Time and Tide

Cley next the Sea is a village which hundreds of years ago was a bustling port by the North Sea along Britain’s North Norfolk coast. Over history, there has been a process of silting up, causing this medieval port to be moved steadily northwards – until today the village of Cley is divided from the coast by a flat expanse of salt marsh, and the port has now completely disappeared.

UK environmental artists Liz Mc Gowan and Jane Frost are embarking on an extended conversation about the shifting tidelines of this part of the world. It’s part of their exhibition for a bigger annual exhibition due to take place in a couple of months’ time: Cley 14.

photo: Liz McGowan. Old lighthouse on North Norfolk coast

As an artist with similar environmental interests, living and working on the North Devon coast, a completely different part of the country, I was delighted to be invited to contribute to Jane and Liz’s conversation. I could not resist comparing the different characteristics of our landscapes, the weather, the impact of the sea, and the responses of human beings. A prolonged spell of stormy weather a couple of months ago has caused havoc and a lot of flooding in many parts of the UK, not just in Norfolk and Devon, and it has brought the reality of changing weather patterns well and truly home to many of us. I was quite ready to look around at the shifting interface between land and sea, and its implications.

Somehow, in addition to actually listening and talking with others about one’s individual experiences – one’s feeling for the land, one’s connection – somehow this is not at all the same as hearing about environmental concerns on the news or elsewhere. The same goes for carrying out creative actions as artists in the landscape. It becomes real: a sort of physical and psychological intimacy, part of oneself.

So I have edited down as short as possible a recent Skype conversation I had with Liz, where we talked about Cley, and Liz and Jane’s project, whilst gradually familiarising ourselves with each other’s places (which we knew nothing about beforehand).

First, here is a brief description of each place:

Liz and Jane’s Place: Cley and surrounding area
Flat, shifting moving terrain, characterised by sand, shingle beach, reedbeds and extensive areas of saltmarsh, lying within the North Norfolk AONB. Norfolk Wildlife Trust manage an exemplary nature reserve on Cley Marshes, an important stopping point for migrating birds.

As I mentioned earlier, in medieval times Cley was a thriving port, but with the process of silting up, the sea is about a mile away, and can now only be reached by crossing the marshes to the shingle beach.

Cley was protected by a shingle ridge, to a large extent swept away in a devastating storm in 1953 in which people lost their lives. There have been further surges in more recent times, and homes and land continue to be lost through the relentless incursions of the sea.

My Place: Northam Burrows and surrounding area
On the Torridge estuary facing the Atlantic. Built up into its peninsula shape by sediment carried down river and deposited. Small area of saltmarsh and mudflats… Sand dunes and grassland, flanked along one side by the long Pebble Ridge consisting of large seaworn pebbles carried by longshore drift from further along the coast. A wide range of habitat for coastal plants, migrating birds and wildlife, make the Burrows environmentally valuable. It is a designated SSSI, as well as a part of the North Devon AONB and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

In contrast to the flat land of North Norfolk, the surrounding terrain of the Burrows is sandstone and mudstone rock, with steep wooded cliffs, and a backdrop of gentle green Devon hills. The natural ecology of the area is being put under continual pressure by human activity, and relentless housing and other developments. Flooding and damage to property and infrastructure were experienced recently, caused by a prolonged spell of unusually severe rainstorms.

Here’s the link to our talk – it is a little long (16 mins) but interesting in terms of learning about our changing coastlines… and also how artists can arrive at a bond of understanding, through feeling their way tentatively forward into the unknown.













Me on the saltmarsh of Northam Burrows, gazing across the estuary to Appledore.

If you type Northam Burrows in my search box it should bring up a number of earlier posts I wrote about this particular area, all complete with pictures.

Liz and Jane’s project, is as yet in its early stages, but to find out more, and to see some of the artists’ coastline pictures (particularly of the devastation caused by the sea in North Norfolk) please visit the Facebook Album:

Happisburgh and other Shifting Coastlines 

Also, see the conversation on the blog site


Posted in Arts & Ecology, environment, North Devon, sea, time | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Little White Houses

It must be around two months now since we were at Baggy Point, and we have been experiencing seemingly endless rainstorms and widespread flooding ever since.

Northam Burrows is extensively flooded and looks pretty exciting from my top floor window. I had the idea of juxtaposing a bunch of little paper houses with water. I’d tried them out in the woods earlier last month with some success – except that I lost all my photos during some computer shenanigans, so that was a waste of time – and I haven’t been back to the woods since because of  the occasional falling tree or branch.

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Flooding at Northam Burrows. The birds like it.

Now the rain has stopped and the 80 mph gales have gone away. The sun is out and there is only a gentle sea breeze wafting across the blue sky.

It feels like a massive dark cloud being lifted from one’s mind and shoulders. Many people are out today on the Burrows - me included. I went out to set up and photograph a test piece, part of my Little White Houses project. This is actually a section of a larger ongoing project that I am working on, relating to land and culture.


Should people be required to pass a test, like car drivers, before they are allowed to own a dog? I think so. There are certain phrases that an artist does not want to hear from a member of the public when working outdoors. One of them is “He is only trying to play…”

Crouching calf-deep in muddy water, with camera and tripod closely focused for a low-angle shot of my work –  I was all but bowled over by an Alsatian and another large dog, who suddenly appeared, splashing around me in the water, and just missed flattening my work by a whisker (though they did make it and me very wet with their splashes).  Quite a loud and heated conversation with the dogs’ owners ensued after this. So much for my spiritual aspirations…


Why did I choose paper? Why make life so difficult for myself? Why make my work and myself quite so vulnerable outside in public?  Well, apart from being unable to resist a challenge and tending to become stubbornly fixated once I have got an idea in my head – my hope is that the simplicity and beauty of this work will carry interesting, thought-provoking resonances and references, which I  am eager to reveal. This is one of the reasons I aim for simplicity in all my work.


Simplicity is not always simple to achieve though. Here I am in my small uninhabitable stone shed with the leaking roof and the fused lighting, making little plaster cubes to weigh down the houses and stop them blowing away. I abandoned this idea.

Here’s a couple of photos of this first test out on the waterlogged Burrows. In case you are wondering – after a bit of trial and error, I did eventually find a way to stop the houses from blowing away, and the bottom edges are carefully painted with clear nail varnish, to stop the landwater from soaking upwards. There is an interesting paradox here, in that I am using a lightweight water-absorbent material, as opposed to the hard impervious materials of real housing estates with their tarmacked and concreted infrastructure.

Most obviously, perhaps, the work is clearly a comment on the fragile and transitory quality of our culture in the face of natural forces. For many of us, the continuing rainstorms and flooding over recent months has certainly brought this to the forefront of our minds, and it has certainly given fresh impetus to my own ‘housing projects’.

I am hoping to push this piece a bit further tomorrow, and looking forward to getting a good set of results eventually. but the weather forecast is bad and I suspect we have seen the last of the sun for a while….

Posted in Arts & Ecology, beach and coast, climate change, Linda Gordon, North Devon, weather | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Seachange: A Brief North Devon Roadtrip

January 31, 2014. The last day of (apparently) the wettest January in UK since records began. Waking up to yet another day of grey skies and rain, yet another day of being unable to walk and work outside – I thought it was worth marking the occasion with a look back to December, over a month ago, when this dismal period of wet weather was just beginning.

Northam Burrows is now covered with swathes of flood water. Gazing out from my top window, across the Burrows to the Torridge Estuary and the Atlantic beyond, I am taken aback when I realise we are getting off lightly compared to other parts of the Southwest. Though there are warnings of further severe weather for us announced today.

Here’s a local photo from the website of North Devon Journal, published yesterday.

020214_1029_SeachangeAN1.jpgFlooding at Pilton Park in Barnstaple on January 3, 2014.

Read more: http://www.northdevonjournal.co.uk/s-official-wettest-January-record-parts/story-20529424-detail/story.html#comments#ixzz2s4uAPGTZ

And here’s my souvenir from December, gathered from hasty notes and a few video snippets on my little stills camera, on a rainyday jaunt out to Baggy Point. (Baggy Point is an impressive and exhilarating headland a little further up the coast, much favoured by walkers and wildlife enthusiasts).

From diary notes…

Cold grey and rainy this morning, so we decided to go out to Baggy Point. We knew we wouldn’t be able to see much through this all-enveloping mist, but we went anyway. We drove through the small towns of Barnstaple, Braunton and Croyde, following the meandering road along the edge of the coastline, low green Devon hills on one side and the grey Atlantic on the other.

And as the windows of the car steamed up, and as I became more and more hot and claustrophobic, I sank down into a blurred vision of grey-green.

The sky lightened a little as we reached Saunton Sands: an enormous expanse of flat sandy beach. I could see the powerful surf rolling in from the ocean and I could just discern two tiny figures in the distance on the wide empty beach. We began to plan a nice bracing walk.

At Baggy Point we parked at the National Trust car park. I took one look at the shuddering hedge in front of me, and listened to the wind howling around our vehicle, and I decided I was not going to get out. But I did anyway. Because I suddenly had an idea that this b it of hedge might make the beginnings of a good art project. So I grabbed my camera.

