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.

Swáre-burn

10 miles it flows
From Forest source
To reed-bound mouth
Needwood’s life-blood;
Cloaked in a medieval patina
Of beech, of oak, of ash
Neck-clasped by the lustrous bricks
Of its arch-back bridges.
Yet there is no stealth here, no subterfuge
No lazy meanders
Its fair valley is straight-cut
Rare glimpses, treasured:
A distant spire; brooding Pines.
Swar bourn – swáre burn
Our Saxon fathers dubbed it – slow brook
In flow, perhaps

But not in flood.

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Bankfull

They’re talking about building again,
Building on the floodplains
But it’s plain to see
That the floodplains flood.
Take today, for Heaven’s sake,
Breathing in across the Bailey Bridge
The river bankfull below
The water benignly still
In touching distance, calling out
An illusion – look closely;
Look closely at the ruckus,
The swirls on the surface
The whirls of pent-up energy
The commotion of power
The tumult of excess
Sicked off the hills
Like hot soup rolling in the pan.
If there was a levee, it’s gone
The old ox-bow, gone too
The cycle path, lost to the sea;
Only the swans are joyful
In their new meres; soon gone too
Flooded from plain sight
Snapped up by the river’s thirst
Smothered below a duvet
Asphyxiated by branches, roots, silt,
It’s where the shopping trollies go to die
It’s where they turn up
When the flood subsides
Cock-eyed, strangely slanting, half-buried
Like the fuselage of a downed plane
Draped in periwigs of sodden shrubbery
Head sore after a big blow out.
Beautiful, true,
But deadly too.

 

Ex Isca

Who would have thought
That the views of the city
Are best found just below
The birds’ eye line
Up here, where the pollen flecks
Waft breezily
Where the dandelion seeds hover
Like canopyless umbrellas
Is a mountain top, with views unparalleled
An enceinte of low wooded hills
Thick greens of oil paint daubed in ribbons
Moss, mint, bright limes, laurel
Trees and shadows sketch their lines
Ex Isca, across the distant Haldons
And Blackdowns and the gloomy Moor
Yet in the foreground, all around
Beauties of a man-made kind
The gothic arches of the museum
Spreckled sandstone, daisy quatrefoils
Flying buttresses of the cathedral soar
And bend convexly like a giraffe’s legs
The river, a metallic snake, winds sideways
The distant sea peeps in through a cruck
In the wall the Romans’ built
Who would have thought
that the views of the city
Are best found up here
On a rooftop car park
Or vertiginously balanced
On a Department Store toilet seat
Stories of our land six storeys up
Up here, where the pollen flecks
Waft breezily
And where the dandelion seeds hover
Like canopyless umbrellas

Longnix

grey_heron_ireland2_fotorA 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.

coppi_fotorDisturbed; 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.

Vogons

IMG_2525_fotorUntil yesterday, I thought that the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy was a work of fiction. Turns out though that Douglas Adams was more of a seer: the Vogons have taken over. Whilst we may not be threatened with an interplanetary bypass, they have infiltrated every Parish and Borough Council planning body up and down the land. They have re-written procedures. Made things more efficient. And made things utterly opaque.

Our neck of the wood is characterised by river floodplains – broad, meandering rivers, oxbow lakes, levees, river terraces and floodplains. Our soils are rich with lovely river cobbles, rills of quartz running through them from aeons ago, then worn smooth by hundreds of thousands of years of gentle fluvial frottage. Each cobble is matt and sullen when dry but lights up, glossy, pearlescent when wet, sparkling with mirror-like beauty. Between the cobbles is thick clay, smaller stones and grit.

It’s the bloody grit the Vogons want. From the air, the Trent snakes north east, broad and shallow, an ancient transport thoroughfare. But either side are the scars: gravel pits and mounds; the machinations of engineers, the machines of extractors. The Vogon planners are in on this and with the weasel word-tunes they play, they charm us lowly naïve snakes: ‘New gravel extraction will create 11 jobs’; ‘New habitats to be created on site of former gravel pit’; ‘New leisure complex and family play area for Burton’.

