Wild Exchanges

William Seale recording sounds in the water & map of different pitches by Cleo (age 7)
William Seale recording sounds in the water & map of different pitches by Cleo (age 7)

Children are creative and surprising thinkers – current CCI projects Artscapers, Fantastical Cambridgeshire and Animating the Archives make this richly obvious.  In our project diaries we give children’s own words, images and inventions public recognition.  We also make them visible because we believe there is fascinating material there for other people to explore.

Wild Exchanges take this advocacy one step further, formally introducing children’s ideas into the working realms of professional adults, as inspiration for new work or prompts to reflect on their own fascinations.  CCI artist Deb Wilenski is the ‘creative connector’ in these exchanges and explains how they work:

Wild exchanges began a while ago when we asked writer Rob Macfarlane to write a foreword to our Fantastical Guide to Hinchingbrooke Country Park, and when poet Jackie Kay joined primary school children in the Spinney Wild Woods to make new work together.

Our recent series of exchanges from Fantastical Cambridgeshire locations takes a more minimalist approach; I search for a key image, thought, or way of exploring that children have made or discovered, and offer this to adult professionals with whose work it seems to be connected.  I have invited a wide range of people into conversation – artists and writers, but also botanists, documentary film directors, sound specialists and research scientists.

At times I have drawn unlikely comparisons, but these have frequently turned out to be the most fascinating exchanges; we have discovered intriguing connections between a housing development in St Neots and the wilds of Antarctica, or the empathy and imagination of a 7 year old and the skills of a wildlife film maker.

Our Wild Exchanges are collected below and can be read in any order.  We are also developing a series of games which pick up threads from the exchanges.  These often form part of our workshops.  Children, families and educators took them into the Forest of Imagination in Bath earlier this year and they will also be part of our workshops in Emmanuel College gardens for the Festival of Ideas.  The games will soon be available as a resource for others to use in their own spaces too.

Wild Exchange Cabinets

The Ernest Cook Trust Logo

Wild Exchange Games - for anyone to play anywhere


24h Fantastical Offords/ image: Maciek Platek24h Fantastical Offords/ image: Maciek Platek

Fantastical Map of the Offords

(by Deb Wilenski) I have been developing a series of Wild Exchange Games, picking up threads from our recent Fantastical Cambridgeshire projects in Cambridge and St Neots.  Each game offers prompts and playful invitations to anyone, anywhere, to explore the many worlds on their doorsteps in real and fantastical ways. 

During our Fantastical Cambridgeshire residencies children and their communities found extraordinary ways to explore local outdoor spaces.  We adventured together into meadows, orchards, churchyards, market squares, school playgrounds and surrounding streets.  The children explored as themselves, but also as other characters including their own grandparents and tiny babies, foxes, unicorns and mice.  They thought about the worlds these revealed and ways to record them.

Wild Exchange Games can be played one at a time or in sequence.  They can last minutes or months.  In our projects each way of exploring was experienced slowly with plenty of time to make discoveries, find further connections and enter into conversation with adult professionals who work in similar ways.

The ‘rules of play’ are printed on each game.  But, of course, in the spirit of curiosity and imagination, they are also offered as starting points for you to develop variations of your own. 

Colleagues in different settings around the UK and further afield are currently testing out the games. After which they will be available to purchase as a set of A4 sheets that can be freely duplicated from the CCI shop.

Game 1 / Maps from other minds

Explore your own location through a map of somewhere else. 

Five maps made by children within our projects are reproduced for this game. Each map has markers numbered 1-5 as well as paths, landmarks and symbols.  This is a game of discovery, orientation and surprise that gives you a wonderful freedom - to let lines and landmarks from another imagination take you on a journey.  You can record your own discoveries as a second layer of the map or make a whole new map to add to the collection.

Fingers pointing at a map

Numbered 1-5 map as well as paths, landmarks and symbols

Game 2 / Messages from other minds

Try out a new identity and explore your world as someone or something else.

This game grew from children’s enthusiasm for ‘empathy walks’ as a way of adventuring.  Emily Sheaff, teacher of Hawks Class at Offord Primary School, coined this term for exploring as other people or animals, creating links with local community and the natural world.   

The messages in this game take the form of brief sentences from children’s own writing, and suggest a new identity for you and a way to begin.  You can explore for a short or long time as your other self, or use the messages as a starting point for dramatic, creative and social projects.  The children we worked with developed stories from their characters and created stop-frame animations to share the stories with the school community.

Old archers exploring the Millennium Green

Old archers exploring the Millennium Green

Game 3 / A map for midnight

Think about a familiar place in a different light - at dusk, in the middle of the night, at dawn.

This game plays with moonlight, darkness, and colours for the hours between dusk and daybreak. We suggest that you take things slowly, making time to get to know or imagine a place, re-visiting often and becoming immersed.  The children we worked with began by imagining the night, but the game also developed during our 24h Fantastical Offords event, when families went walking as darkness began to fall. 

