Walking with Jane Milling on 22 January 2011

January 28, 2011

Hydro Walk

I am walking with my friend and former colleague from Exeter, Jane Milling. We are walking in Somerset, near a village called Hinton Charterhouse. This might well be one of the most unexpected walks of 40 Walks – and unexpected for a number of reasons. First, the choice of walk reveals that Jane, in spite of my assumptions, is not much of a walker. Second, the walk is actually in water; to be precise, it is in a pool. Third, it’s a walk in an outside, heated pool. Fourth, though we had driven through bright winter sun, by the time we actually walk, the sun has sunk and dusk is sharply cold. To call the pool heated is somewhat wishful thinking. Our walk, up and down the length of an outside, ‘heated’ pool – as the night gets darker and the temperature plummets to zero – is not one I had foreseen.

It is not intended to be torture or deprivation, though. The pool belongs to the sumptuous Homewood Park (Hotel, Restaurant, Gardens and Spa). This, then, is a luxury walk. Unsurprisingly, when we arrive at the pool in our fluffy gowns and unconvincing ‘disposable’ slippers, with darkness descending, no-one else is pool side. Beyond it, though, a glass walled building shows other guests reclining on spa loungers, relaxing in presumably warmer climes, a Jacuzzi bubbling away nearby.

Jane and I, recognising the madness of the act ahead, reluctantly drop our gowns, take a sharp in-breath, then plunge into the water. Another sharp intake of breath, more of a yelp. It is, no doubt about it, cold. “It’s like being in Sweden, in Finland, in Norway”, we try to convince ourselves. I also persuade myself that the walking will warm us up. And so we begin to walk the short length of the pool. Up and down. The deeper end is more satisfying as more of our bodies are in the water (and the water is certainly warmer than the air – the steam rises up around us atmospherically, lit by the pool lighting). We can still stand, even in the deep end, though the water reaches our chins. As we walk towards the shallow end, more of my skin becomes exposed to the cold air and I find myself walking with bent legs, trying to keep as much flesh under water as possible. In fact, Jane and I find ourselves perfecting our water walking technique; we both sort of throw our front leg out, then use our arms to pull us along, then kick out the next leg and pull with the arms. We get a rhythm going. Kick pull kick pull. As Jane says, it feels pretty anaerobic. And it is, to some extent at least, keeping our blood circulating.

The lights inside the pool throw the shadows of our walking bodies onto the tiles, like a shadow puppet theatre. A leaf floats serenely on the surface. Other than that, the water seems very clean and clear. We keep walking, counting the lengths as we complete them, wondering how many we should do. It’s quite hard work, and the lengths begin to add up – 8, 10, 12… The sheer madness of it lends it a certain thrilled excitement.

As we walk, we talk about Jane’s choice. In thinking where to take me, she realised she didn’t really have ‘a walk’. She also reflected on the fact that of all exercise, she likes swimming best. Swimming is her form of relaxing. Finally, one way she has recently taken a break from her packed life is spending time with friends at a spa. It’s not a regular feature; she’s only done it a few times. But it is a treat.

Jane and I also share anxiety about walking alone, and are acutely aware of an overblown sense of ‘stranger danger’. So walking, for Jane, is not particularly relaxing. Her memory has filed all the horrific stories of women being attacked. Of course, we both know that our fear and anxiety is irrational. We know that hundreds of thousands of women walk daily, with nothing adverse happening. But our fear is, nevertheless, real. We bemoan our lack of skills – map reading, compass reading – thinking that it prevents us from taking more adventurous walks. If a canal walk is safe because you just have to follow the path – no danger of getting lost – the pool walk is presumably even safer! But then we become conscious that, by now, we are very, very cold and – half joking – we wonder about hypothermia; whether, ironically, this walk is actually quite risky.

We agree to one final length, kick pull kick pull, then heave ourselves out, the concrete underneath our hands freezing to the touch. My teeth are chattering as I throw on the very welcome fluffy gown. The hot, bubbling, steaming Jacuzzi on the other side of that glass wall beckons. We may not have walked very far, but we’ve nonetheless earned the comfort it promises.

