this tame wilderness

this tame wilderness

A bus journey through Hertfordshire is a pleasure. Scaling the steps to sit at the back, you’re raised to a position where you get a better appreciation of the architecture going past the window. You even get a fresh perspective of your home town as you peer down over the walls and hedges rather than up at them and down at cars and the caricatures that drive them. You see without being a part of – it’s a detached way to observe.

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The tour can feel like you’re an ambassador being taken on a reconnaissance trip of humanity. From an exalted throne you look down at the ivy-sprawled homes of the well-off as they line up for inspection. You gaze down too at weathered grey estates that seem to weep from the breeze blocks. The country pubs display their country hours on sandwich boards – open midday to 3pm. Some of the flint-clad village stores that squat under sinking masonry are so cute you could just shit.

Hertfordshire might have the tamest landscape in Britain. The word wild or wilderness cannot be ascribed save for the microcosms in which it’s allowed to prosper: the ancient hedgerows and the cultivated shrubbery of back gardens where greenery runs riot. These are the only oases of wilderness out here. You realise just how managed the landscape is.

The slopes around this county aren’t natural – they’re the result of centuries of ploughing down towards the source of life: running water. Mountains are levelled out in this manner. You make out hillsides for what they are – scored hides from the drawing of the plough – cut marks on bone.

The abated hills descend to the threads of Hertfordshire’s rivers. Though I live in it, Hertfordshire keeps taking me by surprise at how deep some of its valleys are. The plunge down into Wheathampstead is a case in point – it’s like descending into a canyon.

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More passengers donning flat caps get on. They’re not hipsters and care nought for post modernism. Old women in floral dresses grip the rails securely as the bus lunges off. It scrapes through buildings, kisses the wing mirrors of parked cars and frolics over pot holes. When the vehicle swings around in a turn, it always looks like it’s going the collide and take the wall with it.

Branches hit the side with a sound like musket fire as the bus charges into hawthorn bushes to give a tractor room to pass. I wish this carriage came equipped with a roll top bar like a tank as I look into the eyes of rooks on the plough-lines. They bob, readying for flight in case the machine comes crashing down on them.

Skulking pheasants. Placid lakes of green crop. Trees’ stark naked outlines hug the hillsides as the Pathé film hedgerow flickers past. Dramatic fly-pasts over rivers. An airborne wood pigeon high in the blue vault beats its way from copse to holt.

You pass the ghosts of pubs reincarnated as country homes. Sometimes faded lettering or the sign brackets endure, but often it’s from a lifetime of recognising pub buildings. The hunch always turns out right in retrospect.

Onward down the hedge-flanked tarmac aisles of Hertfordshire. Ivy and holly compete to throttle the trees that line the road with the former being in the vanguard. Sunlight picks out the silver boughs of birches and dyes them violet.

Outside the Boot Inn, more white-maned travellers alight, punch their tickets and grab at the poles like liana vines. The engine whirrs again and the bus takes off into an uphill hurtle before sudden breaking causes the passengers to contract at the hinge as the bus tangoes with a lorry at a corner.

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When it’s wet, the rain striking the windows of a bus is one of the most life-affirming things to witness. The water is sentient. The runnels seem to try and work out a route across the glass, pausing to decide on an angular or curved passage towards the corner the momentum is pushing them. They can forge their own straight line, suddenly fork or go on a number of hesitant turns. When one collides with another stream it disappears – swept away by a rip tide. But there exists the loner; the introvert that maps its own way across the glass expanse full of doubt, full of lull, edging its own cautious path to the other side.

In early summer, fields of golden rapeseed are radioactive; the glow is magnified through the window and bathes the face. When you shut your eyes, the capillaries in the eyelids are etched out like a crimson relief map.

When the bus crests the hill and breaks from the uterine tree cover, the landscape rises in a standing ovation and centre stage is a titan copper beech or horse chestnut – majestic in its own field, ablaze like an open brasier casting shadows across the earth from the flames.

