Michael Smith

Last Friday I found myself in a part of London that may well have passed you by, a neighbourhood whose twists and turns have enchanted me for years, twists and turns I’ve deliberately got lost down, as a wrong turn is generally a right turn in this labyrinthine blind spot between the financial district of the City and the consumer district of the West End – Old Holborn, lawyer’s London, a no-man’s-land where only the shirt and tie types venture, annoyingly rebranded “Midtown”, like it was some amnesiac district in a generic American city rather than one of the most evocative and mysterious parts of this ancient, impossible metropolis.

As The Strand becomes Fleet Street and Westminster becomes The City, there’s an imposing statue of a griffin on the border, that mythical beast that guards treasure-hoards, set in the middle of the medieval street, a statue the gridlocked traffic has to grind round, tucked discreetly between two gigantic office blocks, a tiny one-storey building with statues of a Victorian’s idea of Chinamen lounge beside a Royal crest: Twining’s original shop, a shop the shape of a long corridor, lined with dozens of oil portraits of the various scions of the tea dynasty going back to 1706, when the shop opened. In the little tasting room at the back I tried some 1st flush Darjeeling that smelled of musk and honey, an exquisite tea that was £35 a bag, and that I was almost heartbroken to have to part with.

Fleet Street is one of London’s riches seams, a knot of tight alleys and Dickensian courtyards, just behind the crosstown traffic and the sea of suits. A few doors down, like the wardrobe into Narnia, an antique gateway leads down a windy gothic lane to another world, the original round stone church of the Knights Templar, many of them buried inside, statues of them all laid out with legs crossed like the hanged man from the tarot deck.

Even the big ex-bank-cum-Wetherspoons is called “The Knights Templar” here; much better is the Seven Stars, a rickety old establishment selling “Gastronomic Pub Food,” full of old school, red nosed Rumpole of the Bailey types, presided over by glamourous redhead Ms. Roxy Beaujolais and her cat, or El Vino’s, former haunt of the old Fleet Street hacks, with its tobacco stained walls, its beat-up leather chairs with horse hair hanging out, its ancient dusty bottles of Chateauneuf du Pape behind iron grills.

The jewel in the crown for me though is the John Soane Museum, with its room full of Hogarths, but more so, its myriad mirrors at odd angles and coloured glass skylights conspiring to suggest delirious infinities and the impossible spaces of a cavernous and troubled opium dream, the Egyptian sarcophagus in the basement adding to the sense of being buried alive in this hallucinatory grotto, stuffed to the brim with winged Grecian torsos, medieval gargoyles and grotesque evil spirits carved in antiquity, a real human skull in the middle of a séance table, every available piece of wall space covered in a kind of mania for collecting, a jumbled up phantasmagoria, the fantastical, slightly deranged home of John Soane, a master-mason who designed the original Bank of England.

Next time you’re in a traffic jam between the east and west ends, which is generally the case on a bus in these parts, I suggest you get off, and get lost, in the vague direction you were headed. Odds are you’ll get there nearly as fast, and you’ll stumble on something remarkable on the way. 

Photograph by Ruth L, Flickr

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by TOAST ( 28.11.14 )

Nothing-Impossible12_webCatrina Davies

I met Alice Myers in Scotland on a day when nature was getting the better of us. The sky had cracked open and unleashed a summer’s worth of pent-up rain. The ground beneath our feet was dissolving, sucking us into the sticky earth. I was trying not to feel smug about the fact that all I had to worry about was my notebook getting a bit soggy. Alice had several thousand pounds worth of camera slung around her neck. She kept stopping to remove an excess of water from valuable, vulnerable lenses. I was struck by her quiet professionalism. She seemed, above all, to be listening.

“As a photographer I keep returning to the invisible,” she tells me later, referring to her award-winning work with migrants in Calais, Nothing is Impossible Under the Sun. One photograph in particular draws me in. Two men on a beach are wandering aimlessly in a sea mist behind a couple of traffic cones. “The cones just happened to be there,” says Alice. “I like the way they are almost obscured by the fog and the way the cones divide the space arbitrarily.”

Nothing-Impossible6_webAlice is drawn to borders. Before Calais she spent several months in the hot desert between Mexico and the US. “Thousands cross there, and many die. But you can’t see them, only the marks left on the landscape.”


