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A Line / Align – Britain’s Lost Pathways

This essay was first published HERE at the Learned Pig. Many thanks to Tom Jefferys for support and guidance.

Image credit - Dale Nichols

“A walk marks time with an accumulation of footsteps. It defines the form of the land. Walking the roads and paths is to trace a portrait of the country…”

– Richard Long, Selected Statements and Interviews, Haunch of Venison Press, 2007

There is a rich history underfoot, and the very act of walking is amongst our oldest practices. The British landscape was to a large extent etched by footfall, the division of the land by means of a mesh of paths and routes, desire lines that defined and crystallised the foundations of our settlements, sacred locations, and sites of trade. Paths have to connect, they have to lead somewhere; it is their primary objective. Paths are the parchment upon which we scribe the history of our land and our lives. They are stories being endlessly written and re-written, a repository of memory, simultaneously scripted and erased by foot, beast, and wheel. The ancient proto-Germanic, and Norse word, writan (writing), meaning to mark, carve, score or scratch indicate a tenuous connection – to walk and carve pathways into the landscape might also conceptually be conceived as an oblique form of literature. 

The parcelling off of the British countryside resulted from the Parliamentary Enclosures Acts of 1750-1850, a set of acts which aggressively consumed what was once common land. The acts were intended to define the rights of landowners, the extent of their ownership, and the delineation of boundaries by placement of hedges, ditches, fences, walls, and most importantly, pathways and tracks. In a paradoxical move, many old, commonly used, permitted pathways became defunct whilst simultaneously, new pathways and rights of way were opened and made available. Freedom to discursively roam the landscape had become something of an archaism, and many of the ancient trackways and trails were lost to history within a very brief span of time. 

The landscape, however, does not yield so easily, and many of these ancient routes, although having been subsumed by encroaching development and agriculture, have not entirely been erased from their physical locations, despite their apparent omission from the maps. The summer heatwave of 2018 revealed the traces of previously undiscovered ancient paths and structures across the country, like invisible ink, suddenly appearing on a page. The most ancient trails possibly existed well before (but certainly around) the Bronze Age. In the last 50 years or so, archaeologists have uncovered several wooden “causeways’ embedded mostly in bog or peatland areas. The Sweet Track in Somerset is perhaps one of the most renowned, as are the causeways at the Abbotts Way, Star Carr in Yorkshire, Corlea in Ireland, and Flag Fen in Cambridgeshire. The latter, I have written about before*, and their usage (as with all other causeways) is uncertain. These contentious structures may originally have been used as droveways – solid roadways that made the movement of cattle, horses, sheep etc, easier and more efficient. There are, however, other clues as to their utility, perhaps as processional routes, secreted in the landscape. Nearby can be found numerous barrows and burial mounds, and most of the causeway sites mentioned above reveal clear evidence of spiritual utility as significant offerings and oblations have been recovered from the bogs and waterways nearby. There is perhaps more to these ancient trails than the merely prosaic. 

Typically, the causeway at Flag Fen was adopted and adapted by the Romans, such was its strength and accuracy of alignment across difficult wetland terrain, and in fact this is the case in many instances. It would appear that the ancients had more than a cursory knowledge of path making, and many of the ancient trackways were relatively straight, and supremely accurate, given that much of the landscape at the time was either densely wooded or treacherous bogland.  

The Harroway is an example of a track that had many lives, and multiple uses. It is notably one of the oldest pathways in Britain.

In the early 1920s, amateur archaeologist and author Alfred Watkins famously posited a theory of what he called “ley lines”, after recording numerous instances of man-made and naturally occurring features in perfect alignment for many tens of miles. Watkins was a peripheral figure to professional archaeologists, and his theories have been revised and challenged over the years, and in many cases, (particularly at the height of the New Ageism of the late 1970s) hugely misinterpreted. Yet the underlying logic of ley lines was there for all to see. It could reasonably be argued that ancient men had knowledge of basic survey techniques, and formed rudimentary sightlines across the landscape. The usage of naturally occurring and man-made way markers would have made navigation to places of importance more efficient and less treacherous. These leys, named from an ancient English toponymic suffix, ‘-lay’, ‘-ley’, ‘-leigh’, ‘-lee‘ or ’-lea”, were what Watkins believed to be the ancient names for paths, preserved in the toponymic records. The efficiency of these aligned pathways cannot be underestimated, and to divert one’s route from a pathway or track, was to be ‘de-leyed’. 

Conversely, far from being precisely aligned, many ancient pathways, tracks and green lanes skirted the contours of the landscape mostly on higher ground, navigating the walker around natural hazards and obstacles, and these ‘ridgeways’ and ‘droveways’ are still amongst the most enduring in our current landscape. Many of the ancient paths and lanes that fell into disuse had specific utility as ‘corpse roads’, ‘tinners’ walks’, ‘droveways’, ‘salt ways’, and as those industries fell into decline, so too did the accompanying paths that led to them, and they lay forgotten, unused, overgrown.

There has recently been a resurgence of archaeological activity in the area circumnavigating Stonehenge around Durrington Walls, where, with the use of aerial photography, an ancient trackway has been discovered. This track, known as The Avenue, is thought to have been a processional route, skirting its way alongside the River Avon directly to the henge itself. Upon looking at the maps, it strikes me that that the Avenue may have been linked with an ancient network of tracks and paths connecting to, and converging with the Harroway, which may have had some ancient spiritual or religious relevance. The Harroway in particular is an example of a track that had many lives, and multiple uses. It is notably one of the oldest pathways in Britain, scribing a vast, shallow arc across the country that stretches from Seaton in Devon, to Dover in Kent. The Harroway has speculatively been in use since the Stone Age, and has its origins as a cattle path which pre-dates any known human intervention. Its name, however, has Anglo-Saxon origins derived from the Saxon word herewag – a military road. The eastern section of the track became known as the Pilgrims’ Way, (suggesting some religious significance) offshoots of which assisted the growth and development of old Winchester. The Harroway exemplifies a path which has a catalogue of historical utility superimposed upon its surfaces. It has a rich story to tell.

So if the landscape were to be conceived of as the parchment upon which paths, roads, tracks are inscribed , then footfall and its imprints are a form of discourse. In many cultures, stories are linked to paths and walks. Names are assigned, recalled or invoked during the course of a journey on foot. At all stages of a journey, names are assigned to natural features as waymarkers, and each name is then recounted as part of a narrative. Therefore on a walk along a certain river, every bend, every pool and rapids has a name in this narrative context. Walking becomes a form of index, inventory, a list of parts. To the indigenous people residing there, to list these names is to recall the entire journey. 

To walk along any relict path is to unlock and reconstruct their hidden narratives – collecting, sense-mapping and decoding recondite sensory information.

Under governance of the open field system in Anglo-Saxon Britain, before maps were in common use, a practice known as ‘beating the bounds’ began, whereby the limits and parameters of a village or parish were verbally and physically marked by groups of people, generally led by the clergy. This territorial marking was thought to have been derived from the Roman Terminalia, a festival celebrated on February 22 in honour of Terminus, the god of landmarks, which took place at the boundaries. Similar practices of pagan origin were brought by the Norsemen, and in many instances offerings were made to the gods. In later times, groups of parishioners would make a “perambulation” around the village boundaries, and birch or willow sticks would be beaten upon key land-markers. Very often, young boys were taken and their heads would be struck or beaten, and prayers were uttered, thus ensuring that key landmarks were imprinted on the memory, ensuring that crucial territorial information be transmitted down to the next generations.

Cartographic records have shown that early mediaeval maps were in fact more like richly illustrated travel stories which told tales of memorable journeys and adventurous encounters. Over time, these were gradually supplanted with more scientific, spatial representations of the earth’s surface, and the illustrative elements were consigned to the margins – they became decorative embellishments, and the narrative context was lost. I cannot help but mention here contemporary artist Richard Long, whose works appear to carry with them echoes of those ancient boundary-marking practices. Many of his walking pieces, sometimes covering great distances, involve placing stones to track the course of a journey. Early works such as A Line Made by Walking (1967) are made by repeatedly treading a path through grass. The gradual erasure of the land by foot not only takes on a meditative quality, but also recalls the actions of ancient path-makers. Similarly, Long’s ‘text works’ are notably reminiscent of aboriginal songlines: each small statement resonates with the idiosyncratic narrative for a specific journey, which is then fixed and recorded.  

For me, to walk along any relict path is to unlock and reconstruct their hidden narratives – collecting, sense-mapping and decoding recondite sensory information, connecting, assembling disparate threads, a subtle synthesis of locomotion, intuition, and cognition. Very often, these walks would take me off-track into wilder, more remote territories. Here began the practice of making small ‘offerings’, or ‘placements’ constructed from natural detritus generally found in-situ. In one of my text-based ‘incantation’ pieces I write: 

…wick-hoods, willow strakes, hare skin, tallow – elements benign until summoned to task..

These apparently ‘benign elements’, when ‘summoned to task’ resonate individually and collectively, and are ‘activated’ as sensory cues, sparks, a form of physical mnemonic – locating specific places in the memory and ensuring they are permanently imprinted. Eventually of course, they will deteriorate and decompose, only to be returned to the land once more, but their function has already been fulfilled. Not only do these objects summon the essence or spirit of a specific location, they also resemble elements of a private ritual or spell, and locate themselves firmly in my imagination – they invoke a sense of transition, impermanence, transformation. On many occasions I have transferred a placement from one site to another, far removed from its origins. This for me creates an invisible path, a line that connects not only one place to another, but a more tenuous, numinous connection between places and their past. In this way, no two journeys can, or will ever be the same. 

Lost British Landscapes

Lost British Landscapes

In September 1931, the trawler, Colinda set sail from Lowestoft on a routine trip  towards the Leman and Ower Banks some 25 miles off the coast of Norfolk, in the Southern North Sea. 

Little was her captain to know, that this trip would spark a train of events that, over the next 70 years,  would lead to the discovery of a lost, submerged country. 

