Robson on… Avian Activity

Since the start of lockdown I have been walking for an hour, around sunset, almost every day. This is great time of day to watch wildlife and the unseasonably mild spring has made it a daily delight. Animals are of course, entirely unaware that the world is a bit more unsettled than usual just now. I find that somehow reassuring. In these uncertain times a feeling of 'kinship' with non-human earthlings can help, even if the feeling is not mutual.

Some of those earthlings, the avian ones, are quite easy to see. Birds often gather together as this slightly improves their odds if we, or any other animals, decide to hunt them. If you're missing crowds go and watch gathered water-fowl, pigeons, gulls, sparrows and crows all go about their work. More solitary are blackbirds, grebes, jays, woodpeckers, robins, wrens and herons, the latter can often be seen on the canal. 

I have seen a falcon, a Peregrine I think, hover over it's prey in one of the less built-up suburbs. Birds of prey are still rare in cities but can be seen quite often in the edge-lands, where the distinction between urban and countryside blur. Watching one hunt is a mesmerising.

Ted Hughes brilliantly describes a hunting hawk in the first poem of his first collection, with the same title, The Hawk in the Rain.

… but the hawk

Effortlessly at height hangs his still eye.
His wings hold all creation in a weightless quiet,
Steady as a hallucination in the streaming air.

I encourage you to read Hughes's bird poems, he usually writes with a directness that is accessible and conjures tangible images of many different creatures. 

Less direct is Hughes's collection Crow which tells tales of the mythic trickster crow of many cultures. Look for the deep iridescent blue on the backs of crows and ravens. You can spend the rest of the day trying to decide if it was indeed blue or a colour as yet unknown to science. Watching crows along the canal squabbling over a discarded chicken takeaway is one of natures true wonders.

Waterfowl, ducks, geese, swans and moorhens, seem to like a good old-fashioned punch up at dusk so it's a good time to observe them. There is no doubt a good evolutionary reason for this boisterousness but, to my unknowledgeable eye, they appear to simply enjoy a row. They settle down again as night creeps in.

Gulls are ubiquitous in town and country and, of course, by the sea. That said you can leave the 'sea' part out of their name, most gulls have never seen the it and, apparently, they think it's a myth. Read Landfill by Tim Dee, it's a lovely look into their lives and how those lives are linked to ours. Wood pigeons and their tough inner city cousins, with their often mangled feet, make interesting viewing. When startled, you may have noticed, pigeons 'batter' almost straight upward to evade a threat. This is thought to be because they used to live on mainly on rocky ground in the 'olden days' and this was a way of evading lizards and wild cats that stalked that terrain. 

In Birmingham there is a growing population of starlings in the city centre. Their seemingly anarchic ways and punk feather-styles make them a good lunchtime distraction.

Farther off red kites glide over Wycombe and the Chiltern Hills and can be seen easily from the train to London. Kites are often a bit scraggy looking but are still majestic and they are slowly moving to new grounds so keep your eyes to the skies. 

I haven't even mentioned the dawn chorus! Get up really early and listen.

During the current time we, perhaps, feel less connected to our fellow humans. We might also be less at the behest of our usual daily timetable. Take advantage of that time, if you can, and connect with the feathered fauna that live near you. Feel part of something, no matter how passively, and go for a walk.

Partly inspired by our Fiona's piece on great tits.


Resources for Vicarious Walking

Here's another selection of walking-related media to help you through this time of going nowhere.


Eve Phillips and Roxie Collins are co-hosts of Corporeal, a themed music show on Brum Radio. In a different lifetime Eve came on our Full Moon Walk and she told us about the show and in particular an episode they had done on the theme of… yes, walking. Join Eve, Roxie and special guest Ben Waddington of Still Walking Festival for two hours of songs and conversation about walking.

Long ago a path was created by the passage of feet tramping through endless forests. Gradually that path became a track, and the track became a road. It connected the White Cliffs of Dover to the Druid graves of the Welsh island of Anglesey, across a land that was first called Albion then Britain, Mercia, and eventually England and Wales.

Long ago Pete lent me his copy of Watling Street by John Higgs. The book charts Higgs's journey along this ancient route (now variously known as the A2, the A5 and the M6 Toll) in search of "the hidden history that makes us who we are today". I never got round to reading it but luckily they made a podcast. In episode one Higgs and author David Bramwell travel to Kent to explore the themes of pilgrimage and the conflict between spiritual and political powers.


In response to the pandemic our friends at Video Strolls have compiled a COVID playlist on YouTube. "Being in lockdown affects everything, but artists and film makers are still making journeys of one sort or another." Join a voyage around a bedroom, become a back garden archaeologist and witness a herd of goats reclaiming a Welsh town. I found it particularly poignant joining John Rogers on his last walk before lockdown.

In a similar vein has shared a selection of videos from all over the world of people simply going for a walk around their city (pre-lockdown). The videos are mostly unedited and without music or narration, just ambient city sounds. Very therapeutic.

I'm going to take this opportunity for a bit of shameless self-promotion and direct you to the latest video I've uploaded to my YouTube channel Footnotes. I've been re-uploading my old stuff until I have something new to share and this one is a tour of some of Digbeth's ghost signs and typographical curiosities with Ben Waddington (yes, him again) from 2014.


The Liminal Residency is "an alternative writers' retreat which takes place in a range of neglected and unusual spaces, from service stations to theme parks to the terminals of international airports." Their latest blog post is an evocative write-up of a walk around Leith on lockdown.

A suitcase lies open in a door, bedding and plastic cups and clothing scattered in a pall around it. In another doorway a meal kit delivery has been plundered, ripped open, the contents disgorged. Signs are everywhere. They adorn shutters, are taped to boards. In one case a notice of closure is scrawled in pen directly onto a wall.

Read the full piece here and check out some of their other posts which include a tour of Alton Towers' hidden relics and an ode to New Street Signal Box.

Stay safe and if you have any recommendations of your own get in touch!


Robson on… Restorative Strolling

In two previous pieces I wrote about walking alone and in company. It feels remiss to write about walking at the moment and not properly acknowledge the current situation and how walking can help. 

Our current choice of walking companions or lack there of, is somewhat imposed upon us but walking can still provide nourishment. As you are probably aware, with all the current extra anxiety and uncertainty in the world it is important to give our brains a chance to reset, recalibrate, relax. We will all be dealing with lockdown in our own ways but below is a short list of simple 'walk-experiments' that might help, particularly if you are struggling with isolation, anxiety or just good old fashioned boredom.

First up, go for a walk. You'll feel better afterwards.  

Go for a walk and try counting your steps. Don't use fitbit (other pedometers are available), or if you do, count yourself as well and compare the totals. Counting your steps involves you directly in the act of walking. By the end of lockdown know exactly how many steps each street around you home is, how many steps it is to the shops or the pub (this might prove useful when it reopens). These distances will be in your very own measurement, as it will be your paces and no one else's.

Go for a walk and look for angles, curves, straight lines in the buildings or natural environment around you home. You will almost certainly find something you had never seen before. You might find patterns in the lintels on a particular street, there might be a particular curve to a section of river or path that catches your eye.

Go for a walk at the same time each day. If you are working from home, or do not currently have work to go to, this will help create a routine. If you limit your walk to one hour, as you should, you won't get too cold or too wet at this time of year and you'll always be quite close to your house should a spring storm provide too much of a soaking. Note what changes, the light, the flora, the fauna, the atmosphere, the pavement.

Go for walk at different times each day. Walk an hour at each hour of the day for 24 days. For example, day one, walk from 0700 to 0800, day two, walk from 0800 to 0900 and so on. The 0200 to 0300 walk on this one is a challenge but a reward too.

In Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, a long poem on the making of poetry, Wallace Stevens considers the act of walking and the finding of a version of 'truth', he writes,

… Perhaps

The truth depends on a walk around a lake,

A composing as the body tires,

Your walks do not have to help you compose lines of poetry, or reveal a cosmic truth of the universe, but they might reveal an interesting truth about your neighbourhood, your street, your local park. They might reveal something about a part of your area that you have not been aware of before. Think of your own walk-experiments too (if you have children, once they come round to the idea, they are good thinking of new walking ideas). 

So, try to give yourself some time to consider the outside and, most importantly of all, go for a walk.



Robson on… Sociable Strolling

I recently wrote regarding my preference, and indeed need, for solitary walks over hill and vale.

Having said that in recent years I have come to enjoy some of the pleasures of walking with a companion or companions. I have gained accomplices for both local walks and those taken farther abroad. 

A conversation at work revealed a colleague who likes to do hill, moor and mountain walking. So I have spent the last two or three years, exploring the Peak District, Snowdonia, the Brecon Beacons and the Welsh Marches with an able collaborator. Those walks have become important and are missed.

More recently and more locally I was introduced to a someone through a mutual friend with an interest in walking in all its forms. Before all this 'bother', said friend and I would walk about once a month from the car park of the British Oak pub, in fashionable Stirchley. The walks thus far have been to 'local' places that caught our attention. This has included an angry wall in Highbury Park, a couple of moated sites from the Civil War, some entirely invisible burnt mounds in Woodlands Park and following Icknield Street, the Roman road built around 2000 years ago. When conditions allow we'll be walking to, or from, Birminghams omphalos in Duddeston, the concrete fish at Fox Hollies and, at some point, the length of one of Birminghams rivers. As poet Roy Fisher noted of rivers of Birmingham, there are 'Two. More or Less.'

Both these types of affable regular walking put me in mind of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in which Robert Walton, the 'narrator', writes to his sister Margaret of his adventures in Arkhangelsk, northern Russia – 

But I have one want which I have never yet been able to satisfy, and the absence of the object of which I now feel as a most severe evil, I have no friend, Margaret: when I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate my joy; if I am assailed by disappointment, no one will endeavour to sustain me in dejection. 

Walton has secured the services of dependable sailors for his trip but craves some one he knows to share his adventure. Some one with whom to look at the sun setting over the ice fields and exchange a glance of mutual recognition.

I read Frankenstein many years ago and have forgotten most of it but, for all my preference for solo wanderings, this section always resonated with me. The acknowledgement that, sometimes, the view is somehow 'more' when shared. 

Lastly, all these words about walking are making my feet itch. I will be out this evening for my hour a day, letting my feet lead the way. So, if you can, get out of the house and go for a walk. If you're isolating with others sometimes it is OK for them come with you. Share the experience, make an effort take joy from a walk with a comrade.

To be clear, I still prefer walking alone but now it would be a much closer contest!



Robson on… Solitary Strolling

I like to walk alone. It's my preferred 'method' for walking. Either from the front door or, before lockdown, farther afield. I like to cover the miles and this is easier done alone. Companions can be distracting. Add just one like-minded wanderer to the mix and mph drops by around 25%. If that like minded wanderer is interesting and enlightening I find I use up most of my limited brain-power on conversation, leaving very little left for the walking, looking, seeing (slightly different from looking) and thinking. 

There's a real sense of adventure, no matter how small, in going it alone. The beguilingly big hill, the unfamiliar sector of suburbia, the mosaic of moorland, the wild wood all create a sense of completion when you open the front door at journey's end. The feeling of 'I've done that' is valuable to me. To steal a word often used by the excellent John Rogers, a really great local-explorer, the walks I take are 'restorative'. 

There is a contemplation, a sense of wonder and oneness to solitary walking that I don't get in the company of others. I have find a comforting insignificance in sitting alone on a hillside watching the day wheel by.  

To quote some oft used lines from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage by Lord Byron – 

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,

Like young Harold it is not that I do not like my fellow humans, some of them are quite pleasant, it's just that I can enjoy the world with out them. In fact it's more acute than that, sometimes I need to enjoy the world without them. 

