Saturday, 19 January 2013

The silent city (grit free pleasure)

What I wanted to chat about in this posting was "The Silent City" No; not some post apocalyptic zombie film or the town of Mdina, but the west country city of Bristol.
Like most of the UK yesterday Bristol was covered in a thick layer of snow. Bristol City Council are renowned for their lack of gritting effort, which considering this is a very hilly city makes for some atrocious driving conditions. I'm sure this is a reflection of their desire to make this a car free city. I have no problem with that, as long as they grit the roads to allow the buses to run. Car free is admirable, and inability to get to work is lamentable. I once drove from Newcastle to Bristol in thick snow, every road on that 300 mile journey to the perimeter of the City was easily drivable. I then passed the South Gloucestershire boundary mark and within a few miles the whole place became gridlocked. Took me three hours to do the last mile to work. I'd have walked but I had a car crammed with kit so couldn't leave it.

However because of this lack of gritting yesterday it made me realise what cities could be like without the car, something as a child of the Sixties, I have never known. All the photographs for this comment were taken at 2pm when the roads were beginning to clear of snow, but even then they were empty of traffic. In the morning however because no roads were gritted, the City fell eerily silent. Trains were running, but all buses had been cancelled and all other transport had heeded the warnings to stay at home. My 40 minute walk from Bristol Temple Meads train station (and back when these images were taken) was absolutely fantastic.

Because there was no traffic, except the odd driver braving the roads, as I walked I could hear and feel the silence around me. Silence is something a big city can never experience these days. Usually walking to and from the station I am either enveloped in a carcinogenic fog or dodging endless traffic while trying to cross a road. It is often a harrowing experience. But not so on January 18th 2013.
As I walked I could hear birds singing. Above that children, and a few adults, chatting, laughing, playing snowball fights, building snowmen. Everywhere people walked, walked and walked, like a reenactment of an L.S.Lowry painting was being staged. We didn't worry about the traffic, there wasn't any. We just walked in the silence and that silence was deafening, but also so so therapeutic. This is what cities should be about!

The second photograph on this posting is Whitladies Road in Clifton at 2pm. Usually this is a slow moving carpark of traffic either heading into or out of the City. Not yesterday. It was eerily quiet. People walking could cross on a zebra crossing or at lights without a care in the world. It was so fantastic I felt like running along a road just because I could. As I stopped to compose these photographs I had a few people stop and say "isn't this lovely this snow is magical" or "isn't the city quiet". On a normal work day everyone is heads down shuffling to their appointed destination without a care of the environment they tread. Yesterday however the transformation was astonishing. We looked up, we heard and we saw.

Even on the train as I headed home again, which was delayed by 15 minutes because of the weather, people were chatting. One woman on hearing the train would be delayed just said "ohh well its the weather, what can you expect" and then struck up a conversation with a complete stranger about how beautiful Bristol looked today. He chipped in with an observation that he came from Taunton and he was the only one of his office to make it to work today. His colleagues all drove in to the office from Bristol and couldn't make it, so his manager had sent him home - presumably with a gold star and impending bonus for good behaviour.

The weather (and to a part Bristol Council's inability to cope) did a miraculous thing yesterday. It allowed the people to reclaim the City for people, just for a few hours. For millennia cities have been places of and places for people; gathering for commerce and employment cities grew into chaotic vibrant and above all human scale places to live. Vice and crime rubbed shoulders with commerce, culture and housing. The outer boundaries of our biggest cities was less than the distance a man could walk in half a day, as he needed to walk back in the evening. Indeed I have a book covering the history of stage coach travel. In 1800 Hyde Park Corner in London was just that, the corner of the street where one road split to Bath, the other South. Here market gardens and farms prospered feeding the Nations Capital.

