Runcorn Wonderland

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By David Lewis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On visiting the Dylan Thomas Boathouse, Laugharne

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By Anna Evans:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now I see that the road continues.

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

The Low Country

Photo: Andrew Weidman

Photo: Andrew Weidman

By Bridgett Brunea:

The Low Country of coastal South Carolina and Georgia in the eastern United States carries an unmistakable slow charge. It is a place I know as a sun-filled haven when my more northerly home is dusted in snow. Many times have I slipped through the outstretched hand of winter and driven for hours into this story-laden place where time winds itself into a warm, quiet sigh. I sojourn here not only to remember the feeling of sun, but for the sense of otherworldliness that flowers quietly the closer I get to the Low Country. It is a tiny universe unto itself, utterly unlike anywhere else I know. 

I think of the Low Country and I think of hot red-dirt roads plunged into a cool line of live oaks; of coastal forests spun with endless waves of Spanish moss and the heavy scent of sea air; of snowy egrets standing in warm December sun, plunging their sharp beaks into still waters to catch unsuspecting fish; of cooking fresh shrimp in a tin pot on the edge of a saltwater marsh as twilight colors the air; of little tin-shack gas stations in the middle of nowhere, their owners inexplicably encased behind a window of security bars; of boiled peanut stands strung along the edges of slow, lonely highways between Savannah and Charleston; of talking to black Southerners and wondering if they constantly wear the weight of a history not of their choosing; of huge wooden churches forgotten in warm, silent forests; of deep-blue skies in the middle of the winter, charging my sun-starved Northern soul.

It is a relief beyond all else to arrive in the Low Country and see that distinctiveness is alive and well in the United States. We are a country unfortunately infamous for our ability to transform unique landscapes into characterless duplicates. One need only visit the suburbs of a large city or any number of desiccated small towns to see what the power of unchecked profit-driven growth can do. We are a country often shamed by our history, and so we shun it, and old buildings and old customs and old landscapes are thrown out and everything must be new, new, new. We are also a people who have been raised on the myth that familiarity and convenience are to be prized above all else, with the disquieting result that whether you are in South Texas or Eastern New York or Central California you can find many stretches of concrete wasteland that look disturbingly similar. Stunning landscapes and unique cultures are there, but they are often hidden beneath a plastic veneer.

The Low Country is no different; it is not a haven set far away from the impingement of runaway capitalism. And yet it effuses an inescapable uniqueness, not because of being untouched by this crushing sameness, but in spite of it. The Low Country was the first place to show me that uniqueness often persists just outside our field of vision.

Though many of the wealthier communities in the Low Country have managed to avoid the devastation of strip-malls and 6-lane roads through the middle of town, most of these parts of South Carolina and Georgia are, in fact, uniquely drowning in the afflictions of unwise city planning and unbridled development. They are often prime examples of the very worst of such development, with not only McDonalds and Wal-Marts filling the car-choked streets, but all sorts of unimaginable Southern takes on fast-food and cheap buys also lining up for their bite out of peoples' pockets. The affect can be dizzying in its ugliness.

And yet - here is the crux of it - and yet it is still beautiful, it is still distinct, it is a place thoroughly itself. People still talk differently here, little idioms and turns of phrase that leave a Northerner like me baffled and smiling; the tall, stalking shorebirds and the quick lizards and the huge, breathy flowers will all tell you you're in a place distinctly its own; the saltwater marshes still mix with the ocean and fill with her waters at high tide; you cannot miss the genuinely slower pace, the shockingly different view of the Civil War, the quizzical looks you receive when you ask if the blue crabs they're about to boil are still alive; no number of phony-looking "Southern Style" housing developments can shake the drenching experience of walking through a neighborhood of shotgun shacks or through a live-oak avenue of antebellum mansions.

No matter how much a place is overrun with attempts at uniformity, commercialization, or purposeful forgetting of complicated histories, there are some things that can't just be coopted, can't be charged for, can't be erased. For this knowledge, I am forever grateful to the imperfect, saturating beauty of the Low Country.

