Back to Birmingham – City of Surrealists

Screening with the brilliant Video Strolls has the added bonus of a chance for a wander round Birmingham. I’ve blown through a couple of times before on tour with Russell Brand but those occasions were restricted to backstage views of venues and a quick dash through the Bull Ring searching for gifts for the family.

The occasion this time was a screening of London Overground at the Flatpack Film Festival and despite my best intentions I arrive with only an hour or so to explore. Instead of searching out new sights/sites I want to pay homage to the Birmingham Surrealists and somehow connect them to Birmingham’s Edwardian arcades.

King Edward House Birmingham

The crowds are out enjoying the sunshine pitching into New Street. There’s something about the architecture that reminds me of Downtown LA, the fading grandeur of former times. Could Ridley Scott save himself a few quid and shoot the next Blade Runner movie in the midlands, bounty hunters pursuing Replicants along the corridors of King Edward House.

Trocadero Birmingham

I stand outside the Trocadero pub in Temple Street, one of the haunts of the Birmingham Surrealists. I know the Kardomah Cafe is nearby but can’t locate the exact location until Andy Howlett takes me back there after the screening to point out the ghost sign still visible above the entrance to Hawkes and Curtis menswear shop.

Emmy Bridgwater Night work is about to commence

Emmy Bridgwater Night Work is About to Commence (1943)

I move on to the Birmingham City Gallery and Museum to find the surrealists there. The entrance is dominated by Jacob Epstein’s bronze statue of Lucifer (1944-45). After touring the galleries I find a painting by Emmy Bridgwater  Night Work is about to commence (1940-43). Bridgwater, born in Edgebaston in 1906,  was a key member of the Birmingham Surrealists along with Conroy Maddox and John Melville. It’s Melville’s Aston Villa that I spot next, painted in the year Villa won the cup, 1956.

The Victoria Birmingham

Time is moving on as it has a habit of doing when you have somewhere to be and I advance to the venue of the screening, a beautiful art deco boozer behind the Alexandra Theatre. The screening is packed and the film seems to go down well in its first outing beyond London. But once again I depart Birmingham vowing to return for more thorough exploration.

 

Walking the River Stort Navigation

I’d previously noticed the River Stort Navigation on the OS map snaking around the northern fringe of Harlow. Comments on my YouTube videos had suggested sections that I would enjoy walking. So one day in the Easter holiday I set off on the Lea Bridge Line (celebrating its first anniversary since re-opening) to Broxbourne to see whether I could make it all the way to Bishop’s Stortford.

Rivers Stort Navigation

The Stort Navigation runs from Feildes Weir, just to the south of Rye House, 14 miles to the Hertfordshire town of Bishops Stortford. It was completed in 1769, with the intention of linking Bishops Stortford with the lucrative malt trade working its way along the Lea from Ware. The 15 Locks that break up its course became waypoints for my walk that day, when we were blessed with early sunshine that only just now seems to have returned at the end of May.

Lower Lock

The appeal of river and canal walks is not only the proximity of water but the removal of decision making and navigation – the canal engineers have done the job for you. The downside is maintaining the discipline to stick to the path resisting temptations to wander off along beguiling side routes.

River Stort Navigation

I was drawn into Parndon Mill on the edge of Harlow by a poster for an exhibition by Graham BoydThe New Hampshire Grids – from the early 1970’s. I saw potential parallels with my own walking practice in that title, especially when on a contrained hike following a pre-ordained route carved out of the landscape by 18th Century navvies.

The gallery space occupied a small white cube on the ground floor of the old Mill (this version built in 1900 following a devastating fire but mills have occupied the site since at least the Norman Conquest). The framed pictures and 3-dimension works sat on a plinth seemed to be presenting an intrincate code. I bought an exhibition catalogue and went to sit on a bench by the towpath. The last sentence in Maxine E. King’s intrductory essay reads;

“This is the character of Boyd’s work, a restless searching, stretching out through an immense space, sometimes taking up the grid to orientate himself, like a sextant for navigating the stars.”

I contemplated this over a late lunch of Chicken Club Sub washed down with a pint of San Miguel in the garden of the Moorhen pub near Harlow. They had Minnions toys behind the bar and a kids softplay inside the pub – I’ve never seen that before.

River Stort Navigation

Pushing on into the sunset leaving behind Harlow’s riverside sculptures I finally allowed myself a detour, through Sawbridgeworth, an ancient village once owned by an Anglo-Saxon brilliantly named Angmar the Staller. I think we should restore the Anglo-Saxon naming system. The village is like a period film set – a collection of Tudor to Georgian buildings spanning out from a 13th Century Church. After a look around I refueled at the newsagents for the final push into Bishops Stortford.

