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Walking the Coronacene

April 19, 2020 1 comment

My daily Government-permitted walk takes me out of the village and onto a chalk ridge. In road verges en route I glimpse some of the detritus of the modern world. Objects that could one day make stratigraphic horizons — the sudden appearance of plastic-derived chemicals, for example — for archaeologists studying the modern era; and perhaps even for geologists studying an incipient Anthropocene.


Until recently, such deposits have been dominated by things such as Greggs sandwich wrappers, discarded energy-drink bottles, and containers from petrol station bakeries: I read this as the detritus of delivery drivers with no time to stop and eat. A very early C21 type of litter.

But in the last few weeks these have been replaced by something very specific and new: the discarded disposable glove.


These will become a testament to an extraordinary specific historical horizon, for almost all will date to the months after the Covid-19 lockdown of late March 2020.


In spite of the occasional roadside mess, these walks can be rather bucolic. There is no traffic noise. The weather is good. Wildlife has gained a new confidence. There are other people around — I pass several people on every walk, whereas before the lockdown I barely met a soul. It is easy to forget that we are in the grip of an emergency of unprecedented depth and strangeness.


Until, that is, I look up into the skies. We are on a major air corridor between north America and northern Europe (I once saw my village from a Chicago-Heathrow flight) and at any one time there should be half a dozen or more high-altitude vapour trails up above. Now I am lucky if there is a single one.

But I have noticed one solitary flight, which in good weather becomes a fragile linear sunset every evening at about 8.30: normally a peak time for incoming flights. It is moving in itself to just see a single trail in the sky. I then wonder who on Earth is on that plane — and Flighttracker suggests it is carrying post, not people.


All of a sudden I am goose-pimplingly aware that this peace and quiet is not normal. It embraces not just my Wiltshire village, or even my country, but much of the globe.

This, too, will be traceable in future, as a sudden dip in carbon deposits, a calm-before-the-storm of an inbound Carbon-fuelled apocalypse.

There is one other thing I’ve witnessed on these walks that cannot leave an archaeological trace: because it is a noise. Like most English villages, mine is normally almost silent: except for drop-off and pick-up times at the primary school, people drive off to work and drive home from work; occasional tractors make their way from one field to another; but on a normal day one rarely sees another human being in the street.

Now it is common to pass a dozen faces, all friendly, even keen to talk, while also keeping a respectful and regulation distance. Even more remarkably, every Thursday at 8pm something extraordinary happens: something noisy, demonstrative, and communal, and thus utterly unexpected.

The first time I heard this I was on my evening walk ands unaware it was going to happen. Quite suddenly the hills resounded to the sound of cheering, of pots and pans being bashed, of whistles being blown through open windows and doors. An outpouring of gratitude to those who are keeping our shops stocked and our sick alive; the hidden army on whom we all depend, and will probably suffer disproportionately as a result. It turns out those disposable gloves could be a life and death issue.


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Notre-Dame de Paris, 16 April 2019

April 16, 2019 3 comments

I’ve woken early with Notre-Dame de Paris on my mind. And am relieved to see, as was already looking likely last night, that this probably isn’t the complete destruction of a cathedral that was being reported as I went to bed.

Let’s deal with that first. A Gothic great church is vaulted: that’s a sheath of curved stone that covers the interior, looks amazing, and (among other things) protects the interior from the enormous timber roof that rises above it and shields it from the elements. These timber roofs are among the unsung miracles of cathedrals by the way; enormous spaces in their own right, rarely glimpsed. As a result of the presence of the stone vaults, many times in history sparks have caught in the dry, timber attic space among them, and a spectacular conflagration has taken place — while leaving the architecture and fittings of the church below mostly intact: that seems to be what is happening here. The loss of the roofs alone is a tragedy, but it is by no means the same as the loss of a cathedral. Well done, twelfth-century master masons.

The danger starts if vaults become unstable and burning timber falls through them into the church below. As a result, timber fixtures and fittings on the floor of the church are the next thing to worry about, followed by other things sensitive to heat such as stained glass windows. The stone fabric of the building itself is the last thing to go (which is why so many survive). I can show you this story playing out again and again, from York minster in the 1980s to Norwich cathedral, which suffered a major such fire in the medieval period (indeed before its vaults were built) — its eleventh-century stones are visibly redenned by the flames to this day. Having said all that, my biggest worries regarding Notre-Dame at the moment are for things that are both fragile, and precious, and high up: the organ, and (above all) the incredible medieval stained glass that fills the rose windows in the transept, and will be sensitive to heat.

Meanwhile, why does this building matter? First and foremost, it embodies a quality that many such structures, from St Paul’s cathedral to your local parish church, have acquired over time. It embodies the identity, the history, the roots of the city in which it stands. Not for everyone maybe, but – as the silent crowds gazing from the Seine make obvious – for many, and regardless of spiritual affiliation. Of course it is an iconic structure, a symbol of the city; but it is also by some distance the oldest large landmark in that city, marking a site that has been one of the tap-roots of its history even before the current church was built. People don’t know this, yet somehow they feel it. The statement could be made of thousands of churches across Europe, but this one dominates the heart of one of its greatest metropoli.

