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Yay! it’s raining. At last. With daily reports of flash-flooding and thunderstorms from the rest of the UK and the Glastonbury Festival declared the muddiest for years, the most our Teesdale weather could muster has been the occasional half-hearted drizzly shower. While I’m not complaining about the weeks of sunshine, heat and beautiful walking weather, now the rain has arrived it brings with it that distinct summer aroma of wet grass, and a burst of life from the ground. The air is suddenly alive.

Some things are better in the rain. The River Tees is really low at the moment. The waterfalls of Upper Teesdale are little more than a trickle at the moment. Here’s Summerhill Force dribbling over Gibson’s Cave last week.

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Compare that to the day after Storm Desmond visited on the 5th December last year.

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OK. So this is a bit of an extreme example. But extreme things do happen.

It’s 200 years ago this year that we had a ‘Summer that never was’. A year when the world was 0.7 degrees colder than normal, harvests failed and populations starved.

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Mount Tambora

In April 1815, in Indonesia – 8,000 miles away – the sleeping giant volcano Mt Tambora erupted. The explosion was so large it was heard over 2,000 miles away in Sumatra. The volcanic dust cloud enveloped most of the planet causing severe climatic events throughout 1816 and affecting weather patterns for years after. In North America, hard frosts were recorded right through July and the Eastern seaboard experienced a perpetual fog that lasted through the summer of 2016. In Northern Europe, the long winter extended into a very wet summer causing crops to fail. Throughout Europe food became scarce and there were violent uprisings outside government buildings in several countries. In Ireland, the failure of crops marked the start of the ‘Potato Famine’ and over the next 3 years over 100,000 people died.

Freak events that shaped our world 200 years on.

On the shores of Lake Geneva, Mary Shelley and her friends were on holiday for the summer. So bad was the weather, they were forced to stay indoors for weeks on end. To pass the time they challenged each other to tell stories. Mary Shelley wrote ‘Frankenstein – or The Modern Prometheus’ and Byron wrote ‘Darkness’ on a day when the birds went to sleep at midday. (If ever there was a historical example of first-world problems, this has to be it. While the rest of the Northern Hemisphere died from starvation, a bunch of privilaged English writers redefined gothic literature because t was a bit damp outside.)

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Ken Russell’s 1986 film based on the events by Lake Geneva in 1816

In July 1816, JW Turner visited Teesdale on a long, extended painting tour of the North of England. He stayed at Barnard Castle and Middleton-in-Teesdale on a particularly wet week as he ventured right up the dale. By the time he reached Cauldron Snout it was really throwing it down. However, he did manage to see the falls of the River Tees at their best – full and lively.

It was the subdued light from the volcanic ash cloud that summer, along with the incessant rain which gives Turner’s painting from that trip of 1816 the substance and atmosphere that Ruskin claimed was Turner’s most effective work ever.

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I’ve lived in Teesdale now for two years. Two years this very week. I love living here. I love having the river just yards away from from my house – so close on still nights I can hear it falling over Low Force from my bedroom. I’ve spent so many days down there and walking up the river towards High Force and the fields, woods and fells on either side. However, I don’t really know Teesdale, let alone the wider County Durham.

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A couple of weeks ago I made a conscious effort to get to know where I now live. It was another warm and dry afternoon, and a rare weekend off from working so I thought I’d make a start to discover Teesdale properly. Having poured over books and walking guides and maps, and old OS maps and Gogle Earth, I decided to start where Turner started – at Greta Bridge on the Durham / Yorkshire border.

I knew about the temperamental River Greta from a previous project further up its course, but I’d never been down towards where it joins the River Tees. Greta Bridge was a popular spot in Turner’s day. the old road over the Pennines via Stainmore started here at the significant coaching inn of the Morrit Arms. In Turners day there were still remnants of the Roman fort there. Clearly a strategic point where the route from East to West ascends up and over the wilderness. Crossing the Greta is crossing to another world.

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Greta Bridge and nearby Rokeby Park became important sources of inspiration for a generation of writers and painters. Besides Walter Scott who immortalised the area in his own seminal work, the place was a key destination for the Wordsworths, Dickens, Coleridge and most of the Bloomsbury set.

The landscape here is wider. It’s greener and rolling and fertile and hospitable. And distinctly arable. A very different kind of greener.

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A short walk up the Greta brings you to the ruin of St Mary’s church in Brignall. Nestling in the bottom of the valley. There’s not much left of it now. The new church was built further up the hill in the second half of the 19th Century and reused much of the stone from from the old church.

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Turner’s view of the church reveals much about attitudes to landscape in the early 19th century. It’s actually a remnant of the trend of 18th century landscape attitudes – where hills were so dramatic as to be scary: “it was almost the whole duty of all hill scenery to inspire alarm, and every painter who wished to give a good impression of any particular place always painted it as if it were twice its real size” to quote one of Turner’s picture editors.

Brignall Church 1822 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Brignall Church 1822 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Purchased 1986 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T04453

It’s also a view point that doesn’t actually exist, again to increase the visual impact. The large tree in the foreground is one sketched in Rokeby Park. Topographic accuracy wasn’t important in the appreciation of landscape in 1816. What mattered most was conveying the essence of place. These were places most people would never see in real life so were designed to excite the imagination of the viewers. Of a place that is of somewhere else. The early tourists came to gawp and the awe and wonder of the place and the people that went before, conjuring up stories to populate somewhere new and unknown.

Things have changed so much in the intervening two centuries that it’s hard for us to begin to understand how people viewed the landscape of Teesdale. So much changed with the invention of photography that we can only know what somewhere really looks like. The visual and emotional impacts are much more subdued and taken for granted.

The woods around the old church at Brignall actually look like this:

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They smelled so good, I went home and had them on my pizza.

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Time is a funny old thing.

It’s always around but there never seems enough of it. And look – there goes another year of the stuff. Gone. Fortunately there’s another one now. I hope it sticks around a bit longer than the last one – there’s so much to fit in it this time around.

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There’s nothing quite like a long, bracing walk to flush away the cobwebs from the brain and kickstart it again after the holiday season. Yesterday I ventured over the hills into Weardale and beyond to explore Rookhope. Like much of the upper dales, Rookhope grew up as a heart of the industrial landscape of lead and iron mining.

Buried deep in its own valley, limestone and pig lead were transported out of the village by way of a rope-hauled incline. A mile or so up the hill the wagons were then transported by steam loco across the network of lines that criss-crossed their way over the North Pennines to connect with the wider railway network in Consett, Tow Law and beyond to Newcastle and the Tyne docks. The line at the top of Bolts Law, above Rookhope, was the highest standard gauge railway in the UK. The long sweeping curve from Bolts Law to the junction at Park Head has some of the widest and wildest views in this part of the North Pennines with views out to the Sunderland coast on a clear day.

That line closed in 1923, yet you can still see the ghosts of the sleepers along the line. Landscape has memory. That’s a good thing as it has lots of stories to tell.

ghost sleepers

I started the year off in Lochearnhead uncovering stories in the landscape within the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. I’d been artist in residence since the previous September and was just refining some of the ideas I was working on. Some of the things I had become interested in were about sound and how in travelled in the vast wilderness landscapes of the highlands. I liked the two-way dialogue it had with the landscape – how sound could describe the character and material of the hills and lochs and woodlands and how in return the weather, temperature and ambience affected the quality and volume of sound.

There was also another narrative about National Parks – why they exist, who they exist for and how where they are, and the role that railways had in opening up wild landscapes to a wider population as an antidote to urbanism.

trossachs

The result of all this was a proposed 18-mile long sound installation based on steam engine whistles up a disused railway line. I’m genuinely excited by the ‘Whistle’ piece. I’d set out looking for a way to work with the scale of landscapes you get in the Scottish Highlands.

Back in February we did a first test using a couple of whistles in Glen Ogle. In April we upped that to six over two miles. That’s the longest distance I’d ever worked at so there was lots to learn. BBC Radio Scotland came down to see how it was going – you can hear the broadcast piece here:

Also in April I installed another sound piece. This time indoors in a gallery. The ‘Curlew Machine’ recreated the call of the curlew within the vaulted painting galleries at the wonderful Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle in an attempt to capture the audible essence of the open North Pennine landscape as part of the ‘Gods Bridge’ group exhibition. Although the machine didn’t actually make the bird sound – there’s a blog post about why that was impossible – the sound was a recording of a brass whistle I created and sounded using the metal machine as a speaker unit. Just as the ‘Whistle’ piece uses the landscape to temper the sound, the ‘Curlew Machine’ used the lively acoustics of the barrel-vaulted roof to carry the bird song right through the entire building. The painting galleries are on the second floor so wherever you were in the museum the sound came from somewhere overhead – just as the lonely curlew call is in the wild.

curlew machine

May brought another three pieces into the landscape. This time back in the Lake District. A series of works and events which uncovered the history of looking at the landscape – from strategic Roman defences, through the picturesque and romantic movements to WWII lookout posts and subaquatic recordings.

‘Lookout’ was a concrete WWII pillbox clad in 3,000 reflective baubles:

Lookout

‘Scope’ was a giant kaleidoscope overlooking Windermere:

scope

and down at the southern end of Windermere, at Fell Foot Park, ‘Drop’ had its final outing:

drop at fell foot

In between were Chinese watercolour workshops at Rydal Hall, magnetic poetry on the car ferry and in two locations artist Bryony Purvis sent people’s mobile phones 1,000ft up into the sky under a bright yellow weather balloon.

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There’s a whole blog post on this project too..

June saw the creation of ‘Ravens’ – a artwork in grass designed to be seen from the sky. 2014 was the year the Tour de France came to Yorkshire. The media was full of pictures of huge crowds in beautiful green countryside. One of the comments I frequently get when doing lectures overseas is that people didn’t realise how stunning the north of England was. The Tour de France in Yorkshire not only showed the classic beauty of the county’s countryside, but also the spirit of the communities that live and work there. Creating a piece for one of the world’s largest sporting events was a truly memorable experience made even more special by the people and community I got to work with.

ravens

The summer months were marked by some of the sunniest and hottest weather in recent years. It was also when I moved out from my house on the mountain to somewhere equally stunning but more practical. I also moved into a sparkly new studio thanks to the wonderful people at UTASS. Having a proper studio away from home for the first time in years has been huge step for me. Although I feel like I’m still moving in, I can already see a change in the way I’m working. How that manifests itself over the next 12 months is yet to be seen, but I think this could be significant step.

studio pip

The autumn saw two last projects. The first was a low-key project with an infants school in Workington in West Cumbria. A really quick project working with five and six year old kids. We did big paintings – big for them (A3) and then scaled them up really big to a drawing in grass (25 metres). The original idea was to use big tarpaulin stencils to bleach the grass and change its colour by restricting photosynthesis. Probably too technical for a 6 year old, but potentially interesting for me. However, we probably started too late in the season and for what ever reason, after 6 weeks it wasn’t working properly, so we had to cheat a bit. It’s not a masterpiece and I don’t really do schools projects, but I quite liked the simplicity and naivety of the kids drawings. I quite like the effect too. Might use this again sometime…

grass drawing

The other piece saw a 22-piece orchestra perform in a 6ft wide tunnel underneath Newcastle. The collaborative project with the Cobweb Orchestra, composer Michael Betteridge and myself was a pilot for a larger series exploring the musical and subterranean heritage of the northern counties.  Michael wrote a new site-specific work for the orchestra which was performed alongside a programme of mostly new works from the North East. The thinking was a concert underground is an amazing thing in itself, but combining it with a light installation we could transform it into something incredible. The concert in October in front of a sell-out audience of 60 or so standing in pitch darkness was pulled together on a shoestring. To compound the problems the Victoria Tunnel is a listed structure so I couldn’t attach anything to the fabric of the tunnel. Still, I like a challenge. I used mono-frequency light sources (at around 465nm) – under low light conditions this part of the blue spectrum stimulates the brain in the same way that I use red in daylight. Something known as the Purkinje effect (it’s technical). The result is that visually the orchestra were in a block of pure colour. Doesn’t work so well in the photos (it relies on you being there) but still looks good with the head torches.

tunnel

In between all those things there’s been an endless stream of research and preparation for lots of new projects for the future. Quite when those futures will be is subject to lots of variables. Some are finance issues, some are way more complicated. Either way, they all take time. Fortunately time is going to be around for while yet.

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Despite the unusually mild winter I don’t seem to have done as much walking recently as I had hoped. So it was great to get out at the weekend and go tramping up some Pennine Hills.

This week’s walk was down in the South Pennines (West Yorkshire) from Haworth. I’m doing a piece near there later in the year and wanted to get a feel for the landscape. I also wanted to get the whole Brontë thing out of my system so I could look beyond that literary baggage the area wears. So my destination was ‘Top Withins’ – a ruined farmhouse on Haworth Moor.

‘Top Withins’ must be the most visited non-place on the Pennines. A former hill farm, it was reputed to be the inspiration behind ‘Wuthering Heights’ – a lonely, remote farmhouse high on the hills although there’s no evidence to suggest Emily Brontë ever went there or even knew of it. I’ve never read the book – I’ve tried a couple of times and not got very far. I’ve even resorted to an audiobook version too, but I just end up falling asleep with no idea how far I got each time. Still, it’s big in Japan – the Pennine Way even has footpath signs in Japanese:

japanese signpost

I first encountered Top Withins on the cover of ‘Literary Britain’ by Bill Brandt. I got ‘Literary Britain’ when I was about 15 and was the first photographic book I ever had. My early years of photography were heavily influenced by his dark, high contrast, grainy pictures of desolate landscapes and hauntingly empty buildings.

'Top Withins' by Bill Brandt

‘Top Withins’ by Bill Brandt. From ‘Literary Britain’ 1951.

The farmhouse doesn’t look like that anymore. Brandt visited sometime in the 30’s or 40’s. By the 60’s the windows had been blocked in and the roof started to collapse. I expected to find a beautiful ruin of crumbling walls and maybe a standing fireplace – they’re always built stronger. Instead, the powers that be have decided to restore the walls with fresh pointing and remove the unstable gables. The result is a stone box with all the romance of a nuclear power station. Did Ruskin mean nothing to these heritage folk? Ah well…

top withins 2014

I’ve become very familiar with my own existence on a windswept hill farmhouse over the past six years. As my adventure in this wilderness is drawing to an end I’ve been more conscious to witness and record the essence of life up here on my hill.

This spring the lapwings and curlews are back in much greater numbers than last year. Their eerie calls echo around the hills and bring a very distinctive upland dawn chorus.

Last year, as part of the ‘Gods Bridge’ project, I proposed a machine to make the sound of a curlew. The idea was to fill the painting galleries in the Bowes Museum with the sound of curlews. I had already looked at dissecting its distinctive ‘bubbling’ call earlier so while on paper I knew what was needed, making that a reality was a whole different thing.

flock of curlews

First up was just getting the right notes and tone. I scoured the internet looking for the lazy way of doing things in the hope I’d find just the right bird call. I bought the only one which claimed to do a curlew sound – and it was rubbish! So back to the drawing board and after numerous attempts with varying sized brass tube I built a slide whistle which came close. The hundreds of curlews gathering on the field outside my window gave me plenty of reference material to check it by.

Next was the problem of the trilling notes.

The spectral analysis pointed to a two-note rapid trill. I tried a sine wave swoop at the same speed as the curlew to see if it was an even up and down slide:


Obviously it’s not that.

Another whistle build revealed a closer possibility. Whistles are on the surface simple things – a narrow flow of air is passed over a hole where it is split and the reverberated air makes the note. By increasing the length of the whistle tube the note is lowered, shortening it raises he pitch. The diameter of the whistle determines tone and the size of the air hole controls the volume. Only it’s not quite that simple. Subtle changes to the shape of the hole can make huge differences to both the tone and the note. Then there’s the scale. Blowing more air can increase the pitch, considerably more air can change the scale completely raising the pitch to the next step of harmonics. By chance rather than design I ended up with a whistle which when tuned to the lower note of the call would switch to the upper note by changing the air pressure blowing through it. Could this be how the curlew is making its two note trill? A bit like yodelling. The difficulty was that I just couldn’t change the air pressure I was blowing at fast enough to even get close the speed (about 9Hz). Birds don’t have a diaphragm to control their breathing and air flow when singing. Instead their entire ribcage squeezes their lungs and is far more efficient at controlling fast speed changes than we are.

bellows

This led to the realisation of significant design flaws in my simple birdsong machine. I had anticipated that a slide whistle would control the pitch (notes) of the call, while bellows would provide the air with the whole thing powered by two simple cams – one for pitch and one for phrase. However, while the bellows method works well for cuckoo clocks and chirping mechanical birds, the longer notes of the curlew trills are just too much for moderately sized bellows. Even by rebuilding several paper bellows to increase the volume of air they move, and switching to airtight plastic-coated nylon bellows skins, getting a long enough note to do all the trills was going to take bellows much larger than the scale I wanted to use.

The whole trilling thing was looking to be far far trickier to achieve using pure mechanics alone. However, curlews have a wide range of calls. The bubbling sounds are so complicated for the bird that they can only do them while gliding and not flapping their wings. While in flight they have another distinctive two-note call.

Besides, I was getting far too hung up on the ‘Machine’ bit of the piece and losing track of the original audio experience.

So, here’s the final piece as installed in the opulent painting galleries in the Bowes Museum:

 

The sound is that of the flying call of the curlew made by the brass whistle and powered by bellows. It’s a recorded sound played through an induction speaker on the machine itself. The overall effect is what I wanted even if the method of making it isn’t as hoped.

Still, it was always going to be an attempt to recreate the sound. As it stands it’s not an entirely successful one, but as a first step it’s a good one. The bug has finally bitten though – the Curlew Machine #2 is a real possibility in the future. The next version will use fans to power the ‘breaths’, a butterfly valve will oscillate between high and low pressure notes, a step motor would change the lead pitch and the whole thing controlled by a micro processor. But that’s for another day.

For now the painting galleries echo to the sound of a mechanical curlew overhead and a small essence of the big wide North Pennines is brought inside for a bit.

 

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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.

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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.

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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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