The changes wrought by time

“Eleven years isn’t all that long to get to know a place, would you think?”

Cyril Hare, That Yew Tree’s Shade

The all-you-could-eat continental breakfast in the Beefeater adjacent to Guildford’s Premier Inn was really great (as long as I made myself forget the flytipping of their catering waste), and I gorged myself on Greek yoghurt, fruit compote and granola. The coffee wasn’t bad either. But it was stifling hot in the Premier Inn and I was desperate to get outside. Once liberated into the fresh air, though, I found it quite disorienting to be walking through the middle of a big town. In place of yesterday’s narrow earthen path was a bewildering confluence of A-roads; at the Premier Inn junction, I counted 23 separate lanes of traffic at the lights.

I wanted to try to identify the place where my mother had painted her picture nearly 70 years ago, in 1955. Those poplars in the background of her painting… after seeing the crack willows of yesterday, and thinking how 70 years can constitute the entire lifespan of a tree from germination to maturity, I feared there was no way that I could ever hope to pinpoint the setting.

Even the road structure itself must be unrecognisable, let alone the buildings which flank it. Here on the outskirts there was almost nothing that could have been here in the 1950s, except the Woodbridge Old Bridge from 1913 which I crossed to rejoin the path. It wasn’t just that I knew I wouldn’t be able to find the site of the painting — having spent a day mostly in rural spaces I felt quite disoriented, in time or culture perhaps, rather than in space. The sight of the National Trust signpost when I dropped off the arterial roads back down onto the towpath served to reassure me in some way.

An encounter with some civic artworks on the towpath also helped to reorient me, especially since their theme and design were specifically intended to connect people with their natural context. A sinuous gabion, recalling to mind both the structure of the river and the human engineering which created the Navigation, seems to enclose and embrace a gigantic wooden sculpture of a pollen grain.

It was not only passers-by who were intended to be encouraged to focus on and value the natural in the middle of the noisy human world: primary school children had made clay models of pollen grains as part of the project, and these were embedded into the structure of the gabion.

There is so much building going on — unending.

I walked the tow path through the town centre, my mind flickering between the contemporary and the historic. Here was a rail bridge that I am sure my mother would have recognised,

with a family kayaking underneath, being taught how to paddle by an instructor.

Here were modern waterside apartments; there was an old electrical works dating from 1913.

Without noticing it, I had passed the Dapdune wharf, now a museum of the Navigations, closed for the winter. There was not a trace anywhere that I could see where where my mother might have painted her picture. In the city centre, there were more juxtaposed reminders of both a disjoint and a connection with nature: a bronze statue of Alice’s white rabbit and a weeping willow had as a backdrop the 1960s monstrosity that is the empty Debenhams store.

The grassy area where the statue of Alice and her sister reading and watching the rabbit now stand used to be an islet called Westnye. The 17th-century channel looping out from the river which once formed it is filled in and paved now as a road, although it bears its old name, Millmead, memorialising the almost-forgotten waterway.

The old Debenhams block towered also over the Town Watermill which dates back to 1768, water still boiling through its millrace.

With thoughts of those juxtapositions and the changes wrought by time I left the town and escaped once again out into the countryside. In contrast to yesterday’s peopleless path, here the river and its towpath were populated — this morning by organised groups of walkers, to swell the numbers of joggers and dog walkers, and by rowers being coached from the banks.

South of Guildford a tiny outcrop of Folkestone formation created the effect of a mini ochre cliff, weathering to reveal tree roots up the slope and a miniature beach on the bank of the Wey.

This section of the tow path, twisting through Shalford Park was not the place where my mother sat and painted plein air, but it seemed to be quite true to the spirit of her painting.

A variety of dogs were tearing up and down the paths — some were magnificent. Blue-eyed Zaria and Kiko made a particular impression.

As I got further away from town, there were sleepy locks with no sign of boats.

The numbers of people thinned out, and for the most part, it was just me watching the reflections of the sky in the water. Despite the forecast it was a good deal brighter today, with gleams of white, watery sun endeavouring to break through the cloudbanks.

