Category Archives: Extraordinary Places

The Dog Has Its Day

The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers

A Review by Kevan Manwaring

The Gallows Pole

This extraordinary novel exudes sense of place like a slab of gritstone and peat, oozing copper-coloured water. Myers, through his painstaking evocation of idiom and ecolect, brings alive his neck of the woods (Mytholmroyd) and its social history is loving detail. It is the kind of deep mapping that can only be achieved through a slow-burn relationship with a place and its people.

It is a feisty dramatisation of the Cragg Vale Coiners (AKA Turvin Clippers) – a band of desperate, disenfranchised and marginalised Yorkshiremen, who during the time of King George III, ‘clipped’ coins in the Calder Valley area, led by the charismatic and dangerous local tough, the self-styled ‘King David Hartley’, and his brothers. As a historical novel, this obscure fragment of British working class counter-history, might have had limited appeal (although the story of financial shenanigans has a topical resonance – the micro-scale of the Coiners’ fraud has ironic distance when compared to the global, institutionalised, and legitimized banking crisis that came to light in 2008 – when the crooks not only got away with it, but our governments forced us to pay for their Casino-like behaviour with the economy by propping up the morally- and financially bankrupt banking system and issuing in an Age of Austerity),  but the whole episode is not only grippingly-told, but rendered in exquisitely tough, localised prose.

The structure alternates between a vividly retold account of the rise and fall of the Coiners’ fortunes (the memento mori of the title means there are no spoilers here) and Hartley’s prison-based ‘memoir’, written in thick, phonetic dialect evoking his ‘ill-education’ but also the indeterminate nature of English, which had not yet been standardised through widely available dictionaries. Even language had been politicized and monetized, for only the ‘educated classes’ (from wealthy, privileged families) had control over it – through their legalese and use of the available media: the printed word on posters, newspapers, books and bibles. The oral tradition belonged to the poor, where a rich, alternative literacy flowed through the land.

Hartley is depicted in a visceral, unvarnished way – there is nothing civilised about him. He is no Romantic anti-hero (ironically it is one of the chief protagonists, the solicitor Robert Parker, who apparently was a possible inspiration for Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff). Hartley is a brutish Alpha Male who bullies his way into power and through his pack-like influence on his followers, controls his empire through thuggish proto-gangster violence, while at the same time bringing a reversal of fortune to the lives of the Valley folk. As the Coiners prosper they ‘look after their own’, and Hartley is, to local eyes at least, a Robin Hood figure, one who sticks it to the man (‘Clip a Coin and Fuck the Crown’). One can imagine the actor Tom Hardy doing a turn, playing him (as he once did play Heathcliff in full mumblecore mode), but before the film rights are sold (the book has been critically-acclaimed, winning prizes, and providing a breakout hit for the small press, Blue Moose) savour the prose of Myers dark tour-de-force. This is strong beer that is challenging to read at times – for it does not pull back from the ugly struggle of life – while simultaneously being a remarkable paean to the local universe of the Yorkshire moors, which are lifted to almost mythic heights, having a presence and power which bestows upon them a tangible (non-human) character and agency.

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In a Nutshell

Diary of a Viva Ninja: Day 10

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Today I have been looking at introducing and summarising one’s thesis. One of the first questions the candidate is likely to be asked in a Viva is – ‘So what is it about?’ or words to that effect. Sometimes this is used as a good ‘warm-up’ question, to ease the student into the Viva, but also, critically, to assess whether the thesis is indeed their own unique work. Many students focus so much on the micro-detail that they sometimes come unstuck in this bigger, more obvious question. It is useful to have an ‘elevator pitch’ type response anyway, for those occasions when you may be asked about your research at a conference, or in less formal circumstances – the ‘BBQ speech’ as the Thesis Whisperer so wittily puts it. Much emphasis these days is on ‘widening access’ and academic brownie points are gained by being able to share one’s research with non-specialist audiences. This came up as a key theme on Monday when I co-hosted an Arts/Science showcase on Artificial Intelligence with a mathematics professor in the ‘Everybody’s Reading Festival 2018’, at a cool arts venue in Leicester (LCB Depot). We had a real cross-section in the audience – from the ‘lay’ to academics leading research into consciousness at De Montfort University. It was important to connect, to communicate, with them all. If one is only able to communicate with other specialist audiences within one’s own narrow field, then the research doesn’t really go very far – it becomes almost entropic (according to the 2nd law of thermodynamics). We have to be prepared (and able) to reach out beyond our particular bubble.

