It’s chilly with a slight mist as the early morning NX 440 drops my travelling companion and I off on Finchley Road. We’ve got time to kill, and what better method of killing it than with the partaking of a Full English breakfast at a leisurely pace in a suitably amenable location. Cafe Caesar is just the ticket – homely, warm and not too busy at this borderline ungodly hour. The proprietors are a middle-aged couple of Eastern European extraction. They’re friendly, courteous and efficient, but possessed of that ever-so-slightly-hardened attitude that comes from living and working in the capital for too long.
Everything is freshly prepared and before long our food arrives and we’re tucking in. Trade in the cafe is steady and the clientele consists of a combination of working folk and local residents. It’s a relaxed environment – remarkable given the amount of traffic and activity on the other side of the window. A perfect start to the day.
Once breakfast is over, practicalities intervene. It’s time to go our separate ways for a while and I decide on a whim to head towards Hampstead Heath.
Part of the fun of roaming through the back streets of London is plaque-spotting, and the first one that I see marks the former residence of a magician by the name of David Devant (although my eyesight at first translates the name as David Tennant). It’s not a name I’m familiar with, so I look it up later, discovering that Devant was the first president of the Magic Circle. Extremely well known in his day, he once made the newspapers when he was approached by an escaped mental patient who demanded that he make coins appear from nowhere as in his stage performances. Devant did this until hospital staff arrived to take the patient away. He died in 1941 aged 73 and is little known today. Only time will tell if Paul Daniels is similarly forgotten in another seventy-odd years’ time.
I turn left onto Haverstock Hill before following a path that runs between St Stephen’s Church and the Royal Free Hospital (which, without its signage, I’d have assumed was a block of council flats). St Stephens’ avoided the fate of being demolished or converted into flats after receiving Grade I listing status in the 1970s. Its interior is now hired out for ‘a wide range of functions’.
At the corner of Pond Street and South End Road, a plaque marks the site of Booklovers Corner, the bookshop where George Orwell worked between 1934 and 1935 and which caused him (according to his essay Bookshop Memories) to lose his love of books. During this period he was also working on his novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying.
Across the road, a little overpowered by its surroundings, is the ornate South End Green drinking fountain, which marks the site of an old pond and was funded by a local benefactor in 1889 ‘to help stop intemperance and vice’ – in other words, to dissuade visitors brought in by the railway from frequenting the local dens of iniquity.
Nearby, some 70-odd years later, another George was engaged in activities of a somewhat less noble nature. Nature calls and I descend into the bowels of the South End Green public toilets. The beautiful, if pungent, tiled interior is where George Michael was arrested in 2008 on suspicion of possession of drugs.
It’s warm and sunny as I make my way towards Parliament Hill. The not particularly arduous climb pays off many times over. The surroundings are bucolic and the view out over the city, though affected by the hazy weather, is magnificent. I settle down on a bench to relax, soak up the sun and let my mind wander.
There’s a steady flow of joggers arriving at the summit. Out of breath, hands on knees, they regain their composure, check their fitness trackers and head back down the hill with barely an upward glance. A school party arrives for a picnic. Tourists take photographs which haven’t a hope of capturing the grandeur of the setting. One elderly lady draws her companion’s attention to ‘that big pointy thing’, which turns out to be the Shard. Local women in twos and threes walk expensive-looking dogs and talk of medication and their husbands’ jobs. I’d normally find all of this intrusion off-putting, but actually it’s exhilarating, this temporary community of folk, each person making the most of the day in their own way.
It’s time to commence my return journey. Near Hampstead Heath station I spot a branch of Daunt Books. Approaching it, I perform a double-take as I pass a familiar-looking gentleman who has stopped in the middle of the pavement and is looking down at something in his hands. I stop a little way beyond him and turn to take another look. I’m convinced that the chap in front of me is none other than the Archbishop of Psychogeography himself (though he wouldn’t thank me for calling him that), Iain Sinclair.
