Thursday, 7 August 2014

Landscape in particular 8: Siarpal in the Vale of Ewyas

“In the deep vale of Ewias, which is shut on all sides by a circle of lofty mountains and which is no more than three arrow-shots in width...”
Gerald of Wales (Giraldus), The Journey Through Wales, 1188

The Vale of Ewyas, more commonly known as Llanthony Valley, winds its way through twelve sinuous miles, one of four major valleys dissecting the upland massif of the Black Mountains; its eastern ridge forming both the English-Welsh boundary and also a section of the Offa's Dyke National TrailAt the heart of the valley lies Llanthony Priory, magnificent in its ruination. Here, the Black Canons of the Augustinian order, backed by lands and patronage from the de Lacy Marcher Lords, had the vision, faith and tenacity to build a monastic community that lasted for over 400 years. 

Despite a National Park location, an iconic heritage site in its midst and the National Trail traversing the valley, not to mention easy accessibility from the urban areas of South Wales and Bristol, the Vale retains the atmosphere of a remote and little known place. Even in summer the sense of a tourist honey-pot is largely absent; yes, the three camp sites and handful of self-catering cottages will be peopled, there will be cyclists, hikers, pony-trekkers and day-trippers, but these are generally word of mouth folk, often returning year after year.

Looking north-eastwards from the Priory ruins to the ridge, England just over the horizon, the view beyond sheep pasture and mature trees is of a dip in the skyline, the hillside incised by a number of steep gulley's. This is Cwm Siarpal, the backdrop to a thousand photographs, traversed by several footpaths up to the high ground and yet largely an unknown place to visitors to Llanthony and walkers going up to or coming down from the Offa's Dyke path.

Section of 1:25,000 map, courtesy of Ordnance Survey (from Digimap).
An unmetalled track runs from Llanthony up the cwm to a lonely farmstead hidden behind Wiral Wood. As the track bends sharply to the right at the break in slope it passes a collection of ruinous buildings. On the face of it, just another abandoned farm, a fading ghost of upland toil. However, this architectural relic has a more interesting back story.

Image from
In 1809 the forgotten and quietly declining backwater estate of Cwmyoy-Llanthony was purchased by the Romantic poet and prose writer Walter Savage Landor. He was held in high esteem by his literary contemporaries but never widely popular and is now largely forgotten. Sidney Colvin opened his 1881 biography of Landor with the memorable line: "Few men have ever impressed their peers so much, or the general public so little, as WALTER SAVAGE LANDOR". He was one of a number of eccentrics attracted to the remote beauty of the valley: in the late nineteenth century the self-styled Father Ignasius built a new Llanthony Abbey at Capel-y-ffin, four miles north of the Priory and later owned by the artist Eric Gill who established a bohemian artistic community there; and the beat poet Allen Ginsburg spent time here in the late Sixties. 

Taking temporary quarters in one of the surviving towers of the Priory, the 32 year old Landor entered into his new career as country squire and 'beneficient landowner' with gusto, as he contemplated the "wild and striking country that he had chosen for his future home". A lover of nature, Landor had a particular passion for flowers and trees, "...not with any scientific or practical knowledge, but with a poet's keenness of perception" (Colvin). Of the wild flowers of Llanthony, he observed: "I love these beautiful and peaceful tribes". His most striking scheme was to reinvigorate the neglected woodland of the valley through the mass planting of cedars of Lebanon, popular at the time for the their Classical associations, with the eventual preposterous sounding aim of adding two million trees to the landscape. He also engaged construction gangs to build new roads and bridges throughout the estate, and sought to change the moribund nature of the agricultural activity of the estate through the introduction of sheep imported from Segovia in Castile and new tenants bringing improved methods of cultivation.

For a time Landor was ebullient in his praise and affection for his new home:
“Homeward I turn; o’er Hatterils rocks
I see my trees, I hear my flocks.
Where alders mourned their fruitless bed
Ten thousand cedars raise their head.
And from Segovia’s hills remote
My sheep enrich my neighbour’s cote
The wide and easy road I lead
Where never paced the harnessed stead…”
Letter to Robert Southey, 1812

Due to his position as a son of the landed classes, Landor was able to push a personal Enclosure Act through Parliament in 1813. However, his scheme to enclose the upland grazing land surrounding the valley was never completed. Indeed, Landor's ambitious plans to turn the property into a grand country estate predictably ran out of money, local goodwill and motivation before most of his designs could be realised. Ill-advisable financial decisions (including the installation of an expensive printing press) led to eventual bankruptcy. A disillusioned Landor abandoned the estate (his affairs brought " such a pass as utterly to disgust him with Llanthony, Wales and the Welsh") and left for a new life on the Continent after just five years of hopeful activity, over-expenditure and neighbourly dispute. His ire was especially reserved for his local tenants and labourers. In a viscous but undoubtedly memorable parting shot he claimed:

"If drunkenness, idleness, mischief, and revenge are the principle characteristics of the savage state, what nation - I will not say in Europe, but in the world - is so singularly tattooed with them as the Welsh?" and further, in case the point had not been made clearly enough "The earth contains no race of human beings so totally vile and worthless as the Welsh". 

