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.

Like Home

In our home town of Berlin, Catherine Marshall visits an exhibition that explores notions of place and home through the work of different artists:

In a grand corner apartment block in Berlin’s Mitte near Friedrichstraße, eleven artists with a connection to South America and Berlin have set up temporary home, or ‘Like Home” as the exhibition is titled. It is organised by the project Loop Raum, and the focus of the work is on abstraction, patterning, repetition and colour. Visiting it transported me back to the time of abundant unrenovated spaces in Berlin, where you might come across pop-up exhibitions in unusual places and have the pleasure of discovering the unexpected. Stepping into the the first-floor apartment where the exhibition is held, the space exudes the former grandeur of its Grunderzeit architecture with its high ceilings, intricate stucco and beautiful parquet flooring. At the same time, the rooms are damp and cold in places, the corridors are quite spooky and maze-like and plaster lies exposed with remnants of wallpaper from bygone years. We start to explore.

Carla Guagliardi / "O Lugar do ar" (The place of air)

Carla Guagliardi / "O Lugar do ar" (The place of air)

In the first room, we see a delicate kinetic sculpture of iron rods supported by rubber bands that crisscross the entire room by the Brazilian artist Carla Guagliardi.  A piece called "O Lugar do ar" (The place of air), its structure imposes a new language over the room with its potential to shift and change shape. It's material and formal abstraction is incongruous to the historicist style of the room, yet it reinvents it. It is not solid and fixed, yet it has a strong presence. When we endeavour to make a new city feel like home, we wish to carve out a space for ourselves, both physically and mentally. Due to economic necessity, a transient way of life can also become a permanent state.

We turn the corner down a long corridor where a small drawing by Columbian artist Carlos Silva from his ‘Mazy Drawing’ series hangs. Its overlapping squares of blue ink appear to have been made with a scraping technique. The wall it hangs on carries its own marks: Swathes of white filler on plywood and torn wallpaper edges. The work draws attention to the layers of workmanship and materials of the flat itself. In this show, many of the artworks resonate with the apartment itself, its ghosts and history, making us question who might have lived here. It reminds us also that home is never static, is not just located in place but also in time. 

Carlos Silva / "Mazy Drawing II"

Carlos Silva / "Mazy Drawing II"

Leaving the corridor, Chilean artistGonzalo Reyes Araos’ grid-like “RGB Painting” revels in glitches that might appear on a computer screen, except that this is reproduced here meticulously in paint. It’s as if the romantic landscape genre of the eighteenth century practiced by artists such as Caneletto has been updated. Instead of architectural ruins we have crumbling technology. Have we passed the threshold where our home screens feel more like home than our actual home?

Other works in the show play with optical illusion, geometric forms and seem to want to reach beyond the boundaries possible between four walls or even within the limits of their own frames. Carla Bertone’s colourful painting ‘Turgoxid’ looks as if origami paper has been folded and refolded in a quest to reach the limits imposed by the square, if there are any. Maria Muroz’s “Lemniscata” is a play on the mathematical symbol of an infinity loop. Close up, however the progression of colour through the figure of eight is not so straightforward. New angles and colours become apparent, questioning our own logic.

When you move city or country or live between places then perhaps there is ‘no place like home’. Instead it is something better, a plurality of homes, experiences, memories, friends and origins. We have moved on from Dorothy’s trance-line repetitions of “there is no place like home” as she returns to her Kansas’ origin. We prefer the uncertainty of Oz, and its new possibilities. In ‘Like Home’ I felt these artists might enjoy that notion too.

The exhibition ‘Like Home’ has been extended to July 21 and has been expanded to include an additional fifteen more artists. It can be seen at GLINT, Glinkastraße 17, 10117. The show was originally paired with another project called ‘No Place’ with the joint title ‘No place/ Like Home’

From Travail to Travel

By Ian C Smith:

On Saturday mornings in post-war London he thrills to the idea of escape.  For sixpence he sees a hero, dressed more like a movie star than a cowboy, elude a dull-witted gang, sidling from a spot tighter than his belt and boots, while the juvenile audience, escaped from grey boredom, jeers hoarsely.

