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.

The Library: Hard Border – Walking Through a Century of Irish Partition, by Darach MacDonald

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Read by Marcel Krueger:

The Automobile Associaton of Ireland's 1962 handbook contains six pages of guidance for people planning to cross the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. There are 18 approved roads with customs posts, and the AA warns that vehicles were liable for customs duty and purchase tax upon entering Northern Ireland, requiring motorists to 'lodge large sums of money at the frontier' or avoid doing so by providing a so-called 'triptyque' passbook for stamping at frontier crossings. The border section closes with a warning: motorists crossing on unapproved roads are 'liable to very severe penalties, including confiscation of [their] car.' Customs post also only had limited opening hours and late-night crossings incurred an additional fee of 2 shillings, usually paid in advance.

The slow train wreck of Brexit and the connected question of the future of the only land border between the European Union and the UK has in recent years increased the interest in the history of Irish partition and the 499 km-long frontier between the Republic and Northern Ireland. Countless TV and print reports have investigated it, the border now has its own darkly funny Twitter account, and there has been a loose series of books about the border as well, first and foremost Garett Carr's 'The Rule of Land' (2017), which follows the author's trek from Carlingford Lough along the border to Lough Foyle. Darach MacDonald's 'Hard Border' is the latest addition to the loose canon of Irish border books, but this one zooms in a bit deeper than most. Despite the flashy cover which seems to indicate a more political look at the potential of a 'hard' border, instead this is a deeply personal look at the history of the border, and 'hard' here could also mean 'deadly'.

MacDonald is a veteran journalist hailing from Clones in County Monaghan, and has written extensively about his home country and the border, most recently in ' Blood & Thunder: Inside an Ulster Protestant Band' (2010). For this later border-book, he walked the 75-kilometer route of the now-defunct Ulster Canal, which was completed in 1842 to link Lough Neagh to the Erne system but proved unsuccessful, was outstripped by the railways and the subsequent partition of Ireland and finally closed in 1932. Even though there are plans to develop a greenway along its banks, to date most of it is neglected and overgrown, which forces MacDonald through dense undergrowth and on many detours – which is almost synonymous for the tangled history of the Irish border which he encounters. Following the canal from Castle Saunderson to the Moy, the author explores both the drumlin landscape and the history of the last 100 years in the border heartlands, where five counties meet: Cavan and Monaghan in the Republic and Fermanagh, Tyrone and Armagh in Northern Ireland. Here, the border shifts and snakes around villages and roads, forming loops that almost become enclaves and exclaves (and will cause many a Brexit headache): for example, there are eight roads in and out Clones in Monaghan – five of which run into Fermanagh.

Walking this convoluted border give MacDonald the chance to dive deep into the political reasons behind partition and also to chart the violence that spilled across the border from both sides: from the Irish Civil War over the so-called border campaign of the IRA in the 1950s to the horrors of the Northern Ireland conflict between 1969 and 1998. And it is the latter which results in the strongest parts of the book, when MacDonald talks about the horrendous tit-for-tat killings that he witnessed, often perpetrated by neighbours and members of the same community:

The terror persisted and lapped to and fro across the border, as with the abduction and murder of Ross Hearst of Middletown in 1980. The 52-year old father of five was taken at gunpoint outside a friend's house in Tullylush, back near where the Monaghan Mushrooms plant stands today. His corpse with four bullet wounds was dumped at Wards Cross, a short distance away on the border. [...] Seamus Soroghan of Monaghan town was later convicted of the murder. Yet no sentence could allay the trauma of the Hearst family, which at the time of the father's death was still mourning the 1977 killing of his daughter Margaret Ann Hearst, a 24-year-old-single mother of a 3-year-old child, and part-time soldier in the UDR [Ulster Defence Regiment].

