Common spaces: downland churches

29 08 2013
Interior of St Michael's church, Up Marden

Interior of St Michael’s church, Up Marden

The South Downs is England’s newest National Park, created in 2011 and encompassing an 87-mile long ridge of low chalk hills, running from Winchester to the sea at Eastbourne. Yet, the majority of its land is still privately owned, often by large estates, and many of its paths are out of bounds for the walker, guarded by fences or ubiquitous signs proclaiming ‘private: keep out’ or ‘no right of way’. A far cry indeed from the unbounded freedom of the Peak District, where the ‘open country’ signs open up a different kind of meaning of the word ‘National’. For the Peak District, this was a hard-won and long-in-coming freedom, but one that is nevertheless a testament to the efficacy of popular (and disruptive) protest.

The road to Up Marden

The road to Up Marden

Yet, dismissive as it may be to the right to roam, the South Downs National Park contains its own unique common spaces, namely the ancient, and often tiny, churches that are hidden in the soft, undulating chalk and flint-scapes of these hills. The cluster of churches around the hamlets known as the Mardens on the Hampshire/West Sussex border are particularly striking examples. Always open to visitors (and nesting birds), the little churches at North Marden, East Marden and Up Marden are entwined as a thread of common spaces in this otherwise private landscape. They are also some of the most beautiful of England’s small churches – moving witnesses to early Christianity and its stubborn longevity.

Exterior of St Michael's church, Up Marden

Exterior of St Michael’s church, Up Marden

All the churches are small and undistinguished early medieval buildings: low, squat spaces rendered in the abundant local flint and covered in simple, terracotta-tiled roofs. No towers or spires proclaim the church’s dominance over the landscape and its people; no bells call the reluctant to worship; no transepts, aisles or elaborate tracery in the windows; just single, undivided spaces, bare walls and uneven floors of brick or weathered stone. Perhaps most evocative of all is St Michael’s church at Up Marden. Sitting as it does a hundred yards away from a tiny single-track road behind a barn and shrouded in trees, the 12th-century church seems to emerge out of the landscape in humility, the flint-strewn field adjacent to it mirroring the rough patterns of the flint in the church’s walls.

Nave, St Michael's church. Up Marden

Nave, St Michael’s church. Up Marden

Like other visitors to this church – like the architectural historians Simon Jenkins and Ian Nairn – I have never met another soul in or near this church. Yet its door is always unlocked and fresh flowers always adorn the tombstones and the altar. Clearly, someone cares deeply for this church, but in a way that remains mysterious: a presence in absence. Inside, the church is a space of extraordinary peace and simplicity: a single arch, crudely buttressed, marks a divide between the darker space of the nave and the light-flooded chancel, with its undecipherable fragments of medieval wall paintings emerging from the white-washed walls. Simple blue-painted candle holders give the interior an almost Byzantine feel, while the altar is as simple as possible – a rough-hewn cross sitting on an equally rustic table.

Remains of medieval wall paintings, St Michael's church, Up Marden

Remains of medieval wall paintings, St Michael’s church, Up Marden

What is the undeniable presence in this church, one that led the staunch atheist Nairn to visit it repeatedly when depressed and nearing his premature death in 1983? Nairn declared that the church moved him beyond religion: it had an atmosphere developed by ‘slow, loving, gentle accretion, century by century’. There is no didactic object that can explain this atmosphere – no carving, no buttress, pinnacle or stained glass. Instead, every human action, over hundreds of years, has made this church what it is today. Not the grand gesture of the esteemed patron, or the flourish of the craftsmen’s hand, but small and gentle actions; humble, yet determined; unseen yet powerfully evident. As it was for Nairn, for me this church is not a work of architecture but of humanity.

Candle holder, St Michael's church, Up Marden

Candle holder, St Michael’s church, Up Marden

Industrial ruins: abandoned slate quarries in North Wales

1 11 2011

1. Workers' houses at the Rhosydd Quarry, North Wales

Scattered throughout North Wales, and particularly concentrated in the Ffestiniog area, are a large number of abandoned slate mines and quarries. Perhaps the most evocative – and certainly one of the most isolated – is the Rhosydd Slate Quarry. Situated 1500ft above sea level between two mountain valleys, the location of the Quarry is spectacular, facing Cnicht on one side (known as the Welsh Matterhorn) and the bulky Moelwyns on the other. It’s accessible only by a mountain path, being over 2 miles from the nearest road and 4 miles from Croesor, the nearest village, itself remotely situated at the end of a minor road.

