Wall

Eight foot six
From toes through hips
To the far-off tips
Of fingers spread,
Little is said
Of such common things
Lost in the everyday –
As stretchers and headers
Soldiers and sailors,
Or simple baked bricks
Lovingly laid, end to end
Leaving a gap – a perpend
Sloughed with mortar,
Or comfy in a bed
Whereupon happens
Such intricate patterns
The saucy stuff, the bonding:
English, Sussex, Flemish, Monk –
But nothing, no, nothing
Quite compares
To quoins and half-bats
Shiners and rowlocks;
For me, it is a simple call
The easy beauty of a well laid wall
More – my very heart goes a’throbbing
At haggard old beams
Standing proud or unseen;
And the merest glance of good brick nogging.

Snickets

Round that old, old town
Looped by green waters
Wooded thick as an old fur coat
Of old trees
Round the castle and cathedral
Man’s settlement grew unplanned
Stone on stone, brick on brick
Generation on generation
Each building over the next
Following twists, knicks, bluffs
Undulations of rock and soil
Sinuous sinews of habitation
A ground plan like veins
Shadowed alleyways; steps worn
By countless hobnails
Stilettos and segs,
Home to bill stickers
And teenage tags, urban art.
We argued that weekend
Whether these snickets were just that –
Snicking away into dark depths
Or were they ginnels up here –
Narrower somehow, longer perhaps
Going deeper; ‘ginneling’ lower?
I’ve heard them called ‘jintys’ or somesuch
And they could be; playful, avoiding highways
Cutting their own path, jauntily, ‘jintlely’
Elsewhere, ‘ten-foots’ – not sure if
It’s ten foot wide
Or ten foot deep
But it was all in vain
For these snickets aren’t snickets
These ginnels not ginnels
They’re not ten foot neither, nor that jinty
Round these parts, they’re vennels
He said, the bearded local
As he squeezed the air
From the Northumbrian Pipes.
With such certainty, it settled it.
Nice snickets, all the same.

Battlestead

Battlestead walk warrior_FotorForested bluffs, these valley sides
Trent, Dove, Swarbourn, Blythe
Buttressed walls
Defending Needwood’s home
The forest plateau
Riven by scars, slashed deep –
The erosive ferocity
Of river, brook and stream
Yet lying low, discrete yet blunt
The rounded tops of Battlestead
On whose slopes, forgotten blood
Has seeped and soaked
Steep battlements cut
Deep ditches, high walls –
Wanderers repelled
All lost now under tilled earth
And swaddling pine;
This lookout, this belvedere
This sentinel point –
Eerily still, for now
It is the calm before the storm
Millennia have passed
Ice advanced, then receded
Meanders slipped back and forth
And churned and cut
Battlestead was born then –
Battlestead has watched since –
Yet now, a maelstrom of progress
Concrete, brick, glass and steel
The tree-skirt gone
The legacy lost
New towers are built
Her battle lost too –
And in her stead?
A brutal lesson.

Five Pubs

In our village there still survive
Five pubs; one’s gone ‘gastro’, tantamount
To selling out, with ‘sharing dishes’ and ‘mezze plates’
So you must conclude, it doesn’t count
Another, popular in waves
Has changed its décor, a last-ditch attempt
To go up-market, gentrify
But now’s regarded with sheer contempt
The third, you need to be committed
It’s a good way hence, a half-mile yomp
All right going out, but after Three
It seems like Five, a wearisome, beer-fuelled klomp
The fourth is currently the most favoured
One side, low-beamed cozy locals’ den
The other, smartly daubed in ‘Linen White’
Reclaimed oak and wood-fired hen
But the fifth, well, it’s a drinkers’ pub
Worn old flooring, knotty pine
Scratchings, pints, pies and muzzie,
And a chillingly creaky old pub sign

I was here

That room in the bar evolves like the twisted beech outside its door; every year a silent alteration, change so gradual to be imperceptible. Foot high, the door’s stone threshold is whitewashed each Spring, only for studded boot soles to scuff it back by June. The flagged floor is hard grey, it’s natural round fractures rubbed clean by the sopping mop and the queuing feet of muddied, sweaty bodies above, scuffling, swapping aching foot to aching foot, the first pint and bag of scampi fries impatiently sought.

The bar, estate-painted and three quarters of a person high is topped by hand pumps hand polished by palms of valley men since before the war; the same brass, the same oak, but spruced up with the dainty neckerchiefs of local breweries’ beers, their trousers the sud-soaked bar towels, their coats a shield wielding their coat-of-arms. The fire though, wears its work clothes; an old cooker, blackened and cracked; a grate, made up with crisp packets and mossy logs.

IMG_3863In the corner, a collage of memories from my under-canvas nights across the way. A bearded man, a sea dog far from the shores, playing a mandola, calling eyes closed to the Blackwater where his love was lost. Climbers, bejeweled with carabiners and pitons, sashes of lashed rope, eyes sparkling, talk jabbering, the fear of the overhang fading fast. Fell runners, salt crusted but laughing, mud and crud cementing their impossibly lithe limbs. All rest their pints on the old table, still here. Too small for plates but wide enough for two rounds. Planked, not true, legs as immobile as ever and the crack a touch wider now; but the marks are still there, scratched deep. Tattoos to time made with a knife tip not a needle: Tom; Mamut; Southman; Shaz and Bart. I drink my pint and leave no trace this time.

Back home there’s an old tree with characterful roots erupting through the pavement in twists and overlapping knots. Despite its age, it abounds with living vitality; the roots pushing up and out not down and across. Perhaps in a gust it will fall, a victim of its own vanity. Those roots have become a natural seat; school kids waiting to meet friends; an old timer resting his back; even those waiting in the queue for the Monday fish van. The bark, higher up gruff and rough is down here, polished and glossy. And the marks, scratched and scraped: Peter; MadJack; Fi; Marksman.

Maybe this is what it all boils down to. An old table in a valley pub; the bole of a tree poking above ground; petty vandalism or art; a sign to say “I was here”. A legacy of sorts.

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.

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.

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.

St. Pancras Ironworks

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.

IMG_3004St 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.

IMG_3003Today, 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.

IMG_2967Iron 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.

St Pancras Ironworks*Which, funnily enough, given who paid for the place**, is sea bass.

**I shall resist the temptation, fish puns are endless.