Tag Archives: Tracks and Trails

A Walk Through Dalriada

 

“Sow an act, and you reap a habit.  Sow a habit, and you reap a character.  Sow a character and you reap a destiny.”              Charles Reade

Oban

The historical kingdom of Dalriada was first settled by Irish raiders and eventually came to include much of what is now known as Argyll.  You can’t walk far in the area around Oban without coming across reminders of a past which sowed the seeds of Scotland and Scottish character.  This 11 mile walk from Oban to Sutherland’s Grove Forest (near Barcaldine) followed part of the Caledonian Way cycle route, most of which is traffic free or on quiet lanes.  If, like me, you start by going down the old carriage road towards Dunollie Castle, you’ll pass Fingal’s Stone.  Legend has it that that Bran used to tie his faithful hunting dog, Fingal, to this piece of volcanic rock.  It was just starting to rain when I got there so rather than get the paints out, I came up with a tercet.

Fingals stone Dunollie

“From the west he will call through

time.  Scenting the air, Fingal

waits – still, listening, ready.”

Beach

The weather was improving as I left Dunollie Castle and turned north.  By the time I reached Ganavan Sands with it’s wide sandy beach, the clouds were lifting with the sky promising a weak sunshine for the rest of the day .  I’d wanted to visit Ganavan Sands because it hosts a parkrun .  I wasn’t going to be in the area at 9.30am on a Saturday to do the whole 5K so I followed part of the route across the dunes and heath towards Dunbeg.

Dunbeg sketch

I’ll confess that cycling doesn’t hold much in the way of attraction for me but if I’d had a bike on this stretch of the Caledonian Way, I’d probably have ended up walking anyway – there were some seriously steep slopes!  Having made the summit, the track wound downhill through a magical woodland.  The hillsides were covered in ancient oaks that clustered and curled together, gossiping secrets as the light breeze filtered through their drapes of lichen.  Occasionally a hidden crow splintered the silence with a loud C-a-a-a-r-k!  Field sketching and walking always combine to make wobbly paintings but I think it’s a great way to capture a mystical atmosphere of place.

Dunstaffnage

I diverted from the path at Dunstaffnage, home to many of the ancient kings of Scotland and where in the past the iconic Stone of Destiny was kept.  This was the place which was once the centre of Dalriada and for many people, it is where the ideal of a nation called Scotland was born.

Dunstaffnage bluebells

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

Pebble painting

I came to a pebbly cove which is now home to a piece of Unlost Places art.  I drew the image with a waterproof feltpen so the sea shouldn’t damage it too much – for a while, at least.  I don’t suppose my pebble will ever be found on a beach where they are not only in infinite supply but constantly moving in and out with the tide but I like to think that it was my gift to Dalriada.

Caledonia Way

The Caledonian Way goes past some magnificent lochside scenery and walking is a wonderful way to appreciate the landscape.  I took this photograph when the Caledonian Way had curved behind some trees and away from the road.  I could hear cars hurtling along, their drivers having no idea of what they were missing.  From Benderloch I walked on quiet lanes towards Barcaldine where I encountered the first of the day’s midgies.

Orienteering course

Not even midgies could stop my heart from lifting when I realised that Sutherland’s Grove Forestry was home to an orienteering course.  My joy was complete when I found a map that someone had left on a bench rather than taking it home or putting it in a rubbish bin.  Following the orienteering course took me through some of the most picturesque parts of the woodland but even if it hadn’t, I loved chasing through the trees looking for controls and when I couldn’t find them, remembering that I’d always had a tendency to overshoot my intended location by misjudging my stride length.  Some habits die hard!

Wood carvingIn some of the glades, there were creatures sculpted in dead wood that could have inspired (or been inspired by) The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings.  A  troll – presumably caught out by the May sunshine – was lurking close to a bridge over a narrow gorge.

Sutherlands Grove

Higher up the slopes the scenery was even more dramatic.  It’s an area associated with the Celtic legend of Deirdre who escaped from Ulster to this part of Dalriada with her lover, Naoise of the Red Branch.  This photograph is looking towards Beinn Lora which translates to Deirdre’s Hill.

woven tree hanging

In Wales, we call the gathering of wool tufts from hedges and fences gwlana.  I used gwlana and pickings of forest litter to create this piece of weaving which I left hanging from a tree in Sutherland’s Grove.

Dalriada

Unlost Places is a project about mapping the metaphysical features of landscape, using art to express what it feels like to be a certain place.  Just before I started this walk through Dalriada I’d stopped off in a shop in Oban and bought a pack of textured threads.  Since then, I’ve worked with my poetic tercets, field sketches and stitched samples to create this map of my walk using Free Form Knitting, Crochet and Weaving.

 

Imagining Everywhere

“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”                          Albert Einstein

I’ve been fascinated by walking ancient tracks ever since childhood when in long summer holidays, my mum would shepherd me and my sisters along the sheep trails that led from sandy dunes near Aberavon up onto the moorland slopes of Baglan mountain.  At the time I didn’t know anything about the tracks being ancient and admittedly, much of the fascination came from seeing how long any of us children could hold onto the low voltage electric fence wires that were used to keep the sheep on the mountain and not wandering through the town of Port Talbot below.  Let me make two clarifications relating to the electric fence wire:  firstly, we didn’t have Health and Safety back in the 1960s; we had health, we had safety and for the most part, we had a lot of good luck and secondly, it was my younger sister Annie, who proudly claimed the record of being able to hold on to the wire – and its associated voltage – for about 10 seconds which was some 4 seconds more than Nell and 9 seconds longer than me.

Family outing to look for electric fences

Anyway, let’s get back to the point about the ancient tracks and specifically, the ancient tracks which crisscross the bracken covered slopes that look across the Bristol Channel towards Somerset.  2000 years back this area was inhabited by the Silures tribe who held sway over most of south east Wales from the River Severn to the River Lougher.  The name Silures came from the Latin meaning “the people of the rocks” and according to Tacitus, they were swarthy with black, curly hair and a predilection for war.  It took the invading Romans of the 1st Century AD about 30 years to finally subdue them.    More recent than Tacitus, Niel Faulkner said “Ancient Siluria was a land of boggy uplands, wooded slopes and narrow valleys and plains… it was a rougher, harder and more impoverished land and its people skilled in war…”  

Now this is about as much as I know about the Silures and as I am not a historian but an artist, I think it’s about as much as I need to know.  I’ve never been one to let fact get in the way of creativity so you should understand that much that comes after this point is the product of my imaginative wanderings.  Maps show that the Glamorgan ridge is about 20 miles west of Baglan mountain and it is covered with place names which hint at a violent past: Mynydd y Gaer (the Mountain Fortress), Mynwent y Milwyr (the graveyard of the soldiers) and Gadlys (Battle Court) to name but a few.

I’ve spent the last couple of years mapping the area but it was only at the end of 2018 that I climbed onto the ridge from the south (I usually go up from the west or the north).  Suddenly I realised that all of my previous conclusions about the area being the site of an attack by the Romans on the Silurians could be wrong.  Ascending from the South would have been almost impossible for the invaders and if they did make it to the top, then it was probably because they were being lured into an ambush.  Whether hunted or hunters, I’m of the opinion that the Silurians and Romans would have fought a running battle heading towards Baglan mountain, not because they had a burning desire to see the spot where – 2000 years later – a street artist called Banksy would make Port Talbot famous (again) – but because it was a defensible stopping off point en route to the safety of the River Lougher.  Who won and who lost is buried in the mists of time but there’s a small valley north of Port Talbot known to locals as Cwm Lladdfa (the Vale of Slaughter) so clearly it didn’t end well for one side or the other.  Incidentally this is a place name which doesn’t show up on modern maps which are digital representations of topography rather that visual interpretations of place and time.  As the Ordnance Survey do what the do so well, I’ll leave the technical stuff to them and stick to my wild imaginings. 

 

 

The Glamorgan ridge is cut by deep, steep sided valleys and the first one to the west is Mynydd Llangeinwyr.  It was originally called Allt yr Esgair (the Wooded Slope of the Ridge) but in the 5th Century, St Cein Wyr (St Keyne the Virgin) stopped for a look around, liked what she saw and stayed.  By the time she died on the 8th October 505, she had caused a spring to bubble to the surface near the church which bears her name.  It was bone chillingly cold on the day I sat near the spot, painted some canvas with watercolours

and pinned the fabric to a nearby fence to blow dry in the gale force wind.  I kind of felt a lot of respect for old Cein Wyr.  I was wrapped up in lots of layers and had a flask of coffee to hand.  For her, living atop this ridge as a woman alone, with only the food she could forage, it must have been a bleak and sometimes fearful existence.

Whilst the material was drying I wandered about picking up a couple of bits of gravel and some sheep’s wool to trap into the embroidery.  As you can see above, I also did a quick field sketch of the area so that I would have a point of reference as the stitchery grew.  It’s taken me a few weeks to reach the point where I’m happy to say it’s finished.  In a world of sat navs and GPS signals, it may not be a map which will get you to a specific place but I think it’s a pretty reasonable record of a journey – though not necessarily mine.

Soothing the troubled spirit

“Properly practised, knitting soothes the troubled spirit, and it doesn’t hurt the untroubled spirit either.”  Elizabeth Zimmerman.

In the 19th Century, some doctors would prescribe knitting for the relief of high anxiety and hysteria and undoubtedly, knitting – like many craft skills which require concentration and dexterity – has a calming, almost meditative effect.  Can you sense a ‘but’ coming?  I won’t keep you waiting in case you are prone to high anxiety and hysteria – but, what happens if you can’t knit?  I don’t mean that you haven’t learnt; that is a situation that is easily remedied.  I’ve yet to meet a knitter who isn’t willing to share their skill and for most people, all that is needed to master knitting is 2 sticks (the technical term is needles but to all intents and purposes, they are sticks with bobbles on one end and a point of the other), yarn and some measure of manual dexterity.  Mind you, if you search the internet there are lots of people who manage to knit with their toes but as I don’t know what the foot equivalent term of manual dexterity is, I’ll carry on about the people who can’t knit. (Apologies to the toe knitters for any offence caused.)

Knitted by Nell

My older sister, Nell, is a formidable knitter, socks and fingerless mittens being a speciality.  She designs her own patterns, does weird things called provisional cast ons, and waxes lyrical (and at great length) about the pros and cons of picot edging versus rib.  I’m not sure whether Nell’s spirit needs soothing but I am convinced that she views knitting as an intellectual adventure.  Without knitting, her hands would probably be picking away at the wallpaper in the pub where she and her compatriots currently meet for a ‘knit and natter’ session.  Social engagement is a wonderful by-product of most crafts, particularly the portable kind like knitting.

Knitted by Annie

My younger sister, Annie, couldn’t knit.  Over the years many people (including me) of varying experience in knitting and/or teaching have tried to help her overcome this handicap.  All have failed.  Whereas once Annie took a kind of perverse pleasure in her ability to ‘break’ experts, just recently she has found herself in some situations where the calming effect of knitting  would have been welcome.  Now that I am doing some sessions as a mentor of creative practices (more on this next month), I decided to volunteer my services again.  Curiously enough, stepping away from my previous skills of teacher/tutor/educator and instead using those of a mentor/guide/companion was all it took for Annie to stop thinking in terms of success or failure.  Her woolly pumpkin is the end of her being willing – even happy – to say “I can’t knit”  and the beginning of a creative journey that is full of possibility.

Dark Tonight (from Etifeddiaeth)

Nestling between the two extremes of sisters and their knitting skills, my wool and needles have a more niche setting.  I use free form knitting (often called Scrumbling) to create deeply textured surfaces which act as a foundation for layered embroidery, embellishment with found objects and appliqué.  This allows me to forget figurative representation and instead make some deeply personal and subjective interpretations of cultural geography.

Burial mounds on Brynywrach

My current project is a continuation of my MA dissertation which involved mapping the metaphysical features of landscape through poetry and mixed media art.  A book, creative walked journeys and a linked exhibition loom in 2019 so work has started on a wall hanging called ‘Run!’.  Incidentally, the title has nothing to do with dropped stitches and everything to do with the ill-fated attempt of the Silurian tribe of Glamorgan to escape the advance of the Roman army in the 1st century AD.  In an effort to make the knitting belong to the landscape it is representing I have done some solar dyeing with plant material harvested from the area.

White wool with natural dyes

In addition I have been walking/running over the ancient paths of the the Glamorgan ridgeway with wool tied around my shoes.  It gets nicely stained with what you could call indigenous dyes if you were being academic, but sheep poo is just as accurate a term.

Indigenous dyes

My doomed Silurians also had to climb a very steep ill in their efforts to get away.  One afternoon last month I repeated their journey, threw a ball of coarse Welsh wool down the slope and then wandered after it, knitting as I went.

Knitting in landscape

Anything that got caught in the yarn – moss, fleece and, yes, sheep poo – got knitted in.  By the time this wall hanging is finished it will also have lines of poetry that will tell the story of a people who met their end within sight of their homes to the east and safe haven to the west.  There is no picture which can convey that reality but I’m willing to bet that knitting will do it justice.

Looking towards home

So if you can’t knit yet – whether because you haven’t learnt or because you think you have some kind of congenital inability – maybe it’s time to have another go.  We knitters live in a world of excitement and joy, calm in the face of adversity and never looking for something to do.  Most wool shops offer lessons and workshops – sometimes with added cats like the wonderful Bramble Murgatroyd at Knit One in Dolgellau:

Bramble surveys her realm

About Knit one…

Lots of towns, villages and communities have groups which provide support and facilities for crafters of all sort.  My local area has established one to address everything from enabling artisan makers to counteracting social isolation by letting people learn skills from each other.  (www.craft.bridgendreach.org.uk).  There again, you could always join or start a yarnstorming brigade.  You need to have mischief making tendencies for this sort of thing and established groups are likely to be suspicious of anyone trying to push their way in.

