© 2021 Paul Mobbs; released under the Creative Commons license.
Created: Beltane 2021
Length: ~2,700 words
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In one sense this is a collection of memories. Of walks which produced some of my favourite photos. As I look through the images in my collection, though, I realised it described something more. A skeleton; a super-structure of places on which the essence of the local landscape sits. Its collection of ancient sites. In this blog post I outline a little about the background to why I’ve created this collection.
Finding yourself in ‘deep time’
In essence, this guide to our local ancient sites is the practical expression of a larger process of change. That’s what I came to understand as I tried to describe this collection, which I hope I convey in the, ‘About the Guide’ page. The value, and the experience I had visiting these sites was in part about the site, yes. But what I realised was that the experience travelling between them, on foot, was far more valuable.
Walking between them gives a mental map of the local landscape in your head. You begin to recognise its shapes and features just by looking, from any direction. If you learn to forage and cook outdoors, then you get a feel for its ecology, its wild places, and its sheltered viewpoints. In many ways, then, you begin to view this landscape as those who first created these monuments did; though with a far less detailed understanding of it than they would have had.
For example. I went for a backpack around the North Wessex Downs for Beltane 2019. On the second day I had an early lunch at West Kennet Long Barrow. While I was sat, resting my back against my pack and watching rain clouds form on the horizon, a coach party toured the stones. Then they went back down the hill to the coach and headed off again. What exactly was it they saw that day?
If there’s one thing this collection is not, it’s the ‘coach party’ experience. The challenge is to access the sites on foot as much as possible, experiencing the landscape in between these wonderful places. Again it’s why, in the ‘About the Guide’ page, I’m critical of the way in which the media packages an increasingly distorted representation of the world for the public to consume. And why getting away from that – through direct experience – is a route to serious lifestyle change.
Over Christmas 2019 I looked at my past collection of walks photos. From that review of my past walks I noticed something. How our modern-day world is still entwined with features that are millennia old. And how in many cases we’re still bound by those lines or points on the map, centuries or millennia later.
My New Year’s resolution 2020: Organise all that material I have into something interesting. What I didn’t realise was how big, and difficult a task that would be for me (as outlined in the next section below).
That process of selection (of over 200 of my ‘favourite’ photos), writing (pages for 28 sites and trackways), and editing (to create what you see now), has been great fun. Setting down what I know of these sites, and occasionally getting to fill in a few of the blanks with a little new research.
That process has also involved finally catching up on a few of the, “I wish I had…”, points in the journal. There’s a whole new page on Banburyshire and its history. And I finally got to note down some of the little know features of the local area, such as The Arbury Watershed.
Most importantly, this isn’t a finished work. I’ve at least another fifteen to twenty sites I’d like to add. At present I don’t have enough, or good enough quality material on them. And lockdown prevents collecting it right now. Any future updates will be added to the ‘updates section’ in the index page.
Rather than repeat more here, I suggest that you review the ‘About the Guide’ page. That has a far more detailed review of what it is I hope people will find if they visit the sites. What I will repeat from that, though, is its general directive:
“Randomly spend a whole day on foot, at all times of the year, in whatever weather, walking from the nearest train or bus stop – with no expectation as to what you might find.”
Solving the Ramble Journal’s design problem
What you don’t see in these pages is my struggle with the ‘modern-day’; principally, with the latest generations of technology. Lately that’s been as embedded within my problems maintaining the web site, as the absurdities raised by my day-to-day work on ecological issues.
In 2020, while other people were struggling with the concept of lockdown, I welcomed the space that gave to continue my struggle to learn what I am able to do now my eyes don’t work like they used to. That is, in part, why there have been so few new walks posts for the last two years. I physically can’t do what I used to do. But in addition the web site itself hasn’t aided me in that task.
A collection of images, and some pages to describe local sites. How hard could that be? A couple of years ago, part-time around all my other work, I would expect it to have taken six weeks to create. Given the restrictions my eyes now impose, I thought perhaps six months.
In the end though it’s taken sixteen months to cobble this together.
Why so difficult? This isn’t just about finding pictures and writing a little text. In order to show what I wish to convey I’ve had to create a whole new section of my web site. That means reformatting databases, and re-writing the code that sets-up everything to go on-line. (Note, the new design of the photos slideshow!). Then, putting together all the content to fit within those exacting standards of low energy, resource-light design.
In that sense, one of the reasons for embarking on this was as a test of my skills: From writing, to coding, to graphic design. To try and measure the capacity I have left, and hence what I could do for work in the future. At the same time though, within all these technological pressures, it represents a chance to reconnect with the motivations for why I keep trying to continue with this work; exploring my connection with this landscape.
On the positive side, that’s given me the opportunity to tackle the other major obstacle to putting stuff on my website. The design of the site itself.
Just for good measure – perhaps due to my own nightmare with screens recently – I decided to try and make the whole site meet accessibility standards as I built it. The FRAW site generally scored 80% to 90% on accessibility tests. Not because it was designed for accessibility, but because it was designed to minimise resource use. I wanted to do better.
Of late I’ve had to use more ‘assistive technology’ to handle my problem with screens. I had used this before I had eye problems. It allowed me to work on two or more computers without having to watch multiple screens! Now I have to use this stuff ‘for real’, I’m getting a whole new feel for how bad these systems really are.
The problem isn’t so much the program itself. The problem is the rest of the Internet. And the fact that ‘accessibility’ issues are really a bolt-on consideration which has little priority overall. For example, right now different browsers, or different computers, do not access or reproduce the same snippet of website content consistently. And if it doesn’t reproduce consistently, how can you design a web site?
Now I’ve piloted the idea here, I’ll slowly extend it across the rest of the site. Unfortunately the barrier to ‘accessibility’ is the structure of web content itself. In particular all the code and widgets included in pages to facilitate syndication and analytics – which is at the root of ‘surveillance capitalism’. Plumbing the depths of accessibility has therefore opened a whole new angle on issues I’ve been working on for twenty-odd years now. It’s been a really interesting and rewarding exercise to undertake, and I’ll probably have to write more on it soon.
Spending time outdoors as a gateway to change
For me, this project really jelled when I had an argument with myself over including Madmarston Hill. I mean, there’s pretty much nothing there! A massive site has been all but destroyed. But then I realised, that is the point. The whole complex around Madmarston Hill, and the large Roman settlement which once stood in the flat valley below, is emblematic of modern human society.
A very few people have noticed, recently, that the nature of what I do has changed. Not just the work I do, but how I’m saying it.
Obviously going blind, and then working out how to see straight again, will do that for you. But there is something more embedded within that. This new section of my site is a byproduct of that process.
When time becomes valued, so other things become superfluous. What drives that is how you perceive the world; how you order and value ‘things’.
Of course that’s difficult to understand given so much of the modern world is nothing more than a distraction from the evidence on the ground in front of you. This realisation, of ‘time’ and ‘things’, demands that you change the measure of your former self to make sense of what you are trying to do. Only then can you really grasp what you need to do, and how to do it.
Many of the popular ideas for change today, from environmentalism to technology, are not about ‘material’ change. It is about stasis. It’s about preserving certain ideological or material certainties from the instability of the modern world around us. Put simply, it’s about trying to maintain the current lifestyle of affluence, and privilege, enjoyed by a small section of the global population, against the demonstrable impossibility of that situation.
What people hold-up as change, from ready-meal veganism to green energy, is about maintaining that core of affluent modernity, by fiddling with the means by which that system is maintained. Self-deception, aided by societal indifference, is a major part of that. As a result, few are willing to contemplate lifestyle change, and instead settle for tokenistic measures by fooling themselves about the permanence of the world around them.
Thing is, humans have been doing that for millennia. It’s just today, our technological hubris means we potentially get to take the whole planet down with us.
Today there’s barely a trace left of what had stood for centuries around Madmarston Hill. It is an object lesson in why human society, and its mythical economy, are not permanent. And of why stasis is an inconsequential response to a tidal wave of ecological uncertainty.
Not only does the story of Madmarston Hill’s actual collapse, and subsequently of the Roman town below, have a symbolic value today. It’s modern-day destruction by the plough, since the nineteen-sixties, is a practical demonstration of the actual factors destabilising our world right now. And why ‘radical’ change, as in ‘from the roots’, is the only means to really affect the world around us.
Throughout my life, if I’ve been able to travel along a different path, and do or experience things which others have not seen, then it is because I’ve devoted time to maintaining my connection with the outdoors. I’ve spent a lifetime in this little patch of the world, and have come to know it, and through it been able to explore the nature of my own place within it.
Gaining a knowledge of the local ancient sites, and how they relate to the land, and of how our modern world relates to both, has been an important part of that. Understanding how that has affected my work, and how that perspective is more valuable than the detail of the work itself, is what I am trying to convey.
If there’s one thing I wish to share through this new piece of work? It is the possibility, through spending time outdoors, to gain a ‘deeper’ measure of ‘time’ than the modern world permits today. By seeing, in ‘the first person’ rather than ‘curated’ on a screen, how humanity’s past lies all around us in the fields. And that our future, too, lies along similar lines unless we are able to comprehend the nature of our world today. And from that realisation, and the skills which naturally follow from pursuing this relationship with the land, do something different for ourselves.