Under My Feet In the Dark

268984_2030979927480_5213006_nTwilight. Blackberry bushes rustle and white tails flash. Rabbits have probably inhabited the Warren since the Romans introduced them.

The Warren at Folkestone is a Site of Special Scientific Interest between cliffs and the Channel, created by 200 years of coastal land slips from here to Dover.

I must be gone by nightfall. But dusk to dawn, as  nocturnal adventurer Dixe Wills notes in his fascinating book At Night, ‘ … to be honest, is very rarely truly dark in Britain’.

Although far darker than my home some 70 miles north in London, the night will be illuminated by rows of houses behind me and in France, less than half that distance.

Unofficial campsites down in the Warren will glow with bonfires. Some tents house an ever-growing number of homeless people in this deprived town.

After more than five decades here, I can find my way with my eyes shut. So I close them, take off my shoes, and creep forward.

When thick springy grass underfoot changes, becoming sparser with rough patches of bare earth and sharp flints, I’m standing on the site of the Roman Villa. It’s been filled in for protection, kept permanently in the dark.

This special place is bounded by three chess board rooks: Martello Towers built for protection from Napoleonic invaders.

I open my eyes and lick lips dry and salty from the breeze blowing here on even the stillest day inland. I reach out to rub the ribbed stems of shoulder-high Alexanders between my thumb and forefinger. The Romans brought those here too.

Confusing Alexanders with their hemlock cousins worries me. These particular umbellifers are dangerous anyway, because they grow right at the cliff top’s edge, and I shift back from the 100 metre drop.

The information board about the villa site has almost vanished in tangles of brambles. Nowadays it’s on the wrong side of one of the signs WARNING people in big red capitals to keep away from the edge.  Sea water causes the clay of the cliffs to become unstable and it slumps, constantly falling on to the foreshore.

Mr Winbolt was walking in 1923, the board says, when he recognised that the stone drains he came across were Roman. The first excavation began soon after.

I helped on another excavation, a community project nearly ten years ago, when long summer days baked the clay almost too hard to break with mattock or archaeological pointing trowel.

We were literally rushing against time, before the site slips away forever.

Now the sea inhales and exhales waves, as it did for Mr Winbolt and for the Romans who lived here: always changing, and always the same.

A 2nd exercise for new Nature Writing course, City Lit, London 

In Lincoln’s Inn Fields

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Written as a first exercise for a new Nature Writing course at City Lit.

I trudge past an effigy on a bench at the entrance to Lincoln’s Inn Fields: the first of several homeless men. I’m dragging my feet like a toddler, frowning and miserable in damp socks from the April shower earlier this afternoon.

I don’t want to be on this writing class nature walk in London. I do want to be back on holiday in the Chilterns. I want skylark song by hawthorn hedgerows iced with creamy blossom, the ‘tu-whoo’ and ‘kee-wick’ call and response of male and female tawny owls, and roe deer barking in the beech woods.

I picture the aerial ballet of soaring red kites, the wandering toad we found, and the brown hares – all heart-stopping four of them – boxing and jinking in the young wheat.

The mopeds and taxis and delivery vans along Newman’s Row whine and growl, and the first leaf to catch my eye isn’t even real. The frond of fern is stencilled in chocolate powder on cappuccino foam, advertising coffee at the inevitable cafe.

Lincoln’s Inn Fields is London’s biggest public square but today it’s a prison, wire fencing encased in tall redbrick and grey buildings. Last time I was here, my husband visited the Royal College of SurgeonsHunterian Museum. I’d stayed outside, revolted by the fake nose of a woman suffering from syphilis, the 18th century skeleton of the so-called Irish Giant, and all the other weird shit that he loves.

The College buildings are shut for renovation until 2020, swathed in scaffolding and grubby plastic sheets. I turn away to crane my neck up at another giant: a London plane tree, as bulbous and deformed as any specimen at the Hunterian.

London planes shelter no wildlife, although grey squirrels may eat their spiky balls of allergy-inducing seeds. It’s not a tree to inspire folklore, unlike my favourite rowan: the Guardian tree of Swedish family gardens.

This monster isn’t the oldest London plane: that tree was planted in Bedford Square around 1789.

Perhaps the surgeon who removed my appendix in 1978 once sat in the shade of this tree. And maybe Miss Adams of Moorfields ate her lunch here. She should have a plaque, like others nearby to former College presidents: ‘Heroic straightener of my daughter’s eyes in two long operations.”

This veteran with its camouflage trunk is a healer too, with that flaky bark combating London’s pollution. “I suppose I rather like you,” I think.

Just along the path, my new classmate Jamie jumps up, child-like, to shake a cherry tree branch. It showers him with pink petal confetti, and I laugh out loud.

Lost and Found

St_Eanswythe_FolkestoneIt’s been a death-intensive year for my family. After Dad dying in January, my much-loved Uncle Bill died a couple of weeks ago. His funeral was last Thursday at a pretty church in Hemel Hempstead.

The ‘moor’ of Boxmoor is a small green space on the edge of an ever-growing town that has swallowed up the cottages and cowslips of my Mum’s 1930s childhood. When I was small, heading to the millpond by the canal with a fishing net, it was a wild expanse of trees. Probably with bears.

So it feels timely that a poem I sent to the fun Verbatim Poetry site back in the summer inspired by, yes, death, has just been posted. The Verbatim Poetry idea is to add punctuation and spacing on to non-poetic text, from ‘road signs to shampoo bottles.’ It is, I warn you, addictive. As well as editing any text in front of me, I now scan it for verse potential, which often means talking aloud to myself in shops and other public places.

I took my poem – Floral Tributes – from the excellent and informative handbook produced by the Natural Death Centre.

Up until today I felt I’d lost my regular blogging ability. The Weekly Blog Club was such a wonderful impetus.

Now found: my own much-needed ‘just get on with it and don’t rely on wonderful Janet E Davis to encourage you’ push to post regularly again.

By the way: the photo is a different churchyard: St Eanswythe in Folkestone on a summer’s day. Definitely my favourite saint with superpowers as she made water run up hill.

Here is a wonderful description of another favourite and local to me cemetery, with some stunning photos – the gloriously gothic Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park: visited by The Gentle Author of Spitalfields Life on a a misty winter morning. Beautiful and moving. And that’s enough death, thanks.

Lookout: Folkestone Triennial 2014

The_Electrified_Line_Gabriel_Lester_Folkestone_Triennial_2014‘Lookout tells as many stories as there are visitors discovering the artworks’

I’m glancing through the Folkestone Triennial 2014 brochure I bought yesterday: the page is open at The Electrified Line, by Gabriel Lester.

The brochure notes how the sculptor valued the aesthetic presence of bamboo scaffolding while he was in China. His sculpture ‘proposes the coming ‘Chinese century’ in Folkestone’s heart.’

In the background, the BBC Radio 4 Today programme advises British businesses how to invest in China. It seems a good place to start a quick post on the first few works I visited yesterday. Please don’t think this is even a vague attempt to look at the Triennial with any form of critical eye: it’s just personal experience.

Our party comprised one would-be art appreciator, a local now based in London (me); a bolshy 17-year-old whose potential love of art has been largely trashed by GCSE drudgery but likes Gaudi (daughter, hereafter referred to as 17) and my mum (78) who likes nice pictures of flowers and the countryside.

They’re a good example of  ‘two fixed points determining the position of a third’, as described in the brochure. I’ll only get to go where they’re prepared and able, or can be persuaded, to visit.

From the brochure again: ‘The unofficial brief is create something ambitious, high quality, fun, surprising, challenging, and maybe a bit crazy: these things make an exhibition memorable and thought-provoking.’

I arrive home to much excitement. ‘There’s one of them headless chickens on the Martello Tower and you can see it lit up from your bedroom!’ Mum hands me a  piece of paper from one of the small notepads Dad bound when he worked at a printers.

She’s written down the different colours that roofoftwo’s Whithervane turns at night, depending on the output of alarmist words in the newsfeeds it monitors. On Saturday night, it’s green: fear levels are low. Mum is concerned that it’s been blue and whoever told her the colours hasn’t mentioned this. We agree it’s probably a nice colour.

The view from the tower is one of my dearest and best. I am allowed to walk to the end of the road for a look at the illuminated chicken, in the dark, on the promise that I won’t go up on the cliffs at this time of night. I am 52.

Sunday morning: I meet Best Friend for coffee. Best Friend is a very talented, though no longer practising, artist. We talk about the best-known work: Michael Sailstorfer’s Folkestone Digs. News of this had reached me on holiday in the forests of Sweden, with several friends emailing, texting and tweeting  that Folkestone was full of people digging for gold.

We agree that it’s fun, bringing optimism and life to the Outer Harbour. I admire her suggestion that all the digging should be filmed on timelaspse camera and then put on two minutes of video to the Benny Hill theme.

Her shop in the Old High Street is next door to Andy Goldsworthy’s Clay Window and Clay Steps. She’s watched its progress with fascination. I meet 17 and 78, who look into Georges House Gallery and its tiny 3D printed figures and chorus ‘Ooh no!’ at the idea of being scanned and turned into teeny  statuettes like The Luckiest Place on Earth.

We walk to Payers Park and I read aloud from the brochure about the ‘series of open-ended invitations to visitors to occupy and appropriate structures.’

