Friday 31 January 2020

Fabulous Fungi

All of my life I have had a healthy interest in mushrooms. My late grandad was an avid mushroom forager and would often be known to fry up his foraged goods for breakfast. I always found this vaguely terrifying, but on reflection probably quite normal for someone from rural Lincolnshire who worked on a farm for most of his formative years.

I have many mushroom photos I’ve taken over the years. The most fascinating I found on the Ercall in Shropshire around 10 years ago and still remember it vividly to this day. As if it was covered in countless red jewels (subsequent searching for this photo and research has identified this as either a Devils tooth or a Mealy tooth thanks to my good friend Montalo).

But during the autumn of 2019 I decided to take my fungi fascination up a notch and instead of casually noticing fungi while out walking I became a self certified fungi hunter and started actively walking specifically to find the most amazing mushrooms I could.

Throughout 2019 I made a specific effort on different walks to focus on different things. This had a huge seasonal impact of course and spring was lots of trips to see the ducklings, then lots of looking at wild flowers, as summer progressed it was chasing butterflies and dragonflies, then as things changed I started suspiciously rooting about in the undergrowth for fantastic fungi!

Admittedly it did help that this autumn was an absolutely bumper one for mushrooms. Never in my life have I seen so many, and some staggeringly vast! Not to take anything away from the beautifully dainty fungi.

My goal for 2020 is to become far better at identifying them all! While I don't expect to become an expert over night it would be nice to be more aware and knowledgeable on the subject, so this is a good place to start. One of my first tasks of the new year was to buy a pocket identification book to keep in my camera bag at all times. To know nature is to be nature.

Friday 17 January 2020

Witch Marks After Dark: Apotropaic magic at Creswell Crags

Apotropaic magic is a very interesting and mysterious subject. In recent years the interest in apotropaic magic has soared, largely I believe due to our increasing understanding of the subject, and the ongoing discovery of apotropaic marks and objects in all sorts of places. One of these places is Creswell Crags. It would be tempting to say that recently apotropaic marks were discovered in their largest cave system, however the term ‘identified’ is actually much more appropriate.

In an unusual turn of events, two visitors to the Crags Hayley Clark and Ed Waters, avid hunters of so called ‘Witches Marks’ spotted some marks within the cave and informed their guide. After further research and observations in the cave what had previously been thought to be nothing more than (reasonably) modern graffiti was actually suddenly understood to be hundreds upon hundreds of apotropaic marks.

A brief explanation on apotropaic magic; the term literally means something which has the power to ‘turn away’ evil. There are countless different examples of this in most cultures throughout the world; the evil eye charm in Greece and Turkey, the Cimaruta and Mano Cornuto in Italy, Witches bottles and Horse shoes in Britain, the Eguzkilore in Basque France and Spain, to name just a few. The main purpose of these objects is believed to be to cast away evil spirits, Witches, Demons and Dark Magic. Apotropaic items have been found hidden within buildings; in cavity walls or under floorboards. But most apotropaic items or symbols are situated in or around entrance ways, to prevent the evil entering the building. A very common form of apotropaic magic as well as objects is marks, like the ones seen in Wookey Hole, Woolsthorpe Manor, Tithe Barn and of course Creswell Crags.

Creswell Crags has the largest concentration of spotropaic marks in Britain, and specialists are still trying to fully understand why. There are a few theories; perhaps to keep evil spirits from the cave so it could be used for winter storage, perhaps the site was a focus for local folklore and superstition or maybe the cave was perceived as a meeting place between worlds and the hole which plummets into the earth (incidentally where the concentration of the marks is most fervent) was perceived as a ‘well to hell’ and the Marks served the purpose to keep the demons from entering our world. Maybe we will never know what was going through the minds of the people who laboriously scratched these marks into the rock, but it’s certainly a major cause for curiosity.

The symbolism of the particular marks at Creswell are largely derived from Latin words or phrases commonly thought to be protective in the 17th century. The most heavily featured is the double V, which looks a lot like a W, which stand for ‘Virgo Virginum’ (Virgin of Virgins), but there are also many ‘C’s for Christ, I for Iesus (original Latin spelling of Jesus), R for Rex or Regina (referring to king or queen) and several other variations which generally all relate to Mary and Jesus in some form.

There are also some which may take the form of ‘demonic traps’ designed to ensnare evil in a maze like form, such as a Merels board, ladders and other usually straight edged shapes.

As you might imagine there has been some scepticism from visitors suggesting that the symbols are merely graffiti. However when you take into account the sheer volume of symbols, witness first hand their obsessive repetition and are aware of the presence of the same symbols hundreds of miles apart the significance of these marks becomes startlingly obvious.

I hope that in years to come more becomes known about the Witch Marks at Creswell Crags and that we learn who put them there and exactly why. But the team there are certainly up against it with all the changes that have happened on site over the last few hundred years, in particular Victorian excavations which didn’t record findings as rigorously as archaeologists do today, and considered anything from the 17th century too contemporary to bother with and sadly may have discarded many clues to deciphering the mysteries of the cave.

