I’m very pleased to have been included in Les Roberts’ special issue of Humanities on the theme of ‘Deep Mapping’. Humanities is an open access journal so you can find the complete article free and available to all.
In 1921 the photographer, antiquarian and amateur archaeologist Alfred Watkins, delivered his newly formed thesis on the origins of ancient alignments in the west of England to the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club of Hereford. Watkins posited a correlation between ancient forts, moats, mounds, churches, trees and place names, which he had shown to produce straight lines running across the landscape. In 1922 Watkins published his first book on the subject, Early British Trackways, mixing amateur archaeology, social history and supposition to introduce what Watkins named “leylines” and setting out the guidelines for other would-be ley hunters. This paper explores Watkins’ ley hunting as a practice of “deep mapping”, examining its use as an applied spatial engagement with the hidden trajectories of the landscape. In addition to providing a concise cultural history of the leyline, with particular reference to the works of Alfred Watkins, this paper develops a critical engagement with ley-walking through an auto-ethnographic response to a leyline that has been mapped and walked in Norfolk, England.
The full article is available for download from the MDPI Humanities page.
Having been lucky enough to catch the last day of the Swanscombe Project exhibition at the Blake Gallery in Gravesend earlier this year, I was inspired to then spend a rather dreary Sunday afternoon traipsing the marshes and former landfill site of Swanscombe, Kent. The Swanscombe Project, headed by photographer Peter Luck, is ‘an encounter between a heterogeneous group of photographers and the processes of redevelopment at the urban periphery’. The group aims to provide an alternative rhetoric of this diverse edgeland, to that being pushed by the developers of the site who are working on creating East London’s first theme park: London Paramount.
(Image courtesy of Google)
Swanscombe itself is a north facing peninsula that creeps out into the Thames from the Kentish bankside. The landscape is marginal; the peninsula is bordered by industry to the south, a river to the North and flanked by marshes and landfill on either side. Access to the site is restricted and seems to depend on the mood of the security guard monitoring the traffic barrier. Weathered signage warning of dog patrols and industrial traffic mark the entrance to the site, obviously aimed at deterring visitors. The periphery is cordoned off with mesh fencing, funnelling all entrants in past the security hut. Beyond the barrier lies a long, unmade road that leads toward the buried landfill and into the site proper. As the road begins to skirt former chalk pits it makes a sudden turn north, opening up a route that takes you past derelict brick structures, chimney stacks and landfill hills.
On walking through the landscape here, the eye is drawn to a gigantic steel-latticed obelisk rising from the marshland, half of the 400kV Thames Crossing. The pylon is one of two that make up the Thames Crossing, the other being well within viewing distance on the Dartford banks of the river. The pair are the tallest pylons in Britain, reaching some 190 meters into the clouds, dominating the landscape with a monstrous beauty. And this is perhaps the most accurate way to describe these structures; cold and utilitarian, stark against the soft grasses and grey skies of the surrounding environment, and yet, the intricacy of the gossamer-like weave of the steel is nothing short of awe-inspiring. And the scale. And the power. The vehement buzz of electricity permeates the air, hairs seem to start standing on end within thirty meters of the pylon.
The surrounding land surface is strewn with fissures, ruptures where the ground can no longer contain the discarded shit buried within it. Historic waste seeps through from the landfill below; 1980s coke cans, Marathon bar wrappers and garish Crisps packets spew from beneath the wild grasses in a metastatic creeping of anachronistic refuse. Everything here feels contaminated. And yet nature prevails. The site is bordered by three marshes; Black Duck, Broadness and Botany, each of which is teaming with shrubs, grasses, wildflowers, bird and insect life. This is the type of space situated within what Richard Mabey would describe as the ‘unofficial countryside’; a place that has its own distinct type of peri-urban (re)wilding. Perhaps not a picnicking destination but no means devoid of its own, idiosyncratic beauty.
As a place, Swanscombe is palimpsestic, its surface is inscribed with the scarring of industry, both contemporary and historical, commercial and residential waste, power lines, human occupation (Broadness moorings harbour a number of ramshackle houseboats and huts), prehistoric habitation (Homo erectus and large mammals) and myriad wildlife. Layer upon layer of history is written into the landscape here, previous variations in both the matter and form of the land offering a unique insight into the biography of this place; brickworks, cement factories, marshland, edgeland. Old Father Thames laps at the banks at the pylon’s feet, abandoning a wealth of drift wood, reeds, plastic bottles, children’s toys, food wrappers, carrier bags, dead birds, trolleys, tyres, footballs, and old clothes. Each item playing but a small part in the oscillating narratives of abandonment and memory that envelope this space.
After visiting the area it becomes all too obvious why those individuals involved with the Swanscombe Project care so deeply for this unique piece of land. The looming construction of the UK’s largest ‘entertainment resort’ will, no doubt, eradicate the existing narratives surrounding Swanscombe; the moorings will be displaced, the wildlife irreparably damaged and the character of the landscape changed forever, though perhaps this is the natural state of the edgeland? Margins have a tendency to blur, to become less defined, and in doing so create new borders, new sites for new experiences. It will be interesting to see what new margins are drawn here, and what new spaces are created from the destruction of Swanscombe.
I’m very pleased to announce my inclusion in a new edited collection on Sacred Mobilities by Avril Maddrell, Alan Terry and Tim Gale of University of the West of England. The essays in this volume cover a number of engaging case studies, ranging from religious pilgrimage to the strategic sacrality of sports. My own chapter focuses on the relationship between mobility, place and material culture in Neo-Pagan ritual, developed from research undertaken during my doctoral studies. The book itself comes out of an RGS session on Sacred Journeys that took place back in 2011.
This really is a very nice collection and I’m exceptionally grateful to the editors for allowing me to be part of the project.
The collaborative project that I am undertaking with artist, Clare Parfree, has just had a proposal accepted for this year’s RGS-IBG Annual Conference, 1st-4th September at the University of Exeter, UK.
We will be taking part in the second of two sessions entitled Investigating the Anthropo-Unseen: Mapping the Paranormal, the Extraordinary and the Unknown, organised by Paul Kingsbury (Simon Fraser University) , Sara MacKian (OU) and Steve Pile (OU)
You can catch us on Thursday 3rd September in Session 4 (16.50 – 18.30)
Conference information and registration details available here.
James Thurgill (London College of Communication, UK)
As interest in the incorporeal qualities of place continues to develop, notions of spectrality and enchantment have become ever more apparent in geographical writings. This paper will argue that a ‘creative toolkit’ is required for exploring the (im)material culture of enchanted geographies, demonstrating the need for a mixed-methodological approach in creating accurate representations of place’s strange and spectral workings. Using our ongoing collaborative research into place and folklore as a basis for this paper, we will identify some of the key physical and sensory methods that can be utilised in an analysis of the unseen elements of enchanted places (ghosts, uncanny resonances, strange affects).
Exploring the case of Chanctonbury Ring, Sussex (UK), a place of significant folkloric tradition (Simpson, 1969), this paper will navigate the complexity of a site that exists as an uneasy composite of the material and the immaterial. Our multi-faceted approach deals with Chanctonbury as a site of strangeness and haunting that demands a ‘deep’ sensory engagement. By positioning the multisensory body at the centre of our research practice, we will provide a platform on which to work with the ‘anthropo-unseen’, unveiling the invisible aspects of place through a collection of auto-drawings, writings, photography and sound.
I drafted this mid-2014 and for some reason never got around to posting it. A recent train journey back to East Anglia led my partner to enquire as to why we should travel ‘so slowly when Norfolk is so flat’, reminding me of the opening passages to Aickman’s ‘Ringing the Changes’. This in turn led me back to this post. I’ve made a few updates so as to keep the writing relevant. There is, without question, a great deal more I could say about Aickman, about his particular type of horror and moreover of the rich sense of geography he evokes in his writings, but I’ve neither the desire nor the urge to create spoilers (for those unfamiliar with the tales) to do so here. Instead I hope that the few words and suggestions that I have put to the page might pique interest and introduce Aickman to a few new readers….
Robert Aickman is a master of British horror. His writings are every bit as disturbing as those of other writers in the genre, in many cases I would say they are more so. What makes Aickman’s work particularly unsettling is that he rarely provides a definite ending; the tales themselves are short but often without a terminal narrative. Rather the reader is left in a continual state of suspense and this itself, I believe, proves far more frightening than the horrors described within the text – this sense that they have been created to endure, even after the tale has been read.
Describing his work as ‘strange stories’, Aickman wrote 48 supernatural tales before his death in 1981, most of which were published within a series of 7 collected works released between 1951 and 1980. Despite the number of works he produced, Aickman has remained relatively unknown, gaining far less notoriety for his writings than the likes of M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Walter de la Mare, Dennis Wheatley and so on. There has been something of a resurgence in Aickman’s writings over the past few years, with notable horror enthusiasts such as Jeremy Dyson and Mark Gatiss bringing attention to Aickman in their own work. Gatiss provides a particularly haunting (and haunted) performance in Dyson’s eerie short film adaption of Aickman’s ‘The Cicerones‘ (2002). Two years prior to ‘The Cicersones’, Dyson and Gatiss had worked together on a radio adaption of Aickman’s ‘Ringing the Changes’ for BBC Radio Four. The adaption isn’t all that easy to track down but I’m aware that there are a few digital versions floating around online and it is definitely worth a listen if you can track one down.
The collected works themselves have been fairly difficult and expensive to get hold of in recent years, cheaper alternatives being available in the form of Fortana’s Book of Great Ghost Stories, which Aickman compiled a good number of. Now however, one need not search so hard to find Aickman’s writings as Faber & Faber began republishing the key titles in June 2014. The first to be printed was Dark Entries, which contains two of my favourite tales; ‘Ringing the Changes’ and ‘The Waiting Room’. The second collection, Cold Hand in Mine, was published in July and boasts ‘The Hospice’ and ‘The Real Road to the Church’ – all the tales are worth reading but these two in particular are most unnerving. Two further collections The Wine-Dark Sea and The Unsettled Dust, published in August and September respectively, complete the Faber Finds series of Aickman’s works. Each of the books is beautifully adorned with updated cover art by Tim McDonagh and echoes the style of Ed Gorey who illustrated some of the original cover’s of Aickman’s works.
As a geographer, what strikes me about Aickman’s work and particularly his construction of the uncanny is his attentiveness to the description of place as well as an emphasising of movement in and between places and times.
Like all forms of storytelling, ghostlore is constructed from a series of key components; characters, dialogue, repetition, setting and so forth. There are of course narratival similarities between many of the ghost stories belonging to the British Isles, however the settings (or rather, the places) that spectral entities frequent are intrinsically linked to spaces of habitus as much as they are to the types of narrative that describe them. Ghosts appear to prefer specific places in which to haunt, notoriously sharing a penchant for stately homes, cross roads, old pubs. ruins, churchyards and various other historical sites.
Davies (2007) describes this ‘geography of haunting’ as being complicit with spaces of liminality, of sites that ‘are on the border or threshold of two defined states of existence’ (p.45). Liminal spaces are those that are imbued with a sense of duality, of binaries, they are spaces that allow for a transgression or moving in and between two states of being. Churchyards are an obvious example of such a site; existing at the thresholds of life and death; decidedly awkward, churchyards act simultaneously as spaces of materiality and immateriality, of fixedness and transcendence, they are out of sorts with landscape and time, both heterotopic and heterochronic (Foucault, 1974).
Indeed, Western ghostlore tends to develop phantoms that are attached to certain places. Though there are some exceptions to the theory of the fixed ghost (some spirits are indeed far more mobile than others, such as that of East Anglia’s Black Shuck), most tales tell of ghosts whom are static, frequenting staircases, bedrooms, hallways and the like. The anchoring of the ghost proves to stricken its sense of spatial autonomy and thus allowing for the haunted to leave the situation, usually at the their own (hastened) speed. Aickman’s spectral entities however are decidedly more mobile. Like the conjurings of James (see A Warning to the Curious, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You), Aickman’s terrifying concoction of the spectral and the mobile creates a ‘geography of haunting’ that works towards an emancipation of the ghost, an unchaining of spirit from place.
As roaming entities, Aickman’s phantasms are capable of moving through landscapes, of following and terrifying the protagonist within a multitude of environs. Such is the case in the ‘The School Friend’ which, like so many of Aickman’s works, is not so much a traditional ghost story but better described by that category of the ‘strange’ which Aickman himself used to talk about his works. ‘The School Friend’ makes use of multiple locations and situations of supernatural terror through which to draw the reader in; moving between homes and hospitals, and indeed room to room within the school friend’s home allows Aickman to develop a sense of mobility that not only creates a ‘geography of haunting’ but allows for multiple locative points through which the hauntings might occur.
