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The Re-Enchantment of Place: a book about Britain is launched

For the past 20 years or more people have increasingly been exploring the British landscape on foot and by bike. Ken Worpole is one of them and here he reflects on the rewards for modern society in a renewed acquaintance with the natural world

Towards Re-Enchantment: Place and Its Meanings, edited by Gareth Evans and Di Robson, Artevents, £9.99, November 2010.

For much of the 20th century the view of mainland Britain was the view from the car. The early culture of motoring came wrapped in visions of distant hills, old inns, country houses and silver-fork picnics on the downs, as Mark Liniado once pictured in his brief history, Car Culture & Countryside Change (National Trust 1996). Even today, when the number of cars vastly outnumbers the number of children in Britain, advertising for the many varieties of heavyweight SUVs or 4WDs still lean heavily on this romantic dream of driving the sole vehicle on empty moorland roads or across vacant beaches. It’s all nonsense, of course.

For the past 20 years or more there has been a revival of interest in those places and settings that can only be explored on foot, or possibly on a bike (though Roger Deakin famously swam his way across Britain for his 1999 book Waterlog). Early examples of this new exploratory writing certainly include John Hillaby’s 1968 classic, Journey Through Britain. This book inspired many others to attempt the Land’s End to John O’Groats trek as a kind of secular pilgrimage (I finally got round to doing it by bike in 1986), and from the 1970s onwards the books of Richard Mabey – especially Flora Britannica – captivated and inspired many people to wander abroad in the spirit of observation and delight. Delight at the variety of the natural world - as well as its edibility - but also noting the danger signals evident in species decline and poor land management.

‘Aren’t you all just Romantics?’ was a question put this week to four of the contributors at the launch of Towards Re-enchantment: Place and Its Meanings. The collection includes poems by Elizabeth Bletsoe, Lavinia Greenlaw, Alice Oswald and Robin Robertson, and essays by Jay Griffiths, Kathleen Jamie, Richard Mabey, Robert Macfarlane, Jane Rendell, Iain Sinclair and - time to admit - myself. Now it would be hard to describe Sinclair as a Romantic, dealing as he does with the grimness of the urban terrain. Nor could it be said of architectural historian Jane Rendell who, through the adroit use of found photographs of public architecture in an abandoned cottage, embarks upon a reverie on the thwarted social utopianism of the modernist dream.

My own essay examines what we mean by beauty in landscape when it deals with the great sites of post-industrial Essex - little Romanticism there you would have thought - though many are now being successfully managed as wildlife sites, recovering a bio-diversity not seen in the county for nearly a hundred years.

The ‘re-enchantment’ of the title is based on visiting those places beyond the reach of the car – rather more places than you would think, even in London – and paying close attention to the buried history and survivalist ecology of the footpaths and the places few bother to visit anymore. Walking is the method, memory and photography the tools to be used to conjure up what is no longer visible but yet still present and prescient in the terrain. The spirit of the German-born writer, W.G.Sebald, hovers over much of the writing.

Part of the piece I contributed recalls the places where, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Essex provided a home to a variety of metropolitan social reform projects employing the vocabulary of the land colony, where under strict conditions, or in a spirit of political zeal, new lives might be moulded. These included the Hadleigh Farm Colony (founded1891, Salvation Army), Mayland Colony (1896, Socialist), Purleigh Colony (1896, Tolstoyan Anarchist), Ashingdon Colony (1897, Tolstoyan Anarchist), Wickford Colony, (Tolstoyan Socialist), Laindon Farm Colony (1904, Socialist/Municipal). Even today, though, there are still a lot of idealistic initiatives in the county – religious, ecological, social – which mainstream politics ignores, and long preceded, and will long outlast, ‘the Big Society’, if not the playing fields of Eton.

Elsewhere in the Re-Enchantment book Jay Griffiths writes about that great anarchic poet and conjurer of the Welsh landscape, Dafydd ap Gwilym, and uses the experience of a graveside encampment to celebrate things being various, as well as the failure of Christianity to fully triumph over natural fertility. Iain Sinclair explains why the mere existence of Hackney’s Springfield Park still opens up vistas of longing and connections to other times and places, as do so many city parks for so many people. Other contributors write about the Scottish islands of Lewis and Rona, Seaton Park (Aberdeen), Holkham, Norfolk, Ashprington and Whitchurch Canonicorum.

The publication is part of a larger arts project exploring people’s relationship to place, including Simon English’s monumental land artwork, England Revisited, a film by Grant Gee exploring the work of W.G.Sebald, Patience (After Sebald), a theatre piece by Louise Ann Wilson, Fissure, and a sculpture on the Isle of Harris, Cillein, by Steve Dilworth. Details of all these contributions - and how to buy the book - can be found at www.artevents.info.

The disenchantment of the world was famously discerned by the sociologist Max Weber, who compared modern society with a medieval world, which he saw as wholly imbued with religious mysticism and symbolic belief. Rationalism and modernity changed all that, leading to greater human insight and rational advance, but perhaps at the expense of any kind of recuperative pleasure in the relationships of daily life and their localised settings. Yet attachment to place remains strong, and in exploring that attachment there’s a chance we may find some reconciliation between modernity and an appreciation of the mysterious enchantment of the natural world.

Ken Worpole is the author of many books on landscape, architecture and public policy, and contributor to openDemocracy

About the author

Ken Worpole is a writer on architecture, landscape, planning, design, and social history. He was a founder-member of openDemocracy, and is a senior professor at The Cities Institute, London Metropolitan University. His many books include Modern Hospice Design: The Architecture of Palliative Care (Routledge, 2009); Contemporary Library Architecture: a planning and design guide (Routledge, April 2013); and 350 Miles: An Essex Journey, with photographer Jason Orton (2005, £7.95). His website is here. Ken’s most recent book, with photographer Jason Orton, is The New English Landscape. He blogs here.


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