Along the Silt Road from Eden

Oxford Street Wycombe

Wycombe on a wet half-term Monday. I’m here for a lunchtime concert at All Saints Church of music by poet and composer Ivor Gurney by Jacobine van Laar and Marisa Thornton Wood. I’ve been mildly obsessed with Gurney since I discovered his connection with the town during the Remapping High Wycombe project – not just that this fascinating overlooked cultural figure had lived and written some of his most haunting compositions in Wycombe either side of the First World War, but that he was inspired by his long walks, manic fugues from London to Gloucester and the walk I plan to recreate from Wycombe to Gloucester which he did over two days in late February 1920. I’d tentatively planned to carry out the walk on the anniversary but lack of planning and my inability to cover the 60-odd miles in two short February days meant  postponing till summer.

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I killed some time wandering familiar childhood streets, devastated by the building of the Eden Shopping Centre – a place that must win the award for most misnamed location ever, perhaps they were playing opposites day in the planning office. We’d feared this when doing our project in response to the redevelopment over 2004-05 but to see it first-hand was depressing. The once thriving High Street dead, Poundland, Iceland, charity shops. The Octagon Centre – the town’s original shopping mall now relegated to the back door of the new scheme with empty units and a few bedraggled shoppers sheltering from the rain. White Hart Street shops boarded up, vacant, the same pattern creeping like a weeping rash round Oxford Street to Frogmore. The Kebab Centre has somehow survived the retail blitz but little else. The guts totally ripped out the town by a covered mall with a particularly big Marks and Spencer, a muffin shop and bowling alley.

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In the new Waterstones I picked up a copy of a book I’d seen reviewed a while back and placed on my To Read list purely on the basis that it was the story of a man’s relationship with a stream somewhere in England. At the cashdesk I opened the cover to find that the subject of Charles Rangeley-Wilson’s Silt Road wasn’t just any stream anywhere but the river that ran through Wycombe (pretty much under the Waterstones in fact) and along the valley floor through the village where I grew up – the sacred River Wye that gave its name to the town and the road where I spent my formative years. The river that drove the mills along its course from West Wycombe to Bourne End. Near its banks was a holy well, a site of pilgrimage. Romans seeded oyster beds in its clear spring waters. I used to paddle in it as a kid and we rode inner-tubes over the weirs by the viaduct. I’ve played Poo Sticks with my children from the bridges that cross the river where it skirts the perimeter of Wooburn Park.

Gurney Concert
After Jacobine and Marisa’s haunting Gurney recital I set out along the stream in the driving rain. I’d left home in my trainers for some reason, well my boots were still caked in mud from my schlep across Gilbert’s Slade the day before and I didn’t want to wear muddy boots to the recital. Pretty soon my trainers were soaked through and several balletic slides in the mire crossing the Rye coated my feet in thick mud.

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The rain would ease up, I was sure. I’d been sent Silt Road as a gift from the book genie and a message to make this pilgrimage. By the time I reached Kingsmead the rain was coming down in thick watery rods smashing me across the head and shoulders. I remembered my Nan’s saying that Dad had told me on the phone just the other day, ‘February fills the ditch, black or white I don’t care which’. My Nan would have been chuffed to bits – the ditch was full to the brim.

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I skated across the swamp-like rugby pitches heading for shelter on the far side only to get there and discover it had been built by someone with an odd sense of humour – the sunken floor filling up with rainwater like a fish pond.
It couldn’t be any grimmer or greyer as I approached the viaduct at Loudwater – unrelenting hometime traffic kicking up plumes of water. I started to regret embarking on this river walk – it’s not as if I haven’t done it hundreds of times before. I pass into Wooburn, past the street where I grew up – Wye Road. A number 37 bus pulls up at the bus stop bound for Wycombe and the train back to London – too much to resist.

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On the turbo powered train into Marylebone I open Silt Road. What on earth compelled this award-winning nature writer to pen an entire book about a short stream running through an industrialized valley on the outskirts of High Wycombe?

The book opens under the grey M40 viaduct at Loudwater with a two-page monochrome photo, “Standing under the motorway along which the cars and trucks drummed and rushed and from which the rain spilt in a streaking line, I felt a fascinated longing for this imprisoned stream. And now I feel this stream running through me.”

Walking With Attitude

It is seven years ago today that I headed out with my father across the Templar Lands on the eastern edge of High Wycombe, picking up a ley line that I had optimistically identified running from the holy well through the Iron Age encampment of Desborough Castle to the Hell Fire Caves in West Wycombe.

