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

Postcard from... the Canal Bank

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By Paul Scraton:

To reach the canal bank the path moves past a stonemasons, where headstones wait in rows for future owners behind a chain link fence, and through a colony of allotment gardens, mostly locked and shuttered for the winter. Gnomes, felled by the last big storm lie on the lawn. Puddles gather in the centre of sagging trampolines. Leaves that fell months ago clog the drainage channels. The courts of the tennis club stand empty, the nets packed away. Grass grows long on the American Football field. Across the Atlantic they are preparing for the Super Bowl. Here, the season is long over.

Past a patch of wasteland of chipped bricks, blackened fire circles and piles of empty spray cans, the path runs alongside the canal now, through a tunnel of overhanging trees. Every so often a road crosses above, taking buses and cars in the direction of the airport. Thousands of people must pass this way each day departing or arriving in the city, but down here by the water is the domain of only a few. Joggers and cyclists. Council workers cleaning up the verges. Dog walkers. The canal itself still takes a barges or two, laden with coal, gravel or scrap metal, but as long as it is not frozen this is a place that belongs to the grey herons and mallards and the rowers with their metronomic strokes and heavy breathes. Their coaches ride ahead on little motorboats, issuing commands through a loudhailer, the only sound competing with the jet engines of the planes as they come into land.

In the summer, with the allotments in full swing and the path part of a major cycling and walking route, the canal bank will be alive with people. Alongside the rowers there will be kayakers on the water. The smell of barbecues and the sound of pop music from the gardens. The ringing of impatient bicycle bells. In the winter it returns to the edgelands. An in-between place. On the opposite bank from the path, smoke rises up from a houseboat in the shadow of a young offenders unit. Workers park their cars in front of steel and glass office blocks serving an airport well past its sell by date. Beyond the high fences, all is quiet and still in the army barracks built for an occupying army that left decades ago.

Places get their character from their surroundings. From the tennis club and the gardens. The proximity of the airport and the still waters of the canal running through the middle of the scene. But they also get it from the weather. From the season of the year. From the time of day. Now, with the rowers out of sight and earshot, everything on the canal bank is calm. Even the planes seemed to have stopped taking off or coming in to land. Winter mist above the water. The sudden movement of a jay, spotted through the trees. A siren in the distance.

A large branch, felled by the storm and not yet dealt with by the council workers, blocks the path. It doesn't matter. This is far enough. It's time to turn back.

To Island Farm

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By Tim Cooke:

On my fourteenth birthday, I was presented with a new bike, complete with front-fork suspension, and the freedom it brought saw a change in my attitude to rules and regulations, borders and boundaries: they became less concrete. As such, the local edgelands, many of which were totally off-limits – both geographically and by parental decree – became my choice stomping grounds. In tow with the more feral and exciting of my friends, I tore through sun-baked industrial estates, ploughed headfirst into monastic woods and derelict graveyards, took up with rogue youths hanging out in car parks beneath brutalist recreation centres and explored the grounds of water treatment plants hidden on the salty flanks of wild coastal scrublands.

One of the first of these potent and dynamic – but often, at a glance, unremarkable – landscapes that demanded our attention was the old POW camp at Island Farm. A close friend of mine, who lived around the corner and introduced me to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, second-wave punk music and Camel cigarettes, had visited with an older schoolmate and returned with beguiling tales of BMX tracks, booze and beautiful girls. It was a daunting prospect, particularly because this strange zone had attached to it many dark and mysterious mythologies that served to keep us clear – not least those concerning satanic rituals and predatory criminals. I’d lived less than half a mile from the site for fourteen years but had never before set foot on its hallowed ground. It was daunting, yes, but compelling, too.

It was midsummer and the sun was hot and high in the sky when the boys called at my door. We’d crossed the large, somewhat monstrous, graffitied sewage pipe in the field behind my house – over the River Ogmore and into Bluebells Woods – every day for the previous week and we needed somewhere new to explore and claim as our own. I fetched my bike from the padlocked shed in the back garden and we set off in single file. The road emanated that warm stench of scorched tarmac, released by a light morning shower that had failed to clear the thick humidity, and the beech trees sizzled with birdsong; we waved to our smiling neighbours, who had known two of us since birth, as we passed.

