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 1990s 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.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Soft Estate - wild motorway landscapes

Left: M2 Medway Services Eastbound 2013
Oil on shellac on linen 180 × 140 cm

Thank you to Edward Chell for alerting me to his forthcoming book, Soft Estate, featuring his words and artwork and also including an essay contributed by Richard Mabey.

The title derives from the Highways Agency description of the natural habitats on the edge of motorways and trunk roads. The book, which will be distributed by Cornerhouse, looks at how these borders offer a refuge for wildlife and a modern form of wilderness. In Edward'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.”

Alongside the publication of the book, the Bluecoat arts centre in Liverpool is holding a Soft Estate exhibition featuring the work of Edward and a number of other artists:

“Soft Estate features new works by Edward Chell that explore the interface between history, ecology, roads and travel. In paintings, prints, and objects, made using a variety of materials including road dust and etched car parts, he investigates motorway landscapes, linking these contemporary environments with 18th century ideas of the Picturesque.

Other artists interrogating similar ‘edgelands’ – familiar yet ignored spaces neither city nor countryside – exhibit alongside and in conversation with Chell. They present juxtapositions commonly experienced in edgelands, like beauty and pollution, wilderness and human agency”.

I will be reviewing the book in more detail in due course. 

Above: Poker Smoker Mantle Piece (one of a pair), laser etched stainless steel, 2013 
58.5 x 23 x 12.75cm

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Wales Visitation by Allen Ginsberg

Wales Visitation

White fog lifting & falling on mountain-brow
Trees moving in rivers of wind
The clouds arise
as on a wave, gigantic eddy lifting mist
above teeming ferns exquisitely swayed
along a green crag
glimpsed thru mullioned glass in valley raine—

Bardic, O Self, Visitacione, tell naught
but what seen by one man in a vale in Albion,
of the folk, whose physical sciences end in Ecology,
the wisdom of earthly relations,
of mouths & eyes interknit ten centuries visible
orchards of mind language manifest human,
of the satanic thistle that raises its horned symmetry
flowering above sister grass-daisies’ pink tiny
bloomlets angelic as lightbulbs—

Remember 160 miles from London’s symmetrical thorned tower
& network of TV pictures flashing bearded your Self
the lambs on the tree-nooked hillside this day bleating
heard in Blake’s old ear, & the silent thought of Wordsworth in eld Stillness
clouds passing through skeleton arches of Tintern Abbey—
Bard Nameless as the Vast, babble to Vastness!

Winter In - Gene Clark

Gene Clark was always the most melodious voice of the many who graced the records of The Byrds. Although Clark's career stuttered after his brief period with the group, and he suffered a - perhaps somewhat inevitable - early death, his legacy is some sublime country-soul music.

The 1971 album White Light is a mellow affair and the CD version includes a mellifluous bonus demo track, Winter In, that I always like to hear at this time of year; an elegiac evocation of a landscape gearing up for the rimy season.

Blackbird was in the field and the sun was getting dim
The breeze running through the trees like an organ in a hymn
Thoughts were suspended like a leaf out on a limb
Fire was burning low and the winter coming in

Now some music was playing in the background of the night
Some friends from around came in and they all said things were high
And we spoke of a stranger that we all met on the way
Who said there was danger in those who watch out for their greed

Now the summer is past the grain and the river getting high
It's amazing a month can bring so many things that can get by
The old ways were drowning to the new ones with a sigh
It seems so incredible that sometimes I could cry.

Monday, 11 November 2013

The New English Landscape: A Review

This is a longer version of a review that was written for the Caught By The River web site.

This is a view from the west of a book about the far east of England. Although a relatively short work, The New English Landscape, a combination of Ken Worpole’s words and Jason Orton’s photographs, covers much ground as it sets out “… to meld together historic, aesthetic and ecological elements around the issues of habitat, landscape and sense of place which have been in play in Britain since the Second World War”.

Worpole makes it clear from the start that the “new English landscape” of the title is an “imaginative construct”. This is not an attempt to comprehensively chronicle post-war developments in the English landscape as a whole; the methodology here is a focus on a particular genius loci rather than the more conventional magisterial sweep of, for instance, W.G. Hoskins’ The Making of the English Landscape or, more recently, Trevor Rowley’s The English Landscape in the Twentieth Century. The canvass for this exploration is very specifically the “bastard countryside” of the estuary indented, marsh rich and semi-industrial Essex coastline – a liminal wonderland at once on the doorstep of, but also estranged from, the Great Wen of London. This is the territory explored in The Joy Of Essex, Jonathan Meades idiosyncratic filmic tour of the county.

