From the Height of Midsummer

A wildcamp

The trees all around are of narrow girth, like fenceposts; two hands fit around, but much taller: a beech canopy, half hiding the sky. I find an ancient beech, one of far greater circumference – so large I can lean my bike against the far side and it is hidden from the road. I sit for what feels like hours. I jumped over a fence to get here, aware that a wayward gamekeeper may not appreciate my prescence. The sun’s long set, but still I wait. I’ve not been aware of anyone passing behind, save for one car, and the eerie swoosh of two cyclists.

The middle of the night: I can hear church bells. Not the monotone note marking the passing of another hour; this is a peel. I am deep in a woods but can’t help but look around. I see nothing in the gloom, and certainly not the source of the chimes. But still they ring, on the very edge of my perception. Mischevious campanologists? Midsummer ritual? What else? I drift back to sleep.

I am sitting on a root bole, waiting to feel safe enough to bed down. I look up at the beech’s domed canopy. Dusk was long ago, but there is still some blue to the sky. The black branch-and-leaf silhouette gives the impression of immense constellations where the white-seeming sky breaks through the gaps. Still star-clusters occasionally drift when a light breeze passes.

I drink Glenlivet and think of little. At one point I try and read A Year in the Woods from the light of my phone, my lowest-powered source of luminescence.

Rolling and play-fighting, the three [badger cubs] head straight for me, flattening the young bracken. In a flash the leading cub takes a quick glance back to his pursuers, leaping to the very log I am sitting on, only inches away from me; he realizes something is different and stops in a sitting position like a well-trained dog. Cub number two glances back, chattering in glee at the game, still unaware the leader has stopped – and then crashes into his motionless playmate. Club one is almost driven into me with the impact; the third and smallest cub attempts to stop but it, too, slides into the others. By now the first two cubs are practically on my lap. As cub three collides he is so close I can hear the noise of his lungs empty out as I am hit in the face by bad badger breath.

After three short paragraphs I close the book, mindful that even this tiny light could attract attention.

It’s light; early evening. I sit on the wall with the fence and ancient beech behind; the road, then denser woodland in front. Frantic shrieks of an owl and two explanations come to mind: 1- the owl is being attacked and is struggling and fighting against its agressor, or 2- this owl can’t sing; still hasn’t found that B it’s looking for. The crying gets more orderly, and fades to nothing.

I have laid my bivi and sleeping bags out in front of me. I get in as quietly as I can (that is to say, rather noisily). I lie still, make no sound. I hear a noise, a twig break, and my eyes dart to the left. Nothing. Slower rummaging ahead. Still nothing. I look left again. I see the four legs of a young deer: poised, unmoving. Five minutes later and still no movement. It is four closely-clustered fence posts, all leaning slightly.

I look forward. The sky has darkened, but can still be seen beyond the canopy. Now no longer constellations; it appears like a magic eye image. At first it seems as a vast blackboard with snow painted atop. But then my gestalt reflexes shift: the outline of an anthropomorphised deer stood on its hind legs. Some features of its head, a black void, then its snout: extending and contracting, whether from wind or my mind I cannot tell. But that, that’s definitely a deer, and it’s studying me.

I am in my bivi bag, trying not to move. It is almost completely dark. Somewhere very close a fox barks over and over. I figure it has realised something is not right in the woods. Has it sensed me? By sight? Smell? Sound? Does it bark to me, at me, or against me? I am physically uncomfortable, fixed in this position, and decide to move properly into my bivi bag (currently below my shoulders). The barking becomes less frequent, slips away. Silence.

I have been sleeping. I wake, and it is beginning to get light. I squint to my left, to the deer legs. In the clearing I see a girl of 8 or ten years, staring at me. She has long golden hair, and sits astride a white pony. Behind stands a white horse, that seems to be led by the young girl. They all stare motionless, without expression. I close my eyes and turn on my side, and fall back asleep. I feel myself become pinned to the spot. Someone, something is holding me there. It feels like a soft nuzzle, but not moving. I lay still, not scared, but wary. I hear nothing. No movement, no breeze, no breath. The snout still holds me. With a start I sit up. I see nothing in the dawn’s half-life. I ask myself what just happened but do not question things too much. I have outstayed my welcome; these woods no longer wanting me here. I pack my gear and ride away before the stirrings of the human day.

