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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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)
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
The best bit of the whole day, however, was the view of Llansteffan from the Carmarthen Bay Ferry.
“Breathes there the man with soul so dead, Who never to himself hath said, This is my own, my native land.” Sir Walter Scott
Before we left Scotland I was determined to see the famous stone circles of Kilmartin. For some perverse reason our sat nav decided to ignore the obvious route of the A816 and instead took us on a panic attack-inducing, twisting, narrow lane towards the village of Kilmore – aptly named, we thought, especially after we encountered a full size bus hurtling towards us, the driver of which had more faith in his braking ability than our nerves could cope with. Eventually we got back to the main road and as Kilmartin Glen opened up, we stopped at Carnasserie Castle.
From the bottom of the hill, it looks like one of the ubiquitous stone towers that scatter the Scottish landscape but as you climb the slope, it becomes clear that whoever built this was sending a very serious message about power, ownership and the consequences of threatening either. The tower is five storeys high and can be climbed. If listening to the sat nav had been our first mistake of the day then deciding to take the spiral, unlit, un-handrailed, slippery-with-age stone staircase to the top of Carnasserie Castle – while carrying an acrophobic Jack Russell terrier – was our second. The views across the vast expanse of the glen were magnificent and certainly gave an indication as to why this landscape attracted the attention of stone circle builders. Once we’d recovered from the climb, however, there was the terrible realisation that what had come up, had to go down.
There are few better ways to calm jangling nerves than doing a bit of watercolour painting. Once on terra firma I tried to capture the colour of the castle stones which from the bottom of the hill look a dour grey but up close are the most delicate pink – quite lovely if you are in a post-traumatic state.
Kilmartin was everything I had hoped to see in terms of landscape archaeology. There are standing stones, stone circles and burial chambers everywhere. Probably the biggest disappointment was that we arrived shortly after a coach load of American tourists, many of whom were of the opinion that the best way to appreciate the work of neolithic man was to lie on their backs with their legs stretched up on the sides of the monoliths. Whilst I don’t have a problem if this is done out of spiritual necessity, it did mean that photo opportunities were limited.
More history lay in wait at our next destination as we briefly visited Rosslyn Chapel, rightly feted because of its stupendous carving but disappointingly famous because of its involvement with the plot and film of The Da Vinci Code. We made the mistake of being there on a weekend in the school holidays. If you’ve never been, Roslin (the village) is about 10 miles south of Edinburgh and you should make it your life’s ambition to get there. Definitely a place for the bucket list but don’t stop at just seeing the chapel – there’s a lovely castle and some terrific walks through historical battlefields around the village too.
Next day we drove to Bamburgh where the massive castle overlooks the wide, golden-sanded beach and from there we headed to Gilsland, once the outer limit of the Roman Empire. It was here that I intended to make my next piece of Unlost Places art. The idea came in two parts: the first is captured in the photograph at the very top of the blog. Nailed to the fence to the left of the tree was a dead crow. Doing this is an old farming way of warning other crows to stay away from the field.
The second part of the idea came when I saw this stone. Here in Wales we chain standing stones too. It is said that doing so stops the stone from wandering off and taking the path with it.
This was the first time that I had done performance art as part of Unlost Places and my recitation of a poetic tercet whilst standing in the middle of a Northumbrian lane probably frightened off more crows that the old farming way. Being so close to Hadrian’s Wall meant I was spoilt for choice when it came to making a larger piece of artwork. Until, that is, we passed the Temple of Mithras at Carrawburgh.
Creative Knitting is always a bit fiddly and you can never be sure it’s going to work out until the very last bead is attached or French Knot stitched. And to those who think that maps are drawn with lines on paper all I can say is that for me, on a damp Tuesday afternoon in May, standing in the Temple of Mithras in the bleak landscape of Carrawburgh, this is how I understood my native land.
“Sow an act, and you reap a habit. Sow a habit, and you reap a character. Sow a character and you reap a destiny.” Charles Reade
The historical kingdom of Dalriada was first settled by Irish raiders and eventually came to include much of what is now known as Argyll. You can’t walk far in the area around Oban without coming across reminders of a past which sowed the seeds of Scotland and Scottish character. This 11 mile walk from Oban to Sutherland’s Grove Forest (near Barcaldine) followed part of the Caledonian Way cycle route, most of which is traffic free or on quiet lanes. If, like me, you start by going down the old carriage road towards Dunollie Castle, you’ll pass Fingal’s Stone. Legend has it that that Bran used to tie his faithful hunting dog, Fingal, to this piece of volcanic rock. It was just starting to rain when I got there so rather than get the paints out, I came up with a tercet.
“From the west he will call through
time. Scenting the air, Fingal
waits – still, listening, ready.”
