Archive for April, 2010

Walking with Sharon Lancaster on 12 April 2010

April 14, 2010

Up Arthur’s Seat

I am walking with my friend Sharon. I’ve known Sharon since first year of university (1987). We met in our halls of residence (Wolfson Halls). Though she still lives only about ten minutes away, we’ve spent very little time together over the past few years, in spite of our repeated text-message pledges and best intentions to fix a date. Today, happily, we’ll succeed.

It’s another glorious morning that begins with a short, chat-filled train ride through to Edinburgh. Sharon has chosen Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano, for our walk. I feel as if I should have climbed Arthur’s Seat at least once before (surely?), but I actually don’t think I have. Standing close to the Parliament building, at the bottom of the Royal Mile, looking up at the hill ahead of us, it seems really remarkable that such a thing should exist inside a city. We admire it and then we wonder how we get up it. In the end, we ask a friendly (though armed) policeman for directions and he directs us towards an information board. As we get closer to the bottom of Arthur’s Seat it becomes apparent that we don’t really need directions because a) there are obvious paths scored into the hill side and b) the sunny weather has brought lots of people out. Though there are multiple paths trodden with the footfall of the undoubtedly millions of people who choose to climb this hill every day of the year, all paths eventually lead to the top.

The ascent becomes fairly steep fairly quickly and soon we’re both walking in t-shirts, a bit red in the face. I’m grateful that Sharon (ever prepared mum) had the foresight to bring suntan cream – Kids, Factor 50. The appeal of Arthur’s Seat is almost immediately apparent – turn around and just look at that view stretching out below us.  North to Leith and out on to the River Forth. Every step of the ascent adds another dimension to the view, the impetus to keep going up.

Before too long we stop for a breather. This is not a race to the top, after all. This is our day trip away. Sitting beside each other on a man-made step on the side of the hill, the sun on our faces, we close some of the gap of the past few years, chuntering away as if we’d only seen each other a few days ago. It’s like being 18 again. We’re in a world of our own, oblivious to the comings and goings that circle around Arthur’s Seat; there’s just us and the view.

Onwards, upwards, higher, a touch out of breath, a touch hotter and redder, a more inspiring view with each backward glance. Sharon says that if she lived in Edinburgh she’d climb up here every day. I wonder if people do. In the winter, or in the rain, it’s surely emptier? But the colony of people making their way up today lends it a holiday feel; lots of young children running excitedly (with the occasional daft jogger puncturing that sense of stepping outside of the everyday).

As we get even higher, the panorama unfolds on other sides than North. Our gaze follows the shore line towards North Berwick, Sharon’s childhood home. The last leg is a short steep climb – or a bit of scramble, it’s so eroded. The summit is marked by a trig point, and in fact the stones surrounding this are so polished by feet that they are impossibly slippery (as Sharon finds out). Having made it to the top, we decide to head down to a plateau below, on the south, to get a different view of the city. The ground is marked with stone graffiti (words spelt out using stones), the rather serious nationalist sentiment of ‘Freedom’, placed within a saltire, humorously undercut by the ‘Highland Fling’ close by. It’s not even noon yet, so we sit for a while on the short grass, basking in the sun, continuing to make up for lost time, a making up that probably relies more on our accounts of the daily than our tales of the dramatic.

Part of Sharon’s plans for the day (our ‘day package’) is some respite in that Edinburgh institution, the deli-restaurant Valvona and Crolla (a bit of effort rewarded by a lot of treat). Our descent takes us on a different, slightly boggier route and at the bottom we head in what we think is a Westerly direction, hoping that our instincts (or noses) will lead us to the pasta and white wine. Remarkably, it does (with a little help from a local). On the train home to Glasgow, we’re still a bit red in the face – a healthy combination, probably, of sun and refreshment.

To our shame, I must admit that neither Sharon nor I know why Arthur’s Seat is called Arthur’s Seat. Sharon, a primary teacher, promises to find out and let me know. And we both promise to get together again soon.

Walking with Gerry Harris on 10 April 2010

April 11, 2010

From Ulverston to Baycliff

I am walking with Gerry, whom I first met  in 1999, when she examined – and passed – my PhD.

Gerry meets me at Lancaster train station. We’re catching a train to Ulverston, where we’ll take a short bus ride and then walk along part of the Cumbria Coastal Path. Our destination is the Beach House of John Fox and Sue Gill, artists I admire greatly but have only met a couple of times. Deep in conversation on Platform 3, we fail to notice that the train we’re meant to be on has departed from Platform 2 – without us. An auspicious start to our walk (made somewhat ironic by the fact that part of our engaged discussion was about risk taking and travelling to unknown places).

