Panniers and Pinecones – Coventry Trip Autumn 2020
My bicycle is laden. I’ve never travelled like this before, but COVID 19 has brought us all to new ways of doing and being. I am going to Coventry to recce the city and meet people interested in our Walking Forest project. Trees are interconnecting living structures, with networks of underground roots, fungi and bacteria. Cycling around and about above, I anticipate travelling imaginatively also through these hidden worlds below.
In my red panniers I have hand sanitiser, masks, a pine cone, bike lights, maps, oat cakes, orchard manifestos, my toothbrush, a change of clothes, lap top, phone charger, waterproofs and train tickets. But most of all I have the story of a pine tree planted by a Suffragette, Rose, who lived down the road from me in Wimbledon.
I like to think Rose would approve. She was big on bikes and invented ‘Rational Dress’ – a practical wardrobe for women to ride bicycles. Probably called ‘culottes’ or trousers. I shall be weaving her story of courage and resilience into that of Coventry a city renowned as a place of peace, reconciliation and sanctuary.
In the late 1890s, my great grandfather founded the New Hudson bicycle factory in the Midlands – a memory that springs to life as I approach Euston, marvelling at how liberated our ancestors would have been climbing onto a bicycle for the first time. Everything’s more possible by bike.
I’ve got a dizzying schedule that includes tree wardens, Council staff, food growers, theatre makers, community activists and Coventry City of Culture Team members. That evening, I meet Justine Themens, theatre director at the Belgrade Theatre, working with her co-director Nigel Jamieson, in Australia, on zoom to stage May’s Opening ‘Signature Event’ for Coventry City of Culture 2021. A global pandemic shape shifts creative parameters by the minute and they must avoid gathering crowds of any significant size. Working with a team of young creatives, they’re thinking of filling Coventry’s famous circling ‘ring road’ with 3000 cyclists and planting over 300,000 trees – one for each city resident.
The next morning I wake to news the UK government hosting the postponed COP26 Glasgow Climate Talks in November 2021, have no women politicians representing the UK team as lead negotiators or senior civil servants. Previous UN Climate Talks have been notable for the decisive role played by women. It’s a suitable moment to tune in with Shelley and Anne-Marie (in Devon) and Bret Willers, Coventry City’s new Director of Climate Change. He draws our attention to the health inequalities in the city, and the potential for linking green spaces across nature corridors. He has a large green leaf as his zoom background and leaning in and out of it, appears like a giant caterpillar and a formidable ally.
I cycle off, map in hand, for Warwick University Campus, navigating the Ring Road and Canley, recognising and not recognising, as I’d been there as a student. I meet Dave Chapman, the University’s Sustainability Manager. He’d like to host a citizen assembly to bring siloed thinking on and off campus together.
I over reach myself cycling to the London Road cemetery to meet Derek Robinson, renowned ‘tree man’ of the city. I puff and pant in the rain along the Kenilworth Road under the grand glow of oaks and wind my way towards The War Memorial Park. It is alarming in a city with a ferocious ring road, how often the sign ‘M1 Motorway’ crops up under your front wheel. I make a note, dicing with death, to speak with Coventry’s cycling Mayor, Adam Tranter.
Derek gives me a grand tour. The cemetery was laid out by Paxton in an old quarry in the mid 19th Century, with trees from all over the world.
As we stand in sunlight beneath one of Silver Weeping Lime trees that line the curved walkways, the wind catches the silver grey underside of the leaves. Derek explains their Greek name Tilia Petiolaris, which means “Light bodies floating on the air like wool or feathers”. Appropriate as a backdrop to melancholia and contemplation. I ask about notable women buried here as few are mentioned. Graves tend to say ‘And of Harriet his wife’ but little space is left on tombstones to find out more about the Harriets and their lives.
We head to the curious Purple Beech ‘Walking Tree’, just as I receive a message from Shelley about James Weare, a seedsman and 3 times Mayor from 1824-1826, known as Seedy. He built a nursery up where the Quadrant is now. The healthy Purple Beech was dug up from the Quadrant in 1852 and put on wheels and replanted in the cemetery as part of a massive civic pageant. Today at 250 years old, it thrives.
At the base of the tree we’re joined by a man and his dog, who chips into our tree conversation with his memories of climbing the tree as a child. Derek refers to the 9 year old child, electrocuted 50 years ago when he touched overhead cables running above the railway line nearby. “He didn’t die – he’s my older brother and he is still alive”. The tree’s branches hold still in the wind as we absorb this news. Derek is understandably thrown by it. Places remember events and this tree seems at home with the story of Neil and his younger brother Roy, now standing up for him. I feel my new taproots of Coventry connection shoot down into the Earth.
I leave Derek at the Dissenters Chapel and make my way across the ring road to meet with Amanda and her colleague Titi Dawudu who is steering the Youthful Cities Summit in 2021 with young people in Coventry, Nairobi, Bogota, Detroit and Beirut.
In the gloaming I find the River Sherbourne. It disappears underground near Gosford Street. I cycle West and find it again at Meadow Street – a hair’s breadth from the four lane Ringway and a Skydome Multi Storey Car Park. It’s a relief to see the running water again. How can a city breathe without its river?
The next day, I meet Mel Smith from The Grapevine, an organisation that works with those experiencing isolation, poverty and disadvantage to fulfill people’s lives and dreams. It has a Change making University of 300 people. ‘You look for the treasure in people’ says Mel. So many people in Coventry seem to want to do things like that, connecting goodness. I put a Rose pine cone on the coffee shop table and we talk about how to make an emotional connection to the natural world.
It is bucketing with rain and I abandon my bike and accept a lift in Amanda’s car. I meet Gayle Bradley at Naus Mill – an Edwardian boating lake with a hidden quality of magic. She has a passion for the place and is organising a ‘Beneath The Trees’ Festival in July 2021. It sounds fantastic. Onto Daksha Piparia from Foleshill Creates, who takes us to the Peace Orchard, planted with apple pips taken from Normandy orchards in memory of those killed in 1944 in hand to hand fighting. Coventry has a long tradition as a city of celebration and sanctuary. This is Coventry’s great story to weave our own into.
Coventry’s green spaces pop up where you least expect. Through a gate off the Four Pounds Avenue, I arrive at the most magical place of all: Sherbourne Valley Allotments where I’m shown around by Greg Muldoon. He is the Food Union Cultivator Apprentice at The Pod, lead partners in an unusual Coventry Food Network looking at a mental wellbeing service within the Council. They have a vegan café in town.
You would not know you were in the middle of Coventry. The beds are brimful of pumpkins; the apple tree dips apples to the ground. There’s a ‘shed office’ with a wood burning stove, and outside a fire pit and a compost loo. Charities Mind and The Wildlife Trust have plots nearby. There are people living in the wilder overgrown reaches deep inside, in hidden groves. It is a haven, with the quirky quality of allotments, tumbling out of all the patterns of indoor life. Outdoors. I just want to stay there.
We cross a small bridge and here like a friend, is the River Sherbourne, scurrying through, free and fresh. Greg is as welcoming and happy to consider a Walking Forest camp in time: ‘You would have to get your hands dirty’. I agree.
Onto the War Memorial Park – walking this time. I take in Spon End and the Grapevine office in what was once Moira’s Wet Fish House, next to an original Weavers’ House with a small medieval former food garden at the back. I enjoy mapping out the city.
Three women accompany Amanda and I around the ‘People’s’ Park. Sue, Jennie and Sylpha – all Friends of the Park and celebrating its centenary in 2021.
Every tree memorialises a human life – mostly men killed in WWI but civilians also who died in city bombings and those who continue to die in wars and conflict. Standing by the Portland Stone War Memorial I explore the plaques of men and notice ‘Royal Warwickshire Regiment’ on several – my grandfather David Neal’s Regiment. Standing beneath tree after tree of the same regiment – so many men – I wonder ‘could my own grandfather have shared a mud filled trench with this man?’ It’s immediate and personal. The tree is speaking to me as though we’re connected through time and the roots at my feet. I glimpse what we’ve talked about within Walking Forest about planting an ‘intentional woodland’ one day to make as one whole human and forest stories of courage, loss and survival.
We say our farewells in the wind. On my way back to the car park I see a Cherry tree dedicated to the Needle family killed in the Blitz: Elizabeth and her daughters – Pamela 9 and Patrica 16. All female.
My last session is with Jacqui Gavin, director of Amanda’s Caring Team. We talk law, responsibility and human rights. She is based at Coventry’s Law Centre and our conversation reminds me of the role the law plays in defining historic change making when activists choose to defy the law. ‘I shall never obey any law in the making of which I have not had hand’ said Annie C a Suffragette from the dock. 100 years on we, and others as part of XR, in their 1000s, have had this experience of breaking the law ourselves.
The final observation of the night is how many remarkable women are at the helm of change making in Coventry ‘and yet the city is run by men’. ‘What would happen if all these women got together?’ I catch the train home.
Table Cloths and Security Robots
A month later, I set out for the HS2 Protection Camp at Crackley Woods, 9 miles South of Coventry, to meet up with Ruth, Shelley and Gayle Bradbury. HS2 is ripping its way through the English countryside to create a £100bn high speed railway. Protection camp communities have sprung up along the route to defend and protect ancient woodland, resist construction and raise awareness of its destructive havoc. Activists are living up in trees destined for felling, whilst others keep food cooked, spirits resilient and fires lit down below. The security presence is aggressive and militarised
Bringing Walking Forest to Coventry makes no sense without connecting to this atrocity. Mile upon mile of trees are being felled, wildlife hounded out and badger sets 100s of years old destroyed. Britain’s ‘Tree of the Year 2015’, the famous 250 year old Cubbington Pear has been felled the week before our visit.
It is a bright day. We’ve brought bread and cake and food to offer, and the story of Rose, an activist and a mother.
Through the farm gate, we’re in a parallel activist universe. People come and go in the field of tents, tipis, marquees; camp life, spoons and mud. We unpack our wares and greet the friendly faces appearing. We lay out a tablecloth on a rickety table and collect chairs from around the camp. A cauldron of soup’s on the go made by Mel and the two other women from Wales who’ve set up the field kitchen we’d heard about.
We gather and eat. The warmth of the soup is welcome. Once people are eating we play guest and host to make space to speak of Walking Forest. Ruth invites people to introduce themselves naming the tree, wood or forest that comes first to mind as a connection: oak, birch, cherry. We tell Rose’s story; how it was planted at the arboretum in Batheaston and how the women fighting for the vote and equality didn’t know how or when their campaign would ever win through. People are listening. Of all the many evolving layers of Walking Forest, and its broadcasting, Rose’s story holds it all together.
We tap pine cones onto the tablecloth to collect the seeds. One man, holds up a pine cone and says: ‘Respect’.
We invite participation and it’s ready to be taken up. The recognition in Rose’s story of what is being fought for in this frontline field is humbling. We are making connection through time and place like the mycelial web we talk about.
Before going home, we plunge into the woods, exploring. We find bright orange fungi, damp sticks, sweet chestnuts, acorns, logs, a stream. We trigger the robot security guards along the perimeter fence, that blare their warnings at us that our images have been taken and security alerted. In an otherwise peaceful woodland, it’s a violent assault on my sense of place and belonging here – rendering the scene the most dystopian I’ve ever experienced. We chat through the fence to an actual security man – who’s friendly and curious as we scurry to and fro with a sense of mission. We find saws and coppice hazel switches. I recall Rosa Parks’ “You must never be fearful about what you are doing when it is right”
We plan to lead a walk from the HS2 camp, site of destruction into Coventry, city of sanctuary carrying saplings and acorns from Crackley Woods with us to protect and keep them safe from this abomination. All over the world people are acting like this. We’re just a small part saying NO this must stop. We have to act.
Each step we take, another root seeds connection.
Lucy Neal, Dec 2 2020