I leave the housing coop very apprehensive; I am late up and everyone has gone to work so there is no-one to ask for directions for a good way to walk through the city. I wonder if city folk are aware of what a scary place the concrete jungle is to those of us who choose not to live in one. I have got a map so I should be fine in principle.
In practise it is a nightmare. I leave the house and head out the way I came in and pretty soon see cycle signs for the city centre which I follow. Call me super sensitive but the folk who live around Highfield, mainly Muslims, do not seem to be contented happy people in their neighbourhood; they walk with suspicious hunted looks on their faces and every where there is an edge of waiting to see what will happen next.
Soon the cycle signs vanish and I ask a young Asian man for directions
“Straight along, OK?”
It isn’t that simple, and soon the straight along ends at a junction. I ask a young English policeman for further directions and he tells me the next bit and I am soon in the centre. There is nothing comfortable or pleasant about city centre Leicester. Much of it is pedestrianised and the shops are the usual faceless soulless variety mixed in with a sex shop, a few money lenders, and a lot of cheap junk food places. The people are of all races and nationalities and there isn’t a one of them that looks comfortable in these surroundings. Groups of young men prowl the streets, ready for a quick response to any stimulus; isolated women of all cultures walk quickly and purposefully to their destinations; older men look around them suspiciously as they walk, and older women walk together as if on a day out in some strange new place.
It has a similar feel to Huntingdon and I grieve for what the age of oil has done to these once proud towns. I come to the cathedral and reach the guild hall, a beautiful old building, now a museum by means of a tiny old walkway where a sign proclaims that the Alms House once stood on the site that is now a construction site besides the cathedral, demolished in 1875. The cathedral no longer even possess its green but here, by the walls of the old Guild hall there is a sense of the roots of Leicester; I long to imbibe the atmosphere around them but it is too fragile to withstand the onslaught of the characterless brick and glass of the newer buildings around it for long.
I feel unbelievably sad for what we have done to our beautiful old settlements in our desire for faster, more convenient, more comfortable lives. How short sighted, how selfish, how stupid.
It is with some regret that I walk away from this remnant of a city where I might have felt comfortable once, past the BBC studios, all glass and show, and on to the main road that leaves the city in the direction I need – heading North West to freedom and open country, or so I hope. The road takes me through all of the things I thought I had left behind for ever when I left the industrial North West as a young woman. Car showrooms, car washes, tall warehouse and factory walls with no windows looking out on to the road save a few small grimy ones that must have let in no light at all. Dumping grounds of industrial waste, mangled metal, unidentifiable bits of machinery, dirty dingy corners of yards where nothing happens, small parking lots with one or two vehicles in them and no people in sight, constant stream of traffic zooming carelessly by on route for any place but here.
Deposit of despair, of long given up hopes, dusty nettles showing no vital signs of their richness in mineral content, grey oppressive skies, cold miserable day; why ever did our forefathers think this was a good idea, to pave over our lush life giving nature in favour of hard concrete flooring, install noisemaking machinery to drown out the bird song and take joy from our hearts and instill instead dread?
The road crosses first the canal, stagnant filthy water, then the river, swans trying hard to add grace to the dirty industry that lines the banks. Then a slight reprieve of a smaller road, residential, I go into a post office, it is inside a supermarket, but at least it still exists. And there I realise with a shock that compared to the dirty dank depressing street of abandoned and dying industry the super clean well lit building is a delight to be in. I am amazed to feel the artificial lighting lifts my spirits a tad and begin to have a sense of why in some areas at least people must be pleased these places exist. There is poverty here; a woman goes to the post office counter and asks if she can make a withdrawal…of £9. I try to imagine how it must be to manage to feed a family when there is only £9 left in your account.
I walk on and soon the reprieve returns to the big main road again. Now at least it is lined with big houses and grass verges and I begin to think leaving the city will be painless from here on in…
I have no idea what is install for me; the road gets bigger, but there is still a cycle path and pavement. Then the road crosses another, the ring road. The pavement dips to indicate a good crossing place and I wait for ten minutes before realising that the traffic is not going to ease up nor is anyone in the slightest bit concerned that there may be no way for a pedestrian to cross if one of them doesn’t give way. I walk for ten minutes up the ring road till I reach a crossing where I can wait for the little green man!
