The Edge

I was out looking again today. I was out on The Edge looking round. 

It’s still only just August but my breath floated on the air in front of me today, caught in the early sun at the top of the wheat field. The boots were sodden with the dewy damp before I’d been out more than five minutes and I know that it won’t be long before I’ll need layers again. I expect that the shorts will stay for most of the winter. A leaf fell in front of me as I walked along the lane. The trees form a tunnel and the sunlight that filters through catches leaves like coins. One fell, still green and too keen for autumn. Not ready for it yet but I’m preparing. 

I’m going to have to think what I’ll do when the mornings hold onto the dark until the day’s well in swing; when the night falls before I’m done with the day. It’s easy to get to The Edge on summer days like this and the lockdown has allowed better access than ever. It’s just there: I see it shimmering from the back windows and the tall poplars at the top of the field are waving all of the time. Waving to me and calling me out. But what about when it’s dark, wet, icy? Will I still lift up the plastic wrapping and venture out onto the ledge, the ledge at the edge of things?  

It’s time we talked about this place a little more. People have been asking and I’ve been thinking about it. I can let you in some more I think. I mean, we’ve come this far and it’s possible that you’ve started to understand that The Edge isn’t so much a place as an acceptance. Call it a bubble, a saran wrap or clingfilm or whatever you will, it’s the invisible barrier that lets us see the clouds but not breathe the fresh air. It’s the cocoon that shields us from our part in the great web of things and encourages us to deny our memento mori. In here we’re braver and tougher and invincible and even when it rains we can scamper home or jump in our cars. 

Reading this, the chances are that you’re a bit like me. You know that we need all this; you know that there’s a lot to be said for the world we’ve made and we could spend as much time praising it as trying to bring it down. But let’s leave that to the politicians and the mainstream media. Let them justify themselves and their constructs with the material accumulations that have become the measure of all things. Reading this, you’re probably sensible enough to know that all this circus is an inevitable by-product of the whole progress thing, but you probably don’t buy into the importance of it like they want you to. 

Some want to bring it down – they see the bubble that we all swelter under and they want to pull it down. It’s the means to an end and there’s no real consensus about what comes after they’ve toppled the towers and burst the banks. It’s the ones with little to lose that follow this train of thought; who simply want change at any cost. And then there’s those who think that it’s all about the money. That it’s about the next promotion or the next new car. I’d guess that reading this, you’re quite a distance from both of those and that’s good. I have no business with either, either. 

There’s never going to be consensus on either side for very simple reasons on either side of the fence: 7 billion sentient minds will never form a common idea for the eutopia that one side thinks is possible and by its very definition, the capitalist argument will always be a competition. 

But we need the bubble, people like you and me. We need it there where it is and we need the vast majority of people to be lulled by it; hypnotised by the promises and dazzled by the lights. The last thing we want is for it to all come tumbling down. Love it or hate it, the bubble of the towns and the cities and the motorways and all the rest of it, they do  well the job that they have evolved to do, and most importantly: they keep people in a place where we can see them and know where they are. Imagine a great dismantling of the bubble – where would they all go? The whole world would be edge. And The Edge, well that’s for me and you. That’s where we go when we’re no longer willing to play along.  That’s where the magic is.

It’s best to think of The Edge as a state of mind as much as any geography. There’s no need to drive to the mountains or move to the sea; it’s not even necessary to live next to open countryside or a thick forest. You just need to be able to take a step away from the telly, put the phone on mute and strap on a pair of decent shoes. There’s an Edge in every town and city and I’m pretty sure that you’ve found yours already. The Edge is on the outside and it can be rocky underfoot. It’s a ledge that skirts the bubble; sometimes wide and sometimes the width of a footstep.  

And beyond The Edge? Well that’s something else. We’ll have to deal with what happens when the land drops away some other time. And it does drop away to place where there’s no foothold and no rules; where there’s no boundary and no limit.  

It’s over The Edge that the real magic happens.

Notes from The Edge 15 – Lock-down

It will be banging hot today – that’s what they say. I can feel it already in the air; warm air came it little gusts like from a hair-dryer. It is likely that we will pay for a hot day like this with a week of rain. It is the way that things tend to go here. The lockdown three-month spell brought the best spring weather we have ever seen, then July started. 

