Saturday, 22 January 2011

Grey Wethers Double Stone Circle

Last summer I spent a day walking on Dartmoor, an area of wild, remote and barren land situated in the south of the county of Devon. Dartmoor is an area of granite outcrops (tors) and coarse grassland, trees are few - except for occasional conifer plantations - and people and properties even fewer. It is a country of streams, bog, cotton grass and silence.
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Remote and empty it may be now but, thousands of years ago, this was a highly populated area and all over the moor there are signs of occupation of our ancestors. The buildings have long disappeared but stone circles, standing stones , scrapes and bumps in the ground are everywhere as the Ordnance Survey map will show.
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The most mysterious and atmospheric sign of these early settlers is the stone circle found to the northeast of Sittaford Tor. Stepping into a stone circle is always a mystical experience: it feels as if our living history has been trapped within them. The spaces between the stones seem to disappear and you feel completely enclosed by them as if the circle 'walls' were completely solid. It feels this way with our own Cotswold stone circle, the Rollright Stones but it feels even more extraordinary up on the wilderness of Dartmoor for there is not one stone circle but two, standing side by side.
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Grey Wethers, as the circles are known, get their name from the old English word for a castrated ram. 'Wether' is still a term used in farming and the word is remarkably similar in the old German, Frisian and Nordic languages. It is not uncommonly used to describe large stones that scatter some areas of landscape, whether manmade or left in place as a result of Ice Age glaciation - presumably as, from a distance, they can look remarkably like sheep resting.
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Walking amongst the stones, it is difficult to see that the circles are completely separate for they feel as if they are intertwined as in a figure of eight. However, from above (thanks to Google Earth) the circles can be seen to be quite distinct although sitting side by side. The smaller of the circles measures 31 metres in diameter and the other 33 metres, making them the largest circles on the moor. Together, they have 49 stones standing. Much of this information I have sourced from the web (where else?) and more can be found here.
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What was the purpose of their building, 5000 years ago? Many theories exist but no-one knows for sure. Excavations have shown that there were charcoal deposits here so fire was certainly used - was it for ritualistic purposes? The theory I like most, is that the circles stand on the boundary of two separate tribes and that this was a neutral meeting place. It would be good to find that it was a place of peace for it certainly feels that way now.
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To the south of the circles and on the northern bank of the East Dart River are the circular remains of a 'beehive' hut. These tiny buildings of stone with, once, a turf roof were most likely built in medieval times and used as a store or shelter from the worst of the elements. It is surprisingly well camouflaged - perhaps designed that way to prevent their contents being raided by others. More information on the ancient huts of Dartmoor can be found here.
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After a picnic lunch high on the moor with only the sound of skylarks, cuckoos and buzzards for company, the path descended to the Warren House Inn, a remote (in the past, tin miners) hostelry, some distance to the east. It is said that the fire here has never been allowed to go out since 1845 and it and a pint or two of ale were most welcome.
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Beyond the pub, more remains of old buildings and walled enclosures could be seen, probably of deserted farms or small mining communities. Now, at lower levels, the climate was noticeably more clement and wild flowers provided some welcome colour after the drab greens and browns of the higher moor. The Bird's Foot Trefoil, especially, were covered in beautiful Fritillary butterflies.
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Finally, after several hours of walking we returned to our starting point, the village of Postbridge, to cross the river by the ancient stone clapper bridge, featured in one of my earlier posts. This, and more photographs, can be found by clicking the link here.
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Monday, 10 January 2011

