Weave and flow – extracts from a Sardinian holiday #2

“It should be just up here,” said Stefano, as we bounced along yet another dusty, isolated track at the base of Monte Nieddu.

As before, there was no signage to indicate if indeed, this was the right way to the swimming hole. All we had to go on from the beginning was word of mouth and the name of the nearest village. That, and some directions from an elderly woman who appeared to be the only resident in town on this particular day.

In the back, the children could barely keep their eyes open while Veronica and her sister leaned their heads wearily against the window like two convicts in cross-country transit.

Suddenly, a red estate appeared from the opposite direction. The driver stopped and exchanged words with Stefano. It turned out they were also looking for the elusive river and had information on its whereabouts. Stefano swung the car round at the nearest layby and headed back down the hill. By the side of the road, the driver and his son waved us down and pointed to a pathway heading through the pine woods.

With renewed vigour, we piled out of the car and followed them down a thin track. Before long, the trees petered out and we were surrounded by sun-bleached granite formations that seemed to weave  and flow almost like a river. The path began to descend into a blind gorge and then we were presented with that most precious of resources – water.

Despite the midsummer heat, a steady stream made its way between the rock and collected in a pool just right for jumping into. On the far side, the water continued its journey off the lip of a ravine and plummeted into another gorge where a group of climbers were following its course deeper into the landscape.

 

 

I could drive forever – extracts from a Sardinian holiday #1

The heat bore down on my head as I crossed the car park of Il Redentore. The door handle to the hire car was almost too hot to touch and the seat burned the backs of my legs as I sat down. I cranked up the air con to full blast, letting the coolness fill my lungs. Then I began to feel excited.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I wasn’t enjoying the festivities. After all, it’s not everyday you get invited to a traditional Sardinian wedding with all the wild boar, seafood and herbaceous liquors you could ask for being (literally) handed to you on a platter.

However, I was finding the 40 degree heat a struggle and the continuous effort to communicate as the only foreigner at the party was a strain. I needed a breather and the only escape was the road in this part of the island.

I took a right out of the gates and quickly realised I had made a mistake when the road veered towards the motorway. I imagined being forced miles away from my only reference point, before a slip road funnelled me, panicked and sweating, into the indistinguishable landscape.

Thankfully, this being the Sardinian countryside, I was the only car on the road so I casually swung it around and cruised off in the opposite direction.

No sooner had I passed by the venue than all signs of civilisation dissapeared.  On either side of me, burnt yellow fields rose up towards the hilltops. Tufts of greenery still peppered the scenery, however, and great bushes of magenta flowers were bursting from the roadside.

Further on, the road opened out on to a spectacular straight, its vanishing point nestled far within the hills. I considered I should probably turn back at this point. It was hardly the most sensible idea to be driving away from the only place I knew, alone, in a foreign wilderness. But I also knew that adventure doesn’t often come from being sensible. So I put my foot down.

Adela Breton: the life and work of an artist and explorer

It would have taken days, weeks even, to reach South America. Then followed a journey on horseback into the Mexican jungle to work in searing heat, all the while battling fever and bites from numerous insects.

This is something of what Adela Breton, the Victorian artist and explorer, describes about her travels to ancient Mexico in two exhibitions currently on show. The first, at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute (BRLSI) looks at Breton’s personal life and her experiences working at the Mayan ruins.

Growing up in Bath, Breton began donating objects and works to the institute following her trips to Central America. Some of these are on display along with a timeline of her working life displayed on panels in the foyer of the institute.

One of the most interesting things are copies of her sketchbooks, which feature watercolours of the surrounding landscapes and people of Mexico as well as photos that give a real flavour of  life in some of the towns and villages during that period.

The second exhibition at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery looks at Breton’s artistic practice. It’s on a somewhat grander scale, showcasing some of the huge tracings and paintings she produced while visiting the ruins.

The exhibition is the culmination of a much larger project to conserve, store and digitise the collection of her works. Breton began passing on her findings and works to the museum after the BRLSI could no longer provide the space to look after them. Bristol’s collection stands at over 1400 items and prior to the exhibition, the conservation team spent four years restoring and preserving the huge range of artworks.

Harry Metcalf, Paper Conservator at the museum, was involved in the project and says how the process gave them an insight into Breton – the artist.

“What’s interesting is that she used a variety of methods to record the decoration and carvings, including prints, watercolours, sketches and notes. This has enabled us to understand how she went about working at the sites and the techniques that she used.”

Many clues are visible in the works such as various cuts she made in the paper, which Harry believes were done to create a ‘flap’ that she could lift up to view the wall beneath her drawings. The cuts were then sealed with brown paper tape which discoloured over time. The conservators left it in place however, as it gives a valuable indication to how Breton worked.

There are also many sections that have been left blank, leading curators to believe that she wanted to remain true to what she was copying where detail had already been eroded or damaged. This highlights how crucial her work was in capturing the details of the remains before some of them were lost forever.

“One of the most important aspects of her work is that very little of the original colour exists so this collection is supposedly now the most comprehensive record of how they would have looked at the turn of the 20th century.”

Mounting the pieces proved quite a challenge as Breton worked exactly to scale. Harry used a technique called strip-lining, where pieces of a Japanese paper were used to attach the edges of the drawings to a rigid backing board.Using a conventional picture frame would have added too much weight for them to be moved and would also have caused problems in displaying matching sections of paintings.

One piece consists of four sections and there wasn’t enough space in the gallery to display them one on top of the other. But the team were still able to hang two pairs close enough so that visitors can see where the details join up.

“It’s not often that works of this size are put on display. It’s a great opportunity for people to come and view these extraordinary works and learn about the life of a remarkable person.”

Part of this article together with pictures of the conservation project can be seen on the website of Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.

Encountering the crest #3

I stopped at the edge of the water and looked across at the pathway snaking up the hill.

“I’m not up for it,” I said.

Jon was staring at something indiscriminate in the foreground while Simon lay across his pack, sunning his bare chest.

“I know everyone’s tired,” replied Rich, “but it was always going to be a long day.”

Only because you made it that way, I thought. What if we simply couldn’t carry on? We’d have to change the plan.

“When it gets like this,” Rich continued, “you just have to be in the moment. One foot infront of the other.”

A refute began to churn in my gutt, fuelled by my aching back and legs. Then, Simon got to his feet.

“If we’re going to do it then let’s get on with it,” he said, in a typically impatient manner. Rich nodded, looking satisfied and we set off round the lake.

The path soon reared up, great blocks rudely thrust in our way. I pushed up them, exhaling with every step and could barely contain my irritation when I heard Rich carrying a tune from the back.

“How can you whistle?” I said between breaths.

“Just trying to keep the mood up,” he replied.

Well it’s not working, I thought. Perhaps you should have considered that before you made us climb two mountains. Okay, so that wasn’t quite true, but it might as well have been. An ascent of Snowdon in the morning, followed by a 2-hour scramble across Crib Goch and then after we’d finally made it down to solid ground, another uphill climb over said ridge. All for an idyllic camping spot.

Midway up the path, my legs gave in and I collapsed against a mound of rocks. The others crumpled nearby.

“You’re not my friend anymore.”

I grinned at Rich, playing with a momentary half truth. He grinned too, but at the sky as he swallowed water. Suddenly, I was thrown back to our Australia trip, ten years earlier. Even then, our convictions butted heads. His steady and resolute. Mine, brooding and impulsive. Most of the time, his would win out, but only through a steadfast reasoning that was too exasperating to contend with.

We got back to our feet, keen not to let what little momentum we had fade away. After a quarter of an hour we finally surmounted the climb and soon found ourselves passing through green fields littered with the remains of abandoned slate mines. Our feet rolled down layers of spongy grass and bog, thighs barely taking the strain until we reached a level setting.

I threw my pack off and slumped to the ground while Rich was straight away busy with setting up the tents. The sound of water led me and Simon to a stream and we stripped off, dunking ourselves in a bath-like crater and instantly feeling rejuvenated.

By the time we got back to camp, sunset was casting its colours across the hillside. The first meal-in-a-bag was warming on the stove and Rich was cursing at a cloud of midges hovering around him. I smiled, my animosity washed away downriver. We were just old friends together again in the wilderness.

Encountering the crest #1

It must have been 6am when I unzipped the tent, or thereabouts, judging by the grey light that draped across the mountainside. The two bodies that were crammed in next to me lay motionless, matted hair sprouting from the top of sleeping bags.

I slipped on my boots and staggered out into the cool, morning air. Whether it was the noggins of whisky from the night before or the rolling view that made my head swim, I couldn’t be sure and I headed for a nearby shelf of rock to steady myself.

It was then I experienced one of those moments where sleep still has enough of a hold to prevent the usual noisy thoughts from breaking through. I let my senses fill the void and soon became aware of the shrill calls of sheep bouncing about the horseshoe curve. I spied their white shapes, shuffling across the farthest reaches of the slopes, as though they were all trying to outdo each other in their quest for the next tuft of grass.

Meanwhile, their bleating rebounded down the valley towards a golden light that had only just broken across a neighbouring peak. Then a muffled groaning broke my meditative state as the camp began to stir.

Transforming the toilet

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Attendant, London.

Always one to keep abreast of current affairs, see my article on ten top reuses of abandoned public toilets around the world. You might be surprised at what’s possible with a jet-wash and some imagination.

One for the road

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They say it’s the journey and not the destination that counts. But that’s not immediately obvious when you’re driving for six hours up a motorway.

We were on our way from Bristol to Newcastle to attend the opening of an exhibition that featured some of my partner’s work. Normally, I’m all for a good old road trip, but the endless winding grey punctuated by industrial sites and Costa/McDonalds/Subway combinations was starting to get to me.

Things changed, however, when we passed a slumbering power station, dressed murky gold by the afternoon sun. My partner took a few snaps of it and suddenly the road took on a different meaning.
Within the strange, alien landscape we found art. Brutal concrete shapes became contemporary wonders and boundaries walls formed painted lines along with the trees and the sky. Swooping power lines looked dramatic against shifting clouds and there was even the occasional splash of colour, such as the OK Diner just north of Middlesborough.

It made me think that even in the bleakest of locations or the dullest of prospects, it’s possible to find a creative spark. Sometimes all we need is a little shake up of our perceptions in order to see something in a new light. On other occasions, however, it’s more about shaking loose any assumptions we might have to see what’s really on offer.

This was very much the case when we finally arrived in Newcastle. Admittedly, my expectations were limited to a city of smokestacks, bad weather and a mildly irritating accent. But as we crossed the majestic Tyne Bridge, I was faced with a glittering city that was anything but the crumbling industrial hulk it had once been.

Like the transformation of numerous East London boroughs, redundant buildings had been turned into artspaces and studios while brand-new apartments and construction sites jostled each other for space. The gallery itself was situated in a former biscuit factory and the place was teeming with visitors excited to see the new season of work that was on display.

This experience brought home a realisation that, despite being nothing new, seemed pressingly relevant. When faced with something as devastating as the closure of businesses and loss of jobs, buildings and neighbourhoods require nothing short of a complete renewal in order that they don’t crumble and waste away. Much like industry, attitudes die hard, but it seemed clear that we need to be ready to embrace transitions rather than resist them in order that cities and society at large can move into the future in the best possible way.

I got the impression Newcastle was trying to do just that. And the accent wasn’t bad either.