Residency 2: Lymington Salt Marshes 12th.- 16th. August 2015
The Lymington Salt Marshes were, in some ways at least, what I expected to see in a low-lying coastal hinterland that was a cross between natural salt marsh and a managed, drained coastal wetland. This was an entirely man-made landscape – in fact, a post-industrial hinterland between the Solent and New Forest, glorious in former times for its salt production through the evaporation of seawater. It is what remains of these industrial workings that gives this landscape its distinctive feel, structure and ambience.
The area itself is bounded between the Solent and across from that, the Isle of White, and to the north, a little inland, the rising contour of the New Forest.
The Observatory buildings were situated on the sea wall about five minutes from the nearest road access at Eight Acre Pond, a spectacular position affording 360º views across the area. The sea wall is regularly walked and part of the Solent Way; additionally, Lymington is a holiday destination for many resulting in a huge footfall from passers by around the Observatory buildings exploring these much-loved walks. I had just arrived on site, unpacking and settling in and found myself immediately inundated with passers by investigating the buildings, looking in and wanting to talk. I’ve never experienced such an instantaneous level of engagement from the public in an arts project. Naturally, the Observatory structures were a new and notable addition to this otherwise flat landscape due to their scale and their position directly to one side of the coastal path. They were not easy to overlook. I spent the first 40 minutes in the Observatory talking to passers by who were interested in who I was, what I was doing there and what the project was about. I must have spoken to about 20 different people in that short time!
This was all very well and good but I really wanted to explore and get a feel for the general area: talking to people wasn’t going to achieve that. I was also mindful that the weather report for the next few days was for torrential rain and thunderstorms and I only had five days to complete my research for the work that was to come. My first day on-site was sunny so I needed to get out and make the most of it.
Mark Drury of SPUD told me about a little private beach on the Solent that was about 10 minutes walk from the Observatory buildings so I headed for that, walking across the salt marshes to reach it.
I liked this little beach – it was unusual inasmuch as it was formed in a man-made curvature of the coastal defences in the sea wall where, over time, shingle and shells had built up to colonise the curve. The rest of this coastline was either seawall with a 30º incline towards the sea or slat marsh, mud or shingle – but none of it particularly suitable to just sit on in the traditional beach fashion. Additionally, the indentation in the sea wall had caused a few shingle banks to form just slightly offshore from the beach itself that encouraged the most hypnotic dance of cross-currents and tidal eddies that were always in motion at the various states of the tide. The surges of water driven through the narrow channel of the Solent with each rise and fall of the tide were fast and powerful making the little beach feel very static in comparison.
Onwards I ventured to the endpoint of my walk today – to the small harbour-like inlet of Keyhaven – pretty, sheltered and full of yachts – and visitors, it made a natural barrier to end the salt marshes, snuggling as it does under the huge shingle arm of Hurst Spit – gatekeeper to the west Solent. The distance between the Observatory buildings and Keyhaven along the coast path was about 3.5 – 4 miles. This walk took in virtually the entire length of the slat marsh area and was a great introduction to the overall structure and fee of the place. I walked back to the Observatory from Keyhaven along a different route to understand the salt marshes from a different perspective.
Upon arriving back and opening up the studio Observatory I was again inundated with people so spent the best part of an hour talking to passers by. It was great to have so may people interested in what was going on and I could have talked non-stop for some considerable time, but, I needed to some head space to digest and reflect upon what I had seen today and how this would influence my approach to future site-specific work based on these experiences.
I headed of for the little beach and some quiet time. I also produced a few ‘summation’ sketches that caught the sites and sounds I had experienced in the simplest, fastest way possible.
Day 1 was completed. I headed back ‘commuted’ to Boscombe where my friend Victoria had allowed me to stay in her house while she was away. The journey took an hour and the traffic was always bad. After the walking and the traffic I was exhausted so bought some food, watched TV, edited my photos from the day, posted on social media and went to bed.
