Across the High Culm Ridge

This is just a bit of an extract.

I used to think I was getting the hang of the hedges. I walk up the lane to the village several times a week, and in the green tunnels of the deep Devon lanes it’s often hard to see anything except the tunnel walls, especially in May, when the green would be outdone by the purples, yellows, blues and whites if it were not so bright and new. And if the roaring of a three hundred horse power green and yellow John Deere comes the other way, there’s nowhere to go except back-first into the hedge. There’s no better way of getting closely acquainted with the hedgerow species.

But today I’d come in a direction I’ve never taken before, through the churchyard and past the Methodist chapel, heading North and West. And the hedges here were entirely different. Well, not entirely. The species are more or less the same, but their forms are different. Here, the campion is much more pink than red, and the stitchwort has bigger, more ragged flowers. There are bluebells where the ransoms ought to be and jack-of-the-hedge where I’d expect cow parsley. And I can still see St. Mary’s tower.

A South West Water workman had been called out to a rarely-visited water treatment plant, and in his investigations must have disturbed a bat roost. A bat is flitting about in the lane like something between a large moth and house marten, totally disorientated. Swallows, spooked by their night-time rival, lined up along the telegraph wire that follows the lane, and chattered angrily at it. The day was as hot as we’d had so far this May, and in the late morning sun the thing looked quite pitiful. The deep lane climbed steeply up the side of the valley, and straightened out into one of the long, ridgeway routes that cut across the landscape, a prehistoric superhighway that would have followed the same route for millennia. I walked in the footsteps of a million cattle, sheep and tar-footed geese being driven to markets in far distant towns. Stopping for a rest in the shade of a windswept tree, I looked back east. On the slopes of Exmoor, far away across the Taw valley, bright yellow fields of rape break through the haze like shafts of sunlight through cloud. At my back is the last hill before the land begins to drop away into the Torridge valley, and Exmoor will be left behind and out of sight. If I climb the gate and look south, I can just see the shape of Dartmoor coming into view. I felt like a lone asteroid on the extreme edge of my solar system, starting to feel the pull of the next star. This is the watershed, the High Culm Ridge where the spring-fed streams start to flow the other way, and I will no longer be on the sheltered, lea side of the ridge, but facing the wind. Above, a buzzard curls its long, lazy loops in a territory of updraughts and air currents, unconcerned about which way the water falls.

In the fields behind me that make up High Down and Beara Moor, a smallholder on an antique tractor was topping the thistles. For the past few weeks I’d been helping out with a project to digitalise Devon Country Record Office’s collection of Tithe Maps and Apportionments. These are the maps drawn up in the 1840s when reforms to the tax laws meant that the government had to take a proper account of landowners’ wealth. The name, use and ownership details of every field, orchard, copse and brake is meticulously recorded. Land is given a reference number, and the property valued. Some estates seemed to have a theme to their names, such as William Down’s Cliston estate, with its Eastern Ireland, Western Ireland, and Inish Meadow, suggesting a certain amount of homesickness on the part of an Irish migrant. But what I found most interesting was the much more common, often unimaginatively descriptive names attributed to fields. Nine Acre Field, High Orchard, Bennett’s Plot, Emmanuel’s Down. And it came as a surprise, in a way, at how accurate the names were. Now, almost every village has a cul-de-sac called Orchard Close, a Ward’s Cottage or a Fountain Fields, and they’re just rustic names. But every Orchard Close in the tithe apportionment will be an orchard, Ward’s Cottage will come under someone else’s estate, and Foutain Fields will be a ‘waste and spring’.

High Down and Beara Moor are almost indistinguishable today. Where, in 1840, one would have probably been culm grassland and the other moor pasture, today both are highly improved pasture. In a transformation as dramatic as the Bronze Age slash and burn farming that created the moors in the first place, NPK fertilisers and tractors powerful enough to plough even the rockiest ground have left very little in the way of ‘Waste’ or ‘Moor’ on the High Culm Ridge at all.

Writing in the mist

I sometimes feel that my writing has far too much of an agenda, as if it’s always trying to expose something. Sometimes it gets too journalistic. So I wanted to try to just describe something without making a song and dance about it. This morning I went on a ten mile walk over the downs in Wiltshire in the fog. I had to use a compass and everything, it was great. And this is what I saw.

