“…and the unshakable feeling that horrors untold awaited, silently, in the place that had risen up before them.”
“…and the unshakable feeling that horrors untold awaited, silently, in the place that had risen up before them.”
Harmonica Yokocho in Kichijōji, located in the west of Tokyo, is a warren of narrow, roof- covered alleyways, hosting a melange of compact shops, bars and restaurants. The Yokocho gives the impression of being halfway between a bazaar and the remnants of an historic ‘Oriental’ arcade. For those travelling from the West and who are in search of that coveted experience of the Japan recorded in the ethnocentric writings of nineteenth century exoticism, this is the sort of place where you might find a version of that. The tapering side streets are densely packed with fortune tellers, bars, restaurants, boutiques, zakka stores, a florist and a fishmongers, though this list is nowhere near exhaustive. The Harmonica Yokocho (or side streets) are so-called due to their arrangement resembling the comb of a mouth organ. Originally built as flea market, legend has it that the alleyways were home to a series of black-market vendors during the early days of the post-war period. Walking the dimly lit streets today, it is easy to see how such a rumour came to be spoken, and there is likely some truth in the tales of clandestine transactions having taken place amongst the shadows here.
There are, of course, a number of obvious entry points available to those wanting to describe Harmonica Yokocho: the proximity of the old, slightly ‘shabby’ looking area appears in contrast to the sleek, ultra modern construction of Kichijōji Station and its attached shopping mall, positioned directly opposite the alley entrances; the idea that this is a genuine taste of ‘old Japan’ or ‘real Japan’, whereby one both becomes and observes ‘the other’; the myth of the black-market providing traces of a less ordered past, complicating the Western view that modern Japan is a tidy, systematic and well-ordered space; and so on and so forth. Such analyses are trite and riddled with the typical prejudices that are set up in all too many explorative writings of Japan. This is not to say that such critiques have no value, rather that as a white, male, westerner, it is difficult to get beyond representations of such encounters with the Japanese, and in many ways it is what has come to be expected: representations of the strange, the exotic, the ‘other’. And whilst there have been significant attempts to reconcile descriptions of the foreign with a sense of the familiar and recognisable quotidian in writings on other parts of the world, it remains that Japan still engenders a state of confusion amongst visitors, one whereby we might point and stare: “How strange they are!”
It is troubling.
Suffice is to say, my approach to the alleyways is, then, something I’m more comfortable with. I walk through Harmonica Yokocho every day, not some days, not the odd day, but every single day. I’ve done this since I arrived in Kichijōji last March. “Why?” you might ask, because it feels like home. Not in the way that I’m reminded of the years l lived in London – these streets do not resemble those around Covent Garden, Spitalifields or Greenwich Market – nor are the alleys reminiscent of those found in Guildford, Northampton or Norwich, of which I became well acquainted in my teens and early twenties. Rather, the feeling I get from negotiating this linear circuit of lanes is one of simultaneous belonging and distance, such that I might be able to just be in this place, becoming lost in the oscillation between familiarity and reservation.
The cries of the elderly fishmongers, a cacophony of crashing pots and hissing pans, call outs from bars, tobacco smoke, the heavy scent of baking bread, neon glare, a warm glow of faux-candlelight emitted from paper lanterns, stale liquor, disinfectant, floral perfume, creeping shadows: each instils a further sense of belonging, one that I can only assume emanates from the sensory multiplicity that is spatial awareness. memory + experience = place. It feels like the alleyways carry with them tiny pieces of all those former sites and situations I’ve once thought of as homely, familiar. The Yokocho are enchanted. Here memories of previous sounds, sights and smells forgo cognitive distillation and work to inflect my present encounter. The shimmering corpses of recently expired fish lay stretched over their ice-filled, polystyrene caskets in a a scene both grotesque and uniquely exciting to observe. The lifeless sea creatures providing a tableau of existence beneath the waves, a static glimpse into their otherwise inaccessible kingdom.
My favourite days as a child started with my mother walking me down to our town’s Friday market. She would pick me up and show me the morning’s ‘catch’, displayed on a narrow slope of ice in the open hatch of the fishmonger’s trailer. I was fascinated by the chart of fish found in British waters (including sharks) that was pinned to the back wall of the mobile store, directly behind the fishmonger – a large, beaming woman with a thick Norfolk accent. If I was especially lucky my mother would buy me a tail of smoked haddock. The substantial woman in white behind the counter patiently waited for me to select my choice of luminous, ocre stained fish. The haddock would be held before me whilst the vendor keenly awaited confirmation. Once I’d given the all clear, the fish would be wrapped in paper and handed over to me in a plastic bag, whereupon I would waste no time at all in removing the paper package and sniffing its contents.
The alley streets are dark, not gloomy but neither are they particularly inviting. They speak to me of ghosts, of those things which manifest (as real or imagined) and that work to manipulate our perception – fleeting moments of familiarity, acquaintance, confusion, disturbance. As a sort of liminal zone on the threshold of present, historic and imagined Tōkyō, the streets could be stripped right from the pages of a novel. They are at once alive and dead, seemingly frenetic, yet turn a corner and you’re all alone. There is a strange air of perseverance here- a feeling that the space and its inhabitants strive to retain and preserve a part of the local community that has existed for generations – like that presented by Natsuhiko Kyogoku in his haunting description of 1950’s Itabashi. Unlike the majority of the city, this unassuming area of Kichijōji has remained untouched by developers since the war, though many of the bars and shops are relatively new arrivals to the market. Wider, more accessible streets demarcate the alley purlieus, giving way to upmarket department stores and illuminated walkways. In this sense, then, we might consider Harmonica Yokocho to be an in-between space, annexed by the less enchanting, envelopment of gentrification that consumes much of Kichijōji and the wider Tōkyō area.
I pass through Harmonica Yokocho not because I want to but rather because I need to. The necessity is not one of material need (although I must confess the bakery is rather good), I can walk around the alleys which would perhaps be less time consuming on many occasions. The need is far more spiritual. I gain a certain satisfaction from moving in and between the alleys, finding new routes in and out of the covered streets, bowing to those shopkeepers familiar with my daily visitation to the market. Moreover, I have an opportunity to submit to nostalgia, to reminisce of a home that is, in reality, a million miles away but one I can feel seeping through these dark narrow streets without any desire to understand why. Home is in these shadows, amongst the ghosts, the shopkeepers and the fortune tellers.
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!
Workshop question: Why embody cities?
Speakers: Dr. Alan Latham (UCL), Prof. Philip De Boeck (K.U. Leuven), Prof. Steve Pile (Open University)
Chair: Prof. Jane Rendell (UCL)
Cities are of course concrete and real and, yet, at the same time they are intangible: they are places of inspiration and myth. For instance, while the city is felt as an embodied experience – we feel its heat, its noise, the resistance of its tarmac – our experience of it is also informed by imaginary elements, by the indefinable and uncanny. This session aims to examine how both embodied experiences and the intangible elements of fantasy, myth, emotion etc. together construct the lived experience of the city dweller and the urban explorer.
I 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.
On 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.
At 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s been quite a while since i last posted anything and the site was in dyer need of an update. I’ve been busy working on completing my PhD over the past few months and with various other demands on my time, including work, I’ve neglected to use this space as I had intended. Anyway, the next few months don’t appear to be any less busy so I am forcing myself to make time and try and get one post out at least every two weeks along with some photos on the wyrd and occluded spaces I come across in my research, as well as more frequents images, sounds and links to events that might be of interest. Other than as a brief update this entry details a strange burial site I came across a few weeks ago – St George’s Gardens. It really is a strange little spot and I will write a more detailed account of the place and uncanny frequencies that resonate within it at some other point, however what is below serves as an introduction and will hopefully direct readers to a rather bizarre though tranquil spot in London’s city centre.
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St. George’s Gardens are formed by a small, walled cemetery in the Bloomsbury area of central London. A stone’s throw from the Kings Cross/ St. Pancras complex, the cemetery is now a public garden maintained by Camden Council. There are many cemetery spaces scattered throughout London, what makes St. George’s stand out is the the alignment of large stones set across the graveyard, diving it into two sections.
Established in 1713, this pair of burial grounds were created to serve the parishes of St. George the Martyr Queen Square and St. George’s Bloomsbury and were the first Anglican burial grounds to be placed away from the churches they were built to serve.
The line dividing line itself is constructed of what appears to be crumbled headstones. Though the area is no longer used for burials, the remaining boundary imparts a sense of strange psychic partitioning, forcing the observer to question the sacrality of either side. The demarcation of the sacred by the alignment brings the politics of both death and consecration under scrutiny – we are used to seeing such elements contained, enclaved by the non sacred, but a division within the sacred space appears quite distinct, with the line of stone itself mirroring the social division between the people of Holborn and those of Camden of who the sides of the grounds represent. The Gardens are worth a visit by anyone visiting the area and are around a 15 minute walk from either Euston, Holborn, Kings Cross or Russell Square stations. There are also plenty of large ivy clad tombs to be seen, numerous gothic style headstones and a single obelisk which along with the stone boundary is a highlight of the gardens.
the spaces in-between
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For more than a decade we – photographer Jason Orton and writer Ken Worpole – have documented the changing landscape and coastline of Essex and East Anglia, particularly its estuaries, islands and urban edgelands. We continue to explore many aspects of contemporary landscape topography, architecture and aesthetics, and in 2013 published our second book, The New English Landscape (Field Station | London, 2013), the second edition of which was published in 2015 and is now out of print.
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