Observatory Resident Artist at Mottisfont
The River Keeper
'The Poacher' and 'The River Test Gets a Haircut' are poems from The River Keeper, a sequence written in response to my time as poet-in-residence at Mottisfont (July-August 2016). 'The Poacher' was published in Under The Radar Issue 21 (2018).
Even if you haven’t seen the River Keeper,
I can assure you he’s seen you, half-vaulting
half-falling over the estate fence, has tracked
the rip and drag of your bike through long grass,
the detonations of your foot-falls rippling down-
stream; has scented your last-orders breath
and noted tell-tale patches of trampled fringe.
It will seem to you that casting bait conjures
the River Keeper from ranunculus and sedge,
looming over your shoulder; and as you plunge
and slip along the bank, head down gasping
for breath, you will wonder if he watched you
shirtless with your mate’s girlfriend last Saturday
along the river’s edge – and what happened next.
THE RIVER TEST GETS A HAIRCUT
Below Timsbury Bridge, shorn green
river-mane is hauled from the water
like moulting tresses from a plug-hole.
Upstream, the River Keeper
scythes parsnip, mare’s tail
and mesmeric undulating ribbon weed.
Matted clumps and loose strands
drift in margins, clasp low branches,
clog buttresses, whirl and roll
past afternoon dog-walkers,
sun-daft ducks and damselflies
and a small girl who will swear
she saw a maiden floating there
with Water Crowfoot in her hair.
Early in my residency, I discovered that Neil Swift is the only River Keeper employed by the National Trust. His role includes maintaining and managing four beats of prime chalk stream fly fishing on the River Test. The river has shaped the estate through the centuries and my research focused on the flow of water around and through Mottisfont. Neil was extremely generous, sharing his in-depth knowledge of the River Test and allowing me to access the fishing beats and observe him cutting aquatic weed using a traditional hand-held scythe. This led to the creation of a short poem-film, 'The River Keeper', which includes recordings of the traditional 'Weed Cut'.
During my time in The Observatory, I also made several notebooks and 'information repositories' to collect observations, sketches and ideas for poems, which I have digitised. The residency gave me precious time to reflect on my writing practice, immerse myself in a place that was entirely new to me and spend time researching and developing ideas for new material.
Poetry Map and interactions
Engaging with visitors, staff and volunteers was an important part of my residency. Many of these conversations and interactions led to content for a poetry map of Mottisfont. I'm interested in how we connect personal memories and emotions with physical landmarks and was fascinated by the range of responses from participants when I asked them to write or describe a memory or favorite place connected to Mottisfont. The resulting words were edited into poem-nuggets for the map. The garden and grounds of the estate were the main source of inspiration.
A few examples:
Footpath from Dunbridge
We take the train in summer,
walk the footpath from Dunbridge
through a field of barley;
the smell rises under our trailing hands –
sweet, nutty, floury and ripe,
golden in the heat of the sun.
All Mine (Main Entrance)
Stop to look
across the always-changing hills
on a frosty morning in winter –
well, you have to do that!
The crunch and slide of gravel
walking down the main drive
before visitors arrive,
pretending it’s all mine –
well, you have to do that!
The Lime Walk
In March, a carpet
of blue flowers
under the pleached Lime trees;
spring’s secret shared.
Weeding Warning (Walled Garden)
Eryngium, Miss Willmott’s Ghost
and Argemone Grandiflora – thorny
perennials that bite the bottoms
of unwary gardeners when weeding.
Towards the end of my residency, I organised a drop-in family book-making workshop at The Observatory. Visitors enjoyed creating mini-books to collect their own 'Mottisfont Memories'. My time on-site at Mottisfont concluded with a public poetry reading in the Beech Circle.
I absolutely loved my residency at Mottisfont and learned a lot along the way, including techniques for writing in a busy environment and the importance of finding a focus (e.g. the flow of water around the estate) when engaging with a site so rich in possibilities. Narrowing the scope of my research further to consider the activities of the River Keeper led to the production of a sequence of poems. The experience was not without its challenges, but accessing such an innovative and exciting space as The Observatory and having time to reflect on my writing has definitely helped me to move my practice forward.
Special thanks must be given to my co-writers – the visitors, volunteers and staff for your generosity during my residency, including visiting The Observatory for a chat, sharing your knowledge and love of Mottisfont, showing me around the site, and contributing to the Mottisfont Poetry Map.
Staff and Volunteers:
Alison, Bill, Bobby, Brenda, Chris, Dorothy, Doug, Gail, Howard, Jane, Jessica, Jim, Jolif, Kat, Kate, Liz, Louise, Margaret, Matt, Mike, Neil, Pat, Roger, Ron, Sandy, Sophie, Steve, Sue, and Victoria.
Visitors/Participants (in order of meeting):
David and Clare, Grace, Chloe, Sarah and family, Fiona and Steph, Karen, Sue, Jane and Andy, Tony and Ann, Mary and Sue, Kay and Ken, Julie and family, Nola and Harry, Lisa, Trimmi and Maureen, Kingsley, Louise and Darcy, Polly, Alice and Emily, Alice, Miles, Liz and Graham, Eleanor and Derek, Barbara, Helen and Bob, Suzanne, Jenny and Kay, Man living near the M6 motorway, Lisa, Guy, Lottie and Emma, Katrina, Amelia, Michael, Liz, Bella, Ariana, Oliver, John and Rosalyn, Mike and Pat, Sue, Sarah, Matt, Louis, Joshua, M. Simms, Joy, Ruby, The Masoeros family, Marjolein van der Kemp and family, plus all participants in the book-making workshop.
Extra special thanks to Bethan and to Catherine and her lovely family for being such wonderful hosts. I really didn't want to leave! Thanks to Phil and Mark for making it all possible.