At Broadford Bridge I left the Wey Navigations behind me, and moved onto the Wey South Path. This route partially traces the (rapidly diminishing) southern tributary of the river, but mainly picks up the line of the Wey and Arun Canal. The 23-mile long canal is currently the subject of a huge multi-year restoration project managed by the Wey and Arun Canal Trust, and I paused to study the idyllic photographs of the early summer weather on the tourist information boards. At first the path was promising, the canal obviously no longer navigable but mostly cleared and managed at least.

Families out for a Saturday cycle flashed by under the winter cherry blossom.

However, this northern section of the waterway is not yet in a state to walk beside and the photographs had seemed to picture an aim rather than an actuality: there followed a very long section through the village of Bramley along a disused railway line. This kind of route, especially when it does dual service as a cycle path, is my least favourite type of walking. Very straight, very nothing to look at.

I say that, but, as I munched on a rather flattened pain au chocolate swiped from this morning’s all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet (which turned out to be the entirety of my lunch as there was nowhere to restock en route), I studied these rather ambitious water engineering works in a suburban back garden. A lockdown project?

The railway line passes over an embankment which once ran parallel to the canal. It is clear that the business of restoring the canal is going to take time and money. Dredging, shoring up, constructing the footpath and placing the signage aren’t an easy task, or a cheap one. From the embankment, I could see stagnant canal sections entirely covered in waterweed, others silted right up above the surface of the water, and a small isolated section of active excavation and engineering work.

Once out of Bramley, the railway line passed through a wooded cutting, which meant that underfoot was a little more forgiving on the feet. Even though the day was dull and dark, the surroundings were a good deal better than the unremitting, suburban corridor of wooden fencing panels, back gates, and laurel bushes. In the wood, the first of the dog’s mercury was starting to show, woodrush, and bluebells.

The Wey South Path here diverges pretty much completely from the course of the river itself. My route now took me across networks of open fields,

Herded

parcels of land with coppiced hazels or willows, floodplain with standing deadwood, grazed by deer I watched through my binoculars, or bare winter woodland filled with filthy tangles of brambles and naked briars.

In places disjointed canal sections turned up, sometimes clear,

sometimes weedy

and sometimes a rotting combination of the two.

The water came in a startling array of colours, reminiscent of an opencast mine — or a battlefield.

What is it about two to three o’clock in the afternoon that make it so depressing? For an hour my spirits always slip and my legs feel like lead. Is it biorhythms, or just a natural dipping of energy six hours after breakfast? I made myself be momentarily cheered by small things — ducks crashing out of trees (had they been laying?), and forsythia flowers bright against the rotting black canal ditch.

Also cheering was pretty Luna – a show cocker with non-standard colouring which bizarrely renders her unshowable. How absurd. She was absolutely beautiful.

And this little cottage, built out of brick around and on top of an earlier stone building by the canal. The stones have been repointed and tiny pebbles pushed into the wet cement as a decoration.

An unmarked gate cut out of a fencing panel, so filthy with mud and exhaust from the passing cars a to be almost invisible, turned out to be the access to the footpath. I had wandered up and down the road for ages searching for the route waymark before I tentatively pushed this garden gate open. Behind it was not only the footpath, but also a thoroughly cheering sight which completely banished my 2-3pm blues.

Sitting by a brazier in front of an old National Trust caravan complete with waymark (taken off the gate perhaps?), completely content with the world, was this guy who explained that the astonishing cone-shaped woodpiles were made by his mate to a traditional Austrian design — a variation on the Holzhausen circular or conical design. They were works of art: astoundingly pleasing and inspiring. Maybe my woodpile expert might like to have a crack at building one?

Firewood goals

These little things really did serve to lift my spirits and get me through the next hour and a half, which went metaphorically, if not literally, downhill. New housing developments were reminiscent of Stepford.

Access to the path vanished completely and, faced with an impenetrable thicket of hedge, I was forced simply to slog along the A-road for two kilometres to my B&B. I was wrong earlier … this is my least favourite kind of walking.

Thank heavens for tiny primroses.

6 thoughts on “The changes wrought by time”

  1. Lovely to meet you (albeit briefly) this afternoon. Wow, what adventures you are having and how wonderful to see what you are observing, will definitely be following your progress! (Crabfields Farm, Loxwood).

    Liked by 1 person

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