Sunday, 18 June 2017

Telling Toads: looking for stories

Telling Toads
Celebrate the wonder of Toads with a story, 
a poem or a personal anecdote
sing a song of Toadiness! *

Have you a tale you could tell? A poem that could hop its way onto these pages? A new story that should be spoken? This is an invitation to celebrate the amphibians of the world, from the Frog in your pond to the Toad who creeps through the woodland, from the sheer excitement of a wriggle of tadpoles to the glory of a toad’s golden eyes. Join me for a celebration of Toads through words.

In this, the Froglife Year of the Toad, here at Creeping Toad, I am inviting people to add their own creative ideas to a collection of Toad (and frog and tree frog,) stories and poems.  Initially, we will aim to encourage people to share these beyond the blog where they will appear, to read them aloud, to tell stories, declaim poems by ponds and generally celebrate Toads and their cousins.

Amphibians are in danger. Of all the vertebrate groups, amphibians seem to be in the most perilous of situations as populations across the world dwindle before pollution and habitat loss and the ravages of infections they have no defence against. Froglife is a UK based charity that sets out to promote amphibian conservation through active habitat management and wider education. While, Froglife is UK-based, the issues facing amphibians are global and I hope that by sharing our stories and poems we might add a little more momentum to a wider awareness of the wonders of the amphibian worlds. The decision to launch a Year of the Toad campaign grew out of the research presented in a Froglife paper: while the wonderful (and not always sad) book In Search of Lost Frogs by Robin Moore is a great way of connecting to the issues confronting individual species across the Earth. Robin’s book is reviewed on this blog, here

this tiny person is a Leptopelis from Malawi - from a very old slide!
I am not going to go into the conservation issues here. The Froglife website is a good starting point for UK folks and I am sure you can find local sites in other countries. Here, I would like to invite and challenge my friends in the storytelling, natural history writing and poetry worlds – and just about anyone who feels inspired - to drop their words into this Toad-pool. There are no prizes, probably no money, but I invite us all just to share our creativity because it is a good thing to do. Not because it is weak or feeble or over-privileged but because sharing rewards by its own action and if telling someone else’s story, reciting someone else’s poem can help excite a listener to look a little more closely at the frogs in the field, then we’ll be doing a good job.

What we’re looking for
We’re looking for poems or short stories about frog and toads. These might be personal anecdotes, reports of your own adventures, retelling of ancient myths, or pieces catching what you find is the essence of toad-life. We don’t want scientific papers – but the personal experience of that study might give us rich words to share
No of words: to keep this under some sort of control: maximum number of words is 500

Other practical stuff
Nature of work: if your work is racist, sexist, or discriminates on the grounds of species, religion or gender identity, or comes across as simply offensive, we will reject it
The work must be your own original work: if it has been published before, at this stage that is OK as long as we have your permission to put it on a blog. If we build to publication we’ll need to revisit this. We will, meanwhile acknowledge the original publication if you include the details! In submitting your work, you accept that it might be published online and that this is acceptable to you. If the possibility of publication with remuneration develops, we will come back to you
Editorial control: I am the editor of the Toadwords collection and while I will refer to other writers for opinions, I will hold editorial control
Submissions language: English please! Unless there is someone out there who might want to run a parallel Spanish or other language version

What will happen
1. First responses:  initally, we’ll see what sort of response we get. First submissions will be published on my Creeping Toad blog. If submissions build up in numbers, we’ll set up a separate Toadwords blog or website. LINK TO TOADBLOG
2.  Growing numbers: If numbers and quality of work merits it, we’ll look at producing an online resource for people to tap into. Perhaps as a downloadable pdf. If there would be charge for this, we will contact authors about royalties and permissions
3. As work comes in, selected pieces will also appear on the Froglife website and might feature in issues of the newsletter Natterchat

As word or plain-text attachments please to:

Froglife: and just so no-one can say they don’t know, yes I am not at all impartial. I like Froglife. I am one of their Trustee’s and think the whole Year of the Toad initiative is a good one for rattling a few cages (or splashing in a few ponds) and I have no qualms at all about saying that I think they/we are an excellent organisation

Newts, salamanders and caecilians: and no, we’re not ignoring the rest of the amphibian order, but as The Year of the Toad concentrates on Toads, this project has a tail-less emphasis. If you are inspired by salamanders, motivated by newts or just excessively excited by the caecilian muse, send it in!

