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.
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.
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.
In early November 2021, an international panel was convened to discuss the issues entangled in alternative ways of thinking about, understanding and valuing special environments. The goal was to determine if we needed to consider different ways to inform and shape the future of the Fenn’s, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses and Macquarie Marshes, and environments like them.
The online event was organised in partnership with Dubbo Regional Council in New South Wales, Australia (part of the Macquarie catchment), and facilitated by their Cultural Development Coordinator, Jessica Moore.
The panel consisted of natural resource managers, scientists, academics, and cultural consultants from Australia and the UK with a wealth of experience in land and natural resource management issues. They were Tim Hosking (AU), Kate Mildner (AU), Fleur and Laurance Magick Dennis of Milan Dhiiyaan (AU), Dave Pritchard (UK), Dr Tim Acott (UK) and Robert Duff (UK). There were also six provocateurs from both countries raising issues that were then addressed by the panel, in front of an audience on Zoom.
As organisers of the event and co-leads of the Mosses and Marshes project, Kim V. Goldsmith and Andrew Howe see it as just the start of many more conversations to come, online and offline in their respective communities as well as globally.
These are their thoughts following the event.
Kim: I remember when the conversation started between us about the possibility of an international panel event, I was putting together a grant application over the summer of 20/21 to include public programming around the project from my end. I think was looking for a way to pull our two wetlands together in both my mind, and the mind of the public — to show that while there are differences and we’re separated by huge distances, we have so much in common. My thinking took shape around what that might look like off the back of an email sent to you from the Ramsar Culture Network’s Dave Pritchard in July 2020, where he wrote: I’d be keen on anything that expands perspectives on intangible values (such as aesthetics, creative inspiration, sense of place, re-framed understandings of environmental change etc), explored through ecological or socially-engaged arts-based enquiry, as part of the rubric of “cultural ecosystem services” in the Ramsar Sites context. That definitely had me thinking!
Andrew, what were you thinking about how this event might fit into the project and its objectives, before the event?
Andrew: Objectives I had in mind for the project included using art to build stronger connections with the natural environment, to transform how we think about a place and a changing environment, and to imagine how interdependence between humans, land and ecosystems might build sustainability. I thought the panel could contribute to each of these objectives, and particularly the last of them. Considering interdependence requires an understanding of multiple perspectives and I saw the event offering great potential to bring many voices together from two geographies that could not be further apart.
You and I both have backgrounds linked to environmental science and the arts, and we have tried to maintain multiple lines of enquiry during the project and in our dialogue. During our global collaboration, we have both communicated with many different people connected with the wetlands from scientists, land managers, other artists, writers and members of the local communities. But all of these conversations must ultimately be filtered or mediated by the two of us in steering the art project. So, I saw the panel event as a means of expanding the debate in an entirely different way. Bringing those different disciplines/areas of interest and different cultures directly into contact might just make sparks fly to raise issues we could not have brought to the fore ourselves. And yes, like you, I hoped that despite the differences between the Mosses and the Marshes, we might find there are more issues in common than perhaps we imagined.
Kim:Fast forward several months to a successful grant application and the signing of a partnership agreement with Dubbo Regional Council to facilitate the event, we brought together six panelists and six provocateurs (from the UK and Australia) in front of a live, international audience on Zoom, on 11 November, to consider and discuss alternative ways of thinking about, understanding and possibly valuing special environments like the Mosses and Marshes, to help inform and shape their future. It felt like a big moment. There’d been a lot of planning and preparation to get to this point and at times I had to keep reminding myself that it was us, as artists, who had managed to make this happen.
What did you think we might achieve once that Zoom session was underway?
Andrew: It was something of a leap of faith because you and I were not participating directly in the debate nor were we the facilitator. We had curated the event by selecting the panelists and provocateurs with some guidance to them around the topic, but from thereon everything was dependent on what people actually said on the day. I just hoped that we could achieve a sufficiently comprehensive, informed and robust coverage of relevant issues with responses from all the participants so that it would be possible to identify where there was consensus (or at least recognition of similar views), points of contention and areas of uncertainty. The discussion might spur some of the participants into taking actions to follow up or respond to some of the issues. As we have found, the discussion has been extremely fruitful in yielding a range of issues for us to highlight and make further provocations for action.