Freedom: scheming prisoner motivation, the door left unlocked, exit road snaking away to the hills, or shaking off hounds by crossing streams, or the fairground life, always moving on, appeals, his hourglass almost done, parents edging closer to learning of his shoplifting, their emigration to Australia offering him an escape tunnel.

Vanished people intrigue: a car stranded under a tree, keys no longer swaying, silence, the stars, restless wind, the only witnesses; fresh starts, no difficult goodbyes, off to find Utopias gloved in dreams.  Isolated Australians’ penchant for flying overseas triggers his idealised self as a secretive drifter who makes unscheduled stops.

Travelling light to New Zealand where the South Pacific, Tahiti, await, island hopping the Dateline, splendour beckoning beyond dock lights, then hitch-hiked highways, youth hostels somewhere in America, this yearning for other lives, his homing instinct, exempts him from worn out love, income addiction, the fetid weight of a wasted life.     

About the author:
Ian C Smith’s work has appeared in, Antipodes, Australian Book Review, Australian Poetry Journal,  Critical Survey,  Prole,  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.

Late of Kings Turning

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By David Lewis:

One grey day in early summer I found myself unexpectedly alone, so I stole a long day to go walking and exploring.  The town was quiet and warm, and the air was scented with the rich musk of lilac and a soft suggestion of wisteria.  Great pale purple bunches hung over the road and curved gently across the faces of old houses.  The country lanes were bordered by long grasses and frothy, gentle wild flowers - cow parsley, herb Robert, buttercups.  The hedge thickened around an overgrown brick step and a sturdy white iron gate, as the ground rose into the cemetery.

We all have cemetery stories, ancestor tales.  My maternal grandparents and great grandparents are buried in a sloping graveyard overlooking the Welsh town of Llangollen, but my Lewis ancestors were either cremated or lie in an unmarked grave in Toxteth Cemetery, Liverpool.  There is a poetry in these places, the poetry of time and loss and hope, stories told in grass or written on stone pages.  Far from being depressing places, cemeteries are full of wildflowers and a rich meditative silence broken only by the birds.

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This was a very Protestant cemetery and I saw only one Catholic crucifix on my slow walk.  Carved from the local grey-brown stone, the heavy Victorian headstones were sombrely decorated with calligraphy and curlicues rather than angels, although many headstones wore small panels of spring flowers, symbolic of Easter and the Resurrection, an eternal stone garden mirroring the lush greenery in the hedgerows outside.  The headstones’ crisp edges had been softened by a hundred Welsh winters, and names and dates were fading beneath lichens and mosses.  As a landscape it was defined by giant yew trees, dark and gloomy, beneath which the grave plots were widely spaced, a lawn sprinkled with tombs.  Gothic ironwork disappeared into thick ivy; older tombs were smothered by wild undergrowth.  There were more Celtic crosses than in an English cemetery, but very few Welsh inscriptions.

Yet the stories reached back through time to the landscape around the town.  Older graves were often carved with the names of large houses, hill farms and town houses, places I passed daily.  Bridge House, Stapleton Court, Tan House.  Late of Kings Turning, read one.  In this border cemetery the names were Welsh and English – Hatfield, Davies, Jones and Roberts – and I found many Thomas Lewises, my paternal great grandfather in that unmarked Liverpool grave.  Many families were haunted by infant mortality, the children’s lives cut short which sadden all visitors to a nineteenth-century graveyard.

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But in rural Wales, the dead are part of the stories of the living and old stories fade slowly.  King’s Turning is a bend in the road, a field, a footpath on the outskirts of town, named for a fleeting visit by Charles 1st, so the story goes.  Welsh family storytelling creates a weave of story unconnected to chronological time, in which the dead are present through story and anecdote.  In Wales, as in William Faulkner’s Deep South, the past isn’t dead, it’s not even the past.

