trees gone back to nature.
Seeds dropped to mulch near a disused railway line
where orchids grew.
Mysterious happenings. 

The grass didn’t grow
perhaps because of the industrial past.
Two embracing ash trees over a gate –
a kissing gate. A bicycle could fit.
It was Millington Wood
where every time I looked at the same bark
I saw a different face.
I assumed it was ghosts from
the Conservative Club who roamed
to and fro.
A well-managed wood with a burner,
wood sticks ricked around it,
dying Scandinavian oak, an Ogham book.  

Two ash trees embracing on a path –
Giacometti-like –
as I listened from my parrot cage.
Haunting canyon sounds.
By the trees was a beautiful ruined building
as if fallen off the sudden edge
of a moorland cliff.
Some of the structured bits could be sat on –
an agility course – steps to a steppe.
Black thickets of space,
hot burnt heather,
charcoal for miles and miles.

Patrick Wright has a poetry pamphlet, Nullaby, published by Eyewear (2017). A full collection will follow in 2019. His poems have been published in several magazines, most recently Wasafiri, The High Window, and The Reader. His work was also included in The Best New British and Irish Poets 2018 anthology, judged by Maggie Smith. He teaches Arts and Humanities at the Open University, and is studying towards a second PhD in Creative Writing.

An Autumn Sunday afternoon walk around Rawhead

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By Julia Bennett

Driving eastwards past the 150 year old mining engine house chimney - a lieu de mémoire for the dark dirty-secret past of this green and pleasant corner of England. This is the old Salt Road. Salt was carried from the Cheshire 'witches', the towns of Middlewich, Nantwich and Northwich, to the port at Chester, and later Liverpool, to trade with Africa and Asia. Up the steep Coppermine Lane to reach the top of the ridge. Squeezing in amongst a crowd of Sunday cars on the side of the road.

The path heads off. A stony farm road leading first west and then south towards Whitchurch. This is the Sandstone Trail tracing the sandstone ridge along the western side of Cheshire for 55 kilometres.

The potholed track soon dissolves into a footpath. Skirting the edge of the steep wooded hillside:

silver birch leaves burnished gold;

blood red rowan berries;

prickly sweet chestnut tempting hungry squirrels.

Trees frame distant views:

north across the Mersey, the solid square-built sandstone tower of Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral; closer, a cluster of slim flame-topped stacks pinpoint the oil refineries at Ellesmere Port. Closer still the Roman City of Chester hunkers down on the banks of the river Dee all but hidden in the folds of gentle rolling green pasture, that most English of English landscapes extending to the very edges of the country before drowning in the waters of the Dee.

… black rooks somersaulting against the blue-grey sky …

Across the fields to the east, beyond the giant white saucers of Jodrell Bank, the hazy beginnings of the Pennines.

… pinky-brown chaffinches flash white stripes as they flit from bush to bush …

The path narrowly clings to the edge of the soft, red sandstone cliffs. Cliffs formed during the Triassic period 250 million years ago, says the information board, once upon a time, a long, long time ago.

Not so very long ago, in the 1220s, Beeston Castle was built on a rocky outcrop, here in bas relief against the sky, a five kilometre walk north on the trail. Once upon another time it was the site of one of the Iron Age hillforts strung out along the ridge like a ‘join the dots’ guide to life here 3,000 years ago. . . . the trail following in ancient footsteps.

Steps lead down the side of the hill to a wooden platform. This is Dropping-stone well. Local people climbed up here to fetch drinking water as recently as the Second World War. In the not so distant past servants took sand from the caves which pockmark the soft sandstone to use on stable floors and as a scouring aid in the kitchens of the ‘big houses’. This was a busy, productive place, and not only on Sunday afternoons.

Rawhead itself, the trig point and the highest part of the Sandstone Trail stands at 227 metres. Rocks jutting above the trees, there are clear views from here. Over the border into Wales, Wrecsam’s industrial estate stands out against a background of the Clwydian Hills. Shropshire to the south and on a (very) clear day a faint outline of the Wrekin about 30 miles away.

The path turns southwards, continuing to snake along the very edge of the steep cliffs. Careful footsteps are needed to avoid sliding over the edge into the canopy of silver birch and scots pine that cloak the sides of the cliffs. Black holes mark caves in the rock faces.

A turn to the east. Rhododendrons flood a steep valley. A dull green for much of the year, in spring this ‘alien species’ large purple flowers are a prelude to the native purple heathers and plump ripening bilberries yet to come.

A small wood of scots pine, a cluster of farm buildings, the path runs next to a field separated by an electric fence. Noises off:

in the spring a cuckoo;

summer occasionally brings the insistent tapping of woodpeckers;

autumn, the rustling of pheasants in the maize stalks;

crows and farm dogs scrap and shout for attention all year round.

Down towards the kissing gate and the farm track. The Sandstone Trail turns towards the main road and southwards to Bickerton Hill. The sign to the Bickerton Poacher points left. This path follows behind the line of the fields and houses which border the main road. Overhung with stray fruit trees, damsons and crab apples tempt those walking beneath.

Crossing the muddy stream at the lowest point of the path, then uphill again past the memory of the industrial past: the brick chimney above Gallantry Bank.

Buzzards haunt the tall scots pines edging an open field, swooping ghostly shadows a prelude to their loud territorial claims. Shooting parties gather in this space. Gallantry is an elision of ‘gallows tree’. Hiding history in plain sight.

Over the stile and a steep climb up Coppermine Lane brings us back to the present.

Julia Bennett is a sociologist with an interest in place and belonging. She has lived in this part of Cheshire for 16 years.

Catholic Ghosts on Vauxhall Road

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By David Lewis:

Note:

Liverpool has a small old Jewish community but, as Islam and Hinduism are traditionally not strong faiths in the city, even now there are few mosques or temples.   The religious landscape, fading or vigorous, is overwhelmingly Christian.  Once the division between Catholic and Protestant was deep and strong.  Protestant Orange Lodge marches and Catholic celebrations of St Patrick’s Day could lead to violence.  Schools were segregated on sectarian lines and even the football teams were divided between Catholic Everton and Protestant Liverpool.  These faultlines have largely disappeared. 

The new city can pall; too much glass, too much steel, too many towers.  I turned inland to hunt ghost pubs, the alcoholic ruins along Vauxhall Road, where derelict Victorian public houses stand like broken teeth in a new urban landscape.  The Atholl Vaults, boarded and violated, plaster crumbling; the Castle, alive but closed; the Glasshouse on the corner of Eldon St; and wildernesses of bramble and buddleia behind faded advertising hoardings, the sites of mourned pubs like the Great Mersey, their ghosts silent.

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On Eldon Street I turned to the Catholic church of Our Lady of Reconciliation.  Scaffolding and tarpaulins dripped with rain and melting frost, as if the huge church had just risen from the bottom of the sea. This was a strong Irish Catholic district, fiercely political.  The area returned a Nationalist MP to the British parliament for over forty years, and a store of pre-IRA weapons was found in the cellars of a local pub in the late 1800s.   But I found that this pub too had been demolished, leaving only a brick scar.  I thought about taking one of the old bricks, to have a small piece of Liverpool Irish Nationalist history.  But why?  Perhaps one day the sounds in inanimate objects will be heard; the anxious voices, the thuds and curses as the boxes of rifles were manhandled downstairs; but not in my lifetime. 

From lost pubs, I began to see Catholic ghosts in road names and old churches.  This was now a meander across a landscape of invisible parishes, destroyed shrines torn apart in the mechanised Reformation of the 1960s when Liverpool savagely regenerated many of the older districts.  On Titchfield Street I found cobbles beneath the tarmac, stone Victorian ghosts, which took me to Trinity Catholic Primary School.  A trinity of Anglican churches - St Martin’s in the Fields, St Alban’s and St Titus’s - were lost many years ago.  The towers and walls of the Catholic St Sylvester’s survive, but they are embattled, razor-wired against vandals and arsonists, gradually being smothered by buddleia.  St Brigid’s has suffered even more.  Demolished for the Kingsway Tunnel, a slash of Brutalist concrete, it survives only as a place name behind St Sylvester’s, a clustering of Catholic names gathered as if for safe keeping. 

There are deep echoes of the Reformation on these old streets.  St Sylvester’s stands near Latimer Street, named after the bishop who was martyred for his Protestant faith.  Catholic churches, Protestant streets.  Churches stand empty, street names have lost their meanings.  Nobody in Liverpool takes these divisions seriously any more, only rain-tramps like me, trudging these darkening streets; only gutter-historians, church-watchers, people who care for the memories of the city.  And we do not believe, we just remember. 

