Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Ash: the shaggy signs of Pan

Despite the obvious seriousness of the current ash dieback outbreak, I have to admit to having observed the crisis with a certain ambivalence towards this tree. However, today, walking the wooded combe's of the South Cotswold scarp, I was struck by how much ash is the dominant tree species in this landscape. Any significant loss of ash would radically alter the topographical character of the area, and the many others across Britain where it is similarly ubiquitous. Let us hope that the famed resilience of the ash, adaptability and quick growth offer some sort of resistance to the Chalara fraxinea fungus.


My walk began, appropriately enough, in the hamlet of Cold Ashton. And, stark and winter-bare, ash was the constant coda throughout the nine muddy miles: a knarled old pollard defiant in a field; dominating the hanging woods on the hillsides and the hedgerows of field and stream.  

Majesty lurks in the scruffy ugliness of the ash, summed up nicely by Roger Deakin: "There is something goat-footed about ash trees: the shaggy signs of Pan". But the utilitarianism of ash is its star quality, "its workmanlike resilience, foreshadows its practical virtues". William Cobbett cuts to the quick: "Laying aside this nonsense, however, of poets and painters, we have no tree of such various and extensive use as the Ash...It therefore demands our particular attention and from me, that attention it shall have". 

So here's to the ├Žsc ('spear' tree) and Yggdrasil ('World tree'), my constant companion on a benign winters day; and a tree not to be taken for granted. And lets hope that the words of Edward Thomas' poem 'The Ash Grove' prove to be prescient: "...But the moment unveiled something unwilling to die/ And I had what most I desired, without search or desert or cost."


...not forgetting the oak
...and the holly and the ivy


Cobbett, William, 2001 Rural Rides. London: Penguin

Deakin, Roger, 2007 Wildwood: A journey through trees. London: Penguin

Rackham, Oliver, 2001 Trees and Woodlands in the British Landscape. London: Penguin 

Thomas, Edward, 2004 Collected Poems. London: Faber and Faber

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Local topographies and vaster worlds: Hunters in the Snow

Cycling to and from work today, through a frozen, sub-zero landscape, I have been drawn into my favourite landscape painting, Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Hunters in the Snow.

The picture is one of a series of panels, completed in 1565, representing the activities of Flemish peasant communities during the changing seasons (and symbolising December and January). This calendar-based cosmology was a common motif in medieval art, rooted in religious iconography; but Bruegel and his contemporaries were the first to crystallise such scenes of interacting nature and humanity into what would later become the established genre of 'factual' landscape painting, encompassing "...both local topographies and vaster worlds..." (Cosgrove, 2008).  

Art historians also find interest in the work as an early example of the use of perspective in landscape painting:
"Our eye roams from a high vantage point over an extensive, diverse landscape that develops from the cultivated foreground area to an ever wilder nature in the distance. Principle lines direct the eye along a diagonal that begins with the houses on the left, accentuated by a stark row of bare trees, and extends to the lower right, into the valley. Only there, where it runs up against the mountain barrier and takes the opposite, diagonal direction towards the plain extending left to the horizon, is a sense of depth created which counters the dominant horizonal of a panorama" (Wolf, 2008).
On a broader historical note the painting presents stark evidence of the severity of winter throughout the so-called Little Ice Age, a period of comparatively lower global temperatures during the post-medieval/ early modern period. 
Self portrait of Bruegel, who died in 1569, aged 44
For me though, the fascination of this picture is its representation of 'real' people and their day-to-day activities in a living, naturalistic landscape; in the words of Kenneth Clark "the expression of an all-embracing sympathy with humanity...in which the accidents of human life are one with the weather and seasons. Few works of art are less in need of commentary". No figures here from heroic mythology or religious representations of ecstatic joy or demonic pain and damnation. There is real empathy with the hunter's and their dogs returning, weary from a day in the woods and fields. 

And each viewing spotlights a different element of small detail: the inn sign hanging precariously from its awning; the frozen water-wheel; the people, young and old, playing various games on the iced-over ponds; the snow-covered bramble in the foreground and the various breeds of dog in the pack accompanying the eponymous hunters.

