The Spirit of Place

I was ten, once again on holiday in Cornwall, and I had come, one weekday, to my favourite spot - Polruan Castle. In truth, it was a ruined tower, on the edge of this fishing village, from which a boom had been swung in the sixteenth century, across the Fowey estuary, to keep the Spanish out. I spent hours their playing, wrapped in a solitary happiness.

It was usually deserted, the tower and the rocks running from it to the sea, but that day, I found a family occupying it. I was uncharacteristically outraged! They were violating 'my place'. The boy, my age or slightly younger, had a football and it rested, away from him, by the rocky sea edge. I fixated on it. If I cannot have it, no one will, I thought. It was a thought that utterly surprised me for I had no interest, at the best of times, in football. I kicked it into the sea (from which, owing to the rocks, its recovery was unlikely). It was an action that cleaved me in two - my normal self looked on, aghast, at the behaviour of this newly emergent self, jealous and angry.

'What did you do that for?' shouted the father, noticing my act. 'Do what?' I asked as if butter would not melt (observed by me in quiet horror). 'Kick our ball into the sea'. 'What ball?' I responded innocently, all the time edging away to the steps and flight. I ran so hard that when I got back to where we were staying I collapsed on the bed with panicked breathing, heart pulsing against t-shirt, but happy not to have been caught. And I was suddenly two - broken into self-consciousness and expelled from Eden.

Any place can gather to itself a personal significance - as this recalls - but what happens when this is shared, when there is cumulative noticing of a place's spirit and what gives rise to it?

This is the theme of Philip Marsden's 'Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of a Place' that beautifully balances the story of his family's finding a house in Cornwall and making it home, a place personally bounded and loved and known with an exploration through the lens of Cornwall's pre and unfolding history of communal ventures at revealing and making of spirit filled places. We journey across time (and the county, heading west) from prehistoric barrows and tors, through Geoffrey of Monmouth's myth making of Arthur's connection to Tintagel, through the birth of historical exploration of place to the struggle of an artist trying to bear witness to the particular beauty and reality of Cornwall whilst under the pressured influence of modernism's urge towards abstraction.                                            

It is a book of stories about the importance of the question: what makes for the spirit of place - and the multitude of responses, themselves often more a significant gesture than rational answer. We do not know, for example, why, in the Neolithic, human beings embarked on such a widespread and integral pattern of building - barrow, stone circle or colonnade or Tor  - excepting that they weave a ritualised pattern over the landscape and are aligned with deeper, cosmological patterns of star and light and season. But we can, at least, recognise the urge, the necessary response of people wanting to see themselves at home in the universe, by making themselves connected to particular places.  Or that of the sixteenth century antiquarian who traveled the length and breadth of Henry VIII's kingdom collecting all that he could find that witnessed to the country's embodied past so that we might celebrate its history and its blessed future, evoking from that very history a veneration for particular place after particular place.

It is a beautiful book - both for its textured exploration of Cornwall and for a celebration of the urge to make of a place a revelation of spirit, even if the shadow side of a spirited place is, as I did, to slip to the wrong side of possession!


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