An Autumn Sunday afternoon walk around Rawhead

Rawhead_Julia.jpg

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.

The Library: Signal Failure, by Tom Jeffreys

Review: Christo Hall

For those who haven’t kept abreast with recent British infrastructural projects, HS2 is a £55bn high-speed railway plan first mooted by David Cameron’s government in 2009. It’s an attempt to renew Northern England’s economic potential after years of neglect from Westminster and deindustrialisation that has accentuated a north-south divide in the country. For its advocates, including the previous chancellor, George Osborne, it will “change the economic geography of this country”, for its opponents it’s over budget and comes at a huge cost to the areas affected – the homes that require to be demolished and the environment.

It’s these various divisions that Tom Jeffreys, in his first book, Signal Failure, grapples with via his attempt to walk the length of the HS2 route – a 119-mile trek that takes him out of Central London, through endless suburbs, beautiful and ordinary countryside and into Birmingham. Along the way he wild camps—in some cases to his own better judgement—in a suburban open space, a pub garden and besides a major road; he meets people that will be affected, in some cases displaced, by HS2; and ponders the disconnect between mind and body as he suffers injury and disappointment halting his attempt to undertake the walk in one sitting.

For one thing I have learnt that I am not a nature writer.

It’s nonsense to try to categorise a book to a single genre and it’s especially so for this one as Jeffreys smoothly and deliberately blends elements of nature writing, journalistic reportage and a meta-review of writing about nature and place. Each of these strands raise compelling passages, such as his observations of how an infrastructure project’s simulations and renders fail to depict relationships with real people, conversely his portrayal of a West Midlands dairy farmer’s complex relationship with HS2’s impact on his land, and Jeffreys’ framing of his book in the context of nature writing that has preceded it, making it in part an ode to the likes of Bruce Chatwin, Richard Mabey and Roger Deakin. It’s a signal of how much of an admirer he is of nature writing, and it reveals a kind of imposter syndrome, that Jeffreys feels incapable to write authoritatively about nature – that’s not to say that this is a bad thing, such reverence offers a welcome subjectivity and an absorbing down-to-earth tone.

Why does building for the future so often involve destroying the past?

While born in Buckinghamshire – as it happens near enough on the route of the HS2 – Jeffreys’ fascination for cities is not disguised, neither is his comfort within them. Nature, for many city dwellers, conjures up untamed forces and barbarism yet nevertheless is apotheosised because of its embodiment of a simple, more human life. It’s a view that at times leads Jeffreys to see the city as an encroachment, continually eating away at nature’s resources and beauty, and that impresses a strong tone of regret. Is it a metaphor for something that should have been done about HS2 while there was a greater chance of impacting the plans?

Perhaps the author’s greatest contribution is the perceptive and astute power of his social commentaries throughout the book. There are many striking and quotable phrases that come to mind, such as “you can tell officially approved graffiti because the people are always happy” or his insight to point out that state and council-funded outdoor gyms erected at the time of the 2012 Olympics, encouraging exercise, coincided with McDonalds being the Olympics’ official restaurant. In other passages he asks: “at what point does psychogeography become tourism?” or notes that “what bothers me is the implication that the UK’s only landscapes worth saving are those that fit within the aesthetics of the late Romantics.”

Somebody once wrote that as the mayor he would like to see his local country lanes neat and tidy and easily passable. But as a poet he would prefer them artfully overgrown.

Signal Failure is an enthralling and irresistible read, and difficult to review because along the way Jeffreys produces a better summary and analysis of his own book and its place in the canon of nature writing better than I or any reviewer could. As such this is a thoroughly researched book, substantiated by the tomes that weigh down his backpack throughout his walk. But it’s also a vital reminder that it takes more than demographic analyses and cost-benefit models to understand the value of our environment and our place within it.

What’s a train without its passengers, a town without its residents, or any kind of journey without its traveller? – Warts, imposter syndrome, injuries and all.

Christo Hall has written for The Quietus, Prospect, Review 31, White Noise and others, often about cities and urbanism. He is online editor of the Bartlett School of Architecture’s LOBBY magazine and founding editor of Cureditor, a site that recommends arts and culture articles.

Signal Failure by Tom Jeffreys is published by Influx Press

Neon

IMAGE: Jeanette Farrell

IMAGE: Jeanette Farrell

By Jeanette Farrell:

Come spring time everybody migrates towards the park; it’s as if the humble daffodil emits an ultrasonic soundwave and suddenly there we all are, an entire borough marching in unison towards our gated hill all filled with colour and squealing and light. We are boisterously reclaiming our place in a city whose tightly woven streets can deaden the clatter of our chat and so, the park, come Spring-time, this is our release. 

Brockwell Park reveals itself on a slope with its grand house perched on top. Surrounded on all sides by a densely compacted population in one of the biggest metropolises – everybody is there and there isn’t a continent unrepresented in multiplicity. Cities absorb people by portioning us off into offices and houses and pubs and buses and so out there in our urban meadow, that’s where we mingle. There’s the skate park and the lido, quaint markers of the athletic desires we presuppose is our reason for being there; that we’ll run and stretch and swim, dipping in and out of the ever confounding combination of Brixton’s noise. But most of us are content with the prospect of lying down on the grass. 

There is a comforting familiarity to Brockwell Park, an unsophisticated elegance of ritual through which we make it our own year after year once the grey recedes. Here, the idea of public space is at its most civic; we walk around as if it were an extension of our own home, knowing its pockets and its shade. 

