On form and fluid – musings from Minehead

Preface

Over Easter weekend 2015, I decided to cycle from Barnstaple (Devon) to Bridgwater (Somerset), wild camping (and, as it turned out B+Bing) along the way.

I might elaborate further on the trip in the future. But for now, here are some thoughts I had in Minehead in Saturday evening as I watched the flow and ebb of the tide.

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I’ve walked along the waterfront, from Butlins on the eastern edge, to the west end in the shadow of North Hill. Behind is the RNLI Lifeboat Station, and I’m sat on a trailer for towing boats.

Further down towards Butlins, the beach is sandy but here it’s all pebbles: grey, purple and violet, smoothed to irregular shapes.

Along the shoreline to the left and right stand two fishermen, spending as much time looking behind at the wooded hill and playing with their equipment, as out to sea. A couple sit on a conspicuous shelf of concrete, which seems to be a dried dump of cement; pebbles from the shore embedded within.  

I like watching the tide. A good deal of my childhood was spent in a village that is “the second most inland place in the UK”, according to my mother, though my dad is from Grimsby. The waves crash at rarely a foot high. The larger waves work further up the shore, and as the water recedes, the rocks clatter loudly, as though a smoker is taking a rattly inhale before the next crest blows in.

Sometimes the pebbles don’t rattle, the old smoker missing a breath.

I wonder: is the tide coming in or going out? After several tiny waves, I conclude going out, only for another large wave to come in, confounding me.

It’s seven o’clock, and the sky above the western horizon of the sea is golden. Wales, seen through the haze, is basking in sunshine, too, including the large power station; its smoke a barely-percepitble grey smudge.

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Anthony Gormley sculpture, Leith.

Why are coastal towns so often furnished with sculptures? In Aberdeen, the harbourside paving inscribed with poetry, a sort of concrete poetry, or perhaps better: granite poetry. In Leith, Anthony Gormley’s frozen, rusted anglers-without-poles stand stoic.

Minehead, too. A pair of giant galvanised hands wrestle with a corrugated map, marking the start (or, depending on proclivity and angle, end) of the South West Coastal Path. Even this deserted trailer upon which I sit (a sort of sculptural memorial itself) sits three small pebbles placed upon one another.  

In front of me, 100 or so metres out into the water, two structures I recognise but don’t understand, protrude from the surface. Two seagulls and a crow stands sentinel atop. A large ship approaches from the east, perhaps an oil tanker from the Avonmouth refinery. It floats in languid light, the same golden sunlight that has long been hidden from this sheltered section of harbour.

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Maybe this is why sculptures seem so plentiful on the coast; a desire to make form from the unending fluid of the ocean. Tim Ingold asks of his undergraduate anthropology students to visit Aberdeen beach, and to the consider the nature of place, space (though he’d never utter that word), emergence, surface and form.

In short, looking out to sea we saw a world in movement, in flux and becoming, a world of ocean and sky, a weather world. […Apply this way of seeing to the land, and] it is the solidity of the ground itself that is thrown into doubt

Ingold, 2011, pp131-132

So sculptures: more than just an attempt to fix the sea, but to fix the land too. Perhaps seaside dwellers are used to flux and dynamism: waves, coastline, rising rivers, supermoons, spring and neap tides, rain, fog, wind, but as well as seeing this in the sea, it is seen on the land as well. Groins and piers for the sea; sculpture for onshore.

It’s getting cold, and my thirst needs slaked – so to the pub. But before I depart, I look again at the pebbles in front. The couple have left, but in their stead, a neat stack of eight or ten pebbles. And yes, now I’m sure: the tide is coming in.

Reference

2011, Ingold, T, Being Alive: Essays on movement, knowledge and description, Oxon: Routledge

Bendochy – a poem

BENDOCHY

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cold cold cold
the green man’s face blooming.

bloom of my own, this curse of the Celts:
the tiny red fissures at the surface, closer than
most, like a map of blood-red
wind-felled trees.
the ice wind sucks heat
from these threads, my face
feels like the blood is
being frothed out of my skin then
freezing, holding my features,
a grimace.

middle age abbey, medieval gaol,
Victorian barracks, ancient cross.
manacles on a standing stone:
age unknown, but still
a reminder, of something not
remembered

the wind off the river flows
right to this church, for Bendochy
parish, walls to keep out the
icewind and doubts, a shelter acute
when against savage nature

the green man still grins
the cursed Celt grimaces

 

This poem first appeared in Wyrd Daze, “the multimedia zine of speculative fiction and experimental music & art”. Reproduced with thanks. Visit Wyrd Daze for more.

