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Upper Wilting after the chainsaws. David Bastin

Documenting the destruction

A new exhibition in Hastings town centre by Artists and Combe Valley, an independent artists led group, captures the stunning Combe Haven Valley both before the trees were cut down late last summer to make way for the building of the Bexhill-Hastings Link Road (BHLR) and in the aftermath, writes Sylvia Worthy.

In the tradition of war artists across the ages, the artists have captured all stages of the destruction of the valley, starting with a vibrant and exciting landscape in the late summer of 2012 and finishing with the land laid waste on March 1 when tree and hedge-cutting work had to stop because the nesting season had started.

The BHLR has polarised opinion in the towns that it is intended to serve. The politicians insist that the BHLR will bring much-needed prosperity, with jobs and housing springing up in its wake. Cllr Peter Jones, leader of East Sussex County Council (ESCC), has told the council tax-paying public that this three-mile strip of road will attract over £1 billion of inward investment. However, those who oppose the road say that the figures are unrealistic, unproven and misleading. They say that the Department for Transport itself has acknowledged that the road is poor value for money and that in these straitened times the £100 million cost of the road is unjustified and would be better spent on maintaining the children’s services, adult social care and transport and maintenance budgets that ESCC has slashed this year.

What neither side can deny is that the countryside

Archeologists' scrapes across Upper Wilting earth-works on frosty night. Emily Johns

that lies across the Combe Valley is being decimated in preparation for the road. Badger setts have been blocked and badgers have been seen wandering around during the daytime, trees that were around when the English Civil War took place are, as I write, being shoved down chipping machines, and ancient hedgerows have been torn up across the fields. For some this is the price of progress but for others it is an unnecessary and sad reflection on our inability to work with nature in our increasing demand for land.

The exhibition, Artists and Combe Valley, is dominated by a partly burnt tree branch which was found cut down. A myth has developed around this, such as that it was used on the fire at Camp Decoy, the second of the camps set up by Combe Haven Defenders to defend and protect Combe Haven from the onslaught of the contractors. It is one of several branches that were reused by the Defenders to demonstrate against the loss of woodland in the valley. It is symbolic of the rescue of something which has been held as precious and is now partially destroyed. Visitors to the exhibition are asked to write their thoughts about what the branch means to them and how they are affected by the partly burned piece of ancient woodland.

Chainsaw. Tim Godwin

A variety of media has been used to depict the valley over the winter. A few notable examples amongst many little jewels are Roz Cran’s Red Shift – beautiful and simple leaf outlines in blood red were made using the actual leaf species growing in the valley. Tim Godwin’s photos include the shocking Chainsaw digitally enhanced photo of a contractor at work. Other works of note are Upper Wilting After the Chainsaws and Adam’s Farm and Valley, beautiful and moving ink drawings by David Bastin, one of three Crowhurst-based artists, and Emily Johns’ watercolour Archaeologists’ scrapes across Upper Wilting earth-works on frosty night.

Alan Wright’s composite watercolour of a flourishing and vibrant valley contrasts spectacularly with his bleak black-and-white drawings of tree stumps drawn with willow charcoal taken from the valley. Zelly Restorick has used her humorous cartoons and juxtaposed the less humorous message of our selfishness in thinking the valley is only for humans and their wants. Anthropomorphising the animals of the valley, in one picture she depicts a homeless badger being interviewed regarding his situation, and in another suggests that the valley would not have been destroyed if all the animals were also allowed to take part in the decision-making process. Jonathan Gott has produced a beautifully detailed pen drawing of an ancient tree and Kath Keep has undertaken a vibrant mixed media collage of the destruction of the valley overlaid with the poignant words to Blake’s famous hymn Jerusalem.

A delicate and intimate aspect of the exhibition is to be found in three sculptures by Patrick Burton made out of wood, fibrous leaf and acrylic, as well as watercolours by Jen Painter, Lorna Vahey’s delightful Sally up a Tree and Helen Samuels’ detailed map images, Who owns the Land?

The foliate image of the Jack-in-the-Green, so familiar to Hastings folk, is a recurring theme in the exhibition with the Green Man representing the natural world appearing in several guises throughout the exhibition. A further thoughtful concept is that of the hidden treasures that lie under the earth that is being built upon, some malevolent and sleeping, perhaps waiting to protect the valley and then also a reference to the treasures linked to the Battle of Hastings that have been found in the valley and near to the site of the proposed road.

Several artists also produced work for postcards for an earlier exhibition, including Agatha Coffey’s sun-filled valley, which are also on sale at this exhibition under the heading “Vision of the Valley”. Heather Hookey produced some beautiful watercolours currently being shown at another exhibition but which she has made available as postcards.

There is a silent auction currently under way for the artworks in the exhibition, giving visitors the opportunity to bid for the work on show. Details available at the exhibition.

There will be a closing event at 6pm on 6 April, the final day of the exhibition.

 

Artists and Combe Valley (http://artistsandcombevalley.wordpress.com) is open from 10am to 5pm on weekdays until 6 April at the Memorial Art Gallery, 7 Cambridge Rd, 2nd floor, entrance between Moons and the Spaghetti Tree.

 

Posted 11:27 Sunday, Mar 24, 2013 In: Campaigns

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