I curse myself for not having stopped and engaged him in conversation as I was walking past. An opening gambit in the vein of ‘Hi, are you Iain Sinclair?’ would have been out of the question, but perhaps I could have asked him for directions and been the beneficiary of a suitably arcane response alluding to a mystical alignment of Hampstead street furniture. The moment has passed, so I wait outside Daunt, ready to pursue the next best option.
Sinclair (or doppelgänger) finally sets off and, gratifyingly, heads in the direction that I need to be going myself. It’s a terrific opportunity to study the maestro (if indeed it is he) and his modus operandi. I follow him back along Pond Street, up the path behind St Stephen’s and down Haverstock Hill, always at a discrete distance, as he lopes along.
Several minutes later, he ducks into the front courtyard of a property in Belsize Grove. Has he seen me? I’m overcome by a sense of paranoia and decide to cancel the pursuit and head off towards the place where I’m due to reconvene with my companion.
London is always full of surprises.
I decide that I’m not about to take up a career as a private detective any time soon. Inanimate objects are a far less troublesome form of entertainment.
It’s an overcast, not-overly-warm February morning and I’m setting out to meet a friend for a stroll between two extremely different transport-related locations.
I choose to take the most direct route to our meeting point, which involves a trek along a main road.
Hi-vis-jacketed men in vans fly past on their way to appointments, while the many other, largely single-occupancy vehicles on the road likewise rush towards their next destination. It’s not quite the road to hell, but it’s not far off. The pedestrian is largely conspicuous by his or her absence in this realm of the motorised vehicle.
Still, there’s plenty to observe. Hand car wash operatives go about their business, a group of old folk measure out their remaining years with a 3-iron at the local golf course, the retail park swallows up a sizeable chunk of the local populace and the world in general goes about its weekday business. It’s nice to be amongst, yet detached from, all of this exhausting activity.
My pedestrian inferiority complex rears its exhaust fume-assailed head once again as I approach the car park of Asda Long Eaton and realise that there is no obvious path between where I’m standing – next to a mini-roundabout – and the store itself. A hop over a hedge and through some bushes quickly solves that particular problem and, after making grateful use of the Asda facilities, I settle down on a bench to await the arrival of my walking companion, who appears a few minutes later courtesy of one of the local bus services.
It’s what lies behind the Asda (an abbreviation of the words Asquith and Dairies following the merger of Asquith Supermarkets and Associated Dairies in 1965, fact fans) that concerns us.
We walk down the road that runs to one side of the supermarket and join a path that immediately and remarkably transfers us from town centre to edgeland. A multitude of abandoned pieces of railway infrastructure vie for our attention as we move forward, and before long we reach a footbridge that leads to the other side of the adjacent railway tracks. The views from the footbridge are terrific (for tall people at least) and it’s here that we catch sight of our first port-of-call for the day – Toton Sidings.
In the 1950s, thanks largely to coal traffic, Toton Sidings was the largest railway marshalling yard in Europe (not to mention the third largest in the world). Times change, but although the yard is obviously a shadow of its former self, it’s still an impressive space, with a steady stream of railway-centred activity. Most interestingly, however, Toton Sidings will be the location for the East Midlands Hub station on the Leeds branch of the forthcoming HS2 rail line, which is due to be completed by 2033.
2033! It seems a long time away. By that point, government willing, I shall be on the cusp of retirement. Ah, what fine times they will be. Never mind the golf courses and retail parks. I shall be availing myself of the lovely, sleek HS2 trains on jaunts to London Euston (journey time from East Midlands Hub station 52 minutes), or perhaps Leeds (27) or Birmingham (20).
For now, though, it’s a peaceful scene that lies before us. An occasional freight train clanks and rumbles its way past as we descend from the footbridge, cross the River Erewash (noting the not-inconsiderable number of empty beer cans and sundry other alcohol containers abandoned in the vicinity) and make our way along the eastern perimeter of the sidings. There’s a steep, grassy embankment to our right, and we scramble our way up it, rewarded by a wonderful panoramic view of the Erewash Valley.
