Ice Cold in Cullercoats

I grew up in Newcastle and throughout my childhood summer holidays and day trips were taken close to home.  Until we strayed further afield (when I was a nearly-teenager) the whole family would, without demur, summon up the resolve needed for plodging and swimming in the North Sea. When we did eventually make it further south we were amazed by the balmy waters of Newquay!

Wherever I lived (Southampton, London or Leeds) I always came back up here for holidays, for the sense of openness and belonging, for love of the landscape, and with pride about being ‘from here’.  I never stopped bracing myself for the cold shock of these greyer, calmer seas, edged by proper beaches, castles, sand-dunes, wonderful wildlife and chilly breezes (causing wind- rather than sun-burn).  But, more recently, it started to seem that it was only middle-aged, well-upholstered women (like me) who ventured in without the protection of a wet suit (wimps!).  Now, with wild swimming catching on everywhere, there are more of us, all shapes, ages, genders and sizes.

After a long and eventful journey of nearly 60 years, I returned to Newcastle in May 2019 and am deliriously happy to be living only a couple of miles away from the sea.  After the upheaval of moving house it took a couple of months to find sea swimmers in my area (as well as up the coast in Northumberland where I have a caravan).  I found that Facebook is full of slightly bonkers-sounding groups: ASS (Alnwick and Amble Sea Swimmers), BADASS (Blyth and District Sea Swimmers), TOSSERS (Tynemouth Openwater something or other), and COWS (Cullercoats Open Water Swimmers).  I’ve been out with the Alnwick group a few times but Cullercoats is the nearest beach to home and is my favourite- perfect for safe, sheltered swimming and very beautiful (as below), so I have become a happy member of the COWS.

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Cullercoats Bay at ‘swimrise’

I started swimming with this friendly herd in the summer and continued, as regularly as I could, until lockdown in March.

Here’s what it means to me, and what I am missing so much:

It’s GOOD for me, in so many ways. Improves mental and physical health, boosts immunity and lifts my mood.  Underlying this is stimulation of the vagus nerve, the primary agent in the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the body’s yin (rest, digest, feed, breed) to the sympathetic nervous system’s yang (fight, flight, freeze).  It brings our bodies back to a better balance in our over-stimulated, stressed-out lives.  And just makes you feel really, really good.

It offers deep CONNECTION to the natural world, the sea and the life it contains and nurtures, the sun, moon and tides, the sky and the weather, the rhythms and resonances of all these wonderful systems.  It reminds me that I am (a very small) part of all this energy and flow. I am humbly grateful that the water HOLDS me without any effort from me.  There are entirely new wonders, like being in the sea to witness the sun rising at the flat horizon line (on the sea since we are at the east coast)- the bright dot of its emergence blinking off and on as the waves bob us up and down.

SUPPORT and friendship is freely given in most swimming groups, and the COWS herd has been a gift to me as a newbie round here.  It is open to all-comers, without judgement about each other’s bodies, fitness or swimming prowess, generously sharing information and top tips about this extraordinary activity. I will not forget my first swim with the COWS, not knowing anyone and being a much slower swimmer.  Crossing the bay with my usual inelegant breast-stroke, one of the regulars came back and swam alongside me, quietly ignoring my insistence that I was OK until I was back in my depth and ready to return to shore.  Watching out for each other seems to be an unarticulated part of the group’s ethos, remarkable and lovely.

Here is something I wrote, inspired by swimming in the sea, as well as this bonny painting by Janet Lynch

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The women are inches from death

but, unconfined in a bliss of living,

are held by the concentration of salt.

Bobbing up and down on the sea’s skin.

 

Bellies, limbs and curves blend with

the water’s waves and currents.

They are not alone but curl around each other.

Recalling the sea as mother.

 

Out beyond ideas

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This is one my favourite artworks- now on the wall of my kitchen/diner in Backworth. I aim to explain its provenance, and the meanings I hope it conveys, below.

It is one of several pieces created collaboratively with two good friends, Peter Cartwright and Ann Pillar, in The Works, Pete’s lock-up garage in Walsall which houses a 1930’s letterpress printer and racks and racks of wood and metal type- a magic place for turning text into art.

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We have worked on several projects together and this is the last one before Ann’s death in August 2019.  ‘Out beyond ideas’ is a memorial to her, one of many beautiful things she left us.

Our collective modus operandi starts with me selecting a piece of map fabric- the linen lining from an old map, separated from the paper after an overnight soak in cold water.  This fabric was from a map of northern France and Belgium, over 100 years old, pleasingly stained with age, especially along the original folds. It included places made famous over the course of two World Wars- Namur, Amiens, Arras, as well as sites of the Battles of Vimy Ridge and, notably, the defeat of the British Army at the battle of Mons in August 1914.  A story was spun at the time by Arthur Machen, that supernatural beings watched over and protected the retreating soldiers, some of whom testified that they had seen these ‘Angels of Mons’.