As an outsider from Germany, the Irish border and its effect on the communities it historically divided and still divides often reminds me of the Berlin Wall, which had similar seemingly random nooks and crannies that meant division and death for their inhabitants. There is the 'Entenschnabel', the Duck's Bill in Glienicke/Nordbahn, where a GDR neighbourhood along one street was enclosed by West Berlin on three sides, or the Eiskeller, where three West Berlin farmer families could only get to the city along a small road four metres wide and 800 meters long. And while the Irish Border was not as tightly sealed as the Berlin one, it was at least as deadly and meant similar arrangements for those affected by it. At the height of the Troubles, the five roads out of Clones into the North were closed, and just a single main route across the border remained open in the area, and any traffic wishing to pass had to go through a full military checkpoint, often resulting in long delays - and at the height of the IRA’s campaign in the 1970s and 80s most smaller lanes leading from that main road across the border were spiked, blocked with concrete blocks or blown up by the British Army.

There's a lot of fighting and killing in this book, but this is no over-proportionate for the slice of Irish landscape and history it analyses – the terror, after all, was real. This is not a lighthearted romp, but also not a hopeless one. There's plenty of positive stories, like the history of the Leslie family of Glaslough and their (in)famous parties, or the stories of local entrepreneurship (like the aforementioned mushroom plant) that were made possible by the opening of the border after the Good Friday Agreement 1999. MacDonald is apprehensive about the potential impacts of Brexit, and rightly so, as his fine mix of memoir and history in 'Hard Border' properly put the border and its effect on the local communities into perspective. The only thing lacking is a detailed map, which would make it easy for those encountering the pitfalls of the Irish border for the first time to trace its weird loops – and a timeline would also have helped.

But otherwise, this is a fine journey through the history of the Irish border heartlands, filled with affrays, danger, hope, a soviet in the Monaghan Lunatic Asylum and Oscar Wilde's sisters, burning to death on Halloween. I can thoroughly recommend it to both newcomers to the Irish border as well as veteran border writers and walkers. And especially to Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Hard Border is published by New Island and is available through their website or from any independent bookshop.

Beacon Bound, Part III: Infalling

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In memory of his grandfather, Nicholas Herrmann walks the length of The Ridgeway: an ancient road stretching for eighty-seven miles across chalk downland, from Overton Hill to Ivinghoe Beacon. We will be following Nicholas’ journey here on the Elsewhere blog over the next couple of months.

There he sleeps, immeasurable: the fire-drake. Somewhere under the earth, in some hill or nameless barrow. His lair is dim and airless, his breast the only glow. His hide is painted in royal reds, scales edged in gold as if gilded with sticky treasures. Coiled around his mass: a tail tipped with a fleur-de-lis. His wings are folded at his sides, bat-like, all skin and sinew. Horns peek from a fog of smoke that spreads with every breath. Claws, blood-muddied, dig into countless piles of precious things.

He could rise at any moment and burn the world away.

*

The Ridgeway smells of dead grass and chapped earth. The fields creak with crickets, and Cabbage Whites drift on the breeze like ash. Our bags are heavy on our bare shoulders as we step into summer. We’ve unpacked our raincoats and drybags, filled the space with water and sun cream. It’s already hot as we pass the Memorial of Lord Wantage – a striking column rising from the ridge, proclaiming aphorisms in Latin across the valley: Peace in passing away. Salvation after death. Light after darkness. Hope in light. Somewhere, we cross into Berkshire, my home county. Soon, we’ll be wading into the Thames and resting in the Chilterns’ beechwood shade, but first we must traverse ten miles of parched and dying downland.

A terrifying alchemy has taken place: the ‘precious stone set in the silver sea’ turned to dust.

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They’re calling it a heatwave. In the coming days, The Washington Post will run stories about the all-time records being set around the world: Africa and Japan witnessing their hottest ever temperatures, people dying in Canada, roads and roofs melting across the UK. The Jet Stream has buckled and the Gulf Stream is grinding to a halt, causing surface temperatures to rise. Whole sections of rivers vanish. Wildfires rage in the Arctic Circle. In Scotland, dogs die from lapping blooms of toxic algae. In Ireland and Wales, the drought causes crop marks to appear: outlines of ancient sites and settlements, unknown or long-lost, like marks from a magnifying glass burning through time. It’s Britain’s driest summer since modern records began. The heat is unnatural, the world uncomfortably warm.

On the path, flies cluster and chase, attracted by our gathering sweat. We push through tall, tick-threatening grass, guessing at the names of the wildflowers that colour the verge. I can only identify the obvious ones: cow parsley, buttercups, thistles. A hiker heading for Overton Hill points out others: ragwort, scabius, vetch. Names like ancient ailments.

