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Archive for December, 2013

There’s a TV station dedicated to weather. You can have weather on your TV 24 hours a day. Imagine that! 24 hours of non-stop weather…

Alternatively you can live in the North Pennines – there’s more weather here than you can shake a stick at. Why anyone would want to shake a stick at the weather and what they thought it would achieve is beyond me.

As an artist working predominantly outdoors all year, the weather is a pretty major thing for me. Besides knowing if I’m going to get frozen or soaked all day, there’s the practical challenges of making sure the weather doesn’t prematurely destroy what I create, or make them dangerously unstable for visitors.

There’s been a fair bit of stormy weather here n the UK over the past month. It seems that there’s an unusually large number of these storms heading off the Atlantic for the time of year. Last week, as my house was being battered by winds in excess of 80mph the weather station on Great Dun Fell recorded gusts of over 120mph.

wind speed graph

The weather was calmer yesterday as I set off up to explore Great Dun Fell for myself. Despite living overlooking the Eden Valley I’d never walked up any of the North Pennine Fells on that side so this was a first for me. Great Dun Fell, at 849m (over 2,700 feet) is the second highest peak on the Pennines after Cross Fell and are the largest mountains in England outside the Lake District.

It was a reasonable day in the Eden Valley as I set off from the village of Knock, skirting around the back of Dufton Pike. Walking these fells is much easier than the Breadalbane hills I’d been doing in the Highlands lately. The footpaths are well marked and the main Pennine Way itself is well trodden and maintained. However, by the time I reached Knock Old Man (2,0o0ft) there was a good smattering of snow on the ground and some beautiful rime on the cairn.

rime on old man knock

From there it’s a straight line over the top to Great Dun Fell and with the cloud cover lifted it’s easy to see where you’re heading.

There are dozens of weather stations across the UK and you can track their readings live online at any number of sites. However, Great Dun Fell is a bit special. The readings now come from the radar station – the giant white golfball on the fells that’s a bit f a landmark from both the Eden Valley and Upper Teesdale. Back in 1937 George Manley set up the first mountain meteorological record station in a small wooden hut on Great Dun Fell. That spot of the North Pennines was chosen as this tract of Pennine hills has the most variation of weather in England. When he started his collection of weather data in 1932 he noted:

“I was attracted by the Northern Pennines, in particular around Cross Fell, as the most extensive area of bleak uncompromising upland that England possesses”

Manley's Hut

For ten years Manley’s weather station recorded sun, rain, wind and temperature data every three hours, 24hours a day – at the time the longest continuous weather record ever made. As well as a substantial record of mountain weather data, his station also led to the understanding of the ‘Helm Wind’ – a wind phenomena that only occurs around Cross Fell where violent, roaring winds appear to come from nowhere, even on otherwise fair days. In his research into historical records of the Helm wind there are some great accounts of sheep being tossed around like balls of cotton wool, and brussels sprouts blown off the stalks and ricocheting around the gardens.

The legacy of Manley’s work 849m up Great Dun Fell was the CET (Central England Temperature) – a record of mean temperatures going back to 1649 – the longest weather record in the world. So when the weathermen say it’s the coldest March on record – that’s Manley’s record, started on the North Pennines in the 1930’s.

More importantly the length and depth of the weather record is at the centre of ongoing research into climate change – the Moor House National Nature Reserve, in which Great Dun Fell lies, plays a crucial role in that research today.

gt Dun Fell radar

Nothing remains of Manley’s wooden hut now. It’s all long gone when the radar station was built in the ’80’s. What does remain though is the access road to the radar station. Once a track for the myriad of mineral mines on the high fells, it’s now a tarmac’d road and officially the highest road in the UK. It’s also the only road in the UK that goes up a mountain and stops at the top. Unfortunately it’s a private access road so you can’t really drive it. The height of the snow poles show just how deep the snow gets up here anyway.

highest road

……..

This past year has definitely been a year of walking for me. I’ve always enjoyed walking but never considered myself a serious walker. I still don’t, but this year walking the landscape has been pretty central to my work.

