'Shadows and substance - a walk in Harridge Woods'.
This is my response to the 'Sense of Place’ brief set for February 2021 as part of the Walking the Land group that I am part of.
Harridge Woods on the Mendip Hills are somewhere I have walked for the last 30 years and know well. It has many histories embedded in its earth. Sadly there is ash die-back in the woods, so I avoided going into these areas.
I walked and drew and wrote and thought and photographed and filmed. The result is a series of images and a film with text as I search for Frances Allen who once lived here.
I'm not a film maker... but sometimes I get obsessed with trying to do something that I can't. This is made using i-movie, which doesn't have very sophisticated tools. It contains film from my GoPro, photos taken on my phone and SLR, and drawings I made during the walk. Really I need to work with someone who can do these things far more easily than I can!
Here is a link to the film (I use that word loosely!)
It also responds to activist/writer/educator/artist Alan Gussow's words:
'The catalyst that converts any physical location - any environment if you will - into a place, is the process of experiencing deeply. A place is a piece of a whole environment that has been claimed by feelings.’
and writer Julian Hoffmans' words:
'It is far too inclusive, multifaceted and prodigious a concept to be defined as a single thing, built up over time into a constellation of cultural as well as natural meanings that make it as essential and irreplaceable to humans as it is to wildlife.
For ‘place' is what grounds us and holds us close to the earth.
Our distinctive desire to forge attachments to landscape that impart personal meaning, value and identity as they intertwine with our lives and communities is known as topophilia or the love of place.'
My film is dedicated to Mrs Frances Allen, who lived in these woods with her husband and daughters. She lived there alone for a while after her husband died and daughters had moved away.
A bit of history:
The cottage they lived in is known by various names and dates back to the late 18th Century. Built in a Gothic style, as an estate worker’s dwelling probably for the game keeper of Ashwick Grove which was a mansion houseat the head of the wooded valley and was lived in by John Billingsley, an agricultural reformist, 1747-1811.
The cottage was lived in by an estate worker until sold at auction for £60 in 1937, when the last of the Strachey family, died. The Ashwick Grove estate had to be sold off to pay death duties. The Georgian mansion, then in a bad state of repair was demolished and architectural masonry and other valuables sold at auction, including the woodland, which included ornamental gardens near the house.
A local saw mill owner Mr Shepherd, bought the cottage and part of surrounding woodland just after WW2, and he leased Keeper’s Cottage, to retired army officer, Sgt Sidney Allen and his family, who lived there until about 1980 in a very basic fashion, with no running water or bathroom. The only water was drawn from a spring which is known as ‘Wishing Well’ further up the valley. There was no vehicle access to the cottage, only footpaths across the fields to Limekiln Lane and through the woods to Oakhill.
The Allen’s had two daughters, Liz was born at the cottage, and both went to school in Stoke St Michael. They kept a hand cart to carry shopping across the fields, and the girls kept their school shoes in a bread bin on edge of woods.
The cottage fell into disrepair when the Allen family left, and it began to fall down gradually over the next 25 years. Sitting derelict for many years, the tumbledown Keeper’s Cottage in Harridge Woods now provides refuge to some of Somerset’s rare bat species.
Medieval and post-Medieval coal mining remains can be found in the woods which were worked from about 1300 AD until around 1800. The traces of mining have been well preserved, and are now a scheduled site. In the early days miners excavated the coal using bell pits, where they dug a shaft down to the coal, then excavated as wide an area round the foot of the shaft as was safe, giving it a bell shape. They then moved to a nearby location and repeated the process, spacing the shafts close enough to minimise wastage. 52 bell pits have been found in the woods.
This is ancient woodland, primarily consisting of Ash, with occasional English oak and an under-storey of Hazel, with Field Maple, Hawthorn and Blackthorn.