Friday, 21 August 2015

The mountains of Arran: a landscape of wonder within reach

"My place above every other place
to be on your high shoulder-blades
striving with your rocky great grey throat"
The Cuillin, Sorley MacLean

The beginnings play out the familiar rhythms of the start to a day in the mountains. Shaking off car park lethargy with a steep - initially conifer-shrouded - ascent, cresting to a suddenly wide-screen terrain, taking in the always wonder-capturing first vista with heavy breath then a washing-over of the stoic reserves required for the upward progression to the initial peak. 

The rising rock-scape in question is Goat Fell, at 874 metres the highest point of the mountain range that bosses the northern half of the Island of Arran, a hypereal mirage of jagged horizons seen across the Firth of Clyde from the drab mainland reality of the port of Ardrossan and post-industrial North Ayrshire (post-industrial being, of course, a bogus alias for places - and people - that have been used, spat out and apparently no longer matter).

For once the opportunity had arisen to pass over the usual horse-shoe circular movement in favour of a less predictable linear upland journey: ten miles or so of high level tramp from the Victorian Laird-land of Brodick Castle to the sheltered bay of Lochranza on the northern coast (famous as the landing point of Robert the Bruce on his return to Scotland in 1306 and as a site of the geologically important Hutton's Unconformity)  A clear forecast after several dreich days means that the climb to Goat Fell is well populated in both directions. Up and over and the descent to the exposed ridge of Stacach sees the masses dwindle to the occasional fellow wayfarers, then a morphing into a facsimile (for it is nothing more) of wilderness, with no sightings of a human being in the final three hours of the walk.

Picking a route down to the dispiritingly low pass of The Saddle and Geography lesson perfect glaciated valleys fan in all directions. Looming ahead and then above is the seemingly unbreachable massif of Cir Mhor ('big comb' due to its resemblance to a cockscomb, the crest of a domestic cock). The thin line of a path up the mountain-side traced from afar is now out of sight. The unlikely smallness of the gravel track commencement of the climb requires faith and experience to envisage it as a way to scale the looming heights. After the so-so summit of Goat Fell (the highest point of a range is rarely the most memorable), Cir Mhor is a revelation of a mountain; the apex of an X-shaped quartet of ridges. A high terrain that seems more Pyrenees or Dolomite than Scottish Highland, with light grey granite tors resembling massive Inca walls (or perhaps a pneumatic Dartmoor): the Andean ambiance bringing to mind the opening scene of Werner Herzog's Aguirre, The Wrath of God, a caravan of conquistadors and their Queshua slaves descending a mist-shrouded Huayna Picchu on their doomed search for El Dorado. 

Looking back from the curva-like ridge approaching the final peak of the day, Caisteal Abhail, and the dragon's back route from Goat Fell appears in sharp relief. Atop and gazing in the opposite direction and the day's destination, Lochranza, appears for the first time; a balm for heavy legs but a hazy blue horizon still four miles distant. 

High-rolling days like these need to be cherished. Not because they represent a tired macho peak-bagging mentality or some nebulous concept of wilderness; its more simple than that: they are a reminder that landscapes of wonder are within reach.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Monastic ruins as topographical memories. An elegy to landscapes drowned deep in time.

“They emerge in the fields like the peaks of a vanished Atlantis drowned four centuries deep. The gutted cloisters stand uselessly among the furrows and only broken pillars mark the former symmetry of the aisles and ambulatories. Surrounded by elder-flower, with their bases entangled in bracken and blackberry and bridged at their summits with arches and broken spandrels that fly spinning over the tree tops in slender trajectories, the clustering pillars suspend the great empty circumference of a rose-window in the rook-haunted sky. It is as though some tremendous Gregorian chant had been interrupted hundreds of years ago to hang there petrified at its climax ever since.” 

Patrick Leigh Fermor on the ruined monasteries of England and Wales "that have remained desolate since the Reformation" (A Time to Keep Silence, 1957).

Thursday, 2 July 2015

The Way of the Hollow

The work of something of a topographical supergroup, Holloway, is a collaboration between Adam Scovell (film and direction), Robert Macfarlane (words and voice-over), Richard Skelton (music) and Stanley Donwood (artwork).

Robert Macfarlane describes the films genesis and production on the Caught By The River website; its stylistic debt to Derek Jarman's 1971 Journey to Avebury Super-8 short acknowledged and plain to see.

The film moves across many of the touchstones of the re-imagined sense of landscape and place outlined in my recent Towards a new landscape aesthetic essay. And chances are there will be such a holloway - a secret sunken path - within a few miles of where you are sitting right now, so away into the gloaming and find your own layered and folded place...


Friday, 12 June 2015

New horizons on the Gwent Levels

Some images here from a preparatory field visit for my forthcoming PhD research. In looking for a contrasting case study to supplement the study of 'monastic' estates in the south-east Welsh Marches I have been drawn to what is for me a new landscape, both geographically and topographically: the Gwent Levels. This is reclaimed estuarine terrain, occupying a narrow band of coastal alluvium to the east and west of Newport, with much in common with the larger and more well known Somerset Levels across the Severn Estuary.

Unlike the more inaccessible and agriculturally marginal uplands of Wales the low-lying coastal plain of Gwent and Monmouthshire has been an open-door for incursions from the east, most notably by those masters of strategy and technology, the Romans and the Normans. It was during the period of Roman occupation that the first systematic drainage of the Levels began and sea-walls were constructed. This infrastructure having fallen into disuse, the powerful Norman Marcher Lords renewed the perpetual struggle to master the tides and exploit the hyper-fertile potential of reclaimed land in the twelfth century. 

In order to cement their hold on the area and provide compliant labour in a highly feudal period the Marcher Lords imported English settlers to work the land (yes, economic migrants have always been with us) and so, as with the coastal districts of southern Pembrokeshire and the Gower further west, there is a legacy of English place-names (Englishries), and indeed surnames, that remains to this day. The Marcher Lords also granted lands in the area to monastic houses and this is where my research comes in. The coastal wetland strip between Newport and Caldicot known as Caldicot Level was the location for a number of monastic holdings: the Benedictine Goldcliff Priory, of which nothing remains in its original location, occupied a low promontory at the water's edge and had extensive lands in the surrounding area, whilst the Cistercians of the nearby Llantarnam Abbey and Tintern Abbey operated large granges here. Monastic estates in and around Magor, Undy, Redwick, Porton, Goldcliff and Nash were thus key agents in the on-going reclamation and landscape development seen during the medieval period.

My introduction to this table-top flat watery landscape of marching pylons, vast skies, somnolent villages, meadows bounded by reens (drainage channels) and birdsong - hemmed in and encroached upon by the looming but strangely unseen urban edge of Newport and the Llanwern Steeworks complex - will be followed by further visits and discovery. I hope not only to provide further detail on the landscape history of the area, but also to apply a deep topography sensibility; providing some westward psychogeographical momentum, away from the equally estuarine and history-soaked flatlands of Essex and East Anglia


Rippon, S, 1996. The Gwent Levels: evolution of a wetland landscape. CBA.

Williams, D, 1976. White Monks in Gwent and the Border. Griffin Press.

Williams, M, 1975. The Making of the South Wales Landscape. Hodder and Stoughton.


Thursday, 28 May 2015

Reverie in tranquil industry

Like much of the surviving relict remains of the explosion of industrial activity in Britain in the late eighteenth century and the Victorian era, Sapperton canal tunnel has been slowly and incrementally seeping back into the landscape from which it came. Pandaemonium and rupture replaced by quiescent stillness. Transporting the Thames and Severn Canal through the Cotswold hills the tunnel was opened in 1789 and, at two and a half miles long, was and is one of the longest in the country: the HS2 of its day.  

Coming across the crenellated western entrance of the tunnel during an early summer afternoon and returning in the gloaming, hallooing bats from the murk, evokes a feeling of antiquarian discovery. How strange that an example of what was raged at as the disfigurement of picturesque landscapes has become, with obsoletion, time and benign neglect, an organic component of the terrain that it scarred; recolonised by endlessly patient displaced flora and fauna and stillness.

Returning through wild garlic abundance alongside the silted channel to the camping field downslope from the magnificently unchanging Daneway Inn, once lodgings for the men who propelled the narrowboats through the tunnel by 'legging' - using their feet on the tunnel walls, I enter a Rousseau-like reverie contemplating the tranquillity of exhausted human endeavour.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Topographical legacies of monasticism: evolving perceptions and realities of monastic estate landscapes in the south eastern Welsh Marches

I will be commencing a full time PhD at the University of Exeter in September. Here is my research proposal; the landscapes and places that will be occupying my time, inspiring me and driving me to distration over the next three years. If anyone has any expertise, knowledge or interest in the subject matter outlined here I would be delighted to hear from you.

Monastic estates, in contradistinction to monastic buildings, have traditionally received limited attention from landscape archaeologists and historians and few previous studies have attempted to examine the subsequent evolution of these estates beyond the Dissolution within the context of their monastic period antecedents (Bond, 2004; Everson and Stocker, 2007). However, a number of more recent agenda-setting publications (Aston 2007; Austin, 2004; Bezant, 2014; Walsham, 2011) have offered new methodological and theoretical frameworks to begin to address this subject, thus providing the foundation, impetus and broader context for this proposal. Examining in detail landscapes associated with a number of monastic houses in the south-eastern Welsh Marches and tracing their later trajectory, this thesis will assess the impact and legacy of monasticism on the historic landscape up to the present day, stretching the chronological survey of such landscapes into the post-Dissolution era and bridging the gap between medieval and post-medieval landscape study.

Adopting an interdisciplinary and multi-layered approach to the landscape, the core emphasis on tracing and accounting for the physical changes evident within the study area will be supported by an examination of the shifting perceptions of cultural and economic value, of landscape meaning and memory, which such changes reveal or provoke (Cosgrove, 2008; Schama, 1996).  Consequently, conventional themes long dominant in landscape historical and archaeological discourse such as ownership and land management will be addressed, but interweaved with the discipline’s more recent interest in how places and landscapes are perceived, appreciated and codified in both the past and present (Johnson 2007; Whyte, 2009; Wylie 2007).

This research will be driven by a number of core questions:
  • Can distinct medieval ‘monastic’ landscape types or even, in Whyte’s words (2009), “religious topographies” be identified?
  • What was the legacy of monasticism for subsequent secular landscape development?
  • Is there any commonality in the post-Dissolution evolution of monastic estates as they were transformed from economic and religious spaces into, for instance, idealised designed landscapes in the early modern period, or designated heritage and touristic landscapes in more recent times?
  • What historic and contemporary perceptions, reactions and emotions have these transfigurations engendered?
The south-eastern portion of the Welsh Marches, encompassing the historic counties of Brecknockshire, Monmouthshire, Glamorgan and Herefordshire has been carefully selected for its high potential to address the specific research questions posed here (Burton and Stober 2013). This area contains a mixture of pays— of both upland and lowland, and champion and bocage landscape character — offering a variety of physical settings in which to explore the human dimensions of landscape creation over the long term (Leighton and Silvester, 2003; Rowley, 2001). The region was also colonized by a number of religious orders during the middle ages. This provides the context to examine the estate organisation of specific religious orders as well as the particular landscape arrangements of individual houses. The wider geo-political dimension at play in the region during the medieval period—for example the establishment of monastic estates as a symbol of Norman colonisation, power and control in a contested borderland—provides an additional dynamic to enrich discussion on the cultural impact of these landscapes (Burton and Stober, 2013; Rowley, 2001). There is also considerable variation in the post-Dissolution histories of these monasteries: some became ruinous, with their estates broken up, whilst others were converted into gentry houses with associated landscaped estates.  The area has long attracted the attention of the artistic community, opening up the opportunity to explore the monastic legacy underpinning the evolution of these landscapes as cultural, spiritual, and artistic touchstones (Andrews, 1999). Finally, reflecting the desire to trace development to the present day, many of the monastic estates are located in what are now designated spaces or countryside on the edge of post-industrial urban areas; terrains viewed through the contemporary lens of high heritage and ecological value, but also facing competing pressures for change.

An interdisciplinary approach will be adopted from the outset integrating topographical, archaeological and historical evidence supplemented by analysis of literary and artistic sources, oral histories and contemporary opinion.  Examination will be multi-scale, with general surveys of the whole area supplemented by three detailed case studies chosen to ensure a reflection of the range of complex landscape histories it contains (the short-list of monastic houses for the case studies are: Craswall, Dore, Goldcliff, Llanthony, Llantharnam and Tintern).  Criteria in their selection will include: monastic order; landscape character and pays-type; heritage and conservation designations and value (including economic); current ‘risks’ of landscape degradation and fragmentation; access and ownership considerations; and availability of archive and research materials.
Foundational to the research will be to categorize, record, and map monastic features in the case study landscapes (including religious buildings, farmsteads and granges, field systems, communication routes and other infrastructure). GIS will be used to integrate, analyse and present modern and historic maps and plans, aerial photographs and satellite images, place- and field-names, and data layers from HER and archival records.  A limited sample of targeted fieldwork will be conducted on key features, focussed on rapid field assessment and measured surveys.  Once reconstructed, the ‘monastic era’ features of the case study landscapes will be analysed to identify and catalogue post-Dissolution continuity and change: patterns of preservation, adaption and despoliation.

A dual approach will be taken to the analysis and comprehension of shifting perceptions of the case study landscapes, of how such places are envisioned and represented (Andrews, 1999; Cosgrove, 2008; DeLue and Elkins, 2008).  Written, artistic, and cartographical landscape descriptions and depictions—from monastic records, folkloric representations, the works of antiquarians and the Romantics, through to diverse twentieth and twenty-first century viewpoints—will be examined.  This will be supplemented by survey and interview of a representative sample of those who work in, manage and visit these landscapes, including: National Park staff, walkers on Offa’s Dyke National Trail, local farmers, artists and residents, visitors to heritage sites, members of local societies, and those involved in outdoor pursuits. Social media will be used to engage with on-line conversations relating to the spatial and thematic subject matter of the study. 