The views of the inhabitants of the valley have not been recorded but the feeling was no doubt mutual. Llanthony was left in the hands of trustees of the Landor family, who remained as unspectacular absentee landlords as the valley returned to its familiar pattern of gentle decline and neglect and the estate was finally broken up in the early twentieth century.

In the midst of this eventful period in the estates stewardship, the jewel in the crown was to be Landor's mansion at Siarpal, the building that now stands ruinous in this quiet corner of the valley, a quarter of a mile uphill from the Priory. With no known plan or picture of the house to study, the remaining structures are all that provide an indication of the scale and ambition behind its construction. There is no indication that the building was ever fully completed or lived in, although it would seem that during the summer of 1811 Landor and his new wife, Julia, played host to a number of house guests, including the poet Robert Southey and his wife. Shortly after Landor's theatrical retreat the half-built mansion was mostly pulled down and remained in use as a hay barn into the late twentieth century. Colvin noted that the adjacent stream "is all but dried up, and silent, as if its Naiad had fled with her master, while all the rest are vocal", and indeed, the watercourse has often seemed surprisingly wan for a Welsh mountain brook when I have visited.  

Although Landor was both a quixotic dreamer and an arrogant incomer (possessing, in Colvin's words a "lordly, imaginative, sanguinely unpractical manner"), his imprint on the landscape remains in the form of a range of features, including trackways, dry stone walls across the higher slopes, the remnants of avenues of trees, as well as the remains of his mansion. The vision of a wide parkland vista narrowing to then reveal the handsome mansion as the approach track curves its way uphill can still be clearly realised walking up to the ruin from Llanthony. A noticeable number of the beech, cedar and larch that he had planted have survived and are now, two centuries later, magnificently mature specimens.  

Landor’s house was probably built on the site of an existing upland small-holding: Siarpal was recorded as a farm of 2 acres, let on a lease for life and worth 1 shilling, in the 1799 particulars of sale for the Cwmyoy, Llanthony and Llanvihangel estates. The name therefore predates the Landor period, its origins lost in the bastardised Welsh-English etymological fog of centuries of border interactions, consistency in the written word an irrelevance. Siarpal, recorded as Sharpole and Sharpwell on nineteenth century maps; possibly originally the Welsh Siarl-bal. There are numerous other examples in the area, probably Welsh in origin but anglicised into arcane mutation: Hatterrall Hill, Loxidge, Llanthony itself (in the original Welsh, Llanddewi Nant Honddu, meaning ‘the church of St David on the Honddu brook’).

As a postscript, the current long-standing custodians of the site have recently had an impressive new roof constructed on the coach house, the best surviving part of the house, and repaired the walls to prevent their imminent collapse. With the owners kind permission I have been lucky enough to camp in this special place on two occasions, the first a memorable birthday party. On the more recent camping weekend I was told by the owners that they are not yet sure what to do with the buildings. As, in Robert Southey's words in his poem The Ruined Cottage, "I pass this ruin'd dwelling oftentimes, and think of other days" I hope that these relics of a Romantic poets vision, loaded with memories of unrealised dreams, will continue to bear quiet witness to the layered landscape that they survey.  

This is the latest in a regular-occasional series of posts on specific landscapes and places that are particularly meaningful to me, for whatever reason; after all, interest in the topographical is nothing without a feeling for sense of place: genius loci.
Previous 'Landscape in particular' posts:

The Uffington White Horse and Wayland’s Smithy
Bolton Abbey


Bradney, J, 1907. History of Monmouthshire Vol. 1 Part 2a: Hundred of Abergavenny (Part 1). Academy.

Colvin, S, 1881. English Men of Letters: Landor. MacMillan.

Craster, O, 1963. Guide to Llanthony Priory. Her Majesty’s Stationary Office.

Evans D et al, 1980. Excavations at Llanthony Priory, Gwent, 1978 in Monmouthshire Antiquity 4, p5-43.

Fancourt, L, undated. Llanthony Priory: History and guide. Leaflet.

Gerald of Wales (Giraldus), 1978. The Journey through Wales/ The Description of Wales (Trans. Thorpe L). Penguin.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Exploring landscape on the web - new blog

One of the first actions when setting up this blog was to put together an evolving gazetteer of the broad, diverse and ever-expanding range of landscape related content on the web; with the intention to provide a useful resource for inspiration, information, research, new discoveries and general life-enhancement.

