In the course of visiting the Fenn’s Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses NNR over the last few years, I’ve met and spoken with people on and around the site, either living locally, or visiting from further afield. I’ve also been put in touch with people from local communities with a connection to the place because they either lived or worked there. Collecting and recording their stories has become an ongoing part of my research and most people are very happy for me to share their memories. I will be adding some of these stories to the website over the coming months.
I first met with Barbara Clorley and Bill Allmark last September. Bill was born in 1942 and is well known as the last in a line of several family generations of peat cutters. Barbara’s family lived in Moss Cottages and were similarly involved with peat cutting for generations.
They talked about how tough the working life of a peat cutter was, yet they described the close-knit, supportive community life with great affection. Barbara, in particular, talked fondly of her childhood and a love of the landscape.
Walking along the lanes to church every week, Barbara recalled how she and her friends would make daisy chains and foxtails sat on the grass verge.
Both indicated how knowledge of the wildlife of the Mosses was integral to the Mossmen’s work.
Bill has a detailed knowledge of the site, its drainage systems and topography, so he became a valued member of the Bog conservation team, working initially for the Nature Conservancy Council, later Natural England.
We talked for over two hours, so these are just some of the edited recordings.
Fire was a topic that we returned to in different contexts, firstly in connection with the risk of fire in the peat during dry conditions, then we went further back in time to when Barbara could recall the German bombing raids during the Second World War and the lighting of the Starfish decoy fire baskets.
Most people visiting Whixall Moss at Morris Bridge will have seen John Roberts, often working in all weathers, and it was a wet and windy day when we spoke, too windy for sound recording.
John built his bungalow on the Moss, sometime after getting married in 1962 and he’s lived there ever since.
“My grandparents and mother were at Moss Cottages. My Grandad and [###} they did peat cutting. They all did, all the peat men…, their sons that took over, and they’ve all passed away.”
Given the close proximity to Bill Furber’s scrapyard, I talked to him about the place where his son used to work.
“He (Bill Furber) started with a couple of cars, and gradually got more, started with insurance jobs and crushing, taking scrap away, selling parts and moved to a very big business… Until about 7 years ago, he just folded. My son was there 31 years. He works at the chicken place now.”
Most visitors to the Fenn’s Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses today, will be coming to enjoy the Nature Reserve and to look for wildlife or simply get some fresh air and exercise, but few can escape noticing the physical traces in the landscape and interpretation boards which tell the story of human involvement on the Mosses over many centuries. It is this aspect, the evolving relationship that humans have with the wetlands, that really intrigues me.
Books, such as “Fenn’s Whixall Mosses” by Andre Berry et al, describe the human history on the Mosses far more comprehensively than I will do here, but the following touches on a few key topics which interest me and which inform some of the artist ideas that Kim V. Goldsmith and I have been exploring.
Our experience of landscapes is most commonly focused on the period of recorded history and within living memory. But the open wildness of the peatbog makes it a little easier to imagine an ancient history stretching back to the post-glacial period when the bog first began to form.
In England and Wales, there have been over 106 findings of bog bodies, which range in date from Neolithic to the seventeenth century. Three discoveries of bog bodies were made at Whixall Moss during the nineteenth century. Carbon dating and peat stratigraphy provided inconclusive data for the age of the bodies, but it was estimated that the 1889 body may have been the earliest of the three, dating from late prehistoric or Roman times.
Such findings always inspire fascination and speculation about the history of the individuals concerned and why they were on the Moss. We can never really know the details, but we can be sure that people were visiting the wetlands, whether that be for foraging for food or fuel, or for other domestic or more spiritual reasons.
The mysteries of the bog as a place for getting lost, swallowed up by the Earth or by mythical beasts roaming the land, have provided a rich source for folk tales, myths, songs and poems through the ages. This has tended to create an image of peat bogs as desolate, dangerous places, places to be tamed by drainage, engineering and land management.
The settlements of Whixall and Bettisfield are included in the Domesday Book. Whixall was a settlement in the hundred of Hodnet and the county of Shropshire. It had a recorded population of 4 households in 1086, putting it in the smallest 20% of settlements recorded in Domesday. Prior to the Norman Conquest, the Lord of the manor had been Aldgyth of Welshampton, but in 1086 the Tenant in Chief and Lord was Ranulf Peverel. The valuation in 1086 was just 5 shillings.
It is interesting to note that Bettisfield had a more significant population of 28 households, and it was recorded under Cheshire, but is now within Wales. The Tenant in Chief was the Bishop of Chester under the Lordship of Robert, son of Hugh.
The Domesday Book set the tone for how land was to be valued. Land that yielded no tax because it was uninhabited or uncultivated was termed waste. Wetlands such as the Fenn’s Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses would surely have been regarded as waste … how would we value them today?
Records from the 13th and 14th centuries indicate that early uses for mixed deciduous woodlands around the Mosses were for felling oaks for greenwood and underwood. But there is no evidence of use of the Mosses themselves until 1572, although it is almost certain that peat cutting for fuel took place before then, as turbary (the right to cut turves or peat) was widespread in the region.
Turbary licences were granted by the Lord of the Manor, who derived some income. The licences restricted use as fuel to within the curtilage of the relevant property and the sale of turves outside of the manor was discouraged. There were fines for unlicensed peat cutting ranging in 1590 from 3d to 12d.
Over time, the Lord of the Manor increased efforts to control his lands and secure more income.
Part of the Moss within 600 acres of the commonland of Whixall was first enclosed under Articles of Agreement signed on 14th August 1704 following protracted discussions with some 50 freeholders and copyholders of the manor. Thomas Sandford was Lord of the Manor of Whixall and John Lord Gower held diverse copyhold lands within Whixall.
The enclosure was opposed vigorously by some 23 commoners and it took a decree obtained in the High Court of Chancery to reach a new agreement on a reduced area of 410 acres. An accurate record of the lands does not survive.
The later enclosure of Fenn’s Moss in 1775 was achieved by Parliamentary Act, only the fourth such enclosure to take place in Wales. The Parliamentary enclosure only required the agreement of the owners of at least two thirds of the land, and resulted in the extinguishing of common rights. The principal landowner, Sir Walden Hanmer, had seemingly recognised the opportunity to exploit the commercial value of the land and the potential to reclaim the land for agriculture by drainage.