2. Fireplaces in the workers' houses

The remote site of the Rhosydd Quarry adds greatly to its potent sense of mystery. For it’s almost unbelievable to think that for 80 years from 1840, over 200 men were employed by the quarry, many of them living in purpose-built houses in this bleak location – treeless and one of the wettest spots in Wales. The workers’ cottages still stand in splendid but ruined isolation, their house-like quality just remaining in the surviving forms of the windows and chimney (1). For miles around are scattered enigmatic structures, including bits of rusting machinery and a succession of mills, barracks and adits constructed at different stages of the quarry’s development – testament to the lengths that were gone to to reach the then valuable slate, which lay in beds underneath the mountains.

3. Window in the workers' houses

4. Underground tunnel leading to the slate mine

Nearly all of the smaller Welsh slate quarries closed down in the early twentieth century due to falling demand and today only a few working quarries remain around the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. The buildings of the Rhosydd Quarry express the complete dominance of just one building material: for everything that was built here was built with slate Рfrom the window and fireplace lintels (2 & 3) (sometimes the only surviving bits of entire houses), to fences and walls that enclose and protect the buildings. Close to the houses are entrances to underground tunnels which gave access to the buried slate, hewn by hand and now made strangely beautiful by the return of nature Рmoss and water bringing colour to the otherwise grey walls of the tunnel (4). In the remains of the quarry buildings, architecture has been eroded into its most elemental forms: walls have bulged outwards, chimneys have collapsed in on themselves, isolated hearths are now surrounding by ruins. If these ruins are bleak and melancholic, they are also beautiful in their geometrical simplicity: in one of the buildings, the one remaining door lintel perfectly frames an enormous almost perfect cone of discarded slate above it (5).

5. Lintel and slate cone

The buildings of the Rhosyyd Quarry represent the ruins of an artificial industry naturalised by the passing of time and the brutal forces of nature – ruins that seem to be engaged in a powerful yet mysterious dialogue with their environment. In another remote abandoned slate quarry – the Prince of Wales Quarry – on the flanks of Nantlle mountains, most of the buildings have almost disappeared into the ground. Those that remain seem to testify to their submission to the larger forces that created the landscape from which they arose: the ruined roofline of one decaying building mirroring the form of the serrated mountain ridge behind (6).

6. Ruined building at the Prince of Wales Quarry

Ruins as memorials

5 06 2011

B-29 engine at Higher Shelf Stones, Peak District

England’s Peak District is a beautiful area of wild moorland and wooded valleys; but it’s also a graveyard for over 50 aircraft – mainly Second World War planes that crashed in poor visibility on the western edges of the Peak’s bare moorland. These tragic remains now attract ‘baggers’ in the same way that the Scottish mountains do and there are many websites and even books listing the wrecks and their precise positions in the often featureless landscape.

1. Wreckage of Meteor aircraft, crashed 1951 on Siddens Moss, Peak District

2, Memorial in wreckage on Siddens Moss

I came across my first wreck by accident, while trying to find my way over a desolate stretch of moorland in the area around the Black Hill in the far north of the Peak District. First, I came across single pieces of metal (1), shredded and twisted, and then, following their trail, I found recognisable parts of aircrafts – bits of wing, engine and fuselage – heaped together in a shallow gully. Finding this wreckage suddenly invested the landscape with a enigmatic sense of tragedy – an unknown story that obviously involved violent death. More striking was the discovery of a small memorial – a cross and a poppy – embedded in part of the wreckage (2). After returning home I found out the story of the wreckage: two Meteor aircraft had collided in mid-air in 1951 and crashed on the moorland, killing both pilots.

