Fences

Halloween is the day when there is neither past, nor future, only between.  Before the year turns, I have a notion to re-visit the green places of my past.  I step out into a breezy day, leaves rustling in spirals on the pavements, rays of sunlight bursting through grey cloud.

My past has been fenced off, built over, locked away.  We were urban children, grown on a Council estate, but there were always patches of green, hints of the wild.  The ‘res’, the ‘cut’, the ‘back field’, these were the edge-lands on our doorsteps.  Our lives as children were lived along these tracks and in these spaces.  The walk to school and back, the trails between each others’ houses.  The green spaces for playing, exploring and hanging around.

The first of two reservoirs, at the top of the street where I used to live, is a trapezium of grass tangled with purple clover and dock.  The gate is locked.  Perhaps it always was, but we got in anyway.  I always found the reservoirs puzzling and slightly mysterious.  How could a field contain a reservoir of water?  I never quite believed they were what they were supposed to be.  There is an old stone building, stamped 1901, which must have been some kind of access or pump house.  It is boarded up, painted with graffiti, art deco railings rusting around its roof, rubbish and weeds littering its steps.  There is talk about building houses on top of the reservoir, squeezing yet more dwellings into one of the last green spaces.

There was a park once, where the newest houses on the estate have now been built, an open space with swings and climbing frames.  The ‘back field’ is still there.  It was once just a ragged patch of land behind houses, with waist high meadow.  Now it is a water-logged square of shorn, vivid grass.  I disturb a posse of blackbirds in the shrubs at its edges.  I wonder how much it is used, and for what.  It seems unlikely that it is ever allowed to become as overgrown as it once was.

But my sycamore is still as I recall it.  The only tree I remember as an individual from my childhood, it stands on the corner, arcing over the road.  When I first read To Kill a Mockingbird it was this sycamore that I pictured when I read about the gifts left in the tree.

The ‘cuts’ were narrow paths between.  Each was the length of a street.  A narrow lane beyond the back garden fences.  A pathway between houses and the reservoir.  Small slices of nature, bordered by trees and plants.   But no one will be travelling those paths again.  They are blocked at each end, locked behind spiked metal fencing.  I stand looking between the bars, yearning to walk the old path again.  But within the fencing, nature has taken advantage.  Brambles, grasses and small saplings have reclaimed the path.  They have become liminal places but not human places.  On this still autumn day, they are peaceful pockets of green behind the bars.  Who knows what happens within the fences while the people aren’t watching?

The bordering reservoir has been fenced off too, metal spikes above the wall.  Fences and fences.  Adjacent, my old school has been demolished and re-built with yet more of the ubiquitous railings.  There was a time when a farmer’s field lay opposite the school.  I still remember the feel of the ploughed furrows under my feet.  The old hawthorn hedgerow is still there, now backing onto houses.  It is a reminder of a past when there were spaces to explore and everything wasn’t locked up tight.  It is half-term and the children are on holiday from school, yet I haven’t seen or heard a single child during my walk, only the ghostly footsteps of those who have left childhood far behind.

I cross the busy road to get to the cemetery and leave the fences behind.  Here there are meandering paths scattered with leaves.  Tilting headstones rooted with ivy.  A laburnum like an umbrella sheltering graves.  The foliage is still mostly green, but maples appear like pools of light in the distance.  A large leafless hawthorn has berries like fairy lights.  A giant beech is a beacon beckoning me along the path.

My ritual tonight is all about stripping back and letting go.  I am letting go of the year just gone, and all the years that have gone before.  The past is a familiar place, but not always a comforting one.  I have witnessed again the way the world never stands still.  The fences represent a changed world – one in which it seems necessary to fence children in and fence others out.  But fences are no barrier to memory.  Once, small feet traversed this landscape without impediment, and the imprint of their passage is part of the landscape still.

On the edge of the tide

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There is a place on the coast, a place that is almost forgotten.  It lies in the shadow of the promenade and you might never notice it was there.  The zig-zag of steps leading down to it is unobtrusive and ends abruptly on the rocks.  You might wonder why there is a staircase here at all.  But look before you and you will see a bowl scooped neatly out of the rocks.  Peer into the foggy water, choked with bladderwrack, and you might notice flagstones at its base.  Look closely at the walls and you will see rusted metal rings driven into the rocks.

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Table Rocks is an accident of geology: a natural pool filled by the tide.  It was opened as a swimming pool in 1894, when it was 20 feet long.  In 1908 the rocks were blasted to extend it to 70 feet.  Steps were cut to lead down to it.  A rope rail was threaded through the iron rings.  A changing hut was built that was later swept away by gales.

Old postcards show the pool thronged with people, the spectators clad in formal suits, hats and long dresses.  This was a time when English seaside resorts were booming, but swimming in the sea wasn’t as easy as it is now and there were concerns about its safety.  Still, swimming here must have been a thrilling experience, with the waves booming against the rocks only a few metres away.  My mother swam in this pool, though I never did.  It was used until 1971, the year I was born.