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

Postcard from... Cafe Leopold, Mumbai

Marcel Mumbai.jpg

By Marcel Krueger:

In the sweaty humid madness of the cyberpunk city that is Mumbai, where 60-storey skyscrapers rise into the night sky behind crumbling British colonial buildings and where men with typewriters and computers sit in little wooden booths offering letter writing and translation services on the streets, Café Leopold has been haunted by generations of foreigners. Lonely Planet calls it a ‘clichéd Mumbai travellers’ institution’, and it features heavily in Gregory David Roberts’ 2003 novel ‘Shantaram’, about an Australian hiding from the authorities in Mumbai and a staple in the literary diet of backpackers coming to India – they even sell it at the counter in the café.

The café itself however does not seem to live up to its reputation. Its small entrance is almost completely immersed in the tourist infrastructure of the equally touristy Colaba Causeway, the main street of this southern Mumbai neighbourhood. It’s flanked by small stalls and shops selling trinkets, fake jewellery, smart phone covers and T-shirts, and only the two security guards wearing ‘Leopold’-T-shirts at the entrance give it away (and check your bags for dangerous items). What I like about the place is its matter-of-factness. Despite being in business since 1871, there is no European café grandeur amidst the languid air pushed around by the many ceiling fans on the ground floor, only Indians and foreigners, backpackers and businessmen who come here for cheap food, cakes and cold beer.

Maybe it is this matter-of-factness that made it one of the targets in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, when the attackers sprayed the café with bullets from their AK-47s, killing ten guests and injuring many more. Some of the bullet holes can still be seen in the walls, between old beer advertisements and Pulp Fiction posters. Café Leopold defiantly re-opened only four days after the attack, and I for one believe that cold beer and cake will always beat terrorists and their bullets.  

Beacon Bound, Part II: Remnants

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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.

‘The farewell was beautiful.’

These are the first words of Trouble With Lichen, John Wyndham’s 1960 novel about an antidote to old age. I’ve brought it with me to read on the journey – twenty miles further to the edge of the North Wessex Downs. John, my grandfather, was a keen reader of science fiction, and we bonded over this shared love in recent years. He had a soft spot for authors from the Golden Age: Asimov, Christopher, Clarke. Wyndham was a favourite, and as I address this gap in my knowledge on the morning of the walk, I think I can see why: the rigorous attention to scientific detail, the careful, complex female characters, the disconcerting ring of truth.

I’m thinking of immortality as we step onto the Ridgeway. The path carries us in a curve around Ogbourne St. George – a place unrecognisable since we were last here. The air is heavy with blossom and birdsong, lambs bleating in a nearby field. Green tangles of cleaver, nettle and fern spill off the banks. Everywhere the trees are fluorescent and full. We’ve left winter behind us, somewhere among the sarsens of Fyefield and Avebury. My father and I pick a couple of the young beech leaves – a food that sustained the partisans of Yugoslavia as they resisted the Germans during the Second World War. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a partisan. This was his relationship to the land: survival. The taste of the leaf is strong but not unpleasant, a grassiness giving way to the tang of green apple.

We cross over the clear waters of the Og. A dozen swifts dart high above the water, feeding, or playing, or simply celebrating their homecoming after a long journey back from Africa. Their movements are sharp and delicate, like paper aeroplanes brought to life. The trail cuts through a thatch of cottages, and over an A-road, until finally the path grows steeper and we’re climbing free from civilisation. Seams of chalk appear in the earth as we ascend onto the ridge, blending with the white of the blackthorn.

It’s good to be on the old road again, so high above the world. As we find our stride, I have to relearn the landscape, vernal now – budding, noisy and bright. Linnets kiss behind clumps of gorse. Larks shout down from the clouds. Rapeseed ignites the fields and fills the air with musk. We even pass through wooded sections this time, where bluebells colour the ground beneath canopies of luminous green.

I walk a few paces with closed eyes and held breath: nothing but nature.

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The path takes us north through wheat fields to Liddington Hill. We make a short detour off the path to our second Iron Age hillfort. Liddington Castle feels more compact than the one at Barbury, and more formidable. It looms on the very edge of the downs’ northern escarpment, with dominating views across the valley: the M4 meandering below, Swindon’s hospital and wind farm rendered miniature.