Transcribed versions of documents from the monastic period, for instance Ecclesiastical Taxation (1291), Valor Ecclesiasticus (1535), Calendars of Ancient Deeds, Charter and Patent Rolls and other contemporary administrative and legal papers, will be reviewed for primary source references to topographical and tenurial information relating to the case study areas, as well as cartularies where they exist. Reference will also be made to antiquarian studies describing post medieval and early modern estates previously held by monastic houses in the study area, such as Beaumont’s A Tour throughout South Wales and Monmouthshire (1803) and Dugdale’s Monasticon Anglicanum (1655-1673). National and local archives and HER’s will be consulted to review archaeological reports, estate and tithe maps and other source documents. Ordnance Survey maps will be accessed digitally from the Digimap on-line resource. Aerial photographs and satellite imagery will be obtained from the RCAHM (Wales) and English Heritage’s on-line archive and Google Earth. A useful on-line research resource for the study will be the Monastic Wales web site (, which provides listings of primary and secondary sources for all monastic houses in Wales. Other sources will also help to identify patterns of perception over time relating to the case study landscapes, including the work and commentaries of artists and writers (ranging from Giraldus’ The Journey through Wales to Wordsworth’s locally inspired output, through to more contemporary observers such as Raymond Williams and Owen Sheers), local folkloric tales and visitor survey data published by heritage and conservation bodies.

More than just the passive subject of our gaze or the repository for archaeological features of clearly demarcated temporal periods, in the words of Robert Macfarlane (2012), “landscape is not something to be viewed and appraised from a distance” but is “dynamic and commotion causing”, a collective term for the diverse components “that together comprise the brisling presence of a particular place”. This proposal outlines a vision for a work which, though rooted in the established practices of landscape archaeology and history, demonstrates a multi-dimensional approach based on the study of landscape as just such a many layered construct (Fleming, 2008; Johnson, 2007). In this case, exploring these ideas through a regional examination of the topographical legacies of monasticism imprinted in the evolving realities and perceptions of diverse monastic estate landscapes over time.

Ultimately the aim is to provide a coherent narrative – a biography of both the real and the imagined – for these particular places with complex pasts and presents in order to help inform contemporary decisions on how they are managed, utilised and presented to the wider public on a landscape scale now and in the future. For this is an urgent need, now more than ever, as competing pressures of land use (agriculture, housing, energy supply, amenity and so on) play out across rural Britain and the cultural and economic value of ‘heritage assets’ is increasingly seen to be realised on a landscape rather than a fragmented site-based level (Fowler, 2004; Rippon, 2004).    


Andrews, M, 1999. Landscape and Western Art. Oxford University Press.
Aston, M, 2007. Monasteries in the Landscape. Tempus.
Austin, D, 2004. Strata Florida and its landscape in Archaeol Cambrensis 153, 192-201.
Austin, D, 2006. The Future: Discourse, Objectives and Directions in Roberts, K (Ed.) Lost Farmsteads: Deserted Rural Settlements in Wales. Council for British Archaeology.
Bezant, J, 2014. Revising the monastic ‘grange’: Problems at the edge of the Cistercian world in Journal of Medieval Monastic Studies.
Bond, J, 2004. Monastic Landscapes. Tempus.
Burton, J and Stober, K (Eds), 2013. Monastic Wales, New Approaches. University of Wales Press.
Cosgrove, D, 2008. Geography and Vision: Seeing, Imagining and Representing the World. Tauris.
DeLue, R and Elkins, J (Eds.), 2008. Landscape Theory: The Art Seminar. Routledge.
Everson, P and Stocker, D, 2007. St Leonard’s at Kirkstead, Lincolnshire: The Landscape of the Cistercian Monastic Precinct in Gardiner, M and Rippon, S (Eds.) Medieval Landscapes. Windgather Press.
Fleming, A, 2008. Debating Landscape Archaeology in Landscapes 9.1 74-76.
Fowler, P, 2004. Landscapes for the World: Conserving a Global Heritage. Windgather Press.
Johnson, M, 2007. Ideas of Landscape. Blackwell.
Leighton, D and Silvester, R, 2003. Upland Archaeology in the Medieval and Post-medieval Periods in Browne, D and Hughes, S (Eds.) The Archaeology of the Welsh Uplands. Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (RCAHMW).
Macfarlane, R, 2012. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. Hamish Hamilton.
Rippon, S, 2004. Historic Landscape Analysis: Deciphering the Countryside. Council for British Archaeology.
Rowley, T, 2001. The Welsh Border: Archaeology, History and Landscape. Tempus.
Schama, S, 1996. Landscape and Memory. Fontana Press.
Walsham, A. 2011. The reformation of the landscape: religion, identity, and memory in early modern Britain and Ireland. Oxford University Press.
Whyte, N, 2009. Inhabiting the Landscape: Place, Custom and Memory, 1500-1800. Windgather Press.
Wylie, J, 2007. Landscape. Routledge.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Digging the English landscape of radicalism and rebellion

"The power had been completely placed in the hands of the Norman nobility ... and it had been used with no moderate hand." Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott.