Of course, there is a spiritual dimension, too. The name says it all: for many, certainly when it was built and to an extent still today, ‘Our Lady of Paris’ is a religious protector for the metropolis itself. It contains precious relics, including the ‘Crown of Thorns’ won for Paris in the early thirteenth century: guff you may say, but historically and culturally (and for some even today, spiritually) of the greatest significance.

Which brings me on to the art-historical aspects. This church is the largest structure to survive from the very first flush of a remarkable moment of 12th-century experiment, significant in the architecture of the world: the invention of Gothic. A handful of buildings are testament to this period, and most are within close reach of Paris. It’s not aesthetically the greatest moment from this series, but its undoubtedly a work of great power and was always both the biggest and the best-known among them. It predates the crystalisation of the new architecture into a ‘style’, a story that starts at Chartres and finishes at Reims. It seems reasonably likely that this will survive, or be restorable. But that is just the start of its story: for the church was hugely enlarged in the 13th century, when Paris was the undisputed centre of learning and culture in western Europe. The transepts, crystalline elegant mature Gothic, with their sculpture and stained glass, are the most obvious testament to that. The architecture and the external sculpture should be fine; the stained glass is at greater risk.

Notre-Dame, like so many European great churches, had a hard time in the passage from the medieval to the modern world: a focus for destruction and attack in the Revolution, for example; as well as for great national events such as the crowning of Napoleon as Emperor. It was in a bad way by the mid-19th century and a lot of what one sees today, especially outside the building and high up, is the work of Viollet-le-Duc, an architect of that period. So that’s the final reason to hope: the fleche, for example, the thin and beautiful timber-and-lead spirelet that has been utterly destroyed: its loss is a tragedy, but it’s also one of the youngest and most replaceable parts of the cathedral. So there’s still hope.

But Notre-Dame remains an embodiment of something, and current reactions to the conflagration help to illustrate how these buildings remain relevant. There is a social-media fed rumour mill abroad in France that Muslims are deliberately setting fire to churches. In spite of the early statement, by the Parisian fire department I believe, that the fire probably began as a result of current restoration work, this possibility is already spreading like wildfire. Once again, Notre-dame becomes a lightning conductor for history. So close to Easter, and with Europe in greater turmoil than at any time since the Second World War, this is a kind of spiritual/heritage Grenfell, a fire that will be read for all kinds of metaphors. Peace be upon us.

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Britain’s rocky roots

December 12, 2016 Leave a comment

Imagine that the oldest rocks in Britain, the gneisses of Scotland’s far north-west, were formed 12 hours ago (rather than 2.7 billion years). Then adjust all the subsequent timings so that the rocks of this island come together in the course of a day.

It’s a slow start. The Torridian sandstones, which form the mountains which rise from the gneiss, were created a full six hours later. Not much else can be said about those intervening six hours, except that it took that long for the gneisses to make their way to the surface from 30km underground. The oldest rocks in England and Wales – which form the Malverns, parts of the Long Mynd, the area around St David’s, and other fragmentary but compelling patches of landscape – came into being an hour after that.

That leaves about three hours, and almost all of Britain has yet to appear. Nevertheless these rocks are important: they make memorable places; offer glimpses of the crustal layers that might lie buried deep beneath the entire island; and are reminders of that profound strangeness: a world where complex life is yet to exist.

The big change comes in a period of about 40 minutes either side of two hours from now. In a continental collision somewhere in the Antarctic, two formerly separate gatherings of ancient rocks, parts of which we can call ‘Scotland’ and ‘England’, are conjoined. Himalayan-scaled mountains go up as vast quantities of sediment fall, buckle and fold; fault-lines such as the Great Glen are set up, marking the landscape to this day. Enormous volcanoes explode. The chief mountain ranges of Britain are the battered remnants of this event: the Highlands, the Lakes, Snowdonia, and others. It’s all also broadly contemporary with the first great explosion of complex life: fish, for example, have evolved by the end of this period.

These heights then erode for 20 minutes or so, reducing in scale as they do so (indeed they have been getting smaller ever since: what we witness are barely stumps of the originals). Their sediments lay down the Old Red Sandstone of Herefordshire, the Orkneys, and elsewhere; many of the rocks of south-west England come into being now, too.

Then a complex era in which our patch of the planet moves, over just 10 minutes, from desert to oceanic to island-edge and all stages in between. This creates the sandstones and limestones of the Pennines (England’s largest area of highland), and much of south Wales and lowland Scotland. Many of the sediments of which all this is created are themselves, in effect, fossils. Coral reefs become limestone country, ready to erode into peaks and caves; swampy forests become coalfields. Life, then is by now commonplace, and much of the highland armature of the island has been brought into being. A second continental collision affects these rocks, causing further volcanic events (most visibly in the Scottish Midland Valley) and turning lowlands into highlands; though its epicentre is of off-screen, it particularly affects the rocks of south-west England, which had been laid down on the floor of an ocean and which were now scooped up and compressed and left in their present location by the continental collision; a trauma which caused magma to well up below ground. This cooled into a great mass of granite, the tips of which form the moors of the south-west.

