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Sunday, 28 May 2017

Cut loose for the myths of the hinterland: Deep Topography, Deep Catalunya

Oh Lord, thou switherest 

Back-of-a-fag-packet route map

I never really intended to be a pilgrim, it happened by accident or, if one is spiritually inclined, as I am from time to time, by some sort of grand design. Hiking, however, has always been in my blood - my heart has always been in my boots, if you like. 
As has, of course, landscape. Not just landscape as a backdrop; not landscape as a veneer, a thin sheen of skin on which the earth plays out its existence but landscape as a living, breathing substance that pulses through my veins. Landscape as existence, landscape as the be-all and the end-all, landscape as love, life and death.
Ever since my adoelnce reached its 'sensitive' phase (somewhere between winning and losing my first love), my modus perambulare has always been to get under the skin of the land and breathe into it an effervescent and irrepressible life. Had not dreams of rock 'n' roll stardom intervened, I might well have turned out to be a more orthodox geographer and ended up in a local governement planning office churning out an endless stream of well-meaning but ultimately futile documents and strategies. As it was, my first (and not entirely succesful) encounter with academia was through the scholastic mish-mash that was Geography and Landscape Studies.
Once on the periphery, always on the periphery. Circling round, eyeing the lie of the land, wondering what makes it tick. My undergraduate dissertation dealt with landscape and literature in a post-Hardy Wessex and had I been a less louche character I might have followed it up rather than being drawn into the world of soil engineering then spat out into Latin American politics and theology. I am the land, the land is me, receptacles into which the chaos of our lives has been casually tossed, sediments of memory and experience, good and bad, as volatile as magma, as brittle as slate. 
I was never taught that, not at school, not the sixth form nor the Institute of Higher Education where my pathetic flush of A levels led me; it was something I had to learn. That landscape was a messy business that coudn't be crammed and shoe-horned into the dreaded geographical models so beloved of the structuralist. Do you know what? Thirty years later I'm still fighting to persuade my impressionable, adolescent students that geography really isn't as dull as ditchwater or taught by bearded men sporting Hush-Puppies and elbow patches. 
John Wylie writes of the landscape as tension: 'a tension between proximity and distance, body and mind, sensuous immersion and detached observation' (2007:1). Since inadvertently becoming a pilgrim junkie I've been feeling a similar conflict, torn between the lure of following - perhaps unthinkingly and unimaginatively - a clearly defined and signposted trajectory and following my nose and the contours on the map. Pilgrimage and/or thru-hiking is all very well, and the glamour boosts my ego (student: 'how far are you walking this summer, Sian?' Tutor: 'one thousand two hundred of my European kilometres').
So the plan was to fulfil a long-held desire (well, since 2013) and walk from the Mediterranean coast of Spain to the Atlantic, via Santiago and the Via de la Plata from Sevilla. But even as I was planning the route I slipped in a sneaky week-long introductory pedestrian excursion through the foothills of the Catalan Pyrenees - the Pre-Pyrenees, as if that was where I felt I really belonged.
Then matters of the heart intervened (the landscape isn't immune to the slings and arrows of love) and I ditched the linear for the circular (ish); I wanted to explore that hinterland where Catalunya meets the mountains, the not-quite-elite landscape frequently overshadowed by the grandiose, snow-clad peaks to the north. 

I take as my template the deep topography of Nick Papadimitriou's wonderful psychogeographical explorations of the 'uplands' of south Hertfordshire and north Middlesex; the foothills of the Chilterns, if you like. It's a landscape I know well, from various sojourns in the Home counties, and one which Nick Papadimitriou brings to life in a manner which reminds me of the final pages of Gabriel Garcia's One Hundred Years of Solitude - a sort of psychogeographical and suburban magic realism.

Hinterlands, not forgotten lands. The landscape that gets ignored and left behind, the landscape that is perceived as a means to an end rather than an end in istself. The landscape through which the masses scamper in their desperation to reach the mountains or the sea. Deep in the hinterland I dwell, have done ever since I was an adolescent. In Weymouth I eschewed the beach for the allure of the mysterious intricacies of the backstreets around which I wove my own dreams, like a teenaged John Cowper Powys. In Dorset I deviated from the coast path for the layers of chalk and clay that lay behind, and the sensuous sinuosity of the River Frome as it meanders its way languidly towards the sea. 
I fell out of love with England a long, long time ago but its landscape still exerted a magical pull. Until 23 June 2016. I was in Catalunya when the British voted to leave the EU and I returned a furious rebel and saboteur. A couple of weeks later I was back in France, trekking towards Spain the Pyrenees on the Camino but in the intervening period I ventured out, tentatively, onto the Blackdown Hills. I wanted the landscape to work, for it and I to click, if only for old times' sake, but there was nothing. Nada. Rien.
So once again I turn my wrinkled features and fading locks to my homelands. In Catalunya, I think - perhaps delusionally - that I might have found my space, in its physical and cultural hinterlands. Neither one or the another, a place apart, detached but not severed. 
I am the land, the land is me. Or is there more to it than that?