The genesis of Philip Marsden’s latest book, Rising Ground, was his acquisition of an old, decaying and overgrown Cornish farmhouse. It is subtitled ‘A Search for the Spirit of Place’, and a few pages in, Marsden explains how, after writing a series of books cataloguing journeys he had made to distant lands he came to write one which follows him as he sets out on foot from his new home.
I have read several of those earlier books and I recommend them highly: titles such as The Spirit-Wrestlers (travels in the Caucasus), The Crossing Place (a journey through Armenia), and The Bronski House (also inspired by a house – one that stood in a Belorussian village which had witnessed the Russian revolution and German invasion).
Now, clearing brush and hacking into the dense growth around his new, ramshackle home, Marsden suddenly finds memories from those years of travel flashing before him:
A woman in northern Syria serving mezes on the floor of her home; a night spent in a tiny flat in a Moldovan high-rise with a wolf-like dog chained to the kitchen wall; an elderly Georgian poet quoting Akhmatova in a Caucasian orchard; a street corner in downtown Beirut …
Why should these memories be stirred up ‘by a piece of land you could walk across in ten minutes’? The common thread, Marsden realises, is the effect physical surroundings have on individuals and whole communities – the ‘capacity of places to create mythologies around them’ (for an example of that, see my previous post on Van Morrison’s mythologising of east Belfast).
Marsden has discovered that long before the farmhouse he is now renovating was built in the mid-19th century, a manor house had stood on the site, its history stretching back to a Norman family who owned it and, in the 15th century, added a small chapel. One evening, working on a length of overgrown wall, Marsden uncovers a granite slab with medieval tracery – the top half of a cinquefoil window from the chapel.
This discovery leads him to meditate on how knowing something of the past of a place brings with it a sense of belonging. He recalls an essay written in 1954 by Martin Heidegger called ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ which explored the close connection between the three ‘-ings‘ of the title. Marsden summarizes:
‘Dwelling’ for Heidegger meant much more than just living in a house. It described a way of being in the world. […] Only by knowing our surroundings, being aware of topography and the past, can we live what Heidegger deems an ‘authentic’ existence. Heidegger is pretty severe about what constitutes authenticity, but his ‘dwelling’ does highlight something we’ve lost in our hyper-connected world, something that I found myself rediscovering that spring down at the end of the long track: the ability to immerse ourselves in one place.
Marsden realises that home is an unexplored place as deserving of attention as any distant destination. This leads him to explore the history of his dilapidated creek-side house, writing about it with great sensitivity. At the same time he sets out on a fragmented walk westwards from his new home to Land’s End and the Scillies in an attempt to discover why we react particularly strongly to certain places. Why do layers of mythology build up around particular features in the landscape?
For anyone who, like me, loves Cornwall Marsden’s book is a wonderful evocation of that county, a tribute to its enduring beauty and mystery. His journey is a tour of the granite tors that form the stony backbone of Cornwall, revealing how from the Neolithic they have formed a ritual landscape and in the process piecing together a chronology of British attitudes to place. Every so often he breaks off from his journey, not only to return to the renovation work on his home, but also to delve into local archives in which he uncovers the life and work of earlier wayfarers – medieval chroniclers, Tudor mapmakers, antiquarians, poets and painters.
As Marsden heads westwards he takes in Bodmin, Tintagel and the strange white landscape of china-clay country. He happens upon out of the way places such as Tolverne Barton, ‘one of those forgotten, time-rinsed corners with which Cornwall rewards path-strayers and the persistently nosy’. He pauses to contemplate Ruan Langhorne, ‘now a backwater, verdant and spongy in its silted-up creek’.
He strides into Penwith (my favourite part of Cornwall – I wish it had occupied more of the book), describing it as ‘a loosely connected appendage stuffed with the residue of a thousand stories and mythical projections’. At Land’s End he remembers John Blight, who wrote a book about the end of the mainland and ended up in the madhouse. But that’s not the end of Marsden’s pilgrimage. He concludes his meanderings on Scilly, discovering more stones and stories, still in what he terms ‘a state of ceaseless questioning’.
The best passages in Rising Ground are those in which Marsden discusses the prehistory of the Cornish landscape in terms of a ‘sacred’ or ‘ritual’ landscape. We can only speculate about the beliefs of our Neolithic ancestors, Marsden accepts, but from his reading of the landscape through which he walks he concludes that they arranged their world in order to supply answers to ‘the same questions that tease us now: what law, what force, what patterns exist in the vastness of space?’ On Bodmin Moor, he notes, ‘at some point more than six thousand years ago, a strange thing began to happen up here’.
