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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

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Whixall to Bettisfield Moss book

1 Apr

In my post last November, I talked about the walk I did with artists from Participate from Whixall Moss to Bettisfield Moss during the Summer.  I had a large collection of photographs from the walk, and various materials gathered from Furber’s scrapyard.  Over Christmas, I began making a series of studies which gradually built up into a book of about 48 pages.  It was a kind of sketchbook journal, initially for generating ideas for larger paintings, but was in itself quite a satisfying artist book documenting my response to the walk.

 

 

The studies include collages, paintings, drawings, monoprints and mixed media pieces combining photographs, tracings, rubbings, transfers, maps, writings and haiku poems.  No one can accuse me of getting stuck in an artistic rut!

As the images illustrate, the Mosses National Nature Reserve is much more than a “natural wilderness”.  There is now a Natural England project to restore it as a raised bog, and to remediate some of the legacy of historical and ongoing human impact.  It is this relationship between human activity and the natural environment on the Moss which interests me.  The images show collisions between natural forms and human made objects and shapes.  The objects I found take on archaeological significance, albeit that they date from the 20th Century, not from some prehistoric time.  The images featuring rusted steel bearing plates, in particular, strike me as some kind of ancient ritualistic artefact.  At some point in the future, objects such as these may be found and analysed in much the same way as Iron Age bracelets, and recorded as dating from the Anthropocene epoch.

There’s quite a lot of interest in the book, and so I’d like to publish a version at some point in the near future.  Here is a selection of images from the book:

 

 

I revisited Whixall Moss last week for another walk with a different group of artists and I’ll write about that in my next post.

In Search of Cinderloo

4 Mar

As you can read on the Here Here! blog, 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

Whixall to Bettisfield Moss Walk

29 Nov

Now we’ve had a few frosts and even some flurries of snow, its good to look back on the Summer.  On what was probably the hottest and most humid day of the year, I joined a small band of artists from Participate Contemporary Artspace for a walk starting from the car park by the Llangollen Branch of the Shropshire Union Canal.

We had been permitted access to the Furber’s Breaker’s Yard, which I had seen from a distance on previous visits.  It was a forbidding place and I was always curious how such a monstrous eyesore could ever have developed next to one of Britain’s largest peat bogs and a site of major natural significance.

 

After 50 years of operation, the breaker’s yard has recently been taken into the ownership of Shropshire Wildlife Trust so that it may be restored to nature as part of the Marches Mosses or, more specifically, Fenn’s, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses.  Shropshire Wildlife Trust is working very closely with Natural England and Natural Resources Wales to develop and deliver restoration plans.

There is some information on Fenn’s, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserve here and from Natural England here.  The Mosses straddle the Welsh and English border, and there is a feeling of being at the edge of the land.  The landscape has many rare flora and fauna, and it has a particular haunting atmosphere that I am attracted to.  It is worth visiting in all seasons.

The scrapyard site has been cleared of most of the cars, but there were some 100,000 tyres remaining in huge piles. And on close inspection, much of the 6 hectares was covered with a scattering of pulverised fragments of metal, plastic and other vehicular materials.

 

We had a good wander around, taking in the atmosphere.

 

Black rubber cascades

Engulf this delicate land

Slender stems rising

 

 

 

Smashed fragments glisten

Tokens of dreams subsiding

Old codes turn to rust

 

We left the scrapyard, and followed the canal to the junction with the Prees Branch of the Ellesmere Canal. We then zigzagged south and west via Moss Farm and Moss Lane into Bettisfield Moss.  At first, we passed along beautiful grassy pathways through woodland.

And then we reached the open wetland of the Moss.  The land is quite flat, and in some places it becomes difficult to get bearings and sense of direction.  We were unable to make a circular route and had to return to the original path into the Moss.

It doesn’t take long to notice the biodiversity though.

 

Heat hangs heavily

Over quivering parched grass

Dragonflies darting

 

At the time, I resolved to create some artworks to document the walk in some way, but time has flown with busy activities, and it is only now that I am reviewing these photographs, and thinking about what to make.  I’m starting with some drawings which could lead into some paintings and a small book.  Watch out for that sometime soon.

