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A Long Barrow, Springs and Willows

Our weekend trip to Wiltshire began with a day of respite from the rain and strong winds. We drove to West Woods, southwest of Marlborough, for a walk along the Wansdyke path. The path runs parallel to an ancient dyke, originally named Woden’s Dyke from the Norse God Odin, god of wisdom. It was created in the early Medieval period to divide Celtic kingdoms or keep the Saxons away. It is about 21 miles long, but we only walked a small section of it through the beech wood, protected a little from the wind and accompanied by the croak of ravens.

Back in the car, we cheered ourselves up by singing Gentleman Dude by Julien Cope. Along with creating music, he wrote the Modern Antiquarian, a book about all sorts of prehistoric places in the UK. Not far from us was West Kennet Long Barrow, so we donned wellies and braved the winds and puddles to walk to the ancient site.

West Kennet Long Barrow
Large sarsen stones at the entrance to West Kennet Long Barrow

The long barrow is surprisingly – well, long. The entrance is sheltered by some giant sarsen stones and, behind these, I was pleased to discover that you can go right inside the tomb. The interior is a passageway of algal covered slabs leading to a larger chamber at the end. There are five side chambers off the main passageway.

West Kennet Long Barrow
Inside West Kennet Long Barrow.

It was dark and still inside, quite a contrast to the bleak windswept fields without. It reminded me of Gavrinis without the carvings. I had a good feeling about it and could imagine all the rituals, camps and festivities that have taken place over the centuries within those sacred, cave-like spaces.

West Kennet Long Barrow
West Kennet Long Barrow – looking out, a portal to the light.

The barrow has been dated to about 3,700 BCE, the start of early farming, the heyday of pastoralism before the ascendance of crop cultivation. Artifacts were found within the tomb(s) – pottery, flint tools, coins and other offerings – alongside skeletons of about 36 people.

Descending from the long barrow, we detoured along the back of a strip of woodland. There was no official path, but footprints in the soft soil betrayed the countless other people who had done the same.

We were in search of a not-so-secret spring, Swallowhead Springs. At the end of the wood, we slipped through a gap in the fence and there it was, a area of lush grass and clear-running water seeping out from a bank. A red kite hung suspended over the field behind, jittering, and manoeuvring in the windy gusts from the southwest.

Swallowhead Springs
The willow at Swallowhead Springs
Swallowhead Springs
Swallowhead Springs – looking north towards the River Kennet.
Swallowhead Springs
Corn dollies and other offerings.

Central to the spring area, is a willow tree whose boughs arch to the ground, a clootie tree. Tangled within its branches are ribbons and offerings – a mug, corn dollies, candles, a little plaque with two hares on it, coins embedded in its bark. Some speculate that it was considered holy in ancient times, a place belonging to Brigid, an early Irish goddess of dawn, spring, fertility and healing. True or not, the place has become sacred to neo-pagans today and important to spring seekers like us.

The spring helps feed the River Kennet that flows beside the willow. Sarsen stepping stones have been placed in the river to provide access from the field to the north. On the day of our visit the river was high, submerging the stepping stones, flowing cloudy green, the colour of fluorite. A fallen crack willow bridged the river; it too was decked with ribbons.

Swallowhead Springs
Swallowhead Springs.

We lingered, peering into the clear spring water with its waving verdant weeds, enjoying the quiet beauty of this sheltered corner. Then we made our way back to the car and headed to Avebury.

Willow tree

That night I had a dream. I was with a group of scientists learning about the difficulties they face in the world today with the climate emergency, bush fires, coronavirus, species extinctions, flooding, refugees etc. I was told that some scientists in remote places were forbidden to look out of the windows of their vehicles and had to watch virtual reality scenes instead, so bad was the devastation to the environment. Incongruously, among the scientists in the dream, was a willow grower lining up pots of willow trees. I was mesmerised by the apple green sunlight shining through the willow leaves. The light caught a gemstone, the sliver of a turquoise sea; it dazzled me. Then the willow grower handed me a book with well-loved pages saying I should read it as it was about willow trees. I remember musing about how good it would be to have answers to some of the world’s problems hidden within the willow tree. For a start, there is salicin from willow bark, a chemical similar to aspirin, but, perhaps there is more. Planting trees throughout the world is certainly part of the solution to some issues. Maybe the answers do lie with the trees – or with the birds as I have often thought. The croak of the raven…

Willow tree

In the willow tree
Sitting in a willow tree on the River Waveney a few years ago.