We rounded a blind bend at reckless speed, forcing the still air into a gentle flurry, and arrived at a treacherous junction that bled onto the A48, a fairly busy dual carriageway separating the town’s southern-most suburb from its surrounding countryside. This is still the point at which the suburban realm leaks into rural territory. The cars whooshed by one after another – red, yellow, black and blue – and we pedalled across to an inlet from where we could join a narrow track into a profusion of slim tress and overgrown shrubbery. A sign warned that trespassers would be prosecuted; we all turned our heads, hocked back our best phlegm and spat at it with embarrassing vigour.

I recall the journey up until this point with surprising clarity, but the next portion has slipped entirely from my mind, the topography obscured by a dark mist that simply won’t shift. I’ve created the right conditions: I’m sat in front of a window at the top of a hill, looking out onto the Black Mountains, the only noise is that of the tits, chaffinches and siskins pecking at the birdfeeder in the garden. I have a copy of an article I recently wrote, detailing some of the camp’s many fragmented histories via a walk I undertook earlier this year – in search of the one remaining hut that contained the prisoners – but still the memory refuses to take any discernible form. I do, however, remember that incomparable feeling of anticipation, a kind of excitement only teenagers on the cusp of something brand new can feel.

We must have weaved our way around the labyrinthine system of footpaths, tearing clouds of dust from the dry earth with our wheels, perhaps stopping momentarily to fill our mouths with sour blackberries, before emerging onto a wide expanse of grey land with no apparent purpose. When I revisited this spot a few months ago, it gave off an eerie sense of transition, as if something was happening. There were wooden stumps hammered into the soil, with rubber boots placed on top to serve as weird markers of some kind. Drinks cans hung from painted trees. Felled wood peppered the terrain and two sets of tattered blue overalls were cast nonchalantly over a stump, an empty bottle of homemade wine or cider resting in the crook of a nearby branch. It was ugly and beautiful, the same but different.

I imagine as youngsters we would have dragged our bikes in rapid, imperfect circles around this nondescript plot of pallid ground, unaware that we were riding on rubble formed during the destruction of nineteen of the twenty units that once constituted the POW camp; the debris was supposed to extend a runway at Cardiff Airport, but it was scattered instead to level the uneven surface. Grass has since grown over it in wild tufts that suit the landscape like an untamed hairstyle.

This is where it comes back to me: we dismounted under a cover of oak-tree foliage and wheeled our bikes along yet another passage surrounded by tight knots of bracken and bramble. First from below and then suddenly above the chirruping birdsong came the aggressive conversation and trigger-happy laughter of adolescents eager to prove something and impress, some relishing the challenge. We swept clear the final twigs and leaves and arrived at a sort of amphitheatre – a dome cut into the topsoil and layered with improvised obstacles to make a gnarly cycle track. Around its circumference were strewn three or four groups of boys and girls, smoking, drinking and flirting.

The air surrounding this congregation was hot and hormonal and laced with pollen. I scanned the faces for any I knew and spotted that of a lad I’d met in the schoolyard after hours, described to me by a friend as one of the best skaters in town. Today he was on a BMX, throwing himself at the final ramp, which was composed of a dented white washing machine turned on its side and a heavy layer of turf thrown over the top. He skidded to a halt at the foot of the banking we were descending and raised his chin: “Alright, boys?” We nodded in return and the chatter that had suddenly dissipated resumed.

For the next half-hour or so we sat alone about five metres from three girls I recognised from the year above. I knew one of them as mouthy and popular, prone to hurling abuse at unsuspecting victims she passed on the path between lessons, while the other two were, as far as I was concerned, beautiful and unobtainable. It was about this age that something chemical had rendered me incapable of talking to anyone I found attractive. The idea of spending any length of time in the company of good-looking older girls was totally outrageous, but before I knew it we were in a circle, sharing Super King cigarettes and swallowing gulps of cheap cider from a plastic flagon. I hardly said a word, which didn’t matter, because they carried me along with their jokes and small talk; it was bliss.

The rest of that first visit remains mainly as a kind of montage, or mosaic. I recall my longing for the brown-haired girl with faint freckles and braces on her teeth. The disproportionate ache I felt then makes me think now of the artwork produced by the prisoners once held at the camp: images of scantily-clad women – wives and girlfriends left behind, perhaps never to be seen again other than as memory-traces scratched into prefabricated concrete. I recollect, too, tumbling from the top of the repurposed washing machine, the pain that dug into my groin on impact and crawled into my stomach. Then there were the feelings of belonging and community that would stick with me right through my years on the darker edges of town.

