Out of the Woods by Charlie Allenby

Charlie Allenby grew up believing that Epping Forest was a place to be avoided, full of ghosts and criminals. It took a global pandemic for him to give Epping another chance. Join him on his morning bike ride as he recalls earlier memories of this ancient woodland

7.30am. Tyres are squeezed and topped up with air in long strokes of the pump. A light breeze whispers against my bare legs, but the empty blue sky and rising sun suggests they won’t be cold for long. Shoes clipped into pedals, transforming man and machine into one being, the journey is underway. Destination: Epping Forest.

*

There was a time when, for me, Epping Forest was altogether an elsewhere place. 

“My cousin said that if you get to the bottom of the hill and leave your car in neutral, it gets dragged to the top.” It’s Year 7, Maths first thing on a Monday after a hot spring weekend, and there’s an excited buzz in the air. Ross Barnwell, my fellow top-of-the-register dweller, is excitedly retelling how a tonne of metal and four pubescent passengers fizzing with hormones were able to defy the laws of gravity in a scary part of the Forest. “It’s called Hangman’s Hill by High Beach. He said the ghost pulls you up the hill with his noose.”

*

7.45am. Cutting east, the bustling streets of Tottenham stand between me and the tranquility of the Lee Valley canal. The sun gleams off of the football stadium’s roof and catches the golden cockerel perched on its south stand. I pass two cemeteries – one for people, the other for cars. The ticker of a black cab has finally given up. After a life spent navigating the arteries, veins and capillaries of the capital, it sits atop a trailer, awaiting its passage to the afterlife. A breaker’s yard on an industrial estate where smog and grime fills every crevice seems like an understated send off.

The footbridge across the Pymmes Brook acts as the fault line between asphalt and escapism. I carefully pick my way through the flotsam that has washed up on the outskirts of the Marshes – two big cement blocks not enough to stop the canny fly tippers.

fly tipping on the outskirts of the marshes

Passing through the barriers and up and over Chalk Bridge, I feel a wave of relief. The satisfying crunch of gravel tells me there’s not long to go now. I’m almost there.

*

The tale of paranormal activity wasn’t the only thing that defined Epping Forest in my childhood. As I grew older, the stories turned darker. Gangland murders, buried bodies, remnants of clothing found within the decaying mulch. “I heard that if you dig a hole in Epping, you’re going to stumble across some bones,” said another friend, Liam Lockwood, who like me, has found it hard to shake the area’s notorious reputation. The Wikipedia entry for Epping Forest has a separate section on ‘murders.’  It currently includes 11 incidents over six-decades. 

Growing up in Chelmsford in Essex, less than 30 miles from Epping, I never had a desire to put the rumours to bed. My horizons extended north and east: screwball ice creams with their bubble gum ending on the promenade in Maldon, avoiding the tide on Frinton’s concrete sea wall, the salty waft of Leigh-on-Sea’s cockle sheds. The nefarious goings on, on the outskirts of London, were a reason to steer clear; the ancient woodland remaining an uncharted territory that I had no urge to uncover

*

7.55 am. The River Lea is glistening in the morning sun as I make my way north on the canal path. A black cat scampers across my path, diving into one of the nomadic canal boats that line the water from the Thameside mouth to its source in Bedfordshire. The touring bikes and pannier racks of the elders usually found perched on the benches by Alfie’s Lock are nowhere to be seen. No doubt they will be in their usual spot in an hour or so on my return journey.

At Ponder’s End Lock, it’s time to leave the tranquility of the river and rejoin the traffic. Flanked by the banked edges of the William Girling and King George’s reservoirs, the tops of oaks flicker into view on the horizon.

*

My first adult visit to Epping Forest didn’t exactly change my boyhood opinion. In 2019, on my 27th birthday, my girlfriend Izzy and I had gone to hire a rowing boat at Hollow Ponds. Our excitement was soon punctured by a gruff middle-aged man with week-old stubble and the hallmarks of a heavy night, who told us that he doesn’t take cards and we’re going to need to go to the hospital if we want to get cash out. In hindsight, he was just telling us that the nearest ATM was in Whipps Cross hospital, but there was a menacing air to his directions – as though he’d be only too happy to give me another reason to visit A&E if the mood took him.

Having dodged Hollow Pond’s collection of swans, Canadian geese and coots, we jumped back in the car and decided to head deeper into the unknown. The feather-shaped block of dark green stretched its way across my phone’s screen from Forest Gate in the East End to the Essex hinterlands. Stabbing my finger at a car park in its centre, it was time to immerse ourselves in the real Epping.

*

8 am. Approaching gate 101 along Hawksmouth, the tarmac falls away and becomes a rugged, pothole-strewn path. Weaving my way through the craters, I feel my serotonin levels return to normal as soon as the grassy fields come into view. My focus shifts from the actions of the drivers to my new environment – roaring engines replaced by wind rustling through leaves – and a maze of trails unfurls in front of me. I have a roughly plotted regular route but the beauty of knowing somewhere intimately means that, even if I end up on new ground, I’m never truly lost.

The Obelisk at the top of Pole Hill is a necessary, if thigh-burning, pilgrimage – especially on a clear day. Sitting at 0° longitude, it was installed in the 1800s by geographers at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, who would set their telescopes by searching for the granite landmark exactly 11 miles to the north. A neighbouring trig point marks the hill’s peak, but I’m not here for the monuments – in fact, I turn my back on them. Laid out in front of me is a visual history of London. Although a couple of centuries of population and vegetation growth mean you can no longer see as far as the Meridian Line, the latest additions to the city’s jagged skyline hover on the horizon, while in my immediate vicinity lies woodland that stretches back thousands of years.

Obelisk at the top of Pole Hill. Charlie rests his bike after a ‘thigh-burning’ ride
London’s current skyline just visible above trees that have been there for centuries

Photo snapped, I jump back on my bike and let gravity do the work as I descend into the darkness of the forest. A dog appears out of nowhere, a boxer chasing my shadows until I come to a stop in a clearing. Realising the blurred shape wasn’t fair game, it turns on its heels and scurries back to the increasingly desperate voice in the distance.

