Farewell

On the day I say a final farewell to Manchester, I discover a little of its magic.  There is a place I have a mind to visit before I leave for the last time, but I don’t quite know what I will find there.  I cross the old swing bridge that curves over the canal.  It is battered, busy with traffic and with only a stripe of path for pedestrians the journey feels precarious, but when I make it to the other side, I travel into a forgotten world.

A footpath curves left and upwards, lined by trees, sagging railings and dusted by fallen leaves.  I can already see a large house at the head of it, flanked by a black lamp-post whose lamp has long since gone.  The house is long abandoned.  Boarded, rubbish-strewn, daubed in graffiti.  Someone has scrawled ‘dead inside’ on a rusted door.  But the gilded autumn light softens it, so that the house seems to say, I may be derelict, but I have some magic left for those who care to look.

I crunch through the leaves, past the dereliction, and my eyes are shocked when I turn the corner.  A red gazebo, with elegant fretwork, crowned in a black pointed roof.  It stands vivid against the abandonment, the graffiti visible through its arches.  Gazebo and house are guarded by a large tree, leafless and crawling with ivy.  Behind, the canal is wide and still, reflecting the russets of autumn.  The autumn leaves dust the area around house and gazebo like precious scraps of litter.

I walk up a cobbled path to the viewing point and the reason I am here.  The Barton Swing Acqueduct is the first and only one of its kind in the world.  This battered iron structure carries one canal above another and swings open to allow bigger vessels to traverse the ship canal below.  It’s uniqueness is that it does this while full of water, with gates at either side of canal and bridge, to dam the flow.  This rusting structure, with flaking paint and rotting wood doesn’t look anything special, but it is.  I squeeze through chains coated in oil to gaze along the acqueduct, the reflection of its girders a filigree on the water.  This place is a patchwork of magic: the arcane structures of human engineering against a blaze of autumn trees, the enchantment of dereliction and forgetting.  It has a down-at-heel magic, but magic all the same.

I have had cause this year to reflect on place and belonging.  To re-visit places I once lived, places I spent time.  And to visit new landscapes that I found less welcoming than I had hoped.  I have had cause to reflect on the settling process – what causes us to uproot and move somewhere else – and what it means to settle into a landscape.  I lived in this city twenty years ago.   I grew into myself here, met my wife here, but I never enjoyed living here.  Now our last connection is being broken.  My mother in law is moving north, to be closer to us.  Now it is she who will be settling, with all the excitement and trepidation that brings.  For us, there will no longer be any need to return, no emotional tie.  And so we say farewell.

Later, I walk the path on the lower canal.  A small stretch of land lit up by autumn colours and thronged by Canada Geese.  The last time I was here, for my father-in-law’s funeral, this path heralded the first day of winter, steaming and vaporous.  The last time I was here, I saw my first wild parakeets.  Today the atmosphere is muted.  The geese honk softly and a robin trills from a hidden spot in the trees.  Black headed gulls perch where they can and a cormorant takes off on its low flight above the water.  The memorial tree I found on my last visit is still here, its adornments a little frayed, but still the most vibrant tree on the path.

There is something meditative about hurtling along a motorway, as a passenger, as the sun sets and you move into darkness.  The light is already fading as we set off, though it is only early afternoon.  The hills are misty violet in the distance, the moors shades of sand and russet, green and grey.  Wild and open, leading to rugged hills and broad sky.  This part of the journey is always poignant and a little sinister, because it is on these moors that the Moors Murderers killed and buried their victims.  I can’t look at them without remembering that, yet there are passages where the hills cradle the roadside in a sturdy embrace and bridges soar between them.  As the light seeps away, the colours of the landscape become more vivid, before fading to grey and black.  Strings of gold and silver lights stream towards us as we follow a trail of rubies home.

This little piece of serendipity is just for Teagan, who writes a magical serial by the same name.

Belonging to a place is important to me.  Belonging in the sense of seeing the layers in the landscape and the sense of time passing.  And even in those places where I don’t belong, I seek out touch-points: spaces that speak to me as if they were for me alone.  We all experience places differently.  Our past, our present and our hopes for the future tell us how to speak to a place and how to leave it.  I leave this city with the memory of brooding moors and reflections in still water, the rustle of trodden leaves and the call of geese.  I have re-visited those touch-points already discovered and found the possibility of one that was simply waiting to be found.

 

Settling – part II

Part of feeling at home is finding familiarity in a place.  Recognising the way the sunrise blazes over the brow of a hill, or the path the setting sun takes as it gilds the land.  Knowing that when the sky turns a certain colour and there is a taste of rain in the air, the rainbows will appear like spotlights on the hills.  Hearing the excited bray of Wilbur and Eddie in the morning because it is time for breakfast.  And it is knowing that you are recognised as part of the landscape.  When the songbirds in the garden no longer mind your presence and fly around regardless.   When the song of the wind moans a familiar tune.

