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Sunday, 4 August 2013

Climbing Nerôche: Landscape Experience and Performative Writing (Part Two)

In beginnng his account of his ascent of Glastonbury Tor, John Wylie writes: 'From the ground the Tor rears menacingly upward before the walker who approaches it'. I mulled over this description on the public omnibus from Wells to Taunton, about how landscapes evoke fear or tredipdation on the hearts of those who perambulate through them. And that got me thinking about my own relationship with Glastonbury Tor - which is sort of love-hate with more of the latter than the former - and how that compares with my relationship with Nerôche - which is not so much love as insatiable desire.

Back in the summer of 1985, having hitch-hiked from Weymouth to Land's End to Edinburgh and back earlier in the year, I decided it would be a good idea to spend a night on the slopes of Glastonbury Tor. I was a naive - probably gullible - student of Geography and Landscape studies and Glastonbury's neo-pagan esotericism had found a potential convert in me. 

I'd hoped for some sort of spiritual relevation, armed myself with a small amount of cannabis to aid and abet the experience, but none came. I woke the following morning to a bright, warm sun; the underworld I'd hoped to encounter remained beyond material and ethereal reach. In some respects, perhaps, Nerôche is my anti-Glastonbury Tor. I've never regarded it as menacing but I've always felt it possesed an inherent danger; it lures you in and before you know it the hours spent exploring its deepest declivities soon turn to days; I've lost count of how many times I've returned but if I'm a victim I like to think it's more active than passive - there's an element of Angela Carteresque post-feminist gothic about it.

Amongst the many myths and legends pertaining to Glastonbury Tor, that of an ancient labyrinth winding its way around its slopes is, perhaps, one of the most intriguing and appealing. It might - or might not - have been part of some sort of Neolithic ritual but there has inevitably grown a school of thought which links it to Celtic Goddess worship. It was this theory that drew me to the Tor in the first place and on my own 'Night on the Bare Mountain' I tried - in vain - to locate and walk the maze. 

The shape and stature of Glastonbury Tor make its ascent a relatively straightforward affair. As John Wylie writes, there comes a point when 'a crucial shift of vision occurs ... as if a switch had been flipped'. At this moment 'the Tor ceases to be something looked at and becomes instead a process of looking from': what you see is what you get. Climbing Nerôche, this moment - the 'climax', as we might call it - comes only at the very last minute. Of course, Nerôche can be climbed in a relatively direct manner but to do so would defeat the purpose; like a quick shag without the foreplay.

Ascending Glastonbury Tor 'makes one a climber'; I don't think the same can be said of Nerôche, rather in the same way that walking the Camino de Santiago doesn't automatically makes one a bona fide hiker. But meandering, slowly up the northern scarp, there's a perception of gaining height, a sense of elevation that belies the gentle contours and reminds me of El Salvador's cloud forest - or what's left of it. From Staple Fitzpaine several 'no through roads' lead up over a landscape that becomes increasingly buccolic and Arcadian. Here and there a shady nook and cranny; a glimpsed vista of meadows knee-deep in grass, like a flash of flesh behind the bikesheds. With every metre climbed I'm feeling ... well, not so much heady as horny; the sun's at its zenith, the heat's at its most intense and I'm drenched in sweet and sticky sweat. 

It can't go on forever. I make a couple of meaningless diversions just to extend the walk and delay the inevitable, the moment of transubstantiation, but by now both body and mind have passed the point of no return. John Wylie writes of a 'growing lightness, a sense of anchorage being slipped ...', for me it's more like a rapture, a heart-pounding, earth-shattering climax that feels like the act of creation. 

Since alighting from the public omnibus at Henlade I've covered, as the crow flies, barely seven kilometres but I've walked over twenty. It's another ten down to Ilminster; the climb has drained my emotions and the rest of the walk fades into post-coitial torpor of which I can remember little.

At the end of part one I wondered whether, in approaching Nerôche in a labyrinthine manner and in the midst of a heatwave might reproduce those emotions I'd experienced twenty-five years ago when I climbed the hill for the very first time. Would it be nothing more than a banal exercise in nostalgia that had me mourning for the ghosts of my past? Nerôche is a dangerous place, it can drag you back in time; conflate your own personal history and that of the world around you. You get lost, temporally and spatially. Things fall apart, you get sucked in. Insufflated, like a line of dazzling white coke.

In concluding his essay on Glastonbury Tor, John Wylie writes: 'This is not to suggest ... that Glastonbury ... is possessed of of some genus loci which makes it quite distinctive from more 'mundane' or quotidian landscapes'. I know I should shrug my shoulders and reluctantly agree. I know that if you, dear reader, were to follow me up Nerôche, footprint by footprint, under the same sweltering Somerset sun, you'd probably want to know what all the fuss was about. You'd think I was a a bit soft in the head. 

Well, so what if I am? What if Nerôche is as much zeitgeist as it is genus loci? In any case, the conclusion is ... well, inconclusive; not for the first time I'm going to have to go back and do it all again.

And again. Nerôche has got me like a junkie in need of a fix.

John Wylie: Landscape, Performance and Dwelling: a Glastonbury Case Study in Country Visions, Paul Cloke (ed): Pearson 2003 pp 151-155

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