Tag Archives: Wales

Does My Thumb Look Big In This?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ffffff the 1st

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

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

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

“Ffffff,” said Maria Big Thumb.

Ffffff the 2nd

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

 

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

“Ffffff, Ffffff,” said Maria Big Thumb.

Ffffff the 3rd

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

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

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

Epilogue

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

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

Stay Safe, Be Kind, Keep Smiling.

The Mystery of the Missing Marshal

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

7am

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

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

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

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

8am

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

9am

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

10am

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

11am

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

“Mike? Mike? Mike?” calls Vince.

“Delilah,” chant the runners.

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

“Delilah,” the runners chorus.

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

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

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

Email from Run HQ to Vince

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

Email from Vince to Run HQ

No.

 

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

Tony Blair is Banning

view from ferry

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

ramsons,violets, celandine,

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.

What a day I've had!

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.

Cader Idris

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.

About Knit one…

Llanddwyn Beach

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.

Beach art

The Culvert

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.

The Coastline

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.

Home

“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.

 

River, Ford, Duck

river in flood
Photograph by Mrs B in the Hills

“Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and its current is strong; no sooner does anything appear than it is swept away, and another comes in its place and will be swept away too.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.

Thanks to Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis, rivers are attracting a lot of attention at the moment.  Here in Wales, being the first high ground that the Atlantic weather systems hit on their west to east trajectory, we get more than our fair share of rain which leads to a surfeit of rivers.  The Rev. Eli Jenkins’ list was by no means complete as it misses out, amongst others, the Severn, Usk and Wye:

“By Sawdde, Senni, Dovey, Dee,

Edw, Eden, Aled, all,

Taff and Towy broad and free,

Llyfnant with its waterfall.

Claerwen, Cleddau, Dulas, Daw,

Ely, Gwili, Ogwr, Nedd,

Small is our River Dewi, Lord,

A baby on a rushy bed.”

(Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas)

Field Sketch

 

My childhood memories are scattered with river references:  in warm weather we’d paddle in the Afan where it flowed across Aberavon’s sandy beach or dare each other to crawl along the gas pipes that straddled the Ffrwdwyllt in the Goytre valley.  Occasionally, we’d be taken on a family outing to the Pontaber Inn on the Black Mountain, where a little bridge crossed a babbling stream that ran through the beer garden and, in Sunday best dresses, we’d lean over and play Pooh sticks.  Our local nant was dammed by work parties of children every June so that we’d have a makeshift lido right through the summer holidays.  Whilst none of us grew up to be civil engineers, we all knew that obstructing the flow of water downstream would create flooding upstream.

Paddling

As a result, when I looked over the ancient stone walls of Crickhowell Bridge a few weeks ago and saw this, I felt qualified to get in touch with National Resources Wales and say that based on my experience, the tree in question was not going to dislodge itself and float away without help.  Now, not being local to Crickhowell, once I got a nice message back from National Resources Wales saying the matter was being referred to their Incident team, I stopped thinking about the tree but not about rivers, and not about the things that get swept away by them.

The path to Llangattock runs close to a little brook and as I stopped to take this photograph of snowdrops, a dead duck floated past on the fast flowing water.  For some reason – I think it’s to do with the fact that the duck was stretched out, lying on its back with wings at its side and I’ve been reading too many books about Viking boat burials recently – I have been unable to erase the image from my mind.  I suppose we should all be glad that my camera was pointing at the snowdrops or you might now be having the same problem.

Returning home the following week I got an email asking me if I wanted to submit a piece of work – art or poetry – to an exhibition.  It was to be on the theme of ‘Rivers’ and as I live close to the river Ogmore which starts with a mountain spring before plunging over a bare rock cliff as a tumultuous waterfall, I thought, yes, I can do that.  I did a field sketch then composed a poem called ‘Leap’ in my usual 7 syllables a line, 3 lines a verse format and sent it off.  When it came to the stitchery however, all I could see was the dead duck and as I was pretty convinced that the exhibition organisers didn’t have a drowned bird in mind when they decided the title, I thought I had better go and find some different inspiration.

