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 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: Circuits 3

It is the rutting season and I suspect that I was standing between him and his girl.

So, you made it out – well done. This is the edge. It’s the only place to be. 

The air takes a little getting used to but it’s ok to breathe, in fact breathing is heartily recommended. Move away from the road a little and take a deep breath. Don’t look back – you’ll be sucked in soon enough – look forward. What’s there – have you ever really looked before? Which way to go? Forget the normal rules: they don’t apply here. Your feet are allowed to leave the tarmac and distant views aren’t just for looking at now through the blur of a car window but for discovering… 

I always try to find a new path, or at least a new bit of a field or a wood that I’ve never walked before, and I try to do that every day. It gets tricky as the weeks and months rattle on but that’s a good thing because it means you have to look further and push out into the unknown. It is incredible how many of the secret ways that criss-cross our daily lives remain largely undiscovered. It is the will that takes us t these places as much as the legs. Try to remember that the nettles are there to do a job but they can be pushed aside if the way you want to take lies beyond them. Don’t think of it as a sting, think of it as a tingle – I tell my girls that it’s stingle. It’s the feeling that your brain’s telling you should hurt but at the same time realises that the man who never felt pain never felt anything.

This morning, and this is typical, I did this: Up at 5.55 and out by 6. Remember: a pair of shorts, a t-shirt and some decent shoes. That’s it. The stick is optional but I always take one for pushing back nettles and testing boggy ground. Maybe for warding off unfriendly dogs, too, though I’ve never had to use it for this. The sodium-arc light outside my house glows orange but shut down an hour or so ago. I know it won’t be long before I catch it again, in the long mornings where maybe I won’t be able to take the same route over the fields.  

It’s too early for the dog-walkers so I’m not lured into the loop and I cut through the little alley and scuttle across the road. It’s busy again now: the lockdown has faded and things are back as they were and we’ll probably never see it again like it was for those strange few months when we could sit in the middle of that road (if we wanted to) or saunter along the central white line and push down the cats-eyes. It’s a long way from that now: the national speed limit means that they can go pretty fast and the lorries push the air about so that it takes your breath when they pass. 

We’ve had rain for a few days and the ground is sodden so I’ll stick to the track that runs through the field. The proper footpath is to the left but with the wheat up at knee-height I’ll have wet socks before I’m five minutes in. The farmer won’t be up yet and I’ll be through the gap in the hedgerow soon and onto the golf course without any harm, though with the rain I will have to check the ground – it gets marshy here and there’s talk that he’s going to flood the little valley to create fish ponds. I poke at the ground with the stick. The grass is as happy and green under the water as out of it. The water’s so clear that there seems to be little difference. 

There is a natural dip in the centre of the field where the water runs after rain. A culvert lies underneath from the village at the top where the spring rises but the run-off from the field takes the overland route. It’s like a huge book, this field, and the central dip is the spine. The heavy pages lol in graceful arcs on either side and to paint the picture for you a little better, I came in at the bottom-left hand side. I’ll cross the spine and disappear bottom-right. But I won’t be far. I’ll skirt the edge of the open book field on the golf course track and keep my feet dryer. the rows of wheat are like lines on the page and they tell they story of every day.

There’s some artificial grace to a golf course that I both abhor and admire. It’s a playground of the wealthy and they look with contempt at anyone not wearing polka-dot socks tucked into expensive cotton trouser cuffs. Always a tank-top that doesn’t match and fine leather gloves – or if they really fancy themselves: a single glove. They strut up and down the fairways as if they own the place – which, on some level they do, and they look at people like me as if I’m about to nick the flag. I have been tempted to nick a ball or two after it has been driven down the ground, or kick it in to the rough but I find that I don’t care enough to do that. 

It’s too early for golfers and the action up here now as I rise with the swell of the land is the groundsman and the gentle whirr of the tractor he glides about in, preening the greens and checking that the flags haven’t been nicked. He’s friendly enough, though I shouldn’t really be on here, and he’ll give me a wave. It is enough. I don’t want conversation. I don’t think that I could muster it at this hour and am content with my own company. 

