Friday, 26 July 2013

Lanes and landscape

Under the railway bridge, West Town Farm
I mentioned I had a backlog of photography.The above rather post-apocalyptic image is of the viaduct over the long-closed Teign Valley railway, at West Town Farm, near Ide (a village southwest of Exeter).

I went there in June with Clare for a workshop on site-specific writing co-run by Oriana Ascanio of  Resident Writers and Christine Duff of OrganicARTS. I've delayed writing about it because, to be honest, writing spontaneously in situ is not at all my kind of thing - I'm not a fast writer, and I tend to visit places and write later, after reflection and research. Nevertheless, it was a thought-provoking afternoon out. The location touched on a lot of issues I've mentioned previously, particularly the idea of the rural landscape as a construct; and the tension between rural England's role as an economically viable productive resource and as a kind of aesthetic experience for visitors and incomers (a conflict which manifests, for instance, in the controversies over windfarms, solar farms, and polytunnels). See previously: Rural photography - the shaping of aesthetics and Views of the countryside.

West Town Farm looks to me a successful compromise between different functions of the countryside. It's a working farm (producing organic beef, pork, potatoes, apples, squash and pumpkins) but also focuses on environmental stewardship to protect the landscape as a niche for wildlife, as well as hosting various educational and artistic projects (see the West Town Farm website for background).

As part of the visit, we were given a tour of the farm trail, which showcases the various aspects and habitats of the farm. Probably the most distinctive was the railway cutting, maintained as a habitat for badgers and bats. I did a runner from the writing exercise, pleading the not-entirely-untrue excuse that photography was my preferred medium, just to have another look at it alone.

At the moment, I'm finding landscape exploration a continuing fascination. I've found it a coping strategy with my CUP to avoid introspection, which rapidly leads to feeling depressed, and though you might think being alone in the countryside would foster introspection, I've found quite the opposite: for me, immersion in landscape drives out the 'internal' in favour of the experience, and I can go for hours without remembering more than momentarily that I have a terminal condition. I've never so fully understood Dr Johnson's comment:
Boswell. "But is not the fear of death natural to man ?" Johnson. "So much so, Sir, that the whole of life is but keeping away the thoughts of it." He then, in a low and earnest tone, talked of his meditating upon the awful hour of his own dissolution, and in what manner he should conduct himself upon that occasion: "I know not (said he,) whether I should wish to have a friend by me, or have it all between God and myself."
- Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791
I'm not in denial. I can think about it and discuss it whenever needed. But I'm not letting it dominate my life, and "keeping away the thoughts of it" at other times is part of that.

Anyhow, back to West Town Farm. The cutting, especially the part under the viaduct, has a very "Where London stood" feel. When you think about, however, the line closed in 1958 and the cutting would be completely overgrown if it had been left untouched - as you rapidly find when you reach the south-eastern end of the farm trail section. In fact the cutting, like the rest of the farm, is a tightly-managed habitat, both environmentally and artistically.

This fallen rock is not left in the middle of the path by accident; it was a conscious choice. Originally intended to be sculpted, it was left by the artist untouched as an artwork in itself, and it now supports an Ansel Adams style fern. No doubt the same aesthetic is behind the fallen trees crossing the path, but not obstructing it. This knowledge doesn't detract, however, from the powerful atmosphere of the place, one of complete isolation and seclusion, despite it being only half a mile from the busy A30, and a mile from Exeter itself. It feels as if it could be many miles - or even centuries - from civilisation:
Mounds of earth are said to still exist in the woods, which originally formed the roads for these machines, but they are now so low, and so covered with thickets, that nothing can be learnt from them; and, indeed, though I have heard of their existence, I have never seen one. Great holes were made through the very hills for the passage of the iron chariot, but they are now blocked by the falling roofs, nor dare any one explore such parts as may yet be open.
- Richard Jefferies, After London, 1885, Project Gutenberg ID 13944

One positive aspect of the afternoon was a brief conversation with another of the course members, Clare Bryden. She runs a number of blogs, all of which put me to shame in terms of creativity and committment to real social causes - particularly sustainability - but one of them, And the end of all our exploring ("will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time") shows we share an interest in the connections between past and present landscape.

A trio of posts in particular interested me - collectively tagged Woodwater Lane - which document her exploration, in present and historical past, of a lane at the south-east of Exeter. Though cut by railway and roads, partially erased by development, the lane is still traceable.

The posts link to some extremely cool cartographic resources. I already knew about the Historical Maps section of the A Vision of Britain through Time site, but not the British Library Georeferencing site. This is a user-contributed project to correlate old maps with current Google Earth ones. Contributors identify common data points across an area of interest, then software adjusts for scale and distortion to bring the maps into coincidence. The result is then visible as an overlay, with a slider button to fade between old and new.

The example used in the Woodwater Lane exploration is this 1801 map of Exeter, and there are many more accessible through a convenient graphical map finder. Ones that connect with previous JSBlog topics include Niton (Isle of Wight), 1793; Shanklin, 1793; Axmouth, Devon, 1806; Ottery St. Mary, Devon, 1806; Exmouth, 1801; and Torbay, Devon, 1802.

- Ray

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