The magic of mist in the woods

Last Sunday was the first really misty day we’ve had round here this year. Feeling the need to get out of Coronavirus confinement we decided to go for a walk to get some fresh air and enjoy the woodlands. I took my camera with me in hope rather than expectation of getting anything particularly interesting, though sometimes you can never tell what the conditions will be like. I remember going up to Beacon Wood on the Mendips on a misty autumn afternoon five years ago, only to find that the sun suddenly broke through and created some wonderful effects with the mist that I captured here.

At first it didn’t look promising. The mist was thick and the trees were the regimented stands of Forestry Commision conifers. As we walked on though, my eye started to get used to the conditions and I found scenes that pulled me in. Often these days, I have to feel some kind of pull from the landscape, something that attracts my attention subconsciously, something that says ‘There’s something here worth paying attention to’. When that happens I then have to work out more consciously what that ‘something’ is. It’s by no means infallible and it’s not a guarantee that it will be worth photographing, but for me it is a different way of connecting with the landscape through my photography.

The effect of the mist is quite strange. It conceals unnecessary detail and renders everything slightly mysterious and eery, like something in a fairy tale set in northern European woods. The atmospheric conditions, perhaps the concentration of water droplets in the mist, saturate the colours a bit more and blur the edges of everything. There is a sense of something just beyond the veil of the mist, nearby but ungraspable, a bit primeval and fantastical, perhaps not altogether welcoming

In some scenes, it feels like a stage set for Siegfried or Parsifal waiting for the hero to emerge from the forests and fulfil his destiny.

In places, almost a bit Impressionistic:

Late on in the walk I discovered these cobwebs: the first a dense web holding water droplets in a complex network of filaments; the second a double web hung with fine pearls.

The Martyrdom of St Edmund – myth, propaganda and pandemics

I have often admired the simplicity and beautiful symmetry of the arch on the north porch of Wells Cathedral. It wasn’t until I did a guided tour of the Cathedral though that my attention was drawn to an odd feature of this arch. Looking at it again now I can see quite clearly it’s not symmetrical and what throws it out of balance are the extra bits at the top of the second tier of column on the left. What these illustrate is a story that was already popular around the time the Cathedral was being built: the martyrdom of St Edmund.

So, who was St Edmund and why was his martyrdom depicted in stone on a cathedral several hundred years after his death?

St Edmund was King of East Anglia from 855 until his death in 869 fighting against the invading Danes. He’s mentioned in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, and that’s about all the factual information that is known about him. His body was moved to a church in Bury St Edmunds in 1095 and the site became a cult centre and place of pilgrimage. It was eventually destroyed in 1539 during the Reformation.

An alternative legend says that he refused to fight the Danes but preferred instead to die a martyr’s death. In this version he was tied to a tree and shot at with arrows (like St Sebastian) or impaled with spears – and this is what the Wells carvings depict:

But because he still refused to abjure his faith, he was beheaded and his head thrown into a wood.

When his followers came looking for him asking where he was, his head answered “Here, here, here” and it was found in the wood between the paws of a wolf and was miraculously re-attached to his body. I rather like the odd wolf who protected the king’s head and mysteriously disappeared shortly after.

According to the guide on my tour it was a piece of Anglo Saxon defiance to the Norman overlords. The clergy processing in to the cathedral would have passed it daily on their way to services. Was it aimed at them as a reminder of the survival in the face of invasion or was it aimed at the Norman bishops? A sort of ‘two fingers’ to you lot.  If not, did master masons really have the licence to do their own thing in defiance of their paymasters?

But there may be a simpler answer. One of the apocryphal books about St Edmund was ‘On the childhood of St Edmund’ (Liber de infantia Sancti Eadmundi) written in the middle of the twelfth century by one Geoffrey of Wells, a supposed canon of the Cathedral. This predates the beginning of the construction of the new Cathedral, but the legend and Geoffrey’s association with it may have inspired its depiction on the arch of the north porch. We may never know the real reason.

Oh, by the way there is a bit of a contemporary resonance in this story. As well as being the patron saint of kings, St Edmund the Martyr is also the patron saint of pandemics.


Flooding on the Somerset Levels around Muchelney

Just over a year ago I blogged about the floods on the Somerset Levels around Muchelney following a visit to the village in connection with a project. This year the floods have been worse than ever with many houses, farms and businesses affected since December. People have been forced to abandon their homes to the rising waters and take refuge in temporary accommodation; lives and livelihoods have been severely affected.

For some time I have held off going back to Muchelney as I didn’t want to be a flood tourist, gawping at other people’s misfortune. But yesterday my wife and I went down that way and took a detour through the village of Drayton to the west of Muchelney to look at the flooding from that side.

Outside Drayton the road is clear but the fields to the north of the road are badly flooded. It’s hard to tell how deep the water is but, looking at how much the trees are submerged and judging them against how they look normally on Google Maps, I would say it’s about  4-6 feet in places.

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The road, flooded and impassable beyond Westover Farm along Law Lane towards Muchelney, comes to an abrupt end as tarmac gives way to water. Within a few metres of the end of the road, as it dips down to cross the moor, the water soon starts to get deep. This is what the road looks like now:

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South of the road is an area called Thorney Moor, now one vast lake:

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To the north of the road lies flooded pasture land:

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Looking at this natural devastation of the landscape, I suddenly became aware of a vehicle heading down the road towards me:

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At first, because of its colour, I thought it was an Army vehicle:

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But as it got closer, I could see it was a tracked vehicle carrying civilians:

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It turned out to be a regular water bus service into the village laid on by Somerset County Council:

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This year’s flooding has been a huge shock, coming as it does after last year’s ‘once in a hundred years’ flood. It is currently estimated that it will take 6-8 weeks to pump the water off the land and into the rhynes (drainage ditches) and rivers, and then up to another two years for the land to recover.

It has been very moving to read the flood victims’ stories and I have no idea how the people affected will have the heart to rebuild their lives in this landscape, unless there are guarantees to build better flood defences to protect them against this happening again. Meanwhile the debate around flood prevention rages on.

One small, positive thing I take from all this is the way that local people, as the local and national authorities dithered about what action to take, have used Twitter and Facebook to organise themselves and to mobilise help and support from across the country.

You can make a donation to the flood appeal that is being run by Somerset Community Foundation by clicking Somerset Flood Relief Fund