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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