All posts by Maria

Firebreak Autumn

In the cloudswept hills of the Western Lands, Hallowe’en fell in the middle of Firebreak Autumn and whilst everyone knows that hacking a pumpkin to bits with your trusty axe is time well spent, it still left 16 empty spaces on Maira Big Thumb’s calendar.  One day was spent celebrating a harvest safely gathered in,

harvest

then on another she tidied her hovel,

interior decor

and of course she went for an obligatory Autumn walk through the local park.

Then she wondered, what can I do next?  Well, in the middle of a pandemic, with massive economic uncertainty and people fearful about what the future held, Maira Big Thumb decided to do what every self-respecting Viking does – come out fighting.  Thus it was she spent the rest of the days of Firebreak Autumn learning the dark arts of starting a small craft business.  When she was wise in the lore of setting up an on-line shop and could cast the spells of search engine optimisation, she knew she would be able to help other folk do the same thing.  Now, thought Maira Big Thumb, the people will have something to occupy them when they can’t go out, they will be able to make little pots of money and they will understand how any kind of craft makes anxiety go away for a bit.

And when the day came for Firebreak Autumn to end, Maira Big Thumb realised there was just time for a little rest before she ventured forth into the world to start rampaging and pillaging once more.

#bekind #makepeoplesmile #stayhome

 

Does My Thumb Look Big In This?

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve got Viking ancestry.  I’ve long suspected as much by the way I search the television schedules for programmes which Neil Oliver is presenting, particularly if he’s wandering around the bleak landscape of Scandinavia (though to be honest, anywhere north of Birmingham will do).  And my tendency to visit Viking re-enactments whenever I see them advertised is also a bit of a giveaway – I like the crafts, I like the clothes, I like the opportunity to throw an axe without worrying what the neighbours will think.  Recently I even considered whether I should do one of those DNA tests which breaks down your genetic origins geographically although, to be honest, I pretty much know that on one side I’m Slavic and on the other Welsh, with some French and some English bits.  The only hope for Viking origin comes from Grandad Charles Iden’s ancestors but given that an Osbert de Iden landed in Sussex during the Norman Conquest and had a village named after him (proving that he was either a close mate of William or a land-grabbing bully), it’s a very thin and wispy hope.

Luckily though, two things have come to my attention.  Firstly, in his programme The Vikings – which I recently watched for the umpteenth time – Neil makes the point that the eponymous Northerners weren’t afraid to venture out into the world and there’s even evidence that they got down into the southern reaches of Europe.  Secondly, I found this photograph of my great grandmother Felicité Marie just before she left France for Wales in the early years of the 20th Century.  French, my eye!  Have you ever seen a more Viking looking woman?  A glare that could freeze the marrow in your bones.  And I bet there’s an axe hidden in that hat.

Buoyed with this new found certainty about my ancestors, I decided I should put my Viking-ness to good use.  The Stay At Home and Stay Local messages prevented me from rampaging or pillaging but when Nalbinding appeared on the Heritage Crafts Association (https://heritagecrafts.org.uk) list of endangered craft skills, learning how to do it seemed like a perfect way to channel my inner Noggin the Nog.   Only two things stood in the way of my Viking credentials – a name and a saga.

The Saga of Maria Big Thumb, Multiple Loops and the Oslo Cast On

In the valleys of the West, where the high moorlands meet the grey, cloud-swept skies, in the cool summer evenings that seem longer this year than most, a solitary woman works at her wool crafts and thinks of tales to tell. 

A shadow had fallen across the land and from the Senedd, the order was given to lock the gates and close the bridges.  An edict was issued that people should keep to their hovels and only venture out to search for toilet paper, baking powder or pizza bases.   Tucked away safely in her little cottage, Maria Big Thumb unwrapped the parcel of wool which had just arrived from her allies in the north and knew the time was right to learn the almost lost Viking craft of nalbinding.  

Ffffff the 1st

After much searching in the forgotten temples of Google, she found an old pdf with drawings of small, dainty hands and caused it to be printed out.  Maria Big Thumb spent many hours trying to understand it and even read the words out loud to see if that helped:

“Wrap the yarn around your fingers 3 times” – yes, simple. “Grab the eight between your fingers” – what eight?  Where did the other five come from?  “There are now 3 thumb loops” – where did the five go?  And how did the thumb join in? 

Hint (said the pdf): Say to yourself, 2 loops stay around the thumb, 2 loops get picked up on the needle.

“Ffffff,” said Maria Big Thumb.

Ffffff the 2nd

Later that evening, when Maria Big Thumb had calmed down, washed her glass and put the empty bottles out for the recycling, she decided to call upon the god Amazon for help.  Soon a book, illustrated with fine coloured pictures of beautifully manicured fingers arrived.  Maria Big Thumb threaded up her needle and resolved to start again.  On page 27 she found instructions for nalbinding beginners to follow.  “Take the yarn and hold it in the left hand” – yes, simple (but she remembered thinking that last time).  “Fold the big loop to get smaller loops so the result resembles half a looped square” – what big loop?  And what does half a looped square look like? “Pull the needle through the loop and it will become the first loop” – what loop?  WHAT LOOP?

 

Hint (said the book): If you only have one loop on the thumb, you can take the needle through both mouse ears at the same time. 

“Ffffff, Ffffff,” said Maria Big Thumb.

Ffffff the 3rd

Risking the wrath of the law, Maria Big Thumb ventured down to the corner shop for the magical potions which would help her understand these strange words but try as she might, and even after the recycling bin was overflowing, they remained dark and mysterious to her.  In the end she realised she had no choice left.  She had worshipped at the temples of Google and she had made offerings to the god Amazon.  Now it was time to go to Valhalla itself; she resolved to consult the great deity YouTube.   “Foolish Maria Big Thumb,” boomed the voice of YouTube, “you have failed because Google sought to teach you in the ways of the Left Handed Start and Amazon tried to trick you with the Finnish Stitch. 