The framework for these scenes within a scene is the expertly realised combination of the sturdy-looking buildings of the village (no rude hovels here), the blue-grey of the wintry sky and frozen watercourses, the skeletal woods and trees of the foreground, middle and far distance and the all-pervading whiteness of the snow. To me the only wrong note (a weakness it seems of many landscape artists) is the depiction of the distant high ground as ludicrously precipitous crags; this remember is Flanders!

Other less well-known but no less interesting pictures in the 1565 cycle include:

The Gloomy Day (February-March)

  The Hay Harvest (June-July)
 The Corn Harvest (August-September)
The Return of the Herd (October-November)

Select Bibliography

Andrews, Malcolm, 1999 Landscape and Western Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Clark, Kenneth, 1966 Landscape in Art. London: Pelican

Cosgrove, Denis, 2008 Geography & Vision: Seeing, imagining and representing the world. London: IB Tauris

Shama, Simon, 1996 Landscape and Memory. London: Fontana 

Wolf, Norbert, 2008 Landscape Painting. Cologne: Taschen

Saturday, 1 December 2012

River Song - ecstatic landscapes of the mind

Dennis Wilson Pacific Ocean Blue Album Cover 
River Song, the opening track on Dennis Wilson's solo album Pacific Ocean Blue personifies a yearning for a more simple relationship with the natural world. Perhaps only an illusionary late 60s to mid 70s chimeric proposition, and perhaps over-romanticised by someone like me, born into this period  (who has just watched a documentary on Wilson on BBC4).
The lyrics when written down (see below) are simple, almost banal; but on record, with Wilson's cracked yet soulful vocals, gospel choir backing and lush production, the song  cries out to soundtrack our universal desire to run away to, misquoting Werner Herzog, "ecstatic landscapes of the mind". 

Over to You Tube: 
Walkin' down by the river
Water running through my knees
River, oh river moves so free
Oh mighty river endlessly

Oo mighty river
I would love to be like you
Oo lonely river
Has not got the time to say

I was born into the city life
It's all that I've ever known
You know it's rough gettin' round this place
So crowded I can hardly breathe

You can only see about a block or two
In L. A. that's the truth
I'm lookin' for some country life
Some kickin' room no more city life
I want the river

Rollin' rollin' rollin' on river
(I got to get away I got to get away I got to get away)
Rollin' rollin' rollin' on river
(I got to get away I got to get away I got to get away)
Rollin' rollin' rollin' on river
(I got to get away I got to get away I got to get away)
Rollin' rollin' rollin' on river
(I got to get away I got to get away I got to get away)
Rollin' rollin' rollin' on

It breaks my heart to see the city
I wonder why it ain't pretty
Oh I want to cry, want to cry
Come on you've got to do it do it do it

You got to run away you got to run away
You got to do it do it do it
You got to run away
You got to run away

You got to do it do it do it
You got to run away
You got to run away

You got to do it do it do it
You got to run away
You got to run away

You got to do it do it do it
You got to run away
You got to run away

Saturday, 24 November 2012

A triptych of ruins, carved into the landscape

The Castle: medieval Redcastle?

"Red Castle, in Welsh Castell-coch, was a small manor at the lower end of the Hattrel Hill above Tre-wyn. I have failed to find any court rolls or details of this manor. A cottage on the mountain above Tre-wyn is called The Castle." (Bradney, A History of Monmouthshire, 1907).

Knocking around tumbledown ruins on steep and exposed hillsides in all weathers may not be everyone's idea of a good time but it works for me.

"Splendid this rampart is, though fate destroyed it
...tumbled are the towers,
Ruined the roofs, and broken the barred gate,
Frost in the plaster, all the ceilings gape,
Torn and collapsed and eaten by age..."
The Ruin (Anonymous)

In researching the landscape around Llanthony Priory over recent years I have been particularly drawn to three ruined upland farmsteads and enclosures that may, or may not, have had a common relationship with the Priory during its 400 year period of activity up to Dissolution in 1538:
  • The Castle (SO317236) - potentially the foci of the Priory's manor of Redcastle;
  • The Old Abbey (SO268337) - a distinctive system of fields near the head of the neighbouring Olchon valley;
  • The Castle (SO247327) - a postulated contemporaneous holding up valley from the Priory. 

