Lying east of Penzance, in the bight of sea between Land’s End and the Lizard, a rocky tidal island rises from the water. Now crowned with a castle rather than an abbey, St Michael’s Mount is the Cornish cousin of its cousin in Brittany, Mont St Michel. The story of how St Michael’s Mount was given and then lost by Mont St-Michel is fascinatingly twisty.
First, there is the question of whether the monastery on the island predated the Conquest. The monks there claimed it did, citing an ancient charter in which Edward the Confessor granted St Michael’s Mount to the Benedictines many years before William arrived in England. The problem with this claim is that the charter is, historians now agree, almost certainly forged. But, if so, it was forged by Norman monks who came over from Mont St-Michel after the Conquest. So why would Norman monks need to prove to Norman lords that they had long had title to a monastery that they might have expected those same Norman lords to give them?
Two answers have been proposed. Firstly, that by proving their ancient title to the land, the community on St Michael’s Mount would free themselves from the play of great lord politics, with its shifting alliances and occasional spectacular falls. With title to their monastery, the monks of St Michael’s Mount would be able to stand back and watch as spectators the clash of ambitions of powerful lords. The other, related, proposal is that the charter was forged as ammunition during a dispute with the Norman lord, Robert de Mortain.
De Mortain was half brother to William (they shared a mother) and one of his key allies. He was a member of the councils that agreed to William’s plan for invasion, he provided 120 ships and he fought at the Battle of Hastings. In return, De Mortain was given Cornwall. There is a charter, with copies surviving in Exeter and Avranches, which gives St Michael’s Mount to the abbey of Mont St-Michel in De Mortain’s name. A later dispute apparently developed between the monks of St Michael’s Mount and De Mortain over the ownership of the manor of Truthwall, and this may have led the monks to assert their ancient and immemorial rights – even if this required a little finessing of the past.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the Hundred Years’ War broke the connection between the houses on either side of the Channel. Henry V made the definitive break in 1414, giving St Michael’s Mount into the keeping of Syon Abbey. The monastery itself was broken by England’s greatest vandal, Henry VIII, when he appropriated the country’s monastic inheritance and the mount became a coastal fortress. It served as such through the centuries – pillboxes mark its most recent defences during World War II – but it is now one of Cornwall’s main tourist destinations, accessible via causeway at low tide, or by boat the rest of the time.
In the dangerous, chaotic centuries after the fall of the western Roman Empire there was safety to be found on the little islands hidden among twisting waterways and shifting channels. No city is as much a product of its geography as Venice. Set on islets and mudbanks in the lagoon, the lagoon is itself sheltered and protected from the Adriatic Sea by a long ribbon of narrow islands, including the Lido and Pellestrina. Cut off from mainland Italy by almost impenetrable marshes, Venice provided both home and refuge, but at a price. For through the Middle Ages and on into the Renaissance, wealth was the product of land ownership: the rich and the powerful were the great landowners. Land produced food and supported men, in particular the soldiers required to cement power. But almost all of Venice was water. The peril for the people who had taken refuge in the lagoon was that they had traded peril for poverty.
With no agricultural hinterland and no natural resources other than fish and salt, the Venetians had no choice but to trade. Which was where their island homes came in: for having to learn the ways of the sea in order to exist, they turned their mastery of ships into their fortune. The Venetians lived by and for trade. Everything was done for the honour and profit of the Republic – and if it came down to a choice, then profit won every time. The Venetians had no choice but to rely on their wit and their skills if they were to earn their living amid the competing, often violent, kingdoms that surrounded the Mediterranean. Such was their success in doing so that other peoples looked on them with amazement and considerable suspicion. But the Venetians did not care, so long as it brought honour and profit to their city.
In 828, two Venetian merchants, Buono of Malamocco and Rustico of Torcello, were in Alexandria doing business. Alexandria had been conquered by Muslim armies and in 828 it was under the control of the Abbasids. Speaking to the priests of the church of St Mark in Alexandria, Buono and Rustico learned that the priests feared for the safety of the relics of the saint that they kept in the church, and indeed their own safety under the Abbasids. Hearing this, the Venetians offered the priests safe passage back to Venice – at the price of bringing the body of St Mark too. The priests agreed and, taking the body from its sarcophagus and replacing it with a less eminent corpse, they put the saint’s remains in a chest, carefully covering the body with a layer of salt pork and cabbage, before loading the chest onto the Venetian ship. Before setting sail, Muslim customs officials came on board to inspect the cargo but, seeing the pork, they recoiled in horror without digging any deeper. Safely out to sea, the saint’s body was taken from the chest and placed in honour on deck, surrounded by thuribles and candles. And so St Mark came to Venice, where he swiftly supplanted the city’s previous patron, St Theodore, in the affection and devotion of Venetians. Mark had arrived by sea and it was to the sea that Venice looked for its fortune; it was a fortuitous, or providential, arrival.
