Sacred landscape

Spirit of place, The Holy Grail, Joseph of Arimethea, Steinbeck and songlines


"...If we cease to follow does the songline disappear as it would in Australia..."


John Steinbeck came to Somerset in 1959 to research and write about King Arthur. (Andrew Pickering Steinbeck in Avalon: Bruton, Somerset, 1959) He wrote about the place in Bruton where he rented whilst here and about Avalon and and identify with his quest.


"...I feel more at home here than I ever felt in my life in any place. I perceive things that truly pass all understanding. Sixty to seventy generations have been born and lived, suffered, had fun and died in these walls. The flagstones on the lower floor are smoothed and hollowed by feet. And all of those generations were exactly like me – had hands and eyes, hunger pain, anxiety and now and then ecstasy. Under my feet there is a great stack of men and women and I am sitting on top of it, a tiny living organism on a high skeletal base, like the fringe of living coral on the mountain of dead coral rising from the sea bottom. Thus I have the fine integrity of sixty generations under me and the firm and fragrant sense that I shall join that pediment and support another living fringe and we will all be one. I've never known this sweet emulsion of mortality and continuum before….in the haunted fields of Cornwall and the mines with the tin and lead pits, in the dunes and the living ghosts of things, I do wish to find a path or a symbol or an approach..."


Poets, artists and writers through time have alluded to an essence of the divine in the English landscape that was somehow secret, intangible or hidden. After the ravages and destruction of war abstract artists like my grandfather John Piper moved towards a more figurative and romantic approach, focusing on the spirit of place and the magical beauty of England. Like in William Blake's famous poem "And did those feet in ancient time" he conjures the vision of a the new Jerusalem rising in England's green and pleasant land and making Albion great again. It's not all beauty but the English landscape is full of magic or ghosts perhaps, despite the best efforts of industrialisation, development, war and religious secularisation laying claim. Blake I think alludes to this when he speaks of the dark satanic mills. But are these are the mills of the Industrial revolution or the secularized Church manipulation of the true English spirituality and faith that stemmed from the land itself.


The Ruralists such as David Inshaw and Peter Blake after great masters such as Samuel Palmer paint a living landscape full of meaning and symbology and trigger a shared connection with the land. John Michell (Megalithomania 1982), Philip Marsden (Rising Ground 2014), Robert MacFarlane (The Old Ways, A Journey on foot, 2013, Landmarks 2015) All these great works of literature recognise a powerful yet intangible and often hidden urge that connects us to place and places over the generations. They both consider these places to be connected too, geographically over distance in a way that brings to mind the Australian Songlines.


The spirit of the land never went away. Local people always revered certain places and given them importance. Hill forts, beacons, enclosures and settlements, stone circles and sacred springs were just the sort of places like Malkgulumbu (Beswick Falls) and the Cheesewring on Bodmin moor. In Britain many of these early sites were adopted by subsequent faiths and built over. Stone circles and whole sacred landscapes were completely obliterated, roman villas were constructed around pagan sacred springs, medieval churches built on burial sites and ruined abbeys crumbling on top of ancient henges. Archaelogical layers are the manifestation of changing ceremonies and belief systems controlled and manipulated by the empires, chiefs, druids, kings, queens of governments that have come and gone and imposed their rule over the special places. But throughout time, even when totally destroyed, the places continued to be revered.


Even once the churches had been built on these old sites these too went through huge changes. In his book A little History of The English Country Church, (2015) Roy strong describes the extraordinary upheavals the parish churches have been through since medieval times. Attempts were made at several points to drum out all traces of a previous form of Christian worship and indeed any traces of pagan worship. Despite the drastic efforts to destroy any remains of anything but the Book and the Scriptures, the resilience and doggedness of parishioners to continue to revere their local place and celebrate the traditions that connect them and the generations before them to the place to the land. Easter, harvest festivals, Christmas all adopted the pagan Celtic and pre - Christian celestial timings - so marking the solstices, equinoxes and times for offering, celebrating fertility and thanksgiving- Likewise the churches and its hallowed ground represented a way of communing with the ancestors and celebrating births, wedding unions and of course venerating the dead.


Avebury by William Stukeley 1687-1765

Avebury by William Stukeley 1687-1765


In the tribal reserves of Australia much of the land is still in a 'wild' state with songlines marked by natural features, trees, rocks or rivers. The lines are purely oratory and as such there is no physical, visible path between the sacred places. It is said that if the tribes people neglect or forget the songlines then they will disappear along with the bond that connects them and their anscestors to the cosmos. Ultimately what makes them a tribal family, dies.


Southern England is a palimpsest of generations of land use superimposed on the natural geomorphology and with masses of buildings and people. The landscape is littered with man made things that could mark the route of a 'songline' across the English landscape. The idea of a pilgrimage suggests a route to follow but the question remains: If we cease to follow does the songline disappear as it would in Australia?


I have always wondered about ley lines, feng shui and telluric energy. Could these phenomena be physical forces such as magnetism and gravity, affect what makes places special or different to others and therefore linked along waves, on seams or flows currents? If physical they shouldn't be affected by human interaction despite our best efforts - mining, farming and generally using the land but presumably would also ebb and flow with the sun, stars and planetary movements of the cosmos.


"...The ephemeral nature of songlines in Australia and the concept that they may disappear if not paid homage to, makes me wonder if these lines are not in fact man made. Were we collectively attracted to these places because of a concentration of existing natural forces and then our homage to them actually augmented or strengthened the phenomena creating some form of memory in the landscape? By making tracks and roads, temples, avenues, churches and shrines we focused and manipulated this flow as well as marked it in time in stones and bones..."


Avebury by William Stukeley 1687-1765

The Dragon at Doulting Church, Somerset.


St Michael standing on a dragon

St Michael standing on a dragon, Farnborough


Mundus Subterraneus