Tilted / A Traced Village (part 1)
2019 – 20
A part of my work on
Impermanent edge: eastern eroding shorelines
In recent years my practice has taken me to work mainly on the edge of landscapes, to coast and cliffs, places which are experiencing erosion of some kind.
Skipsea on the East Yorkshire coast of Holderness is eroding faster and faster. An older ordnance survey map, priced in shillings and pence (6/6d) shows a few named washed away villages like Cleeton and further south, Hornsea Beck and slightly to the north two `Village, site of’, all marked in tiny gothic lettering. But the recent decimal coinage ordnance survey maps seem to have obliterated this record, leaving blank spaces perhaps showing that the sea has already washed the memory. This is about my beginnings and returns to the place of what sometimes gets grandly called a cottage, or rather had been so referred since chalet may incite images of larger, ornate, wooden structures secure in the mountains, rather than a small dwelling on the shifting clay, (clay I was later to find out is called till), of the Yorkshire coast.
As these places erode, settlements fall off the edge, leaving people and communities displaced. Over two decades ago I lost a small wooden dwelling to the sea; I managed to hold onto it for five years before it was washed over the cliff due to the erosion in this particular part of the Holderness coastline in East Yorkshire. This made me keenly aware of how communities are forced to resettle and share a sense of impermanence of place; how the earth is forever re-forming and moving, and yet there seems to be an invisible thread that appears to connect us to ‘fixed place’ through the stories and memories we weave into localities.
The crumbling of the soil where my house once sat revealed fossils and the hidden history and geology beneath. The surface strata stayed with me and also my interest in the ‘edge’.
This is part of my interest in and work on impermanence over the past three decades. I work mainly outside creating in landscapes, using materials of place such as sand, soil and local material cultures, sometimes moving and installing them in new locations to evoke memory, connections, relationships. Some of this work has concerned belonging, movement, loss, identities, and the unsettling changes, the impermanence that we may often find difficult to cope with and comprehend.
The ideas behind this piece were, through a series of visits, to re-connect to the shifting (land) scape and place, and my remembered histories. The memories of the small cottage I once owned, perched precariously close to the edge, bought for £500 and a bottle of whisky. It holding on for five years. Retrieving a small chair and an old gramophone cabinet one particular spring time when I worried it may fall. These items retrieved, I still have, the chalet is gone. The coast continues to diminish, the edge recedes inland.
I want to make work with the community. Collect their stories about the place, find out what objects they would chose to take if they had suddenly to leave.
I plan to create live drawings of their chosen objects on the beach, tracing them with chalk powder. Using chalk from cliff falls from where I now live on the south coast. The chalk from here runs up to the east coast as far as Flamborough Head, just north of Skipsea. A vein of whiteness beneath the terrafirma that open up to the vast cliff edges. There is impermanence everywhere, yet everything is connected.
This particular edge for me began some years ago and now I will be revisiting and reconnecting.
In 1990 I left with just my chair and gramophone cabinet. In 2012 I returned briefly, just to see the place and remember, and then not again until 2017. Each time I felt overwhelmed to see how much land had been lost to the sea. All the old railway carriages and chalets were now gone, new land had been purchased from a local farmer and new dwellings built, but with the relentless nibbling away of the cliff edge, they too will one day also be lost to the sea. The road was now marked private.
In 2017 I travelled to East Yorkshire by train from my current home in Brighton, another disappearing edge of landscape on the south coast, to connect the present and past, memories, materials and impermanence of place. This time I brought with me my chair and made work on the edge and in the sea, close to where my place once sat.
SCOTLAND – August/September 2019
Late August and two artists, Xu Yun and Hong Shen, arrived from China. This is the beginning of a joint collaboration about the Outer Edge, with them and artist Kate Downie, on the west coast in Scotland and the east coast in China. We travelled up to Edinburgh, met Kate and went on to the Isle of Mull. I took my chair with me, since we were going to another significant coastal site. The north-west of Scotland is tilting upwards as the south-east of England is slowly sinking. Large land movements barely visible compared to the eroding chalk cliffs, and at a different tempo.
On the shoreline in Mull I worked in the black basalt sand, with my chair. We made work together and individually. We are due to work and exhibit in China, in Qingdao on the eastern coast, in late February next year, and bring the materials back to show in Edinburgh. [This China part of the collaboration has been postponed, indefinitely at present.]
I am staying with my mother in her home in the south of France, when I receive news that I have been selected for the Edgelandia commission from Penned in the Margins. I am absolutely thrilled. This has enabled me to make return visits to Skipsea, make new works and to put together the diary blog here.
SKIPSEA VISIT – November 2019
Britain has been soaked in rain over the past few days. I’m on a train from Brighton to Hull, a familiar journey, but I don’t recognise places as they lay buried under water, at times as though travelling over a lake. The two women serving in the train cafe say they have never seen it like this, the younger of the two, ‘we have to change the way we live to stop this happening’.
I arrive in Hull, and pop into the bus information office to find out about buses to Skipsea.
‘Oh I wouldn’t get a bus there love’, says the woman behind the counter ‘only two buses a day return from Skipsea and trains don’t go there, you might get stuck!’
Eventually I discover I can get a train further north and then a bus from there. But the timetables show that by the time the bus arrives at Skipsea, I will have no time, at least not enough, before having to leave, or as she warned, `get stuck’. A good friend offers to take me in her car once again.
I check online that the roads are passable because of the flooding. We drive through East Yorkshire’s vast wide and upward, open skies. We arrive at the junction and drive down the road past the castle and through the village at Skipsea, and out along a straight road that abruptly falls off the cliff. Not a clean cut but a jagged edge.
The road is now blocked two meters in length before the edge with concrete blocks and a red sign advising vehicles – DANGER coastal erosion, do not proceed. I walk beyond this to the ragged end of the road, and find there is a cracked line across the tarmac a metre or so from the edge. A parallel wavy scar mimicking the tide and marking where the road has begun to slope gently down toward its destination on the beach, and into the sea.
I stand at the edge of the tarmacked road looking out onto the liminal space, the space between cliff and ocean on the precipice of change, cracks reveal themselves where the road will soon meet the sea, double yellow lines also soon to offer themselves to the ocean.
It’s a cold November day but the air is quiet and still. I’m not prepared to feel so overwhelmed despite the previous returns. The smell and vision of landscape, so familiar, the bleak beauty and continued disappearing of this place. I have a small bag of chalk dust brought with me from the eroding cliffs of Sussex. With this I trace the scar- like crack, leaving the chalk dust to also be returned to the sea where it was first formed.
I take what still feels to be the familiar road, now signposted PRIVATE to vehicles, not tarmac but mud track, along the route where once my wooden chalet stood. All the disappeared chalets and old railway carriage cottages are now replaced by small caravans on small plots, and even a beautiful newly built two-storey wooden chalet painted blue, and a partially completed straw bale house. They are all here as long as the land is here.
Walking south along the uneven mud track means jumping along between puddles. As I get close to the end of the latest line of caravan-like dwellings, a very large sand coloured dog suddenly appears in the track ahead, it stops, I stop, it stares. Slowly it begins to come towards me, then faster. I turn and leave at a pace looking for a place to take cover if need be. I head back towards the broken road and north cliff path. The dog stops and stands, its boundary intact.
During my stays there when I had the chalet, I never ventured north along the cliff. The chalet, the grassy land outside toward the edge, the beach and the sea were my places. Now the dog has changed my plans. I reach the road, look left along a receding black line, look right over the concrete slabs to the broken tarmac edge, and cross it. I walk north along what is a trodden out, forever moving footpath that surely must have once been more inland, and will soon disappear over the edge. It is now so, so close to the edge that the corner of my eye catches crumbs of sticky till clay and small lumps of muddy earth as they fall and roll down the cliff face, falling onto the beach below.
Silhouetted against the light, a man is walking towards me; we both stop and exchange some words. His name is Peter. He tells me he has not walked this way for a long time, although he lives at the local caravan-site. He has just signed his lease there for the next 20 years, ‘reckon that will see me out’. He chats freely about the eroding cliffs like most people would about the weather, the erosion is such an everyday reality here. He mentions that in the last of the surviving bungalows, just ahead, which now sits so precariously close to the edge, the occupants have very recently been given notice to leave. I am hoping some folks are still there when I next return. I am so eager to make contact with these occupants but this time is short and I wish to tread gently. It cannot be at all easy having notice served on your home. I plan to return in February. I will rent a caravan close to the edge in the hope of making more contact with some of the local folks.
Looking at the sea, so very calm, out from the quiet beach on this still day, it is difficult to imagine how the tides will turn and inevitably sweep away the dwellings I see.
I continue my walk, documenting the sinking of edges, the sea so calm this day. I try to find access down to the beach, close to where the last of the bungalows sits. I meet and ask another local man how I may best climb down, he explains the cliff path has been washed away. He offers to walk with me further along the cliff to where there is a make-shift path created by the locals from bits of brick, broken house and caravan concrete foundations, a kind of zig-zag track dug into the clay and mud. He insists on watching me safely down until I reach the beach, we give each other thumbs up, he turns and continues with his day.
Down below the brown muddy cliff, there are places with fallen lumps piled underneath that tantalise the tides and are being slowly consumed by the water. On the huge open beach, where sky melds with the ocean, today there is a seemingly gentle, quietly lapping sea, but which I know can turn in to a wild devouring entity, eating away at this soft mud, clay edgeland.
SKIPSEA VISIT – December 2019
It is a very cold clear December day. My friend drives me to the road’s end. I stand on the edge, my arms outstretched to mark where the ocean meets the sky. I ask my friend to record the image. She will come to pick me up just before sun set. I stop and breathe in the view, the place, the distance… imagining all that has already gone… the shift and pull of the tide, moving in and out.
In just one month the cliff edge appears to have been nibbled away at a pace. It takes a short while before I find a place where it is safe to gently ———————————————————– clamber down,————————————————– ————————————————————————————————————————- ———————————————————–onto a vast open empty beach. ——————————————————
I walk along the trace of the tide line, watching my footprints being taken away. I am reminded of Jean Sprackland’s book Strands, where she describes footprints revealed due to climatic change, footprints from thousands of years ago in the late Mesolithic to mid Neolithic period, which appeared only to be completely washed away for good on the next incoming tide. Hidden for so long, revealed briefly, and observed just by chance, only to be finally washed away, to vanish forever. I find this somehow sad yet beautiful.
There is sudden feeling of urgency, wanting to somehow record something in that instant, wishing to make a mark. I notice the deepening cracks in the tarmac. The next bit of cliff to fall. Using chalk powder I trace the black cracks. This is powder created from chunks of chalk from the cliff falls of East Sussex, brought with me from the eroding south east coast further south, the lost home and current home connected by shoreline and sea. I document the marked cracks, leaving the chalk drawing to wash away with the next rain fall, offering the chalk back to beach and sea from where it first came.
‘Chalk that talks of the metamorphosis of sea to land into sea; of epochs laid down by minute crustaceans, leaving behind the poetry of themselves’ an extract taken from the poem by Grace Nichols from her book, Picasso I Want My Face Back pg 34. Published my Bloodaxe books, 2009
I trace the black cracks in the tarmacked road nibbled away, soon to surrender to the sea. Using powdered chalk collected from the cliff falls of Sussex
Down on the wide open beach I carry on. I work quickly to keep the biting cold from creeping beneath my layered clothes. I create brief chalk sketch pieces on the damp sand. All too suddenly, the sun is sinking fast… my friend arrives, and I sit in the welcoming embrace of the warm air of her car, permeating the layers of cloth to my chilled bones. It has been a brief return but a week after the winter solstice, a short day still yet to realise the anticipated longer hours of light. It’s been a chance to mark the place in winter and the time near the end of the calendrical year, and its temporality, through the sketches part engraved on the sand that will have long vanished by time tomorrow’s sunrise lights the beach.