Tuesday 3 April 2012

Ramblings on the urban fringe

aka flexing psychogeographical calf muscles on a 6 miles walk from my front door on a sun-drenched early Spring afternoon; a goldfinch in the garden sending me off in the right frame of mind. 

Feet hit turf walking the line of an old hedge through Oldbury Court park to an outbreak of buttercups around a haughty oak; a multi-coloured kite flapping in the tree like a stranded gallion in a Werner Hertzog Amazonian dreamscape.

Into the gorge of the Frome, with the river far below; a vision that could easily be in the wilder Wye valley, rather than East Bristol. I walk along the edge of a tumbledown wall melting back into the landscape, stones carefully laid by man now recolonising the ravine as a scree slope; gladly taking the opportunity for a bit of scrambling off piste high above the joggers and dog walkers. Ivy clad limestone outcrops give rise to thoughts of long-lost Mayan cities and the banked path traversing the hillside awaits the footfall of the conquistador, on route to El Derado. On days like this it feels like you are guided by the sun and bird song, the unexpected just around the corner.

Down now to the river but spurn the concrete path and bridge to carry on into the other worldliness of the steep-sided bank; the network of tree roots helping upward progress more than any man-made climbing wall. Onwards through an outbreak of wild garlic and anemone's. Wonder if I seem like a bearded Bayou backwoodsman to the mums with kids on the opposite side of the river (is that the sound of a banjo?). Anyway, so many people pulled away from the bland on a perfect Spring day makes you realise that all is far from lost in our materialistic society.

Through Grove Wood, now probably saved as a Town Green and past 'Snuff Mill'; the signs of the occupation of mad, bad Lord Jufari, who wanted to build here, now seemingly long gone. Cross the road and back by the river below Whickam Court (where Oliver Cromwell stayed the night, so they say). No flash of the local kingfisher today. This path through a meadow was 'improved' last year as part of the Bristol cycle path network. I e-mailed my objections to this suburbanisation at the time (I am a cyclist but don't see the need to smooth out all the edges), but the new track seems pretty benign today.

I take a set of wooden steps up the hill to Stapleton village, serene in the sunshine. Intriguing and unsettling to think that other end of Stapleton Road, just a mile or so away, is regularly dubbed one of the most dangerous streets in Britain by a typically hysterical local media. Stop on the way up to inspect a curious circular sunken and domed brick structure, and conclude that its probably an ice house. Then a quick detour to Park News and Booze (first rule of writing whilst walking: always take a spare pencil; lucky I am so near 'civilisation'). 

Amuse myself passing the citadel of Colston's School, observing the curious mix of the Boden set and the aspirational seeing their precious ones off on a school trip; presumably they are under the impression that they are doing their children and society a favour by paying for their privilege. As I muse on this, an ancient walled pathway leads me through a short tunnel (under a garden) towards the roar of the M32. Motorway bridge to come but first a scene that makes the landscapist mind buzz: to one side a handsome Georgian country house, now mental health hospital; a glorious vista ahead over relict parkland juxtaposed with the hard concrete and metal flow into the city centre; and in the middle ground the tower blocks of Barton Hill giving way to the haze of Dundry Hill on the skyline. The soundtrack to this topographical medley a strange mixture of calming bees, birdsong and traffic roar.

A second to linger on the bridge ('M4 west congestion' evidence of the Easter Holiday escape to the coast) before taking a climbing path up to the sunlit uplands of Purr Down; where the 1950's council housing of Lockleaze gives itself up to grassland and heath. Arcing up through a low jungle of coppiced hazel and bramble I come upon the white heat of the telecommunications tower looming ahead, seemingly a NASA outlier. On the ridge the sun blazes down, maybe we are in Florida after all boys.

The view eastward takes in the memory of the Royal Forest of Kingswood. Nomenclature of the King's Chase now foreshortened to 'The Wood' in local parlance, derided as the haunt of the modern undeserving poor; their tough, independently minded collier and non-conformist forebears seemingly forgotten (or maybe reasserting themselves in a new guise).

Is this vista any better or worse than 100, 500 years ago? Its busier, less arcadian but surely more stimulating, less monosyllabicly pastoral. I have always felt that the palimpsest view of landscape, layer replacing layer, misses the point. Rather than adhering to the stratigraphic sequencing beloved of archaeologists, topography is more of an unruly jostle for position across the ages, with those muscular Victorians generally coming out on top. An ambitiously laid out public park here, rows of terraces and villas there, and a church spire ascending heaven-ward. The more recent contributors seemingly palid and impermanent in comparison. Completing the scene, the medieval and enclosed countryside, embellished by primordial nature, hunkers down along the horizon (and infiltrates where it can, more patient and persistent than any human agency), just biding its time before it can recolonise. Destroy the countryside? You and who's army?

Pausing to lie-down and rest further along the flat-top ridge I find that I have infiltrated crow country; a dozen pairs of sharp eyes watch me with a detached intensity, living up to their reputation as the avian equivalents of those demonised Kingswood chavs.

Onwards now through the still glorious designed landscape of Stoke Park. The house given an incongruous yellow livery following its makeover into luxury apartments. Outbreaks of blackthorn blossom border the parkland woods and four rabbits break for cover, their warren not yet safely encased in impenetrable brambles. I ask myself whether they find a use for the wind-blown plastic bags so impotently discarded (ignorant as we are of where they come from, how they are made and where they end up). Into Long Wood with the construction noise from the nearby expanding UWE campus and surrounding residential infill embedded in the Silvan tranquillity of the obligatory bluebells. The path rises over a stone-walled folly, unnecessarily and incongruously encased by an exclusion zone of steel fencing for unclear, presumably health and safety, reasons.

Coming out of the woods I step straight into a suburban scene and the reliable old Ordnance Survey fails me; there is no mention of 'Cheswick: the village of choice' (courtesy of Redrow Homes New Heritage Collection) on my map. Luckily the public footpaths obstinately remain - like inner-city Victorian pubs - whilst all around changes and I find my way through. 'Thank you for visiting Blenheim Meadows' the sign politely tells me as I leave the development: well, thank you, I'm sure the meadow was lovely until you built on it. This is the dispiriting fifteen minutes that you always seem to experience on any walk outside of deep countryside, when you quicken the pace and fast-forward to the potentiality of whats around the next corner.

Spirits are raised by a march across a meadow, fluted by ridge and furrow, into a wood I've often gazed at from the motorway but never breached. I take a piss at the stile whilst reading a 'notice is hear by given...' sign announcing temporary closure of the footpath due to unspecified groundwork. On into the lines of beech and larch and, as is so often the case, the wood - a plantation - is much less interesting once inside than it seems from afar. Spurring away from the path down to the roar of the motorway and the slight thrill of trespass is heightened by the discovery of a well-constructed blue tarpaulin bender in a thicket (kids den or temporary home for someone?).

Once out of the tree cover the route runs through a belt of disused fields and old market-garden allotments that are surely ripe for common, community use to grow crops and raise livestock rather than premature early retirement into ragged nature and periodic threat of park and ride etc. This point gaining local support from the nearby Common Mead Lane (currently leading to Bristol Golf Centre and the Nickey Lumb Golf Superstore) reached by a green lane passing a number of the ubiquitous old goods wagon's that have carved a new life for themselves as field shelters and stores. Once on the road a glance back to the hanging wood reveals that it has returned to its state of mystery.

Looking for an alternative to an uninspiring trek along the service roads of Frenchay Hospital I chance across a previously unnoticed footpath hemmed in by back gardens that then passes an unexpected small field with no obvious purpose; a spray can cross over the 'Private property' sign. Its now time to strike out for home across the familiar territory of Frenchay Common (God bless Simon Jenkins and the Village Green Preservation Society) and the path through Oldbury Court.

The sun is still shining, feet tired but feeling energised as usual; at the end of an afternoon traversing both the bucolic and the mundane, each in their own way adding to the story of the landscape.     


  1. Good post. Particularly interested in your rejection of the 'palimpsest' view of landscape. I agree that it's too simplistic to read places/views as if they consist of discrete historical layers, I think there's always cross-over and blurring of boundaries between the present and earlier periods.

    I also think that every individual regarding a particular site won't regard it in quiet the same way - depending on mood, personal history and interests. In Nicholas Royle's novel The matter of the heart, he's got some interesting ideas around this kind of thing, which he terms, Emotional Routes ie what people notice or ignore and the weight they give to certain places and specific streets is different for every person.

  2. Thanks Matt; yes, landscapes and places can inspire very different perceptions and feelings, which is why they are such a central and vital - but often overlooked - element of the experience of being alive. I'll check out 'The matter of the heart'.


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