Uncommon Ground: learning to read our landscape again

Uncommon Ground: learning to read our landscape again

Recently I was presented with a beautiful gift – a book by Dominick Tyler called Uncommon Ground: A word-lover’s guide to the British landscape. The book is the product of a year that Tyler spent travelling the length and breadth of the British Isles to photograph specific features of the natural world. Continue reading “Uncommon Ground: learning to read our landscape again”

Making a beeline for Richard Long

Making a beeline for Richard Long

Writing the other day about Rebecca Solnit’s history of walking, Wanderlust, I mentioned her discussion of the work of Richard Long, the land artist whose work has been dedicated to making ‘a new way of walking: walking as art’.  He began in 1967 by making what was then a radically new kind of work, A Line Made by Walking,created  by Long repeatedly walking a straight line in a field.  Since then, he has continued to develop this idea, presenting the walks as art in three forms: maps, photographs, or text works.  Each walk expresses a particular idea: so there have been walks in a straight line for a predetermined distance; walks between the sources of rivers; walks measured by tides, and walks delineated by stones dropped into a succession of rivers crossed.

Thinking about Long, I realised I had only a few days left to see the exhibition of his work that has been running all summer at the Hepworth gallery in Wakefield, with a linked exhibit at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.  So, I set a course and made a beeline (quite literally as it turned out) for Yorkshire and Richard Long.

At the Yorkshire Sculpture Park I learned that the Richard Long exhibit had been located at the most distant point in the park.  It seemed entirely appropriate that seeing an example of this artist’s work should require the effort of a modest walk. So follow me…

I set off down the hillside toward the lake.  I love the YSP, the sense of space and varied landscapes in this vast expanse of rolling parkland, and the surprise of unexpected encounters with sculptures as you crest a rise, turn a corner or enter a glade.  Currently there is a major exhibition of Joan Miro’s sculptures and other artworks, and the lawns are dotted with large bronze sculptures rarely seen outside his foundations in Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca, like Personnage, 1970 (below).  Personally, I can take or leave Miro’s forms; I suppose I just don’t get them.  It was interesting to browse the exhibits and read Miro’s comments on Catalan culture and art,  rooted in his deep sense of national identity, in the month when the Catalan Parliament has voted to call a referendum on Catalan independence.  But, like Laura Cummings in her review of last year’s Tate exhibition, Miro’s works don’t come across to me as political statements.

Walking on down the hillside I passed Jonathan Borofsky’s Molecule Man (below), aluminium gleaming in the sunlight that poured through the hundreds of holes in the sculpture that made it seem to float, light as air, giving form to the artist’s  idea that the molecule structure of humans is composed of little more than water and air.

Further down, I found Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz’s monumental Ten Seated Figures, which,  like most of her work, reflects her experience of war and political oppression.  Abakanowicz was born in an aristocratic Polish-Russian family on her parent’s estate in Poland. The Second World war broke out when she was nine years old.  The forces of Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union swept through the land, followed by forty-five years of Soviet domination.  In her work headless human figures often appear identical on the surface but on closer inspection reveal individuality, a commentary on societies which repress individual creativity in favour of collective goals and values:

My work comes from the experience of crowds, injustice and aggression…

By way of a complete contrast, near the Camellia House and in a wooded glade I encountered two works by Sophie Ryder, the artist who first drew us to the YSP many years ago with our young daughter.  Crawling Lady Hare is a work behind after her exhibition here in 2008.  Manus and the Running Dogs is a much earlier work from 1987, which shares a similarity – a group of animals running –  to Crossing Place which we saw, again with our daughter, on the Forest of Dean sculpture trail in 1992. I love watching the faces – of children and adults alike – light up when they see a Ryder sculpture.

Emerging from the trees where leaves fell in all the colours of autumn – reds and yellows as bright as the Catalan colours of Miro’s painted sculptures back in the gallery – a cacophony of rooks or crows rose from the branches.  It’s a sound that, for some inexplicable reason, always makes my heart soar.

Where the parkland slopes down to the lake, I mingled with Barbara Hepworth’s Family of Man: a group work from 1970 that consists of nine bronze upright abstract forms arranged across the sloping lawn.  Each one is a simple, geometric shape, but Hepworth manages to imbue each figure with a distinctive personality. There are larger, more complex forms that seem to have distinctive  male personalities, while smaller figures seem more timid, children perhaps, scared of speaking out of turn.   This is a work that is best experienced outdoors, and the YSP have positioned it superbly here. As Hepworth once said:

All my sculpture comes out of landscape. No sculpture really lives until it goes back into landscape.

Down by the lake I saw a shed with a large reflective globe perched upon the roof .  Now, I’ve built two sheds this year on our allotment, so I was intrigued.  It turned out to be a recent work, Spiegelei, by Jem Finer, first made for the Tatton Park Biennial in 2010 and now resited here. According to the YSP’s interpretation:

‘visitors are invited into Spiegelei to experience a shift in reality, in which the world becomes inverted and sounds distorted, allowing a new and wonderful perspective on the familiar landscape of the Bretton Estate. This has been achieved through the construction of a 360-degree camera obscura using three lenses housed inside a sphere, angled to take full advantage of the views.

None of that worked for me, yet on a trip to Kent some time ago I enjoyed his Score for a Hole in the Ground located in a wood in the Stour Valley. A  seven metre high steel horn, like an old-fashioned gramophone, generates sound through rainfall.  And I have been captivated by the idea of his Artangel commission Longplayer, a 1000-year long musical composition  the longest non-repeating piece of music ever composed – that has been playing continuously since the first moments of the millennium, performed by computers around the world.

Then it was into the wood that surround the Lower Lake, walking a line to Richard Long.

Following the trail through the wood, every now and then I’d notice an object dangling from a tree branch, looking something like a garden bird house.  In fact, collectively they are an artwork that is also an ecological intervention.  The Bee Library comprises a collection of twenty-four bee-related books selected by Alec Finlay that were initially on display in the YSP Centre during springtime. Once read, each book was made into a nest for wild or ‘solitary’ bees in the grounds of the YSP.   Together the library now forms an installation on a walking route which I was now following around the Upper Lake.  Constructed from a book, bamboo, wire-netting and water-proofing, each nest offers shelter for solitary bees, whose numbers are in steep decline. New nests will be added in other places, building a global bee library. The Bee Poems are a collection of texts composed from a close reading of the books, published online.

I walked on, looking for Richard Long.  He has written:

A footpath is a place.

It also goes from place to place, from here to there, and back again.

Any place along it is a stopping place.

Its perceived length could depend on the speed of the traveller, or its steepness, or its difficulty.

Reversing direction does not reverse the travelling time.

A path can be followed, or crossed.

A path is practical; it takes the line of least resistance, or the easiest, or most direct, route.

Sometimes it can be the only line of access through an area.

Paths are shared by all who use them.

Each user could be on a different overall journey, and for a different reason.

A path is made by movement, by the accumulated footprints of its users.

Paths are maintained by repeated use, and would disappear without use.

The characteristics of a path depend upon the nature of the land, but the characteristics can be universal.

My path finally brought me to Red Slate Line, a 1986 work made by Richard Long from slate found at the border of Vermont and New York State, and relocated here at the YSP for the summer.  One strand of Long’s work is making sculptures in the landscape that are made by rearranging rocks and sticks into lines and circles without relocating them from the scene (the work is photographed, just as Andy Goldsworthy does with those works he creates that last fleetingly before they are washed or blown away, melt or decay).  Meanwhile, another branch of Richard Long’s work collects up rocks, sticks or other materials to lay out  those lines, circles or labyrinths on the gallery floor. In both cases, though, the landscape and the walk through it remains the primary focus.

Red Slate Line belongs to the second category – a gallery piece, now set down in a woodland setting, the shards of red slate arranged like a path leading down to the water’s edge.  Rebecca Solnit wrote that these lines and circles record Long’s walks in ‘a reductive geometry that evokes everything – cyclical and linear time, the finite and the infinite, roads and routines – and says nothing’ (by which she means that we, the viewers, are given very little information about the walk that inspired them:

In some ways, Long’s work resemble travel writing, but rather than tell us what he felt, what he ate, and other such details, his brief texts and uninhabited images leave most of the journey up to the viewer’s imagination .. to do a great deal of work, to interpret the ambiguous, imagine the unseen.  It gives is not a walk nor even the representation of a walk, only the idea of a walk, and an evocation of its location (the map) or one of its views (the photograph).  Formal and quantifiable aspects are emphasized: geometry, measurement, number, duration.

Richard Long: Line Made By Walking, 1967

Before visiting the YSP, I had spent some time at the Hepworth Gallery, just 15 minutes drive away in Wakefield.  There, a small exhibition of work by Richard Long is just drawing to a close. The exhibition presents Long as a key figure in the emergence of land art, but notes too, that Long was also associated with Arte Povera, which questioned the boundary between art and life through the use of everyday materials and spontaneous events.

Journeying from his home town of Bristol to London, whilst a student at Saint Martin’s School of Art, Long created A Line Made by Walking (1967, above) in a grass field in Wiltshire, by continually treading the same path. It’s now been acknowledged as a pioneering artwork, incorporating performance art, land art and sculpture. The work also introduced Long’s intention to consider walking as art, exploring relationships between time, distance, geography and measurement. Long developed this intention throughout the 1970s and 1980s, making works in increasingly challenging and remote terrains and documenting the walks as texts, maps and photographs, such as Walking a Line in Peru (1972) and Sahara Line (1988).  An important aspect of these works is the evidence of human activity that Long leaves as he walks, the trace of an encounter that is at the centre of the artist’s practice:

In the nature of things:
Art about mobility, lightness and freedom.
Simple creative acts of walking and marking
about place, locality, time, distance and
Works using raw materials and my human
scale in the reality of landscapes.

Long’s sculptures occur either in the landscape, made along the way on a walk, or in the gallery, made as a response to a particular place. He works with natural materials such as sticks or slate to make sculptures and often uses mud or clay in his drawings and wall-works.  This exhibition contains works from across Long’s career. It includes early photographs of his sculptures in the landscape such as Line Made By Walking and England 1968 where two paths cross in a field full of daisies.

Richard Long: England, 1968

The works in this exhibition, although made at different  points in Long’s career, reflect the consistency of his approach, the same elements constant through the years:

My work has become a simple metaphor for life. A figure walking down his road, making his mark. It is an affirmation of my human scale and senses: how far I walk, what stones I pick up, my particular experiences. Nature has more effect on me than I on it. I am content with the vocabulary of  universal and common means: walking, placing, stones, sticks, water, circles, lines, days, nights, roads.

– Richard Long,1983

Other photographed works on display include A Line in Japan – Mount Fuji (1979), A Circle in Alaska (1977), made of driftwood gathered on the Arctic Circle on the shore of the Bering Strait, and Circle in Africa (1978).

Richard Long: A Line in Japan – Mount Fuji, 1979
Richard Long: A Circle in Alaska 1977
Richard Long: Circle in Africa, 1978

Circle in Africa depicts a circle made of burnt cactus branches on a rocky outcrop on Mulanje Mountain in Malawi.  Long has explained how the circumstances in which Circle in Africa came about:

I was going to make a circle of stones on a high mountain in Malawi and then, when I got there, I couldn’t find any stones because there was no ice and snow to break the rock up. So I kept the idea of a circle and changed the material to burnt cacti which were lying around, that had been burnt in lightning storms. … I am an opportunist; I just take advantage of the places and situations I find myself in.

Alongside these photographs there is an annotated OS map of an area of the Cairngorms  – Concentric Days, 1996 – with concentric circles superimposed, each representing a day and ‘a meandering walk within and to the edge of each circle’.  You look and you imagine.  There are two hand-made books – Nile (Pages of River Mud), 1990 and River Avon (1979) – both of which are assembled from papers dipped in the mud of those rivers.

In an adjoining room are two contrasting pieces – Somerset Willow Line (1980) constructed from willow twigs arranged in a large rectangle across the gallery floor, and, spelt out in large capitals across the length of one wall, one of his text works: A DAYS WALK ACROSS DARTMOOR FOLLOWING THE DRIFT OF THE CLOUDS.

Richard Long Somerset Willow Line and Dartmoor Walk
Richard Long Somerset Willow Line 1980

Another room brings together three more contrasting examples of Long’s work: Water Falls, a large piece like a painting created for this exhibition from paint overlain with scraped and scoured  china clay, along with floor pieces, Cornish Slate Ellipse and Blaenau Festiniog Circle, constructed from blocks of Welsh slate in an arrangement that reminded me strongly of pieces exhibited by David Nash at the YSP last year.

Richard Long: Water Falls 2012
Richard Long: Water Falls, Cornish Slate Ellipse and Blaenau Festiniog Circle

I’ll finish with that other great walker, Robert Macfarlane.  This is how he concluded an appreciation of Richard Long’s work he wrote for The Guardian:

I like his unpretentiousness. It’s probably what appeals to me most about Long and his work. He practises a kind of ritualised folk art. His circles, lines and crosses are radiantly symbolic, but also childishly simple; or, rather, they’re radiantly symbolic because they’re childishly simple. It’s for this reason that Long is ill-served by those interpreters who draw a cowl of Zennish mysticism over his sculptures, or who interpret his textworks (strings of words and phrases, often superimposed on to a photograph of the landscape that has been walked) as koan-like chants.[…]

No, Long is no magus. More of a high-end hobo. Among my favourite of his pieces is Walking Music, a textwork that records the songs that trundle through his mind as he walks 168 miles in six days across Ireland, the music keeping at bay the loneliness of the long-distance walker. Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Sinéad O’Connor singing “On Raglan Road”, Jimmie Rodgers’s “Waiting for a Train”, Róisín Dubh played on the pibroch …

Samuel Beckett – who, like Long, found much to meditate on and much to laugh at in the act of walking; and who, like Long, loved country lanes and bicycles, pebbles and circles – once observed that it is impossible to walk in a straight line, because of the curvature of the earth. There’s a great deal of Long in that remark. His art reminds us of the simple strangeness of the walked world, of the surprises and beauties that landscape can spring on the pedestrian. It’s good that Long is out there, knackering another pair of boots, singing Johnny Cash to himself as he walks the line.

River Po Line, Italy,2001

See also

Robert Macfarlane: Old Ways and Wild Places

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

Roads go on
While we forget, and are
Forgotten like 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.

– extract from ‘Roads’ by Edward Thomas

Recently I’ve been reading several books that share Edward Thomas’s love of paths and walking.  This is the second instalment of a two-part post.  The first part is here.  This post is concerned with two books by Robert Macfarlane – The Wild Places and The Old Ways.

I thought I had read The Wild Places some time ago, but when I pulled it down off the shelf recently to compare it with The Old Ways I realised that I hadn’t.  I’ll come clean – I’ve reached that time in life when I stir my tea and discovering two tea bags there, realise that I have added a second bag to the mug in which I had placed one already.

The Wild Places begins with Macfarlane climbing a tree near his home in a gale (there’ll be more of this sort of thing later) and is filled with an irresistable desire for wildness:

to reach somewhere remote, where the starlight fell clearly, where the windcould blow me from its thirty-six directions, and where the evidence of human presence was minimal or absent.  Far north or far west; for to my mind this was where wildness survived, if it survived anywhere at all.

Macfarlane resolves to map the remaining wild places of the British Isles, places that conformed most purely to his private vision of wildness. He begins by heading west, out along the Lleyn to Ynys Enlli ‘where the first glimmerings of a wild consciousness’ might be found on an island settled by monks and sought by pilgrims of the early years of Celtic Christianity.  The chapters of the book are arranged by topography – Island, Valley, Saltmarsh, Moor, Ridge, Holloway and Beechwood.

But more than simply mapping the route of his travels, The Wild Places maps a change of heart. To start with, Macfarlane is convinced that if he is to find any remaining wild places in these overcrowded islands – places where he can ‘step outside human history’ – he must hike across distant moors and mountains and islands.  And so he attempts a perilous climb out of a hidden valley in the Cuillins of Skye, tramps across Rannoch Moor through a night and two days, and on a winter’s night, battered by a snowstorm, sleeps out with no tent on the summit of Ben More, the last mountain peak before Greenland or Siberia.

The essence of his case is stated in this passage from the chapter where, in deepest winter, he climbs a ridge in Cumbria, walking at night by moonlight and starlight, attempting sleep in a blizzard of hail and snow, and at first light plunging naked into a mountain pool:

We are, as a species, finding it increasingly hard to imagine that we are part of something which is larger than our own capacity … On almost every front, we have begun a turning away from a felt relationship with the natural world.

The blinding of the stars is only one aspect of this retreat from the real. In so many ways, there has been a prising away of life from place, an abstraction of experience into different kinds of touchlessness. We experience, as no historical period has before, disembodiment and dematerialisation.  … We have in many ways forgotten what the world feels like. And so new maladies of the soul have emerged, unhappinesses which are complicated products of the distance we have set between ourselves and the world. We have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world – its ices, textures, sounds, smells and habits – as well as by genetic traits we inherit and ideologies we absorb.

But the fascination of  The Wild Places is that Macfarlane reveals how his idea of wildness changes.  The turning point is a walk in the company of the naturalist Roger Deakin on the limestone clints and grikes of The Burren. Deakin points out that a little crack in the limestone contains a wilderness:

Near the centre of the pavement, we reached a large gryke running north to south. We lay belly-down on the limestone and peered over its edge. And found ourselves looking into a jungle. Tiny groves of ferns, mosses and flowers were there in the crevasse – hundreds of plants, just in the few yards we could see, thriving in the shelter of the gryke: cranesbills, plantains, avens, ferns, many more I could not identify, growing opportunistically on wind-blown soil. The plants thronged every available niche, embracing one another into indistinguishability. Even on this winter day, the sense of life was immense. What the gryke would look like in the blossom month of May, I could not imagine.

This, Roger suddenly said as we lay there looking down into it, is a wild place. It is as beautiful and complex, perhaps more so, than any glen or bay or peak. Miniature, yes, but fabulously wild.

Macfarlane’s concept of wildness has changed by the time we reach the halfway point of his book. In Strathnaver in the far northeast of Scotland he realises that his original vision had ‘started to crumble from contact with the ground itself’.   As he reflects on the depopulation of the strath during the Highland Clearances, begins to realise that ‘the human and the wild cannot be partitioned’. The wilderness that he sees now is the consequence of emigration, conscription and displacement as Strathnaver, like so many of the valleys of Scotland, was emptied of its people, its families, in the words of an observer at the time, ‘utterly rooted and burnt out’, parish after parish turned into a solitary wilderness.

In the later sections of the book, Macfarlane explores landscapes that are gentler and more hospitable, but still full of surprises. In the holloways of Dorset which he walks as a memorial to his close friend Roger Deakin, along the Norfolk and Suffolk coast, and on the saltmarshes of Essex, he discovers ‘a sense of wildness as process, something continually at work in the world, something tumultuous, green, joyous’.  The Essex chapter was subsequently expanded into a suberb Natural World documentary for the BBC in which he travelled the county’s strange and elemental landscapes of heavy industry, desolate beaches and wild woods, encountering peregrine falcons at Tilbury Power Station, water voles within sniffing distance of the municipal dump, deer rutting in earshot of the M25, barn owls, badgers and bluebells in Billericay as well as a large colony of common seals.

In the final chapter of this elegantly written book, Macfarlane returns to the wood near his home where the need to experience wildness betook him.  He realises that

the wild prefaced us, and it will outlive us. Human cultures will pass, given time, of which there is sufficiency. The ivy will snake and unrig our flats and terraces, as it scattered the Roman villas. The sand will drift into our business parks, as it drifted into the brochs of the iron age. Our roads will lapse into the land.

He concludes:

Then I looked back across the landscape before me: the roads, the railway, the incinerator tower and the woodlands.  The woods were spread out across the land and they were seething. Wildness was here, a short mile south of the town in which I lived.  It was set about by roads and buildings, much of it was menaced, and some of it was dying.  But at that moment the land seemed to ring with a wild light.

In The Wild Places, Robert Macfarlane was partly spurred on his way by a realisation that for most of us the map of Britain with whiich we are most familiar is the road map. He set out to create an alternative map that would make the remaining wild places of the archipelago visible again.  In The Old Ways he explores Britain geologically, walking its paths mapping the relationship between surface rock, people and place.  The book’s chapters are organised around geological textures: Chalk, Silt, Peat, Gneiss, Granite and Flint.

Fundamentally, though, this is a book about walking – it could not have been written sitting still, insits Macfarlane -and about the ancient paths that criss-cross the landscape of these isles.  Above all, it is a book about people and place – about the subtle ways in which our thoughts, ideas and art are shaped by the landscapes in which we live and walk.

At the opening of The Old Ways Macfarlane observes that ‘Humans are animals and like all animals we leave tracks as we walk: signs of passage made in snow, sand, mud, grass, dew, earth or moss’. The landscape is

webbed with paths and footways – shadowing the modern-day road network, or meeting it at a slant or perpendicular. Pilgrim paths, green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, sarns, snickets – say the names of paths out loud and at speed and they become a poem or rite – holloways, bostles, shutes, driftways, lichways, ridings, halterpaths, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths.

He sets out to explore these old ways, and though the subtitle of the book is ‘A Journey on Foot’, two of the best sections are about retracing the old sea roads that linked the islands of the Outer Hebrides with Norway, Iceland and Orkney. We think of paths as existing only on land, he writes, but the sea has paths, too, and for thousands of years these roads across the ocean brought closer far-apart places.

It is easy to fall in alongside Macfarlane as he walks these trails (though I suspect I wouldn’t be able to keep pace with him). He writes beautifully, and communicates an easy-going erudition that embraces geology, history, literature, art and many aspects of the natural world.  In this book, more so than in The Wild Places, he also brings alive the characters he meets along the way: the landscapes he describes are filled not just with rock, animals and plants, but also sailors, botanists, poets, archaeologists and crofters.  There’s a sailor skilled enough to cross the Minch to the Shiant Islands; a sculptor and a Tibetologist; a friend who knows the danger and importance of walking in Ramallah ‘discovering stories other than those of murder and hostility’. They are all important figures in a book about the ways people come to know places and absorb them into their bloodstream, their consciousness.

The Palestinian friend is Raja Shehadeh, author of Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape which, shamefully, I still haven’t got around to reading.  The Palestinian adventure is an indication of the somewhat unstructured bagginess of the book  – with chapters describing walks abroad – through the limestone wadis of the Occupied Territories, following the pilgrimage route through Spain with a detour to a strange library, and walking with Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims in the Himalayas.  The Palestinian walk revealed Macfarlane uncharacteristically ill at ease as he and Raja walk a path through a valley  overlooked by Israeli settlements. But his acute observation and fine writing remain in place:

Back in Ramallah that night, I walked the streets, enjoying the cool air andthe feeling of enclosure that the city and the darkness brought, after the exposure of the day. On waste groundby the side of a busy four-lane road, I passed a skip whose contents had been set on fire, and out of which rose and shifted a column of black smoke. A single trainer hung over the outside of the skip, hitched by its laces to its unseen partner on the inside. I waited to cross the road, while the pedestrian crossing flashed its orders: WALK, DON’T WALK; WALK, DON’T WALK.

Then there are the chapters inspired by art and poetry.  In ‘Snow’ he walks – actually, he skis – across the South Downs along the Ridgeway after a winter snowfall, taking his bearings from the watercolourist Eric Ravilious, ‘a votary of whiteness and remoteness, and a visionary of the everyday’. The snow and the skis neatly link the Downs with the Arctic – the two landscapes that most inspired Ravilious. For most of his life the Downs satisfied his landscape needs, but as time wore on he began to dream of the Arctic, the midnight sun and icebergs.  At the outset of the Second World War, Ravilious was appointed an official war artist, and in May 1940 he got the news he had longed for: he would sail to Norway and across the Arctic circle. For three months he produced work that Macfarlane ranks as perhaps his finest.  Then, in late August, he flew with a search party that took off from Iceland to locate a missing plane. He and another four men were lost in a plane looking for a missing plane.

Eric Ravilious: Chalk Paths

But the real guiding spirit of The Old Ways is Edward Thomas, walker, nature-writer and poet, who left the ‘South Country’ he loved and followed the chalk across the channel to northern France, where he died on the first day of the Battle of Arras. Macfarlane was inspired by the words that  Thomas employed to portray the old ways: ‘A white snake on a green hillside’ was one of Thomas’s descriptions of a chalk path’s motion through the land. He also wrote that, ‘The earliest roads wandered like rivers through the land, having, like rivers, one necessity, to keep in motion’.  Macfarlane attempts to understand Thomas by inhabiting the places where he walked and following in his footsteps.  He writes that:

Thomas ghosted my journeys and urged me on.  I set out to walk my way back into intimacy with Thomas, using the paths as a route to his past, but ended up discovering much more about the liviong than the dead.

Somehow the passages on Ravilious and Thomas are the least satisfying here: I think Macfarlane is at his best – as a writer and a thinker – when he is walking, and one of the finest descriptions of a walk in this book is his account of walking ‘the deadliest path in Britain’, the Broomway, a footpath heads straight out from the Essex coastline into the North Sea across Maplin Sands until, after three miles, it turns back in the direction before finally making landfall.  Macfarlane’s writing here is as crystalline as the shimmering seascape that he traverses:

Half a mile offshore, walking on silver water, we crossed a path that extended gracefully and without apparent end to our north and south. It was a shallow tidal channel and the water it held caught and pooled the sun, such that its route existed principally as flux; a phenomenon of light and currents. Its bright line curved away from us: an ogee whose origin we could not explain and whose invitation to follow we could not disobey, so we walked it northwards, along that glowing track made neither of water nor of land, which led us further and still further out to sea.

