Category Archives: Travel

#15 May Hill

I had thought my precious things were kept in a trunk in my bedroom: the photos, old books of my poems, small carvings, penknives, binoculars. They are not. Within the span of a day, many of these things left the trunk and were hurled into the unknown for God-knows-who to pick up from a roadside and vanish. But they are not my precious things.

J is working on a film this week and wanted props for a scene: writer’s things, notes, effects from boyhood. I have these sorts of things. I packed a selection in my tail-pack, strapped it to the motorbike and headed into a beautiful afternoon. I had caught a glimpse of May Hill the previous weekend as I drove down Tog-Hill (on the edge of the Lansdown Hills behind Bath). Its pine-crested top was quite distinct at almost fifty miles. The ride up was good, though the hill was not signposted at all, so I followed my nose once I’d found Newent. May Hill belongs to the National Trust and is reached over a cattle-grid and a cemented track which leads to a car-park, an easy 25 minute walk from the top.

I parked, and then set about the business of taking off my leathers and assembling my kit. Between the tail-pack, my rucksack, leathers and helmet, I carried around 25kg with me up the hill. It was a steady climb and didn’t take long. From the top, the views seemed unending.

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I stripped to the waist, laid my kit around me and settled down for a kip.

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Around twenty minutes later, I woke, ate a sandwich and began to write what came to mind:

Facing south west, looking towards Symonds Yat where I was conceived on a January day in 1974. The thought that it would have been cold, so the chance that it was in the back of a car is quite high.

And so. Nothing is perfect; beautiful, purposeful beings are born from small, imperfect beginnings.

Then west, to Gloucester where I came into the world and passed from hand to hand until I came to be in Cornwall with Margaret and Colin, my adoptive mum and dad. They came from a terraced street of brick houses by the railway line in St Austell that held many unspeakable things, and from a likely loveless semi-detached in Sutton Coldfield.

Why did I want to see J’s school?

Because: I want to know her in the past as well as now. The feeling that loving her completely is made more so by following paths she walked as an innocent, inquiring girl, beautiful, free.

The pledge I made I am re-avowing- I want to be complete, the understanding that I am not yet. That, for many reasons too well-known to list, I doubt myself, feel ungrounded, unsure and unsteady often.

Just as I had no control over being born, passed over, raised, sent away, so the need to feel certain about how others feel about me is wasteful, a negative leak of energy. There are things that can’t be known. For every one of us, the mind of another is a vast landscape through which it is a privilege and an adventure to travel.

I love J.

I love her the way otters move in water- the delight, the pleasure of immersion in a medium that lifts and soothes, urges and sustains.

The noise of an animal interrupted my writing. I looked up into the pines that crest the hill, and saw a lone cow loping through the trees. I ran over to see.

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Soon, she was joined by others.

IMG_0442They moved smoothly through the glade, the established tenants, then diminished down the westward slope.

I hadn’t much time, as I was to meet J at her mum’s in Cheltenham for dinner and then go to a gig. As I had carried so many unlikely objects with me, I took a few daft shots,

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IMG_0431then headed down.

I changed in the woods, surrounded by wild ponies and a few foals. I put the tail-pack on the bike, the rucksack on my back and left the hill behind me. Re-entering Newent, I noticed J’s school which I had cast about for on the way in. It has a clear southward view to the hill. I cruised through the town and, when I joined the B4215, pulled back on the throttle to make up for any lateness. Ten minutes later, I glanced back in my mirror and saw that the tail-pack was gone.

It contained:

  • A book of my own poems from between 1989 and 1997
  • The plaster of paris cast of a sculpture of Joseph’s grandfather (above)
  • A framed photograph of White Horse Hill
  • Notes for my screen-play
  • A glass J paper-weight
  • My Opinel knife
  • Binoculars
  • Two large photos of me from the 70s
  • Camper shoes
  • G-star jeans
  • All Saints shirt
  • A carved Native Indian head

I think I grimaced, said No, and turned around.

A motorbike may possibly be the worst vehicle to have when thrown into an anxious rage, it allows for absolute expression of mind-state through speed, adrenaline channeled through the throttle like a nitro add-on kit. I scoured every inch of the hedgerows all the way back to May Hill. I knew that anyone who saw the pack would want it. The Kriega US-20 is a beautifully made, expensive piece of gadget luggage and this one was brimful of surreal treasures.

