Peaceful Reflections, Old Harry Rocks
For a long time now, it has been dark. As always, the autumn and winter months ushered in their expected paucity of daylight hours, but as spring finally arrived there seemed to be a reluctance to pack away the shade and the UK appeared to be subdued by meteorological lethargy. Seasonal light and weather have been one part of the story, while an extended, pandemic-busting lockdown (that has yet to end completely) has been the other; that is not to say that it has been unnecessary or malevolent, but rather that restriction has a nasty habit of promoting gloom and melancholia. Stay with me - it lightens up, I promise!
April 2021. Lockdown restrictions have been preventing me from making the 3 hour journey from home in Sussex to home-from-home in Dorset. Despite Sussex being the most agreeable of prisons, the freedom and revitalising tonic of the Purbeck coastline are sorely missed. Everything seems a little darker, heavier, slower, less energetic and cumbersome. For once, and perhaps the only time in my life, I empathise with my iPhone - battery running down rapidly, its recharging cable unavailable as the children's thirstier devices take priority. The extent to which we can feel our batteries filling with charge again, and see light appearing on the horizon at the smallest change in circumstances (or lockdown rules) is a wonderful thing; we are packing up the car for a four-day break in Dorset. Positivity returns.
Everyone has their favourite go-to places, and each uses them for different reasons: relaxation, excitement, nostalgia, sentiment, solitude, inspiration, meaning. I have several and Handfast Point - the promontory where Ballard Down meets the English Channel - is perhaps the most treasured. It is to be found at the end of a gentle walk, with no dramatic changes in gradient, starting from the charming village of Studland. I know instinctively that this is the place where I must go to shake off the dark cloak of the past six months. There is an artistic aspect to the walk too. In the dawn light, Handfast Point is at its most beautiful, the rising sun often creating a soft and peaceful atmosphere while other folk (not to be misanthropic) are few and far between. No buzzing drone photography. No anxious parents shouting at their adventurous children, inching way too close to the cliff-edge. In my mind, I already know the colours and tones that I want to see yet I have never witnessed for myself, having mostly visited here at the end of the day. The weather forecast appears to be promising for the week, and I decide that a dawn visit has every prospect of meeting my expectations. I pack my rucksack - camera kit, gimbal, sketch book, paints and brushes, chocolate - and set my alarm for 4.45 am.
It doesn't take me long to mobilise in the morning (afternoons are a different matter altogether) and I step outside into the new day. It is still dark and freezing cold, but I am grateful that the cottage is so close to the sea - the salty air helps to prevent the car windscreen from icing over, and no morning that starts with an ice-scraping procedure, using an old CD box, is ever likely to be memorable. It's always nice to feel that you have the road to yourself, and the short drive from Swanage to Studland seems momentary. The walk to Handfast Point is easily accessed - it is best to park up in the National Trust car park, next to the Bankes Arms pub - and then walk down the hill to join the coast path. The walk is short (one mile) along the headland that marks the southern boundary of Studland Bay, sea to the left, fields and meadows to the right, with small areas of woodland on the cliff top. The air is clean and thin, salty and with no discernible moisture. Looking out across The Channel, the darkness is beginning to lift and a thin dash of custard-yellow light is visible on the horizon. The path crosses an open meadow, moving further away from the cliff edge and in places the frost has got the better of the salty air, the grass snapping and crunching under my boots. The plaintive call of a tawny owl is just audible in the woodland. Rigging lanyards make a soft chinking sound against the masts of yachts moored in the bay - a sweet and welcoming tune, played on the most sensitive of glockenspiels.
The headland reaches its extremity at Handfast Point, where the walker is greeted with a stunning view of Old Harry Rocks - separated from the headland by erosion. It seems as though I have been walking along a geological sentence that is now completed with strange, chalky punctuation marks. It is much lighter now, although some residual cloud is unwilling to move on, obscuring the sun's emerging radiance but defusing the light into muted, pastel-like hues, both cool and warm. It isn't perfect yet, but I'm confident that in another twenty minutes or so this wonderful stretch of our coastline will be awash with the delicate, golden light of dawn. It is certainly good enough to sketch now, but I am conscious that the cold will require speed of observation, brush and pen - no bad thing for sketching, where an immediate response to the landscape often yields dynamic and honest results, free from obfuscation and over-thinking.
My quick sketch of Old Harry Rocks complete, I walk to the top of Ballard Down where a sweeping view to the north, across Studland Bay and towards Poole Harbour awaits. It will buy me a little more time, and I expect that as I head back to Handfast Point the sun will be just starting to catch the headland and the edge of Old Harries. There may just be time for another quick sketch.......
It cannot be said that the British weather has a strong track-record of compliance, but today could persuade you otherwise; as I walk back down to Handfast Point the warm setting is being dialled up and direct sunlight is tipping the edge of the Wedge and Pinnacle, two other chalk stacks on the Swanage side of the headland. On arrival, the scene, looking east across Old Harry Rocks and out to sea, is the one that you see in the first painting. I discard my rucksack and sink down into the verdant embrace of the thick tufts of grass on the cliff top. The sea seems to be barely moving, but listening more closely I can hear the occasional wave and their eddies playing 'tide'-and-seek in the little coves and inlets 150 feet below at the foot of the cliff. Two cormorants call, gliding on the early morning thermals, before pulling up sharply and settling on the slenderest of ledges running across the cliff face.
This landscape means so much to me and these paintings and sketches take me back immediately to this cold, crisp morning in April. I felt elated when I had finished painting 'Peaceful Reflections....' Not only had it been a success, creatively and technically, but with every brushstroke I was back on the cliff top, observing, experiencing, living. Hopefully, I have been able to share something of that with you. For those of you that are also landscape painters - experienced or just starting off - this is what landscape painting is all about. No Google images, no laborious considerations about brushes, paper and paint, no endless searches for the perfect tutorials or courses, no style that needs to be copied or emulated. Be in the landscape and absorb everything around you. Cameras help, sketch pads help, but sometimes you just have to be there with all your senses turned on and allow yourself to be overwhelmed with the experience of it. That is where your best pantings will come from.
The dark months of lockdown have come and gone. Lighter times lay ahead.