Macfarlane ends by tracking 5000 year old fossil footprints on the sands at Formby Point, north of Liverpool. Or does he? This chapter seems to me to be a bit of a fiction – the footprints of neolithic people have been found on this shore, but they are temporary and quickly washed away.  He writes as if he is tracking the footprints across a mile or more of sand, placing his feet in the fossil prints.  I can understand the poetry here, but after chapters which have described real walks, it doesn’t ring true.

See also

These books are made for walking: step one

These books are made for walking: step one

Paths have always fascinated me. Sometimes their imprint of human purpose on the landscape can be a mystery: why does this path exist? Who made it, and when?  Often paths lift the spirit with their sense of wilfulness – tracks left by those determined to make their way according to no rules.  I’ve walked for years now in our local park – the twice-daily dog walk – always entertained by how, in a landscape where planners have mapped out in tarmac or gravel where people should walk, foot-worn paths still weave anarchically but determinedly across the meadows and through the glades.  They are the tracks of kids on their way to school, routes to work, trails left by dog walkers like me seeking variations on a theme: short cuts, a path under the trees, a better view.  Paths like these emerge all over the place – across vacant land in urban areas, in suburbia, or across fields and moors.

Unofficial path in Sefton Park

Recently I’ve been reading several books that explore this fascination with paths and walking, and in the process I discovered that Robert Macfarlane has also shared this fascination with paths and trails of all kinds.  In his recent book The Old Ways, he writes:

Paths and their markers have long worked on me like lures: drawing my sight up and on and over.  The eye is enticed by a path, and the mind’s eye also.  The imagination cannot help but pursue a line in the land – onwards in space, but also backwards in time to the histories of a route and its previous followers.  As I walk paths I often wonder about their origins, the impulses that have led to their creation…

These books represent just a fraction of those that have added to the already voluminous literature of walking in recent years. Pathways is a historical guide to the origins of the paths that we follow through the land; Wanderlust, by Rebecca Solnit, is an erudite cultural history of walking; The Green Road Into The Trees by Hugh Thomson is a narrative account of his journey along the Icknield Way – a route followed, too, by Robert Macfarlane in his new book The Old Ways which I’ve read alongside his earlier The Wild Places.  Werner Herzog’s Of Walking In Ice is another proposition entirely: as you’d expect from the director of Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo it is as far from Macfarlane as you’re likely to get: an often bizarre stream of consciousness account of a pilgrimage he made in 1974, from Munich to the bedside of his close friend, film historian Lotte Eisner, near Paris. It was deep winter and Herzog believed that tramping through adversity would help the friend, that the sheer effort of the walk would bring her back to health.

Alongside these books, I’ve also been dipping into The Walker’s Literary Companion edited by Roger Gilbert, Jeffrey Robinson and Anne Wallace, which gathers together examples of fiction, essays and poetry on the experience and meaning of walking.  It’s a great compendium: rather than being arranged chronologically, the extracts are allowed to strike echoes off each other – Frank O’Hara nudging James Joyce and Elizabeth Bishop; Robert Frost strides alongside Wendell Berry and Walt Whitman; and Charles Dickens, John Clare and Matsuo Basho stroll along together.

What the latter book brings home is the degree to which the act of walking has inspired poetry.  Among contemporary poets, the work of Thomas A Clark is almost entirely concerned with, and inspired by, the thoughts and sensations arising from a walker’s encounter with the natural world.  His prose-poem ‘In Praise of Walking’, published in a little volume entitled Distance and Proximity begins with this walking manifesto:

Early one morning, any morning, we can set out, with the least possible baggage, and discover the world.

It is quite possible to refuse all the coercion, violence, property, triviality, to simply walk away.

That something exists outside ourselves and our preoccupations, so near, so readily available, is our greatest blessing.

Walking is the human way of getting about.

Always, everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with paths, visible and invisible, symmetrical and meandering.

Clark’s poem is cited by Robert Macfarlane in the opening paragraph of The Old Ways:

Humans are animals and like all animals we leave tracks as we walk: signs of passage made in snow, sand, mud, grass, dew, earth or moss. The language of hunting has a luminous word for such mark-making: ‘foil’. A creature’s ‘foil’ is its track. We easily forget that we are track-makers, though, because most of our journeys now occur on asphalt and concrete – and these are substances not easily impressed.

‘Always, everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with paths visible and invisible, symmetrical or meandering,’ writes Thomas Clark in his enduring prose-poem ‘In Praise of Walking’. It’s true that, once you begin to notice them, you see that the landscape is still webbed with paths and footways – shadowing the modern-day road network, or meeting it at a slant or perpendicular. Pilgrim paths, green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, sarns, snickets – say the names of paths out loud and at speed and they become a poem or rite – holloways, bostles, shutes, driftways, lichways, ridings, halterpaths, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths.

Many regions still have their old ways, connecting place to place, leading over passes or round mountains, to church or chapel, river or sea. …

Pathways by Nicholas Rudd-Jones and David Stewart (Guardian Books) is a book that provides answers to those questions about the origins of the pathways that weave their way across Britain’s landscape. It explores and documents twenty different kinds of route trodden by man or horse which now form the footpaths and trails followed for leisure.  Rudd-Jones and Stewart explain the histories of routes used for the transport of goods (ridgeways, packhorse trails, drovers’ roads, miners’ tracks and smugglers’ trails), pathways created to facilitate the exercise of power or define boundaries (Roman roads, dykes and Monks’ trods), and paths with a distinct spiritual dimension (processional ways and pilgrimage routes). They trace the course of  corpse roads, canal towpaths, seaside promenades, long distance footpaths and leisure trails, urban pedestrian ways, and municipal parks.

Each chapter provides a historical account of the origins and use of a particular kind of pathway, followed by the description of an example and an account of a walk along it undertaken by one of the authors.  Maps of these walks are included, but the size and weight of the book mean that it could not be carried on a walk.  However, the book has been published in collaboration with the walking world website, where maps of all the walks featured in the book, plus a huge range of other walks,  are free to download once you join by paying an annual subscription, currently £18. (There is a similar site – walkingbritain.co.uk – that is free, though the maps of the walks are useless).

Pathways is a beautifully produced book, lavishly illustrated with photographs, each chapter providing a succinct but informative history of one kind of trail that has left an imprint on the landscape.  The book leaves you more knowledgeable and with a deeper understanding of how these tracks across the terrain were created.  If you want to know more, each chapter has a useful guide to further reading.

Wanderlust: A History of Walking  is by San Francisco writer Rebecca Solnit and environmental activist who is the  author of books about art, ecology, politics, hope, meandering, memory and getting lost.  She is a cultural commentator and historian who respects no boundaries in the sources upon which she draws, meandering through disciplines as if the act of writing were an assertion of the right to roam.  She acknowledges her eclecticism at the outset of the journey:

This history of walking is an amateur history, just as walking is an amateur act. To use a walking metaphor, it trespasses through everybody else’s field—through anatomy, anthropology, architecture, gardening, geography, political and cultural history, literature, sexuality, religious studies—and doesn’t stop in any of them on its long route. For if a field of expertise can be imagined as a real field—a nice rectangular confine carefully tilled and yielding a specific crop—then the subject of walking resembles walking itself in its lack of confines.

Solnit begins with a chapter on ‘The Mind at Three Miles an Hour’ in which she explores the connection between walking and thinking, beginning with the Athenian philosophers — although no one really knows whether they walked to think — and moves on through Jean Jacques Rousseau, Kierkegaard and Wordsworth, who collectively promulgated the romantic idea of solitary rambling as a contemplative exercise.

There follows a diversion to ponder the significance of the Rubicon crossed by evolving hominids when they stood upright and began walking. Although human beings are usually viewed as unique in terms of consciousness, Solnit points out that it’s our bipedalism that makes us stand out:

the human body is …unlike anything else on earth and in some ways has shaped that consciousness.  The animal kingdom has nothing else like this column of flesh and bone always in danger of toppling, this proud and unsteady tower. … Even standing still is a feat of balance, as anyone who watched or been a drunk knows.

If walking came from evolution and necessity, Solnit says, it then went everywhere, usually looking for something.  With this observation she sets out on a quest to understand pilgrimage – one of the basic modes of walking ‘in search of something intangible’.  She follows a pilgrim route in New Mexico, musing as she goes on the essence of pilgrimage: the idea that there is a geography of spiritual power, that the search for spirituality can be pursued in the most material terms, through arduous physical exertion, toiling along a road towards some distant salvation. Pilgrimages allow people to bodily enter a story (most obviously as in the stations of the cross).  A path, Solnit suggests, is a prior interpretation of the best way to traverse a landscape, and to follow a pilgrimage is to accept an interpretation, to reiterate something deep, and think the same thoughts.

The activist in Solnit leads her to explore the idea that in the last 50 years or so pilgrimages have evolved into secular assertions of political and economic values.  She cites many modern variants that reflect a shift from appealing for divine intervention to demanding political change, such as the annual peace walk from Las Vegas to the Nevada Test site.

But Solnit pushes the analogy further, noting how, in actions like the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, the collective walk unites the iconography of the pilgrimage with that of the trade union march, appealing to the public rather than spiritual powers.  She traces the line of descent, from Gandhi’s Salt March in 1930 to Martin Luther King and the civil rights marches.  ‘Inspired walking’, she calls it, epitomised for her in Matt Heron’s photo of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march (below):

He must have lain low to take it, for it raises its subjects up high against a pale, clouded sky.  They seem to know they are walking towards transformation and into history, and their wide steps, upraised hands, the confidence of their posture, express the will with which they go to meet it.

Solnit also one of the strangest of secular pilgrimages – that of the film director Werner Herzog who at the end of November 1975, hearing that his friend, the film historian Lotte Eisner, was seriously ill and close to death, set off to walk several hundred miles from Munich to her hospital in Paris.  By enduring the pains and hardship of terrible winter weather he thought would avert her death:

I said that this must not be, not at this time, German cinema could not do without her now, we would not permit her death.  I took a jacket, a compass and a duffel bag with the necessities.  My boots were so solid and new that I had confidence in them.  I set off … in full faith, believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot.

[Diverting from the main track for a moment: I recently acquired as a very welcome birthday gift a copy of Herzog’s rare and difficult to obtain book.  First editions in English are priceless – this was a Canadian limited edition reprint of 2009. It’s a shorter read than Herzog’s walk – no more than 60 pages, almost the entire text of entries made in a notebook as he walked.  It’s quintessential Herzog – a stream of consciousness account of the hardships of the walk (those new boots – blisters, aching swollen legs, cold, and constant soakings due to inadequate clothing), the terrain, the people he encounters along the way, and the thoughts running through his mind. You can almost hear that inimitable Bavarian-accented English as you read.

There are constant flashes of Herzog the German romantic. On his second morning on the road he writes:

What a sunrise behind me.  The clouds had split open a crack; yes, a sun like that rises bloodied on the day of Battle.  Meagre, leafless poplars, a raven flying through missing a quarter of his wing, which means rain. … The village is dead silent, telling of deeds done from which it refuses to wake.

The Herzog who, when twelve and told to sing in front of his class at school, adamantly refused and was almost expelled for it, the Herzog who stole a film camera in order to make his first feature and later said ‘I don’t consider it theft – it was just a necessity’ – that Herzog is present in these pages.  He shows no compunction about breaking into barns or empty holiday homes for the night:

Beyond Volertsheim spent the night in a barn; all around there was nothing else.  What a night.  The storm raged so that the whole shake, which was solidly built, began to shake. Rain and snow came sprinkling in from the rooftop and I buried myself in the straw.  Once I awoke with an animal sleeping on my legs.

This is not an heroic account of a trek (in the manner, say, of a Macfarlane).  Along with his physical discomforts, Herzog’s words evoke the psychological disturbances and the intense loneliness that he experiences:

No one, not a soul, intimidating stillness. … I can see sheets of rain, and the annunciation of the end of the world is glowing on the horizon, glimmering there. … The universe is filled with Nothing, it is the Yawning Black Void.  Systems of Milky Ways have condensed into un-stars.  Utter blissfulness is spreading and out of blissfulness now springs the Absurdity.  This is the situation.  A dense cloud of flies and a plague of horseflies swirls around my head, so I’m forced to flail about with my arms, yet they pursue me bloodthirstily nevertheless.  How can I go shopping?  They’ll throw me out of the supermarket, along with the insect plague swarming around my head.  A flash of lightning bolts across the orange-black sky far below me, striking Francis the Miller, of all people, dead. … Is the Loneliness good?  Yes, it is.  There are only dramatic vistas ahead.  The festering Rankness, meanwhile, gathers once again at the sea.