Walking with Minty Donald and Nick Miller on 27 November 2010

November 27, 2010
From Yoker to Dumbarton

I am walking with my friends Minty Donald and Nick Millar. Suffering from a bout of insomnia, I know at 3am that it’s snowing, and snowing heavily. By the time the sun is up, the snow is settled, sparkling. Perfect weather for a (flat) walk. I feel privileged to be starting out from Minty and Nick’s new home. Located, for the time being, in a ship-building yard in Yoker, their home is a boat, named Laika. It seems impressively, breathtakingly huge, but most impressive is that the entire interior (luxurious, stylish and practical) has been designed and crafted by Nick. Gingerly climbing the icy step ladders, as soon as I go through their front door the cosy warmth embraces me. Their home, like mine, has central heating (which is just as well given the freezing temperatures of the past few days). I’m not good on water, so the fact that the boat is still on dry land is something of a personal boon.

We’re walking from Yoker to Dumbarton, following the Forth and Clyde Canal which will then meet the Clyde. We reckon it’s about 7 or 8 miles. It’s a nice coincidence that my previous walk took me in the opposite direction along the Clyde. The fact that it’s a watery walk fits my walking companions. Not only are they boat dwellers but their current art project, Bridging, is made on and for and with the Clyde.

To get to the canal, we must first walk to Clydebank. Passing in front of an industrial estate, we come across the old ticket offices of the Cunard Shipping Line on Cunard Street. The buildings are now a row of residential houses. The shiny new structure of Clydebank College sits beside the Clyde, the nearby Titan crane towering in an empty landscape (former site of the John Brown shipyard). In the summer, you can take a lift to the top (one of the town’s regeneration initiatives). We follow the main road to the Clyde shopping centre, another new development.. The juxtaposition of this with the still standing but dilapidated 1970s concrete ‘mall’ is startling, like two faces of the town, one well worn, the other subjected to a surgical lift.

We join the Forth and Clyde canal here, walking our way out of Clydebank. The surface of the canal is semi-frozen, flotsam and jetsam (Irn bru bottle, crisp poke, football) suspended in the water as if in a freeze-frame animation. The canal side flora, though long-ago stripped bare of its summer plumage, wears snow flowers, snow forming on empty stems like rare winter exotica. The bull reeds are half brown, half white, as if painted by hand. Seagulls step almost gingerly on the ice, one of them taken by surprise as it begins to skate.

As we walk into Dalmuir, Nick spots some tracks in the snow that he thinks might belong to a fox. And then we see a large circle of coagulating blood in the snow. A fox’s prey? Signs warn that the ice is thin and I wonder if they have been put up over night. As Nick explains the mechanisms of the Dalmuir Drop Lock I am struck by how long it must take for a vessel to make its way through here. I suspect the slow speed, or the interrupted nature of this form of travel would frustrate me. Continuing along the canal, past a small, fairytale wooden bridge, we watch  a skulk of foxes on the bank opposite. Two are napping in the sun, whilst another grooms its mate.

Erskine Bridge looms in the distance and beyond it the old Kilpatrick hills. At Kilpatrick we walk down to the Clyde, standing on the remains of the Erskine Ferry pier. The view down the Clyde, towards Glasgow, is fantastic. We continue our walk, through the Saltings Nature Reserve, its entrance marked by a totem pole of a Scottish Thistle. The Erskine Bridge is directly above us. Though its span is huge, it looks almost delicate in its construction. It’s also surprisingly quiet, with few cars seeming to cross it. A large pair of sculptural wicker swans fly towards the bridge. As I stop to take a picture of some bright red berries, Nick spots a hind, her bright white tail marking her out from the surrounding trees. Presumably the snow has tempted her to these low grounds.

We walk along the old railway track and at Bowling join the canal again, which in turn flows into the Firth of Clyde. A rough narrow ledge above the water takes us past carcasses of disintegrating, dissolving old boats, their remains like rib cages of long-ago beached sea mammals. I’ve passed by this scene many times, looking out from the train window. The watery scrap yard has always struck me as sad, haunting even. These must, at one time, have been majestic boats, part of a way of life.

At Bowling train station we have to cross over the footbridge, making our way again onto the old railway track. Following the National Cycle Railway Network route, we pass through Milton as the sun begins to sink, setting the rocks on our right a deep, glowing russet. We talk about our mutual acquaintances, John Fox and Sue Gill (see Walking with Gerry Harris), and Welfare State. Minty and Nick share fond memories of a Welfare State workshop that they attended in the summer of 1989, in Kent. They were not together then and they reveal that it was here that they first recognised a connection, a shared sensibility, a compatability.

