“I am told that there are people who do not care for maps and find it hard to believe… here is an inexhaustible fund of interest for any many with eyes to see or tuppence worth of imagination to understand with.”
Back in October 2016 one of the first things our MA group did was visit the Hereford Museum Learning and Resource Centre for a behind the scenes tour. (Many museums, galleries and cultural venues will offer guided tours for small groups that book in advance.) Hereford Museum LRC has an eclectic range of artefacts from archaeological archaeological bits and bobs (flint arrowheads and Roman glass beads) to agricultural paraphernalia (Victorian carts and farming tools). Between these two extremes is a conservative collection of art and ceramics and some slightly more difficult to categorise exhibits that I suppose you could call folkloric – curse dolls and Celtic stone heads, for example. Incidentally these traditions are alive and well in all parts of the country.
On a normal day any of these (except perhaps the ceramics) has enough to pique my interest but all paled into insignificance when I discovered that Hereford Museum LRC also keeps the research archive of one of my heroes – Alfred Watkins. I was first introduced to Watkins back in the 80s when Mrs B gave me his book (The Old Straight Track) as a birthday present. Watkins was one of those purposeful Edwardian gentlemen who wandered the countryside with a camera, notebook and walking stick. Whilst you may not have heard of him, you may be familiar with one of his theories: in The Old Straight Track Watkins introduces his belief that places in ancient Britain were linked by intersecting and invisible tracks that he called ‘leys’. These could be identified by noting the existence of certain features both on maps and in the landscape. Using a ruler, he believed it was possible to track a ley by drawing straight lines that linked standing stones, barrows, early churches and groves of Scots Pine trees growing on hilltops.
Leys got a less than enthusiastic welcome from more conservative archaeologists and Watkins’ theory took another knock in the academic validity stakes when it was suggested by some esoteric thinkers that ‘ley lines’ were actually invisible energy fields and conduits of earth magic. Nevertheless I am nothing if not loyal to my heroes and from the very outset of the MA in Contemporary Crafts course at Hereford College of Arts Alfred Watkins and The Old Straight Track were influencing my thinking. The first project involved selecting 50 words and 50 images which would refine and underpin all the subsequent creative practice. My collection clearly indicated that I wanted to look at something to do with landscape or time or poetry or Alfred Watkins or spirituality or Wales or folklore or toponomy (place names) or maps or walked journeys. I wonder what I would have added to the list if I hadn’t been limited to 50 words and 50 images!
The early part of 2017 saw me abandon my intention to use felt making as the major craft technique. That may sound calm and considered but let me tell you it was anything but at the time. Casting around for other ways to make ‘stuff’ – what the ever-patient course leader Delyth Done called ‘craft outcomes’ – I tried everything from papermaking to pressing flowers. By the end of term I was drifting into a state of panic which only receded when over the Easter break I returned to my default setting. I put on my walking boots and headed out to the hills. April saw me back in Hereford quietly confident that I was – quite literally – on the right track.
I suspected however that quiet confidence wasn’t going to be enough. Luckily, in June I was given the directions to find the next stop on my journey. Reading Pete Mosley’s book The Art of Shouting Quietly and having four days tuition from him made a massive difference to the way in which I approached the rest of my time as a student at Hereford. You can read more about my thoughts in the previous blog and eventually in the book which I intend to write about integrating multiple strands of creative practice (I bet you can’t wait!). Perhaps I should have spent more of the summer months making ‘stuff’ – I know a lot of my fellow students did. Instead I walked, ran and generally explored the ancient tracks of Glamorgan, subconsciously developing the ideas, theories and concepts which would form the basis of my final project.
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Ford Prefect tells Arthur Dent that “time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so.” I beg to differ. October 2017 was more doubly so. I don’t think I’ve ever known time disappear so quickly as the autumn months of last year. Having got my panic and stress out of the way in the Spring and having had a shot of self-belief and confidence in the Summer, I strolled calmly through the tempest which passes for the final term of an MA.
I sketched, I wrote poetry, I stitched and best of all, I researched and wrote. Even though photography is an anathema to me, I took advice from the talented and generous Ruth and Oli Cameron Swan on things like light and framing the landscape. I got up early one morning to take some snapshots of my chosen location and considered them good enough to use them as illustrations for my dissertation.
The last hurdle to overcome was to convince lecturers Del and Lisa that my work would need to be exhibited in a very particular way. Thanks to the blind faith of them both, this was done and my final project ‘Lingering Fragments’ combines all of the 10 original ideas which were on my 50 words and 50 images board back in October 2016. It was then that I first announced that I intended to use the MA to “map both the physical and the metaphysical landscape”. At the time I had absolutely no idea what I meant but somewhere down deep inside, the creative bit of me knew exactly what needed to be done.
If you want to see more of the MA in Contemporary Crafts exhibition, it’s open until 31st January 2018 at the College Road Campus. Details of opening times here .