The lure of lone hills

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I have always found lone hills irresistible.  There is something powerfully attractive to me about distinct peaks standing separate from other upland areas, or even entirely isolated.  As soon as I see one, I have an overwhelming urge to stop and climb.

Part of the lure must be the sure knowledge of the reward at the top- uninterrupted views all round.  This sensation of being king of all I survey, of being free and unrestricted on all sides is a strong draw.  Perhaps, too, that certainty of conquest- of getting to the top; how many times have you climbed some ridge or group of hills only to find another rise beyond the crest you have just reached?  The summit rolls way tauntingly before you, but on a solitary peak you know when you’re at the top and that there is nowhere else to go but down.  The sense of achievement, I suppose, is more easily obtained.  Perhaps this is a bit lazy- a bit too dependent on the quick result?

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I write all of this because, returning by train from Cornwall to London recently, we passed Brent Knoll on the Somerset Levels.  This hill has sat in my imagination since my teens, travelling home by car from family caravanning holidays in the south-west.  The Knoll rises up from the fenland, with no other high ground for miles around, dominating vistas from all sides and drawing the eyes when you are atop the Quantocks or the Mendips.  Inevitably, it is surmounted by a hill-fort. It’s the obvious defensive site in such low marshy ground.  On the western side medieval fields run in long narrow strips from the summit down to level of the surrounding farmland.  It is a splendid indicator of rural commonality: every cultivator gets an equal share of the sloping soil from the thin upper ground to the rich accumulations at the base.

A few other classic heights for me include:

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  • The Malverns– I know they’re a ridge, but that sharp whale’s back soaring up so steeply from the Severn Vale and offering views west to the Welsh mountains and east to the Cotswolds are immensely rewarding to walk;

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  • Hambledon Hill– it has several attractions for me: another hill fort on the summit, the defences of which accentuate and exacerbate the already fearsome slopes.  It’s crowned by a burial mound which predates the fortifications by thousands of years, stretching our use back millennia and proving that our ancestors knew a good hill when they saw one.  From the heights you can see other hill forts as well as the rolling beauties of Dorset.  The glories and the mysteries combined inclined me to make this the place where the Fairy Queen, Maeve, held court in my novel, Albion awake!
  • Breen Down– near Weston super mare and actually more a headland, it’s in the background of view of the Brent Knoll defences, but a stunning place nonetheless.
  • The Breidden Hills, between Shrewsbury and Welshpool.  They rear in a sharp mass from the vale of the Severn, steep and splendid in their isolation.  The drive up is challenging, the views down precipitous, the effort of the ascent totally justified!
  • Chapel Carn Brea– on that same Cornish trip we visited the first and last hill in Britain, just inland from Land’s End.  The views, sweeping round from St Just past Cape Cornwall and past Mount’s Bay and on towards the Lizard were astonishing.  A sunset up there must be stunning… another time!

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  • Kit Hill, at the other end of the same county, is also a lure, as is Caradon Hill nearby.  From the foot of the old mine chimney at Kit Hill you can gaze east to the bulk of Dartmoor stretching north to south.  On a clear day, standing out clear and distinct before the upland mass, you will see the sharp summit of Brent Tor, capped by St Michael’s Church, which clings precariously to the rocky outcrop.  A short drive up from Tavistock, this is yet another favourite spot!

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  • Hergest Ridge, just outside Kington.  This upward swelling on the Marches is one of my favourite spots of all in one of my favourite areas of all.  It’s an easy enough walk up from Kington Court but you get very high: one time when I visited our ever present friends the RAF practiced bombing runs- beneath us in the valley.  Beyond to the west the hills and ridges roll away seemingly endlessly into the blue depths of Wales. Oh, and it’s a rather good album by Mike Oldfield, but I won’t mention that because it’ll make me sound like a sad old hippie.  However, the first album I ever bought (not counting the soundtrack to The Jungle Book) was Tubular Bells.  In a perverse, English pastoralist way, I actually prefer the follow up album, Hergest Ridge, for its meditative and traditional sounds.  Here’s a version:  you can be calmed by the music and contemplate the photos.

