Night Walk #1: Owlerton | Brian LewisPosted: January 25, 2018
‘Snow White / Rose Red’, Emma Bolland
6.53pm. We fold into the New Barrack Tavern, first Emma, then me, the double doors closing on the dark. In the second half of the 19th century, an earlier incarnation of the Tavern bustled with soldiery, the line infantries of Warwickshire, Rutlandshire, Bedfordshire, quartered at Hillsborough, a few streets away. It survived the closure of the barracks in the 1930s, and was one of the few pubs left standing after Penistone Road was converted into a dual carriageway in the 1980s. These days, much of its trade comes from Sheffield Wednesday fans, visitors to the greyhound stadium, and regular music and comedy nights. Tonight, though, it’s barely breathing. Perhaps it’s the early hour, or the early January slump, or the wind and rain that’s been racketing through Sheffield since the weekend. I think back to the last time I sat in one of the city’s pubs, an evening in The Blake, three days before Christmas, the end of a year of starts and stops, a year without flow. A small table, the poets, and me, we talk, I express a desire to work quickly, to work quietly, we talk, an event in January, perhaps, ahead of the cultural seasons, outside of the festival circuits. A night walk. We’ve spoken of this before, but it’s taken ten years of slow journeying through South Yorkshire – the itinerary always new, the poets and participants always changing with the landscape, the path always naturally lit – to see it as a possibility. The factors that discouraged us in the past – the uncertainties, the risks – are the factors that are now pushing us forward. Before we can talk ourselves out of it, we set a date, sketch a potential route, and renew our vow. Three weeks and six days later, at the end of an afternoon’s anxious weather-watching, our group reconvenes in the Tavern, accompanied by a dozen people who have signed up to the walk: we are 3, then 4, then 7, then 11, then 18. Having spent the last 40 minutes slowly filling the lounge area, we take our leave, and spill into the night.
In this country, the culture and literature of urban walking has, for many years, been monopolized by London and the solitary white male; after dark, these terms are almost synonymous, the archetypal ‘night city’ re-walked and rewritten by those at liberty to do so, from Charles Dickens to Bradley Garrett. In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit remarks on the absence of women from the histories of walking, observing that ‘most public places at most times’ have not afforded them the same privileges of anonymity, of detachment, of drift; this inequality is, of course, magnified by night, as are its potential and actual consequences. Collective walking practices can offer some respite from self-policing, clearing a path for exploration, exercise, and recreation, though we might also question the balance of freedom and circumscription in group activity. As a practical solution to the problem of male dominance, harassment and violence in public space, it’s limited and imperfect; as a creative response, it is, arguably, helping to change the narrative of the street (and, indeed, the ‘wild spaces’ which are similarly ‘off-limits’). In the UK, contemporary women artists and writers who have used night walking as part of their practice include Clare Qualmann, co-founder of the Walking Artists Network (and, with Amy Sharrocks, co-curator of Walking Women, a series of walks, talks and events that took place in London and Edinburgh in 2016), who co-led the participatory ‘live art’ project walkwalkwalk (2006-2010, with Gail Burton and Serena Korda) which included a series of midsummer and midwinter night walks through East London; Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre, whose work with the residents of Southwark estates in 2008 and 2009 encompassed night walks, ‘night salons’, and night rides with cyclists; and Emma Bolland, whose collaborative research project MilkyWayYouWillHearMeCall (2012-2013, with Judit Bodor and Tom Rodgers) revisited and re-examined sites in Leeds made notorious in the 1970s and 1980s by Peter Sutcliffe, the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’. The site visits, undertaken in both daylight and darkness, prompted a series of reflective essays and presentations by Bolland, in which she recounts her own experiences of walking these locations in the early 1980s, at night, alone, ‘shitfaced on spirits and speed’. She speaks of Ripper-era Leeds as ‘a battleground for the reclamation of territory’, with incompetent and prejudiced police and media on one side (advising women to avoid the city’s streets after dark, and distinguishing Sutcliffe’s ‘innocent’ victims from those defined by their work as prostitutes) and campaigning feminist organisations on the other (notably the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, who organised the UK-wide Reclaim the Night women’s marches held on 12 November 1977 in response to the police’s suggestion of a voluntary curfew). Emma is with us tonight, documenting our departure from the pub, its brick island receding as we drift north, then east, passing car dealerships, blade manufacturers, fencing specialists, a soft rain starting up, the casino etched in red, the lamp lights counting down, three, two, one, here is the bridge, a view of the river, and slowly we find each other in the dark, copper wires hissing overhead, thinning out between breakers yard and graveyard.