The ship’s captain, the dramatically named Pilgrim E Lockwood, reported that when hauling their fishing nets in from the area, they contained the usual amount of flotsam and debris, lumps of wood, shells, fragments of bone, and chunks of compressed peat, which fishermen referred to as moorlog . To the fishermen, this was little more than a nuisance, as large chunks of debris often caused damage to their nets, bruised fish,  and prolonged their working days. It was normal for crews to return unwanted objects back into the sea, but this time was different. Lockwood reported that a large chunk of moorlog was hit by a shovel, in an attempt to break it down for heaving overboard. However this chunk, when hit, sounded different. Lockwood decided to break open the moorlog, and there inside was concealed an ancient antler ‘harpoon’.  Lockwood had the presence of mind to understand the uniqueness of his find, and after being passed over by the British Museum, the harpoon eventually found its way into the hands of Cambridge biologist, Dr Muir Evans, who after some time, bequeathed it to the Castle Museum of Norwich. 

The harpoon was exhibited at a meeting of the Prehistoric Society of East Anglia in February 1932, and caused some considerable excitement within the archaeological community. The harpoon itself, although extremely elegant, was not an unusual find, there are many of its kind in several other museums;  but what made this piece exceptional, was where it was found.  

Even in the early 1930’s, rudimentary technology dated the harpoon, more precisely described as a ‘bone point’ , to some time in the Mesolithic era, and ascribed it’s origin to the culture of the Magelomose (Danish for ‘big bog’).   The mesolithic, dated between 10,000-4,000 BC was a missing fragment in the chronology of the North Sea.

 Some years before, in 1913, archaeologist, Clement Reid had written a small, relatively un-influential book about Britain’s Submerged Forests. Around that time, Reid had conducted  substantial research in the area around Dogger Bank, (70 miles from the nearest UK coast) and off the coasts of Norfolk, and Cheshire in particular. Reid, (now acknowledged as a significant figure in this area of research), posited a radical theory that there was a significant land mass submerged off the east coast, and at various locations around Britain. Over several years, Reid had studied archaeological artefacts retrieved by oyster dredgers in the area around the Dogger Bank, and lacking available equipment and resources at the time, was only able to speculatively date, and place the finds. This, paired with the fact that trawlermen, by their very nature had not the wherewithal to document , or catalogue the sites of these finds, made the task of dating virtually impossible.

At best, Reid was working with jumbled assemblages of objects all  originating from differing areas and depths of the North Sea, and therefore all from differing periods and scales of climate. Some of his recorded finds included the bones of woolly rhino, which obviously were of considerable antiquity, whereas other finds were relatively recent, such as reindeer and walrus.  Reid however,  was a tenacious character, and he made numerous research trips in the area, even recruiting his wife, Eleanor to help conduct his studies. After some considerable time, he was able to theorise that the discovery of a preserved land mass might be extrapolated across the entire area of the North Sea. This was a radical proposition, and his theory caused quite a stir in archaeological, and even geological circles. Reid’s proposal was met with scorn and condescension by his peers, and his ‘delightful little book’ , “Submerged Forests” disappeared into relative obscurity.     

There are several defining figures in the chronology of research into this area, but fast forwarding to the early 1970’s we come to the work of Dutch archaeologist, Dr Louwe Kooijmans, who documented a collection of bone fragments trawled from the Brown Banks, a series of geological prominences  just south of the Leman and Ower find. Kooijmans believed, on the basis of available geological information, that these artefacts inferred a human settlement was more than likely situated on the edge of an ‘inland sea’ (now referred to as the Outer Silver Pit).

Moreover, he also proposed that tools found in that same location were marginally different to their counterparts found on land. This was an important  threshold moment. It suggested that the peoples of the inundated landscape, were culturally ‘different’, and should be studied in their own right. 

There were few developments with this concept in archaeological terms, until the late 1990’s when Professor Bryony Coles of the University of Exeter published her ‘speculative’ survey of this inundated landscape. Coles’ work was groundbreaking. It was a synthesis of all of the available information on the area, and even took into account Clement Reid’s early work and research. Coles boldly took the step of naming the lost land, which became known as ‘Doggerland’, perhaps in acknowledgement of Reid’s work around the Dogger Bank.  For the first time in over 7,000 years, a lost country found it’s name, and had its own culture. Coles’ paper proved to be hugely influential,  it captured the imagination, and caused a resurgence of interest in Doggerland as a lost landscape. The archaeological community in particular began to ask pertinent questions about the region, and discussed the possibility of further exploration and research. 

The difficulty is, and always will be, that this submerged terrain is physically difficult to access, being at best, some 200 metres and more under the North Sea. Indeed, the progressive action of trawlers, encroaching pipelines, soil disposal, wind farming, and a host of other activity has muddied the waters, and destroyed potentially valuable artefacts. The retrieval of these artefacts is progressively more difficult, and more challenging, and objects relatively close to the sea bed have to some extent been trawled away, some even being sold over the internet. 

In 2001, the University of Birmingham held it’s annual seminar on the Mesolithic. Students of the Landscape Archaeology, GIS, and Virtual Environments Masters course convened, and began their usual discussions on ancient landscapes. The Leman and Ower bone point had for many years been used as evidence for an ancient landscape, but archaeologically, there had been little progression since it’s discovery.

