Archive for August, 2010

Walking with Simon Murray on 26 August 2010

August 31, 2010

 South Tyne Valley

I am walking with a new-ish colleague and friend, Simon Murray. Or Simon Henderson. (The fact that Simon goes by two names drew me to him immediately.) Murray is his mother’s name; Henderson, his father’s. They are both good, Scottish names but I learn today that Simon was actually born in Godalming, Surrey (another coincidence – see ‘Walking with Dorinda Hulton).

Simon has chosen a walk in the North Pennines, close to where he used to live in the 1970s. His mum’s family are from these parts, and in the 1970s Simon bought a dilapidated cottage (for £2000; outside loo, no heating). It was located on his great Uncle Stephen’s farmland so maybe it felt like homeland. The North Pennines also suited Simon’s rather romantic self-image of the rugged loner, but by 1986 he realised that this was no longer who he was (if indeed he had ever been that). So he sold up.

We start our walk at Lambley. The forecast the day before had been heavy rain. But in fact it’s a glorious day – so hot that Simon needs to slap a bit of suntan cream on his head. Simon knows I have a fondness for forests and trees and this walk indulges me – but it also adds plenty of other startling sites and sights into the mix. The beginning of the walk takes us in front of a row of cottages, the path cutting through their gardens (still heavy with flowers). From here, we follow a tree-lined track, above an old railway line, now nothing but a grass plane. This path leads us down some wooden steps, and then up some iron ones, to the top of the Lambley Viaduct, high above the dense forest canopy. We look vertiginously down upon the South Tyne river, more than 100 feet below. Coals from the Alston mines, on their way to Haltwhistle, would once have passed over here (the line opened in 1852 and closed in 1976).

Having surveyed the stunning landscape below, we retrace our steps and make our way down to a small foot bridge that crosses the river, peat brown and fast. We pass through some deep-green mossy-carpeted deciduous woods that gradually become pine, and then up a steep forest track that eventually leads us out of the dark and into the bright sun at the top of the plantation. Following a path that runs along the top of the forest, with shafts of sunlight breaking through the cover, we stop to eat our picnic (sandwiches courtesy of Simon). The plantation leads again to natural woodland though the boggy land here requires some agile detours, with Simon leading the way nimbly, a forest faun. At one point, unexpectedly, we encounter an old tree saw, its round blade rather ominous even in the daylight and the idyll.

When Simon showed me the route on the map, it looked as there were some well-marked paths to follow but soon we seem to be pathless. Simon has been here before, though, so has a sense of where we should be, and leads us up a steep hill. Sure enough, we find a stile and soon arrive at the most remarkable remains of industrial activity. Running up/down the steep hill are rusty wagon rail tracks, slowly disappearing into the grass. At the bottom of the hill, like a ghostly still life, the winch hut (with an empty, office-like chair sat in front of it). Nearby, the entrance to the coal pit – though pit might not be the right word as the mine does not descend further into the hill but rather cuts into it horizontally.

We can’t see anything remotely resembling a path here but Simon knows that we want to end up down at the river, so we scramble down a steep bank and use stepping stones to cross a narrow stream. The environment is suddenly totally different; green, flat fields, the floor of a valley, grazing sheep. Another bridge carries across the river and following its course we reach Brown’s Pool – it’s not really a pool, but it is nevertheless a moment in the river’s journey that is calm and still. Two dark cormorants, disturbed, take flight. The pool is hemmed in by an impressive slab of layered, grey rock, home to bright, sunny yellow flowers. Simon had advised me to bring swimming costume and towel, which I did, but it looks cold and a short paddle confirms impressions. As we paddle together, Simon recalls the time he came here in the 1980s with a men’s group; they were engaged in consciousness-raising activities. Simon’s past draws him endearingly closer to me. Feeling remorseful that I’ve not gone for a dip, I suggest that we come back one summer, with Simon’s partner Wendy and their daughter Isla. There’s no doubt that fearless Isla would splash happily here, putting us both to shame. As we’re talking, a huge brown fish – a trout? – leaps high out of the water.

