Sunday 18 January 2015

'And far away a mountain zone ...'

"And far away a mountain zone,
A cold white waste of snow-drifts lies"
Speak of the North, Charlotte Bronte

The new year's first encounter with a snowscape, and its the exceptional array of colour that fixes in the memory: the white and grey shades of the snow and sky a counterpoint to the tawny russet and sodden green of the hillsides. The winter sun seems to bring urgency to its brief displays and, filtered through cirrus and mist, its light pulls the life up out of a landscape that could otherwise appear drab and dormant at this time of year. 

Here in the Black Mountains the snow line is above about 300 metres; thick, dominant and drifting on the tops and slopes facing north and west into the weather front, more fleeting and peripheral on more sheltered ground. Long views become visions of coalescence: if not exactly the Antarctic vastness of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, there is the same "tendency of snowy earth and sky to merge into one mystical opalescent void with no visible horizon to mark the junction of the two".   

Up on the Pen Allt Mawr ridge, in Edward Thomas' 'great silence of snow', the whiteness is satisfyingly deep and proper; every footstep crunching in line with our childlike expectation of how snow should be, innocent of slush and dirt and imminent waning.

One of the many joys of a landscape visited by snow is the shape-shifting quality it can bring to familiar features.

The stone of a usually welcoming summit shelter, now a threatening ice-bound realm.  

A fallen tree cloaked in snow, with strangely human lines; from the mind of Andy Goldsworthy.

A trig point looming out of the cloud becomes a thing of ghostly sentinel reassurance amidst the enveloping whiteness.
Though walking in wintry conditions requires care and knowledge, in the words of R.S. Thomas snow feels no pity, it can also be a welcoming host; on heather uplands the thin dotted green or black path lines on the map become gleaming white high ways on the ground, illuminating the route ahead. This snowy benevolence enhanced by the boot tracks that give confidence of the right path taken (assuming a lost soul is not being followed). On this occasion the hard stamped marks of a fell runner anticipated my route, the same circuit completed in reverse.


And, in this far away mountain zone, how does it feel? It feels like I don't ever want to come down.

Tuesday 13 January 2015

Sharron Kraus - Pilgrim Chants & Pastoral Trails

Cold and damp January days require an appropriately melancholic soundtrack and I've recently been enjoying Pilgrim Chants & Pastoral Trails by a new find, Sharron Kraus. Sparse and, dare I say, ethereal, the album is inspired by the landscape of the Elan Valley in Mid-Wales, a place to which Kraus regularly returns and feels a longing for whenever she is away: hence the naming of the first track, Hiraeth, the beautiful Welsh word for the call of the land. Of recording the album in the valley, Kraus states that "I feel like I've travelled back in time - into my own memories and into the past - or into a land of faery". The titles of the other tracks, some including field recordings of birds, streams, waterfalls, wind and rain, continue this sense of place and memory:

Cadair Idris
Candlemas Moon
Winding Road
Dark Pool
Y Fari Lwyd

According to Kraus' web site, "As well as drawing on the folk traditions of England and Appalachia, her music is influenced by gothic literature, surrealism, myth and magick". Alongside another current folk favourite similarly inspired by the landscape and folklore of rural, upland Wales, Tincian by 9Bach, this sounds good to me. I look forward to discovering more of these sounds - of dulcimer, drone, recorder and harp - with echoes of the American psych-folk of the likes of Espers and Richard Skelton's and Autumn Richardson's landscape-inspired music, words and imagery.