Mirages: A walk along the periphery

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By Julia Bennett:

mirage noun 1. an optical illusion caused by atmospheric conditions

Air still, heat building during the morning in the summer of 2018. Purple marshes to the right, tinged with sea lavender, to the left the creeks and sandbanks of the interstitial area between land and sea. Stepping out eastwards from Burnham Deepdale, the North Norfolk coast path crosses Deepdale Marsh on a high raised bank. Upturned boats seemingly abandoned to the mud and gulls; a windmill in the distance, unmoving. A sense of desolation averted by the Mediterranean-like heat. A group of paddle boarders drift past: serenely balanced on their boards in the still waters of the English coastal creeks, but clearly not fit craft for the rigours of the North Sea crossing itself. This is the not-quite-land and not-quite-sea border of the rump of England, back turned towards mainland Europe out across the North Sea.

The path itself, built up above the tides, steers a tenuous path between the opposing forces of land and water. The local population of sea birds is well adapted to the equivocal nature of this place: long-legged orange-beaked oyster catchers; a lively assortment of gulls; mousy-brown curlews, elongated toes splayed over the surface, long bills digging deep into the salty mud. Passport-less, curlews travel across Europe. Some stay in the UK over winter, others choosing France or Spain, like elderly British holiday makers spending a few months somewhere warm to save on heating bills. A slight ripple in the creek signals the presence of those bilingual, multi-modal, land-and-marine mammals: an otter, bobbing a furry head briefly above the water. For millennia the North Sea has provided a pathway to the rest of the world, rather than a moat around the castle of England.

Hitting the road at Burnham Overy Staithe the mood changes: the harbour bustles with tourists, boats clamouring for their custom. Zig-zagging through the crowds, the coast path steps out again onto a high bank, this time crowded with people headed to the beaches at Holkam Nature Reserve. Creeks and channels curl into the spit of land like tree roots digging into a rock face, refusing to give way to the clarity of either land or sea. Dunes ahead obscure the view of the beach whilst simultaneously signalling its sandy closeness. Over the dune-summit the land finally concedes defeat and in a long exhalation of breath sends a broad expanse of blue to meet the horizon. Golden sands stretch eastwards as far as the eye can see, a broad yellow-highlighter mark on the map demarcating the island of Great Britain from the continental mainland. Walking now along the shoreline footprints stamp out tribal belongings, temporary tattoos washed away by the next wave. The hot, still land seems to hold its breath and wait. Gradually, Holkam beach broadens out as the land of this corner of England distinguishes itself from the polyglot North/Nord Sea/see/zee. No longer a liminal space between land and sea, mainland and island, the ground underfoot becomes a little firmer and the atmosphere changes.

mirage noun 1.1. An unrealistic hope or wish that cannot be achieved

A couple of miles along, dunes rise again and behind them, a cool, sweet smelling pine wood reminiscent of the beaches of Northern France. The cool silence of the deserted sand-and-pine-needles paths sheltering beneath the trees provides a breathing space away from the spotlight of the hot midday sun. Through the trees, glimpses of colourful painted beach huts presage the arrival of the superior-but-faded grandeur of Wells-next-the-sea. In bright blocks of colour or Breton stripes beach huts are a staple of the traditional British seaside, along with buckets and spades and sticks of rock. But unlike the cheap plastic buckets on sale they are highly desired properties, costing almost a day’s wages to rent for the day, despite being, literally, built on sand.

Emerging from the trees the path skirts a large car park before following the sea wall into Wells-next-the-sea, ironically another mile inland due to the retreat of the sea over the centuries. A mini-train transports those without cars to and from the beach. The sea’s retreat changed the identity of this place. Wells was a busy trading port with Europe in the sixteenth century but is now a slightly upmarket, English seaside town with fish and chips and tacky souvenir shops along the front and a few olde gifte shoppes in the narrow roads heading inland.

