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Mountains on Jura

July 24, 2022 1 comment

I went north this week. Ostensibly the reason was to mop up a few sites I wanted to see for the book.

As I moved up the country, the wires above the train caught fire and we were held stationary for hours; it wasn’t long after that they closed the East Coast Main Line. Once we got to Newcastle I found the the local metro, too had melted.

I made it: in the end. But I felt like some kind of desperate surfer, always just an inch ahead of a tsunami of heat, even as my own activities contributed to the warming that was its ultimate cause.

I’ve burnt 700 miles worth of diesel since. I’ve used it to reach hills in the Borders made of the solidified inner furnace of the Earth; hills I found it impossible to climb, such was the power of the climate-heat.

I’ve used it to reach an artificial mountain in West Lothian made of discarded shards of shale oil, each piece of which clinked below my feet like burnt wood, all of them processed to provide energy for man.

In the Firth of Lorn I visited places that were once islands, and are now flooded reefs of slate: places hollowed out and vanquished by the need to roof an industrialising world.

And at one point I stood in baking air on an empty plateau; and knew that on this spot 1300 years earlier a missionary had stood in a magnificent timber hall and tried to describe what it was to be alive.

It was like a bird, he said: a bird that accidentally enters a hall such such as this, and savours the life and the warmth, before vanishing into the unknown again.

Throughout all this a destination lurked at the back of my mind that had nothing to do with the book.

I found myself googling possibilities, using social media to make last-minute connections, making bookings on the hoof, and in the end driving for three extra hours into the short Highland night, simply so I could find myself on the first ferry-sailing of the following day.

I never quite admitted to myself I was doing this. And yet I did it. And it wasn’t until I was on the ferry, and we chopped across grey waters and seals lolled on stray rocks, that I realised that this was the actual reason for the entire trip. Remarkable, it was to respond in this way to something at once fundamental and utterly hidden.


I’ve being brought up against all kinds of realities these last few years. That we are embodied. That the cells that comprise out flesh change over time, and not always in the way one might wish them to.

I’ve spent too long trapped in NHS chairs, pinned down by tubes down which kindly, masked figures put into me some very expensive chemical poisons.

Wherever the imperative came from, it had something to do with this. Crossing the water was part of it: freedom, space, the elements. But at its heart was an 8-hour walk into a deserted peaty bog, from which I pushed these 60-year-old legs up almost 800 metres of hard quartzite, to find myself surrounded by fog and at the summit cairn of the highest point on the Hebridean island of Jura.


What is it about mountains? Like the imperative that brought me here, the reason for their pull is not always clear to us. We pretend it’s all about conquering things, rising to challenges, pushing one’s frame, showing your body who’s in charge.

But the reality is different. In places like this it is just you, and the forces that are actually in charge, and nothing else. Just this little complex bundle of quick carbon — and the mighty power of the physical world: the tectonic power of time, of change, of energy moving from one state to another. The power of time: the power of place.

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Anglian connections

June 17, 2022 Leave a comment

Last week’s East Anglian trip involved 3 sites for the book, 3 castles and 7 churches that I need to see for pre-tour research, and 2 can’t-resist-it drop-ins en route. All that was very managed — until the end, when serendipity threw up a sequential cross-section at once very English, very universal and very special that was quite unplanned.

It began at the Holme Post, erected in the Fens in the mid-C19 to mark the level of the shrinking peat: it has has since dropped by 4m, making this the lowest point in Britain, significantly below sea level. The surrounding landscape must look very like what the Fens were like before human beings found them.

15 minutes to the west, at the very lip of England’s first harder rocks, I stumbled for the second time in my life on ‘the route you would be likely to take/From the place you would be likely to come from’ and found myself at Little Gidding: the chapel which inspired one of the greatest works of English poetry, a work by T S Eliot that has been a lifeline these past two years.

This time I didn’t *quite* come ‘at night, like a broken king’ but I’m not ashamed to say I know what he meant, and there were tears.

And just 10 minutes after that, the ruins of the chapel built by peace campaigners at RAF Molesworth in the mid-1980s, a building that lay behind the perimeter fence when in those days of post-punk protest I used to go there to try and stop the world from ending (in the end we just got a temporary reprieve).