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The people are still here, of course.  Old terraced houses have gone and bungalows and semi-detached houses with gardens and driveways line the streets.  Pubs and churches are the last to go, closed, abandoned to the weather, and then demolished, their love and faith dispersed, forgotten.  But the people remain, living modern lives in a landscape of fading Victorian ruins, architectural, cultural, theological. 

My last ghost was a church that I had watched disappear.  St Gerard Majella’s was a strange brick and concrete church near Scotland Road, and I watched it’s demolition over a month or six weeks.  The brick tides of the city have closed over this sunken church, and the name survives only in a street and a new courtroom.  I contemplated a further walk to Cranmer Street, another martyred bishop, another faded street bookended with ghost churches; but the rain was heavier and the day was darkening.  I turned towards the river, and walked slowly down to the warm shiny truths of the new city. 

David Lewis has written five books of history/landscape/psychogeography about his native Liverpool and Merseyside.  He posts urban/rural images on Instagram - davidlewis4168 and mutters about the world on Twitter - @dlewiswriter

Countdown

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By Ian C Smith:

In nocturnal limbo, untethered from sleep since 2.30, body aching, checklist of not-to-be-left-behinds reducing like ended experiences sintering away, months morphing into years, or waves washing below the light aircraft he boards in hours and minutes counting down, he can’t stop check-listing a spun out life.

Averse to a homecoming of smelly rot, tiny insects swarming in decomposed matter in the silence below his sink, he deposits kitchen scraps in the compost, balancing this by removing some for scabbed garden spots, trowelling through a fecund reek writhing with worms before leaving for his beloved place, a shimmer of memories.

Repositioning items in two battered bags, he mulls over squeezing in a book he is nine-tenths through, a literary heavyweight as big as a best seller with a title of reducing numbers by a favourite writer, a rich rendition of possible paths taken in an artistic life.

Immersed in its saga, he is unable to leave the book behind, checks another item off, medication, considers arithmetical probabilities, how happiness can remain a hairsbreadth away, loved photos, angled light blessing an island, shrouded reminders of a life, prowling his mind’s distant alleys, treading softly through the dark stables of the past. 

About the author: Ian C Smith’s work has appeared in, Amsterdam Quarterly, Antipodes, Australian Poetry Journal,  Critical Survey,  Live Encounters, The Stony Thursday Book, & Two-Thirds North.  His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide).  He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island, Tasmania.

Postcard from... Tarragona

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By Tim Woods:

A string of global top ten hits; a world-famous fashion icon; the star of era-defining TV shows. But when you hear ‘Minogue’, do you immediately think ‘Dannii’?

Tarragona suffers from a similarly overbearing sibling. It has everything a visitor could want from a Spanish excursion – coast, culture, cuisine and cerveses – yet for many, Catalonia means one thing: that overcrowded, football-famous metropolis up the coast. Even names such as Sitges and Salou will often chime more readily. These nearby resorts offer little more than sun, sangria and “Full English, only €15!!!”, yet still attract more tourists. Some hotels even offer trips to Tarragona as an afternoon excursion: “Only four hours there and back!!!”. Being little more than a time-killing detour from these culturally devoid upstarts must be hard for a former Roman capital to bear.

Yet could the times be changing? Barcelona’s authorities are actively turning tourists away, and there are only so many boiled-lobster beach-lovers that can be squeezed onto a beach. There is a void to be filled, a market to be served, and Tarragona is more than equipped to step up.

Late afternoon, I lose myself in the constricted alleys of its honeycomb old town, the docile ochre of the buildings disrupted by the Catalan flags that flap from every other balcony. I am hardly alone; a steady stream of tourists meander with me, and we are all eventually drawn to the steep steps of the cathedral, where perching space is at a premium. But drift along any of the streets that radiate from this central point and you have space, time, quiet; a stillness rarely found in Barca.

I head to the rambla, where I can actually ramble, rather than being jostled along with a crowd’s haste. Fish and tapas restaurants flank either side, but there are spaces to be had at the tables. The tiny bars selling home-flavoured vermouth are hidden just a couple of streets away. Later, I head to the Balcó del Mediterrani. It’s a hazy, lazy evening, perfect for outside, yet there is still ample room at the city’s prime lookout, from where you can soak up the ancient Amfiteatre to the north, or the fishing boats spinning around at sea.

Humbler Roman sites crop up unexpectedly. Next morning, in search of watermelon for a hungry toddler, we stumble upon the Teatre Romà de Tarragona. This spectacular site pops up unexpectedly; there are no signs, no tour parties, no fuss or fanfare. It’s just there, should you want to see it.

Or not. Up to you.           

Tim is an editor on Elsewhere: A Journal of Place and the author of Love In The Time of Britpop. You’ll find him on twitter here.                 

Beacon Bound, Part IV: Momentum

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In memory of his grandfather, Nicholas Herrmann walks the length of The Ridgeway: an ancient road stretching for eighty-seven miles across chalk downland, from Overton Hill to Ivinghoe Beacon. We will be following Nicholas’ journey here on the Elsewhere blog over the next couple of months.

As I round the corner a field comes to life, spiralling into the sky. I count twenty before they tornado away, another nine still hunched in the sun. The air is a solid wall of wings. This could be normal for all I know, but it feels like an omen: the universe flexing, a flurry of autumn heralding the end. I lift my camera too late, and through glass watch as the storm of kites blows silently over the hill.

But this is later. The day starts where we left off: by the walls of the neighbourly Church of the Holy Trinity, where we’re offered tea and biscuits before we’ve even begun. A kestrel splashes above the Ridgeway, treading water in the sky. Soon, the path is swallowed by a golf course, so we hunt for waymarks, following a trail of painted acorns. My skin prickles as I pass over dead patches on the manicured lawn – grass singed in the recent heatwave. Today, the conditions for walking are good: cool and overcast. We’ve finally made it to the other side of summer.

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Like deer, we slip across a road and into the trees, passing through alternating woods and fields of flint. The forested strips are tangled and dim, but autumn’s psychedelia is already spreading. The flash of an arum lily blazes through the late-summer green. Branches droop with dark clumps of elderberries and the shadowy orbs of sloes. Ripening rose hips blush between the leaves. Hawthorns radiate red. At intervals, we pause to gorge ourselves on blackberries, quietly marvelling at their galaxies of flavour: rich, soft, syrupy, like wine. We have entered the treasure season, when countless precious things are offered up by the earth. Happily, I tongue at a seed in my molar as acorns and conkers rain down on the approach to Swyncombe – a village where sheep-eaten trees rise from the field like bearskin hats, the culprits patrolling the grounds around the steeple-less church of St Botolph.

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The miles start to merge. West of the Thames, the path had defined sections, distinct chapters punctuated by landmarks and sudden topographical changes. There’s less drama in the Chilterns, the path meandering between field and forest, rolling from hamlet to farm. With a lack of milestones, we weave across the landscape in a daze, scattering pheasants as we sleepily kick through crabapples. At a certain point, the path drops and turns sharply northeast. This is where the storm of kites is waiting.

I freeze beneath the boiling sky.

More tree-lined avenues, more fields gilded by the intermittent sun. We pass a yew tree, its berries like bright little bells. All parts of the yew are toxic to humans: the needles, the branches, the bark. Only the fruit can be eaten – the fleshy aril – but not the seed inside, which can cause rapid heart failure due to the lethal amounts of cardiotoxic chemicals called taxine. I remember John worrying me at a young age with this strange fact, on a walk somewhere in the Chilterns. If he were here now, he might also explain that these same compounds can slow and kill cancer cells, and a number of chemotherapy drugs are developed from yew trees. This is a fact I learn later in my research, but I’m sure its one John would have known. This was his area of expertise – for years he worked as a biochemist at a major pharmaceutical company, helping to develop the antibiotic cephalosporin. I reach out. My hand hesitates by the branch. But without John here to reassure me of the biology, I lose my nerve, leaving the ripe berries uneaten.

