Caught by the River

Off The Beaten Track

Mathew Clayton | 12th January 2011

Robin says: If you were to plot a perfect record to appeal to this third of Caught By The River, you couldn’t get much closer than the Grasscut LP “1 Inch / 1/2 Mile”. A grab bag of glitchy electronics, celestial harmonics, samples of W G Sebald and Ezra Pound and scratchy old 78s that comes accompanied by a plotted walk over the South Downs, Grasscut’s debut LP pushed open a door to an off-kilter world, one where the entire roster of Warp Records seemed to be fighting over the same Ordinance Survey map. I pored over the South Downs walk while listening to the album then remembered that Friend of the River Mathew Clayton had recently relocated to that neck of the woods. Being time-pressed (read: bloody lazy), I asked Mathew whether he fancied doing the walk and writing about it. Luckily, he’s made of sterner stuff than me.

On the outskirts of Brighton is an unlovely suburb called Woodingdean, and on the outskirts of Woodingdean, in a perfect downland valley, there was once a hamlet called Balsdean. It included a Norman church, two farms and some cottages. During the Second World War the area was requisitioned for army training, the buildings were used for target practice and Balsdean, which had existed since at least the 12th Century, was completely wiped out. All that is left is a small stone plaque, partially hidden by grass, stating it was once the site of the altar of a church.

A few weeks ago I drove to Woodingdean with Andrew Phillips who has used this disappeared village as the imagined setting for one of my favourite albums of last year, One Inch/ 1/2 Mile, by his band Grasscut. Our plan was to follow a walk he devised (see attached map) to accompany the album. We parked the car opposite a large housing estate but soon were surrounded by rolling hills that blocked out all sign of human habitation. As we walked Andrew explained his aim had been to make a classic folk album, one that felt deeply rooted in the landscape, customs and history of England, but do it entirely on electronic instruments.

One of his points of inspiration was the opening sequence of the Powell and Pressburger film A Canterbury Tale that blends two moments in time – a medieval hunting falcon transforming into a Spitfire. The album is full of moments like this, fragments from the past bursting into the future. It starts with a quote from WG Sebald, includes bits of poetry recited by Ezra Pound and finishes with a wonderfully loopy sounding Hilaire Beloc singing about riding a winged horse across the countryside. Alongside these are snippets of everyday conversations (one track is based around a clandestine recording Andrew made of his mother talking about the year 1946, ‘grey, very grey, not much colour’) and field recordings of the valley at Balsdean (with church bells chiming in the distance) all played over a mixture of creaking synthesisers, delicate pianos and rumbling bass.

The album is mournful, multi layered and full of unexpected changes of direction, the song Muppet starts with an angry barrage of electronic noise and ends with a celestial sounding boy’s church choir. It does, however, feels like the expression of a unified vision of the landscape (and in turn modern Britain). Beautiful but slightly broken. Britain’s countryside isn’t really wild, most of it is like the South Downs bordering urban areas; flowers and fly tipping, downland and dual carriageway side by side. As we climbed back to the car park the sky had turned to candy. Swathes of orange and pink floating over the fields and the city. Epic psychedelia. Along the coast, past Portslade and Shoreham, I could just make out Worthing pier turning gold. We got in the car and drove home.

1 Inch: 1/2 Mile, is on sale in the Caught by the River shop, priced £10.00
Mathew Clayton‘s upcoming club – The Hedgerow Society – will be taking place in Brighton later this month. We’ll post more information about it next week.