Whixall Moss was enclosed by an Act in 1823. Both Parliamentary enclosures defined the pattern of fields, drains, footpaths and roads which remains evident today, particularly when viewing the landscape from above. Fenn’s Moss was characterised by over 100 narrow turbary allotments. Whixall Moss was characterised by a patchwork of small enclosures alloted to freeholders and copyholders of the manor for conversion to woodland, pasture or peatcutting.
Coming of the canal and the railway
The Shropshire Union Canal and the former Oswestry, Ellesmere and Whitchurch Railway cross the Mosses. Given the wet, unstable nature of the peatbog, the construction of these transport links were both impressive feats of engineering. Like many other remote rural locations across the UK, the arrival of canals and railways must have had dramatic impact on the local communities. The new connections to the “outside world” would have also helped improve the commercial viability of the industrial uses of the land by making access to markets quicker and easier.
After an Act in 1793, the Ellesmere Canal Company began constructing the canal between Ellesmere and Whitchurch in 1797, and the canal section through the Moss was completed by 1804. Drainage and lowering of the groundwater table for peat extraction caused settlement of the ground and subsidence to the canal. So until the 1960s, a “Moss gang” was employed to build up the canal banks and maintain it. More recently, steel sheet piles into underlying soils have stabilised the canal and isolated it from the peat.
The development of the Railway was a more contentious matter, arising from the rivalry between the independent Oswestry, Ellesmere and Whitchurch Railway and the Great Western Company, and resulted in opposition from some landowners and a divided community. After a Parliamentary Inquiry found in favour of the OEWR, the engineering project proceeded, and a single line commenced operation in 1863. There were stations at Fenn’s Bank and Bettisfield.
The line closed in 1965. The track bed remains a distinctive feature as the long straight footpath across the north of Fenn’s Moss.
Commercial peat extraction
It was not until 1851, that the larger scale extraction of peat for commercial use was recognised. The Hanmer Estate leased some 388 acres on North East Fenn’s Moss to Vardy and Co, “a company of gentlemen”. Further land was leased to Joseph Bebb and subsequently Richard Henry Holland and The Moulded Peat Charcoal Company which established a tramway link to the canal.
These early commercial ventures did not thrive. In 1884, George Wardle of Fenn’s Hall established a peat moss litter business, The English Peat Moss Litter Company, along with partner William Henry Smith, an ironfounder of Whitchurch. Their peat extraction operated on North East Fenns Moss. In 1889, they purchased the Lordship of the Manor of Whixall and expanded their operation by renting out turf banks on an “acre by acre” basis to local people for cutting Whixall Bibles.
The Company had built seventeen houses for its workers at Moss Cottages by 1898. Henry Williams of Whixall was the builder, using materials from the Fenn’s Bank Brick and Tile Company. This is now the site of HH Wardle Ltd, aluminium manufacturers, who were relocated there from Coventry in 1941 to avoid bombing.
The English Peat Moss Litter Company operations were located at the Old Shed Yard near the Manor House, now used for offices by Natural England. The Wardle family remain Lords of the Manor of Whixall, although sold the Manor House to Herbert Beckett in 1933.
By 1914, around 50 people were employed. Half of these went on strike that year for better conditions.
In 1923, the Hanmer Estate leased a part of Fenn’s Moss to the Bettisfield Trust Company Ltd to exploit black peat for distillation and extraction of paraffinoid and other chemical products. The Midland Moss Litter Company, which appears in the 1923 lease, manufactured packing for molasses-based cattle feed and livestock bedding using the white and grey peat.
The Midland Moss Litter Company continued to operate at Fenn’s Moss until August 1962, introducing a Dutch system of peat cutting of flats and drains which was significant in defining the present day landscape. It established works at the site of the remaining Fenn’s Old Works, although this structure is a replacement of an earlier building which burnt down in 1938. A narrow gauge railway was used to transfer the hand cut peat to the works.
The market for peat as bedding or for fuel subsided after the War for both the large scale commercial operators and for individual peat cutters who worked alongside in accordance with their allotted rights on Whixall Moss from the 1823 Enclosure. In the 1960s, the firm L.S Beckett began to expand in response to the growing market for using of milled peat for horticulture.
Tom Allmark took ownership of L.S Becket in c1950 and in 1956 he purchased Whixall Moss from HH Wardle, followed by the Manor House in 1957. Tom Allmark served notice on local peat cutters renting turf banks on Whixall Moss, some of whom refused and continued cutting.
In 1960, Tom’s son Herb Allmark took over the running and production increased when the firm took on the lease of the former Midland Moss works at Fenn’s Moss. L.S Beckett also first introduced mechanised peat cutting in 1965.
When the Hanmer Estate increased rents fourfold in May 1989, L.S Beckett sold its interests at Fenn’s and Whixall Mosses to Croxden Horticultural Products Ltd, part of the Lands Improvement Group. Croxden needed to make dramatic increases in peat extraction to reach up to 50,000m3 per annum in order to bring in enough revenue to meet the rent demands. At the same time, however, Croxden was in negotiations with the then Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) with regard to restoration of areas of the Mosses. In December 1990, all leases and land owned by Croxden was purchased by the NCC and large scale commercial peat extraction ended.
This pattern of industrial development from individual local workers and artisans to large scale corporations with no local interests is mirrored in just about all major industry sectors, and it is increasingly the case, that environmental concerns force radical alterations or bring the progression to an end.
Many remote wilderness sites across the UK have been used for Military purposes, and large areas of the Mosses were commandeered during both World Wars.
In the First World War, military camps had been set up close to the Moss at Bettisfield Park, Park Hall, Oswestry and Prees Heath. In 1916, a new camp was set up at Fenn’s Bank for troops training at rifle ranges on North East Fenn’s Moss. The rifle ranges, known as The Batters comprised butt areas of high walls of railway sleepers banked with peat to absorb spent ammunition. Few visible traces of the ranges remain as they disintegrated back into the peat.
During the Second World War, the Mosses were used as bombing ranges for aircraft from local airfields. Two tragic fatal accidents occurred. The first involved a Spitfire on 14 June 1942, which crashed into Cadney Moss or Wem Moss (depending on reports), with the instant death of Sgt. Mager. The second occurred on 6th August 1943, when a Wellington III bomber suffered engine failure and fell into the edge of the Moss, killing five crew members.
The Mosses were also used for the Starfish decoy site, whereby fire baskets were lit to try and confuse German bombers on their way to industrial areas of Merseyside or Manchester. For obvious reasons, the purpose of the decay was kept secret from local residents.
On quiet days, when the only sounds on the Moss are the curlews and other birds calling, and the wind in the grass, it is difficult to imagine the relentless cacophony that must have been created by the military firing ranges and bombing practice, or the operation of the peat milling engines.
What of the future?
This narrative of developments on and around the Mosses over the last millennium is largely a tale of land ownership, requisition and control. There are many individual human stories within that history which are lost, although there are some good accounts, mostly from the last century, recorded by Berry et al. In future posts, I will include some of the stories I have recorded with people from the local community. Kim V. Goldsmith has similarly recorded several voices from the communities of the Macquarie Marshes, and it will be interesting to compare emerging issues and themes.
Since the ending of peat extraction in early 1990s, and more recent closure of the car breaker’s yard, the main focus of human activity has been the restoration schemes led by Natural England, and public visits for leisure, well being and watching wildlife. Balancing the needs of these and those of local farmers and communities will be an ongoing negotiation driven by a range of factors including global warming, biodiversity loss, economics and public attitudes to landscape.
By putting the spotlight on the culture and history of wetlands in the UK and at Macquaire Marshes in Australia, the Mosses and Marshes project asks questions about their future.
Berry, Andre Q, Gale, Fiona, Daniels, Joan L, and Allmark, Bill, Fenn’s and Whixall Mosses, 1996, Clwyd County Council
After almost two years of research and discussion, the Mosses and Marshes project was officially launched on World Wetlands Day, February 2nd 2021 with preview videos of some of the preliminary work that Kim V. Goldsmith and I have been creating together. Watch them here:
Kim V. Goldsmith & Andrew Howe, The Tone of Things, HD video with sound, due: 0’33” A taste of what’s to come, The Tone of Things is a video and sound mix layering handmade paper made from the reeds of Whixall Moss (UK) with underwater footage from the reedbeds of the Macquarie Marshes (AU), accompanied by tones generated in post-production from field recordings captured on both sites, atmospheric sounds from the wetlands, and hydroacoustics of water plants with their roots deep in the mud. Click on link above to preview video
The Mosses and Marshes project questions how we think about and value natural environments through works centred on the raised peat bogs of Fenn’s Bettisfield and Whixall Mosses NNR on the border between England and Wales and the iconic Macquarie Marshes in New South Wales, Australia.
The project has been awarded a grant from Arts Council England, which we are combining with funding secured from Regional Arts Fund grant through Regional Arts NSW and a two-month crowdfunding campaign in Australia. This will allow us to create artworks and run events and exhibitions in their respective local communities, as well as nationally and internationally.
Kim and I will continue to co-lead the project exploring each unique site and environmental challenges we face on opposing sides of the planet. I am partnering with Shropshire Wildlife Trust and Natural England as they carry out their scrapyard restoration and peatbog conservation projects, while Kim has been partnering with the Macquarie Wetlands Association, as well as tapping into the knowledge of various wetland and water management specialists to explore elements of the Macquarie Marshes.
We are using scientific research, site visits and field recordings to develop ideas, exploring some of the more hidden values of the wetlands; those values not often considered in the fight to preserve them.
Kim says, “Andrew and I use similar processes to explore sites, really getting to know both human and ecological perspectives by spending time there – while my focus is the use of technology to dig deeper into the landscape, Andrew is a walking artist working in a range of media. We’ve both been very interested in weaving the stories behind the wetlands into the works, drawing out the commonalities that often have to do with shared hopes for the future of these environments.”
We hope this will develop into a longer-term project, establishing a platform for future artist residencies. This first phase includes new artworks for public exhibition, workshops, walks and talks, and a project publication due for release prior to the first exhibition at Qube Gallery, Oswestry in October. Australian exhibitions will follow in 2022.
Future posts will feature some of the other artists involved. Here are some brief introductions:
Keith Ashford and Elizabeth Turner
Elizabeth Turner and Keith Ashford have a collective site-based practice exploring manmade and natural landscapes through sculpture and video. Each brings complementary influences to this way of working and through a shared observation they focus on the specificities of a place. They were both co-founders and directors at Participate Contemporary Artspace CIC.
Together, Keith and Liz will create temporary sculptures as way-markers for the self-guided art walk that I will put in place at Whixall Moss. The sculptures will respond to the landscape and its history, and will be sensitively located at key points along the trail in consultation with Shropshire Wildlife Trust and Natural England. They will provide a physical complement to the digital work in the art trail which will otherwise be accessible online.
I worked with Keith and Liz on their Scour II project in Redditch in 2019. Read more about their work on that project here.
Dr Sue Challis
Sue Challis and Kate Johnston will work with me and in partnership with Shropshire Wildlife Trust to create art resources and run workshops with Wem Youth Club. Wem is a small town in North Shropshire, about 6 miles from Whixall Moss.
Sue Challis is an experienced participatory arts worker and video artist who has shown work in the UK and internationally. Her focus has often been making work collaboratively, especially mixed media and video installation and for the past five years she has worked closely with Wem Youth Club. This project fits well with the Youth Club’s own ‘Out in the Rain’ long running project to help rural children connect with, understand, explore and safely enjoy the countryside around them.
With 20 years’ experience of working in the arts from theatre, community and environmental arts, Kate sees her role as a facilitator, educator, collector and curator of ideas. She is passionate about enabling people to create art, sewing seeds of ideas and developing people’s potential. She is interested in the alchemy of the creative process, unearthing stories, knowledge, making discoveries and going on a journey. She is constantly drawn to being outdoors and exploring the wonders of the natural world. Her works is predominantly people focused, and she creates installations large and small in scale, working in unusual settings often off the beaten track.
