A Working Holiday in North Wales

A week of holiday; a week of work. For the last 16 years I’ve spent a fortnight over Whitsuntide in a remote part of North Wales. 10 of those years were in the company of my younger children who, when in primary school (4 – 11) enjoyed a fortnight’s half-term, a legacy of the mill and pit ‘waits’ weeks when these industries put in the engineers for annual maintenance and the workers and their families went off the Blackpool or Skegness. My partner, then in a senior university post, had the seasonal delights of examinations and marking and absolutely no time for young Morgans on an extended half-term holiday. So off we went to a place I came to know first as a parent with very small children, and then gradually as a composer on my own seeking a location for some peace and quiet – and inspiration.

Spring Flowers in June


This year, because of the harsh winter , the countryside on Lyn was still in springtime. The hedgerows were full of flowers, May blossom everywhere, even the bluebells had remained. The sun shone and the sea was almost warm enough to swim in (I did once). After a week reality reappeared and Susan, David and Meg were put on a train back home. I was left to ‘get on with some work’.

At the end of Lyn. Photo by David Morgan


There is something rather special about a peninsula location, where the land comes to an end, and for a short area you are aware of sea on both sides. Here in Lyn, it doesn’t quite end, because there is Bardsey Island, the Isle of 20, 000 Saints, one of the great centres of Pilgrimage in mediaeval times. Two pilgrimages to Bardsey were said to be equivalent to one to Jerusalem. I’ve never been to Bardsey. I see it almost every day (or night) from the top of Anelog Mountain, where, a six-mile boat trip from land, it seems so often to be floating in a halo of sun or moon light.

Brenda Chamberlain - The Man Rock


Last week I read a most poetic book about life on this island between 1947 and 1961 when there was still a working community, and not a just a manicured spot for tourists with spiritual inclinations or bird-watching interests. Brenda Chamberlain, whose Tide-Race I have been reading, was a farmer, fisherwoman, poet, writer, but most of all a painter (trained at the Royal Academy Schools). Her book is no comfortable personal recollection, but tells of life in a community of eight families whose tensions, crises, and frequent failings are revealed with a seeming honesty that I have rarely encountered in similar literature. There are similarities with Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Pieces of Land – A journey to eight islands, another book that gives the lie to our coastal islands being romantic havens of the good life. No, it’s mostly very hard work living on an island. Alongside Chamberlain’s book I also found an album of stunning photographs of the island by Peter Hope Jones (Between Sea and Sky) accompanied by fragments of verse by Lyn’s most celebrated poet R.S. Thomas. One poem in particular seems to sing of Bardsey:

Bright Field 


I have seen the sun break through

to illuminate a small field

for a while, and gone my way

and forgotten it. But that was the pearl

of great price, the one field that had

the treasure in it. I realize now

that I must give all that I have

to possess it.


Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after

an imagined past. It is the turning

aside like Moses to the miracle

of the lit bush, to a brightness

that seemed as transitory as your youth

once, but is the eternity that awaits you.


During my second ‘working’ week I spent part of an afternoon in the very church Thomas occupied as an Anglican priest for 20 years. St Hywyn’s is the double-aisled church in Aberdaron where pilgrims spent their last night before embarking to cross the still dangerous waters to Bardsey. Now in the hands of another poet priest Jim Cotter, the church has three fine mixed-media banners designed and executed by the village sewing circle. One is a seasonal picture of the land, the second very much of the sea, the third a banner about pilgrimage and Enlli. These have a direct and rugged quality that befits the simplicity of the church and its location, literally beside the sea wall above the beach. Even on the quietest day there is always the sound of the sea present in this building.

Detail from the St Hywyn's banner The Land


During my holiday week I made a concerted effort to sketch and paint every day. It always surprises me how quickly one gets in the swing of doing this, and each day seems to produce something better and a little more acceptable. I’m at last getting to grips with these Koh-I-noor waterbased dyes by Art Van Go that I was given last year, and which I have been almost scared to use because the colours are just so vivid.