This was at one time to be a lengthy treatise on the noble tradition of English radicalism and rebellion woven into the history of the landscape in times past and still abroad. However, energy feeling diminished and lacklustre in the wake of the election result, it has become more of a modest poultice to salve the wounded progressive heart; a sketch of rememberings and reminders.

A wake indeed. In the afterword to his visceral story of doomed English resistance to the brutal annexation by William, Duke of Normandy (or rather Guillaume le Batard), The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth laments that "The Norman invasion and occupation of England was probably the most catastrophic single event in this nation's history. It brought slaughter, famine, scorched-earth warfare, slavery and widespread land confiscation to the English population, along with a new ruling class who had, in many cases, little but contempt for their new subjects". And at times like these, as the Bullingdon Club cements its neo-Norman hold on the levers of power and influence, does it not feel as though we have been waking up to groundhog day ever since? Held in a constant state of arrested development by the descendants (both real and in spirit) of William's blood-soaked and avarice-filled retinue. Even now, we are unable to free ourselves from the Norman yoke; fighting amongst ourselves, bitterness endemic, hope shrinking. Farage and the UKippers as rebellion? What a fucking joke.

But there is a counterpoint to all this defeatism; to the passive-reactionary Little Englander 'musn't grumble' mind-set (and away from the heady but combustible mix of Scottish progressiveness and nationalism). Thankfully England, as a temporal, geographical and imaginative entity, is as awash with ragged energy and free-thinking as it is held back by a veneer of respectable timidity and dothing of its cap to those Norman shadow-walkers. Rebels with a cause, pioneers of social justice and artists with a conscience abound throughout history.

So harness the radical spirit of Englishness ...

Green men, wild men of the woods, silvitica,

Hereward the Wake,

Wat Tyler and the Peasant's Revolt,        Jack Cade,              John Dee,

The New Model Army,             Gerard Winstanley,

Tolpuddle Martyrs,      The Quakers,        Thomas Paine,           The Diggers,
                       John Clare,                      The Chartists,           

    William Cobbett,                                                       Charles Dickens,

William Blake and Jerusalem,

     William Morris,        Bertrand Russell,          The Independent Labour Party,

Aleister Crowley,                           Emily Pankhurst and the Suffragettes,

Trades Union Congress,              Peter Warlock,                        George Orwell,

                              The Kinder Scout Trespass,

Clement Attlee and 1945,       National Parks,                       CND,

E.P. Thompson,             Eric Hobsbawm,

            Lindsay Anderson,      Ken Loach,           Alan Clarke, 
 David Rudkin,

     Billy Bragg,        Mark Thomas,                                 

Julian Cope,             

Colin Ward,                         Benjamin Zephaniah,  

The Poll Tax Riots,

 'Rooster' Byron,    

                    Caroline Lucas,                  Common Ground,

         The Dark Mountain Project,                             Jeremy Deller,

PJ Harvey,          Owen Jones,

         (Who knows, maybe even) Russell 'don't vote' Brand ... 

This spirit, this genius rebellio, is esoteric, not always progressive; it waxes and wanes in the popular consciousness, but it's always there under the surface, ready to spring. In the words of David Horspool in his survey of The English Rebel: "Above all, English rebellion isn't exceptional. It is what has happened in this country for at least a thousand years, and we can safely predict that it will carry on happening." 

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Catch Me Daddy - Moorland Gothic

Catch Me Daddy is the rough-edged but searingly memorable debut feature film from music video director Daniel Wolfe, name-checked in Robert Macfarlane's recent Guardian article on The eeriness of the English countryside. In common with other recent hard-hitting 'Brit-grit' films most of the characters are played by non-professional actors, a lineage established by Ken Loach and perhaps an antidote to the high-end thesping of much British input into contemporary cinematic culture.

The naturalistic performances certainly give the work authentic impact, as does the spare and economical dialogue - a mixture of sub-titled Urdu and sometimes abstruse Yorkshire and Scottish accented English. There is also an interesting motif running through the film of narcotic stupefaction: every character has their own constantly consumed opiate, whether that be cannabis, tobacco, cocaine, gin, prescription drugs, high sugar fizzy drinks or a mixture thereof. 

