The East Anglian Plains, The Topographic Sublime

Yesterday was my Birthday. A long time ago my relatives learnt a couple of things, I am very hard to buy for, and I hate surprises. So for as long as I have been mature enough to spend it, I have received cheques instead of presents. This is brilliant as it allows me to go out and buy exactly what I want, even if I don’t know what I want at the time. The downside of cheques is that I physically have to go to the bank to pay them in.

I have lived on the outskirts of Norwich for the last five years, and currently live just above the River Yare valley. A place that is eloquently described in Mark Cocker’s Crow Country (2007).

Map of the Norfolk Broads
Map of the Norfolk Broads

Cocker turns to look at his own recent past, describing how he and his family moved from inner-city Norwich to make a home in the flat country of the nearby Yare valley. The change is presented as an act of migration, which is at once bird-like (because it is driven by instinct) and falteringly human (because the new house, at least to start with, leaves him feeling disoriented). As he begins to acclimatise, he finds that rook-watching charges “many of the things I had once overlooked or taken for granted . . . with fresh power and importance”. The birds, he says, are “at the heart of my relationship with the Yare . . . my route into the landscape and my rationale for its exploration”.
Andrew Motion, Taken from The Guardian

I find the plains of the Norfolk Broads and the rivers that feed them, to be incredibly spiritual. I think it has to do with the scale of the landscape, the huge skies, and the horizons that may be a mile or 20 miles away.

But to walk in the landscape is worse. To the human eye the valley is an extensive plain of grassland interrupted now and then with alluring reed-fringed pools, circled with alder carr or poplar plantations. It seems a gentle, unpeopled, easy place, but its very flatness is the source of the illusion. Bounding every field, and initially invisible to the visitor, is a network of water filled dykes. Farmers and wildfowlers have bridged many of them with old rotting planks, known as liggers, but many others have no means of access. And memorising navigable routes takes a lifetime of familiarity. My walks across the open spaces were often reduced to a tedious tour of each field’s inner perimeter, made more frustrating by the sight of my goal and the impossibility of its attainment.

One consequence of the valley’s intractability is that I take a map with me every time I go out. No other landscape has made such a demand. Other places I’ve lived in or known resolve into a complete mental picture relatively quickly. The different facets link up like parts of a jigsaw, and as the last few fragments drop into their unique, logical place there is that sweet sense of completion. But it didn’t happen like that in the Yare Valley.
Mark Cocker, Crow Country (2007)

In 1999, the nature writer Mark Cocker moved from Norwich to live in Claxton. He bought a house called 'The Hollies' and his move to the village is documented in his book Crow Country.
In 1999, the nature writer Mark Cocker moved from Norwich to live in Claxton. He bought a house called ‘The Hollies’ and his move to the village is documented in his book Crow Country.

The witness to the sublime is overwhelmed, by vastness, by awe, by wonder, by terror. The sublime is crushing!

According to Burke, the sublimes qualities include, ruggedness, lack of clarity, infinity. Succession and uniformity of parts of which constitute the artificial infinite, give the effect of sublimity in architecture… Greatness of dimension is also requisite.
Jonathon Meades, Bunkers, Brutalism, and Bloody Mindedness: Concrete Poetry Part Two (2014)

The sheer manpower that has gone into producing the landscape, an estimated 900 million cubic feet of peat was removed for up to the 14th century when the land was finally taken by rising seas levels. They are a true definition of the sublime, at once man humbled by the Creator (read nature), and at the same time pushing back against in. They have a power that no Casper David Freidrich painting can challenge, and that the Norwich School was unable to capture.

If we consider that our entire rural idyll is a man made construct, through years of farming and other interventions, then we can apply Burkes statement to the so-called natural world.

Mankind usurped God, man kind has to put it mildly augmented the inventory of the sublime. Not though pictorial or literary representation, not by making art about it, but by matching it, by mimicking nature, by emulating the elements, by acting like camoufleurs.
Jonathon Meades, Bunkers, Brutalism, and Bloody Mindedness: Concrete Poetry Part Two (2014)

They have more life than the never-ending flats of North Norfolk and the Wash. The hedge lines and copses of trees, ground them with a human scale, and give the audience a reference point that the Wash is missing.

I am no stranger to wide landscapes, having spent a large amount of my youth on Dartmoor, and living on the Sussex Weald, stuck between he North and South Downs. I also went to college in Croydon, anyone that has had too commute on the train through South London is well aware of the mini Manhattan of Croydon looming on the horizon. However the landscape around the Broads has really got to me.

The Broads is an area reclaimed from the sea, and it still has a hold on the landscape. Mark Cocker writes:

For all it’s history as terra firma, the sense of Haddiscoe and Halvergate (an area on the southern edge of the Broads) as a stretch of open water remains imprinted on my imagination, as if a ghost image of the sea lays just below the physical features. Haddiscoe also retains one of the sea’s fundamental qualities. It is a landscape that yields very little sense of its age… it makes me think that in order to project a sense of the past upon a geographical place the human imagination requires something three dimensional, some relief, on which to frame it. Think of mountains. Their monumental scale is permeated with a sense of age and of the past. They dwarf us both physically and chronological, looming behind and beyond us.

But flat landscapes, like open water, resist the processes of memory. They seem too plain, too ordinary to have acquired a history… it reminds me to show reverence towards this wonderful place, to give thanks for its spare features, its simple line, its open skies and its emptiness.
Mark Cocker, Crow Country (2007)

However it is a region steeped in history and conflict, the Iceni uprising against their Roman despots, the sacking of the region by a puritanical Matthew Hopkins, self titled Witch Finder General during the early part of the 17th century. The history of Dunwich as the location of the bishop’s seat in the kingdom of East Anglia, until the port was reclaimed by the sea in the 17th century. There is nothing hugely remarkable about this, except for the fact that Dunwich elected two members of parliament until the mid 19th century to represent a constituency that was mostly underwater.

In it’s more recent history East Anglia has been home to major military establishments. The region was during World War two, dotted with air force bases, and still includes several active sites including the home to one of the UK’s apache gunship forces. On the mouth of the river Deben sits Bawdsey Manor, the first home to the development of radar during the start of World War two.

Sublimity and terror are found in technological warfare, listening devices, choreographed mass rallies, explosions of atomic bombs, cloud seeding, the multiplication of means by which the atrocious can be achieved.

They are found in pylons, great dams, oil refineries, power stations, bridges, cooling towers, chimneys who’s smoke colours the sky.
Jonathon Meades, Bunkers, Brutalism, and Bloody Mindedness: Concrete Poetry Part Two (2014)

Further up the coast is the shingle spit of Orford Ness, home to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, used for environmental testing. When a laboratory test is conducted to determine the functional performance of a component or system under conditions that simulate the real environment in which the component or system is expected to operate. Many of the buildings from this time remain clearly visible from the quay at Orford, including the distinctive “pagodas”. Whilst it is maintained that no fissile material was tested on the site, the very high explosive initiator charge was present and the buildings were designed to absorb any accidental explosion, allowing gases and other material to vent and dissipate in a directed or contained manner. In the event of a larger accident, the roofs were designed to collapse onto the building, sealing it with a lid of concrete.

Orford Ness, Pagodas
Orford Ness, Pagodas

Nature throughout much of mankind’s term on this planet has been determined by God.

Mankind when it discovered there was no God, saw an opportunity, there was a void to be filled, and filled with ostentatious earnest and grandiose exultation. This was a near sacred project undertaken with the upmost gravity. It usurped the God that wasn’t
Jonathon Meades, Bunkers, Brutalism, and Bloody Mindedness: Concrete Poetry Part Two (2014)

I first visited the region on a scout camp and my sixth form art field trip. I had no knowledge or understanding of the sublime at this point, but felt myself being intrinsically pulled towards the places we visited, Sizewell B nuclear reactor, or sitting on the banks of the river Orwell, painting the bridge crossing it towards Ipswich. Most importantly we stayed in Bawdsey Manor, and I remember wandering around the disused and unloved radar and Bloodhound missile station.

This is readily apparent in the East Anglia landscape, covered in monumental structures. From the glorious basilica of power sitting on the coast at Sizewell, shining for miles around, partnered by it cuboid sibling, Magnox series A.

Sizewell Power Station,  A & B Reactor
Sizewell Power Station, A & B Reactor

The huge sugar beet factories at Cantley and in the middle of the roundabout at Bury Saint Edmonds, belching its bizarre smell into the air.

Cantley Sugar Beet Factory, on the banks of the River Yare
Cantley Sugar Beet Factory, on the banks of the River Yare

I love living close to Norwich, it has most of the benefits of a city, but feels small and comfortable. It is quite a bohemian place and in many ways feels like a smaller, cleaner version of Brighton. It has an excellent music scene and reasonable art community, fueled largely by the constant influx of students to Norwich University of the Arts, however is has no notable photography scene. It is just too far from London to have an arts council funded gallery that specialises in photography, and any small community based galleries and groups have found that there isn’t the traffic to make them viable. The two major galleries are NUA space, which I find has fallen into the trap of many smaller funded spaces, and only displays work from traveling shows, many of which increasingly only speak to themselves and the educated fine art community. The far larger but no less dismal space is the Norman Foster designed Sainsbury’s Centre for Visual Arts at UEA. It was built to house a collection of colonialist works of world art, and many of the shows it puts on are a reflection of this collection, stuffy white and very middle class.

It therefore always comes as a surprise when I discover new photography in Norwich. Opposite the NatWest on Gentleman’s Walk is a small independent bookshop The Book Hive, that was voted the best small bookshop in Britain by The Telegraph in 2011. They always have an excellent collection of books, and I always walk away with something to read for my PhD (books are one of my only vices). It has helped me find some of the more interesting literary references that I wouldn’t come across on amazon. Generally however I find its art section to be very limited and generally full of design books for first year BAs.

Today I went in on the off chance that they would have something interesting, and city on the table display by the door was a copy of Patrick Keiller’s The View From The Train, Cities & Other Landscapes (2013). I have been meaning to buy a copy for some time, and while I could have got it cheaper from Amazon, I think it is important to support small bookshops. After I paid for it, I stopped to put it in my rucksack, which I rested on top of a pile of books, while I wrestled with my bag and the contents of my daughters changing bag. Two books caught my eye, at first merely for their design and fonts. The New English Landscape by Jason Orton and Running Wild by Frances Kearney. As I leafed through them I was surprised that both contained images of East Anglian interstitial sites.

Canvey Wick, Essex, March 2013,  Jason Orton
Canvey Wick, Essex, March 2013, Jason Orton
Horsey Island, Essex, March 2013,  Jason Orton
Horsey Island, Essex, March 2013, Jason Orton
Untitled IV, 2009, Frances Kearney
Untitled IV, 2009, Frances Kearney
Untitled I, 2009, Frances Kearney
Untitled I, 2009, Frances Kearney

Both of these publications reminded me of the work of Mark Edwards, who’s work I first came across at a show at the Forum Library in Norwich entitled Photo-ID. This was the only major show I remember in Norwich and I was struck by Mark’s huge images of the Yare Valley taken on a 10”x8” field camera. At the time, Mark also lived in a similar area of the Yare Valley as Mark Cocker and myself. He is now teaching at University College Suffolk.

Overpass No 3, 2005, Mark Edwards
Overpass No 3, 2005, Mark Edwards
Overpass No 4, 2005, Mark Edwards
Overpass No 4, 2005, Mark Edwards

Over the next few days I will post more detailed critiques of their work, something I’m slightly nervous of as Jason Orton is following this blog.

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