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Britannia Obscura: Mapping Britain’s Hidden Landscapes, Joanne Parker (Vintage 2014)

An excellent and unpretentious guide to a subject that can go sadly awry in the wrong hands: psychogeography. Whether she’s writing about stone-circles or ley-lines, Joanne Parker keeps an open mind but never allows her brains to fall out. Her message is: “Here’s what people have thought and done – now make up your own mind.” Or maybe that should be: “Now go and see for yourself.” This book is both a guide and a goad, because after reading it you’ll want to look at what it talks about.

But stone-circles, in chapter two, and ley-lines, in chapter four, are esoteric excursions amid earthly or aerial realities. Chapters one and two are devoted to caves and canals. Then the book takes to the air for a look at flight-paths in the fifth and final chapter. Parker must have planned that journey from the underground to the aerial, from the subterranean to the celestial. The themes of the book are firmly established in that first chapter: there’s much more out there than readers may have supposed.

In fact, there’s a whole new world beneath your feet. Caves are fascinating places both physically and psychologically. Merely knowing about them alters the way you view a landscape. When you enter and explore them, another landscape changes – your own mind. But caving isn’t just about exploration: it can also involve excavation. Cave-systems can be extended or brought together by digging. It’s tough and dirty work and the cavers who undertake it are running risks like those faced by their mining fathers and grandfathers before them.

But one big difference is that they aren’t being paid for the risks they run. One of the genetic legacies of agriculture may be a propensity to enjoy activity for its own sake, because a farmer’s work is never done. Hobbies are a kind of work and our conscious motives for them may be no more than rationalizations for urges that literally uncoil from our DNA. But the urge to compete must be older than anything agricultural:

When Nixon discovered Titan, reducing Gaping Gill to the second largest cave in Britain, he was, he confesses, “delighted to steal the crown, as it were” from Yorkshire. While sprawling underground passages may stretch underground like colossal sleeping dragons, with a prehistoric disregard for county borders and human rivalries, one spur to diggers is certainly local pride. […] The connection of Lancashire’s Ireby Fell caverns to Rift Pot in Yorkshire was celebrated proudly with Eccles cake, Lancashire cheese, Black Sheep beer and Yorkshire teacakes, as the Three Counties system took its penultimate step towards deposing Ogof Draenen. And for many other cavers, making their local caverns deeper, longer or more complex than caverns further afield becomes a challenge akin to the race between medieval parishes to build church spires ever closer to the heavens. (ch. 1, “Underground, Overground: The Caver’s Map of Britain”, pg. 26)

So that chapter delves deep into the earth; the next delves deep into history as it looks at “Prehistoric Patterns: The Megalithic Shape of Britain”. But the caving chapter has prepared the way, because caves were among the first places occupied in prehistory: “The Torquay cave also boasts a human jawbone, dated between 38,000 and 40,000 years old, making it one of the oldest fossils from modern man ever to have been found in Europe” (pg. 16). No stone-circle is as old as that and maybe human beings weren’t capable of creating them so long ago. In some cases, matching a stone-circle would be a big challenge even today, with the full resources of our technological age. The architectural expertise and astronomical alignments of sites like Avebury and Stonehenge should stir the stolidest mind.

So could the subject of chapter three, the “Hidden Highways” that form “The Lost Map of Britain’s Inland Navigators”. In other words: canals. They were the veins and arteries of the Industrial Revolution. Then thrombosis and gangrene set in, because advancing technology made roads and railways more economical, so the canal network is much smaller than it used to be. Economics expanded it, then choked and contracted it.

But canals had become part of psychogeography, so their decline hasn’t been irreversible. Water has always been an esoteric element, as John Buchan conveyed in one of his best short-stories, but canals were a new variation on an ancient them: they were river-like, but they didn’t flow and they didn’t swing or swerve. Sometimes they dove straight through hills. The strangeness and romance of canals are well-summed up for me in the fact that Robert Aickman, one of England’s greatest macabre writers, was the founder and early vice-president of the Inland Waters Association. And people who love canals don’t like to see them disappear:

The Wey and Arun Canal Trust are working piecemeal on the canal, in the hope that some day its full length might be revived. Many other canals around the country are, similarly, waiting for their second coming, trusting to the undiminished enthusiasm of optimistic volunteers – to the successors of men like the late David Hutchings, who, after his groundbreaking restoration of the Stratford Canal in 1958, proclaimed simply, “Fortunately none of us were experts, or we should all have known that it was impossible.” (ch. 3, pg. 89)

Hobbies can be hard work. For some people, they wouldn’t be fun if they weren’t. But the ley-hunting of chapter four is usually more leisurely than caving or canal-recreation. Ley-lines are earthbound, but they capture the imagination in a special way. The man who introduced them to the world, Alfred Watkins, had the right name: earthy and English. And he chose the right string of monosyllables for the title of the book he published about ley-lines in 1925: The Old Straight Track. His theory was the British landscape still bore the signposts used by ancient traders in salt, flint, furs and other necessities of prehistoric life. By using hill-tops, stone-circles and churches built on ancient sites, he mapped what he called ley-lines, or the routes used in ancient times to travel in the most direct way across the landscape.

But there’s one of the difficulties with his theory right away: the most direct way across a landscape is rarely the easiest or most convenient. Why climb up and down a hill or wade through a marsh when it’s quicker to go around it? And are the alignments that Watkins identified really deliberate? In some ways it didn’t matter: ley-lines captured the imagination of countless people and have inspired countless expeditions. And adaptations of his theory have slipped the surly bonds of ergonomics: some people say that ley-lines are about earth-currents, not economics. There’s a lot of speculation, insubstantiality and even UFOlogy to ley-lines today. I don’t know what Joanne Parker herself thinks. She presents all sides of the arguments and chapter four becomes part of the camera obscura offering an overview of the wildness, weirdness and wackiness of British psychogeography.

Then, after the UFO flight-paths of chapter four, the book takes to the wing for the real flight-paths of chapter five. Except that the earliest human aeronauts in Britain weren’t on the wing: they were under the basket. Balloons were the first stage of man’s conquest of the air. They’ve never gone away: like canals, although they’re obsolete in strictly practical terms, there’s something special about them that invites and sustains serious devotees. But the planes that replaced balloons, like the trains that replaced canal-boats, have more devotees. Maybe Parker should have included a chapter on trains and their tracks, but I don’t think the book misses them. This is Britannia Obscura and trains aren’t obscure. I like them, but I can read about them elsewhere.

I’ve never read about Britain’s “Flight Paths and Regions” before. Air has always been an emblem of fluidity, but there’s a lot of rigidity up there now:

The practical problem with so much free airspace being gobbled up [by commercial aviation] is that it makes routes across the country more and more difficult for general aviation. “Where I live in the south-east,” Brian Hope says, “you can fly between airports at the moment to get north or west. But if Farnborough and Southend airports both get controlled airspace, that would block those routes.” It’s a little like a gated community suddenly being built in the middle of the Pennine Way or halfway round the South West Coast Path. And it’s not just close to London that these problems exist. The controlled airspace around Birmingham and Manchester is also notoriously difficult to avoid, and Bristol’s controlled airspace has recently joined up with Cardiff’s to create a vast impasse in the west. (ch. 5, “Highways in the Air: The Map of Britain’s Skies”, pg. 151)

I hadn’t thought about any of that before, but I hadn’t thought about a lot of the things in this book before. It’s been a mind-expander and an eye-opener, teaching me a lot and prompting me to look for more information elsewhere on everything from Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, “one of the seven wonders of the canal world” (pg. 70), to the Belinus Line, a ley that stretches the entire length of the British Isles and seems to connect Inverhope, Inverness, Carlisle, Birmingham, Winchester and Lee-on-Solent.

