Saturday 28 March 2015

The Pillarite Patriarch

Demar Harmood Banner: Lakeland Arts Trust

The Pillarite Patriarch, or to refer to him correctly - Rev. James Jackson, is known among Lakeland climbing historians, as the elderly gentleman who took up fell walking among the Lake District hills at a very late age, and who in 1874, derided a written newspaper account of an unroped ascent of Pillar Rock, in Ennerdale, by a local Penrith family one of whom was a lady.

Subsequently, he was made to retract his derisory retort after it was established that the family (and young lady) in question, did in fact reach the summit of Pillar, making her the second female to do so.

James Jackson was thought to have been born in Kendal where his father ran a grocery shop, although other sources say he was born in Millom. Whilst he was not a climber or walker, either in his youth, adolescence or even in his younger adulthood years, this is however, what he is best remembered for within the realms of Lakeland climbing history, despite having an interesting life before making the headlines with his anonymous rhetoric that brought him into the public limelight.

If we go back to the start of his life, we note, that at the same time that his mother was giving birth in 1796, Europe was embroiled in the French Revolutionary Wars. Indeed, as the French army under Napoleon, were fighting the Battle of Montenotte in southern Italy, against an Austrian Army led by Count Eugène-Guillaume Argenteau, which Napoleon won, James Jackson came into the world. What both he and Napoleon would not be aware of, was their paths were set to cross some nineteen years later on a field in a small town in what is now Belgium, but back then, was part of France.

Jackson’s father Robert, made a reasonable living as a grocer in Kendal, and whilst they were not of property or social standing, James had a reasonable upbringing. At the age of thirteen, they managed to pay for him to attend a local (private) Grammar School, where he received his education which was to keep him in good stead for the rest of his life.   

 In February 1815, Napoleon escaped from exile on Elba and marched north across France once again. At the time, the Duke of Wellington, was in command of the 33rd Regiment of Foot, and given that they were seen as his “chosen Regiment” due to their battle honours under his command, when he was just plain Arthur Wesley, recruitment was rife across the country. And so in aged nineteen, Jackson travelled to Manchester and enlisted in the regiment.

Within weeks of enlisting, he sailed to Holland to join the regiment before they marched south to a village called Waterloo, where the decisive battle of the French Revolutionary Wars was to take place.  Once there, the battle started with the 33rd Regiment forming up in the centre of the ridge between Hougomont and La Haye Sainte.  Here they withstood the French attacks all day, finally repulsing Napoleon’s elite Imperial Guard.  Between the 16th and 18th June, the 33rd suffered a total of 277 casualties from a strength of 561, almost half their men. Clearly, James Jackson was not among the casualties, otherwise his story would end here.

After the battle was won, Wellington sent a dispatch back to London, in which he said of the 33rd Regiment:

“The elite Imperial French Guard had been thrown into the battle at the last minute to salvage a victory for Napoleon, but despite their bravery they could not break the British centre and were forced to retreat. The setback broke French morale”.

 History is testament to the fact, that Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated by the stern resistance of the British lines which ended his rule as French Emperor, this despite the Duke of Wellington referring to his soldiers as the scum of the earth after the British troops broke ranks to loot the abandoned French wagons, instead of pursuing the beaten foe. This gross abandonment of discipline caused an enraged Wellington to write in another dispatch to Earl Bathurst, "We have in the service the scum of the earth as common soldiers". Although later, when his temper had cooled, he extended his comment to praise the men under his command saying that though many of the men were, "….the scum of the earth; it is really wonderful that we should have made them to the fine fellows they are".

If such a statement included James Jackson, we shall never know. After returning to English soil, Jackson travelled to his home town of Kendal, where he was honourably discharged, clearly having decided that a military life was not a career he wished to pursue.

Again, we will never know whether the carnage he witnessed at Waterloo, was instrumental in leading him down the ecclesiastical road or not, but this is the road he took. And so in 1817, along with nineteen other young men, he enrolled at St. Bees Theological College which had just opened its doors as a private theological teaching establishment, offering young men of means, a two year course over four terms each year, at £10 a term.

