Archive for May, 2010

Walking with Robert Thomson on 14 May 2010

May 20, 2010

Erith to Greenwich

I am walking with Robert, a friend from my student days (though Robert was a year above me). Robert is currently training for the Edinburgh marathon and has decided we should walk one of his running routes, which for the most part sticks close beside the Thames. If walked in full, it is 11 ¾ miles long. Robert, having checked Google, advises me that, based on average walk speeds, we should complete ours in just over 3 hours. This calculation, however, does not factor in the time it takes me to snap photos (in this case, a total of 70).

We arrive at Erith train station just after 4pm and walk down to the river. The tide is low, the mud flats exposed. Multiple signs warn of the dangers here – deep mud and strong currents. Numerous shopping trolleys and traffic cone are sinking slowly in the sludge. More picturesque are the slowly disintegrating wooden piers, testimony to other times and different river traffic. Not far along our walk, another accidental sculpture – a bail of squashed plastics, presumably heading for recycling, but somehow escaped the confines of its transporter boat and now nestling in the river edge’s wild flora. The fragments of plastic washed ashore all along the route, though like permanent confetti in their rainbow of colours, is quite devastating.

Aggregate factories with their huge mounds of material temporarily block our view of the Thames. I had no idea that aggregate would smell so strongly. Further along, we’re given a special sign (a good portent?) – a removal firm called Dee-Dee’s. And from here on to the sewage works where the smell is truly pungent – yes, it really does smell like shit. (Robert has not noticed it when he’s run here, so either he’s a very fast runner or the wind is blowing a different direction today.)

Information signs inform us of London’s sewage history, a history also written in the architecture before us, from the functional structures that resemble  modernism in their harsh practicality, to the beautiful Victorian buildings, all white, shiny tiles and classical aspirations encoded in pillars, to the gleaming, curvaceous new building that reminds me of the Museum of Modern Art in Bilbao. Robert, pointing to high rises in the shimmering distance, reassures me that we are getting nearer our destination. I worry, though, that this view is as deceptive as a mountain one; there’s always another peak to climb before you get to the top… A National Cycle Network Millennium sign helpfully tells us that it’s 1191 miles to Inverness, but ‘only’ 7 ¼ miles to Greenwich. Given that we’ve been walking for a fair old time by now, and that my feet are beginning to measure that time, we question the accuracy of the signs.

The route changes again as we pass through newly erected flats. For a Friday afternoon, which is periodically sunny, it’s very quiet. In a copse of trees Robert searches for the sapling transplanted from his own garden. The new spring foliage makes it impossible to locate, though he assures me that when he checked last month it was sprouting leaves and had settled into its new habitat.

The setting sun glances off the mud flats, turning them golden. Ducks hoover the expansive, wet muds in search of dinner. Our own – in Greenwich – is still a long way off. The Tate & Lyle factory sits iconically on the opposite bank. Planes landing at nearby City airport roar a short distance above us. No wonder there are spray painted protest signs on the walls and pavements nearby, resisting the airport expansion.

At Woolwich, the path heads inland, away from the river. Grabbing an opportunity for some much needed respite, we catch a bus at Warspite Road, alighting beside the newly developed Millennium Village (which in its ‘fun’ colours and shapes resembles a toy construction). On the beach, there’s a sculpture constructed from flotsam (it could easily pass for John Fox’s work – see 10th April walk). An unnoticed heron takes flight out of the manmade wildlife pond. The Millennium Dome is empty tonight, save for some geese waddling inside its perimeter fence. Anthony Gormley’s almost imperceptible man stands sentinel to the emptiness…

The most startling contrast of the entire walk lies just ahead, as on the other side of this Millennium Development are the undeveloped remains of the last century. We drift directly through the middle of an aggregate industrial site that lies entirely open to the walker. We could run in the pyramids of sand if we wanted. For a moment, I imagine myself in a James Bond movie, hiding from the ‘baddy’ and waiting for the right moment to squash him. It’s Friday night, though, so the site is entirely empty, no cranes are moving, no metal sparks from welders, no noise of any sort.

Another short detour alongside the motorway and finally we’ve reached a pub – the Cutty Sark, built in the mid-17th Century. We’re extremely weary travellers (I can hardly climb the wooden steps). It’s 8.30pm already (so much for 3 hours.) The lights on the high rises across the water sparkle. Battered fish, chips and peas, and a pint of lager shandy. A rest for these tired, throbbing feet. Then the last mile into Greenwich proper, the beautifully grand old naval college and observatory and our ultimate destination: the Cutty Sark itself, hidden behind a huge tarpaulin. ‘Should we hug or something?’, asks Robert. No wonder – it’s been such a long walk that it really does feel like we should be congratulating ourselves for having got to the end.

