Saturday, 29 December 2012

Hills of Home

A late evening call from my friend John and a quick check on the BBC Weather was enough to call off the planned walk for the next morning, low cloud, drizzle, poor visibility etc, but as is often the case it would have been better to look out of the window, the morning was glorious with a warm breeze and a cloudless sky, the best laid plans of mice and men eh! With my list of household chores duly ticked off and the day looking better by the hour there must be a 'to do' tick before the girls get back from school.

There was a 'Derelict Barn' scene that I had wanted to take an image of for ages and the sun would have been just right and the visibility was crystal clear so I headed off in the vicinity of Penygroes to drop off a note with Joe the gas delivery driver and then the  new A487 to my barn spot, big disappointment, the barn looked great and the light was perfect and there were even some perfectly sited livestock to add drama, the only thing spoiling the scene were traffic lights, council waggon's, a huge tarmac eating machine and nowhere to stop, hell.

Another slight to the mind and eye and to anyone who wants to take an image of the peaks of the Rivals and the Lleyn Peninsula are three new wind turbines that have sprouted up in the name of renewable energy and a quick buck to the land owner no doubt, it will soon be impossible to take a photograph of a landscape or seascape without these hideous monstrosities so I carried on to the next available turning space and then had a thought, Cwm Pennant, haven't been there for years and never with my camera, don't know why, this was a too good to miss opportunity.

Just past Dolbenmaen a left turn brings you on to the very narrow lane that leads to the head of Cwm Pennant some three miles further. The road sort of pulls you along very easily and tempts you to want to know what's around the next corner, the road follows, as many old roads do the path of the river Dwyfor that flows gently from the slopes of Moel Hebog, Moel Lefn  and Moel yr Ogof that look down into the bowl of the valley on all sides, there is no escape from here to the Gwyrfai valley on the other side except by a steep uphill trek over 'Bwlch y Ddwy Elor' and down to Rhyd Ddu, my birth place.

The very name 'Bwlch y Ddwy Elor' gives this place a feeling of antiquity and 'Hiraeth' it translates as 'The Pass of the Two Biers' and I remember my grandfather telling me tales that he had been told of the struggles that took place to carry the dead from one village to another over the hillside, swapping the 'biers' on the summit ridge and then carrying the deceased down to the chapel for burial whilst taking the empty bier back until it was required another time.This gap in the col is itself at 427 mtrs above sea level so a sombre journey carrying a deceased family member especially in winter months must have been a hard and sorrowful undertaking.The link between Rhyd Ddu and Pennant must have been significant and I assume because there is no cemetery in Rhyd Ddu the dead were buried in the chapel in Cwm Pennant, it seems a long way and difficult to fathom why such undertakings would take place in so remote a spot.

The day I was there, despite it being a glorious Autumnal day the chapel looked forlorn with a somewhat 'down in the dumps' feeling to it,the path into the graveyard was overgrown and it took some effort to open the gate, on inspection the guttering was falling off the sides and the door was well and truly bolted, I suppose it rarely gets much use these days and the relatives of the dead and buried have moved to pastures new leaving their ancestors in pastures old. Looking at the stones I came across some very old inscriptions and one was dated 1632 and 1636 respectively for a young couple , the woman being 20 years and the male  (her brother/husband?) only 22.

Strangely, nestled amongst all the dark slate headstones there were some newish white marble ones which stood out like sore thumbs, although the slate quarrying here ceased many years ago and must have originally supplied the headstones I found it rather sad that they had to resort to importing such an alien rock to a valley full of slate.

“BLOWS the wind to-day, and the sun and the rain are flying—
  Blows the wind on the moors to-day and now,
Where about the graves of the martyrs the whaups* are crying,
  My heart remembers how!

“Gray, recumbent tombs of the dead in desert places,
  Standing stones on the vacant, red-wine moor,
Hills of sheep, and the homes of the silent vanished races
  And winds austere and pure!

