6 people are on a stage at a festival with a colourful backdrop

The Land in five objects: place artists at Timber Festival

How can art dream, reimagine and help shape the future …

Here’s a quick blog to share some smiles and reflections from the recent Timber Festival where a crew of five from the PLACE Collective took to the stage to share a conversation with the audience. The threads that ran through the session touched on ways that art can ignite an ever greater love for the natural world, how artists are part of discussions about critical issues, and the value of art to help us all dream, reimagine and shape the future.

6 people are on a stage at a festival with a colourful backdrop
From left to right: Harriet Fraser, Rob Fraser, Sarah Smout, Charlie Whinney, Kate Brundrett, Charlotte (signing). Image credit: Alex Johnston-Seymour

Our conversations followed on from many thought-provoking discussions and performances during the weekend. There were poets, musicians, writers, dancers, DJs, as well as open conversations held both on the Field Notes stage and around the campfire to explore pressing issues around environmental change.

We weren’t the only ones to come to the Field Notes stage from Cumbria. Earlier in the weekend, specialists in forests, biodiversity and ecology, including Ian Convery, took to the stage to talk about the expansion of woodlands and forests across the UK. This theme of expansion was picked up later in a panel discussion where Harriet from the PLACE Collective joined the CEO of the National Forest, a woodland creation specialist from Defra and member of the Youth Landscapers Collective to discuss the vision for a new Midlands Forest Network.

In the spirit of the festival, there was a strong sense of working together for positive change. This is in no small part ignited by the story of the National Forest, which covers 200 square miles across parts of Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire. The area was previously dominated by coal mines and clay pits, and after these industries closed down, the idea for a new forest emerged: the first trees were planted in the late 1980s. Since then, almost 9 million trees have been planted, the landscape has been transformed, and the forest has become a rich, and highly valued part of daily life for so many of the people who live there. Timber Festival is part of the National Forest’s ethos of involving communities, and bringing people and trees together.

So, back to the PLACE Collective conversation … each person on the panel brought an object with them (listed below*), and introduced their practice and personal reflections while sharing the story behind their piece.

Questions and observations from the audience included an affirmation that scientists and artists should work together more in research and in communities, as we collectively devise ways to inspire, affect and enact change. This fits really nicely with the ethos behind the PLACE Collective where we’re always seeking ways to bring together people with different knowledge sets, and from many different backgrounds.

One question came from a young person wanting to pursue their own art practice, and looking for advice. Each person on the panel had much to share, but perhaps what was most memorable was the advice to ‘stay on your bus’ … don’t get off at other stops, or follow routes just because others are. Keep going, keep following what feels right. This relates to the Helsinki Bus Station theory outlined by photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen in 2006, but could be relevant whatever field of work you’re in – if you’re curious, read about the Helsinki Bus Station Theory here. It might inspire you!

When the panel session was over, people from the audience came up to look at the objects and talk to the artists, and the chat continued into the sunshine and the beer tents, becoming part of the gentle and colourful interweave of the festival.

Talking about young people, among the many inspirations from the festival what really stood out for us was the Youth Landscapers Collective. This group of young people from the local area has been growing over the years, taking part in forest-based activities, developing creative work and leading important conversations. Their installation for this year’s Timber Festival was all about fungal networks – and a reflection not just on what grows in the soil, but perhaps about the value of more entangled, rhizomatic thinking about all of us humans …

If you haven’t been to Timber, which is run by Wild Rumpus, find out more here:   https://timberfestival.org.uk/ 

And to find out more about the National Forest, check out the website here: https://www.nationalforest.org/

And to finish, a word from Kate Brundrett, who joined the panel. Kate is on the Advisory Board of the PLACE Collective. She’s also an artist and a wellbeing coach, and founded Studio Morland, a community-arts and wellness centre in the Eden Valley, in Cumbria.

“How can art and artists make impact? Presenting ideas that are outside of our day to day framework, to stretch our imaginations into other worldly possibilities. Allowing us to feel, to connect, to reconnect and come home to ourselves. And if the process challenges people out of their comfort zones then all the better.”

*Maker Charlie Whinney arrived with a huge heart-shaped sculpture, steam-bent oak from an off-cut of a fallen tree. Sarah Smout brought her cello, Bernard. Rob Fraser carried a tiny oak tree onto the stage, which was rescued from a woodland cut down to make way for HS2. Kate Brundrett shared a piece called SOTWO (State of the World Overwhelm). And Harriet Fraser shared a segment of poetry, stitched around a heavy rock borrowed from beneath a sycamore tree in central Cumbria.

A short glimpse of the video installation by the Youth Landscapers Collective
The River Wye photographed from Symonds Yat. The image shows a green summer landscape, with the river between woodlands and fields.

Guest Blog: the wye valley and ‘natural beauty’

from Andrew Blake, Manager, Wye Valley aONB

I’ve always felt it an honour and a privilege to work in the Wye Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). It is now 50 years since the area was designated an AONB, becoming the UK’s 28th AONB in 1971. That was the year I left Infant School, Idi Amin came to power, Britain went decimal, Mick Jagger married Bianca, the first British soldier was killed in Northern Ireland, crash helmets became compulsory for motorcyclists and the Offa’s Dyke Path National Trail was launched.

Foy Bridge across the River Wye near Ross-on-Wye. The sky is blue with white clouds, the sun is warm. The river is calm and like a mirror.
Foy Bridge

It’s not within my remit to dwell on all of those in our Golden Anniversary year. But as part of our celebrations I did want to look at where we’ve come from and what the prospects are going forwards. The ‘What is Natural Beauty’ symposium is an opportunity to do just that, in collaboration with the Place Collective, the Centre for National Parks and Protected Areas and the Lake District National Park Authority, celebrating their Platinum Anniversary.

By coincidence rather than design, the symposium will pre-empt the Government’s response to the ‘Landscapes Review’ of National Parks & AONBs in England. This was published in September 2019, and chaired by Julian Glover. In June a Written Ministerial Statement outlined the Government’s initial response to the Glover Review. Included were proposals for Natural England to review the process of designating more areas of the country for their natural beauty and to consider initially 2 new AONBs and extend 2 existing Areas.

So it is particularly pertinent to be asking ‘What is Natural Beauty?’ The Wye Valley AONB Management Plan, that I lead on producing, has a section on ‘What is Natural Beauty?’  which focuses on the legislative origins and concept of the term. The Management Plan then lists the Features and Special Qualities (27 of them) that contribute to the Natural Beauty of the AONB.

Two children canoeing on the rapids at Symonds Yat on the River Wye. The water is relatively calm. The children are laughing and whooping as they pass the busiest part of the river.
Rapids at Symonds Yat

Regarded as one of the finest lowland landscapes in Britain, the Wye Valley AONB has dramatic views over limestone gorges and one of the largest remaining areas of ancient semi-natural broadleaved woodland in the country. The renowned woodland ecologist Dr George Peterken noted that as a predominantly wooded and riverine environment, the Wye Valley has a greater combination of ancient and natural features than virtually all the UK’s other AONBs and National Parks.

The juxtaposed habitats and dynamic topography led Rev. William Gilpin to espouse his theory of The Picturesque based on a tour down the Wye in 1770. Artists, writers and tourists subsequently flocked to the Wye Valley to marvel at the picturesque, sublime and romantic views … and they still do!

Sunlit willow trees on the banks of the River Wye at Ross. The light is low and the sunlight is striking the trees and bathing them in a golden light. The sky is dark and menacing behind.

But the Cistercian monks who chose Tintern for the location of their second Abbey in Britain 900 years ago obviously saw something special in the valley’s tranquillity and productivity. Likewise the Norman lords, King Offa and the iron age Silures found the dramatic topography outstanding for incorporating into their castles, Dyke and hill forts. Meanwhile the complex geology gave the area powerful streams, abundant forest and copious minerals from which early industrialists forged the crucible of the industrial revolution. On the fertile floodplain and red soils farmers cropped cereals, fruit, livestock and fodder. All these goods were traded up and down the Wye, then over bridges.

The palimpsest cultural landscape is an important part of Natural Beauty. But you don’t have to know the detailed history of an area to appreciate that countless generations of peoples have lived, loved and died there.

However, dig deep into a place (literally or metaphorically) and you come to realise that we are all migrants in that landscape, sharing our culture briefly with its nature. We craft the landscape through that interaction, and we craft ourselves.

Stephen Fry mused on “What is it about humans, that we marvel at the only world we know? We are wowed by the absolute ordinary, astonished by the every-day”. We find beauty in the very mundane events of leaves dying in autumn, the planet’s rotation making the sun pass the horizon, birds communicating, water flowing over rocks. These are not just visual stimuli, but totally sensory experiences. When encountered in conjunction – birdsong during an autumnal sunset by a waterfall – we create a deep emotional response to that place and time. Association and memory play a strong part in Natural Beauty, because in knowing that ‘that place’ remains (and places like it) consolidates our appreciation of it. Appreciation comes hand in hand with understanding, (although we may all have differing perspectives). David Attenborough said “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”

The challenge for my day-job, and the presenters on “What is Natural Beauty?” is to discern whether the intrinsic value of natural beauty will shift as the landscapes change and subtly evolve (as they inevitably will). A particularly strong influence may come from the climate and ecological crisis. However, our AONBs and National Parks should continue to enable another two or three generations at least to create deep emotional responses to outstanding landscapes. Then it will be their turn to realise what is natural beauty.

Sunlight streaming through the trees at Lady Wood, just off the edge of the River Wye north of Monmouth.
Lady Park Wood, straddling England and Wales beside the River Wye, north of Monmouth


Tracing Inspirations

To follow on from the last blog, and before this blog roll begins to feature reflections from other artist members, we wanted to reflect on some of the inspirations that have fed into the PLACE Collective. Life is a continuous learning journey and we all pick up so much – often without realising that it will filter into later decisions.

Continue reading “Tracing Inspirations”

From small seeds …

So the PLACE Collective is here – but how did it come about?

The PLACE Collective is an ambitious and exciting venture. And for the first blog we thought we’d share some musings about the early sparks of ideas, and the journey to get to here.

Continue reading “From small seeds …”