Robert Macfarlane walks the South Downs

Paths that cross
Will cross again

- Patti Smith

Another brilliant series of essays this week on Radio 3′s The Essay in which Robert Macfarlane, author of The Wild Places, reflected on paths, poetry and folk memories as he described walking the South Downs this summer, for 100 miles or so from Winchester southeastwards to the cliffs of Seven Sisters near Eastbourne, exploring its chalk paths and landscape.

‘Paths are the habit of a landscape.  They are determined and sustained by usage, scored into the land by customary behaviour.  They are acts of consensual making, and in this sense, quietly democratic’. In this respect, he contrasted the making of paths with the tracks of Richard Long (for example, in the Sahara, above), concluding that ‘you can’t make a path on your own’ and that his work ‘was to path what a snapped twig is to a tree. For path connects, almost always, with path; paths join, this is their duty. They relate places and, by extension, they relate people’.  As evidence of this, he tells of  meeting Lewis, who has been on the road for seven years, since the death of his wife, recording his walks in notebooks he posts back to his brother in Newcastle.  ‘Somewhere near Amberley a barn owl lifted from a stand of phragmites reeds.  We stopped to watch it hunt over the water margin, slowly moving north up the line of the river, a daytime ghost, as white as chalk, its wings beating with a huge soundlessness. ‘You go ahead’, said Lewis to me, ‘I’m in no hurry.  I’m going nowhere, fast’.

With him as he walked, Macfarlane carried a book of the poems of Edward Thomas, whose work was deeply influenced by the landscape of the Downs, and he told of attempting to memorise his poem, Roads:

I love roads:
The goddesses that dwell
Far along invisible
Are my favourite gods.

Roads go on
While we forget, and are
Forgotten as a star
That shoots and is gone.

On this earth ’tis sure
We men have not made
Anything that doth fade
So soon, so long endure:

The hill road wet with rain
In the sun would not gleam
Like a winding stream
If we trod it not again.

They are lonely
While we sleep, lonelier
For lack of the traveller
Who is now a dream only.

From dawn’s twilight
And all the clouds like sheep
On the mountains of sleep
They wind into the night.

The next turn may reveal
Heaven: upon the crest
The close pine clump, at rest
And black, may Hell conceal.

Often footsore, never
Yet of the road I weary,
Though long and steep and dreary,
As it winds on forever.

Helen of the roads,
The mountain ways of Wales
And the Mabinogion tales
Is one of the true gods,

Abiding in the trees,
The threes and fours so wise,
The larger companies,
That by the roadside be,

And beneath the rafter
Else uninhabited
Excepting by the dead;
And it is her laughter

At morn and night I hear
When the thrush cock sings
Bright irrelevant things,
And when the chanticleer

Calls back to their own night
Troops that make loneliness
With their light footsteps’ press,
As Helen’s own are light.

Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead
Returning lightly dance:

Whatever the road may bring
To me or take from me,
They keep me company
With their pattering,

Crowding the solitude
Of the loops over the downs,
Hushing the roar of towns
And their brief multitude.

On Macfarlane’s first night sleeping out in the open, the rain sluiced down. Edward Thomas returned often to the imagery of rain.  Macfarlane mentioned his 1911 prose work, The Icknield Way, from which this passage comes:

I lay awake listening to the rain, and at first it was as pleasant to my ear and my mind as it had long been desired; but before I fell asleep it had become a majestic and finally a terrible thing, instead of a sweet sound and symbol. It was accusing and trying me and passing judgment. Long I lay still under the sentence, listening to the rain, and then at last listening to words which seemed to be spoken by a ghostly double beside me. He was muttering: The all-night rain puts out summer like a torch. In the heavy, black rain falling straight from invisible, dark sky to invisible, dark earth the heat of summer is annihilated, the splendour is dead, the summer is gone. The midnight rain buries it away where it has buried all sound but its own. I am alone in the dark still night, and my ear listens to the rain piping in the gutters and roaring softly in the trees of the world. Even so will the rain fall darkly upon the grass over the grave when my ears can hear it no more…

The summer is gone, and never can it return. There will never be any summer any more, and I am weary of everything… I am alone.

