Category Archives: Tracks and Trails

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

Art in a Native Land

Northumbria Landscape

“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.

Kilmartin GlenFrom 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.

stones at carnasserie castleThere 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.

Stone circle

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.

Rear view of Rosslyn Chapel

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.

silhouette of bamburgh castle

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.

Chained stone 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.

water colour of stone

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.

knitting

 

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.

wall hanging

 

 

A Walk Through Dalriada

 

“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

Oban

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.

Fingals stone Dunollie

“From the west he will call through

time.  Scenting the air, Fingal

waits – still, listening, ready.”

Beach

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.

Dunbeg sketch

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.

Dunstaffnage

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.

Dunstaffnage bluebells

Wandering through the bee-humming woods and past the ruins of a stone built chapel, was like walking through a lake of bluebells.

Pebble painting

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.

Caledonia Way

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.

Orienteering course

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!

Wood carvingIn 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.

Sutherlands Grove

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.

woven tree hanging

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.

Dalriada

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.

 

Unlost Places – Moffat to Mull

“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.

MOFFAT

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.

Prosiect Digoll/Unlost Places

Showing Llanddwyn Beach

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.

Beach art
Beach Art

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.

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.

Art map

 

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

 

The Unlost Voices

Collection of art materials

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.

Field sketch of Skye

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!

 

 

The art of brief writing

Sunset over Bristol Channel
Ogmore by Sea Sunset

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

School photograph
Me at 11

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 

Based on Gone with the wind
Rose drew this in 1946

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

Frog on trail
Frog in danger

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

Exhibition work at USW
Interior Monologues

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 .

Be gentle and know when your work is done

Daffodils
RIP Steven

 

Imagining Everywhere

“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.

Family outing to look for electric fences

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.

Soothing the troubled spirit

“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.)

Knitted by Nell

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.

Knitted by Annie

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.

Dark Tonight (from Etifeddiaeth)

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.

Burial mounds on Brynywrach

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.

White wool with natural dyes

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.

Indigenous dyes

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.

Knitting in landscape

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.

Looking towards home

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:

Bramble surveys her realm

About Knit one…

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.

Lily’s Posse Yarnstormers in action

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.”