That strange thing was the shifting of stones – heaving huge ones up to the heights and positioning them in such a way that when the sun fell through an arrangement of stones at a particular hour, or on a particular significant day of the year, a framed view of a distant tor would be seen.
At Leskernick Marsden finds one example of this ritual landscape. Leskernick Hill is in the middle of a ring of higher hills which seem to enclose the site. Here there was once a Neolithic settlement, the location chosen initially for its setting in the natural landscape. But then there began the process of aligning stones in ritually-significant ways:
Walking the stone row below the settlement, following it westwards, an odd thing happens. As you reach the end, the top rocks of Rough Tor begin to appear. They are still some three miles off, but they sit there above the smooth ridge, growing as you complete the walk, detaching themselves from the unseen hills below them like a row of slowly raided hats.
In addition to tracing out these ancient paths on foot, Marsden delves into the archives to bring back to life the thoughts of walkers and scholars who shared a love of place: figures such as John Whitaker (1735-1808), vicar of Ruan Lanihorne who wrote a parochial history of Cornwall, and Charles Henderson (1900-1933), a pioneering historian of Cornwall who walked and cycled across the county gathering historic documents that lay forgotten ‘in damp byres, in tin-roofed outhouses, spattered with mouse droppings, knitted with cobwebs, hidden in the low cupboards of unvisited rooms’.
Sometimes he was too late. At one run-down pile, he was told the old papers had been chucked down a well. But at another, he uncovered bundles of documents in the laundry cupboard and carried them back down the drive in a wash-basket.
In this way, Henderson gathered about 16,000 documents: wills, covenants, leases, letters, tithe-deeds, mortgages, estate maps and much more – all now stored in the archive room of the Royal Cornwall Museum.
Perhaps Marsden’s most fascinating portrait is of the visionary self-taught working class Cornish poet, Jack Clemo. Born in 1916, in a cottage at the foot of a china clay spoil-heap, his father was killed in the war so most of his childhood was spent alone with his penniless mother. Afflicted by long spells of blindness, at nineteen he became completely deaf; in his late thirties the blindness returned and stayed for good.
By his twenties he had developed an individual brand of Calvinist faith which led him to see in the desolate landscape of the china clay industry ‘a fitting topography for the Fall, the contours of man’s corruptions’. Marsden describes his poetic voice as ‘the conscience of the post-industrial age, crying from the white wilderness of Cornwall’s clay dumps’.
Marsden meets many other memorable characters along the way, as David Craig noted in his review for the London Review of Books:
The men and women he meets are as present as the land. No reader will soon forget the man from Redruth, one of a group of ‘pagans’ in the Admiral Benbow pub in Penzance who meet to discuss pre-Christian sites and start with a rite: ‘Take three breaths … One for the sea that surrounds us … one for the sky above us … and one for mother earth that supports us.’ The man recalls a visit to Carn Brea with his grandfather: ‘He kicks back the grass round the top there and grabs my ’ands and presses them down into the bare soil. “Feel that, boy? Does ’ee feel it?” I felt nothing but the mud. “That, boy! ’Tes the beating heart of Cornwall!”’
In Rising Ground, Philip Marsden sets out to learn how stories and meanings have developed around enigmatic features in the landscape, weaving together cultural and natural history in a book which is also the memoir of a series of walks. Along the way he brings to light the life and work of other ‘topophiles’ before him – the medieval chronicler, Tudor traveller, 18th century antiquarian, the post-industrial poet and the abstract painter.
Each chapter begins with the derivation of a place name, revealing its early settlers sense of their being in a distinctive place: Morrab, Tolverne, Hensbarrow and Madron – all of them traceable to old Cornish words which reflect the lie of the land. One of those place names holds particular memories for us – the broad sweep of bay enclosed by granite headlands, golden sands at low tide, that is Nanjizal (‘from Cornish nans-, ‘valley’, and –ysel, ‘low’, probably referring to the valley’s deep-cut sides’).
Such landscapes are not just close to our hearts but are also, as Marsden reveals, a crucial part of our culture. Every rock, hill and cliff may be the source of a tale or a legend – and that is what Rising Ground is about.
Gallery: images of Cornwall
Photos I’ve taken on Cornish holidays in the past ten years.