Faxi’s stream: a short walk at the crux of England

Humber estuary from near Faxfleet
Photo: © M Herring 2017

Faxfleet

 

2nd November, Faxfleet, at the confluence of the Ouse and the Trent; the start of the Humber. A marsh harrier patrolled the reed bed, up and down, while a Lynx helicopter passed over, heading towards Lincolnshire. The harrier wheeled overhead and went inland, towards a farmhouse. Stonechats flitted in the reeds. After the helicopter, silence but for the tinnitus of distant traffic and the peeping of unseen waders. Silence is a sense of space rather than the absolute absence of sound; sounds either form the boundaries of the space, or cut into it, like the helicopter did.

I made the trip to Faxfleet to celebrate the first day of a new work pattern which will give me more time to dedicate to my practice as an artist, and to connect up with the past. The last time I had a regular day a week built into my working pattern to dedicate to art was a little over two years ago, and, on my last ‘art day’, I took a similar trip to Airmyn, also on the Ouse. (I wrote about this trip here). That trip was partly an act of faith that I was going to get that time back again, and this trip I guess was an attempt to heal the rift. I’ve made several trips to places on the lower reaches of the Ouse and the Humber, drawn by a fascination with estuaries and forlorn places.

I wanted to see the place where the Ouse and the Trent meet. It seems to me to be one of the hidden cruxes of England. The Trent drains a huge chunk of the Midlands, as it slews its ‘U’-shaped course. The Ouse drains both the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors. They meet quietly and unobtrusively, without any fanfare, surrounded by reedbeds and mudflats. It looks from Google Maps like you can stand right on the cusp between the two rivers, at Blacktoft sands, but you can’t. I went there a year or two back, to the RSPB nature reserve. You may not depart from the path: you can’t even see the rivers for the reeds. (I did have a great time, however, spotting all the rare birds the other bird watchers pointed out: ruffs, bearded reedlings, spotted redshanks, marsh harrier).

Faxfleet is barely a hamlet – more a scattering of farms – situated on the north bank of the Ouse/Humber, opposite Blacktoft sands. Away from the river, it’s a land of flat arable fields, reclaimed from marsh. There was once a Knights Templars’ community there, so it must have been drained pretty early on. There’s something that’s hard to grasp about the landscape. It’s overlooked to the north and south by the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire Wolds, which give it the uncanny feel of being a no-man’s land between two opposing forces. Two mirrored opposites. The hills rise suddenly and unaccountably from the flat. They’re not that high, but they do odd things to the space; as if, by being raised up, the things atop them are also brought closer. You have the feeling that, if you squinted, you could see in through the windows of houses in Alkborough, on the Lincolnshire Wolds. There is the same sense of acoustic space as I’ve noticed at Spurn Point and Sunk Island: sounds seem to carry further over the water, or just over the flat ground. Clanks and bangs of distant activity pierce the silence at intervals.

Dark, compact woods sit between the fields, like thoughts you can’t quite get hold of. Residues of thought. Robert McFarlane talks about how landscape provides us with metaphors for living. If the landscape is an extended metaphor for our own being, then depicting it is self portraiture. I have the fantasy that the flat landscapes of lowland England are a vast thought process, a brooding consciousness. Thoughts are distinct things, like the woods and other features which occupy and cross the land surface. You can return to a thought like you can return to a wood. You might find it changed or attrited, but it will be there in some form. In that sense, thoughts are more like things than flow (we often talk about consciousness as a stream, meaning flow, but I think it is more like a stream in the landscape, a more or less permanent, albeit shifting and changing, feature). Thoughts build up archaeological layers.

Place names do, too. I like the fact that Alkborough and Faxfleet have both retained a kind of awkward primal ‘spikiness’ – of the ‘k’ and the ‘x’ – as if they have resisted erosion into forms that are kinder on the palate. They have an Old Norse strangeness. (In fact, Alkborough is Old English, meaning ‘Al(u)ca’s hill’; Faxfleet is of uncertain meaning, but is also Old English, perhaps with an Old Norse personal name, Faxi. Faxi’s Stream, perhaps). Aluca and Faxi and their streams and hills have left their residue.

 

Get lost signs

 

A ‘get lost’ sign that stops you going too far along the riverbank east from Faxfleet:

Associated British Ports

Notice is hereby given that there is no right of way on this embankment or any other part of the estate. Trespassers will be prosecuted.

By order ABP

 

And another:

Strictly no access.

Humber Wildfowl Refuge Committee

 

There’s another on the gates of the Weighton Lock:

PRIVATE PROPERTY

NO ADMITTANCE EXCEPT ON BUSINESS

And next to it:

Horse riders please

keep to Bridle Path

Take your pick. On the bridge over the lock there’s a stone carved inscription, partly eroded:

Mr Grady Engineer Mr [?] Surveyor

Mr Smith Carpenter Mr [?] Mason

Anno Domino 1775

Repaired 1826 by Joseph Whitehead

 

Blacktoft

 

Past the Weighton Lock (where the Market Weighton Canal ends), the landscape opens out as you face across to the southernmost escarpment of the Yorkshire Wolds and towards Brough. Hunched crows sit in trees. The Humber Bridge is like a drawing, executed with extreme efficiency and elegance of line. A short distance later, you are halted by the pale blue ABP sign quoted above. For my part, I turned back, quailing at the threat of prosecution, and walked back the other way, past Faxfleet to Blacktoft.

The spiky, straight leaves on the rushes all point east, away from the prevailing wind. A small patch of borage darkens the counsel of a tilled field. Flowers of yarrow are too white on the embankment side. Farm houses are half lost in trees. I think of the Templars’ preceptory and try to avoid the move of associating it with the uncanny of the place.

And on the water side, the mirrored silver of the exposed mud, riven with serpentine rills like blood vessels at regular intervals. The mud has the iky shininess of membranes in the body, or of a cerebral cortex. Its thoughts cannot but be inscrutable. Tiny wading birds pitter-patter across it like flies. The light reflected from the surface leaves an after-image on my retina.

Once I’ve turned the Faxfleet corner, near where I parked the car (by a sign saying ‘Private road’), I’m on the Ouse and the river immediately starts to feel familiar. The Lincolnshire Wolds, looming over yonder, look like a foreign country, and the Trent, which I can barely see, is a foreign river to me. The Ouse is a businesslike Yorkshire river. A thug of a river? No, she’s a lady! From the outset she’s recognisably the river that passes through Goole and Selby. A definite river, after the equivocal and dissimulating estuary.

I stopped at the Hope and Anchor, Blacktoft, for a cup of tea. Hope and Anchor has a faintly religious sound, like it should be seaman’s mission, not a pub, and it does look a bit like a mission hut. I sat at one of the picnic benches outside, close to the river, drinking in the quiet. The sense of space is aural as much as visual. The Konik ponies over the river in the RSPB reserve are galloping in circles. The muffled crump of their hooves travels across the water and occasionally their heads briefly appear over the reeds. A robin regards me coolly from a post: do I exist only because observed by it? Aircraft pass obtrusively: a fighter jet and a couple of light aircraft. Small pieces of debris, no bigger than otters’ heads drift silently and sadly down to the sea, like they’re in disgrace. Even smaller ducks defy the current – the ones I can identify are widgeons. Everything is distant, at arm’s length: aircraft, traffic, rivers, hills. The hum of things unseen. The silence hollows out a space through which sounds pass. The water looks as deep as it is opaque. Hot chocolate water.

Leaving the pub, I notice a sign:

The management accepts no liability for any injury sustained while using the play area on these premises.

There is but a single swing frame, with no swings hanging from it.

 

A path through the reeds

 

Heading back towards Faxfleet, I meet a woman with two young children, the first people I have met while walking the embankment. They have with them a dog which barks at me. The woman says, she has never heard it bark before. It’s a baby and it has never barked before it met me. I’m taking photographs of the hawthorn bushes (thick with haws) and the yellow weeping willows.

