On the trail of Black Shuck

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“He rises from the blackness
And races through the lanes
To reach the lonely estuary track
And sneaks along the sea-walls
The saltings and the flats
With no-one but the wind to call him back”

- Martin Newell, Black Shuck

As a child I was terrified by the tale of ‘Old Shuck’, the ominous phantom hound reported to roam the coastal paths and backroads of Norfolk and Suffolk. I remember my grandparents telling me stories of the many sightings that had taken place and the grim demise of many of those who had claimed to of seen him. I first heard about the Shuck from a collection of Norfolk ghost stories I had been given one christmas in the late eighties and of all the eerie tales this was the one that had scared me the most. The legend of Black Shuck was (and remains) terrifying for two reasons; firstly, Shuck is a gigantic ghostly black dog with glowing red eyes the size of saucers. Secondly, seeing the hound is often said to be ominous of one’s own death or that of a near relative. Leaving to return home from the beaches of the North Norfolk coast in the waning light of autumnal evenings, I would sit in the back of the car with my eyes firmly closed for fear of seeing the Shuck. Recently my grandmother told me of her own encounter with the phantom black dog; she spoke of having met a gigantic shadowy hound in the middle of the road one night when returning from a craft evening in a nearby village. Breaking hard, the dog failed to move until the last second when suddenly it leapt before the bonnet and darted into the darkness of the surrounding woodland. ‘Certainly’, she said, ‘it was Old Shuck’. It would appear then, that not all meetings with Shuck are followed by misfortune. In fact the fisherman of Sheringham and Cromer are said to believe that the presence of the dog indicates a great storm and so refuse to sail after a sighting has been reported so as to ensure the safety of the crew (Kingshill and Westwood, 2014).

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Sightings of ghostly black dogs are common throughout Britain and are a staple of its folklore; Yorkshire is menaced by the Barghest or Padfoot, Hertfordshire by the Leandog, Lancashire has The Grim, Linconshire is haunted by ‘Hairy Jack’ and Devon the Yeth Hound. Other black dogs are said to roam the counties of Bedfordshire, Surrey and Wiltshire. Wales and Scotland also have their own wealth of spectral hounds. But of all the tales of all the dogs, it is Shuck who is the most infamous and indeed the most terrifying.

The tale of the Shuck is often attributed to the villages of Blythburgh and Bungay in Suffolk. According to local legend, Shuck first appeared in 1577 when he attacked the parishioners of Bungay, breaking into the church during worship and killing two men before fleeing to the village of Blythburgh where the beast left scorched claw marks on the inside of the church’s door. It is said that the markings can still be seen today. Numerous other sightings have been reported all over East Anglia; in 1970  Shuck made the headlines when people claimed to have seen an unnaturally large black dog bounding across the beaches of Great Yarmouth. A decade later and there was another reported encounter with the dog, this time from a mother who was out walking her son near the fenland town of Wisbeach.

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West Runton looking west towards Sheringham and the Beeston Bump

Norfolk’s own Shuck tales tend to be geographically focused on the coastline and particularly around the land and coastscape between the villages of Overstrand and Sheringham. Alleged sightings of Shuck were said to be so frequent in Overstrand that the ghost was included in the old village sign and as legend tells, an old section of the coastal path called Tower Hill Lane is affectionately referred to by locals as ‘Shuck’s Lane’. One story states that after hearing the sounds of panting, howling and claws scrapping at the floor, a petrified witness fled only to turn back and see the glowing paw prints of a hound scorched into the tarmac. The paths that lead along the cliff tops from Overstrand to Sheringham are treacherous even without the Shuck to roam them, the heavily eroded cliffs are rapidly moving inwards as they are forced to peel back from the corrosive waves of the North Sea. Shuck is said to roam these paths during storms, forcing onlookers to negotiate the crumbling cliff tops in the darkness as they are pursued by the thundering bounds and howels of the phantom hound. Shuck’s presence on these cliffs is connected to the landscape itself; legend tells how the dog rises from the depths of the nearby Beeston ‘Bump’, a grass covered hill that looms over the nearby village of Sheringham, before making his way along the ridgeway through Cromer and on to Overtstrand where he paces the streets before leaping into the churchyard and disappearing.

