In an essay extracted from ‘The Best British Travel Writing of the 21st Century’, Tim Hannigan finds himself holding the footprints of strangers.
I thought at first that they were some kind of strange house brick, paper-white in the thinning light, scattered across the track with the new grass coming through. But the sound they made caused me to pause: a glassy tinkle under my boot heels. I looked back uncertainly towards the gimcrack farmyard where I had left the car, then squatted down. A mass of them: uneven lozenges, perfectly flat on one side, cleanly curved on the other. The edges of the pile had been ground to chalk under the wheels of a passing tractor, but those at the centre were intact, cool and hard to the touch. I lifted one, and saw the letters, scratched into the flatter surface: Indira A. Then other names came clear across the pile: Ms G Wilson; Mr Goswami; Sarah S.
A small lurch of horror: I was holding a plaster cast of a human foot.
Hundreds of them, each marked with the name of its owner. What were they doing here, things of such intimacy, dumped in a farm track beyond the brink of the city? I fought the urge to recoil and fling the cast that I held aside. I replaced it as gently as I could, and stepped away, unpleasant electricity prickling up my forearms and across my scalp. It felt like a moment from another land; a discovery in the flayed fields of a country a few seasons beyond evil. But these were only plaster casts, and this was only Leicestershire.
I moved away uneasily, the motorway roaring to the right like a wind-wrecked groundswell.
I had sat in my car with a bare hour of daylight to spare, the map unfolded over the steering wheel. Three days of sudden heat in mid-April, and the city had gone into a strange convulsion, dotting the park beside the university with pallid, cross-legged figures, mobile phones cradled like alms bowls. It made me suddenly and overwhelmingly claustrophobic, aching for home ground where the moors would all be in a turmeric blaze of gorse.
I scanned the map for a right-of-way, the nearest green stitch through the fields, and found it, just above the blue right-angle of a motorway junction. It was maybe two miles from where I sat. Better yet: there was a way through; a C-road that bled from urban orange to rural yellow as it passed beneath the motorway; a forgotten weakness in the city’s defences.
I folded the map, started the engine, and swung out into the traffic.
Beyond the plaster casts, the path crossed a brook and rose to the edge of a rape field. The ground here was wet, yielding beneath my boots and marked by no footprints but my own. No one had walked this way for weeks, maybe since before the winter. The motorway roared to the right, and the path ran in beside it, though the cars were invisible, twenty feet below. A magpie angled up ahead, then dropped into a hedge like a paper plane, cackling furiously at my intrusion.
I was still unnerved by the plaster feet, and all of this was very strange. To the left was a long spinney like the back of a mastodon, the falling sun just snagged on its upper edge. To the right, across the evening floodtide of traffic, were pavements still throbbing faintly with the heat of the day. A quarter-mile ahead a red-and-white postage-stamp rose above the thorns: Colonel Sanders, flying over the Leicester Forest East Services.
And then suddenly stranger still: OS sheet 233 abruptly peeled away from the ground reality: a new road, cutting through the fields towards some satellite suburb where the map showed only a path. I climbed over the fence and wandered along the freshly seeded verge. A rough mound of earth rose on one side, and a skeletal trio reared into view at its summit: three boys on scramblers, set against the coppery wash of the western sky. They looked down at me for a moment, helmeted heads mantis-like, then vanished into the country with a triple snarl. I expected to see them again, trailing dust along a field edge when I cut back south, away from the new road, but there was nothing.
Another spinney here, the branches still thin with winter and the fading light coming through in bars. The tops were lousy with wood pigeons. They shifted at my passing, wings clattering, and I drew a peristaltic pulse of movement above me as I walked the length of the wood.
There were three more of these spinneys in view: square blocks, two or three acres apiece, separated by half-mile stretches of pasture. This pattern was no accident. They were old fox coverts, and when I paused and unfolded the map I could see that there were still others, east of the motorway, fixed as if in amber amongst the suburbs. Once – probably within living memory – packs of strange hounds had clamoured through their undergrowth on winter Saturdays while cavalcades of top-hatted gentry waited on horseback in the flanking fields.
The coverts now fossilised within the city still had their names on the map: Meynell’s Gorse; Foxholes Spinney; the Osiers. Those outside the motorway, were nothing but green blocks in the white fields. But they would have had names. To the west a reddish smudge showed a tractor, harrowing a field in the day’s end. Someone out there probably still knew what these little woods were called, if only you knew where to ask.
In a gateway at the end of the spinney, a moment of sudden squalor: plywood and broken pallets; a yellow sand sack, marked with the phone number of a builders’ merchant; a pane of glass, and an upended toilet. I didn’t understand what had happened here. There are often squalid moments in farmland; broken concrete and feed sacks shunted into far corners, half-covered with boulders cleared from the fields. But this deposit – like the plaster feet – was something else, something inexplicable, something faintly uncanny.
At home I might have known already whose land this was. If not, I could have asked: who’s got the fields up by… up by… But the woods were nameless on the map.
The line of the path dropped down a slight slope to the lane that led back to the farmyard where I had parked. Here another heap of junk, plasterboard and tiles.
Suddenly I understood. I was not the only person to have found this lane, this secret portal that took you out along the last street of pavement-mounted cars, and into the countryside. All the less reputable builders of the city knew it was here too, and at night their vans slipped out this way, hauled up on the green littoral like egg-laying turtles, and dropped their loads. Some, compelled by a strange discretion, turned through open gateways to leave their excretions away from the lane. And once – sometime last year perhaps – one of their number had carried a macabre cargo, the contents of an old storeroom from a chiropodist’s clinic undergoing renovation, and dumped it in the first trackway so that the smooth imprints of people who might never walk this way now lay amongst the fields.
I walked back east along the lane. The flanking trees were full of bird noise and the ditch was foul with builders’ waste. I paused at a gateway, and spotted a hare, loping purposefully down the slope towards me like a departing miscreant. I froze, and she kept coming. She was very close before she paused, recognising something out of place. But in this country strangely coloured deposits appeared nightly in the gateways, and after a moment she moved on forward, hesitantly now, folding and refolding her long body like the running gear of a steam train slowing towards a station. I stopped breathing, and she was a bare twenty feet away before finally she halted.
I could see the small pulses around her muzzle as she groped at the evening air for a signal, and I caught a brief intimation of a process coming to fulfilment, through the dusk darkly. She whipped around and bolted back the way she had come, throwing a triple volley of jinks into her course as if I might be powering after her like a lurcher, then was gone over the rise.
I walked on with a faint tremor in my fingertips.
It was very nearly dark when I got back to the car, parked in the sprouting nettles beside the barns. I stood in the lane. Ahead I could see the modest collection of high buildings in the city centre. Behind, the way I had come, the lane faded between fields and spinneys.
Many people would call the country through which I had walked a “liminal space”. But no; this was a place. This was absolutely the countryside. The spinneys and fields had names, even if no mapmaker had ever thought to seek them out. If there was a limen it was the motorway itself. This farm, and the others around it, had watched the open ground between the fox coverts fill up, and the calcification creep towards them out of the east, until, in the late 1960s, they threw up the M1 like a dyke and the advance stopped. The nightly deposits in the gateways blew across like spindrift from a blood-dark sea.
I stood there for a long time, looking up and down the lane in both directions, and then, just as I was about to break myself away, the tractor I had seen in the distance earlier loomed suddenly out of the remembered country to the west. There was still a glow in the sky beyond, and the figure in the cab was backlit and broad, swaying with the easy bounce of the suspension. I stepped aside and raised a hand in greeting, and a hand went up in return – the familiar loose salute of a man in charge of a big machine. He swung right into a rutted trackway and rumbled off into other fields.
Down by the brook the plaster feet were white like bones in the gloaming.
‘Footprints’ by Tim Hannigan was originally published in The Clearing, 20 August 2018.
Edited by Jessica Vincent, Levison Wood, Monisha Rajesh and Simon Willmore, ‘The Best British Travel Writing of the 21st Century’ — which also features Jessica J. Lee’s 2019 Caught by the River contribution ‘A Dictionary for Past Plants’ — is published by Summersdale Publishers. Buy a copy here (£15.79).