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.
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.
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.
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.’
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 …..