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Erosion on the coastal path at Overstrand

On visiting Overstrand at the end of the summer I immediately noticed that the village sign displaying Shuck has been replaced. Having spent quite some time in Overstrand, I now understand this as  symbolic of the changes that have taken place in the village in general, an influx of holiday home owners replacing the local community and with it an erasure of the legend of the great black dog. I stopped to ask a number of people about their knowledge of or encounters with the Shuck, the majority of them were not local, having recently moved to the area or owning holiday homes along the coast. From twenty two people asked only two were lifelong residents and only one of these was aware of the tale of Shuck’s Lane. This person alleged to have witnessed the Shuck running along the beach away from Overstrand and made his relief over seeing the dog heading in the opposite direction very clear to me. The man provided me with directions to the so-called Shuck’s Lane, joking that if I happened to see the dog then he would happily take my camera off my hands: “Got no need for a camera if you see Old Shuck, boy”, he laughed.

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The Beeston Bump

I followed the man’s instructions to a narrow, cottage lined lane that was barely wide enough to fit a car along. The tarmac ran out after about twenty meters, leaving the car in dusty lay-by to make the rest of the journey by foot. I followed the lane as it turned into a hedge enclosed trackway, the wind blew heavily gushing through gaps in the hedge and sending twigs and leaves cutting across my path. The trackway went on for some twenty meters before turning to the right and opening up onto the edge of a field.  I stopped to see a dead rabbit laying before me, partly disemboweled with a raven pecking at what remained of the eye socket. Startled, the raven left his grisly business and fled upwards into the mercy skies. I soon realised that the lane had led to nowhere; to the right of me lay fields and to the left and beyond was the edge of a steep cliff drop into the sea. I suddenly felt very alone and all too aware of the precarity of the situation; standing on the edge of a cliff top with biting winds now blowing about me, forcing me to back away from the edge. The grey skies made the space seem yet more desolate and after capturing some site photos I quickly turned to head back, the discomfort of being in that place was really quite unnerving.

As I reached the end of the lane and started back along the road an elderly couple were unpacking groceries from the boot of their car. They were obviously curious as to where I had come from and what I might have been up to lurking about in the fields. I said hello and asked them about Shuck and whether they knew the story of Shuck’s Lane, which now appeared to be more ghostly in its absence than I might have imagined. Shuck’s Lane, they told me, had been lost to the sea sometime in the 1920s when the road disappeared over the edge of the cliff. Shuck’s Lane was as spectral as its ghostly canine namesake; I knew then that there was of course nothing to see as the lane was no more but still there remained an element of danger in returning to look for the traces of it.  I didn’t go back to the cliff top.

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Shuck’s Lane

The tale of Shuck is not to be taken lightly, the hound is indeed ominous and whether or not he exists in spectral form will have to be determined in the mind of the reader. But the point remains that as a folktale, Black Shuck serves to provide a warning to those who mean to treat the coastal paths lightly. Like the sea that serves the coastal communities, Shuck too is a transgressive entity, at once moving in and out of places. Shuck’s mobility mirrors the instability that surrounds both the spatial and temporal elements associated with the sea; the movement of and reliance upon the tides, the daily cycle of gaining and losing land to the saline waters and the erosion of the landscape proper. The low-lying land of the inner parts of the county, and of East Anglia as a whole, as well as the constant threat posed by the sea in these parts, is made manifest in the tale of Black Shuck in that the ghost acts as a conduit for the anxieties that have been and continue to be present in communities around this part of the country.


The above is a contracted version of two pieces of research I am currently working on; the first is Grey Area, a collaborative project with London-based artist Clare Parfree which uses a mixed methodological approach to examine the relationship between landscape and folklore. The other is an article on folk memory and the eerie geographies of Black Shuck. More on both projects to follow.

Strange Naturalisms: Reflections on Occult Geographies

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A few years ago I organised a half-day symposium on the themes of geography, nature and the occult under the name of Strange Naturalisms: Reflections on Occult Geographies. I was in my second year as a research student at the time and was feeling frustrated by the very few events taking place that were aimed at dealing with geographies of the strange and uncanny, not least because I knew from my own research that this was an of area cultural geography that was growing in popularity. After submitting a short proposal and projection of costs to my department, I was awarded a grant of £300 to invite speakers and pay for refreshments. I had previously met and was aware of other, more established scholars working in the field of the strange and so it made sense to try and get as many as I could together, given the small grant I had to work with, so as to establish some sort of cohesive school of thought around these geographies of the strange.

The symposium was fairly well attended for a Wednesday afternoon in late February and despite the winter weather a number of people made some heroic trips to come speak and take part in the event. As is so often the case with this sort of event I had planned on doing something productive with the speakers’ contributions but never actually got around to it. Earlier today I came across the recordings of the talks that I had taken during the session and I thought now to be as good a time as any to finally make them available.

