A hymn to rural England- the new series of ‘Detectorists’

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BBC4 this week broadcast the first episode of the third series of Detectorists, written and directed by Mackenzie Crook. The series has always featured images of nature- closeup studies of insects, snails and plants- and conveyed a sense timeless charm and peace, and an intimate connection and identification with nature- but this first episode of the new series went further.

Not only is there the theme of the rural idyll challenged- and thereby the mental peace of the main characters- but the closing scene was a stunning and moving evocation of former ages in the same field, supported by a beautiful soundtrack by The Unthanks- the haunting song ‘Magpie.’

The-Unthanks

A green energy development (ironically) threatens the land where Lance and Andy detect at weekends. The peril and loss of the agrarian scene of this (imaginary) part of North Essex was wistfully and painfully evoked.  The finding of a falconry whistle evoked and summoned all those generations that had passed before: they were depicted by a fantastic morphing backwards and forwards in time, with trees growing and shrinking as we passed between eras. The continuity amid change and the timeless beauty of the countryside were all captured.

The scenes brought a tear to my eyes- as often the series has done (including Johnny Flynn’s soundtrack song)- and I cannot praise it too highly, both for its humour and for its awareness of the mystical quality of the land and of the past that is always with us.

The series is concerned with metal detecting, so the concept of uncovering hidden treasure is central to its story lines.  All the same, I have always viewed this literal meaning as a metaphor for something deeper- the search for hidden riches and meaning beneath the surface in the familiar environment.  We all bring our personal responses to works of art, and my reaction to Detectorists (over and above admiration for the gentle comedy and for its sensitive explorations of relationships and personal ambitions and interests) has always been to see it as a celebration of England and of the attachment of the English people to their countryside.  Throughout Detectorists I’m aware of the palpable and abiding presence of the past; I see the series as a statement of our enduring ties to foregoing generations and of their ongoing meaning for us.  The past is tangible and emotionally sensible- and it isn’t far away, it’s just beneath the surface green of the familiar rural scene if only we care to look and listen.

At the risk of weighting a simple comedy series with too great a burden of significance: we are the land and the land is ours.

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The mystical vision of England

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Avebury, by Penny Morrison

My starting point for this posting is, once again, Peter Ackroyd’s Albion.  In chapter twenty three, The mysterious voice, he discusses the mystical tradition of medieval England and its contribution to the overall theme of his book- ‘The origins of the English imagination.’

Ackroyd writes that:

“The mystical tradition on England is of mysterious origin.  It must be in some way associated with those early intimations of the supernatural in the land of mist and ghosts [he refers here to Anglo-Saxon poetry which he covers earlier in the book]; English is the language of vision.”

He notes the evolution of the term ‘mystical’ from its original sense, which is properly employed in respect of such religious writers as Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle and William Hilton.  In this context the word describes a personal, ecstatic spiritual experience; as such, it “is not directly related to the visionary imagination.” From the seventeenth century onwards, though, the word is acquired its sense of “ancient or occult wisdom.”  In this sense we have used it of later writers and artists and their responses to the English landscape.

Nonetheless, in the works of the solitary and meditative writers like Rolle, Ackroyd traces the origins of native individualism, of a visionary strand in English art and of the “unheard melody” of their prose, full of singing and sweetness.  Even in its origins, there is a suggestion of mystical meanings in landscape and nature.  For example, Julian of Norwich describes a submarine vision or revelation:

“I was led in imagination down to the sea-bed and there I saw green hills and valleys looking as though they were moss-covered, with seaweed and sand.”

The anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing shapes that most British of features, the enveloping grey cloud, into a symbol of mystic significance:

“Ween not, for I call it a darkness or a cloud, that it is any cloud congealed of the humours that flee in the air, nor yet any darkness such as is in the house on night when the candle is out.  For such a darkness and such a cloud mayest thou imagine with curiosity of wit, for to bear before thine eyes in the lightest day of summer and also contrariwise in the darkest night of winter.”

Behind these homely and familiar images, there lies a more mysterious meaning.

Hidden meaning in the British landscape  has, of course, been a theme of many of my previous posts and has run through the work of many artists and writers about whom I have written, William Blake, Samuel Palmer and Paul Nash to name only a few.  Today, I’ll cite novelist and poet John Cowper Powys, of whom Philip Pulman has said that:

“Powys evoked the English landscape with an almost sexual intensity.  Hardy comes to mind, but a Hardy drunk and feverish with mystical exuberance.”

Powys himself described the “psychic chemistry of religious sites older than Christianity” and the sense that the land around Glastonbury “reeked with the honey lotus of all the superstitions of the world.”  His general position was set out in the Meaning of culture (1929, p.178):

“It is strange how few people make more than a casual cult of enjoying Nature. And yet the earth is actually and literally the mother of us all. One needs no strange spiritual faith to worship the earth.”