James matriculated from the College in February 1819, and spent the next two years consolidating his career before taking up a new post as Vicar of Rivington, on 9th May 1823, where he served until he retired in 1856. Note: Rivington is a small village and civil parish of the Borough of Chorley, Lancashire, sited six miles southeast of Chorley and 8.5 miles northwest of Bolton. It was here that he met and married Susanne Thorpe, and his two children were born. Agnes in 1837, named after James’s mother, and a year later in 1838, a son Franklin Rawdon, but who sadly died the following year.

The family took up residence at Parsonage House beside the church from where James would preach to his flock. It was whilst he was vicar at Rivington, that he became widely known for repairing a weathervane cock on the church steeple when no one else would attempt the feat. This was a time when steeple-jacks were generally ‘jack of all trade’s’ rather than professional expert scaffolders and on this occasion, they all refused to climb the steeple to fix the weathervane. James disrobed, rolled up his sleeves and duly climbed up the steeple and set the matter right. On descending he was met with a mixed reception. On the one hand there were those parishioners who thought he was putting his life and limb at risk and that such work was below that of a clergyman whilst others applauded his efforts which fed into his ego, resulting in him writing a short four lined poem about his deed after writing of the "terror which made the workmen recoil from the task, and gazing rustics turn sick with horror at the sight":

James could not take the criticism quietly, and so published his small poem in the local newspaper, in an attempt to make light of the negative remarks being made in his direction about the weathervane incident.

"Who has not heard of Steeple Jack,

That lion-hearted Saxon,
Though I am not he, he was my sire,

For I am Steeple Jackson"

This was the beginning of Jackson’s witty yet dry retorts about his deeds and behaviour, which clearly did not always receive a positive response from the public, this being how later, his fame spread around Cumberland and within climbing circles of that time.

It is not known the exact year that he started to go on long walks in the rural countryside, but he started to visit the Lake District regularly, often walking for up to ten hours a day. He rarely stayed at home when he was not preaching or on business, given that he was serving on several local committees and boards at the time, as the fells always had a greater pull, including spending time with his wife and child.

On a visit to Wasdale, he stayed for an ale and lunch at the local hostelry where he heard talk of a piece of rock called Pillar, which many said, had a summit that was impossible to reach. Old Will Ritson, landlord of the Wasdale Head Inn, the famous haunt of Victorian climbers, told him of a competition that had earlier developed among the local Dales men, to see who would be the first to stand on its summit. On July 9th in 1826, the ‘competition’ was won by a cooper and shepherd by the name of John Atkinson who hailed from the nearby hamlet of Ennerdale Bridge.


Pillar [photo taken by W.P.Haskett Smith, July 1884]
The Pillar got around fifty more ascents thereafter up until it was first ascended by a women 9th July 1870, a remarkable achievement in itself, let alone that she would have been dressed in a heavy tweed long ankle length skirt which would have prevented her from seeing where she was placing her feet as she ascended the rock face.

Three years later (1873), Pillar Rock got its second female (unroped) ascent, when Miss Mary Westmorland (Penrith) stood on its summit after climbing it with her brothers, Thomas and Edward Westmorland. They were accompanied by their other sister Annie, but she declined on this occasion, to join them in the climb, preferring to wait at the bottom of the Pillar until their safe return.

Annie, Edward, Mary and Thomas Westmorland, after their unroped ascent of Pillar in 1873
A year later, Thomas Westmorland wrote an article for the Whitehaven News, relating the tale of their earlier unroped ascent, and that his sister was now the second female to stand on the summit of Pillar. When Jackson read this, he anonymously wrote a brief article which was also published in the Whitehaven News a week after the Westmorland’s article, decrying the alleged ascent of Pillar:

“With incredulous amazement, the rhythmical account of an alleged ascent of the Pillar by two gentlemen and a lady, that in all probability what the Westmorland party climbed was not the Pillar Rock but Pillar Mountain a route which did not involve rock climbing to the summit”.

