Friday, 22 June 2012

Robert Macfarlane: holloways, old ways and wild places

Illustration from Holloway
Robert Macfarlane is busy at the moment; he writes about Holloway, his collaboration with artist Stanley Donwood and the writer Dan Richards on the Caught by the River blog. And his new book meditating on pathways across Britain and beyond, The Old Ways, is also now out. I'm halfway through reading this and, as expected, it is an inspiring and lyrical collection, although I dont think the chapter on walking in Palestine with have people rushing to explore the paths of that blighted land! I may get round to writing a proper review at some stage, although I'm not sure there is much I can add to the effusive praise the book has already had. In the meantime, here is Macfarlane with an expansive and fluid definition of 'landscape' to blow away the cobwebs of received wisdom and tired orthodoxy:
"landscape is not something to be viewed and appraised from a distance, as if it were a panel in a frieze or a canvas in a frame. It is not the passive object of our gaze, but rather a volatile participant - a fellow subject which arches and bristles at us, bristles into is dynamic and commotion causing, it sculpts and shapes us not only over the courses of our lives but also instant by instant, incident by incident. I prefer to take 'landscape' as a collective term for the temperature and pressure of the air, the fall of light and its rebounds, the textures and surfaces of rock, soil and building, the sounds, the scents and uncountable other transitory phenomena and atmospheres that together comprise the brisling presence of a particular place at a particular moment."

His new book is the final part of a loose trilogy that also includes The Wild Places and Mountains of the Mind. The three books are generally categorised as 'nature', 'landscape' or 'travel' writing but are really much broader in scope than these labels can adequately convey. If you have not read his work, I would highly recommend that you do so.

There are many reference points in his books, but three acknowledged major influences are John Clare, Roger Deakin and Edward Thomas.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Landscape in particular 4: Worth Valley

View of Oldfield in the Worth Valley
This is the latest in a regular-occasional series of posts on specific landscapes that mean a lot to me, or are new discoveries; after all, interest in the topographical is nothing without a feeling for sense of place: genius loci.

Previous 'Landscape in particular' posts:
Cold Ashton
Kenilworth Castle
Bolton Abbey

The Worth is much like any of the other green valleys that snake through the Millstone Grit uplands of the South Pennines, a transition zone between the more venerated and celebrated landscapes of the Peak District to the south and the Yorkshire Dales to the north: here is a heady mix of 'dark satanic mills', non-conformity, rugged beauty and often harsh weather; the topography seeming to embody the very essence of the cussed independent spirit that Yorkshire folk (because that is how we must refer to them) are so stubbornly proud of. 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. In his classic study of the region, Millstone Grit, Glynn Hughes captures the essence of the place thus: 
"Those towns whose lights at night dance in little cups and hollows between peninsulas of the moors, from which they look like safe little harbours." 
The Worth valley is, though, different because embedded on its slopes is the small town of Haworth, once home to the Brontë sisters, Anne, Charlotte and Emily, and its fields, farmsteads and moors were the inspiration for their brief but astonishingly creative burst of Gothic Victorian writing. It is by no means the only locality in the area that has significant literal or artistic associations: Ted Hughes hailed from nearby Mytholmroyd and much of his poetry was rooted in the hills and towns he grew up in ("The valleys went out, the moorland broke loose" Heptonstall Old Church); Simon Armitage's contemporary poetry is similarly influenced by his Marsden base, a little to the south; David Hockney and JB Priestley are sons of nearby Bradford; and the town of Hebden Bridge is awash with galleries, artists and generic northern bohemia. However, the Brontë's are on a different plane of international recognition and canonisation, up there with Jane Austin and Charles Dickens.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

On paths and trackways

Offa's Dyke footpath, Black Mountains
"There's something rich and joyful to the mind to view through close and field those crooked shreds of footpaths." (John Clare)
The publication of Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways will no doubt inspire a well-spring of eulogies on the footpath and track, so here is my own homily to these benign but sometimes arduous routeways through the landscape. And, without wishing to sound reactionary, I will leave the delights of the motorway, dual-carriageway, roundabout and traffic clogged A and B roads to the dogged flâneur. Here I am wandering the field path, the green road, the holloway, the packhorse road, the monks trods, the country by-way and the ridgeway that bind the landscapes of the British Isles together in their familiar, omnipresent yet still mysterious grip. 
Like many people, footpaths were my entry point into the landscape, whether in search of Last of the Mohican's style adventures through the woods, moorland tramps to the endless horizon of the uplands or roaming local meadows and fields. And walking will always be the best way to experience the topography and morphology of the landscape. There is spiritual, aesthetic and practical pleasure in following a well-trodden route, taking in the varied scenery and memories that the physical track gives access to. Strip away the sometimes impenetrable psychological language of the archaeological concept of phenomenology (experiencing the landscape) and what you have is the yearning to follow not only paths that "the footsteps of a dozen generations have given...the force and sanctity of a popular right" (Elihu Burritt), but also "single tracks, a road untrodden" (from Beowulf, Anon).