Oh England, my Lionheart ~ the land beneath the land.
Most days I walk down to the stream in the village a mile or two from where I live. I walk through fields farmed for mainly arable crops, though one large field (I’d estimate around a hundred acres) is currently planted up with roses being grown for the garden centre trade. Each walk is slightly different even though I take the same route; the daily changes and the seasonal changes mean it’s never the same twice. I stand at the bridge and I watch the water; sometimes if I am lucky I see a kingfisher or a dipper. Sometimes, if I go later in the day, I see barn owls and bats.
I live in a country that is deeply beautiful and historic. It’s jam-packed with legends, stories, myths and mystery. There have been humans here since before the last Ice Age and the evidence is everywhere, from white horses (“It’s an ad for mead; they don’t call them the Beaker People for nothing”) carved into hillsides, through medieval churches right the way to tower blocks and factories. Dig anywhere and you will find something. I sometimes field walk, for fun, and in half an hour in an average field, I’ll find a dozen items. Most are trash but some are not.
More than this, I am so immersed in the mythos of the land I live on, I can feel the presence of those who came before me. I feel the tug on the tiny web of threads that connect us. When I see the kingfisher flash upstream in a blaze of brief glory, I think of the Fisher King, of the Grail, of Arthur and his court, of T.S. Eliot’s poetry, trying to scrape at the layers of the years to reveal the origins of the modern Wasteland; I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins, battling his own demons of existential angst and trying to make peace with who he was. When I see a gathering of oak and ash and thorn, I think of Kipling, of his Puck of Pook’s Hill, and of all the ancient tree lore of the druids of old.
When I visit a city, I see the clues to the past among buildings and parks; sometimes lost completely but perhaps a ghost of a memory locked into a street name. I look upwards in old churches and cathedrals, seeking the faded residue of once-brilliant paint, and I look in hidden corners for masons’ marks and sneaky graffiti. I look for the past reaching into the present, holding out hands of loving connection.
Amid a wild landscape, I can see the phantoms of what once was there. I lived once in a village where a ruined village, abandoned in the time of the plague, hummocked and hidden, lurked just beyond the bounds of the modern village. I can look at the under-storey in a wood and I can tell you whether it is original ancient oak woodland or whether it’s modern plantation.
Why does any of this matter?
The living land is an ever changing thing, always moving and shifting, but it is the past that gives it permanence. What once was is always there, if only as post-holes and scorched flints. When an artist, a real artist like the old masters, not dilettante dabblers like me, painted, they painted in layers that meant the work in progress looked nothing like what they were painting. Layers of paints, piled one upon the other, produce a depth of colour that is impossible to reproduce with a single layer of what is technically the same colour. There is a richness, a power, that cannot be produced by short cuts.
It’s the same with a land. The older the land, the deeper and richer the history and the surer the foundations. If you try to sweep away the past, whether personal or national, you sweep away what makes it strong.
Oh England, my Lionheart, with your stories and your landscape etched and carved and eroded and forgotten corners, with your heroes and your kings and queens, and the fair folk and the winding roads the Romans hated so much and then fell in with: you are what made me, and I love you.