Our responses to [landscapes] are for the most part culturally devised. That is to say, when we look at a landscape, we do not see what is there, but largely what we think is there.
[…] We read landscapes, in other words, we interpret their forms in the light of our own experience and memory, and that of our shared cultural memory… as just about everything is perceived, through a filter of associations.
Robert Macfarlane – ‘Mountains of the Mind’
I first experienced the Peak District before such a label had ever entered my consciousness. I was five years old. I know this because I had to keep a holiday diary for school. It was the first time I’d kept at diary. I’d write the date in big letters on the top (extra wide) line, describe a few sentences of my day-to-day doings and illustrate it with a picture, usually of myself acting out the above description. In addition to much playing in the garden at home I spent a few days – documented in pencil and accompanied with line drawings as I appeared to have forgotten to take my coloured pencils – with some family friends on a farm in the Derbyshire Dales.
I have no memory of arriving, nor of the evolving landscape as we headed north into the Dales. The farmhouse was a huge stone building, with a seemingly endless number of rooms and stairs: three floors! I was like a hobbit on its first trip to Bree when I realised how many flights of stairs I’d have to go up to get to bed. I remember a man chopping up an entire dead pig on the kitchen table. Of course my Holiday Diary says none of this: but my mind embroiders over and around the bare pencil drawing with what details I can remember.
It was a dairy farm, but home also to some pigs (which according to the Diary I fed, and according to my memory must have fed us, going by the table-top butchery), chickens, two dogs I was slightly afraid of, a cat with a snotty nose, and a horse called Brandy. On the second or third day we had to go and collect a couple of calves – bullocks, I imagine – in the horse box from a field nearby. It was the height of excitement when one escaped by jumping the fence. I had no idea cows could jump like horses until then. We then spent the entire day chasing it round the countryside (the accompanying illustration of my dad running after a cow is priceless – even if he did have to help me draw the beast), eventually capturing it and returning it to safety.
I returned to the farm a couple of years later. In fact I suspect this is where most of my memories of the farmhouse became consolidated: you know teachers have a point about revision – or revisiting in this case – helping cement things in your memory. No diary this time. I remember less than I should of that trip, though perhaps the lack of diary has something to do with that. Though not a fastidious journal-writer now, I have been keeping notebooks for a long while and it’s amazing how it keeps things fresh: even the things I don’t get round to writing down I somehow remember better by a sort of thought-association process with the things I do write.
One evening we made a trip to a nearby river and had the sort of old fashioned fun that the National Trust insist you have to do before you’re 11¾ in its shallow stream that resulted in us getting very wet indeed. I remember the multi-arched bridge over the river, the semi-stepping stone rocks midstream; snatches of scenery that fit into a memory of what stands up as an archetypal – though isolated – childhood experience, one I wish now I’d had more of. Later on in our stay we went on a cycle ride along a rehabilitated railway line. Again I remember nothing of the surrounding landscape, although I bet from our elevated path we probably had a fantastic view of the rolling dales and vales. Then again, I had only just learnt to ride a bike, and that morning practising in the farmyard had come into rather close contact with a drystone wall whilst taking a corner at speed. Not only did I have to reckon with an unfamiliar bicycle – with gears! – but I had to do so with a bandaged right shin.
I hadn’t thought about any of this for a long time, until last month that is, when I spent an ill-advised wet week camping in the Peak District. In a car park converted from a disused train station I had a strange sensation that I’d been there before. It was only a little further down the road, after seeing signposts for the Tissington Trail, that I put two and two together and realised this must have been the location for my bike ride with a bandage. Scanning the map I vaguely recognised a couple of the place names of hamlets on the Staffordshire-Derbyshire border that could well be home to the family I stayed with.
This time I was all eyes on the landscape. It was all windy roads bordered by drystone walls – I’ve still got a scar from that one, you know – and small hump-back bridges in the bottom of valleys that cross the network of fast-flowing rivers. That evening spent splashing about by the bridge came back to me for the first time in years. I had no idea where it was, and the more I tried to pinpoint details in my memory, the more they eluded me. It was like trying to remember a dream, small pieces of memories come out of nowhere, but nothing fits together and you don’t have enough pieces to create a coherent picture.
I’d been reading two books on my trip, Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind and S. J. Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep. I’d picked the latter precisely because I’m fascinated by memory; I rely upon it tremendously, and am terrified of losing it. It’s incredible how much seemingly irrelevant material our brains seem, almost infinitely, to be able to store away: why I remember that pig on the table at the farm, or the type of toothpaste my dad packed for me to use is bizarre when I can’t seem to remember things that might be much more interesting or important. I love how the oddest of things trigger the emergence of memories we think we’ve forgotten, sometimes so whole and clear it seems impossible that we haven’t thought about them since they occurred. Sometimes when this happens I wonder if everything that has ever happened to us is stored away in there somewhere, but the reason we can’t remember is something as simple as us not having stumbled upon the right key, the right trigger for its retrieval. In Watson’s novel the central character cannot remember anything beyond the day in which she is living, causing her to wake each morning to discover she is in her mid forties and cannot recall a huge tract of her life. She begins to keep a diary, which each day she rediscovers and re-reads, and in doing so gradually manages to unlock more and more random memories, among which may be the key to her past, and too herself.
On a dull evening we went for a walk in the Manifold valley near Wetton Mill. The name attracted me: a sort of place aptonym, but otherwise the location was a near random choice. Then when we arrived I began to wonder if it looked vaguely familiar. Was this the place I’d played in the water nearly twenty years ago? Or, was I imagining it similar because I’d started to remember that evening from so long ago, and was trying to fit what I thought I remembered onto this scene because it retained some similar features? It certainly was the right sort of bridge and wadeable, rushy water. There was also a ford nearby, and having seen that I sort of remembered there being a ford at the original place. Or did I? Was I conflating my memories, as the narrator of Before I Go To Sleep found she was doing once presented with snippets of information in her diary. Where she remembered nothing her mind created memories by imagining the events she’d described remembering in her notes. Yet how different is this to how we usually remember things? So often we think we have it right in our heads yet when presented with the truth we discover it’s not quite as we remembered after all. This is always going to be so, because even as we experience the original places, the original events, we are doing so through the filter of our own previous experiences. It was particularly pertinent to be reading Mountains of the Mind simultaneously, which examines people’s fascination with mountains and how they come to be so idealised and obsessed over in people’s minds. Macfarlane writes about how different the landscapes we envisage in our heads often turn out to be from their real life counterparts. Having seen that river – whichever river it was – through the eyes of a child, forgotten about it, experienced two decades of other landscapes in between, is it any wonder my mind was beginning to change about what I thought I had seen and remembered? After all, in addition to a ford at Wetton Mill there was also a tunnel: you’d think I’d have remembered a tunnel?! And caves!
Looking out my Holiday Diary a few weeks ago on returning from my recent trip to the Peak District I found it disappointingly void of details, but then I was only five years old, and how diligent can you expect a five year old to be?
Perhaps next time I’m up in the Peak District I’ll pay a long overdue visit to the farm. No doubt I’ll take my contemporary journal with me, and my hosts will tease me about my five year old’s Holiday Diary. In return my head – and pages – will be filling up with exclamations on how different the place is in reality compared to the farm of my mind. And maybe I’ll be able to ask them if it really was the river at Wetton Mill I played in after all.
Before I Go To Sleep by S. J. Watson is published by Black Swan (2012) ISBN 978-0552164139
Mountains of the Mind: A History of Fascination by Robert Macfarlane is published by Granta (2008) ISBN 978-1847080394