The tracks from here vary in shape and size – bridleways pockmarked with the U-shaped shoes of horses, down to openings in the undergrowth no-wider than a rabbit. I settle for something in the middle. A patch of wood anemones in full bloom catch the speckled rays that have broken their way through the thick canopy to the forest floor. The trail hugs the outskirts of the golf course until it is intersected by Bury Road. Despite being in the depths of nature, the brash hand of humanity – the manicured greens and macadam roads  – is never far away.

wood anemones

*

Even now I know the place better, I don’t think I could tell you where we parked back on that birthday visit in 2019. Rucksack filled with sandwiches, we set off in a westward direction, navigating bomb holes and jumping ditches until we came to a clearing. Our ears were met by the growl of motorbikes – the cracks of the carburettors punctuating the low level hum of riders out for a bank holiday run.

Settling down on High Beach’s grassy opening, it was hard to escape the closeness of the other revellers. Tinny, distorted music blared from cheap portable speakers. The smell of burnt meat wafted from disposable barbeques. Giddy children with bright red faces queued for blue ice pops from the rumbling ice cream van. It was a far cry from the place described in John Clare’s poetry – of airy bounds and left feeling high. Retracing our steps back to the car, my opinion of Epping had hardened.

*

8.15 am. I make my way northwards, loosely following the forest’s ‘Main Path’. Runners, walkers, hounds and horses share the wide dirt track. The gnarled trunks and branches of hornbeams are awash with catkins, ready for the wind to spread their seeds.

The undulating up-and-down of the appropriately named Hill Wood gets my heart rate pumping before I find myself back at High Beach. The cooler temperature and earlier time mean it’s a shadow of the bustling hub I encountered on my first visit. Recounting ‘A Walk in the Forest’, I can now see things through Clare’s eyes. I too love the break neck hills, that headlong go, and      leave me high, and half the world below.

Back on the Main Path, I whizz along Claypit Hill’s gravel-lined forest roads, stopping only to take in the views across the Lea Valley from the lofty heights. The expansive opening and its falling gradient is a brief sensory overload for my eyes, which have become accustomed to navigating the narrow, enclosed trails.

Farthest northern point reached, it’s time to make my way back towards Chingford. The Green Ride path I’m following south was built especially for Queen Victoria’s visit to the Forest in 1882 (although she stayed firmly in her horse-drawn carriage). The mounds to my left are in fact ‘Tank Traps’ built during the Second World War by the local Home Guard as part of the perimeter defences surrounding London. And that’s before you get to Loughton Camp – a collection of banks and ditches that were once the site of an Iron Age fort. Used by countless legends of British folklore – whether that was a base for Boudica during her uprising against the Romans or as a hideout for Dick Turpin – it’s hard to escape the feeling that stories are woven into the fabric of the forest.

The Green Ride built for Queen Victoria’s visit to Epping Forest in 1882

*

Since March 2020 when the pandemic first brought me back to Epping, I’ve uncovered a different side to the forest. This circuit now forms the basis of my near-weekly trips to the wild corner of north east London. The dark and murky side to the ancient woodland still simmers away in the background, but its natural beauty has come to the forefront.

*

9am. The final stop of my Epping Forest loop is Connaught Water. One of more than 100 lakes or ponds that dot the heaths, woodlands and grass, it’s another thing we have to thank the Victorians for. Created in 1880 to drain a marshy area of the forest, it soon became a popular spot for paddling and boating, and was named after the first ranger of Epping Forest – Queen Victoria’s third son, Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught and Strathearn.

Connaught Water

The only thing swimming in it now are the birds that call the lake home, but it’s still one of my favourite spots in the entire forest. Sitting on a bench, tucking into a slightly bruised banana, it’s a great place to watch the world go by. Mallards scrap over bread thrown into the water by a young family, before the resident Canada geese and Mute swans muscle their way through the maelstrom, bringing calm and grace to proceedings. The sun is fully beating down on my bare calves now, providing a welcome warmth after a long and layered locked-down winter.

Food finished, I join the Ranger’s Road and the start of my journey back home. Loose mud flings from my tyres like mortar boards on graduation day as soft dirt paths are replaced by unforgiving, onyx-coloured roads. Retracing my pedal strokes through Chingford, hills seem easier, passing traffic quieter, my world rebalanced thanks to the restorative power of the forest.

I never thought the darkness surrounding this notorious place could be banished, but there is now a lightness and warmth where there was once fear and trepidation of the unknown.

Charlie Allenby is a freelance journalist for various publications including the Guardian and the Independent and is the author of Bike London: A Guide to Cycling in the City. He is currently working on his second book, a cycling-based memoir.

Snow on the Danube by Francis Gilbert

Snow on the Danube (Blue Door Press 2019) evokes the lost world of Budapest during and between two great wars  and is recounted in the inimitable voice of Count Zoltán Pongrácz: a fussy hypochondriac who becomes an unlikely and compromised hero when the Fascists take over his beloved country and he is forced to rescue his adored, wayward sister Anna. An unlikely comedy, a document of filial love and a compelling portrait of the horrors of war, Snow on the Danube is the story of one man’s quest to save everything he loves most: his family, his friends – and, perhaps, his soul.

The Beginning    1920

Hungary wore black on the day of my birth. Street vendors tied black ribbons around bouquets of flowers; archdukes donned their darkest garb and thrummed their fingers on gold-tasselled armrests. Tram-drivers left their trolley buses in the depot and sat with their children in their tiny flats. Priests and civil servants hoisted black flags and watched them flutter in the air. The streets were empty. Church bells rang. Gamekeepers cancelled their early morning walks; they slumped in their chairs, hounds at their feet. Maids failed to make their daily trips to the grocers and lay on camp beds in their cubby-holes; bakers neglected to light their ovens and open their shutters. The keeper at the City Zoo threw a few thin slabs of meat to the lions and slouched home.

It was a day of national mourning. In Paris, a treaty was signed that butchered Hungary. Two-thirds of the kingdom was turned over to Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. Hungary had supported the losing side in the First World War.

My father had two reasons to wear black on June 4, 1920. Not only had he lost the family’s monumental Transylvanian castle in the unceremonious carve-up of the Treaty of Trianon but he had also, on the very same day, to endure the birth of his son.