At the car-park on May Hill, not a sign. A gentleman in his car informed me of the non-emergency 101 number. As I sped back into Newent, I caught sight of a man at the side of the road, his wife lying on the pavement. Something moved me to stop and ask for help. Steve had just returned from winning an amateur rugby match at Twickenham and had drunk a lot of pints, his wife was too pissed to move. Steve reassured me that he had seen my pack a few hundred yards back and, if it wasn’t there, that it would be in Newent Circle Club. I was incredulous, this wonderful, drunk giant of a man had the answer. We embraced, his height emphasised by being on the kerb, me in the road. I felt like a child. After another emphatic handshake, I mounted the bike and rode into town.

There was no sign of the pack, so I called in to the Circle Club. No pack. No-one knew anything and, moreover, it was now apparent that everyone was extremely drunk. I left my number and began to walk the main street. In the chinese, several casualties said they’d seen nothing. In the Co-op, a girl called for her manager who didn’t show. In The Red Lion, the bar-man took my number, as did the lad in The George which was crammed with eighteen year olds leering and drinking and shouting and swearing. In CostCutters, the woman at the till and a drunk customer both said that it’s a terrible place here, they’ll take anything. This was Newent on a Bank Holiday Sunday.

I was late and felt I had done everything possible within the limits of my diminishing power. I headed for Cheltenham. Still pulsing with fury and loss, I found my driving became more daring. I now know that I am able to lean and take a corner at 70 and I also know exactly what speed I am willing to take my bike to on an empty dual carriage-way between Gloucester and Cheltenham. I think I made the journey in about twenty five minutes.

I arrived and gave J’s mum the white saxifrage I’d brought in my rucksack for her birthday. I chalked MANY HAPPY RETURNS X X X on the pot with a piece of chalk from White Horse Hill. It made me feel slightly better. I was too late for dinner and J’s mum was not well, so I set out to catch up with J en route to the gig. A railway crossing lowered in front of me. I stopped, turned the engine off, dismounted and leaned with my chin on the crossing gates. The train was headed north, bound for Birmingham New Street. It was a train I had been on many times as a child between school and home. I felt many former selves passing before me. The gates raised and, as I accelerated across a junction, I heard a faint shout and, at the same time, knew and saw in the periphery that it was J. I turned around as she ran up the street, pulled over and cast my helmet, glasses and gloves down on the pavement and we wrapped ourselves in our arms. She was crying, I tasted the tears and kissed them. It’s not your fault.

We didn’t go to the gig. We were overcome. There was too much to feel, too much to say without the words. We found many precious things in the course of the night, none more true than how we find each other. We lay against a tall pine opposite the marquee and heard the singer’s voice rumble the fabric. I tasted the lovage in the picnic J’s mum had sent with her. I lay my head in her lap and breathed the air.

My lost things, our lost loves, the lives we once had are now and forever gone, yet somehow still with us. They made us.

We went out then, into the deepening indigo, away from the show and the people. J showed me the caryatids beneath the flat she shared with her first love. Above, a pair of attic windows were flung open to the sky, and I imagined the lovers inside, drifting into the night as ghosts.

#12 mists, ever increasing circles


We drove from the house late morning. The boot was full of presents and waterproofs. Isabella, Jem and me were listening to the audio-book  How to train your dragon. By the time I’d taken the first instinctive (arguably wrong) turn of the journey, we were far from the efficient motorway journey I’d thought we’d be having and being absorbed into the realm of mists that was South Gloucestershire today.

I stopped the car by a bus-stop on the descent at Old Sodbury and sat in the bus-stop, having a smoke, appreciating the modest view across the road of the side of The Dog Inn.

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In the eight or so minutes I sat there, several cars drew up to the junction that I partially obscured and cast accusing stares at me.

A moderate rain fell and threw ever increasing circles into the puddle by my feet. A girl rode past on a pied horse, leading another horse up the hill.

I got back in the car and drove through Chipping Sodbury, intending to branch off to the M5 at Wickwar.

Floods had shut the road and thus began our detour.