A particularly rich investigation within this game is the exploration of sounds.  We shared some of bio-acoustic engineer William Seale’s recordings with children and adults and were captivated by the drawings, memories and stories they evoked.

Drawings, memories and stories

Game 4 / Fantastical worlds and where to find them

Look very closely at the fine detail of plant and animal worlds, and use what you find to set off on fantastical flights of imagination – in words, images, 2D and 3D creations.

At many times during our projects we took time to focus on the tiny detail of places.  Children sketched intricate forms of plant life and searched as plant adventurers did hundreds of years ago for fascinating species.  We looked at the curled tongue of a moth and its relationship to calligraphy, searched for underground creatures in the rain, and a collection was made in Round House Primary Academy of children’s tiny discoveries.  Details collected in this way can also be swapped and shared, building a long-term resource for creative making and exchange.

Carp in Emmanuel College GardensCarp in Emmanuel College Gardens

Fantastical fish skinFantastical fish skin

Fact and fiction in a garden full of stories


(by Deb Wilenski) One of our first Wild Exchanges made connections between children’s drawings in the outdoors and the work of artist Mary O’Malley, who uses meticulous botanical and zoological detail to build fantastical compositions and landscapes.  We decided to use this combination of close observation and imagination to shape two workshops in Emmanuel College Gardens for the University of Cambridge’s Festival of Ideas

Emmanuel College GardensEmmanuel College Gardens

Mary O’Malley: Mental Map #2Mary O’Malley: Mental Map #2

The gardens were perfect for exploring ‘Truth’, the theme of this year’s festival.  A real location, in a well-known city, with a long and verifiable history, but one which also invites the mind to wander and the imagination to take flight.

Head gardener Christoph Keate is a captivating narrator of the place.  He tells true and detailed stories about many of the plants and has a fine sense of fiction’s relevance to the gardens too.  When I ask what it’s like there after dark Christoph points to a row of tall town houses at the perimeter and says they remind him of The Magician’s Nephew by C S Lewis; a story of strange travelling, first from attic to attic, then in and out of the wood between the worlds, through mysterious pools that are really portals.

The wood between the worlds : original illustration by Pauline Bayne

The wood between the worlds : original illustration by Pauline Bayne

All of which makes our choice of the carp pond by the Caucasian Wing-nut tree a perfect meeting place.  A tree with fantastical seeds next to a pool full of mythical fish.

As families and groups of friends begin to arrive we search for the roots of the Wing-nut which break through the ground many metres away.  Some of the children draw these when we offer black paper and chalk pastels to record details of the garden.  Other careful and delicate sketches appear alongside collections of fallen leaves, seeds and bright petals.

Black paper and chalk pastels to record details of the garden

sketches of fallen leaves, seeds and bright petals

From visible and tangible details of the gardens we invite fantastical journeying and the copper-scaled carp cruising round the pond lead the way.  The true story of the pond is that in an earlier form it predates the college and was part of a Dominican Priory more than five hundred years ago.  The carp there now are extraordinary creatures, elegant and communicative, they come to you when you stand by the edge of the pond with their great mouths open. 

I tell the story of The Carp and the Dragon Gate, an ancient Chinese tale of magical transformation:

On the Yellow River at Hunan is a waterfall called the Dragon Gate. It is said that if certain carp called Yulong can climb the cataract they will transform into dragons. Every year in the third month of spring they swim up from the sea and gather in vast numbers in the pool at the foot of the falls. It used to be said that only seventy-one could make the climb in any year. When the first succeeded, then the rains would begin to fall.

Image of the The Carp and the Dragon Gate, an ancient Chinese tale of magical transformation

We offer plasticine alongside the drawing materials used already and everyone’s observational work begins to transform.  Pond water swirls into a ravenous monster, plants grow fantastical blooms, spiked dragons appear amongst gathered leaves, and exquisite fish-skin is made by hand.

Pond water swirls into a ravenous monster

Fantastical blooms

Drawing of a rose like plant

Exquisite plasticine fish-skin is made by hand

With fantastical imaginations wide open we move into the Fellows’ Garden to meet the Oriental Plane.  A whole world in a tree, its branches disappear into the sky and climb down to the earth, where fantastically, they transform into new trunks, rooting themselves and growing upwards again.

Under the tree we hear a second fishy story, The Salmon of Knowledge

Under the tree we hear a second fishy story, The Salmon of Knowledge; an old Irish tale in which an ancient salmon containing all the knowledge of the world, is caught and cooked by Fionn mac Cumhaill, and a single drop of burning fish oil transfers the salmon’s entire knowledge to the boy. 

The children and adults in our workshop need no further invitation to begin writing and illustrating stories of their own, sitting under the branches of the Oriental Plane and the enormous Purple Beech nearby.  Stories run wild, like children discovering that one attic opens into another; they join fish to plants and plants to other worlds, life to death and back again.

Child sitting under tree

Leaves falling from a tree

Here is Noga’s story, written at the outer edge of the Oriental Plane, on the day of her eighth birthday:

After the fish died, someone took one scale and lost it in this very garden, which made something amazing happen.  It was a root.  Through the years the people watered it and cared for the root.  Until one day it was a young and healthy tree. 