About opposite where I left the car, I spot a well trodden path going down from the embankment and into the reeds. (Next to where I parked the car is a gate with a sign saying there’s no right of way: the space between the gate and the embankment, where there clearly is a right of way, is about four metres). The path is well trodden and well mudded. It snakes like one of the rills on the mudflats. I’m pleased to be among the reeds, which are taller than I am. The path forks and I briefly consider going back – afraid of losing my way in a labyrinth of treacherous muddy paths bounded by reeds; of sinking unseen into the grey mire. Massive washed up tree trunks are half buried beneath the reeds. The usual industrial estuary rubbish: industrial-sized plastic tubs formerly full of stuff you can’t buy in supermarkets; telegraph poles. And, eventually, the rivers.

The path leads right to the view I was looking for and unable to find from the embankment. It has obviously been made and maintained by birders, itching for a proper viewpoint over across the mudflats. Directly opposite is the mouth of the Trent and the pointed headland I’d wanted to stand on (it is mostly mud bounded by two boulder walls; not really land at all). To my right the Ouse and to my left the Humber. It was exhilarating to stand somewhere not officially sanctioned, where a wrong footstep might lead to a sticky end. A huge flock of waders swoops over the waters like Job’s storm; as far as I can tell they are mostly lapwings, with shelducks on the outside. There are small groups of shelducks on the mud. The flock is silent. Yellow light gleams on the rivers’ mucus membrane and echoes the ragged patches of sun snarling through the blue clouds. It’s only 2:40 in the afternoon, but feels like the gloaming. Uncanny spots of light shine brightly on a patch of mud not far away from me: broken glass, or just pools of water? Fairies?

Just as I was thinking that I hadn’t seen a single boat on the rivers, a converted barge came inching down the Trent at a snail’s pace. A guy is stood in the bow staring intently forward. I watched a TV documentary once about the Trent in which the presenter extolled the dangers of the confluence of Trent and Ouse. The water may be metres or centimetres deep and look much the same. The boat crept gingerly round the headland, did a standing turn and motored off at increased speed up the Ouse. Pleased with the end of my day, I also headed back up the Ouse to home.

Photo: © M Herring 2017

 

Walking and theodicy: Robin Hood’s Bay to Scarborough

Painting by Matthew Herring of the cliffs at Scarborough
Red cliffs, 2004, Matthew Herring, oil on board. © M Herring 2004

I have a favourite walk between Scarborough and Robin Hood’s bay, on the Yorkshire coast. It’s about fourteen miles, mostly along the cliffs. It’s a good walk for thinking, because you don’t have to worry about losing the way and it’s not so varied that it drags your thoughts constantly into different registers. It’s more or less of one substance from beginning to end. What variety there is tends to fit into a rhythm: high, undulating cliffs separated by deep ‘wykes’, or valleys. You have to walk down into them and then up again.

The cliffs, especially near Scarborough, are boulder clay. Their whole substance is heavy, unstable and fluid. If it has rained, then you labour through deep sticky mud and try not to slide down the cliff. You have a sense of the land slumping into the sea. Change is rapid: the land might have slipped away to leave a knife-edge of clay standing. Next time you visit, it will have gone. The mud is red.

Somehow, I think, the mud is like thought. Thoughts can trip along freely, but, if you are mulling something over, they can be heavy and viscous, like you are trying to shape clay in your mind. Or, the act of walking through the mud can be like thinking. The mud resists, sticks and causes you to slip. You make progress, but it presents always the same face; it is the same. It’s a distance to cover, but it’s more like wrestling. Reaching the destination is the end of the bout. And the mud remains: what form you have managed to impress onto it is just waiting for the next rain or heavy sea to change again. It’s always there the same.

I did the walk recently. When I reached Robin Hood’s Bay by bus to start the walk, it was raining steadily (pax the forecast). By the time I reached Boggle Hole there was a thunderstorm directly overhead, so I sheltered in the Youth Hostel cafe. I had no mind to be the tallest object on the top of a cliff in a thunderstorm. The thunder passed, but it rained torrentially after I set off again. By the time I was up on the cliffs again it had eased. There was clear sky above the horizon out to sea, but a smudge along the horizon meant another squall rolling in. You could see the mechanics of how they manoeuvred about: one out to sea and coming in; the thunderstorm now away off inland to the north-west; another slab of raincloud wheeling round over the high clifftop at Ravenscar ahead of me, to the south. They don’t come across in straight ranks, but jostle and wheel around each other, like giant cogs. You think you’re going to get soaked; then you don’t; then you think the next one’s going to miss you; then it catches you head on.

