The Expedition Begins
We've left the University grounds with a small military escort.
Considering the many dangers between the stone walls of the University and the village of Stirchley, such a modest military escort seems to feel inadequate but we've been promised more when we've finished our task.
The first day of the journey has started off slowly. So much scientific equipment to transport not to mention the campsite for the professors and the soldiers. Captain Thomas Ellis is doing a great job of leading the convoy across the old canal and manfully overcomes each obstacle in our path. Overgrown trees create a thick canopy that obscure the sunlight. Taller carts carrying military equipment and one of our recording devices have ended up entangled in the branches which has slowed us down but each time the Captain and his men have made short work of this wilderness.
Outside the dark chamber of tree the landscape along the waterways is bleak, desolate. We're crossing a long bridge over a roadway, I can't see for more than half a mile but there are shapes in the mist, towers?
Ancient bridges yawn open for our transports to trundle through. We're all feeling a sense of dread the further we travel- even the soldiers. The sounds of the carts echo off the old stones- but it's not a yawn, it's a weep.
We've stopped for an unscheduled rest. A long line of rubble, half a mile at least lines the canal. It must have been part of a large wall structure for one of the waterside storehouses. The soldiers have been tasked with moving the debris but the environment officer insists they take samples of flora specimen growing amongst the debris before it's cleared away. One soldier has told another that the Captain doesn't think we'll reach our first campsite before nightfall. The soldiers climbed to the top of the ruins and began passing down rocks.
It took a few hours to clear the crumbled wall out of our path, the soldiers pushed the rocks into the still waters of the canal.
It's now night, Captain Ellis and Professor Spence have decided to set up a temporary camp by the ruins of the old wall. Really tired and we will only have about six hours sleep.
We rose just before dawn, didn't get much sleep. We've been marching for two hours and it has started to rain. The dark chamber of trees rising from both sides of the ravine is doing a good job of sheltering us from most of the rain. Captain Ellis is worried about the paths. We're having to travel much slower than we're scheduled to.
The rain has now turned into a deluge. My colleagues and I are incredibly uncomfortable and we're riding atop of the carts. The soldiers must be used to this kind of activity though.
The day is incredibly long and wet. I'm not able to do much writing as the raindrops are soaking my sketchpad. We all just want to be at the next campsite now. It's not going to be a very luxurious campsite but it will certainly be better than last nights horrible sleep.
The rain is stopping but the Environment Officer has said that we've just had three months rainfall in under twenty-four hours.
Dusk has begun to fall but to everyone's relief Captain Ellis's scouts have just informed us that our bivouac is less than a mile away.
The Selly Oak Camp is a decent climb from the waterside. The soldiers, stationed by the carts, have set up small awnings from the trees all along the canal and are lying, snuggly, in a row.
We've a slightly more hospitable quarters, with camping beds and gas lights, atop of the hill. A wide, flat, reasonably dry clearing with overgrown bushes to one side and a row of iron shipping containers to the other.
The camp manager has set up a food station where Mulligatawny Soup is being prepared and a music box plays a jubilant, uplifting string quartet. The soldiers climb the hill to receive soup and bread, quickly returning back down to the waterside to be beside the caravan.
After a long and uncomfortable day, everyone, even the professors, seems happy. Everyone wants the music to be louder so the camp manager has placed the music box inside one of the long, iron shipping containers to amplify the sound.
It's now total darkness. Almost everyone has gone to sleep. I stand outside our tent and try to see as far as I can but there is nothing. No lights, no stars. I wonder how far back I'd have to walk to see the lights of the University at night. Probably quite far as there has been a thick mist along our whole journey.
Later that night...
