Tag Archives: art and science

Conceptual Art in a Devon Country Lane – Lockdown Nature Walks 7

In this seventh Lockdown Nature Walk, I want to take you along more of the ancient lanes that crisscross the countryside around Totnes rather like the lines on the palm of my hand. The walk I describe was done in the last week of May on a sunny, warm day when there was a distinct feeling that the seasons were changing.

I begin at the foot of Harper’s Hill on the western side of town where an ancient trackway strikes steeply upwards in a south-westerly direction into trees and away from the busy Kingsbridge Road.  This is hard walking especially on the uneven surface and quite soon the lane becomes deeply sunken, bordered on both sides by steep banks, up to four metres in height.   Ferns and pennywort grow along these banks and a jungle-like tree canopy cuts out most of the light so that even on a sunny day the lane has a gloomy, slightly sinister feeling.  Today, small insects are caught, dancing like dust motes in the few shafts of light that make it through the canopy.  Earlier this year, fleshy green ramsons carpeted the pathside banks but their leaves are now yellowish and a vague garlicky odour hangs in the air as they decay.

It’s difficult to believe that for hundreds of years, until the inception of the turnpikes, Harper’s Hill was the main route out of Totnes towards Plymouth and the west.  As I trudge up the steep hill, I imagine the countless others who walked this way with heavy loads, or animals or rickety carts.  It’s as though I am “slipping back out of this modern world” (after W H Hudson).

Eventually, though. the lane levels out.  A gateway on the right offers a brief window through the curtain of vegetation and I see the land falling away steeply into a deep valley and Dartmoor lurking in the distance.   I continue along the track as it becomes more open between tall trees and a few caravans used for housing to reach Tristford Cross.

In the past, those who had laboured up Harper’s Hill bound for Plymouth and the west would have turned right at Tristford Cross on to the old ridgeway road along the brow of Windmill Down.  But I go straight ahead at this crossroads along a paved lane avoiding the occasional car to reach Cholwell Cross where another track, Jackman’s Lane, crosses at right angles.  Signs announce that this is an unmetalled road and it is indeed a deeply rutted, reddish soil track used by farm vehicles and muddy after rain but today bone dry and hard as concrete.

The start of Jackman’s Lane

I turn right along one section of Jackman’s Lane.  Superficially, this appears to be just another country track but from the first time I came here, I realised that this was a place with its own particular character and charm.  Unlike so many local lanes, it is flat, light and airy and surrounded by rolling countryside stretching into the distance.  Although it is bordered by Devon Hedges, these seem to have been maintained, restricting their height and allowing light to reach both sides of the track especially when the sun shines as it does today.  Many flowers grow along the lane, bees, butterflies and hoverflies dart about and there is a general buzz in the air.

Here are a few of the insect species I saw:

Beautiful demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo)

lace wing

Speckled yellow moth (Pseudopanthera macularia)

A Nomad bee (Nomada species) on hogweed. This photo does not show enough detail to assign this bee to a species but it is one of the many cuckoo bees that parasitise the nests of solitary mining bees.

As I enter the lane, I notice thick rope-like skeins of a scrambling plant in the right-hand hedge with dark green, glossy, heart-shaped leaves that look as though they have been coated with shiny paint.  This is black bryony and its pale yellow insignificant flowers are now showing.  Insignificant they may be but they will give rise to trailing strings of plump, shiny red berries in the autumn.  Several tree species are present in the hedges including elder, hazel, holly, rowan and sycamore, suggesting that this is a very old hedge.  In several places, foxgloves grow from the top of the bank in large groups (see picture at the head of this post) creating a vivid pink display against the clear blue sky, reminiscent of the colourful banners displayed at music festivals.  Large buzzy bumblebees systematically work the individual foxglove flowers.

Black bryony with its glossy leaves and small yellow flowers

Banks of cow parsley along Jackman’s Lane

Banks of lacy white cow parsley line the lane in places but the insects seem to ignore this umbellifer.  The same is not true for hogweed and one or two tall stands of this robust plant with its white pompom flowers are proving irresistible for hoverflies and solitary bees.  Then I come to the toilet!  Someone has dumped an old toilet in the right-hand hedge and scrawled “R Mutt” on it in black letters.  This may be fly-tipping but I also think it is an “hommage” to Marcel Duchamp, and I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on the value of this piece of conceptual art.

no caption required!

A gateway into a field appears on the left so I stop to take in the view.  I work out that I am looking roughly south west and an image unspools ahead of me of fields and hedges, a few cows, repeating into the distance, disappearing into a blue haze.  For a short time, I am transfixed by this view, it’s so unusual for this part of Devon to encounter a landscape free from hills and valleys.  It feels as though the sea should lie somewhere in the distant blue haze but that’s beyond what I can see.

In the middle section of the lane, I find flowers that speak more of summer than of spring so despite the limbo imposed on human lives by the lockdown, seasonal change carries on regardless.   Foxgloves are part of this seasonal shift but I also see large amounts of a yellowish plant that grows almost horizontally from the side of the hedges.  It has greenish-yellow, hairy leaves arranged symmetrically in whorls of four with clusters of small fragrant yellow flowers at the bases of the leaves.  I initially thought this was lady’s bedstraw but it is in fact crosswort, a relative.  Vetches are also showing.  Bush vetch with its untidy mauve flowers has been about for a while but I also find the yellow, pea-like flowers of meadow vetchling.  Both vetches attract bees but another favourite of these insects is hedge woundwort.  This plant has just come into flower in the lane displaying its burgundy red flowers decorated with fine white hieroglyphics.

Crosswort

Meadow vetchling with a common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum)

Hedge woundwort with a common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum)

Further on, nettles begin to dominate the hedges and a few tall trees appear before the lane reaches the old ridgeway road on Windmill Down.  The section of Jackman’s Lane that I have described is quite short, barely half a mile in length, but it has a very particular character.  It is also very rich in wildlife and unexpectedly, it contains an interesting piece of conceptual art.

There are various ways to complete a circular walk from here but perhaps the most interesting is to turn left along Windmill Down until a stony track leaves the ridgeway road to bear right, downhill.  This is another section of Jackman’s Lane which eventually reaches the Plymouth Road at Follaton for an easy return to the town.