Fog #1 Walking south from Avebury, 15th March 2012.
The close-cropped pasture slipped away around me. The grass was silver with dew, and my shoes wet through. A stock fence ran parallel to my path, mechanically tensioned wire taught between the dead-straight line of posts. It stretched away endlessly, to a vanishing point hidden behind the mist. I could only see perhaps fifty metres. The white blank was an empty sheet of paper, mocking my attempts at description and metaphor with its bright opacity.

I looked west. Was the sky bluer that way? And to the South, surely the mist had thickened from white to the grey of melting snow where Silbury Hill ought to have stood? Or had my retinas been burnt by the relentless whiteness, and were all the colours I was seeing the random replenishment of iodopsin?

The birds did not seem to mind the mist. Skylarks gurgled, invisible. Crows caw for the morning and pheasants call for death. The A4 didn’t mind the mist either, and I followed the noise of cars, lorries, and motorbikes as if they were aeroplanes in the clouds. The sound of the road was another mist, a dull grey nimbostratus of white noise, sometimes punctuated by a rolling bank of sound as a lorry drove by, sometimes as quiet as the pale yellow sphere of the sun glimpsed through the thinner mist, but never silent.

And then trees began to condense at the bottom of the hill, half seen, half imagined, grey on grey, an idea forming in my mind, a half-remembered name on the tip of my tongue, growing in form and density, suddenly lost, the melody in the skylark’s endless song.

#2 More mist
In the mist, everything could be endless. The bridle path followed the sagging, rusted line of a barbed wire fence beside a field of rotting cabbages for eternity. Behind, there was no beginning, and ahead, there was no end. The flints in the chalky mud paved a path to nowhere, only onwards, into the mist. Skylarks haunted the air, their songs interchangeable, impersonal as a rolling cloud. Weeds grew by the wayside, the yellow flowers of the camomile nothing more than a shade of green. Around the fence the dead stems of last year’s fireweed and nettles shivered in the wind that failed to blow the mist away. Sometimes wisps and tendrils of mist were blown across the path, sometimes the way ahead cleared for an instant, and the shape of a stunted hawthorn appeared, unannounced and unexpected, only to slip away again. And the mist rolled on.

Salisbury Plain February 2012

Not even the army Landrovers had broken the ice. The puddles in the ruts were frozen solid, five or six inches thick. Some of the shallower puddles had become detached from their bases, hovering over frozen bubbles of air. These were thin enough to smash through, making the sound of a stone being thrown through a window. Beneath the ice was dust. The chalk road was dry as a desert. Once or twice a pickup truck drove past, kicking up a cloud of dust, golden in the sunlight, which was slowly dissipated by the east wind, covering the ice puddles with a thin layer of dust, desert camouflage.

I was on the edge of Salisbury Plain, following the perimeter road around the Larkhill Camp impact area. This is where the army train their tank drivers and artillery. Guns were firing in the distance in rounds of six. I could see the dust and smoke rise from where they impacted, about four miles to the south. It was the first really cold weather of the winter, the first week of February, just as the first signs of spring had begun to appear.

Between the crumpling of the shells, there was silence. Not, strictly speaking, true silence, but the silence of the plain. Curlews and finches occasionally piping up. The London to Penzance train, on the edge of hearing, down in the valley, out of sight on the other side of the ridge about four or five miles north. Silence sometimes isn’t silence, it’s being able to hear things that are usually too faint.

Somewhere on the Plain, a conservation society has released a colony of great bustards, the county bird of Wiltshire, that became extinct in the UK over a century ago. Apart from occasionally being shelled by incompetent soldiers (who are under strict instructions to leave them alone), the bustards will be entirely undisturbed by people. People say that Salisbury Plain is one of the wildest places in England, full of rare birds and lizards. An unlikely wilderness, like a contaminated industrial estate, an old nuclear testing site, a crack in the pavement.

Just as in most other places that seem wild in the UK, Salisbury Plain is managed to prevent it reverting back to wildwood. Cows graze the pitted and rutted grasslands in the summer, taking care of any birch or hawthorn saplings taking root. But there’s something else, that somehow seems more fundamental, that’s stopping me feeling like I’m looking out over a rare wilderness.

Every hundred metres or so I come to another sign warning me to keep off, to beware of unexploded ordnances, reminding me of the bylaws prohibiting my presence. And every kilometre or so is a red flag. There’s no fence, nothing actually stopping me from heading off into the head of the Plain, to take my chances with the landmines and artillery. But of course I won’t. This perimeter road is as strong as any fence, the signs as impenetrable as razor wire. It’s a Berlin Wall in my head, an Iron Curtain. But what should that have to do with the wilderness? Why do I have to be allowed in for it to feel really wild? In the USA, National Parks and designated wilderness zones are patrolled and access only granted to a certain number of people per year. The waiting list to canoe down the Colorado River runs into decades.

