While I have admiration for the psychogeographic urbanism of Laura Oldfield Ford; her reflection on edge-places and the built environment in decline, I have to admit that I am a country-dweller; that most unfashionable sub-species - a villager! Although I love the excitement of the city, taking a flaneur's perambulation around Southwark, or sharing a few pints of Pride in the pub, the natural environment excites me more. Not that our countryside is really 'natural', admittedly, since we have a man-made/managed and farmed environment in almost all parts of England. Even so it has its own edge-places and habitats in decline. Farming and its impact on the landscape is an interesting area for political and social investigation. Naturally conservative and reactionary, the lifestyle and issues of the farming and countryside communities appear to be outside the scope of contemporary art. Is this really the case and if so, why is this? The idea of 'rural idyll' is an Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century delusion. Life in the country was always hard and bitter for the majority, riven as it is with inequality and injustice in the distribution of resources. Nonetheless, a sense of well-being and tranquility it to be found by pulling-on walking boots, taking a pair of binoculars and watching a winter-flock of finches feeding on a stubble field - or up on The Berkshire Downs, seeing an over-wintering Short-eared Owl scudding along the grassy tops of The Ridgeway.
And so it was that I found the opportunity this morning to get out from my studio and onto the Winnall Moors wildlife reserve, on the western edge of the South Downs National Park. A small area of reedbeds and wet woodland beside the River Itchen, I see Winnall Moors daily just outside my studio window and on a clear, bright morning such as today's, it calls to me.
With diffused sunlight shining through the bare branches of the willows and alders, the habitat required nothing of me other than to be left as I found it.
It was very cold out, just above freezing, and I sketched with un-gloved fingers for as long as I could bear it. A Long-tailed Tit flitted across the tree-line and, as expected, was soon followed by seven or eight of its friends and family.
The 'stuck-pig squeal' of a Water Rail pierced the reed bed; and on artificial board-walks, chicken-wired to avoid slips (and insurance claims), a lone jogger puffed past, exhaling rhythmically, in time with his iPod.
Across the Itchen, people were at work on the Winnall Trading Estate, Lesser Black-backed Gulls perched in their rooftops.
Leaving the wildlife reserve at the northern end, my route crossed the footbridge to the playing fields, where dog-walkers were emptying their pets. Beyond the rugby pitches, the St Swithun's Way leads north beside a stream towards 'The Worthys' and Itchen Abbass. This is the first stage of the ancient pilgimage route from Winchester to Canterbury; a walk I completed last spring (see my book here!)
In the summer this stream is a good place to see Water Voles doggy-paddling across the water, their round noses poking up for air. They were probably cosy and asleep in their burrows this morning. Two Chiffchaffs were flitting silently among branches at the water's edge. Normally thought of as a herald of spring,with their slap-dash, chiff-chaff song, these neat little birds are now wintering in Britain in increasing numbers.
Further along the path, the scene opens out to the right across the wetland and grazing land of the reserve.
Two Little Egrets were fishing the streams across the northern end of Winnall Moors, and a flock of Lapwing jumbled across the sky. The path reached farmland on the left, where a hedgerow was filled with brilliantly-coloured Yellowhammers, reflecting the sunshine. By this time my body indicated it was time to return to civilisation (or at least a lavatory) and so I turned and made my way back towards the studio. I had seen only 34 bird species (obvious absences including Reed Bunting, Starling and House Sparrow) but it had been an ideal morning for being outdoors with sketchpad and binoculars.