Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Songs of runaway dreams miles away

Directionless wandering reveals another street of once-red brick terraced houses. Its not raining, exactly; but it has been. This could be Middlesbrough or Rugby or Dumbarton or Edmonton, could be Derby or Barrow or Kilmarnock, Pontypool or Bridgewater. The vociferous industry and municipal certainty that paved the fields and marshes over has drifted away. People round here are dispersed. These streets seem tired now, stranded.


Seven long years since I passed these gates/
Fighting for our king, don't know why, couldn't say/
And you don't want to cross me, I'm here to stay/
I'm going back to Hocken's Hey

Sometimes I think about the world/
Sometimes I think about the world outside

The world outside.

By Los Angeles standards West Adams is old, an antique neighbourhood. Mostly shabby now, hemmed in by freeways; but Little Richard was a resident, so too Ray Charles and Joe Louis. Back in the day. Arthur Taylor Lee and Johnny Echols met at high school here, formed a band. 1965 and The Grass Roots become Love. 1967 and hardly anyone buys Forever Changes; its a masterpiece.

This is the time and life that I am living/
And I'll face each day with a smile/
For the time that I've been given's such a little while/
And the things that I must do consist of more than style/
There are places that I am going

Places that I am going.

Sometimes I think about the world outside.

Michael Head is thinking about the world outside. He's on a different West Coast, but he gets Arthur Lee and he gets Love. His town has those murky red brick streets but it can also be technicolour: ask John Lennon, ask Julian Cope, ask Lee Mavers, ask Michael Head.

1997 and Michael makes a record with his brother John. The result is an alchemistic soundscape, juxtaposing inner-city drug dependency with pastoral folk that conjures visions of Middle Age sail-makers, travelling knights and harvest workers; mining the spirit of Arthur Lee and Love. Its awash with hope and melancholy. Hardly anyone buys The Magical World of the Strands; its a masterpiece.

Our village has seen your village from a distance/ 
Travelling through the waves/ 
Through fields of uncertainty/ 
Runaway dreams miles away

Runaway dreams miles away.

There are places that I am going.

Stranded? This record has always taken me away, in times when I was walking those red brick streets, metaphorically or in reality. It takes me to the greenwood and the old world, takes me to Mojave and Sierra Nevada in the new world; to wherever I want to be. Its as English as oak, as Californian as Laurel Canyon; its as urban as the decaying brick walls of terraced streets, as bucolic as dusk on a summers day.

These have been some hasty reflections on a record that is particularly important to me; a welcome distraction from the structured reading, writing and thinking of my PhD literature review.

The Magical World of the Strands has recently been re-released and you can find out more about it on the Shacknet web site. An album of outakes and demos, The Olde World is due for release soon.

My advice is to seek out both and anything else by Michael Head's other bands, The Pale Fountains, Shack and The Red Elastic Band. And, of course, the records of Arthur Lee and Love.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Unseen Places: Exploring ‘hidden’ topography in a historic upland landscape


I recently gave a talk as part of the Tertulia: Radical Pastoral event at the Arnolfini in Bristol on the subject of unseen places and hidden topography. The piece brought together themes and content explored in a number of posts on this site and has kindly been reproduced in full on the Unofficial Britain web site here

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Richard Long: 'Time passes. A place remains.'

"A good work is the right thing in the right place at the right time. A crossing place."
Richard Long, 1980

The Arnolfini gallery in Bristol is currently hosting an exhibition of the work of Richard Long, entitled Time and Space. As a native Bristolian, works from the city and the South West are well-represented as are those from further afield, from all seven continents in fact.

His, often ephemeral, sculptures, photographs, textworks and other creations could be classified as land art or art made by walking or even (God forbid) psychogeographical art. As with other artists who use landscape as a touchstone and a material, such as Andy Goldsworthy, Michael Heizer, Walter de Maria, Jeremy Deller and Richard Skelton, his output seems refreshingly straight-forward and free of dogma, unnecessary theorising and cant. It has a felt and intelligent simplicity. However, I will leave it to the words and work of Richard Long himself to convey how he uses materials in the landscape, walking and place itself to create his art.