I’ve attempted an embryonic summary here – a first attempt. Not to be eligible for the 3MT competition (it is about 5 minutes, so I’ve failed the criteria already), but just to practise talking about my research. It felt like a useful exercise. See what you think. Does it communicate my research? Does it make you want to know more?

Discover the origins of the 3-Minute Thesis (3MT) at the University of Queensland here:

https://threeminutethesis.uq.edu.au/about

View winning examples here:

https://threeminutethesis.uq.edu.au/watch-3mt

Check out advice on preparing a 3-minute thesis here: https://thesiswhisperer.com/2010/07/01/how-to-sell-your-thesis-in-3-minutes-or-less/

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Fool for a Fisher King

SILBURY: the miraculous balance – Peter Please & friends

Silbury Lammas 2018 by Kevan Manwaring

This beautifully-made companion piece to Peter Please’s album of the early 80s, Uffington, Silbury: the miraculous balance, released on a limited edition vinyl, completes a remarkable long-term project of deep mapping that was instigated by The Chronicles of the White Horse (1982), and extended in a singular direction by his love letter to a Wiltshire water meadow, Clattinger: an alphabet of signs from nature (2008) – unique artefacts that between them triangulate a numinous corner of the county (Uffington; Clattinger; Silbury), one replete in ancient monuments, biodiversity and a mulch of social history.

Silbury draws upon a pair of Peter’s previous works (Clattinger, and Spoken Idylls: everyday illuminations) cherry-picking key extracts and giving them new voices and sometimes musical settings. It is a fecund work of creative collaboration. Included in this bardic ark are the talents of Paul Darby (The Yirdbards), The Bookshop Band (Beth Porter and Ben Please), Richard Secombe, plus the Silbury Pop-Up Choir conducted and arranged by Masha Kastner; not forgetting the gorgeous cover art by Caroline Waterlow.

The seasonal quarter of ‘The Swillbrook Song: spring/summer/autumn/winter’, provides a loose circadian framing narrative. Instrumental pieces interweave with spoken word and songs, choral pieces, chants and ‘raps’. It is an eclectic mix – like a traditionally-managed hay meadow strewn with rare species. There is a whimsical, fey, sometimes elegiac quality that evokes the ambience of an ‘Incredible String  Band’ album. It has been released in 2018 but could have been released in 1968 – a time-capsule of re-enchantment for our modern wasteland, a fool for a fisher king, an old goblet found in a field that turns out to be the Holy Grail (possibly).

Peter describes the ‘miraculous balance’ of the album (‘Between time and eternity, earth and heaven…’ as: ‘a still point to view our relationship with a bewildering complex world.’ It offers a counter-spell to our disembodied, virtual lives, grounded as it is in place and community. In its quiet, undemonstrative way it offers a way through: ‘by making the land a sacred part of [your] community.’ By knowing the land we come to know ourselves, and each has a place in the circle. Silbury hill, mysterious chalk mound, raised by many hands 4,500 years ago, is a testimony to this kind of mutual effort and wish to connect with something greater than ourselves, and Silbury, the album, does so to, in its singular way, rising against the chilly zeitgeist, an audial and ageless ‘Winterbourne’.

