Walking the "Wright" Path - II - Purpose & Perception


  It took a while to sink in that it was now done and gone, the walk completed, consigned to the past, over. And its ending was accompanied with a dramatic anti-climax, undoubtedly because the adventure in its entirety felt so good. This was not just due to the remarkable sights and places encountered, all fantastically rewarding in their own right, but equally because of the wealth of wonderful people whose generous hospitality, support and friendship not only added immensely to the whole experience, but were the single major factor enabling the project to succeed. 
  My return to work brought me back down to earth with a bump, after three weeks experiencing the elation of such freedom it was catch-up time. This brought a further reality check and a couple of reasons for the major delay in updating this blog. My original intention was to discuss the relevance and discoveries of each place visited, however, as my “Grand Tour” has now been agreed as the subject of the dissertation for my MA in Garden History (Bristol University) this will have to wait until a later date. Then, the budgetary constraints that were the main reason for the walk taking place cut further still. Having originally hoped the sites owners (The National Trust) would pay the design fees for the replanting scheme if I raised the money for the plants, the powers that be decided those funds could be better spent elsewhere, so the responsibility of planning a very necessary replant scheme became an extra task added to an already busy schedule, although I hasten to add was a fantastic opportunity I could not possibly refuse. Any spare time in the next few months was spent reading analyses and arguments regarding plants and period authenticity, then more time site visiting representative plantings to discover what I thought worked and what didn’t. Now, as work has started opening up the space around The Shepherd’s Monument before the replant can commence, I thought I’d share here some other elements and insights of the journey.

Memorial at the site of Thomas Wright's home, Byers Green
  The route was planned not just a salutation to the varied facets of Thomas Wright’s work, but one that would more broadly honour a past language of landscape and the built structure found within. It was a journey that through the direct experience of being “in” the landscape was sure to enrich my own understanding of the influences creating the English garden style of the 18th century which in turn would inform and direct the "interpretative authenticity" that seeks to add a more meaningful historical aspect to the landscape improvements implemented at Shugborough today. The ease with which a route could be plotted stood testament to a firmly entrenched cultural legacy whose widespread and significant presence still colours the landscape the length and breadth of our nation. Choosing a path through this wealth of possible venues was more difficult, but eventually a course was charted, permissions were sought, one by one were granted and an excitement began to grow. Each site was connected in some way with either Wright, Shugborough or at least shared something of the roots of their poetic language and, save the inclusion of a few old favourites, the majority having never been previously visited guaranteed a voyage of discovery. 

Deer Shelter attributed to Thomas Wright - Auckland Castle

  Each selected site was within 20 miles or so from the next destination, a proximity that not only ensured the journey was achievable within the limits of vacation constraints, but more importantly allowed time at the end of each day to dwell on the sense of place, to feel its immediacy, read its shape, pick through the layers of its artistic intent, and sate an eager desire to engage more fully with the space of each individual topographical poem. To emphasise this latter aspect connecting routes were taken by road to create a gradually building tension that would reach its resolution upon entering the day’s destination, a place predetermined in mind as a sanctuary, rural refuge, idyll, or some such Arcadian realm. At the end of a days march, crossing the boundary from an exterior mad-dash world to find release in the tranquil environs of a garden or landscape was certain to engage a richer sensory perception where one was more likely to feel the fall of a contour, delight in a play of contrast, or be entranced by the effects of an intended structure of space. All these aspects of perceptual awareness significantly increase when experienced alone, for embarking on any solo expedition yields a different sense of being, particularly when stepping into the unknown where, with no shared decisions, interactions with place become more instinctively responsive. When we engage with unfamiliar landscape, our vigilance increases as we seek orientation, continually monitoring our own position in relation to the environment's detail and features, and as our perceptions become more acute, more alert, our outward-feeling senses heighten and we become more fully in the moment, more fully aware. Whilst certainly necessary negotiating the hazards presented while walking along fast winding roads without footpaths or more tentatively traversing the decaying urban sprawl surrounding industrial wasteland, after crossing the threshold of each days retreat, boundary walls and gates closed out the noise of the external world, and with the wildness of nature within generally subdued to a more tame artistic rendition, the need for this primal mental responsiveness was drastically reduced. Nonetheless, senses remained intensified, watchful to detect and act on any potential danger that could arise, and this increased focus assisted the objective of identifying the idiosyncrasies that gave each garden it’s character and differentiated each place from the world outside.

Fisher's Hall attributed to Thomas Wright - Hackfall Wood

With little in the way of outside distractions to interfere, this raised sensitivity to external stimuli combined with the much needed relaxation after a day long foot-slog certainly aided that desired connection with the spirit of the place. Rather than participating in the more usual fleeting passage of traditional garden visiting where we tick off the sights on a hurried prescribed circuit, I could stroll, sit, lay down and experience a more total immersion. The hours spent watching light change the scenery’s colours during the progression from late afternoon through dusk and twilight and on to night allowed time to absorb architectural detail and atmospheric enchantments. Even as the advance of darkness stole away the distant views the attentive awareness was merely diverted, the compensation of aural over visual sense opening a route to an alternative poetry of place.  Calm silence framed the surrounding sounds of other life in the landscape, the rustling, tapping and creaking  of breeze blown trees, the gentle murmur of a watercourse, the settling embers of a fire, the call and response of owls or the occasional barking stag all beckoned to notice their detail adding a new dimension to the ambience until these too were eventually taken away by sleep. 

 "and blest is he, who tir'd with his affairs
from all noise, all vain applause, prepares
to go, and underneath some silent shade
which neither cares nor anxious thoughts invade,
does for a while, himself alone possess."

                                    Rene Rapin - on Gardens

The magic inherent in such places is wonderful to share and opportunities did arise to enthuse with others, particularly other gardeners, who it seemed on recognition of my own passion freely shared their own insights as I was guided on impromptu tours through the proud achievements, projects, problems, sights, delights and dreams of their own landscape worlds. 
  All of these experiences served to remind that it is the visitor’s presence that brings a garden into being, it is their eyes and ears that bring it into existence and it is each individual viewers experience, education and purpose that creates the context for their connection and consequent appreciation. As guardians of such places our duty lies not just in maintaining the landscapes historic integrity through appropriate development (gardens never stand still) but to awaken visitors to their beauty and spiritual value and coax from their history a greater understanding of the forces, both good and bad, that have shaped our nation. 

Wentworth Woodhouse, Europe's largest private home

Today, we often recognize these lavish expressions of wealth, power and belief with awe, occasionally in our increasingly materialistic culture, envy, sometimes, maybe due to political alignments even resentment, and perhaps miss the point that they were also designed as sanctuaries for the soul to seek its escape.  Places conceived for the mind to find repose and space for reflection, to consider idea, belief and meaning in the burgeoning Enlightenment of the 18th Century.  It is there that in our own age of increasing urbanization, they hold an intrinsic value for today’s citizen. When we switch off from our own workaday world, whether consciously or not, we find ourselves searching for a similar idyll,  whether a holiday destination, a walk in unspoiled countryside, a woodland picnic, or just a glass of red in our own backyard. These are the places that give us our respite from our increasingly busy lives, somewhere to share or ponder life’s trials and tribulations, somewhere to lament losses, celebrate anniversaries and successes, fall in or out of love, or just to enjoy the beguiling poetry of nature.

to be continued...

Special Thanks
Before even the first step was taken I had already received fantastic support from Stafford Outdoor Leisure who allowed the purchase of necessary supplies of waterproofs, stove and sleep mat all at cost-price, The Cat’s Whiskers cattery at nearby Grindley gave a substantially reduced rate for my cat’s own luxury 3 week holiday, Staffordshire Gardens and Parks Trust gave a very generous donation to start the ball rolling, and my employers at Staffordshire County Council kindly allowed me to take my vacation and accrued lieu time. Colleagues, Friends and Family, all thoroughly supportive before,during and after the mission have been tremendous as ever. My deepest heartfelt gratitude and appreciation is for the kindness and support given by all of my hosts and to all those I met along the way who contributed to one of the most enriching experiences of my life.  Thank you...