First, through the wonderful, faded Kingswood village and then on to shambolic Cotswoldy Wotton-under-Edge where the more than gentle trickle of traffic had caused a minor tail-back. I felt absolutely no sense of hurry. The Christmas spirit (only instilled by my son’s carolling yesterday morning) would lead me on.

We veered steeply out of the town and up through North Nibley and Stancombe,  through sumptious steep valleys deep with rotting beech leaves and lingering mists; onwards to Dursley, the road began to wend a slow ascent into a picturesque semi-Alpine scene of even deeper plunging valleys, half-hidden country escapes and rows of pre-Victorian cottages.

The brewery atop a natural spring at Uley.

The certainty, the significance of our destination became less and less urgent as the landscape became more dramatic, and yet more veiled within the rains.

The way began to reach its climax of lost-ness. We accelerated skywards through Buckholt and Stanley Woods on a meandering B-road. On either side, ancient,  shadowy oaks were netted in ivy, an army of glistening grey beech trunks marched alongside us. The distant vanishing point now surged forward and we were quickly absorbed within the underbelly of the clouds.  Is and Jem were open-mouthed to hear we were inside clouds.  Zephyrs haunted all the woods at this altitude.

We had left Keynsham an hour ago, we had to be at least an hour from Birmingham; I had only a faint notion of roughly where we might be. What drew the kids from the D.S. and the audio-book, and what no-one could fail to notice was the measureless beauty of what nature was doing with the world. South Glos., particularly around Stroud (particularly since http://wp.me/p2Sd2n-e) is often magical with its lost hamlets, dramatic contour lines and grand vistas. Now, this odd land was made even obscurer and more abstract as it was subsumed within the heavens.

Eventually, after skirting Dark Wood, we helter-skeltered downwards until flattening out onto absolute flatness and blankness. A wide stretch of marshy grazing land on which a deep fog squatted. Limbo. A place to wait for Godot. Several cars were parked on the verge either side of us, their owners embarked on Captain Oates journeys into oblivion.

Selsley Hill is where civilisation met us again. The kids noticed and remarked on the view of the terraced valleys. Selsley Hill became Stroud, then a ring road, a roundabout, and then, finally, a motorway.

#11 Swindon – upside down

It’s my daughter’s birthday in a week. As a treat, we drove to Swindon Oasis to meet her (ex)step-sisters and her brother.  I thought that as today is a Saturday and as we went in just before eleven, it would be heaving. It was virtually deserted.

It has been a stunning early December day- powder-blue skies with ice-edged clouds fringed bronze, an antique sun washing everything gold.

Inside the Oasis, you are presented with what is- essentially- an early prototype of Eden’s bio-spheres. A large geodesic dome hangs above artificial beaches and water-slides, creating semi-tropical humidity in which the surrounding shrubs and tropical foliage seem to flourish.

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The sunshine kept pouring in. The children took on the behaviour of seals, lolling about at the edge of the tidal washes, plunging into waves. I was last here aged twelve- twenty six years ago. From what I could gather, the water slides still deliver the same levels of legendary thrill that they had all that time ago. It’s a simple formula.

The Oasis doesn’t seem to have been updated at all since that time. Underneath the lower stairway to the changing rooms, a fragment of the original, branded carpet is preserved; a sweeping, italic Butlins style font in yellow and orange on a blue background.  A member of staff sits idly in the neon gloom in holiday-camp style uniform behind a formica curve.  Above, an organic growth of sepia-brown is smeared across a small section of the dome itself- no doubt a constant bane for the management. The cafe seems to serve school-dinners, and is staffed by school children, and a school-dinner lady.

We spent around two hours there, then drove towards Pizza Express in the Old Town. As we left the city centre, we drove past an astonishing industrial wall of red brick with cream brick archways that ran alongside the road for about a fifth of a mile. This, clearly, was evidence of Swindon’s steam train heritage.  There was something distinctly noble and well-built here.  I imagined furnaces, great steam train components: the massive boiler cylinders, iron-spoked train wheels, a vast, Vulcan cathedral of smoke and fire.

How has Swindon treated this magisterial architecture?

It is now the Swindon Outlet centre. It houses over ninety stores.

As we drove past, we caught a glimpse of what has happened…

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It wasn’t right.

We drove on and passed a park. It was touched by the same sun that gilded everything, a large expanse of emerald grass mown in immaculate lines, edged with paths, plane trees and a Victorian wall. It was empty.