Kevan Manwaring, 3 August 2018

 

Silbury: the miraculous balance is available from Away Publications http://www.peteralfredplease.co.uk

Songwalker

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Going for a song. Hadrian’s Wall, K. Manwaring July 2018

SINGING THE WAY

Recently I walked the Pennine Way national trail – a 253* mile footpath that runs from Edale Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders. It follows, roughly, the spine of England – the Pennine Hills – into the Cheviots, and crosses three national parks: the Peak District, the  Yorkshire Moors, and the Northumberland national park, as well as the North Pennine Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I walked it solo (except for a couple of days when a dear friend joined me) over 18 days, with a couple of half-day rest-stops in Haworth and on Hadrian’s Wall. I wasn’t attempting to break any records or myself – it was my summer vacation ‘wind-down’, a detox from all things digital and academic, and I wanted to allow myself time to stand and stare, or sit and sketch, wild swim or wander lonely as a cloud, as the mood took me. To keep myself going over wild stretches of moorland, dusty tracks, or hot hillsides, I sang. This is the fourth long-distance path in which I’ve found singing has really helped me to ‘keep on keeping on’ – putting one foot in front of the other for mile after mile, hour after hour, day after day, and, more, it really enriches the experience. Each day I chose a song – either learning it on the hoof, or drawing it from my repertoire. If it was a new song, I would sing each verse until I had committed it to memory, then moved on to the next, and so on, until ‘the form [had] patterned in my head’ (as the memorable poem, ‘Real Property’ by Harold Monro goes). Then I would sing it over a few times, finding my way into the song, finding the right voice for it. Often the song’s content, its mood, its message, would chime with the morning, with the landscape I was moving through, in synchronous and profound ways. It sometimes felt like a way of ‘giving thanks’ for the day, for reciprocating what I was experiencing – a praise song and a focalisation of my phenomenological interface with place and its ontological layers, or, to put it more simply: grooving on the genius loci.

Here are the songs I sang, in order (they represent the main ‘song of the day’ although others came and went organically). I selected songs that were thematically-apt or simply ‘jaunty’, amusing and morale-lifting.

Day 1, Edale to Torside: Mist-covered Mountains adapted from the Gaelic by Malcolm MacFarlane, version by Chantelle Smith.

Day 2, Torside to Standedge: Ramblin’ Man by Hank Williams.

Day 3, Standedge to Mankinholes: John Ball by Sydney Carter.

Day 4, Mankinholes to Haworth: The Skye Boat Song by Sir Harold Boulton.

Day 5, Haworth to Ickornshaw: The Boatman by The Levellers.

Day 6, Ickornshaw to Malham: Above (plus ‘Pendle Song’ shared by Anthony Nanson).

Day 7, Malham to Horton-in-Ribblesdale: The Manchester Rambler by Ewan MacColl (plus ‘Scout Song’ by Anthony Nanson).

Day 8, Horton to Hawes: Green Grow the Rushes by Robert Burns.

Day 9: Hawes to Keld: Crooked Jack by Dominic Behan.

Day 10, Keld to Baldersdale: Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan.

Day 11, Baldersdale to Langdon Beck: A Place called England by Maggie Holland.

Day 12, Langdon Beck to Dufton: Wayfaring Stranger (Norma Waterson version)

Day 13, Dufton to Alston: Pilgrim on the Pennine Way by Pete Coe.

Day 14, Alston to Greenhead: This Land is Our Land by Woody Guthrie.

Day 15, Greenhead to The Sill: King of the Road by Roger Miller.

Day 16, The Sill to Bellingham: Carrick Fergus (Marko Gallaidhe version)

Day 17, Bellingham to Byrness: Man of Constant Sorrow (based upon a song by Dick Burnett)  John Allen / Victor Carrera / Scott Mills.

Day 18, Byrness to Kirk Yetholm: Caledonia by Dougie Maclean; Both Sides o’ Tweed by Dick Gaughan.

