Head East - along the Wyke
There was unfinished business. Writing up the derive reports, looking at them as a textural map there was a gaping great hole. We hadn't gone east. Early on, subconsciously, we'd drawn a line at the eastern edge of the Rye and never ventured beyond it, almost like vampires repelled from a gauntlet of garlic. During the Significant Sites event John Langley had told us of fresh water springs in Bowden Lane. By the parameters we'd set down we were obliged to checked it out, report back to the hub by videophone. But the descent from Keep Hill Wood was our 13th mile that day of Mediterranean heat and even Nick with his passion for water courses couldn't be tempted away from the finish line.
The opportunity finally presented itself. We were invited to speak to the Fine Art and Spatial Design students at BCUC about the project. We had a good turn out, the buzz in the studios overlooking the Newlands carve up was positive as we covered our steps from Debord and Keiller through to the mobile phone authored perambulation of the town's nodules of energy.
I quickly photographed the Dog Stone outside the Guild Hall. "You're taking a picture of that? You're sick man." Two spikey-haired Asian lads give me their views on importance of neolithic monuments. I then found its sister stone on the north wall of the parish church, the last remnants of what was most likely a stone circle built at the confluence of two sacred tracts of water.
The route would take in other points thus far uncharted in the project. The first was the house where Ivor Gurney had lodged whilst organist at Christ Church. We'd paid due homage to the home of the Chapman family in the Greenway that has a plaque to commemorate Gurney's presence there at the family piano, but what about the house where'd he'd actually boarded in the town in the years 1919-20.
I turn into Queens Road from London Road, past the Shrublands Community Mental Heath Hospital; too late for Gurney who was committed to an asylum in his native Gloucestershire in 1922 and died in the City of London Mental Hospital in 1937. No.51 Queens Road is far less distinguished from the Chapman house. A bog standard turn of the century semi, newly painted white, double-glazed and long garden running down to the railway lines. The street is largely taken up with car workshops and the Gurney lodgings abut a busy tyre and exhaust centre. The street in general is a place in need of a lift, some of the gardens haven't been touched since Gurney's day but when he set out for his frequent walks in the hills cottages such as Nettle Villas 1901 would have been house-proud new. Through the houses opposite no.51 I catch the view that Gurney must have been thinking of when he wrote of the "Macbeth-like wood" beyond Keep Hill that he would use as his inspiration for a piece of music. The manscript for his Preludes in D Flat is dated "High Wycombe 1919", the music of Keep Hill.
My next reference point is just around the corner in distance and about 25 years in the histography of the town. Writer and poet BS Johnson spent some of his formative years in Wycombe as an evacuee, something he wrote extensively about in his novel Trawl.
Crossing the London Road at the cricket ground is a heart-in-the-mouth experience, the traffic constant, the noise deafening and mind-scrambling. Once into Bassetsbury Lane tranquillity descends. It has a charm and gentility at odds with the proletarian cottages of the other side of the London Road. At the end is the Old Mill Cottage, the country seat of the Mitfords. This is another of John Langley’s tips, it hadn’t cropped up in any of the conventional histories. This is where the family retreated to bring up the famous sisters when they fell on hard times. It was from here that Diana went off to marry Oswald Mosely, and from where Unity joined the British Union of Fascists and flirted with Hitler. Diana and Unity were such dedicated Nazis that they used to sneak up to the Black Shirt Camp at Winchbottom Farm and try to recruit the townsfolk to the Fascist cause. The stream runs through the cottage grounds oblivious, peaceful and it’s here that I pick it up resolved to follow it back to Wooburn.
John Langley’s other tip was a spring somewhere near the sewage works which I’d vaguely marked in my Red Book. I turn into Bowden Lane and three geese in the field on the corner honk wildly. There at the end is the spring near a disused railway bridge bubbling up from the river bed spreading ripples out across the pond. It’s a minor oasis, a firm rebut to the image of Wycombe as a "depressing shit-hole", that some people have tagged it.
The footpath leads under the ivy-covered railway bridge and directly under the sewage pipe that emerges from a mud bank and continues supported through the air. It’s a scene that would make the heart of Deep Topographer Nick Papadimitriou miss a beat, a man dedicated to the art of tracing underground water courses, the overland revelation would be a Tutankhamun of discovery. During the 'significant sites' walk Nick pondered upon an manhole cover and delivered his theory on the importance of studying sewage systems.:
"I believe that sewers are like the civic correspondence to the unconscious. It's that which we deny which runs under the everyday surface. We shop in places like Top Shop but in fact we're terribly dependent on systems that deal with that which comes out of our body after we consume, which we deny, which we don't want to engage with".
The foliage clears and the London Road comes into view. A huge new Currys superstore is dumped on the roadside like a garrison fort; the eastern outpost of the mixed-use retail driven scheme taking shape in the town centre. The cleared land takes on an ominous look of future development.
Mallards splash in the water. For how long?
The chainlink fence is decorated with variations on DANGER, KEEP OUT, NO UNAUTHORISED PERSONNEL. It' a deluge of negativity. The signage comes in different sizes, fonts, colours, layouts, a not insignificant feat of design. It's as if there is mysterious workshop somewhere staffed by semiologists dreaming up new ways of expressing the idea of prohibition.
Mistletoe grows in great dark clumps in the tree-tops. Mistletoe was revered by pagans for its healing and aphrodisiac qualities. A scared plant growing on the banks of what Druid, Chris C Parks, calls The Sacred Wye.
Dead trees, overgrown gardens, rusting corrugated iron workshops with smashed windows. This section is apocalyptic.
I’m pushed away from the river as the fencing closes in around me. I find myself channelled through a portacabin encampment, enemy barracks. I eventually emerge into a dusty road, fortress-like newbuild flats and retail. Blue and silver neon lights of Fitness First and Comet. Workers in fluro jackets on hydraulic platforms, plant machinery buzzing past. The flags of St James Homes fly like a victorious conquering army.
Thames Water are diversifying from the sewage business into the world of the "retail warehouse development." In league with St James Homes they’re cashing in on the Project Phoenix/ Eden scheme, a wave of redevelopment carried downstream as once the effluent flowed down from the privies of the Newlands slums.
A statement by St. James claims that "Project Phoenix will put High Wycombe on the map as one of the leading M40 corridor towns." These are guys that think the status of "dormitory suburb" is something to aspire to.
Wycombe was once heralded as the centre of the world's chair industry, "Chairopolis', they called it. It's the town that helped give the world the English translation of the bible; suckled the English Civil War; started the first Sunday School; Baron Wycombe, as Prime Minister, made peace with the newly independent American colonies; it produced the Windsor chair and the first flatpacks; sent puritans off on the Mayflower; and let us not forget the delicious synth-pop of Howard Jones.
The sewage works will be reborn as a "village oasis" located in "a town on the rise with huge retail and leisure advancements commencing in the near future". It's a further denial of Nick's hypothesis, the sewers moved to create more space to consume.
The bleak weather is perfect for this glimpse of the End.
I escape across a patch of wasteland where an electricity sub-station buzzes and there are more warnings of impending death. I end up lost in some allotments, disorientated by angled rows of runner-bean canes. Somebody has used a road sign for the A404 to Amersham to prop up the side of their compost heap.
Our neighbour in Wye Road used to cycle up to these allotments to tend his patch, as did my Nan's last husband Sid. He'd ended up in Wycombe when he was looking for work, cycled up in the morning from Gloucester, got himself a job in one of the numerous factories, and was back home in Gloucester in time for tea. He'd have been a contemporary of Gurney, but Gurney used to make the journey from Gloucester to Wycombe on foot.
It's through a block of old people's flats that I come out onto Kingsmead and from where I'll be able to follow the river pretty much all the way on the homeward stretch. The Mead is a vast bleak muddy patch of football and rugger pitches. The view along the river bank is backs of houses and gardens. Crumbling sheds, new conservatories, half-built extensions, lawn mowers, brightly-lit lounges. A slideshow of a kind of Englishness.It's freezing. There's just me and the dog walkers. Stud marks in the mud. The sound of the turbo trains on the Marylebone line. Sirens.
Mum used to clean houses along here. I'd go with her and fall asleep on the sofa.
It's dusk as I pass Loudwater Church, where Mum and Dad got married and where just a few months ago we bade farewell to Aunty Carrol and I saw her smiling from the alter as the priest tried to summarise her life without alluding to her sexuality.
The river cuts under the road and through a Council estate. Dad tells me that at this point the river divided the pitches of Loudwater football and cricket clubs. Soon it disappears again and so I'm forced out onto Boundary Road. The smell of Bakerlite is still here emanating from Railko plastic works. A smell I'll always associate with walking this way with Mum to the doctor's surgery.
Ford's blotting paper Mill is gone. Mum worked nights in the lab at one point. The old mill house is all that remains, now occupied by a firm of accountants and a communications company. I nose around the grounds looking for the path of the river, aware of a vague sense of transgression which triggers a memory of rafting the small weir here on rubber tyres with Whiffy Smith and the gang and being chased away by security.
Now I'm enveloped by the majesty of the M40 viaduct. A giant cathedral to the automobile. The river runs beneath. I hop a metal fence to walk the bank. Cars clatter on the motorway overhead. We climbed inside the structure one summer, the noise was immense. We gave up on the adventure when we became convinced that the tunnels were populated by ghosts of the sad souls who'd thrown themselves to their deaths from the road.
The river unravels your personal narrative, a walk along it's banks inevitably tells your story. My next step will take into the Knaves Beech Industrial Estate where I worked in the Texas homestore. Then it runs behind Uncle Stan's house, me and my cousins Rob and Dave would jump their back fence to gain access to the water. Then it'll go through the garden of one of my very first school friends, around the park where I spent glorious summers watching and playing cricket, and on. Memories triggered off at every turn along its course from all points in my life. My destination this evening. The house where I grew up, in WYE Road.
I can't resist a visit to the old Texas Store, now transformed into Homebase. The carpark is huge. Police warnings. Secure zone. You are on CCTV. The warmth and muzak of Homebase are instantly soothing. I've been walking for three hours in the freezing cold, immersed in cold air and roadside noise. This is like a warm bath. Like Huxley's SOMA. "We've great deals to help you transform your home", drifts over the PA in an enthusiastic tone.
It seems so exotic to me now. They don’t have places like this in London. If I lived here now this is where I'd come for relaxation. You can get wood cut to size, buy a digital camera, an espresso machine, toilet seats, storage boxes, hammers, sofas, paint. I feel like an ethnographer studying an alien tribe. Like Dominic Hide in one of my favourite BBC TV plays, who is sent back from the future to study life in 1980.
I turn into Clapton Approach with the river running behind its gardens, my childhood route back to Wye Road rather than along the main road. Past the house where Aunt Mag and Uncle Pete lived. Pete was flayed from the waste up by one of the machines at Glory Mill a little further along the river. They pulled him out, wrapped him in a sheet and sent him home to his Mum to die. It was the Woodbines that actually finished him off, about 50 years later, although I remember noticing that his chest and throat were a deep shade of purple.
I dash round past the garages, down the overgrown alley that we raced up on our bikes. I'm excited and emotional. The lights are on in No.14. White pick-up in the drive. Movement inside the house. A light on in my old bedroom, the walls are blue now. Is it a boy's room? Does he lie on his bed dreaming? Does he look at the crest of the hill wondering what's on the other side?