The big empty

So this was how it was going to go: Culham to Reading, staying overnight in Wallingford. Two days along England’s alimentary canal. Two days running with Eliot’s ‘strong brown god’. Two days of summer dancing.

Culham station was a void. A four-quarters emptiness. Once part of a working network, it now obeyed a dead logic. It was out on its own, unmoored. Nothing moved. Nobody waited. Nobody got off but us. The pub next-door offered bed and breakfast, but who for? For a time we walked in hot circles, trying to find our way out of the station’s magnetic circle. Eventually we walked up and out, into the thick-phallus shadows of Didcot power station, a henge at the centre of the day’s circuit. From the crest of the station’s well we passed along a trunk road, heavy with willowherb and knapweed, down to the Thames and a different emptiness.

We find the river at Culham Lock. This is the heat of the day, the meadows either side of the river parched golden, exhaling hot, dusty breath. The memory holds little; the legs a little more: river and sky, sky and river; golden meadows, golden wheat. Chin-high avenues of teasel, dense thickets of nettles, parsley and hemlock. Distance is measured as time, the sameness of the stretching land refusing purchase. Distance is measured in kite-territories, the birds appearing from tree-crowns, breaking the skin of heat and silence with piercing whistles. Where are we? There is the occasional massive house, set so far back across bright lawns that all scale is lost. Old, monstrous capital: absurd and grotesque. Nothing moves. At Clifton Hampden we enter the second dead pub of the day. This one at least has an attendant. We’re told it’s only open for bed and breakfast. For who? Back at the river, we stand on the Gothic pile of George Gilbert Scott’s bridge. A pike hangs in the river’s breeze. This is England.

We reach Wallingford just after 7. Walled-town-by-the-old-way. History trapped in flood-marked stone. A Waitrose. A fist of pubs: beards, whey-necks, ink. Our pub rooms could be anywhere. Above the bed: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass…It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” We join the necks chasing the blackout deep into the early-hours. This too is England.

Rain falls during the night.
The pub sign croaks in the breeze.
We dream of fireworks.

Sunday is ablaze. Wet stone wields blade-light. Figures from the night before hog the supermarket aisles. An improvised church atrium teems, snug between two buildings. Coffee shops. What did we do before coffee? Wallingford tilts riverwards: we obey the close shuffle – back to the water, back to the humming golden welcome of the riparian wilderness. The first five miles are slow. The river widens almost imperceptibly. We pass a knot of islands, wade through stands of geese and goose shit; pass beneath a vast railway bridge, where the brickwork swirls as if turned in a kiln; on an outer buttress, a necklaced ash stump looks for all the world like a beheaded, supplicant Queen. The day becomes a beautiful blur; a river-lit shambles of quiet joy. At Moulsford we feed a hissing swan; at Goring & Streatley we feed ourselves; at Pangbourne we’re surrounded by multitudes, spread out under the sky; beyond Pangbourne we’re alone again, alone with the steady pulse of the water, the steady pulse of the blood.

Then came England.

We were pushed for time. At Purley the path left the water, winding through the hollow roads of a riverside newbuild. On the map, Tilehurst station was within touching distance, but we overshot, decided to push into Reading – one last hurtle, a flushing of the system. But somehow, map-blind, we’d badly miscalculated, setting our sights on Reading West, not Reading Central. The hurtle became a headlong rush. Onward, onward, along the Oxford Road, England roaring in our ears: this is where all the people were, the emptiness of the preceding 24-hours came to this: this tumult, this dreamtime of abundance: a church of the holy brethren, doors open to the street; a minister, gagging on tongues, proclaiming god to the skies, the windows liquid in the heat of it; CHICKEN; a standing wreck of a pub-cum-church pulsing with afrobeat; small brown parcels for money; sunken-eyes at above-shop windows, thrown open, all thrown open, pouring music into the street; POLSKI SKLEP; the ridiculous fleshy over-exuberance of fruit stalls; Bengali tailors; MAMA AFRICA; sandalled feet; heat, heat, heat. Pushing, rushing, thighs burning, the blood thundering, wanting to scream to the heavens: England, this is England, this is ENGLAND.

