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:

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Light the paths you want to roam

Well I'm going

Back to the country

Up on the mountains

Up on the rising side

(Street Song - Thirteenth Floor Elevators)

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake

I've recently watched A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake, Jeroen Berkvens' 2002 documentary that I came across via the Dangerous Minds web site. Like his music its gentle and melancholic, with contributions from his family, friends and fellow musicians. One key voice is Joe Boyd, who produced all three of Drake's albums, the meagre sales of which on release surely contributed to his untimely death at the age of 26. In his memoir of the folk-rock scene of the late 60s and 70s, White Bicycles, Boyd asks: "As the sixties drew to a close, who would have predicted that the end of the millennium would see Nick's music so much more prominent than that of the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, John Martyn or Sandy Denny?"    

I was particularly taken by the opening aerial footage of the countryside around his home village of Tanworth-in-Arden. For some reason it had not occurred to me before that this was only a few miles westwards across Warwickshire from Kenilworth, the town where I spent my childhood. Warwickshire is one of those Midland England counties that its easy to overlook: overawed and torn asunder by Birmingham and Coventry at its northern edge, in the shadow of Costwoldian Arcadia to the south. But linger along its tree lined lanes, forded streams, stout middling sort farmsteads and undulating fieldscapes and Warwickshire is quietly memorable and substantial, much like Nick Drake's music. This is, after all, the Forest of Arden of Shakespeare's As You Like It. Here is the full 48 minute film to enjoy:

Rob Young articulates well why Drake has such a hold on those of us (legion now, sadly pitifully few when he was alive) who find his music a particular touchstone for English pastoral melancholia in his treatise on Albion's soundscape, Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music:
"A former friend and musical partner, Ross Grainger, described Drake as a 'modern pagan' long after his death, recalling conversations about Gaia theory, Stonehenge, ley lines and supernatural forces. Drake's songs may be full of natural images - rain, sun, moon, sky, ocean, sand, trees, roses, thorns etc. - but nature was no panacea either. For Drake, human fate was linked to the relentless round of the seasons - summer bliss must shade into autumnal age and regret; then comes the killing winter. His songs trace eternal cycles, natural revolutions, the turning of the year and the seasons, but with an awareness that repetitive motion can become a treadmill."  

At some stage, when I have managed to justify the outlay as necessary cultural enrichment, I hope to buy a copy of Nick Drake: Remembered For a While, the recently published Drake compendium and artifact. Andrew Ray provides a good flavour of the book on the Some Landscapes blog.

In the meantime, here's a mystical, bosky version of The Cello Song, recorded for the John Peel 'Night Ride' session in August 1969, in which to bask and be transported to the Forest of Arden at dusk, in the company of Orlando and Rosalind, Corin and Silvius:

Monday, 16 February 2015

Towards a new landscape aesthetic

"There is something about walking which stimulates and enlivens my thoughts.  ... my body has to be on the move to set my mind going ... to free my spirit, to lend a greater boldness to my thinking, to throw me, so to speak, into the vastness of things." Jean-Jacques Rousseau  
If I was to sketch out a day spent engaging with landscape and place to realise a wide range of phenomenological experiences and responses of mind, body and spirit - maximum topography - how would it look? Well, in the spirit of Rousseau, it would be an excursion on foot of course (if lacking the epicness of Werner Herzog's trek from Munich to Paris as chronicled in Of Walking in Ice, the ethos of letting oneself drift, 'a falling forward becomes a Walk', would be the same). But not just any walk, variety and unpredictability would be the key. So maybe it would commence in an urban setting; the grittier the better, with the right mix of post-industrial decay and renewal and diverse architectural styles, juxtaposed with a sheen of surface functional banality to expertly peel back, revealing the layered temporal stories behind the bland facade. A detour would be made into a stalwart and defiantly Amazon-baiting second-hand bookshop with a capacious 'topography' section and a number of musty volumes purchased, something antiquarian, something to saviour from the 60's or 70's and a long lost nature writing classic. City would morph into country as suburb, urban green space and anarchic edgeland are navigated - both a route-march along a harsh, litter-strewn and anti-pedestrian roadside and a meander through an oasis of unexpectedly lush and mysterious greenery would feature in this liminal, transitional phase.

