"South East"

Hit the North

December was a time for wrapping things up, and seeing family - I was lucky that way, I hope you were too.  I went down south and paid my respects.

January meant boxes, packing, and anxiety.  It also meant saying goodbye.  I'm not sad to leave London - the backstabbing competitiveness, the lazy one-upmanship, the idle rich and the ignorant poor.  But I am sad to leave our friends, who are brave and foolhardy and stoical in the face of the machine, as we mostly all are.  They came out to play on a Friday, and for that thankyou all.  Come up and see us sometime, its not just idle talk.

Then came the trip, not much to report, except that it went without too much of a hitch, and the border hills of the Cheviots were awash in a winter sunlight relief as we limped into Jedburgh on an empty tank.  I like the border and Northumberland alot, and I've never camped in the Cheviots, so I will return - they look like alot of fun in miniature.

Our new home is here in Edinburgh, and we arrived to 2 beautifully cold, clear and crisp days.  The same boxes but in different rooms, a fish and chip supper, and a barn of a flat in Leith near the harbour, we don't quite know where to put ourselves.  But I love that we can walk into town, or cycle to the other side in 20 minutes - its proportionate - a city for people, not a terra-forming flesh eating monster that spits out the bones of its victims whilst they still mourn the loss of their entrails.

And I still can't quite get over the fact that there's a mini mountain in the city.  Tamed it maybe, but in the dawn twilight, some memory of wildness can still be felt - in the blast of arctic wind on the top of Arthur's Seat, the murmur of grasses off the beaten tracks, and the fussing of small birds attending to their partners.  Small moments of magic in the park before work.  Psychic space.

However, a proper walk is well overdue I think - until Monday, then.  I'll leave you with Mr Smith, still sounding as bucolic as he did when I last lived north of the gap, 20 years ago.  Slàinte mhath.

Spring Witness

A walk with family, from Brooklands to Fairfield near Appledore, on the Marsh.  

Rare and ancient cross-field paths, common electric fences and steel windmills.  Swans nesting, and  hawthorne raging

The marshan sewers and towering sentinels.  Lambs alive, only minutes old, unsteady, as mother eats placenta from the ground, hind quarters raw.   


A medieval sanctuary on reclaimed ground, the key collected from Thomas Beckett's farm and carried across the causeway, to unlock sticky doors and easing minds. 

An accidental human ceremony.  A rite of spring, and just a walk.

Chilterns Ridgeway bimble

Yesterday a friend and I got on a train near home in South London and got off in Tring, Hertfordshire.  Through the urban sprawl of Wembley to the rural badlands of the commuter belt.  We were on our way to walk this walk.

click to largify

The ridgeway is a national trail of 87 miles from Ivinghoe beacon to Avebury in Wiltshire.  This is an old, old route, used for thousands of years, a tiny ripple of safer, higher, drier ground to traverse the flatlands of the mid-south, and that feeling of an ancient wayfare is palpable as soon as you step foot on it.

We were headed for the beacon, first through old woodland to Pitstone hill along a sticky chalk footpath, accompanied by the odd flotilla of noisy mountain bikers passing through now and again.  Aside from that, it was quiet, and we had alot of catching up to do.

I was walking with Mark Aitken, an independent film maker and writer who also works like me, for some of his freelance life, in 'informal education'.  Mark has traveled all over, including walking the Camino de Santiago and some crazy legs cycling in Laos and Cambodia.  His most recent film is about the legacy of fear in South Africa after Apartheid and is excellent, strongly recommend you watch the trailer here.

The beacon is slightly separated from the rest of the ridgeway and isn't the highest point, it just sticks out a bit.  The hills are very gentle and rolling, and the weather hadn't promised much initially but was very kind and springlike.  To get to the beacon we climbed up a little and through another muddy woodland.

Arcing around to a little lane, and finally up to the top, to join a small throng of enthusiasts flying gliders with remarkable skill in the thermals on the top.  A subculture of fanatical model builders, dogs out for a stroll with families, and walkers in full winter getup looking slightly overdressed.

It was a friendly place, and we enjoyed our lunch, watching the zooming and banking, and didn't mind the company at all.  Us menfolk are funny, the amount of energy we put into our hobbies - we probably never grow up completely.  There was even a Lancaster bomber there, and an action man in a cockpit.

We walked along a little to Gallows Hill which had a presence and then down to an interchange.  I was very taken with this place, it felt so loaded, and we stayed there for a while whilst I fooled around with the new camera and soaked up the ambiance.

Junctions, so important to us all, a roundabout isn't an archetype but a crossroads most definitely is.  How many people have used this pathway to ascend the ridge and walk down to Avebury and beyond to the Dorset coast?  How many others have ended their journey here, and what were their stories?  You could almost hear the creak of the gibbet in the wind.

From there we crossed a field and then swung left to join the Icknield way, which is how the Ridgeway linked Wiltshire to Norfolk way back when.  The light started to dip below the trees, this was ancient mossy pasture land, before another wooded section.  Here, the surroundings started to declare more recent evidence of human intervention, fences, barricades, first phase forestry commission conifers in lines...drone land.

Mark can talk for England and was happy to let me route find, but it was interesting walking with someone I hadn't before, it opened me to other reasons for putting one foot in front of the other, aside from just my own.  He is interested in how people use the land and how that shaped our walk, being the natural anthropologist he is, where I often focus on abstract things, like the light or the shapes of tree branches, being naturally less sociable and a bit of a dreamer.