Having had a lot of positive feedback and suggestions for inclusion, but conscious that the page housing this information was visually uninteresting and becoming increasingly unwieldy (600+ links and growing all the time), I have now set up a separate blog to provide a longer term home for the gazetteer: Exploring landscapes (with a link from the navigation bar below the title of this blog).

I hope that you find this resource useful to discover, and then go out and explore ...

Friday, 27 June 2014

Deep topographers; quote, unquote

“We are surrounded by the greatest of free shows. Places. Most of them made by man, remade by man.”

Jonathan Meades

“The search for Utopian landscapes is probably an endless one, but I do know that by staying in one place I will never find them.”

Werner Herzog

“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 

“What I have tried to do is explore the natural history of this unofficial countryside, what it is, and how it works, not so much as an explorer as a curious passer-by. We begin again.”

Richard Mabey

"Take me back to beautiful England/ And the grey, damp filthiness of ages/ Fog rolling down behind the mountains/ And on the graveyards, and dead sea-captains."

Polly Harvey

“Higher worlds that you uncover/ Light the path you want to roam.”

Roky Erickson/ Tommy Hall


Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The Crossing: A guilty pleasure of heroic endeavour

After watching Adam Nicholson’s excellent recent two-part exploration of the history of the British whaling industry, I felt suddenly impelled to dig out an artifact of my musical past: a slightly dog-eared vinyl copy of The Crossing, Big Country’s debut album of 1983. Now this record, this band has to be seen as something of a guilty secret. I generally take unspoken and surely pointless pride in what I would like to see as the discerningly eclectic composition of my record collection. But Big Country were not, and are not, in any way cool or leftfield, and still await any retrospective reappraisal. They are lumped together with the bombastic, anthem-fixated, Celtic-tinged serious rock that was a musical flavour of the month during the mid-eighties, briefly in the commercial slip-stream of the bigger beasts of Simple Minds and U2 before the latter went stratospheric and Bono began his one man mission to save the world; the apotheosis, or rather nadir, of this ‘big music’ was Simple Minds ridiculously po-faced single Belfast Child, Jim Kerr’s attempt to solve the Northern Ireland conflict through seven minutes of over-emoted platitudes backed by long-coated fiddle players.

And yet, I still have a lot of time for plaid-shirted Big Country and this album in particular. It speaks of a yearning for a vaguely heroic view of landscape and the great outdoors which I have never really shaken off, hard though it is to reconcile with the liberal, progressive mind-set with which I generally try and approach the world. It is there in the name of the band and album – ‘Big Country’ and ‘The Crossing’ – conjuring visions of stoical pioneers crossing new frontiers and vast unexplored lands. It is there in the music: chiming, bag-pipe echoing guitars; a muscular, martial rhythm section; and Stuart Adamson’s gruff yet plaintive vocals and lyrics. Also the cover art, with Boy’s Own-like images adorning the sleeve: polar explorers raising the flag, stern and weary men around a camp fire, a great-coated hero fleeing rocks falling from a cliff. These images and the musical motifs contained within the songs call to mind the escapist backwoods adventure within the pages of John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps, Erskine Childers' The Riddle of the Sands or Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male; not to mention South, Ernest Shackleton's account of the gritty real life drama surrounding the 1914-17 'Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition' to reach the South Pole in the ice-bound Endeavour. Although more nuanced, layered and contemporary in approach, there are even echoes of this spirit in the content and tone of the Mountains of the Mind/ The Wild Places/ The Old Ways trilogy that Robert Macfarlane (himself a fan of Rogue Male) has so expertly put together in recent years.

Now, this if this is all feeling a little testosterone-fuelled, please feel free to switch to something more well-balanced; I look forward to putting on some Patti Smith or PJ Harvey as an antidote as soon as I finish typing.

There was clearly something in the Fife water inspiring this post-imperial landscape-scale machismo as Stuart Adamson's previous band, the more credibly post-punk outfit The Skids were also at it, with their best-known single, Into The Valley, lyrically anti-war but sonically anthemic; taking the listener soaring above the mountain-sides. A melancholy strain seemed to increasingly pervade Adamson's lyrics and Big Country's second album, Steeltown, chronicled landscapes and communities suffering industrial decline, again in heroic and semi-mystical everyman terms: 'All the landscape was the mill/ Grim as the reaper with a heart like hell/ With a river of bodies/ Flowing with the bell/ Here was the future for hands of skill'. The band carried on touring and recording long after their brief period of commercial success, supported by a loyal cult following. As a sad post-script, Adamson committed suicide whilst on tour in 2001.