As predicted, day two was wet – very wet. Mercifully the alarmist forecasts for rampant thunderstorms were not fulfilled. I heard only two distant rumbles. That was it. I was relieved; I had misgivings about being hauled up in the largest, tallest structure around in a radius of about half a mile of a very flat and exposed landscape, sporting a small metal chimney and standing on a very large metal base, in a biblical thunderstorm. So I mostly sat inside with the door open, looking out and listening to the sounds of rain falling on the sea, falling on the building and falling onto the ground and the salt marsh lakes; all rather beautiful and delicate. Visitor numbers were understandably down so I was mainly alone apart from the occasional ardent and suitably attired dog-walker who stopped by. The open Observatory building was used very much as a rain shelter by walkers and provided some very welcome protection.
The rain eased off later in the afternoon. I felt a little cabin feverish having been in the Observatory for some hours so ventured to the little beach once again and sat there, cogitated further and sketched a little.
Day 2 was complete. The softness that descended on the landscape through the rain and low cloud muffled sounds, created strange and distant echo’s for seabird-cries and passing ships and made the salt marshes feel contained, close and claustrophobic; a haunting and private world very different from my bright and breezy arrival.
Torrential rain all night in Boscombe; I thought I was in for a very wet day with little opportunity for exploring. Mercifully, by the time I arrived in Lymington at the Observatory buildings the rain had virtually stopped. It was touch and go whether the dry phase would hold or not but I decided to take a chance and walk out to Hurst Castle, across the 1.5 mile gravel spit that runs between Keyhaven and Milford-on-sea out into the Solent and toward the Isle of Wight. I drove to Keyhaven and walked from there to the castle with my trusty cagoule and compact umbrella, just in case I got caught in a downpour. As it happened, the weather remained dry throughout.
The walking was arduous as only walking on gravel can be. The journey from one end of the spit to the other seemed endless and although my legs were working well I seemed to be walking forwards but going nowhere. The views from the spit were good as it was well elevated above the Keyhaven marshes and the Solent. On my right [on the walk out] I could see the rampant, unrelenting, soulless and hideous development along the south coast stretching from Milford-on-Sea away towards Highcliffe and Bournemouth with cliff-top building dating from the 40s, 50s, and 60s to recent times and on my left, the complex interplay of slat marshes, sea walls and New Forest hinterland beyond – heavily populated with yachts and small boating craft but largely devoid of significant building development. The contrast between the two couldn’t have been more marked. It set a wider context for me to comprehend the salt marshes around Keyhaven and Lymington.
On my way out to Hurst Castle I passed by the yacht park to the west of Keyhaven. Here, the rigging of the many ‘parked’ vessels was rattling, banging, tinkling and generally thrashing about in the breeze making the most wonderful sounds – really musical sounds with varied pitches, multi-layered rhythms, whistlings and hums all rather like the composer Ligeti’s mechanisms but without the musical refinement – the sounds were accelerated in speed and pitch according to the wind speed and gust strength. The aural results were quietly symphonic and certainly sparked off [and consolidated] a whole range of ideas that had been in my head about the new string quartet, its structures and sounds. I had already sketched out some structural ideas for composition in day 1 – 3 along with some ideas of contextual sounds but there were gaps in this thinking. The journey past the yacht club here in Keyhaven had filled in the gap!
Hurst Castle was a very interesting structure [I only explored it externally] but I was more drawn to the natural spit it was built upon and the desolate landscape this shingle and sea shaped world had constructed, especially around the lighthouse and lighthouse keepers cottages. It reminded me a little of the beautiful and unique bleakness of the Dungeness beach area of Kent.
Of particular interest was the graffiti I discovered on the lower walls of a few parts of the castle that were scraped into the soft concrete plastering here and there on the west facing walls [the rest of the castle was constructed with a very hard granite, unsuitable for such scratch-writing] and finding these layers of mark-making beautiful to look at and entertaining to read. A bit like a dog pissing on a lamppost, people had obviously felt the need to mark the spot or their time here in this ‘permanent’ way, year upon year creating many layers of comment and memory.
