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!
I’ve always found writing really easy, which is just as well because I’ve been doing a lot of it just recently. I’ve been taking notes at seminars, mentoring a creative writing student on her memoirs, doing critical reading for someone writing a crime novel, working on the drafts of my own book and then got invited to take part in the Interior Monologues exhibition at Oriel y Bont , University of South Wales. I mentioned this venture in last month’s blog but since then I’ve been to the opening night and, along with the other writers, I had the opportunity to read my work to an audience. It was an interesting project to be involved in not just from the creative point of view but also because there was a strict limitation on the amount of writing which could be submitted – just one A4 sheet of paper. This got me thinking about the techniques writers can use when their work is brief in length or as a brief, in content. Here are some of my suggestions:
Choose your words carefully
At Secondary school I had an English teacher called Mrs Evans. This is next bit is not me being deliberately insulting but I need you to get the picture of her – she was fat, grubby, had unruly white hair, nicotine stained fingers and she wore shapeless dresses bound around the middle with mismatched belts. The worst thing about her was that she sucked toffees as she was marking homework so exercise books were often returned with dribbles of syrup sticking the pages together. The best thing about her was that she was a brilliant teacher. One day she set us the challenge of writing in praise of someone who we liked but without using the word ‘nice’ anywhere in the composition. It was a word, she said, which had been so over-used that its contribution to expression was redundant and that if the world wasn’t careful, nice as both a word and a concept would become meaningless. Hmmm – watching the febrile shenanigans of politicians in this country at the moment, she could be right.
Understand and respect the context
Yesterday I was sorting some stuff out and came across my late mother’s sketchbook. The drawings inside were made in 1946, when she was 20 years old. They are colourful, simplistic and not very good technically speaking. More interesting to me is that they are naive to the point of being immature, almost as if they had been drawn by a child. I think there’s something about them that speaks loudly about the way in which a creative outlet can shape the way in which we deal with unpleasant experiences. As a girl of 14, Rose was sent into service to an aristocratic family in England; at 17 she returned to Port Talbot to nurse her ailing father and for the last two years of the Second World War, she worked as an usherette at the local cinema, running the two miles home every night in blackout with German bombers flying overhead seeking out the docks and industries of nearby Swansea. As my teenage years were spent in a slump of sullen laziness punctuated by the occasional tantrum, I am in awe of young people who suspend their childhood to deal with a ravaged reality and can still draw pretty pictures.
Transport the reader to another place
I fell out of love with running last December and just recently I’ve been trying to rekindle my enthusiasm. How better and where better to do this than by returning to one of my favourite places in South Wales, the gorgeous Afan Forest Park. In my twenties I applied to become a voluntary ranger here but changed my mind when the other interviewee turned up wearing army fatigues, a bullet proof vest and with handcuffs dangling from his belt. In my thirties I orienteered in and out of the woodland glades, sun rays dappling the pine strewn tracks. In my forties I remember one fabulous experience of running on the trail from Abercregan to Pontrhydyfen in heavy snow that blanketed all of the familiarity out of the world. Sadly there’s been precious little of the white stuff around here this winter. On the February day I pulled on my trainers and set out to follow the track up towards Cymer before coming back on the other side of the valley, the weather was gloriously spring like. My plan worked and as I listened to my footsteps on the coarse gravel track and the plaintive mewing of Red Kites overhead, I slipped back into a cosy affection with running. The relentless rhythm of moving forward under your own steam strengthens your senses and heightens your power of observation. How else on a 5 metre wide stony track could I have spotted this tiny frog in enough time to avoid squelching him underfoot?
Find a phrase
I was very lucky to work with the artist Mererid Velios for the Interior Monologues exhibition. Lucky not just because she’s a talented individual but also because she let me see the notes which underpinned her thought process – what she called ‘a brain dump’. Her starting place was to consider the decor of an abandoned 1940s interior, musing on the people who had once lived there and wondering about why they had left. From there she thought about they way in which we are all the product of the generations who came before us and after that she began to consider the effects of the way in which poverty was once faced with heroism but is now labelled as almost a failure. Her artwork was constructed out of forms used to apply for Universal Credit and used figures based on Sisyphus to make her point. I had one A4 sheet of paper to convey all of that. For me everything centred around one phrase (Here is my hand) which I repeated to connect the different aspects of her idea. You can read what I wrote here .
