From imagined trees in Blackburn to Epping Forest’s bluebells and wood anemones, Iqbal Hussain looks back over 50 years of his life in proximity to greenery.
Growing up in Blackburn, a former Lancashire mill town, green spaces were rare. I’d spend hours sitting on the doorstep, nestled between the jambs, with my Jesus-sandalled feet halfway up the wall, fancying I could see dense forests in the cauliflower-shaped cumulus clouds. I would trace paths through the “trees”, imagining the soughing of the wind through the leaves, breathing in the damp moss, trailing my fingers across the rough bark.
In reality, the only greenery nearby was a patch of vegetation by the Leeds and Liverpool canal that topped our street. This wild strip marked the edge of the Lower Audley neighbourhood, hemmed in by the henna paste-coloured water of the canal on one side, and cobbles, bricks and smoking chimneys on the other. We lived in a real-life Coronation Street, and at one point even lived in a street with the very same name.
When I wasn’t cloud-watching, I’d lose myself in that overgrown, verdant band. In its embrace, I was invisible, hidden by rosebay willowherb and thistles as tall as my head, racing dragonflies, gorging on blackberries and shooting at imaginary adversaries with my 10p cap gun. We’d play outside from the moment we’d scoffed down our weekend breakfast of parathas with sweet masala chai to the late evening when Mother’s voice called for us to return for dinner.
A few years later, the neighbourhood was razed to the ground, condemned by a compulsory purchase order. Brown envelopes dropped like bombs on doormats, sending shockwaves through the serried terraces. In less than twelve months, the bulldozers moved in and neighbours moved out. Streets that had housed generations of millworkers came tumbling down. The earth was gouged, ripped up and the heart of the community torn out. The inhabitants of Lower Audley scattered to the winds, paid off by the council to move to pastures new. We were among the last families to move out. Father had already lost his livelihood in the mills. Now he was losing his home too. He dug his heels in, and fought the council every step of the way. But, in the end, Goliath won.
We moved to Higher Audley — a similar enough name, and only a few streets away, but it might as well have been another world. We didn’t know anyone, the yellow-bricked houses mushroomed in little clumps rather than the familiar terraces and back alleys, and, outside, there was even less greenery in which to lose myself. Of the old neighbourhood, just the canal remained, its unwavering course marking what had been lost.
A is for Aberystwyth, B is for Bangor … I chose my university by working alphabetically through the folders in the careers office at college. The photos of the North Wales mountains and lakes were enough to know I didn’t need to carry on looking. I didn’t even go to the open day. I knew I’d love it.
My three years in Bangor were the first time I experienced the outdoors properly. Until then, the only countryside I’d seen was when Father drove us into the Darwen Moors in his Ford Capri — never stopping, just hurtling up and down the bumps and around the curves, making us squeal in the back. Father and Mother both came from small villages in Pakistan and equated the wilderness with poverty rather than bucolic charms. The countryside was something to pass through to get from one point to another. When I’d ask Father to stop the car so we could explore the heathery hills, he’d guffaw and shake his head at me in the rearview mirror, calling me his “nikka pagal”, or little madman.
By choosing Bangor, I could explore as much countryside as I’d want. There was no need for a twister to take me to Oz; I had British Rail to turn my world Technicolor. In just four hours and two changes, the train transported me from a world of brick and mortar to one of grass and water.
At the freshers’ fair, I made a beeline for the walking group. Legs not used to uphill gradients soon got stronger. I breathed in air that felt forensically clean. I trekked around clear lakes, with mountains reflected in their still surface, marvelling at the scale and grandeur of it all. It was as amazing to me as the Norwegian fjords and Canadian Rockies which Judith Chalmers and co introduced into our world on Wish You Were Here… ?.
I was often the only brown face on those hills, but it didn’t bother me. It was only when my walking buddies pointed it out that I even noticed it. For me, the outdoors was too big to think about my own significance among it. For the first time in my life, I experienced total freedom. There were no walls with “Pakis go home” scrawled on them, no skinheads with baseball bats waiting around the corner, no exhortations from parents not to go into town because Blackburn Rovers were playing home and we might get beaten up by football hooligans. Out in the open, there was no need for me to hide.
After graduating, I moved to North London. While I’d lost my heart to Bangor, I couldn’t forge a career in journalism there. London was where it was at, and where I needed to be.
