A long line

It’s a short 50 miles from where I live now to where I grew up. In truth, I’ve lived round here longer now, plus a sojourn down in the West Country to study, yet for all this, my roots call me. The 50 miles is defining. For one, it crosses a regional divide, somewhere along the D road and near the motorway junction. And things do change: here, the bricks are flaky and soft, efflorescence puthers from the faces. But back home, they’re darker, harder, with swirling blue mottles; pointed differently too – flatter, narrower. There’s more stone too; particularly round foundations, whereas my house stands on 3 stretchers and some firm clay. “It hasn’t fallen down yet though” a structural engineer semi-reassured me before we did some work here. The 50 miles is important for another reason too: for within its lengths are the marks in the land which I associate with my first years on earth. The narrow steeple that bisects the carriageway as you drive towards; Mow Cop, its folly and pyramidal flanks away on the horizon; the Common where the Scots were massacred in the ’45; to the smaller, more personal links: a spectacularly twisting lane where I used to cycle up and down; a knot of trees and thicket where I played with my friends.

I went back last week whilst my parents weren’t home; I was guest horticulturalist for the period they were away; well, I watered the plants at least and picked up the post from the mat. I took my dog with me; she likes it there – it’s her holiday home so she begins to cry and whimper excitedly as we turn off the motorway and closer, when we pull up the drive, she dances around the back of the car in her excitement to get out. Later on, I took her for a walk – as much for me as for her. For me, it’s a chance to reconnect; to see how things have changed both markedly and subtlely. There’s been plenty of both and it’s an odd sensation to feel: seeing change in a place associated with my family, with me, for generations but knowing that for the last 25 years or so, I’ve not been part of them.

So we walked; the dog with a spring in her step re-associating herself with smells, walls and posts; me keeping an eye out for a familiar face or snicket. In the main, the change – in appearance at least – has been for the better. The place seems smarter; on its uppers somehow, which, given the loss of all the industry here is no mean feat. We walked past the Town Hall, a Victorian building with bright Ruabon bricks tightly set and Gothic features – sharp-pointed arches; lancet windows with trefoils, ornate ironmongery, a steep-pitched roof, badges of civic pride. Before it was a town hall, it was a pub, my great-grandfather was the landlord. It was a Joules pub, from Stone, halfway to where I live now.

Growing up, my local was a magpie-built place down off the Cobbles. When I was a child my grand parents would lift my brother and me onto the old stone horse-block outside the pub, a relic from the days when it was an important coaching inn between Manchester and London. These days though, there’s no passing trade, so the owners have tried to make it a destination in its own right, a ‘craft beer bar’, run by a new incarnation of Joules Brewery (reborn in Market Drayton).

I could feel the echoes of my fore fathers. Nearby, in a rebuilt building my grandfather was born and just further on, there’s an old fishing pond which he played and later, I did too. There are more buildings today down there now which surprised me; it used to be a bit claggy and midge-ridden because the river flowing in to the pool didn’t match the narrower cut flowing out. But that’s been sorted and rather than the old forge, there are town houses, mostly in keeping; some not; but it was good to feel the new life breathed in all the same. When I was young my grandfather used to walk us along a half-gravel path that ran alongside the pond where some horses grazed. My grandfather was a motor man – the first generation to embrace the internal combustion engine; but he still grew up with horses, and working ones at that, and he treasured them all his life. We would feed them grass and try and get them to bear their teeth by letting them crunch on Polo Mints.

The horses are gone now, but the old cottages opposite are still there, banked in against a hill. My dog became fretful and started to pull me towards an old set of steps up to one of the cottages. Lovely things; they are built the wrong way round; the treaders are cuts of local gritstone, deep grey, almost laminated; the supports they sat on are old bricks, long and shallow; thickly pointed; explosions of thick grass swards sprang out from the base. She sniffed; I remembered. We used to wait here while my granddad chatted to the owner, a long-distant acquaintance. The conversation was one of those long on memory short on words; not much needed to be said that hadn’t been said before. It was a checking in; deep chuckling about the state of things. Later I learnt that the gentleman was actually a relation somehow, part of the long line, a line now unconnected in all but memory and by the marks on the land which stay constant to us, wearing slowly.

My daughter played on her grandma’s iPhone, a cameo of how life is today, indignantly bemoaning the fact that she had a ‘lower version’. But then she stumbled on a genealogy app, and within 30 minutes had plotted back three generations on four wings of her family. And there on the screen in front of me was a short picture of the long line. My grandmother, born on Mow Cop; her parents born up in the foothills of the Pennines; marrying my grandfather born in an old magpie cottage down near the horse paddock and old fishing pond. In this virtual world it all became more real somehow.

Up at the northern end of my 50 mile journey, Radio 4 can’t decide which signal it prefers. I switched between two to hear a debate about whether Neanderthal man and Homo Sapiens were individual species. Typically, it reported, we have 2 – 3% Neanderthal DNA in our genes. In Austria, ancient remains of a man uncovered that he had 9% – a startling amount, higher by far than anyone ever found previously. Either way, the presenter argued, there was clearly no way that the two branches of humanity could be treated as separate species as, what marks one species out from another, is that they cannot breed. For me; it was a point I had learned in theory becoming personal, landing true.   As the dog and I walked we found markers of my long line; the stone steps; the paddock; the pub-cum-town hall, Mow Cop on the horizon, connected by memories of our people. But we were only tugging on the very tip of the line, a line which ultimately goes back to footmarks set in stone in a distant Rift Valley and truly, further than even that.

The greenhouse

A few years back, I regularly flew to Amsterdam. From the Midlands there are two routes; from Birmingham, the planes track a thin scar, a line of running stitch above the M1, the M25, to the reflective meanders of the lower Thames estuary; or, from the East Midlands, heading out east, over first the Wash then the Waveney and down the Suffolk Coast, the glinting wind farms hover like mayfly above the surface of North Sea. Even from up high, you can see the silvery wakes of fishing boats. The glasshouses in the Fens glimmer and sparkle from up there too, more so as you descend down over the lowland, dune-ridden coast of Zuid Holland, over Zandvoord, Haarlem and Hoofddorp – there’s a stretch, just inland where the knobbly, tussocky grass gives way to endless glass. And my mind would always be filled with images of off-red under ripe winter Tomatoes, slightly grainy, crunchy even, courtesy of the assiduous Dutch.

Round here is much more mixed. Rolling land, fertile soils, here clay with beautiful cobbles where the land was once river, there dark loam, thick with centuries of leaf mould and ancestries of worms. About now we have swathes of oil seed rape, bright and pungent, but also stands of wheat that ripple in the breeze languorously, and dairy too – we’re not in the Netherlands, but you wouldn’t know it from the immigrant Friesians that plod and chew through these pastures. And despite ever more land given over to the floating trays of hydroponic strawberries, it’s definitely not greenhouse country. Most round here are like the one down on the village sports club. A semicircular structure, taught plastic film, not glass, that vibrates and buzzes when the wind blows just so, cost effectively constructed, hidden away in a corner. That greenhouse has yellowed with age, been patched or left, long grass grown around its feet like sock elastic gone limp. I assumed it was unused, unloved. Any radishes or carrots emerging from here would be leggy and odd shaped, surely?

IMG_3938But as I cut through the nettled footpath that brushes alongside it the other day, there were muffled grunts, chorused rumbles of gruff bass-voiced men and sudden sparks of shouting. A crime? A bizarre initiation? Stranger, a little further on there is a jerry-rigged frame of scaffold, wire and rope. I’d often wondered what it was – not industrial enough for an oil drill, too old for the frackers. Now, there was a thickly twined rope straining at a shabby concrete weight, lumps taken from the edges like a conglomerate loving dachshund.

The greenhouse in fact is nothing of the sort: it turns out that it is a rain cover. Underneath, a team of men, straining on a rope. “Keep it low” “Hold and heeeeave!”, pulling, lifting the weight, smoothly, in lengths of well-drilled backward stride. Here, in a curious circularity is the home of the coincidentally named Holland Tug of War Club. And this rather tatty greenhouse in the corner of a field is the training patch of the UK Outdoor Champions, not the vegetable patch of beetroot or lettuce.

It snows cherry blossom

There’s an ash tree in our garden
An adolescent, flushed with attitude of youth
It shoots out and shoots up
Not needles but keys, that dangle lank
Copious and voluminous, like a fertile vine
Come Autumn, when the wind whips and swirls
The air fills with the parachuting medals of
Maple and sycamore, spiraling, twirling
Their Viennese waltz, dizzily round
The ash keys, are more direct, a tango perhaps
Keen, forthright, intense, they snap and fall
They fill the drains; block downspouts
Yet are pretty for it just the same
None though, lights me up as the way
Cherry Blossom illuminates the Spring
White, like icing flowers or a touch of silver mascara
On a smoky eye, it rises like dust, glinting in the early light
that spears down from above
and then settles slowly, like Spring snow
or my love’s caressing hand upon my knee

Drop bolt

A friend, who at University attempted to teach me the guitar, developed a career first as a pharmaceutical rep then latterly as consultant in the same industry. Next thing I knew, he had given up schmoozing doctors and pitching new asthma drugs. “I’m training to be a blacksmith”, he told me. The furnace, the bellows, the ironstone, his calling.

