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Archive for the ‘Approaches’ Category

‘It was a good day to start something – fresh blue sky, a rainwashed town, smell of new air’ I wrote, back in January 2008, on the first day of this walk. Today was to be the last day and once again the sky was blue. Instead of after-rain freshness there was the scent of another hot day in a run of hot days, still cool but promising scorching long hours. It was Easter Monday.

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I put on the boots I have worn for the whole journey, still spattered in Sussex mud. Blessed on my way at the doorstep by both mother and wife, I hiked on past the rowan trees of the street I was raised on. Since 1969 I have walked this was hundreds, maybe thousands of times – to play with other kids; walk to school, college, work; walk over to pubs in Hove to see my friends. Every version of me walks this route.

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The Old Village High Street. If all identically-named streets are connected in some way, this street links to thousands of others, including some with rather different characters, such as Edinburgh’s ‘Royal Mile’.

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Cracks on curiously-sited tourism display reveal arcane epicentre – some Hove hellmouth perhaps.

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The Old Village – the big building was a brewery but has been a factory for several decades. I have read that a Canadian soldier brought a bren gun down from the roof and shot a local man during the war.

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Twitten (‘alley’) between the infants’ and junior schools I attended. Where the fence is now used to be railings, where the padlock that holds the world together used to be. (This was a giant padlock someone fixed to a rail in about 1973. It fascinated some of us from the school and many of us tried to get it off. No-one did and it was there until last year, sometimes with a tiny weed growing from the lock. On visits home I would always walk down here and give it a rub, for luck or something like it.)

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Once again I ran down the slope to Victoria Park, where I read my way through the science fiction shelves of the adjacent Portslade Library. Happy days of The Atrocity Exhibition and Dead Fingers Talk. No trees in those days.

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Sign without a signifier – but you can add your own.

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Path beneath the railway, with licensed graffiti. Ground-up lighting gives this tunnel a slightly spooky air, applying a Karloffian look to the most harmless individual.

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Following the twitten-route beside the back of Tesco – an ancient right-of-way, still with some flint wall. Apartments with balconies have appeared fairly recently suggesting some kind of gentrification project. Maybe one of my other selves has breakfast on one of those balconies.

And so I arrived back where I left off walking, back in February, rejoining that version of myself and getting ready for the final walk.

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Bit of an update…

Next week I hope to do another leg of the walk, and thereafter to try and regain the once-a-month schedule I used to manage.
I’m still pondering whether to traverse London, or to to skirt around the western fringes. “Think of the power you’ll gain by merely brushing the metropolis with your left sleeve!” suggested Nick Papadimitriou and John Rogers from the excellent Resonance FM show Ventures and Adventures in Topography when I asked their advice. I’ll bear that in mind.

Meanwhile I’ve been finishing a shortish book about my adventures in heart surgery. It’s called Bypass Pilgrim and will be available soon through the usual channels. I’ve put together a blog/site about it including samples of the kind of stuff on the pages inside the covers.

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A bypass – see what I did there?

Meanwhile in Argleton – here I am at the epicentre, as photographed by Mike Nolan – expect more media coverage of the cartographic phenomenon on the 18th of September

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Saturday at home, awake early, I read a bit of London Orbital, the account of Iain Sinclair’s pre-millennial trek around the M25. As I drift towards London, I want to avoid literally walking in Sinclair’s footsteps. This doesn’t seem likely on the next stretch, as I will be walking outside the M25 while Sinclair and companions were on the inside. I did, however, learn that author Arthur Machen lived out his last years in Amersham, a place I would be passing through later that day.


A desire path on Tesco supermarket territory in Amersham, taken last visit

I walked through Amersham on the last leg, and tonight I would be getting the train there as it is the nearest station to Chalfont St Giles, at least the nearest that looked like it would have a taxi rank. The Machen connection helped me decide what reading matter to take: I pulled down the Ballantine Adult Fantasy edition of The Three Impostors that I had been meaning to read for some time, and in a casual act of modern thaumaturgy downloaded his Great God Pan to my iPhone. The latter I have read, a classic weird tale. ‘There is a real world, but it is beyond this glamour and this vision, beyond these ‘chases in Arras, dreams in a career,’ beyond them all as beyond a veil. I do not know whether any human being has ever lifted that veil…’ (Flashback to lyrics from Leave the Capitol by the Fall, ‘The tables covered in beer…It’s a hand on the shoulder in Leicester Square/It’s vaudeville pub back room dusty pictures…I laughed at the great god Pan…All the paintings you recall/All the side stepped cars…’)

