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.

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.

Standing on a windy corner of Ku'damm in Autumn

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By Emily Richards:

It is six o'clock in the evening and I am waiting for a bus because I chose to miss the last one. Here at Olivaer Platz in Berlin, as the people run out of their offices to jump on buses, speed across lanes in their shiny black BMWs, or swerve on their bikes through traffic in their anxiety to be home, I am unable to move, mesmerised by this autumn evening.  I have passed through this place, one of the busiest in Berlin, at different times and for different reasons for twenty-five years now. Once it was strange to me. Then, it was home. Now it is strange again.

It is not yet dark but there is a haze upon the air, and some of the street-lamps are already glowing silvery-bright. The autumn light turns from gold to a translucent pallor, tinged with the colours of the red, gold and brown leaves swirling in the wind. The flowers on the corner of the Platz, planted in a gesture of beauty amidst noisy traffic, still grow in green profusion, though a dimness is settling over them as evening falls. They are the first to lose their outlines in the twilight; the first to be overlooked as our faces turn towards clocks, mobile phones, LED displays to see if it's hometime yet, so that the longing which has built in us all day can be released like the tension on a trigger.

But I won't be going home just yet. I'm kept here almost against my will by the fading light, by the faces of Berlin that pass me by one by one and look at me for longer than English faces would, on this evening, two days after the general election. In the election, a radical right-wing party gained over a quarter of the vote in parts of Germany, and thirteen percent overall. I look at each person who walks, ambles or hurries past, and their faces look different to me.

I never noticed how misshapen and worn a human face can look. Sagging skin, stooped shoulders, a grimacing mouth; orange blusher scarring the too-pale face of a middle-aged woman who plunges in uncomfortably high shoes to her next appointment. Her head's skewed around awkwardly to pin her mobile phone to her shoulder as she talks into it, gesturing vaguely, staring at nothing. A tall, elderly woman with thinning brown hair and feet too plump for her old black shoes walks as stiffly as if on stilts, slowly raising each foot high above the pavement before grinding it back down. A younger woman with half-shaved head, dressed entirely in black with wide Cossack-style trousers and Russian boots, walks boldly past, but her clothes are dusty, nearly grey in places. A young man ambles in front of me, dark hair closely gelled to his scalp, eyes glued on the tightly-clad bottom of the young, hard-faced woman ahead of him, whose heavy gait is disconcertingly masculine for someone with such a bleached-blonde ponytail and such conventional make-up. Her double chin sags and the lines around her eyes crease as she swings her head round, shouting into her phone. An old man – but surely he's not much older than I am! – with a loose mouth, a white fringe of hair and a red nose stands for minutes in front of a rubbish bin, staring into it, looking for bottles he can take away and turn into money; then he looks around swiftly, bends to the ground and snatches up a fag-end before swinging away, arms flopping wide and uncontrolled in his badly-fitting beige jacket.

There is a sense of dissolution in the air.

The summer dissolves; the outline of the Ku'damm, of its buildings, buses, lamp-posts and cars, seems to dissolve in the haze of this autumn evening, in the rustle and whisper of the leaves moved by the wind. Before my eyes, the safety I once found here dissolves too. The reassuring, orderly security of these middle-class Germans loses its outline in the dusk, their aspirational Wirtschaftswunderland revealing itself as the illusion I should have known it to be. I did know it, really. But the shared illusion was a comfort, and, as such, transcended its own illusory nature to demonstrate its greater truth: that security, beauty and order all matter, and that those who are denied them or have lost them or mistrust them will turn to more dangerous illusions of their own; for example, that rejecting everything outside your own culture and experience will keep you safe. In this way they remove safety for everyone, not least themselves. For what if one day their fellow voters turn to them and say, "But you had a foreign grandparent did you not? You were once kind to a refugee, we hear." Then you too will be cast out. This is what happens. But by then you'll have done your damage, and it will be too late to be sorry.

Yet nonetheless, on this autumn evening, the wind whispers to me that something is stirring, something is afoot, something is changing. And I prefer this in the end. I prefer it, though I don't know what it is, what it will demand of me, what it will do to me.

And now here is my bus. And like all Berliners I might be foolish enough to miss a bus once, but I won't miss it twice. For who knows when the next one will arrive? Who knows when I'll be home.

You can read more from Emily on her blogs The Castle Captures Me and Boring in Berlin.