As you may gather, this is a film for which 'not for the faint hearted' is an apt description. In this respect there is a sense of slightly one-dimensional grimness. The remorseless pursuit that is the central narrative has seen the film dubbed a 'Yorkshire Western' but it lacks the light and shade of, say, Shane Meadow's East Midland's revenge-noir Dead Man's Shoes.

What I found most arresting in viewing the film was its acute sense of place. This particularity ensures that it will resonate with anyone familiar with the bleak beauty of the moorlands that encircle the West Yorkshire conurbation of Leeds-Bradford and its satellite (ex) mill towns like a ready made folk-horror film set. The peaty heights of Calderdale and the Dark Peak easily inspire dread and are at once both closely juxtaposed to the towns and cities that their fast-flowing waters created but also in possession of a forbidding otherness that belies their location a few minutes and miles from urban centres. In a post on the nearby Worth valley, I expanded on the regional genius loci: "Its a landscape in which dispersed farmsteads, miles of dry stone walling and pack-horse tracks across the high heather moors share space and time with woollen mill towns and villages battered by the elements and economic decline, and narrow valley floors often crowded with two centuries of communications networks: canal, railway and road".

As essayed in William Atkin's book The Moor (2014), these landscapes have borne witness to dark crimes, uprisings and lawlessness. With these stories and with this character, they have also darkened the topographical exactitude of the writings of the Bronte sisters, of Ted Hughes and Simon Armitage. This specificity of location brings to mind Pawel Pawlikowski's 2004 film My Summer of Love, which also utilises the South Pennines uplands as the setting for an - ultimately doomed - sense of freedom and fleeting enchantment for its young lead characters. Both films have refreshingly strong female leads; an all-too-rare trait shared with West Yorkshire-based Benjamin Myers novel Beastings (2014) which centres on the pursuit of a young women and a baby by a psychotic priest and a mercenary, dead-eyed poacher across the Lakeland fells.   

With a finale that is left tantalisingly open and unfinished, yet without compromise or cop-out, Catch Me Daddy packs a punch. It also admirably underscores the reality of inter-racial and inter-cultural interactions - whether positive, everyday mundane or more malevolent - that gives a lie to the rhetoric of irrevocably divided communities in Northern towns and cities.    

Saturday, 11 April 2015

The Sad Road to the Sea: Walking a forgotten branchline by Jack Cooke

A guest post from Jack Cooke on the storied melancholia of walking a forgotten East Anglian branchline. 

No one departs, no one arrives
From Selby to Goole, from St Erth to St Ives.
They've all passed out of our lives
On the Slow Train, on the Slow Train.
(Flanders & Swann)

Ducking in behind the pawnbrokers on Saxmundham High Street the footpath leads north, following a sheltering embankment of cow parsley and crisp packets. After a few hundred feet and glimpses of neat allotments, I emerge alongside rails, picking up speed like a train pulling free of the town. Ahead of me, the track splits, the Lowestoft service passing on up the coast. How many of its passengers ever spot a sister track, half-hidden behind gravel sacks and wire? This forgotten line curves gently away to the east, disappearing into the hedgerows. I cross the rails, a necessary trespass to follow the old route to the sea.

Board a train anywhere in mainland Britain tomorrow and you have roughly eleven thousand miles of track ahead of you. You can coast along steels to every city, a thousand towns and even the odd village. Yet if you yearn to travel by rail into the small corners of the British countryside, you have missed your train by a margin of fifty years or more.

From the moment the first steam engine berthed in the 19th century, British railways spread fast across the length and breadth of the islands. At its peak the system extended over twenty-three thousand miles of rail, hundreds of branch lines diverting from the main trunks and journeying into lonely valleys and onto isolated headlands. As the network expanded it became increasingly eccentric, with different operating systems and burgeoning costs. With the rise of the roads after the First World War, traffic from many of the smaller tracks found other means and some branch lines ground to a halt. Following nationalisation in 1948 this programme of closure accelerated but, by the 1960s, the warp and weft of the network was still haemorrhaging over three hundred thousand pounds a day.

In the midst of this deepening crisis, two opposing forces came head-to-head on the spider-web of British rail. The infamous Dr Beeching, rationalist and man of science, newly appointed Chairman of the British Transport Commission, and John Betjeman, romantic and man of letters, soon to be appointed Poet Laureate. These men were emblematic of polarised attitudes, on one side the desire to modernise Britain’s sprawling rail network and cut its crippling deficits, and on the other a passion for preservation, for conserving a rural and industrial past and the communities served by the branchlines. The ‘Beeching Axe’ was victorious. Link-by-link most of the remaining tracks were torn up or cut off; they became fading constellations in a universe of shrinking steel.  