It’s the same as the silence. Nowhere can, strictly speaking, be a wilderness. Atmospheric pollution and anthropogenic climate change effect the whole world. Radioactive isotopes from nuclear testing and meltdowns are carried by the wind, which doesn’t stop to read the No Entry signs. And a wilderness totally separated from humanity would be the silence of a cave, a tree falling in a wood.

Read by the River

I’ve started a new blog (http://readbytheriver.wordpress.com/) to chart my experimentation in reading books ‘on location’. So it’s a load of book reviews really, but reviews that focus more on the process of reading than in a spurious attempt at objectivity. The locations should be appropriate to the book. So far I’ve been to the River Taw to read Tarka the Otter and to a different kind of Taw, a Tor in fact, on Dartmoor to read The Hound of the Baskervilles. I’m interested in how the places change my experience of reading, and so far there have been unexpected results.

Anyway, should be a bit of fun. I’m very happy to take requests! There’s more details over on Read by the River.

20th October, 2011

The twenty or so bullocks that had lived in the field below the house all summer were gone. The soft ground was cratered by heavy hooves, and the turf was drenched silver in undisturbed dew. As I walked down the field to the woods, my boots flicked up drops of dew in front of me, like grasshoppers flinging themselves out of my way. Jackdaws, robins, blue tits and great tits, and far below, I could hear a train in the valley, and in the woods the stream’s more constant gargling. But the morning was silent despite it all. A dog fox, black nose and rusty tail, couldn’t see me where I crouched in the grass to write. He marked his territory on the tall, hollow stump in the field that the cows used to scratch themselves against. In a moment he would wander up the the house, and patrol the orchard, before heading off to the next farm, unless I stand up and disturb him. In the distance, we both heard the two-stroke alarm of a pheasant, and looked up.

I walked down into the woods at the bottom of the field. The Great Wood, as it is called on the maps, along with a hundred other similarly sized oak woods in the area. Maybe they were once a single Great Wood, now divided and dwindling. It’s only about six or seven acres, just enough to lose yourself in, but not enough to get you truly lost. There’s no fence between the field and the wood, and until lately the cows used to roam between them at will. But I don’t think they slept there, preferring the open field.

Once, there must have been a fence or a hedge enclosing the wood. Its straight edge has the watermark of artificiality about it. Nature doesn’t do right angles, and this wood has a right angled corner. The leaves had lost the golden green of summer and were darkening to olive and moss. Now they would only be reignited by the autumn sunshine, which today seems to have no notion of appearing.

I walked under the boughs, and entered another world. The grass gave way to leaves and compost, and the stream was muffled. My feet crunch and rustled like a blackbird in a hedge. A branch snapped, and I half-expected some mythical creature to appear, bow raised, to chide my carelessness. But the silence was unbroken. In the absence of wind the woods would seem silent even if a rave was going on. The stillness of so many millions of leaves is a kind of silence. The motionless trees could easily trick you into believing that time had stopped still too. The jackdaws, in their never-ending turf war with the buzzards, made a shrieking sortie into the woods, laser guns blazing, attracted by the cries of a juvenile buzzard. They circled, and were gone.

The woods were mostly oak, with hazels in the few clearings, and holly bushes threatening to swamp the underbrush in some places. The first job of the woodland manager is to thin out or remove the holly, an invasive species to the English woods, not introduced until Roman times. Archaeologists sometimes use the presence or absence of its pollen in soil samples to date remains. The oaks in this wood were all near enough the same age, if my guess was accurate. Oaks in woods don’t grow into the same shape as oaks in stately gardens, or on the back of pound coins. They aren’t low and spreading, but tall and straight. Some almost as straight as spruce. Amongst the trees were stumps, neatly topped with the clean cut of a saw. But they were old too. Their roots had rotten away, leaving them oddly detached from the earth. A little further on were the rusting remains of a planking table. The circular saw blade was now growing out of the earth like a rusty sunrise.

I walked further on until I found some very late chanterelles by a rotting hazel. I felled them with my penknife and pocketed them for an early lunch, before heading home. And I was wrong about the sun. As I left the wood, it burst into flame behind me. The low sun’s sudden warmth brought the air to life, and flies appeared from whatever nooks they sleep in, filling the air with their drone. There was the sudden smell of the wet earth, leaf mould and moss, so fresh it almost hurts your lungs to breath. I walked back up the field, following the route of the fox, whose warm, dry smell by the hollow stump forced everything else aside.

Blowing in the Wind

I’ve been writing a lot about wind farms and landscape recently (though not much of it has yet found its way onto this blog), and now I’d like to concentrate on the wind itself. The wind has been harnessed as a free source of energy for as long as people have travelled by sail, and Don Quixote is the first recorded anti-windfarm campaigner that I know of, though admittedly he was under the impression that the forty windmills he charged at were giants swinging their arms. But until the Romantic poets revolutionised attitudes towards nature, writers tended to bring the wind into their work as a kind of stock character. Along with the village fool, the lecherous old man and the naïve young lover, there is the cruel winter wind, the wild tempest, and the gentle summer breeze. They play their parts reliably, wreck ships on desert islands, caress Arcadian shepherds, howl around a witches’ coven, and so on. But when Samuel Coleridge was listening to an Eolian harp (something like a wind chime) in August 1795, the wind suddenly came to stand for something much more sacred. It represented to him the ‘one life’ that connects all things.

And what if all of animated nature

Be but organic harps diversely framed,

That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps,

Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,

At once the soul of each, and God of all?

(The Eolian Harp, 36-40)

The wind became the breath of God, breathing life into everything on earth, connecting all living things, the source of all ideas and inspiration, the ‘idle flitting fantasies / [that] Traverse my indolent and passive brain – /As wild and various as the random gales’ (EH 32-34). The wind is no longer a passive actor, but an agent.

In Lyrical Ballads, a collaboration of Coleridge and William Wordsworth, Wordsworth picks up this theme when musing on Nature in Tintern Abbey.

And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts, a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean, and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man –

A motion and a spirit that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things

(Tintern Abbey 96-105)

This is Wordsworth’s ‘road to Damascus’ moment, when he becomes an acknowledged ‘worshipper of nature’ (156) as a part of God. He entreats his readers to ‘Let the misty mountain-winds be free/To blow against thee’ (138-9). There is a resonance here, though no doubt unintentional, with the popular Irish blessing, ‘May the road rise to meet you,/ May the wind blow always at your back,’ etc. However the contrast is stark – the blessing is a prayer that God will keep you safe from wild weather, whereas for Wordsworth it is in the wild weather that God is found.

Percy Shelley went further still. For him, the wind, and all of nature, was not just sacred, but political and revolutionary. In his Ode to the West Wind, Shelley enlists the support of the wind in the struggle for the rights of man against the repressive forces of the state.

Be thou, spirit fierce,

My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe

Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!

And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

(Ode to the West Wind 61-7)

This is a far cry from the wind being a free supply of green energy. If the wind is a resource to Shelley, then it is a respected, sacred being to be called upon like a Greek god. However not all the Romantic poets saw the wind as a benevolent spirit. In Beachy Head, Charlotte Smith’s wind is totally ambivalent to the suffering of man. She mocked the Coleridgean idea of a ‘soul-reviving gale / Fanning the beanfield’ (BH 677-8), which perhaps alludes to lines in The Eolian Harp. Smith uses a common Worthworthian figure, a hermit, but whereas Wordsworth’s characters learn to become at one with a benign pantheistic Nature, Smith’s spends his days attempting to learn to predict storms by studying the weather, and risks his life to rescue sailors from shipwrecks, with varying success, until one night he too is drowned by a meaningless storm. The ‘wild bellows’ (710) are not fanning any flames of faith or revolution, they do not bring down the judgement of a vengeful god, they are not the result of malign occult activity, they are random and meaningless.

Smith’s attitude is much more modern (post-Romantic) than any of the ‘big six’ Romantic poets. Earlier in the poem she worries about geology and fossils and how they challenge the orthodox religious creation story. She refers to Gilbert White’s notions of changes in sea levels, but scorns Science for its ‘vague theories or vain dispute’ (394). Revolution gets even shorter thrift, ‘Hither, ambition, come!/Come and behold the nothingness of all/For which you carry through the oppressed earth/War and its train of horrors’ (419-22). For Smith, there are no answers blowing in the wind. The wind is unreliable and unsympathetic to any of the schemes of man.

Silent Victories bike tour: Day Six

The traffic island on the almost-island of Portland had become a temporary protest camp. Tents became billboards, “Food not Fuel”, and the Kelly Kettle was boiling water for a tea round. Twenty or so bikes were stacked against a landscaped flowerbed, and the bike-towed sound system competed with the noise of cars. Now the site had been set up, people milled about in the sun, organising the next day’s cycling, or prepared for workshops and meetings later in the day. I sat resting against a stone pillar set up in the centre of the roundabout, a monument to nothing but itself, listening to the conversation of local residents and activists.

“The new government are reviewing the subsides, we’re hoping we can block it there. It can’t run without subsides. There’s people with no jobs here, they’re cutting public services, and the government want to give money to this?”

The bike tour stopped by in Portland to support a local anti-biofuel campaign, No to Oil Palm Energy (NOPE). Planning permission has been granted for a 17MW palm oil-fired power station to be built, despite overwhelming opposition of the local population. Some people objected to the smoke that would pollute the local air. The plant would be at sea level, and even with a tall chimneystack, smoke would be emitted at a level lower than much of the residential area. Others were more concerned about the palm oil plantations that would need to be half the size of Dorset to keep the fuel supply coming, for the same amount of electricity that could be produced by about 18 wind turbines. The port authority stands to gain considerably from the development, and their profit comes at the expense of the islanders feeling disenfranchised about what goes on in their own back yard. The local council seems powerless to oppose the scheme, which feels like an imposition that no-one on the island will benefit from.

“It’s such a Victorian attitude. It’s like what they did with the prison – just stick it on Portland, out of the way. We’ve got big social problems here, and the planning system is just bonkers. People want to come here for the history, the extreme landscapes. We have rock climbers from all over Europe coming here because they can see the wrecks from the cliffs. But they’re determined to ruin it. They treat us like a dumping ground for things they don’t want in Weymouth.”

Later in the day, two councillors crossed the road to meet the protesters. The two grey-haired, well-dressed women were eager to talk, despite their repeated claims of how busy they were and how they really must dash soon. They told me about how a local green space that had been given to Portland by the Queen herself was being built over as part of a new housing development. The harbour is to be host to the 2012 sailing events, and local democratic voices have been overruled by the Olympic’s metropolitan interests. The same thing was happening with the power station. But she disagreed with the protesters’ alternative. “There was a plan to put wind turbines all along the causeway. But they were just too big. It was out of proportion. So no, I can’t agree with that. What we need here is wave power.”

Three protesters had positioned themselves on the central reservation leading up to the roundabout from the mainland. They had a banner that read “Beep Against Biofuels”, and the motorists’ support grew with the advancing rush-hour. When the stream of cars was reduced to a trickle, we packed up our panniers and trailers, and set off up the hill to the St George’s community centre, for dinner and a meeting.

The community centre was built like an upturned ship, the roof’s beams curved into a hull, and the oak joists as dark as pitched timber. But the walls of the centre were made of great blocks of hewn Portland stone, weighing a tonne each easily. It was as if, if it could, the whole island would pack itself up and sail away from the Victorian causeway mooring it to the mainland. After a short struggle to get the PA to work, and a large plate of curry followed by fruit salad had been consumed, the previous day’s journey was beginning to take its toll on the cyclists. The wind, rain and fog that had blanketed the route from Tinker’s Bubble to Portland had stayed with us overnight, disturbing our sleep in wind-tossed tents. It looked like tonight might be just as windy, and we had a long ride to look forward to the next day. The day of relative rest had given our muscles a chance to complain. Tiredness was kicking in.

But there was no time for relaxation yet. Local supporters had come together to share an internet link-up with activists in Columbia who had been driven off their land by palm oil companies, but had fought back and successfully retaken their village. It was a chance for the whole story of palm oil to be told, from plantation to power station. Using a translator, a Columbian activist told the story of his community, and answered questions from the Portland residents. At one point the hall full of people were listening so attentively that the Columbians worried that they were talking to an empty room. For about a minute afterwards we wouldn’t have been able to hear anything he said past the eruption cheering, clapping, stamping and table banging.