In Alan Garner’s ‘Stone Book Quartet’, Robert is an illegitimate child being brought up by his grand mother (or Granny Reardun in Cheshire dialect, the name of this book of the four). Whilst napping stone for a wall with his stonemason grandfather, he realises he doesn’t have the skills to follow him; skiving off his last day at school he asks the local smith to ‘prentice him, so he can ‘get aback’ of his grandfather (aback: a generational improvement, to have a purpose in life through work). He becomes a smith: the smith makes the mason’s tools; makes the weathercock on the church or the arms on the Chapel clock.

Just over the road from us a bridlepath heads out across the fields. A two part, five bar gate marks its start. There’s a chain loop over the top to hold the small gate in place and a hand made drop bolt to keep the main gate firmly held. That big gate was half a century old at least, but it finally succumbed to rot over the Winter. It had been leaning like a drunk for months before that. The new gate is now in place but the old drop bolt is still there, 50 years more use to come, the handywork of a ‘smith unknown.


The grass between my toes


Today I stirred through the stone clad streets of our city
bear footed, thick soled, I padded
purposefully, confidently, cautiously, at times
but always feeling the ground beneath
the gravel, sharp and rootless, biting
and shifting underfoot

setts, crackle edged, deep-recessed, northern-rooted
smooth tarmac, warm, swarthy, vibrating gently
with an imminent car or bike
Hopping up a kerb, I scuttled into
a steeplechaser, bounding, leaping
my course the potholes or unseasonal puddles

But for all this I want to feel the grass
between my toes, it’s sword shard edges
breaking swards to release the smell
of first-cut lawns in Spring
a snaking path through oxeye daisies, buttercups
shining nettles best avoided are there all the same
spurring me on through that way
with the grass beneath my toes

Death to the Green Space

Within 2.5 miles of our house, in just one direction in fact, the green belt is disappearing at an alarming rate. Developers and the local council are taking three bites. The first is ribbon development, a half mile wide strip between the dual carriageway and the river. “It was only a matter of time”, I heard someone say in apologetic justification, given the proximity to “a major arterial pathway”. Well that dual carriageway is built on a Roman Road: it’s managed without ‘light industrial units’ for two millennia, it can manage a bit longer. But no. The second bite is more tragic. The greenest of greenbelts; strings of old hawthorn hedges peppered with nests, before the Spring you can see them like currants in a bun rolled like an éclair. And lovely, misshapen old trees – all deciduous, 150, 200 years in the main by the look of them, twisted and leggy and all the more beautiful for it. The buzzards love them, crows too: the whole place cackles with sound on crisp Summer mornings. But no. They’ll be grubbed up – and no doubt replaced with juvenile cherries and rowan as a sop to ‘The National Forest’ sympathies hereabouts. The third. Well, that’s on “The Marina” (old gravel pit, connected to the canal via a short cut). I mean, St Trop it ain’t, and there may be sand banked here but it’s no Sandbanks. It also happens to be green belt – a term – a status – so redundant, so meaningless now it might as well be formally retired. The site is a quarter of mile from the river, parallel to the dual carriageway, yet it is deemed ideal for ‘starter homes’. And now the repugnant alliance of turncoat land owner and sebaceous housing developer want to ‘consult’ with us, so that we, ‘the community’, can ‘determine the character of their development’. So that’s alright then. No.

The issue here is the innocuous term, ‘green space’. A euphemism, a weasel word, the writer-illusionist’s sleight of hand. It parcels and chunks, portions and cuts up our land as an object to be traded – bit one imbued with naturality. Yes, we will build on this green space, but fear not, we will provide another green space in its stead.

But this land isn’t a tradable commodity. It is living memory, imbued with the marks of the past.  Build on one, clothe it in concrete and it has gone. Another will not replace it. And this land is home to the other inhabitants of our world. Those without a voice.   They don’t know what a green space is. All they know is that the apes have ripped up my home, grubbed up my nest and burnt it on a pyre. All they see is a concrete desert devoid of food, of sites, raped of the necessities for existence. They don’t get a voice in the consultation.

The myth of our ‘housing crisis’, our push for new homes on virgin land, the greed of the new landed gentry will have an untold cost. For the truth is, once the green space is gone, it can never be green again.