About the author:
Bridgett Brunea is a writer, naturalist, and rambler originally from the northernmost reaches of Appalachia in the eastern United States. In writing and in life, she seeks to experience and convey the luminous meeting point between inner and outer landscapes. She is creating an online journal of observations, meditations, and questions (terrasanctum.world) which she hopes to make available in 2019.

Misty Morning at Ash Slack

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By Patrick Wright:

Mists of the East Ridings
through two embracing ash trees.
The moon was out, a pamplemousse moon.
Under black buds of nuinn
where moorland bled to slack,
I found lots of bird’s-foot-trefoil,
scented lily-of-the-valley –
my birth month flower –
and felled trees gone back to nature.
Seeds dropped to mulch near a disused railway line
where orchids grew.
Mysterious happenings. 

The grass didn’t grow
perhaps because of the industrial past.
Two embracing ash trees over a gate –
a kissing gate. A bicycle could fit.
It was Millington Wood
where every time I looked at the same bark
I saw a different face.
I assumed it was ghosts from
the Conservative Club who roamed
to and fro.
A well-managed wood with a burner,
wood sticks ricked around it,
dying Scandinavian oak, an Ogham book.  

Two ash trees embracing on a path –
Giacometti-like –
as I listened from my parrot cage.
Haunting canyon sounds.
By the trees was a beautiful ruined building
as if fallen off the sudden edge
of a moorland cliff.
Some of the structured bits could be sat on –
an agility course – steps to a steppe.
Black thickets of space,
hot burnt heather,
charcoal for miles and miles.

Patrick Wright has a poetry pamphlet, Nullaby, published by Eyewear (2017). A full collection will follow in 2019. His poems have been published in several magazines, most recently Wasafiri, The High Window, and The Reader. His work was also included in The Best New British and Irish Poets 2018 anthology, judged by Maggie Smith. He teaches Arts and Humanities at the Open University, and is studying towards a second PhD in Creative Writing.

An Autumn Sunday afternoon walk around Rawhead

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By Julia Bennett

Driving eastwards past the 150 year old mining engine house chimney - a lieu de mémoire for the dark dirty-secret past of this green and pleasant corner of England. This is the old Salt Road. Salt was carried from the Cheshire 'witches', the towns of Middlewich, Nantwich and Northwich, to the port at Chester, and later Liverpool, to trade with Africa and Asia. Up the steep Coppermine Lane to reach the top of the ridge. Squeezing in amongst a crowd of Sunday cars on the side of the road.

The path heads off. A stony farm road leading first west and then south towards Whitchurch. This is the Sandstone Trail tracing the sandstone ridge along the western side of Cheshire for 55 kilometres.

The potholed track soon dissolves into a footpath. Skirting the edge of the steep wooded hillside:

silver birch leaves burnished gold;

blood red rowan berries;

prickly sweet chestnut tempting hungry squirrels.

Trees frame distant views:

north across the Mersey, the solid square-built sandstone tower of Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral; closer, a cluster of slim flame-topped stacks pinpoint the oil refineries at Ellesmere Port. Closer still the Roman City of Chester hunkers down on the banks of the river Dee all but hidden in the folds of gentle rolling green pasture, that most English of English landscapes extending to the very edges of the country before drowning in the waters of the Dee.

… black rooks somersaulting against the blue-grey sky …

Across the fields to the east, beyond the giant white saucers of Jodrell Bank, the hazy beginnings of the Pennines.

… pinky-brown chaffinches flash white stripes as they flit from bush to bush …

The path narrowly clings to the edge of the soft, red sandstone cliffs. Cliffs formed during the Triassic period 250 million years ago, says the information board, once upon a time, a long, long time ago.