This connection was felt by fellow Cymru-phile David Jones and by Gwent born author Arthur Machen, a sense encapsulated in his novel The hill of dreams.  We”ll have more to say about this theme; in the meantime, go out and make contact with the profound among the hills and valleys of Albion!

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Bant’s Carn, St Mary’s, Ian Cooke

“The ghostly language of the ancient earth”- finding (and founding) Albion

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John Piper, ‘Wiltshire archaeology’

Albion– an old word for an old place.  But I feel we need to use it in a new way, to express an old emotion free of some of the associations that have attached themselves to other names.

Love for your home country is an inborn sensation, just as a sense of national identity seems to be.  But what is that identity formed from?  We are all just stories we tell to ourselves and nationality is just one element in those stories.  It’s woven from many things: from memories of home, of holidays, of history lessons at school and from books we have read; it crystallises out of pictures we have seen and views enjoyed from trains and cars.  It is the product of a set of accidents and is shaped as much by choice as by circumstance.   With Yorkshire roots but with antecedents also from Sunderland, Manchester, Cornwall, Ireland and Germany, what are my origins, what are my roots? Does ‘home’ change with time, so that a couple of decades resident in London now make me more attached to the capital and to Essex than to my birthplace?  Is belonging just a matter of imagination and volition?

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John Piper, ‘Cartoon for the stained glass window at Wiltshire museum.’

And yet, there is no denying a sense of attachment to certain places and certain landscapes, and to the ideas and that they evoke- to my own particular formulation and conception of ‘national pride.’  I might have said Englishness, which would have been accurate enough, except whilst chalk figures, downland, hill-forts, fields and pastures, woods and castles are all configurations of natural and built environment that can be uniquely English, I hesitate about the labels:

  • English describes a country from the south coast to the Border at Hadrian’s Wall, but it carries with it other meanings- wars with France, invasions of neighbouring lands, drunken football fans on the rampage, a particular ethnic pride waving the St George flag;
  • British evokes an island and the rich diversities of landscape and culture from Cornwall to Caithness, but there are too memories of the British Empire and those other connotations of ‘Great’ Britain, outdated but persistent as they are; and,
  • United Kingdom is a purely political identity; I may more readily say that I am English or British but few can identify with the UK as a real place, not least now that it faces dissolution though devolution and since UKIP gave it a particular separatist and isolationist meaning and further narrowed and politicised it.

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John Piper, ‘Salisbury plain.’

Which brings us to Albion, a name unfreighted with the burdens of the past.  It’s a name from literature and history that more readily suggests the unique combination of land and culture, of geography and  history, of art and imagination, memory and inspiration that inspires and motivates me.  Albion has emotional meaning- and not just for me: witness Peter Ackroyd’s 2002 cultural history entitled Albion.  He quotes Ford Madox Ford (The spirit of the people, 1912) to the effect that “It is not- the whole of Anglo-Saxondom- a matter of race, but one quite simply of place- of place and of spirit, the spirit of being born of the environment.”  Ackroyd also shares with John Cowper Powys a sense that “the spirit of the earth called out to him from the green shoots beneath his feet so that he was filled with the genius loci and sustained by it.”  In his earlier novel First light he described in the Dorset landscape an “almost human presence,” as if the foregoing generations had left an echo.  With Wordsworth (Prelude, Book 2, School tree) Ackroyd hears “the ghostly language of the ancient earth,” and himself concludes (p.448) that his subject is “the landscape and the dreamscape.  It encourages a sense of longing and belonging.  It is Albion.”

Perhaps the time is right to rediscover and reestablish Albion.

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John Piper, ‘Avebury restored’

 

‘Into the valley’- The mystery of hidden vales

It’s rooted in human nature to be drawn to the enclosed and mysterious.  Perhaps we’re drawn by our deepest instincts; as towards caves, we are attracted to safe and secluded spots where we can rest and eat.  There is too a romantic attraction: we are excited by the prospects of discovering the unknown; we hope to uncover secrets; we are inclined to explore- impelled by curiosity and enticed by the chance of finding something new and previously unseen.

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In my recent trip to Cornwall, we made a journey of exploration that had been long promised but never undertaken.  Sailing on the ship the Scillonian from Penzance to the Scillies, you pass along the south coast of Penwith; just west of Lamorna is the wooded valley of St Loy.  There are houses there, amongst the trees, but there is no public road.  We had been lured for many years- and on this trip we finally got there.  We parked the car on the edge of the highway and followed a wooded valley by a stream down towards the coast.  It felt remote and private- although it was none of these things in all truth, something that was revealed when we reached the expensive residences near the mouth of the valley- where the coast path traverses the cove.  Still, it was our adventure; our mission of discovery.  The stream cascaded pleasantly down to the sea; there was a private beach- entirely composed of giant boulders, I must admit- but, nonetheless, our beach for which we had worked that morning.  The sun was hot and the sea lapped on the rocks and we felt that the decades of waiting had been worth it.

You can stay there in a B&B, and have the beach entirely to yourselves (and the few other residents at night).  The drive down the private track, through overhanging trees and round twists and turns, will surely engender the same sense of being explorers in a new and hidden world.  There will never be crowds and there will always be seclusion and silence.

Other valleys that I love to explore include:

  • Cusop Dingle, just outside Hay on Wye.  It’s lined with houses along its length, as the road peters out into the depths of the hills, and a wide and rocky stream tumbles down towards the Wye.  You can walk up on the road- but return along the bank and through the fields, with vistas of the town and castle spread before you.

Cusop

  • Holy Vale on St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly.  You can reach this by three ways, from the main road down a side road- which is as dull as it sounds; by walking up from the coast through a nature reserve and then into the wooded lower reaches of the valley, which is pleasant or, my favourite, my turning off the road near Sunnyside farm and following a rutted and rocky track down into the Vale.  Even on peaceful Scilly, this place seems quiet and out of the way.  This has to be a theme and part of the attraction of these spots: it is enclosed, hidden, free from traffic and noise.  There has to be the sense of being the first discoverer, of arriving for the here before anyone else has trodden these paths.

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  • St Nectan’s Glen– another Cornish site, to be found just north along the coast from Tintagel (of purported Arthurian fame).  The glen extends on both sides of the main road heading towards Bude.  The coast-ward site which is called Rocky Valley and by the National Trust features ruined buildings and rock carved mazes.  The upper side is a path which follows the tumbling River Trevillet towards it source.  There are three waterfalls, but at the ‘kieve’ at the head of the glen there is an impressive 60′ fall cascading into a pool.  Access is through a rather pleasant cafe which has a new age gift shop.  The walk is a modest challenge (muddy in wet weather with some slight scrambling involved) but the cafe provides a fitting end, especially the outdoor area surrounded by trees, birds and the sound of the water.

St Nectan's Kieve

  • Luxulyan Valley, mid-Cornwall.  A road runs through this from Luxulyan village down to St Blazey, but you have to stop, best near the Trefry viaduct, and climb up the slopes to explore.  It’s a remarkable combined landscape or ancient and modern, and it takes my breath away.  The valley is littered along its slopes and the river bed with vast boulders.  They are concentrated in this one spot, huge and incredible.  Amongst these obstacles weaves the remnants of earlier industry- a leet half way up the slope and the bridge, which is in fact an aqueduct with water still running beneath your feet under granite slabs.  The whole thing is stunning and overwhelming for the geographical and human scale; man and nature have reshaped the land in amazing ways.

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Valleys have always had their special place in art, too, from William Blake’s Vales of Middlesex to Samuel Palmer’s Valley of Vision at Shoreham.  His pictures there capture exactly the sense of protection and mystery I am seeking to evoke.

A Hilly Scene c.1826-8 by Samuel Palmer 1805-1881

 

Stolen continent? some reflections with Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Dine (Navajo) code talkers in WWII

America is literally unimaginable without plundered labour shackled to plundered land” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Guardian newspaper for September 30th.  The article was an extract from his forthcoming book, We were eight years in power (Hamish Hamilton, 5th October) which discusses the legacies of slavery and the Civil War in the contemporary USA.  He challenges “the accepted conception of America as a beacon of freedom” and stresses that much of its economy was founded upon slave labour employed upon “abundant land stolen from Native Americans.”  This last phrase struck a chord and reminded me of Ronald Wright’s book Stolen continents

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From the age of seven or eight I was gripped by the ‘American Indian.’  My Collins Wonder Colour Book of Indians filled my head with images of ferocious Iroquois and Pueblo dancers with snakes in their mouths.  The interest stayed with me into adulthood, maturing into an anthropological, artistic and linguistic fascination.  I have written before about totem poles and sand-paintings; that is one aspect of that abiding interest.  I have written too on language- a short sketch in The native American languages- an introduction and a much longer study called Lost by translationThe title is a tribute to Wright’s book and the text is a study of the theft of a continent and the destruction of linguistic diversity from the perspective of the spoken word.

Meanwhile I read, widely: on the inexorable conquest by disease and military technology, on the myth of Manifest Destiny and on the resistance by ‘hostile savages.’  All colonialism is shameful and cruel history, but the genocide and occupation of the ‘wild west’ seemed to me particularly unprincipled and iniquitous- and especially at odds with that claim to be the ‘land of the free.’ Coates argues that there is a fundamental self-deception here: a refusal to admit the true dynamics and structures of US society.  In a book published in 2015 I had a character raise the same question during an argument.  How can a country that had slavery until the 1860s and apartheid until the 1960s be so assertive about democracy and liberty?  It seems that the washichu may still have much work to do to right the wrongs of the past.

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Monahsetah- Cheyenne woman associated with Custer (see ‘Lost by translation’)

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?