To see my previous Lockdown Nature Walks please look here

A Dartmoor Cuckoo Chorus – Lockdown Nature Walks 6

With the easing of the Lockdown rules in the UK, we have been venturing further afield for our exercise walks.  So, a few days ago we drove up to Two Bridges, high on Dartmoor, for a circular walk around the valley of the west Dart river via Wistman’s Wood, a rare example of ancient high-altitude oak wood.  Our walk was graced by the sounds of many cuckoos.

We began by heading northwards away from the Two Bridges car park on an uneven track running roughly parallel to the west Dart river.  With clear skies, strong sun and barely any breeze, it was much hotter than we expected for Dartmoor and sultry is probably the best word to describe the weather.  Soon after we set off, however, as we walked up the dry stony path to Crockern Tor Farm, we heard the unmistakable call “cuckoo cuckoo”.    A few sheep and one or two walkers were our only company and the song of the cuckoo instantly grabbed our attention as it echoed round the valley.  Further on, a jumble of rocks, Crockern Tor, loomed on our right and then another cuckoo called.  Eventually, we reached the top of a ridge and Wistman’s Wood came into view ahead, a green-leaved mass standing out above the summer-dry landscape on the eastern flank of the valley while the west Dart river lay in the valley bottom below.  The dry grass around us was punctuated by neat yellow tormentil flowers and unruly clumps of heath bedstraw covered with tiny white flowers and, as we walked, small orange butterflies (Small Heath, Coenonympha pamphilus) flickered upwards, dancing around briefly before heading off.  Another cuckoo called and I began to understand how the simple but beautiful music of their song had inspired so many composers.

Wistman’s Wood (taken 19th May 2018)

 

We made our way along the edge of Wistman’s Wood looking in on the seductive jumble of moss- and lichen-covered twisted branches and smooth rocks.  By now we had been walking for about an hour and were finding the temperature difficult so we decided to take a lunch break seated on smooth lumps of granite beneath one of the old oaks.  A little cloud had helpfully bubbled up keeping the sun at bay.  The river valley lay below us and the dense oaks of Wistman’s Wood and a few smaller clumps of trees stood out on the hillside.   Sheep bleated fitfully and small birds flitted about.  Then the cuckoos started to sing as if to provide us with lunchtime entertainment.  Several birds called from different directions, some nearer, some further away and at least two cuckoos moved between the trees in the valley.  We recognised them in flight from their pointed wings and long tail.  Most of the song was “cuckoo cuckoo”, the call of the male bird and sometimes this was extended to “cuckcuckoo”, not far off the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth.  We also heard the burbling, gurgling sound which the female cuckoo makes when she is excited.

Cuculus canorus vogelartinfo chris romeiks CHR0791 cropped.jpg
A cuckoo (from Wikipedia)

 

Here is a short video of a male cuckoo calling:

The cuckoos had put on a real show for us that day but whenever I hear their call, whether it be one cuckoo or several, the sound has a profound effect on me.  In my teens, living in small town Hampshire, near woodland, cuckoo calls were a standard fixture of spring, something I came to expect each year.  With the decline of the bird, and having lived in large towns for many years I lost that expectation.  Now when we come to Dartmoor and I hear cuckoos again, their song touches some deeply held memory for me.

After lunch, we headed down across open moorland to cross the west Dart river.  Cotton grass with its fluffy, white cotton wool heads grew here, showing that the land is normally very boggy.  I also saw a few delicate blue and white heath milkwort flowers, far fewer today than in previous years, perhaps a reflection of the dry weather.  We crossed the river and scrambled up to the Devonport Leat, a narrow watercourse constructed in the 18th century to supply water from the Dart river to the growing community of Plymouth Dock 27 miles away.  Nowadays it empties into the Burrator Reservoir which provides water for Plymouth itself.  We followed the leatside path along the western side of the valley across the river from Wistman’s Wood to return to Two Bridges [The picture at the head of this post and the note at the end explain the location of the leatside path].  This should, by definition, be mostly easy walking but degradation of the path stones makes it less so.  Marsh violet with its pale mauve flowers, pink lousewort and good amounts of bilberry flourish in the damp environment by the leat and a few small fish dart back and forth.

About half way along the leatside path, two male cuckoos began to sing from the trees across the river in Wistman’s Wood.  At first, their calls came at different times from different locations.  One bird sang “cuckoo” and a short time later the other bird did likewise as if providing an answer.  This call and answer pattern was then repeated.  But the two birds were actually “cuckooing” at different frequencies so that gradually their calls moved together, then began to overlap and for a short time they sang at the same time before one bird stopped.   For a brief moment, as we listened, time stood still.

The song of the two cuckoos initially made me think of a musical round where different groups of people sing the same melody but start at different times.  “Sumer is icumen in”, also known as the Cuckoo Song, is a good example of a round.  A better analogy for the calls of the two cuckoos, however, comes from the phase music of Steve Reich. In his composition, Piano Phase, two pianos play the same tune but at slightly different tempi, giving rise to novel musical effects, rather like the two singing cuckoos.

When we decided to walk on Dartmoor that day, I had expected to hear one or two cuckoos but nothing like the extraordinary cuckoo chorus that graced our walk.

We walked on Dartmoor on May 27th 2020, our route is described here

The picture at the top of this post looks south down the valley of the west Dart.  Wistman’s Wood can be seen on the left and the line on the western hillside is the Devonport Leat.

Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath

Mistaken marriages, passionate affairs, tragic deaths, richly interwoven with folklore and superstition.  This is the complex concoction contained in The Return of the Native, one of Thomas Hardy’s great novels.  Hardy set his narrative on the semi-fictional Egdon Heath, a “vast tract of unenclosed wild” that assumes a claustrophobic, controlling influence on his characters.  Hardy’s Egdon Heath has many of the features of the heath landscape that once filled the space between Dorchester and Bournemouth.  I wanted to experience Egdon so, on a warm, humid day towards the end of July, I went to Winfrith Heath one of the surviving fragments of this Dorset heathland.

Winfrith Heath 1
Looking across the heath showing the subtle colour effect of the heather flowers

 

I followed a sandy soil track on to the heath, descending gradually between borders of gorse and low trees.  As I gained distance from the road, long views opened up across the gently undulating terrain surrounding me and an eerie quiet descended, broken only by trains passing on the heath-edge line.  Apart from the occasional stunted tree and a few drifts of pale green bracken much of this part of the heath appeared featureless and barren.

