Category Archives: collecting

Chalk

Chalk is the bedrock of the physical landscape of East Anglia and it forms a ‘chalk belt’ that runs from the Chilterns to the North Norfolk coast. It has shaped the economic and cultural development of this region and forms some of its most beautiful and spectacular landscapes.

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Hunstanton chalk samples

Although chalk is not as apparent in Norfolk as in other areas of Britain such as the South Downs, at Seven Sisters and the White Cliffs of Dover, it embraces the North Norfolk coast with chalk cliffs to the West at Hunstanton and to the East at West Runton. There are chalk pits and quarries all over the county, including just up the road from here in Wells, and sub-terranean Norwich is riddled with tunnels where chalk was formerly mined.

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West Runton chalk samples

I am using chalk in my next piece of work and decided to collect the material from two different sites that mark the outer boundaries of my ‘place’: Hunstanton, where there are red and white cliffs, and the beach at West Runton where a vein of chalk emerges on the beach and at the bottom of the cliffs. The chalk I find at both sites has broken off from the cliffs, probably from wave action and the force of the tides, and lies scattered across the beach. Huge great lumps, too big to pick up and take home, lie at the top of both beaches under the cliffs, but smaller pieces have been distributed across the sand by the sea. I collect lumps about the size of my fist and smaller pebbles from both places. My intention is to grind them down to a powder and combine the resulting white pigment with a binder to stiffen and colour cloth.

Immediately I can see that the chalk collected from each site is different. The pieces of Hunstanton chalk are rounded and they don’t mark my skin or clothes as I pick them up. They are hard, dry and cold.

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The West Runton chalk, on the other hand, is soft and buttery and the greasy surface of each piece has attracted a light covering of sand. It is damp and soft and marks everything it touches. By the time I get home my hands, clothes, bags and the car are covered with a film of white dust.

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Before I even try to break it up I know that the properties of each sample is very different; the West Runton chalk will definitely be easier to process than the fragments from Hunstanton. I don goggles and a dust mask and whack a small piece of Hunstanton chalk with a hammer. Nothing happens. I try again, and again it doesn’t break. I get a bigger, heavier hammer. This time it cracks in two, but I can sense that using this material will be a battle. I try the West Runton chalk. One firm tap with a hammer and it breaks into four or five small pieces. It is so soft and breaks very easily. I continue tapping and soon I have a coarse powder.

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I take a hard Hunstanton lump and start to grind the softer particles with it. It works well as a pestle and the powder gradually becomes finer. I take more of the softer lumps and continue crushing and grinding until I have quite a large heap. Fine powder rises up with the grinding action and I can feel it drying the skin on my hands and face – I’m glad of the dust mask.

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The ground West Runton chalk is the colour of double cream. I suppose it has been yellowed by sand and I wonder whether covering it with water would purify it. I place it in a large bowl of water and wait. Bubbles rise to the surface as air is expelled from between each grain and after a few minutes the chalk has fallen to the bottom and the water has cleared.

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I put my hands into the chalky soup and can feel hard lumps. I can squish them between my fingers and they disintegrate. I keep squishing, but there are too many to get a fine powder this way.

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I pour off the clear water and realise that, of course, all the large sand and chalk particles  are still combined. I place the creamy, chalk mixture on a tray and leave to dry. Soon I’ll be able to mix it with a binder and make a form of coarse gesso to form the foundation of my next piece of work.

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Sampling

There has been no let up since the Knitting & Stitching shows at the end of last year! I’ve had to slam straight into gear and put my mind to the next (very busy) six months. Before the end of June I have two exhibitions to make substantial new work for (more on these later) and a workshop, Exploring Place, that is happening in an environment, about which, I haven’t previously made work.

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It is very important, to me, that the materials and processes I use reflect the environment that I am working in. Previously, the Exploring Place workshop has taken place in a coastal environment and so my support material doesn’t apply in this instance as it is taking place inland, in the mountains and woods of southern Switzerland.

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So, I’ve been out in the field. I’ve been exploring the beech woods of the Surrey hills, and the pinewoods that back the beach in Norfolk; collecting information, documenting it, collecting specimens and making work that evokes this type of environment.

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The students and I will be looking, listening and touching outside in the woods, and these drawings and small works reflect some of the ideas and techniques we will be exploring.

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Walk 3 – Hunstanton

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Hunstanton is a bit out of my way. I know it’s only a fifteen miles along the coast but it’s not a place a generally go out of my way to visit. However, recently I wanted to go and look at the stripy, white, red and orange chalk cliffs as research for a new piece of work.

These are the notes from my sketchbook:

‘Grey/white on top – brick red below.

Gulls nesting on ledges – croaking calls.