7.51pm. Wardsend Cemetery is the only burial ground in Britain with an active railway line running through it, ferrying scrap and finished steel to and from the works at Stocksbridge, six miles north-west. The trackbed is laid parallel to the River Don as it passes through north Sheffield, and also runs close to Club Mill Road, a rough, potholed lane that forms a corridor between the railway and the river, and on which we’ll be walking for the next hour. With the light almost gone, I gesture at the other path, the stone steps at my back, the hillside memorials. For years, Wardsend was a byword for neglect; that the site has recovered is largely due to the efforts of the Friends of Wardsend Cemetery, a historical society and conservation group. One of its members is here tonight. I attempt to introduce him, but the company is in blackout, the bodies without contrast, and I cannot read his position. I attempt to introduce the four poets – Angelina D’Roza, Pete Green, Chris Jones, Fay Musselwhite – who are somewhere in this blind assembly. I step back and let them, and the night, do their work, lighting the scripts with a torch. Angelina’s is the first voice we hear, her ‘Song of Silence’ reminding us that ‘there is no / such thing as silence’, only an almost-silence and an almost-darkness circling each other, neither separable nor ever quite meeting. ‘The Storm Lamp’, a tale of fire and flight, is next; taken from a longer work-in-progress, Chris’s vision of civil unrest and survivalism, set in a Sheffield of the near future, defamiliarises the city by degrees, and, perhaps, finds an echo in the decentred dark. Before we leave Wardsend, Fay reads ‘Not thistledown’, a refusal of the customs of death (‘Don’t […] sing me to the flame’) that also touches on the process at work in parts of the cemetery, its headstones displaced by trees, ‘bone-work in oak root’s way’. With ‘the rinse of rain’ reflected in the torchlight, we file past a clump of boulders and through the vehicle gate.
8.13pm. From Wardsend, the Don flows on a south-easterly turn for 400 metres, the lane at its side, before pulling away, a humming on the west bank, strobe and glare, the power station on the curve, the college and its floodlit fields. The lane straightens out, due south, smaller paths forking east and west. We gather at one of these forks, looking up at the railway embankment, the morning’s snow still clinging to the ridge, then down at our boots, the puckered ground, part gravel, part water. Fay’s ‘Boulder’ (‘pulled from the river’s bed’) leads into a longer reading from Angelina, including two new poems (‘Shore’ and ‘Lullaby’) that speak of the light before dawn, rootlessness, seas, and rivers, and ‘Fairytale No. 13’, which seems to anticipate the expansion of these themes, faithful to the small hours, their tonal shifts, ‘the rush of the weir / after rain’. At this point, it’s difficult to tell the current in the overhead wires from the drizzle speckling our jackets and hoods. We shuffle on, the hum tailing off, the rain picking up.
