Category Archives: Tracks and Trails

Hitting the ground running

“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”.

Abandoned Art on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path

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!

Cardigan to Poppit Sands (in the style of Arthur Ransome)

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.

Enid and me

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!

Cawl – bwyd Cymru

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).

Abertiefi/Cardigan

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.

Blessing Stone/Carreg Ateb

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.  

Stitchery on naturally pigmented canvas

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.

Stitching on the path

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.

The scrolled & stitched map.

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.

Towards Gwbert from Poppit Sands Youth Hostel

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.

Poppit Sands field sketch

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.

Mis Hydref/October

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.”

 

 

August and Augustinian leaps

“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 ‘Pant’ in Pantyrawel

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.

Ogmore Valley Community Route

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.

Let’s hear it for Shank’s Pony!

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.

Glacial erosion line at Nantymoel

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.

Mynydd Baiden

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.

Fog descends

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.

Mynydd y Gaer from the tiny camper

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.

Fog lifting

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.

These boots are made for walking…

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”                                      St. Augustine

 

 

Speed, Bonnie Boat

“Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,

Say, could that lad be I?

Merry of soul, he sailed on a day

Over the sea to Skye.”

Robert Louis Stevenson.

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.

Coastal life

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 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.

Mr MacGregor on Skye

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.

Insect repellent Dunvegan style

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

Pictish Stone

and secondly to stand in front of a fairy flag.

The Fairy Flag of Dunvegan

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.

Silver Sands Beach between Mallaig and Fort William

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.

Longtown in Cumbria

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.

“Billow and breeze, islands and sea,

Mountains of rain and sun,

All that was good, all that was fair,

All that was me is gone.”

 

 

I have no destination

“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).

Lingering Fragments. November 2017

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.

Solivagant with self timer on camera

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.

Mr MacGregor in St Tudno’s Church

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.

Another Place

The next day brought a wander around Windermere, lunch at the Kirkstone Pass and a paddle in Ullswater

Kirkstone Pass

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.

The River Dee at Braemar

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).

Kindrochit Castle

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.

View from Morrone over the Cairngorms

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.

Tomintoul

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.

 

Stone Sculptures in The Cuillins

Which makes me think that maybe it’s better not to have a destination.

Maybe it’s better to just follow the unknown paths.

 

 

 

Cake Thursdays

“We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”         T.S.Eliot

I’ve had to get to grips with a few things since my studies at Hereford came to an end in December.  Some I have no regrets about – leaving the house at 6am and not getting home until 6pm is one of them.  I am wistful about the loss of things like ‘Cake Thursday’ when we used sponges, cookies and traybakes to underpin our learning.  The last ever ‘Cake Thursday’ culminated in this Chocolate Gingerbread made by Kathleen.

Cakes and fellow students, however, are not the only thing I’m missing about being in College.  I’m having to readjust to self-directing my work.  Luckily I’ve still got lots of ideas connected to my MA dissertation and at least one ( but probably two) books are just waiting to be written.  The first will be to continue musing about what it takes to successfully integrate multiple strands of creative practice using an approach that relates to Divergent Theory, Self-Determination Theory and the principles of Heuristics.  Without ‘Cake Thursday’ and the opportunity to interact with fellow students, I explained what I meant to Mr MacGregor.  He was all ears.

Divergent what?

By the time I got to my thoughts on ‘working in isolation’ and ‘ethos binding’, I had come to the conclusion that this book is unlikely to make the best seller list.

 

Zzzzzzzzz

With no  project deadlines to be met I’ve been able to get back to the love of my life which is tramping across the mountains on Shank’s Pony.  This will fit in very well with book number 2 which is going to be all about the ancient tracks and trails of the Glamorgan uplands.  I’m doing a bit of ‘proper’ research …

Save our libraries!

and a lot of ‘authentic’ research which involves me getting  cold, wet and very close to being lost

The road to nowhere

The South Wales hills formed the backdrop (literally) for my final MA project and is likely to do the same for this book.  Mynydd y Gaer is part of the Blaenau ridge and is the site of violent conflict  between the local Silures tribe and the invading Roman army in the 1st century AD.  It was as I was walking across this landscape that I imagined a conversation between a soldier on the eve of his first battle and another who was already a casualty of war. I was making postcard sized mixed media artworks so finding a form of strict meter Welsh poetry called ‘englynion y milwyr’ that once existed as a form of oral postcard was really useful.  I composed 5 verses for each of the protagonists which could be read either as two monologues or an interspersed dialogue.  Here’s a sample of both:

First Voice

“They have laid you on the ground next to me.  You gaze, unseeing, skyward. Darkness covers you.”