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The abstract for the day is below and the microsite for the symposium together with the abstracts for the talks can still be found here. The running order for the talks was as follows:

Julian Holloway (MMU) – The Strange Nature of Gef the Talking Mongoose
James Kneale (UCL) – London’s ‘lively unknown dead’: Maureen Duffy’s Capital
James Thurgill (RHUL) – Conjuring place: the strange case of the Ankerwycke Yew
Owain Jones (UWE) – Sylvan Spirits. Trees as makers and shapers of strange places
Steve Pile (OU) – Telepathy, affect and the strange nature of the human mind
Phil Crang (RHUL) – Discussant

Abstract
‘Strange Naturalisms’ is a half day symposium aimed at collating discussions of the spectral, the fortean and the occult in geography; demonstrating that the very events and practices that we regard as supernatural are better viewed as instances of the vitality of nature. This event will bring together a number of geographic thinkers to discuss the uncanny formations of an occult landscape. Investigations into the fortean have proliferated within geography and cognate disciplines in recent years (See Holloway:2003,2006, Pile:2005, Dixon:2007). As such, the immateriality of place has come to rival the importance of material features in geographic writings. To this end, we have seen something of an occult turn in approaches to the landscape, with attention turning to uncovering the hidden or mystical properties of place. This session is dedicated to locating experiences of the strange; to elucidating those places that are perceived as anomalous, weird, and unnatural. There is much scope to develop understandings of the mystical, spectral and enchanted in relation to landscape, particularly in exploring the methods or ways in which we might encounter the uncanniness of N/nature. Through relations to place, landscape and the cultural practices and narratives that aid in their construction, each paper will provide an account of how our surroundings are bound up in a network of landscape mysticism.

City | Country | Coast

A few photos from a short vacation in Norfolk.

// City //

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Norwich Cathedral, view to the west of the Nave.

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Norwich Cathedral, looking north-east from the cloister.

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Tombland, west of the cathedral. The beautiful Tombland Bookshop is just around the corner from this point.

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Oak door with heart shaped peephole: found at the back of the Herb Garden built to the south of the cathedral.

// Country //

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Dead Rabbit with eyes removed.

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Straying from the path.

// Coast //

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Verges: Wells-next-the-Sea. View from the miniature locomotive that runs from the town to the pine forest lined beach.

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A warning to the curious: Wells-next-the-Sea. As a young man, my grandfather and his friend waded out to explore this pine covered island off the north coast of Wells. They became trapped on the island by the fast rising tide and had to be rescued by boat.

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Quayside to dunes: Wells-next-the-Sea. A footpath, exactly 1 mile in length, links the small fishing town to the heritage coast beyond.

British Folk Art: A brief reflection

folkartbannerI had been looking forward to viewing this exhibition for quite some time, particularly as a number of the items were brought in on loan from Norfolk’s museum services. Generally speaking, I prefer the offerings of the traditional crafts movement over other forms of creative practice. For me, the tactile nature of handcrafted objects, the rawness that is visibly evident in many (not all) of its works, makes for a more engaging aesthetic. The works of folk craft being functional as well as decorative pieces, always seem to convey a sense of ceremony that is not so often present in contemporary art. I think the greatest attraction for me though, is that I grew up around the production and celebration of this type of art.

My grandparent’s home was always decorated with art they had produced themselves, as well as objects that carried a sense of family memory and identity with them. The hallway was adorned with old horse brasses collected by great grandfather, who apparently had one of the largest collections of brasses in Norfolk. My grandfather, like his father before him, had worked the land with shire horse, cart and plough. I remember him as a large, stern man, who was always very matter of fact. And yet, the love he had for his surroundings was clearly and emotively expressed in the oil paintings he produced; autumnal sunsets over the salt marshes of the North Norfolk coast; water and land doused in splashes of gold and amber; small sailing vessels returning at the end of a day’s fishing. I believe that he painted not only for the joy of the art, but moreover, as a way of recording, of preserving the history of the places he loved and putting the feelings that he refused to convey verbally (at least to us children) onto the form of the canvas.

Together with the craft-works of my grandmother, their lounge was amassed with hand painted teapots and toby jugs, old maps, samplers, needle worked pictures, paintings, cushions and quilts that my family had made. My grandmother, a master quilt maker, continues to produce intricately patterned quilted blankets for the family, all of which take her months to produce and which she invariably uses to showcase her wealth of needle skills through a variety of stitching and pattern formations. She’s a dab hand with a pair of knitting needles too, though I often feel guilt ridden at asking an eighty nine year old to produce ‘wool free’ jumpers for me each winter, particularly as she never lets me pay for the materials.