The link with the whaling documentary is somewhat tangential, but bear with me. As Nicholson's documentary illustrated, by the mid-twentieth century the large-scale whaling industry was essentially the mechanised destruction of huge numbers of blue and humpback whales for the sake of the production of margarine; an unsustainable, morally bankrupt and eventually unprofitable pursuit, which led to the near extinction of some of the worlds greatest mammals. There is really nothing noble or heroic about this; just another example of the exploitation of nature for crass commercial gain. However, this is not the whole picture. One thinks of the crews who set sail from whaling ports around the British coast and pursued their catch to the extremities of the oceans, uncertain as to whether they would return; or of the now perpetually rusting and rotting remains of the unimaginably remote Leith Harbour whaling station in South Georgia, from where the waters of the Antarctic were trawled: here there are the ghosts of the endeavour and ingenuity of the ordinary whalermen who sought their livelihoods in this harsh world. This is the very stuff that The Crossing feeds on; elegiac, unspecific evocations of the toil of the common man against a back-drop of unforgiving nature, social injustice and doomed chance, as a sample of the albums lyrics attests: Harvest Home ('Who leads the mayday feasting/ Who saw the harvest home/ Who left the future wasting/ Who watched the families go'); Lost Patrol ('There is no beauty here friends/ Just death and rank decay'); Close Action ('The continents will fly apart/ The oceans scream and never part/ Divided souls can never rest/ Must join the nations break the test').

The disused whaling station at Leith Harbour, Stromness Bay, South Georgia (image from
The whaling station when active (image from
An even clearer musical connection with the whalers comes from another album of the same period that I also still treasure: The Pogues debut Red Roses For Me, released in 1984. Shane McGowan's renegade Anglo-Irish rabble provide an edgier, rebel-folk angle on some of the same themes as The Crossing. Here there are beer-soaked stories of outsiders, exiles and navvies, making good or going to bad in their rough-hewn landscapes. In amongst the streams of whiskey and dark streets of London can be found The Greenland Whale Fishery, an old sea shanty (English rather than Irish as it happens) which appeared in print as far back as 1725 and chronicles a whale ships journey to 'a barren place ... where there's ice and snow and the whale-fish blow, and the daylights seldom seen'. As Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.L. Lloyd state in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (1959): "Until 1830, the whaling ships put out each spring from London, King's Lynn, Hull, Whitby, bound for the right-whale grounds of Greenland. The best of our whaling ballads are about the Greenland fishery. After 1830, the fleets moved to Baffin Bay, and subsequently to the grounds off Hawaii and Peru, but still most of the songs the whalermen sang were of the Greenland days."

So, with a head full of paradoxical thoughts of noble industrial labour, Edwardian adventurers and whale ships in the heavy seas of Antarctica and Greenland, I'm sure I will continue to wear out the grooves of The Crossing; a guilty pleasure, a little piece of escapist nonsense hidden in the folds of my rational landscape. 

"400 miles, on fields of fire!"

Friday, 30 May 2014

Rewilding: An Alternative View

The latest issue of Landscapes journal is now out. It includes a review article I have written entitled Rewilding: An Alternative View, a critique of the lack of understanding and appreciation of the historical, human and cultural elements of the landscape in George Monbiot’s recent work of polemic, Feral, and the wider rewilding movement in general: 

"Whilst many share Monbiot’s concerns with industrialised food production, the narrowing of land ownership and the long drift from direct engagement with the natural environment, I can’t help wondering how much empathy the rewilding movement has with the enchanted warp and weft of the landscapes of Britain (and elsewhere); something as special as, but maybe less tangible than, the endangered animal and plant life that many people understandably wish to restore to good health."

Also in this issue, articles on the subterranean military and industrial complexes below Corsham in Wiltshire, the cult of waterfalls in eighteenth century Wales, the landscapes of sustainable agriculture and a study of islandscapes. An eclectic and stimulating collection, as ever.

Landscapes is a must for anyone with an interest in a multi-disciplinary, multi-layered approach to landscape and sense of place. You can subscribe or pay per view on line here.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Kes: A Kestrel for a Knave

"The wood ended at a hawthorn hedge lining one side of a cart track. Across the track and beyond an orchard stood the Monastery Farm, and at the side of it, the ruins and one remaining wall of the monastery. Billy walked along the hedge bottom, searching for a way through. He found a hole, and as he crawled through a kestrel flew out of the monastery wall and veered away across the fields behind the farm. Billy knelt and watched it. In two blinks it was a speck in the distance; then it wheeled and began to return. Billy hadn’t moved a muscle before it was slipping back across the face of the wall towards the cart track.