Gudrun Filipska will contribute to the project via Arts Territory Exchange and as artist providing advisory and curatorial support to me and Kim when presenting our work in exhibition and online.
Gudrun founded Arts Territory Exchange, a global network of artists and art practices which respond to the geography of their territory of production. Arts Territory Exchange exists to both germinate dialogue between remote and disconnected practices and to bring to an audience a global artwork in the form of an accumulating library of artefacts and debate, it is therefore well placed to support this project.
Gudrun’s own artist practice is interdisciplinary, working across a range of analogue and digital visual technologies. She is interested in alternative ways of mapping and recording place, and she researches in wetland areas of the Fens.
MediaActive Projects CIC
Mediaactive will provide advice and assist with research into: appropriate routes for community engagement; digital tools and platforms for presenting and sharing work; and working creatively in response to the landscape.
Based in North Shropshire, MediaActive has had a long-standing relationship with The Meres and Mossess Landscape Partnership Programme. MediaActive has specialist knowledge and expertise in the fields of creative digital production and exhibition; co-producing with communities, and contemporary arts practice. It also has a particular interest in the relationship between artists’ practice and community engagement.
Lydia is an experienced artist, lecturer/ tutor with Open College of Arts and PhD researcher and Associate Lecturer at Bath Schools of Art and Design. Her work aims to open up ways of collaborating with a place through her walking body, creating processes that form alternative maps made with a landscape.
Lydia will guide the evaluation of the project.
And a big thank you to all of our funders and partners supporting us so far!
In comparison with other landscapes across Shropshire, the landscape of the Mosses is relatively young (not forgetting, of course, that a large part of the Mosses lie in Wales… but more on that in another post). Shropshire’s geology spans over 500 million years across almost all periods from the Pre-Cambrian to the present, and there is a more ancient feel to the Shropshire Hills in the South of the County than the lower lying areas to the North. The Mosses as we see them today, began their formation as the glaciers retreated in the last Ice Age only around 10,000 years ago. And in recent centuries, the Mosses have faced change as a result of human actions.
But how would we describe the experience of seeing and being in this wetland landscape? It is not a place of classically dramatic views and spectacular rock formations. It is not particularly a place with natural physical challenges for the adventurous outdoor enthusiast. Yet there are challenges, perhaps more psychological than physical. Its charms are more understated, but no less impressive.
The landscape experience begins on the approach. Main transport routes, such as the road linking Wem and Whitchurch, pass several miles away, so in order to reach the Mosses, we need to leave the main road and navigate through winding, twisting narrow lanes passing fields, farm cottages and village hamlets. There is a peculiar disorientating effect which takes hold during this journey, which seems to take me back in time and nullify any sense of direction. Despite many trips to the Mosses, I still find it difficult to repeat the same route and find my way without referring to a map or sat nav.
The Mosses are mostly fringed with woodlands of birch, oak, willow and alder. Then as I walk through to emerge onto the Moss, there is the wow moment. Suddenly, the sky opens out above and the view expands across seemingly endless flat land to the horizon. The landscape is vast and there was no inkling of it being there from the approach, almost as if it is a huge void in the landscape from which no signals can escape.
From there onwards, as I walk across the Moss out in the open, the views to the horizon barely alter. Occasionally, around ponds there are small trees and bushes which break up the view and bring it closer in. Otherwise, within only a few hundred metres of leaving the fringe woodland, I get the strange sensation of walking but not seeming to move any closer to the other side.
To experience the Moss landscape, I do not expect to find ever shifting vistas, but must bring my senses in close, to take careful notice of subtly changing patterns of vegetation, rhythms of wind in the irongrass, and maybe catch a glimpse or hear the myriads of insects, birds, amphibians, reptiles and small mammals. Senses of hearing, smell and touch take on a more prominent role. I must slow to a standstill and be patient.
We know about the peat industry and other human impact on the Mosses, and I will discuss this further in future posts. But how have the public perceptions of landscape changed through the centuries?
From Neolithic times into the feudal Middle Ages, people would have foraged for food, fuel, water and protection from the land, and sustained families with small scale agriculture where permitted. People were in tune with all the subtleties of the landscape through the changing seasons. Landscapes were perhaps viewed as places of utility, awe, mystery and myth. As landowners gained greater power, access to the land and commoners’ rights began to be eroded.
In the 18th Century, two diverging movements emerged almost simultaneously, which shaped how we look at the landscape today. In 1757, Edmund Burke published his essay “A Philosophical Enquiry in to the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful”.
“Sublime, he gave qualities, such as obscurity as well as vastness and the capacity to invite terror”
Anna Pavord “Landskipping; Painters, Ploughmen and Places
During the late 18th Century/early 19th Century, artists and writers, like Wordsworth and Coleridge, travelled to make their own Romantic observations of the British and European landscape. In 1771, Paul Sandby made a two week tour of North Wales to make paintings. Other painters like Samuel Palmer, John Constable, JMW Turner, and John Ruskin were to follow and develop their practice around landscape.
Gilpin introduced the term “picturesque” in the 1780s. Rules of aesthetics became established for how the picturesque landscape was to be viewed.
At the same time, agriculturists and farmers were also making surveys of Britain with a very different aim: to find ways of improving the land to make most effective use of it.
A Board of Agriculture was set up in the year France declared war on Britain and it commissioned a set of reports from 1793 onwards. The people appointed were pro-landowner, pro-enclosure. Land was assessed to maximise profits and yield most effective advantage to the country as a whole. As a result, many land reclamation, drainage, roads and canals and other schemes were implemented. Large expanses of heath and otherwise uncultivated land were quickly identified as needing such improvement. There was little room for sentiment and untamed beauty.
William Cobbett (1763-1835) continued the movement to make most productive use of the land, but from a more sensitive understanding of the rural ecology, and of those who lived on the land. He took a different direction and fought against the enclosures and sought better conditions for poor rural labourers. Cobbett had a deep appreciation of the English pastoral and the integration of farming and nature.
