Is it possible to be haunted by a place? I think that I might be.
I don’t mean in the same way as a ghost; there’s no sudden drop in temperature, accompanied by an uncanny sensation that something else is there, followed by a fractured movement and perhaps a shape.
Neither do I have in mind a supernatural materialisation of a place, like Brigadoon, appearing abruptly out of nowhere, on some forgotten anniversary.
What I’m thinking of is somewhere that dogs your waking thoughts, where your mind strays freely and often, even when you can’t.
For me that place is Ashley Vale in, St Werburghs, Bristol. I have written about it before, but I’ve never felt happy with the results. In my mind it’s elusive, slippery territory. Part of my problem is that I can never quite nail my feelings for this little pocket of urban wild. I think I may be a little obsessed.
There are elements of nostalgia no doubt, but I always loved the place even when I was young, relatively carefree, and desperate to escape boring old Bristol. I could say that when I am there I feel a sense of joy, a buzz of connection and recognition and yet also a delicious strangeness. But perhaps the truth is, there are simply some feelings, stirrings about some things that go beyond words.
Geographically, Ashley Vale is a small valley in the north east of the city hemmed in by railway tracks and roads to form a wobbly ‘V’, or more appropriately ‘A’ shaped area. Within it there are allotments, woods, scrubland, grassland and a hill – Narroways Hill. There is also a pub, a city farm, some lock-up garages and a few houses, scattered along and around the one public road that runs all the way in. And yes, there may even be a ghost.
According to local historian Harry McPhillimy in his excellent article – From Norway to Narroways (you can find a downloadable pdf here) the name Ashley Vale derives from the area’s predominant tree – the Ash. In Anglo Saxon times there was once an estate here called Asselega – or Ash Wood. Prior to this, Oaks covered the land, possibly before being cut down by Neolithic Farmers.
I grew up nearby and my early childhood was filled with places named after Ash. We lived near Ashley Down. My first school was Ashley Down Infants, on Downend Road, just off Ashley Down Road.
Usually when I visit Ashley Vale and the Narroways – more often between spring and autumn – I am struck by how prolific and fertile this land seems. Every corner of it appears green, fertile and thick with vegetation, bursting out and up in every direction.
Last time I went back for a wander I couldn’t help thinking about death and how one day this wonderful place might end. Wondering if all these Ashy names could, in a not so distant future, be rendered meaningless by a combined assault from a beetle and a fungus.
With this twin horror in mind, walking in the small ash-dominated woods next to the railway lines between Ashley Hill and Narroways Hill, I imagined bare, open ground, treeless slopes, stripped and ripe for digging and leveling.
In recent decades the area has survived several attempts by British Rail and other transport focused developers to variously fence it off, cut it up and build on it. After the most recent threat from Rail Track a mass protest organized by the Narroways Action Group in 1997 was staged. Plans to sell off the hill were subsequently scrapped. Then in 2000, thanks largely to the actions of local people, The Narroways was granted Millennium Green Status – in theory removing the threat to its existence as a public green space and safeguarding the diverse animal and plant life within it for years to come. Yet in the near future a twin biological threat could put an end to all that – if Hymenoscyphus fraxineus doesn’t do the job, then the Emerald Ash Borer may come along and finish things off.
When I first came here I’d heard of neither of these things and whilst I liked the walk down leafy lanes, flora and fauna were not my prime concern. As a teenager and in my early twenties, I was here for the pub. My friends Chris and Tom lived in St Andrews a short walk away, conveniently on route between where my parents then lived and The Farm.
Most of the time I’d head there at night, so the scenery consisted of twilit hedges and the charcoal toned outlines of beanstalks and sunflowers in allotments. That said, there was always something darkly attractive about evening views from Gaunt Lane, looking across at dozens of sheds and water buts, stretches of fencing, apple trees and Hawthorns reaching up in shadowed patches towards the house backs on Ashley Down Road.
Just beyond the end of the lane was the pub. Tucked between St Werburghs City farm and the tight little terraced houses on Hopetoun Road, it felt like our secret.
The Farm was something special, not quite the perfect pub in a George Orwell sense – I think there was a jukebox, or at least music – but not far off that idyllic vision. The then landlord (this would have been late 80s to early 90s) had a head of thick white hair and a red nose that suggested he liked the cellarage prize-winning Ushers he served even more than we did. A small back room had two bar billiards tables, which even back then, felt like a strange throwback, as we taught ourselves to play the game. Outside there were a couple of low slung sheds with benches all around where we’d sup pints, smoke and imagine what we might say to any girls who happened along.