The truth is that the rain falls for ever and I am melting into it. Black and monotonously sounding is the midnight and solitude of the rain. In a little while or in an age – for it is all one – I shall know the full truth of the words I used to love, I knew not why, in my days of nature, in the days before the rain: ‘Blessed are the dead that the rain rains on.’

For 20 years, Thomas walked what he called ‘the long white roads’ and ‘frail tracks’ of England’s chalk country. Then in 1916, he enlisted and was sent as an officer to the chalk landscape of Arras in Northern France, with its far more dangerous paths. He was killed on Easter Monday, 1917. Not long before his death near Arras in 1916, Thomas wrote this:

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying tonight or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

- ‘Rain’, Edward Thomas, 7 January 1916

Macfarlane spoke of how Thomas developed a method of making one-day walks in the design of “a rough circle”, trusting that, as he put it in The South Country (1909), “by taking a series of turnings to the left or a series to the right, to take much beauty by surprise and to return at last to my starting-point”. On these walks, Thomas would follow what he called “the old ways”: the holloways, pilgrim paths and Neolithic-era chalk paths that seam the Downs. Thomas’s walks knowingly laid new tracks on an already marked ancient landscape.

Walking from Bramber Bank to Kingston Down, in the company of writer Rod Mengham, Robert considered the Australian Aborigine concept of the songline, in which walking, wayfaring, singing and folk memory are aligned. On Edburton Hill they stopped to rest in a ‘kee-high wildflower meadow’, described vividly by Macfarlane:

‘We lounged under a clear sky within a dry, westerly wind. I knew only a few of the dozens of plant species that made up the meadow: agrimony, wild mignonette, red clover, yellow rattle, marjoram, knapweed, scabious, ladies bedstraw.  It was a wild and chance-made garden; through it all wandered the string-like stem of the bindweed.  Lying there, drowsy from the sun, the walk and the druggist’s scent of the flowers, with the flies weaving a gauzy mesh of sound above me, I began to imagine that, if I fell asleep the bindweed tendrils would lace around my limbs and fingers and I would wake like Gulliver in Liliput bound to the ground.’

In a brilliant and moving essay, Robert re-imagined the life of artist Eric Ravilious, who was fascinated by the ‘pure design’ of the South Downs – their paths, ridges and light. Ravilious’s passion for aerial landscapes eventually led him northwards, to Norway and Iceland. He disappeared off the coast of Iceland in September 1942 while on a rescue flight.

Ravilious…Downsman, follower of old paths and tracks, lover of whiteness and of light, and a visionary of the everyday…’The Downs’, he wrote once, ‘ shaped my whole outlook and way of painting because the colour of the landscape was so lovely and the design so beautifully obvious’. ..He made expeditions, slept out and walked for hours following the lines of the Downs, their ridges, rivers and tracks…From the late 1920s to the late 1930s Ravilious painted: deserted fields and Downland hillsides, abandoned farm machinery, waterwheels, fences – and paths. Paths fascinated him.  He had read deeply in the work of Edward Thomas, revered the work of Samuel Palmer…He worked with a lightly loaded brush, allowing the white of the paper to show through, like chalk.

The paths of the Downs compelled Ravilious’s imagination; so did the light of the Downs, falling as white on green, and evoking ‘the strange downs magic’ of which Angus Wilson once spoke. The light of the Downs is distinctive for its radiance, possessing as it does the combined pearlescence of chalk, grass blades and a proximate sea. If you have walked on the Downs in high summer or high winter, you will know that Downs’ light also has a peculiar power to flatten out the view – to render scattered objects equidistant. This is the charismatic mirage of the Downs: phenomena appear arranged upon a single tilted plane, through which the paths burrow. In these respects the light of the Downs is kindred with another flattening light, the light of the polar regions, which usually falls at a slant and is similarly fine-grained. The light and the path: the flattening (the light) and the beckoning (the path). These are Ravilious’s signature combinations as an artist.

For most of Ravilious’s life, the Downs answered his landscape needs. Especially in winter – when the beech hangars stood out like ink strokes in a Chinese water-colour – they embodied his aesthetic ideal: crisp lines, the fall of pale light on pale land. But as the 1930s wore on, he began to desire an elsewhere, an otherworld. He located that elsewhere in the high latitudes of the far north – the envisioned land of the Arctic circle and the midnight sun. By the time the war began, he was restless to travel, hungry to swap chalk for ice, and south for north. His chance to do so came with his appointment in late 1939 as an official war artist, which gave him some control over his postings. In the last three years of his life, as Davidson has finely written, ‘the snow and the snow light on bare hills drew [Ravilious] steadily northwards’.

7 September 1942: at Castle Hedingham, a letter arrives for Tirzah from the Admiralty, signed HV Markham. ‘My lords desire me to express to you their deep sympathy in the great anxiety which this news must cause you…’. Tirzah stumbles over the grammar first time through. The next morning the postman brings a letter addressed in a familiar hand, and there is a momentary flare of hope. No, of course not. It is dated 1 September, and written in pencil. ‘We flew over the mountain country that looks like craters on the moon’, he tells her, ‘the shadows very dark and striped like leaves….’

Walking the final miles of the South Downs with artist Chris Drury, Robert explores the sometimes eerie relationship between walking, collecting and creation. Drury was the part of the first generation of land artists that emerged in Britain. ‘I was drawn to Drury’s work’, says Macfarlane, ‘because of its preoccupation with paths and waymarkers, with cairns, shelters and objects found along the path.  Drury’s best-known work, Medicine Wheel, was an 8-foot diameter wheel of bamboo, radiating from a central circle of straw-pulp paper.

Between the bamboo spokes were strung the objects that he had picked up while out walking each day for a year, from August to August: a sheep’s backbone, a little owl feather, a dead tiger moth on a thistle, a piece of petrel-blue flint, a bluebell seed-pod, a lapwing’s secondary, a crab’s claw.  Hundreds and hundreds of found objects, sculpture functioning as almanac, calendar, wunderkammer, astrolabe’.

For years, said Macfarlane, Drury had also been experimenting with cairn sculptures and shelters. This reminded me that earlier this year, in Kent, we came across one of his shelters:

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11 thoughts on “Robert Macfarlane walks the South Downs

  1. Wonderful post – I enjoyed Robert McFarlane’s walk a lot, so thanks for transcribing and setting to poetry and pictures.

    You might be interested in my new book, ‘Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs’, which will be published by the Mainstone Press in a couple of weeks. As the title suggests, it’s about the painter and his relationship with Downland England.

    There’s more information on my blog.

    • Thanks for your kind comments, James. I’m glad you enjoyed reading the post as much as I did writing it. Your book looks very enticing. For others reading this you can find it on Amazon here.

  2. Great ost, I widint know about Macfarlanes walk, or about Eric Ravillious.
    Please could you tell me who the paintings/pictures in your post are by, and if copies can be obtained., they are very beautiful. Thanks agian for a truly lovely post, Andy.

  3. All the paintings are by Eric Ravilious – if you hover your mouse over each image you will see a label with the details. Click on an immage to enlarge it. Two books of Ravilious’s paintings have been published recently – Ravilious in Pictures:vols 1&2. They’re on Amazon. Glad you appreciated the post.

    • Yours is a fascinating post, Helen, and introduced me to several artists about whom I was previously unaware. Especially because of the local connection, I’ll look further into Harry Epworth Allen. Thanks for the link.

  4. Thanks, Richard. That’s unusual – few in the Essay strand are left on iPlayer longer than a week. There is a podcast, but presumably because some essayists hold onto copyright, many essays don’t get podcasted.

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