When photographer Harry Ecroyd encountered filmmaker Paul Wright’s experimental documentary Arcadia, he was instantly drawn to its cult aesthetic, its haunting archival imagery and its folkloric allusions. The documentary is, as Harry says, “a beautiful film exploring our relationship with the English countryside”. But it’s also a film that discovers, in that bucolic beauty, a menacing and seductive horror in occult subversions, augmented by Adrian Utley and Will Gregory’s strange soundscape, which lends the whole cinematic montage a disturbing, hallucinatory, almost nightmarish quality.
Taking Wright’s aesthetic as his “main reference”, Harry applies Arcadia’s found-footage visuals to a photography series that examines the ancient annual custom known as the Hunting of the Earl of Rone. As Harry explains, “It’s essentially a man hunt that takes place every year in the coastal village of Combe Martin in North Devon, on the spring bank holiday weekend. The villagers hunt through the village for the ‘Earl of Rone’, finally finding him on the Monday night. He is mounted back-to-front on a donkey and paraded through the village towards the sea where an effigy of him is tossed out to the ocean.”
So who is the Earl of Rone, and what did he do to rile the villagers of Combe Martin? Harry tells us: “Local legend suggests that he was Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, who was forced to flee from Ireland in 1607 and became shipwrecked in a local bay known as Raparee Cove. Hiding in the woods and surviving only on ships’ biscuits, he was eventually captured by a party of Grenadiers sent from Barnstaple.” The custom of the hunt has since become a kind of annual festival, involving costumes and parades. It is not without its quirks and peculiarities, but it is, thankfully, without the sinister esotericism that Wright’s film presents. It is, as the event’s website states, “Combe Martin celebrating itself”.
While they are far more celebratory than Arcadia, Harry’s photographs retain some of the documentary’s visual reference points, such as the combination of coloured and monochromatic pictures that produces the atmosphere of found images. There is, too, an otherworldly glow to some of the photographs, an evocation of the mysticism that often underlies British folklore. One particularly stirring photograph shows a woman in pagan costume dancing in a multicoloured headdress, the surrounding darkness and the grainy film serving to obscure any sense of the figure belonging to a specific time; she becomes a symbol of the tradition itself.
British folklore, and the stories and traditions attached to it, with their eccentric charm, seem to lend themselves to the penchant for rural vernacular photography that is at once nostalgic and intoxicating. Quoting the novelist George Santayana, Harry says: “Britain is the paradise of individuality, eccentricity, heresy, anomalies, hobbies and humours.” For Harry, “the Hunting of the Earl of Rone is one of numerous traditions that embodies all these elements, and because of this, these rituals present themselves as very attractive subject matters for photographers – the story is already there unfolding in front of you.
Where Arcadia draws out a latent threat in British community traditions and pantheistic practices, Harry’s photographs celebrate the strangeness of the pastoral customs that have been handed down over generations. He says: “I feel these traditions play a really important part in our heritage and represent a fun and slightly peculiar side that has taken many hundreds of years to develop. What instantly struck me during my visiting to Combe Martin was the enormous sense of community within the village – it’s almost palpable. The custom is run by a council of villagers, but any local from Combe Martin or the surrounding parishes is welcome to dress up and join in, which is brilliant! Throughout generations it’s been the people that make the tradition possible.”