Natural Inspiration: The Relationship Between Art, Nature and Wellbeing

I read a fascinating article published in The Guardian a few years ago which reported that artists were heading for the countryside in droves. In the 80s and 90s, being considered a serious artist meant living in a city, specifically London; and if we’re talking even more specifically, somewhere quirky and central like Shoreditch.

Natural Inspiration: The Relationship Between Art, Nature and Wellbeing

For me, though, I’ve long felt that having a connection with the natural world is hugely conducive to the creative process. Although I wouldn’t call myself an artist, I do have to think imaginatively for my work and I find that getting out into the countryside even for a walk - soaking up some daylight, hearing the leaves rustling and bird chirping, breathing in some fresh air - really aids my clarity of mind. Some of my best ideas have popped into my head while I’ve been pacing down a country lane!

And now, finally, it seems I’m in good company. Damien Hirst has a country place in Gloucestershire; Alex James (formerly of Blur) lives in Oxfordshire on a 200 acre cheese farm. Sarah Lucas, once the naughtiest of the ‘90s Young British Artists (or the YBAs, as they were known) has turned to a far more quiet, rural existence in Suffolk - lots of tea and lounging about in her pyjamas in a house once owned by Benjamin Britten.

Clearly there’s the issue of affordable living and studio space in London - creative heavyweights like Hirst, James and Lucas aside, most would-be artists simply cannot afford to live in the capital. As Bedwyr Williams, who has represented Wales at the Venice Biennale, said in The Guardian article about his Caernarfonshire home, “At least if I am skint here, I can look at the mountains.” But there’s also been a more subtle change in attitudes towards rural art. The stereotypes of old ladies and WI handicrafts (I’m a big WI fan, just for the record) is terribly outdated. Suddenly it’s cool to be into nature, and for your art - whether its visual art, music or writing - to be inspired by rural life.

We are afforded with vast amounts of beauty here on our doorstep in The Hills, and when you consider that there are numerous scientific studies pointing to the measurable benefits of a) art and b) nature on our mental health and general wellbeing, it’s not surprising that one of the best ways to boost your mood is to enjoy art in nature or art inspired by nature. In fact, Arts Council England have funded scientific research into this very topic, and a study led by artist Mark Ware recorded participants’ brain activity using an MRI scanner to show that sounds from nature (birdsong, running water, wind etc) decrease the likelihood of deep, troubling thoughts and improve our overall concentration.

Another ongoing study has looked at the impact of visual art on our brains, with stunning canvases of digitally-produced symmetrical patterns inspired by nature displayed in locations such as the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester and Exeter Cathedral. Participants were invited to view the art and then complete some specially-designed tasks, all while their eye-movement was monitored by specialist equipment. Analysis is ongoing, with the intention of using the findings to produce more artwork which deliberately evokes a positive mental state in the viewers. Put simply: art can make you feel better, but art that focuses on the natural world can make you feel even better.

So if I’ve inspired you to get out and get arty, where are the best places to enjoy nature-inspired and outdoor art in the UK? Well, you could do a lot worse than visit the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which celebrated its 40th anniversary of promoting ‘Art Without Walls’ last year. You’ll be wowed by sensuous Henry Moores, can indulge in some Simon Armitage poems written especially to commemorate the park’s birthday and if you’re really quick, you could catch Zak Ove’s 80-sculpture exhibition before it closes on the 3rd June. In the south you could always try the Pride of the Valley Sculpture Park in the Surrey Hills (and even make an artistic purchase - all of the works are for sale) or Scots might want to head for Jupiter just outside Edinburgh for a dose of Gormley and Goldsworthy. The National Botanic Gardens of Wales in Lianarthney is well worth a visit - there are sculptures galore, many of which were commissioned for and inspired by their countryside surroundings.

Of course, if you’re an artist based in the countryside, whatever your discipline, I’d love to hear from you. Check out the photographers, illustrators, designers, thinkers and makers who’ve already joined The Hills to promote their artistic business as one of our Collaborators. I am thrilled to be able to welcome them to our online space and provide them with a platform to share their skills and wares. Are you an artist in the Hills, or art afficionado with a penchent for nature? I would love to know!

 
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Janet Hill

I’m Janet, and I live at the foot of the beautiful Welsh Hills with my children Mary, 21, and Mark, 18. We share our four-acre plot with our six dogs, six cats, four hens, an assortment of wild ducks and all the other wonderful wildlife that visits our garden.