As the countryside authentica is reached, guidebook spoon feeding would be disdained in favour of more spontaneous route-finding, perhaps using an antique Ordnance Survey map and attempting to trace nineteenth century topography on the ground. Along the way some reminders of harsh rural realities would no doubt be observed: a sighting of baseball-capped men digging for badgers, improbable fly-tipping, maybe a suspicion of dogging. But a number of viscerally profound moments would also be experienced. Catching the eye of a fox or deer and joining in a lingering stock-still stare. Sensing lives lived and gone whilst rooting around a ruined farmstead or water mill, where unidentifiable rusted ironware or the colours of a cracked tile become refracted relict reminders of the past. A feeling of magic in the air as wind and light switch and shift, changing the mood of the tree- and field-scape. As the gloaming hour approaches and fatigue sets in, having clambered up a rocky stream-bed and scrambled through holloway undergrowth in Rogue Male style, a hill-top clearing would be chanced upon with views over several counties as shadows lengthen across endless fields, as pylons and rail lines and infrastructure become magical objects of gaze. A good place for a night's wild camp. Sleep would be fitful, muffled nocturnal (spectral?) sounds invading thoughts of the day's encounters, accompanied by a soundtrack of wyrd-folk, pastoral electronica and Ralph Vaughan Williams, and readings from Reliquiae (a journal of old and new work spanning landscape, ecology, folklore, esoteric philosophy and animism). 

During the walk ambulatory clear-headedness would provide space for musing on a range of landscape-related topics whilst the miles were clocked-up: the links between the Parliamentary enclosure of common land and present day urban-rural division, how is an innate knowledge of fungi and wild flowers achieved, would Edward Thomas have favoured Nick Drake or the Incredible String Band, and such like. Along the way observations, smart phone photographs of arresting or unusual features and vistas and appropriate quotes from the landscape canon would be tweeted to an eclectic and discerning band of followers; observations and visual representations of the day to be later blogged or instagramed and debated on-line, perhaps included in a talk at a left-field festival, conference or pub social, or even forming part of the content of a crowd-funded book.

What would this mash-up journey into landscape immersion represent? Would it just be the ploughing of a mildly eccentric lone furrow? Creating an irrelevant line made by walking in the spirit of Richard Long, ephemeral self-indulgence whilst the real heft of landscape discourse and reality swells elsewhere: local campaigners mobilising against unbidden corporate uniformity or statist grand plans; photogenic academics revealing the results of their research through television series and tie-in book; exciting plans underway for the return of the wolf and rewilding nirvana; hip new ruralista's setting up boutique bunkhouses, offering foraging before breakfast, coasteering followed by artisan bread, craft ale and star gazing. Would this be just another example of a wannabe Self or Sinclair, strong on effort and perspiration but lacking their esoteric vocabulary or ecstatic sneer?

Or is there something in the wind, a fresh approach that this imaginary excursion partly encapsulates and, in fact, also links the other activities cited above. Perhaps not new ideas or concepts (the basics were all birthed in ancient Greece or long before), nothing that could be labelled a movement or a philosophy (the times are too post-modern for anything so quaint); but maybe an emerging coalescing - an alliance - of varied ways of thinking about, of looking at, of experiencing our spatial surroundings; their past, present and future. An antidote to the narrow focus that has often been the Achilles heel of much landscape discourse, characterised by a lack of cross-fertilisation between different disciplines and areas of interest (and often the absence of a feel for the range of emotions that being out in a landscape triggers). An echo of the view of Christopher Milne, searching for a personal philosophy and to find his own path away from his famous father’s shadow as outlined in The Hollow on the Hill, taking a lead from Richard Jefferies who “could be on one occasion the naturalist, observing and recording, and on another occasion the philosopher-poet, sensing and dreaming. One does indeed need to be both, for the one complements and enhances the other”. 

If there is the prospect here of a new aesthetic approach to landscape, then its worth pondering what components, however tangentially, combine to provide its origins, form and quintessence; to trace the foci and ley-line linkages (and talking of the ley, Alfred Watkin's The Old Straight Track (1925) is an example of what we are getting at here. The central ley lines theory of the book is eccentric, discredited, farcical - but that's not the point. As Robert Macfarlane's introduction to the 2014 edition unfurls "... the ley vision - with its mixture of mysticism, archaeology and sleuthing - re-enchanted the English landscape, investing it with fresh depth and detail, prompting new ways of looking and new reasons to walk").

“With this stone and this grass, with this red earth, this place was received and made and remade. Its generations are distinct but all suddenly present.” Raymond Williams
Interestingly, to discover this new vista it is necessary to go back, back to multiple pasts. Landscape as a mirror for reflecting on humanity's relationship with and manipulation of the natural world has deep antecedents; and its the mingling of these temporal layers of envisioning that is of interest here. The late 1960's and early 1970's seem to be a particular touchstone, a launching off point for a more eclectic approach to landscape; and not, I think, just thought of as such because I was born in the midst of this period and have nostalgia pangs for a time that never was as golden as it seems from this distance (my earliest memories of sitting in sunlit meadows are untroubled by the realities of Enoch Powell and industrial strife). Of course, this was a time of seismic societal change in culture, politics and economics, in the way people lived. And contemporary representations and responses to landscape and sense of place reflected this, though at the time without any conscious esprit de corps or awareness of common threads or interest. 