‘Like that,’ notes 17, nodding at a woman changing a nappy on the grass. ‘It’s a nice place,’ 78 says. ‘Bit steep but good for you.’

At Something & Son’s Amusefood , 78 is enchanted and spends a long time talking to the attendant. The aim to produce fish, chips and mushy peas aeroponically is a response to the twin evils of obesity and food scarcity.

17 and I have talked about this very subject on the train, as it’s part of her A Level Geography course; she hadn’t known we’d visit this. She’s initially excited, then disappointed at the small scale, then saddened by trying to work out on what a huge level this would need to be to produce a meal on demand. It’s made her think.

A look at Clay Steps meets with hisses and mutterings about modern art from 17 and frank confusion from 78. Both are reluctant to enter the thick darkness of the shop interior, and then:

‘Oh! It’s so beautiful!’ 17 is impressed by Clay Window. 78 has a nice chat to the attendant about ‘her’ Whithervane.

Off to Electrified Line. It made an unexpected impact on me. I’m saving that for a separate post after I’ve gone back for another visit. 78 notes that she wouldn’t have gone up it if I hadn’t made her and she’s glad that she did: you can see the posh people having their lunch at Rocksalt and it’s the closest she’ll ever get to it.

We walk to the harbour and stop to stare up at Alex Hartley’s Vigil, eventually rewarded by a wave from the tiny, tiny hand of Em Peasgood. Please, please read her blog post here, from Saturday 6 September. One of the most moving and inspiring things I have ever read. What a truly brave woman.

17 has recently given up climbing after four years and is reluctant to engage with Vigil in any way. 78 is again frankly bemused. After a cup of tea at the Station Cafe – top hospitality there – we walk along the old platforms, reminiscing about the ferries. Tim Etchell’s Why is the Place is pronounced ‘very nice’ though it would look better if the railway line were weeded.

I am FURIOUS that the pilot station has been demolished and the only way I can see the work as it was installed is in the brochure. I hope it’s one of the works that becomes permanent but suspect the likelihood of vandalism will rule that out.

We walk along the Harbour arm towards Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Weather is a Third to Place and Time. I regret the silencing of the foghorn, which would have been a wonderfully mournful soundtrack on such a misty day. 78 says no, because it used to keep her awake. All three of us look through the telescope, in separate admiration.

There are faded knitted poppies along the rusting handrails. ‘I wonder if Prince Harry came along her,’ says 78. ‘He should of done.’

I have a five-minute dig for gold (nope) under the distant disapproving eye of 17. Then home to London but I can’t wait to come back.

 

 

A Forest

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A test post from the mobile, even though I’m home from Sweden now.
The scene means perfection to me. An area without a name: ‘Just the forest.’ Tall trees, soft moss, boulders like trolls hiding in ferns.
No synthetic interruption. No cars, planes or pavement cyclists. No spitting, shoving or shouting. 
Just sun and clean air and ten types of mushroom to pick.
Aching arms and legs and back to stretch out later, utterly satisfied, looking up at the stars.
A tall rickety tower where the elk hunters hide with their rifles.
A tiny fairy tale frog to kiss and check in case of princes.
A terrifyingly warm heap of poo from a large wild boar, not far away.
Then back to a small wooden house to prepare them to eat: Karl Johan and chanterelles and all the other names I forget now I’m back in the noise and grime and air I don’t want to inhale.
A few hours and a while wide world away.

Ten things I’ve never done before

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Beaten up the mountain:
Sainte Baume

Thursday morning. I started wondering as usual what to write about for Weekly Blog Club. I’ve been dashing around over the last two weeks and thought I’d try to pick something out of that. I don’t keep a diary and am shocked at how hard I’m finding it to remember everything I’ve done – or even several things.

I spent about five minutes when I woke on Wednesday  trying to remember what day it was – not an exaggeration. So I’m giving my brain a shake-up and challenging myself to find new experiences from the last fortnight. Thinking it over, I’m shocked (again) to see how many are to do with aging; one way or another. So the first is  to push myself:

1. Write a blog post in 15 minutes. Possibly allowing five more for links and finding a photo. Haven’t done it yet: I’ll let you know by No 10.

2. Gone to Bristol. This one is down to, yes, failing memory. I am fairly sure that I have been there before: on one of the many whistle-stop tours around the country I used to do as a Home Office press officer. Several towns in a day, visit CCTV cameras when they were a New Thing, lunch for provincial journos etc. But as my memory of it is people throwing eggs, and the Home Secretary was Michael Howard, that doesn’t narrow it down enough to check.

3. Take my daughter for a University visit. Which is why we were in Bristol, the Friday before last. Gosh that made me feel old. I didn’t make any university visits myself as I didn’t expect to be able to go to university. Now I feel I missed out but it’s a delight to see her excited and so motivated.