8.28pm. We stop again, a few metres short of the metal barrier that marks the northern boundary of an industrial estate. I scan the shadows for Pete, call him forward, then realise he is standing next to me. He introduces an excerpt from Sheffield Almanac, ‘a poem in four chapters about rivers, rain, relocation, and regeneration’, a seasonally-themed survey of a city at a crossroads between a steel-plated past and a post-industrial future. Chapter Three of the Almanac brings the relationship of Sheffield’s waterways to the growth of its manufacturing base into sharp focus, noting that the ‘five rivers forever outspan’ the achievements of the industrial age, the Don, the Loxley and the Rivelin still ‘driving down through limestone, carving grit’, while the waterwheels and millstones they once fed now moulder (or, conversely, are restored and reframed as tokens of heritage). The torch passes from hand to hand. Fay recounts her own creative exploration of the Rivelin (in the long poem ‘Memoir of a Working River’) and the Loxley (in ‘Flood Triptych’, on which her next two readings draw). ‘Long Fallow’ picks through the ‘wattle-growth’ of an idle backwater of the Loxley, vehicular debris intermingled with ‘oxalis, sycamore and dandelion’, the remnants of a forge still visible in ‘the under-dank’. It invites us to contemplate ‘a scarf, a shoe, a sock’, ‘clothes / like and not like those washed out from grinders’ homes.’ On the night of 11 March 1864, the Loxley Valley was flooded by the water from the newly built Dale Dyke Dam, which collapsed while it was being filled; after wrecking Loxley Village, Malin Bridge and Hillsborough, the flood continued into the centre of Sheffield, and on to Rotherham. We’re standing some 30 metres east of the Don, perhaps 300 metres north of its confluence with the Loxley, ninety degrees of impact, destruction and debris to the south and west. We cram through the metal barrier, a lane through the industries, there are lights, there are sounds, the work going on, shot blasting, steel fabrication, auto repairs, a radio sings to an open window, metal on metal, remake / remodel. The pace slows, the group breaks into smaller groups. Emma takes more photographs. There are rubber speed ramps, a vehicle gate that splits the lane in half, another ridge of rubber speed ramps. The units and yards flatten out. As we reach the last barrier the light abandons the lane. Almost darkness, almost silence.
8.44pm. We gather in the space between the asphalt road and a derelict, railed-off building, trees outgrowing the sagging brick. This is the site of a former silver mill, which one of our party dates to the 18th century. Although we can’t see it, we’ve also drawn level with the junction of the Loxley and the Don; in 1864, the silver mill would have stood directly in the path of the flood. Fay picks up where she left off, with ‘Factory’, the second poem in her ‘Flood Triptych’, which speaks of ‘the silted scuffle of industry unravelled’, a site disowned by the money that made it, the ‘ruptured brickwork’ since retaken by birds, buddleia and bees. Angelina steps forward to read ‘Magnolia’, her third new poem: six lines, ‘two trees’, each the other’s measure, ‘one is distance / one displacement’, the home and its wild state, a window fractured by a branch. The reading concludes with ‘Post-Industrial’, a poem from Chris’s sequence ‘At the End of the Road, a River’, which developed from a series of walks that Chris took along several miles of the Don, from Middlewood to Meadowhall, in 2005. The poem is set in the east of the city, but conjures a similar landscape of riverside trade, of ‘pallets’ and ‘bay-loading gates’; we glimpse the ‘last man’s shadow slip[ping] the fence / as machines break into silence’. The road ahead, like the crumbling plot, is curtained by a low metal fence, holding back the disorderly copse. As the copse peters out, so does the fence, the river surprising us, sidelong and dark.
9.02pm. 300 metres south, Club Mill Road meets Sandbed Road, the latter climbing uphill, west, while our road meets another line of boulders, and sodden debris fly-tipped on the turn. Against this backdrop, Chris opens with ‘Drift’, a poem written over 12 years ago, in response to this location. At that time, the junk was being tipped into the Don – ‘a typewriter scrolling water’ – and while the health of the river has since improved, the bankside clutter persists, cast-off cushions and mattresses, ‘the wasted attempts at home’. As Chris gives way to Pete, the waters seem to draw close, swollen by three days of rain, sleet and snow. Six months previously, Angelina and Pete had led 20 people over Sheffield’s bridges, high above a wide, shallow Don, a city at ease in t-shirts and shades. Pete reads a poem that he read on that summer’s day, an affirmation of resourcefulness and persistence in the face of precarity and impermanence, a tribute to a ‘waterboatman-sculptor’ whose riverbed works we’d encountered on an earlier walk along the route. ‘Dan of the Don’ also gives us decline and renewal (and decline) in microcosm: Dan’s ‘relic stacks’, the art assembled from ‘the / lapsed pomp of / manufacture and shipment’, will be dismantled by a rising river during the winter months, after which the materials will be recovered, new ‘stanzas of brick’ will emerge, and the cycle will repeat. With Fay’s ‘Flight from Cuthbert Bank’, we turn from the Don to the incline of Sandbed Road, pared, in the dark, to a simple slope, all ascent and descent. The poem recounts a slow, indirect pilgrimage to the site of the former pigeon lofts of Cuthbert Bank, a few streets west of the corner on which we’re standing, the pigeons’ flights gradually fading from the ‘memory maps’ that linked hillside to hillside, the districts of Upperthorpe and Parkwood now divided by ‘the six-lane race’ of a dual carriageway. From these derelict ledges, the poem restores their release and return, recolours the valley and the sky above, imagines a flock
of men released by work clocks, to rise above
day’s end, the valley’s din, legacies of grind,
to hold the small bulk, feel its heat
pulse through feathers in cupped hands,
and send those tiny hearts and lungs
to claim their reach of sky.
