Old Stones of Wenlock: repurposing the Silurian Sea


I like the idea that I, like many in and around Much Wenlock, live inside blocks of repurposed, and well-travelled seafloor – the compressed and decomposing shells, sponges, bony fish, sea scorpions, trilobites and corals of  the Silurian Sea. It is also intriguing to know that some 400 million years ago, this shallow tropical ocean was part of a land mass that lay off East Africa, somewhere near the Comoros Islands. We even have our own geological epoch – The Wenlock that lasted from 428 to 423 million years ago. And yes, I know, it is hard to fathom – this mind-boggling vastness of geological time, the tectonic shunt and shift across the globe to create the continents we all now recognise.


My own view of the world, I find, is firmly fixed, and distinctly two-dimensional, being the usual flat configuration found in an atlas. And of course, when I consult the world map I can surely see that Much Wenlock is definitely in the northern hemisphere, in England’s Midlands to be exact, nudging towards Wales. Yet the proof that this was not always so, is all around me – in the stones of church, priory, and the many barns and cottages, even in my chimney breast – this place, this ground beneath the wooded ridgeback of Wenlock Edge, where the stone was quarried, WAS ONCE IN THE TROPICS. And since I once lived in the tropics myself, I like to think that returning to Shropshire has brought me back to the place where I was in Africa, but in a different time zone – a bit like a Time Lord, a Doctor Who without a Tardis.


The Farrell Silurian fireplace built c 1830


But back to the stones. The circular sections you can see in the first photo  are the remains of crinoids or sea lilies. These were animals, echinoderms, not plants, and looked something like this:

From McGraw-Hill Science and Technology Encyclopedia; Articulata


Bony fish also made their first appearance during the Silurian:

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Artist’s impression of Silurian Fish (creative commons copyright expired) from  Nebula to Man by Joseph Smit 1905


And the landscape may have looked like this, although was apparently entirely inhospitable above water, with roaring winds and hot flying dust, and no signs of life.

Silurian Sea reconstruction by Richard Bizley: http://www.bizleyart.com/


And here is bed of the Silurian Sea today, the upthrust levels that form the fifteen-mile wooded ridge of Wenlock Edge. Its geology is of international importance. (For more on Wenlock Edge, see its Facebook page here.)

The Edge has been quarried for centuries, but the quarries lie mostly empty now, waiting to be repurposed themselves. In the town our earliest surviving stone buildings date from monastic times. (In Much Wenlock An Inspector Calls.) But old buildings have always been recycled into new buildings, and you can see signs of this as you walk along the streets nearest the priory ruins.









And finally  (below) is the Farrell establishment – a blend of old and new construction. Hopefully the inhabitants are not yet as fossilized as their surrounding walls, although clearly it is only a matter of time.


Travel theme: stone

© 2013 Tish Farrell

Rain Dance: all together now – let’s sing!


There are some African wise words that say: if you can walk, you can dance; if you can talk you can sing. And this is what the children’s opera, Rain Dance is all about, giving young people the chance to perform and tell stories through song and dance (emphasis on the singing).

The opera was created by librettist Donald Sturrock and composer, Stuart Hancock, and my own small contribution is the fact that my retelling of an African story, The Hare Who Would Not Be King, was the starting point for the project.  Sometime back in 2007, Donald Sturrock  wrote to me asking if he and Stuart Hancock could adapt my story for a children’s opera. Their intention was submit the work to the London-based WW11 Opera in hopes of winning a commission for one of the Opera’s annual productions.

Time passed, and more time passed, but win they did, and Rain Dance was performed at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, London in December 2010 to a packed house. I was there with G of course, sitting amongst throngs of excited children. By the time we came to the finale with its rousing Rain Dance theme, I was pretty much as excited as my junior neighbours. I might even have been jumping up and down in my seat: to think that my story had been the very small spark for this wonderful new work, and its exuberant performance.

The finale of Rain Dance. Photo: WW11 Opera


Of course this splendid show with 85 young performers (9-18 years) was only made possible under the auspices of the  W11 Opera for Young People. This is a London-based charitable trust, founded in 1971, to give young people from all backgrounds the chance to sing and perform. Every year a  new opera is commissioned with the aim of creating a repertoire of song-based works that can be staged by schools and community groups. W11 Opera also showcases the work of new and established composers, and its productions have seen the launching of star performers such as Sophie Ellis-Bextor.

And so, as may be imagined, I am incredibly pleased to find that the opera, which began life with the W11 Opera, will be performed once  more. In March 2014 Rain Dance will have its North American premier at the North Cambridge Family Opera Company, Cambridge, Massachusetts. The NCFOC has a slightly different approach to the W11 Opera: the cast includes both young people and adults, and thus is a chance for family members to perform together. That there are people who put their time, enthusiasm and creativity into making such things happen makes me want to burst into song as I write this.



Performances March 29 & 30, April 5 & 6, 2014


As to my story, that had its own sources. It tells how the plains animals vote for a bullying lion to be their king and of the dire consequences of their actions. Hare, the familiar trickster of many African tales, is the reluctant hero of the piece, and nearly ends up as lion food. The plot is based on a story once told by the Akamba people of  Kenya.  I was living in Kenya at the time of writing, when the country was struggling towards a western-style democracy after years of one-party rule. This situation very much influenced the retelling. My version of the story was first published in the United States in Spider Magazine February 1999, accompanied by some fine illustrations by US writer and illustrator, Brian Lies. You can read an extract and see some of the original illustrations HERE.

In the meantime it is good to know that, in the last week of October, eager performers (young and older) will have been showing up for the Rain Dance auditions at the North Cambridge Family Opera.  The story that Donald Sturrock has created is far more complex than mine. It draws on another African story besides, creating a updated version of the race between Tortoise and Hare. The animal election has all the razzmatazz of a human election with full media coverage. There is also the theme of climate change and its effect on the water-hole, to say nothing of hilarious interludes with Hare’s family and four shopaholic lionesses. Throughout, Stuart Hancock’s musical score is utterly original and captivating with no hint of ‘African’ pastiche in his lovely melodies.

The NCFOC performances are scheduled for March 29 & 30, April 5 & 6, 2014. Go, if you have the chance. You won’t regret it. You’ll come away singing and dancing too.

© 2013 Tish Farrell

Frizztext RRR Challenge

RELATED: The Hare Who Would Not Be King

Blue Lagoon

Weekly Photo Challenge: Horizon

DP Daily Prompt: The Golden Hour


Beyond the shore, the reef, the sea, and then the sky: dawn one Christmas off Tiwi Beach, Mombasa


Other striking horizons:

Fractions of the World

Wind Against Current

Jolie Petite Maison

Hope*the happy hugger

Be Happy

Belgrade Streets

Artifacts and Fictions


Northwest Frame of Mind


copyright 2013 Tish Farrell

In Much Wenlock An Inspector Calls


Much Wenlock, the place where I live,  is a small town with a big history. You could say it owes its existence to the discovery of some holy bones. And no, this is not the reason for the inspector’s visit.  I’ll get to him in a moment. (In fact his arrival in town relates to the making of some new history). But about those bones…

First of all, they are very, very old. In life they belonged to a Saxon princess, whom we know locally as Milburga, though she comes in other spellings. She was daughter of the Mercian King, Merewalh, who held sway over much of the English Midlands during the 7th century.  These were turbulent times – the spread of Christianity going hand in hand with securing territory. To this end, Merewalh was a man with a plan. Instead of arranging dynastic marriages for his three daughters, he established them as rulers of new religious houses across his kingdom. Even his own queen, a Kentish princess, in later life returned to faraway Kent to become Abbess of Minster. In this way Merewalh consolidated spiritual and political prestige, commanding both bodies and souls.

In preparation for the religious life, Milburga was sent for her education to the double monastery of Chelles in Paris. According to the historian, and her contemporary Saint Bede, this was common practice for English girls. Sometime towards the end of the 7th century Milburga then took charge of an abbey in Much Wenlock. This was also a dual monastery i.e. for both men and women, and each sex had their own church. It was also the most important religious house in the region. There she presided for the next thirty years, ministering to the people of her extensive domain lands. Many legends grew up: that she had the power of healing the blind and of creating springs of water. After her death in 725 AD there were more and more stories about her miracles, and so in due course she became Saint Milburga.

Fast forward to the Norman Conquest of Britain (1066), and now we have brow-beating Norman earls establishing their power bases across the land. Their plan was to use ‘big architecture’ to dominate the natives: castles, fortified manors, churches and monasteries – the bigger the better. In Much Wenlock, Earl Roger de Montgomery built a Benedictine priory on the site of Milburga’s abbey. It was affiliated to the monastery of Cluny in France, and so French monks came over to live in it. The building was an impressive enterprise too. Today, the picturesque ruins in the heart of the town do little to indicate the vast scale of the original.

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Wenlock Priory and the ruins of 12th century Benedictine monastery that was built on the site of Milburga’s Saxon abbey. In its day, this was one of the biggest and most prestigious religious houses in Europe. Photo: Creative Commons, Chris Gunns


But building big is not everything. The Normans faced a problem that every interloper faces: how to give their occupation legitimacy. Milburga was a much-loved saint and a Saxon saint to boot. It was essential to confirm possession, not only of her extensive lands (which was quickly achieved), but also of her remains.

The last proved less easy and, it may well be imagined, then, that when the French monks arrived in Wenlock and found the silver shrine of Milburga empty but for “some rags and ashes”, there was much consternation. Where were the saintly bones?