So yes, much excitement over this recent exhibition, excitement that was sadly not to last. The curation, in my opinion, was poor; too many items per wall, much too little space and not enough information, moreover many of the items were hung well above eye level making it hard to really engage with them. The objects themselves were of course, beautiful, and to be fair there was a logical running order to the exhibition. However, the walls were scattered with objects which were presented in such a way as to detract the viewer from distinguishing the quality and unique characteristics of one piece from that of another. The general omission of information on the history of the pieces, and the craft behind them, detracted from the sense that the works were something special, that they differed from the landscapes and portraiture that adorned the walls of the surrounding gallery halls. I visited the exhibition during the last week of its running and it was reassuringly busy, proving that the Tate did succeed in producing an engaging and relevant show even if it got the overall presentation wrong.

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 02.47.53On another positive note, the sheer number of objects gathered was indeed impressive. The collection of sewn maps was particularly interesting (at least it was for a geographer) and the large straw man, an obvious highlight of the exhibition, was every bit as enchanting as you would imagine. The carved wooden signs were also attractive looking objects and as with the maps, there was a rare opportunity for the eye to distinguish the mark of the craftsman upon them. The quilted blankets and tapestries, a few of which dated back a couple of centuries, were another example of some of the more interesting pieces; although presenting the objects flush against the wall meant that the viewer was denied all of the intricate detail of the needlework that was to be seen on the work’s reverse.

Despite the obvious downsides to the show (poor presentation, lack of space etc), I would nonetheless recommend visiting the exhibition when it makes its next stop at Compton Verney, in Warwickshire. I can imagine this second setting being far more in keeping with what the curators were hoping to achieve with the exhibition. The exhibition will run from 27 September to 14 December 2014.

Price: Adults £15, Concessions £13.50.  

On Norfolk // All Saints

Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 01.04.19At the beginning of the summer, I decided to take a trip back to my parent’s house in Norfolk so as to briefly escape the claustrophobia of the city. Norfolk, with its somewhat oppressive, charcoal clouded skies and warren of hedge-lined lanes that wind their way through the patchwork fields of the Anglian countryside, makes for a much quieter environment in which to stop and take stock of things. The perfect retreat after weeks of 18 hour days in order to finish writing my thesis. On the train journey home (I always call it home despite having left over 12 years ago) I can physically feel time slowing down, the crash of the urban sprawl rapidly deteriorates into the undisturbed silence of open fields and bellowing clouds; even the train seems in no rush to meet its terminus, it decelerates to something of a saunter as it makes its way through the northern parts of Suffolk and into Norfolk. It is, as Robert Aickman commented on the region as if ‘time matters less’.

The so-called rump of England, East Anglia has often been the victim of unfair criticism; the whole ‘NFN: normal for norfolk’ myth did little to raise the reputation of the area, neither the horrific tales of inbreeding and webbed footed fen dwellers. Having cities whose only recognised claims to fame are being the home town of a fiction failed radio presenter and the lead singer of a 90s death metal act, Norwich and Ipswich respectively, rarely gain a chance to showcase the unrivalled beauty that the area has to offer. Anglia presents as a dichotomous landscape: its easterly and northern reaches are, in their entirety, sea lined, and offer some of the most diverse coastline in the country; from salt marshes to mudflats, vertical cliffs to expansive sands with dunes and sea bordering pinewoods to boot; W.H. Hudson, amongst others, wrote extensively of the region’s unrivalled beauty in his works of ornithology. The central and western parts of Anglia are instead completely rural, a combination of ancient woodland, meadows and fields. To the south, the Thames estuary creates a natural boundary between Anglia and the South East of England, working to keep London and its encroachment at bay.  And whilst the criticism this region attracts is somewhat irksome to those who know it well, Anglia does feel like another place, somewhere olde, a place where superstition and folklore remains integral to the ongoing customs and traditions of many village’s existence.

This is no archaic romanticism  at the hands of the author, not at all; having grown up in a place where almost everybody I knew had their own tale of a ghostly encounter, where apparitions, giant black cats and ominous spectral hounds remained ubiquitous within local memory, decades (sometimes centuries) after their last reported sightings,  East Anglia, always was, and will continue to remain, a rather haunted landscape for me.  Norfolk, in particular, is like nowhere else in England. Richard Mabey wrote of adolescent trips to the county in a short piece for Blythe’s Place: an anthology of Britain (1981), describing Norfolk as ‘an awkward protuberance’ that was both ‘cryptic and compelling’. Indeed the whole area is drenched in a stark remoteness that is scarcely felt elsewhere in southern parts of England. Unlike the cities and towns of the midlands, home counties and the South proper, Norfolk does not enjoy motorways or high speed rail connections. Norwich, the final destination of Norfolk-bound carriages from Liverpool Street, is quite literally at the end of the line and the feeling of being at the end of somewhere definitely resonates with the train passenger, right down to the the door handles that can only be accessed, with some precarity, by reaching out of the carriage window. Of the landscape, the rich fertile soils and close proximity to the German Sea has resulted in the county being blessed with plentiful crops of cereals and vegetables and the freshest supply of seafood one could hope for. Wildlife is in abundance; myriad rare species choose this region, and this one alone, to make their home, and as such, Norfolk provides a cornucopia of flora and fauna for the budding naturalist to explore, if they have the desire to do so.

You may well be asking yourselves why then, if the place is to be held in such high regard, would the author want to move away from these idyllic surroundings? And you would be right to do so. Whatever yearning I may have for the county, Norfolk is both helped and hindered by its remoteness; on the one hand it feels authentic, quintessentially English and untouched by the outside world. On the other, commercial success and cultural development have been retarded by the lack of decent communications with the rest of the South, there are limited opportunities for employment.

For the most part, Norfolk has been left alone by developers, some larger towns (like the one I grew up in) have expanded somewhat over the last 15-20 years and the extension of the Southern Bypass (a section of duel carriageway that skirts the county’s capital) in the early 1990s has seen an increased traffic flow through the area, in turn the quiet solitude of Norfolk life is probably not what is was, even as recently as thirty or forty years ago. Either way, Norfolk continues to have much to offer in the way of strange spaces and I believe much off the reasoning for this comes down to a combination of this sense of ‘slowing down’ and the permanence of the ruralism that inflects the landscape of the entire county; Norfolk, the eternal hinterland. Maybe not, but it does retain a definite sense of remoteness, of a wildness that is unlike anywhere else I have visited. Needless to say the area is a haven for exploration of all manner of weird and wyrd places, replete with ruins, earthworks, ancient meadows and woodland. All the places where enchantment might be seen to take root, which provides a nice segue for the introduction of the main subject of this post; the ruined church of All Saints, Oxwick.

My journey home had been in part to catch up with family but equally as something of a cheap vacation to celebrate the completion and passing of my PhD. Whenever I visit, at least one person in my family wants to get involved with my research, driving me out to some remote ‘myth’ shrouded location, primed for paranormal investigation. On this occasion, I’d been staying in Norfolk for the best part of a week before my brother and I finally got our acts together and made a definite plan to visit an unusual/haunted site in the area. We got out the maps and trawled the internet in search of interesting locations that were, for us at least, as yet unexplored. Before too long, we had arrived upon a list of sites of archaeological significance and unanimously agreed upon the remains of a medieval church, hidden away in a secluded wooded area, as the subject of our investigation. Jotting down directions on the back of an envelope and hastily packing cameras and notebooks, we made a dash for the car, both excited about the prospect of having discovered a hidden gem in Norfolk’s forgotten ecclesiastic heritage.

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The directions we had written down proved of little use, most of the turns they suggested didn’t appear to exist and the roadsigns were next to non-existent. After about 40 minutes of wrong turns and 20 point turns down ditch bordered lanes, we happened upon across a small area of woodland that extended from the back of an old cottage and out into a field. We parked up and made our way across the soil ridges of the field and towards the trees. A rusty wire fence marked the perimeter of the woodland. Below the trees lay a glimmering carpet of dew drenched emerald blades, each one raised to about knee hight and resting in perfect stillness. No church in sight though. Deciding to walk around the field a bit further, we found a small, overgrown trackway leading into the trees. We followed the route inwards, carefully negotiating low hanging brambles, neglecting to allow for the nettles sitting at calf-height that had been heating up in the Summer sun and which left trails of scorching, match-head sized bumps across the backs of our legs. The discomfort was worth it however, as within moments of walking the trackway, both the trees and the unsavoury undergrowth opened up to reveal a substantial, roofless church building surrounded by rough grasses and neglected headstones.

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The space was silent: no birdsong, no traffic, no breeze. The entire site stood absolutely (and disconcertingly) still. To add to the eeriness of the silence further, the density and height of the surrounding trees, though not excessive, had done much to curtail the sun’s warming of the ruins and so the place suddenly felt a lot colder than the nettle lined peripheries of the field and woods. ‘This place is definitely haunted’ my brother exhaled. In a manner of speaking, it definitely was. The setting of an M.R. James work brought into existence, the church ruins cast an uncanny sense of mourning over the location. We made our way around the chancel and entered the church through a doorless archway leading into the southern side of the nave. The inside was even cooler than the structure’s exterior, heightening my brother’s sense of unease as inexplicably, there was ‘no roof to keep the sun out’. Attached to the side of the archway was a small wooden box containing folded information pamphlets. The container was still rather full; I picked a guide out from the front of the box, it was marked #78, presumably of 100. The pamphlet was dated December 1994, evidently, the church didn’t attract too many visitors. DSC_0383

To the eastern end of the ruins, a large 14th century stone window held fragments of red and white stained glass; sullen looking shards of hand-worked transparency were clasping to their lead linings in a final act of defiance against the dereliction that had enveloped the rest of the building. Under the window lay a bisected headstone, propped up against the knapped flint wall of the chancel. Turning to face the vestry, one gained a sense of the height of the structure, and in spite of the missing arched roof, the church building stood there, towering its spectators, above us. We headed toward the vestry, which appeared to be in a worse state (structurally speaking) than the rest of the church.

In the middle of the vestry was a tall and narrow arched window, different to the kind that were built into the nave and chancel. The surrounding walls were low and crumbling and the southern side in particular was succumbing to the onset of ivy growth. The high pitched gable end stood defiantly upright and in surprisingly good shape, in comparison to its adjoining walls. We looked out through the slender window frame and across the unfolding graveyard, through the trees and into the earthy field beyond. We could have seen anything through that window, but we didn’t. Just the field.  The mind conjured shadowy figures stalking the spaces between the graves, but we only had to look around to see that we were really quite alone out there. If anything, the sense of haunting, of loss, felt in the space was more a grieving for the church and its evident retreat from habitus as well as from local memory. DSC_0393

The information pamphlet drew attention to a number of features on the exterior walls and so we set out in order to find them. Walking clockwise around the vestry and to the northern side of the church, two stone figures, carved in the 14th century, stood guarding the now blocked north doorway. The elements had not been kind to the carvings over the past 600 or so years and the facial features looked badly weathered. As such, the once ornamental carvings had become transformed into rather more malign looking grotesques. The gaping mouth and hollowed eyes of the figure carved on the right side of the archway appeared particularly menacing. The scream of a startled pheasant suddenly echoed against the old flint walls and the two of us leapt in fright, though laughed about the incident only moments later. I still maintain that I only ‘jumped’ as an act of solidarity, you have to do these things for family.

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We carried on shuffling through the sodden grass that surrounded the church, examining headstones as we did so. One grave, that of Thomas Lawrence, was especially Jamesian looking, sporting a carved totenkopf nestled between upturned hourglasses. Suitably macabre for the cold and isolated setting.

Leaving the church via the trackway by which we had entered, we then made a turn to the right and walked along the side of the cottage and onto the road, so as to evade the nettles and thorns that had proved so irritating just an hour or so before. At the end of the track was a grass verge. Raised about half a foot above the road, the verge had two very old looking white markstones, similar to the white markstones that line the roads leading from Fakenham (another small norfolk town) out to the coastal villages, which are, as local legend goes, pre-Roman in origin. The stones seemed like a final gesture from the site to present itself as extraordinary, a way of confirming both its place in the spectral lineage of abandoned mediaeval settlements that lay across the county, and further evidence of the site’s more ancient past.

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A return.

I haven’t posted on here for a year, not so much because I haven’t had anything to write, quite the contrary, my mind has been awash with ideas for weird entries, I just haven’t had the time to sit down and do anything. Writing up my doctoral thesis  – which successfully passed examination at the beginning of the Summer – has been partly responsible, but there have also been a number of other factors (work, family etc) that have kept me from getting on here. I can safely say that I would never advise anybody to undertake a full time PhD and try to hold down a job at the same time. It goes without saying that doctoral research is a mammoth undertaking and anything that detracts/distracts you from getting the work done, quickly becomes the bane of your life – I’ve been juggling the PhD alongside part-time social work/advocacy for the past four years and came close to total meltdown at far too many points along the way. Unless you’re lucky enough to receive a research council bursary or happen to be from a family that owns a private estate and/or a yacht, well, you’re most likely going to find yourself in a similar situation. It’s how they keep the working class working. I was lucky enough to receive a college scholarship but studying and living in London costs a lot more than the stipend I was given, so work it was.

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Arboreal Ruin – Hampstead Heath, London

Although the next few weeks will be pretty hectic (I have four and a half weeks of paid employment left and am desperately seeking a position that will allow me to survive in the city), I plan on updating the blog more regularly. Besides, there are a few things that I want to document and discuss whilst they remain timely i.e. the British Folk Art exhibition at Tate Britain, some new projects I’ve been working on and a couple of interesting sites and happenings I’ve stumbled across (reissues of Aickman, Slenderman, book finds etc).

More to come…soon(ish)

Spectres

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Spectres

‘even if it is in oneself, in the others, in the others in oneself: they are always there, spectres, even if they do not exist, even if they are no longer, even if they are not yet. They give us to rethink the ‘there’ as soon as we open our mouths.’

– Derrida, Spectres of Marx, p. 176.

The Hardy Tree, St Pancras Old Church, London.

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“O passenger, pray list and catch
Our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
Of wrenched memorial stones!”

“We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
‘I know not which I am!”

-Thomas Hardy[1]

Known best for his works of literature, author Thomas Hardy played a little known but important role in the redevelopment of the Kings Cross area in the years 1862-67, in which he both studied under and worked alongside the Covent Garden based architect Arthur Blomfield. When the new Midland Railway Company lines were being constructed to serve the then new Kings Cross and St.Pancras stations, their trajectory was set to cross the grounds of St.Pancras’s graveyard. Rather than redirect the route away from or around the burial site, Blomfield was charged with relocating the contents of the graves elsewhere, an unsavoury task which he keenly delegated to his apprentice, the young Hardy.

The mass exhumation, grotesque in itself, led to a legacy even more curious than the events that created it; ghost stories, leylines and an ancient occult geometry. Hardy instructed that graves be repositioned around the base of an ash tree that lay to the east of the church buildings. Throughout its life time, the ash has continued to grow from within and amongst the weathered gothic headstones that surround it to create quite the (spectral) spectacle. The graves, like the corpses they bear, are jumbled; a frantic mass of jagged stones that break the earth as fractured concentric circles, imposing the macabre on an otherwise peaceful area of the churchyard. Bodies lay upon bodies, graves upon graves.

Hardy’s discomfort with the removal and relocation of the remains is made obvious in the lines of his The Levelled Churchyard (extract above). The words bring revenance to the place, depicting cries from beyond the grave; the unsettling groans of a disrupted dead resonate throughout the poem. Such a discomfort is even more apparent, more biting still, when visiting the tree in person.

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At times, the tree itself can seem alive; it reaches up from the depths of the underworld, dragging the surrounding dead with it. The fencing that borders this disturbing site seems more appropriate in the keeping of something in rather than keeping it out, especially as night falls. As Battista et al state ‘There are those that believe that spirits can gain access to the world of the living via the roots of trees.’[2]. If ever such a claim could be made of a place, it is here. The Hardy Tree certainly appears to offer itself as evidence of such an access point; the roots of the ash physically bound to the bodies and memorials of those who once inhabited the locale, perhaps hinting at a gateway to the ‘otherside’ ? The graves themselves are almost illegible, centuries of exposure to the elements have removed much of the engravings that gave testimony to the dead of St. Pancras; now it is the sheer spectacle of a place in which man and nature reside together, that acts as the signifier for all of the collective memories that are buried amongst its roots.

What is perhaps most striking about the Hardy Tree is this sense of entanglement with nature. Where in the past, trees were the preferred method for commemorating life and death, for marking burial[3], the act became outmoded, giving way to the more viable and perhaps personal use of the headstone. What Hardy offers through his tree of the same namesake, is a return, a return to nature in order to commemorate life and death. Even if such a return was the result of a rather utilitarian approach to land space (the use of the area is if nothing else economical), the result has been something far more affective; the tree has inherited the very memories of the bodies it shelters and is beyond all, a curiosity even within the traditions of burial and place making. It stands as a site where man has quite literally been brought back to the earth and its life cycle.

The ash that stands within the grounds of St. Pancras Old Church is a comportment of man and nature, a bizarre manifestation of London’s haunted past that bears the spirits of both the jumbled dead that lay under and within it, and the life that has continued to spring forth. Here man and nature are eternally bound, inseparable and indistinct, and this is perhaps the most discomforting element of the site, the muddling of peoples and place, as Hardy laments; ‘And each to each exclaims in fear, ‘I know not which I am!’.

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[1] Hardy, T., 1995, ‘The Levelled Churchyard‘ (1882) in Hardy’s Selected Poems, Dover Publishing, USA.

[2] Battista, K., LaBelle, B., Penner, B., Pile, S., Rendell, J., 2005,  ‘Exploring ‘ an area of outstanding natural beauty’: a treasure hunt around King’s Cross, London’, Cultural Geographies,  12, pp.429-462.

[3] Bevan-Jones, R., 2002, The Ancient Yew, Windgather Press, UK.

 

Landscaping Literature

As a bibliophile I find myself defenseless against the power of books. Useless against the allure of the new, I have frequently spent the last of my wages on books and would more than likely do so again, if given half the chance. In many cases books have become a substitute for meals and so whilst the cupboards might be bare, the bookshelves are overflowing. It seems only right then, that some of my favourites should get a mention of their own.

Over the past few years I have been trying to build up a collection of first and rare editions of some of the older texts that I’ve used in the research for my thesis. I felt like I should share some of my more interesting finds here; they aren’t all firsts and some of them aren’t even particularly rare, but each book offers a rich discussion on our engagement with landscape, on nature-culture relations and on the dynamy of place.

I would highly recommend Watkins’ work in particular, to anyone wishing to pursue alternative forms of engaging with the landscape. Watkins’ leylines offer a unique method for walking and seeing the historical environment and as such  throws up a number of interesting questions about how we map and move through our surroundings. Belloc’s The Old Road is, as with Watkins, a exposition of ancient trackways, a sort of speculative, quasi-archaeological account of pilgrim paths, again written within a highly detailed, clearly articulated yet poetic approach that evokes a sense of wonder. I would view Hudson’s writings in much the same way; Hudson offers beautifully descriptive accounts of the English countryside in a very precise yet accessible style. The level of detail present is meticulous. Hudson works his ideas through in highly crafted narratives that leave the reader with a real sense of place. Adopting a style that comfortably straddles the chasm between anthropological study and the new naturalist writings of the early twentieth century, Hudson provides us with a generous topology, replete with sensual encounters, memories and moreover, vitality.

Memory and encounters are two themes that are further explored in the B. Bond and Underwood texts; though these belong to a more arcane genealogy than either Hudson or Watkins, each of the authors posits a link between placial experientialism and a wider topographical knowledge. For Underwood this forms part of a deeper archaeological understanding of Stone Henge through dowsing practices, for B. Bond, though still within the remit of a fringe archeology, the focus is on place based spirits; gaining knowledge of the land through its revenant occupants.

Mabey attempts to pick up where writers such as Hudson left off. Along with Deakin, MacFarlane et al, Mabey narrates across a sort of ruralised (sub)urban landscape where ubiquitous habitus is threaded through naturalist accounts of peripheral wildlife. Together with various other writers of the ilk (Sinclair, Papadimitriou etc), Mabey has developed a ground for the exploration of an urban undercurrent that is premised as much upon marginalized nature as it is the psychogeographic. Not that one would accuse Mabey of wading the same stagnant waters as the psychogeographic crowd, but there is a strong sense of wandering, of the affective nature of these vital enclaves that runs throughout his writing, that same sort of privileged knowledge which pervades the works of those who hold some esoteric understanding of the ‘hidden city’.

Hoskins ponders man’s effects on the development of the English settlement and countryside, examining the archaeological and historical frameworks that support them in what is essentially a cultural history of our landscape.

I have little to say of the Wainwright Sketchbook, other than as with all his works, the sense of a deep love for the place of study permeates each and every page of the text. Wainwright always said that he felt that he belonged in the Lake District and as any of his readers will confirm, there is testimony to this passion to be found in every offering on the Lakes that Alfred Wainwright has given us. This same sense of a deep belonging runs through each of the seventy five illustrated studies of Wainwright’s favourite Yorkshire haunts.

The Texts

1. Guy Underwood, The Pattern of the Past, 1968, Museum Press. 1st Edition.

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2. Alfred Watkins, Early British Trackways: Moats, Mounds, Camps and Sites. A Big Discovery, 1922, Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent and Co. 1st Edition.ImageImage

3.Alfred Watkins, 1948, The Old Straight Track, Methuan and Co. 4th Edition.ImageImage

4. Richard Mabey, 1973, The Unofficial Countryside, Collins. 1st Edition.ImageImage

5. Alfred Wainwright, 1976, A Dales Sketchbook, Westmorldand Gazette. 1st Edition.ImageImage

6. W. G. Hoskins, 1981, The Making of The English Landscape. Hodder and Stoughton.Image

7. W. H. Hudson, 1978, A Shepherd’s Life, Compton Press.Image

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8. W.H. Hudson, 1919, Birds in Town and Village,  J. Dent and Sons. 1st EditionImageImage

9. W.H. Hudson, 1925, Hampshire Days,  J. Dent and Sons. 1st Edition (Second Press)Image

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10. W.H. Hudson, 1924, The Book of a Naturalist,  J. Dent and Sons. 1st Edition.ImageImage

11. W.H. Hudson, 1927, Birds and Man,  Duckworth Press. 1st Issue in New Readers Library Edition.ImageImage

12. W.H. Hudson, 1932, Adventures Among Birds,  Temple Press.Image

13  Hilaire Belloc, 1911, The Old Road, Constable and Co. 1st Edition (2nd Press)Image

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14. Frederick Bligh Bond, 1920, The Gate of Remembrance, Blackwell. 3rd Edition.ImageImage