I was tightly wound in my body and my mind; muscles and neural pathways both taut to vibrating point, and numb with the effort of getting on with things through focusing on the day to day, day after day. The relentless need to focus had narrowed my capacity to think, blinkered my inner vision; I felt I was moving over the surface of everything wearing a visor – neither grounded nor able to sense the wideness, the spaciousness of the World.
A few minutes walk from home is what Gerry at That’s How the Light Gets In calls “the mile-wide green belt of south Manchester”. Here the embankmented River Mersey meanders surprisingly peacefully along the bottom edge of Manchester. I still feel new to this part of the Earth, and I still have that explorer’s urge to wander the land, to discover for myself the corners that are overlooked. I’m still hunting for wildish spaces to escape to and in which I can be kind of free.
I walked along beside Chorlton Brook through Chorlton Ees*, emerging from the woodlands just where the brook meets the Mersey. In the summer when I had just moved to the city, I would come here at the end of the work day and forage for herbs and blossoms to dry for tea in winter. I clambered down the bank a little way and found a lovely sitspot right at the confluence that echoed my sitspot at the confluence of the Boundary Brook and the River Thames in Oxford. Where two waterways meet it’s possible, sometimes, to get beyond logic and really feel the truth that past and future are always here now, in the present.
At the confluence you emerge out of the wooded ees onto the banks of the Mersey and suddenly the sky is open above you. Here I turned east, and felt my adventure begin. To be bluntly honest, the stretch of the Mersey between Chorlton Ees and Simon’s Bridge is not obviously pretty; the river banks have been carefully and unsubtly landscaped by the flood management measures of the 1970s. The result, though, is the openness I craved. It was our first fully sunny day for what felt like months, warm enough to do without a hat, and I revelled in it. I began to walk.
Staying close to the river, following its broad loops and meanders, I walked gently upstream. Along the banks I saw evidence of the recent Boxing Day floods in heaps and mats of organic matter, and scattered branches and sections of tree trunk piled on the river banks, now high and dry. And everywhere was evidence of the changing climate in the confusion of unseasonal growth: blackthorn in blossom; hawthorns bearing buds and new leaves and bright red berries; a cluster of broad, dark green ramsons growing in the shadow of the motorway. They say that winter is at last on its way, tomorrow. It’s weird to imagine eating my own pesto while it’s snowing.
Because the river skirts the suburbs of southeast Manchester, walking beside it you catch a hint of the flavour of each neighbourhood you pass. I noticed that city phenomenon of very different neighbourhoods squashed up against each other, cheek by jowl. A semi-rural zone seemingly reserved for green-wellied, expensively-coiffured small-dog walkers bumped up against a rougher stretch of riverbank of a few hundred metres’ length marked by illegal firepits lined with melted plastic. The boundaries were invisible, and permeable to an outsider, but carefully respected – at least during daylight. What goes on here after dark is anyone’s guess. Part way along the walk, where Princess Road crosses the Mersey by the junction with the motorway, I looked up and noticed a tree growing just at the place where I had landed in Manchester last year.
At Simon’s Bridge I’d had enough, legs tired, head getting cold. I had achieved my original aim of finding space, and I was happy to go home, so I turned away from the river into Didsbury Village**. I’d walked for three hours, but the tram journey home took 10 minutes. I was reminded that the fast pace we live at, we invent, it’s not inevitable. But it takes walking the land at one’s natural animal pace to be reminded of it. My walk had given me space and lifted me out of my narrowness – and grounded me. And in the process of walking the land I live on, I had found my landing place.
*Ee is an old word for floodplain. Here’s a readable study guide to the urban floodplains along the Mersey. **Great charity shops