Zones Without People: Reflections on an English countryside through music and film

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As a proud atheist, even anti-theist in the Christopher Hitchens mould, I have never had the slightest inclination for religion. But, unexpectedly, as I stand on a rocky outcrop at the top of wild Bellever Tor in Devon one August morning, staring out at 360º of wind-swept landscape where human intrusion is limited to maybe one or two distant houses and about four other hikers (despite its remarkable view, Bellever seems to be completely unheralded amongst Dartmoor’s famed tors), I am stunned at how a sense of the spiritual is seeping into me. At the very least, I can immediately understand why these lonely mounts had such a dramatic impact on the imaginations of the ancient peoples who lived here in the days before Christianity wormed its way into the minds and territories of the UK.

I was in the South-West as someone who has little connection to this country. Having grown up across the channel, I know little about my homeland outside of my home city of London, which itself feels like a different world as I stand on Bellever. It’s never really been an issue, because I feel revulsion at the notion of patriotism. I put club before country in football. I fail to be roused by the debates over the Falklands, Gibraltar or how many kids speak English in London schools. I think describing the athletes of “Team GB” as “heroes” is beyond farcical. But, despite all that, the land has a tug for the rootless. I know there are equally or more beautiful vistas in France, Germany, Spain or the USA, but, as I’ve grown older, a fascination with Britain’s landscapes and ancient history has taken hold of my psyche. Standing stones, old rites, traditional culture: all these remain at the forefront of my mind, like a memory of something I didn’t know I’d experienced. Going to Dartmoor and Cornwall, Scotland and (in the future) the Peak District have become missions more than holidays, a way of reconnecting with a past I probably never had. It’s as esoteric and oneiric as it is historical.

Perhaps inevitably for a music journalist and former cinema student, music and films did not take long to swim into focus as I stood on that lonely hilltop. They come like flashes, sudden flickers of footage and echoes of songs. Bellever was possibly the most remote and empty space my brother and I explored, trekking through a tall forest and across soggy grassland before climbing the hill’s 400 metres of grey-green grass and imposing rocks. Immediately, I could hear the plaintive strains of Richard Skelton’s guitar drones, which he has recorded, in a number of guises (all magnificent) in the midst of sparse environments just like Dartmoor, in Ireland and the north of England. His music is imbued with the loneliness of the land, its emptiness refracted through austere drones pregnant with a sense of innate melancholia. It’s the music of wind and grass, viewed through the tragedy of human existence, and that makes the feelings it throws up, notably on the majestic Landings album from 2009, completely timeless. I’m not sure if there’s anything uniquely British or Irish about Skelton’s mournful compositions, but they surged into my perception the moment I gazed out from Bellever’s summit. Never has a landscape touched me so effortlessly and intrinsically.

A similarly visceral sonic experience hit me as I walked the four miles of coastal path along Cornwall’s northern cliffs, between the sadly tourist-ridden Tintagel (rumoured to be the site of a now-ruined Arthurian castle) and quaint Boscastle. Almost immediately, I was compelled to reach for my iPhone and play Sandy Denny’s gorgeous ‘North Star Grassman & The Ravens’, the title tracks from her post-Fairport Convention debut album, itself an underrated masterpiece of British electric folk. Many of Denny’s songs refer to water and the sea, as noted by Rob Young in Electric Eden, serving as menacing presences viewed from atop lonely cliffs or deserted beaches. Her singular voice resonated as I myself gazed out over the rolling seas, whisked back by her words to an era when reliance on the sea brought both profit and potential death. Trees’ rendition of ‘Polly on the Shore’ and Steeleye Span’s take on ‘Fisherman’s Wife’, both tales of woe reaped by the uncaring ocean, also seemed to demand a listen, and I was able to completely forget the presence of fellow hikers and disappear into a phantom past in which the sea was a terrifying constant in the lives of so many people.

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Denny is a key figure in the history of English music of the last century. Whilst most British bands of the late sixties and early seventies dreamt of the US, adopting American accents or electrifying the blues, Fairport Convention and a handful of other bands turned their gaze inwards and into the past, seizing on music sometimes centuries old (and initially revived by Cecil Sharp and brought to the fore by Ewan MacColl, AL Lloyd, Peggy Seeger, Davy Graham and Shirley Collins) and reinventing it through rock music, much in the way The Band and The Byrds were doing with traditional American music across the pond. Often the songs are so old that they can’t fail to conjure up a liminal impression of the country’s past and landscapes, one that activates the imagination, in a manner similar to oddball films such as The Wicker Man, A Field In England, and The Blood on Satan’s Claw; or seminal mysterious television programmes like The Owl Service and Penda’s Fen. Myth and history are blurred, pre-Christian faith resurrected in often fictional terms, and post-industrial, heavily urbanised Britain becomes a canvas on which to project dreams of a primeval past. As I trekked to the top of Hound Tor, back in Devon, or wandered amongst standing stones in remote stretches of Cornwall and Dartmoor, I consistently found myself humming (and bothering my brother by playing on my iPhone) ‘Willie O’The Winsbury’ and ‘Geordie’, heart-rending traditional ballads of which I have gripping versions by Anne Briggs and Trees, or Briggs’ captivating a capella version of the bewitching ‘Reynardine’. The latter in particular conjures up death and love unfolding in the wilds of Britain’s most hostile lands. The same with the original compositions of Richard and Linda Thompson from their bleak, unparalleled 1974 masterpiece I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight and Forest’s mostly acoustic, cob-webbed Full Circle. Meanwhile, every tor brought to mind Comus’ ‘The Herald’, for they use to be used as a means of communicating by the ancients through fire signals.

On Cornwall’s Bodmin Moor, standing stones The Hurlers stand like angry statues in the shadow of the Cheesewring tor, staring malevolently out over the valleys below like mean sentinels. Their origin is millennia old, and acutely unfathomable, acting one assumes as religious symbols of some sort. Below, I spot seven abandoned 19th-century copper mills, now nothing more than empty husks of decaying stones, roofs and walls collapsed and chimneys long since unused. I assume that the precious metal was bled out of the ground, but it’s hard not to imagine that this forbidding land might have simply proved indomitable, forcing our industrial ancestors to give up and let nature take over. The juxtaposition of human technology, ancient rites and beautifully barren territory has a resonance in more recent musical acts like Hacker Farm, IX Tab, The Haxan Cloak, Demdike Stare or the Ghost Box stable. Those artists may use modern technology such as laptops and synths, but share a fascination with the occult, haunted and rugged terrain of old England. Witch legends, films like The Wicker Man, folklore and mythology are blended into genres like dubstep or noise, mutating them into ectoplasmic visions of our past and present, where time and space become dreamlike visions of reality. In this respect, these acts aren’t a million miles away from the nightmare pagan folk of Comus, whose First Utterance channelled malevolent gods via all acoustic songs of darkness and fear. All of this permeated into my mind in Dartmoor and Cornwall, be it when imagining arcane rituals among standing stones and in the shadow of ancient stone tombs, or grasping at a vision of a sparsely-populated England whilst taking in the view from atop Bellever, Hound Tor or Yes Tor.

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It is the latter vision that I take most from this brief adventure into England’s hidden reverse. Even surrounded by tourists on Hound Tor, it was easy to see this part of the country as a zone without people, a place where self-aggrandising humankind will always come second to nature’s majesty. A similar feeling is aroused in places like the wild Scottish Highlands or when wandering around Avebury’s awe-inspiring stone circle. This was a place where Mother Nature was worshipped under open skies, as opposed to suppressed under the roofs of cathedrals and churches, and that vibe never abates, even with the knowledge that Exeter or Plymouth are never far away. I’m reminded of the recent film Silence, by Pat Collins, in which a sound recordist goes in search of places to record sounds in which humans can’t be heard. Anyone thinking of doing something similar would do well to head to the South-West. Houses are few and far between in the depths of Dartmoor or Bodmin Moor, and there are constant reminders of a time when humanity worshipped the divine female as nature’s vessel, instead of the oppressive male. Much could be learned from trawling through England’s isolated countryside. There is no better source for being reminded of our arguably more civilised past than Julian Cope, who has written at length about the subject both online and in print.

I’m a London boy at heart, but these pilgrimages into Britain’s hinterland have (and I hope will continue to have) exerted a lasting impression on my soul. The have reinvigorated my passion for British folk, both acoustic and in its sixties electric form. I do love what Hacker Farm et al. are doing, but can only urge readers to look further back and join Rob Young in exploring those bands and artists who revived folk from centuries of obscurity. Albums like Fairport’s Liege & Lief, Trees’ On The Shore, Comus’ First Utterance, Steeleye Span’s Hark! The Village Wait, Richard and Linda Thompson’s I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, Forest’s Full Circle, Bert Jansch’s Jack Orion, Sandy Denny’s North Star Grassman and the Ravens and Anne Briggs’ self-titled debut are traversed with beauty, mystery and unforgettable songs both old and new, and connect with an inchoate British collective consciousness which never ceases to evolve in this modern society but still contains an attachment to the elusive past. We’ve seen it in films like Kill List and A Field In England, and percolating into more and more musical acts. It’s as heady as the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge. As potent as a Britten symphony. It’s all around us, in the earth, trees, water and air. In his phenomenal guide to Neolithic buildings on these isles, Julian Cope introduces his first essay with a quote from historian W.G. Hoskins: “[…] It is not documents that are the historian’s guide… The English landscape itself, to those who know how to read it right, is the richest historical record we possess.” I could not put it better myself. I think of Cope’s friend Urthona, a one-man drone/metal guitarist from Devizes who takes direct inspiration from Dartmoor’s savage beauty, to the point that his magnificent, time-stretching debut, “I Refute It Thus”, has on its cover an epic picture of the summit of Hound Tor, with the man himself clutching an electric guitar, dwarfed by the mighty rocks around him. He may use an instrument reliant on modern technology, but his lengthy soundscapes sound as old as the land itself on which he stands on that cover. I may be a cynical, atheist city boy, but the land of my enigmatic country touches me as potently as Urthona’s clamorous clatter or Denny’s exquisite voice. And I do not doubt that it always will.

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1495904_10151814425042130_223603472_o1512268_10151814425492130_1734489441_o– Joseph Burnett, January 2014

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