Second Voice

“Only to you my eyes are blind.  Beyond the day I see stars draped across eternity.”

Having failed to impress Mr MacGregor with my first book I explained the concepts behind the second one to Lily Smalls the Treasure.  Her response reminded me of why I have a cat in my life.

Sounds brilliant!

I’ve always thought of life as being a journey.  It can be a mistake to try and hold onto the past.  We should keep the memories but then move forward.  Sorry as I am to say goodbye to the friends and experiences of Hereford, I am now taking a different road.  Except on Thursdays when I sit down, have a cup of coffee, a thousand calories and remember them all fondly.

Pineapple Upside Down Cake by me.

The Craft of Learning

(The life so short, the craft so long to learn).       Hippocrates, 5th Century B.C.

I used to say that if I had my time over again my choice of further education would have been to go to medical school or study drama or go to art college so getting to spend over a year at Hereford College of Arts allowed me to tick a number of boxes, including the one that says “if only I had done this or that, then everything would have been different.”

Photograph by Dan Salter
(CRC Illustration)

Going to Art College – albeit fairly late in life – means that I’ve one less regret to deal with.  I remember reading that as he lay on his death bed, the actor Stanley Holloway was asked if he had any regrets.  He thought a moment and then admitted that he was sorry he had turned down the opportunity to do the voice-overs for Mr Kipling Cake adverts.  My regrets are less earth shattering in their significance but do cause me some angst.  In particular I am sorry that I ever sold this piece of work.  It is called ‘Happy as the Land’ and was part of the Etifeddiaeth exhibition.  No sooner had I hung it than it sold and now lives in France.  I console myself with the fact that at the time I needed the money but I still wish that it was in the box with the rest of the Etifeddiaeth work.

Happy as the Land

For someone who spends most of their creative life in isolation – I’m not a member of a group, collective or society so I don’t do the networking, engaging or interacting with other makers – being in the company of ‘proper’ artists as well as having access to wonderful facilities whilst in college was going to be a bit of a novelty.  Now that I’ve left Hereford, certificate in hand (well, nearly.  It will arrive in the post at some point), I’ve been thinking about what I learnt whilst I was doing my MA.  I had expected to polish my technical abilities but I reached the end of the course as skilled as when I started.  Whilst I did try a few different crafts – lino cutting, papermaking and letter press printing – I’m of the opinion that I didn’t need to be in college to learn them.

Penyfoel Memory Map

This realisation has got me thinking about a method of learning called ‘Heuristics’ which is gaining momentum in the world of Adult Education.  Working along side Self-Determination theory, heuristic learning relies on people teaching themselves by deciding on what they want to learn and how they want to learn it.  Quite often this means that students work together to establish the best ways to gain knowledge and looking back at my MA course I can see that some of the best lessons I had came not from the lecturers but from others in my group, particularly the girls I shared studio space with.

Cheryl Kirby and the pavements of Ledbury

Photograph by Ruth Maddock

Cheryl’s practice is in Quilting and from her I learnt the value of how important it is to believe in what you do so that you can explain your ideas in a way which doesn’t sound apologetic or as if you want (or need) approval.  Instead you assume the audience is interested and intelligent; that they not only want to hear what you are going to say to or show them, but that they are highly likely to enjoy the experience.   As neither Cheryl nor I make work to sell it was good to sort out how you still get taken seriously as a professional artist when you don’t use a price tag to validate your craft.  Most of all though I will remember the day when, a week before a project deadline and after months of researching theories and creating an outcome which centred around the use of indigo, Cheryl announced that she was fed up of dull blues and was going to switch at the last moment to using yellow.  In reply to the calls of “You can’t!” which came in varying degrees of consternation, Cheryl calmly sat back and said “I can, you know.”  Eventually when everyone else was in the throes of despair she reconsidered and announced “but perhaps I won’t,” before adding ominously, “this time.”    So the second lesson I learnt from Cheryl is to remember that you don’t have to follow anyone’s rule book but your own.

Eliza Glapinska and Women’s Rights 

Photograph by Ruth Maddock

From costume making to live performances, Eliza Glapinska uses any and every medium to bring her socially engaged practice into the public eye.   Sharing a space with her made me remember the excitement that I feel when I use craft to tell a story.  In my case the stories are usually inspired by the legend and landscape of Wales whereas Eliza is a Craftivist  whose work is a commentary, a protest and a call to action.

Those who know me are familiar with the criteria which I apply to art to decide whether it is ‘good’ or not:

  • does it evoke emotion?
  • does it provoke thought?
  • does it show good skill or technique?

I suspect that my opinion does not fit with some of the more esoteric and elitist theories which circulate in the art world but having spent a year in Eliza’s company I’m going to add another criterion.  I think that good art comes about when the artist honestly believes that what they are doing will make a positive difference to someone, somewhere.

Ruth Maddock Makes

Photograph by Oli Cameron-Swan

Those colourful, patterned children’s clothes in the photograph began life in Ruth’s imagination as pretty dresses for little girls; they would have printed flower designs embellished with hand embroidery and they would be beautiful.  More importantly they would form the basis of Ruth’s next business venture, Ruth Maddock Makes .  Somewhere during the course of our MA, Ruth put the pretty dresses on the back burner and developed a range of clothing which is suitable for children with sensory disorders.  Every aspect of her design work and the subsequent patterns has been underpinned by academic theory and objective evidence.   You might think that in terms of practice, Ruth and I couldn’t be much further apart but actually we were very often on the same page – quite literally when it came to books about map-making and dealing with incalcitrant websites.  I can tell you now what I didn’t learn from Ruth: I didn’t learn to love Illustrator software, I am still immune to making money from my craft and I have not developed anything other than competence with even the most basic IT programmes.  What has become a mantra to my creative practice was one of Ruth’s throw away remarks, vis “don’t keep digging it up to see if it’s growing.”

Thanks to Ruth I have learnt that the way forward for me lies somewhere between working in isolation and being immersed in a hothouse.

The Road Ahead

There are actually two roads ahead at the moment.  Luckily for me they are both going in the same direction and until I come to a fork in the road, I’m not going to choose between them.  If you’ve looked at other parts of the website you will see that I’m quite interested in what it means to have multiple strands to creative practice.  I’m not sure yet if anyone else in the world is interested but if I don’t get my thoughts in order, I’ll never find out.

Indoors research for the next book

Things have started off well however.  I have discovered a form of strict meter poetry local to Glamorgan.  This may not sound exciting to you but I think I am on the edge of a spectrum within which a nirvana like state is induced by counting syllables and half accent rhymes.  (I even sighed happily as I was writing that.)

Meanwhile I have come across a subject called Historical Geography which I think maybe equally transcendent.  Its study will require me to spend equal amounts of time tramping across the mountains as up to my nose in dusty archives researching ancient documents.

Outdoors research for my next book

The biggest lesson to learn of course is yet to come.  In a world without deadlines, project titles and the company of fellow travellers I need to do something called ‘double-loop’ learning.  I need to take the competences I developed during the MA course and transfer them into other spheres so that they become capabilities.  In short I need to determine for myself what I’m going to learn and how.

And yes, there is a deadline.  It’s called the rest of my life, Hippocrates.

 

 

August

“August rain: the best of summer gone, and the new fall not yet born.  The odd, uneven time.”

Sylvia Plath

It’s not just August which has been wet.  Apart from a few sporadic days of tropical heat that coincided with the first week of Wimbledon, this summer has delivered more and heavier rain than was needed by my garden.  Luckily I’ve had lots of things to keep me busy.  College finished in the last week of June but college projects have been ongoing ever since and if you take a closer look at my website you may notice the results of one of them – including some better photography.

Dawn at Porthcawl

Given the choice I’ll do pretty much anything rather than sit in front of a computer screen (which accounts for the random blog postings) so I wasn’t best pleased when Delyth (course leader on my MA in Contemporary Crafts at Hereford College of Arts) suggested that I should rebuild my online presence for the Professional Practice module.  She was right that the website was looking a bit ‘tired’ and that was because ever since it had been created (thanks to a grant from the Arts Council of Wales in 2014) I had done very little with it and certainly didn’t mess about with the tricky bits behind the front page.  She was also right that the content didn’t reflect my current practice, though to be honest this is her fault because – thanks to the MA course – I have gone from using felt to creating mixed media work, lino cutting, hand-made paper and making maps with techniques as diverse as photography, poetry, video, bone carving, weaving and drawn illustration.

Bone Map of Coety Walia Common

Trying to find a way to get all of those activities to sit on a website without the result looking like the aftermath of a jumble sale was going to be a challenge but then, just before the end of term, our MA cohort was treated to workshops with Pete Mosley (coach, mentor and author of The Art of Shouting Quietly .  At the end of the four days Pete told me that I was a ‘multi-potentialite’ and a ‘multi-faceted person of intent’.  He might have just wanted to get rid of me because my allotted tutorial time was up by using words I didn’t understand but I prefer to think that he was helping me to join up some dots. It turns out that there are lots of us ‘multi-potentialites’ in the world and this is just Emilie Wapnik’s term.  Barbara Sher uses ‘scanners’, Roman Krznaric says we are ‘wide achievers’ and my late Aunty Phyl would have called us ‘Jack of all trades’.  In Welsh the term is Wil naw swydd  which translates to ‘Will of the nine jobs’.  How lucky is Will to be able to restrict himself to just the nine!

Artefact map

I’ve always been able to turn my hand to lots of different things, not brilliantly but with competence.  The only skill which escapes me is music – including dance, singing and even the enjoyment of listening to anything other than Gregorian chants.  I find music at best irritating and at worst, discomforting.  Apart from that there is virtually nothing that I’m not interested in or nosy about.  I followed Pete’s advice and made a list of all my activities and interests: it took up two sheets of paper and I only stopped writing because it was getting silly.   It got me thinking about whether I could combine all of my various activities into my new-ish website and use it to keep an eye on all my spinning plates.  Whilst I was thinking I popped up to Craven Arms for the launch of the new Wales Rail Trail which is going to create a long distance footpath that links to the stations along the Heart of Wales line.

Craven Arms sketch

For once the weather was good and the scenery was stunning.  What made the day truly memorable for me though was that as I walked to the station to get the train home, I noticed a road sign that was almost covered by hedgerow growth.  Pulling the leaves away I found this and ticked something off my list off my bucket list – and you will only understand why if you are a history (in particular, Roman history) nerd like me.

Watling Street

Early July saw 13 children and four adults from Llangan Primary School coming to visit our garden.  In order to maintain some semblance of control, I’d sorted out the activities which included a tour of the garden, produce tasting, a quiz, observational drawing and the very popular ‘Cake Idol’ competition between Truly Cake and Thunder & Lightning Cake.  It was great to hear Harri (aged 10) telling Max to “be serious because every vote will count!” Democracy is safe in their hands.  As usual  Thunder and lightning cake won and if you follow the recipe I’ve attached you’ll realise the reason.

Meanwhile I was still wrestling with the website and wondering how many wrong buttons I’d press before the whole thing collapsed before my eyes.   Distraction came by way of a few days in Aberystwyth during which time I managed five exhibitions in a single day.  The first was ‘Lives of the Celtic Saints’ at Llanbadarn Fawr Church and very lovely it was too. I followed that with ‘Fallen Poets’ (poignant), ‘Arthur and Welsh Mythology’ (jaw droppingly good) and ‘Legends!’ (amazing) at the National Library of Wales   before getting to ‘Radical Crafts’ at Aberystwyth Arts Centre.

Aberystwyth Castle Sketch

One of the things I like about Aberystwyth is how esoteric some of the street entertainment is.  This was the scene at a free concert of folk music on the promenade.

Entertainment Aber style

Lorraine (my website guru) lives in Aberystwyth and gave me some ‘calm-down-and-get-on-with-it’ advice about button pressing.  On the way home I walked walk part of the Aberaeron to Lampeter trail to visit Llanerchaeron and apart from advising you to be very sceptical about the information which is given to you there about where the nearest bus stop is, I heartily recommend the place.  It is beautiful.

The River Aeron

Eventually I got to the point where I couldn’t put off interacting with the computer any longer. Even the weather conspired to get me into cyberspace as rain, more rain and then, yet more rain fell.  Stuck indoors one damp afternoon I pressed my first button and found that nothing catastrophic happened either to the world in general or the website in particular.  Buoyed by (probably misplaced) confidence, I pressed button after button removing redundant tabs and inserting new, relevant ones.  Whereas activities used to be crammed into four sections, my website now has 18 different pages and all my interests are arranged in a logical and integrated whole with lots of bits and bobs embedded – just because I learnt how to do it and wanted to show off.

Hopefully you’ll have a tolerant attitude to any bumps and wobbles in my newly realigned website.  It’s not only Sylvia Plath’s time which is odd and uneven.

Maps That Mean Something

“They were maps that lived, maps that one could study, frown over, and add to; maps, in short, that really meant something.”

Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals.

If you read my last blog ( Give me a map…) you’ll know that I put the blame for my love of maps fairly and squarely on my father.

Give me a map …

The responsibility for my love of poetry is less easy to assign to just one person.  This never mattered very much because it never occurred to me that I would need to get the two things to work together.  Doing the MA in Contemporary Crafts at Hereford College of Arts , however, has created some unusual alliances in the way I think about things.  Around about the time I was walking the Wales Coast Path around the South Gower, two projects were occupying my mind.

Higgledy Piggledy thinking

The first was how I was going to find away to convert all of the experiences and ideas of that journey into a map that made sense and the second related to a piece of work that I have been asked to submit for the exhibition called ’50 Bees – The Interconnectedness of All Things’.  You can find out more about the exhibition here .  Luckily I was reading ‘Art Quilt Maps’ by Valerie S. Goodwin.  One of the chapters is called ‘Map Haiku:Visual Poetry’ and set me on the way to making the sort of maps which reflect both the physical landscape and the way in which I experienced it when I was out there walking.


A word about Haikus and other forms of poetry

Lots of people don’t know what a haiku is.  This is because they didn’t grow up with my sister Helen.  By the time she was 10, Helen knew virtually everything in the world (or so I thought at the time).  It is thanks to Helen that by the time I was 8, I had been instructed in a variety of theories including how to mummify a corpse ancient-Egypt style, how to skin a rabbit and -most importantly for my MA – how to write a haiku.  A haiku is a form of minimalist Japanese poetry with a set number of syllables.  Strictly speaking, the first phrase should evoke the season to set the time of the haiku, the second phrase the place and so on.  Let me not, however, give Helen more responsibility for my love of poetry than she is due.  My mother was a poet whose work was best described as Vogon-like (only readers of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will understand – and sympathise).  I grew up with shopping lists written in rhyme, limericks on birthday cards and – worst of all – letters to teachers excusing me from games or for absence – composed as country & western style song lyrics.

