Stepping Stones 

Stepping stones on the Great North Walk

How do you make sense of life? How do you portray life in words? Like prescription lenses, stories shape the way we see ourselves and act in the world. 

Living between worlds

“The Manchester way is to make it yourself,” says Tony Walsh’s poem, This is the place. “The Mancunian Way to survive and to thrive…. Northern grit, northern wit.”

I grew up between worlds – between Manchester’s swagger of industrial ingenuity and Dentdale’s ancient dialect of roaring tannin brown becks coloured by wild moorland peat and Norse ancestry. Manchester is a place of possibility, repurposing and working class pride and politics. I love the city and its technology, while wild Pennine moorlands, mossy green dales, Blue Mountain bush and red Australian deserts run in my veins.   

My Mother is deep-rooted in Northern England and my Dad still called Australia home. Both grew up during the Second World War with an ethos of hard work, thrift and self-reliance. They shared a passion for logic, science and civic duty but parted when my Dad’s passion for men was stronger than his marriage vows. 

Mother became one of the first female biochemists, but her real passion was botany - and mosses in particular. She dreamed of  discovering new species in far-away places, like Joseph Banks. As an amateur botanist she explored Manchester’s abandoned industrial sites, cataloguing the plant world’s resilient re-pioneers. My Australian Dad was an organic chemist who spent holidays building dry-stone walls in Yorkshire at our stone cottage in Dentdale.

"Dent is not of this world. It's fairy tale and who believes in fairy tales nowadays? It's a place of cobbles, of jutting gables, overhanging roofs, quaint alleys, wooden galleries and outside staircases." said Alfred Wainwright in his Pennine Journey. 

Adam Sedgwick, the so-called father of geology, hailed from Dent’s mossy limestone valley where clouds of midges were so thick you could breathe them in. Insects of many a size made soup-like our peat brown bath water warmed by the coal fire’s backburner. In early summer, wild garlic filled the air with oniony perfume and the bottom field became a wildflower hay meadow. In a rare dry period, the spring stopped flowing and the pipe stuck into the hillside was empty. My sister and I paddled into the gill to fetch buckets of achingly cold water, even in Summer. An invigorating and oddly addictive endorphine release, like hot chillies. 

“Come make some fly pie Elizabeth-Jane. Maybe a bilberry one too. Then we can twiddle our thumbs by the fire,” said Cathy next door, full of Dentdale tales and adages. She never left the valley, nor did her parents or theirs before. 

Conversations across the dale carried as if in the next room, easily heard amid birdsong and bleating sheep, but suddenly obliterated by the deafening roar of a combat plane skimming hillsides on a training mission. 

Back home in Manchester, on birthdays and Christmas, the postman brought a package stamped with Australian botanicals and marsupials. Granny’s sound pictures of her childhood in the Australian bush, imprinted electromagnetically onto a plastic cassette tape. Vivid stories of the great Southern land which made the land of floods and plains as familiar as coming home when I first visited aged eleven. I was intelligent and rather shy until I met my ocker Uncle Peter who sparked in me a confident repartee of banter my Mother said she’d never seen me use before. 

After bad bouts of tonsillitis in my early teenage years, I grew into a bit of a hooligan at times, kissing on the iron bridge (like the Smiths Still Ill). I don’t actually remember spitting in anyone’s eye, but maybe I did.

Travelling on the transpennine express 

Travelling over Pennines hills to Bradford University I studied new subjects to expand my cultural knowledge. Late night curry and chapatis followed Transpennine treats from the Cream of Manchester to the melted snow flavour of Taylor’s Landlord. Then suddenly, I became fashionable. Madchester was the brand at the centre of the musical universe, and I had a passport to be adored.

The fun faded in a difficult first year as a trainee gas engineer in Birmingham surrounded by lecherous and drunken male colleagues. Things looked up when I moved back to Yorkshire and had the chance privilege of being paid to watch paint dry and drive a gas van around green Yorkshire Dales. I smashed a glass ceiling and became a minor energy industry celebrity as the first female gas transmission and distribution engineer in Yorkshire. Managing a system of pipes that connected the beach to the burner, I felt like I fitted in. Until I worked on a 10 year business strategy for the UK gas industry and restructured myself out of the industry. 

I joined the railway as an asset information manager, classifying and cataloging the permanent way. They say there’s a right way, a wrong way and the railway. Railway miles can be short and long. Each professional railway discipline finds a place by a different system of measurement, track engineers use Engineers Line References and mileage measured from London, electrification engineers use kilometers measured from Glasgow. For millennia humanity experienced time as an attribute of place, days measured locally by the rise and trajectory of the sun. The railway changed the human concept of time into a mechanically and commercially set standard time, and then invented commuting. 

Intention then action

In 2002, my life had corridor cognition, commuting between Manchester and London. I never unpacked my toiletries for three years. The railway was taking over my life. I no longer socialised with anyone outside the railway. Early morning, the alarm clock woke me from a puzzling recurring dream of blinding light and dark shade. A voice inside me said, No More! What do I want to with my life? I want adventure. I want to work overseas when I’m older.  Shit, I am older! Where to go? Go walkabout, Come Home said the voice…… to Australia.

It's that time again when I lose my friends. Go walkabout, I've got the bends from pressure. This is a testing time when the choice is mine. Am I a fool for love or foolish for desire? Come Home, Come, Home Come Home Come Home by James

How? Was I brave enough? How would I find a job? A visa? My sister had been an Australian citizen since the age of about 13. My Dad said he forgot to fill out a form which meant no Aussie passport for me. I’d never been to a conference in the time I worked in the railway.  Management thought we would escape.  They were correct. Two weeks later, I was at a conference - was it to be my ticket to freedom? The friendly conference host introduced me to a visitor from NSW railway, “this is Liz, she’s fantastic you’ll have to employ her.”  “What do you do?” said the Australian railwayman.  “I’m an asset data architect,” I said.  “Great,” he said, “you can come. We need them.” That was it. A few months later, my passport stamped with a 457 employer-sponsored visa, I was on a plane to Sydney.

A magical alarm clock woke me that first morning in Sydney: laughing kookaburras, melodic magpies, flocks of cockatoos, calling currawongs. I went outside into the blindingly bright warmth of winter sunshine, the sun's low angle casting deep dark shadows.  Just like my dream.

A month after arriving, Mother sent me a series of texts. “The postman brought a letter today with a kangaroo and an emu on it.”  “I opened it because it looked official.” “It says you’re and Australian citizen.” While applying for the 457 visa, I’d also filled in a citizenship by descent form. 
I am Australian

I’m a creator and maker of clothes, cakes, crafts, energy systems, policies, information systems and stories. I love the systems that exist in full view, shaping our lives, while we take them for granted in our busy lives – our buildings, water supply, our energy supply, food supply, transport and logistics, financial system, democratic and legal systems. Our geological and climate systems which influence every aspect of life. Stories are a way to convey the meaning, complexity and idiosyncrasies of these systems. What if the world worked for everyone? 

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