Kim, there were a few variables to pin down in deciding on the format for the event, what did you find to be main decision factor?
Kim: Having run a few online talk events over the year leading up to the panel discussion, I had started to work out what worked and what didn’t. I’ve always been a fan of ABC TV’s Q&A TV program format, and couldn’t see why something similar wouldn’t work on Zoom.
I know we spent some time considering the topic and whether to explore intangible values alone or be more provocative by suggesting alternatives. I think Dave Pritchard set the record straight at the start of the panel discussion, saying it’s more about being clever with allowing a plurality of multiple values operate together, inviting challenge and reframing the questions to find new solutions to some of the issues we’ve been exploring…and that’s where artists can play a role. He also mentioned the need for a more holistic approach to understanding what makes a place. I think this is where the stories shared with Fleur and Locky Magick Dennis from Milan Dhiiyaan became so powerful in this discussion. These experiences and perspectives are not often shared with an international audience, or as we found out, even within our own regions.
Andrew: It was important to hear Fleur and Locky speaking so powerfully with an emotional depth that could only come from an intimate, authentic connection with the land and its people. Their references to the missing sounds in the landscape, the urgent need for resources to gather legitimate community representation and a fundamental lack of access to country made for uncomfortable, but necessary, listening. What they had to say aligned with other indigenous cultures across the globe around honouring what the Earth provides, taking only what is needed and acknowledging that we are all custodians and not owners of the land.
These basic sustainable principles are in direct opposition to prevailing systems for exploiting land and resources in most parts of the world. It feels like an impossible seismic shift is needed to change attitudes towards these basic principles in a river system with so many competing interests like the Marshes. What signs of hope do you see?
Kim: It does seem like an impossible seismic shift is required, and not just in the Marshes. Maybe in the interim, it’s about accepting that scientific and evidence-based languages aren’t the only way of knowing and doing, particularly if we accept that language often shapes behaviours. The acceptance of Indigenous knowledge bases seems to be long overdue, and I think that came through in the discussion.
Andrew: So Kim, what do you think were the key themes emerging from the discussion?
Kim: Plurality of perspectives and values, along with a more holistic approach and access (including safety or feelings of safety) were distinct themes throughout the discussion. I do think the diverse backgrounds and experiences of the panelists and provocateurs that came together for this event underscored that need we have for diverse knowledge bases and perspectives, and ways of understanding how wetlands are meaningful and important to people, to use Tim Acott’s words.
Andrew: There is a trend towards recognising “softer” or intangible values associated with wetlands and other natural landscapes in decision-making alongside the measurable social, environmental and economic values. Natural capital is commonly referred to in projects and methodologies are becoming more established for taking this into account. But other cultural values, like memories, stories and sense of place, are some way off from finding a means of being accounted for in a balanced, holistic decision-making framework.
Kim:I agree. It’s a bit too far to the left of those scientific or evidence-based values. Perhaps the adoption of Indigenous knowledge though, might make room for some of those other ‘softer’ cultural values. We’ve started that process in a small way though by collecting audio stories and providing room for community to contribute to the conversation.
A few times in the panel discussion, the need to broaden our timeframes was raised, particularly on a policy level – which as we know is so often determined by political cycles. Was this something you were thinking about at all when we started this project? I’m not sure I was thinking of this as an ongoing project when we first started talking in 2019, but it seems inevitable now that there’s a need for it to be ongoing. Don’t you think that too is a short timeframe compared to how we need to be thinking about the future of the wetlands.
Andrew: History in the landscape is always something that interests me, and as I came to know the Mosses, I realised that it had a story going back 10,000 years to at least to the last Ice Age. And so that was one comparison I was interested to make with the ancient landscape of the Marshes. However, I wasn’t necessarily thinking very far into the future. The climate and biodiversity crises are upon us and demanding short term action. When Robert Duff talks about the restoration of the peatbog taking many centuries to recover, that is a timescale that I was certainly not thinking about when we started on the project. It has certainly registered in my thinking now, and I feel challenged to explore notions of cyclic time, parallel timelines and other alternatives to linear timelines.
