“Don’t just look up: look down!”

said Archie Workman on Saturday Live yesterday. Archie is a lengthsman and through his work maintaining verges and ditches he discovered that drain covers are often worth a second or third look – and he’s not the only one who thinks so.

Yesterday was a grey day, one of those days when the cloud cover is a pretty much uniform blanket of grey, and there is no nuance to the light, so that even naked trees cast no interesting shadows, and puddles provide only flat reflections. Looking up wasn’t very inspiring, so I was glad to have Archie’s words ringing in my ears.

First I noticed the many different types of pavement surface on my route from the flat to the station. The smooth, oily-black tarmac of the landscaped path down the edge of the estate to the ring road roundabout meanders like a river alongside and slightly lower than the main road, and I felt a little protected from the traffic rushing by – it gives a gentler introduction to the city centre. The dull grey standard town pavement surfaces I walked on most of the rest of the way have been made both messy and interesting by flecks of chewing gum now so deeply embedded in the pavement they look like stains. The cost of removing chewing gum from pavements is apparently a huge problem for councils, but I think once it’s stopped being sticky it’s not only not a bad thing, it has creative potential – realised sweetly by Paula Morison, who saw constellations below her feet during the daytime to mirror the ones in the sky at night.

In Sheffield you can find stars in the pavement outside the town hall – sons and daughters of the city who have gone on to shine in some way. (Jessica Ennis gets her own gold postbox as well.) Then in the part-pedestrianised street between the Winter Gardens and the forecourt of the Crucible-Lyceum-City Library area are the cobbles-that-don’t-hobble, but instead lie neatly tessellated and flat. They are inviting to walk on (unlike old cobbles which, though pretty, are a treacherous and painful prospect for some of us), they suggest this is a place for perambulation, a place to take your time, a place to be social, where people have priority over vehicles.

The more I looked down the more things I found to be fascinated by. At the station I started to notice people’s shoes. It was Saturday and the platform for the Manchester train was crowded with people dressed up for a day out, some headed for the airport with suitcases and dressed to travel. The variety of footwear was amazing. Everybody’s shoes looked clean, fresh, carefully chosen and new. The contrast with the muddy grime of the platform surface was slightly shocking, like those part-animated films you used to get before CGI, with bright cartoon characters drawn onto dull, real backgrounds. As if only one could be ‘true’. The train was so crowded many people couldn’t get seats and I ended up sitting on my bag to save standing for an hour. This afforded me an excellent view of shoes interacting with each other, servants of their owners up above. When you look at shoes and not at their owners, you start to see how feet have their own life and how restrained they are from living it by the demands of the person in charge. A foot lifts – and then drops in a hesitant half-step forward and then back again. A foot inches closer to the foot of another – and is rebuffed when the other’s foot turns away; while their owners appear to be talking quite pleasantly a dance of rejection is played out at ground level.

In Manchester outside the Central Library a group of young women, possibly a hen party, were playing a game that involved freezing in place (I mean stopping suddenly, though it was a nippy day and they all had bare legs so unless they were wearing beer-tights they were probably feeling pretty chilly). Each woman wore a different pair of  glamourous platform stilettos – the kind that are so teeteringly high that they confer a tendency to walk with a bend at the knee, bottom sticking out, arms slightly akimbo for balance; when the group froze and held the posture they produced an almost abstract fashion-plate, tribute-to-modernism image of a tangle of angles, of pink legs and many-coloured shoes parrot-bright against the grey, rainy city streets.

Shoes can tell stories – such as what it might be like to flee to safety, or how important you are, but as with all stories they are given meaning by the teller. Imelda Marcos’ shoes were seen as evidence of her Marie-Antoinette attitudes to the people, but perhaps she was just a hoarder?* I wonder what story you would tell about my shoes, and whether it would be the same as the story I would tell?

*or both

If you’re in Oxford, check out Cowley Road’s ‘pavement jewellery’. My favourite is the bee.



On Crow Hill*

A world of white, and rock and scrub and tufted moorland grass, and below us, stone walls, naked trees, and Height Road winding away down to Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd and Cragg Vale. We have walked up from the bridge across steeply-wooded Fosters Clough where there is a sitting out place for bonfires under the stars. The track is icy and we alternate between holding hands for security and letting go to grab at rocks and grasses sticking out of the snow. But there have been so few others up here since the snow fell thick and soft that there are not many places where crushed snow has melted and refrozen, and for once I can be cold, outdoors and relatively nimble (or what passes for nimbleness in me). What causes me to cry out is not fear of falling, or pain, or cold, but my first ever sight of icicles! Oh! Delicate but dangerous (imagine one falling fast and far, with an arrow’s dedication, towards you.) Hard, stilled, but just a moment or two more of light away from melting.