Back in January I started a research residency on the West Pennine Moors. The first day’s walk caught the tail end of the January snowfall up on Darwen Moor with snow up to my knees.

deserted farm

Deserted farm on West Pennine Moors

February was a fantastic lull in the weather with some great long spells of clear, dry and often sunny weather and I got some great walks in over those moors and rediscovered my love of wandering with a camera.

The project finished at the end of March just as the worst of the winter weather hit and I was cut off for days behind 12ft drifts.

sledging coal

dragging coal to my house over a 12ft drift. Photo by Paul Kingston © North News 2013

However, by April the weather turned again and started a period of dry, hot and sunny days that seemed to last for most of the rest of the year. The end of April was the start of a joint project around ‘God’s Bridge’ on Bowes Moor. Besides being a great project for meeting other artists, it really got me out exploring my home turf – the North Pennines. The result of this project will be an indoor sound installation at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle in the spring.

mountain pansy on Bowes Moor

Mountain Pansy on Bowes Moor

By June, summer was in full flow and positively roasting when the sun got going. I’d anticipated a wet week installing the 20,000 jars of ink on Lindisfarne and the workstation was all set up under cover for the purpose. Although it rained only on the day the TV came day the rest of the show was glorious sunshine with sunburn and heat stroke the major hazards when it came to take the piece down.

_DSC9238 - Version 2

I spent the end of September on Öland in the Baltic sea creating a piece for an ancient forest. Once again the weather gods were on my side and gave me a fortnight of glorious late summer sunshine. The weather was turning however and by the second week the temperature had dropped significantly. The Pavilion for Listening to the Forest was the first piece I’ve made specifically to survive significant snowfall. The fabric is waterproof and under enough tension that rain or snow won’t pool on the surface. It should also have enough tensile strength to withstand a large amount of snow if any manages to settle on it. December had a brief snowfall in Southern Sweden so I know it’s still looking good, but can’t wait to see how it looks when the real stuff arrives.

Pavilion in the first snow. Photo ©Helle Kvamme

The last part of the year has been spent in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, Scotland where I’ve been artist in residence since October. Once again it’s been great to get to know and understand the landscape on foot – walking along lochs and old railway lines as well as up some of the bigger hills.  In November I had a weather window of bright and clear conditions and managed to get up some of the less visited Corbetts (between 750 and 900m). The frosty air on the tops made for some cracking views of the surrounding mountains with the bigger ones getting their first real coats of snow.

view NW from Meall an t-Seillaidh

In early December the first of the storms to hit the UK came racing across Scotland. Glen Ogle – where I was staying, recorded gusts of 106mph, ripping down power-lines and felling hundreds if not thousands of trees which disrupted the area for days. Yet, less than 12 hours after those huge gusts, there was a gentle covering of snow on Glen Ogle and a clear,starry sky. With no power for miles and a dark cottage for the evening, I ventured out into the forests to play with some lights in the snow for my Christmas card.

red snow

In between all these projects I also created the ultimate version of the ‘Souvenir’ umbrella structures in Oxfordshire, built an installation from 4,000 remembrance poppies for a royal visit and worked on four other pieces that in the end never happened. It’s also been a year of research and development, not only for new work but professionally too.

souvenir in oxfordshire

It’s not been my busiest year and at times things have been very difficult. However, the time I’ve been able to give to each of the projects I’ve worked on I think shows in the final work and has made a year of good solid pieces. A lot of work has already been done for next years projects and hopefully sets a trend towards a more considered approach to my work.

I’ve got a good feeling about next year. It’s already looking busy – possibly the busiest its been for years. It’s going to be full on and really hard work. There’s some great stuff coming up – all will be revealed over the coming few weeks – and it’s all really exciting, but the proof will be if this time next year I can look back and be as proud of what I’ve achieved as have have been of this past year.

