Field Notes and Other Fictions

My text ‘Field Notes and Other Fictions’ written for David Bethell‘s recent exhibition at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, ‘Dr Bird Conquering Clouds’, is available in full below.

Image copyright David Bethell

Image copyright David Bethell

I often travel between an old hill and a snow-capped hill separated by several miles. The journey takes me canal-side, past Canadian geese noisily gaggling on the grass; near a timber yard with its fresh-cut scent; past a scrap yard home to two huge dogs, tethered together with a thick, heavy chain. Up close to tiny, net-curtained railway cottages; beneath a low bridge with a perpetually dripping roof; past an elderly lady with a Sainsbury’s carrier bag, eating a packet of Mini Cheddars. Past a pub called The Boat. It’s neither boat nor pub since it was boarded up and now its tatty red canopy flutters sadly in the wind. Note the fuzzy buzz of the motorway and the clang of the city [1] that can be heard in the distance.

Helmets will be provided. Wellingtons or strong boots will be essential for this visit. [2]

Not too many miles from here, another boat-not-boat can be found. Bumping along hilltops on the north-westernmost ridge of a limestone plateau, this boat is also a cart, a camera and a darkroom. It’s hull is made of bleached pine boards, and it has wheels that help the explorer to push and pull it across the thinly-soiled grassy slopes and rocky outcrops. His back is bent double, his legs at full stretch. Up slope, down slope, heave ho. The boat’s white sail shines bright against the scrub-grass, its appearance unexpected and delightful.

The landscape always comes as a surprise to me. Bright flashes of green slice through grey streets in the suburbs of the big city. Birdsong is a privilege. But the cows are too large out there and the sun is too bright.

All students should bring hardboard, large clip, paper and pen/pencil for recording. A rucksack or haversack will also be most useful.

Another adventurer in a green polyester shell-suit sets off. He moves quickly across the tarmac up the old hill, with a rucksack on his back and a bearded smile on his face. Where is he going? Does he know he’s on top of a volcano? It might erupt at any moment. Polyester and molten lava are a dangerous combination.

Ladies are advised to wear trousers or slacks.

The hill that plays host to the boat-cart-camera-darkroom was once the deepest copper mine in the country. On the surface, a little red door is set into the hill, its paintwork sun-blistered and faded, and its lintel made roughly from the hill’s own stone. Underground the mine still breathes. A gentle rise and fall of earth, of folded rock, of copper fragments, of voices whispered through time. Another breath: iiiin and oooout. The ground is always moving, you can hear it moving. [3] Listen. A hush. Four hundred metres of mine shaft cut clean and sharp through three hundred million years of geology. Space cut through time.

The hill is alive.

Extracted copper was used in boat-building, to shore up wooden hulls and to make the boats sail faster through bouncing waves. [4] It’s a copper-bottomed guarantee.

Packed lunch.

The explorer stops for tea and cake after his exertions with the boat-not-boat. He can be found observing hillside comings and goings sporting a bowler hat and a state-of-the-art turquoise plastic Sunnto watch. He carries a homemade sextant and is framed by the cloud-fringed hills behind him. [5]

A windmill is glimpsed in the distance. It was once scratched into smooth copper, inked, tightly pressed and ghosted on to paper. Now it’s resurrected on the hilltop. The adventurer moves towards its swiftly turning sails, the etching carefully folded in his pocket. Perhaps the copper came from this hill beneath his feet?

The wind picks up and the clouds grow darker.

Turning, turning.
A break.
A burst.

The sun’s rays part the clouds, warming the hillside. Birds begin to wheel and to sing around his head. The windmill marks the highest point for miles around; the clouds are so close that they can almost be touched.

The bluebells have not yet bloomed, the wild garlic has not quite appeared in the woods. But soon.

A sign on the pavement of the tarmacked hill reads ‘Free scrap wood and metal. Be careful – exposed screws/nails’. The next day, the scraps are gone, most likely collected by the rag-and-bone men that still call “aaaany old iirooon”. Parts to be sold and assembled, assimilated into other machines. Made new and useful again. Soon.

Two dusty red armchairs are carefully balanced on a pile of broken bricks behind a tumble-down fence; the catkins are bursting their buds; a roll of black cabling lies ready near the kerb. The windmill turns.

Anyone suffering from claustrophobia may remain on the surface.

And so. From the hill, down the ancient ladderway with careful steps. [6] Into the mine’s bowels.

Leather-shod feet slip-slide through mud and dust. The air is saturated, heavy. A voice shouts, echoing over stone sleepers and railway tracks deep inside the earth.

A crash.

A broken bone.

A miner’s life is short unless he uses care. [7]

Indeed such a horrid gloom, such rattling of wagons, [the] noise of workmen boring rocks under your feet, such explosions in blasting and such a dreadful gulph to descend, present a scene of terror that few people who are not versed in mining care to pass through. [8]

Take care.

The hill conceals its secrets underground. Look closely, listen. Footsteps splash, stumble and trudge squelching through passages and along chilled canals, for the darkness in the mine is absolute. The deep flood shafts must be pumped dry of water by another wheeled machine. On your way through the mine, please take note of the blue tinting of the water caused by the presence of copper. [9]

We pull the copper out day and night. [10] We must pull the copper out, no matter the cost.

Return travel at approximately 18:00.

Later, the night cries of beasts [11] echo across these landscapes from every direction, calling out to one another. The little black cat; the lost heron; the band of silky foxes; the pheasant; the tiny frogs; the lone owl that sometimes treats me to a hoot or two as I lie in bed trying to sleep. Everything is bright with life [12] on these hills and the sounds of creatures mingle with human songs too. His voice sings, lilting across the dark sky and in the wind, calling me back to another time of exhilaration and warm skin:

“I close my eyes and I’m a bird on the wing
flying far from the copper mine.” [13]

Anneka French, March 2015

[1] Isabella L. Bird, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains. Renaissance Classics, 2012 (first published 1879) p. 1

[2] R. P. Hastings, taken from John French, 2nd Year Field Week File, Middleton St George College of Education, Darlington, 1973 (all italicised notes)

[3] Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker, The Big Hewer, ‘The Radio Ballads’ 18 August 1961. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LnuibZTfyUE [accessed March 2015]

[4] David Webb, The Hollow Hill: The Story of the Ecton Hill Mines, ‘Ecton Hill’ 2008. Available from: http://www.ectonhillfsa.org.uk/EctonHill/EctonHill.html [accessed March 2015]

[5] Fabian Peake, tense to tense, ‘Loose Monk’ 29 November 2001. Available from: http://www.fabianpeake.co.uk/poetry/13.htm [accessed March 2015]

[6] Webb

[7] Jeff Lang, Copper Mine, ‘Half Seas Over’, Furry Records, 2009

[8] W. Efford, Gentleman’s Magazine, 1769

[9] Webb

[10] Lang

[11] Bird, p. 11

[12] Bird, p. 10

[13] Lang

The publication also features texts by David and by Anna Falcini and is available from the gallery and from David. 

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