Flights

At the church of St Polycarp, on Wisewood Lane, the LEDs have failed in the arms of the wall-mounted cross, leaving a single white vertical beam. There are streetlights and house lights and garden lights the length of Loxley Road. It is more light than I need, more than I can think with. I am walking to the edge of the city. To leave the lights of the city. I am thinking of my great aunt, on and off, my late aunt Jean, I am thinking of her as the traffic dies down, as the gaps between the houses grow. All I have left of her is a small lump of rock from the constellation of Perseus and a handwritten note that has darkened with age. And my memories, brittle, blurred exposures, shelved out of reach, and my mother’s memories, preserved in speech, as stories, always at hand. It seemed that every August we went into the west, as a family, it seemed that we had always done this, I was the youngest, the thrill of climbing into the car in darkness, my father’s bid to beat the tailbacks. We went into the west, further and further, over the Severn, the first light and the first, familiar changes, immediate and indirect, slower, steeper, a different language on the roads, the roads twisting into narrow tracks. At the end of it all is my aunt Jean. She is somewhere between the hay barn and her static caravan, this is how I remember it, her appearance coinciding with our arrival, a wave, a greeting, a few words exchanged as we work out which pitch is ours for the week. There are perhaps six caravans on a slightly uneven grassy strip at the top of a sloping field. The caravans are laid out in two rows, three in the shadows of hedges and trees, three overlooking the land as it falls away. Ours is the middle caravan with a view of the field. There is no one else at the caravans, only my parents, my two brothers, and me. It is 1980, 1981, 1982. I am eight or nine or ten. When it is dark, if the night is clear, I set a deckchair on the grass, a short distance from the caravan, and settle in, blanketed at the legs, binoculars in my lap. I am facing west. My head tilts and turns until my eyes have made the first adjustments. There are perhaps one or two distant points of electric light, a cottage, a farmhouse. A copse to the south. The dark crease of the Preseli mountains. After a few minutes, my gaze shifts to a region between the zenith and the horizon, a broad belt of sky that I can scan sidelong without moving my neck. After a few minutes more, this is all I see. A first faint streak. I am an amateur, I understand this much, the science is beyond me. Half an eyeblink. There is nothing for it but patience, I will learn nothing by keeping count, keeping time. A second faint streak. I cannot read the sky, I cannot place the constellations, but I can grasp a pattern of disturbance. Another streak, a little brighter, a little longer. There is a trick, a feint, to face the dark field without staring into it, to stay focused without a focal point. This is how the Perseids get in, at the edge of eyeshot. There are clusters and peaks and the waiting is more than just watching. East to west in a split second. No warnings. No repeats. I hold my position for an hour, perhaps more, I think that a hundred meteors must have passed through that hour, but I can’t know this and it doesn’t matter. I am cold. I lose my place, or abandon it. My body stretches out and falls back to earth. It is all still there, near and far, taking shape at different speeds. The field as it falls away. The outline of the caravan. The binoculars untouched in my lap.

Loxley Road yarns into the west, the north-west, drawn by an incline. I break it down with familiar daymarks, an old garage and its ghost signs, the wide turn for the retirement village, the half-lit profile of a friend’s house. There are stonewalled sections and tree-lined sections and the occasional gap between houses and there is nothing to stop my thoughts from tumbling down the bank to the dark river valley. The Wisewood Inn is closed or closing, I glimpse two people still seated in the rear garden, sharing a joke, an anecdote, trying to find a way to the end of a tale. My aunt Jean was a gifted storyteller, a talent that she nurtured from childhood until the end of her days, but I never heard her story, not from her, and not in her lifetime. I never got it straight, or whole, only the fragments, passed down, pieced together. She was born in 1911, in Purton, Wiltshire, to working-class parents, the eighth of ten children, the ninth was my grandmother, my mother’s mother. She married, had three children, her husband, a good man, became ill, she nursed him, he died. She then took a job driving a milk float to support her family. Jean and the children lived in a council bungalow in Swindon, not far from my grandparents, they were close, supportive, my grandfather supplied her with vegetables he’d grown, she helped with childcare during the school holidays, all the children gathered round for a story. She met the man who became her second husband a few years after the war, the 1950s, even, no-one seems to have the dates. After they married he stopped working and started to fritter her wages on greyhounds. He became abusive, repeatedly, something which was hidden from the family for months or years. One day she disappeared. No-one knew where she was. She left her husband a bed, a chair, a saucepan, a plate, one knife, one fork, one spoon. No note. A few weeks later, my grandmother received a letter. Jean was in west Wales, at a small farm in the hills, a few miles south of Newcastle Emlyn. She had gone there with Derek, a family friend who became her partner, and who had bought the farm. There was a request in the letter, to keep the details from her husband, not to tell him where she’d gone, not to tell him anything. He never saw her again. That must have been the first letter, or one of the first letters, so many letters that radiated from that distant point, no two alike, scatterings of news, poems, riddles, stories, fancies, flights, all in that sloping script, strewn throughout the years. I never saw her anywhere but the farm, not that I remember, and so I grew up thinking that the place had always been part of her, that it was all of her. It never occurred to me to wonder if or when or why she had gone into the west. After forty years with Derek, she left him, and the farm, he had been unfaithful, she wasn’t going to put up with it, so she walked away, near the end of her ninth decade, and settled in a retirement home. He never saw her again. The letters continued. She spent her days reading, and writing, and I sometimes wrote back, but not often enough. The letters petered out and the next thing, the last thing, was a telephone call, to say that she’d died, in her early 90s. It was too late for me to write anything. I thought of the story that she told me when I was a boy, of how, during a violent thunderstorm in August 1962, ‘a brilliant ball of fire came hurtling out of the sky and hit the farm driveway’, where she found it ‘glowing white hot in a shallow depression’. I am thinking of it now, a story passing through her story, speeding up, slowing down. She collected the meteorite as soon as it was cold, and held onto it all that time, even as it fragmented, and gave one of the fragments to me in August 1981, a small lump of rock from the constellation of Perseus, and the story of its journey, a handwritten note that has darkened with age, that I have held onto all this time.

