From the vaults: Conundrum (15/08/2010)


Not sure if this should bother me a lot, a little, or (in context) not at all.

There’s this piece of land: a triangular patch of unmade ground, mostly given over to bramble, hawthorn and nettle. Over the years I’ve known it, it has been criss-crossed; by people and by the lattice of paths they have created, all of which lead back to a couple of entry and exit points. It is the type of rough, open space to be found the length and breadth of the country; unused, uncultivated, unremarkable; not strictly common ground but of indeterminate ownership. This particular piece is land-locked between farmer’s fields and a railway cutting; it is most likely old railway land, now owned by Network Rail.

Since I first discovered it – more than 25 years ago, in my running days – it has been a place of occasional use by walkers, runners and people exercising dogs. I’ve seen a vixen with a young family there, countless rabbits, any number of different hedgerow birds, raptors and carrion-eaters. It is probably best described as a place to be passed through on the way to or from elsewhere.

And now the fences have gone up!

In the space of a few days this barrier appeared: good quality timbers, well constructed, sturdy enough to protect a stockade. Notices too – small enough to be discreet, but plentiful enough not to be missed: No access, Private Property, Keep Out …

There’s still a path: a good path as it goes – nicely levelled; vegetation cut back; better than any of the rough old improvised walkways that preceded it. It’s unlikely any access rights have been infringed here, so where’s the problem?

The dilemma for me is that, while bristling at what appears to be a heavy-handed and disproportionate declaration of ownership, I equally deplore the behaviour which has, in all likelihood, precipitated it. For a couple of years now the area has been used by groups of BMX (if that’s what they’re still called) bikers, availing themselves of – and sometimes modifying – the undulating terrain. Not to put too fine a point on it the place has, over that same period, been turned into a tip and it’s hard to believe that the events are coincidental. Discarded cans from high-energy drinks and sometimes alcohol; food and confectionary wrappers; plastic bags – tossed into the undergrowth or just left where they lie. This lack of respect for the environment has probably caused the (admittedly minor) constraint on my right to roam and I’m left in the position of having no real argument with the restriction.

If there is an upside it is that the undergrowth, undisturbed, might well evolve into an even better habitat for wildlife. Wildlife which will unfortunately now have to viewed from the other side of a fence.

From the vaults: Into The City (08/08/2010)

There have been those I’ve enjoyed and would return to again and again; others I would happily live out my days and never once set foot in the place. It’s cities, I’m talking about.

Birmingham is a 30-minute train ride away; as journeys go it’s as good an example as you’ll find of public transport being the best option. Brum is a frequently and unfairly maligned place: the concrete jungle days are thankfully a thing of the past; only the long overdue remodelling of the hideous New Street Station is needed for the city centre transformation to be largely completed. Where Birmingham suffers, and will inevitably continue to suffer, is in the absence of any natural landscape: there is no river, no estuary or view of nearby hills to offer drama or enhancement in the way that the Clyde complements Glasgow, the Avon gorge dramatises Bristol, or any number of natural elements contribute towards making Edinburgh what Edinburgh, uniquely, is.

But if I’m forced to confront the daunting concept of entering shops then I’ll take a bustling city over a desensitised, hermetically sealed, out-of-town mall – even in the most inclement of weather; and the journey, by train, helps to make the whole experience a little more interesting.

Despite following a line which could scarcely be more urban, the trackside fringes are surprisingly wild. Not wild in the way that the Monadhliath is wild, or the Migneint; but wild in the sense of unkempt, neglected, left to the devices of those species adept at swift and burgeoning colonisation. Fox families move confidently in full view of station platforms; badger setts undercut the embankments; sparrowhawk and kestrel hunt a varied and plentiful diet among the buddleia and ground elder. Consume it too; undisturbed by anything other than the passing trains, to which they have become well accustomed. There’s more moving than just passengers and freight along these half secret conduits; buried in cuttings, hidden beyond garden fences.

Inevitably the wildlife shares its living space with the discarded evidence of human proximity – mattresses, plastic drums, bin-liners containing things we can only imagine. Detritus accumulating in a way which would have been impossible in the days of steam, when impromptu cinder fires regularly purged the embankments; admittedly to a somewhat random schedule and with indiscriminate consequences.

Although I suspect that back then less was jettisoned and more was mended.