The article went on to say that the writer had walked every fell, hill and dale in the area, and that he had walked past Pillar Rock on many occasions in all weathers, and knew that those who had summited the rock, had indeed been stalwart climbers with nerves of steel. However, he was not so assured of himself, as he signed the article with an XYZ.

The Westmorland family were far from pleased at the anonymous writer’s inference, that they had lied about their ascent, and so Thomas Westmorland responded with a follow up article, promptly and forcefully resenting the “accusation of falsehood”, saying that they could distinguish the mountain from the rock face and it was without any doubt, Pillar Rock that they had climbed. They went on to list the names they found in the bottle on the summit, and ended by saying, that if the gentleman who wrote the article signing his name XYZ who as stated in his article, had walked past the Pillar many occasions but never felt confident to be able to climb it to the summit, that if he was to send them his card, they would be happy to put his name in the bottle on their next ascent.

Before XYZ could respond, the matter was cleared up the following weekend when a local Penrith climber George Seatree (with Stanley Martin), climbed to the top of Pillar Rock on Monday 14th September 1874 and in doing so, defended their fellow Countryman’s (and young lady’s) honour, by corroborating that their names were in the bottle with the date (although Mary for whatever reason, signed her name Pollie!). On his return, he wrote an article for the Whitehaven News saying:

“Eagerly we sought the ' bottle,' and to our surprise found three. Two of them contained the names of persons who had been there; the third seemed to have been used by someone who thought they might require a little stimulant on the top. We found the names of twenty-five gentlemen and two ladies recorded, some of them on address cards, some on a paper collar, and others on a piece of slate.

In two bottles in the Cairn on the Pillar Rock were: William M. Pendlebury, Charles Pendlebury, M. Pendlebury, Liverpool; C. Comyn Tucker, Beachcroft, Melville; E. J. Nanson, Trinity College; Henry B. Priest, Birkenhead; Henry Lancaster, Lamplugh; Tom Westmorland, Ned Westmorland, Pollie Westmorland, Penrith; William Gilbanks, Borrowdale; J. G. Whitehead, H. R. Wyndham, Cockermouth; and Mr Charles Pilkington."

And inscribed on a piece of slate were the following: G. Scoular, Falkirk; M. and A. Barnes, Portinscale; W. Grave; H. Wooley; R. Whitwell and W. G. Holland."

On a fresh sheet of note-paper there was the following: "Ascended this rock with a lady in 1869, Charles Arundel Parker, Parknook, Gosforth; Henry A Barker, Ellerslie, Gosforth.”

Once Seatree’s article appeared in the Whitehaven News, XYZ owned up by saying that it was he who had written the initial article, and that on reading Seatree’s account, he graciously withdrew his earlier charges and statement with the following comment:

“Though I am now in my 79th year there is life in the old dog yet for I have not abandoned the hope that on some future day, with some instruction from your two correspondents who have lately performed the feat, I may be able to put my name in the bottle”.

Note: Here the ‘two correspondents’ he was referring to, were Thomas Westmorland and George Seatree. However, as the Westmorland family were respected business philanthropists within Penrith, and having a long local family tradition of being established within the Wesleyan Methodist movement, they never forgave Jackson for besmirching their name by inferring that they had lied about their ascent in 1873, which of course, they all repeated in 1875, including Annie who stayed at the bottom of the rock face on their first ascent.

Not to be outdone however, Jackson was of the opinion that if a women could climb Pillar Rock, then so could he and in the process, leave his own name in the bottle, and so he wrote to George Seatree on 25th September (1874), asking for advice about whether or not he used a rope or any other means to gain the summit, and, if he would at some point in the future, be so kind as to lead him to the summit. He told Seatree of his “prowess and fitness”, in that on Oct. 1st 1864, he walked 46 miles in 14.5 hours; 3 days later walked 56 miles in 18 hours; and 3 days after that, he walked 60 miles in 19 hours and 50 minutes ending by saying: “I have accomplished within one week, three walks, any one of which might well knock up many a man of half my age”.