Trains that end in the sea have always had a peculiar romance. As the ground falls away to the coast, the traveller seems to pick up speed, accelerating to meet land’s edge. For one hundred years and six, a small railway branch on the East Suffolk coast serviced fish, coal and passengers. Leaving the Lowestoft line it looped away from a junction, breaking for the sea on a long descent through small towns; Leiston, Thorpeness and finally to the shore at Aldeburgh.

Today, it is a half-track, four miles of rail and four more of farmland. The dawning of the nuclear age has saved the first section as far as Leiston. The A, B, and coming C of Britain’s nuclear power complex at Sizewell beach provides enough traffic, construction and radioactive waste, to keep the steels in place. Beyond, the old track is marked only by its absence. There is little evidence left of the thousands of tonnes of fish sacks or coal stacks, or the people who used the line.

I wanted to recapture the views of fifty years long gone, to come to the sea as a tourist might have done half-a-century ago, not funnelled up a tarmac corridor but flying over the flatland. By following the line from beginning to end, along the repossessed nuclear railway and then on, to the traces etched in crag path and clearing, I hoped to rediscover a lost perspective on familiar country. I wanted to conjure, just for one day, the steaming splendour of ‘The Eastern Belle’, ‘The East Anglian’, and other trains that once took this track, loaded with ice-cream anticipation, sea visions and thoughts of escape.

Turning off down the branch line, the track is well ordered. New Magnox rivets secure the sleepers and steel and, once a year, a ‘weed-killer’ engine comes shunting up these rails, lacing the embankment in a chemical cocoon, keeping the passage clear for nuclear flasks passing in the night. In photographs these toxic containers look just like the classic cash boxes of great Hollywood heist movies; treasure chest-shaped and lying in state on single carriages. Their innocent form cloaks a dead weight of fifty tonnes, steel casing and lead linings housing radioactive waste in transit. I try to imagine the flasks passing me on the track, mistaken for holy relics washed up by the sea; a funeral procession on its way up the line to some inland place of rest.

The track is sloping toward the seaward horizon now. Elated calls of mating birds blend with the distant curses of lone farmers, spring bringing sex for one and toil for the other. I am walking in the long shadow of Good Friday, though the parish churches I glimpse from the embankment will be observing it in small, solemn congregations barely filling single pews, much like the last passengers on this branch line nearly fifty years ago.

My legs were not manufactured for this gauge of railway. Just too short to bridge sleepers with a single stride, I fall between the cracks, boots scudding on the aggregate and clipping alternate ties. After a mile of this halting pace, I catch a rotten sleeper and fall headlong with hands outstretched. I make to rise, looking back between my legs and ahead, embarrassed by my mistake. Then I remember where I am, exposed but alone, and settle back onto the railroad, balancing my head on the warming noon steel.

There is a strange magnetism attached to walking a railway. Just as a train is bound to the limits of the line, after an hour walking between the rails I feel locked in and unable to deviate. A pedestrian on rails is melded in my mind with ideas of the American West; frontier towns, steel-driving men, endless horizons. As I press on down the old branch line the comparisons with springtime Suffolk do not seem so remote. The sporadic shotgun cases of farmers and poachers lie alongside the bones of predated rabbits in the track bed. On either side spreads flat desert with patchy trees and silent tractors, loose metal sounding in the wind. The pancake of coastal East Anglia becomes twinned with territories in Wyoming or Utah, all ‘big sky country’. On old ordnance maps, used when this line still carried passengers, some of these fields bear the same colouring as Saharan sand.

I come off the line on the outskirts of Leiston, next to the town cemetery. I have avoided the thousand pound trespass fine with no more than a hostile look from an old woman at one of the crossing cottages. I wonder if she has made a phone call and the British Transport Police block the next crossing, lazy blue sirens spinning on the verge. In my experience, there’s never been such a good way to meet people as trespassing on their property. You’ve immediately given them the high ground, which makes them a lot more sociable. You can then proceed to roll over like a dog. Everyone loves dogs.

Eating the remainder of my lunch, pulverised pork pie and sweet tea, I look back at the blank hedge behind me with no sign of the railway hiding under its blackthorn ridge. Like the Suez Canal, it takes a moving object to make you aware of what lies concealed in this landscape. The blackthorns form a ha-ha, hiding the margin into the next field and history in their shadow.

In 1872 an iron safe was installed in the Leiston ticket office. The volume of trade and passengers on the line had reached such levels that the Station Master regularly found fifty pounds worth of fares burning through his pocket at nightfall. In contemporary cash, that’s nigh on a grand. As I enter Leiston’s suburbs, walking in the shade of post-war housing estates, I try to conjure a cantering 19th century villain, shotgun under arm, cresting the rise ahead of me and bent on the day’s takings.

