Posts Tagged ‘escape’

Swansea Bay


Night, and the Devon coast has faded
After sunset made opening closing windows
Flash gold across the miles
Across the border,
Across the sea.
A neon night, headlamps searchlight
All along the Mumbles road,
That wind sweeps sand
Where trams and trains used to go.
A neon night, clouds throb orange,
A blast furnace mirror over the bay,
Volcanic pulses counterpointing
The lighthouse flashes on their rock.
Night, and here the dark
A coat that snugly hugs,
One I once knew well, then put aside,
Now rescued
From the back of the wardrobe and
Gladly worn again.
Beyond traffic, waves roll,
Wash sand seaweed and oyster shells,
Like the one I found last time
And keep on the window ledge,
That even through dust
Carries a whiff of salt
Fifty miles inland.


From My Diary, June 5, 2017


An annoying day winds down, and I’m glad to see the back of it. It’s been raining and blowing hard all afternoon, and I’ve sat and listened quietly to it. No distractions, the block pleasantly quiet.

The driving drum of rain on PVC window frames is one of my favourite sounds, up there with sea crashing onto a rocky beach, a river’s rustle and the song of a skylark on a hot summer’s day. The open windows rattle and creak a little as the gusts bellow through the flat, a ship rolling in a heaving sea. The sounds surround me, wrap me gently in the warmest, softest arms and breasts. Annoyances hurled into the wind and carried away.

Time for bed, though it’s still light. A book open, music adds an extra background sound – the dreamy Sigur Rós () album seems to work well. It will soon be time to close the curtain and kill the lamp. But not just yet. Savour the peace a little longer.

My Grandparents’ House


Such attics cleared of me! Such absences! Philip Larkin

The last time I went to the house
Was the day we cleared it.
I arrived, as I always had:
Train then car, renewing my familiarity
With the happy highways that led here:
The Runcorn Bridge, dual carriageways
Suburbs, the streets
Narrowing after each turn,
Until finally, parked outside,
I could have been a child again as
Another school holiday begins.
No. Closed too long, the house was musty.
Men with scythes and saws
Were chopping back the jungle
The garden had become. I choked then,
Their pride and joy, recalled the hours
Lavished on it, mowing, weeding,
Seeding, picking, a feast of flowers and fruit,
I used to wonder how
They ever had time to go to work.
As we moved from room to room,
I expected them to walk in, and ask
What the hell we thought we were doing.
I looked in my old room:
Single bed, wardrobe screwed to the wall
And Grandma’s sewing machine
Folded into a table.
I sat on the bed, breathed
Deep and slow the air of that room,
Remembered the first night’s sleep
Of any holiday, the excitement
Of being here again
With all the days or weeks ahead.
Of days out, days in the garden,
Of Test Match Special,
And bowls on the lawn.
Now it feels like I was never here,
Just another stale space to be cleared
With all the others:
Wardrobes, cupboards, closets
Emptied now of all but memory.
If the bricks could talk,
What conversations we could have.

Sea, Shingle and Stars


After another week in eastern England – on holiday this time – I’m back at home. From being woken by low flying Eurofighter jets from RAF Lakenheath, it’s back to noisy neighbours with only one CD. And back to life proper, and wondering what to do with it.

Holiday it might have been, but I’ve had my fill of eastern England for a while, though I went nowhere near Peterborough and spat a curse whenever I saw it on a sign. The best moment was all too brief. Beside the sea wall at Cromer, just above the strand. The tide was in and I passed several wonderful minutes watching the metre high green waves roll in and break with a foaming crash against the beach and wall. This was followed by that wondrous roaring rattle of shingle as they rolled back. I tried to guess which waves would keep their height all the way in, but couldn’t tell. Likely candidates would rear up with no warning and break, or become locked in a frothing fight with a previous wave’s backwash. Sometimes though, the wave would make it and roll along the wooden groyne, smashing and throwing up huge clouds of spray as it went, and at the wall, hurling itself several feet into the air. And this was on a calm day. I’d love to come back during a winter storm.



