"Connecting to place: A travelog on the South Downs Way"
(Oct 1st Seminar)Intro
I was brought up within sight of the Downs and they have been my constant companions through thick and thin years. In this seminar I'm hoping to use my experiences with the South Downs to explore ways of connecting to the place, or land, where you live. I was going to provide an alternative travelog for anyone travelling the historic national trail which is the South Downs Way (SDW) but as my original came out at > 8 pages I've decided to concentrate on the connections using the South Downs as an example.
In this spirit I will explore connections via the history of the land, the living land and personal connections. Three strands of the Awen if you like. Let's deal with the basic questions first - the South Downs are a line of low hills on the South Coast of England that run for 100 miles east to west. They are mostly in the county of Sussex but the western end is in Hampshire. To their East is 1066 Country (Hastings) and the county of Kent, to the South the English Channel, to the West is the New Forest and Wessex (Hampshire, Dorset, Devon, Wiltshire and Somerset) and to the North is the Weald landscape (Low and High) of Sussex/Kent , the North Downs and the rest of Britain. They stand at around 200metres above sea level, highest point at 248 metres, and are made of chalk limestone. The Downs have been home to (and inspired) various musicians, artists and authors from Elgar to Fat Boy Slim through to Kipling and Virginia Woolf. History of the Downs
"All I could think was that I was travelling over millions of dead shrimp" is one person's perspective - admittedly it was during the dead hours between 2-4 a.m. and he was at the limits of his physical endurance where the line between this world and the other world becomes blurred. In essence it is true; millions of years ago the South Downs were a shallow ocean and millions of crustaceans became condensed into chalk and flint. Millennia ago these were pushed up to form a mountain range where various ice ages and wear eroded them into their current low shape. After the last ice age, and the Younger Dryas ca 11,000 years ago, the Downs became eroded into their current form. Kipling described them as a pod of humpbacked whales surfacing from the flat Weald. To me they look like some huge emerald tsunami that rose from the sea and became frozen - flying into Gatwick you will see them appearing out of the English Channel.
This landscape that contained readily accessible flint was obviously of great use to a Stone Age society and there were soon human inhabitants. In the forests there would have been, now extinct in this part of Europe, species of: Bear, Wolves, Boar, Beaver and Deer. Due to the climate, the many small rivers and estuaries would have been rich in plants and animals, this was a wealthy place for a hunter/gatherer society. These people first started to form what is now known as the South Downs Way (SDW) that runs from Eastbourne in the East to Winchester in the West. They were buried in barrows, there are tumuli all along the Downs, and lived in hillforts. They probably created the first Dew Ponds which store water on top of the permeable chalk. From the Saxons onward into later times these features were renamed, but the people now lived below the Downs along the spring lines that formed where the Weald met the Downs. They still used these tracks to travel on but as society developed the SDW became a Public Bridleway - which is a trail freely accessible and usable by walkers, horse-riders and cyclists. They cross private land but by law the owner of the land is responsible for ensuring the public rights of way over their land remain accessible and clear. This land is criss-crossed with hundreds of miles of other public rights of way (roads, bridleways and footpaths). All of European history has travelled the SDW - from the Romans through to modern day Mountain Bikers. The Living Landscape
Common wisdom states that it is best to travel West to East on the SDW, this is because the prevailing winds come from the South West and it is better to travel with these warm, wet winds behind you. Starting at Winchester is an appropriate place; within the Great Hall of Winchester Castle hangs King Arthur's round table. Indeed it is best to regard travelling a trail this long as a quest. Within this seemingly soft, tame and tender land is a heart of flint ready to scar the foolish. Viewing the journey as a quest enables the right mindset to overcome the inevitable hurdles and troubles such journeys will inevitably experience.
From Winchester you head out into the low rolling hills that are the western edge of the SDW. Once you reach Sussex there is the immortal rule that for every good down there is a hard climb. Here, for many, is their first experience of the infamous, more slippery than ice, 'green chalk'. Many hard northerners, scoffing at our soft southern hills, have fallen over on this damp, moss covered chalk. This is the home of unploughed Downland where for millennia sheep have been grazed giving rise to a unique landscape containing rare butterflies, orchids and invertebrates such as the Cheese snail. There is deciduous woodland here too, in May they will often be carpeted with bluebells (our Texan friends should think blue bonnets), and contain the trees typical of southern England; Ash, Oak, Beech, Sycamore, Field Maple, Holly and Yew. The hilltops contain scrub or smaller trees usually Hawthorn (aka May), Blackthorn, Brambles and Gorse bushes. The farming is mixed livestock, sheep and cows, plus crops - particularly wheat and rapeseed (asthma sufferers beware in early summer).
The SDW consists of many climbs that accumulate to 10,000 feet / 3000 metres of climbing. They are interspersed with river and road crossings. Along the way you will hear the skylark that is to the South Downs what an organ is to a church. Their bubbling trills form a complex fugue across the landscape, mostly in early summer but also occasionally throughout the year they can be heard. White egret hunting the river estuaries makes the vistas exotic and otherworldly. Then, at the end, the Long Man of Wilmington (http://www.sussexpast.co.uk/property/si ... site_id=13
) lies, in my mind, as the gatekeeper of the South Downs. From the SDW he's impossible to see, being carved into a steep hillside and the SDW turns south away from him. Finally dropping into Eastbourne the woodland is managed like some overgrown country park, which spits you out into the town, leading to its seafront and pebble beach.
In the heat of summer the SDW becomes hot and dusty, the white of the chalk reflecting the heat. Autumn's beautiful colours hide the land with leaves blown free from the storms that sweep through. In winter, after frost & snow, the mud is dire; a rough mix of chalk and clay that hangs like sticky lead on the feet. After this the key is in waiting for the verdant growth of spring to sap the moisture from the tracks. Personal ConnectionsLay lines
The land taught me to love maps, my early years when first getting to know the land involved peering myopically at them trying to find interesting looking places. I would look for features, trails or names that were interesting and try and build routes from there. But some of the best routes have also been found by following the Awen that open up new vistas, valleys and groves. I still get the map and let the Awen build new routes; the land is generous in giving but is also good at hiding. Once the desire is built then it's time to test it out. Some will work and some won't - some the land give to you easily but the best have to be earnt with blood and tears. Gradually build up and extend your memory map of routes until you can visualise them easily.
From these routes come your lay lines. These lay lines are the link between the you and the living land. Repetition builds one's memory whilst variation expands your knowledge. The aim is to move the land from 2D Map into your memory in 3D with feeling and texture. Don't keep it to yourself, visit with friends and relatives too! This builds a greater emotional attachment to the land that the land responds to. I like to discover a good route and then take others on it - they provide different viewpoints and different understandings of the land. Like any friendship introducing your friends and relatives strengthens and deepens your relationship (with the land).
*I've used the term lay to identify personal power lines, rather than the term ley which is commonly used to denote ancient geodesy lines.What's in a name
Travel the land often, the names will come to you. Sometimes spontaneously and others more slowly.
Don't force it, those names rarely stick, but let them become presented to you. I'd been to 'Angry Adder Point' many times before that spring morning where I almost ran over the baby snake. The Secret Trail is another one; Mountain Bikers (and most probably other trail users) name trails. It's much easier and more poetic to say "the Snake was dry and dusty but the Devil's Butt has gone to pieces" than say "that part of the SDW that drops down from Steyning Bowl to the Adur is dry and dusty but the SDW from the Adur to the top of Truleigh Hill is broken up and difficult to travel". Most names are particular to a group of people but some, either through reputation or magic, keep the same name. The secret trail is one of the latter, all groups that discover it name it the Secret trail, whilst The Edge of the World is the former, famous through word of mouth amongst trail users. Memory and usage are some of the keys to connecting to the landscape. Each of the names has a story attached to it, just as the trails have a physical presence their names have a mythical presence in the mind. These names only occur through repetition of use - somewhere that you travel once a year rarely gains a name. Some retain their map name but the most magical gain their own. It's also interesting to understand other people's names. Another group calls the Sheepfold what our group calls the Snake. "What's in a name?" is an often asked question - I would answer that a wealth of history and meaning is in a name. Also that a name is a living concept, subject to change.Wheel of the Year
It's tempting to just travel to places on the nice, sunny days but these are often the least rewarding. The most rewarding are at liminal moments - recently it was a quick trip for the Vernal Equinox. At my ritual point the sky formed it's own cross; night falling from the East, heavy clouds storming from the North, clear skies in the South and the last rays of the sun spearing from the West, perfectly appropriate for the time of year. It could only be experienced at that time, in that place. I performed my Vernal Equinox ritual and then, minutes later, was hit by a squall of hail and sleet. I sprinted for the shelter of the woods, along with some Roe deer. It was a special moment to be at one, if only in purpose, with the deer.
Over time one's weather eye is earnt to feel the local conditions, then slowly the land starts to speak, the patterns start to be seen and the connections strengthen. The knowledge of how the conditions will be in certain places at certain times increases the chances of success for any quest into the land.
Try to discover routes for winter when the going is hard, quick summer circuits then longer summer routes and finally the all day drive-to-visit places. It's only in the repetition that the land starts to speak - it's part of my ritual to ride a route for each of the 8 festivals. There becomes a relationship between you and the land. You'll notice the tree that's fallen, you may notice that you only see certain creatures when certain events happen. Gradually the patterns will appear - things that previously appeared random or inconsequential will take on a new importance. Over the years you'll notice changes caused by the weather patterns, humans and the flora and fauna. Trees will become old friends and you'll discover your own ritual nexus points. There's always more to experience; a year ago I picked up some decent lights and chose to visit every full moon. These lunar circuits have been very rewarding in contacting with the land and a great source of Nwyvre and Awen (obviously I can't advise this approach where there are large predators around!).Conclusion
To sum up connection to place, in my experience, falls into these categories:
geological history, how the land is made up
natural history, the flora and fauna that are part of it
human history, how people have interacted with it
Through repetition identify the power / nexus points that speak to you
Look for the patterns and how they relate to you - you'll get a feel for it's moods
Don't give up - it takes time and effort for the patterns in the land to open up to you
Travelling the land at different times; each landscape is constantly changing how it appears
Naming the land - this is a product of your developing relationship with the land
Having a long term relationship with the landscape; it takes years to develop
Finally I'd like to say that linking this approach with the other seminars - creating e.g. a medicine wheel of routes, discovering places to meet the shining ones and listening to the music of the land will all help deepen your connections to your place.
I will attempt to add some photo's later in the month (although I'm rubbish at them and I'm unsure how my camera phone will cope). I have included some links (with far better photo's than this humble traveller could produce)http://www.southdownssociety.org.uk/http://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/Southdowns/http://www.ramblers.org.uk/countryside/ ... downs.htmlhttp://www.southdownsway.co.uk/http://www.chichesterweb.co.uk/frameset ... 1.htm~mainhttp://cs.wheatonma.edu/~mgousie/webima ... onHill.jpghttp://cs.wheatonma.edu/~mgousie/webima ... hyHead.jpghttp://www.visitsouthdowns.com/