Walking with Adrienne Scullion on 23 August 2014

September 13, 2014


 Saligo Bay to Machir Bay, Islay

I am walking with my friend and colleague, Adrienne. Late August in Scotland can feel like early autumn, but waking up in Port Charlotte today, the sun glistening off a calm and beautifully clear Loch Indaal, summer is still here at least. It’s many years since I’ve visited Islay and my return this weekend is a trip that pays homage to an inspirational teacher and unforgettable role model, Dr. Alasdair Cameron. Alasdair, a Senior Lecturer in Theatre Studies at the University of Glasgow, taught both Adrienne and me during our undergraduate degrees. His door was permanently open to whoever should happen by, and no matter how busy, the interrupter was always greeted with a warm smile and a witty bon mot or three. Impeccably turned-out, always in-the-know and generous with his naughtily camp but razor-sharp insights, Alasdair’s open-door was irresistible to me. I suspect he was my gay version of Miss Jean Brodie and I sought desperately to be one of his ‘girls’.  A couple of years after graduating I remember asking Alasdair if he thought I should do a PhD. His reply might very well have been the tipping point: ‘There should be more people like you in the academy’. In 1994, at the age of 41, Alasdair died from an AIDS-related illness. The sudden death of this gregarious man was truly inconceivable.

Alasdair is buried on Islay, his gravestone overlooking Loch Gruinart. The day before our walk we visit and I leave a small bunch of purple blooming heather. Alasdair, an expert in Scottish theatre, taught me about repetitive stage representations of tartan and kaleyard. He would, I am sure, smile at this Romantic and overly-dramatic mise-en-scène, one that nevertheless brought tears to my own eyes as I looked over the wall onto the peaceful loch. Och Alasdair, Alasdair, could ye no have bided a wee while longer?

The walk Adrienne chooses the next day goes from from Saligo Bay, located to the west of Kilnave chapel and looking out to the Atlantic, to Machir Bay. The land just south of Saligo Bay is known for its ‘Arches’ and a sign on a roadside gate, ‘TO THE ARCHES’, helpfully points our way. (We do carry a guidebook but simply keeping the sea to our right is easier than matching the description on the page to the land we are on.) Avoiding a herd of cows – with calves in their protective sights  we drift towards the rocky edge to inspect the geology. I expertly pronounce this as ‘like filo pastry’ (by which I mean, of course, lava residues). We are looking out for the ‘Arches’, anticipating large arch shapes worn into the rock. Staying well away from precarious looking edges we come to a dramatic, deep inlet, and conclude that this is must be the ‘Arch’. Our walk then moves a little inland, crossing short, sheep-worn grass – boggy in only a few places. The horizon is long, the skies blue. Flocks of sheep are the only visible other animals sharing this space. Looking back, we see the impressive rocky outcrops just north of Saligo Bay that resemble the architecture of Sydney Opera House (Dun Bheolain hills, apparently known locally as the Sleeping Giant). A small bothy-like structure on our own horizon acts as a magnet, pulling us up a short incline and southwards. On closer inspection, it’s a breeze block shed – complete with locked door – rather than a shelter, but we stop for a drink anyway and a look at the guidebook (which we manage to leave behind – luckily the sheep are uninterested and it awaits our retrieval on the return journey). From this vantage point, the curve of the next bay – our destination – begins to reveal itself and we head towards the shore.

A wooden shed has been strategically erected between the two remaining gable-end walls of an old stone croft. Around the corner and we get our first view of the stunning Machir Bay – a huge expanse of sand – some 2 kilomeeters – with just a few dark dots – ant-like people – scattered over it. A meadow alongside us is sunned with hundreds of large blazing-yellow dandelions.

On the beach at last, the tide is far out. The huge space is almost empty, save for a few families, one building a dam of sand across a rivulet, another walking a dog and flying a kite. The beach is also startlingly clean, no flotsam or jetsam or even any shells. We take off our boots and socks and head over the cold, rippled sand towards the water. Our step into the ocean is heralded with sharp intakes of breath and startled exclamation: It’s absolutely freezing! Albeit utterly invigorating. No-one is swimming out there today. Moments of sunshine still glance through the now low-gathering silvery clouds, but the water is pure Baltic (as we’d say in Glasgow). It’s too cold to get ‘used to’ so our paddle is appreciated but short. The waves are streaked with a thin strip of white surf. We drift along the beach towards the one piece of driftwood spotted on the far side. A perfect spot to eat our packed lunch and rest our feet for a bit, digging toes into sand to enjoy the softness and warmth.

This is the final walk of 40 Walks and there’s a predictable irony in the fact that this last one is taken in the company of a friend I see on an almost daily basis. It’s taken more than four years to organise, but what a wonderful place to end. And of course accompanying me on this final walk is not only Adrienne, but also my inspirational teacher Alasdair. It’s a surprise and a joy to be walking with him close by me today. Looking out onto the empty, beautiful Machir Bay, my view is wide open.








Walking with Graeme Miller on 19 June 2014

July 11, 2014

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Greenhithe to Swanscombe Peninsula

I am walking with Graeme Miller, who walked into my life some years ago with such a vibrant intelligence that I was determined to keep him in it. Sending a 40 Walks invitation in 2009 and holding him to delivering on it proved to be a successful strategy.

I haven’t seen Graeme for a few years and when he meets me at Bethnal Green, there’s a brightness in his smile and a lightness in his step. It’s a contagiously joyful and enthusiastic energy. Graeme seems to be buzzing with life, alive as the teeming city around us. We drive across the Thames in the heat of the morning sun and on to Greenhithe, Kent, parking the car in a cosset of pendulous purple-haze buddleia. Down at the Thames estuary, the tide is out and mudflats traced by snaking rivulets. Crisped seaweed on the pier remarks the tidal swells. To our distant west, the Dartford Bridge stretches impressively between the river’s banks (139,000+ vehicles per day). To our near east, a newly built housing complex, showing just how extensive the regeneration of this area is. The Thames, as Graeme points out, literally pointing to the few boats going up and down, is still a working river. But only just, only sparsely. Imagine what the river traffic would have been like last century? (Graeme himself, with his long history of making work about land, has more recently become a water man. He is restoring a boat which he will soon put back onto the water, learning new skills of naviation.)  Though there’s not much on the river, Graeme’s attention rests on what might be described as a floating scrap store. “Need a section of steel piping? I know just the place” – though getting it out from under all the other steel pipes might take skill. In contrast to the floating scrap yard, the banks of the housing estate are neatly trimmed, though we appreciate that some wild-grass edgelands have been left to blossom in yellows, pinks and purples.

