Two Shires Ghost Walk
You can follow the journey in pictures as you read by going to Flickr
Today my mother took me on a walk around Oxford.
Except my mother died twelve years ago and I was in Leeds. Whilst sorting through endless boxes of my mothers papers a few years ago I stumbled across a walking tour she had written, perhaps for friends of our family visiting Oxford. I don’t know and can’t ask. I think it is a kind of ghost walk. I would like to do the walk in Oxford where I grew up but we are more mobile now and since 2006 Leeds is my home.
The written walk starts on Hythe Bridge Street by the canal, five minutes from Oxford train station. I start out at Leeds train station and within the five minutes it takes me to reach the bridge by the canal I have bumped in to a friend, a member of the steering panel for grief series, in fact. We chat briefly, he wishes me a nice walk being a Flaneur. As he walks away with his bags of shopping, I reflect that this feels like Oxford. I normally pass people I know within the first five minutes of getting off the train. People I went to school with, now adults, though the child them that I remember still linger like ghosts above their heads. This can be a good and bad thing all at once. I wonder what version of me might be imprinted in their memory: the small girl with the long hair and gingham dress, the awkward teenager in the platform, knee-high boots, velvet coat and too much make up, the dreadful lilac phase I went through the year my mum died.
The written walk tells me to follow the canal north. I follow the canal northwest. Office Lock stays true to its name and I see commuters returning home and young professionals running with Apprentice-like drive. I consider Leeds dreaming spires: I can see candle house, Tower works and Bridgewater place. I’m hardly 10 minutes in and my camera hears my thoughts and presents me with a message: Memory Full. I begin to casually delete my previous memories to make space for new ones as I walk.
I reach a fork in the path. Do I walk the one my mother recommends or explore the overgrown one with the wild flowers? I cheat and investigate the overgrown path and then return to the written journey. A friend calls and we catch up at length, I feel guilty. I am listening to the alive and not the dead, and through technology rather than geography. But it feels right. Alex has known me since the age of four and it feels right to have someone that knew my mum on the walk with me. Alex is the kind of friend that I have shorthand with. So many things go without saying. She has lived my history with me in Oxford, and occasionally in Leeds.
I see the things mentioned in my mother’s observations but not in the right order: ducks, mills canal boats and swans. I have slowed as I chatted and now realise that the sun has begun to set and I have no phone battery left. I reflect that it is a happy accident and it is right to walk free of intrusive updates from cyberspace and calls about work. I meander in a leisurely fashion and stumble across the following graffiti: Feminism is a hate movement. It makes a change from the crude clichés and I am intrigued. I pretend that I am not angry. I think about what a good job my mother did of bringing me and my three siblings up single-handedly. An independent woman full of love and care for everyone she came into contact with. The route becomes wilder and more beautiful. I keep going and the runners and cyclists I pass thin out. The sun is setting. I can’t text my partner to tell him where I am or not to worry. Or when to worry. I have always had an over-active imagination and it is in danger of constructing a narrative where I am raped and/or murdered whilst taking a walk about my dead mother. I keep cheerful and quicken my pace. A man startles me by running towards me at a dizzying pace. He is jogging and when he sees my face he reads my concern and says hello. But as I walk on, I do think about why all the pedestrians I’ve seen are male? Coincidence perhaps, or am I being reckless and stupid as a woman walking alone and phone-less? I see the graffiti again, on a bridge this time: feminism is a hate movement. I see a sign that says: Warning. Danger of death.
I listen to the child version of me that has read too many ghost stories and cut across to a cycle path that feels more public. My mother and the walk have faded from my priority list although I note that my levels anxiety when walking alone have increased with age. At seventeen I walked around Oxford at 3-4am through rural spaces and never felt in the least bit afraid…Except of cows. I hate cows. I wonder whether the sign ‘passing bay’ has any connection to a ‘passing away bay’ for the Laura Palmers of this world. I find a way out to the main road and feel, perhaps needlessly, relieved. I abandon the second half of the walk to return to it another day.
Ghost walk part 2
I return to the walk two days later retracing my steps for the first half of the journey. I pass a boat called the Two Shires. In my head this is Oxfordshire and Yorkshire. I wonder what my mum would think of my new home. So many of the books she introduced me to as a child were set here and The Railway Children and The Secret Garden are still in my top 10 books.