Bishop Odo unfolds the mystery in an account written after he visited the Priory in 1190. It appears that the nuns’ church of Milburga’s abbey (now our town church, Holy Trinity, above) still survived in Norman times, but lay in ruins. The monks decided on some restoration, and it was during work on the altar that a monastic servant found an ancient Saxon document. The monks, being French, could not read it and  so a reliable translator had to be found forthwith. Thus was discovered the testimony of a priest called Alstan who said that Milburga had been buried near the altar in the nuns’church.

Of course by now  nearly four centuries had passed since her death, but news of the document reached Anselm, Bishop of Canterbury and he gave the monks permission to excavate. But before this could happen, two boys playing by the dilapidated altar, caused the floor in front to collapse, which in turn led to the more rapid discovery of Milburga’s remains. This was in 1101 AD, and we know they were her bones because they were “beautiful and luminous” and accompanied by the requisite saintly fragrance deemed to be given off by such relics.

The discovery gave Much Wenlock instant pilgrim-appeal, and the monastic publicity machinery rolled. The Prior commissioned the leading writer on saints of the day, Goscelin,  to write about the life of Saint Milburga and so firmly establish the cult of miracles that surrounded her. From that time pilgrims flocked to Wenlock, and the town grew to cater for them. Some of the surviving public houses have their beginnings in the Middle Ages. The Priory itself was wealthy in land and employed a large workforce who were engaged in agriculture and early industrial development including coal mining and iron working. Artisans and merchants were attracted to the area. Trades and services developed to cater for the pilgrims and the Priory. And over all this human business presided the Prior, delivering both spiritual and temporal edicts. It was not until 1468 that the town was handed over to a secular authority.

And so here we have the little market town of Much Wenlock, continuously occupied for a thousand years and presently home of 2,700 souls. It sits below the long limestone ridge of Wenlock Edge whose geology is of international renown. After the monastery was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1540, the town continued to thrive as entrepreneurs moved in to develop the industrial potential of former monastic holdings. The cloth trade and tanning became important. Agriculture and quarrying continued as mainstays since Much Wenlock’s limestone was not only useful for building, but was also burned in kilns to use as fertilizer. Most importantly, as time went on, it became an essential ingredient in the making of cast iron, acting as a flux to remove impurities from the iron.

Indeed, it was at furnaces on Milburga’s former domains at Coalbrookdale, Madeley, and in Broseley that many breakthroughs in the iron industry were made, thus setting off the World’s Industrial Revolution. And the reason these technological innovations took place here was because the locality had all the vital ingredients:  limestone, ironstone, fireclay and coal. The tributaries of the Severn could be harnessed for water power, and the river itself provided a trading route down to Bristol. Not only that, generations of monastic workers meant there was a skilled workforce to be utilised when post-Dissolution entrepreneurs moved in to take over monastic mines, iron works and water mills.






We have other claims to fame too. The reason why one of the Olympic mascots was called Wenlock was because it was here in 1850 the town’s physician, Dr William Penny Brookes began the first modern Olympian games. For the next few decades people flocked to Wenlock in thousands to see them.  Brookes passed his ideas on to Baron de Coubertin who often visited the town, and so began the International Olympic Committee. The Wenlock Olympian Games are still held every year and provide a popular competition venue for sportsmen and women from all over the country. 

But back to the inspector who was left stranded at the top the page. Two years ago Much Wenlock was one of the seventeen front-runner communities in the country chosen by Government to create a Neighbourhood Plan. Since then, cohorts of Wenlock and other volunteers have worked with the community to produce a plan that sets out the kind of development we want in the parish over the next thirteen years. Last week the inspector, the man assessing the plan, came to the Priory Hall, the town’s community centre, to conduct a public hearing.

For reasons that may become apparent by looking at the next photos, large scale development is not a popular proposition in the community. Most of us feel that we have had more than enough. The town sits in a basin. Wenlock Edge and surrounding hills drain through it down a culverted medieval watercourse once known as the Schittebrok. The Victorians did the culverting and there have been so-called remedial schemes since. Some argue these ‘improvements’ have made the problem worse. The town’s footprint has increased some 300% in the last decades with much unsympathetic development that has covered agricultural land with hard surfaces that speed up flooding. Our narrow medieval street system turns roads into rivers during heavy rain. The other serious problem then (apart from traffic congestion) is drains.

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In 2007, after 91 homes were flooded due to a combination of flash flooding and poor drainage, the town held a referendum. The vote was 471 to 13 to have no more development until the town’s traffic and drainage problems were resolved. Nothing has been done to improve these matters, our sewage farm is under capacity. The bill for new drainage will cost millions and our private water company is unlikely to fork out. In the meantime the developers and major landowner informed the inspector that they are itching to build 85 houses in the near future, with a suggested total of 250 over all.

