Sunday, 10 February 2013

A Home for Serf & Slave

Following on from last weeks post, I found myself back on the edge of my local woodland gazing upon another wonderfully simple building. With walls built from straw bales finished with a breathable render. The roof was adorned with timber shingles which moved with the irregular forms made by working with what is naturally near by. The little cabin was unfinished and still very much in a raw state, but it took little imagination to see the qualities it would hold as a finished gem set against the backdrop of the woodland.

I have built from straw bales myself and found them to be easy to work with, it was not long before I had a shelter working on my own with only occasional help from a willing friend or two. Yet again I draw the parallels to the modern world, it has become a strangely accepted norm to become a financial slave to buy a house built by developers and their army of semi skilled tradesmen. From planners, regulatory bodies through to insurers, rules and regularity all take their cut. The building process follows its path of least regulatory resistance with finances being stripped away like a stealth tax. In the end we are left with an expensive house Noddy would be most proud of.
I suspect many who have these homes are not entirely happy with them, a shelter with warmth is a welcome thing, but the costs in the modern world are a terrible price to pay.

Regulatory bodies seem to have the tables rigged in their favour. To deviate from the worn path of building a home becomes difficult. Construction groups have the taxation laws as they would wish and they lobby politicians to keep them in place with discussion of construction sector jobs and profit. A glance sideways would reveal a million empty homes which could be brought back into life by a skilled builder or tradesman, but the cost is rigged to be against the renovator.
For those seeking a life closer to nature they can find the planners and building inspectors are not always so accommodating. Last week I read of the difficulties an eco-village in Wales had with their council controlled building inspector who struggled to understand the concept of reed bed drainage due to limited experience and seemed to be trying to steer the group to a design which was against their concept and principles.

If we accept a degree of modesty it should not be difficult to build a home, a little understanding and empathy would allow us to work these homes into the natural environment. Perhaps then we can truly build in a way which would help both us, our surroundings and the creatures around us. Perhaps then we can take a place within the cycles of life where we are of benefit and where our responsibility is deserved and justified, or perhaps I expect too much of people and financial slavery is all most deserve.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

A Simple Symbol

Some structures have a beautiful simplicity to them, an arrangement of poles harvested from the surroundings and fabric stretched across them is almost as simple as it can get. I came across this tipi a while ago while taking my first walk through Hill Holt Wood, I finally managed to get around to sketching it last week. A traditional gypsy traveller who has a camp a mile or two away from my hovel also makes good use of a very similar structure when he has friends staying with him.

The prospect of a safe shelter from the wind and rain together with the provision for a warming fire to sit around seems a primitive way to be, but equally it holds a wonderful allure together with an ancient whispered reminder of the nomadic life. To travel, to walk the paths and read the land. To understand the seasons together with the flow of sunlight, wind and water.

While it is obvious the millions who cram into the isles cannot all live in the humble tipi, perhaps it can be a symbol showing we should live lighter, travel slowly and experience a little more. Perhaps the paths to the homes of our friends have become a little overgrown while the way to the office is paved and clear. Some of the finest evenings I have ever spent have been with good company while sharing a bottle by the fireside.

I think it is time I sought many more of these evenings and took a few more walks to give the fireside tale a depth earned only through long miles.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Signs & Winter Colours

The difficulties of a frozen landscape brought about a frenzy of activity from the woodland birds. With snow and ice adorning the trees and with the ground buried beneath a blanket of snow, food was hard to come by for our little feathered friends. The woodland owners had put out feeders from the branches near to the tables. Songbirds flocked to them, Blue tits, great tits, chaffinch and woodpeckers were but a few to assault the food supply and show their colours to those of us who would take a moment to sit and watch.

I am not really a fan of flooding a garden with seeds and peanuts, instead I prefer to try and ensure there are native plants capable of supplying food or attracting insects to help with the cycles of nature and life. It seems a better solution than buying and importing food to make up for the green deserts of the urban landscape, however in the depths of winter a scattering of seeds and scraps can bring reward to both people and the birds. Some of the creatures living within the woods are brought into plain view, giving an indication of the health of the land. When combining this with the tracks left by the hidden creatures in the blank canvas of a new snow fall, the indications deepen and knowledge becomes full and enriching.

For those who take the time to learn and perceive the ways of the land, a simple walk can become a rich tapestry of messages and signs from the land. To those who focus only on themselves, winter will bring only a sensation of cold and alienation. But with regard to the last sentiment, I too enjoy the warmth of the fire and the shelter of home. I take some pleasure in knowing that my fire is fueled by ash logs from my local woodland and the coin I have handed over to the woodsman is staying with the rural community and lands I hold dear.

Sunday, 20 January 2013


Hidden beneath a green tarpaulin and sitting quietly between two buildings crafted from the woodland,  a small tractor waits silently in Sunday repose. Other trailers are dotted around but sit empty in the quiet grey winter light. These little machines and components seem capable of remarkable feats of hard work when in the hands of the woodland staff. They also are simple enough for a mechanic to repair and service as needed.

