Author and journalist Dixe Wills gave an illustrated talk about living in Longyearbyen for a year. 

The theme of Dixie’s talk came after a short introduction, when, like Pte James Fraze from Dad’s Army he declared  “We’re all doomed” and related this to the impact climate change is having on Svalbard. 

He started with a bit of geography and history, how it was initially known as Spitsbergen, not Svalbard; the discovery of coal, the Treaty of Versailles and the laterly the Spitsbergen (remaned 

Svalbard) Treaty which gave the archipelago an open visa and mineral exploitation policy taken up by Norway and Russia. We learn that the Russian’s maintain a presence by running a mine but that all the workers are Ukrainian. 

One curiosity from World War II is the story of the German radio operators on the island who were informed of the end of the war in May 1915 but were unable to surrender until that September. 

Svalbard is also home to the Global Seed Vault and is one of those’/most see’ sights. 

For four months there is no light, the Northern lights appear day and night, and are viewed to  the south

Returning to the theme of Climate Change Dixie told us that Svalbard has seen an average temperature increase since the 1960s of 5.4 degrees. This rate of temperature change is six to seven times faster than the rest of the world. He then talked about the impacts, that the fjord used to be iced up for most of the year; you could ski across and the port was only accessible in the summer – now it is ice free all year. This greatly affects the ability of polar bears to hunt. 

The Ice Fjord, once completely iced over given you 35 miles round is now completely clear.

Looking to the north east a wine glass shaped  gulley of snow changing as it melts traditionally marks the beginning of summer – when the wineglass breaks summer has begun. This used to occur in August, then in July, and in 2022 on 5th June. Ave temp: 6 degrees.

“I am a victim of climate change” Dixie declared showing a selfie he took of himself with a bloodied and bandaged head. This happened after a sudden warming in March 2022 when the temperature rose by 2 to 3 degrees and there was rain, which subsequently turned to ice, followed by snow. He slipped on a jetty and split his head open which required six stitches. 

A hardy chap, he took a dip in the sea, at a time of year – 5th June, when there should have been ice.

Once they arrived in huge cruisers, now only smaller vessels –  but tourism is still a problem. Dixe feels that we shouldn’t be there – that it is human presence that is causing the greatest damage. 

Finally, Dixe mentioned that he had helped translate a book, ‘My World Is Melting’ by a Norwegian journalist  Line Nagell Ylvisåker who has lived in Longyearbeun for 15 years.

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Ouse Valley Catchment Project with Matthew Bird 

Matthew spoke at the Lewes Greens AGM, to an audience in the hall and online, about the communities vulnerable to flooding along the Ouse and the creation of an illustrated ‘fly by’ from the coast to Lewes showing the extent of potential flooding which became the inspiration of projects that have developed since.

The desire has been to come up with practical ways to do something to address the many problems that have been identified. It has taken several years to bring many disparate groups together. Eventually ten key partners came together including the South Downs National Park, Greenhaven, Ovesco, Transition Lewes, Sussex Community and Sussex Wildlife Trust along with 60 or more organisations. 

In the first instance £150,000 of development money was secured to run a year of events which engaged with 110 groups from Barcombe to Newhaven, Peacehaven to Seaford.

More recently £2.5m has been awarded, one of only 16 projects in the country to be selected, which will seek to develop climate resilience, and knowledge of nature and skills, nature based responses to flooding by creating leaky dams and scrapes to hold water.

There are also a number of specific projects such as: the Cockshut alignment scheme, community scheme on the Neville, the zero carbon Barcombe scheme and climate hubs – a charter of ‘rights of the river’; working with the Ouse and Adur River Trust and Love Our Ouse to promote a passion for our rivers and One Planet Living – a framework for measuring sustainability.

The Cockshut from Source to the Ouse

The Cockshut

Ever since the talk given by Marcus Taylor at the River Festival in September on the Cockshut I’ve been waiting for enough rain to have replenished the aquifer so that I could go on a hunt for its source. I was there yesterday (2 November 2022).

The Cockshut rises below Kingston Ridge on the eastern edge of Kingston village and enters the River Ouse on the other side of the Railway Bridge at the end of Ham Lane behind Lewes Recycling Centre. 

The word ‘Cockshut’, Marcus explained, derives from middle-age English to describe ‘netting used to enclose an area to trap snipe or woodcock’ – suggesting that what was once a large marshy area south of Lewes was used in this way as a ‘cock shute’. He offered some additional possible derivations of the name, but favoured this one. The marshiness and tidal flooding has now long since been managed by culverts and drainage ditches, though persistent heavy rain will still swamp the fields around where the Cockshut runs.

The Cockshut always has water in it, though where, when and even whether it flows is another matter. It rises from a spring, to quote Marcus ‘under a hawthorn bush’ just west of Stanley Turner Recreation Ground in a field on the other side of Spring Barn Farm towards Kingston.

On close inspection you find a hawthorn hedge rather than a bush, with the Cockshut appearing either side of a farm drainage pipe which allows access between fields for animals to two adjoining fields. After heavy rain there is a steady trickle of water under the hedge which runs towards a large busy farmyard. For a hundred yards or so the Cockshut and the hedge are synonymous, until it appears as a narrow stream for 50 yards and then goes through another pipe, again to allow access to the field and runs the length of the farmyard just north of a couple of fishing ponds. 

The Cockshut continues, contained in a straightened ditch or culverted its entire length next going under the Kingston Road now hidden under a dense bed of brambles and nettles or appearing between the low branches of shrubs and trees by the road. With barely any incline the lack of gravity appears to bring it to a halt and you have to wonder how the Cockshut can run at all. Signs point you back and forth along various South Downs Walks, including the Egret’s Way. 

For a stretch by the pedestrian and cycle path it is hidden in a wet ditch, before being culverted for a short stretch to appear along the southern perimeter of Stanley Turner Rugby and Cricket Ground.

Much of  the lower Ouse from here south to Newhaven flooded with tidal water making this entire area south of the A27 to the Ouse a marsh. Drainage ditches now abound and generally do the job and cattle are often on the fields. 

The Cockshut is its most enchanting around the meadow south of Stanley Turner, bordered as it is with mature, mostly pollarded willow and home to swans and moorhens. The Recreation Ground, parking, walks around the sports fields and onto the meadow make it a busy spot for dog walkers.

It also provides panoramic views southwest to the Downs and Kingston Ridge, south east to Firle, east to Mount Caburn and at various points north to Lewes Castle.

Mist fills the hollows in winter and rows of a variety of mature deciduous trees announce the seasons. By chance you will cross the Greenwich Meridian here as you join the Meridian Walk for a matter of a few steps: it runs north through Lewes (Southover, High Street, Landport and beyond) and south to Southease. Don’t let me paint a picture of tranquillity though, as the experience requires acceptance of the noise from the often busy A27 Lewes by-pass. 

The straightened length of the Cockshut that forms the boundary of the Recreation Ground was last cleared in 2013. Since then something of an avenue of willows has grown up through the sludge by the path around the meadow. 

There are Lewes District Council plans for the meadow and Cockshut to reduce the presence of parrot feather which is choking the water, slowing down and preventing flow. It outcompetes native vegetation and blocks light. The idea, once the funding is in place, is to create a wetland habit – to ‘put the wiggles back’ and to include a couple of ponds. These plans were shared in separate talks at the River Summit given by Peter King of the Ouse and Adur Trust, and Matthew Bird of Sussex Wildlife and Lewes District Council – details can be found on their respective websites. 

Planning Application SDNP/21/06027/FUL 6.8ha wetland habitat north of Lewes Brooks, including realignment of the existing Cockshut channel with the current route being infilled with spoil, a new channel created and groundworks creating a series of pools and raised areas. Construction of a bund to the southern boundary of the site. Alterations to access to the site and creation of a circular walk with bridge crossings and some areas of paved footpath. 

South Downs National Park Planning 21 December 2021

We might skip the history of the building of the Lewes bypass (unless others would like to enlighten me) and move on to Southover Sports Club, Ham Lane and the more intriguing 940 year old history of Lewes Priory. 

The Priory, was the First Cluniac priory in England, was built not long after Norman Conquest as part of the Rape of Lewes by William de Warenne who was also responsible for the Castle. Both the Winterbourne and Cockshut, more akin to small tributaries of the Ouse or tidal creeks, flooded with the high tide and gave access to the Priory and to town at the bottom of Watergate Lane, by low draft boats.  

The Cockshut and Winterbourne have flooded six times in 120 years. Persistent heavy rain on an already saturated chalk aquifer combined with a spring tide will do the job. In October 2000 a month’s rain over a couple of days combined with an incoming tide to cause flooding, as in 1911 and 1960. As I write the Environment Agency are completing repairs to the embankment along the Ouse from the A27 into town via the Railway Land, which should provide protection from the river, flooding again – though it won’t stop rain falling across the Downs pooling where it gravitates –  the length of Winterbourne and Cockshut.

The other side of the A27, the Cockshut, straightened with a narrow path alongside it, is little more than a wide, water filled ditch, with a preponderance of parrot feather, dense beds of nettles, and until removed a year ago and burnt, a patch of invasive Japanese knotweed. There is access to Southover, the Priory Ruins and Convent Field and the path offers pretty views of the Castle,, though it is considerably blighted by the traffic that thunders back and forth along the dualled A27 Lewes bypass as it races between the Ashcombe Hollow and Southerham roundabouts. 

Though easily followed via Ham Lane the Cockshut is barely visible and not accessible behind dense overgrowth just north of the Lewes Waste Recycling Centre – its journey ends through a sluice in front of concrete legs of the railway bridge which carries trains between London and Brighton to Eastbourne and beyond via Lewes. It is always covered in assorted graffiti tags and urban art.

By walking under the bridge onto the water meadow you can walk into town along the Ouse into Town to the Railway Land and enjoy views of distinct white chalk of the Cliffe. 

The Winterbourne from source to the Ouse, Lewes, East Sussex

The Winterbourne is a fascinating seasonal stream cum ditch, often in a culvert which runs through Lewes from a little East of the town out along the A27 Brighton Road to West, entering the River Ouse next to the Linklater Pavilion. Its history and geography were explained in an illustrated talk by Marcus Taylor, who has lived in Lewes since the late 1960s, taught Geography for 35 years and was a trustee of Friends of Lewes for a decade. 

The word ‘Winterbourne’, we learn, describes what is, for much of the year. A dry channel most of the year. It is a stream or brook that is literally ‘born again’ in the winter once the water table has risen high enough –  though it failed for two years in the late 1980s and some years will be late to run, and early to run dry. Living close by for the last 15 years I can record that the Winterbourne has run, even flooded occasionally, though never earlier than December and then sometimes lasting in flow through to early May before drying out completely for the rest of spring, summer and autumn.

The source of the Winterbourne is somewhere west of the Newmarket Inn. The spring is illusive – it is somewhere in a ditch between the A27 and the railway in the lowest lying land that drops down from the Downs north and south. It is only obvious when the water table is high.

Anyone travelling regularly on the A27 will be familiar with flooding between the Ashcombe Roundabout and Newmarket Inn, for short spells these days after intense rainfall (early September 2022) or every five or so years in December after a longer period of rain when the water table has been saturated. 

In the 1960s water flooded the Brighton Road and was photographed flooding off the Downs in a torrent.

From an inauspicious start in a hard-to-find spring, followed by a short section of ditch, the Winterbourne, in short order, somewhere around Ashcombe Hollow, is channelled under the A27 dual-carriageway, the roundabout and Bright to Lewes rail line, only to reappear intermittently (if at all) as a stream or ditch between the Brighton Road into Lewes and Hamsey Riding Stables. It finally emerges from a large drainage pipe or tunnel next to Houndean Allotments.

The banks of the Winterbourne are dark and damp enough to favour ferns. On the right the oh too close A27 dual-carriageway thunders by; at one spot (there must be others unless everything is funneled in through this one spot) the A27 run-off drains into the Winterbourne.

On the opposite side are Houndean Allotments. This year there was some water flow along the higher reaches of the Winterbourne from 17th October.

Onwards under a canopy of leaves in summer you might spot the four strange sculptures before you get to a patch of lawn and Lewes Pigeon fanciers.

Once again, the Winterbourne is channelled under the Brighton to Eastbourne rail line, only to emerge close to the detached houses along Glebe Close, running in a ditch by the road opposite the WInterbourne Stores and over the back garden fences of houses along Winterbourne Close. 

The Winterbourne then runs along Winterbourne Lane, close to the road and verges on its northern bank and abuts to the rear gardens of Winterbourn Close to the south. At the foot of Delaware Road there is a measurement station.

The Winterbourne then runs under Bell Lane and along Winterbourne Mews.

Sadly there is an issue with garden and household waste being dumped over the back of garden fences here and fly tipping from the lane.

This is another stretch of road often prone to flooding with rainwater quickly pooling in the south-westerly corner of Bell Lane Park exactly where there is a pedestrian crossing.

Bell Lane looking north to the Cemetery

The Winterbourne is culverted on two sides by concrete and walls behind the stone or flint walls of the Cemetery on one side and Bell Lane on the other. 

Historically Bell Lane has flooded, turning it into an impromptu lake on one occasion in the late 1960s. There were floods the length of the Winterbourne through to St Pancras Stores and beyond in October 2000, and before that in 1915 and 1911. 

There is another measuring station where the Winterbourne leaves Bell Lane Park where these ia an impressively old pollarded willow bricked into a garden wall.

As it passes through the south of the town the Winterbourne is either culverted or covered. Grills at various places where the Winterbourne enters a tunnel collect flotsam and jetsam and are from time to time cleared by the Environment Agency.

The Winterbourne is culverted for the last stretch of Bell Lane, going under the houses at St. Pancras, emerging for a short section by St Pancras Stores, then disappearing under St Pancras Road. This is site of some historic photographs of flooding at the beginning of the 20th century.

It then passes under The Course, under Southover and Western Roads Schools and sports fields only to re-emerge in Southover Gardens where it is a feature of Grange Gardens.

It then passes out of sight once more …

Where the Winterbourne enters a culvert on the way out of Southover Gardens

… passing under Gardens Street, the houses of Tanners Brook and the old Market, then under the Railway Station and lines to London/Eastbourne only to re-emerge just north of the rail line to Eastbourne, in an area that once included a manor house and formal gardens, the line to Uckfield with numerous sidings – it is now collectively the Lewes Railway Land Wildlife Nature Reserve, which includes the former gardens and pond of Leighside House. 

The Reserve consists of five distinct sections: a wet wood (former Leighhouse Gardens), the Heart of Reeds, the developing meadow created where the railway sidings were most densely packed, the former allotments, the river bank and the water meadow. 

The Winterbourne passes through the former gardens of Leighside House with its restored pond and viewing platform to the north by the entrance from Court Road and then winds its way towards the River Ouse which it enters via a sluice just to the south east of the Linklater Pavilion. 

In March each year grey mullet can sometimes be seen in. a large shole by the spot where the Winterbourne joins the River Ouse.

And so, for now, ends my story of the Winterbourne, which can only be followed by adding stories of these who lived beside it: those keeping horses in the fields alongside the A27, people who have an allotment in Houndean, the pigeon fanciers and sculptor, the dog walkers and runners, those with gardens abutting the Winterbourne, use Bell Lane (recreation ground), living on Rotten Row, St Pancras and the Grange, along to Southover Gardens – its house, cafe, Sussex Arts & Crafts gallery and annual skittles show, to the station and beyond to the stream’s terminus in the Railway Land Nature Reserve with its hub, the history of the old railway sidings and Leighside House and gardens, the Linklater Pavilion and the constant activity it attracts.

You Can’t Cuddle a Fish

Peter King of the Ouse & Adur Rivers Trust  is an enthusiast for rivers and their landscape, the Adur and Ouse in Sussex in particular. At the River Summit held in the Pavilion as part of the River Festival hosted by the Lewes Railway Land Wildlife Trust and Love Our Ouse. He gave a fascinating talk on the work that is required, the work that has been done and the work that needs to be undertaken to improve the Ouse , to help return some of it to the way it was naturally, centuries ago – before people came along to exploit it, tame it and pollute it. 

Peter King of the Ouse & Adurs Rivers Trust talking at the River Festival, Lewes

“You can’t cuddle a fish”

Part of a display of fish drawings coloured in and annotated by children at the River Festival

“You can’t cuddle a fish”, he said, apologising that trout and eels may not have the appeal of otters or behaviours, but their health is a good indicator of a healthy river system. 

We have made a mess of our rivers across the British Isles over the centuries and the Ouse is no exception.

  • 85% of all UK rivers are failing to achieve a ‘Good Ecological Status’.
  • Only 19% of water bodies are good for fish … 

Human pressures: exploitation, containment, extraction and discharges have all caused problems. There has been an impact on the landscape and ecosystems affecting, resulting in damaging invasive species and the ability of native species to survive.

Peter made a compelling case for our doing far more to address the problems and improve the condition of our rivers. 

Regarding the single issue of discharges, he persuaded us that whilst Southern Water has 123 discharge points, and is clearly responsible for sewage discharge, that there are over 1,200 discharge points in the River Ouse catchment, and that as well as legal trade waste there are too many illegal discharges and therefore an urgent need to review permits.

“Put the wiggles back”

Having gone through the science, indicated the level of detail of surveys, worried us about multiple historic and ongoing problems, Peter also proposed fixes, showed how much has been done, how much more there is to do and tried to end on a positive note. That we can ‘put the wiggles back’, mitigate against flooding, improve habits and ecosystems, work with farmers and other businesses and landowners. 

Lots can be done, he explained, and illustrated some of the initiatives taken from the grandest engineering works to put meanders and pools back where straightening and canalising has occurred and removing locks where the river had been contained to form a lake for shooting ducks, to smaller, more modest improvements like adding logs and gravel to slow the flow, or putting in groynes and branches where sediments can collect. A visit to the higher reaches of the River Ouse downstream from the Ouse Valley Viaduct showed where this kind of work had been undertaken.

Branches pegged into the river bed to create a slight meader and pooling

We can all do our bit too. “The first flush of rain creates 80% of the pollution” – we can slow this run off with rain plainters, or with more space, a rain garden. 

Peter concluded on an upbeat note convincing us that it is not all bad news, there are plenty of stunning bits of the Ouse to enjoy.

He invited us to volunteer with the Ouse & Adur Rivers Trust; tasks include: tree planting and river clean ups, river maintenance, monitoring and much more.

Peter.king@oart.org.uk

Publications

We realised there were gaps in the information available for certain Natural Flood Management techniques and measures. With the help of our partners we have produced a range of nationally available, printed and online materials which will help others to deliver NFM with more confidence. 

These include :-

Focusing on Flow in SussexA Woodland Trust case study and related reading.
Sussex Wildlife Trust > ‘How you can help with flood management

A CaBa case study

Rewilding Britain on How Rewilding Reduces Flood Risk
Rain Garden Planters from East of Eden
Stormwater or ‘SuDS’ Planter

Life Drawing at Charleston Farmhouse

There’s art on show everywhere you turn this weekend with Lewes Art Wave – so how about creating your own works by joining a life drawing class?

Even if you are completely new to it you’ll find you are welcome with this small, eclectic (and eccentric) group.

The Walled Garden, Charleston Farmhouse, East Sussex (CC BY SA 4.0 J FVernon)

What is more, the next two sessions, owing to our usual venue in the Hay Barn at Charleston being unavailable, the session this Tuesday 6th September (and in a month’s time) will be outdoors in the Walled Garden, or if chilly/wet in the ‘Outer Studio’ of Charleston Farmhouse itself, making this an even more of a unique ‘Bloomsbury’ experience.

All levels from absolute beginner to experienced artist are welcome – what marks you make and how is entirely up to you. I started out when we met in the Outer Studio back in October or November 2016.

The sessions are run by the sculptor Silvia MacRae Brown.

Silvia MaxRae Brown (CC BY SA 3.0 J FVernon)

The models (male/female) are always extraordinary, and have the talent for creating and holding a pose, or creating a sequence of slow movement that we artists/students must somehow capture. Bring a picnic (the restaurant is closed), coffee/tea and biscuits are provided – as are all the materials if you turn up empty handed (easels, boards, paper, clips, charcoal/pencils). £55 for the day, from 10.00am to 4:00pm.

To confirm or enquire (part days are possible too) Email: silviamacraebrown@btinternet.com

Water is not working and the water companies are entirely to blame – yet they pay out generously to executive and shareholders

Feargal Sharkey – guardian of UK Rivers (and all round cool guy, songster, musician, environmentalist and campaigner)

I guess you missed the ‘lively debate’ on Radio 4 Today this morning on the despicable state of our UK rivers. We learnt about the exploitative behaviour of privatised water companies, paying out £75bn in dividends rather than spending the £60bn required investment to fix leaks, provide adequate water treatments, plan for and build reservoices and even build then operate desalination plants.

There was a gripping six minute exchange in the debating ring that can be the BBC Radio 4 Today programme at its best. If you put Chris Packham, George Monbiot, Bob Geldoff and Ian Paisley in a blender with a pint of rain water from Northern Ireland and a splash of English Chalk River you get the 21st century Feargal Sharkey.

After several sharp rebuffs Sharkey had Mike Keil (Senior Director of Policy, Research and Campaigns at the Consumer Council for Water) agreeing that consumers could not “tolerate water companies that behaved unsustainably and damaged the environment”. Keil started out on a ridiculous PR spin learnt no doubt from nearly seven years working for Severn Trent Water. He selectively quoted ‘the good bits’ from research saying that the “Sector was not failing, customer survey, with basic water service, 91% satisfaction, but, some issues: charges, trust, 

This is the fourth or fifth time I’ve caught Feargal Sharkey at his best –  in full flow taking the UK water companies to task about their appalling treatment (or failure to treat) water they take from our rivers. As a teen I loved the ‘Undertones’, but not all musicians and singers keep at that task for the rest of their lives (Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones excepted). 

None of us should have to tolerate raw sewage in our rivers – but the water companies far from limiting emergency outflows to flood conditions repeatedly, you could see constantly, flout the rules and let raw sewage into rivers – which lines banks and spills out into the sea.

Feargal Sharkey accused the water companies of exploitative and unsustainable practices and called on George Eustice (Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) to issue an enforcement order to water companies to comply with a series of exacting orders or face a fine of 10% of their annual turnover. 

Mike Kiel initially sounded like an apologist for the water companies, making a deliberate and frankly ludicrous spin with the line that “Sector was not failing, that customer surveys showed that customers were 91% satisfied with “basic water service” … this is based on research he/they commission and interpret for public consumption. He is hardly an impartial observer being the product of the water industry working for Severn Trent Water for nearly six years. 

Feargal Sharkey was impeccable in his response: extraordinarily reserved by saying that he took “a completely converse view” – a euphemism to me as I would have been rather more blunt and Anglo-Saxon in my response. Well versed in telling the truth to the PR spin, he explained that water companies had experienced “decades of underinvestment and profiteering by water companies”. It has been their “failure and mismanagement” which has brought this crisis upon us. Water companies, he explained, dumped sewage into our rivers for 6 million hours – that’s the sewerage issue, and now we are facing a water shortage. Water companies have given out £72bn extracted in dividends, yet they are saddled with £60bn of debt. To my ears this reads like asset stripping; running the water companies down, paying out maximum dividends, paying executives exorbitant sums and leaving far, far too little for investment in improvements – the very purpose of their existence. Feargal pointed out that between them just three senior water company executives got paid £10m between them.

It has been a catastrophe for rivers, lakes and trout streams, he explained. As a monopoly they can only be held to account by a regulator which is toothless (my words). 

George Eustace, Feragal explains, has been writing  letters to Sunday Papers asking the companies to behave nicely. Rather, he should  (grow some balls – my words) and hold them to account.

Feargal says what we consumers should be making clear, that water “bosses should not be rewarded for failure. That there should be a link between salaries and what they deliver for people and the environment”. This is missing.

The waterworks are “about as Victorian as our roads are Roman. Water companies have a statutory obligation to build, operate and maintain sewage systems capable of effectively dealing with all of the effluent in those systems”, said Sharkey. He went on to explain that OFWAT argues that the water companies have had all of the funding required over the last 30 years to make the funding possible for the improvements that are required. Rather water companies have reduced their spend by over 40% and that is leading to the catastrophe we are now facing both in terms of sewage and water supply. 

Feargal added that “London is now No.9 on a list of the 10 cities most likely to run out of water along with the likes of Cape Town, Jakarta, San Paolo and Mexico City”. We have indeed become a ‘third world country” (my words) – not thanks to the Tories, Thatcher and leaving the EU. 

Water companies have paid out over £72bn in dividends; perhaps they should have spent more of that money on fixing their leakey infrastructure. 

The answer according to Feargal Sharkey is that George Eustace, who has the power to issue an enforcement order, should do so – this is a clear legal instruction to the companies to do exactly what he wants and when he wants it done – any failure to comply with that instruction he then has the power to fine them up to 10% of their annual turnover.

Listen here >

Life Drawing at Charleston with Silvia MacRea Brown

I attend with trepidation. It’s not like singing. Imagine singing and finding for the first half-hour you are out of tune and that on a bad day there will be a lot of duff notes. Or is that just indicative of my lack of experience, that I should be drawing every day. That’s how the college student does it: all day, most days down at the studio. You have to train the connection between the brain and senses, the arm and the page.

Getting ready the night before would help; I don’t. Rather I’m making lunch, looking for paper and deciding how much clobber to take from first thing on the day of the class. I cannot transport my ‘studio’ to Charleston so some choices have to be made. I could turn up with a packed lunch and a smile and be able to enjoy the day: everything is provided, easels, materials, coffee and snacks. All I need is enthusiasm and a willingness to make mistakes, to listen to constructive criticism and to keep having a go.

We aim to start soon after 10.00am. The fifteen minutes before hand easels and boards and large wedges of paper are transported from Silvia’s car.

Setting up in the Charleston Hay Barn – the model’s point of view. (CC BY SA-3.0 J F Vernon 2022)

Charleston is closed to the public on Monday and Tuesdays so we have the place to ourselves – though the office is open and someone comes over to help make sure we have all that we need and the chef comes into the restaurant to order and take deliveries and prepare food.

we used to meet in Charleston Farmhouse itself; not in the studio space used by the Bloomsbury group (that would have been cool), but in a small alcove. That could only take a handful of people. I have no idea at all how I heard about the session; this would be November 2016. I’d been attending sessions in Brighton at the Sussex County Arts Club a few times a week for several months. Did I hear about it from someone there? Did I learn about it on a visit to Charleston? Or pick something up online when I was searching for something in Lewes? I know I was getting fed up of going into Brighton but found the life classes in Lewes were booked up.

There were twelve or perhaps thirteen of us today. I got myself tucked over to one side as out of the way as I could be while still able to get a clear view of the model.

Set up. Blurred as I tried a panoramic image on my phone. That’s my whiteboard on the left hand side. (CC BY SA-3.0 J F Vernon 2022)

The last couple of sessions I’ve taken a large whiteboard; I like the scale. I tape a section of wall paper lining to this with the intention of putting all the initial doodles and sketches together. As the model, it is Ruth today, will move slowly through a series of many short poses I like to try to fit them all onto the one page.

I use Crayola wax crayons; I don’t think wallpaper liner deserves pastels. I would try pastels if I had a large enough piece of cartridge paper – perhaps. Though I have found I can repeat the exercise, ‘copying’ from this sheet to further sheets once I get home.

Ruth Moves – wax crayon on wallpaper liner (CC BY SA-3.0 J F Vernon 2022)

For half an hour it is like being in a library, or better still, like sitting a formal exam. You can sense the concentration. The model moves like Salome in front of Solomon – but in slow motion, a movement that from time to time pauses for a minute. We sketch feverishly; one artist attacks their page as if they are shoveling coal into a coal-hole, most pick away studiously with less vigour.

I make the first mark. I have three complementary crayons: bright green, dark green and black. I work from left to right across the page alternating colours. I then fill in the spaces with small doodles or larger sketches. Afterwards I reflect: next time I will think of the entire sheet as a composition with the model smaller on the back of the sheet creating a timelapse effect (I hope) where I have captured her around the room as she moves.

There is no stage, possibly for the first time to my knowledge. In the past the model has been on this platform under a large window. Once we brought the model into the centre of the barn. This brings the model onto the floor and closer to us. We can draw in the round, she can approach us. Our angle will change without us having to move.