Modern Stained Glass at Glasnevin

Plans are afoot to visit Dublin in Ireland once again this Spring. I went last April and the weather was glorious - it is a nice thought anticipating some spring warmth. The highlight then was the day spent at Glasnevin, the city's botanic gardens.
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Like many events in life, it is often the unexpected that remain at the forefront of the mind and so it was at Glasnevin. The glasshouses and plants were, without saying, spectacular but a complete surprise was a small exhibition of modern stained glass work.
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This first piece of five panels is the work of Mary Mackey, based in County Cork. I love the colours and mix - to me it is a blend found in mountains in the fall (odd how, for an Englishman, 'mountains in the autumn', doesn't sound as expressive or as romantic!). However, much of Mary's work is inspired by the sea and this particular piece is titled 'Sea-shushed Secret Places'. Painted and sandblasted, the strong colours used still have a swirling, dream like quality about them. Perhaps it is the light coming through the piece that allows this contradiction. Mary, in her own description of her work, tells of how she sees a flash of landscape: ".... fleeting images in real time, but in my memory the image is sharply focused, connected witha particular place, a particular time.....stored and enriched by treasuring it.....until at least something of that essence is achieved".
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Debbie Dawson's tryptich is totally different. Bold, square panels, they convey great strength and depth. Also based in County Cork, Debbie's work is entitled 'Like a Door Opening'.
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I also loved the strength of Emma O'Toole's 'Architectural Element'. Made from sheet glass, cast glass and concrete, it was unique at this exibition, with the feel and look of a sculpture. It brought back happy memories of a winter in Canada, years ago, exploring an ice 'castle', each battlement carved with its individual decoration of a native animal. Coming from relatively mild England, I had never seen anything like it before - it was a surreal experience. And that is the joy of art, it can transport you to places or events long forgotten or, perhaps, even not yet happened. . . .
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Chinks Grylls 'Highlight Red' is an etched mouth blown glass piece. Four individually hinged panels remind me, depending on my mood - or perhaps how hungry I am - of Saharan sand dunes or rashers of bacon waiting to be cooked.... Chinks Grylls works from south west England, an area which is rapidly becoming a centre for modern glass work.
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I know that when I return to Glasnevin it won't be the glasshouses that I shall visit first. I will make a beeline for their exhibition hall in the hope that some other equally pleasurable experience awaits me.
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Saturday, 1 January 2011

A New Year

The snow has all but gone from the secret valley, thanks to a sudden thaw, after the temperature rose from -15 centigrade to +6 centigrade. Some still clings to the gullies at the sides of the fields and on the colder banks of the hillside but elsewhere, in its place, is the battered appearance of a landscape after attack.
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Last night, New Year's Eve, was seen out at our neighbours and good friends 3/4 mile up the road, at the farmhouse that is the centre of our farming life here. Although a cold night it was good to be able to walk there effortlessly (after ploughing our way through snow for several weeks or sliding around in the car). As the chimes of Big Ben in London struck twelve o'clock we all sang 'Auld Langs Syne' to the traditional sound of a lone piper - in this case lone because there was only one Scotsman present and he could play the bagpipes. And a couple of hours later I stepped out into the cold, still air to walk back down the hill to home.
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The secret valley at night - and some nights especially so - is a silent and dark place. Never menacing, it is a good time to reflect on times passed and to breathe in the air which seems to take on a different quality to daytime. Walking down the lane, with bands of snow periodically reminding me to watch my feet, I was aware that there were others on the move too. An alarmed rabbit shot across the road in front of me, diving into the hedge, it's path being highlighted not by moonlight, for there was none, but by the sounds of leaves rustling and twigs breaking beneath it. The fox was far more discreet, the only witness to its passing, its distinctive musky scent.
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Our little river, now thawed out from the frozen state that it had been in gurgled and splashed its way into the distance. It had seemed odd not to be able to hear it when it had its lid of ice and snow for even in the hardest winters past it had not been known to freeze over.
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However, a touch of frost had given a magical dusting to the plants and fruits that had survived the onslaught of our early winter, for snow is rare at this time of year. January and February can be snowy and often we have none at all so who knows what the start of 2011 will bring?
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Approaching home, the reassuring smell of wood smoke drifted from the chimneys towards me. Warmth at last! And, as always, She-dog, our best companion, was there to greet us but not before raising a bleary eye from her bed, as if to say "what are you doing out at this time of day and at your age?".
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And so to bed tired but with a warm, contented feeling both inside and outside. To live in the secret valley, isolated but surrounded by beauty and good friends, is such a privelege. Who knows what 2011 may bring but if the first days sunrise is to go by, it should be a good one!

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Happy New Year to you all.....
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