Saturday, 28 March 2015


Fairfield Church from the West
The first time I visited Fairfield Church, the rain was driving, the clouds were scudding and Romney Marsh seemed to have reverted to what it was before it was systematically drained and transformed into farmland – a marsh. I must have been crazy.
The Church of St Thomas Becket, Fairfield - to give it its full title - stands all on its own in the middle of nowhere, about a quarter-mile from the lane between Brookland and Appledore in Kent. It may not be the smallest church in England (quite) but it’s certainly one of the most remote, being surrounded by nothing but a vast, flat landscape of fields, ditches and reed beds where sheep graze, swans flap and lapwings wheel and cry. All that now remains of the parish of Fairfield is nearby Becket Farm and a few surrounding cottages and even those are at some distance from the church. Like Midley, Eastbridge and Hope and many others beyond the Marsh, Fairfield is a classic example of a parish church left stranded by shifting populations blown by the winds of social and economic change. Remote villages in medieval times were little more than clusters of wattle and daub cottages and maybe an inn huddling round the church and quickly fell into disrepair and vanished once the inhabitants moved away, leaving the church as the only substantial building. Although, judging by Fairfield’s scale and simplicity, it is unlikely it ever served much of a community.
Dating originally from the 14th century, it stands on a man-made mound which, though slight, is enough to raise it above the level of floods (most of the time), although old photographs show it poised like a ship on an ocean, the congregation being ferried out to it by boat. You approach it from the lane along a grass bank, the shaggy Marsh sheep (who will have lavishly fertilised your route) staring at you resentfully before turning and scurrying away. The timber structure is decked in brick and tile rather than stone and lead, and from the outside it is not, it has to be said, the most beautiful building in the world. Take away the little bell turret and it could be a rather nondescript barn. The interior, by startling contrast, is exquisite, the more so for being so unexpected. Unlike most churches, it is intimate and human-sized, like a room in a house. The walls and roof are of lathe and plaster and massive, ancient timbers and, though tiny, it is has an aisle and chancel divided by a span of wall which may once have supported a rood screen. A simple altar – just a wooden cross on a table – stands beneath text boards bearing the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments and a seven-sided stone font is tucked into an alcove at the other end, before the west window. Georgian box pews rise to the three-decker pulpit (a rarity) and further text boards offering inspirational quotes from the Bible – another Georgian feature common in Marsh churches – are stuck to the ceiling. The glass in the windows is unstained which provides views over the Marsh in every direction and allows a little much-needed light into this electricity-free environment.
Due to its damp and desolate position and rough timber foundations, the church was more than usually subject to decay and dilapidation but has been restored a number of times over the centuries, most recently in 1912 when the entire building – in danger of collapsing altogether – was painstakingly deconstructed and rebuilt, with proper foundations, every usable part of the interior being faithfully preserved and resurrected. This accounts for the rather more recent and robust appearance of the outside compared to the interior. Despite all the love and attention lavished on it, the church doesn’t see much action nowadays, though a service is held here once a month. The little bell turret sports three bells – once ancient but recast in 1912 – which are rung occasionally in the afternoon by a very eager gentleman who arrives from somewhere on a bicycle.  
I have visited Fairfield in every mood and in every season but, whenever I do so, my thoughts always go back to that first wild, wet and windy afternoon in November soon after we moved to Winchelsea, just over the border in Sussex. I remember sitting all alone in one of the box pews as the darkness deepened around me, listening to the wind howling in the roof and the rain lashing at the windows and feeling very close to something. Whether it was God, I wouldn’t like to say, but it was certainly something. This short poem came out of that experience.
In Fairfield Church
Darkness deepening
each grain of plaster dust
the dead cranefly on the window sill

Driving rain
and wind rumbling
what man has left for God
in unstained glass and glimpses
over wide ripples
into emptiness

Fairfield Church in its Romney Marsh setting

Looking east towards the altar
 The box pews and three-decker pulpit
Looking west towards the font
View south from the interior
Fairfield Church is about six miles east of Rye. To get there, turn left off the A259 Rye-Folkestone road a few yards beyond the turning to the ancient Woolpack pub (where spiritual strength of another kind can be obtained). The key is hanging on a wall at Becket Farm, just past the church – you simply take it and put it back when you’ve finished with it – no human contact necessary.
View north from the church. A typical Romney Marsh sky

Wednesday, 25 March 2015


Dying winter sun
glints and glows on thorns probed
by frail infinity

Monday, 23 March 2015

Where the Hens Lived
At home the henhouse was
dry wood slatted; it stood

down among nettles
and some wild grasses but the hens’

wanderings and foragings and scratching
somehow caused

the nettles and the grass to vanish

leaving bare earth; there was an iron

watercart, swaying, squeaking as it moved

it sometimes
slopped over, if you filled the tank too full

and soaked your legs. I loved how
that ground was not definable – it was not

meadow, it was not
garden, it was not

farmland, it was just
where the hens lived, out the back –

wire, warmth, dry earth
some scraps of groundsel

poking through the holes in iron sheets
and murmuring and chattering and chortling, the sudden

fast fluttering or wings, and now and then
the cock crowing

Thursday, 19 March 2015


Last night I walked on empty hills
and saw the full moon's slow eclipse
all human life was held within
the shape that shaped that bloodred shadow
on the moon's face

Saturday, 14 March 2015


The clock
beats, leafy shadows wave
upon a sunlit wall;
can all of human history be held
within one moment of a summer's afternoon?
The clock's beat
which bore our planet out of emptiness
will bear it back again - the clouds, the trees,
the birds chattering beyond the window pane;
yet, growing older, time
is crossed and recrossed constantly with hints
of something else, imbued by every scent and texture
of this ancient place; experience
and dreams
and memories
and new experience attained though art
are more real to me now
than time and space
and shadows of reality we move among.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Why my Sketches are a bit… Sketchy

A frequent response to my work over recent years has been, ‘I love your sketches and scribbles but where are the finished paintings? What’s it all working towards?’  It’s a question which is based on the preconception that what artists do is go out and make graphic (and sometimes written) notes about the world around them then take them home and lock themselves in their studio, make themselves a coffee, put on some suitable mood music like Finlandia or Vaugham William’s “Lark Ascending” and embark on the long and meticulous process of producing a masterpiece.

When I started painting – more years ago than I care to remember – this was my preconception too. As an art student I envisioned my future as living in an atelier in some Bohemian quarter of Paris where I would spend the day passionately painting away until the arrival of my stunning French girlfriend who, drunk on the aroma of oil and turpentine, would tell me I was a genius then tear off all her clothes and beg me to give her children. This exotic fantasy was doomed to failure by that scourge of all artists – integrity. Artistic integrity isn't some great moral virtue we wear like a badge of honour, it’s an annoying, niggling little voice inside our head which keeps saying, ‘This is all very well but it’s not what you should be doing, whatever anyone says. This is what you should be doing.’ I spent most of my twenties telling that voice to shut up, partly because I thought it was misleading me and partly because I was suffering from that other scourge of all artists – poverty. I was married with two small children by then and “proper” paintings (particularly landscapes) which looked finished and polished and could be hung on a wall in a nice neat frame were what sold (sometimes). The process of producing them, however, involved hours of wandering through the landscape, gazing at horizons and clouds and doing preparatory sketches and studies. In time I began to realise that that was the part I really enjoyed – and not just because sitting in the English countryside with the sun shining and the birds singing is a very pleasant way to pass the time – I enjoyed it even when it was cold and wet and windy – although ‘enjoyed’ may be the wrong word; it was more a sense of ‘rightness’ which was as powerful as the sense of ‘wrongness’ I felt when ensconced in my studio, coffee in hand and Finlandia blaring in my ear.

As time went by and circumstances changed, I came to obey that voice more and more and eventually abandoned the studio altogether. For a time I tried doing “studio” paintings outside, setting myself up with a large canvas which invariably blew off the easel, often landing face down in a cowpat. The Renoiresque idyll of the painter poised among poppies painting some sunlit meadow in a straw hat doesn’t always work in England and I found that, even when it did, it wasn’t satisfying either. What really interested me was speed, brevity, observing and trying to record the fleeting changes of light, colour, texture and mood which is so characteristic of our island landscape. My work consequently became increasing sketchy, scrappy, unfinished and, to some people, incomprehensible. I remember my father wistfully staring at a rather naff vase of flowers I painted when I was eighteen and sighing, ‘If only you’d gone on doing paintings like that, you’d be a millionaire.’ I would never have gone on doing paintings like that but I did find myself wondering about the six-foot tours de force in the style of my heroes such Willem de Kooning or Ivan Hitchens that would never be. But then I thought, ‘It’s already been done, and probably much better than I’ll ever do it. The world is already brimming over with superb paintings of every conceivable size, shape, colour, texture and style so what’s the harm in trying something different?’

Another thought which occurred to me is that rectangular ‘scenes’ or even abstract forms in a frame is not really how we perceive the world around us. We see it in glimpses, in snatches, in flashes, our field of vision is fuzzy at the edges, our eyes pick up little fragments of information which they feed to our brain which either discards them or turns them into something meaningful and sometimes profoundly moving. As human beings our capacity for aesthetic response is one of the miracles of life and, in my view, any attempt to explain or analyse it is futile. Why is it that we can stare at a masterpiece on a wall in the Tate Gallery and feel nothing, then catch a glimpse of sunlight slanting on the grain of an old wooden door and it makes all the hairs on the back of our neck stand on end? No one knows.

We are surrounded by works of art but the real work of art, in the final analysis, is the universe our Maker saw fit to put us in. God, circumstance, cause and effect, accident – whatever you want to call it – wasn’t concerned with creating “real” art or even art at all.  The fleeting, ever-changing beauty we see around us is a by-product of creation, in a way, but one without which we cannot survive. It’s this process that I try to imitate in my drawing and painting. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, it doesn’t really matter. And when it does, it’s usually by accident. 

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Gulls Roosting

Dark flurries over roofs and swaying trees

against the rosy evening

rise, swoop, dip and glide, slide

on barely beating wings along the fluent wind

the earth below spread cold in sudden shadow


of damp grass and dank soil; and the eye

floats west along the fallow valley

on the ceaseless stream receding

over wooded hills

to cliffs and crags of other sunlit clouds

along the world's rim

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Unfortunately I'm not a good enough wildlife photographer to have managed any photos of these wonderful, elusive little birds but this, at least, is the wood overlooking the Brede Valley near Winchelsea where they can nearly always be seen.

Long-Tailed Tits

Sudden sunlight

tiny sounds that barely brush the silence

flitting silhouettes on webs of twigs

with pencil tails


then gone

in bouncing, chirping squadrons grouped

on glowing clouds, haze before the sun,

a crow

calling on a cold

February day

Three Haikus linked by the theme of childhood memory


Notes float through blossom
from his old pipe; drapes drifting
slipper beating time


Wooden stairs climbing
to the dark loft; scent of hay
and dry apples gone


Where does time carry
all the substance of our lives?
Even stones dissolve