That's How The Light Gets In

Books, exhibitions, films, music, places – anything that inspires. Here so I don't forget.

Walking in Nietzsche’s footsteps

Walking in Nietzsche’s footsteps

The last time we were in Nice – last September – a summer-long celebration of Matisse was just drawing to a close, so we spent a lot of time in galleries.  This time was different: armed with John and Pat Underwood’s sublimely-titled Walk and Eat around Nice we spent a good part of our stay taking advantage of the excellent public transport system, travelling out of the city to experience some of the Underwood’s recommended walks.

The first walk we embarked on began at the hilltop town of La Turbie, followed the north side of the Grande Corniche crest with superb views of the snow-clad Mercantour mountains before crossing the shoulder and heading for the medieval hilltop town of Eze. From there we dropped down to the sea, following an old mule track known as the Nietzsche Trail.  There were magnificent coastal views and a profusion of springtime wild flowers. Continue reading “Walking in Nietzsche’s footsteps”

Another fine salade Nicoise

Another fine salade Nicoise

When we last visited Nice – on the occasion, last September, of my 65th birthday – I posted a celebration of the city under the title A new state pensioner’s salade Nicoise.  We’re just back from another few days in Nice, so here’s another mixture of flavours and colours that recall our short break.  There are strong opinions as to what should or should not go into a Salade Nicoise – residents of Nice are horrified at the English tendency to add potatoes, and tinned tuna or anchovies are (surprisingly) acceptable, but both together are not. Furthermore, they don’t use French beans as we tend to: a classic Salade Nicoise should be made with fresh fava beans.

Which is merely a preamble to this eclectic selection of memories of the four days we spent in Nice.  We had found an apartment at the top of the Old Town (the very top, in fact: our building was actually located just inside the wall of the Château gardens. From the balcony we had stunning views across the rooftops of the Old Town, and across the bay to the airport. Continue reading “Another fine salade Nicoise”

Strands: ‘the tide-line is an open book, an account of what the world desires, and then wishes to be rid of.’

Strands: ‘the tide-line is an open book, an account of what the world desires, and then wishes to be rid of.’

Formby 9

Regular readers of these posts will now that one of our favourite places is the coastline north of Liverpool, stretching from Formby Point up to Ainsdale, with many walks along strand and through dunes in a place that feels so wild and so distant, yet within sight of the city skyline.  Jean Sprackland once walked here for twenty years, and in Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach, prompted by an impending move to London, she gathered a series of meditations on the things she encountered along the shore in her last year here.  It’s a book I ought to have read sooner; now I’ve finally got round to it.

Jean Sprackland is best-known as a poet which led me to expect something a little more lyrical than this beach-combing journal, its entries organised around the seasons and each one triggered by her encounter with an item – living or inanimate – washed there by the tide.  In this it shares some similarities with Edgelands byPaul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts or Kathleen Jamie’s Findings and Sightlines. But it doesn’t have the former’s constant referencing of poetic or artistic responses to the habitat, nor Jamie’s personal evidence-gathering and interviews.  Instead, in parts at least, there’s a sense of material gathered in from expeditious googling.

I don’t mean that to be over-critical. Indeed, I enjoyed the way Sprackland might launch off at a tangent, triggered by some flotsam, plant or animal discovered while she walked the tide-line, meanderings that sometimes end up a long way from Ainsdale beach.  One of the best chapters, entitled ‘The Albatross and the Toothbrush’ is of this nature, beginning with an old Marathon wrapper catching the author’s eye one morning. Noting that Cadburys changed the name of the Marathon bar to to Snickers in 1990, Sprackland realises that the Marathon wrapper must be at least 20 years old- and is still in good condition despite being buried in the sand or floating at sea all that time.

Flicking through her old copy of The Arrow Seaside Companion, published in 1956, Sprackland notes that its author’s catalogue of ‘useful finds’ he had made on the beach in the 1940s and 1950s contains nothing made of plastic. In contrast, in merely one hour, Sprackland finds 311 plastic items, ranging from bottles and bin bags to disposable cigarette lighters and cotton bud sticks.

She goes on to discuss the ubiquitousness of waste in the oceans and the phenomenon of the North Pacific Gyre:

The Gyre has become home to something known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gigantic stew of suspended plastic and other human debris. [… ] Estimates put the garbage patch at a hundred million tons, and it is aid by some observers to cover an area twice the size of Texas.

Seabirds are particularly at risk once sea-borne plastic waste enters the food chain, and this reminds Sprackland of Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’ which can be read as a prophecy, or warning, of the consequences of interfering with the natural order.  She tells how, in the Pacific, albatrosses have been dying recently in great numbers.  When researchers dissect the corpses and examine the stomach contents they find a shocking variety of plastic objects: toothbrushes, cigarette lighters, Lego bricks and bottle tops.  She writes:

It’s the familiarity – the domesticity – of these small, disposable objects which breaks the heart.

