Monday, 30 November 2009

Carving a niche....

As if I didn't have enough to do what with a really busy work schedule and potentially moving house before Christmas, the boy quicksilverwhistle, enrolled himself onto a stone carving course this weekend, at Tom Clark's premises, in Martock, Somerset. His website is here.

Actually I'd enrolled myself on this course at the end of July this year after a very difficult and deeply unhappy period in my personal life, which was alluded to in another blog at the time. But I'm not downbeat for long and booking myself onto this course provided a much needed focus for the dark days of November and a respite from Christmas shopping. Mind you I've not done this either yet.

Little did I know that come November 2009, I'd have my house sold in 13 days from putting it on the market, be in the middle of a frantic period at work, and well running backwards just to stand still. So this weekend came as a genuine breath of fresh air away from packing socks in preparation for the off.........and well only panicking slightly!!

This weekend, as most of November has been was dreadful in terms of weather. It just never stopped raining, and I don't mean normal rain, stair rods. Anyway Friday came and I had no idea what I was going to carve, so after a chat with Tom on the phone on Friday evening did a bit of interworm surfing and found this piece of jewellery, from a New Zealand site, which I thought oh I like that I'll take that as inspiration.

So duly through the monsoon I drove on Saturday morning and arrived prompt and early at the studio. Now I'm quite artistic, but I've never ever touched a stone chisel or dummy (the hammer bit) in my life so I had absolutely no idea what I was letting myself in for.

There were 6 of us on the course, himself, a couple from Kent, a father and son combo from Cheltenham and a woman from Bristol, who it later turned out was a best friend of a work colleague of mine. Small world indeed this stone carving business. Smashing, just enough to have a great weekend.... and we did just that, they were a really friendly bunch. Loved it.

After the preliminary what we're going to do and so on, Tom set us to work with a block of stone, which in my case was Bath stone.

And here it is.

It's quite daunting being a complete beginner in a studio environment, because one never knows what fellow course attendees are capable of. Visions of making a bag of sand and gravel appeared in my mind. But never fear I bashed away to Tom's instructions so that by lunchtime (after a brief stop for tea and very acceptable home made biscuits), the lump of stone was coming into shape.

Lunch was over and so the shape needed to be made into more of a shape. I have to admit here to being the only one mad enough to work outside this weekend, which was refreshing in a way, open at one side to the elements and the pitta patter of rain. Everyone else was indoors, cosy fire roaring away, lovely and warm. But I am a Geordie. I know how to suffer for my art!!!!!

The scene of this frenzied Activity!!!

Bash bash bash I went as the afternoon became night, and the darkness gathered pace. The bashing was alleviated a bit by a photographer from 'Discover Somerset' who popped in to take some photo's of activities in the area. He took lots of me, probably because I was the only one covered in dust, then disappeared indoors to take some of the proper carvers. All very exciting, but once that was over, more bash bash bash and and by 5pm on Saturday evening I had a lump of rock which had a sort of leaf shape on it. Hey not bad. I think I'll stop here.... I'm bound to ruin it if I carry on!!

So here ended the first day - 7 hours of bashing a bit of limestone with a hammer and chisel and this was the result. Tom's tuition was spot on, basically do all the preparation now and get the basic leaf shape perfect before I begin to cut out the pattern. I was exhausted, covered in dust and ready for m'tea. (Though we did have a wonderful lunch provided by Tom's wife).... and so to bed!!

Sunday morning. It was raining even harder as I drove from my overnight accommodation through the flooded lanes of Somerset. Absolutely awful. I was also aching. How can standing in one spot, bashing a little chisel and not doing a lot be so exhausting and make one ache so much? Middle age has nowt to recommend it.

But first task, mark out the basic pattern above. And now the scary part, chiseling away the stone, because one mistake can't be rectified.

But actually I was beginning to enjoy this and understand why all the preparation was so important. Once I began to cut away the gaps between the leaves the shape and leaves began to emerge. Tom had said to me it's a bold design and you'll see some wonderful light and dark shadows when it's finished - and he was right. He must have done this sort of thing before I think! Time for lunch.