Finally, we arrived at the far end of the zone and smoked in the shade of Hut 9, from which seventy prisoners escaped in November 1945 by tunnelling into an adjacent field. All of them were recaptured and later dispersed around the world, but I’ve no doubt their ghosts returned from wherever they perished – this landscape needs them somehow. The structure itself, its weathered brickwork and boarded-up windows, meant little to me then – I would even scrawl my name on the wall, adding inadvertently to the tangible palimpsest this site also requires. It feels now, divorced from any official history, like a monument to a significant moment in my life. Strangely, I can’t recall a single journey back from Island Farm, only getting there, staying awhile and, eventually, moving on.

About the author:

Tim Cooke is a teacher and freelance journalist. He writes about film, literature and place for various publications, including the GuardianLittle White Lies, the Quietus, Ernest Journal, the Nightwatchman and the Hackney Citizen. His creative work has appeared in the Lampeter Review, Drain Magazine, Foxhole Magazine, Stepz, Particulations and Litro Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @cooketim2

Back down Ashley Vale

IMAGE: Matt Gilbert

IMAGE: Matt Gilbert

By Matt Gilbert

Sometimes when I go back it feels like nothing’s changed. The abrupt left turn from Ashley Hill, the sudden switch from concrete underfoot to earth, the choice of downward paths between high hedges.

The place I’m thinking of is Ashley Vale, St Werburghs, in the north east of Bristol. Here, hemmed in by roads and railway tracks, is a V shaped territory within which can be found allotments, woods, scrubland, grassland, a couple of streets, a pub, a city farm, some lock-up garages and a hill – Narroways Hill.

The name Ashley Vale – I later learnt – derives from the Anglo Saxon ‘aesc’ meaning ash tree and ‘leah’ – wood. There was once an estate here called Asselega. Not far away was my infant school, Ashley Down. For now Ash remains the predominant tree on the ground and in the local place names.

Entering from Ashley Hill, there’s an iron gatepost on the right a short way down the lane, which leads towards a track that runs through a small ash wood over and alongside a railway line, before sloping down gently through allotments until reaching Mina Road, where a left turn will take you through a graffiti covered tunnel – a reminder that you’re still in Bristol.

More often, I would go the other way, take the left hand path and drop on foot swiftly down to the floor of this urban valley, past a lone house in the middle, adrift in a sea of allotment gardens. These have always been subject to change, moving through the seasons and an ever-rotating cast of crops; tended and grown and pulled out and dug up.

On one side of the lane the plots rise steeply towards Ashley Down Road: stretching away uphill, a hundred small empires of beanstalks, cabbage, carrots and potatoes, bordered by narrow, leaning sheds and water butts; punctuated with crab apple trees and Hawthorn. The ground patrolled at night by cat and fox, carefully treading around each other.

On the opposite southern side, a smaller number of allotments on flatter ground filled the space between Gaunt lane and the steeply banked woody edge of the railway line.

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As a teenager and into my early twenties I’d walk this way on route to my favourite pub – The Farm – which sat on the edge of the Ashley Vale allotments, next door to the St Werburgh’s City Farm.

Here we’d sit and chat in what we imagined were converted pig sheds in the garden, or try our hands at bar billiards in a little room at the back. With the 1990s rapidly approaching, this strange relative of billiards seemed something of an anachronism, yet the clanking element of playing against time and a dropping bar, as you tried to avoid sinking wooden mushrooms was deliciously compelling.

The pub’s position, at the bottom of two sloping hills, bordered by green lanes and allotments on two sides, faced only by a row of tightly terraced houses on Hopetoun Road, gave it the feel of a village inn, rather than the city pub it really was. As a result I indulged in private fantasies that The Farm was somewhere in the Shire; its lush surroundings, small green hills, gardens and stands of trees forming a tiny Hobbiton in Bristol.

On the way home from visits here, on still-light summer nights, I’d often stop on Hurlingham Road, on higher ground, a little beyond the bounds of Ashley Vale and look back over the scene. As I took in the view beyond the woods and allotments, my eyes would follow the blur of yellow street lamps as they merged into the whiter light of cars on the M32, and I’d find myself wishing that like them I was heading somewhere else.  