“Be it granted me to behold you again in dying,
  Hills of home! and I hear again the call—
Hear about the graves of the martyrs the pee-wees crying,
  And hear no more at all.”

                                              Robert Louis Stevenson

*Whaups: Curlews

There can be no doubt that this valley is one of the most beautiful of all the mountain valleys in Wales and the poet Eifion Wyn who grew up in the area has two lines in his poem 'Cwm Pennant' which has found its way into Welsh folklore , "Pam, Arglwydd, y gwnaethost Gwm Pennant mor dlws? A bywyd hen fugail mor fyr?"    roughly translated it says: ‘O Lord, why did you make Cwm Pennant so beautiful and the life of a shepherd so short?’

These few words sum up the whole of Cwm Pennant and its geology, industry and the very people who live here and existed amongst the most dramatic backdrop possible. If you are to be interred anywhere then this sacred spot would be hard to beat, you can rest in peace for another millennia without the though that there may be a chance you could be tarmacked over or have a huge wind turbine shaking the ground you lie in, it just seemed a safe place to be with its grazing sheep and gently flowing river to keep you company and only a raven's tumbling flight to the summits of spirits, where you would be amongst the sleeping warriors awaiting their call to arms once more.

The Autumn colours were overwhelming and the silence rather difficult to get used to, there were no jets flying despite the clear skies and no farmers on their quad bikes to break the solitude and in all the time I was there i met only two others who had cycled up the valley from Garndolbenmaen.we chatted for a few minutes, mainly about their ongoing battle with a huge wind farm development that was going to despoil their village near Welshpool and had caused great divide between folk who had been friends and neighbours for many years before the development raised its head. after putting the world to rights we went our separate ways, they to explore the upper reaches of the cwm and I to head back down the valleys winding track.

I stopped at the little bridge that crosses the Dwyfor higher up the valley to take some shots, the pools here were perfect for a spot of summer swimming or just about paradise for a picnic lunch, on the whole six mile round trip I hadn't passed another vehicle at all and stopped here to have a brew from the flask, I got to thinking about the rivers name and why do so many think of it as Dwy (two) for (sea), it doesn't make sense for it to be called a river that flows to two seas and the head of the cwm has a spur off called Bwlch Dwyfor and it is from here that the river has its source as well as the flow off the peaks.,after some research I discovered that its name derives from 'Big Holy River' and there is a tributary, the River Dwyfach, the 'Small Holy River'.a spiritual spot indeed.

There are some magical names doted around the cwm: Rhwngdwyafon- Between two rivers, Cwm Llefrith- The Valley of Milk,  Cwm Sais- The Englishman's Pass it all sounds a bit 'wild west' and probably stems from the pioneers who came here to mine the ore and quarry the slate, leaving behind them some great signatures which will live on for future generations to ponder over.

Hut Circles and House Platforms abound throughout the landscape which shows that the valley was much utilised prior to 'modern man's' exploits to extricate the ore and the stone, it must have been a perfect shelter for iron age settlers and agriculturalists from the middle ages drawn by its  abundant timber sources and the constant supply of water, once the timber clearance took place and the ground being even and fertile due to past glacial deposits it was ideal for settlement and animal enclosure.The sea was also within close proximity and easily accessible for fish, shellfish and seaweed for drying and composting, so with all its attributes this cwm provided the perfect natural and secure enclosure that was needed.

Although I had to return home I was reluctant to leave such a beautiful place having spent such a short time here, I could have easily spent the whole day exploring its hidden gems, mind you it was a stunning day compared to the last time I was here, some 25 years ago, we came to 'do' Hebog from the Pennant route but the more we climbed up the road the worse the weather became and on arriving at the head of the valley it was more typical of a day that had been forecasted at the beginning of this tale, that particular day we quickly turned turtle and headed to Criccieth for some stunning ice cream, it must have been an age ago as Cadwalader's at the time were like Henry Ford, 'you can have any flavour you like as long as it's Vanilla' as that was the only choice available.