* Pictures: all these pictures are by myself apart from * by Kenny Taylor

Dragonflies and printed beetles

Dragonflies and printed beetles
activities in Rudheath and Witton

A week of heat and stories in Rudheath this week with workshop in Victoria Rd Primary School and at Grozone

At Victoria Rd, we’re doing a series of family learning sessions, inviting parents and carers to join our artists as we work with each class in the school. This has been very successful so far: lots of laughter and fun (see this entry) and a good turn out from the grown-ups.

I was there this week, working with the Year 2 class making up adventure stories about the school’s eco-area. Inevitably, stories became complicated: we heard about a sinister house full of traps for the unwary, there were pet woodlice, a houseful of fairies, a boy who went adventuring with his dog and some very mysterious animals….

distracting flora
Then on Saturday, as part of the Big Get Together Weekend (and also the Big Lunch Weekend) we joined a picnic day at Grozone. This wonderful community garden project in Northwich kept distracting us with sunshine, ponds (I am very easily distracted by ponds specially ones with such an array of dragonflies and where newts hang delicately suspended in the water). We worked with visitors to make books about the garden: what they had seen, what they liked best, what they had had for their picnic lunches….

distracting dragonflies!

Our next sessions
The Family Learning sessions at Victoria Rd continue and a similar project starts at Rudheath Primary
Next public sessions:
  • 30th July; drop-in art sessions as part of the community fun day at Vickery Park
  • 31st July: Marvellous Medieval Medicines at The Venue – make your own leech and other delights!
  • August: there will be several kite-making workshops and other tasty wriggles of creativity 

Our Do It Together project is part of the much bigger Rudheath and Witton Together  (RWT) programme (a Big Local project for the Lottery), my colleague and fellow-adventurer Sarah Males and I are coordinate a programme of creative public events - and are happy to hear suggestions for events, themes, people and places! 

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Heads rolling across the market place....

Beware of the bridge!

Traditional Hertfordshire Project

an old lady with a wheeled basket, an innocent moment? probably not!
There was another day of storyshaping – thank you Whitehill Junior School in Hitchin! A day of ideas and possibilities, plunging into the depths of Wymondley Woods (from the safety of the school hall), rolling bowling balls and skulls and toppled carriages down Hitchin High St, burying treasures in St Mary’s Church, in fake graves (look for the tombstone with a chest carved onto it), in the tunnels under the Market Place (“you can get into them from my house”)

We despatched people to hold parties on roundabouts on 15th June to watch for the headless ghost of Cavalier Goring riding from Pirton to The Priory, still hoping for safety from the pursuing Roundheads (at least they’ve still got theirs!)

Jack O'Legs as a puppet
Heads, or the lack of them, became a recurrent theme: there were headless horsemen, headless horses, and even a carriage that rolled around the streets collecting all these stray heads, until it toppled over (took a corner too fast) and spilled heads across the Market Place. We recommend not going ghost-hunting on the anniversary of that particular incident

And we heard of the (Horrible) Hair Rugs of Hitchin. There was, it seems, a household of elderly ladies and gents who would take pity on the poor waifs of the town and invite them in for tea and cake – and shave their heads (“you’ve got nits, my dear. This is the only way to get rid of them”).  No medicated shampoo here!. The out of the stolen hair the old folks would spin fine threads but with a slightly greasy feel, and weave rugs…so now, if you find yourself sitting on an old rug in a Hitchin house you should always rub it carefully between a thumb and forefinger then compare that feel with the feel of your own hair and make your own decisions about where you want to sit…..

There is a wonderful exhibition of Hitchin folklore panels that will be travelling around the county. The exhibition is full of interesting snippets and words and stories. We just added some new ones….

the Headless theme continues....

Public event on Saturday 10th: wonderful music (thank you, Paul Scourfield), wonderful Morris dancers (thank you Baldock MidnightMorris) and wonderful people – and more headless characters….and thank you North Hertfordshire Museum for bringing me along to be part of all this!

thank you, Midnight Morris, for music, laughter and enjoying the dance!

