Wednesday, 16 April 2014

There is no time like Spring

"There is no time like Spring, when life's alive in everything." Christina Rossetti, Spring.

This post is nothing more than a visual reminder; a reminder that beauty and simplicity are still very much abroad in the landscape. Especially on a blue-skied early Spring day, taking a walk in the empyrean setting of the Black Mountains, where the green fields of England reach up to the hill country of Wales.

Rhiw tracks traversing the hillside, Lady's Smock and Wood Anemone repeating their ancestral awakenings, and the unreconstructed farmstead of Little Llwygy and Ty Canol field barn holding out against modernity.

"On our way we passed through a maze of hills and valleys, through woods, by deep lanes, by paths over sunken lands; we could see no distances." Arthur Machen, Introduction to 1916 edition of The Great God Pan.

"To-day I want the sky,
The tops of the high hills,
Above the last man's house,
His hedges, and his cows,
Where, if I will, I look
Down even on sheep and rook,
And of all things that move
See buzzards only above:
Past all trees, past furze
And thorn, where nought deters
The desire of the eye
For sky, nothing but sky."
Edward Thomas, The Lofty Sky.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Keatsian edgelands

Continuing the motorway-edgelands-psychogeographical theme of my last post, thank you to Christopher Ian Smith for alerting me to his short film, Arterial: an interpretation of John Keats poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci, transposed to a modern, edgeland setting.

ARTERIAL from Modern on Vimeo.

Looks like Modern Moving Images has some other intriguing projects in production.


And here is Keats’ original ballad, inspiration for many a Pre-Raphaelite painter, including Arthur Hughes (left), in full:

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Soft Estate: Edgelands as wilderness, or the new Picturesque

M2 Medway Services Eastbound 2013
Oil on shellac on linen 180 × 140 cm; Edward Chell

Soft Estate is the title of a fascinating and handsomely produced new book by the artist Edward Chell, with other notable contributions, that adds to the growing corpus of writing, and artistic output, engaging with edgelands and other previously neglected liminal landscapes. The title derives from the Highways Agency description of the natural habitats on the edge of motorways and trunk roads. The book, distributed by Cornerhouse, looks at how these borders offer a refuge for wildlife and a modern form of wilderness. In the author's words:
“While 18th Century tourists travelled to areas such as the Lake District to capture images of wild places, in today’s countryside, uncontrolled wilderness only springs up in the margins of our transport networks and the semi-derelict grid plans of industrialised corridors. These soft estates invite a new kind of tourist, new ways of looking and new forms of visual representation.”
Of course, this is not completely new territory - Richard Mabey and Marion Shoard have long blazed a trail for a greater acknowledgement and understanding of new relationships between post-industrial society and tenacious natural environments - as Bryan Biggs points out in the book's foreword, and expanded on in my review of another recent book, Urban Wildscapes (Eds. Anna Jorgensen and Richard Keenan). Mabey, so adept at perceptive and well-rounded commentary on the ragged edges of the natural world, contributes to the book with his essay, Hidden Dips, which celebrates 'natures irrepressible inventiveness' in the seemingly hostile context of motorway topography; highlighting, for instance, the resemblance of the monumental Spaghetti Junction interchange near Birmingham ('a concrete village green') to 'a gigantic piece of Land Art', and the spread of hardy plant species such as Danish scurvy grass (which he dubs 'wayfrost') throughout the road network, attracted by the saltiness of its tarmacadam host. 

The central argument of the book is that there is a 'connective visual experience' between the Picturesque designed landscapes of the eighteenth century and the modern motorway infrastructure, which both acts as a network to visit the fossilised National Trust world of stately homes and deer parks and also mimics the use of reveals, curves, inclines and other architectural conceits to mediate the relationship with, and views of, the surrounding environment. Moreover, the inclusion of ruins and follies as a key component of the Picturesque view is today replicated by the scenes of ruination and dereliction in the edgelands through which trunk roads, bypasses and motorways often pass. 