“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” Albert Einstein
I’ve been fascinated by walking ancient tracks ever since childhood when in long summer holidays, my mum would shepherd me and my sisters along the sheep trails that led from sandy dunes near Aberavon up onto the moorland slopes of Baglan mountain. At the time I didn’t know anything about the tracks being ancient and admittedly, much of the fascination came from seeing how long any of us children could hold onto the low voltage electric fence wires that were used to keep the sheep on the mountain and not wandering through the town of Port Talbot below. Let me make two clarifications relating to the electric fence wire: firstly, we didn’t have Health and Safety back in the 1960s; we had health, we had safety and for the most part, we had a lot of good luck and secondly, it was my younger sister Annie, who proudly claimed the record of being able to hold on to the wire – and its associated voltage – for about 10 seconds which was some 4 seconds more than Nell and 9 seconds longer than me.
Anyway, let’s get back to the point about the ancient tracks and specifically, the ancient tracks which crisscross the bracken covered slopes that look across the Bristol Channel towards Somerset. 2000 years back this area was inhabited by the Silures tribe who held sway over most of south east Wales from the River Severn to the River Lougher. The name Silures came from the Latin meaning “the people of the rocks” and according to Tacitus, they were swarthy with black, curly hair and a predilection for war. It took the invading Romans of the 1st Century AD about 30 years to finally subdue them. More recent than Tacitus, Niel Faulkner said “Ancient Siluria was a land of boggy uplands, wooded slopes and narrow valleys and plains… it was a rougher, harder and more impoverished land and its people skilled in war…”
Now this is about as much as I know about the Silures and as I am not a historian but an artist, I think it’s about as much as I need to know. I’ve never been one to let fact get in the way of creativity so you should understand that much that comes after this point is the product of my imaginative wanderings. Maps show that the Glamorgan ridge is about 20 miles west of Baglan mountain and it is covered with place names which hint at a violent past: Mynydd y Gaer (the Mountain Fortress), Mynwent y Milwyr (the graveyard of the soldiers) and Gadlys (Battle Court) to name but a few.
I’ve spent the last couple of years mapping the area but it was only at the end of 2018 that I climbed onto the ridge from the south (I usually go up from the west or the north). Suddenly I realised that all of my previous conclusions about the area being the site of an attack by the Romans on the Silurians could be wrong. Ascending from the South would have been almost impossible for the invaders and if they did make it to the top, then it was probably because they were being lured into an ambush. Whether hunted or hunters, I’m of the opinion that the Silurians and Romans would have fought a running battle heading towards Baglan mountain, not because they had a burning desire to see the spot where – 2000 years later – a street artist called Banksy would make Port Talbot famous (again) – but because it was a defensible stopping off point en route to the safety of the River Lougher. Who won and who lost is buried in the mists of time but there’s a small valley north of Port Talbot known to locals as Cwm Lladdfa (the Vale of Slaughter) so clearly it didn’t end well for one side or the other. Incidentally this is a place name which doesn’t show up on modern maps which are digital representations of topography rather that visual interpretations of place and time. As the Ordnance Survey do what the do so well, I’ll leave the technical stuff to them and stick to my wild imaginings.
The Glamorgan ridge is cut by deep, steep sided valleys and the first one to the west is Mynydd Llangeinwyr. It was originally called Allt yr Esgair (the Wooded Slope of the Ridge) but in the 5th Century, St Cein Wyr (St Keyne the Virgin) stopped for a look around, liked what she saw and stayed. By the time she died on the 8th October 505, she had caused a spring to bubble to the surface near the church which bears her name. It was bone chillingly cold on the day I sat near the spot, painted some canvas with watercolours
and pinned the fabric to a nearby fence to blow dry in the gale force wind. I kind of felt a lot of respect for old Cein Wyr. I was wrapped up in lots of layers and had a flask of coffee to hand. For her, living atop this ridge as a woman alone, with only the food she could forage, it must have been a bleak and sometimes fearful existence.
Whilst the material was drying I wandered about picking up a couple of bits of gravel and some sheep’s wool to trap into the embroidery. As you can see above, I also did a quick field sketch of the area so that I would have a point of reference as the stitchery grew. It’s taken me a few weeks to reach the point where I’m happy to say it’s finished. In a world of sat navs and GPS signals, it may not be a map which will get you to a specific place but I think it’s a pretty reasonable record of a journey – though not necessarily mine.
“Properly practised, knitting soothes the troubled spirit, and it doesn’t hurt the untroubled spirit either.” Elizabeth Zimmerman.
In the 19th Century, some doctors would prescribe knitting for the relief of high anxiety and hysteria and undoubtedly, knitting – like many craft skills which require concentration and dexterity – has a calming, almost meditative effect. Can you sense a ‘but’ coming? I won’t keep you waiting in case you are prone to high anxiety and hysteria – but, what happens if you can’t knit? I don’t mean that you haven’t learnt; that is a situation that is easily remedied. I’ve yet to meet a knitter who isn’t willing to share their skill and for most people, all that is needed to master knitting is 2 sticks (the technical term is needles but to all intents and purposes, they are sticks with bobbles on one end and a point of the other), yarn and some measure of manual dexterity. Mind you, if you search the internet there are lots of people who manage to knit with their toes but as I don’t know what the foot equivalent term of manual dexterity is, I’ll carry on about the people who can’t knit. (Apologies to the toe knitters for any offence caused.)
My older sister, Nell, is a formidable knitter, socks and fingerless mittens being a speciality. She designs her own patterns, does weird things called provisional cast ons, and waxes lyrical (and at great length) about the pros and cons of picot edging versus rib. I’m not sure whether Nell’s spirit needs soothing but I am convinced that she views knitting as an intellectual adventure. Without knitting, her hands would probably be picking away at the wallpaper in the pub where she and her compatriots currently meet for a ‘knit and natter’ session. Social engagement is a wonderful by-product of most crafts, particularly the portable kind like knitting.
My younger sister, Annie, couldn’t knit. Over the years many people (including me) of varying experience in knitting and/or teaching have tried to help her overcome this handicap. All have failed. Whereas once Annie took a kind of perverse pleasure in her ability to ‘break’ experts, just recently she has found herself in some situations where the calming effect of knitting would have been welcome. Now that I am doing some sessions as a mentor of creative practices (more on this next month), I decided to volunteer my services again. Curiously enough, stepping away from my previous skills of teacher/tutor/educator and instead using those of a mentor/guide/companion was all it took for Annie to stop thinking in terms of success or failure. Her woolly pumpkin is the end of her being willing – even happy – to say “I can’t knit” and the beginning of a creative journey that is full of possibility.
Nestling between the two extremes of sisters and their knitting skills, my wool and needles have a more niche setting. I use free form knitting (often called Scrumbling) to create deeply textured surfaces which act as a foundation for layered embroidery, embellishment with found objects and appliqué. This allows me to forget figurative representation and instead make some deeply personal and subjective interpretations of cultural geography.
My current project is a continuation of my MA dissertation which involved mapping the metaphysical features of landscape through poetry and mixed media art. A book, creative walked journeys and a linked exhibition loom in 2019 so work has started on a wall hanging called ‘Run!’. Incidentally, the title has nothing to do with dropped stitches and everything to do with the ill-fated attempt of the Silurian tribe of Glamorgan to escape the advance of the Roman army in the 1st century AD. In an effort to make the knitting belong to the landscape it is representing I have done some solar dyeing with plant material harvested from the area.
In addition I have been walking/running over the ancient paths of the the Glamorgan ridgeway with wool tied around my shoes. It gets nicely stained with what you could call indigenous dyes if you were being academic, but sheep poo is just as accurate a term.
My doomed Silurians also had to climb a very steep ill in their efforts to get away. One afternoon last month I repeated their journey, threw a ball of coarse Welsh wool down the slope and then wandered after it, knitting as I went.
Anything that got caught in the yarn – moss, fleece and, yes, sheep poo – got knitted in. By the time this wall hanging is finished it will also have lines of poetry that will tell the story of a people who met their end within sight of their homes to the east and safe haven to the west. There is no picture which can convey that reality but I’m willing to bet that knitting will do it justice.