Black Lane on my left, a right angle with Loxley Road. Rodney Hill ahead on my right, an acute angle on a steep slope. The houses stop dead at the lane, lowlit fields unroll to the river, white glint of paddock posts, no movement. Then a small cluster of detached properties, either side of the gates to Wisewood Cemetery. I know it from the south, from walks along Black Lane, it is disquieting, the cemetery, its position is disquieting, exposed on all sides, laid out on a geometric plan. I pass the last detached house on my left and I try to forget about the cemetery. The pastures skew into the south, the road resets from west to north-west, rising on the turn. I wait until I am halfway between one lamp and the next and I look out across the valley and then above the valley and for a second all I see is coal-dark seams between the copper clouds. Then I look back at the road and I lose the impression. I remember the chain of lights that stretches to the reservoir, it stretches ahead of me now, blinding the sky, and I remember that the road to the reservoir is straight, unimpeded, I can see the lights of a car turning east from Storrs Bridge Lane, half a mile or more, and the distance is flooded, and the flood is closing in. I wait until the car is a few hundred metres off and then blinker my eyes with my right hand and hold it there until the car has passed and then drop it as the flood recedes. I do this over and again as I walk into the west. I have my seven-year-old self for company, six or seven or eight, kneeling on my bedroom floor, next to my mother, who has woken me, and herself, from sleep at 2am, because I asked her to, because it is the Perseids, it is my first year of Perseids. We wait at my bedroom window, facing north-east, how dark it is, in memory, we wait and nothing happens. Something shifts, some small adjustment, and we start to say what we think we’ve seen, did you see that, no, or yes, and the doubts are set aside, and my mother sees what I see, and I see what she sees. The road climbs again, the turn for Lea Bank Nurseries briefly lit by a passing car, Storrs Bridge Lane still somewhere ahead. Here I am in West Sussex, with Emma, August 2013, flat on our backs at the edge of a village, looking up, facing east. Her first year of Perseids, my first year for a decade or more, did we mean to do this, is it an afterthought. We are housesitting for my brother. I think that the shower has already peaked and that we will be lucky to see anything. We step out just after midnight and spread our blankets on the common ground at the end of the lane. Emma sees them first. After that they don’t stop. The road descends by increments, one or two or three percent, and I realise that the lamps are out, that there are no lamps on this part of the road, there never have been, and this is not how I remember it. On my left, a thicket of trees, a turn that I don’t see until it is almost gone, there is just enough light to read Storrs Bridge Lane. It’s four years since I last came this way by night. I stopped a few miles south of Wigtwizzle, then climbed over a fence and propped myself against a north-facing dry stone wall, overdressed, burning up, my back to the gibbous moon. I recall Perseids but nothing else. I fell asleep towards 2am and woke up in the cold of 3am. Then I walked back to Hillsborough, a few sparks here and there, between moonlight and dawn light and the ambient overspill from the east. A dip in the road, a glare in the near distance, something breaking off from it, a car, is it turning, reversing, which way is it going. It speeds towards the city and I squint my eyes as it passes. What’s left are streetlamps, a house, a pub. The Nags Head Inn is closed or closing, a few cars left in the car park, a few people, patrons or staff, gathered near the entrance. A red telephone box marks the turning for Stacey Bank. Two more houses, two more streetlamps, and the night is itself again. The road lifts and bends and dips. I would have been facing east, not west, on those nights in the Welsh hills, and the hills that I looked out on were not the Preseli mountains. I would have been looking out toward Pencader, where Jean would spend her last years, her last days. All this time I have been facing the wrong way. I cross the walled, wooded junction that divides Loxley Road from New Road, the junction that marks the eastern end of Damflask Reservoir, the long dark drop either side of the dam. I walk along Loxley Road for another hundred metres and find the gap in the stone wall that leads to the reservoir path. The path is unlit, twisting and uneven, tree roots breaking through, canopy extending its shadow. I try to navigate by touch. The road is perhaps 50 metres behind me but there is almost no light or noise leaking through. After a few hundred metres I come to the beached boats of the sailing club and a small bench overlooking the water. I sit on the bench. It is a little after 11.30pm. I am facing west, south and west. There are bands of cirrus above the horizon so I stop trying to look at the sky and listen to the reservoir instead. I hear an owl and a moorhen and one or two fish rippling the surface. I cannot place the sounds, so close, so distant. Between the sounds there is a sharp stillness. I look up, there is movement, a satellite, and another, this continues, there are more than I expected. 11.48pm. The cirrus disperses to the west, south and west. 11.51pm. Where did I get the idea that to look west is to look back. 11.54pm. Another satellite. 11.59pm. The stars that I couldn’t join up. 12.03am. A bank of cloud rises from the south and consumes everything. 12.08am. To see the whole sky sideways and no part in particular. 12.15am. The cloud clears. 12.19am. Something in, or out of, the corner of my eye, something that I don’t quite catch.

Sheffield, 12 August 2021 / 24 August 2021

 

 

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Blind Spot

2012, early October, late Friday. A lengthy, uneventful train journey to Swindon, back to the old town, home for the weekend. A short walk from the station, a few drinks with old friends. We leave the pub, I am invited in for a nightcap, the friend’s house is just up the road. Whiskey and low light. It is sometime after midnight when I gather up my things, the rucksack and other impedimenta, and say goodbye. I have declined the offer of a cab. I am moving a little slower than usual, it is partly the drink, partly the weight on my back. There is more weight at my sides, unevenly distributed, a full carrier bag, the metal frame of an empty shopping trolley. It doesn’t matter. It is not far to my mother’s house. I know this area like the back of my hand. I turn from Victoria Road to Wood Street to High Street, with each turn there are fewer people, almost everything is closed now. I cut through the car park on Dammas Lane, there is not so much light here, it tapers into a narrow passage, the high-walled Masonic Centre on my left, the metal fences of the burnt-out Corn Exchange on my right. The space opens out at The Planks. I pass the old auction house that was redeveloped and split into gated residential properties in the early years of the new millennium. If I catch it at the right moment, if the shadows fall at a certain angle, I can still see the shape of the old auction house. Not tonight. I am at the edge of the park, I don’t know why they fenced this section in the west, the gap is still there, a breach in the palisade. I crawled through it when I was ten. I’d fallen from one of the old manorial walls and broken my arm. I held the arm out in front of me because it no longer seemed to be part of me and I walked around until I found my family and I used my good arm to point at the arm that was broken. I don’t remember what I said to them or if I said anything. I hardly ever think of it now. Here is the junction of The Planks and Old Mill Lane, the darkness thickens at the edge of the woods, it is an old familiar darkness and it reassures me. Here is the short steep slope to Lakeside. I am moving a little slower than usual, the drink has not worn off, I switch the carrier bag and the empty trolley back and forth. I am seven minutes from my mother’s house. I have walked this route since I was small and it has always been the same length except for when they spent a summer re-laying the path and upgrading the streetlights. The path and its lights mark the soft southern boundary of the park. I can see the path ahead of me, below me, it starts where this short row of detached, elevated bungalows ends, the lamplight rising and falling with the hill’s curve, the other side of the light is home, the idea of home. I am in the light, I am between the lights, I watch my shadow expand and shrink in the gaps. I hear voices, somewhere behind me, out of the woods, it is a distance, I can’t be sure. I watch my shadow fall back and overtake. I hear footsteps, somewhere behind me, how many, how close. I decide that they are not close enough to count. There is always someone trailing out of the pub long after the pub has shut, there is always someone lost along the way. Here is the short steep slope to Dorchester Road. The path runs downhill to a little alley that opens into a cul de sac and the cul de sac opens into the main road through the estate. On the other side of the main road is the cul de sac where I grew up. I am two minutes from my mother’s house. Here are the footsteps again. I could take it blindfold from here, the curve and lift and turn of the pavement, it is part of me, it has always been part of me. There are two sets of footsteps and no voices. I wonder if one set of footsteps might be mine, is this what I’m hearing, I cannot know without stopping and I am not stopping. The handles cut into my hands. I cannot turn easily, the rucksack and other impedimenta, I cannot glance back. The street that I think I know well seems longer than I remember. It is narrowing. This is something I have often considered but rarely experienced, what is it, an unfamiliar element in familiar surroundings making everything unfamiliar. I am in the light, I am between the lights, a lengthening, a quickening, how shadows beget shadows. I am in the light and my shadow is on repeat. I step to one side of myself, this happens suddenly and without thought, I am struck by something metal, the right side of the head, a glancing blow. For an almost second I think it is a joke, this is a friend’s idea of a joke, but I have no friends around here and this is not their idea of a joke. I reel and stagger and somehow get myself to the end of the street without being struck again. I stop, is it because I can’t go on, is it because there is no advantage in going on. I turn. There are two of them, white, male, hooded. They are perhaps 20, slightly younger, slightly older, I can’t make out much detail in the faces. I am in the light. One of them steps forward while the other stands back. The one who steps forward is the one who struck me, I know this because he is wielding something metal, or steel, galvanised or stainless, a long steel chain. He says something, something about the chain, something about me, something about the stuff that I am to hand over. I cannot run. It occurs to me that they have followed me from the woods, it should have been obvious, I have always been slow to catch on. I cannot run with the rucksack and other impedimenta, a full carrier bag, the metal frame of an empty shopping trolley. I am in the light. I cannot run so I raise the metal frame of the trolley and make a mad mask of my face and howl guttural threats until hoarse. They run back into the little alley and I shout and swear as they retreat. I look up and then I look around. No one has come to their windows and no one is on the street. I am shaking. The shaking spreads from my chest to my arms and my fingers tighten around the plastic and metal handles. The cul de sac is empty and the main road is empty. I cross the road and I pass the bus shelter and I take a last look back at the road before I turn into the short close that has my mother’s house at the end. I try the keys until I find the right key and the door opens with all its weight on the hinge and I close it and lock it twice over. It is 1am, perhaps later. I leave my luggage in the hallway and go into the kitchen where I find a meal that my mother has left out for me. I reheat it and sit down with it but I cannot taste it. After a while I go to bed. I lie in the dark and leave a space for the thoughts to come. The thoughts are all the same, the thoughts are all of violence, the violence has nowhere to go. I pursue my assailants into the woods. I surprise my assailants as they emerge from the woods. I leave my assailants with lasting injuries. Or worse. All of this takes place in the shadows. Over and over. It is senseless, repetitious, unreflective. I tell myself that it is adrenaline and nothing more and that sleep, in time, will come.