3. B-29 wreckage on Higher Shelf Stones

4. Wooden crosses in wreckage at Higher Shelf Stones

Many of the Peak District’s aircraft wrecks are also memorials. A much larger wreck at Higher Shelf Stones near Glossop is very close to a popular walker’s path and it consists of the ruins of a B-29 aircraft, which crashed in 1948 killing all 13 people on board (3). Amongst the wreckage – including almost intact engines, wings and wheels – are countless memorials, made up of a mixture of crosses, using stones gathered from the moor (4), bits of wood or even parts of the wreckage itself, and poppies arranged around the engine parts in scarlet wreaths (5).

5. Poppy wreath on an engine at Higher Shelf Stones

The iconography of these memorials is the same as those used for war memorials and many of the aircraft were used during wartime or carried veterans when they crashed. Yet, the effect of this iconography amongst these wrecks is very different from its more common counterpart – that is, cenotaphs and poppy-wreaths that form the focus for acts of civic remembrance. Here, unchanging ceremonies present the past as if it were static, undisturbed by the erasing nature of time and the duplicity of memory. In these Peak wrecks the memorials become part of the ruin: wooden crosses are scattered by the wind (6), poppies devoured by rain, stones sunk into the bog. As such, even as they bring to mind past lives obliterated by a violent event they also participate in the inevitable process of ruin itself.

6. Cross and wreckage on Mill Hill, Peak District

7. Mangled radiator at Higher Shelf Stones

We might even argue that the wreckage itself is a more powerful memorial than the later additions. Left where it fell in the landscape, it is overtaken by nature: the metal surfaces become strangely contorted by rust and weathering (7), moss and grass grow through the pierced surfaces, and sheep make use of hard surfaces as convenient places to relieve an itch (8). In its ruined state, this wreckage speaks both of a past event – one that is tragic and violently immediate – and of its subsequent return to a much slower time, where it accumulates the stories of the landscape itself.

8. Sheep's wool on an axle, Mill Hill

Wild spaces: Kinder Scout

22 03 2011

1: On Kinder Scout looking towards Edale

Kinder Scout is a high windswept upland gritstone plateau, most of which stands at around 600 metres above sea level. This is the largest and grandest of the upland areas of the so-called ‘Dark Peak’ in England’s Peak District National Park. Like its southern cousin, Dartmoor, Kinder Scout is studded with stone tors and crags, which flank all of its steep edges that guard the almost featureless plateau, which covers an area of four square miles.

2: Rocks on Kinder Scout

3: Rocks and aircraft trails

4: Balancing rock with Edale behind

It is the rocks that give Kinder its distinct personality. Sculpted by wind and rain and extremes of temperature, the gritstone tors act as landmarks on the plateau – strange presences that rise up out of the peat and heather. Here (1), a mushroom-shaped rock looks out over the steep sides falling into Edale; there (2), two isolated rocks are seemingly drawn towards a mysterious point in the sky; here¬†(3), aircraft trails radiate from a hole in a rock on one of Kinder’s innumerable crags; there (4) a balancing rock frames the sweeping Edale valley behind. Without these presences, the landscape would be immeasurable, hostile and alien, as is the case on nearby Bleaklow. With them, the wild landscape assumes a reassuring character, although its meaning remains inscrutable if undeniably present. No wonder, then, that Kinder Scout was the site of a mass trespass in 1932, when thousands of walkers breached the fenced moorland to claim their right to roam, given formal recognition in 2003.

5: Kinder's plateau frozen in January

6: Frozen stream on Kinder Scout

Kinder’s landscape is transformed in the winter months, when its surfaces freeze hard and one can roam over the wave-like undulations of its plateau without sinking into a quagmire (5). Here the landscape becomes almost extraterrestrial, the deep reds of the peat and endless, blank horizons confirming on it the character of an alien planet. When its streams freeze into petrified white ribbons fringed with icicles (6), the landscape assumes a silence that is not characterised by absence; rather, it opens up a space of contemplation and wonder, stopped in its tracks and frozen in time. On clear days, this space of silence is only accentuated by the view of Manchester’s city-centre towers 20-miles away, gleaming behind statuesque rocks and the strange gurgling call of the grouse.