But it isn’t only familiarity that makes me feel part of a landscape.  To find my place I have to travel into the heart of it.  To follow an uncertain path to see where it will take me.  To study a map to find its layers of history.  To feel the lay of the land beneath my feet and breathe its scent into my nostrils.  The land requires effort and in that effort I find some of its secrets.

A stile bathed in sunlight leads me into the woods.  There is meant to be a footpath here, but there is no evidence of it.  No groove of earth worn bare by feet, no disturbed vegetation where others have passed.  This place is overgrown by brambles and bracken, the trees moss-crusted and damp.  A rudimentary wooden bench is rotting in the midst of the trees.  If there is a path, it is well hidden, so I make my own, downhill through the undergrowth, steadying myself on the trees.  I hear the burn before I see the peaty brown rush.  And there, in the middle of this forgotten wood, on this forgotten stream, a waterfall spills its secrets to the trees.

Walking back uphill, crackling twigs and rustling vegetation, I disturb a hare.  It gazes at me for a moment before tearing away through the bracken.  I don’t really feel comfortable here.  I’m too noisy, too obtrusive.  I return to the wooden bench.  Too far gone to sit on, but I lean against it to rest.  The rush of the waterfall persists.  Sunlight spears the canopy.  And perhaps because I’m now still and no longer being a disturbance the wood seems to come to life around me.  A veil lifts and suddenly there are clouds of insects dancing in the sunlight.  The wood shimmers with the movement of tiny beings.  When I leave it behind and rejoin the more trodden path, I feel like some small thing has been given to me.

I begin again at a crossroads, those most magical of places, protected by Hecate herself.  Here is a more well-trodden path.  Grooves of worn stone where vehicles have passed, a stripe of grass in the centre.  Drystone walls on each flank.  Past fields of cattle and sheep that regard me with eyes full of challenge, until I reach a gate, held shut by turquoise twine.  An unremarkable threshold of metal and frayed string.  But snaking downwards the path beckons, guarded by hawthorns laden with haws and rowans beginning to turn.  Wizened and windswept, encrusted by lichens, trees that must have guarded this hedgerow for generations.  I ask for safe passage as I descend the steep path.

At the bottom, the path branches left and darkens.  A tangled wood and the faint sound of the river.  A track of uneven cobbles.  The scent of damp stone and rotting vegetation.  Unexpectedly there is a cottage here.  The crossing cottage.  A remnant of an old railway line that once passed through.  It is tucked in a fork in the track, shielded by trees.  A lonely home, inhabited but with little sign of life.  A home not easy to reach or to leave.  A home on the edge of things, or perhaps in the heart of them.

And then I am at the bridge I have been steering towards.  There is no fanfare.  Only a small wooden marker pointed the way.  I walk onto it without knowing, at first, that I have done so because it seems almost to grow out of the land.  A hump-backed bridge that has been enfolded by nature.  The grey stone is whitened by lichens, the floor of the bridge carpeted in grass.  Trees grow out of its cracks.  Another forgotten place.  A gate with a rusted chain bars entry to the track on the other side.  A stile leading down to the river has collapsed.  The bridge is the end of the line.  Below, the river is majestic, a giant sibling to the forgotten burn, but today, I can’t reach it.

It is difficult not to think of layers of time, layers of place.  Does anyone ever cross the bridge anymore except the farmer who works the land?  Does anyone ever stand here and gaze the length of the river?  Once, trains passed nearby daily and the adjacent fields were quarry lands.  Once, this might have been a well-travelled route.  And I wonder if this is why this landscape feels like a challenging place.  The hills are crossed with many paths a person could take and relatively few people to take them.  No wonder many of them seem forgotten.  But if this bridge is forgotten, it is not unwelcoming.  The moment I passed through the gate, the path willed me down towards it.  Rather than feeling like an end point, it feels like a destination, where you are welcome to pass some time.

Now the hills are behind me.  I have returned to the landscape I call home.  A place where the skies aren’t so wide, the land not so open.  I will remember the comfortable face of the hills: rainbows, donkeys, the song of the wind.  But I’ll also remember the forgotten places.  They don’t need my attention to exist.  My absence means nothing to them.  But the memory of them will persist, because in its hidden spaces, a landscape is truly itself.

Settling

This is a place of rowdy winds and gaping skies.  There are few trees on these scoured hills so the wind howls and moans unfettered across the landscape.  The sails of wind turbines peek over a nearby hill, spinning in the current.  It is a place where footpaths appear to lead to the sky.  A place of cloud-shadow, where giants throw their shades on the hills like cast off skins.  When it rains, the sky glowers gunmetal and the hills fade into a blurred mist.  In the darkness, the moon is a huge orange globe.

