Welcome to Travelling Stories, our online exhibition of artist commissions responding to some particular museum collections. Over a series of blogs, we are sharing newly made work with you – you might not like every piece. That’s OK – you looked and thought about. But you might like the next one…

In 2018, the Derbyshire Schools Library Service closed. The collections had been assembled since the 1930s and needed new homes. With the help of the Esmee Fairburn Collections Fund and the Museums Association, staff at Buxton Museum have been finding their custodians.

Farm at Newborough by Charles Wyatt Warren (1908–1993), Oriel Môn

More than 2,000 items have been allocated to nearly 100 museums, libraries and publicly accessible collections from across Britain and some items have been restituted to communities in North America. Some items were kept by Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, including the Arctic and Sami material

Lockdown meant that we were unable to engage with new communities in these museums quite as we planned. Instead were able to offer a number of commissions including one to Helen Leaf, a Derbyshire artist who works in natural materials.

In the second half of the nineteenth century a small band of Anglesey men made the journey from the island to the Peak District in search of work. Most were miners from the Copper Mountain of Parys near Amlwch, but by no means all.

They were lured by the promise of employment at the rapidly developing quarries of Cauldon Low, Staffordshire, some twelve miles south of Buxton. Families followed, and for a few generations a small, often Welsh-speaking, community made its home around the quarry, a few terraces of houses – and a chapel.

Some returned to the island, but most never did, and lie buried in the churchyards of Cauldon and Cotton.

Writer Mark Johnson picked up on paintings going to Oriel Mon on Anglesey. Paintings of the island landscape resonated with another story of those quarrymen and their families who moved from the island to the Peak District where Buxton Museum and Mark himself are based. Those 19th Century Welsh families brought their language and culture but left their homes behind, creating a story that travels from Wales to the hills, dales and moors of the Peaks and back again, a story Mark charts in his poems.

An Echo by Mark Johnson


I heard the hammer first as clang
a sound so sharp it rang across
the quarry face bounced back
then raced around the rocky space
and sang again a sadder noise
as if a voice had called to me
from years before –
and another place.

Is that you, John? Came the call
soft across the path between
brown farm door and the gate.
‘Well, who else would it be, of course it’s
me
The last crate’s on the wagon now….’

Won’t be long before Trevor’s here,
thought John, Trevor with the horses
to pull the wagon the nine miles
across the island to the station and
the Crewe-bound train.
John looked round, saw the bottom fields
– empty now –
the leaning shed where his black Welsh
Cow
once stood. She had been his pride

his wife’s pride, too. Heifer-moist
breath,
milk as warm and sweet as her dark skin…
Gone, now
along with the sheep, sold at Llangefni
just last week. The house the month before,
to a cute farmer from the mainland
who spoke Welsh but with a slant.
And looked askance at the tilted
pastureland on offer. But still,
he bought.

Though not for much:
enough to pay off the debts,
the mortgage, feed man, the town vet.
And the rest left for the journey
to England and a new life.
The quarries in the Peak
were hiring, he’d heard say, his cousin from
Parys mine was going and the pay
was regular.
If not great.

John stood at his gate, one last time.
Above the hill, caught in a sudden gust
from off the Irish Sea, ravens, rising
heading up from their roost.
Thirty-two hard years
they had mapped his days.
Seen his ways.

This day, like all days
the ravens would return home.
This day, like no day
The farm was no home.

The Words Fly Home by Mark Johnson

The last words in Welsh
were said around 1957,
I’d guess, floated up
from the village to heaven
then got caught by
a gust of wind from
over the quarry lip,
jiggled a bit,
and drifted West.

Over Bangor Terrace first, then Cauldon Church,
where twenty years, or more, Thomas, Williams,
Hughes lie buried in the earth. A hundred miles
from Anglesey, a world of words away,
but now – suddenly – the phrases take pace,
expand to their new-found space.
Giddy, they race down the lime plateway:
the chapel now, then Stoney Lane
where each month, come by train,
a preacher from North Wales
would bring the Word.
(Oh! Those sermons
you should have heard:
phrases marshalled like
soldiers on parade,
arrayed as archangels
round the heavenly
throne.)

But on this homegoing day, words are set loose
spring wings that are all their own;
dance back along the track their speakers took.
Cauldon’s lime-crusher dust is now shook
off; no more hacking nor the quarry cough,
and, free of clogging particulates, the sentences
flex… stretch… articulate.
Unfurl, pure Welsh vowels.

Words dive, they swoop, they whoop. Feel whole.
Over the canal bridge the dizzy consonants
execute a victory roll.

Ahead… there lies the Cheshire Plain.
And then the blue-green Clwyd Hills,
Carneddau, and Ynys Môn and
there the soft Welsh rain
where, washed bright clean,
the words, these words
will once again,
sparkle, glitter, gleam.
And home remain.

The Farmer Not In The Frame by Mark Johnson

This life was not lived in impasto
the bold slap of oil on rough surface
the palette knife, the brave gusto
– impatient of every hesitation,
each stroke its own statement –
No… no, I wouldn’t say so;

More a life in mezzotint, I think,
– or watercolour wash, perhaps ink:
the precise line, the measured touch
or else the repeat of tinted gradients
gently layered; the sink of each upon
each like water settling in a lake.

Here, surely, the reach of every day
was defined according to the last
– the rise from bed, the wash,
breakfast, then the trudge
from ochre door past pond
to fields. And all the while

the neat arrangement of interior life
dissolving into the struggle outside:
the wild weather that blurs tidy outlines
of tables, cups and plates, prayers,
a task-weary wife. The rain coming
in sheets gunmetal grey off the Irish Sea.
But still the day’s routine: the morning feed,
the check for pest or disease: a scabby mouth,
foot scald and then the walls to mend. Each
task bent minutely to the general purpose.
Each move of hand or brain sorted
and precise to what is appropriate
or required. This life a lived litany
of graded actions, each its own satisfaction,
a fixative against the threat of dissolution.

No, no, not a life lived in impasto
but a braver art still. One lived
with caution, deftness. Resolution.

Artist Biography

Mark is a writer based in Leek, an old mill town at the southern edge of the Peak District. He is obsessed by landscape and the way that people move in it. The industrial legacy of the area – the transitory attempts to wrest an order of sorts from Nature – intrigues him, particularly in its futility.

As a son of Irish immigrants, for many years Anglesey was just a place on the map that Mark travelled though on the Holyhead Boat Train. When he came to know the island much better, he became fascinated by its landscape and its stories. The relatively little-known migration of Anglesey workers to the quarries of the Peak District forms the basis of his three works for this Travelling Stories project.

  1. ECHO: https://soundcloud.com/gordon-maclellan/1-an-echo-15042021-1022/s-BBpt5pM3CWu
  2. FARMER: https://soundcloud.com/gordon-maclellan/2-farmer-15042021-1123
  3. WORDS : https://soundcloud.com/gordon-maclellan/3-words-fly-home-15042021-1124/s-QtvAdrEYQFT

Travelling Stories part one

Travelling Stories part two

Travelling Stories part three

Travelling Stories part four

Travelling Stories part five

Travelling Stories part six