 

 

It’s a sign

30 Oct

To quote from Cool Hand Luke: 

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate”

Signs Copyright 2017 All rights reserved, Andrew Howe

Your Perfect High Street

15 Sep

As part of last weekend’s Heritage Open Day events, I was delighted to be invited to run a workshop at the Unitarian Church on Shrewsbury’s High Street.  According to the inscription on its frontage,  the Unitarian Church was built in 1662 and was where Charles Darwin came to worship.  And I had a beautiful old room with stained glass windows above the street to work in.

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The suggested theme was designing a perfect High Street.  Arguably, Shrewsbury already has one, and so in preparation for the event I began to explore by taking a series of photos of details along the street.  Details that may go unnoticed unless you really slow down and look.

Participants helped create a collage of my photos as a grid during the workshop, and then people added their own thoughts, ideas and memories on sticky notes within the grid:

 

 

 

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My preparations also included a pen drawing of the elevations of both sides of the street, which became quite addictive.  I completed it in about three days, although certainly can’t vouch for its accuracy of detail.  It was interesting to see the differences in scale of the buildings and see them without the dominating colours and branding of the retailers. The Unitarian Church, which can seem quite an impressively large facade from street level, actually appears to be one of the smallest buildings along the whole street.

 

The workshop was aimed primarily at families with children aged 8 and over, but many adults dropped in and got involved too.  There were around 35 participants over the course of 3 hours.  Besides the photo collage, the activities began with thinking about the kind of activities that might take place in the High Street and which are more important.

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I made a few initial suggestions, and quickly realised just how many different activities already go on in our High Street.  Participants then added their own ideas, moved activities between “important” and “not important” and voted with red dots for the ideas they agreed with.  I deliberately missed out quite a few activities like shopping and gambling to see if there was any reaction, and surprisingly only one person added “ice cream shop”… and this was in the “not important” zone.  Someone else added “independent businesses” as important.  Hear hear!

The activities ranked in the highest zone of importance/votes were (approximately):

  • Homes for living,
  • green space,
  • learning,
  • seating,
  • street art,
  • a litter free environment,
  • having a strong community,
  • independent businesses,
  • walking/strolling/wandering,
  • healthcare,
  • theatre/street performance,
  • exercising democratic rights local political issues and public debates.

I think we can guess at the kind of social-demographic I was dealing with.  Other suggestions I really liked included:

  • Temporary closure of streets to create play/community areas,
  • interacting and co-operating,
  • installations and performance platform for local artists (obviously).

Most of the workshop activity revolved around building a scale model of a High Street using card boxes and hand drawn frontages.  Participants could use my pen drawings and a montage of architectural design considerations as inspiration.  There were some really lovely buildings.

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Finally, as an activity to take away, I produced a sheet of some of the architectural details to go and find somewhere in the High Street.  You can download a copy and have a go yourself by clicking this link:  Look Closely

look closely

 

Give me a hand

29 Jul

After a flurry of exhibition and creative activity, what better way to enjoy the Summer weather than a relaxing stroll around Telford’s Stafford Park Industrial Estate?

It was a baking hot and humid day at the end of July and a storm was building to the west as I made a circuit through the estate…

…before going over and across the roar of the M54, ambling around Priorslee Lake and the quiet suburbs…

…some found paintings:

then back into the estate:

I find something enticingly eerie about the huge monolithic sheds, the boom, clank and hiss of machinery, the almost complete lack of people visible, and the incessant movement of vehicles.  I feel a part of a larger machine, where stuff is made, moved around and, sometimes, stuff is brought back in.

Around lunchtime, some people, mostly men, emerge to walk around the block, to stand smoking, staring at the traffic, or to dodge across the road to the uninviting cafe for a sandwich.

“…And there’s no thanks
From the loading bay ranks…”

Always in such places, I recall the Fall’s “Industrial Estate” and “Container Drivers”, Mark E Smith… so clinical and relentless.  So evocative of my youth, listening to the Kicker Conspiracy EP, “Wings” again and again.

Detritus lies scattered in the verges and under every bush.  Landscaping so carefully planned for a life of minimal maintenance.

I am curious about the large numbers of discarded, or perhaps just lost, gloves.  Poignant remnants of human contact.  Always just a single glove.  Were they dropped by accident?  Or were they jettisoned once the owner realised there was no longer a pair?  Or are they a secret sign… a code between drivers … of a place they can go to escape?  Or are they a call for help?

gloves