That word ‘disposable’ has, as Sprackland observes, a hollow ring. Since the 1950s it’s estimated that one billion tons of plastic have been discarded – and most of it will take hundreds, even thousands of years to degrade.  We talk, she says, about ‘getting rid’ of things we no longer want, but because plastic is so durable we will never be rid of it. A great deal of it ends up in the sea, and, as anyone who walks a seashore these days will understand, ‘the sea always brings them back’:

It brings them back, and takes them away, and brings them back again.  My most sobering moment on this beach was not one spent picking through trash in the strandline as I did today.  It was a glorious day in March, after the high tides of the spring equinox.  The sea had come in much further than usual, right into the dunes, and washed the beach clean and shining.  The mass of accumulated debris I’d seen there the week before was gone.  The sea had swallowed it again.  I understood then that for the bottle and the laundry basket, the clothes peg and the doll, the petrol can and the chocolate wrapper, this is a journey with no end.

Path Formby beach

This account of a year’s finds on Ainsdale Sands is a kind of extended farewell to a place Sprackland has left behind. Strands was written during 2010, her last full year at Ainsdale, and catalogues the various finds she makes on the beach. In a piece written for the London Review of Books she explained

I’ve been walking on the shore at Ainsdale and Formby, on the north-west coast of England, for 20 years. It’s hardly the prettiest or the most unspoilt beach: its sands are not the most golden, and there are no rockpools or hidden coves. It’s not dramatic either: no pounding surf or rugged cliffs. Stand here, on a reasonably bright day, and you can see the offshore wind farm in the Mersey estuary. Turn the other way, and there are the familiar Blackpool landmarks: the tower, the rollercoaster. But in really clear weather you can see the southern fells, the Clwydian hills, the pale but unmistakable shape of Snowdon.

Formby 2

‘Strand’ is a word that can carry different meanings. It can be a synonym for the beach, can evoke the idea of stranded things and whole objects reduced to ‘strands’ – mere strings and ribbons – and strands can also be lines of connected thought or enquiry. In an interview with The Scotsman, Jean Sprackland said:

Strands came partly out of a particular sort of paradox. Having lived on that stretch of coast for so long I felt that I knew it extremely well. I was going back there day after day, month after month, and I felt that I knew it intimately, and yet at the same time it was unknowable. Perhaps that’s why I found it such an exciting place – it was something to do with knowing it well and yet knowing that there is an unlimited amount to be learned about it, too. Every time I walked there I would see something I didn’t understand or find something I didn’t recognise or have some kind of new experience. Every single time.

The things that Sprackland finds on the beach – the strandings, on the strand, carrying with them their strands of stories – are enormously varied.  For instance: the remains of the Star of Hope, wrecked on Mad Wharf in 1883 and usually just visible as a few wooden stumps, which appears out of the sand at certain tides.

When I say that this place is changeable, this is one of the things I mean. The tides and currents conspire to move and reshape the sand, and in the intertidal zone a skeletal old ship emerges. The rest of the time it’s buried and invisible; people and dogs walk and run over it with no idea that it’s there. Then, without warning, it rises to the surface. It takes the air for a few weeks, before subsiding into the sand again.

Sprackland revels in such chance encounters, the ‘cargo of mysteries’ delivered by each tide:

Like so many of our happiest meetings, they are coincidental. You happen to be walking along the right part of the shore, just as something is delivered there by the tide. The two of you are on separate journeys. You come from one direction, it comes from another, and your paths intersect.

Star of Hope on Ainsdale beach

The wreck of the Star of Hope on Ainsdale beach (photo: Liverpool Echo)

The aforementioned human junk – the ubiquitous plastic objects, sweet wrappers and crisp packets – form only part of Sprackland’s catalogue of finds. As the seasons change, so do the items discovered on the shoreline. In spring there are leathery mermaids’ purses (the egg cases of dogfish, ray and skate), sea gooseberries like pearly marbles and the ‘scribble of wormcasts’ along the water’s edge. Summer brings a green flourish of samphire or poor man’s asparagus, grey seals and, occasionally, disconcerting swarms of ladybirds. After autumn storms there is driftwood, starfish are flung to their deaths by high tides, and she finds sea potatoes (the fragile shells of sea urchins). Then winter comes, with squally days and ‘dangerous skies’, and the shocking sight of a dead herring gull spread out like ‘an open book, ‘very much undone … as if someone has unpicked the stitches which held it together’.

Formby evening 18

In the coldest winters (such as, memorably, December 2010), ice along the tide-line.  Here, Sprackland remarks: ‘It’s always a thrill to see ice on the beach’.  But the phenomenon was captured more memorably in her poem ‘Ice on the Beach’:

One single sheet of sprung light.
Touched here with the toe of your boot
it hurts in a distant part.

Dream stuff, with its own internal acoustic.
Striking it with a stick raises
a shocked note, a white bruise under the skin –

the physiology of ice on sand
is strange, we have not mapped it.
The sea can only scorch the edge.