At the hearing the inspector gave them ample chance to make their case, and he himself gave no clue as to which side’s view would hold sway. The Neighbourhood Plan wants only small numbers of affordable homes for locals to rent, and a maximum of 25 market homes on a single low density development. But this is not how housing developers work. Much Wenlock’s property prices are high; it is a desirable place to live. They thus want to build up-scale houses with multiple bathrooms. Meanwhile our ageing community would like comfortable smaller places so they can downsize and release their homes to people with families. It is a divergence of objectives that appears to have no sensible resolution.

The British Government’s stance is that building houses is the only way to create ‘sustainable’ communities. So even if the Neighbourhood Plan is passed by the inspector, there is no knowing how far it will protect the town from inappropriate development.

As I said at the start, Much Wenlock is a small town with a big history. But perhaps our story has not yet been well enough told. Perhaps we are not shouting it loud enough. Events that occurred in and around Milburga’s former domain have helped change the world we all live in. A few miles away is the World Heritage Site of the Ironbridge Gorge (site of the world’s first cast iron bridge built in 1779). The iron, porcelain and decorative tile industries that grew up in this area traded their goods across the world. Monastic enterprise underpinned the development of  British industry.

Today if you visit Much Wenlock it may strike you as a Rip Van Winkle sort of place. It has a slumbering air, as if dozing under the weight of ancient timbers and stonework. But it can be lively too.There are some excellent shops including two excellent book shops and a gallery. There are small markets during the week, a museum, the church, the Priory, the Olympian trail, good pubs and hotels, many societies to join, a fully equipped leisure and arts centre. 

Above: glimpse of the Prior’s house, now a private home. Below: cottages on the Bull Ring

We have much  to protect and preserve here, and much to share with those who visit us. And we do want the town to grow and thrive, but on the community’s terms and according to their expressed needs. But looking over the last thousand years, this story does have a common theme. Whether we’re talking of Saxon kings, Norman earls or housing developers, those who have power and land do all the ruling, too frequently asserting their will over the wishes of the general populace. It remains to be seen whether the inspector will pass our plan. He said he would let us know in November. In the meantime, I, like others in the town, watch rainy skies with anxious eyes, if not for ourselves, then for vulnerable neighbours. Fingers crossed for Neighbourhood Planning and that it actually will serve our purpose.

© 2013 Tish Farrell





twitter: @Wenlock_Plan





W F Mumford Wenlock in the Middle Ages 1977 re-published under ISBN 0950561606

Vivien Bellamy A History of Much Wenlock 2001 Shropshire Books ISBN 9780903802796

Kind of blue and other colours

Weekly Photo Challenge: the hue of you


Stained glass by Marc Chagall, musée national Marc Chagall, Nice

Another of the world’s great little galleries, currently celebrating its 40th anniversary. I went there one October. It left its colours imprinted on my retina and in my heart. If ever you are in Nice, be sure to go there. Also posted with reference to Miles Davis and his ‘Kind of Blue’ album.

RELATED: https://tishfarrell.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/only-one-ogunquit-the-little-gallery-by-the-sea/

And some other good hues:








Paul Kabochi, Path-finder, Pharmacist 1942-2003




It was dawn on the muddy shores of Lake Elmenteita in Kenya’s Rift Valley, and I was walking alone, listening to the endless grunting of flamingos as they grazed the algae-rich water. Suddenly a safari truck swung out onto the mud flats. A Japanese tourist jumped out and began taking photographs of the distant flamingos. His driver and guide Paul Kabochi, also got out, moving more softly as was his way. He  came over to me while his guest went on shooting. “Hello,” he said. “What are you doing here?”

It wasn’t a question that expected an answer; it was just Paul being Paul, the wry smile, and the glittering eyes that missed nothing. On several visits to Elmenteita’s Delamere Camp he had taken me out on dawn walks, and he had been our guide on night drives around the Soysambu estate.  And so, as I had my camera with me, I asked him to pose by the lake, which he was more than pleased to do.

Paul Githinji Kabochi was a man I am lucky to have met, and I mourn his tragic loss in what was, for him, the strangest of accidents. He was a true path-finder, and not only for the likes of me, a traveller, wanting to experience the African bush with someone who knew it intimately, but also for august naturalists such as David Attenborough.  Paul had been one of the expert guides during the making of The Life of Mammals, and his special knowledge was often called upon by the BBC’s outpost in Nairobi.

I first met him on the afternoon ethnobotany walk run by Delamere Camp to keep guests amused until the night drive around Lord Delamere’s private estate (now Soysambu Conservancy). That day, on the walk, we did not get beyond the camp grounds. There were too many plants that required our attention.