The hypothesis that I am exploring is whether the sites were all granges, forming a key element of the agricultural infrastructure of the Priory. Granges were newly established outlying farming complexes set up by monastic houses outside of the traditional manorial system to exploit waste and other lands newly brought into economic use and worked by conversi (lay brothers). They tended to have a lasting impact on the landscape because they were “…often higher and more remote than ordinary settlements of the same period and so maintained a frontier of relatively intensive land use” (Simmons, 2001).

The Priory managed approximately 20,000 acres of land locally in the Monmouthshire/Herefordshire borderlands, including large tracts of upland moorland 'waste', known as the Honddu Slade estate. The primary documentary sources for the estates of Llanthony do not specifically identify any granges here, although they are in evidence in the Priory’s extensive Irish estates. The study of monastic granges tends to focus on the Cistercians who developed the model, which was then taken up by other orders although rarely recorded for Augustinian houses such as Llanthony. Where granges have been associated with Augustinian monasteries they have tended to be relatively close to the house, reflecting the order’s limited use of lay brethren and the need for the canons to run the farm themselves.

My aim has been to explore the physical landscape evidence, so far through some preliminary fieldwork; compare the 'patterns of the past' found here with known grange sites connected to other monastic houses, and, if my hunches seem to have any credence, revisit the documentary records.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Avebury Stone Circle: 'an uncanny landscape'

I'm currently enjoying the BFI box set of BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas. Mostly adaptations of classic M.R. James stories, they provide perfect fireside viewing on a winter's night. However, the 1977 offering, Stigma, has a different tone to most of the other instalments in the series.The booklet that accompanies the box set includes an essay by Helen Wheatley that places Stigma in a contemporary 'British folk horror' oeuvre:"As the British film historian Peter Hutchings has noted in his analysis of uncanny landscapes in British film and television, there was a cycle of television dramas around the 1970's, including The Owl Service (Granada, 1969), The Stone Tapes (BBC2, 1972), Children of the Stones (HTV, 1977) and Quatermass (Thames, 1979), which featured megaliths at their centre and which 'represent ancient landscapes where humans are compelled the repeat actions from a distant history, either real or mythological, in a manner that effaces not just human agency but also modernity itself as a social force'." The setting for both Stigma and Children of the Stones is Avebury Stone Circle in Wiltshire and the surrounding landscape, liberally peppered with Neolithic monuments including the enigmatic Silbury Hill and West Kennet Long Barrow. An 'uncanny landscape' is an apt description for this area and its easy to see why it was chosen as the location for these tales of the supernatural. So, if you haven't seen these programmes, fascinating snapshots of a particular landscape, time and genre, take a look at the YouTube video and still below.Stigma:

The Children of the Stones:


Select bibliography

Barron, R.S., 1976 The Geology of Wiltshire: a field guide, St Albans: Moonraker Press

Bord, Janet and Colin, 1974 Mysterious Britain, St Albans: Paladin

Cope, Julian, 1998 The Modern Antiquarian London: Thorsons

Cunliffe, Barry, 1993 A Regional History of England: Wessex to A.D. 1000 London: Longman

Darvill, Timothy, Stamper, Paul and Timby, Jane, 2002 England: An archaeological guide Oxford: Oxford University Press

Fowler, Peter and Blackwell, Ian, 2000 An English Countryside Explored: the land of Lettice Sweetapple Stroud: Tempus 

Hippisley Cox, R, 1973 The Green Roads of England London: Garnstone Press

Hutchings, Peter, 2004 'Uncanny Landscapes in British Film and Television' in Visual Culture in Britain, 5:2, Winter 2004, pp27-40

Rainbird, Paul (Ed.), 2008 Monuments in the Landscape Stroud: Tempus

Wheatley, Helen, 2012 'Stigma' in Ghost Stories: Classic adaptations from the BBC, BFI box set booklet   

Monday, 29 October 2012

Landscape in particular 5: Hergest Ridge

This is the latest in a regular-occasional series of posts on specific landscapes that mean a lot to me, or are new discoveries; after all, interest in the topographical is nothing without a feeling for sense of place: genius loci.
Previous 'Landscape in particular' posts: 
Kenilworth Castle
Bolton Abbey