I would highly recommend this way of experiencing the landscape**. To start the day with a song in your heart lends wings to your feet. It is also is very liberating for the voice. In the middle of nature you can sing your heart out, without fear of criticism or ridicule. It hyper-sensitised my hearing whenever I fell silent (which was often for long stretches of time). And time and time again I found it created interesting encounters with animals. Song changes our relationship to nature – it plugs us into the grid of Creation. Many traditions talk of ‘divine utterance’ and the way the world was sung into being. In some small way, by songwalking, one feels part of this choir – both singing praise to the world and singing the world into being as each step reveals new wonders to our reawakened senses.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2 August 2018

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Cairn above Byrness, dawn of final day. Only 26 miles to go: songs don’t fail me now! K. Manwaring, July 2018

*The route can vary between 253 and 268 miles depending on optional routes, and distances of accommodation at the end of each day!

**If you are interested in songwalking get in touch. I would be fascinated to hear of your experiences, and would love to share a walk with you. Wayfarers of all abilities (poets, storytellers, artists, musicians, sound artists, etc) welcome!

Swimming in the River of Time

News from Nowhere, or An Epoch of Rest, Being Some Chapters from a Utopian Romance (1890) by William Morris

 

 

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Kelmscott Manor, the beautiful home of William Morris. K. Manwaring, 2018

 

News from Nowhere is an iconic ‘fantasy’ novel from the Arts and Crafts visionary and polymath William Morris. Although it is an important work for its lucid dramatisation of Morris’ Socialist ideals, on the surface it appears to be a work of the Fantastic (a timeslip narrative with a loose science fictional device): a man called William ‘Guest’ (a thinly-veiled alter ego of the author) goes for a swim in the river Thames in the late 19th Century and emerges in the early 21st Century, to see a vision of England transformed into a place of restored beauty, craftsmanship, and co-operation. Guest explores this land, with the Thames providing the common link, as he slowly wends his way upriver. The novel’s extent is demarcate by two of his homes: in Hammersmith and Kelmscott, and focuses on a stretch of the river that Morris knew well. In this sense the novel is geographically unambitious, but in many other ways, it was thinking big – certainly beyond the consensus reality of his day. Morris reimagines reality according to his principles, providing a blueprint to aspire to, for some at least.

Morris’ utopia is vividly imagined and alluring on the surface, as pleasant to dip into a wild swim in a glittering river on a summer’s day: an aesthetic and harmonious Arts and Crafts utopia, with an emphasis on ‘work for pleasure’, common ownership, co-operation, and liberty to choose where one lives, one’s profession, and one’s morality. The self-governing anarchists live in beautiful houses, wear beautiful clothes, and make beautiful things. It is perhaps all too good to be true, and in most fictional utopias this is when the protagonist discovers the ugly truth, the mask slips, and they find themselves trapped in some nightmare.

Well, for some, Morris’ utopia undoubtedly would be.  It is perhaps a bit like living in a Tolkienesque Shire – a bucolic aesthetic that belies some worrying subtexts. For a start, it is completely Anglocentric – Morris depicts a very English utopia: what has happened to the rest of the world is not discussed, except for a brief, disparaging reference to America being reduced to a ‘wasteland’. There is a worrying emphasis on women being pretty – every female Guest meets is assessed in this way. The novel is clearly written from a male gaze. There is nothing ‘wrong’ about appreciating female beauty – but when it becomes the chief characteristic, the defining trait, that is problematic; in addition, the women are on the whole portrayed as being content in domestic roles, or being a bit empty-headed (except for the stonemason and the free-spirited Ellen, who is inquisitive and seems to know more than she lets on – a portrait of Jane Morris, similarly ‘snatched’ from the working classes; in the way Guest is clearly Morris himself?). Also, New from Nowhere is very white, cis-gendered, and straight, but Morris was writing from his time (late 19th C) even though he was imagining the early 21st Century. His imagine didn’t stretch far enough to imagine alterity. His vision seems impossibly idealistic, and relies upon the common decency and common sense of the masses – everyone being nice and abiding by agreed values – which, as we can see at the moment, is very unlikely, even when laws are enforced…There is the odd crime of passion, but these are forgiven by society as the perpetrator is left to come to terms with their actions. Yet human nature doesn’t tend to be that enlightened. Even if one society achieves this level, there will always be other groups wishing either to seize its resources or simply destroy it (as Aldous Huxley imagines in his heartbreaking utopia, Island).

Yet, Morris’s ‘utopian romance’ is a hopeful act of positive visualisation – a thought experiment for the world the Socialist Morris wish to see manifest. For him it was a vision much-longed for; and one he tried to implement with his restless energy and huge output. He perhaps achieved in at Kelmscott and the other centres of Arts and Crafts activity.

Now there is an appreciation of artisan skills, of the hand-made, the hand-crafted, the home-grown – farmers markets and craft markets are very popular; and Transition Town schemes are skilling people up for the ‘power down’… Alternative currencies such as LETS and Timeshare have been trialled, but the lack of money seems the least convincing of Morris’ notions – though with the devastation caused by Neoliberalism, perhaps the one that needs addressing as urgently as the environmental one. We need the replace the false economy of venture capitalism, of ‘progress’ and ‘growth’ (based upon finite, dwindling resources and catastrophically damaged biosphere) with the more sustainable one of Deep Ecology.

Morris’ vision is a message in a bottle cast in time’s stream, and although it has many alluring qualities, perhaps it is not radical enough, as it clings to some medieval paradise that never was, yet these thought experiments are worth undertaking. Morris throws down the gauntlet for us all to imagine the world we would like to live in.

 

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The river Thames begins near Kemble, K. Manwaring 2018

 

 

Kevan Manwaring 17 June 2018

 

 

 

The Pattern of Friendship

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Two Women in a Garden, Eric Ravilious, 1933

 

Eric Ravilious was a multi-talented English painter, designer, illustrator, muralist and wood engraver whose tragically brief parenthetical dates (1903-1942) contain an extraordinary career and life that touched many lives, in particular the remarkable nebula of talent that coalesced around the Royal College of Art classes of the early Twenties: Edward Bawden, Barnett Freedman, Thomas Hennell, Douglas Percy Bliss, and John and Paul Nash. The women were equally talented – Helen Binyon, Peggy Angus, Edna Marx and Diana Low. Elaine ‘Tirza’ Garwood, who went on to marry Ravilious, excelled at depictions of everyday lives: well-observed vignettes of social history that were witty, and ironically aware of the fault-lines of society.

Inspired by William Rothenstein – a ‘father’ figure to this unofficial movement, who encouraged his pupils to explore different forms, to be catholic in their approach; and the presence of Paul Nash – one of most important artists of the 20th Century, who, though he only taught two terms at the RCA, had a huge influence on his cohort. Nash, like Rothenstein, practiced not a ‘top down’ kind of teaching, but one that flattened the usual hierarchies, with teacher and students getting stuck in together and learning as they went, through practice. Nash greatly encouraged his protégés, and was instrumental in setting up opportunities for them, artistic commissions and contracts in the real world (Ministry of Transport; the BBC; book publishers; Wedgwood; Ministry of War), deconstructing the elitism of a Fine Art disengaged from society. Book design and illustration, fabrics, wallpaper, public notices, murals, pottery, posters and prints – nothing was beyond their remit or abilities.

 

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The Long Man of Wilmington, Eric Ravilious, 1939

 

Through the painstaking research of Andy Friend, curator of the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne and author of Ravilious & Co.: The Pattern of Friendship (Thames and Hudson, 2017), we now know how this loosely affiliated band of artists and designers inspired and supported one another. Friend was instrumental in creating this major exhibition, which opened at his gallery last year, and has toured Sheffield and now Compton Verney.