Nothing’s as simple as we never realised it was, any more. The little things that we took for granted are now consigned to a past that we have already started to call pre-Corona. We will talk about those hazy happy days with the same silly nostalgia that we use when we talk about the way the world was before the war. The conditions are like this: 

I have a cotton bandana wrapped around my wrist like a decoration, though it’s really there because I won’t be allowed into any shops unless I wrap it round my face before I enter. I’m noticing eyes more. I’ve never seen so many. Queues for shops stretch out through carparks and twist along the street with gaps between the waiting suggesting some national falling out. On the footpaths people have begun to fling themselves into the bushes as we pass and one could get paranoid. Shops are in one way and out another. The cashiers swim behind plastic screens and mime conversation, but with contactless payment there’s no need for any interaction whatsoever. 

The pubs are empty and the pub gardens are full; pergolas and gazebos defy the weather and British pub staff learn how to wait on tables. It’s in one way, try not to breathe on the way through, and then out the other way when you’re done. 

The canal tow-path will need a rethink after a couple of centuries of loyal service: it simply is not conducive to a socially-distanced walk and will probably need to adopt a one-way system or be emptied so that we can all keep our distance – just in the same way that the theatres remain closed and beauticians wait for a return to work – all the time watching hordes of holiday-makers cram into aeroplanes or pack onto beaches. But of course the decision-makers need their holidays too… 

I didn’t want to return to these socially-commentary posts. I had my fill in the spring and made the decision to step out to the edge and let them get on with it; let the fools reel giddy in their own little dance. I’m staying here, right on the edge, so that I can duck under it and gulp in the air. Remind myself what it’s all about. 

Will you come with me? When the seasons start to turn; will you come? Not too many, of course – we don’t want to spaces crammed, but there’s enough space for all of you who get it; who understand the importance of the space. A little wave is enough – no need to get too close. No need to form an association or found a club. A nod, that’ll do. 

I found the canal the other night. The Cut, we call it around here, and it once typified the growing links between the growing throbbing cities when the Industrial Revolution kicked off just up the road. These busy highways linked the towns and cities and, far from the tranquil, tucked-away havens we see today, were busy, dirty, noisy highways populated by grubby foul-mouthed townies and muddy with the detritus of the unenlightened. 

Now these canals are largely forgotten and cut little lines across the countryside and provide surprising exit routes from city-centres and out of towns. The land here drops 67 metres between the edge of the city and the start of the Worcestershire plains and, such was the desire to link up the conurbations that a massive Victorian engineering project lifted the water through thirty locks and blasted hundreds of metres of tunnel through the hillsides. It was an early indication of the inevitable pushing and probing of the tendrils of the beast.  

The craft on the water are scarce in comparison these days and move at walking pace. They’re an impractical attempt to cling on to a time that is lost and a way to surrender to time for a while: it takes a day to travel the two miles from one end of the flight of locks to the other – and that’s without traffic. Now these canals are largely forgotten and cut little lines across the countryside and provide surprising exit routes from city-centres and out of towns. The craft on the water are rare these days and move at walking pace.

From time to time a footpath will spring off to the side and a whole new adventure will beckon with a gnarled and twisted finger. 

Don’t ignore that finger.  

Notes from The Edge 14 – Riverside

Funny how it works out like that. I woke this morning for the Early Walk Along The Edge and there at the bottom of the lane, congested like a blocked nose, alien craft had landed and stood poised on the tarmac, ready to scrape and scratch and relay. It is a very old road, the road that runs up through the foothills at the back of the house, it was about to become newer than my haircut. A smooth new blacktop will make it a calliope of a ride from the top once they’re out of the way, I just wonder how it will affect the winter traffic: there will be no potholes to slow them down as they approach the junction.  

Back to the river at the other end of the county and an illustration of the paucity of bridges along our greatest stretch of water. A walk along the banks of the Severn in summer is unrivalled and a spot of rain from time to time is a blessing as it sends the fair-weather ramblers scuttling in their clean boots for the plastic bubbles of their cars. (It’s not like they actually intended to use those £200 waterproofs.) Even when it rains in the Worcestershire summer it’s never chilly and the shower soon dries off. This is the story that I tell to the girls before we set off – the two little ones and the older one; their mother. I tell them to put on their shorts because legs dry quicker than trousers. We visit the outdoor shop and my desire to hike with them costs me a fortune, but is worth it all when I see us all kitted, kaboodled and ready to roll along the riverbank. 

When walking with the wife and kids, in my experience, it’s always a good idea to keep information to a minimum. Like a long journey in the car it’s always worth offering little encouragements of, let’s say, twenty minutes. Kids can compute that amount of time and it gives them a time-scale to take ownership of. For the wife it’s an episode of Neighbours, she can cope with that. Keep it simple:  

How long’s left, daddy? 

Twenty minutes, princess. 

Of course this wears thin after a while so there’s some improv needed and I suggest supplementary titbits, such as: 

But daddy, how long now? 

Twenty minutes, princess. Ooh look – did you see that heron/fish/boat/squirrel/plane…? 

It requires some strategy. You don’t want to be pulling out the Haribo’s or Dairy Milk too soon, and before you know it you’re passing the Victoria Bridge and someone’s waving from the other side. That’s the picnic spot and the footbridge over the water is just ahead. From that point it’s all walk home. Well, that’s what you tell them: the relief of a sit-down has its limits. It’s soon time to be back on the route. 

Just as they were flagging, the river had disappeared behind fields for a while and we still had a mile or so to go; just as I thought we might not actually make it back before a mutiny, (the girls had grouped together and were plotting my destruction, I felt it). Long after the sweets had run out and no one wanted to hold my hand any more, a rustle and burst from the woods to the side as a family of fallow deer trotted onto the track, paused to regard us a while, then sprinted off into the trees. Suddenly all pain, all hunger, all desire to be on a sofa in front of the telly were gone. Right on cue she had turned up again. 

Notes from The Edge 13 – Riverside

The river, they say, holds no memories.

We always talk of rivers as old. We personify them as immortal princesses or indomitable kings; we make songs about them which become legends of a misty past; we let them meander through stories and folktales. The rivers are always simply there. And very old. 

I have watched the sun rise above the Zambezi as the river plummets over Victoria Falls and been soaked on the Maid of the Mist at Niagara; I’ve cruised on the Seine and paddled in the Thames; I’ve straddled the Severn up by its source and canoed in the Wye at Symmond’s Yat. These are truly majestic beasts of the natural world. For Inlanders like us it’s the same as being at the seaside. 

I’m sitting next to the Severn now. It’s breath-taking in the summer twilight and swelled a little by yesterday’s rain in foreign mountains. Six months ago I was here to witness for myself the swell that had burst the banks again and broken new records and I heard the locals talk about the river as neither a princess or a king, but a grumpy old man. For some, as they piled ruined furniture on the wheelie bins out front and stowed sodden picture frames on the landing, it was worse than grumpy: it was plain evil. Another example of the indifferent mercilessness of nature. Today it’s so shallow that I can see the gravel bed through the running water and it seems impossibly far below our trailing feet; improbable that so much space could be filled by so much water could come rushing through the valley and cause such mayhem. To illustrate my point a heron has waded out almost to the middle of the river in search of a meal – he’s only up to his knees. 

People live on the edge here. Increasingly so, though you wouldn’t know it to be standing here right now. The kids toss in twigs to race and if the sun’s up tomorrow I’ll let them dip their toes a little. We’re not far from home – same county, actually, but there’s an edge here that that maybe only Inlanders can feel about a river. It’s what the rest of them think about the sea: a frontier; the closing off of one world and the opening of another. 

We’re on the far side of the river and if something happens to the little bridge in the town we’re twenty miles either way from the nearest village. Over our shoulder the forest breathes like a single entity and I know that the darkness of its depths stretches as far as the Welsh border. After that no one can really be sure. 

I’m thinking about how old the river is. How old any river really is. 

What is the river? Think about it. If it’s the water then the vast majority of this water was rained out only a few hours ago. It’s fresher that the milk I’ll put in my latte in a few minutes. It’s not old: this river is the newest thing this town has ever seen, and it sees it all day long. So what’s old, then? The gravel and rocks at the bottom? Maybe, but they’re always on the move, too – and most of the time we don’t see them. So the trees that line the banks of the river from the Hafren forest to the Bristol Channel? Maybe. But then we’re not talking about the river any more… 

We wouldn’t insist on legions of Roman soldiers before a road can be called Roman and we don’t wait for horse-drawn carriages before a route is known as old. All of these roads get their resurface: layer over layer of time and history and the river goes one further with a complete rehaul every few minutes. The river, they say, holds no memories. So how are they old? 