 He also went on to say:

 “I have been twelve months afloat on the wide, wide sea. I have been beneath the falls of Niagara. I have sung "God save the King" in the hall of St. Peter's; I have ascended Vesuvius in the eruption of 1828; I have  capped Snowdon in Wales and Slieve Donard in Ireland, and nearly all the hills in this district....  It only remains for me to mount the Pillar Rock, and then I may sigh for something else to conquer and if under your guidance I should succeed in the attempt, you could crown me with a parsley fern or heather as ‘The Pedestrian Patriarch of the Pillarites’ because I would be 80 years old”.

Seatree did not agree to lead him up the Pillar, he being a very good friend of the Westmorland family, and in particular Mary Westmorland, as they together along with T. Vipond, also from Penrith, skated the entire length of Ullswater in the harsh winter of February 1879 from Pooley Bridge to Patterdale and back, which has never been repeated before or since.

However, Jackson did not have the patience to wait, so sought out another young climber in the name of John Hodgson who agreed to lead him to the summit. They set off in fine weather and with high hopes of success, on 31st May 1875, when Jackson was aged 79. They ascended the summit via the Slab and Notch route although it should be said that on this occasion, this was the first recorded climb that used artificial aids* in order to make the ascent successful.

*As Hodgson led the way across the slab he hammered in four metal nails into a crack from which he hung four strands of rope which Jackson used as handholds on his way across.

Not only did Jackson manage to put his name in the bottle, he left two more bottles, one with some travel tit bits relating to Rome, Vesuvius, Loretto and Niagara and the other with a reminder that he had been the very first student to register at St. Bee’s Theologian College.

Never a one to let the moment go past, in honour of his accomplishment, he gave himself the title “The Patriarch of the Pillarites”, and wrote and published the following poem:

"If this in your mind you will fix,When I make the Pillar my toy,I was born in 1, 7, 9, 6, And you'll think me a nimble old boy".

Jackson wrote to Seatree to inform him of his successful ascent of Pillar, and despite the fact, that Seatree did not agree to lead him up the Pillar Rock, or ever climb or walk with him, they maintained a regular correspondence over a period of years. Such correspondence was eventually published in 1906, in a booklet with the typical lengthy title of:

“A series of letters written by the Rev.James Jackson of Sandwith, Whitehaven, to Mr George Seatree and others describing his wonderful octogenarian mountaineering and climbing exploits in Cumberland, 1874-1878”.

After his ascent of Pillar, Jackson continued to be a prolific walker, and with his trusty fell-pole for company, wandered far and wide across the fells and mountains, building a local reputation for covering long distances alone and in all weathers.

Such feats of endurance were often related to anyone who happened to lend him an ear, always adding: “I have knocked about among the mountains ever since I retired, till I may almost say I knaw iv'ry crag” which he no doubt did. It was also said of him, that he was “tall and lean, a relentless fell-walker and scrambler, determined to follow the skyline . . . no rocks, however rough, no precipices, unless perfectly inaccessible, ever daunted him." 

Not content with just doing the walking and talking to people he met on his journeys, he felt he had to let others know of his exploits, and so took great delight in writing short articles for local newspapers as well as holding court to anyone who would listen. One of his favourite tales was of the time he found two brethren of his own cloth, struggling feebly to surmount the difficulties of Rossett Gill. He enjoyed telling people that: “On taking pity upon their tender years, I transferred their knapsacks to my own venerable shoulders, and, striding on before, encouraged them to complete their weary task”.

Jackson made a repeat solo ascent of the Pillar in 1876 aged 80. Setting off at 4.20am up Mosedale, he stood on the summit of Pillar Rock at 7.3am and was back down having a celebratory lunch around midday at Wasdale Hotel.