The coastal bus service passes through here. It is full of school children at 4 o’clock on a term-time weekday afternoon, with a few tourists and the occasional local. Along this gentrified stretch of coast, the bus travels through picture-postcard villages: red-tiled rooves and Georgian facades, roses around the doors of stone cottages, traditional butchers’ and greengrocers’ shops with names written in antiquated fonts, and the ever-present bunting, flapping gently in the breeze. At first glance this is an image of a corner of England which, much like Wells, has been left high and dry by the twenty-first century. A Disneyfied mirage, hazy in the late-afternoon heat. Isn’t that a ‘Jack Wills’ nestling amongst the tea shops of Burnham Market?

***

Note: Definitions taken from en.oxforddictionaries.com

Julia Bennett is a sociologist who researches place and belonging


Spring In This Place – a poem by Will Burns

I choose the bee-flies for company today.
Sunlight on beech leaves,
cool sweat in the warm wood,
the blue flowers of the season.
Not numerology or some old painting
I think you might like.
Not a poem I hope you read for signs of life.
I fall hard for this place every day
the way we do for people we shouldn’t.

***

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As part of The People’s Forest project, the poet Will Burns is creating a series of new works inspired by Epping Forest. Over the year Burns is penning a collection of poems, one per season, in part reflecting on the unique nature of Epping intertwined with his own experience of the forest real and imagined – here we have had the pleasure and privilege to publish Will’s poem for spring.

Edgework Artist Profile #1: Layla Curtis

Newcastle Gateshead, 2005 by Layla Curtis

Newcastle Gateshead, 2005 by Layla Curtis

As part of our collaboration with Edgework an artist-led cross-disciplinary journal and store with an emphasis on place, we are running a series of monthly profiles of the artists here on Elsewhere. Where better to start than with Layla Curtis, founder of Edgework and previous contributor to our blog:

Layla Curtis’ practice has a focus on place, landscape and mapping and often examines the attempts we make to chart the earth, how we locate ourselves, navigate space and represent terrain. 

Polar Wandering, 2006 by Layla Curtis

Polar Wandering, 2006 by Layla Curtis

 Layla’s works include Trespass, an app for iphone which maps an oral history of a northern English edgeland and tempts the user to trespass in order to access the work (and which we featured here on the Elsewhere blog); Polar Wandering, a 27,856 mile long interactive online drawing charting her journey to Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey, exhibited in solo shows at New Art Gallery Walsall, and Ormeau Baths Gallery, Belfast; and Tong Tana, a moving image work made while trekking with nomadic hunter-gathers in the Borneo Rainforest and exhibited at Matt's Gallery, London. 

 As well as featuring in international collections including the Tate Collection and Government Art Collection forthcoming projects and exhibitions include the collaged map The United Kingdom, currently on display in Ideas Depot at Tate Liverpool, UK (until 21 July).

Tong Tana production still, 2012.

Tong Tana production still, 2012.

A documentation of Trespass will also be included in the forthcoming exhibition This Land is Our Land at PAPER, Manchester, UK (curated by Edgework contributor, and PAPER curator Simon Woolham) from 29 June - 3 August 2019. Curtis is currently working on a series of new commissions for Tate shop to be launched later this year.

Layla Curtis on Edgework
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Record Release: Outcrops, by Spaceship

Listened to by Paul Scraton:

Spaceship is Mark Williamson, a musician and sound artist based in West Yorkshire, and today marks the release of ‘Outcrops’, a site-specific, haunting and melodic album that is not only inspired by the landscapes of northern England but was recorded there. The sandstone outcrops can be found above the town of Todmorden, and the album was recorded in place, with Williamson taking his synth up into the rocks to create the pieces encased in small caves. Each of the tracks on the album is named for its location and incorporates field recordings and found sounds, and was also created to evoke a particular phase in the geological history of the outcrops – Orchan Rocks evokes the Ocean, Bride Stones the Glacier and so on. This story is also lyrically told in the sleeve notes, describing the rivers as they “surged from the uplands,” the “peaceful, aquatic interlude between the ever-shifting chaos,” and the ice as it “plucked and scraped and tore at the land…”  

Crossing the Pennine hills a few weeks ago it came to me once again that how we interpret a landscape, how it makes us feel, is tied to what we know about it – the stories we have heard and what we bring with us as we approach it. The same can be true of works of art. What we know of the author or the painter, the musician or the photographer can shape our interpretation of a work, whether we want it to or not. The knowledge of how it was created feeds into our experience. I sit at my desk in Berlin and listen to the Spaceship album and I can picture the sandstone outcrops and the fields beneath the moors as behind the melodies I’m sure I can hear the wind blow and the birds call. Are they there? I’m not sure. But I know one thing: the next time I cross the Pennine hills the tracks from this album will echo. I have added to my collection, the one that helps me understand a place. The hills will be different somehow. That’s the power of art, the power of music. The power of storytelling, in all its forms.

***

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‘Outcrops’ by Spaceship is available on 12” and download, and is released on 24 May 2019 by wiaiwya.


Mark Williamson on twitter
Spaceship on soundcloud



May Book of the Month: Minor Monuments by Ian Maleney

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Minor Monuments - Essays
by Ian Maleney
Published by
Tramp Press

Review: Marcel Krueger:

Ireland is not always the country of gentle hills, Atlantic ways or peat fires in pubs that German tourists in Goretex seek out. This is a country of shibboleths and tribalism, of bullets on wets streets, hunger strikes and bomb blasts. And for me these things are as apparent on the streets of Belfast and Dublin as they are out on the tourist coasts, as apparent along the Grand Canal as they are out in the Midlands. For me as an outsider who has lived over a decade on the island of Ireland now, there are few lines of text that describe my feelings for this country better than the last stanzas of Seamus Heaney's 'The Tollund Man':

Out here in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.

Maybe it is no coincidence that on the first few pages of his essay collection 'Minor Monuments', Ian Maleney recalls his partner taking a picture of him overlooking the bog near his family home in Pollagh in County Offaly and adding the same lines of Heaney to that image: Maleney is aware of the same darkness.

Together with Emilie Pine's 'Note to Self' (also published by Tramp Press) and Sinead Gleeson's 'Constellations', Maleney's 'Monuments' forms the spearhead of a new wave of Irish essay writing. Where in the past fiction was the order of the day, these days a new wave of Irish writers is again concerned with navel-gazing in the best sense of Michel de Montaigne: of looking at places, the country and oneself without the added filter of fiction.

Maleney's book is a rare kind of thing, as it finely weaves together three-layers in his (essay) writing: it contains 12 essays, each aligned topically: 'Shelter','Machine Learning' and so; and at the same time charts the descent of Maleney's grandfather John Joe into Alzheimer's and death; and this is also a book about Maleney literally leaving the bog and the established community and family structures of his home place - and observing them from the outside.

The main setting throughout the book is the home of Nana and John Joe, especially the kitchen ('a room where you can really feel the night falling.'), and the overall rural environment of the family houses and the ever-present bog at the periphery. Maleney, who also edits and designs Fallow Media, one of the finest examples of new online publishing in Ireland, not only talks about the meaning of the bog as energy supply and source of income for the community (Bord na Móna, the Irish Peat Board, built a peat-operated power station here, and John Joe and many others worked in peat harvesting), but also as the wild living thing it is:

The boundaries between bog and farm seemed to break down entirely. Houses, sheds, and farmyards appeared out of nowhere, perched on the edge of the blackness beyond. It was as if they'd carved a little bit of calm out of the bog many years previous, and had spent all the time since being attacked and undermined by feral wilderness. Whatever civilising sense they had was porous and partial. Nothing grew straight. Every bush and tree was a mass of tangles and nothing man-made remained square for long. Fences and gates were crumbling, and the breeze block walls of tin-roofed sheds sagged into the soft ground at incongruous angles. The road itself was one long twist punctuated by jagged potholes. The leafless branches of the hardy roadside trees reached out towards us, desperate and lonely. This was Turraun.