The parallel between the designed landscapes of the Picturesque, commissioned by an elite for their own pleasure and as symbols of status and refinement, and the functional infrastructure of modern communication networks is, perhaps, a little over-stated. However, this is a compelling and well-articulated case. In some respects, it is self-evident that the shadow of Lancelot 'Capability' Brown and the other titan's of the age who re-imagined the vast grounds of the gentry 250 years ago looms large, overtly or subliminally, over the work of modern landscape designers, developers and planners. The use of tree planting, lakes and water features, bridges and carefully planned vegetation to 'soften' transport infrastructure and other new build developments is the result of this legacy, and plain to see. Whether you think this is a necessary process to help create a connection with the wider historic landscape or unimaginative, derivative and mass-produced sops to a backward-looking view of the countryside depends on your perception; and, when it comes to landscape of course, perception is all.

It is certainly interesting to see the well presented images of examples of landscape features from both forms of designed landscapes side by side, challenging my initial view that they were unlikely bed-fellows. For instance, the complex set of water features developed by Brown at Croome Court Park, Worcestershire in 1760, which do bring to mind the latter-day carefully constructed 'naturalness' of lakes and ponds that are so often used to soften (as well as providing flood control for) the commercial functionality of motorways, trunk roads, and their adjacent hinterland of business parks and retail complexes. As the author states, despite their inspiration in the imagery of Classical antiquity,
"The industrial dimensions of some of these artificial retreats (of the eighteenth century), where history, dreams and money collided, have more in common with Meadow Hall or Bluewater than with Epidaurus or Paestum".      
It is also the case that these two landscape types have a shared sense of year zero and dislocation from what went before, which separates them from much landscape development, characterised by evolution and adaptation. In the same way that the designers of the Picturesque and their patrons had no qualms about re-engineering natural morphology or demolishing or moving inconveniently situated buildings, so the motorway and its infrastructure often obliterates and destroys the existing terrain through which it passes. Palimpsest is an overused trope when it comes to landscape, but the overlay of what went before with a new canvas is exactly what we can see here.  

As this conjoining of apparently binary era's and aesthetics filters into your perception, the other parallels that the book travels through (literally, along the M4 as it traverses 'a golden triangle' of great houses and their parks) come into clearer sight: mock Chinese bridges and concrete flyovers, the carefully managed access routes and viewpoints around country estates and food distribution complexes, and the tedium through time of long-distance travel stop-offs at both coaching inns and motorway service stations. It can, though, often take something of a leap of the imagination to view contemporary utilitarian blandness on a par with architecture that has had the luxury of time to bed into its landscape. Much fits with Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts melancholy description: "Nameless bridge, its cast concrete walls and pillars are dark with run-off stains and vertical deltas of algae ... It is a barely registered, blink-of-an-eye place" (from Edgelands: Journeys into England's true wilderness). However, in some instances, the functional modern out-performs the historic in terms of grandeur. The M40 cutting through the Chilterns at Stockenchurch is described here in poetic terms:
"As the motorway begins to descend to the west, the cutting is heralded and framed by a high-arched single-span bridge. Progressing through what is a sculpted and gradual transition curve, the view beyond towards Oxford is revealed and, despite what is coming already being known, always has an element of visual catharsis". 
A personal favourite motorway landscape, connecting the ancient to the modern, is the windswept section of the M62 that traverses the high moorland of the mid-Pennines Lancashire-Yorkshire border at its bleakest; Stott Hall Farm a particular highlight, a Yorkshire yeoman's farmstead standing firm and unwilling to budge as the east and westward carriageways part to go round it. This is a different take on the territory that Iain Sinclair explores in his epic tramp around the M25, as described in London Orbital. To Sinclair the motorway was "...a conceptual ha-ha (marking) the boundary of whatever could be called London". But you sense that the road is there to be used as a devise for meditations on the places and histories through which it passes, rather than explored as part of the landscape itself. 
Image from

Imagery and illustrations are often regrettably absent or of poor quality in books on landscape themes. This is emphastically not the case with Soft Estate, which is stacked full of high quality photographs of landscaped parkland, wild flowers and motorway topography. The most impressive are the images of the author's own artistic work - paintings, prints, and objects, made using a variety of materials including road dust and etched car parts (see examples above and below). His work takes part inspiration from the vibrant plates displaying exotic flora of the New World found within Victorian natural history compendium's, but also plays with notions of the 'carbon footprint' of the subject matter of the book by literally being composed of the pollutants - oil and dust - that our motorised society exhales. The prominence of wild flowers and plants in this work articulates another theme of the book, the quite staggering (and heartening) volume and diversity of vegetation that inhabits the soft estate, particularly now that the agencies responsible for this terrain seem to have moved to a more enlightened and naturalistic vision of landscape management: the near 10 million trees planted in the 1960's and early 70's alone; the vast colonies of crocus, columbine, Jacob's ladder, wild tulips, daffodils, foxglove, fritillary, primrose and more that have found a safe haven from habitat loss.

Creeping buttercup Ranunculus repens 2013
Acrylic on lacquer on gesso panel 28 x 23cm; Edward Chell
Partical 10 Mantel Stick (one of a pair) 2013
Laser etched stainless steel middle box silencer on stand
40.75 x 25.5 x 11.5 cm; Edward Chell

Where I would take issue with the books narrative, is the claim (oft repeated elsewhere) that the verges and unmanaged spaces that make up the 'soft estate' provide a last refuge for wildlife; a wilderness in the midst of harsh urbanisation juxtaposed with industrialised agriculture. Of course, intensification of agriculture and increased urban development, and the attendant degradation of natural ecosystems, have been a feature of Britain and the developed world (and increasingly, developing societies) since the agrarian and industrial revolutions that picked up pace in the mid nineteenth century. However, the picture is complex and multi-layered, with ebbs and flows in the health and wealth of the landscape, both spatial and temporal. The idea that a sense of wildness and engagement with the natural world can only now be found in these limited and often relatively uninspiring places (and in some cases, non-places) is, in my view, misguided; an idea that I have expanded upon in my blog post, Finding wildness: places to be left alone with yourself.  

The book, in emphasising the beauty and interest that can undoubtably be found in what could be called 'motorscapes' also has one curious omission. There is limited mention, and visual imagery, of the fuel, litter and noise pollution that is a significant element of the motorway and road network, perhaps even its defining feature. I have no doubt that a journey in the eighteenth century would have also included plenty of unpleasant sights (and smells), a fact we are shielded from by the pristine televisual imagery of costume drama's. However, it is certainly hard to separate out the aesthetic pleasures that a motorway journey provides from the pervasive acrid smell of petrol, plastic detritus of overblown consumerism and metronomic roar of engine and rubber on tarmac. Of course it could be argued that such associations already dominate mainstream perceptions (in as much as they exist in the popular consciousness) and there is, therefore, value in counter-balancing this with the positivity and novel viewpoint that the book provides.

Long journeys on motorways have always been an opportunity to glimpse into the half-scenes which you pass, to wonder about what lies beyond. Reading and viewing this book has also made me look at the more immediate surroundings in a new way. So next time you are stuck in a tedious traffic jam on a motorway, you have a choice. To either feel trapped - dislocated and shielded from the outside world - only able to experience the road, in Iain Sinclair's words as a "...dull silvertop that acts as a prophylactic between driver and landscape"; or you can realise that around you is a new world of visual stimuli, designed and sculptured by rational hands, but also strangely wild and unsurveyed. 

Alongside the publication of the book, the Bluecoat arts centre in Liverpool has recently held a Soft Estate exhibition featuring the work of Edward and a number of other artists presenting work on a similar theme, which has now moved on to Spacex in Exeter. A description of the exhibition and further musings on the subject matter can be found on Gerry Cordon's always thought-provoking That's how the light gets in blog. An interesting short review of the book can also be found on The New English Landscape blog.

Here is a preview of the Soft Estate exhibition:

Thursday, 13 February 2014

'If any solitary wanderers read these notes...'

The delight of opening a book at a random page and finding ...