Alice shows me a grid of nine photographs. Each one is a different path, cut through the desert by invisible feet. I stare at the paths, trying to imagine the people who have walked them. I wonder if borders are like airports – blank canvases against which individual human stories can be lived and told without the significance of the landscape getting in the way. Alice disagrees. For her, borderlands have “masses of overarching, overlapping cultural significance, because their ownership has shifted backwards and forwards.” I look at these scratches in the sand and huddles of empty plastic milk bottles and feel as if the ground beneath my feet is tilting.

Plastic-Bottles_webRefugees have to tell good stories. “A complete and satisfying narrative is required to justify their presence in Europe,” Alice explains. It strikes me that a good story is something we increasingly require from our landscapes, in order for them to justify their value in the face of economic pressures. But it strikes me also that the stories we tell ourselves about nature are as fractured and unreliable as the stories Alice tells with her photographs and the stories migrants tell the authorities.




Alice shows me some photographs from her time at the Sruth Fada Conn estuary, Co. Mayo, Ireland. Since 2002 there has been strong resistance to the installation of a gas pipeline underneath the estuary. The photographs are bleak, raw. The project is called The Sky is Down on the Ground. Alice describes “shadows of clouds that swipe over you like being hit by a train”.




Looking at these photographs, which are of big skies and empty, boggy grasslands, I make a final grab for solid ground. I venture that art, particularly photography, might be one way that landscapes get to tell their real stories. The stories that have not been processed by (often competing) human desire for meaning. No such luck. “Art just tells yet another story, even less reliable than all the others,” says Alice.


All photos by Alice Myers. Alice studied photography at Edinburgh College of Art and London College of Communication. In 2008 she won the Jerwood Award and received a development grant from Arts Trust Scotland. She was subsequently published in Guardian Weekend Magazine and Portfolio Magazine. ‘Nothing is Impossible Under the Sun’ is a book combining drawings, writing and photographs representing migrants trying to cross the border between France and the United Kingdom. It was shortlisted for a MACK first book award 2014. www.alicemyers.net

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by TOAST ( 26.11.14 )


Andie Cusick

The literal translation of ‘Fair Isle’ is ‘island of tranquillity’ from the Norse form Friðarey, meaning ‘calm’ or ‘tranquil’. Considering its remote locale (the northern most inhabited island in the UK), and its population density of just nine people per square kilometre, making a total population just shy of 70 in permanent residence on the island, Fair Isle certainly lives up to its name. A plentiful supply of wool from Fair Isle’s resident sheep ensures that knitting is a usable skill. Sadly, it’s a declining local craft. Yet demand for this very specific style of knitwear remains high.

In recent years, the term ‘fair isle knit’ has become popular – used generically to describe the stranded knitting technique, featuring bands of horizontal colours in geometric patterns. Traditionally, the style features limited, muted colours used with only two variations per row. Perhaps confusingly, it’s often assumed to be Nordic or Icelandic (aided – yet not to be confused by – Sarah Lund wearing her now infamous star knit jumper from the Danish show, The Killing). It does in fact originate from Fair Isle itself, which sits halfway between mainland Shetland and the Orkney Islands and is most widely known for both knitwear and a bird observatory.

Fair Isle resident and well-known knitwear designer Kathy Coull operates a small textile business creating hand and mill spun yarns where she offers handspinning workshops to visitors. A leading expert in authentic Fair Isle knitwear, Coull says people visit Shetland and Fair Isle “because of the heritage, hands-on opportunities with textiles, sustainability interest and unique harmony between fabric, environment and community”. For Coull, an authentic Fair Isle design must be made on the island using wool from pure-bred Shetland sheep raised in the unspoiled conditions of the isle. Other important factors include, “The traditional bands of patterns used on fair isle – each band is different but balanced over the work, and symmetrical in horizontal repeat motifs.” Hand-clipping or ‘rooing’ (plucking) the sheep’s fleece is a skill Coull invests time in to achieve a high-quality yarn for spinning. “This method avoids double-cuts, which happen more with electric shears and give lots of short fibres in the wool affecting the strength,” adds Coull. Colour, too, must be natural, using traditional dyes –“red from madder, blue from indigo and golden yellow from local plants”.

