My short essay ‘A Landscape History of Brexit’ was published this week in Orion Magazine, Winter 2018, Volume 37, Number 4. It was behind a paywall, but now it’s not! So please enjoy it here. You can also read short extracts of the opening and closing sections below.
This article has been in production for months but as I write, on 9th March 2019, I’m beginning to dare to hope that this foolish and irresponsible venture will never take place. Fingers crossed.
1. Extract from the opening
Some say the sea connects us, others that it divides us. Of course, both are true.
I live on the south coast of England, close to the English Channel or, as the French call it, la Manche. France is less than one hundred miles away across the busiest shipping area in the world. Day and night, tankers and cruise ships ply across it while fishing vessels and oil rigs mine its depths. Viewed from any window in my apartment, the winter sea stretches out as still as a landscape painting, a paintbrush sweep of gunmetal blue blurring into the horizon and fading into white clouds.
But this view has not always been so watery. The Channel rests upon a lost world. Below its surface lies an ancient forest floor, criss-crossed by old pathways created by the feet of thousands of people travelling to and fro across a vast nameless wilderness. Once, this stretch of terrain was part of continental Europe, a landscape of forests, plains, and rivers. And just a mile along the coast from my home, a hill called Hengistbury Head still holds that history fast in its stony cliffs.
Twelve thousand years ago there was no Channel, just a wooded landscape of broad valleys and intersecting rivers. But Hengistbury Head was a landmark even then. Five hundred feet above sea level, it provided a vantage point for Stone Age hunter-gatherers following migrating herds of wild horses and cows, red deer, Arctic hares, reindeer, mammoths, wolves, and antelopes. On the flatter and more sheltered northern side of the hill, there was space for the camps of multilingual buyers and sellers, craftspeople, and travellers.
Human activity continued at Hengistbury for thousands more years. But during this time the icecaps were slowly melting. As it got warmer, the ground became increasingly swampy, the rivers wider, the lakes deeper until, in 6,100 bce, disaster struck. The pressure of rising water levels in Norway triggered a series of landslides, which in turn caused an area of landlocked sea to burst its banks. The resulting tsunami rushed southward toward what was then a peninsula but would soon become a separate landmass. Mesolithic people looking down from Hengistbury Head must have been terrified to see the flood surging past. And when the waters finally levelled out again, the island I now live on had been created—no longer joined to the landmass now called Europe.
2. Extract from the closing
Today, Hengistbury Head is a dramatically beautiful nature reserve. Travellers come not to hunt or trade, but to watch heritage farm animals grazing peacefully, or spot rare natterjack toads breeding in shallow ponds, or thrill to the songs of larks rising in the evening air. But, just like those Stone Age hunter-gatherers, the visitors still speak many languages. These days they include the Polish, Portuguese, and Romanian of local workers and the foreign tongues of tourists from France, Germany, and elsewhere. Will Brexit finally silence them? We will soon find out. It is not the sea that divides us from each other, but ourselves.