The weather was improving as I left Dunollie Castle and turned north. By the time I reached Ganavan Sands with it’s wide sandy beach, the clouds were lifting with the sky promising a weak sunshine for the rest of the day . I’d wanted to visit Ganavan Sands because it hosts a parkrun . I wasn’t going to be in the area at 9.30am on a Saturday to do the whole 5K so I followed part of the route across the dunes and heath towards Dunbeg.
I’ll confess that cycling doesn’t hold much in the way of attraction for me but if I’d had a bike on this stretch of the Caledonian Way, I’d probably have ended up walking anyway – there were some seriously steep slopes! Having made the summit, the track wound downhill through a magical woodland. The hillsides were covered in ancient oaks that clustered and curled together, gossiping secrets as the light breeze filtered through their drapes of lichen. Occasionally a hidden crow splintered the silence with a loud C-a-a-a-r-k! Field sketching and walking always combine to make wobbly paintings but I think it’s a great way to capture a mystical atmosphere of place.
I diverted from the path at Dunstaffnage, home to many of the ancient kings of Scotland and where in the past the iconic Stone of Destiny was kept. This was the place which was once the centre of Dalriada and for many people, it is where the ideal of a nation called Scotland was born.
Wandering through the bee-humming woods and past the ruins of a stone built chapel, was like walking through a lake of bluebells.
I came to a pebbly cove which is now home to a piece of Unlost Places art. I drew the image with a waterproof feltpen so the sea shouldn’t damage it too much – for a while, at least. I don’t suppose my pebble will ever be found on a beach where they are not only in infinite supply but constantly moving in and out with the tide but I like to think that it was my gift to Dalriada.
The Caledonian Way goes past some magnificent lochside scenery and walking is a wonderful way to appreciate the landscape. I took this photograph when the Caledonian Way had curved behind some trees and away from the road. I could hear cars hurtling along, their drivers having no idea of what they were missing. From Benderloch I walked on quiet lanes towards Barcaldine where I encountered the first of the day’s midgies.
Not even midgies could stop my heart from lifting when I realised that Sutherland’s Grove Forestry was home to an orienteering course. My joy was complete when I found a map that someone had left on a bench rather than taking it home or putting it in a rubbish bin. Following the orienteering course took me through some of the most picturesque parts of the woodland but even if it hadn’t, I loved chasing through the trees looking for controls and when I couldn’t find them, remembering that I’d always had a tendency to overshoot my intended location by misjudging my stride length. Some habits die hard!
In some of the glades, there were creatures sculpted in dead wood that could have inspired (or been inspired by) The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. A troll – presumably caught out by the May sunshine – was lurking close to a bridge over a narrow gorge.
Higher up the slopes the scenery was even more dramatic. It’s an area associated with the Celtic legend of Deirdre who escaped from Ulster to this part of Dalriada with her lover, Naoise of the Red Branch. This photograph is looking towards Beinn Lora which translates to Deirdre’s Hill.
In Wales, we call the gathering of wool tufts from hedges and fences gwlana. I used gwlana and pickings of forest litter to create this piece of weaving which I left hanging from a tree in Sutherland’s Grove.
Unlost Places is a project about mapping the metaphysical features of landscape, using art to express what it feels like to be a certain place. Just before I started this walk through Dalriada I’d stopped off in a shop in Oban and bought a pack of textured threads. Since then, I’ve worked with my poetic tercets, field sketches and stitched samples to create this map of my walk using Free Form Knitting, Crochet and Weaving.
“There is a silent eloquence in every wild bluebell that fills my softened heart with bliss that words could never tell.” Anne Brontë
Our journey from Wales to Scotland tracked the flowering of bluebells; they had the appearance of waterfalls on the harsh hillsides of Snowdonia, nestled in the meadows of Lancashire and were cushioned in the leaf litter of Scottish woods. As we travelled north their hue changed from an almost ephemeral delicacy to the most intense hyacinth blue. Whilst the sight of them is arresting enough, they also drown the air with a heady perfume – reason enough for anyone to want to walk amongst them. Scotland in May is a pretty good where and when to do so.
In front of moss-fringed stones ramsons,violets,campions dance; Jack waits his turn by the hedge.
I love walking and now that I’ve given up painting in favour of field sketching and poetic tercets, I find more and more textures that I want to try and capture. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t.
The area around Moffat is ideal for the Unlost Places project: twisting lanes enfolded by steep sided hills and the sense that everywhere is a landscape that belongs to a moment in history. I marked my passage through place and time by building a small sculpture on the walls of an ancient bridge.
I use what are euphemistically called ‘indigenous dyes’ to colour material for stitchery. This is done by rubbing fabric against wood, metal or stone surfaces to stain the background surface. It’s an example of how an art map becomes much more the visual representation of a place that I spoke about in last month’s blog.
THE ISLE OF MULL
A visit to the Isle of Mull (http://www.isle-of-mull.net/) had long been on my to-do list. We crossed from Oban to Craignure then headed to the beautiful and isolated bay of Lochbuie. Apart from a couple of houses, an honesty shop (a well-stocked general store where you chose what goods you wanted and were trusted to leave the appropriate amount of money behind – how refreshing is that as a concept?) and the ubiquitous ruined castle, Lochbuie is also home to the tiny St Kilda’s church.
Unlost Places is all about using art and poetry to reflect features which are in some way transcendent. In the porch of St Kilda’s is an engraved Celtic Cross, tentatively dated to the 8th Century. This is a project that finds creativity in unexpected places.
It’s also a project that leaves creativity in unexpected places. An hour spent beach-combing yielded driftwood, shells and old fishing line – enough raw materials for some weaving to be left hanging from a tree. Hopefully proving that it’s not just bluebells which are silently eloquent.
The idea behind Prosiect Digoll/Unlost Places has been milling around in my head since I first realised that I could combine poetic tercets with creative stitchery to map metaphysical features of landscape. I’ve noticed that when I say this sort of thing to people (family, friends, complete strangers – I’m not fussy), their faces go blank, their eyes glaze over and they wander away, making lame excuses about having something else to do. If you’re still reading at this point, I assume you are mildly interested in Prosiect Digoll/Unlost Places or some aspect of creativity so I’ll start by explaining some of the terms I’ve used in the first sentence.
- Poetic Tercets: When I was about 7 years old, my elder sister ( Mrs B ) and I used to watch The Man from Uncle. In one episode, the character Ilya Kuryakin (played by David McCallum) had cause to recite a haiku. As everything that Ilya did influenced my sister’s thirst for knowledge, she – and therefore, I – became familiar with this form of Japanese poetry. For my MA dissertation (Lingering Fragments appears in the Gallery section) I used the Welsh version of a haiku which is called englynion y milwyr . It has three lines, each made up of seven syllables. I find that the rhythm of walking naturally leads to odd phrases popping into my head which I scribble onto paper and polish into poetic form later.
- Creative Stitchery: The number of people (usually men) I’ve met over the years who’ve told me how their mother/grandmother/auntie was so good at embroidery that you couldn’t tell the front of the work from the back is legion. This is not what you get with creative stitchery.
- Map: Forget about art maps being anything like the Ordnance Survey variety. I read somewhere that a map is simply a visual representation of place but people like Richard Long (http://www.richardlong.org/ ) use sounds or words to lead people through a landscape.
- Metaphysical features of landscape: My intention is to make art which expresses what it is like to be in a particular place rather than to interpret how it looks.
The photographs/video I’ve used up until this point have been of Anglesey (Ynys Môn) which will give a sense of what it looked like. What it was like to be there needed a more creative response. On Llanddwyn Beach the sands yielded plenty of raw material to make some beach art which could be left in the place which inspired its making.
Listening to waves rattling over pebbles and rustling seaweed on the strand line made a phrase pop into my head:
“she was prey to restless waves”
and bearing in mind that I was in the homeland of Branwen, there was an inevitable effect on the tercet:
Given, taken, biding time,
she was prey to restless waves;
Hope was borne on slender wings.
I collected pebbles which formed the basis of this piece of creative stitchery.
Finally came the mapping of metaphysical features of landscape. If you ever visit Llanddwyn Bay on Anglesey (and if you get the chance, you should), this may not help you get from A to B but it’s what the place did to my stitching fingers.
I’ll leave the last words to someone who spent his childhood on Anglesey and may have walked on the same beach. I think he’d probably understand what I hope to achieve through Prosiect Digoll/Unlost Places.
“You have to imagine a waiting that is not impatient because it is timeless.” R.S.Thomas
This is the shortest blog I’ve ever written and it’s because I’m about to begin work on my latest project which is called Digoll/The Unlost .
There’s a place in Wales called Cefn Digoll. This translates as “The Ridge of the Unlost” and it’s what gave me the idea of making maps about what the voices of metaphysical features of landscape are trying to say. I love the idea that being unlost comes from becoming aware of place rather than by finding a direction of travel.
For the next few weeks I’ll be travelling up and down the country making small art maps of places that I visit. Some of these I’ll be leaving in situ, others I’ll be bringing back to form part of my next exhibition. If you want to keep up with what I’m doing and where I’ve been, you can follow me on twitter – @marialalic or you can wait until next month’s blog (which will be longer than this one!) when I’ll post photographs of where I’ve been and what art I’ve made. Until then, hwyl am y tro!