A sign rises from wetland and grasses. Words on the sign read 'A Measure of Healing'

poetry sign test – success!

A blog from Harriet Fraser and Rob Fraser, working on the Moss of Many Layers project.

Landmark day! After a year of planning, with research, poetry composition, design, engineering and finger-crossing, on Friday, together with Natural England Senior Reserves Manager Emma Austin, we headed out to Bolton Fell Moss to test the installation of a poetry sign. And phew, the install went perfectly! Hurray!

This is one of a set of seven signs that will be placed within sight of the boardwalk, which runs for a circuit of 3km. Together, the signs will form a seven-phrase poem that can be read clockwise or anti-clockwise, or can be read in couplets. Each sign will rust up, blending in with the colours of the bog.

A steel sign rises from a wetland area of a bog and has words cut into it, reading A Measure Of Healing

A tool for scientists

The support pole for each sign acts as a surface level rod, so the team monitoring the growth of sphagnum moss (and, very very slowly, peat itself), will be able to measure incremental change. The support poles extend down to the mineral layer beneath the peat, which is a marker of the end of the last ice age before peat began to form here. The range on chosen sites is 227cm – 578cm, reflecting different levels of extraction around the site.

Process, and first impressions

When you dream something up, then work through the ideas, encounter and overcome design challenges, and get to this stage, you think you know how it will look, but it’s only a guess. You only really know once it’s in …

We’re really happy with it – this first sign carries the qualities that we had hoped it would. The form and material reflect the industrial heritage of the site, where steel was used extensively in the machinery used for peat extraction, and angular shapes were common. The cut-out letters allow the signs to also have a softness, reflecting the softness of the mosses and grasses: as the light changes, or as you walk past the sign, the sign seems somehow to float, and the words are airy. It helps with the invitation for a pause – the words help to convey the ongoing story of this wonderful place, and perhaps for some will be a catalysts for thoughts, feelings, questions and further conversations.

This sign is the third in the sequence, if you follow the boardwalk in a clockwise direction; or the fourth if you walk anticlockwise.

Team work

Massive thanks to Emma at Natural England who has been a really important part of the evolution of this piece, and to Martin Lucas, engineer extraordinaire, whose attention to detail always pays off. And thanks to the rest of the Moss of Many Layers team – scientists, artists, conservationists, rangers – and the local community, who have all been part of the learning that inspired Harriet’s composition of the poem.

Two women stand either side of a steel sign that has words cut into it reading 'A Measure of Healing'
Emma Austin (left) and Harriet Fraser with the poetry sign

Opening yet to come

The site is a National Nature Reserve but will not be open to the public until later this year. Once the site opens, all the poetry signs will be in place, as will a new shelter on the central ‘island’. We’ll share updates as they happen.

A sign rises from wetland and grasses. Words on the sign read 'A Measure of Healing'

More information about the Moss of Many Layers project here.

A hand-drawn map of Bolton Fell Moss in Cumbria with words and images, by Helen Cann

Mapping a Moss of many layers

A hand-drawn map of Bolton Fell Moss in Cumbria with words and images, by Helen Cann

One of the main artistic outputs from the Moss of Many Layers project is the map of Bolton Fell Moss created by Helen Cann. This post put together by Harriet Fraser gives a behind-the-scenes look at Helen’s process, and how the map came into being.

Helen’s map not only shows the history of the moss, but also the present, documenting the ongoing upkeep of the Moss, and the hoped-for future as restoration brings rewards.  The layers of time – past, present and future – were important in Helen’s thinking.

The map shares stories from local residents and insights from scientists, and portrays the wildlife communities that have returned to the moss since extraction ceased and are likely to thrive as their habitats improve. It’s a thing of beauty, something that draws you in.

Detail of a handdrawn map of Bolton Fell Moss by Helen Cann. The image contains words (View point and Old Mill) and images of people, with description of the formation of peat over a ten thousand year period

When the original map was shared at the Wide Open Day it was like a magnet – people gathered around it, pointed out things they recognised, new information that surprised them, and used it as a catalyst to share further stories. The map is hand-drawn, in wonderful detail. When further infrastructure is in place on Bolton Fell Moss, and accessible via the boardwalk, a reproduction of the map will be in place. We can’t wait to see it there!

Three people stand with their backs to the camera, while they look at a large map of Bolton Fell Moss

Helen’s process

Helen compiled the map over a number of months. As well as visiting the site (which she reflects on in her blog here), Other artist researchers in the team shared recordings with her, so she could listen to interviews with people who used to work on the site when peat was extracted and ecologists and rangers who are now monitoring recovery of vegetation, and the return of wildlife. And Helen had conversations with the scientists, restoration specialists and others on the Moss of Many Layers team. This approach is new to Helen, and it’s great to see how rewarding it has been.

‘I have rarely worked with an inter-disciplinary team before other than being given access to historian or curatorial research notes, for example. Moss of Many Layers gave me the opportunity to have face to face talks with experts. The site visit was fantastic and vital in understanding the land and being able to have conversations with experts in the field.’ 

