One of the many delights of walking are the little ironies one sees and sometimes photograph while on the hoof. Below are a few of my recent smiles that kept me buoyant while my tootsies were throbbing…
Category Archives: The Nott’m Walker
Spotted on an estate in Sherwood, Nottingham, is this miniature brash pile at the foot of one of the many lime trees lining the avenues (known as ‘the Dales’). The adjacent garden featured a lovely ramshackle corner of chopping-block-sized trunks, sculptural logs and rotting wood meshed together by English ivy and bristling grasses. Somebody knows their bugs and loves their birds.
You can never have enough rotting wood lying around in the city, particularly brash piles that provide habitat for a greater variety of tasty insects than a single large log or pile of the same. These are the handy take-aways for local bird life, and the idea of an inconspicuous little pile like this at the foot of the tree that provides all the building materials is brilliant. It can’t have taken any longer than five minutes to build from the mess of twigs and tree litter found at the base, materials that would otherwise be crushed out of existence or swept away by Man or flood. It’s hard enough for a bird to survive on our city streets, so anything that helps…
On this avenue it is evidently working. In the handful of minutes it took me to walk it, I heard or saw blackbirds, sparrows in abundance, pigeons, doves, tits galore, magpies, robins, a sparrow hawk, tree-creeper and woodpecker.
Anybody who has walked the moors of Derbyshire and South Yorkshire (in them, rather than round their edges) will appreciate how easy it is to get ‘turned around’ on a dull day offering poor visibility. In bad weather, when you can’t see a hand in front of your face, they can be treacherous, though these days steering as straight a course as possible will see you to a tarmac road and feeling safe within a maximum of two or three hours of walking.
As recently as a hundred years ago, crossing the moors by anything other than a valley road was a tricky business, even following tracks. The earliest road signs appeared as a result of pressure from cycling organisations in the 1880s and any way posts that appeared where cyclists didn’t ride were locally knocked-up, painted wood constructions with short lifespans. In the sandstone regions of the Midland’s moors the solution was tall stone pillars engraved with the nearest town facing your direction of travel, and maybe a three-fingered pointing hand.
This short film is an armchair stroll around what are called ‘guide stoops’. At six minutes thirty, it is a little longer than necessary but the wonderful original music composed by Duncan Ward has made it worth adding a postscript about the modern ‘companion stones’ recently created by local artists. Duncan composed the piece in memory of his grandfather, who enjoyed nothing better than stomping around the moors. It’s called Greenhurst Way, the name of the street where his grandpa lived.
A holloway is a footpath or trackway that time has worn down until its bed is dramatically lower than the surrounding land such that it is now flanked by sizeable banks if not small cliff faces. Frequently carved into an escarpment and usually indicative of an historic thoroughfare, the agents of erosion will have been animal hoofs, feet and the steel tyres of cartwheels plus, of course, run-off from downpours. In wet weather and during thaws, many become appreciable streams. In storm conditions, I have struggled up holloways that were indistinguishable from local brooks in full flood. Due to their narrow width, few have been paved for modern traffic, though Holloway Hill in Godalming is a a fine example of one that is asphalted. If wide enough to take a tractor, as in the case of the local holloway near Hartswell Farm on the minor road linking the A6097 to Edingley, they are generally private farm tracks widened by agricultural plant. More often than not holloways have become narrow strips of wilderness – tangles of brambles, nettles, bracken and dead wood, impenetrable unless you have a machete handy – and often look like a chaotic hedge row from a distance. Of course these thickets remain functional thoroughfares, but for nature rather than us lot.
By virtue of the sandstone much of the county sits on, Nottinghamshire has a number of holloways worth seeking out, though to stumble across them is more rewarding. One certainly worth the extra effort runs southeast of Welbeck Estate’s strangely named South Lodge (which isn’t south of the estate). Boasting a wonderfully gothic display of tree roots and a gallery of inscribed graffiti, it carries what is now know as the Robin Hood Way but has much longer been known as Drinking Pit Lane, for some unknown reason. Presumably once an extension of Broad Lane to its west, the bridleway carves through the soft rock of Busaco ridge (named after the 1810 battle the Sherwood Foresters were engaged in during the Peninsular Wars) and heads off towards Clumber Park, past a ruin that once was a forester worker’s cottage.