To my surprise, the route cuts through a suburban housing estate, eerily quiet, the still-deep snow absorbing everyday sounds. A tree-lined walk leads us towards Dumbarton town centre, where three hot chocolates in the Gossip Coffee Shop are drunk with deep gratitude. Our cheeks are flushed ruddy.

In a week’s time I will turn 41. This is the 19th walk of my 40 walks. The  first walk of my 40th year was through snow. The last walk of my 40th year was through snow. Another pleasing moment of coincidence. I am looking forward to walking into my 41st year.

Walking with Linden Stables and Lorna Fitsimmons on 19 September 2010

September 26, 2010

 

Clyde Bridges Walk

I’m walking with my friends Linden and Lorna, whom I’ve known for over fourteen years. Just before we’re due to meet, the rain begins to fall. As this walk is in Glasgow I almost expect the rain. We’re following the River Clyde, crossing over or passing by a remarkable total of 21 bridges, which seems a good fit with the weather too.

We start at Partick Cross, the junction of Byres Road and Dumbarton Road. Linden and Lorna bear a holiday gift, a Cornish Piskie, to travel with me on my walks and bring me luck. We head off towards Old Dumbarton Road and a gushing River Kelvin, then down Ferry Street (testimony of a previous landscape). Apparently you used to be able to walk across the river, from Govan to here, before it was deepened.

A heavily graffitied underpass beneath the motorway leads us towards the Clyde. The view on the other side of the river is a stunning industrial panorama – new and shiny highrises; empty flat lands, denuded of almost all their industrial buildings; iconic cranes on the opposite banks (Govan shipyard). At the bottom of Ferry Road, the emerging shape of the new transport museum comes into view. Zaha Hadid’s design is all different angles, shapes, perspectives and Linden is right when she says it’s like a wave, a ripple of water.

The footpath leads us past the Tall Ship, the Glenlee, a nineteenth century cargo vessel now harboured on the Clyde. Soon, we arrive at the beginning of our walk proper, the Millennium Bridge. In a few hours, we will reach the Dalmarnock Bridge, having crossed eleven bridges en route – concrete bridges, iron bridges, wooden bridges, cable bridges, cantilevered bridges, suspension bridges… It has stopped raining.

The route marker on the Millennium Bridge, beside the new BBC building (which Lorna and I both like), handily confirms we need to travel North on this first one. Bridge number 2, the Bells Bridge, comes quickly. Erected for the Garden Festival in 1988, Linden remembers being there with Greencity whilst I recall visiting my dad who was manning a Forestry Commission environment. The Bells Bridge takes us back to the south side of the river, offering a superb view of the Armadillo building and leading us past the new STV building (which we don’t much like). The ‘squinty bridge’, the Clyde Arc, takes us North again, and from here we follow the river alongside Lancefield Quay, passing under the amazing Kingston Bridge, a multi-lane traffic bridge. Lorna, who drives this way to work, points out that the pillars have all been painted with sporting scenes, signs of the forthcoming Commonwealth Games (2014). On the other side of the pillar nearest us is a huge swimming mural.

We walk down the Broomielaw, past all the new steel and glass office buildings, and the ‘square’ landscaped trees. Banners suggest this part of the city has been rebranded, to the very uncatchy IFSD – International Financial Services District. The new Tradeston footbridge, that we don’t cross, provides passage for workers travelling South to North. We spot the only working boat we will encounter on our whole walk.

George V Bridge carries us South again, with bridge number 7 shadowing it (the second Caledonian Railway Bridge, which leads to Central Station). Beside it are the enormous pillars remaining from the first Caledonian Railway Bridge (Bridge 8). Bridge 9 is the Glasgow Bridge, designed by Thomas Telford in 1899. At its North side is an abandoned ‘Ladies Waiting Room’, and nearby a monument erected by the Labour Movement in memory of those who died in Spain fighting fascism (65 from Glasgow). We’re not even half way, but a cup of tea and a wee seat beside the Clyde is welcomed.

Then it’s across the marvellous South Portland Street suspension bridge, and shared fond memories of the women’s drum band, Sheboom, who played their first gig on this bridge some twenty years ago. Turning left onto Carlton Place, Linden also remembers the Star Club – a lesbian club before my time, not a trace now left. We pass by the Sheriff Court, the seagulls tricking the worms into surfacing by thumping their feet on the soil to suggest that it’s raining. Then we’re crossing Victoria Bridge, built in 1854, with the Briggait on our left, a nineteenth century fish market, now premises for many of Glasgow’s artists and creative companies. The impressive winged sea horses continue to guard the doors.

Following the Clyde we enter Glasgow Green, passing by Bridge 12 (the City Union Railway Bridge), 13 (Albert Bridge) and 14 (Tidal Weir and Pipe Bridge).  Huge, coppiced willows line the river’s edge. A gaggle of geese rest, heads cushioned on downy feathers. Nearby, the Humane Society, founded in 1790, the oldest life-saving organisation in the world (its volunteers regularly pluck bodies from the river). Another suspension bridge (which replaced a ferry in 1855) takes us out of Glasgow Green momentarily. Turning our back on the cityscape, and looking East, we could be in bucolic countryside, the still water reflecting the images of weeping willows and wildflowers. The King’s Bridge leads us back into Glasgow Green. I’m ashamed to admit that I’m now in unfamiliar territory.

Crossing the curiously concrete Polmadie Bridge we turn in to Richmond Park, its entrance marked by a square of beautiful old trees, and a huge flock of Swans gathered near a small boating lake. At the exit of Richmond Park is Shawfield dog track. We turn left, crossing Rutherglen Bridge (number 18). The route plaque has been removed, but its absence – the outline of a circle – serves as a ghostly signal. I am somewhat disoriented by a sign welcoming us to Glasgow City. I hadn’t realised we’d left it.

It’s a long walk to the next bridge and we’re getting tired. The river on our right is still nice enough, but on our left is a huge, tall, concrete wall that we can’t see over so have no idea what lies behind it. It seems to stretch for ever and provides a handy canvas for graffiti, ranging in its originality and sectarian sentiment (Feed the Weed; U.D.A). Finally, a red iron bridge hoves into view – and then we notice the remains of an older bridge standing ahead of it (the first and second Dalmarnock Railway Bridges). And beyond these, another lovely, red, flat bridge – Dalmarnock Bridge, Bridge 21.

It’s been an amazing four hour stroll along the Clyde, passing through industrial remains, gentrified districts, parklands, scrublands, wildlands. It’s a route I’m surprised I’ve never walked before, but I’m immensely glad to have traversed it today, in the  good company of good friends.

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.

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.

Walking with Roberta Mock on 20 June 2010

June 23, 2010

Tamar Valley

I am walking with Roberta. Roberta is the editor of the collection Walking, Writing and Performance Autobiographical Texts by Deirdre Heddon, Carl Lavery and Phil Smith. In the introduction to this she admits that “I am not the most obvious person to guide you into a book about performance practices related to walking. Nobody would describe me as a walker by inclination, experience, or temperament.” This, she proposes, is because she is from the suburbs of Detroit, where of course everyone drives.  (In fact, the link to Detroit is too neat, because the suburb of Detroit from which Roberta actually hails is in Windsor, Canada. Nevertheless, the atmosphere of the motor city travels.)  Today, though, I am making Roberta walk. She warns me in advance that she may grumble, bitch, moan…

But the day is made for walking. The sky is a deep, uninterrupted blue that you could fall into. We walk up the driveway of her converted barn, “Detroit House”, onto a farm track. It smells of countryside already – cows, grass, milking sheds. Roberta says that since moving out here she has begun to learn things about the country, without even realising it; like when it’s Pheasant season, or why farms are stocking mixed breeds of cows. The track leads past North Ward Farm, down to the Tamar River. We pass directly under the impressive Calstock Viaduct, built in 1908. The edge of the river is a remarkable place to stand as on this side, we are in Devon, whilst on the other side, spitting distance really, is Cornwall (Calstock). A Cornish flag (black, white cross), marks the boundary change (and underneath it, a Pirate’s flag flaps). There’s a small pier here, for the ferry boat.

Having reached the river’s edge, we double back on ourselves, walking along a “path” that’s so overgrown with tall grasses it’s almost disappeared. The grasses are dried out, brittle. Yachts and rowing boats bob on the river. The current is strong, apparently, so swimming across to the other side is not recommended. Journeying this way, we pass in front of Roberta’s house, seeing it from another perspective. It really is an idyll. Above it, the outline of the lush, managed woods, within which nestles Cotehele Manor House.

Following the bend of the river, we come to a wooded lane, an almost luminous green corridor that offers temporary respite from the sun. Even in this short distance, our environment has changed repeatedly, from dirt track, to long grasses, to wood. Stepping out from the cover of the trees, the river view opens up again. This is as far as Roberta usually comes. We have walked her local walk and are now walking into the less familiar.

Passing behind a large house beside the river – Mary’s house – we arrive at a field that looks recently tilled. The uniformity of the brown is startling after the textures of deep greens. We need to cut across this field to reach a gate on the other side. The field is dry, dusty and very steep, but as we climb it, the view gets better. Roberta’s husband Paul has sketched a useful diagram of the route we’re meant to take (knowing that Roberta isn’t too familiar with the way). A gate is drawn at the edge of the field, and finding a gate, we immediately go through it.  Before long, we are confronted with a veritable field of nettles. Very tall nettles. Almost as tall as Roberta, which is quite something. The nettles sting through our trousers and soon we have to walk with our arms above our heads. But as the nettles are so tall, I realise this will soon offer me (a fair bit shorter than Roberta) no protection. Common sense also tells us that, having climbed up the hill, it makes no sense to immediately descend the same hill. We decide we’ve probably taken a wrong turn and retrace our steps.  The brambles scratch me and get tangled in Roberta’s curly hair.

Returning to the field we notice that there’s another gate nearby, this one clearly marked with a public footpath arrow. The path leads over a little bridge, and then onto another dirt track, beside which a huge field of maize is growing. It’s nearly noon, and the sun is high. The track is steep. This, on top of the steep hill just climbed, makes Roberta a little reticent (well, she had warned me). But we take our time, stop, rest, drink water, admire the spectacular view of the Tamar River below. (I learn that stopping in her tracks, and sitting wherever she happens to be, is Roberta’s own particular way of coping. She’s fine after a few moments of “time out” from walking.) The track is lined with bunches of tall stems of fox gloves. As it gets more dusty underfoot, we feel like we could be in a Western (as long as we don’t look at the lush land all around). Just after agreeing this, we spot a trailer that’s actually called, appropriately, “West”. And at the top of the hill, a working farm. We rest under the shade of a tree, like weary travellers, slugging greedily from the water bottle, drinking in the view below. Roberta, true to character and upbringing, admires the mix of the bucolic and the rusting farm debris. At the base of the tree, a snapped windscreen wiper lies abandoned.

The farm track leads us finally to the tarmac road. I’ve worried that the sun will reflect off it, making it feel even hotter, but in fact as soon as we step onto the road, there’s a cool, welcome breeze. It’s mostly flat or downhill too, which perks Roberta up. Sweet scented honeysuckles bloom in the wild hedges. This road leads us back to “Detroit House”, the end of our circular walk. As we arrive, a pair of buzzards circle in the field beside the barn, and a heron flies over. Roberta has travelled far from the suburbs of Detroit. Though she may not picture herself as much of a walker (can you ever take Detroit out of the girl?), she has in fact taken me on a magical walk, and we have mostly walked side by side, basking in the beauty of this landscape.

Walking with Andy Heddon on 19 June 2010

June 22, 2010

 

Drifting Around Exeter

I am walking with my younger brother, Andy. We both moved to Exeter in 1998. I left in 2005 but Andy stayed. Andy frames his walk as being about randomness and chance, things just happening, without forward planning. It is, he proposes, something of a reflection on his life. There’s a less personal history to this sort of walking too perhaps, in the perambulations of the nineteenth-century flâneurs, an undirected strolling that nevertheless allows for attention to the surrounding environment.

Our walk, though, begins with clear intentions and a definite plan, as Andy wants to head to the Double Locks pub. We start at Cathedral Green. Sponsored teddy bears with parachutes are being thrown from the top of a fire engine’s ladder, raising funds for charity. At Fore Street, we pass by the print shop where Andy has worked for the past 9 years. A large design that he’s made covers an entire pane of glass – blue sky, green grass. There’s a van parked outside The Mint pub, a British Bulldog standing proudly erect atop its roof. The black door at 142 Fore Street hides a warren of houses, one of which Andy used to live in. A little further down, on the other side, 126 Fore Street, where he lives now – a top floor flat with stunning views. A little further down again, and the flat where he lived only a few months ago. It is clear that Andy has a fondness for Fore Street.

From here, we turn left onto West Street, passing a book shop called Drystones (a knowing nod, Andy reckons, to that chain street bookshop). There are three bookshops in this one area: a book exchange; an independent bookshop; and the Book Cycle – where you leave a donation for any book you want. Opposite the Book Cycle is the House that Moved – a Tudor building that was literally moved from one location in the city and rebuilt here.