Images and writing from a map created by Helen Cann of Bolton Fell Moss. Images include a hare, a curlew, a girl and a digger

The inter-disciplinary nature of this project impacted the approach of all the researchers, with a level of responsiveness that relied on iterative learning and conversations. ‘My experience as an illustrator means my practice involves following a brief and then delivering as near to the agreed brief as possible.  In this case, I created my own brief and then followed through.’

A woman and two men are looking at a peat sample taken from 9 metres beneath the surface of a raised mire.

When we talked about this, Helen reflected that this is quite unusual – but worked perfectly. Each artist began with a loose framework (in Helen’s case, to draw a map) and then let their work evolve according to ongoing learning from visits to the site and from other people. Helen’s visit to Bolton Fell Moss caused her to change some of her initial ideas (and do a fair amount of rubbing out!). This doesn’t happen often in her work. ‘In the future, it might be good to allow myself space for more ‘idea bouncing’ and the flexibility to change course from the initial brief if my thoughts develop or I’m inspired to go in other directions. In general, I’m not sure how acceptable this is for stakeholders if they’ve a been promised a particular outcome – I’d never do this as an illustrator but it’s good to know how/if this works within an art context.’ Perhaps this is a key difference between pure illustration and research-led illustrative artwork, where the shape, detail and overall feel of a piece, can alter along the way: it’s responsive. You can read more about Helen’s reflections on her process on her website here.

One of the aims of the Moss of Many Layers project was for the various pieces of artwork to reflect learning, rather than an aim for a predetermined outcome. We’re really happy that this is what happened – and when all the work is compiled and made available we’ll share a link to it through the project page.

Encountering the unexpected

I asked Helen if anything unexpected happened for her. This was her answer:

‘ – the realisation that the Moss was in a constant state of flux, was still a work in progress and that I’d need to adapt drawings made initially as thoughts and practice had changed over the months.  I’m used to maps becoming anachronistic over time but never within such a short time, and I have to acknowledge that some elements of the map may be out of date by the time it’s actually printed as a sign!’

This might be a little unexpected in the context of creating an illustration, but it is an encouraging reflection: now that extraction has come to an end and restoration work is beginning to have a positive effect in the way water balance is shifting on the moss, the process of healing is showing quick results. It’s part of the positive story of this place – the geographical location won’t change, but a lot else will.

And a final word from Helen? ‘It’s been a blast.  I learnt loads and am really pleased with how the map turned out. I wish I could have had some of that cake.*’

*The cake at the Wide Open Day was a 3D presentation of the bog.

Three ceramic pots which are white with blue drawings on them representing food

food crops, sustainability & GM

Guest blog by Daksha Patel

This new work – a group of three ceramic pieces – explores themes of global food security and the impact of climate change and new pests and diseases upon food crops.

Three ceramic pots which are white with blue drawings on them representing food

We are today increasingly reliant on a very small number of food crop species worldwide. According to a report by the New Scientist only 0.1% of the planet’s edible plants are currently used to feed people. Research at Kew is exploring how traditional and wild food crop varieties, which are more resilient to shifting climatic conditions and emerging pests and diseases, can be used to breed genetic diversity into today’s food crops to make them more resilient.

I was commissioned to create this work as part of ‘A Modest Show’ collateral events at BAS9 (The British Art Show 9) in Manchester, 2022. The ceramic pieces featured at the event I’ll Bring You Flowers, a pop up meal and exhibition with fellow Suite Studio artists Fiona Donald and Lisa Remers. This brought together curators, artists, feminist chef and sommelier duo Anna Søgaard and Kim McBride from SUPPher, for an evening of wonderful food, wine and conversations with the general public. Some very interesting discussions about the environment, plant diversity, climate change and plant genetics ensued!

I often start new work by drawing. These sketches are of traditional food crops such as Akkoub (part of the sunflower family which grows in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine) and the Morama bean (an oilseed which grows in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and the Kalahari desert). It is of course impossible to ignore the other man-made threat to global food security: the impact of war and conflict on the supply chains of staple foods such as wheat. I incorporated mapping lines into the drawings to suggest coastlines and shipping routes, connecting different plants and geographical regions together.

I wanted the forms of the pots to reflect glass instruments such as conical flasks and beakers typically used in research laboratories. They were thrown in porcelain by Steve Graham at Clay Studio Manchester who skilfully and precisely followed my designs.

I used cobalt oxide to decorate the pots, an intricate process using tissue paper to transfer my drawings with a fine brush. It was very difficult to see what the final result would be, as the cobalt oxide was gritty and didn’t emulsify in the way water colours do. It was simply a question of making different concentrations of oxide by mixing with water, and waiting to see what emerged after firing.

A white ceramic pot raised on a potter's wheel with a design

The genetic modification of food crops is enmeshed in all kinds of inter-related, unresolved and ongoing issues. Farmers may become increasing reliant upon expensive seeds from the very small number of biotech companies who own the intellectual property for the genetic variations. The impact of GMO contamination in the environment is an ongoing concern that needs more research. Ultimately, scientific research is implicated in wider social, political, economic and environmental issues.

Finely decorated porcelain pots and food are both deeply connected to social practices and culture. The juxtaposition of traditional crafts with the laboratory-based forms and drawings on the ceramics, positions the scientific research into food crops and genetics in wider social contexts.

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 …”