In 1884, Richard Jefferies put the final touches on what would become one of his last works. The nature writer and novelist had been suffering from tuberculosis for years, and was near destitute after paying for a number of unsuccessful surgeries. His life during this period was hellish. Delirious, starving and in constant agony, he could barely sit up to write. Yet somehow, three years before his death, he managed to get his late masterpiece on paper: a post-apocalyptic vision of the aftermath of an unnamed disaster that causes the country to ‘relapse into barbarism.’ In After London, Jefferies poured his love of nature, his knowledge of the countryside, and his suspicion of the city to describe a world reverted to medievalism. ‘It became green everywhere in the first spring, after London ended,’ he writes, ‘so that all the country looked alike.’ Forest once again covers the land. An enormous lake forms in the country’s centre. Where there once was a metropolis, there exists only a vast swamp exuding ‘so fatal a vapour that no animal can endure it.’ London has become a nature-less nightmare: ‘There are no fishes, neither can eels exist in the mud, nor even newts. It is dead.’

Jefferies was born within sight of these hills, in a farmhouse in the hamlet of Coate, now part of Swindon. He wrote extensively about the surrounding area, and would often walk up to Liddington Castle in the heat of summer to lie on the embankments and observe the behaviour of skylarks. Standing here now, on top of ancient earthworks, it’s easy to understand the genesis of Jefferies’ pioneering novel – imagining people alone so long ago, young and unencumbered, looking out at a landscape free from rape fields and power stations. Making my way back to the trail, I wonder if John had a copy of After London in his collection, dog-eared and yellowed, tucked on a bookshelf beside The Day of the Triffids.

Nearby is another fortification, but from a time far more recent. Marauded by multicolours of graffiti and lichen, a concrete bunker squats beneath Liddington Clump, on the hill’s eastern summit. It’s a control bunker from a Second World War ‘Starfish’ site – elaborate systems of light and fire designed with the help of film industry technicians to look like blitzed cities from above, devised after the decimation of Coventry in 1940. This one controlled a simulated Swindon, triggering nighttime blazes to divert the wrath of the Luftwaffe. The bunker demonstrates the Ridgeway’s power and pull – its quiet ability to whisk you between eras, usher you quickly through time.

From here, the path leads us down the hill to join a main road and cross over the M4. It’s a strange stretch, with no clear way for walking, and we flinch as cars speed by. I stop on the overpass and look down at the galloping machines. It’s a shock to the system, but I’m glad the road is part of our journey – it’s one that has run through my life for as long as I can remember. It was one of the first seams, by which everything else was joined. It connects almost all the places I’ve ever lived.

We are obsessed by roads. They have a way of getting under the skin, tunnelling close to the heart. We have a strange capacity to love them – a propensity to personify them, bestow them with mythical qualities. About roads, we sing, and write and reminisce. They represent the torment of our innate desire for freedom.

At last, we’re climbing to the hush of the hills, the trail becoming a level section leading us out of Wiltshire and into Oxfordshire, the second of the Ridgeway’s five counties. New shoots tinge a ploughed field with otherworldly green. Podgy bullfinches crowd the path past Idstone, their plaintive whistles following us from every tree. Above, the sky gathers and threatens to fall, but something holds it at bay. The world is suspended in a paradox of gold and grey, dark clouds hanging over irradiant rape, cowslips, gorse.

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*

The next day is littered with landmarks. They huddle above Uffington, mystifying. We pass Wayland’s Smithy first, a long barrow nestled in beech and encircled by sarsens. Named by the Saxons around 4,000 years after it was first built, the barrow was believed to have been the home of the eponymous god of metalworking – maker of wings and magic swords. I climb inside. It’s quiet under the earth, the hill dampening the bustle of spring. The chamber smells of mud and root. The previous day’s walk has inflamed a tendon in my ankle, and I find myself communing with age-old powers. Legend has it Wayland reshoes horses tethered here overnight. I beseech the barrow to restore me.

Onwards a while and I’m faltering up another earthwork: the ramparts of Uffington Castle. As always, sheep graze along the embankments, and the wind seeks to bear me aloft. The Iron Age hillfort feels like the highest point so far, towering above the Vale of White Horse, and commanding a 360-degree panorama: the wind turbines of Swindon, the hazy outline of the Cotswolds beyond; patchwork fields leading eastward to Wittenham Clumps and the hyperboloid cooling towers of Didcot Power Station; the Chilterns in the distance.

