Thursday, 15 March 2018


I think of the Yorkshire Wolds as my spiritual home, especially those high ridges - often the sites of ancient barrows - where, on a sunny day, you can gaze down and see for miles and feel that you are closer to the sun than those below you.

Icarus of the Wolds

not quite in clouds but nearly there,
looking down across the sun-brushed land.
Not a bird, but hardly still a man.
Is this what death will be like:
a disconnection not completely made;
a time to leave
but wanting just a moment more
to linger?

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Spurn - a view from the edge of the world.

Spurn – a view from the edge of the world.

In so many areas of life, it’s at the edges that things are the most interesting, the most dangerous and, sometimes, the most magical. At the edge of the forest, for example, the increased levels of light that filter through encourage a greater abundance of flora and fauna – both prey and predator. The same thing occurs at field margins, where the rigidly controlled monoculture of a crop breaks free into an anarchic proliferation of wildness, and the cunning fox and mystical hare have their demesnes in the hedgerows. At the edge of society itself exist the poets, artists, seers and rebels (Nietzsche, in Human, All too Human, said that creative vision was the rainbow colours at the edges of human knowledge and imagination); and in that strange place where waking edges into sleep, the conscious and subconscious meet to create a curious medley of impressions on the verge of dreamland. Where the edges of two countries meet is often where alliances are forged – or where catastrophic conflicts begin as patriotism turns into violent jingoism. Even a well-baked cottage pie has the most delicious, crispy morsels at its edge, but only just before they become charred and burned.

Edgelands have never been for the faint-hearted or anyone who prefers a quiet, unexceptional and predictable life. They can be unsettling, lawless, even perilous places where comfortable rules and expected consequences do not apply. This is why many of the truly wild places in Britain are on the coast – the edge of our country where land and sea rage constant battles which, every time, the sea wins. But, even so, the sea can be magnanimous in victory, for it leaves behind, at the highest point of its incursion, a tantalising band of flotsam and jetsam that melds the minutiae and the excesses of the human race with the curious treasures of nature, all of which ‘doth suffer a sea change into something rich and strange’.

The coast of the East Riding of Yorkshire, from Bridlington down to its culmination at Spurn Point, is a raw and often bleak stretch of edgeland, constantly being eroded and changed by the sea. Under the waves there are the remains of numerous villages and towns that are now merely names on old maps: Auburn (coincidentally, also the name of Goldsmith's Deserted Village), Hornsea Burton, Old Kilnsea, Waxhole and many others that are set out in detail in Thomas Sheppard's 1912 book, The Lost Towns of the Yorkshire Coast. It is a piece of local folklore in Hornsea that on the timbers of the steeple of St. Nicholas' church, which was sent crashing down during a storm in 1714, there was the inscription:
"Hornsea steeple, when I first built thee
Thou was 10 miles off Burlington,
10 miles off Beverley, and 10 miles off sea."

There is obviously poetic licence in this as Burlington – the old name for Bridlington -  and Beverley are further than 10 miles away, and the church was certainly not as far from the sea as that, now standing less than a quarter of a mile from the coast.

The cliffs are renowned for being treacherous. It was along this fragile, friable, boulder clay that, in South Riding, Winifred Holtby’s flawed hero, Robert Carne, meets his untimely end as the cliff collapses, burying his horse and throwing him into the sea to drown.

What is washed away from the fragile cliffs may, I’m told, be deposited as far away as The Netherlands, whilst most comes to rest, along with smooth shingle and pebbles of many hues and geological ages from who knows what coast, at Spurn and into the Humber Estuary, around Sunk Island.

Spurn really is like the edge – or even the end – of the world. There is no place like it in the whole of Britain, but although it has had its place in history, few people outside Yorkshire now seem to even know of its existence. It’s a narrow and ever-shifting hook of land, bordered on one side by the unforgiving North Sea and on the other by the estuary and wildlife-rich mudflats of the seemingly placid, but often treacherous, River Humber. Had temperatures been a degree or two cooler at the end of the last ice age, 10,000 years ago, it would still be attached to Europe by what has become to be known as Doggerland.

One person who found Spurn to his taste was Philip Larkin. In a 1964 interview, he described it as being, “…on the edge of things”, adding, “I rather like being on the edge.” In his poem, ‘Here’, he immortalised it in these words, analogous with the end of life itself:

“Ends the land suddenly beyond the beach
Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence:
Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.”
Spurn Point is the title of one of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Six Studies in English Folk Song. It would be nice to imagine that he was inspired by a visit to Spurn during an easterly gale but, in fact, it was based on a song which he collected in Norfolk, The Wreck of the Industry, about a shipwreck which occurred on February 21st 1819 (although the tune is probably better known as that of Lord Franklin).

This disaster was reported in The Hull Packet:

“About seven o’clock on Sunday during a very heavy gale at E.N.E. the Industry, Richard Evans, of Yarmouth, from Leith with potatoes, was driven ashore on the Outer Brinks near Spurn Point, and before midnight fell on her broadside, and the master and crew were all unfortunately drowned.”

What the report doesn’t say is that Spurn had a lifeboat, which was launched and reached the stricken vessel in good time, and could have rescued the entire crew had not the Master sent them away, insisting that the vessel would refloat on the next high tide. As the newspaper report and the song record, it didn’t. The dangers of this coastline are such that, for over two hundred years, the Humber lifeboat has been the only one in the country with a full-time crew. Until 2012 they and their families lived at Spurn Point but now, because of the isolation and problems of being cut off by the sea, it is manned by two crews who work six day shifts.
Spurn was once far better known than it is today. On the seaward side, the town of Ravenspurg (another name for the lost town of Ravenspurn) is where, in Shakespeare’s Richard ll, Act 2, Scene 1, Henry Bolingbroke, setting out to dethrone Richard ll, is expecting his invasion force to land: “…eight tall ships, three thousand men of war, Are making hither with all due expedience”.

Further down was Ravenserodd, an important port well before the rise of Kingston upon Hull. This seems to have originally been a Danish settlement, a precarious toe-hold on this foreign coast. The first part of the word relates to the Danish standard, a raven, and the second portion, “eyr” or “ore”, denotes a narrow strip of land between two waters. Sheppard tells us that, “Ravenser is referred to at least three times in ancient Icelandic literature, in connection with the battle of Stamford Bridge, references to which in the Saxon Chronicle are well-known.” He adds that Olafr, son of Harold Sigurdson, led his fleet from England, setting sail at Hrafnseyri (the raven’s tongue of land), and in the autumn came to Orkney.

Stein Herdisson, an Icelandic poet from the mid-1000s, mentions this:

"The king the swift ships with the flood
Set out, with the autumn approaching,
And sailed from the port called Hrafnseyri.
The boats passed over the broad track
Of the long ships: the sea raging,
The roaring tide was furious round the ships' sides.”

The fourteenth-century Chronica Monasterii de Melsa ('Chronicle of Meaux Abbey') relates that, constantly embattled by the sea:

“…the inundations of the sea and of the Humber had destroyed to the foundations the chapel of Ravenserodd, built in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so that the corpses and bones of the dead there horribly appeared, and the same inundations daily threatened the destruction of the said town.”

The sea, of course, won the battle and Ravenserodd was finally engulfed and destroyed in the mid-1300s. From that time onwards, Spurn’s only permanent human inhabitants were the hardy lifeboat crews and their families, and those who manned the lighthouses. Now that they have gone, and a huge tidal surge in December 2013 left a washover area that is inundated by high tides, making the road down its length impassable except by the 4x4 ‘Safari’ vehicles of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, it is a wilderness once again.

Standing at the end of Spurn, even on a fine day, it’s easy to experience Larkin’s ‘unfenced existence’ at the edge of the world. If you are brave enough to be there in a storm, you may imagine yourself in the fifth circle of Hell itself.

This poem is my abiding impression of Spurn, written – perhaps prophetically – before the surge of 2013.


Firstly, it’s the wind;
an earworm that burrows
deep into the brain.
Here, where the hook of land
catches the relentless tide
and sea collides with shingle,
it’s the wind,
scouring from the east,
that, even above the regular roar
of incessant, crashing waves,
is what remains in memory
a lifetime after leaving.
And in the wind,
sung to the beat of the sea
and shrieking through sharp grasses,
there will always be
The Song:
here on the raven’s beak
the raven’s tongue no longer speaks
broken in the swirling creek
washed and buried fathoms deep
though memories will never sleep
few for ravens ever weep
this land was never for the weak
all weaknesses the sea will seek
the proud inherit not the meek
not the meek not the meek

The name defines the place.
Being strong by ever changing,
Spurn rejects the weak,
showing there is strength in change
and permanence is weakness
when wind and sea and time
conspire against the land -
a salutary reminder
that this land was never made
for weakling man

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Roger Deakin - The Epitome of an English Eccentric.

Roger Deakin - The Epitome of an English Eccentric.

Today is 19th August 2016. It’s exactly 10 years since the untimely death of my old friend, the author, film-maker and environmentalist, Roger Deakin and, while I’m reminiscing, I’m thinking that if I don’t put down on paper my own memories of him they’ll start to fade. A lot has been written about Roger and he sometimes comes across as being a serious and even rather dour person. Not the Roger I knew. He was one of the few genuine eccentrics I have ever met. He had a wonderful sense of humour and a wicked, but never malicious, sense of mischief that endeared him to many – though not, I must admit, to everyone. He really did live life to the full, was massively energetic and always up for a challenge.