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Boscawen-Un: a perfect stone circle?

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Whenever I am in West Cornwall, I try to make time to visit the stone circle at Boscawen-Un.  To the average tourist, it is less well known, which is part of the attraction.  The Merry Maidens circle, just to the south-west of Mousehole, is convenient to the main road, with a reasonable amount of parking, and it is but a step over a stile into a gently sloping field and a walk of a minute to visit the stones.  The Maidens is a fine and complete circle, it can’t be denied, and the site is made more fascinating by the holed stone in a hedge across the road, the nearby Pipers meini hirion and the archaeological traces of a second circle in an adjoining field.  But it’s on the tourist route to Land’s End and there’s a certain bleakness to the site.

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Boscawen-Un demands more effort.  You have to know where to pull in as it’s a fast road and the space in the verge is small and unmarked.  If you climb over the adjacent stile, all you see is gorse.  There’s a good fifteen minute walk to the circle, and for most of the way it’s concealed from you by the surrounding bushes.  Boscawen-Un is set within a boundary hedge topped by shrubs; the result is a sense of secrecy and seclusion that is entirely lacking from the open pasture of the Merry Maidens.  Its enclosure is part of its mystery and magic; there’s a stillness there that the windswept incline of the Maidens can never achieve.

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Moreover, it’s a better circle.  Boscawen-Un is distinguished by the huge block of quartz that is set in the outer ring of nineteen stones.  At the centre is a tall, leaning pillar.  Offerings are regularly left there- and who can blame those supplicants? Boscawen-Un possesses an inherent aura of sacredness, much like the not too distant well at Madron, with its decorated trees.

The odd thing about Boscawen-Un is how low it is.  Many Cornish and Dartmoor rings stand high and distinct in the landscape, visible from all sides.  It’s harder to judge this now, what with hedges and houses and forestry plantations interposing, but it’s still noticeable how Boscawen-Un sits at the bottom of a depression, making it yet more mysterious.  The sense of revelation as you emerge through those bush-topped banks is multiplied by this effect of screening the marvel until the last moment.

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Of course, I’ve revealed it to you now, so that mystique is a little further dispelled, but it still needs some effort to visit- a commitment of time and energy that are rewarded by the atmosphere and the sense of timelessness you find there.  (Despite my sober archaeological reading, I must also confess to a certain mystical attraction to megalithic monuments.  This is probably already apparent form previous posts and- in any case- need the two be contradictory and mutually exclusive?  I have succumbed in my some of fiction and fantasy writing to linking a certain magical  romance to Neolithic remains.)

Further reading, if you want it?  How about Julian Cope, The Modern Antiquarian, for the glossy, slightly wacky guide; Aubrey Burl’s Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany for the complete, academic survey or Mermaid to Merry Maid- the journey to the stones by printmaker Ian Cooke if you would like a more new age, artistic interpretation?

Bosiliack- a gem of Neolithic Penwith

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I’ve just returned from a few days in Cornwall, staying in Penzance.  This gave us a chance to visit a few of the ancient sites in the Land’s End peninsula, some familiar and some new to us.  Despite my many holidays spent in Penwith, I was impressed to find that there were still megalithic monuments I had not previously seen.  The burial chamber at Bosiliack was one of these.  It isn’t especially easy t find.  I know the moorland around Ding Dong mine reasonably well- many is the time I have walked the circuit from Lanyon farm to Men an Tol and then on to Boskednan stone circle on the height of the moor, but I had never seen the burial chamber.  A visit in mid-September made matters worse, for the bracken and brambles were at their tallest, of course.

Some aimless wandering amidst bog and briar followed.  Some enterprising soul had driven a hatchback car all the way up to the abandoned mine building before setting fire to it.  In a perverse way the conflagration must have been spectacular and satisfying.  It was a clear bright day and the views down to Mounts Bay and across to the Lizard were rewarding in themselves.

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Eventually, all other unlikely looking tracks through the thickets having been exhausted, we found the burial chamber.  it was worth the effort.  It is a little gem; the stones are still very much intact and the passage in which bodies might be laid was distinct.  It reminded me of the far larger and remarkable construction at Ballowall near St Just and also of the more complete chambered tombs on St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly- Innisidgen and Porth Hellick.  These have retained their earthen coverings and crawling inside to the experience the eery, damped stillness is always memorable and impressive.  Bosiliack may be bare of its covering, but it is attractive in its neatness- almost as if we were coming upon just as the stonework had been completed and before the soil was piled upon it.  It is evocative: you can sit in the passage and gaze south east towards the rising sun.  You can enjoy the solitude of the spot and try to imagine how it was so many thousand years ago.  You can endeavour to connect with those people who constructed it, and reconstruct the landscape they would have seen- crowded with monuments even then and redolent of family and tribal associations, presumably.

I have spoken in previous posts about the significance to me of tumuli and similar burial monuments.  They are tangible links to a seemingly impenetrably ancient past; they are a part of our present; they are a source of magic and mystery in our lives.  This last may be to romanticise these sites, but to this accusation in plead actively guilty.  In both my ‘adult’ fairy stories, The Elder Queen and Albion awake!  I have made prehistoric tombs the focus of supernatural activity.  It is a tradition of British folklore and a natural human response to the eerie and unknown.

White Horses in the English landscape

The Vale of the White Horse c.1939 by Eric Ravilious 1903-1942
The Vale of the White Horse c.1939 Eric Ravilious 1903-1942 Purchased 1940 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05164

“Before the gods that made the gods
Had seen their sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was cut out of the grass.

Before the gods that made the gods
Had drunk at dawn their fill,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was hoary on the hill.

Age beyond age on British land,
Aeons on aeons gone,
Was peace and war in western hills,
And the White Horse looked on.

For the White Horse knew England
When there was none to know;
He saw the first oar break or bend,
He saw heaven fall and the world end,
O God, how long ago.

For the end of the world was long ago,
And all we dwell to-day
As children of some second birth,
Like a strange people left on earth
After a judgment day.”

G.K. Chesterton, The Ballad of the White Horse; Part One- The vision of the king

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Patrick Cannon- Sunrise at White Horse Hill

I have just finished reading Thomas Dilworth’s biography of David Jones- Engraver, soldier, painter, poet (published April 2017).  London born and bred, Jones throughout his life felt a great affinity for Wales, the land of his father’s birth.  This made me reflect upon nationality and belonging.  Speaking for my myself, brought up in Yorkshire but with a mixed Yorkshire, Irish, Cornish, German family, it is worth considering what family roots actually are?  Is any sentiment just an imagined affiliation?  Is there any real ‘racial/ national’ inheritance?  When I feel a stirring of identification with Cornwall, with the northern counties  (or, indeed, with England or Britain), is that any more than romantic delusion? Are these links merely a story I tell myself?  Are they not just transitory illusions, dependent upon mood and situation: at times, I may feel more of a Yorkshireman, at others more tied to my ‘celtic’ roots- but are they not all self deception, mere wishful thinking?

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Jane Tomlinson, Long grass at White Horse Hill

When travelling by train to Wales, I always watch out for the Uffington White Horse and feel reassured by its presence. Likewise when I travel to Birmingham: the castle at Berkhamstead is a reaffirmation of some ancient continuities.  Is this the consolidated learning from books expressing itself or some genuine organic attachment to place?

These ancient monuments, I believe, tie us to the land and give us that sense of belonging to a place and a nation.  For their makers they represented a territorial claim but also, I suspect, a hallowing of the land.  The tribe that asserted its rights to resources may no longer exist, but that sacring and that sense of identity persist, I believe.  The hill figures represent continuity as well as a connection; they supply a sensation of stability, of a depth of time and the foundation of generations.  Unlike Chesterton, seeing the white horse in the distance does not make me feel like one of a strange and stranded people, but instead just the most recent member of a community. Those barrows of the dead I have mentioned before represent an identical continuation- the same family still occupying the same land.  The sites we build and the stories we tell all serve to situate us in our environment and to re-envigorate that tradition so that it continues to flow and have meaning.  A feeling of magic is a feeling of love and of attachment, a rebinding of bonds.

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Simone Dawood, Uffington White Horse

This peculiar people…

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‘Vexilla regis’, (detail), by David Jones

In my last posting I mentioned the verse of David Jones.  I recently read his book The Anathemata and particularly was struck by these lines:

“according to the disciplina 

of the peculiar people

in accord with the intentions

of all people

and kindreds

Et gentium, cenheilloedd und Vȍlker…”

He saw the British as uniquely compounded of three elements, ancient British (Celtic), Latin (Roman and French) and Germanic (English).  He was thinking primarily culturally, but it could apply genetically too.

The cultural and racial mix of the population of the British Isles is indeed complex: there is the ancient British strain, to which are added Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Norman, French and (more recently) African and Asian.  It would be untrue to suggest that this is unique: for example, the French too could point to Celtic roots, overlain with Roman, Frankish Norman and Breton.  Whilst the Gaulish influence is minimal, long before submerged by Roman and other inputs, the role of British/ Breton culture is far more significant, as demonstrated in the Arthurian legends.

Assertions of national or racial distinctiveness risk accusations of chauvinism, if not racism. Every people wants to feel special and will gather the stories and artifacts to prove this. Nevertheless, the British people do have a claim to their own special-ness, their own peculiarity.  They have combined a very particular blend of people, myths, languages and landscapes.  This in turn has produced a ‘peculiar’ or distinct art and culture, with such products as our ancient monuments- Stonehenge, Avebury, Stenness and similar; the hill figures on our chalk uplands; a literature with European and then worldwide influence in the form of the Arthurian romances along with many other notable poets and playwrights.

Separately, in my work on British folklore (see my blog britishfairies.wordpress.com and my book British fairiesGreen Magic Publishing, 2017), I have been reading recently about contemporary thinking on the nature and purpose of ‘fairies.’  One view often advanced is that the represent the spirit of land, the ‘genius loci’ as we have called it in previous postings.  This may be a very helpful way of understanding these beliefs- they are an animation of the natives’ response to their home- the land personified, perhaps.

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“Like long barrow sleepers”

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Eric Ravilious, ‘The Long man of Wilmington.’

I return to the issue of myth, inspiration and the British landscape.  On the recent E17 Art Trail in Walthamstow, London, I visited an exhibition by local artist Henriette Monteiro. Her pencil drawings and water colours were imaginative illustrations of ancient sites around England, such as Avebury, Kit’s Coty House in Kent, Belas Knapp long barrow on the Cotswolds and Cymbeline’s Castle in Buckinghamshire.  She complemented the art with poetry, and I was thereby introduced to the work of Andrew Young (1885-1971), whom I had not previously encountered.

Here’s his poem A prehistoric camp, which has been used by TfL as a ‘Poem on the Underground’:

A Prehistoric Camp

“It was the time of year
Pale lambs leap with thick leggings on
Over small hills that are not there,
That I climbed Eggardon.

The hedgerows still were bare,
None ever knew so late a year;
Birds built their nests in the open air,
Love conquering their fear.

But there on the hill-crest,
Where only larks or stars look down,
Earthworks exposed a vaster nest,
Its race of men long flown.”

Eggardon-Hill-Dorset

Eggardon Hill, which is east of Bridport, Dorset, is an Iron Age hill fort, but there is evidence of much earlier use in the form of several tumuli or long barrows on its summit.  The presence of barrows within the defences is what interests me here: it is quite a common feature, as for example at Hambledon Hill further east in the same county.  The barrow within the ramparts at Hambledon provided scenes for my one of my ‘fairy tales;’ the conjunction of ancient sites and supernatural mysteries makes intuitive story telling sense.

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Also by Young is the poem ‘Wiltshire downs’ from which I quote here the final stanza.

“And one tree-crowned long barrow
Stretched like a sow that has brought forth her farrow
Hides a king’s bones
Lying like broken sticks among the stones.”

I like the verse, but I’d take issue with his depiction of the bones like broken sticks. Young has connected to a key feature of our landscape and folk lore, but he does not take advantage of the full mystery associated with these features.  Welsh poet and artist David Jones in his extended prose-poem concerning the first world war, In parenthesis (1931), described slumbering British troops in Flanders dugouts as being “like  long-barrow sleepers, their dark arms at reach.” He returned to this theme decades later in The Anathemata.  In the poem Sherthursday and Venus day Jones mentioned “the hidden lords in the West-tumulus.”  In the same poem he also recognised the intriguing mystery of hill-forts as well as barrows, imagining a climb “up by the parched concentric bends over the carious demarcations between the tawny ramps and the gone-fallow lynchets, into the vision lands.”

“Into the vision lands…” Jones intimately knew and worked with the legend and myth of the British Isles. Rudyard Kipling also drew on the deep wells of folklore and in his poem ‘Song of the men’s side’ from the book Rewards and fairies advised:

“Tell it to the Barrows of the Dead—run ahead!
Shout it so the Women’s Side can hear!
This is the Buyer of the Blade—be afraid!
This is the great God Tyr!”

In Kipling’s story The knife and naked chalk Puck introduces Dan and Una to a neolithic herder who tells a tale of “a Priestess walking to the Barrows of the Dead.”  He sees a girl he knows at a tribal ceremony- “I looked for my Maiden among the Priestesses. She looked at me, but she did not smile. She made the sign to me that our Priestesses must make when they sacrifice to the Old Dead in the Barrows. I would have spoken, but my Mother’s brother made himself my Mouth, as though I had been one of the Old Dead in the Barrows for whom our Priests speak to the people on Midsummer Mornings.”  The ancestors lie beneath the tumuli and their purpose is to advise and help their living descendants.  Perhaps that function is not yet exhausted…

A vital element of British folk stories (the so-called ‘Matter of Britain’) is the concept of the sleeping hero.  King Arthur, most commonly, is not dead and buried in Avalon but lies hidden beneath some ancient feature- a hill fort or cave, perhaps- awaiting the time when he is summoned to save the island and its people.  On the ancient heights of those tribal fortifications, warriors lie in wrapped in the dreams of centuries, patiently biding their time until the call is sounded and their slumbers are ended.

In another of his poems, Rite and fore-time in the collection Anathemata, David Jones equated tumuli with altars, regarding both as places of worship and of burial of holy relics.  His analogy is perceptive and powerful.  The sleepers in the barrows are our ancestors, our predecessors on the land, and doubtless one element in their interment and the rites associated with their monuments was a reassertion of community links not only with those who had gone before but also with the landscape over which their remains now watched.  They had become both features in the landscape and guardians of that landscape.

Today campaigners declare ‘The Land is Ours.’  The barrows and stones carry the same message.  The land is a common inheritance and a common resource.  The long-barrow sleepers repeat and protect that message.  This is where we dwelt and where we dwell.

To return to Andrew Young, I must again demur from his description of Eggardon hillfort- “its race of men long flown.”    They, we, are still here.  They still speak, albeit faintly and only if you are attuned.  What’s more, in times of trouble, they may perhaps:

“Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many – they are few.”

The sweetness of England

 

The Vale of the White Horse c.1939 by Eric Ravilious 1903-1942

The sweetness of England by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

“And when, at last
Escaped, so many a green slope built on slope
Betwixt me and the enemy’s house behind,
I dared to rest, or wander, like a rest
Made sweeter for the step upon the grass,
And view the ground’s most gentle dimplement,
(As if God’s finger touched but did not press
In making England!) such an up and down
Of verdure, nothing too much up or down,
A ripple of land; such little hills, the sky
Can stoop to tenderly and the wheatfields climb;
Such nooks of valleys, lined with orchises,
Fed full of noises by invisible streams;
And open pastures, where you scarcely tell
White daisies from white dew, at intervals
The mythic oaks and elm-trees standing out
Self-poised upon their prodigy of shade,
I thought my father’s land was worthy too
Of being my Shakspeare’s.
Very oft alone,
Unlicensed; not unfrequently with leave
To walk the third with Romney and his friend
The rising painter, Vincent Carrington,
Whom men judge hardly, as bee-bonneted,
Because he holds that, paint a body well,
You paint a soul by implication, like
The grand first Master. Pleasant walks! for if
He said . . ‘When I was last in Italy’ . .
It sounded as an instrument that’s played
Too far off for the tune-and yet it’s fine
To listen.
Often we walked only two,
If cousin Romney pleased to walk with me.
We read, or talked, or quarrelled, as it chanced;
We were not lovers, nor even friends well-matched-
Say rather, scholars upon different tracks,
And thinkers disagreed; he, overfull
Of what is, and I, haply, overbold
For what might be.
But then the thrushes sang,
And shook my pulses and the elms’ new leaves,-
And then I turned, and held my finger up,
And bade him mark that, howsoe’er the world
Went ill, as he related, certainly
The thrushes still sang in it. At which word
His brow would soften, and he bore with me
In melancholy patience, not unkind,
While, breaking into voluble ecstasy,
I flattered all the beauteous country round,
As poets use . . .the skies, the clouds, the fields,
The happy violets hiding from the roads
The primroses run down to, carrying gold,
The tangled hedgerows, where the cows push out
Impatient horns and tolerant churning mouths
‘Twixt dripping ash-boughs, hedgerows all alive
With birds and gnats and large white butterflies
Which look as if the May-flower had sought life
And palpitated forth upon the wind,
Hills, vales, woods, netted in a silver mist,
Farms, granges, doubled up among the hills,
And cattle grazing in the watered vales,
And cottage-chimneys smoking from the woods,
And cottage-gardens smelling everywhere,
Confused with smell of orchards. ‘See,’ I said,
‘And see! is God not with us on the earth?”

Train Landscape by Eric Ravillious Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collection

I have discussed the Romantics and neo-Romantics in earlier posts, and for me this poem, recently encountered for the first time in a volume provided for visitors in a holiday cottage, is an excellent example of the genre.  Those mythic oaks and the secret, hidden charms of misty nooks contain a meaning greater than their modest surface charm.  The landscape may be homely and charming, but it conceals druid groves and ghostly moths, a sense of mystery more powerful than the superficial prettiness suggests.

For the British (not just the English) consciousness of their Britishness has long been identified with and located in the land itself.  The regard in which Constable and Turner (and less popularly, Samuel Palmer and the brothers Paul and John Nash) are held is indicative of this instinct.  The landscape creates and validates the sense of attachment and belonging.

I use landscape here in the broadest sense of all features and artifacts of the national scene- not just the downs and vales, but Stonehenge, Avebury, the ruined castles and abbeys, the farmhouses and fields.  The natural land-forms are adventitious; the shaping of the land by its inhabitants is- perhaps- the deepest expression of their character- and in their landscape, I suggest, the British can find stability, reassurance and strength. There is a confirmation of continuity of culture and occupation; the passing from generation to generation of certain responses and ideals.

There is perhaps a danger of encouraging petty nationalisms- of artificial divisions into Cornwall, England, Wales and Scotland.  These should be rejected.  Even within ‘England’ there is too much variety for a single identity to have predominance.  The second and greater danger may be the risk of slipping into pastoral prettiness and arcadian charm.

This need not be though.  In his recent Guardian newspaper review of D C Moore’s new play Common at the National Theatre, Michael Billington remarks that Moore is working to create a “radical pastoral environment that shows the privatisation of land as a pivotal moment in our nation’s history.”  In seeking to achieve this, the play draws upon the countryside’s pagan past as well as on the politics of resistance as embodied by Captain Swing.  The land is central to our national character and its protection and preservation has been one important forum for class conflict.  Landscape (as well as land rights) can be a source of power- and also of inspiration.  Radical pastoralism need not be a contradiction in terms, then, as I have also argued in the course of the story in Albion awake!

In art, literature, in political discourse and in the shaping of aspirations, powerful affection for and attachment to our landscape are vital motivations.

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