Sunday 24 February 2013

Navigating to a 'high forcing chamber of history'

The Chartist Cave:
Image from 
"The union met in secret on the dark side of the hill, by the light of a thousand candles" Ironmasters, The Men They Couldn't Hang

Participation in a day-into-night navigation course on the edge of the Brecon Beacons has got me ruminating on two unrelated topics, both stimulated by spending a cold Friday night on a moor looking for a cave: the understated value of moving through terrain using the basic disciplines of route-finding with compass and map; and a visceral piece of radical landscape history. 

The session was part of on-going training for the Black Mountains Upland Volunteers scheme that I have previously posted about.  At 4pm our small group ascended a track above the village of Trefil, just north of Tredegar on the high ground of Mynydd Llangynidr above the heads of the Ebbw and Sirhowy valleys; an area known with etymological accuracy as Blaenau, meaning 'heights, uplands, headwaters'. Before us stretched what would normally be a boggy morass of rough limestone moorland, but the ground was bone-hard on account of a lack of recent precipitation and the chill wind that whipped into our faces, like a perpetual slap. The temperature had remained resolutely low all day and, in R.S. Thomas' words, "the cold landscape returned my stare".

Jan Morris aptly describes the unusual feeling and topography of this transitional space between the, once mighty now post-industrial, valleys of Gwent and Glamorgan to the south and the majestic hill country of the Brecon Beacons National Park to the north:

"This is country unlike any other in Wales, partly because of its terrain, partly because of its fateful associations, and coming to it is like entering some high forcing chamber of history. Up your road goes, up the steep limestone ridge, pocked with caves and old workings and the remains of tramways, until crossing the ridge of the escarpment you find the harsh expanse of the Blaenau stretching there before you. Across it runs the cruel Heads of the Valleys highway, cars, trucks and motor-bikes crawling through the wind, and there are the remains of long-abandoned workings, and half-obliterated tips. It is colourless but compelling - the air rasping, the moorland glowering, and on the south side of the road the industrial valleys suddenly plunging away with their mines and chapels and railway tracks jam-packed and canyon-like towards the sea."

At first sight, our surroundings seemed unpromising country for navigating around: sink holes, cairns, springs, small pools and narrow water-courses the only features amongst the washed-out winter monotony of heather, course grass and sedge; the lazy meanders of the contours on the map mirroring the relative lack of variation in elevation on the ground. Slowly but surely we found our 'bearings', becoming accustomed to the coming dusky gloom; the relative sparseness of features actually sharpening our ability to match map with fact. And realising that small sink hole symbols on paper translate into mightily deep depressions in reality, literally swallowing up the ground. We were soon in our stride, communicating in the vocabulary of navigation, which has to be learnt like an esoteric code: magnetic North, back bearings, catch-points, hand rails, aiming off, Eastings and Northings.

Image from
And so, like a team of worker ants, and repeating our mantra of calculations -  bearing, distance and estimated time - we worked our way from feature to feature to the half way point, a limestone cavern known as the Chartist Cave. With a bit of help from our instructor to locate the entrance to the cave in the now pitch darkness, we encamped in the chamber to refuel before plotting a course back to our start point. 

And the cave is also the entry point to the second theme of this post. It is named for its use, according to local folklore, as a secret meeting place and arms factory for Chartists from the area in the 1830's. Chartism was "...the first independent working-class movement in the world, a snow-ball movement of social protest..." (Briggs). Although some Chartists took a moral stance against violence others were less idealistic, including those who used the caves around Blaenau to help prepare for a semi-military campaign of social disobedience and insurrection.   

In  1839 several thousand working men marched on Newport from the area and other locations across the South Wales valleys in protest at the imprisonment in Monmouth of a number of prominent English Chartists. On the morning of 5th November the 'Battle of Newport' took place, but it was an inglorious defeat for the by now undisciplined and drunken Chartist 'army' who were no match for the professional soldiery who had been stationed in the town to quell the uprising. Nine of the protesters were killed, most quickly fled back to their valley communities and their ring-leaders received predictably harsh sentences for their crimes of treason; reprieved from execution but transported to Australia for life.