Now when I visit I prefer to wander around Ashley Vale and Narroways Hill during the day. Last time I approached via Station Road, which has a long row of terraced houses on one side, all with names as well as numbers – things like Utica Villa, Heath Views and Sundon House. The road slopes down towards the valley, trickling out into a series of lanes and cycle paths, all cutting in various directions inbetween allotments, the City Farm and Narroways Hill.
From here I passed some of the Fairy Tale, or Gaudi style self-build houses in The Yard and walked on towards one of the most fantastically named places I’ve been: Boiling Wells Lane.
Here, for thirty years between 1732 and 1762, stood Lower Ashley House, the country residence of Sir Michael Foster, Recorder of Bristol. A spring on the hillside fed the stream by the house until it was demolished in 1824. The spring was gaseous in nature and as it bubbled out gave the appearance of boiling – hence Boiling Wells Lane.
Today, in an unconscious echo of the Gothic Archway that once stood at the entrance to the mansion house grounds, this lane is accessed at one end via a dark tunnel that darts through the hill and railway lines above.
Looping back south I followed another lane up Narroways Hill. Here in one relatively small area – as a range of informative noticeboards point out – you can find a variety of habitats including Grassland, woodland and abandoned allotments with much coverage provided by extensive bramble thickets and other shrubs, along with old fruit trees.
There’s a fantastic description of the rich abundance of wildlife and plants to be found here on the Narroways Millennium Green Trust website – noting the array of birds and insects, reptiles and mammals that can be found in the area. The lists of waxwings and slow worms, common lizards, Small Copper and Marbled White butterflies, hedgehogs, Rosebay Willowherb and Golden Road are a joy to read – though tinged with a sense of fragility.
I think Kathleen Jamie, in one of Sightlines or Findings, talks about places like this being ‘land arks’, small parcels of land at once depressing and hopeful, in the sense that what life they contain only survives there due to human intervention. I know what she means, but can’t help but smile with pleasure at these Narroways lists. On the ground, or rather in the trees, the most exciting thing I saw was a Jay. But I can usually be glad of a blackbird, sparrow or a robin.
Turning back down the hill – after a brief salute to the toad bench on the top – I cut along a bridge over the railway and looked out east as the tracks bend away into the distance. Not far from here, just over a century ago in 1913, a woman named Ada James was murdered by her fiancé Ted Palmer, who cut her throat during a row. Ada managed to stagger back as far as Mina Road where she was able to write her killer’s name on a piece of paper and say ‘My fiancé did it’ before she died. Palmer was arrested and then hanged a couple of months later. It is poor Ada James’ ghost that has supposedly been seen on this path – known to some as Cut Throat Lane. In 2001 someone claimed to have taken a photo.
Skirting the last field before reaching St Werburgh’s Church – now a climbing centre – I clock a couple going at it in the long grass, but before they see me I slip past a hedge and into more allotments.
I’ve always liked the idea of allotments – there seems to be something at once homely and a little wild about them. Allotments – aside from some people’s queue-jumping – appear to be quite democratic, a contemporary reflection of old medieval strip field systems – though with rather different and more varied crops. Perhaps inevitably, when re-reading Harry McPhillimy’s history of Narroways hill, I notice that he mentions: “There are ancient Strip Lynchetts (medieval terracing) on the slope above Boiling Wells valley.”
Back on Mina Road I have a choice to make, turn left for a quicker more urban route back to where I am staying, or right, under the tunnel and into the valley once more. I couldn’t help myself.
Links and References
Veronica Smith, The Street Names of Bristol: Their Origins and Meanings, Broadcast Books, 2001
Narroways Milliennium Green Trust
Donate to the Narroways
Help support the Millennium Green Trust’s work in and around the site
Harry McPhillimy From Norway To Narroways
From cockfighting arena to protected greenspace
Brief, affectionate, history of Narroways Hill by Harry McPhillimy
Ada James ghost photo on cut throat lane
Another perspective on Ashley Vale – a shed with a view. One of a collection of personal stories as part of Watershed and M shed’s Bristol Stories project.