We have less than an hour and a quarter to go, and the rocks that dominate the soft south-east third of the island have yet to develop. Not that it’s an island yet: indeed, we are now locked in the middle of a supercontinent. We have been moving gradually north, and have crossed the equator. In a vast desert, the New Red Sandstone that dominates the English Midlands (and which stretches its arms far to the north either side of the Pennine highland) is laid down; then, beneath warm oceans, the yellow Jurassic limestone and the white chalk. There are other rocks, too, including various clays. All these lie on top of each other, and cover in turn the older, harder rocks beneath; each, today, begins to the south and east of its predecessor, like the sheets of a well-made bed. During this hour-long process, the age of the dinosaurs comes and goes.

Most of our island now exists. And every rock, as it appears on the surface, begins to erode and reduce, reconfiguring the appearance of the landscape and creating the potential to make new rocks.

By the last quarter of an hour, our layered jigsaw of stones has reached a temperate part of the northern hemisphere, is located on the edge of the landmass that is now Europe, and has an ocean widening to the west, as what is now America breaks free and moves away. Massive volcanic eruptions accompany this process, leaving behind them the rocks which form the sharpest peaks on such Hebridean islands as Skye and Mull.

Elsewhere, only the softest and most friable of stones, such as those which make up the cliffs of the East Anglian coast, or the clays on which London lies, are still forming. Indeed the whole assemblage has become, through millenia of erosion, layering and addition, a ghostly precursor of the modern pattern of upland and lowland which characterises this land; even many modern rivers have rough predecessors. Though the sea is both rather mobile and not at all where we might expect it (a proto-Thames, for example, flows scores of miles north of its current course and drains into a mighty river located somewhere under today’s North Sea), a shadow, counterfactual Britain is discernible.

The ice comes in the final minute of our story. Until just a fraction of a second ago, it has been polishing and grinding the landscape into its current shape. As it recedes, the land finds it current form, the rivers their current courses, the sea its approximate present level. Britain comes into quite sudden definition as the largest island in an archipelago on the north-west coast of Europe: the opening of a seaway between us and the Continent is at once extraordinarily recent and of huge historical significance. By then — perhaps around a twentieth of a second ago — man, settles for good here for the first time, and as the world warms up after the ice has gone, starts fiddling around with rocks, creating tools, clearing forests, making fields, building houses and cities, digging quarries and mines; in short, transforming in the blink of an eye the surface appearance of the entire island. We reach the present, hurtling into the future. And this whole story only covers half the history of the planet in which it took place.

As an afterthought, these major formations can be covered, roughly in chronological order, in a 12-hour drive from the far north-west to the far south-east of the island. To get this drive to line up with the amount of time involved in creating the rocks in the first place is a tall order: generalising hugely, it involves driving at 7 miles an hour or so for the first 70 miles (Cape Wrath to Ullapool; the formation goes on another 70 miles or so, but that’s splitting hairs); to then cover 190 miles in 40 minutes, that is, to drive at nearly 300 miles an hour from Ullapool to the southern edge of Loch Lomond, cutting over the Midland Valley and crossing the Southern Uplands in 20 minutes – thus exemplifying the interrupted, unconformable nature of geology – before resuming to cover the length of the English Pennines. Starting at a point halfway between Carlisle and Berwick, we then drive down to Derby (not for the first time, no road will do this: you have to go either side) — about 180 miles — in 10 minutes. One then has to go at 180 miles an hour (during which one passes through at least three major rock formations) until one is almost at the south coast. Having arrived at, say, Cosham – on the mainland side of Porsmouth – one has 15 minutes or so to cover the Quartenary’s portion of our hour and get to the seafront.  Given Portsmouth traffic, this may prove the hardest bit of all. Anyway, I guess the post-ice age/human presence portion is roughly equivalent to a walk along the rocky beach, but at that point my computational skills collapse. Except to comment that the way our island looks, including the fact that it *is* in island – let alone all the amazing architecture that has been built from its geology, from Kirkwall cathedral to Buckingham palace – is about as temporary and impermanent as the coast at low tide.

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STONES: Charnwood

March 22, 2016 3 comments

This is one of the most moving sights I know. Like the Malverns, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, it relates to this extraordinary geological subconscious, the pre-Cambrian baseCharnwood Bardon Hill STONES (20)ment: the truly, truly ancient rocks which (probably) underpin the entire island, but which — apart from a long sliver of north-west Scotland that forms one of the most remarkable landscapes on the planet — rarely appear above the surface.

We are on the edge of Charnwood forest, just north-west of Leicester. It’s a little-known landscape outside the immediate area, and the last thing one expects in what is otherwise a mixture of Midlands towns and low, easy, farming country. But Charnwood is a Place with a capital ‘P’. If the Malverns are a mini-mountain range, a spine, a totemic border heralding the English far west, then Charnwood is a landscape in and of itself: an island, a world apart. And parts of it have been ravaged by industry. It thus stands in for two of the most contradictory and vital aspects of man’s relationship with stones: their role in making places of dreaming, freedom and danger (the more visible the stones beneath the surface are, the more likely it is that one is in relative highland and relative wilderness) — and their usefulness as a resource, excavated from the earth and re-arranged to make everything from cathedrals to motorways.

The Malvern slice of ancient basement made its way to the surface partly thanks to the existence of an ancient scar in the earth’s crust. Charnwood may be on another one of these, but here the story is much more one of the greatest shaper of Places of all, which is not the orogenies of mountain-building — but their wearing away, by erosion.

Perhaps 575 Million years ago, then, these rocks came to the surface in a dramatic series of volcanic eruptions. Some erupted beneath an ocean, others on islands; some came out fast, others came out slow. The result is a range of igneous rocks of different appearances and propensities — and all of them very hard. There are 3.5 kilometres of them lying beneath the surface.

These volcanoes were then built up and ground down again in several cycles of mountain-building and mountain-erosion: and by the Triassic era, about 250 million years ago, they were again at the surface, where they formed low rocky barren granite hills, set in a desert as large as a small continent. Where the dry rock-covered wadis then filled with sand; and that sand was then compacted by more sand until it too became rock.

Today, much of that rock, the New Red Sandstone, has been stripped away, and the tips of these buried hills have appeared above the surface, forming a sudden moorland in the middle of Leicestershire. It is this last process which formed the Charnwood we see today.Charnwood Bradgate Park STONES  (16)

It is truly a place apart, Charnwood forest. Though only six to eight miles across, in the middle of it one could be forgiven for thinking one was on the edge of Snowdonia or the Lakes. Forest, rough grazing, drystone walls. Little houses made of a jumble of hard, shiny stones: tones of brown, grey and black in an east Midlands ocean of red brick and green fields. Sudden dramatic frost-shattered tors. As one explores the landscape one discovers shallow gorges, cut by rivers that worked their way down through soft sandstone, washing it away as they did so, and then found themselves cutting steeply into something harder. At Bradgate Park the medieval hunting forest is preserved, with ancient oaks scattered among the rocks of the mini-gorge romantically called Little Matlock. At Mount St Bernard C19 Cistercians re-occupied a ‘desert fastness’ last inhabited by monks (the Augustinians had a house a few miles to the east) at the Dissolution. And throughout, one is dimly aware of the edges: that surrounding this rocky island is a sea of low farmland (and, to the south-west, coalfields). Less visible are the precious fossils: shallow fan-like patterns on exposed surfaces, which in the 1950s first proved that there had been complex life, albeit not yet with a skeleton, in the distant pre-Cambrian.

Charnwood Newtown Linford STONES (4)Humans discovered the potential of this landscape early. Roman Leicester was partly built of it: at Swithland, the rocks split easily into slabs thin and impermeable enough to make roofs, and Swithland ‘Slates’ as they are called have roofed everything from Roman villas to twentieth-century Midlands cottages. And here, at Bardon Hill quarry, the demand for rocks for aggregate: principally, rocks strong enough to take wheeled traffic, skyrocketed with the invention of Tarmac and the Industrial Revolution, and shows no sign of abating.

Climb Bardon Hill, then and one is in for a shock. Firstly, the outline of a tor, a communications mast and an Ordnance Survey triangulation point become visible. Then, just yards from the trig point: a cliff, and one realises the rest of the hill has been cut away. Peer over the edge, and you are looking into a quarry that supplies about a tenth (32 million tonnes) of the aggregates and other such products mined in Britain. A quarry that is also a cross-section of the ancient geologies beneath our feet.

Look again at this view. First notice how big this hole is: those giant-tyred lorries look

like toys. Then look at the land-surface that stretches around it: one can see the housing estates on the edges of Coalville; the fields of rural Leicestershire. To look at this is as undramatic and unremarkable a landcape as any in England. Then look at the side of the quarry itself, and behold a cross-section of what lies beneath.

A great lateral divided crosses the image: below is hard grey, above is soft reddish-orange. This is the line of the hill we are standing on, the pre-Cambrian basement which we have just climbed continuing on underground towards its customary deeply-buried home. The slope is the lost hillside of a Pangean desert. And the redness above is the New Red Sandstone which is the remnant of that desert, and is otherwise the usual rock one finds lying beneath the English midlands. It is like being tipped back in time; and like all tips-back-in-time, even those that are the side-products of Extractive Industry, it is very moving: a series of lost landscapes, past places, vertiginous sequences of time, jammed together; the undercarriage on which we live exposed.

Even more remarkably, you probably drove over chippings of these ancient rocks last time you hit your local motorway.