An immense concrete structure rears out of the landscape, penetrating the hills ahead. We’ve arrived at the Stokenchurch Gap, a forty-seven-metre canyon gouged into the chalk by the M40. The motorway dominates the countryside, drowning out birdsong, polluting the fruit that lines the approach, and crowding the Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve – one of four initial sites chosen for the UK’s 1989 red kite reintroduction programme. Perhaps this explains my earlier encounter: we have found the kite’s heartland, the bird’s birthplace. The road might even serve as some kind of umbilical cord, nurturing them from the cradle with a steady stream of roadkill. I walk quickly through the underpass, aware of the weight thundering overhead. On the other side, a group of horses cowers by a hedge, sonically trapped in the shadow of the road. I wonder if they even notice it anymore, that white noise forever in their skulls.

The roar stalks us for a mile or more. Horse chestnuts lead the way towards Chinnor, already red and shedding to cover old horseshoes in the dry earth. The smell of autumn hits me here: damp and gloomy, brisk and cosy, bringing with it a hundred memories of fires, fireworks, fangs and fake blood. My parents and I sweep through the leaves in silence, the season returning us to our childhoods.

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Once more, clouds gather over the homestretch, mirroring the curves and contours of the downland below. We leave the Ridgeway at a crossroads, turning for the nearby village of Crowell, a leaden sky creeping from the west.  

We’re heading for the edge of the world.

Huge, flooded hollows appear on either side of the path. These are the remains of a former chalk quarry, now the Chinnor Chalk Pit Site of Special Scientific Interest. I catch glimpses behind the trees: white cliffs falling to ice-blue water and wading birds. My father remembers visiting the town as a child when the quarry was still in use, and noticing a layer of white dust over everything. Today, tall wire fences and warning signs stop anyone from entering. It seems like a waste – two perfect lakes cordoned off and hidden from the world. I learn later that before security increased at the site, people would sneak in regularly to enjoy the forbidden waters.

Despite the blockades, it’s a pleasant stretch, warmed by the last of the year’s sun. Dragonflies dart between unearthly plants: spidery teasels and plump, purple buddleia. Soon, we’re crossing over a road to a section of the path bustling with runners and dog walkers, shouts drifting from a nearby football match. The way opens up to the sudden sweep of the Aylesbury Vale, then continues on past tennis courts, hedges trained into unnatural shapes, and wooden fences smeared in creosote.

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We’re taken through ash plantations and over storybook hills, where house martins swell above the stubble – one final flight test before heading south. We’ve been hugging the foot of the Chilterns until now, but finally the path rises steeply up Lodge Hill. We stop halfway to catch our breath, and my father tells us about the homemade topographical maps John used to build, reconstructing the Chilterns by cutting and layering sheets of polystyrene. For the rest of the climb, I imagine myself in miniature against a white background, stepping from sheet to sheet.

Finally, we’re in the sky, with vistas reminiscent of the North Wessex Downs, Princes Risborough glittering in the distance as it catches the late-afternoon sun. Small orange butterflies spiral along the ground like fallen leaves, leading us over a railway line to meet up with the Wycombe Road, which rushes towards the edge of town. Here, we veer off, skirting the perimeter through back alleys to another busy road, where vintage cars rumble past on their way to the Kop Hill Climb car show. We’ve made it into Buckinghamshire, our penultimate county.

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A giant white cross of unknown origin, carved into the side of Whiteleaf Hill, watches us climb to the bottom of Brush Hill and into the trees. At the top, I startle a drone hovering above the nature reserve like a mechanical kestrel. It lurches in the air, regards me for a moment, then quickly whines away. I turn to get a drone’s-eye view, and I’m struck by a panorama that stretches all the way to the familiar outline of Didcot Power Station squatting in the haze. The distant smudge of the Marlborough Downs lies beyond, where we were clambering half a year and half a world ago. We’re gathering momentum – by the end of the day we’ll only be left with a handful of miles, having travelled through ancient eras and extinct kingdoms, over thousands of years: sarsens, castles, barrows and bunkers, combes, downs, towns and fields, churches, power stations, waterways and motorways, heat, sleet, wind and rain.

Unusually, the path cuts through a pub, squirrelled at the bottom of the scarp. We stop at The Plough to raise an ale to John. Nearby lies the entrance to another nature reserve: the sheltered haven of Grangelands and The Rifle Range, where sheep balance on rippling grassland, and a photographer waits patiently for the golden hour. From here, we follow the bob and roll of the landscape to the Chequers estate. We give the house a wide berth, fearfully sticking to the path as I quietly describe the plot of Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household. In the grounds, a deer tiptoes past a black pole brimming with surveillance cameras.

In the dark of an evening beechwood, I trip over roots, unsteady and aching from tiredness. We finish just before Coombe Hill – a place my father and his siblings would be brought on walks when they were young. They called it The Edge of the World. The name feels appropriate: past this point the Beacon waits. We’ll step off the edge and drift the remaining distance, like ships sailing to the Undying Lands.

The temperature is falling, the light’s bruising blue. There’s something in the air, tightening and retreating. We’ve finished another journey but we haven’t quite arrived. Autumn’s just a border.

Nicholas Herrmann is a writer and photographer based in Bath. His work has appeared in journals and online, and his writing has been shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award and Janklow and Nesbit Prize. He is a graduate of the Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa University. He is currently working on his first novel. You can find him on Twitter: @NickPSH.

Bishop's Pool: A Poem

By Ciarán O'Rourke:

This poem has roots 
in the sea, and time: 

in Bishop's Pool, when 
we slipped the plunging sun...

and let the wrack-
blue waters 

haul and hold, com-
pletely plumb 

our bodies' bird-boned, 
drifting shiver

down to the merrow 
dark below, 

where breakers 
breathe

and the green foam 
drops 

a hundred ways
to shadow: yes, 

dropped and spilled 
our names afresh

as salt, and sand,
and a wind awash

with things we bring 
to the sea's flame,

which now (and 
every wanting season) 

lay claim 
to us again:

five shipwrecked 
mountains, dreaming mist, 

the cuckoo's eye, 
the brimming nest, 

the latch in the voice 
and lift of pain, 

the flit of a swallow
in a flense of rain, 

the wave in the blood 
and the swimming stone

that flows and falls 
by breath alone – 

like the ghosts we knew
on given nights,

soft as seals 
in the soundless light.

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About the author: Ciarán O'Rourke was born in 1991 and is based in Dublin. He has won the Lena Maguire/Cúirt New Irish Writing Award and the Fish Poetry Prize. His first collection, The Buried Breath, is published by Irish Pages Press (November 2018).

Music and place: Kitty Macfarlane's Namer of Clouds

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Review and Interview by Paul Scraton:

I first heard the music of Kitty Macfarlane on her EP ‘Tide & Time’ a couple of years ago and was immediately struck by both the beauty of her voice and the spirit of place to be found within the lyrics. ‘Wrecking Days’ was the standout song, with its stories of beachcombers stalking the shore, and it was great to hear it again in a new arrangement on Macfarlane’s debut album ‘Namer of Clouds’, which is released by Navigator Records this week.

All the tracks on ‘Namer of Clouds’ speak to our relationship with landscape, place and the environment, whether it is Macfarlane’s native Somerset on ‘Man, Friendship’ or the story of the last of the Sardinian sea silk seamstresses on ‘Sea Silk’. This is an album of haunting, lyrical music that asks the listener to consider her place in the world, the beauty to be found there and the consequences of our negligence or disinterest. On ‘Wrecking Days,’ Macfarlane describes what is left behind by the tide, and if there is poetry in the image of cuttlefish bones, there is certainly a warning in what else can be found on the beach, from the discarded fishing tackle to the plastic bottle tops, resting among the seaweed and stones.

This is thoughtful songwriting, whether in the original compositions or new arrangements of traditional folk ballads. The album closes with an artistic collaboration across the ages: on Inversnaid Macfarlane reworks a 150 year-old poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins about the importance of preserving the wilderness for future generations, a task that is as important now as it ever was.

You can hear ‘Man, Friendship’ and see the official music video below, and we are extremely grateful to Kitty Macfarlane for answering some of our questions about the album, her songwriting in general, and the importance of place in her work:

From the moment I heard Wrecking Days on the Tide & Time EP, it seemed clear to me that there is a distinct sense of place in your songwriting. What role do you feel place has in your work, and which places most influenced the songs on the new album?

