Archive for May, 2011

Walking with Rebecca French and Andrew Mottershead on 23 May 2011

May 29, 2011

 

Richmond Park (Day Time)

I am walking with Rebecca French, Andrew Mottershead and their seventh month in utero little French-Mottershead/Mottershead-French. I first met Rebecca and Andrew at a workshop-performance-lecture event they staged at the Collective Gallery in Edinburgh in August 2001. It was also my  introduction to the artists’ concept of micro-performances. During their public lecture I performed my own pre-rehearsed micro-performance (vigorously nodding my head – an exaggerated version of the encouraging audience member that I typically play).

Rebecca has plotted our walk and I love the serendipity that of all the walks possible, she has selected Richmond Park– but this will be a day time walk. Rebecca also intends for us to walk out of Richmond Park and follow the Thames alongside Kew Gardens.

It’s a bright, sunny day. At Kingston Gate (South West of the park), the beginning of our walk is marked with a delightful reading-aloud from Andrew of the invitation I sent them in December 2009. Rebecca has chosen this walk because she knows I like deer and Richmond Park is home to 650 of them. She was brought here by her mum a few times when she was wee and remembers seeing the deer then. Andrew has only ever driven through the park. Andrew sets us the task of deer hunting; I predict that Rebecca will spot our first deer, though Andrew claims to have Eagle Eyes. A few yards into the park and Rebecca remarkably, immediately, points out a group (not quite a herd) of fallow deer lounging under a copse of trees. As we walk closer, they seem not in the least bit bothered.

Andrew sets the compass and we head northwards, aiming to end up at Richmond Gate. We climb up a steep hill and encounter more fallow deer, most of them sheltering under oak trees. The ends of the trees’ branches have been munched to the same length, forming a perfectly straight, horizontal line – like a skirt – as if manicured by landscape gardeners. I catch a glint of bright green flitting into a tree – a parakeet. I am thrilled as I’ve never seen a parakeet in the wild before. It seems very exotic. We also spot two pale, skinny boys sunning themselves in the grass, exotic specimens too. The ground is exceptionally dry, the grass like straw. There has been no rain for weeks in London and very few wild flowers are visible.

Looking across the park, I get a sense of its vastness. At 1000 hectares, it’s the largest Royal Park in London. I am very glad to see it in daylight and am surprised that it actually feels more removed from the city because the megalith buildings that encircle it are not as visible as they are at night (when bedecked in bright lights). We encounter a few dog walkers, but there’s still a sense of empty space (though admittedly it’s a Monday). As we climb higher, I notice it is very windy – an observation that will take on more meaning later in the day.* Parakeets flash in and out of trees, tag teams.

In the Isabella Plantation – a maintained garden with ponds, irises, rhododendrons and other ornamental plants – we watch a female Mandarin duck corral her numerous chicks. In another pond, the male Mandarins display their more flashy modernist apparel – all colourful symmetrical angles. Leaving the Isabella Plantation we head in what we think is a westerly direction. Rebecca insists on carrying their rucksack, claiming it counterweights the bump that threatens to topple her forwards. The park is scored by endless dusty tracks walked onto its surface. We manage to stay off the car roads the entire time. I am awestruck by the confidence with which Andrew and Rebecca presume a bearing, certain that we need to head westerly; or north; or north westerly. There is little faffing about which path to take and decisions are made quickly. Perhaps for this reason I am paradoxically relieved to find that though we were aiming for Richmond Gate (North West), some three hours later we end up at East Sheen Gate (North East). (I am informed later that such bravado was prompted by the fact that as were in an urban park it didn’t actually matter if we lost our way.) A passer-by reassures us that Richmond Gate is  only a mere 20 or so minutes away. On this side of the park, the wind is even stronger and walking against it takes some effort. Eagle Eyed Andrew, temporarily distracted by a gate on his right, fails to see the springy tree branch thrown towards him by the wind’s force. Whack. Ouch! He’s left with a small hole gouged into his forehead, which bleeds a little.

In the open expanse to our right, we catch our first sight of Red Deer – much larger, with impressive antlers. As we head towards Richmond Gate I have a sense of ‘being here before’, and surmise that a small gate on our left is Cambrian Gate. It is strange to see this patch of land in daylight; it’s not really recognisable and I would have trouble retracing my steps from the walk of two nights earlier. Then, I walked only a small corner of the park. Today, we have weaved our way across many miles of it. Passing by a pond, we are watched by Mr. Heron. A sign – too late – pronounces that ‘Deer are Dangerous in May, June and July’. The dirt track leads us direct to the large entrance gates (a different route to the one taken with Zoe). I very much like the fact that these two walks, side by side, lead to the same point but from very different directions.

We may have been aiming for the Thames and Kew Gardens, but our feet and tummies have got the better of us and we decide to replace deer stalking with tea and cake hunting – the latter in fact proving to be far more elusive. Following Richmond Hill into town and feeling increasingly more desperate, Eagle Eyed Andrew finally earns his name by spotting ‘Le Coin de Paris’, a French patisserie. Here, I order not one cake but two, and a pot of Earl Grey tea. Though I don’t have the excuse of ‘eating for two’, this is my birthday treat after all. And what a treat this day has been.

