All along the water tower

September 2012

There are some things that exist solely in your peripheral vision.

I find it fascinating that for most of our waking lives we concern ourselves with immediacies: what do I have to do today? Should I buy x not y? What will my wife think if I do n? Wasn’t there something I needed to do by 3.30pm? What do I need to get done next week? The old mind talk.
Yet, there all the time, never leaping out sufficiently to become the star of the show, are all the fascinating objects, events, people in our peripheral vision. The supporting cast if you will. There is a psychological explanation for this – your brain, processing as it does, millions of pieces of data every day, has to prioritise. Most things get de-prioritised. They don’t help the important tasks of survival or mating or shopping. Then an event happens – someone points something out for example – and suddenly, the bridesmaid has a chance of being the bride.

I spent my early years in the foothills of the southern Pennines. A large part of my family are from Congleton (‘Congy’ to those determined to make it sound even uglier than it does already). It’s a archetypal northern mill town. The Pennines rising up behind the town. Tall, thin, stoic mills, smeared brown and black with the grime of age still gripping the banks of the riversides. Houses, intermingled, in short, sharp runs of Ruabon brick and grey gritstone. Many of my family were mill people; my gran still bore a scar by her eye where a blurring shuttle had loosed and struck her. The mills were part of the weave and weft of their being.

So it was for generations that the water towers, rising sentinel above the town, had formed part of their peripheral vision, just as they had for me. Born out of necessity on many fronts, but chiefly to ensure the local populace (read: workforce) were not decimated by diseases like cholera, water towers became a feature on the horizon of many towns across the British Isles.

Funny then, that after almost 40 years, there were multiple events that crashed water towers from peripheral to primary vision in my life. It started with a chance encounter with The Renovation Man on Channel 4. Quite literally flicking through the channels one evening, the soft Geordie tones of the presenter eulogised the beauty of Victorian industrial architecture. I paused, assuming he was referring to a station or grand town hall. In fact, it was a water tower. Thinking little more of it, I hit record and went to bed.

Saturday, two weeks later. My Saturday routine. Drop the children off at the dance & acting class, buy newspaper, retire to the library cafe; read, write, or think. And there, outside the window is the most impressive Victorian water tower you will ever see: five stories high; topped with mock Norman arches and simple crenulations. A stone plaque: ‘1866’. I had parked next to it for almost twenty years with barely a passing thought- only now after working elsewhere and seeing it less, did I stop and take it in.

I went home the same day and found the recorded ‘Renovation Man’. It was a fine water tower’ a beautiful cylindrical design with mixed brick work of red and blue and fine feature arches. A functional building but designed with the pride and attention to detail that today is deemed an expensive luxury.

Water Tower Congy iiAnd I recognised it. Not with a vague familiarity, but a real sense of connection verging on déjà vue. In fact it wasn’t the water tower that drove this feeling, but the site and its sister; right next to it was a more modern water tower – a simple white structure; tank resting, shrouded in a concrete skirt resting on columns. Two towers, next to one another. This was Congy, the twin water towers standing out proud on one of the hills above the town and 40 years of peripheral vision became pulled into stark, sharp focus in an instant.


Good Morning, Robert.

“Good Morning, Robert”

June 2012

Most days I have a long commute: 2 hours, door to door. Fortunately, this is on our oft-derided railways so I get the chance to work, read, watch a movie or simply think – a real luxury in life. It’s true that our railways are expensive, particularly during the peak time window of 6am to 5.59am, yet despite this I still find travelling on trains retains the element of grandeur, of romance that you don’t get behind the wheel. There’s no logic to this: you are separated from the outside just as much, both are, if you stop and consider it,  engineering wonders and both do a reasonable job of whisking you from A to B.

I mulled on this conundrum on my way home one Friday. My journey is from London’s Euston station up the west coast main line to Lichfield. I have got myself into a pleasant but costly routine of a post work latte and as I lifted up the lid, gently blowing on the froth to cool it whilst absent-mindedly shoo’ing pigeons out of the way with my leg, I glanced up to witness the answer – or at least the root of the answer.

‘Robert Stephenson, Civil Engineer. 1803 – 1859’

I remember being fascinated by railways when I was young boy, not as spotter, but rather in the engineering. The fact that motion could be produced from wood, iron, coal, water. The noise and the speed. Brought up near Crewe, my Dad an engineer himself, I learnt about that area’s engineering heritage and through a process of temporal osmosis, about the huge LMS engines that sped down the line at the end of Oak Street on the way to the north or the capital in a blaze of claret. Yet it wasn’t just the engines, it was the routes themselves – huge cuttings, lofty embankments, soaring bridges and the fascination that the rail I was looking at stretched without stopping 300 miles in one direction and 200 miles in the other. Evenly spaced and level all the way, someone had put it there. In fact, Robert was one of the people who put it there. And now he had snow on his head.

Robert had cropped up in my life before. He had built the Rocket for the Rainhill trials on the Liverpool to Manchester railway essentially through a bog. He built incredible bridges over the Menai Strait and the river in Conwy where we used to go for weekends away when I was growing up. And he was a Geordie so I was pleased that a northerner had done all this even though, at that point in my life I had never really crossed the Pennines.   Later, I read LTC Rolt’s biography and realised that Stephenson was one of the greatest Victorian civil engineers – which if you consider the competition, was no mean feat. He had worked on gold mines in Columbia, surveyed for the Suez Canal and contributed towards the development of railways on continental Europe. And all this before his early death at 56.

Few realise the first engineering challenge as trains leave Euston today. It’s actually quite a climb – take the Northern Line to Chalk Farm, and then walk back and you’ll see what I mean. This meant two things – first of all an incline, and then a tunnel. Virgin’s Pendolino trains today are already approaching 125mph and beginning to tilt at this point but Robert had to design a separate pumping house and chains to give the under-powered engines a gentle hand. I understand the pumping house is still there and houses an arts centre which seems a pretty good analogy for industry in Britain today. Then the tunnel under Primrose Hill – this task was apparently so difficult that Robert must have considered dynamiting the whole lot and having done with it. Instead he painstakingly dropped vertical shafts to allow him to connect the various pilot tunnels and overcome the obstacle without impacting on house prices for London’s hipster creative set.

This task out of the way, the route speeds northwest through the Home Counties: Berkhamsted, Tring, Leighton Buzzard, Wolverton, MK… all in quick succession. Even on the slow trains you are Rugby in an hour. On a line first built in the 1830s. If all runs to plan, I’m climbing off the train 116 miles from Euston in 1 hour and 9 minutes. I’m not sure Robert would have imagined that travel of such speed and frequency would make commuting into London to work from the north Midlands something possible, and goodness knows what he would have made of the idea of trains travelling at 225mph but it does seem to me worthwhile contemplating the marvel of our railways today. This I think is what accounts for the difference of feeling when you travel this way. You leave from a station – often a grand one, you get an elevated view of the countryside around you and most days, in most weathers, you make it in quick time. For me it’s more than this. It’s the sense that your journey is so much more than this train on this day. It’s using the tracks, the vision, the sweat of those from generations before us.

That’s why, every morning I doff my metaphorical hat and say, “Good Morning, Robert”. We shouldn’t forget the contribution to our lives today of men such as him.

© Morning Mister Magpie, 2012

Last night I went for a walk.

August 2011.

For some reason, the weight of intertwining issues had sidled, then slowly nuzzled up to me over a few weeks and was now nestling, snugly between my ears and even, at times, in my bowels. Why was I feeling unhappy? Why was this strange, invisible weight lying over me like a shot-filled duvet, pliant yet unmovable? I told myself what I would tell others: stand back from this. View your life, your situation, from the shoe’s of someone else. Goodyear Welted ideally, but we shouldn’t be picky. ‘You have a beautiful wife and fantastic children. You are living in a pretty English village with friends and family nearby. You have a new job, which although in the Capital, gives you flexibility, a good living and a new lease of life. What’s to worry about?’

Ha! I worried about the worry. Now feeling guilty that I was doing exactly what I chastise my worrying wife for. Perhaps, I was becoming so Middle Class in my Middle Age living in Middle England that I was searching for something bigger, deeper, more purposeful. Middle Life Crisis. Already? Didn’t Giles Coren write scathingly about this just the other week? It’s so European, so effete. I’m sure I agreed with him at the time.

But that wasn’t it. This wasn’t so deep. At least, not philosophically deep. Yet it was deep within.

I went for a walk. No map. Just legs, moving, onward. Walking where they took me. Onward.

Through the estate. To the Green Lane. Past a church. Down a bank. To the towpath.   Approaching dusk, I danced between puddles and the hedgerow, along the canal. In the distance a slight, yet audible, mesmeric rumbling from the main road, slowly dimming with each step. I approached a bridge. Slender, long; from iron and concrete, not pretty, but offering a perspective view as it stretched away from me towards a distant steeple and old mill. The Quarter Mile Bridge they called it.


Intuitively, I moved forwards silently, not disturbing the peace that now closed in around me.

No revelation. No descent of inner calm upon me. Just a dart of blue on the edge of my vision. What was that blue? Azure? Too pale. Sapphire? Too dark. This blue had a familiar iridescence that I couldn’t immediately place.

Again. Below the bridge this time, yet gone more quickly than eyes could follow.

A Kingfisher, delicately alight on a branch by a hole in the bank, like an orchid’s flower held to its stem with a mere pinch. Eyeing me as fixedly as I was it.

Taking the same path, I returned. Up the bank by the overgrown kettle-hole and warren, pausing by the church once more to look back on the way I had come against the incoming tide of dusk.

The Kingfisher had been there all the time whilst I worried about my trivialities. Looming financial crisis? Lacking a clear purpose in life? The right job? What’s the worst that could happen? Looking for food. Avoiding danger. Raising its family. Conversing with swans. I resisted coming over all bucolic but knew something had clicked. I paused in the moment to enjoy the ecstatic ordinariness of the situation. The joy of ordinariness that has endured and is there now, if only I had stopped and noticed it.

From now on, I would.

Sparkling Miscellany

July 2014.

This is a journal of things. A celebration of the beauty of the ordinary and less ordinary; of day-to-day magic that goes unnoticed. It celebrates the present, the now, the moment, without looking too far forward. How, through grand design, serendipity or luckless emergence we have ended up with the fascinating, intriguing world that is all around us, yet passes us by.

It’s deliberately glass half full; noticing, celebrating and laughing with life’s little pleasures, life’s events; the bounty of here. By my reckoning, ordinary can be extraordinary, and our lives richer if we pause, however momentarily, to notice it. To see the sparkling miscellany of life that surrounds us.