I pass swans and am happy to see them from the safety of a bridge. As a child I had a lake at the bottom of my garden and was taught to fear swans with cygnets the way normal children are taught to fear cars on busy roads. The Graffiti tells me not to be afraid. I have daylight on my side this time and feel like singing but don’t. The walk tells me I will see houses with unique gardens that will give me a glimpse into the owner’s lives but instead I see executive flats. I come to Hollybush wildlife garden…but it is closed. Today it will have to remain a secret garden for me. An old man fishing notices my camera and we talk about the demise of film and the difficulties he’s having developing old super 8 footage. The walk advises me to turn left onto Port Meadow and I do, though obviously not onto Port Meadow…but a meadow of sorts, with Kirkstall abbey in the distance. I spent many a happy hour in my teenage years drinking and laughing with my friends on Port Meadow and I can see some signs that the youth of Leeds have been enjoying themselves although there fun is a little less Pre-Raphaelite than my memories. The walk tells me to turn right onto Aristotle Bridge and I do. My mother begins to talk about snow storms of lilac and playful Victorian architecture of the houses with crenelations and lace like tiling. I encounter a blizzard of cars and BHS. I briefly duck down an unknown alley and find some chimney pots sitting in a yard which I think is as close as I'm going to get. I go round BHS and compare their displays to the interiors of the homes in Oxford. They homes of Norham Gardens are not furnished with the bright orange scatter cushions or the prints of New York skylines. I feel ambivalent. There is still a part of me that fantasises about owning a vast Victorian mansion like my aunt does, but since I've lived in Leeds I've become increasingly uncomfortable with affluence seeping out of every pore of Oxford town centre, tidying the poor people away: over the ring road to Barton or behind the remains of the infamous Cutteslowe wall that divided the ‘right sort of people’ from the wrong sort. And I can totally see why my mum walked away from all that to become an artist. To work for little or nothing. I walk as advised across Leeds version Woodstock Road (Kirkstall road) and up Kirkstall lane past little back to backs that look like student houses. My mum takes a dig at foreign students on bikes…is that racist? I don’t want to think so. Is the dig at the fact that they’re foreign or the fact that they’re students or the fact that they’re cycling out into the road irresponsibly? I hope it’s the latter. I know I’m as guilty as her of being irritated by the occasional student. Leeds has less animosity to its students but not none. I confess to looking at the hordes of them doing the Otley Run pub crawl, dressed as Banana man lying in the middle of the road at 4pm on a Tuesday afternoon and wanting to tell them to have some dignity and not get themselves killed.
I see a colourful ice cream van emitting a nostalgic music at the traffic lights. I take a picture and then man driving the van shouts ‘why are you taking that? Why are you taking a picture?’ ‘I’m an artist. It’s a beautiful van’ I reply. He repeats the question ‘Why? Why are you taking a picture?!’ The traffic lights change but he’s still stationary, shouting at me while a cue of people start beeping at him. I walk in to the heart of Headingly student land. On the face of it, it appears a usual student area. Off licenses. Bars and fast food places. But in amongst these places of youthful abandon are some anomalies. A branch of the Samaritans sits beside a tattoo parlour: places of pain. The Funeral directors is tucked next to the Pizza place. And I think this street strangely encapsulates my 17th year: Funeral directors, Samaritans and bars. I’m glad I can move on. Mum tells me to go to Park Town and I find an equivalent on Shire Oak Road. On the way I gaze through estate agents windows and again feel a pang of desire for a vast house I don’t need and could never afford. Imposing houses where the wealth is discreetly hidden by trees and box hedges so not as to attract too much attention. I wonder why my mum is focussing so much on the expensive houses of Norham Gardens and Park Town? My guide of Oxford would be totally different (mainly pubs, restaurants and green spaces.) I look at the grand and hidden buildings on Shire Oak road. I can’t find the equivalent of North Parade in Leeds but one of my favourite things there is a pub called The Rose and Crown that has an idyllic beer garden with hanging vines. I discover what looks like a rather posh hotel tucked away in suitable leafy surrounding. I decide to have a glass of wine to represent the Rose and Crown in Oxford and perhaps have a temporary feeling of wealth. I feel self-conscious of my scruffy hair, backpack and the fact that I’m slightly sweaty from walking. I order in my best Oxford RP accent to try and make up for the scruffiness but the lady is so nice I needn't have tried to perform. I feel a bit foolish and tuck myself in large leather wing backed chair. My walk tells me to go to a Wimpy and get a cup of tea. Did my mum ever really get tea from burger places?! I took my mum in to Burger King once and she behaved as if she’d been transported to wonderland, looking for eye contact and smiling at everyone and everything. Needless to say 11 year old me was mortified and I swore only to return there with my brother who knew you kept your eyes fixed on your food and didn't gawp at the other customers or try to initiate conversation with them. I start to walk home. I get to Memorial drive and wonder whose idea it was to build retirement flats here, overlooking the grave yard. I'm so grateful my mother never had to endure a painful or isolated old age. She was a fiercely independent and would have no doubt kept herself busy making sculptures or painting if here eyesight had held. But I'm grateful I never had to find out how she’d cope.
Perhaps I will do this walk sometime in Oxford. But after doing it in Leeds, the original has maybe lost a little of its appeal. I think about the two cities I call home and how I have gained values from both. Oxford has taught me to value beautifully made things. Things made over time and with love by the people who built them, rather than cheap things designed to break and be replaced. Whether that’s the architecture in Norham Gardens or the beautiful handmade objects that fill the shops of the covered market. And yet Leeds has taught me the importance of honesty and through this the real possibility of warmth and community. I don’t think the cliché holds true that people are nicer up north, but there is an honesty and pragmatism that I love that Oxford doesn't have for me. If people don’t like you, you know about it up here but there is more often than not warmth, even towards a southerner like me, wandering round in a 50’s dress. It’s nice to have two cities shaping me. I'm thinking of the wonderful book ‘Steal like an artist’ by Austin Kleon and his thoughts on artistic lineage. I never thought I'd quote Jay-Z but here we are "we were kids without fathers...so we found our fathers on wax and on the streets and in history. We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves." If that's the case I have two parents. And my parent cities are alive and well.