A Valentines Love Letter to The Countryside

Our beautiful countryside, how do we love thee? Let us count the ways…

Just like love, our beloved countryside is patient with those that ramble along the pathways, exploring the endless horizons. It does not judge when we take a wrong turn, need to consult the map or simply walk with no place to go. It soaks up our laughter, tears and shouts with no complaints; simply waiting, holding those memories for us to return to next time.

With a view to take your breath away around every corner, love is also full of surprises. With every season brings a new wonder, changes that spring up with joyous abandon, and yet like love, we return time after time. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act embodies our delirious romanticism by enabling us, on those rare work-free days, to release the urban shackles and breathe in the fresh air, reinvigorating souls and refreshing minds with calm beauty.

Just like love, our relationship with our rural landscapes takes many forms. Viewed from a window, pounded by hooves and feet, looked down on from great heights of air and rock, and explored from mountain to sea; there's no right or wrong way of enjoying our darling countryside. It's here that no matter how muddy, breathless or lost one gets, there is only one measure of exactly who loves the hills more- the size of your smile.


“What is it about the English countryside---why is the beauty so much more than visual? Why does it touch one so?” ― Dodie Smith; I Capture the Castle

Just like love, the countryside is a constant source of inspiration. Take our renowned writers and artists for example, whose muse of moorland and vast hills created classics such as Wuthering Heights or All Creatures Great and Small and paintings by Constable and Turner. Only in the countryside, can one sit in a warm and cosy pub, while looking at the rolling hills, reading Pride and Prejudice and feel completely at home. Local artists can be found tucked away in galleries and workshops across the land. Languishing in the peace and quiet of our rural communities, they enable the nature on their doorstep to spill on to pages, canvas and into other medium, to be loved and shared once more.

Want to profess your love affair with the hills this Valentines Day? Invest in the gorgeous businesses, people and organisations who care and create the culture and atmosphere we love so well. If you are already married to the rural lifestyle, you will know of the community bred out of such a love. Feel the pull of the local shop, school or cafe and hear stories passed down by generations, knowing that just like you - the people are deeply in love with their lifestyle and invested in caring for it for years to come. I encourage you not to flirt with the idea of the country, but to jump in with both feet, embrace your feelings and get ready for a long term coupling to take hold. It is rare that anyone who has courted the countryside has ever received a broken heart, so what are you waiting for?

 
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Janet Hill

I’m Janet, and I live at the foot of the beautiful Welsh Hills with my children Mary, 21, and Mark, 18. We share our four-acre plot with our six dogs, six cats, four hens, an assortment of wild ducks and all the other wonderful wildlife that visits our garden.

Weekends Away in the UK - Why Go Anywhere Else?

I remember when the humble staycation was the option for holidaymakers too adventure-adverse to go abroad - or it was seen as a cheap and cheerful way for families to get some time out without blowing the budget.

In recent years, however, the tide has most certainly turned. The typical Brit choosing to holiday at home has changed, as has the type of holiday experience they’re looking for - it’s less ‘two weeks in a B&B in Skegness’ and more ‘luxurious self-catering with hot tub’ or ‘country house hotel with spa and golf course.’

Weekends Away in the UK - Why Go Anywhere Else?

It seems that TV shows like Game of Thrones, Poldark and The Crown have reminded us that there are plenty of jaw-dropping landscapes, cultural sites and history on our own doorstep, and with the weaker pound and the convenience factor also adding persuasive power, it’s no surprise that 54% of Brits enjoyed a staycation in 2017.

Staycation temptation is nothing new here at The Hills, however - I’ve long been a fan of discovering more of what makes Great Britain truly great. There’s so much of these fair British Isles that is still unknown to me and that I want to discover. When enjoying some down time from day-to-day life, there’s nothing I love more than finding the artisans and creatives hidden away in the community. As you know I am passionate about supporting rural industries, and that goes for those on my doorstep as well as creative industries further afield. From artisanal Scottish tartan, to Cornish pottery and Welsh blankets - there is something beautiful to be found in every corner of our gorgeous country! Of course, I still love a trip abroad, but when there’s so much here in the UK for us to enjoy it would seem rude to give Britain a wide berth. So how can you make your staycation just that little bit more - well, special? That’s easy - consult The Hills’ Directory, and choose from our wonderful variety of crafters to visit, and ways to explore.

For the economically-minded, there are numerous affordable choices available - camping perhaps the most obvious option. But banish all ideas of soggy canvas and naff 70s fabrics: camping kit has evolved thanks to the likes of Hills members Journeyman Handcraft.Think stylish and practical leather pouches, patches, bags and tools - it’s almost enough to convert a trilesalectinophobic (that’s a person scared of camping equipment - ha!).

