Archive for April, 2008

Seaside towns cropped up last night. Jean Sprackland mentioned places including Margate and Southport in her reading at Costa Coffee, and later I had a Portslade-vs-Southwick debate with Robert Sheppard in the Dispensary. I’m heading from one seaside town to another on this journey, so in a sense I’m in the business of shoreline resorts, though my journey will involve some miles before I see the coast again.

Southport prom

Urban explorers seek a certain lostness, which is hard to achieve in a place bisected by a shoreline. You always know where you are, as the sea is always there and everything can be oriented around it. A town or city by the sea isn’t quite fully urban. How can it be, with a massive chunk of nature at its wildest, never more than a couple of miles away? A heaving wall of water glimpsed between buildings, and gulls swooping to eat your crisps.

In his book Renegade, Mark E Smith demolishes my home town, based on its popularity with music journalists. ‘It’s funny how many of them have moved to Brighton now. All led by the devil’s compass. Cosying up to Fatboy Slim and Chris Eubank over a Sunday roast. It’s worse than London. They’ve created their own modern cultural prison. Burchill and Paul McCartney are the screws! …It’s the Guardian‘s version of The Prisoner. They’re so middle class they put pebbles on the beach so they don’t get any sand between their toes’.

MES has a point, though there is still a real Brighton that is nothing to do with the kind of lifestyle that attracts the ghastly celebrities and those who might admire them. (Far from ‘cosying up’ to the bloated popinjays of the celebrity caste, people who actually live in Brighton view the famous with indifference and disdain – merely keeping an eye on them in case they try and jump the queue or exhibit any other nikulturni behaviour. By contrast people in the North West seem to take an active, non-contemptuous interest in the residential, dietary and marital arrangements of footballers, band members and the like – a cultural difference I may never get used to.)

I like the ‘devil’s compass’ phrase (a device pointing south presumably), and the point about the pebbles is well-made. Perhaps this massive effort by the middle classes of Brighton inspired their colleagues in Southport to have the sea removed from their own beach, to avoid getting water between their toes.

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This has been the only leg so far that has felt like an endurance test. A persistent soaking rain has made it heavy going. I’m writing this at Whitchurch Station, amazed that it has only taken a morning to get there – it felt like a wet lifetime in wet lanes.
Breakfast at the Egerton Arms comprised cereal boxes in the room. I realised this morning that there was no bowl or spoon, and no staff in the building to ask for such things. I briefly considered improvising with a teacup and a penknife, but decided just to take the Nutrigrain bar and head off.

I started on the A41, watched by a large bull (reminding me of the Alan Garner book I had finished last night, where the Bull was a kind of pagan god.) By road the journey to Whitchurch is only 10 miles, but life as a pedestrian on a red road isn’t much fun, so I headed into the woods. The path skirts Broxton Hall, and stumbling on temple in the bluebell woods was a promising start.

Bickerton Hill, a National Trust woodland, was the highlight of the day, and the climb to its fortified top worthwhile for the views, even in the wet and grey.
Down from the hill, the Sandstone Trail passed through a field with what I think was another bull in it (no udders, on his own – I’m sure a non-townie would immediately recognise what I saw as something innocuous, like a sheep, but I didn’t want to take any chances).

The road was drifting towards the A41, and I thought I’d see what the roundabout (junction with the Malpas Road) offered. There might have been a garage, or even (in my hopeful imagination) a Little Chef… No such luck – just a closed down pub. So much for my theory that all crossroads are hives of commerce. Beginning to feel that a cereal bar and water aren’t sufficient rations…

I did another short stretch on the A41, but decided to head back onto paths. Watching people whizzing past, dry and warm, with unlimited access to hot beverages, was becoming annoying, even when people honked and waved encouragingly at the eccentric character on the verge (perhaps thinking it would bring them luck, like a blessing from a naked fakir). The Sandstone Trail is well-signed and well-stiled, and normally I would enjoy following it, but after a while the slogs through muddy fields and tummocky grass became a bit much, and I went back on to tarmac.


Eventually I was back on the A41 again, weary now, pack like a stone, caffeine withdrawal making the wet world seem like some strange unwelcome invention, every word an elaborate curse. And then it was over. The station has no facilities of every kind – it makes Ormskirk Station look like St Pancras – so I’m typing this to pass the time. I’m looking forward to an hour at Crewe, when hot food and drink may be a possibility…

Still, it may have been hard, but I’ve reached Shropshire and a good starting point for a future journey towards Wolves. Hopefully in the dry.

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I left Chester along the Shropshire Union Canal, on a dry, grey and intermittently windy morning. Canals can be surprising varied, and this is an interesting one, where each bridge creates its own little environment, and strange junk punctuates the long miles.



A long stretch of barges made the canal into a kind of watery street, the watercraft and sometimes elaborate moorings an unbroken row of colourful, individualist residences. One or two were burning aromatic logs against the chill; one was on the move, its drivers (?) looking cheerful with mugs of tea. (Note to self: buy Camelbak and fill with fine Assam…)

After a few miles, a watery silhouette of Beeston Castle could be seen over crow stubble fields.

I turned off the canal at Crows Nest Bridge, and walked on roads for a while until I came to Cheshire Ice cream farm. Let me just say that this place is great – as a walker I was given a discount in the tea room, with an offer of free refills for my teapot. I had a nice piece of cake and the rest of the food looked good too.

Many of the other customers were cyclists, streamlined in lycra, every piece of apparel designed to reduce wind resistance. Compared to these, I felt clumpy and flappy, like some eccentric fellow wearing a special apparatus to increase wind resistance, perhaps for a bet. The cyclists looked like a different species, elongated and elegant, like elves or aliens from a low-gravity planet. However, unlike Tolkein’s elves or Bradbury’s Martians, the cyclists are bedecked with logos – perhaps corporate sponsorship is the price they have to pay to visit our lumpen world.

From the farm I headed towards the hills south of Beeston and Peckforton castles. So far the journey has been pretty flat, partly because of the landscape and partly because of my reliance on disused railways and canal paths. This tumbled landscape came as a bit of a shock…

Around 2 I reached the Pheasant, a food-oriented pub overlooking the Cheshire Plain, the kind of place where you can query the provenance of the truffle oil and not be openly mocked. Finally I had my Chester-brewed beer, this time something called ‘Thirst Quencher’ which sounded less walk-derailing than yesterday’s ‘Devastation’.

Feeling slightly waney in the aspic afternoon, I headed onwards. The path skirted wooded hills in a series of curves.


I came down to the A553, left it for a while to cross pathless fields rather than risk the traffic, and reached my stopping point, the Egerton Arms. Not a bad place to end up, one of the large roadhouse type pubs that adorn the old lorry routes.

I explored the crossroads. A good place to bury a vampire I believe, or meet the devil. I did neither, but did meet the proprietor of the a garage-cum-bakery, a good example of roadside enterprise, but unfortunately not open early enough tomorrow for me to get supplies there.

Had some very good fish and chips, a pint of Jennings, and went to bed.

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Awake early having slept since 8pm, having had strange dreams perhaps caused by reading Alan Garner’s Thursbitch, a powerful novel of overlapping time, set in Cheshire, deep in the language, mythology and geology of the place. Morning reading somewhat lighter – ‘At Your Leisure with Premier Inn’, a free magazine left in the room. Although produced ‘In association with the Daily Mail’, it doesn’t focus exclusively on the interests of Mail readers (‘The Dover Premier Inn is a great place to relax and thrash yourself into a moral panic about immigration…’) but does offer a copywriter’s view of Britain, divided into tourist zones where ‘whichever attraction you choose, there’s always a Premier Inn close by’. Written for people in the (to me inconceivable) position of entertaining children as well as themselves, it’s full of hyped up, accelerated statements: ‘For the ultimate North West experience check out some of these great attractions: Belle Vue Greyhound Stadium…’

In this scheme, the North West is a place to ‘Do something different’, whereas the Midlands promises ‘Novel ideas for great days out’, (‘novel’ referencing the literary connections, ‘the fascinating worlds of Robin Hood and William Shakespeare, Ivanhoe and DH Lawrence’. The phrase ‘walk back through fossilised time’ brings me back to Alan Garner territory, and the track of today’s walk…


First in the pub as soon as it opens, that’s my policy – in this case 8am for breakfast in the Twirl of Hay. The plan is to stoke up on the all-you-can-eat options, enough to avoid the necessity of a lunch stop, but not so much that I become an immobilised Mr Creosote figure. It’s a friendly place and the breakfast is nice. I enjoyed sitting there as people drifted in. Background music started with a Kraftwerk track, but sadly strayed from a promising krautrock theme into more easy-listening territory. I ate porridge and looked at the motley walls of reclaimed brick, traces of paint and staining indicating the diverse origins of each brick, wondering idly if events of the past might be imprinted on objects in the environment, as suggested in numerous ghost stories such as Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape. If so, what happens when the bricks are dispersed – the outhouse wall that witnessed a fevered betrayal now divided between new-build replicas of converted barns, strategically-sited copies of olde worlde pubs, commuter-belt garden walls? Is the recorded experience replicated in all of them? Does each new construction become a massive cutup text of hauntings, or do they all blend into a supernatural emulsion?

If ghostly consciousnesses linger here, I hope they enjoy the endless music (‘Just like Starting Over’), the workaholic wifi breakfast emails, the alcoholic afternoon chasers, the daily dust settling on dried flowers, the slowly evaporating condiments…


But don’t be put off by my entropic whimsy. This breakfast gets 4 stars, the staff are great, all is forgiven on the Fayre front. I’m stoked up, like James Bond ready to ski away from Blofeld’s mountain headquarters. Hang on, that makes me George Lazenby – oh well…

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Before setting out this morning, I watched a recording of the Red Dragon movie. As I like to follow trails of coincidence as well as physical routes, in Chester I looked for some William Blake in Waterstones, one of the shops in the medieval Rows, a sort of upper storey to the streets. (The title of the film and the book it is based on, and much of the lurid action, relate to a Blake painting.) I could have got a decent hit of Blake for just £1.90 (Dover Thrift Edition) or £2.00 (Everyman), but settled for a Vintage Classics collection, selected and introduced by Patti Smith (£6.99). Massaging my post-purchase blues by the fire in the Bear and Billet, a 17th-century pub by the south city wall, I decided that opting for the costlier, fancy-schmancy, fanboy version had been a good move, if only for a quote from PS’ intro: ‘Thus we are condemned to stagger rootless upon the earth in search for our fingerprint on the cosmos‘.