My father has been clearing out John’s house in Wales, and there have been discussions about what to do with the dragons. They lurk on bookshelves beside Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica, squat on side tables above leather walking boots. There’s a dragon cast in iron, low and long; one made of plastic, a children’s toy elevated to ornament; one carved into a wooden stamp. The centrepiece is ceramic, hand painted in green and gold, clutching a crystal ball. It was a love born of studying biology and archeology, reading Pratchett and Tolkien. Even the house was part of the collection in a way – a bolt hole in the land of the dragon.

There’s no hiding from the heat. We’re stalked for miles by Didcot’s smoking towers. It’s a strange section of the trail, unremarkable and vast, the antithesis of Uffington, a place busy with history. We pass under the A34, connecting Newbury and Oxford like a steel pin forced through the bone of the land. The roaring underpass provides a few seconds of relief before we’re once again bombarded by UV rays.

After another stretch, the landscape relaxes into a valley, the power station falling out of sight. At the bottom, a little brick bridge arches over a trench of nettles: the skeleton of the Didcot, Newbury and Southampton Railway, opened at the end of the nineteenth century, closed in the 1960s due to lack of traffic. The DN&SR became important in World War Two, when it was used to transport supplies to the coast in preparations for the Normandy landings. Our presence flusters a couple of wood pigeons that blunder into the trees. I lean on the wall and gaze into the green abyss, imagining the wildlife tucked into the weeds, the insects nesting in cracks, the creatures suspended in shadow. I wonder when the A34 will go this way – sink back into nature, burst open and bloom. Return to barbarism.

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The buzz of a Cessna interrupts the heavy quiet of the afternoon. The breeze is thick and warm, dragon’s breath blowing in from the barley. Orchids rise from the bank. Heat haze ribbons on every edge. As we trudge the last few miles, the chalk of the Ridgeway glows white-hot, angling the sun at us, cooking us evenly. I squint, chalkblind.

Finally, we find shelter. A wood materialises on the lip of the Goring Gap as we descend the ridge. It’s a sign we’re moving through a new morphology now, that the windy, sweeping stretches of the North Wessex Downs are behind us. It also means we’re reaching the end of our first ancient highway, the Thames marking the start of the Icknield Way. We walk to the edge of Streatley, where a sign tells us we’ve been infalling for forty-one miles – almost half the distance to the Beacon. We see out the day at Aldworth, a village home to medieval giants, a one-thousand-year-old yew, and The Bell – the Platonic Form of a pub, housed in a building from the fifteenth century. We collapse onto rain-warped benches to savour local ciders beneath the falling sun.

*

The temperature rises by one degree.

Our skin a little pinker, we walk the final mile to Streatley. The town feels like a threshold, a red-brick terminal busy with early-risers leaving for the hills. There’s a book exchange in a telephone box, filled mostly with travel authors left by Ridgeway ramblers: Eric Newby, Paul Theroux, Patrick Leigh Fermor. We pass blue plaques announcing the famous feet that have graced the town: Turner did some sketches here, parts of The Wind in the Willows are set in the surrounds.

Signposts ferry us over the Thames, into Goring, and through a system of alleyways and driveways that cut between castles: riverside mansions that block our view of the water. On the map, the path appears to follow the river closely, but in reality we’re funnelled between eight-foot-high fences, with signs warning: private, keep out, the river doesn’t belong to us.

We emerge from the residential warren into a meadow of yellow wildflowers, ones I now have the power to name: ragwort. A train barrels past on its way to Reading. As we approach the perimeter of the village, church bells ringing the end of Sunday service, I’m put in mind of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country. This approach through no man’s land feels foreign, like we’re strolling into the early 1900s – the meadow hasn’t been cultivated, built upon, or swallowed up by Goring. It feels rare to find such a clear delineation, a place not being put to use.

