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The Spirit of Place

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The Dragon Hill rises above the mists in the Vale of The 'White Horse. Behind it, the almost abstract forms of the prehistoric horse flow in graceful lines. The valley is silent. Beyond lies the ancient Ridgeway that cuts its way towards Offa's Dyke. As the mist drifts away, the early morning sun rises casting shadows between the bare trees which surround the neolithic burial chamber at Wayland's Smithy. Wayland, mythological smithy to the gods, hammering his silver horseshoes onto celestial horses. Paul Nash sensed a hidden geometry here, an intangible presence which triggered the imagination.

Avebury Stones. Photo Peter Woodcock.

Avebury Stones

At Avebury the processional path of standing stones along the Kennet Avenue stands majestically against the risen sun. Diamond and lozenge shapes, male and female energies, mark the route towards the circle of stones, the inner sanctum for fertility rites and celebration of the year's seasons. Across the cornfields the largest man-made mound in Europe, Silbury Hill, retains its secrets. A giant sundial whose creeping shadows announce the coming of spring, summer, autumn, winter?

It is not only in the countryside that places of power can be found. The poet Aiden Dun spent over twenty years investigating the location of Troyvantus, ancient capital of Albion, amid the detritus, gas works and overgrown wasteland behind King's Cross and St Pancras Stations in London.

The spirit of place has always been a rich source for artists, poets, writers and visionaries. The reverence of the land is in our bones going back to neolithic times, resonating in the many battles we have fought to protect the land. Being an island creates a certain vision, different, for example, from the wide open spaces of America or Australia. The painter Sean Kelly said that abstract art was more understandable on a continent where the boundaries are larger. When one lacks outer space one creates inner space. Invention becomes more complex, cup and circle markings on stones, intricate Celtic spirals and knots, illuminated manuscripts, gothic architecture with its inherent story telling.

We had the monastic tradition which provided the basis for all art in Britain. Henry VIII began the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1534. The Reformation was then carried on with fervour by his son Edward VI. Works of art equal to those of the great artists of Europe were destroyed. Not only Christian art died but the remnants of pagan iconography as well, for many churches and cathedrals assimilated images of the old religion, such as the Green Man, the Corn Goddess and many nature spirits. Andrew Graham Dixon, in his television programmes A History of British Art (1997) suggested around ninety-five per cent of art was destroyed.

John Piper, 1936.For two hundred years painting in Britain meant predominantly portraiture, which was dominated by two great European artists, Holbein and Van Dyke. It was not until the eighteenth century that landscape painting was perceived as a serious subject. The great European Tradition of Romantic landscape painting which evolved from Claude and Poussin, developed in Britain with the works of Thomas Gainsborough, George Lambert, and Richard Wilson. The Romantic Tradition was further developed by the landscape paintings of John Constable. While attempting to describe the 'reality of nature' his sketches and preparatory work on closer inspection seem to precipitate C├ęzanne. The shimmering, irridescent paintings of William Mallord Turner paved the way for Impressionism, which created the conditions for breaking boundaries in the artistic world during the twentieth century.

The Romantic Tradition was abandoned as Modernism emerged via Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, finally resulting in Conceptualism and Minimalism. A new form of Puritanism evolved which marginalised other responses, particularly work that sought to describe the world or went beyond the wholly personal response. Just as the Neo-Romantics had been erased in the Fifties, artists of the last fifty decades who did not fit in with Modernism were negated. lyon Hitchens, Norman Adams, Frances Hodgkin and Winifred Nicholson were some of the artists who did not wholly subscribe to the concepts of Modernism.

Dark Wood, Minton, 1945Meanwhile, out of the mainstream of British culture, other issues were surfacing which took the attention of artists, writers and filmmakers. There was a resurgence of interest in mythological and ecological issues. The world of the imagination started to break through the confines of modernist ideology. It is not by chance that such figures as the Green Man and the Goddess have emerged into our consciousness. The pendulum of rampant materialism has now swung too far, correspondingly to be rebuked by new forces of dissent. Many people are participating in attempts to stop what they see as destructive elements, whether it be the building of roads, runways for airports, or the rise of consumerism at the expense of the planet's health. In times of need it seems that ancient forces re-emerge.

The spirit of place is no Luddite dream. New technology has created a universal space for contact and ideas. However, as barriers merge, there is the fear of loss of identity, national and personal. Therefore it still is a necessity to nurture our own roots.

View over AtlantisI discussed these issues recently with author and radical antiquarian John Michell. It was Michell who was instrumental in reintroducing the concept of ley lines in the late Sixties. In his first book The Flying Saucer Vision (1967) he related ancient sites with UFOs. "It was at the time a belief that these sites had a relationship with flying saucers. I saw the phenomenon as symbolic of changes taking place, changes in consciousness." In 1969 View Over Atlantis was published to great acclaim which expounded more on the ley line system, putting forward the view of a celestial landscape laid out across the British Isles. The Herefordshire entrepreneur Alfred Watkins, who discovered ley lines in the 1920s, influenced Michell but it is William Stukeley, the seventeenth century antiquarian who wrote about such places as Avebury, whom Michell reveres. It was Stukeley who had a great influence on William Blake. Most biographies of Blake make little of this. "Stukeley was seen with suspicion by other historians as an oddball and eccentric." Michell believes that the concept of ley lines since the Sixties has greatly influenced the arts, something which has never been acknowledged. "Richard Long paid homage to ley lines with his earth sculptures and journeys across the landscape but never really developed the idea. Most people do find the idea of invisible lines of energy a bit wacky." It is the ideas which stemmed from the concept of ley lines and interest in ancient sites which has given birth, Michell believes, to a uniquely Radical Romantic movement in Britain. This movement includes the road protesters, such people as the Dongas Tribe, the Travellers and the Free Festivals at such places as Stonehenge.

The Greene ManMichell sees the culmination of all this as resulting in the movement to stop genetically modified crops in Britain. "The movement actually began in Britain and at the moment appears to have been a success.

One of the dangers inherent in reclaiming one's roots is nationalism, which Michell warns against. "Sacred sites and ley lines are all over the world. In Germany before the Second World War there was huge interest in such things which were then politicised and became fascist. This did not need to happen. Hitler was not interested in antiquity, he was a modernist, more concerned with roads, trains and logical solutions. The spirit of place is universal." It is of interest, therefore, that the Radical Romantic Movement in Britain has always embraced a cross section of different cultures, whether it was Blake's influence by Swedenborg or Boehme or the neo-pagan element which looks to Pan-European connections with Norse, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon roots and even further afield to Indo-European roots.

In today's consumer world do we still connect with the spirit of place? Are new sites being created or do we need access to the thread of arcane knowledge? Is there an archetypal wisdom that sifts through the layers of materialism regardless of repudiation? Ancient sites are obvious choices for the genius loci, but what of the last five hundred years? Have we lost the ability, let alone the knowledge to construct new places which allow us to connect with something higher? Glib journalists tell us that the new shopping malls are the cathedrals of our age, but this I see as just pure cynicism. The tribal gatherings in the fields and woods are more likely to connect with something other. It is essential for the health of a civilisation to have access to places of natural beauty, to wild places. In a country as small as Britain, this is difficult. The government's response to conserve places of natural beauty is well meaning but often ends up in theme park trivia. This is where the power of culture comes into play, providing spaces for the imagination. In the past we had our sacred groves, our stone circles, our cathedrals and monastic environments which created the conditions for art in all its forms.

With the advent of the new technology there is the fear that the hand-made object, whether it be painting, sculpture or a book, will vanish into cyberspace. But we will always need the tactile. Technology, in fact, could initiate a new renaissance of hand-made art. As a reaction to electronic imagery or mass made objects, neither of which are particularly individual or tactile, the handcrafted object could become something unique.

The Romantic vision also has an important part to play in combating the current craze, rampant in the media whether it be films, television, computer games or newspapers, of forecasting a nihilistic future. Despite all the propaganda, we do not have to live in a RoboCop, Terminator world! There are alternatives.