Another sumptuous lunch, which included mmmmu cheese scones too, and back out into the afternoon's gloom to crack on, just 3 hours remaining to get it finished.

Discussions ensued to work out where to distress the stone to get the leaf to sit out from the background. In the end it was decided to distress the background, and that worked a treat. This was coming on lovely. Then Tom said, kick back the underside of the leaves, that'll give it a really sharp edge and shadow, very dramatic. And what a difference just doing that little bit of undercutting to the bottom leaves did to the shape and strength of the piece. Fantastic.

And then disaster...... in my enthusiasm, I tried to underscore the top leaves, which were nothing more than blobs of stone....TWO chipped away completely. It was now 4pm and I thought some rude words and called out for Tom. HELP!!!!

Could we glue the bits back on? Well yes but it's never satisfactory. So he suggested filing the stone slightly to reduce the height of the remaining top leaves and see if that works. I began filing and thought, hey I know what, why don't I file the whole top of the leaf back to the bedrock stone and start again. Hopefully this means the top leaves will also bend away from the viewer.

So that's what I did, and in 50 minutes rescued a disaster of a project, to produce what I have to say, even for myself, is a nice first attempt at stone carving.

Mind you I'll never get those clothes clean again! I'm hooked, what a fantastic way to spend a wet and miserable November afternoon, much better than Christmas shopping or sitting in front of the telly and eating sweets.

The Finished Piece!

And now I'm away to pack up my house for the imminent move. I may not be blogging again until 2010, so in case not, Happy Christmas and Happy New Year!

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

I'm still here - just

Just the briefest of notes to apologise for not being on the blog, so to speak, for the last few weeks. Work has taken me away a lot and I've also got my house on the market. At the weekend I plan to post a summation of various things, in the meantime a brief hello to two friends of mine who joined myself and a friend on a canal trip recently!

Difficult to add any more, after seeing these two, without incriminating myself further ............

Monday, 21 September 2009

In search of Lime......and soda!

Lets hear it for September!

What an absolutely stunning weekend it was down her in the West Country. Warm enough and sunny enough for me to slip my string vest off and bronze the torso in the back garden. Reports of mice hurling themselves under plant pots, while hedgehogs scurried through hedges are of course unfounded, though the beaching of a whale in north Dorset remains to be investigated.

I digress, possibly a result of heat stroke and not a little too much cider. This weekend, well to be exact Saturday saw himself and a companion sitting at the breakfast trough, contemplating a day spent either vacuuming the cat, or heading off into the wilds for a walk. My preference was for a spot of vacuuming, (mainly as she hasn't a cat) but that explains why I found myself at the Udder Farm Shop an hour later munching on a beefburger and chips. Sustenance for the task ahead.

Herself in one of those moments when argument is futile said, there are some 600 year old small-leaved lime trees in Duncliffe Wood, I want to go and see them as they are apparently the oldest living thing in Dorset. I was tempted, believe me I was so tempted to point out it is her birthday soon, but self preservation kicked in and as the last morsel of beef disappeared we left the farm shop and I put my boots on.

The first part of the walk is pretty much easy, flat, gravelled and in a straight line. However soon after we were heading up a hill, from the top of which views back to the farm shop and a potential Dorset cream tea could be seen.

And so the walk began in earnest; it's always a good sign to pass decaying agricultural machinery on the way. A muck spreader paints a picturesque and pastoral scene.

Speaking of such things, a fox had done a whoopsie, and not that long ago either!

Which may have explained why the buzzard had come to have a look, closely followed by a smattering of rooks and jackdaws which set up a bit of a rumpus as it flew closer.

Not my greatest photo, it was on x24, so a bit digi-pixellated. Eventually though the gate into the wood hove into view. Above us a party of long-tail tits flitted noisily through the branches, a squirrel scampered up a trunk while a nuthatch cry alerted us to its presence on a trunk not far away. Autumn isn't the best time for birds in woodland, but today it was pretty good.

So much so we'd not gone far along a ride when the distinctive cackle of, as was described to me a duck in an oven, was heard, accompanied by the chack chacky chack of annoyed jackdaws. And there through the tree canopy, a raven cronk cronked it's way past. There may have been two, it was hard to tell, however they circled over the woods for a good 5 minutes before disappearing. Sadly no photo this time.

This day was getting better, sun, warmth and glorious photo opportunities, such as this arty image through a fern frond.

Everywhere though were spiders and associated webs, which I realised are really hard to photograph in sunlight.

And if anyone can positively identify this one below, there'll be points, and what do points mean........ prizes! I've got as far as Araneus spp, but that's about it.

Eventually though the inevitable happened, we got lost. No let me rephrase this, I knew exactly where I was on the map, just not really sure where I was in the wood.

Where were these limes? A decision was made, well actually I had to follow the, 'I'm not hanging around here all day, I'm going this way' statement and so off we went. Until we met a gate at the end of the path. Turning and not being sure what to do next, a woman, daughter and dog (called Ethel - we never found out the woman or girls name) shimmered into view from nowhere and asked 'Are you from around here, do you know where the swings were'

Mishearing the penultimate word, visions of banjo playing locals, Burt Reynolds lobbing arrows all over the place and someone in a local accent asking; do you squeal like a pig boy, came into mind, until with relief I was informed there was a rope swing somewhere near a slope; a major tourist attraction apparently in north Dorset. Well its either that or taking a Frisian cow out for the evening. Mind you at least you'd have something to drink with the latter.

In return I asked if the woman knew where the lime trees were.

We were standing underneath them. Ethel and her companions rapidly left, but not before pointing out we were also being watched by a roe deer on the hill behind us. Must remember to improve my observational skills in the countryside. Anyway here they are, the oldest living thing in Dorset, and a fat bloke in a check shirt. He's the one on the right. Though I have to say I'm glad I hadn't driven 300 miles to see these. Yes quite impressive that these are a 600 year old former pollarded hedge, but they're sort of lost in the rest of the wood. That's my excuse anyway for not seeing them.

Next stop was the viewpoint, not before another arty photo of the shadows of hazel leaves on an ash tree trunk.

And once at the viewpoint, what better to do than sit back, take the weight off one's knees and have a look at the view. Next to us was an apple tree, a reminder that on one such summers day, someone possibly out for a walk and carrying a picnic, sat where I was admiring the view, munched through a cox's apple, chucked it over into the field and low and behold an apple tree was born. It was laden with fruit, but most looked a bit scummy, so we resisted.

Up here there were a fair few butterflies, large white and tortoiseshell but by far the commonest species was speckled wood.

And so we started our journey back to the car. Where the following species of note were seen.

Both foxglove (it must be spring) and honeysuckle were in flower

Glistening inkcaps on some rotten wood.

A devils coach horse, one of the many rove beetles was in angry mood with me, though sadly couldn't get it to stick its bottom up the same time as I could take a photo.

But I did manage to get a relative of its, Staphylinus caesareus to give a bit of a display, though as a hiding place this twig leaves a bit to be desired.

Greater burdock was a nice find in flower

And of course at this time of year, blackberries; or more correctly aggegational drupes.

And some more views of the woods. I particularly liked this remnant of a lain hedge, thinking again that sometime in the past someone had lain this ash sapling horizontal to make a stock proof hedge, and now 30-40 years later it remains as a grotesque, though beautiful reminder of the hedge layers skill; its still alive after all.

and the one below just because I liked the juxtaposition of light and dark

Near where the car was parked, were masses and masses of buckthorn berries in the hedgerow.

And I have to say, it was a smashing 3 hours spent wandering though a cool woodland on a warm September day. I nearly forgot to mention the green woodpecker which cackled between trees as we left the wood. A fitting end to the walk.

But not quite. The excitement may have been over but in the hunt for the lime, there is of course only one drink worth having, bring me the lime, bring me the soda.

