Monthly Archives: October 2012
There is a sequel to yesterday’s post. Outside, on the doorstep, lay a feather – I think it was from a wood pigeon. Now raindrops produce interesting patterns to add to the natural texture and subtle variations in colour. This particular feather will feature again in a few days’ time in a different context. But, for now, let’s just focus on the patterns, the texture and the nuances of colour.
St Agnes is one of the smallest of the five inhabited islands in the Scilly archipelago. At its widest point it measures less than one mile and has a population of 72.
It has just one, single track road that climbs up from the quay and loops round the lighthouse at the island’s highest point before dipping down to the sea and then rejoining itself, rather in the manner of a letter P. There are very few motorized vehicles – almost all of which are tractors or electric buggies. The pace of life is dictated by the tides and the boat timetable – boats being the only form of transport to other islands except in cases of emergency. There is one pub and one shop.
The silence is golden – punctuated more often by bird calls than by people. The air is pure – direct from the Atlantic – the nights are starry. The landscape is natural and unspoiled. And so one could go on …..
But there is another face to St Agnes. This island paradise is surrounded by treacherous seas and rocks that have claimed thousands of lives over the centuries. Just beyond the pool pictured above is the Island’s playing field beneath which are buried many of the men who died with Sir Cloudesley Shovell in the great naval disaster of 1707. Frequently in past centuries men from the Island have selflessly rowed out in their six oared gig to ships in danger and have navigated a safe passage. The churchyard bears testimony to the perils of the sea.
In the bottom photo Bishop Rock lighthouse can be seen on the horizon, just beyond the Western Rocks (the graveyard of many vessels).
Two faced Saint.
(St Agnes Isle).
A calm sea now, a gentle isle and fair.
Named Agnes, Lamb of God, saintly, pure.
Smooth are the sunlit backs of docile cows.
Heady, the tang of moorland ling and salt sea weed.
Beyond the cricket pitch, a preening gull
Presides over newly towered church and quiet bay,
Basking in virgin air, loving the light,
Lulled by an unctuous, silky sea.
One face holy, exhaling quiet;
The other secret, inhaling death where
Sedge gives way to slimy, salt-edged pools
Shadowed by wind tortured stones.
There lie bleached skulls, jetsam
Of a violent sea.
Close by the Western rocks glint greedily
Like dragons’ teeth ringing Bishop Rock.
Those steel needles will gnash, slash and maul
When the sun’s fire damps down;
Will rend bowsprit, shrouds, and men
Lured by that treacherous siren maid.
The list of wrecks in Scilly waters numbers more than 530 and in the 18th and 19th centuries there was an urgent need for improved navigational aids. In addition to those mentioned in the previous post, several lighthouses and lightships were added, especially in the expanse of water between the Islands and the tip of Cornwall. On a clear night, from Peninnis on St Mary’s it is possible to see the beams from nine other lights.
Of the many shipping disasters recorded by far the greatest occurred in 1707 when Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell and his fleet were returning to Plymouth following the failed siege of Toulon. Having been driven off course strong winds, navigational errors led to his ship, HMS Association, and three others crashing on to rocks just south west of where the Bishop Rock lighthouse now stands, with a loss of almost 2000 lives. Ironically, this greatest of peacetime maritime disasters in British history happened before the advent of telecommunications or even newspapers as we now know them, and it was several days before the scale of the disaster was reported.
The Association also carried in its cargo silver and gold coins, together with cannons plundered from an earlier mission. The site of the wreckage was eventually located in 1964 and some of the treasures were auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1969.
In recent times, in 1967, the Torrey Canyon ran aground on the Seven Stones reef, about eight miles north east of St Martin’s, loaded with 120,000 tonnes of crude oil. The spillage of almost 31,000 gallons was washed up on the Cornish coast with devastating consequences for seabird and marine life.
Around 1840, Augustus Smith, the ‘Lord Proprietor’ of Tresco, began to assemble a collection of retrieved memorabilia, mostly figure heads from wrecked sailing ships and early steam ships. He created a gallery – appropriately called Valhalla – in the Abbey Gardens on Tresco. The pictures below are from the collection.
Because of the proliferation of rocks and islets the waters around the Isles of Scilly have always been hazardous to shipping, especially in the days of sailing ships when vessels were at the mercy of the winds. Waters were less well charted and navigational aids were limited in their effectiveness.
The first lighthouse on the Islands was built on St Agnes in 1680. It was coal fired until 1790 when it was converted to oil. It stands 23 metres tall and is located at the highest point of the Island, some 500 metres or so inland. It was eventually decommissioned in 1911 when the Peninnis lighthouse was built on St Mary’s. The St Agnes now stands as a quite prominent daymark.