That a walk so near to the heart of London can summon such variety is a wonder, to be ascribed to the fight to save common land, which led to Wimbledon and Putney Commons being protected by Act of Parliament in 1871, and through the creation by Charles I of a deer park away from plague pits of 17th-century London. The walk from Wimbledon tube station up Wimbledon Hill Road to the Common takes the walker past any number of designer fashion outlets and delis, so the Common itself comes as a relief to the booted and anoraked. And what a relief. Despite the name, Wimbledon Common is more wood than heath; walking through it, trees receding into the distance, it is easy to think that you could spend a lifetime walking it and never penetrate its mystery. Maybe that is what inspired the Wombles.
Following the Capital Ring from the western side of the Common takes the walker into Richmond Park which, with its expanse of deer-grazed grasslands and flocks of ring-necked parakeets, seems almost savannah like in contrast to the deep green depths of Wimbledon.
The deer, sufficiently blasé about people to allow walkers to pass quite close to them, are magnificent, particularly in the autumn when the stags carry their full set of antlers. The last part of the walk provides great views over the Thames, a section along the Thames and even more opportunity to window shop high-end designer outlets.
Walk here: Turning right out of Wimbledon station, head up Wimbledon Hill Road and the High Street to first part of Wimbledon Common. Take one of the westerly paths through the common (wood, really) to join the Beverly Brook Walk, then head west on the Capital Ring Walk into Richmond Park. Follow the Capital Ring Walk through and out of the park and on to the Thames Path, then head downstream to Richmond for its tube station.
South-east London is so unregarded that the tube doesn’t go there and the DLR tentatively puts a one-station extension over the river and into the area. But Woolwich Arsenal station allows the walker to connect to a series of dramatic views and unexpected finds, unparalleled elsewhere around London.
Admittedly, the initial stretch doesn’t seem that promising, but once you join the well-signed Green Chain Walk everything changes. Well, it does once you’ve done a bit more urban walking, but that takes you up on to the heights of Shooters Hill (the highest spot in south London at 433 feet/132m), with its glorious vistas of forest and city, and then the even more glorious Oxleas Wood and Meadow, saved from a road being driven through it in the 1990s by a vigorous local campaign.
From there, the Green Chain Walk is green all the way to Thamesmead, passing through the unexpected expanse of East Wickham, quiet Bostall Woods and the even more unexpected remains of medieval Lesnes Abbey, founded in 1178 by Richard de Luci in penance for his part in the murder of Thomas à Beckett.
Then it’s through Thamesmead estates enlivened by the surprising number of horses grazing the council sward and on to the Thames Path, heading west past the site of the sinking of SS Princess Alice in 1865, when the paddle steamer was struck by a collier and cut in half. Over 600 people died, drowned in water thick with the raw sewage pumped into the river just upstream. Cross over the river via the Woolwich Ferry or under it through the white-tiled Woolwich Foot Tunnel for the short walk to King George V DLR station.
Walk here: From Woolwich Arsenal DLR station take Woolwich New Road to the junction with the A205, then turn left, joining the Green Chain Walk. Continue following the Green Chain signs through to Plumstead Common, then follow the signs to Shrewsbury Park and Oxleas Wood. From Oxleas Wood, follow Green Chain signs to Bostall Woods, and then to Lesnes Abbey and finally Thamesmead Riverside. At the river, head west on the Thames Path to Woolwich, crossing the river via ferry or foot tunnel, and then follow signs to King George V DLR station.
It’s easy to forget the dominant role water has played in forming the geography of the Thames Valley; this walk brings that role to the fore, highlighting the rivers, canals and wetlands of the capital. From Uxbridge station the route follows the London Loop/Colne Valley Trail, initially along the towpath of the Grand Union Canal. The Grand Junction Canal, as it was first named, was dug between 1793 and 1805 to connect the Midlands to London and, until the rise of rail and road, it carried huge volumes of goods and from the capital.
Once you pass under the M40 the land opens out, wet and expansive on either side, with a series nature reserves (most with bird hides to sit and view the large numbers of ducks and wildfowl that use the lakes) flanking the canal, and stretches of carr, alder and willow dominated wetland . It’s best to get on to the paths that run along the lakes, rather than following the towpath all the way, to get the best views of birds and water – the fortunate will be rewarded with the electric blue flash of a kingfisher.
A turn up the Hillingdon Trail avoids the valley bottom section of the Colne Valley Trail that goes past a sewage works (stay with the CVT though if you want to see staggering numbers of gulls), and opens up to views over the valley; a landscape formed by water.