4. Sneaked into a first class train carriage. This is because the trains back from Bristol to London were all cancelled and rubbish. After several hours and changes of train, we joined some drunk Welsh women at Reading in taking up residence in the posh seats. To be fair, we did get free bottles of water and some peanuts. I would have preferred to have been home by midnight as we had an early flight to France the next day. And yet …

5. Not had to RUSH for a flight. Up early, two trains to Stansted ahead of time, leisurely breakfast and gasps of horror at the price of Toblerone, usual beeping noises as mysterious setting off of all security systems by luggage and self … all with no swearing, falling over, dropping stuff and crying. A great first.

6. Beaten up a mountain by an octogenarian. The noticeboard at Sainte Baume said to allow about 40 minutes to walk up and up and up steep paths and steps to the church in a cave . My father, 81, snorted. ‘We will do this in 15 minutes.’ Not me. Time for all the falling over and wailing I missed out on at the airport. He went off and played golf afterwards while I wondered if my Achilles tendons would ever forgive me.

7. Walked around a golf course. Part of the reason the 81-year-old is so fit is down to a couple of hours of golf at 5.30 every morning. He gets there before the Provencal  sun is too strong and all the ‘bloody slow idiots’ come out: i.e. the people who do not actually RUN around the course as he does. I wandered along behind him for six holes, getting in the way, looking at interesting mountainside ruins and taking photos of trees. I don’t get golf.

8. Waved my daughter goodbye for ever. She went off to St Tropez on the back of my father’s motorbike. As every other road user is a ‘bloody idiot’ too, who must be overtaken at all costs, I assumed that was the last I’d see of her. Huge surprise that she came back in one piece.

9. Watched a spectacular theft. There are jays everywhere in that part of Provence. I was swimming in the pool of my father (note French construction of sentence) when a jay flew low overhead, stolen fig from the tree in the garden in its beak. Brilliant.

10. Watched baby swallows leave their nest. Another wonderful bird-related first. It feels symbolic too.

Look: 15 minutes.

 

May the Fourth: 4 by 4

May the 4th is Star Wars Day. It’s my wedding anniversary, by happy coincidence: we chose it to make a long Bank Holiday for people coming from abroad.

It’s also our 4th anniversary and I like the number 4. I voted for it as the world’s favourite number – see no. 7 here (I think seven cheated to win.) So I though I’d find four groups of four things about our wedding, with the four photos above.

Four Musical Things:

The Swedish Wedding March. A nod to my background by birth, for going into the register office. We’ve heard all the jokes about strangling cats, thanks.

Nick Cave: Straight to You. There had to be St Nick, forced upon a captive audience. The setting limited our choice a bit. One other devotee was happy and she’d traveled from the States; several older guests who’d come from Kent and Herts had a little doze.

North Sea Radio Orchestra. For one reason only. First dance: shortest piece of music from a band we both love.

Arash: Boro Boro. Because you’ve got to have an Iranian-Swedish crowd-pleaser. And everyone gets to do hand-waving and make up their own words.

Four Decorative Things:

Life-sized plastic horse. You can see him behind the table if you zoom in. I’ve said it before, the London Canal Museum is the best place for a party. It’s got the horse AND one of the only ice wells you can look into.

Place names: Friend did the nice writing, paper cut into strips and stuck with a pin through a pink heart chocolate. Soppy but nice. With the replacement of a black jelly baby pinned through the heart for our much-loved Welsh Goth.

Confetti cones. Not to be quirky or wedding-magaziney but because I enjoyed using old wrapping paper and sheet music to make them. And our two bloke ushers looked amusing carrying them.

Orders of Service: Sister-in-law enlisted to help cut paper as above, stick on more paper with song and poem titles, stamp with special name and date stamp, thread with ribbon and shove a bit of rosemary through the ribbon. Took ages: looked lovely. Which brings me on to –

Four Things I Forgot:

Orders of Service. Left at home. My daughter tried to tell me as we got in the cab but I didn’t listen. Sigh.

Vases. Carrier bags with the little vases I’d found in charity shops over months, for flowers on the tables, left under the table with the above. The flowers looked just as good in bar glasses.

Marylebone Register Office waiting room: It is lovely. Actually, they forgot to tell me it existed so Best Friend and I went to Starbucks before and I had to tiptoe around on a ladies’ floor with rather more urine on it than is acceptable.

Sense of humour: Starbucks and the rain made me a bit hacked off for a while. Sorry, Mum and Amelia.

Four Brilliant Things:

Going through London on our own big red bus on the opening day of the Elephant Parade.

My nervous daughter reading poetry in front of loads of people.

Friends from all over and from all stages of our lives.

Family for the first and last time they’ve all been together. Four of my half siblings made it. My birth father. And all four of my and Steve’s parents.