The ecological role of roads (or more specifically of the land immediately either side of them) is something I’ve been umming and ahh-ing over for a while now. I assumed the thought would eventually submerge and I’d go back to my habitual mood of ‘worrying about Pangolins’, but a chance happening prevented this.
I say ‘happening’ but this is much too edifying a word for what was essentially me being a careless git and losing my bus ticket. Unfortunately, I only realised this once I tried to get on the bus— and after a vaguely humiliating scrabble through my belongings, stepped back onto the kerb to watch the bus as it pulled away.
I had a long, dismal walk ahead of me. Somehow 6-8 miles seems so much longer when your only company is the A259— a dull stretch of A road with a just-about-walkable cycle path running alongside it in a starved, malnourished kind of way. The occasional near collision with a cyclist would be my share of excitement, and the judgemental looks of passing motorists would set the atmosphere perfectly. After a quick lie down on a park bench, I set out, hoping to get the walk over and done with as soon as I could.
Away from the city centre, Chichester quickly subsides into a maze of pricey suburbs, unexpected roundabouts, and what appears to be a distressing amount of funeral parlours. Walking alongside Florence park I witnessed a gaggle of dogs battling over a frisbee and a woman practising for the triathlon. I considered what my life would look like if reduced to the scope of three events; the thought kept me amused until I rejoined Bognor road and reached the bridge over the railway which, for me, marks the border of Chichester.
Ahead of me was a huddle of car dealerships, offices, and plumbing supply stores. Above the first dealership, a Red Kite shaped, for want of a better phrase ‘scare-pigeon’, bucked in the wind with bizarre alacrity. I paused to catch my breath (it had been a long day) and watched the shadowy thing with an increasing sense of resentment. Although birds of prey have made a recovery in recent years, there is, as ever, a lot of work to be done. That Chichester cathedral has resident Peregrine Falcons should not be exceptional— they should be elsewhere too. And the self-congratulatory bloom of merchandise strikes me as more irritating than anything else. I’m sorry if it sounds ridiculous— but when people’s reaction to an ecological success is to wonder how they can profit, I can’t help but think they’re part of the larger problem. Admittedly, the webcam here is intriguing, but the idea of putting animals on film constantly is, well… complicated. It may seems as if I’ve strayed from the pigeon-scarer, but the truth is, it’s flavoured my whole opinion on the subject. Held up against decades of persecution, it just seems like an insult, as if to say: ‘You, falcon, are replaceable’. I’d rather clean the guano off the cars myself…
Beyond the first roundabout, things seem to get serious. I run out of things to look at, and instead end up scraping around for interesting things to think about the various plants. The first thing I notice is the quantity of Hemlock, Dock, Cow Parsley, and Mugwort. Funnily enough, the last of these is said to relieve foot-soreness if put in the shoes. Other than that, the plant-life was a mixture of Hawthorn, Poplar, Crab Apples, and other shrubs and things often found next to roads. With their ability to put up with the high level of pollutants, these plants are survivors. Towards the armco barrier in the centre of the road, I notice a large quantity of Danish Scurvy Grass, a result of road gritting in Winter. Faced with high levels of salt, most plants die away, but the seaside plant, now widespread across the whole of the road network of the UK, seems happy enough (if a plant can be called ‘happy’).
Despite the green-ness of the roadside path, there is still much potential. With correct management, removal of small shrubs, Hemlock, and mowing in late Summer, it is possible to produce the kind of poor soil quality that Orchids and other rare flower species seem to love. Sad as it may sound, I get quite excited about verges kept this way.
My reverie was interrupted by a flock of Canada Geese in a field running parallel to the road. Usually I wouldn’t pay them too much attention, but the way the flock began edging away from me (bearing in mind I was at least 25m off) snagged my interest. The fact they were cautious of me was proof that they were wild birds— of the kind not seen hissing at small children by lakes. I wondered if this was because they weren’t used to seeing humans out here, but remembered that this would have the opposite effect. At 4am, for example, a number of species don’t seem to register humans at all— it’s as if we’re part of a 7am onwards kind of mise-en-scene rather than discrete entities in ourselves. At times when I’ve had ducks running round my ankles, and Swifts almost flying into me, that I think that sometimes animals delineate their world view a lot more than we do— that instead of carefully parcelled denotations of objects, qualities, quantities, etc— they view a single, homogenous and whelming mass that simultaneously offers them everything they need and everything they fear. Or to put it another way: does my cat think of me as just a particularly mobile piece of furniture? Perhaps sometimes…
The first building I come across is a garden centre, in garish yellow, with a sign proclaiming proudly that an Alsatian ‘can reach the fence in 2.5 seconds: can you?’ I’m barely 2 miles from Chichester, and already the shops along the A259 are acting with true frontier spirit. Reading the sign, I play with the idea that ‘maybe I do look shady’— a suspicion confirmed the next day by another member of staff at the school I work at, who assumed walking along the road meant I was either mad or homeless. I told him simply that I prefer the term ‘eccentric’ and left it at that.
But I did find it curious. The modern wilderness, as experienced by people in the UK, seems a unique one. Rather than having vast stretches of landscape that are deserted, far from anywhere, where you could die quite easily and not be found for months, we have squeezed inbetweens— the A259 may not be the Steppes, but with the looks I was getting, it may as well have been. When my colleague asked if I’d had a breakdown, what I heard him asking was more ‘why did you differ from what is perceived as normal?’. Without a proper wilderness, this nation gets all the mileage out of what is, ultimately not very many miles worth at all. The effect is a violent one. Stranded on the side of the road, I am marked out as a ‘have-not’ as all those ‘haves’ in their cars whizz by. I am anachronistic, an outsider, pushed to the fringes with all the other wasteland creatures: all the Hemlock and Artemisia, all the waste and detritus I will not even begin to list here.
I have what dignity I can (because I’ve given up on the moral highground), but the way this space has come to be constructed bewilders me. That I should walk where others don’t and that this should mean I am not like them simultaneously gratifies my inner cynic and appals my inner innocent. And where does the roadside end in any case? Is everything next to a road, outside the protective shell of a ring road, an M25 or, in Chichester’s case an A286 inevitably marginalised in the worst way possible? Be it agriculture, hamlet or otherwise? The level of fly-tipping I encounter would not be possible otherwise. Truly, I think to myself, I would be closer to civilisation at the brink of the Darvaza crater than here. And if only because of the sheer banality of it! I cannot help but think sometimes that boredom is the modern wilderness.
I pass an Indian restaurant, another garden centre, a farm, a roadside cafe. I am tired, and feel remarkably jaded. I swear at a Crow in Swedish, Italian, and Middle English. It is at this point, after two hours trudging along, that Bognor begins to appear— starting with the outer settlement of Bersted. I see a ginger cat and get over-excited. Much petting later and the rest of Bognor does not nearly seem so bad. That it’s downhill makes things surprisingly easy. I swing my legs as I walk in the way that Sam Vimes (from the Terry Pratchett novels, but that’s another story) taught me, and keep on going, until all too suddenly, my house appears in front of me. As always, I feel as if much too much has happened to me in much too small an amount of time— but I would not have it any other way.