Silent Victories Bike tour, day 7

My group arrived at Ottery late. The slow July sun was about to set, and the day was giving up to dusk. We still had our camp to set up and dinner to cook over a fire for which we had to collect wood. The common is a public place, but more used to teenagers drinking cider than thirty camping cyclists at this time of night. It was a long, wide strip of land running from the old A30 bridge, alongside the river, to a copse. We camped in the far corner, near the trees. An early group had got the train to give themselves time to buy food and start a fire. Our guests for the evening had already arrived. Veterans of the 1990s anti-roads protests, they were chatting to the cooks and helping to set up the camp.

After two days camping on Portland and then a 50-mile cycle sharing a trailer full of equipment, I was desperate for a wash. My skin was thick with three days worth of accumulated sun cream and grime from the road, and my hair was moulded into the ridges of my helmet. Excusing myself from food preparations, I scrabbled through my panniers to find soap and a towel, and headed down to the river.

After picking my way through nettles bent over under the weight of hand-sized leaves to the bankside, I was out of site of the camp, but in plain view of the dog walkers on the footbridge. It doesn’t take long to lose your inhibitions when camping. I stripped off my road clothes and waded in, still hot from the journey. The pebbly riverbed was soft with silt. Long, swaying strands of weed swept against my legs, the lazy hair of sleeping water nymphs. I imagine dragonfly larvae preying amongst the swathes, soon to emerge and be reborn as electric blue and neon green acrobats, dancing in the yellowflags and bulrushes. I submerged myself entirely before I lost my nerve, I was a fish, a frog, an otter, cool and clean.

Later, around the fire, Chris and Gill told me stories from the road protests and the village set up in treetops and tunnels along the A30 site. About how one guy drowned crossing the river, when everyone thought he was crying wolf. About the protesters who concreted their arms into barrels packed with gas cylinders, so the bailiffs couldn’t use power tools to get them out. How one woman locked herself, naked, to the top of a tree. “In the end,” Gill told me, “the police were a blessing, really. It had been going on for so long, this was peoples’ lives. emotions got so high on both sides that without the police someone would have got seriously hurt”. Chris looked unconvinced. The sound of the A30 is a constant background to life now. Chris is sure that this section of the road was surfaced with concrete out of spite, to make it nosier where people put up most resistance. “It’s like with Swampy’s tree. They didn’t need to chop that one down, it was 30 yards from the road. A huge old oak tree. But they chopped it down and then cut it into three different pieces, and sent it to three different sawmills.” His mouth smirks behind a thick beard as he rolls up a cigarette. “But we got the last laugh in the end. We got a government arts grant to find all the pieces and use them to build a monument to Swampy. So they paid for it to be chopped down and then they paid for it to be put back up again.”

The next day, after satisfying the local PCSO that we weren’t setting up a travellers’ camp, I left with a small group to go take a diversion from out route and go to see the A30 site. We patronised the toilets in the new, two-storey Sainsbury’s construction site before leaving Ottery, following a route that was so familiar to the protesters who had made good friends in the local community. Max hadn’t been back since the protest was broken up. Finding the A30 was easy enough, but it was impossible it was impossible to work out where the camps had been. We stood on a bridge, looking down on the road, over the new valley that it cut through hillsides, woods, and fields, as strong and indiscriminate as a glacier, as focussed as a river, gouging a canyon out of soft earth. The river of cars flowed continuously with the rushing white noise of a waterfall, the sound of water on rocks mimicked and parodied by tyres on concrete. I imagined the road cutting deeper and deeper into the hillside like a river running between mountains. But this was sterile riverbed, where no fish swim, where no nymphs prey, and no otters paddle in secret, where the only water is the black and toxic run-off that poisons the banks with salt and soot, before being flushed away down storm-drains, into rivers.

Chris and Gill’s daughter, Maddie, had invited up to the education centre inEscottParkwhere she worked. It was on the estate of the landowner who had quietly supported the protesters when they set up camp in his woods 14 years ago, and whose land is now divided by the road. Maddie had told my last night how you can hear the road all over the site. “Sometimes you forget you can hear it in the background for hours, but then you remember and there’s nothing you can do to make it go away again.”

The education centre is a reconstructed Saxon village, with thatched roundhouse, pole-lathe workshop, iron smithy, clay firing pit, falconry centre, herd of wild boar, and flourmill. Groups of school children come for full-immersion history lessons, and teachers come for forest school training programmes. For one local primary school, the 3ft deep swamp walk has become a rite of passage for year 2s. Maddie is in charge of a trio of work experience students this week, and has been widening and re-swampifying the swamp walk with them. She took some time out to show us around. As we walked round the pre-modern village and through the woods to see Swampy’s tree sculpture, and were introduced to staff dressed in Saxon clothes, I did almost forget the sound of the road. But not quite. It stayed on the edge of my consciousness, like the smell of last night’s fire lingered on my clothes, and I couldn’t hide from it.

