Work > Photography > Journey Through the British Isles > Foreword by Adam Nicolson

Foreword by Adam Nicolson 


As I write this, it is still the last weeks of winter. Although some of the honeysuckles have just leafed up, and there are primroses out on the banks of the lane, there is scarcely a hint of green on the trees and the wood remains wintery and reserved, a growing world still protecting itself against the possibilities of late frost. But here, on the table in front of me, surrounded by Harry’s photographs, I have two things: a large bowl of Paper White narcissi, their flower heads as rich and deep a white as any flower can be, and as graceful as they would be in the wild, pumping a sweet spiced scent into the air around them; and beside them, their companions and opposites, a bunch of radishes, the first of the year, still with specks of soil on them from where they came out of the ground this morning, rooty, earthy, sharp, stumpy little things, tangy, not quite woody but verging on the edge of that, crimson, half-mineral, crunchy and peppery hot.

This may be a slightly sideways approach to a book of landscape photographs, but it seems to me that this pairing, the rooted deliciousness of the radish and the half-etherealised smell of the narcissus blowing across the room towards you, that combination of the earthy and the not-quite-worldly, is in fact just the combination of things on which the beauty of the landscape relies. The landscape is always beautiful because it is the real thing, the earthed reality; and it is always beautiful because it contains within itself the possibilities of a fineness which goes beyond the everyday facts. Either of those terms without the other would not be quite enough. Too much emphasis on the purity of spring flowers, or on the cloddy realities of what is happening in and on the ground — both would be a diminution. The miracle of the landscape, the way in which it can continue to provide soul food for millions of people, depends on the way it manages to produce year in and year out both the bite of the radish and the purity of the narcissus, both the deep and the fine, both the transient and what feels at times like the everlasting.

The journey through Britain which Harry made from the spring equinox to the autumn equinox of 2006 was, as it now appears from his photographs, a rich and evolving response to that double fact about the landscape. It was not about tracing a continuous line around the British Isles. It was not in other words the Tour de Britain, more a mission — and that is a Harry-ish word — to find a necklace of radiantly beautiful places buried within the various landscapes of the country. It was not about miles covered, and not really about capturing views. The whole point of the way he did it, with his camping equipment, his van, his portable oven, was that he could land and dwell and settle in the places he found, in those particular places which seemed to glow with a lit significance, which could produce for him the scent of the soil. His task was to make himself as absorbent as he could be, alert to every nuance, looking for the richer underlying meaning which can be found around every corner, for that combination of earthiness with something more than earthiness, for something which goes beyond the ordinary or perhaps even the material.

As you turn the pages of this book, you will see and feel a two-part transformation rippling through its pages. There is, first, the colour. It begins in ice-blue and the patterning of white snow on black rock, moves on into the damp and serious, almost taciturn colours of a northern landscape on the edge of winter, on the edge it seems of an Ice Age which has ended not that long ago; then deepens into green, into the lush of May, that colour which is as rich with desire as any in the universe. ‘No white nor red was ever seen,’ Andrew Marvell wrote in The Garden, ‘So amorous as this lovely green.’ Of course, to most minds, white and red, the colours of flesh and kisses, are the colours of amorousness. But this other green is the colour, if one can say this, of the world’s desire, of amorousness on a planetary scale, far beyond the claims of flesh and kisses, the pulse of life itself, the annual thickening of the biosphere, the breeding and seeding which is the source of all natural beauty.  

From that springtime ecstasy, the journey moves on and deepens. The green becomes freckled, turns pale in the chalklands of southern England and misty, before high summer starts to makes its claims and the colours goes tawny, golden and enriched. Only then, as the journey curls north again, do they begin their autumn retreat, moving back towards a careful, closed, winter condition. In a very beautiful and almost subliminal way, the colours in this book describe an orbit, or perhaps half an orbit, of a planet around the sun.

At the same time — and I am sure this was not done programmatically by Harry, but as a response to his own deepening engagement with the landscapes in which he was living, sleeping, walking, smelling and breathing — his relationship to them becomes slowly more intimate. That process, curiously, mimics something of the history of our own relationship in this country to landscape beauty. Harry’s first, northern pictures here are a long way from their subjects. The hard, cold northern lands are seen from high and distant viewpoints. One or two are almost maplike, in the way of the early land surveys, which were the first depictions of landscape in Britain. The point of view moves on and toys with the kind of imagery of which picturesque painters would have approved in the 18th and 19th centuries, placing important objects carefully in the view, conveying a sense, even in the wild, of orderly hierarchy and the calm arrangement of parts.

But then, as the amorous green floods his world, Harry steps down into a more modern relationship with these places, seeing them very close, or washed by altering and otherworldly light, with an unexpected relationship of parts, or the sudden prominence of nothing more than a worn path or a reed-thickened ditch. By the time he has arrived on the banks of the Wey, his own native place, he has moved on again, dispensing with any sense that these images are in public, that any performance needs to be made, and coming instead to the emotional core of the journey and the book. The photographs on the banks of the Wey make no baroque claims, see intimacy and slightness as the source of beauty and delicacy — not unimportance — and dwell on the ordinary, the transient and the apparently chaotic as the site of unaffected meaning. That is the still centre of the whole series and his return to the north is shaped by it. Every one of those last big views comes to seem full of the minuscule and detailed to which our eyes have now become accustomed.

