The last two weeks have been frustratingly slow. Firstly because of my baby being unwell and then due to me being unwell, so I feel very much behind where I hoped to be at this point. I haven’t finished collecting at the quarry and haven’t properly started at Letchworth Common. A foggy head is all I have to work with at the moment and it’s really not getting me too far. Wading through treacle is about the feel of it.
I did managed to get out to a site once this week. I thought I’d start looking into my next site, Norton Common. This is going to be quite different to do. It is a busy, managed nature reserve located right in the centre of town. However there is much edge-ness to it as well. It has a place in most Letchworth minds and I think probably every Letchworth dweller has some kind of experience or encounter related to this place. I have heard many stories throughout my time living not too far away and have my own ones to add. But it is a big place and I can’t possible focus on the whole thing so I’ve been looking for a way in.
A few weeks back now I got a message from my aunt who has been following Hidden Landscapes Project. She reported seeing someone camping in Letchworth Common and even took a photograph of his blue tent tucked away within the undergrowth, to show me. So on Thursday we met up and she took me along to where she had spotted the tent. Whoever he was, he had now moved on and here was an opportunity to find out more about him and what he had been up to. Jen told me the story of how she was out walking her dog and had first seen the blue of the tent through the trees just off quite a busy path. As she walked on, she saw a man sitting on a bench near by. Linking the two together she assumed this man to be the tent dweller. She described him as being in his 20’s, thin and gaunt looking and as if he was ‘drugged out’. He was wearing a woolly hat and a brightly coloured jacket. He was just sitting on the bench, staring into space. She described how he made her feel nervous to walk past although he paid her no attention or even looked at her.
On locating the spot on Thursday we were both a little disappointed. There was hardly a trace and without the story I wouldn’t have had any clue that there had been someone at all. We searched around for a while looking for any signs of habitation and I became determined to find something to go on. The only evidence that we managed to find were, interestingly something very reminiscent of the branch constructions I found at The Boffy; an empty mackerel tin; a recordable CD and possibly an empty condom wrapper, although it was hidden under a bush and we couldn’t get close enough to see for sure. So looking at the possible explanations for this lack of material, it could either be his time there was very brief (although I know from Jen that the tent was there at least a few days) and he took care to leave it as he found it OR someone has since been and done some tidying up! (Jen also reported that she had spoken once to a lady that does go litter picking in the Common)
Anyway, I have decided to pursue this lead further and attempt to find out more about this particular spot, just feet away from a main dog walkers route. I think a more thorough excavation might uncover a bit more. The other area of the Common that I will look at is the place called The Pudding Basin. A relatively small area that has once been quarried for chalk, I believe. This circular tree covered dip (again only feet away from an open, managed walking area) has attracted activity and after a little scout around on Thursday, showed several potentially interesting features to work on. Hopefully a few rain free days and shaking off this cold might help me get back on track. I still have quite a lot of unfinished business at the quarry too!
I had an almost enjoyable visits to the quarry this week. The days were bright and sunny, although chilly indeed and for some reason the quarry felt friendlier, more intriguing than threatening. I was straight into my second and third excavations. Context 2 is one of the dead end clearings about halfway down. On first inspection there didn’t appear to be much there at all. The floor had a thick covering of moss and ivy, so many of the finds were concealed. I marked out an area 3m x 4m and took to work searching through this green carpet. All my finds were small, 18 in total, including two pieces of crookery and a third potential piece that I wasn’t positively able to identify. Context 3 was on the opposite side where the covering of scrub is much more dense. It is also incredibly steep in places. I did another 3m x 4m section on a flatter level. There was a few larger finds but not many and no crisp packets or beer cans, 45 small finds. Maybe that is why everything felt easier this week… the finds were much more manageable – much more ‘archaeological’ somehow.
And to think this is the sight I feared the most. I’m not sure if my change of response to this place is because of the place itself or whether the experience is changing me a little somehow. Am I hardening to the process of riffling through the dirt… through other people’s rubbish? It is still uninhabitable, unwelcoming, chaotic and frustratingly unknowable, but in all these things lies a certain comforting fact, no one else has any desire to be here. It is hard not to feel romantic about it in a way. To have a reason to spend a morning in this forgotten corner, busy with my task, uninterrupted, undisturbed, invisible to the rest of the world. At The Boffy my guard was always up, my senses heightened by the threat of confrontation with an unknown, imagined being. Here I lose track of time, my bearings and quite often my footing but in the awkwardness, the clambering, the snagging, the stings, the dirt and the discarded, I feel a very specific threat fall away.
A first delve into the depths of the quarry this week. I’ve been particularly nervous about this site since I first came to investigate at the start of the project and my fears have not been eased at all after spending the last two mornings here. A quiet place, out of sight and largely out of mind. It’s so close to civilisation, yet could not be further from it. I described The Boffy as wild, but somehow this is a step closer towards complete wilderness. It seems its proximity to the road only adds to the feeling of utter isolation. A man-made void.
The first day I got stuck straight into an excavation down at the deepest point. This was mainly due to the fact that I had help (my husband came along for the adventure) and therefore I was a combination of slightly braver and slightly trying to keep up the pretence of professionalism by just getting on with the job. It was also hugely helpful having another pair of hands when there’s lots of stuff to lug down a quarry!
I carried out a 3m x 3m excavation of an area almost directly in the centre of the site. The physical challenge is really in the terrain for firstly navigating through, then being able to mark out areas within. The undergrowth is thick and often impenetrable without some kind of garden shears or machete. My areas will have to be small. There is a high density of finds though. In this small section I collected 32 finds in total. I presume it has on occasion been used as a dumping ground but in some respect not half as much as you would expect from a place like this. Surely a large hole in the ground that no one really bothers to see is the perfect place to get rid of your unwanted mattress (or maybe its just too invisible). So most of the finds uncovered indicated human occupation – drinks bottles, food cartons, carrier bags and sweet wrappers. There were also some random finds, a bike lock, something that looked like the inside of a speaker, some as of yet unidentifiable plastic parts of something and rubber tubing tied round a tree.
Day two was spent there alone and this altered the experience considerably. Unlike The Boffy, I didn’t feel the threat in who I might meet but more in what I might find. I felt considerably uneasy about coming across something sinister, gruesome or dangerous. The floor is covered with thick ivy, so knowing what you are treading on before you get there is impossible. It is a place that you really can only feel your way around step by step. Much of it is like working your way through a jungle. This being the case I decided it was time I attempted to charter the unchartered and work out the layout through a map. So quite blindly, I attempted to navigate my way through pathways and link things up spatially. At the end I was still left with large areas of blank, that may never be known, hidden forever behind the layer upon layer of relentless undergrowth.
This has got to be the most inhospitable place in Letchworth. I stumbled out by lunch time, aching, itchy and exactly like I’d been dragged through several hedges backwards and retreated to the relative comfort of my studio. I spent the afternoon looking back over my photos and sketches and attempted to make sense of it. It seems hard to conceive that places like this actually exist and aren’t part of a theme park. I’m sure you would pay good money to feel the adrenaline pumping and the disorientation of my morning’s expedition.