Come take a look at this map that
Turn out the lights
Heh, undertaker, don't nail my
Don't want no sunshine
You take the spring
can dazzle with your day-glo
She won't be skirling golden sails
Blood on the vine, blood
on the vine
love you like autumn
on the vine, blood on the vine
richard shepherd © 2005
"There is nothing at the end of the road better than may be found beside it, though there would be no travel did men believe it."
The Icknield Way, 1913 Edward Thomas
It was a cold, dull November day when we set off to check out the view from Telegraph Hill in the chalk downs north east of Luton on the Bedfordshire/Hertfordshire border.
As is usual, for me, the walk was intended to combine business and pleasure. I was hoping to amass material for a stalled biography of my Great Uncle who died at the Somme in September 1916. Fresh air and muddy feet, combined with maybe a pint or two of Greene-King would soon, I felt, unblock a door to an ancestral realm which had remained so far stubbornly and resolutely shut.
But if I was imagining some kind of breezy dialogue with the dead, I certainly wasn't expecting to meet (rather than greet) a real living person on the chalk downs, and certainly not one pursuing an even more bizarre quest than my own.
Looking back, though, I'd have to say there was something a little spectral about the whole event, most probably due to the setting, on the edge of a vast plain, under a ribbon of scrubby hawthorn and joyless Old man's beard, spread out across the dark hill like bloom on a fresh corpse.
Sir William Beach Thomas, who, as a kind of embedded reporter, covered the Somme battle for the Daily Mail, was, in quieter times, a writer on the countryside. In a 1950 guidebook to Hertfordshire he described the view from Telegraph Hill as the best in the county, if not in England, especially at harvest time.
But now I remember: another patriot walked here, noted the hawthorn trees growing on the tumuli and backtracked down to the wide path running west between beech trees a hundred feet below.
Edward Thomas set out on the Icknield Way in 1911. An ancient track, he described in a letter to his friend, the poet and dramatist Gordon Bottomley, "running S.W. across England from near Norwich to nobody knows where".
Today, a useful, if compact, website will tell you that the long-distance path is a series of linked green lanes and tracks following the chalk "spine" of of eastern England from Knettishall Heath in Norfolk to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire.
But the librarian had made a mistake. It took me a while before I realised that Anthony Bulfield was not a pen name, and that The Icknield Way was someone else's journey. Someone, moreover, who, though he appreciated Thomas's poetry, found his identically titled book boring, except for the light it shed on his poems, particularly Rain, the starting point for which appears to be a prose passage inspired as Thomas lay awake listening to the rain at East Hendred, near Wantage in Oxfordshire.
Bulfield, I imagine, probably completely unfairly, is an aptonym. He's more interested in the kiln than the china. The road is the shortest distance between facts. Interesting snippets are served up like curled bacon at motorway service stations. The M1 which screams through Luton (where we caught the bus at the start of our walk) was Britain's first motorway. In the 1850s there were 30 factories here involved in the hat trade which put Luton on the map…
"They're looking for artefacts", said the stallholder to his mate peering through the Heras Fencing that caged off the archaeologists from the rest of humanity and allowed them to talk about us as though discussing chimps in Whipsnade Zoo. The crushing emphasis on the first syllable suggested the sort of disdain usually reserved for a Tracy Emin installation, say, or a Rachel Whiteread. There was something utterly withering about his delivery that seemed to imply not only that we were making it up, but that we were, heaven forbid, in the pocket of the developers, in this case the council.
He knew that wherever the council put them the market stall holders would be squeezed and moreover there would be less passing trade. But I was disinclined to argue. The weather was "colder than a well-digger's arse" and my head was fuzzy with boredom and the early start.
And we were making it up.
And funded, if not actually paid, by the developer.
It was here, in a bleak modern car park on the Via Iceni, that I decided to throw in the trowel, and set my cart wheels on a different tack, unwinding into an uncertain, but warmer, future.
The first entry in my re-fired journal for February 2003 set out a manifesto of sorts, and elicited the spiritual backing, as it were, of one Edward Thomas:
can't stop 'ee. It's
Lob, Edward Thomas, April 1915
Anyway, I like facts. You can sink into them like a comfortable bed after a hard day's walk, line them up like model soldiers, stack them, dust them like a shelf full of silver or display them like curiosities. It's important to me to know that Old man's beard or Traveller's joy (Clematis vitalba), which lined our path up to Lilley Hoo, is "an indicator of calcareous soils", calx being the Latin word for chalk; and that foxglove and broom indicate the opposite: they are "calcifuge", from calx and fugio (I flee). It's important to know that the best place for flowers on chalk downland are the slopes, in this case the north facing escarpment, because the tops of the hills are capped by other soils.
Rock rose and wild thyme, ragged robin and scabious were all putting on a good show for November. But the light was fading as we arrived at the foot of the scarp and the Thameslink station not yet visible across the plain.
It was here that we met, propped on a farm gate and gazing toward Harlington, the bearded, middle-aged man who introduced himself as a botanist.
He told us about the Lizard orchids which grew here until the 1940s. He had, in fact, been writing a book about orchids when his girlfriend took a shine to the book's co-author and the project was put to one side. His life, he said, was a litany of unfinished projects and more or less unsuccessful relationships. But his perceived lack of success was offset by a self-deprecating affability and a certain amount of self-knowledge. Which is a start in these days of pro-biotic ignorance and off-the-shelf religion.
It was refreshing to talk to someone who knew about Edward Thomas and John Clare. But he found my interest mawkish and unhealthy. "All you're doing", he argued, "is trying to climb the greasy pole of authorial success by hitching your rope to someone else's trope". "You're basically," he continued, "a stalker". "But worse than a stalker because dead poets have no recourse to law to protect themselves and their reputations from plodding immitators".
"What about an ASBO?", I offered. "Heaven must be full of tagged hacks."
He had first noticed a clustering of mid-Victorian sitings of the strange flower in the valley of the Fleet River. On further inspection he noticed an additional clustering at well-heads, particularly those from the great era of artesian well-building in the nineteenth century.
Could it be, he wondered, that the mixed-up plant was somehow trying to take advantage of the well pipe to send its roots hundreds of feet down to the very chalk it had fled from in the first place.
"I can see why its rare", I said.
Silence, except for the distant rattle of a train. Light disappearing, now, like sand through an egg-timer. Dogs and walker in the distance reveal our long path back to civilization.
"I've done time, you know."
Not exactly what I was expecting to hear.
"You mean you're a philosopher?"
"I've been in prison…for GBH". At which I automatically looked down at the gate, checking to see it wasn't padlocked, or otherwise blocked, and glanced at the western horizon where even as we spoke the day had narrowed to a couple of sheets of Mother's Pride in an otherwise empty bin bag.
"I saw an oik kick a West Highland Terrier in front of a car. I hit him with my bag. Had my laptop in it. Windows wouldn't load afterwards. Had to reformat the hard drive."
"I'd have thought," I offered, "that was black and white".
"No. Just white. They were bred from Cairn Terriers originally. Good ratters. They like digging and make a lot of noise."
"Sound like archaeologists."
"My brief had told me to expect a CSO and anger-management counselling, so I didn't even take a toothbrush with me. Instead the judge gave me three months. I found out later he was a pussy-man."
"But there was a silver lining", he said, after a pause.
"A bit of Cairn Terrier?"
"I did the first couple of weeks in Pentonville."
"Nice," I enthused, insincerely.
"I was in the exercise yard chatting to a screw when I happened to glance down at the floor. Its only a bloody Chiltern blue, in flower, growing up through a tiny crack in the tarmac. I looked around, and there was another one. And another. Well, you can imagine…"
Actually I couldn't. But then I'm not a convicted biophile.
"As soon as I could, I made my way to the prison library. I'd seen a booklet or something on the history of the prison. But somebody was bloody reading it. Anyway, I got chatting to the librarian (he was in for internet fraud) and he remembered seeing a poster in the education room. Bingo. Before long I was standing in front of a beautifuly illustrated diagram of the artesian well at the model prison, Pentonville, by one Henry Smith Evans Esqr. F.G.S.
I couldn't believe my luck. I was now ideally placed to fire up my research again. Not only that, I also had a bit of time on my hands."
"God moves in mysterious ways," I interjected, mischievously.
"Never ever criticise the Lord's plan, until you know exactly what it is!"
I'd obviously struck a chord.
THE EARTH OR OUR PLANET
"The picture showed a hundred and fifty foot brick shaft tapered towards the bottom, and cut through a thin layer of sand and gravel, and several layers of clay, mostly blue "London" clay. At the base of the shaft was more piping, first in iron and then in copper, through more sandy layers. At a depth of about two-hundred-and-fifty feet, after drilling through a narrow layer of hard compacted flint, the copper pipe extended a further hundred feet or more through the chalk to the aquifer below."
I wasn't entirely sure where this conversation was leading. An audacious escape attempt seemed unlikely. On the other hand that would have been more believable than the existence of a mythical flower with a fantastically extended root system.
I liked the onion analogy, though. But I couldn't help thinking that it would all, as the saying goes, end in tears.
"Anyway, like I say, I was fired-up. No one would be able to snigger at my Mystery Flower any more. All that blood, sweat and tears at the British Library and the RHS, wouldn't be for nada. I stayed up all night pawing over the picture and reading the stuff I'd snaffled from the prison library."
"You know, one thing that struck me, looking at the diagram with its ladybird illustrations of the fossils found in each of the stratigraphic layers," he looked meaningfuly at us in the half-light, "was that it was quite convenient for the Victorians to big-up the fact that elephants and crocodiles and palm trees were British, and more particularly, London phenomena."