Not so very long ago, in the 1220s, Beeston Castle was built on a rocky outcrop, here in bas relief against the sky, a five kilometre walk north on the trail. Once upon another time it was the site of one of the Iron Age hillforts strung out along the ridge like a ‘join the dots’ guide to life here 3,000 years ago. . . . the trail following in ancient footsteps.

Steps lead down the side of the hill to a wooden platform. This is Dropping-stone well. Local people climbed up here to fetch drinking water as recently as the Second World War. In the not so distant past servants took sand from the caves which pockmark the soft sandstone to use on stable floors and as a scouring aid in the kitchens of the ‘big houses’. This was a busy, productive place, and not only on Sunday afternoons.

Rawhead itself, the trig point and the highest part of the Sandstone Trail stands at 227 metres. Rocks jutting above the trees, there are clear views from here. Over the border into Wales, Wrecsam’s industrial estate stands out against a background of the Clwydian Hills. Shropshire to the south and on a (very) clear day a faint outline of the Wrekin about 30 miles away.

The path turns southwards, continuing to snake along the very edge of the steep cliffs. Careful footsteps are needed to avoid sliding over the edge into the canopy of silver birch and scots pine that cloak the sides of the cliffs. Black holes mark caves in the rock faces.

A turn to the east. Rhododendrons flood a steep valley. A dull green for much of the year, in spring this ‘alien species’ large purple flowers are a prelude to the native purple heathers and plump ripening bilberries yet to come.

A small wood of scots pine, a cluster of farm buildings, the path runs next to a field separated by an electric fence. Noises off:

in the spring a cuckoo;

summer occasionally brings the insistent tapping of woodpeckers;

autumn, the rustling of pheasants in the maize stalks;

crows and farm dogs scrap and shout for attention all year round.

Down towards the kissing gate and the farm track. The Sandstone Trail turns towards the main road and southwards to Bickerton Hill. The sign to the Bickerton Poacher points left. This path follows behind the line of the fields and houses which border the main road. Overhung with stray fruit trees, damsons and crab apples tempt those walking beneath.

Crossing the muddy stream at the lowest point of the path, then uphill again past the memory of the industrial past: the brick chimney above Gallantry Bank.

Buzzards haunt the tall scots pines edging an open field, swooping ghostly shadows a prelude to their loud territorial claims. Shooting parties gather in this space. Gallantry is an elision of ‘gallows tree’. Hiding history in plain sight.

Over the stile and a steep climb up Coppermine Lane brings us back to the present.

Julia Bennett is a sociologist with an interest in place and belonging. She has lived in this part of Cheshire for 16 years.

Catholic Ghosts on Vauxhall Road

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By David Lewis:

Note:

Liverpool has a small old Jewish community but, as Islam and Hinduism are traditionally not strong faiths in the city, even now there are few mosques or temples.   The religious landscape, fading or vigorous, is overwhelmingly Christian.  Once the division between Catholic and Protestant was deep and strong.  Protestant Orange Lodge marches and Catholic celebrations of St Patrick’s Day could lead to violence.  Schools were segregated on sectarian lines and even the football teams were divided between Catholic Everton and Protestant Liverpool.  These faultlines have largely disappeared. 

The new city can pall; too much glass, too much steel, too many towers.  I turned inland to hunt ghost pubs, the alcoholic ruins along Vauxhall Road, where derelict Victorian public houses stand like broken teeth in a new urban landscape.  The Atholl Vaults, boarded and violated, plaster crumbling; the Castle, alive but closed; the Glasshouse on the corner of Eldon St; and wildernesses of bramble and buddleia behind faded advertising hoardings, the sites of mourned pubs like the Great Mersey, their ghosts silent.