Some three weeks after setting off, Herzog arrives in Paris.  In her hospital bed, he finds Lotte Eisner alive, though tired and marked by her illness (she lived for another nine years).  She smiles, and Herzog says, ‘Open the window.  From these last days onward I can fly’]

Returning to Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust:  she continues with an exploration of the idea of life as a journey – ‘a pilgrim’s progress across the landscape of personal history’ – delves into the meaning of labyrinths, and considers the place of promenades and the aristocratic garden walk.  She follows the trail of walking in literature in the footsteps of Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Henry Thoreau and John Muir, and evaluates the literature of the long-distance walk (citing, amongst others, one of my own favourites: Alan Booth’s account of walking the length of Japan in the mid-1970s in Roads to Sata: A Two Thousand Mile Walk Through Japan.

There are chapters on mountaineering, walking clubs like the Sierra Club, an public access to the land through the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932 (an excellent account). Then Solnit turns her attention to urban walking, illustrated by ambles through London (in the company of De Quincey, Dickens and Virginia Woolf), New York (with Whitman, Ginsberg and O’Hara) and Paris. Inspired by Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt, she ‘ran away to Paris’ in the 1970s when the city was still a ‘walker’s paradise’.  She inhabited the city like Arendt, ‘ strolling through it without aim or purpose, with one’s stay secured by the countless cafes which line the streets’.  She returned recently to find Paris ruinously changed by cars.

As well as the writers, Solnit also casts her eye over the artists who have walked and incorporated the experience into their art.  In particular, she considers the work of Richard Long, the contemporary artist most dedicated to exploring walking as an artistic medium.  She traces the way his work – from Line Made By Walking in 1967 –  aims to capture the way a walk can inspire and live on in the imagination: in Long’s own words, ‘a walk expresses space and freedom and the knowledge of it can live in the imagination of anyone, and that is another space too’.  Attesting to his significance, another ‘walked’ work  by Richard Long adorns the cover of Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways.

Richard Long: Line Made by Walking, 1967

In ‘Walking after Midnight’, Solnit explores the history of women walking the streets.  She notes that men have usually had an easier time walking down the street than have women:  ‘women have routinely been punished and intimidated for attempting that most simple of freedoms, taking a walk’. Solnit charts the threat of violence and harassment often faced by women exercising their right to walk in public spaces, and attitudes to prostitution – the oldest form of street walking.

Freedom to walk is, however, not much use without somewhere to go: with this statement of the obvious Solnit introduces a fascinating chapter on the ‘suburbanization’ of the American psyche, the way in which modern American suburbs have been built exclusively for the car, without sidewalks and in every respect hostile to the person intent on getting around on foot.  Bizarrely, she notes that as Americans – and residents of the developed world generally – have abandoned walking, so they have become addicted to the treadmill in the gym. On the treadmill a key element of walking, space – in the form of landscape, spectacle, terrain, experience – has vanished.

In The Green Road Into The Trees, Hugh Thomson describes walking the Icknield Way, probably the oldest pathway in Britain, from the Dorset coast to the Wash.  It’s a route also followed by Robert Macfarlane in The Old Ways and both were inspired in part by Edward Thomas’s account of walking the Way, Thomas figuring in both accounts. But though their paths and interests overlap, the sensibilities of these writers are attuned to different wavelengths. There isn’t, for example, an index entry for ‘pies’ in Macfarlane’s book: there are six in Thomson’s, and he doesn’t shirk the fact that his walk is an expedition from one great meat pie to the next.

Thomson is a travel writer, film-maker and inveterate wanderer: at the start of the book, he’s just returned from Peru. It is the rather weird strangeness of some sort of celebration in his local town that persuades him to set about exploring his own ‘complicated and intriguing’ country.

Needing a strong coffee and with no food in the house, I cycled to the local market town. The sound of Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ being pumped out by a brass band could be heard for some way before I arrived. A celebration was in full swing. Red and white bunting hung from the church, matched by the small flags the children were waving and by the icing on the teacakes sold in the market place; near by was a puppet stall where Punch was setting about Judy with ferocity. The children watching had their faces painted to look like lions or tigers.

Tattoos snaked out of the busts and jeans of the farmers’ wives queuing at the ice-cream van, which had been painted in neon orange with a ‘chill-out’ logo, and was dispensing Skyrockets, Mr Magics, Daddy Cools and Blackcurrant Peep-Ups. A quiff-haired teenager ostentatiously did a wheelie right across the Market Square on his bicycle pimped up with double shocks and chunky chrome spokes. Oblivious to the fairground stalls and the noise, an elegantly overdressed older lady with sunglasses, light wool coat and malacca cane was stooping against the spring breeze, leaning into it.

The band had finished ‘Dancing Queen’ and were now playing a more stately jig. I noticed not so much the music as their hats: a pink stetson playing the guitar, a bowler manning the cello, a Pete Doherty-style pork-pie perched on the lead guitarist and there, on the drummers head, an unmistakable panama, just as I had seen and bought at a small market on the Ecuadorian coast only weeks before.

England has become a complicated and intriguing country. In truth it’s always been one, but perhaps I’m just noticing it more now. The familiar is looks very strange. … I am seized with a sudden desire to explore England.

Thomson is very good at bringing to life, light-heartedly and with good humour, the characters he meets along the way.  Take this encounter, for example:

In Peru I usually travelled with a mule –so that it could carry my kit as well as be company of a limited sort, but that wasn’t so feasible in southern England.

I had toyed with the idea of taking a dog along with me for the journey. Not that I’ve got one. But occasionally I had walked my neighbours’ sleek and beautiful rottweiler when at the barn. And my sister’s family had a parson’s terrier. Both were fine dogs. John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, when he crossed the States with his large poodle, was one of my favourite books and an inspiration for this journey; I grew up to John Noakes’s television programmes about walking the Cornish coast path with his border collie, Shep. And I was aware, not least because my children kept telling me, that a book with a dog in it would be commercially attractive.

But there were disadvantages. For a start, both candidate dogs had names I didn’t feel like shouting out across a crowded field of walkers: the rottweiler was called Portia (like naming a gladiator Phyllis); the terrier, even more improbably, was called Spartacus. More seriously, the way I was walking would not work with a dog – too many impromptu stops and starts and stays with friends. I met a lot of dogs along the way anyway – particularly at Iron Age hill-forts, where dog walkers were often the only other visitors. It made for a perfect constitutional circuit:  once round the earthworks of a fort and no need to scoop.

I was able to borrow a dog of my own just for a day though, as I passed Watlington, where my sister lived. Spartacus could come with me.

‘You can let him off the lead,’ said Alex, my brother-in-law, an incurable optimist, ‘but he may not stay with you.’

Within the next hour I had dragged Spartacus out of willow ponds, hedges and just about any cover that conceivably contained a rabbit. Dog-walking was the modern equivalent of medieval  falconry – it required the owner to be led into unknown territory that they would otherwise not investigate. This was fine if it was a local landscape that you were happy to explore; not if you had a whole country waiting for you to cross.

I sat down on a bench outside a pub when I got to the next village along the Icknield Way, Chinnor, exhausted by having detoured past so many rabbit burrows. A man joined me and we got talking, mainly about Spartacus, as an easy and obvious point of conversation. It took all of a minute before he made the usual joke about ‘I am Spartacus’.  I guessed he was about thirty-five, dressed eccentrically for the country, in pale tracksuit and trainers – more an urban look – and with an iPod looped to ostentatiously large and white Sennheiser headphones.  He was very tanned. He said he had just been on holiday to Tunisia, where the clubbing was better than Ibiza.

I explained that the dog wasn’t mine and that my travelling lifestyle made it difficult for me to have one. He was sympathetic.

‘I know what you mean. And to be honest, I always think, “who needs a pet when you’ve already got a penis to look after.” ’

It was unanswerable.

But it would be wrong to characterize this as simply a light-hearted read.  Thomson sees the England of the rural south through which he travels (so different to the England with which I am familiar) through eyes that are a bit rock and roll, a tad hippie radical. Indeed, if you read this book, please do not overlook the hilarious appendix, in which the Random House editor lists at length the various individuals and categories of people whom , he alleges, Thomson manages to insult (I don’t know whether this is genuine or not, but it’s a hoot).

More than this, though: Thomson brings erudition to his account.  Travelling along the Icknield Way, Thomson passes the great prehistoric monuments of Maiden Castle, Stonehenge and Avebury, before ending at the Wash near Seahenge. Thomson knows his history, is familiar with the latest archaeological evidence and the most recent scholarly conclusions.  He succeeds in digesting the scholarly sources to provide an informative and entertaining  guide to the context and origin of Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman, Anglo-Saxon (and more recent) structures along the route.

Recently I listened to the edition of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time on the Druids, in which, as usual, a group of top-rank academics discussed their area of expertise. After the programme, I went back to the book to check how Thomson’s account of the Druids and Stonehenge stacked up.  It is on the nose:

They have already started to arrive for the solstice, although there  are still some days before it is due.  Among  them  are  the Druids who lead the solstice celebrations. While New Age travellers fondly like to imagine that they are re-enacting Druid ceremonies at a Druid site, this is historically incorrect. The stones were erected many thousands of years before the Celtic prophet-priests became active around 500 BC. While perfectly possible that the Druids may have been drawn to the stones, they would have done so much in the same way as today’s New Age travellers – as pilgrims hoping to tap into the spiritual energy of their forebears.

I see the travellers’ vans lurking in lay-bys and along some of the sandy tracks that lead off the busy roads besieging Stonehenge in a pincer of tarmac: the A3o3 and A344 thunder by unbelievably close, the latter almost clipping one of the outer megaliths, the thirty-five-ton ‘Heelstone’. An unattractive wire fence separates the stones from the cars that stream past.

For Stonehenge represents all that is best and worst about England.  There is the sheer imaginative leap of the decision, whether taken in a day or over several generations, to turn a ring of wooden posts into a circle of gigantic sarsen stones with – the literally crowning glory – stone lintels notched and raised onto them: a triumph of spirituality, of engineering, of ingenuity and of the sheer bloody-mindedness that has distinguished much later English history.

This passage epitomises Thomson’s approach: accurate history, folded lightly into a sometimes humourous account of middle England now, spiced with political savvy and a sprinkling of righteous indignation over things being done to the countryside and aspects of the way we live now.

Next: Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places and The Old Ways

See also

Walking on Mull: the rocks and white sands of Ardalanish

Walking on Mull: the rocks and white sands of Ardalanish

We’re back from a short break of four nights on the island of Mull.  After a poor summer in England, it felt good to be leaving the city for a landscape of open sky and sweeping shoreline.  I’ve been reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, in which he describes the feeling perfectly:

Anyone who lives in a city will know the feeling of having been there too long.  The gorge-vision that streets imprint on us, the sense of blockage, the longing for surfaces other than glass, brick, concrete and tarmac.

The sun shone all the way from Liverpool to the Scottish borders, but then rain set in, getting heavier as we pushed north, skirting the Trossachs and Stirling before swinging west to Oban and the ferry.  By the time we landed at Craignure, the rain was incessant and, though we had a vague sense of passing through wild landscape as we drove across the island to our accommodation on the shore of Loch Scridain in the village of Pennyghael, low cloud and driving rain meant we could only guess at what was out there.

It was dry and the clouds were lifting when we set off the following morning, following the road from Bunessan to the tiny settlement of Ardalanish where we parked the car to follow the trail down to Ardalanish beach, a deserted sweep of white sand extending across a large bay.  Before it reaches the beach, the track crosses machair – one of the rarest coastal grassland habitats in Europe, found only in north and west Scotland and western Ireland.  It occurs where shell sand has been blown inland from beaches and dunes and has mixed with the soil to form rich grasslands, creating spectacular displays of spring flowers and providing an environment that supports populations of breeding birds.

on a clear day
unfasten the gate
and take the path
over the machair
through the orchids
down to the sea

– Thomas A Clark, The Path to the Sea

The beach has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, both for the machair and for the interesting rock formations that make this beach popular with geologists. The rocks around Ardalanish are Precambrian, formed  800-1000 million years ago. A rocky knoll above the beach is full of unusual minerals like kyanite, tourmaline and andalusite. As the sun broke through, the mica in the sand glittered.

There’s an awful lot of geology left lying around in Scotland, and this place is no exception.  Ardalanish bay is the where the Ross of Mull granites meet an area of schist to the east.  The Ross of Mull granites have been quarried extensively in the past, the stone used for bridges, docks, lighthouses and other buildings throughout the world, such as, I was intrigued to discover, Liverpool docks and Manchester Town Hall.

The rock outcrops on the beach feature some intense folding and juxtapositions, making apparent why geologists love Mull.   The rocks here have a long and interesting history (the oldest rocks are about 2000 million years old), and there are unique structures and rocks found nowhere else in the world.  Mull is constructed rather like a multi-tiered wedding cake. Thick layers of basalt lava sit on top of a complicated layers of much older rocks which outcrop around the coastline of Mull.

Mull has not always been in its present position and form. Over geological time it has undergone enormous changes. Mull’s oldest rocks were formed in the southern hemisphere before Mull, like the British Isles as a whole, gradually drifted northwards. The rocks preserve details of the climatic zones passed through on that northward journey.

Most of Mull is made of lava poured out of volcanos when the North Atlantic was forming and Mull was torn apart from  Greenland. The molten lava which erupted from about 60 to 50 million years ago forms Mull’s stepped tablelands. Into these, at a later stage, intrusions of other igneous rocks took place, forming the central mountains of the island. Finally, huge glaciers which only melted away from Mull 10,000 years ago left deep ‘U’ shaped valleys between the mountains and long glaciated lochs.

There’s a human presence here, too.  Around the bay are several Bronze Age burial cists and the remains of an Iron Age dun or fort overlook the west shore. By the track down to the beach there are the ruins of old crofts, a reminder that this area once supported a much larger population than today.  There are many isolated ruins and evidence of demolished houses along this stretch of the coast, the remains of a community devastated by the potato famine of the 1840s and the policy of the landowner, the Duke of Argyll, to clear the land for sheep.

Down on the beach we saw Gannets and Oystercatchers. In spring, Ringed Plovers breed here, and if walking on the beach in spring, you need to be careful not to step on a nest – the adults will sit quite still and well camouflaged.  Walking back from the beach we heard the mewling of a Curlew and stood and watched a flock of Wheatears, their name  nothing to do with wheat or ears, but an old linguistic corruption of  ‘white’ and ‘arse’, referring to their prominent white rears.

to the north the land hardens
it meets and challenges the eye
sandstone, gneiss, quartzite
windswept and empty

a desert of wide skies
rock and water, a sparse cover
of purple moor grass, deer sedge
the light-loving dwarf juniper

rock cascades or stands
eroded by light
in a motionless pouring
insistent and remote

birch, pine and rowan
huddle in ravines
a stonechat drops
its note among stones

the distances are lonely
silence is immediate
immediately lonely
the rough bounds are desolate

you flinch away from it
yet each drop of rain
on your face or your arm
is a point of return

wind combs the heather
it puts an edge on stone
you splash through melt water
shaking the bog cotton

that you may not only
see but feel
the wind pushes against you
abrupt silences fill

settlement is on the edge
of this emptiness
survival is accepting
the wind’s caress

the harled dwellings
sit facing the shore
a gentleness of sheep-bitten turf
comes to the door

rusting cars and machinery
rhyme with crottle on the rocks
strewn about in the moment
in a reek of peat smoke

bright talk after winter darkness
is not more welcome
than a lull in the wind
coming home to your own form

time no longer matters
buttercup and ox-eye daisy
iris, foxglove, clover
sweeten the tang of the sea

the seal in the cold water
rises to a clarity
or curiosity, a lapping
of silver, a lapping of grey

mountain line and shoreline
carry the melody
butterwort and milkwort
invite you to delay

a lochan in a dark corrie
a sandpiper’s lonely piping
they give their distances
into your keeping

– Thomas A Clark, ‘Forest Without Trees’

Holloway: beyond curbed ways and tarred roads

Holloway:  beyond curbed ways and tarred roads

There is always something stimulating to be found on the Caught By The River blog.  Today there is a post about a new book, Holloway, a collaboration between writer Robert MacFarlane and artist Stanley Donwood. The first things that caught my eye were the beautiful etchings by Stanley Donwood that illustrate the book, such as the one above. MacFarlane explains to Caught by the River how the book came about:

Eight years ago this July, I drove down to Dorset with my friend Roger Deakin, to explore the holloways of the area around Chideock. Holloways – the word comes from the Anglo-Saxon hol weg, hollow way – are paths that, over centuries of use, have sunk down into the landscape through which they run, worn into the earth by footfall, wheel-roll and rain-rush. Some of them are twenty feet deep and steep-sided: more ravine than road. Many have been overgrown by the trees that border them, so that they’ve become green-roofed tunnels. They’re too deep to fill in and farm, and often too narrow to take vehicles, so holloways are often wild places: filled with brambles, nettles, ferns, bees, badgers, ivy and history.

Roger and I spent hot summer days exploring the holloways, tracing out their routes and their histories, camping in the flower meadows that bordered them, lighting fires after dusk, keeping an eye out for farmers. We became fascinated by how strangely time seemed to behave in those ancient routes; the strange pleatings and repeatings of history they seemed to inspire, the ghosts they kept. We both ended up writing about those days and those holloways: me in a book called The Wild Places, and Roger in his wonderfulNotes From Walnut Tree Farm, which was only published posthumously – for within two years of our trip Roger had died of a brain tumour, long before his time. […]

In the autumn of 2011, I returned to the south Dorset holloways, this time in the company of two artist-writers, Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards. You’ll know Stanley’s extraordinary work, even if you think you don’t: he’s famous for many things, but is probably most renowned as the artist and designer of Radiohead’s albums and artwork.[…]

A collaboration was proposed, slowly took form: we would make a small, strange, beautiful book about the holloways. A book about those old ways, printed in the old ways: with lead type, set by hand, written by me and Dan, designed and illustrated by Stanley. … By the time we returned from Dorset, the holloway had lodged itself deeply in Stanley’s mind. He spent months drawing, etching and engraving versions of it. A 24-carat gold, with a figure seen indistinctly at its end. An ink drawing with three thousand or more pen-strokes.

The resulting book, Holloway, is limited to 277 copies, for the height of Pilsdon Pen – the high ground on which the journey began – is 277 metres above sea-level. Each copy costs £27.70.

Hol weg.

A sunken lane (hollow way or holloway) is a road which has over time sunk significantly lower than the land on either side, the result of erosion by water, footfalls and wheel tracks. In Anglo Saxon charters they were recorded as hola weg (hollow path). They were essential lifelines to our forbears, who walked, with their animals or the produce of their labours, around and between their own and neighbouring villages. Holloways were discussed in Oliver Rackham’s book A History of the Countryside (1986):

An expatriate in a new country, where the roads roll out prosaically over the ground surface, misses especially the holloways of the English landscape – the lanes mysteriously sunk in deep ravines which protect them from sun and the blasts of winter, lined with great trees whose roots overhang far above, their cavernous shade the home of delicate plants like hart’s tongue fern, shining cranesbill and moschatel. Holloways … have [existed] for more than a thousand years.

Holloways were subject to floods and snowdrifts and could be left impassable, isolating the villages they linked for days or weeks, as these entries from the journals of Gilbert White, naturalist and vicar of Selborne in Hampshire in the last two decades of the 18th century record:

September 13th, 1792: The stream at Gracious Street, which fails every dry summer, has run briskly all this year; & now seems to be equal to the current from Well-head. The rocky channel up the hollow-lane towards Rood has also run with water for months: nor has my great water-tub been dry the summer through.

February 26, 1791: Deep snow, which damaged & broke my plum-trees, & hedges. This is much the greatest snow that we have seen this year. Some of the deep lanes are hardly passable.

December 30, 1787: Some of our hollow lanes are not passable.

December 23, 1784: Many labourers are employed in shoveling the snow, & opening the hollow, stony lane, that leads to the forest. Snow frozen so as almost to bear.

April 2, 1784: No snow ’till we came to Guild-down; deep snow on that ridge! Much snow at Selborne in the fields: the hill deep in snow! The country looks most dismally, like the dead of winter! A few days ago our lanes would scarce have been passable for a chaise.

January 10, 1782: The earth is well-drenched; streams run; & torrents fall from the fields into the hollow lanes.

In his book, The Natural History of Selborne, Gilbert White described the hollow lanes around Selborne:

Among the singularities of this place the two rocky hollow lanes, the one to Alton, and the other to the forest, deserve our attention. These roads, running through the malm lands, are, by the traffic of ages, and the fretting of water, worn down through the first stratum of our freestone, and partly through the second; so that they look more like water- courses than roads; and are bedded with naked rag for furlongs together. In many places they are reduced sixteen or eighteen feet beneath the level of the fields; and after floods, and in frosts, exhibit very grotesque and wild appearances, from the tangled roots that are twisted among the strata, and from the torrents rushing down their broken sides; and especially when those cascades are frozen into icicles, hanging in all the fanciful shapes of frost-work. These rugged gloomy scenes affright the ladies when they peep down into them from the paths above, and make timid horsemen shudder while they ride along them; but delight the naturalist with their various botany, and particularly with their curious filices with which they abound.

In particular, White records the impact of heavy snow falls in January 1776:

January 7th. — Snow driving all the day, which was followed by frost, sleet, and some snow, till the 12th, when a prodigious mass overwhelmed all the works of men, drifting over the tops of the gates and filling the hollow lanes.

On the 14th the writer was obliged to be much abroad; and thinks he never before or since has encountered such rugged Siberian weather. Many of the narrow roads were now filled above the tops of the hedges; through which the snow was driven into most romantic and grotesque shapes, so striking to the imagination as not to be seen without wonder and pleasure.

The poet John Clare lamented the loss of paths and sunken lanes in his poems, for example in this opening passage from ‘Enclosure’:

There once were lanes in nature’s freedom dropt,
There once were paths that every valley wound-
Enclosure came, and every path was stopt;
Each tyrant fixed his sign where paths were found,
To hint a trespass now who crossed the ground:
Justice is made to speak as they command;
The high road now must be each stinted bound:
Enclosure, thou’rt curse upon the land,
And tasteless was the wretch who thy existence planned.

In ‘Summer Moods’ he evoked the sense of enchantment gained from walking down a holloway:

I love at eventide to walk alone
Down narrow lanes o’erhung with dewy thorn
Where from the long grass underneath – the snail
Jet-black creeps out and sprouts his timid horn.
I love to muse o’er meadows newly mown
Where withering grass perfumes the sultry air,
Where bees search round with sad and weary drone
In vain for flowers that bloomed but newly there;
While in the juicy corn the hidden quail
Cries ‘wet my foot’ and hid as thoughts unborn
The fairy like and seldom-seen land-rail
Utters ‘craik craik’ like voices underground,
Right glad to meet the evening’s dewy veil
And see the light fade into glooms around.

On Exmoor, a couple of years ago, near Dunkery Beacon we discovered the holloway featured in these photographs. It ran only for a short distance, but was a place of enchantment: almost entirely enclosed in green and dappled shade with steep banks of bracken and hedgerow flowers on either bank, the interlacing branches of the hedgerow trees entwined above. These lanes are now valuable as mini nature reserves, offering an ideal habitat for small animals and birds and shelter for wild plants displaced from surrounding fields.

In today’s Caught By The River blog post, Robert MacFarlane refers to his exploration, eight years ago, of the holloways of the area around Chideock in Dorset with his friend Roger Deakin.  He wrote an extended essay, Going to Ground: Britain’s Holloways, on that experience that was published in the American environmental magazine Orion in June 2008:

Holloways: from the Anglo-Saxon hola weg, meaning a “harrowed path,” a “sunken road.” A route that centuries of use have eroded down into the bedrock, so that it is recessed beneath the level of the surrounding landscape. Most holloways will have started out as drove roads, paths to market. Some as Saxon or pre-Saxon boundary ditches. And some, like the one near Bury St. Edmunds, as pilgrim paths.

The oldest holloways date back to the early Iron Age. None is younger than three hundred years old. Over the course of centuries, the passage of cart wheels, hooves, and feet wore away at the floor of these roads, grooving ruts into the exposed stone. As the roads deepened, they became natural waterways. Rain drained into and down them; storms turned them into temporary rivers, sluicing away the loose rock debris and cutting the roads still further below the meadows and the fields.

Holloways do not exist in the unyielding rock regions of the British archipelago, where the roads and paths stay high, riding the hard surface of the ground. But in the soft stone counties of southern England—in the chalk of Kent, Wiltshire, and East Anglia, in the yellow sandstone of Dorset and Somerset, in the greensand of Surrey, and in the malmstone of Hampshire and Sussex—many holloways are to be found, some of them twenty feet deep: more ravine than road. They go by different names in different regions—bostels, grundles, shutes—but they are most usually known as holloways.

Trodden by innumerable feet, cut by innumerable wheels, they are the records of journeys to market, to worship, to sea. Like creases in the hand, or the wear on the stone sill of a doorstep or stair, they are the consequence of tradition, of repeated action. Like old trees—the details of whose spiraling and kinked branches indicate the wind history of a region, and whose growth rings record each year’s richness or poverty of sun—they archive the past customs of a place.

Gilbert White, in his Natural History of Selborne (1788), made a typically attentive study of the holloways in his Hampshire parish. “Two rocky hollow lanes,” he recorded, ran through the parish, “the one to Alton, and the other to the forest.”

In many places they are reduced sixteen or eighteen feet beneath the level of the fields; and after floods, and in frosts, exhibit very grotesque and wild appearances, from the tangled roots that are twisted among the strata, and from the torrents rushing down their broken sides . . . These rugged gloomy scenes affright the ladies when they peep down into them from the paths above, and make timid horsemen shudder while they ride along them.

To enter these holloways, White said, was to access a world of deep history, an unexpectedly wild world, buried amid the familiar and close-at-hand. He visited his holloways in different weathers, to see how their moods altered with the changing climate. During the fiercely cold January of 1768, when the temperature in Selborne dropped to -34 degrees Celsius, and the leaves of laurel bushes were scorched brown by the cold, and when the snow fell thickly enough to fill the holloways, White observed how it there became sculpted by the wind into shapes “so striking to the imagination, as not to be seen without wonder and pleasure.” When the sun shone that winter, reflected sunlight from the snow was bright enough to dazzle animals and birds. Poultry sat in their roosts all day long, stupefied into inaction by the land’s luster.

Few holloways are in use now: they are too narrow and too slow to suit modern travel. But they are also too deep to be filled in and farmed over. So it is that, set about by some of the most intensively farmed countryside in the world, the holloways have come to constitute a sunken labyrinth of wildness in the heart of arable England. Most have thrown up their own defenses, becoming so overgrown by nettles and briars that they are unwalkable, and have gone unexplored for decades. On their steep damp sides ferns and trailing plants flourish—bright bursts of cranesbill or hart’s tongue, spilling out of and over the exposed network of tree roots that supports the walls.

Dorset is rich in holloways: they seam the landscape cardinally, leaving the coast and moving northward, uphill and inland, cutting into the Jurassic Lias, the Permian sandstones and mudstones, the oolites and the chalks of the region. Along these routes dray horses, carts, and carriages would have moved to and from the harbors and bays, supplying and evacuating the incoming ships.

My friend Roger Deakin had been tipped off by a friend of a friend about an especially deep and forgotten holloway near the village of North Chideock, which lies in a small lush valley, cupped by a half-moon of low green rabbit-cropped hills, the horns of which rest upon the sea. There could have been no one better with whom to discuss wildness. An original member of Friends of the Earth UK, he had been fascinated by nature and landscape all his life, a fascination that had culminated in the late 1990s, when he set out on a journey to swim through Britain. Over several months, Roger swam in dozens of the rivers, lakes, llyns, locks, streams, and seas of England, Wales, and Scotland. His aim was to acquire a “frog’s-eye view” of the country. The book he wrote describing his journey, Waterlog, is a funny, lyrical travelogue that was at once a defense of the wild water that was left and an elegy for that which had gone.

So on a hot July day, Roger and I set off for Dorset to see if we could find wildness amid the dairy farms. We got lost several times on the way. When he was unsure of the correct exit to take on a roundabout, which was nearly always, Roger tended to slow almost to a halt and squint up at the exit signs, while I assumed the crash position in the passenger seat.

We reached Chideock—a one-song drive west of Bridport—in the early afternoon, left the car, and began walking up along the village’s main road, keeping where we could to the shade cast by the big green-gold laurel bushes that lapped at the road. The sun roared soundlessly in a blue sky. Hot light glared off every leaf and surface. Dust puffed up from the road wherever we stepped. There was the smell of charred stone.

The path that Roger and I followed up into the hills was itself the beginnings of a holloway, cut down ten feet or more into the caramel sandstone of the area. Though no traffic other than walkers now passed this way, the road was still being deepened by water. Heavy rain had fallen the previous week, and the holloway floor bore evidence of the water rush that must have flooded it. Leaf and branch jetsam was tangled around tree roots, and here and there patches of smooth surface stone had been rinsed clean and exposed to the air, so that they lay glowing in their first sunlight in nearly 200 million years.

At some point in the history of the road, hedging trees had been planted to either side of it, partly to make wayfinding easier in poor weather, and partly to provide shelter from the winds and sea storms that beat in off the English Channel. Over centuries, these hedges had grown, died, reseeded, and grown again, and now, unchecked, they had thrust up and out and over the holloway.

One thinks of hedges as nothing more than bristly partitions—field Mohicans. But these hedges had become linear forests, leaning into one another and meshing above the old sunken road to form an interlocking canopy or roof, turning road into tunnel.

Near the summit of the western horn of the half-moon of hills, the road became so overgrown that we had to leave it. We scrambled up its steep eastern side and into the pollinous air of the flower meadow that bordered it. I looked back over my shoulder to where the sea lay blue. The heat bred mirages out over the water—false promises of islands and mountain ranges. A few hundred yards farther along, in a gap in the hedge by a towering ash tree, we found a way back into the holloway, and descended into its shadowy depth, abseiling down the sandstone sides using ivy as a rappel rope. It felt as though we were dropping into a lost world.

Time and again, wildness has been declared dead in Britain and Ireland. “Two great wars demanded and bequeathed regimentation,” wrote E. M. Forster in 1964, “science lent her aid, and the wildness of these islands, never extensive, was stamped upon and built over and patrolled in no time. There is no forest or fell to escape to today, no cave in which to curl up, no deserted valley.” For Jonathan Raban the extinction of the wild happened far earlier: by the 1860s Britain was “so thickly peopled, so intensively farmed, so industrialized, so citified, that there was nowhere to go to be truly alone, or to have . . . adventures, except to sea.” John Fowles, writing in 1985, was grimly adamant: “We are now, in hard fact, on the bleak threshold of losing much of the old landscape. We have done unimaginably terrible things to our countrysides. It is only here and there along our coasts and on the really high hills and mountains that the ancient richness of natural life is not yet in danger.” Five years later, the American author William Least Heat-Moon described Britain as “a tidy garden of a toy realm where there’s almost no real wilderness left and absolutely no memory of it.” Repeatedly, the same lament, or the same contempt.

An abundance of hard evidence exists to support these obituaries for the wild. Over the last century in particular, disaster has fallen upon the land and the seas of Britain and Ireland. The statistics of damage are familiar and often repeated, more as elegy now than as protest. In England, between 1930 and 1990, over half of the ancient woodland was cleared or replaced with conifer plantation. Half of the hedgerow mileage was grubbed up. Nearly all lowland pasture was plowed out, built on, or tarmacked over. Three-quarters of heathland was converted into farmland or developed. Across Britain and Ireland, rare limestone pavements were cracked up and sold as rockery stones, peat bogs millennia in the making were drained or excavated. Dozens of species vanished, with hundreds more being brought to the point of crisis.

In Britain, over 61 million people now live on 150,000 square miles of land. Remoteness has been almost abolished, and the main agents of that abolition have been the car and the road. Only a small and diminishing proportion of terrain is now more than five miles from a motorable surface. There are nearly 30 million cars in use in Britain, and 210,000 miles of road on the mainland alone. If those roads were to be stretched out and joined into a single continuous carriageway, you could drive on it almost to the moon. The roads have become new mobile civilizations in themselves: during rush hours, the car-borne population across Britain and Ireland is estimated to exceed the resident population of Central London.

The commonest map of Britain is the road atlas. Pick one up, and you see the meshwork of motorways and roads that covers the surface of the country. From such a map, it can appear that the landscape has become so thickly webbed by roads that asphalt and petrol are its new primary elements. An absence also becomes visible: the wild places are no longer marked. The fells, the caves, the tors, the woods, the moors, the river valleys, and the marshes have all but disappeared. If they are shown at all, they appear as background shadings or generic symbols. More often, they have faded out altogether like old ink, become the suppressed memories of a more ancient archipelago.

Certainly, these islands possess wild places on massive scales—the Cairngorm massif is greater in area than Luxembourg, and its weather systems can be polar in their severity. But the idea that a wild place has to be somehow outside history seems improper in an English context. English wildness is there, if carefully looked for, in the bend of a stream valley, in the undercut of a riverbank, in copses and peat hags, hedgerows and quicksand pools. And it is there in the margins, interzones, and rough cusps of the country: quarry rim, derelict factory, and motorway verge. I had not expected to find this.

That margins should be a redoubt of wildness, I know, is proof of the devastation of the land: the extent to which nature has been squeezed to the territory’s edges, repressed almost to extinction. But it seems like proof, as well, of the resilience of the wild—of its instinct for resurgence, its irrepressibility. And a recognition that wildness weaves with the human world, rather than existing only in cleaved-off areas, in national parks, and on distant peninsulas and peaks; maybe such a recognition is what is needed “to help us end the opposition between culture and nature, the garden and the wilderness, and to come to recognize ourselves at last as at home in both,” as American philosopher Val Plumwood has put it.

An artistic tradition has long existed in England concerning the idea of the “unseen landscape,” the small-scale wild place. Artists who have hallowed the detail of landscape and found it hallowing in return, who have found the boundless in the bounded, and seen visions in ditches.

William Blake perceived the world in a grain of sand. John Ruskin was captivated by the growth of lichens and mosses on trunks and rocks. Dorothy Wordsworth kept a series of elegantly attentive journals—the Alfoxden Journal, written when the Wordsworths were living in Somerset in 1797–1798, and the Grasmere Journal, kept at Dove Cottage from 1800 to 1803, whose precision of observation supports William Wordsworth’s allusion in “Tintern Abbey” to his sister’s “wild eyes.”

The late-Victorian writer Richard Jefferies spent much of his life studying and describing the rural southern counties of Wiltshire, Sussex, Gloucestershire, and Somerset: counties that were, to Jefferies, teeming with wildness. Jefferies had no interest in the nineteenth-century North American idea of wilderness on a grand scale—a phenomenon to be experienced only amid the red-rock citadels of the desert or the glacier-ground peaks. For Jefferies, wildness of an equal intensity existed in the spinneys and hills of England, and he wrote about those places with the same wonder that his contemporaries were expressing in their reports on the Amazon, the Pacific, the Rockies, and the Rub‘ al-Khali. He found wildness joyful, but also minatory; the vigor of natural wildness was to him a reminder of the fragility of human tenure on the Earth.

Then there was Stephen Graham. Graham, who died in 1975 at the age of ninety, was one of the most famous walkers of his age. He walked across America once, Russia twice, and Britain several times, and his 1926 book The Gentle Art of Tramping was a hymn to the wildness of the British Isles. “One is inclined,” wrote Graham, “to think of England as a network of motor roads interspersed with public houses, placarded by petrol advertisements, and broken by smoky industrial towns.” What he tried to prove in The Gentle Art, however, was that wildness was still ubiquitous.

Graham devoted his life to escaping what he called “the curbed ways and the tarred roads,” and he did so by walking, exploring, swimming, climbing, sleeping out, trespassing, and “vagabonding”—his verb—around the world. He came at landscapes diagonally, always trying to find new ways to move in or through them. “Tramping is a straying from the obvious,” he wrote. “Even the crookedest road is sometimes too straight.”

That July day, as Roger and I dropped into the hazy light of our Chideock holloway, one of Graham’s remarks came back to me. “As you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged by a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens.”

Down in the holloway, the bright hot surface world was forgotten. So close was the latticework of leaves and branches, and so tall the sides of the holloway, that light penetrated its depths only in thin lances. Roger and I moved slowly up the bed of the roadway, forcing a way through the undergrowth, through clumps of chest-high nettles, past big strongholds of bramble, and over hawthorns that had grown together, enmeshing across the roadbed. Occasionally we came to small clearings in the holloway, where light fell and grass grew. From thorn thickets, there was the scuttle of unseen creatures. Any noise we made thudded into the banks and was lost. A person might hide out undetected in such a place for weeks or months, I thought.

Lines of spider’s silk crisscrossed the air in their scores, and light ran like drops of bright liquid down them when we moved. In the windless warm air, groups of black flies bobbed and weaved, each dancing around a fixed point, like vibrating atoms held in a matrix. I had the sense of being in the nave of a church: the joined vaulting of the trees above, the stone sides of the cutting that were cold when I laid a hand against them, the spindles of sunlight, the incantations of the flies.

I would like to see a map that represented the country only according to these old ways, and that was blind to the newer routes, to the roads that take so little notice of the shape of the land through which they pass. These old ways, these trade-worn cantons, tended to work around woodlands, to follow the curve of a valley or the surge of a hill. They existed in compromise with the land through which they passed. Many of them had evolved from footpaths that had, both for ease of movement and ease of orientation, attended to the twisting courses of streams and rivers, or the natural curves of rising and falling land. This relationship of accommodation between way and landform has now been largely abandoned: bypasses and motorways strike through old woodlands and hillsides.

After our first exploration of the main holloway, Roger and I set out on a wider reconnaissance of the area. Back at the old ash tree, using exposed roots for handholds and the ivy again for a rope, we climbed up out of the road and emerged into the lush meadow. After the greeny dusk of the roadbed, the meadow was startlingly bright. The grass blades flashed like steel in the sunshine. We stood blinking, wringing the light from our eyes.

That afternoon, we walked along the curved ridge of the hills that extended east and south of the holloway—Copper Hill, Denhay Hill, Jan’s Hill. Sunlight skidded white off every surface. Everywhere we saw evidence of creatures taking refuge in the soil: mason bees, wasps, and rabbits. Where the sandstone was exposed, it was riddled with burrows of different sizes, with piles of ochreous silt marking the tunneling work. There were networks of burrows through the gorsy undergrowth, too: miniature green holloways, no bigger in cross section than a croquet hoop, which had been made by badgers. Following one such tunnel down into a steep copse, we found a badger metropolis. The animals must have been there for many generations, for the earthworks they had thrown up were substantial and long-term: ramparts, tumuli, barrows. I counted ten separate setts.

Hours later, as the air was hazing up, we returned to our holloway hideout, dropping down by the old ash tree again into the near darkness. We cleared nettles and briars, moved loose trunks to make seats, and then Roger built a fire to cook supper on—a pyramid of small sticks with a hot center of tinder that produced an intense and almost smokeless fire. We ate a spicy tagine that Roger had made in advance and carried up with him. Firelight flickered off the walls of the holloway and on the hedge canopy above us, and set complicated shadows moving in the leaves. As we sat there in the thickening dark, talking, the day seemed to convene itself around the furnace-point of the flames.

Campfires prompt storytelling, and Roger, never slow to start a story, told me how he had once been shot at by a hunter in the Polish woods because the hunter had thought he was a bear. The conclusion of the story, it turned out, was not Roger’s outrage at having been fired on, but his delight at having been mistaken for an animal. Then we each read out bits from a copy of Geoffrey Household’s classic 1939 novel, Rogue Male, in which the hero, pursued by Nazi agents, goes to ground in a Dorset holloway almost identical to our own. “The deep sandstone cutting, its hedges grown together across the top, is still there,” Household had written. “Anyone who wishes can dive under the sentinel thorns at the entrance, and push his way through. . . . But who would wish? Where there is light, the nettles grow as high as a man’s shoulder; where there is not, the lane is choked by dead wood. The interior of the double hedge is of no conceivable use to the two farmers whose boundary fence it is, and nobody but an adventurous child would want to explore it.”

Iin so many landscapes I have explored, I have found testimonies to the affection they inspired. Poems tacked up on the walls of bothies; benches set on lakesides, cliff tops, or low hill passes, commemorating the favorite viewpoint of someone now dead; a graffito cut into the bark of an oak. Once, stooping to drink from a pool near a Cumbrian waterfall, I had seen a brass plaque set discreetly beneath a rock: IN MEMORY OF GEORGE WALKER, WHO SO LOVED THIS PLACE. I loved that “so.”

These are the markers, I realize, of a process that is continuously at work throughout these islands, and presumably throughout the world: the drawing of happiness from landscapes both large and small. Every day, millions of people find themselves deepened and dignified by their encounters with particular places.

Most of these places, however, are not marked as special on any map. They become special by personal acquaintance. A bend in a river, the junction of four fields, a climbing tree, a stretch of old hedgerow, or a fragment of woodland glimpsed from a road regularly driven along—these might be enough. Or fleeting experiences, transitory, but still site-specific: a sparrow hawk sculling low over a garden or street, or the fall of evening light on a stone, or a pigeon feather caught on a strand of spider’s silk, twirling in midair like a magic trick. Daily, people are brought to sudden states of awe by encounters such as these: encounters whose power to move us is beyond expression but also beyond denial.

It seems to me that these nameless places might in fact be more important than the grander wild lands that for so many years have gripped my imagination. Taken together, the little places would make a map that could never be drawn by anyone, but which nevertheless exists in the experience of countless people. I recall what Ishmael said in Moby-Dick about the island of Kokovoko: “It is not down in any map; true places never are.”

See also

  • Common Ground: Robert Macfarlane’s series of Guardian essays on the relationship between writers and landscape
  • Where the wild things were: Robert Macfarlane on great classics of British nature writing
  • 4x4s are killing my planet: Robert Macfarlane argues that classic works of nature writing can help us rediscover values that are not commercial, but local and hopeful

Patience (After Sebald): the synchronicity of words and images

Patience (After Sebald): the synchronicity of words and images

Patience (After Sebald) is a film by Grant Gee about the landscapes and legacy of WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. It was premiered last year at a weekend festival celebrating Sebald in Aldeburgh and, unable to get there, I’ve wanted to see it ever since.  On our first afternoon on a short break in London there was, fortuitously, a one-off screening at the Renoir cinema in Bloomsbury and so we grabbed at the chance to see it.

The emergence of this film reflects the huge rise in Sebald’s reputation:  a contributor to the film even suggests that, had he not died in a car crash near Norwich in December 2001, he might by now have won the Nobel Prize for literature. Gee’s film explores Sebald’s profound influence on contemporary writers, thinkers and artists, some of whom speak in the film.

Sebald was born in Bavaria in 1944. His father served in the Wehrmacht under the Nazis, and the Holocaust and its meaning for post-war Germany constitute a recurrent strand in Sebald’s work.  He studied German literature at the University of Freiburg, before being appointed assistant lecturer at the University of Manchester in 1966 and settling in England permanently, later teaching at the University of East Anglia.

The Rings of Saturn is an unclassifiable work – Sebald’s idiosyncratic style absorbs elements of travel writing (a walk along the Suffolk coast), history book, Holocaust literature, biography, poetry, essay, and photography.  On one level, Patience (After Sebald) takes the form of Grant Gee walking in Sebald’s footsteps along the route taken in the book, filming the landscape in grainy black and white, like the images in Sebald’s book, and evoking the book’s powerful sense of a landscape refracted through the memory of the narrator.  These are atmospheric passages in the film, enhanced by Sebald’s words which are voiced superbly by Jonathan Pryce.

In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work. And in fact my hope was realized, up to a point; for I have seldom felt so carefree as I did then, walking for hours in the day through the thinly populated countryside, which stretches inland from the coast. I wonder now, however, whether there might be something in the old superstition that certain ailments of the spirit and of the body are particularly likely to beset us under the sign of the Dog Star. At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place. Perhaps it was because of this that, a year to the day after I began my tour, I was taken into hospital in Norwich in a state of almost total immobility. It was then that I began in my thoughts to write these pages.
– WG Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, opening lines

Embarking on a film about The Rings of Saturn there is obviously a strong temptation to do this – to follow in Sebald’s footsteps-  but Gee is aware of this, and several contributors to his film comment on the futility of such an endeavour, such as Robert Macfarlane, who tells of his  attempt to retrace Sebald’s melancholy-drenched steps. He arrived in Lowestoft, and the weather was lovely, and everybody was smiling.  He quickly realised that he was having too much fun, so he went and had a swim in the sea and gave up the venture.

Patience is an essay film rather than a conventional documentary, so there isn’t the usual gamut of people who knew Sebald talking about the man, or literary critics talking about his work. Gee’s film is more subtle than that; what we hear are responses by some of those who have been touched by his work, including writers Robert Macfarlane, Marina Warner, Andrew Motion and artist Tacita Dean.

Gee weaves their words into the film with great sensitivity: sometimes they are heard  only on the soundtrack, while at others their heads fade in like ghostly apparitions over the landscape. The pace is measured, and the minor key mood is reinforced by the soundtrack music contributed by Leyland Kirby working under his moniker The Caretaker in which snatches of Schubert’s Winterreise are treated electronically – I quote – ‘subjected to his perplexing processes, smudging and rubbing isolated fragments into a dust-caked haze of plangent keys, strangely resolved loops and de-pitched vocals which recede from view as eerily as they appear’.

Gee’s film opens with a Google map created by Barbara Hui: Litmap uses Google to digitally map literature, to create a tool that can be used alongside traditional methods of close reading in order to critically examine narratives in terms of their geospatiality. She explains:

In keeping with spatial theorist Doreen Massey, I contend that places be defined as the nodes that are constituted by the intersection of multiple lines or paths of social networks. As she describes it:

What gives a place its specificity is not some long internalized history but the fact that it is constructed out of a particular constellation of social relations, meeting and weaving together at a particular locus. If one moves in from the satellite towards the globe, holding all those networks of social relations and movements and communications in one’s head, then each ‘place’ can be seen as a particular, unique, point of their intersection. It is, indeed, a meeting place. Instead then, of thinking of places as areas with boundaries around, they can be imagined as articulated moments in networks of social relations and understandings, but where a large proportion of those relations, experiences and understandings are constructed on a far larger scale than what we happen to define for that moment as the place itself, whether it be a street, a region, or even a continent.

This approach is certainly appropriate to The Rings of Saturn, in which Sebald’s musings, as he walks along his Suffolk path, spiral outwards through time and place and across the globe.

Gee’s film is largely successful in capturing the book’s sense of physical meandering that provokes disparate mental associations.  Tracing Sebald’s path in grainy black and white, the film segues into archive footage and back, collapsing present into past and echoing the ghostly images that punctuate Sebald’s text, the originals repeatedly photocopied until their lines were sufficiently blurred. As in Sebald’s book, we are brought sharply back into the 20th century by a high definition colour segment, such as when his friend and translator Michael Hamburger speaks of the man he knew.

Grant Gee’s documentary is a labour of love, its elegiac tone making an engaging tribute to Sebald’s work.  There is only one questionable moment – the sequence in which some besotted Sebald follower decides to set of a firework at the roadside location where Sebald died and then claims to discern his facial features in the drifting smoke should have been excised. Overall, the film provides a useful guide to The Rings of Saturn (when Jonathan Pryce reads an extract the page number appears on screen), though someone who has not read the book may find themselves adrift.

It is those passages in which Jonathan Pryce reads from the book itself, augmenting Gee’s photography with the author’s sonorous words that are the best moments in which words and image synchronise with absolute perfection.

See also

The Peregrine: the freedom to see the world afresh

Peregrine by CF Tunnicliffe

A couple of weeks ago, John Gray, the political philosopher and former Professor of European Thought at the LSE, gave a talk on Radio 4’s Point of View in which he spoke about John Baker’s book The Peregrine. First published in 1967 and recently reissued, the book, Gray said, ‘is seemingly a piece of nature writing which slowly reveals itself as the testament of someone struggling to shed the point of view of a human observer’.  Though Baker’s book has been in the house for several years, I had never read it.  Now I have, and what a remarkable book it is.

In the opening pages, Baker explains that his purpose is to pursue a fascination with peregrines that has gripped him since he saw his first one ten years previously.  He writes that he ‘came late to the love of birds’:

For years I saw them only as a tremor at the edge of vision.  They know suffering and joy in simple states not possible for us.  Their lives quicken and warm to a pulse our hearts can never reach.  They race to oblivion.  They are old before we have finished growing.

For ten years Baker followed the peregrine – ‘I was possessed by it.  It was a grail to me’ – now he will set down a diary of a single winter, following peregrines in his small area of coastal Essex from autumn through to spring.  If that sounds mundane, Baker he states this purpose in words that unveil the ecstatic tone of the writing that electrifies this extraordinary book:

Wherever he goes, this winter, I will follow him. I will share the fear, and the exaltation, and the boredom, of the hunting life. I will follow him till my predatory human shape no longer darkens in terror the shaken kaleidoscope of colour that stains the deep fovea of his brilliant eye. My pagan head shall sink into the winter land, and there be purified.

In the introduction to the NYRB Classics edition that I was reading, Robert Macfarlane writes,  ‘The Peregrine is not a book about bird-watching, it is a book about becoming a bird’. For Baker hopes that by immersing himself in the life of the peregrine he will be able to get as far away from people as he can and escape the shackles of his human form:

I have always longed to be a part of the outward life, to be out there at the edge of things, to let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence as the fox sloughs his smell into the cold unworldliness of water; to return to the town as a stranger.

From October to April, Baker goes out almost every day, on foot or cycling, sinking into the landscape, noting the seasons’ shift and the changing light, observing the diurnal habits of the peregrine and the other creatures of field and shore. By avoiding human place names, Baker manages to create a strange, mythical landscape from his corner of Essex.  It is the landscape as seen by a peregrine, soaring high above:

East of my home, the long ridge lies across the skyline like the low hull of a submarine. Above it, the eastern sky is bright with reflections of distant water, and there is a feeling of sails beyond land. Hill trees mass together in a dark–spired forest, but when I move toward them they slowly fan apart, the sky descends between, and they are solitary oaks and elms, each with its own wide territory of winter shadow. The calmness, the solitude of horizons lures me toward them, through them, and on to others. They layer the memory like strata.

Baker is especially good at imagining how a peregrine sees the landscape and things in it, perceiving not detail but form and and the interrelation of form:

The peregrine lives in a pouring-away world of no attachment, a world of wakes and tilting, of sinking planes of land and water.  The peregrine sees and remembers patterns we do not know exist: the neat squares of orchard and woodland, the endlessly varying quadrilateral shapes of fields.  He finds his way across the land by a succession of remembered symmetries… He sees maps of black and white.

Peregrine stoop by Alan Benson

Baker’s prose is extraordinary. Like Shakespeare, he makes it up.  Words are wrenched from their moorings to serve new purposes: nouns become verbs, verbs become adjectives. He gives us vivid portrayals of landscape and stunning descriptions of the ‘stoop’, when the peregrine powers into its prey from a height of up to three thousand feet at speeds of nearly 200 miles per hour:

A falcon peregrine, sable on a white shield of sky, circled over from the sea.  She slowed, and drifted aimlessly, as though the air above the land was thick and heavy.  She dropped.  The beaches flared and roared with salvos of white wings.  The sky shredded up, was torn by whirling birds.  The falcon rose and fell, like a black billhook in splinters of white wood.  She slashed and ripped the air, but could not strike.

Or, again:

Starlings rose into the sky like black searchlight beams, and wavered aimlessly about, seeking the hawk.  Woodpigeons began to come back from the east like the survivors of  a battle. … From every wood and covert, as far as I could see, flock after flock went roaring up into the sky… The peregrine was clearing the entire hill of its pigeons, stooping at each wood in turn, sweeping along the rides, flicking between the trees, switchbacking from orchard to orchard, riding along the rim of the sky in a tremendous serration of rebounding dives and ascensions.  Suddenly it ended.  He mounted like a rocket, curved over in splendid parabola, dived down through the cumulus of pigeons.  One bird fell back, gashed dead, astonished, like a man falling out of a tree.  The ground came up and crushed it.

This is how Robert Macfarlane sums up Baker’s remarkable writing style:

Like all extreme stylists, Baker was a metalworker, heating the language until it became pliable, then bending and torquing it into new shapes. Again and again, he surprises us at the level of the sentence, as nouns become verbs and verbs become adjectives: “Five thousand dunlin rained away inland, like a horde of beetles gleamed with golden chitin”; “The north wind brittled icily in the pleached lattice of the hedges”; “Four short-eared owls soothed out of the gorse.”

Baker’s style is at its most heightened in the set-piece descriptions – each as formal and dynamic as any Imagist poem – of the peregrine’s chase and its “stoop”; that “sabring fall from the sky”, when the hawk drops into its prey from a height of up to 3,000 ft, killing with the shock of impact as much as with the slash of talons.

Someone has calculated that, in the course of the book, Baker encounters 619 carcasses of kills by peregrines.  At the culmination of one particularly vivid description of a stoop, Baker writes of the empathetic satisfaction he feels as he observes these kills:

And for the watcher, sheltered for centuries from such hunger and such rage, such agony and such fear, there is the  memory of that sabring fall from the sky, and the vicarious joy of the guiltless hunter who kills only through his familiar, and wills him to be fed.

So what was it that drew John Gray to The Peregrine?  Although in the ten minutes available to him in the Radio 4 talk he didn’t develop the critique of humanism that lies at the heart of his most controversial book Straw Dogs, his argument rested on the same principle: that the humanist idea that animals are inferior versions of humans is fundamentally misguided.  ‘There’s no evolutionary hierarchy with humans perched at the top’, insisted Gray:

Each of the millions of species that evolution has thrown up is different and particular, and the animals with which we share the planet aren’t stages on the way to something else – ourselves.  The value of animals – or as I’d prefer to say other animals – comes from being what they are. And it’s the fact that they are so different from humans that makes contact with them so valuable to us. […]

It seems clear that the human animal needs contact with something other than itself. For religious people this need may be satisfied by God, even if the God with whom they commune seems too often all-too-human. For many landscape gives a sense of release from the human world, even if the land has been groomed and combed by humans for generations, as it has in England.

The contemplation of field, wood and water intermingling with wind and sky still has the power to liberate the spirit from an unhealthy obsession with human affairs. Poets such as Edward Thomas and Ted Hughes have turned to the natural world in an attempt to escape a purely human view of things. […] The most intense example of this search I know is that recorded by John Baker in his book The Peregrine.

Gray focussed on how, as the months pass, Baker’s own identity seems to dissolve into that of the hawks he observes, as revealed in this most striking passage:

I found myself crouching over the kill, like a mantling hawk.  My eyes turned quickly about, alert for the walking heads of men.  Unconsciously I was imitating the movements of a hawk, as in some primitive ritual; the hunter becoming the thing he hunts.  I looked into the wood.  In a lair of shadow the peregrine was crouching, watching me, gripping the neck of a dead branch.  We live, in these days in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life.  We shun men.  We hate their suddenly uplifted arms, the insanity of their flailing gestures, their erratic scissoring gait, their aimless stumbling ways, the tombstone whiteness of their faces.

Gray, like Macfarlane, draws our attention to how the pronouns shift here – from the human ‘I’ to the common ‘we’:

Note how Baker switches suddenly from describing the hawk watching him to describing how ‘we’ flee from humans. Baker found a sensation of freedom in the feeling that he and the hawk were fused into one. Sharing in the “exaltation and serenity” of the birds’ life he could imagine that he’d shed his human identity, at least for a time, and could view the world through hawks’ eyes.

Of course he didn’t take this to be literal truth. He knew he couldn’t in the end be anything other than human. Yet he still found the pursuit of the peregrine deeply rewarding, for it opened up a temporary exit from the introspective human world.

John Baker’s devotion to the peregrine hadn’t enabled him to see things as birds see them. What it had done was to enable him to see the world through his own eyes, but in a different way. His descriptions of the landscape of East Anglia are exact and faithful to fact. But they reveal that long-familiar countryside in a light in which it looks as strange and exotically beautiful as anything in Africa or the Himalayas. The pursuit of a bird had revitalised his human perceptions.

What birds and animals offer us is not confirmation of our sense of having an exalted place in some sort of cosmic hierarchy, it’s admission into a larger scheme of things, where our minds are no longer turned in on themselves. Unless it has contact with something other than itself, the human animal soon becomes stale and mad. By giving us the freedom to see the world afresh, birds and animals renew our humanity.

Increasingly, as the book draws to its close, Baker seems nauseated by the world of men.  ‘We are the killers’, he writes. ‘We stink of death. It sticks to us like frost’.  He resents his inability to dissolve completely into nature at bay:

Like all human beings, I seem to walk within a hoop of red-hot iron, a hundred yards across, that sears away all life.

So who was JA Baker?  In his 2005 introduction to The Peregrine, Robert Macfarlane wrote that ‘there was not much to know’.  At the time it was believed that JA Baker had spent his life in Chelmsford, Essex, working as a librarian.  The year of his death was unknown.  However, in 2010 Mark Cocker compiled The Complete Works of JA Baker and revealed in his introduction that earlier writers had been in pursuit of the wrong John Baker.  This JA Baker ran the local branch of the Automobile Association (though he couldn’t drive, which explains why the material for his only two books was collected within bicycling distance of his home) and then for Britvic, the fruit juice manufacturers whose clock tower is one of Chelmsford’s landmarks. He died, aged 61, in 1987 from the effects of drugs prescribed for rheumatoid arthritis. It is now believed that his pursuit of the peregrines was prompted by the diagnosis of his serious illness.

The pain expressed in Baker’s book was felt for the falcons, apparently facing certain extinction from the use of agrichemicals such as DDT in the 1960s.  Rachel Carson had alerted the world to the murderous effects of DDT on bird populations in Silent Spring only 5 years before The Peregrine was first published.  A year later research showed that peregrine numbers had been cut by half in the previous 40 years.  Writing in The Guardian in 2005, Robert Macfarlane commented:

Baker’s extraordinary book is an elegy in part for the peregrines, and in part for the landscape through which he and they both moved. By the mid-1960s, the atrocious impact of pesticides upon raptor populations in Britain was becoming apparent. In 1939 there had been 700 peregrine pairs; a 1962 survey showed a decline to half this number, with only 68 pairs appearing to have reared chicks successfully. The Essex countryside was also menaced, as it underwent reckless reshaping for the purposes of agribusiness. Hedges were grubbed up, spinneys and copses bulldozed, old lanes earthed over.

It must have seemed plausible to Baker that the peregrines and the landscape would become extinct. “I remember those winter days”, he mourns, “those frozen fields ablaze with warring hawks … It is sad that it should be so no longer. The ancient eyries are dying”. The book stands as requiem for both bird and place – or a sacred charm which might save them both.

Peregrines have regained their former numbers since DDT was banned in the UK, but Baker’s book will always be read as an elegy for nature destroyed by man:

No pain, no death, is more terrible to a wild creature than its fear of man. … We are the killers.  We stink of death. We carry it with us.  It sticks to us like frost.  We cannot tear it away.

On the last night before the peregrine migrates abroad, Baker is by the sea-wall. He is desperate to be close to the bird, inwardly imploring him not to leave yet. He gets within five yards of him:

Swiftly now he is resigning his savagery to the night that rises round us like dark water. His great eyes look into mine… I know he will not fly now. I climb over the wall and stand before him. And he sleeps.

Robert Macfarlane walks the South Downs

Eric Ravilious, Chalk Paths

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.

Richard Long, Dusty Boots Line Sahara, 1988 

‘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’.

 Eric Ravilious, The Vale of the White Horse, 1939

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.

Eric Ravilious, Wiltshire Landscape

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

Eric Ravilious, Wilmington Giant

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.

Eric Ravilious, The Water Wheel

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.’

Ravilious and his wife Tirzah working on a mural in 1933

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’.


Eric Ravilious, Windmill, 1934

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….’

Eric Ravilious, Downs in Winter, 1934

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.

Chris Drury, Medicine Wheel, 1982-3

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:

Chris Drury, Coppice Cloud Chamber


Robert Macfarlane: Wild China

Another excellent series of  The Essay this week on BBC Radio 3, in which writer and climber Robert Macfarlane explored the state of the natural environment in China.  In the first talk, Robert described joining veteran winter swimmers in a Beijing park as they break the ice and dive in. A similar version of this essay can be found on the Telegraph website.

In the second he focussed on the Great Wall, describing how he and his father explored a stretch of the unrestored and unkempt Wall.

The wild wall. The phrase was coined by the British sinologist and explorer William Lindesay to describe those sections of the Great Wall of China that haven’t been officially “restored”. And, by that rule, most of the surviving wall is wild, as only a fraction of its immense length has been reconstructed. In the deserts of Xinjiang, the grass steppes of Mongolia and the plains of Shanxi, thousands of miles of the wall are lapsing back into the landscape, eroded by earthquake, wind, freeze-thaw and plant growth.

An extract from this essay appears on the New Statesman website.

In the last two talks he described travelling to the mountainous heart of China to visit the holy peak of Minya Konka. His essay began with these words:

Early December, the unlovely rump of the year. I’d been living in Beijing for three months and was itchy to leave the city. Silty air, littery gutters and always, everywhere, the noise of building work. Fortunately, I had an adventure lined up. My friend Jon Miceler had been in touch. Would I like to join him on a winter expedition to the Minya Konka massif in western Sichuan? Would a snowy prowl through high Himalayan country be of interest? Hell, yes.

Minya Konka – or The White Snow Peak of the Kingdom of Minyak, to give it its honorific – is a pyramidal mountain of exceptional elegance, ranked high in the Buddhist pantheon of sacred peaks. It is also vast: 7,556 metres. For decades, it was thought to be taller than Everest. The error was parallax in nature. For Minya Konka stands in tremendous isolation. From its summit, the land plunges seven vertical kilometres to the clammy floodplain of the Sichuan Basin. Seen from the Basin, no wonder it appeared to supersede Everest.

I discovered that a very similar version of this wonderful essay can be accessed on the Guardian website: Into the wild. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feature the Radio 3 conclusion in which he movingly recounted the story of one of the many climbers who have died attempting to scale Minya Konka’s peak, whose remains were never recovered: many years later, his daughter travelled to the site of his death and discovered his body, brought to the surface once more by the force of glacial ice. There’s also a picture gallery of the expedition.