Friday, 3 September 2010

BBC Secret Britain, Paul Nash and a Ruined Church

It doesn't have the coherence or quality of Coast, but the BBC's Secret Britain series is fascinating nonetheless. Some of the locations seem to have come from someone's Little Black Book of Amazing Places Not Many People Know About, but the personal stories have been interesting. I particularly liked the chap in episode 2 whose parents enjoyed wartime trysts on a Shropshire common.

He got me thinking. The most remarkable thing about his Special Place is that it has hardly changed in sixty years, while the countryside generally has changed dramatically. Yes, the much-loved patchwork of green fields and hedgerows survives outside the grain-producing areas of the east and south, but the detail of landscape and village has in many places been altered by cars, changes in farming and a modern taste for tidiness.

Knowlton Church
When I was a child I used to play around a site we knew as the Ruined Church - a tumbledown old building surrounded by a circle of grassy chalk banks. We used to roll down the banks, clamber on the stones and chase butterflies. An austere old sign told us it was an Ancient Monument, but beyond that it was always just the Ruined Church.

I went back in adulthood to find that this old haunt had been adopted as part of the national heritage. A signboard informed visitors about the history of Knowlton Church and the earthworks encircling it - part of a complex that was once perhaps more extensive than Stonehenge. It was interesting to find this out, but I wasn't too happy that my Special Place had acquired an official status and was now visited by strangers who drove into deepest Dorset instead of popping over at playtime.

Then I found an old book of Dorset history that belonged to my grandfather. Knowlton Church was in there and the picture, taken a few years before I was born, showed a very different place, overgrown with brambles with only the church tower visible. It had been cleared around the time I was born so that the public could appreciate the site. So my ancient and unchanging place had actually changed very recently.

I was reminded of this by something the artist Paul Nash wrote about visiting Avebury. He first went in 1933:

The great stones were then in their wild state, so to speak. Some were half-covered by the grass, others stood up in cornfields or were entangled and overgrown in the copses, some were buried under the turf. But they were wonderful and disquieting, and as I saw them then, I shall always remember them. Very soon afterwards the big work of reinstating the stones and avenues began, so that to a great extent the primal magic of the stones' appearance was lost. 

Paul Nash, Landscape of the Megaliths, 1937

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