There I was, snuggled in bed, too tired to read, but reading anyway, beginning another collection of weird tales from the collections of the British library. Entitled Weird Woods – Tales From The Haunted Forests Of Britain, I was just a few words into John Miller’s introduction when I sat up in bed, suddenly wide awake. Miller begins his preface to the anthology of woods-based narratives thus:
“I grew up three miles from a haunted wood: Oxney Bottom, a name which still gives me shivers. You’ll find it on the road from Deal to Dover on the Kent coast, though it’s not a place you’re likely to stop… but if you did somehow end up in Oxney Bottom, you could tell straight away that there’s something uncanny about it. The road curves as it dips and takes you down into a hollow. Whatever the weather, it’s suddenly darker and colder there… the trees are thick enough to imagine that looking at them five hundred years ago would be the same as looking at them today. There’s no sign of the eighteenth-century house, or the ruined chapel, or the well where a young girl fell to her death in the 1960s. There’s a grey lady – the story runs – who will come out of the woods at night, limping into the oncoming traffic and then melting into the air…”
I turned to my husband, read Miller’s words out loud, and a few seconds later, a plan was formed. We would find the haunted woods of Oxney Bottom and make this jaunt into the arboreal uncanny our last excursion of this strange lost year.
We set out on the afternoon of December 30th, wrapped in scarves against the cold, but not dressed at all suitably for the horse-churned paths of treacherous mud. Admittedly, we may have trespassed a bit, daring one another to walk over a fallen section of fence so we might go deeper into the woods, where the colonies of aspleniums were at their most lavish. We encountered a structure of bent trees, fashioned by nature in homage perhaps to the old chapel mentioned in Miller’s preface. It made for a pleasingly eerie set-piece in the noiseless woods. Ivy was rampant, the trunks of trees rippling with its arteries, and the woodland floor upholstered with thousands of dark green leaves, which, like fish scales, reflected what little light remained.
The quality of silence reminded me strongly of my wanderings in Abney Park – not so much the absence of sound, but an abeyance, these woods waiting for us to leave so it might go back to whatever secret rites our presence had interrupted. Disappointingly, we didn’t catch sight of Oxney Bottom’s grey lady, or even the damp spectral form of the unfortunate girl who fell down the well all those years ago, and we didn’t dare go deep enough to find the walls of the ruined chapel itself. Instead, we enjoyed the curious sensation of time-travel, being the only things moving through an otherwise ancient woodland, a site which long since pre-existed us and would likewise go on without us too.
On the cusp of the new year, I wanted to avoid any further musings on 2020 as they might relate to the pandemic, not least because I suspect the ‘new year’ is going to feel a lot like the old one – at least for a while. Instead, I’ve gathered together all seven ‘Lost In Fields’ films as my swansong to a strange, slow year that was not without its simple pleasures and rich in moments of beauty.
I was always struck by the impression of the bases of the trees, very black against the white snow. To me, they looked like the foot of some huge pachyderm or similar, with the thickening around the base of the tree like the moment when the foot of the creature starts taking the full weight of what is being carried above it.
Back in February 2018, the UK was struck by ‘the beast from the east’ – a blast of exceptionally cold weather that brought with it an ice-storm. I went out to the beach to find everything glazed with ice, with even the stones on the beach in that sort of shell of ice you find around individual prawns in the supermarket freezer cabinets.
Whitstable beach is shored up with wooden groynes that extend into the sea to keep the beach from washing away. I was reminded of my childhood in the deep dark woods of the village, less because of the proper cold (which is the way I remember – rightly or wrongly – all the winters of my youth) and more because of the way the exposed wooded groynes against the white of the beach and the frozen slate-coloured mud looked like the skeletons of sea serpents or fallen dragons.
“I love Robert Frost’s poem so I was excited when I saw it was the prompt for this Kickabout, but found I really struggled to produce anything I could present with satisfaction. I tried first words, then textiles but could not produce anything worthwhile. When a piece of work creates such a strong impression on the mind, as this poem does, it is difficult to do anything other than pay homage to the original. I ended up playing with the movement and the palette of Frost’s snowy woods, and hoping that it is true that ‘Less is More’.” Sharpies and alcohol on ceramic.
“I immediately responded to Frost’s poem as if it were an ode to the forest under the falling snow. I eventually took it to be about someone travelling home reluctantly and with some air of mystery. That in mind I found some photos taken on a country road as we drove back to Sydney, but rather than submit another photo, got out the gauche and made a quick (relatively) pic. The photo was a far worthier visual, but where’s the challenge in that?”
“I remember the snowy winters in the woods in the village in which I grew up. I was always struck by the impression of the thick gnarled bases of the tree trunks, very black against the white snow. To me, they always looked like the snow-buried feet of some huge pachyderm or similar, with the thickening around the base of the trunk like the moment when the foot of the creature just starts taking the full weight of what is being carried above it. Deep in the wintery woods, I’d imagine myself walking daringly amongst an entire herd of the colossal creatures – weaving between their legs.