Dropping back down to the CVT takes you to Stocker’s Lake, a drowned gravel pit, now home to the largest heronry in Hertfordshire, and just beyond the welcome café looking over Bury Lake. A good place to stop and reflect, with something liquid, on how water has formed our geography and our history, before walking the final short distance to Rickmansworth tube station.
Walk here: Head straight from the station up Bakers Road, then follow the High Street L until it crosses the Grand Union Canal. Head north along the canal, following the London Loop/Colne Valley Trail signs, all the way to where the Hillingdon Trail heads uphill right at the Coy Carp pub. Take the Hillingdon Trail uphill; where it splits, follow the L path to rejoin London Loop/Colne Valley Trail past sewage plant. Continue to Rickmansworth.
This walk wins, hands down, the contest for shortest distance from station to footpath: right from the Charles Holden-designed station, immediate right into the station car park and – shazam! – you’re on the London Loop. No boring walking through suburban streets here; it’s straight into countryside. And what countryside. Trent Park was once part of Enfield Chase, the huge royal hunting forest north of London, and the landscape remains largely unchanged since the days when kings pursued deer through the oak, sweet chestnut and ash woodlands. On one occasion Elizabeth I rode to the Chase with ‘a retinue of twelve ladies in white satin, a hundred and twenty yeomen in green and fifty archers in scarlet boots and yellow caps, each armed with a gilded bow’.
Predating most of the kings is mysterious Camlet Moat, once a fortified manor house and, although nothing remains above ground of the manor, the moat remains, filled with turbid water, the oaks and willows growing on the island invariably festooned with mysterious offerings. The manor was demolished in 1429 but the moat has endured. As to the name and its suggestions of Camelot? Nobody knows.
Following the London Loop past the obelisk, taken from Wrest Park and erected here in 1934 to impress the Duke and Duchess of Kent honeymooning on the estate, the walk dips to Salmons Brook before going past the nurseries and garden centres of Crews Hill to enter Whitewebbs Wood, another relict of Enfield Chase and thus ancient woodland. At the bottom of Flash Lane is an aqueduct that was built in 1820 to shorten the route of the New River into London. The ‘New River’ itself, dug between 1609 and 1613, is a marvel of 17th-century engineering, following the 100-foot contour from the river head springs in Amwell and Chadwell in Hertfordshire to reservoirs in Clerkenwell. Its original, gravity-driven route was 38.75 miles, but pumping stations, initially steam and then electric, allowed the route to be considerably shortened over the centuries.
Leaving Whitewebbs Park, transport enthusiasts might like to head west to Whitewebbs Museum of Transport (www.whitewebbsmuseum.co.uk), housed in one of those Victorian pumping stations, and home to many historic vehicles (open Tuesday and last Sunday of month).
The walk continues across fields and over the M25 via a footbridge which provides excellent views of London’s new skyscrapers before joining the New River – another bridge over the motorway. The river is sealed in concrete, but you can stand on it, looking down at the traffic streaming past, blissfully unaware of the river flowing over head. Take the New River path north, watching for dragonflies and hungry trout; just west Temple Bar, one of the old gates to the City of London, sat for more than a century, forgotten in the field to which it had been moved. However, in 2004, the Wren-designed structure was dismantled and returned to the City; it now sits in Paternoster Square.
Where to eat: The King & Tinker pub (Whitewebbs Lane, Enfield EN2 9HJ, 020 8363 6411). The food can be hit and miss, but the pub dates from the 16th century and the name comes from a ballad telling the story of how King James I became lost while hunting on Enfield Chace and fetched up at the pub, falling into conversation with a tinker who only realised the identity of his drinking partner when the king’s flustered courtiers arrived.
This is the first in a series of four walks starting from the terminal of one of london’s tube lines. Today, we are starting from the end of the Piccadilly Line: Heathrow, Terminal 5.
There is something deliciously subversive about leaving Heathrow on foot. Everyone else is piling into cars or trains or buses, rushing, rushing, rushing, and you are on foot, using the first and most fundamental means of transport (in case you’re worried, it is legal to leave the airport pedestrian style). But it does not take long to get into the Colne Valley Park and the slow realisation, as planes move like noisy silver fish through the sky, that it was water that formed and still fundamentally affects this landscape.
The Colne Valley Way branches off from the King George VI Reservoir and muddily passes land that is slowly returning to carr, as young alder and willow form dense thickets in the permanently wet ground – watch for the mouldering Land Rover, turned glorious russet by rust.
The River Colne, running in the broad valley down to the Thames, is the chief landscape engineer here and it created its masterwork in Staines Moor, an astonishingly tranquil oasis bounded by the M25, the A30 and any number of air routes. Yet stand among its patchwork of meandering rivers and streams, studded with the metre-high mounds of the Yellow Meadow Ant (some of the nests are centuries old), and you are transported to a time when feet were indeed the only mode of transport, and our ancestors walked the land bridge to Britain.