Once we’ve drunk our visual fill, we descend from the embankment and join a lane that leads away from the sidings towards Stapleford. More classic edgelands sights are ticked off – a breakers yard, a sewage treatment works – before we emerge onto the road that will lead us into the town centre.
Stapleford had a population of 15,241 at the time of the 2011 census. Everard L Guilford, writing in the 1927 edition of his guide to Nottinghamshire, was not impressed by the place, calling it ‘a very ugly manufacturing village’. It’s not the most affluent of areas, but it’s reasonably inoffensive these days, and, as we walk towards the town centre, there are plenty of people out and about.
We pass a Wetherspoon pub called The Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren. The good Admiral was born in Stapleford in 1753 and lived at Stapleford Hall (demolished in 1935). He served in the Royal Navy in the late 18th and early 19th century (including a stint on HMS Victory in 1779) and seems to have been a popular figure. There is another pub bearing his name (although omitting the ‘Admiral’) at Canning Circus in Nottingham and, a little further along the road here, we enter a small square and encounter a plaque that has been placed in the ground in his memory.
The square itself is properly named the Walter Parker VC Memorial Square, in honour of Lance Corporal Walter Richard Parker, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery in Gallipoli during the First World War. He died in 1936 and is buried locally.
There’s another commemorative plaque that I’m keen to see. This one is affixed to the wall of a former school (now a college) that the person in question attended. Arthur Mee (for it is he) was born in Stapleford in 1885 and the plaque describes him as a ‘Journalist and prolific author.’ The publications with which he is perhaps most associated are The Children’s Encyclopedia, The Children’s Newspaper and The King’s England, the latter a multi-volume series of guidebooks. In the Nottinghamshire volume of The King’s England (1938), under the entry for Stapleford, Mee is, perhaps understandably, somewhat less scathing than Guilford before him, commenting, ‘We come to it with amaze that half a century could bring about such change, for fifty years ago it was a quiet village. We leave it filled with wonder that in this world of change some things endure so long.’
Leaving the town behind, we head for our next destination, Stapleford Hill. I’d climbed it on a recent walk, but on this occasion I’m looking for a historical site on its northwest edge that I hadn’t had time to locate previously.
We pause for a while for refreshments, seating ourselves on a bench at the foot of the hill, admiring the Hemlock Stone behind us and reviewing our progress so far. The improvement in the weather that the forecasters had predicted a few days ago has failed to materialise – it’s still cool and overcast and there’s rain in the air.
Batteries suitably recharged, we commence the climb.
About halfway up, we decide to take slightly different paths. Just in time, I spot a couple of off-road cyclists at the top of the hill, about to commence their breakneck descent along the same path that my friend is following. A shout alerts him to the fact that he’s about to be banjaxed and he steps aside with a couple of seconds to spare.
Shortly afterwards, we reach the top of the hill, and, while we’re appreciating the views, the cyclists re-emerge from the undergrowth. ‘That was quick!’, I shout to one of the pair, who reveals that they’d only actually gone halfway down the hill before stopping, turning around and heading back to the summit.
Leaving this almost Sisyphean activity behind us, we descend the sylvan slopes on the other side of the hill and, when we reach the bottom, start rummaging around in the undergrowth in search of evidence of activities that took place here during the Second World War.
It was an information board I’d read on my previous visit to Stapleford Hill that had alerted me to the fact that the area we’re now standing in had once been used as a practice range by the Home Guard. The unit in question was the 3rd Nottinghamshire Division and they were responsible for defending the Beeston and Stapleford area.
The Home Guard was formed in 1940 – when it seemed that there was a real chance that Germany would invade England – with the aim of holding up any invading force for as long as possible. It was made up of volunteers (of whom there were over a million by the middle of the year) who were otherwise unable to serve in the military – for example, those who were too old or in ‘reserved’ occupations (jobs that were deemed crucial to the success of the war effort).
