Tag Archives: land

This land

The first few days back in Gloucestershire, I was disorientated and it felt like being in a dream. Part of that was due to sleep deprivation, which always does odd things to my head. Some weeks on, and the dream like quality remains. Thinking back to my childhood here, that slightly unreal feeling was (I think) present then too. Is that part of this place, or something in me?

Last week I spent an hour at twilight in the church grounds – a peaceful place to sit and contemplate, and to consider the ancestors. This week I did a little digging, marvelling at the richness of the soil, the soft, crumbling fertility of it. People around here grow a lot of fruits and vegetables. After the heavy clay, that I couldn’t persuade to grow anything much, this is an interesting change. A druid girl once commented on the richness of soil in a place we were visiting – how you could almost feed off it. I keep thinking about that comment. Not in an entirely literal way, but what rich soil does to the soul, compared to earth that has been denuded of life, or tarmacked over.

I’m conscious that the pace of life is slower here. Not as much traffic on the roads, not as much push and commerce. It’s not an area that could be called ‘thriving’ – employment opportunities are few, and the amenities you’d take for granted in a bigger place are absent. Sat in the sun yesterday, sewing and breathing, I became aware of the change of tempo, and that it is ok to rest a little. Part of that is more about my personal journey, but some of it is external as well.

I’m wondering just how much the character of the land affects the atmosphere of a place. Obviously, what humans have, or have not built makes a lot of difference, and that’s informed to a degree by the geography – too many steep hills and good farmland here to encourage other developments. Beyond that though, in the character of the soil, in the spirit of a place, can there be serious differences? Do I feel like I’m in a dream here because that is, in part, the nature of this land?

We are affected by what our ancestors of place bequeath to us in terms of their constructions – in some places in the UK, field systems and lanes are several thousand years old. We still have Viking street plans some places… history is very present, with narrow roads made before cars, and struggling with modern traffic. In the West Midlands, the ancestors of place were very much caught up in the industrial revolution, which creates its own legacy, then ongoing industrialisation, slums, new towns, and the falling away of the factories that supported them. In Gloucestershire the changes have been far less radical over time – and the area I’m in does a lot of farming, as it always did. Far fewer people work on the land now though.

I spend a lot of time looking at the landscape, feeling how it affects me, and wondering what on earth possessed me to leave here eleven years ago.

Stories in the Land

There’s a strong relationship between land and story, or at least, there should be. For one, stories happen somewhere, even long, long ago and far, far away is somewhere. Knowing the stories of a landscape you are in enriches the experience of being there, and knowing the landscape enriches the story. From a bardic perspective, this is definitely something to bear in mind. Crafting stories, exploring place and history, and seeking inspiration should all include a sense of land. Everything happens somewhere.

There are stories that exist purely to explain a feature of the land – often supernatural creation stories for notable features. Silbury hill was made by a man who lugged a bag of shoes there as part of a ruse to keep the devil out of Salisbuy. Some stories are born of place names – making Bromsgrove the grave of the giant Brom. Others focus on a feature – as in the story that sitting and Caedr Idris all night will make you into a poet, or a madman. It’s a way of making sense of the world as we find it.

Some land stories come from actual history – battles, heroic ventures, and events that changed things. Bosworth field and Hastings have their stories, and people visit them because of the history. Sometimes those true tales blur into myth. Tintagel becomes part of the Arthur myth, Joseph of Aremathea gets tied up with Glastonbury. We place stories in the land, and in so doing own the myths for our own part of the country. King Arthur crops up just about everywhere in the UK. By placing a story ‘here’ we make it our own. Local history gives colour to where you live, a sense of connection with the past, a way of relating to ancestors of place.

Some tales grow out of misconceptions. There’s a hill near where I am just now, called ‘Smallpox Hill’ because there was an isolation hospital on it. On the side, you can see several distinctive raised mounds. Local legend has it that these are mass graves for all the people who died. More likely these are the remains of early Norman rabbit warrens. People fit features together to make coherent tales.

We make up stories about what we see – I’ve just shown my son how to interpret some of the hills as a pair of sleeping dragons. We’ve done that other places too, improvising our own myths. Where such things catch on, they become part of the narrative of a place.

Modern writers add to the richness of the stories. Kevan Manwaring’s The Long Woman works with the Long Man of Willmington. Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen works with and adds to older myths. Dr Who has a habit of using iconic UK landmarks as settings, adding in an alien twist, making new legends. There are many more such examples. It’s fun. It adds to the story, helps to draw the audience in.

Some places are richer in stories than others. Folklore can be hunted for. If there’s a shortage, new tales can be made to fill in the gaps. I think, in fact, that new tales should be made. If a land is impoverished, storywise, we ought to create new ones. We can also add in our own stories, taken from our families or our own time in a place. Sharing those tales with others is a sweet thing to do. These days people move round a lot, but it is good to go back, to remember, and to tell the tales.

Telling the stories is an honouring of place, and of ancestors, it connects us with the land and lends extra beauty and resonance to our tales.