My memories from those very early years are vague. I don’t remember much about the family’s life at our chateau in Villány. I can recall my father’s imperious voice barking orders at the workmen who toiled all day at the bottom of our ornamental garden. ‘Down there! Careful now. Easy with those girders!’

His shirt sleeves were rolled up and his bald head seemed to glow as he twirled his silver-topped cane. In his polished hunting boots he was a mass of perspiring muscle, mushrooming dust as he heaved bricks. I had no idea what was going on but I guessed it was of the utmost importance.

My first memory of my sister is of her informing me about those mysterious, grunting proceedings. Her black hair brushed my cheek as she leaned towards me and whispered: ‘They’re building a bridge. Papa says it’s very important that the lions have tongues.’

Trying to connect the idea of the bridge with lions was very difficult for me. I imagined that Papa would place real ones on the bridge and this was the whole purpose of the exercise: to give the lions a decent home.

This supposition was no more ridiculous than what he was attempting to do. My father, being fanatical about bridges, thought that he could somehow rectify the dire financial problems afflicting his vineyards by building a replica of Budapest’s Chain Bridge at the bottom of his garden. He persisted in believing in this illusion for a long time, even after the construction of the imitation bridge had bankrupted him, forced him to sell the chateau and move permanently back to Budapest.

Many years later, when I would stroll with my father on the actual bridge in the Budapest twilight, he would sigh and point to the monumental but tongueless lions, commenting regretfully: ‘People were coming from miles around to see my Chain Bridge at Villány. The archduke Frederick himself greatly admired it. That bridge was the only thing that wretched estate had going for it: it was a rotten, dry, wizened sort of place. We never grew a single decent grape there.’

After the Count’s death, I discovered that this was an outright lie. Although my father sold the chateau, he continued to own vast tracts of the vineyards. He had the good sense to appoint an honest and practical Magyar supervisor to run them all. This doughty chap wasn’t even discouraged by the lack of any venue to make the wine in and converted some abandoned cellars on the estate for that purpose. The fantastic Hungarian wines that this chateau-less estate produced was the only real source of income that my family had.

But, of course, I knew none of this as a tiny child gazing on all those workmen toiling away at the banks of the small river that babbled at the bottom of our garden. At the grand opening of the bridge, which most of the neighbouring villages attended, my father held me up proudly before the stone lions.

‘My lions have tongues that definitively exist — unlike the lions on the Chain Bridge in Budapest. They’ll be seeing my lions’ tongues for miles around! Just look at them!’ the Count roared as he held me aloft before the curled manes of those sandstone felines. To be honest, I don’t remember this but the anecdote was recounted with such regularity in the following years that it has almost become a genuine memory.

Certain smells awaken glimmerings of the chateau at Villány in my mind. The sharp, rich tang of fermenting wine transports me to the time when Anna gave me an illicit sip: I can still see her dimpled fingers wrapped around the glass. The cool dampness of mould compels me to recall the wooden barrels in the wine cellars. The baked warmth of the hard earth makes me see those dry vineyards tapering off into the horizon. And the delicious whisk of a breeze sends me back to the moments when I would stand in the middle of the bridge, watch the water ripple underneath and feel the airy draught against my cheeks. Ah yes, I’m never far from those sensations.

My sister told me that we used to play a lot of games around the bridge’s building site. Her favourite pastime was a game that she had invented after reading Molnár’s The Paul Street Boys. This was a classic Hungarian children’s story about a group of boys who engage in a fierce battle with a nasty gang to claim ownership of some derelict but treasured land in the slums of Budapest. I’m not sure that our massive garden in Villány, with its circular ponds and cherub-infested fountain, topiary hedges and lichened griffins, replicated those conditions but apparently Anna managed to persuade the servants’ children and myself that it did.

According to my sister, we all had a marvellous time throwing sand and bricks at each other and hiding behind wheelbarrows until I received a vicious crack on the head.  Anna had to scoop me up in her arms and run with me into the drawing room where my mother was reading. Mama said there was so much blood spurting out of my head that Anna’s white frock turned red. Because there was no hospital nearby, they had to take me to a gypsy healer who waved some leaves over my battered skull and curtailed the bleeding.

My only memory of the event is of a warm stickiness sprouting out of my scalp and wondering whether cocoa and other hot beverages were extracted from people’s heads. Push back my hair and you can still see the long, white scar.

* * *

Yes, yes, yes: there are black and white photos from this time. There’s my father, the Count, standing in his hunting gear and deerstalker hat with his Purdey shotgun in front of the fat-tongued lions. There’s my mother, sitting under a parasol in her white, floral dress, reading Pride and Prejudice and looking like the fair English maiden that she was before we moved to Budapest. There’s me, as a baby, wearing a long, cotton dress with frilly edges and long sleeves being carried by my mother in the road leading to the Archduke Frederick’s farm – his wine cellars and hunting grounds were close to us and we used to visit them regularly. What big round eyes I have! But you can certainly see in my pale, agitated face the first inklings of the illnesses that would plague me for the rest of my life.

The Chain Bridge, Budapest

* * *

And there’s Anna. Doesn’t she look naughty with her dark, inquiring eyes, her cheeky grin, her thick black hair, and her high, Pongrácz cheekbones, all dolled up in that ridiculous harlequin’s costume and hat? She always loved dressing up, even in the days when she became a hardened communist.

And here we all are together in our stately horse-drawn carriage, setting off for Mass in our Sunday best: my father is dressed in sober black with a top hat and my mother entirely obscured by the huge, netted hat she’s decided to model. And there we are behind them: me, in an absolutely tiny shirt and tie, and Anna looking distinctly grumpy in a Transylvanian frock. She never liked acting the role of a Magyar. But my goodness, she looks so slim and young!

* * *

It’s a shame that I remember so little from that time, but I was only five years old when my sister and I left Villány. My memory only revives when we moved to Budapest. And those first days and weeks I can recollect so vividly that I can shut my eyes and replay them with the same ease that a projectionist can pop a film into his whirring machine and shine it in Technicolor onto the darkened cinema screen.