This whole bay is locked
under a lid of referred pain.
At one end, a tanker

nudges out of the rivermouth.
In its wash, the ice shelf
barely shivers.

But thirty miles south,
in another town, it creaks
under the pier, where someone kneels

staring down like a god
through a damaged sky, onto a wilderness
of ridges and blue shadows.

New Years Eve 2010 at Formby Point 14

Ice on Formby beach: New Year’s Eve 2010

Among the finds which Sprackland muses upon are sea coal, a message in a bottle, different kinds of seaweed,  jellyfish and sea squirts, the strange corpse of a sea mouse, a china teacup and a large lump of compressed tobacco waste, the by-product of cigarette manufacturing in Liverpool at places like the St Bruno pipe tobacco factory in Bootle that began operating in 1896.  In 1956, the British Nicotine Company, a division of Imperial Tobacco, werre given permission to dump 22,000 tons of wet tobacco waste on fields behind the dunes. It was spread in layers and left to dry, before being mixed with sand and then buried. Now the waste is eroded at every high tide.  We found huge blackened lumps of the stuff exposed along Formby beach after the storm surge of 5 December last year.

Sprackland takes to the internet to identify the china cup, washed up whole, and it turns out to be from an old Cunard liner, surprisingly intact after some 50 years at sea.  She visits the Maritime Museum in Liverpool to research the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth from which the cup was thrown or fell. We think of the sea as wild and untamed, muses Sprackland, yet the secrets it contains and reveals are very often of our own making: ‘The tideline is an open book in a babble of different languages: an account of what the world desires, and then wishes to be rid of.’

In another passage Sprackland writes:

In their book Edgelands, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts sing the praises of forgotten and overlooked places outside our towns and cities, spaces which are neither urban nor rural. I could make a case for the beach as a kind of edgeland. It’s a literal edge, of course. It’s liminal but not unspoilt. There’s litter, there’s joy-riding; it’s still possible to see the historical evidence of what little industrial activity has been possible here – sand extraction, tipping. But it’s essentially intractable land, unreliable and unproductive, so its heart remains wild.

Formby evening 8

If you were wondering about the sea mouse that popped up earlier, it’s not a mammal at all, but a scaleworm that burrows its way beneath the sand, eating carrion, detritus and microscopic animals.  It’s oval, about four inches long and looks furry – hence the name.  In one of the surprisingly few references to poetry in Strands, Sprackland quotes from Amy Clampitt’s poem, ‘Sea Mouse’:

The orphanage of possibility
has had to be expanded to 
admit the sea mouse.  No one
had asked for such a thing,
or prophesied its advent,

sheltering under ruching 
edges of sea lettuce—
a wet thing but pettable
as, seen in the distance,
the tops of copses,

sun-honeyed, needle-pelted
pine trees, bearded barley,
or anything newborn not bald
but furred. No rodent this
scabrous, this unlooked-for

foundling, no catnip plaything
for a cat to worry, not even
an echinoderm, the creature
seems to be a worm. Silk-spiny,
baby-mummy-swaddled, it’s

at home where every corridor
is mop-and-bucket scrubbed
and aired from wall to wall
twice daily by the inde-
fatigable tidal head nurse.

Amy Clampitt, familiar with the shore on the other side of the Atlantic in Maine, also wrote ‘Beach Glass’, a poem that celebrates finds along the shore and which might serve as counterpoint to Sprackland’s journal which also records found objects, whether natural or manufactured:

While you walk the water’s edge,
turning over concepts
I can’t envision, the honking buoy
serves notice that at any time
the wind may change,
the reef-bell clatters its treble monotone, deaf as Cassandra
to any note but warning. The ocean,
cumbered by no business more urgent
than keeping open old accounts
that never balanced,
goes on shuffling its millenniums
of quartz, granite, and basalt.
           It behaves
toward the permutations of novelty-
driftwood and shipwreck, last night’s
beer cans, spilt oil, the coughed-up
residue of plastic- with random impartiality,
playing catch or tag
or touch-last like a terrier,
turning the same thing over and over,
over and over. For the ocean, nothing
is beneath consideration.
          The houses
of so many mussels and periwinkles
have been abandoned here, it’s hopeless
to know which to salvage. Instead
I keep a lookout for beach glass –
amber of Budweiser, chrysoprase
of Almadén and Gallo, lapis
by way of (no getting around it,
I’m afraid) Phillips’
Milk of Magnesia, with now and then a rare
translucent turquoise or blurred amethyst
of no known origin.
           The process
goes on forever: they came from sand,
they go back to gravel,
along with treasuries
of Murano, the buttressed
astonishments of Chartres,
which even now are readying
for being turned over and over as gravely
and gradually as an intellect
engaged in the hazardous
redefinition of structures
no one has yet looked at.