England’s desert: Orford Ness

5 11 2010

Twelve miles long and up to two miles wide, Orford Ness is a desert – a vast shingle spit lying just off the Suffolk coast. One of a series of similar landforms along the coastlines of Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, Orford Ness was – and still is – created by the ceaseless action of tides, currents and seasonal storms, its undulating ridges of shingle marking the passing of time. Accessible only by boat across the river from the picturesque village of Orford, the Ness is as bleak a place as one can imagine – devoid of shelter, battered by winds, and where the only animate objects are hares, birds and the sea wind.

From the First World War until 1993, Orford Ness was owned by Ministry of Defence and, for 70 years, was the site of intense military experimentation. During this period, activities on the Ness were subject to complete secrecy: for the inhabitants of Orford, it was like a foreign land, the stark but oddly beautiful military structures the only indicators of its sinister provenance.

The 'pagodas' from across the river in Orford

Now owned by the National Trust, and opened to the public in 1995, its series of coloured trails delineate a small area where it is safe to wander – for the vast shingle banks are littered with unexploded ordnance and other military objects, strewn across the landscape like obscure clues to an unknown riddle. Here, ‘lethality and vulnerability’ trials were carried out: aeroplanes were lined up and shot to pieces with rifles to ruthlessly expose their weaknesses; and, in half-submerged bunkers nearby, detonation devices for Atomic bombs were tested with extremes of vibration, temperature and other shocks.

The 'red trail' on Orford Ness

Rusting object on the shingle

From the top of a building known as ‘The Barracks’ – used to photograph the trials carried out on the site – the vast extent of the Ness becomes clear, as do more inexplicable forms: huge shingle-covered bunkers; the off-limits ‘pagodas’, part of the Atomic weapons site; a vast circle inscribed on the shingle; and, all around, almost motionless and hunkering down in the wind, birds of all kinds – gulls, plovers, avocets, redshank.

The Atomic Weapons site from the top of 'The Barracks'

Circle in the shingle

Very gradually, the site is being reclaimed by the National Trust and the birds, but it’s hard to imagine them ever taming its bleakness. The almost overpowering sense of melancholy is generated not by any past human tragedy but by the senseless absurdity of its function as a vast arena for the systematic torture of objects. In a kind of surreal irony, objects of destruction were themselves destroyed in the game of real and imagined warfare. If we are moved by the suffering of people, can we not also be moved by the suffering of objects?

Exploded boiler on the red trail


9 12 2009

Sunset over Evenes, 2007. Pencil and watercolour on chalk and ink

In August, in Narvik, Norway – well inside the article circle – the sunsets draw one out into a time that seems to come to a standstill. As the sun sinks, the oranges and reds grow as the blue above slowly recedes and darkens. A few stars emerge and then, imperceptibly, time begins to hover; for a few hours the colours are held in suspension before the day begins again.

Such events, where day and night time are held in soft tension in space, mirror the process of meditation, which tries to create – or rather to become aware of – just such a time and space within and beyond oneself.

Sunsets in temperate latitudes are more fleeting events, especially in the winter, when they are also often at their most dramatic. Here, the sun seems to vanish quickly, throwing out its intensity from beneath the horizon – a last gasp before the hostile night once again reasserts its dominance. Perhaps these sunsets, with seemingly opposing forces fighting it out, are more characteristic of our inner lives. And yet, the sun never really disappears at all; rather, it is us, rooted on the earth, who turn away from it.

Sunset on Otmoor, England, February 2008


25 09 2009
Stone spiral, Millook Haven, Cornwall

Stone spiral, Millook Haven, Cornwall, 2009

Unlike circles, in which we perceive stillness and completeness, spirals suggest dynamic movement springing out from a centre in ever-larger arcs. Spirals only end when a barrier interrupts their progress towards infinity: the hard casing of a shell, the top of a thermal, the edge of a sheet of paper. Making spirals is about encountering these barriers – stones too heavy to carry, the encroaching sea, or the edge of a beach. Spirals provoke reflection on limitations, in nature and in ourselves; we long for unimpeded movement but are all around confronted by enclosures of one kind or another. Perhaps it is why we often dream of flight, sailing up in spirals on a thermal as the falcon does so effortlessly.

Pilsey Island spiral, West Sussex, 2008

Pilsey Island spiral, West Sussex, 2008

Y Maes spirals, north Wales

Y Maes spirals, north Wales, 2009


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