I needn’t have worried about trading one of the smallest and greenest cities for one of the biggest and most built-up. Even in the metropolis, there were green spaces, albeit modest compared to the majesty of Snowdown — the Royal Parks, Walthamstow marshes, Finsbury Park, Lea Valley, Trent Country Park, Hampstead Heath … an endless shape, size and variety of nature, this time reached by tube and bus. Compared to the two parks I’d grown up with in Blackburn — Corporation and Queens — London parks were Yosemite-sized. Even to this day, I don’t believe I’ve seen all of Hyde Park. I spent weekends exploring, getting through several pairs of walking shoes and just as many editions of the A to Z in my quest to colour in the black-and-white pages.
When visiting my family, I was discombobulated at the change of scenery as the train wound northwards. The cotton mills lay dormant, like brick dinosaurs. The old neighbourhood was now home to a Brookside-style estate. It was hard to imagine what had been. Where there’d been streets were now roads. Where there’d been roads were now grassy verges. I was unable to step beyond the outskirts, a stranger in my own past. The only reminder of what had been was the main road that, like the canal, remained in situ despite the changes all around — Lower Audley Street. Everything else had been wiped off the map. Under my breath, like a protective mantra, I chanted the names of those long lost streets, bringing them back to life if only for a moment: Helen Street, Baines Street, Pilkington Street, Coronation Street, Pitt Street, Carlisle Street, Meadow Street, Lord Derby Street.
Working class, Pakistani families didn’t go on holiday. My parents couldn’t conceive of travelling for no purpose other than to relax and enjoy the surroundings. “We have beautiful parks here,” would say my mum, squinting at me as though I’d suggested burning money in the tandoor. “Why you need to go to Italy, huh?” This made it hard at school when faced with the annual exercise of “What I Did In The Summer”. Trips to Pakistan featured regularly in my made-up stories, even though I’d only been once, when I was five, and had no memory of it apart from the peaty smell of dried cowpats burning in the fires, the itch of dust on my face and the heavenly taste of masala chai sweetened with gur.
When I could afford it, I made up for lost time. I wandered around pine-scented Ibizan forests, drove through the Sardinian countryside in a Fiat 500, walked on a glacier in Argentina, gasped at the might and sight of Iguazu Falls in Brazil and discovered the homegrown beauty of the Lake District. It was no accident that my first partner was an inveterate traveller, whose job took him around the world. We lived in South America for six months, and a similar length of time in Florida.
The one place I’ve not returned to is Bangor. Due to cost-cutting, the old maths department is no more. Once more, my past has been rewritten. Going back would be like taking a pilgrimage but without a shrine to worship at. Like my childhood neighbourhood, I’m worried I won’t recognise it, or that the magic will be spent.
Three years ago, My partner and I moved to Chingford, wanting to be around more countryside but without leaving London. Leafy zone 5 was the best compromise — near enough for town but away from the hubbub, and ringed by the magnificent ancient woodland of Epping Forest.
I’ve seen muntjac deer darting through clearings, their raised hindquarters giving them a slightly toppled look. Glimpsed woodpeckers, with their red-streaked heads, clawing up trees and drilling into old bark, the rapid rat-tat-tat-tat echoing around the trees. Walked thousands of miles with our labradoodle, who takes as much delight in the crunchy, fallen leaves, gambolling squirrels and dappled sunlight as we do. Smelt the changing seasons, walked in damp, dewy mornings and bat-wheeling twilights, dodged spider webs and fallen branches, been enchanted by carpets of bluebells and wood anemones, and heard — but not seen — the fabled stag who roams the lower reaches.
For a boy who conjured up forests in the clouds, I’ve found the real thing. Acres of thick woodland, right on our doorstep. Not the hushed thickets of my imagination, but a thriving ecosystem, full of life, colour and joy.
Iqbal Hussain is a writer living in north London. He has had work published online and in print, including with The Willowherb Review, The Mechanics’ Institute Review and theghoststory.com, and in anthologies from Inkandescent, Spread the Word and Lancashire Libraries. He was joint runner-up in the 2022 Evening Standard Stories Competition. Iqbal’s first novel, Northern Boy, is currently out on submission. Follow Iqbal on Twitter or via his website.