'Place' isn't just a geographical location. It's bound up in the stories that span hundreds of years, the changing face of a landscape over time (and our part in that), the traditions that tie people to the land, and the inexplicable way certain corners of the world can make you feel. At school we are taught geography, history, art, chemistry... as if they are separate things. For me, songwriting pulls it all together. My album couldn't help but be a bit of a tribute to Somerset, where I am from – the scenery creeps into my songs almost by accident, along with the stories of the people and creatures that live there. That said, there is also a song set on a small Mediterranean island off Sardinia, and another which is a song-setting of a poem by Manley Hopkins about a Scottish stream. I wanted it to be an album of songs loosely bound by mankind's relationship with the land.

Of all the places you have written about or the landscapes that have otherwise inspired your work, which is your favourite?

Again and again my songs return to the beautiful and ancient Somerset Levels. They are a large low-lying wetland area of peat and clay with an eerie timeless quality - perhaps something to do with their yearly renewal by ruthless flooding. The Levels hold stories of ancient people preserved in the peat; of wandering Neolithic people on their wooden trackways; of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, conquering the Danes against all odds from his hiding place on the isle of Athelney; of the disastrous floods of 1607 where thousands of people perished; of the basket-makers and thatchers, the elver fishermen and cider producers. Man, Friendship deals with our steadily changing climate, the cruel floods across Sedgemoor and what is left for humanity to cling to when all else is washed away.

In February this year I went down to Shapwick Heath nature reserve on the Levels to watch the starling murmurations at dusk. I was surprised to find hundreds of other people with the same idea, and there we all stood, wrapped up in coats and scarves, while a hundred thousand winged bodies swelled above us, bound by some magnetic tether, a pulsing leviathan in the sky. I wrote Starling Song about this uncanny phenomenon, but it was more than just a spectacle for me - it felt like a moment of immense connection with humanity.

Glass Eel is a on the surface a song about the eels that have historically filled Somerset's waterways. Their colossal, near 4000 mile migration from the Sargasso Sea to Europe is one of science's great mysteries, and there are many parts of their enigmatic life cycle that we still don't understand. The song is about the constant motion of the Earth and everything on it – how we are all compelled by the same centrifuge that drives the eel. But the European Eel is now critically endangered, due to a loss of intertidal and wetland habitats, overfishing, and man-made obstacles to their mammoth journey. I think the plight of the lowly eel is strangely metaphorical for the problems our own species faces – our fragmentation of the land with motorways, dams and weirs is like the international fissures wrought on a global scale, our gluttony and overfishing relates to our wider exploitation of the environment, and the eel's journey recalls our own questions of rights to land, migration, and belonging.

Do you find yourself most inspired by places you know well, or have travels - on tour for instance, or otherwise - given you new places to write about?

There's a definite appeal to writing about places that are familiar, as they become entwined with so many unaccountable emotions and memories. But there is inspiration everywhere and it's exciting to think of how open-ended songwriting can be. For one of the songs on the album, Sea Silk, I travelled to Sant'Antioco, a small island off Sardinia to meet and interview an elderly Italian lady who is one of the last remaining people to create 'sea silk' in the authentic and traditional way. Sea silk is a very fine thread spun from the filaments or 'byssus' of giant endangered clams that live in the Mediterranean. It has extraordinary qualities which turn it from a dull brown to a brilliant gold in sunlight. The art of spinning sea silk has been practised for centuries, and is passed down through generations of women in Sant'Antioco – traditionally, it cannot be sold for profit, but must only be given away. It crops up throughout history here and there – Nefertiti's bracelets, King Solomon's robes, even perhaps Jason's golden fleece... but is shrouded in mystery. Chiara Vigo is a remarkable woman who has devoted her life to this art form, and it was incredibly special to hear her talk about how she learnt it from her grandmother as a girl.

To me it spoke of the historical relationship between women and textiles and the land, and the important roles women throughout the world have quietly performed in the background that are rarely acknowledged by the history books. I love knitting, and part of that is the feeling of connection with generations of women before me. I don't actually speak Italian, and Chiara doesn't speak English, which made for an interesting interview (luckily I brought a friend who could translate!) but when we showed each other our own knitted creations, it felt like we shared a common tongue. A recording of Chiara's rich italian speaking voice opens the song, along with part of a soft chanting folk song that she sang to us, that coincidentally happened to be in the right key... it all felt spookily preordained!

In the album notes it says that "the album is augmented by all kinds of 'found' sound." Can you tell us a bit more about this, and how you think this helps route your songs in the places you are writing about?

I really wanted the album to feature little pieces of the places that inspired the songs. We borrowed a portable mic and took field recordings in various locations – the chaotic waterfowl recorded at dawn from a hide on the Avalon Marshes set behind Starling Song (I saw my first Bittern while recording this!)the babbling brook with its restful birdsong to accompany Inversnaid, the crash of Sardinian waves behind Sea SilkMorgan's Pantry is a traditional song about the malicious 'Morgans' that live in the Bristol Channel, that allegedly come to the shore at the foot of a hidden waterfall on the North Coast. We set out to track down this waterfall, only accessible at low tide, from an Ordnance Survey map, and recorded the rush of water falling onto the rocks, which then formed part of the song's soundscape. Using found sound seemed to pay tribute to the people and places in the songs, and made the process feel like a sort of collaboration between myself and the wild.

What are your upcoming plans? Tour dates you'd like to tell us about... oh, and when will you be coming to play in Berlin?

I'm just about to set off on a big UK tour! It starts on the 4th October in the Lake District, then I'm off all over the country for 23 gigs in all. The two biggies though are my album launch shows in Bristol (10th November) and London Kings Cross (13th) – these will be really special evenings where I'll be playing with a full band with lots of treats and surprises... Unfortunately no European gigs yet, but I'd love to come and play in Berlin one day!

The Namer of Clouds by Kitty Macfarlane is released on 21 September 2018 by Navigator Records.

College Students on Saturday Nights

 ARTWORK: UNTITLED. JASE FALK

ARTWORK: UNTITLED. JASE FALK

By Kell Xavier:

Held in a burst of fluorescent lights that wear the cloth of pinprick stars, pink petals of luminous shops sell kebabs, korma, train-over-rail harmonious sounds. Yellow glows on faces turned down low. Empathy sits with me; self-enveloping. Restaurants pool with comfort, a warm bliss that I gather and fold under my armpits, over my unoiled spine. Through windows, my softened flesh, my stillness is retracted. A chew of gluttony is sawed off of this list: acceptable ways to carry love. A mother teaches Marilyn in cinched phrases for wide blond lashes. A portrait, a funeral. The blue iris young, their bellies are not fond of ice cream, so they sup orange cream sorbet. Disguised in the paint of stereotype, curly happy locks unfurl on the shoulders of these sprightly boys; their sureness is high winds, is palm trees timbered. Little voices chaperoned by temple bells and seaweed. I'm sorry for labels stuck to matted house cat fur. Scrape my waxed ears, I want to hear these young boy sounds: burgeoning, lively.

Today stutters over the neck with cold fingers. Language hangs on the air like plants wired from the ceiling of a stained glass garden. Cloudy greyness mixes in the murk of my mind with the Valentine red laid out for tomorrow. The body prepares to exhale, content with the current disharmony, its prophecies of coming pleasure. In the domed expanse of oncoming night, I wonder, Why feed tonight? Why not tomorrow’s now instead of today’s? Nanaimo sits in glitter

@ 9:10 on cutaway benches, on two-lane roads, on a rusted tuning fork statue, on a smoke dance caught midair. My bench is cool, my back warm, the clubbing music loud, and gnats are scarce so far. Nanaimo cups around lights; it looks through windows, listens under the pop tunes for a hint of a hint. We here are something, we have made a monument. In burgundy and pale green  and ink blue colour blocks, here: the could-be-ness of home.

About:
Kell makes meaning with words and movement. He is non-binary, likes film and dandelions, and resides on Treaty One territory. Kell is on Twitter: @icebox_clouds

The Library: Hard Border – Walking Through a Century of Irish Partition, by Darach MacDonald

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Read by Marcel Krueger:

The Automobile Associaton of Ireland's 1962 handbook contains six pages of guidance for people planning to cross the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. There are 18 approved roads with customs posts, and the AA warns that vehicles were liable for customs duty and purchase tax upon entering Northern Ireland, requiring motorists to 'lodge large sums of money at the frontier' or avoid doing so by providing a so-called 'triptyque' passbook for stamping at frontier crossings. The border section closes with a warning: motorists crossing on unapproved roads are 'liable to very severe penalties, including confiscation of [their] car.' Customs post also only had limited opening hours and late-night crossings incurred an additional fee of 2 shillings, usually paid in advance.

The slow train wreck of Brexit and the connected question of the future of the only land border between the European Union and the UK has in recent years increased the interest in the history of Irish partition and the 499 km-long frontier between the Republic and Northern Ireland. Countless TV and print reports have investigated it, the border now has its own darkly funny Twitter account, and there has been a loose series of books about the border as well, first and foremost Garett Carr's 'The Rule of Land' (2017), which follows the author's trek from Carlingford Lough along the border to Lough Foyle. Darach MacDonald's 'Hard Border' is the latest addition to the loose canon of Irish border books, but this one zooms in a bit deeper than most. Despite the flashy cover which seems to indicate a more political look at the potential of a 'hard' border, instead this is a deeply personal look at the history of the border, and 'hard' here could also mean 'deadly'.

MacDonald is a veteran journalist hailing from Clones in County Monaghan, and has written extensively about his home country and the border, most recently in ' Blood & Thunder: Inside an Ulster Protestant Band' (2010). For this later border-book, he walked the 75-kilometer route of the now-defunct Ulster Canal, which was completed in 1842 to link Lough Neagh to the Erne system but proved unsuccessful, was outstripped by the railways and the subsequent partition of Ireland and finally closed in 1932. Even though there are plans to develop a greenway along its banks, to date most of it is neglected and overgrown, which forces MacDonald through dense undergrowth and on many detours – which is almost synonymous for the tangled history of the Irish border which he encounters. Following the canal from Castle Saunderson to the Moy, the author explores both the drumlin landscape and the history of the last 100 years in the border heartlands, where five counties meet: Cavan and Monaghan in the Republic and Fermanagh, Tyrone and Armagh in Northern Ireland. Here, the border shifts and snakes around villages and roads, forming loops that almost become enclaves and exclaves (and will cause many a Brexit headache): for example, there are eight roads in and out Clones in Monaghan – five of which run into Fermanagh.

Walking this convoluted border give MacDonald the chance to dive deep into the political reasons behind partition and also to chart the violence that spilled across the border from both sides: from the Irish Civil War over the so-called border campaign of the IRA in the 1950s to the horrors of the Northern Ireland conflict between 1969 and 1998. And it is the latter which results in the strongest parts of the book, when MacDonald talks about the horrendous tit-for-tat killings that he witnessed, often perpetrated by neighbours and members of the same community:

The terror persisted and lapped to and fro across the border, as with the abduction and murder of Ross Hearst of Middletown in 1980. The 52-year old father of five was taken at gunpoint outside a friend's house in Tullylush, back near where the Monaghan Mushrooms plant stands today. His corpse with four bullet wounds was dumped at Wards Cross, a short distance away on the border. [...] Seamus Soroghan of Monaghan town was later convicted of the murder. Yet no sentence could allay the trauma of the Hearst family, which at the time of the father's death was still mourning the 1977 killing of his daughter Margaret Ann Hearst, a 24-year-old-single mother of a 3-year-old child, and part-time soldier in the UDR [Ulster Defence Regiment].

As an outsider from Germany, the Irish border and its effect on the communities it historically divided and still divides often reminds me of the Berlin Wall, which had similar seemingly random nooks and crannies that meant division and death for their inhabitants. There is the 'Entenschnabel', the Duck's Bill in Glienicke/Nordbahn, where a GDR neighbourhood along one street was enclosed by West Berlin on three sides, or the Eiskeller, where three West Berlin farmer families could only get to the city along a small road four metres wide and 800 meters long. And while the Irish Border was not as tightly sealed as the Berlin one, it was at least as deadly and meant similar arrangements for those affected by it. At the height of the Troubles, the five roads out of Clones into the North were closed, and just a single main route across the border remained open in the area, and any traffic wishing to pass had to go through a full military checkpoint, often resulting in long delays - and at the height of the IRA’s campaign in the 1970s and 80s most smaller lanes leading from that main road across the border were spiked, blocked with concrete blocks or blown up by the British Army.

There's a lot of fighting and killing in this book, but this is no over-proportionate for the slice of Irish landscape and history it analyses – the terror, after all, was real. This is not a lighthearted romp, but also not a hopeless one. There's plenty of positive stories, like the history of the Leslie family of Glaslough and their (in)famous parties, or the stories of local entrepreneurship (like the aforementioned mushroom plant) that were made possible by the opening of the border after the Good Friday Agreement 1999. MacDonald is apprehensive about the potential impacts of Brexit, and rightly so, as his fine mix of memoir and history in 'Hard Border' properly put the border and its effect on the local communities into perspective. The only thing lacking is a detailed map, which would make it easy for those encountering the pitfalls of the Irish border for the first time to trace its weird loops – and a timeline would also have helped.

But otherwise, this is a fine journey through the history of the Irish border heartlands, filled with affrays, danger, hope, a soviet in the Monaghan Lunatic Asylum and Oscar Wilde's sisters, burning to death on Halloween. I can thoroughly recommend it to both newcomers to the Irish border as well as veteran border writers and walkers. And especially to Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Hard Border is published by New Island and is available through their website or from any independent bookshop.

The destroyed village: Fleury-devant-Douaumont

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By Paul Scraton:

As the road approaches the village through the forest, a sign appears at the sign of the road. It is like all others at the entrance to villages and towns throughout France: a white rectangle, fringed in red. The name of the settlement in black letters.

FLEURY DT DOUAUMONT

But unlike most other towns or villages in France, there are more words underneath.

village détruit

These two words mark Fleury-devant-Douaumont out from the other villages in the surrounding region and across the country. These two words help tell a story. In the forests around the town of Verdun, in the northeast of France, there are eight other villages with this categorisation. They stand in the Zone Rouge, an area declared uninhabitable by the French government after the devastation of the First World War. The land was contaminated, as along with the remains of the dead, poison and other dangerous gases had soaked into the soil along with lead and mercury, with impossible to calculate amounts of unexploded ordinances littered across the former battlefields.

Before the First World War Fleury-devant-Douaumont was home to just over 400 inhabitants, who worked the land or in the village itself. There were farms and smithys, a bakery and a grocery-cafe. A church and a school, a town hall and a weaver's workshop. It was not easy farming land, although even this far north the villagers were able to harvest grapes and make money from the forest that surrounded them.

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On the 21 February 1916 the sound of artillery shells marked the beginning of the German advance, part of what would become known as the Battle of Verdun, one of the deadliest in all of military history. A few hundred metres from the entrance to the village, the cemetery at Douaumont is the resting place for thousands of French soldiers who died in a battle that lasted months. The ossuary, one of France’s most important national monuments, houses the remains of over 130,000 French and German soldiers who fell at Verdun. Altogether, the fighting in these now peaceful, wooded hills, took the lives of well over 300,000 mostly young men and although the forest now covers the landscape, the scars remain. Trenches, dug down into the soil. Shell craters, that give the land a strange, undulating shape. And crosses, so many crosses, in long neat lines. A reminder, a hundred years later, of what was lost.

As the Germans advanced, Fleury-devant-Douaumont was evacuated. Altogether, what remained of the village exchanged hands sixteen times over the course of the battle. When it finally ended, the village was no more. It was in the Zone Rouge, declared a village that had ‘died for France.’ Nothing was left, but in honour of its sacrifice, it kept its legal status. The red-framed white signs still stand at the entrance and exit of Fleury-devant-Douaumont. It still has a mayor.

Today, visitors park on the side of the road that links the Douaumont ossuary with the Verdun Memorial, and wander the three streets of the village, marked out as they are among the trees by white poles. Stone slabs inform visitors in three languages as to what building once occupied a particular plot of land. A farm. The church. A bakery. The wash house. The school. There are remnants of some structures – a few stones in the ground, foundations poking through the mossy forest floor – but otherwise there is nothing, except the war memorial and a rebuilt chapel, where Our Lady of Europe, draped in a blue flag with gold stars, offers a permanent reminder of what could emerge out of the devastation of not only this war, but the one that was soon to follow.

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A small plaque offers the visitor a few words from Jean Guitton of the Académie française:

It is here, in the silence of Douaumont and the wiped out village of Fleury that I came to realise that you cannot pull down walls in Europe without first reconciling the peoples.