“This aerial photo might be of many of the hundreds of hidden places in England: here it is used as a diagram to illustrate the fate of ‘escapists’ …”.

Wasdale in the Lake District

The Land of England - Dorothy Hartley (1979) 

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Wyrd Britannia

The current popular narrative on libraries is generally pretty negative: under threat, marginalised in the digital age etc. How refreshing to come across Calderdale Libraries in West Yorkshire curating Wyrd Britannia, a season of special events exploring themes of landscape, folklore, ritual and psychedelia: books and DVD's, authors talks, live film and music. 

In the last few years there has been, if you will excuse the pun, a mushrooming interest in a new (or not so new) psychedelic landscape, crossing many esoteric spectrums; terrain to be explored in more depth here soon. In the meantime, have a look here:

Sunday, 2 February 2014

We are the mountain people

This photograph was taken in the gloaming time as a clear-skied winter night was drawing in, following a perfect day on the Hatterrall ridge in the Black Mountains; walking and working on the watershed that presents a physical manifestation of the, in reality more culturally fluid and shape-shifting, border between England and Wales.

The technical quality of the image may not be the best, but it captures the light, the colours of this transitional time of day. Looking at it, I am also reminded of the magical pull that this place, this self-contained and enduringly mysterious old red sandstone massif, has had on me for the last ten years or so.

Having spent several weeks immersed in the prehistoric world recreated in Raymond Williams' People of the Black Mountains, energised by the on-going rain and wind-lashed endevours of the Black Mountains Upland Path Volunteers and with a potential landscape archaeology research project focussed on the area in the pipeline, this topographical fascination looks set to continue and deepen.   

For those of us lucky enough to find a place like this, we are indeed the mountain people:

They'll seek us in the valley
They'll seek us on the plain
They own the milk and runny honey
And they're not quite the same

And we
Live together under
Oak trees
In the dark 
We make sparks
So unique
We're the mountain people

Super Furry Animals - We Are the Mountain People

Saturday, 4 January 2014

On lynchets

Hinton, South Gloucestershire
Anyone with an interest in landscape archaeology and landscape history will know well the earthworks, mounds, ditches and ancient trackways that abound across the British Isles: the barrows, hillforts and ‘Celtic’ field systems of prehistory; the motte and bailey fortifications, ridge and furrow patterns, deserted village ‘lumps and bumps’ and holloways of the medieval period.

Sometimes hard to trace on the ground or on maps such features are brought strikingly to life through aerial photographs and, perhaps most clearly, topographical survey plans. There is something deeply aesthetically pleasing about the way the hachured symbols of the plan bring clarity, order and beauty to even the most functionally mundane relic of past human endeavour.

Once you know what to look for, identifying these features enhances time spent out in the landscape. A walk in even the seemingly most unspectacular country can yield a dried up fishpond hidden in the brambles, pillow mounds in which rabbits were once bred as much needed peasant meat or the trace of a World War II gun emplacement.

The earthwork relic that has come to fascinate me the most is the medieval strip lynchet (from the Old English hlinc - 'ridges, terraces of sloping ground'). Lynchets manifest themselves as a series or flight of stepped terraces, normally visible on now turfed hill-sides. Most prevalent in the steep-sided valleys of the South West, the Cotswolds and North Yorkshire (where they are known as 'raines') but also found in hill country across many parts of Britain, they represent the fossilised remains of ploughing; essentially the hill slope equivalent (and sometimes an extension) of the more widely known ridge and furrow patterns on level ground. Not necessarily consciously created as a feature in themselves, though some initial construction may have been required on the steepest ground, the lynchets are the result of the repeated action of the plough's mould-board turning the loosened soil outwards and downwards; over time forming a level strip or tread for cultivation with a scarp slope (a 'riser') down to the next strip below. Generally, and reflecting the practical nature of their creation, they follow the contour lines of the natural slope and are usually between 60 and 250 yards in length.   