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I count myself lucky. not only do I manage (just about) to make a living being an artist, but I also get to work in some of the most beautiful and amazing places in the world. For the past few weeks I’ve been working in the Scottish highlands as artist in residence with the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. The place is more spectacular than its name. Most National Parks are known simply by their first name – the Lakes, The Peaks, Snowdonia, Exmoor, the Cairngorms etc. Loch Lomond and the Trossachs just doesn’t trip off the tongue in the same way. Locally there’s also some irkness in some quarters over the relative size of font on the logo – those in the Trossachs are a little bit miffed by the constant upstaging by Loch Lomond.

Lomond Trossachs Logo

However, local politics aside, Loch Lomond can keep its massed tourism – it’s the other bits in the park that are much more beautiful and special anyway. Out of the 720 sq miles of both lowland and highland, I’ve settled with the top right hand corner – along Loch Voil, up to Ben More, along Glen Dochart and down Glen Ogle. The park refer to this as Breadalbane, although Breadalbane proper is the other side of Glen Dochart. Whatever you want to call it, it’s very quiet this time of year and full of empty hills for walking.

I’ve started a separate blog for this residency – I started out on Tumblr thinking I’d just put down little notes and thoughts, but as my ramblings became longer – and as I realised Tumblr is mostly p*rn – I’ve now moved it over to WordPress. (you can also find links to all the other Year of Natural Scotland residencies there too).

Loch Voil

For lots of different reasons the residency bit hasn’t happened as I’d hoped, and instead has been more of a solitary exploration of the landscape. It’s not been a bad thing though –  there’s something quite special about walking the hills alone with a camera.

For company I’ve had the writings of John Muir – one of the founders of the Sierra Club which created the first National Park in Yosemite, California. Next year marks the centenary of his death – born near Dunbar in Scotland and emigrated to the states aged 11, there’s plans for big celebrations in Scotland. As the founding father of the concept of national parks he is widely known and revered in America and other places around the world, yet in his country of both less so.

For most of his adult life, John Muir wandered the plains and mountains – particularly the Sierra Nevada region – mostly on his own and frequently for days or weeks at a time – sleeping out under the stars. In his writings Muir describes not just the visual appearance of the landscape, but the smells, sounds and temperature, humidity and altitude as the landscape n his mind was something which needed to be experienced in a total and immersive way, and a way that was best discovered alone.

In his first book – ‘The Silent Traveller – A Chinese Artist in Lakeland’ (my favourite book on the Lake District) Chiang Yee recalls how his first trip up a mountain in the UK (Snowden), was full of people who were more interested in talking to him than experiencing the mountain. His solution was to book a room in the Lake District and walk the fells in solitude every day. His description of solitude, the act of walking and about only possessing one pair of shoes is compelling reading and a fascinating insight on contemplation itself.

silent traveler in lakeland

Artists, unsurprisingly, have a bit of history with the solo hill wandering thing. Alongside Muir, one of the other two founders of the Sierra club was fellow Scots emigre the artist William Keith. In his article ‘An Artist’s Trip to the Sierra’ he describes how it takes time to understand and really see the landscape:

“Time is required to take it in, and digest it, or else the inevitable result will be artistic dyspepsia (in the shape of conventional yellow and red rocks), which, perhaps is the reason for Californian’s disgust for Yosemite pictures.”

A year after Muir’s death, another leading artist joined the ranks of the Sierra club, eventually to be its director for over 30 years – the photographer Ansel Adams. Although the two never met, they share a dedication to wilderness and between them have shaped the global understanding of wild places.

Clearing Winter Storm - Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams ‘Clearing Winter Storm’ Yosemite Valley, California negative c. 1938

I’m no Ansel Adams. He was a master of the art of capturing light and how to exploit the technology to gain some sense of perfection. His combination of shooting on large format sheet film, very small apertures for maximum depth of field, an exposure calculation known as the ‘Zone System’ to maintain highlight and shadow detail along with a printing method ensuring a perception of high contrast, all resulted in unrivalled an instantly recognisable black and white pictures of extreme clarity. Original Ansel Adams prints are currently the most expensive photographs on the market.