Lily’s Posse Yarnstormers in action

If you’re still not convinced, maybe you should consider the words of Stephanie Pearl-McPhee:

“the number one reason knitters knit is because they are so smart that they need knitting to make boring things interesting.  Knitters are so compellingly clever that they simply can’t tolerate boredom.”

 

 

Hitting the ground running

“You can’t just turn on creativity like a tap(sic).  You have to be in the right mood.  What mood is that?  Last minute panic.”                     Bill Watterson

I like making plans much more than I like putting them into action and it’s great to find out that I’m not alone in this tendency – Bill Watterson (the American cartoonist responsible for Calvin and Hobbes) obviously feels the same.   Lots of creative people thrive  the closer they get to a deadline, happily procrastinating until there is no alternative except to put pen to paper, thread to needle or whatever equipment and medium needs to be employed.  Dilly-dallying is not a particularly stressful approach for them; the same can’t be said for friends and family members whose emotional state ends up shredded.  The reason I don’t get bothered by a ticking clock is that I know that sooner or later the creative bit of me will get out of bed and hit the ground running.  That said, I’m going to add a “however”.

Abandoned Art on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path

However, this only works for me when my fingers are fit enough to deliver the level of skill my creative idea demands.  What with gardening, writing, holidays, working and all the other calls life has made on me this year, I haven’t actually got a lot of stitching done.    Now that I’ve finished the first draft of my next book (possibly being called ‘Integrating multiple strands of creative practice in an ethos bound portfolio approach’, possibly not – I leave you to make your own mind up on that), I’m ready start work on my next project.  This will be a journal of creative maps in the form of travel writing, poetic exploration and artistic interpretations of walked journeys through ancient landscapes.  You’ll be pleased to know that I already have a snappier title in mind for this one but I’m keeping it to myself for the moment.  I have spent many happy hours planning this project; in my mind’s eye I can see the pages of the book, the typesetting and the illustrations of my work.  It’s going to be a combination of all the things I love doing – walking, Wales, stitching, composting poems and – I’m not going to excuse this  – making maps that look like maps!

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

Last month I decided to help the creative me along a bit by doing a test run along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path.  I’ve always disliked getting anything started – particularly sketchbooks.  Only recently have I overcome this reluctance to destroy a perfectly good piece of white paper by convincing myself that whatever marks I make – written or drawn – will be a sort of resource for further work rather than a finished article.  There, in one sentence I’ve excused the standard of the images which follow.   I started my journey by helping a Canadian lady called Enid,who was struggling to manage her bags at Carmarthen.  As we staggered from the train station to the bus station and then back to the train station (checking times of bus services to Haverfordwest and then deciding that rail was the best option after all), I found out that she was celebrating her retirement from nursing by touring Wales and Scotland to see where her great grandparents had lived before emigrating to Canada in the late 19th century.  Having left her waiting for the next train I made my way back to the bus station to get the 460 to Cardigan.  With 5 minutes to kill it seemed a perfect opportunity to put my journal of creative maps test plan into action.  I scrawled down all the information she had given me and did a super fast doodle which will, I hope, act as an aide memoir for me and encourage everyone else who sees it to feel a bit better about their own drawing skills.

Enid and me

You can’t – or at least, shouldn’t – visit Cardigan without trying Cawl which is a slow cooked Welsh stew.  Mine came with a hunk of cheese, 4 slices of toasted, buttered sourdough bread and cost £3.50.   Bargen!  Os byddwch chi yn Aberteifi, awgrymaf ymweld â Chaffi Carn Alw yn y farchnad.  Yn ogystal â bwyd hyfryd  ac er bod ro’n i heb y ci, maen nhw’n gyfeillgar i gwn – mor bwysig i wybod!

Cawl – bwyd Cymru

I left Cardigan via the bridge over the river Teifi and walked out to St Dogmaels.  This was partly to see the abbey but mostly because I wanted to see the Sagranus Stone at the nearby St Thomas’ church.  The Sagranus Stone is one of the few standing stones which has both a Latin and Ogham inscription.  It is monuments like these which enabled scholars to translate Ogham (an ancient Celtic/Irish alphabet where letters are formed by straight lines carved against a vertical).

Abertiefi/Cardigan

Near a place called the Teifi Net Pools, the Blessing Stone stands close to the river.  This was the spot where the Abbot of St Dogmaels traditionally blessed fishing boats before they left for sea.  In Welsh it’s known as the Carreg Ateb (the answering stone) supposedly because if you stand on it and shout across the water, you will be able to hear an echo of your voice.