Hawkesbury Upton, the Cotswolds
Cold Ashton, the Cotswolds

Originally thought to be evidence of Roman or medieval vineyards (in the Pennines?), more detailed study has now clearly shown that, in most cases, they represent the communal efforts of medieval peasant farmers to bring marginal hilly ground into cultivation where the supply of good quality lower level arable land was in short supply; in the words of Richard Muir, '... it seems likely that many systems of strip lynchets exist as memorials to communities afflicted by overpopulation and landhunger'. During the early fourteenth century, and up to the onset of the Black Death in 1348, the population had seen sustained increases that were putting huge pressures on the agricultural resources then available. It is during this period that, through sheer desperation and much arduous effort, the ploughing of this tough ground would have mostly taken place. Once formed, the terraced tread would provide new fertile land on which to grow corn and other crops, as well as richer grazing for animals. Probably the most well-known example of medieval lynchets are the terraces that adorn the steep slopes of Glastonbury Tor, although no doubt there are other less utilitarian theories as to their origin in this sacred place. Of course, this is not purely a medieval or British landscape feature, as the terraced hill-sides of the uplands of South America and Asia testify. 

Dyrham, South Gloucestershire
As pressure on the land reduced due to a falling population post the Black Death, and contemporaneous with the desertion of whole settlements and other areas of cultivation, many lynchets would have returned to marginal pasture or scrub land. However, and as ever, this was not a planned and uniform development. In some areas cultivation may have continued until the processes of enclosure began to take root in the later medieval period, with such land then turned over to sheep. In other cases the formations that we see today were fossilised in the deer parks and Arcadian designed landscapes of country houses; yet another form of dispossession of the many by the few. There are a few places, like Coombe Bisset in Wiltshire, where terraced lynchets have remained in cultivation up to the present day, though this is normally on gentler slopes.

Lynchets in parkland, Milnthorpe, Lancashire

Appletreewick, Wharfedale, Yorkshire Dales
As with other topographical features there is scope for misinterpretation when examining lynchets. Natural features formed by processes of erosion, soil creep and river action can be mistaken for man-made terraces, particularly at a distance. Some lynchets can also be found that are likely to be prehistoric in origin. The best examples are in the chalk downland of Wessex and south-east England, rectangular in character and much wider (often in excess of 100 feet) than their medieval counterparts. Although less is known of the origins and use of these systems, it would seem likely that they were abandoned when settlements began to move down to the more fertile soils of the valleys and remain as traces of early organised agriculture on the dry, thin-soiled turf of the downs.   

Hinton, South Gloucestershire
For me the poignancy of strip lynchets is that, unlike the topographical reminder of elites and power embodied by say a Neolithic barrow or an Iron Age hillfort, they are examples of hard-won everyday landscape features created by working people: the very people whose toil set the template for the countryside we see today in many parts of the British Isles. They also remind us, however, of the changing character of the landscape; the seemingly timeless pastoral, sheep-cropped scene beloved of photographers of the Yorkshire Dales or the Cotswolds that was once the stage for a thousand peasant families and communities using their collective labour and ingenuity to avoid famine.

Wharfedale, Yorkshire Dales


Aston, M, 2004. Interpreting the Landscape: Landscape Archaeology and Local History. Routledge.

Baker, A and Butlin, R (Eds.), 1973. Studies of Field Systems in the British Isles. Cambridge University Press.

Cunliffe, B (Ed.), 2006. England's Landscape: The West. Harper Collins. 

Field, J, 1989. English Field Names: A Dictionary. Alan Sutton.

Hoskins, W, 1985. The Making of the English Landscape. Penguin.

Muir, R, 2004. Landscape Encyclopedia. Windgather Press.

Platt, C, 1978. Medieval England: A Social History and Archaeology from the Conquest to 1600AD. Routledge.

Raistrick, A, 1979. The Making of the English Landscape: West Riding of Yorkshire. Hodder and Stoughton.

Taylor, C, 1975. Fields in the English Landscape. Dent.