Authentic Fair Isle garments are distinctive and luxurious, qualities that a sensitive replica should seek to emulate. Hand-spun or not, modern or traditional, Fair Isle knits should be pure wool, chunky and slightly oversized. Perhaps most importantly, a Fair Isle knit should reflect on the wearer a good sense of humour.

Click here for our range of Fair Isle inspired sweaters and socks, including the sweater shown above.

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by TOAST ( 21.11.14 )

Taltsy 5

Sara Wheeler

An oval portrait of Tsar Alexander III hung uncertainly on one of the larch-log walls of the schoolroom. Wintery sun sliced onto an abacus, a row of low smooth desks, and a blackboard inscribed with looped Cyrillic script. The silence of the Siberian forest seemed to have penetrated the room. How many decades since a child’s voice had spoken there?

I was three quarters of the way across Russia, and that morning had stepped off train 080 at Irkutsk, the commercial centre of eastern Siberia. From there I planned to make my way by car down to the northern shore of the fabled Lake Baikal.

The highway was arrow-straight. The Soviets built it in 1961 for the Eisenhower-Khrushchev summit: a combination of poor soil, permafrost and seismic activity added up to a major engineering challenge – and then the summit never happened, because of the Gary Powers downed spy-plane episode. The taiga flanking the tarmac was dense with Siberian pine, cedar, larch, birch and aspen. I didn’t see a bear, but an arc of willow ptarmigan streaked across the sky, a Naples-yellow moon still gleaming at ten in the morning.

Thirty miles from Irkutsk, at a break in the trees, an arched iron sign announced the Taltsy Museum. There are five open-air museums in Russia, but I wondered, looking out at a scattering of wooden homes, a golden dome and a cluster of verdigris cupolas, if any of the others spoke so clearly of their time, of the loneliness of the taiga, and of the peace those regional heartlands so many thousands of miles from Moscow.

It was gratifying to see Russians doing something well. In the sixties and seventies, the authorities of the Irkutskaya oblast (the latter a geographical division similar to an American state or a Canadian province) dismantled remaining examples of traditional architecture in outlying districts and reassembled them here. Many were the homes of indigenous peoples – notably Buryat – and some were the work of European Russians who erected ostrogs (forts) like a necklace when they penetrated Siberia in the seventeenth century in pursuit of furs.

The temperature hovered at a spritely minus 20 – not cold for those parts – and fragments of ice and snow skittered through the air. My boots crunched over deep untrodden snow , a sound too vulgar for the pure silence of Taltsy. The first building I entered, pushing open a heavy door rimed with hoarfrost, was a small domestic dwelling with two sleeping platforms above a stove the size of a wardrobe. Opposite, in the kitchen area, birch-bark spoons hung from a rough-hewn pole.

The Buryat, the largest ethnic group in Russia (there are more than 500 tribal groups in Siberia with 120 languages between them) flourished in the region for centuries. They grew flax, as Taltsy looms indicated, cultivated wheat cooperatively, farmed cows and herded reindeer, often camping out in their yurt-like gers, several of which were on display. Today Buryat make up 10 per cent of the Greater Irkutsk population. They still breed cattle, but are integrated, or at least more integrated than many ethnic groups, some of whom have fared very poorly in modern Russia. Every morning over the next week I heard half an hour of news on the radio in the Buryat language.

In 1647 a ragged band of freebooting Cossacks erected a fort on a bank of the Angara River. One of the first Russian settlements east of the Urals, the fort lives on at Taltsy. Its Kazanskaya chapel has a gilded cupola shaped like a segment of a puckered tube. When I ran my fingers over the larch walls beneath the dome, I noted that the Cossacks had built them without nails.

The oldest buildings have mica windows (not that different to glass, but they have a bullion effect), though a glass factory operated in the area as early as 1796, facilitated by the sandy banks of the Angara. In that climate windows were always small, set deep into log-cabin-style walls, often with ornate carved shutters. On the three-storey Tower of the Saviour the Cossacks designed an elaborate closed balcony, less an act of devotion than a means of spying on pesky natives.

I said it was gratifying to see Russians doing something well (and stylishly). But almost all the Taltsy buildings had been abandoned as a result of floods engineered in the Soviet rush to industrialize eastern Siberia. Historians will never know how many villages were flooded during the construction of the Bratsk and Ust-Ilimsk dams.

Then it was on to Baikal. Mist hung low over the Hamar Daban mountains. I watched the sun set over the blue water from my eyrie in a guest house on a hill above the shore. The pines beyond, tipped with snow, were interleaved with stands of glistening beech. My amiable hotelier, Tatiana, was smoking omul – a white fish indigenous to Baikal – on a brazier in the yard. But this was modern Russia, where Buryat no longer hear the timeless symphony of the forest. When we had eaten the omul, I sat on the sofa next to Tatiana and watched Russian Strictly.

Sara Wheeler is the author of Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica

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by TOAST ( 14.11.14 )


Orlando Gough

My wife Jo, who is a knitwear designer, had the privilege of selling a jumper to Saint Mary Berry earlier this year, and the great woman promised to wear it on The Great British Bake Off, so naturally we had to watch every single minute of every single episode with intense care in the hope of spotting it. But she never wore it, probably because the temperature in the marquee during the competition never seemed to go below 30°C, which was of course part of the cause of Baked Alaskagate.

Like most people I was charmed by the competition, but my overriding feeling was of relief that I wasn’t a contestant. OK, yes, better than being roasted alive on Come Dine With Me. But… It’s not that I’m not competitive. Tennis yes, pool just about, Monopoly if I have to, but cooking – surely not. One of the joys of cooking is that it’s not competitive. And cooking against the clock, ugh. I can’t think of anything worse than having two minutes to attach an over-ambitious sculptured icing folly to a cake that’s still hot, and watching it melt down the sides like a Salvador Dali painting. And then there’s the ghastly imperative for complexity, a curious kind of obsessive over-elaboration that was the legacy of Middle Europe in the early part of the 20th century, was then championed by the Cordon Bleu Tendency in the 50s, and seemed to be in terminal decline by the end of the 60s as people discovered the perfect simplicity of Mediterranean cookery. Personally I don’t even like iced cakes.

Of course there’s the desire for personal betterment (which, by the way, I gather, is the actual meaning of the word ‘jihad’, it’s just got rather twisted), that drives people to do marathons and pay money to be insulted by Hanif Kurieshi, and of course there’s nothing wrong with trying to better oneself, but not in front of Paul Hollywood surely. I was continually surprised by the contestants’ intense humility when confronted by his withering critiques. I was fully expecting (translation: was desperate) to see someone take revenge with a slightly sub-standard Sachertorte.

So, in response, some easy baking recipes.

It’s worth saying that whereas in most aspects of cooking there is a large amount of leeway, in baking accuracy is more important: quantities, method (for example, beating egg whites), oven temperatures, baking times. So it’s worth following the recipes with some care, and being prepared to adjust the timings to suit your oven.

Granolaan update on the recipe in my book.

90ml water
90ml sunflower oil
135ml honey
Generous tsp ground cinnamon
Scant tsp salt
340g jumbo oats
80g whole skin-on almonds + a few hazelnuts
90g sunflower seeds
90g pumpkin seeds
70g raisins
8 dried apricots, sliced thinly

Heat the oven to 160°C.

Put in the water, oil, honey, cinnamon and salt in a small saucepan and heat it till the sugar dissolves. Measure out the oats, almonds and seeds into the largest possible baking tray. Mix in the syrup thoroughly. Spread out the mixture evenly.
Bake for 35 minutes altogether. Half way through, take the granola out of the oven, break up any lumps and mix it around. At the end, turn off the oven, prop the door slightly ajar, and leave for 15 minutes.

When the granola comes out of the oven, thoroughly mix it again, adding the raisins and dried apricots.

Cheese Soufflé (serves four)

A soufflé easy? Oh really? Try it!

40g butter
2 tbsp plain flour
300ml hot milk
100g grated Cheddar
70g grated Parmesan
Pinch cayenne pepper
A scraping of grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper
4 egg yolks
5 egg whites
A little extra grated Cheddar

Heat the oven to 200°C.

The soufflé dish should hold about a litre. Thin china works better than thick.

Make a cheese sauce: melt the butter over a gentle heat, and cook the flour in it for a couple of minutes without letting it colour. Gradually add the milk, stirring continuously, and simmer for about five minutes until the sauce is smooth and thick. Add the cheese, the cayenne, the nutmeg and the salt and pepper, and stir well.