Geological fragility, English spirituality, protest, and the bookends of my adult life, all somehow connected and colocated.

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Where do I come from?

May 20, 2022 3 comments

‘Where am I from?’ With this simple question, every human being connects themselves to Place. Yet the answer can be surprisingly complex. Having spent my childhood in London NW1, lived in London again in my 30s, and parents who retired back to Camden town, I have long simply identified as ‘Londoner’. Indeed, as a child I was under the impression that to be British was to have significant Jewish blood and to be a left-wing intellectual. I now realise this is a very specific sub-ethnicity: ‘normal for NW1’, perhaps.

More to the point, this self-identification isn’t really true. Because In 1974, when I was 11, my parents relocated to west Devon: a deep England still relatively untouched by metropolitan niceties. I stayed there until I went to university, and thus it was there, not London, that many of my the most formative experiences took place. It is there that I encountered Brentor, triggering an engagement with ‘Place’, and with religious buildings in particular, which has been the guiding obsession of my working life. It is there I went on to explore local churches, climb local tors, and allow a rain-soaked landscape of granite and Hurdwick lavastone to seep into my very soul. It is there I had my first kiss, had my first drink, fell in love for the first time, swapped tapes of the John Peel show with my classmates – music I still listen to today – and found my first ‘tribe’: a gang of vaguely lefty nonconformists known to ourselves as the ‘Corner Lot’ for the location we traditionally occupied in the VI form block.

Perhaps, in reality, I am from two places: one cosmopolitan and urban, the other a west-country twist on a deep England: and it is habits of mind from both that have defined my life. After all, I have chosen to live in a rural village near a market town, replicating in my own kids adolescent rituals – inter-village all-hours Dad-taxi services, cities as a place to visit rather than to inhabit – that are more Devon than London. I feel spiritually most at ease in an Anglican context: what could be more trad-English? And yet there is much in my life that doesn’t fit Wiltshire stereotypes. We are a mixed-race family; I have come to know China better than any European country; and I still get off the train in Paddington and somehow feel ‘London! Phew: I’m back in my Manor’.

In other words, it is easy to construct a narrative of identity that doesn’t actually fit the facts; Place may be relatively immutable, but the stories we tell ourselves about it are not.  

This question of ‘where I’m from’ is intimately bound up with one’s parents’ identity. Where they are from is a part of where you are from; where they ended up is where you grew up. Perhaps that’s why I have found that, with their passing away, the loss of a ‘home’ in NW London has been bizarrely hard to adjust to.

In some ways, the answer to ‘where were *they* from is simple: one was from Edgware, in the 1920s effectively stockbroker belt country; the other from the East End. Their geography thus maps onto my London, which has been focused in NW1, NW3, E1, E8 and N16, quite closely.

But again, there is much more to it than that. My mother’s side, the Edgware one, had connections with Dorset as well as London, and included a very significant Huguenot branch. Enlightened middle-class nonconformists, then. My father’s side, the East End one, had fled Bialystok on the Polish/Russian border in about 1900: Ashkenazi Jews.

Yet in both cases, their family name is itself evocative of Place.

My mother’s maiden name, Suttill, is presumably from the Old English for ‘south hill’: a generic Anglo-Saxon place name (though given they have been traced back to medieval Lincolnshire a significant Scandinavian element would come as no surprise).

Meanwhile my own surname, Cannon, is the result of the decision of my great-grandfather (I think it was), Israel Zelich Cananovich, to Anglicise his family name. In its original form then, it presumably means ‘son of Canaan’.

Suddenly we have abandoned a ‘south hill’ in Lincolnshire for the contested edgelands of Poland and Russia, and then been tipped into the even more contested country of the Middle East, transported there through a place name that evokes perhaps the most profound connection of people to place in human history.

A name, too, that spins out into a realm of more mythical promised lands: Kingdoms of God, Heavenly Jerusalems, utopias. This concept of an imagined ‘perfect place’ is occurs in many cultures, from the phrase, attributed to the First Nation peoples of North America but it seems possibly a white settler invention, ‘happy hunting grounds’; to the Buddhist Pure Land. Perhaps the search for an Earthly equivalent is really what this is all about; where we are all from; where we will return to.  

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Locked down landscapes

March 25, 2022 Leave a comment

Two years (and a couple of days) since the first lockdown. Time for some memories of lockdown and place….

The extraordinary silence and warmth that accompanied the first lockdown. The whole family at home. Treating every gatepost and shopping bag as if it was infected. Our quiet, Tory-ish village coming out every Thursday to make a total racket in support of the NHS.

Total dependence on delivery drivers for daily needs: the new, insecuratariate on which we depend at once more at risk than anyone and more essential than ever to our survival.

Discarded gloves in hedgerows: first signs of an incoming tsunami of plastic waste – masks, shields, protective equipment, LFTs, much of it manufactured on the other side of the world.

Yet the only form of international transport visible to me is a single plane that daily crosses the once-busy sky: and this plane, the internet tells me, carries mail, not people. This more than anything reminds me that the whole world is caught up in this.

Cyberspace, meanwhile, fills with information, from the essential to the dangerously made up.

This virtual space becomes crucial. As restrictions ease, a brief business visit to Bristol cathedral reveals a lone verger apparently talking to himself: in fact, he’s in a meeting.

Daughter Ann, quarantined in the shed and streaming her gigs, has breaks that would never have come her way if she’d carried on performing in physical space.

For all the kids, place is reduced to home and daily walks from it. A single trip to Swindon creates nerves. Yet May misses out on two years’ of events: exams, proms, other rites of passage. And

Lily has literally not had much of the stimulating stuff one usually shows a child in the years between 8-10.

Thankfully there are upsides to this new, home-based focus. It so happens that we love each others’ company. And Lily retreats into a virtual world of books which I suspect she will explore and lose herself in for the rest of her life: printed literature as a kind of pre-internet Cyberspace.

How much of ‘normal’ life we waste simply getting from A to B, burning fuel as we do so.

Chemo in empty hospitals, administered by nurses utterly sheathed in plastic.

To London for scans: Covent Garden in shutdown, long-favoured businesses given up the ghost.

This includes an entire morning walking around/working on a bench in a freezing Hyde Park: there is literally no space anywhere that is open, public and heated.

Here there are people everywhere, but as all of them are taking their one-hour walk there is a strange aimlessness about these crowds. Against a London norm that is centuries old, no one is heading for anywhere specific. And it remarkable how much less rewarding people-watching is when the lower part of every face is hidden.

Local footpaths at home, places I consider my special secret discoveries, suddenly known by everyone.

As a subset of this, those place where tarmac leads and no one goes become mysteriously findable. There are now often cars parked in these hidden locations, and as I cycle and walk I detect three groups of users, each perhaps dependant for their inside knowledge on some WhatsApp group or other.

Firstly, there are the teenagers, gathered illicitly outside their bubbles, windows up, cars shaking and smoke-filled.

Then, at first more mysteriously, there are groups of well-heeled looking Asians: I suspect these are software workers and graduate students, so cut off from any wider community that they reasonably consider it safe to gather together, but want to be discrete about it.

And most common of all, delivery drivers, taking a short, adrenaline fuelled break. In fact I don’t see them: they don’t stop for long enough. I just see what they leave behind: great piles of hastily discarded Greggs wrappers, bottles for energy drinks: crap fuel for crap jobs.

Trip with Liu Hong and May to Yorkshire after the second lockdown: no one, including staff, is masked in our Bradford hotel: yet these are people meeting strangers for a living.

Bradford city centre has a kind of normality: but suburban shopping streets, which before were just-hanging-on rows of charity shops, tattoo/vape parlours, curry houses, halal butchers and corner shops, have totally given up the ghost, as if the whole of the litoral of this city has been through a war zone. Even post-Thatcher it wasn’t like this. And that’s before the Brexit/Ukraine/cost of living crises that have followed.

Churches, the one place a community might turn to at a time when one needs spiritual space, solace and silence, almost universally locked.