The low tide affords us rich pickings on the shoreline too – quite a few coconuts, fake (plastic) garden topiary, a shuttlecock, water-weathered timber, tautened thick ropes, gleaming white chalk chips from the land, multi-coloured plastics. The housing development ends suddenly – some of it not yet finished and so unoccupied – and we step into another sort of landscape, a commons with tall grasses, just a strip cut to allow walkers and their dogs. A child’s large pink toy car sits incongruously on the mud flats, looking as if parked there carefully and deliberately, waiting for its owner to return and drive it away again. A pleasure yacht tacks up the river. Wooden groynes, slowly rotting away, look like jagged sharks’ teeth, jutting up viciously from the sand. The Broadness Marshes are pretty dried out, a brown needled Christmas tree stranded when a wash receded. In the distance stands the UK’s tallest electricity pylon (190 metres) – its sister towering on the opposite bank in Essex.

We walk over, around, through what would once have been a large industrial site, concrete foundations and rail tracks still visible in places. Most striking, though, is the re-appropriation of the land by nature – banks of wildflowers seemingly perfectly co-ordinated in their hues like a paint colour-chart of various shades of pink that subtly become purple that in turn become blue. Even the graffiti seems to be colour-matched to its background. The climbing plants have opportunistically turned the industrial leftovers into garden furniture – old ladders an ornate arch for ivy, barbed wire a structure for curlicue foliage. The rusting, industrial ironwork is softened through floral embraces.

Following the edges of the Marshes we wind our way towards the formidable pylon. Its fretwork is, to my eye, beautiful; precisely symmetrical and disorientatingly chaotic all at the same time. Standing at its dead centre, tilting my head back to look up, I feel the thrill of reverse vertigo (the same sort of feeling I had when I experienced Graeme’s installation, Beheld). On the other side of the pylon, an equally stunning though natural feature – a field thick, almost rolling, with waves of purple-blue vetch. The colour and shape of the flowers remind me of bell heather.

At the next curve in the land, we have reached the tip of the Swanscombe Peninsula. On the edge of the river, across the indent of water, a small figure sits fishing, alone, the background hulk of a massive car transporter making him look even more vulnerable. This Peninsula enfolds something of a magical secret – the Broadness Marsh Moorings. These moorings provide a home – literally and figuratively – to the boatmen whose boats are sheltered here. Perched on the edges of the piers, in various states of precariousness, are huts, shacks, shelters. The sturdiest is a caravan, with its own landscaped garden (resting place of much-loved pets too, we think, noticing the wooden crosses in the ground). The most fitting to its context is the modest hut with a chimney flume poking through the roof and well-kept yacht moored at the front door. The humour of this peninsula community is signalled by the Post Office sign attached to the door of another hut. Some of the buildings, if that’s what they can be called, are sinking slowly to a watery grave. It’s a hotchpotch architecture, fascinating, alluring and utterly unexpected.

Graeme tells me that planning permission has been granted to Paramount for the construction of a massive theme park on these Broadness Salt Marshes. What a shame. What a crime. But one thing is certain. When the theme park has itself turned to dust in a post-leisure, bankrupt landscape, the flowers and grasses will return. And maybe, too, moorings such as this one, places hunkering down and nesting unnoticed in the margins of over-consumption. Places where different ways of living are imagined and lived.

Walking with Beanie Bell on 25 April 2014

May 5, 2014

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I am walking with my good friend Beanie. Beanie and I have been friends since our undergraduate days in Theatre Studies. The second walk I did for 40 Walks was with Beanie’s daughter, Eloise. And now I’m at Walk 38. I am so immensely glad that we are here, taking time out to walk in Fortrose. We both reckon it’s probably nearly a decade since we’ve managed to spend this sort of time together (just the two of us, and for more than a few hours). I’ve never been to Fortrose (typical West Coaster). Beanie’s grandparents lived in the Muir of Ord and during the summer she and her family would spend weeks there, taking daytrips to nearby spots – Fortrose being one of them.

We alight from the bus just a bit after ten, and our first stop is to drop our overnight luggage in the Anderson hotel. The second stop is the Cromarty bakery on the High Street – one of two bakeries in what is really little more than a small village (two bars, two restaurants, two bakeries, Co-Op, Post Office, antique shop, hairdressers). I treat myself – in readiness for a long walk! – to a two course meal: a macaroni pie followed by a delicious slice of almondish cake topped with caramel icing. All washed down with a strong cup of builder’s tea. We sit on the benches outside the Catholic church, appreciating that in spite of forecasts, it’s dry (though it’s always drier here, and 40 Walks has not yet let me down).

Duly fortified, Beanie leads the way to the beach – a short walk along the High Street and down past Fortrose Academy (and a useful bench built by its pupils). We also pass by the campsite where Beanie, Jess and the kids stayed last summer – pretty empty today, but it’s still early spring even though blossoms are blooming, and the yellow of the gorse is energisingly vibrant. (Smell that coconut scent.) The skies brighten enough for Beanie to put on her cool sunglasses.

The beach is a beautifully stony, expansive and totally empty stretch of land. We survey the thousands of stones like treasure hunters, looking out for special specimens, choosing carefully the couple we commit to carrying in pockets for the duration of our walk. Many of the stones are patterned in lines etched through blocks of colour. Seaweed deposited on one has transformed it into a cheery, smiling face – a suitable icon. I pocket a stone that gleames with silver and another that calls out to me in its honey coloured smoothness.

We’re so busy stone hunting that we don’t see the group of people congregated near Chanonry Point until we’re nearly upon them. And then we notice that they are all looking out to the Moray Firth – a few of them sporting powerful camera lenses. Dolphins! Just out there! A fin, a sleek black curved back, then nothing; a fin, a sleek black curved back, then nothing; a fin, a sleek black curved back, then nothing… We watch the bottlenose dolphins as they emerge, then dive, trying to guess where they will emerge again. Thrilling. Lucky. We aim our cameras and shoot, over and over, hoping for the best (but in the event, as we will found out later, largely failing save for a few blurred black spots). It’s difficult to tell how many dolphins there are, but we reckon on about three. (It’s early in the season for dolphins.)

Arriving at Chanonry Point and the lovely lighthouse (first lit 1846), the cold wind hits us. The point is a remarkable land feature, seeming to cut the Firth into two. On the other side of the point, the beach changes entirely, from smooth stones to fine sand, deep rusty coloured. The remains of four sandcastles resist the gusts. The long beach ahead of us, like the one now behind us, is entirely empty. (The dolphin watchers seem to disappear with the dolphins.) Steps suspended in air tell a tale of coastal erosion.

We are headed for Rosemarkie Bay, site of Beanie’s childhood forays. As we get nearer, the large rock in the distance is pointed out – a landmark of childhood that anchors memories in place. At the Rosemarkie Bay café (community owned), a number of benches, personalised with names and images carved into the wood memorialise loved ones in idiosyncratic rays. We follow the beach round the bay and I understand why this spot would be the site of choice for young explorers – interesting rock formations (for climbing) which nest clear rock pools (for fishing). I can easily imagine my younger self whiling away happy hours.

After a welcome cup of warming tea in the café, we head off on the second stage of our walk – leaving the sea and heading inland to the Fairy Glen, an RSPB Nature Reserve. The wildflowers are beginning to blossom here too, though the trees remain largely bare. The path follows burns and streams, wooden bridges leading us up to two beautiful waterfalls. Thinking of Eloise and Hector, we keep an eye out for likely fairy homes (spotting a fantastic one in the base of tree trunk). At the end of the glen, we emerge out onto the road and with a bit of judicious map-reading (ho ho) head towards a quieter B-road which – if our planning is correct – should lead us back to Fortrose.

It’s nice to emerge from the cover of the Fairy Glen into more open skies. A steep hill carries us past young a Christmas tree plantation and a very spooky bungalow (backing onto a dark forest). We are aiming for a good view over Fortrose and though we doubt ourselves, in due course the view is indeed gifted to us as the town and the Moray Firth open up below. It’s a fantastic vantage point, showing the route we’ve just walked, the point and the two bays each side of it. It’s been a long and lovely day of walking and by the time we reach the bottom of the hill, we have earned our refreshing pints – appropriately called ‘Windswept Blondes’. We two windswept blondes drink them down gratefully, sitting beside the wood burning stove of the Anderson’s. Fortrose, I will surely be back. Beanie, thank you for introducing me to the East and to a little bit of your past, as well as to your future (I know you will be back here too).

Walking with Alex Kelly on 19 September 2013

September 25, 2013

Berwickshire Coastal Path Border Walk

I am walking with Alex Kelly. Alex was born in Walsall, lives in Sheffield, and works in Sheffield and Leeds (as well as travelling a lot with the theatre company, Third Angel). His mum was born in Drumchapel, lived in Dundee, then Dublin and for many years in Walsall, but returned to Scotland some time ago and now lives in Innellan. (My brother used to live in Innellan too.) Next year, there will be a vote on Scottish independence. Coincidentally, Alex is developing an interest in borders, and at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, he participated in The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project. I didn’t see him in that, but I did see him in his show, Cape Wrath, where he recounts following his Scottish grandfather’s journey to Cape Wrath. Alex had originally planned on us walking across the causeway to Lindisfarne, but seasons and tides transpired against us, whilst the border called us. Sometimes, a walk just seems to make sense.

As we leave the train station and make our way through the border town of Berwick- upon-Tweed, I am grateful for my waterproof trousers and jacket. Alex was last here a decade ago, with co-director of Third Angel, Rachael, for their project Pleasant Land. They travelled around England asking people about their own Englands and what Englishness meant. Alex and I try to work out how long we have known each other and think we probably met about that time, probably 2001/2.

Walking out of Railway Street we are greeted by the town’s grand angel statue, whose gaze sends us down Castlegate and then Marygate. Alex navigates us on to Church Street and though we miss Walkersgate we pass by the misnamed Sporran Gift Shop – which does not have a single sporran in its window, but does have lots of football memorabilia (Old Trafford signs, Newcastle football scarf, Anfield wall clock…) Heading towards the old town walls, we are soon beside the sea – the very edge of England (always a dizzying thought). We make our way down to the children’s playground – imprinted in Alex’s memory because of its round benches, offering 360 degree panoramic views. It was these very benches that inspired him to begin documenting benches and showing and telling about them in his Words and Pictures project.

Back up the hill and we walk in front of the forlornly empty caravan park (which we agree must have a rule about colour scheme since every single caravan is an off-white shade). We are beside the cliff edge now (Danger Loose Cliffs), looking down on the pummelling waves and listening in awe to their hollowing bellowing as they beat against the red rock face. We are forced to step onto the well-kept golf course, which in its carefully managed straight lines perched atop a jut of land, resembles a surreal aeroplane runway. I do not have a head for heights and stand well back from the edge. A field of sunflowers casts a backward glance to summer. The forecast was for rain till 2pm. Miraculously, at 2pm – an hour into our walk – it stops raining.

The watery architecture of this coastline includes stacks, caves and arches, sea and stone engaged in a long-duration formation. The surface of one of the arches is home to a great flock of cormorants and I think I spot gannets flying by too (I am kicking myself for not bringing my binoculars). There are birds that, from this distance, resemble penguins, but we know this cannot be the case (though we enjoy entertaining the fantasy). As we look back at the route travelled, the edgeness of our journey is made tangible. We really are on the edgelands here. But we are also almost on the borderlands too. Another caravan park – this one seemingly more exclusive than the last – provides an imitation of suburbia (static caravans complete with sun decks, cellars, gardens). A sign informs us that the Scottish border is half a mile away and soon Alex spots in the distance the tell-tale signs of blue and white – the Saltire flag hoving in to view. A perplexing notice informs us that the public footpath has been legally diverted – from where and to where is a mystery though. The path we follow is a large, mowed swathe of green grass. As we walk along it, we startle pheasants and a huge, bounding hare. And then we are at the sign – Welcome to Scotland/Fáilte gu Alba, erected in front of a wooden kissing gate. We presume that Scotland lies on the other side of this gate – a gate which we are instructed to ‘Please close’.