Taylor, C, 1974. Fieldwork in Medieval Archaeology. Batsford.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

A midwinter hand-list #2

I have succumbed to the urge for reflective list-making that the end of the year brings. Here are ten works and discoveries, all loosely related to landscape and sense of place, that, for whatever reason, I have found interesting during 2013; following up on last years midwinter hand-list

All hail the new psychedelic puritans
My favourite film of the year was undoubtedly Ben Wheatley's A Field In England; a study of hallucinogens, esoteric knowledge and seeking out an inn during the English Civil War. Set entirely in a field (in Monmouthshire as it happens) and imaginatively shot in black and white, this is a film that benefits from repeat viewings to reveal its layered narrative.  

The final harvest home 

Jim Crace's final novel, Harvest, was favourite to win the 2013 Man Booker prize but in the event was pipped at the post. However, I thoroughly enjoyed this slowly rhythmic hymnal to the dying days of an unnamed remote village, as its communal fields are on the verge of transformation by forcible enclosure.   


An essay on the everyday other worldliness of the Essex landscape 
I reviewed The New English Landscape recently for the Caught By The River web site. This is a thoughtfully persuasive reflection by Ken Worpole and Jason Orton on the eastward shift of ideas, art and writing on ecology and landscape to envelop not just a previously neglected region, Essex and East Anglia, but also changing perceptions of what constitutes places worthy of comment and study.

A folk horror discovery
More from the endless BFI archive: Robin Redbreast is a BBC Play for Today broadcast in 1970, the themes of which - outsider entering an insular rural community, eccentric folk rituals morphing into dread and horror - foreshadowed those of The Wicker Man. The latter has of course become a perhaps overexposed cult classic, the former is a real gem that I had not even heard of until a few months ago (thank you Twitter!).

Lonesome Dreams by Lord Huron, a 'folk-rock Thoreau', was an album that timelessly evoked the big skies and horizons of America and sound-tracked my summer reading of Cormac McCarthy's bleakly magnificent Blood Meridian.

A trespass way: unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene
This was a subversively enjoyable exercise in pedestrian disobedience over nine miles of the southern Cotswolds avoiding public rights of way, as described in a Landscapism blog post earlier this year. 

'The oaks, the rivers, the stones, those things that laugh last'
A blog that I came across this year and have particularly enjoyed is Whistles in the Wind, which includes a wide range of content on subjects around 'Books and films and music, art and design, Albion and Ambrosia', with a particular emphasis on the atmosphere of the early sixties up to the late seventies. It was a great post on After London: Dreaming Wild England that first drew me to the site.

'Always, always, always the sea'
Yet another fine release by the BFI, From the Sea to the Land Beyond brought together a collage of archive footage, largely from the first half of the twentieth century, chronicling life on Britain's coastline: shipyards, seaside towns, fishing fleets and coastal topography. British Sea Power provide the accompanying soundtrack, now released in its own right.  

Severn crossings of the River Severn
A watery theme also for a favourite day of landscape discovery, exploring the estuarine topography and foreshore archaeology associated with crossings of the lower River Severn, including the melancholy delight of the boat graveyard at Purton.

The Full English
The English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) launched The Full English this year, a fascinatingly comprehensive digital archive of early 20th century manuscripts of folk songs, tunes and dances.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Landscape in Particular: The Uffington White Horse and Wayland's Smithy

"I write with very cold hands, the White Horse twenty to thirty yards below me to my right ... and the sun breaks through suddenly and warms my aching soul. Long shadows across the man-made fortifications below - long shadows and a Blakean arc of rays cuts the cold and draws me into its eternal glow ... Earthworks abound and I cannot help but scan the horizon ... The shadows lengthen and more peace ... White chalk routes cut these hills and stalk out this endless greenery. Greenery. Ha, ha! A delirious man awake and awash in a sea of green."

So reads Julian Cope's entry for Uffington White Horse in his survey of the sites of Megalithic Britain, The Modern Antiquarian; and I share Cope's cold hands and sense of awakeness as I view the same scene on a day of equally long shadows and arcing sunlight. My time would be spent on the wild downland overlooking the Vale of the White Horse, encompassing the historic boundaries between Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire and presenting a curious mix of the pastoral and the functional in the form of the sprawl of Swindon, the mainline railway from London to Wales and the West Country, and the RAF air bases of Fairford and Brize Norton. The 'thud, thud, thud' of Sea King helicopters from the latter would regularly punctuate the day's soundscape; with the title track from PJ Harvey's 2007 album, White Chalk, providing the more appealing counterpoint pulsing through my thoughts.

