When you live in the heart of the city it’s a consolation to be able to see beyond its limits. The horizon holds a fascination too. It draws you towards it, you want to know what is on the other side. Robert Louis Stephenson uses a German word to describe it: ‘sehnsucht – the passion for what is ever beyond’. When I was growing up the horizon was nearer. From my brother’s bedroom window you could see a line of trees that ran along a disused railway cutting. It was only a few fields away, but a long way for a small child. I can’t remember now if it was a dream or my fevered imagination, but I had an idea that I would reach it and see a Walt Disney city of purple towers beyond, pennants fluttering in the breeze and swooping bluebirds.
After ten years of living here, I’m leaving my horizon. I decided to walk around it before I left, less to see what lies beyond it, but to see where it is, to pace out the limits of my life here. And to look back from a distance at the point where I have been for the past decade.
I mapped it out before I set off, scanning the hills through binoculars to identify landmarks. The horizon runs roughly from west to east. It isn’t a continuous line, but dips south by a few miles at one point. My friend Ann agreed to come with me and we decided to walk it over the course of a weekend.
We caught the number 77 bus to the horizon on a cold, grey Saturday morning in April. We got off at the end of the line and walked along Strelley Road under trees laden with cherry blossom, past a park where shaven headed men exercised their bull terriers. Crossing the busy A6002, which holds the west of the city in check, we stepped into another world, where quaint red brick cottages line the main street of Strelley village and ducks swim serenely on a little pond.
The horizon begins at Catstone Hill, just outside the village. From the front bedroom window of my house in Nottingham you can see out here, beyond redbrick suburbs, beyond reclaimed spoil heaps and industrial estates and the snaking traffic on the M1 to where a long line of wooded hills circles the north of the city.
As we approached the bridlepath leading to Catstone Hill, a Volvo estate with blacked out windows pulled up. A skinny youth in a baseball cap got out, scratched his backside and lit a cigarette. I noticed a plastic hand on the dashboard of the car, giving other motorists the finger. The hill is topped by a reservoir surrounded by a vicious steel security fence which we inched round through the mud. It was not the best day for views. Much of Nottingham was lost in murky haze but the intricate towers of Elizabethan Wollaton Hall surrounded by its parklands were just visible beyond a collection of out of town industrial sheds. On the way back down we could see the other side of the horizon, the towns of Ilkeston and Eastwood sprawled over low hills. Just below us was the M1.
Back in the village, I wanted to look inside the church to see its medieval monuments and chancel screen. The church noticeboard directed us to Strelley Hall for the key. The hall was built in the 18th century by Thomas Webb Edge, a man who controlled his horizons. He had the village moved out of sight, created parkland where it had been and planted a spinney to block out the view of Wollaton Hall, so that his guests wouldn’t compare it with his own house.
The hall is now a business centre, but the none of the businesses appeared to work on a Saturday and it was firmly closed. Returning on our way, we passed a garden full of camellias, the globe shaped flowers bright against dark leaves. A nearby noticeboard informed us that the worn paving stones along the edge of the road were part of the ‘Monks Way’, a medieval path which it is thought ran from the river Trent to a monastery, presumably Beauvale Priory, which lay just off our route. I liked the idea that my walk coincided with a more ancient route, which might also have held spiritual significance. The remains of Beauvale Priory are still the object of an annual pilgrimage in memory of a prior who was hung drawn and quartered at Tyburn for refusing to transfer his allegiance from the pope to King Henry VIII.
We crossed over the M1 and followed a path through fields, passing an aloof horsewoman and a motley pack of unsupervised dogs who barked at us ferociously. At Swingate on the edge of Kimberley, we found two landmarks: a radio mast and a water tower built of pinkish stone, with elegant art deco reliefs around the top.
It was nearly lunchtime and we had set our hearts on egg and chips. Kimberley seemed to be the kind of place for a greasy spoon, but Ann wasn’t so sure: if we wanted fried food, the chances were that we would only be able to find organic wholefood cafes.
We passed two small boys on bicycles, wearing oversized helmets. “Excuse me,” the smallest one said as we passed him. We looked back. “There’s someone…” he said and pointed in the direction we were going. I assured him we would be careful.
There was not a single greasy spoon to be seen in the centre of Kimberley, just an ugly precinct with a kebab shop and a Chinese takeaway. Further down the high street, when we were about to give up hope, we found a deli with teashop attached. Ann laughed when she opened the menu, which stated that organic ingredients were used wherever possible.