Just fifty or 60 years ago all that changed, with the arrival of the combustion engine in a form that allowed the masses to buy cars. Just think about it. When our grandparents were born, no one owned a car. Okay a few wealthy people did, but everyone lived close by their place of work as they either walked, or got the train or bus. My father talks of the 1950's when he began working after school, lines of buses travelling between South Shields and Newcastle became more like a club. Each day everyone would get on at the same place and they'd chat like old friends. If one person missed the bus, they'd either tell the driver to stop or a great discussion would develop, "where are they" But since the 1960's, the car has taken over. 
There is no doubt it the car is a fantastic invention, no other transport allows A to B movement so efficiently. But this efficiency of the car is also the cities downfall. We as a society have become isolated. Because we can travel huge distances now from home to work, our cities are expanding at a rate never seen before into the countryside and we now live a long way from our places of work. I work with people in an office who in an evening are nearly 120 miles apart from each other once at home. Society thrived on living and working in the same town or city as it allowed people to mix and socialise with work colleagues, or friends of friends all within a short distance of each other, day and night, and importantly on a human scale.
My parents never worried about a little bit of snow; as my mother said only last night, in the winter when it snowed, such as in 1963 she walked the 2 miles to work and back again every day, never even crossed her mind not to turn up.  Today the slightest sign of snow and the country grinds to a halt because we rely 100% on the car in the main. I remember talking to a chap who had moved from Newcastle to the wilds of Northumberland years ago. A 45 mile drive each way. He loved it, but like we said, give a good hard winter like we used to get and it'll be fun. I wonder how he has coped these last few years.
And I do wonder what will happen when fuel runs out. Will we start moving back into cities, which in a way is already happening in a few places, because lets be honest who wants to spend 3 hours a day commuting? I often drive along motorways and think how many years will it take for nature to reclaim these structures after the last car has passed along it. Sitting in our tin boxes we will know more about the presenter on Radio 5 Live than the man sitting in the car next to us at the traffic lights. And that is why society is fragmented and isolated. We do not have a connection with where we work, where we play, or where we travel through.
But if we were on a bus or walking, there is just a chance we may chat to pass the time. For the first time in history, as a pedestrian in a city we are an alien species in an alien environment. And that is sad. Maybe Bristol Council after all have the right idea, a car free city. As I walked the quiet streets of Bristol yesterday listening to the birdsong, the children laughing, people chatting, I thought, I am part of a community here, a community surrounded by its environment. Bristol was not an aggressive noisy rush rush city yesterday, it was calm, silent and on a human scale. I doubt I shall experience this feeling again though as on most days I see nothing nor hear anything of the City as I drive by in my perfect efficient transport.
We'll never go back to cities being for the people while we have combustion engines, but maybe, just maybe when the petrol runs out in about 75 years we can once again quote from Dickens' The Tale of Two Cities, the city slept it's silent sleep.....in silence.
“Other sound than the owl's voice there was none, save the falling of a fountain into its stone basin; for, it was one of those dark nights that hold their breath by the hour together, and then heave a long low sigh, and hold their breath again.” 

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

A New Year's Day Walk

Like a number 14 bus, readers wait for weeks for one posting and in an instant, two in one day. No doubt this will be followed by another gap of gargantuan proportions. However today was, after these last few weeks and weeks of rain, a welcome diversion. Clear blue skies, mild, if a little breezy, perfect weather to blow off the cobwebs after the Festive period. Not having a car at the moment places to go for a walk were limited. However looking out of my bedroom window, across the field lies Woodspring Priory. About a mile as the crow flies, about 3 miles on foot. So laden down with a couple of satsumas off I set.
So this blog posting is a record of that walk from my house to Woodspring Priory. And of course I came back too but by then, 2 satsumas lighter, I'd run out of things to photograph. So we'll begin at the estate, leaving the road via one of the pathways.

Within a few minutes I was in the open countryside between Weston super Mare and the Bristol Channel. This area is actually part of the Somerset Levels, specifically the North Somerset Levels and Moors. It is a special place, quite isolated considering Weston is close by and I love it.

In the hedgerows I found ivy still in flower and berry, very important for wildlife at this time of year, and in hedge bottoms Lords and Ladies were already unfurling leaves. This part of Somerset has a unique microclimate, helped by the warming waters of the Bristol Channel. The Temperature can be 2 degrees warmer here than in Bristol 20 miles away. Spring is knocking at Somerset's door.

Another feature of this area are the wide ash hedges. I've not seen this anywhere else in the UK and this hedge must be 10 feet across the rhyne.

Not everything was looking positive in the countryside today. I passed field after field of stunted decaying maize. Maize is a late harvest crop and many fields didn't even get a chance to produce cobs due to the continuous wet weather. It is heartbreaking for a farmer to spend so much time (and money with the price of diesel) sowing a crop only for it to fail because of the rain, made worse this year as they can not even get onto the fields to plough this in. It'll take weeks of dry weather to dry these fields out enough to get machinery on there.

But I carried along in the welcome sunshine along a long and winding country road.

Passing even more flooded fields

Even my favourite wild feeling lane had flooding each side of it and as the photo aptly illustrates, dead and decaying crops.

I had a choice here, walk the wet and muddy bridleway or walk the lane to Woodspring Priory, I chose the latter

A very muddy horse and some happy starlings feeding away

Woodspring Priory area has always been a sheep area and it always makes me feel uplifted seeing these in fields in sunshine.

Eventually making it to the National Trust land, but I kept walking to the Priory for the time being

Not having a car, my need for the car park was limited, so sloshing through the puddles, I arrived at the Priory which standing on a mound, was surrounded by a soggy field.

Being New Years Day the Priory is closed but it is still an impressive building

Looking back from the Priory back the way I'd walked.

A bit of an arty shot below - seems so isolated yet just 10 minutes drive from the centre of Weston super Mare

Retracing my steps I then headed back to the National Trust land of Middle Hope (sounds very Hobbit-ish)

This is a very isolated spot and a cracking site for birdwatchers, or would be if there was access. This is all private land and frustratingly I could see dunlin, redshank and curlew on the mudflats, but there probably would be a lot more species to view with a telescope.

Just to prove I was there - Wessex Reiver's shadow. By now it was 1.30pm so time to head back.

On the way back I spied these which are probably a cultivated variety, but that doesn't matter, it is yet again a sign of how mild this winter has been so far.

A good walk. Happy New Year

Writing a diary

I have always loved New Years Day. Always a real sense of the year beginning, optimism abounds as we cast off the old and embrace the new horizons before us. Strange in a way as the cycle of years is entirely man made based on Celestial observations, and many cultures of course have a different annual cycle, different new years. Of course then today is no different to December 31st 2012 but that does not matter, as today, is a new day and it feels different to any other I've experienced.
My memory may also be playing me tricks but I can not recall a bad weather January 1st. A few have been iffy, not bad, but in my experience after the dark days of December and that feeling of being trapped inside because of Christmas the first day of the year has often broken fair and quite often mild.

As I write this at 9am on New Years Day, I have already been serenaded by a robin calling its territorial call as dawn broke. In the fields behind the house, sheep are calling, gulls and corvids noisily feeding in the wet pasture, and house sparrows noisily at the feeders, I count 18 there today. Looking out of the office window there is not a cloud in the sky, sunlight is beginning to illuminate the willows in the hedgerows, Sand Point a rocky outcrop jutting into the Bristol Channel is the most luxurious of green and the moon is slowly fading from sight as sunlight gathers strength. All's well, it is always fine on New Years Day.
One thing I have observed these last few weeks is that a few people I know are picking up the quill to take up handwritten wildlife diaries for 2013. I know of 3 people who have said they have bought a diary specifically to write about nature. And I mean write. I love writing on the laptop as my jumble of consciousness can be easily corrected when re-reading it even I struggle to understand what was being said. But to write on paper is an altogether different thing and I admire their wish to do this.
I have long kept a diary, a maelstrom of things to do, weather snippetts and when time allowed commentary on nature or an event attended that day. I've never been able to write a diary though. Not on paper. Which is sad as my first forays into the world of nature writings came from the likes of BB who wrote every day. His book Indian Summer which I read in 1980 is a fascinating mix of the observed and his memory from a man at the end of his journey.
For me this is why diary writing is fascinating. Over time our mind plays tricks. For generations we have said the weather is not as good as it was "when I we'e a lad". Of course it isn't, not in our minds. As a child if it was sunny we'd play outside and fond memories of lying on golden sands in the sun dominate. If it was raining we'd probably be inside feeling miserable or like me, playing with my Action Man. I can recall walks along sunlit rivers in detail, watching fish gently swaying to the rivers flow. But can I remember what I did with my Action Man other than just know I had one? It is human nature to remember the good times, and obscure the bad, part of our Fight or Flight response.
And that is why diary writing is a wonderful thing to do. In February I went to see a master of diary writing Tony Benn. For decades he has written about the political turmoil and doings of Parliament. And now looking back, he has one of the most outstanding social documents of the 20th Century. Of course being a left wing politician, some would say his diaries were biased, but that is exactly the point. A good diarist can only ever present the facts and how they feel or observe them. Diarists can not write in the third person. Writing a diary is by its very nature a very personal experience, often for solo consumption. We are all biased  in our thoughts and comments and that has to be a good thing as the writer is setting a point of view on paper which some, but not all, will agree. Diversity, is what makes diary writing a joy to read, diversity is simply - being different.
I began this blog in 2007 as an attempt to write a diary. I have good years and bad years, based on time to sit down and write of an hour. Generally my efforts have been quite rewarding for me, and so for 2013, I too will endevour to make time to write more than of recent months.
The fascination of all this is that as human beings we are unique in the Animal Kingdom in that we can write down our thoughts for others to read. So for those of you about to begin what may become a lifelong writing tradition, I wish you well and I'll end with a quote from one of the best diarists of all time; Oscar Wilde,
I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train