As with many places across England in particular and Wales, it was enclosure and the drive to exploit the resources of the Mosses that started larger scale peat extraction and industrial development, which continued to 1990. Since then, nature conservation has taken over and now the Mosses are carefully protected. This is more than just a turn to appreciate the picturesque. In our environmental emergency, this has become a critical course of action.
But what of the future? What effect will separating areas of the land as nature reserves have on human perception of nature in our everyday surroundings? Perhaps we should also look back at William Cobbett and recognise that there is a need to live with and gain a detailed appreciation of the beauty and utility of the land around us. Can we, as humans own our legacy, and learn to be-with rather than continue to attempt to control the land?
In this second part of a conversation with my artist collaborator Kim V. Goldsmith, we look ahead at some of the outcomes from our project and themes to explore…
As you said in the earlier part of our conversation, there are all kinds of political, socio-historical issues associated with these wetland sites which inform the work, and so rather than address these directly, it could be an interesting approach to make a response that reflects the longer history of the landscape, focusing on aesthetic/sonic quality. Might the research documentation then play a key role in provoking debate about the art works, and how could this be presented?
That’s always the dilemma, isn’t it? Research underpins every project I undertake and it’s sometimes hard to know where to go with the more contemporary issues – it can be a slippery slope. I like to maintain neutrality where I can, as I believe that the power of these creative projects is to highlight the things we have in common – the deep emotional attachment we have to the landscape, these ancient landforms with flora and fauna that has evolved with them, and sustained human life for centuries. The more important questions to address are what sort of value we put on them now for the sake of future generations and how much have we yet to learn about them?
Working with sound and video with an abstract aesthetic provides an opportunity to present the wetland in a way that even those most familiar with them won’t have experienced. I hope that provokes curiosity, a desire to understand more about these wetlands and the ecological role they play – including their aesthetic/sonic qualities. The research still sits behind this, and it’s there for people to dive into if they want to.
How will the project stimulate discussion about the future of wetlands and the interdependence of human and more-than-human in those landscapes?
In the age of the Anthropocene, it’s hard to imagine a landscape without the hand of humans on it. Humans have been part of the ecology of these landscapes in Australia for at least 60,000 years and in the region around the Macquarie Marshes, that existence dates back 30-36,000 years. While the wetlands are a complex and dynamic system, expanding and contracting, shifting shape and area over centuries, post-colonisation sped up the process in Australia under the influence of European farming practices.
A decade after settlement in the Marshes had already begun, introducing large numbers of hard-hooved sheep and cattle to the Marshes and floodplains, explorer and surveyor, Thomas Mitchell wrote in his journal while traveling through the Marshes (19 Feb): We cannot occupy the land without producing a change, fully as great to the aborigines, as that which took place on man’s fall and expulsion from Eden.
Strong words, yet 174 years later and we’re still grappling with the issues knowing we can’t turn back the clock. I’m hoping the works produced from our time in the wetlands will offer new perspectives and perhaps an understanding that even though there are now more stakeholders than ever, that we all essentially want the same thing.
It could be argued that creating nature reserves and limiting public access or simply raising these areas up as separate and worthy of conservation affects public perception of “nature”, so that we see humans as apart from it, rather than a part of it. And this in turn, could cause people to be blind to, or more neglectful of, the more-than-human elements of everyday landscapes we live in, because these could be perceived to be tainted by human contact, not protected and therefore open to be exploited or degraded. Is this a fair reflection? In drawing attention to wetland landscapes, how can art strike a balance between raising these sites up as unique and critically important, whilst also encouraging people to find value and see human interconnectedness in all forms of more-than-human in the landscapes around us?
I completely agree – how can you value something you’ve never seen or have little understanding of? There seems to be two schools of thought amongst public land managers and scientists around this – one is that the conservation value is so great that it’s too big a risk to allow the public access, and the other is that supervised access should be allowed to create that connection and understanding. I think there’s a middle ground.
Art can most definitely play a part in striking that balance, by bringing the landscape to the public in new and interesting ways – things like showing what happens under the surface of the water, what’s happening at night in the wetland or hearing the ‘pulse’ inside a tree on the floodplain. If you can trigger curiosity at this level, you would hope it might encourage people to seek out those environments for themselves or demand more access to real-time experiences.
Ninety percent of the recognised Macquarie Marshes is privately owned, so there’s a lot of pressure on the remaining 10 percent of publicly managed wetland to be publicly accessible – that’s largely the Ramsar-listed area. The infrastructure work that’s being done on the trust-owned property I’ve been working on is going to provide some of the access the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service aren’t currently offering.
Water and fire are two themes which connect the UK and Australian wetlands. How do you see these influencing your work?
These are both central to humanity – two of the fundamental elements we require to survive. But you can have too much of a good thing. In simple terms, my brief on Pulse of the Wetland was to document the recovery of the Macquarie Marshes from prolonged drought and fire (a lightning strike in late October 2019). Drought is just the absence of water over a long period, which threatens survival, even in an ephemeral wetland where the dry cycle is as important as the wet.
Fire is essential to the Australian landscape; it’s a way of resetting things. Some Australian plants only germinate after fire, just as in the wetland, some birds only breed on a big flood event. Like us, they rely on fire and water to survive and regenerate.
With the impact of climate change being a very real presence in our lives here now, water, or the lack of it, and fire have taken on greater significance than ever — in a much more sinister, life-threatening way. Either way, I’m not sure I could create a work that wasn’t influenced by water or fire in some way.
There are some interesting differences and similarities between the sites. For example, no water flows into the Mosses other than rainfall, and historically the site has been drained to various watercourses, which caused the bog to collapse. The BogLIFE project is now to block the drains and regenerate the sphagnum moss. Whereas the Macquarie Marshes are fed by a major river and upper system tributaries – but then how does water extraction affect the amounting of water flowing out? The Marshes are affected hugely by seasonal changes, whereas the Mosses remain relatively unchanged.
The geomorphological, hydrological and geographical differences are quite obvious, but at the end of the day, the Mosses and Marshes are eco-systems that have evolved over centuries with humans in the mix. We have emotional attachments to them, evident in the stories we’ve been collecting, there’s quite obviously an inherent appreciation of their aesthetic value that’s often not recognised or dismissed. We’ve valued them in the past for their ability to be productive, be it as cattle country or for peat production. We’re now starting to value them for their biodiversity conservation importance. But we’re still a very long way from a position of deep ecological value — of giving worth to these landscapes regardless of what they offer to us.
Maybe that’s an ambitious objective, but there’s no reason why we can’t have the conversation if it offers up new perspectives that might preserve these environments for our kids.
If you have enjoyed reading about our project and would like to support the artists with the costs of preparing work for exhibition in the communities where the work is made, and in turn help support other artists and organisations that are involved then please make a donation by visiting the Mosses and Marshes crowdfunder campaign.
Kim V. Goldsmith is an established digital media and installation artist, based near Dubbo in Central New South Wales, Australia. Raised on a large mixed farm in the region and going on to work as a rural journalist, farmer, and a marketing communications specialist in the rural, regional and natural resources sectors over the past 30 years, Kim uses her knowledge, experience and networks in her art practice to explore new perspectives on rural and remote landscapes, the issues impacting them, and the stories at their heart.
Kim has been working collaboratively with me on our Mosses and Marshes project, with her component of the project called Pulse of the Wetland, documented over the past year through her website, ecoPULSE. Pulse of the Wetland is centred on the iconic Australian wetland, the Macquarie Marshes, where Kim has spent the past year using cameras and sound recorders to document the recovery of the wetland from prolonged drought and fire. She explains more about what’s she’s been doing.
What drew you to the idea of working collaboratively on the issues faced by Mosses and Marshes?
I’ve been working in the field of environmental, issues-based art making for over a decade now, largely because it made more sense to bring something to the table as an artist rather than just documenting what was happening around me, as I had for several years before that. Having been part of Arts Territory Exchange for the past three years, I knew collaborating with someone with a different practice and perspective on things is an extremely powerful way of working, extending one’s thinking and ultimately the actions resulting from those investigations. It makes you think harder about what you do and why.
The issues we’re dealing with in Mosses and Marshes isn’t limited to the politics or existential questions of what the future holds for these fragile wetland ecosystems, it’s about the need for new perspectives that may expose our shared hopes for the future and provide insights into what the collective effort to get there might look like. The way Andrew and I work means we become part of the conversation, and our work can potentially create a platform that invites others to be part of it too. Conversations lead to connections. From there, you start to see we all share more in common than we first thought.
You’re working in the Macquarie Marshes in the northern part of Central NSW. What sort of environment is it?
The Macquarie Marshes are a bit of a mythical place as 90 percent of the 200,000 hectares considered ‘Marsh country’ is privately owned. Those land managers often run cattle in the wetter areas, as they’re the last places to have water and feed when things get dry, with sheep mostly grazing the dryer surrounding floodplain areas.
By British standards, it’s a very harsh environment. The Marshes are one of the largest remaining inland semi-permanent wetlands in south-eastern Australia, with extensive areas of phragmites reeds, water couch (coo-ch) grassland, River Red Gum woodlands and floodplains supporting an incredible amount of life. The Marshes are particularly noted as one of the most important nesting sites for waterbirds in Australia – with 77 water-loving species recorded in the area, including the beautiful brolga, iconic magpie goose, elusive booming Australasian bittern, and painted snipe. It’s also home to 156 species of woodland birds, fish, turtles, frogs, snakes and mammals, including kangaroos, emus and plenty of feral pigs.
The private property I’ve had the most access to throughout the year sits right on the boundary of the 10,000 hectare, Ramsar-listed Northern Marsh, and covers three of the main vegetation zones (all except for water couch grasslands), giving me a rare opportunity to sample the drought recovery of the Marshes within a contained area of 260 hectares. It hasn’t run livestock since it was purchased in the early 2000s. I’ve gathered content from a few other areas around the area, including Gibson’s Way that sits between the Northern and Southern Marsh, where you can see birds such as pelicans and black swans alongside grazing cattle from the road, as well as at a couple of locations at the top and bottom of the Marsh area. I’ve been working mostly at dusk, through the night and at dawn, which makes access to other less suited areas a bit of an issue.
The real connection with the landscape for me on Pulse of the Wetland has happened from repeat visits to the one site over time – experiencing the deafening night silence during the heat of summer when little black flies choke the hot day-time air, to the calls of lapwings piercing bone-numbing cold autumn nights after the water has returned to slowly soak into the dry cracked soils, slowly filling channels and stimulating new growth in the reed beds. My impending spring visit will be the next milestone in that experience. I’m expecting to see the reeds standing over my head — they were close last time I was there, and the woodland birdsong should be at full chorus. And fingers crossed, there’ll be more waterbirds on some of the lagoons as well.
What are the issues there?
Water sharing is the big issue – it’s a limited resource and there are many stakeholders. The Marshes sits at the end of a regulated river system, and apart from natural rain events, it’s dependent on environmental water allocations from Burrendong Dam, several hundred kilometres to the south on the Macquarie River system. The management of water and how its allocated has been a long-running issue, with the recent drought bringing the entire Murray Darling Basin of eastern Australia into sharp focus as dams across the Basin were reduced to unprecedented lows, including Burrendong. It put river-reliant communities on severe, prolonged water restrictions that created a great deal of debate at a grassroots level. There’s a school of thought amongst environmental activists that the river shouldn’t be regulated and that irrigated agriculture is misplaced in such an arid country and should therefore not receive a water allocation.
It’s the 23,000 hectare Ramsar-listed areas, managed by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, that are often the focus of the environmental water allocations – both the quantity and frequency of allocations. However, there’s a long-standing Marsh grazier saying that hints it’s not just conservation values that are being threatened. Fat ducks mean fat cattle. Given 90 percent of the area is privately owned, it’s really a tussle between upper and lower river system water users that’s made the Marshes a political water sharing football.
Burrendong Dam sits at the top of the regulated part of the Macquarie River and it’s one of the largest inland dams in NSW with a capacity three times Sydney Harbour (1,678,000 megalitres) that includes water storage and air space for flood mitigation. Completed in 1967, it took 21 years to build, and today it supplies towns downstream with water, environmental water (the bulk of the allocations), industry and domestic requirements, irrigated agriculture, as well as playing a flood mitigation and recreation role. There’s a 19-megawatt hydroelectric power station which generates energy using summer irrigation and flood mitigation flows.
How do you bring all the threads you’re investigating through these projects together into a body of work? What media are you playing with?
To be honest, it can seem overwhelming at times. I’ve received criticism of my project for not working across a broad enough area of the Marshes – for limiting my observations and documentation to just one part of 200,000 hectares that is perhaps considered an anomaly in the Marshes because it doesn’t run sheep or cattle. It’s easy to fall down that rabbit hole and doubt the scope of the project.
While I am documenting stages of recovery in the landscape, using local stories, scientific sounding boards and research to inform what I’m hearing and seeing, the underlying brief is to show the Marshes in a way that even those familiar with it may not have experienced it. I’m using contact mics and hydrophones to single out sounds, some of them silent to the human ear, and visually focusing on line, patterns, rhythms, and some of the more unseen elements of the landscape, all layered and abstracted in their final, digital format — a reflection of the processes that have shaped this landscape over millennia and our more recent post-colonial history. The politics, histories, stories, emotions and opinion are a swirling undercurrent acknowledged in documenting my process, but I’m hesitant to make them a focus of the works themselves. I’d like to see the aesthetic and sonic values of the hidden Marsh take centre stage.
I’m using a collection of microphones, sound recorders and cameras to record with, including a drone, underwater camera, and time lapse cameras. To capture the ‘hidden’ sounds within the landscape I’m using contact mics and hydrophones, with atmospheric recordings using acoustic sound recorders and 360 sound that form the base of multi-track compositions.
When will you be presenting the outcomes of your project?
I’ve got a couple more field trips between now and November to get recordings and collect audio stories, then it’s into the studio for a few months of post-production over our Aussie summer. As well as our individual works, we’re also planning to collaborate and contribute something to each other’s output. I’m looking forward to that and possibly revealing a teaser of what’s to come by World Wetlands Day on 2 February 2021.
We’re obviously trying to organise exhibitions before we have the works finished, which is always tricky, but Covid-permitting, we’ll soon start locking in some local and international presentation opportunities from mid-2021 into 2022.
In the second part of the conversation, we will be talking further in a little more depth about how our work will be presented and some of the themes to be explored.
In my artist practice, walking plays a central and integral role in a cyclic process of walking > informing making > informing walking and so on. In this post, I look back over some of the artist responses I have made so far based on my wanderings across the Mosses and identifying some trajectories or pathways towards more substantive work.
Most of my walks to date, have resulted in some work back in my studio in Shrewsbury. The work is based on observations and materials that I gather on site. These include photographs, drawings, tracings, rubbings of surfaces, sound and video recordings, and physical materials such as found objects and plant materials. Maps and the lines, boundaries and shapes found within the landscape also feature in my work.
Sometimes, the walk is the event in itself, so much like Richard Long might make interventions or simply record the route, then I may not retain any tangible material that “represents” the walk other than some form of map or notation to record where I walked. Even here though, my experience of the walk is influenced by prior research and studies of work made in the studio. Sensory observations can be prompted by an awareness of what it is that I might find or indeed specifically what I am seeking. Sharing of this form of art walk is not possible except in a mediated, indirect way through further work made later. But it is important to keep a space for these solitary walks and to try and make a deeper engagement with the landscape.
Some of my earliest work in 2017, started as sketchbook studies and took shape as an artist book documenting a walk from Whixall to Bettisfield, which you can read about here.
Whilst I am interested in the wildlife on the Mosses, my aim is not particularly to rely on photographs or recordings of what I see. The fabulous work of Stephen Barlow does this far more beautifully than I could ever achieve. My main interest is in drawing attention to the multitude of entanglements between the human and more-than-human, animate and inanimate, organic and inorganic.
The array of objects I found at the car breakers yard, my “Shropshire hoard”, have inspired several works in painting and printmaking.
Using materials taken directly from the landscape is a line of enquiry I am exploring. So far this has involved making marks using materials gathered on site, and more recently creating dyes and pigments.
I have also made paper with reeds and bog cotton:
These diverse works are pathways to further works exploring the theme of human and more-than-human entanglement in the landscape. They are starting points in the collaborative project with Kim V. Goldsmith.
Kim is an artist working in digital media and immersive sensory installations. To complement the above works in traditional 2D media, I have made a number of sound and video recordings during my walks on the Mosses. These may link more readily with Kim’s work.
I will write more about the collaborative process in future posts. Ordinarily, I would commence work with another artist by walking with them, since walking creates a space for dialogue and sharing thoughts whilst moving through a stream of chance encounters and stimuli. The particular rhythm of walking means this cannot be easily recreated in any other way. The nature of the remote encounters set up across the world by Arts Territory Exchange, is such that the development of ideas must progress in more isolated and discrete steps, interspersed with periods of reflection, research and experimentation.
Kim and I recognised quite early on in discussions that water was going to be a prominent theme in the work. A regular feature in our respective practices, water is a core issue for both the Mosses and Macquarie Marshes. With that in mind, I have been given access to groundwater monitoring data by Natural England, and I have begun investigating a number of ideas using visuals from the data and converting data into sounds. I am hopeful that this work can cast new light on the importance of scientific monitoring of sensitive environments.
I‘ve walked around and across and between the Fenn’s Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses over the last four years or so, building up a sense of the life within the landscape, changing seasons and human narratives. Some earlier walks were documented on my No Time Like The Present blog:
June 2017 – Whixall to Bettisfield Walk with a group of artists from Participate Contemporary Artspace CIC.
March 2018 – Whixall Moss walk with Mike Crawshaw of Natural England and a group of artists/poets: Ted Eames, Ursula Troche, Ruth Gibson and Adele Mills
I’ve also walked with poet Jean Atkin and partner Paul, and several other friends and family. The conversation when walking is directed by chance encounters to spark new ideas and fresh perspectives.
