Open to the Sky | Brian LewisPosted: February 26, 2018
Midway between Barnsley and Doncaster, in a shallow pocket of the Dearne Valley, the soil is cleared for shelter, the ditches sluiced and scraped, excavation, engineering, seeding grass, drawing water, the levels rising inch by inch. Acres of new space, clawed out of old space. Adwick Washlands is a recent addition to the RSPB’s landscape portfolio: the site is so new that Google Maps has yet to catch up with it, the aerial view still showing a collection of arable fields. One of several satellite reserves clustered around the RSPB’s Old Moor wetland hub, it’s an ‘open’ site: no lockable gates or visitor centres, no hides or screens, and a permissive footpath that runs through the centre of the wetland, linking Bolton-upon-Dearne to the village of Harlington. It’s not so much a destination as a place of transit, for local residents exercising their dogs, and for migrant birds, including lapwings, redshanks and little egrets.
When Matthew Clegg and I were invited to lead a poetry walk through Adwick Washlands on National Meadows Day (as part of the 2017 Ted Hughes Poetry Festival), the basis for a dialogue – with the landscape, and with each other – was far from clear. Previous walks for Longbarrow Press had developed from an existing relationship with, and knowledge of, a particular locale and its routes. Neither of us had visited the Dearne Valley reserve, or even heard of it (though Matthew had grazed its southern boundary – albeit unwittingly – while living in nearby Mexborough). Early in 2017, I made two attempts to familiarise myself with the site. On the first of these, I walked for three miles in the wrong direction, only glimpsing the wetland in the moments before my train pulled into the station; on the second, the reserve was the terminal stage of a 25-mile trudge in chilly, damp weather, and I lacked the resources to see or think or feel my way around it. Over the months that followed, however, the washlands absorbed more and more of my time, until I began to see this ‘new space’ as an extension (or a displacement) of my own parish.
On paper, it’s initially tempting to think of it as an ‘intentional edgeland’: however, edgelands arise by default, not design, and are usually indicators of neglect, or decline, rather than care and renewal. Adwick Washlands is a thoughtfully planned, developed, and managed space. One of the features that I was keen to reflect in the design of the event was the porosity of the site: the soft borders with the neighbouring estates and farmland, and, within the reserve itself, the movable frontiers of land and water, constantly renegotiated as the levels in the washlands rise and fall. There are, too, fewer boundaries between people and wildlife than one might expect in a RSPB reserve: in an illuminating email, Heather, the site warden, emphasized the ‘close encounters’ with nature that the openness of Adwick makes possible, with birds regularly feeding next to the paths. Hopeful of a few encounters – or, at least, sightings – on our walk, we took care to plot informal halts along the route, before and after the scheduled readings, leaving enough slack for the audience to pause, should they wish: to question, converse, listen, or observe. A breathing space.
It’s Saturday 1 July, and I’m tracking the movement of people and vehicles through a narrow car park off Furlong Road, south-west of Harlington. As I pace a hundred feet of tarmac to the meandering Dearne and back, it occurs to me that most of our poetry walks have taken river or canal bridges as their starting points. If pushed, I’d say that each rendezvous had something to do with expedience, the elevated crossing as urban landmark; pushed further, I might reflect on how the bridging of water creates a (literal) suspension of the commonplace, and how the intersection of two elements (earth and water) can amplify our attention to chance, and change, as it passes through a third element (air). This morning, the air is unremarkable, unmoved by wind, rain or sun; above it, a taut film of white cloud that flattens the perspective, muting our assembly, a company without shadow. Dominic Somers, the festival producer, arrives and unpacks the colour from the boot of his car; a pair of orange aprons, and four orange flags on long sticks. These are not field signs, or battle standards, and we are not a formation, but the pigment sets me wondering. After distributing the flags to their bearers, Dominic introduces himself, the ethos of the programme, and this, the final event of the festival, before handing over to me. I recount some recent expeditions to the edges of the valley, including ‘A Navigation’, a canal walk led by Matthew Clegg and songwriter Ray Hearne, and Helen Mort’s ‘poetic wander’ from Denaby Ings to Sprotbrough, ending or beginning, like today’s excursion, within sight of the Dearne. This presents Steve Ely, the festival director, with an opportunity to share the first report of the day: the flight call of a kingfisher, overheard near the bridge, a reminder of Ted Hughes’s belief that human actions invoke, or summon, energies or spirits. Matthew closes – or opens up – the preambles with a short extract from Thomas A. Clark’s aphoristic prose poem ‘In Praise of Walking’, a set of variable clauses or ‘steps’, central to which is the proposition that ‘a walk is its own measure, complete at every point along the way’. After a minute or two of these, we’re tuned, calibrated, keen to depart, to step into this ‘mobile form of waiting’.
The path to Adwick Washlands runs parallel to the road for 800 metres, the routes partitioned by a dense screen of trees; then a sharp turn west, the trees darkening, a white horse, a small, orderly stables, the pastures falling back in long, thin strips, a copse, losing form and restraint, until, after seven minutes, the roughness gives way to clean edges, and the outline of the wetland fills the view. I step onto a large, flat stone at the path’s edge, and, as I wait for the audience to compose itself, survey a yarn of pylons to the west, a scattering of poppies, a silage pile. Within this field, I try to visualize another: the open cast colliery that once occupied, and exhausted, the land to the north. Several decades ago, it was restored, and drainage was put in for agriculture. Using its powers of compulsory purchase, the Environment Agency took over the site, based on the contour lines – the line to which the water would naturally fill – and it became an active washland once more, one of several flood plains throughout the Dearne Valley. The RSPB now leases the land from the Environment Agency, and manages it as a wildlife reserve.
Old space, new space. In a site like this, the changes of use and of appearance aren’t always apparent: there’s little here to suggest that this was, until recently, a ‘working landscape’, the grassland and wetland concealing the scars of industry. We can, however, detect a few clues that this is a ‘new space’, in which the ratio of wildness to regulation, and leisure to utility, is still being worked out. I mention how, on an earlier visit, I’d paused to read the signs in the wood our group has just passed through, stating that the grazing of livestock is prohibited; it wasn’t clear who had put them up, though. I close with a few words on the history of English land law, and a few short poems:
The map and ruler,
carving the common for none
but the tithe-owners.
I abdicate the stone to Matthew, who sets against these straight edges a vision of ‘mucky sandy boys’, roaming the valley in defiance of prohibitions, their ‘fat treads’ ploughing up footpaths and fields. On the page, ‘Mexborough Quad Bandits’ is, in part, an exploration of ‘open form’, its lines short and irregularly indented, a shifting pattern of refusal, swerving and skidding, scuffing up the white space. Out here, the ‘rude’ rhythms are cranked and revving, a ‘swarm’ that chokes the air, then vacates it, leaving a ragged trail of exhaust:
cuts into revs
that bite and hurl
The whiff of ferality lingers over the next reading, which takes place a few hundred feet along the track, at the edge of a small, roughly disc-shaped pond. To enter this space, which is split by a boundary ditch, we must cross a tiny bridge; as we reassemble on the other side, the land in a small declivity, there’s an undeniable sense of separateness, and an adjustment of scale. Matthew addresses our ragged crescent, half of us standing, the other half seated on large blocks of quarried stone. He speaks of folklore, of familiars, of the wodwo, first glimpsed in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and (almost) fleshed out, centuries later, in an eponymous poem by Ted Hughes. A wodwo is a ‘marginal wild man’, and, as Matthew emphasises in his introduction to Hughes’s poem, a ‘creature of the provisional’; the path he takes, ‘nosing’ after ‘a faint stain on the air’, is jumbled and erratic, but his absorption in (and by) the natural world, framed by unanswerable questions (‘I seem to have been given the freedom / of this place what am I then?’), allows him to revise his perspectives. Resisting conclusions, he resolves only to ‘go on looking’. I take up the theme of landscape as an imaginative resource, and consider its changing status as a physical resource. In the space of several decades, drift and open cast mining depleted this area. The search for energy is now changing direction, with renewables tapping into sources above ground: solar and wind. I gesture to the north, near Barnburgh, a cluster of blades skimming the hillside. I share my impressions of the Isle of Axholme, 20 miles north-east of here; the site of England’s largest onshore wind farm, with 34 turbines rising from the flatlands. However, the turbines are just one part of the resource infrastructure. The poems that have developed from my recent visits also reflect on other changes in the use, and appearance, of the land, including the growth of biofuels, and the consequences for biodiversity:
Yellow on yellow.
Every field has resistance
to spray, spoil and stress.
Let go. The monoculture
will raise the monoculture.