Lifting my hood against the wind, I descend to one of the country’s most recognisable landmarks, carved into this hillside over 3,000 years ago. Like so many things along the Ridgeway, the purpose of its existence has long been forgotten. From where I’m standing it’s no more than a few abstract lines. But from the villages down in the Vale, these curves become an enormous chalk horse – so vivid and prominent that at the same time a counterfeit Swindon was being built on Liddington Hill, and resistance fighters were eating beech leaves half a world away, the creature had to be concealed with turf and hedge trimmings to prevent it from being seen by enemy aircraft. It lies on its flank across the northern escarpment of the downs, aged and weary.

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Escarpment. Scarp. These are the scars from wounds inflicted on the land millions of years ago. The chalk that gleams in every gash is made from the shells of coccolithophores – minute plankton that dwelt in the Cretaceous seas once covering Britain. As the African and Eurasian plates collided, a tremendous storm of earthquakes altered sea levels and heaved the strata into high hills and mountains. Gradually, ice, wind and rain whittled these down to their smooth and familiar contours. This same tectonic movement forced into existence the ranges along the Alpide belt – including the Atlas, Alps, Himalayas and Pyrenees – and still continues today. As I stand on the very edge of the escarpment, on the remnants of prehistoric sea creatures, I try to sense the earth shifting beneath me, raising me into the sky.

I turn my back on the horse, the castle and Dragon Hill – the site where Saint George supposedly slew the beast. The weight of this place is almost too much to bear, and it’s a relief to once again feel the road beneath my boots, the home stretch somewhere ahead of me.

We make tracks along the ridge and past the stables of Lambourn: racehorse country. The way is high and open, the view across the Vale following us for miles. Three kites tumble above one of the trig points that dot the landscape, the whiteness of their underwings flashing against the sky. The downy leaves of silverweed glint beneath us. Roman soldiers used this plant to soothe their feet on long marches – I consider stopping to stuff my boots, but the sky is growing ever heavier, a few drops starting to fall. We quicken our pace, heads angled against a northerly wind.

Slowly, we leave Swindon behind, the forests beginning to thicken in the valley below. The next stage will take us out of the Berkshire Downs to the wooded doorstep of the Chilterns. Thirty miles covered, now – a third of the way to the Beacon.

We stumble back to the car windburnt, with cracked lips.

And finally, as we join the M4 heading east, the heavens open.

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.

The Young Biologists

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By Kate Rogers:

They are in Hong Kong
four days only,
found my hiking group online.
They are surprised
by the highland city-state,
its emerald cleavage
of valleys,
swaying stands of bamboo.
Meiying—small, eyes soap-stone grey—
tells me,
Mother is Chinese. I’ve never met my father—
some garden variety white guy—
in Asia long enough
to find love.

Boyfriend Bogdan
is six feet—twice Meiying’s height.
Born in Russia. Straw
blond. Silent.
Both American now.
At Harvard.
I admire their confidence, their curiosity
about spiders the same breadth
as Bogdan’s hand.
He crouches so she can
straddle his shoulders
to snap a close-up
of the spider’s silk mandala.

Swallows stoop low
over the dirt trail,
sipping mosquitoes.
I stutter to Meiying
in seldom used Mandarin,
Yenzi lai li [i]
The Swallows Return.
She smiles.

At a village of tin shacks
we stop for bowls of Tofu-fa
with ginger syrup. The tofu quivers
like soft-boiled egg white
on our bone china spoons.
The server shuffles like my mother,
dowager’s hump heavy
on her slight frame.
She points to green fingered bananas
on a weathered plank table.
Meiying buys one.

Back on the tree-shaded trail
Meiying and Bogdan spot
katydid uniquely spiked
and caterpillars blushing pink
in the middle
like ripening watermelons.
The Young Biologists
hope to identify a new species.
I list British colonial names
from my guide, Hong Kong Butterflies:
Paris Peacock, Chocolate Pansy,
Painted Lady.
Meiying and Bogdan laugh.

I scoop a butterfly I do not recognise
from a leaf in the teeth of the wind.
Hold its ragged wings
in a loose fist.
The butterfly tickles my palm
(sipping sweat?)
I glimpse scattered cells
of blue light.

