Sunday, 13 August 2017

NOT FOR THOSE AFRAID OF ALIENS

Halifax spire, Minaret, chimneys and railings.
Coming up this hill one is always looking into the light
so grey dominates - and lines - and silhouettes.
What was unfamiliar is rapidly becoming part of the everyday. For much of the time now, I'm not much aware of the contrast between Halifax and Dorset. Perhaps the only thing which is particularly startling is that large patches in the hills around are turning purple as the heather flowers. You can see them from town.

What I haven't quite got used to yet, is the number of straight lines, especially the vertical. There's no point in listing them. You can see!

Portland Harbour, Dorset, with boats, Harbour Wall and Purbeck Cliffs beyond.

Contrast this with what I've been used to for more than the last twenty years which is lines curvaceous, horizontal and on the move. Admittedly, the masts of boats are vertical. But they sway, so however neat they are, however firmly attached to their buoys, they are never entirely parallel. They don't have the stolidity of the spire and minaret and railings in the first photo!

In contrast with urban Halifax, the lines which dominate 'my' bit of the Dorset coast are definitely and predominantly horizontal. The horizon itself. Portland Harbour Wall, the white foam streaks, the boat decks, the cliffs. (Chesil Beach.) And these horizontals tend to curve; the wavy waves, the rippling cliffs.

If we were to look out to sea, even the horizon is curved; and if I were to turn round in this picture, I'd be facing straight into a hedge, the broad line of which is irregularly horizontal. The function of a hedge is much the same as railings but in a hedge not a single shape is repeated  And nearly everything is non-stoply on the move. Nothing is fixed. Nothing rigid. And for every upright tree trunk there are masses of sideways(ish) branches. Some young hedgerow leaves (say elder) grow upright but once they've got going they tend, elegantly, to stretch sideways. I may be exaggerating - but you'll see the point. Apart from pine needles, glossy leaved plants and succulents (which don't tend to live in hedgerows) hedgerow leaves are likely to be in trouble if they are hanging straight down.

Pellon Lane Mill with blocks of flats behind and car-park in front.
But here . . . if I turn round to see what's behind me, I find this. In the photo at the top of this post, for all its starkness there are wild plants. (I doubt many of you will have noticed and we can come back to them another time.). With a 180 degrees swivel, we find the usual, regulated, car-park planting: an uneventful tree and boring bushes and low growing stuff that's easily trimmed back or never does much in the first place. So although it's greener, it's more 'urban' in the sense of nature being kept at bay.

And beyond the car park there's one of the old mills I've been telling you about with broken windows, collapsing roof.

Pellon Lane Mill with buddleia.
We'll go a bit closer. I don't know what the circular, red, stunted chimney thing is but earlier in the year there were pretty yellow flowers on its plinth. However, predictably, wherever there's an empty space there's also buddleia. And there it is on its pedestal. For all that we're getting brickier, we're also getting wilder.

But you ain't seen nothing yet.

Pellon Lane Mill with buddleia and willow-herb on roof.
Down the hill and around the corner a bit and looking up at the roof of the same mill there's more buddleia. Willow-herb too. Now look at the windows on the top left. This is where it gets scary. Really scary. There's a tree sticking out of the one second from the left. An odd place for a tree or a large bush but at least it has breathing space. But behind the very top left window is one of the scariest, creepiest things I've ever seen. 

Flowering buddleia trapped behind window at top of Pellon Lane Mill in Halifax.




It's so horrid I have to look away. A buddleia, in flower, but completely trapped. It's hit the glass and can go no further. It's as if alien hands are pressing and sliding and scrabbling to get out and all the while can't stop growing so it's squashed further and further into itself by its own self. An image of claustrophobia. Aaaaaaaagh. I like everything about my new home except this.


Wednesday, 9 August 2017

THE ALLOTMENT

One raised bed cleared of 'weeds' with paths either side.
The adventure begins. The first cleared bed.
One of the adjustments I've had to make in my move to Halifax is to try to consider some wild plants foes instead of friends.

We could have chosen a part-allotment with the soil already tilled, useful plants already growing on it, a green-house and a shed. Or we could have chosen a wacking-great almost-field, full of grasses and willowherb, sorrel, ragwort - and a whole (erstwhile) raised bed solely packed with rib-wort (broad-leaved plantain) and nothing else.

Willow Herb, wheelbarrow, blue water-butt and bramble.
I've clipped back the bramble
but haven't yet had the heart to destroy this willow herb.
Traditional, gardening-book wisdom says go for the green-house and weed-free soil. Our hearts said to go for the field. And being a true believer in hearts - it's the wild field we have.