And as if to calm me back down, there is comfort in pylons. They’re the charming sentinels of the countryside and remind me how connected up the land is.

Sometimes our labours culminate in chance coincidences where the cosmos just seems to come together. I frequently have this experience driving up the M1 from London to St Albans and for a while, I and the train to Bedford align and travel shoulder to shoulder at the same speed in the same direction like pilgrims on a joint venture. Something inside me stirs.

On a train from Hitchin to Letchworth Garden City, it passes over another track from which a second train issues – two gleaming metal convoys radiating out, for a time tracing a diagonal cross before parting ways – the composition is sublime – somewhere between art and choreography.

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In Letchworth Garden City, I attempt its Greenway hike. With partial success, I commute back to Hitchin and am seduced by beer. I miss the last bus and decide to walk back.

I start okay but overshoot the road forking south and take a long detour to Langley before turning back. Two hours are lost and it’s now dark. However, the landscape’s just as beautiful.

Near Whitwell I hear a tawny owl call from a hillside copse to my right – if you’re not sure, it’s the to-wit-to-woo refrain used in every film. To my left, a barn owl’s shriek tears out as well. The next time it shrieks, it’s to my right in the same territory as the tawny owl. I see a shape drop from a canopy. I’d love to be able to see that scene played out in night vision. These two species are rivals and won’t suffer each other on the same hunting patch. From further on the left – out in the swampier parts of the field I also hear the kazoo-like burblings of a lapwing and a bit further on, the celestial sound of a redwing in flight – it’s the most fragile of calls: both a single note and a flourish on the brink of hearing. Manifold tiny threshold mammals make roadside nettles quiver in their scarpering. In the dead of night, life goes on.

I’m aware of an aircraft passing overhead. My time working in central London turns it into a Police helicopter by default until I start getting deja-vu. It only travels in one direction across the sky each time and discover I have an unlikely guardian: it’s an aeroplane – each a different one on the same flight path down.

I watch as the acres ahead of me give up their secrets to the soft light of its undercarriage as it makes its descent towards Luton. The darkness seeps away into the landscape’s crevices like water draining from a rock pool at low tide. It’s brought down to sit equal with me – exposed in the night. The planes arrive with a conveyor belt regularity – about every eight minutes or so.

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I used to spend a lot of time on the ridgeway – the prehistoric spine running across Oxfordshire and Berkshire. I’d gaze down at the A34 road at night and it was gorgeous. From that elevated aspect, sunk in the distant man-made valley – an incandescent necklace of constant motion.

I could’ve been air-dropped anywhere on the downs and found my way home as I could piece together the land. I now need to rekindle this skill in Hertfordshire just two counties east.

I see a tree in the dark that has been toppled – probably by storm Doris. It’s leaning against a naked older tree that supports it in the nook of its branches like a crutch. It reminds me of an elderly veteran cradling the body of a young soldier but it worries me because there is absolutely no way I wouldn’t have noticed this pair from the bus on the way to Hitchin. This means I’m not walking along the same road back.

Oddly, walking along unlit rural roads at night carries with it a safety: you can both hear and see a car coming from a long distance before it catches up with you and climb up onto the bank or make love to the hedge as required. As the headlights make my shadow spill out like fluid on the tarmac before me, I usually just stand but occasionally like to splay out my fingers as my hands hang at my sides. This gives the effect of Nosferatu’s silhouette.

I haven’t flown in a few years but recall looking out of the window on the descent into Luton. Underneath is the black carpet of England in slumber with only the roads and villages picked out in dots of light. Now I’m in that inky realm looking back up.

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Even I’ve come to accept I’m lost and it’s the middle of the night. Home is maybe fifteen miles away but I don’t actually know because I don’t know where I am. Google maps hasn’t loaded on the phone the entire day. There is a single bar of charge left.