Closer inspection, however, revealed some of the heath’s special wildlife.   Near the path edge, the cheerful purples, pinks and violets of the three common species of heather showed well.   These heathers flourish across the heath alongside rough grasses and gorse, and their bright pastel-coloured flowers lend a purple-pink tinge to long views at this time of year, the colour augmented by sunshine but lost in a mass of dull browns and greens when cloud covers.   Large, metallic blue and green emperor dragon flies, the size of small birds, were attracted to the ponds scattered across the heath.  They swept back and forth across the water making repeated, aerial, hairpin turns in a constant search for insect food.  Heather spikes dipped momentarily when yellow-striped bumblebees moved among the flower-bells collecting pollen and nectar.

The sandy path levelled out. Heathland now spread extensively on both sides and, together with the grey cloud cover, created a claustrophobic feeling.  Ahead of me was a band of trees with a gate and standing water.  The trees mark a drainage ditch feeding into the Tadnoll Brook, a chalk-stream tributary of the River Frome.  I crossed the ditch on a very solid brick bridge, and was transported to a different world, one of damp meadows and thick rushy grass.  The wet meadow, soggy underfoot, was dominated by untidy stands of shoulder-high marsh thistles with multiple, prolific, spiny stems.  Each stem was topped by a starburst of flower heads, a mixture of shaggy purple flowers and brown and white fluffy seed heads.  Between the thistles, the lemon-yellow cushion flowers of bird’s foot trefoil scrambled through the undergrowth and, as I walked, pale brown grasshoppers soared in long arcs from the rough grass, seeking safety away from me.

Butterflies danced around the unruly thistle flowers like confetti caught in the breeze, pausing occasionally to take nectar.  Small tortoiseshell, marbled white and peacock resembled colourful modernist stained glass and a pair of gatekeepers performed an airborne ballet.   This enclosed wetland felt like a land of plenty, a land of unconstrained, fulsome growth.  Even in high summer, however, the meadow was wet and marshy so that after winter rain the area will become boggy and treacherous.  A group of cows lurked in a corner of the meadow watching me; they help to control growth of vegetation but create further hazards for the unwary walker.

These two very different habitats, the larger lowland heath and the smaller wet meadow make up the majority of the Winfrith reserve as we see it today but the area hasn’t always looked like this.  Until the Bronze Age, this land was covered with forest (birch, pine, hazel, elm, oak) but 3-4000 years ago trees began to be felled exposing the underlying soil.  Nutrients were gradually washed away from freely draining soils leaving behind a relatively acidic surface where heathers and gorse flourished, eventually creating the heath we see today.  This landscape was maintained and scrub encroachment prevented through a combination of grazing by cattle and ponies and by heathland practices such as furze, turf and peat cutting.

Heathland once stretched from Dorchester in the west to the Avon Valley in the east but much has been lost following changes in agricultural practices or through building; a large part of Winfrith Heath was swallowed up when the nuclear research facility was built in the 1950s and still lies behind forbidding fences.  Today, only 15% of the original heath is left but what remains is a very important and rare landscape and part of Dorset’s history.  Its importance as a special habitat supporting rare species such as the Dartford warbler and the nightjar is recognised by its designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest but the heathland is still threatened directly or indirectly by development.

But did I get any sense of what Hardy’s Egdon Heath was like from my visit?  Even on a small area like Winfrith, there was a definite sense of isolation in the central part of the heath, and that feeling was only partially lifted when the sun shone and the heath took on some colour.   So, if it’s solitude you are after, then it’s a perfect place.  One person’s solitude is, however, another person’s loneliness and it’s not difficult to see how Egdon might have depressed some of Hardy’s characters.  Neither is the heath a benign environment; care is required in all seasons but in winter, it is bleak, brown and very windy with boggy areas dangerous especially after wet weather.  Having said all that, the heath does have an undeniable grandeur but its very rarity as a landscape nowadays means that we may not know how to react to it.  Perhaps like Hardy’s “survivors” we should simply accept and embrace the heath for what it is, foibles and all.

Winfrith Heath lies to the west of Gatemore Road in Winfrith Newburgh and a Dorset Wildlife Trust information board marks the entrance. 

 

Bell heather and ling with gorse on Winfrith Heath
Bell heather, ling and gorse on Winfrith Heath

 

Cross-leaved heath.
Cross-leaved heath

 

 

Emperor dragonfly on Winfrith Heath
A pond on the heath with an emperor dragonfly

 

 

Small tortoiseshell butterfly on marsh thistle.
Small tortoiseshell butterfly on marsh thistle

 

Peacock butterfly on Winfrith Heath
Peacock butterfly on marsh thistle with bumblebee

 

Nuclear research centre Winfrith Heath
The former nuclear research facility seen through trees and behind forbidding fences on the other side of Gatemore Road.

 

 

This article appeared in the September 2017 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine

Bees in a landscape

I’ve always loved visiting galleries, discovering what an artist has created, but in the first week of May, the tables were turned.  For the first time, I was on the other side presenting a joint exhibition with my artist wife, Hazel.   We called the exhibition, “Bees in a Landscape”, and it was based around Hazel’s semi-abstract paintings of memorable views from the South West of the UK depicting the local landscape in all its glories.  Alongside the paintings, I showed photographs of some of the bees I have encountered in these same locations.   We hoped that the exhibition would raise awareness of the variety, beauty and importance of these beneficial insects as well as showing how we can all support them.

Poster for Birdwood & P.V
The Exhibition Poster

It was more than a year and a half ago that we agreed to put on the exhibition and throughout 2016 I photographed bees and Hazel worked hard on her paintings.  I didn’t spend hours looking for rare examples, I just photographed the bees that I saw, often in local gardens or when Hazel and I were out walking together by the coast.  It has certainly made me look more carefully at insects and flowers when we go out.

As the week of the exhibition approached there were many things to arrange: had we done enough publicity, did we have enough wine for the Private View, had we sent out all the invitations, would enough people come? Fortunately Hazel has a lot of experience in putting on exhibitions.  When we spoke to people in the run up to the exhibition, we detected a genuine interest in the topic of bees and the landscape which was very reassuring.

P1080627
Hanging the Exhibition finally finished!

The most stressful time was “hanging” the exhibition.  All the paintings and photos were ready but we couldn’t get in to the gallery until 1730, the evening before the exhibition opened on the Sunday.  There were a few distractions, and it took longer than we expected to decide how to place the work around the gallery and to mount it on the walls, and we had to come back on Sunday morning to complete the job.  In the end, we finished with just enough time to nip home to change and be back to welcome guests for the Private View.

Totnes women's choir, Viva
Roz Walker and Totnes Women’s Choir Viva singing at the Private View

The Private View is one of those special artists’ events that goes with an exhibition.   It’s a chance to invite friends, other artists, and people with a special interest to share a glass of wine before the exhibition is open to the public.  Many people came and everyone seemed genuinely interested and impressed by the work.  We were also very fortunate that, during the Private View, Totnes women’s choir Viva, sang for us creating a magical atmosphere with their beautiful harmonies.  Led by Roz Walker, and dressed in yellow and black, they sang songs about bees based on poems by Rudyard Kipling, Carol Ann Duffy, Vita Sackville-West and one based on the Finnish epic poem the Kalevala.   We were so grateful that they gave their time to come and sing for us.

gallery 1
Hazel stewarding in the gallery

The Exhibition was open that afternoon and then daily until the following Saturday.  Hazel and I split the stewarding duties which meant we each did a morning or an afternoon in the gallery.  Totnes is a busy place and the gallery is in the centre of town so up to 100 people came in each day.  We both had many interesting and unexpected conversations with visitors and I was very surprised at the warmth and interest shown by people who came to look at the pictures, both landscapes and bees.  On many occasions, I heard the comment:  ” I didn’t realise how many kinds of bee there were in this country and how beautiful they are!”  Hazel found that her paintings evoked memories for visitors: of childhood picnics, happy holidays and even a honeymoon.  The greetings cards featuring images from the Exhibition were also very popular.

gallery 3
Two of the bee pictures (actual size of each picture is A4)

gallery 7
Hazel’s painting of “Bantham – the promise of summer” (two canvases each measuring 60X50 cm)

On the Tuesday, I took a small group on a Bee Tour of the public gardens dotted around the centre of Totnes.  It wasn’t a very sunny day but we had wide-ranging discussions and were able to see some interesting bees foraging on large patches of comfrey and cerinthe including female Hairy-footed flower bees, early and tree bumblebee workers and a garden bumblebee queen.

Soundart
My debut on Soundart Radio

Our exhibition was featured on Soundart, a local community radio station.  One of the presenters interviewed Hazel in the gallery and I went to the studio to talk about bees.  This was an interesting experience, if not altogether satisfactory.  After Hazel’s interview had been played, the presenters asked me about the exhibition and about bees which was fine.  When we got on to neonicotinoids, however, the discussion was hijacked by one presenter.  He challenged the possibility of obtaining “evidence” in scientific investigations of complex systems like bees and after his intervention, the bee discussion petered out which was a shame as there were many other aspects we could have covered.

Hazel and I were extremely pleased with the exhibition.  Many people came to look and we had some fascinating conversations.  Several people made special journeys to visit and talk to us.  People went away knowing more about bees.  What more could you we have asked for!?

For more about Hazel’s paintings click here.  The featured image at the top of this post  is Hazel’s painting “Seal Bay (Brixham from Churston Cove)”.

Birdwood House Gallery  web site can be viewed here

Still ticking after all these years – the Ottery St Mary Astronomical Clock

Ottery St Mary is a small town in East Devon in the south west of the UK. The town has several claims to fame: not only is it the birthplace of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge but Harry Potter fans will know it as the inspiration for Ottery St Catchpole, home of the Weasleys. Then there is St Mary’s Church, a magnficent building, a mini-cathedral. There is much to see within the church but one of its more unusual features is the ancient astronomical clock. As well as telling the time, it also shows the age and phase of the moon, and it has done so for more than five centuries. This beautiful clock is a rare example of medieval craftsmanship and gives us a unique insight into life many centuries ago.

St Mary's Church Ottery St Mary 3
St Mary’s Church, Ottery St Mary

 

Perhaps there is a chiming clock in the town where you live that insists on telling you the hour. You probably also wear a wristwatch and, failing that, your computer or phone provides minute by minute updates of the time. But it hasn’t always been like this, so how were clocks developed and how did time come to rule us?

The earliest clocks

In Western Europe, the first rudimentary clocks began to appear only during the medieval era. They were the preserve of monasteries and their purpose was to provide a signal to the sacristan who then rang the cloister bell, calling the monks to prayer at regular intervals. These simple timepieces were probably water clocks, where time was measured via the flow of water in to or out of a vessel. Although they were not very accurate, they were a great improvement on sundials in a cloud-prone country.

Then, in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, a major breakthrough in clock development occurred. Reports of new mechanical clocks began to appear from various places in Europe including Exeter (1284) and Salisbury (1306) and, most likely, this coincided with the invention of the escapement. These new clocks would probably have been driven by a weight attached to a rope wound round a drive shaft. The escapement was a device that enabled the weight to descend in a stepwise manner, each step representing the passing of time which could be displayed on the clock face. The familiar “tick, tock” of these clocks is the sound of the escapement. So began a new era of mechanical clocks composed solely of metal wheels and gears. These clocks were enthusiastically installed in church towers and other public buildings allowing a bell to be rung at intervals throughout the day, broadcasting time to the inhabitants of the town and, for example, signalling the opening of trading at the market.

As these mechanical clocks became more sophisticated they were elaborated to show not only time but also the age and phase of the moon. The south west of England has four well preserved examples of these ancient astronomical clocks that have survived for at least five centuries, perhaps because of their novelty or their beauty. They are to be found in Exeter Cathedral, Wells Cathedral, Wimborne Minster and in Ottery St Mary Church.

The Astronomical Clock in St Mary’s Church, Ottery St Mary

The clock hangs high above the south transept and below the bell tower. Its bright blue face, about a metre and a half square, is liberally decorated with gold and red and topped with a gold angel blowing a trumpet. Unashamedly beautiful and garish at the same time, it dominates the scene.