We first met in London in 1969 – some time in the summer but I can’t recall exactly when. I was working as a copywriter at a large, American-owned advertising agency called Erwin Wasey, housed in a brutal concrete building across the road from Paddington Station that we had christened The Ministry of Advertising. I was 20-years old: one of the louche, over-indulged, cannabis-fuelled creative brats who inhabited the late 60s London advertising scene – many of us the product of the then-famous Watford Copywriting Course. Our job was creating expensive, eye-catching advertising campaigns for large, wealthy companies.

Mike, the tiny, rather bemused, Italian-American Creative Director who ended every sentence with the word “check”, ushered Roger into the large office where my art director, Greg, and I had sole occupancy since the departure of another creative team for greater things. He introduced him as the new copywriter (“check”) then scurried away to safety. Roger didn’t bat an eyelid when he saw us seated on the floor and seemed to understand immediately when we explained that, since reading Dylan Thomas’ Adventures in the Skin Trade, we had decided to pile all the furniture up to the ceiling in one corner. He just came over, sat down next to us and started happily chatting away in his enthusiastic, slightly-clipped, public school accent.

I took to him right away but I could see from his horrified expression that Greg didn’t like him – and, to be honest, he never really ‘got’ Roger.

It was hardly surprising. Greg was a dapper, but rather defensive and introspective New Yorker of the type seen in the gay comedy film ‘The Boys in the Band’; always beautifully-dressed in expensive clothes from Simpson’s in the Strand where his boyfriend was a fashion designer. Roger was the absolute opposite. His curly brown hair was an unkempt halo around his open face, his Zapata moustache above the enigmatic smile was untrimmed and he was dressed in shabby jeans and an old jumper, topped – as always, for as long as I knew him – by a stained, thigh-length, leather jerkin of the sort worn by dustmen to protect themselves when carrying bins (he later told me that he had bought it for five bob from a fellow stallholder in Portobello Road Market, where he himself, on a Saturday, sold a curious, eclectic melange of odd crockery, restored furniture, and other bizarre bric-a-brac).

Roger and I hit it off as work colleagues and also became firm friends. After work, we’d go out to pubs in the evening, or sit drinking wine with his girlfriend and his cat in his flat just a few minutes away, and he would educate me on the finer points of English literature, as taught to him by Kingsley Amis, his tutor at King’s College, Cambridge. He was still friends with Amis and the only times I ever saw him in a suit and tie in those days was when he was ‘off to the Garrick for lunch with Kingsley’.

Sometimes Roger would disappear for days on end, as often as not driving to France, Spain or somewhere to buy a load of cheap local pottery, beaten-up furniture, 200 Russian sheepskin hats and several boxes of leather ammunition belts from some defunct army, to sell (or not, in the case of the hats and belts) on his stall. In those days nobody seemed to mind – or even notice he was away. Our working days were spent creating ridiculous press and TV campaigns for clients such as Cadbury. The high (or low) point was when we came up with a launch campaign for a dark chocolate bar called Plain Six and, using the pay-off line “So dark, ‘tis almost wicked”, created a series of commercials that were pastiches of Shakespeare plays. To everyone’s astonishment, the client loved it and we were given a huge production budget to shoot three commercials. The question was, who would we get to direct? Roger had one of his usual outrageous brainwaves. Dick Lester! He wanted to use the well-known director of films such as The Knack and The Beatles’ Help to shoot our commercials. “It’s alright”, he assured me, “I do vaguely know Dick. I’m sure I can persuade him”. And persuade him he did. Not only did the great Richard Lester shoot our commercials, but Roger, a budding film maker himself, made of film of the shoot which he then, I believe, sold to the client.

We parted professional company for a while when I was headhunted for more money than I could refuse, to work at Greys, another big agency just off Regent Street. Roger and I continued to meet, but less frequently, until I bought a house in Surrey then quickly sold it for a flat in then-unfashionable Chiswick and other priorities took over. Roger rang me one day to say that he had left Wasey’s and was going to spend more time renovating his derelict farmhouse in Suffolk. We didn’t see each other for several months.

I hated Greys. It was not a ‘creative’ agency and I was told by the Proctor and Gamble client that my campaign for Ariel detergent was ‘facetious’. Then, out of the blue, I got a call from Roger asking me to lunch at a now-defunct Italian restaurant in Soho. Over several bottles of wine he told me he had just been appointed Creative Director of an agency in St. Martin’s Lane called Interlink and he wanted me to go and work for him as a Group Head. When we were back together again, things started to get really silly. The lunatics were in charge of the asylum. Several years later I met the then MD again and he said, with a huge smile, that between us we had practically bankrupted the agency.