"They are a sort of simple celebration of place, like its stones, or the horizon, or the mist, and of me being there, at that particular time, possibly never to pass that way again. I sometimes think of these works as songs."    
Richard Long, 2014

I like simple, practical, emotional,
quiet, vigorous art.

I like the simplicity of walking,
the simplicity of stones.

I like common materials, whatever is to hand,
but especially stones, I like the idea that stones
are what the world is made of.

I like common means given
the simple twist of art...

...I choose lines and circles because they do the job.

My art is about working in the wide world,
wherever, on the surface of the earth...

...I use the world as I find it...

...My outdoor sculptures and walking locations
are not subject to possession and ownership, I like the fact
that roads and mountains are common, public land.

My outdoor sculptures are places.
The materials and the idea are of the place...

...A walk expresses space and freedom
and the knowledge of it can live
in the imagination of anyone, and that
is another space too.

Extracts from:
'Five, six, pick up sticks
Seven, eight, lay them straight' (1980)

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...

...There is an infinite and cosmic variety of journeys, at all scales...

Notes on Paths, 1999

Art is a formal and holistic description of the real space and experience of landscape and its most elemental materials.

Royal West of England Academy, 2000

A text is a description, or story, of a work in the landscape. It is the simplest and most elegant way to present a particular idea, which could be a walk, or a sculpture, or both.
Extract from Notes on Works, 2000


Lailach, Michael, 2007. Land Art. Cologne: Taschen.

Long, Richard, 1997. A Walk Across England. London: Thames & Hudson.

Roelstrate, Dieter, 2010. Richard Long: A Line Made by Walking. London: Afterall.

Tufnell, Ben (Ed.), 2007. Richard Long: Selected Statements & Interviews. London: Haunch of Venison.

Richard Long: Time and Space. Exhibition guide, 2015.

Friday, 21 August 2015

The mountains of Arran: a landscape of wonder within reach

"My place above every other place
to be on your high shoulder-blades
striving with your rocky great grey throat"
The Cuillin, Sorley MacLean

The beginnings play out the familiar rhythms of the start to a day in the mountains. Shaking off car park lethargy with a steep - initially conifer-shrouded - ascent, cresting to a suddenly wide-screen terrain, taking in the always wonder-capturing first vista with heavy breath then a washing-over of the stoic reserves required for the upward progression to the initial peak. 

The rising rock-scape in question is Goat Fell, at 874 metres the highest point of the mountain range that bosses the northern half of the Island of Arran, a hypereal mirage of jagged horizons seen across the Firth of Clyde from the drab mainland reality of the port of Ardrossan and post-industrial North Ayrshire (post-industrial being, of course, a bogus alias for places - and people - that have been used, spat out and apparently no longer matter).

For once the opportunity had arisen to pass over the usual horse-shoe circular movement in favour of a less predictable linear upland journey: ten miles or so of high level tramp from the Victorian Laird-land of Brodick Castle to the sheltered bay of Lochranza on the northern coast (famous as the landing point of Robert the Bruce on his return to Scotland in 1306 and as a site of the geologically important Hutton's Unconformity)  A clear forecast after several dreich days means that the climb to Goat Fell is well populated in both directions. Up and over and the descent to the exposed ridge of Stacach sees the masses dwindle to the occasional fellow wayfarers, then a morphing into a facsimile (for it is nothing more) of wilderness, with no sightings of a human being in the final three hours of the walk.

Picking a route down to the dispiritingly low pass of The Saddle and Geography lesson perfect glaciated valleys fan in all directions. Looming ahead and then above is the seemingly unbreachable massif of Cir Mhor ('big comb' due to its resemblance to a cockscomb, the crest of a domestic cock). The thin line of a path up the mountain-side traced from afar is now out of sight. The unlikely smallness of the gravel track commencement of the climb requires faith and experience to envisage it as a way to scale the looming heights. After the so-so summit of Goat Fell (the highest point of a range is rarely the most memorable), Cir Mhor is a revelation of a mountain; the apex of an X-shaped quartet of ridges. A high terrain that seems more Pyrenees or Dolomite than Scottish Highland, with light grey granite tors resembling massive Inca walls (or perhaps a pneumatic Dartmoor): the Andean ambiance bringing to mind the opening scene of Werner Herzog's Aguirre, The Wrath of God, a caravan of conquistadors and their Queshua slaves descending a mist-shrouded Huayna Picchu on their doomed search for El Dorado. 