While you are there, it’s worth having a poke about South Lodge, where people still live, so be discreet. The fifth duke of Welbeck, one William John Cavendish-Scott-Bentinct, a triple barrelled aristo, aka the Marquis of Titchfield, was a bit of a recluse and something of a fruitcake. He built a warren of underground tunnels, hollows, apartments and even a ballroom beneath his estate. If he travelled anywhere, it was often in disguise and always in a curtained carriage. Let’s just say the man had issues, but you will see one of the grand entrances to his subterranean world between the two wings of the lodge. The woodland is now owned by the county council after an appeal for the rightful owners in the Sixties failed to produce any claimants.
2017 has been an exceptional year for foraging. We are now in the tail end of autumn and the mushroom season should be coming to an end. But where I pick my dinner, it seems they just keep on raising their curious heads, demanding to be plucked. We’ve been eating Parasols and Shaggy Parasols ( macrolepiota procera and macrolepiota rhacodes respectively) for a good three months now, and they’ve been more delicious than in previous years, possibly because this year the rain has fallen in this country at all the wrong times!
Quite rightly, the Brits are very cautious about foraging for mushrooms, entirely because the tradition and ability to identify the safe varieties has been lost. If you find a woodland that’s been cleared, it will probably be the Eastern Europeans who are enjoying the fruits of the harvest. Those I meet laden with produce are continually surprised at our refusal to trust anything not packaged in a plastic tray and clingfilm, and sold through a supermarket. Yet edible varieties aren’t that difficult to identify if you forage with an excellent handbook like the Collins Nature Guide to Mushrooms and Toadstools. And there is a failsafe – when frying them, if the oil turns yellow, chuck ’em!
I have a preference for Parasols because they are scrummy fried with a few onions and garlic, but equally excellent in stews where they soak up flavours and are chewy, reminding me of the beef I ate before turning veggie. For somebody like myself who is colourblind, they are also so easy to identify. Remove the stalks, give them a good rinse (and you can squeeze them like a cloth to wring out the water) then chop. If you pick them before they open out, when they are shaped like a fat sausage, they can be stuffed and baked. Otherwise, go for the open ones that have brilliant white gills underneath. They’re at their freshest.
There are 1,001 books on walks and walking, but you don’t need to plough through very many before it becomes evident that there are less than a dozen classics authors reference or quote from time and again, when they have a mind to. Pump a ‘Ten Best…’ enquiry into your search engine and you’ll find a few lurking among the raft of recommended titles that, quite honestly, don’t deserve to sit on the same shelf, but I would like to occasionally draw attention to titles that never make the lists, despite being superb reads.
So imagine one day you set off on your favourite local walk only to find, half way round, your way is blocked. A bunch of foreign nationals are building a whole new village of ugly blockhouses and dumping the crap that generates into what used to be a lovely little valley rich in wildlife. Based on a proclamation made over 3,000 years ago recorded 2,000 years ago in a book that contains as much fantasy as fact, the aliens claim ownership of the land, regardless of the legal rights of the actual owners and your public rights of way, not to mention that they happen to be in your country illegally, according to the highest court on the planet.
As fast as a house is completed, people from their nation are moving in. Their sanitation system has yet to be sorted and raw sewage now flows into another dingly dell you cherished. With only half the village occupied, human waste is already overflowing into the first lovely little valley. In time you realise this is happening all around your town. You are being surrounded by foreign strongholds, your footpaths are disappearing, you can’t get out. Like lawyer-turned-author, Raja Shehadeh, you feel increasingly trapped and time has whittled your anger down to despair and now defeat. But you refuse to lie down and can still make your voice heard. You write Palestinian Walks.