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At last, we reach the river, sleepy and wide. Dogs stand in the shallows snapping at phantoms, people wave from paddleboards. We wander alongside, coming to a four-arched Victorian railway bridge I later learn was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The brickwork shows its age – wrinkled and weathered, bleached by efflorescence, mottled and soiled with moss and soot. Two centuries absorbed in its pores: every storm that’s ever fallen, every boat that’s passed underneath. The bridge crosses the river aslant, the bricks arranged into complex diagonal structures. I linger to photograph an arch, mesmerised by its patterns and tones, the leaves and roots that sprout from the mortar. The years have given the bridge the same plumage as a kite.

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We follow the water north. It’s hazy, humid, the sun at its zenith. We are desperate to find a place to swim. Soon, we find it: the perfect beach just off the towpath. I take off my hat and shirt, and immediately begin to burn. We wade in. My toes sink into the silt, my blood starts to cool. We stand and listen to the buzz of insects and distant shouts down the river. A laugh from my father – fish are nibbling at his feet. When the sun becomes too much, I bend my knees and launch myself, washing the heat from my skin in an instant. I dive to wipe the sweat from my brow. The relief is profound. My limbs feel apart from me. Like eels, they slip and slither in the shadows of the river. I swim into the middle and float among the dragonflies. I breathe in the fishy smell of willow, weed and water.

Like mudskippers, we climb out awkwardly, finding our feet on the sun-baked bank. I submerge my shirt before putting it on again, to carry the river with me a while. Then we head back into the long grass towards North Stoke.

The path takes us past a ‘Type 22’ pillbox in a riverside garden, its embrasures still narrowed at the Thames as if no one told it the war was over. We enter the graveyard of St. Mary the Virgin, a modest church of flint and beam founded in the eleventh century. Inside, medieval paintings of bible scenes adorn the walls, the figures cartoonish and flat. The thick walls fortify me, my sweat dried by the musty air. It smells subterranean, of a cave or sett, and I am returned to Wayland’s Smithy. My father’s voice reverberates in the empty building – he is reciting a section of his favourite poem:

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

Lines from ‘Little Gidding’, the final part of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. I stand in the nave clutching my notes, Eliot’s words ricocheting around my skull. Outside, the shadow of a kite orbits the churchyard, folding from stone to stone.

Wagtails wash by the old mill, the path growing more secluded on the approach to Crowmarsh, a name perfectly suited to this terrain. We are travelling through edgeland now, a place not quite nature, not yet town: boggy, littered and overgrown. The scent of poplar and lime mix with car fumes that linger above the A4074 – a road that acts as a final boundary before we’re once again climbing into the hills.

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This is where we run out of water. My skin wrings out the last few drops as I snake down narrow, nettle-lined paths that wind between wheat fields belonging to Lonesome Farm. We pause on the edge of our first proper beech forest where the ferns are thick, the birdsong exotic and loud. The topography has shifted: shady, verdant, animate.

Grim’s Ditch, a series of mysterious ancient earthworks we’ve been following for miles, grows deeper as we near Nuffield, like a dried up riverbed from some distant climatic tragedy. A red kite raises the alarm as we emerge from the trees: dragon-like, a lookout on the edge of its kingdom. The Church of the Holy Trinity, practiced in aiding walkers, supplies us with a bench and a tap. We fill our flasks and stomachs, water dripping from our chins. The kite whirls above us in the low light, sounding its battle cry: weee-ooh, ee oo ee oo ee oo.

All the colours of heat.

Nicholas Herrmann is a writer and photographer based in Bath. His work has appeared in journals and online, and his writing has been shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award and Janklow and Nesbit Prize. He is a graduate of the Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa University. He is currently working on his first novel. You can find him on Twitter: @NickPSH.

Beacon Bound, Part I: The Collapse

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In memory of his grandfather, Nicholas Herrmann walks the length of The Ridgeway: an ancient road stretching for eighty-seven miles across chalk downland, from Overton Hill to Ivinghoe Beacon. We will be following Nicholas’ journey here on the Elsewhere blog over the next couple of months.

When a star dies, the collapse creates an event of such immense gravitational force, matter is compelled from far and wide, and all light is extinguished. That point in space, once brilliant and warm, turns impossibly dark.

This is the image I have in my mind on the day my grandfather dies. The family is gathering at the house, and I’m speeding eastward on my way to say goodbye. The twenty-year-old car rattles and shakes, struggling to do seventy, and as I wedge the drooping window with an elbow, I remember from whom the car was inherited.