Looking back from the curva-like ridge approaching the final peak of the day, Caisteal Abhail, and the dragon's back route from Goat Fell appears in sharp relief. Atop and gazing in the opposite direction and the day's destination, Lochranza, appears for the first time; a balm for heavy legs but a hazy blue horizon still four miles distant. 

High-rolling days like these need to be cherished. Not because they represent a tired macho peak-bagging mentality or some nebulous concept of wilderness; its more simple than that: they are a reminder that landscapes of wonder are within reach.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Monastic ruins as topographical memories. An elegy to landscapes drowned deep in time.

“They emerge in the fields like the peaks of a vanished Atlantis drowned four centuries deep. The gutted cloisters stand uselessly among the furrows and only broken pillars mark the former symmetry of the aisles and ambulatories. Surrounded by elder-flower, with their bases entangled in bracken and blackberry and bridged at their summits with arches and broken spandrels that fly spinning over the tree tops in slender trajectories, the clustering pillars suspend the great empty circumference of a rose-window in the rook-haunted sky. It is as though some tremendous Gregorian chant had been interrupted hundreds of years ago to hang there petrified at its climax ever since.” 

Patrick Leigh Fermor on the ruined monasteries of England and Wales "that have remained desolate since the Reformation" (A Time to Keep Silence, 1957).

Thursday, 2 July 2015

The Way of the Hollow

The work of something of a topographical supergroup, Holloway, is a collaboration between Adam Scovell (film and direction), Robert Macfarlane (words and voice-over), Richard Skelton (music) and Stanley Donwood (artwork).

Robert Macfarlane describes the films genesis and production on the Caught By The River website; its stylistic debt to Derek Jarman's 1971 Journey to Avebury Super-8 short acknowledged and plain to see.

The film moves across many of the touchstones of the re-imagined sense of landscape and place outlined in my recent Towards a new landscape aesthetic essay. And chances are there will be such a holloway - a secret sunken path - within a few miles of where you are sitting right now, so away into the gloaming and find your own layered and folded place...


Friday, 12 June 2015

New horizons on the Gwent Levels

Some images here from a preparatory field visit for my forthcoming PhD research. In looking for a contrasting case study to supplement the study of 'monastic' estates in the south-east Welsh Marches I have been drawn to what is for me a new landscape, both geographically and topographically: the Gwent Levels. This is reclaimed estuarine terrain, occupying a narrow band of coastal alluvium to the east and west of Newport, with much in common with the larger and more well known Somerset Levels across the Severn Estuary.

Unlike the more inaccessible and agriculturally marginal uplands of Wales the low-lying coastal plain of Gwent and Monmouthshire has been an open-door for incursions from the east, most notably by those masters of strategy and technology, the Romans and the Normans. It was during the period of Roman occupation that the first systematic drainage of the Levels began and sea-walls were constructed. This infrastructure having fallen into disuse, the powerful Norman Marcher Lords renewed the perpetual struggle to master the tides and exploit the hyper-fertile potential of reclaimed land in the twelfth century. 

In order to cement their hold on the area and provide compliant labour in a highly feudal period the Marcher Lords imported English settlers to work the land (yes, economic migrants have always been with us) and so, as with the coastal districts of southern Pembrokeshire and the Gower further west, there is a legacy of English place-names (Englishries), and indeed surnames, that remains to this day. The Marcher Lords also granted lands in the area to monastic houses and this is where my research comes in. The coastal wetland strip between Newport and Caldicot known as Caldicot Level was the location for a number of monastic holdings: the Benedictine Goldcliff Priory, of which nothing remains in its original location, occupied a low promontory at the water's edge and had extensive lands in the surrounding area, whilst the Cistercians of the nearby Llantarnam Abbey and Tintern Abbey operated large granges here. Monastic estates in and around Magor, Undy, Redwick, Porton, Goldcliff and Nash were thus key agents in the on-going reclamation and landscape development seen during the medieval period.

My introduction to this table-top flat watery landscape of marching pylons, vast skies, somnolent villages, meadows bounded by reens (drainage channels) and birdsong - hemmed in and encroached upon by the looming but strangely unseen urban edge of Newport and the Llanwern Steeworks complex - will be followed by further visits and discovery. I hope not only to provide further detail on the landscape history of the area, but also to apply a deep topography sensibility; providing some westward psychogeographical momentum, away from the equally estuarine and history-soaked flatlands of Essex and East Anglia


Rippon, S, 1996. The Gwent Levels: evolution of a wetland landscape. CBA.

Williams, D, 1976. White Monks in Gwent and the Border. Griffin Press.

Williams, M, 1975. The Making of the South Wales Landscape. Hodder and Stoughton.


Thursday, 28 May 2015

Reverie in tranquil industry

Like much of the surviving relict remains of the explosion of industrial activity in Britain in the late eighteenth century and the Victorian era, Sapperton canal tunnel has been slowly and incrementally seeping back into the landscape from which it came. Pandaemonium and rupture replaced by quiescent stillness. Transporting the Thames and Severn Canal through the Cotswold hills the tunnel was opened in 1789 and, at two and a half miles long, was and is one of the longest in the country: the HS2 of its day.  

Coming across the crenellated western entrance of the tunnel during an early summer afternoon and returning in the gloaming, hallooing bats from the murk, evokes a feeling of antiquarian discovery. How strange that an example of what was raged at as the disfigurement of picturesque landscapes has become, with obsoletion, time and benign neglect, an organic component of the terrain that it scarred; recolonised by endlessly patient displaced flora and fauna and stillness.

Returning through wild garlic abundance alongside the silted channel to the camping field downslope from the magnificently unchanging Daneway Inn, once lodgings for the men who propelled the narrowboats through the tunnel by 'legging' - using their feet on the tunnel walls, I enter a Rousseau-like reverie contemplating the tranquillity of exhausted human endeavour.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Topographical legacies of monasticism: evolving perceptions and realities of monastic estate landscapes in the south eastern Welsh Marches

I will be commencing a full time PhD at the University of Exeter in September. Here is my research proposal; the landscapes and places that will be occupying my time, inspiring me and driving me to distration over the next three years. If anyone has any expertise, knowledge or interest in the subject matter outlined here I would be delighted to hear from you.

Monastic estates, in contradistinction to monastic buildings, have traditionally received limited attention from landscape archaeologists and historians and few previous studies have attempted to examine the subsequent evolution of these estates beyond the Dissolution within the context of their monastic period antecedents (Bond, 2004; Everson and Stocker, 2007). However, a number of more recent agenda-setting publications (Aston 2007; Austin, 2004; Bezant, 2014; Walsham, 2011) have offered new methodological and theoretical frameworks to begin to address this subject, thus providing the foundation, impetus and broader context for this proposal. Examining in detail landscapes associated with a number of monastic houses in the south-eastern Welsh Marches and tracing their later trajectory, this thesis will assess the impact and legacy of monasticism on the historic landscape up to the present day, stretching the chronological survey of such landscapes into the post-Dissolution era and bridging the gap between medieval and post-medieval landscape study.

Adopting an interdisciplinary and multi-layered approach to the landscape, the core emphasis on tracing and accounting for the physical changes evident within the study area will be supported by an examination of the shifting perceptions of cultural and economic value, of landscape meaning and memory, which such changes reveal or provoke (Cosgrove, 2008; Schama, 1996).  Consequently, conventional themes long dominant in landscape historical and archaeological discourse such as ownership and land management will be addressed, but interweaved with the discipline’s more recent interest in how places and landscapes are perceived, appreciated and codified in both the past and present (Johnson 2007; Whyte, 2009; Wylie 2007).

