Cannock Chase is my original forest, an alpine space of intricate memories, the place where desire grew tall and swayed into the breeze. You see it if you take the Euston-Manchester Piccadilly train. Just a few minutes past Rugeley, the forest rises on a ridge on your right past the speeding window – the always silent telecoms transmission tower the tell-tale landmark.
In winter, it is a magical world of icicles and frost. Ponds lie frozen, inedible. The crow’s echo skids across the dead ice. Life is a slow crystalline, except for the funnelling breath of passing runners or mountain bikers.
In the summer the Chase turns purple, the heather sprouts colour in a fight of paint. As the eyes range across, forest gives way to a moorish aspect; as if the land cannot decide how northern it will yet become. The patches of purple link themselves in the body of my mind like ancient ivy - to another time and place. On another moor, a hundred miles to the north, she leaned back, woollen stockinged legs nestled amongst the coarse foliage, opening in subtle invitation… Then there are blackened bits, charcoal that crushes colour out of acres of trunk geometry. Man’s security against forest fires. And yet, everything that can burn, will burn, eventually.
The earliest times spent there were with Victoria, Granddad and Nana. We used to go for picnics on Milford Common. There was a Wimpy bar on the corner – its there today – what a triumph against time! We did not eat there; it was a desire that never transpired, and now cannot. I yearned to bite into beef and bap and that exotic thrill of the 1970s: French fries. Instead, we had tuna sandwiches and Walkers crisps and lemonade and victoria sandwich. Kites and kids fluttered about. Stafford accents mingled with Black Country and no one seemed to mind.
Around the same time, we were driven there in a Cortina Estate. It was Justin Jones’ birthday. His Dad took us on a winter outing, sledge in the back. It seemed like there were ten of us, but probably it was just six or even four, squeezed into the back seat and on top of the sledge. Justin’s Dad drove us up past Brocton and onto the Chase. He drove at speed across the icy rubble of the track, then pressed hard onto the brakes and turned. We skidded and swayed and screamed for joy. Then, we took the sledge out and took turns to scram down the hill. Those moments were timeless, yet full of time.
We were always beware in the summertime. Everyone knew it: the Chase had adders. We lived always in a snake-free world, but for the menace that wriggled hidden there. There were stories of people being bitten, being rushed to hospital. Did anyone ever die? The Chase was our very own tropical danger, latent with slithery malice.
A little later in the world’s unfolding, we used to go walking there with Mom and Dad, to the Stepping Stones at Seven Springs. The water was shallow, but still we scared ourselves by walking the gapped blocks of stone, perched above the flowing brown.
And then, the Big School. We were jostled close to nearly two hundred boys the same age, all on the verge of a hormonal abyss. On January afternoons colder than death, we’d have to cross country run. There were the sporty types, at the upper rim of petit bourgoise in the evenings and weekends, spriteing themselves forwards in Adidas tracksuits. Then there were the skanks, mostly from Penkridge, in over-sized hand-me-downs, lagging behind with a B&H or three. And there were the parked cars, with steamed up windows, that we’d jog by unannounced…
And then acne and exams kept me away for a couple of years. A hiatus, when the forest all but disappeared. My imagination went into hibernation. I became a badger, afraid of the light. There was menace in muscular form above ground. Time and land stretched forever outwards. Church Farm became an island in a lake of fear.
And then one day, it was spring again, and I had passed my driving test. To celebrate, I drove my mud brown Mark I Escort, Trevor, on a strip of the M6, from one junction to another. There was no higher ecstasy of freedom than that day. We upgraded to the Citroen Dyane, and life stretched out like an open road. A-levels were a quickening memory of mediocrity. Lee and I drove out to Spain – a part of Cannock Chase that reminded him of family times in Majorca. We made soulful jazz music together and wrapped ourselves around the little Stafford world we were leaving. The Chase woke up to me again. Thawed, above ground, the forest welcomed me back, branches pulling me in. I wandered through the oak forest, listening to the susurrus of leaves up above. I found myself stopping, head full of mystery.
One day, the Citroen Dyane died mysteriously. Vic and I next shared a Morris Traveller (we moved from one strange car to another in those days). My forays beyond the village had found fruit. Nesta and I met at the Colisseum. I took her one night to Cannock Chase. I’d made jelly, and had a coil of blue rope. I’m not sure what my intentions were, but they were decidedly pornographic. We parked the car and walked across the heather. The moon was full. After twenty minutes walk – I didn’t want us to be seen – I lay the blanket down. She stripped to French knickers, her skin lustrous in the moonlight. I had a sleeping bag. It was too small for us to get into together, so I unzipped it. We hugged and rolled into each other between the blanket and the sleeping bag, but still it was too damn cold. We didn’t even eat the jelly.
Fraught eroticism tinged my experiences of the forest at that time. I went for a solitary late night drive and spliff on the lane that leads from Brocton towards the cemeteries. Three cars were lined up in the lay by. As I drove past, I could see the windows were steamed up. I stopped and turned the car back, then turned the lights on full beam (there was a devil in me) and filled myself full of laughter. I could see rapid movement – a dress being adjusted, a recalcitrant bra strap, the car itself rocking from frantic activity. The branch manager with his secretary, and the slow rape of all good intention. I three-pointed back on myself and started away, only to see one of the cars’ lights were now on in my rear-view mirror. Sleeping policemen slowed me down – after clunking over each I’d roar away in second. The car was right behind me now. An angry man, or a cornered animal, or both - almost bumper close. How to lose him? I drove and drove, up to Stafford, onto the M6 to the North Stafford exit, then round the roundabout in a whirr. Still he followed me. Back down the M6, all the way to Walsall, before he and the ghost gave each other up. I imagined a secretary, placating, pleading from the passenger seat, my guilty saviour from a vicious pummelling.
Other times were calm. Kathryn and I went to the small lake and sat in the dark inside the bird watchers’ hut, staring uncertainly out on our future. I spent hours alone, back amongst the rare old oaks, turning the wind into a symphony of leaves. Often, I was moved close to tears by the simple sound’s majesty. Close enough by, the veterans and the young men lay buried in serried ranks still, from wars both pointless and full of point. The telecoms tower looming close, technology beyond the firs.
Cannock Chase. A forest full of memories for a forest full of people.