I’m on the train from Bristol to Salisbury travelling along a sure contender for most bucolic stretch of railway in the UK. I’m also reading Will Ashon’s Strange Labyrinth and between the lamb-dotted verdant scenery and this book, I’m wondering if it’s possible to OD on reflections on the English landscape. If the answer’s yes, then I’m in for a downfall as the culmination of the journey is the matinee of Barney Norris’s Echo’s End at the Salisbury Playhouse, another work saturated in the mud of rural England.
Ashon’s book collects up the biographies of numerous characters associated with Epping Forest and places the various stories in a sort-of conversation not just with each other, but with Ashon’s own journeys into the wood looking to fend off middle aged despondency. Since he’s allowed to, I’m going to add my own tales of traipsing anywhere but on concrete into the mix. The only reason I am on this specific train is because of a strange compulsion to stay living in the West. It’s not the city of Bristol itself, but an irrational fear that moving any further east would take me outside the orbital rings circling the planet of Exmoor and the Quantocks. If I break out of the force field, bad things will come to pass.
Like the characters in Strange Labyrinth, my Thursday trip places Will, Barney and I in our own sort-of conversation with each other. Together, we form a band stretching across southern England, from Somerset to Wiltshire to Essex. If only there were some Earldoms for commoners going spare that we could snatch up, we could all take our requisite titles. Will has his book, Barney has his play and I have my useless paranoia. It’s going to be nice day out we spend with each other.
Echo’s End is also a work made up from a tapestry of voices and stories, although this is less immediately apparent in the finished production than in Strange Labyrinth. Instead I had to go to the trusty programme notes to discover that Norris had researched memories of life on the Salisbury Plain through the words of historians, family members and – of course – Thomas Hardy. But even if I hadn’t had time to read the programme, there are other clues about the piece that suggest it is the result of combining fact and fiction, past and present. Its title, Echo’s End, echoes (yes, that’s the only verb I’m giving you) E. M. Forster’s Howards End, itself a piece of writing about the magnetising effect of a specific location. Norris’s play also echoes Forster in being another story written about a family in England living a lifestyle on the verge of becoming obsolete. Echoes, you see, don’t really end at all.
There’s also another behind-the-scenes link between Echo’s End and Salisbury, with both the author and director, Alice Hamilton, returning to the Playhouse having met there as members of the venue’s Youth Theatre. Norris’s novel Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain is also set in the local area. It’s safe to say he has a thing for Salisbury in the same way that Ashon has a thing for Epping and I have developed a thing for the Bristol Downs and Avon Gorge.
Having a thing for the English countryside is difficult because the little towns that pop up on it are often less chocolate box idylls and more bastions of bigotry. It would be easy to read Norris’s play as nostalgia, but that would be a mistake. There’s an obvious fascination with the area and its history, and with that a high level of respect. But there’s not an unquestioning reverence or a desire to return to the past. The character of Anna (Katie Moore) does not benefit from living in this time and in this place. The location and the lifestyle suffocate her and prevents her from living out any ambitions or desires of her own. In the end it does not even protect her – instead the close-knit community requires her to leave it in order to not disrupt its social mores and mechanisms. The women mentioned in Strange Labyrinth are also often stymied by the times and locations they live in, the unwritten-about women married to the famous-name artists, that sort of thing.
So why form a connection to a piece of land and its history, when it comes with such baggage? A compulsion, is probably one answer. The other is the physical landscape itself, the whole huge non-human and non-animal parts of the world that go on doing clever things like growing and shedding leaves quite unperturbed unless we decide deliberately to tamper with them. At one point in Echo’s End a character notes – without any detectable sadness, just as a point in fact – that when they are gone, “only the trees will remember.” There’s an amusing irony in this given that these are words written by a man who is – I think I’m right in saying – not a tree but a human caught in the precise act of remembering the people who lived on Salisbury Plain at the time of the First World War.
Yet, I concede that’s a churlish point (not just the remark about him not being a tree). The obsession with the landscape is to do with the perceived permanence and solidity of it in opposition to the quick-moving human world. When I feel caught in some stressful work matter or other, when the voices of Twitter are really reaching screeching level, I go for a walk on the Downs and I stare at the trees and tell myself (writing this down I realise I sound like a mad woman), that this tree has been here a whole lot longer than Twitter and will, barring lightning and bad Council decisions, stay for a long while after the internet platform has died off. I suppose what I am doing is giving myself a version of the ‘there are things that are bigger than you’ pep talk. There are things that are bigger than me and you and all the petty arguments of the theatre industry and, for that matter, every other industry.
In Strange Labyrinth, Ashon adds his own ruminations on the desire to go into the forest. I don’t know him, but since we’re having such a nice day out together in Salisbury – including a picnic lunch on the cathedral green – I’m going to add to his thoughts that its really all about being within something huge, physically and metaphorically. It’s something about knowing the feeling of being small and out of control when placed within the trees that can make you feel, paradoxically, calm. The huge constantly fluctuating sky of Tom Roger’s set design captures both this sentiment and the expansiveness of the Salisbury Plain itself.
This smallness-to-feel-bigness is why we’re drawn into these places when trying to figure out – to choose a summarising word – existence. Ashon had the good grace to wait until middle age to have his existential woodland wanderings, I go most days to march from one end of the Downs to the other, waiting until around the 50th minute of walking to suddenly feel like actually this is all completely fine and its time to go back to my desk.
I’m on the train returning to Bristol, seated backwards to the direction of travel, which seems correct since I’m going back to where I began. As the train speeds on towards Bath Spa and the Wiltshire scenery disappears over the shoulders of commuters, the thread connecting Barney and Echo’s End to me snaps, leaving both in Salisbury. As we get into Temple Meads I close Strange Labyrinth and the other one connecting me to Will and his semi-urban forestry snaps too. Well what can I say, lads? It was a great day out – we should do it again sometime.
Echo’s End is on at the Salisbury Playhouse until 15th April 2017. Click here for more details.