`Songline' to celebrate old Roman trail

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THE AUSTRALIAN aboriginal idea of "songlines", an ancient system of mystical pathways immortalised by the author Bruce Chatwin, is to be introduced to Britain.

The project will involve the creation of a cycle of song, sculpture and painting to represent the history of the Peddars Way, a 45-mile trail running from Knettishall Heath, near Thetford, to Holme next the Sea on the Norfolk coast.

Three artists have been commissioned to create a songline for the old Roman road, using poetry, image and music to evoke the landscape and geology of the trail, which connects with the 93-mile Norfolk Coast path. The project has received pounds 60,000 from the Arts Council of England and the European Commission.

The songline idea is central to the aboriginal view of creation. They believe their ancestors created the world by singing out the name of everything that crossed their path - birds, mammals, plants, rocks, waterholes - and so singing the world into existence. They formed tracks as they walked along and modern-day aboriginals see each ancient track as the score of a vast epic song, whose verses tell of the ancestors' lives and how the landscapes came into being.

"Such stories still exist in the landscape of Britain but very few people know anything about them," said Liz McGowan, an artist who is designing five sculptures to run along the way. "A lot of farms still carry the names of fields and rivers which relate to very old stories."

Ms McGowan has already begun work on her first piece of songline art, a circle of dead elm wood which partly reflects the spread of Dutch Elm disease in the area.

"There is a sense of layers of history going back thousands of years," said Ms McGowan. "The music for the Peddars Way will have parallels with the songlines, choosing a particular place on the way for each story. The tunes will be very English and not have any links with Australian rhythms or the didgeridoo."

There is plenty of history for the artists to work on. The Peddars Way was used by the Romans in the 1st century but is thought to have existed for several centuries before that, when it was used by merchants carrying "peds", or bags, of salt from the salt pans around King's Lynn. There are several burial mounds, Roman villas and an Iron Age long barrow on the route. The remains of an early Roman fort built to impose order on Boudicca and the marauding Iceni tribes also straddle the path.

"We are inviting people to look at the landscape in a richer way," said Ms McGowan. "We want to inspire a kind of respect and encourage people not to take it for granted."