Wraysbury River also runs through Staines Moor, flowing in blue silence alongside the traffic flowing on the motorway; if you have time, explore, watching for the many bird, plant and animal species that live and visit here.
Leaving the moor, a fairly short walk takes you through Staines itself to the Thames. Walking upstream along the Thames Path, TS Eliot’s description of the river – ‘a strong brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable’ – seems incongruous; this is the river of Kenneth Grahame’s imagining, a river of trailing willows and sentry alders beyond the reach of the treacherous tides of the Thames’s lower reaches, a river where ‘there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats’ and where, when the water breathes mist in the early morning, it really would be little surprise to meet the Piper at the gates of dawn.
Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows, lived as a child and again in retirement upstream, and the river, ‘this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal’ was his passion. Mole, emerging from his hole and seeing the river for the first time, is entranced, sitting on the bank ‘while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea’; the walker pacing the miles to Windsor may have little time to sit, but do listen to the river music.
The Edwardian radical John Burns coined the description of the river as ‘liquid history’ (in rejoinder to an American who compared the Thames unfavourably to the Mississippi, Burns said, ‘The St Lawrence is water, the Mississippi is muddy water, but the Thames is liquid history’). Nowhere is this more obvious than at Runnymede, the riverside meadow where King John signed, under pressure, the Great Charter – or Magna Carta – that the king’s will be not arbitrary but bound by law. So ‘no free man shall be taken, imprisoned, outlawed, banished or in anyway destroyed, nor will we proceed against him and prosecute him, except by lawful judgement of his equals and by the law of the land’. Much of England’s later law flows from this charter.
On the hill overlooking Runnymede is the Air Forces Memorial, commemorating and listing the 20,456 air men and women lost during World War II who have no known grave. Also heading uphill, past the John F Kennedy Memorial, the walk passes some of the biggest mansions in the country on Bishopsgate Road before entering Windsor Great Park. The park itself was once a forest, of much greater extent than today, that William I took as hunting grounds for the stronghold he built at Windsor to guard the river. The first written mention of Herne the Hunter associates the horned rider with the forest; in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare writes, ‘There is an old tale goes that Herne the hunter, Sometime a keeper here in Windsor forest, Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight, Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns’. Today, the horns more often belong to the deer that inhabit the enclosed deer park. The Long Walk was laid out by Charles II and has been marked out by elm, oak, horse chestnut and London plane trees. As straight as any runway, the Long Walk makes a fitting end to your own long walk from the 21st-century hustle of Heathrow Airport to the medieval calm of Windsor.
Mountain, sea, forest, desert. Each has its devotees, people who repair to them again and again, forsaking all other temptations. For some it’s the wish to test themselves, for others it’s exploration and the lure of the unknown over the brow of the next hill. For some it’s strictly business, for others it is simple pleasure. For me, it’s mountain, hill and moor, for you it could be something else. But why should this be the case? Why is that these places call us – for it is a call and, notoriously and tragically, a siren call for some.
Anyone who has knocked around with climbers for a while will have a similar story. This is mine. I met Yossi Brain at university and he took me climbing a few times. But what for me was a passing interest became for him the key question of his life. So when he survived a 3,000 metre fall off Mont Blanc he had to decide what was more important – climbing or the journalistic career he had set out upon. The mountains won. Yossi gave up his job, moved to South America and became a mountain guide in the Andes, only to perish a few years later in a stupid little avalanche. His climbing partner on Mont Blanc, who also survived the fall that should have killed them both, predeceased him. In Mike Clarke’s case, an overhanging cornice broke off, fell and snapped his neck. Neither man made it to thirty.
What was it that called them out of the normal and the everyday, through the barriers of exhaustion and discomfort that must needs be endured to climb these sorts of peaks, and took them to their early deaths? According to Aristotle, men desire what is good, at least in their eyes, so where is the good in a pile of rock that is as insensible of your ascent as it is of your death?
Perhaps I can sketch out an answer by first tracing the growth of my own passion, one less lethal than that of my friend, but just as unlikely when I think about it. For as long as I can remember, the woods and rivers, moors and hills of England have been my passion. Yet I grew up, and still live, in a city, as do the vast majority of the population. However, my imagination was primed by childhood reading – The Wind in the Willows, Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine adventures (set in real countryside you can visit the author promised in the foreword to each book) and The Lord of the Rings. Each of these provided a vision of an England unknown and, at least in the case of The Lord of the Rings, unknowable, yet the landscapes they described seemed somehow more real than my world of brick and road and car.
Little did my eight-year-old self know that it was setting off down a well-travelled road. ‘It was in fairy-stories that I first divined… the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine,’ wrote Tolkien and though the tales I read were different, they suffused my imagined England with a secret fire.