Formby 6

Elsewhere, Sprackland meditates upon the prehistoric human footprints that are sometimes uncovered along the shore here, the foot marks pressed into the sediment thousands of years ago and briefly revealed before being washed away beneath the waves:

These beach footprints are graphic physical messages from the past.  Where a human being has placed a hand or a foot, and made a mark, there’s a shortcut of recognition, a spark leaping across millenia. What connects us is that we share the same kind of body.

She ends with thoughts on time travel provoked by discovering these footprints:

Like Crusoe, I’ve found proof that I’m not alone. It’s not just space we share, but time too. When I unlace my boots and step barefoot onto the freezing mud, I experience a tangible sense of connection with the past.  There were other lives lived out in this place, and the intertidal zone is the place where their mysteries are kept.

Seven thousand winters have passed since these footprints were laid down, preserved and buried. […] There was no wheel, and no writing yet. Stonehenge was still a couple of thousand years off. But in Mesopotamia, wheat and flax were being farmed. […] For a second I see that five thousand years is not some abstract concept, but simple and actual and not unimaginably long.

And now at last they have come to the surface again: the marks my analogues made, as they gathered shellfish and hunted for food, and those made by their children as they ran about and played in the mud. I can trace a footprint with my fingers, put my own bare foot inside it. It’s the nearest I can get to time travel.

Formby evening 7

All the photos here (apart from the one of the wreck of the Star of Hope) were taken by me at various times on Formby beach, a little to the south of Jean Sprackland’s old stamping ground.

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A walk beneath the Thames and a song that will play forever

A walk beneath the Thames and a song that will play forever

Greenwich 1

The view from the north bank of the Thames

Heading for the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, we decided to take the Docklands Light Railway, past the improbably named Mudchute, to Island Gardens, the last stop on the north bank of the Thames. We wanted to take advantage of the excellent views across the river to the complex of elegant 17th century buildings at Greenwich – Inigo Jones’ Queen’s House, and the Royal Observatory and the Greenwich Hospital for injured and disabled seamen designed by Christopher Wren.

Greenwich 2

The Cutty Sark at Greenwich with the glazed dome of the foot tunnel entrance on the right

Another attraction is that from Island Gardens you can walk to Greenwich under the Thames using the Greenwich Foot Tunnel.  The tunnel was opened in 1902 to allow workers living on the south side of the Thames to reach their workplaces in the London docks and shipyards then located in or near the Isle of Dogs.

Greenwich 3

Entering the tunnel

The cast-iron tunnel is 1,215 feet long and burrows 50 feet below the river bed.  Its cast-iron rings are lined with concrete which has been surfaced with some 200,000 white glazed tiles.  At each end, access to the tunnel is by means of a round entrance hall with a glazed dome.  There are lifts as well as steps!

Greenwich foot tunnel entrancea

The tunnel entrance at Greenwich

We emerged from the tunnel on the south side to what was originally the site of Greenwich Palace, built by Henry VII and the birthplace of the Tudor queens Mary I and Elizabeth I. Having fallen into disrepair during the Civil War, the palace was demolished and replaced in 1692 by the Royal Hospital for Seamen, a permanent home and healthcare facility for disabled sailors of the Royal Navy which operated until 1869. The building was designed by Christopher Wren, who was also the architect responsible for the Royal Greenwich Observatory up the hill beyond.

Our main purpose in coming here was to see the current exhibition at the National Maritime Musuem – Turner and the Sea (to be the subject of the next post), housed in The Queen’s House, designed by Inigo Jones for Anne of Denmark, wife of James I.  Jones had recently spent three years in Italy studying Roman and Renaissance architecture. It was his first important commission and the first fully Classical building built in England.  The building was completed in 1619.

Queen House colonnade

The Queen’s House colonnade, a 19th century addition

After seeing the Turner exhibition, we climbed the hill to the Greenwich Observatory, commissioned in 1675 by King Charles II who also created the position of Astronomer Royal to serve as the director of the observatory and to

Apply himself with the most exact care and diligence to the rectifying of the tables of the motions of the heavens, and the places of the fixed stars, so as to find out the so much desired longitude of places for the perfecting of the art of navigation.

Greenwich 5

The Greenwich Observatory

The Observatory was the first purpose-built scientific research facility in Britain and played a major part in the history of astronomy, especially in solving problems of navigation and timekeeping. Both were critical to the development of colonisation and overseas trade in the 17th century, and representative of the Enlightenment focus on scientific method and knowledge.  The Observatory is probably best known as the location of the prime meridian, and on the day we were there groups of schoolchildren were excitedly photographing other standing astride the meridian.

Greenwich 9

Astride the Greenwich meridian

If you climb the winding stairs to the upper section of the observatory, you emerge inside the onion dome which houses the 28-inch Greenwich refracting telescope; completed in 1893, it’s the largest of its kind in the UK and the seventh largest in the world.  We were here for something less astronomical though, but inspired nevertheless by similar questions of time and space.