Hint (said YouTube): If you had come to me straight away you would have learnt the Oslo Cast On and all things would have been well.  Better late than never though, so look at this video of a woman with unchipped nail varnish and let’s get on with it.”

“Ffffff, Ffffff, Ffffff,” said Maria Big Thumb.

Epilogue

Thus it came to pass that Maria Big Thumb learnt the skill of nalbinding and achieved Level 1 NVQ (Norse Viking Qualification).  She eventually hopes to progress to study for a Level 2 NVQ specialising in yelling loudly and beard plaiting.  Current circumstances mean that Maria Big Thumb is furloughed from her work placement raiding fishing villages on the Scottish coast.  In the meantime she is considering cleaning her nails and washing her hands before featuring them in photographs.

If all goes well, the next blog will appear mid-August.  Until then

Stay Safe, Be Kind, Keep Smiling.

The Mystery of the Missing Marshal

Note: Any similarity to individuals, locations or events is entirely coincidental.  See last month’s blog (In All Our Dreams) at the bottom of the page for cast of characters. Enjoy your visit to Woollyton.

7am

Vince has just finished setting out the course for Woollyton’s Midsummer Run.  He sits on a bench, unscrews the cup from his battered Thermos flask and pours his coffee.  Mrs Vince – long-suffering and saintly – provides him with refreshments for all of his volunteering obligations.  On the occasions when duties coincide with cold or wet weather she diligently tops up the sweet, black coffee with a generous tot of rum but today, with the sun shining and a warm June morning ahead, Vince’s coffee is just coffee.  She has, however, thoughtfully packed a biscuit for him to munch on.

Vince dunks the digestive rather than munches it and thinks about the success of the Saturday morning runs.  Getting Olga the Opera Singer to give the pre-race briefings meant there was no need to buy a megaphone, although recently Dr Lizzy (the First Aider) has complained that the way Olga rolls a cigar up and down her thigh as she sings instructions to the music from Carmen means some of the runners are breathless before the race starts.

The only Saturday which wasn’t a success was the one when Mike the Marshal went missing.  Vince frowns as he recalls talking to the police, being interviewed by a reporter from The Woollyton Bugle and even – Vince nearly chokes as he gulps his coffee too quickly – having to answer an email from HQ asking for an explanation.  And why?  Because Roger had forgotten the three notes that Mike had given him to deliver.  The first had been to Vince saying that Mike had to leave his marshal post early as his flight to Amsterdam left at 1pm; the second was to Mrs Mike telling her that he’d been called away on urgent business. (Mike never explained to his wife why his business trips involved him being away for weeks at a time before he returned, suntanned and with a wallet full of cash, but to be fair, she’d never asked for details either.  She just thought he was more attractive bronzed than pale and was very happy to deal with the excess money); the third letter, addressed to his boss, said that his grandmother was seriously ill again and he’d been called to her bedside.  Apart from briefly marvelling at the recuperative powers of Mike’s grandmother who, for years now had suffered bouts of sickness around the time Tom Jones was in concert somewhere in the world, Mike’s boss did nothing more than tweak the staff rota for the following month and thank God for the existence of zero hours contracts.

Vince’s frown disappears as he remembers it all worked out in the end because Roger eventually found the letters and posted them.  Since then Mike had sent several postcards to Betty for her to display in The Sticky Bun and some exotic spices for her to try out in her cake recipes.  He’d even enclosed a packet of seeds for Upstairs Annie to plant on the allotments so she could grow her own hay.  And now that Nellie the Knitter and Brian Behind the Paper had won the lottery and gone on a world cruise, there’d be no more complaints to deal with.  Vince finishes his coffee and smiles contentedly.

8am

Sticky Betty sets up a table near the start line with complimentary buns for all of the runners.  She has finally used the spices Mike sent her from Amsterdam and because today is a celebration, she made an even stickier than usual topping.  Sticky Betty is sure they’ll be very popular with everyone.

9am

Most of the runners have eaten Sticky Betty’s spiced buns even though common sense told them to wait until they’d finished the race.  Rod has produced a red satin cape and led a riotous arm-waving, foot-stamping warm up session alongside Olga’s rendition of the pre-race briefing to The March of The Toreadors.  As Vince blows the start whistle, over on the allotments a curl of smoke rises up from a bonfire and wafts across the course.  Upstairs Annie has scythed the hay she was growing with the Amsterdam seeds and set the stubble alight to clear the ground.  As the runners pass by on the first loop the smoke has dissipated into a pungent, greyish haze and by the time they approach on the second loop, Vince wonders if he needs to remind the clubs about taking the race seriously because the runners seem to be doing a Conga into Woollyton Woods.

10am

Vince checks his watch.  He sent Roger into the woods more than 15 minutes ago to look for the runners and there’s been no sign of him since.  Vince shudders as he anticipates having to deal with another HQ email but then sighs with relief as a lone figure walks out of the trees and heads for the finish.  Rosie strolls over the line and raises her arms in triumph, claiming victory for walkers the world over and dismissing the disappearance of all the other competitors as irrelevant.

11am

Vince decides that he will have to send a search party into Woollyton Woods.  He looks around and realises he is alone in the playing field except for Rod and Olga who are doing an Argentine Tango near the still smoky allotments.  Vince puts on his Run Director vest, his brave face and follows the taped course into the trees.  It’s not long before he hears a man’s voice singing.  Soon he reaches a clearing full of runners who are swaying back and forth to the music.  Upstairs Annie is carrying a smouldering pile of hay and a misty cloud hangs in the air.  Standing on top of makeshift stage is the gyrating figure of a black-shirted man.

“Mike? Mike? Mike?” calls Vince.

“Delilah,” chant the runners.

“Why? Why? Why?” Vince takes a deep breath and starts to feel a little bit dizzy.

“Delilah,” the runners chorus.

“So before – I sent Roger a note saying I’d be back today – they come to break down the door.” Mike’s voice booms out and his hips swing from side to side.

