Category Archives: noticing

Night walking

Dark. Clear. Crisp.

A trip out to the bin late in the evening and the sea roar is so loud that it lures me out, into the dark, and down to the quay to hear more clearly and to look at the stars.

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It’s very dark with no moon. Catch at the back of your nose cold and very, very clear. Looking north, away from the sodium glare of the town, more and more stars are revealed as my eyes become accustomed to the dark. I start walking out along the unlit bank towards the sea. Only a few hundred yards away from the town the sky is even darker – this part of the coast is designated a black sky area – and the  number of stars I begin to see is astonishing.

To the west, an indistinct smudge of light above is the Milky Way and down towards the horizon in the south-west a large, bright, reddish star – Mars I think. And then in front of me a star falls, and another, and again, out of the corner of my eye in my peripheral vision, another falling star and another. Four shooting stars in a row are a rare treat.

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All the well known constellations are clearly visible, more stars in their make-up than usual are showing. Orion’s spear is clear and bright beneath his three-starred belt and W-shaped Cassiopeia. To the north the Plough.

But there are so many stars and I don’t know their names. Night walking and looking at the night sky is something that I have had relatively little experience of over my lifetime. I have lived in the centre of brightly lit towns for the majority of my life and encounters with stars have, for the most part, been through the orange glow of street lights. Brief forays to the dark skies of the coast and country were few as a child and going out in the winter darkness just wasn’t done. Even now there is the temptation, as we approach the shortest day and the longest night, to huddle inside in front of light emitting boxes. But this darkness, with tiny pinpricks of light is magnificent and so beautiful …. so, so beautiful.

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Out on the beach bank, enclosed as I am, and wrapped in darkness with sprinkled light above, my hearing sense is heightened. A loud  Cr-aaaaaa-ck makes me look down and out into the darkness where a large but indistinct form has landed on the edge of the water. A heron. More bird sounds emanate from the marsh. A curlew calls and then calls mournfully again, and then a redshank. Geese, Brent geese I suspect, keep up a woodwind mumble. Do you think they chatter all night? And in the distance, but seemingly close, the continuous sea roar – a never-ending ssssssh, as waves break over the sand bar.

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My eyes look up again. Across the sky a winking light moves from east to west. It is a plane, full of people. Are they looking down?  This part of the earth must look like a reflection of the night sky, the reverse of my view, as pockets of habitation light up the darkened land.

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With natural light levels low at this time of year, it is surprising how lifted I am by this encounter with the darkness. This morning as I write, I have that bubbling feeling in my chest – a son of excitedness. A creative bubble waiting to rise. The conditions last night may not occur again soon. I’m just thankful I noticed them and was able to experience.

The black drawings were done a while ago.

 

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 Misty, moisty weather

The day started sunny and bright, but by the afternoon a light haze had started to cover the sun and by 3 o’clock the light was failing, and the colour had gone out of the day.

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Still and damp – the tide coming in fast.

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A short walk along the top of the dyke just by the studio seemed like a good idea for a breath of fresh air. Looking inland the trees were disappearing into the mist and ….

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…..turning to face North, across the marsh the horizon was becoming more indistinct by the minute.

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How to define this weather? The Scot’s word ‘dreich’ comes to mind and Robert MacFarlane describes it as ‘of weather; gloomy, damp, dark, grey, melancholy, lacking light & colour’.

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Perhaps a better word is ‘roke’ which Robert Macfarlane describes as smoke-like mist that rises in the evenings off marshes and water meadows; also very faint rain’. There are numerous other words that describe the standing water and wet ground so prevalent in this part of East Anglia: mist (mug), dew (dag), heavy soil (clogsum, clunch, clag) and mud (slab, slip, slub)….. we have a lot of that here.

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Looking back towards the studio the tide had filled the channel.

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There’s a lot to enjoy even on a grey afternoon.

Walking

A blue sky day!

Although I had several things I (probably) should be getting on with it seemed a great shame not to put my boots on and go out for a walk.

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I chose a favourite route at Holkham that takes the path through the pines behind the beach to Gun Hill and then onto the sand and back along the water’s edge.

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When I’m out walking I never know what will catch my eye and this time, inspired by the tall, straight pines, I found myself searching out similar lines. Dried willow herb …..

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and marram grass rise up above the sand dunes and dance gently in the breeze.

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The sun is quite low in the sky at this time of year and so there are great shadows. In sand ripples created by the recent ebbing tide ….

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and in a beach river that drains out into the sea.

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Soft waves make lacy patterns ….

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and more dynamic lines,

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and the reflection of the sun in the wet sand makes a dramatic positive/negative as a wavelet draws out.

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The pines and another beach river create strong parallel lines,

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and I couldn’t resist poking a few razor shells into the sand to make a set of vertical lines.

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Finally, a small wave is thrown into relief by a larger one behind creating a long straight line between the two.

Not a bad morning!

Skylark

The sun is out, and I am walking behind the dunes at Holkham with no coat on. After all the recent rain spring seems to have finally arrived and there is no better reminder than hearing the skylarks sing high in the sky above the marsh.

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The skylark, Alauda arvensis, is a small, non-descript brown bird, but its song is a complete joy. Rising from the ground it flaps its wings faster and faster to gain height, and as it flies upwards it sings. Its song goes on and on and on without a pause. If you stop and listen, it is more likely that you will give up listening before it stops singing. What is more astounding is that it doesn’t seem to stop for a breath.

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Being a flautist, I’m interested in breathing and I wondered if, like didgeridoo players, oboeists, and other wind players they could do circular breathing. Circular breathing allows for continuous sound. It is a technique where you breath in and fill your cheeks with air and then with the next breath, simultaneously squeeze out air from your mouth and breath in through your nose. It’s horrendously difficult and I never mastered the procedure.

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However, skylarks and indeed all birds can do it. Their respiration system is different to ours and their circular breaths allow for their song to continue almost endlessly.

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On Holkham beach, with the dunes and the sea beyond to my left and the skylarks singing above I am reminded of one of my favourite poems by Gerald Manley Hopkins, The Sea and the Skylark. In the first two verses he compares the sound of the sea, both low and high tides, and the musical sound of the skylark. Here they are:

On ear and ear two noises too old to end
Trench—right, the tide that ramps against the shore;
With a flood or a fall, low lull-off or all roar,
Frequenting there while moon shall wear and wend.

Left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend,
His rash-fresh re-winded new-skeinèd score
In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl, and pour
And pelt music, till none’s to spill nor spend.

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I’m sorry not to have been able to take a sound recording for you, but have a listen to the skylark’s music pelting down from the sky here.

Leading lights

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Recently two red and white triangles have appeared in the trees on the dune behind the last beach hut on Wells beach. The Wells Harbour website (I keep my eye on this for news when in Surrey) tells me that they are refurbished and reinstated channel transits. The triangles, which are visible offshore, are placed one above the other and when they appear in line, they indicate a safe course for boats in through the harbour entrance. At night they would originally have been lit by paraffin lamps, but now they appear to have up-to-date solar powered lights. These particular transits were in use from the 1700s to the mid 1900s. I have always known this type of signal as leading lights.

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As a child (and I must confess, still today) I was an avid reader of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books and anyone who has read them will remember the Swallows finding their way into the secret harbour on Wildcat Island at night with the use of leading lights.

Titty saw them, flickering among the trees and then disappearing again as they were hidden by big rocks south of the island.

John paddled on slowly.

‘There they are again,’ said Susan.

‘Close together,’ said Titty.

John turned round from his rowing and had a good look at two small stars twinkling over the water.

‘Right,’ he said, I’m going to do nothing but row if you’ll keep your eyes on the lights.’

‘Are they still close together?’ asked John.

‘Fairly close,’ said Susan.

‘Where is the top light?’ asked captain John.

‘A bit to the left of the low one,’ said Susan.

John pulled a stroke or two, pulling a little harder with his right. ‘Sing out as soon as it is just above it.’

‘It’s above it now. Now it’s a bit to the right of it.’

John pulled his left.

‘Above it.’

Tell me the moment it is one side or the other.’

‘The lights are exactly one above the other,’ said Susan.

John had shipped the oars and was now sculling over the stern.

‘The lights are quite close to us, ‘ said Roger, and as he said it there was a gentle scrunch as Swallow’s nose touched the soft, pebbly beach of the little harbour.

Captain John had used his leading lights for the first time, and had made his harbour in pitch dark.

 How exciting!

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The idea of a boat, or indeed a body in the landscape, having to move from left to right or up and down to get the correct view of something – to line it up – reminds me of research that I did during my MA about ideas of experiencing the environment. Anthropologist, Christopher Tilley writes in his book, The Materiality of Stone, ‘The body is continually improvising its relationship with things … constantly opening itself out to the world as it moves in it. The manner in which we sense the world remains forever incomplete and ambiguous because we always experience things from a particular point of view or relationship. The body is open to the world but things are always hidden from it.’

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The idea that I could make a piece of work that moves in and out of focus or that only appears as it should from one particular viewpoint is a powerful one. Different elements could line up, as with the leading lights, to make a whole. Or one part of the work could hide another, only to be revealed  as you move or peer around it. To actively walk around in order to experience a work would relate to the way we experience objects outside in the environment, where their size and shape appear to alter as we change our relationship to them. From different directions and with a different order of seeing, things do not have the appearance of sameness.

Seeing the Wells leading lights has got me thinking, but I’m not sure where this one is going yet …..

Sea shells

After a mad three months of almost constant teaching, making and exhibiting I made it up to Wells last night for a bit of a breather. The first thing I did this morning was to do my favourite walk at Burnham Overy Staithe.