Evening meal was Fish, Chips, Peas and Gravy from the 'Castle' chippy opposite, the fish suppers were so good here that my climbing buddies Gary and Bob and I drove all the way from Liverpool one evening just for that and then all the way back, 200 miles round trip, you'd need a mortgage for the fuel alone for that these days let alone the Fish Supper.

If you need some solitude and an escape from the crowds, especially in midweek and the sun shines down on you then take a trip up to Cwm Pennant, bring a flask of Quarryman's tea and some sandwiches on big hunks of home made bread and get into the spirit of the place,you won't  be disappointed I can guarantee you, of course don't tell any body else about it.

Ken Latham: First published on Dragonsnappers blogspot
All photographs-Ken Latham

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Dead Climbers Society

About twelve years ago, I turned up at the family home in Llanrwst, North Wales of John Kerry, a long deceased climber of local repute. I was hoping the family had found the late climbers journal which detailed all his first ascents in the area. An extensive domain which stretched from the lower reaches of the Conwy Valley around Betws y Coed to the sea.

Some decades previously,Tony Moulam- who was in the process of writing a new Climbers Club guide to Carneddau- had also visited the Kerry home, accompanied by Harold Drasdo where the local tiger showed them his comprehensive journal detailing his first ascents in the area.The fascinating thing for me- who at the time had a small part in a forthcoming Meirionydd guidebook-was the fact that most of the Kerry climbs were on unknown and unlisted crags in the area. If we could find 'The Kerry Files' it would open up a whole new area of climbing in North Wales.

John Kerry was hardly a household name nationally, but amongst the local climbing fraternity in the 60's and 70's, his name was synonymous with hard first ascents in the area. Most of these new routes were on isolated crags and quarries scattered down the Conwy Valley. An area which to this day has never had it's many isolated crags and climbs documented. It might surprise climbers who believe that pretty much all of North Wales and indeed UK climbing venues have been recorded, documented and published through guidebooks, but in fact dozens if not hundreds of crags and climbs have never seen the light of day in a guidebook. Many of these 'new' crags will belatedly feature in the next Carneddau guidebook for the first time when it is published, but not the Conwy Valley crags which still retain their mystery.

John Kerry had died in his mid 40's of heart failure induced by a bout of pneumonia. He was found in a caravan during a harsh Scottish winter. A painfully premature death of an unsung Welsh hero far from his home in the small market town near the head of a valley, which is in character is lush and fertile. In contrast to the harsher uplands of Hiraethog and Carneddau which contain it.

As a local activist, John had created something of a personal fiefdom within the valley on crags which even to this day never see the white paw of a climber. Crags like Rhyd y Creuau which looks down on the A470 near Betws y Coed and where- according to Harold Drasdo,another local activist-  he had made over twenty first ascents in the 1970's. Many which were hard extremes. As someone who climbed about six lines on spec there in the 90's, I can say that the crag is never going to become a post modern classic by virtue of the encroaching trees and its vegetated face. Certainly on a recent visit the crag looked dank and unappetising. However,who knows what gems lie beneath it's green mantle?

I imagine that when Kerry climbed there 40 years ago,it was relatively open and clean as the mix of mostly oaks and birch trees would be mere saplings then. I can remember climbing there with Harold Drasdo one warm summer's day and nearly falling off the climb I was on as a sudden dark shadow fell over me. Was it a tumbling boulder... a giant bird.. a falling climber??? was a hang glider practically clipping the top of the crag above my head!