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On Eldon Street I turned to the Catholic church of Our Lady of Reconciliation.  Scaffolding and tarpaulins dripped with rain and melting frost, as if the huge church had just risen from the bottom of the sea. This was a strong Irish Catholic district, fiercely political.  The area returned a Nationalist MP to the British parliament for over forty years, and a store of pre-IRA weapons was found in the cellars of a local pub in the late 1800s.   But I found that this pub too had been demolished, leaving only a brick scar.  I thought about taking one of the old bricks, to have a small piece of Liverpool Irish Nationalist history.  But why?  Perhaps one day the sounds in inanimate objects will be heard; the anxious voices, the thuds and curses as the boxes of rifles were manhandled downstairs; but not in my lifetime. 

From lost pubs, I began to see Catholic ghosts in road names and old churches.  This was now a meander across a landscape of invisible parishes, destroyed shrines torn apart in the mechanised Reformation of the 1960s when Liverpool savagely regenerated many of the older districts.  On Titchfield Street I found cobbles beneath the tarmac, stone Victorian ghosts, which took me to Trinity Catholic Primary School.  A trinity of Anglican churches - St Martin’s in the Fields, St Alban’s and St Titus’s - were lost many years ago.  The towers and walls of the Catholic St Sylvester’s survive, but they are embattled, razor-wired against vandals and arsonists, gradually being smothered by buddleia.  St Brigid’s has suffered even more.  Demolished for the Kingsway Tunnel, a slash of Brutalist concrete, it survives only as a place name behind St Sylvester’s, a clustering of Catholic names gathered as if for safe keeping. 

There are deep echoes of the Reformation on these old streets.  St Sylvester’s stands near Latimer Street, named after the bishop who was martyred for his Protestant faith.  Catholic churches, Protestant streets.  Churches stand empty, street names have lost their meanings.  Nobody in Liverpool takes these divisions seriously any more, only rain-tramps like me, trudging these darkening streets; only gutter-historians, church-watchers, people who care for the memories of the city.  And we do not believe, we just remember. 

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The people are still here, of course.  Old terraced houses have gone and bungalows and semi-detached houses with gardens and driveways line the streets.  Pubs and churches are the last to go, closed, abandoned to the weather, and then demolished, their love and faith dispersed, forgotten.  But the people remain, living modern lives in a landscape of fading Victorian ruins, architectural, cultural, theological. 

My last ghost was a church that I had watched disappear.  St Gerard Majella’s was a strange brick and concrete church near Scotland Road, and I watched it’s demolition over a month or six weeks.  The brick tides of the city have closed over this sunken church, and the name survives only in a street and a new courtroom.  I contemplated a further walk to Cranmer Street, another martyred bishop, another faded street bookended with ghost churches; but the rain was heavier and the day was darkening.  I turned towards the river, and walked slowly down to the warm shiny truths of the new city. 

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

Countdown

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By Ian C Smith:

In nocturnal limbo, untethered from sleep since 2.30, body aching, checklist of not-to-be-left-behinds reducing like ended experiences sintering away, months morphing into years, or waves washing below the light aircraft he boards in hours and minutes counting down, he can’t stop check-listing a spun out life.

Averse to a homecoming of smelly rot, tiny insects swarming in decomposed matter in the silence below his sink, he deposits kitchen scraps in the compost, balancing this by removing some for scabbed garden spots, trowelling through a fecund reek writhing with worms before leaving for his beloved place, a shimmer of memories.

Repositioning items in two battered bags, he mulls over squeezing in a book he is nine-tenths through, a literary heavyweight as big as a best seller with a title of reducing numbers by a favourite writer, a rich rendition of possible paths taken in an artistic life.

Immersed in its saga, he is unable to leave the book behind, checks another item off, medication, considers arithmetical probabilities, how happiness can remain a hairsbreadth away, loved photos, angled light blessing an island, shrouded reminders of a life, prowling his mind’s distant alleys, treading softly through the dark stables of the past. 

About the author: Ian C Smith’s work has appeared in, Amsterdam Quarterly, Antipodes, Australian Poetry Journal,  Critical Survey,  Live Encounters, The Stony Thursday Book, & Two-Thirds North.  His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide).  He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island, Tasmania.

