Saturday, 28 April 2012

Landscape in particular 3: Cold Ashton

Looking N towards Cold Ashton; 27th April 2012
This is the third 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.

Cold Ashton is a hamlet of church and manor house, south facing and sheltered (the 'Cold' an elusive prefix); and sharing its locale with many small valley's busily incising the long finger of the Cotswold scarp slope and narrow plateau that extends down to Bath, 3 miles to the south.

Less than half a mile but hidden away from the prosaic noise of the A48, leaching the masses from the London-West whale-road into Bath, its the best sort of place: an easily accessible backwater that most people have no idea is there. From the single quiet lane, a footpath descends steeply as you enter the bowl-like head of a small valley; a 'combe' in this part of the world, vernacular descriptor hitting the spot nicely: 'The Combe was ever dark, ancient and dark' (Edward Thomas, 'The Combe'). Halfway down the slope spring's bubble from the limestone and spill out gentle, cress-bound streamlets that flash in the sunshine and chatter their course downward. This is Cotswolds scenery at its simplest and purest, before the gentle but incipient gentrification by Range Rover, impeccably imagined cottage restoration and horse pasture further down the valley.

Your playground awaits
And down here can be found an everyday paradise for larking around, exploring or just lying in the sun; a wild play landscape. Which is a bit of a recurrent theme of mine as my two daughters are on the threshold of those glorious childhood years when your local area and visits to the countryside alike provide a playscape with bottomless potential to thrill, test all the senses to the limit, use up boundless energy and allow still keen imaginations to run riot. And to any parent who says their kids would get bored, its too dangerous, they need supervision or any other lazy excuse for sleep-walking into that hackneyed parental wrong-turn - not letting them do what you did - get yourself down to a place like this near you now and let them loose!

Leave me alone Dad!

Contrary to the National Trust's predictably paternalistic but misguided advice in its  '50 things to do before you are 12', ' long as you always have an adult with you', this quietly mysterious valley is exactly the sort of place where children need no more than an adult steer in the right direction; an opportunity for a glorious compromise where parents have a leisurely picnic, beer and sleep in the sun whilst the kids range through the woods, streams and fields. Enlightened self-interest is a wonderful thing.   

Monster of wood
During our most recent visit pictured here, my youngest and I dodged the rain showers, happily muddied ourselves up (although carrying a little one on your shoulders with cow-shit encrusted wellies dangling is an acquired taste) and bonded over whatever stimulation was around the next corner. Its not to say that I/ they don't have a good time at the more stage-managed activities - birthday parties, soft play centres, playgrounds etc - but I don't think these things lodge in the memory bank for long; its safe play that lacks the sense of innocent edginess and tired serenity that child or adult alike get from the simple pleasure of playing out in a special place that feels like its your own creation.

Previous 'Landscape in particular' posts:
Kenilworth Castle
Bolton Abbey

Saturday, 21 April 2012


Spending the weekend at partner's parental idyll in deepest Herefordshire, relishing the hired hand jobs undertaken today, under an ever changing April sky that managed to divert its blackest cargo away from us. This morning the task was to retrieve a dozen tree boles from the steep sides of a brook; they had been tossed down the bank 20 or 30 years ago by the local farmer in the time honoured way to join other assorted agricultural detritus, in the act of felling trees (not sure what species?) to extend the field boundary. Said farmer now ensconced in bungalow retirement next door to the old farm, it seemed only natural that we were borrowing his son's quad bike and trailer to transport the cargo back up from their resting place.

Down in the mini ecosystem of the stream bed, awash with stimuli for all the senses, its a different world to the monoculture of the adjoining fields. The channel is not quite a 'winterbourne' but is only just beginning its winding journey to the larger Worm Brook in the valley below and is a mossy bog of tangled vines, alders and holly, but with enough dappled sunlight to put on a creditable display of bluebells.

The boles will create a 'stumpery' on a bank in the farm garden, just a stone's throw from their station when rooted to the land (ok, a couple will make it back to Bristol with us to help with wilding our garden but I don't feel guilty about this small-scale redistribution of flora).

In the afternoon we climb to tackle rigorous and well established ivy vines that have encased an old, 40 foot pear tree that stands on a corner of what was the farmhouse's vegetable garden. The 1969 aerial photograph of the farm shows the tree in much ruder health so hopefully liberating it from its imprisonment will enable a resurrection. Who knows, it may even return to its, no doubt, original utility as a provider of pears for the local speciality of perry cider.    

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Manifesto for a working landscape

This article draws on and expands upon a number of posts recently written for the Landscapism blog and appears on the Save Our Woods website.

My rationale for starting up this blog was straightforward: as someone who is constantly immersed in the landscape, both physically (as we all in fact are) and conceptually (a more specialised pursuit) I am just as fascinated by theoretical concepts of cultural and physical landscapes as spending a day walking in a National Park or observing the natural history of an ancient woodland; or indeed looking at a collection of landscape paintings or photographs, experiencing an urban adventure in a new city or working to landscape my own modest garden. I could go on with further diverse examples of landscapism. To my mind these are all naturally linked activities and areas of interest, and I do not consider myself unusual in this regard.

The frustration that I, and many other like-minded souls, have felt is observing these landscape themes, which should be organically but messily inter-twined, grow further and further apart from each other as the individual professional, academic and organisational structures develop into their 21st century maturity; this is the curse of specialisation, an evolving feature of Western society since the heyday of the Enlightenment and Victorian polymaths.