 2001 marked a turning point though, as one of the students, Simon Fitch chose to do a PhD on the subject. Supported by his supervisor, Prof. Vincent Gaffney, and geomorphologist Ken Thompson, the team decided to utilise an unlikely resource to help them investigate the Dogglerland area further. For years, seismic data had been collected, collated, and archived by the oil industry in the North Sea, and might potentially yield useful geological information on the area. After several false starts, and with help from the directorate of Petroleum Geo-Services, the team eventually managed to access some 6000km2 of seismic reflection data from the Dogger Bank as a pilot study. Work began, and just a few weeks later in Birmingham, an image of a vestigial submerged river, now dated at approximately 10,000 years old, flickered across a computer screen. As large as the Rhine, the River, named the Shotton,( after Birmingham based geologist, Fred Shotton) snaked some 40km across the seabed, and the reconstruction of Doggerland, Europe’s lost country was born. 

As a result of this original and groundbreaking work, the Birmingham team founded the North Sea Paleolandscapes Project (NSPP), and tasked themselves with a detailed analysis of Doggerland. Mapping, naming, and exploring new territory, its hills, rivers and contours, is always hugely exciting, and the team continued its work apace.  Much of this research is incredibly detailed, and some is, as yet unpublished, or far too broad in scope to publish in such a short article here.  There is still much to discuss, and many questions to be answered.

How quickly was this landscape inundated, and how swiftly did it’s people make the transition, once their homes and hunter-gatherer lifestyles had been disrupted? It is ironic that even in our time,  extreme weather, and flooded landscape in particular are playing such a prominent role in our lives in many parts of the country, as our climate is gradually transforming once again. Yet this is tame in comparison to the scale of deluge of the North Sea.  For the inhabitants of Doggerland, the scale and rate of inundation would possibly have been radical, traumatic. Conversely,  it has been suggested that inundation may have come about in stages. The land would have gradually succumbed to the encroaching sea over many years, and freshwater slowly turned brackish, destroying trees, flora, fauna. Human survival would have been doubtful, to say the least. The argument for slow inundation was compelling.

Indeed, cursory research into British folklore and mythology suggests a number of mythical landscapes, lost to the waves. For hundreds of years, submerged tracts of forest were known as “Noah’s Woods”, and even Samuel Pepys recorded having seen ancient hazel, preserved in the mud of the Thames. The earliest recorded reference to submerged woodland was in 1191, the publication of Girladus Cambrensis’ “ItinerariumCambriae”.  Here, Giraldus makes reference to a deluge in somewhat biblical terms, whilst simultaneously acknowledging that the forces of nature might also have played a role. When passing near the Niwegal sands (near St Davids, Pembrokeshire after a particularly violent storm he noted:

“… the surface of the earth, which had been covered for many ages re-appeared, and discovered the trunks of trees cut off, standing in the very sea itself, the strokes of the hatchet appearing as if made only yesterday. The soil was very black, and the wood like ebony. By a wonderful revolution, the road for ships became impassable, and looked not like a shore, but like a grove cut down, perhaps at the time of the deluge, or not long after, but certainly in very remote ages. Being by degree consumed and swallowed up by yet violence and encroachments of the sea..”

There are folk tales relating to a lost land named Cantre’r Gwaelod, ( the Lowland Hundred) off the coast of Wales, which might substantiate Girladus Cambrensis’ sightings;  this, amongst numerous deluged, mythic islands; Lyonesse, west of Cornwall, Hy Brasil, west of Ireland, Tir na nog, or St Brendan’s Isle, also off the coast of Ireland, and several others. There is physical evidence in the form of fossilised tree stumps at extreme low tide events, that ancient landscapes have been submerged in some of these areas. Bathymetric records would appear to confirm that ALL of these mythic islands fall within the area of the continental shelf at specific depths, and may actually have once existed as ‘high points’ in local topography many thousands of years back in a lost epoch. It would not be inconceivable that a vestigial folk memory of these inundated landscapes may have survived the centuries in oral and written records, some perhaps contaminated, transformed over time?

 Interestingly, most of these folk memories survive predominantly in the west of the country. Why would this be?  The continuity of Celtic culture in the west of the country, would almost certainly have ensured that folk memory and the myth cycle would be well preserved over time. 

Surely Doggerland –  a huge and indeed significant land-mass, with many hundreds (or even thousands) of inhabitants, would have equally preserved its myths, its folk memory?  Archaeologists and ethnologists have suggested that Doggerlanders were widely dispersed, in a mass diaspora , and assimilated into other European (or further) cultures, and all oral recollections were lost. Others have discussed the possibility that late mediaeval and early Roman invaders wiped out many of the indigenous tribes on the east coast, most of whom would have been descendants of Doggerlanders, keepers of the oral record, thus fragmenting the indigenous myth cycle which subsequently died with them. The other possibility, and to me, the most convincing, is that the deluge came rapidly, swamping the east coast like an aquatic Pompeii. Multiple core samples from around the world indicate a great thaw after the last Ice Age. The polar ice caps, would have been unlocked, and many millions of tonnes of water would have caused a dramatic eustatic shift. Lowlands would have been submerged incredibly quickly. 

Excavations in Howick, have demonstrated evidence for a massive tsunami from a huge, submarine landslip the size of Scotland, emanating from Storegga, Norway circa 6100BC.  Geological evidence suggests that vast swathes of the east coast would have very quickly been deluged, with several immense waves crashing inland at a rate of 20-30 miles per second. Though the area of Doggerland would not have felt the effect of this tsunami quite as dramatically as further north in Northumberland, it would surely have had a devastating effect on its inhabitants, killing many or most almost instantaneously? 