Blessing Stone/Carreg Ateb

I didn’t try it but I did experiment with the next bit of my creative plan – that of using in situ clays and pigments to colour some canvas which I then embroidered.  I rubbed the fabric with sloes, blackberries and the local mud to get the background colour and then applied a few stitches.  If a map is a visual representation of a place, then I’m happy to say that this is a map of the Blessing Stone/Carreg Ateb.  

Stitchery on naturally pigmented canvas

By the way, a lot of the sloes, blackberries and mud got under my fingernails which explains their grubby appearance in the next photograph.  Apologies if you are over-fastidious by nature.

Stitching on the path

On the way to the curiously named Poppit Sands, I stopped long enough to begin my scrolled and stitched map of the journey.  This will be more mixed media incorporating found objects as well as textural interpretations of place.  Because doing this sort of thing takes more time that pressing the button on a camera shutter or icon on a mobile phone, it means whatever I create is much more a reflection of being in the place rather than recording an image of it.

The scrolled & stitched map.

From the lane to to the Poppit Sands Hostel , I did take a couple of pictures however, just in case anyone reading this has got a  thing about blue flagged beaches where the golden sands seem to stretch on for ever.

Towards Gwbert from Poppit Sands Youth Hostel

I spent the evening doing some field sketching around the Teifi Estuary and next morning I carried on with my scrolled and stitched map.  I’m pretty happy that I think I’ve got a template that works for recording features of the walked journeys, building a collection of information which will act as a valuable resource for the project itself.

Poppit Sands field sketch

It has also reconnected me with the practice of stitching on a daily basis.  On my return I decided to embroider a reflective map of October, with some time devoted to sewing every day.

Mis Hydref/October

There’s a well known saying in Welsh – Deuparth gwaith yw ei ddechrau (two thirds of the work is getting started) -which should mean that this time next year I will have finished my journal of creative maps because I’m already more than half way through!  Meanwhile I’ll leave you with another pearl of wisdom from Bill Watterson – something to bear in mind when you are next putting off starting your next project!

“Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery – it recharges by running.”

 

 

Speed, Bonnie Boat

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

Say, could that lad be I?

Merry of soul, he sailed on a day

Over the sea to Skye.”

Robert Louis Stevenson.

For many people in the world the coast is a distant place to visit or to dream about visiting.  Those of us who count the sea as a neighbour, whether we are islanders or live along the edges of land, delight in its wide horizon, fickle mood swings and soul-lifting plays of light.

Coastal life

In Wales, 2018 has been dubbed “The Year of the Sea” and this title is also the theme of the poetry competition at this year’s Penfro Book Festival so if you fancy a bit of composing, you’ve got until the 15th August to get your entry in.

Back in June, when Cal and I crossed the Skye Bridge, we found a campsite right next to the sea and spent the evening walking with Mr MacGregor along the low paths of the Cuillins.

The Cuillins

The variety of scenery in the British Isles never ceases to amaze me.  I am used to the battered and scarred cliffs of the Glamorgan Heritage Coast  that dance in and out of the sea mists of the Bristol Channel.  In Scotland there was something almost brooding and defiant about the way the blackened rocks of Skye leaned towards the shore, standing their ground against the pounding waves of the Atlantic.

Mr MacGregor on Skye

As we sat outside a pub and I contemplated whether landscape features affect the character of indigenous peoples and vice versa, Cal slapped her neck and announced “Midge!”  We had until this point not seen a single one of the “Wee Highland Beasties” and hoped that our visit to Scotland was early enough in the summer to avoid them.  We were wrong.  Thanks to Cal deciding to leave Roxy’s back window open overnight we awoke at about 5am to find we were sharing the campervan with an advance party of midges scouting for breakfast.   Outside clouds of insects swooped and swarmed in a scene reminiscent of a 1950s doomsday film.   Ours was the fastest decampment ever seen and Roxy hurtled up the road, windows open wide in a desperate attempt to encourage the midges inside the van to leave.  Cal made an executive decision to aim across the island in the hope that this phenomenon was limited by location.  Eventually we swung into the car park at Dunvegan Castle – 2 hours before opening time – and assessed the state of play.

Insect repellent Dunvegan style

I had dead, dying and soon to be squashed midges in my hair, around my eyes and behind my ears; Cal had despatched any insect which had landed on her face with a self-administered open-handed smack which had left her cheeks red, shiny and covered with splatters of blood and bits of black carcasses.   I’m not sure if Dunvegan Castle Car Park had CCTV but if it did the sight of two women jumping about slapping themselves and each other as well as a Jack Russell joining in the jumping about and barking excitedly because he thought it was a new game, must have made for an interesting watch.