Maleney also talks about the distance that the writer as an outsider writing about history has to the lived memory that keeps community and place together, from which he willingly removes himself, with the help of other artists. Seamus Heaney makes multiple appearances, as do Richard Skelton, Rebecca Solnit or Susan Sontag. But Maleney's writing is strongest when he approaches the slow disappearance of John Joe and tries to examine what Alzheimer's means for the human suffering from it and their family and carers, which he beautifully does in 'Pneumonia':

Often the sea is literally wide, but sometimes it is more ambiguous than miles plotted on a map. Sitting in the kitchen with John Joe, I was struck by the resonance between two different experiences of exile; the emigrant and the amnesiac. As the past grew more distant and foggy in his mind, gradually disappearing over some unrecoverable horizon, the songs became more important and more accurate too. They were a link with that past, that foreign country, even as they dramatised the experience of losing it. John Joe sang like a man whose boat was rapidly filling with water. He had a very wide ocean to cross, one he could not swim over.

The place where Maleney and I live these days is still a dangerous and dark island, one where murder, pollution and cronyism prevail. It is good that we have writers like Ian Maleney laying himself and the country. For a clear and honest look at the sensitivities of Ireland and its people there are few better books out there at the moment.       

***

Wherever possible we recommend that readers of Elsewhere buy their books from a bricks and mortar bookshop or direct from the publisher.

Marcel Krueger is the Books Editor of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. His writing has been published in numerous places both online and in print, and he is the author of Babushka’s Journey: The Dark Road to Stalin’s Wartime Camps (I.B. Taurus, 2017) and the upcoming Iceland: A Literary Guide for Travellers (I.B. Taurus, 2020). You’ll find him on twitter here.

Five Questions for... Cosmo Sheldrake

Interview by Sara Bellini:

The first time I saw Cosmo Sheldrake performing I could detect an intriguing mix of musical influences and yet he sounded like nothing I had heard before. This singer-songwriter / composer / multi-instrumentalist from London makes music combining field recordings of endangered animals and his own vocal improvisations. Luckily he has the nice habit of telling his listeners the stories behind his songs, accompanied by music samples of the various musicians in his wildlife orchestra…  “and on the bass, the long-eared owl” or “this is what a healthy coral reef sounds like”.

Cosmo Sheldrake grew up in a creative environment between music and nature, has a background in anthropology and a body of work that includes composing music for Beckett’s plays and the soundtrack of the Netflix series Moving Art. His first solo record The much much how how and I was released in 2018, following the EP Pelicans We and the single The Moss. His current work about endangered bird species brought him to a collaboration with Extinction Rebellion last month in London, where he played a song made entirely of recordings of endangered British birds, streamed live on smartphones and portable speakers. At the beginning of May he released Owl Song and Dawn Chorus.

Cosmo Sheldrake is “really interested in capturing a sense of place in music” and in particular in making “ecological music, music that emerges from a particular place or ecosystem”, which made him a great choice for an Elsewhere interview. Here’s how he replied to our Five Questions…

What does home mean to you?

Hard to answer that concisely as it’s a big question. But I grew up in a house that I still spend a lot of time in and make music in. So, I have been lucky to put down roots in that place and have a real connection with it. So the simplest answer would probably be the place I grew up.

Which place do you have a special connection to?

I have a special connection with lots of places. But one that pops to mind is an island in British Columbia that I have gone to more or less every year since I was born. Feels like a second home. It very much feels like I have done a lot of my growing up there.

What is beyond your front door?

Well I live in Seven Sisters (North London), so a reasonably busy road. But outside the front door of my studio and the house I grew up in is Hampstead Heath. It’s the closest you can get to not being in London while being in London, a thousand acres of fairly wild land. Another place I have a very special connection to.