As a western dwelling, midlands raised and northern souled reader I cannot help noticing that Essex, and the wider East Anglian region are not exactly under-represented in the current well-spring of nature and landscape writing. At times it seems that Norfolk’s Waveney valley and environs – stalked by dragoons of Macfarlane’s, Deakins, Mabey’s and Cocker’s – is the lone player in town; challenged only by the psychogeographically-minded flaneurs, striding in Iain Sinclair’s mighty slip-stream across the edgeland’s of London, with the military-industrial marshes of Essex on their mind. But, in many ways, this is the book’s over-arching thesis: that the centre of gravity of ideas, art and writing on ecology and landscape has moved eastwards to envelop not just a previously neglected region, but changing perceptions of what constitutes places worthy of comment and study.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Grantchester Meadows

1969, amid the general strangeness of Pink Floyd's Ummagumma album sits the 7m26s of pastoral calm that is Grantchester Meadows; Syd Barrett's legacy pulsing through Roger Waters lyrics. Autumnal wistfulness transports me to the year of my birth.

Icy wind of night, be gone.
This is not your domain.
In the sky a bird was heard to cry.
Misty morning whisperings and gentle stirring sounds
Belied a deathly silence that lay all around.

Hear the lark and harken to the barking of the dog fox gone to ground.
See the splashing of the kingfisher flashing to the water.
And a river of green is sliding unseen beneath the trees,
Laughing as it passes through the endless summer making for the sea.
In the lazy water meadow
I lay me down.
All around me,
Golden sunflakes settle on the ground,
Basking in the sunshine of a by gone afternoon,
Bringing sounds of yesterday into this city room.
Hear the lark and harken to the barking of the dog fox gone to ground.
See the splashing of the kingfisher flashing to the water.
And a river of green is sliding unseen beneath the trees,
Laughing as it passes through the endless summer making for the sea.

In the lazy water meadow
I lay me down.
All around me,
Golden sunflakes covering the ground,
Basking in the sunshine of a by gone afternoon,
Bringing sounds of yesterday into my city room.

Hear the lark and harken to the barking of the dog fox gone to ground.
See the splashing of the kingfisher flashing to the water.
And a river of green is sliding unseen beneath the trees,
Laughing as it passes through the endless summer making for the sea.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Extracts from The Hollow On The Hill

“An artist can settle down behind his easel and paint whatever he sees. For him a distant field requires no special understanding of glume or palea, no ability to distinguish between meadow fescue and sweet vernal. With a single brush stroke he can say it all. His picture may include trees though he is no arboriculturalist, houses though he is no architect, perhaps a bridge or a road though he is no engineer, and in the sky he will add clouds though he knows nothing of meteorology. Yet despite his total ignorance of the detail, he may well be able to tell us something of the landscape in general which the specialist, peering closely, fails to notice ...

... Paint me a landscape. Make it as beautiful as you can with trees and bushes and distant hills. Yes, I will agree that it is beautiful. But it is static. It exists in space but not in time. Add a footpath and immediately it comes to life. It moves. It has a past and a future. There are people on the path travelling along it, and I am there too. Each corner beckons me. On and on I go ...".

Extracts from The Hollow On The Hill: The Search for a Personal Philosophy (1982), the third part of Christopher Milne's memoirs.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Hill people and sites of misadventure in the mountains

If you find that landscape photography can often be quite formulaic and ever so slightly dull - despite the beauty of its subject matter and the technical excellence behind it - then its nice to come across something a bit different. Thanks to Henry Iddon for alerting me to his interesting work (images and words reproduced from Henry's site).

A place to go - sites of mountain misadventure

"A work in progress, shot on 5x4 large format, that aims to consider the mountain and wilderness landscape, and how the infinite power and scale of the natural environment dwarfs humanity.

What this work hopes to do is go beyond the barrier, that picture postcard one dimensionality that is often found when looking at a mountain landscape. To make images, with supporting text, that imbue a place with emotion. Mountain landscapes will not always be simple ‘places of delight’ - scenery as sedative, topography so arranged to feast the eye.