Accompanying us on today’s walk is the conservationist and writer Laurence Rose, who, along with Steve Ely, ventures some thoughts on the design of the pond; its rounded shape, and central stand of reeds, suggest that it is intended for great crested newts, who are known for their circular mating rituals. It provides a backdrop for the final three poems at this site, drawn, like ‘Mexborough Quad Bandits’, from The Navigators, Matthew’s second collection. Each of these short poems explores a different modality of water – flowing, standing, and stagnant – and the life that exists in, on, or through them – weeds, leeches, bacteria. The last of these is ‘Dunn Street: Abandoned Lock’:
of bile-green algae –
We recross the bridge, the path drawing us further into the wetland, a subtle weave of shrubs and trees that gradually breaks down as we approach the centre of the reserve, the hedges losing height, the gaps closing in. The first lake, sketchy at its eastern edges, lengthens into a complete view, the water levels considerably lower than on earlier visits. Laurence identifies an unusual coot with signs of albinism. Steve spots a handful of avocets, and charts the recovery of a species that was, until the middle of the last century, extinct in the UK; even a few decades ago, they were rarely sighted outside of Havergate Island, a marshy RSPB site in Suffolk. Today, they’re almost commonplace, the health of the Adwick population assisted, in part, by the recent installation of a four kilometre anti-predator fence throughout the reserve. While the wetland has been successful in encouraging breeding, many of the fledglings have been predated; a consequence of this being an ‘open’ site. Since this line of defence was created, the young birds appear to be surviving. The ‘internal border’ runs the length of the narrow track that branches from the main path, terminating in a semi-circular stone wall, where we gather for the third reading. This wall is the reserve’s central viewpoint: a soft curve, framing and focusing the wet grassland and wading pools, inviting us to take in the washland in a single, slow sweep. Given the extent to which this area has been transformed over the last five years, it’s odd that a wall should strike me as the most conspicuous intervention, but perhaps I’m responding to the symbolic value of the structure: a reminder that this is also a human habitat. The ideas of movement and stillness that anchored Matthew’s last reading inform the next selection, in which I revisit the Isle of Axholme, adjusting the angle to meet the ‘dynamic’ array of a wind farm at full speed:
Amcotts is moving,
a bladed wetland, curving
fibre and resin.
My stance shifts, the pattern torn,
tiny cuts in the distance.
As I’m reading the last few poems, my voice starts to dip; a lapse of projection, a loss of altitude. I’ve been half-listening to something else, and, in the few seconds between my voice falling silent and the answering applause, I hear it, we hear it, in full: high above us, circling the grassland, an exultation of skylarks (some weeks later, I discover that male skylarks sing at higher frequencies near wind farms, due to turbine noise). Steve remarks on their volume, their number, how these sounds and sights have been shrinking in areas where pesticides are used. Matthew ruminates on migration, before introducing his version of King Hoopoe’s speech from The Birds. In Aristophanes’s play, Hoopoe summons a council of birds – a global assembly, with representatives from field, tree, marsh and sea – to discuss the problem of ‘destructive’ mankind. Matthew’s version updates the speech for an era of corporate power (or ‘corporatocracy’), exhorting the ‘raiders of the farmer’s furrows / liberating seeds and barley’ to ‘picket all the corporate glaciers’ and ‘join the V, the flying delta, / sing my song of featherlution’. The second poem constructs a quieter, more intimate space, in a setting which, like our viewpoint, has contemplation written into the design. ‘Brigand’ is narrated by a member of the eponymous South Yorkshire motorcycle club (Matthew makes an interesting distinction between a club and a gang, and their respective codes; unlike the ‘Mexborough Quad Bandits’ we met earlier, the Brigands observe rules, on and off the road). We encounter him as he is taking a break from the ‘revs’ and ‘white lines’, making the short journey on foot ‘to a hide at Denaby Ings’ (another Dearne Valley wetland, managed by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, two miles south-east of here). As ‘a lush trawl of sound’ filters from the lake to the slatted shelter, it becomes apparent that this act of listening is also an act of dismantling (the coots, doves and ducks preparing a path to ‘two minutes’ silence’) and of disarming (once an aid to hunting, the hide is now a means of avoiding disturbance to wildlife, and has a similarly calming effect on its visitors). The porosity of the structure is integral to these processes, emboldening a jay to ‘flit’ a ‘toy windmill’ in and out of the hide, and harbouring the sound of ‘gnats / teasing at the edge of buzz’, while
the clatter and creak
is me donning my helmet
and wrapping this up.
