Sheep the colour of foxes

Nothing seems simple on Portland. This is the face of a Portland sheep, a breed that has been on the island hundreds, or may even be thousands, of years (almost without a break). The males have this distinctively coloured face, and the young are born a foxy red-brown colour, an indication of their ancestry and isolation from mainland flocks, something which they grow out of as they become adult. The sheep I visited feed on plants which grow in the few inches of soil that covers the limestone underneath, that contains an underground bunker from a Cold War radar station, the above ground part of which is now being used as the farm building. Nothing is what it seems! I have also heard of an archaeological dig on the island a few years back that revealed sheep horns, perhaps pre-Roman Portlands. Something to follow up. One thing is apparent: Portland plays with your sense of time and space. I am not even sure if it exists in the present any more.


They do exactly what it says on the tin. Situated on Portland Bill, not far from the lighthouse, the Coastwatch team keep an eye out on everything that moves on the sea around Portland from their Lookout Station. Often manned by those who used to work with the sea in some way – from admiral to harbour master, submarine captain to sailor – the atmosphere in the lookout was quite infectious: precise observation mixed with banter. If they spot anyone in trouble, then they inform the coastguard. I also discovered that just below the Coastwatch Lookout there is a building in which the Earth’s magnetic field is measured: checking that north is still north, and hasn’t suddenly flipped to south, which it is supposed to do at some point I believe. I must go and see for myself. This island is full of unexpected wonders!

Vertical thinking

Some 15 metres below the cricket pitch they are cutting 15-ton blocks of stone out of the ground. There is the ‘lively’ rock (full of shells and voids left behind by sea creatures) and the base rock (the smooth creamy white stone that always struck me as being the precursor of reflective glass, so beloved of financial institutions in London: smooth, impervious, a architectural brush-off). Tom, who showed me around, has worked in the mines all his life, from the days when picks and shovels were still used. He showed me how they measure whether the roof of the mine is falling, and the curve on a graph that showed how it is quite normal for the rock above to drop by 3-4mm over the first few months, then to level out and stabilize at its slightly lower level. The idea that all the rock above was on the move was quite disturbing. But I guess what I came away with most is that mining is part of us, however unfamiliar it might be to you and me who spend our lives above ground; we have always gone underground, whether to paint pictures, excavate diamonds, draw out fossil fuels (such as coal), for protection (I also visited a military bunker today), or to bury our dead. It made me realise that Portland is so much about the relationships between the surface and what is underneath. Artist are meant to be skilled at thinking laterally, but here it is vertical, sedimentary, thinking that is needed.

No man is an island…

Woke up this morning to fog and light rain! Alleluia! Last night, when I arrived, I could get little sense that I was on an island, thanks to it being dark which meant I couldn’t see the edges; now, this morning, it is the same, this time thanks to fog. When the fog lifted for a moment I could just see the line of Chesil Beach, which connects Portland to the main land, but that was it. So much of islandness seems to depend upon being able to see the edges. But these edges are constantly shifting, especially now that we are working so hard to raise sea levels. At different times Portland has been submerged, an island (unconnected to the mainland), and a hill surrounded by dry land, depending on where the sea was at the time. What is intriguing at this moment in time is that the sea bed around Portland has recently been scanned in 3D. (I know, everything is going digital!) A complete map of the surrounding seabed is now available to work with, and I intend to: intend to work with the islandness of Portland and see if I can change it in some way.

Owl in the night

Tonight I am on the Island of Portland for the first time (for the exlab project), having spent today meeting all the other artists and project partners. I arrived in the dark, driving over the thin strip of beach that links the island to the mainland, and then up through masses of naval housing (Portland harbour used to be naval). It was only three quarters of the way down the island that the housing estates stopped and the open spaces of Portland Bill emerged. Mist coming in off the sea, damp air, overhead an owl was lit up a ghostly white by the spotlights used to illuminate the old lighthouse, now the Portland Bird Observatory, where I am staying. A few moments later little screams in the field behind me: dead mouse.

Living on limestone

“It seems to me that the human hubbub is always nested within a more-than-human crowd of elementals, a community composed first of the particular geological structures and rocks of our locale. The stones and minerals of each place give rise to certain qualities in the soil, and that soil invites a specific array of plants to seed themselves and take root there. Those shrubs and trees, in turn, provoke particular animals to linger and sometimes settle in that terrain, or at least to feast on their leaves and fruits as they migrate though that landscape. Those animals, plants, and landforms are our real neighbours, the folks with whom we need to be practicing real community, if we want to be living well in any place.” I find it encouraging that when you start tuning into something, in my case I am beginning to think about making work for the Isle of Portland, then things simply start presenting themselves to you, as if out of nowhere, such as this quote from David Abram (see my earlier post ‘Me and my shadow’). Since much of Portland is to do with its geology, this quote seems a good starting point. (Cross section of Jurassic oolitic limestone)

The blackest of blacks

Yesterday afternoon I took a memorable walk with artist Peter Ward along the coast just south of Westward Ho! in north Devon. With the rain drizzling in off the sea, Peter was showing me where you could find Bideford Black exposed at the base of the cliffs. Bidiblack, as it is know locally, was a commercially mined pigment up to the 1960s, used in everything from camouflage and stove black to mascara. It is an incredibly intense, naturally occuring pigment that can be found as a metre-wide seam of black clay at the bottom of the cliffs. To touch it is slightly oily, and of course got all over my hands and clothes within minutes! But the whole walk was quite special, the cliffs there revealing layer upon layer of geology, with rocks of all colours twisting and turning, infront of which is a pebble beach that sits on a flat wave-cut platform. The weather was just right for seeing the rocks, the wetness allowing each one to reveal it true colours. Amazing! Thanks Peter.