Some time around 5500BC, Britain was all but disconnected from the continent. We had become an island nation. Yet it would be incorrect to assume that this separation was the end of Doggerland in its entirety.  Doubtless, high points of land, such as the Dogger Bank itself, would still have prevailed as remote islands, and these might possibly have been inhabited.  Yet our severance from mainland Europe and Britain would have made social contact, trade, hunting and foraging extremely challenging. Life on these isolated islets would have been tenuous, hazardous,  and over time, as the sea rose further,  those remaining communities would surely have had to make a final migration towards solid land, or died trying?

 This would have been a time of significant, and widespread social and environmental change, and with no physical, or written evidence, we can only speculate on the habits, traditions, beliefs and lifestyles of a lost people.  Attempting to reconstruct this inundated culture is notoriously difficult, and Doggerland is a place of contradictions. On the one hand, situated as it is, hundreds of metres below the sea, it should be an archaeologically pristine site, a relatively unscathed repository of hidden treasures.  It has not been subjected to external degradation by building for instance, or agriculture, or indeed theft, as so many sites on the mainland have. However, its underwater location is also its downfall. As previously mentioned, beam dredging has, over the last century or so, muddled and destroyed artefacts close to the surface of the seabed,  and that, combined with considerable sedimental and alluvial movement and deposition only makes the search for evidence even more difficult. Those material artefacts which have survived for centuries underwater, have done so because they don’t break down, and decompose as rapidly as other organic materials,  for example, textiles, animal hides,  foliage, wood etc, that would have been invaluable in establishing a more substantial, identifiable basis for human settlements in the area.    

Doggerland eventually succumbed to the sea, and its remnants, we have established,  would have been identifiable only as islands. It is entirely plausible that the Mesolithic inhabitants of Doggerland regarded water in a totally unique manner.  This, after all, was the place where the ancestors once dwelt, and the islands may have played a vital role in their ritual or spiritual practice. At times of low tide, these ancestral islands may have been accessible. They might readily or at significant times be revisited and venerated.  During the time of the Mesolithic,  funerary practices, such as those evidenced in mainland Europe and Russia, were commonplace on islands, which may have served to isolate the dead. The Sami reindeer hunters of Finland inter their dead on islands ostensibly as a protective measure to confine the spirit of the ancestors, and prevent them from disturbing the living . Water veneration in the ancient tradition, and even up to the present day is relatively commonplace ( tossing coins into a fountain, baptism, or well dressing are still widespread and prevalent). I have written of Bronze Age cultures, particularly at Flag Fen, Cambridgeshire, and Star Carr in Yorkshire for whom water would appear to have been the locus of some arcane belief system. 

This, we can only surmise, on the basis of a body of archaeological and anthropological documentation from related ancient cultures and traditions. The rest is left for the archaeologists of the future, who with the benefit of more advanced technology, material resources and funding, may reveal even more about Doggerland and its people.  

BG Nichols 2017

An art edition, They Shall Not Rise Until Light Shines Upon Them, including a floral and faunal reconstruction of the landscapes of Doggerland,  and relating to this essay, will be published later this year by Place Editions, in collaboration with visual artist Tracy Hill. 

Enquiries or further questions , please e mail me at whitelineBN@aol.com   or visit: placefieldnotes.wordpress.com for updates. 

The Land Incanted

The Land Incanted by Baz Nichols / Eijls

featured in The Learned Pig, March 2019

 The words “incanted” and “enchanted” share the same etymological root. An incantation is defined as  “the use of spells or verbal charms spoken or sung as a part of a ritual of magic” also a written or recited formula of words designed to produce a particular effect”

To  walk out into any wilderness;  to become untethered, disconnected from the rigours of quotidian life  became something of a regular routine for me. In my formative years as a young ornithologist, I spent many solitary hours in the parks and reservoirs that surrounded me in East London, attempting not only to sensitively observe my beloved avian companions, but also to connect. It is the sense of connection that permeates my written works of the last 10 years or so. Attuning to the subtle voices and moods of any given landscape takes some considerable time, effort, and sensory acuity.   My walks became rites, modes of transcendence and deep connection with the theatre of nature.  

A walk may have a particular rhythm and meter, and very often words manifest in the imagination. Yet a walk only has rhythm if it is regular, unbroken, a direct path.  Walking into bleak, treacherous terrain, the fractured landscape breaks that rhythm and words become abstracted, disarticulated,  mimetised in the very place from which they emerged. And this is where my work begins.

 I confess to being a reluctant poet, and so many of my texts took on the characteristics of incantations, invocations, a numinous summoning of the genius loci. It seems counterintuitive that in order to connect with the natural world, one has to separate, dislocate, isolate, in order to hear the multitude of voices that reside within.  For me, there is an ineffable energy that emanates from places that have themselves become abandoned or  forgotten, and once attuned, one becomes a conduit through which places are given voice, and words come to me almost unbidden.  