Hergest Ridge in north east Herefordshire forms part of a belt of modest upland outliers that pockmark the borderlands of the Welsh Marches; seemingly created specifically to provide viewing platforms over the orderly and settled lowlands that drift eastwards into the English Midlands and the terra incognita of the mountain country of Wales to the west. Its modest 400 metres affording endless horizons and dramatic skyscapes in every direction. To further cement the feeling of transition, the actual England-Wales border tracks the line of the ridge from a safe distance and then, without warning, cuts right through it; leaving you wondering whether this line on the map was created by violence or cooperative compromise.

Traversing the three miles of the ridge relict features of past human activity ghost in and out of your stride: a nineteenth century racecourse, the foundations of World War Two gun emplacements, a prehistoric boulder - the Whet Stone, and an incongruous clump of monkey puzzle trees.

And, had you been taking in this scene in 1974, a quiet, long-haired figure intently controlling a model glider may have caught your gaze. Fresh from the huge popularity of Tubular Bells and ill at ease with sudden fame, Mike Oldfield had retreated to a house called The Beacon overlooking the ridge, and from there drew inspiration for his album named after the hill, Hergest Ridge and its follow-up Ommadawn. In the sleeve notes to the 2010 CD re-release of Hergest Ridge, Oldfield comments:
"In front of my house was a beautiful, long, ridged hill called Hergest Ridge, which had a prehistoric boulder called the Whet Stone on top of it. I passed the time at the Beacon building radio controlled model aeroplanes which I used to fly on Hergest Ridge. Flying model Gliders and making music was my salvation at the time...I incorporated all sorts of influences that were drawn from the landscape around me...".Although the album went to No1, Oldfield was unable to escape his earlier monster hit as Tubular Bells returned to replace it shortly after. Images of and from Hergest Ridge, October 2012:


Thursday, 11 October 2012

The path, winding like silver, trickles on...

Offa's Dyke National Trail
I've signed up to a new and inspiring initiative set up by the Brecon Beacons National Park: the Black Mountains Upland Volunteers scheme.

The idea is a simple one. To train up a network of volunteers who will give as much time as they can (a minimum of 10 days a year) to help maintain the network of recreational paths across the Black Mountains in the east of the National Park; taking part in larger scale upgrade and repair projects, working alongside National Park staff and contractors, but also operating in pairs or alone to carry out on-going smaller scale maintenance. The intention is that volunteers will take responsibility for their own 'patch', as well as working co-operatively with the others in the group, report on work done via an on-line system and generally become self-sufficient. Stores of tools will be kept at a number of locations on local farms around the area. Thus the National Park Authority can focus its limited resources on larger scale strategic projects (with helicopters used to transport in large quantities of stone costing £900 per hour to hire), whilst the wider pathway infrastructure is kept ticking over and in good repair with limited need for full-time staff to be diverted from other tasks.  

Listen and learn
Last Saturday was the introductory day for the scheme and so I found myself in the good company of 8 like-minded souls and 3 members of the National Park staff, initially for an induction session in Hay-on-Wye Town Hall, and then for an afternoon spent walking a section of the Offa's Dyke National Trail at Hay Bluff in the north-eastern corner of the Black Mountains. 

Biodegradable dam to aid heather regeneration
Luckily (and atypically) we had picked a blinder of an autumnal day for our trip up into the hills. Blue skies, no wind and views stretching for miles across the Beacons, mid-Wales and over the Herefordshire lowlands to the Malvern Hills. During the afternoon Richard, Jason and Huw showed us sections of path that had undergone various types of maintenance work; and explained the techniques used to combat the erosion that is an ever-present problem for well-used pathways across the layer of peat that underpins the heather moorland of the Black Mountains. We also tramped across areas where various techniques for regenerating heather, burnt out in the late 1970's, have been tested out. It soon became clear that good drainage is the key to quality paths through a well-balanced upland ecosystem.