Each of the great journeys through Britain which remain as markers in our collective cultural memory of the landscape carry the impress of their age. Celia Fiennes’s journeys on horseback in the 1680s tend to notice almost nothing except the very large houses, their gardens and contents, belonging to the higher gentry of which she was a member. Daniel Defoe records the coming of another age in the 1720s, seeing the burgeoning business and industry of a country undergoing its first enormous urban and commercial revolution. William Cobbett’s Rural Rides through England a century later focus on the rural victims of that change, the transformation of self-sufficient English yeoman families into impoverished agricultural labourers dependent on the whims of capitalist landlords. By the time JB Priestley travelled through England in the 1920s, his journey had become in part a lament for the destruction and pollution of the industrial age and a jealous fear for those parts which remained unaffected by it.

Since then, there has been a deep and pervasive industrialisation of the landscape. By 1970, over 9 million acres were being sprayed with weedkiller every year. So much nitrogen had been applied to the fields that it had entered the water-cycle and in some parts of England over 36lbs of nitrogen would fall on every acre each year in the rain. The average size of fields had gone from 19 acres in 1920 to 45 acres in 1970. The number of agricultural holdings had halved as farms were agglomerated and combined. ‘It will be said of this generation,’ the rural campaigner CEM Joad said in 1931, ‘that it found England a land of beauty and left it a land of “beauty spots.”’  

If a photographer had made this journey twenty or thirty years ago, that might have been his burden. Now, though, there is a sense that we have moved on again. There has, without doubt, been a profound degradation of the British landscape. The miracle, though, is that within that landscape there remain many deep reservoirs of beauty and meaning. The wide-ranging, Olympian view is no longer suitable for us or our landscape. What we need to do — perhaps all that we can now do —†is make a close and rich engagement with the detail that matters. Intimacy has replaced both the proprietorial survey and the picturesque order which dominated an earlier age. This is what Harry’s journey is about: the riches to be found in the hidden corners, in the dust at your feet, in the leaves drifting in a sunlit river, in a daughter swimming for a moment in a summer pond. Here it is; it’s everywhere; have a look; minuteness is all.

There is a poem by RS Thomas, the great Welsh poet and minister, called The Bright Field which addresses the dazzle and blaze of ordinariness on an ordinary morning:

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

This sense of the vision hidden within the obvious landscape has for centuries been part of the inherited English tradition, but it is also, I think, an idea which has particular potency at the moment. Gertrude Stein famously said of the suburban anonymity of Oakland, California that ‘There is no there there.’ Since then, the gradual erosion of the thereness of there has become one of the most secretly erosive aspects of modern life. As new development absorbs ever more of the country, the appetite for real, rich, beautiful, entrancing places, which are their own middle, the source of their own way of doing things, their own poetry, calm, vitality — whatever it might be — the appetite for places like that on a steep increase.

Places rich with a sense of there are what Harry’s photography is about. It comes down, essentially, to a new understanding of what is meant by the word ‘place’. A place is not just a location. Nor is it an idea or an image. It is intensely concrete, the opposite of anything virtual, something that is thick with its own reality. And, more than that, a place is somewhere with a quality that you might call ‘inner connectedness’. That is a subtle but powerful thing, which is related to a kind of self-sufficiency, a feeling in a place that its life is not borrowed or imposed from elsewhere, but is coming up out of its own soil. It is a rooted and so an organic feeling. It is by definition idiosyncratic, pursuing its own way of doing things, perhaps a little quirkily, not at first entirely easy to understand, but undeniably itself.

Access to those places is not a question of cruising past or sliding by, but more than that of burrowing in, of taking the landscape and getting under its skin, going feral in it, of blurring the boundaries between yourself and the place. All of that is, to some extent, a retreat from the large-scale claims of the picturesque idea. I would say, though, and the photographs in this book are evidence of it, that a reduction in the scale of the experience brings in its wake a heightening of the intensity. The tighter the focus, the richer the vision. Places have always been the great mnemonics of the culture. People know who they are by the places in which they live. Landscapes enshrine meanings both good and bad and few forms of record are so permanent. It is true, now, that we have to a large extent driven ourselves back into our precious corners. There is not much meaning or delight in the 100,000 acres of England now covered by motorway. But Harry’s journey through this country, over the course of a turning year, has been driven by a belief that in those precious corners, beauty and sustaining meaning are to be found with a richness that is at least as intense as it has ever been. In one of the Duino Elegies, as translated here by the American Stephen Mitchell, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, hesitantly and modestly but still with an eye on the transcendent, makes the central claim on which a book such as this one is founded:

But to have been
This, once, completely, even if only once:
To have been at one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.

Like many of these photographs, those words need reading a few times before their meaning comes through to you. They are not a postcard which flashes an obvious bit of the picturesque in your direction. Instead, carefully but hugely, they make a statement which is both intimate with the earth and unequivocally cosmic in its claims, as pure and transcendent, as the scent of the narcissi on a late winter day. That’s what these photographs are too.

copyright ADAM NICOLSON.

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