Paul knew about the medicinal properties of both indigenous and introduced plant species. I remember him telling me to pick some lavender from the bush outside the camp dining room when I told him I had a headache; this after ascertaining whether it was “a headache of the stomach, or of the weather.” He told me to make tea with it. On other occasions he also explained how he treated skin cancers with a mixture of, among other things, baked sodom apple (Solanum family) and avocado. Then there was the little blue flowered Wandering Jew (Commelina) that was especially good for clearing adolescent acne. He also once told me that he had successfully treated a typhoid outbreak in the locality with decoctions of (I think) fever tree bark.  He meant to write a book, imparting all he knew, but when I last met him he was struggling with finding ways to fund the venture.

When he was not acting as guide for Delamere Camps, he had his own clinic in Rumuruti, and was also called on from time to time to consult at the prestigious Nairobi Hospital.


Lake Elmenteita looking towards the exploded volcanic crater known as The Sleeping Warrior. Large numbers of flamingos come to feed here, but it is more important as a breeding ground for white pelicans. Like many of the Rift lakes, the water is exceedingly alkaline. This particular lake is also very shallow, being only around 1 metre deep. At times it has been known to disappear altogether, leaving a dusty basin. The name comes from the Maasai ol muteita meaning dust place.


There were around twenty ‘thatched-roof’ tents – all with bathrooms. On cool evenings we would return from the night drive to find hot water bottles in our beds.

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Paul was responsible for many of  the features that made staying at the Elmenteita camp so special. One of them was the tree house he built in a fever tree, and on whose roof terrace he is standing in the photo above. Small numbers of guests could spend the night there in the hopes of spotting the leopard that came to drink at  a nearby water hole. We stayed there once, but saw no leopard. Instead we were kept awake by chattering tree squirrels who spent all night raiding the sugar bowl which we had carelessly left uncovered. The night drive out there, though, had been fun. We had seen both a zorilla and an aardvark. And in the morning the camp staff drove up with a full hot breakfast, so we could dine on the roof amongst the bird call.


Paul said he came from the Ndorobo community, or Ogiek, a small, but remnant population of hunter-gatherers, who traditionally lived by honey gathering and hunting. These slight-framed people were possibly among the indigenous inhabitants of East Africa before the arrival of the Bantu farmers and Maasai pastoralists. Many became assimilated with the newcomers, adopting their languages, but there are still groups living in the forests of the Mau Escarpment, where they struggle to have their rights acknowledged by the Kenyan Government. Top on their list of priorities is preserving their forest domain, now constantly under threat from agriculture.

Before he became a guide, Paul worked for many years as an animal trapper for the National Museums of Kenya, capturing animals for museum study and display. He told me that he and his party had once been set on by bandits while he was trapping up in remote and arid Turkana. The works Land Rover was stolen at gunpoint and they were left to die. He survived on that occasion, but blamed the loss of many teeth on the days of near starvation in the wilderness.

In the years before he died, Paul was working down at Taita Ranch near the border with Tanzania. There he liaised with film crews and scientific expeditions of all kinds, giving them the benefit of his wisdom and wit. It was on the 8th February 2003, while he was out alone, and on foot, tracking dwarf mongoose, that he was surprised by a lone elephant and killed. It was some years after the event that I heard what had happened, and oddly, too, from a friend of a friend in rural Shropshire, someone whose sister lived in Kenya and whom I met while she was briefly over in England on a visit. It was a strange way to discover this sad news. Even now, I find it hard to believe that someone as smart and wily as Paul Kabochi could have been caught unawares by an elephant. They have such a strong smell for one thing, and he was not a man to take anything for granted.

Many academic research papers have been dedicated to him, but I notice, as time passes, internet  references to Paul Kabochi grow fewer. This makes me wonder, too, about the loss of all his pharmacological knowledge. I know he had children, but did he pass it on? In 2000 German documentary film maker Ralf Breier made a short film about Paul. Its English title is ‘Animal Magician’. Now that’s a film I would like to see.

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The photo above was taken from the Sundowner Look-out, above Lake Elmenteita.This was another of Paul’s ideas: that in late afternoon guests would either walk or be driven up to the cliff top behind Delamere Camp. There they would be given a few roast ‘bitings’ of game meat and a beer or soft drink, and sit on tree-stump seats and watch the sun go down. We have sat up there and viewed this scene with some of our dearest friends. Now I  look at the photo and think of Paul Kabochi. It is hard to think that he is not still treading softly along Africa’s wilderness trails. 

© 2013 Tish Farrell


P.S. Delamere Camp is no more. Much of the former Delamere estate at Soysambu is now part of the Soysambu Conservancy. The soda lakes of Elmenteita and nearby Nakuru are now World Heritage Sites.



Nakuru is the next lake up the Rift from Elmenteita.