THIS

IS

ENGLAND

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Little Gidding

St John's, Little Gidding

St John’s, Little Gidding

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

TS Eliot, The Four Quartets: Little Gidding

I was near the A1, close enough to feel its drag, the traffic undertow. I was returning from a flying visit to the wilds of Oakham and Rutland Water, departing the warm belly of a friend’s new country house. I’d managed to get myself lost, maybe expectantly. I knew I was in the vicinity of Little Gidding, one of TS Eliot’s high Anglican bolt holes, one of the places he’d knelt before forces he couldn’t comprehend, forces he seemed determined to surrender to. He’d gone there in 1936, pulled in by different undertows: the magnetism of accreted faith, the allure of a tiny monkish community surviving the ravages of the centuries; hiding place of the fallen king – Charles, going underground after the defeat at Naseby in 1646. Little Gidding was the perfect fit for his timeless present, his need for a kind of messianic time – always present, always everywhere, always just out of reach. It affected Eliot enough for him to use the community’s name for the final part of the Four Quartets, the epic four-part poem published in 1943. Like all of his places, in print and in the mind, it becomes elevated, mythic – unreachable; you only gesture toward them, looking for traces. I stopped to check a map. ‘The Giddings’. It was in touching distance – more plant fibre than road, coming to a stop in a white expanse. A dead end. I swung the car.

Roaring summer. Wheat fields, barley fields, bright with gold. Cloud banks cast cold shadows. The land is parched; particles of exhaled dust drift on rising thermals; the fabric of the air vibrates in overlapping layers. The wet winter seems long ago – a watery echo in the margins of memory. On through scattered villages, unpeopled. Unverged roads flow directly into wheat fields. Occasionally there is a green break in the field pattern, topped with hovering purple. Stopping later it’s quickly clear these are borage fields, grown for their rich omega oils, each field with its own travelling colony of bees housed in neat boxy blue hives. Then a sign: Steeple Gidding; 200 yards beyond that, a small waymarker, and a pull to the left: Little Gidding.

It comes to this: the old Ferrar manor house, bone white in the sun; a car park. Through the trees is the church – weathered oolite limestone and grubby red brick. By now I’m on borrowed time, feeling the tug of my own undertow: family and the sub-molecular gravitational pull of home. I pitch across grass to the entrance, passing inside for the briefest of visitations. Dust roils in caught air, disturbed by new motion. The eye passes from nave to chancel, not much more than 30 feet in total. Beyond the chancel the smallest of private prayer rooms, austere and cool. The floor is uneven. I imagine centuries of knelt prayers, offered to the great invisibility beyond. I have nothing to add; instead I turn and leave, back out into the golden expanse of country, the middle of England, the middle of nowhere.

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places
Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city—
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.

TS Eliot, The Four Quartets: Little Gidding

 

St John's, Little Gidding

St John’s, Little Gidding

Southampton drift

Poor old Southampton. She’s a wreck, really. Toyed with over the centuries by flighty dilettantes, eager for salty cures, or quick ways to get somewhere else, somewhere further away; bombed insensible in the war and rebuilt by a team of men in blindfolds; ongoing building works by arse that seem to have no sense of size or shape or of what elbow is doing on the other side of the city. Her roads are like clogged capillaries. Nowhere seems to lead to anywhere else. Everything feels molecular, isolated. A series of traffic lights with the odd island of interest, that you only happen upon by chance. If you’re into bad analogies, you might describe it as like a shit website: unnavigable, lurid, shot through with hard to digest information, the loudest parts getting the most (false) attention. And yet.

The trick, as usual, is to walk. Start at the common, which lays across the north end of the city like a giant green lung. Pick between the strange silences of the old cemetery. Wander across the university campus and gag with vertigo beneath Basil Spence’s Faraday building and the concrete calliper of Stoneham Tower (and the allegedly Hawksmoor designed Stoneham House next door). On a match day drift with the crowds across the railway to the New Dell and beyond to the Itchen Bridge (don’t jump). Walk the 14th century walls; take in the pubs of the old town. Stand at the docks and watch the cranes knitting the sky. The ships as miniature cities, the containers suburbs, exurbs. Stand on the prow of Wyndham Court, a vast stone cruiser, lost in the centre of town. Pitch out onto Town Quay where the eye blanches under seashone light, bouncing off rolled metal, cruise ships, Fawley belching smoke in the middle distance; opposite, Marchwood and Dibden shores ripple, low slung and malarial.

Most of all just look: the eye eventually makes sense of the plurality, or more likely just falls into acceptance of the ragged layers of history and modernity clinging together, afraid to let go lest the whole thing fall into the unimaginable depths of Southampton Water. I walked one Saturday, from the station through the old town, along the shorefront, over the Itchen Bridge, along Weston Shore, through Royal Victoria Country Park and on to Hamble with its ridiculous clamour of wealth and clanging yacht poles. It was the close of summer; a day as much about the sky as anything – high, and fierce with blue and storms that never broke. I took some photos on my phone. Excuse the blur; it was that kind of day.