Now, far removed from those teenage years, my relationship with this place has been transformed. I remember once reading in David Lodge’s Small World about an essay, by an academic character, on T S Eliot’s influence on Shakespeare. In the book this is presented as the pretentious waffle of a postmodernist. However, I was struck hard by the notion that later readings and experience can change your perception of a writer, a person or a place.

Certainly in the case of Ashley Vale my view of it has altered over time. For a long while I even had the name wrong and referred to the whole area as the Narroways, when in fact, this is just the hill at one end.

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When I first encountered the lanes that criss-cross the area, I appreciated the woods and greenery only as a kind of abstract, scenic backdrop for visits to the pub. I certainly had no idea that the place was under any kind of threat.

Firstly in 1997 in the face of efforts to sell off the land around Narroways hill by Railtrack, a mass protest was organized by the Narroways Action Group and the plans were eventually dropped. Then in 2000, thanks largely to the actions of local people, The Narroways was granted Millennium Green Status.

Today there looms a different kind of danger. The ash, like all ash in our diminished country, could be killed off by one or both of the Emerald Ash Borer or Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, the fungus behind ash dieback. This thought presents a nightmare vision of a denuded hollow, its woods stripped away, leaving open ground, ripe for levelling and development.

So now, more than ever, I appreciate the life that can be found within this small area of land. I look at the website of the Narroways Millenium Green trust and delight in reading a rollcall of the plants and creatures that can be found here.

Amongst old fruit trees, grasslands, sycamore and ash can be found waxwings and slow worms, common lizards, Small Copper and Marbled White butterflies and hedgehogs, not to mention robins, blackbirds, blue and great tits.

The names checked and logged in a recent ecological management statement from the Narroways Millenium Green Trust, sounds a little like a floral class-register: Upright Brome, Black Knapweed, Agrimony, Autumn Hawkbit, Lady’s Bedstraw, Field Scabious and Yellow Oat Grass, all present and correct.  

There is something reassuring about learning that these things are here, and while I can’t pretend that I am able to identify them all, knowing the names and knowing they are there makes me care about the place more deeply than before. I definitely take care now to try not to confuse Corky Fruited Water Dropwort for Cow Parsley.

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Since those early days my sense of the history of the place has grown. Largely through a wonderfully resonant brief history by Harry McPhillimy of the Narroways Millenium Green Trust.

I have learnt the story behind the fantastically named Boiling Wells Lane, an atmospheric pathway entered at one end through a dark railway tunnel. This name comes from a spring that ran here, whose water was gaseous in nature and as it bubbled and frothed on its course gave out the appearance that it was boiling.

Nearby on the other side of the hill lies another path with a tale to tell: Cut Throat Lane. At 18 I knew the name but not the history. The story goes that In 1913, a woman named Ada James was murdered by her fiancé Ted Palmer, who cut her throat during a row; but Ada didn’t simply collapse and die, first she staggered back as far as Mina Road, where in front of witnesses, she managed to write her killer’s name on a piece of paper. Before she died she apparently declared that  ‘My fiancé did it’. Soon, Palmer was arrested and hanged within a couple of months. Poor Ada’s ghost is now said to haunt the scene.

Even the allotments, which always seemed so ephemeral, it seems have deeper roots than I once believed. In the same short history mentioned above, I learned that during the medieval period, strip lynchetts – short individual field terraces – once lined the slopes above Boiling Wells Valley. So those ever-changing small plots of land are also echoes of and heirs to a land use that stretches back for centuries.

I no longer live in Bristol, but often find Ashley Vale and the Narroways still with me. I see hints of it in other places as I’m passing through. On trains in south east London for instance, watching crowded tree and bramble covered banks flicker past, I’m taken back. Amongst these crow haunted verges, amidst rogue forsythia, ivy carpets, old paint pots and littered cartons, there is always a glimpse to be had of this somewhere from my youth. A place I once dreamt of leaving, but now no longer have any desire to escape.

Matt Gilbert grew up in Bristol and now lives in London. He blogs about place, books & other things at richlyevocative.net and tweets @richlyevocative

References:
Narroways Millennium Green Trust
Harry McPhillimy From Norway To Narroways