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.