There were then two short static poses: two ten minutes each I think. I should note it down at the time, but I don’t and by lunch time the order in which I have produced multiple sketches on different sheets of paper using different tools is lost to me.

This might have been where we are invited to do a couple of exercises: drawing with the non-dominant hand (in my case my left hand) and drawing from memory – simply not looking at the model (though later in the day she was rather elegantly covered in a translucent piece of chiffon).

We break to give the model a breather, to admire each other’s work, talk about it and share notes and practices. Silvia was keen for us to take a look at ‘I Live Here Now’ by Liza Dimbleby.

It reminds me of how I used to sketch in my teens and twenties, on the beach in France, in the bars in Val d’Isere and even on the chairlifts. And then it died away until recently. Certainly in my teens my mother had encouraged me to have a pad of paper with me all the time and I did.

Chairlift from La Daille, Val d’Isere, January 1991

We drink tea or coffee and eat biscuits. We get some air or disappear into the barn for a bathroom break (an experience in itself as The Charleston Trust invested into new gallery and restaurant space some years ago – all swish with oak and glass around a small courtyard – like the corner of an Oxford college, a small one, like St.Edmund’s.

Round three: more poses, of course, always getting longer and with length a chair. I think it was 30 minutes or so to begin with, followed by an exercise where we draw from memory – only looking at the page. What I find I do is I recall all the problem solving moments, the insights I gained, and the techniques I used at the time to position things, to use negative space, to use the window from and chair … I lack natural insight from knowing my anatomy and underlying skeleton. But I give it a shot – whatever I am invited to try I give it a go and learn something from it, from what works and what does not.

I’m aware of Silvia doing the rounds, commenting, suggesting and helping correct other students/artists. As my mother would do when she was around she appears at my shoulder but I’m unaware of her presence until she speaks. It is like a voice through an earpiece, almost as if your own subconscious is pointing out something you are failing to see: her head is too large and the neck couldn’t support it.

I don’t question this nor fret about the marks I have already on the page, I simply add more, drawing over what was there even if it risks my having what could look like a model with two heads, or a model who had moved her head and I’d caught both positions. I am not here to produce a finished piece, mistakes are necessary and they tell their own story on the page.

Then lunch. I had mixed up various vegetable/plant based casseroles from the fridge with rice – this is ample. I could vanish off to Middle Farm Shop, we have an hour. The cafe at Charleston is closed. Several of us gather around a large round table in the restaurant. Today I get to know Ruth, our model. I have drawn Ruth three or four times now over 8 years; you’d have thought I would have drawn her more often – once or twice a year. I rather think that if we have twelves sessions a year then we generally have as many models, maybe eight with some duplication.

The truth is when you draw you see shapes, negatives space, limbs, tendons, patches of light and dark – not the person. Is this my mistake? There isn’t time to get a likeness of the model. I can do that, but it is an entirely different skill and requires a long pose, or the same pose repeated in order to spend 3 or more hours at it. (Note to self, a regular Saturday or Sunday slot at Sussex County Arts Club would give me this).

Ruth, Coloured charcoal on paper. (CC SA BY-3.0 J F Vernon 2022)

Onwards to a long pose so Ruth lies down. A bench/platform is created from tables with blankets and cushions. We draw on. And once again, as it produced some interesting results and a lot of positive comment we are invited to have a go at drawing this from memory – after Ruth had got up and gone.

Ruth ‘from memory’ in a minute or so. Black drawing pen.

Tea. More looking at what others have done and talking approaches. I asked a lot of questions about adding colour and the problems I’ve been having with watercolour and pastels. Keep it simple. Just two or three colours was the tip I took and will apply once I am home.

And then a warm down of shorter poses to end the day.

I scribbled these onto A4 or A3 sheets in quick succession. There wasn’t the ‘flow’ we had with movement first thing. I kept at it hoping to get the essence of something but wasn’t overly happy with the outcome. I keep everything regardless and will file it away once I get home. Sometimes I see a shape, or a get a feeling for a pose later and have ideas of doing something with it.

Once again we compare drawings, talk tools and technique and eventually depart, a few staying behind to chat and help load the back of Silvia’s car with the easels, drawing boards, materials and paper.

Should disposable BBQs be banned?

Disposable BBQ

It’s been in the back of my mind having found local park benches burnt where I BBQ was placed, as well as ashes tipped against a fence and the sharp grill and foil ineptly stuffed into a litter bin.

Disposable BBQ’s lasting scorching to a park bench (Juggs Lane, Jubilee Gardens, Lewes)

This morning on BBC Radio 4 Broadcasting House there was a short item on banning disposable BBQs ASAP.

Helen Bingham from Keep Britain Today explained that as they reach 400 degrees they cannot be get rid of safely as you cannot pick them up or put them in a bin – ‘An environmental catastrophe”.

National Trust Scotland are calling to have them banned.

Craig Carter, London Fire Brigade said that sales of disposable BBQs should be banned. He is joining a petition set up by Toby Tyler whose 11 year old son Will stepped on the remains of a disposable bbq and was severely burned – so badly that Will needed skin grafts. 

The petition can be found here https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/618664.

The call in the past had been to “enjoy the summer responsibly” is this good enough; it only takes one or two careless or irresponsible users of these BBQs to result in considerable damage – even danger to people, wildlife and infrastructure.

Playing devil’s advocate I thought. Paddy O’Connell wondered if we were being killjoys, that common sense is enough.

From my experience (and occasional use of them down on the pebble beach at Seaford), responsible users douse their disposable BBQ with water before bagging it up to take home. 

Life Drawing at Charleston with Silvia MacRea Brown

Life Drawing at Charleston – Model ‘Dave’ (C) Silvia MacRea Brown (2022)

I look forward to the first Tuesday of each month with trepidation; I’ve been attending a life drawing class at Charleston (in the Hay Barn conversion for the last few years). The models are always very well chosen: good at their job! able to hold an interesting pose and ready to try all the things that Silvia suggests, which includes continual movement, as well as movement into a short poses, and then of course the class short pose (one to five minutes), the longer pose (ten to 20 minutes) and about as long as we go (45 minutes).

I was brought up on the 3 hour pose. The single, carefully executed effort to reproduce exactly what the eye can see. This is not Silvia’s approach; this is art from the heart and soul, on the fly, capturing the sense of the movement, the essence of the model. I’ve come to prefer sketches completed in a few minutes, while last time I ran off more than 30 ‘doodles’ onto a lengthy sheet of wall liner paper using wax crayons – the movement continual, each sketch possible a few seconds each.

This has been invaluable on my recent efforts to capture the ‘essence’ of club swimmers slogging it up and down the pool. Capturing the feeling, sense and movement of limbs and water, with the added complication of reflections is proving one heck of a challenge! Going out to sketch trees is proving easier – though fraught with its own problems. Does a tree keep still? How do you fit it onto the page? How do you different between tree species without going into the detail of a leaf or the bark?

The cost is still £55 for the day – which is excellent value for 6 hours at Charleston. We start at 10.00am and finish at 4.00pm. It isn’t all drawing. There are a few coffee/tea breaks (coffee/tea, milk and biscuits provided). And we break for an hour for our picnic lunch. We can sit in the Charleston Café (they are closed on Tuesdays) or find a spot in the yard. Or make a dash for Middle Farm along the A27.

I go away mentally and even physically exhausted. I like to ‘knock ’em out’. I also keep everything – religiously. This was my later mother’s mantra. I still have drawings I did with her in my early teens, and a few self-portraits done even younger, and the odd girlfriend from my mid to late teens (clothed I must add!). I never attempted a nude until my early twenties (and the drawing wasn’t what either of us had in mind). Then one class in Primrose Hill in the 1990s and nothing until we moved to Brighton in 2000 – and the first classes with Sussex County Arts in Brighton from 2014 or so, with Silvia at Charleston since November 2016.

With the unusually fine and dry weather the back ‘yard’ here in Lewes is a temporary studio. Feeling like San Diego I feel confident to leave boards, easel and all the accruitments of my ‘practice’ out – currently just watercolour onto cold-pressed cartridge paper.

Liz, the model, while she moved continually (Crayola Wax Crayon on wall paper liner) CC SA-BY 3.0 J F Vernon 2022

No budget sees me being resourceful. I have come to love wall paper lining and wax crayon. The very materials my mother started us kids off on when we were little: I cannot remember when I started to draw as it would have been age 3 or 4, as soon as I could hold something in my hand and not be inclined to eat it or shove it up my nose or into my ear.

I’m wasting time. I have two drawings marked up to paint and want to press on. Both are someone in water – both are of one of Silvia’s models ‘Dave’ in this instance (my wife has said she is fed up of seeing naked women all over the house so I’ve been working up sketches I have of ‘Dave’ and ‘Tim’).

Come to think of it, that is ‘Tim’ falling into the water (clothed as a swimming coach who someone has pushed into the pool, while the swimmer is ‘Dave’ – as Dave is bald which makes it easier to turn the top of his head into a swimming cap. Neither actually look like they are swimming, which is the problem.

I have been drawing swimmers in action – a challenging task! All swirls, shapes and somewhat reminiscent of a series of too short time-lapse photographs in which everything is blurred.

Students at one of Silvia’s recent classes in the Hay Barn, Charleston (C) Silvia MacRea Brown 2022)

I digress. There is a class coming up, this Tuesday 2nd August, at Charleston – in the fancy new Hay Barn rather than in the infamous Farmhouse. If are planning to attend or have questions get in touch with Silvia by email: silviamacreabrown@btinternet.com. If you want a lift from Lewes email me: joanthanferugsonvernon@gmail.com

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