Astronomical Clock in Ottery St Mary Church
The astronomical clock in St Mary’s Church, Ottery St Mary

 

The clock has two circular dials. The outer dial shows the hour with two sets of twelve Roman numerals. A golden sphere, representing the sun, moves to show the time. The inner dial contains thirty Arabic numerals with a gold star moving between them to show the age of the moon. Within the inner dial is a sphere painted half white, half black which rotates on its axis once every 29.5 days depicting the moon and its phases; the moon sphere also moves around the dial once every 24 hours. A black sphere at the centre of the clock shows the earth as the centre of the universe. The clock mechanism is visible behind the face.

Clock Mechanism Ottery St Mary
The clock mechanism

 

The exact age of the clock is not known but we may get a hint from the strong similarity between the Ottery St Mary clock and the astronomical clock in Exeter Cathedral, which dates from the 15th century. Also, both timepieces depict a medieval view of the structure of the universe where the sun rotates about the earth. This model was only superseded in 1543 when Copernicus proposed that the earth actually rotates about the sun, so we can be fairly sure that both are older than this date.

Astronomical Clock in Exeter Cathedral
The astronomical clock in Exeter Cathedral. The Latin inscription translates as “The hours pass and are reckoned to our account”.

 

Why astronomical clocks?

It is easy to understand the purpose of a clock that broadcasts the time of day to a busy town but why would the medieval clockmaker go to the trouble to include information about the age and phase of the moon and the apparent movement of the sun about the earth? One possibility may have been a desire of the contemporary Church to create a model of God’s celestial universe but perhaps there were secular reasons as well. For example, knowledge of the phases of the moon would have been useful in planning a long journey at night or a meeting in winter. Also, because of the influence of the moon on tides, knowledge of the state of the moon would have been useful for seafarers.

When they first appeared, these clocks must have seemed miraculous: man had constructed a machine that would predict the motion of the sun and moon and show the hours of the day. Possession of such a clock would have been a source of civic and ecclesiastical pride and conferred distinction on a town. For Ottery St Mary, perhaps it was considered fitting to install such a clock in its “mini-cathedral” of St Mary’s church.

The 21st century observer, surrounded by technology and gadgets, might, however, simply view the Ottery St Mary clock as an ancient curiosity. This would be a mistake: the clock is a rare example of advanced medieval craftsmanship as well as offering considerable insight into how life was lived so many years ago. It is a true medieval marvel.

 

This article appeared in the November edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Dorset’s big farming experiment

The village of Briantspuddle lies near tranquil water meadows in the valley of the River Piddle, some eight miles to the east of Dorchester in the south-west of the UK. Nowadays, Briantspuddle is all pretty cottages, thatched roofs and peace and quiet. The village was far from quiet in the first half of the 20th century when Briantspuddle became a centre of agricultural and social innovation.

River Piddle at Briantspuddle
The river Piddle near Briantspuddle (doesn’t look like a piddle to me)

 

The Bladen Estate: Ernest Debenham’s vision for a new agriculture

Ernest Debenham was an educated and practical man, an innovator, always keen to try new ideas. He was, after all, the grandson of the founder of the Debenhams drapery and department store empire. By 1900 he was in charge of the company and became very wealthy. Around this time, he decided that agriculture would benefit from being organised as a business. He developed the idea of self-sufficient farming where centralised processing and selling directly from the farm would “cut out the middle man”, reduce costs and boost rural employment. In 1914, he purchased several farms in the Piddle Valley around Briantspuddle where he intended to test these ideas. This land became the Bladen Estate, named after the old form of Blagdon or Blackdown, the hill above Briantspuddle.

Houses for workers

Cruck Cottage Briantspuddle
Cruck Cottage Briantspuddle – one of the houses present before Debenham started building. It shows the “Dorset” style he tried to emulate.

 

At the beginning of the 20th century, Briantspuddle was a sleepy hamlet of about a dozen houses. To realise his vision of self-sufficient farming, Debenham planned a substantial expansion of the village although, because of the outbreak of war, new building did not start until 1919. He believed that good housing led to good work, so his first priority was to provide new houses for the estate workers. These were built in the traditional, Arts and Crafts style with thatched roofs, designed to blend sympathetically with the local environment. The new cottages were equipped with a bathroom and inside lavatory, and with self-sufficiency in mind, a quarter acre garden and a pig pen. Debenham also encouraged tree planting as a means of harmonising the new development with the surrounding countryside.

Cottages in Briantspuddle's Bladen Valley
Some of the “new” houses built by Debenham for estate workers in Briantspuddle’s Bladen Valley

 

Scientific agriculture

Dairy Ring 2
Part of the semi-circular dairy complex, now private housing

 

The Bladen Estate was established as an experiment to test how centralised processing and the application of recent scientific discoveries in agriculture might improve food production. Many aspects of farming were examined but perhaps the most innovative development was the central dairy in Briantspuddle. This was a purpose-built facility for collecting, testing and packaging milk from Estate farms. The new buildings were intended to be functional, the semi-circular design allowing easy access for transport. They were also meant to be aesthetically pleasing, imparting a special character to the area and, of course, they had thatched roofs. A unique aspect of the dairy was a bacteriological laboratory capable of testing milk for bacteria as well as fat content. Bonuses were paid to workers from farms supplying milk with the lowest bacterial count, so encouraging cleanliness in the milking parlour. The central dairy processed 1000 gallons of milk each day in to Grade A milk, butter, cheese and pig food. Milk was transported in covered motor wagons to a depot in Parkstone where it could be on sale within an hour of leaving Briantspuddle.

Old dairy buildings Briantspuddle
Some buildings I found at the back of the dairy complex, now private housing but looking like they once had an important function on the farm.

 

Animal husbandry was also approached systematically and scientifically. For each cow, detailed records were kept of weight, health, food consumed etc. Twice a year, the estate Veterinary Service examined animals for tuberculosis; cows testing positive were vaccinated. Similar intensive approaches were tried in relation to sheep, pigs and poultry and there were 70 bee colonies. Livestock were fed arable crops grown on the Estate; also balanced rations supplied by a company established by Debenham. The Estate had dedicated power and water supplies and its own transport depot, contributing to self sufficiency.