The Stapleford Hill Woodland Management Plan 2008-2013, produced for Broxtowe Borough Council, supplies the information that the area ‘contains several overgrown hollows which are craters formed when the local Home Guard used this area for hand grenade and mortar practice during World War II’. Sure enough, we’re soon discovering hollows aplenty and trying to summon up images of the quasi-military manoeuvres that were performed here. History beneath our feet.
It’s time to move on once again. After a short distance, a bridge leads us over the railway that connects Nottingham with the Erewash Valley Line and we find ourselves walking alongside the remains of part of the Nottingham Canal.
The Nottingham Canal once ran for 14.7 miles from the River Trent to Langley Mill, but the section from Lenton to Langley Mill was abandoned in 1937. Subsequent development along the former route of the canal means that it can never be restored to its former glory, but, to their credit, in 1977 Broxtowe Borough Council purchased a six mile stretch between Eastwood and Bramcote, with the aim of protecting it. Some sections of the canal (particularly those that are not in water) have reverted to nature to such an extent that it’s not immediately apparent that they once formed part of a waterway.
It’s not long before we come across the Grade II listed Swansea Bridge and, beneath it, a surviving pair of keep gates. As we survey this poignant relic of a less frenetic age, the nearby M1 supplies a discordant soundtrack.
We’re now nearing the end point of our walk. After leaving the canal behind, we skirt some farm buildings before emerging onto Nottingham Road. Turning right, we follow the road for a short distance before turning left onto Waterloo Lane, which leads us to our final destination – Trowell Services.
This is, admittedly, not the most orthodox means of visiting a service station.
Situated between Junctions 25 and 26 of the M1 and opened in 1967, Trowell Services is currently operated by Moto, having previously been owned by Mecca Leisure and Granada. It originally had a Robin Hood theme, the nearby Trowell Hall having functioned as a hostel for employees.
As a driver, should you have noted the ‘No access to motorway’ and ‘Authorised users and lodge guests only’ signs and carried on regardless, vehicle access from Waterloo Road to the services is controlled by automatic bollards – i.e. bollards of the type that retreat unnervingly into the road as you wait to move forward, leaving you with the uneasy feeling that they could re-emerge at any moment, impaling your car as it passes over them. The bollards currently seem to be stuck in ‘lowered’ mode, but, as pedestrians, this doesn’t concern us, and we cautiously make our way towards the main southbound services building, keeping our wits about us in order to avoid being crushed by passing lorries.
It’s late afternoon and, as we approach the main entrance and step inside, it’s obvious that the services are not at their busiest. Several people are dotted around the tables at Costa, but activity at the West Cornwall Pasty Co., Lucky Coin, Fone Bitz, Burger King and even WH Smith is conspicuous by its absence.
Before the walk, I’d spent an entertaining few minutes on the internet reading customer comments about the services at Trowell. Perhaps inevitably, some folk allow themselves to become rather worked up by their experiences before taking aim. A trucker notes, ‘Thanks Trowell for charging £3 for a shower. I am on £7.50 per hour. Truck drivers do a huge amount of hours and live in a box all week for little pay and now we have to live like tramps by not showering. Thanks moto for your support. I will now avoid all your services for food, parking and fuel. I was better treated in Afghanistan than in my own country.‘ Janet, meanwhile, seems to be casting aspersions upon the truckers themselves in no uncertain terms: ‘Please, douse the lorry park with disinfectant… The stench of urine was overwhelming.‘ The franchisees do not escape the wrath of the keyboard warriors either. One less-than-satisfied patron comments, ‘…marks and spencers is a very kind and polite company towards you, but burger king manager, bald head glasses i dont know who he is but he is very rude and desevrs [sic] to be sacked and slapped.‘
Before making a call on where to station ourselves as temporary observers-in-residence, we decide to cross the footbridge to the other side of the motorway. After we’ve climbed the steps up to the bridge, I glance through a window into a staff area and can see a mirror on a wall with a peremptory notice above it that says, ‘Are you a credit to yourself and MOTO?’
After pausing for a while to observe the passing traffic below us, we pass the multifaith room and descend into the more spacious environs of the northbound service area.