I have always had a fondness for willow trees. In the garden of my childhood home, we had a weeping willow in which I used to sit. They are associated with water and the moon and I think there is a lovely flowing beauty about them. I know a little about willows, but now I shall endeavour to learn more.

We left Cherhill the following day just before storm Dennis came with full impact. After driving for an hour, the car decided to pack up and we became stranded on a roundabout. The winds grew and the rain lashed while we waited three hours for the RAC. Again, we cheered ourselves up singing Julian Cope songs and watching seagulls play in the rain.

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Insect Altered Books – Bugs: Beauty and Danger Exhibition

At the end of last year, I was invited to create some altered books for an exhibition at Groundwork Gallery in King’s Lynn, Norfolk. The exhibition is called, Bugs: Beauty and danger and features some international artists including Nicola Bealing, Arno van Berge Henegouwen, Jeroen Eisinga and Sarah Gillespie. The exhibition “celebrates the beauty and power of insects at a time of increasing threat to many common species…”

Indeed, insects are declining at an alarming rate, especially bees, butterflies, moths, dragonflies and damselflies (see this article).

I have become increasingy interested in insects since I saw so many in France a couple of years ago. But, I was interested in them before that, especially butterflies, having done surveys at Castle Hill Nature Reserve and other places over the years. I have also liked seeing insects in the art of artist Irene Hardwicke Olivieri.

Closer to Wildness book Irene Olivieri Hardwicke
‘When you choose one you are letting all the rest go by’ – Painting showing insects from Closer to Wildness book by Irene Olivieri Hardwicke

My small contribution to the exhibition is three altered books – Insect Meadow, The Butterfly Tree and one featuring a tree covered in ivy and the insects and other wildlife associated with ivy.

Here is Insect Meadow:

Insect Meadow Altered Book
Insect Meadow Altered Book

I decided to work in colour for the next couple of books because I think it’s more effective. For The Butterfly Tree I was inspired by Monarch butterflies. Some species of Monarch migrate between North America and Central Mexico, where they overwinter. Trees and vegetation become completely covered with orange wings – it’s a sight I would love to see. However, the bioreserve where they overwinter is under threat from illegal logging and the deterioration of the habitat. Recently two reserve workers were murdered for reasons that remain a mystery and there is fear in the region, both for the people and the fate of the butterfly. (See this interesting article.)

I decided to create this altered book a little differently from my others, by leaving the underlying pages as pages of text. I’ve also added butterfly wings that reach beyond the edges of the book, giving the impression that they’re bursting out:

The Butterfly Tree Altered Book
The Butterfly Tree Altered Book

I’ll write about the third altered book in my next blog post.

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The Box of Delights Altered Book

In my last post I mentioned I was working on an altered book commission based on the children’s book, The Box of Delights by John Masefield. I used to have the book as a child, I remember the paperback cover, but I don’t remember reading it.

The Box of Delights Altered Book
The Box of Delights Altered Book

I was asked whether I’d create an altered book based on a particular section of the story, when Kay, the boy character, discovers a box and opens it to reveal a magical woodland scene that he is then invited to enter:

..He pressed the tiny, golden rosebud and, at once, from within the box, there came a tiny crying of birds. As he listened he heard the stockdove brooding, the cuckoo tolling, blackbirds, thrushes, the nightingale singing. Then a far-away cock crowed thrice and the Box slowly opened. Inside he saw what he took to be a book, the leaves of which were all chased and worked with multitudinous figures, and the effect that it gave him was that of staring into an opening in a wood. It was lit from within and multitudinous, tiny things were shifting there. Then he saw that the things which were falling were the petals of may-blossom from giant hawthorn trees covered with flowers…..All the forest was full of life: all the birds were singing, insects were humming, dragonflies darting, butterflies wavering and settling… ‘It’s all alive and it’s full of summer. ..’

It’s a lovely passage. I hope I’ve captured the wildlife teeming in the wood and the characters, Kay and Herne the Hunter along with wolves, ducks, foxes and more.