Everyone was in the shops.

I mentioned this to my son,

Jem, this town is a strange place, don’t you think? They have a beautiful building which they’ve filled with crappy shops. They have a lovely park which they leave empty- what is with this place?

His answer was simple: It’s upside down.

#10 Way-finding

There is an invisible way. A path less trodden.
Not the path of the righteous, but a way of perceiving direction that leads to treasure, to unexpected beauty and secret pleasures.

I like to walk alone. On days when I’m not called to work, there is particular joy in escape. I pack food and drink, a knife, a book, rarely, a camera, and drive somewhere promising. An old wood, a set of hills far from towns, a series of meanders, somewhere I have read about, it doesn’t matter.
What matters most is the mind I take with me.
I get out of the car, put my boots on and look for the most promising direction. A gleam of sun might draw me, a group of trees, a gap in a hedge. It could be one of millions of clues, but, in the moment, there is usually something that pulls.

Last Thursday, we walked: from Combe, near Wotton-under-Edge, up and into Warren Wood, along Blackquarries Hill, into Ash Wood, followed the line of the hills, then cut down through Tyley Long Wood, then back along the plateau and sharply down, through a long abandoned farm and back to the car.

Written differently, the same journey:

The footpath led directly up and, as I was conscious of limited sun, followed it. We reached a road, but a group of trees, choked with creepers, showed a glimpse of a field shimmering brightly green. We struck upwards, her hand was snagged with briars. I put the skin to my lips. We vaulted the barbed wire and were met by a field of feed-grass that fell away to a view west towards Wales. We saw the old Severn bridge, the Black Mountains. The sun was fierce in her waning. The sky was cornflower blue. The hill led us up and back onto the road, which we followed.
Soon, a wood began to cover the slope below us. A gap in the dry-stone wall invited, we acquiesced. Strange ruins of Cotswold limestone lay beneath ashes and stands of beech. Pheasants clattered out from the undergrowth, then scurried away, heads down. Empty booze bottles, a dismembered t.v., a pair of boots, a single potato- signs of occasional purpose. We abandoned the path as it became water-logged and climbed up, then out into the fringe of a failed corn field. Buzzards mewed overhead. Following the line of the crop led to a stile, then to another field. More pheasants. A cabbage field where even more pheasants fled, one just out of my grasp. A cage of young partridge. The line of the hill ran eastward, but a gate showed a wider, deeper view and we vaulted around it.
Before us, the Severn estuary snaked below the Forest of Dean, the towers of Avonmouth blurred into Oz. The blaze of ash and beech embers drew us lower, we followed the edge of Ash Wood. A spring welled up from the side of the hill, easily forded by walking the boulders that stood alongside. We leapt between clods of turf across a swathe of mud, then took our rest on an outcrop of rough grass just at the fringe of the wood. We drank all the mulled wine from the Thermos in one sitting.
We were shown an enchanted vision of the world.
A narrow channel of vistas and diminishing perspective- visible only from here- ran out north west across the Cotswold valleys, out across the Severn towards Herefordshire and the Marches, the mountains misty at the horizon. Saving one white cottage, there was no other sign of mankind.
Drunk with fortune and fondness, warmed with wine, we delved straight down through the steep-sloped woods. We forded the stream by edging across strong, pliant boughs of hazel coppice.
The sun was failing, igniting the colours of beech leaves at the fringe of Golden Knoll Wood. We went upwards amongst sheep and rising terraces of hillside until we reached the summit, the opposite side of the valley. An executive helicopter passed close overhead as I planted a foot deep into cow shit. I would not trade my place.
At the last, a sudden, skipping descent and cautious approach toward a farmhouse. My boot crackled the electric fence. No dog. No people and, as we emerged into the courtyard, it was clear the farmhouse was long-ruined. We walked inside. An door-less pantry, a crate of empty milk bottles mottled with an even, thick film of dust. Upstairs, armchairs and a sofa watching a bare wall of brick, decades without an incumbent. The glass-less windows held a view of our journey, the valley framed and lent an air of solitude. As we left, we peered into what was once a kitchen, Corona orange juice bottles extant only barely within memory, dozens of empty pickling jars. There were other, darker places, unlit corridors leading to dank, airless spaces we daren’t even look at.
We left, crossed the bottom of the valley and found the car.
We were charmed in the rain in Wotton-under-Edge, drank gladly in The Star, returned to the city.