map of route walked

You may recall that last month’s blog ended near the Mynydd Portref wind farm.  It’s a short distance from there along an old pilgrim path to the small village of Glynogwr where a lane opposite Llandyfodwg Church leads to a winding brook called Nant Iechyd.  There are two ways to cross the water – a small footbridge over it or the Dimbath Ford straight through it.  It’s a route which I run regularly and is home to one of my pieces of transient land art.  A small detour into a wood on the west of the lane leads into a hollow way and just before the trail putters out into wide green meadows, I built this piece of sculpture and decorated it with one of the many crab apples that litter the ground.  It was at grid reference 942888 but Storms Ciara and Dennis may have altered that.

land art

It’s always tempting – but rarely right – to use blue to give the impression of water, especially if you’re not working figuratively.  With the drowned duck still at the forefront of my imagination, I went for a less romantic, maudlin palette.  Also I didn’t have much blue wool in my stash whereas there seemed to be a lot of muddy browns and greys.  As usual, my free form knitting began with a ribbed edge and drifted off into long straggly bits which gradually got infilled and joined up until they formed a single piece.

I had picked, sliced and dried some of the Dimbath Ford crab apples to use as beads and set them to dangle on invisible thread down one side of the hanging.

I’m quite pleased with the result;  the colours are very evocative of a floody river, the textures are great and best of all, I have nearly (but only nearly) erased the image of the sodden bird as the river swept him away to his final destination.  Now all I have to do is decide on a title for the artwork so it can be submitted for the exhibition.  Do I go with Time like a river?  Dimbath Ford?  Or Epitaph for a Drowned Duck?

“Learn from a river; obstacles may force it to change its course, but never its destination.”     Matshona Dhliwayo

 

In Rainy Autumn

 

“And I rose in rainy autumn and walked abroad in a shower of all my days.”             Dylan Thomas

Fed up of this rainy autumn?  Then let me take you back to a hot summer day instead,.  It’s Friday the 28th of June.  Even the usually muddy waters of the Towy estuary are glistening under a  blue sky; no whisper of breeze disturbs the green-leafed trees that edge the railway track between Kidwelly and Carmarthen.  As the train passes through Ferryside (Glan-y-fferi) station I glance out of the dust smudged window at the silhouette of Llansteffan Castle, perched on a hill above the opposite shore.  I make this journey quite often and that glance towards Llansteffan Castle means it’s time to stop working, put my books in my bag, collect my belongings and get ready to leave the train.

View towards Llansteffan

I stand up, hear my phone hit the floor (because it was on my lap not in my pocket) and spend valuable moments in an undignified scramble between my seat and the one in front.  By the time I retrieve my phone, Carmarthen station – which was ten minutes away – is now much closer and I have a flurry of anxiety at the possibility of missing the opportunity to get off the train, instead being swept towards Milford Haven, Pembroke Dock or Fishguard.  (I should say that I have visited – intentionally – all of these towns and would be happy to do so again.  It’s just that if I’m aiming for Carmarthen, that’s where I want to go.)  Today I am taking advantage of the town’s integrated transport hub to get me to my destination.  Or I would if I could be bothered to wait for the bus at the railway station.  I can’t, so walk across the wonderful Pont King Morgan Footbridge to catch the 227 bus to Llansteffan village.

 

As well as its castle and the titular church, this place was home to the late artist Osi Rhys Osmond and it’s where Dylan Thomas spent much of his childhood, later inviting the world to share its magical innocence through his poem ‘Fern Hill’.  These are the sort of things I should know about before travelling somewhere to make an art map but one of the flaws in my exploration technique is that I tend to visit a place first and do the research afterwards.  Then, of course, I need to go back so that not only do I have context for my wanderings but I will have also worked out where the best coffee and cake is to be had en route.

