Interview with Philip Marsden
To what extent did your relationship with your house Ardevora produce the idea for Rising Ground?
Moving house was certainly the stimulus for the book. Finding the house, doing it up, uncovering its past and the natural world around it dominated my life for a while – still does, to an extent. That story begins the book and unfolds through it but really it is just the route into an idea that I’ve had hovering around for years and which found expression through it – the idea of place, the love of place and its significance over the centuries.
What do you mean by the ‘idea of place’?
It’s a very obvious and familiar idea but also one whose larger importance we tend to overlook. Anyone who’s ever arrived somewhere or reached a certain place on a walk, or returned to an old haunt and been struck by its sudden and powerful presence will know what I mean. In part it is about landscape and the building of tradition – a particular combination of hills and slopes that has produced the same response over the years, generating stories and associations – a site like Glastonbury or Tintagel. Those stories then feed back into the place itself, adding to its mythology and its resonance. I find it extraordinary that something as apparently inanimate as the shape of the ground has that capacity.
But it’s also something more personal. If I look back over the subjects I’ve immersed myself in, the far-off regions I’ve wandered through and written about, they’re all places that have that effect. And I’m certainly not alone in having been shaped by moments of joy as a child and young adult – moments that appear to spring from nowhere, but more often than not are associated with particular places.
The book is structured around a walk westwards through Cornwall. Why did you choose that form?
For me, Cornwall is the place that has always had a peculiar draw. From visiting for family holidays in the ‘60s and ‘70s to spending winters there between travels in the 1990s, it has punctuated my life. No surprise that it’s where I’ve ended up living. It’s one of those places whose physical nature – its rocky landscapes, its sea-surrounded shape – is a constant presence. It also contains – and this is no coincidence – a mass of local stories, traditions and beliefs tied up with particular features in the land.
Walking of course offers the best chance of being surprised by place. The route I followed revealed a side of Cornwall – several sides – I’d never seen before. The shape of the peninsula also seems to invite a westward course – as the land narrows, and the ocean takes over, so the sense of reality seems to alter. That tapering has created its own traditions, as I discovered.
But the journey is not so much about Cornwall as about places in Cornwall - and through them to themes that relate to all places - using the very local to illustrate the universal. That in itself is one of the central themes – how in traditional societies, where people knew only that part of the world they could see, or that they could walk to in a day, the land itself took on abstract and ritual significance, something the geographer Yi-fu Tuan termed ‘vertical’ perception.
We have had some great chroniclers of our landscape over the centuries: Geoffrey of Monmouth and John Leland wrote about Britain as a place, and Cornwall has also had its own champions such as John Whitaker and Charles Henderson. What is their legacy?
Those four names you mention neatly embrace the development of British topography and landscape history over the last nine hundred years. Go to the beginning of Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Britanniae – whose influence on the idea of Britain endured for centuries – and you find a paean to the island as a place, a locus amoenus. John Leland was the first to bring the physical nature of Britain out of its medieval haze with a glorious survey of its by-ways and bridges, its hills and towns. John Whitaker was a late eighteenth century antiquarian who combined a bluff and eccentric personality with pioneering landscape history. The great Charles Henderson was driven by a love of place. He recalled that although as a seven-year-old his chosen hobby was collecting postmarks, it was really just an excuse to bicycle to the most obscure of Cornwall’s post offices. His brief and brilliant career illustrated an idea that gained pace through the twentieth century, and found its greatest exponent decades later with WG Hoskin’s The Making of the English Landscape: that the past can be revealed by peeling back layers of landscape.
And was your mission in this book the same as theirs?
There’s certainly an overlap in motivation. But one of the exciting things about the research was the growing awareness that attitudes to place, the mythologising of particular features in the landscape, constitute one of the principal cultural indicators of the last seven thousand years. I thought it might be possible to weave a chronology of those attitudes to examine what has changed in them – and what has not. For instance, many archaeologists now interpret Neolithic monuments – stone circles, standing stones etc. – in terms of where they are. It has been shown that these stone arrangements – some of the earliest examples of ritual expression – often refer to a certain hill or natural feature. So our renewed interest in landscape chimes with the reverence felt by our ancestors five thousand years ago. It is wonderful to think that the thrill for us of walking towards Rough Tor on Bodmin Moor might have been the same thrill felt by individuals in the Neolithic.
How does ritual and religion fit into this idea of “sacred space”?
Those faiths with universal ambitions – the monotheisms of Islam and Christianity, for instance – have often felt uneasy about the cults that have grown up around individual sites. Periodically, there have been attempts to purge pilgrimages to holy wells or wayside shrines. But it is an elemental urge and one that cannot easily be repressed. Even now – or perhaps particularly now in our sealed-off, abstracted age – that urge remains very powerful. The Romans believed that every place has its particular spirit – its genius loci. Only by visiting it can you glean a sense of that spirit. The distinctiveness of particular places, and why we feel so profoundly different in them, has for purists the hint of paganism about it. But seeking out those places, unravelling the traditions associated with them, provides – to my mind – one of the best ways to celebrate the wonderful diversity of the world we live in.
Do you think that our response to landscape is in any way particular to being an island nation?
Britain is blessed with an extraordinary range of landscapes. It also has a pretty spectacular range of weather. That combination as we all know makes many corners of our islands very evocative. But the sacralising of locations is universal. In India, Hindu beliefs are intimately tied up with places. Almost the entire subcontinent is a sacred landscape. From the Sami of Scandinavia to the Native Americans and the Australian Aborigines, ritual and location are inseparable. Such traditions are obviously more apparent among those peoples who haven’t moved from their land for a long time. Migrations and exile tend to make beliefs more rule-based and less site-based.
How much time did you spend out in the open air researching your book? How is the process important to the writing of the book?
As much time as I possibly could. My notebooks are full of smudges and pages corrugated by the rain. If you’re writing about place, the experience of that place is essential – and there is an intensity, almost a magical process that occurs when you make notes outside – the power of place.
Historically you have written travel books about places as far and wide as Ethiopia, the Russian steppes, Poland, Belarus and Armenia. Yet your last two books have been about Cornwall – why do you think this is?
Getting a bit older perhaps, having a young family, being a little less restless. But morethan that is the sense that looking deeper into the local is ultimately more revealing than reaching for the exotic. I still travel but not in the same months-at-a-time way that I used to.
Is the desire to continually interpret our landscape just a part of being human?
Our response to the land around us, to its shape, goes right to the heart of what it is to be human. It is one of the principal responses we have, one of the conduits by which we pass from the physical world into the world of the imagination. The traditions that grow up around certain sites are simply the cumulative result of individuals’ responses. One way of looking at landscape, attitudes towards it and those early monuments within it – is as works of art. Thinking of Stonehenge like that instantly shifts something. Trying to work out what it was foris like trying to work out what the works of Rembrandt were for.