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Tours 2016

February 24, 2016 Leave a comment

Here are my main talks and tours for 2016. They include an exciting new project, Sacred China, in the autumn, as well as well-established favourites in the more familiar territory of medieval England, including Martin Randall Travel’s top UK tour, the delightful-to-lead Cathedrals of England.

19-20 March (probably): Five styles, Seven Churches. Contact me: A hand–picked selection, all in Wiltshire, each delectable, and taking us chronologically through the main phases of medieval architecture, from Anglo-Saxon to Perpendicular. £75 a head for the two days.

20-28 April: Cathedrals of England. Martin Randall Travel. From Ely to Winchester via Durham and Wells (just a taster of the fuller itinerary) a selection of the finest buildings anywhere. The tour is being repeated in the autumn, led by Tim Tatton-Brown; I am also leading it twice in 2017.

13-15 May: Medieval Churches, Monasteries & Cathedrals of the Fenlands. Villiers Park Educational Trust. An introduction to medieval churches, an exploration of a fascinating and distinctive landscape, and an itinerary of some of the most celebrated churches in England — all rolled into one.

23-27 May: Medieval East Anglia: Cities, Towns and Villages. Villiers Park Educational Trust. An exploration of the fabric of medieval life, focusing on some of a series of memorable churches, from the Red Mount Chapel in King’s Lynn to Norwich Cathedral to Lavenham.

11 June: Oxford cathedral, Dorchester abbey. Contact me: Two remarkable former Augustinian shrine churches, vividly set in contrasting historic landscapes, and jammed with goodies. £40 a head.

16 July: Dayschool on Vaults. Contact me: Gloucester cathedral as our example, we will study how vaulting developed in the medieval period and learn to recognise the different types of vault the resulted, each spectacular in its own way. £40 a head.

7-10 September: Medieval Cambridge: History & Architecture. Villiers Park Educational Trust. Turning the city into a time machine from which to watch a new institution – the university – appear and develop, concentrating on its medieval architecture.

10-24 Oct: Sacred China. Martin Randall Travel. A new itinerary, and an exciting one, too: from the great imperial sacrificial complex of Tiantan in Beijing, to the desert Buddhist monastic caves at  Dunhuang, I’m really looking forward to this. And I am leading Essential China again in the Autumn of 2017.

I am also lecturing, mostly to NADFAS groups, in Leatherhead, Stafford, Hull, Midhurst, Bristol, Kenilworth and Hersham, and leading private tours in Wells and Bath. Contact me ( if you would like to attend one of these talks, or arrange a private tour of your own.

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STONES: Malverns

February 23, 2016 Leave a comment

_DSC8451_1689This stone has a dense, obdurate hardness to it. It is a deep, flat shade of grey; shattered by feet or frost from its host rock, it has a certain sharp-edged flatness. It is also very ancient: cooked up 600-670 million years ago, under conditions of enormous heat and pressure many kilometres below an active volcano; far above, the planet had yet to develop large plants, or animals, or even fertile soils.

300-500 million later a phase of mountain-building placed the expanse of rock of which this stone was a part under huge pressure. Normally part of the hidden ‘basement’ which lies beneath our entire island, it was squeezed upwards, testing a scar-line that was itself ancient: the joining point of two chunks of continental crust.

Over the ensuing millennia the landscape around this great mass was transformed – new rocks formed and eroded away, old ones moulded and reshaped – but throughout this time this oldest and hardest of rocks has changed more slowly than anything around it, and the forces that reduce have had less of a levelling impact than they have had on the surroundings landscape, and our rock’s bare and frost-shattered surface has been left high above the surrounding country.

_DSC8298The Malvern Hills are the result: a dramatic punctuation mark in the unfolding landscape of England. As a place of igneous origin and mountainous character, they introduce with a striking drama the themes of the west and the south-west some distance before one should rightfully expect them to appear. They are thus an outlier, a harbinger. Yet their relative isolation is a reminder that more than anything else, they are a place apart. These are the oldest rocks in southern England. They are a near-shocking interruption in the southern narrative of young, untroubled rocks, a kind of exposure of a geological collective unconscious. Stories like this barely exists anywhere south of Ullapool, let alone in Worcestershire.

The hills they make are also a divider. Look west from this 9-mile long ridge, and one peers into the dark, old country of the Marches – Silurian shales, Old Red Sandstone heights, complex landforms, distant Welsh mountains. Look east, and one gazes at a fertile wide valley-plain of young, soft rock, the Severn and the M5 running roughly parallel to this north-south ridge, the gentle-looking uplands of the Jurassic Cotswolds lining up beyond. This entire valley has been created by the removal by the Severn of the soft rocks over which it slides, leaving these heights to either side: indeed, here on the Malverns there is no higher point between here and the North Sea (indeed it is said there is no higher point between here and the Urals): in effect one is gazing towards the settled heartlands of the south and east. It is fitting, then, that this wall-like flank of hills is anciently a boundary: the Earl’s Ditch follows their spine and dates from the Bronze Age; it was the focus of territorial disputes in the C13, and remains the border of Hereford and Worcestershire.