Not (yet?) the cove of forgotten dreams

What is this gap, this cut, this cove?

From the river path, I see a trunk sewer, elevated above the ground. Duck under, and a ruined concrete and brick structure. My eyes dance across the surface of broken angles; peer into a rubble-strewn chamber.

But soon, I am looking at something more massive. A cliff, dwarfing the ruin and sewer. (Though is massive the correct term? A cliff suggests a lack of mass, a void. But whatever might be appropriate, it is surely a derivative of ‘very big’). The cliff a horseshoe of wall, and trees sparsely fill the flat bottom and lower flanks.

Up high, leafless and stunted trees tiptoe on the edge of the golden-in-sunlight rocks. It’s sandstone, I think. Or maybe limestone. The lower cliff faces are shiny wet and pattered in sunlight. Here the water seeps through the rock’s crevices, and drips off the brambles and ivy. Not quite a din or cacaphony, but an asyncopated collage.

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I’m at the highest point I can get to from the bottom, and the space is quite a wonder: an amphitheatre of stones and gravel facing a stage empty but for the trees. What happened here? How did this place come to be? I search high up on the cliff faces, looking for prehistoric rock art. A folly practice, in a site near the city in view of the busy river path, but I look all the same.

But there is still rock art – the furze of spray paint. The prescence of modern (that is, contemporary) people, or at least, the signs of their prescence, sometimes unnerves me. I can happily lie in a flimsy bivuoac in the thick night while foxes bark and owls screech, but if the thought that I might be discovered by a gang of kids or a gamekeeper crosses my mind, I’ll not be sleeping. Now, seeing this rock art, the narrowmindness of my romantic prehistoric-focused imagination is thrown in to sharp relief. I wonder: what would an archeologist make of this space in two-thousand years?

In Don Fernando, W. Somerset Maugham considers that great proto-postmodernist tome Don Quixote and the mention of a meal named duelos y quebrantos, which translates as pains and sorrows. He points out the great scholarly exertion used to find out what this dish might be, for it to be discovered that it’s merely bacon and eggs. He then leaves a quip about bubble and squeak, anticipating the three-hundred years of investigation into what this meal could possibly be. And so to here: as well as the spray paint, there’s a picnic bench and abandoned tent, as well as the concrete ruin and sewer pipe. When this place is buried and then excavated, what conclusions would future thinkers draw with regard to this space? Picnic bench as ceremonial table? Tent as nomadic home left in a hurry? Sewer pipe a sign of Romanesque technology?

I scramble back down and it becomes clear that the boulder and scree is not timeless; permanent. There are signs of a recent rockslide. In among this largely plant-free stony debris is a tree with large blocks against its trunk. Other trees lie half buried, their roots rising skyward. Fractures in the rock face portend the next rock fall.

Lines of Landscape in The Journal of Wild Culture

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The Southbank Undercroft. Photo by Emma Bell and courtesy of the Journal of Wild Culture.

I’m pleased to share this essay I wrote about Southbank, skateboarding, and growing up in the backwaters of Buckinghamshire.

View the essay here.

The Journal of Wild Culture is “An exploration of the spaces between”, and I heartily recommend browsing ths site.

 

A big thank you to Whitney Smith for editorial assistance. Also to Emma Bell for the images of Southbank.

Sun-ways not Widdershins

Tweets from a walk of 10 October 2014. Photos from the same walk, made on 16 October.

Within 50 Metres

Walking the neighbourhood on the eve of the Equinox

As the light falls to gloaming, I take a walk around where I live; the last of the summer nights, the day-ratio falling in favour of darkness for next 6 months.

From the front door: Trooper’s Hill with chimney.

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Fungi and insects colonise leaves, plants colonise walls, haws colonise colour.

The road, it has secrets.

The river, the path, the white line.

The trees will swamp all.

Nothing but an aural memory of the owl, but a timely image from the plants at the door.

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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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