I have heard the distinct call of a peacock somewhere across the course, though I’ve never seen it. It could be deer shouting but I don’t think so. There are deer, though. Last week I poked out in to the field and walked across the ridge for the better view and there out of the middle of the wheat poked the glorious shoulders and head of a roe stag. It is usually the startled behind that I see bounding off into the safety of the trees but this one stood his ground and eyed me as I passed, his three-pronged antlers skyward and his eyes never wavering as his ears twisted and turned for best advantage. It is the rutting season and I suspect that I was standing between him and his girl. It was one of those rare occasions where I had the mind to take out the phone and grab a couple of shots. From the angle, right up along the right-hand edge of the open book I could see the way that I had come and got the picture I wanted with my own tiny home, where my girls were still sleeping, captured between those antlers. 

I had not walked far, yet I had walked out of the bubble and though I could see it shimmering grey and fast below me, I knew that it didn’t see me, nor care about me. I had found the gap between the circles, and it really wasn’t hard. I was satisfied and pocketed the phone with a deep sigh of simple contentment. One of those moments that you wish someone else had been there to see also, maybe.

The rabbits that darted in surprise as I made my way along the rest of the path were small beer now, though I counted thirty before I gave up and gave my attention to dividing the nettles with my stick so that I could pass. I startled a tiny rabbit last week. It knew that there was a need to panic because all of the others were running this way and that but clearly had no sense what the danger was because it ran right at me, thudded into the side of my boot and then hopped away a little dazed to join the others. A fox was down on its haunches ready to launch an attack on another unsuspecting bunny when I arrived and did for his element of surprise. 

By this time I had reached the village and it was time to step back onto the black-top and follow the lane back down to where I had started. It had been shut for the whole of the lockdown for gas-works which meant that, while the cars couldn’t get through, walkers like me could. What had been another little artery serving the town was quickly absorbed back into the wilderness for a while and pheasants roosted on the ground, deer skittered without alarm and I sauntered along the middle as though it was my own paved footpath.

I tapped my stick to the morning rhythm as I walked and I smiled because I knew that most people hadn’t even woken up yet and would never know what I had already known today.  

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… 

Notes from the Edge: Circuits 1

The cul-de-sac bends gracefully just after us and looks like it might go somewhere. The Pritchetts at number fifty-two must get fed up of the disappointment when the headlights might be visitors but turn out to be, well, turning. I wouldn’t mind it. I’d be happy enough to watch them go. 

In between us and the Pritchetts there’s a short alley that spits out the walker like a release valve and we get a lot of those up and down and backwards and forwards in front of my view here at my desk. It’s a loop, of course. For them it’s a loop and they’re invariably attached to one form of canine or another. On the other side of the road is a strip of grass and the dogs are programmed to shit here. I spend a lot of my day watching other people’s dogs shit outside my window. They always clean it up – I have no problems with it. Even when the nervous man from up the road watched mortified as his Westie did a shit on my lawn I didn’t mind. He cleaned it up, he was humbled. If he’d have been confrontational I don’t know how I’d have taken that. 

They have little plastic bags dangling for a while then, but the circuit’s planned to take in at least one of the red bins dotted about this edge of town. If a judge of a nation would be the way that it handles its dog shit then this island would come out ok. Except on bank holiday weekends when the bins get full and the little bags; all shapes and sizes and consistencies, form colourful rings around the base of the bins like some ritual sacrifice. It is a wonder how much shit accumulates in such a short time – and to think that we just used to leave it lying on the verges…  

When there was Maggie I’d spend a good proportion of our walks with a heavy plastic bag of her shit swinging against my thigh. She’d always do it at the furthest point from either of the bins. One bitter winter morning, in the mental fog of the early hour, I remember enjoying the warmth that my little load gave off. I kneaded it in my hands and whistled as I walked. And then a sharp edge of nail caught on the plastic and made a little slit. 

