Ghost Roads

I love old roads that have fallen into disuse, or been relegated to the role of footpath.

There is one a few miles away on the edge of the next town. It used to be part of the road running from London to Hastings, but when the ‘A’ road that now serves that purpose was built, it not only rendered it redundant for the purposes of long distance travel, but the new cutting actually sliced through it, so it now ends at the top of a hill. From that point, there are only a couple of footpaths leading away in different directions.

Almost fifty years ago (really? Ye Gods!) I cycled along there on my way to the coast from the London suburb in which I lived as a teenager. Many of the roads I used that day are now very much wider, and all are much busier, save the one on the edge of that town. When I walk there from my house, it feels that for that part of the walk I am on a ghost road. I can still think myself onto my cycle, into that year, and the absence of traffic feels weird. If I think hard, I can almost feel spectral traffic going past. What adds to that effect, is that I often walk that way in the evening and the light – or lack of it – only encourages those feelings.

I think of it as a Ghost Road, but that definition really refers to a road that is haunted. Such a road is the B3212 that crosses Dartmoor, and on the stretch between Postbridge and Two Bridges it passes the cluster of buildings known as Powdermills. Powdermills is so-called because most of it was built for the manufacture of gunpowder. The buildings are spaced far apart in case of accidents (translation: the gunpowder blowing them to Kingdom Come), and for the same reason the roof of each building was of tarred paper. This allowed the blast of an accident to disperse upwards, hopefully giving the occupants of the building a slight chance of survival.

Anyway, there were many such accidents and many deaths. The B3212 is supposedly haunted at the bend nearest Powder Mills, just where it passes over the Cherry Brook, by a pair of hairy hands that try to wrench the steering wheel of unwary drivers that pass that way, causing them to crash. I admit to occasionally slowing down at that point and taking my hands off the wheel to see if anything happened.

It didn’t.

But I still like to think a Ghost Road is one that has fallen into partial or complete disuse. Perhaps old Roman roads that survive as footpaths are ghost roads; there are certainly stories around the country of spectral Roman legions marching along them at the dead of night.

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I think there is something magical about any road falling into disuse and gradually becoming overgrown. A road constructed for wheeled traffic used only by foot traffic. It has a special feel when you walk it, different to the feel of other footpaths.

A country lane at night can feel like a Ghost Road, especially in the light of a full moon.

Another type of Ghost Road is the ancient trackway. These paths criss-cross the British countryside and are often of great antiquity. Formed originally by the passage of feet, both human and animal, but used later by carts and other four-wheeled vehicles. These also seem to have that magical feel, although in this case I feel I’m sharing the passage with the ghosts of countless other travellers over thousands of years.

And in the midst of the lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic we seemed to acquire a few more of these Ghost Roads – an unexpected benefit of the pandemic, in my opinion. It seems a real shame they have become busy again.

Stir Crazy – A Bit

We are not quite in lockdown, but for someone who likes to spend as much time outside as possible, it feels a little like it.

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We are more fortunate than many, in that we are a short walk away from woodland, and then a limited amount of open countryside. But I yearn to walk the hills, the truly open places like moorland and marshland. I wonder whether to take a bus or train the comparatively short journey to these places. I could be up on the South Downs in two hours, and their pull is almost painful at the moment.

And my reading and writing have been affected by all this, too. I was halfway through My Name is Red, by Orhan Pamuk, which I was enjoying then but suddenly I have lost all interest in it. It is set in Istanbul in the sixteenth century but my heart yearns for the English countryside. So much so, that I can no longer bear to read it. So I have set it aside for now and begun to read The Moor by William Atkins; stories of myth, history and literature connected with the moorland areas of England.

And likewise, my enthusiasm for my current writing projects has dried up, and for similar reasons. I am in the middle of re-writing one novel, and over halfway through writing another, but I cannot currently drum up any enthusiasm for either. One is set in sixteenth century Persia, the other in Northern India in the 1980’s and yes, I just want to be outside, here.

I have been writing notes, though, for another idea I had intended to start only after completing one or both of those novels, but I have now decided to allow myself to begin it. I need a project I can really enthuse over, and this one will be set in the wildness of Southern England at some point in the past (I know what it is, but I’m not telling you yet!). I hope this will both give me some sort of pleasurable focus for my writing and also allow me to wander, in my mind, in those places I yearn to be.