Thousands of years of our land, gone in a week. Miles of hedgerow, teeming with life, rent and pulled, ripped, slashed, burnt. The shy and secretive bat; their world destroyed – at least they can take flight and – hope; but not the rabbit and their warrens or the badgers and their setts. A small price to pay? Meadows destroyed; ancient rights of way, removed of diverted. The seasonal ebb and flow of the trees foliage, cleaved apart, thrown to the ground, dragged off. The sad cry of the corncrake or piping lapwing left for the reserves on Springwatch or Countryfile, like some perverse Truman show theme park.

Anger. We would have stopped it of course, had we known. How could this be? This won’t happen on our watch. But we didn’t. We didn’t care, apparently. It went through with no objections.

They told us it was going to happen. They put up posters. We can’t complain. We were given fair notice. They were on display for two weeks.

Yeah. In Alpha Centauri.

Valley

The AA Guide to the British Countryside is now out of print. It was a hefty volume; thick spined and well thumbed; a reference book, not a book for carrying in your knapsack as you yomped down shadowed green lanes or across fields towards a distant stile. Yet it celebrated grand attractions and intimate views: from an old tree topped hill fort scarce noticed, to field patterns, to towns, cities or magnificent vistas; it celebrated special places up and down our isles and made places feel special in turn. It was designed no doubt, for long nights poring through its pages, planning roads trips; in reality it was a homage, suffused with a sense of place born of countless years of nature and man weaving their patterns on the land.

One of the glories of the guide was shining a light on the uncelebrated. One such uncelebrated place was the Blithe valley; a short stream, rising east of the Potteries and heading east again and south before joining the Trent. The name is thought to be Old English from gentle, which is perfectly apt; it is only a small river, which meanders lazily and somnolently through its willow lined valley, wet meadows and hedgerow still persist . The Guide, rather understatedly, described it as “the quintessential English country scene”.

It was mistaken though: the quintessential English scene is next door;  the next stream draining into the Trent watershed heading east, the Swarbourne, is more hidden, and quite different in character but equally everyday, equally unnoteworthy, so much so that like the many scenes like this, we take it for granted. The Swarbourn is a river of only 10 miles from source to confluence. Rising in the ancient Needwood Forest, unlike most streams, its valley is tightly bound through both its upper and middle reaches; it has more purpose, directness, yet remains humble.

John W_fotor

The source is a hidden spring amongst trees and leaf litter. Its foot, where it quietly merges with the Trent, you would hardly notice: there is a water meadow, bowing grasses and stately, tall reeds and then it is gone; only the Swans, surfing the short rapids here notice its influence. Between is the valley. Whilst it is narrow and steep sided it is not soaring. Cloaked with rich and varied woodlands in a patena of greens and browns; narrow paths snaking up through dappled shade, the verticality is emphasised, but it is a show. Lower down, the floor of the valley leads the eye on to a close perspective, shortening distance with softening trees and sharpened at its edges by unruly hedgerows of hawthorn and beech, reaching out into the road, brushing legs. Oaks, sporadically planted in the hedge, mark boundaries, overlooked corners, intimate meeting places. The river is never far away. Bridges here are simple affairs and now more beautiful because of it; low walled, flaking brick and stone; the arches unseen, easily filled by rising flow.  Fords are common too, with rutted lanes bouncing down to the rippling, running water, faster flowing over the drift-line.

In places the valley opens up just a little; but here the views explode out: a distant Church tower, a stand of brooding Scots Pine waiting to be climbed, a whale-backed field with the slow shifting spots of black & white cows; nearer to is an old cornmill, with apple trees dangling long arms over a speckled green pond, before squeezing in again, cramming the landscape back into a postcard window. The valley is its own world; longitudinal, like stops on the line.

(Image: copyright, John Waterhouse; www.johnwaterhouseartist.co.uk)