The Compleat Trespasser by John Bainbridge

This time, the review without any distracting rants. Probably.

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Sub-titled Journeys into Forbidden Britain, it immediately sets out its agenda: it is both a potted history of how the land was stolen from the inhabitants of Britain, and the long struggles to regain access to much of it, with numerous anecdotes of the author’s own escapades trespassing.

The story of how the inhabitants of Britain came to lose their access to the majority of the land is a story that has been repeated throughout most of Europe and beyond. Land forcibly taken by invading armies and distributed partly to their soldiers, but mainly their officials or nobility. Land enclosed by lords and kings for hunting purposes, burning villages and evicting their inhabitants from the land. Land taken by acts of Parliament to further enrich the gentry. Land given by kings to the established church, so that peasants might labour only to feed the rich and corrupt clergy.

Land that has been kept private and jealously guarded both by strict and cruel laws, and by equally cruel methods by the landowners themselves. Thus laws that deemed the starving and dispossessed villager might be executed for taking a rabbit from land he once lived on, to feed his family. Thus the mantrap that would cut a mans leg off. Thus countless thousands beaten and sometimes killed by gamekeepers and owners.

When I attempted to review this a week ago, it ended up turning into a full-blown rant against grouse moors (I do rants so well, these days!), but even today it is not just grouse moors that are fenced off just so the idle rich can enjoy slaughtering wildlife – there is plenty of woodland and more open land enclosed around the country and dedicated to pheasant shooting, for example. There are country houses with huge estates. Land taken by the MOD for training purposes, and never returned. There are many landowners determined to block access to legal rights of way. Although the Countryside Rights of Way act of 2000 was supposed to restore access to most of the countryside, there is still much that is off-limits.

Yet there are good landowners, too. The tales of John’s own trespassing include several encounters with sympathetic landowners happy to see walkers on their land, with the obvious proviso that they cause no damage.

The improved access rights we do have today were earned the hard way. Since Victorian times there have been mass trespasses intended to both bring the issue into the public forum, and to try to force change. The Kinder Trespass of 1932 is probably the most famous, yet many preceded that. It is thanks to the countless trespassers and campaigners of those days that we have improved access rights today.

The book finishes, though, with a plea. Firstly to campaign for further land reform, for better access rights – rights that are enjoyed in Scotland, but not England, Wales or Ireland. And secondly with a warning – the current government campaigned at the last election on a promise to criminalise trespass, so that anyone who deliberately or inadvertently strays from a public footpath onto private land might find themselves on a charge in a criminal court.

Anyone who enjoys the countryside in any form, enjoys spending time there, and walking in it, should read this book. It provides a very good, clear, account of where we are, how we got here, and what has been done to get us someplace better.

But also that we still have some way to go.

Being Wistful: South Downs 2 – Steyning up to Chanctonbury Ring

Continuing the re-post of this series while we’re in lockdown and looking forward to better times:

Mouse Lane begins in Steyning and runs along the foot of the scarp slope of the Downs, until it climbs a little towards Chanctonbury Ring, an old hill fort. It is a delightful route, as delightful as its name; a sunken lane full of flowers and bees and butterflies (and, no doubt, mice), cool under the overhanging trees in the hot morning’s sun. It would be pleasant to follow it the whole way, but our route takes us along the ridge, and so we leave the lane to take a footpath up the steep scarp slope.

But where we leave the lane, there is a poem inscribed on a stone block. It was written in 1915 during WWI, by a British soldier poet stationed in the Somme. We pause to read it then stand for a while in silence, each of us alone with our thoughts.

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I can’t forget the lane that goes from Steyning to the Ring

In summertime, and on the downs how larks and linnets sing

High in the sun. The wind comes off the sea, and, oh, the air!

I never knew till now that life in old days was so fair.

But now I know it in this filthy rat-infested ditch,

Where every shell must kill or spare, and God alone knows which.

And I am made a beast of prey, and this trench is my lair,

My God, I never knew till now that those days were so fair.

And we assault in half-an-hour, and it’s a silly thing:

I can’t forget the lane that goes from Steyning to the Ring.