 * I had planned on getting the 19.30 train from home from Euston. Walking in Richmond Park we were utterly oblivious to what was unfolding in the north of the country. Gale force winds cause the cancellation of all trains to Scotland. I end up in Crewe (a surprise visit for my dad!).

Walking with Zoe Shobbrook on 21 May 2011

May 25, 2011

Richmond Park (Night Time)

I am walking with my friend Zoe Shobbrook. Zoe was a couple of years below me at university in Glasgow but returned to Richmond a few years after graduating. Living close to Richmond Park, once a Royal Hunting ground, the park is very familiar territory. In spite of this, Zoe has never visited it at night time, so a night time walk appeals. We are joined for some of this walk by her partner, Mark, and her son, Finley.

We enter Richmond Park just after11pm, through Cambrian Gate. It’s amazing how dark it looks on the other side of the gate – raven-black; no street lights, no lights from living room windows, just a sort of deep void. A couple out walking a dog pass us, torch in hand. We take the opposite path, and then navigate our way across some hilly, slightly treacherous grass-covered humps. Looking up, I am astounded to see stars; I’d have thought the lights from the metropolis would have neutralised them. Quite a few of the ‘stars’ are moving fast, revealing themselves to be planes (Heathrow flight path). Others are satellites. But some are definitely stars. As our eyes acclimatise the dark becomes more a charcoal grey. Scatterings of white mackerel clouds float above us, beautiful fragile sky patterns. We have brought a wind-up lamp but there’s no need to use it. Though it’s not particularly cold I’m glad I’ve borrowed a scarf from Zoe. Zoe is fully prepared for temperate weather, wearing a shiny, gold puffa jacket and a trapper-style hat (donated by Finley, half way through his journey).

Soon, we find ourselves on a tarmac road. It’s one of the car roads through the park (connecting Richmond with Kingston and vice versa). The vehicle gates to these roads are locked at night time affording a sense of liberation. As if spontaneously responding to this unusual reversal of priorities, Finley promptly lies down in the middle of the 20 miles per hour sign painted onto the road’s surface. Mark follows suit. It’s a joyfully rebellious moment.

Being in Richmond Park at night feels like being on an island; the colourful city lights, blinking in the distance, form a peripheral circle. I understand why parks are considered the lungs of a city. In the distance, tall buildings illuminate a carnival of reds, blues, greens, whites, emanating electricity (the buzz of the city made literal). There’s a constant low-rumble surround sound which might be the planes or the traffic, or both. The belly of the city.

Leaving the road we walk along a dirt track. Finley persuades us all to lie down and look up at the sky, to see if we can sense the earth rotating by watching the stars move. We happen to find ourselves below the Plough. I stare hard, but all seems fixed in place. It’s very relaxing. Having lain down, Finley finds it difficult to get up again – it’s way past his bed time – and after walking on a bit further, Mark agrees to walk back with Finley. As Zoe and I wave goodbye to them, turn round and walk onwards, the complete and sudden change in atmosphere is quite remarkable. Disappointed and annoyed though I am to realise it, Zoe and I both admit that we suddenly feel less safe, more vulnerable, less confident. Even though I am not alone, I carry my gender self-consciously. I wonder what it must be like to be a man, bearing the weight of expectation and responsibility? I wonder if Mark feels that weight? I wonder what he felt when he turned back with Finley, leaving us?

We had been walking towards the Pen Ponds, where Zoe, Mark and Finley had swum recently. But Zoe changes tack to follow the path down the hill instead, heading towards the hollow tree. It’s a remarkable old oak with a hollowed trunk large enough for Zoe to stand in quite comfortably. I hear an owl hoot in the distance. Then we both jump out of our skins as the walkie talkie that Finley has left with me emits an unexpected ghostly crackle cackle. I can’t find a way to turn it off.

We walk on into a copse of old trees – probably oaks but it’s too dark to see their leaves properly. This could be the Jubilee or the Queen Elizabeth plantation. Zoe shares her love of trees with me – their calming presence, the sense of safety they bestow. Try as I might – and even though I am a big fan of trees – I don’t feel particularly becalmed as we make our way along the dark path that lies below them. I revert to my habit of what Armistead Maupin calls ‘horribilizing’ – imagining worst case scenarios. The fact that I have never been in Richmond Park before and am utterly unorientated to this landscape increases my sense of vulnerability. As we walk out of the plantation back onto a much more open plain I feel somewhat relieved (the horizon is open, we can see further into the distance, see what’s coming… Nothing is coming of course.)