Solitary walking in the vast open space of the Mosses is a wholly different, almost transcendental experience, where distance is hard to measure due to the lack of obvious landmarks and progress can feel almost static.
Some of the more recent visits over the past 12 months have involved making field recordings of sights and sounds. Last Summer, I was allowed permission by the reserve manager for Natural England to visit the NNR on my own at dusk, overnight and pre-dawn with certain safeguards.
I captured some stunning views of the sun rising as the dawn chorus reached its crescendo. Curlews flew overhead with their unmistakable cry.
Then on the warm night of the Summer Solstice in June 2019, I recorded the sun setting and while darkness fell I headed out to the northern edge of Fenn’s Moss. As I approached the heathland where birch trees had been felled, I heard the unearthly churring of nightjars. Even though I had heard recordings of them, it was difficult to convince myself that it was a bird that was making the strange electro-mechanical-like sound. In fact, I could hear at least three nesting sites which seemed to be about 50-100m apart. At one point, I was standing on the path some 2 metres or so from where I thought the sound was coming from … but of course, it was too dark to see anything and certainly not a bird as well camouflaged as the nightjar.
My last visits before the Covid 19 lockdown were in December 2019 to see the amazing murmurations of starlings that became a daily phenomenon above the fields adjacent to the road approaching Morris Bridge. This had not been reported at Whixall Moss before on such a scale, as huge swirling clouds of up to an estimated 60,000 birds gathered at dusk. Each night was a different breathtaking performance, and gradually more and more people heard about it and came to watch in amazement.
The birds arrived from all directions and the pulsating murmurations split off into two or more groups either side of the road until the whole sky seemed to be filled with movement. We heard the rush of wings as the mass of birds swooped past.
At a moment that every starling seemed to recognise instantaneously, they dived downwards into the trees where they could be heard noisily settling down to roost… catching up on their day’s events perhaps, or passing on good tips for feeding locations.
A week or so after my last visit, it was reported that the starlings had stopped returning. It was thought that someone had disturbed their roosting. So we must wonder whether this incredible spectacle will reappear again next Winter.
The first post on this new blog describes my visit to Whixall Moss at the beginning of June 2020. It was not my first visit to the Mosses as I’ve been walking there, talking to people and making artworks for a few years now. It was, though, my first visit for several months, and the first since the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 lockdown were eased.
In other posts I will review some of the work I have done already in response to walks and other research at the Mosses and what future arts activities I am planning both here, and in collaboration with artist, Kim V. Goldsmith and her work at the Macquarie Marshes in New South Wales, Australia.
I will be talking to different people, walking the landscape, studying data and research, and I will continue to make responses through a series of my own artworks and by involving other artists. Over time, I will be exploring what environmental issues these sites are facing, what the human impacts and interactions with the landscape are, and how the relationship between humans and non-humans might evolve in future. I hope that by sharing this, it will raise awareness and start a wider engagement and discussion of these issues.
But first, I am going to provide an up to date snapshot of my research on the site visit.
The weather throughout most of April and May had been near perfect dry sunshine. However, during my visit in early June, there were a few passing light rain showers and the wind became quite strong. Many birds, butterflies and flying insects were keeping a low profile, so it was a slightly disappointing visit from a wildlife observation point of view, but there was more than enough interest to keep me busy over what turned out to be about 5 hours on site.
I have a few different areas of interest and research themes
History of human impacts, primarily at the Furber’s scrapyard and past peat extraction activities
Role of the raised peat bog in mitigating climate change
Engaging with people and gathering responses to the Mosses
Birds and other wildlife
My main objectives for my visit were:
Monitor restoration works at the Furber’s Scrapyard
Visit the Starfish WW2 site
Collect some materials for making dyes and paper
Record some sound and video, and take photographs – I always take loads!
Even before I began thinking about any art projects I was fascinated by the car breakers yard at Whixall Moss – it stood out like a sore thumb against the starkly beautiful landscape. I later began documenting restoration work by its new owners, Shropshire Wildlife Trust from around 2017 onwards. See posts on my No Time Like the Present blog here and here.
On this visit, I noted that most of the piles of silver birch trees had been removed. These have been cut down all around the Mosses as part of Natural England’s BogLIFE project because birches and other pioneer species are very effective at drawing water from the ground which prevents conditions developing for the reestablishment of sphagnum moss. I gathered birch bark in order to make a dye for painting canvases and for making paper.
Work on covering the area adjacent to the concrete hardstanding with soil had to be halted earlier in the year because of wet conditions and then, I guess the lockdown prevented further progress. But I could see that some areas had been covered. Meanwhile, willows, birches, reeds, bog cotton and other plants were getting well established on the concrete already.
On one of my earlier visits, I had seen a bitumen tanker left suspended amongst the trees adjacent to the scrap yard.
The remains of the tanker have been left on the concrete slab, and it was hoped to incorporate it into a sculpture but the corroded metal has become unstable and unable to contain the bitumen which softens and flows in the warm sun. It will be covered over as part of the restoration works. For the time being, it is still a fascinating installation – an ironic reminder that this icon of oil exploitation will be returning to its origins in a peat bog.
On returning to Morris Bridge, I had a long discussion with John Roberts. He was in the garden of the bungalow he built when he moved here in 1958. He had lived in the area all his life, his son worked at Furber’s Yard for over 30 years and his family had worked in peat extraction for many years. More on our conversation in other posts, but it was very interesting to hear another perspective on the value of the Mosses in supporting livelihoods for generations.
On my various walks around the Mosses, I had passed along paths forming part of the History Trail, but I haven’t yet followed the whole route. There wasn’t time in the end to do all of it this time either, but I did walk the western portion mainly to see the Strategic Starfish site. This array of portable fire baskets was constructed in 1940 as a decoy against German Luftwaffe bombers heading for Manchester, Crewe and Merseyside. The sculptural installation of wire baskets is hauntingly beautiful on this windswept peatland, now acting as perches for stonechats and other birds.
The most striking feature of my visit was the abundance of haretail cotton sedge or bog cotton. There were swathes of it around pools, energised by the strong winds.