We do not see the world with virgin eyes, but rather through a lens that has been ground in the ideas and stories and experiences of generations of our forefathers. Only Adam ever saw the world fresh, and he promptly gave names to everything and changed them forever. But the stories we tell are not static. Mountains were once avoided. They were the haunt of demons and dragons, storm and sudden, unexpected danger. They might provide a temporary refuge for the hunted, and a home for the hunter and the shepherd, but they were generally seen as benighted places. Then, as Romanticism took hold, the mountains became places first of inspiration and then of aspiration. The age of the mountain climber had begun, and it soon produced its heroes and its martyrs.
In the early accounts of mountaineering expeditions there is much talk of conquering and exploring, a language in line with the imperial ethos of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Coming more up to date, the themes tend towards the personal: testing your limits and overcoming them, ideas more appropriate for our narcissistic times. In all this we see our shifting cultural mores reflected and refracted in the heights. A number of writers, notably Robert Macfarlane (Mountains of the Mind) and Simon Schama (Landscape and Memory), have written about how we construct our view of the natural world and their books are eminently worth reading. But they don’t ask, let alone attempt to answer, why we should fall in love with a particular landscape. It was the desert for Wilfred Thesiger and Edward Abbey, the woods for Henry David Thoreau, the sea for Herman Melville and the cold of the far north for Jack London. Simply reeling them off gives part of the answer: many of these men responded to what was there. Melville was a sailor, Thoreau lived in thickly wooded New England and a young Jack London set off to the Klondike Gold Rush – what else were they going to write about?
But for Abbey it was love and there lies the mystery. Yes, this love was in part a product of his reading and his culture, and shaped by it, but the peculiarity of this sort of affair is that it survives the encounter with brutal reality, and in fact is strengthened by it. Through stories and films it’s relatively easy to get a view of mountains or seas or deserts as romantic places of untrammelled freedom, but the experience of the places themselves is different. Days of exhaustion and cold, seasickness, the flattening heat, all of these should serve to correct the romantic ideal. And, for many, they do. A long traverse of an all too exposed sea cliff with Yossi was enough to put me off climbing. Nothing is better calculated to give the lie to the post-modern fantasy of a constructed reality than a mountain. Try deconstructing your way down that, Derrida.
Perhaps a clue as to why different people are attracted to different landscapes lies in the different methods of approaching those places. Mountaineers and climbers go into lonely places, but they do so in groups or pairs. There is a little remarked aspect of community to climbers, as well as the more familiar personal testing against limits of endurance. And extreme experiences undergone together make for the sort of bond not found elsewhere. So part of the answer as to why climbers are drawn to the mountains may lie here, in the shared encounter with the wild and the high.
Compare this to sailors. A sailor may be alone or with a crew, but the most vital part of his voyage is the boat. This is seen most clearly with solo sailors, when a deep and intimate union is created between man and vessel. Sailing becomes as rhythmical as the ocean’s waves, and this rhythm once found can be hard to let go, most famously in the case of Bernard Moitessier, a contestant in the first round the world, solo, non-stop yacht race. Rather than finish the race, he kept on going, sailing in the end almost twice around the world.
Although these attempts to find a cultural or social key to people’s response to the natural world are illuminating, I still get the impression that they miss something. Beyond everything else, there is a vision. And, yes, I know visions are mediated through culture and environment, but there is still something lurking at the heart of our experience of the natural world and producing our response to it that seems to transcend cultures and times as much as it exemplifies them. For, more than anything else, it’s the sense that we’re encountering something real that drives us up mountains and onto moors and over waves of water and sand. And I would like to suggest that at the heart of this is the sacramental or symbolic nature of these landscapes. Now, hold your horses at the back there. This is not necessarily a religious view, for we need to understand what is meant by the sacramental and the symbolic in this view.
A sign is not a symbol. A sign points at whatever it is signifying, but it partakes in nothing of the thing signified – road signs are good examples of this. But a symbol both points beyond itself and, simultaneously, makes present in a real way that towards which it points. So a wolf both symbolises the wild and makes the wild present. But, hang on, the wolf itself isn’t interested in human concepts of the wild – it has no idea that it now howls out of any number of T-shirts, usually next to a wise old Red Indian shaman – so aren’t we just plastering our human ideas over something to which they do not apply? That would be the usual argument nowadays, an argument strongly if unconsciously rooted in the default position of relativistic thinking that our culture assumes, but I think it is wrong. Let’s take an example from an area in which there is little dispute that human concepts are an accurate reflection of what’s out there in the real world: mathematics. There are three beans on a table. The beans both point beyond themselves to the mathematical concept of threeness and also bring that number to the table. The beans are obviously insensible of their numeric properties, yet they have them. Similarly, the wolf is unaware that it is wild, but it is.