The road opens out and there is civilisation and a sign: Peter’s Green. Where the hell’s that? I strike out towards it. It’s a quaint manicured triangle acting as a roundabout with rows of houses describing each side. On the far side is a large building which is illuminated. It’s a pub. I approach and make out the name: the Bright Star. Fittingly, it’s my saviour. On the green itself is a stooped bus stop. I plonk myself down on it the same time the lights go off in the pub but that’s okay – it’s fulfilled its role. It has just gone eleven o clock.

Using the light from my mobile phone, I discern that this bus stop is for Stevenage. I don’t want to go there. Even in a time of crisis.

It’s still warm and I lie on the seat which is a real luxury – one of the sloping wooden ones. No part of the inside has yet been vandalised. I’m not even wearing my coat yet. There could be worse places to spend the night than this…..

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postscript:

I’m actually missing the stench and comfort of my own nest. It’s been a quarter of a century since I last slept rough in a bus shelter. The experience took the lucre off the romance of sleeping under the stars. I remember vividly shivering in the early hours, not sleeping but pacing up and down the seafront in Dover to stay warm. This night ended differently. With the last bar on my mobile phone, I ring my wife who is sat at home with the internet. I have a place name and a landmark and make sure she listens carefully. She books me a taxi and rings me back after a couple of minutes. She’s googled Peter’s Green. The world has changed, 2017, technology and all that.
“you’re in bloody Luton!” This is an exaggeration. It’s a fair way out.
“Oh. Thought I might be. I could see the runway.”

I cross the green to sit on one of the outside tables of the Bright Star. The taxi arrives within ten minutes and edges along cautiously. His passenger could be a total drunk but the driver sees in my gait I’m sober and I get in. He keeps his car tidy. It honks of pine. Our faces are lit up green by the animated fuel hybrid graphics on the console. The night countryside glides past. After a while we come to a roundabout, turn right and suddenly I know the area again as I descend for the second time that day into Wheathampstead.

As we pass the Wicked Lady pub some mischief grips me.
“Don’t let the wicked lady get you on the way back” The driver looks at me horrified. “you know this is the most haunted road in England, don’t you?” He starts freaking out and I try and assuage him by saying I’m massively overstating things which I am. Safely back in St Albans I get him to park on the main drag so he can just do a u-turn rather than join the traffic system.

temperate intentions

temperate intentions

Letchworth Garden City is an odd place but well worth a visit. Its oddness is the attraction.

Around a dot on a map – the old village of Letchworth – a new garden city was envisaged by quaker Ebenezer Howard in the late 1800s. The idea was for social reform – for people to live in a community where they could breathe fresh air, reconnect with a countryside idyll and escape the smog of industrial Britain.

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The new garden city was designed and laid out by urban planners Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin and went on to inspire garden cities the world over. Its success was possibly because it was devised without the central diktat that often accompanies new age projects. It left its denizens or “pioneers” to decide matters rather than a preacher.

I came here to complete the Letchworth Garden City Greenway – a thirteen and a bit mile path that circles the town, but also to check out its beer culture.

Tracing the circuit has twice defeated me now. Even the woman in Tourist Information who gave me the map – a native since birth – admitted she got lost when she tried to follow it.

Within minutes of leaving the town centre, I find my first marker badges at the entrance to Standalone Farm and I’m soon exploring rolling crop fields. Church spires and water towers appear in the distance like the masts of ships on the heaving sea. The landscape sits somewhere between rural and urban. The soundtrack is a combination of roads rumbling and the celestial symphony of skylarks.

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this is a peeking black squirrel and the inspiration behind Letchworth Gardens City’s first town centre pub in the 1970s

I get lost pretty quickly. I negotiate my way though wave after legion of tidy closes and crescents. Communal greens here are huge. Last week I was ejected from the Greenway into an industrial estate. You feel like a bit of a prat finding yourself on a building site with binoculars and camera. The builders probably thought I was a niche pervert. The week after my trail goes dead and I trudge along the main road from Baldock. The binoculars do lend an advantage here: you can read roundabout signs a long way in advance and decide whether or not to swim through the blue exhaust fumes in that direction or turn back.