By way of illustration a seemingly amorphous and random collection of landscape aesthetics from the period might include: the sense and scenes of a decaying industrial infrastructure central to films such as Get Carter (1971) and Kes (1969); John Betjeman's televised elegies, in the teeth of the march of modernity, to disappearing or seemingly threatened features of England's architecture and landscape, typified by A Bird's Eye View (1964-1969) and Metro-land (1973); a triptych of cult folk-horror films, reinterpreting themes of a rural pagan past: Witchfinder General (1968), Blood On Satan's Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973); an empathetic, ecologically aware, less sentimental and more anthropomorphic engagement with nature as exemplified by the writings of Richard Mabey and J.A. Baker's book The Peregrine (1967); a new and more accessible discipline of landscape archaeology emerging from its high academia landscape history and historical geography roots, with practitioners such as Mick Aston and Christopher Taylor keen to range between study and field; the pastoral folk rock and psych-folk stylings of the likes of Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Incredible String Band, Waterson-Carthy, Shirley Collins and Vashti Bunyan; and, of course, foregrounded at this time was a general back to the land, 'good life' strand of counter-cultural hippiedom. All are examples of reinterpretation or reappropriation of the past in a time of great change, sometimes in a somewhat reactionary or idealistic way, often breaking new ground.

It is perhaps only with the passing of time that the paths between these varied perspectives can be navigated and identified as a loose network; a pattern that can be plotted and pieced to provide some kind of cohesive narrative. And a rich seam revealed at the heart of this new landscape vision is the heuristic weirdness just below the surface of even everyday and seemingly tamed terrain - Deep England (and Deep Wales, Deep Ireland, Deep Scotland, and, well, Deep anywhere). Back to the 70's polestar and two cultural artifacts, from many examples, serve to illustrate. The 1974 BBC Play For Today Penda's Fen, written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke, is now much exalted, talked and written about; remarkably so given that it is not available on DVD and so rarely seen. A British Film Institute release with comprehensive and thoughtful accompanying booklet has become de rigueur for such treasures and will surely come. In the meantime impatience has been salved by the publication of a pamphlet, The Edge is Where the Centre Is, marking a rare screening of the film in 2014 on the anniversary of the death of the Ango-Saxon King Penda in AD 655. Found within is a synopsis of the story by Rudkin himself, which could serve to represent and encapsulate many of the themes essayed here:
"In the pastoral landscape of Three Choirs England, a clergyman's son, in his last days at school, has his idealistic value-system and the precious tokens of his self-image all broken away - his parentage, his nationality, his sexuality, his conventional patriotism and faith...
Below the slopes of the Malvern Hills, he has encounters with an angel, and with a demon, with the ghost of Elgar, the crucified Jesus, and with Penda, England's last pagan king. In the final image, he turns away from his idealised landscape, to go into a world and adulthood with a value-system more anarchistic now, and readier to integrate the contradictions of experience."
David Gladwell's film, Requiem For A Village (1975) has received the BFI treatment. As with Penda's Fen, and with echoes of William Blake and William Morris, Requiem is a meditation on societal change in the countryside that combines, in Rob Young's words, "the contradictions of an English radical tradition in which opposition to the encroachment of 'the scrape' (ie capitalistic development) is instinctively aligned with a more conservative will to preservation" with "an attempt ... to show the coexistence of all things in time". The images in the film of the bodies of villagers from previous generations rising from the grave, reawakening the village past, are a reminder of the supernatural and hauntological undercurrents that have always effected perceptions of the landscape: "we had eyes for phantoms then". A theme also taken up at the time in television productions such as The Owl Service (1969), based on Alan Garner's influential book of the same name, Robin Red Breast (1970) and Children of the Stones (1977).

Once this terrain has been surveyed and mapped, other features and relics that provide signal traces, from before and since, can be unearthed, excavated and added; the layers enriching the sense of commonality and communion. Who would be the historical Arch-Druids that have formulated this stratigraphy? An irrelgular yet inspiring collection of mystic topographers, antiquarians, Utopians, visionary poets, folklorists, landscape historians and archaeologists, and proto-psychogeographers; often linked by their divergence from accepted norms and doctrines. 

Musing on landscape is as old as humanity - countless un-named, unknown shamen and sears must have held their tribes in thrall with vivid stories and imagery inspired by the flora, fauna and topography of their surroundings long before even Vergil and the Classical poets came on the scene with their flourishing tales of magick, milieu and mind: "Happy too the man who knows the gods of the country, Pan, and old Silvanus, and the sister Nymphs". Through dark days and into the Renaissance the flame was carried by the likes of John Leland, driven to madness by his topographical quest; Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers of St George's Hill, their doomed attempt to establish a 'Common Treasury' of land for all; and Sir Richard Colt Hoar and the empirical antiquaries "speaking from facts not theory", birthing archaeology whilst pillaging barrow and chapel.