Friday, 22 June 2012

Setting myself a challenge Day 8 – Views and Visions

What is it about a view that takes the breath away? There is something in our make-up which, when we come upon a view, makes us stop and look far off into the distance. I do not know anyone who does not like to look at a view, whether that is an urban landscape or atop a hill looking down to the valley below. Another must visit place for taking in a view is at the seaside, where we can spend hours just sitting on the beach gazing out to sea. This just may be the reason for our wish to see and to spend hours just looking at a view. Is it the view we are looking at; or the far horizon?
I think the latter.
We may think of ourselves as modern man, but actually we are ancient, at least the physiognomy of our bodies and genes are. I recall reading somewhere that our gut flora is designed for a lifestyle 50,000 years ago, essentially a diet of the hunter gatherer, seeds, nuts, roots and fish and then a very occasionally a good blow out on a woolly mammoth or two. So in my mind, if we have 50,000 year old stomachs, surely the rest of us must be that old too. Certainly after a few glasses of grape juice the night before I can wake feeling that old. But mulling over why we like to look at a view the other day it struck me that we are not so much looking at the view, but our genetic structure is  looking for danger or prey on the far horizon?
It sort of makes sense. In the times of the hunter gatherers people would have found a good vantage point and scanned the horizon looking for the woolly mammoth to bring home to the roaring fire. They could of course stand in grassland and have a look, but on high ground the hunter could see much further than his rival. And of course standing on top of the hill allowed him to also spot his enemies, well before they saw him. I’m no expert but I can’t think of any ancient fort, castle or defended position that isn’t on high ground, well apart from that one in Monty Python that kept falling down into the swamp. But that aside, it made absolute sense to build defences on high ground, partly as they were easier to defend as the enemy was exhausted running up that hill, but it also meant the owner of the fort had a clear view all around; to the horizon!
The seed of this idea came from someone asking me the other day where I liked best in Britain. That was easy to answer; I have two places I love to visit as often as I can one in Northumberland and one in Dorset. The first is overlooking the River Coquet near the hamlet of Hepple, and the second is the view I absolutely love from Eggardon Hill in West Dorset, looking down past Askerswell and to Golden Cap, 10 miles or so away. Apart from both being in England, what connects these places is that they provide a view of a wide landscape as seen from a high vantage point. I can sit for hours at each place just doing absolutely nothing. But actually am I subconsciously looking for danger? This got me thinking, where else have I loved to stand still and stare off into the distance?

From the holy island of Lindisfarne, looking across the sea to Ross Links beach. From the Stiperstones in Shropshire looking across to Wales or the Long Mynd. From the cliffs at Lizard Point, not the one on Cornwall, but the one in Tyneside, looking north along the North Sea coast to Newbiggin-by-the-Sea in Northumberland and as far south as Whitby in North Yorkshire, an impressive 80 miles. In the built environment I love to look out of high places. Church towers are an easy and obvious example. The London Eye is another.  Before going on the Eye for the first time I bought a 360 degree panorama guide to, yes the far horizon surrounding London. So here it is again, the horizon is ever present even in our most densely urbanised Capital city and it is impressive that even as sprawling as London is, at that height, green fields and hills can still be seen in all directions, on the far horizon.
In cultural terms, especially in the visual arts, it is the landscapes of far reaching views which can make painters go weak at the knees. Paintings such as El Greco’s, View of Toledo, captures this mood beautifully by recreating the mood of a hilltop town from a high vantage point. Many a landscape painter or photographer even positioned on the shores of a lake has painted or photographed not the immediate shoreline but the landscape ahead of him or her all the way to the mountains and the skyline in the distance. Even when incarcerated indoors for long periods, artists crave the distant view. One such evocative painting is by Vincent van Gogh. In his painting of the view he had from his asylum, The Starry Night, he longs for the distant town, hills and sky which for the moment is out of his reach.
But there is one thing about a view to the far horizon, much like the sight of a rainbow, which is impossible to resolve. No matter how much we may look, no matter how far we may travel, we can never ever reach the horizon. We are surrounded by views to the horizon, but we can never touch or feel that ephemeral object. The horizon is only in our mind. Logically we know beyond the horizon is another place, we just can’t see it.
And just maybe this is why we will sit for hours on a beach looking at the sea, because deep down we are wary of what is over the horizon, beyond what we can see.

And although this takes me well over my 1000 words, what we fear most of the far horizon is encapsulated in this oft read poem at funerals attributed to Bishop Brent (1862-1926)
“….I am standing on the sea shore. A ship sails and spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the ocean.
She is an object of beauty and I stand watching her till at last she fades on the horizon, and someone at my side says, "She is gone",
Gone where?
Gone from my sight, that is all;
She is just as large in the masts, hull and spars as she was when I saw her, and just as able to bear her load of living freight to its destination.
The diminished size and total loss of sight is in me, not in her,
and just at the moment when someone at my side says, "She is gone", there are others who are watching her coming,
and other voices take a glad shout "There she comes",
And that is dying.”


  1. I am really enjoying this series of posts Andrew and this one about views and horizons is particularly thought provoking. The poem is really moving and beautiful. I loved the last post too - Ihaven't seen a glow worm for years and years - I think the last one I saw was when I was a child (what a long time ago!) and we were on holiday in Cornwall.

  2. Hi Ragged Robin, thank you so much for taking time to read and comment. I hope you manage to see some glow worms this year. Having never seen one myself, I'm up to about 20 now. Fascinating beetles.