Rising Ground: a review

by frankbeswick

Philip Marsden has produced an interesting and original book about Cornwall

Cornwall is in England, but is not English. It has its own minority language different from English and Welsh, though everyone speaks English as a first language. It has its own flag and there is a Cornish tartan recently invented. Yet this southernmost county jutting into the point where the Irish Sea meets the Atlantic shares a common Celtic ancient history with the rest of England and Britain, and its distinction from England developed mainly after the Saxons arrived. Philip Marsden has used this unique county to explore what is involved in a sense of place.

Image courtesy of kernowpjm

Rising Ground originates in the author's desire to explore the distinction between space and place, and to realize that while the lived landscape can be represented on maps,its character is not fully or adequately reflected in any map or merely Geographical account. To read a map is to see structure in the abstract, a representation of location in space; but to see the land as a place is to see it holistically as a place with meaning, which has a history that leaves its prints within it  and  shapes its character. So this book is about the genius loci,the spirit of the place, and the author's attempt to explore it through his experience of Cornwall.

Cornwall has many admirers for its rugged land and seascapes, for its granite cliffs and waves thundering against its rocky shores. Many enjoy its bleak, but often dangerous moorlands, such as Bodmin Moor, and its rivers  full of character. Yet they also enjoy Cornwall as a place with a history, not always a peaceful one. Those with an archaeological bent relish its ancient megalithic sites; lovers of myth cherish its supposed Arthurian connections and the druids; and there are Cornish characters whose lives are worthy of the attention of biographers. Marsden has attempted to do some justice to all of these aspects of England's characterful south westernmost county.

The author has the advantage of having moved there to dwell in a remote cottage in the Roseland peninsula bordering the estuary of the River Fal,  which flows steeply down from the bleak fastness of Bodmin Moor to meet the sea in a broad and navigable estuary. He tells of how he purchased a cottage at Ardevora [pronounced Ardevra] , a name that in Cornish means by the water. Here is one great point about this book, the way in which he uses his linguistic scholarship to reveal the origins of Cornish place names.Every chapter about a place explains the  origins of its name in Cornish. I  found this a delightful characteristic of this book.

The writer gives an account of what it is like to fall in love with an old cottage and refurbish it. He does so in a manner that brings out the difficulties faced by anyone who undertakes this arduous labour of love, but he does not overdo it. This is a delicate balancing act that the author gets right.This never becomes a book about house restoration.

Sacred Landscapes

The author is concerned to distinguish space and place. Space he sees as a physical dimension that has become increasingly part of our consciousness through the widening of the world in the age of exploration. But space is simply space: it has no character to it and no emotional value. You can do what you like in a space without desecrating anything. But place is different. It is space imbued with character and spirit, and in particular it is endowed with a history that gives it meaning to those who participate in it. Place is for participation and people belong to it. It is loved  or hated, but never ignored. 

Marsden begins with an analysis of the megalithic landscapes on the windswept moors of Bodmin Moor, a dangerous place to walk if you stray off the paths because of the moor's  bogs. He charts the key times in the discovery of the ancient monuments and he attempts to place himself  in the minds of the Stone Age monument builders.He uncovers the fact that like several areas of Britain,including Stonehenge and its environs, it is the whole landscape that forms an integrated whole that developed through time and was orientated on a sacred summit, Rough Tor. He traces back the evolution of the Megalithic landscape from 9000 B.C. until the decline of Stone Age religion in the second millennium. This I found to be a fascinating read.

Yet the author does not limit himself to megaliths and the Stone Age. He visits the supposed Arthurian site of Tintagel, a castle perched atop a cliff jutting into the Atlantic. He delves into the history of the Arthurian myth and the site itself, tracing the occupation back to the ancient tin  traders who came to the Cassiterides,the Tin Isles, the ancient term for Britain,right through the Middle Ages and the characters who involved with the castle up to the present  day.

Yet he also takes us through the scarred landscapes produced by mining China Clay, but without an account of mining there is no true account of the spirit of the place in Cornwall.This shows that he is a realist, not one conveying a false picture of the place that ignores the warts,the ugly side of British history. In this he is to be appreciated and admired. 

Cornish Characters

Marsden does a service in introducing some of the interesting characters who have sprung up in Cornish history, not all of them originally Cornish, though some were. We read of a series of characters,all who dwelt in Cornwall, who seem to be larger than life. There is Jack Clemo, the stern blind and deaf poet; we read of the young prodigy Charles Henderson, who chronicled the history of Cornwall as a teenager, but died on his honeymoon. There is the antiquarian John Whittaker, a Church of England minister down from Lancashire via London, who did so much historical research.Several of these characters are people who are overlooked by the London/southeastern establishment who dominate our isle to its detriment,and Marsden does much to establish these exceptional individuals in the national consciousness. 

There are other characters presented to us, Cornish people living and deceased whom the author has encountered or of whom he has heard. It is one of the strong points of this book  that the author  sees that the spirit of the place is to a great extent the history of the people who dwelt there,be they the larger than life characters whom his  research has uncovered, or the common folk who lie forgotten in the cemeteries.

This was a book that I read cover to cover with enthusiasm, and I recommend it to all readers who love place and the culture that grows and thrives within it. Thoughtful readers bent on increasing their life experience will enjoy this book. I recommend it to you.

Updated: 04/17/2016, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 06/16/2016

While Cornish died in the 1870s as a spoken language, the Cornish have always been proud of their distinct Celtic culture and do not regard themselves as English. They are in England, but not English. They have just successfully won the accolade of Britain's fourth nation along with the English,Scots and Welsh.

DerdriuMarriner on 06/16/2016

frankbeswick, Thank you for the immersion: travelogues are such entertaining education.
It almost seems that Cornwall may have been more of a space than a place when the last native Cornish speaker died and more of a place than a space when the language began to revive.

frankbeswick on 04/17/2016

Cornish is an interesting language. It is Celtic, like Welsh and Irish, but related in different ways to both. For example, the Welsh word for "the" is y or yr,pronounced urr and the Irish is "an". Cornish, while considered a language closer to Welsh than to Irish [in that Welsh and Cornish are P Celtic rather than Q Celtic, which Irish is] uses "an" but there has been little historic connection between Cornwall and Ireland, except for times recounted in the myth of Tristan and Yseult, when Cornishmen and raiding Irishmen spent much time slaughtering each other. Cornish possessive adjectives are close to the Irish prepositional pronouns. The connection indicates ancient roots to both tongues.

To think of the Saxons as one people is to understate the complexity of history. Angles and Jutes spoke a dialect different from the Saxons and saw themselves as different peoples. There were other German tribes who entered England, Allemani and Friesians along with others also came in the great Germanic migration [not invasion] into Britain. They intermarried with the Celtic Britons. It is not widely known that in certain parts of the country we can find evidence of Saxon Y chromosomes but little genetic evidence of Saxon women. It appears that the Romans used to recruit troops in one country and move them to another,so much of the Saxon input into England's genes came from Saxon males marrying British females.

blackspanielgallery on 04/17/2016

You read some interesting books. I am aware of different people moving into different parts of England. And yes, the Saxons were one such people. I find this diversity interesting, but not unexpected. People in this part of the world have their own language quirks as well.

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