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.
A distant relative, an uncle at least once removed but more distant in terms of the knowing of him, I am aware of through story and hand-me-down snippets of information. Walter by name, a north countryman and bon viveur (some would say, a swanker) in life, lung cancer by death, steeple jack by trade. One story runs that to scare an ageing aunt he performed a hand stand on the blue clay ridge line of a 1930s terrace just off Canal Street. I’ve heard tell that it was one handed. Embellished with time perhaps: but in essence, the lines of his saga weave consistently. A talented, braggish bloke, choppsy too; a showman, a great smoker, and at heart, a good man. What’s certain is that he had a head for heights. Travelling around east Cheshire and south Lancashire repointing and repairing mill chimneys, brick and metal banded typically, 100, 200 foot high. Domestic work for cash, and for favours or back handers fixing up buildings with wind vanes and weathercocks. Once or twice he topped out church steeples – most often with lightning rods, less often with a Cross for light of a more divine nature.
50 odd miles away, today I live in the borderlands of Staffordshire and south Derbyshire, where the Trent, Tame, Mease and Swarbourne course across their flat, cobbled, gravelly confluence, snaking and splitting, the river banks edged with willow and ash; swans, wings arched back, hissing and spitting. Gravel pits shadow the river hereabouts where perhaps there should be levees, but as yet, no one has built on the flood plain so nature can feed the fields. Over the bailey bridge, tucking in your ears and edging gingerly, the ‘Derbyshire side’ of the river – actually a confusing hinterland where four counties intertwine – rises sharply as the valley cliff rises; the land has been heavily deforested, yet high hedged fields are verdant and rolling all the same. Occasionally an ancient tree stands sentinel in the middle, alone, proud. The villages are close-set and alliterative: Edingale and Elford, Haunton, Harlaston, Huddlesford. Their steeples too, rise sentinel – cleared of large stands of trees to block the view, they soar vertiginously, like poplars. At the bend in the road, the spire of Coton in the Elms stands out on a hilltop; from there, that of Lullington, hidden by yews close to, stands out clear, naked, beckoning; and from there, Clifton Campville, with its delicate spire of stone calls the eye like a comet with an earth coloured tail of mosses, liverworts and lichens.
Further north, the salty wind of the Irish sea blatters up Ennerdale, whipping the stands of conifers; their canopy swaying in unison like arms aloft as the ballad is sung. The fells rise quickly and rough here, drawing in tight, probing, pushing into the very heart of the mountains. The summits are on the bagging list: Scoat Fell, Pillar, Red Pike. One, cramped by its neighbour, is famous all the same; linked as it is by a stony and loose razor ridge, a gravelly, slippy arête, before a short, sharp clamber to a pyramid top: a mountain scribble on a beer mat. A child’s mountain. A mini Matterhorn, a Steeple of rock and scree.
Just the place, then, for a one handed hand stand.