Here is a video of me looking through the book to give a sense of the pages, although it is over-exposed in the winter sunshine:

Here are photos of some inside pages of the book:

I can dream of Spring and early summer as they’re sure to come. Already I notice the blackbirds and great tits busying themselves in the hedgerows, woods and gardens.

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The Enchanted Forest Altered Book

I’ve just completed The Enchanted Forest altered book. It was snapped up as soon as I had finished it and it now has a new home.

The Enchanted Forest Altered Book

I’ll soon be starting on a new commission, illustrating a scene from the children’s book, The Box of Delights. I’m looking forward to it!

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New Cards, a Booklet and a Mug

Autumn greetings! A few new things for my shops.

My concertina greetings cards have been selling really well and I have made a new one, Owls and Blackbirds. It features a pair of blackbirds at their nest with busy bluetits and vegetation on one side. On the other side there is a night scene with a family of tawny owls among the leaves and branches of oak trees beneath a starry, moonlit sky:

Owls and Blackbirds concertina Card
Owls and Blackbirds Concertina Card – the front side.
Back of Owls and Blackbirds Concertina Card
Owls and Blackbirds Concertina Card – the reverse side.

I have also just made another little illustrated booklet, The Barn Owl of Baconsthorpe. I’ve decided to sell my little booklets as a bundle of four:

Four Nature Books
Four little nature books

I had a request for a print of my River Wife image (I wrote about the book The River Wife in a previous post). I then decided to make the design into a card:

I took a chance and had some enamel mugs made featuring three badgers:

Unfortunately I didn’t remove the white background when I uploaded the image for printing, so it appears as a grey band around the mug (you can just see it in the photos). That’s something I’ve learnt now :( However, I’m impressed by the high quality of the mugs.

My concertina cards, bundle of booklets, The River Wife greetings card and the Three Badgers enamel mug are all now available in my shop and Etsy shop.

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Decorating Diaries

I mentioned in a previous post about how I’ve kept a diary for much of my life. Sometimes I decorate the covers. Having seen the David Nash exhibition recently, I thought I’d get out some of my old diaries and decorate them with some of the natural materials I’ve collected.

Last year I visited the Canary Island, La Palma, and brought back some pieces of dead prickly pear I found lying about. It was awkward fitting it in my rucksack. (I can’t resist collecting natural materials with interesting textures that I save for future projects :)

I covered a 2018 diary with a print out of a tree silhouette and overlaid this with some dry prickly pear. Then I added black and white paint. The result holds memories of the lunar, volcanic landscapes of La Palma:

Covering a diary
Diary covered with dried prickly pear.

I have a bundle of dried cocksfoot grasses and decided to arrange and glue a few stalks to the front of another diary. With the next diary, I played with scrim, made some hemp string plaits and attached the jaw bone of a rabbit and a small bivalve shell to the strings before glueing them to cover. It’s a work in process:

Some diaries get illustrated covers, front and back:

Fox wood diary cover
Fox wood diary cover.

I’ve had a bit of a thing about rock and rock seams, especially this year. Stacks of diaries are like layers of sedimentary rock, accretions of thoughts and ponderings laid down over years. Here is my rock seam diary complete with a shell and seeds:

Diary with rock seams.
Diary with rock seams, a shell and seeds.

I thought I’d gather a few of the diaries I have decorated over the years and photograph them altogether – like a patchwork quilt:

Decorated diaries
My decorated diaries.
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David Nash Exhibition – 200 Seasons

I am always drawn to artists who use natural materials. David Nash works mainly in wood, so when his 200 Seasons exhibition came on at the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne, I made sure I went to see it.

I knew little about David Nash before the exhibition. I had heard of Ash Dome (here’s a nice little fim about it) and had vaguely heard about Wooden Boulder, but that was all. The exhibition shows a broad range of his work spanning all the years he’s been working as an artist – sculptures, drawings and film. There are piles of arranged cork bark, chainsaw-cut blocks of oak, cedar and other wood, small wooden ladders, oak balls, charred tree trunks. Among my favourites is a blue-black ring made of out bluebell seeds. I wanted to know what I felt when seeing his work, my immediate impression, without knowing too much about the background story.

David Nash sculpture
David Nash sculpture
David Nash cork bark sculpture
David Nash cork bark sculpture.
King and Queen - David Nash
King and Queen – David Nash. It reminds me of a musical instrument ready to be strummed or sounded.
Oak Hearth - David Nash
Oak Hearth – David Nash
200 Seasons David Nash
200 Seasons – David Nash

My first thoughts were – this is about the passage of time – years, decades and longer. It’s about weathering and the elements – earth, fire, water, perhaps air (his ladders reach up and are suspended). It’s about the interaction between humans and the natural environment. The massive nature of some of the sculptures – whole tree trunks or giant chunks of cedar – says something. What, I don’t really know. They are imposing and stately, with gravitas, and some of his charred pieces are almost shocking in their black denseness, their immediacy. Perhaps anything burnt is unsettling. David Nash says he treats his works with a light touch. His wooden boulder project is like a metaphor for a life’s journey – it suggests going with the flow and becoming weathered with moments of stillness and times of motion – acquiescing to the natural way of things. I also saw in it solitude, abandonment and the “is-ness of things”. His works impact me in a place beyond words, they are mystifying and I like them a lot.

The exhibition is on at the Towner until 2nd February 2020.

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Another Harry Potter Altered Book

It’s autumn and my work desk has been busy – well, I have, sort of.

My desk

Among the feathers, nests and skulls I’ve found this year, I’ve been working on a new altered book, another Harry Potter commission. Knowing little about Harry Potter – OK I’ve seen a couple of HP films on long haul flights – it has been a challenge for me. However, I know there’s magic in the books and I like that.

Here is my finished Harry Potter book, featuring some of the characters along with Hogwarts School in the background:

Harry Potter altered book
Harry Potter altered book.

Recently I sat with a friend telling her I was working on a Harry Potter altered book. She sighed and said how she would have liked to have read Harry Potter to her children as the books are full of magic and fantasy. When we were young there were the C.S.Lewis books and books like Lord of the Rings. I also remember Anne of Green Gables, The Little Prince, Tom’s Midnight Garden. There was a little bit of magic in them and we all need an element of mystery and the unreal in our lives sometimes.

There’s much said now about how we need stories and storytelling has made a resurgance in some quarters. As autumn progresses and the darkness descends layer upon layer, I find myself wanting to withdraw and bring in more of the imaginary into my life. More stories, myths, metaphors, images. That’s the thing about darkness, it brings out the imagination.

Sunset from my living-room window.
Sunset from my living-room window.

Below is a picture I did some time ago. I’ve included it to remind myself to welcome in the imagination, something I’ve missed of late.

The Encroaching Night
The Encroaching Night
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Gavrinis, Standing Stones and a Tiny House

Just off the coast of Brittany, in the Gulf of Morbihan, there’s a special little island called Gavrinis, ‘goat island’. It’s special because it has a large burial mound or cairn known for the detailed engravings that adorn the wall, floor and ceiling slabs of the cairn’s interior passage that are 6000 years old. In Neolithic times Gavrinis was a granite hill on the mainland coast overlooking the River Vannes, but the seas rose and the hill became an island. Today you can visit it by boat. We have just returned from a trip to Brittany where we visited Gavrinis on a day trip.

Gavrinis from the sea
Gavrinis island from the sea
Gavrinis cairn
Gavrinis cairn.

You are not allowed to take photos inside the burial chamber. In the photo below, taken from the Brittany Tourism website, the interior passageway looks longer than it seems in real life. It is an intimate space about three and a half feet wide. The granite slabs are engraved with swirls, chevrons, wavy lines and axe shapes and look very like fingerprints. What they symbolise is a mystery. It has been suggested that the lines represent waves or water or perhaps furrows of ploughed land. The Neolithic creators of the megalith were the first farmers and the land was revered and sacred. Gavrinis appeals to my liking for islands, for caves and for deep, quiet, ancient sacred spaces. The carvings remind me of labyrinths. How tempting it is to trace the lines with one’s finger. Perhaps they depict a kind of map to the next world? Perhaps an underground, underworld way of water.

Cairn de Gavrinis
In the passageway of the Cairn of Gavrinis.

