Category Archives: Wales

Does My Thumb Look Big In This?

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve got Viking ancestry.  I’ve long suspected as much by the way I search the television schedules for programmes which Neil Oliver is presenting, particularly if he’s wandering around the bleak landscape of Scandinavia (though to be honest, anywhere north of Birmingham will do).  And my tendency to visit Viking re-enactments whenever I see them advertised is also a bit of a giveaway – I like the crafts, I like the clothes, I like the opportunity to throw an axe without worrying what the neighbours will think.  Recently I even considered whether I should do one of those DNA tests which breaks down your genetic origins geographically although, to be honest, I pretty much know that on one side I’m Slavic and on the other Welsh, with some French and some English bits.  The only hope for Viking origin comes from Grandad Charles Iden’s ancestors but given that an Osbert de Iden landed in Sussex during the Norman Conquest and had a village named after him (proving that he was either a close mate of William or a land-grabbing bully), it’s a very thin and wispy hope.

Luckily though, two things have come to my attention.  Firstly, in his programme The Vikings – which I recently watched for the umpteenth time – Neil makes the point that the eponymous Northerners weren’t afraid to venture out into the world and there’s even evidence that they got down into the southern reaches of Europe.  Secondly, I found this photograph of my great grandmother Felicité Marie just before she left France for Wales in the early years of the 20th Century.  French, my eye!  Have you ever seen a more Viking looking woman?  A glare that could freeze the marrow in your bones.  And I bet there’s an axe hidden in that hat.

Buoyed with this new found certainty about my ancestors, I decided I should put my Viking-ness to good use.  The Stay At Home and Stay Local messages prevented me from rampaging or pillaging but when Nalbinding appeared on the Heritage Crafts Association (https://heritagecrafts.org.uk) list of endangered craft skills, learning how to do it seemed like a perfect way to channel my inner Noggin the Nog.   Only two things stood in the way of my Viking credentials – a name and a saga.

The Saga of Maria Big Thumb, Multiple Loops and the Oslo Cast On

In the valleys of the West, where the high moorlands meet the grey, cloud-swept skies, in the cool summer evenings that seem longer this year than most, a solitary woman works at her wool crafts and thinks of tales to tell. 

A shadow had fallen across the land and from the Senedd, the order was given to lock the gates and close the bridges.  An edict was issued that people should keep to their hovels and only venture out to search for toilet paper, baking powder or pizza bases.   Tucked away safely in her little cottage, Maria Big Thumb unwrapped the parcel of wool which had just arrived from her allies in the north and knew the time was right to learn the almost lost Viking craft of nalbinding.  

Ffffff the 1st

After much searching in the forgotten temples of Google, she found an old pdf with drawings of small, dainty hands and caused it to be printed out.  Maria Big Thumb spent many hours trying to understand it and even read the words out loud to see if that helped:

“Wrap the yarn around your fingers 3 times” – yes, simple. “Grab the eight between your fingers” – what eight?  Where did the other five come from?  “There are now 3 thumb loops” – where did the five go?  And how did the thumb join in? 

Hint (said the pdf): Say to yourself, 2 loops stay around the thumb, 2 loops get picked up on the needle.

“Ffffff,” said Maria Big Thumb.

Ffffff the 2nd

Later that evening, when Maria Big Thumb had calmed down, washed her glass and put the empty bottles out for the recycling, she decided to call upon the god Amazon for help.  Soon a book, illustrated with fine coloured pictures of beautifully manicured fingers arrived.  Maria Big Thumb threaded up her needle and resolved to start again.  On page 27 she found instructions for nalbinding beginners to follow.  “Take the yarn and hold it in the left hand” – yes, simple (but she remembered thinking that last time).  “Fold the big loop to get smaller loops so the result resembles half a looped square” – what big loop?  And what does half a looped square look like? “Pull the needle through the loop and it will become the first loop” – what loop?  WHAT LOOP?

 

Hint (said the book): If you only have one loop on the thumb, you can take the needle through both mouse ears at the same time. 

“Ffffff, Ffffff,” said Maria Big Thumb.

