This is the second of three linked blog posts produced by the NERC-funded ‘Landscape Stories’ team. (The first of the three posts is here: Talking the talk: storied walks in nature).
Walking and talking in a winter wonderland
In this post we reflect on a walk near Lewknor from December 2022. Together, members of the ‘Dadima’s’ Community Walking Group and researchers from the Open University walked along parts of the ancient ridgeway as part of the NERC-funded Landscape Stories Project. (The Ridgeway is ‘Europe’s oldest continuously-used road. It runs from the World Heritage Site of Avebury to Ivinghoe Beacon and has been in use since the Stone Age. The Ridgeway is celebrating its 50th Anniversary as a National Trail in 2023 under the patronage of the anthropologist Mary-Ann Ochota.)
Through Landscape Stories we are using a storytelling approach to co-design and deliver our storied walks, combining scientific, cultural and historical facts (Anjana Khatwa, 2019). Planning, coaching, rehearsals and reflection are central to our approach, supported by active listening and an ability to step into the shoes of others to develop empathy and deeper understanding.
Our three environmental scientists (Dr Yoseph Araya, Prof. Clare Warren and Dr Marcus Badger) collaborated with Dr Anjana Khatwa and Professor Richard Holliman in preparing for this walk, and consulted with Dr Geeta Ludhra as the Dadima’s walk leader (and Board Member of Chilterns AONB), to connect Earth and environmental science content, landscapes with everyday experiences, and personal narratives.
We held joint planning meetings to discuss the nature and content of stories, and how they would better connect with the audience’s lived experiences. A dress rehearsal further helped to hone the content of the stories on the theme of ‘celebration’.
As ever, Geeta’s and Anjana’s input into these discussions, where they drew on their lived experiences and community knowledge, was key to making creative connections between the science, culture and history.
As examples of the talks, Marcus discussed ideas about the Ridgeway in the context of social history (celebration, commemoration) and longer-term geological changes. Yoseph told a story of two Christmases, one from Eritrea and one from the UK, and how plants are integral to many religious and cultural festivals. Finally, Clare sparked things into life with her story and a demonstration of flint and fire.
‘Stories from an ancient ridgeway’ (Marcus Badger)
My story focused on the Ridgeway, an “ancient track”. I explored what we mean by “ancient” and “track”, and why these terms are both more complicated than they might seem.
The theme of our walks was celebration so I explored sites of celebration near to the Ridgeway. I noted that further to the west from where I delivered my story there is archaeological evidence that the ridgeway had been used by people as a place of celebration, commemoration and gathering for thousands of years. When I gave my talk in mid-December we were celebrating the end of one year and the start of the next. Throughout time and across cultures, humans have gathered to celebrate and mark the passage of time, to mark the changing on the seasons.
But why gather along the Ridgeway? Providing high ground the chalk ridge offered protection, a dry place to travel along, a place to look out from, and the springs along the base ensured that travellers were never too far from water.
I noted that, just as humans have gathered to celebrate change and mark the passing of time, the landscape around us has recorded change too, celebrating it in its form. Nicola Chester, in her book On Gallows Down has echoed this sentiment:
“A landscape doesn’t forget its stories, it wears them like lines on an old face, markings on an old body.”
The landscape itself is a commemoration of its own past. It won’t come as too much of a surprise, therefore, to acknowledge that much has changed through time on the Ridgeway. As they looked out from the ridge, people gathering before us would have seen a different landscape. There would have been trees and no defined fields. It would have been a “wilder” landscape, although still one touched by human influence.
In the landscape ancient peoples would have seen echoes of older times, when humans first reached this area after the last retreat of great ice sheets which, through permafrost and then meltwaters, shaped the landscape we see today.
Those first migrants to these hills would have walked here, crossing the lowlands of Doggerland, possibly even following this ridge all the way from what is now France. (Doggerland is now under the North Sea; with so much water locked up as ice, the sea level was so much lower during the last ice age.)
It’s important to remember that some landscapes, like this one, can be more difficult to read than others. The geological record is fragmentary, with gaps in history that are impossible to fill.
We know the recent past of the Ridgeway and we know how the chalk formed. But Earth history can also overwrite. We have echoes recorded in the chemical makeup of ice and rocks elsewhere, and fragments of surviving landscapes dotted around, but much of the evidence about the previous ice age was destroyed as the last great ice literally wiped it away, like chalk from a board.
These were my reflections about the landscape on the Ridgeway and why people continue to walk together along it and share their stories. Where do you gather to celebrate, to commemorate, to mark the passing of time? For me memories of the remnants of New Year’s campfires on the beach below Berling Gap means for me chalk landscapes will always be synonymous with New Year’s Day.
‘A tale of two Christmas Celebrations’ (Yoseph Araya)
I talked about the two Christmas traditions I celebrate with my family, one from my country of birth, Eritrea, the other from my adopted home in England.
I compared and contrasted the plants we associate with these celebrations and how my two Christmases have enriched our household celebrations. This is despite my two homes being very different: Asmara is located in the tropics at 2300m above sea level; Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire is a mere 60m above sea level with a temperate climate.
We use similar species of tree to decorate our Christmas, Juniperus procera, the African juniper, which is not too different from the common Juniper (Juniperus communis) that is native to the UK. In Eritrea we add cotton wool to our Christmas tree to mimic snow, which we never experience in real life.
The highlight of our feasting in Eritrea is the traditional coffee ceremony, which is explained in the video below. (This video is third party content.)
Next to the where the coffee is served we place hard rushes (qetema – Juncus effusus) and shilan or Dill for its aroma (Anethum graveolens) on the ground. We can also find these species here in Buckinghamshire and we have introduced that tradition in my home.
In my talk, I described how my family gets to celebrate two Christmases. This is courtesy of two calendars: the Julian and the Gregorian. In Eritrea, our Christmas follows the tradition in the Julian calendar, which according to the Eastern Church is celebrated on 7th January, whereas in the UK we follow the Gregorian calendar and celebrate on 25th December.
So we celebrate Christmas twice in our household, which why my kids particularly love. It results in two sets of Christmas presents!
Flint and fire (Clare Warren)
I’m definitely a ‘water baby’ – swimming is my passion. The colder the water the better in my view. I was even swimming in the River Great Ouse in Bedford the day before this walk in mid-December when the air temperature was -2C.
But I am also very much drawn to the warmth and cheer of a good fire (admittedly especially after a good dunking in cold water). There’s something very celebratory about fire – and it’s central to many religious and cultural celebrations at this time of year when the daylight hours are short and the dark hours are long.
I asked the walkers to consider what they saw as the connection between the Chalk landscape we were standing on and fire? The answer of course lies in flint.
I then asked everyone whether they had have created sparks (or lit a fire) with flint?
Once I’d demonstrated how to make sparks from a piece of flint against metal other members of the group had a go.
Whilst they were making their own sparks I explained how this works: when the sharp edge of a piece of flint is struck against a piece of metal such as iron, it causes sparks. And these sparks, when directed and managed carefully, can be used to make fire.
Indeed, there is archaeological evidence from the Chilterns to show that people were using local flints to make fire tens of thousands of years ago. There are very typical scratches left on flints when they are struck against metal that are different from other types of scratches.
So what is flint? And why does it form in nobbly, tubular shapes? 100 million years ago the area where we were walking in the Chilterns lay roughly where the Mediterranean lies now. The area was covered in a warm shallow sea full of algae. As the algae died, their shells sank to the seafloor where they formed a fine, silty mud. Other animals burrowed into this mud, leaving tunnels and holes, that geologists think, but they don’t yet really know, filled with a kind of slimey ooze rich with silica. The theory goes that, over time, this slime solidified into the rock we now know as flint.
But how flint formed geologically wasn’t really important for our story. What is important is that flint is really hard, creates sharp edges when broken, and can be shaped into useful things like arrow heads, axes, and firestarters.
Flint was used to start fires pretty much until matches were invented in the early 1800s. The “flint” in modern firelighters and the fire-starting kits you can buy in camping shops is now a compound called ferrocerium.
What worked well and what will we change?
In the light of a weather forecast that (accurately) predicted sub-zero temperatures with light mist and no wind for mid-December, our storytellers reduced the length of their stories to ensure that walkers would not have to stand around in the cold for too long. (Geeta’s masala chai and some celebration snacks also worked wonders in keeping everyone warm.) Even with these mitigating measures, many people cancelled at the last minute in fear of the weather. In the end, there were fewer than 10 non-team walk participants.
Those who did make the walk emphasised the intellectual and physical stimulation of walking and talking together in nature. Together, we had a winter wonderland experience; the frost patterns along the route were particularly spectacular.
Related to the obvious health and safety issues of walking in nature in cold weather, we had contingency plans in place for snow conditions. We would have enjoyed our stories from the comfort of the local pub where we’d already planned to have lunch. One of the team also had essential rescue equipment with them, should we have experienced an accident with one of the walkers.
In relation to the talks, the theme of celebration was coherent. For example, Geeta made connections between the book quote from Marcus’ talk and the Panjabi cultural festival of Lohri where fire, the changing of seasons and harvesting are celebrated. A grandmother pondered on the words and what they meant for her.
The willingness of the speakers to prepare talks that moved beyond their core areas of scientific expertise helped to make connections between the landscape and lived experiences like coffee making.
The locations of Marcus’ (on the Ridgeway), Yoseph’s (by a stand of pine trees) Clare’s (on chalk with flints on the ground) talk worked well.
The addition of props added another dimension to these stories: the coffee pot that Yoseph produced from his rucksack; and the flint striker that Clare demonstrated. Next time, we’ll bring a flask of Eritrean coffee to share. (Yoseph very kindly distributed packets of Ethiopian coffee to members of the project team. It is delicious.)
We asked our youngest walker which story they like the best. The participatory nature of Clare’s talk, sparks flying everywhere, may have tipped the balance in her favour, further illustrating the importance of props as adornments to festive stories.
We are using the experiences of our walk and talk together in Lewknor (and our previous walk from Ashridge to Ivinghoe) to inform our practices for our final walk as part of this intergenerational walking project.
The theme of our final ‘Landscape Stories’ walk will be ‘rivers as agents of creation and destruction’. This walk will take place on 29 January, starting in Henley on Thames. For more details, see the 2023 Walk Programme Information section on the Dadima’s web page.
This ‘storied walk’ is a work of joint authorship involving: Yoseph Araya (@YNAraya), Clare Warren (@geologyclare), Marcus Badger (@climate_badger), Geeta Ludhra (@educatinggeeta), Richard Holliman (@science_engage) and Anjana Khatwa (@jurassicg1rl).
The authors are members of the NERC-funded ‘Landscape Stories’ Project and are staff or affiliated visitors in the School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences (EEES) at the Open University.
‘Landscape Stories’ is a public engagement project funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (UKRI/NERC) to: 1) build capacity of researchers to engage innovatively with members of the public; 2) inspire public audiences with environmental science and 3) trial approaches to public engagement.