In the village and at the ossuary, there are cars parked with visitors from across Europe. The GB and the B. The CZ and the PL. The L and the NL. Mostly F and D, coming like Mitterand and Kohl did, and later Hollande and Merkel, to pay their respects together to the fallen of both countries. It is without question a sombre place. Signs at the entrance of the forest gently remind you that it is not a place for picnics or music, ball games or impromptu campsites. Other signs warn walkers and cyclists to stick to the paths, that the weapons of war can still kill, even a hundred years after the peace.

Why is important to visit such places? Why should we walk through Fleury-devant-Douaumont, where the streets and the memories of the houses and the people that once occupied this hillside have been reclaimed by the forest? Stefan Zweig knew. In 1920, the Austrian writer travelled to Ypres. The guns had only been silent for a couple of years. The landscape was still devastated and the wounded were still returning to their homes and already the first tourist groups were arriving, to the battlefields of Flanders and elsewhere along the Western Front.

For Zweig, the traces were important, whether two years after the events or a hundred. In Fleury-devant-Douaumont I thought of Zweig’s words, written after his return from Ypres. It made me hopeful that there were other people there with me in the woods, walking the village streets now held in the embrace of the forest. Zweig knew that despite the distasteful elements of places such as these becoming tourist destinations, there was still something good, and something very important, “when a hundred thousand people, comfortable and carefree, clatter through … annually, and whether they care for it or not, these countless graves, these poisoned woods, these devastated squares still serve as reminders… All that recalls the past in whatever form or intention leads the memory back towards those terrible years that must never be unlearned.”

About the author:
Paul Scraton is the editor in chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. Paul’s book Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic coast is out now, published by Influx Press.

In Olšany Cemetery

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By Anna Evans:

On a weekend trip to Prague they decide to walk in the cemetery near where they are staying in Prague 3. They agree to set out early, visit the cemetery, and then to continue with their day. It is October, an early morning chill in the air, but already the sunlight is beginning to glance down with a nod, promising warmth, an unexpected dawning of late summer spells.

She reads aloud from her book, ‘See, the first line mentions the cemetery…  listen, it says…’ She hasn’t made it very far with the book yet, but is glad to be reading a Czech author. There is something about this place, she thinks. I would like to get to know this city and its complex history; this city of writers and of walking.

Leaving their apartment building, they can see the wall of the cemetery in front of them and trees behind. Crossing the road they find an entrance at the end of the street.

It is one of those rare times when both agree that this is the only place they really want to be, that given the chance they wouldn’t be anywhere else. They listen carefully to the other’s remarks and laugh together as two people who know and understand each other. They agree that it’s good to be away from home, that the best feeling of all is the day stretching out in front of them, the city to explore. The feeling of waking early in a new place, that sense of accomplishment. The promise of black coffee and the warming smell of baking bread. There is a route planned on a map, the streets of Prague, its art nouveau buildings a perfect tapestry through which to wander, to the sound of passing trams.

The trees are filters for the sunlight, and leaves are beginning to cover everything. Wandering along the paths, the gravestones draped in ivy but without the sense of neglect and desperate wildness some cemeteries have.

Those strange eruptions from the ground growing amongst the trees, marble and stone of different shapes and sizes with pathways running between. They are like city streets, laid out in blocks with signs, and all the leaves swept away. Sometimes the graves look like grand city houses. ‘How funny that money and status should continue to follow us into death,’ he says, and they pause, thinking of the years sliding past them.

Walking and reading the stones, thinking about what draws people to cemeteries, trying to describe the sense of peace and watchfulness it brings. There are those tending the graves of family, holding in their hands the span of remembrance; like the flowers they lay down, for as long as their transient bodies remain. The green force flowing through the stems cut off already from their source of life.

Looking at the names on the gravestones, reading the history of families, through the years engraved in stone. Of lost children, and married couples who died within months of one another.

Cemeteries are really places for the living.

Connected to our beginnings and ends, people wander through cemeteries to be close to those who are no longer here. Each city, each place, contains the imprints of all those who have walked its streets and all those yet to come, the ghosts of history who are with us even now. In some places we are more aware of them than others.

Confronting their mortality, but feeling life urging its way through their bodies, they walk around, knowing they will leave and continue the day, saying farewell to those in ivy-covered slumber.

Reaching the main entrance, the sun warmer and brighter, rising higher in the morning sky.  The sound of traffic from the road nearby and people walking past. Soon they will join the movement of the city streets and the day will glide by in all its colours.

For a moment though, they pause and look back. They both know how quickly and how easily the shadow beckons and can fall between them. Like feeling cold on a sunny day, like voices interrupting from the past, ghosts of time and distance.

About the author:
Anna Evans is a writer and researcher from Huddersfield in the north of England, currently living in Cambridge. Her interests are in migration and literature, cities and movement, and she completed an MA in ‘Writing the Modern World’ at the University of East Anglia in 2017. She is currently working on a project on the places in Jean Rhys’s fiction. 

Postcard from… Múli, Faroe Islands

TimFaroes.jpg

By Tim Woods:

There is a temptation to romanticise the lives of those in remote outposts. On the extremities of our lands, they are immersed in nature, in tune with their ecosystem; pursuing a simpler, less cluttered existence.

Yet it is not always a choice. Some inhabit these places through circumstance alone. And the other side of this coin is often hardship and poverty, loneliness and isolation. There is little romance in any of these.

Múli, near the northern tip of Borðoy, is one of several deserted hamlets scattered across the eighteen Faroe Islands. But its abandonment is more recent than most: the last inhabitants only left in 1998. There was no disaster, no seismic event that forced them away; they had simply had enough. The gravel road, built not long before then, was a noble attempt by the Faroese authorities to connect the hamlet to Norðdepil and Klaksvík; instead, it simply made it easier to get away.

I drove along that road one evening in June, the light not even close to fading during the endless days of a Nordic summer. It hugs the edge of a dramatic glacial landscape, all plunging cliffs and bowl-like valleys, plus many other features familiar to anyone with a GCSE geography textbook. After parking, I followed the path beyond the four houses of the hamlet, dodging the fractious kittiwakes leaving their cliffside nests to shoo me away. That romantic side briefly took over: what a place to live this would be.

But five minutes later, I’d reached the farthest point accessible before those fearful cliffs take hold once more. It’s not even three hundred metres from the houses; a remarkably small space from which to eke out a livelihood from farming.

Passing back past the houses, I noticed smoke from a chimney and voices inside. They are not completely abandoned, having taken on a new life as holiday lets that are regularly booked out during the summer. Landscapes such as this are, it seems, best enjoyed for a few days rather than a lifetime. Perhaps Múli has finally found its purpose.

Beacon Bound, Part III: Infalling

Monument.jpg

In memory of his grandfather, Nicholas Herrmann walks the length of The Ridgeway: an ancient road stretching for eighty-seven miles across chalk downland, from Overton Hill to Ivinghoe Beacon. We will be following Nicholas’ journey here on the Elsewhere blog over the next couple of months.

There he sleeps, immeasurable: the fire-drake. Somewhere under the earth, in some hill or nameless barrow. His lair is dim and airless, his breast the only glow. His hide is painted in royal reds, scales edged in gold as if gilded with sticky treasures. Coiled around his mass: a tail tipped with a fleur-de-lis. His wings are folded at his sides, bat-like, all skin and sinew. Horns peek from a fog of smoke that spreads with every breath. Claws, blood-muddied, dig into countless piles of precious things.

He could rise at any moment and burn the world away.

*

The Ridgeway smells of dead grass and chapped earth. The fields creak with crickets, and Cabbage Whites drift on the breeze like ash. Our bags are heavy on our bare shoulders as we step into summer. We’ve unpacked our raincoats and drybags, filled the space with water and sun cream. It’s already hot as we pass the Memorial of Lord Wantage – a striking column rising from the ridge, proclaiming aphorisms in Latin across the valley: Peace in passing away. Salvation after death. Light after darkness. Hope in light. Somewhere, we cross into Berkshire, my home county. Soon, we’ll be wading into the Thames and resting in the Chilterns’ beechwood shade, but first we must traverse ten miles of parched and dying downland.

A terrifying alchemy has taken place: the ‘precious stone set in the silver sea’ turned to dust.

Haystacks.jpg

They’re calling it a heatwave. In the coming days, The Washington Post will run stories about the all-time records being set around the world: Africa and Japan witnessing their hottest ever temperatures, people dying in Canada, roads and roofs melting across the UK. The Jet Stream has buckled and the Gulf Stream is grinding to a halt, causing surface temperatures to rise. Whole sections of rivers vanish. Wildfires rage in the Arctic Circle. In Scotland, dogs die from lapping blooms of toxic algae. In Ireland and Wales, the drought causes crop marks to appear: outlines of ancient sites and settlements, unknown or long-lost, like marks from a magnifying glass burning through time. It’s Britain’s driest summer since modern records began. The heat is unnatural, the world uncomfortably warm.

