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Posts Tagged ‘m5’

Shadow Trolls of the M5

Going to Othona, on a six-hour motorway drive, I took some more random pictures. Every fifteen minutes (the same frequency with which Simon Templar (‘The Saint’) would light a cigarette in the earlier novels of Leslie Charteris) I snapped a picture from the passenger window.

Result? Lots of wood-fringed banks, seen in a rushed-past blur. A representation of monotony, but my looking-eyes hadn’t noticed this sameness – what I saw (but didn’t photograph) where the novelties, the less-frequent items: the shaded concrete underbridges, home to whatever the modern equivalent of trolls might be; the glimpsed field-and-wood scenes of absurd picturesequeness, like sepia Merrie England end credits of afternoon films; the low steel angles of retail and enterprise zones; the unimaginable motorway neighbours, doing normal household things a few metres from a neverending torrent of speeding vehicles; the M. R. James flapping ghost-bags bleached in black branches; the fields I had once slogged through to get to a service station bed; the swathes of corporate colours dimmed by oily dust on lorries passed and re-passed; the raptors, the radio-masts and the hi-vis man wiping the reflective collars of traffic cones clean.

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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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