The Malverns are also a kind of toy wilderness in an otherwise tamed landscape; a place where Anglo-Saxon hermits went to found Great and Little Malvern priories; and later, major cultural figures dreamed their dreams. The vision of William Langland author of Piers Plowman, is particularly prescient. Lying by a spring beneath a ‘broad bank’ on the Malverns, he had a vision which crystallised several signature qualities of this landscape. That this is a wildness safe enough to dream in; that these hills overlook a great plain in which the worldly and the everyday is visibly milling around (witness the M5); that the hills themselves are an important source of fresh water; and that they are marked by ancient statements of power (The Earl’s Ditch is one, but perhaps the ‘broad bank’ is the forbidding Iron-Age rampart known as British Camp). Langland claimed not to know where he was in his dream,_DSC8284 yet its landscape is firmly rooted in his locality. And his dream also embodies the cultural relationship of romantic highland and worldly lowland that would later be writ large in the Lakes and other mountain zones.

Centuries later, Elgar, too spent much of his life walking these hills and cycling the lanes beneath them as he composed his sweepingly Romantic musical visions of Englishness. In truth, all who have found in the Worcestershire landscape a certain swooping darkness – from Elgar to the wild pagan fulsomeness of And Also the Trees and the rural punk of the Dancing Did – owe something to this outburst of pre-Cambrian upland.

Our stone, lying in the grass near Herefordshire beacon — the highest point in the Malverns — is diorite, an igneous rock that is hard to work but very permanent. The steps of St Paul’s cathedral are diorite, as are some of the most durable monuments of ancient Egypt.The other main truly ancient rock up here is a pinkish granite.

The sharp lines at the edges of the stone are worth remembering, for the way it cracks is crucial to its impact on the human story. When it was uplifted somewhere 300-100 million years ago, an infinite number of such sharp fractures appeared within it, and these in turn filter the rain that hits these hilltops to a remarkable degree of purity as the water seeps downwards. When the rock changes character to something younger and less pervious, this water pours out — and thus the lower slopes of the Malverns are riven with springs around which, in the early modern era, a kind of healing cult developed. People flocked to Malvern to take the waters (locals still drink from the many springheads, and you can get Malvern Water in bottles in many places). Villas for retired, health-seeking well-to-do Midlanders; spring-head houses and hotels gave the slopes the atmosphere of a resort. The demand for this local rock for use as a building stone pockmarked the hills with quarries, like tiny bitemarks in the steep elevation. At the same time, the common land of the open hilltops began to be divided up. Development could have ruined these hills altogether and for this reason they were vested in the Malvern Conservators in 1884, a conservation measure that presages the founding of the National Trust in the true wilderness of the Lakes twenty years later.

We can thank this phase of development for one thing: the first widespread use of our hard, ungiving local stones as a building material, creating a signature to the buildings of Malvern that is as distinctive as the landscape itself. Before this, ambitious local architecture had been made of the nearby limestones and sandstones, their shades of pink, soft yellow and off-green a contrast to the dour tones of the hillside. Now, presumably thanks to the availability of powered quarrying tools, Malvern’s newer landmarks — St Ann’s Well, Great Malvern station — were made of Malvern stone — often diorite like this. _DSC8372This is in contrast to the national pattern, in which local rocks of low usefulness tend to dominate in any given area until the Industrial Revolution, after which those sourced from further away tend to become more common.

Once again, it is the sharp-edged quality which provides the signature. Diorite, for example (the granite is also used) is rarely seen carved, but is instead cleaved into rough polygons, which are then placed as close together as possible. Walls of Malvern stone have a clear signature: close-set, sharp-edged patterns; deep grey tones embedded with a deep and intractable hardness as much felt as it is seen. Indeed few rock this ancient has been used so extensively in buildings. In many senses the Malverns are the most striking of the few outbreaks of the archaic period south of Scotland, striking for the collision of the wild and the wealthy, the comfortable and the primitive, that they represent.

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Archaeological extensions

July 28, 2015 Leave a comment

_DSC1194Home, five minutes ago. The rubble pile from our extension accidentally sorts itself into a geo-archaeological artwork, frost-shattered white cretaceous chalk on one side; a rubble-randomised anti-stratigraphy of smashed brick, fragments of concrete, pieces of coke, and soil mulched by human life on the other. In the middle, a ritual deposit, equally accidental.

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Greetings of the Season

January 3, 2015 2 comments

_DSC3159And so it draws to a close, as day follows night and the planet hurtles around its satellite star. The great hibernation in the last month of the year, as the cars vanish from the roads and the emails disappear from the inbox and everything goes silent or refocuses on an orgy of purchase, fridges and larders overflowing as if we will never see another harvest. We cut down living trees, put them in our homes, and cover them with lights. We sing with unfamiliar communality, uncomfortably worshipping things we do not know. And then, for a day, the still, intense feast-ival and holy-day for which we have all been preparing.

