After months of delays and procrastination, we’re up and running! This, the first of a series of blogged encounters with strange places, acts as a template for how we view the project to unfold. Arranging the web presence of the work around a collection of site visits, photographs, artwork and field recordings, we hope to introduce our readers to the in-between places that Grey Area sets out to explore. Entries here are intended to offer something of a spark from which to ignite further conversation – we’re interested in promoting further engagement with the sites we describe, of collecting unusual tales and re-presenting the strange places of wyrd England. We hope only to summarise our project activity so as not to preclude publication of Grey Area’s work elsewhere, but with the intention of fostering interest in the project’s further development and later physical manifestations: exhibition, collected essays and artworks. Enjoy, engage and share our documentation.
J & C.
| Chanctonbury Ring |
The undulating chalk landscape of the South Downs plays home to one of England’s strangest folkloric locations, known as the Chanctonbury Ring. The Ring is located on the summit of Chanctonbury Hill, a partially wooded Marilyn that looms over the West Sussex parishes of Washington and Wiston. The Ring itself is so called due to a circular copse of beech trees that line the ramparts of an Iron Age hill fort constructed atop of the hill. Regarding the origins of the ring, the trees are known to have been planted by Charles Goring, who began to place the trees at Chanctonbury from around 1760AD in an attempt to ‘beautify’ the site.
Although many of the trees were damaged during freak storms in 1987, much of the Ring remains intact today and, according to legend, boasts a wealth of weird and unnerving happenings. Chanctonbury Ring is well known for its ability to disturb, and in some cases terrify, its visitors. Jacqueline Simpson’s 1969 article for Folklore, provides a comprehensive reading of the site’s rich history of legend and lore. Simpson navigates the attached folklore of the Ring, categorising tales, happenings and anomalies into eight distinct subsections of enchanted narrative that range from Satanic practices to flying saucers. Indeed, the article provides anybody interested in the Ring at Chanctonbury with a sound knowledge of the lore that surrounds the area.
A significant part of the uncanniness belonging to the ring can be attributed to the materiality of the site itself; the verticality of the site provides an elevation of the body that immediately puts one in an extraordinary place, with extraordinary views. Air, forced up over the chalk ridgeway of the South Downs and into the exposed site of the Ring, forms wind currents that can rattle through the trees, even on the sunniest, stillest of days. Further still, the oddness of the trees, their circular formation around the earth works and moreover, the manner in which they emerge, creeping out and away from the banks, further engenders a feeling of strangeness. The manmade and the natural come together to form an all-together unusual experience of an otherwise quiet, woodland space.
Indeed, the quietness and remoteness of the site helps to galvanize the feeling that the Ring is somehow otherworldly, enchanted. Situated approximately 30 mins away from the nearest car park, and accessed only through a negotiating of holloways, steep uphill forest tracks and slippery chalk paths, the site is, then, quite obviously separated from the surrounding villages. To be sure, this quietness – gained from the positioning of the site away from people – is a theme that runs through the folklore of the ring itself. Among the tales of ghosts, witch-cults, flying saucers and devils invoked through a circumambulation of the trees, is what Simpson calls ‘the eeriness of Chanctonbury Ring – a perceived strangeness or unnatural agency that pervades the site.
On describing the association of eeriness at the Ring, Simpson writes: there are many who feel strongly that it has a ‘cold, evil feeling’, and will point out that ‘no birds ever sing there’. Many refuse to go among the trees or picnic near them, but give no specific stories to account for their impressions.’ Robert Macfarlane, recently brought attention to Chanctonbury in his 2012 The Old Ways, where he describes being awoken by a series of disembodied human-like cries emanating from above his tent.
Strange sounds and disembodied voices are in no way unusual phenomena at Chanctonbury, as Simpson had previously reported. According to Simpson, there have been numerous accounts of ghostly figures, phantom horses, strange mists, anomalous lights and the like occurring at the Ring for hundreds of years. As such the space of the ring, its enchanted geography, readily lends itself to our investigation and as a place for the exploratory practices of our project.
Our time at the site has been structured around three separate visits, with each ‘exploration’ being split between the space inside the Ring and the surrounding chalk ridgeway on which the place is sited. Both of us perceived the space in and around Chanctonbury as strange, yet focused on different aspects of the site on which to hang our encounters. A significant moment for Clare was the discovery of a spectacular network of exposed roots reaching outward from an otherwise rather unassuming tree at the foot of the pathway that led up to the site. The uncanniness of the roots, their appearance as moving, autonomous tentacular like extensions of the tree, created a feeling of disturbance, of warning or threat. The resonating sense of strangeness from the tree, its particularly unusual anchorage, stirred Clare into producing an intuitive, illustrated response to the site, as seen in her unfinished drawing below.
For me, the spirit of the place was most affective when navigating the space at the top of the hill. Circumambulating the ring of beech trees, we were able to gain vistas of the surrounding landscape, gaining unobstructed views of the rolling downs that stretched out toward the waters of the south coast. From Chanctonbury Hill one is able to look down upon the tapestry of fields and woodland with an uninterrupted gaze. Of greater significance, however, are the rising earthwork banks of Cissbury Ring, crowned in grass, gorse and bracken, clearly visible a few miles into the distance. Cissbury, like Chanctonbury, is the site of an Iron Age fort, the space between these two ancient sites plays home to dew ponds, tumuli and neolithic trackways – furthering a sense of the sacred mapping that would have once taken place in this landscape.
Each of our visits was met with a different set of (what we might call here) ‘strange interventions’ – not so much an intervening of us in the Ring but rather of the place seemingly manipulating our experience of it. In this sense there was a perceived challenging of our presence at the site that was felt throughout each of our trips, categorised in the listings below :
– Visit I : localised downpours, fog, hazardous chalk gullies, an uncanny quickening of the daylight (compared to the light that remained outside of the site).
– Visit II : lost children, dead sheep, uncanny cloud formations, bizarre weather fronts, strange sounds.
– Visit III : hornets, insects ‘raining’ from the trees, swarming bugs, vicious stray dogs.
As a point for collaborative investigation, Chanctonbury has offered us a unique set of experiences that can be drawn upon so as to produce detailed, site-specific reflections on the strange in both textual and visual format. We have been able to construct our narrative of enchantment around the Ring and to engage with the existing lore that already permeated its landscape. Chanctonbury is a site dislocated, with regard to the experiential, from the surrounding landscape, it ‘feels’ different, dark even. The existing narrative of the place, together with our own encounters of the site, only work to further embed the notion that Chanctonbury is somehow unusual, perhaps disturbing…threatening even. In framing Chanctonbury Ring as a place in-between, we might want to consider its workings as a node for enchantment – a marginal site that through its unusual materiality, rich folklore, physical dislocation, and deep sense of history, amplifies a feeling of enchantment, of a wyrd English otherness.