Fields Inspired by Eric Ravilious

One of my favourite paintings — and one that is very germane to The Angel’s setting is John Nash’s The Cornfield, which I’ve blogged about previously. It’s relatively well-known, providing a motif for David Dimbleby’s BBC series on landscape painting a couple of years ago and can be viewed here on a link to the Tate Britain website.

Clearly the painting captures a specific moment in the agricultural year — the bringing in of the harvest — and as it was painted in 1918 it predates any mechanisation. The Nash painting depicts a line of wheatsheaves (amazingly the word ‘wheatsheaf’ isn’t in my wrist-sapping Oxford Dictionary of English). They’re portrayed almost anthropomorphically as semi-human figures (a little like monks with hassocks tied around their waists) and they look tired, weary and irregular, but still form a semblance of a line, much as one might imagine was the mood of the country at the end of the First World War.

I took the photograph below at 6.30am on the 15th July (St. Swithin’s Day — as immortalised by David Nicholls) on the way to get the train. (This is my bucolic route to the local station, which is wonderful on a July morning but awful on a rainy, muddy January evening). I’d walked the opposite direction the previous night about 6pm, when the grass had been cut but not baled. One point about the reduction in the number of farmers is that when the remaining farmers are busy, then they’re really busy. When the wheat is ready to bring in the combine harvesters work through the night. So it’s not surprising that the cut grass had been baled over the course of the previous evening.

Modern Cornfield?
A 21st Century Cornfield?

Although these bales are of meadow hay and not corn (which meant wheat when Nash painted his picture) I later realised that there was something of a parallel. Rather than sheaves that are designed to be gathered in the arms, these cylindrical bales are so huge they can only be moved by a fork-lift truck (or its tractor equivalent) — there are no more than a dozen of them in the field, which must be a good three or four acres. So my photo, with its long shadows,  is similar in spirit to Nash’s painting but also shows the differences.

I was reminded of Nash because I paid a brief visit today to Tate Britain in Millbank, which is where The Cornfield is on display. I didn’t have time to go into their current Watercolour exhibition but I saw a few reproductions of the pictures elsewhere in the gallery. I was particularly struck by Eric Ravilious’s The Vale of the White Horse, featuring the genuinely ancient prehistoric monument which is just off the Ridgeway in Oxfordshire.

If you were to follow the Ridgeway from the Uffington White Horse north-east for about fifty miles, you’d end up at The Angel (in fact I might use a bit of artistic licence and have the Ridgeway go past the front door, as it does at The Plough at Cadsden). And Kim will be wonderfully excited about the connection between the land and  the art — she’s going to take the Nashes and Revilious as inspiration.

There’s also a profound irony about Kim’s interest in Ravilious — like the Nashes he was a war artist — but unlike them he died in action. He was killed in an air-sea rescue mission in 1942 off Iceland.

Another serendipitous connection is that there is a brewery named after the White Horse.Their beers include two that are well-known to me — Wayland Smithy and, er, Village Idiot.

Happy Valley

Stile Above Happy Valley
Stile Above Happy Valley

When it’s dry enough I go running up the steep northern slopes of the Chilterns and along the top of the escarpment — and the ground is so dry at the moment I have no excuse not to.

I’d like to allude to these glorious views in the novel and probably the best (maybe only) way to do so is to have my characters walk or run up there. I wonder whether the metaphorical associations of looking out and surveying a view or of running along pathways might be too obvious for the points I might want to use in the plot. I might need to adjust my chronology a little as well if I refer to the swathes of fragrant bluebells that are flowering at the moment or the distant views of the yellow oilseed rape fields (although the colour yellow is a metaphor I’ve already used).

The photograph above is of a stile on the Ridgeway above the curiously-named Happy Valley. It’s my favourite point on that particular route as the only way is down. It’s on the Chequers Estate and not far from the house itself — quite often there’s a herd of state cows in the field. The distant field of oilseed rape is one very close to where I live and which has deposited yellow pollen everywhere (perhaps another country detail for the novel).

I ran up Coombe Hill on the same run, which is not quite the highest point in the Chilterns (beaten by a forested undulation in Wendover Woods) but with its recently restored monument is the de facto peak. A couple of days ago two huge guns were dragged up there from RAF Halton and a 21-gun salute was fired to celebrate the Royal Wedding.

I tried, as best I could, having run up most of the 150m or so climb, to take a set of photos of the panoramic view from the top of the hill on a nice day. This is going to become one of Kim’s favourite places — as an artist would appreciate.

View from Coombe Hill to the South West
View from Coombe Hill to the South West

That way there be the mysterious circles of Avebury at the end of the Ridgeway, Wittenham Clumps and Cowley too (subjects of Paul Nash paintings).

View from Coombe Hill to the West
View from Coombe Hill to the West

The Cotswolds are in the distance — looking across the heart of England here. This is also approximately where the anciently-named Three Hundreds of Aylesbury are located — going back to the Domesday book but still marked on Ordnance Survey maps.

View from Coombe Hill to the North West
View from Coombe Hill to the North West

The Vale of Aylesbury — the resolution isn’t good enough (fortunately) to pick out Fred’s Folly (the monstrous office block in the centre of the town). Waddesdon Manor, Bicester and Banbury are in the distance.

View from Coombe Hill to the North
View from Coombe Hill to the North

Wendover and, in the far distance, Milton Keynes and Leighton Buzzard. Such a lovely view that it could only be improved by having a 250mph railway line blasted through it. The proposed HS2 high-speed rail line is planned to go right through the centre of this photograph — essentially through the green fields in the middle. It will be on a big, obstrusive viaduct as it emerges into the Vale of Aylesbury. Construction is meant to start in about five years so this aspect of the view may be destroyed forever.

In keeping with my research on the roles of pubs in the community, our village had a Royal Wedding party on the green next to the pub and I spent about 8 hours there solidly drinking. I was told that I’d sat at the same table for four hours. I didn’t feel too wonderful the next day and decided to test the efficacy of ‘sweating it out’ by going for a short run and avoiding steep slopes with viewpoints (although the hills can be seen in the background). Even my hungover spirits were raised by the incredible block of yellow in the field I ran around — the field is enormous, nearly a mile long and a third of a mile wide and takes going on for 20 minutes for me to run round. The white of the hawthorn blossom and cow parsley offset the green of the vegetation and deep blue of the sky.

I’m trying to write a part of the novel in which Kim tries to decide whether she wants to live in London or the countryside. Maybe this might swing it for her?

Hawthorn Hedge and Oilseed Rape
Hawthorn Hedge and Oilseed Rape

Good Night on BBC2

A couple of novel-related programmes on BBC2 tonight.

The Great Outdoors is a short series that was on BBC4 last year. It’s about a group of ramblers enjoying the countryside and features Ruth Jones of Gavin and Stacey fame and who’s shortly to star as Hattie Jacques — who, in turn, I remember well from Sykes along with Derek ‘Corky’ Guyler and his washboard — if this means zilch to you then congratulations on being young — as well as the Carry On films.

I watched a few odd bits of when it was on BBC4 — mainly on the prompting of local newspaper The Bucks Herald which said it was written by local writers and was filmed largely on the Ridgeway locally around the Chilterns. While I’m not exactly sure where the embedded clip below was filmed, the beautiful landscape shots are very typical of the local area where The Angel is set and it’s quite  incredible to think these areas are within forty miles of the centre of London. The beauty of the countryside is one thing that Kim will fall in love with.

Earlier is Michel Roux’s Service. I caught the last half of the programme last night. It’s a series a bit like The Apprentice and Masterchef (without the cooking) whereby the eponymous restaurateur will train some young people (for whom the term ‘rough diamond’ may have been invented) into developing the service skills required for a Michelin starred restaurant. Needless to say, in the first episode they were hopeless in a pizza restaurant and we’re now promised they’ll go back to basics in a greasy spoon and curry house.

I’ll watch this quite carefully as my novel has a restaurant customer service angle — it won’t be the main focus but it will provide some incidental materials. I’m also quite intrigued by the systems that are used to manage restaurant service delivery. As with making a Christmas dinner at home, it seems simple because lots of people do it but it’s very difficult to get right.

I’ve not often eaten in Michelin starred restaurants but I did once have a wedding anniversary spectacular at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir Aux Quatre Saisonspushing the boat out with a surprise bouquet of roses waiting on the table after the champagne in the garden before we got started on the however many course meal it was. Of course it cost more than the monthly shopping budget but demonstrated how excellent customer service makes you think it’s all worth it — until the credit card bill turns up.

Totes Meer

I’m finding it quite tricky to write a section of ‘The Angel’ in which Kim is in transition between London and the rural countryside. Part of the reason is that she’s currently making a journey alone, which isn’t a great source of dramatic conflict, except if the conflict is played out within her own mind — and the ideas that I want her to grapple with are difficult to convey without becoming a pretentious candidate for pseuds corner in Private Eye.

I’m tempted to bin, or severely edit, what I’ve written but as I’ve ploughed on I discovered some very surprising connections that suggest that certain themes in the novel are coming from deep in my subconscious.

I have Kim standing at a viewpoint and being blown away (almost literally) by the view. This sets off a series of associations as she spots that the view towards a place called Wittenham Clumps is signposted. This is a series of hills near Wallingford in Oxfordshire and my friend Kathy finds it a beautiful, meditative place and has sent me photos. It has the mystical appearance of the many of the chain of ancient locations that lie on the northern slopes of the Chilterns and the Berkshire Downs  — such as Avebury, Silbury Hill, Barbury Castle, the Uffington White Horse, Whiteleaf Cross, Beacon Hill (near Chequers) and Ivinghoe Beacon. Most of these are linked by the Ridgeway.

Wittenham Clumps was also a location frequently painted by Paul Nash — who is sometimes described as one of the most important British artists of the 20th century. He admired Wittenham Clumps in the same way he revered the standing stones of Avebury which he described as ‘wonderful and disquieting’. Nash’s paintings examine the English landscape in an intuitive, slightly surrealist way that conveys as much about the interior thoughts of the painter as much as the physical landscape. The effect was described by Jonathan Jones in ‘The Guardian’ as being ‘in a distinctive, painted world that is part William Blake, part JRR Tolkien and all England. Red suns rise over chalk hills, grey breakers hit coastal defences. The landscapes of Kent keep recurring, along with unfamiliar views of London…[Nash] paint[ed] his dreams, and mix[ed] up homely landscapes with personal myth in a way comparable to Dalì’s mythologising of Catalonia…his sensibility is as ­knotted as an English oak.’

The quotation above was from a review of an exhibition of Nash’s work in Dulwich earlier this year which was widely reported so I don’t think I really need to stretch artistic licence too much for Kim to have known about Nash and even attended the exhibition. What’s also striking is that, before I found that review, I’d written a description of what Kim sees in the landscape and alluded to both Middle Earth (Brill Hill can be seen from the same view, on which Tolkien based the village of Bree) and the ‘feet in ancient times’ from Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’.

I knew that what was also notable about Paul Nash was that he was an artist in both the World Wars. However, I learned a lot more from watching a fascinating programme on BBC2 this week about the art of the second world war. One of Nash’s most famous paintings is ‘The Battle of Britain’ and perhaps his best known work, which is owned by the Tate, but doesn’t appear to be on display, is ‘Totes Meer‘. This is German for ‘Dead Sea’ and is a depiction of a scrapyard near Cowley (also visible — and referred to frequently in ‘Burying Bad News’) full of fighter aircraft wreckage which he paints to look like a moonlit sea.

I’d enjoyed the David Dimbleby landscape art series ‘A Picture of Britain’ a few years ago and bought the accompanying book as it has some reproductions of some beautiful paintings. I liked the painting featured on the cover of the book so much that I bought a canvas print reproduction from the Tate — it’s called ‘The Cornfield’ and is a late afternoon view of an unmechanised harvest just after the first world war in the rolling Chilterns somewhere near Chalfont St.Giles. I’ve had it hanging on the wall of my study all the time I’ve been writing this novel. The artist is John Nash — who I didn’t realise was Paul Nash’s older brother.

The connections are almost spine-tingling: ‘The Cornfield’, Cowley, the Ridgeway, ‘Totes Meer’, ‘Battle of Britain’, Blake, Tolkien — it’s no surprise I’ve ended up writing about a modern-day German artist marvelling at the history of the English landscape.