There are times when I’m not able to get up to London to draw, either due to teaching commitments etc. Or because finances are a bit tight!
So to keep the drawing momentum going, I embarked on this project closer to home: a series of mixed media drawings made in Southleigh Woods (a 2 minute walk from my studio). The drawings explore the woods’ complexity, vitality and disparate nature. Also my solitary involvement with this 150ha mix of deciduous and evergreen forest, believed to be the location for the Iley Oak, where King Alfred and his troops rested overnight before the battle of Ethandun in 878.
The drawings are all made using mixed media (pen, oil pastel, watercolour, ink and stick, oil base pencils) on Full Imperial (76 x 56cm) HP watercolour paper.
Below each drawing are my observations, written at the time of drawing.
They were exhibited at Shaftesbury Arts Centre from 22 – 28 August 2018.
Thursday 31 May 2018. Southleigh Woods. A cool and damp morning. By the mossy foot of an old oak. Ferns abundant on his creaky, cranky branches. Rhododendron coarsing twistily through and above the leaf litter and tangles up into a holly tree. Tired bluebell leaves stitch the woodland floor. Beech branches sweep and soar and sparkle with wet foliage. Watery sunlight filters through. An orchestra of birdsong. The discordant tune rises and dips. Sometimes raucous and many voiced and sometimes for a moment just one shrill voice pierces down. Now and again a woodpecker stabs a staccato rhythym from the deep right through the dripping trees. A dance of little pinprick flies pepper my paper and I feel their pinpricks in my scalp. A distant rumble sounds like the forecast thunder. But it continues, one heavy note, gets louder and becomes an army transport plane which trundles above treetops and drops behind the hill.
Monday 4 June 2018 Southleigh Woods. Afternoon. Fallen tree in a stand of Douglas fir just behind the lower track where the ground rises towards the ridge. Bramble leaves catch the weak sunlight and seem to glow with bright intensity against the dark background. Bursts of breeze roll like waves through the treetops, accompanied with a soft pittering which sounds like rain, but I then realise it’s showers of needles as little flurries scatter on my paper. A heavy bumble bee busies at the rhododendron bush to my right. Something big, a deer? a dog? gallops and crashes through the undergrowth behind and away. Every time I look up at the trees on the slope, I catch a flicker of movement which I think is a figure but it must be just the changing patches of light and shadow in the gaps between the trunks.
Sunday 10 June 2018 (morning) Southleigh Woods. At the point where the River Wylye runs a bend below Bull Mill to make a swooping wash against the western foot of the forest. The ground is soft and spongy and my easel and boots squidge into the deep damp carpet. An abundance of life, insects zizzing and fussing. Damselflies dance at the rounding tops of reed grasses. A network jungle of reeds and stems interspersed with campion, thistle, comfrey, willowherb and long stalks of birdsfoot trefoil push their flowers through. The river flows lazy. I watch little white flecks of willowdown gently float past. A fish jumps now and again. A momentary snap of light on the dark, murky surface. Blackbird’s fluid flow of song drops from a treetop. A wren chits from the alder across stream. Above, a buzzard circles, being mobbed by 3 rooks, caw, caw, cawing.
Tuesday 12 June 2018 Southleigh Woods. (Morning). At the foot of a gullied slope where a larch plantation grew until last year. This hillside was cleared of its larches when the pramorum virus threatened to rampage through. The ground was reduced to mud and ruts with blackened stumps and smouldering fires. A battlefield. Foxglove, bracken and rhododendrons now colonising the slope. A mistiness veils across the firs and redwood at the ridge. The day is cool with low cloud. Breeze makes it feel like April. A semicircle of tall oaks behind me fom a latticework roof of branches and foliage pierced with specks of light. Foxgloves are abundant here pushing through the litter of dead twigs and branches. Most have turned their flowers away from the dark oak shade. Bees working incessantly- a gentle scratching and burr of wings as they jiggle into the bells.