On the other side of the busy dual carriageway, we gaze down onto a moss-planted roof and old water mill wheels. England flags hang from windows, telling of World Cup aspirations (though hopes are being rapidly dashed). We’re soon onto Exeter Quay, crossing the River Exe in Butt’s Ferry, a hand operated cable ferry. Opposite, is Bar Venezia, where Andy used to work. New buildings have appeared since I was last here, and more old warehouses have been brought into commission, filled with antiques and junk. At the side of the Exe, we spy some romantic graffiti: ‘Wait 4 me my love, your sweetheart’.

This is a path I used to saunter frequently. The sun is warm and bright and it smells of summer. Bees buzz busily in the tall grasses and wild flowers . The river carries canoeists, paddling alone or in pairs. At the Double Locks, Andy stands in the entrance, holding what he calls his ‘catalogue pose’ for the camera.

The Double Locks is where my students had a graduation gathering. It’s where I had my own wee leaving do too. At the canal side tables, Andy treats me to a Farm’s cider. It must be an acquired taste because it tastes like I imagine horse hoof oil to taste, or cow’s piss. Despite my best efforts, I can’t drink it. We catch the 2pm ferry back along the river. Andy knows the ferryman, Rich. In fact, Andy knows a lot of people in Exeter. Exeter is the place where he’s made deep roots.

Back on terra firma, we walk up the remarkable Stepcote Hill, a mediaeval cobble-stoned, steep stepped street. This takes us too near to Andy’s flat for him to resist popping home for a cup of tea (as if all that sitting, drinking cider and taking a ferry back up the river was thirsty work!) Then we walk back to Cathedral Green, to the open-air shopping mall erected since my departure. The new and the old rub up alongside each other – the old city wall next to the glass walls of high street shops; Egypt Lane etched in glass, which leads to Wagamama’s noodle restaurant. The Blue Boy statue has survived all the development though, still standing sentry.

Leaving the sterile newness of the shopping mall, we head into the markedly different ambience of Sidwell Street. The abandoned Debenhams now seems powerfully iconic. From Sidwell Street we make our way along Well Street, past the forlorn St. James Football park and then to Rosewood Terrace, a quiet, narrow street  packed with tiny two-up, two-downs. Number 3 is the house that Andy and I shared when we first moved here. Andy, with a broken collar bone and pelvis, slept downstairs.

Back along Sidwell Street – the Primary School has been demolished and rebuilt and a rather creepy collection of wicker people dance in the playground. Close by, a new Mosque is nearly completed. Then down Queen’s Crescent, onto Longbrook Street. The removal firm/storage unit has disappeared, replaced by Longbrook Salon and Isca Loft apartments. But 60 Howell Road looks exactly as it did 5 years ago – the door and window ledges the same blue I painted them, only a little more faded. This is the first house I owned, a single room on each of its three floors. I loved the sanctuary it provided in the centre of the city.

Andy’s at a bit of a loss as to where to go next, so we drift back on to Exeter High Street, packed with weekend shoppers. A visit to Sainsbury’s is, I am assured, still part of the walk. It also  handily functions as an opportunity for Andy to buy the ingredients for his dinner. I suspect this last stop is much more purposeful than the flâneurs would have liked. All day, though, I have been drifting through the seven years I spent here, my legs falling into old patterns and carrying me – almost without thinking – to former homes and significant places.

Walking with Peter Thomson on 16 June 2010

June 20, 2010
Kilcreggan – Rosneath – Kilcreggan
 
I am walking with my friend. mentor and former colleague (from the University of Exeter), Peter Thomson. Our walk, we imagine, retraces a walk taken in the summer of 1890 by Peter’ s  Great Grandfather, John Thomson. Peter has in his possession a letter written by John Thomson to his son Hugh, dated 18 August 1890. Telling of an enjoyable day trip (lasting 8 ½ hours), the letter’s narrative provides the plot for our walk. We read that John Thomson, his wife Mary, and Aunt Tina took a ferry from Row point, near Helensburgh, over to Rosneath. From here they walked to Kilcreggan, where they boarded the “Jeannie Deans” and sailed to Craigendoran, “thence to Helensburgh by train”.

Our journey (like theirs), begins in Glasgow, taking the train out to Helensburgh. There’s no boat anymore from Row point, but we can take a tiny sea bus from Helensburgh to Kilcreggan. Standing at the boat’s stern we watch the spectacular panorama emerge, one mountain becoming five. As we land at Kilcreggan I wonder if the huge, barnacle covered wooden pier is the same one that John Thomson would have seen more than a century ago.