What we see with our eyes is influenced by what we know, however much that contradicts the way we have been taught to view the upland landscape as a place of benign beauty."

Go to the A Place to Go pages for further examples and a more detailed statement about the project.

Hill People

"A project to investigate the contemporary individuals who engage with the natural and upland environment." 

Go to the Hill People pages for further examples and a more detailed statement about the project

Sunday, 20 October 2013

We had eyes for phantoms then

As the dying light of summer drifts through the snap of autumn, and life and the land are readied for the murk of winter, a sense of gloom begins to pervade, or so received wisdom dictates. But darkness and melancholia are a powerful combination, life-enhancing even. An existence without cold nights, foggy dawnings and cloudscapes with the promise of snow would be one sadly diminished. In William Blake’s words: “In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy”; and the lead-in to the midwinter solstice crackles with hearty and joyful arcane ceremony and ritual that has wintered throughout the centuries and still pulses strongly, though the times when gods, spirits and magic underpinned daily life are long behind us. The old ways were receding fast even in Thomas Hardy's time, as essayed in his elegiac poem Yuletide in a Younger World
"We had eyes for phantoms then,
And at bridge or stile
On Christmas Eve
Clear behind those countless ones who had crossed it
Cross again in file
Such has ceased longwhile!" 

What remains - the family and community conventions, and commercial set-pieces - of Halloween, Guy Fawkes Night, Christmas and New Year have become so ingrained that it is hard to look beyond their familiar glare. However, these are but the over-boiled remains of the framework of rites, feasts and gatherings that stitched together this glowering season for our ancestors; helping them through the months of thrift and want, life lived in a fallow landscape. Halloween, of course, derives from All Hallow’s Eve, a Christianised festival of all saints and the dead to mark the end of summer, with its pagan roots clear and strong. The fading light of dusk and the long dark nights of howling wind and rain, hostile to all but the cawing crow, provided, and still provide, a fitting backdrop not just to merry-making but also to storytelling; the subject matter often meeting a seemingly universal and antediluvian human desire to scare ourselves into safety. Samuel Johnson’s adage that “All argument is against it (the existence of ghosts); but all belief is for it” explaining the enduring popularity of tales of phantoms and the supernatural. 

Landscape, sense of place – the natural or human setting – is a key element of the folklore tales, songs and ghost stories that have always been at the heart of winter custom, underscored by the elements and the weather; such narratives for dark nights maintain their hold on our collective imagination exactly because they play out in a familiar environment that can easily shape-shift into something altogether more spectral, a phenomenonological shadowland: "Precisely because locales and their landscapes are drawn on in the day-to-day lives and encounters of individuals they possess powers. The spirit of a place may be held to reside in a landscape" (Christopher Tilley). So, like a gnarled character actor, the landscape helps to give its central storyline depth and authenticity. It is this preternatural terrain that will be navigated here. 

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The New English Landscape - forthcoming

Here is advance publicity for an intriguing forthcoming book, review to follow soon...

The New English Landscape
By Jason Orton & Ken Worpole
To be published by Field Station | London, November 2013

"The New English Landscape is a beautifully designed book combining text and photography, which critically examines the changing geography of landscape √¶sthetics since the Second World War, noting the shift away from the arcadian interior to the contested eastern shoreline. It discusses how writers and artists gravitated towards East Anglia, and latterly towards Essex, regarding them as sites of significant topographical disruption, often as a result of military or industrial occupation.

These are landscapes of unique ecological and imaginative resonance, particularly along the Thames littoral, and in and around the islands and estuaries of its north-eastern peninsula. The book assesses the past, present and future of this new territorial æsthetic, now subject to much debate in the contested worlds of landscape design, topography and psycho-geography.

Jason Orton is a landscape photographer whose work has been published internationally.
Ken Worpole is the author of many books on architecture, landscape and public policy."

Details of how and where to buy the book can be found on The New English Landscape blog.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Seven crossings of the River Severn

This is the story of a day spent exploring seven crossings of the River Severn below Gloucester as it morphs from a meandering river into a mighty tidal estuary flowing through the Bristol Channel and on into the impossible immensity of the Atlantic Ocean: three ferry passages, a railway bridge, a railway tunnel and two road bridges. Of a backwater estuarine landscape dissected over the centuries by communication routes ferrying goods and people from the coalfields and iron foundries of South Wales, the Irish Sea port of Fishguard and the timber lands of the Forest of Dean to Bristol, London and beyond. The road bridges and railway tunnel remain, transporting their sleek machines between England and Wales, but the railway bridge is lost beneath the water and the ferries are long gone, given a last hurrah, curiously, by Bob Dylan in 1966.


