If I could travel back in time to visit the me of ten years ago, when I started writing this blog, to tell myself that he/I would still be doing it a decade later, I doubt I would have been believed. That I would be writing this anniversary piece under the shadow of a global coronavirus pandemic, as the UK entered its third national lockdown in a year, would have been a greater surprise than the fact Richly Evocative was still going – but only slightly.
For a lover of hills, this small region of the country offers quite the range: steep hills, lone hills, round hills, hills with views of the sea, hills buzzed by kestrels, or patrolled by buzzards, internationally renowned hills with ruined churches on top, hills crowned by stands of trees, hills once topped by hill-forts, hills with winds that land a flurry of blows near the summit and hills disguised as city streets, with houses and shops groaning up and down their slopes.
I like to start at the western end, off Finch Avenue. To get there, I walk over a railway bridge that looks nothing like a railway bridge, then before reaching the corner, hop up the low wall between a hawthorn and a young oak, and then like many others, cut across the desire path worn into the grass.
At first glance, there’s not much to see. At second glance, not much more. There are two hedges either side of a gate, rectangular slabs of green, largely blocking sight of the road beyond. They’re a little raggedy, but provide a popular skulking place for the local Dunnock; especially the hedge on the left, technically forsythia, but mostly serving as a framework for ivy. Though currently, scruffy spears are poking up, dotted with those cheerfully in-your-face lemon yellow flowers.
Always there was something to take pleasure in seeing, always the ongoing news of fires, along with smoke haze and smells of distant burning, gave a constant reminder that nothing could be taken for granted. I’d notice something and point it out to the children, then privately wonder whether that species of bird, or fish, or plant would still be here if, one day in the future, the boys ever came back. Every sighting might be a farewell.
The day Bristol Museum and Art Gallery’s Chinese Room disappeared, was the day I first realised that places, like people, can change.
To my childhood self, the idea that a place wasn’t fixed, that it wouldn’t necessarily always be the same and might even vanish, came as a shock.
It’s a strange thing to walk into someone else’s memories; especially those that have been woven and tangled about a place. A place that you’ve heard about, but never visited. Somewhere that means a great deal to the person who told you about it, but for you, who’s never been, it retains the status of a rumour.
Surrounding the wall, stubby ash and elephantine coils of Cherry Laurel gave a writhing border to the site, which, just for a moment, became an abandoned sacred grove. For some reason – the unnatural quiet perhaps – the spot felt like a Celtic ‘Thin Place’, or more accurately a broken thin place, as here it seemed, any doorway to the eternal world had been blocked by litter and forgotten.
The large frames created between the support struts, beneath the corrugated iron roof, seem like glassless windows, with ash and oak, horse chestnut, hazel, sycamore and brambles pressing themselves right up to the edges. Sometimes it feels as though passengers are being protected from the looming sylvan creatures beyond.
Going down to the mill is something we do every time we come here. It’s a short distance downhill from Rue de la Roche, where my parents-in-law live, to the town’s second river. When the water is low, as it usually is in August, the visit also includes a walk across the stepping stones and…
I started to wonder how far I should go, without a map or much water, but a trail leading out of town and into the fields is always hard to resist. After all, as Richard Jeffries notes in in Nature Near London, one should “Never omit to explore a footpath, for never was there a footpath yet which did not pass something of interest.”
The shared notion of the long-vanished tree-scape of the Great North Wood is a vital framing device…As Sam from the Wildlife Trust notes: “We’ve encountered lots of people who are hugely enthused by the Great North Wood…The ‘vast ghost-wood’ which overlays and interleaves with the modern built environment is a great source of inspiration for many.”
Here were ancient trees, darkling trees, summer and winter trees, ancient oaks, looming pines, explosive cherries, laugh out loud at the wonder of it all trees. In one case a massive old volume was open on a page showing a 19th century photograph of a large Beech. Especially fascinating was the tree’s position on the side of a sunken lane, which meant that its multiple tangled roots were exposed to the world, in a glorious, twisting, serpentine display.
…there on the edge of the flat stretching roof
Stood a magpie, a gull and a pigeon
Neatly spaced –
The cast from some terrible joke.
A mysterious letter. A secret journal. An ancient wood, in borderland territory. Deceptive paths and strange, ghostlike figures, stirring at the edge of the trees. These were some of the elements that quickly took hold and drew me into Ryhope Wood, when I first read about it aged 15.
Recently I re-read it, rediscovered and found many new things to treasure.
Dead rats aside, there was one area of the garden that always made me feel a little uneasy. As the name suggests, there was once a mill here.
In the late 18th century it was a paper mill, but by the 1820s had become a cloth-mill. By the end of the Victorian era, the mill was gone, but perhaps something else lingered in the grounds.
I’ve always quite liked the style of old handbills: the erratic punctuation, jumbled type sizes and overuse of exclamation marks especially. If I produced a handbill for this blog, it would look something like this…
Nationally, many, if not quite all, orchards have vanished; having been abandoned or grubbed up because there’s no longer any money in them.
Yet, in Lambeth one inspired and dedicated group of people have set out to plant a series of new orchards, filling South London with saplings of hope.
I had a Charlie Brown moment this morning.
Up early, I glanced out of the window and was struck dumb by the sky.
Photographers have been taking pictures of places for as long, if not longer than they’ve been capturing faces.
In the digital age, what happens when the camera’s gaze is turned upon a landscape? An innocent snapshot or, as some have suggested ‘the death of the imagination’?