We continue following the river till we reach a rocky outcrop, and then traverse inland and up another short hill, Simon spotting a deer bolting through the trees. Soon, we’re back on the disused railway track, a perfect route for walking ‘homewards’, back to Lambley. The viaduct comes into view, a different perspective, still striking. The verges are lined with bunches of the tall wildflower that I’ve seen most readily this summer – the Rosebay Willowherb. Walking in this direction, we pass below what was once Lambley Station and is now a beautiful home. What used to be the waiting room, made of wood, still looks smart, though I wonder what it is used for now.

Finally, we are on the other side of the viaduct again, retracing our footfalls up the wooden steps in the steep hillside, walking back towards the village of Lambley, having travelled full circle. It’s been a marvellous walk, filled with different views and viewpoints, different lights above and textures underfoot, different paces and breaths, different stories of past and present, woven together with the shared rhythm of walking. When I first met Simon, I sensed a certain in-step-ness. I was not wrong.

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Walking with Jan McDonald on 21 August 2010

August 28, 2010

Crinan Canal

I am walking with my former tutor (now friend) from the University of Glasgow, Jan McDonald. Jan is an influential figure in my life, a woman who has witnessed me move through various stages, from a 17 year old undergraduate, to a PhD student, to a lecturer. I am grateful to have been taught by Jan, though sorry that I never got the chance to work with her.

Jan proposed a canal walk, any canal walk, no more than 5 miles. (Jan’s daughter Katie advises me just to tell her mum it’s 5 miles however long it actually is, because in reality she can walk much further). I think Jan had anticipated one of the canal walks local to Glasgow, but since it has been left to me, I take the opportunity to visit and share one of my favourite spots – the Crinan Canal in Mid Argyll. Jan likes canals, the water contained but flowing; deep and clear. I do too. Like shorelines, you cannot lose your way on a canal towpath.

The canal, opened in 1801, allows boats to travel from the Sound of Jura and Loch Fyne (cutting out the Mull of Kintyre). On the drive up, I’m a bit worried that we’ve left it too late in the year. The kids in Scotland have returned to school, the leaves are already turning and the rain clouds ahead look a bit ominous. (Jan wisely – and rightly – reminds me that the weather here changes from one minute to the next.)

We set off from Cairnbaan – Lock 6 – at just after 11.15am. Anxious to arrive at our destination by lunchtime, and not entirely sure how long it will take us to walk the route, we forgo a coffee at the hotel (once a Drovers Inn). Stepping out of the car, it begins to pour, but as soon as we start to walk beside the water the sun shines down on us. It’s hot enough to divest top layers. The bright houses lining the side of the canal are basking in the late summer sun too. A boat with a Greek name passes us by, gently, quietly. We wave – boat etiquette? In fact, Jan’s husband Ian has a boat, and for many years now they have been taking to the water. Though Jan tends to dismiss these boating adventures, it is clear she doth protest a little too much, for as boats pass us or we them, Jan passes knowing comments. She also shares her knowledge of boat etiquette. When resident on a boat, you should fly your flag; when not on board, you shouldn’t. When in another country, you should not only fly the flag of your country, but also that of the one you are visiting.

After a short walk, we’re at Lock 7. A woman has her back to it, trying to push it shut, her small kids valiantly trying to do the same on the other side. The man of the boat sails through. His job looks a bit easier. The road gives way to a footpath. Though late August, the wild flowers are still blooming along the canal’s edge: tall, rosebay willowherbs, swathes of thistles, bluest cornflowers, fiery orange montbretia, the muggy smell of late-season bracken. Resting on the footpath, always just a step ahead of us, lots of Peacock butterflies, their underwings looking dark when closed together on the vertical plane, vibrant orange when open, with two violet eye shapes on each wing.

