Unherd! – Walking the Land

On 18th May 2022, a group of artists and writers met at the Rural Arts Hub, a former dairy farm on the Welshampton Road in North Shropshire.  This was the first Unherd! Walking the Land gathering for walks and creative activities around the Marches Mosses.  The informal group included Andrew Howe, Joseph Schneider, Jean Atkin, Jill Impey, Julie Louise Harrison, Keith Ashford and Emily Cook.  Other artists are also involved in the discussions.

Aims for the day were to discuss and start a plan or call to action for one or more art projects, touching on themes of land ownership/access, climate change, community resilience, rewilding, justice and indigenous culture, whatever that means in a British context. What does it mean to be a stranger in another person’s country?

The initiative emerged from earlier conversations about extending the Mosses and Marshes project but it can also link with other ventures.  It was intended to be open for everyone to discuss and shape the identity of future research and community engagement.

After introductions, Andrew briefly outlined the Mosses and Marshes project – a collaboration between artists, land managers, scientists and local communities linking the Marches Mosses with the Macquarie Marshes in New South Wales, Australia.  The international discussion panel in November 2021 led to Voices, Values, Actions, an initiative to continue conversations around the key issues raised.  This Unherd! event will explore some of those themes through walks, creative activities and discussion.

The walk to Bettisfield Moss was, on the face of it, a fairly typical English countryside ramble across gently undulating farmland to the wilder, peat bog landscape.  Understated features along the route give little away about their history.  And yet the walk was rich with stories of Iron Age/Bronze Age bog bodies, land seizure by Norman lords as revealed in the Domesday Book, Turbary rights, Land Enclosures, contentious construction of canal and railways, wind powered and steam powered corn mills, fine churches built by local aristocracy, target practice and bombing during two World Wars, industrial peat extraction, forest clearance and finally peat bog restoration and natural resurgence. 

We talked about how myth and stories make up the layered identity of places, and how a multiplicity of viewpoints, sometimes contradictory, must interweave together.  We reflected on the fluctuating relationship between people and the land.

There was a time my bit of ground
Made freemen of the slave
The ass no pinard dare to pound
When I his supper gave
The gipseys camp was not afraid
I made his dwelling free
Till vile enclousure came and made
A parish slave of me

Extract from “The Lament of Swordy Well”, John Clare

Within a few feet of setting out across fields, the group crossed the border between England and Wales.  We walked with the themes of access to land and justice in mind, and almost immediately we found that the public right of way footpath had been ploughed up and we had to scramble along the field edge. 

Our route then followed the line of the old railway, opened in 1861, closed in 1965 – now a wide grassy walkway. Yet it is not a public footpath, despite the stile at one end, and it comes out next to the old station, now a private residence.  We stopped for a brief chat with the friendly house owner, enjoying the sun in his garden. 

Beyond Bettisfield Church, we walked cautiously through a field as a large herd of curious cattle gathered with increasing pace behind us.  After crossing the canal, our path (now the Shropshire Way) had, once again, been ploughed up, so we had to make our way diagonally across the field, to buttercupped meadows. 

Following lanes towards Bettisfield Moss, we encountered a very large mastiff guard dog behind a gate, barking at us.  Further on, a large fenced “garden” with pond aerated by an industrial scale pump, somewhat more turbulent than the restful trickle of water seemingly intended for the idyllic spot, and, we could see what appeared to be a life size plastic cow.  The signs on the fences warned us of CCTV surveillance and told us to “Beware of the Dogs”.

We passed through a belt of pine trees, left as a visual screen around the Moss for local residents, when the rest of the Moss was cleared.  This woodland became established on the peat for Christmas trees when it was decided it was impractical to continue cutting peat at Bettisfield due to difficulties in transporting it across the canal for processing on Fenn’s Moss.

Walking out into the open space of the Moss has an impact rarely experienced in this low lying rural landscape.  The feeling of being hemmed in along paths and roads dissipates even though it is only really safe to walk along the straight-lined paths across the Moss. 

Damselflies and green hairstreak butterflies flitted around us while we ate sandwiches and listened to the spoken sounds of words of the landscape in the Wiradjuri language from a wetland across the opposite side of the planet.

yanhabilanha – walk

guriban – curlew

marrungbang – justice

budyabudya – moths and butterflies

giilang – story

galin-balgan-balgang – dragonfly

from “The Yield”, Tara June Winch

We gathered inspiration, plant materials and other found objects as we circled the Moss and then made our way back.  Pausing to listen to the wind fluting mournfully at a gatepost. For a time, we went astray from the unmarked path and ended up in private meadows. We tried to find a way through barbed wire fences and flooded ditches across to Wem Moss but ended up circling back to the main path. 

As we made our way up the lane to Bettisfield village, we re-encountered the mastiff.  With the gate open, it was now on the loose, and barking madly, it took a nip into Joseph’s arm.

On returning, we were glad to rest and enjoy cucumber water after our tiring walk on a hot day.  Joseph talked about how the Rural Arts Hub came about and his plans for the Mothershippon studio – the old milking shed, now a regular home for arts activities with the Cool Beans (young people) and the Mudders (adults). The large space is full of character and history but will need careful work to make it a comfortable and sustainable place all year round.

For the remainder of the afternoon, we worked in the studio using findings from the walk to create art responses/writings.  Some of us stayed on to share fabulous food and continue our conversations into the early evening.

Poem and collage by Jean Atkin

There was much to take in and reflect on from the day.  This could only be a start in making new connections, exploring issues and considering responses but there was huge enthusiasm as we departed for continuing with further walks, talks and creativity.

Published by andhowe

I am a visual artist, based in Shrewsbury, making paintings, photography, books and digital media inspired by walking. My artistic practice focuses on the interaction between people and places.

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