He continued his prolific walking across un trodden fells and mountains in the Lake District, but he just could not leave Pillar Rock alone and so two weeks after his 82nd birthday, on 30th April 1878, he set off alone from Ritson's Inn in Wasdale to tackle Pillar Rock by the Slab and Notch route again for a third time. As ever, he went off that morning with another four-line tribute to his own prowess ready in his pocket:

"Two elephantine properties were mine

For I can bend to pick up pin or pack;

And when this year the Pillar Rock I climb

Four score and two's the howdah on my back".

However, he did not return to the Inn at Wasdale where he was staying, and three days later, his body was found several hundred yards from Pillar and it was assumed he slipped making his way to the start of the route, falling several hundred feet. His watch had stopped at three o’clock and he still carried items he had proposed to leave on the summit — a sure indication that he had fallen on his way up.

Without any shadow of a doubt, he was eccentric, and what he lacked in common sense, he more than made up for by his energetic initiative and enterprising purpose i.e. walking and scrambling. In essence, he was an adventurer at heart - one of a dying breed of men who did what they did for the sheer pleasure of doing it and no other reward.

Despite ruffling the feathers of many climbers of that time, by his extrovert personality and insistence that he was a ‘rare breed’ given his age and prowess among the hills, fells and mountains, he had his admirers. Among them were the well-known climbers, Frederick Hermann Bowring and John Maitland, who Jackson had playfully appointed "presumptive patriarchs". It was they who placed a cairn and iron cross on the spot, where his body was eventually found. However, the cairn and cross came to grief during subsequent winter storms, and so on August 16th, 1906, a more lasting memorial was undertaken by the Swiss born climber Charles Astry Octavius Baumgartner, the legendary John W. Robinson and of course, George Seatree, who had Jackson’s initials J.J. and the date 1878, chiselled on the face of the nearest suitable rock by a Mr. Benson Walker, a local marble mason from Cockermouth.

It is fitting, to give the father of English rock climbing, W. P. Haskett Smith, the last word. He ends an account of Jackson’s exploits with:

“We may well believe that, had the old man foreseen his fate, he would have gladly welcomed it, and have found for it no fitter place among all his beloved mountains than this quiet cove, almost within the shadow of the majestic rock.”

Frank Grant©2015

Friday 20 March 2015

Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place...Review

Philip Marsden’s new book explores an idea as much as it explores a country. It journeys westward through Cornwall from Bodmin Moor to Scilly, alighting on the rocky eminences where granite has boiled up through the Earth’s crust and crystallised into highlands and headlands. It’s rugged country, raked by south-westerlies ‘bred of the Atlantic’ and eaten at by seas surging into the throat of the Channel. Western Europe reaches one of its fine points here, like Cape Wrath in Sutherland, Lleyn and St David’s Head in Wales, and Cornuaille in Brittany. In such places we come across peaks and juts of rock which look and feel like those in West Penwith: ‘look’ because they draw our eyes and feet like magnets, ‘feel’ because the whitish crystals of quartz, like petrified pupae, that stud their surfaces are so useful as we climb the crags west of Newlyn and north of Sennen.

Marsden believes that the stone artefacts which crown so many of the Cornish uplands – the circles, henges, quoits and megaliths – were made and placed there because people found those heights important. Natural landmarks were valued, even worshipped, and people were impelled to carve and erect the liths to mark and celebrate them.We do lift up our eyes unto the hills. We use them to guide our ways by land and sea. We are relieved when the next rise of land comes into sight. Hills are perfect sites for burial grounds, and giant calendars, or to celebrate a solstice or a chieftain’s life and death.

The beauty of Marsden’s book is that, although it is thoroughly researched and rigorously argued, it comes across as the result of experience, the close frequenting of that characterful region. It calls up what it is to walk among moors of wind-shorn whin and rustling bell-heather, or to step down beyond the rim of Land’s End, to leave behind the shops full of plastic galleons and ‘gift’ mugs and clamber through buttresses fledged with hoary lichen. Marsden’s way is to walk off down a lane, catch sight of a standing stone or a curiously roughened hilltop, find out what has been discovered about its origins and bring alive again the inquirers and artists who have gone before him. William Borlase was the vicar of Ludgvan in Penwith.

At 52 he felt ‘his energies starting to dim’ but then, in May 1748, he ‘happened to bump into two distinguished antiquarians’ – also parsons, needless to say – and what he told them about local antiquities so amazed them that he was encouraged to set off on a renewed career of walking, collecting, describing and corresponding. All this bore fruit in print, in Antiquities of Cornwall and Natural History of Cornwall – the first wide-ranging records of the region. In that pre-specialist age, Borlase was omnivorous, versatile. He recorded the weather twice a day for decades. He measured stone circles. He studied fish and birds, and kept a pet chough. He corresponded with Pope, and exchanged ‘a batch of glittering Cornish rocks’ for a copy of the poet’s works.

Phillip Marsden

Above all he wrote to fellow parsons, asking them whether they knew of any ‘rude obelisks of stone, either straight, or circular line … any basins cut into the surface of your rock’. All this comes under Marsden’s scrutiny in the Morrab Library in Penzance, ‘a two-storey warren of high-ceilinged Georgian rooms’ looking out over a subtropical garden to Mount’s Bay, where he reads Borlase’s letter books, manuscripts and bundles of parish records.
Marsden is a fellow of Borlase, and of Sabine Baring-Gould and Charles Henderson in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, in his eagerness to find out about that extremity of England which has the largest concentration of standing stones in Britain. No serious theories have explained this, and it is daft to turn the matter into a stamping-ground for weird fancies and fantasies. This has been a tendency. John Heath-Stubbs called West Penwith...

        a hideous and wicked country,
Sloping to hateful sunsets and the end of time.

A painter friend of Marsden’s ‘watched low clouds drift in over the sea and felt that each one was smothering her, wrapping her up like a shroud. She was on a train back east the next day.’ Marsden himself seems to ascribe the suicide of John Davidson, a poet who drowned himself at Penzance in 1909, to the ‘uneasy’ spirit of the place and calls it ‘a testing-ground for the great mysteries’.

Might the dark cast of all this not be supplanted, or at least balanced, by the words of the rock-climbing guidebook which says about the great cliffs at Bosigran that ‘beyond there is nothing but night and America’? These words epitomise for me the epic quality of that end of England. You feel as though you are at the prow of a ship on a voyage that follows the sun across the ocean.

It depends on the frame of mind that you bring to the zawns and the headlands and the moors. Near the start of Rising Ground Marsden brings back to life a mason called Daniel Gumb who lived early in the 18th century, with his wife and family, in a hut built of granite near the Cheesewring, that natural ‘sculpture’ of great rock lobes that crowns a hill on Bodmin Moor. He was known as the ‘mountain philosopher’, and was neither a churchgoer nor a Dissenter. On the roof of his hut he carved a triangle like the one used to illustrate Pythagoras’ theorem. Gumb, Marsden suggests, was driven by the same urge that drove our Neolithic ancestors to arrange the moorstones into circles … the same questions that tease us now: what law, what force, what patterns exist in the vastness of space? And always, behind the questions, the doubt, the depth-sounder beam probing the emptiness for something solid, the fear that there might be none of these things at all.

Well, Gumb was practical and not religious. As a craftsman living among the materials of his work, under a sky unpolluted by smoke or man-made light, would he really have seen space as empty, without solidity? Might he not have realised that our Earth shares space with hundreds – thousands, millions – of perfectly solid bodies and knots of materials, not necessarily sites of life but entities as real, as available to our physical senses, as the granite and the shapes that nature and people have crafted from Cornish stone?

For the most part Marsden is well grounded in the real world, as he observes and comes to understand the often ritual forms our forebears made out of their surroundings. He doesn’t pretend that they can be explained by some overarching theory, druidical or otherwise, as seems to have been the habit among inquirers for centuries. In Pagan Britain Ronald Hutton shows that the beliefs supposed to underlie ancient practices have often been imposed with little evidence. Roman writers went in for ‘atrocity propaganda’ to portray the Britons they had conquered as savage barbarians. In Dorset some elderly women were buried with their severed heads at their feet. This could be seen as ritual execution, but it may equally have been a part of a rite of passage.