And now here we are, breathless almost – breathing hard. We look out over the snowy slopes: on the higher hills the snow is still thick despite sunshine, and even under the light grey clouds the fields and moors glow white. The wind whips our faces and we turn into each other, hold each other close. We are standing in the protective curve of an amphitheatre formed by a long-ago quarry. Icicles hang from the huge steps hewn out of the rock – not into it, for this was made by extraction; the small hands and small tools of people removing great hunks of stone to build tidy cottages to shut tight against the harsh climate. We are breathing into each other, your breath in my face and neck warm and the wind against my cheeks cold, like two notes playing with each other, and a third note the sense of warm-cold contrast; these unheard sounds join the music echoing lightly, dancing around the stone amphitheatre, a concert hall for a performance of this gentle symphony of tinkling, trickling icicle drips and the whistle of the wind whispering over the snow. I lean towards you our warm lips press together, then our cold cheeks brushing; and then the crunching of my boots on the snow as I shift my weight is a cadence bringing this phase in the music to a pause.

We turn to fill our eyes with the horizon across the Vale and the clouds part – and the sun shines through bathing the further snowy slopes in a gleaming light; like a burst of applause, silent, perhaps because too beautiful to be heard by our exposure-numbed ears.

* On this map I think we were at a point just northeast of where Height Road crosses Foster Clough. Crow Hill is actually marked on this map.

This has been my winter of moorlands, in the Welsh Borders, Yorkshire and Derbyshire, called by a longing for the wild feelings they inspire in me of Possibility and Freedom, of Anywhere and Whenever. The bleak beauty of what T calls ‘our deserts’, though they are far from barren and lifeless (though as he points out, sandy deserts themselves are neither barren nor lifeless). Our moors are the places that rivers start. There is no national protection structure or strategy for moorland, but many local partnerships

And on the subject of snowy moorland, check out Julieanne Porter’s beautiful snowy Peak District pictures.

Up Close and Personal at Park Hill

The Park Hill flats sit atop Park Hill, the slope to the east of Sheffield Station. I’ve always thought of them as Sheffield’s Byker estate: iconic brutalish architecture; utopian housing that aimed to lift ordinary people into the sky though living there ground people down; visible from afar so that people like me, just passing through with curious eyes wide open, can gaze on them and admire and wonder without getting close.

Sheffield artist Mandy Payne has made some beautiful paintings of the Park Hill flats, poetically painting with aerosol on concrete she presents them in a way that highlights the astonishing beauty of this hard architecture, using hard materials to make gentle portraits. It’s as if she’s reminding us not to misplace blame and responsibility for failed social experiments onto bold buildings, but in the hands of the bureaucrats and architects who failed to understand the communities they were re-engineering. Visually, the Park Hill flats remind me a bit of the Barbican, where I went to school, which has notably not failed. I also note that it incorporates a mix of social and private housing, an art centre, a music school, a private girls school, access to a national museum, and is protectively designed around precious historic remains of the City of London. Hmm.

In the glorious hard winter sunshine and crisp February air not untypical of Sheffield, the blunt, hard lines, juxtaposed planes and unforgiving materials of the Park Hill apartment buildings have a kind of lean beauty. I thought of Vivien Leigh’s cheekbones and was entranced by the glamour of the sight of the buildings surrounded in winter by naked trees.

park hill 2

And then I noticed that the walls of the stairwells, painted a gentle, subtle blushing pink by Mandy Payne in her studies, are actually just brick painted orange. My heart fell, the romance spoiled, and the spell of the glamour broken. I slumped, disappointed and confused, and had to turn away to refocus on the view over Sheffield towards the snow-covered hills of the Peak District. I felt I’d been lied to, and strangely I felt let down. It’s not Mandy’s fault, though: I had used the paintings to feed my belief in the cause of finding beauty in what is marginalised and derided; I had co-opted them to support my own political ideology.

What I see now, at home and gazing on postcard reproductions of the paintings is that they are truthful after all. They truthfully convey the real beauty of these buildings, and the hopes of those who designed them, and those first lived in them, and those who still do. They faithfully depict the beauty of this now unfashionable architecture from far away, but painted as if you could see this beauty close up. They are paintings of hope.

You can see two of Mandy Payne’s paintings in the ‘Picturing Sheffield’ exhibition at the Millennium Galleries until 12 April.