The strangest places in nature exist in the tangled web between our ears. The forests trails, the mossy paths and neural tracks of the mind need to be explored; else we are left wondering what lies over the horizon. In the end these journeys filter, blur and finally focus our understanding of the world around us. We see what we see because of where we have been. This is a story more of places than people, a story of the way landscapes can come to mean more than just hills and valleys. So, how did I get to here?
I was born in a thick-walled, small-windowed terrace cottage in the spring that followed a long cold winter. Snow ghosts had hidden in the hedge banks until March. I would later learn that the populations of herons and wrens had been laid waste that winter, the birds freezing to death in a frozen countryside. As I grew up, they grew back; loud voiced, sharp beaked. The Cottage had a strange, organic kind of architecture, with surprising steps, stairways behind doors and only two rooms on the same level. It had the ability to be cool in summer and frosty cold in the winter. I was born in the one room with any heating – which we called the breakfast room, but was a room of all trades, the busiest room in the house. Seventeen years later I watched my mother die in the same room. Utterly helpless again. A start and a finish, only metres apart. If there was a moment when my childhood ended, it was that Sunday, in that room, as her last breath caught and failed. And in that moment the arc of a journey began that only ended when I was able to sit, still and aware, and listen to the breathing of my own kids, warm in bed, under a watertight roof, in a country far away from the small and folded landscapes of Somerset.
Our house contained an odd mix of books, furniture, prize possessions and spots of growing, rain triggered dampness. I had more volumes of Ladybird Books of the British Countryside than I did pairs of socks. My father was the only person I knew who had a 35mm SLR – an Exa IIB to be exact. He shot Kodachrome 64, which arrived in bright yellow boxes; frequently in the summer, only occasionally in the winter. When I was ten I worn “wear test” shoes to school – a human product tester, with no need to buy shoes – and was given a pair of binoculars for no other reason than it seemed like a good idea. We had a car that broke down more often than I care to recall, a set of encyclopaedias that lived in the Lounge and no running hot water. We took two weeks of day trips during the summer holidays, packing a picnic and following directions, written in pencil on a page of scrap paper, pinned to the dash. A37, B3139 and onward. When we arrived at the bottom of the page we were sent off to explore and to come back at lunchtime. Outside of these days I walked when I could and caught the bus when I could not, learned how to cook and tie knots in the Scouts and discovered the private solitude of fishing. Given the choice I chose boots over shoes and plain colours over patterns. I loved being outdoors, but rarely strayed too far from home. I missed things that many other people saw, and saw things that others missed. From inside the family, the outside world looked odd, but I wanted to see more of it. I privately worried about what other people saw and thought of our family when they looked in. I moved away at nineteen and started to stop calling the village and The Cottage home. But for all of that, it’s still the place I look back to, still the place I type in Google now and then. (“In search of absent school friends”?)
It’s clear to me now that so much of what I have done ever since I left has been in response to the strange contradictions of luxuries and missing basics I saw as child. The good - watch, look, record, read, try. The bad – push family away, read rather than do, speak your mind at all times. The ugly - well, secrets are secrets. A strange blend of nurture that pointed me in the way of nature.
An old rail line ran through the village, and it became both a route and a purpose. You could walk it to get somewhere, or walk it to pass time. The grey rail ballast was slowly being buried by regrowth, and the trenches and pillboxes of a global conflict were slowly sinking back into the ground. There were flowers in spring, butterflies in summer and grasshoppers that could be caught between cupped hands. Turn left at the bridge and you could walk to the old station, with its platforms, broken building stumps and the smell of cut wood. Turn right and you could walk towards the tunnels or go further to Norton. This was my tiny world, my patch, the place where I learned the taste of grass, the call of common birds and strange metallic smell made when you tried to knap flint.
Beyond the bounds of this village parish there were places we visited in all weathers. The Mendips were normal, other places a little less frequent. Priddy with it pools of tempting rudd but easier perch, Roman stones, hill top barrows and henge ditch circles. Velvet Bottom (really!) with an under-road tunnel and fine-cropped grass. Charter House with its pond where I never fished. Ebbor Gorge, Cheddar, Chew, Blagdon. Beyond the Mendips there were the Somerset Levels, the damp sibling of limestone hills. We called them the Back Streets of Wells, and were often lost in the criss-cross network of roads. Eventually we would find a road sign to Glastonbury, Wedmore or back toward Wells.
Sometimes we would point the car in the other direction, towards Wiltshire and a patch of woodland called Brokers Wood – or just Woodland Park. In hindsight it may have been the first eco-tourism venture I saw, but at the time it was a place with well labelled woodland paths and a brown water, clay based lake full of roach and carp. This was the best exploring place I knew as a kid. The map was simple and the paths clear. Path 1 was the longest; it cut straight through the woodland in a direct fashion, and it was the most popular and the least interesting. Path 7 was short and its route seemed to flow with the contours of the ground; it may have been an old badger path co-opted to human use. You normally saw squirrels there, occasional woodpeckers and small flocks of unidentified warblers.
My landscapes were old, tended and familiar, with few straight edges and many hidden corners. It rained at the due times – and the one summer it did not, it made national news and we called it a drought. Late spring smelt of wild garlic and sounded of bird song. Winters were damp rather than cold, and snow was a school stopping, day off treat. Alongside my preference for boots, I gained a love of the small, the concealed and the local. I would not have been able to tell you at the time, but I gained a love for places that I could call my own. They were my places. Places that the wider world ignored. Places that would never really feature in stories or TV shows, but ones I could visit again and again and never get bored. I’d know them for 19 years when I left.