On the path, flies cluster and chase, attracted by our gathering sweat. We push through tall, tick-threatening grass, guessing at the names of the wildflowers that colour the verge. I can only identify the obvious ones: cow parsley, buttercups, thistles. A hiker heading for Overton Hill points out others: ragwort, scabius, vetch. Names like ancient ailments.

My father has been clearing out John’s house in Wales, and there have been discussions about what to do with the dragons. They lurk on bookshelves beside Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica, squat on side tables above leather walking boots. There’s a dragon cast in iron, low and long; one made of plastic, a children’s toy elevated to ornament; one carved into a wooden stamp. The centrepiece is ceramic, hand painted in green and gold, clutching a crystal ball. It was a love born of studying biology and archeology, reading Pratchett and Tolkien. Even the house was part of the collection in a way – a bolt hole in the land of the dragon.

There’s no hiding from the heat. We’re stalked for miles by Didcot’s smoking towers. It’s a strange section of the trail, unremarkable and vast, the antithesis of Uffington, a place busy with history. We pass under the A34, connecting Newbury and Oxford like a steel pin forced through the bone of the land. The roaring underpass provides a few seconds of relief before we’re once again bombarded by UV rays.

After another stretch, the landscape relaxes into a valley, the power station falling out of sight. At the bottom, a little brick bridge arches over a trench of nettles: the skeleton of the Didcot, Newbury and Southampton Railway, opened at the end of the nineteenth century, closed in the 1960s due to lack of traffic. The DN&SR became important in World War Two, when it was used to transport supplies to the coast in preparations for the Normandy landings. Our presence flusters a couple of wood pigeons that blunder into the trees. I lean on the wall and gaze into the green abyss, imagining the wildlife tucked into the weeds, the insects nesting in cracks, the creatures suspended in shadow. I wonder when the A34 will go this way – sink back into nature, burst open and bloom. Return to barbarism.

Wheat.jpg

The buzz of a Cessna interrupts the heavy quiet of the afternoon. The breeze is thick and warm, dragon’s breath blowing in from the barley. Orchids rise from the bank. Heat haze ribbons on every edge. As we trudge the last few miles, the chalk of the Ridgeway glows white-hot, angling the sun at us, cooking us evenly. I squint, chalkblind.

Finally, we find shelter. A wood materialises on the lip of the Goring Gap as we descend the ridge. It’s a sign we’re moving through a new morphology now, that the windy, sweeping stretches of the North Wessex Downs are behind us. It also means we’re reaching the end of our first ancient highway, the Thames marking the start of the Icknield Way. We walk to the edge of Streatley, where a sign tells us we’ve been infalling for forty-one miles – almost half the distance to the Beacon. We see out the day at Aldworth, a village home to medieval giants, a one-thousand-year-old yew, and The Bell – the Platonic Form of a pub, housed in a building from the fifteenth century. We collapse onto rain-warped benches to savour local ciders beneath the falling sun.

*

The temperature rises by one degree.

Our skin a little pinker, we walk the final mile to Streatley. The town feels like a threshold, a red-brick terminal busy with early-risers leaving for the hills. There’s a book exchange in a telephone box, filled mostly with travel authors left by Ridgeway ramblers: Eric Newby, Paul Theroux, Patrick Leigh Fermor. We pass blue plaques announcing the famous feet that have graced the town: Turner did some sketches here, parts of The Wind in the Willows are set in the surrounds.

Signposts ferry us over the Thames, into Goring, and through a system of alleyways and driveways that cut between castles: riverside mansions that block our view of the water. On the map, the path appears to follow the river closely, but in reality we’re funnelled between eight-foot-high fences, with signs warning: private, keep out, the river doesn’t belong to us.

We emerge from the residential warren into a meadow of yellow wildflowers, ones I now have the power to name: ragwort. A train barrels past on its way to Reading. As we approach the perimeter of the village, church bells ringing the end of Sunday service, I’m put in mind of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country. This approach through no man’s land feels foreign, like we’re strolling into the early 1900s – the meadow hasn’t been cultivated, built upon, or swallowed up by Goring. It feels rare to find such a clear delineation, a place not being put to use.

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At last, we reach the river, sleepy and wide. Dogs stand in the shallows snapping at phantoms, people wave from paddleboards. We wander alongside, coming to a four-arched Victorian railway bridge I later learn was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The brickwork shows its age – wrinkled and weathered, bleached by efflorescence, mottled and soiled with moss and soot. Two centuries absorbed in its pores: every storm that’s ever fallen, every boat that’s passed underneath. The bridge crosses the river aslant, the bricks arranged into complex diagonal structures. I linger to photograph an arch, mesmerised by its patterns and tones, the leaves and roots that sprout from the mortar. The years have given the bridge the same plumage as a kite.

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We follow the water north. It’s hazy, humid, the sun at its zenith. We are desperate to find a place to swim. Soon, we find it: the perfect beach just off the towpath. I take off my hat and shirt, and immediately begin to burn. We wade in. My toes sink into the silt, my blood starts to cool. We stand and listen to the buzz of insects and distant shouts down the river. A laugh from my father – fish are nibbling at his feet. When the sun becomes too much, I bend my knees and launch myself, washing the heat from my skin in an instant. I dive to wipe the sweat from my brow. The relief is profound. My limbs feel apart from me. Like eels, they slip and slither in the shadows of the river. I swim into the middle and float among the dragonflies. I breathe in the fishy smell of willow, weed and water.

Like mudskippers, we climb out awkwardly, finding our feet on the sun-baked bank. I submerge my shirt before putting it on again, to carry the river with me a while. Then we head back into the long grass towards North Stoke.

The path takes us past a ‘Type 22’ pillbox in a riverside garden, its embrasures still narrowed at the Thames as if no one told it the war was over. We enter the graveyard of St. Mary the Virgin, a modest church of flint and beam founded in the eleventh century. Inside, medieval paintings of bible scenes adorn the walls, the figures cartoonish and flat. The thick walls fortify me, my sweat dried by the musty air. It smells subterranean, of a cave or sett, and I am returned to Wayland’s Smithy. My father’s voice reverberates in the empty building – he is reciting a section of his favourite poem:

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

Lines from ‘Little Gidding’, the final part of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. I stand in the nave clutching my notes, Eliot’s words ricocheting around my skull. Outside, the shadow of a kite orbits the churchyard, folding from stone to stone.

Wagtails wash by the old mill, the path growing more secluded on the approach to Crowmarsh, a name perfectly suited to this terrain. We are travelling through edgeland now, a place not quite nature, not yet town: boggy, littered and overgrown. The scent of poplar and lime mix with car fumes that linger above the A4074 – a road that acts as a final boundary before we’re once again climbing into the hills.

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This is where we run out of water. My skin wrings out the last few drops as I snake down narrow, nettle-lined paths that wind between wheat fields belonging to Lonesome Farm. We pause on the edge of our first proper beech forest where the ferns are thick, the birdsong exotic and loud. The topography has shifted: shady, verdant, animate.

Grim’s Ditch, a series of mysterious ancient earthworks we’ve been following for miles, grows deeper as we near Nuffield, like a dried up riverbed from some distant climatic tragedy. A red kite raises the alarm as we emerge from the trees: dragon-like, a lookout on the edge of its kingdom. The Church of the Holy Trinity, practiced in aiding walkers, supplies us with a bench and a tap. We fill our flasks and stomachs, water dripping from our chins. The kite whirls above us in the low light, sounding its battle cry: weee-ooh, ee oo ee oo ee oo.

All the colours of heat.

Nicholas Herrmann is a writer and photographer based in Bath. His work has appeared in journals and online, and his writing has been shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award and Janklow and Nesbit Prize. He is a graduate of the Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa University. He is currently working on his first novel. You can find him on Twitter: @NickPSH.

Island

 Artwork: Untitled, by Jase Falk

Artwork: Untitled, by Jase Falk

By Kell Xavier:

The house is at the top of a long driveway, paved years ago and strewn with gravel. On this hill, one can see the blue mountains, rain like steam in a different city. There are candy cane lilies in the front yard, and delicate yellow flowers hang from a twist of a tree. There is green grass by the campfire, the mint plant, the badminton net, the orange trees with their waxy leaves. I climb for tangerines, my fingers digging into orange skin on a fresh-plucked fruit.