This is not unique to me, of course. Most of us at some point will desire solitude of one sort or another. Perhaps it is more important now when solitude, or at least a lack of socialising, is a necessity. Some of us will be holed up with loved ones or house mates who we might not be used to spending so much time with. That personal space, a chance to turn off and on again, is important so take it if you get the chance. (In case you were wondering it's entirely acceptable to say to your fellow lockdown-ees 'I am going for my daily walk and no, you can't come.')

I prefer to walk alone. I encourage you to do the same. 


Walk Reports

A Walk Around the Block

Today at 2pm I "joined" Blake Morris and The Loiterers Resistance Movement for a remote but synchronised Sunday stroll. Every first Sunday of the month the Manchester based LRM, lead by Morag Rose get together to walk creatively and engage critically with the city. Their walks are open to everyone but in light of the lockdown they're having to be even more creative: can collective walking be compatible with social distancing? Yes.

This month's solution was to team up with Northampton based walking artist Blake Morris whose 52 Scores project fits the brief perfectly:

Every day I am picking a piece of scrap paper to add to a weekly walking collage. After 7 additions the collage will form a walking score, i.e. instructions for walking. Each score will be finished on Friday, made public Saturday, and walked on Sunday.

At 2pm BST Sunday 5th April Morag Rose will be at home in Manchester and will begin a walk guided by the score from her home, while I do the same in Northampton. We invite you to join us wherever you are.

I took up this invitation from my home in Birmingham and got myself a copy of the score from Blake's website:

At the agreed time I stepped outside and gave myself an hour to complete a circuit of my chosen block. I stayed much closer to my house than on my usual state-sanctioned daily strolls and I walked at a much slower pace meaning I was able to really tune in to my immediate environment while contemplating the cryptic lines of Blake's score.

I set myself the challenge of taking a photo for each line of the score and here are the results:

"A Walk Around the Block"
"I get my inspiration from the streets."
"Merrie England"
"Solitary Walkers"
"recasting Romantic walking practices"
"to the agitation and unrest of our times"
"a movement into an unknowable future"
"I'm more of a street fighter than a Roman scholar"

Thanks to Morag Rose and Blake Morris for this opportunity to walk together alone. I'm sure there will be more to come.


Walking in Lockdown

In this time of lockdown many of us will be doing a lot of our walking vicariously through books, films, podcasts etc. so we thought we'd offer some suggestions for ambulatory entertainment to help scratch the walking itch.

First up is the new film by "wandering artist" Andrew Kötting, The Whalebone Box, released today on MUBI.

Synopsis: Some time ago, a whalebone box that was found washed up on a remote beach was given to writer Iain Sinclair. Once touched the box can change lives. In 2018 filmmaker Andrew Kötting, photographer Anonymous Bosch and Sinclair take the box on a reverse pilgrimage from London back to the Isle of Harris.

I haven't watched it yet but it's Andrew Kötting so you can't really go wrong. Watch it here and check out the other Kötting titles available while you're at it.

A fellow Walkspacer tipped me off about this episode of the Weird Studies podcast Green Mountains Are Always Walking. Hosts JF and Phil exchange ideas about the weirdness of walking in a conversation that meanders between zen monks, novelists, Jesuits and more. Again I must confess I haven't got round to listening myself yet but that's what weekends are for.

As for actual physical walking you can do yourself (currently limited to 1 hour a day) we direct you to the words of Phil Smith over at Triarchy Press for some inspiration. Phil's piece Walking in a Time of Virus suggests some ways we might make the most of our daily state-sanctioned strolls.

"Part of what needs to be broken here is the idea that natural beauty or history is exclusively (or even more intensely) present in special sites, usually with big car parks and information boards. Every street you walk down is a treasure of geology and materials, each window is a museum of symbols, every tree is a drama of buds, enkissings, wounds and blossoming. For once, many of us have the time to teach ourselves about these things."

That'll do for now. If you have any recommendations of your own get in touch!

Stay safe.