The destroyed village: Fleury-devant-Douaumont

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By Paul Scraton:

As the road approaches the village through the forest, a sign appears at the sign of the road. It is like all others at the entrance to villages and towns throughout France: a white rectangle, fringed in red. The name of the settlement in black letters.

FLEURY DT DOUAUMONT

But unlike most other towns or villages in France, there are more words underneath.

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These two words mark Fleury-devant-Douaumont out from the other villages in the surrounding region and across the country. These two words help tell a story. In the forests around the town of Verdun, in the northeast of France, there are eight other villages with this categorisation. They stand in the Zone Rouge, an area declared uninhabitable by the French government after the devastation of the First World War. The land was contaminated, as along with the remains of the dead, poison and other dangerous gases had soaked into the soil along with lead and mercury, with impossible to calculate amounts of unexploded ordinances littered across the former battlefields.

Before the First World War Fleury-devant-Douaumont was home to just over 400 inhabitants, who worked the land or in the village itself. There were farms and smithys, a bakery and a grocery-cafe. A church and a school, a town hall and a weaver's workshop. It was not easy farming land, although even this far north the villagers were able to harvest grapes and make money from the forest that surrounded them.

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On the 21 February 1916 the sound of artillery shells marked the beginning of the German advance, part of what would become known as the Battle of Verdun, one of the deadliest in all of military history. A few hundred metres from the entrance to the village, the cemetery at Douaumont is the resting place for thousands of French soldiers who died in a battle that lasted months. The ossuary, one of France’s most important national monuments, houses the remains of over 130,000 French and German soldiers who fell at Verdun. Altogether, the fighting in these now peaceful, wooded hills, took the lives of well over 300,000 mostly young men and although the forest now covers the landscape, the scars remain. Trenches, dug down into the soil. Shell craters, that give the land a strange, undulating shape. And crosses, so many crosses, in long neat lines. A reminder, a hundred years later, of what was lost.

As the Germans advanced, Fleury-devant-Douaumont was evacuated. Altogether, what remained of the village exchanged hands sixteen times over the course of the battle. When it finally ended, the village was no more. It was in the Zone Rouge, declared a village that had ‘died for France.’ Nothing was left, but in honour of its sacrifice, it kept its legal status. The red-framed white signs still stand at the entrance and exit of Fleury-devant-Douaumont. It still has a mayor.

Today, visitors park on the side of the road that links the Douaumont ossuary with the Verdun Memorial, and wander the three streets of the village, marked out as they are among the trees by white poles. Stone slabs inform visitors in three languages as to what building once occupied a particular plot of land. A farm. The church. A bakery. The wash house. The school. There are remnants of some structures – a few stones in the ground, foundations poking through the mossy forest floor – but otherwise there is nothing, except the war memorial and a rebuilt chapel, where Our Lady of Europe, draped in a blue flag with gold stars, offers a permanent reminder of what could emerge out of the devastation of not only this war, but the one that was soon to follow.

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A small plaque offers the visitor a few words from Jean Guitton of the Académie française:

It is here, in the silence of Douaumont and the wiped out village of Fleury that I came to realise that you cannot pull down walls in Europe without first reconciling the peoples.

In the village and at the ossuary, there are cars parked with visitors from across Europe. The GB and the B. The CZ and the PL. The L and the NL. Mostly F and D, coming like Mitterand and Kohl did, and later Hollande and Merkel, to pay their respects together to the fallen of both countries. It is without question a sombre place. Signs at the entrance of the forest gently remind you that it is not a place for picnics or music, ball games or impromptu campsites. Other signs warn walkers and cyclists to stick to the paths, that the weapons of war can still kill, even a hundred years after the peace.

Why is important to visit such places? Why should we walk through Fleury-devant-Douaumont, where the streets and the memories of the houses and the people that once occupied this hillside have been reclaimed by the forest? Stefan Zweig knew. In 1920, the Austrian writer travelled to Ypres. The guns had only been silent for a couple of years. The landscape was still devastated and the wounded were still returning to their homes and already the first tourist groups were arriving, to the battlefields of Flanders and elsewhere along the Western Front.

For Zweig, the traces were important, whether two years after the events or a hundred. In Fleury-devant-Douaumont I thought of Zweig’s words, written after his return from Ypres. It made me hopeful that there were other people there with me in the woods, walking the village streets now held in the embrace of the forest. Zweig knew that despite the distasteful elements of places such as these becoming tourist destinations, there was still something good, and something very important, “when a hundred thousand people, comfortable and carefree, clatter through … annually, and whether they care for it or not, these countless graves, these poisoned woods, these devastated squares still serve as reminders… All that recalls the past in whatever form or intention leads the memory back towards those terrible years that must never be unlearned.”

About the author:
Paul Scraton is the editor in chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. Paul’s book Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic coast is out now, published by Influx Press.

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.

Hiraeth

 Photo: jessica sealey

Photo: jessica sealey

By Aoife Inman:

It’s late but the evening light lingers at the peripheries of the ocean making the day stretch long into the night. Time seems to stretch here, the minutes distorted by the quiet swell of the ocean.

The air is full of mist; it pads out the twilight zone between the last dregs of evening and the soft beginnings of the morning. I’ve always thought this is an almost mythical piece of the day, when it’s neither light nor dark and the sky is damp and thick with salt, brushed in off the incoming tide. You can hold the mist between your teeth, wads of it pressed against the insides of your cheeks like cotton.

There aren’t many who bother to come down to the sea front at this hour, with the weather, as it is, temperamental and unforgiving. The wind bites and scratches at any scrap of skin left bare to the element and my thighs are lined with small red welts and scratches – the claws of the ocean have dug their way into me, right to the bone. Today, however, there are a few faces who peer palely over in my direction as I trail down the hill – van dwellers, keen surfers and fishermen, who are all, themselves, half brine and barely human, at least in the city sense of the word.

This was always the place I felt most at home, not here specifically but this ocean, this crack of coastline that juts out obstinately, defiant and secluded. It feels a million mile away from the industrial powerhouse cities I’ve made my home now.

Home. It’s a strange word whose weight has always felt uncomfortable in my mouth, hard and bitter. I was born on the road, moving between a collection of cardboard houses, each one like the last and yet lacking something. I resided in houses, habitats, a series of rooms, plaster, mortar and board – safe and comfortable but never permanent. To belong to just one place strikes me as an exhausting concept.

I thought when I had grown up that I’d settle somewhere; that I’d stop moving and plant some roots, or whatever the metaphor is, but I’ve realised that those moments, those years spent on the road, they get into your bones over time. Slowly, you barely feel it at first, but I can’t stay still now. I’ve tried, time and time again, found a place I love and settled there with a job and a plan and a circle of friends and then I feel that itch, again, against the soles of my feet. It’s like a disease, that itch, that want for change, it’s exhausting sometimes.

I walk along the cliff path, away from the cove, to the world’s edge where the grassy slope seems to fall away into the deafening blue. It’s a steep rocky path carved right into the grit and soil of the cliff, the sort that has been etched by many pairs of feet, worn over many years. When the tide eventually comes in it will cut off this path completely, a void of cold, blue Atlantic filling the space where my feet have trod. Nothing about the breadth or surface of this terrain is easily digestible. It’s a wholegrain, bran and fibre sort of landscape – some find it lonely, harsh, and unforgiving – I find myself falling in love with the rough corners of it every time I return.

When I was a child we were taught to spot currents on cliffs like this, our hands tracing the motions of the sea, trailing the lines of white foam that spread across the ocean like a film. I reach out my hand to lay it on the horizon, palm obscuring the bulb of the grey sun.

If you follow the cliff path round the curling edge of the peninsula you reach a town, a knot of tangled streets that overlap one another like old strings, every one gnarled with potholes and cobbles. I follow it now, zigzagging through kissing gates and through fields of thick grass. Everything is further apart here, houses and gardens stretch along the street, sand banks drag the beaches way out into the bay and the years seem to trickle by – I do not have to measure time so carefully here, there are months to spare.

The town is simple, a harbour filled with thin fishing boats and crab pots, a lifeboat house, a shop selling spades and 99 cones. It’s fixed in another time, another era where people worked with their hands, in the earth and the water.

This place is filled with mysticism, steeped in folklore, luck bound in rhymes and patterns of three. It’s everywhere you look, tucked in corners of woodland and thin waterfalls where faerie stacks topple. Down in the town the boats that jut out into the cove are named after mythical lands and magical creatures, suspicion has wormed its way amongst the men who tend the land and drag the sea.

“Look down there.” The mother leans into the clove of her son’s ear as she speaks. “Look down at that boat there, see the lions on its side?”

Sure enough, on its flanks are painted two yellow lions, their manes dipping and rising out of the green waters.

“They’re named after the legend of Lyonnesse…legend says there used to be a beautiful isle just set above Seven Stones reef that is halfway out to the Scillies. The city of lions and the land of Lyonesse, built with 140 churches atop it and a castle they say, all swallowed up in a single night by the ocean.”

The boy’s eyes widens as he listens, his hands gripping the handrails with his chubby palms.

His mother crouches down by his side, “look now do you see the top of the steeple there, just jutting out of the waves?”

He nods, eyes fixed on the grey sea.

The light is fading now, obscuring the edges of the day. Home, it’s a strange thing I think again, I wrap my tongue around it, a lump in the hollow of my mouth. It’s everywhere here and yet it feels distant. It’s in the lilt of the mother’s curling accent, the one I have lost over so many years spent away. It’s in each vowel, full bodied and warm, the crackle of pebbles under rubber boots in the evening tide, the low thud of water turning cliff to rubble.

I collect them in my palms as I count them, feel the weight of the love I hold for this place, and close my eyes as the day melts.

