Any fact becomes important when it’s connected to another
Several years ago we camped on a little site next to a marvellously quirky and most welcoming 200 year old pub called the Barge Inn located beside the winding ribbon of the Kennet and Avon Canal in the village of Honeystreet. We found the small field to be an informal affair with eager dogs running free and a regular contingent of travellers passing through both by camper van and technicolour canal boat. We attempted to embrace what Daniel Liebskind observed as being ‘a path, not a goal’, or the amiable tourism of the drift. The location promised refreshing real ale, canal side bike rides, chalky White Horses, gentle Wiltshire countryside and the light-hearted claim that it was the centre of the global crop circle phenomenon.
It is a landscape drenched in history both tangible and imagined, which W. H. Hudson described as ‘that great sea of vast pale green billowy hills extending bare against the wide sky’. The Kennet and Avon runs from Reading to Bristol and continues to be popular as a leisure artery as well as being home to a diverse array of alternative canal boaters, living off grid and at large from suburban England. The industrial origin of the waterway has now diminished, though the pockmarked detritus of years of use still remains, with forlorn lock houses and markers having quietly decayed among the whispering trees. The canal was brought briefly back to life as part of the vast General Headquarters defensive line constructed in the Second World War. The south of England was hastily fortified against the impending Panzer divisions of Nazi Germany, so stout pillboxes, ribbed tank traps and other skeletal barriers still litter the locale providing shelter for grazing sheep and drunken teenagers. The scattered emplacements now lay silent, hollow concrete skulls observing our quiet passing on bicycles as the flickering refraction of the water dappled their weather beaten brows.
Canal scene © Sarah Wainwright
Wiltshire council values the crop circle industry as being an integral part of their tourism economy as it attracts visitors from all over the world. Having met both circle makers and devout believers these trampled plants appear to act as vegetative scrying mirrors for peoples’ beliefs, be they extraterrestrial, rogue military experiments, mischievous fairies, wounded Gaia, magic or simply prankster in origin. I overheard conversations that ranged from the paranoid (black helicopters, UFOs and remote brain implants) to the more philosophical (on symbolism and narratives contained within the various icons). Indeed the site was a continuous busy transit hub of experts and business folks. The secretive heavy metal fans camped next to us who drove off at 3am clearly had an exhaustive night as we awoke the next day under bright sunshine to find one and half huge geometric circular knot-works had appeared nearby and aircraft now buzzed overhead keen to get the first photographs out to the waiting masses. Several days later we bumped into them in nearby Avebury (itself ringed in the strata of weary standing stones and terrifying time looping children’s television) and they hinted that they wouldn’t return as their work had been finished, to which I could only grin.
The area is a Fortean locus of folklore strangeness, a tense node of neo-pagans, artists and believers wrapping themselves in thick layers of interstellar symbolism. We witnessed Victorian revisionist White Horses gazing upon Industrial Age transport systems, hollow World War Two bunkers silently guarding rural bridges and post-modern cultural tourists perambulating across National Union of Farmers compensated crop fields, all these scattered objects have become imbued with the heaviness of events. It is a bewildering narrative-based collage that echoes an observation of Philip Sheldrake who wrote ‘it is appropriate to think of places as texts layered with meaning, every place has an excess of meaning beyond what can be seen or understood at any one time’. The canal is an occult rift in normal time and space, and bleeds obscure metaphors. It slices through our collective past like a razor unleashing the solemn Welsh ghost of Arthur Machen. Gaze into the molten waters of the Kennet and Machen’s otherworldly realm is unveiled ‘in place of the familiar structures, there was disclosed a panorama of unearthly, of astounding beauty’.
Crop circle damage donation box © Sarah Wainwright
Of course our traditional stories are drenched in tales of uncanny grottoes, preternatural realms, fairy folk rings and mysterious portals and this has continued to be a popular aspect of culture. Plucky heroes are always chancing upon dramatic spaces deftly wedged into normality. Writer Alan Garner famously wove the Cheshire folklore of Alderley Edge’s wizard into his numerous novels, and Susanna Clarke’s sprawling faux-Victorian fable Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell describes an entire alternative history of England which draws upon numerous familiar themes such as the Raven King and winding lanes to other lands. She conjured up a novel where epic magic is an everyday occurrence and dark fairies with thistle down hair are summoned from the kingdom of Lost Hope to aid noble gentlemen. The bizarre and inhospitable Lost Hope however is a dangerous and savage place. She wrote, ‘There is nothing else in magic, but the wild thought of the bird as it casts itself into the void. There is no creature upon the earth with such potential for magic. Even the least of them may fly straight out of this world and come by chance to the Other Lands. Where does the wind come from that blows upon your face, that fans the pages of your book? Where the harum-scarum magic of small wild creatures meets the magic of Man, where the language of the wind and the rain and the trees can be understood, there we will find the Raven King.’ Wiltshire’s pop history revels in a similarly uncanny opportunity and welcomes all manner of visitor human or otherwise. Ambling down the leafy lanes one could easily imagine chancing upon an eldritch grove or wizened mystic.
Dusk above the Kennet © Sarah Wainwright
It is raw psychogeography tourist country and the conflicting mythological sagas remind me of one of my favourite books Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. It tells the darkly amusing story of three vanity publishers of the occult who decide to invent their own conspiracy theory, embracing all the peculiar individuals that they have ever worked with, invariably with both tragic and tortuous results. They wander in hand in hand with Roberto Calasso, on the ‘threshold of a hidden world that one suspects is implicit in the world’. It is a satire of belief and malleable post modern notions of truth. They inhabit a history envisaged as a mutable creature, having gleefully embraced Templars, mystics, hollow and flat Earthers, Pappists, Grail hunters, alchemists and Rosicrucians. The mythological conspiracy is made real by its invention, the very geography of their world is scorched by the feral ideas of the protagonists. One, Diotallevi declared that the manner of their success is ‘to arrive at the truth through the painstaking reconstruction of a false text.’ The story (like the Wiltshire crop circle) takes on a life of its own, and the plotters act as beacons for any unorthodox activist who chances upon them. A web of disparate concepts are woven into a semblance of manifest order and the old gods are replaced by secretive agents.
For the eager psychogeographer the interlocked narratives are what the evocative writer David Southwell says simply ‘how place makes me feel’, labyrinthine and irrational plots are assembled into an intricate tableaux of emotion for the perambulator to imbue. This is a type of tourism whose purpose is to breathe in the aroma of place whilst undertaking a voyage of storytelling and mythogenesis. Alain de Botton in the Art of Travel appropriately observed that ‘journeys are the midwives of thought’. Wandering alongside the watery axis we are guided to the beating heart of the county’s essence, centred around the familiar comfortable environment of a pub which is a fecund source of tall tales and rich imaginings cloaked in the spectres of the past.