Budapest 1945

Anna ran out of the apartment. If she had been speaking sense, I probably would not have followed her and tended to the unconscious Miss Virág. But my sister wasn’t herself at all: there was a desperate light of optimism in her eyes, the kind of optimism that quickly dwindles into suicidal depression once it has been disappointed. I felt that she was in more danger than my tutor.

I pursued her onto Andrássy where she slackened her pace, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to keep up. I called out to her to come back but she ignored me and, thus, I trailed after her through the nightmarish wreckage of Budapest all the way down Attila József utca right down to the river.

The relatively intact state of my apartment had been an exceptionally misleading indication about the general condition of our capital city. How can I begin to describe its ruinous condition? The streets were strewn with overturned tanks, burnt-out trams and cars; flames still lapped at the ruins of great apartment blocks and grey smoke drifted around the tree-tops. Great swathes of the apartments on the ring road around Deak Ter had been obliterated, leaving only charred timbers, pulverized bricks, broken tiles and smashed glass, and the dead bodies of dogs and cats. The corpses of Germans, Hungarians and Russians littered the gutters. Although most of the bodies were of uniformed soldiers, I did come across one unfortunate Swabian flower vendor who was still holding out a sprig of heather and lavender in her hand as if she was just about to sell the pitiful herbs. Her throat had been slashed and the blood had dried around the deep wound like old egg yolk.

After that I determined that I wouldn’t look closely at anything lying on the frozen ground unless I absolutely had to. However, despite this pledge to myself, I couldn’t help discerning that much of the snow was streaked with bright, red blood and many of the icy puddles were the colour of English strawberries. Her determination to reach her destination seemed to make her oblivious of the carnage around her; she hopped over bodies, skipped across gutters full of bloody pulp and twisted metal, and ducked around the abandoned trams and tanks.

As we approached the Danube, we heard feet tramping through the snow and the howling screech of a Russian officer. I swivelled round and saw that a large infantry division was marching in our wake: the sound of a drum reverberated through the eerily quiet, snow-thrilled air.

I managed to catch up with Anna on the fragmented remains of the Corso. She had come to a dead stop in front of what used to be the Carlton hotel and was staring at the Danube. The snow mocked us as it fell so peacefully onto the icy water.

“Ahhh!” Anna screamed.

I rushed up to her and took her arm by the railings of the promenade, which were now as looped and bowed as shoe laces. Then I embraced her, and she buried her face in the crook of my shoulder. As I held her, I could see what had happened to this once beautiful part of Budapest: every bridge had been blown up and all the great hotels on the Corso were simply piles of rubble with the occasional glint of a chandelier or hint of red carpet poking through the devastation.

I remember thinking it was a good thing that my father was dead: he couldn’t have borne the vision of the Chain Bridge’s lions with their manes blasted away and the middle of the bridge sliding into the unforgiving currents of the Danube. Nor could he have endured to see the great Buda castle’s dome stripped of its green copper finery and its inner scaffolding exposed to the elements. Most of all, the smell of burnt flesh and rubber and wood, and the crackle of simmering fires eating up the great hotels of the Corso would have told the Count that everything civilised about Hungary had been lost, irretrievably cast to oblivion. And yet, I couldn’t help feeling that my country deserved it. Quite frankly, I didn’t care that the Chain Bridge was totally destroyed.

You can find a PDF of these extracts here:

Biography

Francis Gilbert found the process of working with the other members of Blue Door Press on Snow on the Danube an enriching and enlightening process. He began the novel in the late 1990s, doing much research and rewriting the novel a great many times. It was not until he worked with Blue Door Press in 2016 that the narrative finally took a compelling and original shape. You can read about this process in his blog here: https://bluedoorpress.co.uk/2019/03/12/the-importance-of-patience-why-it-took-21-years-to-publish-snow-on-the-danube/

The Danube, the Chain Bridge and Budapest

Turin and Pavese by Mary Woodward

Mary Woodward finds the connection between place and poetry astonishing, as in Turin’s streets and squares she hears echoes of the poet, Cesare Pavese

All is the same
time has gone by –
some day you came
some day you’ll die

Last Blues Cesare Pavese

I’ve never met anybody who’s been to Turin, though I meet plenty of people who have never heard of it. ‘Where’s that? ’they say. Even Italians look blank. Or disapproving. Why go there? Northern, industrial. Why not Florence, Rome, Siena if you’re going to bother to go to Italy at all in winter.

I persuade myself with the prospect of shimmering Alps encircling a shadowy, elegant city of Baroque streets. City of book shops, and Vivaldi manuscripts, and Camparis at seven o’clock on the way home. Pavese and Primo Levi’s city, the home Levi walked back to from Auschwitz. I buy two maps, one laminated to withstand the rain I guess will be falling on the colonnaded street corners, and a real O.S. map, vast, on thin white paper, as easy to fold as dealing with the canvas on a yacht in the wind.

In the evenings before going, I spend hours looking at the neighbouring valleys and hills with a magnifying glass, scrutinising the city, giving names to streets and piazzas. The clocks go back. My life becomes two thirds night and one third the steel half-light of November days. This is a good time, the year’s eleventh hour, to visit a city which is reputed to be magic, one of a white (or black, depending on who you read) magic triangle with London and San Francisco, Prague & Lyons.

My brain concocts an atmosphere of its own for this unmet place, Roman military nerve centre, the eyrie of the Dukes of Savoy, the place where Italy itself was plotted and planned in the great coffee houses. I imagine Pavese, heir to all this, sitting in the Cafés Elena, and Torino, and San Carlo, and Flora. ‘Turin…City of fantasy…city of decorum…city of passion…city of irony,’ he says in his diaries.

As the plane eases into its long sweep down over the autumn slopes of the Alps, I start to feel I am cheating, that I have taken a shortcut instead of what should have been a test of my determination, that I should have walked and struggled to reach here. That’s what people did, isn’t it, for millennia? Everybody once, not just Levi. Walked through these valleys, or rode horses. Stayed at small pensiones and set off for the next day’s cold journeying. It is not meant to be this easy. But when I arrive I am absorbed into the evening rush hour crowds as if being welcomed. It is warm. The trees which line every street and square are copper and sepia as if it were still September.

Turin

That first night I go to the opera, an English company doing Billy Budd. The Via Roma is lit across from column to column for Christmas; further along a Jenny Holzer poem is moving in ten-foot-high white letters up and over the Palazzo Madama in the Piazza Castello. Time is short, just enough to get into my black dress, a half hour to eat pizza, and drink prosecco, in the cafe next to the Teatro Regio. The opera house is like a shoot in Italian Vogue, dark red walls and carpets, a cloud of glass chandeliers and sweeping low aero-curved staircases; Carlo Mollino’s risen from the ashes of World War Two theatre, Mollino the mysterious magic-obsessed Torinese architect who flew Spitfires and designed a racing car which won at Le Mans. All the fur-coated women dangle Hermes or Chanel handbags. I already know the Hermes shop in the Via Roma is the only one in the world to use plain carrier bags – a benchmark of Torinese discretion. You can be rich here, but only with simplicity a la Carla Bruni. Anything else would be bad manners.

Afterwards in the Cafe Mokita I have a negroni so fragrant with orange peel that the vermouth and campari and gin fade to innocence in the hefty crystal tumbler. Hungover, I wake the next morning to a cold sunny civic utopia of eighteenth-century streets. I try to read La Stampa, which I’ve bought at the newsstand by the triumphal arch at the end of the Piazza San Carlo, over macchiato and brioches in a small, darkly-panelled room in the Torino. I bite into a fat dome of pastry, into thickly sweet preserve of some kind. I cannot identify it. Not apricot, not fig. Almost pure honey. My hangover recedes.

The chessboard precision of the grid of central streets is still undisturbed by traffic. To the western end of each long Baroque vista the Alps rise up, peaks just touched with snow, cinematic, hallucinatory, while to the east the city drops back down towards the river Po. Now and then, as people start to crowd the streets on their way to offices, galleries and cafés, I half see a dark-eyed man in a sand-coloured raincoat, walking fast away from me, an almost-smoked cigarette held between the fingers of his left hand. He is working on another poem for his poems about the workers of Turin, the people he had grown up with in the Langhe Hills, now workers in factories – Pavese knows only too well their sense of loss –

On the street no one

Ever reveals the pain that gnaws at their life

Poetics

Then, in the shadows of the porticoes, he is gone.

Each evening before falling asleep I read the poems; of course they make more sense here. From the flats behind the hotel, through the silver grey five o’clocks of all the mornings, comes a burst of an Italian song, of that passionate, heroic kind which shows an unlikely connection between opera and rock, at a volume which can only be described as majestic. It wakes me every time, and I lie there wondering if I really want a pee or not. The fact I am even thinking this makes me put on my raincoat to pad down the broad hallway to the bathroom.

The hotel is the fourth floor of a seventeenth-century town palazzo and the graciousness of its dimensions gives the dawns a still seriousness undermined only by the bubbling sound from the huge fish tank in the foyer. When I come in and out during the day I greet the big goldfish living there with a finger touch on his glass; he pushes his orange O-mouth towards it and circles his pretty pleated fins with excitement or anger or curiosity. I remember, Pavese says Turin can be a prison.

Brilliant sun, icy azure air, the cinnamon gilded trees in the town squares… the dry whisper of leaves shifts backwards and forwards under my feet. Down by the great silent river the boat sheds are locked up (Pavese loved rowing on this stretch of river), the tennis courts empty, the hills opposite streaked with tawny shadows. Everywhere dark yellow, snub-nosed trams thrum like cats as they corner or speed up. I wander from bookshop to cafés to bookshop. In the Café Elena I sit in the window, watching these trams pass up and down the Piazza Vittorio Veneto; Pavese must have done exactly this on autumn mornings, the kind of morning he describes in ‘Indian Summer’:

The piazzas and streets

give off the same scent of warm sun

as these trees. You can go back to your town.

But Turin is the most beautiful of all towns.

Maybe here he met Constance Dowling, the Hollywood starlet who finally broke his heart – looked up from his espresso one day and there she was, proof that the war was over, that a new world of movies and sandals and dark red nail varnish had arrived. But his relationships with women were always doomed, crippled as he was by a cold childhood and the misogyny of his time and place.

I am worrying, as I knew I would, about why Pavese killed himself. I think again how I, and the rest of us, have been cheated. Done out of maybe another twenty or thirty years of poems and novels. Why do writers think they only belong to themselves? I want him to walk in, sit down and explain himself. The last poems are sad, yes, and haunting but not truly despairing. Failed love affairs are grist to the mill to a poet, surely, less of a death sentence than a happy marriage. But he’d probably just shrug. He would drink his coffee, of course, fast at the bar like all the locals, and then swing out into the piazza, raincoat almost catching in the doors. I can see him. I have a face and a voice for the poems. But it still doesn’t add up to an explanation.

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Cesare Pavese

One afternoon I catch a 35 from the Porta Nuova to look at the Lingotto, the 1914 Fiat plant converted into a mall and gallery. Before that I walk through the great train station and read the destination boards: Venice, Milan, Genoa, and the suburban train which sets off six times a day up into the mountains, up towards the snow and the skiing and the pines. I’d like to do that, just catch a train up into the Alps. Leave everything behind and disappear up there for the cut of the air and the light-headedness of being higher, and looking down on the city and its lights.

At the Lingotto I walk round the shops. I pace up and down the mile long boardwalk and try to imagine this place in its heyday as a factory in the twenties, producing millions of little cars which were to drive out all the horses, and fill the mountain valleys with their chugging engine noise and the smell of petrol; I imagine the men working here, dark men from the south with a different accent, or boys who’d grown up on farms round here but wanted a modern job, who’d abandoned the little fields and the vineyards for Fiat’s wages. The young men who walk the streets of Pavese’s Lavorare Stanca. A factory the size of an ocean liner, its workers on their way to another future.

On the Eastern side of the building the huge windows are filled with a frieze of Alpine peaks. I glance quickly… I think for a second what strange 1950’s wallpaper, and then my mind clicks: no, it’s real. It’s real. Real Alps. The sun is brushing the peaks with a glow which can only be described with the clichés of cosmetics advertising: blush, peach, rose, nude. Snow which is like warm skin. I buy a copy of Pavese’s Il Mestiere de Vivere in Italian, a beautiful Einaudi edition with a Francesco Menzio painting on the cover. I buy a bottle of mineral water in one of the little takeaway shops at the west end, and sit down near a children’s area. There are lots of wooden toys…horses and tiny ladders and chairs…but no children. Though it’s calm and silent my head starts to ache. I take a couple of Nurofen.

That evening I eat at the Café Kipling in the Piazza Bodoni. Earlier there had been music coming out of the open window of the Conservatorio Verdi – a trumpet, joyful and acclamatory. November – and yet warm enough for all the windows to be open. I wander back to the hotel though the tree-crowded squares of quiet eighteenth-century apartment blocks. The sky is black-ultramarine with a perfect half moon stitched lightly to it. A clear sky, the moon but no stars. Not one. I cannot work out how that could be.

In the square leading to the Piazza Cavour two ten-foot-high jets of water dance upwards. It is very, very cold without being frosty. Like the surface of another planet, one further from the sun. Pavese would have walked home fast on nights like this, wearing his leather jacket and his white evening scarf, slightly drunk sometimes though I imagine he could knock back Vermouth and gin, whatever, you name it, without ill effect. He would have become quieter as he drank, just quieter and even more thoughtful until he pushed back his chair, said goodnight, and headed off though these exquisite and silent piazzas. And then once home, the door shut, his jacket thrown on the back of a chair, he wrote.

On the last day I walk miles from the market in the north of the city down to the Gallery of Contemporary Art. I pass the Fontana Angelica, boarded up to be cleaned. The guidebook says this is a magic fountain, indeed the gateway itself to infinity. I am relieved it is inaccessible. Maybe another time. I pass beyond the Fontana down the Corso Re Umberto, the road where Primo Levi lived all his life apart from when he was a prisoner. I would like to look for his apartment block but I’m not sure how long it will take me to reach the gallery, and I have to be back by five. In the broad streets down here there are unused tram lines everywhere, an iron archaeology of the twentieth century. This must look just as it did when Levi walked along it when he returned from Auschwitz, the desired and longed for, most beloved road, the road home.

I have learnt to watch my step as I run across the cobbles, not to catch my foot in the gaps around the unused rails, which trace ghost runs for trams full of young men in pinstripe double-breasted suits, and their girls in print cotton frocks and turban headscarves and straw wedge platform shoes, these great corners where there is no traffic passing now, nothing now but the drifting leaves.

Back on the pavement, under the colonnade there’s the air of an imperial thoroughfare where the Corso Vittorio Emanuele runs up from the Porta Nuova, the momentary appearance of nineteenth-century Italy, of urban space and monuments and unachieved majestic ambition. There are mahogany and gilt cafes, and chocolate shops of gold-lettered opulence. I walk faster. The bustle of the centre fades behind me. The gallery is on the south side of this great street, and is of much more recent date, disconcertingly like the Hayward. I am led to it by neon letters six feet high along the edge of the roof which declare ‘All art was contemporary once.’ Yes, in English. At the steps up to the doors there is a big, light brown cat waving his tail and being stroked by visitors. I hurry up so I can meet him too, but when I am almost close enough he has disappeared under the steps and away.

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Piazza San Carlo

Tra fiori e davanzali

I gatti lo sapranno

The Cats will Know

The first and only gatto I have spotted in Pavese’s city of all-knowing poetic cats and he has gone. Entry to the gallery itself is almost as elusive. The staff don’t speak English. I cause consternation by trying to go in without checking in my bag. Eventually, bagless, I am let loose in the empty spaces.

I have come here to look for work by the Turin Six, painters working between the wars. I like them, these landscapes and summer afternoons and interiors, lying about a calm and peace which did not exist. There is a small painting of three windows opening inwards. Hills in the distance. Empty chairs. No people. Jessie Boswell. Born Leeds 1881-1943. How on earth did Jessie Boswell get here from Leeds, why has she fetched up here with the Turin Six? And did she ever sit in the Flora or the Elena or the San Carlo with Pavese? The gallery does not believe in overdoing information. Only the paintings speak for their makers’ lives and they’re not saying a lot. More opinionated siblings may well be gathering dust in the basement. And while these were being painted Pavese was exiled in Brancaleone, watching the summers of Fascism pass, bored and longing to be back in Turin.

I walk back toward the Porta Nuova to check the times of buses for the airport – unmissable, these buses – bright blue in a world of yellow public transport. One is at the stop. The last suitcases are stowed in the side and then it pulls out, signals and turns with an air of finality back down the opposite carriageway away from the heart of the city towards the airport. The sight lowers my spirits. I do not want to leave.

I cross over to the Piazza Carlo Felice and walk up through the porticoes towards the Saturday clamour of the Via Roma. The stately dark wood and gold entrance of the Hotel Roma is open on my left. These are the doors Pavese entered… it must have been hot, a late August day in 1950. Easy to imagine how both brilliant and dusty Turin is in the summer, the stone everywhere broiling with the heat. I have more questions. Why did he choose this hotel? The most central? The most anonymous? Or the shrine of particular memories, memories he wanted to wrap round him as the barbiturates took effect? He never left that evening, lighting a cigarette, as he must have done on other days maybe after a long afternoon in a darkened bedroom. With a lucky woman who knew his voice and the way he talked and what he worried about. ‘Don’t gossip too much,’ he says in his final note. Some hope. We have gossiped about him ever since.

I feel again that irrational fury about losing a poet too young. There’s a long list of them. But with Pavese it’s worse than the others. More intimate, for it is also his personal glamour, his watchful, clever, distanced temperament, his difficult presence which fascinate me. And what would he have had to say about Europe in the following decades, Pavese, the poet of workers and struggle and the cruelty of the emerging modern world, who as a boy playing football in the suburbs heard the gunfire of the Turin massacre of trade unionists in1927. It would have been worth reading.

On the last morning it is still nerve-cleansing Alpine weather. I am laden with bags of hazelnut amaretti and porcini bought from a market smallholder who has a trestle table laden with open sacks, smelling of black earth and bark. As the plane takes off and then banks up over the mountains, the sky to the West is crimson-scarlet like the walls of the Teatro Reggio. A horizon like an opera. The city falls back away from us into its safe place overshadowed by the peaks. ‘Turin, my favourite subject,’ Pavese says in his diary for February 1936, Pavese who never left it voluntarily, for whom it was home and workplace and theatre. Now I have seen it I am closer to those poems I love. Poems can belong to a city, are the voice of its streets and squares. Sometimes you just have to get up and go there. The connection between place and poetry is astonishing. Of course, poems can exist elsewhere but they can use their own energy more fully in their own place.