On the other side of the gate we indulge in some well-earned lukewarm Earl Grey tea from my flask, and some super sweet sugary tablet (courtesy of Alex’s mum and her partner). It’s what we happen to have on us, but it could be a rendition of sorts of Scotland and England. Just above us lies the train track, with impressive railway signage heralding this border crossing – the lion and unicorn facing each other. As we turn to look back across the border, towards England, we are struck by the fact that there’s no announcement that you are about to leave Scotland and enter England. All there is to see is the reverse – grey – side of the Scottish sign.

As we stand momentarily in Scotland, the sun begins to hint from behind the thinning clouds. It’s time to take off rain jacket and woolly hat and to make our way back in to England and back along the edge of that country. The return trip takes about half the time – surely a side effect of all that sugar. In total, we walk about seven miles over the course of five hours. And we talk the whole way – the single and determined path of the coastal walk juxtaposed with our wildly divergent, meandering chat. Our walk ends in a pub in Berwick-upon-Tweed, a glass of Jura single malt with a dash of water, and a toast – to friends, to friendship.

Walking with Clare Thornton on 18 February 2013

February 25, 2013


I am walking with Clare. Clare was at University with me but in more recent years our paths have crossed mostly at live art festivals. The frantic bustle of festivals leaves little time for proper talking (lots of people, lots of work to see, lots of interruptions, lots of half-spoken thoughts and unfinished sentences…) I’ve been looking forward to the opportunity for a more concentrated conversation.

We meet at St Mary Redcliffe Parish Church just before noon. It’s a brilliantly bright day, with winter chilliness jostling with spring freshness. We begin by taking a turn around the impressively Gothic church, its stained glass catching and projecting the sun. The Chaotic Pendulum, a permanent installation which tips recycled water into a cross beam – it’s impossible to predict with any certainty which way the water will tip each time – serves as a reminder that life is unpredictable, that some things cannot be known, and that this uncertainty is a wonder. No mention is made of an all-knowing God (though science is given a bit of a kick).

Leaving Redcliffe’s we turn west, down Redcliffe Hill and on to Commercial Road, looking over the hospital and passing the M-Shed – an old transit shed turned into a museum that tells the story of Bristol. Today, we will pass many cultural buildings which will alert me to just how little of Bristol I have seen. Though I have visited lots of times, I always travel with a specific purpose, which tends to take me down the same routes (Bristol Temple Meads-Arnolfini-Park Street-Bristol University).

As we walk beside the New Cut, Clare tells me of her mum’s recent death. I am so glad we are here, walking side-by-side, ear to ear, the sun on our faces, away from the noise of the city, of art festivals. On Cumberland Road, beyond God’s Garden (Open Today), we see our first daffodil of the year, blooming vividly yellow, impervious to the dustiness and stoniness of its roadside habitat. We are amused by a sign that reads ‘A day without olives is like a day’. A sign of the chaotic quotidian? A little further along is a house coveted by Clare – as if aligned with the olive sign, it seems transplanted from warmer Mediterranean or further-flung climes – fronted with palm trees, painted a desertish-red and boasting a flat sun roof. The hedge beside us chirps with a gathered flock of sparrows.

A pedestrian/cycle path brings us closer to the River Avon (Festival Way; Route 41 National Cycle Network). At the edges of this tidal Avon New Cut are banks of sludgy shiny mud. On the other side of the railings and railway tracks is Spike Island (another first for me), where Clare works, and a little further along the Bristol Record Office and CREATE, the walls of which are the canvas for multi-coloured graffiti (though none of it by Banksy). In the far distance, a row of the coloured terraced houses for which Bristol is famous. We pass a model eco-home (closed) and head towards a spaghetti junction of motorways. Brunel’s spectacular Clifton suspension bridge is suspended ahead of us, high over the Avon Gorge. (The bridge has tantalised me for many a year.) In the scruffy Cumberland Basin, Clare tells me about Brazilian artist Maria Thereza Alves’ Seeds of Change project. Ships involved in the European trade would dock here and dump their ballast – made of earth, rocks etc – onto the river bank. In the process, they were also dumping seeds which in time would germinate, changing the Bristol landscape.

Crossing one of the locks, but failing to find a pedestrian route out of the dock, we climb a railing to get onto the overpass. In this concrete jungle some well-intentioned but foolish council committee has tried and failed to make a pleasure garden. Not even the skateboarders have taken up residence – garden benches sit in abandoned isolation, the concrete landscaping is cracked and crumbling, flowerbeds are unplanted. At the end of the bridge, what would once have been a desirable Georgian property has its curved handsome wall intruded upon by a hulking steel motorway-sign sitting just inches away from windows. On Hotwell Road Clare points out another bench, this one looking bewilderingly out onto multiple lanes of traffic and a brick wall. A little further along, we come across the unique Colonnade houses which, in spite of the busy road, retain something of their former grandeur, with porches and colonnades supporting a second story. A plaque on the wall informs us that a hot spring rose out of the river mud near this spot.

Just beyond the Colonnade lie the remains of the Clifton Rocks Railway – a funicular railway inside the cliffs of the Avon Gorge (closed in 1934 but a secret transmission base for the BBC during WWII). We follow the narrow pavement hugging close to the cliffs of the gorge, arriving at a public footpath sign: ‘Zig Zag Path to Clifton’. Steep steps lead us upwards, gaining height and views. Graffiti instructs us to ‘Be Happy’. The sun streams through tall ivy-clad trees. At the top of the aptly named Zig Zag Path, we make our way to the suspension bridge, walking out to its dead centre. I am delighted to be standing here, rather than viewing it from a distance. The bridge sways under foot. It’s a long drop down. Though hazy, the view to the horizon is spectacular, the eye following the course of the river, then roving over the panorama of rolling hills.

Back on solid ground (with legs still a bit jeely), at the top of the Rocks Railway we throw some loose change into a charity bucket (for railway preservation), aiming and failing to hit a bell. Caledonia Place (a hint of Scotland?) leads us into plush Clifton, onto Richmond Terrace and round some back streets to a hidden, unassuming treasure – the Lido (a subscription bath first opened in 1850 and re-opened in 2007). People swim lazily in the outside pool, whilst those inside snack on tapas and homemade cakes. We join them – the minty scallops rank amongst the best I have ever tasted. I like Bristol. It’s good for the spirit. As are unknown routes. And the company of a friend, sharing her thoughts and stories during a long-overdue walk.

Walking with Mary Nixon on 2 February, 2013

February 10, 2013


I am walking with my Aunty Sos (proper name Mary Nixon, née Mary Duncalf). I also like to think that we are walking with my mum, Prunie (proper name June Heddon, née June Duncalf). June was one of 12 siblings who grew up in the small town of Conwy, in North Wales. My Aunty Sos is my mum’s older sister. She moved back to Conwy just a few months ago. Our walk will take us around the town, retracing my own steps (long summers spent here as a child), Sos and my mum’s steps, and my gran and granddad’s steps. Layers of memories are trodden into the streets of this magical, thirteenth-century walled market town.

I stopped visiting Conwy when my mum died (when I was 17). Returning at the age of 43, I am struck by the things I didn’t notice as a child – the fact that Conwy is nestled beneath glorious hills (a sprinkle of snow on them today), that many of the thoroughfares of Conwy are framed by arches, even – and this seems a truly remarkable oversight – that castle walls ring the town. So today, I marvel at what I have missed. But at the same time, I find myself falling into known rhythms and routes, catching glimpses of myself as a child visiting her gran’s shop (now closed down), as a teenager working in her uncle’s aquarium (now demolished), as a student serving endless plates of fish and chips in the restaurant (now an armoury museum). We walk. Time does not stand still.

We start on Church Street – St. John’s Methodist Church, where the Duncalf kids attended Sunday school (“I never knew that”). We head to the roundabout and what used to be the Towers Restaurant, gift shop and coffee shop. The exterior looks exactly the same – white walls, black frames and doors. But the sign signals a parallel universe – ‘The Knight Shop’. What was gran’s gift shop is boarded up (though the ice cream hatch on the side wall looks like it could easily come into service again). The Tower Coffee House is closed too, but its name is at least the same, an anchor to the past. The wishing well on the patch of grass has been cemented over – no pennies for luck.

Down Castle Street – past what was and still is the doctor’s surgery, then the dentist’s. A tired-looking house, with boarded up windows, is home to a number of jackdaw sculptures perched on its roof. (Those born and bred in the town are known as Jackdaws.) A sign on the window of a shop closed for winter nudges me into the past – ‘All you need for crabbing sold here. Crab lines. Crab buckets, nets and bate.’ I wonder, though, if this memory is actually mine or whether I’ve unwittingly appropriated others’ childhoods?

We resist the allure of the National Trust’s Aberconwy House (‘The oldest house in Conwy, built circa 1300) and head for a warming coffee up High Street. The cinema has long been the Palace Bingo. I am sure mum told me stories of exchanging jam jars for tickets, but Aunty Sos has no recollection of this.

Back on to Castle Street, which becomes Berry Street. And there’s Stretford House, in monochrome. When my mum was a kid, this was called the River Grill – the restaurant owned and run by my granddad. The whole family lived in the rooms above – Aunty Sos tells of all 14 of them sharing three bedrooms, the boys stuck in the attic. I look up and down the street, trying to see through the eyes of a young girl. This would surely have been my mum’s playground, this road the one she walked daily, those windows the ones she would have looked out of, these walls the ones she would have lain behind. The River Grill is now the Conwy Kebab, Burger and Pizza House.

The arch at the end of Berry Street leads us into Bodlondeb Park, Aunty Sos pointing out hidden places where she and her pals would lure attractive boys (and where her younger sister, June, would be an irritant). The gentle slope offers views of the river. We follow the path that leads us to the back of the primary school which Sos and my mum attended. This is the first time I’ve seen it. (It’s a Youth Centre now). Then we descend Town Ditch Road, walking parallel to the castle walls. Passing on the other side of Berry Street, I am amazed at what would have been my mum’s daily view – looking down the street to the Castle that sits at its end. (It is only on our walk today that I realise my mum grew up within castle walls!)

Down to the quay, where most of what I remember has been demolished (but I remember it, so it’s still there). The Smallest House in Great Britain remains standing (though closed). And the river, always a back drop. I see in my mind’s eye hundreds of black and white photos of the Duncalf crew larking about down here. And I remember the story of Naffa falling on an anchor. And I think I might have tried water-skiing once. And I definitely enjoyed a speedboat ride.

The arch behind us – Lower Gate – also seems like a member of the family – so many of those old photos show a sister or groups of siblings striding through here, Kings and Queens of the Castle. Just behind this arch is the lane that leads to the back yard of Stretford House. Aunty Sos points to one corner – that’s where Uncle Howard prepared the potatoes for chips. Peering through the saggy grey lace curtain of the kitchen window, I wonder if some of the detritus piled up on the other side of the grimy glass might actually belong to the 1940s and 50s?

Our stroll along the quay leads us onto the bridge over the river, the castle standing full behind us. Aunty Sos has her own tales of this place. Having left Conwy nearly forty years ago, her choice to return here now surely tells a story about home.

Walking with Claire MacDonald on 9 June 2012

June 17, 2012


I am walking with my friend Claire MacDonald. Claire seems to have accidentally arrived in my life (I wrote about the theatre company she co-founded, Impact, and she then invited me to join a research project). There are so many connections and overlaps in our lives that I am profoundly grateful for the accident. Claire is one of my important wise women. She is also one of the busiest people I know, buzzing with energy and projects, and rarely in one place for long, so the fact that we are walking together today is a real gift. Our path is in South Ayrshire, the site of Claire’s teenage years.

It’s surely been one of the coldest, wettest June’s of my life time. But 40 Walks hasn’t let me down yet – and indeed, the morning brings bursts of sunshine, the showers completely blown away by the time I meet Claire at Girvan train station. Our walk begins in the small village of Maidens. Though Ayrshire is not far from Glasgow, this is my first visit to Maidens, which sits directly on the Ayrshire coast, beyond which lies the almost imperceptible outline of the Isle of Arran, a blur through the low lying cloud. The Olympic flags flying down the ‘main street’, emblazoned with the London 2012 logo, are truly surreal. (London by the Scottish sea? Perhaps the nearby Turnberry golf course provides the rationale?) Before setting off we stop in for a cup of tea with Mrs Lockhart, now in her 90s, and an enduring influence in Claire’s life (one of Claire’s wise women, without a doubt). Betty’s house is filled with wonderful paintings and heavy shelves of literature and art books – a key place in Claire’s cultural education. (Both Betty and her husband, Bill, were students at Glasgow School of Art.)