The next day I get up and make breakfast and take a cup of tea to my mother. I didn’t hear you come in last night, she says, no, I was out late with friends, I say. How was your journey, she says, it was fine, I say. I spend the morning looking for ways to make myself useful, it is something I like to do when I visit, perhaps I will clean the windows, perhaps I will vacuum the stair carpets. In the afternoon I volunteer for errands. I take the shopping list that my mother has written out and I leave the house and I set off, distractedly, I set off into town. After a minute or two I come to the spot on Dorchester Road where I stood the night before. It looks very ordinary. It looks as it has always looked. There are some rubble bags tucked between a garage and a low brick wall and a few pallets stacked next to the rubble bags. I search the pavement, what am I expecting to find, there is nothing to see and nothing further occurs to me. I conclude that the spot has no power and so I walk on into the little alley. The little alley looks the same and the path into the parkland looks the same. A few hours later I come back the same way, I think that it might be different this time, the short walk through the little alley and the cul de sac, but it isn’t, it is already reverting to the short walk that I have been taking for years. I am almost disappointed. The weekend passes, usefully and unremarkably. I pack up my things, I say goodbye to my mother, I walk to the station and catch a train back to Sheffield.

In the days and weeks that follow I share the story with a few friends, in cafes, in pubs, the story of what happened, it comes out after a drink or two, the story that I haven’t shared with my family. Soon it is almost slick with the telling. I let the stress fall on chance, the role of luck. I say that luck, not instinct, spared me worse than a glancing blow, I say that luck, not wit or mettle, decided my reaction, I say that luck, not strength or courage, decided the outcome. I say all this and I also say without saying that I overcame the odds. That I faced down two assailants who lost their nerve and turned tail. That I stood my ground. I say this without saying it. The shape of the story changes with the telling, it depends on whom I share it with, it starts to warp and sag. It is harder and harder to see what I saw in it. After a while I lose interest in the story and I put it away.

I put it away, but I don’t put it out of my mind. I put it on a high shelf with the other small stories that I rarely take down. The stories are shelved in no particular order so I put it next to the story of the broken arm, a story that didn’t seem to be happening to me when it happened. It happened around me. After I found my family we got into the car and my father drove us to the hospital. It was not far to the hospital but I don’t remember the car moving at all, heat haze on the back seat, a whiteout in stationary traffic, though we must have moved, somehow on that Saturday afternoon we found our way to A&E. What I remember of that afternoon and evening is what my mother remembers and that I, in turn, have misremembered. We spent a long time in A&E waiting for a bed or waiting for a consultant. The afternoon had gone and most of the evening had gone. There were drunken men in A&E, large men, they were drunk and they had injured themselves. They were swearing and complaining. Eventually a staff nurse or administrator took them to task, there’s a little boy with a broken arm over there, she said, he’s been waiting here for hours and he hasn’t cried once. I was moved to a ward, then theatre. Surgery in the small hours. The bone was reset and the arm cast in white plaster. I was commended for my bravery. I went along with it, I didn’t turn from the attention, but I knew I wasn’t being brave. I was in shock. The arm remained in plaster for six months and it became its own story, the loosening and tightening cast, cracked and grubby and scrawled. It was strange to see it go, to feel the weight of it lifting, the arm without its armour.

A few weeks pass. I continue to stroll the city streets by day and night. I walk from Hull to Spurn Point alone in unfamiliar darkness. I take early trains and late trains, I am unaccompanied and unwary. I forget about the incident. I forget about it because there is nothing to learn from it. I don’t change or vary my routes. I don’t change the hours that I keep. I don’t lose ground. I don’t lose sleep. It is not until some years later that I start to think about the reasons for this. That I couldn’t imagine a different outcome. A worse outcome. That I didn’t think about it because I didn’t have to think about it. The best of outcomes. I continue to think of my self as neutral, my thoughts as neutral, my body as neutral. Two good arms. Two good legs. Default or design. The space I move through is designed around me. It is designed for me, or someone who looks like me. A white body in a dark plain. The path unmarked and unlit. The vast salt flats to the east. The mind and its longing, its onward vigil, eased out of vigilance.

I can only speak for myself. The design of my life did not change. There is no before and after. The incident takes up no space in my head. It takes up no space in my world. Not an inch. I can walk anywhere. At any time. I can walk out of Easington at 3am, on the slow road to Hull, an East Riding patrol car idling in a layby, I can pass the patrol car without acknowledgement or consequence, untroubled and unguarded, the mind as blank as the lane. I can ask myself, as a thought experiment, as a means of passing the time, what it might have meant, how it might have gone, if I was a young black man walking out of Easington at 3am. I can board a late train to Barnetby, take note of the lads with bottles and cans in the middle of the carriage, sprawling from their table seats and blocking the aisles, I can withdraw to the next carriage, biding my time. I might observe that there are no women travelling alone, I might not, it is unremarkable, I might decide not to get the map out, not to draw attention to myself, to wait until the journey’s end, to make myself small, so that my world does not become smaller.

 

 

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SE 691 123

Above and below
this open field, new circuits,
turbines and pipelines.
A clean wind, slowing inshore, 
to patents and enclosures.

A selection of Nikki Clayton’s images of the Thorne Moors poetry walk that took place on 31 August 2019 (as part of the Ted Hughes Poetry Festival). After a rendezvous at Thorne South railway station (SE 691 123), the walk (punctuated by readings from White Thorns) took in the ‘infrastructural’ landscape between Thorne and the Humberhead Peatlands, including the Stainforth and Keadby canal, the Moor Road level crossing, and the Tween Bridge wind farm (at the eastern edge of South Yorkshire).



 

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Thorne Moors

Only in stopping
can I see the blades turning
above the strip farms.
I blink out the frequency,
one eye shuttered and released.

On Saturday 31 August, I’ll be leading a walk along the Stainforth and Keadby canal to the eastern edge of South Yorkshire, taking in the rich, varied landscape between Thorne and the Humberhead Peatlands, and the 22 turbine wind farm that rises from this flat terrain. Along the way, I’ll be reading poems informed by these complex, layered environments, and discussing the history and ecology of Thorne Moors (and the role of the autodidact and eco-warrior William Bunting in securing its future).

The walk is part of the 2019 Ted Hughes Poetry Festival; click here for more details about the event (and to reserve places). You can read an account of an earlier walk through RSPB Adwick Washland (with the poet Matthew Clegg) here. A short reflection on White Thorns, a sequence of poems that developed from a series of walks around Thorne and the Isle of Axholme, can be found here.

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Terminal

The optics are old,
this map is a memory,
the path out of print.
A river and its relics,
in riddance, in remembrance.

