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11/02/04 6:00pm

Salvation via Coulsdon South: A Lamb's-Tale

I am a pilgrim and a stranger
Travelling through this wearisome land
I've got a home in that yonder city, good Lord
And it's not, made by hand

(Trad. The Byrds, I am a pilgrim from the album Sweetheart of the Rodeo)

Saturday to inner-circle Surrey, occasionally in ogle distance of my prison walls. ("Ogle" according to Mayhew and Binney, whose weighty tome on London's Victorian dark side, Criminal Prisons of London, I've just borrowed from the library, is from the Dutch word Oogelijn, "a little eye", and was introduced into English by Dutch sailors on Billingsgate eelboats.)

Perhaps I should point out that this particular pilgrimage was prompted by my last Essex peregrination, the home stretch of the London Loop, from Upminster Bridge to Coldharbour Point on Rainham Marshes.

As God is my witness (this is a pilgrimage after all) I love Essex, but, to cut a long story short, Rainham Marshes isn't in danger of winning a Green Flag any time soon. I'll give you a flavour:

Torso in the Thames, 23rd January 2004
(The Pilgrim Ferry, between Rainham and Erith, was founded in 1199 AD.)

Link to Torso in the Thames.jpg

The water is wide but the Pilgrim Ferry has been replaced by a Robinson Crusoe kit-boat and bad marsh voodoo doll gesturing defiance... or is it resignation? ... undignified piss hole...Teeny-Tiny Thames flow softly...Xmas tree trying to swim back to Norway to mate and die. But this one was fucked long before Christmas. Hemmed in by an oil drum off a paddy boat. Barbie doesn't do pee.

This morning I googalized "Pilgrim Ferry" and turned up NADA. Squit. Ground Zero. The mayors of Havering and Bexley made it up. A conjuring trick to schmooze the masses. Freemasonry of the worst sort. Tights and ruffs. Lavender.

I found the car breakers on Ferry Lane, though, and remembered the funeral-black plume of smoke over the bus garage. Must have been burning the last Ferry.

Pilgrims to what, anyway? Americky? Canterbury? Landfill? Perhaps pilgrimage is not so much an act as a condition... and we all default to pilgrim at the "pale-dawn estuaries"* below Barking...

*LF Celine, Guignol's Band

Farthing Downs, near Coulsdon in Surrey does have a Green Flag.

So I set out on a Surrey pilgrimage hoping to replace the boggy slough of despond with catkins and sunshine. I wasn't disappointed on either count. Though the clouds put on a good display -- especially above the Downs, they seemed just to be falling into my creative plan rather than threatening rain. Providing a moving target for one-click Constable wannabes.

Link to Top of the World.jpg

From the Downs (good view back over London) I dodged the cross-country runners as best I could and dove down through ancient woodland of beech, yew and ash into Happy Valley bordered by, perhaps, a million catkins in the ancient hedgerows.

During the siege of Paris in 1870/1871 the besieged citizens' only means of broadcasting news and sending letters to the outside world was via balloon. The citizens obviously had little control over where the post balloons might land. One, named "Victor Hugo" came down in Belgium.

This flawed delivery system is not dissimilar to the way in which hazel (Corylus avellana) is pollinated: catkins are formed rather like tiny branches with equally miniscule leaves and flowers which, as they rely on the wind to disseminate rather than animals or insects, don't need bright petals, nectar or scent. They just need to dangle, and catch the wind when it blows. Furthermore, they are structured so that pollen is only released when the wind is blowing hard. Although it sounds a bit hit and miss, because the hazel likes to grow in the company of other hazels, it is actually a safe bet that each will get some mail. Hazel trees also maximise their chances of successful pollination by giving it some numbers. (The balloon metaphor goes a bit wonky here). A single hazel catkin can produce 4 million grains of pollen. It's safer than Parcelforce and rather easier to deliver in bulk than mail balloon. Come to think of it, it's actually more like spam.

Link to Catkins.jpg

(See , Trees: Their Natural History, Peter Thomas, Chapter 5 for a more sensible postal metaphor.)

More catkin factoids:

· less than half the pollen gets more than 100 metres away from the parent. But significant quantities travel further and can travel thousands of kms at high altitude.
To Belgium, say.
· Willow catkins are pollinated by blue tits.
· Nectar from Australian Bottle Brush trees (there's one in the Hill Garden at Hampstead Heath) is collected for food by aboriginals.

Facts from Trees: Their Natural History op cit.

Anyway, enough catkins already. I also saw some noteworthy Jews' Ears (Auricularia auricula-judae: I'll spare you the history lesson on that one. For the time being at any rate): lovely and tactile. A delicacy in China, I'm told. But still cannibalism.

Link to Jew's Ear.jpg

Down to shirt sleeves for a march across farmland in a south-westerly wind.

In Chaldon Church is a medieval wall painting depicting the "Ladder of Salvation of the Human Soul".

More farmland and a world war two food store, Dog's Mercury (Mercurialis perennis) poking up through last year's leaves, announcing the coming of spring to the abandoned concrete paths.

Link to Dog's Mercury.jpg

Further on join an ancient trackway -- "The Pilgrims Way" used by Pilgrims travelling between Winchester and Canterbury to the shrine of Thomas Beckett.

Vistas over Box Hill, North Downs. M25: modern pilgrims to roadside shrines at Bluewater and Lakeside.

Returning through Happy Valley at dusk to hear a robin singing its socks off, the roar of the motorway already a distant memory. Salvation, of a kind, via Coulsdon South.

[Extracts from Victor Hugo's note books (Project Gutenburg) The Seige of Paris:

October 17. To-morrow a postal balloon named the
"Victor Hugo" is to be sent up in the Place de la Concorde.
I am sending a letter to London by this balloon.

October 20 Visit from the Gens de Lettres committee.
To-day the first postage stamps of the Republic of 1870
were put in circulation.

Les Châtiments (French edition) appeared in Paris this

The papers announce that the balloon "Victor Hugo"
descended in Belgium. It is the first postal balloon to cross
the frontier.]

Link to Cloud Study.jpg

Links: Downlands Circular Walk

© Richard Shepherd, 2004

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