Or in this case an ice cream soda. Could there ever be a better end to a September day, a dollop of ice cream, a dash of raspberry cordial, top up with lemonade, then sit back and dream of ravens overhead while dozing in the sun. A grand day out indeed.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Drawing in of the dark

Tomorrow is my fathers birthday. Of course this has absolutely nothing to do with this posting, except that his birthday is almost at the time of the Autumn Equinox. So today I thought I'd prepare for this period in the year when day length and night are equal, as from now on night lengthens until the winter solstice.

I love this time of the year, when on fine days the warmth in the sun can remind us briefly of carefree summer days on the beach, or that glorious feeling when walking amongst buildings at night feeling the days heat being released back into the air. The above painting of mine was done at this time of year to remind me of the bright colours, light and contrast and the perpetual joy of never ending days by the sea.

But all too soon at the beginning of September the nights begin to draw in and before we know it it is dark before 8pm and the Equinox approaches. There is something special about equality, and on the 21st of September, or thereabouts, the world moves into it's winter phase, albeit by clinging onto autumn for a while yet.

If like me you are interested in old Celtic festivals, then you will know that at this time the Sun enters Libra, and with it brings about balance and harmony, a readjustment and therefore a time of change and transformation. In days of old, thanks were also given at this time for the safe deliverance of the harvest, hence the Harvest Festival.

But as another watercolour of mine hopefully portrayed, this time of year can also mean still settled days and misty cool nights when just being out and about in the British countryside is enough to restore any balance in life as we revel in the glories of autumnal colours.

So as we move towards the Equinox this week, I leave you with the notion of the double spiral, the symbol of the Autumn Equinox, in essence this endless cycle of change brings with it renewal and new opportunities, look back with thanks at what the spring brought and look forward to welcome the turning. Rest and recharge as the nights draw dark, look inwards and dream a new dream.

Finally one feature of many celebrations at this time is the making of a 'talking stick', a recently cut stick having thread wrapped around it, the idea being it facilitates discussion, thought and word. In a group setting, the stick is passed around, only the person holding the stick can speak, and can not be interrupted until he or she has finished, when the stick is passed on to the next person.

What better way to spend a dark evening, friends round, some cider maybe to celebrate the autumn, light the house with candles and allow some convivial conversation to occur.

There is a lot to be said for the drawing in of the dark.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

The Endless Furrow!

Vintage Tractors, Horse Ploughing and sons of the soil, all made for a grand old British event in the Somerset countryside yesterday.

The North Somerset Agricultural Society held yesterday its annual Ploughing Match. I wasn't there last year, but apparently it was a wash out and the day was abandoned. This year warm and sunny weather bathed the gloriously pastoral countryside of North Somerset in a ruddy glow. For those of you thinking, where on earth is North Somerset, well it's the top bit of what was originally Somerset until around 30 odd years ago when politicians decided to create Avon, and now following the disbandment of Unitary Authorities, it has returned to it's Somerset roots, but not quite. And explaining why not is a whole can of worms to be opened.

But this post is about ploughing, which for millennia has been the beginning of the agricultural season. Ploughing in my mind is a real link back to Man's desire to tame the land, grow crops and ultimately this created the British countryside all around us. I've always loved watching ploughing in action, even now when driving about if I see someone ploughing I will often stop and watch for a while. Something primeval is stirred in me as I watch the plough's coulter disc slice through the soil, followed simultaneously by the mouldoard turning that soil over in an almost animated way to leave shiny dark furrows of fresh soil exposed to the air. Watching a field of stubble slowly being brought under the plough is fascinating, I don't think I'll ever tire of that sight. And I wish I'd been taking part yesterday, rather than as a voyeur.

Ploughing matches however are about winning the competition and therefore not very relaxed for the competitors as continuous minute adjustments take place to ensure the perfect furrow is ploughed straight and true, with no trash (surface plant material) remaining visible. Seeing a perfect ploughed field is very satisfying as this chap below demonstrates, notice how contented he is with his work..... mind you he had just had his tummy tickled.