Half an inch from the south shore, a line is cast from nowhere, black dots, black dashes, almost north, almost parallel to the line of the Humber Bridge, red on green, half an inch to the left. The bridge is cut off by the ordnance grid. The dots and dashes float in a pale blue square, then crop out of the eastings, black marks in numbered space. A county boundary, trailing downstream through mud and sand, it terminates in a short hem, and neither end meets land. If I stare straight ahead from the south shore, I think, I will see the line on the water, if I stand here long enough, the lace will break the surface. I stare straight ahead. I see the silt that buffers the south shore and the settlements of the north shore. I cannot read the square that divides them. Overhead, a bank of cloud drifts in and out of the grid, smudging the scale, sapping the moon. The use is gone. The map folds flat. I snap out of it, there, Waters’ Edge is where I left it, an outline in the near west, soft lights, losing strength, the visitor centre, the road out, the recycled land. I can’t see the joins. The regular paving runs out beneath my feet and the path sheds a layer. I slow to take it in, I make adjustments, the east scraped back with each step, the track blanched and brittle. If there are signs, if there are warnings, I don’t see them. The light leaves the path before the path leaves the park.

Reed beds, rinsed topsoil,
and before this, the tile works,
the mere, its white sails.
At the creek, a cement track,
black caustics, residuals.

After three hundred metres I pass between an outfall pipe and a sewage works. The outfall glints above the mudflats and breaks off at the shallows. It is somehow connected to the tanks, I see two or three diffusion drums behind a stand of trees. The works do not obstruct the path but they do make plain its unimportance. It is amenity, it is infrastructure, and it is the least of these. The path takes the line of the flood bank, left a bit, leaning into the foreshore, a brick works or tile works spreading out to my right, the perimeter set fast, dry ditch, steel palisade, pallet stacks. Behind the stacks, two chimneys, one broad, one thin, one dark, one darker. I close my eyes and make up the colours. The path turns right, the palisade turns right, and after fifty metres they lose each other, a left turn, I am level with the river again. A thickness of hedges and trees in the space vacated by the tile works. It is a screen, perhaps, an estate and its privacy. I don’t know this. I can’t know this, not without leaving the path. At three hundred metres the path and the bank and the trees break down. I slow for the remnants of an old sluice, the brickwork and gear-wheel, and if I stopped, if I stayed with it for a while, the light would fill in the details. Another path appears on my right, a flat grey line below the flood bank, again the separation, the trees extend the boundary. It is a companion path to the public path, I think, then I reject this, it is no companion. I save up the gaps in the boundary until I have enough for a profile. Inland water. On the map it is clay pits in the shape of a lake. The southern edge fills to the line of the railway. I glimpse a clubhouse, a boathouse, the boats in berths, on land, at rest. It is 1am. Everything is locked down. I slow again, one hundred metres east of the boathouse, and follow a short track to a concrete platform, which is empty, and a creek, which is choked with hessian sacks, plastic sacks, and plastic bottles. I mistake the platform for a car park, then remember the clay in the clay pits, there used to be a brickworks here, this used to be a wharf. I stand at the lip, a clean drop to the foreshore, bits of timber and metal, the barges taken apart, nothing leaves the sediment. Close to the wharf is a concrete block, sunk in grass, a dull metal loop at the centre. I’ve seen these before, in pictures. An estuary swollen with barrage balloons, a passive defence against aerial trespass, anchored and tethered by iron rings and steel cables, of which only the heaviest, smallest parts survive.

When uncertainty
is our best defence, we’ll see
the slightest breaches
in this silver barrage as
deterrence in the highest.

I return to the path, the eastern edge of the lake behind me, a green gap, a new lake, the nearside short. There is no boathouse, there are no boats. I pick out the lights of the north shore, sort the quick from the static, still Hessle, the last mile, perhaps the outskirts of Hull. The path skims the second lake, then a third, the sea wall makes an arc to the foreshore. I follow, losing sight of the lake, the landscape gets in the way, the trees fall back and I count twenty caravans behind the flood bank, lit by a single floodlamp. The path straightens out and the trees fall in line. Sound fills the left channel, the left ear, the left of my head, it has been rising for several hundred metres, a ragged pulse, steadying and slipping, over the water, Hessle or Hull, Saturday night, Sunday morning, heavy disco. The right channel is empty. Ahead, a gap where the ground should be. The bank is breached. This is the haven, the quay, the path on a landward turn, ninety degrees, working boats and leisure boats moored on the east side, the water low, the keels drying out. After a few minutes I reach the bridge, rail and pedestrian, single track, single file, an open crossing, no signals, no warnings.

Inshore, to Barrow,
then back through Old Ferry Wharf’s
timber terminal.
How light and rhythm carry
from the scrapyards of Hessle.

I step off the railway and shake out the map. The information I need is cramped into a quarter inch with some other information and I can’t unpick it all. I take the only route available, the only road that I can see, the forty metres of track that leads to the wharfside. The wharf isn’t working and the lamps have been left on. There is an entrance to the left, marked for HGVs, and what appears to be an exit to the right, unmarked and gated. A small signage block sits between the entrance and the exit, a steel-framed rectangular panel on short stilts, white background, blue text, timber terminal in bold capitals, red symbol and explanation, yellow symbol and explanation, blue symbols and explanation. No smoking, no naked flames, safety helmets and vests to be worn on site. There is nothing to indicate a right of way and nothing that prohibits it, no symbols, texts, colours or posts. I take a left turn for the HGV entrance, passing a long, low shed with a brick base and a curved, corrugated steel roof, I see the cranes pitched over the wharfside. There is nothing that looks like a right of way. The vehicle gate is closed and I step to the side and around a heap of old tyres and pass a sign which is the same as the sign that I passed at the entrance. I look around. The wharfside is clear, the cranes are stood down. This must be where the cargo is unloaded, I think, where is the border. Ahead and to my right is the storage yard. The yard is divided into bays, a HGV’s width between them, there is extra space for loading and turning. In each bay, the timber is slotted and secured, the short pieces stacked in cubes, the long pieces laid in rows, all of it palletised, all of it strapped with plastic, wrapped, unwrapped, open to the night. Some of the stacks are numbered, a short code, I don’t know what it means. Country of origin, port of origin, article of tariff. 22, 38, 56. I make a small map in my mind, it has the shipments from Scandinavia and the Baltic states, international waters, maritime borders, the men stay with the ship, they don’t disembark, there is no touching. There is something missing. I think of making a new map but I don’t know how to finish it. I think of the yard and its penalties, the storage fees and the clearance fees, and I can’t see a way out of the wharf. It is just a wharf, I think, a soft terminal. I try to see past the cranes and the cargo and imagine a corridor that someone sketched earlier. I pass one bay, then another, the yard narrowing to the north, the docking platform falling away to the west, a new barrier rising in the east, large, bonded concrete blocks that I can’t see over or around, the passage is protected, the blocks run out, my breath restarts, and I find my place at the river. It is not the same place, it is not the same path. The moon has gone. The sky and the water do not reflect each other. A coarse grain sinks in the air, heavy and slow. The figments of the east are raked and sieved and I don’t know which side of the river the light is coming from.

Windmill Pond, a crux
with a scuffed nought, and always
the pontoon ahead.
Night thoughts, without complexion,
a path exhausting its chalk.

