Friday, 19 September 2014

Edgelands: the Slad Brook in Stroud

Edgelands: the Slad Brook in Stroud

‘Just take my advice, there’s nothing so nice, as messing about on the river’: and that’s true, even when doing that means walking along a brook, that is only intermittently visible, and which is hidden under tarmac, in the middle of Stroud. It’s edgeland terrain: a bit of a mess at times and a bit ‘urban-rural interface’.
The brook rises in the sylvan heights of Longridge Wood, with springs, bird song, and wild flowers for company; it’s joined by Dillay Brook at Steanbridge; it’s all a bit Laurie Lee. It ends near a roundabout, a new red brick bridge and a MacDonald’s: it’s all a bit JG Ballard.
I recommend walking the brook from its source, but our mission here is to navigate the edgelands: we shall start at the end of the brook’s independently named life. Have a coffee at the Lockkeeper’s, then drop underneath the bridge that carries the A46, to where the culverted brook meets the canal and thence the Frome. Its conjoined waters flow to the River Severn, the Bristol Channel and the wider waters of the world.
Have a look at the information boards by the side of the canal, and have a look at how the view used to be in the 18th century: you are now ready to wander through the present tense and enter the riverine world of the past. Turn left at the Lockkeeper’s, then left again at the mini roundabout, cross the zebra crossing (all hail Lesley Hore-Belisha), then turn left again so that you can study the larger roundabout. The Slad Brook that has such an arcadian start to its life, lies somewhere around and below this steady flow of vehicles and maelstrom of directions.
Now stay, as it were, on the A46, and head for the railway viaduct. When you reach this structure, glance to your right. Take in the indeterminate detrital deposits. But also notice the liquid alchemy at your feet. Then glance backwards:

There is, of course, a welter of road signs,
Satnavs instructing drivers where to go,
(And a funeral director’s sign,
Half-hidden in the trees and ivy,
Just behind the bench at the roundabout,
Just by Merrywalks House –’24 hour service’).
There is a rebarbative structure next to Ecotricity,
A car park that reaches up to a heady, grey height,
 The same level as the railway station’s down platform ,
Where a walk reveals the hidden, fenced off edgelands down below.
Where an equally rebarbative street sign informs us:
‘Warning. These Premises Are Protected By
Glevum Security and Response
24 Hour Communications Centre’;
Here is a patch of land betwixt pavement and building,
Once designed as a garden, landscaped with shrubs,
Steps, railings and a gate,
But now running slightly wild with buddleia and sycamore saplings.
There is a glimpse of storage and Biffa containers
Seen through the viaduct's arches and repetitive perspective,
(And a faded sign: IBC Cotswold Indoor Bowls Club),
With the brook a visible, flowing presence,
Down below the Ciao Eatalia Ristorante Pizzeria and Winebar
(The owner kindly took me through the kitchens for a peek out the back,
To see the stream flow fast and clear until it eddies around a metal grille,
Before it enters a tunnel to disappear beneath the road.).
The pavement itself takes you to the entrance to MacDonald’s,
Where the brook is limpid-laughing and curated,
Wild flowers and garlic and reeds and dock and buddleia
All tumble down the bank of the stream,
With a daisied lawn betwixt waters and fast food drive-thru.
The stream was opened up by the multinational,
Rescued from the depths of Lusty’s builders,
And the manager generously checked their site plans for me,
On a Charlie Chaplain Modern Times Sunday breakfast time:
‘The lawn’s on our site plans, but I couldn’t say 100% that we own it.’
The car park is full of signs denoting the control of space,
Making explicit the divisions between the public and the private,
Unlike the natural world of grass, flowers and stream:
Who owns this? What is public and what is private?
How are the meanings of space generated within this space?
This is real edgelands terrain: ‘the urban-rural interface’.
There is a stone wall by the brook’s side opposite the lawn,
Down beneath the roadside brick, where a pipe brings water,
Down from the steep school hillside on the other side of Merrywalks,
Then we have the doctors’ at Rowcroft and the chemist’s car park,
Three signs close together all saying the same thing:
‘No Entry’,
And an information board about Stroud in the car park;
‘A great place to walk, relax and explore’,
But no mention of the waters beneath your feet,
Waters that once powered the wheels of industry,
Grinding corn, spinners and weavers into dust and the ground.

I ‘phoned Stroud District Council a few days later to ask if they owned any of the land by the stream. They obligingly checked and ‘phoned back a few minutes later – even the bank of the brook is privately owned. An interesting and arresting oxymoron, in some ways: the quick, flashing sight of a free-flowing stream, untrammelled at last, and yet, this is private property. What we have here is an interesting illusion of liberty. The brook walks the walk but talks a deceitful talk: what you see is not necessarily what you get.
Unlike the cinema and Halfords, although you can’t always trust a bus timetable, perhaps; but be that as it may, the ‘bus station’ was, I think, near to the site of some of the duckings of clothiers during the 1825 weavers’ strike. This was at Mr. Holbrow’s fishpond, which was, I think, near Badbrook; and you find Badbrook Hall (‘Watson. Check the timetable. I am called to Badbrook Hall.’) just beyond the next stretch of open water. (Badbrook appears on an OS map just between Wick Street and Stroud; it looks as though it rises from springs near Hawkwood, and it would once have flowed, presumably, into the Slad Brook, crystal clear for all the world to see.)

