Rising Ground, a beguiling exploration of what it means to ‘dwell’ in a place, begins with Philip Marsden’s childhood memories of the Mendip Hills, and one particular slope and its limestone cave. For most of us, landscape (or townscape) as experienced when we were children or teenagers holds a special, almost magical place in our consciousness. Individual fields, trees or streams become talismans that we carry about with us and never lose (even if our experiences were confined to a city park): in one sense, they dwell in us. “I was always amazed”, comments Marsden, “how that simple slope could conjure up so much of a life.” The recent discovery that it held the oldest cemetery in Britain, dating from the 9th millennium BCE, adds weight to his own ‘veneration’.

When he buys a ramshackle farmhouse in deepest Cornwall, on a tributary of the Fal estuary, Marsden only feels he belongs after “knowing a little of the past”; crouching down to look at a piece of medieval window-tracery (all that remains of the manor house), he meditates on change. In the past this area was far busier and prosperous, the nearby wharves plump with trade. Now it is all but abandoned. His own efforts to change things, to resuscitate the tangle of garden and save the house (as ever, a far bigger job than originally imagined), are interwoven by his accounts of fathoming the wider area’s meaning. The reader is drawn in, not so much out of any scholarly interest in Cornwall’s complex vicissitudes from prehistoric times to now, but through the process whereby Marsden himself (along with his young family) seeks to belong in one place.

‘Place’ rather than ‘space’ is defiantly defended from charges of provincialism. ‘Place’ has been mostly ignored by both historians and social planners: witness what happened to London in the years of reconstruction after the Blitz, which Gillian Tindall in The Fields Beneath, her loving excavation of Kentish Town, called a “saga of misplaced idealism and Stalinist authoritarianism disguised as democracy”. The quirks, eccentricities and mini-histories of place were erased by a utopic, rational space drawn with graph-like precision. Humans as much as animals need to belong not just to the present but to a continuum that inevitably stretches back to primordial times and is still traceable in their surroundings.

Marsden’s own “brutal” efforts to clear a space on his property provoke self-doubt, but trigger more discoveries of what came before as well as meditations on the whys and wherefores of belonging. He conjures the various spots he walks to, often scrambling through bramble thickets or falling into streams, with an attractive lyrical wonderment that creates its own hauntings. When he crosses to the weirdly lunar china-clay quarries in the Fal valley, the presiding genius is the visionary blind and deaf poet Jack Clemo, who understood his voided habitat with Calvinist severity as “a landscape of purgation” – purely abstract, allowing spirit to emerge from within.

Outward-looking spirit marked the moors with numerous stone circles and mounds, built where they were because wonderment is not unique to a modern romanticism: these places were special in some way that we can still register. Marsden slogs over Bodmin Moor and elsewhere to show us an element that, until recently, the experts had neglected: the importance of the view and its approach, the dramatic narrative it creates. “Site-based belief”, he writes, “can be as tenacious as a limpet,” illustrating how even universalist, monotheistic faiths like Christianity and Islam, for all their rejection of site-specific reverence – Calvin thought that pilgrims were “spiritual fornicators”, while Islamist extremists seem to delight in the actual destruction of place – yet depend on sacred spots such as Lourdes or Mecca.

As Marsden deepens his own imaginative claim on his locale, we learn much about those obsessives who came before him and studied Cornwall in its botanic, historical and day-to-day minutiae: extraordinary men like William Borlase, Charles Henderson, Colonel Frederick Hurst or the tragic John Blight, whose attempt to survey every cromlech in Cornwall drove him to the asylum: all unsung heroes in Marsden’s view for their championing of what is distinctive against our utilitarian age’s “carelessness of the past”. Thus he spends much time, significantly, in quirky libraries poring over dusty volumes and boxed caches of effects, ignoring the internet – surely the ultimate placeless space to which this excellent book offers a welcome alternative.

Adam Thorpe’s most recent book, On Silbury Hill, is published by Little Toller Books.