‘The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts.’ Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust (2001: 5-6).
‘There’s nothing wild in this country: every square inch of it is ‘owned’, much has seen centuries of bitter dispute; the whole landscape is man-made, deforested, drained, burned for grouse moor, long cleared of its peasants or abandoned by them.’
Kathleen Jamie, ‘A Lone Enraptured Male’ London Review of Books, 6th March 2008.
Why, why, why was I so daft? I slipped up knolls, tumbled down crumbling brickwork, tripped on knotted, stumpy roots. All in search of a river confluence. There’s method writing, then there’s madness in undertaking such a journey. On my own. In a hippy-ish maxi dress and battered Doc Martens.
Instead of questioning my own naïve curiosity and lack of preparedness, I blamed Google Maps; the route looked so smooth, so flat, so innocuous.
Well. No. Not simple at all. The map in satellite view and in street view betrayed the actual topography. This map lies! I walked up and down the curve where Bury New Road becomes Manchester Road looking for the entrance – three times, of course, because that is the storyteller’s way. The entrance looked like someone’s drive but I eventually wandered down there, a little concerned at trespassing (but only a little).
The smell of must, of vegetation, compost rot. An abandoned turquoise Fiat groaning with green, grasses growing around the wheels. Bits of fabric and plastic in sticky mud. Will I need to text someone my location in case my corpse is lost? This place seems “Wild” or perhaps, more likely, “Abandoned”. A lack of love?
I wandered past the concrete steps, deciding against trying my weight on them, and set to finding the river Roch somewhere in the brambles and nettles, in between tree trunks, concrete totems, and leaf litter. I know nothing of this place’s histories, its stories, this unnerved me; who am I to dare disturb industrial ghosts?
A shimmer of brown river, rippled glass, a promise of hydroglyphics – fleeting, hidden messages made with autumn sunlight on water. Yes it’s the Roch but there is no easy way to follow it, no discernible pathway. I followed my instinct then checked the phone’s Google Maps app to be sure, almost as if checking a calculator for the outcome of an uncertain sum. I seemed to be a way away from the path so I climbed a steep, muddy hill all leggy birch and little visual vantage of the landscape.
I climbed back down, crab-like, made my way through the scrub back towards the river. Success! I spotted a man in a dark green jacket a hundred metres away who waved in an unsure way and turned back towards his large black Labrador. I followed his track from a distance, Alice to his white rabbit, which took me back to the river and to two metre tall balsam. Best of all: a path of sorts.
This path led to a wider clearing where there were more dog walkers, soft long grass to stomp through, and the confluence of Roch and Irwell, the Roch subsumed into the river that flows through Manchester.
I leaned into the grasses to film the river, there was a sudden SNAP as hundreds of Himalayan balsam seeds exploded from seed cases. Whoops. An accidental contribution to their spread. An unthinking act of environmental vandalism, city lass, should have checked first, my mind is wrapped in river currents, enraptured by water. There is a heady almost petroleum, stink of balsam. I imagine the seeds joining the Irwell, floating on the Ship Canal, a scattering in the Mersey.
A rook punctuates the constant low rush of the river, I think I can hear the chipchipchip of a great spotted woodpecker as well as the low hum of cars. I try to keep my breathing quiet.
Then a path marked out, delineated by wooden posts, a road that was small chunks of yellowed stone out of the park. The sign, as you can see above in the first picture, the line ‘Part of the Red Rose Forest’ is obscured by paint. Is it no longer part of it? If not then what is it part of? With my back to the park I found myself on the pavement of another busy road. On the other side there was a police car parked near tramline edgelands, I saw a Police Community Support Officer slowly walking the route towards Radcliffe.
I did get lost trying to follow the map back to Whitefield tram stop but that is a story too dull to retell.
And this is not, nor would be, the only journey that had unintended outcomes…