But it’s a glorious day, we’ve got lots to talk about, so another 30 minute wait is not so bad. The train journey from Lancaster to Ulverston, when we do actually make it, is pretty spectacular, running alongside (treacherous) mudflats that seem to extend for miles, certainly as far as the eye can see. At one point, the train crosses an expansive bridge that cuts across the sand. Eating the packed lunches that Gerry has supplied (sandwiches always taste best when eaten on trains), the sun warming the Cumbrian coast, I really feel like I’m on holiday.

Alighting at Ulverston we follow Sue’s carefully provided directions that lead us into the town, where we catch a local bus and ask the driver to let us know when we reach the swimming pool. After a short while, the bus climbs its way up into a housing estate, zigzagging small suburban streets and then – stops. We’re the only ones left on the bus and at this point the driver admits that he’d forgotten all about is. (This local trip is turning into something of an adventure.) Never mind, he reassures us, he’ll be retracing his route in a moment and this time will make sure we’re safely dropped off. We sit at the front of the bus, just to be on the safe side.

Sue’s directions from the swimming pool: take the first left down a lane, then the first right, keep going till you reach the house called ‘Paradise’. Finally, we are actually walking, the sun on our backs. No traffic, curtains of tall corn stalks on my right, fields further afield. We walk for a bit on the road, finally coming to its end at the poetically named ‘Paradise’ (1 Priory Crossing,1882). From here we access the shore line – sandy, pebbly beach, the sea itself still a long way away. It’s easy walking underfoot and though the path is straight (I like coastal walks as it’s difficult to get lost) our convivial conversation meanders; we divert, loop, retrace, overtake. It seems wholly appropriate  that walking provides the perfect means to catch up with someone.

Passing through Bardsea (resisting the ice cream van but using the convenient ‘conveniences’) we continue round the coast till we come across evidence of beach-art activity – a bush decorated with flotsam and jetsam (mostly, to my despair, made of plastic, but at least it is being creatively recycled). A few more paces on, and there’s a beach garden, stones set in a circle, carved wooden oyster catchers flying on string from one tree to another. It would be hard to miss the home of Sue and John.

Up the path leading off the beach and into a garden packed with sculptures made from bits and bobs. In the circular studio on the left, we interrupt John, busy at work on his various pieces that engage with this particular environment (at present, pictures revealing the thousands of micro-organisms to be found in a bucket of sand from the beach below his home). Sue invites us in for a welcome cup of refreshing tea and some seasonal sustenance (toasted Hot Cross Buns and Simnel Cake). Their renovated beach house is carefully designed with lots of natural wood and glass, and curves that soften the square of windows in the living room. Looking out onto the expansive horizon (sky, sand and water), Gerry and I agree that if we lived here, that is all we would do. The landscape is so big and empty and riveting.

I tell Sue and John about 40 Walks and serendipity hovers again. Sue has given herself a couple of Birthday Walks too – including a long distance, week long walk alone for her 60th. Sue is a woman to admire.

John shares a picture book album that tells the story of Beach House. What is most evident is that its creation has depended on the continual efforts of family and friends. It is a feat of commitment, determination, community and love. We are also told about a likely wolf ghost (paw prints appearing mysteriously in the sand early one morning). Apparently, the last wolf in England was shot not too far from the beach house. It seems entirely likely that if the wolf is to return anywhere, then it will be here, close to the Fox’s home, where art and life are carefully synchronised.

My walk with Gerry, though only 3 ½ miles in length, was a day filled with different delights, including the accidents or ‘mistakes’. Though I’ve known Gerry since 1999 (when she examined my PhD) this is the first time we’ve actually been together totally outside the frame of our jobs. Gerry, one of the wise women I’m lucky enough to have in my life, of course chose our walk wisely too. Today, walking together not for work, not for research, but just for me, I really recognised the value of this birthday gift to myself, a gift that depends totally on the generosity of others.




Walking with Rachael and Ryan Heddon on 5 April 2010

April 11, 2010

Dunoon Pier to Sandbank

I am walking with my niece and nephew, Rachael and Ryan. They live in Dunoon (though Rachael’s studying at Dundee University at the moment). I used to live in Dunoon. My brother Stew still lives in Dunoon.

We’re going to walk from Dunoon Pier (where the ferry comes in) to Sandbank (where they live). We’ll follow the esplanade round. It’s about three and a half miles. The weather is a bit damp and grey, but not quite raining. Before setting off, we fuel up from the Italian restaurant (a new addition since my day). We’re the only ones in the place. Then a short walk along Argyll Street – Dunoon’s high street. As always, I point to the Argyll Hotel, the imposing building standing sentry at the town’s entrance, and remind Rach and Ryan that I used to work there (waitress and chambermaid). I’ve got lots of warm memories of that time: people I met and worked with, reckless older women (Arlene and Helen – in their early 20s!) who looked out for this young school girl. Rach tells me that she worked there too, but could only stick it for a day.

We drift along Argyll Street. Some shops have closed down or moved sites. The carcass of Woolworths has been taken over by a Woolworths lookalike. I’m glad the bookshop next door has managed to survive, though Ryan tells me it did close for a bit. Rach points out the Clansman – the pub where she and her mates go when they’re having a night out. I’ve never been in the Clansman. I moved away when I was 17 so I didn’t really have a local pub. But I did have the Blue Lagoon, a night club down on the front. We’d go there at the weekend, using our fake IDs and memorised invented birth dates to get past the bouncer, Snakey (though I’m sure he knew). There was also Pier 69, on Argyll Street itself, where my boyfriend Pat used to be the DJ. When he put on the last record, always a slow song, he’d leave his DJ booth and come down and dance with me.

I don’t come back to Dunoon very often and whenever I do I get a rush of nostalgia. Rach is 20 and I think it’s already nostalgic for her too. And maybe even for Ryan – nostalgia for the younger people we used to be, and for what this place was for those younger people (places for working out our teenage years, for hanging out, for hiding out, for finding out…) As we walk along the front, Ryan points to spots where he used to drink Cider, out of view from adults. Rach confirms that those were her spots too, though her tipple of choice was Vodka. There’s a Victorian shelter in a square patch of grass where she and her pals would hang out if they were skiving.

As we stroll along, spray from the rough, choppy water splashes over the railings. It’s always windy along here; invigorating and freezing. Rach tells me that on really blustery days, getting wet from waves would be a fun past time. Not one I ever indulged in.

At Kirn, I point out the small, square bungalow (like a matchbox), perched on the steep hillside, where we used to live (mum, dad, me, two brothers). 5 Cherry Hill. It was the first house my parents had ever bought (in their late-30s I guess). What seemed quite luxurious back then looks tiny now.

We pause to go into the coffee shop where Ryan works at weekends: 3 hot chocolates (1 with whipped cream, 2 with strawberry flavoured whipped cream, all with marshmallows). We’ve earned these warming drinks. Walking through Kirn, the number of boarded up, abandoned shops is striking. The ornate wrought iron Victorian street furniture tells of better fortunes, when Dunoon and its environs were filled with the bustle of day trippers, arriving by paddle steamer to escape the grime of an expanding, industrialised Glasgow.

At the bottom of the steep hill that leads, eventually, to Dunoon Grammar School (demolished and rebuilt over the past two years), is Kirn Church. I remind Rach and Ryan that this is where my mum’s funeral service was held in December 1986. They never met their grandmother, June, but they’ve heard tales of her. I don’t remember much about that day, other than it was a packed church, I chose to wear a bright green blouse, and after the service we had to travel by the wee ferry over to the crematorium in Greenock.

A bit further on, we reach the infamous Jim Crow – a large stone, shaped like a crow, that’s been painted to look like one too, and named ‘Jim Crow’. Rach tells me that plans to remove the paint (given the unavoidable racist connections), had been met with such vociferous resistance that Jim Crow was saved.

At Hunters Quay, we encounter a sign on a lamp post: appeals for a lost Chicken (scared by a dog). I wonder whether it’s a remnant from April Fools Day, but the same sign, posted on another lamppost a little further on, proposes that it’s sincere. We don’t encounter any chickens on the walk.

Stopping at what Ryan informs me is Lazaretto’s point, we read the history board that tells us about the men from Sandbank killed in WWI and WWII. Then we walk on into Sandbank itself, where another history board shows pictures of the village in the nineteenth century – complete with a paddle steamer on the Holy Loch. When I lived in Dunoon, the Holy Loch was dominated by the monstrous US Navy ship (thankfully now gone). The commissariat, a site of exotic Americana (because open only to the US workers), remains but is now a Marina shed.

Our arrival in Sandbank coincides with increasingly darkening skies. It’s been a good walk, a dry walk, a walk filled with memories for all of us. Some of those memories are shared across the generations (we’ve all sought shelter for illicit drinking) and also literally shared aloud with each other. I’ve enjoyed spending a few hours simply walking and talking with my niece and nephew, now both adults who have their own deep histories attached to this place, their home.