9.15pm. The end of Club Mill Road, and the end of our road, the short span of Hillfoot bridging the river. We edge into the light, the glare from Penistone Road, a single lamp for the long-dead Farfield Inn. Fay reads ‘Road’, the last journey of a companion animal, the ‘dark dog days’ on ‘the old steel road’; Chris follows with ‘Otter Cliff’, reaching back into apocryphal etymology (the Sheffield district of Attercliffe supposedly deriving its name from the otters that once dwelled on the banks of the Don), and looking forward (since the poem was written, sightings of otters on the Don have steadily increased). Like ‘Otter Cliff’, Angelina’s ‘Ball Street Bridge’ is set further downstream (by half a mile or so), extending our view of the river, summoning mallards and gudgeon, an ‘ore-heavy stream’ glinting as the moon rises. The moon tonight is new, though we don’t see it; the night is colder and wetter than when we started, my hands numb with the shuffling of torch, umbrella and sound recorder. I introduce Pete, who, after thanking everyone present, introduces the final poem: ‘Night Walk by the River Don’, part dream, part drift, peopled by ‘hostelry ghosts / of the Farfield Inn’ (which, we learn, has apparently been sold in recent weeks), and the river, with us to the end, ‘still flow[ing] / when nobody is there’. Apart from us, the streets are empty; another storm is closing in. We turn, for the last time, to
a lane flanked dense with thickets,
the freakish Don below, a carriageway
of bustling currents.
Longbarrow Press is planning further night walks for 2018; details will be posted on our Events page in the coming weeks.
The following publications are currently available from Longbarrow Press (click the titles for further details): Angelina D’Roza’s debut collection Envies the Birds, Pete Green’s pamphlet Sheffield Almanac, Chris Jones’s second collection Skin, and Fay Musselwhite’s Contraflow.
Emma Bolland: ‘Snow White / Rose Red’ (2012), ‘Lines of Desire’ (2012), ‘Trespassing Knowledge’ (2014) (two essays and a presentation reflecting, inter alia, on themes of trespass, darkness and night walking in the MilkyWayYouWillHearMeCall project)
Brian Lewis: ‘The Cut’ (on the landscapes of Owlerton), ‘Haunts’ (on Andrew Hirst’s Three Night Walks), and ‘Parallel Lines’ (on Angelina D’Roza and Pete Green’s ‘Vanishing Point’ city walk)
Rebecca Solnit: ‘Walking After Midnight’ (from Wanderlust: A History of Walking)
Friends of Wardsend Cemetery
Chris Jones: At the End of the Road, a River (interactive map of the River Don project, with poems and recordings)
The Night Walk Project (with a recent interview with Brian Lewis)
The following Twitter accounts are recommended: @thelrm (run by Morag Rose, who organises regular collective psychogeographical drifts in Manchester); @wildernessflash (Lone Women in Flashes of Wilderness, a collaborative project by Clare Archibald exploring women’s thoughts on & experiences of aloneness, darkness & wilderness); @ClareQualmann
A special thanks to all who attended the walk on 17 January 2018, and to Emma Bolland for taking the photographs that accompany this essay.