I was open minded about how long the project might continue. I knew if I invested time, energy and creative thought into a place, I would inevitably become attached. I have no ancestral roots in Shropshire, although I have lived here 24 years, but having got to know the landscape and some of the people associated with the Mosses, and having learnt more about the Marshes, I feel a commitment to “seeing things through”. As long as the project offers interesting challenges for my artist practice then I’ll be keen to keep the project going.
Kim: A couple of the key things that came from the event that I want to follow-up on are firstly, the issue of bringing more voices to the table (including future generations), and secondly, access to the land itself for those here now. The Values. Voices. Action. consultation as follow-up to the panel event is just the start of this for me. I think more might happen even within some of the government departments that had representatives at the event. It’s going to be important to listen to those here and now about what we’re doing today (regular self-reflection required) – even if we don’t agree with them, as provocateur, Anna Martin of the Shropshire Wildlife Trust put to us. Where do you see it going for you at this stage in the project? After all, you did say at the end of the panel event that this was possibly the end of the beginning!
Andrew: This aspect of the debate brought to mind that my namesake, Sophie Howe, was the world’s first and so far, only Future Generations Commissioner, a role she has held for the Welsh Government since 2016. She has led high profile interventions around transport planning, education reform and climate change. This is the kind of future planning cutting through the short termism of typical political cycles that must continue to be adopted elsewhere.
I think there is a discussion to be had with those involved in planning and managing wetlands or associated restoration projects to see whether creative approaches led by artists, like the Community Voice Method described by Tim Acott, could work alongside other engagement approaches to help support decision making with a view to developing new frameworks that take account of intangible values.
In terms of other voices to bring to the table, I am reminded of Dave Pritchard’s points about “listening to the river” or the voice of the wetlands itself, and I need to further investigate what this really means because it is not just about making more sophisticated sound recordings and field research.
Kim: I love that idea of a Future Generations Commissioner! And the Community Voice Method struck a chord with me too, as it’s a process I’ve used over the years, without thinking of it as a tool as such. I’m also interested in the Kitchen Table Conversation method (currently being used as community consultation tool by independent political candidates), as a way of making people feel more comfortable about engaging on difficult issues. These are all things I need to pay more attention to in terms of why I’ve used them in my work.
One of the things I’ll remember for a long time after this discussion, picks up the issue of being holistic that Dave Pritchard summarises so well, and Kate Mildner made it clear in terms of what the guiding principles are around what values are put on different parts of the landscape. So often, Governments determine what those values are when prioritising resources, that top down approach — something Terry Korn alluded to in his provocation. But as Locky Magick Dennis said, “If you’re a family and you’re walking in the bush and some of the family can’t make the walk and it’s up to you to look after those individuals, what are you going to do? Are you going to leave them behind to suffer, to starve, to die of thirst? That’s exactly what will happen to our river systems and the ecosystems around our wetlands. If we don’t look after those, they’ll be gone forever.” His point was that the parts form a whole – a family. Like a functional family or community, we’re all needed in the decision-making.
Andrew: It’s a powerful analogy. Possibly the point goes a little further in that all the related wetlands and ecosystems are inextricably linked and interdependent, sometimes in ways that might not be easily apparent. A case might be made for losing one wetland because there are insufficient resources to sustain it, and maybe it might be argued there are adequate habitats available in other wetlands. However, these ecosystems are so complex, loss of habitat for any one species could place further pressure on the species populations in similar habitats elsewhere, with direct and indirect weakening and then loss of that species and other dependent species. The whole system will likely suffer ongoing decline and possible collapse.
Kim:There’s so much more to think about and discuss from this event, but I guess the other thing that shocked and surprised me somewhat was the idea of these landscapes being threatening, which was discussed after artist, Sue Challis’ provocation and confirmed by Fleur Magick Dennis as being something very real for Indigenous people wanting to access Country. I feel safer in these places than I do in the suburbs. That’s obviously a privileged position. How are people ever going to want to have access to or feel connected to these special places if they can’t feel safe in them?
Andrew: These were valid points which do need to be addressed. As Sue suggested, this is an issue for society in general and not just wetlands, but there is something about the remoteness of wetlands which I totally understand could create a feeling of risk, even if this is more perceived than real. Both Dave Pritchard and Tim Acott suggested that there is an ongoing transformation happening with public perception of wetlands from that of wasteland to a rich resource of huge environmental and social benefit. The language used and tone of discussion in both education and media have key roles to play in continuing to change public perceptions.
The access to Country issue raised by Fleur is similarly concerning and somewhat different to the risk Sue referred to. I started out on this project looking at the human impact on the Mosses peatbog ecosystem but as time has gone on, land ownership and access has taken on a greater prominence, as I think it has for your work Kim?
The Mosses are in public ownership under the stewardship of Natural England and its partners, but it was not always the case, nor is it the case for many other peatbogs and other wetlands across the UK which remain in private ownership with limited or no access. The systems of power originating in land ownership dating back centuries, were reinforced by land grabs and exclusion through the Land Enclosures in England and Wales, and the Clearances in Scotland. This same mindset was in play during the colonisation of lands beyond the UK’s shores. Obviously, this is a huge and complex issue, which is beginning to be acknowledged more openly. We can only play a small part in keeping attention on it.
Kim: A small part, perhaps Andrew, but I think art has the power to cut through on some of the difficult issues and transcend the politics. When art, science and community come together though, that’s when magic can happen!
You can watch the recording of the panel discussion here. This event was just the start of many more conversations to come. We expect these discussions to continue online and offline in our communities and globally for some time to come.
To respond to this video and join the conversation you can add your views via the link to the Values. Voices. Action form below. You need to use a valid email address in order to receive a copy of your response or to edit it after submission, however, we won’t contact you further unless you provide your name. We’re interested in opportunities to take this conversation offline too, so don’t hesitate to contact us via email if you have an idea about how we might do that. Email Kim (Australia) or Andrew (UK).
Keith Ashford and Elizabeth Turner are Shropshire-based artists who have worked together to create sculptures sited in the landscape at a range of different locations across Shropshire, Telford and further afield. During 2020, we began a conversation about making some work at Fenn’s and Whixall Moss, and we discussed these ideas with Shropshire Wildlife Trust. We were all excited that the National Lottery funding I secured from Arts Council England would enable these ideas to be turned into reality during 2021.
Ashford and Turner’s work often explores the ways in which people look at and experience their surroundings and their place on the Earth; sometimes there are strange shifts in our perception of scale and distance when considering the near and the far. For example, previous work has investigated the image of the moon observed through a telescope, the rectangle of sky seen through a roof skylight, the panorama of landscape viewed from the roof of Shrewsbury Market Hall, or an amazing encounter with a replica of the giant spire from the Market Hall tower, which in reality seems comparatively small when viewed from ground level.
I walked the Mosses with Keith and Liz and listened as their ideas evolved. Then later, we walked again to view larger scale prototypes for the sculptures in the landscape and to find suitable locations, that also tied into the route for the sound trail.
“It is very rare in Shropshire to find such a large open flat space; I can turn round and see the horizon in all directions, and sense the curvature of the Earth. You don’t get this in South Shropshire. It reminds me of the landscapes I saw in Australia.”
The artworks Ashford and Turner will install at Fenn’s and Whixall Moss will be a series of temporary sculptures as place markers on the new audio trail. The artwork will relate to the flat expanse of the Mosses, its changing water levels and the wide horizon line, inviting visitors to reconsider their relationship to this unique place.
Walking through this landscape can give rise to a feeling of unknowability and disorientation; where is the centre of the Moss and how far is it to the other side? The artists make sense of this unusual experience by equating walking with the mapping process. Inspired by measuring tools such as the Centre finder and Inclinometer the artworks explore the idea of distances across the Moss and our own scale in this landscape. Enlarging these tools will contrast something held in the hand with the act of looking to the horizon, a place beyond reach.
The Mosses are littered with fragments of industrial past; perhaps these sculptures too are discarded tools once used to measure this landscape.
“We started thinking about how we measure or survey the landscape – triangulation sketching from an A to B datum line, points and straight lines. Thinking about how people impose lines on land, like a blank canvas or large sheet of paper. And where is the centre of the Moss?”
The sculptures will be made from a mixture of corten steel and reclaimed railway sleepers; materials that echo the industrial heritage of this place, part of the language of fragments left from the peat industry and military use of the land.
An inclinometer measures elevation and slope across a horizontal plane. The sculpture uses this shape to explore levels across the Moss, drainage and movement of water, the pull of gravity and walking across the landscape.
Viewers will be able to look through the curved aperture to the horizon line.
The sculpture relates to the experience of slowly turning your head to take in a wide view and how we sometimes can sense the curvature of the earth.
During the development of the Art Trail, we have maintained careful consultation with Natural England to ensure that the scale, materials and locations for the sculptures will not cause any adverse disturbance to wildlife.
The sculptures are in the late stages of production and will be transported to site for installation in late June ready for a launch of the Art Trail on 3rd July 2021.
The artists Keith Ashford and Elizabeth Turner will be with me, Andrew Howe at Whixall Moss 11am to 3pm if you would like to meet them and discuss their work.
Engaging with the local community is one of the key parts of the Mosses and Marshes project that gives it meaning and brings it to life. I teamed up with artists Kate Johnston and Dr Sue Challis, who have both worked with Wem Youth Club for some time, and we were all delighted that the Arts Council funding would enable us to deliver a project at Whixall Moss for the young Club members. Some of the young people had visited the Moss previously with Shropshire Wildlife Trust, and it was great to work in partnership with Anna Martin of the Wildlife Trust for the project.
We wanted to bring the arts, science and the landscape together in an exciting way so that the young people could become more curious about the natural environment and feel more connected to nature. By taking part in a wide range of activities, the young people would learn about the ecology of the peatbog and the importance of the Mosses and other wetlands across the globe in addressing biodiversity and climate change.
“The Mosses are an amazing place. They are one of the rarest habitats on earth and provide a home to many unique, fascinating creatures. The peat holds 10 times its weight in water and helps prevent flooding. And peatlands are also of global importance in the fight against climate change – though they only cover 3% of the planet they hold more carbon than all the world’s forests.
However, the Mosses are often overlooked by, or challenging for visitors. Many people in the neighbouring communities have never visited.
What was wonderful about this project was that it gave local young people a chance to really get to know this important place on their doorstep. Shropshire Wildlife Trust had already worked with the youth group and the local school meaning the group already had some understanding of the site. This project gave them space to go deeper and explore the Mosses in lots of different ways – they worked with ecologists, used their senses to investigate, heard stories of the past, foraged for natural materials, explored other artists work about the site and drew on all this to create amazing artwork. In the local exhibitions their work will help bring the Mosses to life for others in their family and the wider community. The project has had real depth, and I believe will have created lasting memories and a sense of connection to the Mosses for the young people involved.
All round a smashing collaborative creative project!
After much careful planning, we organised two site visits to the Moss along with a number of evening sessions at the Youth Club. It was important that we allowed enough time in the visits for an immersive experience in which the children could explore the landscape at their own pace and build confidence within it. So rather than the usual Youth Club evening sessions, we arranged full day weekend visits.
“The project breaks down gender roles, everyone has enjoyed poetry, arts and science. They are getting to know kids across age groups and outside friendship groups …
…it creates a really interesting shared experience; a community”
We needed to ensure that we worked closely with Natural England, as managers of the National Nature Reserve, so that the project did not cause any significant disturbance to wildlife. It was through these discussions that it became necessary to adapt original plans for the collaborative artworks. Kate and Sue’s proposals evolved into three 7m long x 1.2m wide banners that could be created and worked on throughout the project and then these could be displayed in public venues and brought back to the Moss to be displayed temporarily at the Mammoth Tower viewing platform. Each banner has three sections for bog, land and sky.
“Its creating a quality piece of artwork they can all be proud of… they have all taken part, in their community. They will understand why they created it… connection with the landscape”
First visit: Sunday 9th May 2021
Thankfully we were lucky with the weather for both trips, although we were well prepared, and something tells me the kids would still have enjoyed themselves in the rain.
This first visit was about discovery and experimentation with a mix of learning about the Moss, trying out new art skills and free time to explore. We walked to the Mammoth Tower viewing platform, where we made a base.
Activities included foraging for plants for cyanotype printing and ecoprinting, observational drawing, listening, looking and collecting words to use in the banners, pond dipping, carbon collecting game and lots of mucking about.
“permission to play, permission to get muddy, permission to jump…”
There were some lovely drawings, and in the time that we walked to the viewing platform, Gertie wrote a fabulous poem “Lost on the Moss”. We recorded her perform this and you will be able to hear the poem in the upcoming sound trail.
“I was just amazed, I didn’t realise it was so big!”
“I feel really small, because there’s so much space around you”
“Its glorious! its so beautiful!”
“I loved learning all about it”
Youth Club members
Both visits and the youth club sessions were very well supported by Becca and Emma youth workers and adult volunteer assistants Nev, Mandy and Mia in addition to the artists. Big thanks to them for making sure everything ran so well.
MediaActive Projects is working with me to document the project, and Max Allwood joined us on both trips and one of the Club sessions to record video that we can edit into a short film as a lasting record.
Youth Club Sessions 11th/12th and 25th/26th May
Over the course of the project, over 20 young people took part in the site visits and in the evening sessions at the club. It was important that even if members were not able to go on the visits, they could still take part in creating the artwork.
The Club is for the young people to meet socially and take part in activities on offer, So these were quite informal sessions. While there were artists Kate, Sue and myself on hand to lead and provide guidance with art activities, there was no pressure to join in, children could come and go and were free to choose whether to take part or not – there were plenty of other games and refreshments. As it turned out, just about everyone had a go at the art activities in small groups, which made for a nice, relaxed and engaged environment.
There was more cyanotype printing onto fabric, drawings as studies to make monoprints, and the banners were painted with peat and then printed with stamps and stencils using the words gathered from the site visit.
Anna came into the Club for a couple of the evenings to present and talk about some of the artefacts from the “Bog Box” including bog bodies and dragonfly exuvia.
Second visit: Sunday 6th June 2021
The second visit was more about deeper exploration and learning, and we were joined by Shropshire Wildlife Trust ecologist Phil Playford. We took a different route to base ourselves near pools where we could do more pond dipping, find sundews and test out the bouncy bog. We were privileged to find huge raft spiders and all sorts of creatures in the ponds. I was impressed with the team work, enthusiasm and attentiveness of all the young people.
“We’ve really been inspired by this environment. The project has been quite rich in time. Its been a layered project”
I talked about the Mosses and Marshes project and the connections between the Mosses and the Macquarie Marshes of Australia. I was also able to introduce small groups to the new sound trail I have been installing at the Moss, and some of the children tried out some sound and video recording.
The banners are progressing well and have reached the sky sections, so the group were able to splash paint/dye on to the canvas to create them.
There’s still some work to do to complete the banners and prepare them for display. Everyone is looking forward to returning to the Moss and to see the artwork we have created – look out for a follow up post.
“Whenever I go back there again, I get this sort of calm, freedom, peaceful feeling and its actually quite nice”
During last year, I was contacted by Sheila Birch who said to me that some of my artistic responses to the Mosses resonated with her experience of the landscape. Although she no longer lives in the area, she still has family connections with Bettisfield and is a regular visitor. I invited her to recount some of her childhood memories:
Andrew: You mentioned to me your sense of place growing up near the Moss, what are the particular feelings and memories that create that sense of place?
Sheila: I grew up at Church Farm in Bettisfield in the 1970s. I was always struck by the community’s (and my own family’s) reactions to the Moss and our sense of place. As kids, the Moss was out of bounds and so we viewed it as somewhere potentially dangerous and nervously exciting. There were snakes & fires! No doubt anyone living near the Moss had to be resilient and quite independent. For such a small rural village, I remember the area having a real mix of characters. Perhaps there’s something about the local landscape that over the years has been conducive to that. In the late 1970s/early 80s, I remember the village became home to a travelling showman’s family (complete with fairground rides resting for the Winter months) and a women’s Buddhist retreat centre.
John Piper & John Betjeman visited Bettisfield in the 1930s when they were preparing the Shell Guide to Shropshire (Piper was a huge fan of the architect GE Street who built Bettisfield Church*) and I love his moody sketch, which he completed in the 1950s, I think, when the Guide was finally published. I always wonder what he would have made of the Moss landscape.
Andrew: Boundaries seem to have been an influence in how you related to the landscape? How have these boundaries shaped your thinking about the Moss and sense of identity?
The idea of boundaries and identity from your work really resonated with me, as I realised after talking with my family that none of us have actually ever visited the Moss from the Whixall “end”.
We’d visit the Moss from Bettisfield & Fenn’s Bank, Bronington but even my brothers who had Summer holiday jobs working on the Moss in the late 70s/early 80s “walling” never went there. (Walling was literally building up square blocks of peat into a wall which would then be left to dry out.)
As children, we had a strict boundary line as to how far we could play on the approach to the Moss before we had to turn back. To cross that line risked getting lost in an otherworldly, dangerous place. We grew up with stories of snakes being chased out of kitchens; a friend’s dog being bitten & nearly dying; how if you got lost, especially in Whixall, you’d never find your way out! All probably exaggerated to keep children in check but I was reminiscing with old friends who heard the same. Growing up, perhaps in keeping with a border village, there was also a sense of who were English or Welsh families.
Seeing your pictures of Furber’s scrapyard were amazing. I never went there but I actually remember there being two scrapyards. The larger one in Whixall that you’ve visited but also another smaller yard in Bettisfield. Very apt to have one on both sides of the border!
We would quite often get asked for directions to Furber’s or have people show up at our farm looking lost. Our stock response was “go over the two bridges, turn left and keep going until you can’t go any further…” That sense of it being the end of the world was always there.
Andrew: Visiting the Moss myself, I have a sense of remoteness both in distance and in time – there is something timeless or nostalgic about the area. Did you have a sense of that when you lived there, or is it something that has become more apparent with living away from the area?
I don’t know if you’ve ever come across the book “Bad Blood” by Lorna Sage, who grew up in nearby Hanmer. Although it inevitably did upset some locals, in her book she perfectly captured the sense of those border villages of the Maelor being disjointed and essentially a land that time forgot.
My family is long rooted in the area. My Mum still talks of her Granny and her allotted patch on the Moss at Fenn’s Bank where she was entitled to cut her own peat. My Dad was on the local Community Council and worked with Joan Daniels when the environmental significance of the Moss was realised in the Nineties and he’d recall the locals’ mixed reaction to it. I still visit my Mum and the area regularly (lockdown permitting) and have now resolved to finally make a visit to the Whixall side of the Moss.
As a postscript, I shared a draft of this blog post with Sheila, and found coincidentally that she was making a home visit the following day at the same time that I was on site making sound recordings. So we met up at Morris Bridge for a short walk on Whixall Moss for a well timed opportunity to see the swathes of cotton grass. We continued our conversation, rich with anecdotes and memories of the area. Sheila is rightly proud of her Welsh heritage, with a keen interest in its history and culture – perhaps all the more so, given how the Maelor sits uneasily as a Welsh peninsular intruding into England, possibly regarded as “less Welsh” by the rest of Wales. In common with many other borderland territories, it is often the case that the closer one approaches the border, the more people seek to assert their identity.
I am aware how nuanced and finely grained everyone’s life experience can be and I have a sense of responsibility in sharing these family/community memories. This post just gives a glimpse, and does not really enable us to join the dots and say “this is what that community is like” … but it does build up a fascinating richness to the landscape.
* St John the Baptist’s Church was built in 1873 by Lord John Hanmer to a design by acclaimed architect George Edmund Street. No expense was spared, as stained glass was supplied by Clayton and Bell, bells by John Taylor of Loughborough and tiles by Mintons of Stoke on Trent. It was built after an earlier wooden chapel in the village became overcrowded.
I met Phil Jones, resident of Bettisfield and church warden, at the Church and heard about plans for the building to become more of a venue for community events. It is certainly a very striking, handsome church in a prominent and picturesque location.
** I went on to read Lorna Sage’s autobiographical “Bad Blood” quite recently, and it is an excellent book about the experiences of a young girl growing into adulthood. I understand why some people living in the area would be upset by it, and clearly there are aspects which are specific to Sage’s experience and not necessarily representative of the community of the 1950s-70s or now. But I did get that same sense of the isolation/remoteness of the place that I have noticed myself when visiting. The Maelor is within Wales but somehow disconnected from it, encircled by England.
Whilst the mere at Hanmer is mentioned in the book, I was struck by the fact that the Mosses are not referred to at all, apart from a passage in which Lorna goes to collect sphagnum moss for wreathmaking (presumably from Fenn’s Moss.) Perhaps not so surprising, when one thinks that during the 1960s the Mosses would have been a forbidding industrialised landscape of bare peat, a processing works and tramways, where visitors were likely to have been discouraged.
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.