Hills and rivers and a room full of strangers

Human-Nature blog 17 March   

We drive to Knill at the base of Herrock Hill. Our pale pink velour chair comes with us. John and Rachel discuss their forthcoming album of nature songs, so far: We can So Ride That; Super Super Peaceful; Hello? (or John meets Mary); Let Nature Take It’s Course and Master Badger.

We seem to lose the path and end up by the weir we’d seen from the top. The noise makes me calm and I watch perfectly translucent bubbles cascade upwards from the base of each watery step. We carry the pink chair across to a concrete platform in the middle of the weir and take turns to sit; its ugly little silky fringe shimmers in the breeze. It feels regal and funny and conspicuous - like royalty outside their palaces. “Shame there aren’t salmon jumping” Eleanor says, “Anyone want a Marks and Spencer Curiously Strong Mint?”. They suit her, in their smart green tin with their long title. The sun pushes through the clouds clearing them away.

Suddenly an otter – almost black – long body and thick tail – runs along the far bank before disappearing. I’ve never seen one in the wild. My partner, Ed, took me to an otter sanctuary in Derbyshire once – he’s more enthusiastic about them than me. But this flash of that secretive creature out here is thrilling and we freeze and ‘wow’ in hushed voices. Apparently they like to float on their backs eating oysters.

We climb slowly through the forest up towards Offa’s Dyke and the summit and our expectations of a view. It’s warm.

An ageing grubby Springer bounds towards us – and starts scampering about. He needs a wash and annoys the calm. John takes over from me carrying the chair and finds a way to balance it perfectly on his head – it makes him walk slow and straight and level, like a Sherpa on Everest. Generally the walk feels steadier today and we’re quieter. It’s probably the steepness of the climb but perhaps we’ve calmed too. My breath is deeper.

Grubby Springer is still here and I’m convinced he’s banishing the wildlife. Chairman John asks, why the dog’s happy presence is disturbing my calm? And I don’t know.

After an hour or so we emerge from the woods onto open ground. We separate, each following different trails up over the grass and gorse. Two huge birds of prey circle – they have clear markings on the undersides of their wings – I think they’re red kites but I’m no expert.

Then we’re sweaty and staring out across the valley. A gentle rush passes through me – from the bigness before us and the exertion. The ground drops steeply away.

Grubby Springer is pottering happily about and I grudgingly admit I like him. I also hope he knows his way home to Knill.

We flake out sprawled on the springy dense grass in the sunshine.

Rachel mics me up and records me as I potter off to pee. Grubby Springer accompanies me. I decide he’s protecting my dignity.

We look at the map and share fruit and sometimes sit on the chair looking out over the green valley.

Rachel elects to roll back down the hill because her knee hurts. She forgets to take her car keys and spare batteries out of her pocket and they fly out as she careers over a large tuft of grass. At the foot of the hill again, we leave her sitting on the chair near the ford.

John says goodbye and thank you to Grubby Springer and is ignored. We drive down to the river to collect Rachel, Eleanor and the pink chair.

We’ve started filming experiments. In a brilliant book with an off-putting cover and title - ‘Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth and healing the mind’ - I found a list of activities. Ecopsychologist, Robert Greenway, undertakes “wilderness excursions” with his students to study the changes people go through during extended stays in the wilderness. These include: alone time (there’s not been much of that); all night chanting rituals; climbing peaks (check) and plunging into ice-cold waters. So this afternoon I am off to the river.

Rachel films me from a distance – she’s interested in playing with perspective; the little human in the big landscape. We’re so used to the camera focusing on people, but here they’re just dots in a much larger world. It feels nice to remember our relative insignificance – it’s why I like to stand on the tops of tall things…hills, buildings, up trees...

The water in the shallow river is ice cold and I shriek. Slowly I gain confidence and venture further in. Then retreat and swear and shriek but back in I go and breathe deeply into it and talk my way deeper and talk myself calm. Eventually with body fizzing, I no longer ache with the cold and I stand still as the water rushes past my legs and skin and wets my dress. The colours pop. It is so beautiful and I am like ice. We giggle back to the farmhouse for tea and new socks.

Amanda and the residencies’ new co-ordinator – Steph – are prepping dinner in the kitchen. We have visitors.

In the gallery as the sun sets we chat to the eight strangers who’ve trickled in. We show them unedited films and play them unedited music and feel self-conscious and unsure. They smile and seem to know the drill here though – they’re all artists themselves or trustees – and I remember Anthony’s words on the first morning – it’s about process here. I explain to one chap with an unreadable face and dyed blonde hair, as we wander over for dinner, that I knew each of the artists beforehand but we’d not worked as a group before and not in this way. He talked about his different professions – chef, sailor, accountant – I don’t remember the others. One of the women is wearing a ‘kiss me I’m Irish’ necklace – it’s St Patrick Day.

Amanda and Steph greet us with supper and drinks and the kitchen is filled with chatter. We talk about what we might show on 2nd April – it’ll still be a very early stage of work I repeat. They know though and anyway, it doesn’t matter. I’m still feeling odd post-ice cold river plunge and I drink tea. A trustee tells me about the American Crayfish in the river and I am glad I’d forgotten they were there.

Once the strangers leave and Anthony has vigorously washed up and smashed some crockery. We stay up late – too late – singing and playing stupid games. Our version of “All Night Chanting” I think.

Caroline Horton   top of page

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Arts Council England