I began to leave small oblations sequestered in the remote places I visited – small, tacit way markers that I call “placements” made from natural detritus. Assemblages of grass, shells, worm casts, bird skulls, leaf skeletons, symbolic objects that resonated in some way,  not only as a private way of marking my presence here, but a form of exchange, a transaction with the landscape that I hoped to honour and vivify.  Often I would transport these subtle offerings from one location to another, creating an invisible line of energy, connecting one place to another, like a telluric current.  Once placed,  these sculptural objects would lie in situ, unseen, unheralded, and then a slow decomposition and gradual consumption. 

Nature does not know death – it only knows transformation, the gradual transition from one state to another. Moss, Ivy, Lichen, Fungi  – these are the attire of the abandoned. Once left untended, sites of human habitation in particular are slowly consumed, transformed by the agents of time and weather,  an encroaching natural decay. This is a form of alchemy, a way of knowing that we are part of a continuum, living life in anticipation of the inevitable moment of transition.   And so I attune my senses to the lost voices of this continuum, attempting to reconstruct a half-imagined past for those remote, abandoned places,  borne on the marks and scars of the land, the hidden energies, revenants, apparitions,  the sounds, and spoor of the ancient and archaic – here the land is incanted, enchanted – these words have to be spoken aloud in order to gain energy, brought to life  once more through my transcendent imagination.

Eijls, March 2019   

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Doggerland, a submerged landscape

This is an unedited version of a piece that appeared in Ernest Journal 7. For the purposes of publication due to limitations with space, certain key elements of this piece had to be omitted. This is the revised original draft.

It is early morning. The sun sits low on the horizon, sheathed in cloud like a great occluded eye. I am standing on a beach in Suffolk. Beneath my feet, the shingle swirls and clatters with the relentless lapping of tides. It reminds me that this coastline in particular is viscous, malleable, a series of endlessly shifting co-ordinates. Just a few miles down the coast is Dunwich,  once the great ancient capital of The Kingdom of the Angles. Now just a  village, it has gradually succumbed to the sea, a process of erosion that has been reducing this coastline for centuries. As I gaze outwards across the vast shimmering fact of the North Sea, it strikes me forcibly that beneath these waves, there was once a great tract of land, a field of plains, forests, rivers and lakes the size of a country, a country we now know as Doggerland. 

Doggerland rose to prominence in the modern imagination over a century ago. Tales of a submerged “land bridge”  between Britain and mainland France pervaded until archaeologist Clement Reid published Submerged Forests in 1913, which inferred so much more. Reid’s radical proposition upset the archaeological community of the time. He suggested that an entire inundated land mass existed beneath the North Sea. Surrounding coastlines as far away as Cheshire had also thrown up physical evidence of fossilised tree stumps at low tide events. Reid’s book and theories were rapidly discredited by his peers, and consigned to the archive of forgotten history,  yet today, his life and work have gained new relevance, substantiated by hard physical evidence, and bolstered by the technological advancements made in bathymetry and deep ocean scanning.  

The ancient mesolithic plains of Doggerland were slowly consumed by the sea in a post ice-age thaw over the centuries. As the waters rose, and the sea gradually encroached, its inhabitants would have survived on small islets (of which Dogger Bank was one), and trade, hunting, travel, community would gradually have become untenable. Eventually and inevitably, Doggerlanders would have had to make the precarious journey to higher ground, and what is now the east coast would almost certainly have become safe and familiar territory. 

With no extant oral or written transcripts, we have no way of knowing the lives of these ancients, their routines, their belief systems.  It is entirely conceivable that water would have held a special significance for ancient Doggerlanders. Water veneration might have featured heavily in their lives and spiritual practices, and it is possible that during low tide events, they revisited the remaining islets, which were perhaps reserved as burial grounds for their dead. There are notable references to this practice in ancient Scandinavian and Russian cultures, who similarly inter their dead on islands to separate their spirits from the living.   

For centuries, tales of lost islands and lost lands, deluged by the ocean have persisted in folk memory. Cursory research into British folklore and mythology reveals a number of mythical landscapes, lost to the waves.  There are numerous folk tales telling of a lost land named Cantre’r Gwaelod, ( the Lowland Hundred) off the coast of Wales,  Lyonesse, west of Cornwall, Hy Brasil, west of Ireland, Tir na nog, or St Brendan’s Isle, also off the coast of Ireland, and several others.  On the basis of bathymetric evidence, all of these islands fall within the area of an ancient “shelf” that once existed as a continuum of the European land mass. 

 Interestingly, most of these folk memories survive predominantly in the west of the country. Why would this be?  The continuity of Celtic culture in the west of the country, would almost certainly have ensured that folk memory and the myth cycle would be well preserved over time.  Surely Doggerland –  a huge and indeed significant land-mass, with many hundreds (or even thousands) of inhabitants, would have equally preserved its myths, its folk memory?  Archaeologists and ethnologists have argued that Doggerlanders were widely dispersed  and assimilated into other cultures, and all oral recollections were lost. The other possibility, and to me, the most convincing, is that the deluge came rapidly, swamping the east coast like an aquatic Pompeii. 

How then, do we depict the drowned landscape of Doggerland? How might we understand its inhabitants, their beliefs, rituals, their daily lives?