So it went. So much rain fell so quickly that the path was ankle deep in water and I gave up trying to step round it. The water roared as it escaped downhill in waterfalls hidden behind blackthorn and giant horsetails. It was the same colour as the wastewater from a washing machine, soapy and greasy. The rain filled my bum-bag up like a toilet cistern and the water trickled out all in one spot and soaked my backside. When the rainstorm I’d seen out to sea arrived, it was impossible to look into. Out to sea, you could see it as a blur. When it closed in, it enveloped you and it hurt your eyes to try to look into it, like staring into a grey angry sun. It made me aware of inhabiting myself like a set of Chinese boxes: me, my thought, my body, my coat, the squall, the world.

I’ve been reading the book of Job. I can see why God appears to Job in a storm. A storm somehow envelops you; cuts you off; locks you inside yourself, but also locks itself inside with you. It’s all around you, but you can’t look at it. It forces you to look at yourself. It is simultaneously everything, something and nothing. It can roar and whisper at the same time. It’s a bit like being hit by a juggernaut which turns to mist the moment it hits; like a falling dream.

I thought about Job as I walked along. I can’t get my head around what’s going on in it. It seems so full of paradoxes. God appears in the storm at the end of the discussion between Job and his friends, in response to Job’s request for an audience with God, but he doesn’t inject any new information into the discussion at all. Instead, he reiterates the one thing Job and his friends already agree on: that mortals can no more hold God to account than explain the natural world. The God who orders the cosmos is beyond human accountability. God says to Job: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?”, but then later says that Job was right. However, lack of knowledge was a major aspect of Job’s problem in the first place: he didn’t understand why he had to suffer. Similarly, God says that Job’s friends are wrong about him, but a lot of what they say is correct. The friends tell Job that if he pleads with God and confesses his sin, God will restore him. In the end, Job does this and God does restore him. The narrator says that Job didn’t sin by “charging God with wrongdoing”. In the dialogue that follows, Job does exactly that: “Though I cry, ‘I’ve been wronged!’ I get no response”. A further problem resides in the pretext for Job’s affliction, namely the Accuser’s implication at the beginning of the book that God’s judgement of Job as a righteous man is faulty and that Job will curse God if pushed to it. Job has to vindicate God by his response to his suffering.

You can push it this way and that way, and it slips through your fingers. Things fail to connect and slip by each other. The sin Job appears to commit by his tirades against God isn’t sin that disqualifies him from vindicating God’s judgement of him as righteous (in contrast to the conventional piety of Job’s friends, who are required to present a sin offering to God at the end). God says that Job both lacks knowledge and is right, but without specifying the content of the missing or present knowledge; presumably they are different. Or does Job say what is right without knowing it’s right? God’s self revelation to Job as an almost amoral orchestrator of a tumultuous, chaotic nature (symbolised by the monsters Leviathan and Behemoth) slides past God’s initial accusation that Job lacks knowledge and seems to corroborate what Job has said about him all along. (Or is the accusation of lacking knowledge directed to the friends? Or does God have a twinkle in his eye? A genuine invitation to speech?) Job’s impiety wins him a slap down from God which is nevertheless the encounter with God he has longed for – a slap down which is anyway very ambiguously a slap down. The violent mood swings of the grieving Job somehow set off the whole push and pull that threatens the logical cohesion of the whole book.

I thought about all of this whilst being battered by rainstorms. By the time I reached Ravenscar the rain had stopped, but it was misty on the cliff top. The water was still ankle deep. Gradually it cleared and got out sunny. My bum dried (not my shoes).  At Hayburn Wyke, the water in Hayburn Beck was impressive and terrifying. In the last half of my walk I thought about a painting I’m working on, without resolving its problems.