Simplicity and a little hard work are values I appreciate but sadly seem to fall by the wayside in the promotion of big business where apparent efficiency is king. Within the evening world of television it often does not take long until you can happen upon a channel sensationalising the work of American logging companies (or their counterparts in other countries), vast machines costing hundreds of thousands tear into the hillside trees on a strict timetable based on matching repayments. Breakdowns cost big money both in specialists mechanical engineers bills and time lost. Once working again the environment becomes battered and scarred under the assault, the operator has lost time to catch up and the over ambitious company owner no doubt looks at their spreadsheets of profit against loss. But there are likely winners to the situation, these as always are the financiers.

For me, I prefer the simple approach. Time for people to work within nature with a little mechanical assistance to make the job easier seems a far superior way for someone to enjoy a working day and learn a little more about the world around them.

Perhaps simple is not only underrated, but is also not understood by those who seek only money, unless of course it relates to a scheme of returns on money loaned.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

The Woodcutter's Clearing

Huddled back into the shelter of a timber porch I found a hiding place from the cold breeze. Around me I could hear the hum of a chainsaw some way off, this was the only sound to break the silence and stillness of the view before me. As the sun set mist still hung around the bare branches of skeletal trees cloaking the remains of the day in a grey shroud. Beneath the shroud the woodcutter's clearing stood unused. Neatly stacked logs lay across the ground and the sleek red metal chute of a machine projected from the tarp hiding the more delicate components from the weather.

I enjoyed the serenity immensely, the clatter of day to day life with its crowds and interruptions faded away in the silence for a while. The sounds of a family passing by were no distraction, they too were enjoying the last of the afternoon. In a bustle of excitement the two young children scampered across to a muddy puddle and splashed down sending a cascade of brown water across the surrounding soil. Their parents laughed off the inconvenience of cleaning the mud spatters, it would appear they had long since realised the appeal of the humble puddle to a child. I focused back onto my sketch and by the time I had composed my next few lines and returned my gaze to the woodland beyond by focus and peripheral vision, the puddle stood still and the immediate quiet around me gave the impression the passing family had never been there.

With the twilight upon me and the mist descending into a winters gloom I stood up stretched and walked away along the woodland tracks for a while. Before me lay more scenes for sketching but these would have to wait for another time. I bid farewell to my surroundings and took refuge beneath my hood as I too left, leaving only a memory in ink.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

The Crafts & Understanding of the Woodlands

It is fair to say this years festivities did not go to plan. I was only able to spend a brief time with the winter solstice sunrise before being called off to work, also a number of other factors seemed to conspire to ensure I was kept busy over the Christmas and New Year break. These are not really festivals for me but the chance to relax for a while is appreciated, however this was sadly nothing but a distant dream (I will save these experiences for another post).

I did manage to make a woodland trip on New Years Day to blow away the cobwebs and refresh the spirit. A small woodland near me is run as a social enterprise. As well as providing training for children who have had difficulties fitting into the mainstream education system, they also work on their own craft and architecture projects using the natural resources of the wood. The woodland is also open to the public and is also populated by the rangers during daylight hours ensuring it is a welcoming place for families and children. The gates are closed at night to prevent the social problems I occasionally encounter when walking other public woodlands (I should point out that the closed gate at night is something I respect even though it excludes harmless nocturnal ramblers such as myself).

Even a short wander can take you through organic gardens, over bridges and through paths winding among the trunks of native trees and undergrowth. Dotted along the way are small shelters to provide a break from the winter weather and encourage a relaxed stopping point for a moment to enjoy the sounds of wind and rain within the branches.

From my perspective it offers a possible glimpse of the integration of people, ecology and landscape. A better way to be and an encouragement of empathy. I took the time to put together a few sketches and enjoy a coffee within a cafe they run there to promote the place and pay a few costs. We are starting to use the services and products of this place ourselves. It seems sensible to encourage such ventures as well as enjoy the craft and skill a local woodsman can bring to those of us who live nearby.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Realms of Craftsmen & Thieves

An old english town can hold many treasures for the senses hidden among the footpaths and back lanes around the old market. I regularly stop at this point while wandering the urban environment. Towering above the pavement are the second point gothic arches of the towns church. A palisade of black painted railings march along the boundary and the calls of ravens can be heard from the stone spire thrusting high above.

Centuries of weather have taken their toll upon the stonework and many of the decorative figures standing within the alcoves are worn beyond recognition. However the efforts of the old craftsmen who built this place have become somewhat tarnished from my perspective. The lead hopper above the rain pipe bears a distortion where perhaps it failed to fully hold the weight of someone climbing onto the lower roof. The railings are often a lure of false security for cyclists to the town. Bikes are often chained to them, however some are stolen. The local thieves have realised this place is a blind spot to the towns cctv and a swift lop from bolt cutters can soon release cycles from their moorings and they are spirited away down the old lanes to be cashed in for scrap or sold on as second hand.

As time has passed it seems this place has gone from the realm of the craftsman to the realm of the thief. It seems wherever there is a chance of finery, corruption is never far away.

(I thought I would show one of my ink paintings rather than my usual sketch style for this post - I hope it goes some way to capture the scene)