Competing for our attention here are Lucky Coin, WH Smith, Burger King, Costa, Greggs and Marks & Spencer Simply Food. I’ve got precisely £1.03 on me and I’m aware that my bank account contains the princely sum of 1p (I do not jest). Reluctant to take up my friend’s suggestion of trying my luck on the slot machines in Lucky Coin, I’m left with somewhat limited options and decide to plump for a carton of Ribena from Greggs – a snip at 99p, the transaction carried out in a predictably perfunctory fashion by the person behind the counter.
We sit down at a suitably discrete table and take in the scene around us.
Middle-aged businessmen and young families predominate amongst those who pass through, but it’s a balding gentleman wearing army fatigues featuring a red and blue flag patch who particularly grabs our attention. He looks mildly agitated. We speculate as to his background.
It occurs to me that this is, in many respects, a frustrating experience. The individuals, couples and families here seem inwardly-focussed, dwelling upon their own concerns. We’ll never know who they are, where they’re from, where they’re going or what their stories are. In a pub, we might strike up a conversation. Here – probably not.
It’s a disconcerting feeling, trying to be a fixed point in this place of transience.
I finish my Ribena and we retrace our steps back out into the gathering dark.
Bramcote Ridge is, perhaps surprisingly, something of a shrinking violet when considered in the context of the urban landscape to the west of Nottingham city centre – largely keeping itself to itself, but occasionally to be spotted peering hesitantly over the buildings of the surrounding area.
I’d previously walked along part of this sandstone ridge almost by accident – unaware at the time that it actually had a name – at the end of a walk along an abandoned section of the Nottingham Canal. I spotted it again recently while poring over my trusty OS Explorer 260 map and decided that the time was right for a proper exploration.
The ridge, surrounded on three sides by housing, is part of a green corridor that connects the City of Nottingham to the open land around the Trowell area, and, as such, is part of an environment that is an invigorating mix of the urban and the rural.
I always like a walk to have an element of the unknown – the undecided upon, if you will – and so, on an chilly, overcast, but gratifyingly dry day, I start out with no particular plan in mind other than that of heading west along the ridge and beyond, until either the light or my legs fail me.
As I join the ridge from Coopers Green, there’s immediately a thrilling contrast between the ordered banality of the housing estate and the less predictable scene that I’m heading towards. As I make my way up the muddy incline at the end of the cul-de-sac, I’m rewarded by an impressive view over the vicinity before I vanish into the undergrowth.
Though part of this relatively untamed area is privately owned (the other parts – the Alexandrina Plantation Local Nature Reserve and Bramcote Ridge Open Space Local Nature Reserve, to give them their fancy names, being owned by Broxtowe Borough Council), the whole space seems to be accessible, and I’m able to wander freely through the woodland, grassland and scrub.
Deciding against consulting a map for the time being, I penetrate further into this strangely detached, elevated-yet-hidden liminal space, carefully negotiating the winding paths, low-lying branches, steep slopes and rock outcrops. There are occasional, enticing views to the north through the trees, but for much of the time there’s only the distant sound of traffic to remind me that there’s urban sprawl on both sides of the ridge.
The Robin Hood Way – a long-distance footpath between Nottingham and Edwinstowe, originally planned to link together places in Nottinghamshire that have a connection to the legend of Robin Hood, but subsequently obtaining a somewhat broader remit – runs through here. Contemplating the idea of successfully navigating a path over 100 miles long, I briefly consider the potential benefits of actually learning how to properly use a map and compass, before deciding that it would probably make me feel a little like a lab rat negotiating a particularly lengthy maze.
During my time on the ridge, humanity is largely conspicuous by its absence, though I do encounter two or three dog-walkers, as well as several youths standing behind some bushes, furtively doing whatever furtive things it is that youths do behind bushes these days.
The sudden appearance of a busy road jolts me out of my arcadian musings, and a quick check of my Nottingham A-Z confirms that my navigational instincts are broadly on the money and that I’m still heading in the right direction.