Back in the town proper, walking around Letchworth Garden City is a bit like wandering around an elaborate film set. The buildings are faithful reproductions from around the Tudor age – old enough for lichen to have accumulated on the pitched roofs but too young for any subsidence or warp. Historical buildings minus the history. These green streets of tidy period cottages look ideal – but it also makes them creepy.

The Spirella building – what used to be a clothing factory – is so vast that to get it all in one photo, you’d have to take it from satellite. It earned itself the moniker Castle Corset. It just seems too big for a British venture and in fact this is the case – the company was from the US.

In a way, the pioneers that came to settle here were proto-hipsters. They were generally middle class and associated with the arts and crafts movement. They were big on theosophy, vegetarianism and ascetic clothing – namely smocks made from Ruskin flannel from the Isle of Man and sandals even the middle ages wouldn’t touch.

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the Settlement used to be the Skittles Inn. In summer locals would line along the long seated stoop with glasses of Cydrax

Apart from some private clubs and hotels, Letchworth Garden City didn’t have an actual beer pub until the early 1970s when the Black Squirrel (no longer there) was included in a new town centre redevelopment. In fairness though, up until that point the temperate intentions – from families who witnessed the capital’s gin melancholy – were democratically instituted each time through local vote. They opted against for most of a century though there was friction amongst some men that the vote kept not going their way because the women’s vote (mostly nays) was included here before the Suffragettes gained it nationally.

There was a public house instituted by the First Garden City L.t.d called the Skittles Inn that served food, had a skittles alley, a library and sold absolutely no alcohol. Instead, the staples were Cadbury’s drinking chocolate and Cydrax – a non-alcoholic apple wine. Lover of beer though I am, I can appreciate a public house that kept men sober – especially with the high rate of what we’d now deem violent alcoholism in many working families.

But let’s never forget that it was this vision of Ebenezer Howard’s that also inspired prince Charles to cough up the hideous settlement of Poundbury; a village that sounds like a discount home store but has less class.

The early citizens employed the word temperance correctly – to temper something is to moderate, not to forbid. The First Garden City L.t.d also ran two more pubs about a mile from the town centre: the Fox at Willian and the Three Horseshoes in Norton. Both were allowed to serve alcohol. So if you wanted a pint, you simply girded your smock and went for a stroll in those sandals to get it.

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the Fox at Willian with All Saints church peering over its shoulder

The local Wetherspoons is called the Three Magnets and is a decent gallery in itself showcasing the garden city’s history. Wetherspoons pubs are good at gathering local curiae and being museum-lites. There are, for instance, paintings of Ebenezer Howard and information plaques about Spirella corsets that changed the manufacture away from whale bone.

But maybe what’s most interesting is the reason behind its name: the Three Magnets is based on one of Mr Howard’s diagrams about the formation of society. The first two magnets are the town and the country – the pros and cons for people living there listed for both. The third magnet – representing the garden city – is attributed with the amalgam of the pros for the first two but none of the cons. Idealist? certainly. If the pub’s name used current jargon, it might be called Ye Three Socioeconomic Pull Factors

If our boy Howard were alive today he’d absolutely love Powerpoint.

But the jewel in the crown here isn’t the Wetherspoons, courteous as it is to its host, but a newcomer: the Garden City Brewery down the picturesque shopping lane called the Wynd (as in WIND-up toy).

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Every Thursday some cask ale in stellar condition is tapped and served from gravity along with some guest beer engines. If you’re lucky, you might also get your chops around a Bedfordshire Clanger – a home counties take on the Cornish pasty with meat at one end and fruit at the other. The pudding side has score marks in the pastry so you know which end to devour first.