As the perspective goes, so does my position. I have nothing to measure myself against. I try to compensate for the poor contrast by grazing the grass with my left foot, it doesn’t help, there is only darkness between the flood bank and the rushes. 2am. The moon reappears, in a different part of the estuary, minus its lustre, its finish. Bits of the foreshore break off in the corner of my eye. It is the property of the Crown, or most of it is, part of its coastal portfolio, I wouldn’t think it to look at it. The Crown Estate grants permissive consent for non-commercial public access along the foreshore. It has a prerogative right to lease and licence tidal land and seabed for port and harbours infrastructure, cables, pipelines and outfalls, and other projects. Each port or harbour has its own byelaws, a form of delegated legislation, and breaches are prosecuted in the lower courts. The path is uneven and maintained by use alone. If there was light enough I would step down to the foreshore, at my leisure, without claims. I must not leave the path. The path thins, the foreshore thins, there is light enough to pick out a few objects stuck to the south bank, a punctured football, an old tyre, a flagpole and flag, almost upright, I can’t identify the country. It’s a trap, I think, and why would I think that. The air has cooled slightly. A line of light has detached itself from the thick of Hull’s electrics, pulling away from the long, bright curve of the north bank; it is clear now, and close, the shape of a jetty, the line of a second terminal. Little by little, the path eases inland, still level with the foreshore, there must be a turn somewhere. Thirty metres from the terminal, the access widens to a concrete shelf, walled from the estuary, then narrows as it bridges an outfall drain. There are gates ahead and some dark masses to the rear. The path stops short of the gates and makes a sharp cut between the terminal and the drain. The terminal buildings fill the space to my left, separated by a steel fence, it is a single, jointed building, I realise, a warehouse with a multi-span gable roof. After two hundred yards, the site meets the railway and the path turns a corner, leftward, eastward, the warehouse slipping back. The trackbed is loose in its blanket, the embankment on a curve, and the path, now tarmac, glosses over a section of older, fainter rails that run beneath and beyond a set of locked gates. Ahead, to my right, a white signal box, Barrow Road, the tarmac around it cut and patched, and the white gates of a level crossing, manually operated, the road unlatched, the railway closed.

Port, line and station,
a pier and its passengers,
the old New Holland.
A cough, a yard half-open,
the tollman in his cabin.

I scribble a few lines on an A4 sheet folded to A6, things copied from signs, apparent certainties, naive speculations. I am writing in my own shadow and the words are on the slide. It is a night letter, to be memorised and not read, posted and not delivered. I fold the sheet inside the map and tuck the map inside my fleece. I take the map out of my fleece and trace a red thread in a blue-white square. I walk to the level crossing and back to the signal box. The port has several entrances, goods in transit, goods in storage, all of it is property and marked as property. I pick the least unlikely passage through the port, a long, straight road, flanked, on the right, by a long, grey shed. The road is cut in half by a one-armed swing barrier, which I tiptoe around. Each step is less certain than the last. There are few markings on the road, a black and yellow line, a broken white line. An unbroken white line runs ahead of me, inside left, turning as the road turns, I try to think of it as a defence, a legal defence, if I hold to the line and do not leave. The line passes other lines, thick, important lines, thinner lines, borders within borders. Some of the zones have arrows and stripes. I don’t look at the zones, I don’t enter the zones. There is a light in front of me, a control cabin at the dock’s edge, and a sound, a throat being cleared. I pass the cabin and follow the line between two warehouses. The road turns and the light dies behind it, there is a lack of clarity. I see crates and timber to my right and more warehouses further off. I see an unmarked path trailing through rough ground, climbing out of the silos and stacks, the fences come up on both sides, then fan out as the slope meets the foreshore, the map’s last square.

The dust blanketing
weathered pallets, the dry bulk
unbreathing. Within
each trespass lies another
and all the paths withdrawing.

Barton-upon-Humber to New Holland, 14 August 2016

Terminal is the second instalment of a serial work; the first instalment is Sheet 112. An earlier version of Terminal was produced as an artist’s book for Trespass, an exhibition at SIA Gallery, Sheffield, 30 November – 22 December 2018. 

Some of the poems in Terminal appear in Uniformannual, which also includes contributions from John Bevis, Peter Blegvad, Kevin Boniface, Janet Boulton, Angus Carlyle, J. R. Carpenter, Rebecca Chesney, Les Coleman, Simon Cutts, Caitlin DeSilvey, Michael Hampton, Matthew Kelly, Cathy Lane, Phil Owen, Colin Sackett, Dawn Scarfe, Tim Staples, Gertrude Stein, Erica Van Horn, Ian Waites, Nathan Walker, Tom Wilkinson, and Ken Worpole. Click here for further details and to order the book.

 

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Sheet 112

To each a new east,
a figment in the distance,
layer by layer,
the land remediated,
the way unaccompanied.

In a half-mile gap between North Lincolnshire and North Lincolnshire, there is a leftover Lincolnshire, a corner where three lines converge: heavy freight, passenger services, spinning from the west, the south-west, the south-east, slowing at the unitary border, the signals and their colours. A minute’s suspension on the curve, the flap of an unsealed envelope, one junction, then another, and the borough is made whole. The line draws level with Skegger Beck and the island platforms of Barnetby station. I step onto the north island, the footbridge rises, the track runs out of the frame, the footbridge descends, I step onto the south island. There is nothing south of the south island, no footpath, no exit. I undo each step, the footbridge rises, the footbridge descends. It is August, a Saturday, the evening piles up at the Whistle and Flute, spilling onto the buff paving. I pass out of the lane, the yellow of the NO PARKING grid repeating in the painted rails of the step-free access ramp; at the lane’s end, the dark timbers and clay-white curtains of the Silver Band practice hut. I turn left, a plain street, the King’s Road, one way out, exit north. Short terraces, redbrick semis, a few detached houses with gated driveways, and, set back from the road, batteries of post-war bungalows. Squat walls, blank fronts, hard landscapes. I take it in, let it go, surface after surface, glance up, the dusk is drawn through a mesh of overhead wires, the spokes of a utility pole. I make a diagram in mid-air, the lettered points of a compass rose, fifteen, sixteen, I start over, then stop, the divisions uneven, the directions at fault. The sky is incomplete.

The wold cleansed, a whim
at every gate, effigies
lolling and pointing:
the road to Barnetby Top,
the blind cut to Gallows Wood.

As I near the off-licence I begin to notice the little figures, less than human, propped against fences, waving from gardens, straw-stuffed dolls with outsize features. Some of them are familiar, the button faces of children’s animations, others I can’t quite place. Perhaps this is a local tradition, I think, decided here, in this street, one morning, and taken up, house by house: to stitch, to show. There are no signs, no banners. I cannot tell if the figures are in competition, if someone is judging them. There is no one to ask. The village sheds its volume, the terminal poles and corner bungalows, and the characters lose their scale, and I am at the roundabout, east of Gallows Wood, reflective barriers in dry, compacted earth, unmarked cars, branded vans. I am half out of my wits. The roundabout leads to an interchange, suspended above the M180, a footpath following the road link. The traffic merges and separates, high masts glossing the exits, fixed points on a flat spindle. I stop to read the pattern. The cars are going into the west, the light is going into the west. I leave the elevated section, crossing a two-lane slip road, ending up in a grass verge where the M180 becomes the A180, eastbound at a slant, Immingham, Killingholme. I cut through the verge and into the slack of a minor road, separated from the orbital junction by a small wooden fence, a dead end, dividing two fields, one fallow, one green, no buildings in sight. The road is straight, thinning as the contours rise, slight and gradual. A mouse, then only the sound of a mouse. I walk two hundred metres or so, and set my face to the west, to watch the light part with the land.

Elsham, the colours
are put away for the night,
each one in its fold.
The land is left to its shapes
and blue is the last to go.