I touch my hip bones before I sleep, a reminder of physicality and the thought of beauty. Lately, when I touch my body to the floor to roll in trials of choreographic magic, I find bruising peeking through my skin. I massage fingers into the looseness of their purple pain, calling it into me and alive, like an incantation. I hold my hip bones like knobs or handles, to propel me on.

He is king of everything the ocean touches. He says so. Once or twice a year, I beg the blues, the waves— spaces he believed in— to keep his spirit alive. Every now and then, I beg something— what do I believe in?— to keep my spirit warm to him.

In a poem, years ago, I compared my father to a candle flame. What I mean is: my fragile energy is a candle flame, I don't want to think about my father.

The warm silver of a siren calling, death with desire; the cold iron of a banshee, death with petrification.

About:
Kell makes meaning with words and movement. He is non-binary, likes film and dandelions, and resides on Treaty One territory. Kell is on Twitter: @icebox_clouds

Hiraeth

 Photo: jessica sealey

Photo: jessica sealey

By Aoife Inman:

It’s late but the evening light lingers at the peripheries of the ocean making the day stretch long into the night. Time seems to stretch here, the minutes distorted by the quiet swell of the ocean.

The air is full of mist; it pads out the twilight zone between the last dregs of evening and the soft beginnings of the morning. I’ve always thought this is an almost mythical piece of the day, when it’s neither light nor dark and the sky is damp and thick with salt, brushed in off the incoming tide. You can hold the mist between your teeth, wads of it pressed against the insides of your cheeks like cotton.

There aren’t many who bother to come down to the sea front at this hour, with the weather, as it is, temperamental and unforgiving. The wind bites and scratches at any scrap of skin left bare to the element and my thighs are lined with small red welts and scratches – the claws of the ocean have dug their way into me, right to the bone. Today, however, there are a few faces who peer palely over in my direction as I trail down the hill – van dwellers, keen surfers and fishermen, who are all, themselves, half brine and barely human, at least in the city sense of the word.

This was always the place I felt most at home, not here specifically but this ocean, this crack of coastline that juts out obstinately, defiant and secluded. It feels a million mile away from the industrial powerhouse cities I’ve made my home now.

Home. It’s a strange word whose weight has always felt uncomfortable in my mouth, hard and bitter. I was born on the road, moving between a collection of cardboard houses, each one like the last and yet lacking something. I resided in houses, habitats, a series of rooms, plaster, mortar and board – safe and comfortable but never permanent. To belong to just one place strikes me as an exhausting concept.

I thought when I had grown up that I’d settle somewhere; that I’d stop moving and plant some roots, or whatever the metaphor is, but I’ve realised that those moments, those years spent on the road, they get into your bones over time. Slowly, you barely feel it at first, but I can’t stay still now. I’ve tried, time and time again, found a place I love and settled there with a job and a plan and a circle of friends and then I feel that itch, again, against the soles of my feet. It’s like a disease, that itch, that want for change, it’s exhausting sometimes.

I walk along the cliff path, away from the cove, to the world’s edge where the grassy slope seems to fall away into the deafening blue. It’s a steep rocky path carved right into the grit and soil of the cliff, the sort that has been etched by many pairs of feet, worn over many years. When the tide eventually comes in it will cut off this path completely, a void of cold, blue Atlantic filling the space where my feet have trod. Nothing about the breadth or surface of this terrain is easily digestible. It’s a wholegrain, bran and fibre sort of landscape – some find it lonely, harsh, and unforgiving – I find myself falling in love with the rough corners of it every time I return.

When I was a child we were taught to spot currents on cliffs like this, our hands tracing the motions of the sea, trailing the lines of white foam that spread across the ocean like a film. I reach out my hand to lay it on the horizon, palm obscuring the bulb of the grey sun.

If you follow the cliff path round the curling edge of the peninsula you reach a town, a knot of tangled streets that overlap one another like old strings, every one gnarled with potholes and cobbles. I follow it now, zigzagging through kissing gates and through fields of thick grass. Everything is further apart here, houses and gardens stretch along the street, sand banks drag the beaches way out into the bay and the years seem to trickle by – I do not have to measure time so carefully here, there are months to spare.

The town is simple, a harbour filled with thin fishing boats and crab pots, a lifeboat house, a shop selling spades and 99 cones. It’s fixed in another time, another era where people worked with their hands, in the earth and the water.

This place is filled with mysticism, steeped in folklore, luck bound in rhymes and patterns of three. It’s everywhere you look, tucked in corners of woodland and thin waterfalls where faerie stacks topple. Down in the town the boats that jut out into the cove are named after mythical lands and magical creatures, suspicion has wormed its way amongst the men who tend the land and drag the sea.

“Look down there.” The mother leans into the clove of her son’s ear as she speaks. “Look down at that boat there, see the lions on its side?”

Sure enough, on its flanks are painted two yellow lions, their manes dipping and rising out of the green waters.

“They’re named after the legend of Lyonnesse…legend says there used to be a beautiful isle just set above Seven Stones reef that is halfway out to the Scillies. The city of lions and the land of Lyonesse, built with 140 churches atop it and a castle they say, all swallowed up in a single night by the ocean.”

The boy’s eyes widens as he listens, his hands gripping the handrails with his chubby palms.

His mother crouches down by his side, “look now do you see the top of the steeple there, just jutting out of the waves?”

He nods, eyes fixed on the grey sea.

The light is fading now, obscuring the edges of the day. Home, it’s a strange thing I think again, I wrap my tongue around it, a lump in the hollow of my mouth. It’s everywhere here and yet it feels distant. It’s in the lilt of the mother’s curling accent, the one I have lost over so many years spent away. It’s in each vowel, full bodied and warm, the crackle of pebbles under rubber boots in the evening tide, the low thud of water turning cliff to rubble.

I collect them in my palms as I count them, feel the weight of the love I hold for this place, and close my eyes as the day melts.

About the author:
Aoife Inman is a writer and historian based between Cornwall and Manchester. Her short stories have been published in Electric Reads’ Young Writers Anthology 2017 and New Binary Press’ 2018 Autonomy collection, as well as being long-listed for the 2016 Royal Academy Short Story Award. 

Postcard from… Szent Mihály, Balaton

 Photo: Katrin Schönig

Photo: Katrin Schönig

By Paul Scraton:

From the bike path that was leading us around Lake Balaton, a small track led up through the trees, winding its way around a couple of tight hairpins until it reached the top. There were picnic tables up there and a clearing in the woods that clung to the hillside, offering views across the curve of the lake’s western shore, back to Keszthely where we had started out that morning and across to Fonyód where, the previous day, we stopped to watch a congregation of egrets as they stalked along the pebbled shore.

 Photo: Katrin Schönig

Photo: Katrin Schönig

Also atop the hill was a white chapel, bright against the blue sky, and a series of crucified figures, carved out of wood and looking sorrowfully down towards the picnic tables and the views belong. The chapel was dedicated to Szent Mihály, and St Michael’s chapel had been built on this promontory above the lake for a very specific reason. The chapel was there to remember a day almost three hundred years before; a day very different to the one we experienced beneath a hot, June sun.

Over the winter of 1739, a group of fishermen walked out onto the ice on the edge of the partially frozen lake. As they worked, lifting fish from the cold waters, the ice they were standing on broke free and began to float off into the lake. The waters were so cold it was impossible for them to swim for safety. Six died, from the cold or from falling into the water. The other forty were left, floating on the lake, waiting to meet a similar fate.

That the forty fishermen survived was thanks to a shift in the wind, which began to move the ice floe back towards the shore. Once back on dry land the fisherman decided to build a chapel in thanks to their miraculous survival, and they built it on the hill that looked down on where they had returned to shore, so that it could continue to watch over the fishermen of the Balaton from that point on.

It was hard to imagine the lake frozen as we sat there on the picnic table beneath Christ on the cross and the tower of St Michael’s chapel. There seemed little movement on the lake as the sun rose higher in the late morning sky. But the church on the hill stood there as a reminder, not only of those who survived that winter’s day, but those that hadn’t been so lucky to be saved by the changing wind.

About the author:
Paul Scraton is the editor in chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. Paul’s book Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic coast is out now, published by Influx Press.