Back in 2018 I decided that what I really, really wanted to do was a PhD. I’ve got a degree in Creative Writing and an MA in Contemporary Crafts so naturally I thought I should apply to do a PhD in Geography. I wrote a proposal based on Unlost Places and badgered some very pleasant (and extremely patient) academics to find a supervisor who would be prepared to let me wander about the ancient tracks of Wales writing poetry, sketching and piling stones into land sculptures. For various reasons (mostly to do with not having £25,000 going spare) I never actually applied to study. It turns out that this was no bad thing on two counts: firstly, since March 2020 wandering opportunities have been limited and secondly, I have come up with several other potential PhD research ideas.
One of these is called “Art in Unexpected Places”, although it will have a suitably intellectual subtitle when I get round to writing the proposal. It all started on one of my local walks in the first lockdown (one hour, once a day) when I was seeing how far I could get before having to turn homeward and saw this outside a local farm.
When restrictions eased in the summer I did some lane walking in West Wales and found other examples of hand-crafted roadside art.
I know that it is much cheaper to make a sign than buy one but I had the impression that there was more than cost involved for the West Walians. I think there was an element of affection for the subject,
an opportunity to show a sense of humour,
express some individuality
or just be creative.
So next time you’re thinking of downloading and printing off a rainbow for the kids to colour in, bear in mind that I might be walking past and my PhD will need something a bit more original in the window if you want to be included in my research. And incidentally, even official signs can be quirky and original – this one on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path is one of my favourites and probably will get a whole chapter in my thesis.
If you’re a pleasant (and extremely patient) academic, I still haven’t got the £25,000 but feel free to get in touch. There’s bound to be a funding stream somewhere we can tap into.
“Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and its current is strong; no sooner does anything appear than it is swept away, and another comes in its place and will be swept away too.”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.
Thanks to Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis, rivers are attracting a lot of attention at the moment. Here in Wales, being the first high ground that the Atlantic weather systems hit on their west to east trajectory, we get more than our fair share of rain which leads to a surfeit of rivers. The Rev. Eli Jenkins’ list was by no means complete as it misses out, amongst others, the Severn, Usk and Wye:
“By Sawdde, Senni, Dovey, Dee,
Edw, Eden, Aled, all,
Taff and Towy broad and free,
Llyfnant with its waterfall.
Claerwen, Cleddau, Dulas, Daw,
Ely, Gwili, Ogwr, Nedd,
Small is our River Dewi, Lord,
A baby on a rushy bed.”
(Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas)
My childhood memories are scattered with river references: in warm weather we’d paddle in the Afan where it flowed across Aberavon’s sandy beach or dare each other to crawl along the gas pipes that straddled the Ffrwdwyllt in the Goytre valley. Occasionally, we’d be taken on a family outing to the Pontaber Inn on the Black Mountain, where a little bridge crossed a babbling stream that ran through the beer garden and, in Sunday best dresses, we’d lean over and play Pooh sticks. Our local nant was dammed by work parties of children every June so that we’d have a makeshift lido right through the summer holidays. Whilst none of us grew up to be civil engineers, we all knew that obstructing the flow of water downstream would create flooding upstream.
As a result, when I looked over the ancient stone walls of Crickhowell Bridge a few weeks ago and saw this, I felt qualified to get in touch with National Resources Wales and say that based on my experience, the tree in question was not going to dislodge itself and float away without help. Now, not being local to Crickhowell, once I got a nice message back from National Resources Wales saying the matter was being referred to their Incident team, I stopped thinking about the tree but not about rivers, and not about the things that get swept away by them.
The path to Llangattock runs close to a little brook and as I stopped to take this photograph of snowdrops, a dead duck floated past on the fast flowing water. For some reason – I think it’s to do with the fact that the duck was stretched out, lying on its back with wings at its side and I’ve been reading too many books about Viking boat burials recently – I have been unable to erase the image from my mind. I suppose we should all be glad that my camera was pointing at the snowdrops or you might now be having the same problem.
Returning home the following week I got an email asking me if I wanted to submit a piece of work – art or poetry – to an exhibition. It was to be on the theme of ‘Rivers’ and as I live close to the river Ogmore which starts with a mountain spring before plunging over a bare rock cliff as a tumultuous waterfall, I thought, yes, I can do that. I did a field sketch then composed a poem called ‘Leap’ in my usual 7 syllables a line, 3 lines a verse format and sent it off. When it came to the stitchery however, all I could see was the dead duck and as I was pretty convinced that the exhibition organisers didn’t have a drowned bird in mind when they decided the title, I thought I had better go and find some different inspiration.
You may recall that last month’s blog ended near the Mynydd Portref wind farm. It’s a short distance from there along an old pilgrim path to the small village of Glynogwr where a lane opposite Llandyfodwg Church leads to a winding brook called Nant Iechyd. There are two ways to cross the water – a small footbridge over it or the Dimbath Ford straight through it. It’s a route which I run regularly and is home to one of my pieces of transient land art. A small detour into a wood on the west of the lane leads into a hollow way and just before the trail putters out into wide green meadows, I built this piece of sculpture and decorated it with one of the many crab apples that litter the ground. It was at grid reference 942888 but Storms Ciara and Dennis may have altered that.
It’s always tempting – but rarely right – to use blue to give the impression of water, especially if you’re not working figuratively. With the drowned duck still at the forefront of my imagination, I went for a less romantic, maudlin palette. Also I didn’t have much blue wool in my stash whereas there seemed to be a lot of muddy browns and greys. As usual, my free form knitting began with a ribbed edge and drifted off into long straggly bits which gradually got infilled and joined up until they formed a single piece.
I had picked, sliced and dried some of the Dimbath Ford crab apples to use as beads and set them to dangle on invisible thread down one side of the hanging.
I’m quite pleased with the result; the colours are very evocative of a floody river, the textures are great and best of all, I have nearly (but only nearly) erased the image of the sodden bird as the river swept him away to his final destination. Now all I have to do is decide on a title for the artwork so it can be submitted for the exhibition. Do I go with Time like a river? Dimbath Ford? Or Epitaph for a Drowned Duck?
“Learn from a river; obstacles may force it to change its course, but never its destination.” Matshona Dhliwayo
“And I rose in rainy autumn and walked abroad in a shower of all my days.” Dylan Thomas
Fed up of this rainy autumn? Then let me take you back to a hot summer day instead,. It’s Friday the 28th of June. Even the usually muddy waters of the Towy estuary are glistening under a blue sky; no whisper of breeze disturbs the green-leafed trees that edge the railway track between Kidwelly and Carmarthen. As the train passes through Ferryside (Glan-y-fferi) station I glance out of the dust smudged window at the silhouette of Llansteffan Castle, perched on a hill above the opposite shore. I make this journey quite often and that glance towards Llansteffan Castle means it’s time to stop working, put my books in my bag, collect my belongings and get ready to leave the train.
I stand up, hear my phone hit the floor (because it was on my lap not in my pocket) and spend valuable moments in an undignified scramble between my seat and the one in front. By the time I retrieve my phone, Carmarthen station – which was ten minutes away – is now much closer and I have a flurry of anxiety at the possibility of missing the opportunity to get off the train, instead being swept towards Milford Haven, Pembroke Dock or Fishguard. (I should say that I have visited – intentionally – all of these towns and would be happy to do so again. It’s just that if I’m aiming for Carmarthen, that’s where I want to go.) Today I am taking advantage of the town’s integrated transport hub to get me to my destination. Or I would if I could be bothered to wait for the bus at the railway station. I can’t, so walk across the wonderful Pont King Morgan Footbridge to catch the 227 bus to Llansteffan village.
As well as its castle and the titular church, this place was home to the late artist Osi Rhys Osmond and it’s where Dylan Thomas spent much of his childhood, later inviting the world to share its magical innocence through his poem ‘Fern Hill’. These are the sort of things I should know about before travelling somewhere to make an art map but one of the flaws in my exploration technique is that I tend to visit a place first and do the research afterwards. Then, of course, I need to go back so that not only do I have context for my wanderings but I will have also worked out where the best coffee and cake is to be had en route.
Anyway, back to the plot. The number 227 bus takes about 20 minutes to reach Llansteffan and then carries on to Llanybri. When you’ve never been to a place before, the best plan for choosing where to get off a bus is to wait for some local to ding the bell and shuffle to their feet. This tried and test method means that I soon find myself at the corner of Water Lane. The bus trundles off uphill and out of sight. Not surprisingly Water Lane leads down to the the river but before you get to the Towy itself, some town planner has thoughtfully arranged a surfeit of car parking places as well as neatly cut verges and picnic benches. I walk down the road, nosing over low walls into people’s gardens, looking for ideas and comparing the growth of their roses to mine. (Mine are better.)
The river has disappeared behind a nature reserve of marram-grassed sand dunes. Maps giving instructions about where, when and how dogs are allowed to be walked, to defecate or merely to exist confuse me because they (the maps) have been orientated through 270 degrees so you have to lean at an extreme angle to make sense of them. Not having a dog with me, I don’t bother. After a bit there are more car parking spaces; benches alongside the pavement give a view across the estuary expanse that is as impressive as it is unexpected. Who’d have thought there would be an immense, golden and tropical looking beach? Hardly anybody by the look of it.
There’s a footpath to the castle signposted from the corner of the car park. After a few hundred metres it forks: right is The Old Road (sic) which leads into the village with its artisan bakery, pubs and church; left the path goes steeply uphill to the castle. When you climb to the top and survey, breathless, the panorama across the bay, it’s easy to understand why – before the Normans got here – there had been an Iron Age Hill Fort and a 6th Century Promontory Fort. Right up until it ended up in the hands of the Tudor dynasty, Llansteffan Castle was a target for and site of conflict between the English and the Welsh princes.
I don’t stay at the castle long because there’s no shade inside the walls from the sun which now high in the sky. I go back down the path and follow The Old Road to the village. An elderly man is strimming undergrowth in the walled graveyard – the Llan – that surrounds the church of St Ystyffan. It’s a grade II listed building of white washed rubble stone, the oldest parts of which are dated to 13th Century although it’s likely that it was a site of Christian worship from the 6th. St Ystyffan was a contemporary of St Teilo and there are other churches in Wales dedicated to him, particularly in Powys. It’s lovely and cool inside the church so I take my time admiring the medieval stonework and the beautiful stained glass windows. Outside the strimmer putters to a halt and doesn’t restart. Either man or machine thinks hard work and the midday day sun don’t go together. From the church I walk back up The Old Road, this time veering off before the castle slope and going through an iron gate.
A woodland path leads to St Anthony’s Well, now little more than an arched hollow with an empty niche but once known as a healing well with pins and pennies left as offerings. A series of stone steps takes me onto the scorching sands of the beach. The cool, shimmering waters beckon me and I can think of nothing better at this moment than a paddle in the shallows. Until, that is, I find that between me and the Towy are the remains of many, many dead jellyfish.
I retreat to the beach cafe for an ice cream and wait on a bench for the arrival of the boat which will take me back to Ferryside. When I make maps, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to convey the poetic and metaphysical features of landscape through stitch. Now I’m going to have to find a way to express jellyfish mortality too. In the meantime though, this is the stitched sketch I made of the walk in the countryside around Llansteffan:
“Breathes there the man with soul so dead, Who never to himself hath said, This is my own, my native land.” Sir Walter Scott
Before we left Scotland I was determined to see the famous stone circles of Kilmartin. For some perverse reason our sat nav decided to ignore the obvious route of the A816 and instead took us on a panic attack-inducing, twisting, narrow lane towards the village of Kilmore – aptly named, we thought, especially after we encountered a full size bus hurtling towards us, the driver of which had more faith in his braking ability than our nerves could cope with. Eventually we got back to the main road and as Kilmartin Glen opened up, we stopped at Carnasserie Castle.
From the bottom of the hill, it looks like one of the ubiquitous stone towers that scatter the Scottish landscape but as you climb the slope, it becomes clear that whoever built this was sending a very serious message about power, ownership and the consequences of threatening either. The tower is five storeys high and can be climbed. If listening to the sat nav had been our first mistake of the day then deciding to take the spiral, unlit, un-handrailed, slippery-with-age stone staircase to the top of Carnasserie Castle – while carrying an acrophobic Jack Russell terrier – was our second. The views across the vast expanse of the glen were magnificent and certainly gave an indication as to why this landscape attracted the attention of stone circle builders. Once we’d recovered from the climb, however, there was the terrible realisation that what had come up, had to go down.
There are few better ways to calm jangling nerves than doing a bit of watercolour painting. Once on terra firma I tried to capture the colour of the castle stones which from the bottom of the hill look a dour grey but up close are the most delicate pink – quite lovely if you are in a post-traumatic state.
Kilmartin was everything I had hoped to see in terms of landscape archaeology. There are standing stones, stone circles and burial chambers everywhere. Probably the biggest disappointment was that we arrived shortly after a coach load of American tourists, many of whom were of the opinion that the best way to appreciate the work of neolithic man was to lie on their backs with their legs stretched up on the sides of the monoliths. Whilst I don’t have a problem if this is done out of spiritual necessity, it did mean that photo opportunities were limited.
More history lay in wait at our next destination as we briefly visited Rosslyn Chapel, rightly feted because of its stupendous carving but disappointingly famous because of its involvement with the plot and film of The Da Vinci Code. We made the mistake of being there on a weekend in the school holidays. If you’ve never been, Roslin (the village) is about 10 miles south of Edinburgh and you should make it your life’s ambition to get there. Definitely a place for the bucket list but don’t stop at just seeing the chapel – there’s a lovely castle and some terrific walks through historical battlefields around the village too.
Next day we drove to Bamburgh where the massive castle overlooks the wide, golden-sanded beach and from there we headed to Gilsland, once the outer limit of the Roman Empire. It was here that I intended to make my next piece of Unlost Places art. The idea came in two parts: the first is captured in the photograph at the very top of the blog. Nailed to the fence to the left of the tree was a dead crow. Doing this is an old farming way of warning other crows to stay away from the field.
The second part of the idea came when I saw this stone. Here in Wales we chain standing stones too. It is said that doing so stops the stone from wandering off and taking the path with it.
This was the first time that I had done performance art as part of Unlost Places and my recitation of a poetic tercet whilst standing in the middle of a Northumbrian lane probably frightened off more crows that the old farming way. Being so close to Hadrian’s Wall meant I was spoilt for choice when it came to making a larger piece of artwork. Until, that is, we passed the Temple of Mithras at Carrawburgh.
Creative Knitting is always a bit fiddly and you can never be sure it’s going to work out until the very last bead is attached or French Knot stitched. And to those who think that maps are drawn with lines on paper all I can say is that for me, on a damp Tuesday afternoon in May, standing in the Temple of Mithras in the bleak landscape of Carrawburgh, this is how I understood my native land.
“Sow an act, and you reap a habit. Sow a habit, and you reap a character. Sow a character and you reap a destiny.” Charles Reade
The historical kingdom of Dalriada was first settled by Irish raiders and eventually came to include much of what is now known as Argyll. You can’t walk far in the area around Oban without coming across reminders of a past which sowed the seeds of Scotland and Scottish character. This 11 mile walk from Oban to Sutherland’s Grove Forest (near Barcaldine) followed part of the Caledonian Way cycle route, most of which is traffic free or on quiet lanes. If, like me, you start by going down the old carriage road towards Dunollie Castle, you’ll pass Fingal’s Stone. Legend has it that that Bran used to tie his faithful hunting dog, Fingal, to this piece of volcanic rock. It was just starting to rain when I got there so rather than get the paints out, I came up with a tercet.
“From the west he will call through
time. Scenting the air, Fingal
waits – still, listening, ready.”
The weather was improving as I left Dunollie Castle and turned north. By the time I reached Ganavan Sands with it’s wide sandy beach, the clouds were lifting with the sky promising a weak sunshine for the rest of the day . I’d wanted to visit Ganavan Sands because it hosts a parkrun . I wasn’t going to be in the area at 9.30am on a Saturday to do the whole 5K so I followed part of the route across the dunes and heath towards Dunbeg.
I’ll confess that cycling doesn’t hold much in the way of attraction for me but if I’d had a bike on this stretch of the Caledonian Way, I’d probably have ended up walking anyway – there were some seriously steep slopes! Having made the summit, the track wound downhill through a magical woodland. The hillsides were covered in ancient oaks that clustered and curled together, gossiping secrets as the light breeze filtered through their drapes of lichen. Occasionally a hidden crow splintered the silence with a loud C-a-a-a-r-k! Field sketching and walking always combine to make wobbly paintings but I think it’s a great way to capture a mystical atmosphere of place.
I diverted from the path at Dunstaffnage, home to many of the ancient kings of Scotland and where in the past the iconic Stone of Destiny was kept. This was the place which was once the centre of Dalriada and for many people, it is where the ideal of a nation called Scotland was born.
Wandering through the bee-humming woods and past the ruins of a stone built chapel, was like walking through a lake of bluebells.
I came to a pebbly cove which is now home to a piece of Unlost Places art. I drew the image with a waterproof feltpen so the sea shouldn’t damage it too much – for a while, at least. I don’t suppose my pebble will ever be found on a beach where they are not only in infinite supply but constantly moving in and out with the tide but I like to think that it was my gift to Dalriada.
The Caledonian Way goes past some magnificent lochside scenery and walking is a wonderful way to appreciate the landscape. I took this photograph when the Caledonian Way had curved behind some trees and away from the road. I could hear cars hurtling along, their drivers having no idea of what they were missing. From Benderloch I walked on quiet lanes towards Barcaldine where I encountered the first of the day’s midgies.
Not even midgies could stop my heart from lifting when I realised that Sutherland’s Grove Forestry was home to an orienteering course. My joy was complete when I found a map that someone had left on a bench rather than taking it home or putting it in a rubbish bin. Following the orienteering course took me through some of the most picturesque parts of the woodland but even if it hadn’t, I loved chasing through the trees looking for controls and when I couldn’t find them, remembering that I’d always had a tendency to overshoot my intended location by misjudging my stride length. Some habits die hard!
In some of the glades, there were creatures sculpted in dead wood that could have inspired (or been inspired by) The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. A troll – presumably caught out by the May sunshine – was lurking close to a bridge over a narrow gorge.
Higher up the slopes the scenery was even more dramatic. It’s an area associated with the Celtic legend of Deirdre who escaped from Ulster to this part of Dalriada with her lover, Naoise of the Red Branch. This photograph is looking towards Beinn Lora which translates to Deirdre’s Hill.
In Wales, we call the gathering of wool tufts from hedges and fences gwlana. I used gwlana and pickings of forest litter to create this piece of weaving which I left hanging from a tree in Sutherland’s Grove.
Unlost Places is a project about mapping the metaphysical features of landscape, using art to express what it feels like to be a certain place. Just before I started this walk through Dalriada I’d stopped off in a shop in Oban and bought a pack of textured threads. Since then, I’ve worked with my poetic tercets, field sketches and stitched samples to create this map of my walk using Free Form Knitting, Crochet and Weaving.
“There is a silent eloquence in every wild bluebell that fills my softened heart with bliss that words could never tell.” Anne Brontë
Our journey from Wales to Scotland tracked the flowering of bluebells; they had the appearance of waterfalls on the harsh hillsides of Snowdonia, nestled in the meadows of Lancashire and were cushioned in the leaf litter of Scottish woods. As we travelled north their hue changed from an almost ephemeral delicacy to the most intense hyacinth blue. Whilst the sight of them is arresting enough, they also drown the air with a heady perfume – reason enough for anyone to want to walk amongst them. Scotland in May is a pretty good where and when to do so.
In front of moss-fringed stones ramsons,violets,campions dance; Jack waits his turn by the hedge.
I love walking and now that I’ve given up painting in favour of field sketching and poetic tercets, I find more and more textures that I want to try and capture. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t.
The area around Moffat is ideal for the Unlost Places project: twisting lanes enfolded by steep sided hills and the sense that everywhere is a landscape that belongs to a moment in history. I marked my passage through place and time by building a small sculpture on the walls of an ancient bridge.
I use what are euphemistically called ‘indigenous dyes’ to colour material for stitchery. This is done by rubbing fabric against wood, metal or stone surfaces to stain the background surface. It’s an example of how an art map becomes much more the visual representation of a place that I spoke about in last month’s blog.
THE ISLE OF MULL
A visit to the Isle of Mull (http://www.isle-of-mull.net/) had long been on my to-do list. We crossed from Oban to Craignure then headed to the beautiful and isolated bay of Lochbuie. Apart from a couple of houses, an honesty shop (a well-stocked general store where you chose what goods you wanted and were trusted to leave the appropriate amount of money behind – how refreshing is that as a concept?) and the ubiquitous ruined castle, Lochbuie is also home to the tiny St Kilda’s church.
Unlost Places is all about using art and poetry to reflect features which are in some way transcendent. In the porch of St Kilda’s is an engraved Celtic Cross, tentatively dated to the 8th Century. This is a project that finds creativity in unexpected places.
It’s also a project that leaves creativity in unexpected places. An hour spent beach-combing yielded driftwood, shells and old fishing line – enough raw materials for some weaving to be left hanging from a tree. Hopefully proving that it’s not just bluebells which are silently eloquent.