Greenwich 8

The 28-inch Greenwich refracting telescope

Entering the dome, you slowly become aware that you are hearing music of an ethereal beauty: ringing tones, bells and unearthly vibrations.  This is Longplayer, a piece of music designed to last for one thousand years. It started to play at the start of the millennium in 1999, and if all goes to plan it will continue without repetition until 31 December 2999. Then it will start over again.

Longplayer was designed and composed by Jem Finer, formerly of The Pogues (he co-wrote several of the band’s songs, including ‘Fairytale of New York’, with Shane MacGowan).  We had wanted to visit Longplayer ever since encountering another Jem Finer sound installation – Score for a Hole in the Ground – while walking in a wood in Kent.

Longplayer is a piece of music designed to last 1000 years without ever repeating itself, and currently exists in both online and live versions (at the Royal Observatory, inside a 19th century lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf in London Docklands, and at the Science Museum. Longplayer is based on an existing piece of music, 20 minutes and 20 seconds in length, which is processed by computer using a simple algorithm. This gives a large number of variations, which, when played consecutively, gives a total expected runtime of 1000 years. The music was composed using Tibetan singing bowls and gongs, which are able to create a range of sounds by either striking or rolling pieces of wood around the rims. This source music was recorded in December 1999.

Greenwich 7


Longplayer reflects several of Jem Finer’s concerns, particularly relating to systems, long-duration processes and extremes of scale in time and space. Finer explains on his website that:

Longplayer grew out of a conceptual concern with problems of representing and understanding the fluidity and expansiveness of time. While it found form as a musical composition, it can also be understood as a living, 1000-year-long process – an artificial life form programmed to seek its own survival strategies. More than a piece of music, Longplayer is a social organism, depending on people – and the communication between people – for its continuation, and existing as a community of listeners across centuries.

An important stage in the development of the project was the establishment of the Longplayer Trust, a lineage of present and future custodians invested with the responsibility to research and implement strategies for Longplayer’s survival, to ask questions as to how it might keep playing, and to seek solutions for an unknown future.

As to how the long duration of the piece has been achieved, Finer says:

Longplayer is composed in such a way that the character of its music changes from day to day and – though it is beyond the reach of any one person’s experience – from century to century. It works in a way somewhat akin to a system of planets, which are aligned only once every thousand years, and whose orbits meanwhile move in and out of phase with each other in constantly shifting configurations. In a similar way, Longplayer is predetermined from beginning to end – its movements are calculable, but are occurring on a scale so vast as to be all but unknowable.

Longplayer has been playing since 1999 and will continue to play till 2999. On the 12 September 2009, 1000 minutes was performed live at The Roundhouse in London:

Leaving the Observatory, we walked back down the hill.  Along the way there is a dramatic view of the City skyline, its steel and glass towers dwarfing the classically-proportioned buildings on the near bank of the Thames.

Greenwich 6

I found the view deeply depressing; it provoked the thought that here, in concentrated form, was an image that spoke of the contrast between an age of enlightenment, distinguished by scientific enquiry and the pursuit of human dignity, and one in thrall to the pursuit of wealth and the power of financial institutions (see their names emblazoned there on the towers!); between an architecture whose proportions were in tune with the human scale, and one with no humanity which subjugates humans to little more than ants.  I thought of Blake’s ‘London’:

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow. 
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

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Walking the Dee shore at Thurstaston with birthday dog

Walking the Dee shore at Thurstaston with birthday dog

Thursaston 1

Thurstaston Country Park: keep away from the cliff edge

The sun was shining, but the forecast was bad. Nevertheless, we decided to take a chance on a walk since it was our dog’s 4th birthday a day or so ago.  We headed off to one of our favourite spots (and, more importantly, the dog’s): to walk along the Dee shore at Thurstaston.

Thursaston 2

It was never so blue…

We set off so quickly I forgot to take my camera.  But I snatched I few shots on my phone: they’re better than nothing, but a little dark and strangely blue.

We parked at the Wirral Country Park centre at the bottom of station road (the car park is actually situated between what once were the platforms of the railway station here).  We walked across the field to the edge of the low clay cliffs where signs warned of the dangerous state of the cliffs.  This place is a favourite, too, of fellow Liverpool blogger Ronnie Hughes who, in a recent post, described the erosion of the soft mudstone clifffs by the December storm surges.

Thursaston 3

We headed down the path to the shore, battered by the pretty fierce wind that was blowing onshore.  Down on the shore, we could see the evidence of the cliff erosion for ourselves.

Thursaston 4

Looking out across the estuary, we marvelled at how we lived in the city, yet in half an hour could be walking in a place like this – wild and quite lonely, but for a few other walkers and their dogs.  Fancy ones, some of them: we met a bouncy 6-month old Cockapoo.  Terrible name for a delightful, and very popular, new ‘designer dog’.

