Posts Tagged ‘British Isles’

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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A Sting in the Tale by Dave GoulsonA Sting in the Tale, Dave Goulson (Jonathan Cape 2013)

I was looking forward to this book a lot after reading A Buzz in the Meadow (2014), which is the follow-up. I was disappointed. It’s a good book, but it suffered by comparison, seeming scrappier and less well-written than Buzz. And perhaps I was comparing it with Gerald Durrell’s books too, because Goulson starts by describing his childhood as a budding naturalist. He kept birds, amphibians and reptiles, collected insects and birds’-eggs, and dabbled in taxidermy. Like Durrell, he had a lot of failures and made a lot of mistakes, but that was part of learning his future profession.

By the time he was grown-up and a proper biologist, he’d discovered his main interest: bumblebees, which are the chief subject of this book. If you’re interested in them too, A Sting in the Tale will be a good introduction to their fascinating world. They illuminate many areas of biology, from genetics to parasitism, and they’re important to human beings not just agriculturally but aesthetically too. The sound and sight of bumblebees are a wonderful part of summer. It would be a poorer and less interesting world without them, and it’s sad that some species are declining or have disappeared in the British Isles.

Goulson is fighting to re-buzz Britain. He describes how he set up the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and how he’s trying to re-introduce the short-haired bumblebee, Bombus subterraneus, to Dungeness Nature Reserve in Kent. There’s still a thriving natural population in Sweden and a thriving introduced one in New Zealand, which was founded when British bees were taken there in the nineteenth century to pollinate clover. So should the re-introduction to Britain be from Sweden or New Zealand? Goulson thought that there would be “a beautiful symmetry to the idea of bringing back these bees to the UK from the other side of the world after a 126-year absence” (ch. 17, “Return of the Queen”, pg. 236). But the New Zealand bees are highly inbred and seem to descend from just two introduced queens (pg. 234).

So Swedish bumblebees were used in the end. The re-introduction is still under way and some of the questions it raises haven’t been answered. Why are short-haired bumblebees still thriving in Sweden when they’ve declined elsewhere in Europe? And why hasn’t that genetic bottleneck harmed them in New Zealand? Goulson suggests possible reasons, but bumblebees will be baffling biologists for a long time to come. They’re hard to track on the wing and to find when they’re inside their nests, which is why chapter eight is about “bumblebee sniffer dogs”. It turned out that the dog-handler was better at finding nests than the dogs were (pp. 105-6). Experiments often go awry and hypotheses are often confounded. Like A Buzz in the Meadow, this book gives you a good idea of what it’s like to be a working scientist: it’s always fascinating, but often frustrating too.

Both books also lament the depredations of modern agriculture. And of modern horticulture: “bedding-plants have been intensively selected for size and colour, and in so doing they have lost their nectar, or become grossly misshapen or oversized so that it is impossible for bees to get to the rewards” (ch. 16, “A Charity Just for Bumblebees”, pg. 222). This means that “old-fashioned cottage garden perennials” are best: a “wildlife-friendly garden does not have to be a chaotic mass of nettles and brambles”. In the previous chapter, “Chez les Bourdons” (“At Home with the Bumblebees”), Goulson describes his attempt to establish a wildlife-friendly farm in France. That’s the tale he picks up in A Buzz in the Meadow, which uses the farm to discuss a wider variety of animals and plants than this book does.

Perhaps if I’d read the two books in the order he wrote them, I’d have enjoyed A Sting in the Tale more. As it is, the chapter I enjoyed most was “Chez les Bourdons”, which also supplied the most memorable – and gruesome – image in the book. Goulson says that kestrels catch and eat stag-beetles on warm summer evenings at his farm. But they discard the beetles’ heads, which “remain alive for a day or two, their antennae twitching and their great jaws slowly opening and closing” (pg. 203). Nature can be cruel and ugly as well as beautiful. But perhaps insects don’t suffer in any genuine sense. That’s one of the questions that biology is still to answer. In the meantime, Dave Goulson is doing a good job of explaining his science to the general reader.

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Brit GritGranite and Grit: A Walker’s Guide to the Geology of British Mountains, Ronald Turnbull (Francis Lincoln 2011)

Singh Summing SimpsonsThe Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, Simon Singh (Bloomsbury 2013)

Go with the QuoStatus Quo: Still Doin’ It – The Official Updated Edition, compiled by Bob Young, edited by Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt (Omnibus Press 2013)

Breeding BunniesThe Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the Extraordinary Number of Nature, Art and Beauty, Mario Livio (Headline Review 2003) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)

Brit Bot BookReader’s Digest Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain, J.R. Press et al, illustrated Leonora Box et al (1981) (@ O.o.t.Ü.-F.)

Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Front cover of Sea Charts of the British Isles by John BlakeSea Charts of the British Isles: A Voyage of Discovery around Britain & Ireland’s Coastline, John Blake (Conway Maritime Press, 2005)

This is a bonnet-book. Opening it is like lifting the sleek, stream-lined bonnet of a car to reveal the complicated and powerful engine beneath. Sea Charts of the British Isles reminds you of what goes on beneath the surface and of what you might have been taking for granted. In this case, it’s sea-faring: the apparently simple task of sailing from one place to another. But it’s not simple and it’s never been safe:

The first lighthouse [at the Eddystone Rock off Plymouth], built by Henry Winstanley in 1698, was of wood in an octagonal shape, and strengthened in 1699. Winstanley was captured by a French privateer during construction, but Louis XIV ordered his release, pronouncing that, “We are at war with England, and not humanity.” Winstanley rebuilt the lighthouse in 1703, testing providence – and losing – as he wanted to sit out a storm in the lighthouse. The storm that came was one of the worst ever recorded and when it abated both he and the lighthouse were gone. (ch. 1, “Charting the British Isles”, pg. 17)

To avoid hazards at sea, you have to know not just where they are but where you are. Lighthouses are one way of marking hazards, but you can’t put a lighthouse on every rock. So you need charts and ways of finding yourself on them. This book is about the charts and the charts are guides to navigation: they often have mysterious, slanting and radiating lines that you don’t find on land-maps. You don’t usually drown or founder if you go astray on land and you can easily ask directions. Before satellite-positioning, you had to find directions at sea for yourself:

Portolani or books of sailing directions, known in England as rutters of the sea, existed in medieval times, before the chart as we have come to know it was conceived… The English navigator would rely heavily on the rutter, given the meagre navigation equipment of medieval times, which he used along with the compass, and lead and line for sounding depths… The portolan charts were based on a framework of 16 compass roses equally spaced and arranged in a circle, with radiating rhumb lines that navigators could use as a guide to lay off a course to steer. (ch. I, “Charting the British Isles”, pg. 22-5)

Looking through this book, you can trace the evolution of both navigation and cartography from page to page, century to century. Charts once showed Scotland “as a separate island (as some may wish it now)” (ch. I, pg. 11) and the coastline of Britain only vaguely resembled reality. Paradoxically, as cartography became more scientific and the charts became more realistic and accurate, so they became more evocative too. A medieval chart tastes of paper, not of the sea. By the end of the eighteenth century, charts let you taste the sea and hear the sea-birds:

The first admiralty chart published of the Scilly Isles was drawn by Graeme Spence in 1792. … This is a stunning piece of hydrographic surveying with 23 views of the indented, complex coast of this island group battered by the Atlantic. Lying 32 miles off Land’s End, with balmy temperatures all year-round, it is an internationally important area with large numbers of sea-birds breeding on the islands, including the red-beaked puffin, and most notably the European storm-petrel … (ch. III, “The South Coast of England”, pg. 65)

Spence’s chart isn’t intended as art or evocation, but it is artistic and it does evoke. So does the “Chart of Caithnesshire and the Orkneys” published by Laurie and Whittle in 1794, with “pilot information and sailing directions” for the Merchant Navy (ch. VI, “Scotland”, pg. 106). This evocation-by-accuracy found in real charts and maps is borrowed by fantasy-writers like Ursula Le Guin, whose archipelago-world of Earthsea gains extra power from the fact that it has been given a realistic map. If Earthsea also had charts with sailing-directions, it would have even more power. Symbols, sightings, soundings would add verisimilitude to an invented world and offer more food to the reader’s imagination. But there’s plenty of food for the imagination in this book about charts for a real world.

It’s also interesting to ask why charts are more powerful than maps. I enjoy looking at both, but there’s something special in a static representation of a highly dynamic thing. The sea regularly rises and falls, irregularly rages and calms, so charts have to indicate tides and currents. And depths too: the land doesn’t hide its secrets the way the sea does. Charts can also go out of date very quickly and easily, because sandbanks can shift and rock-formations collapse overnight. This book doesn’t just tour space, it tours time too, whether it’s human or hydrographic. All coastlines are beautiful, but the British and Irish coastline has a special place in maritime history, because the British Isles have given so much to sea-faring. See the sea-faring, and the special place, right here.

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