Text and photos by Mark Mattock.
I really don’t remember the first time I snuck along the secret little path that led into it. I’m almost certain that the discovery would have been made, all that time ago, during an after-school butterfly-hunting trip: sometime in the spring and not long after having newly moved to the area. My first serious camera was bought with the proceeds of breeding butterflies.
Then, as now, the space would have seriously excited any youthful nature fanatic. The old quarry retains the illusion of a much bigger space, an epic landscape in miniature, complete with the symbols of wildness: majestic cliffs of ancient rock, flocks of circling jackdaws frequently menaced by peregrine falcons. A little pocket of rural neglect: promising discovery or sighting of something rare.
Certain too: was that I would have also recognised the space through the eyes of the clan of ‘70s itinerant English village youth, from which I had recently been separated. In that mindset the site would have been very familiar. Its darker cues, obvious seclusion and whiff of danger: a perennial attraction to rural youth. A space, that reeked of the opportunity for mischief and chaos. A perfect lawless refuge, free from adult gaze where stolen cigarettes and alcohol could be consumed, porn viewed, (no drugs, that still an urban thing), loot hidden, various improvised weapons tested, nature engaged with or rather; fought, conquered and abused. In the male adolescent fantasy of a roaming band of mercenaries living wild off the land, the space would have been enemy territory. Real: if within the boundary of a neighbouring town or village. Imagined, if within ones own.
The Rifle Range, as it is benignly labelled on the right ordnance survey map, was – is eerily reminiscent of an undiscovered ‘90s Balkan war crime site. That notion has lurked in the back of my imagination ever since it was planted there by a BBC radio 4 programme about exactly that: causing the first serious contemplation of the now familiar space, and of how space and time can connect. Until recently I always thought that the first work was made in response to that programme. The chronology of the images proved that was not the case.
The first serious images made occurred much later. Even then, they were still not of the actual space, but of what was found in it.
I had probably not visited the site for a good few years before one afternoon, I found myself poking around in the red sand pit at the end of the disused quarry. This is the target area and the beating heart of the whole space. I was enthusiastically picking out, with morbid fascination, the violently mutilated high velocity rounds that had obviously been fired from military weapons: not from a military firing range on Salisbury Plain, but from right in the middle of an area of outstanding natural English idyll. In a land with some of the most stringent gun laws and deep held ideas of rights of access.
By the time I had amassed a little collection of still life subject matter, I had started to make the first serious work in the space itself: the first ‘Landskips’ .
Landskip was a late 16th century colloquial term for Landscape, at a time when the landscape was still universally regarded with disdain, if regarded at all.
The modern sound of Landskip resonated the idea of the spaces I really wanted to look at. It was the discovery of the third incarnation or rudimentary ‘redesign’ of the sandpit, after an inactive period, that finally compelled greater examination. Regular visits were made over the following few years, and a narrative unfolded.
Through time, even the copious bright summer blooms of buddlia became wreaths to the latest peregrine kill. Every time I visited it, I came away with something that reinforced my dark speculations: be it a sheet of exposed film, another piece of ‘forensic evidence’ or simple observation.
The rifle range is obviously a local shooting club’s range. That’s what any rambler or dog walker who happens to chance upon it might just notice, if not immediately deterred by nothing more than the simple fact; that it’s very clearly a dead end. I often wonder if the only other person I did once observe in the Quarry, ever felt its uncomfortable karma? Their body language did suggest unease, I know they were not aware of me. Did they see enough to feel it could happen here? Probably not, that takes a little more time; and imagination.
Most recently I have had to covertly enter the site – to trespass. For as long as I have known it, nothing prevented entry apart from a warning about the significance of some red flag; completely ignorable. It’s natural camouflage far more effective in preventing entry. It had been finally sealed off in a manner that reflects the paranoia and suspicion in the age of terror: razor wire, heavy padlocked giant gate, but still, importantly, free from surveillance. The whole site had been given a sort of semi-professional makeover. No longer a claustrophobic dirty little secret site, where those obsessed by weapons take revenge – as skilled sportsmen of course – on everything from National Small Bore Rifle Association target boards, to deodorant cans and childrens toys. Strangely, as discovery is now all but impossible, this is all carefully tidied away after a session.
There is just no way you would see local youth in such a place today. Even if it is known, it is simply too far from town to bother about. Virtual shooting ranges in digital landscapes can be visited without leaving the bedroom. Where even the darkest of delinquent minds are amply catered for, without effort of their own imagination. Little chance then, of their interference in this ominously adult frequented space. No, the mercenary fantasists have grown up, have respectable careers, possibly even in law enforcement! They arrive in family SUVs with their real guns securely locked in the boot, safe from the gaze of minors. Ironically it was Google Earth’s current satellite image that finally revealed the presence of those who have most recently shaped this mini landscape; the presence of the very people who come to worship the God of War in this little open air Cathedral. To emulate his disciples, free from the disapproval, or even persecution of the responsible majority.
The visual continuity that runs through it all is not particularly very subtle: the ripped apart beer cans echoing the gouged out rock, in turn mirrored in the violently distorted spent ammunition. When the discovery of a freshly beheaded jackdaw, one morning, was also interpreted as the latest example our violent and destructive culture, and not seen for what it really was – a falcons hastily abandoned prey – did I consider how the balance of observation and imagination can be tipped.
Worryingly the space appears all too familiarly American. Wasn’t British gun culture, or rather shooting culture, about stalking deer and shooting game, in landscapes managed, manipulated or evolved over centuries for exactly those purposes. Or just, simply shooting vermin and targets with air guns? It sits in the countryside like a Starbucks in the local high street. I never did find any evidence of malice toward a Budweiser can.
In truth, the Shooting Range is an enclave of modern English rural reality and spaces like this, natural to all landscapes, act as eddies or vortices where the ripples of a darker world, both local and global, past and present, temporarily collect and swirl. Revealing sometimes, unpalatable truths in a landscape that for many is once again just a mere background. I have simply sought to amplify those ripples.
Most recently, research uncovered what the Quarry used to be locally known as. It is not my intention to reveal the surprisingly macabre title, for reasons that should be obvious: to protect it as a secluded, quiet place to observe nature…
Please visit Mark Mattock website for more stories and photos.