The Sussex Downs Murder – Not Really A Review

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For anyone who loves the English South Downs – and whodunnits – this book makes an interesting read.

On the one hand, it is a fairly average 1930’s detective murder mystery, although I have certainly read much worse, but on the other it provides some marvellous insights into the South Downs in the area specifically around Chanctonbury Ring in that time, which is really what took my interest.

Personally, I prefer murder mysteries involving ‘normal’ people, rather than the typical country house full of assorted Colonels and ladies and royalty and such-like, so popular at the time – other than the thought of bumping off the Upper Classes, of course! But this book delivers in that it is set on a downland farm, where the farmer goes missing, believed murdered. It even has, as a cover, an adaptation of one of the fabulous Leslie Carr railway posters of the 1930’s – what’s not to like?

The introduction mentions its ‘sense of place’, and the writing seems to me especially good at conveying an accurate feel of the landscape. One thing that comes over very strongly is the emptiness of the countryside at that time. The Downs have been sparsely inhabited since Roman times; before then, much of the population chose to live on the higher, drier, lands of the chalklands of South and South East England, away from the forested and frequently marshy lower areas where travel was difficult and clearance very hard work. After the arrival of the Romans, however, all this changed, and since then the chalklands have been left largely to a small population living mainly by farming sheep.

We now have many people visiting for leisure purposes and on fine days popular routes such as the walk to Birling Gap from Eastbourne (or from convenient car parks much closer!) may easily see hundreds of visitors striding along the footpaths and hanging off the edge of the cliffs taking selfies (other stupid ways to kill oneself are available). On the same day, though, nearby footpaths may see no visitors at all. It is still a sparsely populated area.

John Bude evokes this sense of emptiness well. His descriptions of the roads and paths on and around the area really allow the reader to feel this. His characters walk the lanes and roads of the downs frequently without meeting anyone else on their journeys. Farms and houses are ‘isolated’, and even at a time when most people would travel by public transport to cover any distance, the population is so small that when questioned by the detective on the case, a bus conductor can remember who was on his bus several weeks before.

There are four lime kilns near Washington, on the edge of the area described in the story, which I suspect were the inspiration for the lime kiln featured on the farm in the book. No spoilers, but you might well guess their relevance to a murder mystery.

But it is the descriptions of the roads and paths that particularly take my interest, roads and paths virtually empty of footfall or traffic even during the day, emphasising how lightly populated the area was, and still is today, to a degree. Other than popular footpaths such as the long distance South Downs Way, and those footpaths running between popular tourist spots, it is still easy to find solitude in this quiet area of the otherwise heavily populated South East England.

Apologia

My apologies, in that you may be subject to some weird posts from me in the next few weeks – weirder than usual, that is.

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Having completed what I hope is the final draft of my novel, with the provisional title A Good Place, since it still seems the most appropriate title and will probably now retain it, it will now be read by my first beta reader – my wife – and then I shall put it out to three others *chews fingernails nervously* before what will hopefully be the final edit and then on to publishing!

This is the point at which I should get on with a new project, or return to an unfinished one. Or even just have a bit of a break, of course. But I am using this as an opportunity for a bit of a readjustment of my priorities. I have always had a deep love of the British countryside, and a strong interest in history, tradition, myth and folklore, although over the last twenty years or so, that has often taken second place to my interest in, and love of, India and Nepal.

I have found myself renewing that interest recently; delving into books about the British landscape, looking at many of the British painters who focused on this – Nash, Ravilious, Constable, and including modern painters such as Gill Williams and Jackie Morris, and especially those with a slightly esoteric aspect to their work (like Blake or Samuel Palmer, for example) then deciding how to take that into my own painting, plus, of course, walking as much as I can in villages, small towns and the countryside.

I intend to re-work a few of my short stories to reflect this, and write more poems on the countryside and our interactions with it.

While I am struggling with all of this, it is possible I may post some very strange stuff. Who knows?

One final thought on all this: Having already become more aware of my global footprint and made further changes in how I live to minimise it, I feel I can no longer justify flying and have concluded that, sadly, I shall probably never visit India or Nepal again, unless I can at some point find the time and money to make the journey overland. But what an adventure that will be if I do!