‘Southleigh Summer 150618’. Mixed media drawing 76 x 56cm
Friday 15 June 2018 Southleigh Woods (morning). Robin Hood’s Bower, ancient rectangular earthwork planted out with monkey puzzle trees to mark out this significant place from surrounding conifer forest. Believed to be the site of the Iley Oak where King Alfred camped with his troops in 878 AD before the decisive battle of Ethandun against the Danes. A broad tree stump in the centre, an oak (?) like a table. Like the giant hub of the woods. Feels like I’m looking into the nave of a many pillared cathedral, echoing with a birdsong choir. The floor littered with fallen monkey puzzle twigs and branches, broken, brittle and curved like ribs. Discarded tusks, or the bleached bones of stranded sea creatures and the dried leaves their scattered scales. Sunlight comes and goes, changing the bark colour of the nearest tree from green to violet brown.
Monday 18 June 2018 Southleigh Woods (Morning). At the river stretch where the Wylye parts company from the wood edge and flows on through Job’s Mill. A raggedy fringe of birches, hazel and oak lean towards the river, reaching their branches out of the woodland gloom and across the river to collect daylight. the ground is muddy marshy underfoot. I feel the seepy wet cold penetrate my boots. a chill breeze this morning rises and strengthens from downstream and sets a branch above me creaking and swishes through the alders on the opposite bank. The sound merges with the rushing hum of cars from the main road and the gush of water over the sluice. A moorhen sharply calls and clatters across the water upstream. Birdsong from the woods are echoey, as though from inside a cave. The sky clears, the day warms. Sunlight streaks gold across the field and dapples my paper.
Wednesday 20 June 2018 Southleigh Woods. (Morning). Thickly brackened slope where, up to a month ago, a blanket of bluebells lay. Down to brow where a population of sturdy and mature oaks mark out this western fringe of the woods. Twisty limbs reach out and interlace and break the view into ragged windows out onto the watermeadows and riverbank where an osier bends in the breeze and burns a cold gold flame. The heady citressy scent of bracken permeates the air, laced with occasional hints of smoke from the horsestraw bonfire across the field. Now and then sunlight pierces this morning’s cloud and sends fragments of pink fluttering over gnarled oak bark. Ivy stems course up the powerful trunks like pumped veins on a weightlifter’s bicep. A buzzard calls above the canopy. A hornet burrs and weaves around and bumps against my board before circuiting the holly bush then whirring up the tree on my left and bumbling up the trunk. Distant sound of playtime from the school across the valley.
Sunday 24 June 2018. Southleigh Woods. (Morning). Amongst a stand of birch at almost the highest point in the woods. Looking down the slope where a plantation of larches stood thick and elegant before they were cleared 2 years ago. Now the spindly birch trunks punctuate the view to the dense oak woods below. The intervening wasteland being reclaimed by rhododendron, foxgloves and hazel. The sun is at full strength today, only the wispiest haze across the blue. Thankfully its ferocity filtered into manageable and benign slices by the birches behind. The slightest breeze sets the birch tops into slow circular movements. Sometimes swishing against each other. And this motion echoed by buzzards performing aerobatic circles on this hot day’s thermals. Underfoot, a crunch and crackle of brittle twigs, branches and needles: the only reminder of the larches which once grew up to here. A raven’s grating call passes over but I don’t see it. a chiffchaff’s “chik, chak, chik, chak.” A tiny toy procession of cows over the far field, under the Botany Hanging treeline.
‘Southleigh Summer 270618’. Mixed media drawing 56 x 76cm
Wednesday 27 June 2018. Southleigh Woods. (Morning). The slope below top meadow at Sand Hill. Once a local tip was here, where broken pots, crocks and bottles were chucked to tumble and settle and bed down. The slope has been worked by badgers. Several old and very active setts. On this already hot morning it’s still cool here, close to the ground under evergreen shade. Sunlight stretches streaks down this littered hillside and on down below to turn the bracken fluorescent yellow and dappling the thick fir trunks. A scent rises from the sett entrance of dank earth mixed with a slight rotty, composty smell. The slope is scattered with debris and remains of things once living or once used. a random strew of broken glass- green and blue and milky clear. Pine cones, twisty twigs, chipped and shattered china, rusty ironwork, hinges, pipes, bones some buzzard feathers, a piece of blue patterned plate shines like a jewel, a fragment of leather sole, a tiny delicate bird skull. Part of a pink comb. The treetops crackle and pop as the day’s heat makes the bark thirsty.