All the winter through I come back to a quiet, empty house. His raincoat is on the back of the door, and there’s the smell of a dark tobacco in the solitude of the evening air. I open his poems, the streets outside are no longer the known streets of home, but Turin, after the battles of WW2 have fallen silent, and the troops have gone, and the prisoners of war have been repatriated; a city where the cafés once again have enough cake and little satin-ribbon-tied bags of hazelnut chocolates to stack on the glass counters; a city where they are just starting to feel optimistic enough about the future to think of rebuilding the opera house.

Disaffections: Complete Poems 1930-1950 Cesare Pavese Carcanet 2004

This Business of Living Diaries 1935-1950 Cesare Pavese Transaction 2009

This was first published in Tears in the Fence No. 70 Autumn 2019

Mary Woodward describes herself more a writer of poems (one full collection The White Valentine, Worple Press 2014, one pamphlet Almost Like Talking Smith Doorstop 1993, poems in magazines including Poetry Ireland, The North, Southword) than of prose.

She has written for The Guardian newspaper (she won their fashion writing competition in 2003) and pieces for literary magazines (The North, Agenda, Tears in the Fence etc) and has published short fiction in anthologies and been shortlisted for short story competitions including the Asham Award and Fish.

“I made a visit to Turin a few years ago to see the place which had been the home of two writers I love, Pavese and Primo Levi. I was not disappointed – it is a wonderful city – and wrote this piece to try to keep a sense of it alive for myself. I hope it will also act as encouragement for others to read Pavese’s wonderful poetry. I am not a travel writer but, as some people say, places speak and I found Turin to be highly conversational…full of wisdom and thoughtfulness.”

A PDF can of the piece can be found here:

Learning to Breathe With Trees Sarah Salway

a place close to home becomes important as Sarah begins to recover from Covid-19

‘You have to breathe properly,’ Richy, the Filipino nurse, tells me on my first night in the COVID isolation ward, his visor misting up with his own breath. ‘You are too shallow. If you leave here, you need to put yourself out in the world more. Breathe. Breathe.’ 

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Covid isolation ward: patient’s eye view

While I’m deep breathing – slowly in through the nose, puffing out through the mouth, putting myself out there – I remember reading that every window in this hospital is supposed to look out at a tree. Somehow I manage to shuffle to the window but all I can see is a concrete courtyard and two people smoking by some bins. Determined to see some nature, I stand on tiptoes, squashing my head sideways against the glass. Ah, there it is, the top of something that looks like a … 

‘What are you are doing?’ Richy has come into my room without me hearing him. A feat indeed in full PPE. ‘You’ll exhaust yourself. Get back to bed.’ I remember his ‘if’ and not ‘when’ about going home, and go back to practising my breathing.

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‘All I can see is a concrete courtyard’

*

The Grove, a small park behind my house was given to Tunbridge Wells by the Duke of Buckingham in the seventeenth century. It was planted thickly and mostly with oaks as somewhere for visitors to promenade when they were tired of gambling. 

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After the 1987 hurricane destroyed many of the park’s trees, other varieties were planted. Before Covid, I had a plan to identify them all, and had bought an old hardback book, Trees in Britain by L J F Brimble from our local charity bookshop. 

It was only when I’d got home that a postcard fell out –  the original handwritten order from W H Smith & Son of Thames Street, Windsor, dated 22nd July 1948. I was intrigued to see it was addressed to D H Hardwick of the Military Wing of Harefield County Hospital in Uxbridge. That’s interesting, I thought, putting it aside to investigate when I had more time.

‘It was only when I’d got home that a postcard fell out – the original handwritten order from W H Smith & Son’

*

One of the common symptoms of the Corona Virus is a difficulty in breathing, but doctors are finding some patients have Silent Hypoxia, the medical term for when someone has dangerously low oxygen levels but is still able to function. This is the case with me. 

I’m hesitant about ringing 111 at first but once the paramedics arrive and test me, it takes just minutes before I’m in an ambulance. From my seat in the back, I hear fragments from urgent sounding telephone calls, ‘Red route,’ ‘Need to be quick’, and I wonder which poor person they are talking about. Then I realise it’s me. An hour later I’m in a hospital bed on oxygen, remaining there for six days. 

When I eventually come out, it is to a different world. The country’s in lockdown because to touch someone could be to kill them and we are only allowed out one hour a day. I’m still frail anyway, so it is enough for me to totter round The Grove barely noticing the trees. But doing the same route daily means I’m aware of how much stronger I am getting as the weeks creep by. Like many others, I also start to hunger more for nature.

‘Was this tree always this colour?’ a man asks me during one walk. He’s standing by a copper birch, its rich purple leaves showcased by the smooth grey bark. I tell him I can’t remember, but has he seen the Christmas tree blossoms on the horse chestnut? We agree that all the trees are particularly amazing this year. 

It seems the perfect time to go back to my plan of learning the trees in the park by name. I get out my old book, and the postcard falls out again. 

*

It’s easy to find out about Harefield Hospital, the address my book was originally sent to. It’s now one of the ‘lost hospitals of London’ but was once the home of an Australian family, the Billyard-Leakes. They’d offered it to the Australian government in wartime for the treatment of injured Australian and New Zealand soldiers, and by 1940 it had gained an international reputation for treating disease and injury to the lungs and oesophagus.

D H Hardwick, the man, takes longer to track down. Eventually I find out he was an officer of the Royal Air Force Voluntary Reserve, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross during the Battle of Arnhem. This was a brutal battle and out of nearly 9,000 men taking part from the 1st Airborne Regiment (which my D H Hardwick as Flight Officer belonged to) only 2,000 came home. So the man who first owned my tree book had officially been a survivor. 