‘Ringing the Changes’ is another tale indebted to landscape, specifically that of the East Anglian coast and moreover an emphasis on a movement within it. Making use of traditional rural/urban dichotomies (like those seen in Pinner’s Ritual), Aickman weaves a tale of ritualised horror that depicts a sheltered coastal community committed to an annual ringing of the church bells in order to wake the dead. In just a few pages the plot moves from train line, to platform, to hotel, to beach and back again. Street names, along with descriptions of lighting and sound are all used to give a sense of distance and time in and between places rather than to elaborate on the implied character of the locations themselves.
Both space and time important for Aickman, they allow his particular rendering of the uncanny to function; illustrative of a return of the repressed, an unexpected calling forth of place and time. As such we might view Aickman’s writings as hauntological, necessitating a return and making an all to often ‘other’ present in their absence. Further still, the role of mobility here not only sets up the distance required to dichotomise cosmopolitan/ coastal existence, but further constructs a space through which Aickman’s monstrosities move through, a space of wildness and savage tradition. The dead stalk the landscape, moving from beach through to town; their singing, calling and dancing echoing throughout the streets as they go. Even as day breaks and the tale concludes the reader is left ill-informed as to why the events of the previous evening have even occurred, only in the knowledge that they will again. Aickman’s works are topographically rich, allowing for an almost unrivalled spectral dynamy, where the strange is not so much preternatural but rather part of the landscape itself.
Robert Aickman was born in London, 1914. As well as being a prolific writer of supernatural tales, much of his life was dedicated to the conservation of England’s (then mostly derelict) canal system and he was co-founder of the Inland Waterways Association. Aickman died of poor health in 1981. Further information on Aickman can be found online at Aickman Data as well as in the recently developed journal Aickman Studies
‘Though most people are fond of Chanctonbury Ring, there are also many who feel strongly that it has a ‘cold, evil feeling’, and will point out that ‘no birds ever sing there’. Many refuse to go among the trees or picnic near them, but give no specific stories to account for their impressions.’
– J. Simpson (1969), ‘Legends of Chanctonbury Ring’. Folklore, 80 (2), pp.122-131.
On Sunday 1st February, Rupert Griffiths and I joined Rob Irving for a guided walk around the mytho-archaeological landscape of Avebury, Wiltshire, as part of the ongoing Public Archaeology project that both Rob and Rupert are contributing to. This was the first time I had visited Avebury and I’ve no idea how or why I have avoided going there before but somehow I had managed to. As those of you familiar with Avebury will know, the entire landscape exists as a series of interconnected earthworks and standing stones and is quite simply staggering to behold. Without question, Avebury is unlike any place I have ever been before and for me, it has an unrivalled sense of wonder; it is peculiar even among other meso and neolithic monumental sites, not least because of the sheer scale of its surrounding henge construction – the largest stone circle in Europe.
Rob’s walk of the area was nothing short of epic, especially given the biting winds and borderline freezing temperatures. Nevertheless, our small but dedicated group made the five and half hour trek from the Waggon and Horses in Beckhampton, up to Windmill Hill, through a series of waterlogged meadows leading the way to Avebury village, across marshy borderlands skirting hillside crop fields to meet Silbury Hill and finally onto West Kennet Long Barrow to see the sun set over the West Country. Each of the sites we stopped at was entirely unique, in terms of both the materiality of the place and the affective workings on the body.
Our first stop, Windmill Hill, held a series of small, grass topped burial mounds, the largest of which we ascended to survey the landscape. From the elevation of this grassy knoll we were able to gain vistas over the entire area. Rob, with his wealth of knowledge of this landscape, was able to map out the features of the ridgeway that lay opposite us, pointing out a line of tree-topped barrows that ran along the ridge. It was evident that each visible feature was situated in correspondence with the next, placed within a zone of interaction so that a sort of placial conversation could take place. The barrows on the ridgeway focused their gaze down upon the henge surrounding the village, whilst simultaneously mirroring our own position atop of the burial mounds of Windmill Hill. Rising from below us Silbury Hill formed a central axis, a verdant spindle from which the rest of the landscape appeared to revolve from.
Rob commented on the placement of the ridgeway barrows, pointing out that they had been placed on the slope rather than the summit and in this sense allowed the ancestors to not only look upon their venerators, but forced the venerators to look back at them. This sense of interconnectedness, of being situated within a sort of topological conversation, belonged not only to the physical features of the landscape but also to us; we too had been coerced by our surroundings into both gazing upon and being overlooked by the earthy tombs that lay on the opposite side of the valley. One could easily become enveloped by the ‘deep time’ that ran through this environment, a sacred milieu that remains of enormous importance to those following the old religion(s) that engage to commune with the natural world. We were fortunate enough to visit Avebury on Imbolc, a Gaelic and (now) neo-pagan celebration of the mid point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The village was awash with tethered ribbons and folk adorned in robes and make up, all making a pilgrimage to the ancient stones.
Leaving the village, we followed steps to the top of the henge’s outer ditch bank, turning around to take in the full impact of the immense sarsen columns that created the outer circle. From the peak of the bank we were able to see the remains of the paired standing stones that marked the 1 1/2 mile causeway that led to The Sanctuary, a large circular formation of stone markers that lay at the southern extremity of the village. Briefly stopping to take a few shots of the huge mark-stone couples that formed The Avenue, it was evident just how important mobility was to this landscape. Each site led you to another, forming part of a continuous procession in and between places. One could sympathise with the belief that such movement is symbolic of a traveling between worlds. Indeed, a number of single stones continue to be identified as having mysterious properties attached to them; local folklore tells of encounters with the Devil, increased fertility, of stones moving of their own accord and of disembodied voices, music and shadows emanating from within the stones themselves. Legend is thick in Avebury, it smothers the entire landscape. Its viscosity, if we can speak in such terms, is a result of Avebury’s material presence (the sheer number of standing stones, barrows and mounds) and the extent to which a reasoning behind the placement and purpose of such materials remains largely undetermined, lost to ancient history.
Before entering Avebury, Rob and I had been discussing the largely dismissive attitude that academia has generally taken towards qualitative readings of historical(ly) sacred sites. I made the comment that in fact, of all the academic disciplines, it is Archaeology that has successfully refined the art of ‘storytelling’. Whilst this was said in jest, I do believe there is some truth in the claim. Archaeology works to fill in the blanks that exist between the material fragments of history and the individuals who would once have been attached to them. To this end archaeology works to create and restore narratives, to place things within a storyline that makes sense, historically speaking. I’m aware that this is something of an abstraction but it serves the purpose of questioning why then, archaeology is anymore valid as a means of explicating the past of sacred sites than say, performative art or music? My point is really this; that sensing a place, physically and sensorially engaging with a site, also works to determine a narrative; further uncovering the biography of (a) place. This I believe to particularly hold true of sacred sites.
That ‘legend is thick’ at Avebury, calls for us to not only understand the area historically (through rigorous examination and excavation) but to feel it, to make sense of the links between say the standing stones, the barrows and Silbury Hill, through touch, movement, sight and sound, through becoming immersed in the landscape, by letting it speak to us. I’m aware of a shift in archaeology (as with human geography) towards a more embodied reading of place (Chris Tilley’s excellent A Phenomenology of Landscape springs to mind – a cornerstone text for my PhD) and indeed there has been a sensory and affective turn the humanities in general, but still, it has to be said that spiritual attachments to place, that is those that become the foundation for a ‘deep’ temporo-topological engagement with a site, are still met with much cynicism.
Leaving The Avenue and heading south-eastwards along the A4361, I noticed a tree-topped barrow that marked the edge of the village ramparts. Behind the barrow lay a further two burial mounds (one of which is visible in the image below); all three seemingly in alignment with both the ‘inner’ henge and the mounds situated on Windmill Hill. Viewing the site(s) from this spot reiterated the sense of interconnectedness that the Avebury landscape engendered, demonstrating that these individual sites were supposed to work together, to ‘speak’ to one another through their locative interaction, through a moving in and between them.
Much has already been said about the ongoing desire to mystify this landscape, John Michell referred to the process in his The View Over Atlantis as ‘an aesthetic law which defies formation’. Indeed, the ongoing mystification of the Avebury landscape is heavily reliant on such a process, one that seeks to assert an obscufication of meaning in the strange material forms that adorn the area. This is a view that sees the historical, social and cultural context of this landscape become occulted, hence further necessitating the need to stand within the site so as to commune with it, to discern for one’s self how and what these barrows, mounds and stones exist for.
Moving further along the A road, we took a left, turning onto a footpath that followed the River Kennet southwards towards Silbury Hill. Edging along the side of the river the trees that lined the Kennet’s banks would frequently break, giving views out over the flooded meadowland onto Silbury Hill. Beyond the viridescent agricultural land, Silbury triumphantly rose from flooded marshlands; vast amounts of water had collected at its foot to form something of a moat, an ominous black lake that prevented passage to the slopes of the hill itself from all but one raised crossing point.
Led by Rob, who was still narrating the esoteric history of the landscape as we moved along, our group continued to edge the fields that surrounded Silbury. The closer we came to the hill the more sodden the terrain became. We were forced to clamber over barbed wire fences to avoid the boggy land but this led us to no drier resolution. Gritting our teeth, we marched on, one by one, through the uninviting foot-deep waters of the marsh, stepping on waterlogged tussocks of grass in order to keep just above the thick, mud-covered bottom. Cold, wet and facing a biting wind, one could easily become despondent, but the sight of the hill, now just meters away, and the promise of reaching the burial ground at West Kennet kept everyone motivated. This was hardly an expedition of a saga-like nature but after four or so hours of walking our feet were now soaked, cold and the wind seemed relentless, to me at least. Rob didn’t seem to feel the cold, or perhaps it was just irrelevant to a man who was clearly in his element, trekking ahead to the next stop in the walk.
Leaving the ‘mud flats’, our party joined the relative comfort of the soft verges that followed the A4. From here it was another twenty minutes of walking before we had made our way to the top of a (sprout?) field and reached the final site/sight of the day; West Kennet Long Barrow. Like each of the other places we had visited that day, West Kennet was at once both breath taking and haunting. The construction of this vast Neolithic tomb, some 100 meters long, is believed to date back to around 3600BC, and is situated atop a chalk ridgeway that overlooks Silbury Hill, Avebury and across to the burial mounds at Windmill Hill. Again, one couldn’t help but feel that the placement of this site was designed to allow a space of performance within the landscape, to view and be viewed by the surrounding sacred sites.
Our experiencing of West Kennet was heightened all the more by the fortunate circumstance of having arrived as the sun began to set, allowing an intense orange glow to permeate the glass skylights, melting away the darkness that would otherwise fill the tomb’s chambers. It would be impossible not to feel awe-struck in a situation like this, where natural elements seem to come together to display the otherwise hidden vitality of a site in all its glory. Even as a sceptic, I could see past the problematics of assigning agency to nature here; the true mystery of the Avebury landscape has to be its ability to coerce you into becoming part of it, to look beyond reason and doubt and to prioritise experience alone as the point from which an understanding of place might be found. In doing so we might be no nearer the historical truth behind these mysterious sites that lay strewn across the Wiltshire countryside but the intensity with which such places act upon us, aesthetically and sensorially, demands a unique kind of veneration, one that exists beyond any prescribed spirituality.
Having reached the final point in our walk, we made the trek back down the ridge and along the main road toward Beckhampton from where our journey had begun. Pairs of headlights sped past us through the dusk as we followed the road leading to the village and I think all were glad to soon find themselves in a log fire warmed dining room, lamenting past travels over hot food and decent ale.
Avebury is special, not only because of its continued spiritual significance or site of seemingly unsolved mystery, but because it demands something from us in order to be seen, felt, heard. Each of the sites relates to another in such a way that I have experienced in no other place. This landscape is ancient, obviously so, and a desire to decode or unravel the deep history that surrounds it is surely something felt by all who visit Avebury. But Avebury seems to require more than this, offering trajectories that run in and between its myriad hills, mounds, trackways, standing stones and barrows, so as to invite the walker inwards, to become part of the landscape. As such, Avebury is a place that becomes excavated at ground level, through perambulation in and between its ancient features. To move through this place is to wade through the mires of a landscape saturated in lore and legend, it really is an area that demands to be explored – my only advice, bring your Wellies!