The train arrived in Sunderland in the late afternoon; I loaded my bags into a van and was driven to the campus. Twenty minutes later I was in a small room about eight or nine floors up a building that looked like a sinking ship. It was the longest single journey I had ever made. Out through my window were things that I had only ever seen on TV. Industry, or at least its battered remains, and small houses huddled next to each other in the chill light. Pubs carried brands I had never heard of. People still built things with their hands or dug coal from the Earth. People joined unions and were hated for it by a government that seemed to govern for other people in other places. I was a fish out of water, so I sought the beach. Although the winds of the North Sea were always sharp, the beach had a feel I recognised from elsewhere. Nothing else seemed the same. I stayed for three years and, as is the way with students, explored the warm landscape of the bars more than the region.
If Sunderland was a post-industrial landscape, then County Cork was a pre-industrial one. In a single day I moved from a landscape dominated by the hallmarks of industrial decay to one that had never undergone industrialisation in the first place. To my eyes The Republic looked like a modern country with an older landscape – and maybe both of these assessments were wrong. I lived on an island with flower rich fields and otters for neighbours. Over one horizon was America – a place of huge magnetic attraction to Ireland – and over the other was the UK – which was not as well regarded by many. I watched dolphins in the evenings and wondered why I never got any mail. I watched the sea sparkle and the sky become alive with a scatterwork of stars. The sound of the sea, and washing that never really dried, became a kind of background noise that was unspoken, and constant. When I returned to Somerset it was made clear to me that I had not returned home, so I washed my clothes and left, and headed north to Gateshead. As factory chimneys fell, and people burnt their garden fences for warmth, I tried to bring greenery back to rail lines, spoil heaps and foundry ruins. If the truth were told, I felt like I was marking time; unsure of both where and what I should be. Chance took me back to the countryside. Back to a place of archetypes and other people’s poems. To a place of Lakes, damp oak woodlands and open hilltops.
There was 11 miles of lake just outside my window, birds in the trees, deer through the kitchen window and sinuous, ropey eels in the boatsheds. There were squirrels in bushes; Red squirrels, real squirrels, Nutkin squirrels - not the grey ones of Path 7. There were daffodils in spring, but, as far as I could tell, not a host. On my days off I could wander on the fell tops with the clouds, never lonely, but sometimes lost. The beaten tracks lead you to places that people painted and hug on their walls; if you left the tracks you could find rare moments of solitude. Those places were owned by the ravens and peregrines. A deep throated cronk or a blue grey flash. If you only climbed to the top of the hill you shared your coffee with other walkers and food-stealing sheep. If you kept going over the hump or stopped just before, you could make conversation with yourself or the wind or the passing birds. If you can fall in love with a place, then I did. It may have been busy most of the time, with walkers and school kids (who we encouraged to come), but with care and a bit of thought you could avoid the crowds and find a place to hide. More than anything it became a place where you could lose yourself without getting lost. A place where you could explore more than just the things marked on the map. It was a landscape in which I began to understand that you could move beyond the things that you have been taught were true, that you could move past the beginning and ending that occurred in one small room. It’s strange what walking up a hill in the snow can do for you.
But for all I loved the place that great celestial spanner thrower had other ideas and put one clean into the middle of the works. We went for a walk to the top of a hill behind work, and a few days later I showed her a woodpecker nest. Things became beautifully complex and simple all at the same time. In the end decision day came and I had to choose between a place and a person – which is as much of a non-competition as I can imagine. And to clear up any possible ambiguity here, the person won. So I packed my bags (and boxes), archived my memories, climbed Golden Slipper with Callum and headed to Australia.
And one of those things was a mistake. I spent the first few years in Australia refusing to look into the archives, even when I wanted to and grew resentful and tired. I felt guilty about wanting to look there, and that stopped me looking elsewhere as well. The combination of chronic under-observation and the demands of a vampire employer created a darkness that filled the spaces between my ears. It would seep out in bursts of anger that fed back into the gloom and grew; the negative effects of positive feedback. The anvil on my chest crushed more than my heart. It made the prospect of continuing more ghastly than the prospect of ending. It was up hill all the way, up hill every day and there was never a hint that the view at the top would be worthwhile, or even different. It was a frightening place to be. And just about the last thing I held on to, was that you had to keep trying. One last push to a summit that was out of reach. Failure was weakness. Eventually, inevitably, on a Thursday evening, I broke. And rather than a dam burst of anger, it flooded out as tears. I needed help and (luckily) I found it. The reason for my journey was still by my side, and so were my kids. There were two sets of independent ears to listen. And there was a keyboard wired to a grey box. And with it I started to write. And in the substance of those last three sentences I found that the paths out of the dark forests of the mind were still open; overgrown, and under-walked, but still open. The compass needle steadied and the maps made sense, the hill became less steep and the promise of a view ahead looked real. You may never reach the top, but it’s important to believe that you can. Clouds are part of the landscape, but nobody can live forever in the heart of a storm.
Now it was OK to access the archives and look around – the words I received and the words I formed gave me a reason to think and to pay attention again. When I held out my hand people took it and held it, and I remembered how good it felt. The new and the old blended in ways that I never expected and memories would rise unbidden as a connection I’d never noticed before snapped into place. (“A typewriter cackles out a stream of memories”). The darkness recedes. The anvil departed. There are still shadows, but I’ve found a way to see into them. They no longer scare (or scar) me as much.
This is today’s versions of how I came to be here.
Stories are not fixed, until they are written down. And stories that are fixed may, eventually, come to be untrue. In the retelling of stories we find new things and different pathways. We find people who should be there, but aren’t and places that we have forgotten that we should have not. Stories grow in the telling if you find people to listen and ask questions. All of the posts that have come before this contain part of this story. While people keep listening I intend to keep telling the story ……..