Stride Magazine - www.stridemagazine.co.uk
Stoke Climsland, July 2001
To rise, with the landscape swimming in itself, the line of hills appearing to melt to the west. To escape the littoral, at last, for the summit that leads to the source land over the hill.
In the foreground, the fence posts peel. In the background, the anorexic stack of the Kit Hill monument rises. In the invisible distance beyond them both, the Long Men of prehistory are encamped, as these are, in the tussocky grass.
Thin twigs twist over auburn bracken, set against the sherbet explosions of the moor-grass. Skylarks nest, nailed down by the heat.
Sunlight riddles the back of the head. The landscape sheds its moisture – even its song subsides. The hill looks out on something in the process of turning grey, then white, then transparent. The pulse falls, as if over the edge of a ravine.
Stalks vector over ferns, following the grain of an endless pattern. The earth reaches into the sky, but flattens in the face of that paradox. The ferns are the ghosts of fallen birds, that mimic their lives of flight as in the Hades seen by the lyrist.
The column stands on a shaggy hillock at the summit. People sit on its lower steps and bask in the view, as a black dog chases a scent that is just as intense and far-reaching. A motion of the hands might cause it to topple, altering the lie of the landscape – disturbing the detective who is sniffing out the props of this particular theatre.
The column lets the invisible stars revolve around it, as the blanched blue sky divests itself of its final cloud-scraps. Even the gorse has the clarity of crystal – its flowers are trapped in a moment that outlasts them. They bend beneath the weight of white admirals, where weakness is the ghost of acceptance.
Scrawled on the wall of a quarryman’s hut – Kernow Agan Bro. But what appears to be the Gwenn Ha Du – the white and black of the Cornish flag – is in fact a narrow grille in the wall of the building, where the king, the saviour, lies sleeping with his bracken-haired knights.
Over the hills, the roofs of Launceston are glinting. The Devonport tower blocks loom from the estuarine haze in their obliterated pastels. Near and far – two wings of a magpie, stealing all unity.
Here, the ground below is given a role at the surface. Everything is flushed out of its hiding place, whether by the sheets of rain that cover the ground in autumn, or the sun that ripens, then blanches the dock-leaves. Even the sky is exposed, to the ground behind the sky, the place where language widens into presence.
A special airiness graces the northern slopes – suffusing the quarries, the great green sails of the fields that stretch from one moor to another. The landscape is fastened to the earth by human constructions – the granite towers of the parish churches, the minestacks that flock in the midst of pastures. The oaks that intersperse the hedges, by contrast, are an ephemeral embroidery.
A glance back at the monument reveals its construction, its stage-set phallocentrism – as if it were possible to fertilise the sky, through this patient penetration.
Minestacks, quarries… the landmarks of lost effort. The inevitability of these silent chimneys, green-bearded as the fragments of a ship whose form may no longer be guessed, but which sails on the underside, as laden as ever.
To be crystalline, in a landscape rich with foreboding.
The immense green patchwork stippled with oaks extends into the interior. One peels back ridge after ridge in search of the centre, the country where all is remote, yet intimate and always spacious. After doing so a dozen times, one reaches the other shore… and that is all there is.
The lane down whitens in heat and light. The enormous country spreads, as if lit from below as well as above.
This is the land behind the hill, where the curve of the fields is illumined by the stranger’s gaze. It is named in secret. To be there, is to defer to stranger gods, to let the sun colonise the broken image of another earth.
There are tracks that leave the forehead exposed… chimneys rising into the white expanse. What can it mean to say, “This is my country?”
Descending through hedged lanes to the hamlet of Downgate, the parish church visible where the hedges part, one is conscious of going deeper into an imagined past, as if about to confront a steadily-stranger line of ancestors. The costumes become more archaic as the lane grows woolier, as the hedges rise still further, as the silence hardens in heat.
One crossroads, amongst so many, is gently lowered into hedges that are higher than any man has ever stood. Luminous grey roofs perspire in the afternoon glare.
In a landscape of dock leaves, bindweed and celandine, the startling reds of public telephone boxes, now hardly used and ripe for removal, are as abrupt as the sapphire butterflies that drift past, causing the eyes to spring from their leashes. Both suck up the light in unfamiliar ways, like adjectives swimming in a pool of nouns.
Red Devon cattle graze in a Cornish field… one or two staring, the others feasting on starch and chlorophyll. They are tethered by shadow, extensions of larded mud – as sluggish as the stones that wall in their paddocks.
The parish church is taller now, an insect exposed on the tip of a fern – feeding on light, on the syrups of its own longevity.
A sparrow rises, succeeded by a butterfly so fast in its flight that what is left is the aftermath of blue, the ocean of the eye condensed to a sign. In the hedge, it pursues the imperatives of closure, too brief to be profligate.
At Old Mill, a cat glides out of a late Victorian cottage clad in a worn pink stucco. To find oneself in an armchair in that cottage, surrounded by low-key comforts – logs for burning, horseshoes nailed to the wall, a pot of tea stewed black – contained, withdrawn, at ease with the space between the cities and the void.
To assert presence, in the definite tense of other languages… that milkchurn, that minestack, that water, that silence. To struggle into that blank space, feeling the stratus weight of one’s own demise.
“No Unauthorised Entry” reads the sign at the entrance to the farm at Mearfield. The gatepost is several feet high, and the gate opens into a short drive that leads to a two-storied granite barn. Cattle graze in a stall with a corrugated roof, and hay bales whiten in the yard. It is mad to make any kind of claim, to imagine my twelve- or fourteen-greats grandfather waking up, in a wooden cot, four centuries ago in the building before me.
Yet it is easier to imagine his “past” than it would have been for him to envisage my “future”. We would appear to those who lived four hundred years ago as demons, weirdly attired, gigantic in size, at ease with our dark inventions, yet strangely inexpert in the skills that are needed for a human being to survive in that world. All notions of kinship would reside with us, alone.
This place, for me, is at an earlier stage than home. It is the place that denotes a deeper origin, one in which all current identity is implicit yet indecipherable. Origin is all but impossible to grasp – beyond this brief focus of stability, it continues to spiral, back to the Ice Age rovers, and the loping apes who searched for scraps in the Danakil Desert. Only sometimes, by an effort of will, it fixes its glittering eye upon the present’s guests.
To see the herds home under the hostile stars. To come to rest on the slope, watching the lights move over the hill.
In the foreground, a chicken cackles. The grey stones sleep. At the moment, the sun is constructing a church from fragments of landscape. It is made of granite, with a westerly tower that rises over the road. Nothing stirs – no dogs, no people. Stoke Climsland is embedded in the brilliant shade of secrecy.
Outside the post office, a car windscreen catches a shaft of light that tilts like a windmill. It is closed. There is no other shop, no pub. As I walk, I kick imaginary mothballs into the roadside. My footsteps seem heavier than usual – the flies are as obtrusive and as raucous as rooks.
The school is without its bell – its granite tower remains, like the dwarf imitation of a Breton bell-tower, made to last and act as a second focus for the village. The released bell chimes silently, as the absent children play in the lanes and race between the stones.
Beside its glacial sculpture of a church, the graveyard is a thicket of names and rhythmic platitudes. The form of Kit Hill curves to the south, hiding the estuary, and the city beyond it, in a mirror image of the earlier reversal.
The inscriptions relate their ultimate settlements, the bargains sealed with the soil of this place beneath the flattened hump of the batholith. But a quick search, a glance at the war memorial and a ten-minute conversation with the verger reveals no namesakes, after all. The dissolution is complete… not tied to any memorial, the imagined memory wanders everywhere.
Yet to be laid to rest here, rotting into the clays of evening, is not to be located. To be located is to live, to resist location by the fact of one’s movement, yet to find oneself located moment by moment. It is the dead who are laid in placelessness, yet suggest the source land that the living enter and leave, reject or seek.
© Norman Jope 2002