Before we leave the viewpoint, Steve crouches to the wall, inviting us to look closer: while the top rows of stone are bonded with cement, the lower layers are perforated with holes and crevices, allowing insects and small animals a passage through the viewpoint. We straighten up, thread back along the narrow track, single file, conversation breaking out, the gaps between us widening, then narrowing, the wetland tilting in and out of sight.
We rejoin the main path, west for 500 metres, the river wall rising in the south, a reminder that this site is part of a larger system. It’s a little after 12.30pm. The white cloud that stretched across the morning is now looser and thinner, the light comes and goes, printing and erasing our shadows on the path. As we near the western edge of the washland, I bear left, and guide the group along a rough, grassy track that seems at odds with the well-kept arable land to either side. On our right, a corrugated silo collapses into itself, the roof long since weathered to air; fifty metres ahead, a handful of small, grey structures lie in an ellipsis, the track fissuring and fading as we close in. This was a heavy anti-aircraft gun site, established in 1942, in response to the Sheffield Blitz of 1940-41; it was built to protect the city’s industries, and the local colliery, and was part of a network of defences including Old Moor (now a 250-acre RSPB reserve). I don’t mention any of this, not yet; it seems better for each of us to encounter the site for ourselves, to spend a little time exploring it without direction or discussion. After several minutes, we assemble in the centre of the third emplacement, the easternmost point of Station H17. Dominic fishes a carton of Tunnock’s caramel wafers from his rucksack; the box is raided and emptied. As Matthew is shuffling his script, Steve emerges from a concrete and breezeblock chamber, and announces a find: a swallow’s nest in the rear shelter. We adjust our positions, and keep our distance from the entrance. Matthew opens with some thoughts on the importance of maintaining a connection with fertile ground; for him, this includes the derelict or disowned spaces that nurtured his curiosity and creativity as a teenager, and that find an echo in the space in which we’re now standing. The poem that exemplifies this connection is set on the edge of East Leeds, within earshot of the former Vickers factory, where Challenger tanks rolled off a mile-long production line until the 1990s. ‘Because I was Nobody’ is also an affirmation of the value of anonymity in a world that, increasingly, insists on status and visibility:
Once, I stumbled down a mound
into a herd of cows. The heat of them
was like a drug. All I wanted was to stand
feeling their breath all night. They let me try
because they knew I had nothing. Was nobody.
The introduction to the next poem develops the links between self-discovery and outward exploration, with an emphasis on how children can inhabit and transform a landscape with their imagination. In Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns, Matthew intuits a similar process at work; the poems (or ‘versets’) conflate the persona of Offa, the Anglo-Saxon King of Mercia, with that of the young Hill, and, in turn, sieve half-forgotten cultural legacies through personal mythologies, each layer excavated through the other. ‘Hymn VII’ recalls ‘the day of the lost / fighter: a biplane, already obsolete and irreplaceable, two inches of / heavy snub silver.’ The near past, in the child’s eye, is as unreachable, and yet apprehensible, as the England that vanished with Offa.
Slowly, we adjust our orientation within the gun site, until we’re facing east, looking back at the field lines we started out from. I give a brief account of the station’s history, and the defensive positions to the west, noting that this chain of anti-aircraft sites is now an open corridor of nature reserves; we reflect on the remaking of a landscape, once shielded by barrage balloons and batteries, into a protected habitat for migrant birds. Around the time that the regeneration of the Dearne Valley was gaining ground, Station H17 was registered as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, which, perhaps, lends some perspective to our ideas of the ‘near past’. There are gaps in its history, leading to some conjecture about what happened here and when. We don’t know exactly when it was built, or when it was armed. A book of signatures records that it was staffed by women (operating radar, communications systems, and other support roles) and men (operating guns). As far as we know, not a single shot was fired from the battery.
Above us, the E-shaped command post, half-buried in higher ground, is flooded, seams of debris and dross beneath the surface. Further down the track, the Nissen hut, used as an ammunition store, is split and sinking, open to the sky. It may be listed as a monument, but what we encounter on the ground is an almost feral waste. We’ve ‘strayed’ from the ‘official’ path to reach this site. The track and the station are not maintained in any formal sense; it’s not clear who owns this space, or if there is any right of public access; yet there is clear evidence of recent human activity. We can see how this might offer a retreat or refuge for youngsters from nearby estates; it’s walkable, but unsupervised; defended, but porous; if you needed to hide, or make a quick getaway from any part of the site, you could do so.
