Firstly, apologies to anyone reading this whose name is Tony Blair because the blog is not about you. It’s about a 11 year old girl called Alex and a plea to anyone who’s thinking of visiting Wales to 1) stay away at the moment and 2) realise there’s more to the country than Snowdonia and Pen-y-fan. Back in 2005 my niece Alex came to stay for a weekend during the summer school holidays. Alex was a sophisticate, used to watching television, playing computer games and generally having a very sociable and expensive to maintain lifestyle. Losing these activities for a weekend would be acceptable but before Alex was due to return home, a childcare crisis arose and she ended up being in residence for 5 weeks. Suddenly the absence of television, computer and friends became more of a challenge.
Until, that is, we came up with a game called Tony Blair is Banning. The premise went along these lines: Tony Blair (then Prime Minister and a perfect candidate to be nominated as a spoilsport) was taking it into his head to ban things but was allowing people to indulge in their favourite whatever it was just once more. Over the summer we did Tony Blair was banning films, books, holiday destinations, 3 course meals, sweets, chocolate bars and even pizza toppings. The list was long and very creative but the one thing Tony Blair didn’t ban was favourite places in Wales. Given that so many of us are having to adapt to a new reality when it comes to being outside, I thought I’d bring to this month’s blog a virtual tour of Wales and the art it has inspired me to make – like the Unlost Places piece I left on the Glamorgan Ridgeway.
The Gower Peninsula
Back in 2017 I was doing an MA in Contemporary Crafts at Hereford College of Arts and it was a visit to the Gower Peninsula which started my interest in mapping metaphysical features of landscape. This was the first piece which combined poetry and stitchery.
“Heavy, heady scented steps
perfume the path, the moment.”
Just a couple of weeks ago I walked from Reynoldston to Penmaen via Arthur’s Stone. My mate Kevin who has a workshop at the Gower Heritage Centre told me that King Arthur kicked a pebble across the estuary. When it landed, the stone was so proud of how it had got there that it grew in stature to the size it is today.
Afan Argoed Country Park
I love this place. In some of the toughest times I’ve had personally, being able to park the car at the edge of the forestry and just stare across the valley or wander up and down the wooded paths has brought priceless moments of peace and tranquillity. This was a watercolour I did when I realised that being good at art (and I’m not) doesn’t matter unless you think it does. If you’re feeling a little bit – or a lot – stressed by life at the moment, I urge you to get a pencil, sketchpad and some paints and just start making marks.
Small Indy Shops everywhere
Talking of tough times, losing a Mum can be one of the worst and in 1996 I realised that one of the things I was going to miss was the surprise (and often weird) Christmas present mine used to leave under the tree. I rang a small fabric shop in Monmouth and explained my predicament. The lady I spoke to said she’d be very happy to put a little of parcel of fabric together for me, on condition I didn’t open it until Christmas morning. Came the big day and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when unwrapping revealed not just fabric but beads, threads, raffia and feathers all colour coordinated with a beautiful fat quarter of fine cotton. I called the doll I made from it all “What a day I’ve had!”, one of my Mum’s favourite sayings. That shop may have closed down but I’ve now found the wonderful Sew Lovely in Barry to fill the gap.
St Non’s Well
St David’s in Pembrokeshire has to be one of the most beautiful places in the world, not just in Wales, so it’s worth walking the mile or so out of town to St Non’s Well, a holy site dedicated to David’s mother. I recommend sitting with your back against the 6th Century chapel walls, having a picnic of orange juice and fresh made bread bought from the High Street bakery and looking out across the Irish sea. A truly spiritual experience.
I stop off here every time I go to visit the very regal cat Bramble Murgatroyd at the wool shop called Knit One that she runs in Dolgellau. Anyway. Favourite place. In the world. Enough said.
I went to Anglesey for the first time on holiday last year and we nearly didn’t bother going into Newborough Forest because we weren’t sure it was going to be worth the car park money. What a mistake that would have been! Not only was Anglesey a revelation (for some reason I had expected it to be grey and urbanised) but Llanddwyn is amazing, with pine forests, sand dunes and great views across the Menai Strait to the mountains. It was the site of one of my early pieces of Unlost Places art, long since prey to the restless waves.
Hello, you’re probably thinking, what culvert? Any of them, truth be told. South Wales is littered with water logged tunnels thanks to the drainage issues left by the Industrial Revolution and the multitude of coal mines. Back in about 2003, I had to do a bridging project between studying for Creative Textiles 1 and Creative Textiles 2 with the Open College of Arts. I chose to make an art doll based on a folk tale about mine fairies called Coblynnau. They supposedly lived in dark tunnels and tapped on the walls to show where the best mineral seams were to be found but as I live next to a long abandoned brick works, I gave mine a sliver of clay to hold rather than a lump of coal. If you’re even remotely interested in Psychogeography, any of the South Wales valleys is worth a visit. If you choose the Rhondda, then call in to the wonderful Workers’ Gallery in Ynyshir to see some of the best contemporary art in a vibrant community setting.
The Brecon Beacons from Black Mountain to Black Mountains
When I finally decide to move from Scarecrow Cottage, the Brecon Beacons is one of the places where I’m thinking of pitching my tent. I grew up splish-sploshing across the bare moorland streams of the Black Mountain in the west but as an adult I orienteered, ran and walked through the lovely forests and rugged hillsides of the Black Mountains further east. I often visit Brecon town with its beautiful cathedral and gorgeous little museum – it nestles in the shadow of Pen-y-fan. All in all, I’m grateful that hordes of visitors spend their time trudging up and down the Pont-ar-Daf track because it means the rest of the Brecon Beacons National Park is quiet and unspoilt for people like me.
I grew up in Aberavon where the long golden sands sweep around to form the southern edge of Swansea Bay. Quite why Aberavon and its neighbours, Morfa, Porthcawl and Llantwit Major aren’t on the same tourist itinerary as the Gower and Pembrokeshire is a bit of a mystery. It has to be said that Wales has some of the best beaches in the UK and one of the best coastlines in the world.
“Teg edrych tuag adref”
I suppose the upshot of all this is that our current situation should serve as a reminder to not take things, places or people for granted. Perhaps playing a game like Tony Blair is Banning would help us all to appreciate what we’ve had and what we’ve got. Dyna Gymru i mi – lle gorau yn y byd i fyw.
“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
“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.
“Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel, never ending or beginning, on an ever spinning reel,” Alan and Marilyn Bergman
I don’t usually plan ahead what I’m going to write in my blogs – you’ve probably guessed that if you read them regularly – but when Michel Legrand died recently, I started thinking about one of his most famous compositions, “Windmills of your mind” and was wondering how I could fit in a reference to it. I’ve loved this song since I first heard it, mostly because it was sung by Noel Harrison. (I had a crush on him when he starred in The Girl from Uncle with Stephanie Powers. In my defence, I was 8 and not very discriminating about the sort of television programmes I watched.) Anyway poor M. Legrand’s demise got me humming the tune and thinking about beginnings and how difficult it is to spot the point at which you stop being a student of something and start putting what you’ve learnt into practice.
I know from my own experience learning to speak Welsh, going from dweud eich dweud in the classroom to sgwrsio yn y byd go iawn is as terrifying as going from pedalling a tricycle with stabilisers on to riding a racing bike with razor blade thin wheels down a steep hill. You can read more about how I got on with the Welsh language here incidentally. If you are dysgu Cymraeg fel oedolion it might make you realise that having a sense of humour is as necessary as a command of grammar.
Trying to work out the point when I got to grips with creativity is less easy. When it comes to Textile Art, I disagree with John Galsworthy when he said “beginnings are always messy.” This is my attempt at portraying the brooding atmosphere of Kenfig Pool in the year 2000. Local legend has it that a wizard cursed the inhabitants of the prosperous borough of Kenfig for not offering him shelter. A fierce storm arose and as the sea broke through the defences and flooded the village, drowning it for ever, a ghostly cry of Dial a ddaw! (Vengeance is coming!) was heard on the wind. If ever a piece of my work failed to capture a sense of place, this is it.
Shortly after I began a course in Creative Textiles with the Open College of Arts and had to come to terms with using a sketchbook to record the way in which pieces of work were developing. I have never enjoyed working this way. I see a piece of white paper and am convinced that any mark I make on it will spoil it forever. In spite of repeated attempts to convince my tutors that I was useless at drawing and worse at painting, they refused to give me dispensation for that part of the course. Grumbling and resentful, I set about a project on responding to place. I chose the entrance to an old mine close to where I live as the subject partly because it was easy to get to but also because I’d read something about it being haunted.
Bit by bit I came to realise that learning to be creative was much the same as studying Welsh. I didn’t need to be good at drawing or skilled at painting – these were simply the nouns and verbs of a visual language; my sketchbook was not a collection of images which were nice to look at – it was a record that only I needed to understand.
Just recently (January 2019) I attended a course at Kenfig Nature Reserve and had half an hour to spare before it started. I decided to walk across the sand dunes and pay a visit to Kenfig Pool. Having a mobile phone means that these days, there’s always a camera to hand so I started off taking a couple of photographs.
I’ve gone from thinking of sketchbooks as a necessary evil to a useful bit of kit. My change of opinion is down to finally finding a technique which works for me; I use a felt pen to draw on a still wet watercolour wash and because I’ve come to terms with the fact that the sketchbook is a resource for me and me alone, I don’t worry about whether it is good by anyone else’s standards.
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks doing a small art map of Kenfig Pool. It’s still a work in progress but you’ll be able to see how it’s going to turn out. It makes an interesting comparison to that needlepoint work I did nearly 20 years ago.
In amongst all of these Kenfig Pool shenanigans, I was invited to contribute work to an exhibition called ‘Interior Monologues’ which is opening on the 11th February 2019 at Oriel y Bont . I’ve produced a piece of poetic prose as a response to the work of artist Mererid Velios . It’s been a new and exciting method of collaboration for me and I’ve really enjoyed it. Interestingly enough, I probably would never have got involved except for the fact that Barrie and Maria, my Creative Writing lecturers from 2004 and 2005, remembered that I always wanted to write about visual art. Are there such things as beginnings and endings? I don’t think so.
“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” Scott Adams
“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” Albert Einstein
I’ve been fascinated by walking ancient tracks ever since childhood when in long summer holidays, my mum would shepherd me and my sisters along the sheep trails that led from sandy dunes near Aberavon up onto the moorland slopes of Baglan mountain. At the time I didn’t know anything about the tracks being ancient and admittedly, much of the fascination came from seeing how long any of us children could hold onto the low voltage electric fence wires that were used to keep the sheep on the mountain and not wandering through the town of Port Talbot below. Let me make two clarifications relating to the electric fence wire: firstly, we didn’t have Health and Safety back in the 1960s; we had health, we had safety and for the most part, we had a lot of good luck and secondly, it was my younger sister Annie, who proudly claimed the record of being able to hold on to the wire – and its associated voltage – for about 10 seconds which was some 4 seconds more than Nell and 9 seconds longer than me.
