Notes for Walking in Air
Walking on Blackheath, south-east London, 18 September 2021.
Blackheath is a flat plateau of heath and grass, which has a long and significant social history. In 1381 the Kent rebels under Wat Tyler met here with the King’s representatives during the Peasant’s Revolt (which arose out of the political tensions after the Black Death – one of the local (mistaken) apocryphal tales is that the heath was never built on, because of plague burials, hence the name)– it is a place of walking to, gathering and rallying. It is a place shaped by extraction – glacial gravel deposits dug for the London building trade and for ballast, reportedly for Versailles, bisected by Shooters Hill which is an ancient, once Roman, road. Any walk across Blackheath, at the top of an escarpment which is Greenwich, contends with crossing this traffic, which is continuous, and a low hum of endless noise, with occasional emergency vehicles; and with planes – the flightpath from a number of airports overhead, criss-crossing the sky with white contrails. It is a place of sky and clouds. Blackheath is a landing place for geese – Canada geese, Egyptian geese – and a large community of crows, occasionally starlings, ducks, sometimes a heron. It has four ponds, including one that appears and disappears. The space is currently being managed to increase biodiversity – the grass is cut for south-east Londoners to exercise, play football and fly kites, to hold spectaculars like the fireworks on November 5th, and also left as managed meadow margins, with the hay uncollected so that birds can benefit from the seeds. The grass is marked by darker circles where fungi expand their rings of spores each autumn.
During lockdown we took a walk across the heath each day, in all weathers, over months. I’ve lived close by for 27 years, but hadn’t experienced the heath in this way. The traffic reduced, the planes had stopped. It was possible to mark shifts in the everyday weather-world, and to breathe it in. There was for a while seemingly endless piercing sound from ambulances at the edge. The air was noticeably sweeter. There were also discoveries, since we were slower, not so end-focused on destination and time, noticing more. One was a small mound, slightly higher than the rest of the heath, normally passed by. Whitfield’s Mount is named for the Methodist preacher who gave sermons and sang hymns from that spot in the eighteenth-century to crowds of more than 20,000. Recently a rough sleeper built a hide there. It was a place for military target practice in the 17th century. This small elevation has been a place for speeches over the centuries: from popular rebellions and battles, to the Chartists, and suffragettes. It was originally named after Wat Tyler. It is thought that John Ball, one of the leaders of the peasants’ revolt, gave his famous sermon there :
When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.
The Mount feels like a symbolic place.
The focus of my walking lies close by the Mount. It is a ‘seasonal’ pond, which arrives in some years, and then disappears, depending on the amount of rain. It resembles the ‘ghost ponds’ now being mapped and recovered in Norfolk in the UK, in that when the water returns, various species of plant, long dormant, some thought extinct, begin growing again. This year the Blackheath seasonal pond seemed full for an extended time – reeds grew through the grass, along with water mint, ducks hung out there. There are no fish, but various amphibia sometimes return. At this moment the pond is dry, leaving a lush residue of plants, including some rare species. The water mint persists. If we have a dry winter, the pond will return to a depression in the grass, a lip in the earth.
There’s a good local summary of the connections ‘on foot’, here, with photographs. The first photo has the pond in the foreground.
Walking in Air
My aim is to walk this route to and around the seasonal pond regularly over the next months. The heath is an ‘open’ space, but one that has continually been captured and in occupation over hundreds of years. I’m interested, via this seasonal ‘ghost’ emergence and disappearance of the pond, to think about what surfaces to meet the air, how speech also finds soundings in it. This is less about tracks, and pathways, but about the process of ‘comings and goings’, as Ingold puts it, ‘such productive movements may generate formations, swellings, growths, protuberances and occurrences, but not objects’ (Ingold, Being Alive). If there are habitual tracks in the grass – which expanded in width over the last year during Covid – I’m less interested in traversals, like the Richard Long line in the grass – and more circularities, like mounds and ponds, which might seem each to be the obverse of the other. Earlier this summer I walked a Neolithic settlement, Hod Hill, in Dorset, and noticed both the curve and contours of occupation, and the Roman military rectilinear line of a later camp that had cut into it. My walking in air is less about lines than what in us and other species binds to circles, circumambulatory movements and formations. It’s also perhaps about portals, and kites.
I’ll be using drawing, poetry/voice, sound recording.