What place would you most like to visit?

Ooooh, so many! Just to pick the first one that popped into my mind, Colombia.  

What are you reading / watching / listening to / looking at right now? 

Right now, I have about six or seven books on the go. I am reading a book called Imagining Extinction by Ursula K. Heise. It’s about how people have responded to ideas around extinction, a sort of anthropology of extinction.

Another one in the pile is Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement, by Gaston Bachelard. He is hard to really pigeonhole but I guess he is a kind of philosopher of poetry and much more. Another one I am racing through at the moment is a book called The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf. Which is a brilliant book about Alexander von Humboldt, who was an absolutely extraordinary man. A total visionary, the book is about how the idea of nature that we more or less take for granted is largely to do with his work and discoveries. He was in a sense one of the first ecologists (in a modern scientific sense).

I am also reading a book called Getting Started in Radio Astronomy, which I guess is fairly self-explanatory. I want to build my own antennae and start recording sounds of space.  Have a few more I am chewing through also. I find it impossible to read one book at once. One more that I am not reading at the moment but is a great book on the nature of place is a book called Wisdom Sits in Places: Language and Landscape Among the Western Apache by Keith Basso.

***

Find out more about Cosmo Sheldrake via his website and on twitter.

Sara Bellini is the online editor of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. She lives in Berlin, the place she calls home at the moment.

The invisible border

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“Where does Togo start?”

My guide looks out across the steep scarps of Ghana’s Volta Region, a vibrant green landscape that folds and curves like velvet curtains. His eyes trace the ferrous-red roads scratched between the hills before settling on one of the villages nestled in the valleys.

“It is that one,” he says, smiling shyly.

I return the smile and point my lens in the direction indicated, the reflections of the corrugated roofs leaving a temporary blind spot on my retina. Snap snap. Camera returns to case and we share another awkward smile.

We both know he guessed. He doesn’t have a clue where his country ends and its neighbour begins.

Why would he? The border is almost meaningless here; someone else’s line marked out decades before, when the Europeans carved up a continent to their uninvited whims and ideas. It matters little in the day-to-day living of life. While one side is Francophone country and the other Anglophone, the shared Ewe language is the one used to talk to friends or family who happen to be on the other side. And an ECOWAS passport allows for easy, visa-free movement across the whole region (a privilege that no one here would ever think of giving up through a plebiscite).

The name of the hill we are on – Mount Gemi – is another colonial legacy. This is not an Ewe word, not even Twi, but a contraction of the German Mission that came here to share the word of Christ, leaving a cross on its summit. Perhaps there would be a little more acknowledgement of the boundary if the Europeans had been a little more decisive, but it has shifted many times since then. Mount Gemi’s summit was once in a country that no longer exists, German Togoland. Little wonder that most ignore it.

We leave the summit and its cross behind and set off back to Amedzofe. Most of the village’s residents are watching the local football team’s match – are the opponents Togolese? – but we continue past the pitch to the village square. Ghanaians wait for the cooler evening air to meet with friends, thus avoiding the worst of the daytime heat. This respite comes a little earlier in this hilly country – we’re at around 600m – and even though the sun is still out, Amedzofe’s older inhabitants are already congregating in stone seats, waving as we pass.

Adjacent to this rendezvous point is the small visitor centre. Inside, my guide diligently asks his boss to identify exactly where the border lies. Maps are withdrawn from a large wooden chest and the obliging superior shows me where we are, then where the border is. My guide wasn’t too far off, and his face displays a mix of pride and relief. It’s around five miles away, the boss-man says; shall I take you there?

I thank him and decline. Time to move on; there are more hikes to be had further along this invisible border.

*

The border is much closer at Wli (pronounced ‘Vlee’, another linguistic leftover from the Germans). There’s even a checkpoint at the end of one road from the village, where the guards will happily mark your passport with Togo’s stamp and let you potter about in another country for a while, all for just a few cedis.