 

White Horse of Uffington, Eric Ravilious, 1939

 

Ravilious, whose art, after long decades of (relative) obscurity, has experienced a huge surge of appreciation, is rightly the star of the show. His work, appearing with increasing frequency in magazines, newspapers, websites, postcards and prints, is rapidly becoming iconic. His apparently ‘austere’ or understated style chimes with the zeitgeist (one that is finding a consoling fiction in the ‘keep calm and carry on’ vintage aesthetic of WW2). It could be accused of the same (strangely) cosy nostalgia, and of being all surface and no substance – but there is something more going on in his work, which makes its effect linger. The South Downs, which Ravilious made his own (after a productive year at a much-loved ‘Furlongs’), are depicted in soothingly muted tones and a series of pulsing lines, suggesting movement, a frozen wave, electrifying the ostensibly still, empty scene with a charge of nascent energy – as though the slumbering giant of Albion was about to awaken. The foreground is often focalised by a piece of machinery – a watermill creaks in the wind, a steam train passes a white horse chalk figure, a plough breaks the undulating downland with its perpendicularity, a gypsy caravan contrasts the stark silhouette of winter trees. There is a tinge of melancholy, perhaps, in the often muted light, but there is also something infinitely soothing in the quietude they depict. And the light is always there, in the breaks in the line and thinning washes of colour – as though just below the surface, about to irupt through at any moment. Immanence and evanescence are intrinsic qualities in the work of Ravilious – no surprise then his favourite times to paint were sunrise and twilight. He spent his life trying to capture this fleeting light, a moth to the flame.

 

Tiger Moth, Eric Ravilious, 1942

Seeing the artists and designers side-by-side makes for some interesting comparisons. Paul Nash is the major figure, whose ‘daemonic urge’ outshines his brother’s, John, but in one painting (the interior of a wood) John outdoes his brother; Ravilious’ luminous works punctuate the show like a starry firmament, but occasionally even his work is outshone by his peers: Bawden (in the night scene of dock-sides), Freedman (in his submarine lithographs), Tirza (in her exquisitely observed and rendered engraving), but none of it is competitive. There is just a healthy cross-fertilisation. The lesser occasionally outshines the greater, and collectively they created an extra-ordinary outpouring of work, as Enid Marx reflected in 1989: ‘I have no illusions when it comes to my own standing, it’s all a matter of a number of individuals forming a collective school. In the arts this has always been so … the lesser pebbles become sand.’

Eric Ravilious became a war artist – and his palette darkened (as can be seen in a quartet of dramatic paintings executed for the Admiralty). He was in familiar territory depicting the industrial and mechanised in the landscape for the Army, but he had a yearning to experience flight, and this new element left him exhilarated, but floundering for a new vocabulary. Gone were the certainties of the distinct sky-line, the contours of the downs and undulations of the fields. In a final, calamitous posting, he was sent to Iceland and joined observational flights above the epic glacial landscape. It was on one of these, in 1942, he went missing, leaving behind his widow, Tirza, who struggled to receive a war pension due to her husband’s ‘disappearance’ rather than death (no body was ever found). Yet deceased he undeniably was, slipping from this world with the same deceptive lightness of his work. He flew into the light and did not return.  Upon his death, one of his closest friends, Edward Bawden, said of Eric, that ‘his life was like his art, graceful and long-lasting in its effects.’

Ravilious and his contemporaries ennobled the everyday in their art and design, capturing a sublime expression of conscious and sensibility from the twenties to forties – one that had a texture of realism but with a graceful lightness that danced free of its matrix.

Visiting it with talented friends felt resonant – for in our own pattern of friendship (stretched between Wiltshire, Somerset, Devon, and Gloucestershire and further afield, but converging in the quirky, creative crucible of Stroud) we have a modern microcosm of a similar creative cross-hatch: artists, novelists, poets, musicians, singers, crafters, print-makers, storytellers… In our own little way we are carrying the flame.

 

Beachy Heady, Eric Ravilious, 1939

 

With thanks to Kirsty Hartsiotis and Chantelle Smith.

Ravilious & Co: the pattern of friendship, by Andy Friend, is published by Thames and Hudson, 2017

The Pattern of Friendship exhibition is at Compton Verney Art Gallery until 10 June 2018:

http://www.comptonverney.org.uk/thing-to-do/ravilious-and-co/

 

 

 

The Democracy of Water

Walking the Isis Way
(5-7 May 2018)

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Sun- and water-worshippers by the Isis, Port Meadow, Oxford, 6 May 2018

Over the May ‘bank holiday’ weekend (a funny way to mark a very special time of year – Beltane or International Workers’ Day are far more meaningful) blessed by glorious weather (for once!) I walked a 50 mile section of the Thames Path, a national long-distance footpath. Earlier in the year, when it had still felt chilly, I had run to the source from my house – a brisk, muddy ten miles – where a stone in a sleepy meadow near Kemble marks the official beginning of the 2nd longest river in England. It is rather shy to begin with, and doesn’t show its face until a field or two away. By the time it intersects its first road, it is a mere gleam in the grass, pristine as a May morning. It seems delicate, vulnerable, like any young soul – but it tentatively makes it way in the world, growing more confident with each winding mile, nurtured by supportive brooks and underlying acquifers, and in its hesitant movements it is as beautiful as a foal. Reeds flow like a mane beneath its transparent veil. It is hard to imagine this pellucid stream grows up to become TS Eliot’s ‘strong brown god’ but a great destiny awaits it – monarchs and bards will grace its currents, commerce and history will crowd its banks.

 

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The mighty Thames begins. Kevan Manwaring, Early Spring 2018

 

 

I walked this first section, to Cricklade, with a poet friend of mine, Brendan Georgeson, a couple of years ago. And then I walked the next section, from Cricklade to Lechlade, with my partner, the folksinger Chantelle Smith, in the early Spring – when it was still a bit nippy and dreary. Still, a lovely pub lunch awaited us, which made it all worthwhile.

And so to this early May weekend – with temperatures reaching the hottest on record – I set off for a solo three-day trek, picking up where I left off, from charming The Riverside Inn, Lechlade, and making my way to Dorchester-on-Thames, a sweaty forty-five plus river miles later. Although the Thames Path continues all the way to the Big Smoke, officially ending at the Thames Barrier, I was most interested in this section, the bulk of the Upper Thames, which technically terminates at Goring and Streatley, but I had walked into that area in 2004, when traversing the Ridgeway. And I had my sights set on the prominent and well-loved landmarks of Sinodun Hills, aka Wittenham Clumps, aka Mother Dunch’s Buttocks, as an end-point. Immortalised by the landscape painter, Paul Nash, who painted them obsessively, I had been drawn to them for years and finally visited them while researching folk tales of the county (Oxfordshire Folk Tales, The History Press, 2011).  They once were claimed by Berkshire (hence another one of their saucy epithets, the ‘Berkshire Bubs’), but for the purposes of this trip, I was claiming them as my place of psychogeographical pilgrimage.

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Wittenham Clumps sketch in watercolour, ink & chalk, Paul Nash (1912)

Also, the idea of walking the Isis rather than the Thames, appealed to my mythopoeiac sensibilities – reclaiming the name from its contemporary negative connotations (it belonged to an Egyptian goddess long before silly men got hold of it), this is the traditional name of the river until it reaches Dorchester-on-Thames (where it is conjoined by the river Thame), only then is it truly the Thames. Interestingly, its Celtic name was Tamesis (‘darkly flowing one’), which is uncannily like a compound of ‘Thames’ and ‘Isis’. To the Celts every body of water, spring, well, pool, lake and river, was a potential gateway to the Otherworld and many had a resident spirit to which offerings were made. In Bath, where I used to live, the goddess of the springs, Sulis, was worshipped. Even the conquering Romans acknowledged her, shrewdly assimilating the local cult by rebranding her ‘Sulis-Minerva’, and naming the city Aquae Sulis. Around Bath flows the river Avon, not the Avon of Stratford fame, but this is a common river name, derived from ‘Afon’, a Brythonic word for water. I suspect the locals were reluctant to reveal the name of the goddess, although we know of Sabrina (Severn), Belisima (Ribble), and of course the Thames (Tamesis), to name a few. Note they are all female. It is so telling that a feminine river is turned into a man: Old Father Thames. His statue (a hefty patriarch by Raffaelle Monti) once adorned the source, but was moved to St John’s Lock in the mid-70s after vandalism. It is an impressive sculpture, but I can’t help feeling it should be in Dorchester, and the Upper Thames should be graced with a monument to Isis (or Tamesis). After all, it has its own distinct geology and ‘feel’, as distinct from the Middle (London Borough) and Lower (downriver and estuary) Thames.