I recently visited the ancient Bronze Age site at Flag Fen in Cambridgeshire,  a submerged oak causeway there, stretches over a kilometre across an often bleak, water-saturated fenland . Here, offerings were made to the waters by ancient people,  most of these objects having been damaged before offering was made.  These perhaps propitiatory artefacts must have held some spiritual or ritualistic significance to the inhabitants of that place, yet this ancient belief system is unknown to us;  buried in the sediment of time. 

In attempting to dowse its energy, there is something of a mystical,  funerary atmosphere to this place which I can’t put into words.  Many hundreds of bones and bone artefacts have been retrieved from here, and there is also evidence of ancient burial mounds nearby on higher ground.  The landscape around the fens is characteristically flat, and once all 21st century interventions have been removed, my perception of the landscape is transformed.  As I traverse the site, what strikes me is the vastness of open sky.  The fen is currently populated with invasive species of sedges and rushes;  organic spires that puncture the horizon line,  a physical barrier to the modern mind. This might once have been a powerful place, a place where the dividing line between horizon, earth and sky was almost imperceptible. This metaphysical symmetry, the place where earth meets sky as conjoined elements, would have had a potent effect on the ancient imagination. The oak causeway perhaps symbolised a liminal pathway, a processional route, where ancient people could walk the line between life and death, suspended between earth and the heavens..yet the purpose of the oak causeway remains open to speculation. 

In his book, “Flag Fen, Life and Death of a Prehistoric Landscape”, archaeologist and Flag Fen founder, Francis Pryor noted that an equivalent site in Corlea, southern Ireland became swiftly inundated by the sea soon after it was constructed.  He states that far from being incompetent,  perhaps the ancient Corleans had built their causeway to be ritually submerged soon after construction. But for what purpose? 

Here , I make a tenuous connection between both places –  Flag Fen, and Doggerland.  Might it be that the Flag Fen causeway is one of several sites of special spiritual significance to the descendants of  ancient Doggerlanders? Could it be that these artificial islands were constructed to commemorate and celebrate their ancient homeland, preserved in perpetuity in their spiritual beliefs and oral records? Is it possible that the offerings in the Flag Fen waters were made to propitiate some powerful, malevolent water gods,  gods who destroyed the ancient land of their ancestors?

Given that there are several thousand years between the late Mesolithic, and the Bronze Age, you might be forgiven for doubting the fidelity of oral record over such vast period of time. How could a religious belief system survive the centuries, relatively unbroken,  simply through oral transmission? We forget perhaps that time is porous; ideas, memories, memes flow through it, occasionally unhindered and intact.  

As recently as 2015, Scientific American journal ran an article on the oral traditions of the Australian Aborigines. These aboriginal cultures are almost certainly the oldest surviving in human history. Upon analysis of some 16 aboriginal “myths”, a study revealed that their tales spoke of lost islands and post-ice age inundation with verifiable and phenomenal accuracy. The study concluded that far from being origin myths, the aboriginal tales of Dreamtime were factual reminiscences passed down faithfully from generation to generation over some 10,000 years, enmeshed in their ancestral psyche.   

The oral tradition not only provided the ‘scaffolding’ for ancient spiritual belief in the absence of the written word. It maintained social cohesion amongst tribal or clan groups, it provided a communal vision, perhaps armed with its own biases, intents and agendas. It provided social and environmental stability. How else could a leader or spiritual guide galvanise many hundreds or thousands of followers to undertake such herculean feats of engineering  as the Flag Fen causeway, unless they had a singular vision or belief, speculatively based upon the fear of retribution from angry sky or water gods?

It is true that over time, oral records can become lost, destroyed, or contaminated, particularly when indigenous cultures are disrupted in some way, either via conflict, or trade and exchange.  Indeed, the aboriginal oral tradition survived unblemished until the arrival of the European colonists in the late 18th century, and even now, the Dreamtime continues as a faithful record of cultural history. 

With all of the above in mind, would it be unreasonable to assume that the ancient peoples of Doggerland not only survived a traumatic and catastrophic inundation, but also, in a mass diaspora, made it to the seasonally flooded landscape around Flag Fen, a terrain not dissimilar to the ancestral home? 

As I walk across the spidery trails of the remoter parts of the fen, I acutely sense the revenants of ancient Doggerlanders;  hazy apparitions,  still walking a mystical path to commemorate lost ancestors. In walking,  the rhythmic thrum of my footfall is mimetised in the beat of some ancient shaman’s drum, slowly drawing that time to this. 

B G Nichols  /Eijls 2017

this essay first appeared in the printed version of Ernest Journal, edition number 7, May 2017

For more information, e mail:  whitelineBN@aol.com or visit: placefieldnotes.wordpress.com

Towards a lithic memory

“…if we desire to discover what was the distinguishing motive of the long-headed Neolithic man, we shall find it in his respect for the dead; and he has stamped his mark everywhere he has been by the stupendous tombs he has erected, at vast labour out of unwrought stones..” 
From “A Book of Dartmoor”, by Sabine Baring-Gould, Methuen 1900

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Over the last few years, my increasing interaction with ancient and archaic stones, structures and stone objects, led me to ponder whether my long term general interest in the mythology and folklore attached to stone, and its place in human experience might be explored through the prism of a putative “Lithic Memory”.

In setting out to research selected written and anecdotal records relating to our intimate relationship with stone, it became increasingly obvious that the magical, religious and folkloric power of stone is inextricably linked to the presence of the observer, and subsequently to the human perceptual mechanism.  This centres around interesting questions arising from human perception of subtle energies believed to reside within stone,  and the role of stone in the core functions of many ancient (and modern) societies which appear to depend upon such perceptions. 

It would not be beyond the realms of scientific reason to recognise that stone, at varying levels of complexity, possesses electronic properties, which may or may not give it the ability to store information, and therefore possess a form of “lithic memory.” Further research into the energetic properties of stone, and it’s ability to “record”;  to literally store echoes of past events, and subsequently to act as a locus for expressions of sanctity, began to accumulate as a murky synthesis of solid state physics, mythology, and psychology.

For me, there is a continuous, ongoing inner questioning of the nature of our relationship with stone situated around arcane or archaic monoliths, walls, objects and monuments, and how this “lithic memory” might potentially be decoded and interpreted.

Perhaps the reason that I’m drawn to the lost, forgotten, neglected, ignored and abandoned, [apart from a certain dark, melancholic aesthetic conjured from memory and loss], is that these places act powerfully on the imagination. I see the capturing of images, and coalescent sense impressions as acts of retrieval. My written work is most often a futile attempt at reconstructing a half-imagined past, breathing life into that which is inert, giving voice to that which maintains enigmatic silence, re-enchanting that which has fallen by the wayside, obscured,  and mundane. Yet there is no sure way of determining whether noumenal voices from the outside are penetrating my internal solitude, or whether an inner silence is feeling for the hidden life of the outside world.  

Having visited many ancient, sacred or significant sites, it is interesting to note that for many people, initial contact with such places is tactile. There is something innate that compels us to touch stones, to feel a vibration, a revenant perhaps, or simply to tangibly connect with that which has passed through the centuries?  One has to reside in a place for an extended period of time,  fully immersed, making frequent, and sustained contact before it starts to unfold.  It requires attuning and calibrating the senses, allowing images and sense-impressions to accrete.   This is not hard science, and makes no claims at scientific rigour. For me, this is a form of divination, dowsing, something approaching the poetic and impressionistic, listening to the voices within, and trusting the intuitive, the instinctual, and allowing it to flow and permeate the work. 

Yet surely, this is not unique? Not exclusively my domain? Haven’t stones been the vector, the conduit through which our imagination flows for millennia? Doesn’t stone, possessed of longevity, endurance, durability, bear all of the outflowings of our creative imagination? Aside from pure utility, as waymarker, grave marker, the ceremonial, the monumental, the sacred;  stone has also been the canvas upon which the first and last humans will scratch, daub, etch, chisel, and imprint their potent imaginings, preserved in perpetuity.

 People talk of  the mysticism of “ancient stones” and their associated power, but surely all stone, by it’s very nature, is ancient? Are the stones that line the mountains and valleys not as mysterious, as powerful as those hewn and set down by ancient man?  Is a “new” building not merely constructed from “newly formed” compounds,  amalgams of ancient clays and stone material ?  Perhaps the frequent, ritualised interaction of man and stone imbues the stone with some other, hitherto indescribable energy – a subtle transfer, the essence of the genius loci, the root of sanctity? Perhaps sustained engagement with ancient places, combined with an open mind, and fine tuning of the senses, might facilitate the unlocking of such accumulated energies, that we might literally connect with the voices from the past? 

BGN 2019

The wall as palimpsest.

 

 

 

 

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The Ammil

The Ammil

Above – detail from The Ammil, text works in progress, entitled Site Composites, a study of landscape elements,  B G Nichols, Place Editions. Text sourced from A Perambulation of Dartmoor, by Samuel Rowe, 1848. Revised and reprinted 1896.

Ammil, from old English ammel, meaning “enamel”

Rowe commented on the singular appearance of a spectacular ammil event in January 1868 that covered the length and breadth of Dartmoor, and it was quickly announced by moor-folk that “the ammil was on”. The only known document of this event was written by Mr J N Bennet of Archeton-

“..the ammil continued for two days and two nights. The effect of the sun shining upon this coating of ice, every point on which the eye could rest, giving forth prismatic colours, dancing and sparkling in the breeze, was beautiful beyond all description. A holly tree, between Princetown and Tor Royal, full of leaves and berries, was an object of wonder and delight to all who saw it..”

Probably the most famous ammil was that of March 1947 which has become known as ‘The Great Ammil’ which is described in Harvey’s and St. Ledger Gordon’s book – Dartmoor, p.199:

For two months white Winter had allowed his artistry full scope, as displayed in fantastic snowdrifts and frozen waterways, but the climax came with light rain, falling with the thermometer well below freezing point. Every bush, tree, sprig of heather, bracken frond or reed, every rail or post, each inanimate object, was sheathed in ice as though in a glass case… The tors, usually stern and grey, now stood like mighty glaciers, towering above a tumbled sea of crystal. Under the cold bright sunshine, each wooded combe of the foothills was a shining wonderland where great trees stood, as if rough-carved in ice, and nothing seemed alive or real but the chill wind which rattled the branches and now and again brought an over-weighted bough crashing down to snow level with a roar like falling masonry.”

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