Friday 29 June 2018. Southleigh Woods. (Morning). At the edge of the brook which separates the watermeadows from the woods, running along Southleigh’s western edge. The final hidden run of the Shearwater (which flows out of Shearwater lake), before merging with the Wylye below the bridhge at Bull Mill. a bankside tangle of nettle, bramble, dock, fern and grasses. Cleavers weaving through. An underlying complexity of dead bramble and dried twigs. Above, a latticework canopy of hazel, honeysuckle and blackthorn. Every leaf vying for space and finding room for itself, twisting, angling to the most optimum position for gaining the most of the meagre light available. An occasional breeze riffles the foliage and stirs the ripples and brings the scent of warm grass from the sunbaked watermeadows. Hints and splashes of sunlight flicker across the bank and illuminated dashes of light on the stream bed. A pigeon perches in the hazel tree above. Between its loud pigeony singsong (answered from across the fields), it repeats a low trembly thrum, soothing and lulling. Before suddenly clattering and crashing away through the upper branches.
Monday 2 July 2018. Southleigh Woods. (Morning). Giant, grizzled, age worn old man oak, standing stoutly amongst hazels, hollies and sycamore not far from the river bridge at Bull Mill. His belly pocked and riven like lava or the lumpen and cracked hide of an old alligator. Thick ivy stems have coursed its bark surface over the centuries, clinging tightly and becoming part of its character, like stalagtites fused into a cave wall. His great high branches stretch out stiffly, jutting elbows and arthritic wrists and fingers, hairy, mossy, sprouting ferns like shreds of fraying clothing. twisted and rotting limbs lie discarded at his feet. The ground strewn deep with leaf litter, brown and gold, bluebell stems pierced through holding this year’s crop of seed pods. Sun speckles through and decorates my paper with leafy shadow pattern. Gnats fly lit up above patches of sunlight on the ground like tiny sparks drawing triangles in the air. a pair of white butterflies make a vertical dance above the bright bracken. Magpies scold at each other behind the holly thicket.
Wednesday 4 July 2018. Southleigh Woods (Morning). An eastward look along the track which slices across Robin Hood’s Bower. The Iley Oak. A return to the high place where King Alfred rested his troops before the battle of Ethandun. Despite the pervasive stillness which wraps around the regimented vertical trunks in this part of the woods, there’s still a strong sense of the multitude of feet which have trod this path over millenia. Mine the latest pair of boots. This was a place of meeting and gathering for centuries. So despite my solitude amongst these crowding monkey puzzles, I don’t feel alone. A tingling feel of being watched, as before. The sky is low with rain clouds this morning. There’s a sonorous echoing of pigeon calls from all over. And just above. Something big flies a beeline past my left ear. a metallic engine buzz. A maybug? there’s a persistent glassy wink catching my eye from the base of the closest tree. I investigate and find a jar containing a burnt candle. Nearby, the remains of a magpie, feathers splayed out on the dried mud. A boom from army ranges silence the woods for a while. And through the silence I can hear a stippling that grows and becomes insistent and the first raindrops pitter my paper.
Monday 9 July 2018. Southleigh Woods. (Morning). It’s already warm. The high sky- sweeping canopies of Douglas fir break the sun’s ferocity but the strew of fallen trunks, spiky sticks and twigs and crispy leaf litter crackle under the heat. a line of soaring Redwoods stand out along the edge of this lower lateral track. their sharp and sinuous antler branches signalling way higher than anything else in these woods. Incongruous giant, light raking its rutted pink punchbag bark. Simmering swathes of grasses clothe these cleared slopes, curling waving seedheads bright warm gold in this intense sunlight. A crack behind me and to the left. a Muntjac deer, picking along a shaft of sun between two fallen trees. Stops and looks across at me, its head fully catching the light and transformed into a short horned mask of light. I keep still and stare back and we’re totally still for a moment. Statues staring. But a sudden whipcrack turn and it dashes back under the rhododendron thicket. I hear it crunching through. Then a piercing angry bark- scream. Followed by another. And more for some minutes. Then silence. Just a ‘tick, tick, tick’ birdsong.