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 Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, Edouard Manet (1863)

Walking the river in solitude and peacefulness for three days I became intensely physical aware of the shape of the river, its sinuous meanderings, which it was hard not to see as feminine curves. The slow, breathy rhythm of my effort became a kind of extended foreplay, as I traced the hypnotic dance of Isis – mesmerised by her soothing song and constant flow. For much of the time I was in a non-verbal, liminal space. Thoughts were softened into impressions. I was reading the river in an embodied way, beyond language, beyond even conscious thought. The heat, light and near silence worked its spell. The scintillation of the sunlight upon the shifting surface intimated at unfathomable mysteries. Waterfowl, water- and river-bank users, the passing detail of a house, a moored vessel, a tree, or a bridge, occasionally arrested my attention – but all seemed like part of the river’s dream. It was easy to see why so many great literary classics have been borne by its waters: News from Nowhere, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows, Three Men in a Boat, Heart of Darkness…Ironically, I hardly wrote a thing. What inspiration the river gave me I carried away in my soul and soles. I taught me some valuable wisdom: surrender; grace; quietude and solitude; patience; effort and reward; flow, guidance and release. All seem blindingly obvious, but mean little without an embodied, visceral experience to hard-wire them into the body-mind.

 

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Bathers at Asnieres, George Seurat (1884)

 

Yet the egalitarian gifts of the river await all – and one need only spend some time on its banks, or in its water, to receive its gifts. A real highlight of the whole weekend was the wild-swimming. On the first day I went for a sneaky dip in the middle of nowhere and it felt almost illicit (but certainly most welcome after a hot day’s hike); but on the second I arrived at Port Meadow, on the edge of Oxford, to discover a kind of free festival of the river taking place. Crowds of water-worshippers had descended along the banks equipped with picnics, BBQs, inflatables, books, sound systems, and high spirits. It was like walking into an updated French Impressionist masterpiece: the sublime languor of Seurat’s Bathers at Asnieres, the bold sensuality of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, the crowdedness of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party.

 

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Luncheon of the Boating Party, Pierre Auguste Renoir (1881)

The atmosphere could have been overwhelming after two days of near solitude, but the prevailing energy was of sheer delight. One could almost hear a collective whoop of joy at the final unequivocal arrival of summer. There seemed to be a competition to display as much flesh as possible. Bright young things flung themselves with giddy abandon into the awaiting embrace of the Isis. The pool by Fiddler’s Island was especially popular, with teenagers lining up on the bridge to dare each other into increasingly wild dives and hysterics. Passing by much of these antics, I finally acquiesced to the irresistible tide of hedonism and, stripping down to my shorts, plunged in. Emerging from the refreshing coolness to bathe my beaded limbs in the strength of the sun, I savoured the endorphin glow – feeling wonderfully alive and thoroughly blessed by the Isis. All can enjoy the democracy of water.

 

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Bathers at Fiddler’s Island, K. Manwaring, 6 May 2018

‘A River Runs Through It’: my 4 page Thames Path feature appears in the summer issue of Cotswold Life. available from newsstands across the region now, or direct from the website:

http://www.cotswoldlife.co.uk/home

For information on the Thames Path national trail visit:

https://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/thames-path