I took a lot of photos of theses surfaces – very inspirational – by not for this project as they were a little outside the experience of the saltmarsh site-specific area I was looking to work within.
I undertook the long walk back to Keyhaven. I then drove into Lymington. By this time the rain had largely returned. I was in Lymington to explore venues for the premiere of both year one string quartets in the early spring of 2016. I settled upon St. Thomas’ Church in Lymington as a good venue. The first string quartet from this Observatory series, ‘ovington down’ is complete – the next quartet based on my experiences on residency here, yet to be conceived and written.
I returned to the Observatory for a few hours – spoke to some passers by and then went to my [I now felt a sense of ownership] little beach for a few sketches and quiet thoughts and to make my video diary. The rain had eased off again pretty much so I went on my first walk east along the sea wall towards Lymington itself [as opposed to west towards Keyhaven]. The salt marshes are not so impressive in this area and the further one walks east from the Observatory buildings the closer one gets to Lymington and civilisation, but I was pleased to have now walked the entire length of the salt marshes and sea wall.
I completed a lot of walking that day despite the weather being so changeable and was ready to face the traffic and drive back to Boscombe to eat, rest and sleep.
The sun came out! The warmth and brightness was a welcome change to the previous few days of gloomy light levels and repressed activity on the salt marshes so I resolved to stay outside as much as possible. I paid my morning visit to the Observatory building, met a range of people who were passing by and had a number of interesting conversations. I then moved to my little beach, as I wanted to think or at least draw some conclusion to a few questions I had been asking myself. As the weather was good I was not alone at the beach but no one knew who I was so I could inhabit my own space whilst being among others.
The questions I wanted to answer were:
What is so different about this particular landscape to the rolling chalk downland around Winchester?
What are the unique and defining forces and structures that combine to give this landscape its identity, function and ambience?
These may seem obvious and easy questions to answer but a true understanding of the differences would lead to a fundamentally different outcome in the work I would produce for Lymington in comparison to Winchester. For me, part of the measure of success for this residency series is to create work that within my comprehension at least, is truly site-specific. The simple questions – the obvious questions and conclusions can often be overlooked by more superficial distractions that while symptomatic of the various residency locations will not address the causation of those distinctions.
I have answered these questions in my day 4 and 5 video diaries, but in short, I realised that the dynamic between the still managed waters of the salt marshes was in direct opposition to the tidal and dynamic movement of the Solent itself and although these waterways were connected by an intricate drainage and water control system, the salt marshes were places of complete stillness and the Solent a place of complete movement – and all of this separated from each other by the merest slither of a sea wall, a membrane that separated two dynamically opposed systems, the co-existence of which is the unique environment of the salt marshes.
And the second question of difference – perhaps more to do with the assimilation of an area is related to the confined nature of the salt marshes [it is a relatively small, defined area between the Solent, Lymington and Keyhaven sea walls and slightly higher ground inland] and the unbounded nature of the chalk downland around Winchester that stretched out across the huge area of the South Downs National Park for many miles. Exploring the salt marshes and acquiring a mental map of their structure was a more readily assimilated task then the same for the chalk uplands of Hampshire. Consequently, my sense of getting to know the salt marsh area formed more quickly than the chalk downland as it was clear where the boundaries of this experience existed.
A warm and sunny day.
I enacted my usual routine of heading to the Observatory, opening up for a while and chatting to people then moving away to my beach for final thoughts and reflection on my time at the Observatory.
The conclusions expressed in Day 4 were really formed across the whole residency period. It’s difficult to surgically excise particular thought processes, conclusions and realisations into a daily dissection and appropriately allocate a time-line to those events. The process is organic and evolutionary. Thoughts, notions and ideas are with one all the time and come to the fore or recess accordingly as experience is acquired to reinforce or make redundant such notions.
The experience of being on residency and the ‘opening up’ that is necessitated to fully absorb the experience means that no preconceptions can be held as sacred and everything is up for grabs. There is an intimacy in this process; a deep communication between self and environment. When it is complete it is time to leave. That time is now.