Postcard from... Tarragona

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By Tim Woods:

A string of global top ten hits; a world-famous fashion icon; the star of era-defining TV shows. But when you hear ‘Minogue’, do you immediately think ‘Dannii’?

Tarragona suffers from a similarly overbearing sibling. It has everything a visitor could want from a Spanish excursion – coast, culture, cuisine and cerveses – yet for many, Catalonia means one thing: that overcrowded, football-famous metropolis up the coast. Even names such as Sitges and Salou will often chime more readily. These nearby resorts offer little more than sun, sangria and “Full English, only €15!!!”, yet still attract more tourists. Some hotels even offer trips to Tarragona as an afternoon excursion: “Only four hours there and back!!!”. Being little more than a time-killing detour from these culturally devoid upstarts must be hard for a former Roman capital to bear.

Yet could the times be changing? Barcelona’s authorities are actively turning tourists away, and there are only so many boiled-lobster beach-lovers that can be squeezed onto a beach. There is a void to be filled, a market to be served, and Tarragona is more than equipped to step up.

Late afternoon, I lose myself in the constricted alleys of its honeycomb old town, the docile ochre of the buildings disrupted by the Catalan flags that flap from every other balcony. I am hardly alone; a steady stream of tourists meander with me, and we are all eventually drawn to the steep steps of the cathedral, where perching space is at a premium. But drift along any of the streets that radiate from this central point and you have space, time, quiet; a stillness rarely found in Barca.

I head to the rambla, where I can actually ramble, rather than being jostled along with a crowd’s haste. Fish and tapas restaurants flank either side, but there are spaces to be had at the tables. The tiny bars selling home-flavoured vermouth are hidden just a couple of streets away. Later, I head to the Balcó del Mediterrani. It’s a hazy, lazy evening, perfect for outside, yet there is still ample room at the city’s prime lookout, from where you can soak up the ancient Amfiteatre to the north, or the fishing boats spinning around at sea.

Humbler Roman sites crop up unexpectedly. Next morning, in search of watermelon for a hungry toddler, we stumble upon the Teatre Romà de Tarragona. This spectacular site pops up unexpectedly; there are no signs, no tour parties, no fuss or fanfare. It’s just there, should you want to see it.

Or not. Up to you.           

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

Beacon Bound, Part IV: Momentum

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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.

As I round the corner a field comes to life, spiralling into the sky. I count twenty before they tornado away, another nine still hunched in the sun. The air is a solid wall of wings. This could be normal for all I know, but it feels like an omen: the universe flexing, a flurry of autumn heralding the end. I lift my camera too late, and through glass watch as the storm of kites blows silently over the hill.

But this is later. The day starts where we left off: by the walls of the neighbourly Church of the Holy Trinity, where we’re offered tea and biscuits before we’ve even begun. A kestrel splashes above the Ridgeway, treading water in the sky. Soon, the path is swallowed by a golf course, so we hunt for waymarks, following a trail of painted acorns. My skin prickles as I pass over dead patches on the manicured lawn – grass singed in the recent heatwave. Today, the conditions for walking are good: cool and overcast. We’ve finally made it to the other side of summer.

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Like deer, we slip across a road and into the trees, passing through alternating woods and fields of flint. The forested strips are tangled and dim, but autumn’s psychedelia is already spreading. The flash of an arum lily blazes through the late-summer green. Branches droop with dark clumps of elderberries and the shadowy orbs of sloes. Ripening rose hips blush between the leaves. Hawthorns radiate red. At intervals, we pause to gorge ourselves on blackberries, quietly marvelling at their galaxies of flavour: rich, soft, syrupy, like wine. We have entered the treasure season, when countless precious things are offered up by the earth. Happily, I tongue at a seed in my molar as acorns and conkers rain down on the approach to Swyncombe – a village where sheep-eaten trees rise from the field like bearskin hats, the culprits patrolling the grounds around the steeple-less church of St Botolph.