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World Wide WingsThe Big Book of Flight, Rowland White (Bantam Press 2013)

Kite WriteThe Kite-Making Handbook, compiled by Rossella Guerra and Giuseppe Ferlenga (David & Charles 2004)

Gun GuideSmall Arms: 1914-45, Michael E. Haskew (Amber Books 2012)

The Basis of the BeastKillers: The Origins of Iron Maiden, 1975-1983, Neil Daniels (Soundcheck Books 2014)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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The Big Book of Flight by Rowland WhiteThe Big Book of Flight, Rowland White (Bantam Press 2013)

Aircraft are like birds: varied. And, like birds, the most beautiful are often the deadliest. Freight-carriers usually look like it, but even helicopters and flying-boats can look good. This book covers the lot, from the deadly XB-70 Valkyrie, a beautiful jet “designed to carry 25 tons of nuclear bombs at three times the speed of sound” (pg. 234), to the dumpy Ekranoplan, a huge flying-boat whose remains are “rusting away in a dry dock in the Russian Caspian sea-port of Kaspiysk” (pg. 269). Rowland White discusses every aspect of aviation: not just props, jets and gliders, but balloons, parachutes and rockets, plus call-signs, airport codes and Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang. His writing is enthusiastic and intelligent and the book has a solid and fashionably old-fashioned design, like something a flight-obsessed schoolboy might have got for Christmas in the 1950s.

If he had, he would have been pleased: The Big Book of Flight mixes text, photographs, line-drawings and Patrick Mulrey’s beautiful double-page oil-paintings, which capture the speed and steel of aircraft and the vastness and solitude of the sky. I like the “Project Cancelled” sections too, about interesting planes that never made it into service. Web-sites about flight aren’t physical, fingerful fun like this and the heft of the book underlines the paradox of flight: how does something heavier than air get up and stay there?

Take the “swing-wing Grumman F-14 Tomcat” shown surging aloft, jets glaring, from the deck of an aircraft-carrier on page 210. If it hit the water that stretches away to the horizon, it would sink like a stone. It’s metal, after all: solid in a way birds, with their fractal feathers and hollowed bones, have never been. But it stays aloft and plays aloft, all 70,000 lb of it. This isn’t magic: it’s engineering. Metal jet-fighters obey the laws of physics just as birds and balloons do. And jet-fighters obey the laws of genetics too, because aircraft are as much products of genes as bones and feathers are. Evolution has taken many routes to flight, but before Homo sapiens arrived they were all direct ones: genes coded for wings, light bodies and fast metabolisms. That’s how birds, bats and insects got aloft. The human route was indirect: our genes coded for higher intelligence and we invented our own wings to carry bodies that were never designed to fly.

But more than intelligence was required. The early history of flight is littered with crashes and corpses:

German engineer Otto Lilienthal published his seminal Birdflight as the Basis of Aviation in 1889 at the age of 41. He flew his first glider two years later. Over the next five years he made some 2000 flights, accumulating just five flying hours. Still, the “Glider King”, as he was dubbed, had flown longer and further than anyone else in history. But on 9 August 1896, during his second flight of the day, his glider stalled. He crashed to the ground and broke his back. Two days later, like so many previous birdmen, he died from his injuries. (“Dreams of the Birdmen: Icarus and His Successors”, pg. 15)

Before he died, Lilienthal told his brother that “sacrifices have to be made”. His work and sacrifice were an inspiration for Wilbur and Orville Wright across the Atlantic in America. But their genes hadn’t evolved in America: flight was mastered by a peculiarly north-western European combination of high intelligence and daring. This book doesn’t explicitly discuss genetics, but it’s there on every page, from the German Otto Lilienthal at the beginning to the Austrian Felix Baumgartner near the end. Baumgartner claimed “Joe Kittinger’s record for the highest, fastest skyfall with a jump from 128,100 feet (24 miles)” in 2012 (pg. 236).

The American Nick Piantanida had preceded them in the 1960s. First he was a pilot, boxer and rock-climber, then he became a skydiver. His attempt to claim the freefall record killed him: he “suffered an explosive decompression at an altitude greater than any other reached by a human being”. Like Lilienthal, he survived his crash-landing but died in hospital. Success in aviation has been won by the sacrifices of the same group that sacrificed for success in mountaineering. Flight can be seen part of the same Faustian quest.

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