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Such things would have to wait for today – my career is not just a torrent of dreams and I was working at a university open day until early afternoon, so it was a few hours before I was striding down St Helens Road, disengaging my workmind, thinking and walking my way back into the route. The train journeys were remarkably speedy – in a sense the starting points have moved closer to home compared with places like Milton Keynes that involved slower trains, changes and waits. Amersham has always fascinated me, being both a country town visited on holiday and the farthest outpost of the London Underground, right in the top left of the famous map. It seemed to join unrelated worlds together. As a teenager when I finally made the trip out from London I was disappointed that the Tube train wasn’t underground the whole time – I wanted to hurtle straight from the city of palaces, museums and bright shops to Amersham’s half-timbered High Street without seeing daylight, passing through a series of ever-quieter underground stops.

Despite this disappointment I’ve been back a few times. One time we stayed at a hotel that had appeared in Four Weddings and a Funeral, while being guests at a real wedding. And then there was another time, back when eating food cooked in pleasing ways seemed intrinsically interesting, I arranged a birthday trek for Jennie involving every meal of the day being a nice one in a different town, ending up at an Amersham restaurant called Gilbeys. (Actually this makes us sounds like rampaging gourmands – the meals in question were with relatives and lovely friends like Phil & Di.)

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The White Hart garden next morning

On this night however I spent about two rainy minutes in Amersham and immediately got a taxi to Chalfont St Giles. I was staying at the White Hart, a pleasant food-oriented pub with comfortable accommodation in a separate chalet-like block. There I had an enjoyable dinner, delicious things served on beds of other things on oversized white plates. The decor was a kind of mashup of ‘fresh-clean-modern-bright’ with an underlying pub-ness, silvery abstract prints over the log fire.

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Subsiding into a pleasant tired haze, I started The Three Impostors, a strange episodic non-novel. It will make a great non-guidebook to London once I have crossed the M25 to walk there next year, helping to conjure it as a city of strange encounters where ‘the most ordinary encounters teem with significance’ and chance discoveries lead to Gothic adventures. In Machen it’s never very far from the prosaic world of tobacco-shops and cafes to darkening hills and uncanny ruins, ‘light shining on a little space in the world, and beyond, mist and shadow and awful forms’. For a brief while armed with books like this and an Oyster card maybe I can be ‘one of those whom idleness had led to explore these forgotten outskirts of London’, courting enchantment.

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On a hot, sunny summer evening we drove southwards. After crossing the Runcorn Bridge the traffic was pretty slow, so we stopped for something to eat in a pub called the Chetwode Arms –  bit pricy but a good bolthole from the A49 (known in our household as the ‘old lorry route’.) A few hours later we reached our destination for the night, the Premier Inn at the services on the M6 Toll Road. As well as being a handy position, this appealed to me as not only is it on the country’s best modern road, it is also near Watling Street, the Anglo Saxon trackway. An interweaving of ancient and modern routes seemed like a good place to doss down.

We have stopped here before – back on Valentine’s Day I was fantasising about the fate of a trapped bird here – but never overnight.

Staying here made it seem more real, although it retained vestiges of unreality. Glimpsing the bright food/retail are through doors mere yards from where we had slept (enjoying the trademarked and quality assured Premier ‘Good Night’) was odd, like stumbling out of bed to see a different country in the next room.

Early next morning I explored the immediate environs of the services. I spotted some wildish growth on a low hill, with what looked like a cairn at the top. I didn’t quite believe it would be an ancient artefact, but thought an artwork of some kind was a possibility.

I walked up to discover that this was, in fact, a Roadchef branded bin for the benefit of picnickers.

The non-cairn offered a great view of the services, gleaming in the morning sun and protected from evil forces by some rowan trees.

We had a hasty breakfast in the food courtural area.

Later, we stopped in a different services with what looked like much the same curve-roofed eating space.

It occurred to me that I’ve never eaten in a giant works canteen, like the one in the Burton factory I was writing about recently, but I’ve been in countless vast leisure canteens in service areas and malls.

Finally we were heading towards the start of the walk. It was shaping up to be a hot day. On the radio, a lady was talking about the thirty years she had spent seeking the big cats of Britain – roaming beasts that many consider to be mythical. Despite the poverty resulting from full-time cat-seeking she had ‘had a ball’ pursuing elusive, beautiful creatures. I don’t have her dedication to the cause, with my day-job and other hobbies, but maybe my autobiogeographical quest has some similarity to hers. For both of us a camouflaged detail (a shadow glimpsed on a hillside, or a special shape falling) may be worth running after in expectant delight.

To be continued

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