On returning home, and with thoughts of this piece of history  brought vividly to life on a chill winters night, I was reminded of a lustily sung favourite song of old, Ironmasters by The Men They Couldn't Hang; a hymn to the radical uprisings of the era against the ironmasters and coal magnets of South Wales, "...from the smoky stacks of Merthyr to the hills of Ebbw Vale".

Although the Chartists ultimately failed in their own time, the rights for which they protested, including universal suffrage, would later become corner-stones of democratic systems around the world. In the words of E.P. Thompson, "we may thank them for these years of heroic culture". And yet, pondering the ruthless, exploitative industrialists of mid-nineteenth century South Wales and the modern day hegemony of global capitalism, I can't help thinking that The Men They Couldn't Hang were right: "Ironmasters, they always get their way".


Birkett, Bill, 2002. The Hillwalker's Manual. Milnthorpe: Cicerone.

Briggs, Asa, 1991. A Social History of England. London: Penguin.

Morris, Jan, 1998. Wales: Epic views of a small country. London: Penguin. 

Owen, Hywel Wyn, 1998. A Pocket Guide to the Place-Names of Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Thomas, R.S., 1996. Amen in Selected Poems. London: Dent.

Thompson, E.P., 1966. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage.

Blaenau-Gwent County Borough Council web site:

Friday 15 February 2013

Reflections on a year of Landscapism

And so my first 12 months of blogging on the landscape - of landscapism - reaches an end; a repository of thoughts given their head.

My aim has been to provide a forum to bring together, promote and discuss themes, subject matter and marginalia of all kinds on landscape: finding the connections across the landscape divides.

To ask questions about landscape management, the false dichotomy of urban v rural, tensions between sustainable transport, biodiversity and community food production and the new National Planning Policy Framework; to propose a Manifesto for a Working Landscape.

 To provide an evolving gazetteer to exploring landscape on the web; and suggest a biblio-resource for reading the landscape, ranging far and wide, from William Morris' News From Nowhere to Ross Raisin's God's Own Country; from Urban Wildscapes to Writing Britain: from Wasteland to Wonderland; from a wild utopian trilogy to a midwinter handlist to help survive the dark months.

To find wildness, places to be left alone with yourself; to seek out Robert Macfarlane's holloways, old ways and wild places, meander on paths and trackways, wander amongst ash: the shaggy signs of Pan and ramble on the urban fringe. To eulogize the watery life blood of the landscape where, men  may come and men may go, but I go on forever.

To explore landscapes of the past: a triptych of ruins, carved into the landscape, Avebury stone circle: 'an uncanny landscape', Dial Garreg: a story of stone and war propaganda films; to feel the history of a temporal space. As well as remembering more personal cognitive artifacts, a scrap of a memory: Arcadian dreaming.

To listen to songs which, like the grass, are evergreen; the sounds of PJ Harvey - Let England Shake, the Roman Roads of Land Observations, Dennis Wilson's River Song and the radical call to arms, The Land Song. To proclaim Here's a Health to the Barley Mow!

To gaze upon the local topographies and vaster world's of Pieter Bruegel's Hunters in the Snow, David Hockney's A Bigger Picture, maps of the Old Straight Tracks of Glastonbury and the beginnings of a rising Pandaemonium stoking the Industrial Revolution.

To return to special places, the landscapes in particular of Kenilworth Castle, Bolton Abbey, Cold Ashton, Worth Valley and Hergest Ridge. To turn off the gadgets and experience the landscape where the path, winding like silver, trickles on; to ask, is there no end to this accursed forest? and enjoy being stumped.

To find new discoveries and different perspectives; a sense of hope in the age of collapse, the alternative future vision of the Dark Mountain Project, the practice of walking as drifting and seek inspiration from a new Westcoasting life. 

And to drift around the margins: listening to sound mapping, musing on a comedy of landscapes, enjoying Jimi Bush and the palimpsest designed landscapes of rural riding

All the while, perhaps, seeking Jerusalem; a personal, progressive and magical 'land of dreams'.

