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A haunting work of landscape literature
on 7 May 2013
A lot of outdoor writing is all about the idyll. But for Charles Rangeley-Wilson this idyll is exactly the opposite: a once-perfect little chalk stream that rises in the Chilterns just west of High Wycombe and gets swallowed up by brutal ribbon conurbation long before it joins the Thames at Bourne End.
Loosely structured as a personal diary of repeated pilgrimages through the valley of the Wye, the diary's inner and outer landscapes reflect and reveal each other. The story of how humans came to bury this river is one that builds in evocative, fascinating "concentric rings of growth" like the industrial heartland and housing estates of High Wycombe itself.
It's not all about Wycombe, however. Much in the manner of WG Sebald, a wide range of black and white illustrations are carefully placed within the narrative, and sidelights include dream sequences, geological stratigraphy, the workings of water meadows on the Herefordshire Dore, Sir Francis Dashwood and the Hell-Fire Club, Luddite rebellions, sacred springs, how trout got to Australasia, and the toxic rivers of the underworld.
The cumulative effect is powerful and haunting: a work of literature which invites us to ask ourselves searching questions about the sort of landscapes we've created and now, sometimes, have the opportunity to restore. Highly recommended.