This research will be driven by a number of core questions:
  • Can distinct medieval ‘monastic’ landscape types or even, in Whyte’s words (2009), “religious topographies” be identified?
  • What was the legacy of monasticism for subsequent secular landscape development?
  • Is there any commonality in the post-Dissolution evolution of monastic estates as they were transformed from economic and religious spaces into, for instance, idealised designed landscapes in the early modern period, or designated heritage and touristic landscapes in more recent times?
  • What historic and contemporary perceptions, reactions and emotions have these transfigurations engendered?
The south-eastern portion of the Welsh Marches, encompassing the historic counties of Brecknockshire, Monmouthshire, Glamorgan and Herefordshire has been carefully selected for its high potential to address the specific research questions posed here (Burton and Stober 2013). This area contains a mixture of pays— of both upland and lowland, and champion and bocage landscape character — offering a variety of physical settings in which to explore the human dimensions of landscape creation over the long term (Leighton and Silvester, 2003; Rowley, 2001). The region was also colonized by a number of religious orders during the middle ages. This provides the context to examine the estate organisation of specific religious orders as well as the particular landscape arrangements of individual houses. The wider geo-political dimension at play in the region during the medieval period—for example the establishment of monastic estates as a symbol of Norman colonisation, power and control in a contested borderland—provides an additional dynamic to enrich discussion on the cultural impact of these landscapes (Burton and Stober, 2013; Rowley, 2001). There is also considerable variation in the post-Dissolution histories of these monasteries: some became ruinous, with their estates broken up, whilst others were converted into gentry houses with associated landscaped estates.  The area has long attracted the attention of the artistic community, opening up the opportunity to explore the monastic legacy underpinning the evolution of these landscapes as cultural, spiritual, and artistic touchstones (Andrews, 1999). Finally, reflecting the desire to trace development to the present day, many of the monastic estates are located in what are now designated spaces or countryside on the edge of post-industrial urban areas; terrains viewed through the contemporary lens of high heritage and ecological value, but also facing competing pressures for change.

An interdisciplinary approach will be adopted from the outset integrating topographical, archaeological and historical evidence supplemented by analysis of literary and artistic sources, oral histories and contemporary opinion.  Examination will be multi-scale, with general surveys of the whole area supplemented by three detailed case studies chosen to ensure a reflection of the range of complex landscape histories it contains (the short-list of monastic houses for the case studies are: Craswall, Dore, Goldcliff, Llanthony, Llantharnam and Tintern).  Criteria in their selection will include: monastic order; landscape character and pays-type; heritage and conservation designations and value (including economic); current ‘risks’ of landscape degradation and fragmentation; access and ownership considerations; and availability of archive and research materials.
Foundational to the research will be to categorize, record, and map monastic features in the case study landscapes (including religious buildings, farmsteads and granges, field systems, communication routes and other infrastructure). GIS will be used to integrate, analyse and present modern and historic maps and plans, aerial photographs and satellite images, place- and field-names, and data layers from HER and archival records.  A limited sample of targeted fieldwork will be conducted on key features, focussed on rapid field assessment and measured surveys.  Once reconstructed, the ‘monastic era’ features of the case study landscapes will be analysed to identify and catalogue post-Dissolution continuity and change: patterns of preservation, adaption and despoliation.

A dual approach will be taken to the analysis and comprehension of shifting perceptions of the case study landscapes, of how such places are envisioned and represented (Andrews, 1999; Cosgrove, 2008; DeLue and Elkins, 2008).  Written, artistic, and cartographical landscape descriptions and depictions—from monastic records, folkloric representations, the works of antiquarians and the Romantics, through to diverse twentieth and twenty-first century viewpoints—will be examined.  This will be supplemented by survey and interview of a representative sample of those who work in, manage and visit these landscapes, including: National Park staff, walkers on Offa’s Dyke National Trail, local farmers, artists and residents, visitors to heritage sites, members of local societies, and those involved in outdoor pursuits. Social media will be used to engage with on-line conversations relating to the spatial and thematic subject matter of the study. 

Transcribed versions of documents from the monastic period, for instance Ecclesiastical Taxation (1291), Valor Ecclesiasticus (1535), Calendars of Ancient Deeds, Charter and Patent Rolls and other contemporary administrative and legal papers, will be reviewed for primary source references to topographical and tenurial information relating to the case study areas, as well as cartularies where they exist. Reference will also be made to antiquarian studies describing post medieval and early modern estates previously held by monastic houses in the study area, such as Beaumont’s A Tour throughout South Wales and Monmouthshire (1803) and Dugdale’s Monasticon Anglicanum (1655-1673). National and local archives and HER’s will be consulted to review archaeological reports, estate and tithe maps and other source documents. Ordnance Survey maps will be accessed digitally from the Digimap on-line resource. Aerial photographs and satellite imagery will be obtained from the RCAHM (Wales) and English Heritage’s on-line archive and Google Earth. A useful on-line research resource for the study will be the Monastic Wales web site (http://www.monasticwales.org/), which provides listings of primary and secondary sources for all monastic houses in Wales. Other sources will also help to identify patterns of perception over time relating to the case study landscapes, including the work and commentaries of artists and writers (ranging from Giraldus’ The Journey through Wales to Wordsworth’s locally inspired output, through to more contemporary observers such as Raymond Williams and Owen Sheers), local folkloric tales and visitor survey data published by heritage and conservation bodies.

