“The less you eat, drink and read books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public house; the less you think, love, theorise, sing, paint, fence, etc, the more you save - the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor dust will devour- your capital. The less you are, the more you have; the less you express your own life, the greater is your alienated life - the greater is the store of your estranged being." Karl Marx.
Let's just ignore the fact that I haven't written anything in four months. Things have not been good and our financial situation is pretty horrendous. It is exhausting to keep explaining to friends that you would love to meet them for a drink or go to a film or fundraiser or even over to their house but you can't afford to buy drinks or train fares or raffle tickets or even to drive your car any more. Your world has shrunk to the four walls of your flat and to wherever you can walk. With no capital and no treasure to speak of, you are nonetheless still in danger of being less, of finding yourself estranged from your own essential self.
This profound sense of imprisonment and reduction, coupled with a lot of cold, dark and wet weather has led to a sustained bout of self-pity and inertia. Call it my hibernation period if you will. I don't have agoraphobia because I do go out - I go to work and I get myself to the doctor's surgery. I make and mostly attend appointments. But I've been on my Easter holiday for two weeks and I don't need both hands to count the number of times I've left the flat - generally to satisfy an almost overwhelming urge to be near trees and water.
I have only recently discovered this place. For reasons that I don’t quite understand, I had thought ‘Duchess Wood’ referred to a rather small strip of trees that in my head extended from Rhu Road Higher near the cricket club up to or around Duchess Park but because I had dismissed it as being not very significant I had never bothered to properly find out. In fact, even if it had only been as I’d imagined, it was probably worth looking at so I don’t know if it fell into that category of things that you don’t bother going to see because you know they’re there…like living in Edinburgh for three years and never feeling the need to visit the castle… or what! That might be something to look into at some point.
In making Album Familia, I documented something of the material changes to our lives that occurred when we moved to Helensburgh. The effects of the economic impact of unemployment on our housing situation and how that impacted the family. But living in a much smaller house on a vastly reduced income hasn’t been the only impact. We used to live in a village and now we’re very much in town. I used to be able to walk for two minutes and find myself on a beach where it was very unlikely I’d meet anyone at all for the duration of my walk, but even if I did, it would be someone I knew or recognised. I could be on my own, near water or under trees and drinking in sea air and wind, listening to rustling leaves and letting my thoughts drift and relaxing in no time at all. It wasn’t all idyllic - the litter problem on the beach was horrendous but it was possible to walk and be alone and feel part of nature nonetheless.
In town that is much more difficult. I was pleased, actually relieved is probably the right word, that we managed to find a flat on the seafront with incredible sea views. It is restorative even to be able to look out onto the water, but it’s a very different experience to walk along the seafront in town. There is an almost constant thrum of traffic and it’s quite rare to bump into people you know - there are a lot of visitors and strangers. And there are no trees. For all that I love the water, I began to realise that I was almost yearning to be in under trees. Our old house had a garden and there were Rowan Trees, silver birch, firs, hedges, shrubs and a burn running along the far side - with more trees behind it. Here we share a garden and while there is a old beech tree (?) in one corner it is largely dominated by the wall of the old cinema on one side, and the wall of a nearby restaurant on the other. It’s also ‘communal’ which means it’s hard to feel any real sense of belonging when we are very much the newcomers. If more long-standing residents are out there I don’t feel comfortable staking a claim to the space much as it is my right to do so. It’s not their fault - it’s down to me.
I went for a walk, taking the camera with me. I noted that we now live in an area that is largely built up. The environment is stone, concrete, brick, tarmac. People make attempts to “greenify" their spots but honestly there’s something quite depressing about their efforts. As you go up the hill to where the wealth lies in this town there are larger gardens of the sort that I grew up with - cedar trees, weeping willows - lush verdant resplendence. It seems money buys green. Mmm. I took photographs to try and get a sense of what it is that changes between the richer and poorer areas. One thing that did strike me quite hard was that when you’re richer you can afford to put up hedges and boundaries and fence off your own space. Even if you’re lucky enough to have some space in the lower reaches of town, it’s pretty much visible to all. There’s no isolating yourself from your neighbours in this kind of positive way. (Plenty of ways to be isolated in less positive ways though.)