A mile or so offshore was a large wind farm, the white turbines turning languidly. I could have sat there all day, listening to the tide. The breaking waves and the “melancholy long withdrawing roar” of the pebbles made my spine tingle. I was suddenly 14 again, standing on a tall rock on a beach near Swansea and listening to the shingle there. The first time I had heard it and its music has never left me.

That image too was fleeting. In its absence I leaned against the railing and simply listened, and tasted the salty spray and the acrid tang of seaweed. I was content to simply be there in this sensory wash, freed from the now. Liberated briefly into unreality – forty-four and no job, thrust back into that worthless place I grew to know too well in my twenties – in those blissful moments by the sea all that faded. Back at home, it’s bubbling up again. Rising toward the surface, ready to break through. But what sort of eruption? Phraeto-magmatic, lava or pyroclastic flow, who can say? I’ve no strength to resist it. Go with its flow, however violent, burnt up or blasted to smithereens.

I was staying in Hockwold, a few miles from Thetford forest. Sunset that same day, and the old folks had stopped their bowls game and the sky was a quickly deepening orange. From the distant fen, the peep of a curlew. The only other sound the crunch and slip of my shabby shoes over the loose chippings that were only laid that morning. I waited for darkness, stars and the possibility of meteors from the Perseid shower. After it came, I lay on the lawn and looked up into the clear sky. Slowly my eyes adjusted and the sky revealed itself. A jewelled black velvet cloth, glittering and shining, whose quiet radiance grew louder as the moments passed. I followed my breath, slow, steady, in and out. Overhead, the phosphorescence of the Milky Way came alive to my eyes. It’s not often I see it, city dweller that I am. As my eyes adjusted, more stars came alive until the sky was full of twinkling silver fires, so close I felt I could touch them:

…the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light

(W.B. Yeats)

Lying there, on damp grass, I felt peace, such as I haven’t felt in a very long time, a time so long it’s almost beyond remembrance. Nothing mattered, everything fallen away. I had forgotten what this felt like, and what it was to be beneath a sky full of stars. Awesome in the proper sense of the word: so far, such huge space, it makes me feel small, numbers so vast, so huge and innumerable that God is still making them up as I once heard someone say, one individual sand grain on a vast beach. It’s a good feeling, liberating, true perspective. And occasionally, a flickering streak as a meteor met its fiery death. How long had that tiny piece of rock or dust been travelling through space, how many millions of years, until it happened to collide with our planet just as I was looking up? What a frail travelling coincidence.

I saw several more meteors before retiring to bed, and did the same the following night. Now I’m home again and it already seems a long time ago. Back to a reality I can’t put off any longer. Time to face the enemy. I just hope I can shoot the bastard.

Ire and Loathing in Peterborough


Stanground. Shit. I’m still only in Stanground. That doesn’t have the same ring to it as Saigon does it? In a hot, stuffy hotel on a road of unresting traffic, where the bangs are from the occasional unseasonable firework rather than a grenade. I’d rather be in Saigon though. I’d rather be anywhere than this loathsome place.

Until recently, I’d worked in Stoke council’s benefits office for several years. While not top of the class so to speak, it seemed reasonable to assume I had at least a fair grasp of what was required.

So when Stoke became too unpleasant a place to work, I applied for a similar job at Peterborough. This would be working from home, with, they assured me, only occasional attendance at their offices in Peterborough for training etc. This seemed reasonable, so when they offered me the job, I accepted with alacrity.

Things went wrong immediately. Never mind the past, Peterborough is a foreign country, they do things very differently there. I can appreciate the need for accuracy, but they don’t distinguish between a typo on a letter and a serious financial error. They also have their own incomprehensible interpretation of the rules, and a completely different IT system to Stoke’s. I’d been there less than three days and they had a go at me for not picking things up quickly enough! And this was after the promised training didn’t materialise.

