Blurring the boundaries of nature writing and memoir, Common Ground follows award-winning nature writer Rob Cowen over the course of a year as he obsessively visits a forgotten piece of edge-land. In this place, he unearths forgotten histories and a kaleidoscope of voices that begin to intertwine with events in his own life. In this exclusive extract from the prologue, Rob recounts how he first discovered that common ground.
Maps transform us. They make birds of us all. They reveal the patterns of our existence and unlock our cages. If it wasn’t for that map, a second-hand Ordnance Survey given as a Christmas present, maybe none of this would have happened. It was New Year’s Eve and I lay on the bed with the town unfolded before me. I felt tired; constrained; racked with cabin fever. I needed to get out. From a circle of Biro drawn around my new house I flew up and over the unfamiliar rooftops and roads, past shops, schools, hair salons and bookmakers, seeking the nearest open ground. Below me suburbia slunk down a shallow hill towards an endless patchwork of delineated farmland. Hemmed in between the two, I saw it: a tract of white paper, tree symbols and the varicose vein of a river. It lured me down, eyes to paper, body to freezing earth.
Somewhere a bell struck five as I cut through the start-stop traffic of the ring road. Exhaust fumes swirled fog-like, landlocked by the plummeting temperature. Underfoot the afternoon rain was hardening into a slippery film; frost feathered lawns. That peculiar post-Christmas malaise, thick with burning coal, pressed down on the houses. As the shrivelled sun disappeared into the mass of pitched roofs, chimney stacks and telegraph wires, I flowed on past a plastic Santa on a roof with no chimney and along a trench of emerging street lights. Either side of me, rows of Victorian terraces morphed into post-war semis before, finally, modern red-brick boxes whirled off the road in car-cluttered cul-de-sacs. Then, after a mile of walking, even their low walls and privet hedges began to thin. Through the gaps the dark, dank countryside of northern England rose like a great black wave.
England rose like a great black wave. At the bottom of the hill a rough track bisected the road suddenly and steadfastly, tracing a contour with nineteenth-century arrogance. It was a definitive border. Light and vegetation were in accord. Dimness shrouded the land beyond. Among the bare blackthorn, ash and spider-limbed elder, I spied relics: soot-blackened sandstone walls, riveted iron plates and the overgrown ditch and mound of a siding. It all uttered a single word: railway. A footstep and I had crossed from the bright lights and right angles of bulbs and bricks into black bushes and trees, whose infinitesimal branches overlapped the track like hair growing over a scar. Unwittingly the railway was fulfilling a different function now – this was the high water mark of the sprawl. Suburbia washed against its southern bank in a mass of rickety fences and scattered bin bags disembowelled by brambles. Down its northern side the town dissolved into something other: a kind of wildness. Winter-beaten meadows stretched into wood before the earth rose again as field and hill that met sky in an unbroken ridge.
I hunkered down by a fence and tried to take it all in. Nothing stirred. There were hints of shapes forming in the distance – stands of larch, pylons, barns – but they were impossible to distinguish. The road I’d followed narrowed and wandered past a squat pub crouching in a hollow, then became lost in the rawness of fields. Tarmac turned to footpath, footpath into soil. Marking the border on opposite sides of the road were two vast oaks thirty metres high. Entwined above me their limbs created an arch, ancient sentinels guarding a forgotten world. I knew it, though. The urban fringe. The no man’s land between town and country; this was the edge of things.
Common Ground, Rob Cowen (Hutchinson) is out on 7th May and is available to pre order now. Find more inspiration for rural reads on the Penguin Pinterest.