While basking in this kind of outdoor domesticity we feel content that everything has its place and pace. The sky will change throughout the day and we will retreat beneath the trees in a pantomime of weather, watching the rain beneath sheltering branches. Nurseries will empty and the park will fill up. School children will linger/rabble-rouse eating chicken and chips, tumbling into each other from gate to gate and watchful locals will sit on drift wood taking it all in. There will be dogs and there will be roller bladers, there will be cans of lager and weed in the air.  And then all of a sudden this spell of the expected is broken with the shrill warble of the neon green parakeet and we look up to stare at this glamorous interloper. 

We’re not really meant to have these beautiful birds around here and yet they thrive, roosting in tall trees and causing ruckus with that noise they make. There are lots of theories to account for their presence; that a couple absconded from Ealing Studios and populated the landscape; that a gang of them escaped from an open container at Heathrow airport; that an aviary collapsed during a storm; that the original pair belonged to David Bowie, or to Jimi Hendrix. They are a mad dash of colour amongst the rich green of this cloistered pocket of south London. They’re not gentle and serene like this dream of spring time and routine, they are flying fluorescent chaos. Apparently there are thousands of them about, an anomaly in an otherwise textbook geography but the first time they’re encountered they’re like a mirage – ‘a parakeet, that couldn’t be!’

Now when they’re spotted, or heard, rather it’s like welcoming an eccentric old friend. Thank goodness for the parakeets, we think.  A gentle nudge to remind us that anything is possible, that this world, regimented and predictable though it is, is unbelievable too. 

Jeanette Farrell is a writer based in London. 

Train

IMAGE: Sam Eadington

IMAGE: Sam Eadington

By Sam Eadington:

England is best seen from the train. The rolling landscapes of the patchwork quilt; the sheep, the horses, the cows, the deer; the noble oaks, winding streams, drystone walls and disciplined hedges. They’re all a part of it. There are the sprawling suburbs of bad brick banter, saloon-skinned culs-de-sac snakes of mini-mansions less than a yard apart, but importantly detached. That sense of independence, of possession, it matters, and transcends the shuddering windows to the carpeted isle where it blooms into righteous indignation with every incident of seat reservation noncompliance. It’s from the train you see England’s character exposed, its emotions raw, its real metal. Metal fences, metal wire, metal buildings, metal thieves; responsible for your delays. You are apologised to for the inconvenience this may have caused to your journey. You are apologised to again and again. Sorry, I nearly touched you. Sorry, can I just squeeze past. Sorry, this is my stop. Hopefully not a ‘Parkway’ stop, though. The new boys in town. Or more accurately the new boys out of town, where you’re guaranteed either a massive car park or a power station. Although, on second thoughts, perhaps not so unfitting for the dystopia Turner foresaw; hissing water falls, cooled, onto a concrete floor from a concrete tower, that train doesn’t stop at this station, just forces you behind the yellow line, a contemporary rendition of what was once called sublime. 

You’re back on the train flying through paintings. All those hedges, how blurry; impressionist. Then a tree shoots into focus stretching its arms into the sky still half asleep. Then more hedges, not blurry anymore. Sharp and predatory, judging by the huddle of deflated footballs gathered at their feet. Yet more hedges, but these ones looking fresh after a perpendicular swivel and slide between the stretched out gardens. So many trampolines, but nobody bouncing. There are lovely big windows but all the curtains are closed as if I might see something of you I shouldn’t, then see you again in town and tell you what I saw. There are tiny little windows on brand new houses, half glass, half white plastic frame, not even big enough to poke your head out for a smoke. 

Another station, another WHSmith, another poster about something Jesus said. Must be true, I’ve seen the same thing in Cheltenham, Doncaster, Swindon and Crewe. Corroborated evidence; not worth a thing anymore. The trolley rattles closer with its nervous disposition and although I’m not at all hungry I want to eat. Was this not the point of crisps? A bag of prawn cocktail, I can’t get those abroad. With an hour to go I fill my ears with noise I can choose. Pulp. I turn the volume right up and damage my ears so I don’t have to hear the businessman and his vacuous words. I pity the person on the other end of the line. I close my eyes and let Jarvis take me back in time.

Sam Eadington is a freelance writer, architecture student, and co-founder of design studio Estudio ESSE. Twitter: @SamEArch. Website: estudioesse.com
 

Morning in St. Mary's Churchyard, Whitby

IMAGE: Laura Harker

IMAGE: Laura Harker

By Laura Harker:

8.45am in St. Mary’s churchyard. A jogger runs laps around the graves as I try not to lose Polaroid exposures to the wind. There are probably more bodies under my feet than are awake in the town right now on this cold December morning. A rare tranquil moment for the churchyard which, during the height of summer, is bombarded with crowds of tourists and goths. I forgot Whitby takes its time to wake up in the winter. As I ran from the train station through town and up the 199 steps to the clifftop abbey – trying to beat the sunrise – the only people stirring were a handful of delivery men on Baxtergate, the closest thing to a high street in the town. The few low-season tourists tucked up in their guest house four-posters wouldn’t be out for another couple of hours.

Whitby’s streets are riddled with ghosts, none of whom I wanted to bump into. Exes, former friends and old work colleagues. These old ties require more effort to fall back into the previous nuances each relationship had, and any conversations between us now inhabit a strange space between strained small-talk and stale in-jokes. The longer I’m away from the town, the more these ties fade, and the streets of Whitby are increasingly haunted with passing faces that stimulate only a haze in my memory. I felt more at ease facing the graveyard and its ghosts.

The film I’d used in my polaroid camera was out of date by a couple of years, and so the results were washed out and over-exposed. A grainy abbey silhouette; a white Royal Hotel behind the unmistakable arch of the whalebone arch; blotchy patterns on grey speckled sand. Barely-there images to match my barely-there ties to town. A strong wind whipped up over the lip of the cliff, I flipped up my collar and descended back down into town, head down, quick step, running from the ghosts.

Laura Harker is a freelance writer based in North Yorkshire. She blogs at northquarters.com