The sea from the cliffs at Porth Iago


I had one day ‘off’, and  it won’t surprise you to find it was to visit a garden. But this garden and its house I have known and loved for many years. Indeed when the weather is even too hot for the mountain I’ve gone there to sit in the shade of the garden – to compose thoughts and music.

The Garden at Plas Yn Rhiw


Rhiw Manor House and garden is a National Trust jewel set high above Hell’s Mouth, Porth Neigwl, a 3-mile long surfers’ lee shore. On a fine day you could be in the Mediterranean looking out of the front bedrooms across the Arts & Crafts garden designed by one of the three Keating sisters who restored the house in the 1930s under the guidance the architect of Porthmeiron, Clough William-Ellis. The house has an enviable veranda and features a long thin wooden bench with carvings and inscription by CWE.

The Veranda bench by Clough William-Ellis


Deep in the garden at Rhiw


This is a garden where the parterre and the ‘room’ has been used ‘of necessity’: to shield plants from the winter storms that can beleaguer this coast. But, as you will discover from my last blog, I’m a novice yet at describing a garden. On my return to Mount Cottage I really struggled to find a way to write about this very special, very compact garden, to my gardening friend. In the end it was the thought that the designer, the eldest sister Honour, had created a garden only she could see entire from her bedroom windows. This unlocked  an idea for a poem, which imagines Honour waking up on a beautiful June morning and drawing back the curtains to view her garden . . . and if that intrigues you gentle reader, it can be downloaded as a PDF  here. The best and most authoritative description of the garden (in the language of gardeners ) has be that by Corrie Price, Rhiw’s full-time gardener, and like the poem, is available as a PDF here.

Mount Cottage at 5.0am


 It would good to say that my working week at Mount Cottage had some connection with textiles, but alas, no. The majority of my time was spent writing a string quartet movement for the Elysian Quartet  and learning a new recital programme on the guitar. I’m playing from September my own 35-minute long concert work Sense of Place in company with music by Bach and Hindemith. Guitarists can only turn pages with difficulty or with an assistant so one really has to learn such pieces. Over the years I’ve developed a way of doing this, but it is excruciatingly hard work. I am best on my own doing this because it requires persistent concentration over at least a week and no disturbance!

Summer in weave from Sense of Place


Sense of Place : Four Seasons for solo guitar is now published, not only as a complete four-movement piece, but in its separate seasons. This is because guitarists on the whole rarely programme long pieces (over 10 minutes) for concerts. As part of my Textiles and Music Interact project I’ve commissioned four mixed-media pieces to provide a frontispiece for each season. These new pieces reflect on four places that I feel have provided a ‘sense of place’ in my own creative life over the past 12 months. If you are a regular reader of this blog you could probably work out where these places are! You can view all four on my website here and also read a recent on-line article about the artist here.

Experimental image for Sense of Place


Phil Legard, the programmer / technologist with the Textile & Music Interact project is currently investigating some exciting visual designs to go alongside my forthcoming performances of Sense of Place, some of which may take place alongside the recent Fifteen Images for solo keyboard. These designs use the striking photographs of Mei Lim. The images  focus on the tapestry work of Jilly Edwards and the location of her exhibition at High Cross House, but seen through the filter of different seasons. Lim’s images will eventually be subject to  animation and time-based transformations controlled by the guitarist.

Locally sourced wools


Weaving? Well I took my Tissanova loom and a small tapestry frame to Wales expecting to spend the long light evenings gently engaged on a few experiments. I didn’t take any yarns with me, determined to find something local in a quick trawl through Pwllheli’s charity shops. I did find two lovely skeins of knitting wool that seemed to carry many of the colours (other than green!) I could see about me. These are just double knitting wools from Thomas Ramsden in Guiseley West Yorkshire! Coals to Newcastle and all that. On my wool-seeking trip I came across a selection of Tourag Berber kilims from the Atlas Mountains (in Pwllheli?!). These were made in silk from the cactus plant and embroidered with very simple but effective patterns. I thought the colour so warm, so glowing.

