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.