A Brief and Accurate History of Richmond Park and its Surrounding Landscape
By Quarantine Tarantino
One hot, overcast day on the plains a man tracks a rhinoceros. He carries a spear, stone-tipped and sharp, in a loose grip at his side. But the man isn’t quite a man. He is tall and strong, his movements across the plain are easy, and his jaw is a little sunken, as if he has drawn in his lower teeth in concentration. His body is naked and hairy. The animal ahead is wounded, he knows that. The task of tracking it would be insurmountable otherwise for this lone hunter. He follows the flattened grass and increasingly frequent spots of blood, for miles across the plains, never once catching sight of the animal. At last he mounts a little rise, and at the top he sights it, just below him.
The animal is enormous. It seems to be resting now, drinking from a trickling rivulet which cuts through the baked earth of the plains. The hunter stays low, and follows the descent of the ridge, which will take him in a broad arc towards the stream and closer, but not too close, to the animal. His first spear is still lodged in its hide, just behind the ear. As the rhinoceros laps up the water, blood runs down its craggy features. The clear stream turns muddy, and the tainted water carries on its course across the plains. The hunter tightens his grip on his spear. He has reached the edge of the stream, where the grass is tufty. Still crouched, he brings the spear up to his shoulder, squinting his left eye and peering through the right. He sucks in a deep breath, then as he exhales, he rises out of the grass and releases his spear. In an instant the tension of his entire body, his muscles and sinews, is transferred into the flying spear. It hits the rhinoceros square in the neck, on the opposite side to his previous attempt. This time the blow is devastating.
He butchers as much of the animal as he can carry on his own, a task which takes him a day and a night, then, with the meat wrapped up and packed high on his back, he sets off home. The carcass sits by the stream, still enormous, now hacked to bits. The low orange sun shines through the gaps in its form, like it shines through the gaps in the Acacia trees.
* * *
The rhinoceros’s carcass is slowly dismantled by vultures, until a lioness and her cubs arrive, and remove greater chunks. Soon it’s just a hulking skeleton, sitting by the stream. Then the stream begins to grow, taking over the land around it. Water sweeps in from all sides, as if from nowhere, and the rhinoceros sinks below the tide.
When the water recedes, the weather is colder, and the plains are no longer dry and cracked, but wet and marshy. There is no trace of that hulking skeleton. The intense cold spreads quickly over the wet ground, which hardens into an impenetrable, icy layer. The cold is now so intense that none of the wildlife the hunter once knew can survive.
A massive glacier moves southwards, from the ice-cap in the north towards his old hunting ground. It spans miles. The glacier carries a secret payload, millions of tons of gravel. When the glacier reaches the hunting ground it finally runs out of steam, and settles upon it.
Eventually, the land warms a little, and rivers of melted ice begin to flow. Each river deposits gravel on the landscape, layer upon layer of packed rock onto the clay of the old plains, until one day there are gravel terraces all over the once-flat landscape. Throughout this process the ice recedes, but does not disappear. At last, however, the land is habitable again.
* * *
The men who settle on the land are different again from the hunter. They are shorter and stockier, and their chins seem to be thrust out as if in defiance. They live on the high gravel terraces in preference to the wet clay below, only venturing down to fish in the rivers and streams, or when tracking prey.
The rolling landscape resembles an arctic tundra, and the sparse woodland offers little relief from the cold. Luckily, the men have brought new tools with them, the likes of which the land has never seen. New tools for a new age. They carry razor sharp flint axes, with which they fell trees, build encampments in the snow, and build fires. They live there for a time, in the snowy terraces above the valley, and watch the waters rise, not knowing they did so once before. The streams and rivers below them grow, carving deeper and deeper into the clay at the same time.
When the water recedes, the hills are more dramatic. Another cold quickly settles over them, and the pattern repeats. The ground freezes and simply stops sustaining the life above it.
When the land warms a little again, fallow deer return to the tundra, where they roam without human interference. Herds of bison and woolly mammoth trundle in from the north. One last time, the land supports beasts of these proportions, even as the cold returns to deliver its final shakeup.
* * *
At the end of the last ice age the woolly mammoths are gone, as are the bison, as is the tundra itself. Now there are men everywhere, modern-looking men, scattered across the newly temperate landscape. They hunt red deer, wild oxen, foxes and boars. Trees, first birch, pine and hazel, spring up. Then entire forests of oak and elm encroach on the grassy hills. The land is more suited to the needs of men than ever before.
At this time, the sea rises in the south to cut them off from the continental shelf. The men become trapped in this new land of abundance.
* * *
On the tallest hill overlooking the river valley, a great fire is raging. The locals no longer stick to the hills, those gravel terraces where the prehistoric men took refuge. Now they have iron tools, more specifically, iron ploughs, which can cut through the heavy clay down in the valley. Their world is no longer bounded. As a result, the hills have taken on a different significance.
The fire emanates from a funeral pyre, the largest these men have ever built, for the wife of their great chief. The locals are gathered in a loose ring around the blaze, watching sparks and solid smoke climb up into the air, each from their own distance. Farmers in the valley have stopped their work to watch the spectacle, which seems to pollute the entire breadth of the sky over the hills.
The master-builder has already set off down the hill in the other direction, towards a dense coppice of trees that these men have cultivated, their dirges and the crackling of the fire following him. He chose the spot for the pyre, and now his idea has reached its second phase.
Within days the tools have been made, and the men enlisted. The ashes of the great chief’s wife are collected into a clay urn, and sealed within it under a layer of animal fat. Then they begin to move the earth. Over months, under the master-builder’s supervision, the enlisted men drag hundreds of tons of earth up to the top of the hill. They pack it down with their spades, layer upon layer, into a great circular barrow on the spot where the pyre burned. As before, the farmers in the valley cannot help but take notice. The hills to their east, which have never changed, suddenly gain a new feature. On that high plateau which overlooks their entire world, an even higher mound has been built. The wife’s ashes are interred within the barrow, and the entire structure sealed off. It remains there, overlooking the river valley, while grass creeps over it, until it might have always been there, were it not a little too round, a little too perfect. Other builders follow the master-builder’s example, and smaller barrows begin to spring up around it, always on the high ground, to keep watch over the fertile river valley.
* * *
In the ensuing years, the hills and the valley remain sparsely populated. A hill fort is built on one of the lower hills by a settlement of foreigners, strangely accented men who arrived from across the sea in the east, but it never sees action. Soon the foreigners take up farming and the fort is abandoned, another too-perfect mound interrupting the rolling hills.
The land remains common land, and its purpose roughly the same: coppiced woods and rough pasture to provide the cows with their winter feed. A road is built, intersecting the hills, but the settlers’ encounters with the outside world remain few and far between.
* * *
King Henry VIII watches the rocket climb up into the gloaming. From his vantage point on top of the largest barrow on the tallest hill in his hunting ground, he can be sure of the news. That little glowing dot means that his wife is dead, and its confirmatory light continues to climb up above the lights of London, into the vast atmosphere.
He feels neither relief nor remorse, he feels only the majesty of the nature that surrounds him. The hills are full of life, of deer and rabbits. He twitches the reins in his hand and digs in his heels, stirring the horse beneath him to turn. There, away from London, he sees the sun sinking into the cradle of the Thames valley, and the river’s snaking course. He does not sense the death underneath his feet.
* * *
Rosemary Stjernstedt looks out in the same direction as the king, from a more easterly point. The sun is low and red. It seems to have cast the parkland and the valley in shimmering gold. Red-tinged shadows are beginning to pool in the dips and hollows. The view has scarcely changed in 400 years.
She’s standing on a grassy hillside. Other than a few rangy trees, which she takes for scots pines, it is completely bare. She carefully treads the ground, as if her short steps could measure it, up and down, back and forth. The earth is dry and solid up here. To Rosemary, the view is so spectacular as to feel illicit, as if she followed the shady streets lined with parked cars and Georgian mansions up the hill, until she stumbled upon it. A forbidden kingdom, with something pastoral and very old about it, and with it also a need to rise higher and higher to take in even more of it. To float out of her body, rise up above herself, look down at the top of her head, at her neat side parting and her bony shoulders, and then watch all of it shrink to a dot. To keep climbing until she can see the curve of the earth. That voice has always been with her, saying more, more, more.
She’s on a team to develop the land, an exciting initiative to bring modernist social housing solutions to her country, as an architect. Rosemary thinks to herself that she couldn’t have picked a better spot, although of course the London County Council picked it. Nevertheless, it is perfect. She hadn’t really seen it yet, not with the sun against it like this, so low and bright red that she feels she could reach out and pluck it out of the sky like a ripe piece of fruit.
She tries to superimpose her housing estate onto the hillside, squinting until the dark, fuzzy forms begin to materialise. Some of it is low-rise and follows the gentle slope, along a system of short streets and cul-de-sacs. Some of it will protrude from the hill, will rise slab-like from the earth to form a system of great monoliths. She cranes her neck to follow their progress up, up into the heavens, and further. They could stand here for a thousand years watching over the parkland and the valley, she thinks. She tries to hold on to the buildings in front of her for as long as possible, the buoyant feeling that they bring her, through frenzied squinting, until they all disappear.
* * *
There’s a short section in Patrick Keiller’s London (1994) in which Robinson and the Narrator visit south west London. Throughout most of the film, I was struck by how alien Keiller’s London, the London of c.1992, felt to me. Seeing the old Wembley, for instance, or the old Routemaster buses, or One Canada Square standing all on its own, threw me for a loop. Still more, John Major, the IRA, the dirtiness of everything in the City, it all seemed to belong to another time: to my parents’ time, though they were hardly young and my arrival was hardly far away, in the grand scheme of things. But when the film ambled its way up the river to Kew, I felt everything settle.
I first watched London in a dingy seminar room in south east London, in the middle of December, over a year ago. It wasn’t late but the sun had already gone down, the room was cold and the sky outside was dark blue, growing darker by the second. The excerpt we were shown, which couldn’t have been more than 15 minutes, covered the Thames between Teddington and Hammersmith. Suddenly it wasn’t winter, it was a hazy day at the beginning of summer. A cow was grazing on Petersham Meadows, just below Richmond Hill. I was home. Not only that, I was suddenly able to see home as it was when I was a child. The colours were warm and the dry brown grass on the Meadows looked somehow intoxicating. My point isn’t that any of it has changed, in fact the frisson of seeing home was amplified by the fact that nothing much has changed on that stretch of the river since the 50s, and in many places not since the 19th century. And yet, it was as if I hadn’t seen the place clearly in years, when the whole time I lived so close by, but now, in a dark seminar room, miles away, I could suddenly see the whole place for what it was. This was an incredible gift.
Robinson and the Narrator come to South West London, first to Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, as pilgrims to one of ‘the sources of English Romanticism’. Their expectation is to find some sort of timeless idyll, and of course they do. After all, Turner painted the view from Richmond Hill, as well as many other views in the area–I found a sketch in a book of his watercolours that I am sure could be Richmond Bridge–and Joshua Reynolds has a blue plaque to his name on the same hill. I knew about Turner and Reynolds before I watched the film, but only in the way that you can parse information without understanding its significance. Now I did understand. I was a Romantic. I had to be, because I grew up near one of the sources of English Romanticism.
Everything was cast in a new light, in particular my artistic sensibilities, or rather my confusion about what they were. Keiller cites Baudelaire’s definition of Romanticism early on in the film: rather than being defined by a certain type of subject matter or a method of expression, its essence lies in ‘a way of feeling’. This brief explanation was tantalising to me. It seemed to suggest that neither subject matter nor style nor form mattered one bit, not to a true Romantic. Robinson seemed to totally disregard reality in favour of his own imaginings, and that was his most compelling quality. The idea made me feel light and wonderfully free.
But lightness and freedom might be a code for arrogance, and I often wonder about that. Robinson says that ‘the essence of a Romantic life is to get outside oneself’. To me that summons a picture of floating away, out of my body with its aches and pains, and away from responsibility. Easier to do if you have a certain amount of privilege. And that is the other interesting thing about Keiller’s footage of Kew and Richmond. The rest of the footage was quite stark, it showed the scars of Tory governance on the city, the disrepair and rampant homelessness, without fail. Until they reach Kew, at which point everything takes on an air of unreality, as if seen through a child’s eyes. These feelings of wonder, timelessness, and boundlessness are essentially juvenile, just as much as they are intoxicating. The area has been tainted and cultivated by the minds of too many great English Romantics, starting under the reign of Charles I and then the Georgian kings, in a process that we would probably call gentrification, and it has become impossible to see the land clearly. At its heart, that area is a Romantic landscape, deeply entrenched in its Romanticism. Its inhabitants can’t escape it: they are doomed to a Romantic life.