Saint George, Bristol: Paths, Cuts, and Lanes. PROLOGUE

I have decided to document the paths and lanes around where I live. I live in Saint George, Bristol, or possibly Crews Hole, depending on who writes the address, or which map you look at. Our flat is a few hundred meters from the River Avon, though despite our ellevated vantage point, the river cannot be seen, though its route is clearly visible as it wends its way downstream.

It is, however, just possible to see Crews Hole Road [sic – the lack of apostrophe in ‘Crews’ is not my doing]. We can also just spot the peaked roof of the recently-reopened Bull Inn, just beyond the cliff-clinging Buddleia plants that edges the flats’ carpark.

The aims of this project (at this point of time, leastways) is (1) to document some of the hidden, and not so hidden, routeways of the area; and (2) to learn how to get the most out of my oft-neglected Nikon F65 SLR (film) camera.

So some more detail. First, the paths and lanes. There is quite a variety of walkways roundabouts this steep valley slope. There are the roadways that plummet straight down the hill, the narrow paths cutting between houses and past backs of  gardens. There’s Trooper’s Hill nature reserve with gravel-surfaced paths through the heather, and the tarmac’d River Avon path. Some trails are overgrown and unused, such as the path that starts at the end of our car park, and there are rat-runs through pavement-less narrow lanes, unnerving for walkers who find themselves facing a suped-up Mitsubishi, or impatient van driver.

Second: my camera. I have owned the camera for about 8 years. For a good few years it’s been mothballed, collecting dust in the spare room. I recently got a copy of Natural-Light Photography by Ansel Adams (1952: 1971, Morgan & Morgan: New York) from Bristol Central Library. It’s pretty technical, recommending all sorts of light meters, and discussing the merits and demerits of various, and largely obselete, film types; but depsite that, it is the philosophical approach to natural light photography (a term that refers to not only outdoor shots, but the process of photography that does not use specialist lighting equipment) that is inspiring.

I intend to use a single film per routeway. This means about 36 shots each time – so I will have to think carefully about every photograph. I documented a path today and used about 2-and-a-half films! Using a digital compact camera has certainly made me lazy about photos, with its vast memory and instant results. I look forward to slowing things down, to take my time; and from this, become more attentive of my local area.

There is another aspect to this approach which I hope will be useful. There will always be a lag between photographs taken, and photographs developed (barring converting the spare room into a darkroom). It means it is possible to write some notes about each path during or immediately after, perhaps with some research. But once the photographs are developed, it is hoped I will have a new perspective – perhaps something I missed during the excursion, or that ability to look at something in its fine, static detail.

Essentially, I envisage that the process will embody three key elements:

  1. Close observance and photo-framing during the walk
  2. Writing and considering my thoughts and feelings of that walk
  3. The close study of the returned photographs in all their pristine, and not so pristine, detail.
St George/Crew's Hole

St George/Crew’s Hole area. Click map to got to OSM.

Bendochy – a poem

BENDOCHY

?????????????????????????????????????

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.

SAM_2559Drip         Drip                               Drip               Drip                 Drip    Drip                       Drip                     Drip                         Drip                           Drip      Drip                          Drip          Drip               Drip                                  Drip             Drip              Drip        Drip                    Drip               Drip                                        Drip                     Drip  Drip               Drip        Drip  Drip                                      Drip                  Drip     Drip                      Drip                  Drip

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

Southbank - slice 312

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.

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?

Image

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.

Image

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.

20140416-0042

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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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

Image

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

An Equilibrium Not of This World – an impression

Projected diptych video, Edinburgh College of Art, Lauriston Place, for Edinburgh Art Festival 2013, by Katri Walker

I lived in Edinburgh for several years. That festival city, where there always seems to be some celebration of one form of entertainment or another at any one time. But last year I left, pulled to Aberdeen by a curiosity to live somewhere new, and to help my partner explore a new career opportunity. I miss those festivals, but I also miss those hills. I’ve talked about the Pentland Hills before. These hills lie to the southwest of Edinburgh, and are mostly protected as a Regional Park, and rest within the counties of Edinburgh, West Lothian, Midlothian and South Lanarkshire. The spectre of the Pentland hills loom large over the city of Edinburgh. There are a great deal of points within the city where the Pentlands can be glimpsed: a stilled, wild, rural and, perhaps most importantly, remote area. To the city of Edinburgh, these hills are always present, but always at a remove, not quite reachable for most; at least, not without some effort.

I used to often make my way to the hills. While the reality of the hills in their intimacy may not quite invoke the wild, stilled and remoteness that their distant viewing suggests (one hill pass is aptly named Windy Door Nick), the relative openness,

Still from An Equilibrium Not of This World, courtesy of Katri Walker.

Still from An Equilibrium Not of This World, courtesy of Katri Walker.

and quietness1 is apparent. In Katri Walker’s piece, she explores and gently reveals the way in which a retreat to the hills can manifest itself in the acting of hill running. As the promotional material puts it, it is about: “the dialogue between body and landscape, interior and exterior, man and machine”. The installation shows two projection screens alongside one another. On the right, a path through hills is tracked; a close up of shrubby branches twitching in the wind; a vista of mountains, with clouds floating through the blue sky above. On the left, the right screen’s loose correlates in the form of various analytic sequences and videos that tends towards the scientific investigation of running: stop animation of a runner (presumably on a treadmill in a lab) and a black and white scan of a beating heart; neurons sparking; a plot of inhale/exhale against a graph-paper background.

The installation took place in the Edinburgh College of Art, in a darkened studio. I sat on floor, staring at the screens, trying to take in the pair of images; wondering what the intention of the work is, and what it stirs within me. The sonic accompaniment too was significant (and wonderful). It featured music by Judith Weir, which flowed between deep, plaintive bowed strings, to a light, fluttering thrill on violin. In addition, there was the sounds of breathing, and of heart beating, weaving in and out of the music. The slow deep music, racing breath, and on the right hand screen, a view of the hill path, being tracked uphill: the sonic expression of the gruel of a climb. But as the descent begins, so the music changes: this is when it gets lighter, and sprightly, as the run goes down hill; buoyed by gravity: a dance with the landscape.

After my third or fourth viewing, the music cuts out. “It does this occasionally, and always at this point!” says the host at the door, by way of explanation. I assume this is a coincidence, though part of me wonders if this is a treat afforded to those who sit through more than a couple of viewings: a chance to have external noise fall away; a chance for my thoughts to come through more strongly. Up until this point, I have been viewing the film from a distance, as an object. Sure, I was trying to imagine my time in the Pentland Hills, and the physical exertion that entails, but all I was doing was calling upon my memories. But when the audio stopped, I suddenly become hyper-aware of myself. I was tired from travelling, and I realised I was shaking to the rhythm of my heart beat. The visual was still present, and my gentle rocking seemed to be a personal expression of the run. It was as though I had transcended that void between viewer and art; as though I had become part of the piece. Not as though I was running, more like my body shaking as the memory of rural exertion was bubbling up through my being (or at least, my-being-there).

Gravitated plants - taken by the author.

Gravitated plants – taken by the author.

Perhaps that’s what it’s really like? When we’re totally consumed by that moment, that experience, that immersion. After leaving the exhibition, I wandered down the corridor, lost in thought. Facing one wall, was a glass-topped display case. The glass top was angled towards the wall: this cabinet had been rotated through 180 degrees, to minimise its prescence; to show that it was not for viewing: that it was mere clutter; had not been removed in time for Edinburgh Art Festival. The case was almost empty. A white card held taxonomic tags, but most of the specimens that corresponded were not to be found. All that was left were a couple of dried branches, looking like heather or some other woody, scraggy shrub. This case wasn’t meant for viewing, but following my intense focus on Katri Walker’s installation, I was drawn in. That naming and taming of nature, subverted by carelessness; gravity pulling the plant away from its ‘label’: an unintended act against subjugation.

Later, I thought back to the Pentland Hills, to my time in Edinburgh, to the festivals. I was struck by how familiar that place was, despite all that had changed since leaving 11 months earlier. That city and its hills had fed into me, become entwined in my being. I had dragged my physical body away to Aberdeen, but I was threaded into this place, and it into me. As Andrew Grieg says:

There are some hills and people
we cannot return to,
because nothing would be the same,
because we never left them.
2



Notes

1 Quietness is deliberate, though not perfect. The hills are rarely completely quiet; conversley it’s not impossible to find peace within the city limits. It’s the contrast I’m trying to emphasise here.

2 Excerpt from Knoydart Revisited, in Greig, A, 2011, Getting Higher, Edinburgh: Polygon, p201

Of the white faeries – a summer Solstice wildcamp

The shortest night; the longest day.

Since moving to Scotland several years ago, and moved by the markedly longer summer days than the southern-central England of my growing up, I have desired to camp out on that oddly beguiling day. A previous attempt at a solstice summer wildcamp ended in a hasty retreat to the car: both partner and I red-raw from midge bites; the springy ground, lochside view and under-the-trees cover proving no match.

But that was a few years ago, in the west of Scotland, where midge numbers are high. This year, I will try again. This year will be different. I set out alone (this was, after all, my dream, not ours), on my heavily laden mountain bike. I know my destination, having camped there in the mild spring. I check the midge forecast, which gives a confidence-inspiring 1-out-of-5 for the nearest spot. This time I chose a bivouac bag over a tent: it’s light; but really, I want that sheer weather-on-your-face exhilaration.

Although I had slept at my chosen spot before, I did not know it well. When I first stayed there, I tried to make a mark on the map for future reference. Having nothing to write with, I attempted to score the map with a key. But I cannot see where this mark was left. I recognise some junctions in the woods, but that monotonous green of industrial silviculture confounded me. A deeply-tanned, topless and well-built man with snarling dogs, running past me with no more than a sinister glint to his expression only heightens my nervousness of finding a spot to sleep.

Some landmarks really stand out in this woods. The five-ways junction. The line of pylons. The communication masts on the far-off hill. But alas not my sleeping spot. I cannot stay on a path, such is my worry of conflict with those less understanding, but I cannot find a suitable clearing hidden behind tree cover. But like so much in life, with a fortuitous turn of the map, a rarefied glint of light, I see that light scratching on the paper: my bed for the night.

My camp is on a clearing on a slope. This forest is full of such clearings – I managed to find this one, despite its entrance being well hidden from the double-track. It’s an interesting space. That pervasive (literal) forest green of earlier gives way to myriad colour. Just a single tree shows the near-luminous verdant of fresh shoots, the deeper shade of established needles, the chestnut-brown of the ruptured pine cones, the rich brown of the trunk. And there’s more besides. But to that later.

I’m not ready to bed down. It’s still daylight, so I read my copy of the rather apt A Year in the Woods by Colin Elford. As his account goes, so I see the signs of which he speaks. Mostly, these take the form of the passing of deer: hoof marks in the soil, rutting marks on trees. He also mentions the clouds of midges that appear in the Dorset New Forest every year: I am only too aware of their presence around me.

At first the midges don’t bother me. Every half hour or so, they start to swarm, my carbon dioxide the beacon that shines out to them, so I walk within my clearing, and read some more. But after a while, the tiny bugs get wise to my movement. Now I am slowly becoming choked in a cloud. I am walking every ten minutes, 5 minutes, 30 seconds… I have a wooly hat for the cold, but that makes more sense as a midge net, along with my buff from just below my eyes, cycling glasses and long-sleeved base layer. It’s hot, but I feel I have no choice. I also put on my bright yellow cycling coat on: apparently midges don’t appreciate the colour. It seems to serve no purpose but to make me warmer.

This clearing is maybe not as clear as one might imagine. There are still trees that grow here: but short and young. Long grass abounds, but it hides old, near-white dead branches. There’s cotton grass, tiny yellow flowers, bog-loving plants. The more I walk up to avoid the midges, the more I see. Like the delicate young pine tree growing from the middle of a large, rotten stump. The seemingly dead moth that hasn’t moved, despite disturbing its settling place every time I pass on my loop.