I tested this theory by biking up to Hawkwood the day after I had written the paragraph above. The spring issues forth just beside a venerable sycamore tree and a stream is visible just beyond. It looks as though it must have joined the Slad Brook near the Slad Road-bus station roundabout. I wonder if it flows beneath the 1930s ribbon development around Loveday’s Mead, near Folly Lane and Birches Drive. But why the name: Badbrook? What did that name denote, once upon a time? (I have since been told that many people fill their water bottles from this deep spring: the water is rich in iron apparently.)

Anyway, the current stretch of visible streamlet that is the Slad Brook can be viewed just after the Stagecoach building, just by the bridge (The Bridge over the River Slad?). There are railings, a gate, a sign: ‘No Unauthorised Access’, wire mesh, deep walls of stone and brick, trees and nettles clambering down towards the mossy arch by the side of Smartworks, and the vaulted shadowed waters. The gardens have been landscaped here and there is a seat.

The brook disappears before Badbrook Hall, which, at the time of writing, is undergoing refurbishment. There is a piece of serendipitous graffiti behind the wall, however, which eerily reads thus: ‘That Which Is Out Of Sight Is Out Of Mind?’ Pondering this, cross the road and walk to the end of the Open Hours bakery. Find a short, curving, red brick wall and glance down to spot a small grilled drain. Down below there, lies the brook, on its curve towards the Smartworks building: many thanks to Shaun the Baker for showing me this.

The car park at Locking Hill lies straight ahead, part of which collapsed in the summer of 2013, to reveal the red bricked, culverted brook below: that which might have been out of mind was no longer out of sight. I was on my bicycle on this May day, on my way to the war memorial at Slad, but I noted the various signs in the street which indicated the brook, when hidden from sight, or when it reappears. Names like Streamside, Cottles, Stroud Instruments, Little Mill Court (off Lansdowne), Libby’s Drive, Slade Brook Drive, Slad Valley House.

When I returned from Slad, I got off my bike to walk these spots, so as to give them a bit more deservedly psycho-geographic attention. Slad Road is a most interesting example of town meets country. There is a pavement pretty much all the way between the village and the town, with rails running along the raised areas to prevent pedestrians from falling into the fields below, and then rolling down into the valley where the visible, wooded, brook runs. I noticed that the lodge of the imposing Slad Valley House has a street number: unusual for the lodge of a grand and imposing house.  There is Gloucester Street Forge on the other side of the road; I suppose this might be an example of whatever the opposite of nominative determinism might be.

It’s worth popping down Libby’s Drive, however, if you want to get close to the brook again. It is visible on the Stroud side of the track, at the bottom, opposite New Mills; you can find it again by going behind the buildings. There is a sluice gate by Scorpion Tools and the stream is clearly seen again when you reach J & L Concrete Pumping and Curtis Engineering. But we cannot follow the brook back towards Slad, we have to advance towards Stroud; it’s back to the road for us, and on to the workshop of the magnificently named Omar Cottle (monumental mason).

There is a nineteenth century ring to such a moniker, and the surrounding redbrick Victorian warehouses add to that atmosphere. There is a good view of the brook here amongst the weathered gravestones. I was told that the brook rose by four feet in the 2007 deluge, but only slightly in last winter’s persistent rainfall: ‘Whatever they did seems to have worked.’ Evidence of our attempts to control the waters is discernible when you take the footpath linking Slad Road and Lansdowne. You can also see the brook at the back of the Slad Road, behind the back of the RSPCA building in Lansdowne. You can then follow a track/road between the road and Lansdowne and so reach Locking Hill again; we wonder if this path follows what was once the bank of the stream, as it makes its way on to Badbrook and the bus station.

Our journey is over. All that remains is to think about the number of springs that feed into this brook; there is a subterranean world of movement beneath our feet, which is only partly denoted by street names such as Springfield Road in Uplands. There is also the movement of water that comes down the other side of the hill: the powerful force of Gainey’s Well. We finish this exploration of the edgelands of the Slad Brook in Stroud, with the following piece about Gainey’s Well.

Do you know Gainey’s Well?
I know you’ve probably heard of it,
You can obviously google it,
But that’s not knowing it, is it?
It’s only knowing of it.

It lies at the end of a street with a rec,
Through a seeming suburban garden,
(That is in fact a secret pathway)
Where surprises, incongruities, improbabilities,
And the most fantastical impossibilities,
Reside both outside and inside
Of what appears to be a normal garden shed,
(Or marooned saloon family car garage)
Brick walls, tiled roof, lock and bolt on the door.

Outside this anonymously average structure,
Air vents rise up from an underground reservoir;
Inside, a roaring welter in the darkness,
Serpentine subterranean tunnels,
Pulsing water, limestone walls,
A limitless liquid mine,
Fed from Cotswold gravel beds of 800 acres,
More Stroud’s River Styx than aquifer,
A vault of torrential force in the abyssal depths.

Beneath the pavements the beach?
Beneath the lawn the abyss.

Well, there we are, then, walkers, flaneurs, psycho-geographers, cyclists and shoppers. There’s a whole new world beneath your feet. Watch your step.

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