Silhouettes and symbols

A Word A Week: Silhouette

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I was forced to raid the Team Leader’s overland photo files for this shot. It is one of my favourites and was taken in Mali, just south of Timbuktu on the banks of the mighty Niger River.  In West and Central Africa, rivers are super-highways, the means by which most business and travel are done. They are also an essential source for the watering of humans, livestock and farm fields. Many people also make their living from fishing, pot and brick-making, and then there is the making of bogolanfini, the famous mudcloth of the Bamana people; this is a craft that  requires both mud and copious amounts of water.

It struck me too, that the traditional patterns that are used to decorate bogolanfini are also silhouettes of sorts: the dark background used as a foil to the recurring signifiers and abstract imagery that make up the design.


This piece of mudcloth usually drapes over the back of  our kitchen sofa. The fabric is made from Malian cotton, woven by men into narrow strips 15cm by 1.5 metres. These are then sown together to make a wrap about 1 metre wide.

In the past, the dyeing and the design were women’s work, but these days bogolanfini is made by both men and women, much of it simplified versions of traditional designs and made specifically for the tourist and export market. The piece above is typical of tourist mudcloth.

The central motif, the joined up ‘EEEs’ is called crocodile fingers. The >>>> pattern on the borders is called wosoko and said to relate to a specific event, that of a farmer who had a sickle he especially liked and thought should have its own pattern. The circles with dots inside represent love of family and community: the large circle is the home, and the dot inside the family.

In the past, too, the messages drawn on the cloth were not only more intricate, but also held more complex meanings that related to Bamana history and custom. The obvious motif references to streams, hills, animals, might have many layers of meaning. The wearing of the wraps had sacred significance too, some made to be worn by girls undergoing initiation into womanhood, others for women who had just given birth, or who had died in childbirth. These were usually black and white, and believed to have protective qualities.

Cloth dyed with ochre- and red-coloured mud was favoured by hunters since it provided good camouflage in the bush.The fabric below is part of a waistcoat. Again, I imagine that this piece was made for the tourist market, or possibly commissioned especially by the Kenyan fashion house Kiko Romeo where I bought the waistcoat. To my eye, though, this is a pleasing abstraction of a giraffe’s lovely hide.


The processes for making mudcloth have also been simplified to cater for mass market demands. This means that anyone can pick up the basics of the craft in a fairly short time. Traditionally, the apprenticeship might take years, daughters learning from mothers and grandmothers. But all is not lost. Artists like Nakunté Diarra are still maintaining authentic methods, which she has passed on to her son and granddaughter.

The process begins by soaking the plain undyed cotton in a decoction of crushed leaves and bark from the Anogeissus leiocarpa tree and the woody shrub Combretum glutinosum. This turns the cloth yellow and acts as a mordant to fix the mud dye. Once the cloth has dried, river mud that has been fermented in pots for up to a year, is applied to it. The designs are painted on using a stylus-like instrument. The cloth is again dried and washed, and the mud re-applied, then washed and dried once more. Finally, the remaining yellow areas are treated by painting over them with caustic soda to whiten them and make them stand out against the dark background. It takes two to three weeks to make a cloth.

If you want to see mudcloth making in action go to the video link below for a tour of the Coulibaly workshop in Burkina Faso where techniques were learned from a Malian grandmother.


A traditionally made wrap by Kouraba Diarra. Photo: Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Brown University.


tumblr_m5r7haSBuZ1rwcwkxo1_1280New-wave bogolanfini at Djenne, Mali. Photo: Art of Afrika



Dr. Y’s  African Heritage blog at: http://afrolegends.com/2009/09/11/bogolan-the-art-of-making-mudcloth/


More a-word-a-week silhouettes:







© 2013 Tish Farrell

The Smoke that Thunders


We inhabitants of Great Britain, that one-time source and bastion of Empire, somehow take it for granted that other people’s geography should be named after our explorers, our lords and our monarchs. It was part and parcel of the colonizing process, this laying claim to territory, the ‘making it ours’ rather than theirs, the indigenous inhabitants’. Also, much as a head-hunter gains spiritual power by consuming the brains of his enemy, so explorers, lords and monarchs accrued grandeur by bestowing their names on natural-world-wonders. It was one way of acquiring grand-scale permanence over frail bodily transience. Some might say it was a form of megalomania.

All of which is to say that the photo above shows one of the most famous examples of colonial misappropriation – the great southern African cataracts of Victoria Falls. They were ‘discovered’ by missionary, David Livingstone, in November 1855. This was in the days before the British map-makers had staked out the colonial territories of Northern and Southern Rhodesia, (named after the mineral-hungry Cecil Rhodes), and now known (respectively) as Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Livingstone is thought to be the first European to set eyes on the falls, and his presence is commemorated both in the name of Livingstone Island, just above the falls, and in the town of Livingstone on the Zambian side of the cataracts.


