Writing, Sussex Landscape and the ‘Archaeological Imagination’.

The magic of the Weald © Deirdre Huston-2

This week, I have been thinking about landscape, time and stories. In mist and sunshine, I paced out an eight mile walk around Battle. There, or thereabouts, The Battle of Hastings was fought and today, we look to contemporary sources such as The Bayeux Tapestry and the chronicler, William of Poitiers, to understand what happened. But how else can we make sense out of the past?

When I walk through the natural landscape, I draw a fictional map that transcends time to locate what happened where. Am I trying to pull together juxtaposed fragments to make a cohesive pattern? Perhaps this is where story-telling becomes important because in the simple telling of a narrative structure that has a beginning, middle and end, we make sense of our complex world. Sometimes it’s the small details that matter. With each step up Blackhorse Hill, the weight of my camera bag increased and I wondered how a soldier might feel carrying his weapons up or down a hill. At Crowhurst, I reached out and touched the peeling bark of a yew that experts believe was planted in Saxon times. The tree was hollow and, as a child, I would have imagined climbing inside to travel back in time. I wanted to see things happen for myself and, today, I enjoy writing historical fiction, in which, as a writer, you are trying to witness the past from the viewpoint of a fictional character.

I am writing the introduction to a walk around Burwash, where Rudyard Kipling lived at Batemans. It suited me to wander without having too many set ideas and I knew only that this landscape inspired Kipling. Today, I worked out part of my guidebook route passes the place that inspired Pook’s Hill. In Puck of Pook’s Hill, Kipling creates a magical being, Pook who entertains two children by weaving stories about the past. The elements of landscape and the disjointed nature of time and how we make sense of the past in our story-telling are all wrapped up in the guise of a children’s story. Any walker will recognise an enduring sense of Sussex landscape in his writing.

Here are three stanza’s from ‘Puck’s Song’ by Kipling.

‘See you the dimpled track that runs


All hollow through the wheat?


0 that was where they hauled the guns 


That smote King Philip’s fleet!

 

(Out of the Weald, the secret Weald,


Men sent in ancient years, 


The horse-shoes red at Flodden Field, 


The arrows at Poitiers!)

 

See you our little mill that clacks, 


So busy by the brook? 


She has ground her corn and paid her tax 


Ever since Domesday Book.
See you our stilly woods of oak,


And the dread ditch beside? 


0 that was where the Saxons broke,


On the day that Harold died.’
Puck of Pook’s Hill is littered with recognisable elements of our contemporary landscape and I was fascinated to learn more about how Kipling connects Sussex landscape with different points in our history. My research soon turned up the idea of ‘the archaeological imagination’ for ‘This is a past not heard but seen; a past fragmented, tactile, mute, on whose excavated fragments a re-creating imagination must play.’ Donald Mckenzie’s introduction to OXFORD WORLD’S CLASSICS edition of Puck of Pook’s Hill by Donald McKenzie on the Kipling Society website: http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/rg_puck_intro.htm is well-worth reading if this interests you.

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Dogs and sheep: meet my new best friend, Misty.

We were out walking in sheep country this week. My dog, Saffy, is a well-behaved cocker spaniel but I put her on a lead if we’re in a nature reserve or around farm animals. She knows how to look invisible in a field of cows and does her best not to out-stare sheep and I’d say, as a veteran guidebook researcher, she’s pretty experienced around livestock.

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Like most outdoor dogs, she has moments when the lure of a pheasant or the trail of a rabbit is too hard to resist and she has a doolally five minutes. In nature reserves, there may not be obvious animals or birds but I don’t want her to disturb nesting sites. As a pet owner,  it’s a good idea to be familiar with how your dog’s breeding might affect their behaviour in the countryside: even the friendliest pet can be unpredictable when their natural instincts are aroused and a few cocker spaniels have a tendency to chase cows and sheep so I take no risks. Where she needs to be under close control, I always put her on a lead. If a problem arose in a field of cows, I would drop the lead as a cow is unlikely to chase a person provided they stay calm, and Saffie would certainly reach the nearest exit faster without me, but, in a field of sheep I wouldn’t let go.

Sheep attacks have been on the rise, causing distress not just to the animals but to the farmers, vets and other hikers. Sheep are easily brought down by a dog, which will often injure or even kill it. The owner themselves is often shocked to see their lovable dog behave savagely and horrified to find themselves powerless and unable to stop the slaughter. It’s a year round problem but in spring, sheep are most vulnerable, perhaps pregnant or having just given birth. A dog running loose in a field can cause panic, injury, early labour and fatality for ewes. Nobody wants to be the owner left saying, “But I didn’t think my dog would ever … ”

So, imagine my dilemma when a young border collie appeared in a field of sheep. It must be the farmer’s dog, I thought. A tractor rumbled in a nearby field and the collie looked over her shoulder and lead us towards the next stile on the High Weald Landscape Trail. Saffy, who was on her lead,  and I followed quickly, both thinking it would be a good idea to leave this dog behind. We’ve met our share of protective dogs and this one seemed to be showing us off its property albeit in a good-natured way. I closed the gate quickly but like a magician, Misty popped up on the other side and, with a friendly grin, leapt up to lick my hand. Another field of sheep and, this time, Misty authoritatively jogged off to investigate a few corners. Huddles of sheep jogged out of her way but didn’t seem alarmed. Again, I assumed she was the farm dog.

She followed us beneath stiles and gates, through hedges and over a footbridge. In one field, our trail was unclear but Misty knew the way. Goodness, I thought, this is a big farm.

And then we passed a house and the man looked askance at Misty.

“Isn’t she the farm dog?” I asked.

“She’s from a neighbouring farm,” he answered, “I hope she’s good with sheep.” He hurried away.

Suddenly I felt responsible. We’d almost reached town and I wondered what to do if she kept following us. I couldn’t leave her loose among the sheep and truth be told, once upon a time, I’d quite fancied a border collie as a pet before I discovered their tendencies to herd children, become bored and need oodles of daily work or exercise. Still this dog had a lovely temperament and if she needed a home …

Then, I discovered a collar and tag beneath her ruff and, within minutes, was speaking to the owner who asked if I could stay with Misty until she drove round. She sat beside Saffy but then wandered again and I was relieved when the farmer appeared. He advised me he’d seen the owner walking round and also said he’d observed us walking through his fields earlier and wondered what was going on. His Land Rover boot was packed with his own team of dogs who were off for a swim. Misty was duly reunited with her owner who thanked us: the dog’s friendly nature was something of a problem and she has a tendency to wander.

Saffy looked relieved to see the back of Misty, and as we headed wearily for our car, I had to agree, that perhaps, another dog would be superfluous.

Misty © Deirdre Huston