The marvellous Gnawa Festival in Essaouria celebrated its 20th birthday this year, and I celebrated my 11th visit to the festival, armed with drawing books, brush pens and black pens, friends including writers Andy Morgan and Jane Cornwell, and musician, DJ and all-round magician of London-Moroccan culture, Moulay Youssef Knight. Here’s some of that image hoard.
In the land of the Hairy Hand
Some paintings and their attendant field drawings, derived from the St George’s Day weekend, and at the bottom, two from New Year’s Day 2015-2016, in the fine company of moor walker extraordinaire Mr Will McCarthy. followed by the original text of a feature run by Dartmoor Magazine last year, about life on Powdermills Farm in the 1970s.
But to begin, a poem I first read at a folk night run by Bill Murray at The Devonshire Pub in Sticklepath, with Jackie Oates and The Claque among the players. This drew applause for its brevity. People don’t expect that from poets.
Fine rains and wild grasses
spill between rocks
by the sheep shearing pens.
Red flags are up on the range,
the farmer’s son driving cattle
to the fields below the moor,
the spring stars set in their cavities,
the haze in the late air
of wing hover and planetary
influence, the delicacy
of the moon’s position.
The Blue Cottage
What I knew of the moor was a matter of family history. Mum and dad had been visitors since the late fifties, and Dad’s ancestors were Dartmoor men, builders and farmers with parish records going back to the 1720s. Some of them old men with young wives, labourers from the villages of Ilsington and Liverton, where there’s a Cumming Crossroads. Could we see something of ourselves there?
Long summers and fragile Easters largely made up the family’s moorland calendar. Dad painted and drew the moor we knew and lived on, and the vast landscapes beyond, sweeping slopes scored with ancient mine workings, fearsome muses, stone circles, standing stones, kists and dolmens as well as the naturally, spectacularly weathered granites atop the famous tors – the ragged profile of Old Crockern and his ilk. Through the Fifties and the Sixties – the rock n roll years – the growing family would bivouac on a patch of emerald green grass beside a russet brook, the Cherry Brook, on a farm called Powdermills in the middle of the moor, north of the B-road between Mortonhampstead and Princeton, with its prison.
Powdermills had been chosen in the 1840s as a site suitably remote enough for the making of gunpowder, the ripe charge of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal. The land was littered with ruined granite outhouses, workers’ cottages, two giant chimneys, and leats, channels and clitter-filled drops that once housed water wheels powered by the Cherry Brook to filter out impurities from the finished product. The gunpowder was delivered to local magazines by horse or steam and from there to the quarries and mines that blew their way into the earth for metal and stone. Some of the tin workings in these parts are very ancient indeed. Without them, there wouldn’t have been any Bronze Age.
The farmhouse had been the foreman’s house, the farm buildings workers’ cottages. There is a story of one worker, by the name of Silus Sleep, who chose to eat all his day’s meals in the morning – so that in the event of an explosion, he would meet his maker on a full stomach to soften the blow. Two testing mortar were set either side of the track from the road. Three thousands US troops were station at Powdermills in the months before D-Day and a group of them took the cannon with them. They were retrieved at Plymouth Hoe and returned to the moor, and to Powdermills, where we’d clamber over them to play.
Storms lash Dartmoor even in the height of summer, and there were floods, collapses and other camping calamities until dad gave up bivouacking for one of the farm cottages, The Blue Cottage, hired from the Duchy for seventy pounds a year, and one of a row of two between milking parlour and barn that looked towards Bellever forest – post war pine and Forestry Commission pathways. It rose up dark and solid towards the summit of Bellever, like a troubling dream, the approach to the peak ringed by wild blueberry bushes yielding handfuls of tiny bittersweet fruit to assiduous foragers and thirsty mouths. I remember following a stream through the forest, as if it were a fairy story, taking you deeper into the wood but forever holding the light of the sky below the crowns of the tall dark handsome pines.
The Blue Cottage had a tiny front garden, and a paddock ran the full length of farm buildings behind us. In shearing and lambing season, the farmer George Stevens would round up flocks from the moor – whistling and calling his dogs up the slow slopes of Longaford and Higher White. Sleeping through the sound of several hundred sheep in the paddock at night, as if the sound itself took on the properties of wool and pillowy warmth, a quiet kid like me would feel the whole of the universe expressing its sheepness.
We drew water from a well using a long iron hand pump, and lit the rooms with oil lamps and candles and the light of a rayburn. In later years, the landowner Mr Russell had a generator installed, but our cottage was not connected to the 20th century in any direct manner, and I relished the time travel. It was haunted, too. The voice in the ear in our parent’s bedroom. All drowned out by the generator sat shaking and growling in the old barn where dad and Mr Stephens once tended a dying bull ‘whose blood had turned to water’, like the Mass in reverse, and a bull, too, the creature of the cave wall, something as old as the oldest human workings of the moor.
In this picture, you’re looking west towards Golden Cap, the Blackdown Hills and over towards Dartmoor. The Western Lands. Peninsula airs.
And to accompany it, a short piece of prose on that part of the county of Dorset, travelling from Hardy’s Monument down to the Valley of Stones and the nearby Kingston Russell Stone Circle, another beauty of the British neolithic.
Landscape with White Horse
We’d driven up to Hardy’s monument. Not the writer Thomas, but Thomas the seaman who cradled Nelson as he died at Trafalgar. The wind is as big as the view from here, plunging away on all sides and playing in epic scales.
There was an old green bus parked up by the monument, a vehicle driven out of the Peace Convoys of the New Age, travellers who wound their way to Stonehenge for the summer solstice. The side of the bus was opened up, facing the coast, and a mother and daughter served tea and apple cake. ‘We’ve been travelling for a long time,’ said the mother. ‘We’re settled near here.’
She had a son, too, ‘a very good singer,’ said the daughter. She was slender, freckled, pale and pretty, a face like a mask, and she let the mask slip, an old god with a shining young face. I asked about the local music. There were local pubs that held monthly sessions. ‘We’re going to have a festival up here,’ said the daughter. She sounded defiant, looked it too.
‘Here?’ It was fabulous, an out of the way spot, but not for a gathering. The cloud shadows and gusty sunlight kept playing out its permutations over the waters of the channel and when we drove on the sky was clearing from the west. A clear day ahead, and a view of the western lands.
The landscape beyond here rose and fell between two great old roads through which your journey could sink down to the prehistoric level. Roads cut on foot, before horsemanship. One man and his gods and his charms – now in the local museum – terrifying big-cunted women, heavy chalk cock and balls, antlers, cattle bones, the long bones of his ancestors, finger bones, the right kinds of woods. The A303 and the A35 meet near Honiton, near the River Axe. These were old antennae of the body mythic.
We’d crossed over the A35 and were heading into the backwoods. The fork in the road came just below the brow of the hill, one way crossing the south eastern slopes of the Valley of Stones, the other reeling like a bobbin of cotton around the villages near Bridport. Not many cars came this way. Grass grew down the middle of narrow lanes that twisted and turned on themselves like stories from myth.
The Valley of Stones sounds like a Tolkein invention, but you’ll find it on any Ordnance Survey map. It takes its name from the clitter of conglomerate megaliths scattered across the hillside and down the valley bottom. It’s possible some organising agency may have taken hold of the Neolithic ritualists, for some see an arrangement of stones here. I could see nothing more deliberate than the scattering of Dorset Black Face across the higher slopes. It isn’t arable country here, but pastoral land for grazing. The air hums with insects and pollen, a skylark sings at different stations of the air above the long meadow grasses where it keeps its nest, the troubling young. The song is beautiful, and can’t be heard fully without the accompanying senses, pressed upon by the heavy heads of cow parsley, flashes of sunlight through the thick and twisted hedgerow, which is what Walton wrote into his music. You notice the hedgerow colours – green and blue and russet. Then a gateway of dried mud and a great circle of cattle faeces, across a field of grass your shadow advances upon you.
‘Dad did some paintings here,’ says John, leaning at the gate, sweat on his brow from the afternoon heat, and out of breath, full of time. What Dad did. An antique sign that had toppled over into the undergrowth announced our destination. Kingston Russell stone circle. My daughter clambered over the gate ahead of us and plunged into the long grass. John pulled it open and we walked through. Looking around, you could see why the spot had been chosen. Five paths met at just this point, walked out of the countryside by generations of feet. Pilgrimage, cattle drive, border march, festival?
Nearby, the Grey Mare and her Colts is an exposed, denuded burial chamber of sarsen stones from the mobile, pastoral Neolithic, a giant stone’s throw from here, down the hill towards Little Bredy, West Bay, the Jurassic coast and middens of shellfish. The three sarsens lean against one another like the fates, dried and haunted undersea conglomerate of the same geology as the stones here, 13 of them in a perfect circle, recumbent on grazing land. You could smell the fecundity. Sumer is a cumin in. I watched my daughter jump sunwise from one to another until she’d completed her circle, and I gave her a carton of apple juice. Someone had dressed one of the stones with a leather string through a hagstone, tied with a little bow of red silk. Done a careful job. The distances piled up from here, the skylark sang again. Bird music, mouth music, the wind in the high trees, through stones and walls and boughs. First music.
The oldest music written down comes from Sumer, a Hurrian hymn in cuneiform on a clay tablet from 1400BC, from the city of Ugarit, an ancient port town in northern Syria. We now know it as Homs. The hymn is to Nikkal, a goddess of orchards, a wife of the moon god. The Hurrians came from Anatolia, home to the oldest settlements in the world. Gobekle Tepe, ‘navel of the world’, was uncovered here by a German archaeologist in 1994. The previous expedition, an American crew, had mistaken the tops of the T-shaped stones for medieval graves. It is a temple complex, stones carved with an animal bestiary, dating to around 10,000BC. The last of the cave art was only a thousand years older. The complex was deliberately buried around 2,000 years later under thousands of tonnes of earth, around the same time the first root sounds of the European tongue are said to have emerged. Expert etymologies.