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Wild utopian trilogy

Three books are occupying my thoughts at the moment; linked by their combination of a contemporary critique of the harsh realities of late nineteenth century capitalism and industrialization with a vision of a back to nature future, albeit with varying viewpoints on what a post-'civilisation' world could hold in store for humanity.
William Morris' News From Nowhere and Other Writings (1890) is full of hope and zeal for a more egalitarian future of rustic utopia. After London or Wild England  by Richard Jefferies (1885) is a much more ambiguous chronicle of the relapse of society into the barbarism of nature. The precursor to, and influence on, both books is also the least well-known, Samuel Butler's Erewhon (1872), an escape to a ficticious and flawed New World demi-paradise.

So here are some choice extracts from all three*, mixed together in a pleasing if not altogether coherent, and sometimes contradictory, soup: a wild utopian trilogy.

"What is that thought that is come into one's head as one turns around in the shadow of the roadside elm? A countryside worth fighting for, if that were necessary, worth taking trouble to defend its peace.
The old men say their fathers told them that soon after the fields were left to themselves a change began to be visible. It became green everywhere in the first spring, after London ended, so that all the country looked alike.
From an elevation there was nothing visible but forest and marsh. On the level ground and the plains the view was limited to a short distance, because of the thickets and the saplings which had now become young trees. The downs only were still partially open, yet it was not convenient to walk upon them except in the tracks of animals, because of the long grass which, being no more regularly grazed upon by sheep, as was once the case, grew thick and tangled. Furze, too, and heath covered the slopes, and in places vast quantities of fern. There had always been copses of fir and beech and nut-tree covers, and these increased and spread, while bramble, briar, and hawthorn extended around them.
 It was a monotonous life, but it was very healthy and one does not much mind anything when one is well.  The country was the grandest that can be imagined.  How often have I sat on the mountain side and watched the waving downs, with the two white specks of huts in the distance, and the little square of garden behind them; the paddock with a patch of bright green oats above the huts, and the yards and wool-sheds down on the flat below; all seen as through the wrong end of a telescope, so clear and brilliant was the air, or as upon a colossal model or map spread out beneath me.  Beyond the downs was a plain, going down to a river of great size, on the farther side of which there were other high mountains, with the winter’s snow still not quite melted; up the river, which ran winding in many streams over a bed some two miles broad, I looked upon the second great chain, and could see a narrow gorge where the river retired and was lost.  I knew that there was a range still farther back; but except from one place near the very top of my own mountain, no part of it was visible: from this point, however, I saw, whenever there were no clouds, a single snow-clad peak, many miles away, and I should think about as high as any mountain in the world.  Never shall I forget the utter loneliness of the prospect—only the little far-away homestead giving sign of human handiwork;—the vastness of mountain and plain, of river and sky; the marvellous atmospheric effects—sometimes black mountains against a white sky, and then again, after cold weather, white mountains against a black sky—sometimes seen through breaks and swirls of cloud—and sometimes, which was best of all, I went up my mountain in a fog, and then got above the mist; going higher and higher, I would look down upon a sea of whiteness, through which would be thrust innumerable mountain tops that looked like islands.
At first it is supposed that those who remained behind existed upon the grain in the warehouses, and what they would thresh by the flail from the crops left neglected in the fields. But as the provisions in the warehouses were consumed or spoiled, they hunted the animals, lately tame and as yet half wild. As these grew less in number, and difficult to overtake, they set to work again to till the ground, and cleared away small portions of the earth, encumbered already with brambles and thistles. Some grew corn and some took charge of sheep. Thus, in time, places far apart from each other were settled, and towns were built; towns, indeed, we call them to distinguish them from the champaign, but they are not worthy of the name in comparison with the mighty cities of old time. 

Under the elm tree these things puzzle me, and again my thoughts return to the bold men of that very countryside who, coming back from Ashdown field, scored that White Horse to look down for ever on the valley of the Thames; and I thought it likely that they had this much in common with the starlings and the bleak, that there was more equality among them than we are used to now, and that there would have been more models amongst them for Woden than one would be like to find in the Thames-side meadows.   

