I write about how the land holds us closer than we know and heals us always. I wrote earlier on of how the rivers of Warwickshire silently supported me and others, living in the heart of England, the so-called Midlands Engine with its ever-changing suburban landscape, yet these hidden rivers quietly flow as the lifeblood for local flora and fauna; then I reflected later on my many walks on the Offa’s Dyke Path. The Dyke, where it still stands, is an ancient and proud statement of intent by Offa, King of Mercia even before the words Wales or England had even been thought of. Its presence (and absence) in that border country, half Wales, half England, soothed me as I traipsed across it to the unknown country of life after Dad. Now I write about Berkshire, a Royal county of motorways, of Slough, Eton, Newbury and of the Thames, the Downs’ low rolling hills and valleys…
I first became aware of Berkshire (pronounced Bark-shire, I don’t know why) when I was 7, kicking and screaming myself to sleep like the kid out of “The Exorcist”. I feel for my dad then trying to make a new life for us after his marriage had failed. Berkshire seems a good place for us to start again, which is why it has always held an importance for me perhaps disproportionate to its size. It is a county that both gains and suffers from its closeness to London and from having a third of its original Saxon landmass given to Oxfordshire instead! Yet for me, it still holds a charm that is uniquely English certainly but perhaps older and deeper than that.
I lived first in a block of flats with my dad by the newly built M4 at Langley near Slough in 1974. It had just become part of Berkshire in the 1974 reorganisation. We had moved from Langley to Wokingham where we lived nervously for 18 months and then finally settled at Maidenhead in 1976, a leafy community town on the Thames 25 miles from Paddington and surrounded by unspoilt woodland stretching away in all directions. Sadly this is no longer the case but at that time, our family trips to Winter Hill, high above the River Thames towards Cookham or with schoolmates to the Thicket were times of energy, sylvan joy and magic. I was into Lord of the Rings so there was always an orc behind the next oak tree or a fairy whirring above my head or maybe just a football as we played together until sunset most days. I can remember attending a surprisingly funny open-air performance of Twelfth Night at Cliveden, the great stately home near Winter Hill. The setting added to the wonder of that production. Trees and shrubs surrounded us like benevolent bouncers.
As I entered my teens, however, puberty kicked in and Dungeons & Dragons began to lose its appeal. Yet the landscape still asked for my presence so I organised with two close friends to walk from Maidenhead to Henley on Thames, a mere 7 miles walk through the Thicket and then along the river and yet rigorous enough for sure. Unsurprisingly we dawdled so much that we had to sleep in the woods above Henley and the magic of the cool night wove its spell. My two companions slept in the bigger tent so I slept in a tent alone. Initially, I was terrified I’ll freely admit but I was also entranced, hypnotised by the creaking trees and the merest rustle in the undergrowth and burrows around us. There seemed a benevolence as my senses became truly alive and I was suddenly badger, owl or fox – a real sense of shapeshifting entered me that very night. When I read Charles Foster’s brilliant book, “Being A Beast” in 2016, all these feelings and memories rushed back to my consciousness, I too had been a badger in the woods yet I remember I did not go as far as Foster and his son eating worms or making burrow for themselves, kind of wish I had!
Incredibly I have never lost that sense of belonging to the woods and that empathy with the invisible creatures around us where we live. We returned home to our parents but I was never the same. This newfound awareness haunted me and my heightened senses often shook me awake. I needed someone to make sense of this. My dad was the obvious candidate. He had amazed my sister and me with his tree lore and nature knowledge. He could tell you about any birdsong or tree and we are still in awe of that today! He had spent hours and hours as a boy in south Hampshire near Fareham cycling the lanes and wandering the hills. Yet sadly at that time Dad was beyond this happy wandering stage, so embroiled in work and other matters though he did give me a copy of Bevis by Richard Jefferies. It was an amazing book, like an English Tom Sawyer, Bevis spends his days with his mates in nature, fighting battles with local kids, sailing to an island on the lake fishing and even shooting with a homemade gun. I never made a gun but it helped me accept this curious deep passion for being outdoors was not weird, that somehow, I was blessed.
Yet it was not long after reading Bevis that Dad took me to the Tate Gallery in London. I loved the Rothko Room but it was the British rooms I loved the most with John Martin, Blake and Hogarth standing out for me at the time yet there was a quietly sacramental reverent quality to many of the paintings. It was when I saw the paintings of Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash and Eric Ravilious for the first time that I knew that others understood this whispering from the earth, primaeval energy from the landscape and its flora and fauna.
Stanley Spencer, Cookham from Cookham Dean, 1939, Cartwright Art Gallery, Bradford
Stanley Spencer was Berkshire’s greatest painter and his art is very close to my heart. He painted the Thames landscape, the backdrop of my teens. I’d hung out in Cookham with my mate Wilf who introduced me to drinking and to women. Stanley Spencer’s art was everywhere in Cookham, he had used the village and its countryside as the backdrop for most of his oeuvre, seeing the sacred among the profane, the extraordinary among the ordinary.
The Resurrection, 1924-27, Sir Stanley Spencer, Tate Britain
His Resurrection is one of the most mesmerising paintings I have ever gazed at. I love Cookham even now because thankfully it has retained an old-world charm in spite of Spencer’s celebrity and inevitable gentrification.
However, for an older less Christian representation of Berkshire hills, I was drawn to the paintings of Paul Nash and Eric Ravilious – their images have been around me always. Dad had their Tate Gallery exhibition catalogues at home and he was endlessly sending my sister and me postcards of these two artists’ work. Paul Nash was older than Eric Ravilious, part of the Great War generation yet both of them had served in the Army, the older artist Nash in World War One and the younger Ravilious in World War Two but had spent many happy days exploring Berkshire’s lost sacred landscape.
Eric Ravilious, Chalk Paths (1935) CREDIT: BRIDGEMANART.COM
Berkshire’s chalk landscape is ancient, crisscrossed with crop circles, leylines and holloways as it surrounds and holds the Ridgeway path as it undulates and sweeps across from Ivinghoe Beacon in the Chilterns and then down the Vale of the White Horse continuing south-west towards Avebury and Salisbury Plain. Both men sketched and painted this soft comforting landscape and without fail, they both realised its healing power through their art to me. This power is most apparent 20 miles to the west of the Clumps at White Horse Hill. White Horse Hill is now in Oxfordshire but was in fact in Berkshire when Eric Ravilious painted it.
Eric Ravilious, The Vale of the White Horse, 1939, Tate Britain
The Vale sweeps away southwest from Hurst Hill at Botley with sensational views to the east across the Dreaming Spires and logistics warehouses of West Oxford. Looking south-west and the view leads you Cumnor, where poet Matthew Arnold had been inspired to write about the Scholar Gypsy and then round to the south is Abingdon, an ancient Celtic settlement on the River Thames. The planners have done their part in improving traffic flow but marring the beauty of this side of Oxford for sure. The A420 links with the A34 here at Botley and this road leads you down across old Berkshire (now Oxfordshire). White Horse Hill became my sanctuary and I would drive there down from Oxford or even Warwickshire to stand in the wind and look over the fields and houses like a kestrel hovering. The crows would do just that as the wind curves up and around the hill. The White Horse with its curious square head and abstract curved body has intrigued people for 100s of years. Archaeologists are uncertain as to its origin, some say Anglo-Saxon, others say Celtic but suffice to say it has been cleaned and chalked for many centuries and is now under the care of the National Trust. That whole section of the Ridgeway from Uffington Castle past the White Horse Hill and onto Wayland’s Smithy is a precursor of the later sacred landscape of Avebury, Silbury Hill and of course West Kennet Long Barrow some 17 miles on in Wiltshire. Again that more explicit landscape fascinated Paul Nash too as he painted and photographed the megaliths many times. Yet the white horse feels more mysterious as it is a wonderful piece of art in its own right, the curve captures the essence of the horse so beautifully in an area renowned for thoroughbreds and racing stables.
Eric Ravilious had grown up in East Sussex and this proximity roots his passion and love for southern chalk downland, visible in every brushstroke and pencil line. Ravilious holds back somehow. The angle of the painting and its composition reveals an almost hesitation to enter the sacred landscape, that Eric was fully alive to the power of the hill and so he puts his easel just on the curve and we see the flank of the hill and the horse motif upon it. Closer and the painting would not work, further away and the power would leach from the image.
Nash did visit and photograph WHH but perhaps its power was too much for him. He seems more drawn to Wittenham 20 miles east and to the Clumps, two preordial paps crowned with beech trees and drawing him back to be healed and to feel the magic of the land. He lies between them and all is well. He had the enviable ability to paint mystically – he understood the innate power of the ancient landscape more than any other artist. This is no modern New Age affectation, Nash could smell the chalk and sense the ancestors all around him. His almost obsessive painting and re-painting of the Wittenham Clumps near Didcot show that he had to convey, nay scream and shout to us then and now the sacredness and living nature of this landscape. He builds this landscape with every daub of paint. Fresh out of art school, Nash’s early attempt aged 23 is peaceful for sure but also hushed and angular perhaps in some way, pointing to the broken landscape of Flanders where Nash made his name as an artist. This painting has an embryonic pastoral spirituality of which Nash is the boldest exponent.
Paul Nash, The Landscape of the Vernal Equinox, 1941, Tate Britain
In Paul Nash’s time, the Wittenham Clumps were in Berkshire. The Wittenham Clumps are a pair of wooded chalk hills rising above the flat landscape of south Oxfordshire and are now part of the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and are visible for miles around, crowned with the oldest planted hilltop beeches in England. From both Castle Hill and Round Hill, there are spectacular views across the countryside. The Little Wittenham Woods lie beneath the Clumps alongside the River Thames. On Castle Hill, there are the remains of a hill fort with earthworks dating to the Bronze and Iron Ages. The land was later occupied by the Romans. The Earth Trust now owns and manages the Wittenham Clumps which are included in their 1,200-acre nature reserve. Nash returned to the Clumps again and again in his life. He had struggled with asthma for most of his adult life and the Clumps seem to have grounded him in the landscape, both calming him and inspiring. I tried to emulate this clumsily when I painted a homage melding the Clumps and a photo from the Trundle hillfort in 1996 (a painting which my dad bought off me for £250 and my sister cherishes to this day!) In 2011 I stayed for a weekend close to the Wittenham Clumps and I felt in some sense returning home to begin an initiation in the landscape of my soul. I spent a weekend in the shadow of the Clumps learning and practising shamanic journeying techniques with the delightful John Matthews, we were the Eagle Owl clan and John’s quiet voice shimmered with Celtic magic and wisdom. It seems like a parallel world of sacred empowerment and helped me to connect much more deeply with that landform.
Paul Nash, Landscape of the summer solstice, 1943, National Gallery of Victoria
Nash and Ravilious represent a swan song to a landscape that was wild (but has since been tamed by the car or drone), an elegy to its prehistoric grandeur, the shape and colour revering this aged gentle yet extraordinarily evocative landscape. It lacks the drama of the Peak and Lake Districts and provides a lush contrast to the bleakness of the Pennines or Dartmoor. As it lifts from the south coast and undulates north into England’s heartlands, the land rejoices in its calmly assured softly rising hills with vales of woods and grassland like the unhurried breathing of a mother goddess with her form made from chalk made from countless fossilised crustaceans impacted down over millions of years.
I lived in Berkshire (now Oxfordshire) from 1974 until 1987 and then again from 1992 until 2004 – that makes a total of 25 years. Both of these periods coincide with some sort of traumatic episode – the first was the end of my parent’s marriage and my leaving mum and sister and moving with Dad to Berkshire to set up a new family (mmm…) and the second was when I left the south coast where I’d been at university to attend teacher training college and start my career.
I returned to live near the Thames in the Vale of the White Horse for 12 years. I lived at the northeastern end of the Vale near Oxford in a small village called Botley. It was the bigger village in the parish with its near neighbour North Hinksey with its ancient St Lawrence’s Church. From that church and west of the A34 rises Hurst Hill. I lived near the foot of this hill and, when I would walk to the top, I had both a breath-taking view of the famous dreaming spires (and the not so famous logistics warehouses) of Oxford!
View east from Hurst Hill overlooking Oxford © Michael Spicer 2000
When I hit 30, I started jogging and trying to calm my brain through hard physical exercise, nothing new but it was the landscape that I explored that started the healing process. Running up and over Hurst Hill in the rain and feeling the burn in my lungs as I climbed the hill and stared down the Vale, the mud and the smell of the wet vegetation filling my sad heart with happiness, endorphins yet still the darkness sat in the back of my brain. No amount of running, of pounding on towpath or along country track across this sacred landscape, this inspiring hillside would extinguish the darkness for good but it felt better, much better. Looking south-west, though, this hill commanded the grander view down the Vale of the White Horse!
View west from Hurst Hill near Oxford © Michael Spicer
At both of these points, it was the landscape of Berkshire that unknowingly soothed me, calmed me, mothered me if you will and made me whole again. Please forgive the use of Berkshire for Oxfordshire – yes, I know that Botley near Oxford is now in Oxfordshire and was in Oxfordshire in 1992 but for the sake of this article, it has been re-designated as Berkshire which Wittenham, Botley and Uffington had been for the best part of 1000 years! There are still Berkshire County Council manhole covers in Botley. I left “Berkshire” in 2004 and moved 70 miles north to Warwickshire but the soft form of its hills and chalky tang of the Thames remain in my heart to this day.