Our cultural tendency to assign a reality to numerical values that we do not give to qualitative ideas goes back to the French philosopher, Descartes, who famously declared that he thought, therefore he was. He less famously, but more influentially, went on to argue that only numbers were real, being measurable, whereas the qualities by which we actually experience the world – things like colour, touch, taste – were purely subjective and thus, by implication, unreal. And so we come, by long and tortured philosophical byways, to a culture that is unsure of the reality of anything.
The natural landscapes represent the antithesis to this. They are really real, and perhaps never more so than when they destroy our carefully constructed imaginings amid a welter of storm and heat and wind. Somewhere deep inside we know the difference between the airy imaginings of our mind and the deep reality of things, and mountains and sea, forest and desert bring us more closely into contact with this deep reality than anything else in our world today. As such, it becomes possible to see why people will pursue this vision to the gates of death.
St Augustine once said that there is a God-sized hole in man, and we cannot rest content until that hole is filled. Even a card-carrying atheist could accept that Augustine is on to something here, for it seems to me that we have a thirst for something more, something beyond the walls of our increasingly constricted and trammelled world, and the land and the sea, in all their various moods and modes, give us that something more, for they truly do make present what they point towards. What Yossi saw on the mountain tops was really there, and although it cost him his life, the vision was not a phantasm but something real. He died, but not for a lie.
The dreams and visions that take us out of our everyday homes and lives and into the wild places are the place where our cultural and personal histories encounter a wider reality that stretches beyond any limits known to us. A mountain is not just a hunk of rock and the sea is more than a lot of water, and these perceptions we have of them are true. We should not be embarrassed of them.
This article first appeared in The Great Outdoors magazine. I like it and, to save it from complete obscurity, here it is for my handful of faithful blog readers. I hope you enjoy it! I’ve included some of the photos I took for the article, but my camera failed for the first walk, to the Thames marshes near Fobbing, so I’ve included a couple of Wikipedia images in its place. As a writer who takes photos for articles, my only advice is to get there early to catch the dawn light and, possible in this digital age, take hundreds of shots. Some of them will turn out all right!
In search of England’s lost wildernesses
Confession time. I love mountains, the wild high places this magazine is dedicated to, but it’s the flatlands – marshes, fens, plains, steppes – that fascinate me, exerting a sort of appalled, rubbernecking attraction. There’s something about the way I can walk for hours and then stop and look around and realise that I haven’t got anywhere; how the sun pins the walker to the ground like a sadistic lepidopterist; the way the world itself seems to roll beneath your feet as if each stride is turning the globe.
I would have chalked this all up to personal peculiarity if it had not been for a series of discoveries while writing and researching my books. It turns out that, for almost all our history, the true wildernesses of England, the places people whispered of in fire-lit tales as the refuge of monsters and the haunt of bandits, were not mountains and moors, but marshes and meres. When Alfred the Great fled Guthrum’s surprise attack on Twelfth Night, he made his way through the winter landscape to the ‘fen-fastnesses’ of Athelney, the Isle of Princes, an island surrounded by the shifting waterways of the Somerset Levels. After William the Bastard had cut down Harold at Hastings and harrowed the north, the last defiance against the Normans came out of Fenland. Smugglers and bandits, radicals and revolutionaries have all emerged from or taken refuge in England’s shifting, uncertain wildernesses, disappearing into legend among the rushes and reeds. Today, those seeking escape from civilisation and its discontents head north and west, to where the geology of Britain has largely confined our hills and mountains. But, once, wildness was wet, not high.
So, I set out to explore what remains of England’s lost wildernesses. But, first, I had to find them.
I’m a Londoner: child of immigrants, born and raised in the Great Wen. The city is a creation of the river, the ‘strong brown god … unhonoured, unpropitiated … but waiting, watching, and waiting’, and the Thames marshes were the first lost wilderness I went in search of. The Romans built their bridge at the first bridgeable point of the Thames, joining the gravel pile of Ludgate Hill to the salt marshings of Southwark. Downriver, the river carved brown channels through a flood landscape, until generations of hydro engineers forced it, sullenly, into channels. The gateway to Empire, the Thames became the busiest, richest thoroughfare on earth, a honeypot of sail and steam, with settlements perched upon high, dry ground, all the way to the sea.
The marshes of the Thames
By the village of Fobbing, near the candy-coloured delights of Canvey Island, the land steeps down to a flat, ridged plain, scored with creeks and channels; a five-thousand-acre remnant of the great Thames marshes that walked along the river to the sea. Arriving at dawn just after the longest day of the year, I was greeted with a sight that was slightly less apocalyptic than I’d hoped for. Yes, the sun in its rising stained the river a pleasing shade of crimson, but where were the columns of fire? Last time I’d been this way, the oil refineries by the river were sending up great gouts of flame from ranks of flare stacks, as if greeting the sun in kind. But today, the refineries were cold, lifeless. I learned later that they had gone into receivership; the last shut down in 2013 – apparently even oil mega corporations can go belly up.
