Transcribing Landscapes: a residential course involving poetry, landscape and photography.

Transcribing Landscapes

20th – 24th June, 2016

Dartington Hall, Dartington, Devon

Fellow OCA student, Catherine Banks, had sent me this information in February because she knew I would find it tempting:

Join us for this residential week as we explore our relationship with landscape with Fiona Benson, Richard Povall and special guest artist – Garry Fabian Miller.  As part of Schumacher College’s Art and Ecology Programme.  Transcribing Landscape is convened by poet Fiona Benson and artist-researcher Richard Povall. Our special guest is the renowned photographic artist Garry Fabian Miller

Given that I had decided in April that I was going to sign up for the Landscape photography module with the OCA, I thought that this opportunity to explore landscape, photography and poetry, although very expensive, could not be missed.     As it turned out, I decided to switch to Digital Imaging and Culture instead, and, although I did seriously toy with the idea of dropping the Dartington residential, I decided to spoil myself & carry on with the course.

So much time has passed since then that the paper I used has gone yellow, the poems I wrote are vaguely familiar, and some of the names of my fellow participants forgotten!

Four days of going away on a residential course, even if it was only 6 miles from home, doing the 3 things that I loved doing the most seemed like a dream / a fantasy time and I felt that the reality could never match that dream.

Day one: 11.30 arrival and what seemed to be an interminable litany of administrative chloroform.  By mid afternoon I had had enough and went to sleep only to wake up 2 hours later, much refreshed, to catch up with the rest of the information.   The peace and tranquility of Dartington and its staff are pretty soporific at the best of times.

Introductions – there are 9 participants, 1 of whom is a man and 2 were from overseas: Canada and USA.

Richard Povall introduces us to mapping.  We then listen to the sounds around us: the windows are open & I am quite close to one so what I hear is mostly what comes to me from outside & this is what I draw:

1st mapping ex IMG_20160828_0001

this was the view from the window of the work room:

Window view 72dpi DSCF7609


We then went on to map reading and locating various improbable sounding places on Dartmoor:

Map reading and locations 72dpi IMG_2466


Followed by writing a line to a story under the name and description of the place,  folding it over and passing it on.  This is a place to which I contributed:

Roll up story 72dpi IMG_2467


Ten pm and we were ready for a sleep.  All the meals we had during the week were exceedingly tasty.

Day 2: What I did not realize was that we had college duties: cleaning the toilets in the Elmhurst Centre; dishwashing; cooking & food preparation!  Today it started: my duty: clean up and wash up after breakfast (there were 3 of us in the group).

The participants presented an example of their current work and a piece by someone else which they liked.  Walter’s photography of his town, presented in tabloid form, was really impressiveI took a collage I had worked on recently:

Concertina concept.
Where buildings and gardens are subjected to precise measurement. An inserted sky is woven in to soften the effects of geometry.


Poetry with Fiona:  poetry linked to place name poems: Dindsenchas / Dinnsean We listened to Seamus Heaney’s Anahorish – it was great particularly the lines:

Anahorish, soft gradient

of consonant , vowel meadow,

How evocative of the landscape are those lines!

We were then asked to write our own poem based on map reading:

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 21.27.52

This was the start of another one which was never finished:

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 21.29.15.png



At some point in the morning we read various poems, particularly  the second extract of Alice Oswald’s ‘Dart’.   We were then asked to envisage a part of our history as a landscape and draw it on a given piece of paper: mine was 2 meters x 50 cm and I could see it was going to be blank for a long time so I left it on the floor.  All I could see in my mind’s eye was a patch of uniformly green grass with nothing on it so I decided I would phone my daughter who was heading for an interview.

Fifteen minutes later, I went back to my sheet to find depressions in it as if people had walked on it (which they hadn’t) and I could see indentations which you find in a landscape so I coloured them in.  We went back in to work room & were asked to write a few words on the sheet of paper in 5 minutes; when we re-gathered we were asked to write a poem about our landscape.   Surprisingly, I really enjoyed this and started my poem on which I would spend a lot of time over the next 3 days.

After lunch we were asked to go out into the gardens where, in pairs, we were to guide one another blindfolded round the borders, up & down steps.  I kept getting dizzy as I was blindfolded & my partner, Paula,  had to steady me between bouts of giggling! We had to then  say something at a particular spot where the acoustics were a special feature.  No knowing what or where that spot was, I burst into song not realizing that the others were sitting not 50cm away from me!  That exercise was a lot of fun in which I got to know & had to trust my partner.  Although I have led such an exercise, I have never done it myself.

Later on were given a place  in the landscape which we had to explore and find a story.  We then had to tell the story in some way. My partner, Sonia Overall, and I decided that we would present a conversation between the 12 Apostles (Irish Yew trees) and the massive Sweet Chestnut trees across the yard from the Yews: we presented the Yews as subjugated, conforming characters who accepted the new order of life on the estate,  while the sweet chestnuts were the domineering, stifling bully boys of the sketch which was very well received.

On the programme we had: “Overnight ‘sit’ by the River Dart, probably starting around 11pm and going through to breakfast with artist/naturalist Tony Whitehead.”   I love such sorties & was really looking forward to it.  Rain was forecast so there was the danger of cancellation.  At 11pm we heard that we would go down and four participants braved it.  We went down to the river through a forest where we wwere encouraged to be absolutely quiet & we had all the birds and animal noises identified.  We were absolutely quiet &, under the moonlight, I could see cows in the field.  I told my partner Anne from Canada that there were cows & she asked if they were dangerous.  No wanting to frighten her I told her that they were curious animals but only in the day time!  They came towards us and we had a quiet chat with them & then went on our way to our place on the river bank.  I had set up my camera before I left the residence so I knew I just had to press the silent shutter every now & then.  Would it work? No! I didn’t realize then that 2 days later the camera would have to be sent away to be repaired – I still don’t know what went wrong with it.  In our silence, we could see ducks drifting up & down the river; we heard a loud plop as an otter jumped in & then he too swam up & down, as curious about us as we were of him & his tiny green eyes.  Just before 1 am we heard the rain coming up the river & that’s when we packed up and high-tailed it back to the residences.

The next morning we were telling the others about our nocturnal excursion & we heard all sorts of excuses for their non-appearance.

This day was going to be a highlight for me because we were going to spend the day with a camera-less photographer:

‘Garry Fabian Miller is one of the most progressive figures in fine art photography. Born in 1957, he has made exclusively ‘camera-less’ photographs since the mid 1980s. He works in the darkroom, shining light through coloured glass vessels and over cut-paper shapes to create forms that record directly onto photographic paper. These rudimentary methods recall the earliest days of photography, when the effects of light on sensitised paper seemed magical.’ – Martin Barnes (Curator of Photography at the V&A)

We started by walking to Wistman’s Wood & spending all morning there talking about it, taking photos and ‘experiencing’ it.  I had always gone through it but never sat looking down on it so that is what I did & took some shots of what I found interesting there.

Wet grass 72dpi DSCF7670


Whistman's wood 72dpi DSCF7640

Wistmans wood dew on webs on sheep's wool

We then went to Garry’s house & studio.  We were to take off our shoes before going into a white cube following Garry reverently and sat on benches where, for the next hour, we listened to Garry’s journey to the white cube.  He sat on a white chair between two of his ‘photos’ and where he was very much part of the exhibit.  We were blinded by the white which could not be dimmed and Garry could put on his straw hat to shield his eyes a little from the intense glare from this mid-summer sun.   The squinting faces show how painful the experience was.  I asked him if this studio was his plinth & we were all sitting in it.

Blinded and work 72dpi DSCF7684

Blinded Disciples listening 72dpi DSCF7687

Inside the plinth

Garry talking about his work. 72dpi

Garry & his photos 72dpi DSCF7696


After the introduction we went into the dark room to see how Garry produces his work which was fascinating.  His work is printed on some special paper which is no longer manufactured so he is nearing the end of his production in his current system.  Apparently his entire darkroom is being moved to the V & A when he has ended his working days, to be a museum to his work.

Day 4 was dedicated to poetry map exercises and tutorials on the work we were to present on Friday.

The best part of the day for me happened accidentally.  I had been working with Richard on putting my video clip & poem together which took far longer than anticipated; we went to join the others for a leaving party at the pub.  There one of the participants, Fiona Candy, started working on her work for the next day. Seeing that she had to be in 2 places simultaneously: operating the light source & photographing the effect.  I offered to help because I had my camera with me & we started working at 11.30pm going right through to 2.30am.  What struck us both was how easily we worked together & how energized we were to get our images.   We seemed to spark off one another  as easily as if we had known each other for years – which we obviously didn’t.   We had a terrific amount of fun & got some terrific images which Fiona used to present her project on oak trees.  The others were quite taken both by the super project and by our collaboration.

Fiona’s work can be seen here:;; and tp://

The images which I like the most are the following:

Garden lights 72dpi DSCF7707

Setting up under the huge oak tree in the gardens outside the Great Hall, Dartington

Dressing the oak 72dpi DSCF7746

Dressing the oak!

Changing the dress 72dpi DSCF7749

Changing the slide to textile image.

Portrait 72dpiDSCF7767

Changing the slide to portrait images taken from 1940s calendar shots;

Portrait 2 72dpi DSCF7770

Upright 72dpiDSCF7780

I was fascinated by Paula’s line drawings inspired by the landscape and elements in it, framed by circles inspired by Garry’s photography.

The project I presented on the last day consisted of 3 elements: two short, fused video clips  of grass seeds about to be released from a grass seed head which reflected a performance by Karen Christopher on Tuesday; the long map I had drawn also on Tuesday to illustrate my poem, and my poem which was read by Karen because I knew she would have read it better than I could have.

The grass seed heads (this is a screen shot of the video clip which also has birdsong which seems to have choreographed the seed dance):

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 20.42.19.png

Before the seeds dispersed.


After the seeds had gone.

My poem:

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 21.05.22.png

I have asked a friend, Julia Rich, who is skilled in putting AVs together, to combine my poem, videos and reading on to 1 AV.  It can be seen and heard Grass seeds disperse poem..

Reflections on the week:

What could have been better:

The photography content was rather disappointing because the setting was uncomfortable in the extreme.   I was fascinated seeing Garry’s work but it would have been good to try some of his techniques in his dark room since there aren’t many about these days.  Whereas I have applied my awakened poetry skills since my time in Dartington, the photography element of the week has not informed my practice at all so far.

What went well:

1. The poetry: I thought Fiona Benson’s skills as a facilitator in a poetry writing context are unparalleled.  She combines superbly varied knowledge of her field and craft, enthusiasm and encouragement which enable those in her group to make the most of their poetry writing skills.  This part of the week surpassed any expectations I had of it.  I had bought one of Fiona’s poetry books before I attended the programme and, to be quite frank, had not engaged with her poetry possibly because it was about motherhood and it was not a subject which is close to my being.

2. Working with Fiona Candy, who was a complete stranger, was energizing, fulfilling and much more creative than I had ever experienced in collaborations.  I had not anticipated working with others at all.

3. Working with Sonia and Fiona was very rewarding in different ways and I had not anticipated such a positive outcome.

4. I really appreciated the performance elements of the week by Briana and Karen which again, I had not anticipated seeing.

5. I appreciated the kindness, welcome and hospitality of the reception and academic team from Schumacher College – they could not do enough for us. Richard Povall put a great programme together.


6 thoughts on “Transcribing Landscapes: a residential course involving poetry, landscape and photography.”

  1. Oh – I wish I could have been there. It sounds so immersive and inspiring and I was imagining it all as I read your post. I’ve been thinking about it in another way as well – we’ve talked before about collaboration and here you seem to have formed an interaction/collaboration between different aspects of yourself and integrating them.
    Purely coincidentally I usually envisage my own history as a series of landscapes; spaces and places in my memory and am hoping to do something with this for my next assignment.
    I’m so pleased you gained such a lot from the workshop/


    1. You would have loved it Catherine, and that seems particularly apparent from this response of yours. I have always wanted to do one of these cross-discipline activities but the opportunity never came up. I organised quite a few at school but always for others. The combination of the 3 disciplines here were perfect for me – just what I enjoy; the photography aspect will take some time to simmer down and become relevant in my practice in some way, I think.


  2. I am a little late reading all of these posts Anna but thoroughly enjoying them. This sounds as though it would have been the perfect week for me too. I too have facilitated in these sort of workshops but have never been on the receiving end. I think one of the bits I would have enjoyed most would have been sitting by the Dart in the middle of the night, shame about the the rain and your camera. I really enjoyed your final poem.


  3. Sitting by the Dart was indeed magical – seeing the otter’s eyes watching us was particularly so. I am taking a group of photography friends on 16th September which is the next full moon down there again & see if my camera will work this time! I’m glad you are enjoying the read.


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