Stepping onto it, our walk proper begins. Peter sets the pace, I follow. We are accompanied not only by the spirits of John Thomson and his walking companions, but by his walking stick too, which Peter has brought along. The silver inscription at its top reveals that he was given this dark wooden stick, topped with a smoothed bone handle, on the 2 June 1869 – a gift from the Sabbath Class that he ran. John had lost his leg in an accident in 1868. The walking stick is tiny, too small for Peter to use as a walking aid, but he swings it expertly nevertheless. When it touches the ground, I imagine it reconnecting with its history. It has been here before, even if we have not.

The road out of Kilcreggan is immediately steep but pays back with a stunning view out across the water. The road is also the main road (B833). Unlike in 1890, it is a busy thoroughfare and we are somewhat risking our lives by walking it. There are no pavements for almost the entire way (which makes us laugh when we encounter a sign that warns us that there is no footpath for 900 yards – as if a footpath had been a steady feature to this point). Drivers seem somewhat startled to encounter us on this road.

In spite of the traffic, the landscape is beautiful. John Thomson writes enthusiastically of the path being one of “continuous and varied beauty”, with “thickset verdant woods which threw an agreeable shadow in a hot sunshiny day”. The woods remain thickset and verdant, and as our own day is hot and sunshiny too the shifting shadows are welcome ones. The long grass verges are coloured with bursts of pink Campion and pastel hues of Comfrey. A shimmering buttercup field seems set alight. There’s Dog Rose, and swathes of Rhododendrons draw a purple line under the forest plantation high up on the hillside. We even spot some bamboo, presumably escaped from a garden.

The hill descends to the curved shore of Gare Loch, offering a view down its length, with the Alps of Arrochar in the far distance (described dramatically by John Thomson as “dark and solemn, altogether a union of the sublime and the beautiful”). The foreshore is bustling with birds – a Heron standing at the water’s edge, a group of mallards, a flock of crows, and a pair of swans with a single downy-feathered cygnet. Next to them, a nest – made of equal parts rubbish, grass and twigs – with four large, shiny eggs. We finally reach the village of Rosneath, at the centre of which lies the Clachan – a row of old houses (probably here in 1890), along with a small Co-Op (definitely not here in 1890). Ferry Road seems a good bet, and from here on to Gare Road, off which is a dirt-trodden path leading directly to the pebbly shore of Gare Loch.

It is sweltering hot. We sit, with picnic and cool Cider, looking out onto the lapping water, to the shores on the far side, the hills in the distance. Just beside us, the remains of what might be an old pier. Perhaps this is where John, Mary and Tina alighted. Perhaps they too sat here, enjoying the sun, taking in the view, before heading off towards Kilcreggan.

It is time for us to head off too, to walk in the direction they walked, from Rosneath to Kilcreggan. The tide has come in. The swan is back on her nest. The trees still look verdant. The sun still shines.  It’s so hot, that the tar sticks to the soles of my shoes. The cows and sheep are dozing in the field. But the going is a little easier this way, as it’s more downhill than up. Peter swings his inherited stick, energetically, enthusiastically (he walks more like a 10 year old than a man in his 70s).

Back at Kilcreggan, we cool down with a pint. John Thomson would likely disapprove (and, in this respect, Peter Thomson is definitely not one of John Thomson’s bairns). Here, we must part ways with John, Mary and Aunt Tina, for the “Jeannie Deans” from Kilcreggan to Craigendoran is no longer (though we did pass the old pier at Craigendoran on the way to Helensburgh). The sea bus transports us instead to Gourock, thence to Glasgow by train.

I have enjoyed the company of Peter’s ancestors immensely, the ways they have framed this land for me as I attempted to walk in their footsteps. But I have enjoyed Peter’s company even more, his keen aliveness, and the tangible sense that with each step taken there is a gladness  to be just here, experiencing this place and rewalking this walk for the first time. Tomorrow, I will continue to walk with Peter’s spring in my step.

Walking with Gordon Heddon on 9 June 2010

June 14, 2010

Alloa

I am walking with my dad. We’re heading off to the place of his childhood, in fact the town where he lived till he left home – Alloa. It seems remarkable to me – bewildering even – that I have never been here before.

