There is a sign that marks the entry to the disused rail tracks that run behind the house I grew up in. Back in Norfolk. The sign is new; it signifies a change in ownership of the land. A moving forward from the past. The tracks are to be reopened. A new attraction for the few tourists that choose to visit this sleepy corner of Britain. A new attraction: an old route. The sign warns of the property’s recent re-privatisation by Mid Norfolk Railways. It tells me of the fine incurred for trespass. Before this they were free to be wandered. I pass the sign, it stands blatant, a garish scarlet that bleeds out upon the vista of derelict tracks; wood, rusted metal and the bed stones which cast a multiplicity of grey shades upon the track. Woodland, brambles and a melange of invading flora stand guard either side of the rails, encroaching upon the triptych of metal, wood and rock that maps the trajectory of a previously flourishing transportation system. An industrial art work.
I forget the sign. Walking the tracks, I quite fondly encounter the memories of a childhood spent playing upon this abandoned route. What strikes me is that my memories are all at once a vibrant, flourishing immateriality, a rekindling of the ephemeral, a ghostly return of sorts.
I was six when I first learnt that scraping one of the volcanic rocks from the track bed upon the ginger rail would release a rather unpleasant sulphurous scent. My friend’s Grandfather told me; ‘These here stones are made of rotten eggs you know!?’ I pick up a rock and test this again; could the rocks have changed, are they how I remember them? A retching sound from within me nods towards the affirmative. This place was how I remembered it; there is the tree where I first discovered print pornography; five magazines rolled into a neat tube and stuffed into the hollow of a moss imbued trunk. Doubtless the guilty stash of a local teenager, discovering their sexuality in the privacy of the woodland behind their parent’s house. Away from prying eyes.
I come across the makeshift bridge that leads over the ditch to the old tin roofed den, an amalgamation of broken sleepers and logs gathered from the woods. As kids we often came across discarded female underwear around here. It was all part of the allure I suppose. The bridge is still there, the underwear is not. The tin roof has more leaks than ever. It smells as if it is perpetually damp; at least until the summer.
Beyond the improvised crossing, some two hundred yards along the track is where we saw the ghost; there were twelve of us; between eight and ten years of age. He was tall, top hat, black dog, floating. I think. A spectral cliché. We ran. He followed. I walk the tracks in part to find him, to discover his truth. I had seen him again when I was older; fifteen and experimenting with fire amongst the safety of the rock and steel laddering of the tracks. Both sightings had resulted in the same thing; scared children; hiding in brambles; shaking; thorns pushing through clothing. Would the shadowy figure disappear? He always did eventually it seemed. Perhaps he was a former rail worker or just someone unlucky enough to have been struck by a passing locomotive.
Encountering the tracks that day presented not just an excuse to escape reality, to indulge in the memories of a not so innocent, but happy period of childhood, spent exploring, engaging and making sense of the railway. What it was, why it was out of use, what it had become to us. Rather, these memories were not so much attached to the place itself, in some sense they were, but I feel greater import is to be placed upon the memories being giving shape through the very materials that constructed the mile long stretch of rail route between a crossing and an agricultural overpass. Rocks, steel, sleepers, trees, thorns, discarded magazines, tin, bark, logs; these are the things which served to create these occasions and which, for the most part, remained. Headstones marking the finality of a former existence, of a former self as well as a former functioning rail service I suppose.
Such objects present themselves as traces of my own past. Their materialities speak to me of less complicated times. They confront, reappear; positioning themselves in my path as it unfolds along the track. These things are as ghostly as the phantom we thought we had seen all those years ago as children. Such objects haunt me. Or perhaps it is I who haunts them. It is I who returned.
I would suggest that such an occasioning of haunting is all too familiar with the readers of this article; that objects encountered from past events can present themselves as all at once familiar and unrecognisable, that they can be as strange and enchanting as any spectre might be. These are the real ghosts.
Materials; the things or objects that make up our experiences of the everyday, are for the most part then, haunting in their very nature. We may attach memories to these things, moments or events like the ‘stones made of rotten eggs’, or, and in the more obvious examples, we might encounter objects that belong to someone else’s past. Moments of somebody else’s history. Indeed, the railway tracks speak as much of the strange figure’s existence and the former trade links of the county as they do of my own memories. These things linger, they remain. Such an encounter is by no means exclusive or particular to the tracks. Period architecture, memorials, road names even, all displayed as the remnants of another age. Like ghosts they present themselves in our time, appearing to make their debut and yet they signal us to their previous lives. Our physical surroundings then, form the stage on which the ghosts of the past might perform. We might look upon things as the sites at which past lives can be resurrected or re-imagined.
Case in point. The ten minutes it takes to walk from my house to the local train station reveals all kinds of ghosts, spectres of the previous existence of things; a derelict pub turned squat displaying parts of its former signage. ‘The Gre n M n’. A road sign; ‘Copper Mill Road’ points to a now outmoded industry, once the lifeblood of the village. A disused ford, gravel pits now nature reserves, the village Baptist church in its neo-gothic form; an ecclesiastical anachronism wedged between large Victorian homes later turned into apartments, these themselves pointing to the village’s far grander past. It is these ‘things’, these material entities which spark the thought that their very materiality is itself both haunted and haunting simultaneously.
Thinking about objects in such a manner exposes the workings of materiality upon time; moreover, it presents a way of immaterialising things; an acknowledgment of stuff as part of the phantasmagoria which makes up our experience of the lived environment. The way in which things become engrained, inflected even, with our emotions, reflections and memories points towards a process of (im)materialisation. I no longer live near that railway line but the ghosts that I encountered there, real and imagined, will haunt me always. I never came across that dark figure or his canine companion the last time I visited the tracks, yet I felt their presence in every stone, sleeper and track I passed.