Yesterday 3 teams of horses were ploughing, always a great draw for the crowds. Numerous vintage tractors buzzed across the countryside like ants foraging for food, and worryingly tractors which are now seen as collectors items, but in reality are the ones which I drove as nowt-but-a-lad. Tempest fugit has a lot to answer for! And then there are the big modern semi-mounted 9 plough land grabbing monsters which can plough a field before breakfast.

In attendance also were country girls to watch the show, as this pole dancing friend of mine who I went with demonstrates. Shocking.

Enough, show us the horses I can hear you say. So ever to oblige here we go, the horses.

Sadly I can't remember the names of the horses as Olwen, the pole dancing country plough-girl, was talking to the owners and got some info on each team. Being a man and only interested in engines, I've forgotten what these two are called.

These two were called Sam and Poppet, I know that because they have name tags on. Thanks lads, that's helps an old man with a failing memory.

Time for a rest !

And they're off, sheer rippling muscle power. It is just stunning to see a man control two power horses like these and also the gentle nature of these gentle giants when at rest. Jethro Tull, that iconic folk-progressive-rock band fronted by a man playing a flute, wrote a wonderful song about heavy horses in 1978, containing a smatering of profound lines given what is happening these days with global warming and dwindling oil supplies.

"And one day when the oil barons have all dripped dry and the nights are seen to draw colder

They'll beg for your strength, your gentle power your noble grace and your bearing

And you'll strain once again to the sound of the gulls in the wake of the deep plough, sharing."

But let us not forget the tractor.

Bliss sheer bliss, nice Massey and trailing 2 plough.

The kit and caboodle of a match plough. A tape measure is also a must to make sure the distances between ploughed and un-ploughed land are not too far apart to get a perfect finish.

Although this was a ploughing match, a small village show was to be found in an adjacent field, usual produce, crafts and entries, but this one intrigued me. 'Produce in a Basket'. All three entries won first prize. Which is a first for me.

Eventually all this frenetic activity needs to be rewarded, after all, points mean prizes. We decided to watch the ceremony. Time was 4.15pm and the awards were due at about 5pm. So we found a sunny spot and sat and waited in the warm sun. By 5.30pm despite frantic tooings and froings behind the union flag nothing stirred. At 5.35, a microphone sprang into life informing the massed throng of boiler suits, grubby jeans and flat caps (and that's just the women) that in 5 minutes the awards will begin. At 5.55 pm, we were off....! I like being in the country, a country mile is about 3 days walk, and a country 5 minutes is at least 20 minutes.

The microphone crackled into life and the first awards were unleashed, complete with brown envelopes of prize money, silverware flashing in the evening sunlight, and a round of applause. However it seemed those at the back couldn't hear so the crowd were asked to step forward, plenty of room up here. This brought a surreal moment as on mass a silhouetted (we were sitting facing the sun) group of ploughmen shuffled forward inch by inch; individually not wishing to get too close, but as a group being lured by invitation closer by the chap in charge. And it reminded me of a Monty Python sketch, where inch by inch the attacking soldiers dared to get close enough to fight, but always with a worry on their face.

And for both Olwen and I, the awards ceremony, was the pinnacle of the day. It summed up Britain, village shows, meeting up with old friends, sitting in the sun, drinking cider, chatting, followed by watching ploughmen, there were women there but none ploughing, men who keep this country fed walking towards to table to get their prize. We could have been at any agricultural show anywhere in middle England, these modest men walked forward, many with limps or bent backs, faces red after decades of exposure to wind and sun, but all displaying a pride in what they do without having to shout about it as is the modern celebrity craze; it was unspoken, there behind their eyes just by looking at their faces. People to be honoured I feel.

And so the day came to an end and as we walked back to the car a book I read years ago came into my mind. "The Endless Furrow" by A.G.Street was first published in 1949 and is a fictional account of a "townsman's" drive and desire to own a piece of English land as a farmer, and the joy he felt when he finally got there and walked his fields.

Sums up perfectly what today was really all about - in my mind at least.