“Sous les pavés, le plage!” ‘Under the paving stones, the beach!’ was one of the Situationist slogans of the Parisian students during les evenments of 1968. It was a literal reference to the fact that, in lifting the street cobbles for use as missiles against the police, the bedding layer of sand beneath was exposed, but simultaneously it fitted well with the more surreal slogans that were being adopted by the protesters at the time: ‘Be realistic, demand the impossible!’; ‘It is forbidden to forbid.’
In this posting I want to adapt this slogan and instead to declare “Under the streets, the fields!” (Sous les rues, les champs!) I want us to remind ourselves that, in contemporary Britain, an older, more natural world is not far away. Under the motorway is the Roman road; beneath the tarmac runs the green lane. Our deep history is not far below the surface: modern concrete and glass sit on foundations of Tudor brick, medieval stone, Roman tiles and the traces of the timber frames of British huts. Britain is a long-inhabited land and we are surrounded by the traces of the former occupiers- not just the obvious castles and churches, but a farmhouse marooned by encroaching suburbs or an old inn on a high street. The relics may be more subtle still- the marks of old ploughing in fields, the way that old hedge lines shape modern street plans.
Geoffrey Household captured this sense of age and long usage when he described the green lanes between Bridport and Axminster. Depicting Marshwood Vale in his novel Rogue male he described “a ridge of a half moon of low rabbit cropped hills, the horns of which rested upon the sea, enclosing between them a small lush valley.” The outer and northern slopes of this crescent look down on Marshwood Vale. Within the crescent were lanes worn down by generations of pack horses that ran fifteen feet deep or more below the level of the fields. “The trade-worn contours of red and green upon the flanks of the hills are very dear to me.” He described “an ancient little high road” deep and dark, with thick hedges grown together over the top, hidden to all but the most observant.
The tendency of the English to seek solace from their land and from the traces of former residents is a very old one. Bede, as a very early example, often referred to British forts, Roman earthworks, ruined tombs and so on; Peter Ackroyd notes that, like Aubrey and Stukeley a thousand years later, Bede “was already possessed by a vision of English antiquity among old stones and broken monuments…”
We all need the reassurance of a sense of constancy. Poet and artist David Jones, writing In parenthesis (1939), evoked “the creaturely world inherited from our remote past.” As T. S. Eliot realised, “whatever happens began in the past and presses on the future:” “the past is about to happen and the future was long since settled.” Our past informs our present and our future: this is true in cultural as well as material terms. For the neo-romantic artists of the 1940s, British history provided “a projected past which found its origins in the land of Britain itself.” Linking together Blake, King Arthur and other visionary legends, they created “an organic myth of rocks, hills and Arcadia: a myth of origins to be drawn out by artists like Sutherland and Craxton … Some other Eden was mapped upon the country … a national fantasy of Britain-as-Eden … turned into a blitzed ruin by the Second World War.” (David Mellor, A paradise lost, 1987)
We can respond broadly in two ways to our landscape. One is a response to its mystical meaning, the other is the feeling of profound age and inheritance that I have described. The two are not separate, of course, as the sense of the physical past can conjure up in our imaginations a Britain as ahistorical as the legendary realms of King Arthur.
The searchers for the (imagined) past include painter John Piper, who responded to the English landscape by searching out old buildings and sites; for him these relics embodied the core of the ‘real’ England. Peter Ackroyd expresses similar sentiments in his novel First light. One character remarks “This landscape looks so deep. It looks as if it’s been inhabited for thousands and thousands of years.” The landscape in question is the Devon/ Dorset border, with which another character is ‘obsessed.’ “He believed that this place had its own sound- he had always heard a peculiarly soft quality in its bird song- and its own smells. And when he saw the cattle and sheep peacefully grazing in the fields he could feel the pressure of its beneficence, its curves and folds cradling the life which seemed to have issued from it. It possessed an almost human presence, as if the generations of those who had dwelt upon its surface had left some faint echo…” In his history of Albion Ackroyd draws upon W. G. Hoskins’ Making of the English landscape when he states that “Much of [the English] landscape still rises and declines in ancient patterns, which hold their own stories of lives laboriously led. The lines of ditches and hedgerows represent an ancient order; even densely built urban areas can reflect an older reality. Nineteenth century Nottingham, for example, was ‘largely determined by the medieval footpaths and furlongs of the open fields.'” The echoes of the past reverberate around us, then; the very landscape is a palimpsest. In the same history, Ackroyd remarks that “it has been argued that, if antiquity is deeply embedded in place and time, the extant physical memorials are not necessary.” He does not, however, appear to be wholly convinced by this: later he contends that “the power and forces of past time … are not easily destroyed; they remain visible beneath the surface of the earth.” He suggests rather that “the whole of Anglo-Saxondom [is not] a matter of race but one, quite simply, of place- of place and of spirit, the spirit being born of the environment.”
For English artists landscape can portray allegorical images that conjure up another dimension, an unseen reality beyond everyday appearances . Mystical ideas of a hidden landscape and ‘psychogeography’ have become woven into our culture, so that the evocation of past habitations and past inhabitants can elicit deeper reverberations of old myths- old gods and old heroes- the ‘magical and spiritual realm of Britain” (Peter Woodcock, This enchanted isle, pp.1, 3 & 4)- as well as the mere imaginings of a material past that has passed away. Paul Nash sought for ‘the things behind’ the landscape, the dweller in the inner-most, the concealed significance of Albion.
Wildlife writer Richard Jefferies is just one author who experienced the intersection of the mystical and the antiquarian. Living just outside Swindon, he loved the ancient Ridgeway route, lovingly describing how a “broad green track runs for many a long, long mile across the downs, now following the ridges, now winding past at the foot of a grassy slope…” (Wildlife in a southern county, 1879). For Jefferies, as many for many of us I suspect, contact with nature had something of communion about it. “To me, everything is supernatural,” he said, even to the degree that walking over London Bridge he could be conscious of “the sun, the sky, the limitless space and was in the midst of eternity, in the midst of the supernatural.” (The story of my heart, c.3)
Being in a landscape (urban or rural) can transport us: we can be carried through time and we can travel in the imagination. In his history of Albion Peter Ackroyd asked “Can dwelling become a form of indwelling or imaginative life?” This posting argues that it can- and that it has. A sense of the past can give a sensation of security, of continuity and of solidarity. We are part of a material and narrative texture, a fabric of history and inheritance that we can use to give meaning and form to our present and to shape our future. To revert to Eliot: “Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future/ And time future contained in time past.”
Peter Ackroyd concludes his history of ‘Albion’ with an epilogue meditating upon the ‘territorial imperative,’ as he terms it. He thinks it is the most powerful impulse in British culture, “by means of which a local area can influence or guide all those who inhabit it.” This ‘local area’ can include the entire nation. “English writers and artists, English composers and folk-singers have been haunted by this sense of place, in which the echoic simplicities of past use or past tradition sanctify a certain spot of ground … in England the reverence for the past and the affinity for the natural landscape join together in a mutual embrace. So, we owe much to the ground on which we dwell. It is the landscape and the dreamscape. It encourages a sense of longing and belonging. It is Albion.”