Above is the super 8 document I made of this vaguely psychogeographical walk which had been inspired by Iain Sinclair’s idea of ‘nodules of energy’. It was part of the Arts Council funded Remapping High Wycombe project that I did with Cathy Rogers and was my first real foray into the practice of psychogeography

Today at 7.45pm is the broadcast of Walking With Attitude on Radio 3 – a documentary about psychogeography presented by travel writer Ian Marchant. I was interviewed for this (mainly about the Remapping High Wycombe project) alongside such psychogeographic magi as Iain Sinclair, Will Self and Stewart Home (the people who introduced me and many others to the subject). Nick Papadimitriou also appears, no doubt refuting the usefulness of psychogeography and further extolling the merits of his very own ‘deep topography’.

Maybe December 4th should be declared National Psychogeographic Day.

You can download the Remapping High Wycombe book from Issuu or Lulu

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High Wycombe’s ‘Nodules of Energy’ Walk

I dug out a miniDV tape the other day from a walk I did in May 2005 for the Remapping High Wycombe project. I’d never watched it back – the walk (and therefore the tape) had served its purpose – I’d mapped out the final points in what we were calling the ‘nodules of energy’ of the town. I’d borrowed this term from a talk Iain Sinclair had given with Will Self at Hawksmoor’s St. Luke’s Church in Old Street. He’d used it in reference to the church itself, William Blake’s burial site in nearby Bunhill Fields. We transposed this idea onto High Wycombe and came up with our own ‘nodules of energy’ for the town.

The walk in the video documents the final stretch of these – Ivor Gurney’s lodgings, Malmer’s Well ancient British fortification, the old straight Bronze Age track of Coffin Walk, Harrison’s Stamp Factory, Disraeli Monument, Tinker’s Wood (the home of Bodgers and Bandits) and Compair Broome and Wade.
I’m using the camcorder to scribble down video notation – haphazard, rough, the sounds of scuffed feet and birdsong. Watching it back I could almost remember every step of the way.

I sought out this tape and hastily hacked this video because now my mind is turning back to the walks we planned that never embarked upon. Out beyond the Hughenden Valley, breaking free of the Chilterns escarpment and into open country.

There’s more about this walk here

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Free book for Christmas

Here’s something I wrote a couple of years ago as part of a public art project funded by the arts council. We started with the question of ‘what makes a place’ in response to a massive shopping centre being built in our home town, then headed off on a series of psychogeographically inspired derives over the course of 18 months.

Posted via email from fugueur’s posterous

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psychogeography and the High Wycombe terror suspects

Psychogeography and the High Wycombe terror suspects
We’re exploring the meaning of the recent arrests in High Wycombe in the context of the town’s sense of place and our personal connection to it.

In November 2004 we did a derive workshop with a group of local school children which at one stage took us through Kings Wood where the police are now searching for evidence of bomb making equipment. 18 months ago the associations of this wood, through the eyes and minds of young teenagers was one of adventure, exploration and discovery of wildlife and flora and debris from an old burnt out car. We met dog walkers who were happy to stand and chat and the children were happy and familiar leading the party around an environment which was obviously a regular playground. How quickly the perceptions of place change.

One question we’re asking is to what extent is the presence of religious extremism in the town (supposing the allegations are correct) somehow in keeping with its heritage of religious dissent. Wycombe was a Lollard and Quaker stronghold for many years (Quakers still meet in Wycombe) and in their day they were viewed by the State in almost the same way that Islamic militants are today. This is not drawing a direct comparison in terms of beliefs or methods, or drawing a direct parallel between dissenters and what we now call extremists, it’s searching for historic symmetries between current events and echoes from the past.
Click here to read some further thoughts on psychogeography, autotopography and the terror suspects. We’d be keen to know what you think and we’ll continue to add updates as we get them.

Aimless pleasures – Observations on psychogeography

As a NS subscriber of many years not sure how I missed this column by Joe Moran published in the Newstatesman 16 April 2009 about psychogeography which gives a great mention to mine and Cathy’s Wycombe project and the brilliant John Davies.

“The same spirit is evident in Remapping High Wycombe, a project run by Cathy and John Rogers, a brother-and-sister team of “psycho-crypto-topographers”. They wanted to make an imaginative record of the old town centre before it was redeveloped, so they created an algorithmic dérive in which they repeatedly followed the same set of simple instructions – for instance, “Take a left and then a right”. My favourite online psychogeographer is John Davies, a vicar who spent two months walking the length of the M62 motorway and blogging about it from the wifi areas in Travelodges and service stations.”

Psychogeography is definitely in the air at the moment as there is an article in Product magazine this month with a well articulated User’s Guide to Psychogeography.

Joe Moran’s “On Roads: a Hidden History” is published in June by Profile Books (£14.99)
joe moran on roads

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