Bridgwater to the Sea
‘Honeysuckle ramped on the banks of the deep worn road in such profusion as I had never before seen. The sky had clouded softly, and the sun warmed misty woods of the coombs, the noise of slender waters threading them, the exuberant young herbage, the pure flowers such as stitchwort and the pink and silver white cuckoo flowers, but above all the abounding honeysuckle, produced an effect of wildness and richness, purity and softness, so vivid that the association of Nether Stowey was hardly needed to summon up Coleridge. The mere imagination of what these banks would be like when the honeysuckle was in flower was enough to suggest the poet. I became fantastic, and said to myself that the honeysuckle was worthy to provide the honeydew for nourishing his genius; even that its magic might have touched that genius to life – which is absurd. And yet magic alone could have led Coleridge to safety through the style of his age… Except for Coleridge, I had the road to myself between Nether Stowey and Holford. Sheep were feeding on some of the slopes… but these eaters of grass… were ghosts by comparison… the very hills, their chasms and processions of beeches, were made unforgettable by his May opium dream.’
(In Pursuit of Spring, Edward Thomas)
‘Individuals and groups began to mark the landscape in ways that we can still discern today: they and their animals cleared the indigenous vegetation, and they began to manipulate and fashion soil and timber and stone into new kinds of construction and architecture; digging, piling, cutting, hauling, hoisting, carving, modeling, in a burst of creativity; engaging in activities far beyond the everyday needs for survival… These new features inscribe the landscape, shifting its very components. They involve the purposeful creation of a place; special places – places to be, places to believe, places in which particular things are done in particular ways. They separate and demarcate; they mark out, mark off and set aside particular locations. They are transformations of space: these linear and circular configurations and singular sites affect and regulate the way space is used, perceived, experienced and interpreted. This place is suddenly and irrefutably distinguished from that… The challenge for us is to engage with these places as our ancestors did – creatively, with energy, conviction and commitment – rather than through the fabulation of what once occurred there… And perhaps site-specific performance is the most effective form of programme, with its ability to transform rapidly and demonstrate multiple articulations of event and space… Performance might even be ambivalent to the site as much as congruent with it.’
(Performing the Past, Mike Pearson)
27 March 2011. We fixed a puncture with sticky circles and got back on the road. By this stage of the bike ride spirits were waning. This was not meant to be leisure or exercise. It was though becoming only that. We had passed towns and villages, marked with dead, endlessly, unceasingly. The time had come to recall the reasons for this pursuit. And – if possible – fathom what it was that all this meant. We needed to meet yet more spectres and drag them into our linear performance. As something concrete needed to be said. The Other Man was more forthright. He suggested that we critique all that we had done to this point and start again. It was all held tenuously together by magic, by a naive romantic spiritualism. Where was the actual hard evidence? We could begin again where we end. That is what he would do, so he said. He was wrong though. He was trying to read what we were doing as straight or objective journalism. And was bothered by truth when all this was, was collective dreaming – rude, irrational, fantastical nonsense, gonzo journalism, muted, and deliberately obtuse: youth attempting to connect with old landscapes. We had travelled the width of the country in one week. Jack Kerouac spent seven years on the road, hitchhiking east to west and back before writing his manual for the beat generation. We liked the beat ethos. A week cycling and staying in twee guesthouses though was always going to end in failure to dwell. We were devotees to the cause, acolytes, stalkers – just not very good at being beat. Much like the reverence of literary societies the trip was out of kilter with the original teachings of their secular saints: Jack Kerouac back to Henry David Thoreau. Edward felt it more. Time spent cycling cross-country for him was transcendental. Oh Manchester: so much to answer for. Edward was my Dean Moriarty, my Neal Cassady. He had thrown himself in to the world around him. Walked in solitude daily to achieve some spiritual download. Some would say being at one with nature. Like Jack Kerouac that was for me an impossibility – to let go of the past and live in the moment, for the moment. We turned to drugs and drink. It would be a lie to say that there were no flashes of clarity cycling. Times when all that was apparent was the unfolding road ahead. These though were fleeting. And anyway that was not really the point of the pursuit west. Some sort of Kerouacian Epiphany. It was a chance to spend some quality time with Edward, to understand poetry like he did; site-writing, telling small stories – not making bleak observations of the city, comparing it to a picturesque wilderness. It is a route through what geographer Marion Shoard termed Edgelands. Not in terms of what she and poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts delineate are Edgelands. Rather an argument for the in-between. Noting as we went the in-betweeness – Edward/Me, We/I, City/Country, Society/Nature, Structure/Agency, Subjective/Objective, Subject/Object, Human/Non-Human, Person/Thing, Imagination/Materiality, Marx/Deleuze, Phenomenology/Post-Structuralism, Life/Death, Northern/Southern, Rich/Poor, Old/Young, Here/Gone, Couple/Single. Replacing dower forms of remembrance. The challenge set by Mike Pearson in Performing the Past. What Edward produced was a historical materialism of bookmarks, of imagination, resurrecting Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the rest – a paper trail in the margins. And by the end he was reborn, just like flowers in spring. He is remembered herewith. Elegy is never enough.