It’s the something that’s always been there that we call old. For good or evil it just has been there. A route, a barrier, a threat, a ride. But it’s not old, this old river. Like an old hurt. The hurt’s aren’t old if we hold onto them today: only the reasons for holding on to them are old. 

Notes From the Edge 13 – Africa 8

It will be the first time in a while that we haven’t been abroad for a summer holiday in the sun. This would usually be the time for shopping, checking suitcases, thinking about suncream and what to do with the dog. A busy time, not unlike the stresses of Christmas. I won’t miss it for a year. I won’t miss the airport and the midnight transfer at the other end.    

We’ll take a drive up to Wales, stop by at Cracker Ridge on the way to the sea and land ourselves softly in a cottage that’s a world removed from the all inclusive by the pool, but will in itself provide the adventures that a break from the routine of work needs to provide. 

I, for one, am immensely looking forward to being back in that part of the world. There’s some weird sort of calling that I get which pulls me back there regularly and it shows no sign of diminishing. Wherever I am in the world, it is always to here that I am drawn first in my mind. The fields of home; the familiar streets of the town are secondary to the big sky and craggy walls of mountain. Even the clouds that loom like a frown over the peaks are inspiring in their ominousness and I breathe in the bigger power when I’m there. 

My Autumn notes will cover the details of the early years down at the bay and in the mountains. It is worth looking out for as the nights draw in because it tells a story from a different side of the life that a youth of the city is meant to lead. The coin tipped up and I slip off. Found myself groping for a foothold and somehow ended up here. It’s about the journey, of course: it’s always about the journey. 

Today, as I prepare for a trip to the edges, I return to Africa and this day a twelvemonth back: I was in Livingstone, Zambia. 

Livingstone

From time to time there were thick, full branches laid on the side of the road at intervals of a hundred or so yards. They served as the warning triangles that we had back home and there was, invariably, further up the road a broken-down antique of a truck or a spillage of some sort. These roads didn’t have the polished fancy signs and flashing lights of back home, but they had their signs and codes. They weren’t written in any book or sanctioned by government departments but were as important to know as the functions of the pedals and the gear stick. 

Rush hour in Lusaka a couple of days before was little more than a battle of wills and a war of attrition: a masterclass in avoiding eye-contact and leaning on the horn. It was nothing personal and no-one was angry, but for twenty or thirty minutes we were in the centre of an improbable tangle of cars and pickups and lorries and minibus taxis at a junction that had no lines or lights or right of way. Millimetre by millimetre we nudged forward in the stinking heat of the city, each of us scraping through the melee somehow without touching, most of the vehicles crammed with people, most of the people leaning out of the windows and offering advice. At one point two men appeared and commenced directing the traffic, as though had grown bored watching the mess, but they were largely ignored and merely oversaw the inevitable unknotting of the tangle. 

It was what we were heading back to. Four days on safari; four sunsets from the deck over the river at Croc Valley; four days without the noise and smoke of the city. Another eleven hours on the bus lay ahead of us; another night on the edge of the city and then eight hours west to Livingstone. 

I looked less at the road on the journey from Kakumbi to Lusaka. I let my eyes wander further, across the little villages and the herds of goats that might have been wild but were probably just very free-range, and to the wild plains and brush that lay beyond. There are no decent maps of Zambia and life gathers around the roads. Areas the size of England were left wild and only the imagination could tell what might have lurked there, what went on, how I would fare if I was dropped there. From time to time black hills rose out of the brush and were crowned with white cloud, and sometimes the hills looked perfectly formed, like pyramids from a forgotten civilisation. 

At Lusaka the kids sated their craving for tiled floors and neon lights. We ate Pizza and drank lemonade and at the campsite played pool in a thatched club house and camped in a field of elk. 

And then a different road. This was the road to Livingstone and the Zimbabwe border. It was a well-used road but no better serviced for that. Trucks loaded with Zambian copper headed to the border, heavy with the precious metal that never stayed long in the country but was bound, apparently, for China. Zambia was rich in natural resources, I was told. I wondered if the people on George Compound knew this. 