Taking the time of day into account, Stapleford Hill presents itself as a likely final destination, but I’ve little idea what lies between there and the road that I now find myself on. The A-Z shows only white space and I haven’t brought an OS map with me.
I cross the road and am immediately distracted by an abandoned building, a well-preserved sign advertising a golf course, a gap in some fencing (leading up to another section of high ground) and a sign next to the gap stating ‘WARNING TO PUBLIC – PRIVATE PROPERTY – TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED’. The official footpath runs a little further off to the right, to the side of the elevated area in front of me that’s seemingly a continuation of the ridge, but, well, it doesn’t seem right to skirt the high ground, so I nip through the gap in the fencing and begin to climb the slope behind it.
Part-way up the incline, the sensible part of my brain finally kicks in and asks me how exactly I’m going to explain myself to any golfers that I might find at the top. However, since, happily, I’m of the opinion that way too much land is given over to golf courses (it was estimated in 2013 to be around 2% of the country), any scruples are quickly overcome, and I push for the summit.
Cresting the brow of the hill, I’m greeted by the sight of an overgrown open space that is extremely unlikely to be hosting any kind of formal recreational activity anytime soon. There’s definitely something curious about the space, though, and it’s not long before I notice a weathered sign behind some branches that gives the game away, as it were – indicating the name of one of the former holes, along with its length.
The views over the surrounding area are the finest I’ve experienced so far today and, although it still takes a stretch of the imagination to envisage the scene before me as a golf course, the discovery of two bunkers and further sign leave me in no doubt as to where I am.
The lost world that I’ve inadvertently stumbled upon is, it transpires, the remains of Bramcote Hills Golf Course. Opened in 1978, the course survived until 2008 before closing and consigning the site to an uncertain future. A planning application for a retirement village was submitted and rejected, but an appeal is currently under consideration. It would be a great shame to see this wonderful route between city and country blocked off by development.
After wandering around for a while, energy increasingly sapped by the hummocks of grass underfoot, I reach the western end of the former course and begin to suspect that the eastern point of entry may, in fact, be the only way in and out. Fortunately, one or more generous individuals have flattened a nearby fence, which, together with a gap in the undergrowth, enables me to find my way back out onto the adjacent public footpath.
At this point, I realise that a plan would be good, in order to avoid the now distinct possibility of finding myself at the top of Stapleford Hill in the dark. Another brief check of the A-Z shows that I’m on Moor Lane, but it’s not clear what the best way forward is, so I decide to ask an approaching elderly couple for their advice.
They’re a friendly pair – the chap bearing more than a passing resemblance to Compo from Last of the Summer Wine – and I wait patiently while they enthusiastically debate the various possibilities. Agreement having been reached, Compo points me in the right direction and states that I need to look for a ‘Venetian crossing’. I pause, wanting to ask exactly what a Venetian crossing is, but the moment passes, the conversation moves on, and it’s soon time to set off again. I thank the couple for their help.
I never do discover what a Venetian crossing is.
As I walk in the recommended direction, I see a cyclist slowly descending the incline in front of me towards a steel barrier of the type that is designed to limit access to a path to anyone other than pedestrians and cyclists. Upon reaching the barrier, the cyclist – a gentleman of advancing years – is rather put out to discover that it arrests his forward momentum, bringing him to a sudden and resounding halt. I’m somewhat puzzled as to how this can be, given that his shoulders and handlebars are both within the spatial limits. With no little difficulty, he manages to free himself and continue his stately progress down the hill. As I glance back after he passes me, I realise that he has a spare bike wheel strapped to his back.
I eventually find a suitable route more by luck than judgement – a footpath that leads me to Moor Farm Inn Lane. Emerging onto the lane, I notice a security gate and a sign headed ‘Brethren’s Meeting Room’. The full name of the institution responsible for the sign is The Plymouth Brethren Christian Church. The Plymouth Brethren are described by Wikipedia as ‘a conservative, low church, nonconformist, Evangelical Christian movement’. I look elsewhere online to try to find out a little more about the practical implications of their religion, such as the belief (of some elements of the group at least) that it is not appropriate to eat with non-Brethren, but the information seems to differ depending on the source. It would be nice to bump into an adherent, but there’s no-one around.