I've just got back to our tent. I heard a terrible, deep cry in the night. I thought it came from down the hill so I walked out to see if something had alerted the soldiers but it was too dark to see anything. I stayed very quiet to see if I could hear the sound again. I slowly turned to go back to my quarters when I heard the noise a second time, now far more clearly. It was high-pitched. I heard a rustling about 20 feet from our tent. From the bushes walked a soldier who had been positioned outside our tent. The soldier looked pale, they too had heard the same sound. Far away across the water and the overgrown woods, behind the mists. For another minute I stood there, in silence, hoping I would hear the sound again and realise it was the wind blowing through the long iron shipping containers but all I could hear then was the panicked whispers of the soldiers below.
I've now got back to my tent.
Reaching The Selly Oak Camp
Last night I dreamt I was lost in swirling mists that obscured my path. I tried to walk through them but couldn't feel the earth beneath my feet. Beside me I heard the same sound the campsite had heard that night. I remember seeing, in the dark a host of dim lights and knowing that they belonged to houses and shops once, but not anymore.
In the morning we learnt that our guide, Synthia, had arrived just before dawn. Working with Captain Ellis, her job is to guide us from the old canal path up, onto the land.
After only a few hours march it has started to rain quite heavily. Professor Spence is concerned that the carts could slip into the canal. One of Captain Ellis's scouts had climbed the ravine and scaled a tall tree to watch the clouds- it should be clear in about half an hour so we've decided to bivouac here until the rain stops.
We're still sat by the waterside, over a hundred of us just waiting for the rain to stop.
Much to Captain Ellis's dismay, the most direct path to Stirchley Village had become waterlogged, the canal had overflown with stagnant, rancid water some months before. Our guide has suggested building a bridge across the canal to access an alternative route.
We've reached our new exit route but the heavy deluge has caused it to be too slippy for our carts to scale. Synthia and Captain Ellis have devised a pulley system to lift the carts through the trees and up the steep hills either side of us.
Myself and the soldiers have just finished constructing a pulley system on top of the hill and the soldiers are now hoisting the carts up the hill.
We all just heard that sound again. It was incredible. The soldiers said it made the thick woodlands around us shake.
Professor Spence is terrified that the hastily rigged pulley system isn't sturdy enough to pull the carts out of the ravine.
Synthia has led a small team of soldiers ahead to build a walkway for the carts by placing planks of wood over the waterlogged paths. The soldiers have taken to calling our destination "Stirchley Island" as it seems impossible to reach without crossing water.
I recall a book in the university library titled:
It seems this idea has been mused more than once.
We've just almost lost one of the military carts in the canal when our hastily rigged pulley system gave way. As it careered down the hill it almost crashed into one of our more precious pieces of recording equipment. When the Expedition Director, Professor Spence, learn that the military cart held two artillery cannons she was not pleased that the Captain had sent weaponry up the hill before the scientific equipment.
It's misty. Really, really misty. It's just before midday and we can just about see the sun through the clouds but despite our obscured path, Synthia can see the way. On either side of the convoy we can see branches and overgrown ivies in the mist.
We've reached the make-shift pathway built by the soldiers and Synthia. They rejoin the caravan and before long the mist begins to clear and ivies and gnarled branches are broken up by red brick walls and carved stone. Roads and signs also appear too. The ground is firm now and the mists have completely dispersed. I turned around to look at the back of the convoy and far behind us, behind the trees is a great wall of thick cloud.
Synthia has just announced that we have reached Stirchley. We see a few people walking along the lanes and hedgerows, going about their business. A small collection of houses develop into more civilised rows of old brick homes. We push on passed them towards Stirchley Park.
The carts are no longer trundling across unkempt soil and overgrown grasses, instead the caravan is thundering through the streets. The soldiers march, an impressive display for the locals, who are now emptying their houses to watch us pass. The sun is so bright here. We haven't really seen much sunlight for the whole journey.
As I look at the locals I think about the etymology of the name Stirchley Park. The word used to mean a sort of public garden or green space that was for anyone. I wonder if they still use it in this way? I wonder if they'll interact with our campsite during our time here?