We were heading for Livingstone, the country’s second city named after the British explorer made famous for his discovery of Victoria Falls and his rejection of the attitudes of his time towards the African people. He lived with and loved these people and many times depended upon them for his very survival. I wonder how many of the white supremacists did actually come out to places like this and meet the people; speak to them and hear their stories. It is so much easier to dismiss and dehumanise a people that is nothing more than a commodity or obstacle. 

I was much more of a fan of Livingtone that I was of Lusaka. This town (its population was a little less than Hereford) was geared to the outside world and, unlike Lusaka offered a whole different welcome to the visitor – like pavements and hanging baskets and little piazzas with coffee shops and bookstalls. A white woman walked alone along the main road into the city and and no one crowded the bus when we paused in traffic. An armed policeman patrolled the toilets and hawkers were banned from the shopping centre carpark. 

As the group piled into Shoprite for supplies I was drawn to the edge of the carpark by a man about my age who, like they all do, wanted to be my best friend, wanted to know my name and where I was from.  

“I have some magic” he said, looking round furtively for the guard. “I have magic for you, but we have to step out of the mall.” It was the sort of scenario we had been warned about and lectured the kids on endlessly. I would be lured down the road, stabbed in the chest in the middle of the day and robbed of by dollars and Stirling. And yet I followed. We all like to be beckoned, don’t we? Just like we like magic… Drugs? I thought. Some special mushroom? Phone credit? 

At the edge of the carpark, just outside the gates and opposite the Fawlty Towers bunk house he opened his jacket and took out a fistful of pendants: shaped and polished stones on leather cord. The same sort of trinket that we had seen on every street corner of every town that we had passed through. I had walked this far so asked him what it was. If I was going to give him some of my money I wanted him to work for it. 

Nyami Nyami,” he said. “Spirit of the river.” The story was of a giant snake-like creature that lived in the Zambezi river and from time to time dragged people into the depths and devoured them. The Nyami Nyami was a river spirit that protected the wearer from this creature and (though I doubted this) everybody wears one. “Ten dollars. Good price.” I took two for $5 and slipped one over my neck, just in case. The river was only a mile away… 

The ground didn’t feel so hard beneath our sleeping bags here in Livingstone and the dust a little more under control. On the outside the town gave off a sense of its own identity and a feeling of control. The shops had windows and the café had wi-fi and lattes. But on the edge of the town the roads returned to dust and the markets huddled together in between the single-storey houses. Here, unlike in the town centre, where the locals didn’t drink in the café or shop in the jeweller’s, the people stared, no doubt wondering why we had chosen to visit this part of town. 

We were on our way to the town’s orphanage, to see where kids were taken off the streets and given a chance of an education and a future. It was simple opportunity and a little bit of love – that’s all they needed and my heart broke as we peered into their bedrooms and saw the Disney bedsheets and the little Pixar backpacks: the same dreams… We played football and I donned the Zambia shirt that I had bought at the market. The home team won and the children laughed. I smiled and I don’t think I have really stopped smiling since.  

Notes From the Edge 12 – Cracker Ridge

It is a place of broken ambition and broken toys but when the trip is a short one there’s no need for ambition and even broken toys keep the kids busy for a while. Mostly it is a place where time has broken and flaps along like a broken wing. It takes a gear shift coming here and this is what long journeys are for. They extract us from the plastic tightness of the city and with every mile pull from us the bits that still cling stubborn and elastic and try to drag us back. 

Cracker Ridge wears the forest like a hairpiece when viewed from a distance. You can’t see it from the cottage but at night you hear it breathing and in the day the direction of travel in the air is that way. It is still a fair walk to reach the outer edges of the trees and we don’t always go that way; sometimes we’re pulled with gravity down to the village and the Red Lion then rue the walk back up. On days that we trudge to the top of the ridge there’s the reward of an easy walk home. 

It is not an old forest so there’s some great sadness that hangs in the air with each foot of summer growth; a sense of inevitability and impending doom. But isn’t it better to see things like this rather than pretending we’re surprised? It is a generational forest. I have made that up because it fits the best to describe how the growth lasts around thirty years, just to the point where the forest has become permanent and the shadows cast across the neighbouring fields a constant thing; time enough for a folklore to grow and a hundred generations of smaller creatures to live and die and forget the great devastation. 