Thinking back on what we got up to, I can see why. Roger was a true, practicing socialist (he once insisted that I go and vote in his place for the Labour candidate at a General Election, as he was away at the time). For his creative department, this meant big salaries, well above the going rate, and big Christmas bonuses which we didn’t deserve. The agency had a directors’ and clients’ dining room with its own chef and a well-stocked wine cellar, and he insisted that the creatives took it over for a huge lunch once a month, often inviting one of his many well-known friends including Clement Freud and Dereck Nimmo. Needless to say, we got ridiculously drunk on expensive wine and usually disgraced ourselves in some way (which even now I’m too embarrassed to recount). Roger was never a huge drinker, but the rest of us drank incessantly, often not making it back to work in the afternoon.

Roger and I came up with ever-more ridiculous ideas. One commercial for the Solid Fuel Advisory Service had penguins sat around a roaring fire in a miniature set of a gentleman’s club. Nobody bothered to think that penguins hate heat, and they ran as far away from the fire as possible. In the end, we had to trawl around London buying or hiring every stuffed penguin we could find. In another commercial for the same client, to encourage people to stock up on coal for the winter, we piled hundreds of tons in a massive pile in the garden of a suburban bungalow and took shots from a crane. Of course, Roger insisted on a helicopter as well but, when it hovered above the pile, coal dust was spread across the entire neighbourhood and the poor actor/presenter looked like he had been ‘blacked-up’. Roger also insisted that, to curry favour with the client, we install a huge, modern open fire in the agency reception. Unfortunately, he didn’t get advice on installing a chimney, which proved impossible, so this great white elephant remained unlit.

Every Friday evening, Roger would set off for Suffolk in his beautiful, rare and much-cherished Morgan sports car – always with the hood down and always wearing the inevitable dustman’s jerkin and (still hoping to start a fashion trend and corner the market) one of his unsold Russian hats. Early every Monday he would return, covered in dust, grime, pigeon droppings and god-knows what else. He’d go for a shower in the directors’ bathroom, sometimes don the suit which he always had hung-up behind his door and settle down behind the vintage mahogany desk that he’d insisted on for his office, calling out to his long-suffering secretary to ring round to find the very best price on an Aga or some reclaimed bricks, or to try and track down a decent thatcher. He always returned from Suffolk with wonderful stories about the wildlife and the locals; how he’d slept in the open air, under a polythene sheet or in the inglenook of the roofless farmhouse, which was the only place to get any shelter. Once he told us how he had managed to start his ancient tractor in reverse and knocked down a wall he had just finished building. Another time he turned up with a bottle of water from his moat to get tested to see if it was safe for fish (or, more likely, to swim in). Behind his back, we emptied the bottle and all peed in it. The results of the test bemused him until we ‘fessed up and, of course, he saw the funny side of it.

One sad morning he returned minus the Morgan. When we asked what had happened, he said that he had agreed to lay a reclaimed brick path for top chef, Robert Carrier, at his Hintlesham Hall restaurant. Rather than find a lorry or trailer to cart the bricks, Roger had taken the passenger seat out of the Morgan and used that. Unfortunately, the weight proved too much for the poor car and it collapsed in the middle. Despite sending it off to the Morgan factory at Malvern, the car never ran again.

But it was with the poultry where he became really eccentric. One Monday he turned up with some baby ducklings which he then kept in the agency projection room for a couple of weeks. The mess was unimaginable. Another time he hatched out chicken eggs in a box in his office, under an anglepoise lamp, and they ran riot for a while. His biggest plan, though, was firmly vetoed by the MD. The agency was in the heart of Covent Garden, which was then still a wholesale fruit market, so every morning the streets were covered with discarded fruit and veg. Roger’s plan was to get a pig or two, keep them in one of the garages at the back of the agency, and fatten them up on the waste fruit. Free pork for everyone! One of his brilliant ideas that didn’t come to fruition.

We went our separate ways in 1975. For various reasons I had decided to go to live in South Africa for a while. I was flying out on New Year’s Day 1976 and we met up a couple of days earlier. Little did I know that that would be the last time I’d see him. He went off to live permanently in Suffolk and became an inspirational English teacher for a while. When I came back to England a couple of years later I always meant to get in touch but it wasn’t until I saw that Waterlog had been published that I actually wrote to him and told him what a great piece of writing I thought it was. His typically self-effacing reply was, “Coming from you, Pete, that’s real praise”. We corresponded on and off for the next few years but somehow never got together. I didn’t hear of his death – or even his illness – until late September 2006. A friend at work asked me if I’d heard. I was, quite literally, stunned and it took a few days to sink in.