The daymark on St Martin’s is a distinctive feature of the landscape and is very conspicuous with its red and white bands. It was erected in 1683 and is the earliest surviving dated beacon in the British Isles. It is 11 metres tall and stands at the edge of Chapel Down, overlooking the north east coast of the Island.
By far the most important lighthouse is Bishop Rock. Its importance to shipping approaching from the south west and, indeed, to those passing by on other busy routes, cannot be overestimated. It was built with great difficulty in the treacherous seas in 1858 and reaches a height of 44 metres above the mean high water mark. It is the second tallest lighthouse in Britain. It was capped with a helipad in 1976 and became fully automated in 1992. Its light flashes every 15 seconds and has a range of 20 nautical miles (37 km).
At the opposite end of the UK from Shetland are the Isles of Scilly. The Scilly Isles comprise approximately 140 islands and islets, situated almost 30 miles off the south west tip of Cornwall. Only the five largest islands are inhabited and two of these, Bryher and St Agnes, have populations of less than 80.
Bryher is the smallest of the inhabited islands. It is little more than one mile long and less than two thirds of a mile at its widest point. Even so, its landscape is surprisingly varied. The sheltered sandy beaches of the south east contrast with the heathland and rugged cliffs of Shipman’s Head in the north west.
Because of their Atlantic location the islands can be subjected to severe winter storms. Hell Bay, on Bryher – photographed below – is noted for the dramatic high seas that pound its coves.
Realise, these pictures were taken on a reasonably mild summer’s day!!
See also Isles of Scilly
The landscape of the Islands is rugged and very varied. It includes high cliffs, caves, sandy beaches, rolling moorland, heath and peat bogs. Strong winter winds result in there being very few trees. The varied terrain is home to thousands of seabirds – whimbrel, skuas, puffins, gannets etc. Seals, otters and whales frequent the waters immediately around the Islands.
The severity of the winter winds is reflected in the structure and location of the homes of the people. The small croft or farmstead, often painted white, is a small single storey cottage, usually built from stone and located in the shelter of a hillside, as in the picture below. Small pockets of population are scattered throughout the Islands in places least exposed to the elements.
The prosperity of the Islands diminished considerably over the centuries and in the years after World War II was at a very low ebb, but the establishment of the Highlands and Islands Development Board in 1965 and the presence of North Sea oil nearby has led to a period of growth and prosperity.
Even so, the strong community spirit and the importance attached to cultural skills and traditions is still evident in the many festivals and group activities.
The Shetland Islands are nearer to the Arctic Circle than they are to London. Indeed, the distance between Lerwick, the capital of the islands, and London is approximately the same as that between London and Milan. Norway is just over 220 miles east; London is 650 miles south. Not surprisingly the culture and language of the Islands display strong Norse influences.
No point on the Islands is more than three miles from the sea and inevitably Shetlanders have been historically associated with the sea and fishing. It is recorded that the Islands contributed 3000 men to the British cause at Trafalgar. Even their smallest boats bear evidence of Nordic design features.
Agriculture has also been an essential component of the economy. Wool has provided a natural resource for the knitting industry.
But for some the name Shetland will forever be associated with the Shetland pony. The existence on the Islands of these small horses – adapted to the harsh conditions of the Islands and measuring in height between 26-46 inches – can be traced back to the Bronze Age. For its size the Shetland pony is immensely strong and eventually became important to the coal mining industry in many parts of the world. Used for hauling trucks from the coal face, some of these horses never saw the light of day.
Yesterday’s ‘Evening’ photo was taken in the Shetland Isles, the most northern part of the UK – so far north that in an atlas they usually appear in an inset box to indicate that they are further north than the scale of the page will allow. Below are three more pictures from the Isles. They capture an idyllic calm of water, rocks and sky.
Some of the ‘seaweed doodles’ are figurative in character, such as those below.
It is worth repeating that nothing has been added to these images and nothing removed – other than the sand! Removing the colour and texture of the sand gives clarity to the shapes. A little colour saturation has sometimes been used for artistic purposes. All of the photos were taken in the small Periglis Bay on the island of St Agnes in the Isles of Scilly.
‘Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world and makes familiar objects as if they were not familiar’.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Isn’t this a useful criterion by which to assess artworks regardless of the particular artform being used? Isn’t this what the arts are ‘about’?
I often experience a, perhaps, irrational feeling of sadness when I encounter a stubble field. The stubble field is a memorial to those once proud golden crops that have been scythed down in their prime by huge mechanical bullies called combine harvesters. When the carnage has been completed only the defiant stalks remain, together with any rejected, waste straw.