Back in February 2018, the UK was struck by ‘the beast from the east’ – a blast of exceptionally cold weather that brought with it an ice-storm. I went out to the beach to find everything glazed with ice, with even the stones on the beach in that sort of shell of ice you find around individual prawns in the supermarket freezer cabinets. Whitstable beach is shored up with wooden groynes that extend into the sea to keep the beach from washing away. I was reminded of ‘walking with dinosaurs’ in the deep dark woods of my childhood, less because of the proper cold (which is the way I remember – rightly or wrongly – all the winters of my youth) and more because of the way the exposed wooded groynes against the white of the beach and frozen slate-coloured mud looked like the enormous skeletons of sea serpents or fallen dragons.”
“I painted this image a few years ago when I was still living in Whitstable. A heavy snowfall is unusual in this part of the UK where the climate is generally quite mild without any of the extremes or temperature or precipitation you might get further north and west. But once or twice a year, there would be a dump of snow and the town would be transformed. It was the hush I remember most, the sound dampening qualities of the snow quite otherworldly.
There is a lane that runs out of the town from behind the station, up onto the wooded hills between Whitstable and Canterbury and I walked up there once after a proper snow shower. The lane was utterly quiet and still, and the colour palette of the trees and hedgerows very beautiful. I wandered about taking lots of photographs, feeling bewitched by the atmosphere. The lines of poetry for this prompt reminded me of the magic of a particular place I felt on that cold January afternoon.“
“I was so taken by the last kickabout with Ravilious as an artist and communicator of his age that when the new challenge landed in my inbox I couldn’t resist continuing to explore his techniques, so I have borrowed his colour palette and visual vocabulary for the latest effort.”
“My family owns a few chunks of land in rural Ireland, one of which is the forestry, pictured here on a typical misty, wintry morning in the back arse of nowhere. The forestry is populated with pine trees and used to house some of our horses – Dawn, Jessy, and the majestic Esmerelda, along with the cows. The animals are no longer. Unfortunately we sold them off for whatever reason. The stables remain with sprinklings of hay scattered around its edges and when the weather calls for it – downy flake. I remember the forestry and the surrounding areas with utmost joy, as it houses a lot of fond memories of my rambunctious, pubescent teenage years.
Me and my cousin and a family friend used to creep around our houses in the dead of night, tiptoeing about the place to steal whatever booze and cigarettes we could find, until ultimately my parents noticed the dwindling of the expensive, ancient wine in our wine cellar; and subsequently bought a padlock (that I got a hold of and got a key copied). Sometimes I would steal a cigar or two from our slumbering parents, and when the weather was bitter and frosting over the pavements – as most harsh, Irish winters are, we used to meet up and collate our stash together. We were once lucky enough that a friend who would join us sometimes managed to score some poitín – an Irish illegal moonshine so strong it can apparently make you blind… It certainly didn’t have that of a dramatic affect on us but fuck, it burned our chests as it went down and our vision was definitely impaired after drinking enough of the liquid lava.
We drank and smoked into the early hours of the morning, sliding and jumping on the frosty, black plastic wrapped bales of hay. The odd time we played music that we recorded off the tv onto our Nokia phones. We sat in the cold we no longer felt and looked to the stars and chatted about improbable nonsense, with the night in Ireland being as black as the void. The stars would glisten and litter the sky in a spectacle, dancing even in our inebriated states. Esmerelda, Dawn and Jessy, and, of course, the cows, would gather around us watching with perplexing bemusement. Little tufts of smoke would puff from the surrounding houses’ chimneys in the distance as they started to burn out. I’m not sure why we mainly did this in the flesh-tingling cold of winter, or why I remember it the most. I think we just wanted something to do, something that made it feel like summer again.”
“I know this poem well. It’s also one of my favourites from my childhood. Perhaps as I was in Kent we had more experience of snow than here in Bristol. As a child I loved to look up and eat the snow letting it melt in my mouth. We lived near woods so catching the snow amongst the trees felt very familiar from those distant childhood days. So this memory was sparked by the poem and I’ve tried to capture those thoughts and feelings of looking up into the trees.”
“I’ve always loved this poem so thank you for giving us the prompt. Anyway, I decided to focus on the last line and tap into the state of insomnia… a subject close to my heart, as this happens with unwelcome frequency when it feels like I’m the only person awake… tossing about in tangled sheets… listening to the owls in the conifers, and wondering if the world service is a good option.
I try to calm my mind but it races away into the murk of the past… speeding back into the now silent present and on into an uncertain future, then repeats the cycle on and on. This is indeed a journey through the darkest of nights. Only dawn brings the sleep of exhaustion.
