You may be interested to learn that I’ve been working on a project over the last couple of years: an MA in creative writing with the OU. For my final assignment, I’ve drawn together some of the material from the experiences I’ve talked about here, and have a written a collection of short stories about the darker side of Milton Keynes. I’m currently working on publishing these but in the meantime, here’s an except from ‘The Abbey Bones’ …
I’m not sure if it’s the claustrophobically low roof or the water that drips down from it that makes this such an unsetting space to pass through, but there’s definitely something uneasy about the wooden bridge that passes through Tunnel 170 at Bradwell. It was closed recently for engineering works, but to me it looks exactly the same as it always has done… ancient, threatening and dark, with the river running underneath and trains thundering by overhead.
I’ve not been able to find much about the history of the tunnel, if there even is anything of note. I know that the stations nearby at Bradwell and Great Linford closed in the 60s, and that the railway is now part of the redway network. (I have a whole piece on the redways ready to post at some point, but that’s for another time!)
There’s a point halfway along the bridge where I always seem to hear a rhythmic thump from above, like train wheels rattling over tracks. However, I think that modern trains whoosh along rather than canter, so it’s probably some trick of the acoustics reflecting back my own footsteps from the curved ceiling. It’s one of those spots that I don’t feel comfortable lingering, especially if I’m out on my own – even though you can see both ends of the tunnel clearly, it feels like there’s someone just behind me all the time. It’s always something of a relief to come out into the light at the end.
To entertain myself, and hopefully entertain others as well, I’m currently pursuing a creative writing course with the fine old Open University. It’s proving to be a fascinating experience, and I didn’t expect to have as much fun as I am, or to be getting such great feedback from my fellow students.
Most of the writing is peer-assessed, but every few months there’s a formal assessment point where we’re asked to put together a few thousand words, and these are marked for our eventual grade. This ‘term’, I’m working on creative non-fiction, which I thought would be a new genre for me, but it’s really the sort of thing I usually write: taking everyday experiences and looking at them from creative or unusual angles. I’ve decided that this assignment piece is going to take the form of a guided walk around one of my favourite spots, interspersed with me reflecting on architecture, hauntology, Freud’s Doppelgänger theory, psycho-geography, the memory of places, all sorts of things. Today, I set off with my good camera to take some pictures to illustrate the story and add to the ‘guided walk’ vibe.
I don’t spook easily, these days. I do most of my explorations around MK alone, and have pretty much got used to the tickles at the back of my neck that mean I’m being watched, and usually it’s a magpie about to tell me off, or a neighbourhood cat watching me go by. But on Christmas Eve, when I went for a wander up to Shenley Wood and stepped off the beaten track for a moment, I had a distinct sense that I wasn’t on my own, even though there was no-one else to be seen.
The paths through Shenley Wood are always a bit of an adventure. They’re bark-chipped, for the most part, but often so boggy that in places, I’ve come close to sacrificing a shoe to the ooze. I was squelching uphill through one of these bits when I spotted a strange structure hidden in the trees just off to my left. Any other time of year it would have been hidden in the foliage but winter lays everything bare. It looked like a metal chute chained to one of the thicker trees and I was intrigued to work out what it might be. There was a small track leading off the main path into the clearing, so I hopped and wobbled my way in. However, the odd contraption wasn’t the only thing I found in the clearing.
Christmas Eve, 2017
I don’t think I’ve ever gone walking on Christmas Eve before – I’m usually up to my eyes in icing sugar and marzipan, putting the finishing touches to the Christmas cake or wrapping up the last few presents – but this year I felt a strong pull towards the outdoors, towards the woods. Shenley Wood in particular. It’s funny, I’ve still never been there in the summer. Always autumn or winter, when the trees are at their witchiest and the thick mud tries to steal my boots.
I wasn’t expecting to find anyone else on that odd little path that branched away from the main route. I was out for a walk, with my camera, feeling like a photojournalist or a novelist, someone far more fearless and much more glamorous than my pudgy, slightly annoyed self. It was the second day of a long-anticipated week off work and I was exploring parts of my town that I never normally got to see. I’d already circled a lake, crossed two new estates and listened to most of the morning show on 6 Music and was thinking about calling it a day.
This strange and graffiti-covered space is a mystery to me. I’ve investigated online, and try as I might, I’ve been unable to find much information about this tunnel… I’m not even sure it should really be called a tunnel, because it doesn’t actually go anywhere! It’s a disused underpass to nowhere – it looks normal enough at first, just another underpass linking two estates together – but about halfway down you realise that you’re not going to come out on the other side of the road, you’re walking to a dead end.
It started with a post on Facebook. I still used it heavily, back in those days, and had just joined a new group which posted about playgrounds in the local area. I was looking for one with a bird’s nest swing, I remember, and this group had a handy map showing where they all were. One rainy lunchtime, I was browsing through my feed and idly wondering whether I could face getting up and heading out for a walk when I came across a picture someone had posted up near Caldecotte Lake. It showed a beautiful gothic doll in a black gown, perched in the branches of a tree. The poster had been out walking his dog, and was asking if anyone knew who it belonged to. No-one had replied. Intrigued, I headed for the door before I could change my mind.