Today’s staggering has been into, and out of, Chester – via outskirt streets lined with tattoo parlours, martial arts suppliers, charity shops, fancy dress hire shops, alternative therapy emporia and the like. The centre is, by contrast, resolutely upmarket – even the ‘Hed Shop’ has the alienating glow emitted when a high-end luxury-goods niche is being mined.


There is a denseness to Chester, perhaps from the accumulated layers of time – still a Roman city (‘The Empire Never Ended’, as Philip K Dick warns), with accretions from more recent periods still visible and interwoven with the modern – half-timbered Disney shop, constellations of gum on stone flags, market minstrel singing James Blunt, wifi-enabled Via Principalis.


I felt lighter as I moved away from the main drag, walking down Bridge Street – the heritage and lifestyle elements were still there, just a bit less closely-packed. (Jen: I bought an Aga! Only kidding…) I enjoyed the aforementioned pub stop (where I could have had a Chester-brewed beer, but as it was called ‘Devastation’ and had 5.2% alcohol instead settled for a nice IPA from the Isle of Man), and soon afterwards dragged my spiritually weary and uncertain bones into St John the Baptist Church, next to the Roman amphitheatre. This was once the city cathedral, and is an impressively beautiful church with a sense of a place well-used and hospitable. The Rector barrelled towards me like a visitor-seeking missile and a hearty conversation ensued. Normally I hate being accosted in places o’ worship, but this guy is OK by me: a priest who has ‘seen the worst evil of mankind’ (according to a press cutting in the porch), and who aims to raise £9m to transform the church for a wider range of uses both secular and spiritual.

From there I visited the Visitor Centre – rather desultory from a tourist point of view, but with excellent ‘bathroom facilities’. (Note to self; given age, plan route on WC availability as well as (ideally combined with) wifi access.) This is here the plastic horned helmets come from, and a starting point for walking tours. One of these, the ‘Gladiator Tour’ is advertised by a lifesized image of a fighting man covered in (but not particularly bothered by) a lot of wounds. (I’m not being sniffy – I doubt that the ‘peace and reconciliation tour’ would get many punters (‘On your left, you can see the site of the house where a Quaker merchant once provided better conditions for his clerks’) and I would have tugged at parental sleeves and demanded the Gladiator one when I was 12 – but it’s interesting that a moment comes when the bloodier details of war, wretchedness and oppression can be turned into fantasy and entertainment.)

Then out again, on the A41 – a road which could take me on much of the journey; a road we used to live a few yards from back in Wolves. Everything connects. More of the lower-rent shops, backpacker hostels in converted pubs, an astrologer, the American Excess Party Limo (a white minibus looking particularly grim in the stark grey light of a cloudy April afternoon).

By four I reached my overnight accommodation (the first to be needed on the journey) – a Premier Inn. I like Premier Inns, but am less keen on their food-partners, Brewers Fayre pubs, often found next door, and presumably run by the same company. In my experience these can be adequate, bad, ingeniously bad (serving a pie upside down so that it resembled the steak-and-kidney pudding I’d ordered) or even surreally bad (serving three small Yorkshire puddings, each with a roast potato nestling in it like and egg in an egg cup, as a surrogate for a ‘giant Yorkshire pudding filled with beef and vegetables’ requested by Jen). The menu in this motel room mentions ‘guest pie’ as one of the options, implying some Sweeney Todd arrangement between the two establishments. Nevertheless I had a look at this one (the Twirl of Hay), but the rows of chilly beer pumps and queue of people waiting to order made me think that this was one of the ‘places fit for woe’ written about by Blake. So I went to Sainsburys instead and bought grazing food.

(Outside the supermarket, a poster says ‘Life flows better with Visa’, reminding me of a flyer for the a talk about ‘Surrendering to the flow’ in a handout from the Chester Theosophical Society I glimpsed back in the Rows. Visa branding at an ontological level now…)

I’m writing this on my EeePC and would have posted it too, bringing this blog into real time, but the wifi charges here are designed for the expense-account market so it’ll have to wait… Jennie is also staying in a Premier Inn tonight, just not this one, so we’re taking advantage of the fact that we’re in identical rooms to create an illusion that we’re actually together. It’s like being at home, only more purple.


Back to my Blake book – any serious walker will find resonance in Blake’s print, The Traveller Hasteth in the Evening


All this lot of photos

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