Music and place: Kitty Macfarlane's Namer of Clouds

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Review and Interview by Paul Scraton:

I first heard the music of Kitty Macfarlane on her EP ‘Tide & Time’ a couple of years ago and was immediately struck by both the beauty of her voice and the spirit of place to be found within the lyrics. ‘Wrecking Days’ was the standout song, with its stories of beachcombers stalking the shore, and it was great to hear it again in a new arrangement on Macfarlane’s debut album ‘Namer of Clouds’, which is released by Navigator Records this week.

All the tracks on ‘Namer of Clouds’ speak to our relationship with landscape, place and the environment, whether it is Macfarlane’s native Somerset on ‘Man, Friendship’ or the story of the last of the Sardinian sea silk seamstresses on ‘Sea Silk’. This is an album of haunting, lyrical music that asks the listener to consider her place in the world, the beauty to be found there and the consequences of our negligence or disinterest. On ‘Wrecking Days,’ Macfarlane describes what is left behind by the tide, and if there is poetry in the image of cuttlefish bones, there is certainly a warning in what else can be found on the beach, from the discarded fishing tackle to the plastic bottle tops, resting among the seaweed and stones.

This is thoughtful songwriting, whether in the original compositions or new arrangements of traditional folk ballads. The album closes with an artistic collaboration across the ages: on Inversnaid Macfarlane reworks a 150 year-old poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins about the importance of preserving the wilderness for future generations, a task that is as important now as it ever was.

You can hear ‘Man, Friendship’ and see the official music video below, and we are extremely grateful to Kitty Macfarlane for answering some of our questions about the album, her songwriting in general, and the importance of place in her work:

From the moment I heard Wrecking Days on the Tide & Time EP, it seemed clear to me that there is a distinct sense of place in your songwriting. What role do you feel place has in your work, and which places most influenced the songs on the new album?

'Place' isn't just a geographical location. It's bound up in the stories that span hundreds of years, the changing face of a landscape over time (and our part in that), the traditions that tie people to the land, and the inexplicable way certain corners of the world can make you feel. At school we are taught geography, history, art, chemistry... as if they are separate things. For me, songwriting pulls it all together. My album couldn't help but be a bit of a tribute to Somerset, where I am from – the scenery creeps into my songs almost by accident, along with the stories of the people and creatures that live there. That said, there is also a song set on a small Mediterranean island off Sardinia, and another which is a song-setting of a poem by Manley Hopkins about a Scottish stream. I wanted it to be an album of songs loosely bound by mankind's relationship with the land.

Of all the places you have written about or the landscapes that have otherwise inspired your work, which is your favourite?

Again and again my songs return to the beautiful and ancient Somerset Levels. They are a large low-lying wetland area of peat and clay with an eerie timeless quality - perhaps something to do with their yearly renewal by ruthless flooding. The Levels hold stories of ancient people preserved in the peat; of wandering Neolithic people on their wooden trackways; of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, conquering the Danes against all odds from his hiding place on the isle of Athelney; of the disastrous floods of 1607 where thousands of people perished; of the basket-makers and thatchers, the elver fishermen and cider producers. Man, Friendship deals with our steadily changing climate, the cruel floods across Sedgemoor and what is left for humanity to cling to when all else is washed away.

In February this year I went down to Shapwick Heath nature reserve on the Levels to watch the starling murmurations at dusk. I was surprised to find hundreds of other people with the same idea, and there we all stood, wrapped up in coats and scarves, while a hundred thousand winged bodies swelled above us, bound by some magnetic tether, a pulsing leviathan in the sky. I wrote Starling Song about this uncanny phenomenon, but it was more than just a spectacle for me - it felt like a moment of immense connection with humanity.

Glass Eel is a on the surface a song about the eels that have historically filled Somerset's waterways. Their colossal, near 4000 mile migration from the Sargasso Sea to Europe is one of science's great mysteries, and there are many parts of their enigmatic life cycle that we still don't understand. The song is about the constant motion of the Earth and everything on it – how we are all compelled by the same centrifuge that drives the eel. But the European Eel is now critically endangered, due to a loss of intertidal and wetland habitats, overfishing, and man-made obstacles to their mammoth journey. I think the plight of the lowly eel is strangely metaphorical for the problems our own species faces – our fragmentation of the land with motorways, dams and weirs is like the international fissures wrought on a global scale, our gluttony and overfishing relates to our wider exploitation of the environment, and the eel's journey recalls our own questions of rights to land, migration, and belonging.

Do you find yourself most inspired by places you know well, or have travels - on tour for instance, or otherwise - given you new places to write about?