"You mean the semiotic content of a children's geology primer provided the subliminal ideological reinforcement of an imperialist economic, cultural and political vision?" I had for a long time had a subcription to The Journal of Marxist Botany, but it had lapsed in 1989.
But an elaboration wasn't forthcoming. He looked dejected and continued:
"I must have dozed off because next thing I remember it was morning. And all of a sudden I began to notice a strange sweet smell…"
"Slopping out?" I suggested.
"No. We were both morning-shitters. The smell was coming through a tiny gap between the window-frame and the wall. The sweetness was cut with something sharper."
"Umami?" I was getting restless.
"Then I remembered what it was." He paused and breathed in heavily. "It was tar. They were resurfacing the exercise yard."
"Oh, shit." I empathized.
"That same day I was transferred to an open prison on the Isle of Sheppey and I lost interest. It was never going to be easy starting my research all over again from scratch."
"But what about all the research you'd already done?"
"That," he paused as the first streak of red cut the western horizon toward Dunstable, "…that was in the laptop."
1972, Bulfield, Anthony, The Icknield Way, Lavenham : Dalton, 1972
1851 ? Evans, Henry Smith , Geology made easy, illustrated by a section of the Artesian well at the Model Prison, Pentonville, shewing the various strata upon which London is built, commonly known as the London Basin. (British Library Map).
1950, Lousley, J. E. , Wild flowers of chalk & limestone.London : Collins, 1950.
1913, Thomas, Philip Edward, The Icknield Way, London : Constable, 1913.
1968, Thomas, Philip Edward, Letters from Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley. Edited and introduced by R. George Thomas. OUP, London 1968
1978, Thomas, Philip Edward , The Collected Poems of Edward Thomas, R. George Thomas Ed. Oxford Clarendon Press, 1978.
1950 Thomas, William Beach , Hertfordshire, London : Robert Hale Limited, 1950.
18/10/05 on the beach "I had thought,"wrote Charles Lamb in 1822, "in a green old age (o green thought!) to have retired to Ponders End, emblematic name, how beautiful! in the Ware Road - toddling about it and Cheshunt, anon stretching on some fine Isaak Walton morning, to Hoddesdon or Amwell, careless as a beggar; but walking; walking ever, till I fairly walked myself off my legs, dying walking."
Quoted in Hertfordshire by Sir William Beach Thomas in the County Books Series, first published in 1950.
One of Beach Thomas's favourite walks started from Mackery End, and we followed in his footsteps on Saturday, though we started the walk at the east end of Wheathampstead, to make a circular.
We too followed the River Lea - here more properly, a stream - as it wound through water meadows populated with laughing ducks and myxomatosized rabbits, always within earshot of the road. (Though as we arrived at our walk by the road it seems a bit nit-picking to criticize it.)
A former owner of Brocket Park, not liking the spectacle of walkers peering into the garden through the dogwood bushes, made a sort of cutting for the path. This raised what Beach called a "pretty legal point".
" It would not be in order to move a right of way in the horizontal plane. Is it allowable to change it in the vertical?"
The park is now full of earthworks of the kind that are of interest only to golfers and the manufacturers of remote controlled golf bags.
At Lemsford, the end of Beach's walk, we cut up, across the busy road (I'm not complaining) and headed back across prairie-sized fields to the Devil's Dyke - an earthwork that would make even the most levelheaded golf bag manufacturer wince.
reality cheque from Leo Hickman in the Guardian, 10/10/05.
Yeah, but, no, but. That's worse than archaeology. Not the most sensible way of rejoining the middle-class any time soon. I had better enjoy it then.
"Between the mouths of the Blackwater and the Colne on the east coast of Essex lies an extensive marshy tract veined and freckled in every part with water. It is a wide waste of debatable ground contested by sea and land, subject to incessant incursions from the former, but stubbornly maintained by the latter."
From the fabulously salty19th-Century novel of the Essex marshes, Mehalah, by Sabine Baring-Gould.
orange cliffs in East Mersey are an interesting geological phenomenon.
The cliffs are made up of layers of sand and gravel deposited by the g-g-father of the modern river, and look, as Richard Uridge pointed out in Open Country this week, just like building aggregate. The site is an SSSI. It's also disappearing at a rate of about a metre a year. The rocks in the bottom-left of the photo are the concrete remains of pil boxes built by ice-age natives to defend the then small hunting community of Londinium from Teradactyl strike.
East Mersey is noted for finding prehistoric - though not jurassic - fossilised bones. The short-tusked elephant, a cousin of the woolly mammoth, rhinoceros, hyena, and giant deer aka Irish Elk with a 3m antler span. Hippopotamus (bones) are occasionally found on the mud flats, a habitat which is also an important feeding ground for many wading birds which exploit the abundant supply of shellfish.
|© richard shepherd, 2005|