Archive for the ‘Countryside’ Category

Today is the first of May, and thoughts turn to the coming summer. If you could distil the essence of a perfect English summer day and transform it into music I think it would sound very much like The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan-Williams.

If you are not familiar with it, you can listen here.

The music is achingly sweet, conjuring a powerful nostalgia for a make-believe bucolic past of lazy summer days idling in corn fields, of swimming in slow green rivers – a time when we were intimately connected to the earth and the seasons.*

I must have heard it several times when younger (I am sure it has been used on the soundtracks of many pastoral, period TV series over the years, probably things like The Mill on the Floss, or Tess of the D’urbervilles). But strangely, the first time I remember properly noticing it was on the soundtrack to a very good, but seemingly little known Australian film, The Year my Voice Broke.

I didn’t know what it was at the time, but was struck by how incongruous it seemed played over the brittle looking Australian landscape; it is the most quintessentially English piece of music I know.

Although the location seemed wrong, in another sense the piece was absolutely right for the film. It is a bittersweet tale of young love, of the loss of innocence, and the sometimes painful entry to adulthood.

Bittersweet is precisely what The Lark Ascending seems to me; filled with heartache and yearning. Perhaps more so because everything it seems to represent is so rapidly disappearing from our world. But I think sadness was always inherent in the piece. Opinions differ on whether or not Vaughan-Williams was influenced by the outbreak of the first world war during its composition in 1914.

But regardless, I think that people of the early 20th century already saw their old ways rapidly disappearing in urbanisation and ever increasing industrialisation. I am certainly no expert on music history, but I suspect that pastoral nostalgia was already very much a part of its appeal.

All through 2014 BBC Radio 3 are collating a playlist of the best of British classical music. Nominated by members of the public, the playlist will feature 365 pieces by the end of the year.

I am nominating The Lark Ascending. Let Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have the other 364 days. I think this piece says pretty much everything that needs saying about English music.

* I am of course aware that when we were ‘intimately connected to the earth and the seasons’ that is precisely because we spent long days of back breaking labour in all weathers. But that is the magic of music (or perhaps of indoctrinated association by way of TV and film) – we tend only to think of the idealised parts that must have made up less than 1% of actual lived experience.

Beside the river Trent, Beeston

Beside the river Trent, Beeston

Last week I took part in a psychology experiment looking at the impact of the natural world on mood and well being. Each evening I was asked to write down three good things I’d noticed in nature, just one sentence for each.

All I did throughout the week was go to work and back each day. There is a small nature reserve next to my office, and some leafy gardens to pass if I go to the shop. But many of my nature observations occured during my commute, while sitting in traffic jams. I found natural things to enjoy on the motorway, in a carpark, and even in my own car (I have car spiders. No, really).

We were not asked to make any particular effort regarding the quality of the three sentences submitted, but I found that I chose my words very carefully, to distill the essence of a sensation into one sentence. Below are a few of my observations.

Banks of pale purple rhododendrons overflowing a crumbling brick wall.

Tiny fish with two flashes of yellow along the sides, darting through murky water.

Hard rain bouncing off tarmac.

White rosebuds with a creamy, delicate scent.

A small hawk drifting low over the many lanes of M1’s junction 25.

Whether due to this exercise or not, I do seem to have been in a pretty good mood recently. The study has finished now, but I’m going to try and continue it, carrying a little notebook around with me, and jotting down small observations. I think there are several benefits to be had. It will encourage me to go out and get a bit of air at lunch time (instead of just reading a book in the office kitchen). It is an exercise in observation and in communication: how to express a sensation in a clear, succinct way.

If I keep it up for a reasonable period of time it will also serve as a useful record of natural reference throughout the year. Instead of having to ask google, when does wild garlic flower? Do ferns come out at the same time as bluebells? I can check my observations and find my own answers.

I’d be interested to hear if you have any regular writing exercises you like to do? I’ve never got on well with ones I’ve tried to do before because I found them boring, and my attention is easily diverted. But I find this particular exercise pleasing and useful.

I’ve been greatly looking forward to the promised snow this week. Not for obvious reasons such as sledging or getting sent home from work. Not even for the hope of being snowed in with nothing to do but keep writing. The reason I’m so excited about the snow is that I want to take photos that I can use as the basis for Kikimora’s cover.

As discussed in a previous post, I have a pretty good idea of what I want on the cover, and snowy woods feature strongly.

It is therefore extremely inconvenient that I’ve come down with massive lurgy, and am unlikely to be going anywhere or doing anything this weekend. We don’t get that many good snowfalls in England, and if I miss this one there might not be another all year.

Fortunately, I did manage to get out for half an hour in my lunch break during the first snow earlier this week. I only had my phone with me, so the camera wasn’t brilliant. And, since it was still snowing at the time, the sky was grey and the light murky.The resulting photos aren’t that scintillating. However, I had always intended to monkey around with them, adding colours and textures and painterly effects so perhaps it wouldn’t matter too much?

Having already completed today’s 1000 words,* I decided to have a play around with a few pictures and see what I could do with them. These are only quick forays, trying out a few techniques, but I’m liking some of the effects I’m getting.

The snowy woods will be the background for a bright figure (possibly woodcut), so they don’t need to have much of a focal point themselves.

frozen lake

A frozen lake, much like the one where the Rusalka live

snowy branches

snowy branches

path through snowy woods

path through snowy woods

It’s also good to be able to witness a few snowfalls, since there are so many in my book. A bit of immediate, first-hand experience will tighten up my descriptions no end. All in all I’m making good use of the snow.

* And I’ve had great fun with the writing today. I’ve been reading The Golden Bough on and off for about 20 years, picking up fascinating little snippets and ideas, squirrelling them away – and every now and again finding the perfect place for them in some piece of writing.

Today I made use of an old custom of punishing gods that aren’t pulling their weight – by beating, berating and generally disgracing their statues.

Effectively, the people give their gods an ultimatum: If you want to be worshipped then you’d better start heeding our prayers. Otherwise you’ll be face down in the river, and you can stay there and think about what you’ve done!

I think this is a brilliant attitude towards religion. I wish more people had it.

You can read more about The Golden Bough here, as I decided it deserved a whole post of its own.

I have another guest post this week, writing about a weekend break in the Lake District for the Independent Hostels Guide. As well as hiking and taking in the sights, we made sure to visit as many pubs as possible, sampling lots of real ales (I’ve included details of pubs, beers and some prices in the blog. All the outdoorsy people I know appreciate that sort of thing!)

It was a beautiful (freezing cold) weekend in early December. We had bright blue skies, sunshine, snow capped mountains – and treacherous ice-rink paths :-S

Although there are plenty of pictures on the Hostels Guide blog, I’m going to add a few more here, because there are so many nice ones 🙂

[all photos by @uncutid, except the last two, by me]

North Edge of Lake Windermere

North Edge of Lake Windermere

Snow-capped mountains north of Ambleside

Snow-capped mountains north of Ambleside

The view across Lake Windermere

The view across Lake Windermere

Vibrant autumn colours in the woods close to Ambleside

Vibrant autumn colours in the woods close to Ambleside

Bridge near Ambleside

Bridge near Ambleside.

The author grinning, on Loughrigg Fell

The author grinning, on Loughrigg Fell

view across Loughrigg Tarn

The view across Loughrigg Tarn.

Looking across to Grasmere from Loughrigg Fell

Looking across to Grasmere from Loughrigg Fell

Icicles in the vaults of Kendal Castle.

Icicles in the vaults of Kendal Castle.

Kendal Church.

Kendal Church.