Standing up, we take in the new houses to the west, the infrastructure, the surrounding fields; sitting down, against the emplacements, the estates disappear from view, and the site becomes a microhabitat, a portal into the near – or distant – past, a palimpsestic space for actual and imagined story and incident, a theatre for improvised play. I read a short sequence of poems that explore these ambiguities (‘The field is a front / standing in for another / we will never see’), followed by some passages from East Wind, an account of a night-time ‘manoeuvre’ on the east coast that is also a fragmentary memoir of collective walking, led by Malcolm, a Wiltshire farmer and adventure support officer:
Malcolm would have sent us cross-country, the woods and contours had specific values, a knowledge that we moved through. I pretended to use the compass in my pocket, black arrow, red needle. In time it became a pretend compass. I learned to read a map by fixing a position and rotating the map around me. I made everything the north.
The prose extract runs out on the approach to Withernsea, trailing half-remembered scraps of the Chivalric Code. At the eastern edge of the emplacement, a drift of birdsong, a ripple of wind. A brief pause, then a final poem:
No cross, no colour.
The fields marked and abandoned
by flag and flower.
On the way to our last stop, I talk with Tracy, who spent her childhood in this area, and has recently returned; earlier in the walk, she’d made some helpful, timely corrections to my geographical overviews (in which I discovered that the colliery was not where I thought it was), and is now filling in the few blanks in her own knowledge, piecing the landscape together. 300 metres north of the gun site, at the junction of wetland, track and farmland, we reach a set of cattle gates, on which we prop the orange flags that have fluttered above our heads for the last few hours. A brown hare, spotted by Steve, darts between the gates and disappears. We look back at the wetland, the fields to the north, Goldthorpe to the north-west, the pylons, the turbines, the edge of the Lowfield estate. I mention my interest in post-war urban planning, and some of the housing projects that have appeared in the last few decades. The last few poems that I read allude to a development on a flood plain in west Swindon, a short distance from my childhood home, a patchwork of ‘new space’ that was paused (and only recently restarted) after the 2008 financial crash:
The new settlement
starts without us. We won’t live
to see it finished.
Our presence has been noted by the resident cows, who wander over from the water’s edge to eavesdrop on our readings. Laurence points out that the livestock are part of the management; these highland cattle thrive in fenland, and help to graze the watery landscapes. A concern with ecology, ecosystems, and species decline informs Matthew’s commentary on the work of Peter Reading, a keen birder whose poem ‘Afflatious’ is both a catalogue and a celebration of several decades of sightings, taking a leisurely route from recent observations in America and Australia to the site of a formative experience:
And I’d say (if I entertained
such mawkish conceits) that on each
of these afflatious encounters
my soul ascended like that
Skylark I watched as I lay
and dreamed through a summer morning
in a sweet pasture in Shropshire
on an upland when I was younger.
And, high above us, circling the grassland, an exultation of skylarks.
Matthew closes the event with a final axiom from Thomas A. Clark – ‘A day, from dawn to dusk, is the natural span of a walk’ – which serves as a preface to a poem from his sequence Edgelands, a record of a simple moment of unforced attention:
Pink dusk. Along this B-road
starlings have colonised
20 yards of power-line.
Their song is a kind of current,
the current, a kind of song.
Poems featured in the walk (and this essay) can be found in the following collections (click the titles for further excerpts or details): ‘Because I was Nobody’ and ‘Edgelands’ appear in West North East by Matthew Clegg; ‘Brigand’, ‘Dunn Street: Abandoned Lock’, ‘Hoopoe’s Cuckoo Song’, ‘In the 70s’, ‘Long Weeds’ and ‘Mexborough Quad Bandits’ are taken from The Navigators by Matthew Clegg; the poems and prose extracts by Brian Lewis appear in his pamphlets East Wind and White Thorns.
An earlier essay and recording, ‘The Hide’, documents a visit by Matthew Clegg and Brian Lewis to the Denaby Ings hide referenced in the poem ‘Brigand’.
Thanks to all who attended the walk on 1 July 2017. A special thanks to Emma Bolland, Matthew Clegg, Steve Ely, Laurence Rose, Dominic Somers, and the RSPB.