Vince’s hips feel an urge to do the same.  He briefly wonders whether his replacement will cope and then decides there’s only one way to find out. He pushes his way through the crowd to stand next to Mike on the stage, puts his NHS orthopaedic surgery under stress it was never designed for and along with everyone else, goes for it.

“FOR-GIVE ME, DE-LI-LAH, I JUST COULDN’T TAKE ANY MOOOOOOOOOORE!”

Email from Run HQ to Vince

Hi Vince, We heard you had a special Run last Saturday.  Would you like to tell us more about it?

Email from Vince to Run HQ

No.

 

The End.  My next blog should (fingers crossed) appear in mid-July.  Until then #staysafe #bekind #keepsmiling

In all our dreams

 “We should show life neither as it is nor as it ought to be, but as we see it in our dreams.”

Anton Chekhov

I’m going to write a whodunit.  Not a gritty, gory crime novel – they’re too much like real life and for the moment, I’ve had enough of reality.  And not one of those brooding melodramas set in a beautiful landscape where everyone is gorgeous looking, under 40 and affluent but with no obvious source of income.  No, I’m going to write an old-fashioned mystery with a collection of eccentric characters – all with dodgy alibis and skeletons in the cupboard – who lurk about suspiciously and generally undermine the efforts of the police to bring the guilty party to book.   Back in 2007 when I was concocting a detective story for my Creative Writing degree, Rob Middlehurst (my tutor at the University of Glamorgan) advised me to sketch little life stories for my protagonists to make their part in the plot believable.  If he’s reading this, he’ll be pleased I sort of paid attention.  Even though I am still without a detailed plan of how the tale will unfold – it involves blackmail, jealousy and a compost heap on the village allotments – I think my characters’ backgrounds are very realistic.  It’s just that there was no sketching involved – only some scraps of wool and too much time on my hands.

 

Vince the Volunteer

Every village needs a Vince.  In Woollyton, Vince organises the parkrun that starts off with two laps of the playing field before following a footpath into a glade of trees.  Local legend tells of lost treasure buried in a cave somewhere in the Woollyton Woods and says that those who stumble upon it either go completely mad or are never seen again.  Vince seems as sane as any other Run Director, muttering to himself about things he’s forgotten to do as he pegs out the course at the crack of dawn each Saturday.  He never goes into the woods though, preferring to send a marshal who will stand alone beneath creaking branches until the last runner passes and then collect the tape which marks the route before heading back to the playing field.  Last month Mike the Marshal didn’t return at the end of the run.  Not to the finish line, not to his house where Mrs Mike had lunch on the table and not to his job the following week.  “Just as well,” said Vince to the policeman who came enquiring for information, “I’ve got a spare hi-viz jacket and plenty of tape so I can send someone else into the woods next week.”

Sue the Stretch

What Sue really wants is for everyone in Woollyton to take up Yoga, thus making her business plan for a naturist retreat called Yogi Bare irresistible to the bank manager who needs to agree her loan application.  In the meantime, she has to be content with daily classes for the clothed and faithful few at the Community Centre.  Except, of course, on a Saturday morning when the parkrun takes place and Sue has to yield all of the car parking spaces, the changing rooms and the little cafeteria (The Sticky Bun – tea/coffee and, you’ve guessed it, a sticky bun  for £2.50) to Vince and the runners.  This she does with all the magnanimity of someone who can adopt the position of Downward Dog and stay in it for 47 minutes without her digestive system announcing its existence to the world.

Olga the Opera Singer

Half of the residents of Woollyton are sceptical of Olga’s claim that she once sang in Milan and the other half say that anyone who hangs around the bars in Milan on a Saturday night will end up singing so her lack of modesty doesn’t necessarily imply talent.  Olga proves her case (one way or the other) by taking up position at her bedroom window each evening  after the Channel 4 news bulletin and letting rip with an aria.  This cultural largess has been raised at council meetings in the Community Centre where compensation for broken glass in the cold frames and greenhouses on the allotments nearest her house is consistently refused.

Upstairs Annie

Annie is one of those people who is rarely seen without a bale of hay in her arms.  Quite why this is has never been established as she doesn’t keep animals and lives in a tiny flat above Woollyton’s only shop, with not even a flower box to call outside space.  Those who have taken up Annie’s invitation to drop by for a nice hot cup of tea (that is, virtually everyone Annie meets on her hourly quad bike rounds of the village) are quick to say that Annie isn’t a gossip but she does know about most things that go on in Woollyton.  And when they’ve said that, they wonder where she gets the money to pay for the hay, the quad bike and the petrol she has to buy to make hourly rounds of the village.

Rosie Right to Ramble

Until the parkrun was launched, Rosie was the only person who wandered the paths through Woollyton Woods.  Now each Saturday people come from miles around, double parking their cars on verges and blocking driveways.  For a while Rosie tried to rally opposition to Vince and his marshals but to no avail.  Then she signed up on the parkrun website, got a barcode of her own and began joining in every week.  She is very fond of rambling in the rain and on days when the weather is particularly inclement, Rosie enjoys walking the route – very slowly – and waving to the cold, sodden hi-viz heroes who grin back at her through gritted teeth and send silent messages of a speedy finish followed by  cramp in both calves.

Betty the Sticky Bun Baker

When Betty took over the Community Centre café, it was on the understanding it would be developed into a healthy eating outlet, a hub for home cooked meat free, gluten free, dairy free but money expensive meals.  However in response to public opinion, Betty reneged on the terms of this unwritten agreement and announced that the entire menu would consist of sticky buns but with some exceptions.  Thus, on Bank Holidays and other auspicious occasions (many of which occur on Saturdays), Betty expands her repertoire – and the waistlines of her customers – by offering fried bacon and sausages layered in doorstep thick slabs of squidgy white bread served with great steaming mugs of hot milky chocolate at a cost all of her customers are more than happy to pay.

Nellie the Knitter and Brian Behind the Paper

Nellie and Brian celebrated their retirement by building a little bungalow in a peaceful spot near a grassy meadow and calling it “Paradise”.  Then the owner of the grassy meadow had the nerve to die and leave it to the residents of Woollyton as a playing field.  To add insult to injury he also left a strip of land to become allotments for the villagers and enough money for them to build a community centre.  Soon “Paradise” was anything but peaceful and one Saturday Brian took a felt pen and scrawled the word “Lost” on the house plaque.  That was the day Nellie abandoned crocheting granny squares and began knitting fair isle socks on 5 needles with a provisional cast on to the double rib cuff and Kitchener cast off at the arrow point toe line.  It was also the last day that Brian was seen as he’s been behind a paper ever since.

Rod the Runner

Every morning Rod squeezes himself into a pair of lycra shorts that were tight fitting when he bought them 3 years and 4 kilos ago.  He’s convinced that those 4 kilos are upper body muscles but many people who view his jogging form from behind would disagree.  Rod, being the Chairman of the Community Centre Committee, had to pretend to welcome the arrival of Woollyton’s parkrun but in truth, he always felt that running was too serious a business to share with the general public.  He even had to give up on his ambition to develop a wholefood restaurant at the Community Centre when one by one the rest of the committee, thanks to Betty’s persuasive skills, voted for the Sticky Bun alternative.  All of these things he writes about over and over again, in long, poetic letters to the only person in the village he had ever loved.  Letters which he seals with a smudgy kiss and never intends to post. Although once, a carelessly left open window and an afternoon breeze saw one of them waft from Rod’s desk and land, like litter, on Woollyton’s playing field.

I started knitting the little people just for a bit of fun but as so often happens, one thing has led to another.  Let me assure you – and particularly the people who I know personally – that whilst there may be a knitted resemblance to some of my friends and family, any links to dodgy alibis and skeletons in the cupboard exist only in my imagination.  Admittedly I haven’t worked out who among them is going to be the amateur detective, the culprit or the unreliable witnesses but I think I have populated Woollyton with more than enough eccentricity.  I wouldn’t be surprised to start getting messages from those within my social circle fairly soon suggesting the roles their character could play and which Hollywood star should take their part when the film rights of my whodunit are sold.   To them I would say –

“In all our dreams!”

Now, are there any publishers out there reading this?

Tony Blair is Banning

view from ferry

Firstly, apologies to anyone reading this whose name is Tony Blair because the blog is not about you.  It’s about a 11 year old girl called Alex and a plea to anyone who’s thinking of visiting Wales to 1) stay away at the moment and 2) realise there’s more to the country than Snowdonia and Pen-y-fan.  Back in 2005 my niece Alex came to stay for a weekend during the summer school holidays.  Alex was a sophisticate, used to watching television, playing computer games and generally having a very sociable and expensive to maintain lifestyle.  Losing these activities for a weekend would be acceptable but before Alex was due to return home, a childcare crisis arose and she ended up being in residence for 5 weeks.  Suddenly the absence of television, computer and friends became more of a challenge.

Until, that is, we came up with a game called Tony Blair is Banning.  The premise went along these lines: Tony Blair (then Prime Minister and a perfect candidate to be nominated as a spoilsport) was taking it into his head to ban things but was allowing people to indulge in their favourite whatever it was just once more.  Over the summer we did Tony Blair was banning films, books, holiday destinations, 3 course meals, sweets, chocolate bars and even pizza toppings.  The list was long and very creative but the one thing Tony Blair didn’t ban was favourite places in Wales.  Given that so many of us are having to adapt to a new reality when it comes to being outside, I thought I’d bring to this month’s blog a virtual tour of Wales and the art it has inspired me to make – like the Unlost Places piece I left on the Glamorgan Ridgeway.

The Gower Peninsula

Back in 2017 I was doing an MA in Contemporary Crafts at Hereford College of Arts and it was a visit to the Gower Peninsula which started my interest in mapping metaphysical features of landscape.  This was the first piece which combined poetry and stitchery.

“Heavy, heady scented steps

ramsons,violets, celandine,

perfume the path, the moment.”

Just a couple of weeks ago I walked from Reynoldston to Penmaen via Arthur’s Stone.  My mate Kevin who has a workshop at the Gower Heritage Centre told me that King Arthur kicked a pebble across the estuary.  When it landed, the stone was so proud of how it had got there that it grew in stature to the size it is today.

Afan Argoed Country Park

I love this place.  In some of the toughest times I’ve had personally, being able to park the car at the edge of the forestry and just stare across the valley or wander up and down the wooded paths has brought priceless moments of peace and tranquillity.  This was a watercolour I did when I realised that being good at art (and I’m not) doesn’t matter unless you think it does.  If you’re feeling a little bit – or a lot – stressed by life at the moment, I urge you to get a pencil, sketchpad and some paints and just start making marks.

Small Indy Shops everywhere

Talking of tough times, losing a Mum can be one of the worst and in 1996 I realised that one of the things I was going to miss was the surprise (and often weird) Christmas present mine used to leave under the tree.  I rang a small fabric shop in Monmouth and explained my predicament.  The lady I spoke to said she’d be very happy to put a little of parcel of fabric together for me, on condition I didn’t open it until Christmas morning.  Came the big day and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when unwrapping revealed not just fabric but beads, threads, raffia and feathers all colour coordinated with a beautiful fat quarter of fine cotton.  I called the doll I made from it all “What a day I’ve had!”, one of my Mum’s favourite sayings.  That shop may have closed down but I’ve now found the wonderful Sew Lovely in Barry to fill the gap.

What a day I've had!

St Non’s Well

St David’s in Pembrokeshire has to be one of the most beautiful places in the world, not just in Wales, so it’s worth walking the mile or so out of town to St Non’s Well, a holy site dedicated to David’s mother.  I recommend sitting with your back against the 6th Century chapel walls, having a picnic of orange juice and fresh made bread bought from the High Street bakery and looking out across the Irish sea.  A truly spiritual experience.

Cader Idris

I stop off here every time I go to visit the very regal cat Bramble Murgatroyd at the wool shop called Knit One that she runs in Dolgellau.  Anyway.  Favourite place.  In the world.  Enough said.

About Knit one…

Llanddwyn Beach

I went to Anglesey for the first time on holiday last year and we nearly didn’t bother going into Newborough Forest because we weren’t sure it was going to be worth the car park money.  What a mistake that would have been!  Not only was Anglesey a revelation (for some reason I had expected it to be grey and urbanised) but Llanddwyn is amazing, with pine forests, sand dunes and great views across the Menai Strait to the mountains.  It was the site of one of my early pieces of Unlost Places art, long since prey to the restless waves.

Beach art

The Culvert

Hello, you’re probably thinking, what culvert?  Any of them, truth be told.  South Wales is littered with water logged tunnels thanks to the drainage issues left by the Industrial Revolution and the multitude of coal mines.  Back in about 2003, I had to do a bridging project between studying for Creative Textiles 1 and Creative Textiles 2 with the Open College of Arts.  I chose to make an art doll based on a folk tale about mine fairies called Coblynnau.  They supposedly lived in dark tunnels and tapped on the walls to show where the best mineral seams were to be found but as I live next to a long abandoned brick works, I gave mine a sliver of clay to hold rather than a lump of coal.  If you’re even remotely interested in Psychogeography, any of the South Wales valleys is worth a visit.  If you choose the Rhondda, then call in to the wonderful Workers’ Gallery in Ynyshir to see some of the best contemporary art in a vibrant community setting.

The Brecon Beacons from Black Mountain to Black Mountains

When I finally decide to move from Scarecrow Cottage, the Brecon Beacons is one of the places where I’m thinking of pitching my tent. I grew up splish-sploshing across the bare moorland streams of the Black Mountain in the west but as an adult I orienteered, ran and walked through the lovely forests and rugged hillsides of the Black Mountains further east.  I often visit Brecon town with its beautiful cathedral and gorgeous little museum – it nestles in the shadow of Pen-y-fan.  All in all,  I’m grateful that hordes of visitors spend their time trudging up and down the Pont-ar-Daf track because it means the rest of the Brecon Beacons National Park is quiet and unspoilt for people like me.

The Coastline

I grew up in Aberavon where the long golden sands sweep around to form the southern edge of Swansea Bay.  Quite why Aberavon and its neighbours, Morfa, Porthcawl and Llantwit Major aren’t on the same tourist itinerary as the Gower and Pembrokeshire is a bit of a mystery.  It has to be said that Wales has some of the best beaches in the UK and one of the best coastlines in the world.

Home

“Teg edrych tuag  adref”

I suppose the upshot of all this is that our current situation should serve as a reminder to not take things, places or people for granted.  Perhaps playing a game like Tony Blair is Banning would help us all to appreciate what we’ve had and what we’ve got.  Dyna Gymru i mi – lle gorau yn y byd i fyw.

 

River, Ford, Duck

river in flood
Photograph by Mrs B in the Hills

“Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and its current is strong; no sooner does anything appear than it is swept away, and another comes in its place and will be swept away too.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.

Thanks to Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis, rivers are attracting a lot of attention at the moment.  Here in Wales, being the first high ground that the Atlantic weather systems hit on their west to east trajectory, we get more than our fair share of rain which leads to a surfeit of rivers.  The Rev. Eli Jenkins’ list was by no means complete as it misses out, amongst others, the Severn, Usk and Wye:

“By Sawdde, Senni, Dovey, Dee,

Edw, Eden, Aled, all,

Taff and Towy broad and free,

Llyfnant with its waterfall.

Claerwen, Cleddau, Dulas, Daw,

Ely, Gwili, Ogwr, Nedd,

Small is our River Dewi, Lord,

A baby on a rushy bed.”

(Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas)

Field Sketch

 

My childhood memories are scattered with river references:  in warm weather we’d paddle in the Afan where it flowed across Aberavon’s sandy beach or dare each other to crawl along the gas pipes that straddled the Ffrwdwyllt in the Goytre valley.  Occasionally, we’d be taken on a family outing to the Pontaber Inn on the Black Mountain, where a little bridge crossed a babbling stream that ran through the beer garden and, in Sunday best dresses, we’d lean over and play Pooh sticks.  Our local nant was dammed by work parties of children every June so that we’d have a makeshift lido right through the summer holidays.  Whilst none of us grew up to be civil engineers, we all knew that obstructing the flow of water downstream would create flooding upstream.

Paddling

As a result, when I looked over the ancient stone walls of Crickhowell Bridge a few weeks ago and saw this, I felt qualified to get in touch with National Resources Wales and say that based on my experience, the tree in question was not going to dislodge itself and float away without help.  Now, not being local to Crickhowell, once I got a nice message back from National Resources Wales saying the matter was being referred to their Incident team, I stopped thinking about the tree but not about rivers, and not about the things that get swept away by them.

The path to Llangattock runs close to a little brook and as I stopped to take this photograph of snowdrops, a dead duck floated past on the fast flowing water.  For some reason – I think it’s to do with the fact that the duck was stretched out, lying on its back with wings at its side and I’ve been reading too many books about Viking boat burials recently – I have been unable to erase the image from my mind.  I suppose we should all be glad that my camera was pointing at the snowdrops or you might now be having the same problem.

Returning home the following week I got an email asking me if I wanted to submit a piece of work – art or poetry – to an exhibition.  It was to be on the theme of ‘Rivers’ and as I live close to the river Ogmore which starts with a mountain spring before plunging over a bare rock cliff as a tumultuous waterfall, I thought, yes, I can do that.  I did a field sketch then composed a poem called ‘Leap’ in my usual 7 syllables a line, 3 lines a verse format and sent it off.  When it came to the stitchery however, all I could see was the dead duck and as I was pretty convinced that the exhibition organisers didn’t have a drowned bird in mind when they decided the title, I thought I had better go and find some different inspiration.

map of route walked

You may recall that last month’s blog ended near the Mynydd Portref wind farm.  It’s a short distance from there along an old pilgrim path to the small village of Glynogwr where a lane opposite Llandyfodwg Church leads to a winding brook called Nant Iechyd.  There are two ways to cross the water – a small footbridge over it or the Dimbath Ford straight through it.  It’s a route which I run regularly and is home to one of my pieces of transient land art.  A small detour into a wood on the west of the lane leads into a hollow way and just before the trail putters out into wide green meadows, I built this piece of sculpture and decorated it with one of the many crab apples that litter the ground.  It was at grid reference 942888 but Storms Ciara and Dennis may have altered that.

land art

It’s always tempting – but rarely right – to use blue to give the impression of water, especially if you’re not working figuratively.  With the drowned duck still at the forefront of my imagination, I went for a less romantic, maudlin palette.  Also I didn’t have much blue wool in my stash whereas there seemed to be a lot of muddy browns and greys.  As usual, my free form knitting began with a ribbed edge and drifted off into long straggly bits which gradually got infilled and joined up until they formed a single piece.

I had picked, sliced and dried some of the Dimbath Ford crab apples to use as beads and set them to dangle on invisible thread down one side of the hanging.

I’m quite pleased with the result;  the colours are very evocative of a floody river, the textures are great and best of all, I have nearly (but only nearly) erased the image of the sodden bird as the river swept him away to his final destination.  Now all I have to do is decide on a title for the artwork so it can be submitted for the exhibition.  Do I go with Time like a river?  Dimbath Ford?  Or Epitaph for a Drowned Duck?

“Learn from a river; obstacles may force it to change its course, but never its destination.”     Matshona Dhliwayo

 

Meeting Gandalf

“Confusing real matters with the machinery of the tale is a serious mistake.”     J.R.R.Tolkein.

My default method of coping with life has always been to retreat into an imagined reality, a made-up world of myth, magic and heroic deeds.  Eventually I read and loved The Hollow Hills (Mary Stewart), The Dark is Rising (Susan Cooper) and Earthsea (Ursula K LeGuin) but it all started with The Lord of the Rings.  In the autumn of 1976 I was at university in a city I hated, studying a subject I didn’t like which was going to lead me into a career I didn’t want.   What to do?  I could have transferred to a different campus, changed course or left and found a job that interested me.  Instead I chose to become engrossed in the fate of Middle Earth.  When the Fellowship of the Ring was formed, I was forced to decide where my loyalties lay.  I drifted aimlessly about in Further Education, squandering opportunities and wasting taxpayers’ money, all the time wondering whether I was more suited to becoming an elf, a dwarf or a hobbit.

In the end, I decided to develop a Gandalf-ian approach to life in general and dress sense in particular.  I binned my student uniform of jeans, sweatshirt and trainers and took to wearing long raggedy skirts, a cape and baggy boots.   These days, even though I am older and should be much wiser, I still channel my inner Gandalf when faced with a challenge.  Why?  Well, it’s not because I’m surrounded by short people with hairy feet who have a tendency to become invisible at awkward moments (although some of my friends tick at least two of those boxes), it’s because Gandalf is pragmatic, decisive and a strategist; and he knows the wisdom that comes from wandering ancient tracks and trails.  Also, I still have the cape and as there’s nothing wrong with it, no moth holes or rips, it needs to come out every so often and get worn.

 

I had heard a tale that the narrow lane at the side of the High Corner pub in Llanharan led to an almost forgotten landscape that could only be reached by foot.  A high claim in these days of off-roaders, quads and mountain bikes, and one which could only be proved by a boots on the ground exploration.  I had packed my creased and out of date OS map along with a picnic and my sketch book but then, at the last minute, had decided to switch bags.  The picnic and the sketch book made it into my rucksack but the map got mislaid in the transition.  Luckily all of those years when I orienteered (badly) has left me with something called ‘map memory’ so I knew roughly where I was going.  In short, this translates as uphill.  Really steeply uphill.  Eventually the tarmac lane petered out and a kissing gate marked the way into a field.  I stopped long enough to do a field sketch and tie some wool around my shoes so that when I came to knit a wallhanging of the route, I’d have yarn which had picked up some debris and would be coloured with what I call indigenous dyes but other people label mud.

 

The path turned west and was easy to follow across the sloping field.  A few sheep kept an eye on my progress as I moved past them but, surrounded by lush green grass that is the inevitable result of rainfall totals on the slopes of the Blaenau Ridge, they weren’t really interested in me.  The track was less steep now but still relentlessly uphill.  To the south the vista suddenly opened up and the flat lands of the Vale of Glamorgan, the cold waters of the Bristol Channel and even the North Devon coast came into focus.  Little white clouds scudded across the sky and the breeze felt fresh and clean.

 

Field Sketch

For me there is a peculiar joy to solitary walking in remote places.  On this particular day though, I wasn’t alone.  On the wooded slopes of Mynydd Coed Bychain (The Hill of Small Trees), a couple of riders on dark horses were making their way through the shadows.  Every so often they stopped and the rider in front stood up in his stirrups, scanning the horizon as if looking for something.  I watched them for a bit but it started to rain and I thought it wise to concentrate on my footing as the path rounded the curve of the hill and then wound upwards.  Ahead a rocky outcrop crowned the bluff and below, the valley widened as it ran down to the little settlement of Llwyn y Brain (Grove of Ravens) at its mouth.    A man stood on one of the boulders atop the cliff face, his form silhouetted against a greying sky.  Sitting next to him, alert, ears pointed forward, was a sheepdog.  I looked away for a moment to navigate a stony bit of track and when I looked back, both had disappeared and I was back to being in a lonely landscape.

The moors of Mynydd Portref are covered with windmills and the Ridgeway path doesn’t skirt them at any great distance.  They are quite hypnotic to watch and listen to and I was doing both when I met Gandalf.

“It’s good weather for them,” he said.

I was annoyed because I hadn’t noticed him approach.  If you walk alone in the countryside, you become quite alert to movement and sound but on this occasion, transfixed by the turbines’ sweeping blades, my alarm system had failed.  I turned to face the speaker.  Even though he had swapped his cloak for a red Berghaus jacket and the blue hat wasn’t as pointy as I remembered it, he looked like the Gandalf of my imagination, with a softly curling, greyish beard, tired looking eyes and a long walking stick grasped in his right hand.  He leaned his head back and for a moment or two we both watched the wind being turned into electricity then he turned and yelled over his shoulder, in a most un-wizardlike way:

“Margaret!  Get a move on.  We’ll be late for lunch!”

A bobble hatted woman with one limpy leg staggered into sight.

“Don’t feel sorry for her.”  He had seen the expression on my face.  “She’s not wearing proper walking boots.  Got some daft designer things on she bought yesterday and thought she could wear today without getting blisters.  All she’s doing is spoiling my day out. It’s not the first time.  I’ve had enough.  I really have.  I think we’ve reached the stage where as soon as I can, I’m going to leave her.”

“Oh,” I said, feeling awkward especially as Margaret arrived just as he had come to this conclusion.  I didn’t want to get involved.  I was busy planning the wallhanging map I wanted to make of my trek.

“Hello,” she said holding out her hand.  “Has he been telling you I’m holding him up? ”

“Not at all,” I lied.  Gandalf had wandered down the path and out of earshot.  “Trouble with your shoes?”

“No!” she exclaimed.  “Not at all.  I’m just pretending I’m useless so that he’ll dump me.  We met on a dating site a few weeks back.  He’s supposed to be kind and attentive with a good sense of humour.  Actually he’s a grumpy old sod and I can’t wait to be rid of him.  I think today could be the day he’ll finish it.  Must go,” she said.  “The more he sees me limping, the more annoyed he’ll be.”

As she disappeared into the distance and his shouts of “Margaret! Keep up!” faded away, I thought how probably it was best that Gandalf stayed where he belonged.  In my imagination.

 

Ransoming Sanity

“In a world gone bad, a bear … is a comforting, uncomplicated, dependable hunk of sanity.”      Pam Brown

Part One

It’s the 1st of December, the start of Advent, and I am at a Christmas Fayre which is being held to raise money for a charity.  Towards the end of the afternoon I notice an elderly lady, who has been helping out on the bric-a-brac table, wandering about the room as if she is looking for someone particular.  She is holding a small teddy bear close to her chest.  I watch her with the experience of a person who has spent their working life in the NHS and I get ready to spring into action if she starts to look distressed or disorientated.  Almost as if she hears my thoughts, she stops walking towards the door, turns and her eyes meet mine.  I smile and she starts moving in my direction.  “Hello,” I say. “Are you having a nice afternoon?”

“Do you like my bear?” she asks.

“He’s lovely,” I reply.

“50p or he goes to landfill,” she answers.  She holds her hand open, waiting for the ransom to be paid.

The bear stares forlornly at me.  What choice have I got?  I open my purse and get out a coin.

“That will do.” She takes the money and thrusts the bear at me.  “Be happy,” she says as she heads back to the bric-a-brac table, sweeps up a rag doll and heads off towards to a smartly dressed man having a cup of tea in the corner of the room.

Part Two

Which is how and why, this year, Aneirin the Teddy Bear, has come to be the star of my Advent Calendar on Twitter (@marialalic).  Two days after his (its?) arrival, we headed onto the Glamorgan Ridgeway for an Unlost Places expedition, about which I will write more in January when sanity has returned.  Unused to having company on my walks, I started off by introducing him to trig spotting

and from there we walked across the mountain tracks and sheep trails

before we reached Mynydd Portref Wind Farm.

We ended our trek with Cranberry & Orange Scones at the lovely Black Mill Cafe in (not surprisingly) Blackmill Village.  Cranberry and Orange is is not a flavour combination that would have occurred to me but it was very successful, particularly coming with a choice of either Cinnamon Butter (very nice) or Orange Curd & Clotted Cream (sublime).  If ever there was a reason to support #indie cafes and coffee shops, then being able to sit opposite a small teddy bear  and share your afternoon tea without anyone looking askance at you, is it.

Part Three

I had to be in Powys on the 5th December so there was a good opportunity to get at least three photographs of Aneirin done for the Advent Calendar.  One of my favourite places in the world is the lovely Tretower Court and Castle.  The man on reception didn’t find it at all remarkable that a small bear would be touring the premises.  Put him, he said, on the throne in the Banqueting Hall.  I did but Aneirin – being little – was overwhelmed by the immense table and the majestic wall tapestry.  My advisor was undeterred.  Try, he suggested, getting the castle in the background.  This proved to be much more in Aneirin’s style.

The problem was that although I like the castle ruins, it’s the atmospheric Tretower Court that I love.  I wandered in and out of the rooms and galleries before finally finding a place where Aneirin could channel his inner Errol Flynn.

Part Four

Sunday, 8th December was the day that Storm Atiyah made landfall and the day that I was stuck on Newton Beach for more than two hours, marshalling The Christmas Pudding Race that is organised by a local running club.  70mph gusts of wind sandblasted everything, everyone and every teddy in their way.

With Aneirin safely anchored to a piece of driftwood, I made a piece of Unlost Places art using found objects from the strand line.  It started off as a sort of windchime but soon ended up wrapping itself around the supporting piece of wood.

With the last runners safely off the beach, we (I mean all the volunteers and not just me and Aneirin – I have not slipped that far off the plane of reality) made our way back to the finishing area.  I know that virtue is its own reward but marshalling brings lots of practical benefits too.  Banana themed meals for the next week, for example.

Part Five

I’ve decided that having a teddy bear companion has been quite a pleasant diversion to the awfulness which saturates the News these days.  And not just for me, either.  One of the sanest people I know is going to knit Aneirin a jumper and she didn’t even take a lot of persuading!

Aneirin’s Twitter activities are unlikely to last into next year unless I decide the world (or me) is in need of a bit less sanity and a bit more distraction.  As a thought provoking Christmas present to you as you’re still reading, I’ll leave you with this quotation from Douglas Adams:

“If life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.”

Cyfarchion y Tymor.

In Rainy Autumn

 

“And I rose in rainy autumn and walked abroad in a shower of all my days.”             Dylan Thomas

Fed up of this rainy autumn?  Then let me take you back to a hot summer day instead,.  It’s Friday the 28th of June.  Even the usually muddy waters of the Towy estuary are glistening under a  blue sky; no whisper of breeze disturbs the green-leafed trees that edge the railway track between Kidwelly and Carmarthen.  As the train passes through Ferryside (Glan-y-fferi) station I glance out of the dust smudged window at the silhouette of Llansteffan Castle, perched on a hill above the opposite shore.  I make this journey quite often and that glance towards Llansteffan Castle means it’s time to stop working, put my books in my bag, collect my belongings and get ready to leave the train.

View towards Llansteffan

I stand up, hear my phone hit the floor (because it was on my lap not in my pocket) and spend valuable moments in an undignified scramble between my seat and the one in front.  By the time I retrieve my phone, Carmarthen station – which was ten minutes away – is now much closer and I have a flurry of anxiety at the possibility of missing the opportunity to get off the train, instead being swept towards Milford Haven, Pembroke Dock or Fishguard.  (I should say that I have visited – intentionally – all of these towns and would be happy to do so again.  It’s just that if I’m aiming for Carmarthen, that’s where I want to go.)  Today I am taking advantage of the town’s integrated transport hub to get me to my destination.  Or I would if I could be bothered to wait for the bus at the railway station.  I can’t, so walk across the wonderful Pont King Morgan Footbridge to catch the 227 bus to Llansteffan village.

 

As well as its castle and the titular church, this place was home to the late artist Osi Rhys Osmond and it’s where Dylan Thomas spent much of his childhood, later inviting the world to share its magical innocence through his poem ‘Fern Hill’.  These are the sort of things I should know about before travelling somewhere to make an art map but one of the flaws in my exploration technique is that I tend to visit a place first and do the research afterwards.  Then, of course, I need to go back so that not only do I have context for my wanderings but I will have also worked out where the best coffee and cake is to be had en route.

Church at Llansteffan

Anyway, back to the plot.  The number 227 bus takes about 20 minutes to reach  Llansteffan and then carries on to Llanybri.  When you’ve never been to a place before, the best plan for choosing where to get off a bus is to wait for some local to ding the bell and shuffle to their feet.  This tried and test method means that I soon find myself at the corner of Water Lane.  The bus trundles off uphill and out of sight.  Not surprisingly Water Lane leads down to the the river but before you get to the Towy itself, some town planner has thoughtfully arranged a surfeit of car parking places as well as neatly cut verges and picnic benches.  I walk down the road, nosing over low walls into people’s gardens, looking for ideas and comparing the growth of their roses to mine.  (Mine are better.)

Garden

The river has disappeared behind a nature reserve of marram-grassed sand dunes.  Maps giving instructions about where, when and how dogs are allowed to be walked, to defecate or merely to exist confuse me because they (the maps) have been orientated through 270 degrees so you have to lean at an extreme angle to make sense of them.  Not having a dog with me, I don’t bother.  After a bit there are more car parking spaces;  benches alongside the pavement give a view across the estuary expanse that is as impressive as it is unexpected.  Who’d have thought there would be an immense, golden and tropical looking beach?  Hardly anybody by the look of it.

Tywi Estuary at Llansteffan

There’s a footpath to the castle signposted from the corner of the car park.  After a few hundred metres it forks: right is The Old Road (sic) which leads into the village with its artisan bakery, pubs and church; left the path goes steeply uphill to the castle.  When you climb to the top and survey, breathless, the panorama across the bay, it’s easy to understand why – before the Normans got here – there had been an Iron Age Hill Fort and a 6th Century Promontory Fort.  Right up until it ended up in the hands of the Tudor dynasty, Llansteffan Castle was a target for and site of conflict between the English and the Welsh princes.

The path to the castle

 

I don’t stay at the castle long because there’s no shade inside the walls from the sun which now high in the sky.  I go back down the path and follow The Old Road to the village.  An elderly man is strimming undergrowth in the walled graveyard – the Llan – that surrounds the church of St Ystyffan.  It’s a grade II listed building of white washed rubble stone, the oldest parts of which are dated to 13th Century although it’s likely that it was a site of Christian worship from the 6th.  St Ystyffan was a contemporary of St Teilo and there are other churches in Wales dedicated to him, particularly in Powys.  It’s lovely and cool inside the church so I take my time admiring the medieval stonework and the beautiful stained glass windows.  Outside the strimmer putters to a halt and doesn’t restart.  Either man or machine thinks hard work and the midday day sun don’t go together.  From the church I walk back up The Old Road, this time veering off before the castle slope and going through an iron gate.

Woodland path

A woodland path leads to St Anthony’s Well, now little more than an arched hollow with an empty niche but once known as a healing well with pins and pennies left as offerings.  A series of stone steps takes me onto the scorching sands of the beach.  The cool, shimmering waters beckon me and I can think of nothing better at this moment than a paddle in the shallows.  Until, that is, I find that between me and the Towy are the remains of many, many dead jellyfish.

Jelly Fish

I retreat to the beach cafe for an ice cream and wait on a bench for the arrival of the boat which will take me back to Ferryside.  When I make maps, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to convey the poetic and metaphysical features of landscape through stitch.  Now I’m going to have to find a way to express jellyfish mortality too.   In the meantime though, this is the stitched sketch I made of the walk in the countryside around Llansteffan:

stitched sketch

The best bit of the whole day, however, was the view of Llansteffan from the Carmarthen Bay Ferry.

view from ferry