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