Sound of the times: Chalk Hill Blue by Will Burns & Hannah Peel

By Paul Scraton:

The final track reaches an end and the record stops. I pick it up and turn it over. Start again from the beginning. The music comes in waves, a fragmented, crackling, sweeping electronica that brings first to mind a desire path close to my mum’s in Yorkshire, where it passes beneath a huge, humming electricity pylon in the grounds of an old asylum transformed into a whole new village on the edge of the moors. But then I am taken, via a gentle voice, to the chalk landscapes of the south, and the stories to be found if we only “look beyond the intensive agriculture, the lookalike market towns, the wealth, the gold course and the four-wheel drive cars…”

Chalk Hill Blue is the name of a butterfly that can be found in those chalk landscapes around Wendover in Buckinghamshire, where the poet Will Burns lives and writes. It is also the name of the album Burns has created with the artist, producer and composer Hannah Peel, with his words and her music coming together to create a haunting, unsettling and strangely beautiful portrait of a place and its stories. Burns and Peel met in 2016 and two years later began working on the album. Sometimes the music came first, with Burns then selecting the poem that fit best with the sounds Peel was composing. Sometimes it was the poem that inspired the composition. The result was this album, released by Rivertones label of Caught by the River.

In a way this album is specific, telling as it does the stories of a particular place and of particular moments in time. The track titles themselves are rooted in location (Ridgeway), season (Spring Dawn On Mad Mile, Summer Blues), date (May 9th, February) and, of course, the local wildlife (Chalk Hill Blue). It is an attempt, as has already been mentioned, to look beyond the identikit everywhere of the 21st century world and find the real place that lies within or beneath. And it is a recognition that there are elements that have been lost. This might be true of the stories, which are now half-remembered, or the routines, work lives and traditions of the people. This loss it is most definitely felt when the album considers those other lives, the non-human lives, with which a place is shared. There is, Burns writes in the sleeve notes, “not as much as there should be, no, we must admit that.”

If stories, of people and other living things, of places and what they contain, exist only in memory then they become by nature fragmented and infused with loss. This atmosphere of change, melancholy and absence permeates Chalk Hill Blue and is perhaps why, on the second and third listen, I am taken away from Wendover once more and back to my mum’s Yorkshire village and then on, to the flat landscapes around Berlin or an empty square in a crumbling French market town. For while the album tells the fragmented stories of a particular place, it resonates because of the questions it poses for places far beyond:

What role does place play in our identity?
What does belonging mean?
How do we find our feet in an ever-shifting world?
How do we make sense of what has been lost?

There is a danger in these questions, but it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be asked. Questions of home and belonging, of the lost stories of place and an impending environmental catastrophe are key questions of our time. It is not possible to observe the movements that gave us Brexit, the rise of the AfD in Germany or the Gilets Jaunes of the French periphery without understanding how these questions link in. As we mop out our flooded towns and we try to protect our villages from raging forest fires, as we wonder where the bees have gone or why the cranes are staying through the winter, these questions return to us time and again.

These are uncomfortable questions, and it is to Will Burns’ and Hannah Peel’s credit that Chalk Hill Blue provokes us to ask them. We cannot ignore them. We have to find the answers to these questions and find the answers that are not rooted in nostalgia or the exclusion of others. There is no going back. However we find a answer, and one which rejects the dead ends of nationalism and nativism, the first step is to tell the stories. The first step is to know what is happening. How did we get here? It can be the role of music, of poetry and of art, to bring those stories to light. Through its thoughtful, thought-provoking poetry and beautiful, atmospheric music, Chalk Hill Blue does just that.

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Will Burns & Hannah Peel will be performing Chalk Hill Blue live at dates around the UK. More info on Caught by the River here. The album is released by Rivertones and is available on CD or 12” Vinyl here.

Paul Scraton is the editor in chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. His debut novel Built on Sand is published by Influx Press in April 2019.

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.

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.

A winter pilgrimage

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By David Lewis:

In the shortest days I make a secular pilgrimage from the small town of Presteigne to Limebrook Priory, about eight kilometres away.  My one long annual walk, my one communion with the natural world, is sacrosanct and taken aloneIt is a pilgrimage of solitude. 

On this cold grey afternoon Presteigne is deserted.  The old town ends abruptly at the last wall of stone and lichen, and the river Lugg leads me into a wide valley of sheep fields, slashed with lines of hedge-snow.  My mind slows to the touch of a thorn hedge and the crunch of my boots on wet gravel, and the silence folds itself around me.

Silence is walking’s greatest pleasure.  I work in heated buildings and electric light, and I value a cold wind and the rain on my face.  Solitude too is a rare gift, and I do not expect to meet other people on this journey.  I am not a serious walker, often stopping to appreciate the moments of stillness: a pheasant in an empty field, a buzzard rising on a thermal, a shaft of sunlight through a cloud.  It is quiet enough to hear the buzzard half a mile distant; already even the quiet shops of Presteigne seem a long way away.

After four miles, the valley narrows and deepens.  This is the loneliest and darkest stretch of the journey.  The river is sullen and powerful after recent snows, and walls of tall sombre pines darken the light with a slow sighing of branches.  There is a legend that defeated soldiers escaping the medieval battle of Mortimer’s Cross passed wearily through this gorge.  Was the mud as deep, the river as menacing?  I break through ice into mud, stumble over the frozen ground in their footsteps.  There are ravens overhead, breaking the silence with their wary croaks and the air with their ragged bullet bodies. 

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In the next wide sheep valley the grey light returns, but there is no sign of human life – no farm, no house, no road, no vehicles.  The pale fields are bare, cut by the wind with the raw smells of winter fields - sheep manure, dry grass, mud – until the wind drops behind a shoulder of hill, and an old thorn hedge-line takes me to the Lime brook.  Usually the nuns’ stream is light and playful, but today it is a powerful torrent surging to join the Lugg.  An isolated farm road for ten minutes’ brisk mud-free walking, and the Priory appears around a corner.  I have arrived.  The pilgrimage is over.    

Stone still stands on stone, walls still stand, but Limebrook Priory was dissolved by Henry VIII and  has been a ruin since 1539.  I arrive at 3pm, when the nuns would be preparing for the mid-afternoon service None, but grass has grown even over the ruins, and I struggle to imagine vegetable gardens, refectory, the nuns’ cells, the church itself.  I do not stay long, but always leave something of my journey for the nuns’ memory; a makeshift staff, a pile of leaves held by peg or river stone, even just a thought.  In the nuns’ steep, narrow valley daylight is lost early on winter afternoons, and I repack my rucksack and climb into the grey light above the Priory.  The valley has already folded protectively around the old stones and the walls can barely be seen.  With every year, Limebrook Priory belongs more and more to the natural world. 

On this little-used road I nod to the only people I see all day.  Hooded and muffled against the wind the hedge-layers are strangely medieval, with a hill’s arc of stem and trunk behind them that the nuns would recognise as a well-laid hedge.  I have a long road still to walk, and half an hour after leaving Limebrook I start to lose the light.  I imagine the rush lights and candles being lit in the Priory behind me in time and space, the preparations for the dusk service, Vespers.  My dark road bends through woodland and fields until the lights of Presteigne appear through the trees and hedges.  Wet and exhausted I stumble up the hill past the old houses, their warm rooms a long way from the mud and cold thorns of the dark path behind me.  Yet my winter pilgrimage is a celebration of these contrasts.  This floundering walk over saturated fields and narrow roads is a rare slowing of personal time, when the only sounds are the wind, the river, a distant bird.  And for me the annual ritual of the journey, towards an appreciation of daylight around the winter solstice, is pilgrimage enough. 

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

A village pond without a village

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By Matt Gilbert:

As quests go, this wasn’t exactly an epic. There was no Green Chapel to be found, no Mount Kailash to be reached, nothing but a pond next to a busy A-road, on the fringes of Croydon.

Beulah Hill Pond is named after a farm that was once here, before the area was built up. According to Croydon council’s website, the place was also known locally as ‘Big Pond’. The site had long been used a ‘watering place’ for horses and cattle and a bar had been placed across the middle to prevent livestock from straying too far in and drowning. In the past, when it froze, people liked to skate on it.

Other than that, there is nothing exceptional about the pond: no rare species make it their home, no famous historical events occurred there and it doesn’t lay claim to a ghost. As ponds go, this one is almost utterly unremarkable. Almost. Yet something about the place caught my imagination.

When we first moved to this part of South London, I noticed the pond on an A-Z and wondered what it was doing there. On a map the pond looked a little lost; wedged into a corner between a road, a pub and a row of houses. I made a mental note to go and take a look sometime, before forgetting all about it.

A couple of years later I read a story in a local paper about a pub called the Conquering Hero, which was home to a pig. The pig – a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, called Frances Bacon – had been barred from wandering about near the bar, because it had taken to deliberately knocking over people’s pints to drink them. The report jarred my memory – this was the pub next door to Beulah Hill Pond. This was a sign, finally it was time to pay a visit.

I felt a mild, but nagging sense of guilt. I thought about an old ad for Time Out, which showed London’s famous tube map with all the station names blanked out, except for two. One of these, near the edge of the page, was marked Home, while the other, near the centre, said Work. The headline read: London without Time Out. I used to scoff at the idea that I would ever inhabit London, my adopted home, in this way. Now, here I was about to visit somewhere a few minutes’ walk from my home, that I had never seen before, via roads within my postcode that I had never previously set foot upon. The distance between us was negligible, but Beulah Hill Pond simply wasn’t within my orbit. Last year, one early morning, I set out to change that. 

This bit of what is now South-East London used to be Surrey, but today belongs to Croydon and Lambeth. The area is also known in places as Norwood; a name derived from the Great North Wood – as in north of Croydon – that once stretched over land to the south of the Thames, where the ragged edges of London shaded out into the Surrey hills. However, unless you go back to prehistoric times, this territory was never covered by some vast wildwood of the imagination. For centuries, stands of trees and coppices dotted the land, but for the most part were managed as commercial enterprises – many by the Lambeth and Croydon manors of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Tiny remnants of this sylvan heritage can be found scattered across south east London – Dulwich and Sydenham Hill Woods being the largest examples. Local place names including Forest Hill, Penge, Honour Oak and Gipsy Hill, also carry traces of this bosky past.

Looking at some old 18th and 19th century maps online, I was intrigued to see that some of today’s streets appear to follow the course of the edges of former fields and land boundaries, but on the ground, picking up such historic traces proved hard.

As I walked I tried to imagine ancient fields and tracks that once hugged the same curves as the tarmac and paving slabs beneath my feet. Sparrows in straggly, uncut hedges, near occasional grassy lanes leading to garages, made a desperate stab at evoking a greener past. Mostly though, as marching rows of Victorian terraces on Tivoli Road gave way to 1930s semis, I had a greater sense of multiple daily dramas being acted out behind door after door after door.

Steam from central heating snaked into the air from outlet pipes. Music rattled out of windows. Kettles boiled. Parents yelled at children to get dressed for school. Others readied themselves for work. Or not. The relentless everyday of human life.

Nearing my destination, I rounded a corner onto the A215. Cars sat in long queues waiting to pile into London. I glanced up and in the morning sun, confused glinting wires that fanned out from a pylon, for a series of highly choreographed aeroplane vapour trails.

I looked back down, and there it was, my stray pond. I don’t know what I had expected really, but I was a little disappointed, to find the pond fenced off behind iron railings. A couple of benches set on concrete next to the road faced the water. A sign showed photos of birds you might see: Herons, Moorhens, Ducks. I peered through a gap in the railings. A yellow polystyrene burger carton floated in green water. From out of the reeds behind it, a lone moorhen bobbed into view.

I recalled a conservation volunteer I’d once met telling me about a clean-up session he’d been involved with here, where they’d found a mummified Terrapin. Thick ranks of small trees and shrubs surrounded the pond on three sides. Perhaps somewhere behind the wall of vegetation more aquatic life was in hiding. I looked again at the fence, it made the place look like an enclosure in a zoo, but at last I was here. I had found it, a village pond without a village.

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

Mount Koya: Beware of Bears

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By Pete Martin:

I stop at Karukayado (the Hall of Karukaya). The Karukaya is a story of a boy called Ishidomaru who came to Koya-san in order to meet his father. The boy met a monk, who was in fact his father, but, as the monk had renounced his past life for priesthood, he told the boy that his father had died and sent him back to his mother at one of the inns at the edge of the mountain. (At this time, women were not allowed to enter Koya-san and so seven temples were built on the periphery for women). Ishidomaru found his mother dead at the inn and so returned to study under the monk, never knowing the monk was his father. The hall is now preserved as a hermitage where father and son practiced asceticism together for over forty years. I walk along the corridor of the hall that houses the shrine and follow the paintings on the wall that depict the story.

In the centre of Koya-san is the Kongobuji and Danjo Garan complex. The Kongobuji is the head temple of Koya-san Shingon Buddhism. The temple comprises two temples that were combined together in 1869. It has a feel of history and tradition in its plain, ancient wooden features. It was in the willow room of the Kongobuji that Toyotomi Hidetsugu, the nephew and retainer of the great Toyotomi Hideyoshi, committed seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment) after being accused of plotting a coup.

The complex opens up further with the old, dark wooden Fudodo on the left sitting prettily in front of a lake. This is the oldest existent building in Koya-san built in 1197. Opposite is the magnificent towering red Daito (Great Pagoda). Kobo Daishi planned the Daito as the centre of the monastery. The original construction began in 816 and was completed seventy years later. The forty-nine metre high red pagoda that is here now had to be rebuilt in 1937. Inside there is a golden statue of Buddha Mahavairocana.

This area is spectacular. The ground is covered with snow or, where it has melted, with wet orangey-brown gravel. Beyond the Daito are more sacred buildings, including the Meido (Portrait Hall), where it is said that Kobo Daishi had residence. This building is closed to the public and is only opened once a year, on the anniversary of the day Kobo Daishi began his long (and continuing) meditation. Inside is a portrait of Kobo Daishi painted by his disciple Shinnyo.

At Rengendani, it’s a short walk uphill to my shukubo - a temple that provides lodging. The outside of the shukubo looks like an old, traditional temple, with a rock garden and carp pond. Inside, I change into geta and am shown to my room by a monk in full robes. Inside, it’s completely modern except that there is no heating. Later, I change into my kimono and warm outer coat and I’m collected from my room by the monk for dinner. My private dining room is a small room along a cold, glass panelled corridor. The shoji on one side have simple tree paintings on them. The others are bare. The glass doors are closed and in the middle of the floor are a cushion and two red trays with cold food laid out. Beyond the glass doors, I have a view of the rock garden, now lightly lit in the dark of the evening and sprinkled with what remains of the snow. Another tray is brought in with hot food, sake and tea. I take my time to sample it all. It’s one of the best meals I have ever eaten and in one of the most amazing locations. It takes me nearly an hour to finish everything.

Just before seven o'clock in the morning, I’m lead to the older part of the temple, through the cold corridors, to the shrine room. At the back there are cushioned benches on either side of the central aisle. I sit down. Two small side rooms have hundreds of red lanterns on the ground. In the middle of the room, there’s a model of a golden pavilion in front of the altar. From the ceiling, more lanterns and pendants hang. The only light comes from several rows of lit candles. One monk sits directly in front of the altar and one monk to the side. The one to the side begins a slow chant and soon the monk at the altar begins a louder chant.

Both use various bells, chimes and cymbals to wake the Buddhas. Halfway through the chanting, one of the monks comes to me and asks me to drop three grains of rice into a bowl. The monk then returns and they chant in unison again. Without intending to, I find myself falling into a trance. I’ve been given a sheet of paper with the words to the ‘Heart Sutra for the Perfection of Wisdom’ which is written in Japanese and English. The Japanese is also spelt out phonetically in English. Amazingly, I can pick up the sounds and I’m able to chant quietly along with the two monks as they recite the sutra. Time seems to stand still.

After forty minutes or so, the morning ceremony is finished and I’m taken directly to breakfast. The rock garden looks very different in the early morning daylight. Once breakfast is done, sadly I have to leave the inn. At the stop for the bus back to Koya-san station, there’s a sign on the wall which reads: ‘Beware of Bears! Recently bears were seen at each area in Koya-san and there are so many eyewitness reports. When you go out, don't go out alone.’ I now realise why I have had the wonderful sights of Koya-san to myself.

Pete Martin’s book Revolutions: Wandering and wondering on a sabbatical year is a compelling tale of travel and change and is out now. More information can be found at www.wander2wonder.com.

Worlds Apart

IMAGE: Frank Hajek

IMAGE: Frank Hajek

By Jessica Groenendijk:

The otter changes course and heads into a crystalline, shallow tributary. I snatch up my binoculars and see it flush a large catfish, water surging as it chases its prey over a sand bank. The fish escapes and the otter, too, is swallowed by the jungle. How will we identify it now?

“Quick, let’s follow on foot,” I say to Frank. “We might be able to catch up.” 

Frank gestures to our boat driver, Zacarias, to nudge the bow of our fifteen-metre canoe into the mouth of the stream. I grab the day's provisions and tug on a pair of light trainers, token protection against sting rays. Then I swing my legs over the side and lower myself into the current, enjoying the shock of cool water on my skin. Frank follows, the camera and zoom lens slung around his neck. Zacarias reverses the engine; he agrees to moor the boat nearby and wait for us. 

It is mid-morning. The sun is a hot weight on our shoulders and leaches the green from the surrounding vegetation. We are nearing the end of our annual giant otter census in Peru’s Manu National Park. We have already filmed all the resident families, but the nomadic solitaries present a greater challenge. They are elusive, silent, and secretive. We still smart from our failure to film the throat marking – as distinctive in giant otters as our fingerprints are unique to us - of a lone individual sighted yesterday. 

I push my feet through the water, feeling the thin cotton of my trousers swirl against my legs. Pristine, crescent-shaped beaches flank the banks of the meandering stream. Water slips sinuously between rocky shelves and over drifts of sand, nibbling at miniature, sculpted cliffs until they crumble and dissolve. The polished trunk of a majestic ceiba spans the current, its bark long gone, its sun-warmed wood smooth and satisfying to the touch. I revel in the freedom of walking in the stream, after so many hours spent in the dense, claustrophobic forest. 

There is surprisingly little wildlife. No sign of the otter, only small schools of fish flitting from pool to pool. I disturb a sting ray, a tiny spurt of sand staining the water where it had been resting. Lime and lemon butterflies shiver on damp soil where a tapir urinated at dawn. Twice I spot the tracks of capybara. I know it is the wrong time of day for animals to be out and about, yet I am disappointed. 

Sand bunches in my socks, rubbing raw the skin between my toes, and the vicious sting of a horsefly enhances my discomfort. By now, I have given up hope of seeing the solitary otter again. A shady spot on a beach tempts me and I whistle to catch Frank's attention. 

“Let’s stop awhile, have something to eat,” I call to him. The sound of my voice makes me wince. Like shouting in a cathedral or an ancient library, it seems wrong, irreverent. 

Frank flops down next to me. “I feel like Alfred Russell Wallace,” he says, looking at our tracks on the sandy canvas. “Like we’re the only humans ever to have ventured here.” 

I nod, conscious of an all-too-human desire to claim this remote pocket of rainforest as our own, by right of first passage, even if only in spirit.  A kingfisher arrows past, it's challenging chatter ringing in my ears. I push myself off the sand and brush my hands. “Let’s keep going.” 

The channel narrows and trees tower on either side. The beaches all but disappear. We penetrate deeper and deeper, and with every step I feel more alive. My senses hum. 

“Jess.”

Frank’s voice beside me is low and taut. I glance at him and follow his gaze. About one hundred metres upstream, a tree has collapsed from bank to bank, forming a bridge over the water. On it lies a jaguar. 

Frank lifts the camera from his chest. But even with the zoom we are too far away. We walk, our paces measured to avoid splashing, our eyes never leaving the jaguar. Excitement wells in me. Nothing but air separates us from the big cat. Not the metal and glass of a car, nor the wooden hull of a boat. Here we are on an equal footing, as we were meant to be. 

My eyes burn and I blink. In that split second the jaguar is gone. There is no in-between, no slow slinking into the forest. Anywhere else I would have regretted the loss. Here it feels right. 

“Strange,” says Frank. “I didn’t think he’d be so scared of us.” 

The sun is lower in the sky, the foliage now luminous, greens burnished with old-gold. Although it is tempting to explore further, we will find ourselves spending the night unprepared if we do not turn back soon. 

“What do you think, just one more bend?” I ask. Frank agrees without hesitation. 

As we round the meander, a beach, larger and higher than any we have seen so far, slopes gently up into the forest. Our shoes squelch as we step out of the current and walk onto the sand. Hollow, blackened tortoise shells litter the ground. There must be over fifty of them: pathetic, tiny domes, the size of cupped hands, scattered amongst great carapaces. Three stout baskets, woven from a single palm frond, lie abandoned next to the charred skull of a brocket deer and the voice box of a howler monkey. 

Frank and I stare at each other. 

A pair of macaws flies overhead, their agonised cries startling me. We pick our way through the clutter. A dozen makeshift palm frond shelters dot the beach. At either end of every shelter are the ashes of a small fire over which the tortoises were roasted. Alive? I grimace. Between the hearths is space for two or perhaps three people to sleep. 

Frank’s soft “Hey!” interrupts my thoughts. He motions me to the water's edge. At his feet is a set of human footprints, unexpectedly large, even allowing for time’s erosion. 

A cloud blocks the sun. We both know what we have stumbled upon. The hunting camp of a group of so-called ‘uncontacted’ people, known by outsiders as the Mashco-Piro but who call themselves the Nomole, meaning “brothers”. People who, due to past traumatic conflicts with what we call civilisation, choose to live in complete isolation from the rest of us, rejecting all we represent. People who walk naked, hunt with bows and arrows, use stone axes, and eat almost exclusively meat. I recall the jaguar’s fear. 

It seems inconceivable that only a few hours’ walk from here, engine-powered boats pass by daily, laden with tech-savvy tourists. 

Logic tells us the Nomole are unlikely to be nearby – there is no acrid smell of smoke and the footprints are not fresh – but I cannot shake the feeling we are being watched. My skin prickles. We might have walked straight into them. What would have happened then? Would they have shied from us, run into the forest? Or would they have attacked us? Judging from what we’ve heard, an encounter might well have been fatal. 

With this comes the uneasy realisation we are intruders. The stream is not ours. It never was. We are trespassing. 

I take a last look at the silent camp, suspended in a web of gathering shadows.  Frank cannot resist taking some photographs, and even this benign act feels like an invasion.
We retrace our steps, subdued in thought, trying to reconcile what we have seen with our lives outside. We have not witnessed the past, nor the future, but a different present. The otter and jaguar, the Nomole, and ourselves: three separate, parallel worlds briefly intersecting, almost colliding, on the banks of a rainforest stream.

*****
 

Jessica is a Dutch biologist turned conservationist and writer. She fuses her work in conservation and her personal experiences of wildlife and wild places with her passion for words and photography to help connect people with nature. Her writing has been published in BBC Wildlife MagazineEarth Island JournalThe Island Review, and Africa Geographic, as well as in Animal: A Beast of a Literary Magazine and Zoomorphic. Her blog Nature Bytes was Highly Commended in the International Category of the 2015 BBC Wildlife Blogger Awards. She is a member of The Society of Authors and is currently working on a book on giant otters and their conservation. Follow her @WildWordsAuthor on Twitter and Facebook and find her Words from the Wild at www.jessicagroenendijk.com.

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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

The art of Ellis O'Connor

We are extremely pleased to have the opportunity to feature the artwork of Ellis O'Connor here on the Elsewhere blog. Ellis is a visual artist based in Scotland, and since graduating a couple of years ago from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design she has worked in residency programmes in Iceland and Norway. She recently returned from an expedition with the Arctic Circle Organisation to the High Arctic Archipelago of Svalbard, and in her work you can see how she uses the visual language of drawing and lithographic printmaking to challenge assumptions about the natural environment.

Through her work, Ellis wants to reintepret the grandeur of natural land forms and re-present this visual information laden with power. As an artist, conservationist and keen mountain climber, Ellis aims to address the issues of climate change and wild land in her work, in the hope of inspiring others to take action for the future as well as to highlight the significance of the natural world around us.

If you would like to see more from Ellis, you can check out her website, her blog or visit her instagram feed.