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19 June 2024

I couldn’t beat our local fly-tippers. Instead, I found myself joining them

Often I find myself picking among jettisoned debris, looking for incriminating documents, but rarely with any luck.

By Simon Armitage

The first time I heard someone use the term “fly-tipping” I genuinely had no idea what they were describing. From goofball American movies I knew about cow-tipping, but even if it were possible to catch a fly and hold it steady, where is the fun in pushing it on to its side, and why would doing such a thing be considered anti-social? Or maybe fly-tipping was the unauthorised giving of gratuities, though again, in what circumstances or establishments could it constitute a criminal offence? But to see fly-tipping, or rather the result of it, is to recognise it immediately, usually because of the haste in which a car boot or the back of a van has been voided of its contents. Objects are strewn in an unholy mess by drivers wanting to make a quick getaway, and the resulting ugliness compounds an ugly crime. Don’t expect fly-tippers to hang around stacking their unwanted junk in tidy piles.

I’m sure fly-tipping is rife in urban settings, and some urban settings are indistinguishable from rubbish dumps or landfill sites in the first place. But it’s most conspicuous in areas often referred to as the countryside, a place where I happen to live, and which I define as a border region between the built environment of towns and cities and the truly wild spaces of the moors and hills – the Pennines in my case. The countryside lends itself to fly-tipping because most humans are pretty lazy, and the first green field or cart track beyond their own postcode is usually identified as the most convenient waste disposal site.

One such location is a muddy lay-by at the top of the road where I grew up, above the West Yorkshire village of Marsden. The verge there has always been a favourite place for in-car courtship, or “nadging” in the local vernacular, though this was in an age of comparative innocence before vehicle-related sex became a spectator sport (like fly-tipping, it was a long while before I realised that dogging was not an animal-based activity). Nominative determinism meant the lay-by was always destined to be a place of trysting and physical entanglement, given that it stands at the junction of Mount Road and Old Mount Road. But these days would-be lovers will nearly always be stymied, finding the parking space occupied by a collapsed settee, a cracked toilet, a fridge-freezer with the door hanging off, or, ironically but not exceptionally, a dirty mattress.

Local recycling centres charge for trade waste, which is why the scat of fly-tippers usually includes within it building rubble and plaster board. And there’s no point spending forty quid on petrol by driving into the deep wilderness to heave a few bags of broken tiles down a ravine, so the countryside it is. Plans have been mooted to classify fly-tipping as a motoring offence, resulting in points on a driving licence. Very often now, out for a walk, I find myself picking among jettisoned debris, looking for incriminating documents, but rarely with any luck. Fly-tippers are idiots, but they’re not stupid.

It is against this backdrop, figuratively and literally, that I indulged in a little fly-tipping of my own recently. A couple of miles to the south there’s a bump on the horizon which my dad always called Puddle Hill, accessible only by a long yomp across boggy tussock grass, and it’s there where I tipped a shiny silver canister into the wind and watched his ashes fly. It was an action that probably required written permission from whichever absentee aristocrat claims spurious ownership of the moor, and may have contravened several by-laws. But the name Puddle Hill appears on no map, and after a few minutes in a gusting westerly there was no trace of the silvery powder, so maybe it never happened. And even if it did, and was designed as a final clearing out or letting go or abandoning of baggage, it failed.

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Simon Armitage is the poet laureate and the author, most recently, of “Blossomise” (Faber & Faber). He will be writing monthly on nature in the New Statesman

[See also: Bridgerton’s flowers are pure fantasy]

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This article appears in the 19 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, How to Fix a Nation