john davies
notes from a small curate

    Monday, May 17, 2004
    Parish Walks #1 - On rogation beside the River Alt

    Time for a walk. I cut a map of the parish into small squares, folded them, and after breakfast this morning picked one out to define the start of the route. It turned out to be at the very south-eastern corner, where Croxteth Country Park is perforated by the River Alt, a watercourse which snakes around this city's outskirts before spilling out to sea above Hightown's submerged prehistoric forest.

    On the first day of Rogationtide, how good to be able to beat the bounds - following the river which defines the eastern edge of our parish.

    I set out on a well-worn track in the rough alongside the dual carriageway, a pathway of desire created by many before me en-route between their homes on the posh new estate and the newsagents, bookies, chippie by our church.

    My head is full of this morning's readings, particularly the powerful Levitical jubilee code which fits so well with rogation:

    "And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces."

    I'm considering the way the land has been used here over the past fifty years, wondering at the impact of applying jubilee here, to a walled estate of detached homes built on what was previously public parkland. And I'm thinking - this place is in a state of permanent jubilee! - for in a ten-foot deep swathe of land between the rusting railings of the old park and the redbrick security walls enfolding Etal Close, nature has been allowed free reign. The undergrowth has enjoyed rich harvests and is doubtless home to many grateful creatures, as well as providing the residents with extra cover against potential criminal intruders. And odd passers-by like me.

    Fancy cars flash along Oak Lane as I cross into Greenodd Avenue, where the gardens are generous and open-plan and the city council purple wheelie bins are out. I'm struck by the prevalence of bus stops along this route - although this aspirational area reeks, to me, of individualism, evidently the occupants still support public transport. Maybe sacrificing a second car is the price that has to be paid for living up to and beyond their credit limits on twisty closes in quiet estates. At the entrance to Cumbria Way, planted at the centre of a generous piece of green, a sign says NO BALL GAMES.

    I follow Oak Lane further eastwards until it meets the Alt. I have passed this point many times by car and never noticed the river, but it is there, cut deep in a wide arc of greenery. Standing at the railings above it, looking into middle-distance the view is Constable-rural idyll, the bubbling river enclosed by deep green tree cover opening out into brighter fields where the creatures of Croxteth Hall graze. Look directly below, however, and you realise that this point is a tipping-ground for passing motorists. The gentle Alt weaves its way over and around discarded upholstery, tyres, rusting white goods.

    I have to leave the river awhile, and on Croxteth Hall Drive old and new coexist. In long focus I see a row of once-farm cottages, newly renovated for purchase by the newly-rich, abutting the Dog and Gun, once a frontier inn no doubt, now a Sunday Soccer sport house. As I turn into Ampulla Road the scene becomes starker. Now I am in a struggling place, and feel immediately threatened as a bashed-up Vauxhall Astra, its engine popping and blowing violently, wheelspins around the corner beside me. As I walk on into Sceptre Close the car keeps on its circuit of the neighbourhood.

    There is a nice path alongside the river, I discover, behind the rows of pebbledashed ex-council houses. It is quiet (schooltime) but sometime recently there was a big party out here: barbecue equipment lying in a pile of ashes, beside a smoke-blackened tree. On a wall someone has drawn a lifesize stick-man, with near-perfect circles at his head, feet, hands, and groin. Has the look of something primal - the Short Man of Altcross, perhaps - though I wonder if he's more likely the object of some sort of sinister target-practice in this out-of-the way place.

    In the quietness of the morning driving instructors are directing young women in the fine arts of four-wheel manoeuvre down these compact closes. As one learner struggles with a standing-start she's embarrassed by the gaze of an onlooker sitting outside with his granddaughter on his knee.

    Further on is a place of fire. At the estate's edge empty properties have boarded doors and blackened roofs; behind a shed the carcasses of perhaps a hundred used fireworks: bangers, mainly. Where the air is all bird song and dog-barks just now, it has often sparked, crackled and burned. Graffiti: 'PORGE', 'FUCK THE PLOD'.

    Emerging from behind a little chapel onto a busy road, I know now why Altcross Road is so named. I hurry over to the river's northern bank, avoiding a speeding bus, and continue on past a Day Care centre where every available entrance is barred with iron and steel. Down Unicorn Road the houses gleam in their newness and smells of burning building-site waste and fresh-lain tarmac fill the air. This is Croxteth-aspirational. Outside one starter home a monster SUV displays the numberplate D4VE B.

    Alt Park is a patch of green peppered with black metallic benches all scratched silver with teenage tags. From that vantage point, the land opens up: the vast Alt Valley punctured by two massive public buildings - Fazakerley Hospital to the north-west, Croxteth Community Comprehensive behind to the north.

    This is - literally - the home straight. Leaving the river behind for a walk up two adjoining avenues. First Storrington where drivers who have mastered the speed bumps rag along at 40 without discomfort. It is a long shallow rise up to Lowerhouse Lane, and partway along the view becomes almost regal: Utting Avenue, a road which stretches on a distance into the city's inner districts, is tree lined and glimmering in the late-morning sun. Where these two avenues meet, the Western Approaches pub marks a boundary. You do feel it here: it was all fields one, where you've just been.

    And this route seems very much an approach. From skirting the tiny river at the conurbation's edge we've turned now, to face the massive Mersey with all its symbolic and - still - commercial significance.

    "You shall return, every one of you, to your property. ... You shall not cheat one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the LORD your God."

    As I near my front gate, behind me it seems like bells are ringing in time with someone's footsteps. I glance to see it is a young woman returning from the shops. Not unusually for this place and time of day she is wearing just pyjamas. I can't work out what she's carrying which makes her musical, and I decide not to stop to ask her as I don't want to risk a slapping before lunchtime.