Leaving Betty’s home, we cross Ardlochan road, walking along grass abundant with yellow and pink wild flowers, the beach just below. The tide is out, the sand exposed. It feels great to smell the sea air, the wind untangling the stress of the week. We jump down onto the sand. There’s not another single person on the whole expanse of the beach – even though there’s a small caravan park nestling in, sheltered by a clutch of distinctive Scots Pine. Some bungalows at the end of this stretch have merged their gardens with the wild flowers, a seamless flow of colours spilling down the hill.

Crossing a small wooden bridge we head into Culzean Estate, managed by the National Trust. (The recorded history of Culzean dates back to the 16th Century – this is another place that remarkably I am visiting for the first time.) Board walks lead us up the hill – new additions since Claire was a teenager and this was her habitual back yard. Pine trees stand symmetrical to our right and as we go higher, the view of the empty beach opens up. We pause at the top, looking right down the bay, then walk on through heather, following the coast line. We are effectively navigating the borders of Culzean, the sea to one side and flora to the other. Some of the trees are truly remarkable – their branches curving like manmade sculptures, or with naturally formed thatching that could easily provide shelter if the skies chose to open.

A path leads us to a more established part of the Estate, which in turn leads us around a huge pond, lilies floating on its calm surface, iridescent yellow iris. A grey heron stands to attention. We have reverted to our typical mode of togetherness – passionate and engaged discussion, lots of different strands and diversions (family, feminism, sisterhood, loss of mothers early in life, life choices, talking the talk and walking the walk…) We buzz along, passing a tree scored deep with messages from the past, a memorial bench with a sentiment that makes us smile, taking the fork that leads back down to the beach, and the Dolphin House Outdoor Education Centre – originally the laundry of Culzean Castle (18th Century). Claire shares the outline of her current ambitious project – a biography of the founder and funder of Dartington Hall, the remarkable Dorothy Elmhirst (nee Whitney). As someone who has worked at Dartington, is married to an American (and academic historian – another Bill), and who spends a lot of time back and forth to the States, Claire seems the ideal match for Dorothy.

A short walk along the stony (deserted) shore leads us to another boardwalk and another hike up a hill, back into the Estate grounds. Rejoining the pond (Swan Pond – deed a couple of swans glide on the pond) we make our way towards the Swan House. In the park proper, families are out enjoying the sun. Swan House is now a parlour for Arran Ice Creams – which we enjoy immensely. Then we head towards another of Claire’s teenage haunts – one which continues to lure her today – the aptly named Happy Valley. As she says, it’s like something out of a Tolkein novel, huge gnarly trees that could well be home to who knows what? This part of the Estate is carefully managed – the scenery clearly landscaped (sculptures placed at key points on the route) – and in this it differs from what it would have been like when Claire was in her teens. But it’s still a beautiful place, with ancient trees standing lordly, and bushes still in red and russet bloom.

A trellis tunnel leads the way to spectacular walled gardens, palm trees homage to the warmer climes of the Ayrshire coast line perhaps? The lawns are manicured, the borders immaculate, the flowers heavy with their own weight. Orange poppies remind me of my mum. Greenhouses and vegetable patches (spring onions, lettuce) and herb gardens seem put to good use. We’ve been walking a good few hours now, and realise that it’s time to make our way back to Betty, and another cup of tea, before I have to catch the train back to Glasgow. Claire knows this place well (like the back of her hand?) and leads us swiftly down an avenue of trees, directly to the beach. We are in time with the tide – it has come in whilst we have been up high. The small white waves tumble to the shore. We are still the only people walking along it. We have talked and walked far and wide today – which comes as no surprise to Betty when I tell her. My legs may be a bit tired but my mind is dancing.

Walking with Jen Harvie on 27 May 2012

June 10, 2012

Lea Valley Walk

I am walking the Lea Valley Walk with Jen Harvie. Jen was completing her PhD in Glasgow just as I was beginning mine, and then moved to London shortly after. She is a bright spark in a network of connections, someone I enjoy bumping into at conferences and wish I had time to speak to meaningfully. I am delighted Jen has proposed a long walk.

The length of the Lee Valley park – a green, protected lung of London – is an incredible 26 miles. The Lea Valley Walk is 18 in total, though Jen and I will cover about 13 of those. Jen has done sections of this walk before, but it’s wholly new to me. It’s a hot Sunday (from my perspective, at least). I am properly prepared though – sun hat, glasses, long sleeved top, long trousers, 2 litres of water, Factor 50 suntan cream (so thick that after application I look ghostly). I envy Jen who effortlessly emanates a Canadian, outdoorsy comfortableness.

Beginning our walk at Waltham Cross, we search for an entrance to the Lee Navigation towpath. Signs alluding to the impending Olympics locate me firmly in London, serving to also remind me just how far Glasgow is from the 2012 shenanigans (e.g. a large Tesco branded board attached to an innocuous railing announces ‘The Home of GB Canoeing Canoe Slalom’). After a short walk we arrive at a sing: ‘Lea Valley Walk’, which directs us to the canal. Another sign tells me that it’s 4 ½ miles to Pickett’s Lock. The sky is a stunning blue, the towpath abundant with wildflowers in pinks, yellows, whites. Willows cascade like green waterfalls and whole swathes of the land are left untouched, wilding with cow slip. Vibrant birdsong sings to the pleasure of simply letting this place be. Jen and I share an appreciation in this urban pastoral, and nature’s willingness to take root and take over wherever. In the water a pair of moorhens usher a brood of chicks not yet fully feathered.

A row of houses cultivate an unusual garden system – borders or frames filled with reeds and iris floating in the canal. On canal boats, a few sun seekers soak up the rays, potted gardens growing on the rooftops of floating homes. At Enfield Lock (Lock 13), a burnt out shell of a house lies abandoned. The towpath travels through a more industrial landscape, though even here, a field close by is home to a trio of friendly ponies. The seemingly rural and the urban are not so particular about their separation; sheep graze beneath the feet of huge pylons, whilst above, cormorants rest on the metal fretwork and down water, swans build nests from human rubbish. An information board informs us that the Lee Valley is home to otters – and that otters are a sign of a healthy river. Ironically, the water beside this sign is stagnant, with plastic bottles and polystyrene boxes suspended atop a viscous soup of algae. Along most other parts of the canal, though, we pass men fishing quietly, heron standing stock still, and water that is transparent. Perhaps the possibility of otters is not so far fetched.

