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Archive for October, 2008

Spending time in a motorway service station, early on the morning of a clocks-back timeshift, without a car to return to or an urgent need to go anywhere, is a slightly disorientating, almost hallucinatory experience.

In the cafe, a face large than any human face has any right to be; in racks, oversized soft toys with distorted mad eyes. Bright colours and the emotional undertow of muzak. Without the usual crowds, the massed logos and brands form a meaningless exhibition: visual identities called into being by the distant qabalists of global marketing meme-labs, wielding their arcane numerologies of pigment and reproduction: CMYK, RGB, Pantone; hexachrome, stochastic matrix, a chain of precision processes deployed to smear these colours in our eyes, right here, right now, triggering tiny cascades of synaptic actions leading to recognition and desire. Put another way, some guys with Macs somewhere are designing things to try and make us see where to buy stuff, then want to buy it.


Mick Jones’ strafing guitar cuts through my sleep-deprived, caffeinated musings. ‘I Fought The Law (And The Law Won)’. What is this ‘Law’ and has it defeated everyone? ‘Global capitalism’? Or something more ancient, Philip K. Dick’s Black Iron Prison (‘The Empire Never Ended’)? Humanity itself, the self-destructive species, colluding with nature to constantly erase its own past, that I found in the pages of W. G. Sebald? The Anti-Life Equation I found in a comic book?

A recorded announcement in the bandit area says ‘If you are under 18 you must leave this area immediately’. I am older than that but decided to move on anyway. I got my stuff and said farewell to the dismal (but friendly) Travelodge.

Leaving Frankley Services by the only safe route for pedestrians, I walked through Bartley Green in a bright drizzle. Sudden parkland led me to a quiet lane, old fashioned lamp-posts in the chilly silence after the dripping rain bringing a Narnia-like, Mr Tumnus atmosphere.

Finally I was moving beyond the Wolverhampton and Dudley Explorer Map (219), now reduced to a few shreds of papier mache. I started the process of ruining Birmingham (220) and walked up to the B4121, a large road into town. I spent a few minutes deciding which way to go. A plan to walk up to the University won out: I could get home on the train, do a bit of walking from there after a meeting next month, walk past Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre and have an excuse to mention the course we’ll be delivering there next year

But, after a bit of walking, I began to feel gloomy at the prospect of more roads and retail parks. I turned around, abandoned meticulous and fragile plans, to head out towards countryside. I hiked down through Northfield, pausing to eat oat bars by this Tolkein-themed traffic-light control box

Down through West Heath, where a large church at the top of a hill appeared like a vision of a mighty temple, and where advertising hoardings for new houses showed candlelit table fellowship with carefully-chosen aspirational markers: not just wine, but olive oil, too.

On the A4040 a bearded man in a black fleece stopped to talk, enthusiastically, about the walks he had done in his time. ‘Keep walking!’ he shouted heartily as we parted. I crossed the road, went through a kissing gate into a field and realised: I had crossed the conurbation, from the northern reaches of Wolverhampton to here, where the houses gave out.

Feeling that the encounter with Liminal Bearded Guy was a good sign, I strode on, up a hillside into woods – actually shouting aloud, ‘Yes!’ as it appeared to me (perhaps incorrectly) that this was actual countryside – not a canal, motorway verge, country park or corporate planting scheme. OK, it was not a wilderness or tract of untrod climax forest – but it seemed more natural than the places I had been recently. I’m not sure why this seemed such a positive thing: humans, after all, are part of nature so isn’t a grassed-over slag heap or a shopping centre seem as natural as hills and woods? I don’t know. But somehow, there at the start of the North Worcestershire Long Distance Path, a creative spirit infusing the universe seemed like a possibility. It may be hard to fight vast impersonal forces of Anti-Life, and as I personally am not God (though I did sort of walk on water yesterday) I can’t fix everything, but it seemed to me then that it is possible to make small choices to move towards life, to attempt however clumsily to tune into the source through which, in some mysterious way, ‘all manner of things shall be well’.