The way found us, we let it and were led.
I like to walk alone, but now, when she will come with me, I choose not to.

#1 Coppice with standards

 
The earth fell away behind me. In the rear-view mirror, I caught a glint of the Avon’s meanders. The road that climbs towards Upton Cheyney sits on an outcrop of the Lansdown Hills, a few miles west of Bath. It is submerged under over-arching boughs of trees that lean from high banked hedgerows. Ascending through the greenness amplified the feeling that I was leaving the everyday behind, entering a realm on an entirely separate plane to that of the nearby city.
 
I passed a pub, then an old red telephone box with a rambling rose beside. An inviting courtyard of an ancient farm passed by with its sign for a farm shop, then the road forked right and steepened. To my left, through the occasional gateway, I glimpsed a huge vista that lead the eye across both Severn bridges towards Wales, Bristol merely a smudge in the middle-distance. The view to the right fell away into a valley and towards North Stoke, a picturesque hamlet of stout parish church and period buildings.
 
I parked in a small turning and got out. Until now, I hadn’t realised the strength of the wind. The whole hill was in turmoil; the fields of young wheat were harried and flattened by a thousand zephyrs while ranks of nettles stood motionless, harboured by the field’s margin hedges. The purpose of my journey, a small wood, seethed anxiously behind me, its very architecture in flux. This threshing noise that poured through the porous edges electrified the air; that I was here as a thief, made the sense of anticipation even stronger.
 
I took the old Sandvik saw, still in its yellow and orange cardboard sleeve, opened the gate, and entered. The path was wet and pocked with deep, muddy footfall. I had to skip from edge to edge and pivot under branches to avoid slipping. I ducked under a natural archway of elder and penetrated the interior of the wood. Inside, it was calmer. The wind still fretted the crowns of the trees, making the sun dapple through the shifting canopy, but at trunk-level, it seemed as though I were in the eye of a storm. Windfall covered the ground: long, sinewy arms of ash, thousands of pieces of oak and hazel shrapnel. These were the dominant trees of the wood.
 
All about me were stands of neglected hazel coppice, their pale branches shining through the shifting gloom. Many rose over twenty feet, their inverted triangles grown like wiccan altars. That they had been forgotten was clear; in years past, their straight, pliant branches would have been harvested every six or seven years. This would have maintained a uniform crop of the right width for use in fencing, hedging, thatching, even river flow management. Such quaint materials are now much less valued and coppice woods are not often viewed as commercially viable. The hazels here had grown literally out of hand, their shapes and diameters no longer the right cut that the old coppicers would have desired. I could see many that would fit my purpose, however.
 

I wanted twenty or so thin, straight poles that I could make a gypsy bender with. A bender is a simple round-framed tent covered in canvas or tarpaulin that was favoured by travellers for its ease of construction and the ready availability of whippy hazel, ash or even willow branches with which to make one. I cut my poles near the base (or stool) and at an angle to reduce the chance of damp/infection getting into the plant. The sawing rasped at a lower frequency to the wind and pierced the wood, alerting anyone that might be about to my business. I could hear nothing other than the wind and the saw, and so cast my eye about continually in case the owner of the wood chanced to wander nearby.

 
As I worked, the dark, bloated oaks and more graceful ashes imposed their presence into my peripheral vision. These were the standards, the larger, slower, overstorey trees originally planted alongside the coppice hazel to provide a more valuable, but less regular source of wood. Where the hazel would have been cut every seven years or so, these guardians of the wood were kept a hundred years before felling; they were the long-term investment of the woodlander. These specimens had been spared the executioner’s axe, but neglect meant that they now cast far too much shadow over the lower trees, causing them to twist and contort, which made the task of selecting suitable poles difficult. In less than an hour, though, I had a good crop which I dragged to the edge of the wood for a covert and hopefully quick loading of the car.
 
I left the wood reluctantly. It had invigorated me and given me sanctuary, inspiration and purpose. Not one other person had disturbed me, despite being within a few miles of two cities with half a million people between them. The wind blew and the trees remained insentient, but I took more than just sticks.