There's a definite appeal to writing about places that are familiar, as they become entwined with so many unaccountable emotions and memories. But there is inspiration everywhere and it's exciting to think of how open-ended songwriting can be. For one of the songs on the album, Sea Silk, I travelled to Sant'Antioco, a small island off Sardinia to meet and interview an elderly Italian lady who is one of the last remaining people to create 'sea silk' in the authentic and traditional way. Sea silk is a very fine thread spun from the filaments or 'byssus' of giant endangered clams that live in the Mediterranean. It has extraordinary qualities which turn it from a dull brown to a brilliant gold in sunlight. The art of spinning sea silk has been practised for centuries, and is passed down through generations of women in Sant'Antioco – traditionally, it cannot be sold for profit, but must only be given away. It crops up throughout history here and there – Nefertiti's bracelets, King Solomon's robes, even perhaps Jason's golden fleece... but is shrouded in mystery. Chiara Vigo is a remarkable woman who has devoted her life to this art form, and it was incredibly special to hear her talk about how she learnt it from her grandmother as a girl.

To me it spoke of the historical relationship between women and textiles and the land, and the important roles women throughout the world have quietly performed in the background that are rarely acknowledged by the history books. I love knitting, and part of that is the feeling of connection with generations of women before me. I don't actually speak Italian, and Chiara doesn't speak English, which made for an interesting interview (luckily I brought a friend who could translate!) but when we showed each other our own knitted creations, it felt like we shared a common tongue. A recording of Chiara's rich italian speaking voice opens the song, along with part of a soft chanting folk song that she sang to us, that coincidentally happened to be in the right key... it all felt spookily preordained!

In the album notes it says that "the album is augmented by all kinds of 'found' sound." Can you tell us a bit more about this, and how you think this helps route your songs in the places you are writing about?

I really wanted the album to feature little pieces of the places that inspired the songs. We borrowed a portable mic and took field recordings in various locations – the chaotic waterfowl recorded at dawn from a hide on the Avalon Marshes set behind Starling Song (I saw my first Bittern while recording this!)the babbling brook with its restful birdsong to accompany Inversnaid, the crash of Sardinian waves behind Sea SilkMorgan's Pantry is a traditional song about the malicious 'Morgans' that live in the Bristol Channel, that allegedly come to the shore at the foot of a hidden waterfall on the North Coast. We set out to track down this waterfall, only accessible at low tide, from an Ordnance Survey map, and recorded the rush of water falling onto the rocks, which then formed part of the song's soundscape. Using found sound seemed to pay tribute to the people and places in the songs, and made the process feel like a sort of collaboration between myself and the wild.

What are your upcoming plans? Tour dates you'd like to tell us about... oh, and when will you be coming to play in Berlin?

I'm just about to set off on a big UK tour! It starts on the 4th October in the Lake District, then I'm off all over the country for 23 gigs in all. The two biggies though are my album launch shows in Bristol (10th November) and London Kings Cross (13th) – these will be really special evenings where I'll be playing with a full band with lots of treats and surprises... Unfortunately no European gigs yet, but I'd love to come and play in Berlin one day!

The Namer of Clouds by Kitty Macfarlane is released on 21 September 2018 by Navigator Records.

College Students on Saturday Nights

ARTWORK: UNTITLED. JASE FALK

ARTWORK: UNTITLED. JASE FALK

By Kell Xavier:

Held in a burst of fluorescent lights that wear the cloth of pinprick stars, pink petals of luminous shops sell kebabs, korma, train-over-rail harmonious sounds. Yellow glows on faces turned down low. Empathy sits with me; self-enveloping. Restaurants pool with comfort, a warm bliss that I gather and fold under my armpits, over my unoiled spine. Through windows, my softened flesh, my stillness is retracted. A chew of gluttony is sawed off of this list: acceptable ways to carry love. A mother teaches Marilyn in cinched phrases for wide blond lashes. A portrait, a funeral. The blue iris young, their bellies are not fond of ice cream, so they sup orange cream sorbet. Disguised in the paint of stereotype, curly happy locks unfurl on the shoulders of these sprightly boys; their sureness is high winds, is palm trees timbered. Little voices chaperoned by temple bells and seaweed. I'm sorry for labels stuck to matted house cat fur. Scrape my waxed ears, I want to hear these young boy sounds: burgeoning, lively.

Today stutters over the neck with cold fingers. Language hangs on the air like plants wired from the ceiling of a stained glass garden. Cloudy greyness mixes in the murk of my mind with the Valentine red laid out for tomorrow. The body prepares to exhale, content with the current disharmony, its prophecies of coming pleasure. In the domed expanse of oncoming night, I wonder, Why feed tonight? Why not tomorrow’s now instead of today’s? Nanaimo sits in glitter

@ 9:10 on cutaway benches, on two-lane roads, on a rusted tuning fork statue, on a smoke dance caught midair. My bench is cool, my back warm, the clubbing music loud, and gnats are scarce so far. Nanaimo cups around lights; it looks through windows, listens under the pop tunes for a hint of a hint. We here are something, we have made a monument. In burgundy and pale green  and ink blue colour blocks, here: the could-be-ness of home.

About:
Kell makes meaning with words and movement. He is non-binary, likes film and dandelions, and resides on Treaty One territory. Kell is on Twitter: @icebox_clouds

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

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Read by Marcel Krueger:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

In Olšany Cemetery

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By Anna Evans:

On a weekend trip to Prague they decide to walk in the cemetery near where they are staying in Prague 3. They agree to set out early, visit the cemetery, and then to continue with their day. It is October, an early morning chill in the air, but already the sunlight is beginning to glance down with a nod, promising warmth, an unexpected dawning of late summer spells.

She reads aloud from her book, ‘See, the first line mentions the cemetery…  listen, it says…’ She hasn’t made it very far with the book yet, but is glad to be reading a Czech author. There is something about this place, she thinks. I would like to get to know this city and its complex history; this city of writers and of walking.

Leaving their apartment building, they can see the wall of the cemetery in front of them and trees behind. Crossing the road they find an entrance at the end of the street.

It is one of those rare times when both agree that this is the only place they really want to be, that given the chance they wouldn’t be anywhere else. They listen carefully to the other’s remarks and laugh together as two people who know and understand each other. They agree that it’s good to be away from home, that the best feeling of all is the day stretching out in front of them, the city to explore. The feeling of waking early in a new place, that sense of accomplishment. The promise of black coffee and the warming smell of baking bread. There is a route planned on a map, the streets of Prague, its art nouveau buildings a perfect tapestry through which to wander, to the sound of passing trams.

The trees are filters for the sunlight, and leaves are beginning to cover everything. Wandering along the paths, the gravestones draped in ivy but without the sense of neglect and desperate wildness some cemeteries have.

Those strange eruptions from the ground growing amongst the trees, marble and stone of different shapes and sizes with pathways running between. They are like city streets, laid out in blocks with signs, and all the leaves swept away. Sometimes the graves look like grand city houses. ‘How funny that money and status should continue to follow us into death,’ he says, and they pause, thinking of the years sliding past them.

Walking and reading the stones, thinking about what draws people to cemeteries, trying to describe the sense of peace and watchfulness it brings. There are those tending the graves of family, holding in their hands the span of remembrance; like the flowers they lay down, for as long as their transient bodies remain. The green force flowing through the stems cut off already from their source of life.

Looking at the names on the gravestones, reading the history of families, through the years engraved in stone. Of lost children, and married couples who died within months of one another.

Cemeteries are really places for the living.

Connected to our beginnings and ends, people wander through cemeteries to be close to those who are no longer here. Each city, each place, contains the imprints of all those who have walked its streets and all those yet to come, the ghosts of history who are with us even now. In some places we are more aware of them than others.

Confronting their mortality, but feeling life urging its way through their bodies, they walk around, knowing they will leave and continue the day, saying farewell to those in ivy-covered slumber.

Reaching the main entrance, the sun warmer and brighter, rising higher in the morning sky.  The sound of traffic from the road nearby and people walking past. Soon they will join the movement of the city streets and the day will glide by in all its colours.

For a moment though, they pause and look back. They both know how quickly and how easily the shadow beckons and can fall between them. Like feeling cold on a sunny day, like voices interrupting from the past, ghosts of time and distance.

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. 

Postcard from… Múli, Faroe Islands

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By Tim Woods:

There is a temptation to romanticise the lives of those in remote outposts. On the extremities of our lands, they are immersed in nature, in tune with their ecosystem; pursuing a simpler, less cluttered existence.

Yet it is not always a choice. Some inhabit these places through circumstance alone. And the other side of this coin is often hardship and poverty, loneliness and isolation. There is little romance in any of these.

Múli, near the northern tip of Borðoy, is one of several deserted hamlets scattered across the eighteen Faroe Islands. But its abandonment is more recent than most: the last inhabitants only left in 1998. There was no disaster, no seismic event that forced them away; they had simply had enough. The gravel road, built not long before then, was a noble attempt by the Faroese authorities to connect the hamlet to Norðdepil and Klaksvík; instead, it simply made it easier to get away.

I drove along that road one evening in June, the light not even close to fading during the endless days of a Nordic summer. It hugs the edge of a dramatic glacial landscape, all plunging cliffs and bowl-like valleys, plus many other features familiar to anyone with a GCSE geography textbook. After parking, I followed the path beyond the four houses of the hamlet, dodging the fractious kittiwakes leaving their cliffside nests to shoo me away. That romantic side briefly took over: what a place to live this would be.

But five minutes later, I’d reached the farthest point accessible before those fearful cliffs take hold once more. It’s not even three hundred metres from the houses; a remarkably small space from which to eke out a livelihood from farming.

Passing back past the houses, I noticed smoke from a chimney and voices inside. They are not completely abandoned, having taken on a new life as holiday lets that are regularly booked out during the summer. Landscapes such as this are, it seems, best enjoyed for a few days rather than a lifetime. Perhaps Múli has finally found its purpose.

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.

Wheat.jpg

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.

Bridge.jpg

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.

Island

Artwork: Untitled, by Jase Falk

Artwork: Untitled, by Jase Falk

By Kell Xavier:

The house is at the top of a long driveway, paved years ago and strewn with gravel. On this hill, one can see the blue mountains, rain like steam in a different city. There are candy cane lilies in the front yard, and delicate yellow flowers hang from a twist of a tree. There is green grass by the campfire, the mint plant, the badminton net, the orange trees with their waxy leaves. I climb for tangerines, my fingers digging into orange skin on a fresh-plucked fruit.

I touch my hip bones before I sleep, a reminder of physicality and the thought of beauty. Lately, when I touch my body to the floor to roll in trials of choreographic magic, I find bruising peeking through my skin. I massage fingers into the looseness of their purple pain, calling it into me and alive, like an incantation. I hold my hip bones like knobs or handles, to propel me on.

He is king of everything the ocean touches. He says so. Once or twice a year, I beg the blues, the waves— spaces he believed in— to keep his spirit alive. Every now and then, I beg something— what do I believe in?— to keep my spirit warm to him.

In a poem, years ago, I compared my father to a candle flame. What I mean is: my fragile energy is a candle flame, I don't want to think about my father.

The warm silver of a siren calling, death with desire; the cold iron of a banshee, death with petrification.

About:
Kell makes meaning with words and movement. He is non-binary, likes film and dandelions, and resides on Treaty One territory. Kell is on Twitter: @icebox_clouds

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. 

Postcard from… Szent Mihály, Balaton

Photo: Katrin Schönig

Photo: Katrin Schönig

By Paul Scraton:

From the bike path that was leading us around Lake Balaton, a small track led up through the trees, winding its way around a couple of tight hairpins until it reached the top. There were picnic tables up there and a clearing in the woods that clung to the hillside, offering views across the curve of the lake’s western shore, back to Keszthely where we had started out that morning and across to Fonyód where, the previous day, we stopped to watch a congregation of egrets as they stalked along the pebbled shore.

Photo: Katrin Schönig

Photo: Katrin Schönig

Also atop the hill was a white chapel, bright against the blue sky, and a series of crucified figures, carved out of wood and looking sorrowfully down towards the picnic tables and the views belong. The chapel was dedicated to Szent Mihály, and St Michael’s chapel had been built on this promontory above the lake for a very specific reason. The chapel was there to remember a day almost three hundred years before; a day very different to the one we experienced beneath a hot, June sun.

Over the winter of 1739, a group of fishermen walked out onto the ice on the edge of the partially frozen lake. As they worked, lifting fish from the cold waters, the ice they were standing on broke free and began to float off into the lake. The waters were so cold it was impossible for them to swim for safety. Six died, from the cold or from falling into the water. The other forty were left, floating on the lake, waiting to meet a similar fate.

That the forty fishermen survived was thanks to a shift in the wind, which began to move the ice floe back towards the shore. Once back on dry land the fisherman decided to build a chapel in thanks to their miraculous survival, and they built it on the hill that looked down on where they had returned to shore, so that it could continue to watch over the fishermen of the Balaton from that point on.

It was hard to imagine the lake frozen as we sat there on the picnic table beneath Christ on the cross and the tower of St Michael’s chapel. There seemed little movement on the lake as the sun rose higher in the late morning sky. But the church on the hill stood there as a reminder, not only of those who survived that winter’s day, but those that hadn’t been so lucky to be saved by the changing wind.

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.