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Thursday, 25 July 2013

Climbing Nerôche: Landscape Experience and Performative Writing (Part One)

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:

Friday, 19 July 2013

Dry County

The thunder had arrived late in the afternoon after a sapping accumulation of cloud and heat. From the moment they lifted their heads from the pillows that morning, the entire population of the City of Wells became aware that only a deluge would shatter the lethargy that had descended upon the town, wash it away with the dust. Moods swung, tempers rose and fell; those inclined to emotional instability sensibly closed the curtains and locked themselves in.
DCI Lefebvre couldn’t work through a storm, even the mere hint of one sent her into paroxysms of delicious anticipation. She was certain that there were fewer storms nowadays than when she was a child, just like snow. But the summers were undoubtedly drier, hotter, so her love of extremes was satisfied. It was a difficult balance to maintain. She would pull up in her car, switch off the engine and gaze lovingly over the bleached, parched fields around Priddy. The rain would change all that, restore fecundity and growth but even she knew it would take a monsoon to make good the soil/moisture deficit. She needed the storm, she could live with the risk, what would be infinitely worse would be the disappointment if it didn’t live up to her expectations. 
María Inés de la Cruz: Ruega por Nosotras Pecadoras (Pray for us Sinners), Libertad 2009 (my translation)
I'd set my class of teenaged English language students an essay entitled 'Party every night, party every day: You only live once so why bother with the tedious and the mundane? Discuss'.
I'd expected - hoped - they'd go along with my irresponsible hedonism but it soon turned out I was in a minority of one. A disturbingly mature sixteen year-old pointed out that if one does, party every night and party every day then the act of partying itself becomes tedious and mundane. Out of the mouths of babes and Italian teenagers; Nicola had a point and deep down inside I know he's right but I can't possibly bring myself to agree with him.
I've been applying Nicola's philiosophy to the current 'heatwave', well aware that at some point, probably sooner rather than later, it's going to come to an end - that is has to come to an end - but that doesn't stop me looking out over the increasingly-waterless Levels with in intensity of emotion that, at times, comes close to sexual ecstacy. And like an insatiable lover I want the heat and the sun to come at me harder, faster until every blade of grass is baked into to a frazzle, a la 1976.
Last weekend, as the mercury rose to heights not witnessed since 2006, I set out on a private pilgrimage to Castle Nerôche, then crossed the Levels from Ilminster to Somerton. More of that journey anon, suffice to say that the heady combination of heat and dust played havoc with my emotions and brought me, on a couple of occasions, quite close to tears. As is my custom, I approached Nerôche via a series of sinuous paths - it's not a hike to be rushed or the spell won't work - and the landscape, wild pasture, ancient woodland and farm buildings crumbling into disuse slowly revealed itself, layer after layer. 
With one black shadow at its feet,
         The house thro' all the level shines,
Close-latticed to the brooding heat,
         And silent in its dusty vines:
A faint-blue ridge upon the right,
     An empty river-bed before,
      And shallows on a distant shore,
In glaring sand and inlets bright.
       But "Aye Mary," made she moan,
            And "Aye Mary," night and morn,
           And "Ah," she sang, "to be all alone, 
          To live forgotten, and love forlorn.
Every time I make this pilgrimage - and it can only be done in high summer - I worry it won't work, that this phantasmal Somerset will fail to materialise and I'll be left walking through the tedious and the mundane; just as worry that one day I worry I'll be waiting outside Las Amazonas and María Inés de la Cruz won't turn up. Each and every time I worry and each and every time my fears are unfounded. So maybe I was right and Nicola was wrong; another victory for sentiment over common sense.

Monday, 1 July 2013


Some of you might recall the short-lived BBC soap opera, El Dorado, which ran for a year in the early 1990s. Set in the fictional town of Los Barcos on the Costa del Sol it purported to portray the lives of British and German expat communities, in all their gory detail. 
Okay, so maybe you don't remember the series; you haven't missed much, suffice to say that expatriate communities often create landscapes which are more country of origin than the country of origin itself. And it doesn't just apply to northern Europeans, it was said of the Arsenal striker Jose Antonio Reyes that walking into his London home was like entering a miniature Spain, or that Chicano communities in Los Angeles immerse themselves in a mexicanidad more mexicana than Mexico itself.
It might take a girt, humungous stretch of the imagination to apply similar theories of cultural or ethno-landscapes to rural Somerset but it was a line of thinking that struck me on a hike across the scarp that overlooks King's Sedge Moor and is capped by the infuriatingly appealing village of High Ham. Under a soft and sultry sun, with the Levels stretching out to the north and west, the brooding bulk of Castle Nerôche and the Blackdown Hills to the south and the ever-visible Glastonbury Tor always on the eastern horizon I walked through a Somerset that was more Somerset than any guide or gazetteer has ever tried to convey.
But Somerset has always seemed different to me, curiously un-English, its red-tiled roofs and blue lias walls reminding me of France and Spain.
It was the orchards that tipped the landscape over the edge and into that Über-Somerset dimension. I should mention here that I have an almost erotic obsession with orchards that may or may not have something to do with visions of prelapsarian landscapes in which a deliciously transgressive Eve defies God and plucks the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. And if you look at it that way, Eve's act becomes one of subversion and rebellion, like sticking a finger up to a pedantic, petulant God. Whenever I walk past an orchard of gnarled trees, bursting with flower or heavy with swollen fruit I think of Eve and the heady pleasure of succumbing to temptation which, in a neat twist of theology, turns her from villain to heroine. 
The Levels shimmered in the heat, beneath my boots the red earth was bone-dry, as if the sun had baked it to a sacred dust. Everywhere I looked was Somerset, every step I took was a step out of the tedious and the mundane and into my imagined Somerset. And like Eve I surrendered, not as a passive, unwilling victim but as an active participant in my own self-sacrifice. I let Somerset into my mind and my body, let her explore every deep and dark declivity; for the briefest of moments I was Somerset and Somerset was me; we tripped out of history into a universe where the sun, heavy with age, had entered into one eclipse too many and where the stars had cut great swathes into the sky with the incessant passage of their weary orbits. 
Somerset was, Somerset is, Somerset always will be.