About the author:
Aoife Inman is a writer and historian based between Cornwall and Manchester. Her short stories have been published in Electric Reads’ Young Writers Anthology 2017 and New Binary Press’ 2018 Autonomy collection, as well as being long-listed for the 2016 Royal Academy Short Story Award. 

Late of Kings Turning

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By David Lewis:

One grey day in early summer I found myself unexpectedly alone, so I stole a long day to go walking and exploring.  The town was quiet and warm, and the air was scented with the rich musk of lilac and a soft suggestion of wisteria.  Great pale purple bunches hung over the road and curved gently across the faces of old houses.  The country lanes were bordered by long grasses and frothy, gentle wild flowers - cow parsley, herb Robert, buttercups.  The hedge thickened around an overgrown brick step and a sturdy white iron gate, as the ground rose into the cemetery.

We all have cemetery stories, ancestor tales.  My maternal grandparents and great grandparents are buried in a sloping graveyard overlooking the Welsh town of Llangollen, but my Lewis ancestors were either cremated or lie in an unmarked grave in Toxteth Cemetery, Liverpool.  There is a poetry in these places, the poetry of time and loss and hope, stories told in grass or written on stone pages.  Far from being depressing places, cemeteries are full of wildflowers and a rich meditative silence broken only by the birds.

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This was a very Protestant cemetery and I saw only one Catholic crucifix on my slow walk.  Carved from the local grey-brown stone, the heavy Victorian headstones were sombrely decorated with calligraphy and curlicues rather than angels, although many headstones wore small panels of spring flowers, symbolic of Easter and the Resurrection, an eternal stone garden mirroring the lush greenery in the hedgerows outside.  The headstones’ crisp edges had been softened by a hundred Welsh winters, and names and dates were fading beneath lichens and mosses.  As a landscape it was defined by giant yew trees, dark and gloomy, beneath which the grave plots were widely spaced, a lawn sprinkled with tombs.  Gothic ironwork disappeared into thick ivy; older tombs were smothered by wild undergrowth.  There were more Celtic crosses than in an English cemetery, but very few Welsh inscriptions.

Yet the stories reached back through time to the landscape around the town.  Older graves were often carved with the names of large houses, hill farms and town houses, places I passed daily.  Bridge House, Stapleton Court, Tan House.  Late of Kings Turning, read one.  In this border cemetery the names were Welsh and English – Hatfield, Davies, Jones and Roberts – and I found many Thomas Lewises, my paternal great grandfather in that unmarked Liverpool grave.  Many families were haunted by infant mortality, the children’s lives cut short which sadden all visitors to a nineteenth-century graveyard.

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But in rural Wales, the dead are part of the stories of the living and old stories fade slowly.  King’s Turning is a bend in the road, a field, a footpath on the outskirts of town, named for a fleeting visit by Charles 1st, so the story goes.  Welsh family storytelling creates a weave of story unconnected to chronological time, in which the dead are present through story and anecdote.  In Wales, as in William Faulkner’s Deep South, the past isn’t dead, it’s not even the past.

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

Beacon Bound, Part II: Remnants

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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.

‘The farewell was beautiful.’

These are the first words of Trouble With Lichen, John Wyndham’s 1960 novel about an antidote to old age. I’ve brought it with me to read on the journey – twenty miles further to the edge of the North Wessex Downs. John, my grandfather, was a keen reader of science fiction, and we bonded over this shared love in recent years. He had a soft spot for authors from the Golden Age: Asimov, Christopher, Clarke. Wyndham was a favourite, and as I address this gap in my knowledge on the morning of the walk, I think I can see why: the rigorous attention to scientific detail, the careful, complex female characters, the disconcerting ring of truth.

I’m thinking of immortality as we step onto the Ridgeway. The path carries us in a curve around Ogbourne St. George – a place unrecognisable since we were last here. The air is heavy with blossom and birdsong, lambs bleating in a nearby field. Green tangles of cleaver, nettle and fern spill off the banks. Everywhere the trees are fluorescent and full. We’ve left winter behind us, somewhere among the sarsens of Fyefield and Avebury. My father and I pick a couple of the young beech leaves – a food that sustained the partisans of Yugoslavia as they resisted the Germans during the Second World War. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a partisan. This was his relationship to the land: survival. The taste of the leaf is strong but not unpleasant, a grassiness giving way to the tang of green apple.

We cross over the clear waters of the Og. A dozen swifts dart high above the water, feeding, or playing, or simply celebrating their homecoming after a long journey back from Africa. Their movements are sharp and delicate, like paper aeroplanes brought to life. The trail cuts through a thatch of cottages, and over an A-road, until finally the path grows steeper and we’re climbing free from civilisation. Seams of chalk appear in the earth as we ascend onto the ridge, blending with the white of the blackthorn.

It’s good to be on the old road again, so high above the world. As we find our stride, I have to relearn the landscape, vernal now – budding, noisy and bright. Linnets kiss behind clumps of gorse. Larks shout down from the clouds. Rapeseed ignites the fields and fills the air with musk. We even pass through wooded sections this time, where bluebells colour the ground beneath canopies of luminous green.

I walk a few paces with closed eyes and held breath: nothing but nature.

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The path takes us north through wheat fields to Liddington Hill. We make a short detour off the path to our second Iron Age hillfort. Liddington Castle feels more compact than the one at Barbury, and more formidable. It looms on the very edge of the downs’ northern escarpment, with dominating views across the valley: the M4 meandering below, Swindon’s hospital and wind farm rendered miniature.

In 1884, Richard Jefferies put the final touches on what would become one of his last works. The nature writer and novelist had been suffering from tuberculosis for years, and was near destitute after paying for a number of unsuccessful surgeries. His life during this period was hellish. Delirious, starving and in constant agony, he could barely sit up to write. Yet somehow, three years before his death, he managed to get his late masterpiece on paper: a post-apocalyptic vision of the aftermath of an unnamed disaster that causes the country to ‘relapse into barbarism.’ In After London, Jefferies poured his love of nature, his knowledge of the countryside, and his suspicion of the city to describe a world reverted to medievalism. ‘It became green everywhere in the first spring, after London ended,’ he writes, ‘so that all the country looked alike.’ Forest once again covers the land. An enormous lake forms in the country’s centre. Where there once was a metropolis, there exists only a vast swamp exuding ‘so fatal a vapour that no animal can endure it.’ London has become a nature-less nightmare: ‘There are no fishes, neither can eels exist in the mud, nor even newts. It is dead.’

Jefferies was born within sight of these hills, in a farmhouse in the hamlet of Coate, now part of Swindon. He wrote extensively about the surrounding area, and would often walk up to Liddington Castle in the heat of summer to lie on the embankments and observe the behaviour of skylarks. Standing here now, on top of ancient earthworks, it’s easy to understand the genesis of Jefferies’ pioneering novel – imagining people alone so long ago, young and unencumbered, looking out at a landscape free from rape fields and power stations. Making my way back to the trail, I wonder if John had a copy of After London in his collection, dog-eared and yellowed, tucked on a bookshelf beside The Day of the Triffids.

Nearby is another fortification, but from a time far more recent. Marauded by multicolours of graffiti and lichen, a concrete bunker squats beneath Liddington Clump, on the hill’s eastern summit. It’s a control bunker from a Second World War ‘Starfish’ site – elaborate systems of light and fire designed with the help of film industry technicians to look like blitzed cities from above, devised after the decimation of Coventry in 1940. This one controlled a simulated Swindon, triggering nighttime blazes to divert the wrath of the Luftwaffe. The bunker demonstrates the Ridgeway’s power and pull – its quiet ability to whisk you between eras, usher you quickly through time.

From here, the path leads us down the hill to join a main road and cross over the M4. It’s a strange stretch, with no clear way for walking, and we flinch as cars speed by. I stop on the overpass and look down at the galloping machines. It’s a shock to the system, but I’m glad the road is part of our journey – it’s one that has run through my life for as long as I can remember. It was one of the first seams, by which everything else was joined. It connects almost all the places I’ve ever lived.

We are obsessed by roads. They have a way of getting under the skin, tunnelling close to the heart. We have a strange capacity to love them – a propensity to personify them, bestow them with mythical qualities. About roads, we sing, and write and reminisce. They represent the torment of our innate desire for freedom.

At last, we’re climbing to the hush of the hills, the trail becoming a level section leading us out of Wiltshire and into Oxfordshire, the second of the Ridgeway’s five counties. New shoots tinge a ploughed field with otherworldly green. Podgy bullfinches crowd the path past Idstone, their plaintive whistles following us from every tree. Above, the sky gathers and threatens to fall, but something holds it at bay. The world is suspended in a paradox of gold and grey, dark clouds hanging over irradiant rape, cowslips, gorse.

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*

The next day is littered with landmarks. They huddle above Uffington, mystifying. We pass Wayland’s Smithy first, a long barrow nestled in beech and encircled by sarsens. Named by the Saxons around 4,000 years after it was first built, the barrow was believed to have been the home of the eponymous god of metalworking – maker of wings and magic swords. I climb inside. It’s quiet under the earth, the hill dampening the bustle of spring. The chamber smells of mud and root. The previous day’s walk has inflamed a tendon in my ankle, and I find myself communing with age-old powers. Legend has it Wayland reshoes horses tethered here overnight. I beseech the barrow to restore me.

Onwards a while and I’m faltering up another earthwork: the ramparts of Uffington Castle. As always, sheep graze along the embankments, and the wind seeks to bear me aloft. The Iron Age hillfort feels like the highest point so far, towering above the Vale of White Horse, and commanding a 360-degree panorama: the wind turbines of Swindon, the hazy outline of the Cotswolds beyond; patchwork fields leading eastward to Wittenham Clumps and the hyperboloid cooling towers of Didcot Power Station; the Chilterns in the distance.

