I went to see God’s Own Country last weekend, and found it a rare treat. It wasn’t just the same-sex love story at the film’s heart – though god knows it’s a relief to see a film where gay characters get to do more than nobly triumph over homophobia – but also the bleak but ultimately uplifting portrayal of family and subsistence farming in the hills of West Yorkshire.
Alongside the slow-burn relationship between taciturn farmer Johnny and Romanian hired hand Gheorghe, the film charts the physical decline of Johnny’s father’s, debilitated by two strokes, and shows the unsentimental despatching of sick animals. But the stolid landscape of mud, rock and moorland, the backdrop to these scenes of decay and death, endures in the watery spring daylight. It’s beautiful, Georghe says to Johnny as they tackle the sisyphean task of repairing a dry stone wall, but lonely too.
A few years ago, recovering from illness but still fearful, I went walking in the Chilterns, the hills of my childhood. Up above Princes Risborough, I felt a curious elation. These hills, these chalk markings, these beech trees that were here when I visited as a child, they would still be here after my death. They were completely indifferent to my existence. But their indifference was not daunting, like the vastness of the universe, but comforting, of human scale, an assurance of a future beyond my life.
I felt something like that watching the film. The West Yorkshire hills would still be there when all the characters had gone, as would the dry stone walls and farm buildings. The landscape is indifferent, but not unaffected; the human touch is everywhere – either visibly in built structures or implicitly in patterns of cultivation. And perhaps it is in these landscapes, in the dry stone walls and the cairns assembled by walkers on hill paths, that we non-architects gain some measure of longevity, of immortality even, some sense of Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph ‘si monumentum requiris, circumpsice’ – if you are seeking a memorial, look around you.