A more popular activity for the growing numbers of tourists – mostly young volunteers who comprise Europe’s present-day, less disruptive mission to Ghana – is to the double-drop Agumatsa waterfall, the highest in West Africa (although not the only one to claim this title). An easy path meanders through fruit farms and forest to the lower falls, where you can swim in the plunge pool and sip coconuts after. But I opt for the harder route along the steep-sided cliffs of this natural amphitheatre, which leads to the upper falls.

It’s a steep, sweaty climb, and its unpopularity relative to the signposted lower route is evident as my guide hacks constantly at the overgrowth – grasses, vines, saplings – barring our way. Eventually, after ninety minutes of slipping and sliding, swishing and swearing, we reach a viewpoint overlooking the hidden upper falls. Any waterfall is a captivating sight, but this one is flavoured with exoticism by being glimpsed through a thick frond of creepers and ferns. And it has further novelty to its name: the water leaves Togo, crashing down an 80m drop into Ghana. A truly spectacular border crossing.

The path continues beyond the viewpoint, and at some point along it enters another country. But there’s no border post, no fence, no wall up here; nothing except a leaf-covered footpath and a neat stack of felled trunks, about a hundred metres ahead.

Are those in Ghana or Togo?

I don’t bother asking out loud this time. It’s just forest.

*

Only when the border is close to running out of land does it assert itself. Lomé snuggles into the corner where the line meets the sea and here, things are done properly.

I’ve always wanted to walk across a national border. Perhaps it’s a legacy of growing up on an island, where our neighbours are all a boat ride or tunnel away. And Ghana/Togo indulge me in style. Late one Friday evening, two hours after departing the heat and hustle of Accra, a taxi drops me in Aflao, a town whose main purpose is to wave goodbye to those leaving the country or welcome those arriving, the lines of snack stalls ready to provide sustenance on their way.

From here, I proceed on foot beneath a crumbling arch, Ghana’s signatory black star on top, and wait for a stern border guard to scrutinise my passport for … what, exactly? Once waved through, I approach his Togolese counterparts. They usher me through without question; it’s late, they’ve evidently checked enough passports for one day. I raise a hand in acknowledgment and walk into another country.

Now this is a border. There is change, distinction, separation. A city springs up immediately around you; no suburbs, no urban sprawl, at least on this side. Just a few metres from the neatly farmed fields that surround Aflao are high-rise buildings, crowded streets and that distinctive scent of city tarmac warmed by tropical heat. There is a busy hum of horns and engines, the chaos of a thousand people in each street, an urgency that only urbanity provides. It feels a long way from Mount Gemi and Wli, where the border is little noticed.

Other changes, too. Motorbikes, largely absent in Ghana, zip all over; the bread sold by street vendors is long and crusty, not soft and stodgy. And the language of the capital, into which people from all corners of the country pour, is the communal French, local languages reserved for when you meet someone from ‘home’. Yet just a few metres back that way, barely a word of French is understood. I hail a motorbike, ignoring the common-sense warnings about riding on one without a helmet, and struggle to summon enough schoolboy French to get me to the hotel.

*

Two days later, my brief sojourn over, I walk back across the border. The same taxi driver is waiting, as agreed, and we soon head west.

‘Do you know how the border is marked beyond the checkpoint?’ I ask.

‘It is a fence, I think. Yes, a fence.’

‘Do you know how far it goes? Because I was in Wli a few weeks ago and there isn’t a fence there, so I wondered where it stopped.’

The driver gives me a bemused glance in his rear-view mirror, then turns up the radio so that it is loud enough to drown out any more daft, irrelevant questions from the back seat.

***

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

Runcorn Wonderland

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By David Lewis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On visiting the Dylan Thomas Boathouse, Laugharne

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By Anna Evans:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now I see that the road continues.

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

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.