What I'd have liked best would have been to leave it as we found it. It was beautiful. So for several days I went and stood there half an hour at a time and did nothing but look at it. Drinking it in. Saying 'good-bye' - in the sense that allotments are for carrots, not wild grasses.

Eventually, my friend Esther insisted that one of the important things about allotments is not to annoy our neighbours so the flowering grasses really had to stop being admired and be chopped down instead.

At that point, I was still feeling disoriented. And just as one may be unable to eat when anxious or displaced, I couldn't take photos. So there are no 'befores' and 'afters'.

I would have liked to have photographed the grasses. I knew I would be sad not to have recorded them. But there we are. I wish I'd photographed the soil where they fell - so you could see their masses and masses of seeds. Ditto the sorrel - thousands of seeds turning the soil slightly rusty. Ragwort stems are too stout for garden sheers so they were reprieved for a few days, then we went back with secateurs.

Ragwort is one of the most beautiful plants ever, yet it has to go!
Ragwort is one of the most beautiful plants ever, yet it has to go!
It's a wonderful site. The gardeners there are clearly accomplished. There will be a lot to live up to. Fruit bushes drip with raspberries and blackcurrants. There are rows and rows of strawberry plants. But there are flowers too. Some people are even making a feature of the grasses. And there are lots of sheds and greenhouses. And nearly everyone who has a greenhouse or shed has a 'backgarden' behind it - an area hidden off from the rest of the world, where they can simply sit and 'be' which is a wonderful resource in a densely populated area.

I've never seen an allotment site like this one. There's an office and a store and a water pipe which loops up and down the plots and a loo - and really importantly - we are not expected to achieve perfection in a year.

And no way will we.

In the first post on this blog I said I wanted blackberries. And now we have them - growing on a bank on the other side of the wall; and they are reachable - hurray! But it's a bit odd. I've had to clip them back to their boundary. But the balance is good. We will be able to lean over for the fruit when it's ripe but there's no bramble patch to clear.

There's no bind weed either. No nettles. The soil is black and fine. The grasses can be dug out without too much trouble.

Pile of orange bread baskets.
Brightly coloured, industrial bread baskets litter the plot. Don't know why!
None the less, it took about three hours to prepare the first bed. A second one is part-way there. Once that's plant-free we will sow four vegetable crops. The current idea is for onions, kohlrabi, spring greens and chard. If anyone thinks this is a bad choice, please say soon because the first sowing will be in the next few days.

A previous allotmenteer created slightly-raised beds over about a third of the plot so that's where we are making a start, digging out wild-plants on alternate beds and chucking them onto the other alternating beds so the cut down grasses and other plants will begin to suffocate, making it easier to dig them out and replace with green manure later. (Gardening is disgustingly destructive.) There is no overall plan yet but this seems a good way to start. There are loads of objects to clear - masses of industrial bread baskets and other 'containers' and 'troughs' so each 'session' is divided in un-equal parts between gathering rubbish, cutting down grasses and, sadly, pulling out wild plants so we can grow food instead.

When it's cool and quiet and slightly drizzly, it's a lovely place to work. Sad and exciting. Can't have all joy. I saw a toad. Three days later I saw it dead.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

I'VE FOUND MY TREE BUT WHAT IS IT?

Bark and Leafy behind bars.


This is one of the oddest experiences so far - choosing a tree to 'follow' in an entirely unfamiliar setting. I find I don't even know how to photograph an urban tree. How do I take a picture without including a whole load of people who don't want to be in it? How do I avoid registration numbers? How many cars can the eye take without exploding?

Three trees opposite The Theatre Royal in Halifax.
And as for context . . . an urban tree lives in several all at the same time. There may be other trees nearby but there are buildings, buses, litter, people too. If I were a tree in Dorset there would me and the sea and the hedgerow and we'd all be in some sort of harmony. Insects would flit from me to the next bush or flower along; no obstacles. But in the middle of a town . . . it's all disjointed. All trees are individuals of course, but those sticking out of the pavement seem too much alone even when planted in a row. Where do the insects go? It's very disconcerting.

Fairy lights looped int he branches of the tree we're following'.
My tree is the middle one. The most difficult to photograph because it's squashed between two others. It's probably the least interesting of the three. It's certainly the least pretty of them. But I chose it because it has lights in its branches. 

In a series of novels about a Greek Village (by Sara Alexi) there's a character called 'Stella'. She's one of several women at the heart of the tale - and at the heart of the community. She runs a little cafe that sells chips, chicken and lemon sauce. And outside her cafe is a tree where she has hung fairy lights. They aren't artfully placed and they aren't specially beautiful but they are a symbol of liberation and an intriguing beacon for hungry locals and visitors. 

The tree we're following with the National HQ of the Halifax Building Society beyond.
The rather overbearing
National Headquarters of the
Halifax Building Society
is on the other side of the road
from 'our tree'.
Stella is a gypsy. At school she was taunted because her mother was a gypsy. As an adult, she discovered her biological father was a gypsy too. While we read this comfortably at home it might seem rather romantic. But in the story, gypsies and non-gypsies live separately and in hostility. Worse, her mother's relations aren't actually very nice people. And worse again her (first) husband is a brute. Stella is gentle and tough and the freedom to stick fairy-lights in the tree outside her cafe is hard won. So, even if they are naff they are a symbol of inner strength and ultimate freedom.

I'll have to go and look at this tree at night. The likelyhood of it giving a sophisticated atmosphere to what Halifax has hopefully designated as 'The Theatre Quarter' is pretty remote. But they may be warm and pretty. And, secretly, we will know it stands for something far beyond itself, even if it is disguised as a rather boring blob between elegant silver birches.

Not that I know what it is.
What is it?


I'm Following a TreeAre You?

Thursday, 3 August 2017

HILLS, HALIFAX AND PIECES OF CLOTH

View from Halifax Rail Station showing Halifax Flour Society building and entrance to tunnel.
With the trees and hills beyond, and a frilly wooden canopy over the platforms,
Halifax railway station has a delightful 'country' atmosphere to it
which is quite out of keeping with the rest of the town.
I realise I've not been listening. When you ask 'Why have you moved to Halifax?' I've been telling you why I left Dorset - which is quite different.

That we (me and my friends: Esther, Ming, Worthing and Didcott) have landed up in Halifax is nearly by chance. We were looking for a place with more 'culture' immediately on hand and with greater opportunities for employment. We wanted all sorts of new experiences on a modest budget, better transport links to other parts of the UK and to the rest of the world.

Small towns to the north of Manchester were an inspired first choice (we reckoned). Hills and countryside and open air yet with access to theatres, universities, museums, galleries and a fantastic library, a railway with frequent trains and a good bus service. The arrival of the BBC in Salford suggested an influx of interesting people and a property market in which one could hope the value of a house would rise. From there we worked outwards . . . all along the Calder Valley till we arrived at Halifax - which is closer to Leeds than to Manchester but that's what happens with journeys. You aim for one place and land up in another! . . . And all the while knowing nothing about Halifax except that it has a building society.

Nestle factory from Halifax Rail Station.
The steep hills and ravines of Halifax mean there are always hills which cannot be built on.
So for all that there are few gardens, there are masses and masses of trees.
Some friends, surprised at our choice of new home readily recited 'Hull, Hell and Halifax' - the insinuation being that Hull and Halifax and Hell are all pretty awful places to live; and that most people would prefer to live anywhere but in any of them - especially if one could live in Dorset instead. One friend who lived in Halifax for a while but moved away spoke of being overwhelmed by the decadence of the area - an odd word to use. He wasn't talking about immoral excess but physical decay. I'm glad he said - 'decadence'. It's starker; stronger than dilapidation. It suggests there's something wrong needing to be put right. An opportunity for change rather than a slide into nothingness.

Halifax Piece Hall on opening day, 1st August 2017
During the morning of the opening of the restored Piece Hall in Halifax.
By late afternoon, more than seventeen thousand people had come to see it
and to visit some of the first of the 315 small shops and cafes.
(I think it's 315!)
Having listed what we were looking for, and having eliminated places nearer Manchester for being too expensive or with houses too small or for the countryside being too flat (or too hilly) we alighted on Halifax. And one of the reasons we thought it might be an exciting place to come is that it seems to have a very interesting town council - one brave enough and imaginative enough to be investing millions into restoring a massive 'Piece Hall' (a 'piece hall' is where hand weavers in the seventeenth century went to sell their 'pieces' of cloth) so they could open it to traders of the modern kind who need small shops rather than huge retail spaces. And they are building a large and brand new library next to it and have found the money to transform and refurbish its adjoining arts centre and theatre and to anticipate that huge outdoor events will take place in the parade ground sized courtyard in the middle.

A first-aider on duty outside the medical room, late in the day at the Piece Hall.
Note the lights set into the ground in the courtyard below and the hills beyond.
So when we set off on the morning of August 1st 2017 to hear the bell ring for the opening of trade I had almost as much resting on the event as the organisers themselves. I've been telling everyont this is the place you should come if you want to witness a cultural renaissance. Would fifty people turn up or five hundred? I don't know what the final tally was but by late afternoon there had been more than seventeen thousand visitors. The bustle and interest was tremendous. I asked a woman standing next to me, leaning over one of the stone balustrades in the lower gallery, whether she was surprised by the turnout. 'Not at all!' she said. "We want to see what we've got for our money.'

Sunday, 23 July 2017

ONE WALL

Ragwort and convolvulus in front of railings on a high stone wall.
It was a mistake.
I'd thought photographing familiar plants would be a good idea; a clear connection between my old life and new. But it wasn't. Seeing good old convolvulus poking through railings instead of clambering over a blackberry hedge was painful. And ragwort should be beside tracks. Those tracks might be of the narrow, foot-trodden into earth kind, or they might be railway ones . . . but that's where I expect them to be. Seeing them spread about on top of a high, black wall was disconcerting - a clash of feelings. I came back to my new home tearful and full of home-sickness.

I doubt if many people move in this direction - from the sea and sand and sunshine and fossils of Dorset to the no-sea, no-sand, not-even-a-river, less sunshine, more rain of Halifax. Explaining is difficult. To say too much perfection is eventually boring might not sound very sensible. But where I used to find it reassuring to see the same plants coming up in the same place every year, I'd begun to think 'Year in, year out, that same old plant. How predictable can you get?'

Dandelion growing between black stones of wall in Halifax, UK
Of course, a wall might seem even more predictable; being there 'year in, year out' is precisely what one expects it to be. But for me - each wall here is new. Another new thing to explore. And the less like a Dorset wall it is, the better I can cope. Abrupt change is easier than struggling with memories.

As I write this, I'm hearing what I think is Kurdish music coming in from the house next door instead of silence. And people passing by in the street are more likely to be talking Urdu with a Yorkshire accent than English. At night, in my old house, it was so quiet I could hear the street lights humming. Incessantly they hummed. And I was becoming more and more frightened by the sea - the millions and millions of tons of pebbles which make Chesil beach crashing against each other, over and over and over with each white wave. There needs to be a new word for 'hearing'. To 'hear' the roar of Chesil Beach is nothing like hearing the roar of traffic on a busy road. In order to be run down by a car you have to step in front of it. No way is it out to get you. Whereas the sea . . . it's eating into the underbelly of the cliffs till there's no rock left to hold up the tops so they crumble away or come crashing down until in some places there's nothing but grass sticking out high above the coast; and whole sections of cliffs are cracked sheer from top to bottom by alternating rain and drought - and the sea is sucking everything that falls into it greedily away.

Willow Herb and bindweed growing on a wall in Halifax with house behind.
In an era of Brexit, it's best to be clear about this from the beginning. Where I've lived until now, it would rarely come into anyone's head to mention anyone's ethnic background. For nearly everyone shares a similar heritage. Now, all of a sudden I'm being confronted with the oddness of citizens with different cultures living in different 'areas' all within the same small town . . . and of shops being defined by the ancestry of their owners - this is a Pakistani shop, this is a Polish shop, this is a 'European' shop. I think I'm classed as a 'European'. I've always thought of myself as English. And one might as well say it aloud - that to be defined as 'Eastern European' (as opposed to just 'European') round here tends to mean you are expected to be rowdy, loud, litter strewing and drunk. (I've yet to find out what the stereotype of someone like me is - so I don't yet know whether I will live up to it, or down to it - or what!)

Plants and grass growing on a blackened stone wall.

Thatched cottages are common in Dorset. Hardly any buildings are abandoned or broken. Abandoned and broken is new to me - and here 'abandoned and broken' is everywhere. The buildings which have fallen out of use are too large and too many to be turned into holiday homes for wealthy people who like to look at a bit of greenery and a few cows at the weekends.


You'd have thought that once into the the countryside I'd feel more 'at home'. But the leaves on the trees here have more blue in them. Their green heads towards emerald. And the whole landscape is over-coloured and so highly saturated it's disconcerting. It's alien. It's an adventure.

Polystyrene cup and metal cans stashed where a stone is missing in a wall with convovulus hanging down.


So . . . I hope you will adventure with me in this new land . . .

as I get used to convolulus growing thinly on black, urban walls.

A change is sometimes way more than a rest - it's a regeneration of life. Already, brushing away the tears, I can feel that new energy begin.