The red kite signifies the beginning of the Chilterns. Usually, its presence is comforting, telling me I’m close to my childhood home. On the M4, they appear around Newbury, their distinctive shapes patrolling the skies at the limits of some invisible boundary. I see one now, urging me on like a herald, soaring on an updraft as it leads me towards the tragedy.

Several hard hours later, we fill the house with memories. His gentleness, his mischief and decorum, his astounding knowledge of the natural world. The January sun shines a cold light onto dregs of Earl Grey. With energy left only to sit still, my father speaks an idea into the silence: he will walk the length of the Ridgeway – that ancient track that John, my grandfather, loved, and lived beside for much of his life. Eighty-seven miles from Overton Hill in Wiltshire, northeast along the North Wessex Downs and Chiltern Hills, to Buckinghamshire’s Ivinghoe Beacon. Britain’s oldest road.

There is unanimous support for the idea. A plan is quickly formed and agreed upon: my father and I will walk the route in stages, others joining us whenever they are able. We rise to leave. As I pull on my coat, a Post-it catches in the corner of my eye – something destabilising, at once familiar and strange. A small reminder, of something done or undone, written by someone else in my own handwriting. Another inheritance.

*

We start on Good Friday. As we load our packs into the car, a pair of red kites fly out from their nest in a nearby beech tree and circle us. Their call: half whistle, half screech, steady like a kettle on a camping stove. They fly low, their kiln-coloured breasts almost skimming the chimney. We stop and watch in the light rain, able to make out every mark on their speckled chests, every feather on their ashen heads. Red, white, yellow, black: all the colours of heat. Like winged devils they twist their singed wingtips and flick their forked tails. Then they pitch and roll away together over the fields, two embers drifting on the wind.

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Scavengers, survivors, masters of extinction. As they once did in medieval times, kites fill the sky above Reading. At any given time, you can look up and see two or three of these raptors stalking the suburbs. But in the 1930s, after decades of persecution, just one or two pairs remained in the UK. Now, Britain acts as a lifeboat for the species – there are thought to be around 2,700 breeding pairs after a 1989 reintroduction in the Chilterns. And their numbers in Reading are on the rise. A study from 2015 found over four percent of households purposefully leave out meat for the birds, causing hundreds to commute into town each day from the surrounding countryside.

Avebury stone circle lies a mile and a half away from the start of our journey, so we make a stop to remind ourselves of its might and mystery. A crow lands on a megalith, oblivious, or uncaring. I place a palm on a pockmarked, rain-slick stone twice my height, its purpose lost to the ages. We make our way south, circle Silbury Hill – cumbersome and impenetrable – and pass the West Kennet Long Barrow, haunting us from a hilltop. The beginning of the Ridgeway is a car park that sits beside three squat tumuli, too regular on this topography to be given names.

This place undermines time. Prehistory and present congeal like the rain-churned paths orbiting Avebury, a thousand footsteps preserved in mud.

The Ridgeway National Trail was opened in 1973, and is just a section of a five-thousand-year-old route that used to run from the Dorset coast all the way to the Wash in Norfolk. In prehistoric times, the plains and lowlands were heavily forested and covered in undergrowth, making progress near impossible. The chalk provided a way through, drier underfoot, less impeded by vegetation. The trail we know today comprises two different ancient highways stretching across five counties and divided neatly by the Thames – the Ridgeway to the west, the Icknield Way to the east.

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I step over the threshold. The chalk track stretches out in front of me, a steady incline of white on green, clinging to the contours of the Marlborough Downs. Stuck between seasons, the landscape sags under the accumulated weight of the rain, the track transformed to a gritty paste beneath me. To our right, woody tangles of hazel, gorse and hawthorn. To our left, fields curve down to villages and farms safely tucked into the combes below. Everywhere, we pass the sleeping noble dead, their resting places marked by clumps of beech dotted across the undulating landscape.