The end of the experiment

At its peak in 1929, the Bladen Estate farmed 10,000 acres of land in and around the Piddle Valley, including many individual farms, providing employment for 600 people. These were difficult times for business, especially for farming and the Estate required continual financial input to stay afloat. Eventually the funds required to subsidise the venture ran out, the Estate went in to decline and the individual farms were sold.

Ford over the river Piddle at Turner's Puddle
One of the constituent farms of the Estate at Turner’s Puddle, seen across the ford on the river Piddle

 

Despite the apparent failure of his experiment, Debenham should be seen as one of agriculture’s pioneers. His ideas for self-sufficient farming were ahead of his time. Many “modern” farming practices were tested on the Bladen Estate but at the time the tools to make them work were unavailable e.g. antibiotics to control disease under intensive conditions. Debenham was, sadly, wrong in one of his beliefs: increased production and centralisation have not allowed more people to live on the land; in fact the opposite has proven to be true.

21st century Briantspuddle

The contemporary visitor to Briantspuddle will encounter an attractive village with a remarkably consistent architectural style, a legacy of Ernest Debenham’s experiment and vision. The best place to experience this is the Bladen Valley, a small coombe populated by substantial, white-washed, thatched cottages originally built for estate workers, most still retaining their original look.

Bladen Valley 2
Cottages in the Bladen Valley, Briantspuddle – originally built for estate workers from 1919 onwards

 

At the foot of this valley lies the unusual War Memorial commissioned by Debenham to commemorate seven local men who died in the Great War (six names of WW2 fatalities have since been added). The memorial, sculpted in Portland Stone by the controversial artist Eric Gill, was dedicated in 1918, one day after the armistice had been signed.

War Memorial Briantspuddle 2
War Memorial

 

Detail from War Memorial Briantspuddle 2
Madonna and child on War Memorial

 

Detail from War Memorial Briantspuddle
Commemorating the names of the WW1 dead

 

In the main part of the village, there is the semicircular former dairy complex, now private housing, and the fine thatched Village Hall based on a converted 18th century barn which, together with the Social Club, provides a focus for village activities. Next to the Hall is the Village Shop and Post Office. This was once a granary but in 2002 became a community shop run by volunteers, “by the village, for the village”. It seems that in Briantspuddle, social experiments continue to the present day.

Dairy Ring 1
Another view of the semi-circular former dairy complex

 

Village Hall and shop Briantspuddle
The Village Hall (left) and Community Shop (right) in Briantspuddle

 

This article appeared in the February 2015 edition of the Dorset-based Marshwood Vale Magazine.

 

When I visited the area, I came across the now-disused church at Turner’s Puddle a little way along the Piddle from Briantspuddle and was surprised to see snowdrops in profusion at this time of year (January 13th).

Turner's Puddle church with snowdrops
The disused church at Turner’s Puddle – to the left of the steps you may be able to see snowdrops in flower in January

 

The Flying Squad*

An imposing, white-painted beehive stood in the middle of the room. Emblazoned across the front in large black letters was one word – POLICE.

The police keep bees?

But why?

On a nearby wall was a screen showing a short documentary film: “Policing Genes” by Thomas Thwaites. The film featured police beekeeper, Mark Machan, from the Metropolitan Police Genetic Surveillance Unit. Machan manages 43 beehives around south London and part of Kent. He collects pollen from bees returning to their hives. The pollen is analysed to see if people are growing GM crops and infringing intellectual property; also whether they are cultivating illicit substances. Machan takes advantage of the bees’ “waggle dance” to locate the source of the pollen. Bees returning to the hive perform this dance to communicate the location of rich forage to their nest mates. Machan analyses these waggle dances to infer the location so that officers can be sent to suburban gardens growing unlicensed GM plants. The advantage of using bees is that they can go anywhere, they don’t need a warrant. They save human time and money.

It sounded plausible and I must admit that, for a short time, I believed the story, but this was an art gallery and I should have been more circumspect.

0TC1004_WELLCOME_ 092_fin_RGB_v2_Large.jpg
The poster advertising the Apiculture exhibition

 

I was visiting the recent exhibition “Apiculture: Bees and the Art of Pollination” at the University of Plymouth which showed how artists have responded to the problems faced by bees. The exhibition was curated by Amy Shelton as part of the Honeyscribe project which explores the relationship between bee health, human health, the environment and the arts. Her exhibition brought together the work of ten internationally known artists many of whom also work with scientists.

Once I realised that I was being taken for a ride, I could see that the police beehive and this film might be warning about of the perils of a culture where overexploitation of wildlife and infringement of personal freedom were commonplace.

I was made to think again, however, when I read a recent paper from the Apiculture Group at Sussex University. Dr Margaret Couvillon and colleagues had been interested to find out whether so-called agri-environment schemes really were effective. Major changes in farming have occurred since the middle of the 20th century leading to the loss of habitat for wildlife and the increased use of chemicals. European Union agri-environment schemes are designed to provide practical support to farmers to protect valuable and threatened landscape and to encourage them to adopt practices that support wildlife. Different levels of “stewardship” exist corresponding to different levels of support for the environment. Payments amounting to £400 million a year are made to farmers in England for these schemes but outcomes are often unclear.

In this new study, Couvillon and colleagues have used foraging honeybees to act as assessors of landscape quality to see if agri-environment schemes actually do deliver.

Honeybees depend for their survival on the availability of abundant forage in the form of flowers so they are continually assessing the “quality” of the surrounding environment. Worker bees returning to the hive perform the “waggle dance” to communicate to their nest mates the location of the most profitable foraging locations. The waggle dance encodes information about the distance and direction of the preferred forage and if this “language” could be decoded then honeybees could be used to monitor the quality of the landscape.

The Sussex group have done just that. By analysing the bees’ waggle dances, they can “eavesdrop” on honeybee workers when they express their foraging preferences for different types of landscape. Three hives situated at the University of Sussex were studied over two flowering seasons. The bees foraged over a mixed landscape consisting of urban land, rural land receiving no environmental support and rural land receiving different levels of agri-environment support. Couvillon and colleagues decoded waggle dances from 5484 worker bees and found considerable variation in foraging preference for different parts of the landscape. Rural land supported by agri-environment schemes was visited more often by the bees whereas urban land, rural land not receiving agri-environment support and, surprisingly, rural land under organic stewardship were visited less often.

The bees expressed their strongest preference for rural land under higher level stewardship including local nature reserves. These schemes provide the greatest support for the environment and may encourage growth of forage-rich wild flowers. Money spent on higher level stewardship schemes and nature reserves may, therefore, be helping to support bees and other important pollinators whose habitat has been degraded by changes in farming practices during the 20th century.

In contrast, the bees expressed their lowest preference for rural land under organic entry level stewardship. Although this scheme does provide support for the environment and the land is farmed using organic principles, the practices used to establish the land may prevent nectar-rich plants from flowering. This unexpected observation should make organic farmers reflect on the methods they are using.

This is a fascinating study illustrating how the language of the honeybee waggle dance is used to communicate information about the health of the surrounding landscape to the hive community. Couvillon and colleagues have shown that by translating the bee language they can also access this information and, potentially, use it as an important tool to inform policy for supporting wildlife.

At the end of the paper, Couvillon and colleagues emphasise how, with their analysis, honeybees can be used to survey landscape health and they can do this more cheaply, more effectively and more quickly than humans could ever do – a surprising echo of the words used by the “police beekeeper”.
…………………………………………………………………………………………………….

*The Flying Squad is a branch of the UK police specialising in the investigation of commercial armed robberies. They were immortalised in the TV series, The Sweeney.

Nowhereisland – nowhere to be seen?

Nowhereisland at Torquay

If you were in Weymouth at the start of the Olympic sailing you may have been surprised to see a mysterious new island appear off the Dorset coast.  This was Nowhereisland, part of a public arts project realised by the Devon-based artist Alex Hartley. The island and its Embassy are to travel round the South West over the next few weeks.  I went to see it at Exmouth but, although the Embassy was there, ironically the island was nowhere to be seen.  Apparently, the weather got the better of it; it couldn’t travel and this ephemeral new nation had to be protected by the motherland in Portland harbour.  Since then, it has sailed on to Torquay, Plymouth and Cornwall  and it has been “occupied” by members of the Devon and Cornwall wild swimmers who staged a coup d’état, unfurled a banner and populated the island with a plastic duck and rabbit.

The Nowhereisland project began when Hartley visited the High Arctic in 2004 under the auspices of Cape Farewell, a group who instigate cultural responses to climate change.  On that visit he discovered a previously-uncharted island that had been revealed by a glacier melting in response to global warming.  Hartley originally called the island Nymark (Norwegian for “new ground”) but it was given the official name of Nyskjæret.  Based on his experience he produced a large wall display, “Nymark (undiscovered island)”, containing framed rock samples, letters, maps, photos and other documentation on his discovery.  This was exhibited as part of the exhibition, Cape Farewell – Art and Climate Change, at the National Conservation Centre in Liverpool in 2006 and as part of the cross cultural arts/science project, Exploratory Laboratory, at the Bridport Arts Centre in 2010.

The project (now called Nowhereisland) acquired a much greater significance when Hartley was chosen as the artist for the South West in the “Artists Taking the Lead” section of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.  The first phase of Nowhereisland involved an expedition to the Arctic with a group of sixteen “thinkers” – artists, writers, students and academics.  The group collected six tonnes of material from Nyskjæret and brought it back to the UK where it was fashioned into a floating replica of the island.  Nowhereisland was declared a new nation on September 20th 2011 after which it was possible to become a “citizen”.

The second phase of the project involves not only the current tour of the replica island, Nowhereisland, around South West seaside towns but also the Embassy which accompanies the island.  This is a converted horse box containing a display of artefacts and memorabilia associated directly or indirectly with the project.   Three “ambassadors” are present to discuss and explain Nowhereisland.   There has also been a programme of workshops in schools and local communities to disseminate and debate the issues behind the project.

The Embassy at Exmouth

So, what are the aims of Nowhereisland?  On Hartley’s web site these are stated clearly as:  “to expand people’s view of what art is; to explore sense of place; to address the most significant global issue of our time:  namely how can we respond to the urgent issue of climate change together”.   On the project web site, the aims are more focussed on exploring the idea of a nation state.

The debate about the issues behind the project began on the expedition when the sixteen “thinkers” were asked to contribute to discussions about the implications of forming a new nation.  In particular they were asked to consider how they would begin if they started a new nation from first principles given the current failure of nation states to address important global issues.  They also experienced the effects of global warming first hand.  The debate continues on the project web site where propositions for the Constitution can be posted.

Nowhereisland has attracted criticism, achieving the unusual feat of uniting the Guardian, the Daily Mail and the Taxpayer’s Alliance in common condemnation.  Some objected to the cost (£500,000) but actually this is quite low compared to the overall cost of the Olympics.   I am, however, uneasy about some aspects of Nowhereisland.  For a project concerned about the environment, was it necessary to ferry the “thinkers” to the Arctic, was it necessary to take material from the virgin island?  I feel disappointment that climate change is not at the core of the project; this is a lost opportunity to debate this crucial issue.

Having seen the project develop, however, I have warmed to it.  This is partly due to discussions with my family and discussions with the ambassadors and partly because of the public reaction.  Communities have embraced the visiting island, many people have visited the embassy and there are now about 19,000 “citizens”.  The Embassy is interesting and the ambassadors maintain enthusiasm even when the rain beats down. I have particularly enjoyed the quirky responses to the island, the occupation by the wild swimmers.

The project has brought art to the South West and has probably engaged more people than any conventional gallery-based exhibition would. As a public arts engagement project it must be seen as successful and this is summed up well by Pauline Barker, one of the wild swimmers:  “It’s designed to be an arts project to get art closer to the people, and we are the people so we decided to get as close as we possibly could”.

For more on Nowhereisland see this article.

Lists – Don’t they make you sick?

Lists start to appear in UK newspapers in December, rather like migrating swallows in spring.  Let’s take two examples from the Guardian.  On December 10, the Weekend Magazine published a list of people who have achieved success at a very young age (Overachievers:  what it takes to be a bright young thing.).  There were playwrights, designers, novelists, directors, DJs, entrepreneurs but no scientists or engineers.  On December 16, The Women of the Year 2011 list appeared in the G2 section of the paper.  Politicians, sportswomen, actors, singers were rightly celebrated but no scientists or engineers were featured. 