No evidence of any bodies have been found at the cairn. It is thought that the acidic nature of the granire stones may have eroded any bones away.

You can see another island from Gavrinis, Er Lannic.

Er Lannic seen from Gavrinis
Er Lannic seen from Gavrinis.

On the boat journey back we crossed a strong current at high tide to see the half submerged stone circle on Er Lannic. It illustrates how sea level has risen.

Er Lannic submerged stone circle
Er Lannic showing the half submerged stone circle.

The same day we drove to see the long lines of standing stones at Carnac – rows, dolmens and tumuli. There are over 3,000 prehistoric granite stones erected over 5,000 years ago. There is a myth that says the stones were Pagan soldiers turned into stone by Pope Cornelius.

Carnac
Prehistoric stones in the Kermario alignment at Carnac. Kermario means ‘House of the Dead’.
Keriaval Dolmen
Keriaval Dolmen

After our megalithic sightseeing we travelled north to the Parc Naturel A’Armorique where we stayed in a little cabin on a permaculture farm.

Tiny house
Tiny house in Brittany.
Little tin with finds from Brittany.
Little tin given to me by a friend with finds from Brittany – yellow gorse and heather from Ménez Hom; quartz from the sea cliffs; sea purslane from the River Aulne.

Each day we went down to the River Aulne to watch birds, mullet feeding in the shallows and the tide coming in or going out.

Sunset over the River Aulne
Sunset over the River Aulne. The River Aulne was sacred to the Romans, who named it after Alaunus, Gaulish God of healing and prophecy.

From my diary:

River, still as a lake. carrying the sky’s visage, the splintered reflections of egrets, the crescent moon. Fish prick the surface waters of the incoming tide. Golden is the eastern sky. The shore crackles as inch by inch, silt upon silt, salt into fresh the water creeps, almost silently, unobtrusively. A cormorant now wings along the farther shore towards the sun over the white dots of roosting gulls. A curlew calls. The forest that was mirrored in the glass of the river is now bronze, now dense with darkness. The river says nothing. Spleechless it shifts, slowly it sucks up the land. The tide says nothing; this is its prerogative. All is held in a quiet dislocation, a shifting constant of sea and river. Silence bears witness to silence as the shore shrinks and we wait on the bank for some action, for a mammal, for a fox perhaps, or even an otter. Nothing comes and the hour gapes, waiting, waiting, waiting. This is forever. This is what forever sounds like, the silence then the crackling shore. In it comes, slowly, while above the crescent draws and pulls, pulls and draws. The sun behind the hill. A faint breeze. The gloaming now.

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Concertina Greetings Cards

I am still working on the film poem I mentioned in my last post. I think it’ll take me a while.

Still, one thing that has come out of my Sea Trout project is the creation of new concertina cards. I call them concertina cards because they’re long cards folded twice. The idea arose from my long sea trout picture (click on the images for bigger versions):

Sea Trout
Sea Trout

I wanted to create a card out of the design and thought it would be good to feature a picture on the reverse side. So I drew a shoal of trout:

Sea Trout Shoal
Sea Trout Shoal

Here is the finished Sea Trout card:

Sea Trout concertina card
Sea Trout concertina card

I decided to create a further two cards, both with a “trees” or “forest” theme. The first of these is In The Forest. One side of the card features a daytime forest scene with deer and a fox beneath the trees:

Daytime forest scene
Daytime forest scene – one side of a In The Forest concertina card.

On the reverse is a night scene featuring badgers, deer, foxes, owls and hedgehogs:

It reminds me a bit of a tapestry :)

Here is the finished card:

In the Forest concertina greetings card
In The Forest concertina greetings card.

My third card features a badger sett. One side you see a badger family out foraging at night:

The Badger Sett
The Badger Sett – one side of a concertina greetings card.

The other side shows a cross-section of the badger sett with some slumbering badgers along with a rabbit burrow, tree roots and a burrowing mole:

The Badger Sett
The Badger Sett – one side of a concertina card.

Here is The Badger Sett card:

The Badger Sett
The Badger Sett concertina greetings card.

All cards are available from my Etsy shop and come with a little tag for a message and a square kraft envelope. :)

Sea Trout greetings card

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