They say that dogs often look like their owners and there’s some truth in that. There must be some level on which we seek out the traits in our dog that we like about ourself. One thing that is indisputable, though, is that both owner and dog share identical expressions when the dog is having a shit on a grass verge upon which look numerous windows. The dog, probably through an inherited sense of urgency to get the job done realises its own vulnerability and has a sheepish, embarrassed expression on its face. The owner has the same look, only this is an expression that’s constantly scanning the street and the blank visages of the houses for anyone who might be watching. The best is when they’ve forgotten the little bags and know that they’ll have to either look apologetically at anyone who might be looking, or pretend that they never saw the business at all. 

These people, they’ll kid themselves that they’re getting out with nature because they’re outside; that alleyway that runs between the houses and can be dark in the winter months is about as far as any of them that get from the bubble and the glimpse of the little lane that runs up into the hills is as foreign and unlikely a concept as it gets. They’re still firmly in the circle and they help to keep the myth alive. The dogs that they drag around are as far from nature as it gets in their little waterproof coats and polka-dot leads. Sometimes if you get too close they’ll whip the little dog up into their arms and cradle it there. But I won’t go there. 

Let them move incircles in their plastic circle and tomorrow I’ll tell you what happens when you take that little lane that runs up into the hills…  

Notes From the Edge #1

Plastic Circles

All things come to an end. Even global pandemics. 

Now that the pubs are open again and the streets are vibrating with the return of the traffic it’ll start to seem like nothing ever happened. On the surface, at least. Nature abhors a vacuum, a friend of mine once said. Physical or emotional or whatever, the gaps get filled pretty quickly. Draw your spoon through the mush at the bottom of your bowl of Weetabix until you can see the ceramic of the bowl underneath. Then watch as the space you made is filled until there’s no trace, no memory of it. 

But it did happen. 

In that time, all that time of week after week after week after week the circle shrunk back into itself a little. From the edge here I felt it. Each walk felt further from the rim of the circle as though the whole idea of it had contracted into itself for protection. The plastic pulled back and through the gaps in the exposed concrete grew new flowers at such a speed that the lanes were transformed in a day and walk along the edge was a walk back in time.  

It was still. There was no subconscious tremble of the earth as traffic thundered on roads kept smooth by ceaseless rubber. Discarded rubbish flattened and consumed into its surface in a matter of days and unnatural winds confusing the birds and branches- these were gone and it was all still. Eerily still to the point where the tiny sounds of tiny feet skittering along dry leaves were no longer silent and the murderous cries of the buzzard were heard in back gardens all across town. The cars the did venture through the wilderness went quickly from one plastic circle to the next, all twitch and nervous and masked up – as though that would help. 

For a short while the edge of the circle; the fringe, if you like: the marches – they were broad and we were brave. We stretched or legs and walked – in the middle of the day, mind – in the middle of the road. We walked the line and watched the flowers grow between the cats-eyes. We saw the patterns of heavy tyres in the tarmac and the scuffed our shoes on the smooth surface of a forbidden place that is always right under our noses. 

In the edges, in between the plastic circles; that’s where the magic is. 

If you look carefully at the image above you can see the circle. If you squint you’ll see the plastic covering. The spike in the centre, that’s where they draw out from. In some cities it’s huge chunks of steel and glass that they measure from. They take their string and they draw a circle from the centre and that’s the bubble. That’s the plastic cover that we’re all meant to hide under. Most of the time they’re getting steadily bigger. Heaving and pulsing and growing like some flabby pregnant monster, but lately they’ve shrunk a little back on themselves.  

Arteries shoot out in all directions and connect bubble with bubble: you have to be careful with these, but the gaps in between. Well that’s where the magic is. That’s where these notes will be from for a while now. Coronanotes reached a healthy number but all things come to an end and that little bit of unity that we got from the shared crisis was worth spending the words on. It’s shifted now and the bubbles gobbling up the fringes again like it was before, so I’ll report from there while I still can. I’ll report from the edge and push back.