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Just along the coast from Table Rocks, another pool lies abandoned.  Tynemouth open air pool was specially built in 1925.  It lies on the edge of the beach, snuggled into the cliffs and was filled by the tide.  My grandfather helped to build this pool, often working at night between the tides.

These places are remnants of another age, before people abandoned the seaside resorts to take their holidays abroad.  Swimming became very popular in the inter-war years and in the 1930s a craze for sun-bathing developed, so in the twenties and thirties more than 200 lidos were built in the UK.  It wasn’t until the sixties that indoor leisure centres took over.

In the early nineties the pool closed, forgotten by all but the hardiest of swimmers.  The pavilion was demolished and its rubble pushed into the pool.  Covered by sand and rocks to make it safe, it was hoped that it would develop into a rock pool landscape, but it never worked.  There is a stark beauty to its dereliction.  The way the sea air has weathered the old barriers in rust, framing the sea beyond.  The abandoned stairs climbing to nothing.  The cracked steps haunted by ravens and gulls.

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But when I see what has become of it, there is a sadness too.  For I remember what this place once was.  It had none of the comforts of indoor pools.  The temperature of the water was that of the frigid north sea.  Its taste was salt.  The changing rooms were no more than concrete cubes.    But swimming here, you could feel the sun and the air on your skin.  I have been here when it buzzed with people, sprawled on the steps, splashing in the pool, frolicking by the fountain.  And I have been here, cocooned at high tide, when it was almost empty.  One of my last and most vivid memories is of swimming alone, the last person in the pool as a lightning storm rolled in.

Swimming in the open air pool aged about 9

But perhaps there is a future for these places after all.  Outdoor swimming is becoming popular again.  A group of local people are seeking funding to re-open Tynemouth open air pool.  I hope that one day I will swim in it again.

The song of the earth

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The moan, rush, roar of the wind through trees.  The creak of branches and rattle of sticks.  The howl and whistle of wind round the house and down the chimneys.  The patter and gurgle of rain on leaves or windows.  The bone-vibrating boom of thunder.  I never tire of the sounds the weather makes.  These are sounds that surround me and seep into my soul.  That remind me how small I am and how wild the world is.  Depending where I am, they can make me feel protected or broken open, as though there’s no boundary between me and the elements.

Some of my favourite sounds are those that echo through the night, piercing the darkness.  When the day is fully dawned the world is taken over by a chaos of sounds – traffic, industry, voices.  But the distant, melancholy sounds of night and river speak to something inside me:  the moan of the fog horn, the blart of a ship setting out to sea, the clock tower striking across the water.  They speak of other worlds far away and make me revel in the solitude of the darkness.

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The sound of the sea is a symphony of bubbles.  Each bubble is made of gas, surrounded by liquid and each one has it’s own note, like a tiny bell.  The bubble expands and contracts and it’s that pulsing that contributes to the roar of waves that we know as the sound of the sea.  Like the weather, the song of the sea sometimes calms me with its lullaby of waves tickling the shore, and sometimes fills me with the excitement of being alive, with the boom of breakers on the rocks.

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Every day the chatter of birds cheers me: the exuberant squawk of herring gulls, the eerie scream of black-headed gulls, the harsh caw of crows.  Before dawn, the vibrato of the robin shatters the morning.  In town, the gentle coo of pigeons soothes and the chirps and whistles of starlings exhilarates.  I am a child of the town, so I take pleasure in being serenaded by these so-called common birds.  But when I have the opportunity to hear them I love the hollow sound of a woodpecker drumming, echoing in the forest, the hoot of tawny owls in the darkness, the clatter of a pheasant’s call.

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When I was a child, I had recurring ear infections that affected my hearing.  I have little memory of the pain, but this time is marked out for me by the sound of marching.  I know now that this beat was that of the internal sounds of my body amplified by the absence of those from the outside world: my heartbeat, my blood pulsing.  But as a child, it was disconcerting, sometimes scary, to be filled with the sound of marching.  I recall the sensation of ears swollen with pain, almond oil and cotton wool. I remember the vivid pink and sickly taste of penicillin.   I recall the cool leatherette of headphones as I listened for the sounds of buzzers at different frequencies to test my hearing.  Ear infections are miserable, not only because of the pain but because of the isolation.  You feel divided from the world, existing within your head, the only sounds you hear are those of self and body.  It feels lonely.

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Having been without it, I appreciate the connection to the world that hearing gives me.  Hearing expands my world, not only enriching the things I can see, but alerting me to those I can’t: a ship on the river, a bird hidden in a tree.  Yet my sound of choice is often that of silence.  Silence is never really empty.  It has a hum, perhaps even a heartbeat, a pulse that isn’t quite audible, but that fills the air with expectation.  The sound of an empty house, the stillness before a storm, a remote location, the hush of falling snow.  Silence is relief and comfort, but it is also potential.  The song of the earth is both silence and clamour and if there was no other music to delight in, its melody would be more than enough.

This post was prompted by a mini-series on the senses by the talented Teagan Geneviene over at Teagan’s Books.  Take part in the challenge here.

My Father’s Box

I was honoured when Holistic Wayfarer asked me to guest post on A Holistic Journey. I was pleased to accept and write about the impact that money and class had on my upbringing and the way I live now. You’ll find a collection of thought-provoking, passionate and powerful writing on the blog, so please visit and take some time to explore. Thank you Holistic Wayfarer for inviting me.

A Holistic Journey

When my father died, I kept the wooden box in which he had stored his tools. Dad worked as a plasterer, so the box is scarred and coated in plaster dust.  But this box reminds me of all that I learned from him about earning a living.  From Dad, I learned that loyalty and pride in your work are more important than how much you earn.

I was raised in North East England. For the first decade of my life, we lived in a small flat with an outside toilet.  We bathed in a tin tub in front of the fire.  Dad could have earned more working for another employer, but he was loyal to the small family firm he’d apprenticed to.  He took pride in his work and often carried out jobs for family and friends for nothing more than a couple of packs of cigarettes.

We didn’t have…

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A quiet man

006My Dad died in the second year of the twenty-first century, but in many ways he was a man of a much older generation.  He lived to see computers, mobile phones and digital TV, yet his first job was driving a horse and cart.  He was already forty four when I was born.  They’d tried for some time to have me and in the end, weren’t able to have more children, so I was an only child to parents who were, then, significantly older than the norm.

To me, Dad was always handsome.  Tall, thin, with very dark hair and pale blue eyes, as a young man in black and white photos, he is dramatically featured and almost foreign-looking.  He wore his hair brylcreamed back in the old-fashioned way until the end of his life.  In later years, he grew grey and craggy, hands calloused and nicotine stained, face crinkled and worn.  In all my years with him, Dad never dressed casually.  For most of the year, his long-limbed frame was clad in shirt and tie, a dark suit, a dark raincoat and black, polished brogues.  We would joke that we knew when summer had arrived, as he replaced the dark suit with brown trousers, a light coloured jacket and cord shoes.  This, or a cardigan instead of a jacket, was as casual as Dad got.

I would have liked to inherit Dad’s tall, slender frame.  Instead, I got his temperament.  Ask my partner what is most frustrating about me and she’ll likely say the fact that I never share what is going on in my head.  Dad was the same.  Quiet, calm, never giving much away.  I’ve always struggled to write about him and I think it’s in part because in many ways, he’s still a mystery to me.  Ask me about his history and there are only fragments.  Ask me about his family and there is evenAnne, Joan, Ron, Cyril, Dennis & Katie less.

My mother was the dominant one in our household.  If there was a battle to be had, Mam would fight it.   A punishment to be given and she would deliver it.  An opinion to be expressed and it was hers.  She sometimes used the classic threat of ‘wait until your Dad gets home’, yet I don’t remember Dad ever raising his voice, let alone his hand.  He didn’t fear or shrink from confrontation and he wasn’t hen-pecked, he just didn’t seem to worry about the things she did.

And there was always a sense that Dad’s family was different.  For years, Mam’s side was connected – Sundays at my grandmother’s house and regular contact.  We rarely had the same interaction with Dad’s side and there was the suggestion they often fell out with one other.  Although now Mam has gone, her side of the family has drifted further apart, I still know more about them and have more contact with them than Dad’s.

Riches weren’t important to Dad.  He was a time-served, skilled plasterer, but though he could have earned more elsewhere, he stayed loyal to the small family business that was his first employer until he was finally made redundant many years later.  I rememb001er him waiting to be picked up from work, dressed in plaster-crusted overalls, perched on a newspaper so he wouldn’t dirty the furniture.  I remember Mam becoming indignant that he would always do work for family and friends, asking no more than a couple of packs of cigarettes for his efforts.  I was so proud that he was so good at what he did that I never wanted him to be anything more.

Dad was a man of habits.  For years, his only outing was to the club on a Friday.  He would enjoy a shandy and play dominoes, always coming home at eleven, sometimes with fish and chips for our supper.  And yet there was always the suggestion that this very traditional, proper man had something of a past.  My favourite story was when he’d been for a night on the town across the river and resorted to stealing a rowing boat to get home again.

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My relationship with Dad was uncomplicated (unlike the one with my mother).  I loved him without reservation, without criticism, without thought.  I never told him and he never told me.  If I could have one more moment with Dad, I would wrap my arms tightly around him and tell him how much I loved him and how happy I was that he was mine.

Dad died when I was thirty, on the first day of December.  He wasn’t able to witness many of the events of my life.  But I’ll always believe that on the day we moved into the first house we bought, he came by for a visit.  I stood in the living room with a friend and was thinking what a shame it was Dad couldn’t see it.  All of a sudden, a large, black butterfly flew in through the window, fluttered casually between my friend and I, and in a perfect loop, soared out of the front door.  It was such a strange, magical moment that the two of us stared at each other in mute surprise.  Immediately, I thought of Dad and I’ll always think that black butterfly was him, popping in to let me know he was there.