What are the spirits of this place? A brooding horse, forged from horseshoes, guards the threshold and the horses in the fields are aloof, showing no interest in passers by.  Blackbirds lurk in the hedge, furtive with unseen fluttering.  A quiet chirrup comes from something hidden in the long grass.  Sheep complain in the distance.  This seems a lonely place.  A place where the inhabitants are reluctant to reveal themselves.

It takes time to settle into a new landscape.  I had hoped that I would arrive and feel myself exhale into glorious isolation, away from the cares of the commonplace.  But I should have known better.   I’m unsettled, uncomfortable – not physically, but because I don’t yet fit.  My first night is haunted by sleeplessness.  I watch the moon become smaller, higher and brighter as it scales the sky and I long for dawn to come.

In my impatience to leave the world behind, I forgot that you must feel yourself into a place.  It isn’t about the prosaic dos and don’ts.  Those things are necessary, but they aren’t what’s important.  What’s important is to come to terms with the essence of a landscape.  We often assume our right of belonging.  We may dislike a place, but we tell ourselves that is the fault of the place, not us.  But there are places in which we don’t belong at all, and some that make us work hard for that belonging.  I will be here only a short time, but it is only after I open myself up to it and let it know my intentions that it will decide if I’m welcome or not.  I must meet it on its own terms to feel at home here.

Eventually, the land will begin to reveal itself to me.  To give a hint of insight into its secrets.  And it’s then, after a few unsettling days, that I discover this is a place of rainbows.  Huge rainbows at the bookends of the day, that spring vibrantly from the land and span its hills.  Thresholds of sorts, allowing a way in to the landscape.  I discover that this is also a place of swooping swallows and chattering songbirds – the whirr of feathers and bob of tails.  Where a robin serenades the dusk from a nearby willow and the bray of donkeys vibrates the morning.  It is a place where the sky is lit up by a billion stars and where the wind sings an elegy through gaps in drystone walls and across the hills.  This is not an easy landscape, but if I listen I will find my place in it.

Fragments

“I love ruins because they are always doing what everything really wants to do all the time: returning themselves to the earth, melting back into the landscape.” Roger Deakin – Wildwood

I live in a land of ruins.  A land where the shades of ancient monks, warriors and queens still walk among the remnants of their former homes.  Coasts littered with fragments of castles; valleys and cliffs strewn with the wreckage of abbeys.  Where crenelated towers and skeletal arches rise out of the earth.  Time, weather, neglect and the dramas of history have scattered this land with relics.  Traces on the landscape of a world long gone yet still with us.  The ruins are more than a pile of stones, they are a story in the landscape.  They are the things they were and the things they are now, sometimes forgotten, sometimes legendary.  They are a slice of time as it was then and will never be again.

Nature is quick to reclaim ruins and we indulge it, in a way we don’t with the buildings that we use.  We allow it to ramble through glassless windows, blanket fallen stones, ooze through cracks.  The spirits that dwell in the ruined places are kept company by the birds and the weeds.  Though nature itself is destroying them, breaking them down, cracking stones, forcing itself through mortar, taking the ruins back to itself.  Ruins soar out of the land but they have also become part of it.  It is easy to imagine that they have always been there.  They have become organic, so that they no longer quite seem man-made, but are like trees of stone, sprouted into symmetry.  A reminder that nothing is permanent, but that we leave a trace of what we were behind us forever.

SAMSUNG CSC

Our built history is relatively young, yet I often suspect its best is over.  The ruins we live with now were born of a slower age, when the time and effort it took to build them seems unimaginable.  When to build something of substance and beauty was considered a worthy endeavour.  I suspect the ruins of the future won’t be as enduring or evocative.  I suspect that many of the things we build now will fade away quickly without fanfare or regret.  And a landscape stripped of its history would be a poorer place.  Easy to forget all that has come before without those reminders in the earth.  They are here among us, pulling our attention whether we recognise it or not.  Yet if they had a choice, I wonder if the ruins would want to remain, decayed and divested of their former purpose, or would rather retire into the landscape and be no more.

SAMSUNG CSC

Ruins are a gift to writers.  They are a spur to the imagination, with their stark beauty and layers of stories.  They hold the traces of those who passed through and the possibility of those to come.  A crumbling canvas on which we can scribe tales not yet written.  They stir wonder or dread, influencing us whether we know it or not.  Through them, I have walked alongside those who walked the land before me.  I have absorbed the stories imprinted in stone.   And though eventually the earth will claim them they will live on in the stories yet to be told.