Tednambury Lock 4

Tednambury Lock 4

A wise man, Tim Bradford, once told me the pub trade is run on people forever trying to recreate that glorious first sip of beer, with each successive pint becoming increasingly less satisfying until you’re pissed. I sometimes think a similar dynamic applies to walking – I’m forever in search of that euphoric final stage of a schlepp, bathed in sunset crossing a field or rounding the bend of a river, cresting a hill, traipsing through an industrial estate, the rump of the city behind you, awash in the experience of the fugue. Counting down those last few Locks in the last burst of Spring sunshine on the approach to Bishops Stortford were one of the finest walk’s ends I’ve ever known – one I’ll be chasing for the rest of the summer.

 

A People’s Manifesto for the Arts

Last Saturday out on the South Bank with artist Bob and Roberta Smith to create ‘A People’s Manifesto for the Arts’ with passing members of the public. Bob had already written his own manifesto that he intended to harangue politicians with but he wanted to gauge what interest there was amongst the public to advocate for the arts during the election campaign.

Bob passionately defends the Arts and Education – seeing Art as central to free expression and a core component of democracy.

“Before we vote in June’s election we must consider what kind of culture we want to live in.”Bob and Roberta Smith, The Guardian

I’ve heard him point out that tyrannical regimes always target Artists and Writers – and this Tory government has aggressively attacked the arts by withdrawing funding and eroding the place of creative subjects in the school curriculum. If your intention is to create a servile nation of worker drones the last thing you want to do is encourage them to think for themselves. Art and Culture requires you to see the world through your own eyes and encourages you to express your own feelings about the world aroud you.

In the 2015 General Election Bob ran for Parliament against Tory Education Secretary, Michael Gove in the ultra safe seat of Surrey Heath. He ran a spirited campaign which provided a great platform to advocate for the Arts and highlight how Gove’s policies had damaged the teaching of Creative subjects in schools.

“Post-Brexit, we face a dissolution of our museums and galleries comparable in its devastation to that visited on England in the 1530s, as philistine politicians slash budgets. Art schools and the arts in schools will be further diminished in a wave of manufactured disdain for so-called elitists.Bob and Roberta Smith, The Guardian

In a post-Brexit Britain the situation for Art, Culture, and Science looks uncertain so Bob’s campaigning is ever more vital.

You can find out more about Vote Art here

Parsloes Park to Valence House – utopia out east

Parsloes Park is a glorious tract of open space covering 58 hectares built on former market gardens in Dagenham created by the London County Council. Its opening in 1935 completed the great housing project of the Becontree Estate. It stared out at me from the map over morning coffee calling me East.

The first thing that strikes you about Parsloes Park is sheer size and the maturity of the trees that I figured must was have formed part of the original landscaping – although my knowledge of trees is so poor that this is pure speculation. The geese were making a racket on the lake. The bowls green was knee high with weeds. The pavilion was quite beautifully grafittied.

After posting the video above on YouTube one of the first comments pointed out that the park also features Second World War bomb craters by the children’s playground. The building of Becontree Station across the road revealed a stash of Neolithic flint tools. Police divers were spotted plunging into the last a couple of years ago searching for “items of interest”. This is an area of multiple layers.

Parsloes Park Becontree Parsloes Park Becontree

A short distance and a box of chips away is Valence House sat on the edge of Valence Park. I was impressed with the way that Valence F.C had added a shipping container to the roof of the changing rooms to create a grandstand effect. A shopping trolley lay partially submerged wheels up in the medieval moat. I can’t resist a museum and Valence House turned out to be a particularly good one.

Valence House Dagenham

The first thing you encounter in this ancient building is the Dagenham Idol – one of the most important archaeological discoveries in Greater London. Excavated on Rainham Marsh this human figure carved from Scots Pine stares back down the years from 2250BC. It was a great payoff for this speculative jaunt.

Dagenham Idol

Walking Roman Roads Near London

Three months ago today I set out under a murky sky with the temperature hovering around zero, bound for a section of the old Roman Ermine Street that passes through the woods between Broxbourne and Hertford. There was light snow as I departed from Cheshunt Station over the level crossing at 10am and make my way to the Lea Navigation towpath.

