As a small child, after my dad bought a car, we used to go on various jaunts and, of course, to visit our grandparents in the nearby towns. I would be slumped in the back after an evening at my Grandma’s house in Little Hulton, full of prawns and salad cream and Tunnocks teacakes as a general rule. My grandmothers were not great cooks, it must be said, a fact brought about by World War and a lack of ingredients rather than a lack of skill. My grandmother’s go-to family tea was a table groaning with celery sticks, iceberg lettuce, prawns, tinned ham and salmon all to be drowned in the tangy vinegar splendour of salad cream. There would be butter to slather over crusty bread though never when it was ‘too new’. My grandmother had an odd dislike of fresh bread. There would be pop, a beverage which she always referred to as ‘mineral’. Cream soda and dandelion and burdock were my favourites. Tea. There was always a pot of tea and white tea cups.
We didn’t always have tea there. Often we just drove over for an hour or two to visit. My paternal grandparents lived nearer, eventually moving to live at the bottom of the road and we would also ‘pop’ in there, my dad reading the Bury Times as my grandma attempted to out talk the budgie, Joey. Other times we would be in the car returning from a trip to the cinema or the theatre, Bolton Octagon being a favoured haunt of my childhood.
As we drove up Heap Brow, a steep incline towards home, there would be a small road sign stating that in that direction, pointy bit indicating right, we would find ourselves firstly in Pilsworth and then Indian East. We never turned towards Indian East, our route lay with a left turn towards home.
I would always look out for this sign and on my more daydreamy evenings I would ponder what Indian East might be like. I didn’t know anyone at school who lived there. And when we had travelled that route sometimes there was nothing very interesting, some fields, the warehouses and yards of the industrial estate and a lone pub, whitewalled and stranded. I would forget about the existence of Indian East then, taken up with the view from the car window and thinking of other daydreamy things. Only when we passed the sign did I recall ‘Oh yes…Indian East. I must have missed it.’.
It was a shining beacon of a place, harbouring all my childish hopes for a town. Green space and old buildings, possibly half-timbered, on wilder days they had turrets. The streets of Indian East would be higgledy-piggledy and you had to walk there because if you drove, well, as the years rolled by it appeared to me that the road broke its promise and seemed not to take you there. There must be a turn off that I missed. There was magic in this idea, that this place could only be reached on foot. It was hidden from view. It was quiet, the silence only broken by the song of birds, the whirr of a lawnmower, someone singing as they hung out the washing. The Indian aspect of its name puzzled me. There were plenty of Indian ladies in Bury. They clacked around the market in their glittery golden sandals, their jewel like saris bundled under heavy winter wool coats. Occasionally you might glimpse a soft, brownskinned midriff as a lady bent to tend to her grandchild in a pushchair. They were colourful, like fairies to my child self. They had long hair, plaited like Rapunzel and elaborate earrings.
Perhaps, I thought, Indian East is like that. Everywhere in Indian East is colourful and gilded. I had an idea that there were boats, something like a gondola, which might transport people along the River Roach from the centre of Bury. If there were unicorns then you’d find them in the stables at Indian East. Fires there were obviously lit by dragons.
Food of choice in Indian East would be cake, Battenburg probably because it had the colour scheme. I had it all worked out. An eco-system all to itself; it would be sunny in Indian East when it was not in Heywood. They had a lot of thunderstorms too, when the sky would turn bruise black. My favoured weather system. They also had more snow, ten feet deep at least when ours was only slush because Indian East was hidden in a valley, hence its lack of visibility from any of the major roads.
One day, I thought, when I’ve passed my driving test, I will drive to Indian East. Clearly we never got there because my dad was never driving there, we were always heading elsewhere, even when we turned in the direction of Indian East. We were on our way to Pilsworth Road or out towards Heaton Park.
One afternoon in the 1980s the truth of Indian East was revealed to me. It was, literally, a revelation. As a child I had read the sign, very clearly, from my seat in the back of the car. Indian East. I had never questioned my interpretation of this road sign. The words had conjured up the place, with its every last letterbox. I had no reason not to believe in the existence of Indian East. It was on a road sign. They didn’t make road signs to places that did not exist. I had built a city on the back of my reading skills.
I was having driving lessons by then, scooting around the environs of our town in Mr Purvis’s Mini Metro and we stopped at a junction on Pilsworth Road. Mr Purvis gave his usual careful instructions; he was a Geordie man, very patient. As he imparted driving knowledge I looked up at the road sign in front of me. There were two places listed. Bury, right and to the left Ind. Est.
Wait a moment. Ind. Est?
I looked around, at the warehouses, the tarmacced yards and drives, the high security fencing and the sets of traffic lights that Mr Purvis liked us to practice going through, junction after filter after cross hatched junction.
In one moment a city fell. The spangled ladies of Indian East vanished in their market coats, shooed into the gondolas and skiffs by the burly chested security guard from Industrial Estate. They had no place here, no place anywhere. The sign had never read ‘Indian East’ at all except to my childish eyes and I had never corrected the mistake.
To say I was heartbroken, would not be hyperbole.
I stalled the car. Mr Purvis waited patiently, puffing on his hundredth cigarette as I sorted my gears and started the engine.
One of the good things about local tv news is that it sometimes turns its bloodshot eye to a local place of interest that you might very well have not known existed before. This happened for us with the Purton Hulks.
There being little news about bin collection and rabid newts that particular while ago, the intrepid reporter was sent out to drum up something and to be fair he found a stonker. He was pictured on the windswept shores of the Severn Estuary standing amongst the ribs and keels of a series of historic ships.
They aren’t historic in the way that The Golden Hind or the Victory are, nothing nationally momentous or involving Nelson happened aboard these vessels, rather they are historic because they have come from history. They were each wrecked or beached on purpose at the shoreline at Purton after it was realised that the erosion from the Severn estuary was starting to compromise the safety of the Gloucester Sharpness canal. Over time they’ve become an odd collection of maritime history, different vessels from different decades making up a perfect whole.
I say nothing nationally momentous happened aboard these vessels but I can’t say that for certain. Each old girl lying in the sand, draped with grass or hidden amongst the reeds has her own history. Every vessel had her crew and sailed the waters of the world for a minimum of twenty years. Some of the ships are older than others, the oldest, if memory of the information board serves, began her time in 1879. A lot of tides have risen and fallen beneath these old girls’ keels.
For a site that is, to all intents, post industrial, it is a wonderful and tranquil place. The estuary is very beautiful and on the day we wandered over there, not at all busy. There were no ice-cream vans and hoards of people or even very many dogwalkers. We parked up at the swingbridge and then headed onto the canal path. I think I’ve blogged before about my love for canals and the Gloucester Sharpness is impressive, a new favourite. It’s very wide, rather like the Caledonian canal on account of the fact it was built for bigger ships coming in and out of Gloucester, not just the narrowboats with their cargoes. It serves up a double whammy of canal and coastline too. On our return journey we were treated to the sight of a three masted tall ship just skimming by.
Over the swingbridge and we turned off at the sign saying ‘Purton Hulks’. Already the hair on the back of my neck was rising at the word ‘hulks’. There is a creak to the word, a heaviness. The place does not disappoint. The path leads you to the shoreline and there are instantly two or three heavy ship corpses draped in the sand of time and tide, swirled with long grass. Bows poke out of the ground, concrete and iron rust and crumble and yet they are still strong, powerful shapes. A rudder lifted into the wind that whips off the water.
The further you go the more there are, some just a last timber or two, skeletal and hard to make out in the sea of grass. Others appear to have vanished utterly until an angle in the grass catches your eye and you see the stern, the timbers stretching, a rusted porthole. Others are like ribcages, bony with rivets. At each there is a small plaque giving the name and some information about their timeline. It is a collection, a reverse archaeology, of trows and barges, docklighters and schooners.
It is one of the most wonderful places I’ve ever been to. There is a deep magical feel, increasing in intensity until you reach the far reed beds, the vessels there lying hidden in the wind whispered stalks.
These were all working vessels, hardworking, lugging and tugging and tonnage. As I stood on the edge of the estuary I had a thought that they are a ghost fleet, anchored and resting. If you needed to, you could call on these ships. Someone somewhere might suggest you’d need a particular kind of sorcery or necromancy to reanimate the ship spirits and bring them to your aid.
You might consider what is required of you and your summoning spell to dredge them from the bank; your desperate need, your panicked beating heart, the prickling at the back of your neck, a high wind and the right words. Ahoy might be brought into play somewhere in the manner of Abracadabra.
You’d be wrong. All you’d need is a bosun’s whistle and they’d come to you my lad.
For more info just click here folks: http://www.friendsofpurton.org.uk/purtonthevessels.html
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Of late we have taken to attempting to find walks that start literally at our doorstep. Turn left to the woods. Turn right to the canal. This makes it sound easy as if I just fall out of my door into a bucolic paradise requiring no more equipment than my Bo Peep outfit. They are all the rage here in Wiltshire. Pinnies. Bonnets. Croziers. Our usual kit and caboodle involves, at its most basic, a banana and a bag of crisps. It becomes more sophisticated if we have printed off a map from Bing, one with public footpaths outlined and the blue veins of waterways. On those sort of days we pack a flask of tea. If I was going to conquer Everest I would do it with a Thermos of tea.
Of course, the tea is what leads to my new hobby of ‘wild peeing’. This, for the uninitiated is the need, when you have to pee, to ‘return to the wild’ or ‘go native’ and in lieu of the brick and mortar and crinkly papered Public Convenience you have to make do with Mother Nature’s porcelain or, to give it its botanic term; ‘a bush’. Trees are also useful if they are wide enough in girth to screen you from the gaze of other canal walkers. Fortunately we have a canal and a wood alongside each other and a river alongside that too so that you have all your bases covered. Your walk. Your nature haven. Your kayak M25.
I used to be a terrible townie in that I found it almost impossible to pee in the woods. There was always that dreadful moment when the dancing began, the crossing and uncrossing of legs, the odd noises of exasperation due to micturation when I could not find a door with a primitive picture of a lady on it and some twentieth century plumbing anywhere. If it didn’t have a bowl and a lid I was lost. Only in moments of utter desperation would I be persuaded to take my chances with the wildlife. Invariably there were stinging nettles. Sometimes a surprised fox, although never more surprised than me. Once there was a close encounter with some tourists on a Pembrokeshire coastal path. I had not understood that my husband’s frantic calls of ‘Helen. Helen. Helen.’ were code for ‘There’s someone coming.’ I had replied to the most frantic ‘Helenhelenhelen’ with ‘will you be quiet!’ just as the group of ramblers hove into view. There is a reason I love elastic waistbands. Speed. I pretended to be squatting in the flora to identify an orange fungus which , I announced in my best Botany voice “…is in fact called ‘orange peel fungus’.” No one was convinced, least of all the bit of orange peel some previous pee-er had abandoned complete with its ‘jaffa’ sticker.
My husband is Welsh and a bit of a man of the mountains. I don’t mean that he plays a banjo or whittles sticks or anything but he is never more at home than in his hiking boots and pees, frankly, anywhere. He has no qualms about wild peeing although I used to point out that it is much easier for those of us of the masculine persuasion since it involves the undoing of a zip and not much more. The feminine pipework requires the full dressing down of course. Haunches come into play as you squat or hover. That aside he persuaded me, eventually, that peeing in the wild was, after all, the natural thing. Peeing in a porcelain loo is not. Over the years and the hikes I have got more and more used to peeing in the wild.
I have become so accustomed to a wild wee that, if I am being honest, and that’s what a blog can allow you to do, OK, are you ready for this?…If I am being honest… I actually PREFER peeing in the wild. It isn’t just the sensation of the wind on your cheeks or indeed the nettles, it is the fact that you are being ecological and biodegradable. A recent Radio 4 programme offered the opinion, put forward by some sort of plumbing ecologist, that the flush toilet was the worst thing we ever invented. It’s wasteful. No pun intended.
Originally I was anxious of course. I am an urbanite and as such I was worried about attack by wildlife, the bears and the wolves that are in our primal imagination and the actual ants and bees that still cling to existence. I was slightly less anxious about being seen, bottom out. My husband made a joke of it every time I needed to pee on a walk or hike or other forced march fun and frolics. There was one period of time where he actually took photos of me peeing, unawares. He would jump out at me with his camera and a yell of ‘Say Pees’. Hm. Perhaps that’s too much honesty for a blog. He has, thankfully, grown out of that phase and as he has grown out of that so I’ve grown out of my urban hang ups.
Pee in the woods. Seriously. Try it. Obviously don’t go too mad and desecrate a floral clock or the stand of trees in the park perhaps, but next time you’re out there just reach back for your wilder self. It is very freeing. I am not anxious at all on a walk now. I am friend to the stinging nettles and the hogweed.
One of my recent thoughts on the subject was if I pee in the woods often enough will the foxes recognise my scent? This thought occurred this weekend when we were out on a walk, one of our doorstep delight walks and we came across a couple of earths and some fox scat. Scat is poo of course, except for the urban foxes where ‘fox scat’ is something that is popular in jazz clubs. Anyway, stupid jokes aside I do wonder. There are bits of the paths where I can smell fox and I don’t even have that great an olfactory sense. I’m only human, not vulpine or canine. When we are strolling along the canal path and someone is walking their dog and the dog is all over the place, bombarded with and wild about the scents it is picking up I wonder about the landscape it is sniffing. The Smellscape.
I want to be part of that smellscape, to be part of the land. Let the wind whistle where it may, I am content to connect to my primeval past. Next time you’re out, why not try it? Reclaim your land, mark your territory. And watch out for the stingies.