Synthia is standing on top of the front caravan and directing the drivers. She points to a row of mighty poplar trees in the distance. The houses slowly vanish as the path becomes more wooded. Again everything grows dark. We seem to of entered a thick, obscure hollow and at the end is an old wooden bridge. Professor Lightborne makes a note of it on his map:
Blinding light hits the caravan as we leave through the mouth of the hollow, over Darkbridge and suddenly enter Stirchley Park. We see a wide open expanse of long grass and trees and beyond that a field of short grass that looks like it's used for games by the locals. There is a long dark ring around the circumference of the land. Beyond that more trees, high brick walls, merged with iron and spikes. If you look up you can see clear skies and even rays of warm sunlight. I look down and try to see beyond the buildings but, once again, I see nothing but the tall and terrible wall of white, curling mists.
We set up a temporary camp at Darkbridge. There is nothing to do now. I watched the scouts leave. When they've found the Dead Shrine, we'll begin to move out.
Today has been the longest and most eventful day of the expedition. It's already late evening and I haven't had a moment to write in this diary since dawn.
We left Darkbridge just before midday. Synthia and the Captain's scouts returned in the night with news that they had discovered the Dead Shrine. Inside Professor Spence's tent, they marked it's location on a large wall map of Stirchley. It was all the way on the side of the park. The temporary campsite was packed onto the carts and we began the march.
Eventually we came across a great oak tree that stood just a few metres from the bottom of a small hill. The hill rose up and lead out of the park.
The hill was overgrown with wild flowers and ivies and from it's heart a tall, unnatural object grew from within. Burnt black, with little features- it was difficult to describe. The march came to an immediate halt before the object and we all stood there in silence. The rattling of sabres and cart wheels had stopped. The wind picked up and the only sound to be heard was the agitated flapping of the DEMA banners carried by a handful of soldiers.
Professor Spence took the first steps towards to inspect the shrine. She placed her hand on the corner of the object and followed it round, she stared at it's face for a moment and then turned back. It seemed to me, in that moment, she had noticed something remarkable. Later that day during the setting up of the camp site, I approached the shrine to see for myself what Professor Spence had seen. In the centre of the object's wide, featureless face, a hole had been exactly bored. Even more curious, through the hole, there had been place some kind of lens. It seemed to me, on first inspection, that this lens could only of been installed from inside the object, meaning it hasn't been modified by the locals.
It's taken all day but the camp is finally complete. 36 tents for the soldiers, 4 larger tents for the archaeological team including a laboratory and a research tent.
The whole camp is sat at one long table for the first evening and there is a tangible feeling of solidarity blossoming between the academics and the military. When the mulligatawny soup and bread had all gone and much wine had been consumed one of the soldiers produced a small green Violin from their tent and began to play. The camp was filled with music.
I just watched the scouts riding through the camp. They're heading to the university to confirm our arrival and report our progress. They should return to the campsite in just under a weeks time.
We've just finished our first briefing for the excavation. Professor Spence opened with an introduction from our DEMA excavation manual:
Welcome to Stirchley Island:
A psycho-geographic exploration of the the village of Stirchley
The Dead Shrine
"A large, unidentified artefact has been discovered in Stirchley Park. The locals claim it appeared overnight. This OOPA (Out Of Place Artefact) is one of a series of objects that have appeared throughout the West Midlands. Nearby residents have reported voices and the sounds of machinery at night. The colloquialism for these foreign objects appears to be ‘Dead Shrines'".
The Dead Shrines Project, Stirchley Park
published by DEMA, December 5th, ****.
The locals seemed utterly fascinated by the physical phenomenon of the Dead Shrine. Dr Pete Ashton, our experiments coordinator, ran a workshop for the locals to explain the science behind process.
"The image is formed by sunlight bouncing off the scenery and passing through the lens. Because light travels in straight lines, light from the ground appears in the sky, while light from the sky fills the ground. Left becomes right, right becomes left. The world is upside down and back to front. And yet it is real."