Separate the eggs. Beat the yolks into the sauce, and let the mixture cool to lukewarm. Add a pinch of salt to the whites and beat with a balloon whisk until they stand up in soft peaks that hold their shape. Stir a couple of tablespoons of the whisked whites into the cheese mixture to loosen it up, and then, using a rubber spatula, very lightly fold in the rest of the whites.

Butter a soufflé dish and sprinkle in a little grated cheddar. Pour in the mixture. Make a deep groove in the surface about 2cm from the rim – the idea being to make the soufflé rise like a cottage loaf. Bake for 25 minutes, or if you’re feeling brave, slightly less. The middle should be slightly runny.

Try using Gruyère instead of Cheddar.

Walnut Brownies

It used to be that in London you were never more than two metres from a rat. Now you’re never more than two metres from a chocolate brownie – which is a mild improvement. Try this alternative.

125g butter, melted
225g soft brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
½ tsp salt
½ tsp vanilla essence
200g self-raising flour
100g chopped walnuts

Heat the oven to 180°C.

Mix the melted butter, sugar, egg, salt and vanilla essence. Add the flour and walnuts, and mix well.

Butter a tart tin (approximately 20cm x 20cm) and spread out the mixture into it. Bake for 20 minutes. The inside should still be slightly runny. Cut into squares and leave to cool.

It’s true to say that cooking any of these recipes on Bake Off would ensure a severe Hollywooding and an early exit on grounds of lack of ambition, but let’s leave them to their Mohnstrudels and get on with our lives.

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by TOAST ( 07.11.14 )


Michael Smith

We’d gone to Whitby on the wrong day. The Sunday crowds were heaving, and all the famous chippies had queues round the higgledy-piggledy block. Above us, on top of the East Cliff, the parish church by the abbey ruins beckoned, with only the odd straggler snaking up its craggy cliffside stairs. Away from the harbour and the scrum of Yorkshire day-trippers, above the candyfloss and the slot machines, the goth jewellery shops and the hammy actors’ recorded voices beckoning you into The Dracula Experience – up those 199 steps, we found Whitby’s real magic and enchantment.

Away from the clamour of the crowds, with just the sound of the seagulls above the rickety-roofed old fishermen’s tenements tumbling back down the hilly slopes to the harbour mouth, floating somewhere above that busy little world, the East Cliff also seemed to command another type of birds’ eye view, a birds’ eye view of time: the sense of deep time opening out, going back to the foggiest recesses of the English psyche.

We walked around the parish grounds, winged cherubs’ heads weathered away over the centuries, gravestones weathered to the point of disintegrating over long epochs of salty sea air on this cliff-face graveyard of sailors, and its memorials to others less fortunate, whose only grave is the sea.

Though it’s essentially Norman, St Mary’s has been cobbled together over the ages, and parts of it, like the old archway over the chapel door, seemed like the whispered hints of an earlier civilization whose ways have become strange and obscure to us, a seabound civilization hugging the shores of Northumbria, Denmark, and Norway. Having grown up in these parts, the strange names that have survived still resonate with me from childhood: King Oswy (the local pub where I grew up), St Hilda (my local church), evoking an enchanted, far-off land, like the elusive first memories of childhood, beyond which all is forgotten darkness.

And at this spot on the edges of our memories, our very sense of England, the first poetry in the English language was gifted to Caedmon, an illiterate shepherd, through divine inspiration in a dream.

Bede recalls the story:

He set his limbs at rest and fell asleep, then some man stood by him in his dream and hailed and greeted him and addressed him by his name:
‘Caedmon, sing me something,’
‘I do not know how to sing,’
‘Nevertheless, you must sing,’
‘What must I sing?’
‘Sing to me of the first Creation.’
When he received this answer, then he began immediately to sing in praise of God the Creator verses and words which he had never heard.

Up here in the hazy golden light, blazing like a Saxon shield on the water of that rivermouth below, it’s easy to imagine that same mysterious voice whispering on the wind, calling you back to unknown eons, to the earliest England, a world and a way of life that is all but unimaginable to us. And up on that hill, with an eternity of blue spread out across the vast horizon, you cannot help but think how short a time we’re all allotted, and how little we really understand, and somehow there’s something satisfying and happy about that thought, as nevertheless it’s some small inkling granted us about our place in the world.

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by TOAST ( 05.11.14 )

Pleurotus ostreatus

Kate O’Brien

Amethyst death cap is a cheerful looking mushroom, often depicted in picture books with a cottage door in its stem and two miniature windows on either side, a grand entrance for fairies, cute mammals and all those magical creatures with an inclination for mushroom living.

For those of us who eat them, the death cap feast upon the eyes. Dressed in the likeness of edible Ceaser’s mushroom, straw mushroom or infant puff balls, these toxic mushrooms are believed to have caused more deaths than any other species. Famous victims include Roman Emperor Claudius, Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI and Pope Clement VII who just hours before his snack commissioned Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement. With foraging season upon us and conditions ripe for high yields, a public health warning was issued this month against eating potentially fatal mushrooms. So far this year 84 people in the UK have been poisoned by the death cap, destroying angel or fool’s webcap, species which share common characteristics to harmless edible varieties. For those with a cautious interest, below are a few unmistakable (and delicious) mushrooms.

Cep known as porcini in Italy and the penny button here in the UK is prized for its earthy flavour. Often seen growing in groups of ten or more, ceps are very valuable, fetching about £40 per kilo at market. Sticky to the touch they are the most delectable and also safest mushrooms to harvest wild because with their bread roll cap they resemble no other.

Amethyst deceiver is bright purple top and bottom with wide spaced gills and a delicate smell, found by oak and beech trees. When cooked it has a subtle nutty flavour, used in cooking mostly to add colour.

Beefsteak mushroom, also known as Ox tongue can be spotted growing on living or dead oak and sweet chestnut all over Britain. With an obscene resemblance to raw meat, it excretes blood-like drops and is often used as a meat substitute. Like meat it is best eaten fresh as it sours and toughens with age. There is no other mushroom quite like it.

Chicken of the woods grows on broad-leaved trees in lemony yellow fan shaped tiers. Its rubbery texture (and taste) has been likened to chicken. Note that this taste does not agree with everyone! It is known to cause stomach upset in some.

Chanterelle are yoke coloured with a flat cap which looks like a baggy trumpet. They smell faintly of apricot and can be unearthed in all kinds of woodland. Considered a delicacy for centuries, with a peppery sweet taste that intensifies when dried they are easily distinguished from false chanterelle, an hallucinogenic cousin which is more colourful in looks but not especially in flavour.

Field Mushrooms are related to the button supermarket variety and are easily identified. The cap is approximately 10cm across and white, underside gills are chocolate brown. Distinct from the inedible yellow stainer which stains bright yellow when cut or bruised.

Oyster mushroom can only really be mistaken for similar, edible oyster mushrooms so are a safe bet foraged in the wild. With a wavy convex cap they are silver in colour and sharply defined. Deciduous trees are their habitat, preferably beech with a plentiful distribution in the UK.

Wood cauliflower is sweet smelling and individual, more sea sponge than mushroom. It fruits from conifers, with a particular preference for pine. Very tasty when young, but must be eaten fresh (and well cooked too.)

Kate O’Brien is editor of The Plant

Pictured: Pleurotus ostreatus, or oyster mushroom – a cyanotype by Holly Mitchell

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by TOAST ( 31.10.14 )

Harriet Hoult Workspace

Harriet Hoult is an abstract painter with an instinctive approach to her work. Here she tells us about her studio in west London.

My studio is in Petersham, between Richmond Park and the river. It’s a half brick, half wood building hooked onto the side of a house. It’s in a beautiful spot, surrounded by garden and trees. It has a clear plastic roof which natural light pours through. Doors either end open onto the garden, which is lovely in summer as I can get a completely through-breeze. The studio feels very connected to the outside, but it’s a very private space, tucked away from the world.

I paint against a single whitewashed wall on which I stick paper and canvas. The wall and the stone floor are covered in coloured marks and splashes of paint. Tools and bicycles hang on the opposite, wooden wall, but next week I’m clearing this to make additional work space so that I can have more paintings on the go at once. My paints and brushes are on shelves either end of the studio.

I work mainly in acrylic – tube paint and spray paint but I also use collage, oil pastels and watercolour. I paint abstract forms using a lot of colour by building layers of marks made with brushes, my hands, leaves, a saw – whatever I draw inspiration from in the moment. I tend not to plan. I have an image in my head as a starting point and I make some marks in the direction of that original idea – then I feel my way to what the next set of marks will be. It’s a moment-by-moment evolving process.

I’m painting every day at the moment, so I get to the studio by nine. I start by just standing there, getting into the space, looking around, looking at a piece I was working on the day before. Sometimes I can stand there for 20 minutes, tuning into the environment and the piece of work in progress. When I feel ready, I make a mark and the process starts to unfold. I stop for the occasional snack and drink a lot of tea.

A lot of the sounds of nature enter the space but I otherwise tend to paint in silence. Occasionally I will put some music on, but I couldn’t listen to just anything. There are certain tracks that work and they’re generally mellow and evocative (James Blake, Retrograde. Leonard Cohen, Suzanne). Very occasionally I’ll listen to an episode of Desert Island Discs – I find them inspiring portraits of humanity.

A cat called Goldie sits outside all day and sometimes she comes in. A few times I have invited people here, but it’s important they have the right energy because it’s a very sacred space for me. Recently two little girls from next door came in and painted for an hour. One painted a beautiful multi-coloured heart.

My last studio was in a more urban setting and that affected my work. I worked with more fluoro colours there, whereas in this greener space the work – its colours and shapes – is softer. I’ve had a few studios over the years and when I move to a new one I can’t get back what I was creating in the old.

My ideal space would have a big table in it so that I could run workshops where people can come and do their own thing; people who wouldn’t otherwise have a space to do that, or people who are lacking inspiration and can draw it from other people. I have met so many people who want to explore painting or creative expression but who don’t know how to, or who don’t have the space to do it in. I’d love to create that space in a very informal, unstructured way.


Photo credit: James Wendlinger

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by TOAST ( 28.10.14 )


The first piece in a new series by Catrina Davies exploring the relationship between art and landscape

I take the path through the old forest. An extended family of oak, ash, beech, birch and holly, dripping with bright red berries. Puffed-up cushions of psychedelic moss. Leaves drifting downwards in weightless silence, like the first snow. The ground beneath my wet feet a trillion different colours. The silence full of voices. The woods full of faces. Trees twist into animals and twist back again as I get closer. A pair of antlers turns into some fallen branches. An old man on a bench is a couple of rotting stumps.

The path follows a full-to-bursting river along a valley in Snowdonia that is buried like a dream beneath a scarred and shivering landscape of defunct slate quarries, bleak villages and howling peaks. The old forest is circled by managed conifer forestries. The forestries feel placeless, in the same way that new towns, identikit high streets and shopping centres feel placeless. It is difficult to connect with them. They have nothing to say. The old forest has plenty to say. Sculptor Dominic Clare is listening.

Dominic has lived in a rambling stone house in the bottom of this valley for 24 years. He is one of the reasons I keep coming back. I am fascinated with his garden. I come back and back to surreptitiously peer over his wall. It’s like peering into the mind of the forest.


Spirals hide behind trees like spirits. Faces blend into the woodpile, making me look twice. Punk haircuts, sunglasses, a charred torso in the fire pit. This is Dominic’s workshop, his playground, his head turned inside out. A sculpture garden and a sculptor’s garden.

Dominic was assistant to David Nash in Blaenau Ffestiniog around the same time that I was born not three miles away (as the eagle flies) from Nash’s studio, in a tiny village by an old slate-quarry at the foot of a dark mountain. Being 50 miles from the nearest hospital, and November, my home-birth was an act of bravery on the part of my parents for which I am truly grateful. The first sounds I heard were not the bleeping of machines, but the bleating of sheep and the laughing of the stream at the bottom of the garden. The light that opened my eyes was not a fluorescent strip light but crackling firelight and the rapidly-changing cloud shadows sprinting over the mountain tops. Like Nash’s famous Wooden Boulder, I resurface from time to time, near the stream where I was born. Pulled back by an invisible thread.


As I wander, with Dominic’s blessing (having finally mustered the courage to knock on his door), through his barn of a workshop, which is overflowing with ideas, and his enchanted garden, which fills a couple of hay-meadows right next to the river, I reflect on the propensity we humans have for developing strong emotional ties with the places that made us, investing them with deep and personal meanings, loving them like lovers. Art helps with this.

Dominic’s wood carvings have become part of what Snowdonia means to me. They are the human face of this landscape I love. They are watchful mountains that fold back endlessly on each other, like a hallucination. They are cold feet and clouds that descend in seconds, turning an ordinary climb into a terrifying ordeal. They are bogs with arms that snatch at my legs and wind that roars like a dragon. And they are the laughing spirits, faces and voices of ancient trees.