Cactus silk Killim from the Atlas Mountains


The trouble is with weaving in the cottage is that I only have one table and the thought of clearing it (even to eat) of music, books and a laptop computer seems such a nuisance. If the weather’s good, when I’m not composing or working at the guitar, I just want to be outside walking on the cliffs. When I return in October, and the bad weather sets in for days at a time, I’ll think I’ll be more inclined to get my head down and weave.

Silk textile from India


On my way home from North Wales I did a detour to the former Quaker village of Yealand near Lancaster to the monthly meeting of The Lancs and Lakes Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers. This was to hear my former teacher Laura Rosenzweig  talk about her recent study trip to India. It was a brilliant talk accompanied with the most striking and carefully considered images – not just about textiles but a sensitive panorama of a first experience of India. She’d brought with her to Yealand the contents of the empty suitcase she’d been advised take to India! Wonderful examples of Tibetan and Kasmiri woven pieces from a stay in Dahjeeling, fine silk work from Orissa and Calcutta. Many of the pieces were so finely made that it was difficult to believe they had been handwoven – and the colours! As a result Laura has become seriously interested in weft ikat patterning and in the borders of  woven pieces, often highly decorated with brocade and involving quite complex weave structures. She’d even gone out and acquired a 16 shaft loom to experiment herself! At the end of her faultlessly delivered talk she touchingly admitted that after this rich experience she no longer wanted to think about herself as a just weaver, but as someone whose interests now extended across the whole of textile practice.

a block printed scarf from Rajasthan


Laura says about the scarf shown above ‘It is using an age-old wood block printing technique where a cloth is first blocked with a resist to produce the general pattern and then each individual colour is blocked separately through a several-stage process to reach the finished result.  This particular scarf has about 7 different colours in it, incl. a gold foil block as the last stage.  It has beautiful beaded fringe detail too!’

I’ll end with a musical coda on the anniversary last week of the birth of one of my favourite composers, Robert Schumann. This blog began with memories of my children’s holidays, and for Schumann the world of children, his own and those of others (like Wagner’s daughter), was a whole world of innocent fantasy and make-believe. His celebrated Kinderszenen is like the best of children’s literature – enjoyed by children of all ages. For many years I wanted to compose my own work for children, constraining the technical demands to those found in Carl Neilsen’s Klavermusik for Små og Store, where the spread of each hand sought by the music rarely requires more than the interval of a fifth. But it was a chance encounter with the autobiography of G.K. Chesterton and a commission for the opening of a Children’s Book Centre, that clinched the deal and showed me the way.

from the Schumann-inspired White Light of Wonder


The White Light of Wonder was a collaboration with the artist Dette Allmark and the poet Margaret Morgan. It was developed for the Internet by Phil Legard and remains one composition  I feel really proud to have written. It is alsoone part of a larger sequence of work centred on Schumann called Childhood and Memory.

Just today I’ve been listening to composer Robin Holloway’s radio essay on Schumann. He reckons that the piano music and songs have a wonderfully intimate quality  that personally address player and listener alike. It is not somehow finite and closed as so much music seems to be, but open to composers and performers alike to reinvent for their own time.

While I was in Wales I drafted a short essay about imagination. I tried to think about what it was for me both as a composer and a fledgling textile artist. What is it that makes us imaginative, what fuels that particular fire? I think Schumann knew, and never questioned its providence, where it came from. Like me, he was a late starter, not getting underway as a musician with any intent until his twenties. His imagination was so rich and varied. He was not afraid to inhabit literary characters, invent fantastic scenarios, and express his dreams and desires. He definitely wore his heart on his sleeve. Can’t say I find it easy to do that in the public world of music. I’m too hidebound by convention and expectation, and the requirements of those who commission my work. Given full reign my imagination might be more than my audience could deal with! But there were a few moments last week when, being entirely on my own, I was tempted to think a step or two beyond what normally goes for creative thoughts.


One Response to “A Working Holiday in North Wales”

  1. Shandy Says:

    I really enjoy reading your blog entries: the range of your interests and your capacity to follow up inspirational leads is very persuasive.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: