The Spirit Of Place

I was quite impressed with Gloucester service station on Thursday. I was impressed with it as a piece of unpretentious architecture. It merged into the landscape. It was another low hill in a landscape of low hills. And grass grew on the top of it. There could have been sheep up there.

And the low hill was hollow. It was very airy. By which I mean that it contained a lot of air. I was a bit surprised to see that the roof vault was built of timber.

Everything had been thought about very carefully. I was impressed that the toilets didn’t call themselves Ladies and Gents, but just Women and Men, and didn’t employ the ubiquitous skirted symbols for women. I didn’t see any No Smoking signs either.

I wondered if the whole thing had an environmentalist ideology behind it, and there might be warnings about global warming and climate change included in the menu. But actually the ideology was localist. From their statement of values (my added emphases):


Whatever and wherever our businesses are, we think the most important thing about them is that they are rooted in their place. We are committed to capturing the spirit of a place in any new venture. We seek out partners who can help us create this sense of place and put down roots. From local producers and farmers to charity partners and suppliers, we know that by working closely with those close to a place, we strengthen our reason for being there.


There is an old farming saying “Live as if you will die tomorrow. Farm as if you will live forever”. As farmers we understand the importance of working in partnership with the land around us and the impact we have on our landscape and communities. Because we live and work here it is important that we do it well and invest back into our communities because we, our families, our children and our grandchildren will live in this landscape and be part of those communities.

Nothing about global warming or climate change or carbon dioxide in there. It’s landscape and roots and family and community and place. If children are getting a mention it’s not as something that needs to be protected (from people like you), but as the growing and intertwining roots of families and communities.

Localist is the opposite of globalist. If you’re a globalist you’ll regard yourself as a citizen of the world rather than a native of  a particular place.

I was writing about the Culture of Place a couple of years back, and suggesting that the culture of Wales grew out of the Welsh hills. It’s quite difficult to move around in Wales. It’s probably even more difficult to move around in Switzerland, where the hills are augmented with impassable mountains. In such places, it seemed to me that there would be immoveable tight-knit communities. But where people live on flat plains, across which they can range quickly and easily on horseback, human societies are more fluid and mobile and adventurous. Genghis Khan was maybe just an early globalist, with a globalist’s contempt for borders.

I continued the line of thought in Europe’s Natural Borders. Rivers and mountains and seas act to keep people in place, like the banks of a river keep the water in place. Greece and Italy and Spain all have sea surrounding them, and mountains on their northern borders, and so they form natural communities. And because Greece is a smaller country than Italy, natural human communities emerged earlier in Greece than in Italy, and earlier in Italy than in Spain. And they emerged even earlier on Mediterranean islands like Crete. And Egypt and Sumeria were river cultures, bounded on all sides by trackless deserts. And the further north any human communities formed, the harder they had to work to survive, and that’s why there are hardworking Germans and easygoing Greeks and Italians. In Norway, you must walk briskly to keep warm, while in Sicily you must amble slowly in order to keep cool.

I’m not one of England’s rooted people. I spent too much of my childhood travelling the world, and so I’m a natural globalist. But for the past 50 years I’ve been drifting around the south and west of England. I’m Gloucester Services man. I’ve moved up and down the M5, first to Bristol, next to Devon, now to Herefordshire, slowly coming to a stop.

There is a most distinct spirit of each and every place. And it’s something primarily shaped by sun and land and water and air. And these different spirits were perhaps what underlay the gods of Egypt, which were very often local plants and animals. Sekhmet was a ferocious desert lion goddess, while the bee and the papyrus plant were the symbols of Upper and Lower Egypt.

Globalism and localism are at war these days. The EU is a globalist political project that is at war with European localism. But I think that the spirit of place, as embodied in every variant of European localism, will overcome a superficial globalism, born of nothing but the mobility that comes with fast cars and trains and ships. When people come to a stop, they become localists. They become locals anchored to a local town and a local pub and a local set of values.

About Frank Davis

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14 Responses to The Spirit Of Place

  1. garyk30 says:

    Very nice looking.

  2. and didn’t employ the ubiquitous skirted symbols for women.

    You have an issue with those skirted symbols?! Colour me somewhat surprised. They are better than what our local public loos have- ♂ for men and ♀ for women. Its almost become a local past time to watch people going into the wrong loo then hurriedly exiting again in a deeper shade of red. (Look this is Norfolk and laughs are few!).

    • Frank Davis says:

      Simply that women don’t wear skirts as much as they used to.

      • True (and more’s the pity IMO) but the ‘skirted’ symbol still retains its almost universal meaning, commonly understood even in cultures where women traditionally didn’t wear skirts. Although with the current fade for alternative genders perhaps in future the symbols should be ‘a toilet’ for those whose gender means they prefer to sit and a ‘urinal’ symbol for those who commonly stand. Instead of differentiating and trying not to offend the 50 odd genders we know have, sign makers could focus on the 2 main methods of delivery.

      • beobrigitte says:

        I personally find the ♂ for men and ♀ for women highly entertaining. The facial expressions of people (all ages observed) are priceless when they mumble an apology or screech briefly on discovering they picked the wrong door.

  3. smokingscot says:

    It’s something I’ve always felt. There is a certain something about places. Not sure I’d call it “spirit”, more like an energy, or force.

    One discussion was why our ancestors chose to build. Real easy with something like the castle in Edinburgh, because it was easier to defend. And they’ve discovered these things they call ley lines that indicate our ancestors were picking up on extremely faint alterations to magnetic field.

    Certainly there are some places and buildings that I don’t like. Some I avoid because they affect my mood. In one pub I was so black I had to leave, which was embarrassing because I was with friends. When paying the bartender said I wasn’t the first to feel that way. Over 100 years before a chap had been knifed and killed in that room.

    • And they’ve discovered these things they call ley lines that indicate our ancestors were picking up on extremely faint alterations to magnetic field. -Smoking Scot
      Colour me surprised yet again. Although we have disagreed on many topics, I would never have pegged you one for ‘magical thinking’.

      • smokingscot says:

        I avoid extracting the urine out of a certain Mr. Ketch because his logic is far too tortuous and sometimes he sees things others have missed, usually on Raedwald.

        The Constipated Shortarse, well he’s a different entity altogether. Then he goes and tells us about his aversion to dark and nuts that don’t. Not sure what to make of that, though he does give as good as he gets – and that I like.

        But Jan, dear thing, I have never once, never ever disagreed with you. However I am honoured that I’ve managed to do one thing today, even if – hand on heart – I have always been very sensitive about places, buildings and people. No I don’t see auras, but I do listen to my gut and the hair on my arms and back of neck. If they tell me to back off, I’m gone.

        • But Jan, dear thing-Smoking Scot
          BTW its the Dutch (actually Afrikaans in my case) version of ‘John’ , not the English girl’s name and a name I bore for a couple of years IRL (I’ve had something of a flexible relationship to names in IRL). Of course you may have meant that ‘dear thing’ in an ironic sense, but I’d hate for anyone to be confused as to the gender of this particular of my various incarnations ….and it annoys the sweet fuck outta me that Frank’s blog won’t let me post as either Ketch nor TBD. And it annoys me even more that this ID uses a very secure email account which doesn’t even allow forwarding so I don’t get notified if someone has replied to my comments.

        • smokingscot says:

          As you probably deduced, I knew perfectly well that I was replying to a male person. And “dear thing” was an affectionate term for a reasonable sparring partner.

      • smokingscot says:

        Oh, forgot, sorry.

        It’s about Mr. Ketch and his fear of motorcycles. If he trusts his spawn, then I’d suggest he accepts the invite. Then he’ll be able to experience a whole new world of sensations. Not just those weird changes in temperature, nor riding over hidden water courses, nor the Ley Lines. He’ll have atmospheric pressure changes by the bushel, places where catastrophic accidents happened and once in a while, the sheer euphoria of being at one with it all.

        Maybe you can pass it along, when the mood takes you, though first he’ll need to straddle the thing and snuggle up to sprog without banging crash hats.

  4. Clicky says:

  5. I went to the famously posh Gloucester services once, when the weather was warm, after so many people raved about it. While it was very nice, I couldn’t help noticing that one of the fancy food shops had all this lovely food out in the open on tables. Which was all well and good, except that the front doors were often open, and there were quite a lot of flies around. Put me off buying anything from that shop.

  6. beobrigitte says:

    There is a most distinct spirit of each and every place. And it’s something primarily shaped by sun and land and water and air.
    And the people living there. From my travels I have learned that each place has it’s own unique “vibe” – and stuck with the vibe most compatible with my nature: The North in England, the South in Germany. Great people with my sense of humour. Priceless!

    Although there seems to be this “globalisation” drive, people still stick with the area most compatible with them personally.

    As for service stations, I do one stop on my way to Scotland: Tebay. And there I treat myself to a bottle of REAL lemonade with NO artificial sweetener from their shop. These days that’s priceless, too.

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