When I was fifteen I watched it fall and I cried with every dragging truck and biting saw at the great injustice. I watched creatures leap and bound in panic and the little pools I had known shaped by giant tyre tracks and slick with oil. And then the great silence when the men had taken what they wanted and left. It felt like some terrible crime had been committed The men laughed as they leaned on their trucks and smoked cigarettes, flicking butts into the puddles they had made. 

A heavy silence like the stunned silence after a great battle, for days and weeks nothing daring to move; nothing able to move. A forgotten oak, left like a joke; an island in the carnage and crammed with refugees; a kite floating on the breeze looking to profit, the crunch of dead branches and discarded chunks of timber uselessly sliced and left. 

But the path, though we had never noticed it before, raised from the rest of the forest, suddenly afforded new views across the space that had been created. Views that I had never seen before and that stretched impossibly far to the dark peaks that dipped their toes in the sea. Where the forest had been the land undulated and dropped sharply to a valley that I didn’t know was there and undiscovered streams threaded like veins. Forlorn stumps of trees, their open wound still sticky with sap and smelling sweetly of Christmas, would soon be overtaken by new life that seized its chance to breathe the free air and soak up the rays of the sun. For this underlife it is the trees who are the oppressors because there’s always another angle. The villain in the tale has his own dreams, too and doesn’t consider himself in the wrong. 

But that was then. A lot has happened in the gulf between and walks in the woods on Cracker Ridge belie all of that memory. It is how memory is meant to work; we fill the vacuum with the things we want to remember the way that the milk-sodden Weetabix fills the void left by the spoon. As a man I walked in the shadows of the trees that had returned and enjoyed nervous love in little glades; as a husband I walked and made improbable plans that I knew would work out. And later still, little faces poking from pouches or perched on shoulders, little voices singing in the echoes of the trees along with mine and then walking beside me and holding my hand. 

And to now. I tell them that when I was their age or thereabouts I watched as they pulled all of this down and Cracker Ridge was shorn of its hairpiece. I told them of the silence that descended for a while and how I walked with a feeling of emptiness. But they didn’t believe me, of course. It is all too permanent. It is the beauty of youth: that great belief in the permanence of all things. 

Notes From the Edge 11 – Cracker Ridge

I have pockets filled with gold 

When I walk these paths with you 

The pieces jingle and sing 

And remind me I’m a rich man  

Every year she encroaches a little more, tests her nerve and reclaims another half foot or so. They can’t fight her off like they used to – it’s a full-time job and they’re only part-time there so we can’t see the house from the village anymore. Like in the older days after the long ride we’re reach that exact point by the church where the hills opened up for a brief moment and there it’d be, Cracker Ridge, high enough up to catch the rain as snow and in the middle, white against green, Cracker Cottage. At Christmas the house would be all lit up and fairy lights wrapped around the conifers, I would slow to pick it out and we’d be warmed before the big climb. 

It’s too much now and nature has tipped the scales in her own favour. From the road there is nothing but green hillside and the untamed branches squeal along the side of the car as we nudge up the drive. It has been a long time. One whole lockdown and a little more since we were up at Cracker and after the rain and shine of the past few weeks there is a burgeoning that has run out of control. 

Maybe we only notice it because we have snapshots at intervals; we notice the narrowing of the path to the front door and the loss of view from the front. We’re not used to a view like this so we seek it out the minute we’ve dropped out bags; we look back the way that we’ve come and capture between out finger and thumb that valleys that we passed through an hour ago. 

It’s only the human things that are decaying: the wooden deck that pokes out into the space between here and home; the gate at the bottom of the steep drive that hangs now on its hinges; the old barns that are help up only by what’s inside. Nature – she’s doing ok. In fact, in this place she’s not done so well for a century or more. But old eyes don’t see these things; old eyes that see the same thing every day and see only by the tiniest degrees, the slow approach of the wild that taps now on the window when the autumn breeze picks up. I wonder if one day I will come and have to carve through this jungle to get to the side door. I expect that I would find them huddled in the centre of the room while vines poke down the chimney and the windows are darkened by the rhododendron bushes and branches thick as a child’s arm. 