Thursaston 5

The tide was right out, so not the best time to see many of the wading birds that congregate here in great numbers (and we had forgotten the binoculars, too!)  We did see plenty of Oystercatchers and Dunlin, though.  According to the Dee Estuary Birding website there were Whooper Swans and Bewick Swans here in great numbers just yesterday.  We had seen these fine birds in high definition on our telly only this week, thanks to that great BBC institution, Winterwatch.

The shore here is a rich feeding area for Shelduck, Oystercatchers, Knot and Dunlin, but we were here at the wrong time.  According to the Birding website, if you come down to this shore three hours before a big high tide you will be rewarded with the sight of thousands of birds slowly being pushed up river and massing close inshore.

Thursaston 7

After half an hour or so, we could see the cloud thickening and the sky darkening over the Welsh hills opposite.  Inexorably, the clouds advanced and we turned into the wind to walk back the way we had come.

We didn’t make it back before the rain reached us, driven by the wind we were buffeted and soon soaked.  But this was, perhaps, the high point of the walk because, perhaps stirred by the wind and rain, a dense flock of several hundred Oystercatchers rose in unison, to fly up river, tracing a calligraphic line parallel to the shore.  It was a sight worth getting wet for.  Driving back across the Wirral to Liverpool the sky turned as black as night and the rain lashed down, almost defeating the wipers.  Darkness at the break of noon.

Thursaston dog

The dog trots freely

Here’s my favourite dog poem for the birthday dog: ‘Dog’ by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

The dog trots freely in the street
and sees reality
and the things he sees
are bigger than himself
and the things he sees
are his reality
Drunks in doorways
Moons on trees
The dog trots freely thru the street
and the things he sees
are smaller than himself
Fish on newsprint
Ants in holes
Chickens in Chinatown windows
their heads a block away
The dog trots freely in the street
and the things he smells
smell something like himself
The dog trots freely in the street
past puddles and babies
cats and cigars
poolrooms and policemen
He doesn’t hate cops
He merely has no use for them
and he goes past them
and past the dead cows hung up whole
in front of the San Francisco Meat Market
He would rather eat a tender cow
than a tough policeman
though either might do
And he goes past the Romeo Ravioli Factory
and past Coit’s Tower
and past Congressman Doyle of the Unamerican Committee
He’s afraid of Coit’s Tower
but he’s not afraid of Congressman Doyle
although what he hears is very discouraging
very depressing
very absurd
to a sad young dog like himself
to a serious dog like himself
But he has his own free world to live in
His own fleas to eat
He will not be muzzled
Congressman Doyle is just another
fire hydrant
to him
The dog trots freely in the street
and has his own dog’s life to live
and to think about
and to reflect upon
touching and tasting and testing everything
investigating everything
without benefit of perjury
a real realist
with a real tale to tell
and a real tail to tell it with
a real live
                                 democratic dog
engaged in real
                             free enterprise
with something to say
                                         about ontology
something to say
                                about reality
                                                          and how to see it
                                                                                           and how to hear it
with his head cocked sideways
                                                        at streetcorners
as if he is just about to have
                                                   his picture taken
                                                                                   for Victor Records
listening for
                        His Master’s Voice
                 and looking
                                        like a living questionmark
                                                        into the
                                                                       great gramophone
                                                                        of puzzling existence
                            with its wondrous hollow horn
                                 which always seems
                              just about to spout forth
                                                                 some Victorious answer
                                                                                    to everything

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Another day at Another Place: looking to the horizon in silent expectation

Another day at Another Place: looking to the horizon in silent expectation

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Friday was a glorious day here in the north-west. The November sun shone in a cloudless sky of brilliant blue.  An old friend was visiting, back in Liverpool for the first time in years.  She had never seen Anthony Gormley’s Another Place on Crosby beach so we took her there, happy to return no matter how many times to a public art work that has grown in the affections of the public on Merseyside, and – along with Capital of Culture year in 2008 – helped to put Liverpool and Merseyside on the tourist map.

It was a perfect morning to see the installation – crisp and clear, with views across to the Wirral and beyond to the Welsh mountains.  In three hours it would be high tide, and the estuary was busy with traffic taking advantage of the high water – ferries leaving, container vessels moving up-river.

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We walked the length of the beach, from the low numbers to the high: Another Place consists of 100 cast-iron, life-size figures, each one numbered, spread out for about two miles along the shore, with some figures situated nearly half a mile out to sea. The figures were each made from casts of the Gormley’s own body.  They stand on the beach, all of them looking out to sea, staring at the horizon in silent expectation.  Gormley once said:

I think there’s that thing in Another Place of looking out.  It’s what we all do: that’s why people go to the seaside, to see the edge of the world, because most of us spend most of our time in rooms.

Another Place is now a permanent fixture on Crosby beach.  But we nearly lost it.  The work had previously been installed at Cuxhaven in Germany, Stavangar in Norway and De Panne in Belgium before it came to Crosby in 2005 with the benefit of funding from the Mersey Waterfront Programme, the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company and Arts Council England.