Slipe Lane Level Crossing Wormley
Turning inland at the Turnford/Wormley border there is a curious collection of rare features side-by-side. At the Slipe Lane Level Crossing stands a 19th Century Coal Tax Post (a large stone obelisk) next to a Second World War Pillbox. The two structures are indicators of being on the outer limits of ‘London’ despite being clearly in Hertfordshire. The Coal Tax Post a notification of entry into the tax jurisdiction of the Corporation of London, and the Pillbox forming part of the Outer London Defence Ring.

St Laurence Wormley
11.30am I shelter from the snow in the lychgate of St. Laurence Wormley while trying to find the Twix that’s hiding somewhere in the bottom of my bag. It would’ve been nice to have a look at the early 12th Century nave in the church but of course it’s locked so I have to satisfy myself with trying to identify the window in the south wall that dates from the same period.

Roman Ermine Street Hertfordshire

Onwards through Wormleybury, across a field and up a lane and there I pick up the marked section of Ermine Street on the edge of Paradise Wildlife Park. Into afternoon now and the February snow continues to drift down as I tread the ancient track perhaps taken by the Syrian divisions of the Roman Army that spent time garrisoned in the Upper Lea Valley before moving North.

The ‘road’ continues its straight course through Danemead Wood and over the Spital Brook – this muddy woodland path leading you through the phases of English history. Ermine Street becomes Elbow Lane and takes you past Hobbyhorse Wood.

Ermine Street Elbow Lane

At Hertford Heath I turn away from the Roman Road and schlepp through Balls Wood Nature Reserve where the Vegan Vandals have been at work. From here I pass over the last winter fields guided into Hertford by the sound of playing fields on the edge of town.

Following the screening of London Overground at the Genesis Cinema last October I was approached by a couple who told me about a section of Roman Road running through Hobbs Cross near Theydon Bois. So one Sunday I set off on the Central Line then over fields in search of this preserved section of the Roman Road that once ran through Leytonstone after crossing the Lea at Leyton  running out to Great Dunmow joining a junction that linked in roads to Braughing, Braintree and Chelmsford.

Walking ancient trackways – over Pitstone Hill to Ivinghoe Beacon

Ridgeway Path sign

This is a bit bonkers I know, but I’m sat here watching a Jason Segel movie on Netflix called Jeff, Who Lives at Home about a guy who keeps looking for signs telling him what he should do with his life. He goes out to the hardware store and helps an old lady onto the bus and for a brief moment you see the street sign behind him – Ridgeway. I instantly see it as a sign, a reminder that I need to write this blog about the walk I did in late September last year along the Ridgeway from Tring, over Pitstone Hill to Ivinghoe Beacon. I was going to do this before I started watching the movie but got stuck on how to start – I must have know a film about a guy who lives in his Mum’s basement would give me inspiration.

The walk was inspired by seeing a photo of the footpath running over Pitstone Hill – a white way carved out of the grass covered chalk ridge with the lowlands far below. It called out to me sat in my box room in East London, summer in final decline, the last chance for a venturing out in the long days before winter drew in.

Ridgeway sign post
One late September Friday after dropping the kids at school I boarded the train at Euston bound for Tring, soon sliding through Wembley, then Harrow and Bushey under a clear blue sky – perfect walking weather.

I’m carrying too much stuff in my battered old backpack, which is a bit too heavy. I’m packing 3 cameras and 2 jackets somehow. The 3 cameras I can just about justify, the extra jacket has me flummoxed.  But by the time I’ve turned up the track onto the Ridgeway my mind is clear for the way ahead.

I first planned to walk the Ridgeway while I was backpacking in the mid-90’s, catching the bug after jungle trekking in South East Asia. My Dad had talked about it throughout my childhood in South Bucks with the Ridgeway passing no more than a few miles from our home. But somehow we never got round to it, children arrived, and as the old man advances into his 80’s the talk has diminished. But just seeing the first sign for the Ridgeway sparks something inside.

Aldbury Nowers
The Ridgeway forms part of an ancient long distance path thousands of years old, the oldest prehistoric track in the country running between Overton Hill near Avebury in Wiltshire and Ivinghoe Beacon in the Buckinghamshire Chilterns. I walked a mere fragment of its 87 miles, but sitting here now 7 months later every footstep lingers in the mind.

I passed over Grim’s Ditch, a 20-mile long Iron Age earthwork, at the bottom of a steep wood where I also searched for the tumuli marked on the Ordnance Survey map – spotting two mounds in the undergrowth that reminded me of a tumulus I’d seen in the Upper Lea Valley.