Edward slept the night in a new, clean, unfriendly place with linoleum. We met up in the western half of town, and resolved to reach the coast by midday. Edward recalled Bideford beside the quayside. And at a memorable tomb a man who smoked cigarettes that regilded the world. On a statue he could not see a passage quoted from one Edmund Spencer, remembering instead an annoying inscription about Richard Jefferies. He muttered something about literary accuracy and sites of literary pilgrimage, whilst negotiating the suburbs. At Wembdon Hill we could see the sea that we aimed for. A chiff-chaff sang, a lark crowed, and a telegraph wire sizzled for Edward. The nuclear power station nestled silently in the foreground. Flat Holm and Steep Holm protruded middle distance. Wales a haze was just about in sight. It was not the sort of nuclear power station with giant concrete cooling towers. Clouds could not roll organic shadows over the blue and white metal boxes. This particular nuclear power station gave away little. There was no sense of the immense power housed within. It could have been an industrial estate; a gathering of nondescript boxes. They stuck out of the water mimicking the eminent Holms. The name Hinkley Point conjures up images of a secluded windy spot. Not nuclear fallout and radiation poisoning. That can all so easily change. Residents have a pill to take in a worst case scenario. Should the land be contaminated almost forever. We talked of a symbol for danger that could be read hundreds of thousands of years from now, after the anthropocene. Edward dismissed it as poppycock and wanted to change the world immediately. He tried to curtail the mindless pursuit of objects, of bigger and more destructive forms of transport, of power, of war. This was the only way for him to feel at peace. To travel endlessly and to document what he witnessed. It was interesting to see how he works. We dropped to a level and the first of the Quantocks rose up far-off. Sky was the bluest it had been all week. Contrails followed a symphony of hills. Grass the greenest it had been, stayed dotted by sheep. Ploughland outstretched. Paths of tractor tracks noted. Elms oddly spaced jutted in a hedgerow grid. It was beginning to feel like spring. Sunbeams shone on blossom, as the ground began to undulate. We had reached the foothills – two hundred feet up. In front the main ridge bulked.
Prior to the moorlands was a green sign. It had written on it Coleridge Cottage. Beside which was the National Trust symbol. Off the main road were more statements. Quantock Hills: area of outstanding natural beauty. Nether Stowey: please drive with care. We cycled first down a pretty street of cottages. Streams ran alongside the pavement. An odd little petrol station sat about half way down. We serve you daubed on the pumps amid retro logos and adverts for oil and tyres. Opposite was a disused hexagonal toll house. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon impersonated the poet relentlessly. In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree. Edward was less than impressed. Altogether Nether Stowey offered no temptations to be compared with those of the road leading out of it. A cottage at the end of the street was announced as formerly housing Coleridge. Here Samuel Taylor Coleridge made his home 1797-1800, a reddish brown stone wreath declared. And a large National Trust sign stated that the plain white symmetrical house was open Thursday to Sunday, 1 April to 26 September, 2-5 pm, Adult £4, Children £2. There was also a painting of the poet hanging outside. As a result of these images the cottage could not be missed. The Ancient Mariner pub was opposite. It was hard not to equate the place and the poet. I saw similarities between Nether Stowey and Steep – a nice middleclass village, themed pubs and houses with plaques; their hills surrounding. Coleridge too was not born in the village so associated with him. Edward was disappointed by all the adoration an empty building got – acquired for the nation in 1908. It is though the way of heritage to inscribe and appropriate. And remove all other voices. Nether Stowey was hardly needed to summon up Coleridge grumbled Edward. The cult of celebrity was apparent. A number of mementos are on display: his inkstand, locks of his hair, and correspondence in his handwriting. Recently two further rooms on the first floor were opened. This came after an appeal by the Friends of Coleridge. The cottage is essentially a shrine of carefully placed objects. For it was there that he wrote-up the classic poems; This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison, Kubla Kahn, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, part of Christabel, and Frost at Midnight. A map outside a public toilet round the corner told a story. William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy lived a few miles away at Alfoxton House in Holford between July 1797 and June 1798. There is a trail joining the two houses. An immortal friendship now links the Quantock Hills with Exmoor. It goes through Watchet where a statue of the ancient mariner overlooks the harbour. The footprints of two famous poets still visible two hundred years on. Coleridge indented even with a badly scalded foot. Imagining his wife and friends out walking – Sarah Fricker, John Thelwall, William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, and Thomas Poole on springy heath, along the hill-top edge. The lime-tree bower his prison.
Beyond the Coleridge theme village were hills. They were under the stewardship of disciples. Edward became fantastic for a moment. It was the honeysuckle, the honeydew for nourishing genius. It had messed with his senses, intoxicated his heart. He felt that its magic touched genius to life. Before snapping back and realising the absurdity of such a thought. Yet magic alone could have led Coleridge safely through the style of his age; the age of Stephen Duck and his benefactors. He could have continued honeydew fed raptures. But Coleridge loved equally mildness and wildness… the soft delicious greenery of the banks… the dark, bleak ridges of heather or pine. Edward rode directly to Holford, then the sea. He continued to summon Coleridge and after a while Wordsworth. I took the lanes instead, reaching the coast eventually. Land there sloped gently down from Nether Stowey to the nuclear power station. Strong easterly winds blew constant up the Bristol Channel and bent trees double. Their branches brushed the tops of hedgerows. The naked sticks left behind pointed to the right, towards the ever-increasing blue and white boxes sunk in sucking mud. At Stogursey the Other Man appeared suddenly from the east. He wore my helmet and was oddly riding a bike from London. One of the ones from the recent cycle hire scheme. By Shurton we were very close to the nuclear power station. It was completely silent. There was no buzzing or humming. No clamour of engines. Some grey geese wandered about in a garden. A llama or an alpaca grazed. Ducks floated in a pond. There were a few houses around a meeting of lanes. We turned left so the river channel was always on the right. Continuing the journey west together not talking. The nuclear power station remained in my eye line somehow. Like the after affect of a camera flash it burned itself there. Flat Holm and Steep Holm drifted about. It though squatted with such insistence, riding athwart the completely unpeopled smooth swells. In fact we were unable to find any watery voices. As a substitute Alice Oswald was remembered walking the River Dart from source to sea, inserting the counterpointed voices of river folk. A birdwatcher, a vicar, and an articled clerk. They haunt Sleepwalk on the Severn. A poem set at night over five different phases of the moon. New moon, half moon, full moon, no moon, moon reborn. The territory is mild and wild without romantic slips. It is based upon lots of trudging about. And shows an acute attentiveness to place: a form of deep topography, or landscape phenomenology. Yet the exercise has a mystical air. The occult beacon of the moon organizes the walking and the rhythm of the poem. Sleepwalk on the Severn playfully mocks the romantic urges of Coleridge and suchlike. While at the same time attempting to find the atmospheres they were privy to. It is in this sense also a psychogeographical defamiliarisation of place. An exercise much like the one Edward took in pursuit of the season, spring. And is a technique of movement through landscape which manufactures new situations for the poet to experience. A second wave of psychogeographers took themselves on similar excursions. Moving the practice away from avant-garde Paris to millenial London. Iain Sinclair cosmologically circling its mystical underbelly: reinserting lay-lines. Will Self on his radial walks and biopsies, writing stratigraphy. Nick Papadimitriou on a liminal scarp: practicing hyperparticularity, destabalising normalcy. And Stewart Home with his radical nostalgia: displayed most wonderfully viciously in Cunt. All straddled the hinterlands and the hypermodern – muddy banks of rivers, metallic nuclear power stations. They had a profound dissatisfaction with the way people use places. And at the same time a sordid fascination with it. It seems to me that Edward had caught the bug. But there was and is no grand project. The new psychogeography was meant to fail. Guy Debord himself made it so. It was always so pleasingly vague. Only a few maps were ever produced. Alice Oswald reinvents this place. It is not a case of making up place. Neither imagination nor reality are ever at stake. It disorients and at the same time stays true to the affective atmosphere. And is perhaps more a form of psychogeology. The rhythm stays true to the patter of the river. We listened for the watery voices. One among many moodswung creatures That have settled in this beautiful Uncountry of an Estuary Swans pitching your wings In the reedy layby of a vacancy Where the house of the sea Can be set up quickly and taken down in an hour. We heard the river again tugged at by the moon. Like a huge repeating mechanism Banging and banging the jetty Very hard to define, most close in kind To the mighty angels of purgatory Who come solar-powered into darkness Using no other sails than their shining wings Yes this is the moon this hurrying Muscular unsolid unstillness.
