Thursday, 12 November 2020

Writing and walking in Sheffield


From Endcliffe Park to Forge Dam

I moved to Sheffield around a year ago, after living in Brighton for over 20 years. The first few months were dominated by our house needing a huge amount of building work – we spent two weeks in a hotel and then moved in just before Christmas. While the builders finished their work, I doom scrolled, watching coronavirus sweep across the world, feeling a growing sense of dread. And then of course it was lockdown. Huge global events, and here I was, in a weird limbo in a new city, living at the edge of the Peak District but not allowed to go there.

But walking was part of my life even then. During the period when basically the builders owned our house and we were interlopers, I walked into Sheffield city centre every day and worked in the central library, sometimes doing my day job, which is working as a senior lecturer for the Open University, sometimes writing my Difficult Fifth Novel, which has a habit of morphing into various different novels as I go along (all of them equally Difficult).  I’ve always walked to get to know a place, and can’t think how you would do it any other way. So now that the second lockdown has commenced – lockdown lite, we might call it – I am recording some of my walks in words and pictures, as is my fellow newcomer, Yvonne Battle-Felton. You can see Yvonne's first Sheffield walk here And if you would like to join us and share text, photos or a video of your walks in your area, Yvonne has some suggestions.

My first walk is the obvious choice – the green chain from our front door (more or less) to Forge Dam. We had no idea how beautiful this walk was when we bought the house, it was a massive stroke of luck to find ourselves in this magical place. The danger seems to be to do the walk too often, so that it loses some of its novelty and allure, but the fact is that it changes all the time, not only with the seasons but also depending on the time of day. During Lockdown One, it was busy pretty much all of the time, full of children, dogs, bikes, joggers of every age, but notably a lot of older joggers who looked incredibly fit, students hanging out, it was throbbing with human activity.

Now, it’s quieter, you can get to see it in a different way. Early morning might be good, but sadly I am not an early morning person. Dusk is lovely, that weird liminal sense of darkness bearing down, of shadows filling up the spaces between the trees, dogs and humans suddenly looming out of nowhere. But I like the sense of being in nature but yet part of a city. For a townie like me, it’s good to measure out the route in coffee opportunities, the café in Endcliffe Park now equipped with a gazebo opposite for rainproof social distancing, the van that parks at the entrance to Whitely Woods at the weekends, and finally the café at Forge Dam itself, next to a pond full of mallards and moorhens and where you can sometimes see a heron.

The walk has zones, all of them wooded with Porter Brook bubbling along beside the path, but getting wilder and less populated as you go along. Once you get beyond Forge Dam, you can smell damp earth, and hear the bleating of sheep – proper countryside, steep pathways, trees outlined against an autumn sky. Sometimes, at the Hunters Bar end, I start off feeling pent-up, irritable, caught up in some admin issue, an email thread that’s tangled up my brain. As I go along, the email threads unravel, the natural world closes in, green, soft, calm, intersected by roads with cars speeding to somewhere as we walk slowly onwards, looking at fungi we can’t identify, at other people’s dogs, listening to odds and ends of passing conversations. ‘That’s just the point Craig, that’s exactly what I said.’ ‘Dad, how long can I stand here?’ ‘Can you imagine her doing this every day?’

I am not a nature-girl. I went to guide camp once and resented the fact that we were meant to make gadgets out of twigs, which seemed nonsensical. I have a fear of slugs and earthworms, have no idea how to dig a garden. 

But this walk has drawn me back to my childhood love of all the smells and textures of the natural world, the cool sense of countryside, going on and on, of things continuing that don’t need human intervention. (Although, perhaps we now need to intervene to preserve this process, rather than taking it for granted.) The walk to Forge Dam doesn’t stop my brain from working overtime, but it shifts the gears, soothes the process, and sifts out the stuff you shouldn’t sweat.