What traces of our fiery lives remain in the landscape once we’re gone? It might be wishful thinking, something bordering on religion, to believe that we don’t just disappear but linger on as ghost-memories, folktales, circles drawn into the land. But it’s easier to get through each day imagining that we do. And so we dig our boot heels into the ground; we make our drawings, dig our tunnels. Everyday, we inscribe.
This is the conceit of The Old Weird Albion – that we hide our lives in the landscape as memories and myths through any number of extraordinary means. Some crunch circles into the wheat, others store their stories in the walls of a suburban house, or hide them as a folktale or a song that linger on the wind; a bespoke, hidden soundtrack to the scenery. We drag our feet across millennia-worn pathways and dig for the bones of our predecessors.
This book began as a series of walks among the South Downs undertaken 10 years ago with no purpose. Eventually they led me to a story – a woman at the edge of a cliff – and, later, a name: Doris Hopper, an unassuming Londoner with low-grade flapper fashions and class-ladder aspirations. I knew that she was married to my Grandfather, and I discovered that, eighty years ago, she leapt from the heights of Beachy Head, a jump that eventually led to her death. I found out more as I walked, but not that much more: the corners of her story exist, but the complexities of its centre are gone.
The walks in search of Doris’ story connected several threads that have haunted my life for decades: that places retain traces of those who have passed through – ‘all the rooms they smell like diesel / and you take on the dreams of the ones who have slept here’. That real histories are inscribed in the landscape in ways hard to find; harder, still, to read. That the landscape remembers, even if it does so in vagaries and riddles. That solace is out there, waiting for us, everywhere.
I began to walk with a purpose: I sought out guides, both living and dead, who might show me where the memories were kept, and how we might hide our own. The geography was limited: the South Downs, the landscape of my imagination since childhood; the place my father grew up, the place I spent summers, the place that stuck in my heart once I returned to chilly Upstate New York. And I looked for those who might teach me how to believe in something; to stretch the possibilities of my atheist upbringing to instead include ghosts and folktales, gods and beasts – the truths of the landscape’s myth. To believe is crazy and it is necessary and I wanted it more than anything.
I took inspiration from my family and from the land; from art and from music – from the songs of Shirley Collins and the Copper Family, and writers such as Greil Marcus, Ciaran Carson, and Arthur Beckett. Sometimes the walks began to imitate these inspirations, and drew them closer still:
The Old Weird Albion documents some of these walks, not as a catalog of the uncanny in the English landscape, but as an interpretation of it: I hope that it seeks out, not just points at which something weird exists in the Downs, but the ways in which such stories, practices and emanations might inform us in our travels through this lifetime. I hope that it offers not just moments of cunning thrill, but ways of understanding our acts of remembering and forgetting, and the sanctuary such places offer.
‘Life is hidden in the stones’, said the mad philosopher Mick as I walked the Weald and Downs with him; it’s hidden in the lines, too. We drag our feet across the land, prop up stones as markers and sing the praises of a path through a valley, and in doing so we become a part of it, leave a trace of our fiery lives and in a tiny way, never disappear.