Lifting my hood against the wind, I descend to one of the country’s most recognisable landmarks, carved into this hillside over 3,000 years ago. Like so many things along the Ridgeway, the purpose of its existence has long been forgotten. From where I’m standing it’s no more than a few abstract lines. But from the villages down in the Vale, these curves become an enormous chalk horse – so vivid and prominent that at the same time a counterfeit Swindon was being built on Liddington Hill, and resistance fighters were eating beech leaves half a world away, the creature had to be concealed with turf and hedge trimmings to prevent it from being seen by enemy aircraft. It lies on its flank across the northern escarpment of the downs, aged and weary.

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Escarpment. Scarp. These are the scars from wounds inflicted on the land millions of years ago. The chalk that gleams in every gash is made from the shells of coccolithophores – minute plankton that dwelt in the Cretaceous seas once covering Britain. As the African and Eurasian plates collided, a tremendous storm of earthquakes altered sea levels and heaved the strata into high hills and mountains. Gradually, ice, wind and rain whittled these down to their smooth and familiar contours. This same tectonic movement forced into existence the ranges along the Alpide belt – including the Atlas, Alps, Himalayas and Pyrenees – and still continues today. As I stand on the very edge of the escarpment, on the remnants of prehistoric sea creatures, I try to sense the earth shifting beneath me, raising me into the sky.

I turn my back on the horse, the castle and Dragon Hill – the site where Saint George supposedly slew the beast. The weight of this place is almost too much to bear, and it’s a relief to once again feel the road beneath my boots, the home stretch somewhere ahead of me.

We make tracks along the ridge and past the stables of Lambourn: racehorse country. The way is high and open, the view across the Vale following us for miles. Three kites tumble above one of the trig points that dot the landscape, the whiteness of their underwings flashing against the sky. The downy leaves of silverweed glint beneath us. Roman soldiers used this plant to soothe their feet on long marches – I consider stopping to stuff my boots, but the sky is growing ever heavier, a few drops starting to fall. We quicken our pace, heads angled against a northerly wind.

Slowly, we leave Swindon behind, the forests beginning to thicken in the valley below. The next stage will take us out of the Berkshire Downs to the wooded doorstep of the Chilterns. Thirty miles covered, now – a third of the way to the Beacon.

We stumble back to the car windburnt, with cracked lips.

And finally, as we join the M4 heading east, the heavens open.

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.

Seven Sisters

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Sussex's white cliffs are something else: steep rolling waves of white, seven in a row. I'm with friends, walking straightish route 14 miles along the coast from Seaford to Eastbourne. It’s the first walk back after winter, and the simplest, easiest and least ambitious escape I could make. Whatever it is, though, I need it. The walk grabs all the energy my lazy London arse could muster for a sunny Saturday. I could have been lying in my garden all day, sitting up only to drink another tinny. Instead I struggle four hours in dusty walking boots towards my destination: a cold shandy.

I've been at work all week, fingers tripping the keyboard and feet tucked under the desk. The newspaper’s been an endless churn of stories about the Home Office, and its new assault on the Windrush generation. Objective: getting out of my head. Here are waves of turf. Here is a beach cut in half by a river. Here the sea makes chalky plumes. Walls of green grass ride up and fill my gaze and cliffs of white chalk soar up from short backshores. Out there, the big blue Channel spindles out to the horizon. The view is huge and the walk is satisfying. Within half an hour, my hamstrings ache and the back of my T-shirt is damp with sweat.

In Kent, Dover's cliffs are just outside the sea port. They run white and constant, at a uniform height. (UKIP once ran an anti-immigration poster showing escalators running to their tops). From the sea, the cliffs are a picture of high-walled Britain. Now, even inside Fortress Britain, a dreading vertigo grows. Whenever you came, whatever your standing in the community, the Home Office can still pull the rug from under you. Uneasy residents cloak discrimination with the state-sanctioned term, ‘hostile environment’: in reality this means putting ‘Go Home’ vans on the roads, deporting survivors of abuse and torture, and forcing teachers, doctors and the general public to police one another’s immigration status. It wouldn't take much for us to fling you out, the tactics say. To even third- and fourth-generation Britons, people still ask: no, but, where are you really from…

Between Seaford and Eastbourne stand England’s other 'white cliffs'. The Seven Sisters come in waves. Peaks trade with dips, where shingle beaches and gaps let us down to the sea. The current of chalk swells and dwindles. At times, the cliffs stand unassailable; at others, the land admits a fault. But at every point along the path, whether high or low, you can see the line of the land in flux.

In 'Wanderlust', Rebecca Solnit writes: "When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities. Exploring the world is one the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains.”

What happens when the place you give yourself to, gives nothing back? What happens when someone else harvests 'the invisible crop of memories' you sowed, weeded and watered? I cannot write about these white cliffs without writing about those white cliffs. We read the landscape, and the landscape reads us. The coastline changes and our landscapes retake us.

Ellie Broughton is a writer from London and wrote for Elsewhere No.04. On Twitter she's @__ellie

Do writers need a nationality?

 Photo: Chris Gilbert

Photo: Chris Gilbert

By Vesna Main:

I am a Croatian writer. At least that’s what I was called in recent reviews of my debut collection of short stories. As a writer trying to find an audience, believe me, I am pleased that anyone would write about my work, but I baulked at this apparent identification of me, a writer, with a nation. Yes, I was born in Zagreb and lived there until my early twenties. Does that make me a Croatian writer?

I write in English. I write in English because that is the language I fell in love with when I first read Shakespeare. I write in English because that is the language I know better than any other. Does that make me an English writer?

I have lived in Europe and in Africa. Now, after almost four decades in Britain, I am fortunate to be able to divide my time between England and France. I feel comfortable in both countries because I appreciate their respective cultures, by which I mean their art and literature. But I do not belong to either.  In fact, I have never felt a sense of belonging to any country or nation. WG Sebald’s narrator in Vertigo speaks for me when he says that when it comes to nations, it is best to be associated with ‘none at all’. Similarly, Virginia Woolf writes that ‘as a woman I have no country. As a woman, I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.’

I am proud to be a citizen of the world, one of those eternal wanderers, Ahasueruses of this world who, as our Prime Minister asserted, sending chills down our spines as her words echoed Nazis’ view of the Jews, are citizens of nowhere. In fact, I am puzzled by narratives of belonging. For me, the story of Odysseus is a happy one, but not because the hero returns home safely to Ithaka, rather because, as the Alexandrian Greek poet Cavafy teaches us, ‘Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey’. It is the journey and the wandering that matter, not the return home. After all, I don’t think of home as a place, or a geographical region. Therefore, it can be anywhere and nowhere.

When it comes to literature, the love of my life, I feel closest to contemporary European writing, particularly French and German and, if pushed, would admit to their influence on my work. In fact, it is this sense of not belonging to a nation or a country, this sense of strangeness, I would argue, that feeds my writing. My alienation brings about my voice, my perspective on what I write and my relationship with the language.

So, what is it, I wondered, that is supposed to make me a Croatian writer?  What is it that makes most people insist on a label of nationality? Is it simply a shorthand to enable communication? Or is it an expression of a belief that everyone ought to belong to a nation and that those who do not are somehow morally deficient and untrustworthy?

As serendipity would have it, while in my teens, struggling with The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, I came across a phrase by Ignatius Sancho, an eighteenth-century freed slave, born to a captured West African woman on the notorious middle passage, and later a resident of Westminster. Writing a letter to the author of the novel, his friend Laurence Sterne, Sancho remarked that he didn’t wish to express an opinion on a particular political issue since he was ‘only a lodger…and hardly that.’ The words accurately described my own feelings about the place where I was born and where I grew up. Despite my comfortable middle-class existence and a loving family, my home felt temporary, a place that I knew I was bound to leave. But Sancho’s words made me understand I didn’t have to belong; it was fine to be a lodger, free of national allegiance, free to choose a culture, a country, a language and, by implication, an identity. Katja Petrowskaya, whose first language is Russian, writes in Maybe Esther, a wonderful text written in German, that we should not be ‘defined by our living and dead relatives and where they resided, but by means of our language’.  And in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man, Stephen Dedalus claims that ‘nationality, language, religion’ are constraints. He vows to ‘fly by those nets’. I vowed the same. While nationality was not an issue for me – my passport was only an aid to help with international bureaucracy – I flew ‘by the net’ in choosing to write in English, a language I was not born into. This choice, deliberate and voluntary, resulted from my determination not to be trapped or pigeonholed in a particular historical and cultural context. I wished to construct my chosen identity by rejecting those I had been saddled with. As Thomas Bernhard writes, ’we can leave our place of birth if it threatens to suffocate us’.

My alienation from what was reckoned to be my native country, and from my fellow nationals, extended to everywhere and everyone. I have never been anything but a lodger in all the places I have ever lived. There were only occasional moments, fleeting, like a dream, existing more in time than in space, when I glimpsed the possibility of home or the recognition of something familiar, such as where I found myself face to face with another human being who shared my passion for a painting or a text. I felt at home when in Zagreb a sculptor friend, Ivan Lesiak, took me to see Andrei Rublev, soon after my seventeenth birthday, or when another friend, years later in London, introduced me to the work of Chris Marker and we watched La Jetée. I was in ‘my own country’ at those moments with the people who shared my interests. And here I am reminded of the words of the poet Ezra Pound, who was displaced in more than the usual sense, and who writes of being ‘homesick after my own kind’, or feeling ‘wistful for my kin of the spirit’. Similarly, Robert Walser writes that ‘one belongs in the place one longs for.’

At university, in Zagreb, in love with Shakespeare, I had a brief fantasy that his country was my imaginary home. That notion was soon dispelled when as a postgraduate in England, I felt lonely and lost outside my privileged enclave of Elizabethan studies. However, far from my displacement bothering me, I remembered the words of Sancho and I accepted my alienation as part of who I am. But I also learned not to disagree with the old ladies on city buses who started a conversation and said that I must be homesick. In their eyes, only a monster wouldn’t miss their country. There would have been no point in my telling them I aspired to Roderigo’s apparently derogatory description of Othello as ‘an extravagant and wheeling stranger of here and everywhere’.

If you still feel I should belong somewhere, I have good news: as I have been suggesting, I have at last found a country, an elusive, attractive place which obsesses me, which fills my days with meaning, which I love and where, for the first time, I feel ‘at home’. I write. Writing is my country. It took me a while to find an entry point. I feared becoming lost, if not expelled in shame, labelled a failure. Worst of all, I didn’t have a language in which to write since I had stopped reading in Croatian, my first language, many years ago. At the same time, I didn’t dare write in English. Eventually, twenty years ago, I threw caution to the wind (I could always fail better, as I learned from another displaced writer) and embarked on a life-long journey. Like every journey, it has its challenges, its wrong turnings, pleasures and frustrations, and it often brutally exposes my shortcomings. But I carry on.

My fellow nationals are other writers, some published, some toiling in patient obscurity. I have chosen to belong with them. And if you ask me whether I miss this country of writers on the days when life intervenes, yes, absolutely, I do. I am ‘normal’, after all.

My favourite writers of the twentieth century – who include Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, WG Sebald and Gabriel Josipovici – are lodgers too, displaced in one direction or another. Not belonging exclusively to the literary tradition of their birth countries, whether or not resident there, they operate in the space created by the difference between the native and the foreign, between the established, the dominant, and the predictable on the one hand, and the alternative, the marginal, the unforeseen on the other.

None of the characters I create in my novels or short stories is me, but I share with them their sense of alienation, the feeling of being citizens of everywhere and nowhere. What guides the lives of the protagonists of my short stories, what makes them ‘belong’, is a passion. An ex-prostitute dedicates herself to helping young women escape her former trade; her work is driven by a deferred maternal instinct, a wish to protect the daughter she lost to adoption from the fate of her own youth. An elderly man pursues his obsession for collecting books until they literally squeeze him out of existence. A woman bakes all day, hoping that somebody will turn up to share her cakes and pastries, but ends up carrying them to the park for the ducks. A concert-goer recognises the face of a man sitting next to her as a face from her memory and cannot bear the thought that she will never see him again.

It seems appropriate that The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, the text that exiles the reader to a position of permanent uncertainty, led me to Sancho who, in turn, made me recognise my status as a lodger. More than a hundred years after Sterne’s death, Nietzsche still considered him ‘the most liberated spirit of our time’. I wonder what the novelist would have made of our Prime Minister’s strictures about citizenship.  

This from a Croatian writer.       

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About the author:

Vesna Main was born in Zagreb, Croatia, where she studied comparative literature before obtaining a doctorate from the Shakespeare Institute in Birmingham, England.  She was a lecturer at universities in Nigeria and the UK and has worked at the BBC She has written articles, reviews and short stories for daily newspapers and literary journals.

She has had two novels published. A collection of short stories, Temptation: A User’s Guide, was brought out by Salt in 2018 and you find out more and order direct from the publisher here.

She lives in London and writes in English, her second language.

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.

In the Back Seat

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By Anna Evans:

In the back seat you observe the journey from a different angle and your eyes are free to wander from the road ahead. The space of the back seat is exactly the right size so that you can lie across it if you want to, and pretend to sleep.

In the back seat, the time is not now; it is unending horizons, the space of a snowflake. The map isn’t an accurate one, but a blend of the real and imaginary, where different journeys can merge together and become one. In the back seat you are always travelling home, the sky darkening around you.

In the back seat you are transported. It is the perfect mode of non-navigational travel. Protected and vulnerable, the fuzzy blanket of childhood, the one which lets you dream in peace, the window framing images of the world passing by.

The back seat is the site of stories and of daydreams, the ones which come without being summoned, like a ritual to trace over the back of your hand. The speed and the motion allowing glimpses, partial and unformed, always passing and never fully realized. From the back seat I am always looking for places that will tell me stories.

From the back seat you watch the road in a different way, through the side window. Counting the boundaries along the road as they flash by swallowed up, each the same as the next, never to be seen again. The road signs going past so quickly, but looking back means being left behind, means missing the next one… The names of places take on a mythical aspect. The Devil’s Elbow…

My favourite journeys. The ascent to the moors, that gradual climb, the winding roads, the fields, the dry stone walls, the lost villages, the farmhouses which become more and more spaced out. It is breath taking to look around, to see below, laid out like a memory, the valleys, and to feel transported from it all.

The ascent to the moors. And when you’re up there it’s like a plateau where time feels different. Slowing down for the sheep walking along the road. Always wanting to stop and give them a hug. Looking through the window at those hills which always seem out of bounds somehow, they are boundless.

With my eyes I follow the trails, the trodden paths fading away to nothing. A place to be on the run, a fugitive landscape. Bleak, high and unyielding, this landscape without shelter, where only sheep could live, boulders next to the sky. A place where people seem out of place, those tiny walkers and climbers, a place to get lost in. The sheep, already prepared with their solid feet, their warm and waterproof coats. Even the footpaths look out of place somehow, as if you would drift away from them, bidden by some siren song, away into a parallel landscape far from anywhere.

- Tell us about the time when mum got stuck in a bog!

In the back seat, I listen to stories of walking up here and straying from the footpath. Imagining my mum stepping in the bog, her foot sinking, my dad trying to pull her out….

- Oh no, please don’t tell that story…

No, don’t tell it, but do… because it fills me with trepidation and excitement all at once. Imagining what it must be like, the foot caught, being pulled downwards into the bog, sinking into the earth. Like a trap laid by the hills themselves, to warn us away and keep us from venturing too far. Imagining the bog a living entity. How would you know it was there? How would you stop yourself from sinking?

In the back seat we make up stories about the passers-by, the lone runners and cyclists become fugitive too. Where are they going? They are criminals for sure, escaping the scene of the crime.

The forlorn houses on the edge of the hills seem like the last outposts, just below the clouds, or at the edge of an ocean. Waking each day to their desolate spectre, misty ocean, stretching as far as the eye can see. Full fathom; acres of rolling seas.

The part of the road where it feels like you’re flying - long and straight through a ravine cut into the hills. Scammonden Dam on a school trip. The sun shines and we draw sketches of pond skaters, and they tell us about the village sunk underneath the reservoir. This takes on mythical proportions for me, as the story of Pompeii.

- Look there’s Damian’s house.

- Who’s Damian?

- A friend of mine. He lives in that little house by the water. Hello Damian!

- Does Damian really live here? But doesn’t he get lonely?

- There he is, look he’s waving. Hello Damian!

- Can we meet him?

- Well, he is very shy.

Sometimes getting out of the car and knocking on the door of the wooden shack next to the water, and peering through the tiny windows calling out ‘Damian, Damian’… sometimes driving past and waving.

- Can we visit Damian?

- Damian isn’t in today.

The reservoir, high up and dramatic like a coal black furnace, the clouds dark grey with fury, or sad and open, the land of twilight blue. The cast of the hills above Meltham dark and alone, rain clouds the view towards them.

The backseat on the way home at night. The lights of the towns and the strange psychedelic lights of the motorway, sometimes well lit, high up, laying out the wasteland below them in empty, white, measured light. Sometimes the roads have barely any visibility, and it is then that you follow the red taillights in front, and the lights of the oncoming cars, creeping stealthily through the shadows. What can and can’t be seen conjures up a thousand travelling possibilities, the countryside spread out in darkness, the cat’s eyes in the road reflecting back our own intrepid lights. Let me tell you about cat’s eyes, you say…

The darkening sky marks the inside space of the car out as mysterious, and the driver into further reaches away. Silence is the place where the flickering miles creep by. I must remain awake, alert. My job is to monitor the surrounding landscape and I keep a vigil, keeping my dad company on our journeys together. While the inside of the car is shrouded in mystery, the seats, the objects; I can form a silent communion with the outside, familiar but cast anew. I am reflected in the window, my own features becoming one with the scenery outside, the recognisable call of the forehead, nose and lips, the eyes. Blinking lights fall into them and are swallowed up. Following the road of my own thoughts as you would trace the line of a headland. Like existing with your own ghost beside you; the self which ends and is endless.

In the back seat it is always the journey home at night and looking outwards becomes looking inwards. Crossing the high dark moors, the scattered lights of the houses seem fragile, the road seeming to melt once more into the hills as it is engulfed by the descending blackness all around.

About the author:
Anna Evans is a writer and researcher from Huddersfield in the north of England, currently living in Cambridge. Her interests are in migration and literature, cities and movement, and she completed an MA in ‘Writing the Modern World’ at the University of East Anglia in 2017. She is currently working on a project on the places in Jean Rhys’s fiction.

Murphy Ranch, California

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By James Horrox:

Tangled in the undergrowth of Rustic Canyon, a couple of miles’ walk north up the Sullivan Ridge fire road from the manicured absurdity of Pacific Palisades, lie the ruins of one of L.A.’s more unusual landmarks. Not much remains of Murphy Ranch these days – just a series of crumbling concrete foundations, twisted, burnt-out skeletons of abandoned buildings, and a weird atmosphere. For while the graffiti-tagged wreckage of yesterday’s industry is no rarity in the hills around the Los Angeles basin, cradle to so many wacko cults, failed utopias and botched attempts at the American dream, this is a ruin with a peculiarly ugly past.

Acquired in 1933 by one Jessie M. Murphy — presumed to be a pseudonym, given the absence of any other historical trace of such a character — during the 1930s the site was home to a group of Nazi sympathisers, led by a mysterious German known only by the name of ‘Herr Schmidt’. Convinced of the imminent fall of the United States to the forces of the Third Reich, so the story goes, Schmidt enlisted wealthy L.A. couple Norman and Winona Stephens and persuaded them to bankroll the construction of a self-sufficient stronghold in which they and a group of fellow travellers would sit out the war and prepare for the arrival of the conquering German army.

Nothing is known about this ‘Herr Schmidt’. Details of the Stephenses are hazy, but it seems that Norman was an engineer who had made a fortune in the Colorado silver mining industry, and Winona a Chicago heiress. A devotee of the occult, Winona was apparently enthralled by the mystical powers Schmidt purported to possess, and throughout the 1930s she and her husband shelled out millions of dollars on landscaping, architectural plans and construction to make his vision a reality.

Even from the ruins that remain today, overgrown and unkempt as they are, it’s clear that what Schmidt and his acolytes managed to create in Rustic Canyon was something quite astonishing in scale. Narrow concrete staircases snake up and down the hillside, once terraced and irrigated to harvest nut, fruit and olive trees, now thick with impenetrable undergrowth; a driveway lined with eucalyptus and cedar sweeps down through the estate from elaborate wrought iron entrance gates; lodged in the hillside at the base of the canyon is the arched exterior of what looks like a Mediterranean villa, the iconic façade of what was once a double-generator power station, now boarded up and plastered with layer upon layer of graffiti. Behind it, twisted in chaparral and vine, the rusting wreckage of a steel fuel tank towers thirty feet or more into the forest canopy.

The whole area – maybe a square mile or so – is scattered with foundations: raised gardens, outbuildings and other, unidentifiable structures of concrete, metal and stone. Much of the foliage consuming the ruins is conspicuously not native to this place: incense cedars, usually found higher up in the mountains; white oleander blooms; huge ornamental cacti, and the brilliant red bursts of bottlebrush growing out of cracked concrete terraces. Overhung with coast live oak and sycamore, the slumped, rotting carcass of a burnt-out stable building cuts a terrifying figure.

All this, however, was only the beginning of a much more ambitious enterprise. Over the course of the 1930s, several different architects from the Los Angeles area, including Welton Becket, designer of the Tower Records building in downtown L.A., and the African-American architect Paul Williams, were employed to draw up plans for what has been described as a “self-sustaining ‘utopia’ with a mansion fit for a world leader”. Their drawings, preserved in the Lloyd Wright collection at UCLA’s Young Research Library, contain elaborate designs for a palatial, four-story mansion, with numerous bedrooms, libraries and dining rooms, an underground gymnasium, an indoor pool and a communal area built around a grand central hall. The plan, some historians contend, was to build a Californian Berchtesgaden, in which to wait out the war and greet the Führer personally.

What exactly went on behind the compound’s barbed-wire perimeter during the 1930s is still a matter of speculation, but oral histories from local residents recall armed guards patrolling the canyon dressed in the uniform of the Silver Shirts — a white supremacist pro-Nazi group modelled on Hitler’s brownshirts, which had local chapters throughout southern California — and weekend gatherings during which the sound of gunfire and military exercises could be heard echoing through the canyon.

Whatever plans Schmidt and his associates had for Murphy Ranch were thwarted when, in 1941, following the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the ranch was reportedly raided by federal agents and dozens of its 50 or so inhabitants arrested. The subsequent fate of the community’s members remains unknown, but whatever happened, the mansion was never built. By 1948, the Stephenses were living above a steel garage, nearing bankruptcy, and desperate to rid themselves of the property.

This was the conclusion of UCLA professor John Vincent, who purchased the site from them that year on behalf of the Huntington Hartford Foundation. With L.A. architect Lloyd Wright at the helm, the buildings were renovated and several new ones constructed, and in 1951 the complex opened its doors as a retreat for artists, writers, poets and musicians. Andrew Wyeth, Max Ernst, Charles Neider and Mark Van Doren would all at one time or another call the place their home. Ernst Toch composed his “Vanity of Vanities” at the retreat, and Ruth S. Wylie refined her String Quartet No. 3 there. The essayist Max Eastman was a resident for a while, as was Edward Hopper, whose painting “Western Motel”, now hanging in the Yale University Art Gallery, was completed there in 1957.

The Hartford complex closed in 1965, and the estate was subsequently put to various uses until, in 1978, it was ravaged by wildfires and finally abandoned. In the decades since, the ruins have become a playground for taggers and local pot-heads, hikers, ghosthunters, amateur historians and Nazis, and the air hangs thick with the stench of spraypaint and weed. Despite the City’s repeated threats to bulldoze the place, only a handful of structures have so far been demolished. The rest remains for time and nature to reclaim, a crumbling monument to the eternal return where wealth, hubris and the urge for mastery collide.

James Horrox is a freelance editor, originally from the north of England, now living on the coast of Southern California.

In Orkney

By Ian S. Grosz:

I am headed north for Orkney, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a landscape both largely devoid of trees and deeply sedimented in vast layers of human history. I surge up the A9 from Inverness, skirting the bleak seascapes of Caithness, and eventually reach Gills Bay. Here I will catch the ferry for the short crossing to St. Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay, the most southerly of the Orkney archipelago.

On South Ronaldsay I camp at the wonderfully eclectic Wheems Organic Farm – just the right side of hippy - and fall into an easy sleep listening to the calls of oystercatchers and the swooping chirrup of swallows in the dusk. The next day, I head out on my bicycle to see the evocatively named Eagle’s Tomb, and the less compelling but well marketed Tomb of the Otters. That night I dream of bones. 

What I have really come for, like most people, is the enigmatic group of monuments centred around Brodgar and Stenness - the latter the site of an ancient stone circle that pre-dates Stonehenge by a thousand years - and the mysteries being uncovered at the Ness of Brodgar, where a five thousand-year-old complex of ceremonial buildings has been unearthed. Approaching the head of the isthmus that separates lochs Harray and Stenness, linking the dark and brooding Ring of Brodgar with the other sites, I find myself in a natural amphitheatre dominated by the two peaks of Hoy to the west. At mid-winter the sun sets between these hills and, for three weeks either side of the solstice, illuminates the deep interior of the incredible feat of engineering that is Maes Howe Chambered Cairn. 

This is a liminal place, a portal between worlds: between our time and theirs, between the setting sun and the mountains, and the shimmering waters of the lochs. It is a place between life and death, and not without atmosphere. Taking in the monuments in context with the surrounding landscape makes sense of the location of these sites, and bridges the vast gap in time between the people who built them and us. Here, in the low lying fertile ground, where fish and wildfowl were plenty, and the sun’s light fell at year’s end, was where they found and made their place. 

Maes Howe, still a striking feature in the landscape today, pre-dates the Great Pyramid at Giza by several hundred years, and commensurately, to view it I must join an official tour that needs to be booked in advance. No photography is allowed inside the tomb. Pictures of it for a keepsake are available as part of the official brochure. Still, it is worth the expense, and the unwanted chitchat with other tourists on the bus from the visitor’s centre to the tomb itself.    

Once inside the tomb, we crowd around the guide in a reverent hush, as ages layered on ages are revealed in the light of her torch: from the standing stones re-used in its construction and the Viking graffiti on the walls, to the Victorian roof repair. Swallows nest above our heads while the ages are unpicked for us, and once or twice the lights are dimmed to bring the tomb-dark that bit closer. The earthen smell is both sobering and strangely comforting, and the now empty spaces where the dead once would have lain seem no more than generic storage places. Those people of so long ago are absent, and yet moment-by-moment their presence seems to come closer.

Between the layers of larger facing stones that make up part of the walls are many smaller pieces, wedged in to level each course in the wall. Seeing this calls to mind the dry-stone walls that still criss-cross the countryside all over the British Isles.  I begin to feel a connection to the people who built these impressive monuments, building with hands just like ours, looking out at the Universe, and trying to make sense of it all.

Later, in Stromness, I visit an exhibition entitled Conversations with Magic Stones that is part of an island-wide collection tracing our relationship with stone: from those who work it, collect it, or simply have special pieces that have been passed down in the family or come to them by chance. How many of us pick up pebbles on a beach, are drawn to stone sculpture, or seek out these ancient memorials in the landscape? Stone is aeons old, constituted in stars, formed in the earth, shaped by ice and water, and worked by people. In them is an impossible journey spanning time we cannot imagine.    

Whilst camping at the Sands of Evie, I take a walk along the crescent moon-shaped bay as the sun dips toward the horizon. There, amongst the many stones and pebbles grouped and sorted by the tide along the beach, I spot a long, pale, tapered stone. It is smoothed and rounded at the edges like many of the other stones gathered by the waves, but has a shape I am drawn to. I pick it up and turn it in my hands. It has a weight and a presence that communicates with me. It fits in my palm perfectly. It seems made for my hands: for pounding or hammering. It has a feel, a life: imminence. Although smoothed by wave action it has an overall size, shape and balance that cannot be accidental. The Broch of Gurness - occupied between 500 BC and 100 AD - lies just beyond the headland. It could be wishful thinking, but perhaps this stone in my hands is a once discarded Mace Head, now washed to the shore on to this beach.

Barbara Hepworth said that ‘…it is a perfectly natural feeling to wish – to take a rock and turn it into life and to make, in that way, an image which has a magic to preserve life in one’s own personality.’ In this stone I now hold in my hands, I feel a personality coming through; as though someone is speaking to me from a time I had thought unreachable.   

About the author:
Ian is a writer interested in the themes of Place, Landscape, Belonging and Identity. He writes both poetry and prose and uses photography to supplement his non-fiction work. He has recently completed a Post Graduate Certificate in Social Research and is now enrolled on an MLitt in Creative Writing at the university of Aberdeen. He is currently planning a trip for a project in the Outer Hebrides.  

A companion piece to this essay was published by our friends at The Island Review. You can read 'Orkney: a sense of time and place' here.
 

Curious contours of time in a city – Hyderabad

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By Suranjana Choudhury:

“The desire to see the city preceded the means of satisfying it.” Michel de Certeau

Can one experience a city and then narrate it? Is it not quite challenging to embark on such a task? A city lives its own life. I had visited Hyderabad before, the most recent being my fourth time in the city. I knew that Hyderabad also possesses its own lived realities and fantasises. But prior to this I never experienced any urgency to write about this city. Now, as a resident of a quiet and mildly pensive hill station like Shillong, I have grown rapidly sharp and perceptive to the kinaesthetic appeal of a place like Hyderabad.

A longer stay in the city offered me the scope to experience Hyderabad with all its fluidities and fixities.  The sights and sounds overwhelmed me as I realised that I had come to live in what was both an ancient and a very modern city. I remembered my stay in Rome. Rome too had a similar appearance. It had witnessed thousand years of history and preserved many derelicts of the past amidst its growth as a global metropolis. Hyderabad also exuded such a peculiar charm. As a city, Hyderabad has traversed a historical route which has been quite different from that of most other cities in India. The city is defined through its relationships between the expansiveness of its space and episodes of its past. History is a tangible, palpable presence which none can dare ignore. The city does not merely tell its past, it does more than that.

Marco Polo in Calvino’s Invisible Cities tells us that the past in Zaira is contained “like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the Bags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.” There are many ways of describing the city. On the one hand, it incarnates the busyness of lives driven by corporate dreams. On the other, an idleness of an archaic feudal order. The forts, the tombs, some celebrated museums, some half-forgotten memorials, stood in sharp contrast to a few glamorous and a few prosaic components of contemporary city culture. I responded with awe to the richly nourished histories of Salarjung museum, to and fro motions of time in Golconda gullies, aromatic tastes of biriyani, dazzling visuals of various saree stores and of course heavy trail of chaotic traffic on the streets.

Of all my experiences received in Hyderabad, I remember a particular twilight spent in Golconda fort. This extraordinary structure is not a singular edifice; rather it is a community of constructions spread on a sprawling landscape. Being a Saturday, the place was already swollen with visitors arriving from everywhere. The composition of this anonymous crowd chronicled the hierarchy of a society and the differences of lives lived. On the huge, sprawling canvas one could witness such multiplicities in terms of nationality, ethnicity, language, religion. In short, the place was microcosmic India.

Some fashionably attired young men and women had arrived to spend a casual evening, some very spirited and dedicated travellers browsed every spot of the fort. Interestingly, it appeared that for some families the fort also offered a veritable site for picnicking. Some burqa-clad women, some scantily dressed. A father trying to appease a demanding baby. Some ravenous children gorging on multi-coloured ice-creams… They all presented an aesthetic delight of a different measure.

It was not just the sound or the sight or the smell; the space had transformed into something else. It evolved into an enduring visual, aural and tactile archive, preserving all the contours of this unique experience. It was a rhapsodic evening. As I walked along the belly of the historical ruins, I grew progressively aware of something which is perhaps symptomatic of every tourist spot. Golconda fort has ceased to be a piece of history. It had embraced saleability. This remnant of history had become an object to be exhibited; a public display to be visually consumed.

Amit Chaudhuri, the noted creative artist of our times, writes about a similar trope in his extremely evocative article “Kalighat Revisited.” I had read it long before I visited Hyderabad. I suppose his writing was somewhere lurking in the margins of my mind, and this in turn informed my observations. As more and more viewers trickled in, the fort growingly ascertained its acceptability, its popularity in the sphere of public desire.

There were other aspects of the Golconda narrative. Just as a television visual often renders random layers of a scene one upon another, so does the pattern of traveller/ consumer behaviour offer compelling commentaries on time and change. Some years back, when digital cameras were not digital and world was not so narcissistically obsessed with ‘selfie-images’, the photographer-sellers hitting those tourist places had reason enough to experience their own sense of self-importance. But now, these photographers appeared more and more desperate and sad. There were quite a few of them hanging around. They longed for potential buyers. With anxiety and hopelessness writ large on their faces, these professionals exercised several strategies to acquire a willing customer. They seemed haunted by phantoms of a happier past.

Their tragicomic predicaments held sway over everything else. Even a few years back there was no dearth of customers for them. The visitors who did not possess cameras or who forgot to bring one would gravitate towards these photographers to carry back their own personal memories of having been visited the fort. They would deliver one photograph after another in surprisingly short span of time. They were performers, conjurors who ensured that the audiences experienced full satisfaction after the show got over. However, a post-globalised universe has now fiercely transformed our imagination and cravings. I perceived these lost professionals as parallel recipients and victims of a changed world. They haunted the margins of an existence. Could they launch a different career? Is there any other strategy?

It is difficult to arrive at any answer. When I walked outside this luminous, resplendent architecture, my thoughts had changed perceptibly. I no longer felt an outsider. The collective experience of this visit opened up an imaginary space. This space was infinite, boundless. I was happy to inhabit and possess it together.

About the author:

Suranjana Choudhury is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, North Eastern Hill University, Shillong. Her areas of interest include Narratives on Partition and Displacement, Women Studies, Travel Writings and Translation Studies. Besides her academic writings, she has also contributed to Humanities Underground, The Statesman, Cafe Dissensus, Coldnoon Travel Poetics, and Scroll.in.

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

Am I Alone In Dreaming Of Rubble

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By David Lewis:

I am walking through a blunt triangle of empty terraced streets, dominated by a long low red brick church, closed and boarded up; a hole in the boards allows local children to once again play in the church porch.  It is starting to get dark.

Twenty years ago, in a period of deep, isolated research, I began to have dreams about Liverpool.  I was studying the city’s churches, curious about how they define the city; how their spires contribute to the roofline, how their architecture dominates a street, how the city is changed on the date of their demolition.  I worked alone, spending weeks in the city’s Records Office poring over memoirs and old street plans.   Days were spent immersed in the stark and beautiful photographs of Liverpool in its Victorian prime, and in the dark and destructive 1960s when many of the city’s older churches were demolished.  I took many long journeys to find the sooty, bruised survivors, only to discover that this destruction was ongoing.  In some cases I arrived only days after the final clearance, to a raw slash in the urban landscape, a sense of wounded stone and dust settling.  I began to see all buildings as temporary, as part of a rolling history of the fabric of the city.  Lines began to blur. 

And I started to dream.  Carl Jung famously dreamed of the city; mine were more prosaic. They have always been short and in black and white, and fall into two categories.  In the first, I can see small details of the city - street corners, ruined walls, unnamed streets reduced to fields of rubble.  Some districts appear time and again; Edge Hill, Toxteth, Netherfield Road, places that have been in a radical process of decay and regeneration since the 1960s. I started to record the dreams as accurately as I could, in a staccato, notebook style.  Sometimes they help me remember more detail; in other cases they are all that is left of the dream. 

Unknown derelict dockland streets, ironwork, weeds, tall closed warehouses.  A steep cobbled street called St George’s Place, behind a railway station. Early morning. 

The dreams were fuelled by the photographs, but I came to realise that they were also reviving memories.  The Liverpool of my childhood was a city partly in ruins, and blitz-memories were still strong.  Older people talked of evacuation to north Wales, of nights in air-raid shelters, of bombers over the city.  The destruction continued after the war, when in a spurt of self-loathing the city demolished with a frenzy, and on car journeys to visit relatives in the northern reaches of the city I saw miles of cleared terraced streets.  In those days all gaps in the landscape were known as ‘bommies’, a word which meant bomb sites but also bonfires; urban folk memory overlapped urban function.  I had a recurring dream of a large square black building in the middle of a demolished city, a composite view of the boarded-up churches and barely-open pubs I saw on the disappearing streets of north Liverpool. 

In the other dreams, I see residential areas associated with my grandfather’s family.  Vincent Lewis was born in 1904, and grew up surrounded by family in the working-class streets of Liverpool 8.   As a child I knew many of the streets with family connections, and as an adult it was these places that began to appear in different dreams; sometimes in ruins, sometimes full of people, sometimes just streets of alleyways and tall brick walls. 

Cockburn Street in the early morning.  There are no cars and the street is deserted but I can see down another cleared street to the Mersey below me, gleaming silver.  Tall walls behind me. 

I came to realise that all these dreams, these blurrings of old photograph and old memory, are a creative response to the demolition of my grandfather’s city.  The books I have written on Liverpool are an attempt to understand and articulate the Victorian city that is gradually disappearing.  Yet the pace of urban evolution is so quick that one day all our familiar places will have gone or been radically changed and everyday memories, however commonplace, will have become history.  I still walk the vulnerable city as often as I can, exploring and recording amputated streets, stretches of cobble and redundant warehouses.  Often after these long walks I dream once more of the city in ruins, feeling now that our rubble dreams tell us more than we know.      

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

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.

Standing on a windy corner of Ku'damm in Autumn

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By Emily Richards:

It is six o'clock in the evening and I am waiting for a bus because I chose to miss the last one. Here at Olivaer Platz in Berlin, as the people run out of their offices to jump on buses, speed across lanes in their shiny black BMWs, or swerve on their bikes through traffic in their anxiety to be home, I am unable to move, mesmerised by this autumn evening.  I have passed through this place, one of the busiest in Berlin, at different times and for different reasons for twenty-five years now. Once it was strange to me. Then, it was home. Now it is strange again.

It is not yet dark but there is a haze upon the air, and some of the street-lamps are already glowing silvery-bright. The autumn light turns from gold to a translucent pallor, tinged with the colours of the red, gold and brown leaves swirling in the wind. The flowers on the corner of the Platz, planted in a gesture of beauty amidst noisy traffic, still grow in green profusion, though a dimness is settling over them as evening falls. They are the first to lose their outlines in the twilight; the first to be overlooked as our faces turn towards clocks, mobile phones, LED displays to see if it's hometime yet, so that the longing which has built in us all day can be released like the tension on a trigger.