So where to go if you have no money and you feel the need to ‘forest bathe’? The park seems like an obvious choice. As I walked around the streets (many of which in this town do have trees, which makes it very pleasant to drive through even if there’s nowhere but your car to sit and enjoy them) I was getting more and more desperate to find a leafy spot to sit and just breathe.
On that first venture, I went to the park, (Hermitage Park) only to find it closed. Renovations were afoot and as preparatory work began the whole area seemed to be closed off. I was almost in tears as the frustration of not being able to find a space began to feel overwhelming. I went back to the park several times over the next few months as parts became accessible again and I have been documenting the changes to access on an ad hoc basis ever since.
I talked to my youngest about my visits to the park and she announced that it was 'spoiled' now. She wanted something less tamed, less pruned and with fewer neat pathways. I understand what she was saying because a park generally is a cultivated space and as she had grown up knowing it in its state of neglect, these new moves must have felt instrusive to her sense of what felt right. But I determined to show her that there was still much to enjoy there and started looking at some of the details to be found in the park, attempting to document how being there made me feel rather than just recording the state of it.
Nonetheless her problem resonated with me, afterall, a park is managed and my heart and soul were tired of things that people had made. Buildings. Streets. Plans. I was desperate for something less planned, less constructed. Something wilder. A chance conversation a few weeks ago made me think of Duchess Wood. I hadn’t given it a second thought in years and decided it was time to go and have a look. I did note as well that my walk there took me past some of the more impressive properties in Helensburgh each with their own secluded patch of green space.
It is more or less where Montrose Street merges into Rhu Road Higher that, if you know to look for it, you can find one of the entrances to Duchess Wood. This is where I had previously thought it began and pretty much ended. There is a fence marking the property boundary of flats further up the hill on one side, and the edge of the cricket ground on the other. You step off the pavement (not that it’s really a proper pavement at this point - perhaps another thing to document) and you are in among trees. Of course you can still hear traffic, and people calling to each other if there is activity going on at the cricket or rugby clubs but immediately you start to feel the calming influence of being near wood, leaves, moss, lichen, soil and ‘critters’.
I was aware of an almost exhilarating sense of freedom being in the woods even though it was busier in there on a sunny day than I might have wished for. It is considerably more wood than I had at first realised, but it is still a fairly contained area and evidently I was the last person on earth to realise it was there so it’s not surprising that I had company. In spite of that I came out feeling refreshed, positive and considering I’d been walking around for about two hours by then, quite up for taking a longer route home by the seashore than I’d initially planned. There’s definitely something to this idea of ‘forest bathing’! I resolved to come back another time and explore a bit more.
1st April 2018
It was to be five weeks before I made it back to the wood. For my second visit it was a last minute tag onto a walk along the seashore and I was in a great deal of pain by the time I arrived. I was partly blaming an overloaded rucksack but my hips/ankles/back/neck/knees - pretty much everything actually - were complaining loudly. Consequently I didn’t do a repeat of my previous walk but entered at Kathleen Park, took a very quick dip into the woods on that side, moving away from the more established paths, before coming back to the rear rugby pitch and walking behind it over to where it meets up with Millig Street. I had noticed on my way there, coming at it from a different angle, that there is a new housing estate being built by Persimmon. Quite how it is going to affect the wood isn’t obvious from down on Rhu Road Higher but it becomes very evident when you reach the boundary line further up the hill.
At the same time I’m also pondering just who is ‘managing’ the wood at the moment. The Friends of Duchess Wood website hasnt’ been updated in three years. Is it just being left to rot?
8th April 2018
I brought one of my Argyll College students to the wood to practice some photography as well to get some exercise. We were out for a couple of hours and looped from the Kathleen Park entrance and back again. I had walked from our flat up and along through residential areas and my student (Ron) picked me up because I was running late. He also gave me a lift back afterwards as I was struggling with walking.
I became aware as I was taking some of these that the reason I was so attracted to making the shot was because something was reminding me of other experiences - holidays I’d taken as a child with my family in Scotland for instance. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but there was usually a self-catering holiday of some sort, taken out of season in a croft, cottage, boat or log cabin. Entertainment was most often in the form of long walks, card games, badminton (not on a court, just on whatever vaguely level scrap of ground we could find…vaguely level describing any kind of incline you can think of actually), fishing, and so on. We explored country houses, stately homes, nature reserves, moors, hills, forests. Sometimes these places were ‘managed’ and featured actual tourist destinations so that there mgith be a cafe or a gift shop but more often than not they counted as wilderness. Just, scenery to be explored.
Now that we have no money, and by that I mean not enough to feed ourselves if we continue to pay all our bills, I feel my world shrinking and what little green space there is for me to explore feels all the more precious. It’s not just our own finances though, Brexit feels like a shrinking too. All those people who want to close our borders and cut ourselves off from Europe don’t seem to feel it. Is it because they have green space to call their own and are content in their own oases so that they don’t see how some of us yearn to expand and explore and get out there? I don’t know. But when whatever entertainment I might have now has to be free I’m aware that I don’t take kindly to developers potentially ruining it.
Which leaves me with some other questions. Who is looking after Duchess Wood now? Who protects it from further development? We met a dog walker on Wednesday who stopped to chat. He had a lot to say about Persimmon’s activities and about the management of the wood too. “This is what happens when you leave it to the local authorities” he said.
I wasn’t entirely sure what he meant by that so I have been doing a bit of research and found this:
which is a five year Managment Plan for for Duchess Wood. In it, it states that the wood has Local Nature Reserve (LNR) status, one of only two in the entirety of Argyll & Bute. It is also an Open Space Protection Area, lies within Helensburgh’s Green Belt and appears on the Scottish Natual Heritage Ancient Woodland Inventory as a “Woodland of Long Established Plantation Origin”.
Under the heading ‘Value’ it is noted that Duchess Wood is “A model nature reserve and community woodland. It is important to emphasise that the value of the Wood is seen not only in terms of its biodiversity, but in its recreational and social uses, and its role in enhancing both the physical and mental health of the community."
Under ‘Management and Partnership’ it says "The landowner is Luss Estates Company (LEC) which in 2010 renewed its Management Agreement (MA) with Argyll and Bute Council (A&BC) to manage the Wood as a Local Nature Reserve for a further ten years, until 31 July 5 2020."
Interestingly I also found this paragraph:
The health benefits of the Wood
55. Access in and around the Wood has the potential to bring health benefits – both physical and mental – to all visitors, and one of the main objectives over the period of the Plan will be to explain these benefits to local users (and potential users) and visitors, as part of the wider campaign to improve Scotland’s health. A recreational overview is given in paragraph 71 below. The Wood is used regularly for cross-country races and training, and for orienteering, and it is has been agreed that a semi-permanent but discreet orienteering course will be established in the Wood. Other challenging athletic events have been held in the Wood in recent years. There are also believed to be geocache points in the Wood which attract visitors. However even regular walking in the Wood brings health benefits – the main path has a fair incline and a circuit from any of the main entry points is about 1 mile in length. In addition although the Wood is busy at times, and social interaction is frequent, it is also easy to go round the Wood and not see anyone; this green circuit, with regular birdsong, varied flowers and trees, and the occasional deer is ideal for helping quiet contemplation and helping to resolving mental challenges. In explaining and publicising the attractions of the Wood, the health benefits will be given greater priority during the period of this Plan.
So it seems I’m not alone in thinking that a walk round the woods is mentally beneficial in addition to whatever physical benefits it may also offer.
Clearly I have more research to do but my current thinking is around the mental health benefits of green space, access to it and what people do if they can't get there. I mean already I'm conscious that walking to Duchess Wood so that I can walk around it and then walking back home has an impact on my pain levels, both at the time and in the days afterwards. Walking to the park is less arduous but is it as beneficial? And what of those who can't do either?