Maddie couldn’t tell us exactly where the protest camps were either. She would only have been a year 2 herself when they were evicted. We filled out water bottles from the village’s piped supply of spring water and said goodbye, and I realised that the A30 protest site wasn’t the depressing place I had expected. Life had gone on despite the road, and as well as the noise of cars and lorries, there was the latest group of year 4s watching a falconry display, and the resident Saxons building a new roundhouse. We left Escott and cycled back over the A30, where the river of cars was still flowing, and still seemed as endless and inevitable as a river, and down, past Ottery, towards the sea.

From Falmouth to Barnstaple

When I first travelled this way, all I saw was countryside punctuated by moors, but over the past year I’ve driven between Falmouth and north Devon often enough to get to know the changing shape of the land on the peninsula. Cornwall’s mines and windfarms, the post-apocalyptic waste of Bodmin, ruined pump houses, white pyramids and stepped ziggurats of slag colonised by gorse and heather, artificial lakes. The fields in the valleys that seem to blend into the common grazing on the moors, as if the hedges and walls are partially permeable. Bodmin is signposted from miles around by the telecommunications mast that rises from it, an absurdly exaggerated flagpole, a pin on a Google map. It’s a landscape that shows the marks of use. You could call them scars, but there’s a beauty to it that I wouldn’t want to wish away or regret.

Roll into Devon. The Tamar is disguised by the engineering of the A30 and can easily slip by unnoticed. But, unmissable, the tors of Exmoor rise up, ancient and still unconquered, on the right, while to the left hills and hedges stretch all the way to the horizon. This is Tarka country, and you wouldn’t know by looking that it’s changed at all since Henry Williamson crawled through it to get his otter’s eye view. Farms and villages, hunting and fishing, there’s a sense that if we believe it, it’ll still be true. In the far distance, past Hatherleigh, Torrington, Bideford and Barnstaple, a windfarm is rising here too. But not without fuss. The ‘distinctive character’ of the place has been frozen in time since the beginning of the twentieth century, through an act of collective determination unparalleled in the history of the English landscape.

This weekend I’m going to the museum in Barnstaple to see a James Ravilious photography exhibition. Between the 1970s and the 1990s, Ravilious took over 80,000 photographs in the north Devon area, “intended as a photographic record of life in a largely unspoilt, but vulnerable, country area.” The images are an incredible record, and also beautifully composed photographs in their own right. But there were assumptions implicit in the intention of the project – that life in Devon belonged to a kind of stable, unchanging ‘yesteryear’ “when the country traditions that have been handed down for hundreds, if not thousands, of years were still part of everyday existence”, and that now this was being lost for something worse. Ravilious’s photography compounds this through his soft-focus and uncoated lenses, creating black and white images that are, more than anything else, picturesque. They fit into a tradition of countryside representation and preservationist thought that venerates the idea of an organic community, a natural life with a natural order. They say, this is threatened by your modernity, but it should be eternal. While other places are fallen, Devon will remain an Eden. There is obviously no place in Ravilious’ Devon for modern agricultural machinery (tractors are alright but only if they look rusty), incoming urban migrants, or, heaven forbid, wind farms. This is a working landscape, but more than that it is a picturesque landscape, where the interest of aesthetics trumps the interest of production every time. Cornwall has a historic landscape, but here, the landscape is a living museum.

Ravilious has picked a moment in Devon’s history that is now regarded as the Golden Age. But it is an inaccurate presentation, as self-consciously selective as the composition of a photograph. Agriculture in Devon in the 70s and 80s was largely dependent on European subsidies and employed fewer and fewer people year on year. The difference between the country and the city was increasingly one of setting – people watched the same television, had a very similar education, and often did the same jobs. There is a dream of self-sufficiency in this Golden Age that shuts its eyes to anything that doesn’t fit.

