Archive for June, 2012

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.