Half-way across the orchard it started to glide upwards in a shallow curve and alighted neatly on a telegraph pole at the side of the cart track. It looked round, roused its feathers, then crossed its wings over its back and settled. Billy waited for it to turn away, then, watching it all the time, he carefully stretched full length in the hedge bottom. The hawk tensed and stood up straight, and stared past the monastery into the distance. Billy looked in the same direction. The sky was clear. A pair of magpies flew up from the orchard and crossed the wood, their quick wing beats seeming to just keep them airborne. They took stance in a tree close by and started to chatter, each sequence of chatterings sounding like one turn of a football rattle. The hawk ignored them and continued to stare into the distance. The sky was still clear. Then a speck appeared on the horizon. It held like a star, then fell and faded. Died. To re-appear a moment later further long the sky-line. Fading and re-forming, sometimes no more than a point in the texture of the sky. Billy squeezed his eyes and rubbed them. On the telegraph pole the hawk was sleek and still. The dot magnified slowly into its mate, circling and scanning the fields round the farm."

A Kestrel for a Knave (1968) Barry Hines

"You might think its funny

You might think he gets whats coming to him

You might be wrong"

Friday, 2 May 2014

'From Gardens Where We Feel Secure'

Music, like landscape, is an endless treasury, with new discoveries patiently awaiting happenstance. One of the blogs that I most look forward to viewing or reading, though I struggle to keep up with its prolific output, is A Year In The Country, which is a particularly rich source of new musical pathways.

Currently on my turntable (how archaic does that phrase now sound), following a recommendation in a post on the aforementioned blog, is From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, a beguiling piece of classical ambient English pastoral by Virigina Astley. As a newcomer to the album, I will not attempt to add to this lovingly crafted description of a "welcome old friend" or the brief mention in the definitive Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music, in which Rob Young remarks on the "timeless, hovering sensation" of the music contained within it.

In fact, the track-listing and sleeve notes alone, reproduced below, deftly prefigure the sounds and ambiance that the record harvests; bringing to mind the elegiac yet beatific Just Another Diamond Day by Vashti Bunyan or John Martyn's Small Hours, the perfect accompaniment to a dreamy summer's day gloaming.

From Gardens Where We Feel Secure

With My Eyes Wide Open In Dreaming
A Summer Long Since Past
From Gardens Where We Feel Secure
Hiding in the Ha-Ha

Birds at dawn 5.30 am Sunday 25th April Moulsford Oxfordshire
Churchbells 9.45am Sunday May 2nd South Stoke Oxfordshire
Churchbells and children Sunday morning May 2nd Moulsford
'Lilac' Tuesday morning May 25th Moulsford

Out On The Lawn I Lie In Bed
Too Bright For Peacocks
Summer Of Their Dreams
When The Fields Were On Fire
Its Too Hot To Sleep

Swing gate 2.30pm Sunday 25th April South Stoke
Lambs Sunday afteroon 25th Moulsford Downs
Rowing on the river Sunday afternoon 25th April The Thames Moulsford
Churchbells, children, birds singing late afternoon Sunday 6th June Moulsford
Owl, clock, night noises, Sunday night 16th May Moulsford.


Friday, 25 April 2014

The last field in England

"Elected Silence, sing to me

And beat upon my whorled ear
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear."
The Habit of Perfection, Gerard Manley Hopkins 

Today I walked across the last field in England. A field that I had first wondered about as I viewed it from the high walls of Chepstow Castle, over on the western bank of the river Wye. This quiet pasture, Edward Thomas' archetypal "acre of land between shore and the hills", occupies a sloping promontory around which the tidal section of the river curves as it cuts through oolitic limestone before feeding the water hungry Severn estuary. Two miles to the south-east a still extant section of bank and ditch marks the southerly starting point of the eighth century Offa's Dyke, commencing its monumental 150 mile peregrination of the Welsh Marches to the banks of the Dee estuary in the north. The dyke formed an intermittent constructed boundary, a physical marking of territorial desire, between Anglo-Saxon Mercia and the Welsh kingdoms to the west. It can be traced again, on the map and ground, just north of the field. In parts of the southern Marches the Wye forms a proxy boundary, a more powerful line of division than any human construct. Perhaps the meander traversing the field of interest here fulfilled this role; or maybe the meadow's landward boundary is a ghost memory of a stretch of the dyke long levelled, marooning the field itself as a mini no-mans-land, neither Saxon nor Welsh? Today the middle of the Wye (more properly Gwy in Welsh) is decorated with alternate black dashes and spots on the Ordnance Survey map, marking the coming together of Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire, of England and Wales.