Friday 13 July 2018. Southleigh Woods. The morning’s getting warmer. I find some shade on the cobbled top of an old stone bridge at the bottom of the old (Thynne’s) manor meadow just north of Longbridge Deverill Church. Stunted trees- a hawthorn, oak, an old elder, 2 ashes are rooted into the bridge footings and hang their crooked branches together to make a ragged frame to view the southwest corner of the woods- a great curving shoulder, silhouetted dark, the morning light beginning to rake its evergreen fringes. a haze as the woods foreshorten away towards the north and distant Arn Hill. At the back of the field the river is shyly coursing between thick withys and willows and clumps of meadowsweet. and below me, a steep drop to a little brook which seeps slowly between a choke of ranunculus, drowned nettle and bramble petals. A kestrel flies a sudden dart across the field and purposefully on. Clouds mass and gather low. The morning’s heat is dissipating. Leaves start to shake and quiver. Branches bow. Heavy warm air is being replaced by something fresher. a western waft blows a scent of damp earth and maybe the forecast thunderstorms.
Tuesday 17 July 2018 Southleigh Woods (morning). Above Five Ash Lane. I climb through the leaflitter- filled scoop of an ancient quarry and scramble up to the 6 metre high bank which is the wall of the hollow way which winds the hill and is a ribbon cutting between Southleigh and Eastleigh woods. I’m perched against an oak trunk and amongst a tangle of hazel and holly. I have a blackbird’s view through to where sunlight spangles the tarmac and down to the narrow bend which turns the lane towards Job’s Mill. This is where the lower woods track joins the lane (and is a notorious fly tipping spot). At times the light is clouded out and a coolness rises through this bank and I shiver in the shade. An earthy horse smell wafts across from the field the other side of the lane. For a few minutes I watch a hoverfly. Perfectly stationary and fixed in the air only an arm’s length away. Suddenly a burst of sunlight transforms it. Brilliant red. A flying glowing ruby.
Tuesday 24 July 2018. Morning. Southleigh Woods. Standing on the centuries old ridge which courses the western perimeter of these woods. To my left its accompanying leaf littered ditch. Below on my right the rough pasture which drops down to Job’s Mill and the river. Over my shoulder a terracotta glimpse of the mill roofs and chimneys. I can hear the calls of sheep from the river fields down there. Ancient trees grip these stony, earthy, flinty banks tightly with twisting mossy roots. Here an old coppiced hazel. There an old ash. Cool under the foliage. Outside the canopy the sun is searing. It brightly dapples my paper which at times blinds me to my drawing. A ‘chit’ behind is a young robin landed on my drawing box. Eyes me quizzically and hops to a holly branch and looks at me with cocked head. It’s so close I could reach out if I wanted to and tap its beak with my pen. After a while it loses interest and flits away through the bush. Traffic on the main roads a constant background dull roar. A drill starts and stops from somewhere below. A raven’s croaking call from within the woods.
Thursday 26 July 2018. Morning. Southleigh Woods. Downy birch sapling. Catches my eye every time I walk past. Young and delicate. Leaves brightly illuminated and quivering with the slightest breeze. Its branches seeming to hold a volume of light within their grasp. The lower woodland track crosses just here at the foot of the rising slope of fir plantation. Soft dead ground under the silhouetted trunks. A hush in this part of the woods. All is muffled, even the sounds of main road traffic softened to a coming and going ‘Shh’, like a breath. But in every direction are tiny peeks of shrill birdsong piercing down from the tall trees’ tops. A woman’s voice calling from down along the track. Two spaniels canter past but one turns and barks at me until its owner catches up. She looks across expecting to see a squirrel I think and is startled to see me in the undergrowth. We exchange ‘mornings’ and she carries on and the cool hush creeps back from where it was hiding.
‘Southleigh Summer 310718’. Mixed media drawing 76 x 56cm
Tuesday 31 July 2018 (Morning) Southleigh Woods. As the path rises there’s a young fox at the far bend. I think drinking from one of the puddles there. It looksup and watches my approach before turning its bright tail sharply and vanishing into the forest. Tractor ruts in this clay rich track have refilled with puddles from post- drought deluges over the weekend. The sky slips a sliver of blue violet through the tangle of wet grasses, bistort and vetch which stitch across the water surface. Long bramble branches reach out of the trackside bushes, weighed low with heavy crops of early ripening blackberries. From the thick planting behind come little piping calls (goldcrest?). Raven’s squabbling cronking from the highest tops. Hoverflies above my paper make angular flits as though tracing my drawn lines. One fixes its attention on the end of my pen and follows my drawing movements as though joined. I feel the day warming after a cool and damp start. The sun sears through the branches and scorches my forehead.