But who said there had to be a tent involved? Have a look at Snowdonia Classic Campers and take your camping holiday up a gear with a different, distinctly retro feel. All of their campers are painstakingly restored and modernised, so you won’t be roughing it - far from it, in fact.

Chances are, if you’re contemplating any kind of camping you’re probably an outdoorsy type, so how about enlisting the help of some pros to get the most from your outdoor adventure? Two Blondes Walking are a formidable duo: Mountain Training England qualified and experienced walk leaders who love organising guided walks and teaching course participants about wild camping. Pop over the their website and prepare to be awed.

And talking about learning new skills, how about cresting the waves? As adults we don’t often give much thought to learning a new skill or trying out a hobby but we’re desperate to sign our children up to every class and holiday camp - why should little ones have all the fun? Surf Snowdonia is a fab organisation and offer half day and full day suitable for all ages and abilities.

Too many choices? Make Denbighshire Tourism your next port of call - they have two centres in Rhyll and Llangollen and can help you with all manner of decisions, from accommodation options to activities to please every demographic.

Do you have any staycations planned for 2019? We’d love to hear about them - and to encourage you to support local and countryside-based businesses in your pursuit of the perfect break, of course!

 
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Janet Hill

I’m Janet, and I live at the foot of the beautiful Welsh Hills with my children Mary, 21, and Mark, 18. We share our four-acre plot with our six dogs, six cats, four hens, an assortment of wild ducks and all the other wonderful wildlife that visits our garden.

Lamb Tales

Our frosted hills and fields, for so long hushed in a quiet stillness of waiting, will soon be alive with the joyous sight and sound of new-born lambs, and the low chunnerings of their attentive mums. Snowdrops will give way to daffodils, and our hearts will be gladdened by the promise of longer, warmer days ahead. This is lambing season: the busiest time in the calendar for sheep farmers, signalling weeks of early starts, late nights, and back-breaking work.

In 2017, respected landscape photographer, Roy Carr, spent an intensive year recording the work of sheep farmers in South Wales, and he has very kindly agreed to share an extract from his chronicle of this project, ‘A Year In Their Lives’, accompanied by his atmospheric and intimate photographs of the sheep and their lambs.

A Year In Their Lives

I spent a year following four sheep farms in south Wales during which I captured key events for the animals and the people who work with them across a year.

My photographic background is rooted deeply in classical landscape work, with people largely absent from it. This project posed the challenge of working with people, largely in their ‘home’ environment where the building of relationships was as important as photographic skills. It also demanded, at times, a quick reaction to what is happening in front of me, in contrast to the slow deliberate approach of my landscape work. At times the compositional approach and the patience I learned from my landscapes were important for this project as I waited for the animals or people to come to me to create the images I wanted.

I brought both ignorance and curiosity to this work, learning so much from the people I observed. It afforded me an insight into the challenges of their work and their generosity in accepting me. Not for them the shelter of an office. Their work makes huge physical demands in all weathers.

Waiting to give birth

Waiting to give birth

Lambing marks the beginning of the new cycle for the sheep farmer, providing the next generation of stock. Great care is taken to monitor the ewes as they approach lambing. Some farmers scan their ewes to indicate how many lambs they are carrying, others simply rely on their years of experience. Where there are concerns about the well-being of the ewes, they are brought in to pens where they can be closely monitored, ensuring help is on hand to deliver the lambs.

“New Born”

“New Born”

This lamb had been ‘pulled’ from its mother just five minutes before by Sue, the shepherdess. The ewe called to her offspring, enticing it to stand and feed. Licking the lamb helped the two animals to bond, as the ewe learned the scent of her new born which enables her to recognise it within the flock. This also provides vital nutrients to the ewe, stimulating the production of milk.

“Feeding”

“Feeding”

“Orphans”

“Orphans”

Not all lambs are able to feed from their mothers. Some ewes may die during the trauma of birth — fortunately a rarity on the farms I visited. Others may reject their young. In either event, they need to feed if they are to survive. Here the lambs are bottle fed in the shelter of a barn. Others may rely on their shepherds to ‘dress’ them in the skin and fleece of a dead lamb in order to trick the ewe into feeding the orphan in the belief it is her own, as she recognises the scent of the orphan’s ‘jacket’.

The ewes are immensely protective of their young, keeping them close to hand.

Lambs quickly gain their independence, though they will bleat for their mothers if they become distressed or their mothers will call for their return.

Curiosity quickly gets the better of the lambs as they bravely venture out into their home environments.

“Protection”

“Protection”

“Independent”

“Independent”

“Tentative”

“Tentative”

The work from this project fed into an exhibition at the Cynon Valley Museum, Aberdare, which ran from 15th June until 21st July 2018. If you would like to find out more about Roy's work, you can discover his site here.

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Many thanks to Roy for sharing these fascinating, informative, and sensitive insights into this busiest of farming seasons.

If you fancy experiencing the excitement and joy of lambing time for yourself, there are plenty of ways you can do this. Check out Farmstay.co.uk or BestofWales.co.uk for a selection of holiday accommodation offering the chance for you to get up close and personal with lambs, from watching them being born, to bottle feeding the orphans, and everything else besides! However, may I sound a note of caution: living as I do in sheep farming country in North Wales, I have heard many a horror story relating to lambing time from local famers and shepherds, so I am making a plea to my fellow dog owners - if you are taking your dog out for a walk in the countryside, please, please, keep it under control. Sadly, the NFU reports that there were in excess of 700 cases of sheep and cattle worrying on farms across the UK in 2018, the cost to farmers was in the region of £1million, the cost to the animals, immeasurable. The instinct of even the best-behaved dogs can cause them to chase lambs and ewes, so please keep yours on a lead around them and other livestock at all times, and don’t forget to pick up after them – their mess can contain parasites which are harmful to farm animals.

Finally, some sheep facts for you! These animals have been farmed in the UK for over 8,000 years, and while today most farms are geared towards meat production, in medieval times wool was the driving force of the economy, with many a wealthy town and shire being built on the proceeds of the fleeces. Of the entire population of sheep in Europe, one quarter are here in the UK, and far from being the dull, stupid animals they are often perceived to be, they are, in fact, rather amazing animals. Having horizontal pupils with a 320 degree field of vision, they can see behind them without turning their heads, and amazingly, when running they can reach speeds of 25mph – what’s more, recent studies have shown that they are able to recognise the faces of others in their flock, as well as those of people!

Wherever you are this spring, look out for those first cute new-borns of 2019!

 
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Sonia Goulding

Sonia lives with her other half, Jon, and her two gorgeous dogs Alfie and Seren, in the pretty hill village of Cilcain, in the glorious Clwydian Hills. She is passionate about rural north Wales and enjoys researching and writing about the people she meets and the beautiful businesses on our doorstep. Sonia and Jon consider themselves very lucky to be able to live and work in such wonderful surroundings, counting their blessings every day!

Loving our Hills Community

A couple of weeks ago, we published an article commending the countryside for being a prime place to live. Amongst our top 5 reasons? The wonderful community spirit in such gorgeous rural locations.

Loving our Hills Community

We know well that when living in the countryside there’s a good chance your nearest neighbour won’t be directly next door, and you may not even be able to spot their home at all. According to national statistics, there are less than 50 people per square kilometre in districts such as Cumbria, Northumberland, North Yorkshire and Somerset, whereas in areas of London, for example, there are more than 15,000 people crammed into the same 1km!

So what does this mean for our local communities?

Our rural groups may be smaller and less busy than the city ones, but this means that they often come with a close-knit, genuine, caring interest in looking after the local community and providing mutual support for those living in the area. Integral to this, is the amount of support we are able to give one another; sharing news, promoting small businesses and encouraging local enterprises.

Here at The Hills, we are moving towards our first birthday and I am thrilled to see our own community steadily growing. My aim has always been to help small businesses to reach a larger community and to share my finds with my followers, and so feel incredibly lucky to be able to meet fantastic artists and creatives and bring their stories and wares to our little space on the internet.

This year I am not making many resolutions, but one that I will stand by is to offer our community more opportunities to purchase the quality products made by some of the best rural businesses. By bringing you our brand new shop, I am excited to be able to introduce you to more artisan creators. I will be handpicking gorgeous items that are ethically made and handcrafted with love and collaborating with selected brands that share our passion for rural communities. I hope the website will be your cosy country space on the internet, where we share crafts and products that we’d love to have in our homes too!

By welcoming our very favourite creatives to share their items in our store, I will provide them with a platform which feels as strongly about small business support as they do, and promote their businesses to all those who I know share this notion with me. 2019 is our year to further our involvement with rural communities and assist our valuable local makers and artisans, first stop - The Hills Shop!

So today I would love to know - what products would you like to see in our shop? Which industry would you like to know more about? Which products would you recommend we investigate?

Your ideas are important to me. Leave me a comment below, or tag us in posts on both Facebook and Instagram!

 
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Janet Hill

I’m Janet, and I live at the foot of the beautiful Welsh Hills with my children Mary, 21, and Mark, 18. We share our four-acre plot with our six dogs, six cats (plus a cheeky regular overnight visitor!), four hens, an assortment of wild ducks and all the other wonderful wildlife that visits our garden.