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Skeletal Stoats and lost stories

Trees, ghosts and forgotten churches
Hertfordshire Folkore
for the North Herts Museum

last minute reminder! Public event in Hitchin town Hall on Saturday 10th June, 
free, fun and hopefully rather strange!

I am now in Hitchin on a project for the N Herts Museum service. Sharing stories from the county's folklore - giants, highwaymen, murders and misdemeanours, and a healthy brood of ghosts, is leading my groups to start sharing new stories - or maybe old stories new discovered lurking in the woods, houses and imaginations of the county's younger residents.....

First contributions here - with many thanks to Sandon Primary School!

The Hauntings of Sandon
pages, scraps, fragments torn from a tattered book
There are stories here, secrets hidden in the shadows, tales kept in cupboards, under floorboards, in dusty boxes under dusty beds.
These are the adventures found in bold boys and brave girls and the courage of everyone


The Woods of Hidehall Farm
There is a path through the trees that will take you to a church, and old church with older churches beneath it, haunting it with the memories of lost prayers. Even the cemetery is restless, here, disturbed by the Skeletal Stoat digging bones from the graves

A fluttering bat might lead you, deep and deeper into the woods where gentle rabbits play and moles and voles forage. Foxes run in packs like wolves in these woods, where the trees are always watching

There are
Grumpy trees here,
And fruit trees,
And talking trees,
And trees walking on their roots as legs.
There are
Spooky trees here,
And shadow trees,
And purple trees,
And conker trees,
Deep and deeper into the woods
There is even a Candy Cane Tree.

These are the woods where Oscar, the last T rex hides. He saw Piers Shonks kill his cousins as dragons and since then these woods have held him safe. There are even stranger creatures than dinosaurs in the shadows under the trees

The last of the Herts Highway Robbers lurk here. You may walk into our woods. You may enjoy our old churches and ancient trees. You may wonder at our wildlife. You may walk out at the end of your visit. But you may well be missing something - just hope it is only your money!

I especially like the elegant Higwaywoman!

A street of wonders and marvels, where highwaymen loiter and a fox runs through the garden, where friendly people stand outside their houses and even the ghosts are smiling, where a horse and carriage will take you to where, or when, you want to go

Highway Robbers lived in these houses once, watching from the window, using cats and dogs and  children to spy on travellers.

Their gold is here still. Holes have been dug. Gold-siffing dogs and gold-snuffling pigs used but it has never been found
Children play in this perilous village and keep dragons as pets. They put out food for dinosaurs and nest boxes for flying carpets. When their best friends are not other children or rats they are ghosts or sometimes all three

Thursday, 25 May 2017

A Ship Of Stone

St Magnus Cathedral

You built a ship,
A tall ship of stone,
To sail our souls in,
With a crew of painted saints
To fill the sheets of faith with song enough
To lift stone into sky.

A thousand years of
Eroded stone and windworn wood, and
Watching the sea, and
Reaching for the wind, and
This ship sags against its anchors.

You built a ship of stone,
A tall ship of stone,
Crewed with saints,
To fill her with song.
And she is still here,
Anchored and earthbound.
Have you forgotten the songs
Of stone and hope and heart
That could have lifted her to the clouds?

This poem is inspired by St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall on Orkney Mainland. I wrote the first draft of it before I ever discoverdd that the Cathedral is called the "ship of stone" - its shape had really captured by interest: long and narrow, like an upturned longship - witha crew of painted saints...This year is also being celebrated as the  (probable) 900th anniversary of Magnus' death with exhibitions and events across the islands

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

A Blade of Grass

A blade of grass
art workshops in Rudheath and Witton
Victoria Road Primary School

Jo, poised and reaady for making!

As part of the Do It Together Project, for Rudheath and Witton Togather, two of our artists, Jo Thilwind and Sarah Males, are working with the families of Victoria Road Primary School. Over this term they will see each class for half a day of creativity with natural materials, with parents and carers invited to join in

The following is a personal comment from Jo. I’m not going to add anything - I think this stands as a wonderful description of a session…

One of the tools of my trade. A blade of grass.
Having wept all morning over the Manchester bomb, going to hell and back wondering if my Son was ok, (he is), and feeling tearful and sick to my belly, I had to do an environmental art workshop at a school this afternoon.
I considered even writing this post given the circumstances today, but life must go on and it's turned out to be a beautiful and inspiring day.