So this, what is this, said the Other Man? A pyschogeographic recycling to a psychogeographic hub, a radial excursion from the city, a mapping of poetic lay-lines, an attempt to get lost, a form of hyperparticularity, a placid version of Cunt? The Other Man remained there poking fun, a shadow on the horizon. Imprisoned by the spectacle, a definite, a certainty: everything else endlessly fluid, depressingly picturesque. Is my psyche being changed? Do I even have access to it to know if it is? The Other Man stopped me again. I ignored him. Because above the Severn, choreographed planes in the sky took me to some happy day. We were on a headland much like the one re-cycled but elsewhere. In the far south, on the archipelago: the place where the surfers go. Thoughts were nowhere, as they always were with her. Sea streamed off towards the middle of the country, to more times of contented carefree drunkenness. Pasture greened back to the black road surface and the pursuit. It was time to give up on personal therapy. Jump off the edge and write what could happen. Nothing behind me everything ahead of me – as is ever so on the road. Jack Kerouac once wrote. If only that were the case and it was not only new landscapes that we were seeing but the same landscape with a new pair of eyes. And we could defamiliarise ourselves with the places so woven into our psyche. Flip the world over into a different type of experience; a wholly new one. Turn ordinary landscapes into spaces of adventure. Reinvent place. Do the world as Marcel Proust would. Everything that once was truly lived though has moved away in to representation. Guy Debord was right. Over the ridge was the beach. Memories clung to it and the panniers. And in the end we yearned to represent our recent past. To make it all seem important. It all only meant something if it was written. What happened next is. We bridged the hump of head. Pheasants and sheep scattered. And I remembered a first kiss. Two lovers entwined passed me by. They walked arm in arm down a stony track away from the crumbling chantry, hens, and tea room. It was Coleridge and his wife. Lull with fond woe, and medicine me with sighs. He whispered in her ear. A mess of bramble, ivy and nettles fringed the two dark figures ahead; in amongst all that were some oak trees. We reached a frontier. Scrub track gave on to grassy sand dunes. I sat with the two of them on the flat grey pebbles. I had made it. Kilve Beach. Spring. We looked across the flat slate grey rock pools dotted with splashing black dogs. And out on to the lighter grey-blue infinite corrugated sea. All was in my eye line. Though not even the sea could altogether detain the eyes. Westward: another hump of rolling green headland. And behind was gleaming blue sky. Crows cut perfect shapes in it. Scarlet fire flung from the highest ridge. Beside a ragged cliff edge the Other Couple sat. From a memorial bench they looked out to sea. Together with the dead. All content in the warming sun. The glistening pebbly beach most captivating them. Underwriting a slip of smooth clear blue betwixt two isles of purple shadow. There children skim small stones on serene ponds. Plonk boulders with a plop. That hit the bottom with a crack. Dogs shake wet hair dry. And people pull each other along in windblown arcs.
Heaven knows I’m miserable now gets mumbled. Light gets thrown up from a brook left. Noise clatters from a tea room right. Lovers are left to their fun. A slanting strip of tarmac through poplars and bungalows leads to a busy road. The one left for the lanes hours earlier. Nether Stowey in one direction, Watchet the other, Holford and Wordsworth a mile nearby. But it was a pub on the junction I was interested in. Edward ate there; in the Hood Arms. Perhaps he was still there boozing. At the bar they said that a man like Edward had left at two. But he had made up his mind to stay there for the night. It could have been the Other Man though, crossed my mind. It was impossible to distinguish between the two of them. I had passed him again at the church half way to the beach. He disappeared there for the last time. On his merry way once more, chortling about a perceived lack of weather-vanes. Edward returned but not until the next day up in the hills. For the next few hours I was bothered only by the road ahead. And occasionally by a druggy vision of Coleridge. A topiary maze on one of the slopes did not help. A nonsense of a sight just as the sun was beginning to set. Gilles Deleuze and Lewis Carroll discussed the merit of such a structure. Coleridge paced up and down one of the aisles. It was impenetrable by bicycle. East and West Quantoxhead were given a final glance. And I went on my way again. Up and down a succession of hills in a descending sky. The road hugged a towered church and graveyard framing it in the vale. A solitary brown horse with little white boots ate in its shade. It was an unnecessary section to bike. Although it did dig up fear from the belly and insert it in the conscious. A lorry hissed its brakes and snaked out and in a few times before finally passing. This was just as the last of the sun had by-passed the ridge rode along. And before any reflective attire had been attached to my dark back. An outline of the hills was still visible just. It was a case of keeping the head down and powering through. At the entrance to Wiliton a railway crossed beneath me heading into the darkness. There was what looked like a model railway station. A grey industrial estate boxed on the right, on the left a turn off for the Bakelite Museum. Both housed things. Just some were hollowed out, deemed useless – their use value altered to artwork. The sign proclaimed that Bakelite was a material of a thousand uses. These practical uses have since been lost to the world. Bright and resilient cookers, toasters, washing machines, napkin rings, salt and pepper shakers, irons, clocks, egg cups, televisions, gramophones, radios, hair dryers, electric heaters, vacuum cleaners, teeth, picnic sets, caravans, telephones, and appropriately a coffin, all now museum pieces, historical exhibits, evocative of past times. Fun things that make the cheap tat we have now look incredibly dull. Only when I did lay in bed beside yet another abbey did I recognise something – this pursuit was done in the spirit of the Bakelite Museum; curating beautiful recently lost things – it was the dialectical image.