The Angels of Mons | visitMons - The Official Tourism Website of ...

Knowing the stories of the places formerly ‘held’ by the map fabric is the beginning of developing ideas for the work, discussed over cups of tea and glasses of wine at the kitchen table. (Sometimes the map fabric is of interest in its own right so is used as a substrate non-specifically).

The text shown, suggested by me, was finally chosen, then Pete and Ann’s design and print expertise took over in the selection of typeface and size, layout, and ink colours.  A number of test runs and refinements later and several copies of the text were printed onto paper, then (nerve-wrackingly) onto the beautiful map linen to produce the final work.

Different viewers have responded to the finished piece, in a range of ways, but here is what it means to me.

Rumi (1207-73) was a Persian poet and mystic from the Sufi tradition who lived and died in the Middle East.  His work is widely translated and popular across the world. I like his writing very much.

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Statue of Rumi in Buca, western Turkey

I chose the poem because it conveys a message of peace and the essential unity of humanity and all creation, in stark contrast to the events which took place in the areas which were formerly ‘held’ by the map fabric- the battlefields, which saw death and conflict throughout the first half of the 20th century.  I find the invitation to meet in a field “beyond ideas of wrongness and rightness” particularly poignant.

I am writing this now, in the fourth week of coronavirus lockdown, feeling that my soul is resting in an unfamiliar ‘field’, stilled, finding the world “too full to talk about”.  Indeed, as Rumi wrote 800 years ago, “the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense” at this time, when we are more equal in our vulnerability, more open to empathy and more connected, than at any time I can remember, in my street, my city, my country and across our planet.

 

 

 

Four walls with the sky for ceiling: in praise of the back yard

I live in a particular kind of Newcastle street- two rows of brick-built terraces which face inwards with walled front gardens and a paved walkway in between.  These were built over 100 years ago for railway workers in Backworth.  The rear of the houses on my side of the street faces south (with a row of tall trees on the sightline behind) and are a wonderful example of defensible space, with lots of potential for seeing people fron a safe distance.  I have had time (plenty of it in these lockdown days) to make it a place to experience the joy of now- the straightforward pleasures of sunshine and new growth as the spring gathers strength.

Sitting outside with the back door open to sweet-smelling air, and birdsong it is the room in my house which has the sky as a ceiling.  Like a big, messy, sprawling version of James Turrell’s Skyspaces.  Here are the four walls and some of the objects and plants that share it with me, not forgetting Millie the cat.

Apparently it used to be common practice to leave the gate to the yards open to the back lane- some of the older residents still do this (they also happen to have beautiful yards full of life and colour)- and my gate has a big hook for this purpose.

But mostly my gate is shut- I prefer the privacy.  I can see the tops of people’s heads as they walk by (if they are tall enough) and some of them offer a wave or greeting.  And, when All This is over, it will be a sociable space again.

Until then there are birds for company, chattering rooks, raucous magpies and seagulls, cooing pigeons and lots of cheeping and twittering from the little birds some of which are occasional visitors- wrens and blue tits looking for bugs to feed their little ones.

One of the joys of this strange time in lockdown is experiencing the present.  I am grateful for it, so important and USEFUL in the context of uncertainty and fear.  In the moment, now, when everything is OK, I feel deeply grateful for the peace and security and community I have in this place, the sweet air, lack of aeroplanes and other traffic noise, the colour and fragrance of the things that I have planted and are growing without a care- the lilies of the field, and the back yard.

Mapping Nan Whins Wood

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A tumbling of pleasure and relief, joy and satisfaction, a collaboration of artists

The image is a set of 16 collaborative drawings created for the Inside the Map show.  As we made marks on the page sequentially, our individual edges disappeared as the drawings emerged, collaboratively.  The ideas and decisions were made in the field we created between us.  These were the action points:

  • To map the geographic meeting point between our homes and meet there to draw collaboratively
  • To face north, south, east and west and draw what we saw, for timed periods. Then move round clockwise (the direction of the earth’s spin on its axis) and continue to draw on each other’s work, for four iterations. Drawing on drawing on drawing.
  • To carry out four ‘rounds’, two of 2 minutes each and two of 5 minutes each, producing 16 drawings.
  • To write 200 words each about the experience, as soon as possible that day

A nodal point between our homes was identified by Lynette as follows

“Using a large scale map I drew a triangle with our houses at the corners and then found the centre of gravity/mass (the centroid) of that triangle by drawing a line from each corner to the midpoint of the opposite side.  Where these lines crossed is the centre of gravity/mass.”

The location was on the Leeds Country Way, postcode LS28 9LE, grid ref SE 238 310, described on the OS map as Nan Whins Wood at the south-western edge of Leeds- in the wooded valley carved out by Tong Beck.  It was early on Feb 15th 2029, a cold and frosty morning.  We sat at a meeting point of footpaths, beside a burbling beck, signs of spring (catkins, wild garlic shoots, birdsong, snowdrops) all around, low sun rising and warming, inquisitive dogs and their owners, newly-released cattle dancing in the fields, a heron.

Here are selected quotes from our write-ups that day:

“What on earth??  Well yes we will be on earth, Earth and Yorkshire muck, interested in the place and what we make of it collectively.”

“The sun shines in our eyes and slowly warms the ground and melts the frost from the tree shadow in the field opposite the stream.”

 “The light moves, the trees change and the shadows shorten marking the swift passing of time.” 

“The centre of gravity of laughter and joy and satisfaction.” 

Mappish are Lynette Willoughby, Carla Moss, Lesley Wood and Susan Wright, as in this mesostic printed on Fabriano paper by Peter Cartwright in The Works

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The same mesostic fashioned from hand-cut and printed letter-cubes and attached to a beech twig by Ann Pillar.

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Inside the Map

I have been meeting with three other women artists working towards a group show of our work inspired by our shared love of maps.  This Took place on March 29th-April 7th at 10, Back Newton Grove, LS7 4HW.

Click on the link for the publicity flyer.

Mappish

Some of the work from the exhibition is shown below:

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We are Susan Wright, Lynette Willoughby, Carla Moss and Lesley Wood.

The Friends

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The Friends

Bringing chocolate and memories to Betty.

Her delight in seeing me expressed as always:

“Love you to bits”

“What times we had”

“Happy days”

In a voice which grew up on Gosforth streets

Like me and her best friend, my Mum.

“What a lovely surprise”

Repeated, echoes down the corridor as I walk away.

 

Time with Mum comes in shorter spells now,

So diminished,

Sentences run aground in your mouth:

Words unsaid but meanings understood.

I hold your hand,

I smell your oldlady smells,

I taste the sweeties I bring you,

See your shrunken body and feel your bony back,

As I hug you goodbye and tell you that I love you,

You say you love me too.

The air here tastes lonely but is piquant with trying- still to be.

Music puts you back together,

Your muscles move in time and your smile returns.

You are still joyful, sometimes,

Somehow.

Gathering

An important element of the Love This Place show is my family story.  This image below is a screen print of a charcoal drawing of my Mum, Eleanor Wood, along with a rubbing of the family name, a map of Gosforth where we grew up, and a slideshow of photos of her and her friends.

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A recording of a conversation between us, based on looking at the map which is of Gosforth in 1913, plays through the headphones.  The conversation took place in 2013 and would not be possible now because of the Parkinson’s Disease she has suffered for nearly 20 years.  I live a couple of miles from her in Leeds and have been looking after her through those years, alongside my two sisters and many other family and friends.  She turned 90 last year and has weathered her illness with resilience and courage, as well as a great sense of humour.

Love This Place honours women’s strength, my Mum and all our mothers.  It explores the complex relationships around and along the matri-line, embodied in my walking art project- from Leeds, where we live and my daughter Eleanor grew up, to Newcastle, where my Mum and I grew up and where my daughter and her daughter (Isla-May Eleanor) now live.  While the show has been on lots of connections have been made and meetings made possible- between grandmothers, mothers and grandaughters, old and new friends, people from most parts of mine and my family’s life.  The show has reached out along many matri-lines and friendships, creating new stories and bringing people together.  My university friend Trish from Glasgow turned up with her granddaughter who had a lovely time playing with my granddaughter, friends from Holland called in and met Eleanor and her children, marvelling (as you do) at the transformation of girl to mother, my family friend Jane has got to know Rebecca who now lives in the house where her mum, one of my mum’s best friends, grew up (next door to my mum).  Stories to make your head spin.  I am taking mum up to the show today with my cousin and his wife (who grew up in Newcastle) and we will meet my daughter and her children- a memorable gathering.

Yet more gathering will be happening on Sept 2nd, a Garden Party at Gosforth Civic Theatre.  As part of the show I am organising an open event to raise funds for Parkinson’s UK, the main charity for research and support for everyone affected by the condition.  There will be food, stalls, live music, singing, poetry and an opportunity to be together, see the show and support a good cause.  As ever, it is has been made possible through the generosity and care of family and friends who have donated money and things to sell and raffle.  Hard work but worth it.