As I said, Roger was one the few completely natural and unselfconscious eccentrics I’ve known. But a kind and humorous one with no hard edge. My experience of him was long before the publication of Waterlog and his deserved reputation as one of the new generation of nature writers, although, even then, we shared many of the same interests, especially in trees and the works of John Cowper Powys. He not only helped me in my career, he also encouraged me to write poetry and songs. As I was getting off the train back from work a few days after I’d heard he was dead, I looked up at the sky and this poem came, as if from nowhere. When I reached home, ten minutes later, it was complete.

The Swimmer (for Roger)

It was one of those moments when you feel the earth turning.
A three-quarter moon in a clear autumn sky
Brought into my heart a curious yearning
For things that have passed and have yet to pass by;
For friends who have gone and for those still remaining;
While the river of life still winds through the land,
Whose secrets, revealed by the long years’ waning,
Can slip through our fingers or be grasped in our hands.

There’s a feeling that time is not of the essence;
Not a fear of the future or delight in the past,
Just a space that is filled by a friend when his presence,
Is replaced by the pleasure of what he has left.
Now the spirits of the earth rise to embrace the giver
Like the low-lying mist of a soft autumn dawn,
And the swimmer goes down once again to the river,
Where, as sun glints on water, the dream is reborn.

Friday, 17 June 2016


This poem came from reading the extract below:

…I listened to the ancient, familiar, immortal, dear cricket sound under all others, hearing at first some distinct chirps; but when these ceased I was aware of the general earth-song, which my hearing had not heard, amid which these were only taller flowers in a bed, and I wondered if behind or beneath this there was not some other chant yet more universal.

Henry David Thoreau, ‘The Journal 1837 -1861’


Ethereal as emanating mist,
the earth-song is exhaled
by the fundament beneath old trees
where leaves have lain decaying
for a thousand years.
Its melody recalls
the whispering of wind
in forests on a summer night;
its words, the cry of hunting owls
and the winter creaking
of an old oak’s boughs.

No god or man or spirit
could ever make this song.
It was its own creator,
born of a long continuum
between the earth and sky,
and everything that’s lived here
has added its own note:
foxes, moles and badgers
who dig deep into the mould
where man was never buried,
and the subtle hare
who, living overground,
dances in the frosting hoar of March
beneath a smiling moon,
as the song comes seeping gently
from the woods and hedgerows,
through sodden furrows of the plough
and grassy meadowland
that never nurtured corn.

Sunday, 21 February 2016


Wild Days

On these wild days, when leaves
pile up beside the door,
tired earth itself
lets out a heartfelt roar,
as the sun, with corpse-pale face,
is sucked down out of sight
and beneath a windswept veil
extinguishes its light:
the wild days’ wilder night.

The wind does not begrudge the trees
their groaning, sighing song
but, like a martinet, insists
the tune is his alone
which, played on writhing willow
and steadfast, stalwart beech,
becomes an eerie chorus
that builds into a screech:
the wind’s unholy speech.

Vast wreaths of rooks rise from bare trees
and hang upon the sky,
darkening the darkening
while each imperious cry
creates a raucous chorus
that drowns out all dissent
and only the wind can disagree,
express its discontent:
the wild days’ wild lament.

Monday, 14 December 2015


Whinney Hill, taken from Millington Wood.

I'm constantly intrigued by how poems form out of a single word or phrase. This one came from the phrase 'England itself is sacred' in a book I was reading.

England itself is sacred.

Worship in the cathedral of the woods
for England itself is sacred
to those who bow their heads
before the altars of the hills
and make their solemn pilgrimages
to timeless places that exude
the divine and the profane.

Listen to the notes of wind on stones
for England itself is music.
The sound of falling leaves
builds to a crescendo that plays
where hares and foxes dance,
and the timpani of breaking waves
is heard above the still, sad solo
of nature’s faint, lamenting voice.

Read the arcane texts written on the land
for England itself is a manuscript,
a palimpsest
where each successive generation
inscribes its own life’s story
across the face of all the others,
leaving faint, intriguing clues
of what has gone before.

Follow in forgotten footsteps
for England itself is a pathway
taking us to places
where we long or fear to go,
saturated with the tread
of those who went before
and, failing to return,
have reached their journey’s end.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

BEYOND THE PALE. Rewilding Psychogeography.

As a change from poetry, but related to it, here's an article I wrote about that wide-ranging and imprecise activity, psychogeography.

Beyond the Pale.
Rewilding Psychogeography.