More than just the passive subject of our gaze or the repository for archaeological features of clearly demarcated temporal periods, in the words of Robert Macfarlane (2012), “landscape is not something to be viewed and appraised from a distance” but is “dynamic and commotion causing”, a collective term for the diverse components “that together comprise the brisling presence of a particular place”. This proposal outlines a vision for a work which, though rooted in the established practices of landscape archaeology and history, demonstrates a multi-dimensional approach based on the study of landscape as just such a many layered construct (Fleming, 2008; Johnson, 2007). In this case, exploring these ideas through a regional examination of the topographical legacies of monasticism imprinted in the evolving realities and perceptions of diverse monastic estate landscapes over time.

Ultimately the aim is to provide a coherent narrative – a biography of both the real and the imagined – for these particular places with complex pasts and presents in order to help inform contemporary decisions on how they are managed, utilised and presented to the wider public on a landscape scale now and in the future. For this is an urgent need, now more than ever, as competing pressures of land use (agriculture, housing, energy supply, amenity and so on) play out across rural Britain and the cultural and economic value of ‘heritage assets’ is increasingly seen to be realised on a landscape rather than a fragmented site-based level (Fowler, 2004; Rippon, 2004).    


Andrews, M, 1999. Landscape and Western Art. Oxford University Press.
Aston, M, 2007. Monasteries in the Landscape. Tempus.
Austin, D, 2004. Strata Florida and its landscape in Archaeol Cambrensis 153, 192-201.
Austin, D, 2006. The Future: Discourse, Objectives and Directions in Roberts, K (Ed.) Lost Farmsteads: Deserted Rural Settlements in Wales. Council for British Archaeology.
Bezant, J, 2014. Revising the monastic ‘grange’: Problems at the edge of the Cistercian world in Journal of Medieval Monastic Studies.
Bond, J, 2004. Monastic Landscapes. Tempus.
Burton, J and Stober, K (Eds), 2013. Monastic Wales, New Approaches. University of Wales Press.
Cosgrove, D, 2008. Geography and Vision: Seeing, Imagining and Representing the World. Tauris.
DeLue, R and Elkins, J (Eds.), 2008. Landscape Theory: The Art Seminar. Routledge.
Everson, P and Stocker, D, 2007. St Leonard’s at Kirkstead, Lincolnshire: The Landscape of the Cistercian Monastic Precinct in Gardiner, M and Rippon, S (Eds.) Medieval Landscapes. Windgather Press.
Fleming, A, 2008. Debating Landscape Archaeology in Landscapes 9.1 74-76.
Fowler, P, 2004. Landscapes for the World: Conserving a Global Heritage. Windgather Press.
Johnson, M, 2007. Ideas of Landscape. Blackwell.
Leighton, D and Silvester, R, 2003. Upland Archaeology in the Medieval and Post-medieval Periods in Browne, D and Hughes, S (Eds.) The Archaeology of the Welsh Uplands. Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (RCAHMW).
Macfarlane, R, 2012. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. Hamish Hamilton.
Rippon, S, 2004. Historic Landscape Analysis: Deciphering the Countryside. Council for British Archaeology.
Rowley, T, 2001. The Welsh Border: Archaeology, History and Landscape. Tempus.
Schama, S, 1996. Landscape and Memory. Fontana Press.
Walsham, A. 2011. The reformation of the landscape: religion, identity, and memory in early modern Britain and Ireland. Oxford University Press.
Whyte, N, 2009. Inhabiting the Landscape: Place, Custom and Memory, 1500-1800. Windgather Press.
Wylie, J, 2007. Landscape. Routledge.