Alex complained a bit, because he doesn’t like standing about in the rain and a howling gale whilst I take photos. But I assured him it was a blessing in disguise: because not wanting to ruin my camera in the salt spray blowing in our faces, I only allowed it out from under my coat for a few brief moments.




Here’s a couple of interesting links..
Baggy Point on a better day (from the National Trust website):  http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/article-1356403470313/
BBC National News: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-25973344

Posted in beach and coast, climate change, nature, North Devon, weather | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Winter Collection: North Devon Woodland

I thought I would gather up some of my tree memories from around the North Devon Coast for you to enjoy. I have tried to show a good variety from different places and different times of the year.  But I have also been  selective in the type of image I have chosen, so they would be coherent and hang together as a whole.

Season’s Greetings everyone!


Thanks trees!

Posted in Earth, nature, North Devon, trees and woodland | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Resuscitare by Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva

Mottisfont Abbey, Hampshire is now a spacious, comfortable country house, set in extensive landscaped lawns and gardens. It has a long fascinating and multi-layered history, originating in 1201 as an Augustinian Priory. (See Mottisfont’s website to learn more).

I arrived about lunch time – stepping out of the car into a crisp, cold day: a very bright sun low in the sky. Bright but not harsh, bathing everything in a golden light, casting long dark shadows across the grass. I didn’t want to hang around long in this bitterly cold air. I had come to see Resuscitare a site-specific installation by Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva in the grounds of Mottisfont Abbey.

I had missed Resuscitare on a previous visit because of torrential rain – but I knew that it consists of five fallen trees from the estate, brought to life again within an existing circle of beech trees. Both live and dead trees were gilded with imagery – the live with Dutch Metal , and the dead with real 23.5ct gold.

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I moved briskly and actively around the circle of beech trees, taking quick photographs. Not so good for achieving a ‘perfect print’, but certainly good for recording fleeting perceptions – quickly before my thinking mind could get in the way.

The leaves radiated warm gold in the winter sunlight. Thousands were still on the trees; many more more had already fallen, covering the ground, and revealing bare trunks and branches. And between the bare limbs, I could begin to see the glowing gold of Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva’s installation. Stepping nearer, I could see that the trunks of some of the beech circle had been gilded with golden motifs, strangely archaic, strangely familiar. They were based on natural forms of leaf, twig and cosmos, and were, I discovered later, directly inspired by the décor within the house.

Within the circle stood the five dead trees, upturned with root joints splayed at the top, reminding me first of Corinthian columns, then of the pillars and vaulted ceiling of the mediaeval undercroft , that I’d seen at Mottisfont on my previous visit. The rich gold motifs shone bright in the sunlight, reflecting the mass of golden leaves on the trees and all over the ground… The effect was of a shimmering golden dance.

Dappled sunlight on the trunks blended with the gold patterning of the gilding – blurring the boundaries between the natural play of light and shadow and that which had been artificially applied.

It came as no surprise to learn later that the artist originated from Macedonia, a country extensively covered with forest … for admiring the subtle shifting interplay of light and dark, live and dead, natural and artificial, and the delicate dazzling tracery of leaf and twig reaching towards the sky… I had decided that Resuscitare could only have been conceived by someone who ‘had trees in their blood’.

Strangely enough, I did not particularly remark upon the overall concept of the piece, addressing ideas about the cycles of growth and decay – though I was aware of it. What I felt more strongly, was how, on an energetic level, this microcosm of life was held safe within the circle of beeches.

The piece in its entirety spoke to me of wholeness and balance: a masterly simplicity of form, dense with possible meanings.

It was easy to find a multitude of resonances and visual metaphors all at once, something which I think only very high quality visual art can achieve (though I may be wrong). I shall stop writing and let the photos speak for themselves, for I hate to ruin good magic.

Resuscitare is one of a series of new commissions presented by artSOUTH collaborations .

More about Resuscitare, and Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva’s work can be found on her website, and also other sites – including Into That Good Night (from the Fabrica Gallery, Brighton). Here I read that “Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva’s work highlights an essential human contradiction – the need to witness decay and the desire to halt it”.  Personally, I don’t, at this point, feel any particular desire to witness the natural processes of decay, nor to halt them. But it is a worthwhile and important theme for an artist’s work, and one that very clearly underpins the Resuscitare installation.

I haven’t said much about Mottisfont Abbey itself, as I just wanted to convey my personal impressions of this wonderful piece of work. You can find out more about Mottisfont on http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/mottisfont/.

Posted in Art, artists, nature, place, sculpture and installation, seasons and cycles | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Flying Time

I kept my camera firmly in my bag, for it was raining by the River Taw at Barnstaple – or rather it was the sort of fine mist that you barely felt, but soaked you through in no time at all. Or it might have been low lying cloud that I was walking around in. It drained the landscape almost of all colour, and of all sound. It seemed to silently inexorably bring time to a standstill, though I could clearly see the gulls circling all around me, and hear their cries.


But I clung on to my small mobile in my pocket, for the habit of clicking a camera button is far too ingrained in me to give up easily.  And as I walked, I was captivated by the still expanse of water and the insubstantial silhouettes of  spires, lamp posts and chimneys, and the distant trees.  I took quick photos as I walked – sometimes barely looking into the viewfinder. I wasn’t expecting any decent pictures, but I like doing this – as a way of registering my experience, as far as possible without interrupting its flow.

And finally, sitting on the wet concrete wall of a flower bed, gazing around at the riverside view and the dark arches under the Long Bridge. I tucked away the mobile into my bag along with my bigger camera and all the rest of my ‘useful stuff’ – then zipped it all up.


I was just about to leave, when a gentle melodious honking filled the air, and an enormous flock of geese flew low over my head, following the line of the river. I was amazed, then muttered a few words under my breath at missing this wonderful photo opportunity. But I shrugged, stood up to go…  and then another flock of geese flew overhead, uttering the same cries and causing further muttered words.  

So I just had to sit down and dig out my mobile again, but by the time I had opened it up and waited for it to do its digital thing… yes, you have guessed it… the third flock of geese had passed overhead, and was almost out of sight before I managed to press the camera button. You will see the pathetic result in the images below.

I was interested to see that two of the geese, at a slight distance from the others, brought up the rear as though to cope with any stragglers or misadventures in the main body of birds. I had heard before that flying geese will change places when the lead bird tires, and I marvelled at their intelligence.  I take it these were Canada Geese that I saw, though I am not entirely sure, as they were darkly silhouetted against the grey sky.


I think I might have missed the full experience of these moments, what with all my muttering and messing about with zips and cameras. But I also know that a part of me didn’t.

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

William Blake

Posted in landscape, nature, North Devon, photography, place, weather, wildlife and birds | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Castle Mound by the Library: urban landscape

Castle Mound. Wikimedia Commoms. photo: Martyn Davies

It stands proud and defiant, after nearly a thousand years – outside the public library on the flat expanse of  green grass known as Castle Green. Apart from the library – a handsome brick building very much in keeping with the character of the town, it is surrounded on all sides by the usual clutter of modern life: small old cottages overshadowed and dwarfed by breeze block (cinder block) business and retail premises, a large open air car park, a strange system of roads and one-way traffic flows… and the ‘lovely’ Council Office block, which pretty well dominates this part of Barnstaple.

It was erected as a motte and bailey castle in Norman times, built on top of a Saxon graveyard. The castle has long since gone, and after a long and complex history, all that remains now is the motte, known today as the Castle Mound. It was grassed over and landscaped in the early 19th century, with a spiral path leading up to the top.

Barns Mound-Rolle (37)


Gazing up at the mound and its spiralling pathway, I was reminded of the archetypal labyrinth, with its twists and turns and its single track leading to a central point and then returning to the beginning again.

I gazed for a long time at the mound and the trees growing all over it, many on this cold November morning almost bare of leaves now, and the tracery of their branches and twigs beautiful against the overcast sky. From the trees came the clear pure song of a single small bird.

Barns Mound-Rolle (30)

I wandered around the park a bit – an ideal place to make a group labyrinth, but I could not see any handy materials nearby. I continued looking around at the trees, the grass and  the shrubs and the modern buildings surrounding the whole area, then set off up the spiralling pathway of the mound, idly wondering whether I could persuade anyone over the age of 10 to climb up to the top with me.

The mound was like a library in itself. I was not much aware of its history until afterwards when I began to research - though as I climbed up and around, I could clearly see there was an infinite number of stories to be told. Signs and clues were everywhere: exposed fragments of masonry, sturdy stone edging along the sides of the track, and a flat top to the mound, with areas that had obviously held previous constructions.

Barns Mound-Rolle (76)


Tempting to follow up the clues, but I focused on my journey, the movement of life all around – and upon the task I had set myself. I was planning routes and locations for some group Creative Walks I will be running early in 2014.
Going up, I left the everyday world farther and farther behind as the trees and the land gradually enfolded me, allowing me to drop into a relaxed peaceful state. At the top, looking down through the trees, the rooftops of the town looked tiny and insignificant. But the only way forward (apart from upwards) was back the way I had come. So I retraced my steps, taking note of the features: the stonework, the phallic rock art, the twisted creepers and roots, and measuring the width of the path with my feet… in preparation for my arrival back home.