Beside an old church in the pretty village of Rudston, in the heart of the Yorkshire Wolds, a vast needle of stone, said to be the tallest single megalithic standing stone in Britain, bursts out from the earth and pierces the broad sky.

For me, this monument, which I have always referred to simply as The Stone, has strangely powerful resonances. Those people who have a more than averagely finely attuned sense of place know particular spots like this which, for reasons either conscious or subconscious, have a deeper psychical and psychological association than their surroundings. It is these that psychogeography is concerned with: discovering those points where each individual – and from that, each different community – engages with intimate aspects of our environment and records the impacts that occur. For the Situationist, Guy Debord, one of the creators of the modern concept of psychogeography, these relationships happen primarily in an urban setting, lately reaching out to the edges of the city with books such as London Orbital  by ’the godfather of psychogeography’, Iain Sinclair, and Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts’ Edgelands. Will Self moved the bar up a few notches when he walked from London to New York and recorded the experience in his Psychogeography. But for me, as a writer who gains most of his inspiration whilst out walking in the countryside, I have always found those profound, acausal connections that seem to hit you in the pit of the stomach, happen beyond the pale of big urban settlements. Looking into the history and developments of psychogeography, however, there are clues that its roots do, in fact, stretch beyond the city limits. Merlin Coverley, in his book, Psychogeography, hints at this when he says, “…as soon as one looks beyond the narrow context that gave rise to it, it becomes apparent that psychogeography is retrospectively supported (or undermined) by earlier traditions and precursors that have been neglected or wilfully obscured.”, adding, “…this sense of an eternal landscape underpinning our own has been termed genius loci or ‘sense of place’, a kind of historical consciousness that exposes the psychic connectivity of landscape…”.

In 1955, Debord, whilst paradoxically admitting to the vagueness of the whole concept of psychogeography, defined it as, ”…the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals…”. It is coincidental that in the year he made this statement, Professor W G Hoskins published his seminal work, The Making of the English Landscape, the first definitive explanation of how our surroundings have developed across the centuries. It reinformed the way we engage with the landscape, both physically and emotionally, inspiring Oliver Rackham’s The History of the Countryside and later Francis Pryor’s The Making of the British Landscape.

I begin with The Stone as a pivotal point not just because of the impact it has on me, but because of its long historical and topographical significance in the landscape where it stands. It is the quintessential landmark, in that it marks an area of land that was of particular importance to those who erected it. It marks a place where man’s own views and burgeoning psychological constructs met and harmonised with raw nature in a very particular way; it marks a time when he began to see and develop the surrounding landscape as a place that was sacred – a place that he adapted to record time itself, not in days, months or years, but in generations, using the resting places of ancestors as way markers for successors. These philosophical themes of time, history and society, which Debord himself tackles in his Society of the Spectacle, and Michel de Certeau, in his 1988 The practice of everyday life, calls "a symbolic order of the unconscious", became an integral and essential part of everyday life and, when viewed with the appropriate receptivity, still resonate across the ages.

To a casual observer, The Stone stands in the churchyard. This is, of course, a misinterpretation because it was erected here three thousand years or more before the church, whose presence ensures that its continuity as a sacred place remains unbroken across time and religious interpretation. On the tops of the rising Wolds that surround it, barrows that hold the bodies of different generations look down upon it and these in turn can also be viewed from it and from the four or five ceremonial cursuses that spread like spokes from the axis of The Stone. The true significance of this place - its real psychogeography - for the people who erected it does not, however, come from land but from water. We are told by those who know such things (such as Mike Williams in his Prehistoric Belief and David Lewis Williams and David Pearce in Inside the Neolithic Mind) that water had a special sacredness for our prehistoric ancestors, and The Stone marks the corner where an itinerant and mysterious stream, known as The Gypsey Race, turns abruptly from flowing due south, to continue its course directly eastwards, towards the sunrise and the mighty North Sea.  This intermittent and irregular watercourse is believed to owe its coming and going to underground reservoirs and it bursts into flood seemingly regardless of recent rainfall. This gives it a magical property which is demonstrated by the number of significant prehistoric sites along its course, of which The Stone is the most prominent. The name Gypsey is derived not from its itinerant nature, but from the old English 'Gypsia', meaning to suddenly spring into life.

So The Stone represents a psychogeographic midpoint between the prehistoric wilderness and the modern world. Go beyond The Stone and you cross a threshold and begin to venture outside the pale of civilisation and ever backwards into the depths of the wilderness itself; not just a physical wilderness, but a subconscious one that only the visionary and the dreamer seek to penetrate. Peter Ackroyd, in his lecture entitled The Englishness of English Literature, suggests that there is a persistent visionary thread of English consciousness and that it is “….possible that within our sensibility and our language there are patterns of continuity and resemblance which have persisted from the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries and perhaps even beyond that.”  Far beyond that, I would suggest. In fact, it stretches back millennia and right into the heart of the landscape even before it was settled. In his New Science, the 18th century Italian theorist, Giambattista Vico, said: “This was the order of human institutions: first the forests after that the huts, then the villages, next the cities, and finally the academies.” And, at the time when we were moving from forests to huts, when our human impact on the landscape was becoming visible and permanent and, instead of being subjugated by the natural world, man was seeking to impose his control upon it, a relationship with our surroundings was developing that was, millennia later, to be reinterpreted by those who had escaped the relentless grip of the academies and the tyranny of logic as psychogeography.


Although its origins go back even before writing itself – back to the prehistoric images, carefully inscribed on the walls of dark caves - the tenets of landscape psychogeography are embedded in a rich legacy of our literature, from Beowulf and Piers Plowman  to the works of P D James and Bill Bryson - not just the ‘nature’ writers such as that perennial wanderer and commentator, Richard Jeffries; the prodigious perambulator, George Borrow; the supertramp poet, W H Davies; and early ecologist, John Stewart Collis, but also the likes of Thomas Hardy, the Romantic Poets, the Bront√ęs, Rudyard Kipling, A E Housman, Laurie Lee, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes -  look on practically any eclectic bookshelf and you’re likely to find evidence of some kind of psychogeographic influence.

It’s through the works of these and a myriad of others that we can understand how people have always engaged psychologically with the landscape and the wildness of the natural world. Henry Thoreau didn’t just go back to nature to live in the Walden woods, he provided a detailed account of his action, thoughts and feelings. Wordsworth did more than tramp across the mountains and fells, he allowed them to sink into his own psyche and re-emerge in the words and phrases that make his poetry so inspiring. Ancient landscapes and their psychic associations to the modern world are inseparably entwined in the prose and poems of Edward Thomas and lying just below the surface of the land and the subconscious in the novels of John Cowper Powys. When his beloved countryside is parcelled up by enclosures and he is denied access to it, John Clare goes mad.

Hoskins starts the first chapter of The Making of the English Landscape by praising William Wordsworth’s Guide through the District of the Lakes, “...for poets make the best topographers…”, thus immediately creating a link between landscape and literature. Hoskins’ book was, in turn, revered by writers such as W H Auden.

Poets probably make the best psychogeographers as well. Wordsworth is a classic example of how the psychological influence of his surroundings was profound and fundamental to his thinking and writing. From his childhood he keenly felt the influence of nature. In The Prelude he writes:
 “…………..for I would walk alone,
          Under the quiet stars, and at that time
          Have felt whate'er there is of power in sound
          To breathe an elevated mood, by form
          Or image unprofaned; and I would stand,
          If the night blackened with a coming storm,
          Beneath some rock, listening to notes that are
          The ghostly language of the ancient earth,
          Or make their dim abode in distant winds.”

This is reiterated, later in life, in Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey:

      “………………….For I have learned
      To look on nature, not as in the hour
      Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes   
      The still, sad music of humanity,
      Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
      To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
      A presence that disturbs me with the joy
      Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
      Of something far more deeply interfused,
      Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
      And the round ocean and the living air,
      And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
      A motion and a spirit, that impels   
      All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
      And rolls through all things.”

The nature writer and poet, Edward Thomas, before he was cut down in the trenches of World War l, found not just the broad landscape but its minutiae enthralling and an antidote to his bouts of chronic depression. In his piece, An Old Wood, published in the collection, One Green Field, he describes the onset of evening:

 “….the rich blue evening comes on and severs me irrevocably from all but the light in the old wood and the ghostly white cow-parsley flowers suspended on uneven stalks. And there, amongst the trees and their shadows, not understood, speaking a forgotten tongue, old dreads and formless awes and fascinations discover themselves and address the comfortable soul, troubling it, recalling to it unremembered years not so long past…”

In Haymaking, echoing Wendell Berry’s claim that, “Nothing exists for its own sake, but for a harmony greater than itself, which includes it.” he brings together the essence of a rural landscape with its timeless combination of the works of man and nature in the quiet way at which he was so adept, transferring the picture in his mind onto the page:

“…………………………………….All was old,
This morning time, with a great age untold,
Older than Clare and Cobbett, Moreland and Crome,
Than, at the field’s far edge, the farmer’s home,
A white house crouched at the foot of a great tree.
Under the heavens that know not what years be
The men, the beasts, the trees, the implements
Uttered even what they will at times far hence –
All of us gone out of the reach of change –
Immortal in a picture of an old grange.”