Shehadeh takes us on seven sarhat (plural of sarha, literally meaning ‘aimless stroll’) outside his home of Ramallah and waxes lyrically on the beauty of the barren hills and verdant wadies, the old shepherds’ bothies (qasr) and shambling walls built from fossil-encrusted boulders – the landscape of the Bible that Western authors like Mark Twain and Thackeray found so boringly desolate. That in itself is telling, as are the lives of the people Shehadeh knows who have farmed the hills for generations. But overlaid is the sad and harrowing story of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, its seizure of Palestinian land and the despoiling of the highlands with concrete settlements, dead straight military roads, no-go areas and The Wall.
It is a fascinating, humbling read that induces anger and astonishment at the audacity of the international crime while making you deeply appreciative of your own freedom to walk and breathe in the British countryside. Shehadeh is a human rights lawyer who tried to fight Israel’s land grab using their own marshal laws in defence of his Arab clients. Time and again he lost in their courts, and he was always going to, but the loser Shehadeh most expresses fears for is his cherished Palestinian landscape.
Ironically, the Zionists who claim the land is theirs by divine right are turning the Holy Land into a social, political and environmental hellhole that stinks of shit. Meanwhile the international community sits on its hands or, in the case of America, throws billions of bucks at the fundamentalists’ cause.
* Palestinian Walks by Raja Shehadeh (pub: Profile Books)
I haven’t a religious bone in my body, but do believe in the power of the spirit. So when a friend of mine began her long and arduous battle against breast cancer, a Spirit Walk seemed the one thing I could do for her that her support group of family and friends maybe wouldn’t think of.
The idea was simple enough, to go to the site of her wellspring, to the hospital in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, where she was born, and walk home to Nottingham where she was now fighting the enemy within, scooping up and accumulating strength along the way to lay at her doorstep.
Aside from whether I was physically up to it, my only fear was being accused of an embarrassing case of Schadenfreude. I kept the plan anonymous and shared the idea with only a couple of people I knew could be trusted to stay shtum. The plan was to post her a letter from Hitchin as I set off, explaining my intent and purpose, emphasizing that, aside from being aware of the walk, I and it demanded nothing of her.
I plotted a route that weaved between conurbations and managed to stay on bridleways, foot and tow paths for 90% of the way. I slept rough and ate frugally but regularly, mostly munching my own version of trail mix and squeezy cheese on oatcakes. I didn’t expect to find any village shops and there was every chance the pubs marked on the map had mutated into bijou restaurants, open maybe four evenings a week.
The story of the Spirit Walk for Sue deserves telling, except this isn’t the place for something so deeply personal. I surprised myself by having no problem at all keeping her struggle in heart and mind, particularly when I too was gritting my teeth against stabbing pains in my shoulders and hips. I just ain’t as young as I used to be!
The fight to progress along many of the rights of way was to be expected in a country where ROW officers are now an endangered species, but the difficulty of sourcing water took me by surprise. Farms I identified as oases on days of flogging from one field to another were no more than equipment depots for the combines that had gobbled them up. On the up side, I equally didn’t expect to have so many thrilling close encounters with wildlife.
How many can boast being woken in the morning by a beautiful bushy-tailed fox nudging my bivvy bag, and I was convinced the female kite that seemed to trail me for eight miles was in fact Sue watching over me.
Basic stats: approx. 190k total, five days, shortest day 26k, longest day 51k.
The idea for an overnight ‘power walk’ through London came while crossing Waterloo Bridge after a late gig at the Southbank Centre. It was winter and a vicious wind sharp with ice barrelled down the Thames. Either side huddles of pedestrians sheltered beside buildings to monitor how the adventurous fared before following their stagger across the span. I hunched my shoulders and turned my back to it, crab-walking with a wide gait to prevent being flipped arse over tit. My gaze fixed on the modest skyscrapers glowing like Roman candles planted in the financial district. They looked exciting and alluring, like a freeze-frame of Goose Fair in full swing.
