The Spirit of Place

Craigdarroch House, Dumfries & Galloway, Scotland
Craigdarroch House, Dumfries & Galloway, Scotland

The term ‘The Spirit of Place’ was first explained to me by a land agent working for the National Trust in England. It referred, he said, to the essence of a property and was part of the ethos that the Trust’s staff tried to capture when managing their historic houses and countryside – and which they tried to convey to visitors. I can’t recall if he had the ubiquitous labrador and Volvo estate car but I remember thinking that the phrase had a nice ring to it.

Houses didn’t exist solely as architectural marvels but sat in contemporary landscapes, were redolent with the ghosts of former inhabitants and had stories to tell. Similarly, swathes of countryside or stretches of coastline – of which the area and mileage owned by the Trust seemed to increase daily at that time – were not just pretty fields, trees, rocks and sand. They were part of a multi-layered fabric of threatened natural environments and historic vistas reflecting the economic and social life of agricultural estates.   And if you think that’s a bit of a mouthful, you’ll understand why the more nebulous catch-all ‘heritage’ has come so much more into fashion.

The idea was that each of these components of a property had to be managed in a way that respected the integrity of its co-components to the benefit of the whole – which, of course, meant understanding what the ‘whole’ was in the first place.

It was, and remains, a laudable concept, simple enough to grasp in theory though perhaps more difficult to apply day-to-day when managers are faced with dozens of competing priorities. It was also, arguably, ahead of its time. The concept anticipated modern conservation thinking in which the various strands of a property –natural, built or social – are dissected both for their individual significance and for their contribution to the whole, in order to reach a consensus on their relative importance and integrated management.

I say “arguably” because there is very little new under the sun and you’ll see why in a minute or two.

Sticking with the Trust for a moment, I remember a proposal to try to reflect this multi-layered view of a property by creating 3-D ‘maps’ of each significant component. These might reflect its appearance at different periods of history or the impact upon it of certain (say, farming or early industrial) activities or simply illustrate the architectural or natural features in isolation.

It was a visual alternative to paper-based management plans: visual because ultimately it had to be understood by visitors (whose own impact upon the property, including the management of that impact, formed another component layer). Overlaying each component map would reinforce their mutual inter-dependence while bringing the whole picture back together. Thus the property was ‘interpreted’.

It was a radical concept at the time but one which has become mundane with the advent of digital technology. No tourist attraction worth its salt now doesn’t boast an animated, 3-D walk or ‘fly’ through the property, merging history, people and places to produce visualisations of how it might have looked, complete with a voiceover by an actor such as Joanna Lumley.

But I digress… the point of all of this being to explain how I first came across the term ‘The Spirit of Place’ and what it meant in that specific context.

I’ve since come across the term in many other contexts (not least as the title of a number of other blogs!). In most cases it is used with little or no justification: that is to say there is no accompanying explanation for how it relates to the subject matter and/or it relates to seemingly incompatible activities and/or it is used simply for its mystical and romantic connotations – or because it has a nice ring to it.

So when I was thinking about a title for this blog, one that represented what I wanted to do and say in these pages, I remembered the term and thought it might be appropriate.   However, I thought I’d better research its background and meaning a little more to ensure that it conveyed the right message.

Now it turns out that ‘The Spirit of Place’ is an ancient term that goes back at least as far as the Romans and, in the sense in which the Romans understood it, probably further back still. In similar fashion to the National Trust, it referred at one level to the unique, distinctive and cherished aspects of a place: those aspects which writers and poets (and, later, artists) tried to convey when waxing lyrical about a particular location. (I told you there was little that was new under the sun.)

But, for the ancients, ‘The Spirit of Place’ had a more specific and literal meaning. The Roman ‘genius loci’ was the protective or guardian spirit of a place: an actual entity that embodied the distinctive local atmosphere, that could be physically illustrated in sculpture or carvings and therefore prayed to as they would pray to any other spirit or god in their religious pantheon.

The Roman legacy of Hadrian’s Wall or York includes numerous sculptures and even some bronze carvings that refer to the spirit of individual villas and forts and denote examples of their owners or residents paying homage to them.

The Lapidarium, Trieste, Italy
The Lapidarium, Trieste, Italy

In his epic poem, ‘The Aeneid’, to quote another example, the Roman poet Virgil has his hero invoking a range of deities when he first lands at a new and unfamiliar spot: “He prays to the spirit of the place”, he says, and, for good measure, “to the Earth, the first of the gods, and to the Nymphs, and the yet unknown rivers. Then”, he goes on, “he invoked Night and Night’s rising constellations, and Idaean Jove, and …” But you get the picture.

So, some two thousand years before modern tourism – and longer than that if Virgil is to be believed, because Aeneas was also a Greek hero and, ultimately, a Trojan – humans were already embodying special places with core attributes that synthesised their history or ancestry, architecture and natural grandeur. And they were even ‘interpreting’ them through sculptures and plaques erected on or affixed to the properties in question.

All of which is a convoluted and perhaps pretentious way of saying that the process of attempting to capture the essence of a location creatively, a special location to which people are attracted, has a long and honourable tradition which is embodied in the term, ‘The Spirit of Place’.

Less pretentiously, it’s the concept that Wellington, the hero of Maurice Dodd’s ‘Daily Mirror’ strip ‘The Perishers’, struggled with when returning to the rock pool on his annual beach holiday. Gazing down at the eccentric antics of the crabs in the ‘pooliverse’ he was constantly astonished at the “sheer thinginess of it all”.

In ‘The Spirit of Place’ blog I’ve tried to represent this tradition through the pen-portraits of people and places posted here from my various travels as well as offering up a few thoughts on travel and travel-related issues generally. It doesn’t always work but where possible I’ve tried to capture that moment, those individuals or the emotion of being in a particular place at a specific time. They’re the special qualities, good or bad, that encapsulate ‘the spirit of place’ – which I still think has a nice ring to it.

If you enjoy what I’ve written then great. If it triggers a memory in you and feel like writing it down, please feel free to comment and contribute.




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