The canal becomes more populated – a kid’s tent on the opposite bank, a couple of people (bravely?) cooling down by floating in the river, a family picnicking on a short mooring. Raucous caws announce the presence of a rookery opposite too – black birds sitting around a water tower. The occasional canal boat travels up stream, as well as fleeter canoes. At Stonebridge Lock (16) – Tottenham Marshes – we take a brief pause (more water, more Factor 50, a pear and an orange). My shoes are grey with the dust from the towpath. A couple of cheery, committed locals have planted up a herb garden (rosemary, sage, lavender) and in a spirit of generosity invite us to help ourselves.

At Tottenham Lock (17) the area becomes more residential. Acknowledging its canal side location, the balcony of one flat hosts a wind sock made up of 3 fish, their tails swishing in the light breeze. Less happily, a real, dead fish floats on the surface of the water, though the moor hens are entirely nonplussed. A flock of large geese have taken up residence in the river bank gardens of a block of flats on the opposite bank. At the Riverside Café we take another break – bananas and lashings of ginger beer. The red, white and blue bunting nods to the Jubilympics (Jen and I are both fans of the sharp spoof documentary, 2012).

Close by is Springfield Park – Jen’s sister’s local park. We cross the Horse Shoe bridge, and pass the Lee Valley Marina, which in turn becomes Walthamstow Marsh Nature Reserve. A nimble tern seems to be travelling with us, going ahead and then darting back again. Diversion signs signal that we have now properly entered the land of the Olympics Legacy (‘Olympic Walking and Cycling Route Enhancement Programme’). The numerous football pitches of the Hackney Marshes – big open spaces here long before any Olympics planning – are one of Jen’s favourite vistas on this walk. Prime real estate protected for non-commercial purposes.

New build flats along the canal are testimony to the rapid redevelopment of the area, and indeed the towpath leads us to Olympic Media HQ, surrounded by metres of high fences watched over by CCTV. The Olympic Stadium looks like a Meccano skeleton. Jen has chosen a timely walk, allowing me to witness first hand the seismic changes brought to this place. We cross over White Bridge and onto the other side of the canal, passing by some bold sections of colourful graffiti as we join the Hertford Union Canal. An ingeniously constructed wall of soil bags sprouts various herbs, with what resembles the face of a Green Man (made out of clay) embedded into one of them. Spotting – and hearing – a bright yellow ice cream van on the next bridge, we speed up a little and I am mightily relieved that we catch it. We are on the home stretch now, familiar turf for Jen along her daily cycle path to work. Passing under Roman Road, we arrive at Mile End Park, the buildings of Queen Mary’s campus now visible on the opposite shore. It’s been a long and varied walk, one that felt a million miles from London and at the same time nowhere else but London. Two walks in one.

Walking with Natalie Wilson on 19 May 2012

May 28, 2012


Friston Forest & The Seven Sisters

I am walking with Natalie, a firm friend first made at university. Spring has been very slow in coming – wet and or/windy and/or unseasonably cold. Natalie has premonitions of walking in giant hailstones and so it is that I am instructed to carry with me from Glasgow to London her waterproof trousers (left up in Glasgow), and a rain jacket (borrowed from her partner Caroline, who also lives in Glasgow). Alighting in the car park of the Seven Sisters Country Park, we are certainly well prepared but – as it turns out – for the wrong type of weather. It’s not wooly hats and wooly socks we need, but Factor 50 suntan cream and sunglasses!

Natalie and I last visited Sussex together in 1992, when we stayed in a flat in Brighton that used to belong to her grandmother. Nat claims we walked a bit of the Seven Sisters all those years ago, though I’ve no recollection of that. The coastal landscape of Sussex is one that’s familiar to Natalie, a site of frequent family trips from London.

We set off down the well made path that runs alongside the Cuckmere meanders (and what a wonderful word that is to describe the looping journey of the water). The sun glares off the concrete walkway that leads towards the sea, dots of people speckling the horizon. The South Downs Way path veers east though, parting from the paving and immediately beginning our first (gentle) ascent. At the rise of this first hill, we already get a good view down over the estuary, to the white chalk cliffs behind us. The grass we walk on is pressed and short (sheep or hundreds of pairs of human feet?). From the top of the first sister we get our first great view of the journey ahead, the sheer, bright white cliffs marking the very edge of this island. (It’s only in places like this that I am conscious of inhabiting an island.) The names on the map we carry prompt juvenile titters: Short Bottom, Limekiln Bottom, Rough Brow, Rough Bottom, Gap Bottom….

One hill climbed, we go down, and up the next sister, this one much shorter and sharper. Steps up – rather like potholes – seem to almost have been carved into the hillside, but presumably from the ‘natural’ wear and tear of repeated human footfall cutting through the thin grassy cover. The chalky minerals just centimetres underneath our feet are laid bare, as if the skin has been peeled back. (Chalk is the result of tiny marine organisms that lived and died here, when this land was sea, more than 70 million years ago.) It’s hot work, the calves taking and feeling the strain. And it’s no surprise to find at the top a flock of walkers bathing in the sun. We stop only to look back at the vertebrae of chalk cliffs jutting out into the English Channel. Down and up the next sister, we break for a cuppa, an oatcake and a deep, long view, then on again. The hills are steep but short, the down bits providing easy respite between the up bits. I can feel my face burning and look out for someone with suntan cream, which I slap on thankfully – though suspect the damage is already done.

Passing through ‘Malcolm’s Gate’, we descend to our half way point, Birling Gap, where we partake in a couple of sandwiches, coffees and a shared Rockcake (admittedly not something I’d have chosen as they always look boring and dry, but Nat is nostalgic for Rockcake – the first thing she learnt to bake in her school cookery class – and to my surprise, I find it to be utterly delicious.) Steps at Birling Gap provide the only access to the beach on this stretch of the coastline. We’re not tempted to join those relaxing on the pebbles though as we’ve still got another 4 miles to walk.

Climbing back up the hill, we turn towards north, and cross the iconically bucolic ‘Went Hill’ – gently undulating, deep green, sheep grazing, yellow rape seed blazing in the distance, a red roofed barn floating on the brow. Nat is much better at sensing the direction we should be travelling and rightly makes the call to veer to the east (rather than continuing towards a gate, which would have been my natural inclination). A steep path leads us into the ever-so-English village of East Dean, with its village green and village green pub. A memorial plaque on the old school wall – located appropriately on Went Way – tells us that evacuee children from Rotherhithe arrived here on the1st Sept 1939. A blue plaque on another house claims the residence of Sherlock Holmes.