When this hymn was written down, its culture and place in history was already coming to an end. The music may have been thousands of years old, even then. Lend an ear, and feel your mind bend at the strain of a half-familiar tune, like the taste of the first domesticated wheat. The music has the quarter tones of the future, and the group chant, the weight of the past. It has been reconstructed as music for voices – the voices of men – and for the nine strings of the ancient lyre. Stringed instruments were old but the world’s oldest known instrument, apart from the hands and mouth, was the hollowed out bone of a cave bear, finger holes matching the inscrutable habits of harmony embedded in homo sap like a fossilised bear’s tooth lodged in the crevice of a cave painting. Singing do re mi through eternity.
The three of us sat on the stones for a while, absorbing the landscape as if it was freshly made, still wet, and we were taking in its colours like blotting paper. Down below was Little Bredy, the name an old word for broiling water – spring itself. Just beyond the village and in view still of its steeple, the descendents of Auroch cattle a Falklands War veteran had bred back out of the cave wall and into the Dorsetshire meadows. Long Horn breed, moving at the pace of epic timescales, tectonics churning in the mouth and cud. The most expensive meat in the farmers’ market.
We sat and listened to the skylark, the subtle tones of fields under a sky cleared of traffic. Pointing to the north, I told my daughter to scour the sky beyond the hills for the indigo pall of the Icelandic volcano. “There it is Daddy!” Not a plane in the sky…
Crammed in the car, doubling back to the forked road under Hardy’s Monument, and taking the little lane that unwound north of the Valley of Stones, into woodland spreading out from the valley floor. Ash, oak, thorn, birch, pine. Beech cathedrals vaulting over the road, the Dreamachine flicker of sunlight and shade. I can remember on the first long slow curve of the road out of the valley spotting a white horse standing in a dappled glade on the edge of woodland. And beyond that, a white caravan parked up at the edge of the greenwood, barely any traffic on this grassy byway. A black-haired man, very white skinned, naked to the waist, stepped from the van into the sun. He saw us, but he saw through us, we were chimeras from a later time, and not wholly part of his world, or of the white unsaddled horse in the sunlit glade of the deep wood, where the land folds in on itself and hides away.
Below, the original field drawing from The Mare.
On a final note, preoccupation with prehistory and stone circles
goes back a long way in my book of life. This is an imagined picture from 1974,
with poster paints on cardboard.
First in a series of double portraits
Obeying the time honoured advice from interested parties that “it’s time for you to do some work on yourself, Tim” on the afternoon of 21 January, between 1.30pm and 6.30pm, I sat down at the table and did just that, with a small dusty mirror in a wooden frame, pale northerly winter light, new acrylic paints, sable brushes, a glass of water, a sheet of A3 acrylic paper, and a human-shaped flint I’d found last summer on an expedition to The Grey Mare and Her Colts, which is what remains of a Neolithic burial chamber, set on a hill a few miles north of Abbotsbury in west Dorset.
It’s the first in a projected series of double portraits – a head and shoulders, and facing it, a significant object. This flint was my significant other. I felt I was playing with my luck when I picked it up and took it from the Grey Mare that summer, back over the field and down the bridleway, back to the surfaced B-road where I’d parked the car, in a layby in front of a galvanised metal farm gate hung with a sign to a wedding.
Since that trip to the Grey Mare, I’ve been working on a poem about it, called Flint, and here it is, or a version of it.
In the next few days there will be a companion post to Flint Head, featuring a field painting from what remains of the mound that once covered The Grey Mare and Her Colts, looking west towards Golden Cap, and a short piece of prose about the nearby Kingston Russell stone circle, visited many years before with my brother and my daughter when she was little. Now she is just young. I aim to do her picture as the next Double Portrait. I think she may tell me to “go and work on myself”.
I picked up a flint from
the Grey Mare and her Colts,
an old name for what remains
of a chambered barrow set upon
a hill above Abbotsbury, off
the track and over the fields
that slope towards Golden Cap.
What a long view the
Neolithic dead were given!
I held it up at arm’s length
and saw inside the flint
a figure rise up to greet me,
nodules indicating arms
swung out in defiance
or dance, the twist in its torso,
the high neck an eloquence.
How the planet must have
revelled in its itself before
we came along, carrying
with us bits of stone
that looks familiar to us,
that we found down there.
A gallery of eight paintings and eight drawings by Tim Cumming, brought up from an image trawl through north west Dorset at the end of August, 2016. Feel free to browse, left and right, through the images.
This new Dorset poem, Field Study, was begun at Eggarton, and ends in that strange liminal place where observation and experience meets art and two dimensional beings called ‘pictures’.
The road follows the long slow curve of Eggarton
into Marshwood Vale, pulling the page down
around you, Golden Cap’s outline
finding its place in the slipstream of mind,
hills and valleys folding remote from view,
Bronze Age hedgerows hung with small mammals
and songbirds, rolling screens of pale light
and summer rain shifting through the vale
of delicate events, a painter’s palette
of earth tones shaking at the edge of fields of grain
ready to be brought to book, under the brush,
a twist of umber for the bull running
among us, a slow rocking motion like
a painted ship upon a painted ocean.
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Some of Tim Cumming’s paintings are on Rise Art