A huge thank you to the team at Creswell for their dedication and passion, and of course to our guide Sarah who made the experience a fantastic one!
Witch Marks After Dark tours run on select dates until the end of the month. Check out the Creswell Crags website here to find out more!

Monday 13 January 2020

Art in Focus: Treebeard

Throughout most of November and December I have been working on a top secret piece of artwork to be gifted to some of my oldest and best friends for Christmas. Now that the cats out of the bag and they have the piece I can talk a little more about it’s creation and concept!

As some may be aware, Tolkien is a absolutely huge influence on me, having visited some of his old haunts in Oxford, his grave and an exhibition at the Bodelian in 2018. The Hobbit is my favourite book of all time and I collect editions of Lord of the Rings (and almost anything Tolkien related) whenever possible. So it’s probably natural that at some point I did some Tolkien related art.

Many years ago I designed my half sleeve on the theme of ‘good and evil in Middle Earth’ (kindly tattooed by the super talented Nick Brinsley) and the main focus of this is my imagining of Treebeard, one of my favourite characters. (I always felt a huge affinity with Treebeard and probably wanted to be him more than any other character.)

Fast forward several years and me and good friends went to the Rodney Matthews exhibition Electric Rock near Birmingham to see many prints and originals on offer. My favourite was Rodney’s depiction of Treebeard (which I’ve been looking at in books since childhood). My friend ordered herself this print as she liked it so much. Little did I know she also ordered one for me and kept it safe over 9 months until my birthday! What a wonderful surprise, absolutely blew me away!

So, I got to thinking how I could express my gratitude and give a gift that really meant as much as some of the gifts she has given me over the years! So, I decided creating something was the only way.

I started doodling Treebeard in early November based on what I always saw reading the books (I refused to see Lord of the Rings until I had read the books, hence only seeing The Return of the King at the cinema). He closely resembles the Treebeard of my tattoo as this was also his basis. Just with rather a lot more moss, and of course mushrooms.
On my recent autumnal walks I took lots of photos of tree textures, lichen, moss and fungi to help as reference material.

Similarly to when putting together my tattoo design, Treebeard is imagined, but other elements are based on the depictions in the film. In my tattoo Sauron is based on Christopher Lees portrayal, the Orthanc and eye of Sauron also inspired by the film. Yet in the style of an illustration (in particular the way I tend to draw, which is not photorealism). Merry and Pippin who I chose to include in the painting are loosely based on the movie casting, with similar hair and clothes, but again, are an illustrative interpretation.

Creating the piece was a very enjoyable challenge. The knotwork in particular was infuriating! A very unforgiving art form! The piece consists of a complete pen layer (below) to build the depth of the piece, and then watercolour work to bring him truly to life. Interestingly this was the first piece I experimented in adding some metallic watercolour to bring out certain areas and give them a bit of pazazz. In total the piece took around 25 hours. As usual in the winter months the light is the biggest challenge to most creatives. Unfortunately I had to resort to doing the majority of the work under artificial light, which is never ideal, but I was happy with the results considering this.

I hope my friends are happy with their painting and enjoy it for many years to come!

Wednesday 1 January 2020

Nine Stones Close

Recently I have become more determined than ever to visit the amazing ancient sites spread across our country.

Our island nations pre-Christian history and traditions are very important to me as I feel they reflect our identity and the true nature of our people and land. These ancient oral traditions are largely lost to us now, but glimpses still remain here and there, in tales, songs and most importantly the landscape.
One huge impact still seen in the British landscape today is henges and barrows.

Throughout 2019 I’ve been trying to make a strange heathen pilgrimage to as many of these sites as I can, starting of course with my local county Derbyshire.

Having already visitors Doll Tor, Arbour Lowe and the Nine Ladies, the next on my list was Nine Stones Close, near to Robin Hoods Stride.

These adventures are always a bit of a magical mystery tour, as Neolithic sites such as this are not generally depicted on my hiking app, so it’s always a bit of a voyage of discovery, which is refreshing as you usually stumble on all sorts of other interesting things on the way.

Unfortunately only 4 of the nine stones which make up the circle remain erect, and yet the stone circle still has a powerful presence within the landscape. It’s easy to imagine just how impacting it would have been with all 9 stones standing, proud on the brow of the hill, with Robin Hoods Stride in the distance and the landscape rolling all around.

I always find it an amazing experience to walk around these places in the footsteps of our ancestors, to touch the stones they touched and wonder what they felt, what it meant to them. Also looking out to gaze upon their world and what they would have seen from this obviously important spot, usually it’s a breathtaking landscape and endless moorland. While today the landscape is somewhat changed, with farming having a large impact on what we see now, it’s easy to imagine what our ancestors might have seen looking out into the wider world.