Yes, there are many examples of relatively modest inter-disciplinary exchange and collaboration in academic research or conservation projects, and some more enlightened local authorities have taken steps towards a more holistic approach to landscape planning. Maybe if a cultural geographer, a landscape art historian, a farmer, a landscape architect, a mountain-biker, an ecologist and a landscape archaeologist were put together in a room you would hope for a degree of common ground and certainly some lively discussion; but each would soon return to the familiarity of their divergent agendas and objectives back in the workplace.  Moreover, in responding professionally to a government policy proposal, a threat to a particular landscape or some other specific challenge (a hose-pipe ban for instance) they would narrow their focus to one of self-interest, because this is the received wisdom of how a pluralistic society operates.

Why does this matter? Well, I would argue that this segregation has contributed to the marginalisation of landscape in terms of both government policy and public opinion. Given the importance that many people attach to their local, regional and national environments and landscapes as an essential part of the bedrock of who they are and where they come from, should this not be a central motif of public policy, given the same weight as key elements of education, health and economic development? Instead landscape has been channeled into the comparative back-waters of the environment, planning, heritage and tourism, from where it modestly shouts to be heard but is often pushed back by more assertive beasts: ‘global warming!’, ‘jobs and growth!’, ‘housing targets!’.

Walking as drifting

Mythogeography: the book

Oh, I like the sound of this: a starter guide to drifting through the landscape. Came across a reference to Mythogeography on Twitter (thanks to @psychcomm). And to think, until a few weeks ago I thought tweeting was for professional footballers and others under the misconception that jo public is interested in the inanities of their non-lives; now I find that its a portal into esoteric byways and half forgotten shaded corners.

Come to think of it I've been drifting since I was a kid but now all too often tied to following lines on a map; next time out I'm just going to drift to wherever the path takes me.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Our forests: a vision for England's public woods and forests

 Our Forests is an ambitious and forward-looking report on the future of England's woods and forests (in an English context I'm more comfortable with 'woodland' as a descriptor rather than 'forests' but that's a bit pedantic).

The report has been produced by the Our Forests campaign group following the furore over the proposal to sell-off part of the national forestry estate; headline proposals include:

  • A new ‘Domesday Forest’ of more than 1 billion trees;
  • All our public woods distanced from the control of ‘Big Government’ and given full and lasting protection for ‘Big Society’;
  • A new, independent, publicly accountable body, ‘Forests for England’, with the resources and authority to lead on implementing this vision.
 The group are looking for comments on the report through the 38 Degrees blog site.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Hope in the age of collapse debate

Interesting and provocative debate on sustainability and the future of the environmental movement between Paul Kingsnorth, founder of the Dark Mountain Project and Wen Stephenson on his Thoreau Farm blog.  

Wen is advocating the need to continue, and ramp up, the current environmental orthodoxy of campaigning on climate change, sustainability etc. Paul is suggesting that this approach has failed and will only tinker with, and ultimately prop-up, the status quo; he is looking to the possibilities after the collapse of our current phase of 'civilisation'. They are keen for people to join in the discussion.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Ramblings on the urban fringe

aka flexing psychogeographical calf muscles on a 6 miles walk from my front door on a sun-drenched early Spring afternoon; a goldfinch in the garden sending me off in the right frame of mind. 

Feet hit turf walking the line of an old hedge through Oldbury Court park to an outbreak of buttercups around a haughty oak; a multi-coloured kite flapping in the tree like a stranded gallion in a Werner Hertzog Amazonian dreamscape.

Into the gorge of the Frome, with the river far below; a vision that could easily be in the wilder Wye valley, rather than East Bristol. I walk along the edge of a tumbledown wall melting back into the landscape, stones carefully laid by man now recolonising the ravine as a scree slope; gladly taking the opportunity for a bit of scrambling off piste high above the joggers and dog walkers. Ivy clad limestone outcrops give rise to thoughts of long-lost Mayan cities and the banked path traversing the hillside awaits the footfall of the conquistador, on route to El Derado. On days like this it feels like you are guided by the sun and bird song, the unexpected just around the corner.

Down now to the river but spurn the concrete path and bridge to carry on into the other worldliness of the steep-sided bank; the network of tree roots helping upward progress more than any man-made climbing wall. Onwards through an outbreak of wild garlic and anemone's. Wonder if I seem like a bearded Bayou backwoodsman to the mums with kids on the opposite side of the river (is that the sound of a banjo?). Anyway, so many people pulled away from the bland on a perfect Spring day makes you realise that all is far from lost in our materialistic society.

Through Grove Wood, now probably saved as a Town Green and past 'Snuff Mill'; the signs of the occupation of mad, bad Lord Jufari, who wanted to build here, now seemingly long gone. Cross the road and back by the river below Whickam Court (where Oliver Cromwell stayed the night, so they say). No flash of the local kingfisher today. This path through a meadow was 'improved' last year as part of the Bristol cycle path network. I e-mailed my objections to this suburbanisation at the time (I am a cyclist but don't see the need to smooth out all the edges), but the new track seems pretty benign today.

I take a set of wooden steps up the hill to Stapleton village, serene in the sunshine. Intriguing and unsettling to think that other end of Stapleton Road, just a mile or so away, is regularly dubbed one of the most dangerous streets in Britain by a typically hysterical local media. Stop on the way up to inspect a curious circular sunken and domed brick structure, and conclude that its probably an ice house. Then a quick detour to Park News and Booze (first rule of writing whilst walking: always take a spare pencil; lucky I am so near 'civilisation').