 Livingstone Monument

But the fact remains that when Livingstone arrived this, the largest falling curtain of water in the world, already had at least one very fine name. The rainbow spray from the toppling cascades rises like smoke that can be seen for miles, and the Zambezi, as it drops through 110 metres, simply roars. And so it is fittingly known by the indigenous Tonga people as Mosi-oa-Tunya, the smoke that thunders.  Also fittingly, and by way of restitution, this is also the name that UNESCO puts first in its World Heritage Site citation for the falls.

Victoria Falls and Zambezi

The falls from the Zimbabwe side at Victoria Falls town. The spray is a challenge to the the photographer.


The photo below shows the falls from the Zambian side. The rains had been poor when the shot was taken, and much of the water from the Zambian side of the Zambezi is anyway abstracted for industrial purposes. It is hard to convey the scale, but it shows well how the Zambezi has cut through the basalt plateau over which it flows. Over the last hundred thousand years the river has repeatedly carved out new gorges, wearing down cracks of softer sandstone within the basalt and creating a zigzag of massive fissures. The current falls go over the eighth gorge, but there are already signs that the ninth is beginning to form.

I have the foolhardy distinction of almost hang-gliding off the falls’ knife-edge courtesy my kanga-wrap, just then being used as an umbrella. G had business in Livingstone and we were staying in a hotel near the river, or I should say near the absence of river. I saw people walking across the waterless river bed towards the Zimbabwe side of the falls, and one Sunday afternoon, urged G. to set off on an outing. In no time we had a young Zambian boy offering to be our guide. He led us through a maze of huge boulders and oily stagnant pools. At one point I noticed fresh elephant droppings and fully expected the massive stones to transform into pachyderms, since that’s the sort of thing elephants do. All around the sky was turning from brilliant blue to a steely grey. I forgot about elephants and thought of flash-floods instead. I was beginning to wish we had not come.

Zambia's Victoria Falls looking along knife-edge to Zimbabwe's falls

But the boy pressed on, heading we later discovered for Livingstone Island. He had promised to show us the best place to view the falls. And so we followed. And then came the deluge. In seconds we were soaked to the skin by very cold, hard rain. When I looked back across the river, our hotel seemed very far away, and the empty river bed so very wide. We ran after the boy into the trees on Livingstone Island, and there we huddled under the dripping vegetation. Time passed. And more time passed. We grew colder and wetter.

Finally, when there was no sign of the rain letting up, G. asked the boy how far was this viewpoint. Oh, not very far, he told us. We followed him out into the driving rain. And sure enough, in a few paces, there we were on the knife edge. I held my kanga high above my head, fly-sheet style, in a bid to fend off the downpour. But as I craned over the precipice, the wind gusted and I felt the threatening lift as it filled the kanga…

After that there could only be a swift retreat. Shaken by my close shave with the abyss, I turned for the distant shore and tried to run. But the rocks were slippery, and every boulder looked like an elephant, and the more it rained the more I glanced upstream for that wall of rushing water. By now our guide had disappeared. I don’t think we had even given him a tip, and that was even more worrying. To leave without his kwacha? What did he know that we did not?

Of course it was all panic and no substance. After a hot shower and a bottle of Mosi back at the hotel, it seemed like a great adventure, though we did wonder if Livingstone Island was in Zambia or in Zimbabwe, and if, in the rainstorm, we had become illegal immigrants into Zimbabwe. Of course we hadn’t, but it added a little more spice to the story.

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Victoria Falls - Cecil Rhodes' railway bridge

The Victoria Falls bridge, built in 1905 in a bid towards fulfilling Cecil Rhodes’ dream of the Cape to Cairo railway line. He insisted it was built where the falls’ spray would fall on passing trains.

Victoria Falls - Zambian side with rainbow


UNESCO World Heritage Site

Sun, Steel and Spray: A History of the Building of the Victoria Falls Bridge by Peter Roberts

Where’s My Backpack Ailsa’s Travel Theme: Height

More takes on height:






© 2013 Tish Farrell

Only One Ogunquit: the little gallery by the sea


Seated Bear by Bernard Langlais 1973, Ogunquit Museum of American Art


Ogunquit Museum of American Art

Last year when we were in Maine we went to Ogunquit, to the Museum of American Art. As the guide books have it, Ogunquit is an Abernaki word  meaning ‘beautiful place by the sea’. Some also say that this small art gallery is the most beautiful in the world. I think I must agree. It is certainly in the most stunning location. As you enter the main hall your eye is drawn, not so much to the works of art, but to the east wall that is entirely glass (a picture window if ever there was one), and looks out on the great Atlantic.