The environmentalist/writer, Richard Mabey, also used the healing properties of the countryside when depression laid him low. In Nature Cure he explains that:

“Turning down that road less travelled, I can’t any longer duck the questions which have been so unsettling me for the past few months – and in a more general form, I suppose, for much of my life. Where do I belong? What’s my role? How, in social, emotional, ecological terms, do I find a way of fitting?”

The answer is not quite as he expects:

“The idea was to submit to nature, to hope that it would ‘take you out of yourself’…..What healed me, I think, was almost the exact opposite process, a sense of being taken not out of myself but back in, of nature entering me, firing up the wild bits of my imagination.”

Today, as it always has, the psychogeography of the British landscape still exerts a profound influence. Although it has few areas of actual wilderness that are untouched by humans, there are still many wild places in Britain. Ever since the first of our ancestors cut down a tree to build a hut, our destinies have been intertwined. Sometime nature predominates, sometimes man, but ideally there should be a balance. In the preface to his The History of the Countryside, Oliver Rackham says:

“The ordinary landscape of Britain has been made both by the natural world and by human activities, interacting with each other over many centuries. …..In the last century [by this he means the 19th] people (that is, writers) often thought of the country as the world of Nature in contrast to the town. The opposite exaggeration now prevails: that the rural landscape, no less than Trafalgar Square, is merely the result of human design and ambition……In reality the countryside records human default as well as design, and much of it has a life of its own independent of human activity……With many features, such as ponds and hedges, it is still not possible to say where Nature stops and human activity begins.”

Jonathan Bate, when discussing the theories of T W Adorno in his excellent book, The Song of the Earth, sees it in a different way:

“Nature only appears to be not man-made…..Air, trees, rocks, grass, water and so forth exist, but they only become ‘Nature’ when they are mediated by human consciousness, when the subject makes them its objects of attention.”

Martin Heidegger looks at it from yet another perspective:

“What seems natural to us is probably just something familiar in a long tradition that has forgotten the unfamiliar source from which it arose. And yet this unfamiliar source once struck man as strange and caused him to think and to wonder.” 

For novelist John Cowper Powys, it was “…the fatal force of Inanimate Objects over human destiny…” and he illustrates this to great effect when, in A Glastonbury Romance, he spends seven pages describing the effect that Stonehenge and its environs have on the main proponent, John Crow.

All this could as easily be termed phenomenology as psychgeography – as Christopher Tilley does in A Phenomenology of Landscape - but it shows that our psychological relationship with the countryside is as personal and immediate as it is with towns and cities. For urban psychogeographers like Debord it was a movement, practiced by groups who had the same – or at least similar – values and ambitions, often overtly political: Situationists, Lettrists, Surrealists, Unitary Urbanists. Rural pyschogeography is usually more of a solitary pastime. Post Debord – and especially in more recent years – psychogeography, although not necessarily under that name, has been undergoing an exponential and ineluctable spread back into the countryside, with visionary individuals like Richard Mabey; my much-missed friend, Roger Deakin; Robert Macfarlane; Jonathan Bate; George Monbiot and many others at the forefront. These, whether they like the mantle or not, are the new rural psychogeographers and they are encouraging more and more people to reconnect with their landscape in a meaningful way. It is these writers, and those unnamed individuals who engage daily with the countryside in a thoughtful way, who are testament to the words of Heidegger, echoing across the ages:

 “The song still remains which names the land over which it sings.” 


Guy Debord, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, Les Livres Nue, 1955.

Merlin Coverley, Psychogeography, Pocket Essentials, 2010.

W G Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape, Hodder & Stoughton, 1955.

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Black & Red, 1984.

Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, Translator: Steven Rendall, University of California Press, Berkeley 1984.

Peter Ackroyd, The Englishness of English Literature: The Collection. Ed. Thomas Wright. London: Vintage, 2001.

Giambattista Vico, New Science, Penguin, 1999.

William Wordsworth, A Guide through the District of the Lakes, Francis Lincoln, 2004.

William Wordsworth, Complete Works, Delphi Series, 2012.

Edward Thomas, One Green Field, English Journeys, 2009.

Wendell Berry, Standing by Words, North Point, 1983.

Edward Thomas, Collected Poems of Edward Thomas, Faber & Faber, 2011.

Richard Mabey, Nature Cure, Vintage, 2008.

Oliver Rackham, The History of the Countryside, W & N, 2000.

Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth, Picador, 2001.

Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, Translators: John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Blackwell, 1978.

John Cowper Powys, Wood and Stone, Village Press, 1974.

John Cowper Powys, A Glastonbury Romance, Macdonald, 1966.

Christopher Tilley, A Phenomenology of Landscape, Berg, 1994.

Martin Heidegger, Off the Beaten Track, Editor and translator: Julian Young, Cambridge University Press, 2002.