Muddy paths led me to the Peacock Inn, where I had a pint of Hobsons. Although a very food-oriented pub I was comfortable enough sitting by the unlit fire in my muddy gear.

Afterwards I walked down Ryknild Street for about a mile, new sunshine gleaming on wet trees, and had another beer in the Coach and Horses, a fine beer-focused place. Normally I power through these days on oat bars, water and whimsical imaginings, but I realised I was hungry and had a ham sandwich, watching the CCTV camera tracking across cars and puddles resolved into white blaze trails.

A few more miles, including quite a lot of golf course, took me to Wythall where – miraculously appearing from motorway-land having driven from Othona in West Dorset (another place where we’ll be delivering a course next year) Jennie stopped in the car and we went home.

All photos from this leg

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Pic: Merry Hill Zen garden

I wandered about the Merry Hill Centre for a bit, feeling incongruous in my hiking gear – despite the cold day, some customers were wearing shorts. It is an impressive place, one of the largest shopping malls in Europe. It was a late 80s example of privately-funded regeneration – ‘an attractive modern retail space built on the site of an old steelworks’ was its myth, with the fact that it was also built on farmland kept more quiet. In recent times however it has acquired environmental credentials rare for this type of operation – an amiable monster trying to redeem itself. There used to be a monorail here, which due to various legal, technical and economic issues rarely operated. Bizarrely, the monorail is now in Australia.

As Jennie and I did our courting here, this is a place of friendly ghosts – even on a raw cold day when the marble edges of the mall’s perimeter shell seem brutally carved into a bright grey sky.

I found it difficult to navigate my way away from Merry Hill. The endless looping roads and multiple McDonalds, Pizza Huts and KFCs confused me. I figured that Netherton was in the east and, as it was still morning, headed towards the bright spot in the sky. Luckily I started seeing road signs before needing to check which side the moss was growing on the corporate saplings. A few minutes later I was I the quiet green depths of Saltwells Nature Reserve.

Passing through woods and wetlands, I hiked up a gorse-covered scrubby hill towards Netherton church, observed by white cattle.

Getting towards Netherton and still in the nature reserve, I was excited to actually be in a wild area I had often glimpsed from the car, from where it looked inaccessible and somewhat magical, the sort of place where time might pass at a different pace, or a feral child be raised to become a great hero.

Head full of Tarzan, Lord Tyger and Stig of the Dump, I regained the road and headed down towards the town. I had a drink in the Old Swan, aka Ma Pardoes, a venerable real ale pub that has had some bad periods over the decades. It was good to see it doing well, an ideal pub in my view – quiet, multi-roomed, with nice beer and some simple food choices. I would have stayed for another, but a conversation between a man and his elderly mother, who could hear little and disliked what she could hear, and was baffled and annoyed at the struggle to understand, was depressing me somewhat. I carried on down the high street, past halloween displays and blossoming brushes.

From Netherton I headed into Old Hill, erstwhile home of Jennie’s parents and somewhere I once lived for six weeks. That house has been demolished for a while, and I expected to see a weed-grown fenced off tract. However new homes are being built on the site and look nearly finished. I had not seen these before and it was poignant – thinking of lives lived in spaces that no longer exist, and new spaces waiting to be occupied.

Moving on, past this last of the Places I Have Lived stopping off points (until Brighton anyway), I joined the Monarch’s Way, a (sporadically) waymarked path which could take me all the way to Shoreham if I stuck with it. Some canal, some hillside, some densely wooded paths – always with a warehouse or manufactory in sight.