Moor Farm Inn Lane brings me out onto Coventry Lane and the final approach to the end point of my walk. I’ve decided by this stage to include two further stop-offs on my itinerary – the site of Bramcote Hills House and the Hemlock Stone – but time is now tight and I have to resist the temptation of a detour into Bramcote Crematorium, making a mental note to visit it on a future occasion (through preferably not as a client – cryogenic freezing and subsequent reanimation being the preferred option, with ash-scattering on the North Yorkshire coast trailing in second place).
The Georgian Bramcote Hills House, in Bramcote Hills Park, which I arrive at next, was built in 1805 and had a number of different owners, tenants and uses before being demolished in 1966. The site of the house can be seen, and other elements of the estate infrastructure are still in evidence, but the most affecting visual reference to the past in the park is the Holocaust memorial inside the Walled Garden.
From the Walled Garden, I can see across the road to my next destination, the Hemlock Stone, an isolated sandstone outcrop towards the foot of Stapleford Hill. The officially accepted theory for the presence of the Hemlock Stone is that it is a quarrying remnant, while the most exotic explanation is probably the one that has the devil throwing it here from Castleton (Treak Cliff Cavern supposedly being one of the entrances to hell), having aimed it at Lenton Priory and missed by several miles. Perhaps the Plymouth Brethren should install some sort of early warning system.
I leave the park and, having negotiated a pedestrian crossing, glance back across the road and see Compo, minus his partner, walking in the opposite direction. We raise our hands to each other, comrades of the footpath.
The light is beginning to fade now, so I make a cursory inspection of the Hemlock Stone (or, at least, as much of an inspection as can be made given that its base is surrounded by a fence), before setting off up the hill, which I appear to have all to myself, notwithstanding the fact that this is a designated off track cycling area and a deranged BMX rider could, in theory, appear from around a corner at any given moment.
The climb isn’t a particularly arduous one and before long I’m at the summit. It’s a magnificent spot, with spectacular views, and I pause for some time to take in my surroundings. I’m sure that I can hear a woodpecker, but, as I have a largely untrained ear when it comes to the identification of wildlife, it seems equally plausible that the sound is coming from a piece of heavy machinery in the middle-distance. Every time I move towards a certain set of trees, however, the noise stops, so, unless I’m in the vicinity of a shy and retiring construction worker with particularly good visual awareness, the avian explanation appears to be the correct one.
The summit of Stapleford Hill is also home to a trig point. Trig points were erected by the Ordnance Survey from April 1936 onwards as part of a surveying project that resulted in the OS maps of Great Britain that we use today. Around 6,000 trig points remain out of the original total of approximately 6,500, but they have been superseded by more modern technologies.
It was an Ordnance Survey map that helped to inspire this walk, so the trig point seems a fine place at which to bring it to a close.
The aim of today’s walk (not that a walk always has to have an aim) was to find a statue of D H Lawrence that I’d read was located somewhere on University Park – the main campus of the University of Nottingham.
I’ve walked through University Park on many occasions over the years, either as an end in itself or en route to somewhere else. The great thing about it is that the university encourages the general public to visit the grounds, which means that inquisitive folk like myself can wander around in its wonderful parkland setting to our hearts’ content without being bothered by security. The size and diversity of the campus is such that I’m still making new discoveries even after all this time.
Terry Fry’s excellent Nottingham Plaques and Statues, published in 1999, indicates that the Lawrence statue is located ‘…outside the Education Building’. However, a little extra research reveals that the School of Education has subsequently relocated and that I now need to look for the Law and Social Sciences Building.
It’s an overcast day of intermittent mild drizzle, so, donning a pair of trainers instead of walking boots, and eschewing the umbrella, I step outside, encouraged by the fact that the weather seems much milder than in recent days.