But I won't be going home just yet. I'm kept here almost against my will by the fading light, by the faces of Berlin that pass me by one by one and look at me for longer than English faces would, on this evening, two days after the general election. In the election, a radical right-wing party gained over a quarter of the vote in parts of Germany, and thirteen percent overall. I look at each person who walks, ambles or hurries past, and their faces look different to me.

I never noticed how misshapen and worn a human face can look. Sagging skin, stooped shoulders, a grimacing mouth; orange blusher scarring the too-pale face of a middle-aged woman who plunges in uncomfortably high shoes to her next appointment. Her head's skewed around awkwardly to pin her mobile phone to her shoulder as she talks into it, gesturing vaguely, staring at nothing. A tall, elderly woman with thinning brown hair and feet too plump for her old black shoes walks as stiffly as if on stilts, slowly raising each foot high above the pavement before grinding it back down. A younger woman with half-shaved head, dressed entirely in black with wide Cossack-style trousers and Russian boots, walks boldly past, but her clothes are dusty, nearly grey in places. A young man ambles in front of me, dark hair closely gelled to his scalp, eyes glued on the tightly-clad bottom of the young, hard-faced woman ahead of him, whose heavy gait is disconcertingly masculine for someone with such a bleached-blonde ponytail and such conventional make-up. Her double chin sags and the lines around her eyes crease as she swings her head round, shouting into her phone. An old man – but surely he's not much older than I am! – with a loose mouth, a white fringe of hair and a red nose stands for minutes in front of a rubbish bin, staring into it, looking for bottles he can take away and turn into money; then he looks around swiftly, bends to the ground and snatches up a fag-end before swinging away, arms flopping wide and uncontrolled in his badly-fitting beige jacket.

There is a sense of dissolution in the air.

The summer dissolves; the outline of the Ku'damm, of its buildings, buses, lamp-posts and cars, seems to dissolve in the haze of this autumn evening, in the rustle and whisper of the leaves moved by the wind. Before my eyes, the safety I once found here dissolves too. The reassuring, orderly security of these middle-class Germans loses its outline in the dusk, their aspirational Wirtschaftswunderland revealing itself as the illusion I should have known it to be. I did know it, really. But the shared illusion was a comfort, and, as such, transcended its own illusory nature to demonstrate its greater truth: that security, beauty and order all matter, and that those who are denied them or have lost them or mistrust them will turn to more dangerous illusions of their own; for example, that rejecting everything outside your own culture and experience will keep you safe. In this way they remove safety for everyone, not least themselves. For what if one day their fellow voters turn to them and say, "But you had a foreign grandparent did you not? You were once kind to a refugee, we hear." Then you too will be cast out. This is what happens. But by then you'll have done your damage, and it will be too late to be sorry.

Yet nonetheless, on this autumn evening, the wind whispers to me that something is stirring, something is afoot, something is changing. And I prefer this in the end. I prefer it, though I don't know what it is, what it will demand of me, what it will do to me.

And now here is my bus. And like all Berliners I might be foolish enough to miss a bus once, but I won't miss it twice. For who knows when the next one will arrive? Who knows when I'll be home.

You can read more from Emily on her blogs The Castle Captures Me and Boring in Berlin.

Moor-haunting

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By Elizabeth Wainwright:

I moved back to a place that I know; it tugged me in my sleep, seeped into my blood like wine and desire. Suddenly I am on Dartmoor, feeling myself dissolve into its shifting mist and separate from my body – like long ago when I was someone I am not, and being under the influence, I drifted away from myself when I hadn’t chosen to. But this time I choose to wander away from myself: not sure whether I am an individual or part of the churning mass of life.

I have become fixated by hares, those mythical and elusive creatures. Search them in spring, and if you’re lucky (I haven’t been so far), you’ll witness the ‘mad march hare’ boxing antics; elegant creatures transformed into tall, aggressive dancers; each one Odette and Odile, black and white swan, fighting for courtship rights. This time I hear them snorting nearby, calling the approaching solstice into being like a spell.

I’ve taken shortcuts that were the long way round. I’ve opted for easy routes that were the boggy, marshy, slow routes. I should know better. But Dartmoor is an ancient cauldron of reason and desire; and I am learning that I gain less from a level-headed caution than I do from imagination and intuition (whilst all the while feeling the edge of my compass in my pocket, safe in the knowledge that someone knows where I am). A stones-throw away in Exeter, where I live, I enjoy wandering and observing life in the city – as Virginia Woolf called it, ‘Street Haunting’. On Dartmoor, I do the altogether more consuming, wide-open-space version; I become a moor-haunter, a Gore-Texed Artemis, roaming; sometimes searching, sometimes found.

Joseph Campbell said, “What the myths are for is to bring us into a level of consciousness that is spiritual.” Dartmoor is a place in Devon, but more than that, it is a myth. It strips me of any role, any context, any time, and takes me into the place behind the pause button. It is here I have heard God and myself. Where I’ve reacted to and interacted with nature. It’s here I’ve doubted myself, and then felt the most ecstatic, frenzied, deep but momentary understanding of absolutely everything. And also where I’ve simply watched a sunrise with a quieted mind and mug of tea.

Once, I saw the carcass of a dead moor pony and I stopped to look. It clutched a foal, half-born. Half in the world and half hidden. Dead before it was alive. The foal wouldn’t get to stagger on lanky legs; hunker down in winter snow; doze in a summer haze to the amusement of passing tourists. Dartmoor is barren, heartbreaking. But it is not cruel. It would rise up to meet the death with soft grazed pale grass, and with it, feed worms, ravens, plants. Nothing mourned, but nothing wasted either. Suffering without cruelty. We’re terrified of our own mortality – especially in the age of the self. But perhaps that pony had no sense of itself as a separate being. It was always connected to all the other creatures on the moor.  “The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction”, but these are not horses of instruction – they are wild and free, hardy and intuitive. Theirs is a third way inbetween Blake’s aphorism; inbetween wrath and instruction, desire and reason. I see myself there, feel it on Dartmoor – theirs is the here and now, the mysterious kingdom come, on Earth. Not fierce uncultivated energy, and not mindless robotic being either. Rather, free to roam and to congregate, to sense and respond.  

I flinch when someone asks a question to which I must respond by saying ‘I like walking on the moor’. It feels like Peter’s denial before the rooster crows, claiming I never knew it. I feel Dartmoor glance at me, granite eyebrow raised, hurt. I do like walking on the moor, but that’s the method, not the purpose. For me it is no hobby. It is essential, like touch, and I like to think it is essential for Dartmoor too. Because we need people who are happy to get lost and get found again; to sit on a rock and all-at-once smile and weep at the grandeur and beauty of a sight that contains scale and possibility; colour and tiny miracles; music. Not a ‘nice view’ that we do not really see, but rather a roaring, existence-shaking singularity where all that ever has and ever will exist is here in this one moment, and it’s all the more heightened because for some reason we get to experience it but the dead foal never will. We need to tap into the soul-aligned ecstasy of being out in non-human nature (rather than mind-aligned ‘pleasure’) because when that joy takes root and turns into astonishment, deep connection, essence, and understanding, it becomes so infinite that one person can’t possibly contain it and so all we’re able to do is give it away, maybe to a neighbour or a child, or to the world. We become protective of it; we lovingly work in a garden, or furiously work on the global sustainability agenda (knowing that ‘sustain’ is a pale shadow of what we really feel or want).

But it all starts with a place, a call of the wild, a call of the divine. And for me that place is Dartmoor – its purple heather that fills lines of folk songs; its yellow summer gorse that in winter, yellowless, shelters sheep; its gentle springs that swell into churning white water; its storied tors and ancient bronze-age traces; its space and howling peace; its smells and shape-shifting light and weather and mood.

Dartmoor is a grazed, razed, bleak and beautiful place. No, it’s more than a place – it’s an experience. But it reclaims the idea of ‘experience’ from those companies that two-dimensionally offer ‘great customer experience’ or a ‘really wild experience’. Dartmoor owns the real meaning of the experience – ‘to feel or undergo; observe as a source of knowledge; an event which has affected one’.

Dartmoor affects me; it reveals knowledge and wisdom that – in my broad travels –  has not disclosed itself elsewhere in quite the same way. So I will keep on moor-haunting. And if we meet, and we talk about pastimes – please know that Dartmoor is more to me than that. It is stopped time; truth-telling time; wonder-full, wild, sensual, transformative time. It is never just passed time.

About the author:

Elizabeth Wainwright is The Ecologist’s nature editor, and she co-leads the community development charity Arukah Network. She has lived, worked and travelled around the world but is now back in Devon, UK, where she is from. @LizWainwright www.elizabethjaynewainwright.com

Names of the Wind

  Photo: the Bora in full spate on the slopes of Mount Mosor, near Split, Croatia, by Nick Hunt

 Photo: the Bora in full spate on the slopes of Mount Mosor, near Split, Croatia, by Nick Hunt

We are extremely pleased and proud to welcome Nick Hunt back to the Elsewhere blog. Nick wrote a piece for us about ‘walking into the world’ in Albania a couple of years ago, and he has returned to reflect on the names of the wind… or the names of the specific winds that inspired his journeys across Europe for his new book Where the Wild Winds Are, published this month:

Every traveller knows the thrill of falling in love with a name. Some might be stirred by the name of a city: Odessa, Buenos Aires, Timbuktu. For others it may be a route through a landscape: the Silk Road, the Via Francigena, the Camino de Santiago. For me it was the names of Europe’s great seasonal winds – the Mistral, the Tramontana, the Bora, the Meltemi, the Kosava, the Foehn, the Bise, the Sirocco, the Levanter – which I saw on a map one day, invisible pathways threading across the continent, connecting regions and cultures that seemed quite separate in my mind. They sounded like things from a fairytale, invitations to a quest.