Marsden, it’s a relief to find, is not at all inclined to over-interpret the henges, menhirs and stone circles. He respects the communal labour that went into their making and remarks that ‘all this heaving and shoving and hauling’ had nothing ‘to do with the grind of daily life, with the necessity to eat, to provide food and shelter’. Instead he sees the huge numbers of stony sites, in Cornwall and all over the world, as providing a focus for people’s sense of place: ‘The natural features and the man-made monuments mingle and interact, suggesting that there was little difference in the way they were perceived.’ He quotes the anthropologist Diana Eck’s Sacred Geography of India, where she writes that ‘anywhere one goes in India, one finds a living landscape in which mountains, rivers, forests and villages are elaborately linked to the stories of gods and heroes’ and pilgrims have ‘generated a powerful sense of land, location and belonging through journeys’.

Marsden’s own journey, his hunt for ‘a mythology of place’, starts with a brief stay in a hut in the northwest corner of Bodmin Moor. ‘The next day I left early to walk out to Stowe’s Pound. Mist covered everything.’ Later that summer, after months of work on the near-ruin that was being turned into a home for him and his family, ‘I set off for Leskernick Hill. The night’s gale had eased, but a low cover of cloud still raced overhead.’ The place is a huge confusion of stones: the remains of huts, compounds, stone circles and one monolith. ‘All these – the monuments, the settlement, thousands of years of reverence for this place – derived ultimately from the simple arrangement of hills.’

On he travels: ‘I followed the lonely stretch of coast between Tintagel and Port Isaac. The clifftop path wove through a mass of old slate quarries, worked-out dells, blasted rock faces and single standing columns, which looked like the chimneys of bombed houses.’ He revisits his old home on the northern edge of the Mendips, shortly before his parents move out for good: ‘Early the next morning, I rose at dawn to walk over the hill to Glastonbury. I’d tried once before, one January years earlier, but fell in a rhyne down on the Levels and lost heart.’ So the author’s recent past, which we feel as his present, interweaves with his origins. Later, he is tracing the River Fal, near whose headwaters he now lives, to its beginnings among china clay pits, ‘pushing aside head-high growth, crouching and crawling at times’.

So it goes on, a narrative lasting several years, artfully made to sound almost continuous. The outcome is that the extraordinary richness of daily perceptions and antiquarian knowledge assembled in Rising Ground never feels like a tray of specimens laid out for inspection. Marsden tacks westward from one vantage point to another, making an attempt to understand how this terrain represents a fundamental human mindset: a desire to place landmarks, to help locate and settle our place in the world. It is all thoroughly human – it is peopled. The men and women he meets are as present as the land. No reader will soon forget the man from Redruth, one of a group of ‘pagans’ in the Admiral Benbow pub in Penzance who meet to discuss pre-Christian sites and start with a rite:
Take three breaths … One for the sea that surrounds us … one for the sky above us … and one for mother earth that supports us.

 The man recalls a visit to Carn Brea with his grandfather: ‘He kicks back the grass round the top there and grabs my ’ands and presses them down into the bare soil. “Feel that, boy? Does ’ee feel it?” I felt nothing but the mud. “That, boy! ’Tes the beating heart of Cornwall!”’ We won’t forget Marsden’s friend in Abkhazia, the non-state on the Georgian shore of the Black Sea which has been damaged by secessionist war. When Marsden asked to be taken up to the family a’nyxa or ritual site up in the hills, the man had to refuse, because the place had been mined.

David Craig 2015:

  • Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place by Philip Marsden
    Granta, 348 pp, £20.00, October 2014, ISBN 978 1 84708 628 0

A version of this review first appeared in The London Review of Books. Vol 37/No5