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. 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.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.