Eventually some semblance of calm was restored, breakfast was had and as soon as the gates opened we made our way into Dunvegan Castle grounds.  Cal and Mac toured the gardens whilst I went into the castle to fulfil two ambitions.  Firstly to see a Pictish stone close up

Pictish Stone

and secondly to stand in front of a fairy flag.

The Fairy Flag of Dunvegan

Both experiences were amazing and if you should ever find yourself on Skye, I highly recommend a visit to Dunvegan.  Perhaps not in June though because it became clear over lunch that the midges had followed us.  Cal decided that the best option was to make for the ferry port at Armadale and from there to Mallaig, Fort William and eventually the midge-less lands of England.

Silver Sands Beach between Mallaig and Fort William

We travelled through some of the best scenery the world has got to offer.  Longtown sits at the western edge of Hadrian’s Wall.  Fallow deers roam the woodlands and time stands still to watch dappled sunlight.

Longtown in Cumbria

Finally we got back to Wales; more specifically we reached the Welsh coast and the beautiful beaches around Harlech.  I’m going to leave it to Robert Louis Stevenson and Mr MacGregor to sum up this year’s tour because I think they both do it more eloquently and with more joi de vivre than me.

“Billow and breeze, islands and sea,

Mountains of rain and sun,

All that was good, all that was fair,

All that was me is gone.”

 

 

I have no destination

“It is a grand thing, to get leave to live.”     Nan Shepherd

I blame Mrs B in the Hills   for diverting me from my safe, successful yet predictable existence as a Textile Artist and setting me on a journey along unknown paths towards the undiscovered destinations of Cultural Geography.  Indeed I didn’t even know that there was such a subject until someone visiting the MA in Contemporary Crafts final exhibition at Hereford College of Arts  regarded my final work and said, “Do you realise that what you’re doing is Cultural Geography?”  I didn’t because I didn’t know what Cultural Geography was.  As it happens, it’s one of those areas of study where no-one can quite agree on a definition and in particular what the parameters for the word culture should be in this context.  A general – but often disputed rule of thumb – is that Cultural Geography looks at the interaction of humans and landscape in cultural rather than environmental terms.  Lingering Fragments (my MA work) centred on shared cultural legacy interpreted through a creative expression of landscape, so I’m happy to agree that it was Cultural Geography (and poetry and mixed media art).

Lingering Fragments. November 2017

Long before reaching this conclusion however, I’d had messages from Mrs B suggesting that I should read some of Robert McFarlane’s books as he seemed to like landscape-y type stuff and share our love of obscure words and endangered definitions.  Far be it from me to not take advice so it is thanks to Mrs B’s recommendation and Mr McFarlane’s knowledge that I can now describe myself as a solivagant – a lone wanderer; more importantly it is through reading Mr McFarlane’s book Landmarks that I discovered a field of Cultural Geography known as Geopoetics and the writer whose work best exemplifies it, Nan Shepherd.

Solivagant with self timer on camera

Since finishing my MA I’ve been concentrating on writing my own book about Ethos Bound Creativity but took a break from this in early June to go on a touring holiday with my friend Cal.  We loaded up Roxy, her little camper van, with all manner of necessities – liquorice allsorts and a bottle of brandy for her, jelly babies and field sketching kit for me, carton of cocktail sausages and chewy toy for Mr MacGregor, Cal’s Jack Russell terrier – and set off, heading in a roundabout way for Scotland.  Things got off to a good start in the first couple of days when I saw a red squirrel in the wild, visited the lovely 6th Century St Tudno’s church and bagged the trig point on Gogarth before driving through the Mersey Tunnel and then seeing places whose names I only knew from the birth, death and marriage certificates of my grandfather’s family.

Mr MacGregor in St Tudno’s Church

Cal is Liverpudlian by birth and nature so as we travelled through the dock area of Liverpool, I found that she had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the pubs we drove past – I particularly liked the one called The Sick Parrot but can’t imagine ever wanting to go there for a drink and a packet of crisps.  Eventually she brought Roxy to a halt and gave me my birthday present two months early: a visit to Antony Gormley’s Another Place  on Crosby Sands.

Another Place

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

Kirkstone Pass

before we headed for Scotland and more specifically, Braemar –  one of Nan Shepherd’s preferred stomping grounds.  If you’ve never heard of Nan Shepherd, she wrote several works of fiction but is best known for The Living Mountain – a reflection in poetic prose about hill walking in the Cairngorms.  It is difficult to read Nan’s books and not accept the existence of Geopoetics which is defined by some as a “geographical consciousness”.  My own feeling is that, as a concept, Geopoetics is an attempt to describe a personal and individual transcendence by physical landscape but is limited by words in the same way as the Welsh concept of hiraeth is much more than the homesickness it is sometimes translated as.

The River Dee at Braemar

Philosophical semantics aside, we stayed in Braemar for two nights which meant we had time to explore the village including the ruins of Kindrochit Castle (built by the wonderfully named King Malcolm Big Head in 1059), the Invercauld Hotel (site of the Raising of the Standard of the Jacobite Rebellion in 1715) and the Queen’s Drive (route of a carriage ride taken by John Brown and Queen Victoria when she used to visit his relatives, taking tea and tobacco as gifts).

Kindrochit Castle

I was determined to get in a bit of hill-walking so on Wednesday, no sooner had the words “I think I’m going to sit down and relax for a bit” left Cal’s mouth then I was pulling on my walking boots and packing my rucsac for an attempt to follow one of Nan’s routes.  Mount Morrone (895 metres) is small fry to committed Munro baggers but it was going to be the highest peak I’d ever attempted.  As Braemar is about 395m above sea level, the trail would have an assent of 500m in 5k.  This can also be described as steep.  I made it to the summit in 1 hour 20 minutes because luckily, the path was sound and well-marked.  Even better, the weather was good and the insect life was quiescent.  Just for good measure there was another trig point at the summit to bag.

View from Morrone over the Cairngorms

Best of all, the track passed Tomintoul, Nan Shepherd’s howff (cottage) on the lower slopes of the mountain so I really was in her footsteps.  Having read The Living Mountain as research for our trip, being on Morrone for a few hours made me realise that Geopoetics is not about the landscape or even about the human reaction to time spent in the landscape; it’s about becoming one with the landscape and that’s not something that can be achieved in a single afternoon.  For Nan Shepherd, it was a relationship that lasted a lifetime.

Tomintoul

Nan’s work is full of the sense of togetherness that she had developed with the Cairngorms and having wandered in just a small part of them, I think that she must have felt really frustrated at the inadequacy of words as she strove to explain what being in and with them meant to her.

“Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.”        The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd.

On my way back through Braemar, I called into the tourist information office to pick up some leaflets about Skye – our next stopping point.  That evening, jelly babies to hand, I read something that made me forget all about Geopoetics and dragged me back firmly into Cultural Geography and my own work researching limnal features of landscape.

Dunvegan Castle, said the guide, is home to the legendary Fairy Flag of Dunvegan.  When unfurled in battle it summons spirits to aid Clan MacLeod, snatching victory from certain defeat.

As Cal considered which route would take in the most picturesque scenery that Skye had to offer – which seemed to be on the north of the island – I tried to concoct a sneaky plan which would get us to Dunvegan in the south.  There was no way I could be so close to a remnant of the faerie folk and not get to see it.  In the event however, my scheming was not needed because Skye itself determined where we should go and what we should visit.  It all started so well, with no hint of the trauma to come: we crossed Skye Bridge, found a campsite at the foot of the Cuillins and I remembered what it is I love about limnal landscapes – it’s the feeling that you’ve wandered through another reality; that other folk are having conversations that you will never be party to and if you were, you wouldn’t have the vocabulary to understand.

 

Stone Sculptures in The Cuillins

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

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

 

 

 

The Craft of Learning

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

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

Photograph by Dan Salter
(CRC Illustration)

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

Happy as the Land

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

Penyfoel Memory Map

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

Cheryl Kirby and the pavements of Ledbury

Photograph by Ruth Maddock

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

Eliza Glapinska and Women’s Rights 

Photograph by Ruth Maddock

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

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

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

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

Ruth Maddock Makes

Photograph by Oli Cameron-Swan

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

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

The Road Ahead

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

Indoors research for the next book

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

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

Outdoors research for my next book

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

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

 

 

Mastering an MA in Contemporary Crafts

“I am told that there are people who do not care for maps and find it hard to believe… here is an inexhaustible fund of interest for any many with eyes to see or tuppence worth of imagination to understand with.”

R.L.Stevenson

Back in October 2016 one of the first things our MA group did was visit the Hereford Museum Learning and Resource Centre  for a behind the scenes tour.  (Many museums, galleries and cultural venues will offer guided tours for small groups that book in advance.)  Hereford Museum LRC has an eclectic range of artefacts from archaeological archaeological bits and bobs (flint arrowheads and Roman glass beads) to agricultural paraphernalia (Victorian carts and farming tools).  Between these two extremes is a conservative collection of art and ceramics and some slightly more difficult to categorise exhibits that I suppose you could call folkloric – curse dolls and Celtic stone heads, for example.  Incidentally these traditions are alive and well in all parts of the country.

