City of the dead

Time to move onto the next chapter of my book A Small Farm Future in this blog cycle about it, which is Chapter 15 – ‘The country and the city’. I’m probably going to write two or three shortish posts on this topic. In this one, I’ll approach it obliquely with an account of a walk I took last week.

To blow off a few cobwebs, I decided to spend a couple of days hiking a part of the Ridgeway, which has been in use for around 5,000 years and is supposedly Britain’s oldest road. It’s now a national hiking trail, with one end starting in Wiltshire only a few miles east of my home.

Although it’s nearby, the landscape at the starting point is very different from the small, folded hills of brashy limestone on the edge of the Mendips where I live. It’s more open country, with wide valleys and sweeping, chalky downs. The social histories written in the landscape are different too. Where I live is what Oliver Rackham called ‘ancient countryside’, where there were few commons or open fields and many scattered hamlets and private farmsteads, crooked roads, small woodlands and ponds. The Ridgeway country, by contrast, is what Rackham called a ‘planned countryside’ of widely-spaced villages, few, straighter roads and large, regular fields, strongly shaped by the parliamentary enclosures of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

The walk starts in Avebury, which presents a much older history in the form of a Neolithic henge, less famous than its cousin on Salisbury plain a few miles to the south but I gather no less important in its day. The summer solstice had only just passed when I arrived, and Avebury was still dotted with a straggle of sun worshippers, who’d laced the sarsen stones and ancient trees with gaudy offerings. I can’t say I was a fan, but I doubt the stones and trees take a view on it.

The café was closed after a 24-hour stint serving the revellers, much to the chagrin of the tourists arriving from the car park – an altogether different demographic. There was a National Trust shop, but the only food it had was fudge, that mainstay of the English tourist experience. Luckily, I had a bag of lightweight if unappetizing trail food in my rucksack, so I doused my hat in water from the outdoor tap and began my walk. From the point I left town, I saw barely more than a handful of people over the next two days. And almost all of them were idlers like me – walkers, runners, cyclists – rather than people who were living or working in the landscape.

A major reason for that is water. Since, true to its name, this part of the Ridgeway mostly follows a ridge comprising porous chalk, there are few sources of groundwater along it to furnish reliable supplies. So barring high-energy and high-cost engineering efforts, it’s not a great place to build a house or village. No surprise, then, that most of the settlement in the area is on the bottomlands away from the ridge, often a trek of a mile or more downslope from the trail.

There were, however, a few people living up on the ridge. In occasional places where a minor road transected it with generous parking alongside, I often came across old vans and buses converted for residential use – sometimes deserted, sometimes occupied by young families and alternative-looking types, usually surrounded by a clutter of 25 litre plastic water cans, fire grates and other paraphernalia of life on the road.

As to people working up on the ridge – well, there were just a few. Walking up the long slope out of Avebury to join the trail, a self-propelled sprayer suddenly loomed from a dip in a big field of oilseed rape. My first taste of the Ridgeway was the cloying tug of glyphosate at the back of my nose and mouth – an experience repeated in several of the rape fields I traversed in the next two days, though after that first meeting I tried to time things so the spraying rigs were at the other end of the field when I passed. Still, I doubt I saw more than five tractors or sprayers during the hike. No doubt glyphosate is a great labour-saver.

There may not be many living souls abroad in those fields, but there are plenty of dead ones. The whole landscape is a Neolithic mausoleum. Not just in the now departed hands that made Stonehenge, Avebury and Uffington, but in the actual mausoleums of Wayland’s Smithy and endless other funerary barrows dotting the landscape. At the end of my first day of walking, I spread out my little bivvi tent as inconspicuously as I could behind a bank of hawthorn and lay down to sleep within this veritable city of the dead.

Recent thinking about these Neolithic peoples seems to be that they were agricultural pioneers scattered across a sparsely settled land who were not given to great social stratification. They built sites like Stonehenge collectively as ritual centres to which they travelled from where they lived and worked, often over great distances, and in this way forged social solidarity with each other and with their ancestors.

The situation in the area today seems pretty much reversed. I did make one foray off the trail into a village in the hope of enlivening my food supply. I got briefly lost amidst a thicket of ‘Private – No Public Access’ signs (I’ve long pressed the case on this blog for the virtues of distributed private ownership of farm property – private ownership of all rights to access is more complicated). When I located the village centre the pub was shut. I did come across a ‘Village Store and Post Office’ sign brightly painted on a wall, but the house it belonged to had long since been turned over to a private residence and there was nowhere else to buy food in the village. Most of the picture postcard old thatched cottages in the village seemed to have a couple of fancy cars, Porsches, Mercedes and the like, nuzzling their walls. The main road just outside the village only had a single lane each way, but it was so busy it took me five minutes to cross. The traffic raced north and south, to bigger towns, better shopping and places where a wider cross-section of society lived. But there was, to be fair, one house whose occupants had installed a water tap for passing hikers. I filled my bottles, doused my hat again, silently thanked its inhabitants and headed back up to the ridge, crossing the line of an old Roman road in the process – arrow straight, colonial.

I walked for another day, reaping its thin human harvest of cyclists, runners and tractor drivers. I’d guess that by Neolithic standards the countryside was teeming with people. But considering that southern England is one of the more densely populated parts of our densely populated planet, it didn’t seem so to me. You could easily see more people walking down a single street of my small hometown in a few minutes than I saw over two days on the Ridgeway.

At the end of my second day of walking, I took the bus to the nearest station. I got talking to a man who’d grown up in the north of England but had moved to the southeast for work. His landlord was selling his property, so he was heading over to the next town to find a new place to live. We bade farewell at the station and I took the train home. That cars and trains move a lot faster than people on foot is banally obvious, but it hits you afresh when you’ve been walking for two days and get home on the train in an hour.

And that, I think, is pretty much enough about my little trip. I’ve described it here only because I think it opens up some themes I’ll want to explore in forthcoming posts about the country and the city. Water. Work in the fields and work in the town. Human power relationships and control of the landscape. Transport connections and livelihoods. How we build solidarity with other people, and how we refuse to. How we can get, and keep, a roof over our heads. What things we choose to honour, and where we choose to honour them.

19 thoughts on “City of the dead

  1. It may just be the way I’m wired up, Chris, but your more personal posts are always the most memorable ones to me. I’ve walked in similar places – your Ridgeway experience recalled some time I spent walking the South Downs Way – and the thoughts it evoked are familiar to my own response to life in the UK, though the last time I visited was pre-pandemic. Anyway, this struck a plangent tone to me.
    For what it’s worth, walking in Hungarian countryside isn’t dissimilar – hardly a soul, the occasional pick-up and ever larger tractors, maybe the odd tourist. Makes you wonder where all the food is coming from sometimes. I’d say there’s more of a kind of semi-wild rural unkemptness here though, obviously a different climate, and it is comparatively teeming with bird and insect life though I have noticed an alarming disappearance in most amphibian life in the 15 or so years I’ve lived here. Where once you couldn’t walk down the street of a rainy summer’s night without dodging scores of frogs, now you’re lucky(!) if you catch sight of a dry toad pancake in the verge. The tree frogs stopped calling here about six years ago, “because of the drought” an agronomic professor told me. The storks still find food out in the fields, though.
    Touching on some of the themes you mention, in a part of the European karst, the Carpathian basin, once renowned for its fresh water reserves – think of all the Hungarian spas, ever-running streetside spring faucets and millions of garden wells – water has become the number one cause for concern among several local mayors as the droughts get longer and the heat gets stronger.
    Talking with my octogenarian neighbour about this yesterday, she told me there were dry years in the past when they had to fetch water from the stream to preserve a crop, but from memory the dry spells never lasted as long as they have recently. Her family lived from the land, like most others did here. They grew what they needed for themselves and the animals – a cow or three, pigs, chickens and the like. They built shared barns with neighbours and money was scarce. One penniless neighbour ‘paid’ for a favour with two puppies from a litter. She said the young dogs paid for themselves times over as they were good at catching the rats that would otherwise live beneath a haystack and spoil it. She reflected on the sorry lack of religion in people’s lives today, that would come to no good. On work: “We had to work to eat. Young people today don’t want to hoe a garden if they can earn money and go to the shop.” I’d just returned from the shop and had been told that sugar and milk were impossible to get hold of that day, and sunflower oil is being rationed, similar to flour. My neighbour wasn’t surprised. Things brightened a bit when I started talking about potatoes. She told me how they used to ‘steal’ – she used the word ‘geld’, or castrate – from the potato plant by digging a hand into the earth to feel for one or two of the largest potatoes, leaving the others to grow on. That was a new one to me. I should talk with her more often.
    Thanks very much for your post.

    • I should talk with her more often.

      Indeed. It serves us all quite well to visit with those around us… and older folks can be a prescient gift.

      To Chris’s recent hike:
      I get to do a fair bit of walking across fields to inspect the research plots. This is only a bit like the walk he describes, lots of exercise, peace and quite from modern daily hubbub… but very little change in scenery or the odd interaction with strangers. And the active attention to the plots under view takes away from free flowing day dreams and pondering that might otherwise fill the mind. But fresh air and exercise are still great for the soul.

      A different sort of travel – across the state to inspect various fields – can offer some similar discoveries here. Cutting ‘cross country’ on old remote byways has a charm often missed on the regular roads and highways. Navigating an old dirt lane – now used rarely and mostly by the locals as a trepidatious shortcut – can render a few wild animals, some old farm machinery rusting away along a field edge, a tree lot where a home once stood… and unfortunately the occasion dumping site for detritus left by someone too lazy to make a proper disposal. Out of sight, out of mind.

      These out-of-the-way spaces may one day come back to be the homes and villages in an SFF. If they could talk (and in some sense they can tell something of themselves to those prepared to listen) they’d help any new resident appreciate what they are about to embark upon.

      So, much like the elderly woman Simon met recently, we should take time to visit the corners of our habitat and listen. There is much to learn there.

  2. What a strange coincidence. I’ve just taken part in a two day walk with XR Walkers in that part of the world. We walked from Salisbury to Amesbury via Sarum and then on the second day went for a 12 mile circuit starting at sunrise from Stonehenge, taking in the King’s Barrows, through the Cursus and past Woodhenge.
    It was a bit surreal. We ended the first day at sunset at Stonehenge in what really felt like a good old fashioned rave, with the neo-Druids gamely enacting their ceremonies amongst crowds of loved up ravers, who, having had music amplifiers banned, made do with percussion drumming. The next day was the complete opposite as we trudged through a vast wild meadow full of orchids and other wildflowers as the only group of people walking all day.
    I found it hard to get a ‘sense’ of the area. Maybe if we had avoided the summer solstice I would have gotten more of a sense of how small the population would have been during the Neolithic era.

  3. It’s nearly July, so a number of things are in season
    to forage if you wanted to stretch your food supply another day — though I don’t know how advisable that is given the glyohosate. Problem is it does slow down the walking; not all of it is convenient as camp food, either! I always find it easier, too, after I’ve gained a bit of familiarity with an area.

    Cycling on the Somerset levels (I don’t fancy going up the hills) I’ve never really thought of any of it as underpopulated, but then I grew up on the Canadian prairies; and cycling also means I can cover ground faster (but not go off-road so much).

  4. I just wonder if there is a real financial win in using glyphosate , when you have bought the chemical and the machines to apply it against a tractor with a scuffler behind it and one man’s wage , I would love to see the economics of that , though in my early days I have spent hours with a hoe singling turnips , that gives us time to think !!!

    • Used properly and in the right conditions there is certainly a financial win. Glyphosate (at least for now) will kill perennial weeds like Canada thistle, and Johnson grass. There are alternatives, other non-selective herbicides and there are management options such as rotation into hay production with aggressive mowing schedules to weaken these weeds. But the alternatives come with a financial cost as well. Current market conditions – price of the chemical and the kit to apply – potential income from the sprayed crop – will continue to favor glyphosate use. Current spikes in fuel prices may well push the needle in favor of herbicide use – as mechanical control of weeds will cost even more than it used to.

      The chemical insult Chris suffered on his walk may not have been due to glyphosate itself. There are others chems mixed with it to make it more useful. Surfactants and other adjuvants mixed with the herbicide can also affect folks in the proximity of the spraying. This is not to absolve the use of the herbicide… without it the other chems are not needed. – but there is a certain usefulness in laying blame where it belongs.

  5. Thanks for those interesting comments and for the further stories that came back to me. Indeed water is a concern, and an often under-emphasized one – especially, I think, in cities.

    Regarding the Somerset Levels, my sense of walking the Ridgeway was that it felt a lot less populated. Though you can look down from on high and see a lot of people-related things going on in the valleys. Not much looking down to be done from the Levels…

    • I do remember getting lost on the Levels after dark (and a good meal) and being able to find our way back to the village because the church tower was lit up. It’s not a particularly tall church tower, but we could still see it from literally miles away.

  6. Thanks for this post Chris – like Simon I do enjoy your offerings in the ‘nature writing’ mode.

    I like the way you draw connections between the very particular landscape of the North Wessex Downs (the name of the AONB that encompasses it all I think) and a sense of time-out, the indrawn breath and pause before you plunge back down into the nitty gritty of famring in the future in future posts. The downs were probably commonly managed heaths for much of their historical (and prehistorical?) existence, where in more recent centuries sheep scavenged for fertility by day and manured the arable fields below in their nightly folds. Even in a small farm future with significant population pressures the tops of the downs would probably retain a pastoral role.

    Susan Oosthuizen has suggested that commons management groups might have formed the basis for some local and regional political groups in prehistoric and early medieval periods, and its easy to see these kinds of landscapes as symbolic of a broader sense of community (both living and dead perhaps), away from the rigidities and everyday socialities of the farms and their adjacent fields, up in the places where the extra-human seems more important and collaboration more of a necessity.

    Of course, I’m reading some of my own concerns and interests into your account – always a sign of good writing!

  7. Andrew, I hadn’t really been thinking of the sheep-arable system in that landscape, but I’m sure you’re right. I read Susan Oosthuizen’s little book ‘The Emergence of the English’ a while back, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Her upside down map and Ikea analysis was pure gold! Also, talking of reading in one’s own concerns, in relation to the long-running debate on here about privates and commons, what I got from her book was the idea that conjoint private landholding and commons go deep into the past. I tend to emphasize the former largely just because I think there’s a little bit too much uncritical emphasis on the latter among contemporary progressives, but of course they go hand in hand.

    Meanwhile, I’m hoping to rejoin the venerable company of mixed farmers soon and restock my own (private) holding with a few Wiltshire horns. First I need to sort the fencing. I just got the plain wire I was trying to unroll in a terrible tangle, so I thought I’d retreat to my blog where farming is so much easier 🙂 Must try harder to distinguish up from down. Now I understand why spooled barbed wire is so popular…

    Regarding glyphosate and its adjuvants I was going to mention that point in the OP but it felt a bit too technical … anyway thanks for pointing it out, Clem. Don’t blame the chemical, blame the other chemical! I think your ‘at least for now’ point is important – partly in relation to herbicide resistance, but also in relation to rural sociology. Maybe in the future those van dwellers will be living in the villages and herding sheep down from the Ridgeway onto the fields overnight…

    • Wiltshire horns, eh? I can see the local origin story having a draw, but I wonder about the wool end of the story. With local-ism, small community sourcing, fiber resources and such I’d have thought you might want some wool. True enough it’s not a simple thing… and I’m certainly not a shepherd by any stretch (though Brian Miller could help us in that regard). But there might be someone in the Mendip Hills who could help with shearing and keeping all sorts of SFF practices alive and well.

    • When the Wiltshire Horns shed, do they leave tufts of wool on fences etc that you can collect?

      Untangling wire is kindof meditative and calming if you are in a position to slow down and take it very methodically, and absolutely infuriating otherwise.

      Kohl rabi, potatoes, beetroot, rosemary, wine cap mushrooms, peas, broad beans and tayberries from the allotment today. Okay, okay, the tayberries didn’t make it home, we just stuffed our faces straight from the bush. It strikes me that another scheme for writing some kind of SFF fiction might be a seasonal one. Meanwhile I’m planning a fine roast dinner, plus some salad-y things for toward the end of the week when the weather warms up.

    • Ideally, if I were fully following through on the self reliant thing I’d keep woolly sheep and use their wool, but this is a step too far for me at the moment. The main reason for a hair sheep is that they’re less susceptible to fly strike, which is such a godawful thing for sheep and shepherd that any advantage I can find against it seems worth the price. Plus, talking of noxious chemicals, not dousing the critters in Crovect seems like a boon. As to whether I can collect wool from the fences, I’ll have to get back to you on that, Kathryn. Probably more so with barbed wire, which brings us full circle…

      • Fly strike sounds like a good reason to go that way – so you suppose that was a reason back when the breed was selected in your region in the first place?

        Anyone aware of control measures from before chemicals?

      • I have had terrible problems with fly strike in the past and have converted mostly to hair sheep. My few woolier sheep are kind of in-between as they never need shearing, but I will rest easier when they are culled out of the flock.

        As to collecting and processing wool: the exisiting residue of industrial textile manufacture will last through my generation and the next at least. I know that sometime in the future people will need to make textiles, but why bother now?

        I think that people already on small farms can take advantage of industrial products now that will not be available in the future without too much of a guilty conscience. They just have to be aware of the dependencies involved and have a reasonable plan for getting around those dependencies when needed.

        This is true of many homestead essentials. I have galvanized field fencing around all my pastures to keep out dogs and pigs. That along with galvanized T-posts and periodic replacement of wood posts will keep the fences sound through the next couple of generations. I’ll let people worry about what to do without wire fencing in 50 years or so.

        Solar power for the farm is one of those interim systems that cannot last, but while it does it makes life so much easier, especially for an elderly couple. I know that my electrical system will last far longer than me and provide a significant amount of help to the next residents here before it disappears forever. If industrial supply chains disappeared tomorrow, I figure the farm could have electricity for at least thirty more years or so.

        Ditto all fossil powered farm equipment. They will eventually be worthless and there are non-fossil technologies that will substitute for them eventually, but right now a horse and a carriage costs far more than a old, but sound, pickup truck. Also, diesel stores for a very long time. I am still using some diesel that was purchased in 1999 for Y2K (remember that?).

        Every small farmer should have a multi-generational plan in mind when it comes to farm equipment and operations. There’s going to be a transition to a very-high-labor farm future, but with a little planning it should be possible to get through the transition gracefully.

        • Skills are what will be in short supply , how many can use a scythe , thatch a hay rick , not many , Books on Victorian era farming will become priceless , I can lay a hedge but they are in short supply here in TX , I have the tools many much older than me that are a pleasure to use unlike the mass produced WM junk , our great grandparents could do it , our grandchildren will have to do it , we are living near the end of a two century blip in Food production , I just hope the skills I teach the grandkids the work ethic, the planting and weather lore animal husbandry and my sheer bloody cussedness will be remembered and used after I am gone .

        • This approach makes sense, and is similar to the reasoning I have behind using coffee grounds in my compost: I do know, very well, how to compost without coffee grounds, should the need arise, but in the meantime people are drinking coffee and keeping the waste out of landfill (and making me less dependent on potentially contaminated horse manure) is a good thing.

          I don’t buy diesel or petrol powered equipment because I don’t really have storage space for the fuel, and because the emissions on things like lawnmowers tend to be horrendous.

          I think there is a strong argument for producing one’s own textiles, along the lines of re-localising the economy and renewing and reviving traditional skills (and perhaps updating them for current technological knowledge). I only dabble in textiles, but in the past year I have made small lengths of cordage out of two new-to-me materials, grown and harvested locally. It’s a lot of work, but I can imagine doing a lot of that work during winter evenings when it’s too dark for outdoor activities.

          Wool is a whole other matter, too… my understanding is that it was very much the cash crop of its day, and not always sustainably produced then. And obviously if you know your own local conditions are such that you can’t keep wool sheep without them suffering from flystrike, then keeping hair sheep instead is the right thing to do. I’m no shepherd, but a cursory glance at wikipedia suggests that wool sheep might be best suited to somewhere dry and windy and cool.

  8. It’s been a few years now since I’ve had a ramble in countryside outside of the United States, but in all of the places outside of the US and Western Europe I’ve hiked- southwest China, Morocco, Palestine, Turkey, Bosnia, Peru- one of the most striking aspects has always been the ease with which I’d encounter other people, whether inhabitants of villages or peasants walking home from a distant field or nomads about their business in the desert or the alpine meadows. Even in Bosnia this is, or was, still somewhat the case, the high country up above Sarajevo still retaining little traces of distributed rural life, though it was less the case than the others (Palestine is a particular case of course given its spatial-political dynamics). The West does indeed feel so comparatively empty of human presence and company- and not just in the countryside…

  9. Pingback: City of the dead, part two - Resilience

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