Having said that, it can also be incredibly productive creatively, working through ideas bubbling up from the subconscious and emerging via a semi-comatose state – so not all bad!” Graphite on watercolour paper. Approx 50cm X 40cm
“After I had read up about all the possible meanings of this beautiful poem by Robert Frost, I must confess I struggled to make any sense of it, apart from what I myself really felt. This after all is I suppose what poetry is all about. The woods for me represent something which is hidden away from you and which you would love to explore but may be rather nervous about doing so. The deep dark snowy woods that I have imagined are the fascinating world of art, and have a touch of rosey evening glow, which depicts the fact that it seems to have taken me a lifetime to discover them. They have always intrigued me but I have never quite dared to explore or delve into them. The figure in the foreground is me dancing and skipping along but never actually entering the wood – and yes, hopefully, I do have miles to go!”
“I had already spent a long time fooling around with the art. The diorama I planned didn’t work out as I expected, but I liked the background paintings I did more than I thought I would. Done on very wet rice paper, with black ink and silver and pearl metallic watercolor, they had much more of the feeling of Frost’s words than I expected. The diorama on the other hand, failed to match my vision, and I took 50 photos to come up with just a few that I liked. Still I learned from the experience, including how natural light is much more blue than that from my drawing table lamp which has a yellow cast. And I got a surprise in the monoprint that emerged from under one of the wet rice paper paintings which also seemed to capture well the feeling of my poem.“
Mid the woods, snowdusk shadows are spare–lovely but cold, dark, clinging like shaded brume and wandering silent and deep.
Drawn here but not belonging, I do not have promises of morning or an end to this vigil I keep
of if and beyond—all those miles now lost to me. I go in circles of before–I beg the night for sleep.
“This poem was my first poetry love: I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know this poem and didn’t find it magical. I distinctly remember being in my grandmother’s house when I was 8 years old, in my mother’s childhood bedroom, reading it in an old school book anthology I found on a shelf. If my childhood in Southern California was filled with parched chaparral, cars, and Santa Ana winds, Frost described a world that seemed to me in a snow globe or fantasy book – harness bells, snowy woods, deep silence, and solemn promises. I’ve always held this poem close – and I’ve found that has made it difficult for me to make art about it. But I still wanted to participate in the Kick About, so I decided to revisit a trip I took 6 years ago to the Robert Frost Family Homestead in Derry, New Hampshire. All photographs by me on my old iPhone then equipped with a now ancient photo filter app.
When I read the words of Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, I see the woods around the Derry farm, the road curving past on its way from town. I think everyone reads their own life promises into that last stanza – but standing in the meadow behind the Frost farm, it made sense to me that at least some of Frost’s promises were made right here, on an old farm in the New Hampshire countryside.”
“Just approached this as a challenge to capture the mood of the piece, that delightful, silent, yet slightly scary feeling of being a long way from home with the elements against you. Painted in Photoshop over the course of a few evenings.”
“I’m pretty pushed for time at the moment, so I have been missing Kick-About challenges lately. And I’m late for this one. But I couldn’t resist doing a pretty literal interpretation of this one very hastily this morning!”
“…I added some trolls playing chess on the lake. And who knows? Maybe Robert Frost was imagining the same thing…”
It’s a risk, I suppose, offering up the third movement of Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s 1927 A Carol Symphony, for our next creative prompt. It might be an artist’s straight-jacket, bringing with it only a clutch of the most obvious festive thingummies, or it might yet lead to more complex things and spaces. Tis the season after all, and even after all the Frost we’ve had this week, a little bit more ice, sparkling midnights, and the promise of old remembered magic won’t, I think, go a-miss.
Last time we went to Oare, it was back in May for the golden hour. This time, we got to the nature reserve for the last rays of the late November sunshine. It was cold, but the light was turning coppery-through-pink, a big moon already rising to dust the water with subtle silver scales. The reeds held onto the reddish light very stubbornly, and all the this-way-then-that-way of the long grass looked put there by the tips of coloured pencils – and always the sound of the curlews, and less frequently, the tall grey ghosts of herons. Magical.
We drove out to some of the scrappier edges of Seasalter at the end of last week, to see the reeds with their great feathered heads. It was a textural delight of deft cross-hatching and soft tonal gradations.
Getting Lost in Fields is a series of little films prompted into life by the Kick-About #6, which saw me attempting to evoke the rhapsodic sensations of being out and about with my camera in the fields of Kent during the Spring lock-down. I didn’t know there would be a fourth film – or indeed a fifth, but there’s something simple and satisfying about combining these impressionist photographs with Kevin MacLeod’s evocative musical miniatures. I didn’t know there would be a second lock-down either, and this new film results from two very peaceful afternoons spent walking along the Tankerton seashore at the outset of the new restrictions, with just the sound of the waves for company and the dying of the light.