I walk another four hundred metres, the road ends in a junction, there is no wind, there is a slight drop in temperature. I turn left. This is also a minor road, it barely darkens the map, a perforated yellow strip. Elsham Top. A plateau, not perfectly flat, the view of arable fields is interrupted where the curvature distorts the plane, and the wheat falls away to the wheat I can’t see. I pass an open-sided corrugated iron barn, machinery stacked at the rear, a white farmhouse at a quarter-turn, terracotta roof tiles, thick Leyland cypress flanking the gables, blind walls and privacy. When I look back, the farmhouse is gone. Each scene is dimmer than the last, copies of copies, uneven tones, corrupted lines. Eventually, the parcels of land on my left start to narrow and break down, and the dual carriageway moves into earshot. I pick out two gas pipeline markers at one end of a hedgerow, orange panels in precast concrete, then, at the other end, an aerial oil pipeline marker, white post, bright yellow roof, broad black stripe. A thin stand of trees tapers off to my right. The road seems to buckle and dip, its verges rising on both sides, a cutting or embankment, hollowing the lane. The shade swells up as the bend sharpens, until the cut is obscured. The bend softens and I make out the bulk of a short bridge, the A15 on its back, lying across the lane. Low clearance. The angle it makes is acute and the sides of the bridge do not line up when I move between them. Vibrations pass through concrete and into my chest. The lane continues as itself, and begins to climb out of the declivity. When I look up and over the verge, the sky has soaked up more of the dark grain, lumps of it adrift in the fissures, thirty degrees, clotting the zodiac.

The smuts are tethered
overhead, black laterals,
scudding into dross.
All the blotting parallels
backlit in a shelving mass.

The gradient relaxes and the verges lose their tilt. Sound from the dual carriageway is broken and not replaced. Elsham Top recurs in a left turn, which I do not take, winding back into itself. A few minutes later, another unmarked turn appears on my right, a new surface, brittle at the join, lighter in tone. The track seems to point to a handful of long, low buildings with pitched roofs, somewhere across the flat acres, but it is not clear how the track and the buildings are connected, and when I unfold the map and light up the grid, all I read is white space. I keep to the road, it is still empty, a telegraph pole in the left margin, axis without origin. The wires run to the next pole, then another, the intervals help me to measure the distance, and I think of graph paper, hoarded, unused, reams of blue-grey quadrilles, you could start anywhere. The poles branch out on a left turn, low voltage to the next village, a service drop in single phases. On my right, a small field has been impounded, concrete posts, barbs on the top strands, no cautions, no written warnings. When it is gone I see tiny crosshatched squares.

Collapsing the plain,
the little infinitives,
flush to the substrate.
A skein of grey filaments,
a flight into fencelessness.

There used to be an airfield somewhere around here, RAF Elsham Wolds, the records go back to December 1916, a primitive sketch, C Flight guarding the estuary, Spurn Head, Kilnsea, biplanes patrolling coastal batteries. At the end of the First World War the wooden huts and aircraft shed were flattened and the wold reverted to pasture. A second station opened in July 1941, west of the original site, a mile north-east of Elsham village. Three runways, three hangars, asphalt concrete hardstands, technical and maintenance areas, accommodation blocks, bomb stores, Bomber Command. 248 of the Elsham Wolds bombers were lost on operations: most of the losses were Lancasters. After the war, and the closure of the airbase, displaced Poles and Ukrainians, working at the steelworks in Scunthorpe, used the site as temporary lodgings; by the early 1950s, the land had again returned to agricultural use. The site is now bisected by the A15 and the eastern half is an industrial estate. I work it out from the map, some of it, the factory lanes and the slip roads, their deliveries and departures, and a double row of black dashes, the imprints of two runways, set down like compasses.

Four years of night raids,
an airbase spent, a squadron
disbanded. Depots
where the Lancasters squatted.
Short-term, strategic, bonded.

A sharp left in the road, sending me west, the estates to either side secured by fences, the fences backed up by trees, sightlines ending in thickets and spikes. Another sharp turn sets my back to the village, and the fence on my left is gently let down, declining into scrub, the night showing through. It is a little after 10pm. As the concrete and mesh on my right are used up, the land is enlarged; a green verge, a green field, grazed and featureless, divided and squared by low wooden hurdles. The hurdles stretch to a row of buildings, dim cutouts under dull cloud, the wrong shape for agriculture. There is something in the foreground, limp against the roofline, a windsock or flag. I can’t make out the colour. The tract ends in a driveway, open to the road, that leads to Elsham Water Treatment Works. I understand this from a sign on the slate-capped entrance marker. The sign conceals an older sign, which I cannot read. Another sign indicates that CCTV is in operation. I scan the fence for security infrastructure and conclude that the fence is the security infrastructure. There are no cameras here, I think, no-one is making images. I pace the entrance, nostrils flared, straining to pick up something, chlorine or sulphate, scour or backwash, but the facility is silent, the air indistinct. I sip water from a bottle and leave the driveway. Concrete and mesh are realigned to the roadside, surmounted by flat-topped thorny hedgerows, and the treatment works are effaced. After two hundred metres I reach a crossroads, the contours coming on, the B1206 sliding back to the south, levelling off to the north. The north is for Barton and New Holland. I take it, while staring down the bend of another lane, north-east from the crossroads, which appears to skirt the base of a tall communications mast. I find the mast on the map, where it sits at the western edge of the former Elsham runway system, close to the site of the RAF control tower, demolished in the 1980s; at the height of the cold war, the tower relayed radar from an operations room near the mouth of the Humber to a RAF base outside Doncaster, the Elsham site being equidistant from the two stations. After it was decommissioned, part of the control tower was put to residential use; the ‘house’ was rumoured to be haunted.

West of the airstrip,
the relay tower ghosted
by the estuary
bunker, Radio Holmpton,
east of the meridian.

One by one, the exits fall back, and the B1206 sets its gradient to zero. I walk until I think I am level with the communications mast, all profile, now, above flat fields, though I am hardly any closer to it than when I stood at the crossroads. The map shows that the roads have diverged at an angle of 50 degrees, this will continue for the next few miles, there will not be a reconciliation. When the communications mast passes from view I am left without verticals. I know that the land to the west and the east is reserved for agriculture, the vergeside is all hedgerow, I cannot grasp the details. All I see is the shape of the plain and the line that divides it. There are vehicles, northbound to Barton, southbound to Brigg, the road lights up every few minutes, I try not to flinch at the glare, I try to find a niche for my feet. As my pace quickens, my thoughts slow down, until the frequency holds, a simple, steady beat, incidental to the journey, integral to the body, in step with the sound of cars, the lights of cars. I think of direction and speed, distance and time. I think of the course I set at the crossroads, the road flickering on a dial, between grid north and true north. I think that I make each place as I pass through it. The less I see, the more I make. I think this, then unthink it. The cars die out on the southbound lane and my eyes readjust to the night. Clouds disperse above the horizon. I watch the repairs taking place overhead, the moon in wait. As the first few stars are put back the depth returns to the sky’s edge.

Each print takes more ink,
the old colours showing through,
stuck to the rollers.
Half a coat of midnight blue,
impermanent, unfinished.

After a mile or so the road tightens on a curve, the cars are harder to read on the bend, and there are peaks of white noise in the east. I stop to unfold the map and work out my position. I am at a junction, there are degrees of separation, the B1206 crossing the A15, north-east to Barrow, the B1218 both feeding the carriageway and nursing it to Barton. Just before the junction, a few feet to my left, I see a gated turn, screened from the B-roads by a tall, ragged clump of bushes. The turn isn’t marked on the map and I can’t tell if it is a layby or a lane. I walk to the gate, and, finding it unlocked, enter the turn. There are no signs, no buildings, no infrastructure. It is less than one hundred metres from end to end, clean and straight, the north exit looping back into the B1206. I wonder if it is used by the police, if it is used to set traps. I walk on, the B-roads dividing, wheatfields spreading into the west, lodges and granges to the near east, the estates tucked behind trunks. The visual balance is lost at the junction, my left eye unanchored, my right eye blinkered. This continues for a quarter of a mile until both sides of the road are shuttered by trees. It is graft, light and sound are distorted, diffuse, I put my thoughts to one side and try to get through the blind bends and black straits. When I climb out of the last hollow, I find that the carriageway has closed in. Perhaps twenty metres to my right, separated by a steep bank, the cutting is in flow, lorries to the Humber, the parks and ports. The A15 dips out of sight and the fields take shape once more, lit by combines, their slow circuits, an edge put to an edge.