Grass – thin layer- on top.

 

 The cliffs come to an abrupt and brutal end as they turn the corner.

Sharp ridges and ledges where the cliff face has fallen away.

Fissures diagonally across its face.

Grass clinging.

 

Underneath, brick red chalk holds up white chalk.

Large chalk boulders at the base of the cliff.

Smaller chalk stones and pebbles are washed away from the base of the cliff and have been dragged over the beach by the sea’s action.

 

Bleak, stark, uncared for.

North-west facing – dank, cold, damp.

I imagine the sun rarely reaches the cliff face and so never has the chance to dry out.

Green/grey coating to the white chalk.

Grass in all the crevices.

Large mossy stones on the beach.’

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The looming cliffs cut out any warm southerly light; the beach is in shadow and the resulting cold and damp isn’t helped by a wintery day and a sharp northerly wind. I collect a few chalk pebbles to experiment with – they are freezing cold – and hurry back to the car. I need a cup of coffee …. perhaps it this place would feel more welcoming in the summer.

Marram grass

With gale force winds and rain forecast for later on today an early walk at Holkham to get the best of the day was called for. I know I’ve been a rather quiet here recently so I took my camera with me to see what caught my eye.

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As is usual when the wind is coming from the west, I walked along the path at the back of the pinewoods so that the wind would be behind me on the walk back along the beach. Coming out into the open across the dunes it was immediately obvious how sheltered I had been as the force of the wind took my breath away as it buffeted me sideways from the left.

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The dunes at the top of the beach are topped by marram grass, Ammophila arenaria, whose fibrous roots  stabilise dry, windblown sand and aid the dune building process. The dense, grey/green tufts of this grass can be seen all along the coast and is so common that I don’t usually pay it much attention. However today the wind had animated into swirls and waves of alternating light and dark movement. A continuous, swooshing rustle drowned out any other sounds.

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Hunkering down between the dunes and the grass to find a modicum of shelter and to drink a cup of coffee I found my fingers itching to pick the marram. Twisting it round and round on itself I started to make a string – strong, fresh green grass at first but as that split and broke I found  that old dried, yellowing blades were stronger, more pliable and held up better to the twisting process. Before long I had a couple of metres that I rolled it up into a small ball to put into my pocket.

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I love the process of looking and noticing and the way I never know what will catch my eye from one day to the next. The ever-changing weather conditions, the shifting light or just being in the right place at the right time draws my attention to something I could never have foreseen. It’s good just to go out and see what there is to see.

Sea Lavender

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I’m hiding away, hermit like, at the moment, sewing for hours each day to get the work for my gallery at the Knitting and Stitching shows in the autumn finished. I already have a great deal of work, but it is amazing that the nearer the show gets, the more concentrated I become. I have been finding that work I made nearly a year ago doesn’t seem to work and I keep making one last thing in order to push things a bit further. This obviously has to stop at some point as I don’t have the time to go on for ever, so I have set my self a deadline of the end of July to finish the series of cloths – The Sluice Creek Cloths – and I am presently sewing the very last one (it will be the very last one!).

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It isn’t all nose to the grindstone however, and I am  getting out at least once a day to sail or walk.

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This is one of my favourite times of year out on the marsh as the sea lavender (limonium vulgar) is flowering and a soft purple haze is covering large areas of the saltings. It is a tolerant, hardy plant that gets covered by the sea when there is a high marsh tide.

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Each stem is about 30cm tall and the flower heads have a dry look to them. It is a bit of a pilgramage to go and pick a small bunch each year. It keeps, out of water, for months although by Christmas it has lost its colour and is usually rather dusty and cobwebby.

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A week of collecting – Day 7

Day 7: Wells Beach – Oyster Shell

(Ostrea Edulis)

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I found this pockmarked shell on a dry sandy part of the beach that is only covered by water a few times a year. It is old and worn but nevertheless there are still parts that are shiny and pearlised. The tiny holes scattered across the surface of the shell are evidence of a former infestation by boring sponges.

A week of collecting – Day 6

Day 6: Wells Beach – Bladderwrack

(Fucus Vesticulosus)

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It is a dull, drizzly sort of day with a damp mist obscuring the horizon. On the beach it is totally calm with not a breath of wind. I walk to the sand dune that lies in front of the beach-huts. The dune is ringed with a strand-line flecked with black calligraphic lines – bladderwrack.

Fragments of this seaweed can be found strewn right along the North Norfolk coastline. On the shoreline, close to the sea, the dark fragments are limp and slimy, but high on the strand-line  they become dry, curling, dessicated strands that have a red tinge to them.

I have made whistles out of the larger air sacks which when dry are very tough.