Tall chimneys

The part of the world I’m originally from is known for its black and white (or ‘Magpie’, funnily enough) buildings. Crooked oak posts, cruck or ‘A’ frames, intricate carving counterpoised against rugged adse-hewn joints. The timbers are paint blackened, countless coats over hundreds of years, with jettied floors ideal for jettisoning night soil. The infill though is far from soiled, it is whitewashed, brightly pronounced even when a new splash is needed. But despite being seemingly too stark for a countryside setting, somehow the opposite becomes true, they fit into their surroundings, dig in, natural, at one. For me, though, it’s not the body of these vernacular buildings that I enjoy most, it’s the head, the hat. The chimneys weave and wind, often the chimney breast is concealed inside the house and the stacks suddenly erupt in swirls and twists.

IMG_3303Travelling south and east though into the Midlands, the black and white houses ebb away. Timber buildings are still here, but the timber is usually left alone, or more typically hidden by the façade, brick or otherwise. And the chimneys too seem less grand. Maybe us Cheshire folk have always been a bit showy, but these Staffordshire chimneys are straight, honest, workmanlike. Maybe they just put their money into the parts of the house they could see when reading a book. But then you get a surprise: stuck in traffic in the old Cathedral city of Lichfield a few days ago, I see these beauties on the old hospital of St John (no Knights Templar as far as I could see but there probably is a connection). A row of tall chimneys rising from the pavement up. Not an afterthought, but so essential to the buildings, they seem almost like an enceinte, a castle wall, a fortification, a warning. Proudly vertical then, reaching up towards the clouds, but in such profusion that they have a strong horizontality  too, strengthening the roof line, the line of the lintels and leading the eye along and away.


IMG_3029At the edge of the lake I look over the reed beds. It’s a chill morning but a Spring chill not a Winter one; in the shadows it’s bitter cold; step out into the light, into the low light of this post dawn sun and it’s immediately warming. The reeds display the position of our orbit as well as anything, like back brushes sticking up, icy suds on one side, clean on the other. Funny how things come full circle. Man reclaimed land from the marsh, but today he digs out the gravel and re-floods the pits left. The reeds, in turn, object – pushing out again with slender roots; reclaiming the land from the water once more.

Low landings

Low LandingsThe stretch of Cheshire arcing round the south of Manchester is pilloried by Jeremy Clarkson and widely known as ‘The Home Counties of the North’ due to its relative wealth and attractiveness to Premier League footballers. It’s true, there is a high preponderance of gold sandals in Wilmslow, to match the faux golden skin tones. But stereotypes hide more than they reveal and this is a beautiful part of the world; verdant; low but rolling; steep wooded river banks and great views up towards the Pennines and down across the Plain from places such as Alderley Edge, Shutlingsloe or further south, the Cloud. Knutsford is the epicentre; socio-demographic markers reveal all: a Booths Store, a Bentley dealership an outpost of Clive Christian kitchens. There’s also a lovely old restaurant call The Belle Epoque, mid way down the main street.

Last time I was there we parked up near the restaurant and as we did, there was an encroaching rumble and an accompanying whine of an aero engine decelerating. In it swept – just yards above the Epoque’s elaborate roofline. Flybe I noted, close enough to wave to the pilot. Turns out that Manchester’s newish runway is the culprit; at least that and the wind blowing in a certain direction. Knutsford property values don’t seem to have suffered too much and the well heeled gaggle of Sauvignon Blanc drinkers outside Loch Fyne didn’t seem bothered either, but it was shock all the same.

Just last week it struck me how so many things we do mimic nature. The road from the east into our village comes in over what will soon be a causeway between man made gravel extraction lakes. The developers stock promise: ‘new habitats will be created’, whilst failing to mention the old habitats that will be destroyed. And already the changes are happening: now the air above the road is like the sky above Knutsford, only with nature’s planes. Waterfowl, and Canada Geese in particular using the route as their best line of descent onto the lake. Noisy buggers they are, honking their air traffic control messages to one another, feathering their wing flaps just as our planes do. Bounced and bashed by turbulence on the way in, their low landings are equally bumpy, even onto water.

Old Parts

IMG_3376My friend John has a battered bike addiction. He buys old frames and old bike parts at antisocial hours on eBay. He is hooked on the adrenaline rush of the closing seconds of the auction, all for an ancient Rudge or historic Elswick. He also has a soft spot for retro Campagnolo, or Campag, parts. Is it any wonder why? I mean, look at them. Lumps of metal they may only be, but in their cold forged elegance is a pride in the art of engineering, in design, in Italian style when today’s products seem so fragile, so flimsy, so temporary. Here is a beauty that has longevity, solidity, permanence. And John gives it new life.

Crow surfers

Our bedroom is in an old coach house, a solid brick wall just a stretcher wide and held together – allegedly – by pearly white lime mortar flecked with river gravel and tiny shells. Once single storey, nowadays it has two; well, one and a half really, a few extra bricks were added and the whole thing lifted up to store more hay we think. And that’s where we sleep, directly underneath the roof. Just a few layers in fact: plaster, insulation, felt and the old Staffordshire Blue tiles. And it’s lovely under there, particularly on rainy nights – like camping in a storm in fact, the sound one drop after another becoming a background brrumble of drumming, rapatapataparapatapatapatap. It helps your sleep find a rhythm and wash over you, swashing you away to slumber. There’s no chimney in this part of the house either, but even so, you’d think there was. Amorous pigeons strut their stuff along the roofline early doors, back and fro, not a soft ‘coo’ but much more insistent, urgent, voluminous. ‘COO?’ he says. ‘Coooo’ she demurs. ‘COO! COO! COO!’ says our feisty one. He’s not taking no for an answer, but she answers with action not words, and with a furious sudden wing beat, launches off, a giant’s finger riffling a giant’s ream of paper. ‘Coo.’ he purrs, forlornly. Most mornings, poor fella, but full marks for effort.

Steve Mitchell, 2014
Source: Steve Mitchell, 2014,  The Crow Flies Ltd

This morning though, the Crows had moved in, Tile Side. Well, I’m assuming Crows but it could be Jackdaws. One of the two for sure, because there’s loads of them round here at the moment; trees full with the chattering buggers like noisy, plumptious fruit; Spring is clearly on the way and what a delightful metallic racket they make, an all day long party seemingly. All ‘Croccroccroc’ and ‘Craw-a-craw’, blocky and chunky chatter, Germanic not Latin, these birds. Yes, definitely crows this morning, just above our heads. But what was going on? What a noise – or series of noises – first, there was the bouncing stroll of the crow, the gentle run up and then hop, hop. And the accompanying sound as their nails scrambled briefly for grip before a little ‘bop!’ sound indicated they hand momentarily landed. And the… well, what exactly? Did they have crowbars? Were they lifting our tiles and sending them hurtling down (what remained of) the roof? No, there was no doubt. They were surfing down the tiles. Sliding on their bums perhaps. And not once, not accidentally but again and again. Was this play or ritual or both: it certainly wasn’t mating, unless there are some moves that even David Attenborough is unfamiliar with. A grating but echoing ‘schusssss’ as they slid down; a low ‘crocacrocacroc’ as they danced back up and went again.

And it seems that sure enough, Crows like to go surfing and sometimes they use a tray. Can’t help but feel sorry for the try-hard pigeon though. No wonder his intended thinks he falls short.

Fleeting fossils

IMG_3031The other evening we chatted about removing the fleecy jackets that cosset the delicate plants around our garden. In pots mainly, our fragile ones, prima donnas with slender leaf tips poking through, giggling, a royal wave. There’s a racy fatsia japonica in particular, who just has to stick her seven fingered limbs out from under her kimono, a shapely thigh revealed through a high-slitted skirt. But the threat of frost has not passed and Her Kimononess gets gently ushered back in. Good thing too; this morning we had a real nippy belter, with those interlocking palmate leaves of ice fronding together across our windscreen and a crackly hoar frost on the fence, sharp to touch, Christmas trees in miniature; and a stillness all around – the birds wise to warmth, the worms unable to break through, feeding time delayed.

The best morning for a walk these: the dog hares off, with no fear of a Blacker Shade of Dark and similar ditties, and the boots, well, the crunch. It may not be golden, but it certainly is delicious, cracking through frozen puddles, scuffling off the icy crowns on the grass with a deft side foot out to the left wing. Leaves hang lower under the weight of the ice and the white hawthorn blossom, which is coming out round here, shimmers mesmerically under its coat of cold. But the best of it all are the footprints. Down near the gate, in the lee of the rosehip hedge, cancer ridden with brambles, no light can get through and it’s properly cold there. It’s something of a crossroads that bit – one path snaking down off the hill through the holloway as I call it, another skirts around the spring line, bisecting it.

And there are the footprints, boot marks, frozen. It brings to mind the fossilised tracks in the Great Rift Valley. Last night’s imprints, frozen fleetingly by the first frost, captured in a freeze-frame instant before the rising sun oozes them into history. Maybe there’s a parallel world where they exist in stone and academics get frothy and excited, little knowing they were formed only last night. Or perhaps there’s a different way of experiencing time, in slow motion. In that world, we are in the grip of an ice age and strange footprints have been discovered in the permafrost, experts arguing about their origins. An imprint of peoples’ lives all the same, captured momentarily then lost.

The publicly secret goodbye

Over a low table, the accoutrements of a coffee ritual scattered hither and thither, they exchanged looks with penetrating yet gentle intent. He, a thin, long face, with thinning, long hair; she, olive-skinned, glossy, made up but dressed down. The train arrival announcements a far-off melody, faint, bouncing singingly, with the staccato intonation of a replica voice. They gazed at one another deeply, finger tips touching in a prayer-like arc. He glanced away, eyes fixed into the distance but unfocused. His thoughts remained at the table, whilst other tables were cleared. Her look; a faint smile spoke happiness. But his eyes betrayed something: love unrequited? Or sadness at their parting?   His workbag, bulging, half closed and scuffed, showed the excuses he had made to his boss: he will be in later; he will be back for the afternoon meeting. Yet his behaviour said otherwise. No rush; considered movements; quick to think, slow to talk. Then their eyes welled up as she rose to leave. I looked away, momentarily lost in their unfolding story; abashed; ashamed to be observing such an intimate moment in such a public place.

First swards

First swards_fotor

The first green stripes have appeared, verdant and plump, fluffed up like new pillows from the fizzing barber’s blades; rotary cutters in a cycle of snipping. Clipped edges, scraggily neat, on turf in truth to wet to cut, but it’s a signal all the same, a beacon, that Spring beckons like the first rays of morning light, optimism rising. There’s always one who breaks the seal of Winter first, pitching for a place as gardener of the year, eager to see that thick-pile carpet of grass, moss and daisies, one light, one dark, feathery foot marks following where gumboots amble behind. The real change though is in the air not on the ground. Gone, the crackling dry smells of sharp frosts, cracking wood under sheaves of leaf litter and curling morning mists. In, the rich smells like snapped daffodil stalks, of grass swards, their winter hair army-sheared, their sap freed to storm dark adenoids and wake up the green man within.

A good pub

Good pub_fotorOn a low brick wall, drained pint pots hide behind plant pots & railings, lacing lines patternating their sides. Flagstones, flaked with wear and weakened by the dinks of a brewer’s barrel, show their many floors; millennia revealed in the journey to the door. A boot scraper, scissor-snicked Box and a heavy-hinged wooden door, smoked glass, the paint around the finger plate caressed away roughly by the pull and push of years of hands. Inside, tables made from butchers’ blocks, thick metal strapped, not true; beer mats and upturned scallop shells of ripped-open snack packets, their crown. Painted floorboards, black knots pushing back, point the path to the thick planked bar, the top stained, smooth as the handle of an old wooden shovel or yardbrush; care-worn, hand-me-down.   Six beers nowadays; misshapen badges promising a kiss of hops, a play on words, or union with a local bee keeper. The menu, scratchily scraped onto a blackboard, sits below a dusty bine of once-green hops. The fire, made up, is even happier when lit. And the dog, a black lab, keen-eyed but languid-limbed, soft with endless caressing, warms your feet before moving on.

Over the city

IMG_3227_fotorIt had been a full twenty years by my reckoning, since my travels had brought me back. Graunching and echoing through the tunnels, on metal flanged wheels to Highgate, and a meeting nearby. The Tube track is deep underground here, a forgotten ruckus buried under the hill. Here in fact, the Northern line lies buried beneath a deep gully, hiding the station further, masking sight and sound. The ascent then is a long one from the platform to the road. The escalators assist the first pitch, before steel edged steps, their criss-cross treads polished almost to nothing from the daily sole erosion. Here, us troglodytes emerge from our cave mouth, eyes greedy for focus in the deep shadow-shafted light. The leaf mould and mulch lies heavy too; banked up behind iron railings and discarded coffee cups with their Tommy-Tippee lids. Scrunching and dry either side of the steps, the leaves whisper conspiratorially to one another as the final climb to the road, the peak. The topping out reward: a wall of wrestling sounds. The hacking smoker’s cough of a bus exhaust; the gasping whine of the release of pressure brakes. Up Archway Road and across to The Park, the noise gurgles away, only metres from the road, suppressed by elevation, pretty terraces and lines of London Planes. They lean into the road, craning for a better view. And what a view, out over the city. Endless: here, the red light on top of Canary Wharf; there, a distant tower block mirror glinting the sun; this way, a line of smearing red tail lights in the snail-slow jam up the hill, that way a meandering brook of houses undulates away down a hill, following the lie of the land. A fine place to build a city. A fine place to put a hill.