Gridlines: Walking the ST63 Down

Walk — 02/09/2016

A necessary day off work and still energised after my long walk along the GR4 from Montserrat to Sant Vicenç de Castellet, near Barcelona.

In the week run-up to this, I’ve been poring (pawing? pouring? pooring?) over the OS maps on Bing, Open Street Map’s becitizenized paths, and Google’s satellite images. I have a great fondness for walking from the front door. But nothing really ‘took’. The post-industrial, nature-clawing-back of the River Avon to the east is too familiar. To the north, the monotony of the suburbs; to the west: the social housing and barely-functioning industry that so often lines the edges of city centres.

No, I need a concept, something that might give me direction: a move away from the whims of personal intrigue; of willful wandering.

From the OS maps, I notice the gridlines, and we live just shy of the intersection of ST63 and ST73. That’s it: I shall follow one of these lines as closely as I can. But which way? South: it has to be. After less than 1km, I’ll need to cross the Avon, and without a huge diversion, there’s only a single option: the Avon’s oldest ferry crossing to Beese’s Riverside Bar. The bar’s only open during the summer, and so too the ferry crossing. I can follow the gridlines in other directions in the depths of winter.

Ferry. What is a ferry? I grew up landlocked; a brook opposite the house. The nearest big river was the Thames in Oxford, but we rarely went. So a ferry to me is the behemoths that run from Dover to Calais. My first shock at the non-industrial sized ferry was the 20-berth fishing boat taking people from Mallaig to Knoydart, NW Scotland. Until arriving at Mallaig, I could only picture a vast boat, with bars, amusement arcades, and vehicles. A lifetime’s conception dashed, but pleasingly so. Beese’s ferry is even smaller, carrying a maximum of six people.

* * *

So I’ve made it. In about 5 hours I’ve covered eight 1km segments, plus a bit more either end. But that’s as the crow flies (imagine: a crow flying straight!); it’s a fair bit more underfoot: a zigzagging, doubling-back meander. Now, I’m tired, my legs ache, blisters flowering. The bottoms of my jeans are heavy with water because this is not Spain, and there is rain, and there are ticks.

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Paint splatter/hunting bittern/limping bull reed.

 

* * *

Some might like to praise the UK for its plethora of paths, taking in as they do the long distance trail as much as the quotidian and local. I, however, was not praising the quality of the path marking. I was surprised: the closer to the city (Broomhill near Beese’s; Stockwood Open Space Nature Reserve), the less likely the rights of way are to be signposted. I followed wrong paths back on myself; pushed through bramble thickets; raised my hands aloft through head-height stinging nettles — only to have to turn back. I started to rue my straight-jacket decision to follow the fictions of the Ordnance Survey’s Cartesian cross-lines. Wouldn’t it be much nicer to have a walk at a beauty spot? What is this going to prove, anyway?

But I stuck with it. Of course I did.

I have lots of ideas, most of them fleeting, but if I get as far as starting the journey, I’m loathe to abandon. Even the unexpected rain (that went from fairy mist to persisting-it-down), did not tear me from my aim. And so much the better.

It’s peculiar, following the lines. The walk can be categorised into three scenes: 1 — suburban Bristol; 2 — single-track country lanes; 3 — field footpaths. Because I had the schema, I missed most of the villages on the way. I ignored the most intriguing-looking paths. I merely chose the route that allowed me to follow line ST63 most closely.

It took a long time to feel I’d left Bristol and its conurbations. For every leaf-dappled lane, every overgrown path, there followed as much in the way of post-war bungalows and social housing, bus stops and convenience stores. Horseworld was especially confusing  — a sanctuary for diseased horses (according to one sign, feeding the horses is forbidden because they may transfer diseases deadly to humans). Horseworld resolutely threw out the notion of ‘the city’, with its stables, paddocks and electric fences — only for houses to reappear. And why does a city like Bristol require a horse sanctuary?

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Mountains of the mind.

 

* * *

Out of the city proper, and onto the many, many unclassified roads. Some were narrow, steep, and with near-vertical banks to cling to as cars approached. Some were wider, encouraging lead-footed drivers to swerve to avoid me. The most fun on those lanes, was the abuse hurled at me from a small hatchback. Incoherent, but I transcribed to my phone what I heard:

“Awefurfife fur fa fawf!”

Quite.

I grew up in the countryside. Narrow lanes and speeding cars are nothing new to me. On the city’s edge, I imagine gangs of adolescent youths, at the end of long summer holiday, hurling abuse, and possibly worse. I’ve always had this sense; a feeling that arises from the unknown. But despite all this, the country lanes, on this wet day, really got to me. When I heard a car far off I’d tense up. Anxiety would start with a tiny thought before torpedoing down to my heart, where it would bloom into heavy-handed arrhythmia. I started to dread the approach of every car; imagined scenarios where two could cars would need to pass each other right where I stood, pinning me to the bank, speeding off, leaving me. And it was because of this that I broke my rule.

I was near the end of the walk in Pennsford, and the last bus stop before wandering off the map’s edge. The road: steep, narrow. The cars: fast. Legs: sore. I wanted the walk to last longer than it otherwise would (the sore legs a pleasing ache of achievement). I ducked off the road onto some footpaths. I went round the back of a church, which had a barbecue in the graveyard. I looked at the limping sheep, one so poorly it wouldn’t get off its elbow; it’s toenails overgrown, black and gnarled. I zigzagged a river at the path’s whim.

And then, after 5 hours, I was in Pennsford. Its single-cell gaol, the vast railway viaduct, the pubs, cafés and museum, and of course, the bus that arrived just as I did.

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Krickrickreck: Strange occurrences on the GR4

Walking the Catalan Pre-Coastal Range – 18/08/2016

Monestir de Montserrat a Sant Vinenç de Castellet

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Cable-car to Monestir de Montserrat, and the walk’s start

As soon as I got off the 1.5 hr loops I didn’t see any one. But I heard people: gentle talking on a parallel path above mine. But there was no path. I even heard voices and movement when the cliff to my right was sheer. This was before I got very tired, and up in the cool, high air of the mountain. But I’m convinced it wasn’t my imagination. Utterly. But that doesn’t mean I can explain it. I balanced a small quartz stone on a tiny cairn.

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The high path and parallel voices

 

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Add a stone to the cairn

 

Later, I came to a small monastery. A sign for the GR4 pointed me down an unused-looking path alongside the carpark track. It didn’t seem right, but the arrow looked pretty confident. I got to wooden hut, perhaps a hide. A sign in both Spanish and Catalan seemed to say: don’t proceed further without permission. But it was the only path I could see: steep steps off the steep cliff. I edged slowly forward to try to decipher the status of the steps: whether they were safe, and whether this was my path. I passed the hut and was startled to see a man sitting out and staring to the vast plain below. I was ruffled, but remembered enough to cobble ‘dónde está la gran recorrido quatro?’ He understood. I knew roughly that it went down the valley side, so was surprised when he told me to go back across the main road and rejoin the path I’d left. My puzzlement translated, and he seeked to clarify: Lo siento, GR 4?; si, quatro. Ah! Perdon. He checked his phone and I’d been too hasty with the right turn, and he wasn’t familiar with path. He apologised again and I left to take the proper path down the valley.

* * *

Back onto the path, and again no single other walker (though some mountain bikers and a couple of cars). I was no longer followed by occasional chatter or slipping rocks from a hidden path. Who made those noises before? And who was this man, only too pleased to help a hapless hiker? How, and why, was he there?

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KRiCKRiCKRECK – the walk’s timbre

Three Processions

I set out alone in brilliant sunshine
Along the green river, a shop
The town; the Gloucester Road

The first Saturday of May
To see the procession
Or at least, its terminus upon ancient common

Gloucester Road to Filton Road
Crowds outside pubs thicken
“Are these all for the Jack?”

Police on foot, horseback, riot vans
Match day. Blue and whites
I arrive at the common

(Avoiding the busy streets)
The common is empty
The road alongside, suddenly

Gets noisy: proud chants
Supporters escorted on a
Pre-planned route

This is not the procession that I
That I was expecting
But it carries its own values

Sense of occasion
I wait for mine, sat here
Too early, and realise

This is a solitary procession, all of my own.

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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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. 

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