Here is my ‘there and back again’ journey in pictures:

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Down to earth again, my hands and feet suddenly felt cold with all that standing about in the wind and wet grass – so I had to find a cafe, coffee and a rather large scone with jam and clotted cream.

Posted in art/ creative walks, ESSENTIAL NATURE, landscape, North Devon, place, Walking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Power of the Rose

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I carefully checked the weather forecast last night to see how I could work outside – it looked terrible: pictures of black clouds and heavily outlined raindrops all over the place.

So today I have been trying to adjust my plans/ rethink the most productive way to spend my day.

Except that it has been quite sunny all morning, It is certainly windy and continually on the verge of rain - but I could  easily have carried out my original plan of going out into the countryside to work through some art ideas.


I just had to get out. I went and photographed the rose bush growing at the edge of the car park. It had caught my eye a day or so ago – sticking up through layers of gravel and tarmac, thrashing about in the wind, jammed up hard against the fence, amidst the usual noise and pollution of our civilisation –  and an array of glorious deep pinkish red roses, I was impressed!

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It reminded me of an oddly comforting passage in Robert Macfarlane’s  “The Wild Places“, where  he talks of “the sheer force of ongoing organic existence” and how it will outlive us. He writes that the wild will surely recover and take over the Earth once more, when we human beings have all long gone. ( It’s in the chapter called “Beechwood” near the end – p316 in my hardback version).

Admittedly my bush could not quite be called ‘wild’,  as yet – and I was touched that people had cultivated and planted this beauty, and whoever laid the concrete verge had left a space for the worm and the snail and the small weeds, the rain and the rosebush. 

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Then, seeing that it was still not yet raining, I went off home and did some much needed gardening work. Enjoyable, but not what I would have chosen. I felt hemmed in with domesticity. Half keeping an eye open for the forecast rainstorms. Half thinking I could be out in the open, elsewhere. I climbed up a ladder, looked around and scowled at the surrounding gardens and the backs of houses.

I tried to settle to admin jobs – updating website, preparing photos, and 101 little background tasks – what a bore! It took me ages, because my heart was not in it. Even more annoying – there was hardly any rain, all day. Apparently it rained in the next village – but not here!

A  frustrating day – that old, old familiar trapped feeling. It seems to have been following me around for ever.

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Tonight, late now, I remember the rose bush and my heart leaps with the power of life. I see it clearly in my minds eye – bursting from the concrete, its thin straggly branches waving vigorously, and its rosy red flowers exuberant in the harsh wind.

… reminding me I am free.

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Posted in nature, weather | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Remembering Bystock Nature Reserve…

Whilst still in the mood for sorting out lost photo treasures etc. – I stumbled upon a bunch of images (buried in my Flickr account) from an Essential Nature visit to Bystock Nature Reserve near Exmouth, South Devon. Our visit took place back in May. I had meant to post an account of it here on the blog – but I forgot!

So, better late than never…


We explored the woodland and the heath. Looking closely, sensing everything., like small children. I absorbed the subtle differences between this landscape and my local one in North Devon… differences of scale, differences in the terrain and in the air.

Exmouth-BystockHeath-DWT (55) copy

I love to compare different landscapes and habitats. In fact I do it automatically, whenever I come to a new place. Somehow, put together, each intensifies the experience and understanding of the other. I suppose this is natural really, because we cannot fully appreciate things in isolation – we have to give them a context.

I gazed deep into the water


… and deep into the textures of tree bark













And we sat by the lake in the Spring sunshine, feeling protective over some new-born ducklings as a couple of gulls circled hungrily overhead.


We were shown around the Reserve by Michelle and Pauline, two South Devon members of our Essential Nature group, They were in the middle of a year-long project, exploring our relationship with nature, and planning an extensive installation  for the 2013 Devon Open Studios. We saw the secluded woodland track where they planned to exhibit their installation, and where they had been making repeated visits, working with their innermost thoughts and feelings in relation to these  surroundings.

Devon Open Studios has finished now. It took place a few weeks ago, and the installation worked magnificently.  Here’s Michelle’s video of the final result. 

Video: Michelle Wilkinson

Finally, if you would like to see more of my Bystock photos, taken on our visit – here’s the Flickr link.


Posted in Devon, ESSENTIAL NATURE, nature | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

tracks 2

tracks (2) by throughstones
tracks (2), a photo by throughstones on Flickr.

… from ‘tracks and pathways’

As you can probably see by now, I have been playing around with my Flickr photo-sharing options to see how they worked! This is another image of the same piece of work. I have only just started exploring this theme.

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