Hiking, my hips rotate
in sockets brittle as fossil insects
suspended mid-leap in sap,
shellacked. I spy a two-legged stick-
insect limping like a pilgrim
across the hard mud trail.
Meiying and Bogdan each take a photo
of it teetering on Meiying’s palm.
We emerge from trees
to asphalt path. Our pace slows.
The blue butterfly
flutters on my palm—
lover’s eyelashes against my skin.
We trade nature tales:
I recall a leopard cat—
wild feline that fixed me in its amber gaze,
sleek as it paddled a marsh pond.
Meiying recounts the torpor
of a hibernating hummingbird
huddled in the barbed
mouth of a Mojave cactus.
We do not wish to part,
standing near the steps
into the train tunnel.
The ground trembles, a train
clanks onto the tracks.
I show them—in the cage of my fingers—
the torn blue butterfly.
They nod. I open my hand.

About the poet:
Kate Rogers was shortlisted for the 2017 Montreal International Poetry Prize. She has work forthcoming in Catherines, the Great (Oolichan). Her poems have appeared in Twin Cities Cinema (Hong Kong-Singapore); Juniper; Cha: An Asian Literary Journal; The Guardian; Asia Literary Review and other publications. Out of Place, Kate’s latest poetry collection, is reviewed here.

[i] Literal: the swallows return. Idiomatic: Spring is back.

Seven Sisters

EllieSevenSisters.jpg

Sussex's white cliffs are something else: steep rolling waves of white, seven in a row. I'm with friends, walking straightish route 14 miles along the coast from Seaford to Eastbourne. It’s the first walk back after winter, and the simplest, easiest and least ambitious escape I could make. Whatever it is, though, I need it. The walk grabs all the energy my lazy London arse could muster for a sunny Saturday. I could have been lying in my garden all day, sitting up only to drink another tinny. Instead I struggle four hours in dusty walking boots towards my destination: a cold shandy.

I've been at work all week, fingers tripping the keyboard and feet tucked under the desk. The newspaper’s been an endless churn of stories about the Home Office, and its new assault on the Windrush generation. Objective: getting out of my head. Here are waves of turf. Here is a beach cut in half by a river. Here the sea makes chalky plumes. Walls of green grass ride up and fill my gaze and cliffs of white chalk soar up from short backshores. Out there, the big blue Channel spindles out to the horizon. The view is huge and the walk is satisfying. Within half an hour, my hamstrings ache and the back of my T-shirt is damp with sweat.

In Kent, Dover's cliffs are just outside the sea port. They run white and constant, at a uniform height. (UKIP once ran an anti-immigration poster showing escalators running to their tops). From the sea, the cliffs are a picture of high-walled Britain. Now, even inside Fortress Britain, a dreading vertigo grows. Whenever you came, whatever your standing in the community, the Home Office can still pull the rug from under you. Uneasy residents cloak discrimination with the state-sanctioned term, ‘hostile environment’: in reality this means putting ‘Go Home’ vans on the roads, deporting survivors of abuse and torture, and forcing teachers, doctors and the general public to police one another’s immigration status. It wouldn't take much for us to fling you out, the tactics say. To even third- and fourth-generation Britons, people still ask: no, but, where are you really from…

Between Seaford and Eastbourne stand England’s other 'white cliffs'. The Seven Sisters come in waves. Peaks trade with dips, where shingle beaches and gaps let us down to the sea. The current of chalk swells and dwindles. At times, the cliffs stand unassailable; at others, the land admits a fault. But at every point along the path, whether high or low, you can see the line of the land in flux.

In 'Wanderlust', Rebecca Solnit writes: "When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities. Exploring the world is one the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains.”

What happens when the place you give yourself to, gives nothing back? What happens when someone else harvests 'the invisible crop of memories' you sowed, weeded and watered? I cannot write about these white cliffs without writing about those white cliffs. We read the landscape, and the landscape reads us. The coastline changes and our landscapes retake us.

Ellie Broughton is a writer from London and wrote for Elsewhere No.04. On Twitter she's @__ellie