Afar, a thin lichen blotched steeple, knapsack brown with badges of green. Ahead, a blackthorn hedge cleaved near the root by billhook and determination; muscled over, sloping branches, silhouetted like nature’s tally-marks. Up close, the ridge and furrow: broad ridges, a yard across; furrows, a yard wide, and half that deep. Fixed in earth, these are fossilised waves, collecting the late afternoon winter sun, refracting light, creating vivid outlines. These waves do not crash or break, they billow only over the course of a lifetime. There is no wash or rip. Every seventh wave is the same not higher. The pull of the moon does not mould these ripples of turned and re-turned earth. The sound of the oxen and Medieval plough still echoes here, casting ancient shadows.
As a signal of this country’s economic transformation, you need go no further than our lofty, mighty stations. They are a history in themselves: plotting a journey through the last 175 years: cathedrals to Britain’s industrial might; vast spans of iron, fretted and decorated, caverns to transport and the glory of steam. And these were not just temples in our capital, but throughout the country: Temple Meads in Bristol; the curving platforms of York; Piccadilly and Victoria in Manchester; even end of the line stops were impressive: Grimsby; Lime Street. Some were like castles: Carlisle or transformed the terrain itself, like Waverley in Edinburgh. Most saw turmoil and demise before being reinvented for broader and different uses.
St Pancras in London is the finest. Fittingly, trains from the Continent arrive here: and what a statement: after years of political re-engineering, of turmoil; of strikes, of economic doldrum-drifting, St Pancras says, ‘London is reborn, London is back’. And if you arrive from Corby, Luton or Sevenoaks you stride purposefully forward too, dreaming the same dream. It is like a town in itself. Upstairs the daylight and nightlife: a crafty coffee in Benugo espresso bar perhaps, or a sip of Dom Perignon in a bar of a different kind; or even a Branzino* con palate e salsa in Carluccio’s, before your porter lifts your trunk into the carriage and John Betjeman waves you away Downstairs is the ‘town’; food and clothes shops; luggage, watches; a re-sole for your shoes or a simple polish; pay in a cheque or check on your family whilst hammering some honky-tonk on the old piano. Or grab a craft beer in the Sourced market, which is ironic given that the pillars between which today’s shops sit were not defined with Imperial exactitude, but rather by the more arbitrary length of a barrel of Bass’ beer – the undercroft was built and paid for by the massive brewers of Burton.
Today, our engineering in particular is focused on functional. Housing companies who build 3,500 houses a year have no time for beauty; no care for individuality or bespoke design. They are about numbers not a name. Not so the Victorians. As you approach along Euston Road, Gilbert Scott’s design grabs all of you, moves you; in fact, it grabs you by the throat and punches the breath out of you. Vistas emerge and open up: through to the booking hall here; a glimpse of the vast roof there; away into the depths for the Tube this way. Beauty is in the details too. The iron roof sails away from you like a Cathedral’s flying buttress, but there, in a nook, is the name of the manufacturer, wrought in for permanence, with pride in a job well done, a legacy left.
Iron was the pen and ink of the Victorian engineer. And St Pancras is not just a station but a place. And that place put its name to an iron foundry whose name crops up across the land. Not in massive structures that we cannot fail to notice; but in altogether, more ordinary, more humble work. For those who care to look, there is the reward: The St Pancras Ironworks Company manufactured utilitarian iron pieces: man-hole covers, gutters; stair-treads. What design, what beauty in a cover for a coal chute or for a Cardiff drain . The Works has gone now, but its Product remains. In their own way, the legacy of these human sized pieces is as moving and impressive as the jaw dropping edifice to travel which more famously carries its name still.
**I shall resist the temptation, fish puns are endless.
My Dad once told me off for looking down as I walked. He thought it showed a lack of confidence, a shambling man of the future maybe, losing his way in life, pushing a tartan shopping trolley. Yet I was looking at sycamore keys as they gathered below the kerbs, some washing towards the drains, others interlocking, making knots, arboreal daisy-chains.
My gaze in cities is up; previous generations put detail into their upper storeys that today we shun as wasted effort, wasted cost. Elaborate Ruabon brick patterns in Manchester, mock terracotta facades in Birmingham, or iridescent tiles in Mortimer Street. Cupolas and pediments, often out of eye line; leading, curved and cut in flowing patterns, visible only to pigeons and skyscraper window cleaners.
Yet there is merit in the downward glance too; wrought iron manhole covers proudly pronouncing their manufacturer. Thick glass tiles too, like old NHS glass lenses, which remind me of ‘Dan Dann, a lavatory man’ in Carry on Screaming, for whom the tiles gave him his only natural light*. But most of all, I’m intrigued by the mason’s marks on kerbstones. Maltese crosses, diamonds, arrows, capital letters, even rune like symbols. Were these early advertising? Merely a symbol of pride? Or perhaps a record for payment purposes?
*That is, until Oddjob bopped him on the head and made his world go dark.
The old catalogues for Christopher Wray’s Lighting Emporium were as beautiful as the lights themselves. Thumb thick, with heavy gauge matte paper and deft touches of spot varnish, they oozed quality. And turning page after page, lights of all denominations: art nouveau, deco, modern & antique, restorations, Moorcroft bases, Tiffany lanterns. At one point, this was the largest chain of lighting shops of the country; manufactured mainly in Birmingham, in an old brick factory just off a ring road. It was precariously placed, like a wizard’s home that should remain unseen but peeks through the dimensions into ours. The company is still going today, but in reduced circumstances. This picture tells a tale: the retail shop front, recently abandoned, sits in a tumbling brick former factory; slate roofs of different pitches; curving and angled drainpipes dash across precipitous voids; prominent chimney stacks, sprouting ferns and Buddleia. It would have been, in its Victorian heyday, a works, a crucible of industry. Today, it stands next to Birmingham’s ThinkTank – a futuristic building taking inspiration from the industrial past and Birmingham City University, an institution promoting, amongst other things, a scientific tomorrow. It is a curious juxtaposition.
There’s a fishing pool near us of uncertain origin. It could be a kettle hole, where moons ago a lump of rotting glacial ice rested, covered in a blanket of debris, mulch and leaves, then caved in. It’s pock-marked with them round here. But it’s unlikely: the hand of man seems evident; too round, too shallow, too manicured.
A pleasant spot all the same though; especially when the mercury drops. The ice freezes, edges first, then spreads in arcs, creating fantails, overlapping, like a decorator gone berzerk with Artex, or a child laying out Askey’s ice cream wafers in a pattern on the table. The Moorhens are more skittish than ever as they bob across the ice, looking at their own reflections, walking like Egyptians.
A tennis ball rests on the ice, counting down to its own oblivion. The sticks may float to safety. And caught in a moment, perfect calm. Trees and houses opposite reflected symmetrically. Which way up?
Building a bridge is an act of civilisation. Opening up new lands; connecting disconnected peoples; aiding trade; spreading language; sharing cultures, ameliorating war and destruction. Glorious bridges are celebrated: Tower Bridge; London Bridge; the Millennium Bridge, Sydney Harbour Bridge; Golden Gate; Brooklyn Bridge, Prague’s Charles Bridge. The Ponte Vecchio, The Bridge of Sighs. Mostar’s Stari Most, now rebuilt after the Balkan conflicts. France’s Millau Viaduct. Suspension Bridges: Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge or Stephenson’s Menai Straits Bridge. The bridge over the Bosphorous in Istanbul, or the Pont Neuf in Paris. Yet all around us are smaller bridges, smaller acts of civilisation. Connecting one family with another; allowing the cattle to cross with dry hooves not plunge through a ford. Opening up a new snicket between two fields or a new road to a new estate. The little bridges are underfoot us all but hidden. Here, a quiet celebration
A looming grey morning by the river, mist whispering through the bent reeds and feather-ended grasses that wave, regally, breezily. Afar, a loose brush stroke of blue; a distant sun illuminating the lower Peaks flourescently; shining like a glint of silver on an old clock face.
The longnix, the grey predator, stands stock still on the river bank. Her movements are imperceptible; geologic, intent-filled. Statuesque, she eyes a river rock pool, flush with bright gravel and water-oiled cobbles; previously I had seen her nestling under an overhanging tor worn smooth by the persistent, urgent caresses of the wind, in the long grass, hard staring the opal black water. She is the hunter. Not a lion or wolf, but an assassin; she steps in and becomes the shadows; her neck is a spear gun, flaring, darting, incisive. A starter pistol, an instant reaction. The stickleback’s back is snapped back; then broken, swallowed, gone.
Disturbed; longnix is unruly, comical. The take-off strained; loping, curving, sagging; struggling to make altitude before at last she is away, wings spreading and eventual grace. Built for stillness or flight; the rest, awkward.
Unawares, she transmutes into a champion cyclist; “il campionissimo”; thin limbed and lithe, knees knocking, walking like a baby giraffe or foal – best when still; then on the bike, the longnix stands, unfurls, opens up, wings spreading, takes off. Built for stillness or for flight, the rest, awkward.