 

A Little Piece Of Wilderness

I went for a walk yesterday, in search of wilderness.

Although we live on the edge of a small town, surrounded by gentle countryside, I still contrive to find some wilderness. It takes me about ten minutes to leave the streets and houses behind, and then I slow my pace and feel myself relax. Tensions drop away as soon as I am surrounded by trees.

There is little wilderness to be had where I walk, yet that does not mean there is none.

Hedgerows can be corridors of wilderness. Perhaps a transient wilderness, but a wilderness all the same. Many hedgerows in the British Isles are hundreds of years old, and although each individual one may be comparatively small, places within them may have been undisturbed for most of that time and during that time many species of plants have flourished there and smaller creatures made their homes.

My path goes through a thin belt of woodland, too open to be classed as a hedgerow and too open to have private, wild, places, but once I emerge into the daylight again, there is a hedgerow alongside the path. And for a short distance, the hedgerow widens several feet, and becomes a true wilderness.

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Here, a patch of elder, sycamore and ash trees are surrounded by a dense undergrowth of brambles, interspersed with patches of nettles, a couple of holly bushes, and a few smaller plants squeezing into the daylight where they can.

It is the home of flies and spiders and beetles, visited while I am there by blue tits, magpies and some smaller birds I cannot identify.

Deep within it, there will be mice and shrews, and very likely larger mammals making their homes.

It is impenetrable by anyone without hacking their way in, and fortunately there is no incentive for anyone to do that.

It is wild, and I love that it is there.

Strolling in Sussex (1)

Yesterday, I went for a bit of a walk. The oppressive humidity of the previous day had lessened, fortunately, and it was an overcast morning with a cool breeze.

Just the way I like it.

I decided to take the train a few stops down the line, where I could get out at one of those stations that bears the name of a village a mile or so away but stands on its own in the middle of the countryside. The nearest building (other than the station itself) is a farm. Hopefully I could have a day’s gentle walking with nothing more demanding around me than birds, insects, trees and wildflowers.

I really, really, needed to do that.

It seemed a good start at the station. A good omen. While waiting for my train to draw in, my eye was drawn to a single large, white, bindweed flower in the tangle of brambles and vines and bushes, trees and garden plants escaped and gone native that serves as a barrier behind the platform.

Most gardeners hate bindweed. I suppose we do, really. Once it gets into the garden it grows at a ridiculously rapid rate and strangles any other plants in its way. And even pulling it up doesn’t get rid of it. It just regenerates. I tell you, come the end of days it will just be scorpions, cockroaches and bindweed left.

But this flower looked lovely. The largest, pure white, bindweed flowers often remind me of the calla lily, only a calla lily that is not so…let’s say…excited. One of my favourite artists is Georgia O’Keeffe. I’ve probably told you that before. But O’Keeffe was particularly known for painting large flower paintings, many of them more than a little ‘suggestive’. And the calla lily was one of her favourites. I’d show you one of hers but, you know, copyright and all that. I’ll leave you to look it up if you wish to.

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So, here’s the bindweed flower.

Anyway, I got on my train and later I got off at the correct station and began walking along the footpath and got shouted at by some sheep.

Really, there’s no other way to describe it. On one side of the footpath were a couple of dozen sheep in a field where the grass had been cropped very short and there seemed to be very little left for them to eat. As soon as they saw me, they came rushing over to the fence bleating loudly. Obviously demanding to be re-housed in the field on the other side of the footpath.

In that field, thick lush grass was being munched by a couple of dozen quite contented sheep. I didn’t hear a (Bo) peep out of them.

‘Really sorry,’ I told them. ‘I can’t help you.’ I walked on feeling oddly guilty.

But I got over it.

 

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For the rest of the morning I walked slowly through fields and along lanes, stopping frequently to look at flowers and insects and, really, just enjoying being where I was.

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Bridge over the railway

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I was just beginning to think it must be lunchtime when my path took me through a field of long grass.

This field lay between a stream I had just crossed, and a wood where I was heading. The wood stood a little higher than the surrounding fields, and the long grass of the field I was to cross was thick and green. The breeze caught the top of the grass, so it waved like the sea or a large lake and as I began to wade through it, it really did feel as though I waded through water.

