What is the spirit of place? Something in the way ground lies, its minerals, ecology and human history?
Philip Marsden is known as a travel writer but here we find him moving with his family into a ramshackle farmhouse on the Fal river and ruminating on space and place. Focus on space, he writes, has given us homogenous housing, duplicated shopping malls – “the abiding sameness that characterises contemporary life”.
Rising Ground is a fragmented walk through Cornwall, on the trail of the mythology of place. Cornwall is thick with Neolithic monuments, sacred tors and ritualised stone alignments. Piled on them are Arthurian myths attending Tintagel (derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century tales, though Cornish kings ruled Tintagel eight centuries earlier, leaving hoards of pottery linking Cornwall to Byzantium), the upheavals of the mineral industries and the myth-making of the St Ives artists.
“Site-based belief can be as tenacious as a limpet,” Marsden writes of the failure of the Reformation’s zealots to purge Cornwall of its paganism and pilgrimage. His is a project of daunting scope. “There have been times writing this book, trying to reach the meaning of a place across the ages, when I have felt a shadow across my desk.”
The early chapters tackle prehistory; much of Cornwall was sacred to our ancestors, whose horizon-wide architecture linked natural and human constructions. Their beliefs are speculation. Neolithic people, Marsden concludes, arranged their world in order to supply answers to “the same questions that tease us now: what law, what force, what patterns exist in the vastness of space?”
The book becomes an elliptical tour with a polymathic guide, equally entertaining and enlightening whether plunging through hedges, excavating archives or attending a pagan night in Penzance. The excellent pagans are mostly concerned with picking up litter and clearing drainage ditches, though their beliefs thrive in the wider population. At Madron Well Marsden discovers a living sacred site, its trees hung with ribbons and wishes.
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