Fifteen minutes later I was thoroughly lost. This, I decided, staring at a hugely unhelpful OS map, was ridiculous. I was only just outside the M25, smack in the middle of the most densely populated area of the most densely populated country in Europe (England having overtaken the Low Countries), and I was lost. But lost I was, and as morning mist rose up to cover my legs, and drown any appreciable landmarks in shifting grey, I caught a first, halting sense of the shifting, subtle nature of these places, which are neither land nor water, but phase from one state to the other; as shapes swirled thickly in the mist, I began to catch some of the fear that stalks the accounts of fens and marshes in English tales and legends. But then the shapes resolved into cattle, as surprised to see me as I was to see them, and the rising sun began to burn off the mist.
After so long walking on level ground, the climb back up to Fobbing proved surprisingly difficult for muscles trained into the horizontal. In the village, outside the White Lion pub, I saw a sign commemorating the villagers who had risen in revolt against the imposition of a swingeing poll tax – but this revolt took place in the 1380s, not the 1980s. The people of Fobbing lit the match that set off the Peasants’ Revolt; John Ball, the hedge priest whose sermons (‘when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’) on the injustices of the feudal system provided the spiritual justification for the revolt lived in Norfolk and Essex before moving to Kent; John Wrawe raised the men of Essex and stirred revolution in Cambridgeshire.
As I walked the flatlands and marshlands of England, I found myself also following a trail of religious and political radicalism – it almost seemed that the flatter the landscape the more revolutionary the ideas it spawned.
The island of the marshes
There are few areas flatter than Lincolnshire. This was once the marsh kingdom of Lindsey, one of the small realms that grew up in the post-Roman splintering of Britain, a domain created by its geography for the great fenlands of Cambridgeshire formed its southern limit, and the Humber estuary its northern edge, while the rivers Witham and Trent all but cut it off from the country to the west. Lindsey, ‘the island of Lincoln’, has the cathedral as its peak, but other islands rose from the surrounding seas of marsh and reed, notably the Isle of Axholme. That was where I went next in my search for England’s lost wildernesses.
Trent, the name of one of the two great rivers that drain into the Humber Estuary, comes from the Brythonic word ‘Trisanton’, which means ‘trespasser’. A better description for the river could scarce be found, for it is a wilful, unpredictable water, forever flooding the flatlands around its mouth. The Isle of Axholme was an isolated area of raised ground above the surrounding marshland, and the site of the first great battle over the use and reclamation of fenland. In 1626, King Charles I sold Hatfield Chase, a huge area of peat bog just west of the Isle of Axholme, to a Dutch drainage engineer named Cornelius Vermuyden, who would get to keep for himself one third of the drained land. Only, the king had no authority to sign over the rights of common grazing, which local people depended upon. For where outsiders looked upon Hatfield Chase and saw it as ‘evil in winter, grievous in summer and never good’, the people who made their living around and upon the marshlands understood them well, exploiting them for lush pasture in high summer when other fields were bare, fishing and fowling, harvesting hemp for sails and rope, and cutting peat. But the marshmen were viewed with no less suspicion than their land: ‘Fenmen, disgusting representations of ignorance and indecency!’ They may not have been educated, but the people of Axholme could work out what the drainage ditches Vermuyden was digging through Hatfield Chase meant and they ‘came unto the workmen and beat and terrified them, threatening to kill them, if they would not leave their work’. The Battle for the Bogs had begun.
It continued for the best part of the next three centuries, the rich and powerful gradually nibbling away at the marshland and taking it under their control, until the original 880 square miles of marsh in the Humberhead Levels was reduced to the peat bogs of Thorne Waste and Hatfield Moor, which Fisons continued to strip mine. It was only in 2002 that the remaining peat bogs were saved.
Arriving at dawn, and pausing to take photos, a cloud of insects descended and I was immediately reminded that the first, and greatest, defender of the marsh was the mosquito and the diseases it carried. Ague – malaria – the sweating sickness of marsh and fen had done much to create the miasma of fear that surrounded England’s wildernesses – for after all, a true wilderness must have the potential to kill the visitor.
‘Beware of adders.’ The signs, helpfully posted at intervals, showed there were other possibly lethal inhabitants of the Moor. Sadly, any snake sunning itself in the early morning light heard me long before I saw it, and slid quietly away, but the birds were not nearly so bashful, serenading me throughout in the most full-throated manner I’ve heard outside a rainforest. The patchwork of ponds, bogs, lakes, woods, scrub and stripped clear peat make for as varied a series of habitats as can be found in Britain today.
