A Sight to Behold

Autumn’s in the air. Time for a wander, as we reach the tail end of the decent weather. But where to go? Somewhere on the urban fringe, perhaps (deep topographer Nick Papadimitriou’s Scarp is currently working its magic on me). Maybe to the northwest of the city. I dig out my trusty OS Explorer 260 map to have a look at the lay of the land.

An interesting route soon suggests itself – from the Northern Cemetery in Bulwell to an intriguing artefact of whose existence I’ve only recently been made aware: a water tower at Swingate, near Kimberley. Happily, a dismantled railway line presents itself as a link between the two areas. Walking boots on. Camera, maps, water and extra layers at the ready. Let’s go…

The number 68 bus drops me off close to the cemetery gates and I head towards the entrance. The first thing that I do is check the notice board displaying the opening times. Having once been locked in a cemetery near Nottingham city centre after hours, I’m not keen to repeat the experience.

I’m used to walking around historic cemeteries and graveyards, but the Northern Cemetery, opened in 1903, presents  a very different experience. A significant proportion of the graves have obviously been tended to quite recently and there’s a profusion of modern-day memorial paraphernalia – the sort of objects that probably seem like a good idea at the time, but that, after a spell of inclement weather, rapidly become a depressing display of deterioration in keeping with the true reality of the situation. ‘B&M Bargains tat/Skeggy/goose fair souvenirs’, as one online commentator refers to them.

After a look at the exterior of the Grade II listed chapel, I decide to circumnavigate the grounds, eventually coming across a name that sounds familiar. I realise that I’ve stumbled upon the grave of someone I worked with several years ago – an identification I’m able to make definitively because there are several framed photos in the plot. I knew he’d died, but I hadn’t know that he was buried in this cemetery. He was four years older than I am now. I sit down on a bench next to the grave and spend a few minutes thinking. Memories of conversations with him tumble around my mind, mixed in with the knowledge that he’s now beneath the soil in front of me.

The Northern Cemetery chapel
The Northern Cemetery chapel

I’m to encounter the Northern Cemetery once more today, in the dark, on my way home, when it assumes a very different character, transformed by the eerie site of hundreds of grave lights, presumably intended to provide comfort to the dead (though in actuality it’s to the living), but for now it’s time to move on.

I make my way along Hempshill Lane to Low Wood Road, where I join the path that runs alongside the former railway line. The line was part of the Great Northern Railway’s Derbyshire and Staffordshire Extension (also known as the Derby Friargate line, or Back Line). Built largely to profit from colliery traffic in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, it provided the GNR with a link between Nottingham and Burton-on-Trent and also carried passenger services. If we were travelling between, say, Nottingham and Derby, back when the line was open, our last port of call would have been Basford and Bulwell (subsequently Basford North) station and our next would be Kimberley East. The line was completed in 1878 and closed in the 1960s, although part of the section west of Derby was retained as a test track until 1990.

The trackbed on this part of the route is accessible on occasion, but it’s so overgrown that making my way through it would quadruple my journey time and require a machete (not the sort of object I really want to be seen in public with in these troubled times), so I stick to the path. There are few obvious signs that trains once travelled through here, other than the remaining earthworks – which are usually well hidden and take a keen eye to spot – and a bridge that I’ll encounter a little further down the line.

All walks heading in a westerly direction from Nottingham eventually come up against that mighty juggernaut of dislocation and displacement, the M1, and it’s not long before the brash intruder makes its appearance. As the traffic hurtles across a bridge above my head, I follow the path – which is separated by a fence from some sort of drainage channel – as it passes beneath the motorway, and I emerge into a cutting with impressive rock faces to either side.

Looking back through the M1 underpass near Nuthall
Looking back through the M1 underpass near Nuthall

I learn from the late Geoffrey Kingscott’s excellent book Lost Railways of Nottinghamshire that the rock is Magnesian Limestone. It’s part of an outcrop that extends all the way from Nottinghamshire to the coast at County Durham, with Creswell Crags being perhaps the best-known East Midlands example. Magnesian Limestone takes on slightly different forms depending on location and Bulwell Stone, much used locally for building purposes, is another variety of this characterful material.

Passing to the north of Nuthall and over the site of a tunnel whose portals are now buried beneath the surface, I’m now on the outskirts of Kimberley. I make a short side-trip to view the front of the Hovis bakery and distribution site on Main Road – one of eight Hovis bakeries in the UK – before returning to the path and entering Kimberley proper.

Emerging onto the busy Newdigate Street, I take my life in my hands crossing the road at a blind bend and am met by the sight of a sign reading ‘Great Northern Railway Path’ that points to a wooded area at the side of the road. It’s late afternoon. Time is passing and I’m tempted to take a slightly more direct route to my final destination, but curiosity leads me forward onto the path.

A tranquil scene greets me, but the biggest surprise is yet to come. As I continue onward, the view suddenly opens out to reveal a splendid, deep, wooded cutting, with steps down to bottom of it. I have the place to myself and take a few minutes to admire the scene before descending and following the path to its end at the former site of Kimberley (latterly Kimberley East) station, which opened in 1876 and closed to passengers in 1964. The main station buildings remain and have been converted into living accommodation.

Station Road leads me onto Main Street and the welcome sight of a fish and chip shop on the other side of the road. The side of the building features a large image of a John Bull running while holding a Union Jack aloft, alongside the words ‘Traditional Fish & Chips’ and ‘The Best of British’. I’m sold.

Kimberley owes its size and character to industries such as coal mining and brewing, but nowadays it’s essentially a dormitory town, with levels of traffic that it was never built to cope with. Putting myself at risk of shuffling off this mortal coil for the second time today, I make it to the other side of the road and enter the welcoming environment of ‘Ye Olde Chippy’, emerging shortly afterwards with a generous and tasty-looking portion of fish, chips and mushy peas.

I cross the road once more, find a bench that’s within sight of the road but far enough removed to provide a modicum of seclusion and tuck in. As well as cars, the area is also reasonably busy with pedestrians, some of whom stare at me as they pass by. The ‘you’re not from around ‘ere’ attitude is much in evidence. It brings to mind Jean-Paul Sartre’s discussion of the concept of the Look (or Gaze) – the way in which, in the presence of other humans, our thoughts and actions are inhibited, compromised or changed as we become aware of ourselves as an object that others may be judging.

The food doesn’t disappoint and I polish it off in short order, depositing the packaging in a bin and starting out on the final leg of the journey, making my way slowly up the hill before following the road over the A610 to the village of Swingate.

The light is starting to fade noticeably as I round a corner onto Babbington Lane, but there’s no mistaking the sight at the top of the incline – the Swingate Water Tower. I realise that I’ve never really given much thought to the purpose of such buildings. Are they obsolete, like gas holders? Later research indicates that this is not the case and that they can be used to provide water when there are problems with the main system or during peaks of demand, being tall and placed on high ground in order to provide the necessary downward pressure. They often operate alongside reservoirs and the Swingate tower sits in front of a covered one.

The British Water Tower Appreciation Society (for there is such a thing) would almost certainly be able to provide more information, but details of the Swingate site are, for some reason, hard to come by on the internet. The only (unverified) information that I can glean is that it was built by the City of Nottingham sometime in the late 1940s/early 1950s and forms one link in a chain of water supply between the Derwent and Nottingham.

The houses peter out shortly before the tower. One or two dog walkers pass by, seemingly suspicious of this camera and backpack-toting male wandering around at such a late hour, but other than that, the tower and the reservoir – the grass-clad banks of the latter lending it the appearance of a neolithic burial mound – are my only companions. It’s peaceful up here, though I’m aware of an unsettling repetitive mechanical sound emanating from the reservoir’s interior.

The tower itself is magnificent. How is it not better known? As I gaze in awe at its imposing, yet finely crafted exterior, a vertical line of windows on each face giving tantalising hints of the secrets within, it seems to me quite wondrous. It’s like a stately home in the shape of a water tower, the communication equipment at its summit hardly affecting its impact at all.

Swingate Water Tower

There’s not much light left now, and, after a brief exploration of a footpath that runs alongside the site, I begin to retrace my earlier steps, realising that my original plan to return to Nottingham by means of a footpath across the fields to Strelley and then on to Bilborough will have to be abandoned. Instead, I take an alternative route out of Swingate, crossing a footbridge over the A610 before following the roads back to Bulwell and catching an NCT bus homeward, body and mind invigorated by the experiences of the day.

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