Head of The Keeper of the Meadow at Bryngarw Country Park

On a normal day any of these (except perhaps the ceramics) has enough to pique my interest but all paled into insignificance when I discovered that Hereford Museum LRC also keeps the research archive of one of my heroes – Alfred Watkins.  I was first introduced to Watkins back in the 80s when  Mrs B  gave me his book (The Old Straight Track) as a birthday present.  Watkins was one of those purposeful Edwardian gentlemen who wandered the countryside with a camera, notebook and walking stick.  Whilst you may not have heard of him, you may be familiar with one of his theories: in The Old Straight Track Watkins introduces his belief that places in ancient Britain were linked by intersecting and invisible tracks that he called ‘leys’.  These could be identified by noting the existence of certain features both on maps and in the landscape.  Using a ruler, he believed it was possible to track a ley by drawing straight lines that linked standing stones, barrows, early churches and groves of Scots Pine trees growing on hilltops.

Carn Ciwg Standing Stone

Leys got a less than enthusiastic welcome from more conservative archaeologists and Watkins’ theory took another knock in the academic validity stakes when it was suggested by some esoteric thinkers that ‘ley lines’ were actually invisible energy fields and conduits of earth magic.  Nevertheless I am nothing if not loyal to my heroes and from the very outset of the MA in Contemporary Crafts course at Hereford College of Arts Alfred Watkins and The Old Straight Track were influencing my thinking.  The first project involved selecting 50 words and 50 images which would refine and underpin all the subsequent creative practice.  My collection clearly indicated that I wanted to look at something to do with landscape or time or poetry or Alfred Watkins or spirituality or Wales or folklore or toponomy (place names) or maps or walked journeys.  I wonder what I would have added to the list if I hadn’t been limited to 50 words and 50 images!

An early incarnation of the 50 words and 50 images board

The early part of 2017 saw me abandon my intention to use felt making as the major craft technique.  That may sound calm and considered but let me tell you it was anything but at the time.  Casting around for other ways to make ‘stuff’ – what the ever-patient course leader Delyth Done called ‘craft outcomes’ – I tried everything from papermaking to pressing flowers.  By the end of term I was drifting into a state of panic which only receded when over the Easter break I returned to my default setting.  I put on my walking boots and headed out to the hills.  April saw me back in Hereford quietly confident that I was – quite literally – on the right track.

The MA project takes shape

I suspected however that quiet confidence wasn’t going to be enough.  Luckily, in June I was given the directions to find the next stop on my journey.  Reading Pete Mosley’s book The Art of Shouting Quietly and having four days tuition from him made a massive difference to the way in which I approached the rest of my time as a student at Hereford.  You can read more about my thoughts in the previous blog and eventually in the book which I intend to write about integrating multiple strands of creative practice (I bet you can’t wait!).  Perhaps I should have spent more of the summer months making ‘stuff’ – I know a lot of my fellow students did.  Instead I walked, ran and generally explored the ancient tracks of Glamorgan, subconsciously developing the ideas, theories and concepts which would form the basis of my final project.

Carn yr Hyrddod

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Ford Prefect tells Arthur Dent that “time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so.” I beg to differ.  October 2017 was more doubly so.  I don’t think I’ve ever known time disappear so quickly as the autumn months of last year.  Having got my panic and stress out of the way in the Spring and having had a shot of self-belief and confidence in the Summer, I strolled calmly through the tempest which passes for the final term of an MA.

‘Stuff’ aka mixed media postcard

I sketched, I wrote poetry, I stitched and best of all, I researched and wrote.  Even though photography is an anathema to me, I took advice from the talented and generous Ruth and Oli Cameron Swan on things like light and framing the landscape.  I got up early one morning to take some snapshots of my chosen location and considered them good enough to use them as illustrations for my dissertation.

Mynydd y Gaer

The last hurdle to overcome was to convince lecturers Del and Lisa that my work would need to be exhibited in a very particular way.  Thanks to the blind faith of them both, this was done and my final project ‘Lingering Fragments’ combines all of the 10 original ideas which were on my 50 words and 50 images board back in October 2016.  It was then that I first announced that I intended to use the MA to “map both the physical and the metaphysical landscape”.  At the time I had absolutely no idea what I meant but somewhere down deep inside, the creative bit of me knew exactly what needed to be done.

Photograph by Oli Cameron Swan

If you want to see more of the MA in Contemporary Crafts exhibition, it’s open until 31st January 2018 at the College Road Campus.  Details of opening times here .