It was a dislocating place, caught between different places and times, and I, more suspended than most, was held in remembrance of King Edwin of Northumbria, High King of Britain, who fought his final battle here, amid the meres. Thinking of the men slain thirteen hundred years before, I emerged on to the stripped slabs of the Moor, where the industrial scrapers of Fisons and others pared the peat from the land, leaving a landscape that’s as near to the Western Front as anything I’ve seen. Walking out into the wastes, water lying in sheet silver either side of the ridges, I was in as lonely a place as there is in England.
Perhaps the inmates of HMP Lindholme, the double wire, razor-topped fences of which run alongside the western edge of Hatfield Moor, take some solace in the grey green banks of alder and willow that wave beyond the prison’s confines. Walking the perimeter fence is a chastening experience, the metallic clangs from the prison works interpsersing with the occasional siren. But a turn into a glimpsed opening, and I was bathed in green, leaf-filtered light, the skeletal finger of a bog-drowned tree pointing from water to sky. Leaving the moor – in Old English, the word derives from ‘morass’, again showing how our wilderness derives from the wet – I returned to the Isle of Axholme and found that here too, the flatlands had produced a radical re-evaluation of society; for Epworth, a village of the Isle, was the birthplace and early home to John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism. Again, the flatlands were the cradle of radicalism. What would the Fens, greatest of them all, produce?
The Great Level
Driven from Hatfield Chase, bankrupted and imprisoned, Cornelius Vermuyden bounced back. The Fens were the great prize for the land reclaimers, and Vermuyden, with his Dutch expertise, was their chosen champion. But the locals fought back, destroying sluices and breaking dams. Insurrection was in the air, and the commoners found a champion in a local farmer, a ‘Mr Cromwll of Ely’. This farmer ensured that their complaints against the commandeering of the commons was included in the Grand Remonstrance presented to King Charles I in 1641.
But in a betrayal that seems as great as the remonstrance, once the king was beheaded and the farmer had become Lord Protector, Cromwell instigated the draining of the Great Level, engaging the men of his own New Model Army to guard the work parties. Battle continued through the next two centuries, but it was a one-way process. Charles Kingsley, writing in the 19th century, remembered how ‘dark-green alders, and pale-green reeds, stretched for miles round the broad lagoon … high overhead hung, motionless, hawk beyond hawk, buzzard beyond buzzard, kite beyond kite, as far as eye could see … They are all gone now.’
The largest of all England’s wildernesses, the Great Level, which brought down a king and defied a conqueror, was finally bisected and dissected, its life-giving waters drained, in the 19th and 20th centuries. ‘Ah, well, at least … children will live and not die. For it was a hard place to live in, the old Fen.’
It’s not quite all gone. Wicken Fen is the oldest site in the care of the National Trust, some 900 acres of fen, part of which has never been drained. The Trust plans to extend this to 10,000 acres, stretching as far as Cambridge, by the end of the century. I set off to walk from Wicken to the Isle of Ely, Cromwell’s home, following the River Great Ouse. Wicken Fen is a bird watchers’ – and song listeners’ – delight; it resounded with liquid chimmers and churrs. The channels that bisect it would have been easy for the shallow-drafted vessels of the Angles, the Saxons and the Vikings to navigate, enabling them to strike inland, far from the sea.
The river ran north, between over-engineered banks, towards the distant, looming tower of Ely Cathedral. I’d been walking for a while before I realised that the Ouse ran at a higher level than the surrounding fields of carrots and cabbages; it flows between raised embankments for now but should the levee break, the flood would be catastrophic; for the peat of the levels, once drained, has shrunk, lowering the ground surface below river level, below sea level. It was with fantasies of flood running through my imagination that I arrived in Ely and plodded upwards to the exquisite cathedral – our medieval forbears knew better than us how to create an architecture that enhanced a landscape. Cromwell’s old house is now, ignominiously, a tourist office and small museum.
Returning, as twilight fell, along an almost enclosed green lane, a hunting barn owl swooping below the branches nearly flew into me and two playing hares ground to an abrupt halt before making off into the fields.
The Fen was dark when I returned. I, as do we all, enjoy the benefits of modern civilisation but listening to the creak of willow I dreamed of flood, and the return of the waters to the Great Level. In Beowulf, the great Anglo-Saxon epic, the monster Grendel stalks Hrothgar’s hall from his lair in the fens. In England’s national poem, the monster comes from the marsh. I listened, but all I heard was silence.
The writer, George Monbiot, has called for the rewilding of Britain, but he has largely confined this to the hills and jeremiads against sheep, to places far from where we live today. How much more worthwhile would it be to reclaim England’s true lost wildernesses, that mostly lie around and about our centres of population, that we might, once again, have at our doorsteps the great, stinking, shifting levels.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wilderness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.