As he shows me around Dominic is thoughtful. This time next year he will have relocated to southern England, in order to be closer to his family. ‘A hard place to leave,’ I venture. ‘Yes,’ comes the reply. I get the feeling he doesn’t want to talk about it.


Dominic Clare is a sculptor and land artist with previous commissions for the Hay Festival and the National Trust. His art reveals a sensuous enjoyment in the rawness of form that is resonant and moving. The scale and size of his sculpture heralds the totemic and is made with an eye and heart fixed firmly in the majesty of Snowdonia.


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by TOAST ( 24.10.14 )

Orlando Random House

Alexandra Harris on fashion and thought in Virginia’s Woolf’s novel Orlando

Orlando’s trouble in the eighteenth century is that she is ‘apt to think of poetry when she should [be] thinking of taffeta’. This is understandable; after all, it was not long ago that she woke up as a woman, having been a young man at the court of Elizabeth and then an Extraordinary Ambassador in Constantinople. In the East she hardly noticed her change of sex; it necessitated no great alteration in her wardrobe, so she put on her customary long shirt and Turkish trousers and continued life unperturbed. Back in England, however, skirts are required. Thought must now be given to their fabrics. Though Orlando has for centuries taken most of life’s challenges in her long stride, her new dresses flap around her ankles and pull her into step with the times.

Virginia Woolf, writing her ‘biography’ of this fantastical Orlando in 1927-8, was apt to think of poetry and taffeta at one and the same time. Literature was, for her, inseparable from the fabrics of which the world is made. Readers often come to Woolf expecting her to be ethereal, and it is true that she is a great writer of absence, of what goes unspoken, of empty rooms and cast shadows; she finds ways to write the immaterial. But all her books are full of stuff, not least the stuff from which to make a dress.

When she writes about loss, Woolf makes us feel the weight of absence by inventorying all the bits and bobs her people leave behind (cloaks, brooches, ‘what people had shed and left’ in To the Lighthouse, the books, notes, pictures, and finally the pair of boots left by Jacob in Jacob’s Room). When she writes about presence, and Orlando certainly has presence, she conjures character from the swish of a cloak or a negligent attitude to skirts. So, while Orlando daydreams at the eighteenth-century tea-table, thinking not of silks but of pastoral lyrics, her biographer interrogates the relationship between inner lives and outer garments.

‘Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm’. For example (Woolf explains): ‘when Captain Bartolus saw Orlando’s skirt, he had an awning stretched for her immediately, pressed her to take another slice of beef, and invited her to go ashore with him in the long-boat’. Social custom has told Orlando which clothes to wear and, once togged out in whalebone, she is treated as noblewomen are customarily treated. Regarded as a lady, she accordingly becomes one, curtseying to her admirers and grateful for the awning, though she is the same Orlando (or is she?) who rode under blazing suns and wielded a swash-buckling sword.

This, at least, is one view. Woolf ventures another: ‘Clothes are but a symbol of something hid deep beneath. It was a change in Orlando herself which dictated her choice of a woman’s dress and a woman’s sex’. Or was it that, possessing manly and womanly characteristics all along (a penchant for drink; a predilection for tears), Orlando could just as well be male or female? Rarely has a jeu d’espirit probed so astutely the question of determinism. All ways around, if the soul cuts the cloth and the cloth colours the soul, there can be no such thing as the immaterial.

Cue, then, a full-dress pageant through four centuries: if we are to know anything of our ancestors we must get a feel for their wardrobes. And since Orlando models the more extravagant fashions of each era, the wardrobes in this life-story are spectacular. Carelessly, expansively, in ten minutes flat, Orlando throws on and off costumes that may – or may not – have anything to do with who she is: crimson breeches, shoes with rosettes ‘as big as double dahlias’, ‘plaguey skirts’ made, nonetheless, from a flowered paduasoy* which makes even Orlando pause, enraptured, and declare it the loveliest fabric in the world.

Paduasoy (from Middle French pou-de-soie, skin of silk): Rich silk fabric, usually corded or embossed

Alexandra Harris is the author of Virginia Woolf, an introduction to the writer’s life and work, published by Thames and Hudson

Pictured: Orlando, published by Random House.

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by TOAST ( 17.10.14 )
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