Spring Saison is the perfect thirst quencher. A 5.3 ABV spritz of a beer; it leaps over the gullet and fizzles on the roof of the mouth. Then the glass is empty. To CAMRA members, £3 a pint. Proof that a trip to Letchworth Garden City is good for you.

The venue is filled with light. It’s airy, colourful and tidy. Donations are made from some of the beers to local charities so even in its own way, Garden City Brewery keeps the local legacy of community and betterment alive.

You can still get a feel for Letchworth’s new life roots: it’s to be seen in adult education centres, urban farms, an NHS clinic calling itself a wellness centre and the International Garden Cities Institute.

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a pint of the brewery’s own Armitage ale and a Bedfordshire clanger. Neither lasted long.

For its size, Letchworth now has at least the national average of pubs. So what caused the city to abandon its spirit of temperance? Well the context that spawned its necessity faded. Britain’s industrial age passed away so the very thing the garden city was set up to escape – the drudgery of the factories, mills and pits – disappeared from Britain.

During the queen’s coronation, members of the first migration celebrated together and reminisced about the difficult first few years while the town was being shaped. Many people that left for this corner of Hertfordshire really did find a better life in the long run. This re-imagining is what makes Letchworth Garden City’s odd outlook so unaligned with the rest of Britain.

 

The Oval Space

beauty within and without
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It’s just the name I don’t like. It’s too contrived. The Old Gasworks would’ve been better. I came here to experience the London Craft Beer Festival – just follow this sentence.
 
I hadn’t counted on the awe of the Oval Space. I’ve tramped up and down Mare Street many times completely unaware of the sleeping giant in the neighbourhood.
 
You see a gas holder cage as you approach the venue but it seems underwhelming, barely peeking over the low buildings you walk by. It’s only after you’ve crossed the threshold of the Oval Space that reality distorts with crab nebula beauty. Once you enter the building and go up a flight of stairs, the wall and roof are cut away. The sky becomes the ceiling and the wall becomes a breathtaking industrial panorama: you gaze directly at the metal skeleton of gas holder 5 in what used to be the Bethnal Green gasworks and the blazing azure summer framing it. You’re bathed by it. As you look up from your low elevation, it’s like you’re kneeling in its presence. 
 
Though we don’t think of them as such, Kentish oast houses and Norfolk windmills come from the industrial age. The gruelling days of physical labour we have the fortune never to have known in our own lifetimes have robbed these buildings of the oppression they once bore. in the 21st century, they’re the rustic postcard pin ups of the English landscape.
 
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So it might be for gas holder 5 built in 1889 – the smaller tower – holder 2 that stands behind it is a couple of decades older. Though we still have working gas holders or gasometers, they’re gradually departing the scene splitting people between those that would love to see them demolished and those that nail their hearts to them. In just over a decade, I’ve experienced the same regard towards the buildings of Battersea power station. 
 
Some feats of architecture were never meant to stun but do so in their industrial largesse. Others diminish like Marble Arch. It’s now dwarfed by the buildings that surround it and seems so puny.
 
Gas holder 5 reminds me of something ritualistic – a circular standing formation. Arenas in the Acropolis, the Colisseum, the Calanais standing stones on the Isle of Lewis, a circle at Carnac, Stonehenge. 
 
I can imagine sacrificial offerings being made under its steel struts at the winter solstice.
 
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I’m not sure of the age or origins of the Oval Space unlike the Pickle Factory behind it that reveals all in its name. Looking into it’s creation does turn up an irrepressible Lithuanian priest who tried to stop the change of premises to a music venue:
 
 
Maybe what makes this metal guardian so compelling is that it’s fading into history as you look at it like a relic in the making. You can see it turn sepia and the periphery of your vision curl and brown like an old photo.
 
The Oval Space has the biggest lounge conversation piece on the planet. Please let’s not demolish it.
 
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