Mad dogs and volunteers out in the midday sun

Willing volunteers we may be and itching to get started. But understandably, and wisely, we will have several supervised training days over the next couple of months before we are let loose on our own. This will be important, not least because the whole upland massif above the 600 feet contour is scheduled as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and, as such, has significant restrictions and requirements for permission for any work carried out. Additionally, most of the moorland is subject to common grazing rights for local farmers; there are also, therefore, the sometimes vociferous views of the Black Mountains Grazier's Association to take into account. The tensions between recreation, conservation and economic needs are often to the fore in highly valued landscapes; and are here played out in microcosm even in the seemingly straight-forward process of ensuring well-kept paths.     

Path from Llanthony Priory up to Haterrall Hill, Black Mountains
Anyway, I'm looking forward to the challenge and have some homework on upland path maintenance to do. 

"The path, winding like silver, trickles on..." (The Path, Edward Thomas).

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Jimi Bush

My kind of landscape gardening (via The Poke). Jimi Hendrix as the Green Man. No more needs to be said.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

God's Own Country

I've just finished reading God's Own Country, the 2008 debut novel of Ross Raisin. And its compact 210 pages were 'gradely' compelling.

Ostensibly the book is a tale of a Walter Mitty-esque farmer's son and his obsession with the daughter of middle class incomers who move into the next door farm; a fixation which, rather predictably, ends in tragedy, although not necessarily the denouement you expect.

But the real interest in this story lies in its rootedness in a particular landscape, the North York Moors, and its narration by the unfortunate but dangerously deluded protagonist himself, Sam Marsdyke, in vernacular language liberally sprinkled with Yorkshire dialect.

Although the going is not as initially linguistically tough for the uninitiated as, say, an Irvine Welsh novel, there are many words and sayings casually thrown into Sam's thought's and pronouncements that will be very new to many readers. Often adding to the humour that runs through the novel, the language also provides a refreshingly alternate take on describing the landscape that is not merely the setting but the very pulse of the story.

"I got up early, feeling bruff, fit for anything. I could see outdoors the wood it was a gradely day. The rain clouds had buggered off west over the Moors to go piss on the Dales and it was belting bright and warm, perfect suited for us to get moving".

The North York Moors provide a fitting location. Sam himself is an outsider, a loner: contemptible of and patronisingly scorned by the 'towns', whether local or outsiders, who are slowly colonising his patch of 'God's Own Country'. Although a National Park and place of stark and often understated beauty, the Moors are part of that belt of far-eastern England ranging from the Wash to the Northumberland coast that is both gifted and cursed to be unknown and unvisited by much of the population of the wider world. Despite the common talk and received wisdom of our 'overcrowded island', there are many areas where settlement and people are thinly spread, and this is one of them.

"Their sort were loopy for farmhouses - oh we must move there, the North York Moors is God's own country - but they couldn't give a stuff for the Moors, all they wanted was a postcard view out the bedroom. They know nothing what I knew of it. Spaunton, Rosedale, Egton, thirty moors each bigger than your eye could frame, fastened together by valleys cutting into the earth between, lush with forest, flowers and meadow grass, where there weren't towns and villages drying it all up". 

This combination of first person narrative by a rural innocent, embodying a way of life threatened by creeping (sub)urbanisation, and a storyline crackling with tension in a knowable landscape of mud, wind and burning sun sets up a book that you can treasure; one that allows you to vividly visualise and inhabit the places in which the storyline takes place. And bringing to mind not just the language of Welsh's Trainspotting, but also the writing style and content of Alan Garner's The Owl Service, Barry Hine's A Kestrel for a Knave, Alan Warner's These Demented Lands and Paul Kingsnorth's poem, Kidland.

Select bibliography

Garner, Alan, 2007 The Owl Service. London: Harper Collins

Hines, Barry, 2000 A Kestrel for a Knave. London: Penguin

Kellett, Arnold, 1994 The Yorkshire Dictionary of Dialect, Tradition and Folklore. Settle: Smith

Kingsnorth, Paul, 2011 Kidland and other poems. County Clare: Salmon

Raisin, Ross, 2009 God's Own Country. London: Penguin

Warner, Alan, 1998 These Demented Lands. London: Vintage  

Welsh, Irvine, 1993 Trainspotting. London: Madarin        

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Land Observations: Roman Roads IV-XI

Just released on Mute Records, Roman Roads IV-XI is the first release by Land Observations (James Brooks)

An intriguing mix of metronomic Neu!/ Spacemen 3 sound and topographical subject matter, each track on the album relates to a particular Roman Road radiating out from London.

Monday, 27 August 2012

"Is there no end to this accursed forest?"

Back from a long weekend camping above the Wye Valley, on the edge of the Forest of Dean: "The very rim of England" (Roger Deakin, Wildwood). 
As the visit was punctuated by the biblical downpours that have characterised this summer, a trip to Puzzlewood, with its network of rocky pathways winding through a dense woodland canopy, seemed appropriate.

The paths through the wood were laid down by the landowner in the 1800's and explore the rocky mini gorges known locally as Scowles, formed through the collapse and exposure of the cave systems that riddle the carboniferous limestone of the area; the result of natural erosion, and subsequently exploited for mining iron ore in the Iron Age and Roman period.  

The wood, more recently used for atmospheric sylvan scenes in television series including Dr Who and Merlin, was an inspiration for JRR Tolkien in formulating his imagery for the dark and forbidding great woodlands of Mirkwood in The Hobbit.

The magical character of the woods results from a dense treescape of yew, beech, ash, oak and lime overlying the narrow rocky ravines; creating a dark and damp environment where mosses, lichen and ferns thrive and tree root systems encase the rocks in fantastical patterns. 

Here are some images and words that capture the spirit of the place.

"Deeper into the forest it got darker, like a mineshaft" (Roger Deakin, Wildwood).

"As their eyes became used to the dimness they could see a little way to either side in a sort of darkened green glimmer. Occasionally a slender beam of sun that had the luck to slip in through some opening in the leaves far above, and still more luck in not being caught in the tangled boughs and matted twigs beneath, stabbed down thin and bright before them." (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit).

"The first grows in damper places...reared on the creeping dankness of the earth" (John Silken, Moss)


"The yew in British folklore tales is often invested with dark or magical associations" (Robert Bevan-Jones, The Ancient Yew).

And from a few miles south, on an extant section of Offa's Dyke cresting the lower Wye Valley, the comforting light and airy beech woods that have colonised the eight century earthworks; a counterpoint to the gloom of Puzzlewood.

"About four days from the enchanted stream they came to a part where most of the trees were beeches. They were at first inclined to be cheered by the change, for here there was no undergrowth and the shadow was not so deep. There was a greenish light about them, and in places they could see some distance to either side of the path. Yet the light only showed them endless lines of straight grey trunks like the pillars of some huge twilight hall" (JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit).

"Nostalgia links the Old Forest of Middle Earth with the Wildwood of Kenneth Grahame, and its a link that goes back through Edward Thomas to the pre-enclosure woodlands of John Clare" (Richard Hayman, Trees).

Select bibliography

Bates, Brian, 2002 The Real Middle Earth: Magic and mystery in the Dark Ages. London: Pan

Bevan-Jones, Robert, 2002 The Ancient Yew: A history of Taxus baccata Macclesfield: Windgather Press

Cotter, Gerry (Ed.), 1988 Natural History Verse: An anthology. Bromley: Helm 

Deakin, Roger, 2007 Wildwood: A journey through trees. London: Hamish Hamilton

Hart, Cyril, 2000 Between Severn (Saefern) and Wye (Waege) in the Year 1000. Stroud: Sutton

Hayman, Richard, 2003 Trees: Woodlands and Western civilization. London: Hambledon and London

Hill, David and Worthington, Margaret, 2003 Offa's Dyke: History and guide. Stroud: Tempus

Tolkien, JRR, 1999 The Hobbit. London: Harper Collins 

Walters, Brian, 1992 The Archaeology and History of Ancient Dean and the Wye Valley. Cheltenham: Thornhill Press

Sunday, 19 August 2012

"Songs, like the grass, are evergreen": Landscape as a musical motif

The pastoral opening scene to Danny Boyle's Isles of Wonder, Olympic Opening Ceremony.
“How do you soundtrack a city? Or a nation? Is there a score to be written for this green and pleasant land of song, our forever awe-inspiring country? How do you start to summarise the very sound of a place when – in just under two hundred years – one small border town is capable of producing both Edward Elgar and Fuck Buttons? You can’t, so you don’t even try. You follow your heart and you look for the defining moments in culture, the sounds that continue to resonate...
...Two hundred years ago Goethe said that architecture was like frozen music. Well in today’s Britain the inverse is true, music is the fluid architecture all around us.
The isle is full of noises. The soundtrack writes itself.”
Rick Smith, Music Director, London 2012 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony.