Out in Beaumontcote
and the clutch of Beacon Hill
machines rasp and scour.
Overnight, the sheaves unclasp,
the tenderness inches back.

At Beacon Hill, the B1218 bridges the A15, then embarks on a measured descent, the land holding itself in check. A slim belt of artificial light shifts between the lower slopes. The sky widens and the darkness is stepped down. Three wires run ahead of me, threading the insulators, wooden poles marking the way. I am smaller and lighter in this part of the grid, I know it will not last, the knowledge will return, a beginner, the loose leaf, then the clutter. On my right, at the field’s edge, a house with a red door, a red car, a red refuse bin. The security lamp burns out seconds later, the distance is relit, the contours cut off. I see the town falling into place, the Humber Bridge sticking out of the water, the faint red lights of the north tower, the clear red lights of the south tower. I see the image and the after-image, the town is doubled, Barton upon Barton, and then I blink back the error, set my face to the road. I pass a boundary marker, a police speed check sign, detached houses, long hedgerows, the hush, all of it trim, the pavement and the streetlight as one.

Softening shoulders,
a light in the town: slow signs,
a trough of flowers.
Sodium yellow outshines
this decorated border.

The streetlights bunch up and the town is made easier to read, the night loses pressure, I try to imagine the houses in sunlight, I try to think of a colour. I keep to the right, past the turning for The Bridges, another turning for the leisure centre, there should be a museum around here, it is on the map, it is not on the street. A row of tall trees darkens the area to my right. I am on the edge of a park, the canopy brushing the streetlight, and I hear voices, somewhere in the grounds, and music, closer now, it comes and goes, the length of the park, three hundred metres. The trees continue without the park, beeches and limes, a rolling boundary of private property, iron spikes and shaved hedges. I glimpse the last of the B1218, the junction with the A1077, then let go, drawn into a side street, impulse or instinct. At the far end of the street, past the storied newbuilds and the artisan cottages, the small businesses and their parking spaces, stands a white-capped tower: dark, aged brick; white-framed windows, each with three narrow panes, divided vertically; and, above them, white-slatted windowless frames, the slats horizontal, tight and blank as ventilation grilles. From a distance, I’d mistaken it for an inland lighthouse; it’s only when I pass the neighbouring premises that I see the adjoining structure, a split-level extension that might be a restaurant or a small hotel. I make my way out of the side street and into the main street, and here is the tower, named as The Old Mill, converted, restored, a marker for a Marston’s complex at the eastern edge of the town square. I cross the old market place, a few people coming out of the chip shop, the pub, steadying themselves as they meet the night, its solidness, its suddenness. I leave the market at George Street, more takeaways and pharmacies, heading north along King Street, a florist, a baker, a grocer, the displays packed up, the awnings taken down. The streets widen at the next junction and the buildings assert their separateness, their heritage, something has preserved them. I turn left, then right, it adds up to north. Each street is quieter than the last. At the old Assembly Rooms I find a plaque, then count four more, blue plaques and green plaques, both sides of the road. I lean against the rust-red railings of the old schoolhouse and think that if I stand here for long enough I might learn something.

Years of truancy
abandon you to Queen Street’s
Salvation Army.
Next door, a school museum,
the teachings of Wilderspin.

A long, regular, residential avenue ahead, I have doubts, I cannot reconcile myself to the map. I walk up the avenue and call it north. When I reach the end, I turn left: another long, regular, residential avenue, willows hanging in the distance. Many of the properties have been given names, the lettering lined up beneath the gables, it is the same for each one, villa, villa, villa. The villas run out, and the willows run out, and the road wanders off in a scruffy meander, harbouring a short, unmarked service track, gated and locked. There is water, too, a fleet or a beck, I swear to it, though I can’t see it. I clip the meander and the streets open out, everything is set to north, the lights and the cars. I cross the bus bay to a blue bus shelter with no seats or service information, then step back from the shelter and notice a pole-mounted railway sign. It seems that the shelter is part of the rail passenger infrastructure, which also comprises a few steps and an unnumbered platform. I climb the steps to the platform and walk to the end and back. The terminus of a single-track line, it is less a station than a stop; there is no ticket office, no ticket machine, no waiting room. There is a metal bench, which I make use of, unshouldering my rucksack and leaning heavily against the backrest. Of the platform’s three overhead lamps, only one is working. I try to compose myself, then stand up, pace the platform and resettle, unable to rest until I’m certain that nothing is coming.

End of a branch line,
the nitrates unravelling,
one track, one buffer.
Beneath the platform, Barton
Haven, the heavy water.

I leave the terminus and head north for one hundred metres, stopping at a lit junction to consult the map, here the town divides, west from east, the haven widens to a harbour. I bridge the water at Maltkiln Road, then continue eastward, via surplus land, advertisements for surplus land, and a desire path at Tesco, rejoining the road at Barton Self Storage, a yard piled with flaking shipping containers, old pallets and portaloos, fenced to a height of four feet, the corners lit by low-watt bulbs. The compound fence runs the length of the adjacent site, Barton Broads static caravan park, the grey paintwork now green. There are new detached homes on my left, waterside developments, no through roads, thick parkland on my right, there are paths and lanes branching off, I cannot tell if there is a right of way. I reach the last of the houses and enter a new system, closed to vehicles, open to pedestrians: one-way lanes and zoned parking, white-barked trees in geometric plots, open grassland, and, at the end of the loop, facing out to the Humber and the Humber Bridge, a low-rise structure, glazed and canopied. There is light overhead, I read, I make notes. The park is a country park, Waters’ Edge, the land and the visitor centre are new, this was a brick works, then a fertiliser plant, then nothing, the soil contaminated by chemicals, idle for decades, before work began to strip it back, to excavate and start over. I walk out to the path that edges the bank of the estuary, the trickle and silt of Barton Haven below, the moonlight catching the mudflats, the east and its figments.

Midnight, the south shore
unsupervised, the clay pits
and wetland enclosed.
Underfoot, in brick paving:
eight points of a compass rose.

 

Barnetby to Barton-upon-Humber, 13 August 2016

An earlier version of this work appeared in the catalogue accompanying A Case for Place, an exhibition at Gallery Steel Rooms, Brigg, Lincolnshire, 12 May – 23 June 2018. My thanks to Linda Ingham for commissioning the piece.

Some of the poems in Sheet 112 appear in Uniformannual, which also includes contributions from John Bevis, Peter Blegvad, Kevin Boniface, Janet Boulton, Angus Carlyle, J. R. Carpenter, Rebecca Chesney, Les Coleman, Simon Cutts, Caitlin DeSilvey, Michael Hampton, Matthew Kelly, Cathy Lane, Phil Owen, Colin Sackett, Dawn Scarfe, Tim Staples, Gertrude Stein, Erica Van Horn, Ian Waites, Nathan Walker, Tom Wilkinson, and Ken Worpole. Click here for further details and to order the book.

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White Thorns

White thorns, spinning sky,
each horizontal axis
sings the trinity.
One zenith, then another,
the crowns abide in the air.

Between the towns of Doncaster, Scunthorpe and Goole, less than 10 metres above sea level, 100 square miles of sparsely populated, predominantly agricultural land lie flat to the horizon. The low levels form the northern part of the Isle of Axholme, most of which belongs to North Lincolnshire, with outlying parcels in the East Riding and South Yorkshire. This reclaimed marshland is the setting of White Thorns, a sequence of poems that developed from several walks in 2016 and 2017.

The area is bounded on the east by the Trent, and on the north by the Ouse; at Blacktoft Sands, the confluence of the two rivers forms the Humber. In the 1620s, the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden was commissioned to drain the low-lying land of Hatfield Chase, a process that brought an end to the ‘islanding’ (or flooding) of Axholme, and also transformed much of the surrounding landscape. As part of the drainage project, Vermuyden re-routed the rivers Don and Idle, creating a new channel, the Dutch River, to the north, with a terminus at Goole. The Stainforth and Keadby canal, opened in 1802, links the Don in the west to the Trent in the east; its course through the isle runs parallel to the railway line, just below the villages of Ealand, Crowle and Keadby. A third parallel is provided by the M180, shadowing the railway and canal at a distance of a mile or so, and, with the M18 (linking Doncaster to Goole), effecting a contemporary ‘islanding’ of North Axholme to the south and west.

Since the middle ages, the area has been regarded as a source of fuel, with small-scale peat cutting on Thorne Moors preparing the ground for commercial extraction; by the 1980s, increasingly intensive methods had stripped large areas of the raised peat bog. A colliery – frequently troubled by flooding and faults, and mostly unproductive – also fissured the moors: the pithead was eventually demolished in 2014, and the resurfaced site is now home to a solar park. A few miles south, at Nun Moors, a 22-turbine wind farm stands at the edge of the Humberhead Peatlands National Nature Reserve. Six miles east, near Keadby, rising 90 metres from the flatlands, is a 34-turbine array; the largest onshore wind farm in England. It’s a dynamic illustration of how the exploration and extraction of energy continues to shape this landscape, the wheeling mesh of towers, hubs and blades visible throughout North Axholme, from arable field to depleted mire. It also invites us to consider the expansion of the grid laid down by Vermuyden, its field lines and drainage channels criss-crossed by the remnants of a light railway (serving passengers until 1933, and the peat works until 1963) and, latterly, the buried networks of utility cables and pipes, while, to the south and east, the skies are latticed with power-lines, the net thickening at Keadby, where, between the Warping Drain and the power station, the pylons and turbines seem to meet and interlace, white compasses turning through grey parallels.

On high, a freehold
of six thousand square metres
threshed by a rotor.
All the feathering threefold
swept into pitch cylinders.

I entered this grid through another: OS Landranger Sheet 112, which I studied before starting out, a new edition, the blank squares filling up with clustered blades. The walks began in Ealand, shortly after dawn on 25 March 2016 (Good Friday), and ended in Thorne around 15 months later, the last of these being an anti-clockwise tour of North Axholme, from dusk until the following afternoon. These weren’t so much linear or circular journeys as transits of a square, or squares within squares, the line (of towpath, track, or minor road) almost always straight, the direction (reset at each corner of the isle) undivided. At certain points in the walks – an intersection of canal and bridge, a chain of pylons making a 90-degree turn – my head would fill with right angles, some imagined, some real, rising out of the flat terrain and my unfamiliarity with the landscape. All this was heightened by walking at night, the senses manufacturing events from scraps of sound (waterfowl in the soak drains, the faint hum of an electric current) and patches of available light (the moon in the water, a signalman’s lamp), and always the filigree of infrastructure, the pylons and turbines compressed to a single plane, the distance collapsed, become abstract, then suddenly present, almost measurable, perception sharpened and distorted by turns, the mind filling in the blanks.

There’s another kind of compression at work in the 68 poems of White Thorns: an isle-wide trek distilled into a series of five-line, thirty-one syllable units, each, perhaps, expanding into its own space, its own plot. There are other passages through this landscape, too, including that of the freight train bearing wood pellets from Louisiana to North Yorkshire (via the Humberhead Peatlands, which sits atop the blackened trunks of a Paleolithic forest, burned by the Romans), and its own story of exhaustion and recovery:

Slow burn, right to left,
twenty-four frames per second.
Twenty-four wagons
of biomass, bound for Drax,
a forest’s offcuts and husks.

 

White Thorns is the second pamphlet by Brian Lewis (following East Wind, a sequence of lyrical essays and haiku, which appeared from Gordian Projects in 2015). It is published by Gordian Projects as a hand-stitched pamphlet with hand-stamped covers, and comes with an individual poem, presented in an envelope as an artist’s multiple.

To order White Thorns, please click on the relevant PayPal link below:

UK orders (£5 + £0.90 postage)

Europe orders (£5 + £2.70 postage)

Rest of World orders (£5 + £3.30 postage)

Alternatively, you can order the pamphlet via the Gordian Projects site at the same rates.

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Red Flag

Wind Rose 1Depletion, decline
or drift: we cannot retreat,
halt or hold the line.

East Wind is now available in a new edition from Gordian Projects. This second edition of 40 unnumbered copies is published as a single 36-page hand-stitched, hand-stamped pamphlet, and comes with an individual haiku, presented in an envelope as an artist’s multiple. The first edition, a set of three hand-stitched and stamped pamphlets in a numbered edition of 25, sold out within two weeks of release in late 2015. East Wind is a sequence of lyrical essays and haiku that narrate the author’s walk from Hull to Withernsea and Hornsea over the 10th and 11th May 2014. Update (September 2020): this edition is now sold out.

img_1053Click on the links below to read several recent essays by Brian Lewis for the Longbarrow Press blog:

‘Field Systems’ (on virtual maps, physical space, trespass and belonging)
‘Self-build’ (a brief social history of a working town and its self-build housing schemes)
‘Dead Ends’ (on the development of Hillsborough, Sheffield, and the road north to the former South Yorkshire Asylum)
‘The House of Numbers’ (on the growth, decline and restructuring of London’s docklands, and the poet Ken Smith)

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Eight Winds

IMG_0878East of the old port:
our fortified terminals,
diminished resorts.

East Wind is a set of three hand-stitched and hand-stamped pamphlets containing a sequence of lyric essays and haiku that narrate a continuous 24 hour walk from Hull to Withernsea and Hornsea on 10-11 May 2014 (earlier versions of the essays appeared on this site between August 2014 and March 2015 under the titles Half-winds, The Compass Rose and The Wind Rose). Priced at just £10, the set is available now from Gordian Projects, and is limited to a numbered edition of 25. Each set comes with a extra enveloped haiku unique to that copy. More details here (update: please note that the limited edition set of 3 pamphlets has now sold out; a limited single-pamphlet edition will appear in January 2016).

IMG_0882A full-length collection of poems and lyric essays, provisionally titled Eastings, is due to appear from Gordian Projects in late 2016. The poems and prose in the book are informed by several years’ walking around the east coast of England, from the Thames estuary to the Humber estuary.

Two recent sequences of poems, Lych-gates and Wichel, shift the focus to south-west England.

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The Wind Rose

A mile of coast, leasehold and freehold, blocked out in the west, clean lines along the flat sheet. To the south, The Willows; to the north, Withernsea Sands. The park is not a public park, it is a retirement camp, hedged and fenced, orderly plots, concrete stops the drift into back country. The centre of the camp is left blank. The caravans look through the town, facing front, letting go of the east. A mile of sands, staked from end to end: the stakes make up the groyne fields, every hundred yards a forced beach, timber sticking out of the sea wall into the sea. It is the town’s measure and protection. At the north end, as Waxholme Road is bent inland, the waves sink the timbers, the waves sink the field lines. The town doesn’t move. Another camp is settled next to Withernsea Sands, Seathorne, an overspill, the camps divided by Waxholme Road. Seathorne is not on the town plan and has no revetments to the east. For every position held by a caravan, two lie vacant: grey-green gaps where the chassis used to rest, a caravan’s width between them. It is not enough to make rank.

Wind Rose 2Withernsea to Hornsea, 11 May 2014

This is the first section of the third and final account in the East Wind series. You can read the full text of  The Wind Rose on Caught by the River. An extract from the first part, Half-winds, appears here; an extract from the second, The Compass Rose, appears here.

The complete texts of the East Wind series, with additional haiku, are now available in a limited edition set of three hand-stitched, hand-stamped pamphlets from Gordian Projects. Click here for more details.

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