Eventually I got beyond the navigable parts of the canal, reflecting that the whole walk, or most of it, could probably be done on waterways if defunct canals were included as well as live ones, and perhaps planned-but-never-built ones too. For instance, I know there is a dead canal near Chichester, relic of a scheme that could have made a major south coast port, connected directly to London. I’m sure I could make them all join up…

At one point I found myself, having slavishly followed the map, hacking through an overgrown embankment while looking enviously at a perfectly good path on the other side of the canal. Eventually I gave up and crossed – the canal at this point so ensilted that a desire path crossed the canal itself, my boots sinking just an inch or so into matted reeds. Soon I was crossing the A458 by the Sandvic works (or Sandtic as my mobile phone would have it) and heading out into countryside, passing the remains of a monastery – St Mary’s, Premonstratensian Order – presumably once owners of much surrounding land, under an economic system now dissolved. Light beginning to fade, I trudged on across fields, some stubbled, some newly planted.

I had wanted for some time to arrive at a motorway service station as a pedestrian. The idea of sneaking on foot into a place so obviously designed for cars and drivers had a transgressive feel to it, almost like some abstract form of deviance. In practice it proved difficult. Roads that I had imagined would be walkable had no margin where a pedestrian could avoid cars speeding around corners. Instead, I followed muddy footpaths which eventually took me underneath the M5. From there, rather than brave further debatable minor roads, I hacked through the pathless margin of a ploughed field, climbed a fence and, like the Prince seeking to awake Beauty, forced my way through brambles – finally tumbling to earth behind the garage at Frankley Services on the M5 (Southbound). Disheveled, scratched and dirty I checked in to a Travelodge, which seems Soviet-austere after the Copthorne. Jennie stopped here for coffee two days ago: it is as if our paths entwine even when we are distant.

I settled down as well as I could in a place made only for transit. The cheap room smelled of seawater, as if some guest had brought a self-contained high tide with them here into the ‘heart of England’. I had a picnic of M&S food, eaten with a spoon as I forgot to pick up complementary plastic cutlery. After a while I read the literature I had lugged for miles: The Rings of Saturn by W.G.Sebald, and a stack of Final Crisis comics by Grant Morrison et al. Sebald (or his narrator) walks East Anglia and sees ‘the remains of our own civilisation after its extinction in some future catastrophe’, his book illustrated with black and white photos of bleak and pallid landscapes. Final Crisis takes a colourful pop culture world, shared intensely by its creators and readers since our collective chidhood, into gloomy catastrophe: ‘Humankinds’s descent into the Forever Pit has begin!’ ‘…entire multiverse—avalanching into oblivion…’

Houses, monasteries and economic systems are demolished. Hearing and cognition fade in the back room of a pub. Canals choke. But, I did find a way through the darkening fields to get here; for a while I walked in the secret forest; the Fortress of Solitude has yet to be breached, and tomorrow Jennie will drive home along this very motorway, while I wander further on and head for home by a different route.

All photos from this leg

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The news this morning included an item about the sound made by stars – some unimaginable humming in the vastness of space. Rays from our own astral body, the sun, were reaching the places I passed through today making a kind of late pseudosummer, as I moved on public transport from Lancashire to Wolverhampton; from Wall Heath to Stourbridge. Between great gusts of wind, dislodging leaves rendered particularly colourful by the wet summer, there were moments of large and curious silence, seeming to say hey, how did we get here?

I reached Stourbridge, site of much mithering on the last walk, around 4pm and started walking, rising above the town on a cycle route. This took me past industrial units and into Withymoor Village, a residential area within a loop of B-road, built on reclaimed mining land. I liked this place – winding paths, greenery, willows and leylandii.

The surrounding hills (the Black Country is nothing if not hilly) a latticework of redbrick, green fields, hedgerows, and the colourful steel of industrial units. Kids playing outside (the kind of thing people, including me, say doesn’t happen any more). I liked the miniaturised heritage of this person’s wall and fence combo – the mini-reverse-portcullis and panel of stone like badges saying ‘it’s a castle right enough’:

Faded cans of Stella, a discarded BMX glove and a bag flapping in a tree did nothing to dispel a benevolent mood. A passing bunch of teenagers, slouching along Morlock-like in their hoodies, gave me slight pause – mainly as I had just been reading about a sort of fight with a similar bunch. These guys were no doubt completely harmless, for all I know a chess club or group of bellringers, but I did nevertheless fumble in my many layers of clothing to ensure a Fred Perry logo was visible, and prepare a bonding gambit along the lines of ‘I say you fellows – your chav stylings have something in common with my vaguely Mod-like attire – let us celebrate what we have in common.’