There is something both inviting and slightly daunting in the thought of studying the micro-landscape of a single field. A small matter for a master such as Richard Jefferies who can devote a whole chapter to dwelling on the minutiae of the topography, flora and fauna of the 'homefield' in Wild Life in a Southern County, but more of a challenge to most of us, lacking the innate knowledge of the Victorian country-dwelling naturalist. Nevertheless, it is an approach that retains its appeal, witness Tim Dee's recent Four Fields, an expansive study of the geography, history, literature and ecology of varying, and admittedly atypical, areas of fields in the Fenland of Cambridgeshire, Zambia, Ukraine and Montana, USA; or The Plot by Madeleine Bunting, "a biography of an English acre", rooting a story of family history in a very particular place. A personal favourite is At The Water's Edge, John Lister-Kaye's journal of his observations on a daily circular walk to a modest Scottish hill loch; in the author's words, "turning its pages and dipping in, I realise it has taken me over thirty years to cover little more than a mile".

My intention here is less ambitious than the above tracts, but I do hope to give a voice to the overlooked places that are all around us: an on-going theme of this blog, but one that I feel has plenty more territory to explore. It is the limitless anonymous rural places that often seem absent from today's landscape discourse; lacking the profile of landmark and touristic countrysides, urban edgelands or even maligned agri-business prairie lands. John Clare knew and spoke for these unheralded places, for instance in his poem Stray Walks: "How pleasant are the fields to roam and think, whole sabbaths through unnoticed and alone". Such terrain forms the background montage for a thousand views, taken for granted; the landscape equivalent of the Jones-Bonham dependable rhythm section underpinning Page-Plant's front of stage howls and riffs. And therein lies the magic, far from the one-dimensional vision conjured by landscape platitudes: green and pleasant land, outstanding natural beauty, national treasures. Its the thrill of a spatial portal to new ways of seeing past, present and possible futures, in plain sight but obscured by ordinariness; an open invitation to new adventures in topography, accidentally esoteric: providing the opportunity to, in Phil Legard's words, take "a small step into the realms of psychegeographic reverie". Dozens of examples exist on any Ordnance Survey sheet or Google Earth view, waiting to be discovered, mapped but unknown: hedges, walls, fences, quarries, pits, fords, bridges, tracks, barns, streams, springs, wells, weirs, ditches, ponds, copses, brakes, lynchets, pylons, sewage plants, tumuli, windmills, dovecots, and on, and on.

Its through such a portal, a hedge, that the protagonists of Ben Wheatley's A Field In England enter the titular field in which the narrative of the whole film is set, seemingly entering a parallel universe a world away from the Civil War skirmish taking place on the other side of the bushes. There they seek arcane and possibly diabolical knowledge or treasure, we do not find out what. Magic mushrooms - psilocybin - abound in the host field, and help to fuel a psychedelic trip into madness and beyond; an original perspective on the upheavals of the English Civil War.

The historical setting here is Monmouthshire (which, administatively at least, had an ambiguous status at this time as to whether it was within England or Wales), on the western bank of the Wye. My field lies on the eastern side of the river in Gloucestershire, but mirrors something of the atmosphere of the film. It does not take much of a leap of the imagination to picture a rag-tag group of Civil War renegades passing through in search of an inn, a passage home or maybe some natural psychedelics to temporarily banish the horrors of the conflict.      

And so into the field, which frustratingly has to remain nameless until such time as I can pore over tithe or estate maps at the Gloucester Records Office (although my initial guess is that some variation on 'Chapelhouse' or 'Chapel field' may be a contender).

The field annotated in green on the modern Ordnance Survey map; extract from Digimap. 
Historically this promontory was within the bounds of Tidenham, a large royal manor occupying the land immediately south of the Forest of Dean between the Severn and the Wye. The manor was recorded in a tenth century charter, became part of the Marcher lordship of Striguil (Chepstow) and was turned into a hunting chase, separate from the Royal Forest of Dean, in the thirteenth century.

Ordnance Survey map extract, from Digimap.
The earliest Ordnance Survey 1880's map (above) shows the modern day single eight hectare field divided into five enclosures, with a brickyard where the residential road now runs and a small pond and heath occupying the site of today's larger pond in the south-western corner. From the gateway in the south-east corner a raised track follows the field boundary to a collection of brick buildings, concrete clad, corrugated iron roofed and now part overtaken by ivy and hawthorn; a fire-place and cattle stalls bearing witness to their original mid-twentieth century agricultural utility. The map evidence suggests that the topographical footprint achieved its current configuration during the 1960's. 

The line of the old boundary along the middle of the field mirrors the curve of the river and follows what, on the ground, is the visible edge of a natural river terrace. This morphological symmetry with the river is shared by a ditch along the western edge of the field, running into the pond and encased by a thick hawthorn hedge. Crossing the field I am naturally drawn to a single oak standard holding centre stage, its trunk surrounded by large limestone blocks and pieces of brickwork; what structure they have come from is not immediately obvious. Below the river terrace three ducks enjoy the last mud of winter flooding, the grass and clover of the water meadow providing rich grazing for the cattle occupying the field. The murky morning stillness is studded by the scat singing of great tits, and the echoing calls of seagulls and rooks. Perambulating the boggy perimeter and surveying the rising ground of the field I muse on the people who have toiled in these acres over centuries: what thoughts did they share on the Norman uber-hooligans who established the castle on the cliff opposite? Did they consider themselves to be Welsh, English or something in between? The Forest of Dean borderlands with Wales, in contrast to the Welsh Marches further north, are characterised by a marked absence of 'Welshness' in terms of surnames, place and field names, but this has always been a land apart from the more generally accepted norms of nationality.     

Eventually I reach the northern end of the field, with the muddy Wye beyond and the steeply wooded opposite bank just starting to come into leaf, vivid greens permeating the dull greys and browns of retreating winter austerity. Here is great potential for some landscape archaeology prospecting. For somewhere in this corner of the field lie the buried remains of the chapel of St David's, a few metres north of its boundary is the postulated river crossing of the Roman military road from Caerleon to Gloucester and a short way into the adjacent Chapelhouse Wood the bank and ditch fragment of Offa's Dyke. When, last summer, I originally noticed this large field from the castle and lodged a vague mental note to have a closer look sometime I had no knowledge of this archaeological treasury; another example of the extraordinary wealth of historical interest and local stories connecting with wider narratives seemingly to be found within any randomly selected part of the British landscape.

Map courtesy of Natural England, based on Ordnance Survey ST59SW map Crown Copyright

Prior to the visit I was aware that the line of the Roman road was in this vicinity, but had not appreciated that the accepted site for the crossing of the Wye (via a wooden bridge, the footings of which have been found at low tide and were observed by the nineteenth century antiquarian George Ormerod: "paralled lines of black remains of stakes are clearly seen at low tides crossing the bed of the river") was so close to the field (see photo above). The road ascended Alcove Wood (following the line of the Chepstow/ St. Arvans parish boundary) on the opposite side of the river and then ran uphill to Tutshill to join the present A48, which still follows the line of its Roman ancestor. The section from the river to the modern road is not visible on the ground, but appears as a track as recently as the 1920's Ordnance Survey map. This map also indicates Striguil Bridge (remains of) at the above location and site of St David's Chapel in the adjacent corner of the set of fields on the promontory.

The fantastically named Archaeologicia or Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity (Vol 29) published by the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1842 notes a thirteenth century reference to the chantry chapel of St David's "juxta potem de Strugell", which later became a possession of Striguil (Chepstow) Priory, and also that the remains of the ruined chapel were visible in 1814. The same book also seems to suggest that the antique wooden bridge was still extant, though ruinous, as mentioned in Leland's Itinerary of 1535-43 and quotes a later sixteenth century source for the bridge being "clean carried away"; although these references may be to an earlier bridge on the site of the current iron road bridge just downstream. A cursory examination of this section of the field yielded no visible 'humps and bumps' earthworks indicating the location of the chapel, and the whereabouts of Chapelhouse Farm, mentioned in some sources is not verified by any of the historical OS maps. 

However, the nearby Roman bridge site and surviving dyke were all the excuse I needed to duck through the barbed wire fence bounding the field and enter the briar and bramble of the liminal terrain beyond. Scrambling along the shoreline a rocky promontory looked a likely abutment for a bridge, the thick mud below perhaps hiding further evidence of Roman engineering below. The steep wooded river bank here was at once archetypal of the British Isles - carpeted by bluebell and anemone, ivy clad yews - but simultaneously, looking across the wide, brown river, a vision of riverine Amazonia; a place to inspire Fitzcarraldo dreaming. An informal path snaking through this rain forest facsimile is a reminder that such places are beyond the allegedly definitive truth of the Ordnance Survey map and the supposedly all seeing eye of Google Earth.

Having found the remnant bank of the Dyke, darkly entombed by towering and toppled larch, an excursion upriver was now in motion, following an old fisherman's path through a nature reserve at the foot of gigantic limestone cliffs. The scene here further evocative of South American sublime grandeur, particularly when crossing a rock fall, the black boulders stretching upwards into Andean infinity. The limestone from these now silent cliffs has in the past been heavily exploited for use as building material, the Wye providing a convenient route for transporting the heavy loads by boat to the Severn Estuary and beyond. A vernacular design of craft particular to the river was the flat-bottomed trow, many of which plied their trade between the Wye and Bristol; a historical memory kept alive through the name of a well-known Bristolian pub dating from 1664, the Llandoger Trow.   

Just around the next bend in the river lies the peninsula of Lancaut (from the Welsh, Llan Cewydd), a pulse of land cut-off by Offa's Dyke as it heads north with no time for diversion. The small parish of Lancaut within the manor of Tidenham was a settlement of some size by the fourteenth century, but progressively shrunk to its current single farmstead in the subsequent centuries to become one of countless examples of the deserted medieval village. Here was established an early British monastic settlement, named for St Cewydd (first reference c625). A ruined church named St James', its fabric dated to late 12th century, now stands on the site and may have served time as a leper colony for Chepstow Castle. In fact, this remote church seems to have had something of an itinerant and varied history of ownership, use and status and was ruinous by 1885.     

The church and its location are almost impossibly picturesque and atmospheric, though on a damp and misty April day a sense of Gothic melancholy is at large. In fact the roofless relic brings to mind the scenes set in ruined churches in The Wicker Man and the lesser known 'folk horror' offering Blood On Satan's Claw. Although a solitary visitor today, I am accompanied by the celluloid ghosts of Sergeant Howie and Angel Blake. If the recently revived Hammer Films are on the look out for suitable locations then here they have one that would admirably meet their needs. 

Still from The Wicker Man (from

Still from Blood On Satan's Claw (from

"The clifftop situation, the stern fortification of the earliest parts and the sumptuous enrichment of later ones, combined with the exceptional completeness of so much, make Chepstow Castle one of the most exhilarating and instructive castles in the whole of Britain" (The Buildings of Wales: Gwent/ Monmouthshire, Newman).

Back to the field: although it is the river that in many ways defines its topography, history and character, the dramatic backdrop of Chepstow Castle, a rock-bound menhir looming across the water, dominates the view from within its bounds. Chepstow and Monmouthshire, like Berwick on the English-Scottish border, have had a forced history of national schizophrenia, mostly Welsh in character and population but administratively a more unclear status. The castle has remained a constant, dominating the town since its foundation by the Norman lord William FitzOsbern in 1067 at the southern end of the chain of fortifications bestriding the Welsh Marches. 

The "steep and lofty cliffs" of the Wye that "connect the landscape with the quiet of the sky" made a lasting impression on Wordsworth during his visit in 1793, as recorded in Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey from Lyrical Ballads. At the same time the Wye was gaining popularity as part of the nascent touristic itinerary, with artists also drawn to its natural and historic wonders. The picturesque ruins of Chepstow castle high up on their limestone cliff particularly attracted the painterly gaze.

The field's position on the opposite bank of the river, with a clear view of the length of the castle's fortifications strung out along the cliff top, is an obvious vantage point for an artist to take up position. Below are a number of paintings of the castle that may have been painted from the field, or include it as part of the scene.

Chepstow Castle, 1905, Philip Wilson Steer (from
River Wye ('Chepstow Castle'), c1806-07, Joseph Mallord William Turner (from

View of Chepstow, c1750, artist unknown (from
Chepstow Castle belonging to his Grace the Duke of Beauford. (Monmuthshire), Joannes Kipp (from
Reflecting on the experiences of the day, my mind is taken back to the field of my childhood. We knew this place as the ‘Echo Meadows’, whether this was our made up name, local lore or a genuine field name I do not remember. Here the meadow abutted the massive sandstone outer walls of a Norman-medieval castle, and was bounded by the curve of a stream. Hours, days and weeks were spent roaming and lolling around this field, mapping on foot and on paper its everyday features, imbuing them with significance: ‘bully bridge’, the ruined sheep dip, the overgrown holloway – a hidden space for watching, like an apprentice rogue male. This is a place much like 'The Field', an area of old parkland adjacent to the 1950's Metroland suburban home that Richard Mabey describes in his extended essay, A Good Portion of English Soil; a wild playground for the local children in which "'Nature' was something we all took for granted, like an extra layer of skin".

But it is not just children who can enjoy playgrounds. We should all remember that the landscape is waiting for us to learn from it, to adventure into it. Go and find your field.   


Hammond, J (Ed.), 1965. Red Guide: The Wye Valley. Ward Lock.

Hart, C, 2000. Between Severn (Saefern) and Wye (Waege) in the Year 1000. Sutton.

Hill, D & Worthington, M, 2003. Offa's Dyke: History and Guide. Tempus.

Hopkins, G, 1966. Gerard Manley Hopkins. Vista.

Legard, P, 2011. Psychogeographia Ruralis: Observations concerning landscape and the imagination. The Larkfall Press.

Lister-Kaye, J, 2011. At the Water's Edge: A Walk in the Wild. Canongate.

Mabey, R, 2013. A Good Parcel of English Soil. Penguin.

Newman, J, 2000. The Buildings of Wales: Gwent/ Monmouthshire. Yale University Press.

Walters, B, 1992. The Archaeology and History of Ancient Dean and the Wye Valley. Thornhill.

Wordsworth, W and Coleridge, S, 1924. Lyrical Ballads, 1798. Oxford University Press.