Turn the page, I say. The hay-field is a pretty sight this month seen under the elm, as the work goes forward on the other side of the way opposite the bean-field, till you look at the hay-makers closely. Suppose the haymakers were friends working for friends on land which was theirs, as many as were needed, with leisure and hope ahead of them instead of hopeless toil and anxiety, need their useful labour for themselves and their neighbours cripple and disfigure them and knock them out of shape of men fit to represent the Gods and Heroes? If under such conditions a new Ashdown had to be fought (against capitalist robbers this time), the new White Horse would look down on the home of men as wise as the starlings, in their equality, and so perhaps as happy."  
 *Albeit, the Morris contributions are from his contemporaneous essay Under an Elm-tree, or Thoughts in the Countryside rather than News From Nowhere itself.


Butler, Samual, 2006. Erewhon. London: Penguin.

Jefferies, Richard, 1980. After London. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morris, William, 1993. News From Nowhere and Other Stories. London: Penguin.   

Monday 4 February 2013

A scrap of a memory - Arcadian dreaming

"Let me love the country, the rivers running through the valleys, the streams and woodlands - happy though unknown. Give me broad fields and sweeping rivers, lofty mountain ranges in distant lands, cold precipitous valleys, where I may lie beneath the enormous darkness of the branches." (Georgics, Virgil)

One of the cognitive artifacts of my early childhood - a scrap of a memory - that occasionally returns to the forefront of my consciousness, is of leafing through an old book on Classical mythology in the bedroom of my great aunt and uncles Post Office, overlooking the village green in Market Stainton, Lincolnshire. I remember nothing of the words, but the illustrations of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses were imprinted, faintly but tenaciously, on my mind. And, maybe through wishful thinking false memory, the heroic scenes occupying the pages were played out across equally epic Arcadian landscapes. This, anyway, is the vision that has stuck with me.

'Dream of Arcadia', Thomas Cole

My knowledge of Classical history and myth is shamingly sketchy, and I've always been somewhat envious of those who can authoritatively reference antiquity in prose and speech. However, and always striving to be a good polymath, from the springboard of the 'Lincolnshire book' memory I have a clear aesthetic vision of the Ancient Greco-Roman world, albeit an amalgam of the re-imaginings of successive waves of Western civilisation from the Renaissance onwards, given a Technicolor sheen through watching too many Hollywood 'sword-and-sandal' epics. This visualisation of places and times unvisited is emphatically Arcadian, populated by the spirits of Faunus, Silvanus and Pan, 'god of the wild countryside'.


It is only recently that I have come to think of the inevitable reality that this blissful rurality and Pythagorean harmony is a construct of the mind. And largely the mind of the Roman poet Virgil. As Adam Nicolson explains,
"The Greeks had two kinds of primitivism: the soft version of the Golden Age, often set in Sicily, where there was plenty and happiness and none of the vices of modernity; and the harder kind, often found in the harsh Greek province of Arcadia in the Peloponnese, a tough, wild mountain country, where there were no comforts and none of the sweetness of groves and purling brooks, but whose shepherds were admirably virtuous and honest and comforted themselves in their primitive lives with their songs and their pipes....Virgil fused these two realms." 

A holiday in Sicily a few years ago (during which the photographs in this post were taken) enabled temporary immersion in the relics and ghosts of this landscape; the modern topography providing a convincing facimile. This imagery has been given more recent succor by dipping into a battered 1957 copy of Gilbert Highet's Poets in a Landscape, a scholarly but fascinating account of the places Roman poets, including Virgil, described and lived in (ex libris: Wheaton College Library, Wheaton, Illinois). 

And so, my vision of Arcadia - Virgil's "distant realms of nature" - lives on, by way of Lincolnshire, Sicily and Illinois. Perhaps powered by a yearning to be "...a fugitive from civilisation, the figure who recovers a kind of spiritual integrity and wisdom by immersion in the natural setting." (Malcolm Andrews).

Select Bibliography 

Andrews, Malcolm, 1999. Landscape and Western Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Anon, 1952. Everyman's Atlas of Ancient and Classical Geography. London: Dent.

Highet, Gilbert, 1957. Poets in a Landscape. New York: Alfred Knopf.

March, Jenny, 2008. The Penguin Book of Classical Myths. London: Penguin

Nicolson, Adam, 2008. Arcadia: The dream of perfection in Renaissance England. London: Harper Collins. 

Rushby, Kevin, 2006. Paradise: A history of the idea that rules the world. London: Robinson.

Some Landscapes blog entry on Virgil's Georgics

Virgil Wikipedia entry