Untitled drawing, Matthew Herring, 1999. (© Matthew Herring)
To escape, over Christmas, I went out for a walk around the suburbs near my home in York, one afternoon. I took Iain Sinclair as an imaginary companion, or rather, he brought himself along, as I’d been reading his London Overground, a book about a walk Sinclair took around the route of the London overground railway with the filmmaker Andrew Kötting. The presence of Sinclair turned a stroll into a minor odyssey. I tried to weave into my walk some sensitivity to the psychological lie of the land and to deliberately cut across my usual routes. I started on Beckfield Lane: a mile long and dead straight. Someone once told me it was bombed by a Zeppelin during the First World War, because the Germans thought it was an airstrip. Most of the houses were built after then, so it’s part of the twentieth century semi-detached sprawl. The school I went to (recently demolished) was at one end and I used to think of the whole as a huge neurone, with the school as the cell body and the road as the axon extending to where I then lived at the other end. Beckfield Lane takes its name from one of the original open fields of Acomb, before enclosure. It runs along a ridge from which you can look downhill towards York Minster and the city centre. It’s a road for going along rather than across, so my first attempt at escaping the spell of Acomb (or entering into it) was to cut down through a snicket to Jute Road, heading down into the valley of the eponymous beck, now hidden. All the streets in the ex-council-estate area on the Western slope above the Beckfield beck are named after the city’s connection to the Vikings and the Battle of Stamford Bridge (there’s a Tostig Avenue).
I headed towards a small copse called Fishponds Wood, a numinous place where the Beckfield beck seeps to the surface. The fishponds are gone, but what remains is a crescent of dense marshy woodland, neglected by all but the obligatory band of ‘friends of’ and hidden behind a stockade of council houses with tiny gardens. A significant local road is called Carr Lane and I imagine Fishponds Wood as a relic, or descendent, of that primordial carr, as if every neighbourhood needs its weep hole where things hidden can come to the surface. The Fisher King’s wound kept eternally fresh. Again, neurone-like, the copse reaches out its thin tendrils into the cellular mass of Acomb. A sliver of green.
I cut across its muddy, dank gloom of black twigs and snared crisp packets, failing to ask the right question, and on, past the back entrance of St Stephen’s churchyard, to Beech Grove, another relic. I can’t remember the name of the estate, long gone, which the avenue of massive beech trees once led to (the fishponds were also part of it). A double row of Egyptian temple columns, leading nowhere. Another illegible fragment of a different time and place parcelled up as ‘green space’ and left embedded, like shrapnel or scar tissue, in the cell culture of housing development. I imagine they tried several times, but failed, to blow the trees up, like one of those Icelandic boulders inhabited by fairies which the road builders are forced finally to go around, having wasted a good kilo of dynamite.
Somewhere on my route I saw the word ‘Hob’ or ‘Hobstone’ and a destination presented itself, a justification or galvanising principle for what had till then only been a mere walk to get some air: the Hobstone on Hob Moor. I set my sails southwards and felt the pull of the Hobstone, the vagueness of its features forming in my mind like a stalagmite. From the straightbacked Victorian shopping row of Acomb Front Street I cut down through the Arts and Craftsy posh bit of Acomb which loosely hangs around Hobgate and Moorgate, eschewing those alternative sites of myth, Holgate Windmill and West Bank Park (site of the fake Alpine ravines and cliffs of the former Backhouse Nursery). Trying too hard to avoid the known route, and pulled by the obscure gravity of the Moor, I tried to follow the most direct line and prospect for a way through to the Moor down a street called Queenswood Grove (gravid consort of the nearby Kingswood Grove, where I lived until I was four). This circuit of a street, shaped like it’s trying to draw the belly of a pitcher plant, led me round in a circle and no way through to the Moor was there. I was forced to pay my dues to the labyrinth before I was allowed on the Moor (itself a labyrinth).