Photo: copyright 2013 Ogunquit Gallery of American Art


Places of pilgrimage

Of course, not for all the world would I be without the world’s great art galleries. To simply speak their names: the Tate, Met, V & A, Hermitage, Rijksmuseum, to name but a few in my particular hemisphere, induces in me feelings of awe, reverence, and even that childhood sense of bursting expectation at opening Christmas tree presents. I may never visit most of them, but somehow it is enough to know they are there. Their palatial chambers may ooze worthy academicism and the particular brand of nineteenth century paternalism that was intent on informing the masses while keeping them firmly in their place, but these monumental repositories are indeed our treasure houses. And not because of the monetary value of the works they contain, but because the quiet spaces filled with marvellous pieces of human craft and ingenuity are true resorts: places of pilgrimage, edification, solace, joyousness, meditation. People come there to commune with the spirit of creation and creator, each according to their inclination. 


The museum sits not so much in ‘grounds’ but in a lovely seaside garden with art amongst the plants.


Art without blisters

But for me, there is something altogether more beguiling about a small gallery. It is less physically arduous for one thing; you need not leave, as you can well do from the V & A or the Met, feeling cross that after many hours spent hiking up and down marble corridors and staircases, there was something important that you missed, but were simply too foot-sore to look for.

There is none of this at the Ogunquit Museum. It is definitely small-scale, and  its mission clearly defined: the art it shows is exclusively American art. In particular, the collection includes works by Ogunquit’s art colony that was founded by Charles Woodbury in 1890. The theme, then, is simple. The visitor’s mind and gaze is immediately focused.  The setting is intimate too, for once you tear yourself from the view of the sea in the main hall, the display spaces are of domestic scale. Only missing is the cosy arm chair and somewhere to put your tea tray. Wise omissions nonetheless; otherwise you might not ever leave.


‘An artist’s paradise’

When Bostonian, Charles Woodbury, visited Ogunquit’s Perkins Cove in 1890 and declared it ‘an artist’s paradise’, the seed for the Ogunquit artists’ colony was sown. He opened a school for his student followers, providing board and lodging in converted fishermen’s shacks along the shore. From the late nineteenth century Ogunquit’s reputation as a place for artists grew. Some of those associated with the colony include Edward Betts,  Hamilton Easter Field, Robert Laurent and Walt Kuhn. But many other American artists later lived or spent their summers here, including Edward Hopper, and their works are also included in the Museum’s collection.

It was  Henry Strater, artist and friend of Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, who in 1953 founded the Ogunquit Museum. He sited it above the rocks on Narrow Cove where many artists used to congregate – a perfect fusion of place, building and content, or, for that  matter, of nature and culture. The three-acre garden is a rambling, blissful place with hidden corners and unexpected vistas and sculptures perfectly placed.


Cabot Lyford’s Otters above Narrow Cove.



Narrow Cove below the Museum.




Antoinette Prien Schultze: Life Entwined 1988, Vermont marble.




Sixty works 60 Years

This year, then, the OMoAA is celebrating its sixtieth year with a show of works from its permanent collection.  The pieces have been chosen to illustrate the Museum’s collecting trends from the days of Henry Strater to the most recent acquisitions. If you are in Maine you have until October 31st to see it, along with the accompanying exhibitions. The programme of events is here. And if you are not in Maine, then make the OMoAA the reason to go there. You will not be disappointed.



You can find the Ogunquit Museum of American Art at 543 Shore Road, Ogunquit ME, on Facebook and the website links below:

https://www.facebook.com/OMoAA            http://www.ogunquitmuseum.org/

Related article:

Henry Strater’s Ogunquit Museum of American Arthttp://www.someoldnews.com/?p=440


Frizztext’s OOO-challenge

And some other entries:

© 2013 Tish Farrell

National Poetry Day

Today in Britain it is National Poetry Day, and this year’s theme is a quote from Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner: “Water, water everywhere…”


And since it is pouring in the UK, I thought I’d post a rainy-day poem written while  I was in Kenya. It was originally published in Cicada Magazine  March/April 2000, along with the picture above for which there was no attribution.

Long Rains

Rain days in Africa – roads run

rivers, mud blood red; and careless,

grey-dog skies shake out

their fill on ill-clad souls who

shuffle close in supermarket doors,

and moon-eyed in the drip and drip,

the backslap seep in thin-soled shoes,

no longer see the draggled flocks

of street boys perched in car park trees,

all glue-pot fused, nor show surprise

when sleek Mercedes cruise

the roads-turned-lakes and ditch their wake

on citizens whose only keep is

listless hope: that sometime soon –

the rains will stop…


And for all those interested in good reading and writing Cicada Magazine is part of the Cricket group of magazines published by Carus in the US. Each of their magazines – Babybug, Ladybug, Spider, Cricket and Cicada caters for a specific age group, from babes to teens and up. The house-style is literary rather than comic book, and with a strong multicultural element. Every story, poem or article in every edition is accompanied by specially commissioned artwork. The publishers accept submissions from both new and established writers and artists, but the emphasis is on quality.


© 2013 Tish Farrell