First up an attempt to view the eastern entrance to the Severn Railway Tunnel. Constructed between 1873 and 1886, this subterranean 'crossing' is over 4 miles and long and, until the opening of the Channel Tunnel, was the longest in Britain's railway system. On the map this looks an easy stroll from the road, but this is a working mainline and I predicted that access could be tricky; and so it proved to be. Although a public footpath circumnavigated the entrance, its location in a deep cutting bounded by overgrown embankments and ditches prevented any possibility of viewing from the right of way. High steel fencing completed the sense of prosaic impregnability. If Railtrack were responsible for designing the ramparts and palisades of Iron Age hill-forts, this is how they would look. 

So, a detour is required across fields, marked by the humps and bumps of medieval ridge and furrow, to clear the range of the security fencing, negotiate a more conventional wire fence and plunge into bush and brier to ascend the embankment. Eventually a way is found through the nettles and thorns and a view of the cutting is won. Sadly, a service road in full sight of a nearby maintenance depot would need to be crossed to obtain a full view of the turreted tunnel entrance. A little disappointed, I retrace my tracks and notice that the gate to the depot is now open. Two fluorescent coated workmen are preoccupied with checking machinery and do not notice my brief trespass to the top of steps down to the tunnel entrance; and so I get the close-up photo I had been seeking.

As I trudge back to the car I muse on whether it should need to feel this subversive - should require a mild law-breaking adventure - in order to see a wonder of Victorian engineering. I'm sure a National Trust style visitor centre would diminish the experience in a different way, but there must be a happy medium. 

Half a mile away at New Passage and the ghosts of an older method of transportation, the ferry, haunt the shadows of the Second Severn Crossing Bridge, the gleaming conveyor of the M4 motorway across the estuary. Until the railway tunnel opened (almost directly beneath) the New Passage Ferry was the most direct connecting route from South Wales to England if a long circuitous route north via the bridge up-river at Gloucester was to be avoided. An example of the impossibly localised companies that sprang up during the railway mania of the mid-nineteenth century, the Bristol & South Wales Union Railway opened a line to a terminal pier here for passengers to board the ferry across to Portskewett. The ferry route's lifetime was though short-lived and it only operated between 1863 and 1886. The pier is long gone but its stone bulwark forms part of the flood defence topped by a foot and cycle path which gives suitably breath-taking views of both the Second Severn Crossing bridge and the original Severn Bridge just three miles further upstream. Opened in 1996 to provide a more direct route for the increased traffic volumes of the M4, the new bridge seems to display a haughtiness towards its precursor as it curves away southwards. Seen from the heights of the Forest of Dean or the Cotswold scarp the two structures seem like diverging monolithic siblings, two contrasting characters forever linked by their utility.  

The Second Severn Crossing
The Severn Bridge

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Pastoral punk: Tracing the melancholic margins of the landscape

Music and landscape have always had a kinetic relationship, as essayed in my post Songs like the grass are evergreen. Perhaps this is a constant well-spring, but there seems to currently be a strong riple of creativity - a particular shout out here to Roman Roads IV-XI by Land Observations and Richard Skelton.

Pastoral punk is not a sub-genre I have come across before, but this is the musical credo of Way Through, as exemplified by their invigorating and highly original forthcoming album Clapper Is Still.

In their own words the band are "informed by the field as much as the flyover, Way Through write songs which phase in and out with guitar, tapes, damaged drums and vocals. Using wrong-footed repetition, rapid interplay and free-looping happenstance the band create a ragged yet intuitive tapestry of sound. Their songs walk the streets of market towns, wait forever at bus stops and lose themselves in edgelands." Contemporary folk in fact.

Each song on the new album is concerned with mythical and marginal pieces of English landscape, and 'the vast array of elegiac components Way Through have discovered locked within the English landscape'. Each track is recorded in the place in question with an accompanying image of said place (examples pictured here).  

As a sampler to the album have a listen to Roughting Linn which is about a hidden slab of prehistoric rock in Northumberland: