I’m going to be screening a couple of my favourite televised adaptions from the works of M.R. James in Leytonstone (London) next month. All You Read Is Love have very kindly allowed me to take over their cafe/bookstore/arts space for the evening to show, what I believe to be, the finest two filmic interpretations of James’ ghostly tales. I will also be giving a short introductory talk on the roles of hauntology and landscape in these works, as well as offering a few thoughts on the Jamesian geographies of East Anglia.
Free entry. Doors at 7pm.
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
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!
I’ve been doing a spot of tidying up of my HD recently, having amassed scores of empty and duplicate folders over the course of my PhD. I was rather excited to rediscover a collection of photos of Waverley Abbey ruins that I took back in 2009 whilst conducting ethnographic work with ad hoc ghost hunters. I never used these photos in the thesis, although I think they made appearances in a number of supporting PowerPoint presentations for conference papers at the beginning of my research.
My experience(s) of Waverely Abbey ruins formed the basis for an entire chapter of my thesis and I have many fond memories of chilly nights spent taking audio recordings and shooting photographs in the darkness whilst waiting for paranormal enthusiasts to show up. It seemed like a shame to waste the shots, hence I am sharing the more interesting of them here. For those of you not familiar with the ruins, Waverely sits a few miles outside of Farnham, Surrey (UK). The abbey is free to visit and is accessible 24/7. Having spent about a hundred hours at this site over the last five years, I can highly recommended taking a trip out there (it’s especially atmospheric in the dark). Waverley Abbey is managed my English Heritage and is the first example of a Cistercian abbey in England, dating back to 1128 AD.
“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). 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 a while since my last post, predominantly this has been down to time constraints; chapter deadlines, conference organization, a house move, my job etc etc. But it has also been down to not knowing what to say, or rather how to say it. See, the subject of this entry has been with me for a few weeks now but I couldn’t make my mind up as to how it should be presented, In general I am not a huge fan of photographic essays. A number of works in this vein seem to posit, quite weakly, images as a substitute for text. I didn’t want to produce a tepid interpretation of an engagement with a truly beautiful site. But I also didn’t want to give a huge textual regurgitation from my thesis on the hows and whys of the hauntological and these barges. In any case I have decided that the images are strong enough, maybe not in composition but definitely in content, to speak for themselves with minimum introduction.
And so herein begins my first photographic essay, a visual exploration of London’s urban peripheries and an abandoned fleet of concrete barges that rest there. I include a short introduction.
The site is fairly easily accessible (with a car) and if you have the time it is worth waiting for the tidal movements of the Thames to change so that you see the barges both concealed and revealed by the acrid waters of London’s aqua arterial route. The marshes and the the barges are around a 15 mile drive east of London city centre.
Rainham Marshes lay nestled between London’s Dagenham Dock to the east, and Purfleet to the west, and make up an expansive area of waterside wilderness protected by the RSPB. The barges themselves rest upon a small area of mudflats which is temporarily revealed by the Thames throughout the day. On our arrival, the tide was in and only the tops of a couple or more of the barge hulls could be spotted; grey, brutalist and in keeping with the stark industrial complex of Erith that lay on the opposite embankment of the nature reserve. As the waters shrank away a whole platoon of skeletal concrete remains were revealed, the history of which is equally as ambiguous and spectral as the boats’ strange visual presence. The concrete barges are, according to the local authority’s heritage signage, survivors of the D-Day landing, however there appears to be little evidence of this. Alternative explanations for the boats’ existence have included suppliers of drinking water and or oil to larger sea faring vessels both during and after WWII. The ambiguity surrounding the barges history augments their curious existence and makes for a site of rather bizarre character. It is not merely the cyclical and phantasmagorical revealing and veiling of these objects that makes the place seem so bizarre, but rather a process whereby the occulted history, strange proximity to natural and industrial landscapes and the aesthetic of the very material these barges are constructed from, that leads to a sense that this place is ‘uncanny’, that it is of an almost ghostly quality. Nothing really fits. Nothing makes sense. Why were the barges abandoned here? What was/is their purpose? What happened to the people that built them, sailed them and ultimately abandoned them?The site is strange but it is inviting regardless. The landscape the barges are set upon and within appears unwelcoming, the marshes to the east of the City are perhaps not the most secure or surveilled area of the capital, however they are unquestionably worth a visit. It is a truly hauntological landscape- the solidity of the remains that exist there invite a questioning of the remains that lay absent.
If hauntology can be used to describe the infidelity of the material landscape – it regularly blurs and distorts our sense of history, allows for absences to manifest as presences- then aquascapes like this site might be seen to amplify the process; the movement of water reiterates the rippling of time, moreover it provides us with an smooth and distorted surface. A surface which both reflects the present world and which allows a vision beyond or within it. To perceive the landscape as haunted is to see through the surface, to refuse infatuation with the ‘now’ and to understand the power of a past that can permeate, prevail and preclude a sense of an unshakeable present. Rainham’s concrete barges do this, they do so by existing semi visible and without fixed context. They problematise and question our thinking of the spatial and its temporality. It is perhaps both their hints of a working history in the narrative of war, and of their place within an imagined habitus, that allows the spectral occupants of the marshes to haunt the landscape they dwell upon. It is perhaps the reason that a the barges appear so dislocated, odd considering their anchored nature. I don’t want to say anymore about the site, other than it has to be experienced first hand. The rest is down to the photographs and the barges themselves.