Category Archives: listening

My Place

After several weeks of intense teaching, making work and travelling I am back in Wells for a couple of weeks before putting up The Archive Project exhibition in London at the beginning of May. I went down to the beach this afternoon for a walk and it is really good to be back here.

I have just returned from Switzerland where I was teaching an ‘Exploring Place’ workshop and it was wonderful to explore and discover a new environment. The weather was as good as it could have been with sunshine and clear blue skies and the long reaching views of mountains weaving together into the far distance were beautiful …. but it’s not home. It’s not the place that calls and that feels right.

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This afternoon it was a bit grey, although blue patches (enough to make a sailor’s trousers) gave the promise of clearer skies. There was a cold westerly wind and the tide was out. First impressions were that it was rather bleak and there wouldn’t be much to see. But, as always, as I walked a story emerged.

At low tide the contours of the beach are revealed. These change frequently, often from tide to tide. Water is trapped in hollows and small channels, that I call ‘sea rivers’.

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Oystercatchers were stepping around and about the shallow water and as I approached they took off, flying further down the beach with their ‘peep, peep’ call.

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Footprints left in the sand show their frenetic activity.

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The gusting wind freckled the water on the sea rivers …..

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and blew dry sand across the wet beach.

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Wind and water combine to produce an ever-changing picture.

It’s lovely to go away and have new experiences but it’s even better to come back.

And again the wind

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On the beach a stiff wind.

But in the pinewoods – stillness.

 

A slow crescendo. A gust gently swells

And its hastening rush journeys around from treetop to treetop before quietening.

 

Again the wind touches the trees, but its voice comes from another direction.

In the woods it is difficult to pinpoint its bearing.

 

Again the wind swells.

The sound of dry, cracking wood as its intensity peaks.

Dropping pinecones. Trees crack.

 

A wood-pigeon flies past and lands clumsily with flapping wings and a clatter.

Then, coo-coooo-roo-cu-cu, coo-coooo-roo-cu-cu.

 

And again the wind swells.

Trees gently sway.

Far away, seagull cry, and traffic rumble. Dog walkers walk wordlessly past.

 

And again the wind swells.

Above, a longer, more sustained gust dies and builds repeatedly.

On the ground – stillness.

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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 1 – Cley

There is a ‘big’ high tide and I decide to go for a walk at Cley.  Driving past the quay at Wells I see the environment agency people out in full force and so decide to drive down to the quay at Blakeney on the way, just to have a look.

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A strong northerly wind is pushing the water higher than it is supposed to go, and the water is lapping over Blakeney quay. When the wind pushes the tide in like this it becomes obvious why tall, sturdy poles line its edge. The boats strain their moorings as they level with the top of the quay and are pushed up against the restraining posts by the wind and the water; without these poles the boats would be grounded, high and dry, as the water ebbs away.

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I carry on to Cley and driving down the road to the beach I can see enormous waves topping the shingle bank – it is going to be a dramatic sight. The car park just behind the beach is full of water; the sea seems to be seeping through the shingle and filling the lower ground. Out of the car I’m hit by the full force of the wind and quickly realise that a walk along the beach would be potentially dangerous as huge waves are crashing high up the beach, higher than I have ever seen them go before. In places they top the bank and surge down the other side onto the marsh.

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As I stand and watch, other people appear, and also stand mesmerised by the boiling sea. They have cameras and take photos but I have nothing to record the scene with. Instead I just look.

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Spray is blown high into the sky by the wind as the waves peak and then crash down. The sound is deafening: a loud, thundering roar that resonates deep inside you and the rasping, scrape of stones as they are pulled by the back draft. Seagulls are swooping low, flying just above the waves. They seem to be playing dare, as every now and then one flies below a breaking crest into the seething belly of the wave, before rising up again to glide, unconcerned, above the foaming water.

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It’s hard to describe the power and insistence of the sea, but when I get home I do some drawings to try and capture its movement …. I think they are rather too tame!

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Breathing deeply

I haven’t been up in Wells for a month as my life recently has been taken up with exhibiting and teaching. It has been hectic but exciting. I had a flying visit yesterday for one night as I wanted to go the the AGM of the North Norfolk Exhibition Project. I showed work for this wonderful organisation at Cley Church in the summer and I’ll be putting in a proposal for CLEY17 next year.

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I managed to fit in 2 walks in the 24 hours that I was there – a chance to stretch my legs and to take some deep breaths of fresh air. This morning I got up at dawn (which isn’t that early at this time of year) to have a look around.

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It was high tide and there wasn’t a breath of wind. The sun was just coming up, peeping through building clouds and silhouetting  the pontoon and boats as I looked back towards the town. The still water was like a mirror as the sunlight was reflected back into the sky. Geese were chattering, out of sight, over on the marsh and every now and then there was the peep of a redshank. The wash of a lone fishing boat split the flat water in two as it wended its way, twisting backwards and forwards, along the channel out to the open water.

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I sat on a bench quietly to look and listen – there was no one else about.

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It’s good to breathe deeply and relax.

 

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.

Gun Hill

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Despite the fact that it has rained just about everyday for the last few weeks the paths along the edge of the marsh are dry. In winter they are permanently wet and muddy – too muddy to walk along without wellies. However the irregular intervals of warm sun and wind at this time of year, coupled with a week of small tides, means that the paths have dried out to a crazy paving of cracked mud and they are now negotiable.

I reach the hut (portacabin) where I was hoping to sit and draw but someone is there before me, perched on a convenient ledge, face up to the sun and quietly enjoying the heat. This is a favourite spot and I have sat here and drawn many times. I move on and find a dry, sand-pebbled spot at the end of the point overlooking the Scolt Head channel.

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The tide is out and there are many birds poking about in the mud. A group of oystercatchers chirp continuously with their ‘peeping’ call. They run around on short, red legs and then suddenly rise up, black and white stripy wings flashing in the light, only to land a few yards away, to continue feeding, talking and bickering – a typical family.

A streak of white comes in from the left and lands. Elegant legs and a crooked neck. A little egret stands out brightly against the dark mud. These egrets are a common sight here now on the marshes. At this distance I can’t see its bright yellow feet.

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Gulls wheel on the thermals and a skylark rises up from the dunes behind me. Its melodious song strengthens as it flaps its wings and climbs higher and higher. It is still singing half an hour later as I get up and walk on.