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Witnesses

25 Sep

As I wrote in an earlier post, for just over 12 months now,  I’ve been exploring ideas and working with many different people in and around Dawley, Telford, to begin running events to commemorate and raise awareness of the Cinderloo Uprising of 1821.  We’ve come a long way, generated a lot of interest and support, and begun to attract funding to support initial activities.

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I’ve helped set up a website for the community organisation Cinderloo1821, which will bring together historical information, contemporary responses, writings and artwork about the 1821 Uprising.  We await news of an initial application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a grant that will support plans for a range of different activities including intergenerational workshops, educational work with schools, walks, heritage skills workshops, local history and family history research.

Meanwhile, I’ve been walking and discovering the immense network of tracks, woodland and history which binds together the various communities across Telford; sometimes with new found friends interested in the project, and sometimes alone.  These walks have helped develop various ideas for art projects associated with Cinderloo.

The first of these, the Witnesses project, was inspired by a poem I wrote and read out at the inaugural public meeting of Cinderloo1821, back in February:

Do we have a witness?

Heavy boots pounded along woodland paths

From Dawley, Donnington and Horsehay

Long drawn faces grim and determined

Sharp voices called and with spirits rising

The miners found strength in their ranks

Do we have a witness?

The oak and the ash and the beech

The coppiced and saplings

Saw all that passed by

Some still stand there now

Oh yes the trees know but now they will not tell

Who were the leaders?

Who planned and plotted and schemed?

Or did long months of starving

And back breaking toil

Facing death from rock fall and coal damp

Light a fuse to inspire all into action

On those cinder hills

Where the trees were cut down

To fuel iron furnace and wealth

Only those that fought saw how it unfolded

When yeomanry executed arduous duties

And as men, women and children dispersed

With Tom Palin wounded among them

Was it fear and sorrow or pride and defiance

That continued to burn in their hearts?

Do we have a witness?

The oak and the ash and the beech

Oh yes the trees know but now they will not tell

© Andrew Howe 2018

Much of the history bound up in the old towns was swept away or obscured with the development of the new town of Telford (currently celebrating its 50th year).  Yet there is much remaining, and the history of the town is much more than that presented in the Ironbridge Gorge and Coalbrookdale.  But perhaps, some of the most interesting, enigmatic features which connect the landscape of today with the historical landscape of 1821 are trees.  I was drawn to the notion that some of those, that are now over 200 years old, may have witnessed the events of Cinderloo, for which we now only have newspaper reports to rely on.

I have been in conversation with Shropshire Wildlife Trust, the Small Woods Association and members of Severn Gorge Countryside Trust to trace and map trees which are thought to be over 200 years old.  A group of us are also tracing the old miners tracks, many of which still exist and which may have been used by protesters on that day in February 1821.

It would be great if other people wanted to walk these routes for themselves and find their own trees to add to the map.  We would also welcome any photographs or other artworks inspired by these trees.  Contact me directly or Cinderloo1821.

I have begun making drawings of some of the trees that I have found so far.  I am using materials that relate to this landscape and the historical events.  So I made my own oak gall ink, using the tannin from acorn galls and ferric sulphate from rusty nails.  This ink was used for centuries in historic documents, and has beautiful purply, brown hues, which darken as the ink oxidises.

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Beech, The Wrekin, ink on paper, 39cm x 57cm

Iron oxide pigment has a deep rich red colour, evocative of the blood shed and, along with charcoal, symbolic of the iron and coal industries which were at the root of the miners’ protest.

I have also made a couple of drawings using silver ink on dark grey paper.  Again suggestive of iron and coal.  I’m not so sure about these yet.  I liked how the drawing emerges as light reflects from the ink marks, but light conditions need to be considered very carefully since the drawing is near invisible in most situations.

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Oak bark, silver ink on paper

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Detail of oak bark

I’m also experimenting with mark-making using brushes hand made with sticks, birch twigs and plant fibres.  Look out for more drawings as we find more 200 year old trees.

 

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Whixall Moss Wandering

2 Apr

Following my previous posts about the walk to Bettisfield Moss, I revisited Whixall Moss on Friday 23rd March with a group of fellow artists/writers: Ted Eames, Ursula Troche, Ruth Gibson and Adele Mills.  We met up with Mike Crawshaw of Natural England who guided us on an excellent walk around both Whixall Moss and Fenn’s Moss taking in a section of the Llangollen Canal, Furber’s Scrapyard and Fenn’s Old Works.

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EU funded

It was interesting to hear about the BogLIFE work that the Natural England project team are managing to restore this special peatbog.  This includes tree removal and drainage/water management to ensure that only rainwater enters the area and is retained as much as possible in order to encourage growth of sphagnum moss in pools which will begin the long process to create peat.  We could see where the moss is thriving and natural peatbog is rejuvenating.  There is great biodiversity here, and the site invites the wanderer to look ever closer at the little details.

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Long grasses sing high

Beyond the reach of human ears

Silent ditches flow 

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Sounds disappear in

a breezy expanse of sky

Sun glistens in pools

One of the most fascinating aspects of this landscape for me, is the wealth of evidence of human impact.  It is easy to view the area as a wild and natural landscape and, at this time of year, it is quite a bleak, almost monochromatic place.  But it is also easy to see that it has been industrialised until very recent times.

The Furber’s scrapyard is slowly being cleared.  Most of the cars are gone, and since my last visit, most of the huge mounds of tyres have gone too.  But there is still much to do, and the ground is thick with fragments of wrecked vehicles.

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Tanker carcass smashed

In birch and bramble thicket

Blackbird finds Spring voice

The skeletal remains of Fenn’s Old Works stand stark against the sky.  It was built after a fire in 1938, and holds the last 110 hp National diesel engine left in situ in Britain.  This powered milling and baling machinery which can still be seen.

Peat was dug from the Moss from early medieval times until 1992.  The large scale drainage caused the collapse of the raised bog, and from 1968 there was a peat cutting machine which increased extraction. Commercial extraction initially used the Llangollen Canal which was cut across the Mosses from 1801 to 1804.  There are signs of the old narrow gauge railway which took peat to the works for processing before being loaded onto trains on the Oswestry, Ellesmere and Whitchurch Railway, part of the Cambrian Railway.  This line was closed in 1963 by the Beeching cuts.

The Mosses have also had links with the military, having had 10 rifle ranges in the area dating back before World War I.  During the Second World War there was a practice incendiary bombing range, and a strategic “starfish” decoy site intended to divert German bombers from Liverpool.  Here’s one of the shelters used by those manning the site.

The theme of boundaries and borders drew me to return to Whixall Moss as this is a theme that Ursula Troche and I have been thinking about.  The Anglo-Welsh border crosses the area in straight lines following ditch courses and running within a few metres of the Natural England Manor House base.

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How wide is a border?

There are many aspects of borders (which might be viewed as permeable zones) and boundaries (which might be viewed as limits or binary divisions) which can be considered beyond the physical markers, although there are plenty of interesting boundaries visible around the Moss.

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The woodlands surrounding the Mosses have a distinctly calm, peaceful atmosphere compared with the open heathland where wind ruffles through the grasses, and sound seems to be swept away up into the sky.  Many of the trees, especially silver birches, which are on the Moss itself will be removed due to their uptake of groundwater.

Since returning from the walk, I have had a little studio time to experiment with markmaking using small samples of peat and sphagnum moss, and handmade birch brush.

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We hope to do further art walks in the future.  Please get in touch if you are interested.

 

Ref: Daniels Dr JL,  “Fenn’s Whixall & Bettisfield Mosses Natural Nature Reserve.”, English Nature, 2002

In Search of Cinderloo

4 Mar

For some  months now, I’ve been working with Ted Eames, Pete Jackson, Jill Impey and a growing number of enthusiastic people in and around Dawley, Telford on the development of a community project to commemorate the Cinderloo Uprising of 1821.

This dramatic event took place on 2 February 1821 at the cinder hills in Old Park, adjacent to what was the ironworks of Thomas Botfield, now occupied by the Forge retail park at Telford town centre.  A confrontation between over 3,000 striking miners and the Shropshire Yeomanry left two men dead, many injuries on both sides and following arrests, one man, Thomas Palin, was hung in April 1821 for ‘felonious riot’. It has become known as ‘The Battle of Cinderloo’ or Cinderloo Riot.  Read more.

I was surprised to learn about the historic event only last year, but discovered that many local people were similarly unaware of it.  Following some research, I found the excellent Dawley Heritage website which did much work to bring this event and many other aspects of Dawley’s history to public attention.  There is a great opportunity to help start some activities to engage people and commemorate Cinderloo up to the 200th anniversary in 2021 so I began to get in contact with local historians and other interested groups.

Its been inspirational to meet so many enthusiastic and knowledgeable people who share a similar ambition to broaden recognition of this key event in Dawley and Telford’s history.

With my own artistic interest in how people interact with places, there are many aspects to be explored around mining and metals industrial heritage, physical changes in landscape and environment, political and social history, the influence of Non-Conformism and Methodism, social conditions, workers’ rights and social justice.  There are connections with contemporary issues, and it would be great to be able to use creative activities in intergenerational events, and in educational programmes with schools, colleges and community groups to build in work established by the Dawley Heritage project and the Heritage Schools programme set up with Historic England.

I have been making a few walks of the area to get a more detailed understanding of the geography, which has many layers of historical development revealing clues to its past.  It is hard to imagine how different the area would have looked 200 years ago when there were many mineworkings, spoil heaps, ironworks and other industries, and scatterings of dwellings and religious buildings.  The landscape today continues to evolve quite dramatically as brownfield land is reclaimed.  This combination of dynamism and link to the past must have an impact on the sense of place for people living here.

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Work starting on Lawley Common

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New development site on reclaimed land near Old Park

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Part of old cottage buildings near Lawley Bank

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One of only a few remaining workers’ cottages near Lawley Bank

There are over a dozen Methodist, Primitive or Wesleyan chapels in the area, mostly built after Cinderloo and some are now converted to residential homes.

 

I am now working with the newly constituted community group Cinderloo1821 to help plan and deliver a range of different initiatives, which will include art, poetry and music events.  I’ll post further news as things begin to happen or follow on Facebook