The food is good, and part of it. The presents, too. The preparation – chopping, wrapping, stirring – part of the silent ritual enchantment of such prosaic, crowd-pleasing pleasures. But what gives such simple things bottom is twofold. The underlying keying-in with the brute, blind, conquering force of nature, the shortening of the days, the spinning of the planet. This Solsticial binding is the bass. But just above that sits a low, silent melody equally significant, historically younger, and harder to define, unless one is capable of understanding these things literally, which I’m not (and in any case to do so always seems to me to turn the baby out with the bathwater, or the manger). An idea about a human birth: blood and groaning in a cold barn; a shocked and confused mother, strange visitors. An idea about a humanity that is also a divinity, even *the* divinity. A birth that has its death bound into it like holly is with ivy. An idea that unites us all, because this is also all of us. For a long 24 hours, the darkness is held back, and the promise of a light to come remade, and we are all together. As much of the world seems to be getting darker, this is a good thing.

And then it all starts, as slowly and as inexorably as time, to unwind again. A week’s dusky prefigurements, and late nights and boxsets and too much drink, and the overlapping rival poetries unravel, Janus turns in one direction, the cars spew out their carbon on the motorway and the servers of north European Christendom begin to groan with the weight of busy-ness. Was it worth it? It was.

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An art history of handwriting?

December 11, 2014 4 comments

‘Style’ is a curious thing. As an art historian its a major concern: trying to understand the twists and turns of this or that motif, from the way a given artist’s personal way with a brush changes over time, to the choices made by architects about entire buildings: Gothic or Classical? Ionic or Corinthian? These architectural decisions of course, are relatively self-conscious: I want it to look like this. Painterly style is seen as less so — as being a side-effect or expression of personal choices driven by self-expression and aesthetic preference — but even here there is a strong element of conscious choice: one of the reasons we are able to look at something and call it Impressionist, or Quattrocento, or whatever. But I’d never really thought of handwriting in this way before. In some cultures – the Islamic and Chinese worlds, for example – writing is the highest of arts; but even there, much writing is much more workaday than that: simply a way of recording information, of fixing words for future reference, of communicating the prosaic. Yet handwriting, like art, moves in broad stylistic waves; and each of us develops a way of writing that is to some extent an expression of our personalities, but which also, consciously or not, fits into a broader cultural context of how the handwriting of a particular kind of person ought to look. There is a sense then in which all our handwritings render us artists. I’m struck by this as I crawl my way through these churchwarden’s accounts, watching the C16 inch its way into the C17, and the C17 make its way forwards to the modern world. These are workaday attempts to record ingoings and outgoings, likely to be scrutinised at the end of the financial year and then ignored for the rest of human history. Until a trainspotter like me comes along, trawling dull lists of payments for insight into the past. Here they are, stacked up in great volumes in the record office, recording the ‘bread and ale’ bought for the bellringers after they marked the mayor’s entrance into the city in the 1680s, a treat that becomes ‘tobacco and ale’ by the 1700s: newly fashionable drugs (2010: ‘line of coke and lager?). Marking the purchase of ‘nayles’ to fix doors, the constant repair of bell ropes, the purchase of ‘gunshot to kill birds in the church’. Becoming fuller and more exacting as they move into the pomp and red tape of the C19. And all the time, the handwriting gradually evolves. It changes its style. And what is so striking is that it moves in broad phases that align with the broad developmental patterns of art itself, and which in turn are somehow hung from the great invisible superstructure of History. So these wills and title deeds from the 1490s are carefully written by trained clerks, rounded, squashed and relatively legible, in spite of often being written in another language: Latin. Forty years later, the Latin has vanished except as an occasional word; so too have the trained clerks. Everything is written in Secretary Hand, which sounds very efficient but is in fact, in the hands of the local churchwarden, one of the hardest things on earth to read – even though it’s now in English. This curious, slightly nightmarish way of writing, all to-us distorted and compressed letter forms and unfamiliar ways of making marks, it strikes me, is the handwriting equivalent of Elizabethan and Jacobean art. This is a world in which Classical motifs are squashing themselves into a way of thinking about how things should look that is still late Gothic. A world in which a Great Disjuncture has occurred, the mass extinction of the monasteries, and is still being played out; in which every aspect of visual, religious and increasingly political culture is being violently contested. A world in which visual things are rarely beautiful, and can be even rather nightmarish, if certainly impressive. One might better call this Jacobethan Hand than Secretary Hand. This does not mean that the words themselves have problems. It’s a version of Secretary Hand that Marlowe, Shakespeare and others presumably used to form some of the greatest combinations of letters into words and words into sentences ever attempted in the English language; in which the King James Bible and its predecessors were, I imagine, first drafted. Thank God that printing is by now reasonably commonplace, or we’d have trouble reading words which underpin so much English literature and song ever since. Indeed printing, I suspect, is one of the  reasons for all this: people are no longer dependent on handwriting to make books: if something needs to be legible and understood by enough other eyes, it can be printed. Indeed I suspect handwriting is deteriorating for comparable reasons right now: as everyone is word processing, and every text can be spellchecked and published automatically, we are each, when writing by hand, increasingly likely to fall into a C21 version of sixteenth-century writing. Post Modern Hand. When did you last see someone’s handwriting? We used to see it all the time. But then, in the 1680s and 1690s, look what happens: it’s still Secretary Hand, but somehow it’s stretching out, becoming legible, reasonable, straightforward. By the early 1700s its morphing into a kind of italic, fully-formed by mid-century. I’m sure there are all kinds of reasons for this that historians of palaeography, or education, of whatever, have uncovered: what strikes me now is that again, ordinary writing is lining up rather neatly with broad phases of development in artistic style, and in turn, with history itself. The backdrop, then, to this change in the way the sexton and the carpenter write out their receipts to the churchwardens is Wren, Hawksmoor, the belated but brilliant tide of a truly understood Renaissance; Newton, the Royal Society and later the Enlightenment; the gradual, painful accommodation both religious and political that marks the Restoration, the Glorious Revolution, etc. The term Italic is right: the culture that comes from Italy. These are Whiggish historical clichés, of course, yet it’s very hard not to read these men keeping their accounts in no-doubt rather cold parish rooms, and watch the way the letters move out of the nibs of their pens over the striding decades, and not see history itself come into focus, or feel the modern world hurtling into being, as Jacobethan Hand becomes English Baroque Italic, and before you know it the age of machines and Empire and near-universal literacy is upon us: I have yet to study Gothic Revival Hand, Historicism Hand, let alone Brutalist Hand. But perhaps I’ll know them when I see them.

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Jon Cannon tours 2015

December 1, 2014 Leave a comment

‘You have an extraordinary talent for rendering your erudition accessible’; ‘This has been the trip of a lifetime for me’; ‘Jon Cannon is as good as it gets as a scholarly authoritative lecturer’; ‘In a word, extraordinary’; ‘ a sensitive, funny man who brought to life … the medieval world.’… just some of the comments received from my 8-day Cathedrals of England extravaganza. If you’d like to share in this experience (I couldn’t possibly comment!) here are the dates for 2015.

Also be aware of events upcoming in 2016: A two-day residential ‘dayschool’ on Canterbury cathedral; the four Martin Randall Travel Cathedrals of England tour, and a newbie from MRT, Sacred China.

West Walton-Jon Cannon and group

A group play ‘where’s the church?’ at West Walton. We never did work out where it was.

 Dates for 2015

This year we will have two new residential tours, Anglo-Saxon England in May and Essential China in September, as well as all the well-established favourites …

Dayschool on Medieval Architectural Style (venue: Bristol cathedral), 10 January 2015 

Each of the main styles surveyed, in the classroom and in the flesh, or should that be stone. Contact me to find out more:

Dayschool on Hereford cathedral, Abbey Dore and Kilpeck23 May 2015

A beguiling cathedral, and two of the country’s most famously wonderful churches. Contact me to find out more:

English Cathedrals, 22-30 April 2015

Luxury hotels, epicurean meals, exclusive musical recitals — and an expert 8-day show-round of ten of the greatest buildings on Earth.

Early Medieval England: Anglo-Saxon & Norman History & Architecture, 8-10 May 2015

A journey into the roots of English architecture, visiting a selection of the country’s finest surviving Anglo-Saxon churches, plus such Romanesque gems (with ancient roots) as St Albans, Waltham abbey and more. Excellent food and accommodation.

Medieval East Anglia: Cities, Towns & Villages, 1–5 June 2015

From mighty Norwich to exquisite Lavenham, discover a lost world of medieval life and architecture. Excellent food and accommodation.

London Day: Seven Churches & a Synagogue, 23 June 2015

London in a nutshell, from Romanesque to High Victorian.

Medieval Churches, Monasteries & Cathedrals of the Fenlands, 4–6 September 2015

Some of the most famous churches in the country. Excellent food and accommodation.

Dayschool on Cirencester, Fairford and Inglesham, 3 October 2015

Two extraordinary late medieval churches, including a detailed exploration of the famous medieval glass at Fairford. Plus one perfect unrestored gem. Contact me to find out more:

Essential China, 20 October–2 November 2015

Classic China, including all the key sites of Beijing, Xian, Shanghai and Hangzhou, with all the Martin Randall quality you’d expect as regards food and accomodation
I am also lecturing, mostly to NADFAS groups, in New Zealand (a three-week tour!), Malmesbury, Monmouth, Wey Valley, Newick, Welwyn, Liverpool, Cockermouth, Hexham and Stratford-upon-Avon. Contact me ( if you would like to attend one of these talks, which are open to the public for a small fee. Also regarding private tours, if you would like to arrange something.

People rave about these tours: I hope you’ll come along.


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