Lonely death of a renowned moor-walker

On the 5th September I continued my Colne Valley odyssey. On the train out a trendy asset manager/entrepreneur type with waxed handlebar mustachios was giving a presentation to some  pasty eating businessmen on a rail firm he’d bought from the liquidators. I was half listening, half reading The Last Tommy and half staring out of the window, wondering what Brunel would make of it all. I detrained with them at West Drayton where, five minutes’ walk from the railway,  I was surprised by something not at all unlike a long village green and a boarded up pub, The Swan, awaiting development in to houses.

The entrance to Fray’s Island is not signed from this side but I found it at my second attempt and crossed a footbridge decorated with Indian balsam to an edenic water world of rampant nettles and crack willow. A garden spider blocked the remains of an old building – the walls partly cleared of the ivy which should have buried it years ago.

I left the reserve by the only other exit on Thorney Mill Lane and walked along a dusty road past a caravan site and a gravel works and an old coal marker before climbing a stile into a golf course and following the river to rejoin my walk from last week at the point of the disappearing path.

I retraced my steps to cross the Slough arm of the Grand Union Canal. Here an angry dog blocked my way until it was wrestled from my ankles by its owner. I was frightened for my life. Nothing in the way of apology or explanation was deemed necessary.

The interesting seed dispersal mechanism of Indian balsam was forgotten in a fury of shit and slavver. My anger at the dog and its owner redrew the landscape. The sooner the third – and fourth and fifth – runway was built the better. They might bury the entire lower Colne in tarmac right up to the drawbridge of Windsor Castle for all I now cared. Asset strippers could taxi to West Drayton to sell off unprofitable bits of the rail network without leaving their private jet.

In 1987 – at the time of the Great Storm – just off Holloway Lane in West Drayton, a mile north of Heathrow Airport, archaeologists found a burial pit dug through brickearth into the gravel below. Some of the bones were missing but those which survived had, archaeologists believed, belonged to one of the last aurochs in England. The aurochs – a native wild ox – became extinct here in the late neolithic or early bronze age. The same sort of date implied by six barbed and tanged flint arrowheads which were found with the burial.

The aurochs hung on longer on the European mainland – the last one died of natural causes in the Jaktorowka Forest, Poland, in 1627. The reason I mention this at all (the reason for the whole walk, in fact) is that I’ve found two fossil aurochs teeth already this year, on beaches in Kent and Essex. The enamel is so good that I’m going to use them to replace my own gnashers when the time comes. I too will become a renowned moor-walker and your British fighting dogs will shit themselves and run away when they see me.

Close by the aurochs pit, during the building of the third runway, archaeologists found the badly decomposed body of a fifty-year old man. It was intact except both feet were missing – chewed off just above the ankle – though whether before or after death was unclear. His eyes had been put out with a pencil which was also found in the grave along with a small notebook and a British Library card which was no longer legible.

On 19th September I walked from Uxbridge (where I had finished up the week before) to Rickmansworth. I went to the visitor centre (Denham Country Park) and bought biscuits and a walk guide and sat on a fishing platform to drink tea and enjoy the late summer sunshine at ground level. This was the first time in the walk from the Thames that I felt something approaching tranquility – in spite of the hum of traffic from the A40/M40. I photographed a heron on the weir and blue chicory on the bank – frayed petals like bird’s wing tips and shepherd’s crook stamens.

On 17th October I caught a bus which smelt of hospital wards and slap to Finchley Road and got to Ricky in an hour more or less. From Batchworth I headed north along the towpath for a few hundred metres to take a photo of an obelisk in a private garden on the opposite bank.

The monument records the settling of a dispute between paper millers – the Gade & Colne Valleys were the birthplace of industrial machine paper making – the canal company, and a local landowner. I probably wouldn’t tell you the details of the dispute even if I could, but the backstory is interesting enough. It unpicks a landscape often taken for granted.

The Grand Junction Canal, the Hertfordshire historian Lionel M. Munby pointed out, was the first planned communication link between London and the North since the Roman roads were built nearly two thousand years ago. It was authorized in 1793 and, built out from London, had reached Tring by 1799. Braunston – the northern terminus – was reached six years later.

The mill owners were not antipathetic to the canal. It was a convenient and cheap way of getting raw material (mostly rags) to their mills and getting the finished product out in to the world. But paper making required huge quantities of water. Even when steam replaced water to power the mills, the process of preparing the pulp was very water intensive. With the canal companies drawing water from the rivers and bore holes in the chalk, a clash was always going to be inevitable.

The mill owners couldn’t call upon expert witnesses – there weren’t any. They had to defend themselves and in the process contributed much to the new science of hydrogeology.

The canal companies argued – wishfulthinkingly – that there were two aquifers or natural reservoirs in the chalk. The top one fed local springs but the lower one drained through subterranean passages into the sea. This could be tapped, they reckoned, without affecting the flow of rivers over the chalk.

The mill owners developed rain gauges to prove them wrong. They showed that the flow of water in the rivers was determined by the previous year’s rainfall. Tapping the water from a bore hole anywhere in the chalk lowered the amount of water coming from the springs. Water was a finite resource and the mill owners, water companies and canals would have to agree to share it.

The patter of squabbling capitalists energized an autumnal stroll. Perhaps I was asserting my own claim to the life-giving element by beating up the towpath in the gloom.

I retraced my steps to the bridge and took the left fork along the Ebury Way, an old railway line, past canal boat homes and old gravel scrapes converted to fishing oases. I enjoyed the walk and the autumnal weather but it felt like a cattle run. The landscrapes were unreal to me behind the barbed wire: a patchwork of tribal affiliations and prohibited space. An engineer working on one of the bridges eyed me suspiciously and didn’t return my greeting.

Crossing under the brick viaduct at Bushey I turned right up the hill and, half a mile later,  turned off to cross a field towards Haydon Hill House where a new development of 5x bed houses seemed to have grabbed some of the footpath which leads alongside a stream to a crossing path behind St James’s Church. There was barely enough room for a renowned moor-walker let alone a buggy or wheel chair. I should be – the shiny fence suggested – in the gym or the velodrome. Not schlepping round the green fringes of the capital looking for Nissen huts. Or tracking dead artists’ tears tumbling over the tufa into the sewers of deep memory.


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