The train station at Alloa only opened in 2008. Its previous one had closed in 1968 (the year before I was born). My dad tells me that when he first alighted at the new station he was completely disorientated. Nothing was how he remembered it. He then realised this was because the station had physically moved a few hundred metres from where it used to be. Along with the new station, there’s a massive new Asda which sits on the previous site of the Alloa Brewery. This used to be a vibrant industrial town: 8 or so breweries (ale as well as lager – including, latterly, Skol – a name I remember); a handful of mines; a woollen mill; a busy river port (River Forth);  and a glassworks. The glassworks is all that now remains, but even when my dad was a boy the town was in a slump.

Walking down Primrose Street we come to the grand, civic ‘Public Baths and Gymnasium’. The ‘baths’ part of it, where my dad learned to swim, is no longer operational. The pool has been covered over with a large blue gymnastics floor, the colour of which at least allows me to imagine what it might have looked like filled with water. Light streams through the glass pitched roof.

On High Street dad provides a roll-call of the previous lives of shops – this one used to be owned by his mum’s friend; that used to be the Co-Op; that empty one used to sell bikes…  The Bingo hall used to be the cinema, where he would go and see films on Saturday mornings.

At Candleriggs he points out Cram’s Bar, where, as a young man, his tipple would be rum and blackcurrant. Down onto Greenside Street, and the impressive Kilncraigs. Built in 1904, this is all that remains of the wool-spinning mill belonging to John Paton Son & Co, a company founded in 1814 which then became Patons & Baldwins. My granddad Ken worked here. Kilncraigs is now a business centre, its old architecture melded with a modern glass and steel frontage.

Further along Greenside Street are the remains of the 17th Century Parish Church’s tower, like a Tollbooth, with a glorious golden cockerel weather vane gleaming in the sun. There’s also a striking Art Deco building that my dad remembers being the Gas showrooms (and which is now the Careers building). At Lime Street – where the kids used to run around barefoot – is the church on the corner that he attended as a boy.  The streets of Alloa tell something of its previous history: Mill Street, Coalgate, Ludgate…

The grand houses on the edge of the town speak of an affluent past too (many are probably divided into flats now). The old post office has become a home (To Let). The garden centre, owned by the Colvilles, has become a row of new apartments, called, appropriately, Colville Gardens. The site of my dad’s primary school is now a block of dreary brown flats; the roundabout and main roads are additions to the landscape too. Even the war memorial has been moved here from somewhere else.

We walk on to Claremont, on the corner of which there used to be a sweetie shop, popular when rations were lifted. The properties at this end of Claremont are huge – at the window of one stands a fully armoured knight. As the street unfurls the houses become more modest and dad points out former homes of former school friends. And then we arrive – ‘Braeside’, 56 Claremont Street – dad’s old home. Built in the mid-1930s under his granny’s instructions (an unusual occurence, surely), it has 3 bedrooms, with the living room and kitchen looking out onto a spectacular view of the Ochil hills. In the garden stand two large trees planted by dad – a cherry and a holly. (Portents of the profession he would go on to choose –  the Forestry Commission). Dad is certain that the house’s front door is the same as when he lived here.

Retracing his dog-walking route (a Shetland Collie) we soon pass the former site of Alloa Academy, glimpsing the flat roofed structure of his old school. In front of this, there’s a newer building, erected in 1989. Remarkably, this too is now empty and awaiting demolition as Alloa Academy has moved. Dad still remembers his wonderful school motto – Look Aboot Ye (not a hint of Latin in sight.)

Beyond the old school, the extensive wooded parkland has forfeited a large chunk to the spread of modern bungalows. We make our way into the ‘Pleasure Grounds’, above Stirling Road. They used to be well maintained, and the flashes of views that we catch between the thick bushes are spectacular – right down to the river and beyond to the fields. I can understand why this was a favourite place. Where once there were benches, though, now there are only empty spaces or the occasional bench-skeletons. Finally, a single intact bench offers us a perfect spot for our picnic. Fittingly, we sit under a canopy of tall Corsican Pines, with glorious blooms of rhododendrons to our left. My dad last sat here when he was seventeen – 50 years ago. Having received his Higher examination results, this is where he came to think about his future, the options opening up, the choices to be made. I ask him what he’d say to his younger self: ‘I’d say. you didn’t do at all badly, not bad at all.’ This is a good answer.

As I’m sitting, a cone from a tree falls directly onto me. I put it in my pocket. We wind our way back to the new station, seeking in vain any signs of the old one.  Tomorrow morning, the pine cone, resting on my kitchen table, will open itself up and gently cast its seeds.