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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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tree

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.
bickerton
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…
market

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.

signs

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.


canal


junk


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.


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…

twirl

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…

vinegar

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.


chester

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.

turrets

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.

premier

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


traveller

All this lot of photos

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Jennie suggests I might be racing through this project too quickly, and it’s true that I’m keen to press on. As David Thomas once sang in a Pere Ubu song, ‘My hands are complicated thoughts…but my feet just want to go.’ And I’m finding the process (the planning, walking, writing) exciting, revelatory – not as massive miracles, but as an unpredictable unfolding of tiny things – finding pennies, in the words of Annie Dillard, quoted by Solitary Walker.

When I look in new bookshops for things that might be helpful, I see a lot of ‘Best Walks’, ‘Greatest Landscapes’, ‘See before you die’ type books – chasing peak experiences and Sunday-supplement gorgeousness – and their shadow, the ‘Crap Towns’, ‘Everything is Rubbish’ genre. Neither seem particularly useful, so I tend to just buy maps and plan arbitrary routes. I’ve never found the famous places as memorable as the journeys to and through them and the surrounding minutiae – rather than stand and admire, I have walked on by the Golden Valley, hurried down from Golden Cap, sought out the restaurant at the Golden Temple. But a steel plate covered with blobs of glue that look like a map of islands: that’s worth stopping for:

glue ).

(Looking at this again, it’s also a self-portrait.)

Time-wise, I don’t think I’ll finish early and have to circle round Brighton in a holding pattern. Roughly, I expect to spend the remainder of 2008 getting into the Midlands, and 2009 traversing points like Milton Keynes and Leighton Buzzard. The aptly-named Odyssey sf convention at Easter 2010, back in the Heathrow Edwardian (site of a previous post), will make a nice milestone. From there I can either walk around London, or through it (though London might be too densely packed with images, history, and story – hundreds of pages of Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd, Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore et al acting as a drag coefficient…) thence down through Surrey and Sussex. Thinking about when my fiftieth year actually is, the earliest finish would be my 49th birthday in December 2010, the latest one year on. So the timing feels comfortable.

Taking stock, I’m neither chasing the perfect (or even particularly interesting) rural walk, nor seeking some ‘grim underbelly of urban Britain’. Often I seem to be entering and leaving cities, towns and villages, traversing suburban ecotones, rather than arriving at major places. I’m grateful to Mike at Beating the Bounds for reminding me of the ecotone concept. Mike quotes Solitary Walker: ‘The border between water and land at the sea’s edge. Between land and sky, or sea and sky, at the horizon. These are potent places.’ Indeed they are, though in my case I expect to see little of wilderness – more the interstices between residential and farmed landscapes, industry and leisure, geography and biography. But nonetheless the potential for the numinous is everpresent: hence my title. (Thinking of a line from Alan Moore’s Unearthing; ‘This is it, this is real, this lamp-glow that’s inside the world like torchlight through a choirboy’s cheeks, the mystical experience of Gilbert Chesterton’s absurd good news…’). The work of walking (eloquently described by John Davies) is unbereaving me from the inevitable losses of living.

nothrough

(Since purchasing my EeePC I may also be navigating towards WiFi hotspots…)

Basically I suppose I’m trying to travel with open eyes, see places and my own times and stories from new angles, make new connections…

Next week, hopefully, I’ll move on from Chester and strike down through Cheshire into Shropshire. More then.

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This book deserves the full title; indeed, it seems naked without the full title page:

A

PERAMBULATION

OF THE

HUNDRED OF WIRRAL

IN THE

COUNTY OF CHESTER

WITH AN ACCOUNT OF THE PRINCIPAL HIGHWAYS AND BYWAYS, OLD HALLS
ANCIENT CHURCHES, AND INTERESTING VILLAGES SITUATED
BETWEEN THE RIVERS MERSEY AND DEE
BY

HAROLD EDGAR YOUNG

WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY

WM. FERGUSSON IRVINE, M.A., F.S.A

ILLUSTRATED WITH MAP, AND FIFTY-NINE PLATES

“Oh, piper, let us be up and gone!

We’ll follow you quick if you’ll pipe us on,

For all of us want to go there.”

LIVERPOOL

HENRY YOUNG & SONS

1909

I first saw this book at the end of my walk to Chester – the bookshop on the city wall had it for £40. Although attracted by the synchronicity of finding a book containing accounts of a walking journey through places I had just been, albeit a century earlier, I was too mean to buy it at that price. Back home, I tried to access it from the Lancashire library service, who do indeed have a copy – however it is only available to be viewed in a lead-lined basement, wearing white cotton gloves and supervised by the Borough Archivist, who is authorised to draw a sidearm from the stores and use lethal force if one cracks the binding or adds annotations. So I compromised and bought a copy from the internet, which still set me back £20, is a second edition and foxed to buggery, onto which I have now spilled some red wine. Moral: if the universe is kind enough to put the right thing within your grasp, then take it there and then, if it feels right and you have £40 on you.

It is a lovely book. One can purchase a ‘new’ version, on CD – as a set of PDFs, not an audiobook, which is a shame – I would love to hear sentences such as ‘It is true that Mrs. Hilda Gamlin produced her book entitled “‘Twixt Mersey and Dee”, [which] would probably have been rewritten, had not Death laid his icy hand upon the authoress some years after she had published her work’, or ‘Westward, like the course of empire, let us take our way, and New Brighton is soon left behind’ declaimed with the enthusiastic spirit that runs through the chapters. ‘Enthusiastic’ is the book’s defining characteristic – I sense that the author set out to really do justice to the place of his birth, by experiencing it fully and giving a thorough account, both of the place and its history.

The introduction locates the Wirral in literary myth as a well as history: ‘When Sir Gawayne sought for the Green Knight, we are told that he came in his wanderings into “the wyldrenesse of Wyrale,” but no-one had heard of the object of his quest, and so he left this wild and pitiless region; a land that, in the words of the Petition of the “poor commonality of Wyrall” in 1376, “had suffered great harm, damage and destruction” from the beasts of the forest, so that even the Churches were desolate and Divine services withheld.’ By the time of Young’s perambulation, things were looking up, as he describes ‘the fresh green fields and flowery country lanes of the Cheshire peninsula and the varied views of mountain and sea…’ (rendered into country parks, suburbs and beast-free golf courses in time for my visit.)

Young himself brings more delightful quotations: Leland, who visited the area in the 1530s in his role as the King’s Antiquary, reels off stuff like ‘This Hillebyri at the floode is al environid with water as an isle, and than the trajectus is a quarter of a mile over and 4. fadome depe of water, and at ebbe a man may go over the sand. It is a bout a mile in cumpace, and the ground is sandy and has conies.’ In 1621, William Webb, Clerk to the Mayor’s Courts of Chester, struggled to describe the shape of the peninsula: ‘The nearest resemblance I can give it, is the sole of a lady’s left-foot pantofle…narrowing again until it points with the tip of the toe upon Chester liberties.’ (I find this marvellously poetic, despite or perhaps because of the fact that I do not actually know what a pantofle is, what or where the Cheshire liberties are.)

The beasts may have calmed down a bit, but turbulent times have been experienced here: ‘As a reprisal for some predatory expeditions of the men of Wirral, [the Fourth Earl of Chester] ordered their farms destroyed, and afforested the whole district’, which was later ‘disforested’ when the ‘shelter if afforded to… freebooters’ caused problems to the citizens of Chester, who decided that the kind of neighbours who live in the woods were more trouble than the predatory farmers. (Interesting to consider the creation of forest as a kind of biological/economic weapon, and the unintended social side effects of its use.)

The bulk of the text is an evocative, knowledgeable and detailed account of the author’s impressions of the Wirral. ‘It was as fine a May morning as a man might wish to breathe upon when Ellesmere Port was left behind and the road to Whitby stretched ahead, and I went whistling on my way to Stoke’ is indicative of the style: he is an upbeat companion. The 100-year gap between our journeys is long enough for much to have changed, short enough for much to have stayed the same. When Young was writing, New Brighton had ‘altered greatly for the worse, and again for the better, during the past century’ – I could say exactly the same (though not without wishing I had witnessed the ‘degenerate days, when…the sands were disfigured with all kinds of cheap shows suitable to the Chowbent cheap-tripper’). One of the 59 plates shows water and sand some yards below the current level of Parkgate silt. And yet Port Sunlight looks exactly the same, and walking on Caldy Hill, I hope that one may still ‘put up a nightjar’.

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