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The miles start to merge. West of the Thames, the path had defined sections, distinct chapters punctuated by landmarks and sudden topographical changes. There’s less drama in the Chilterns, the path meandering between field and forest, rolling from hamlet to farm. With a lack of milestones, we weave across the landscape in a daze, scattering pheasants as we sleepily kick through crabapples. At a certain point, the path drops and turns sharply northeast. This is where the storm of kites is waiting.

I freeze beneath the boiling sky.

More tree-lined avenues, more fields gilded by the intermittent sun. We pass a yew tree, its berries like bright little bells. All parts of the yew are toxic to humans: the needles, the branches, the bark. Only the fruit can be eaten – the fleshy aril – but not the seed inside, which can cause rapid heart failure due to the lethal amounts of cardiotoxic chemicals called taxine. I remember John worrying me at a young age with this strange fact, on a walk somewhere in the Chilterns. If he were here now, he might also explain that these same compounds can slow and kill cancer cells, and a number of chemotherapy drugs are developed from yew trees. This is a fact I learn later in my research, but I’m sure its one John would have known. This was his area of expertise – for years he worked as a biochemist at a major pharmaceutical company, helping to develop the antibiotic cephalosporin. I reach out. My hand hesitates by the branch. But without John here to reassure me of the biology, I lose my nerve, leaving the ripe berries uneaten.

An immense concrete structure rears out of the landscape, penetrating the hills ahead. We’ve arrived at the Stokenchurch Gap, a forty-seven-metre canyon gouged into the chalk by the M40. The motorway dominates the countryside, drowning out birdsong, polluting the fruit that lines the approach, and crowding the Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve – one of four initial sites chosen for the UK’s 1989 red kite reintroduction programme. Perhaps this explains my earlier encounter: we have found the kite’s heartland, the bird’s birthplace. The road might even serve as some kind of umbilical cord, nurturing them from the cradle with a steady stream of roadkill. I walk quickly through the underpass, aware of the weight thundering overhead. On the other side, a group of horses cowers by a hedge, sonically trapped in the shadow of the road. I wonder if they even notice it anymore, that white noise forever in their skulls.

The roar stalks us for a mile or more. Horse chestnuts lead the way towards Chinnor, already red and shedding to cover old horseshoes in the dry earth. The smell of autumn hits me here: damp and gloomy, brisk and cosy, bringing with it a hundred memories of fires, fireworks, fangs and fake blood. My parents and I sweep through the leaves in silence, the season returning us to our childhoods.

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Once more, clouds gather over the homestretch, mirroring the curves and contours of the downland below. We leave the Ridgeway at a crossroads, turning for the nearby village of Crowell, a leaden sky creeping from the west.  

We’re heading for the edge of the world.

Huge, flooded hollows appear on either side of the path. These are the remains of a former chalk quarry, now the Chinnor Chalk Pit Site of Special Scientific Interest. I catch glimpses behind the trees: white cliffs falling to ice-blue water and wading birds. My father remembers visiting the town as a child when the quarry was still in use, and noticing a layer of white dust over everything. Today, tall wire fences and warning signs stop anyone from entering. It seems like a waste – two perfect lakes cordoned off and hidden from the world. I learn later that before security increased at the site, people would sneak in regularly to enjoy the forbidden waters.

Despite the blockades, it’s a pleasant stretch, warmed by the last of the year’s sun. Dragonflies dart between unearthly plants: spidery teasels and plump, purple buddleia. Soon, we’re crossing over a road to a section of the path bustling with runners and dog walkers, shouts drifting from a nearby football match. The way opens up to the sudden sweep of the Aylesbury Vale, then continues on past tennis courts, hedges trained into unnatural shapes, and wooden fences smeared in creosote.

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We’re taken through ash plantations and over storybook hills, where house martins swell above the stubble – one final flight test before heading south. We’ve been hugging the foot of the Chilterns until now, but finally the path rises steeply up Lodge Hill. We stop halfway to catch our breath, and my father tells us about the homemade topographical maps John used to build, reconstructing the Chilterns by cutting and layering sheets of polystyrene. For the rest of the climb, I imagine myself in miniature against a white background, stepping from sheet to sheet.

Finally, we’re in the sky, with vistas reminiscent of the North Wessex Downs, Princes Risborough glittering in the distance as it catches the late-afternoon sun. Small orange butterflies spiral along the ground like fallen leaves, leading us over a railway line to meet up with the Wycombe Road, which rushes towards the edge of town. Here, we veer off, skirting the perimeter through back alleys to another busy road, where vintage cars rumble past on their way to the Kop Hill Climb car show. We’ve made it into Buckinghamshire, our penultimate county.

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A giant white cross of unknown origin, carved into the side of Whiteleaf Hill, watches us climb to the bottom of Brush Hill and into the trees. At the top, I startle a drone hovering above the nature reserve like a mechanical kestrel. It lurches in the air, regards me for a moment, then quickly whines away. I turn to get a drone’s-eye view, and I’m struck by a panorama that stretches all the way to the familiar outline of Didcot Power Station squatting in the haze. The distant smudge of the Marlborough Downs lies beyond, where we were clambering half a year and half a world ago. We’re gathering momentum – by the end of the day we’ll only be left with a handful of miles, having travelled through ancient eras and extinct kingdoms, over thousands of years: sarsens, castles, barrows and bunkers, combes, downs, towns and fields, churches, power stations, waterways and motorways, heat, sleet, wind and rain.

Unusually, the path cuts through a pub, squirrelled at the bottom of the scarp. We stop at The Plough to raise an ale to John. Nearby lies the entrance to another nature reserve: the sheltered haven of Grangelands and The Rifle Range, where sheep balance on rippling grassland, and a photographer waits patiently for the golden hour. From here, we follow the bob and roll of the landscape to the Chequers estate. We give the house a wide berth, fearfully sticking to the path as I quietly describe the plot of Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household. In the grounds, a deer tiptoes past a black pole brimming with surveillance cameras.

In the dark of an evening beechwood, I trip over roots, unsteady and aching from tiredness. We finish just before Coombe Hill – a place my father and his siblings would be brought on walks when they were young. They called it The Edge of the World. The name feels appropriate: past this point the Beacon waits. We’ll step off the edge and drift the remaining distance, like ships sailing to the Undying Lands.

The temperature is falling, the light’s bruising blue. There’s something in the air, tightening and retreating. We’ve finished another journey but we haven’t quite arrived. Autumn’s just a border.

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.

Bishop's Pool: A Poem

By Ciarán O'Rourke:

This poem has roots 
in the sea, and time: 

in Bishop's Pool, when 
we slipped the plunging sun...

and let the wrack-
blue waters 

haul and hold, com-
pletely plumb 

our bodies' bird-boned, 
drifting shiver

down to the merrow 
dark below, 

where breakers 
breathe

and the green foam 
drops 

a hundred ways
to shadow: yes, 

dropped and spilled 
our names afresh

as salt, and sand,
and a wind awash

with things we bring 
to the sea's flame,

which now (and 
every wanting season) 

lay claim 
to us again:

five shipwrecked 
mountains, dreaming mist, 

the cuckoo's eye, 
the brimming nest, 

the latch in the voice 
and lift of pain, 

the flit of a swallow
in a flense of rain, 

the wave in the blood 
and the swimming stone

that flows and falls 
by breath alone – 

like the ghosts we knew
on given nights,

soft as seals 
in the soundless light.

author pic.jpg

About the author: Ciarán O'Rourke was born in 1991 and is based in Dublin. He has won the Lena Maguire/Cúirt New Irish Writing Award and the Fish Poetry Prize. His first collection, The Buried Breath, is published by Irish Pages Press (November 2018).