Adam’s camera kit was a big, bulky thing and generally needed to be carried by packhorse or mule on his long expeditions to the High Sierra. By contrast, when I’m out walking big hills, I usually leave the big bulky cameras at home, preferring instead my trusty little Leica compact. Leica first started making cameras as the result of finding a way to use 35mm movie film to make a lightweight camera for mountain trips and I quite like that legacy. It seems right to take a Leica up a mountain. OK, so my Leica isn’t a true Leica – it’s mostly a Panasonic Lumix with a very expensive red dot. But the body is all metal which makes it survive all the knocks and drops it gets, and, well it ‘says’ Leica on the front and has a Leica designed lens. So I’m sticking with it!

On the one hand it’s a quick camera to get at – it sits in a leather case on my belt so it’s easy to carry and always there when the light looks good. However, I like to use manual exposure controls to get the image and feel of the light that I want, and coupled with its slow writing time for RAW files, it slows down the process making each shot more considered.

Last week I managed to do a walk I’d been looking to do for a few weeks – up Kirkton Glen and over on to Glen Dochart the other end. The days are really short now, so I had to wait until I’d arranged someone to drop me off at the start point after parking my car at the end as there wasn’t enough daylight hours to walk there and back. The walk up Kirkton Glen is mostly through conifer plantation. I’d walked up the glen the other week in sunshine but didn’t have any food or drink with me for a longer walk. Still, conifer plantations are of limited experience – on most levels they are pretty much the same. Once out of the forest the terrain instantly became more interesting and varied – streams to ford, styles to climb, rocks to scramble, bogs to be traversed. All the time climbing higher and higher towards the drifting hill cloud.

kirkton glen

It’s a misconception that cloud ruins a good mountain walk. True, when it’s clear you can see for miles, or at least see where you’ve come from and where you are going. My walk up a Corbett the other week was definitely the better for clear blue skies. However, cloud can be a thing of beauty in its own right, particularly on a mountain. On this day the cloud was amazing. At the top of the pass the path goes around a magnificent boulder field. In the middle of the pass is a giant boulder – known as Rob Roy’s Putting Stone. As I reached the pass, the mist swirling around, the giant boulder would reveal itself briefly before being swallowed back by the cloud. After a while, the wind eased and the mist lifted, revealing the crag from where the boulders fell. The Putting Stone itself, looming large and alien – like a set from some fantasy film – a miniature landscape growing on the top. The spruces finding their way into the all the crevasses in search of nutrients and water in the way the trees appear to live off rock alone. Above me came the haunting caw of a lonely raven. Flying back and forth over the pass as if to claim its territory and mark me as a trespasser. Then the wind would pick back up in a flash and the whole scene would be swallowed again by a new cloud from the south. It was a perpetual scene of gothic beauty – one of constant decay.

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On one of the podcasts I watch recently was a studio visit with Mark Ruwedel. I’d not been aware of his work before so it was coincidental to see him discussing his series of images of abandoned railways – (Westward the Course of Empire) -something I’ve been looking at here too. In the interview he talks about how “ photographing the landscape ..is photographing history.”

Regardless of how the image is taken, or what its purpose, because of the technology bit  –  photography is physically capturing light over a fixed moment in time, he goes on – “photographs document regardless. Photographs over time accrue documentary value.”

In some respects a photo may have much more significance as a document of time 50 years down the line.

columbia and western by mark ruwedel

‘Columbia and Western #20’ – Mark Ruwedel (2000). From ‘Westward the Course of Empire’

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Photography captures a moment. I tried to capture that moment when the Stone revealed its presence in my path. It’s a constantly changing environment and there’s a decision to make when you think you’ve picked the right moment to press the shutter, only to realise when you review the shot that it could have been a bit sooner, or a bit later. So you wait for the next cloud, or see if you can get the raven just in the frame. Just how do you capture all that mystery and magic in a single frame? After all it’s not just a note, it’s a statement for posterity.

rob roy's putting stone

It’s a total experience  – of sight and light and sound and atmosphere and wind and cloud, and the solitude is very much part of that.

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