Inspiring words from The Isles of Wonder soundtrack, summing up the strong and urgent relationship between music and the land and people of the British Isles: a subject matter rich in material but, perhaps, somewhat neglected compared to the analysis of landscape related art, poetry and prose. 

I have, though, a slight wariness in writing a post on the theme of landscape and music. Partly because its such a personal interconnection: people will have their own favourite soundscapes of place in their head, on the car stereo,  their i-pod or at a festival: Hubert Parry/ William Blake's Jerusalem, a traditional folk standard, psychedelic wig-out or paean to the city. And also because Rob Young's Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's visionary music is, in my opinion, such a tour de force; the inter-weaving of folk music, landscape, culture and more through a sweeping history of "Albion's soundscape" over the last 100 years or so.

In The Making of the English Landscape WG Hoskins memorably likens England's landscape to a symphony, enjoyable as an "architectural mass of sound" but more satisfyingly appreciated if the individual themes are isolated "to see how one by one they are intricately woven together"; a suitable entry point into the relationship between music, sense of place and landscape. And a deeply rich symbiosis this is. Hardly a song lyric exists without an allusion, however hackneyed or banal, to "river deep, mountain high" topographical and morphological symbolism. The default visual motifs for classical music routinely feature scenes of pastoral magnificence to complement both the epic or more contemplative sounds inside.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The Land Song


Curious old recording of radical Liberal anthem The Land, with even more curious video's from YouTube. Michael Foot's favourite political song (a fairly thin canon admittedly), its a rousing pro-land tax, anti-landowner call to arms, originating in America and adopted by Lloyd George's Liberal Party in the general election's of 1910.

"Sound the call for freedom boys, and sound it far and wide,
March along to victory for God is on our side,
While the voice of nature thunders o’er the rising tide,
“God gave the land to the people!”

Chorus: The land, the land, ‘twas God who made the land,
The land, the land, the ground on which we stand,
Why should we be beggars with the ballot in our hand?
God made the land for the people.

Hark the sound is spreading from the East and from the West,
Why should we work hard and let the landlords take the best?
Make them pay their taxes on the land just like the rest,
The land was meant for the people.

Clear the way for liberty, the land must all be free,
Liberals will not falter from the fight, tho’ stern it be,
‘Til the flag we love so well will fly from sea to sea
O’er the land that is free for the people.

The army now is marching on, the battle to begin,
The standard now is raised on high to face the battle din,
We’ll never cease from fighting ‘til victory we win,
And the land is free for the people."

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Reading the landscape

There is a wealth of content and material relating to landscape and sense of place on line, as categorised in the gazetteer of landscape on the web on this blog. And yet, to really get under the skin of the subject the physical book (or the ebook, if you are that way inclined) remains for me the best routeway into deeper understanding and contemplation; although building up a personal library does require both space and an understanding partner.

Click here for a selection of the books and journals that I feel provide a comprehensive and diverse landscape biblio-resource.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

A temporal space: channeling the Knights Templars, an exorcism and the Blitz


It may be due to the fact that I had just left the pub, but I think these images capture some of the mysterious, dare I say it, 'energy' that places with a long and eventful history seem to have; temporal layers interacting with spatial permanence.

This is Temple Church in central Bristol, now half-hidden in a somewhat bland and nondescript commercial district, its riverside location was one of the first areas of settlement during the city's earliest phase of development. Built in the late fourteenth century on the site of an earlier Knights Templar church it was bombed to its current shell in the Blitz of 1940, and was the scene of a famous eighteenth century exorcism.