One night during the first lockdown in Crystal Palace Park, the sky offers a light reminiscent of an August walk on Curracloe beach, Ireland. On this night in a London park, we block out the low ruins of the former Crystal Palace with our hands so that all we can see is the top of an avenue of cedars. The sound of the wind in the trees is suddenly the ocean. Imagine, I say to my partner, that we are walking the loop of the Raven woods out to the dunes and the beach, the ferns grown high in the summer air, higher even than us.
During the lockdowns I have longed for the sea and for a beach. I don’t think I am alone in this longing and it is not a feeling that is unfamiliar to me. I have always lived, except for brief pauses, in a state of landlock, dreaming of my escape to the land’s driftwood edges where clifftops, over years and years, are ground into banks of palm-sized pebbles and strange things wash up. Lockdown made this coastal longing especially intense, as if I had suddenly been forced into a separation from a lover. A fixation with a place, sometimes specific, sometimes general, spiralling into a kind of desperate lust: a fierce, unresolved obsession.
In September we moved to Manchester after almost a decade each of London. We were moving into a local lockdown, but also to an entirely new landscape of unexplored red-brick streets, parks and wild spaces. Over the course of the year, as I have tested and crossed the boundaries of golf courses and motorway bridges, as I have strayed from paths boggy with rain and pedestrians into damp margins in search of fungi and lichen, I have found a peculiar kind of coastal surrogate in the flood plains, waterparks and woodlands of south Manchester.
Wherever I have lived, I have always found landlocked stand-ins for the coast. I grew up in a small Hertfordshire village bordered by an aerodrome. Childhood and the years of my teens were spent pacing the fields criss-crossed by concrete runways in search of signs of the sea. Turned by the plough and given a different relationship to gravity after rain, those brown-field sites yielded many treasures over the years: fossilised seaweed nodules and the vacated imprints of sea sponges, pebble shells and other traces of bivalves, a hoard of echinoids (fossilised sea urchins) etched with hieroglyph spines, and, once only, an elusive squid belemnite lifted from Fillet’s Farm like a flint bullet.
On the years of wheat rotation, I waited for the moment when the bleached crop under a blue sky created the illusion of a beach. That was when the beachcomber, stranded on agricultural land, knew that she was standing on a lost seabed, haunted by the ancient pattern of the tide. In London I had strategies too, giving hours at low tide to mudlarking the Thames foreshore. When lockdown began, however, this too was lost to me.
Confined to the suburban edges of the city most of my emotional and imaginative means of accessing the beach, this longed for space, were synthetic or secondhand. At the height of my longing I sourced a twin-tone Poole pottery shell vase from the 1950s on Ebay. I purchased it because I saw someone online say that if you held it to your ear, you could hear the sea. When I cupped it to my partner’s ear, he dismissed its unnatural approximation. A synthetic echo, hollow and without music, as if I were dialling the sea and had reached only its answerphone. So I set the vase out on a bathroom shelf and let it be.
When the River Mersey is low there is a small patch of exposed foreshore where the current runs over pebbles of natural rock. These rocks rub up against chunks of industrial waste whose edges are also being smoothed to form red-brick pebbles: mysterious desert-scorched surfaces abstracted from brick. This collection of rocks tells a story about the quarrying of Manchester’s landscape for industry. On a clear day in Didsbury the river’s source seems not to be in Stockport (where a shopping centre neatly hides it away), but in the surreal gritstone formations, peat and lichen-bellied heather of the Peak District, which is visible upstream in the distance.
Yet the first time we came down to the coppery rush of the Mersey, navigating our way through September’s touch-me-nots, I managed to perform my old magic trick, finding not industrial waste but a sea fossil: a bundle of bivalve shells and imprints that invited my fingertips to knot themselves around it. Here was my new coastal landscape, pressing itself to my palm with the ghost forms of its seabed.
As autumn turned to winter in Manchester, I was reading about rock pools and finding them in everything from the sea creaturely poems on my shelves to newly ordered field guides devoted to the subject. In every fictional encounter with a rock pool I saw myself reflected: a figure approaching the landlocked floodplains of Fletcher Moss Park, the pools of the swamp holding a glassy ephemera of dusk, the fungi growing from a rotten log like the bright jewel of an anemone. I thought of my own mind snagging on the submerged treetops held in those oil-slick, stagnant pools, or caught up in the micro-landscapes of fallen trees. The eye searching for fungi and lichens and finding pin and slime moulds (the distant relatives of single-cell Amoebas), twisting the dial of the zoom lens to get closer to the detail even as the larger possible horizons remained restricted.
I thought of January floods that had made Fletcher Moss an archipelago, a sunlit, chattering, doubled world where the sudden low, deep tangle of dark branches was no longer a canopy but a cavern. Was it strange, I wondered, that I was always transforming my vision into something other? That I was living everything in my own head so intensely: observing the landscape, recording it, and then translating it into whatever form took my fancy? If I chose a detail, I could make it abstract. I could expand the smallest, speckled swatch of lichen on a tree trunk and make it vast as a coral reef.
The more I became conscious of how I was mapping my coastal longing onto my new home, the more the parallels multiplied. There is also something tidal about Manchester’s trees. It’s as if they were high-rise tide pools stretching up in vertical columns, knotting wetlands at their roots and pooling upwards. Even if they are not, in the moment you encounter them, rising like tall islands from oceans of floodwater, there is a sense of water only just in retreat, pulling back, gurgling over rocks and planning the rush of its return. There is a dampness that sustains the teeming, liveliness of life on every surface of this landscape. A single avenue of Horse Chestnuts in Chorlton Park is pillared by tree trunks so gorgeously decadent with lichen as to seem sub-marine.
In winter it was this fertile dampness that began to lead me firmly away from my dizzying, unquenchable longing for seascapes, towards a healthier kind of passion. Although I had always been fascinated by lichens and the way they brocaded rock, I had never paid much attention to the fruiting bodies of the fungi. Now, in south Manchester, I was searching for them every day, keeping close to the margins of Fog Lane and Didsbury Park or Fletcher Moss. Absorbed in the mud and the mulch, the canyons and crevasses of the bark of trees revealed themselves as I circled their unmapped landscapes.
Here was an alternate world to the rock pools of the coast: landlocked but equally various. The Scarlet Elfcups were radiant wounds in the dark of Stenner Woods at dusk. In the snow the Jelly Ear were rouged and glistening like obscene ripe fruit, their icy crusts peeling as if from plump, chapped lips slick with lip-gloss. In the Birch woods at Chorlton the planetary rings of the Turkey’s Tail were like hovering plates thrown into the hungry mouths of bark: a fungal solar system in orbit of the pale, silver trees. One afternoon, crawling into the low tangle of a den, I found a kind of bonnet mould flourishing on a hollowed, rotting limb. I thought I had found mushrooms hairy with the December frosts, spiked with fine glass tendrils, but this was Spinellus fusiger – the bonnet mushroom transformed into a beaded pin cushion.
If mushroom hunting had initially seemed a surrogate for the kind of meditative attention I gave to beachcombing or fossil hunting, it was steadily becoming its own obsession. Although I wasn’t picking them or cooking them, only observing, learning and admiring the surreal forms as if they were species of nudibranch or jellyfish, the fungi certainly appealed at first to my collector’s instinct.
As I learnt more, however, the winter fungi offered a lesson in observing and attending to the landscape that was spread out immediately before me. Instead of wishing myself elsewhere at a time of impossible, extended uncertainty, a single landscape had become rich terrain for the spontaneous and the unexpected. In this attention to the ecological minutiae of my new home I have learnt the names of things: plants and snails and trees and the fungi and lichen that grow amongst and between them. This feels like just one way in which I have been drawing closer to the world. This landscape, and all the ways it has changed and will continue to change throughout the seasons, is one that I could no longer live without.
I have come to love the moment of arrival at the River Mersey. Here you can hear the rush-hush of the motorway as if it might be the sea, as false as the sham echo of the Poole shell vase. Here you realise that while the park you have just passed through is bounded by the river, the water continues to open out towards more space. There is a sense of expanded horizons that I never felt before in London. Although I haven’t escaped the city just yet, I have found an imaginative retreat so wild that I know now that I need not feel like I have abandoned one landscape for another.
Francesca Brooks is a poet, writer and researcher based in Manchester. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Lighthouse Journal, PN Review, Structo, and Gorse, and she was recently longlisted for Primers 6 with Nine Arches Press. Her first book, Poet of the Medieval Modern: Reading the Early Medieval Library with David Jones, is published by Oxford University Press at the end of 2021.
Photographs by the author.