In an increasingly standardised world, local distinctiveness becomes more important as a means of connecting with our surroundings.
Philip Marsden explores these ideas as he travels west through Cornwall until the land sinks into the waves around West Penwith. The wind-blasted peninsula invited a long, linear journey and he wanted to look for the county’s spirit in legendary locations such as Tintagel, Bodmin and Zennor. A battered coastline, an extraordinary geology and tales of piracy, smuggling and mythical floods beyond Land’s End formed the backdrop to his travels in a part of the country where stone circles rise from fields that are still used 3,000 years after they were first enclosed.
Marsden was keen to discover how stories and meanings can develop around such enigmatic landscape features and his writing weaves cultural and natural history in a book which is both memoir and travelogue. Along the way he uncovers the life and work of other ‘topophiles’ before him – medieval chroniclers and Tudor travellers, 18th century antiquarians, post-industrial poets and abstract painters. Literary connections abound, but the references to place names at the beginning of each chapter are particularly memorable. Nanjizal, Morrab and Tolverne, for example, may sound as if they belong in Middle-earth, but can all be traced to old Cornish words which reflect the lie of the land.
Every rock, hill and cliff holds a tale or a legend and Rising Ground shows that such landscapes are not just close to our hearts but are a crucial part of our culture too.
RISING GROUND: A Search for the Spirit of Place by Philip Marsden, Granta, £20
This review was published in the November 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine