Saturday, 24 March 2012

Zen and the Art of Building a Shed

Yesterday, I went to meet John Whitley to learn about how the National Trust is improving public access to the banks of the Menai Strait.  

But I came home having learnt how working with the grain of nature can bring a degree of contentment and meaning to life.

John is the National Trust’s Warden for a cluster of mellow and undeservedly overlooked properties that hug the banks of the mighty Menai as it courses its way between Bangor and Caernarfon. 

The biggest of these properties, the parkland of Glan Faenol, was purchased by the Trust nearly 30 years ago for the rather subjective reason of protecting the view from Plas Newydd on the opposite bank. 

Starting his duties at Glan Faenol some 20 years ago (with the peculiar role of looking after somewhere for the benefit of somewhere else) John has gradually, lovingly, brought this mosaic of neglected woods and rich pastureland out of obscurity, making it a place worthy of a visit in its own right. 

And so it has been with John himself: he has reluctantly turned the spotlight upon himself by earning a reputation as a bit of a guru when it comes to creating buildings that have been inspired by - and built out of - the land itself.

My visit started in his satisfyingly cluttered rented workshop in the old stables of nearby Vaynol Hall, the former home of the park’s creators, the powerful Assheston Smith family. 

My eye was drawn to a series of model buildings which had been carefully constructed out of sticks and cardboard.  These were the creations of an untrained architect, who conceives his buildings in three dimensions, rather than on paper.

Like a doting parent, lovingly inspecting old photographs of now grown-up children, John picked up these models, carefully rotating them for me to appreciate their construction and explained how insights into aesthetics and structural integrity had been gained by this method of design.

Soon after, we started our exploration of the estate, working our way along woodland paths ever closer to the deceptively turbulent waters of the Menai.  

As we walked through Coed Faenol, I was reminded of the way that powerful water bodies can emanate a presence that goes beyond the purely visual.  Huge but silent forces in the form of the Strait's titanic tidal 'push and heave' seemed to permeate these plantations with a feeling - a suggestion - of nearby latent power that's beyond our comprehension.

We soon reached John’s first creation, a bird hide, now mellowing gracefully into structural middle age as it peeps over the estate’s formidable boundary wall onto the Strait.

From this pleasing building, which compels the walker to rest and absorb the view, we were able to look across the waters at the second of his creations, the cruck-framed, thatched visitor-shelter which occupies a clearing in a steep oak woodland opposite, and ponder on the way that buildings that borrow their materials from their surroundings invariably look right.

Our tour concluded with a visit to John’s latest and most ambitious project.  

Working with a loyal band of enthusiasts and trainees, he has started to turn one of his models into full-sized reality.  

Through a combination of necessity (they need a new workshop), formative teamwork and the age-old skills of chisel, mallet and auger - augmented by the judicial use of more modern machinery - a piece of nondescript conifer plantation is gradually  being transformed, joist by joist, spar by spar, rafter by rafter, into a place of beauty and purpose. 

Through a process of iteration, inspired to some degree by the emerging sense of place created by the evolving structure, ideas for a wider role for the building are also emerging: ideas that could lead to it gaining a purpose beyond the purely practical; ideas that could see it becoming a font from which social, learning, health and well-being benefits may emerge. 

Back at the car, our farewells said, and my next meeting beckoning me away, I had a sense that I had glimpsed a better world, one where enlightenment can be found in honest endeavour with natural materials and age-old practical skills.  

My final thought, as I re-entered the traffic of reality, was one of gratitude that I work for an organisation that gives this inspirational man the space to pursue his dreams.

The bird hide at Glan Faenol
The visitor shelter at Plas Newydd

John at the new build

I will return to John’s creations – and his property’s curiosities – in future blog posts.

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