Why are some winds given names, while others remain nameless? What distinguishes one current of air molecules from another? I set out to follow four, which seemed an appropriate number for winds, drawn by the romance of their names but also intrigued by their effects; Europe’s great aeolian forces are said to influence everything from architecture to mythology to psychology. The Helm – Britain’s only named wind – blows down the western slopes of Cross Fell, the highest point of the Pennines, with enough force to destroy stone barns in the nearby Eden Valley. According to local legend the summit was formerly known as Fiends Fell, until the air-dwelling demons – whose howling caused such terror in the parishes below – were exorcised by a wandering holy man. The Helm itself takes its name from a long white cloud called the Helm Bar (a helmet for the mountain’s head) which acts as a harbinger of this freezing north-easterly. I camped for four days and nights up there, scanning the desolate moorland and waiting for the cloud to form; when it did, the demons returned to haunt me with a vengeance.

My second wind was the Bora, which led me down the Adriatic coast from Trieste in north-east Italy through Slovenia and Croatia. Fierce enough to sink ships and hurl fish from the sea, the Bora is also credited with helping defeat the last major pagan army to oppose the Christianisation of Rome – turning the arrows of the troops back towards them in the air – despite the fact that it takes its name from the pagan god Boreas, ancient Greek avatar of the cold north wind. It is celebrated for bringing good health, in stark opposition to the southerly Jugo, which muddies the sky with a yellow haze (taking its name from the Slavic word for ‘south’, this is the local variant of the many-named Sirocco, whose other appellations include the Khamsin, the Ghibli, the Sharav, the Marin, the Leveche and the Xaloc). During my three-week walk I found myself in a tug-of-war between Jugo and Bora, north and south, clear skies and humid haze. At last I met my quarry on a snow-covered mountainside above the Croatian city of Split; appropriately enough for a god, Boreas froze the blood in my veins and knocked me off my feet.

The etymology of the Foehn, which I chased across the Swiss Alps, perhaps also stems from the divine – it may derive from Favonius, the Roman god of the west wind – but locally it has earthier names: Schneefresser, ‘Snow-eater’, Maisvergolder, ‘Corn-goldener’, and Traubenkocher, ‘Grape-cooker’, in tribute to its warming effects. Associated with clear skies, sunshine and the coming of spring, it is also blamed for causing headaches, nosebleeds, insomnia, anxiety, depression and a host of other ailments; antique maps depict the Foehn as a puff-cheeked face blowing out not air, but showers of human skulls. I tracked this ill-omened force for a fortnight from one deep valley to another, acting on meteorological tip-offs and snatches of local lore, until eventually catching it in the heart of Haslital. After experiencing three days of relentless roaring heat – incongrously thundering from snow-capped summits and glaciers – I woke one morning so depressed that I could hardly move. It felt as if everything in my life had gone disastrously wrong, and it took me most of the day to understand the cause and effect. The legends and old wives’ tales were true: I had fallen victim to Föhnkrankheit, the notorious Foehn-sickness. As soon as I escaped that valley, the symptoms disappeared.

My final wind was perhaps the best-known, being something of a household name far beyond its native range: the bitter breath of the Mistral, which blows, according to superstition, for three, five, seven or nine days southwards down the Rhone Valley from Valence to the Gulf of Lion. Its name comes from the Latin magistralis, which means ‘masterly’, and it certainly dominates the land; the farmhouses in its path are built with windowless north-facing walls to protect against its blast, and lines of closely-packed cypress trees are planted as living windbreaks from east to west. Like the Bora and the Foehn, the Mistral makes a clean sweep of the sky and helps create the vibrant light that has attracted generations of painters to the south of France. But there is a price to beauty; this ‘wind of madness’ is notorious for driving people crazy. Vincent Van Gogh, who lived in its path for two years in the town of Arles – during which time he cut off his ear and committed himself to the local asylum – referred to it in his letters as ‘a nagging malice’, ‘pestering’, ‘merciless’ and ‘the devil’, even as the conditions it brought inspired some of his greatest works. I followed its trail for ten days down an ancient pilgrims’ path on the western bank of the Rhone, ending my travels on the Plain of Crau, a little-known and desolate region classified as western Europe’s only steppe. Two thousand years ago the geographer Strabo travelled there, describing ‘an impetuous and terrible wind which displaces rocks, hurls men from their chariots, breaks their limbs and strips them of their clothes and weapons’. Apart from the chariots, nothing much has changed.

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Nick Hunt’s Where the Wild Winds Are (Nicholas Brealey Publishing) was published in September 2017. Nick’s website can be found here.

End of the Line

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By Catherine Marshall:

This is a story of a rather unusual bus journey to the end of the line in Edinburgh, a discovery of an industrial museum witness to centuries of change and my own transition in moving to a new city and country.

I have always been drawn to the theme of transition both in my private life – often moving flats, cities, countries – and in my photography – which often features urban spaces undergoing change. When I first moved to Edinburgh from Germany, I had a reverse culture shock. I had to relearn a British culture that I had left behind fifteen years ago. To be honest I was happy that I had washed up in Edinburgh and not South of the border. It felt closer to Europe, the tenement-style buildings also reminded me of Berlin. As an English person, it was also nice to still feel foreign, to learn Scots phrases, hear poems read in Gaelic and learn about Scottish culture through my sons' school education. 

When it came to taking photographs and negotiating the city I was less comfortable. I almost felt that as an English person I didn't have the authority to go out there and reframe the landscape through my camera. Apart from that, I had no idea of the geography of the city and didn't know where to start. Then I came across came across (g)Host City, a kind of sound-map of Edinburgh to download where you can hear a story or a poem set in a particular location of the city. I decided to take an 'unreliable bus tour' by Japan-dwelling Scot, artist and musician, Momus. It gave me the framework (and courage) to set off to those mysterious sounding destinations on the front of buses I had seen in town: Wallyford, Ocean Terminal, Hyvot's Bank and Bonally. I cannot really describe the surreal, dark and funny tours he gave, as that is something to discover for yourself.

On one journey I wasn't sure if the bus had actually reached the end of the line. It seemed to circle back so I just decided to get off. The audio tour had ended, my google maps app was not working and suddenly I found myself off map. Two bus stops stood baldly on opposite sides of the country road, the only punctuation marks in an otherwise unreadable flat landscape. Should I go left or right or take the bus back? I decided to follow my nose. Walking down a winding B-road I saw another marker in the landscape, an exclamation mark of an industrial chimney stack. I was alone, not having seen another pedestrian since I had left the bus, and was glad to see some sign of civilisation. A pit head winding-gear came into view. As I walked closer I saw a bricked wall with tiles with illustrations of former industries; fishing, pottery, coal, and brickworks. Through serendipity I had found the Prestongrange Industrial Heritage Museum located on the north-east coast of East Lothian. For centuries this area was the centre of intense industrial activity, with a busy harbour, Morrison's Haven. Now you can just see where the harbour used to be, a rectangular outline on the grassy bank, marked with a sign on the ‘bygone years’, the sign itself nearly faded away through the erosion from the sea air. 

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At the museum I found myself donning my headphones again, this time to listen to an audio-tour of the outdoor exhibits narrated by the late artist John Bellany who grew up nearby, conjuring up, not so different from Momus, an alternative world to the one you see with your own eyes. From Bellany’s stories of Prestonpans you visualise a lost industry; the smoke billowing from the Beehive Kilns that once produced bricks for the buildings of the New Town. Or you find yourself at its mid-eighteenth century heyday with ships loaded with salt, oysters, ceramics, sulphuric acid and coal, or bringing silk, furs from Canada, whalebone and French brandy in return. In the nineteenth century, Irish workers, who first arrived in the West of Scotland, are brought with their families and their traditions to the East by new investors, Summerlee. These new owners also improved workers' conditions, installing indoor plumbing to the mining workers’ housing. Electric generators replaced the steam engines in the powerhouse and electric street lighting was brought to the area. Today the powerhouse houses art exhibitions. I was so taken with the museum, and the fact that I was free to wander with my camera making my own discoveries of an overgrown railway bridge and train tracks in the surrounding forest, that when I returned to the visitor centre the assistant said that she had been thinking of sending out a search party. 

As I left Prestonpans, walking west along the coastal path towards Musselburgh, I came across a quite alien landscape. This was not the Edinburgh that I could have imagined existed when I had set out on my 'unreliable bus tour' that morning. I had found, however, something equally strange. A vast cracked grey landscape stretched out before me towards the sea, made infinite by the fog that was closing in. These are called 'lagoons', a salubrious name for a place where Scottish Power deposited waste ash from the now closed Cockenzie power station. 

In these coastal areas, the delicate balance of man and nature is most apparent. The oysters that the Edinburgh population once enjoyed with their French Claret disappeared towards the end of the nineteenth century overfishing, new dredging methods and pollution from sewage and industrial waste. As industry disappears, nature reclaims, and also in this case offered opportunity for recreation. Bellany recounts several generations of Prestonpans children using the disused harbour as their own swimming pool after the 1930s, conveniently heated by the water dispersed from the pit boilers. Now this coastal area is a destination for walkers and bike enthusiasts. There are also plans to create a nature reserve on the site of the lagoons. Although the lagoons in themselves are dead, they have provided a sanctuary for both sea and wading birds and there are three hides for birdwatchers in the area. In the photographs I took that day, I was drawn to the themes of transition and change, nature reclaiming land itself. But I also wondered about the transitions that families had to go through in the passage of time when industries that had sustained them for so long, came to an end.  

About the author:

Catherine Marshall is an artist and writer based in Edinburgh. She studied photography at the London College of Communication and Glasgow School of Art. She has lived in different countries and cities including Berlin, which she made her home for a decade.

www.catherine-marshall.com