Lights flashing in the distance reveal themselves to be orange headlamps tied to a wooden gate – presumably to alert traffic to the gate’s presence. But what traffic? As we pass by Pembroke Lodge we find out – there’s a do of some sort taking place. We can hear tinny music, and then the headlights of a car coming down the road. The gate at this end turns out to be open. A taxi asks us for directions to the Lodge’s entry. A bloke in a red t-shirt, smoking a cigarette, overtakes us. Then a woman in heels, carrying a torch. It feels like we’re walking out of the unsettling, bewitching strangeness of the dark park; soon enough we are indeed at Richmond Gate, at street lights, at illuminated windows of homes and hotels…  As soon as we leave the park I find myself wanting to do it all over again, but this time paying more attention to the external landscape rather than the internal one. Of course it’s easy to imagine myself braver when standing in the utterly familiar. We begin our walk down Richmond Hill, towards home, walking our way out of the unknown and into the everynight.

Walking with Caroline Beven, Margaret Stevenson and Wilf on 14 May 2011

May 15, 2011

 

Drumclog/Mugdock

I am walking with Caroline, Margaret and Wilf. This is my first dog walk, led by the graciously aging, still spritely Wilf. We park up at Drumclog Car Park, beside Mugdock Country Park, opposite the Reservoir. Though only about 10 miles from Glasgow, I have visited Mugdock only a few times, and never begun at this point. This walk is a familiar favourite for Wilf though, chosen for me by the promise and lure of abundant bluebells. We planned to do it last year, but missed the bluebell window. Caroline, Margaret and Wilf visited a little over a week ago, and the bluebells were not yet out. Let’s hope we’ve chosen the right day…

A few paces into the walk and I am reassured by the sight of one or two flowers in bloom, their scent already enticing us. As we walk onwards, fields of bluebells open up, iridescent, mesmerising. Wilf ambles ahead of us, seeming to enjoy the deep scents as much as we do. Though 11 years old, Wilf has only been with Caroline and Margaret for four. He chose them carefully as guardians. Margaret shares the story as we stroll over open grassland. She had been walking a neighbour’s dog in the Botanic Gardens when she spotted this sorry looking creature, skin and bones, with hardly any hair. He seemed totally alone, scared, nervous. She took the dog home first, then to the vet. A chip revealed an address, but when the vet visited it, she was told that the people she was looking for had not lived there for more than two years. No forwarding address. Caroline and Margaret registered the dog with the police and after a period of six weeks, when no-one had claimed him, he rightfully entered the home of Caroline and Margaret, not as a visitor, but as a permanent family member. Four years later, with a special diet matched by healthy portions of love, care and attention, Wilf’s coat is thick and glossy, his eyes inquisitive and intelligent, his silky soft ears ever alert. Wilf seems to be having the time of his life.

We cross a stream; on the other side, Margaret spots a small Orange Tipped butterfly. Then it’s a muddy, slurpy but short trudge through peaty bog, and up a steep oak wooded hill. The trees that have fallen remain untouched, rich deadwood providing a succulent home for other flora and insects. Quite a few upright trees carry cracked branches, seemingly placed carefully and symmetrically across their trunk, a horizontal plane against a vertical. It’s like natural tree architecture – or arbotecture. The swathes of deep blue continue, as far as the eye can see. Amidst them, the occasional pink stem, Ragged Robin, or a different shade of purple – the Bugle.

A couple of riders trot by. Wilf behaves impeccably, and is rewarded with a calorie-free dog treat – a thumb’s up signal from Caroline (dog sign language for ‘good boy’). We are now at the top of the hill, walking along a bridle pathway, in the more manicured section of Mugdock Park itself. We pass by Mugdock Castle, its solar panels somewhat incongruous but, when read beside the Scottish Saltire that flies alongside, perhaps positively or aspirationally signalling an eco-conscious country. The path leads us over stone plaques laid into the ground, with text inscribed: tended, nurtured, worked, drained. We enjoy the double signification of ‘drained’, imagining how draining the draining of this land must have been on those who did it. The branches of still bare trees create a canopy, throwing mottled shadows onto the sun drenched ground and Wilf’s black back.

A beautiful curved ‘S’ dry stone wall feeds us through single file, onto a constructed wooden board walk that seems to float above the marshy land. Some of those who have made (or repaired) this walk (Margaret reckons it is the Territorial Army) have left their mark on it, using U-Nails to spell out their names; a textured form of graffiti: Dan, Adam (2000). Soon, we turn off the main track and are back onto a lesser used dirt track. (Though, in fact, wherever we have walked today there has been hardly another soul. It is a sunny, spring day but we have encountered less than five people.) The path leads us down to the Allander River where, in spite of much coaxing, Wilf agrees only to go knee deep. (He’s not a great one for water.) The small white waters further down testify to the rain of the week before. As we rise up the bank again, I look behind and spot a perfect crossing made of two mud paths. Talk of tea and cake shops makes me wish I had packed a flask. As we head to the end of the walk, we encounter another dog – the first of the afternoon. It’s a large Collie and it seems more anxious even than Wilf. (The only breed of dog that Wilf really does not like is the Labrador– whether brown, black or golden Wilf’s hackles rise when he encounters one.) Wilf lets the Collie go by without much of a fuss and kindly obliges me at the end of the walk with a photo moment, the pair of us standing in a field of bluebells. The sun is still shining, Wilf’s tail is wagging and so is mine. Clearly, we chose the right day.