It starts with a chance encounter. Browsing in a secondhand bookshop, I overhear the lady, “Well, I’m not sure who will buy this, I mean, who would be interested?”
I don’t look to see what the item is. I’ll take whatever it is. A moment for possibilities – whatever the book in question is, it will offer some nugget of usefulness, some gleaning or direction to follow. I turn, and the lady is holding a map: Ordnance Survey Landranger 112 – Scunthorpe and surrounding area.
Perfect. Quick as a flash I offer a couple of quid for it and head home with an idea forming.
Back at the house, I make coffee and lay the map out on the kitchen table. We’d passed this way recently, my family and I – a day trip into North Yorkshire. The M62 took us west and the M18 took us north. It’s a landscape I’ve always found quite romantic – big visions of pylon lines, turbine farms, black earth and power stations. We always put Kraftwerk on the stereo and the boys sing along to all 23 minutes of ‘Autobahn’.
Like the east and south of the county this is an area governed by water and flatness and industry – the Humber forms where the Trent and Ouse meet, the territory a blue line riddle of waterways, rivers, canals and ditches – reclaimed land. Cornelius Vermuyden did his work out this way back in the mid-17th century – set his engineers to the draining of the land at the orders of Charles I. Just like the fens, there’s that uneasiness between that which is watery and that which is dry – the soil is fertile, rich stuff because of it.
I read the map. The names are names of great poetry. Godnow Bridge, Dirtness Level, Old Don, Crowle Waste… The Warpings. Here, at the very edge of our territory, where the Warpings are – the suggestion of bent perceptions at the north western extremeties has its own poetry to it; the suggestion of an otherness on the borderline – this should be investigated.
Later, after a matter of a bus and two trains, I find myself walking into Crowle, blasted through by the edge of some named storm. My old plain leather coat does much to keep out the wind. Collars up, head down and onward. There’s a brief squall as I zip through Crowle and find my way west to the Warpings – down Marsh Road a little way and up a sodden path into the north west. The county boundary isn’t far – in those trees ahead; somewhere behind me, the wind sings through the pylon line and a train piles Scunthorpe way. A dog barks but I cannot see it. There’s a coin in the mud – oh, that’s strange, a 1950 1 Deutschmark. What kind of archaeology is this? Big puddles all around – birds bracing against the weather, reflections and ripples – the water looks like it has been there for a while, iron red against gull white. The track crosses the Warpings. Rather than being some hole in the fabric of space time, the Warpings present themselves as flat, ordinary fields. Black, damp – warping itself was an old practice of allowing rivers to deposit silt on the land over a series of spring tides, thereby increasing the fertility of the soil. I stand on the warp at the edge of Lincolnshire as the weather gets fouler, cursable.
Which way to head ? All the grids of the map look so clean and elegant – not far away, there is a grid that is blank. However it is some distance away, a few inches on the map means a good hour or two on foot. I could head west into the Thorne Waste and go looking for prehistoric encampments and herons, but the clock is ticking and all my movements are restricted due to train times – I should have brought a bivvy bag and turned this into an overnighter. Still, I make the best of what is available. I see no herons but a low muster of geese are heading south west – I follow them until I see something else to follow.
I toss the Deutschmark and it lands eagle side up. I check the time – my watch has stopped. Never mind, still got the phone. Oh – only 10% battery.
I think I spend a good half-hour exposed to the frightful elements and drift about the tracks until I hit the boundary between Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire. Only a field edge marks it – and I bound along its line to a tiny wood, keeping South Yorkshire to my left, only a step away. In the vague shelter of the birch copse I squat and set my stove on – a quick pot of Super Noodles is slurped down fast in the same style one deals with white hot chips, half-gobbled half-blown, huffing and puffing as a too hot mouthful descends my gullet. I pull the map out again – there’s a canal near and I can follow it back to the train station. I have to briefly step through a few hundred yards of South Yorkshire before hitting the track back. The water on the canal is choppy. I recognise this place – I’ve passed here on the train many times. Buoyed by familiarity and the increasing desire to be inside, I rush east and within half an hour I’m opposite Crowle Station – on the wrong side of the canal. Oh. How did that happen?
I hadn’t noticed I was on the wrong side when I used the bridge near Medge Hall – blame the weather or the landscape, blame the Warpings for loosening my usually tight sense of direction. No matter – that’s the fun.
Sometime later on a train heading east – glasses steaming up and, frankly, in need of a pint and a plate of food, I have to remind myself of the chance nature of this outing – how the map presented itself and how I took the initiative to launch myself towards the Warpings where there was little more than bad weather and borderlines. The map is not the territory.