Silent city heat: The Herne Hill Membrane

Brockwell Lido on the first warm Saturday of spring. That’s the bittersweet image preoccupying Yua Fremantle in these strange, shut-down days. She wrote about it last year on her blog of Herne Hill life, The Woman in the Lido Cafe:

Light. Tumbling in from the open sky to splash across pool water, sunglasses, dripping dry bodies and smiles. Light shining into noise – noise reflected as light. Toddlers whirled giggling in the shallow end. Kids teasing and jostling in the queue for the mandated bombing zone. Around the poolside people catch up on news, chat on the phone, shout ice cream orders to their friend at the booth.

Amid the noise there is serenity. Butterflies alight on spring-green wall-creepers. Books are read, crosswords filled in. An octogenarian unfolds herself from the decking and pads across warm concrete to slip into the slow lane. Her breast-stroke hardly ripples the surface. A young woman stretches on a towel, eyes hidden behind shades, headphones enclosing her in music and a perfect, blissful stillness...

Music fills the outside, too: The teenagers have marked their corner, bluetooth speakers tapping out sunny sub-genres of hip-hop. All around is laughter and banter and heat. Life, lived in the city. This is release, however brief. From work, from school, from winter. From the grind of everyday life.

But not this springtime.

From self-isolation in her flat, Yua looks across to the closed down lido. London, like much of the world, is quiet. Waiting for a storm we can’t see but know is coming.

There is a bite of winter still in the air, but the sunny weather, and the warped, slow-panicked days we are in, reminds Yua of a local legend, something else she has blogged on in the past. A strange entity associated with heatwaves and baked tarmac, which has quietly haunted this neighbourhood for at least a century: The Herne Hill Membrane.

A minute or two from the lido, at the Southwark/Lambeth border, is Herne Hill Junction. This meeting of six roads, bridged by railway lines, is a busy pedestrian thoroughfare for users of the park, the market, the train station and the shops. And it is the epicentre of a pattern of events that Yua has been piecing together from historic disappearances.

“I don’t just mean people going missing” says Yua, over the phone. “I mean people literally disappearing from the world, slipping out of existence in full view of fellow humans, never to return”.

The vanishings, Yua noticed, correspond with heatwaves.

“On a hot day, the heat here is something else. Waiting to cross at the lights you’re exposed. Heat coming up off the road. Bus engines pumping it out. Hot air funnels under the railway bridge, rolls down the slope of the park to gather at the junction – which, geographically, is a valley floor”

On such days the queues around the block for the lido take on an air of desperation – people not just hoping to enjoy a day of summer leisure, but desperate to escape into the cool water. They are right, says Yua, to be fearful – not just of the heat. And they are right to see the lido as a sanctuary. (It appears to be immune to Membrane.)

She rattles through some of the stories she has collated:

In 1911, several passengers on the lower deck of the number 48 tram, rounding the corner from Half Moon Lane, attested to the sudden vanishing of an elderly passenger, who had been sat squeezed between two others. An inquest heard it was though ‘the air became thickened water; the poor gentleman a great stone dropped in it’.

In 1976, a City worker on a broken-down train on the Chatham Main Line brick viaduct above Norwood Road suffered a similar fate.

During the heatwave of 1990, two flatmates recovered from a hangover in their room above a takeaway on Railton Road. At around 2pm Carl Hutchin left their flat to try and borrow an electric fan from the hardware shop. His friend Michael Stamp, Carl said later, was ‘semi-comatose’ on the sofa. When Carl returned, it was ‘like the Mary Celeste. Telly still on, fag still burning in the ashtray. And a big patch of sweat on the leatherette sofa where Michael was supposed to be’.

Last summer, a woman trudging home with heavy shopping bags ‘wobbled’ out of existence on Milkwood Road.

There are more of these events, says Yua. And when you plot them on the map they correspond as closely to spatial geography as they do to a particular meteorological state.

“I picture it as kind of blob” she says. A blob with its centre at the Junction, reaching along radial thoroughfares, into houses, up over the railway bridge: an invisible enity.

Or not, entirely. A ranger in Brockwell Park told Yua that people have seen it, looking down from the hill on hot days. A shimmer, a difference in the air when seen against the housing beyond, something more consistent and defined than heat haze.

And, when conditions are right, the membrane between this crouching thing and our world becomes porous.

But research, like Yua’s day job, is currently on hold.

She doesn’t want to complain. From the fourth floor (her flat has a balcony, so currently she feels like a queen) Yua watches the changed city. There’s a furtiveness to people, but for a lockdown it seems a little loose around the edges.

Joggers on their daily sanctioned run keep their distance on the brow of the Park. But do hipster segways count as government daily exercise? Her lonely ground floor neighbour had taken his dog for a walk twice already by 9am. She can’t blame him for that.

Yua has, she whispers guiltily, had quite a nice day. Skyping her parents, tidying, chatting to the three kids on the next balcony along. She made signs saying ‘Thank you’ to NHS staff and bus drivers and construction workers, hung them from her balcony facing the street.

And she admired the trees outside her flat. The birds sound happy. The skies are a blue not seen since the days of Eyjafjallajökul.

Yua wonders whether the Herne Hill phenomena will occur again, in the next heatwave – in the new world, after the virus.

“You used to have to dig for these weird stories in the world”, says Yua. “For now, the weirdness has expanded outwards, enveloped everything. Like we’re all on the wrong side of the membrane”.

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