Walking towards the entrance to the university, I glance at a post box with the initials GR on it. I instinctively imagine that such post boxes are much older than they actually are – George V’s reign was between 1910 and 1936 – but of course that still makes some of these boxes over 100 years old, which is quite something. For those of us who have grown up with Elizabeth II as our monarch, the idea of someone else being in the same role is a strange one indeed. I resolve to pay more attention to post boxes, to see if I can spot any bearing the royal cyphers of Queen Victoria (1853-1901), Edward VII (1901-1910), Edward VIII (20 January 1936 to 11 December 1936 – perhaps surprisingly, there were still 271 boxes of various types made during his short reign) or George VI (1936-1952).
It’s the first day of the Spring Term tomorrow and the roads and footpaths are busy with returning students and their parents. After a few minutes I locate the Law and Social Sciences Building, but it’s not immediately evident where exactly the statue is. I end up circumnavigating virtually the entire building (which does result in the added bonus of a visit to the Millennium Garden), before finally discovering Mr Lawrence next to the south entrance.
The statue is a terrific piece of art which perhaps deserves a more prominent location, given the global stature and local relevance of its subject. A standing, serious-looking Lawrence, barefoot, is proffering a gentian flower – the reference being to one of his later poems, Bavarian Gentians. It’s a splendid sculpture, though the functional plinth and quotidian surroundings don’t do it any favours.
The statue was sculpted by Diana Thomson FRBS (Fellow of the Royal Society of British Sculptors). Photographs and details of some of her impressive work, including two other Lawrence pieces (at least one of which is also in Nottingham) can be seen at http://www.dianathomsonsculptor.co.uk/. The photograph of the university statue on that page seems to indicate that it was previously in a different location.
While I’m taking photographs of the statue, I hear someone shout ‘who’s that man?’ In a paranoid moment, I wonder if they mean me, but it’s actually one of a group of joggers, another one of whom is despatched (jogging, naturally) to have a look at the plinth to see who exactly the statue is a representation of. ‘It’s Lawrence’, bellows the bloke, barely missing a beat before jogging back towards his fellow runners.
Lawrence the person seems to have had a difficult relationship with the university. He studied at its predecessor, University College Nottingham, from 1906 to 1908, and was, according to the D H Lawrence Research Centre, ‘largely disillusioned by his experience of academic life‘. Years later, he wrote a poem called Nottingham’s New University, which begins:
‘In Nottingham, that dismal town
where I went to school and college,
they’ve built a new university
for a new dispensation of knowledge
Built it most grand and cakeily
out of the noble loot
derived from shrewd cash chemistry
by good Sir Jesse Boot‘
The poem continues in a similar vein for another five stanzas. Culture, apparently, ‘has her roots in the deep dung of cash‘, while lore (knowledge) ‘is a last offshoot of Boots‘. What Lawrence would have made of the new GlaxoSmithKline building on the Jubilee Campus doesn’t bear thinking about.
Perhaps someone, somewhere at the university has a sense of humour, because, in its current location, Lawrence’s statue faces almost directly towards the grand and cakey Trent Building that he was no doubt addressing at least some of his apparent opprobrium towards.
I decide to take a circuitous path home and walk alongside the Downs, a grassy hillside with sweeping views to the north, before passing by the ‘eco-friendly’ Orchard Hotel – opened in 2012 to complement the East Midlands Conference Centre and something of an acquired taste, architecturally speaking. It would be far more at home on the university’s nearby Jubilee Campus.
It’s as I make my way past the new £40m David Ross Sports Village (‘supported by a significant commitment from Nottingham alumnus and Carphone Warehouse founder David Ross‘), with its Club House Cafe (‘Recharge in Comfort‘), that I start to regret my choice of footwear. Off the beaten track (which is where I invariably end up), it’s become quite muddy, and the combination of mud and sloping ground very nearly results in a spectacular dive into the quagmire.
Thankfully, I manage to remain upright, and it’s not long before I pass through a gate and emerge from the enchanted environment of the university out onto the main road, turning back towards home.