XTC - English Settlement album cover
"High on a hilltop wind-swept site: the pagan horse in chalk scratched white." Opening line from a framed poem in All Saint's Church, Woolstone.

The Uffington White Horse is a well known and highly stylised landscape symbol, its singularity undimmed by familiarity (and now seemingly reproduced in Mexico). Although widely acknowledged as probably the most ancient of the numerous hill-figures across the high ground of Wessex, there are various theories about its origins. From folklore we have the story that the horse was carved to celebrate King Alfred's victory over the Danes at the Battle of Ashdown in 871, believed to have taken place locally. However, excavated silt analysed in the 1990's was dated to the first millennium BC. This evidence would support the view that the figure is in fact a tribal emblem carved during the Iron Age as a territorial indicator, probably by the Dobunni tribe of this region. More fanciful theories have positioned the horse as a fertility symbol or star marker, designed to be viewed from the heavens rather than from below. Commanding the heights above the chalk-cut horse, and adjacent to the passing Ridgeway path, is Uffington Castle, an Iron Age hillfort dating from the 7th century BC. A carnival and fair was traditionally held within its bounds during the scouring undertaken every seven years to renew the chalk.    

Close-up the lines of the iconic chalk figure take on the strangely mundane appearance of golf course bunkers. Treading the curving white paths of the horse I made my way down slope and then up to Dragon Hill, a natural chalk outlier of the main ridge artificially levelled to give a distinctive flat-topped appearance. The hill is named for the local legend that St George here slew the dragon. It is said that nothing has ever grown on a bare patch on the summit where the dragon's blood was spilt. A fascinating fiction.

The Manger is the name given to the steep-sided natural amphitheatre that forms the head of the dry valley below White Horse hill. In many ways this is the most intriguing element of the area's topography. Dropping into its depths, one is shadowed not only from the brightness of the low winter sun but also the surrounding ambient noise on this thin-aired day. Looking back up to the horse figure and hillfort this would seem the most dramatic way up to the monuments, and its easy to imagine this as a processional route designed to maximise climactic impact. Its also noticeable that here the natural morphology of one side of the valley gives it a distinctive whale-backed pattern, like a row of prehistoric long barrows. This use of natural features in the landscape to frame or influence prehistoric practices and monumental architecture, even to provide design inspiration, is fascinatingly investigated in Richard Bradley's An Archaeology of Natural Places.     

Looking up from within The Manger the horse is visible just below the ridge line, but a discussion with a National Trust Warden fixing fence posts reveals that it may have had an even more striking appearance from this vantage point. It is thought that the figure was considerably larger in the past and faint lines in the slope just below the current position may indicate that the legs were once much longer. Whether this is true or not, it seems much more plausible that the figure was designed to be seen by the human-eye from below, and from miles around, rather than a monument to be viewed from the air by the gods. The Warden also confirmed that the scouring to keep the figure white and clear of overgrowth is still regularly undertaken, though now using volunteers from far and wide rather than local villagers (who it seems were anyway somewhat press-ganged into the work by the Craven Estate, the big local landowner and employer).

After lunch - perhaps inevitably at The White Horse pub in nearby Woolstone (the village an amalgam of thatch, yew tree, woodsmoke and tasteful Farrow & Ball paint) - I made my way back up to the ridge via a sunken green lane. On the way passing Handwell Camp, another hillfort, its immense banks and ditches hidden in woodland and intriguingly cut into the scarp slope rather than occupying the top of the ridge as is more common. Having walked past the body of a dead roe fawn, my ascent was accompanied by something of a surge in wildlife, as I passed a number of deer scrapes and badger sets and observed a large flock of wood pigeons and several red kite, patrolling the thermals.  