It’s quiet on the ridge. The weather is deadening, driving wildlife to its shelters. We pass rook nests and badger setts, unreachable and dark. I imagine these creatures in their sanctuaries watching our progress along the hills, as they have done for millennia. A solitary skylark punctures the hush, jostled by the wind. A hare takes flight. I step off the track onto the furrowed edge of a field. Shards of flint mark its perimeter, newly banished by the plough. I am hunting for axeheads and arrowheads, as I was taught to, by John. I slow my pace, using my feet to nudge and lift stones from the soil, hoping to unearth an artefact – coins, pottery, a clay pipe – just as he would while walking these hills.

Sarsen stones – those huge, mystical sandstone blocks used to construct Avebury and Stonehenge – litter our surroundings, increasing in number as we approach Fyefield Down. In this area alone, there are said to be 25,000. They are called the Grey Wethers, resembling sheep from a distance, but to me they just look like stones: inert, lopsided and lichenous, strewn across the hillside by a geological cataclysm. We press on, past four White Park cows sheltering from the easterly wind behind a gorse bush. Charming and ancient, with long, perfect horns, they turn to watch us through barbed wire.

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Soon, we enter a section flanked on either side by shivering hawthorns, dense vegetation climbing their trunks as if the ground is rising to claim them. I pause in a puddle, confounded. As I consider the trees I become agitated, realising I don’t understand the process taking place. I don’t know if the growth on the trunks is moss, or lichen, or liverwort – if it’s harming the trees, or killing them, or benefitting both sides.

I don’t belong. I am out of place – a vagrant, a product of the city, a non-native species in a foreign land.

What am I doing out here, so exposed, so far away?

This is John’s world, not mine. He had a passion for moss and lichen, collecting them on walks, filing them with labels carefully away in a miniature chest of drawers. The photograph at his memorial is a portrait of John kneeling in a wood somewhere, studying the undergrowth, excited by a find. He would have understood this. He would have been able to explain it to me.

Further along, the track levels out, an alley of breeze-bent trees winding past a dew pond. Above, a kestrel is suspended against the clouds, feathers fanned and tousled. From a great height it scrutinises the hedgerows, before yawing behind the ridge and out of sight.

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The landscape is an infinite pallet of earth – every imaginable shade of green and brown: grass, moss, leaf, thorn, footpath, fence post, bark and branch, soil, flint, chalk. Puddles like rock pools stretch across the width of the track and lead the way to a metalled B-road that spills down the hillside towards the village of Broad Hinton. Then, another car park – an island of discarded energy drinks and weathered Walkers multipacks. After hours on the ancient track, these objects feel uncanny and unwelcome. We stop by a log in a nearby copse for lukewarm coffee, and cheese and pickle sandwiches made soggy by the rain.

The sun fails to punch a hole through the sarsen sky. The wind picks up and the way gets muddier leading up towards Barbury Castle – the site of an Iron Age hillfort rising above the landscape, imposing even now after 2,500 years. It blocks the way ahead, the path climbing and cutting straight through. It’s in the ideal position – it has an eye on us long before we reach it, and its steep sides slow our progress. From the top I can see for miles to the west, surrounded by sheep grazing in deep ditches formed by the castle’s earthwork ramparts. And somewhere above, the radio told us, a Chinese space station is tearing up and hurtling down towards Earth.

The breath is blown from our bodies as we step onto Smeathe’s Ridge. Like a backbone holding together the land, the ground falls away on either side to the awesome expanse of the country. We follow the narrow ridge past plantations of oxidised larch and fields below, chalk showing through the dark topsoil in waves. At last unimpeded, the wind harries and hounds us, lashes the cold rain and numbs our cheeks. With a kite’s-eye view, I glide over the land, and I am overcome.

Our boots touch Tarmac, and we’re received by the sleepy environs of Ogbourne St. George, the first ten miles behind us. The rain swells the town’s little river, submerges great sections of road. We return home in a daze, our minds still on the hills. Clay-stained, we gather ourselves by the fire. It has been a day of elements.

That night I slip and slide in dreams of falling.

The journey has begun.

Nicholas Herrmann is a writer and photographer based in Bath. His work has appeared in journals and online, and his writing has been shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award and Janklow and Nesbit Prize. He is a graduate of the Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa University. He is currently working on his first novel. You can find him on Twitter: @NickPSH.

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

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.

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