So if you can’t knit yet – whether because you haven’t learnt or because you think you have some kind of congenital inability – maybe it’s time to have another go. We knitters live in a world of excitement and joy, calm in the face of adversity and never looking for something to do. Most wool shops offer lessons and workshops – sometimes with added cats like the wonderful Bramble Murgatroyd at Knit One in Dolgellau:
Lots of towns, villages and communities have groups which provide support and facilities for crafters of all sort. My local area has established one to address everything from enabling artisan makers to counteracting social isolation by letting people learn skills from each other. (www.craft.bridgendreach.org.uk). There again, you could always join or start a yarnstorming brigade. You need to have mischief making tendencies for this sort of thing and established groups are likely to be suspicious of anyone trying to push their way in.
If you’re still not convinced, maybe you should consider the words of Stephanie Pearl-McPhee:
“the number one reason knitters knit is because they are so smart that they need knitting to make boring things interesting. Knitters are so compellingly clever that they simply can’t tolerate boredom.”
“You can’t just turn on creativity like a tap(sic). You have to be in the right mood. What mood is that? Last minute panic.” Bill Watterson
I like making plans much more than I like putting them into action and it’s great to find out that I’m not alone in this tendency – Bill Watterson (the American cartoonist responsible for Calvin and Hobbes) obviously feels the same. Lots of creative people thrive the closer they get to a deadline, happily procrastinating until there is no alternative except to put pen to paper, thread to needle or whatever equipment and medium needs to be employed. Dilly-dallying is not a particularly stressful approach for them; the same can’t be said for friends and family members whose emotional state ends up shredded. The reason I don’t get bothered by a ticking clock is that I know that sooner or later the creative bit of me will get out of bed and hit the ground running. That said, I’m going to add a “however”.
However, this only works for me when my fingers are fit enough to deliver the level of skill my creative idea demands. What with gardening, writing, holidays, working and all the other calls life has made on me this year, I haven’t actually got a lot of stitching done. Now that I’ve finished the first draft of my next book (possibly being called ‘Integrating multiple strands of creative practice in an ethos bound portfolio approach’, possibly not – I leave you to make your own mind up on that), I’m ready start work on my next project. This will be a journal of creative maps in the form of travel writing, poetic exploration and artistic interpretations of walked journeys through ancient landscapes. You’ll be pleased to know that I already have a snappier title in mind for this one but I’m keeping it to myself for the moment. I have spent many happy hours planning this project; in my mind’s eye I can see the pages of the book, the typesetting and the illustrations of my work. It’s going to be a combination of all the things I love doing – walking, Wales, stitching, composting poems and – I’m not going to excuse this – making maps that look like maps!
Last month I decided to help the creative me along a bit by doing a test run along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. I’ve always disliked getting anything started – particularly sketchbooks. Only recently have I overcome this reluctance to destroy a perfectly good piece of white paper by convincing myself that whatever marks I make – written or drawn – will be a sort of resource for further work rather than a finished article. There, in one sentence I’ve excused the standard of the images which follow. I started my journey by helping a Canadian lady called Enid,who was struggling to manage her bags at Carmarthen. As we staggered from the train station to the bus station and then back to the train station (checking times of bus services to Haverfordwest and then deciding that rail was the best option after all), I found out that she was celebrating her retirement from nursing by touring Wales and Scotland to see where her great grandparents had lived before emigrating to Canada in the late 19th century. Having left her waiting for the next train I made my way back to the bus station to get the 460 to Cardigan. With 5 minutes to kill it seemed a perfect opportunity to put my journal of creative maps test plan into action. I scrawled down all the information she had given me and did a super fast doodle which will, I hope, act as an aide memoir for me and encourage everyone else who sees it to feel a bit better about their own drawing skills.
You can’t – or at least, shouldn’t – visit Cardigan without trying Cawl which is a slow cooked Welsh stew. Mine came with a hunk of cheese, 4 slices of toasted, buttered sourdough bread and cost £3.50. Bargen! Os byddwch chi yn Aberteifi, awgrymaf ymweld â Chaffi Carn Alw yn y farchnad. Yn ogystal â bwyd hyfryd ac er bod ro’n i heb y ci, maen nhw’n gyfeillgar i gwn – mor bwysig i wybod!
I left Cardigan via the bridge over the river Teifi and walked out to St Dogmaels. This was partly to see the abbey but mostly because I wanted to see the Sagranus Stone at the nearby St Thomas’ church. The Sagranus Stone is one of the few standing stones which has both a Latin and Ogham inscription. It is monuments like these which enabled scholars to translate Ogham (an ancient Celtic/Irish alphabet where letters are formed by straight lines carved against a vertical).