The Vale of the White Horse (1939) by
Eric Rivilious
Cresting a ridge always provides the excitement of entering a new realm, steep slopes forming a liminal border that millennia of human activity cannot alter. At this time of year the seemingly endless undulating high country of the North Wessex Downs that now come into view to the south is a sea of brown, russet, orange and fading green; bringing to mind the chalkland landscapes of Eric Ravilious. Encouraged to linger in my gaze by the day's sharp light I ruminate on the fact that the current topographical scene is largely a construct of the enclosure and agricultural improvement of the last two centuries or so. The monuments that pepper theses uplands would have been born into surroundings dominated by open grassland, no doubt with patches of woodland much less orderly than the angular shelter-beds, breaks and copses seen today. The question of what is an authentic landscape is however a futile and unnecessary one. In any case, much of what we see is mere surface dressing, covering the unchanging - at least in timescales that we can comprehend - natural morphology. The lines of the land catch your eye whatever transient topographical cloak they are currently wearing.

My final stopping point of the day is Wayland's Smithy, a Neolithic long barrow a few metres from the Ridgeway and a mile and a half west of the Uffington monuments. Six huge sarsen slabs formed the facade of the mound (now partially reconstructed), which then tapers out over its length of 55 metres. A cruciform chamber at the entrance can still be entered. When the interior was excavated in 1919 the remains of at least eight people were found. Later archaeological investigation revealed more human remains and that the barrow was built on top of an even earlier structure. The name given to the barrow is an example of the awe in which later waves of civilisations held such monuments, to them the work surely of gods or giants. In this case the Anglo-Saxon god Wayland or Weland. Local legend has it that an invisible smith lived in the chamber, known as The Cave, and if a horse were left at the entrance with a penny it would be shod when the owner returned. This may be a case of folkloric confusion - perhaps linking the monument with the nearby white horse - as Weland was a swordsmith and armourer in English and Norse mythology (the maker of Beowulf's chain mail) not a blacksmith. 

The barrow is encased by an oval of beech, bristling in the wind. Although a relatively new addition to the scene - such high-status burial mounds were designed to be clearly visible - the trees somehow seem to frame the monument in a fitting way. This is now a place for tranquil contemplation rather than supernatural blacksmithery.

The return to my starting point followed the Ridgeway; the miles on view in each direction, aptly described by R. Hippisley Cox in The Green Roads of England as "a spreading view of middle England", dramatically lit as the day prepared for dusk. This now modest track is the Ur-superhighway of southern England, traversing the high ground of the Wiltshire and Berkshire Downs and the Chilterns for nearly 100 miles. The hillforts, barrows and other prehistoric structures along its route speaking not only of its antiquity but also the huge span of time during which it remained as an important communication route, before the network of roads we use today emerged during the medieval period to render it a backwater byway. 

On reaching the summit of White Horse Hill once more, a celestial vision met my gaze: Didcot Power Station bathed in a shaft of winter sunshine, like a frame from Patrick Keiller's (Oxfordshire set) Robinson in Ruins. A fitting end to a day of, in the words of Swindonian Andy Patridge, senses working overtime.

This is the latest in a regular-occasional series of posts on specific landscapes and places that are particularly meaningful to me, for whatever reason; after all, interest in the topographical is nothing without a feeling for sense of place: genius loci.

Previous 'Landscape in particular' posts:
Bolton Abbey


Bradley, R, 2000. An Archaeology of Natural Places. Routledge.

Conduit, B, 1997. Somerset, Wiltshire and the Mendips Walks. Jarrold.

Cope, J, 1998. The Modern Antiquarian: A Pre-Millennial Odyssey through Megalithic Britain. Thorsons.

Darvill, T, Stamper, P & Timby, J, 2002. England: An Archaeological Guide. Oxford University Press.

Hippisley Cox, R, 1973. The Green Roads of England. Garnstone.

Muir, R, 2004. Landscape Encyclopaedia: A Reference Guide to the Historic Landscape. Windgather.

Vale of the White Horse blog

Westwood, J, 1987. Albion: A Guide to Legendary Britain. Paladin.