On a recent visit to Northumberland I climbed a steep hill so that I could gaze down at the little town of Rothbury far below: a huddle of stone houses with a church tower, the Coquet river winding through it on the green valley floor, the grey Simonside Hills rising behind. Seeing the town set amid its surroundings wasn’t just a nice view; it felt more important than that. It let me understand where I was in the landscape, and the experience was both atavistic and strangely moving. I stood there for a long time.
It’s difficult for those of us who live in urban areas – 82% of us now – to get a good sense of the land on which we live. Its contours are obscured by buildings, its marshes drained, its rivers often diverted or sent underground; what we relate to on a day to day basis are its manmade features, the texture of its surface, and not the land beneath.
Travel was once a way to understand topography, but the modern road network often disengages us from it. Most of the time, all that’s visible from a motorway is fast-moving embankment or a half-mile strip of field. On the dashboard, the satnav tells us nothing about the physical characteristics of the land we travel through – only that we are on the right route.
When the poet and essayist Edward Thomas set out to cycle from London to the Quantocks for the book that would become In Pursuit of Spring, published in 1914, he wrote: “I planned to go under the North Downs to Guildford, along the Hog’s Back to Farnham, down the Itchen towards Winchester, over the high lands of the Test to Salisbury; across the Plain to Bradford, over the Mendips to Shepton Mallet, and then under the Mendips to Wells and Glastonbury, along the ridge of the Polden Hills to Bridgwater, and so up to the Quantocks and down to the sea.” It’s hard to imagine describing a route in such topographical terms today.
Of course, many of us walk or cycle for leisure; but with much of Britain off limits there are far fewer opportunities to navigate across country in the way we once did. Apart from a few areas of showcase open countryside we are largely confined to footpaths, and many roads are no longer safe for pedestrians – as I found when I tried to walk up Watling Street.
Beyond the ambit of our daily routes our innate sense of Britain’s features is fading, and generation by generating we are losing our instinctive understanding of the land in which we live. What we are coming to know instead are its roads.
This growing disconnection can be traced through our literature. Born in 1793, John Clare was a poet of total relatedness, of place experienced up close and on foot. When he wrote about a chiffchaff’s nest he did not mean all nests, or the idea of nests. He meant a particular nest in a particular place; a nest that he had seen. His Swordy Well was not a metaphor, but a real place; his dotterel ash trees were actual trees. Like the coach-sick Gilbert White in Selborne, Hampshire, Clare was not looking at his home landscape; he was inside it, looking out.
In “The Flitting”, written in 1832 after moving away from his beloved Helpston, Clare mourned the loss of its particular and profoundly known characteristics:
I miss the heath, its yellow furze,
Molehills and rabbit tracks that lead
Through beesom ling, and teasel burrs
That spread a wilderness indeed;
The woodland oaks and all below
That their white powdered branches shield,
The mossy paths: the very crow
Croaked music in my native fields.
It’s worth noting that he had moved all of three miles away.
For William Cobbett, on one of his “rural rides” in 1825, the type of road you chose when you travelled was beginning to make a difference to how much it told you about the countryside: “Those that travel on turnpike roads know nothing of England,” he wrote.
Kipling’s short story, “They”, was written in 1904, at the dawn of the motoring era. Open to the elements, travelling at less than 25 miles an hour and unfettered by road signs and traffic regulations – or, indeed, traffic – a drive sounds not unlike a morning’s gallop on a good fast horse:
One view called me to another; one hill top to its fellow, half across the county, and since I could answer at no more trouble than the snapping forward of a lever, I let the country flow under my wheels. The orchid-studded flats of the East gave way to the thyme, ilex, and grey grass of the Downs; these again to the rich cornland and fig-trees of the lower coast … I found hidden villages where bees, the only things awake, boomed in 80-foot lindens that overhung grey Norman churches; miraculous brooks diving under stone bridges built for heavier traffic than would ever vex them again.
As well as its striking engagement with landscape there is a heartbreaking innocence to Kipling’s story, a lack of foresight about what cars would eventually do to the places it describes. I find almost unbearably poignant the line, “Stone bridges built for heavier traffic than would ever vex them again”.
I love travelling by train. I love the different kind of looking it lets you do: out across a whole landscape, often; able to comprehend it in a way roads deny you, but with the sudden intimacies of back gardens, or wildlife sightings, too. On the train back from Northumberland I looked out for the halfway marker by the track: an ornate black-and-white sign with one arrow pointing north, to Glasgow, and the other south to London. It grounds you, reminding you that you’re moving through counties, a country, the shape of which is familiar since childhood from maps and the weather forecast.
Trains make me think of WH Auden, and Edward Thomas’s “Adlestrop”, and John Betjeman’s Metroland poems; but most particularly, they make me think of Larkin. “The Whitsun Weddings”, with its pin-sharp “someone running up to bowl” is wonderful, but it’s “Here” that haunts me with the train view’s characteristic mixture of the general and the very particular. Its image of a landscape unfurling beyond the glass is extraordinary, as is the sense of passivity peculiar to train travel: the view “gathers to the surprise of a large town”; we merely regard it through the glass. At the poem’s close the coastal landscape turns its back on us altogether with the deft inversion of “ends the land”: it no longer relates to us, it is no longer even a view, or being viewed – but only itself.
Yet it is the car that dominates our lives, and as time goes on there emerges in our literature a much more detached way of looking at the countryside – one that Clare, I think, would have struggled to recognise. Here is Penelope Lively in The Road to Lichfield, written in 1983. The trip has been planned using a road atlas and one of those little wheeled devices to calculate distance, and so it does have a sense of moving across a map – although the observable features of the landscape are now less clear:
Berkshire gave way to Oxfordshire, Oxfordshire to Warwickshire, and Warwickshire to Staffordshire. A scum of insects gathered at the edge of the windscreen; the landscape lay misty and unreal at either side of the car, the road slicing through fields and villages as though it were of a different dimension, a different order of things. From time to time towns offered themselves on signposts – Daventry 12, Stratford 8, Birmingham 17. They seemed like actors in the wings, and the landscape itself a palimpsest, suggesting another time, another place.
This is a modern road, not one of the old kind that have grown out of the landscape, like drovers’ roads and holloways and lanes that join one village to the next. A “good” road, to the motorist, is fast, reliable and level – so the better it is the less it tells us about the landscapes it cuts through.
The best roads by that measure are motorways, which have generated their own kind of place-writing, often (but not always) dystopian: think of JG Ballard, or Michel Faber’s Under the Skin. Here is Hilary Mantel in the opening chapter of her 2005 novel Beyond Black:
The motorway, its wastes looping London: the margin’s scrub-grass flaring orange in the lights, and the leaves of the poisoned shrubs striped yellow-green like a cantaloupe melon. Four o’clock: light sinking over the orbital road. Teatime in Enfield, night falling on Potters Bar. A sea-green sky: lamps blossoming white. This is marginal land: fields of strung wire, of treadless tyres in ditches, fridges dead on their backs, and starving ponies cropping the mud.
The experience of motorway travel is so widespread it’s no surprise that it’s found its way into the modern novel; what interests me is the way the countryside looks through the windscreen of a fast-moving car: frequently hostile, often blank or lacking in meaning, and remote. In contrast, when Iain Sinclair wanted to write about the M25 and its surrounding landscape, for London Orbital, he made the circuit on foot. The result is a book that’s deeply preoccupied with the topography and meaning of the places the road passes through, something he stresses could not have been achieved from a car:
Driving around the road was useless, as I discovered when I endured 250 miles in a day, with Chris Petit, clockwise and anticlockwise, coming in off my old favourite, the A13 … More was less, further was nowhere. In the morning, after we paid our pound and crossed the Queen Elizabeth Bridge, we dragged, lurched, crawled on a three-lane conveyor belt, side-on to single-occupant, lightweight jacket-on-hook, cellphone voyagers … This, according to one commuter interviewed for a television documentary, was the best of it; the highpoint of the day. Their only contact with the changing seasons, the Surrey hills, canny roadside plantings. With England.
But the picture isn’t simply one of growing disconnection. Air travel has given us startling new perspectives on our surroundings, allowing writers such as JA Baker, for example, to consult wartime aerial photographs of Essex and so describe in his book, Peregrine, the bird’s “pouring-away world of no attachment, a world of wakes and tilting, of sinking planes of land and water”.
And there are imaginative upsides to our new forms of navigation, too. In the journal Elsewhere, the Orcadian writer Amy Liptrot, author of The Outrun, describes her fascination with Google Earth. Sleepless and far from home she uses it to visit Kirkwall, zooming in on one summer morning, the cathedral clock showing 6.50. “There’s a backpacker looking at a paper map, an analogue map within a digital one,” she writes. She even recognises the local traffic warden, James.
John Clare’s biographer, Jonathan Bate, says that Clare was among our subtlest exponents of what Edmund Husserl called “thing-experience”: Dingerfahrung. “Clare’s world horizon was that of the things – the stones, animals, plants and people – that he knew first, and knew best,” Bate writes. “When he went beyond that horizon, he no longer knew what he knew.”
With our cheap flights and satnavs, motorways and virtual mapping, we all exist beyond our world horizons now. Yet for me there’s still no way of understanding a landscape without walking it: without using, as generations have before me, feet and body and breath. To belong somewhere – or to write about it well – we need to step out and seek thing-experience, too.
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