City of the Dead – Resilience

It’s time to move on to the next chapter of my book A small-farm future in this cycle of blogging about it, which is Chapter 15 – ‘The Country and the City’. I will probably write two or three short posts on this topic. In this one, I will approach it obliquely with the story of a walk I took last week.

To remove some cobwebs, I decided to spend a few days walking part of the Ridgeway, which has been in use for around 5,000 years and is said to be Britain’s oldest road. It’s now a National Walking Trail, with one end starting in Wiltshire just a few miles east of my home.

Although close, the scenery at the starting point is very different from the small, folded hills of Saracen limestone on the edge of the Mendips where I live. It is a more open country, with wide valleys and vast chalky hills. The social stories written in the landscape are also different. Where I live is what Oliver Rackham called “the old countryside”, where there was little communal land or open fields and many scattered hamlets and private farms, winding roads, small forests and ponds. Ridgeway Country, on the other hand, is what Rackham called a “planned countryside” of widely spaced villages, a few straighter roads and large, regular fields, strongly shaped by the 18the and early 19e centuries.

The walk starts at Avebury, which has much older history in the form of a Neolithic henge, less famous than its cousin on Salisbury Plain a few miles south but I believe no less important in its day. The summer solstice had barely passed when I arrived, and Avebury was still dotted with sun-worshippers, who had intertwined the sarsen stones and ancient trees with showy offerings. Can’t say I was a fan, but I doubt the rocks and trees have a view of it.

The cafe was closed after a 24-hour stint serving revelers, much to the chagrin of tourists arriving from the parking lot – a whole different demographic. There was a National Trust store, but the only food it had was fudge, that mainstay of the English tourist experience. Luckily I had a bag of light but unappetizing food in my backpack, so I dunked my hat in the water from the outside tap and started my walk. From the time 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 lived or worked in the landscape.

One of the main reasons for this is water. Since, true to its name, this part of the Ridgeway mostly follows a ridge made up of porous chalk, there are few groundwater sources along it to provide reliable supplies. So, barring high-energy and expensive engineering efforts, it’s not an ideal place to build a house or a village. It’s no surprise, then, that most settlements in the area are in the shallows, away from the ridge, often a mile or more down the trail.

There were, however, a few people who lived on the ridge. In the occasional spot where a secondary road ran through it with generous parking beside it, I often came across old vans and buses converted for residential use – sometimes deserted, sometimes occupied by young families and alternative-looking blokes , usually surrounded by a jumble of 25-litre plastic. water canisters, fire grills and other accessories for life on the go.

As for the people working on the ridge, well, there were only a few. Climbing the long slope out of Avebury to join the trail, a self-propelled sprayer suddenly appeared from a dive into a large rapeseed field. My first taste of the Ridgeway was the sickening tug of glyphosate at the back of my nose and mouth – an experience repeated in several of the rapeseed fields I passed through over the next two days, although after this first encounter, I tried to time things so that the spray rigs were at the other end of the field when I passed. Still, I doubt I saw more than five tractors or sprayers on the hike. There is no doubt that glyphosate is an excellent labor saver.

There may not be many living souls abroad in these fields, but there are plenty of dead ones. The whole landscape is a Neolithic mausoleum. Not just in the now-defunct hands that built Stonehenge, Avebury and Uffington, but in the veritable mausoleums of Wayland’s Smithy and countless other burial mounds that dot the landscape. At the end of my first day of walking, I spread out my little bivouac tent as discreetly as possible behind a bench of hawthorns and I lay down to sleep in this veritable city of the dead.

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

The situation in the region today seems to be more or less reversed. I forayed off the trail into a village in hopes of livening up my food supply. I briefly got lost amidst a thicket of “Private – No Public Access” signs (I have long emphasized on this blog the distributed private property virtues of farm property – the private property of all access rights is more complicated). When I located the village center the pub was closed. I came across a brightly painted ‘Village Store and Post Office’ sign on a wall, but the house it belonged to had long since been turned into a private residence and there was nowhere else to buy food in the village. Most of the old postcard-perfect cottages in the village seemed to have a few fancy cars, Porsches, Mercedes and the like, scrubbing their walls. The main road just outside the village had only one lane each way, but it was so busy it took me five minutes to cross. Traffic moved north and south, to major cities, better shops, 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, watered my hat again, silently thanked its inhabitants and climbed back up to the ridge, crossing the route of an old Roman road on the way – arrow straight, colonial.

I walked another day, reaping its meager human harvest of cyclists, runners and tractor drivers. I guess by Neolithic standards the countryside is teeming with people. But given that the South of England is one of the most densely populated areas on our densely populated planet, that didn’t seem like it to me. You could easily see more people walking down a single street in my small hometown in minutes than I saw in two days on the Ridgeway.

At the end of my second day of walking, I took the bus to the nearest station. I spoke to a man who had grown up in the North of England but had moved to the South East for work. Its owner was selling his property, so he was heading to the nearby town to find a new place to live. We said goodbye at the station and I took the train home. That cars and trains move much faster than people on foot is tritely obvious, but it hits you again when you’ve walked for two days and are coming home by train in an hour.

And that, I think, is about enough for my little trip. I’ve described it here only because I think it opens up some themes that I’ll want to explore in future articles about the country and the city. Water. Work in the fields and work in the city. Human power relations and landscape control. Transport connections and livelihoods. How we build solidarity with others and how we refuse to do so. How do we get and keep a roof over our heads. What things we choose to honor, and where we choose to honor them.

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