Braving frost-nip, I turned to look upstream. Where the steel and glass castles of the money manipulators shined from the inside out, the stone bastions of old power lining the north bank were floodlit, bathed in a mellow but morose light. Their heyday was over, the Empire gone and the centre of power floated downstream. But they are hanging in there, playing at old school politics like it is still relevant.
So my idea was to plot a route through the big city taking in the financial, trade, cultural, governmental, royal and legal (in that order) seats of power and just see what I could see in the course of a meander from 11:00pm Saturday to 9:00am Sunday. I had no expectations except the joy of wandering through a London bereft of hordes of hell-bent pedestrians on a mission. A friend joined me and added an overture taking in some of ‘Dickens’ London’, starting from the great Victorian wanderer’s home on Doughty Street, a stepping stone from our propitious start and finish at the wonderful St. Pancras station.
Here’s the map and, in deference to Henry Thoreau, we travelled clockwise.
It was a fabulous perambulation, with so many spacial oddities, human cameos and revelations of urban wildlife, so many sights best seen at night and architectural surprises, even in areas I thought I knew. But the route needs honing, partly because sections were closed for the night, notably The Temple, but mostly because it proved to be a psychogeographer’s dream for somebody like myself. Once walked, it threw up tantalising alternatives and potential improvements that need exploring further to pump the Power Walk up a notch.
And it seems others are equally fascinated by this alien cityscape, this pocket of the UK unlike any I recognise as my homeland. A few folks have asked me to take them on the journey. None were dissuaded by my terms and conditions; that it happens close as possible to the winter equinox and we go (equipped) regardless of weather or smog. I’ve experienced London at its worst and, for out-of-towners, this is an expedition.
But a hot flask and chewy sarnie at five in the morning sat in St. James’ Park between Buck’ Palace and the Foreign Office is an experience, and as foreign as they come.
Today our postman retired and the estate went out of its way to let him know he will be greatly missed. Of course letters and parcels will continue to be delivered, along with the reams of fliers and tat he was unstintingly scathing about, but it’s unlikely our replacement regular postie will fill Dave’s well-worn shoes anytime soon. More than a postman, Dave was our ‘village pump’. A cheeky chappie, short, bespectacled and ever dapper (it had to be sub-tropical before Dave would contemplate wearing shorts), he always had time for a chat on the doorstep or street and undoubtably knew more about what was going off in the hood than any resident. More than once he had raised the alarm, most notably when one of our elderly neighbours took a tumble downstairs. Through the slit of her letterbox, he had seen her tangled legs and called an ambulance, sadly too late.
Dave was a committed Labour man, a staunch unionist and humanitarian never short of a scathing but witty comment about the life and times of the Big Bad World. He hated Margaret Thatcher with a passion, saw through Theresa May long before she made it into Downing Street, and could barely contain himself when Her Majesty’s Royal Mail was finally privatised. His thoughts on Brexit and Trump were heavily laced with expletives, the only time I think I ever heard him swear. Aside from his family, I think his great joy was reading, particularly ‘old stuff’. He had an soft spot for Jerome K. Jerome. What he hated was decorating, something his wife generally had lined up for him on his time off.
One day I gave Dave a pedometer to measure his daily stomp. Rounded down, it measured 7.5 miles. In the 18 years he serviced the estate, Dave walked roughly 32,400 miles up and down our streets, from and to the depot. That’s the equivalent of 1.3 times round the circumference of the globe!
On the day he retired, at a gathering of well-wishers round the postbox outside my house, one of my neighbours told me he had a pal who was now a postie and suffering. Every evening after work, all he wanted was to go to bed, and he wasn’t sure he could stomach the job much longer. He was twenty years younger than Dave and had been in the job for six months. I think our estate was a second home for Dave and a refuge from rollers and wallpaper paste.
The retirement of a professional Nott’m walker was a good time to start this walking blog, something I’ve been meaning to do for years. Thanks for the inducement, Dave.