Review of The Old Weird Albion

The Old Weird Albion, by Justin Hopper.

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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 Joy of Unknowing (2)

As soon as I had written my last blog post, I thought of this piece I wrote quite a long time ago which offers a similar take on travel and navigation. I am tempted to tidy it up a bit and perhaps update it to mention GPS, but instead I’ll leave it as it is.

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When I was a teenager, I began to use maps, although in rather an ad hoc, hit and miss manner. They were there for me when I was really stuck, or just wanted to know which general direction something lay. It would be a very long time before I began to use them in a careful, detailed way, able to predict the exact lie of the land, navigate in the fog or the dark, find my way through complicated landscapes with the map and compass. And, do you know, since I’ve learned to do that, I feel as though I’ve lost something rather magical, although I don’t suppose that I can blame it all on that. The maps that I was using as a teenager would tend to be the Bartholomew’s touring maps, small scale with little detail. I would feel, as I headed along a Cornish footpath, that I only knew roughly where I was going. It felt like an adventure, an exploration.

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Now, I need to be more and more remote to get that feeling, and even then it does not always work. Having just spent some time in Ladakh, in the Himalaya in the far north of India, I was surprised at just how easy all of my walking was. Setting off with map and compass, I always knew exactly where I was, only confused at times by the multiplicity of tracks criss-crossing the landscape. Even then, reference to mountains and villages with map and compass would invariably allow me to set my position. It doesn’t mean that I wanted to get lost, just that there was a small part of me that said ‘even this is all tame!’ Equally, I can be put off, by using the map, by the knowledge that over the interesting looking ridge that I was heading for, lies a motorway or building estate, and so I spend ages trying to plot a route that I try to get perfect, rather than simply heading off in the direction that I want to go and exploring as I go, correcting my course as I travel.

Nothing can tempt me more than a track leading tantalisingly into the distance, perhaps meandering through Mediterranean scrub towards a notch in the skyline, perhaps leading through a glowing archway of trees. Even now, when using map and compass to navigate, I often have to resist the temptation to ignore the map and head off to follow an interesting looking track. I think that this must be a part of my ‘I wonder what’s over the other side of the hill?’ nature. It is another reason why I’ve never been able to lie on a beach – apart from the fact that it seems a particularly pointless pastime in any case. Any time that I’ve tried it, it never seems to be more than a couple of minutes before I begin to think ‘What’s round the cliff?’ or ‘If I head back up the river, I think I might find a way through those hills.’ And then I just have to go to find out.

Spain 1

I’ve been to Spain a dozen or so times, although I’ve never posted about it before.

I’ve been there as a tourist / traveller – the words are interchangeable, and where one stops and the other begins is very much a matter of personal taste. Some travellers would be highly offended if you referred to them as tourists, yet the Oxford dictionary defines a tourist as a person who makes a tour, a traveller, esp. for recreation. It is a snob thing, really. Many travellers like to think of themselves as being too serious to be a mere tourist. Perhaps it has a lot to do with that word tour, with the inference it is an organised thing, probably by a travel company, and probably full of holiday-makers who need to be guided around these awkward foreign places and told what to see and do. A Package Tour, perhaps. And so also that word recreation.

And I can be as guilty of that snobbish attitude as the next traveller. I can think of a number of times when I’ve been travelling and said ‘I’m just going to be a tourist, today‘, when I’ve felt like a day just wandering around a place and taking photographs and sitting in cafes.

Mea culpa.

I’ve also had the pleasure of going to Spain numerous times as an instructor with a group, and spending a week taking people canoeing, walking and climbing. So, all that and getting paid for it, too. Pretty fortunate, actually.

If you have ever read the book As I walked out one midsummer morning by Laurie Lee, which is the follow-up book to Cider with Rosie, you will know it is the record of his journey on foot through Spain in the 1930’s, just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. It is a truly marvellous book, and well worth anyone’s time reading it, but I mention it only because I wanted to do something like that, and so my second visit to Spain was to spend a couple of weeks walking in the hills and mountains in the South of the country.

I flew into Malaga, I walked out of Malaga.

Heading north, the walker quickly gets into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the mountain chain that extends for a couple of hundred miles parallel to the south coast of Spain. And for the best part of the next two weeks I worked my way first Eastwards, and then Westwards back to Malaga, avoiding roads wherever possible. I slept each night on a hillside, or in the corner of a field, or anywhere else convenient where I could lay out my sleeping bag away from town or village.

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As a journey, it was not without its difficulties – finding water was frequently a problem. Passing through villages there would inevitably be a tap somewhere I could fill up my bottles (and myself; I rapidly learned the thing to do was to drink as much as I possibly could when I found a water supply!), but away from any habitation it was a lot harder. Many water courses had dried up and I had to take every opportunity to fill up.

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But as a way of seeing the Spain that few casual visitors see, it was unrivalled.

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When the Arabs conquered part of Spain in the early part of the eighth century, they created water courses known as Falaj (which can still be seen in use in many countries such as Oman and Iran) to channel water over long distances. This one is still in use now in the Sierra Nevada.

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Morning View…

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…and a dusk photo at one of my wild camps. 

The Old Way 6

Poem #6 of 6. The end of the journey.

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The Old Way 6

 

When the square sails of the invading Romans

First appeared over the horizon,

This path was already ancient.

When the first sword was forged,

When the giant stones were placed

In mysterious alignments,

This path was already old.

Only when the great ice giants

Relaxed their grip on the land

Were these paths young.

These are paths to tread reverently,

Mindful of those countless others

Who also once passed this way.

Friend, take your place on this journey,

You are in fine company.

The Old Way 5

Poem five out of six.

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The Old Way 5

 

The Old Way now rises,

Leaving the rich damp soil behind

And attacking the ridge.

It becomes a wound, a scar,

A deep, dry incision in the chalk.

It runs up beneath the shelter of ancient trees,

Their roots knotted and matted beside the path,

It passes a mound, faintly visible in the turf;

The ghost of a cottage, if buildings can become ghosts.

Although is there any reason why they shouldn’t?

If they die abandoned, deserted and unloved,

After long years, perhaps only their sadness remains.

 

There are other ghosts here, too.

You might tell me it is only in my imagination

That I hear the plod of hooves, or

Voices speaking in strange tongues,

That I hear the creaking of cart and harness.

But I have heard them.

I know that we are walking in the footsteps of giants,

And giants do not fade away readily.

 

 

The Old Way 4

Poem number four in a series of six.

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The Old Way 4

 

Of course, I had been in a rush to get here.

I think I had been walking for about an hour

Before I reached this path.

But even so,

I had not realised how fast I was going.

 

I had known I needed to get away

(that almost goes without saying),

But finally I arrive, and I slow down.

I slow down so I might look and see.

 

And breathe.

 

I slow down to feel the breeze

And the sun on my head.

I slow down to hear the birds.

I am in no hurry,

Now I’m walking on the Old Way.

 

I have bread and cheese, and I have an apple,

As though I were one of those folk

Travelling in a bygone age.

My only concession to today is a plastic bag.

 

Which I now regret.

Home

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I’m walking on tracks,

On familiar tracks,

Under blue sky,

In the evening light.

My shadow before me,

The wind behind.

 

I’m yawning now,

And my legs are tired.

I’m looking forward to supper,

A beer and then bed.

 

The shadows lengthen,

Along with my stride

On familiar tracks,

Along familiar tracks.

I’m heading for home,

Now,

I’m heading for home.

 

Annapurna Circuit, Nepal -1

In 1988 – thirty years ago! – I walked the Annapurna Circuit. This has long been regarded as one of the top ten walks in the world, and is certainly the walk I have enjoyed most. I put up a post about the circuit a year and a half ago (here) should you wish to read it, but as a celebration of that anniversary, I thought I would put up some more photographs over several posts.

Today, they are all from our second day’s walk.

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We camped the whole way, since there was virtually no accommodation on the route then. It was sometimes possible to sleep on the floor of a tea-house, but that usually meant an uncomfortable night in a very smoky atmosphere, and probably not a great deal warmer than a tent. It meant we were travelling with four guides, a couple of cooks, a couple of ‘kitchen boys’, and an average of fifteen to twenty porters (every so often one or two would leave, and others get hired from a village we were passing through).

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We began our walk from Gorkha, walking through the Terai – the sub-tropical forest region that stretches across most of Southern Nepal and much of the Himalayan Foothills of Northern India. This was a land of small rural villages, terraced fields carved painstakingly out of the hillsides, and, naturally, wooded hillsides.

Much of the woodland had already gone, cut both as clearance for fields and for fuel and fodder. It was already leading to much soil erosion and the degradation of the remaining soils. With the passage of thirty years, this can only have got worse.

On day 2 we walked from our campsite beside the Dharandi Khola to the settlement of Chepe Ghat.

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Transport in these areas was entirely by foot, usually in the form of porters who carried massive loads upon their backs. Occasionally by pony, or by bullock, but never by yak – they do not survive at these comparatively low altitudes. In 1988, walking the Annapurna Circuit was entirely on tracks and paths, since there were no roads of any description on our route. Today, there are motorable roads along part of it, but back then we did not see or hear a motorised vehicle for the duration of the trek.

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Building materials in these areas were, and predominantly still are, wood, thatch, and mud. Stone was used only in larger settlements.

The boy pictured above, incidentally, will now be in his late thirties.

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Wooded hillsides, with the terraced fields belonging to a nearby village encroaching.

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Rice paddy – terraced fields flooded for the planting of rice, the staple crop of the Nepal Lowlands.

The Travel Bug bit me – part 1

Travelling! My first inclination to travel to remote regions came from my Grandmother, when I was probably six or seven years old, despite the fact that she had never travelled very far at all in her whole life. In fact, I don’t think that she ever left England.

But she would tell me stories of China, inducing images of Emperors and pig-tailed mandarins, peasants and bandits, and this was coupled with a children’s book; an encyclopaedia I presume, with grainy, black and white pictures of strange scenery. It was extremely evocative, although at the time I did not understand that. I was just excited by the mysterious, the strange and the unknown.  I was hooked, and wanted to go there! Ever since then, the places where I’ve most wanted to travel, other than Britain and Europe, have almost all been in Asia.

The list of places that I have at the moment that I would like to visit, are almost exclusively Asian.

Yes, she has a lot to answer for, that sweet old lady.

hill station 2

When I was a teenager, I began to use maps, although in rather an ad hoc, hit and miss manner.

They were there for me when I was really stuck, or I just wanted to know in which general direction something lay. It would be a very long time before I began to use them in a skillful way, able to predict the exact lie of the land, navigate in the fog or the dark, or find my way through complicated landscapes with the map and compass. And, do you know, since I’ve learned to do that, I often feel as though I’ve actually lost something rather magical, although I don’t suppose that I can blame it all on that. The maps that I was using as a teenager would tend to be the Bartholomew’s Touring Maps, small scale with little detail. I would feel, as I headed along a Cornish footpath, that I only knew roughly where I was going. It always felt like an adventure; an exploration.

Now, I need to be more and more remote before I can get that feeling, and even then it does not always work. Some ten years ago, I spent a couple of weeks in Ladakh, in the Himalaya in the far north of India, and I was surprised at just how easy all of my walking was. Setting off with map and compass, I always knew exactly where I was, only confused at times by the multiplicity of tracks criss-crossing the landscape. Even then, reference to mountains and villages with map and compass would invariably allow me to set my position.

That doesn’t mean that I wanted to get lost, just that there was a small part of me that said ‘even this is all tame!’ Equally, I can be put off, when using a map, by the knowledge that over the interesting looking ridge that I am heading for, there lies a motorway or building estate, and so I then spend ages trying to plot a route that I try to get perfect, rather than simply heading off in the direction that I want to go and exploring as I go, correcting my course as I travel.

Nothing can tempt me more than a track leading tantalisingly into the distance, perhaps meandering through Mediterranean scrub towards a notch in the skyline, perhaps leading through a glowing archway of trees. Even now, when using map and compass to navigate, I often have to resist the temptation to ignore the map and head off to follow an interesting looking track. I think that this must be a part of my ‘I wonder what’s over the other side of the hill?’ nature. It’s another reason why I’ve never been able to lie on a beach – apart from the fact that this seems a particularly pointless pastime in any case. Any time that I’ve tried it, it never seems to be more than a couple of minutes before I begin to think ‘What’s round that cliff, I wonder?’ or ‘If I head back up the river, I think I might find a way through those hills.’ And then I just have to go to find out.

There are plenty of other things that can destroy a sense of adventure in travelling, other than over-familiarity with maps, of course. I remember the shock and the sense of let-down I received in Germany about 35 years ago, when I spent the best part of a morning struggling up an ill-defined track through thick woodland to the top of a berg in the Black Forest (I was using a tiny touring map at the time, which showed main roads at best). My elation at arriving at the top and surveying the panorama of hills and mountains around me was completely destroyed within a minute, as a coach roared up the other side of the hill, came to a halt a few feet away from me, and then disgorged about 30 Japanese tourists. They spent about two minutes firing off photographs of everything in sight, including myself, before leaping back on board the coach, roaring off down the hill and leaving me gob-smacked in the sudden silence and slowly settling dust.