Al Leary on John Kerry's classic E1-Dinas Mawr Eliminate:Photo Mike Bailey

Last week,on my way up the valley towards the coast, one of John Kerry's mystery crags hove into view as I rounded the straight towards Tal y Cafn. It's pale stone face capped with impressive overhangs stood out, illuminated in the searing winter sun set in a deep blue sky. A mile further on I had a 'sod it' moment and turned the car around and headed back to take a look. The ground below the crag  is heavily wooded and the frozen, steep ground made the going tough. Reaching the crag I discovered the path beneath the crag had been taken over by vicious blackthorn trees and brambles. However,the main cliff looked impressive beyond its thorny barrier, with a dramatic outlook looking straight down on the  languorous Afon Conwy winding its way to the nearby sea while in the distance, the snow capped Carneddau range completed the painterly vista. Another impressive piece in the Kerry Gold jigsaw...another slice of the mystery.

It appears that the Kerry journal is still lost and his-quite possibly-hundreds of first ascents are lost with it. Although there are some recorded climbs we know about in the Betws y Coed area, many of which are starred routes or at least will be when the new guide comes out. At least a fair few of his many climbs were recorded via the conventional channels. It has now become common for us when engaged in exploring a remote local crag within Kerry's fiefdom, to find a rusting old peg in an outrageous position and shout down, 'looks like John Kerry's been here'!

Those years ago when I followed in Tony Moulam and Harold Drasdo's footsteps and arrived at the Kerry household, his sister brought out a rucksack which had been brought down from Scotland after his death in 1991 and which had not been opened since. With all due reverence and respect I carefully emptied it out on the living room carpet. Amongst the usual tat of the crag rat, a school exercise book with some notes. Sadly, they only related to some new climbs he had done in Scotland. I looked at his passport.  His photograph showed a bearded aquiline face with a fixed intense stare. Just as I imagined he would look. A hard climber.. 'a loner' according to his sister but a loner who had found the uncharted cliffs and quarries of the Conwy Valley a perfect arena for intensive pioneering. Will the Kerry files ever turn up? Probably not but I for one think his exploits and what he represented is worth remembering and bringing to a wider audience.

Some climbers with a far inferior pedigree in terms of creativity are relatively well known while John Kerry is now largely forgotten. Like so many other talented climbers who saw their star burn briefly and brightly before disappearing over the horizon into the void.

*Following the publication of this article, I was contacted by Colin Ogilvie from Glasgow who climbed with John Kerry in Scotland. Colin offers this fascinating insight into JK's activities up North......

"I still live in Glasgow where John was resident from about the mid to late 1970's, and climbed and socialised with him on several occasions. John continued his pioneering of routes on Welsh crags that others had failed to see the potential of here in the west of Scotland, notably in Kircudbright on such sea cliffs as Meikle Ross in 1975, and close to Glasgow at Craigmore where he gardened out numerous good short routes and also at Auchinstarry and other quarries near Kilsyth, where again the Kerry ice axe and brush were used to good effect and some excellent routes discovered.

Most of these routes are still popular with local climbers. John had no personal transport of his own (like many of us) and often travelled by bus to these crags, complete with gardening equipment!
Auchinstarry, like many quarries is partly flooded and soon after the first routes were done in about 1976 or '77 the water level started to rise making access more difficult. It so happened that the Planning Officer based in Cumbernauld at the time who had responsibilty for Kilsyth was a Mr John Kerry, and before long the the Council had been persuaded of the potential of the quarry as a recreational resource! The water level was lowered, and it was made safe for water sports. A level path was constructed around the water perimeter giving access to the climbs; landscaping and a car park were built, all due to our man. This area is still in use today, and enjoyed by many local people.

It does not surprise me that records of John's new climbs in Wales are hard to obtain. He did not record any of his climbs in Scotland in the established Journals, though he did contribute to a Guide book to the aforementioned crags, published about 1977 by a local shop, Highrange Sports, entitled Western Outcrops, Volume 2. What he did do was create a lot of good routes from some pretty unpromising raw material, a fact not appreciated by many people.

Many other climbers active at the time in this area besides myself will remember John well, having like me held his rope whilst being bombarded with falling debris on occasions. Names that spring to mind are Jim Reader, and Ken Johnstone. As far as I know his ice axe was reserved for gardening crags, not climbing snow and ice. John was a good rock climber and as well as his pioneering of local outcrops in Scotland did some of the established hard classics in Glencoe such as Yo-Yo, Unicorn, Carnivore and Shibboleth.

 I don't know of many ventures farther away except for a whole sunny week spent at Creag and Dubh-Loch in the Cairngorms with  Ken Johnstone, where John was allegedly sustained by tins of Irish Stew as was his habit. Other than that, I heard that he later gave up climbing and had gone underground as a caver! "...CO: Glasgow...January 2013

One of John Kerry's 'lost crags' in the Conwy Valley.

John Appleby 2012

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Echoes of a Dream - a crag rats

Cover/Richard on Hanging Crack, Doverstones: Gordon Stainforth

I was flicking through Colin Wells' bumper mountaineering book- 'Who's who in British Climbing'-  trying to find to no avail, Alan 'Richard' McHardy amongst the 'Mac's. Despite a full compliment-from MacInnes to Macleod...McHaffie to McLure- there was no mention of someone of almost semi mythical status? A true hard man and post war tiger who like his more famous contemporaries from the great Northern working class climbing communities, was in the creative vanguard. Forging standards and creating classic climbs on the as yet under-developed cliffs of northern England and north Wales.

A frequent visitor to The Alps with people like Tut Braithwaite and Pete Minks, Richard became a central player in the English invasion during the 50's,60's and 70's. A time when northern hard cases arrived on motorbikes and in beat up vans and created a disparate community of climbing bums to the disdain of their sophisticated continental cousins!

But first things first. Alan Richard McHardy was born in the Manchester area in the early 40's and graduated towards the great outdoors via the frequently trodden path of Peak and Pennine exploration. After scaring himself on easy peak routes he finally discovered that actually, the rock climbing malarky was something he was quite good at and went on to became a talented original member of the Alpha Club who boasted people like Paul Nunn and Al Parker amongst its brethren.
From these early days,he went on to become a highly respected member of UK climbing's' elite. Not least for his incredible soloing exploits where his calm disposition and astonishing strength saw him soloing climbs which were at the forefront of of UK standards at the time.

Richard McHardy on Fork Lightning Crack-Heptonstall Quarry

In common with his working class contemporaries,trips abroad had to be financed through a variety of manual jobs,from factory work to joinery although he did find himself engaged from time to time as an outdoor pursuits instructor.Including a stint at Plas y Brenin in North Wales. It was while working at PyB that Richard experienced a life changing event from which he was lucky to survive. In a chapter prosaically entitled 'broken head' Richard recalls how a serious fall from a chossy route on Carreg Wasted saw him unconscious and at death's door for four days before doctor's considered him well enough to be put back together again.

 The shattering of his skull brought on an epileptic condition which was triggered at intervals,by physical trauma. Not an uncommon event if you were climbing at the cutting edge. Despite the condition and despite suffering occasional epileptic fits, Richard never gave up his life style and simply tailored his work and his outdoor life accordingly. Thankfully,he never suffered an epileptic episode when soloing a route like Cenotaph Corner or Vector !

Despite his foreign campaigns in the Alps and Yosemite producing a series of British firsts-including,the first all British ascent of Salathe Wall with Paul Ross- his forays into the world of mountaineering in greater ranges,brought only frustration and disappointment. He decided the Himalayas just weren't worth the effort and concentrated on UK/ European and occasional US jaunts.

For those like me who are fascinated by that unique era of British climbing in the second half of the twentieth century,when working class climbers gathered in their parochial tribes and went forth and established themselves on the world stage; Echoes of a Dream is a real treat. Absorbing, fascinating and illuminating. As Richard says in his final passage..'Most climbing books describe monumentally difficult achievements or major epics. I hope I have described the life of the ordinary crag rat and of all the other climbers I have met along the way'...Most people reading this would agree that Richard is rather modest in describing himself as 'an ordinary crag rat'. 99% of active climbers will never go anywhere near touching on his incredible life and times on the crag face.