The occasional attendances became anything but. Another summons, and I again found myself away from home, in a hotel room in a town I loathe. I had to keep my sanity and temper somehow, so as I’d done on previous visits, I went for a drive after escaping the humiliations of the office. Along the A47 to Guyhirne, ruler straight and level for mile after mile. All I had to do was rest my hands lightly on the wheel as tarmac and road lines vanished away towards the horizon, and Norfolk. Norwich 75 the sign says. What an appealing thought to just stay on the road and keep going: Wisbech, Kings Lynn, Dereham, Norwich, Great Yarmouth.

At Guyhirne I turned off, away from the dense, unyielding line of thundering trucks onto a much quieter road. Still straight, but rougher, with frequent fairground bounces where it had subsided. Again, the huge fields and skies, the tent grey today with scarcely any flash of blue to cheer up this prisoner. In this duller light, the skies seemed even larger. The whole landscape took on a bleaker air… That’s not really the right word as it wasn’t oppressive or despairing. My favourite landscape is that of the northern fells and moors, and I prefer them under grey skies: the place acquires an even deeper presence.

After a few minutes, I passed Murrow, which I remembered from last time as I tried to find the site of the station. The only hint is a road called Station Avenue although this didn’t lead to the station. In fact I think there were two stations as two railways met here at one time. Surprising for such a little place out in the Fens. The Midland & Great Northern ran east-west and the Great Northern & Great Eastern ran north-south. The former closed in 1959 and the latter as late as 1982, though the station closed much earlier.

Several miles later and I passed the long closed railway at French Drove. I’d driven past here last time and noticed a narrow, overgrown lane running parallel to the trackbed. I only walked a short way down it then, to photo the two concrete signal posts that still stood. This time, I braved it in the car. As well as narrow, it was pitted and potholed and had the tallest grass I’ve even seen growing along the middle of a road. How long had it been since someone had driven along here, I thought, and how long would it be before someone did again?



I noticed another lane coming in on the right, then saw a shape emerge from the undergrowth: a large hare. Before I could stop and reach for my camera, he was off in a flash of white tail at surprising speed before vanishing back into the long grass with a rustling crash. I couldn’t believe my luck. I’ve seen many rabbits, but few hares: this was probably only the third time I’ve seen one, and the closest too.

It was quiet. Very quiet. The sort of deep, beautiful silence I often yearn for, and that it is so difficult to obtain. From nowhere, a skylark started to sing, and more distantly, a yellowhammer requested his usual snack of bread and no cheese. There was a narrow but dense band of trees on my left, and a field of oil seed rape to my right. Some of this had escaped the field and was growing by the road, amongst the long grass and cow parsley. I was suddenly a very very long way from anywhere, and it suited me fine. I even didn’t mind being away from home, and all the anger and impotent rage faded. It didn’t just fade, it vanished completely. Enjoy the silence. I did, and let it permeate right into me, flowing through me along with blood, part of it. Part of me.

A little further along the road and the trees closed in on both sides. And then something strange: a rough clearing to the left, partly blocked by an improvised “wall” of earth and gravel, and at the far end of it, a CCTV camera. Someone obviously does come here then. Fly tippers perhaps, even out here. Dirty bastards.


After this brief adventure, it was a relief to be back on a proper road. I took a circular return to the hotel, reluctant to head straight back. At Thorney, I crossed the A47 and carried on into the village. The Midland & Great Northern Railway had a station here, but the site has disappeared under new housing. I was pleased to see some reminder though: by the road close to the site a pair of level crossing gates. Probably not original, but good to see all the same. The church was impressive, with a large pale stone frontage with many carvings. I believe it was a former abbey church, like the cathedral at Peterborough. There was another impressive building nearby, a tall tower of the same stone that can be seen from several miles away. I’ve no idea what it is.

The road, after a couple of sharp turns, ran straight across the fen. That strange, man-made landscape where everything is straight, angular. There were several pill boxes along here, and I wondered just what they were supposed to defend. I had visions of Dad’s Army manning them. The road soon crossed the river Nene, adjacent to large sluice gates and close to the delightfully named Dog-in-a-Doublet farm. After the olde worlde charme of Thorney, Whittlesey was a dump. Dominated by the chimney of a brick works and three huge wind turbines. And I mean huge. This was the closest I’d ever been to one. I know many find them ugly, and I’d seen numerous placards today protesting against them. I’ve found them elegant, and this close pass did not diminish this.

Back into Peterborough, and the road crossed what looked like a large new development, on a greenfield site. There were many “for sale” boards and others proclaiming “development opportunities”, while the road was a near deserted dual carriageway. There’s clearly money here. A sharper contrast with home wasn’t possible.

The next day brought more humiliations. Safe to say that my resentment and anger grew and I could hardly wait to flee onto the road again. Or better still, home. It was my apprentice moment: Lord Sugar will see you now. And yes, I got fired. Not up to the job apparently. Never mind that I had done it at Stoke for over ten years, or that the statistics they used to prove my error rate were based on a vanishingly small sample. In a month when I had worked on over 200 cases, they use less than 5% of them to convict me. I love a fair trial. I was at least spared the light in the face or being yelled at by a leather coated Von Heseltine.

After leaving for the day, I went to French Drove again. I parked beside the New South Eau, one of the many straightened water courses round there, that runs between two fields lush with cereal crops. A short way off was a metal bridge that once carried the Great Northern & Great Eastern railway that closed 1982. Apart from a short piece of embankment, the bridge was the only trace. I recalled the phrase used by railway people to describe track, ballast, sleepers etc: the permanent way. I suppose it must have seemed that way once.


While my fascination with this country remains, I missed the hills of home. While most landscapes are man-made to some extent, this one is more so: drained marshes with waterways straightened and enclosed in dykes. Though it has a weird beauty all its own, it’s still artificial. As I stood there in the late evening sun, I wondered what it had been like before the fens were drained and the land enclosed, when places like Ely and Crowland were islands. I just couldn’t picture it.

And so to the end. Two more days working at home, where I made sure I did as little as possible, then the last journey over there. I received a terse email on the second day, advising me I would receive an “exit interview” when I arrived. What fun, I thought, just what I want after a two and half hour drive on awful roads. As I pulled into the car park, I saw the manager leaving for lunch. She didn’t see me. After I’d struggled up the stairs with the PC and monitor, someone told me the manager would be back soon. Ah, so I’m expected to wait am I? I don’t think so. I dumped the box and left.

In contrast with most of the journey, the road out of Peterborough is a good dual carriageway. I must admit I do like driving fast along such roads, especially with roof and windows open, and I did so then. The rushing air and my car’s smart acceleration was exhilarating. While that lasted I was able to park my anxieties. And I did the same after I got home. There would be plenty of time to worry in the next few days and weeks. But not tonight. Tonight I was going to relax.

Larks Ascending in the Fen Country


Over in Peterborough for a week’s training. The first day over, I drove out into the fens, that ever strange (to a northerner) yet beguiling landscape. Roads that run Roman straight for miles, or twist and turn sharply for no apparent reason; flat as far as the eye can see and beyond, the only raised land the straight lines of dykes; vast fields, some a lush green, some bare, the naked earth dark, while others are a yellow wash of daffodils; many places or streets that have “drove” in their names, like French Drove, Hull’s Drove, Falls Drove, Dog Drove, or my favourite: Milk and Honey Drove; straightened enclosed watercourses called drains or cuts. And the huge skies. A landscape that baffled, even repelled, me the first time I encountered it twenty years ago. Having always lived near hills or mountains, this vast flatness was a complete mystery, with its seemingly infinite horizons, where sometimes even trees were unusual. Even now, it still surprises me when I see it, though I’ve now been here a few times. This flatness still seems strange, almost wrong.

I was looking for traces of the abandoned railway line that ran from March to Spalding. I didn’t have the local OS map so had to rely on the road atlas. I found two old stations: French Drove & Gedney Hill (in the middle of nowhere) with both the building and the signal box lived in, with two armless signal posts close by, leaning drunkenly; and another at Cowbit (pronounced “cubitt” I understand), the signal box extant and covered in scaffolding, the station an immaculate dwelling, its platform still standing. Such a shame I didn’t bring my proper camera, with only the one on the phone.