As the path continues through Aldbury Nowers you get that sense of the travelers that have passed this way over millennia. Today most of my fellow walkers appear to be retirees out with their dogs for a morning stroll, vigorously healthy pensioners wearing performance sportswear. It’s a beautiful hot day, the burning out of summer; the two jackets seem even more of a folly than they did on the train.

Pitstone Hill Ridgeway

The path breaks out through the trees presenting the vista I’d seen in the photo that had brought me out here – the curving white track running along the edge of Pitstone Hill – it was every bit as glorious as I’d hoped it’d be. Earthworks had been identified on Pitstone Hill within what is believed to be a prehistoric “Citadel” cris-crossed with trackways, boundary ditches with some features identified as possibly being Neolithic. Other finds indicate the site was in use through the Bronze and Iron Age into the Roman period

Pitstone Hill Ridgeway
I rummage around in a deep hollow formed by a pre-Roman flint mine, where chalk and flint still litter the grass. It is a majestic spot looking out over the valley floor towards Aylesbury. I probably linger too long gazing at flints and admiring the view, checking archaeological notes and attempting to walk around the perimeter of the ‘Citadel’.

Incombe Hole the Ridgeway

Ivinghoe Beacon rises majestically in the near distance – the Ridgeway snaking along a green spine.  It leads me around the edge of Incombe Hole – a deep sided hollow way, possibly a prehistoric boundary marker or ‘linear earthwork’. Breathtaking views stretch out in all directions. I rest on the side of Steps Hill and shoot a timelapse of Beacon Hill and the southeast facing tumulus before my final ascent.

Ivinghoe Beacon summit
It’s an odd sensation to summit Ivinghoe Beacon at the midpoint of a relatively short walk rather than the conclusion of an 86-mile yomp from Wiltshire. As people arrive at the stone plaque at the top of the hill I try to ascertain whether they’re completing a Ridgeway thru-hike but don’t observe any obvious signs of celebration. I vow to come back here to start a walk along the entire Ridgeway, fulfill the plan I made those 20-odd years ago.

Ivinghoe Beacon view

It was difficult to wrench myself away from the stunning views spreading out in all directions from Ivinghoe Beacon. A tangible sense of ancient history is present – it’s said to contain remains of one of the oldest Iron Age Hillforts in Britain with burial mounds dotted around the summit, the surrounding landscape is ridiculously rich in prehistoric sites. I munched on a Marks and Spencer sandwich I’d bought in Euston Station trying to process it all.

I’d made no clear plan for the route back to Tring and as was only mid-afternoon, plot a mazy loop through surrounding woodland. The evenings will soon draw in dragging wind and rain with them and memories of these glorious last rays of summer will be rekindled to keep me warm.
Ivinghoe Beacon and Gallows Hill

The Icknield Way crosses the Ridgeway just below Ivinghoe Beacon and continues the ancient trackway all the way to the coast – the simple wooden signposts an open invitation to adventure. I follow a path along a ridge over the tumulus on Gallows Hill then loop back across farmland to the Coombe.
Mid-afternoon I rest beside the footpath on the side of a steep hill reflecting on what has been a classic walk that although the original purpose has been fulfilled I’m keen not to end just yet. Checking the OS map I spot another tumulus in woodland on Moneybury Hill so decide to push on.

IMG_0870

Entering the wood after crossing a field of stubble I clamber up a high bank which sharply falls away into a deep-sided ditch. Rising on the far side appears a mound in the trees. The ditch has the clear look of a human intervention, like the outer-rim of a defensive earthwork, boundary marker, or holloway. I continue along a narrow path that runs along the high outer ridge of the ditch and find a shard of flint shaped like an axe-head or hand-axe. A tall tree has fallen across the ditch. It’s a dramatic prehistoric landscape hidden away on the edge of this large tract of woodland. It is a majestic find in the last light of summer.

Moneybury Hill Ashridge
At the far end of the path there is a small plaque confirming the ditch’s prehistoric origins, explaining that it was carved out over time by herded animals led this way to feed on grasses and acorns.

There is another, smaller burial mound near the carpark of the Bridgewater Monument – a towering granite column standing on a York Stone base raised in 1832 in memory of the Duke of Bridgewater who had lived at Ashridge.

flint axe moneybury hill

After taking refreshment in the café I make my way down wooded paths to the Valiant Trooper in the village of Aldbury. Supping a pint of Chiltern Brewery Bitter in the beer garden I reflect that I have been royally rewarded by the walking gods for pushing those last 2 hours. I check the flint axe is still in the front pocket of my bag before drinking up and making my way over a damp stubble field back to Tring Station.