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February 17, 2022 5 comments

So two days ago I went here (to lecture the locals on Chinese art, as it happens): Cerne Abbas in deepest Dorset. And the first thing to say about it is that there is a very large (ahem) image of a giant with an erection prominent on the hillside above the village; a thing that makes me proud to live on an island where such sites are not only possible, but have been happily standing there for centuries.
But there’s more to Cerne than that. There’s a very attractive village, a nice church, and the remains of an abbey. And the whole place turns out to be an example of a thing that England does particularly well: superficially bucolic, yet charged on further inspection with a series of rather powerful qualities, held in balance: traumatic change and continuity; a concatenation of places and structures that give the whole shebang an almost spiritual undertow; qualities that fall apart if one tries to pin them down or analyse them too rigorously.

The giant is a unique example of that remarkable genre, the chalk hill figure: taking advantage of the combination of green, close-cropped grass, thin soil, and bright white rock to create a charged open-air art form. Recently securely dated for the first time, he turns out to be early medieval, though his proud member may yet turn out be a C17 addition. This means it joins the Uffington white horse as among the very few of these figures known to be genuinely old.

It’s also a very interesting date, and its position in the landscape is interesting, too. The Cerne river carves a steep, north-south valley here; the giant sits on a promontory in the valley-side carved by a great scoop back into the chalk, the kind of landform typical of this smooth-edged, easily eroded rock. It is located not only in the most prominent location in the vicinity, but apparently as close as possible to the site which for centuries dominated the valley, in spite of the priapic giant above: Cerne abbey.
Cerne abbey has effectively vanished. Valued at just over £575 just before it was dissolved, in 1539, it had the wealth to build a church easily on the scale of Milton or Sherborne abbeys, both of which survive. We know absolutely nothing, as far as I know, of this once-grand church, but the surviving remains of its outbuildings suggest a lot of work was going on here in the C15, an era when it sometimes seems half of Dorset is being rebuilt.

What we can say is that it would have outdone anything else in the vicinity in scale and presence, not only architecturally but also as a focus for political, economic and spiritual power. And that it was founded by the Anglo-Saxons, probably in 987AD; which begs the question of whether the giant was created after or before it. tTe picture is further muddied by the fact that by the C12 the abbey believed itself to have been founded by St Augustine, apostle to the English, four hundred years before the documented date; he conjured a miraculous well into being, which came to be the site of the hermitage of Edwold, brother of king/saint Edmund of East Anglia, a kind of holy refugee from the Vikings who was shown the site in a vision; he died here in 871. A small religious house or chapel next to a verdant spring is evoked; but this makes it all the harder to say which erection came first, fnarr fnarr. I start to get images of abbey and giant as Vivienne Westwood’s punk kissing cowboys. Let’s move swiftly on.
The abbey site is the great disjuncture in the Cerne landscape. The village – originally more a town — with its church, sits just beyond, further away from the giant and once very much in the shadow of this walled and gated religious compound which must have dominated it.

So there is an absent presence at Cerne: one cannot understand the place without factoring in a structure that is today evidenced by a large, bumpy field, a few stray ancillary sites, and a graveyard in an odd location, detached from the parish church it serves; a gap which now serves to separate the village from the giant, but which was once the heart of this place.

This is a story repeated across the land, and often such absent presences gets filled in interesting ways. It is impossible to understand the layout of Bury St Edmunds until one realises the whole town is laid around the axis on which Edwold’s brother Edmund’s arrow-punctured body and wolf-curated head lay, the climax of one of the greatest churches in the land: it’s ruins are today a municipal park. Another church on a comparable scale stood at Glastonbury, and here the shattered remnants of the great church became part of a manor house garden and is now a heritage site; while some of its peripheral structures survived, and centuries later came to be sucked in a range of newfangled spins on its ancient traditions, ignoring some and adding to others until it morphed into a kind of Somerset version of Haight-Ashbury, a sacred place for the ‘New Age.’ Such peripheral structures are a fascinating and overlooked aspect of monastic landscapes, especially ripe for charging with new significance when the monastery itself has disappeared.

So there is something interesting here, about what happens when you destroy a religious ‘main show’ and leave chunks of its setting intact. At Glastonbury St Michael’s church, the Chalice Well and Wearyall hill, with its storied thorn tree, were all features of just such a wider monastic ‘sacred landscape’, peripheral and preparatory to the church itself, with its many shrines; there were other sites too, now lost, or overlooked because more recent cultures have chosen to privilege some over others; and beneath it all there is a remarkable landform: a near-island, a dramatic tor: a ‘thin place’ at any era.

It’s all reminiscent of what happened in the churches that remained after the Dissolution of the monasteries, only to experience a wave of iconoclasms. As a result, in these buildings, the main images — the statuary and stained glass and wall paintings, focused on saints, and biblical stories — have gone; but, along with secular effigies, their peripheries and margins: green men, mermaids, carved bosses, foliage and the like, remain: and attract attention disproportionate to their original significance, attention which can rapidly spin off into new myths of its own.

Often, ironically, these myths seek to play down the richness of the Christian culture which created them in favour of an imagined and rather one-dimensional vision of a pre-Christian paganism. This may be bad history, but perhaps it is an over-simplified shorthand for ‘this place has a power, and that power is a mixture of the landform itself and centuries of human response to it’, a reaction with I share.
All this works at Cerne. Monastic remains include two gateways, each a threshold between the mundane and the sacred, the open and the enclosed: one has been reconfigured into a handsome C17 or later manor house, one source of power replacing another; the other stands like a disjointed C15 tower block in the manor house garden. What may have been its guest hall seems to have been repurposed as an agricultural building; a tithe barn is now a home. There is the stump of a processional or ‘preaching’ cross in the graveyard, once perhaps a key focus of Palm Sunday rites. There was a chapel of St Catherine outside the abbey; it has gone, but something like it survives at Abbotsbury, and at Milton abbey, both on hilltop locations, both memorable outbursts of the ‘sacred feminine’ as understood by medieval Christianity. And there is St Augustine’s Well.

Here, fresh water, still drinkable when running clear and fresh, pours into a series of post-Reformation pools largely made of recycled bits of the abbey, perhaps especially of the chapel of St Augustine of Canterbury – a rare dedication, only repeated as far as I know Canterbury and Bristol — known to have stood around it. This a delightful place; healing and calm, the trees bearing traces of a belated rebirth as a clootie well, doubtless all very recent. But it bears witness to remarkable stories: of the power to cure eye problems; of new born babies, dipped in the well at sunrise; of girls turning three times as they ask St Catherine for a husband.

And of course these waters, and this sight, is draining the fresh water that flows below the chalk and the giant just 200 metres away from the abbey site, and just without the monastic enclosure.

So here we have it: village, parish church (largely C15), lost monastery, with surviving sites that veer from the mundane to the numinous, which were once a commonplace at such complexes, and which are marginalia compared to the church itself, which has gone: but which has left a certain liminal, creative wonder intact; and an obscene giant scratched into the Cretaceous geology.

How do we tease this all apart? What came when, and how did the site develop? The abbey is reasonably securely dated; many of the legends associated with it are only recorded from the C12 and, in the case of the well, the C17. Do any of them reflect ancient, pagan traditions reconfigured by Christian missionaries, or Benedictine reformers — or are they merely products of the culturally fecund and fevered centuries after the Dissolution? It is impossible to know. The former is romantically attractive, the latter is all that history has to say.

And much the same is true of our giant, the only feature of this place that can have competed visually with the abbey church, and which had to be regularly scoured and thus cannot have survived the millennium and more since it was carved without regular attention and the blessing of the monks who lived in its shadow, celibate to a man.

There he stands, his ribs and nipples emphatic, his erect penis even more so. The iconography is Hercules, but that might be part of his later reinvention. His most eye-catching feature is permanently aroused, permanently unsatiated, possibly a ‘late coming’ (sorry) to the artwork of which he forms a part. An erection that is also a suitable cipher for the landscape itself, filled with politics, power, traumatic change and continuities layered so that they meld together like the alluvium, sandstone and chalk that surround the river Cerne, as strange and quietly extraordinary as England itself.

I hope to do more of these following on from my ‘coming out’ about cancer on Facebook a week ago. Some will relate to my current condition, others won’t, though nothing is unconnected to it in my own head. The may come in dribs and drabs until my next book is out of my hair, but I hope people will enjoy them.

The Cerne giant

The parish church: mostly C15, fine tower, odd doorways either side of it, remarkable wall-like stone rood screen and very good consecration cross.

St Augustine’s well
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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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