Church at Llansteffan

Anyway, back to the plot.  The number 227 bus takes about 20 minutes to reach  Llansteffan and then carries on to Llanybri.  When you’ve never been to a place before, the best plan for choosing where to get off a bus is to wait for some local to ding the bell and shuffle to their feet.  This tried and test method means that I soon find myself at the corner of Water Lane.  The bus trundles off uphill and out of sight.  Not surprisingly Water Lane leads down to the the river but before you get to the Towy itself, some town planner has thoughtfully arranged a surfeit of car parking places as well as neatly cut verges and picnic benches.  I walk down the road, nosing over low walls into people’s gardens, looking for ideas and comparing the growth of their roses to mine.  (Mine are better.)

Garden

The river has disappeared behind a nature reserve of marram-grassed sand dunes.  Maps giving instructions about where, when and how dogs are allowed to be walked, to defecate or merely to exist confuse me because they (the maps) have been orientated through 270 degrees so you have to lean at an extreme angle to make sense of them.  Not having a dog with me, I don’t bother.  After a bit there are more car parking spaces;  benches alongside the pavement give a view across the estuary expanse that is as impressive as it is unexpected.  Who’d have thought there would be an immense, golden and tropical looking beach?  Hardly anybody by the look of it.

Tywi Estuary at Llansteffan

There’s a footpath to the castle signposted from the corner of the car park.  After a few hundred metres it forks: right is The Old Road (sic) which leads into the village with its artisan bakery, pubs and church; left the path goes steeply uphill to the castle.  When you climb to the top and survey, breathless, the panorama across the bay, it’s easy to understand why – before the Normans got here – there had been an Iron Age Hill Fort and a 6th Century Promontory Fort.  Right up until it ended up in the hands of the Tudor dynasty, Llansteffan Castle was a target for and site of conflict between the English and the Welsh princes.

The path to the castle

 

I don’t stay at the castle long because there’s no shade inside the walls from the sun which now high in the sky.  I go back down the path and follow The Old Road to the village.  An elderly man is strimming undergrowth in the walled graveyard – the Llan – that surrounds the church of St Ystyffan.  It’s a grade II listed building of white washed rubble stone, the oldest parts of which are dated to 13th Century although it’s likely that it was a site of Christian worship from the 6th.  St Ystyffan was a contemporary of St Teilo and there are other churches in Wales dedicated to him, particularly in Powys.  It’s lovely and cool inside the church so I take my time admiring the medieval stonework and the beautiful stained glass windows.  Outside the strimmer putters to a halt and doesn’t restart.  Either man or machine thinks hard work and the midday day sun don’t go together.  From the church I walk back up The Old Road, this time veering off before the castle slope and going through an iron gate.

Woodland path

A woodland path leads to St Anthony’s Well, now little more than an arched hollow with an empty niche but once known as a healing well with pins and pennies left as offerings.  A series of stone steps takes me onto the scorching sands of the beach.  The cool, shimmering waters beckon me and I can think of nothing better at this moment than a paddle in the shallows.  Until, that is, I find that between me and the Towy are the remains of many, many dead jellyfish.

Jelly Fish

I retreat to the beach cafe for an ice cream and wait on a bench for the arrival of the boat which will take me back to Ferryside.  When I make maps, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to convey the poetic and metaphysical features of landscape through stitch.  Now I’m going to have to find a way to express jellyfish mortality too.   In the meantime though, this is the stitched sketch I made of the walk in the countryside around Llansteffan:

stitched sketch

The best bit of the whole day, however, was the view of Llansteffan from the Carmarthen Bay Ferry.

view from ferry

Never Ending or Beginning

“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.

This is a picture of Kenfig Pool worked in Needlepoint
Kenfig Pool Needlepoint 2000

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.

This is a drawing of an entrance to an old mine
Old Mine Entrance Watercolour Pencil
This is a picture of an old mine entrance worked in pastels
Old Mine Entrance Pastels
This is a stitched sketch of an old mine entrance
Old Mine Entrance Stitched Sketch

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.

This is a picture of Kenfig Pool
Kenfig Pool January 2019
This is a picture of Kenfig Pool looking towards the steelworks at Margam
Kenfig Pool January 2019

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.

This is a watercolour sketch
Kenfig Pool Field Sketch January 2019

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.

This is picture of a stitched map
Kenfig Pool Stitched Map Work in Progress January 2019

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

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.”