After the second day was done, I headed out again. It was warm and sunny. I stopped the car by a level crossing, and stood there in the sun. On the moments when the breeze fell away, I could feel real heat on my face. A rediscovery of a favourite thing, thought lost for years, then serendipitously found in the bottom of a drawer; or a lost friend met again after many years: some minutes of frantic catch-up conversation, then fall into gentle silence, contented in each other’s company. Though the signal box declared the crossing to be St James Deeping, the name of the village was Deeping St James, which was confirmed by a newer railway sign on the fence. After a few minutes, the signaller climbed down the stairs in his high-vis jacket and languidly pushed the gates closed across the narrow road and bolted them shut. Back in his box, levers clanked and the old signal jerked upwards. Once the train had glided past, and with the gates open again, the road resumed its late afternoon slumbers. Such a timeless scene, one that has been happening several times a day for over a hundred years, though there is no longer a station for the trains to stop at.


Deeping St James is one of a few villages with “Deeping ” in their name, along with Market Deeping and Deeping St Nicholas. Some road signs, as I’ve seen elsewhere, refer to them collectively as “The Deepings”. I lingered a few more minutes then drove on. Through the quiet village centre with its fine grey church, then the road followed the river Welland, glittering in the sunshine. Swans were gliding along its gently rippling waters, close to what looked like a sluice, partly choked with weed. I passed Deeping St Nicholas, then turned onto the road towards Crowland. This too ran Roman straight between wide fields. I pulled over again, next to a field of bare, dark earth. And in the silence, drifting down the great azure canopy of sky, a skylark’s song. Gentle, delicate notes falling on and around me like the softest, warmest rain, or a shower of April blossoms. It’s a sound that puts me in mind of a sweltering mid-summer day in the Derbyshire hills. No wind at all, even on the top of Mam Tor, the hang-gliders failing to take off. Roasted by the climb from Edale, I lay back in the baked dry grass and listened to the larks’ song, the birds either invisible or tiny dots high above in a sky of milky haze.

And now I hear them for the first time this year, and in a landscape that couldn’t be more different. The day at work hadn’t gone well, and my mood had sunk well below periscope depth. First the sun, and now the birdsong helped to lift it. The lark’s “silver chains of sound” also brought Vaughan-Williams’ beautiful piece The Lark Ascending into my head. The notes of this mingled in my mind with the birds’ and I gradually calmed. Bobbing gently in a boat in Hickling Broad in the sun, the wind rattling the dry sedge, another afternoon of heat.


My final pausing place was on Gunthorpe Road, near Newborough. This narrow lane runs straight for a mile or so, but is uneven, with much bouncing in the dips. The wind had risen and was enough to sway the car, a trusty old ship softly rolling in a limpid sea. A few yards from the lane, a small overgrown hump the remains of some building. All that was standing was an irregular column of battered red bricks, with too little left to provide any clue of what it had been. On the way here I had passed tulip farms, though none were in flower yet. I wonder what a kaleidoscope of colour there would be if I came back in a few weeks? Between gusts, more birds: larks, a great tit, a cockerel and the strange dot-matrix squawk of a pheasant.

A couple more days, and I would be able to go home, a hundred miles to the north west. There would be much cursing and annoyance on the drive and I would end it in a bad temper and relief that it was over. A shabby city long past its best set between the sometimes steep sides of the Trent valley. Another landscape formed by water, but one very different to the Fens. These brief visits hadn’t reduced my sense of strangeness, but as I left, I knew I would come back. Come back and sit once again by the straight road, feel the breeze straight off the North Sea and look towards the measureless horizon. And beneath the huge skies, forget awhile.


Nick Cohen: Writing from London

Journalism from London.

The Political Potteries

A Political News and Debating Website for Stoke-on-Trent


Poetry around The Potteries

Everywhere Once

An adult's guide to long-term travel