Snicket steps, Gyffin, image credit Rob Carter
We are delighted to announce the start of a special series of blog posts throughout July, August and September featuring new work from emerging nature writers. First up is Nic Wilson’s ‘Snickets’ – a beautiful meditation on memory and the daily renewal of our contact with the land.
‘All locales and landscapes are … embedded in social and individual times of memory. Their pasts as much as their spaces are crucially constitutive of their presents.’
Christopher Tilley A Phenomenology of Landscape
Snicket, n. – a narrow passage between houses, an alleyway, origin obscure.
Oxford English Dictionary
There are many different types of snicket and each has its own story to tell. I surface in these riven-pathways early; they tower above my head. The stones at eye-level jut out of the mortar and despite their unforgiving corners I’m compelled to run my fingers along the broken edges, remembering the reputation of slate – the letter-bearer, the nose-slitter. With a recent school trip to Beaumaris Gaol still raw in my memory, the subterranean passages behind my grandparents’ house in Gyffin simultaneously draw and repel me.
Slate is a grotto stone, waiting damply for the unwary to slip and graze a knee or elbow. But I’m young enough, in my early snicket days, that there’s always a rough hand holding mine, leading me up the steps from the musty utility room with its cavernous chest freezers and ham radio desk to the square grey terrace and narrow snicket beyond the gate. I look up as I ascend, at the glossy slick on the undersides of the stones, the moisture collecting in ferny fingerpools which feed the liverwort crusting. Ivy-leaves of toadflax drip down the walls smudging the yellow fumitory and up by the fence red campion dots the colour of Welsh lanes onto the empty terrace: a place much celebrated by my grandpa for its horticultural barrenness.
But granny belonged to the wild and it came for her, fed by the floods that gushed down the snicket in heavy rain, breaching the houses, sowing the cracks with soil and seed, floating the foliage of hart’s tongue fern and maidenhair spleenwort. In this intractable, embedded space the gravitational pull of the earth was strong and there was no guarantee of finding a way out. Although my head eventually reached beyond the walls and my hands became the firm clasp around lithe fingers, I discovered a rootedness in those slate passages that has stayed with me as I’ve walked through the past forty years.
Granny and me on Conwy Mountain, image credit Alan Garner
* * * * * * *
My daily journeys still connect me to the land: a morning run along Gypsy Lane, one of the ancient holloways carved into the chalk alongside the Roman villa at Purwell; visiting the lightning-blasted black poplar with its roots in the Ashbrook or walking back from the community garden fete with the children, exploring the oldways that used to mark the medieval field boundaries, now forgotten snickets, their entrances hidden behind brambles, buddleia and privet. Many of these ancient pathways survived in Hitchin as a result of the open-field system which remained intact on the east side of the town well into the twentieth century, far longer than in many towns and villages where enclosures in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries radically altered the structure of the landscape.
Gypsy Lane, image credit Nic Wilson
Overlaying an early sixteenth century map onto Google Earth reveals little change to our local paths, field boundaries and lanes. As the area was developed, the estates, community centres, roads, even the railway was forced to fit into the existing field-strip framework and as ancient boundary paths were surrounded by houses, new snickets were born. These in-between spaces exist on the margins of everyday narratives; we merely pass through, leaving behind us memories of daily journeys and the seeds of our agricultural and horticultural heritage. Like the dead sea scroll deciphered last year by scholars using fragmented marginal notes, old pathways retain the scattered remnants of local histories even when the main body of the landscape has been erased and rewritten. As I trace these porous paths on the school run, on my way to the train station or to the shops, I can feel the past seeping up through the cracks.
In the verges, deadly nightshade lifts its shadowy bells above the nettles, garlic mustard and cuckoo-pint, rising from its agricultural past as a nineteenth-century pharmaceutical crop and embracing the arable margins. Alpine clematis coils over the wall and tumbles into the snicket, freed from the rigours of trellis and twine. Its leaf-stalks tangle with its wild cousin, old man’s beard, on a reverse mission to infiltrate the cottage borders from the hedgerows. At the back of the park beside the path, self-seeded elm saplings have broken through a line of old fence panels and are busy creating thickets in an abandoned garden corner.
After years of walking the snickets I am in step now, trodden into the upwelling of wild and cultivated, past and present, culture and landscape, all muddied and conjoined. I have become grounded in these everyday routes, now the runnels for my commonplace roots, like a network of veins feeding a living landscape.
Deadly nightshade in the snickets, image credit Nic Wilson
Nic Wilson is a freelance writer and editor based in Hertfordshire. She contributes to a range of nature and gardening magazines, journals and websites, and has recently written a piece on John Clare’s Contemporaries for the 2019 John Clare Journal. Nic is currently working on a book about engaging with the nearby wild. She blogs at http://www.dogwooddays.net