Near a place called the Teifi Net Pools, the Blessing Stone stands close to the river. This was the spot where the Abbot of St Dogmaels traditionally blessed fishing boats before they left for sea. In Welsh it’s known as the Carreg Ateb (the answering stone) supposedly because if you stand on it and shout across the water, you will be able to hear an echo of your voice.
I didn’t try it but I did experiment with the next bit of my creative plan – that of using in situ clays and pigments to colour some canvas which I then embroidered. I rubbed the fabric with sloes, blackberries and the local mud to get the background colour and then applied a few stitches. If a map is a visual representation of a place, then I’m happy to say that this is a map of the Blessing Stone/Carreg Ateb.
By the way, a lot of the sloes, blackberries and mud got under my fingernails which explains their grubby appearance in the next photograph. Apologies if you are over-fastidious by nature.
On the way to the curiously named Poppit Sands, I stopped long enough to begin my scrolled and stitched map of the journey. This will be more mixed media incorporating found objects as well as textural interpretations of place. Because doing this sort of thing takes more time that pressing the button on a camera shutter or icon on a mobile phone, it means whatever I create is much more a reflection of being in the place rather than recording an image of it.
From the lane to to the Poppit Sands Hostel , I did take a couple of pictures however, just in case anyone reading this has got a thing about blue flagged beaches where the golden sands seem to stretch on for ever.
I spent the evening doing some field sketching around the Teifi Estuary and next morning I carried on with my scrolled and stitched map. I’m pretty happy that I think I’ve got a template that works for recording features of the walked journeys, building a collection of information which will act as a valuable resource for the project itself.
It has also reconnected me with the practice of stitching on a daily basis. On my return I decided to embroider a reflective map of October, with some time devoted to sewing every day.
There’s a well known saying in Welsh – Deuparth gwaith yw ei ddechrau (two thirds of the work is getting started) -which should mean that this time next year I will have finished my journal of creative maps because I’m already more than half way through! Meanwhile I’ll leave you with another pearl of wisdom from Bill Watterson – something to bear in mind when you are next putting off starting your next project!
“Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery – it recharges by running.”
“People travel to wonder at the height of great mountains,at the huge waves of the sea,at the long courses of rivers,at the vast compass of the ocean,at the circular motion of the stars; and yet they pass by themselves without wondering.” St. Augustine
August was a month of milestones for me and one was that I finally got my bus pass. I have never felt that I deserved something quite as much as that little plastic card and I am determined to exploit it in case some youthful bureaucrat decides free public transport for the over 60s is a luxury too far in these austere times.
The day after it arrived in the post I caught the number 75 bus and ran homewards on the local community track. Once a railway line carrying coal from the from the Ocean and Wyndham/Western coal mines to Cardiff Docks, it is now enjoying a resurgence as a traffic free route linking the communities of Nantymoel, Ogmore Vale, Lewistown, Pantyrawel and Blackmill with everywhere which can be reached on the Lon Celtaidd/ Celtic Trail NCN Route 4: Fishguard, Chepstow and all points between the last time I looked.
As an aside, if anyone who is influential in the field of sustainable transport initiatives is reading this, how about some words of praise for those of us who use Shank’s Pony as opposed to bicycles as a method of getting about. I get a bit peeved that two wheels are often portrayed as the main solution to carbon free ways of travelling so let’s have a shout out to the walkers and runners who are also doing their bit.
Anyway, on this particular trek I was hoping to work out whether – in about 60AD – the Ogmore Valley topography had influenced the doomed decision of the local Silurian tribe to escape the onslaught of invading Romans by racing across the Blaenau towards Briton Ferry. Whilst there have been lots of changes in the last 2000 years (and particularly in the last 200), the geographical features of the Ogmore Valley remain an almost text book example of what happens to landscape when a glacier recedes. It begins as a v-shaped valley and transforms into a u-shape; there are interlocking spurs, truncated spurs and hanging valleys including the waterfall that flows over a vertical bare rockface at the head of the valley and which gives Nantymoel its name.
