Experiencing Place: Mapping Connectivity In The North Pennines

This exploration of a rural landscape through diverse yet interlaced approaches was a study in mapping connectivity through transcribing subjective experience of the place. The research area was defined by the boundary of Bruthwaite Forest, a medieval hunting forest in the Cumbrian North Pennines.

Detailed observation and research provoked artworks reflecting integration with the continuum of past and present, responding to the geological, topographical, ecological and historical characteristics of these uplands, and engaging with ideas of change and chance. Impermanence in the landscape was celebrated through artworks engaging with structural decay, the topography of place-names, and the human traits of finding and collection. The challenge underlying the research aims was not only to make a profound connection with a place but to find ways of communicating this connection visually. The thesis drew together a textual and visual narrative of those characteristics of the local history and topography that inspired the artworks that embody the material reality of the landscape, while the photographic and ceramic artworks act as a stimulus to reflection on the human place within the natural world. At the core of the study is the ordinary activity of walking, a fundamentally defining human behaviour. From the outset the character of this walking was in the spirit of the dérive, random walking open to surprise, curiosity and chance encounter. This approach generated a heterogeneous collection of thoughts and interests, as stimuli reached the brain via byways and meanders spontaneously followed. The documenting of change and movement, finding and collecting, gave rise to artworks that reflect an interest in vernacular structures, the names people give to places, and the detritus of ordinary lives. They map a growing understanding of this landscape and its idiosyncrasies, and an exploration of the sort of relationship one can have with a place, an experiment in how closely one can approach the primal sense of belonging through engagement, intense absorption, and random wandering. Parcelling human knowledge or natural behaviour into separate disciplines or enclosed fields is antithetical to my understanding of the world. Culture is about cultivation of the earth and the mind alike, and the branch is part of the tree, an almost infinite organism. Our language itself thus refutes the Cartesian divide. Following molehills introduces a gentle anarchy and a fruitful illogic, and their seemingly random ubiquity made them an appropriate linking theme for my own wanderings. To find things lost in the earth I enlisted the mole in making play with the unpredictable, inviting the synchronicity of the creative moment.

Sand, lime and stone for local buildings all came from quarries nearby, and until the early twentieth century so did the thatch for roofing. Since the demise of local industry and the redundancy of many buildings, these materials are slowly sinking to the ground, mingling with Darwin’s ‘vegetable mould’ produced by earthworms, which plants then begin to colonise. The process of structural decay, from the lichens on the stone walls to the willowherb nourished by rotting timber lintels, is evidence of the lack of separation between natural events and human endeavour.

The camera can capture arrested time in an oak leaf frozen into water that has ceased to flow, or the memory of water in a time of flood returning to its course of centuries before. Fleeting glimpses of ephemera driven by wind and water are balanced by the gravitational pull of a derelict house towards its foundations in the earth. Falling Leaves demonstrates entropy and embodies decay. This is a fragile work, a prototype pile of sheets of thinly rolled clay stamped with place-names which, surprisingly, has survived while shedding fragments along the way.

How do discarded artefacts come to be where we find them? Some are airborne, like seeds blown on the wind, but most travel on and under the ground. The appeal of surface finds is their tangible yet impenetrable link with the past; in the depth of the soil is a depth of memory. The journey of the object is affected by many agents including humans, wind and rain, weathering and erosion, moles, rabbits and earthworms, accident or coincidence. Artefacts are thrown up, or buried, in a continual repositioning of things in time and space. A collection of fragmentary and abraded artefacts from the environs of former dwellings may eventually constitute the only reminder of lives once lived within their now tumbled walls. To record, collect and document is to pay tribute to past communities of people of whom we know almost nothing yet whose actions shaped the landscape in which we now live. To create new artefacts that celebrate our connection with the substance of the landscape, I employed the ordinary materials of everyday life, exemplified by pottery. The decision to use locally sourced boulder clay transformed the experience, as the physical effort involved in collecting and preparing the raw material made a clear connection with the environment even before pots and tiles were made. The investigation into local place-names led to more encounters with entropic process, deciphering maps that had endured centuries of use and damage through handling to the extent that some are fragmentary. Some of the names lifted from these maps have likewise drifted free from their locations in the landscape, and I attempted to re-place them where possible, bringing back into current memory names and places which were once common knowledge. The topography and climate were fundamental to the experience of the people who first passed through the area or lived here a thousand and more years ago. To reach back to those first settlers, and to see the place through their eyes, I related the place-names to the land they describe, bringing the story up to date with a survey of field-names used by people who live here now. There have been several exhibitions of the artworks, and the thesis is currently being assessed by a publisher, with a view to being revised for publication.

Further information on this research can be found at: http://hdl.handle.net/10443/1149