Science and engineering are two important parts of our creative culture.  I find such casual neglect of these disciplines increasingly tiresome and I wrote a short note for the Weekend Magazine pointing out the omission.  I can only think that very little time is spent in compiling these lists (see below) and it is likely that the journalists involved are not scientists.  It’s all the more surprising in the Women of the Year category as a female scientist has already been singled out elsewhere for awards.  This is Jenny Rohn of University College London, who received the Achiever of the Year Award for setting up Science is Vital leading to a change in government policy on science funding.

The journalistic bias exposed by these lists is just another example of the “Two Cultures” that continue to pervade society in the UK.   We see it in education where children must begin to express preferences for humanities versus sciences from the age of 14.  University degrees in humanities subjects make little or no reference to science and vice versa.  Few science graduates enter politics or the media with the result that governments exhibit little understanding of science and reporting of science in the media is poor and often incorrect.   The outcome of this may be serious for public health, for public policy and for general understanding of science.  Unjustified fear spread by some papers about the MMR vaccine lead to a drop in herd immunity leaving some children at risk of measles infection.    Repeated stories, usually incorrect, about the cancer promoting or protecting properties of food substances must leave people bemused and untrusting.  The paucity of science reporting in quality papers such as the Guardian continues to surprise me.

It’s no good just moaning, however,we need to propose solutions.  The education system could be altered to allow less specialisation.  For students at senior school the International Baccalaureate provides a broader alternative to A levels and some schools are now offering this qualification.    Degree courses in humanities could include discussion of current scientific issues so that the methods used by scientists are more widely understood.  For science students, cross cultural teaching could focus on understanding the place of science in society and examining portrayals of science in literature.  More generally, scientists need to come out of their labs to explain the importance of their work, illustrate its creativity and its importance for society.

Let’s finish on a lighter note.  The Independent on Sunday newspaper in the UK publishes an annual Pink List.  In 2010 Peter Tatchell was number 7 in the list whereas he was surprisingly absent from the list in 2011.  It seems that he was omitted from the main list deliberately as he had been selected for a special award as “national treasure” alongside Stephen Fry and Sandi Toksvig.  In the end Tatchell was missing completely from any category because the post-it note with his name was shuffled in to the wrong pile and no one noticed.  It shows just how much trouble is taken in compiling these lists.

“Palaces” – a cross cultural art/science project that really works

It looks like a fairy grotto and indeed some have christened it the “tooth fairy palace”.  It’s actually a sculpture entitled “Palaces” and results from a collaboration between artist Gina Czarnecki and stem cell biologist Sarah Rankin.  Stem cells are at the heart of the project and “Palaces” intends to challenge and educate people about the topic.   The sculpture is two metres high and the same distance wide, and is constructed from clear crystal resin.  The strands of resin reflect and refract light giving it a magical feel.  The closer you look the more magical it gets but it also becomes slightly unsettling as you begin to recognise the many small human teeth glued to the resin. 

   

Czarnecki first had the idea for a public artwork on stem cells when she attended a workshop on the topic given by Rankin.  Teeth became the biological focus of the project for several reasons.  Milk teeth are a source of stem cells which Czarnecki wanted at the heart of the project but they have other associations for her.  She had been assailed by her daughter, then 7 years old, with questions about whether the Tooth Fairy was real or not, so a project that included milk teeth would also allow exploration of ideas about truth and illusion.  Milk teeth are also symbols of transition and progress.  All children lose milk teeth and this is a natural part of development not a symbol of decay.  Different cultures deal with tooth loss in different ways but in the UK the Tooth Fairy myth is very popular.  After the Tooth Fairy has called, many parents keep their children’s milk teeth.  I am not quite sure why we do this; possibly it’s because they represent small fragments of our children.  Whatever the explanation, milk teeth have significance above and beyond their purpose.

The tangible focus of “Palaces” is the resin sculpture decorated with milk teeth.  The framework of the sculpture, consisting of the resin strands, is complete and about 5000 teeth donated by children have already been attached.  Children are asked to donate one milk tooth.  In return each child receives a token to put under their pillow.  Apparently, the Tooth Fairy recognises these tokens and children do not miss out financially by donating.  The target is 12000 teeth and, as they arrive, the teeth will be attached to the sculpture so that its coral-like nature can grow. 

The project is designed to stimulate discussion around stem cells and it is here that Rankin wants to challenge people.  For many, stem cells are derived solely from embryos.  Rankin is keen to show that other tissues such as bone marrow, milk teeth and fat derived from liposuction are all potential sources of adult stem cells and not, as many people think, just clinical waste.  The very fact that the sculpture is unsettling – those rows of small teeth that were once part of children are to me very unsettling – will I believe challenge people’s preconceptions.

Science communication is another important part of the project.  Those who go to see the sculpture will be directly exposed to the project and its aims but there are other levels of engagement.  Children who donate teeth will have a personal involvement in the project which can be backed up in schools by teaching resources offered on the web site.  Younger children can learn about the relation of art and science especially if they participate by donation.  For older children, more complex ideas about stem cells and about communicating science can be emphasised.  Rankin hopes that the project will arouse interest in science: “This is using art not just to illustrate science, but also to catch people’s interest and get them to ask the questions.”

Alastair Upton, Chief Executive of Bluecoat Art Gallery in Liverpool expressed a different view on the project:  “It’s beautiful and thought-provoking and then slightly disturbing.  What we have here is art that is bringing us in to understand some of the work that science is doing and to make us think about the consequences of the by-products, literally and metaphorically that science has”

I have written recently about another art/science project, “Nowhereisland”,  that I felt might not achieve its aims.  “Palaces” seems much more likely to fulfil its potential.  One reason for this is the equal involvement of an artist and a scientist in the planning and execution of the project.  “Palaces” is also a clever project that can be appreciated on many levels, providing multiple layers of meaning and discussion.

“Palaces” is at the Bluecoat Art Gallery in Liverpool until February 2012, the Science Museum in London between April and June 2012, the Centre for the Cell, London between July and September 2012 and at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry between March and May 2013.  The web site for “Palaces” is at http://palaces.org.uk/