Had the Silurians gone in this direction and made it through the Bwlch Gap to the ancient ridgeway linking the valleys of the Rhondda and the Afan, the story might have had a different ending. In the event they went due west over Mynydd Baiden and were caught. What happened next is remembered in the place name of a re-entrant north of Port Talbot which known as Cwm Lladdfa – The Valley of Slaughter. If things go according to plan it will also be remembered in my next creative project which – at the moment – I’m calling The Roman Rout. I’m sure that once the maps, artistic interpretations and creative non-fiction writing are complete, it will have a more poetic title.
I have promised myself that I will only get started on The Roman Rout when I finish the book that I am currently writing which brings me to my second milestone, the Augustinian leap . I had spent months dilly-dallying, prevaricating and procrastinating but things came to a head in August when I realised that I had no excuses left for not completing it: time, ideas, a workspace, even the title – these were all mine. Unfortunately I still found it difficult to motivate myself to put pen to paper (actually fingers to laptop but you get my drift). I did lots of other things, some which needed to be done and some of which were nothing more than time-wasting frippery. I even applied for some jobs I didn’t really want and which, if I got one of them, would probably mean the end of writing the book on Creativity and subsequently, The Roman Rout.
I had managed to get myself into a state of mind called being “simultaneously incongruent” – i.e. having two clear and distinct thought processes contradicting each other at the same time. The first was that I wanted to continue researching and writing both books; the second was that most of my researching and writing in the past has been done in response to deadlines from college tutors, magazine editors or publishers. As none of these were in play I couldn’t find a reason to justify committing the time, effort and resources the projects needed. At the least excuse, I had begun putting writing into second place behind whatever distraction presented itself.
One afternoon I was sitting in my tiny camper, which serves very nicely as a mobile writing room, staring out at the same landscape the Silurians had raced across in their ill-fated attempt to escape the Romans. As so often happens I was struggling with what I was going to write about next. The title of the chapter was Legacy but that was as far as I’d got. I put a new screen up on the laptop, typed “What’s the point of this chapter?” and then started answering the question with sentences starting “I want to…”
With a moment of clarity, I realised that I hadn’t applied the “what’s the point” argument to the underlying concepts of either of the books I intended to write. Looking at Mynydd y Gaer on the Glamorgan uplands I knew what the point of The Roman Rout was and still is: it’s a story which needs to be told and I have a peculiar – as in particular rather than odd – set of skills which will do it (and the Silurians) justice. Deciding the raison d’être of the book about creative practice has taken a bit more time and a lot more soul searching but eventually I think I’ve got the answer. And it’s only partly to do with me waffling on about anything and everything that takes my fancy without having to worry about referencing and intellectual defences.
Fate took a hand when I was offered one of the jobs I had applied for and didn’t actually want. Finally I had run out of wriggle room. After a little bit of self-analysis I concluded that the reason I have been avoiding writing the the manuscript on creativity is because I didn’t want to finish it. I wanted to stay in my comfort zone and not taking the risk of writing a book that no-one will actually want to read. After a little bit more self-analysis, I concluded that probably the most important facet of my personality is my contrariness. This is the point of the book: there is no point. It’s a celebration of taking unknown paths simply because they’re there and I like travelling.
“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” St. Augustine
For many people in the world the coast is a distant place to visit or to dream about visiting. Those of us who count the sea as a neighbour, whether we are islanders or live along the edges of land, delight in its wide horizon, fickle mood swings and soul-lifting plays of light.
In Wales, 2018 has been dubbed “The Year of the Sea” and this title is also the theme of the poetry competition at this year’s Penfro Book Festival so if you fancy a bit of composing, you’ve got until the 15th August to get your entry in.
Back in June, when Cal and I crossed the Skye Bridge, we found a campsite right next to the sea and spent the evening walking with Mr MacGregor along the low paths of the Cuillins.
The variety of scenery in the British Isles never ceases to amaze me. I am used to the battered and scarred cliffs of the Glamorgan Heritage Coast that dance in and out of the sea mists of the Bristol Channel. In Scotland there was something almost brooding and defiant about the way the blackened rocks of Skye leaned towards the shore, standing their ground against the pounding waves of the Atlantic.
As we sat outside a pub and I contemplated whether landscape features affect the character of indigenous peoples and vice versa, Cal slapped her neck and announced “Midge!” We had until this point not seen a single one of the “Wee Highland Beasties” and hoped that our visit to Scotland was early enough in the summer to avoid them. We were wrong. Thanks to Cal deciding to leave Roxy’s back window open overnight we awoke at about 5am to find we were sharing the campervan with an advance party of midges scouting for breakfast. Outside clouds of insects swooped and swarmed in a scene reminiscent of a 1950s doomsday film. Ours was the fastest decampment ever seen and Roxy hurtled up the road, windows open wide in a desperate attempt to encourage the midges inside the van to leave. Cal made an executive decision to aim across the island in the hope that this phenomenon was limited by location. Eventually we swung into the car park at Dunvegan Castle – 2 hours before opening time – and assessed the state of play.
I had dead, dying and soon to be squashed midges in my hair, around my eyes and behind my ears; Cal had despatched any insect which had landed on her face with a self-administered open-handed smack which had left her cheeks red, shiny and covered with splatters of blood and bits of black carcasses. I’m not sure if Dunvegan Castle Car Park had CCTV but if it did the sight of two women jumping about slapping themselves and each other as well as a Jack Russell joining in the jumping about and barking excitedly because he thought it was a new game, must have made for an interesting watch.
Eventually some semblance of calm was restored, breakfast was had and as soon as the gates opened we made our way into Dunvegan Castle grounds. Cal and Mac toured the gardens whilst I went into the castle to fulfil two ambitions. Firstly to see a Pictish stone close up
and secondly to stand in front of a fairy flag.
Both experiences were amazing and if you should ever find yourself on Skye, I highly recommend a visit to Dunvegan. Perhaps not in June though because it became clear over lunch that the midges had followed us. Cal decided that the best option was to make for the ferry port at Armadale and from there to Mallaig, Fort William and eventually the midge-less lands of England.
We travelled through some of the best scenery the world has got to offer. Longtown sits at the western edge of Hadrian’s Wall. Fallow deers roam the woodlands and time stands still to watch dappled sunlight.
Finally we got back to Wales; more specifically we reached the Welsh coast and the beautiful beaches around Harlech. I’m going to leave it to Robert Louis Stevenson and Mr MacGregor to sum up this year’s tour because I think they both do it more eloquently and with more joi de vivre than me.
“It is a grand thing, to get leave to live.” Nan Shepherd
I blame Mrs B in the Hills for diverting me from my safe, successful yet predictable existence as a Textile Artist and setting me on a journey along unknown paths towards the undiscovered destinations of Cultural Geography. Indeed I didn’t even know that there was such a subject until someone visiting the MA in Contemporary Crafts final exhibition at Hereford College of Arts regarded my final work and said, “Do you realise that what you’re doing is Cultural Geography?” I didn’t because I didn’t know what Cultural Geography was. As it happens, it’s one of those areas of study where no-one can quite agree on a definition and in particular what the parameters for the word culture should be in this context. A general – but often disputed rule of thumb – is that Cultural Geography looks at the interaction of humans and landscape in cultural rather than environmental terms. Lingering Fragments (my MA work) centred on shared cultural legacy interpreted through a creative expression of landscape, so I’m happy to agree that it was Cultural Geography (and poetry and mixed media art).
Long before reaching this conclusion however, I’d had messages from Mrs B suggesting that I should read some of Robert McFarlane’s books as he seemed to like landscape-y type stuff and share our love of obscure words and endangered definitions. Far be it from me to not take advice so it is thanks to Mrs B’s recommendation and Mr McFarlane’s knowledge that I can now describe myself as a solivagant – a lone wanderer; more importantly it is through reading Mr McFarlane’s book Landmarks that I discovered a field of Cultural Geography known as Geopoetics and the writer whose work best exemplifies it, Nan Shepherd.
Since finishing my MA I’ve been concentrating on writing my own book about Ethos Bound Creativity but took a break from this in early June to go on a touring holiday with my friend Cal. We loaded up Roxy, her little camper van, with all manner of necessities – liquorice allsorts and a bottle of brandy for her, jelly babies and field sketching kit for me, carton of cocktail sausages and chewy toy for Mr MacGregor, Cal’s Jack Russell terrier – and set off, heading in a roundabout way for Scotland. Things got off to a good start in the first couple of days when I saw a red squirrel in the wild, visited the lovely 6th Century St Tudno’s church and bagged the trig point on Gogarth before driving through the Mersey Tunnel and then seeing places whose names I only knew from the birth, death and marriage certificates of my grandfather’s family.
Cal is Liverpudlian by birth and nature so as we travelled through the dock area of Liverpool, I found that she had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the pubs we drove past – I particularly liked the one called The Sick Parrot but can’t imagine ever wanting to go there for a drink and a packet of crisps. Eventually she brought Roxy to a halt and gave me my birthday present two months early: a visit to Antony Gormley’s Another Place on Crosby Sands.
The next day brought a wander around Windermere, lunch at the Kirkstone Pass and a paddle in Ullswater
before we headed for Scotland and more specifically, Braemar – one of Nan Shepherd’s preferred stomping grounds. If you’ve never heard of Nan Shepherd, she wrote several works of fiction but is best known for The Living Mountain – a reflection in poetic prose about hill walking in the Cairngorms. It is difficult to read Nan’s books and not accept the existence of Geopoetics which is defined by some as a “geographical consciousness”. My own feeling is that, as a concept, Geopoetics is an attempt to describe a personal and individual transcendence by physical landscape but is limited by words in the same way as the Welsh concept of hiraeth is much more than the homesickness it is sometimes translated as.
Philosophical semantics aside, we stayed in Braemar for two nights which meant we had time to explore the village including the ruins of Kindrochit Castle (built by the wonderfully named King Malcolm Big Head in 1059), the Invercauld Hotel (site of the Raising of the Standard of the Jacobite Rebellion in 1715) and the Queen’s Drive (route of a carriage ride taken by John Brown and Queen Victoria when she used to visit his relatives, taking tea and tobacco as gifts).
I was determined to get in a bit of hill-walking so on Wednesday, no sooner had the words “I think I’m going to sit down and relax for a bit” left Cal’s mouth then I was pulling on my walking boots and packing my rucsac for an attempt to follow one of Nan’s routes. Mount Morrone (895 metres) is small fry to committed Munro baggers but it was going to be the highest peak I’d ever attempted. As Braemar is about 395m above sea level, the trail would have an assent of 500m in 5k. This can also be described as steep. I made it to the summit in 1 hour 20 minutes because luckily, the path was sound and well-marked. Even better, the weather was good and the insect life was quiescent. Just for good measure there was another trig point at the summit to bag.
Best of all, the track passed Tomintoul, Nan Shepherd’s howff (cottage) on the lower slopes of the mountain so I really was in her footsteps. Having read The Living Mountain as research for our trip, being on Morrone for a few hours made me realise that Geopoetics is not about the landscape or even about the human reaction to time spent in the landscape; it’s about becoming one with the landscape and that’s not something that can be achieved in a single afternoon. For Nan Shepherd, it was a relationship that lasted a lifetime.
Nan’s work is full of the sense of togetherness that she had developed with the Cairngorms and having wandered in just a small part of them, I think that she must have felt really frustrated at the inadequacy of words as she strove to explain what being in and with them meant to her.
“Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.” The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd.
On my way back through Braemar, I called into the tourist information office to pick up some leaflets about Skye – our next stopping point. That evening, jelly babies to hand, I read something that made me forget all about Geopoetics and dragged me back firmly into Cultural Geography and my own work researching limnal features of landscape.
Dunvegan Castle, said the guide, is home to the legendary Fairy Flag of Dunvegan. When unfurled in battle it summons spirits to aid Clan MacLeod, snatching victory from certain defeat.
As Cal considered which route would take in the most picturesque scenery that Skye had to offer – which seemed to be on the north of the island – I tried to concoct a sneaky plan which would get us to Dunvegan in the south. There was no way I could be so close to a remnant of the faerie folk and not get to see it. In the event however, my scheming was not needed because Skye itself determined where we should go and what we should visit. It all started so well, with no hint of the trauma to come: we crossed Skye Bridge, found a campsite at the foot of the Cuillins and I remembered what it is I love about limnal landscapes – it’s the feeling that you’ve wandered through another reality; that other folk are having conversations that you will never be party to and if you were, you wouldn’t have the vocabulary to understand.
Which makes me think that maybe it’s better not to have a destination.
Maybe it’s better to just follow the unknown paths.