It’s how it will be, I’m fairly sure of it. They will not move unless sealed tight in a box and I think they have made their peace with that idea. The run they have had has been a good one and we have caught the best of it. I suppose we cannot complain if we suck out what juice we can find and resist the urge to ask for more. It is this and this is enough. The girls play with the dogs in the field and the startled sheep huddle together and take turns to be in the middle of the huddle like penguins. They have not seem movement like this for a long time up here and in their little brains it is alien and a threat The girls squeal to be free; to be out of the lockdown bubble, finally 

We could not be further from the bubble here. We are so far that we cannot even see the circles that pulse and grow – even with a view like this one. The route home is a winding one that skirts these places along the back roads. This evening we will sneak back under the covers and Lullaby Ridge will be a dream again. 

Notes from the Edge: Circuits 2

“You’re out of the bubble; you’re on the edge of the circle…”

You don’t have to go far to step outside of the circle but you do have to take that step. It’s not about the gear and the amount you spend on it. Kit for me is a pair of strong shorts with good pockets, a couple of layers of t-shirts and a decent pair of boots with proper socks. Don’t underestimate the importance of the socks; they’re a game-changer. 

That’s it: that’s your escape kit. You’ve probably got it all already so there’s no need to spend your time or money on anything new. Many people make the mistake of thinking that the pain of investing a lot of money on kit is the same as making the effort to use it. It’s not. There’s no substitute for getting out there and like all things that are worth doing – it requires effort.    

So let’s step out of those circuits a little. Let’s dodge the dog walkers in their expensive hiking gear and their precious pets in matching outfits. Let’s smile politely and pretend to care about their dog as we squeeze past at a social distance down the alley, but instead of looping back round and staying safely within the loop, let’s push to the edge. This is where we take a deep breath and step into the unknown… 

We hear tell of the Salinas Valley; Windermere, Tintern Abbey and Ben Bulben. These places inspired the writers that wandered in them every day and it’s tempting to think that you can’t possibly compare where you live to these places. Remember that these places are just someone else’s side-street. A bit like the kit thing: don’t mistake the effort taken to get to some spectacular spot for the actual effort to get out into it. When you’re in the car, on the train, in the carpark or the café – you’re still in the bubble.  

You know you’re still in the bubble if it feels safe; if it’s dry on a rainy day or warm in the winter; if the seat you’re sitting on is comfortable. 

As much as possible, walk from the front door. Walk from your house and you will be amazed how easy it is to get out of the circle – you will undoubtedly find holes if you look: little forgotten alleyways readopted by nature; parks left alone; canals and bridges and, one of my favourites: cemeteries. If you can check the conditions from the list above then you’re in. Or out. 

My town is like this. It’s in the English midlands so there’s no coast for many miles; there are no mountains in my county and the main river is twenty-five miles away. It sounds dull. It sounds like there’s nothing whatever to do here, and that’s perfect because people sail on by. They move from circle to circle on the arteries that criss-cross the country and they never stop here. It’s an old town but has fallen for the old circle trick of plastic shop fronts and shiny floors; of huge supermarkets and paved high-streets; the roads thunder with traffic, when it’s not too much to clog up the town entirely, and little pockets of new housing estates grow like mould around the edges.  

The circles keep growing but circles don’t tesselate and it’s the gaps in between that you want… 

At the back of my house is a fairly busy A-road. It’s one of those arteries that feeds the bubble. Most people merely skirt it with their dogs, but the braver ones suck in a deep breath and dodge the traffic to the other side. There’s a tunnel a little further up that was built when the road was put in so that the cows could get to the fields on the other side. That was when my house was part of the dairy farm. See what I mean? 

But once you’re over, that’s it. You’re out of the bubble; you’re on the edge of the circle and there’s whole lot of exploring to do up that lane. It’s always been there and thousands upon thousands of people see it, without seeing it, if you get me. It’s just there. 

But you know what, it’s not just that. You step out of the loop and you get across the road; you ignore the funny looks that you’re getting and you pull back the shoulders and it’s a whole other world. I can still see my house and the cars and trucks throw up an unnatural wind as they batter past. There’s still a perfect wifi signal if you need it. But you’re out. That’s the main thing. 

Gently, gently. Tomorrow let’s get up that lane. It might open up to a field on the left and maybe a little wood we never knew was there. As we rise, a new view might open up and then, for the first time, we’ll wonder why it took so long…