Anyway, let’s get back to the point about the ancient tracks and specifically, the ancient tracks which crisscross the bracken covered slopes that look across the Bristol Channel towards Somerset. 2000 years back this area was inhabited by the Silures tribe who held sway over most of south east Wales from the River Severn to the River Lougher. The name Silures came from the Latin meaning “the people of the rocks” and according to Tacitus, they were swarthy with black, curly hair and a predilection for war. It took the invading Romans of the 1st Century AD about 30 years to finally subdue them. More recent than Tacitus, Niel Faulkner said “Ancient Siluria was a land of boggy uplands, wooded slopes and narrow valleys and plains… it was a rougher, harder and more impoverished land and its people skilled in war…”
Now this is about as much as I know about the Silures and as I am not a historian but an artist, I think it’s about as much as I need to know. I’ve never been one to let fact get in the way of creativity so you should understand that much that comes after this point is the product of my imaginative wanderings. Maps show that the Glamorgan ridge is about 20 miles west of Baglan mountain and it is covered with place names which hint at a violent past: Mynydd y Gaer (the Mountain Fortress), Mynwent y Milwyr (the graveyard of the soldiers) and Gadlys (Battle Court) to name but a few.
I’ve spent the last couple of years mapping the area but it was only at the end of 2018 that I climbed onto the ridge from the south (I usually go up from the west or the north). Suddenly I realised that all of my previous conclusions about the area being the site of an attack by the Romans on the Silurians could be wrong. Ascending from the South would have been almost impossible for the invaders and if they did make it to the top, then it was probably because they were being lured into an ambush. Whether hunted or hunters, I’m of the opinion that the Silurians and Romans would have fought a running battle heading towards Baglan mountain, not because they had a burning desire to see the spot where – 2000 years later – a street artist called Banksy would make Port Talbot famous (again) – but because it was a defensible stopping off point en route to the safety of the River Lougher. Who won and who lost is buried in the mists of time but there’s a small valley north of Port Talbot known to locals as Cwm Lladdfa (the Vale of Slaughter) so clearly it didn’t end well for one side or the other. Incidentally this is a place name which doesn’t show up on modern maps which are digital representations of topography rather that visual interpretations of place and time. As the Ordnance Survey do what the do so well, I’ll leave the technical stuff to them and stick to my wild imaginings.
The Glamorgan ridge is cut by deep, steep sided valleys and the first one to the west is Mynydd Llangeinwyr. It was originally called Allt yr Esgair (the Wooded Slope of the Ridge) but in the 5th Century, St Cein Wyr (St Keyne the Virgin) stopped for a look around, liked what she saw and stayed. By the time she died on the 8th October 505, she had caused a spring to bubble to the surface near the church which bears her name. It was bone chillingly cold on the day I sat near the spot, painted some canvas with watercolours
and pinned the fabric to a nearby fence to blow dry in the gale force wind. I kind of felt a lot of respect for old Cein Wyr. I was wrapped up in lots of layers and had a flask of coffee to hand. For her, living atop this ridge as a woman alone, with only the food she could forage, it must have been a bleak and sometimes fearful existence.
Whilst the material was drying I wandered about picking up a couple of bits of gravel and some sheep’s wool to trap into the embroidery. As you can see above, I also did a quick field sketch of the area so that I would have a point of reference as the stitchery grew. It’s taken me a few weeks to reach the point where I’m happy to say it’s finished. In a world of sat navs and GPS signals, it may not be a map which will get you to a specific place but I think it’s a pretty reasonable record of a journey – though not necessarily mine.
“Properly practised, knitting soothes the troubled spirit, and it doesn’t hurt the untroubled spirit either.” Elizabeth Zimmerman.
In the 19th Century, some doctors would prescribe knitting for the relief of high anxiety and hysteria and undoubtedly, knitting – like many craft skills which require concentration and dexterity – has a calming, almost meditative effect. Can you sense a ‘but’ coming? I won’t keep you waiting in case you are prone to high anxiety and hysteria – but, what happens if you can’t knit? I don’t mean that you haven’t learnt; that is a situation that is easily remedied. I’ve yet to meet a knitter who isn’t willing to share their skill and for most people, all that is needed to master knitting is 2 sticks (the technical term is needles but to all intents and purposes, they are sticks with bobbles on one end and a point of the other), yarn and some measure of manual dexterity. Mind you, if you search the internet there are lots of people who manage to knit with their toes but as I don’t know what the foot equivalent term of manual dexterity is, I’ll carry on about the people who can’t knit. (Apologies to the toe knitters for any offence caused.)