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However, Sefton Council had only granted temporary planning permission that was due to expire in November 2006. Despite the work attracting huge interest and drawing 600,000 visitors in 18 months, it looked as if it was destined to leave Merseyside for New York state.  A second application was made extend planning permission for four months, to allow time to raise the £2.2m needed to buy the work from Gormley and maintain it thereafter. The application was rejected because of representations made to the authority that ‘several people had had to be rescued after being caught by the tide when walking out to see the most distant figures’.

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But the tide of support in favour of the work’s retention was substantial: so much so that in March 2007 Sefton borough council finally announced that permission had been granted for the work to remain in place permanently.  Since then Another Place has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors and now regularly features in Liverpool tourism promotional material.

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Visitors engage positively with the figures, dressing them with wigs, bikinis, hula skirts, Liverpool and Everton football shirts, seaweed dreadlocks and costumes of every description.  People photograph each other with the iron men in all sorts of poses. And they pause awhile, contemplating the meaning of this artwork’s dramatic intervention in the broad sweep and big skies of the estuary landscape.

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Each person leaves the beach with their own sense of the work’s meaning. For Gormley, Another Place was a poetic response to the individual and universal experience of emigration: sadness at leaving, and the hope of a new future in another place. He was interested in the motivations that link contemporary migrants, such as those who risk their lives making the perilous sea crossing from from north Africa seeking a home in Europe.  He suggests that in an unequal world in which we accept the massive mobility of monetary instruments across borders, we seem to have difficulty in accepting the movement of living people.

If the work was envisaged as a response to the theme of migration, the complex administrative negotiations and arrangements in locating it here – and then ensuring it could remain – raised issues about the impact of a public artwork on the landscape. Gormley has said that the struggle over Another Place:

Illustrated that no landscape is innocent, no landscape is uncontrolled. Every landscape has a hidden social dimension to do with both its natural usage and the politics of territory. I like the idea that attempting to ask questions about the place of art in our lives reveals these complex human and social matrices.

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Visiting Another Place now, nearly seven years after its installation along this shoreline, the work seems to be becoming inexorably an organic, barnacle-encrusted element in the landscape.  This was Gormley’s intention: he saw the work as harnessing the ebb and flow of the tide to explore man’s relationship with nature, asking what it is to be human:

The seaside is a good place to do this. Here time is tested by tide, architecture by the elements and the prevalence of sky seems to question the earth’s substance. In this work human life is tested against planetary time. This sculpture exposes to light and time the nakedness of a particular and peculiar body. It is no hero, no ideal, just the industrially reproduced body of a middle-aged man trying to remain standing and trying to breathe, facing a horizon busy with ships moving materials and manufactured things around the planet.

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The construction of Gormley’s Angel of the North in 1998 was a watershed moment in the recent story of public art; since then, Another Place has joined a lengthening catalogue of public art installations.  But the public funding of art works in public places is not without its critics.

Projects such as Another Place generate a great deal of enthusiasm among local authorities (keen to promote regeneration through tourist numbers) and the arts world (keen for commissions), but sceptics believe they leave the intended audience – the public – feeling a mixture of bemusement, indifference and outright hostility. Is public art rarely more than a vanity project for those involved, reducing art to the same bracket as other civic amenities? Should genuinely public art be funded by voluntary subscription rather than tax-payers’ money? Or does state-funded public art provide a vital function in engaging those who rarely venture into galleries and enliven otherwise drab public spaces?

Gormley, when asked, ‘What’s the point of public art?’ responded simply, ‘To make the world a little bit more interesting’.

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Another Place … another day.  I took these photos of the installation at sunset on a March evening in 2010.

Crosby beach December sunset

Crosby beach December sunset 2

Crosby March 2010

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The call of the river

The call of the river

Canada geese in flight

Canada geese in flight. Photo by Philippe Henry

The day began, walking with the dog in the park, with a skein of geese flying overhead, a honking arrowhead of birds heading straight for the river. I don’t think there is any another sound that so lifts my spirits.  By mid-afternoon, the sunlight slanting brightly in the avenue, I heard the call of the river too.

As if pulled by the same primordial force that drew the geese, I headed out of the city, beyond Speke and the airport to Pickerings Pasture.  This is one of the best places to gain an appreciation of the breadth of the Mersey estuary, gouged and widened by glacial ice as it advanced south-eastwards and flooded as sea levels rose at the end of the ice age.  Here, at high tide, the river makes a broad S-bend sweep from the pinch point of the Runcorn gap south and west along the Cheshire shore towards the silver towers and chimneys of Stanlow oil refinery, glinting in the late afternoon sun.  Beyond lie the darkening outlines of the Clwydian hills.

The tide is running strongly toward the sea as, with the dog at my side, I set off to walk the short stretch along the river to the Runcorn bridge.  It’s a walk that embraces wild beauty and big-sky views, whilst snaking around the fringes of the Merseyside edgelands with its arterial roads, industrial estates, retail distribution centres and mysterious industrial processes.