I had the usual comments 5 minutes in about "am I a Witch?" , (what do they see?) And an incredible fascination with my jewellery. A conversation about my silver Pentacle.... 'Did I know it was a spiritual symbol?' , and the look on her face when I showed her the tattooed one on my wrist.
We made natural frames, with 3d pictures of nature, created with what they had collected outside. There was some initial huffing and puffing from these 10/11 yr olds, but actually they embraced it with passionate gusto and made some wonderful work. One lad got so into it he exclaimed, " I was wrong when I said I hate nature, it's brilliant!!".... The whole class laughed, and my heart quietly smiled. Another girl called me over to say I was a brilliant teacher because I'd given them something so exciting to do. They absolutely loved it.

I wandered around the class with a piece of lemon balm and got each and every one of them to smell it, and watched their faces light up in pleasure and amazement.
The whole session was once again sprinkled with magick. But my absolute favourite bit, was when I pulled a handful of grass out of my basket. The type with a big fluffy seed head on it, a couple of blades of grass attached. A bouquet if you will, grasped this morning from the field. "would anyone like a piece of lovely grass for their artwork?" says I, offering it like the the most glorious blossoms ever beheld, and suddenly I was surrounded by kids, carefully choosing their particular piece of treasure, a single blade of grass, gently removing it from my hand with such care, and taking it back to their desk to weave it with love and thought into their frame. I was blown away. Such reverence, such respect, such a new and unexpected view of the natural world for youngsters who previously hadn't given it the slightest thought. What a wonderful day. Humbled.
I love my work.
Bright Blessings x

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Orkney: arrivals

21st May 2017 
Looking towards Eynhallow over the Broch of Gurness

Eynhallow Sound is still today. Low tide, with bowed kelp trunks breaking the few waves there are. A raven is chuckling away on a fence post, a low stone-knocking conversation with itself that is oddly reassuring. Hugin or Muninn having a bit of a grumble maybe

Swallows buzzed the car on the way, playing dare and double-dare as I bounced down the narrow little road. Then there were those little brown dunnocky birds that shoot across the front of the car, dolphins on a bow wave. I am always surprised to arrive and find I don’t have a neat swallow and dunnock presse in the front grill of the car

Eynhallow Sound
Sometimes just getting here feels like a pilgrimage in itself. Not even getting here to Gurness but here onto the Islands at all. This trip started several weeks ago when i left home and came trundling across the country, storytelling my way round Highland schools and steadily wearing myself down to the frazzle of an ol’ toad who set off at 5am that morning to drive the final stretch north to the first ferry of the day

Arriving at the ferry really starts the final movement for me. I simmer like the sea, a rolling tide of excitement that has me wanting to hug strangers as we load the catamaran and wave at every puffin I see. I tend to do the latter anyway

I come here full of ideas but am gradually recognising the difference between need and want. There are places I would like to go to, islands I would like to see, whales I would love to stare at, point at and probably faint over. But more importantly, there are the places I need to go to. Places where I stop. Where I don’t have to go inspecting, ticking a mental box of sites visited, plants seen, stones identified, stories told. These are the places that hold me, enchant me, tell me to shut up and just relax. Their names become a litany in themselves: Gurness and Brodgar, Stenness and Birsay and the Happy Valley where the bluebells fill the woods like smoke

I arrived this time carrying burdens. A knee that feels like its ready to fall apart so that a pirate’s wooden leg has a certain appeal. A work diary that excites and oppresses in equal measure. And heaviest of all, the imminent departure of a long-standing and very dear friend. In hospital, 700 miles and probably 3 days away so that by the time I reached her I would be too late. So, I chose north and long distance vigil, sitting beside the sea here at Gurness and reaching across the miles, watching hares in the field and the precise shapes of gannets, sharing memories and acknowledging change and departure and grief.

Sometimes just getting here is enough.