As we are walking along, Jan recalls her first visit to Crinan, with friends, many years ago (one of whom was the Scottish artist Claire Barclay, though then she was a mere 1 year old baby). Jan and Ian were driving their snazzy yellow MG, but its exhaust fell off and so they had to drive home with their windows open. Memorably, they also tried to tune into the car radio as this was the night of the first moon landing. Our canal walk, though seemingly linear and straight forward, stretches across and connects time and place (2010-1969; Crinan-Moon; personal-global).

At the next Lock, Dunardry, we pass by the small, pine circled Loch a Baharain. A few more boats are sailing through here, their residents sipping chilled glasses of white wine – how civilised. On the calm of today, it’s hard to imagine this being a major route of travel (by 1854 some 33,000 passengers sailed along it).

Beyond Dunardry we reach the Moine Mhor National Nature reserve, “The Great Moss”. The dragonfly on the reserve’s wooden sign is no overstatement as Jan spots a huge, blue dragonfly overtaking us. At Bellanoch basin numerous boats are moored beside the impressive, grey-stone Bellanoch house. Above sits a small, picture-book white church. Our view opens out onto Loch Crinan, and from there to the Atlantic. A little further on, in stark contrast to the mansion, we pass an old fashioned horse-drawn wooden caravan – an artist’s studio. Its bright colours match the vibrant garden, the steps of which descend right down to the canal side. Next to it, a small wooden bungalow seems to float on a pond of reeds. At Crinan Bridge, we reach the whitewashed cottage I fantasise about living in, its garden brimming with flowers, every inch of space used – flower pots even line the tops of the garden walls. Across the sea loch, the rather foreboding Duntrune Castle comes into view.

Our arrival at Crinan is marked by the red and white striped lighthouse that looks like it might belong to a crazy golf course. Lock 14 is the last lock. Having kept up a steady pace (both of walking and talking), we’ve reached our destination – the Crinan Hotel – bang on lunch time (1pm). The reason this is one of my favourite places in the world is because of the view from here, which looks out onto the Atlantic Ocean; an expansive vista studded with small islands that provide texture, depth, colours, contours. The sea below me is glass clear. We eat a delicious lunch outside in the warm sun (scallops, smoked fish).

Though I‘ve bent the rules a bit by choosing this walk, I had envisaged a perfect match between this particular canal and a very sophisticated friend. Crinan Canal, resident to an abundance of flowers, glorious views and sleek yachts, with a hotel of fine reputation at its end, is by all accounts a glamorous place to take a stroll.

Walking with Dorinda Hulton on 4 August 2010

August 21, 2010

Godalming, or Dorinda’s and Vincent’s Walk

 I am walking with another good friend and former colleague from Exeter, Dorinda Hulton. The walk that Dorinda takes me on circles the small town of Godalming, in Surrey. In this instance, the landscape is less important than what it holds or carries. The walk that Dorinda shares with me is the walk that she did with her dad, Vincent Stewart, every fortnight, for over two years. When we made the arrangements, months ago, the intention was that I would accompany Dorinda and her dad on their regular route. But between then and now Vincent has passed away. Dorinda still wants to share the walk with me though. Their habitual path offers itself as a gentle score for remembering and sharing; a memorial walk that introduces me to Vincent in his absence.

We meet at Godalming railway station and have lunch at the Baytree Cafe (a transitional moment, a way of arriving, in due time, at the walk). Then we make our way to Jubilee House Nursing Home. Dorinda points out the windows of her dad’s room – ground floor, Room 17.

After cheery hellos to and from the Home’s staff, Dorinda and I walk the corridors. Jubilee House is designed as a circle so that disorientated residents never get lost. On the wall outside each bedroom is a picture frame, carrying portraits of each room’s resident. At what used to be Vincent’s room are holes left by screws. We walk out into the garden, where the sun is now shining. This is where Vincent celebrated his last birthday (which coincided with a visit from a ‘mobile’ farm complete with a lamb, a pig and guinea pigs). A lavender bush is in ruddy health, a magnet for bees.

A short walk back down to the High Street and Dorinda shows me where they would cross the road. Her dad was a heavy man, the wheelchair bulky and awkward. It was hard work. We stop briefly in a gift shop, where Dorinda would buy presents for her nieces and nephews while her dad looked at the glittering display cabinets. Then down Church Street and past the ‘21st Century Home Support’ window front. Though a ‘home help’ business, Dorinda persuaded its staff to extend their remit by visiting her father in his nursing home. They would read aloud from a book that Dorinda had made, which contained some of her dad’s own writing and letters from his children and grandchildren (including one by Dorinda, aged 6).

At the bottom of Church Street lies the Parish Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. Here, Dorinda would wait at the door for a passer-by, someone strong enough to push the wheelchair up the ramp. Her dad always objected, not wanting to cause any fuss, though he seemed pleased when they actually entered the church. Today, Dorinda does as she would have done if Vincent were with us: we walk down the isle, she picks up a smooth prayer stone, rubbing it gently in her fingers, she lights a candle, she writes out a prayer card, to her mum and her dad. Then we walk over to a small, cosy corner at the back, a children’s play area, where she would sometimes read to her dad.

Outside, cracks of thunder split the sky open. Staying sheltered in the church I walk its aisles, listening to a recording made by Dorinda which starts with reflections on ‘home’, on what home is, using John Berger as a guide. Home used to designate the centre of the world, the place where the vertical line (the path leading up to the sky and down to the underworld) crossed the horizontal line (all the possible roads of the earth). The recording makes clear Dorinda’s feelings about where her dad spent his final years. Though she had wanted him to come and stay with her, Surrey Social Services had a duty of care for him and, as his daughter’s voice in my ear says, they decided to place him into a ‘home’: not his home, not her home, but into Room 17.

Walking around the quiet church, I also learn that Vincent, a Jamaican, and his Burmese wife, Ma Saw Tin (Dorinda’s mum), were displaced by the war in Burma. In 1942, the year they married, they walked some 300 miles out of Burma. Vincent wrote about that walk of 1942 in 1974. I listen to his words, channelled by his daughter, in 2010. On their long walk Vincent and Ma Saw Tin unavoidably passed the dead and the dying. Vincent had enough sense to wear the boots of a man who no longer had any need of them.

Dorinda gifts me with a scroll of her spoken text, including the words of her dad, and offers me an extra strong mint – another thing she and her dad would do here. We leave the church and walk towards the allotment hedge, and then down to a bandstand. The last time Dorinda visited her dad she had danced for him here. And he had clapped afterwards. (Though Dorinda thinks that the look in his eyes also told her she could have been better – Vincent was a discerning man.). We walk on to the Phillips Memorial Cloister, erected in memory of John George Phillips, resident of Godalming and chief wireless telegraphist of the Titanic. Phillips continued to stand by his post as the ship sunk. Dorinda shows me a photo of her dad, sitting right here, beneath the wisteria. The previously empty space ahead of me becomes filled with Vicent’s shape, his presence.

Following the path down to the river, the weeping willows are truly spectacular, but their roots, breaking through the tar, are tiresome obstacles for the wheelchair user. The garden path leads us back to the main road (precarious, says Dorinda), and then up another troublesomely steep ramp, beside a scruffy meadow, arriving back at the High Street. Our walk ends, as theirs did, in the Slug and Lettuce, a large, almost empty, anonymous chain-pub. Here, Vincent and Dorinda would have tea and chocolate muffins. Today, Dorinda is also carrying a recycled biscuit tin which carefully stores the few bits and pieces retrieved in February from Room 17. There’s not much: a small bar of used soap in its plastic container; a thick book of black and white family photographs (made by Peter Hulton); a colour photograph of Vincent gently holding a guinea pig on his last birthday; cards sent by Dorinda and her sister; a key – though to what remains a mystery; a caramel chocolate; and a little complementary shortbread biscuit from here, the Slug and Lettuce. Dorinda and I eat shortbread biscuits as we drink our tea. This, too, is a transitional moment; a way of preparing ourselves to walk back to the station and out of Godalming. I feel, though, that I now carry a little bit of Vincent with me.