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The clocks have jumped forward for spring and the sun has welcomed the time change. Walking north, out to the beach, the sun was on my back and for the first time this year I could feel its warmth. It’s hard to believe that this time last week I was battling in wind, snow and freezing temperatures.

P1020552Painted Top Shell Calliostoma zizyphinum

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Coming out onto the beach at the end of Gun Hill (almost opposite Scolt Head) the first thing I noticed was that the contours of the beach had changed since the last time I was here. A few weeks ago the sand and shingle lay in deep grooves and channels, the result of strong tides and winds, but today it was totally flat. Last weekend a stormy north wind must have driven the waves up the beach, levelling the sand down to a uniformly even surface.

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As always my eyes drift down to the ground just in front of my feet and I pick up and discard shells and pebbles: a mussel, a razor clam and a cockle, shells that are always found on the beaches around here. Some I put into my pocket. And then I find a very familiar shell – a slipper shell. These shells were a constant in my childhood where I found them in great quantities on the the beaches of the south coast. They look like little shoes, hence their name, and are just the right shape to slip your thumb into. They are quite unusual up here on the North Norfolk coast, but I find another, and another – how odd! Walking along the tideline other strangers turn up: a periwinkle and a small pointed shell that I recognise but can’t name. I slip them in my pocket and head for the dunes to sit in the sun and drink a cup of coffee. Lining the shells up on the sand in front of me I do some very quick line drawings in my sketchbook.

P1020560Slipper Limpet Crepidula fornicata

When I get home I look up the names of the shells I don’t know and I also find out a bit more about where different types of shells are commonly found. Bivalve molluscs have two hinged shells and are generally found on sandy beaches. The wide, open sandy seabed offers no protection from predators so they burrow into the sand to hide. We have hundreds of razor shells, cockles and mussels here and this is obviously the right habitat for them. On the other hand gastropods, which have a single, often spiral shell are more often found on rocky shores where they can hide amongst the seaweed which grows there. My ‘stranger’ shells would normally be found in this habitat and I wonder if the storm last weekend has stirred up the seabed and deposited these strangers here, away from their normal setting?

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I love it when I notice something unusual – these unexpected occurrences are what bring me back here again and again.

 

Walking without seeing

It’s freezing in Wells at the moment, but a sunny morning has enticed me out of the house for a brisk walk. The tide is up and the easterly wind is bitter. As I head, north, up the beach bank I pull the hood of my coat up to try and get a bit more protection. It is one of those deep hoods that have a furry edge and it comes right down to almost cover my eyes. My vision is severely restricted with it up but today I can’t do without it.

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As I walk my hood forces me to look down at the ground. If I try to peep up the furry bit goes into my eyes. I try pulling it back but it slips forward immediately. I resign myself to looking at the ground.

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The ground is not very interesting – black tarmac with puddles, but with my sense of sight essentially disabled the other senses kick in. It’s very cold. I feel my right side getting colder and even with a long coat the side of my leg starts to ache. My fingers are freezing in their gloves and I slip them out of the woolly fingers so I can form a fist and get a bit more warmth from my palm. I step briskly out hoping to heat up with the exercise.

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The wind blowing over me is the loudest, most continuous sound I can hear, but underneath this other sounds appear. A car on the other side of the bank, and in the far distance the dredger is at the never-ending task of keeping the channel clear. Occasionally a seagull flies over – squawking.

A low, pitched moan comes to my attention. It is coming from the air so must be either a plane or a helicopter – the moan gets louder and I hum its pitch. Middle C I think. I don’t have perfect pitch but I can often accurately pitch a note if it is in my vocal range. This note is four notes higher than my lowest sung note – the G below middle C (I have quite a low voice and always sing alto in the choir). I pull back my hood and peer out to try and fix it with my eyes but I can’t see it. Throbbing blades get louder  – so it’s a helicopter – and as it gets nearer and passes overhead the pitch drops down a third to A ands as it moves away it drops still lower – the doppler effect in action.

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Eyes down I hurry on. I’m not really looking at what is happening around me but I pull back my hood at the end of the bank and look around. Over in the east, towards Blakeney, the low lying land is completely concealed by grey cloud and the sun has gone in. Rain, or possibly snow is coming towards me. I take a quick look to see if there are any seals about (there aren’t) and put my hood up and hurry back to try and beat the cloud burst. The wind strengthens and the snow hits. Driving onto me from the east it is now hitting my left side. My coat is soon covered – white. It’s freezing and all I can think about is the cold and getting back home quickly. I pass a few other people and we grin and comment on the cold.

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And then, as quickly as it started it’s over. I’m wet and cold and by the time I get back to the quay the clouds have passed and the sun is threatening to come out again. It occurs to me that I haven’t seen much on this walk but I have felt and heard quite a lot and that highlights the fact that deadening one sense brings the other, equally important,  senses to the fore.