- Matthew Slater
This illustration was drawn a few days ago after a recent visit to Fishpool Valley at the National Trust property of Croft Castle in north Herefordshire. I didn’t want to draw on location as I wanted to create a more thought-through illustrated piece - and it wasn’t the time or place to sit for an hour or so sketching. When I was back at home I decided to add this piece of writing and, without having taken any notes at the time, I had to rely on my memory of the visit.
My pace is unhurried, each footstep is placed carefully and with deliberate restraint in front of the next. Slow. Listening. Breathing. Sensing. I have time to time to observe and see what nature had to show me.
A gust of a chilled January breeze catches fallen beech leaves and lifts them leaping and tumbling across the path before me. Here, for a few minutes, I am joining in with their freedom, and letting my soul blend into the landscape.
I’m overlooking a small side valley, the hill dropping away sharply - not far, about a minute’s walk down to the path at the bottom. It is covered with young ash trees, tall and slender, stretching from the dark woodland floor of brambles and ferns creating vertical forms reaching skywards. Sheltered from the westerly wind, they rest relatively motionless. Sunlight would fill the place in the morning but, by the afternoon, it is shadowed by the hillside and the older beech companions along the top edge where I stand. Where the sharp winter light penetrates this deciduous stand of trees it has caught their trunks and on the thousands of bare wiry branches in their winter dormancy. The brightness is a stunning contrast to the grey wood and its dark interior.
Beauty is seen here in the ordinary. It happens here every day when the sky is clear and the season provides the right conditions. It catches my attention for a few minutes and I take a few photographs with the idea of an illustration emerging.
Copper-brown bracken lies fragile and brittle along the woodland edge and forms a footnote to my picture. The tough, flesh cutting stems are disintegrating - beaten down by wind, rain and, probably, snow.
I look into the blackness between the trees and see a path along which I have walked many times. It passes up through the woodland on the other side of the valley before emerging into a area of open grassland - scattered throughout with majestic old oaks and which, later in the spring, would be carpeted in waves of bluebells.
My hand wanders over the trunk of one of the beeches lining the path where I am standing. The silvery bark has been absorbing the afternoon sunshine and radiates warmth despite the chilled air.
I think there are siskins high in the nearby conifers, way out of sight and chattering excitedly. I can never see them when they are so high up and assume this is what I hear.