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And there was the drag of the grass against my legs, and the top of the grass sparkled a little in the breeze, just as wavelets would. And there was also the sense that I was not quite sure what I might suddenly step upon. Just to complete the illusion, there were also some lovely blue damselflies darting around.

Then I finally stepped ashore at the edge of the wood, walked up a slight sandy slope that might have been a beach, and sat down to eat my sandwich.

Now, I have to tell you that this was the best sandwich in the world, and I won’t brook any disagreement. Thick wholemeal bread, cheese, several large slices of raw onion, and several thick slices of tomato. Perhaps it was my mood, and the setting, but it was damned good.

And then it was time to explore the wood.

The Old Way 4

Poem number four in a series of six.

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The Old Way 4

 

Of course, I had been in a rush to get here.

I think I had been walking for about an hour

Before I reached this path.

But even so,

I had not realised how fast I was going.

 

I had known I needed to get away

(that almost goes without saying),

But finally I arrive, and I slow down.

I slow down so I might look and see.

 

And breathe.

 

I slow down to feel the breeze

And the sun on my head.

I slow down to hear the birds.

I am in no hurry,

Now I’m walking on the Old Way.

 

I have bread and cheese, and I have an apple,

As though I were one of those folk

Travelling in a bygone age.

My only concession to today is a plastic bag.

 

Which I now regret.

A Sussex Footpath

The sun shone all day.

We took a bus out to the village of Hartfield in Sussex, and had a long walk through the woods and fields, and over a few hills. Spring is certainly here, now. Although there are not yet many flowers out in the countryside, even though there are lots of daffodils and snowdrops and crocuses in the gardens, there is a wonderful fresh green gradually spreading across fields and through the woods.

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The land has already dried out quite a lot after winter – unusually, so I think. Probably because we have had a relatively dry winter around here. But even where a little water still stood around in the fields and on the paths, it just gave the sun somewhere to glitter and sparkle.

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There were plenty of birds around – tits and finches, blackbirds, thrushes, pigeons, skylarks, buzzards and a hovering kestrel.

We saw the first butterflies of the year: a Brimstone and one or two Peacocks.

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There is blossom on the Blackthorn trees, and there were a few flowers out. In places, there were lots of Lesser Celandines, and here and there a few primroses.

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Honestly, I cannot think of a better way to spend a day.

Those Old Paths

We seem to be in the middle of a spell of warm, sunny weather. It seems Spring really has arrived, although things could always change quickly, of course. But it’s the sort of weather that tempts me out to go walking as much as I can. We are extremely fortunate in the UK to have such a wonderful network of footpaths, open to the public.

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Dartmoor footpath

Many of the ancient tracks are still just that; just trackways that have never been turned into roads over the years. Often, this is due to their locations in the landscapes they traverse. Neolithic or Bronze Age man lived in a landscape that frequently comprised dense, almost impenetrable, forest, with networks of streams meandering through marshy lowlands, and wherever possible they would utilise the higher ground to move around, and hence we have long-distance footpaths today still following these same routes such as the Ridgeway, while modern roads tend to utilise the lower, flatter land where possible. Walking these Old Ways (and it is impossible to even mention them without referencing Robert Macfarlane’s wonderful book, The Old Ways!) always gives me goosebumps, as I feel I’m following in the steps of these prehistoric travellers.

And yes, we are lucky. Not only do we have so many of these paths, but we have the right to walk them whenever we please. But this has not always been the case. Up until comparatively recently, huge areas of the British countryside were owned by the landed gentry who denied the public any access. In 1932, the first mass trespass by five hundred men and women at Kinder Scout, in the Peak District, led to the imprisonment of five of the trespassers but this led to a second, three weeks later at nearby Castleton, involving ten thousand trespassers.

This growing movement, demanding the right to roam, led eventually to the creation of the first of the national parks in 1951, and to the Countryside Right Of Way act in 2000. So today it is possible to walk plentiful footpaths pretty well anywhere in the country, thanks to this incredibly successful movement of direct action.

My header picture at the very top of the page, incidentally, is a view of the Peak District looking towards Kinder Scout.

And it’s another gorgeous day today, so we’re off for a walk to make the most of it. I’ll catch up with everyone later.