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Where Brackley Castle?

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An opening salvo on my walk from Brackley, Northants, emblazoned on the underpass of the dual-carriageway bypass. It’s an interesting question, though not one I pay much head to. At least, not yet. I am heading on out on a kind of (partial) circumambulatory of the town, exploring the old footpaths, disused roads and abandoned railway lines that are so often found dotted around the countryside of Britain.

I had been living in Aberdeen for 18 months; Scotland in general for some 9 years, but soon I will be living in Bristol. Bristol is in stark contrast to Aberdeen. Aberdeen suffers from icy-cold arctic winds racing in from the east, and a seemingly permanent grey ceiling of dreich sky. The buildings are of grey granite (though touristic interpretations label Aberdeen the ‘Silver City’), and the predominant industry is of that the black-grey fossil-slime of crude oil. Bristol, on the other hand suffers far less from such melancholy associations, with its cream-coloured churches and a more temperate climate. It is also due to be the European Green Capital in 2015; a label I think Aberdeen would struggle to attract (“you’re cycling to work?” asked a colleague in Aberdeen; “We have another organ donor!”).

But enough of the (perceived or real) differences between the two cities. I am staying in Brackley, as this is where my parents bide. There’s a lag between tenancies, so this will act as a stop-gap. In a sense, this town is far closer to Bristol (two hours) than Aberdeen (eight or more), but in a strange way, it is the perfect mid-way point. I did a lot of my growing up just a few miles from Brackley in a tiny village called Lillingstone Lovell. A pretty place, with no public transport, and (at the time) a post office, that sold only stamps. But my mother had been told that this village is the second most inland place in the UK. I have quizzed her about this since, but she doesn’t remember where she heard this, or which place holds the number one spot. I like that the stop-gap is so landlocked: and this is why it feels sort of halfway between. Both Aberdeen and Bristol are saline cities, of tidal patterns and waves, salt air and harbours. Conversely, Brackley has just a small unnavigable river. Indeed, Northamptonshire is said to have no brooks running into the county, only ones flowing out, such is its elevated position.

I need this walk. I lived and went to school for part of my adolescence in Brackley, but coming back, the humdrum, everydayness has vanished: where once it was a place to endure, now it becomes a treasure; something jewel-like, with the golden sandstone townhouses and rolling fields of yellow rape and pastel-green wheat.

I have a loose plan: head for Evenley and its pub on the green, then back to Brackley. Despite its proximity to Brackley, I only recall visiting twice – once for a rave in a barn house (free, but legal, if you’re wondering), and the other for the pub.

* * *

The underpass is behind me, and so too is the River Great Ouse, but soon I reach a flooded section of tarmac path; its elevation too low for the standing water to make it to the river. Clambering through the undergrowth, my unsuitable footwear is soaked through: “I hope this warm weather dries my feet”. A field next, rising up to the old Buckingham Road, abandoned and gated (though I recall a gypsy encampment once sited here). Soon, a bridleway: green and yellow fields; trees in varying states of undress – this is early spring, and not all the trees have reacted. I wonder if some are ash: perhaps they will never come into leaf?

Now, a low point in the track, and the remains of a railway bridge. Brackley once had two railway stations: one demolished (though The New Locomotive pub is a reminder); the other a tyre and exhaust centre.

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Railways and Brackley are a controversial topic: the High Speed rail line looks set to pass nearby in a vast cutting. But I wonder: is the opposition universal? There’s more graffiti in the underpass; a poem called ‘The Signalman’s Lament‘, written by Mr. L. Wills, bemoaning Mr Beeching’s death of the line:

There might be widespread opposition to the new line, but this is the most visual message I see on my walk that makes reference to railways. Does this tagger embrace the new prospect? Or is it a coded reference opposing the new line, being as there will be no new station anywhere close by? Also: is the artist responsible someone I once knew?

* * *

I carry on through rolling fields and left-over copses. A family geotagging (“we’ve gone the wrong way”; “you mean we walked all this way for nothing?”, not realising the irony of their pursuit); a woman eyeing me suspiciously, and me her (a lone young man? In those shoes? could have been one of many things crossing her mind).

Up a cut by some houses to Evenley. I’ve no recollection of the village. It’s archetypal, yet unfamiliar: a large green with cricket played out; a village shop on one edge, the Red Lion on another. I feel uneasy that something so quaint and perfect, and so close to where I went to secondary school, can be so alien.