For a while I was back on the canal system, climbing the Nine Locks of the Delph. I paused for a drink at the Vine, aka the Bull and Bladder, a pub of many rooms and the brewery tap for Bathams, producers of an extraordinary straw-coloured beer. The exterior is adorned with a quote from Shakespeare, ‘Blessing of your heart/You brew good ale’ (though on an old photo inside I think it said ‘Thy Art’ instead of ‘Your Heart’ – there is probably a story to this).

As the sun set, I headed from the Vine up into Brierley Hill. This walk paralleled and, in parts, coincided with one I made c1990 when I made my way on foot from Stourbridge to Jennie‘s house, my first visit there and our second date (which may have involved seeing Gremlins 2). One of those moments from which much else flows, rivers of event cascading down the years. Seeing the street again I was struck by how beautiful these streets are; the way houses of differing design (some almost Gothically ornate, some sturdy and plain) and the occasional chapel, pub or small factory all combine into long terraces broken only with narrow alleys (I think knowns a gittens round here); the mature trees pushing up the blue bricks around their roots. Halloween decorations glistened on some of the windows, and there were spices on the breeze from the takeaways of the High Street. On the way back up the hill, I glimpsed a strange (rather Homeric) sight: three sad-faced young women in the doorway of a house, all in dressing gowns, undertaking a rapid transaction of some kind with a guy in a hi vis jacket.

From Brierley Hill I walked down to Merry Hill along new roads, much around me still being built. I found the Copthorne Hotel, my berth for the night – a large warm corporate space. Judging by the sign on a ‘Coffee/Tea Station’, the Copthorne is currently hosting the West Bromwich Building Society. Later, the sound of many people shouting/laughing and exerting themselves to endlessly beating music came from beneath a large grey hoodlike roof outside my window – perhaps the Building Society crew, indulging in one last bacchanal before the recession kicks in.

Having dumped my bag I went for a walk along the Waterfront, a canalside leisure and dining type of place near the hotel. Back in the 90s, I was fascinated by the Brewer’s Wharf, a pub new-built from old bricks. This kind of salvage-themed hyper-reality is common now of course. The Brewer’s Fayre I visited in Chester is another example of a widespread trend, whilst back in Ormskirk there are (snigger) new houses built out of reclaimed brick to resemble converted barns. I had a fancy to finally visit the Brewer’s Wharf, but peering into the window I wasn’t drawn – I could feel the overchilled lagers freezing my fillings from several yards away. A nearby Wetherspoons provided the chance to try a local beer from Lye (which was very nice).

Outside again, I explored the rest of the Waterfront. Clearly designed to attract a night crowd, it was mainly empty at this hour. Somewhere called PJs had a banner advertising ‘All you can drink for £15’ which, amusingly, had the drinkaware.co.uk URL in the corner – an incongruous and forlorn hint at ‘responsible drinking’. If selling unlimited alcohol for little money in a venue next to a canal constitutes ‘responsible drinking’, then I can’t wait to see what DrinkOblivious.co.uk are peddling. Perhaps the idea of printing small messages in the corner of huge adverts, completely contradicting the main message, will catch on – adverts for lapdancing clubs could have small print saying ‘go home to your wife, you sad git’, whilst adverts for Saw-type movies could advise one to ‘keep torture porn out of your head at all times’.

It is now Saturday morning. I’m posting this from the foyer (finally using my eeePC for its intended purpose), comfortably replete with my £3.29 breakfast from the nearby Sainsbury’s, listening to people complain about the disco noise as they check out on the other side of the gleaming marble floor. A brochure invites me to celebrate ‘A Bejewelled Christmas and New Year’ – so I need to decide – how hard and glistening do I want the turn of the year to be?

Photos from this leg

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I have a nagging sense of guilt that I don’t post enough in this blog. Perhaps there are people who keep revisiting, hoping for new stuff, doomed to frequent disappointment. (If this is you, I’d suggest getting hip to RSS feeds, for instance with Google Reader – then I’ll come to you, without you having to lift a cyberfinger, and all will be well.)

So why the infrequent posting? Well, bits of the actual walk can only happen once a month or so, especially now that I’ve reached the Midlands, and that dictates the frequency really. I could post about any walking experience as a way of keeping the blog stoked up, in which case you’d be treated to stuff like ‘Walked from home to garage to buy milk, 0.2 miles. On the way saw three Relentless caffeine drink cans in the gutter – oddly, one of each flavour, as if someone had done a high-speed taste-test. Got milk: 85p. Walked back.’ Such posts would be somewhat nugatory, and if I did a lot of them would, I think detract from the overall thrust of Walking Home to 50. (However, if you fancy a random stream of minutiae, feel free to follow me on Twitter.)

One thing that I can do between actual walks is buy books which might give some insight into the places I’m headed for. Usually I look in secondhand shops, which involves frequent encounters with the King’s England series, 41 mainly county-themed books edited by Arthur Mee, starting in the 1930s. There has been some interest in Mee recently, including a radio programme and an informative blog post by Steve Holland. I remember reading Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia and One Thousand Beautiful Things when I was small, marvelling at the wonders of nature and Empire. I also remember my Nan pointedly remarking that Mee’s Children’s Newspaper (which ceased publishing when I was about three) had been a good read, after I had forced her to take me to a newsagents so that I could buy The Mighty World of Marvel or somesuch.

The Kings England kicks off with Enchanted Land, subtitled Half-a-Million Miles in the King’s England – ‘a New Domesday Book of 10,000 Towns and Villages’. This exuberant book, a sort of metatext for the whole series, speeds around the country, rushing to everywhere wide-eyed and enthusiastic – a bunch of people seeing ‘a hundred thousand lovely things in our half million miles’. It is a bracing read, which makes visiting a carved font in a village church seem as eye-poppingly exciting and unprecedentedly new as, say, teleporting to undiscovered planets or riding dinosaurs. Enchanted Land has thematic chapters (such as The Great Roads and the Little Lanes) rather than geographical ones, so it doesn’t work well as a guidebook o gazetteer; in the index one finds ‘Past, our Wonderful’ next to ‘Patcham’.  But it is great for serendipitous discovery: Patcham church, for insyamce, has an interesting depiction of Judgement Day above it Norman chancel arch.

I recently found a book that attempts something similar but with a very different flavour: The Wayside Book by Gilbert Rumbold, published in 1934. Like Mee and his associates, Rumbold travels vast swathes of England, rattling off a series of brief comments on places visited. It is ‘a compendium of odd places wherein charm lies awaiting appreciation’, dedicated to ‘all true vagabonds who carry a silk purse and know a good living when they find it’. However, whereas Temperance-campaigner Mee was understandably disinterested in ‘hostelries’, Rumbold gives them much loving attention. Indeed, he seems almost impatient to get to licensed premises and tends to give them more space than the conventional historic attractions: ‘Near the fine castle stands the Bell hotel, another fine old inn whose interior yard has been converted into a lounge hall. Mainly Georgian in its quite graceful proportions…’ In a way his insider’s view of various ‘ancient hostelries’, coaching inns and ‘modern roadhouses’ is a precursor to today’s Good Pub/Ale/Beer Guides, and I look forward to testing out the continued validity of his views.

I see Rumbold as a slightly raffish cousin to Mee – an appropriate role, perhaps, for the man who illustrated The Savoy Cocktail Book.

In my own way (camp, tangential and misanthropic as it may be) , I also hope to ‘quench the thirst for adventure with the fine wine of romance, or the good ale of contentment’ as one of Rumbold’s vagabonds, and to set down what I have ‘seen in this Enchanted Land’ like one of Mee’s ‘recording angels’.

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