This setting, the landscape, the view, which is itself the product of changing trends in agriculture and land use, has now become sacrosanct. The hedgerows that once marked the enclosure of the commons are now protected by law in quite a different way. It’s not a modern obsession with progress for progress sake that threatens Devon, or a sudden, unnatural urge for technological innovation that drives farmers to welcome wind farm developers onto their land. We’ve been so diligent in remembering our fathers’ and grandfathers’ farming techniques and lifestyles that we’ve forgotten how much has changed. For better or worse, life in Devon isn’t like it is in Ravilious’s photographs. Now hardly anyone is employed in agriculture, a large proportion of the population are incomers, and the country lifestyle is more dependent on foreign oil fields and distant power stations than a decent harvest or good prices at the market. Devon’s landscape hides behind planning restrictions and preservationist ideals, and it’s hard to see what’s going on underneath it all.

 

*For more of James Ravilious’s photos, see http://www.jamesravilious.com*

Night in a hammock

At this time of year, the field below my garden is home to about twenty bullocks. They’re two years old now, and though they don’t know it, this is their last year in which to enjoy life on the pasture. They’ll be here for a few more weeks, then the farmer will move them to give the grass a chance to grow, so he’ll get a crop or two of hay off it. The field slopes downhill, into Great Wood. There’s no fence or wall between the field and the wood. It begins suddenly with a row of oak trees, all about twenty metres tall, and not yet past their prime. The cows go there to cool down on hot days, and they keep the undergrowth in check. When I walk down from the garden, through the field, and into the wood, the distinction between field and forest is as stark as day and night.

Last night I was home alone, and decided to spend it out in the woods. Why did I wait until there was no-one else around? I don’t know, really. Perhaps I was embarrassed. Perhaps I didn’t want to have to explain myself. I think I liked the idea of no-one knowing where I was. It was a clear, still evening, after a hot, early summer’s day. I read in the garden until the sun set and my eyes began to strain at the page. In the twilight, I walked round the edge of the field, out of sight of the lane, out of the way of the bullocks, and into the wood. The noise of my boots crunching the leaf litter startled a deer, as he cantered away his hoofs thudded into the ground with the sound of apples falling from a shaken tree. A minute later I heard his barking call, and an answering call from a nearby field. The stags will be fighting soon.

It was much darker under the trees. The forest is almost entirely oak, all of approximately the same age and size. I suppose it can’t be healthy in the long-term for a forest to be grazed this heavily, preventing any saplings from establishing themselves, but for now the open woodland, a high canopy ceiling supported by thousands of tall pillars, has an architectural quality that I can’t help but find beautiful. The air was cooler now, the smells of the forest condensing like dew, the sweet smell of sap, the earth, the dry leaves, mixed with an animal smell, cows, yes, but also fox and deer.

I found two trees a good distance apart and set up my hammock. I was out of practice at keeping the right tension whilst I tied the knots, and I had to redo both ends before I got the hammock tied tight enough to be comfortable. There was no threat of rain, so I didn’t bother setting up the basha sheet, which can be tied between the same trees above the hammock and stretched out to make a kind of roof. I laid out my sleeping bag, took off my boots, and jumped up. This part always makes me slightly nervous, no matter how many times I do it. I was sure the knots will hold, and I’d tied it in a way that the knots don’t even have to take much of the strain, but I was nervous all the same.

Soon, though, doubly cocooned in my sleeping bag and in the hammock, I was warm and comfortable. The evening chorus petered out, leaving a space for the strange noises of the night. Some noises I knew, owls hunting, lambs searching for their mothers, the last train from Exeter to Barnstaple chugging in the distance. Bats, on the extreme edge of sound perception, quieter every year. Other noises I could only guess at. I worried that the bullocks might come and try to eat me, before realising I was half-asleep already. Rustling and pattering in the leaves. Above me, stars glittered in the gaps in the canopy.

I woke up at about 2am, cold. I pulled the hood of my sleeping bag tight around my head, but slept lightly for the rest of the night. At around 4am the dawn chorus started, mostly birds, but also sheep calling for lambs that had wandered off in the night. At 5am it was almost fully light, and I decided to get up. Half way through getting out of my sleeping bag (a clumsy business in a hammock), I saw a male roe deer staring at me, not twenty metres away, bewildered. His short, three-pronged antlers looked like twigs. I froze, and he wandered off. Behind me, there were more deer, a hind and her kid. It was less than a month old, clumsy and shy. They wandered slowly deeper into the wood, and I got up, packed up my things, and left. I walked back up the field as the sun rose from behind the clouds above Exmoor. Early morning sunlight is like amber, turning everything golden. In the valley, mist curled along, blanketing the sleeping River Taw like a duvet. Foxgloves, red campion, and ox eye daisies, and the golden green of the grass. And I the only one awake to see them.