Walking with Rachel Jury on 9 May 2010

May 16, 2010


Vigeland Sculpture Park

I am walking with my partner, Rach. Rach has given it a lot of thought. Rather than walking a route that we’ve walked together before, that might hold some significance, or walking our almost weekly Sunday walk around the Botanic Garden and into Kelvingrove Park, Rach has decided that we should walk somewhere that’s new to both of us, a path that signifies the future. We celebrated our 15th Anniversary on May 5th. And Rach has decided that we should walk around the Vigeland sculpture park – in Oslo. This walk combines a number of our loves: being with each other, walking, parks, sculptures and weekends in European cities (usually birthday treats but 15 years deserves celebrating). Although it’s a new walk, it also cannily draws on our shared history; history and future, side by side.

The massive, beautiful wrought iron gates (art noveau?) mark our arrival at the park’s entrance. Apparently it is the most visited attraction in the city, and it’s certainly bustling on this almost-spring day, the sun burning through clouds intermittently. Before setting off, we prepare ourselves with a latte and mocha and shared muffin, sitting at an outside table in the park’s café. Rach is a bit taken aback by just how many people are flowing through the gates, and has a momentary wobble about her choice, wondering whether she should swap it. (In truth, we’ve already spent many glorious hours wandering Oslo’s glorious streets, exploring its galleries and ascending the daring architectural ‘walls’ of the new Opera – once in the morning and once late at night. Tomorrow will see us heading into the forests near Holmenkollen, where we will encounter deep snow hidden from the sun’s rays. The whole weekend is practically dedicated to walking, all of it memorable. Testimony to this fact is that, as our own shoes have begun to hurt us, today we decided to swap pairs. A symbol too, I’m sure.) I rather like the bustle of the park and the fact that these outdoor artworks are the city’s biggest draw. In the end, Rach reminds herself that the point of the walk is that it’s unknown, and it’s how we respond to it together, to whatever it throws at us or however it turns out, that’s important (it being a symbol of our future).  She needn’t have worried, of course, because it turns out to be a brilliant walk.

The 80 acre Vigeland Sculpture Park is home to 212 sculptures, all by Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland (who died in 1943). Even more remarkable, every sculpture is of the naked human body (arranged singularly, in pairs, or in groups). The majority figure human relationships (lovers, mothers and children, fathers and children, elderly figures alongside younger ones, groups of young people, groups of older people). A few depict subjects on their own. The figures are all solid, enduring (built like me, Rach proposes, the women with sturdy legs and broad shoulders). The first set line the bridge (58 of them in total). Real people stand beside their counterparts, relations beside relations, resonating against each other. Walking towards the sculpture of a woman holding a small child at arms length is a man with a small boy atop his shoulders. Rach and I deliberately pose in front of the sculpture of two women, proudly claiming our dopplegangers. The figure of a bawling, hot-headed baby is counter-pointed by the live shrieks of excited kids. Rach’s favourite work is the one with a man besieged by a pack of toddlers, who hold on to him like little devils despite his best efforts to shake them loose. It’s clear where the power lies. It’s no surprise this is Rach’s favourite either, since it flies in the face of the usual depictions of children (as cute, adorable, etc.)

The bridge leads to the fountain, a huge bowl of brimming water upheld by swarthy men, the water seemingly irrigating a forest scene around the edges, more carefree people frolicking in the trees’ foliage and canopy (these sculptures all green rather than grey). From the fountain (of life?), we head up a grand staircase and through more iron gates, these ones depicting people, some women only, others men only. The steps lead to a huge, phallic monolith, itself made of more than a hundred figures, entwined, piled up, snaking to the top. It feels a rather macabre tower. I’m unsure whether it’s progress or repression; limbs entwined in love or battle. The works arranged around the tower do not make it any clearer, numerous tableaux depicting more scenes of human relationships, not many of them joyous but some tender (a daughter holding the head of a much older woman, her mother perhaps, their roles reversed as their lives progress?) My favourite of the park is here: two women, of similar ages, sitting close, comfortable, protective, voluptuous.

The top of the plateau affords something of a bird’s eye view of the park below, and only at this height can we see how beautifully it’s been laid out, with the wide, symmetrical avenues that lead us to this point reflected in the wide, tree lined avenues that cut the vast park up into different routes.

Following one of the paths through the park, we arrive at what seems to be a specially designated doggy park – a place in the park where dogs can be let off their leads to play with each other and run free. Rach wonders why they don’t run beyond the apparently unmarked boundary – there’s no fence to keep them in; it’s not really an enclosure. We make our way back round to the bridge to visit the final arrangement, a gaggle of babies, each atop its own plinth, in baby pose, variously grinning or girning.

From here, strolling around the edge of the lake, we fortuitously stumble across a pub which serves a welcome burger (for Rach), a mixed platter of savoury treats (for me), and a refreshing pint each – much needed sustenance after a couple of hours of tramping. Filled up once more, we’re back on the park’s paths, promenading its huge, majestic avenues. Rach knows I like the particular comfort that parks provide – routes to walk and explore without the anxiety of getting lost. The paths are line features, providing certain bearings even in ufamiliar environments. We are guided into our future.

Walking with Stewart Heddon on 3 May 2010

May 5, 2010

Sandbank to the Camel’s Hump

I am walking with my brother, Stewart. It seems appropriate that this walk with my big brother (a whole three years older than me) begins where the one I did with his kids ended. Rachael, Ryan and I walked from Dunoon to Sandbank. Stew and I set off from his home in Sandbank to walk the Ardnadam Heritage Trail. It will serve as a reminder not to overlook what’s in your backyard.

The start of the Ardnadam Trail is a few hundred metres from Stew’s front door, yet as we arrive there he admits that he’s never actually walked the whole route – a 2-mile trek that leads to the top of the Camel’s Hump (so-called for obvious reasons). The fact that he’s never walked it is his impetus for choosing it, and it’s a good choice. The weather is surprisingly nice for a bank holiday Monday – sunny and warm. Realising that we’re over dressed, we discard our outer coats. Before long, we come across the ancient site that has prompted the creation of this formalised ‘Heritage Trail’. There are the remains of an old round house (apparently). The signage that would instruct us on its history, and the history of the other stones sunk into the ground, has not fared as well as the ancient remains. Empty posts signal where the information boards should be. We’ll have to make up the history of this place ourselves, but we are no archaeologists. (A peek at the ‘Walk Highlands’ website, consulted after the walk, will inform me that: “The only structure visible to the layman are the scant remains of a chapel at just 1,000 years old. The site of an iron-age house, 2,000 years old, and a rectangular 5,000 year old neolithic house are marked out by short posts. There are several information boards giving information on the settlers who once lived here.”)

Next to the ancient sites, a bridge crosses a beautiful clear burn. Burns take me back to childhood, and therefore to some sense of ‘home’. I remember throwing leaves into clear water, seeing how fast they travelled. I remember looking for sticklebacks in the mud. I remember building dams. Though I’ve never walked this route before, it feels deeply nostalgic, a combination perhaps of the landscape (Argyll, woodland, bracken, moss, trodden foot path) and of the season (Spring – time to leave the cooped up house, the winter, to venture outdoors). The Primroses are in full bloom and as I stop to take a picture, I discover that both Stew and I associate Primroses with our mum. I think it’s to do with the short walk we used to make as children in Kilchrennan, from home to the shore of Loch Awe, a walk at this time of year which would be illustrated with Primroses, then Bluebells. Spring is emerging here, but only just. The leaves on the trees are beginning to unfold, each one a breathtaking origami of intricate, symmetrical creases. Amongst the mostly still dried and browned bracken, the odd precocious shoot of green. (Bracken breathes memories of dens and tics.)

We pass through old oakwood, juniper and gorse. It even smells of spring. Eventually, we hit the forestry commission plantation (spruces?), with its very different atmosphere. But forestry plantations hold memories for us too, which serves to give them some personality. Walking down the fire break we remember our dad being on fire watch over weekends in the summer, when we both absorbed the lessons unconsciously delivered: stupid buggers discarding matches in the forest, stupid buggers leaving glass bottles in the forest, stupid buggers throwing cigarette butts in the forest… Stew and I know the forest fire code pretty well.

We begin the ascent to the Camel’s Hump. It’s brisk, we’re breathless, but it’s also short. And below us, the view over Cowal, from the town centre to the end of the Holy Loch, over to Ardentinny and beyond. The depth of vision that attaches to this landscape is always breathtaking. It rolls back, mountain after mountain. Below me, at a more local scale, the new Grammar School’s unfamiliar shapes and surfaces overwrite one part of my visual memory bank. But other things fit fine – the hospital, the curve of the shore line, the playing fields, the ferry. Sitting in the sun (though it’s a bit cooler up here), eating our sandwiches, companionably sharing a Mars Bar (when did I last eat one of those?), we survey the view. It’s a lovely spot. And it’s literally on Stew’s doorstep.

For the route back, we look for the lower path – almost erased by the building of a new forest road (to allow access for felling). Stew is much better than me at reading the land and detects the old bridge, hidden in the greenery. This is a route little used and it feels all the more special for that. Walking behind Stew, as he leads the way, I’m struck by the fact that we very rarely spend time together, just the two of us. I’ve enjoyed this time, this walk.