My older sister, Nell, is a formidable knitter, socks and fingerless mittens being a speciality. She designs her own patterns, does weird things called provisional cast ons, and waxes lyrical (and at great length) about the pros and cons of picot edging versus rib. I’m not sure whether Nell’s spirit needs soothing but I am convinced that she views knitting as an intellectual adventure. Without knitting, her hands would probably be picking away at the wallpaper in the pub where she and her compatriots currently meet for a ‘knit and natter’ session. Social engagement is a wonderful by-product of most crafts, particularly the portable kind like knitting.
My younger sister, Annie, couldn’t knit. Over the years many people (including me) of varying experience in knitting and/or teaching have tried to help her overcome this handicap. All have failed. Whereas once Annie took a kind of perverse pleasure in her ability to ‘break’ experts, just recently she has found herself in some situations where the calming effect of knitting would have been welcome. Now that I am doing some sessions as a mentor of creative practices (more on this next month), I decided to volunteer my services again. Curiously enough, stepping away from my previous skills of teacher/tutor/educator and instead using those of a mentor/guide/companion was all it took for Annie to stop thinking in terms of success or failure. Her woolly pumpkin is the end of her being willing – even happy – to say “I can’t knit” and the beginning of a creative journey that is full of possibility.
Nestling between the two extremes of sisters and their knitting skills, my wool and needles have a more niche setting. I use free form knitting (often called Scrumbling) to create deeply textured surfaces which act as a foundation for layered embroidery, embellishment with found objects and appliqué. This allows me to forget figurative representation and instead make some deeply personal and subjective interpretations of cultural geography.
My current project is a continuation of my MA dissertation which involved mapping the metaphysical features of landscape through poetry and mixed media art. A book, creative walked journeys and a linked exhibition loom in 2019 so work has started on a wall hanging called ‘Run!’. Incidentally, the title has nothing to do with dropped stitches and everything to do with the ill-fated attempt of the Silurian tribe of Glamorgan to escape the advance of the Roman army in the 1st century AD. In an effort to make the knitting belong to the landscape it is representing I have done some solar dyeing with plant material harvested from the area.
In addition I have been walking/running over the ancient paths of the the Glamorgan ridgeway with wool tied around my shoes. It gets nicely stained with what you could call indigenous dyes if you were being academic, but sheep poo is just as accurate a term.
My doomed Silurians also had to climb a very steep ill in their efforts to get away. One afternoon last month I repeated their journey, threw a ball of coarse Welsh wool down the slope and then wandered after it, knitting as I went.
Anything that got caught in the yarn – moss, fleece and, yes, sheep poo – got knitted in. By the time this wall hanging is finished it will also have lines of poetry that will tell the story of a people who met their end within sight of their homes to the east and safe haven to the west. There is no picture which can convey that reality but I’m willing to bet that knitting will do it justice.
So if you can’t knit yet – whether because you haven’t learnt or because you think you have some kind of congenital inability – maybe it’s time to have another go. We knitters live in a world of excitement and joy, calm in the face of adversity and never looking for something to do. Most wool shops offer lessons and workshops – sometimes with added cats like the wonderful Bramble Murgatroyd at Knit One in Dolgellau:
Lots of towns, villages and communities have groups which provide support and facilities for crafters of all sort. My local area has established one to address everything from enabling artisan makers to counteracting social isolation by letting people learn skills from each other. (www.craft.bridgendreach.org.uk). There again, you could always join or start a yarnstorming brigade. You need to have mischief making tendencies for this sort of thing and established groups are likely to be suspicious of anyone trying to push their way in.
If you’re still not convinced, maybe you should consider the words of Stephanie Pearl-McPhee:
“the number one reason knitters knit is because they are so smart that they need knitting to make boring things interesting. Knitters are so compellingly clever that they simply can’t tolerate boredom.”