RM and Paul Ross on Mammoth Ledge, Salathe Wall, El Capitan 1973: George Homer

For lovers of atmospheric climbing shots originally captured on print and slide,'Echoes' is liberally illustrated with evocative images,showing the man himself and many of his former partners,in action on iconic climbs and crags.

Written in an honest and understated style, Echoes of a Dream fully deserves to reach a wider audience.Particularly for those readers who find the post 50's era, something of a golden era in British mountaineering.A time of rapidly developing standards,of larger than life characters and of course,of incredible achievement. It's certainly one of the best books of its type to illustrate the unique northern climbing culture which sprang out of the great northern conurbations in the post war era.

Privately published, Echoes of a Dream-A Crag Rat's tale' can be ordered from the author's website

John Appleby

Friday, 7 December 2012

Kurt Jackson: Catch the Light

Kurt Jackson paints: seascapes in which every glitter of reflected light on the water’s surface is detailed; rivers in their varied moods and waterside shades of greenery; and trees in their many forms and patterning of light and shade.  His paintings are meticulous in their observation of the details in a landscape, yet they are, simultaneously, abstractions as expressive as the most crystalline poetry.

I’ve loved the paintings of Kurt Jackson since discovering him on a holiday in Cornwall in 1999, when we were there for the total eclipse of the sun on the morning of August 11th.   He had an exhibition at The Great Atlantic Map Works Gallery in St. Just, called crossing the peninsula…painting the path of totality.  The paintings on show were the result of three days spent walking across the Cornish peninsula following the path of  the centre line of totality.  Cornwall – and most especially the far western lands of West Penwith is a favourite place of ours, and the place that Jackson has made his home and his primary subject since 1984, when he settled near St. Just.

I have two beautiful books of Kurt Jackson’s paintings, Kurt Jackson – Paintings of Cornwall and the Scillies (1999) and The Cape (2002), which features paintings of land- and sea-scapes around Cape Cornwall and nearby Priest Cove, with additional text by the poet Ronald Gaskell.  I would like to have more, but the catalogues of his exhibitions sell out almost instantaneously and only rarely reappear on Abebooks or Amazon, always at staggeringly inflated prices.

But recently an excellent book, comprising almost a dozen essays on Jackson and lavishly illustrated with examples of his work, was published.  Entitled Kurt Jackson: A New Genre of Landscape Painting, I received it as a birthday gift, and have just finished reading it. There are essays here by poets, nature writers, painters and art critics – they include Howard Jacobson, Helen Dunmore, Mark Cocker, Bel Mooney and Richard Mabey – who together weave a rich portrait of an artist and environmentalist  with a deep understanding of natural history and ecology, politics and environmental issues.

It’s in the foreword to the collection, written by John Russell Taylor, that the idea of Kurt Jackson representing a ‘new genre of landscape painting’ is developed.  He suggests that Jackson is a traditional painter in the sense that ‘you cannot see any of his paintings…without being aware of a great underlying body of tradition’ that includes, for example, ‘Turner’s later, more abstracted works’ and ‘Constable’s more private watercolour sketches’.  But, Taylor argues, ‘these are only the foundations on which Jackson’s personal style is built’.  The artist has clearly also absorbed the wild, spontaneous mark-making of American Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock, as well as the practices and objectives of German Neo-Expressionists like Anselm Kiefer, with their commitment to an art that stimulates the imagination and expresses human emotion:

    Hence the frequent incursion in Jackson’s work of apparently random dashes and blobs of colour, which cannot be explained in terms of detailed observation but are very important in conveying the spirit and feeling of the scene as they strike the observing artist.  Then there is his developing interest in the quasi-sculptural application of non-painting elements to the surface of his canvases.  Sometimes it may be incorporating the material observed – such as sand or pebbles – to ‘represent’ itself.  Sometimes it is a metaphor, or even a sort of pun, as in his Cornish painting Catch the Light (2002-3, where the catching of the very present but wholly impalpable light is conceived almost literally as something that could be done, with a real fishing net attached to the front of the canvas.

For myself, I think it’s that gift of being able to ‘catch the light’ – whether shimmering on the sea in the noonday sun, or fading as dusk deepens in some woodland glade – that defines Kurt Jackson’s magic.  In his analysis, John Russell Taylor continues:

    And there is yet another important element of Jackson’s art which is wholly untraditional.  I mean, of course, his use of scribbled inscriptions, along with more formal printed words and phrases.  One can readily find parallels in contemporary art, from Cy Twombly … to the early works of Ben Nicholson.

    One feels, looking at these extraordinary works, that the documentary element – making some kind of record of what is before the artist’s eyes – is important, but it is only one strand.  Equally present are how the artist feels about what he sees, and how, at some deep, instinctive level, he apprehends the spirit of time and place.

Kurt Jackson was born is 1961 in Blandford, Dorset and spent much of his childhood developing a passionate interest in nature in the wooded lanes and fields of semi-rural Herfordshire. He was already painting his finds from field and stream, annotating his drawings and watercolours with scientific details.  His parents were both artists, and the family travelled extensively across Europe and the Middle  East, a formative experience that finds expression, perhaps, in his predilection to work outdoors in all weathers, and his active support for environmental campaign groups such as Greenpeace, whose expeditions he has sometimes joined as official artist in residence.

There’s one aspect of Jackson’s biography that sets him apart from most other artists: he is a scientist with a degree in Zoology from Oxford University.  While travelling in Greece in his early twenties he met two men who had just graduated from that course, and he developed a burning desire to do the same.  At Oxford he spent most of his time painting and attending courses at Ruskin College of Art, but he gained his degree and continued to travel extensively and independently, painting wherever he went. He travelled to the Arctic alone and hitched across Africa with his wife. So he has acquired a broad experience of environments and cultures which has enriched his work with a unique insight and an attention to detail. He moved to Cornwall in 1984 where he still lives and works.

Since settling in Cornwall, a central concern of Jackson’s work has been to document with meticulous observation the landscapes and seascapes of West Penwith.  But his work has not been confined to that southwestern peninsula.  He has painted many rivers (often tracking their course from source to sea) and in numerous places, from the isle of Arran to Greece, Andalucia and Mali.  Wherever he is, whatever the landscape he is seeing, Jackson’s work is, as Bel Mooney rightly observes in this book, ‘infused with joy’.  She goes on:

    The artist’s own physicality reaches out to meet the teeming, testing, tantalising aspects of life: leaf, grass, bark, flower, water and stone.  Each painting transcends what is merely observed: it is a totality of experience.

At a time of concern about the fate of our woodland, Kurt Jackson’s depiction of trees and the ecology of the wild places that surround them is timely. In his essay, ‘Green Chaos: Painting the Forest’, Richard Mabey observes that in Jackson’s paintings:

    The patterns of light and shade, the thick impression of the paint, the sudden detonations of colour and embryonic forms, echo the vitality and inventiveness of the natural processes they signify.

He regards Jackson’s woodland paintings as being landscapes ‘seen literally from the grass roots’, and in this respect compares Jackson’s paintings to the poetry of John Clare (one of Jackson’s favourite poets in fact).

Jackson’s series TwoWoods (2oo4) explores the interior life of two contrasting habitats: Ashcombe Wood near Bath and Skewjack Wood in Cornwall and Mabey notes how Jackson’s paintings of Ashcombe, a wood with origins dating back to the end of the last Ice Age (such as Ashcombe, sun sinking, sycamore, hazel, oak, above) are studies of the depths of the wood, that ‘in their dappled latticework suggest the intricate transactions between light, time and living tissue that create the fabric of these ancient places.

Loud wind through the tree tops, low winter sunlight through the twigs, sun sinking, sycamore, hazel, oak. It feels like the beginning of Autumn, September 2003 is,for Mabey, a more spacious painting:

 Light filters in through the treetops. The tree trunks are straighter, more gracious.The text hints at uncertainty, at a palpable mystery in the surfaces of the wood. It might, in fact, be the beginning of spring.Woods lock their history inside them, but they reveal cyclical traces, and the spring bud is already formed at the moment of the leaf’s fall.

 Bel Mooney’s essay, Two Trees/Five Senses/A World, is also provoked by paintings of trees: in her case of figs and olives, part of a series painted by Jackson in Kardamili, a small village on the coast of the Mani peninsula in Greece. Mooney owns one of these – a ‘precious painting’ whose origins she seeks out in a meeting with the artist.  She learns that Jackson first visited Kardamili as a 12-year old after his father, inspired by reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s book on the Mani peninsula, drove the family there in an old Land Rover.  In 2005 he returned with his wife Caroline and their three children to live in a small stone hut at the top of the olive groves so that he could ‘paint it properly’.  Terre d’Oliviers, big buzzy flies and hot happy grasshoppers within the shade of this olive tree (below), painted on his duvet cover, was one result.

Speaking of the layers of meaning in these paintings, Mooney writes:

    However,there are always deeper issues at stake as each painting is made. Past and present lead all of us inexorably towards a future we have to contemplate, even as the present minutes pass. With the wider dimension in mind, the olive tree in my own painting is transformed into a significant emblem. Jackson loves places that are passed on through generations, where people work the land as their forefathers did. That is how it would have been in England once: the sweetness of apple orchards nurtured organically, sustaining generations. But that is no longer the way of life, except in areas as remote as Jackson’s adopted Cornish home. So the olive groves of Kardamili represent an ancient transaction between humans,culture and the land.There has been a settlement in this region since the ancient time of Homer, and the olive – symbol of peace, wisdom, plenty and a  victor’s crown – has supported people with wood, useful foliage and, of course, in Homer’s phrase ‘liquid gold’ for food and light. Some olive trees are thought to be more than one thousand years old and fossilised leaves are about fifty thousand years old. For eons, Olea europaea has sustained the daily life and customs of peoples of the Mediterranean.

Having written just a few days ago about a film in which Jewish settlers set fire to ancient olive trees belonging to Palestinian villagers, I was struck by Bel Mooney’s next words:

    What’s more,the olive tree is a basic element in maintaining the stability of a whole eco-system. Because it can take eight years before one produces its first crop, dependable cultivation needs an unchanging environment, which in turn requires political and economic security. This can be seen in the correspondence of the historical decline of the empires of Greece and Rome to the destruction of olive orchards. Since 2000, more than half a million olive trees have been destroyed by Israeli bulldozers – an act of destruction blasphemous to those who revere the ancient symbolism of the olive branch, as well as an ongoing annihilation of Palestinians’ essential livelihood, which depends on the olive tree for fruit, oil and wood. In Homer’s time, courts sentenced people to death if they destroyed one olive tree. Those reduced to helpless despair and rage at the destruction of the rainforests and the corresponding oppression of indigenous tribes might think that an entirely appropriate retribution.

This is an absorbing and revealing collection of essays, lavishly illustrated on good quality paper.  It would satisfy anyone already familiar with the work of Kurt Jackson, but also serves as a useful introduction to his paintings.  If I have two small quibbles it these: there is some repetition in the various essays (that have, I suspect, been gathered together from various original sources), and very often the illustrations don’t match the accompanying text.  Never mind, it’s still a lovely book to have.

Kurt Jackson

Gerry Cordon 2012: First published on That's how the light gets in. Nov 2012)