The architects of my love of poetry

In some ways I failed to escape the early influences and I still find it incredibly easy to write in verse although I usually get bored and move on to a different activity after about 4 stanzas.  Luckily I live in Wales, a country with more than its fair share of poets.  I love the brooding melancholy of R.S. Thomas (Reservoirs):

“There are places in Wales I don’t go:

Reservoirs that are the subconscious

Of people, troubled far down

With gravestones, chapels, villages even:”

and I adore the imagery of Dylan Thomas(Hold hard, these ancient minutes):

“Hold hard, these ancient minutes in the cuckoo’s month,

Under the lank, fourth folly on Glamorgan’s hill,

As the green blooms ride upward, to the drive of time;”

So as I thought about the South Gower and the 50 Bees,  I wondered about using a haiku as a starting point.  Especially as I had no other ideas floating about in my head.  Rather than use a Japanese form of poetry, I did a bit of research and found that there is a Welsh version called an englyn.  There are 24 different styles of englynion which range from incredibly complex to just downright incomprehensible.  The englyn milwyr (soldier’s englyn) was the simplest: 3 lines, 7 syllables per line with the last syllable of each line rhyming.  I thought that the soldiers wouldn’t mind me borrowing and tweaking their englyn so I decided my verses would be in English and would go with the 3 lines, 7 syllables but not bother with the rhyming.  I started with the 50 Bees simply because time was pressing and I had been getting emails which urged me to send photographs of the completed work as soon as possible.  The COMPLETED work?  Small chance of that happening.  I had been assigned a bee called the Colletes Cunicularis which is a fussy eater of goat willow and has very specific ideas on where home should be – sand dunes.  Also, my bee was prone to dancing with all the other bees from her hive.  I liked that image and thought about it a lot as I walked around the sand dunes of Kenfig Burrows in Glamorgan.

Postcard sized embroidery of Kenfig Burrows

According to local legend Kenfig was once a rich town and its people were cursed after they failed to show shelter to an old man on a stormy night.  Voices on the wind were heard to cry “Dial a ddaw” (Vengeance is Coming) and by morning the whole town had been buried in a sandstorm.  It is said that the bell of the church can still be heard ringing from beneath the waters of Kenfig Pool.  That story helped my englyn along.

“Paths swept by wind, strewn with gold

are lost to all save those who

watch her giddy dance unfold.”

There we are – 3 lines, 7 syllables per line.  Easy – thanks to Helen and Mum.

It made my final piece of work for the 50 Bees exhibition almost logical.  I just scaled everything up and got my poetry in for all the world to see.

The Giddy Dance

I decided to apply the same methodology to the South Gower.  I looked back over the photographs I had taken and the sketches that I had made.  In my mind the images of stairs cut into the woodland floor and the smells of carpets of wildflowers were still strong; I remembered that I had been mulling over a problem and trying to find a solution that was proving to be irritatingly elusive.  3 lines, 7 syllables per line later, I came up with this:

“Heavy, heady, scented steps

Violets, Ramsons, Celandines

Perfume the path, the moment.”

I was more pleased with the englyn than it probably deserves and this may have been because it kick started a design idea for a map of the South Gower walk.  I did a postcard size sample piece to just make sure I had the colours, lines and textures going the way I wanted them to.

South Gower 1 – Postcard

I came to the conclusion there wasn’t enough map-like content in my postcard.  It could as easily have been an atoll in the South Pacific as the coast of South Wales.  I refined my design and my colour palette and started again, this time working on watercolour paper rather than fabric and layering up glazes before stamping the text on.  I’m not that keen on stitching into paper and I’ll probably be altering my techniques before I do the next map but I’m not dissatisfied with the outcome of the South Gower map.

South Gower Moment

Felly, i ble nesaf?  Wel, es i am dro dros y mynydd lleol sef Mynydd Llangeinwyr.  Roedd y gwynt yn gryf iawn.  Tynnais i luniau gyda chamèra ac yn fy llyfr sgets.  Wedyn, daeth y geiriau’r englyn yn hawdd.  

My next map is probably going to be based on a walk I did over Llangeinor Mountain.  Llangeinor is a tiny hamlet on an ancient drovers’ route across the Glamorgan uplands.  On the day we crossed these now barren moorlands, the wind was harsh and bitter so:

“That wind – cuts through cloud spun light

carving shapes, crafting shadows,

splintering the dry stone walls.”

I’m not sure what sort of map I’ll be making to go with this englyn but I’m pretty sure that it will be one to frown over, study and it will mean a bit more than if I’d just drawn the route.

Never written an englyn: try now! 3 lines, 7 syllables per line.