Saturday, 30 May 2009


We recently had a holiday in the small village of Farnborough just north of Banbury. It was mainly a time to be outdoors, going for walks and spend time with the family. I didn't find it easy to create space for anything really deep and meaningful. I had a few walks by myself, but these were mainly a time to just enjoy the exercise, to try and do some drawing and just to "be" away from the office. There was one moment on one of my walks when I really felt something tug at my deeper spiritual psyche and this is described here.

On a warm, sunny, still morning I find myself walking over a field of pasture with grazing cattle scattered around me. As I walk down off the top and over the crest of a small rise I come across a group of around fifty or so large hawthorn trees that seem to draw me into them. I wonder why these trees are still standing here? There is a patch of gorse not far away, but otherwise this is a large field of probably quite ancient pasture bounded by old and mature hedges. There is a farm just on one side of the field and I wonder if this patch of ground has a long history of settlement and a long disappeared more functional use. Did this patch of trees once cover the whole hill? Was there an old barn or house that once stood here? These trees feel like a site of antiquity and memory, but I seen not direct evidence of any building having been here.

Here is a place that draws me into its presence - to sit down at the base of a tree, to get out my sketchpad, to observe and to write.

The hawthorns stand amidst the new green spring grass, their heavy and fragrant blossom bright in the sunshine. Each tree has its own character and presence within the group. Their trunks are old and twisted - some single others an intertwining of multiple stems that form many variations in shape and form. It is like each tree has a different pattern to follow in its design. For some, the trunks rise straight up, others have gentle clockwise turns - some even seem to have knots with branches criss-crossing over and under each other. Some look like a thick rope of woven cords.

Hawthorns are often a symbol of dark and impenetrable hedges and thickets but here I can walk freely on the grassy openness between the trees. Here, cows will seek shelter from the sun or the rain and there may be rabbit holes here and there. The earth may be always damp and cool here. In winter, hawthorns can create an unwelcoming place with cold dark shapes, defensive thorns and bare soil beneath black rotting leaves.

Apart from a gentle breeze in the leaves and blossom this place makes little sound. In the distant hedges birds sing and the gentle murmur of the M40 a couple of miles away always intrudes on this landscape.

There is a solitary oak tree in from of my sitting place. Like the hawthorns it is misshapen and seems out of place here. Its main trunk lies at around 45 degrees and then divides into double trunks, one of which bend down to the ground. The churned up mud at its base shows that it is used as a scratching post by the cattle and, indeed, there are patches where the bark has been totally removed.

I touch the trunk of one tree, examining it more closely. Devoid of the sharp thorns that cover the branches and twigs the bark is soft and warm and strongly textured - home to spiders and other invertebrates.

A small group of buttercups add a touch of yellow to the ground which is strewn with cowpats, fallen blossom and hoof holes in the soft earth. Perhaps a small spring arises here, just enough to dampen the soil.

A few chaffinches dart amongst the branches around me, singing unseen.

I give thanks to the place and leave. I don't know why this place attracted me. Some places just seem to be a source of inspiration. For me, it isn't usually a beautiful view that inspires me or something else of wonder in the natural world. It is sensing something in what could be very ordinary and missed by many people. Perhaps it was just the shape and form of the trees that I perceived as something unusual; perhaps it was a sense of discovery; or perhaps a deep tuning in to a moment when the boundaries between spiritual worlds became thin.

* * * * *

Later on my walk I pass within about six feet of two young fox cubs staring a me from an earthen hole in a bank under a hedgerow.

As I stand in a wheat field, a hare appears and walks towards me, stopping every so often to eat a leaf of the growing wheat. Motionless I watch it. It almost seems oblivious to me and quietly passes by about ten feet away. Another close encounter with a hare.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Wheelbarrow Oven

Today I built a small oven in the garden. I had salvaged some bricks from a recent bit of wall demolition in the garden and I used these, plus some chicken wire and tiles, to build a small oven on my wheelbarrow. The wheelbarrow I obtained from a pile of fly-tipping on a local road last year and yesterday I had bought a bag of charcoal from Croft Castle in Herefordshire. I made some bread dough and was successful in baking four bread rolls and also cooking a barbeque for the family evening meal. Although only a small oven, it worked very well but I need to be more careful about stabilising the temperature. The first two rolls took an hour to cook whereas the second two burnt in under 20 minutes! The barbeque worked well: sausages, home-made burgers, warmed ciabatta rolls and a fresh salad.

I had been wanting to do something like this for a long time and, as I am currently thinking about the element 'Fire', this was an ideal project to attempt.

Drumming on Croft Ambrey

On Sunday 3rd May at about 8.30am I arrived at the car park at Croft Castle. It was empty which was a good sign as I thought I might then have the chance to be up on the hill by myself. It is the Bank Holiday weekend and there will soon be many people visiting the castle and the hill.

I walk up to the top of the woods and take off my walking boots and socks. The long dew-covered grass which I first walk though is freezing cold but on the main path the shorter grass and dry earth is much more comfortable. I have my drum with me and I begin a meditation walk that takes me up to the hillfort, around the main rampart and up onto the top of the hill. It is cool, but the sunshine is bright and clear between the clouds. It is an amazing morning. The light is so clear and the colours are beautiful. I look carefully at the views, trees and the landscape around me as I walk slowly and steadily, carried by the gentle beating of the drum. The drum performs superbly in the warming sunshine. Its sound seems to resonate with the wood of the trees. I watch a buzzard in the distance and try and work out how to mirror its flight with my drum. This is a wonderful place to be and, as I complete my playing and meditation, the first of other walkers start appearing on the footpaths around the hill. I set my camera up on a sock and walking boot and take some pictures of myself with my drum.

