The British Landscape Club

Northwest Highlands Geopark film

Continuing our mid-week movies theme, here’s a more personal take on a Geopark. This one, however, is at the other end of the country - the top left-hand corner of Scotland, the Northwest Highlands.


English Riviera Geopark film

This film, narrated by a child, is a lovely crash-course introduction to geology in general and to the English Riviera Geopark in particular - the world’s first urban geopark.


Solstice special:
The Day that Stonehenge Disappeared

In light of the Solstice, we celebrate the summer with an article on the Stonehenge Landscape.


I struggle to keep up on an unexpectedly warm autumn evening as I galumph my way across rough downland in pursuit of a tour guide. Pat Shelley is leading me from one location which boasts a million visitors a year to another that only a few hundred manage to see. I’m grateful for his expertise because across the hummock-strewn field ahead lies Stonehenge Cursus, a curious feature every bit as enigmatic as the main attraction.

I had thought that getting off the trampled track so close to the well-beaten A303 would be a near impossibility. To do so within sight of Stonehenge which is, after all, the acme of tourist attractions, would be harder still. So, when Shelley - a local tour guide I had met the year before - got in contact offering a social drink and an evening around the stone circle, I have to say I was very much looking forward to the beer.

Shelley’s enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, Stonehenge is unsurpassed. He’s spent years showing tourists around the area and has helped out on many archaeological digs, a background that helps him synthesize all the latest theories and ongoing work around the monument, seemingly at the drop of a hat. He wanted to show me something that very few tourists get a grip on - that the landscape around Stonehenge is every bit as important as the stones themselves. Recent archaeological work has uncovered many links between it and other monuments - among them, Durrington Walls and Woodhenge to the east and ‘Bluestonehenge’, discovered earlier this year by the Stonehenge Riverside Project next to the River Avon - and these links suggest that the Stonehenge Landscape was, indeed, huge.

The Stonehenge Cursus, recently dated to between 3630 and 3375 BC, is nearly two miles long and ranges from three to five hundred feet in width. On the Ordnance Survey map it appears as a prominent rectilinear feature amongst the blunderbuss grapeshot of Neolithic and Bronze Age barrows that lie spattered across the Wiltshire landscape. So it comes as a shock that the Cursus is barely perceptible on the ground - an indeterminate ditch and bank arrangement which only resolves itself as a wide gap cut through a hangar of trees at its western end.

After a few moments of disappointment, I adjust my expectations and imagine the sheer scale of the endeavour. I remind myself that the most spectacular forms on the planet are often ones for which no particular purpose springs to mind, enchanted as we are by the brute pointlessness of ancient lines on the landscape - lines which can only really be appreciated from above. Indeed, nobody has the slightest idea what it or any of the hundred or so similar features in Britain are actually for; all explanation defaults to a mumble of ‘ritual use’, which, Shelley informs me, is an archaeological euphemism for ‘we don’t really know’.

One thing is certain, however: apart from what remains of the outline of this great human mark, there is precious little archaeology actually on it. Given our ancestors’ implied lack of care with their coins, combs, tools and artefacts, it is odd that a huge area that probably took thousands of man hours to construct should be so bereft of human clutter. It is almost as if it had been kept consciously clean.

While I mumble about the minimalist Neolithic to myself, my guide takes off across the field, promising to show me something that I would never forget - as if in compensation for showing me something that I could barely see.

As anyone who has spent a merry hour or two queuing on the A303 will tell you, Stonehenge is a prominent feature. While it melts sympathetically into views of its immediate vicinity from the middle distance, at close quarters you just can’t take your eye off the thing: it dominates the landscape and, moreover, it seems to be following me around now, forever in my peripheral vision in a way I imagine it must have been for our ancestors. I catch up with my guide at the foot of a low eminence, turn around and it has vanished - which is disturbing, given that it is only a few hundred yards away.

We are on The Avenue, a grand, curving earthwork ‘road’ almost two miles long that seems to be a processional walkway from the River Avon to the henge. Shelley is motioning to me to walk up towards the circle and, as I do, I can’t help gasping as the familiar outline of Stonehenge reappears, rising above the grass and thistles in a strange inversion of druidic tradition. It suddenly becomes clear that Stonehenge is more than a familiar pile of stones, but part of a larger landscape, even a stage-managed experience. Like the best theatre, Stonehenge can still surprise.


Lay-by of the week: King Harry Ferry

Not strictly a lay-by in any sense of the word - more a place you may find yourself in one of the most picturesque traffic queues in the world: the western side of the upper reaches of the River Fal, waiting to board the King Harry Ferry to the Roseland peninsula.

View Larger Map

The River Fal is itself a drowned river valley or, to give it its GCSE name, a ria - formed when sea levels rose at the end of the last glaciation (of the so-far-as-we-know current Ice Age). Unique habitats are created in rias; all the estuarine mud is miles upstream and the overhanging trees at the water’s edge offer sheltering opportunities for birds and insects. Quite apart from its natural history and beauty, the drowned river valley has other uses; the ria is very deep, deep enough to park a couple of cargo ships half a dozen miles inland, as the following picture shows.



Support your local independent bookstore

For people who have requested availability of The Lie of the Land in local independent book shops, try ordering from the Hive - a new initiative that ties up hundreds of independent booksellers across Britain to a slick web ordering mechanism. You buy the book - often at a reasonable discount - and then have it delivered free to your local shop, where you collect it. You can then wander around your local bookseller and see what else they have selected, without having to negotiate a wall of celebrity autobiographies and ‘inspiring’ hard-luck misery memoirs.

Here are the links to the hardback and paperback.

Applecross Cave discovered

According to the BBC website - and we’re indebted to BLC member Fiona Wilson for pointing this out to us - Grampian cavers have discovered a very large cave chamber in one of the most remote areas of Scotland.

The cave, near Applecross on the west coast, is 180 metres long and has stalactites measuring up to 2 metres. For Metropolitan types, that’s the length of ten bendy-buses, or Russell Square. More information at the link.

The Lie of the Land
2011 Outdoor Book of the Year

The National Trust and Hay Festival have announced their top “Outdoors Books of the Year” and we’re very pleased and excited to tell you that Ian Vince’s under-the-field guide to the British landscape, The Lie of the Land - which we often casually refer to as the unofficial manual of the BLC - has emerged as one of the winners.

The endorsement, the result of a month-long poll to find the best recent writing about nature and the outdoors is shared with The Natural Navigator by Tristan Gooley, The Garden in the Clouds by Antony Woodward, Weeds by Richard Mabey and a number of other lovely books written from unique perspectives on the countryside. Hundreds of votes were cast and the winners were revealed at the Hay Festival - Britain’s most famous literary festival.

The British Landscape Club and Ian would like to thank everyone who voted for The Lie of the Land.