I then walk for ten minutes down the other side of the road to get back to where I wanted to be and continue. After several more minutes the pavement simply gives out; I can see it continues on the other side of the road but can see no way of crossing over. I walk back the way I have come for several more minutes to another green man crossing, and then another where I am almost run over by an impatient middle aged woman who clearly hadn’t noticed the lights & was as clearly annoyed she had been stopped in her tracks, and eventually get back to where I was but now on the other side of the road.
I know there is a massive roundabout coming up; it had worried my when I was being shown my route the previous night. It was most unlikely I would find a footpath around that!
Finally I reach a small road that declares itself a no through road and with no public footpath sign. I decide to risk it; on my map it goes under the big road and comes out in Antsley, the village I am headed for, at the other side of the roads that encircle Leicester. I long for its shelter.
I walk along the road, afraid at any moment I am going to be told it’s private and that I am going to have to go back the way I came and catch a bus to get past the dangerous piece of road. Leicestershire, in my experience so far, has been notoriously bad for not signing footpaths, or perhaps it was once signposted and the inhabitants remove them as the Welsh used to do to deter the English from holidaying in their country. I meet another pedestrian going the other way and ask him. Yes, he says, it leads directly into Antsley.
And it does! Immense relief. For a moment I vow never to return to Leicester again. It is not worth the anguish. It seems a pity to forsake it but I remember the vibrant transitioners from last night, and know that if anyone can redeem this concrete jungle it is they!
Antsley. I walk over a very ugly modern bridge over a very mucky river. Argh, I think, more of the same. Then I spot a very beautiful old bridge set in a park a little to the left of the new bridge. I return and enter the village again by its old bridge, determined to invest it in its old villageness again. It works for a couple of minutes. I rest my back against a large old lime tree attempting to regain a sense of wellbeing for my fraught nerves. Then I walk into the village on the new millennium footpath past the primary school. The children look out at me though the railings; surely they have never seen an apparition such as I with a flower in my hat and my long colourful skirts.
Then the path gives out and no attempts to find it are successful. Disgruntled I return to the main road and stromp into the village centre; it has several shops of the kind you find in a poorer suburb of a city; Chinese takeaway with the lettering peeling, betting shop, pub full of loud men all hanging out of the door smoking. Everyone is smoking, men, women, young, old. Buffer, I think, against the pain of having your village turned into the poor outskirts of a post industrial city. I am reminded of the words to an old Pink Floyd song
“I have become comfortably numb”
and know that this is the only way to survive life in such a place. I am on the edge of tears for the umpteenth time this day. It doesn’t feel like the tears are all for me; I feel as though I feel the grief of our earth, despairing under the strait jacket of concrete we have coated her in, rumbling away her dissatisfaction, and erupting in volcanic explosions wherever there is an outlet.
By the time I have walked through Antsley and arrived at the next village, Newtown Lynford, I am so fed up that I have eaten my way through an entire bar of milk chocolate, which I hate for clogging up my system at the same time that I am grateful for it sickly sweet comfort to block out the pain of proximity to industrial wasteland and its human fallout.
I no longer want to walk and I book into a bed and breakfast and give myself permission to give up for the day. By half past four I am in an uneasy sleepy nap on my bed, relishing the silence that comes when the cars on their way to the motorway along this otherwise country road cease for a few minutes at a time.
The end of cheap oil?
The end of misery for places such as Leicester. I imagine digging up the concrete; I feel I’d be prepared to do it with my fingernails if it meant an end to this society we have created. Imagine a forest garden, a community garden, on every patch which is now covered by useless empty derelict yards. Imagine tearing down those terrible remnants of the industrial age and planting trees again. Imagine an acre of land for every family and the right to build their home beside their garden where they grew their food.
Imagine an age of balance, of well being, of values that reflect our humanness, not our capacity for greed and to numb away our deepest felt emotions making any behaviour towards the earth and those that live upon her acceptable.
I am struck by how my journey is impacted by the wishes of those that hear my story. After the mud and the difficulties of the first week everyone who saw me wished the sun would shine for me, and it did. After being delighted by the stories of mud last night I was wished misfortune to spice up the tale some more, and so it was; today I had to stop walking for grief.
May I wish here for a happier day tomorrow that I might bring inspiration to my visit to Nottingham and not only my acknowledgement of the sadness I feel for our cities.