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The starting point, Pickering’s Pasture Nature Reserve, symbolises this dichotomy. Until the 1950s the  area was a salt marsh, grazed by cattle and home to wading birds and estuary plants. Then, for the next 30 years, the site was used as an industrial and household waste tip and a mountain of refuse rose on the salt marsh. But the land has now been reclaimed by Halton Borough Council, creating a haven for wildlife, covered by wild flowers, shrubs and trees and once again a place visited by resident and migrating birds. Surrounded by industry, it is a place of peace and quiet with magnificent views of the Mersey estuary.

Pickerings Pasture walk 1

We’re walking a section of the Trans-Pennine Trail here, encountering the occasional commuting cyclist who creeps up silently behind.  Along the track the autumn abundance of this ‘mast year’ is apparent; a year when, as the Guardian’s Plantwatch noted a few weeks back:

Trees are weighed down with an astonishing crop of nuts. … A mast year includes all the other nuts of woodland trees – acorns, sweet chestnuts, conkers, hazel, ash, maple, lime and many others. … Berries have also appeared in a bonanza season that should make for good foraging. There are heaps of big blackberries, elderberries, bilberries, sloes, rowan berries and others.

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There were still a few blackberries, battered by the wind and rain of the past two weeks, along with elderberries and rowan, and lots and lots of rose hips.

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Along with all those easily-identifiable berries there was this unfamiliar (to me) large shrub with long thin leaves and bright yellow berries.  I later identified it (I hope correctly) as Sea Buckthorn that gets its name from being largely confined to sea coasts where salt spray off the sea prevents other larger plants from out-competing it.  The berries are an important winter food resource for birds, especially the fieldfare – a bird regularly sighted here by the volunteers of the Friends of Pickering’s Pasture.

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The Pickering’s Pasture site was regenerated between 1982 and 1986 when Halton Borough Council reclaimed the land, safely covering the waste of the land fill site with a thick layer of clay.  A little way along the river bank is this obelisk, erected on the site of an old navigational beacon that was used by shipping on the Mersey right up to 1971.  The obelisk was constructed by men employed on the regeneration project.

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One of the benefits of that scheme was the construction of the elegant white footbridge across Ditton Brook that rises somewhere around Netherley and flows through Ditton Marsh before joining the Mersey at this point.  Before its construction, the idea of walking from Hale to Runcorn along the river must have been out of the question if you weren’t carrying waders.

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The brook, edged with tidal mud that attracts many wading birds, winds through the low-level industrial units of Halebank Industrial Estate.

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But, at the eastern end of the footbridge a staircase of steps leads to a very different view: turn your gaze towards the river and, at high tide you’re presented with a view of the broad sweep of the Mersey with Cheshire’s sandstone ridge rising up behind Frodsham on the far bank and the hills of Wales on the skyline to the west.  The view is at its most impressive as sunset nears.

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Walking on, the path is edged on the landward side by classic edgeland scenery: storage tanks, drainage ditches, railway arches and industrial units. We’re looking at the back end of the grandly-named Mersey Multimodal Gateway which, ‘if you’re into the movement and storage of goods’ – according to the group’s website – ‘is a unique piece of infrastructure with unrivalled features’.   At one point the path runs right alongside a food processing plant that is both noisy and smells richly of some ingredient that might be used in the brewing industry.

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Since I last walked this stretch a huge Tesco distribution hangar has appeared, while nearby there is an Eddie Stobart cold storage yard where a ceaseless procession of articulated lorries were returning from making the day’s freight deliveries.

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By now the bridge is dominating the view, although to be accurate there are two: the more westerly rail bridge and the distinctive Runcorn-Widnes road bridge that carries the A533 over the River Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal, opened in 1961 as a replacement for the Widnes-Runcorn Transporter Bridge which I remember crossing the Mersey on as a child.

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At the foot of the railway bridge are the remains of an old dock, the walls constructed from the distinctive red sandstone of this region.

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Returning along the path, I could make out the Manchester Ship Canal on the opposite shore, with what looked like another Eddie Stobart distribution facility adjoining it.  Beyond loomed the sandstone crags above Frodsham.

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As the sun began to set behind clouds to the west, a Ryanair flight made its descent towards John Lennon airport.

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The western sky was bathed in a golden glow as the sun set beyond the Welsh hills.

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Walking back I suddenly realised that I was not alone: above me, silent columns of seagulls leisurely made their way, following the river, headed for the sea.  There were hundreds in any one batch, thousands strung out ahead of me moving towards Liverpool, and more coming on silently behind.  I don’t know if this is a nightly movement towards roosting areas on the shore along the coastline of the Mersey Bay, or whether it was associated with the tide, running strongly towards the sea. Whatever it signified, it was a magnificent sight, making a perfect end to a day that begun for me with that honking skein of geese flying above me in Sefton Park.

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You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
– Mary Oliver, ‘Wild Geese’

Pickerings Pasture walk 24

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