*

And now I am one too. Apparently I have ‘battled’ through, I’m a ‘warrior’, and I’ve won the ultimate medal for 2020: ‘Covid Survivor’. But when I talk to others who have shared my experience of being admitted to hospital, we agree that we were never in a state to fight anything, and if there’s a metaphor that works better for us than war language, it’s the idea of a computer virus. Our bodies have been contaminated with unsafe messages rushing through our veins. So much of what we thought we knew – such as how to breathe – has to be wiped clean before we can function again. 

*

Stalking D H Hardwick online proves to be the perfect gentle distraction as I recover. From military websites, I’ve found out his first names were Dennis Henden and he was born in Auckland in 1917. In fact, he was one of many New Zealanders who joined the Royal Air Force, and his squadron was involved with the SOE, or Special Operations Executive. He was also described as a ‘surveyor’, which probably involved him staking out enemy territory. What I still find most interesting about him though was how, while he was recovering in a hospital so far from home and several years after the war had ended, he had ordered a book so he could learn more about English trees. 

It seems an almost heroic curiosity, and makes me ashamed of how I’ve always been too busy to bother learning my own landscape properly. There are so many things we take for granted until we nearly lose them. Every day now, my phone fills with photographs of flowers and skies from friends, and I study every one closely as if the natural world is a book I need to translate. Images of trees fill me with special delight.

*

My daily breathing exercises seem to be helping. Although it looks as if one of my lungs may have some permanent damage, my oxygen levels are nearly back to normal. However on a Whatsapp group imaginatively called, ‘Covid Survivors’, we talk openly about PTSD and panic attacks. It’s the sort of thing none of us can discuss easily with friends and family, because we’re aware of how much they want us to be back to ‘normal’. 

I think of my father who never talked about his war experiences, and I can understand better why this was now. His bad memories were a living reminder that trauma not only sticks around, but may even be contagious. We are luckier nowadays, and in my Whatsapp group, we share the names of our therapists, talking about how they help by letting us go over everything to someone who isn’t emotionally involved. We don’t want to upset our families, or as one member calls everyone who hasn’t had the virus, ‘the civilians’.

*

Dennis Hardwick flew a Stirling IV. I know this because, during one of my internet searches, I find a photograph he is credited with taking of this plane. It looks like a bulky insect, and I imagine it buzzing through the trees, dropping spies into enemy territory like eggs. I read his citation for when he received the Distinguished Flying Cross. In 1944, he was flying to drop supplies to British ground forces in Holland when his aircraft was hit, killing one member of the crew and wounding another. The aircraft went out of control, diving steeply, but Dennis succeeded in levelling out. The citation says, ‘Although the damaged aircraft was difficult to control this resolute pilot flew it to base and made a safe landing. Flying Officer Hardwick displayed commendable skill and coolness in hazardous circumstances.’ Even though it’s ridiculous to be proud of someone with whom you have no connection, I can’t help stroking my/his book. Well done, I whisper to it.  

*

A few years ago I went to a workshop on Natural Navigation for a magazine article I was writing about getting lost. We were a diverse group, brought together only by a desire to learn how to find our way using clues from nature. In our introductions, one man announced he was a pilot. He could navigate anywhere in the sky, he said, but on land he was always getting lost. 

I think of Dennis Hardwick as rather like that pilot. Still in a Military Hospital in 1948, unlikely to fly again, he must have been navigating a way through his new landscape tree by tree by tree. 

Did he know then that the average tree produces enough oxygen in one year to keep a family of four breathing? Both Dennis and I found ourselves desperately in need of oxygen, but I think trees gave us more than simply being the world’s lungs when our own weren’t working. Through them, we learnt a different language, a better way of understanding the world that we had been given this second precious chance to walk in. Perhaps us both owning this book at our different times of need is a sign of how we refused to take that for granted. Learning to call the trees by their real names was the least we can do. I imagine both of us wheezing gently through the same pages of the book, taking it out to the same type of parks, staring at the same leaves. 

*

I still don’t know what happened to Dennis after he left the hospital, but every time I search for D H Hardwick, almost the first hit is for a logging company in New Hampshire. Part of me hopes this business wasn’t set up by my Dennis, and that his interest in trees wasn’t just so he could learn which to cut down. 

Now when I walk round the Grove, with Dennis’s book in my hand, I am able to identify the lime, horse chestnut, holly, birches (both copper and silver), yew, whitebeam, hornbeam, and also the two Scotch pines that have sprung up in the corner where we used to be allowed to dump our Christmas trees. 

It’s true that knowing the names of the trees changes my walks. Because I don’t just go ‘tree tree tree’ any more, it slows me down. It feels as if I’ve added another layer to my landscape, almost as if the dial on a telescope has been turned so everything is in focus. 

*

I’m looking at trees so closely that I develop favourites. Number one for me is the Turkish Oak at the entrance to the Grove. It was planted in the 1600s and is so huge that one of its limbs would be wider than most of the other trees in the park.

In fact, its size makes me nickname it the Tree Boss. Trees communicate with each other through their root systems and I like to imagine Tree Boss comforting the others, telling them that it will all be OK, that this too will pass. 

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‘Tree Boss’

There’s something so reassuring about this fantasy that one day I take a picture to use as a screensaver. Just as I’m putting my phone away, a stranger walks up to me. 

‘Sorry to interrupt,’ she says, ‘but I saw your story in the paper and I wanted to say how pleased I am that you survived.’ 

It’s not the first time this has happened, and I’ve learnt just to smile and say thanks. My therapist has suggested that I stand for something bigger than myself because I’m an example of how it is possible to come through a plague alive and smiling. Perhaps this is why Dennis has come to mean so much to me too. When I walk by ‘my’ tree now, as well as touching it – hello, old friend – I wonder just how many pandemics it has seen, from the Great Plague of London through Spanish Flu, smallpox, measles, polio and more. Because long after Covid, perhaps our Trees in Britain book will find its way to another person just when they need it, and because long after us both, long after me, this tree will still be standing.

Sarah Salway is a novelist, teacher, journalist and poet. She has given a TEDx talk in praise of everyday words (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_KVNGzoGfrA), and currently runs a reading group in Kent for the Royal Literary Fund. In March 2020, she was hospitalised for COVID pneumonia, but has now happily recovered. www.sarahsalway.co.uk

© Sarah Salway

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