Ffffff the 3rd

Risking the wrath of the law, Maria Big Thumb ventured down to the corner shop for the magical potions which would help her understand these strange words but try as she might, and even after the recycling bin was overflowing, they remained dark and mysterious to her.  In the end she realised she had no choice left.  She had worshipped at the temples of Google and she had made offerings to the god Amazon.  Now it was time to go to Valhalla itself; she resolved to consult the great deity YouTube.   “Foolish Maria Big Thumb,” boomed the voice of YouTube, “you have failed because Google sought to teach you in the ways of the Left Handed Start and Amazon tried to trick you with the Finnish Stitch. 

Hint (said YouTube): If you had come to me straight away you would have learnt the Oslo Cast On and all things would have been well.  Better late than never though, so look at this video of a woman with unchipped nail varnish and let’s get on with it.”

“Ffffff, Ffffff, Ffffff,” said Maria Big Thumb.

Epilogue

Thus it came to pass that Maria Big Thumb learnt the skill of nalbinding and achieved Level 1 NVQ (Norse Viking Qualification).  She eventually hopes to progress to study for a Level 2 NVQ specialising in yelling loudly and beard plaiting.  Current circumstances mean that Maria Big Thumb is furloughed from her work placement raiding fishing villages on the Scottish coast.  In the meantime she is considering cleaning her nails and washing her hands before featuring them in photographs.

If all goes well, the next blog will appear mid-August.  Until then

Stay Safe, Be Kind, Keep Smiling.

The Mystery of the Missing Marshal

Note: Any similarity to individuals, locations or events is entirely coincidental.  See last month’s blog (In All Our Dreams) at the bottom of the page for cast of characters. Enjoy your visit to Woollyton.

7am

Vince has just finished setting out the course for Woollyton’s Midsummer Run.  He sits on a bench, unscrews the cup from his battered Thermos flask and pours his coffee.  Mrs Vince – long-suffering and saintly – provides him with refreshments for all of his volunteering obligations.  On the occasions when duties coincide with cold or wet weather she diligently tops up the sweet, black coffee with a generous tot of rum but today, with the sun shining and a warm June morning ahead, Vince’s coffee is just coffee.  She has, however, thoughtfully packed a biscuit for him to munch on.

Vince dunks the digestive rather than munches it and thinks about the success of the Saturday morning runs.  Getting Olga the Opera Singer to give the pre-race briefings meant there was no need to buy a megaphone, although recently Dr Lizzy (the First Aider) has complained that the way Olga rolls a cigar up and down her thigh as she sings instructions to the music from Carmen means some of the runners are breathless before the race starts.

The only Saturday which wasn’t a success was the one when Mike the Marshal went missing.  Vince frowns as he recalls talking to the police, being interviewed by a reporter from The Woollyton Bugle and even – Vince nearly chokes as he gulps his coffee too quickly – having to answer an email from HQ asking for an explanation.  And why?  Because Roger had forgotten the three notes that Mike had given him to deliver.  The first had been to Vince saying that Mike had to leave his marshal post early as his flight to Amsterdam left at 1pm; the second was to Mrs Mike telling her that he’d been called away on urgent business. (Mike never explained to his wife why his business trips involved him being away for weeks at a time before he returned, suntanned and with a wallet full of cash, but to be fair, she’d never asked for details either.  She just thought he was more attractive bronzed than pale and was very happy to deal with the excess money); the third letter, addressed to his boss, said that his grandmother was seriously ill again and he’d been called to her bedside.  Apart from briefly marvelling at the recuperative powers of Mike’s grandmother who, for years now had suffered bouts of sickness around the time Tom Jones was in concert somewhere in the world, Mike’s boss did nothing more than tweak the staff rota for the following month and thank God for the existence of zero hours contracts.

Vince’s frown disappears as he remembers it all worked out in the end because Roger eventually found the letters and posted them.  Since then Mike had sent several postcards to Betty for her to display in The Sticky Bun and some exotic spices for her to try out in her cake recipes.  He’d even enclosed a packet of seeds for Upstairs Annie to plant on the allotments so she could grow her own hay.  And now that Nellie the Knitter and Brian Behind the Paper had won the lottery and gone on a world cruise, there’d be no more complaints to deal with.  Vince finishes his coffee and smiles contentedly.

8am

Sticky Betty sets up a table near the start line with complimentary buns for all of the runners.  She has finally used the spices Mike sent her from Amsterdam and because today is a celebration, she made an even stickier than usual topping.  Sticky Betty is sure they’ll be very popular with everyone.

9am

Most of the runners have eaten Sticky Betty’s spiced buns even though common sense told them to wait until they’d finished the race.  Rod has produced a red satin cape and led a riotous arm-waving, foot-stamping warm up session alongside Olga’s rendition of the pre-race briefing to The March of The Toreadors.  As Vince blows the start whistle, over on the allotments a curl of smoke rises up from a bonfire and wafts across the course.  Upstairs Annie has scythed the hay she was growing with the Amsterdam seeds and set the stubble alight to clear the ground.  As the runners pass by on the first loop the smoke has dissipated into a pungent, greyish haze and by the time they approach on the second loop, Vince wonders if he needs to remind the clubs about taking the race seriously because the runners seem to be doing a Conga into Woollyton Woods.

10am

Vince checks his watch.  He sent Roger into the woods more than 15 minutes ago to look for the runners and there’s been no sign of him since.  Vince shudders as he anticipates having to deal with another HQ email but then sighs with relief as a lone figure walks out of the trees and heads for the finish.  Rosie strolls over the line and raises her arms in triumph, claiming victory for walkers the world over and dismissing the disappearance of all the other competitors as irrelevant.

11am

Vince decides that he will have to send a search party into Woollyton Woods.  He looks around and realises he is alone in the playing field except for Rod and Olga who are doing an Argentine Tango near the still smoky allotments.  Vince puts on his Run Director vest, his brave face and follows the taped course into the trees.  It’s not long before he hears a man’s voice singing.  Soon he reaches a clearing full of runners who are swaying back and forth to the music.  Upstairs Annie is carrying a smouldering pile of hay and a misty cloud hangs in the air.  Standing on top of makeshift stage is the gyrating figure of a black-shirted man.

“Mike? Mike? Mike?” calls Vince.

“Delilah,” chant the runners.

“Why? Why? Why?” Vince takes a deep breath and starts to feel a little bit dizzy.

“Delilah,” the runners chorus.

“So before – I sent Roger a note saying I’d be back today – they come to break down the door.” Mike’s voice booms out and his hips swing from side to side.

Vince’s hips feel an urge to do the same.  He briefly wonders whether his replacement will cope and then decides there’s only one way to find out. He pushes his way through the crowd to stand next to Mike on the stage, puts his NHS orthopaedic surgery under stress it was never designed for and along with everyone else, goes for it.

“FOR-GIVE ME, DE-LI-LAH, I JUST COULDN’T TAKE ANY MOOOOOOOOOORE!”

Email from Run HQ to Vince

Hi Vince, We heard you had a special Run last Saturday.  Would you like to tell us more about it?

Email from Vince to Run HQ

No.

 

The End.  My next blog should (fingers crossed) appear in mid-July.  Until then #staysafe #bekind #keepsmiling

River, Ford, Duck

river in flood
Photograph by Mrs B in the Hills

“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)

Field Sketch

 

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.

Paddling

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.

map of route walked

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.

land art

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

 

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

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!

 

 

Crafting a Business

Image of lake at Parc Calon Lan

Did you know that most people have an attention deficit after about 6 seconds?  This basically means that when you are trying to attract someone’s attention on social media, through an advertisement or by email, if they haven’t been hooked within those 6 seconds, you might as well give up because mentally they will have wandered off and be chasing butterflies through a cornfield.  You may think that 6 seconds is a bit speedy but anyone wanting to try and get my attention has to contend with the fact that – thanks to a surfeit of university education – I have learnt to speed read.  Also as I spent the last 10 years of my NHS career scanning written medical notes looking for tiny snippets of crucial information it means that the usual 6 seconds is about 5 seconds longer than I waste on anything.  Which is why I almost missed the thing that made this week very interesting.   Last Saturday I wandered down to the Bridgend Craft Collective Fair (http://craftbridgend.org.uk/) which is held monthly in Bryngarw Country Park.

Hand made teddies
Hand crafted is best

Sue of The Sand, the Sea and Me reminded me about a seminar which was taking place in Margam Park.  Being organised and hosted by the lovely people at Agora (https://www.menterabusnes.co.uk/en) was a seminar/workshop confidently titled “How to Make Money from your Craft Business.”  I recalled seeing the details pop up on one of my social media feeds but whilst it may have snagged the people with a 6 second attention span, it had not survived my very cursory glance.   Thanks to Sue I went back and took a longer look and I was glad I did because the event proved to be one that was full of useful information not just for crafters or micro enterprises, but for anyone who sees the virtue in building resilience and self-reliance into small, local communities.  Apparently I’m one of a minority of people who find radical economics exciting but the speakers at the seminar ensured there was something to interest – even inspire – everyone who turned up.

Chapter House
Grounds of Margam Park

The day started off with a presentation by Jill Davies of Made It Markets who gave lots of useful advice particularly when it comes to pricing hand-crafted or hand-grown products.  From working out who your target market is and getting to know your customer profile to identifying your USP(unique selling point), Jill’s information came from a long experience in a range of design activities.  I particularly enjoyed her discussion around the conundrum that so many makers face – the difference between pricing from the head and pricing from the heart.   According to Jill  it is only by believing that what is made has value will the maker feel entitled to charge the price they deserve.  She concluded her presentation with a useful list of jobs to be done as homework – a task that betrayed Jill’s previous career as a teacher.  These included:

  • Identify your product market
  • Work on your USP
  • Develop a focussed product range
  • Identify your ideal customer and where you will find them
  • Try out different costing and pricing formulae
  • Consider your branding and display

ruin at Margam Park

Before becoming an MA student at the Royal College of Art, Emily O’Reilly (https://emilyoreillytextiles.wordpress.com ) was involved in a project called “Gwlan to Oo” which looked at the way in which the wool industry of the Shetland Islands had become a successful enterprise not just because of the quality of its products but also as a result of developing an innovative approach to forging links and connections with other disciplines.  For me, one of the most interesting ideas she explained was the potential for economies to become circular and self-sustaining.  This was embedded in every aspect of the Shetland Islands Wool Project from using locally sourced  materials and selling goods with an authentic provenance to making sure that there was, in effect, no end of life for the items made.

Tulip Garden

Welsh Lavender (https://www.welshlavender.com )is a successful business which began in the kitchen of a hillside farm and now employs around  20 people.  It came about because of a chance remark when Nancy and Bill invited some neighbours over for a glass of wine.  That led to a successful grant application and the planting of one field of Lavender followed by the realisation that something would need to be done with the harvest.  Nancy’s entertaining presentation (including getting everyone in the audience to sample her product) made some useful points for any entrepreneur:

  • Grant funding is a great motivator
  • If your branding doesn’t work, change it
  • Much success will come from face to face contact
  • Believe in your product
  • Local provenance will sell
  • Be prepared to move away from people and businesses that don’t fit your ethos

Welsh Hillside

The last speaker of the day was Claire Carew of Visit Wales and she wanted the audience to understand that local craft and produce businesses were part of the overall attraction for visitors to Wales, helping to make places become destinations rather than points on a route.  She had this advice to offer:

  • Be authentic
  • Understand what influences your customers
  • Use all of your local expertise
  • Make the most of your tourism community
  • Create relevant content in your website and social media posts
  • Look beyond your crafts and produce
  • Do your research and connect with other people
  • Tag your images

You’d think that would be enough but after a very nice lunch and a lot of networking, everyone had the opportunity to take part in a one to one ‘meet the buyer’ encounter.   I was lucky enough to have 10 minutes with Nia Evans of Bodlon and explain to her the thoughts behind my next project Y Llwybrau Digoll (The Unlost Paths).  I’ll give a taster of what this is about in my usual blog next month but until then here’s a little hint of what’s to come.

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.