Warmed and refreshed, we continued on our way. We were surprised to discover that Kimberley had a conservation area and set off to explore it down a narrow winding street lined with terraces of redbrick workers’ houses, left over from the days when the town was a centre for framework knitting. Pride of place in the conservation area is the Hardy and Hanson’s brewery, once the home of Kimberley Ales. The brewery tap, ‘The Nelson and Railway’, is close at hand. It looked the most welcoming by far of the many pubs in Kimberley.
“It’s probably the last pub on our route today,” I said.
“We could just have a swift half,” Ann said. “We have been walking for a good ten minutes since lunch after all.”
We provided a little novelty value among the regulars on a quiet Saturday afternoon, by asking the barman if he knew the half time score in the Arsenal v Spurs game.
“It’s not often we get women in here asking about football,” he said, handing over the TV remote. “I hope you’re not going to cause any trouble.”
Kimberley merges seamlessly into Watnall, and just outside Watnall we climbed a hill to another view of Nottingham. There was another reservoir here, although this one looked overgrown and unused. Ann, with her eye for the sinister, decided that with the worn steps leading up the sides, it had the look of an aztec sacrificial altar. The weather had brightened up while we were in the pub although it was still quite hazy. Through my binoculars I could make out church spires and tower blocks: St Andrew’s church on Mansfield Road, the Victoria Centre flats in the city centre surrounded by cranes, Alexandra Court at the top of St Ann’s.
As we turned and headed north-east across fields, I was thinking about my desire for horizons. At best it can seem pointless. On a round planet, there will always be another horizon. The wanderer scuttles from one to the next, like a donkey chasing a carrot on a stick. Or am I looking for something? Greener grass, the purple Walt Disney city, the end of the earth? At worst, the explorer’s urge can lead to uncomfortable territory. I looked back at the reservoir and thought about the conquistadores. From the desire to know comes the desire to conquer, to possess. By moving on from Nottingham, I am perhaps obeying both of these urges. I’ve found a new place to go, to New Zealand, almost at the ends of the earth, the last place before the international date line. And I’m following in the footsteps of conquerors, of colonists, where the British queen is still head of state.
The route took us through the edge of a wood where the ground was carpeted with white wood anemones. Among wild garlic and the first spikes of early bluebells, I noticed delicate white woodsorrel flowers growing on a mossy tree stump. Hemmed in by little hills, the valley felt secluded despite the traffic noise from the B600. We were in D H Lawrence country now. Although he looked at it from a different direction, Lawrence’s horizon coincided with mine. He describes the view from his house in Walker Street, Eastwood as taking in Annesley and High Park woods which were further along our route: ‘I know that view better than any in the world … that is the country of my heart’. Lawrence contrasted the beauty of the Nottinghamshire countryside with the man-made ugliness all around. The industries which scarred the countryside have changed, but Lawrence would probably still have the same complaint. Coal mines and textile factories have been replaced with dual carriageways and industrial sheds, sprawling housing estates have been appended to mining settlements. In this age when people no longer walk everywhere as Lawrence did, it is probably harder to find the beauty in this landscape. People go further afield, to the Peak District and beyond, for their scenery.
At a small stream, clumps of yellow kingcups dotted the banks and violets nestled by a stile. We were heading towards Greasley church, which appears in two of Lawrence’s novels: ‘The White Peacock’ and ‘Sons and Lovers’. The dark imposing tower is 15th century, but the rest of the church was damaged by mining subsidence and rebuilt at the end of the 19th century. I was surprised to find that there had been mining here, in what seemed like such a rural location. In 1896, the time when Lawrence lived in Eastwood, there were no less than twenty six active coalmines within a couple of miles of my route. These days, there are only three working deep mines in the whole of Nottinghamshire.
Leaving Greasley, we found another viewpoint over Nottingham. We were approaching the M1 again and the Watnall chimneys came into sight, the most distinctive landmark that I can see from my window, four monumental relics of a former brickworks. We followed the motorway embankment for a short while. It was strange to think of the traffic thundering above us, with so little sense that just below there might be people walking along a bright green field edged with celandines and bordered by a dark line of pine forests.
At a fire-scorched iron barrier, the ground crunchy with broken glass and cinders, we reached the woods. We walked along the side of a light and open beech wood, the trees still bare, then through a mixture of young birch and conifer plantations. For the rest of the day now, we would be in the remnants of Sherwood Forest. This used to cover a vast area of land between Nottingham and Worksop, but disappeared steadily after the18th century, the oaks used for shipbuilding and to fuel the iron industry, the land cleared for agriculture and mining.
We emerged briefly from the woods at the edge of a valley of rolling fields and more woodland, patches of conifer interspersed with the soft brown and green haze of trees coming into leaf. A track curved off to our left down towards Moorgreen reservoir, which also features in Lawrence’s novels. There were other people here, family groups out for a stroll. The M1 still thundered in the background. We sat and enjoyed the view, drinking our flasks of tea and eating cake.
The path descended into the woods once more. We crossed underneath the M1 through a concrete subway, leaving the other walkers behind. We were in conifer forest now, row upon row of straight trunks disappearing into a dark blur on either side of us. Ann remarked that it was strangely soothing staring into pine trees.
I agreed. Conifer plantations get a bad press, but I’ve always liked them. They feel peaceful, calm, ordered. In a way, they are an antidote to the fevered march to the horizon. They hide it. We should have had splendid views from the hill we were climbing but could see nothing but trees. You can walk through them for ever and there will be nothing new to see, nothing to strive after, just an endless padding over soft needles through the gloom.
As the track descended, the trees thinned out and we could see Annesley Hall, an elegant 17th century house, empty and falling into decay. It is supposed to be one of the most haunted buildings in England and is best known as the home of Mary Chaworth, Lord Byron’s first love. The Chaworths and the Byrons on their neighbouring estates did not always get on so well. Byron’s great uncle, ‘wicked Jack’, killed Mary Chaworth’s great uncle in a duel.
We had left the M1 behind, but were now within earshot of the A611, a dual carriageway which cuts through Annesley Woods. We skipped across one carriageway and scrambled up through the woods to the remains of Annesley Castle, a flat raised piece of ground surrounded by more conifers. In Byron’s poem ‘The Dream’, he describes himself and Mary Chaworth standing on a hill which ‘Was crowned with a peculiar diadem/Of trees, in circular array’. The hill – Diadem Hill – is also in Annesley woods but no longer has its diadem of trees. Mary Chaworth’s husband, another controller of the landscape, objected to his wife being written about by other men and had them cut down. The hill is now planted over with conifers, and the views from the hill which Byron describes in the poem have been lost.
It didn’t look likely now that we would make Ravenshead, my planned destination for the day, as we were due to meet friends in town that evening, so we decided to make for Newstead village on the other side of the woods. We followed ‘Byron’s Walk’, presumably his route from his home at Newstead Abbey to Annesley Hall, although he probably didn’t have to run across the other carriageway of the A611 on the way. Ann had balked at the idea of walking through Annesley woods when I reminded her that the previous summer they had been the scene of a double manhunt, with two suspects from unconnected murders hiding out in them at the same time. One of the murders was the result of another feud between neighbours, this one originating in the divisive miner’s strike of the 1980s. Once we were in there, it didn’t feel particularly sinister. In fact, it seemed an odd place to hide, crisscrossed as it was with well-used paths.
The next day, only slightly the worse for wear after our night out, we caught the horizon bus out to Ravenshead. The route had become a little convoluted, due to our slow progress the day before. We were now going to head west to Annesley, close to the point where we had finished the day before, catch a bus from there to where the horizon dips south at Bestwood Country Park and then walk eastwards once more to the finishing point.
At Ravenshead, we set off along another busy road, the B6020 towards Kirkby in Ashfield, past ostentatiously large 1930s houses set in woodland gardens full of daffodils. We turned off the road, followed a line of pines and climbed over a barbed wire fence into a field. From here, there were views over the rolling woods of Newstead Abbey and over Nottingham, as well as of the route we had walked the day before, although visibility was still poor and the sky overcast. The Abbey was originally founded by Henry II as an act of atonement for the murder of Thomas Becket, another martyr like the prior of Beauvale. I like the idea of acts of atonement, of pilgrimages, carrying out actions to save your soul. It seems so straightforward. A pilgrimage is perhaps the opposite of sehnsucht which implies restlessness, a constant yearning which cannot be satisfied. You journey to a fixed goal from which you return to your everyday life, at peace spiritually. But maybe my walk was a pilgrimage of sorts as well, setting myself at rights with the place I was leaving.
As we left the field, we noticed a sign warning that it was regularly used for shooting. We slid under more barbed wire and onto Kirkby Forest golf course where we discreetly followed a track which took us behind a plantation within earshot of the A611. Strictly speaking we were trespassing. I am normally a law abiding walker but I felt I had a right to my horizon. We were walking over heathland, vanilla scented gorse bushes in full bloom, patches of dead bracken and dark sandy soil. These were Robin Hood’s Hills, the highest hills in the county at a modest 180 metres. We came out on a sandstone bluff, looking down on the remains of Annesley colliery with its distinctive red and white pithead tower. Annesley colliery is a conservation area because of the variety of different buildings on the site, but sadly is in a state of decay. Beyond the colliery we could see Newstead village and beyond that, Nottingham. We were at the furthest and highest point of the horizon from my house, nine miles away as the crow flies.
We zigzagged down through the trees, passing a field where three children were riding ponies round in circles and crossed a railway line. Ahead of us, rising up through the trees, was Annesley church, another landmark. We cut through a couple of streets of terraced pit houses, brightly painted in different colours, across a playing field and then up through the woods to the church. The churchyard was locked and there was no sign that regular services were held here, but it was a beautiful location among the trees.
It was lunchtime. We found a pub on the main road, where we ate uninspiring fare, feeling out of place among the families out for Sunday dinner. On the way out, I noticed a poster advertising a psychic fayre at Annesley Hall.
Back on the horizon bus once more, we alighted at Rise Park in Nottingham and followed a disused railway line into Bestwood Country Park. At the top of the old spoil heap from the former Bestwood colliery we looked back over the horizon we had just traversed, at the water tower, Watnall chimneys and Annesley church. We could see just about all the city of Nottingham, from the rows of housing estates on the northern edge, right across to Ratcliffe on Soar power station to the south. A lot nearer to the city now, we started identifying more landmarks through the binoculars. Ann spotted her house and I found a 1930s semi on a hill and decided that it had to be mine. Above us a lark sang high up in the grey sky. It was the first time on the whole walk that we were out of earshot of any major roads.
We continued through the woods of Bestwood country park. The sycamores lining our path, their slender trunks green with lichen, were just coming into leaf. Bestwood Country Park is a mixture of ancient woodland and reclaimed industrial land. A royal hunting ground from medieval times, King Charles II stayed there with Nell Gwynne and granted the estate to their son, the first duke of St. Albans. We wondered about stopping for tea at the Bestwood Lodge hotel, an extravagant Victorian gothic mansion built by the 10th Duke of St. Albans. We still had a full flask of tea though and decided to push on.
Out of the woods again, we followed a track past fields of bushy rhubarb. We found another view and spent more time identifying landmarks, commenting on how much they shift in relation to one another as you move round the horizon. It is also strange how ugly some buildings appear from afar. We were mystified by a massive pale green structure somewhere near the catholic cathedral. I’m still unsure what it is. The prison too, which I barely notice even though it is only a few streets from where I live, looms vastly from a distance. At the crest of the hill we could see over to Bestwood pumping station with its Italianate brick tower, now a leisure centre and restaurant.
We reached a group of houses, where a woman in gardening gloves politely pointed out we were walking on private land, which I knew but claimed ignorance. We passed yet another reservoir and crossed the A60 on a bridge I’d often noticed and wondered where it led. On the other side were some neat detached 1930s villas, a little community tucked away out of sight, above the busy road.
A footpath over fields took us down to the edge of the suburb of Arnold with its 1960s housing estates, including a garish clutch of white chalet style buildings marching down a hill side and an ugly council estate stranded on the edge of town where people could pretend it didn’t exist. We zigzagged back on ourselves and headed uphill once again, stopping for a flask of tea. The sun was shining now and we could see people walking their dogs below us. In the distance, children were shouting. The whole city was stretched out before us. It was odd that the closer we were to the city, the more peaceful our walk became.
Continuing up the hill, our path joined a muddy lane running between a haulage yard and a brickworks and then we were out on Dorket Head, a busy crossroads. The road here follows a ridge which forms the remaining horizon. We could have followed it all the way home, a tedious walk of perhaps a couple of hours, mainly through the suburbs. We had a short debate with the traffic whizzing past us and decided to end our walk at the appropriately named Traveller’s Rest, a pub about half an hour’s walk away. We followed the road past the brickworks and a quarry and then past fields of lambs. To our left we could see south over the Trent valley and the Vale of Belvoir to the hills beyond. It was St George’s day and cars were sporting stick-on England flags.
Returning home, I went upstairs and looked back at the horizon in the fading light. My relation to it had changed. I knew it now, but not in a conquering sort of way. It wasn’t a great achievement, this walk, but it was about finding out, exploring close to home. I had been surprised at how attractive the route was, despite the constant traffic, the sprawling housing estates, the industrial sheds of urban hinterland. In a way, the walk confirmed what I already knew: the reasons I was leaving and the things I would miss. There is beauty in the countryside here, but you have to work too hard to find it. At the same time, there are layers to the landscape – defunct industries, atonements, ghosts, literature – things that are tied up with my English, European identity, a culture I have grown up with. There is history in the so-called New World of course, but of a different kind. I’ll need to relearn my landscape and my relationship with it when I explore my new horizons