Beyond Leiston, I come to Crown Farm siding, where radioactive waste leaves the coast for its long journey North for reprocessing. In a gap at the end of the street, the titanic globe of Sizewell B sits, half-buried in its seaside bunker of sand and shingle. An elderly man, shuffling out of the adjacent Sizewell Social Club, looks at me suspiciously. “Yer awright boi?” he says, fag in mouth. Here men come to play pool and poker in the lee of the reactors, successive phases of British power sculpted by father and son. I give a thumbs up and scuttle off into the undergrowth behind the loading bays. There are no nuclear flasks lying upended in the scrub.

Past the bays and winches and the rails end abruptly, a sharp transition from steel to sand. Only rabbits use this railroad now, the old grooves providing perfect speedways for bunnies going about business. The ghost of the track remains in the landscape; rows of gorse bushes clinging to an unseen ridge; gate posts facing each other across fenceless margins.

Clouds gather and a light rain falls on a group of cabbage pickers, working under pylons in the field beside the track. Watching their progress I am surprised to turn forward again and find myself on a long, narrow lawn, running straight for two hundred feet toward a small bungalow. I pause outside, wanting to go in and compliment the owners on their well-mown piece of railway history.  Beyond the bungalow, abandoned in a small grove is Thorpeness Halt, the penultimate stop on my journey. I find the platform buried in brambles. Ambitious trees have rooted themselves in its spilt lip and tall thistles are the only travellers, swaying as they wait for a train that will never come again. Somewhere beyond the weeds is the Meare at Thorpeness, the resort vision of John Barrie, and behind that the town and the sea washing its back. I kneel on the ruined platform, bewitched by the mummified air surrounding a station that no longer exists as a mark on the map. If you take express trains across Britain there is a degree of comfort as you speed past tantalising, half-glimpsed stations, that you might one day alight there. The only way to return to Thorpeness Halt is on foot.

Continuing on down the last seaside miles to Aldeburgh, something drifts across the path behind me, dry leaves and dust. All the absent elements of the old railway, the steels, the broken ties, the shifting rock of the embankment, reassemble in my head. The wind through the firs that line the path starts to gather strength and then subsides, like the memory of an engine that won’t start anymore. Is this the first whispers of a ghost train soon to come steaming around the weeds and deadwood? I conjure a gleaming Pullman bearing down on the dog-walkers, bird-watchers and cyclists, all trespassing on its route.
I arrive at the end of the line at nineteen minutes past four in the afternoon – a late-running service. A journey that once would have taken twenty-two windswept minutes has lasted five hours on foot and the sun is already low in the west. What it must have been like, to come rolling in at dusk with ducks skimming off the marsh and the lightships slowly flickering to life out at sea. On the promenade a wind whisks salt rain over the houses and clouds bunch overhead. The advent of a storm is imminent, but even under dark skies The Railway Inn at the ruined end of the line is full; beer and chips spilling out onto the street once home to the terminus. That business should be so good makes me wonder, did Dr Beeching destroy a sleeping fortune?

The scratched plastic of the shelter spots with rain as I wait for a bus back to the working rails and the city. My thoughts turn to the future on this stretch of coast. When East Anglia sinks into the mud of the North Sea, what will become of this small embankment; a barely-visible lip, breaking the incoming tides that flood the land around it? Perhaps in another hundred years people will swim across these fields, long since underwater. Looking down through clouded masks they may glimpse a strange line of aggregate, fading slowly into the silt. Who amongst them will recognise the golden age of rail, lost beneath the sea?

You can find out about more of Jack's writing projects on his website.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Kei Miller - The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion

A new collection by Jamaican poet Kei Miller; a dialogue between a map-maker, seeker of rational order and cartographical truth, and a rastaman, for whom the landscape, its names and landmarks weigh heavy with history, sufferation and spiritual hope.

The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (extract)

The cartographer:
... My job is to untangle the tangled,
to unworry the concerned ...

The rastaman:
... the mapmaker's work is to make visible
that shoulda never exist in the first place
like the conquest of pirates, like borders,
like the viral spread of governments.

The cartographer:
... No - what I do is science. I show
the earth as it is, without bias ...
... I aim to show the full
of a place in just a glance.

The rastaman:
... draw me a map of what you see
then I will draw you a map of what you never see
and guess me who's map will be bigger than whose?
Guess me whose map will tell the larger truth?

What the Mapmaker Ought to Know

On this island things fidget.
Even history.
The landscape does not sit
as if behind an easel
holding pose
waiting on
to pencil
its lines, compose
its best features
or unruly contours.
Landmarks shift,
become unfixed
by earthquake
by landslide
by utter spite.
Whole places will slip
out from your grip.

Miller, K, 2014. The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion. Carcanet.


Burning Spear - Slavery Days: