Writing the Landscape: Ian Hill responds to a Litfest 2012 Commission

Today I’m delighted to present the first of two articles from writers commissioned to write a piece for Litfest 2012, based on a landscape that inspires them. Here the first writer, Ian Hill, explains how he began to shape his non fiction creative piece about his chosen landscape.


When I started work on this piece, a single memory lodged itself in my mind: the aerial dance of two marsh harriers, male and female, as they passed food, one to the other, in flight.  It was a warm summer’s day, and I was with my family on a visit to the bird reserve at Leighton Moss.  This pass, with all its grace and elegance and beauty, seemed to me strangely symbolic, a talisman against the stuff of modern living.  I knew that this single image would somehow define the piece I was yet to write.

I had decided to focus on an area which I loosely define as the peninsula between Carnforth and the Kent estuary at Arnside.  The area holds a pull for me, a fascination which is not about grandeur or scale, nor about beauty (although it is a beautiful place).  The sense I have of the place is more of mystery; an impression that places like these, poised between the land and the sea, influenced by both but belonging to neither, have an allure which is not definable, which belongs not entirely to this world.  I was drawn to the light, the shifting between intense brightness on the mud flats and the pools of darkness in the woodlands, and to the pale fins of limestone which connect the two.

I realised that I was drawn to limestone for reasons I could not explain.  I grew up in an area of limestone, and now I live on a house perched on a limestone crag, the soil so thin that I can see the bedrock emerging like bleached bones from beneath the dark soil.  I love the way in which streams appear and disappear, as though the normal rules of landscape are suspended in limestone lands.  And I have always loved, since I was a child, finding fossils poking from the patient rock, coming into the light after millions of years of burial; sea creatures with their litany of strange names: belemnites, lamellibranchs, crinoids.  In a place like the land around Morecambe Bay, these two seas are always present: one just over the low ridges of wooded fields, the other buried beneath the earth, preserved, a memory of the primordial sea.

And such was my intention when I started to think about the place.  But my memories derailed me: I was gripped by the image of the marsh harriers, seduced by the memory of how the limestone felt under my fingers when I was a young man keen on rock-climbing.  Writing about landscape is a slippery thing; a landscape is not only the nature, the immutable geography of the place, but is also about the reactions we have, the memories we share, the associations we make with places.  The more I wrote about this area, the more I realised that I was writing about myself, my memories of my youth, and the way in which my children respond to places, learn their textures and moods.

The piece I have created is called Instar; it is a word as mysterious and resonant as the landscape which beget it.


The commissioned piece will be read during Litfest 2012, on Sunday 21st October, at LICA in Lancaster at 12 pm. For full festival details see the Litfest 2012 Brochure.


Ian grew up in Lincolnshire, but has lived in Cumbria for 20 years.  His writing, which he says focuses on ’Landscape and Memory’,  can be found in Earthlines magazine, in the Dark Mountain anthology, and on his blog, The Printed Land (www.printedland.blogspot.com)

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