On Windover Hill and The Oddness of Time

Yesterday, we joined a walk to the Long Man of Wilmington, on the South Downs in Sussex. The walk was led by composer Nathan James, and Justin Hopper, the author of The Old Weird Albion.

EPrcQenWoAQWbeb

The Long Man is a chalk figure etched through the grass into the hillside, below the summit of Windover Hill, revealing the chalk that lies beneath. When and why it was first cut is the subject of myth and speculation – and that brings us neatly to Nathan’s new composition.

P1060405a

On 7th March, Nathan will premier his fantastic new choral work On Windover Hill at Boxgrove Priory, Chichester, Sussex. This has been inspired by the Long Man, its mythology, and the art that has arisen around it, as well as the written history and the geography of the surrounding land. It has a very English feel to it, in the tradition of Vaughan Williams or Holst.

Full details of the work and the performance can be found here. Tickets can also be bought by clicking ‘The Premier’ link in the sidebar there. We have ours, and it would be great to see it sold out!

This walk was by way of a taster for the concert, with a mixture of history and mythology imparted along the way, a poem from Peter Martin, read by himself, and extracts from stories read out by Justin, all of which referenced the Long Man. Also  Anna Tabbush sang two folk songs, one of which was the only song known about the Long Man, appropriately enough called The Long Man and written by the late Maria Cunningham.

P1060395a

I’m not sure How many people I expected to see, but we were around forty, with a surprisingly large number being artists of one sort or another.

The weather was so much better than we had a right to expect – the forecast had been for clouds and rain, but the clouds cleared during the morning, and we had plenty of sunshine as we ascended, although it rather lived up to its name at the top, with more than enough wind for everyone.

P1060404a

Here, the remains of prehistoric burial mounds sit overlooking the Long Man, and the rest of the surrounding countryside.

P1060403a

Some landscapes seem to muck around with your perception of time, and Downland seems especially prone to this. I’m not entirely sure why this should be, but suspect it is a combination of factors.

It is a very open landscape, and other than the contours of the land and a few trees, frequently the only features that stand out are prehistoric ones, such as barrows and chalk figures. Due to the uncertainty around their origins, these have a timelessness about them, a fluidity when it comes to grasping their history. We see the long view, which perhaps works on our sense of time as well as space. The more recent additions to the landscape are usually in the form of fences, which can easily seem invisible as we look around for something less ephemeral than the open sky to fix our eyes on.

The Downs are an ancient landscape, in any case. When human beings recolonised what is now Britain after the last Ice Age, at first they kept to the higher ground which gave less impediment to travel and settlement than the marshy and thickly wooded lowlands. Most standing stones and burial mounds from the Neolithic or earlier are found on these higher areas.

I do not get these feelings in more recent landscapes. At a medieval castle or manor house, it is easy to imagine the inhabitants baking bread or sweeping corridors; activities as natural to us today as they were then. I feel a comfortable mixture of the old and the new, a recognisable timeline connecting the past with me.

But barrows, standing stones and hillside figures have a purpose alien and unknown to us. Step on the ground near these remains and you can feel the presence of the unknown. No wonder the belief in the past in faeries and elves who inhabited the underground, and who lived essentially out of time.

They offend our carefully erected sense of order and belonging and, perhaps, still pose a barely acknowledged threat to us today.

I might be imagining it, of course, but listening to the extracts from On Windover Hill on the website, I think I recognise that feeling in places, an unexpected musical response to my own feelings. And then Nathan’s description of his creative process on the website echoes some of this too.

I’m hooked!

Green Christmas

Yesterday was beautiful.

I went out for a walk in the morning as the overnight mist was lifting, and the air was cool but not cold, under a sunny, clear sky filled with birdsong. I felt a powerful sense of renewal in the world.

001a

There is little new growth yet, but the trees were covered in buds. Although we are not long past the shortest day of the year, the ridiculously mild temperature and the sun which felt warm on my face, reminded me that there is one more minute of daylight today than there was yesterday, and tomorrow there will be one more than that. And it will not be long before each day gains an extra two minutes, then three, then four…

009a

The air smelt clearer and cleaner than it had for months, and I felt like beginning a long journey. I yearned to be walking on the Downs, or heading through fields and woods with my destination nothing more elaborate than a bed in a basic bunkhouse or hostel, and somewhere to get a meal, preferably in a tiny village surrounded by hills and streams and woods. This is a feeling I get every Spring, that it is a time to explore more of the world.

Everything seems to be fresh. I need to do something new, something positive. To plant some trees, perhaps (always a good idea).

007a

I thought of Christmas. This year, we had a string of lights in one room, with handfuls of greenery as the only other decorations. This, for me, is a way to make sense of the season. It has nothing to do with religion, unless it be the ancient religions that worshipped the sun and the moon and celebrated the turn of the year at the Winter Solstice when the seasons begin their long, slow journey back towards the promise of Spring and the harvests of Autumn. A simple wisdom, in tune with the natural world.

I do not, I cannot – I will not – associate it with any other form of mythical gods. For me, it is all about the natural cycle of the seasons, simple and uncomplicated.

And I particularly like the period when Christmas is definitely over, and we’re only just getting into the new year. Everything seems to have this feeling of renewal, which was the whole point of the Yule festival. A time to look forward and plan for the coming year. This will be where the tradition of New Year Resolutions comes from, no doubt.

This year, I shall resolve to try and simplify my life further, and to live more in tune with the natural world.

The Sussex Downs Murder – Not Really A Review

24958623

For anyone who loves the English South Downs – and whodunnits – this book makes an interesting read.

On the one hand, it is a fairly average 1930’s detective murder mystery, although I have certainly read much worse, but on the other it provides some marvellous insights into the South Downs in the area specifically around Chanctonbury Ring in that time, which is really what took my interest.

Personally, I prefer murder mysteries involving ‘normal’ people, rather than the typical country house full of assorted Colonels and ladies and royalty and such-like, so popular at the time – other than the thought of bumping off the Upper Classes, of course! But this book delivers in that it is set on a downland farm, where the farmer goes missing, believed murdered. It even has, as a cover, an adaptation of one of the fabulous Leslie Carr railway posters of the 1930’s – what’s not to like?

The introduction mentions its ‘sense of place’, and the writing seems to me especially good at conveying an accurate feel of the landscape. One thing that comes over very strongly is the emptiness of the countryside at that time. The Downs have been sparsely inhabited since Roman times; before then, much of the population chose to live on the higher, drier, lands of the chalklands of South and South East England, away from the forested and frequently marshy lower areas where travel was difficult and clearance very hard work. After the arrival of the Romans, however, all this changed, and since then the chalklands have been left largely to a small population living mainly by farming sheep.

We now have many people visiting for leisure purposes and on fine days popular routes such as the walk to Birling Gap from Eastbourne (or from convenient car parks much closer!) may easily see hundreds of visitors striding along the footpaths and hanging off the edge of the cliffs taking selfies (other stupid ways to kill oneself are available). On the same day, though, nearby footpaths may see no visitors at all. It is still a sparsely populated area.

John Bude evokes this sense of emptiness well. His descriptions of the roads and paths on and around the area really allow the reader to feel this. His characters walk the lanes and roads of the downs frequently without meeting anyone else on their journeys. Farms and houses are ‘isolated’, and even at a time when most people would travel by public transport to cover any distance, the population is so small that when questioned by the detective on the case, a bus conductor can remember who was on his bus several weeks before.

There are four lime kilns near Washington, on the edge of the area described in the story, which I suspect were the inspiration for the lime kiln featured on the farm in the book. No spoilers, but you might well guess their relevance to a murder mystery.

But it is the descriptions of the roads and paths that particularly take my interest, roads and paths virtually empty of footfall or traffic even during the day, emphasising how lightly populated the area was, and still is today, to a degree. Other than popular footpaths such as the long distance South Downs Way, and those footpaths running between popular tourist spots, it is still easy to find solitude in this quiet area of the otherwise heavily populated South East England.

Review of The Old Weird Albion

The Old Weird Albion, by Justin Hopper.

download

The viewer sees a painting that appears to be composed of watercolour and charcoal, of a winding road or track, possibly even a river, leading towards a line of downland hills, the whole created entirely in black and shades of grey, with the title and author scrawled into the picture in brilliant white, as though it were a prehistoric figure etched into the Downs themselves.

And that’s just the cover.

This is a book quite unlike any I have read before, in that it is a book about the south of England, especially the South Downs of Sussex, but it is far more than geography and the associated disciplines such as geology and biology, rural history and architecture, and folklore. Psycho-geography was not a term I had come across before, but there is an aptness to it that becomes apparent as you read.

The book opens at Beachy Head, a beautiful piece of Sussex with a dark reputation for suicide, as a woman throws herself off the edge. Quickly, we learn that this woman was the first wife of the grandfather of the author, Justin Hopper. And we learn that this book is in part a chronicle of his efforts to discover this person and learn something of her life and, consequently, her motives for such an act.

In so doing, he needs to revisit parts of his earlier time in Sussex and examine his own relationship to the area as well as the relationship of other players, not just his grandfather and other members of their family.

He has a gift for sifting and selecting the weird in these relationships, not just at sites that might be naturally expected to encourage the weird, such as Chanctonbury Ring, high on the Downs above Steyning or in old ruined buildings, but also in humdrum blocks of flats in modern developments. He references modern phenomena like crop circles and throughout there is the presence of ‘magic’, in the sense of a natural force. Many of the people he meets are an eccentric mix of the weird, too, although I choose this description carefully, largely in the old, original meaning of the word of ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’.

A strength of this book is its intensity, and I feel impelled to look at the pictures it references and read the books it quotes. So much so that upon finishing the book, I spent some time tracking down an old copy of one of those books, which I am now reading, and which holds my interest in just the way Justin implied it would.

On a personal level, this book came just at the right time for me, in that I am reacquainting myself with the geography and history, and the plants and animals, of the South of England, where I grew up and which formed my love of the natural world, and the book has encouraged me to look at this in a new way.

It is most certainly a five star book for me.

The Weald of Kent and Sussex

South East England is my area. It is where I was raised and, other than a few years spent abroad, it is where I have lived my whole life. In particular, the Weald and the Downs. Not so much the coastline, which has never particularly attracted me, but the hills and valleys, the woodlands and rabbits, the hidden crags and open downland, the land of streams and foxes and badgers, birds and villages and butterflies.

039a

On the Sussex Downs

There is a curious fact about the wooded areas of South east England, which is that there is more woodland, covering a greater area now, than was the case four hundred years ago.

032a

Back then, South East England was the industrial heartland of Britain. This was before the discovery of the coal seams of the North and the Midlands, and the various factors which would eventually lead to the greatest impact of the Industrial revolution being in those areas.  Instead, the modest iron deposits of the Weald were mined and worked into firedogs and nails, cannon and cooking pans, as the wealth of words such as hammer and forge in place names still bear witness.

 

037b

Huge numbers of trees were cut down to feed the fires of these forges, and huge numbers also for charcoal burning, for building, and near the coast the great Kent and Sussex oaks were in huge demand to build the large number of ships the navy demanded. But then from the mid eighteenth century onwards, industry began to shift northwards.

Despite the pressures on the land for building and for farming in this crowded corner of our crowded island, there is actually more woodland now than there was during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. And that is not something that can be said of many parts of Britain or, I suspect, many parts of the world at all.

010a

The Weald is an area whose underlying rocks are sandstone and clay, which means that the unimproved soils are inevitably either light and sandy or thick and claggy. In some parts there are old sunken tracks known as ‘Summer Roads’, so-called because they became impassable in the winter months, when they might have had a foot or more of thick, wet, muddy, clay on their surface. When these were in use, journeys between villages that might take an hour or two in summer, could became almost impossibly long during the winter.

037x

At the moment, all everything in the news seems depressing and unpleasant and so, this post is an indulgence. Just a smattering of information, and a few photos of places I love, largely to improve my mood.

If I Could Just Wave A Wand…

337a

Pandering to my Inner Vagabond, here…

If I could just wave a wand,

I would wander the world.

With my notebook in hand,

And a bag on my back.

 

I would sleep under hedges,

In hotels and haylofts.

Drink beers under trees,

And eat cheese on the moor.

 

I’d watch clouds over hilltops,

And boats on the ocean.

Shapes and shadows at sunset,

A moon with a view.

 

And I’d write trivial poems

Of snowfall and sunlight,

Birds singing at dawn

And the sounds of a stream.

 

There’s the lure of a skyline,

And skylarks above me,

Wine and wood smoke my welcome

At the end of the day.

 

To travel, to journey,

There’s magic in wandering

Over moorland and downland,

Through woods and through fields.

 

The world’s full of wonders

All waiting for wanderers.

Let me follow these paths

For as long as I can.

 

Clouds

It’s one of those days, today, when the clouds are thick and dark and slightly threatening, but are shifting rapidly across the sky and continually changing shape in a rather exciting way.

I’ve always loved clouds.

When I was young, I was always very conscious of the sky. I still have a copy of a poem I wrote when I was fifteen or sixteen, which I won’t reproduce here, but was titled ‘Clouds’ and compared their shifting shapes with dreams and ambitions. Quite prescient, in my own case, as it happens, but I’ll not go into that now.

045b

I wonder whether the average fifteen or sixteen year old even sees the sky on a day to day basis, now. After all, you tend to look down at your ‘smart’ phone, do you not?

034a

Summer clouds…

When I dream about getting away from the daily grind, running away from it all, whatever you care to call it, the image in my head is always a compound of the Himalaya, and clouds. Or English Downland, and clouds. Anywhere remote and away from crowds, really. With clouds.

Ethereal, ephemeral, forever changing shape, never boring.

Untitled-Grayscale-01a

Dramatic clouds…

IMGP2317a

Clouds like a painting on a masterpiece by Leonardo Da Vinci…

dusk

Clouds in my own paintings…

I’m tinkering around with a short(ish) story absolutely stuffed full of clouds at the moment, too. perhaps that’s what led me here.

In which case, I’d better chuck in one more…

Untitled-Grayscale-02

From Nepal in 1988. *Sigh*.