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A pint of Oxford Gold: it’s nice to get a local beer, and makes a welcome change to have a smooth, mild pint, instead of the hoppy, citrus-infused punch of so many Scottish craft beers. It’s only mid-afternoon, so I set into another, and read Scarp in the beer garden. Labourers jab friendly insults between each other.

It’s time to leave. The warm spring sun, the alcohol, and the miles of walking conspire to leave me feeling drowsy. Not being fond of retracing my steps, I head out along the western road from the village, to patiently cross the burrel and burl of the A43 dual carriageway. The road I follow is straight: could this be an old Roman road? I don’t enjoy walking along here, as occasional cars speed from behind, forcing me to jump into the verge. But soon I come across the gap in the hedge that signifies the start of the path I have chosen to follow. I say ‘gap’, but it’s more of a thinning: spindly hawthorn attempting to reach through the opening, as though to say: “use it, or we take it back”.

* * *

I have become accustomed to follow helpful waymarkers so far, but this path offers no such luxury. My map doesn’t seem to match the terrain I see ahead, so I make my own way. Behind a farm, with wrecked cars in the field, I wonder: “will the landowner be angry at my prescence? Will he or she see my wandering as an act of wilful trespass?” But really, the fuzz of the beer is numbing these concerns. I get a wave of excitement at this tiny deed of impromptu wayfinding, and think momentarily about Kinder Scout, and how I am walking in the metophorical footsteps of those pioneers. But soon I am away from buildings and potential eyes, and such wistful notions vanish.20140416-0046

Brackley can be spotted again now, on its eversoslightly elevated aspect. My brother links the ‘ley’ suffix to ley lines, while Tom Chivers in his Antidote to Indifference/Island Review essay points out that ‘ey’ is a suffix used for islands, particularly is Sussex. Both fanciful notions, in relation to Brackley, but it brings a smile nonetheless.

Another former road-cum-path and to Saint James’s Lake. I have been walking for hours and my first step back into Brackley is named in honour of St James! I enjoy the aptness of this moment, and read an information board. I am jolted back to the memory of the graffiti earlier: this lake is on the site of two small ponds dug for Brackley Castle (though the lake’s now relatively large size is to attenuate flooding at a nearby housing development).

So Where Brackley Castle? Near here! The castle is no more, this much I know, but as I rise away from lake through 60s and 70s housing, I see a road name: Castle Mount. A small mound, topped with blossoming cherry trees. Could this modest bump be the site of the castle? I see nothing else that lends itself as well this, and besides I’m tired. In my mind, I have found Brackley Castle, and the tagger’s query can be put to rest.

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Materials

After K.J.

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What are these Materials of which she speaks?
Something about a line
My eyes follow the words but I don’t read
The siren of an ambulance
Too loud for thoughts
But there was a line

Perhaps it was the trace
Was she talking about a trace?
The oscillating siren creates a line
A loose, wobbly line that my ears follow

I glance up for a second but soon go back to read
The poem was surely mean to be read
In the Highlands or on
A remote coast
Not in the noise of a south-England city

What if I found a
Quiet place to read it?
Would I better take in its story
Or would ‘line’ jump out at me again
Sound line of a bird
Water line of a river

That thought; that feeling

Sometimes when I’m walking along, I spot something mid-process. Not a static sign (neither literal nor metaphorical), this is some action, some performance. It might involve the derring-do of a speeding young driver, a verbal altercation between two people, or perhaps a pair of birds: two magpies, or a seagull and pigeon, having a flappy confrontation with one another.

Sometimes, as I find my gaze pulled into these situations, I seem to lose myself (or my self?). It is as though I become entirely entwined in the scene before me. I’ll be walking, but I realise after that I have no knowledge that I carried on moving. The sensation is as though I’m stopped in my tracks. The process normally only lasts a second before I (literally) come back to my senses.

After, I always conclude that my walking continued; that I didn’t actually freeze in awe, but I have no way to know for sure (I’m always walking alone when this occurs). Like the person asked to consider whether what they perceived is really real, all I can answer with is: it must have happened! What other explanation can there be?

But whatever explanation I conjure up to rationalise that pause, I am still left with that momentary escape, that seeming dissolution of my body. And here’s to many more perturbances between ‘my self’ and ‘my surroundings’. Nan Shepherd seemed to know the feeling. As she notes in the Living Mountain upon wading into Loch Etchachan in the Cairngorms:

Then I looked down; and at my feet opened a gulf of brightness so profound my mind stopped. 

Turnips and Apples – a poem

A poem I wrote, in my songwriting days of yore. Witches and god-like powers and apples (for dooking) and turnips (for neepie lanterns) – it seems like a not bad time to publish this.

take the turnips from the branches
plant them down and watch them up
bending from the boughs seems odd now
covered with dirt seems better now
ugly, knurled like witches’ skin
your eyes and mine should not have seen
so I decree put them in the floor
so they can live their forever more

the apple buried in the dirt
    too nice, pink and bright
put up upon the branch
    of the barren turnip tree

when the plants were all invented
some of them were mistakes indeed
if they’re up high infront of eyes
why are they such we don’t want to see?
perhaps there was some method
to the madness as was seen
so then I took it on me
to make things right as they should be

now the apple in the sky
    utility down away from eyes
for what need but not desire
    for worms, perhaps and eating only

the sun used to shine only at night
like a street lamp in the fog
the day was misty dull and grey
with dim light all around but where from?
the sun must rise in morning hence
light this dismal place
give it more hydrogen fuel
so its warmth can reach through space

now we all can see
    when our eyes requires
day and night forever split
    behold the great glowing fire

it is not with jest these changes
I placed upon the modern man
light to see and beauty in trees
darkness for the rest of them
take the fodder from the garden
marvel in the sunny light
eat and be well, jewels atwinkle
from this day until darkness nigh

Sighting the Triple Kirks

Prologue

In June 2013, the inaugural Famulus journal was published, to a tiny print-run of 25 retail copies. I contributed an essay about the Triple Kirks ruined church in the centre of Aberdeen, Scotland. The future of the site has long been debated, with developments proposed and quashed every couple of years. However, Dandara have now stated their intention to redevelop the site, flattening all but the spire, which itself will be subsumed into a glass-fronted office block. It will be called ‘the Point’; which calls to mind the tatty cinema complex in Milton Keynes of the same name – although this is to be demolished too, according to Wikipedia. (I used to visit this cinema as kid. That metal pyramid exoskeleton seemed enormous to me then, reaching up in to the clouds. Sadly, as an adult, its size is somewhat diminished and puny-looking). I am republishing my Triple Kirks essay here, to share that special structure/non-structure, soon to be lost to the developer’s vision.

* * *

Sighting the Triple Kirks

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Contrary to most of the other grand old buildings of Aberdeen city centre, this one is not composed of granite: that hard, cold rock that so easily mimics the sky above (or is it the sky that mimics buildings below?). The Triple Kirks is a brick building. Bricks of deep vermillion; small bricks: pre-metric. Small and long; flat.

The Triple Kirks was hastily built in 1843 by Aberdeen’s architect son Archibald Simpson. The Church of Scotland was in crisis, with serious concerns that the Kirk’s spiritual piousness was being too intertwined with political, secular matters. The Free Church was formed during this Disruption (capitalisation intended) to counter the established church’s politicisation, and buildings were needed quickly. The Triple Kirks was built to house three congregations; these three churches being united through the use of a single steeple, with each church arranged around the central spire in a pinwheel style.

The site selected was on the edge of the Denburn Valley: at the time, a swathe of lush picturesque greenery, with Den Burn at its centre. The flame-red spire serving to add that so-valued human addition, which was thought to only improve existing natural beauty. Previously, and for seventy years, a weaving factory occupied the site. From here came the red bricks that forms the spire (plus some further brick from demolished fisherman cottages at Ferryhill). One of those employed at the former factory was William Thom, Weaver Poet of Inverurie. In Lines Written at Ravenscraig1, he talks of the ruins on the banks of the River Ugie:

        Bring ivy wi’ its peaceful green,

Gae hide ilk hoar, unhallow’d stane;

They maunna bloat you bonnie een

                                That watch the gushin’ Ugie

Unlike the Ugie, the Den Burn is now hidden; culverted to make way for a rarely-used dual carriage way. Along this valley there also runs a train line. But across from this there still remains a shadow of the green Denburn Valley, in the Union Terrace gardens. The eyes of the steeple still watch across the valley: not at the plash of water, but the sporadic flow of car and train. In writing that poem, William Thom unwittingly foretold the fate of the building that was made from the demolition of his employment. The once hallowed, but now unhallow’d red brick of a spire that no longer serves its purpose: as an antenna to heaven; as spiritual beacon for the people below. The churches themselves now pulled down, left empty and roofless, or converted to pub, nightclub, dance studio.

* * *

The church that still remains, but is roofless, is supported by the angular symmetry of modernist scaffolding. In a north facing wall, the wooden frame in the window place has shifted. Its pointed arch outlines skewed against the vertical walls and the order of the scaffolding. The space within these roofless walls is out-of-bounds. But today the service yard for the adjoining pub is quiet, so I sneak in. A piece of rotting chipboard is all that prevents access. I pull the board away, just enough to be able to see the rear of the walls. Despite the relative ease of getting this view, it feels like an act of subversion. I am looking on the wrong side of the walls. Sometimes developers might get in here, and birds have free reign to fly over the walls, though perhaps not the aesthetic wherewithal for its uncanny appreciation.

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Another time, when viewing the north wall from the ‘right’ side, that is, the outside, I can see tiny footprints. There is a thin lie of snow, lying like a white quilt, all smooth undulation, but with small tears where precocious grass pokes through. A single line walks towards the wall, by a bird unseen. Perhaps, after all, birds do have a curious interest in this wall. Or maybe it was for the thrill of leaving a trail in the snowy blanket: a kind of colonisation of an untainted canvas; a territorialisation. Perhaps it was searching for food; though deep down I suspect it’s all of these reasons, and none. (What is a reason, anyway, other than the purposeful deliberation of action; a passing-of-the-moment for time-rich, experience-poor human beings?).­­

Who made this path? I wondered. I hear there are peregrines that roost in the lofty spire. All I have ever seen are pigeons, clucking out of the only-partially-boarded belfry openings. But perhaps these are sly peregrines; venturing out only when necessity dictates. Maybe this trail is an elusive marker of this bird. But then, perhaps not. I am resigned to assume I see the marks of pigeon or seagull talons, and no more. Peregrines are migratory after all: perhaps I will see them in the summer.

* * *

ImagePeregrine falcons are the most kingly of the birds: in medieval times, it was only the king who was allowed to use a peregrine for hunting. They are fast too (indeed, the fastest bird) – flying at over 200 miles per hour on its way to its prey. And so back to the snow-path. Why would the peregrine, with its keen eye, be strolling about the ground? This bird is not one of horizontal strolling, of scrubbing about in the dirt looking for scraps of barely edible debris. They are of verticality; for it can only be through the plummet-from-height that they could achieve those speeds. Where else could these birds roost but the tall, slender spire of the Triple Kirks?

William Thom wrote Lines Written at Ravenscraig, and imagined that ruin looking down on the Ugie; perhaps now the eyes of the peregrines look across the Denburn Valley and Aberdeen beyond: the Eyes of the Triple Kirks. It was, after all, the ancient Egyptian god Horus, that peregrine-deity, whose right eye gave us Sun Ra, and the left the moon; whose symbolism paved the way for the Christian all-seeing eye. An all-seeing eye for the city, but one that is not moved by human actions. A passive eye that, perhaps through generations, sees the rise and fall, the stasis and flux of development and abandonment of human activity.

* * *

Archibald Simpson died in 1847 and his friend James Giles created a posthumous portrait of Simpson sat in a study, in front of the Denburn Valley, including the Triple Kirks steeple2. Viewing this painting, it is not obvious whether the view depicted is that of an earlier painting James Giles made, placed into the scene, or if it supposed to be a view through a window. One thing is likely: there is not a room that would have given such a view of the valley and kirks. But the fact that Giles used this view is testament to both his, and Simpson’s, attachment to the Triple Kirks. Walking through the centre of Aberdeen, reminders of Archibald Simpson’s achievements abound. Giles could have chosen any number of buildings to frame his friend. But the Triple Kirks was used for that living image of Simpson.

Like a memorial bench, we take up that view that was so important to the one being remembered. We embody the passed, as we recognise that which was dear, and so too it becomes dear to us. And we embody the past too: the Triple Kirks are entirely identifiable, but it is clear to see the Kirks as they were built, not as they stand now.

But does this painting really show them “as they were built”? For a start, this is a make-believe drawing room, in that it almost certainly did not have this view. And the Triple Kirks was built to house the new Free Church as it splintered away from the established kirk. But instead we get an image of a timeless-looking church tower (indeed, the steeple was modelled on one of the two towers of the 13th century Church of Saint Elizabeth in Marburg, Germany), with the lush folding greens in front. Archibald Simpson himself looks at peace in the painting, with a gentle half-smile, looking on to his drawings. The church, both above and with the nature of the valley; Simpson beyond the petty ecclesiastical arguments, yet intertwined with them by proximity. Perhaps this is a painting of desire, where the church is as tranquil as the greenery, and Simpson is alive, and smiling.

But of course this cannot come to pass. Death follows life, as ruins follows structure. But as long as ruins remain, the remembrances are painted and constructed, space is appropriated unexpectedly, there will always be lines of sight. Sightlines to see, and to remember, to imagine, and to recreate, and create anew. For now at least, “Simpson’s spire soar[s] above oblivious: it has a stout granite heart within its brick skin, after all”3.

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Notes

1 Appears in Thom, W., 1847, Rhymes and Recollections of a Handloom Weaver, London: Smith, Elder and Co. Page 109

2 For an image of this painting, see http://tinyurl.com/Archibald-Simpson (accessed 10/04/2013)

3 Brogden, W.A., 2012, Aberdeen: An Illustrated Architectural Guide, Edinburgh: Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland. Page 59.

Impression: Afternoon to Gloaming

Today, Aberdeen was blessed with something of a summery day: what will surely be the last sun-and-warmth day of the year. Passing the digital thermometer display at the oil careers office, I was informed that the temperature was 20C. Wikipedia says the average temperature in July is 18.3C, while the highest temperature ever recorded was just shy of 30C. For temperatures to apparently reach 20C in October is quite the achievement: especially considering there was a big snowfall this time last year!

Buoyed by the conditions and soft sun, I decided to take the long route home from work. I work near the beach, so I first set off for the old village of Footdee (pronounced Fittie), so to follow the coast north, from the mouth of the Dee to the mouth of the Don. The tide is in as I start walking. I first start on the tarmac path on the top of the sea wall, and am quickly mesmerised by the waves crashing into the concrete. But these swells and troughs are not the rhythmic breathing of a sea (which have been conveyed superbly by Fife Psychogeographical Collective); these are intermittent, unpredictable. I see the water rising up, and approaching fast, but not always breaking and creeping up the sand. When the waves do break, they crash loudly into a concrete groyne, and I stand mesmerised for some fifteen minutes, as I lean against the wooden fence on the path. I think about what causes this sound and remember watching the extraordinary BBC documentary The Secret Life of Waves.

Mindful of the time, I start to walk. But this tarmac path is too far from the beach. I climb down the steps to the sand and take off my shoes and let the cold foamy water cover my feet. It seemed to be a summery day, but some things give away the autumnal time of year. For one thing, the light has already started to fade. Another: the skenes of geese as they hohn hohn hohn overhead. They are coming from the north-northeast, and I wonder if they are from Shetland, Orkney or even Scandinavia. The amusement park with its rollercoaster and big wheel are also closed for winter, with flocks of birds fly around and through the closed rides.

Hardly anyone is on the beach. Despite the warm sunny day, few people make it down the steps to the shingle-and-sand, although there are more people on the path above. Out to sea I can see gunmetal grey clouds. In the distance, squally showers, that never touch land. There are multiple ships out on the water too, mostly taking heavy equipment to the rigs, as well as a passenger vessel heading north, presumably to the Northern Isles. But I’m not drawn to these long views. My attention keeps coming back to the beach and its pebbles, to the foreshore and the bobbing gulls, and those crashing waves. I notice the changing colour of the water. Out to sea it’s deep grey, much like the clouds above. As it approaches the shore, a water green, and finally, golden-brown as the sand is swirled and swept up.

As I approach Donmouth, the light has dropped considerably; all that remains is a darkened walk along the river’s bank and home. And I smile as I do so, thinking of this final fine walk this side of next Easter.

Donmouth to North Sea, Aberdeen

Donmouth to North Sea, Aberdeen