We reached a farm after a little climb along some fencing, then headed right to cross another small road and take a path counter to the main ridgepath, avoiding the tarmac and the crowds from Ashridge park, a very popular family jaunt a bit further south.  The light was spectacular, we could feel spring just round the corner, we talked about friends and plans, having exhausted our gripes and put the world to rights earlier in the day! 

We sauntered past some deer lounging around, through a sun blessed valley and up to the Bridgewater monument, which I had been to before but didn't realise until we were upon it.  Bridgewater is 'the father of inland navigation' having designed and built the first true Canal between Runcorn and Worsley. 

Its a busy spot this, so we didn't loiter, instead we headed south to meet a path towards Aldbury, only stopping for more pictures and for Mark to size up a tree - he's not the hugging type, but he definitely had an affinity for one!  We overshot a bit, nattering away, and so circled back to meet a road embankment and look for a pint.  This part of the world is blessed with very fine breweries and we enjoyed a lovely local ale in The Valiant Trooper.

Aldbury felt a little typical of the many hamlets surrounding London: chocolate box picturesque, but with all the work happening in the greedy, magnetised vortex of the metropolis, these places often stagnate, devoid of a breathing, working culture - and what there is, frozen for posterity - 'for our own good', no doubt.  Its possible these places never recovered after the killing fields of WW1.  Nowadays, families relocate because its quiet and feels 'safe', then struggle to feel part of a community that may not have existed for 4 generations.  But what do I know, the people of Aldbury love it I'm sure, and I'm just a tourist.

Then we walked in the dusk, out to the junction with the ridgeway again, to catch our train.


'Slash and Burn is a method of farming that involves clearing land by destroying and burning all the trees and plants on it, farming there for a short time, and then moving on to farm a new piece of land.  Traditional slash and burn farming methods have exhausted the soil.'

I seem to be having the same conversation over and over again at the moment.  Along the lines of the lunatics having taken over the asylum.  Sound familiar?  A political elite preach death and dis-ease, their corporate stasi raid my students homes at dawn and spray their eyes with poison, they cut libraries and hospitals whilst cutting their friends in on tax deals and bonuses.  They merrily sign off on the rape and pillage of g*d's green earth for paper money.  They appear to finance these actions with other money I have paid in taxes to them, so now I am culpable.  I'm not making this up - I wish it was hyperbole, but its more like Babylon.  Fear grips the heart, the viddy screen preaches the selfish gene and the rule of capital like the one and only true religion, and its as if Hope has been run out of town, head down, by a gang of thieves with the combined social skills of Prince Phillip, Alan Sugar and Baron Harkonnen (ok, that might be hyperbole).  In fact we're to pretend Hope never existed, to disavow it altogether, these are terrible gloomy times and we'll 'all' just have to bite down.  A new breed of anxiety to replace the old news of our disasterous Crusade in the middle east - In Store now, a story about austerity, with its own baddies and goodies, ugly winners and beautiful losers.  ''If you want a vision of the future Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face, forever!''

To want a different future is just naive, right? 

remember how death smells, and how wrong that is, instinctively

This is the real-politic of desperate, greedy men with nothing left to offer, but I do believe the tide is turning.  No one believes you, snake oil salesmen, peddlers of scorched earth and permanent war - your game is up!  You have no traction, no depth, you exist on the surface only.  And its you that are bankrupt, not us.  In London and Cumbria, in the Highlands and Norfolk and Cairo, everywhere people are still looking for alternatives to your fools gold, and out of this fire comes fresh ideas, and new stories.  About how to change things, how best to organise ourselves and what might constitute value in a civilised society.  Maybe one day we might aspire to that!  These are not so called extremists, but a previously silent majority radicalised by opposition to greed.  This is not party political (please ignore the smoke and mirrors, and stop jerking that knee), its just a question of time.  Time, of course, is relative, and waiting for others to sort it out can be frustrating.  I expect it'll be a long haul, we might as well pitch in.

I need to remember only 2 things: fear is the mindkiller, and we are the government.

This land is your land,
This land is my land,
From the coast of Cornwall,
To the Scottish Highlands.
From the sacred forests,
To the holy islands,
This land was made for you and me.

As I walked out through
The homeless counties,
The traffic raging,
Raging all around me.
I closed my eyes and,
Dreamed how it could be,
This land was made for you and me.

So I am going,
No one can stop me,
Where the wild flowers growing,
Clean rivers flowing.
Fresh winds are blowing,
And the tall trees whispering,
This land was made for you and me.

I saw a sign there,
When I was walking,
And on the sign it,
Said "No Trespassing".
But on the other side,
It didn't say nothing,
This side was made for you and me.

As the clouds went rolling,
And the church bells ringing,
I heard the songs that,
The birds were singing.
As night came falling,
They went on calling,
This land was made for you and me.

From the teaming city,
I made my escape,
To find my place in,
The mystic landscape.
I'm not the first here,
Nor am I the last here,
This land was made for you and me.

'This land is your land' (traditional/Woody Guthrie, arr Billy Bragg)

Read something:
Andy H on stewardship
John on turbine parks
Andy W on forests 
Robin on trust
False Economy

Do something: 
Save our Forests
The JMT Wild Land campaign
Alan's plans - watch this space!
UK Uncut