I wonder when the last time a drum was heard in this landscape. I am sure it would have been common in Iron Age times, but who else has drummed up here? It is a superb location to listen, to watch, to observe and to meditate. The views from the hill are magnificent and, on a bright spring morning like today when the leaves are coming out and the landscape is in full spring awakening, they are probably at their best.

Hopton Titterhill: Part 2 - Sunrise

Continuation of previous blog entry...

Sleeping in the car was uncomfortable, but well worth trying even though I only had arund a couple of hours sleep. I got up at 4am just as the sky was beginning to lighten and decided to climb up to the top of Hopton Titterhill. The sky had clouded over but there were a few promising signs that it might be clearing. Apart from the hooting of an owl and the singing of a skylark over a nearby field, the woods were fairly silent. I could easily find my way in the dim light up the forestry tracks and I eventually walked out into the clearing at the top of the hill. The light was improving rapidly now and I climbed up the final steep slope onto the top of the sort of mound that forms the hilltop. The air around me was now filled with birdsong - robins, blackbirds and anything else. The sounds were wonderful. The grass was heavily dew laden and small cobwebs were scattered everywhere. Bilberries were in flower - beautifully delicate pink bell-like flowers on yellow-green leaves. An occasional bumble bee could be seen buzzing around and braving the coolness of the morning. It wasn't too warm. I walked down from the summit and followed a small circular route of forest tracks and mountain bike trails back up to the top again.

Although the cloud cleared from above me and to the West to leave a clear blue sky, a long bank of cloud to the East obscured much of the sunrise. Hills to the West a few miles away did see the morning sun on their tops but I only had a few minutes of fleeting sunlight to awaken my hill. The cloud was increasing and it didn't look as though I would be seeing much sun for a while now. I played my drum for a while but the cold and damp made it feel as though I was playing a pancake! Some warmth would have been good as my hands were frozen.

Although the view from the top of the hill is mostly obscured by trees this was a great place to visit on a May morning.

Saw blackbird, blue tit, buzzard, chaffinch, goldfinch. Wood sorrel was everywhere.

Hopton Titterhill: Part 1 - The Journey

Hopton Titterhill is a hill a few miles west of Leintwardine in south Shropshire. Like many of the hills in the area it has been planted up with conifers but the top remains open. Here there is a small but steep rocky hilllock that rises out of a patch of open heathland of mainly grass, billberries and bracken. Much of the view has been obscured by the surrounding trees, but it is still a spectacular location commanding views for miles around. My Father would have taken me up here as a teenager and it would a have been a much more open place back then. Now I am making another visit to the hill to await the sunrise on a May morning.

It is Friday evening on the 1st of May and I leave Luton at 7pm on what feels like a mini pilgrimage. I am always amazed at how long it takes to prepare to go away, even for a couple of nights and now, after a busy week at work and an almost impossible wait, I set off up the M1. This is my time, my time to enter a wilderness, my time to journey and my time to see what nature will bring to me.

It is cloudy, with sunny intervals. I drive steadily with the busy traffic, seeming to head towards the setting sun and a distant clearing western sky where a bright band of cloudless sky hugs the horizon. At one point the sunshine is dazzling even though the rain clouds are dark above me and raindrops cover the windscreen. I am surrounded by the brightest of light, turning newly formed leaves into almost un-natural greens and fields of oil-seed rape reflecting an impossible yellow. A few miles further and the brightness has gone - a blue landscape emerges under rainfilled clouds that have hidden the sun. In the dimming light everyhting has turned a shade of green-blue, all apart from yet more of the swathes of yellow. .

As I pass Coventry, another band of brightness on the horizon guides my way and a lightening sky shows huge cumulous clouds. Unfortunately I have to keep my eyes on the road more around here, but the last transformation occurs as I follow the M42 west around Birmingham to the M5. The great billowing clouds seem to flatten out into flat black forms with a lighter, clear atmosphere behind. These are the last clouds I see this evening. The light is fading fast and I have to concentrate as I join the twisting road the Tenbury Wells at Ombersley which seems quite busy with traffic.

Finally, as it approaches 11pm, I reach the hamlet of Hopton Castle and I can just make out the dark form of Hopton Titterhill ahead of me. I continue along the narrow country lane up into the hills and then turn onto the forestry track ascending to my destination. I drive up the rough track for about half a mile or so and enter the forest. There is a clear, starlit sky above me and, almost directly ahead of me and leading my way is a half moon lighting the landscape.

I park in the car park, eat a croissant and boil some water on my small gas stove for a hot chocolate. Then I sit to write my notes on a picnic bench by torchlight.

Here I am in a forest bathed in moonlight. As the moon dips down behind the trees so the long shadows of the pines begin to fade into a deeper darkness. All is still, just a whisper of a slight breeze surrounds me, but I can hear a more distant ripple of the trees on the more exposed higher edges of the forest. I can hear a sheep, a dog, an owl. Something patters by in the nearby trees and then runs off - presumably scared by my light. A very distant aeroplane rumbles past way above me. Then all is quiet. A few occasional noises of birds in the trees and the scratching of my pen on my sketchpad. The trees are still whispering in the darkness, almost barely audible. I almost struggle to hear anything - I feel my body is making too much noise.

This evening has been a time of journeying, of seeing changing weather patterns and observing the light and the clouds around me and how they interact with the landscape. By covering a large distance myself I probably saw more varied cloud formations this evening than I would have done if I had stayed in one location.