Southampton old town walls

Southampton old town walls

Palimpsest

Palimpsest

Migration

Migration

Westgate

Westgate

Albert Road South

Albert Road South

Itchen Bridge one

Itchen Bridge, one

Itchen Bridge two

Itchen Bridge, two

Itchen Bridge three

Itchen Bridge, three

Weston Shore one

Weston Shore, one

Weston Shore, two

Weston Shore, two

Oak, salt marsh, Fawley Oil Refinery

Oak, salt marsh, Fawley oil refinery

Dead Scots Pine, Fawley Oil Refinery

Dead Scots Pine, Fawley oil refinery

Netley Castle

Netley Castle

Beachfall

Beachfall, Netley Abbey

Cowes, this way

Fawley, this way

Old Netley Military Hospital

Old Netley Military Hospital

Encounter, two

May climbed cold into June. Grey skies abounded; thin drizzle fell. Then came a period of sun, warm enough to coax us outside. Yet the overarching chill remained, like a vaulted roof high over everything else. In the shade silver birch catkins trembled; people shivered and clutched themselves, looking awkwardly at the skies.

I parked on Peak Lane, abandoning the car on a field margin, hoping nobody would mind. The land rose sharp and wide before me, cresting into a beech wood still dense with anemones and the flattening stalks of late-flowering bluebells. Beyond the wood was a series of interlocking fields, bordered by tall blossoming cherry trees in the canopies of which jackdaws squabbled and bombed. The air hummed.

In one of the fields, hidden from sight, there’s a great hollow in the ground – like an eye socket in the skull of the earth. Its origin is uncertain. This area was quarried extensively for London clay in the latter part of the 19th and first half of the 20th century, so perhaps this isolated spot was rich in clay and abandoned once the supply had been exhausted. It does have the feel of an excavation. Or perhaps it’s a naturally occurring phenomena, an arena for unknown forces, unknown geological pressures.

During the colder months, when the surrounding meadows are balding and brittle, the cavity puffs cold air, drawing warm bodies to it. You stand in the updraught at the southern brow, the hole yawning beneath you; to the west it falls further away, ending in a great beech and hazel clothed bank, choked with flint; to the east there is a gradual incline upwards, the earth rising to meet the level of the fields around it. It’s probably no more than a 100 metres long but has the impact, due to its incongruity, of something much larger. I keep coming back.

Ramsons

Ramsons

Now, on the first warm day of the young summer, I had to wade to the site, through meadows that were thigh high with grasses and dandelions. The southern lip was dense with spring growth, barring entry. I found a gap at the eastern end, and entered into an impassably dense nettle den, amongst which flashed small stands of yellow archangel. To the north of me, through the low forest of nettles, were great washes of flattened ramsons stalks, as if they’d been trodden down by some lumbering mylodon; but here and there patches remained in flower giving the sense of a hovering blanket of mist. And then there was the smell – over everything, contained and intense, hung a pall of garlic, the air raw with it. I backed out of the tangle and headed along the eastern lacrimal wall of the socket, spying a desire path cutting through the grasses in front of me. The path led into the cool interior again, but now I was beyond the forest of nettles and into a clearer space, dominated by a rising bank out of which rose an oak and two massive ash trees. Around the base of these lay strewn the remains of the ramsons carpet. The stench was, if anything, even more over-powering here, scouring the back of my nasal cavity and reaching into the pit of my stomach. The silence was total, punctuated by the what seemed incredibly loud drumming of a woodpecker and the soft flutey trills of a greenfinch, high in the branches of one of the ashes. I sat in a cradle of exposed roots and waited. And waited.

What draws us back to certain places? I’d found myself thinking about this curious hollow at various times, feeling its pull, its promise. Even now as I sat, plagued by dancing columns of gall midges, there was the sense that something was going to happen. Time passed. Nothing came – nothing beyond the midges, the woodpecker and the distant bubbling conversation of a tawny owl. I decided to leave, but instead of following the desire path I went the other way, and clawed my way up the steep bank and along the northern ridge using exposed roots as handholds. As I approached the western end, the hole now opening deeply beneath me, I heard the muted chaos of what I assumed was a blackbird, rootling in the underbrush for grubs and worms. It was darker now, and as I squinted into the cool gloom I saw there, no more than 20 feet away, a young badger, snuffling in the flattened stems of the ramsons carpet. I can only assume that due to garlic scent blindness, and my position high above him, that he simply didn’t know I was there as he paid me no attention whatsoever. I sat for 15 glorious minutes, watching his progress through the green garlic shagpile. Occasionally he’d stop, either to wolf down a bulb or a grub, or stop for air, sneezing softly, dog-like – but not once did he look up, or give the slightest inkling that he knew I was there. It was like a short period of unexistence, something akin to JA Baker’s wish to blend into the natural world and ‘to let the human taints wash away in emptiness and silence.’ Eventually, obeying some unknowable Delphic patterning of pheromones, he changed his direction and hoovered off in the direction of the eastern shore. I had a vague notion to follow, but preferred the idea of simply sitting for a time and slowly creeping back into existence. The sun had set, and in the shadows it was like sitting inside a cool silvered chamber. The hollow had given up a smattering of its secrets. I’d be back.

August, sunflowers

Sunflowers

Sunflowers

A shock of August cold. By 7 o’clock it was down to 12 degrees, a slicing wind, the skies like bruised ice. Earlier in the summer (such as it was) I’d walked through a farm of patchworked fields. There had been pigs rootling in a vast muddy expanse, bowed like a great furrowed half-pipe; over a stile, through a field margin knotted with hazel and hawthorne, there were successive rectangles of oats, barley and wheat and to the right a thick maze of maize, the cobs barely a fifth mature in their rough casings. The sunflowers, despite being only around knee height, were instantly recognisable. I made a mental note to come back. Now, after a week buried under what felt like a tarp of brooding panic, I needed some sun. I dumped the car on the field edge and climbed for some.

Sunflower

Sunflower

The wind was intermittent, but when it came, it roared down the slope, stirring the tops of the puddles. The pigs didn’t seem to mind, standing amidst chunks of revealed chalk and flint, impassive in their thick skins. So much rain had fallen that clumps of charlock and chamomile were swimming in pools. Over the stile, the wheat had been cleared and the maize was nearing harvest, the cobs now bursting at the enveloping husks. I could see the sunflowers in the distance, swaying in a collective mass of green, then yellow. Close up, their height seemed gangly and ungainly – like a child grown too tall too quickly. They seemed to huddle for warmth, turning the bright faces away from the teeth of the wind; but every so often the wind would stir them in a particular configuration and a hundred new heads would turn, the bunched lurching throng illuminated by a thin yellow nimbus. For a time it was possible to imagine a kind of deferred warmth but overhead the isolated knots of westering jackdaws and rooks had become a ragged band. Night was coming and I turned back to the car.

Beyond the hawthorn hedge the evening sank across the rough furrowed field. Most of the pigs had retreated inside their huts which stood in shadow like cavitied dentures. From a copse a tawny owl welcomed the coming night. The sun dropped below a reef of clouds and began a slow descent behind a ridge of chalk. I took a photo knowing it would never come out. The image showed mostly darkness but the falling sun had its own fierceness, trapped under the dome of the sky.

Dome of the sky

Dome of the sky

July, Winchester Hill

Reaper

Reaper

Up

July evening, the first good weather since March. March. For 3 months we huddled under grey skies in front of glaring screens, staring bemused at long range forecasts. When the weather came it was like a spell – that strange figure of speech ‘a spell of good weather’ suddenly making sense. Even then the world seemed oddly deserted, as if people didn’t trust what they were seeing.

Winchester Hill was ablaze – the low lying barley fields almost painful on the eyes. As I climbed, the ground released trapped heat; it pooled around my feet which burned in a state of surprise.

Winchester Hill

Winchester Hill

July, the last of the bird song. Skylarks, the strange whirr of the yellowhammer, the chuck of blackbirds. Over everything the calls of the lambs and the dry answering barks of the ewes; and behind this, the evaporating roar of planes, so high in the blue as to look like bone shards. Goldfinches peep and tinkle, dashing between low stands of wind-beaten hawthorns. No people. No people.

Down

I enter a chase of yews, the light colder out of the sun. Ivy-clad trunks, lichen-clad. The sheep are incessant. To the right, a meadow, knee deep in sorrel and grass over which hover ragged globes of midges. To the left a fallow field smoulders; a few lone poppies totter in the light breeze. The field edges are a tangle of brambles and bindweed; boulders of chalk the size of fists, the size of giants feet, line the path margins. A spooked pigeon rises, angling into the sun.

A gravel riverpath at the foot of the hill. I have been here in winter when it is often impassable; now in this wettest of summers it rushes and chatters across the stones, inviting hot feet. I splash for a time then climb the steepening sides into a field of crops. Last of the sun: light slants across the plant heads, illuminated strands of webs like fine hammock strings between the individual stands of wheat – out of the sun they become invisible, in its glare they are like retreating filaments of bowed crystal. The water is just in earshot, a comforting babble. A green woodpecker yaps, sheep call across the pasture. Jackdaws call, abed in a stand of oaks, their cries like answering chimes, answering in a higher register.

Sunfall

Back into the hollow way of the riverpath, the sun dips behind Beacon Hill. Heat-trapped smells rise in the cooling air. Months of rain have saturated the ground so even in this landscape of drained chalk there is the smell of damp, of rot, of contained water. In the crook of a massive three-trunked ash I pause and listen to the onrushing stream.

Nearing the end, I realise my boots are like autumn boots, winter boots – mud-clagged and heavy. A new moon through the crown of a thinning ash. A buzzard cries. The swollen river flows faster than I can walk.