How a scrap of land on the edge of Harrogate inspired a new book

Date:4th June 2015. Picture James Hardisty, (JH1008/81d) Author Rob Cowen, of Harrogate.
Date:4th June 2015. Picture James Hardisty, (JH1008/81d) Author Rob Cowen, of Harrogate.
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When he moved back north from London, Rob Cowen decided to explore his new surroundings. The result was a new book which chronicles a year in the life of a corner of Yorkshire.

Maps transform us. They make birds of us all. They reveal the patterns of our existence and unlock our cages. If it wasn’t for that map, a second-hand Ordnance Survey given as a Christmas present, maybe none of this would have happened. It was New Year’s Eve and I lay on the bed with Harrogate unfolded before me.

I felt tired; constrained; racked with cabin fever. I needed to get out. So from a circle of Biro drawn around my new house I flew up and over the unfamiliar rooftops and roads, past shops, schools, hair salons and bookmakers, my finger seeking out the nearest open ground.

Below me suburbia slunk down a shallow hill, rushing towards an endless patchwork of farmland. Hemmed in between the two I glimpsed it: a tract of white paper, tree symbols and the varicose vein of a river. It lured me down, eyes to paper, body to freezing earth.

At the end of a long, straight lane running north, past the last fences of a housing estate, I found it: a weird, wild borderland between the town and the country; the kind of odd outskirt or margin you find on the edges of all our towns and cities – those strange, scrubby spaces in the shadow of a thousand houses where human and nature intermesh. Blurry collisions of meadow, pylon, wood, river and old railway, of industry and infrastructure.

Their modern name is edge-land, but you may know them by their local names, or even by your own made-up terms, for these are the kinds of places you probably played in and christened as a kid. Now they are largely overlooked spaces – the forgotten fringes to our increasingly insular, interior-focused lives.

They are the green field sites ripe for housing development, worlds on the edge waiting to vanish under brick and driveway. But they are living worlds too. Left alone, wildlife runs amok in such seams, ignored and free from the pressures of the carefully managed urban sprawl to one side and the intensively farmed rural environment on the other. And as well as providing refuges for nature they drift with human traces.

I knew instinctively that the edge-land before me was a crossing point where countless histories lay buried. And with the cold, clear, descending dark, came a frightening euphoria; it prickled my neck and released the atom-deep sensation of otherworldliness. It was the blur of joy and terror felt when facing something prior to and greater than the self.

This was the sort of ground the Celts called a ‘thin’ place. My pulse slowed as the adrenalin dispersed and for a second I imagined it was my cells recalibrating to the deeper rhythms of the dark, my body resetting to this land.

Yorkshire is my county of birth and breeding but I’d spent the best part of a decade working in London. Then the pull to come home took hold. My wife and I had sold our tiny flat quickly and I’d shuttled north excitedly as an advance party to redecorate and move us in to a terraced house in the only town we could agreed on living in - Harrogate.

As a result I’d wound up in a place I’d never lived in before and only visited a handful of times. I knew no one. My wife was still working all week in the south and, as such, I found myself suddenly alone, disconnected, living in a strange house in a strange town in the depths of winter. All the maps I’d navigated my life by correlated to a place 220 miles to the south. Like the edge-land, I too felt caught between states, stuck between present and past. And I felt an immediate sense of alignment.

That night heralded what would become a total absorption into the strange, magical, transitory place I’d found, and an obsessive investigation of the extraordinary layers and lives – human and animal – that I discovered there. I began to walk through it at different times of day and night and from different directions.

Some days I’d stay until there was no light left; others I’d wake up in darkness, disoriented, unsure where I was, with the haunting calls of tawny owls thrilling my ears. Other voices from the fields, woods and meadows brushed up against my consciousness, catching on my skin like the threads of spider silk.

There is a depth that comes from revisiting a place relentlessly and over time I began to perceive the stories of everything that stepped, slid and swooped over my patch of common ground, to see through an increasing array of eyes and know myriad existences. And at the same time, the land, its layers and inhabitants seemed to be ever more bound up with events happening in my own life. So I started keeping reams of field notes to try to record these apparent manifestations and to make sense of things.

As the months passed I built up a multi-perspective portrait of this seemingly forgotten space by digging deep through its layers. This portrait grew into my new book, Common Ground. At a moment in time when our world seems obsessed with breadth, shallowness and surface, this felt like a vitally important act.

I realised that this patch provided a window into our relationship with the world at large – a place of tension where nature, pragmatic and prosaic, comes up against the human world – and I wanted to investigate that tension, that negotiation, to study the endless dance so beautiful and brutal. At the same time my notes were woven through with memoir and the course of my own personal re-mapping.

They picked at the notion of ‘common ground’ as a broader concept. Over the course of that year my wife moved up from London, I lost my job and I found out that I was to become – and then became – a father. Such tectonic shifts in our existence force us to lose our illusions and work out who we are, where we fit, how we got here and where we’re going.

As such, the book explored ‘common ground’ as a wider notion too, and my process of learning how the outside world can inform our inside worlds, righting us, helping us redraw the maps by which we navigate. How drawing closer to nature shows us what we are, what we are not and how those two things are ultimately inseparable.

At its heart, this is a book about nature, place and change, about finding that sense of belonging in time, both at a local and global level. But these are concerns not only of our species or our time and one of Common Ground’s themes is its numerous interchanging narratives. I wanted it to be full of voices and visions from the edge-land that were not merely my own – from the roe deer being pursued by hounds when the area was part of a Norman hunting forest to the young lieutenant wandering its woods with shell-shock, unable to face his family while on leave from the Western Front.

You see, these spaces reassert a vital truth: nature isn’t just some remote mountain or protected park. It is all around us. It is in us. It is us.

Common Ground by Rob Cowen is out now (Hutchinson, Hardback & Ebook £16.99)