Across the valley, towards the cluster of tall communications’ masts, I can see some heavy grey cloud lowering. It looks so cool and refreshing. I wonder: will a blast of cool air deter the midges? Will it soon be raining? The masts vanish, and a cold air comes over my spot. The wind picks up too, another good sign. The sun is still in the sky, but it is reduced to an inky dish of pale light. But despite the promise, the cold air soon parts, and the wind drops. The cloud across the valley still swirls around the masts, but no longer extends to my spot.

I call my partner, someone of wiser stuff, and enquire about the weather. Will it rain at all tonight? If so, when? Does the internet know what plants deter midges? She suggests I should consider coming home. But I’m committed now. If I was to leave, I would be fighting through darkness on unfamiliar tracks. I could end up cycling for hours without knowing where I am. I have to stay.

I feel as though I have been on my feet for hours now. My legs feel heavy. I’m stumbling over the hidden dead branches, and I begin to imagine myself tripping and breaking my leg. The light is falling, but still the air remains warm and still. When I stop for just a few seconds, the midges swarm so heavily that their buzz is audible, like a bee swarm, but of a far bigger choir and yet with smaller voices: a mass harmony.

I have walked up and down so many times. My time stretched up and down the clearing in my walking’s wake. I think I have seen everything there is to see. The lifeless moth; the tiny tree from the massive stump; the branches like bones; the green-burgandy-pale yellow patina of grasses and other plants. But I see something new.

It’s dark, but I see glowing-white creatures, maybe four, maybe eight, maybe more. They are flying around each other, floating and swirling, in a sort of three-dimensional figures of eight (or should that be figures of infinity?). They seem to carry their own light; have the luminosity of the moon. But there is no moon, and there is no sun to reflect on these creatures. What could they be? I stop to look; to ponder. I’m tired. I can’t hold a thought too long. I can’t help but think this must be an apparition, or forgotten beings.

Can they be faeries? I banish more rational explanations. What else would be fluttering around this clump of grass, on this most special of nights? A frolic of solstice faeries. I secretly hope they are tiny guardian angels; that they will chase away the midges so I can sleep. But they don’t; they just keep on dancing: dosey doeing, waltzing to imperfect time.

I walk on, as the midges’ presence becomes obvious again; forget about anything but the biting insects. But now I have seen these faeries, I keep seeing them, lost in their summer revelry, indifferent to my existence. My thoughts drift between anxious din and enchantment. I never consciously seek out the faeries; but my subcounscious always leads me to them, and each time I pause, lost momentarily to their movements.

Eventually I decide to bed down; to stop pacing, start resting. I try. But I have to fight the flies away, the swarm, the buzz, the bites. This is not relaxing. I argue my way into my sleeping bag, and then the bivvy bag. The midges are everywhere: throughout my sleeping bag, all over my face, under my clothes. I pull the sleeping bag over my head to seal me from outside: the midges too much. The bivvy opening is so tight I can hardly breathe. I lay still and cannot help but pant: all I can do to get enough oxygen. But No! I can’t open my bivvy bag, not even a bit. I hear my sleeping bag rip as I pull tighter. I rearrange myself, manage to get an opening but without an influx of midges. I can breath again! My panting slows; heart rate lowers. I relax easily, mostly from exhaustion. But I shift again and the midges find a way in. I’m pulling the bivvy bag tight again, my breath condensing onto the inside of the waterproof bag.

I’m dipping in and out of sleep. Drift off from exhaustion; reawaken through itchy anxiety. Finally the rain comes, that rain my partner promised me. I feel so relieved. There’s no wind; the water falling steadily. I lie with my bivvy bag open, let the water cool my face and its itches. The midge numbers don’t drop much, but it’s wonderful, the cooling, the relaxing, the slow drubbing of rain, so sweet, so relaxing. I smile, drift off, and dream of snow-white faeries…