A friendly local points our route – up a long, steep, buttercupped hill, crowned by Friston Church. We appreciate its beautifully crafted wooden Tapsel Gate – a design that allows coffin bearers to rest the casket (and get themselves a rest) before proceeding into the church. Across the road we welcome the shade of Friston Forest – planted after the First World War to provide trench planking. A muddy path leads us to another classically beautiful meadow, which in turn leads back into the light dappled forest. Numerous signs – e.g. ‘Private Gallops’ – alongside the hoof prints impressed in the ground reveal this as serious horse country. The walking trail signage is a bit more random, but we aim to follow the blue trail to West Dean, which proves to be another postcard village: sleepy, quaint and affluent. From here, we are on our last leg of the walk, through the edge of the forest and back to the car park in Exceat.

Sitting under the shade of the trees, we enjoy the remains of our flasks of tea, our legs welcoming the rest. Tomorrow, they will carry us without too much complaint into the wonderfully named and spectacular topography of Devil’s Dyke, ascending to what was considered by John Constable as the grandest view in the world. But for now, we are well and happily sated with the marvellous and contrasting views of today: a million shades of whites, blues, greens, and yellows fill me up to brimming.

Walking with Joyce MacDougall on 3 December 2011

December 12, 2011


It is Saturday 3rd December – my 42nd birthday – and I am walking with my Aunty Joyce, down the single track roads of Kilchrenan. Kilchrenan was the first place I lived – from 0 to 8 years. Eight years is a long time for a child – especially when it’s the first eight years of life. It’s a life time. Aunty Joyce is not a blood relative; but she was my surrogate mum when I was young. I’d spend as much time in Joyce’s home as my own. Joyce’s youngest son, Colin, was my best friend. My heart broke when we left Kilchrenan, left Colin. He was my soul mate. I thought I’d never recover.

Aunty Joyce lives in a new house – new to me at least. Cuilreoch used to be a derelict shell of a building, the old home of Joyce’s husband Duncan’s mum. It lay at the bottom of the track on which our own house stood and Colin and I would be frequent visitors to the abandoned site. Joyce and Duncan have reclaimed it from the ruins, their old croft house now home of their eldest son, Alan. It’s this other house, just across the field, which was my second home.

It’s a cold, grey day so we set off from Cuilreoch with our large umbrellas, hats, scarves. The field to our side looks small, though when I used to walk across it at dusk or through the herd of cows, it felt massive, never ending. I would sing to the cows as I walked – a feigned nonchalance or a gesture of appeasement I can’t now remember.

We pass by what used to be the Minister’s house, and then my old house. A sun porch has been added. And decking out the front. It’s a small matchbox of a house, now named Tarn Haws. It used to be 1 Forester’s House (giving away my dad’s occupation). I mostly remember the bushes at the back, laden with berries, which my mum would pick and turn into jam. And the abundant stalks of rhubarb – dipped in sugar and eaten raw. At the end of the track, the huge steep hill to the right bringing back memories of a green bike with fat white tires, and the thrill of the speed coming down.

Past what used to be a short row of council houses, semi-detached. Arthur’s and Barbara’s first – their garage door the scene of some crab-apple graffiti by my older brother and Colin’s older sister (other partners in crime). I can’t remember what they smeared on the door in apple flesh, but I do remember Arthur being livid and the pair of them having to scrub the door clean. Next to Arthur and Barbara, the Binnies – and my class mate Gordon. Gorden Bennett, Joyce says – that was his nickname. At the end of the row of council houses, the patch of scrub land still there – site of bracken-den igloos, complete with blood-sucking tics.

I may only have lived here for the first eight years of my life, but the route we walk is imprinted deeply in my body and mind. The steepness of the downward slope, the bend in the road, the cottages that run alongside, the bridge over the river (pooh sticks), the Sinclair’s woodshed at the bottom of the hill – still there, just as it was (but it too seems smaller), the Sinclair’s wooden house, and there at the gate, Mrs Sinclair, as if she’s been standing there these past thirty years or so. She tells me I look like my mum, remembering June and those good old days. Lots of newcomers now. Things have changed.

The rain is holding off, the dark browns and reds of winter warming up the landscape in spite of the cold wind. At the end of the road, we turn right towards Taychreggan (opposite direction to the school), heading down towards the shore of Loch Awe . Past the Nurse’s house, the sign of which still says ‘Nurse’s House’, though Joyce tells me it’s not. And past another pair of bungalows, which I had always thought were Council too, but Joyce tells me were for the labourers who worked on the Lambie’s farm. Images of Irish Moira and Richard flood in (my mum and Moira became friends), and other less rosy memories of a couple of sorry kids from the house next door who always smelt of wee. (Were we horrible to them?)

The water on the loch glints through the bare trees as we walk towards Port-Na-Mine. Port-Na-Mine looks like it always did – a corrugated tin house (or shack might be more accurate). This is where Joyce’s mum, Nana K, would come and spend her summers, and where we in turn would also spend most of the long summer days too, when school was out. I remember the sound of the rain on the corrugated tin roof, like a storm hailing down. And Nana K’s Pekingese yappy dog – a rare exotica in these parts! Port-Na-Mine is owned by somebody, but it lies empty for now.

At the foot of Part-Na-Mine, a small sandy sliver of ‘beach’, with a row of huge, uneven stones creating a sort of short jetty for walking along. One of the stones looks like a boat’s hull – at least that’s what I turned it into. I learnt to swim in this Loch – or this little part of it (it’s 24 miles long). Like most things, it seemed larger then. It was as large as we wanted it – needed it – to be. It was our whole world.

This was a perfect spot. I was a lucky girl, growing up here. It remains a perfect spot. And I remain a lucky girl, standing here all these years later, with my Aunty Joyce standing beside me. It’s good to be home.

Retracing our steps, Mrs Sinclair is waiting for us. Her son, Ian, stands near by, a bit bemused, bashful, not wholly sure who I am. In Mrs Sinclair’s hands, a sheet of photos encased in plastic pockets. And there we three are: Ian, Colin, and me, looking right out at me, grinning, summery, bright, young. 42. Blink of an eye. Time travelling.