Chance memory – John Stanley Purvis 1890 – 1968

Our footpath, ironically, then takes us past an old rifle range. So old, in fact, that according to a walker we stopped to talk with it is still possible to dig musket balls out of the bank behind the range.

On top of the ridge, there is a slight breeze, but it is already very hot and we are clearly in for a hard day’s walking.

Robert Macfarlane, writing in The Old Ways, records sleeping in the Ring one night, and being woken at 2 a.m. by blood-chilling screams that seemed to come from above him, and then proceeded to circle the Ring for a quarter of an hour, although he could see nothing that might account for the sounds – he rules out the possibility of a screech owl – until they finally disappeared and he fell asleep again.

I would never have shut my eyes there again, if that were me.

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The Ring has a reputation as the most haunted place in Sussex, with tales of hapless benighted travellers being scared witless for centuries. In 1966, apparently, a group of bikers decided to stay the night there and were forced to flee in terror.

We’ve been to Chanctonbury Ring before and it certainly has an atmosphere. I would have liked to have lingered for a while longer, but the downside of the journey is that we had still to cover quite a few miles in the heat to get to Amberley that afternoon.

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Three years ago when we visited the Ring, the weather was gloomy and somewhat more atmospheric, although we were mercifully left alone by whatever might be lurking around there on the astral plane.

Thankfully, it seems they only come out at night.

 

Being Wistful: South Downs Way 1 – Eastbourne to Steyning

Some of my own response to the Covid-19 crisis and the restrictions we all find ourselves under is to revisit my favourite places, in books or thought, films or photographs, or even old blog posts. It is sobering and depressing to realise I may not be able to go more than a few miles from home over the coming months, but this does help a little.

The South Downs are a favourite, so I’m going to re-post this short series I put up a couple of years ago after our most recent walk along the South Downs Way:

 

Once upon a time, or five or six years ago, if you prefer, I thought I would start up my own outdoor adventure company. It never happened in the end, largely due to the cost of insurance. However, if I had gone through with it I have to admit it would have been largely so I could go on long distance trails both in the UK and overseas without having to pay for it.

Oh, well. It was a nice idea.

The South Downs Way is a long distance footpath of one hundred miles in length, running from Eastbourne to Winchester, or Winchester to Eastbourne, if you must, along the top of the South Downs.

Hence the name.

We walked it in May.

It is usual, when writing about a journey – especially a long distance walk – to write in some detail about the scenery and the route, in sequential order. I don’t think I’ll do that this time. Instead I’ll probably jump about all over the place writing about odd things we found particularly interesting.  And post one or two photos of the stunning scenery…

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Such as this one.

So, a few points of interest.

This, then, is a dew pond:

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Chalk is a porous rock, allowing any rainfall to rapidly soak away, so the only way of providing water on the top of the downs is by artificial means. Dew ponds have been made up there for hundreds of years; a hollow is dug and lined with clay, which then fills naturally when the rain falls. Dew is probably not a significant contributor, despite the name. The downside to this simple system is should the pond dry out, then the clay, too, will dry out. When this happens, it will shrink and crack, and subsequent rainfall will leak out.

And while on the subject of rainfall, we didn’t have glorious weather all the way:

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We were forced to seek refuge in a convenient pub at the Devil’s Dyke for a couple of hours, but we made the best of it. This was clearly A Good Move because although it was still pouring with rain when we eventually left the pub, it began to clear up in about an hour and then we had sunshine for the rest of the day.

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These are cowslips. The word comes from the Old English cuslyppe, which means cow dung, because, yes, that’s where they like to grow, apparently. Years ago, before the coming of intensive farming practices and industrial weedkillers, our fields were full of cowslips, but they seem to be met with now primarily in the more open landscapes – like downland. For the first few days of our walk, especially, we saw lots of cowslips.

We had a rest day at Steyning, although we stayed at nearby Bramber.

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Bramber Castle is a strange and mysterious place, which magically energises the over sixties and causes them to revert to their childhood.

Although not for long, sadly.

The Government Response to Covid-19 and Some Numbers

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I wasn’t going to write anything on this subject, since there is hardly a shortage of articles everywhere you look, but some of the things I have been reading online have prompted me to put this up. This post concerns the measures put in place by the UK government for the protection of the public. But first, a caveat. It is a commentary on the UK response ONLY. I do not know enough of the details of how other governments have reacted to comment fairly on those.

And please understand also, this is not any sort of commentary on the financial aptitude or ineptitude of their response, which is another kettle of worms entirely.

The prime difficulty of any measures taken is that there is not one immediate and obvious action that can be taken to protect the public. The issue, of course, is that we need to meet, as far as possible, two opposing objectives. First, we need to develop as much immunity in the wider population as possible and second, we need to protect from infection those who are recognised as vulnerable. And to satisfy the first objective, we need to expose large numbers to the virus but to satisfy the second, we need to shield as many as possible from it.

And these objectives are so different that it is impossible to meet both at the same time, but are both so important that each needs to be addressed. Like many things in real life, there is no perfect solution and the best that can be put forward is a compromise of some sort.

And each person’s opinion on which is the more important will be coloured by their own circumstances. Those with vulnerable relatives, or who fall into that group themselves, will likely favour protecting the public as far as possible for as long as possible. Some others who may not have those concerns, may be more likely to favour ‘getting it over with’. Although most will, naturally, want to meet both objectives at once.

It is no wonder that the government has been caught in two minds over how to react, and I rather doubt any other make-up of government would have either found it any easier or managed to square that particular circle.

And what is incredibly unhelpful is a strong partisan approach on social media especially, to the way it is being dealt with. There is always a tendency for the extremes of one side or the other of the political spectrum to denigrate any decision made by the other, and to exaggerate or invent motives for them, and I am seeing this more and more on social media. I may not agree with a particular course of action taken by the government, but to ascribe that action to a policy of deliberately killing the vulnerable, to name just one opinion I’ve read, is both ridiculous and highly insulting to both the government and the public. And hardly conducive to encouraging people to support the measures put in place.

Their response has been hampered not only by trying to find the impossible – a solution that accomplishes both the goals just mentioned, but also by having no real idea for some while how many infections there actually were. It was recognised the figures were under-reported, due to the inability to test the entire population for infection, but no one seemed to really know what they were and, for a while, what the infection rate was.

But how many people are currently infected?

The published figures may actually give a false impression of both the virus’s spread and how lethal it actually is. Depending on how effectively authorities gather the data, there is always going to be under-reporting of the infection rates. Those who self isolate are not tested, nor are they included in official figures. Even those displaying definite symptoms are not tested unless they satisfy various criteria, such as being admitted to hospital, or in a position where testing is seen as necessary, such as high profile involvement with the public. It is even reported that front-line NHS staff are not necessarily tested if they fall ill.

A far more realistic picture might be gained from extrapolating from the death rate. If we take the, admittedly still vague, official estimate of between one and three percent mortality rate for the virus, and perhaps making a judgement call on the efficiency and effectiveness of the health system in place in that particular country, we may get a closer figure. As of yesterday, the UK figure was 55 deaths which would equate to somewhere between 1,800 and 5,500 people infected, most likely closest to the higher figure in the UK. Sadly, the higher the figures, the more accurate the extrapolation is likely to be.

But even these figures are probably far lower than reality, since those who die will have been infected with the virus for some time, so those figures probably lag around a week behind. And on the basis that known infections are doubling approximately every four days, that figure of 5,500 is probably closer to 22,000 and showing no sign of slowing down.

Wishing everybody well.

The Barrow

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On wind-sucked Sussex chalklands

Rises a barrow older than itself;

A mock-maternal swell of earth,

Long overdue.

 

O my land!

Let me hug you close and put my ear to your bump!

I will listen for the sounds within!

 

But tell me,

If it is true that it only contains

The remains of the dead,

Then why do I hear a heartbeat?

David Nash and Impermanence

A few days ago we went to the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne, Sussex, specifically to see the Eric Ravilious paintings and prints on permanent exhibition there. There was also a large exhibition by the sculptor David Nash, who works with wood on a large scale. The fact that the whole exhibition, which also included a gallery of paintings, prints and a couple of small installations, and was intended to highlight the effects of the Climate Crisis, was the first one ever curated by Caroline Lucas M.P. of the Green Party was an added bonus for me.

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As much as I enjoyed the Ravilious, I was blown away by Nash’s sculptures. To see wooden sculptures on that scale is unusual in itself – usually that would be the preserve of stone or metal – but that very scale plays tricks with the mind and the eye. Boxes and bowls many times larger than one would expect meet the eye as you walk around the galleries, and many of the pieces also deceive where perhaps one looks to be made from several separate pieces of wood, but on closer inspection are carved from a single block like the boat shapes in the top picture, or the ‘stack’ in the one below that.

Much of the work is left rough-hewn, but even this can be deceptive. Some pieces have been carefully finished to give that appearance.

Sculpture is the art form that seems to exist to interact with the natural world. A number of the works here are based on natural forms, but there are also stories of projects Nash has undertaken where his sculpture is either living, in the form of carefully planted and managed groves of trees, or interact in other ways.

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‘Boulder’ is one such project. One of the first large-scale pieces Nash made was to cut a boulder-shaped chunk from a tree (illustrated at the top of Nash’s charcoal drawing above) in 1978. This was then transported to a stream near to where he lives and works, in the Welsh hills, and rolled into the water. Since then, it has slowly made its way downstream until it reached the estuaries and inlets of the sea, where it finally disappeared in 2015. Nash documented its travels in a series of photographs and films made regularly all the while, and presented in the exhibition as a film.

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Nash’s sketch of a Larch trunk

It feels as though there is something of this meeting of art and the natural world in old ruins overrun with scrub and grass. They frequently seem to have a sculptural quality that complements the landscape around them, in a way that more pristine buildings do not.

And I like the sense that an artwork, like a ruined building, is not permanent and that eventually the natural world will absorb it back into itself. That it will reclaim it. Perhaps the artist and the environmentalist in me merge here.

My own sculptures are in wood, and some of them are set out in our garden where they gradually degrade over the years through the action of sun and rain, until they appear strangely like some weird plants that have sprouted unexpectedly there.

New Year’s ‘Honours’

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Back in the day…

I need to re-post this.

It will soon be the new year, and here in the UK that means the queen’s New Year honours list, handing out awards to the ‘Great and the Good’.

In theory, there’s nothing wrong with this, except that lots of the recipients get these things because they are either rich, sycophantic, or some sort of useless preening celebrity. And there is already considerable controversy over at least one of the undeserving b*stards who is getting one.

But I digress.

The particular problem that I have is with the OBE and MBE. Just to remind everyone, OBE stands for the Order of the BRITISH EMPIRE and MBE stands for Member of the BRITISH EMPIRE.

The time to scrap these highly insulting and redundant ‘honours’ is long overdue!

The Sussex Downs Murder – Not Really A Review

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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.

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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.

Apologia

My apologies, in that you may be subject to some weird posts from me in the next few weeks – weirder than usual, that is.

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Having completed what I hope is the final draft of my novel, with the provisional title A Good Place, since it still seems the most appropriate title and will probably now retain it, it will now be read by my first beta reader – my wife – and then I shall put it out to three others *chews fingernails nervously* before what will hopefully be the final edit and then on to publishing!

This is the point at which I should get on with a new project, or return to an unfinished one. Or even just have a bit of a break, of course. But I am using this as an opportunity for a bit of a readjustment of my priorities. I have always had a deep love of the British countryside, and a strong interest in history, tradition, myth and folklore, although over the last twenty years or so, that has often taken second place to my interest in, and love of, India and Nepal.

I have found myself renewing that interest recently; delving into books about the British landscape, looking at many of the British painters who focused on this – Nash, Ravilious, Constable, and including modern painters such as Gill Williams and Jackie Morris, and especially those with a slightly esoteric aspect to their work (like Blake or Samuel Palmer, for example) then deciding how to take that into my own painting, plus, of course, walking as much as I can in villages, small towns and the countryside.

I intend to re-work a few of my short stories to reflect this, and write more poems on the countryside and our interactions with it.

While I am struggling with all of this, it is possible I may post some very strange stuff. Who knows?

One final thought on all this: Having already become more aware of my global footprint and made further changes in how I live to minimise it, I feel I can no longer justify flying and have concluded that, sadly, I shall probably never visit India or Nepal again, unless I can at some point find the time and money to make the journey overland. But what an adventure that will be if I do!