Part One: The Context
I’ve spent the past couple of months preparing a proposal for a PhD project in Geography and Theology at Exeter University; a sort of religious psychogeography with a bit of feminist theology and queer theory thrown in for good measure - and to add extra spice. As part of the research I've been reading Dr John Wylie’s work on Glastonbury, in particular his description of the road from Bristol to Glastonbury and his account of ascending Glastonbury Tor. His visit to South Somerset had two purposes: ‘to explore the possibilities of writing performatively about landscape experiences’ and to suggest ‘a theorisation of landscape in dwelling and temporality’ (Wylie 2003).
My own thesis draws heavily on ‘landscape experiences’, albeit from a religious perspective, and Dr Wylie’s essay has played an important part in shaping my initial ruminations. So, during the purdah between submitting my application and receiving the proverbial green light (the odds are stacked in my favour, according to my potential supervisor), I thought it might be appropriate to indulge in a similar exercise in a not dissimilar landscape, one that exerts a strong hold over my febrile emotions.
|Nerôche from the pastures near Staple Fitzpaine. No matter where I am in south Somerset, Nerôche seems always to loom on the horizon, a brooding presence.|
Nerôche – strictly speaking Castle Nerôche – is a 300 metre-high prominence in the Blackdown Hills that overlooks the girt, lush Taunton Deane and holds its own with the more popular Quantock Hills on the other side of the vale. It is topped by a Norman motte and bailey castle that last saw action during the 12th century Anarchy and is underlain by a thin layer of clay with flints and a thick outcrop of Upper Greensand. The northern scarp is steep in places, heavily wooded towards the summit but a patchwork of pasture lower down where the village of Staple Fitzpaine nestles as if it had been plucked straight from a John Betjeman poem. The southern slopes dip gently towards Ilminster, a cute and capricious market town which boasts two curry houses, both of which require the diner to bring her/his own booze.
Much of the land is owned by the Forestry Commission and Crown Estate and is the focus of the Nerôche Landscape Partnership Scheme and the Liberating the Landscape project. These have been instrumental in restoring the Herepaths, important trade and communication routes between settlements during the ninth century and often referred to as people’s paths.
My first encounter with Nerôche was during the hot and sticky summer of 1988 when, in my previous incarnation, I was delivering parcels across south and west Somerset. Twenty five years ago, almost to the day, but still I can recall my senses working overtime as the trusty red van began the long climb. First through the leafy – and not so leafy – suburbs of Taunton then up, up and away; a sinuous and sensuous journey across a landscape which seemed to peel away another layer each time I pressed the clutch to engage a lower gear. But like a burlesque artiste it was revealing itself provocatively, little by little, and every time it showed a little more flesh I knew it was concealing more than it was exposing.
Twenty five years ago, almost to the day, and I’m still exploring Nerôche’s deep and dark declivities and still it refuses to yield its more intimate secrets. Which is why, in the midst of a very English heatwave, I set out on a labyrinthine walk which I hoped might act as an open sesame and grant me entrance to Nerôche’s esoteric pleasures. And like Dr Wylie, I set out with the intention of recording my emotions.
As is ever the case, the hunter soon became the prey.
John Wylie: Landscape, Performance and Dwelling: a Glastonbury Case Study in Country Visions, Paul Cloke (ed): Pearson 2003
Nerôche, Liberating the Landscape: http://www.nerochescheme.org/index.php