I found the Moor where I knew it to be. I noticed a stone-built Victorian house by the entrance to Hob Moor School at the bottom of Green Lane: imagining it when it was built, all alone on the lane leading from Acomb to the Moor, surrounded by fields. A flashback. Striking out for the Hobstone greatly increased the distance of my walk, beyond what I’d intended. It’s out on a limb; not really in Acomb at all. The stone, a badly eroded effigy of a knight about two feet tall, sits next to a plague stone next to the path in a limb of Hob Moor known as Little Hob Moor, which is cut off from the main Moor by the East Coast Main Line railway. It is, in fact, close to Tadcaster Road, the old Roman road into York from the South West. The stone was placed in its present position in 1717, but the carving predates that (13th century, if I remember correctly – or 14th). An inscription on the reverse, now gone, read: “This image long Hob’s name has bore who was a knight in time of yore and gave this common to ye poor”. For some strange reason, the knight faces towards the Moor, not away from it so that it would face you as you enter the Moor – it stands at an entrance to the Moor. I remembered it as a deeply pitted and misshapen knub of limestone, like a chewed pencil rubber sticking out of the ground, with no trace that it had ever represented a knight.
A long stretch of walk took me across Hob Moor to the stone. It used to be on my cycle route to and from work, so memories of that time arose. My father used to walk his dogs there when I was a child: always clockwise around the perimeter, never anti-clockwise. One Christmas Day he brought me here to try out a boomerang I’d got. My father had the first throw and it smartly disappeared into the ditch or the hedge and was never found; he promised he’d buy me a new one, but never did. There used to be two or three old railway wagons which football clubs used to change in, but these were burnt out and are now gone. Motorbikes used to tear up the scalloped edges of the old brickworks, until barriers were placed at the entrances to the Moor. The line of the narrow-gauge railway leading to the brickworks is still clearly seen: a lone bush on the line of it turns out every spring to be one half elder and one half hawthorn. The Moor is windswept and mysterious.
According to the ‘friends of’, the name comes either from Robert (Rob/Hob); from the trickster and marsh-spirit Robin Goodfellow; or from a name for the Devil. I can’t accept the Devil, but a minor (and folkloric) trickster cum ignis fatuus makes sense. Strange lights do hover over the Moor on dusky winter’s afternoons, even if they are just railway signals. Edmund Wilson swimming baths (now gone and replaced with a Lidl), lit up, used to be the guardian presence of Hob Moor for me; its twin concrete chimneys seeming, against the moving clouds, always to be falling and never landing, like Andrew Kötting with his resurrection jig in the film Edith Walks.
I reached the Hobstone. It looked knightlier than I remembered – shield and the shape of a head could be clearly discerned – gazing back towards Hob’s Moor, the diminutive squirt’s view blocked by the embankment of the East Coast Main Line. If this Hob was a Robin Goodfellow, he was a severely eroded and impotent one, trapped in a crumbly block of limestone well on its way to the status of mineral content of the local soil, ridiculous as the Stone of Scone.
Not willing to turn on my heels and return the way I’d come, I took the path which branches from the one I’d come on and went in the direction of York Railway Pond. This was new territory for me: in all the years I cycled past the Hobstone, I never once bothered to explore the path that branched off at that point and I never knew about the pond. Another foreign body in the tender meat of post-Victorian York, surrounded by a protective callous of suburban back gardens (various styles of fencing) and legitimated by a Council-sponsored noticeboard for the ‘friends of’. York Railway Pond is a sink hole which leads directly into the very mush and marrow of the earth; slate grey and frigid it is and frequented by fishermen (/kings). The way there from Little Hob Moor is guarded by an out-of-place row of Victorian terrace houses with an oddly Magrittesque feel – they are dark when the sky is light. Then a newish yellowbrick estate complete with serpentine roads that lead nowhere and a little swing park (so that the soft skinned yellowbrick youngsters don’t have to run the gauntlet of thistles, cowpats and working-class people on Hob Moor before their carapaces have hardened into those of cynical fag-smoking teenagers). Then a strange green corridor that spirals down to the omphalos of the pond itself (it truly is like the siphon hole of a huge buried mollusc). I walked (anticlockwise) round the pond, signs warning me of the dire consequences of a dip (apparently, rats pee in it). It seemed like a fitting coda to the Hobstone, this motionless whirlpool at the centre of it all guarded by gnomic fishermen. If the Hobstone is the head of the worn hobnail which holds the world together (or the axle on which it turns), and Fishponds Wood the unhealable wound, then the pond is a dark grail.
After a votive pee against the railway embankment, I headed back home. It was getting dark and four crows perched atop four elder trees on the far edge of the Moor.