A person came to it and asked: ‘What seed do you have?’ Straight away it answered: ‘I have a salmon scale.’  This day the garden still has this tree and everyone still comes here for answers. 

Noga (age 8) writing her storyNoga (age 8) writing her story

Drawing of the garden

A gallery of images from the morning is shared here.

Wild exchanges in Emmanuel College Gardens


Wild exchanges in Emmanuel College Gardens

It was wonderful to host two ‘you are where?’ workshops as part of this year’s Festival of Ideas in the Emmanuel College Gardens, led by artist Deb Wilenski.

I think this is the best time I’ve ever had out.  We made dragons for our plant collections and now we've made stories.
Nathanael (7) with Chloe (9)

People of all ages joined to us to explore and draw and imagine, taking time to look carefully and be together under these magical trees:

Who can I be now?


Children being wild eagles arrive in the Offords’ Millennium Green
Wild eagles arrive in the Offords’ Millennium Green

Children being wild eagles arrive in the Offords’ Millennium Green

(by Deb Wilenski) What do creative explorations add to the identity of a place and the people who live there?  For every location in our Fantastical Cambridgeshire projects there are already official maps, showing points of orientation, possible journeys, historic and current landmarks.  Mapping children’s imagined and newly discovered details doesn’t mean that conventional maps have no significance – but it does suggest that places and identities can also be played with and that this kind of play has value.

Looking back over the three project residencies I’m struck by the fact that a place is not just geographical or historical.  Its identity has also to do with who you can be there.  In Eynesbury, the Offords and Love’s Farm children deepened their connections to immediate locations by asking: who else can I be in this place?  what would it be like?

From hearing the story of James Toller (the ‘Eynesbury Giant’), to the Offord children’s explorations as other people and other animals and the powerful presence of Minerva and her Parliament of Owls at Love’s Farm, children have relished the adventure that other identities bring.

Children’s drawings of James Toller (Round House Academy)Children’s drawings of James Toller and Minerva (Round House Academy)

Children’s drawings of Minerva (Round House Academy)

Our current education system often puts pressure on children to pursue their individual ambitions and to be the best you can be.  There is little space for being someone else and seeing how it feels.  Yet empathy is being recognised across many fields, including education, as a vital skill for the future. 

In his reflections below Kevin Jones, who was Headmaster at St John’s College School (Cambridge) for 26 years and is a passionate advocate for creativity in education, reflects on identity, empathy and understanding, prompted by our Fantastical Cambridgeshire experiences.

Children painting Kevin Jones head
Kevin Jones and children from St John’s College School

Imagining being other (by Kevin Jones)

Of all the wonders of the Fantastical Offord project, it was Ava’s map that struck me most.

Ava’s map an aerial view of the orchard

It offered an aerial view of the orchard, complete with a key for the shapes that represented trees, my house, stones, human thing, pond and fffffox. There was the mysterious gate that monsters come through, and beyond the mysterious gate there was a mysterious world. And this mysterious world that monsters came from was the school playground, and the monsters were us, the humans. Ava had made the most wonderful leap of imagination, into the mind of a fox. This was the fox’s map. It showed the world through an animal’s eyes and in the fox’s eyes we humans were the dangerous animals. This wonderful act of imagining shifts our view and makes us empathise, as Ava does, with a different view of the world.

Of all the things our children learn, perhaps the most important for them and for our world is to be able to map the minds of others, to imagine being other, to learn to read how others might think and see.

Empathy comes to the young as naturally as the leaves come to the trees but it needs the right conditions to thrive. It needs to be fed and nurtured. It grows in the example we set to children, in kindness witnessed and received by them. But we also need to make space and time for it to blossom in our schools. Our education system often drives children to focus on their own individual attainment, usually in a narrow academic sense. We need to balance this with opportunities for them to look beyond themselves, to use their curiosity and imagination.

That is what the Fantastical Offords project offered to Ava – a space to be curious and to imagine. And with what wonderful results for her and for all of the children.

Ava and Molly getting a snake’s eye view
Ava and Molly getting a snake’s eye view

The mysterious orchard itself becomes, in their descriptions and in their art, a living being with a character – which of course it is, only we don’t usually see it so clearly or so sympathetically.

Leopard eyes in the orchard (Chelsea, age 8)
Leopard eyes in the orchard (Chelsea, age 8)

Look at the messages left for the Robin group’s visit to the Orchard by the older children – sometimes cryptic, sometimes challenging, always generous in spirit and filled with a sense of what it will be like for their younger friends to arrive with new eyes.

Fox den in the right hand corner – a message left for the 5 and 6 year old children
Fox den in the right hand corner – a message left for the 5 and 6 year old children

With their curiosity and imagination released, the children readily see through other people’s eyes. Imagining themselves inhabiting the Millennium Green as different people opens up the children’s sense of their community, their belonging, and produces wonderful writing in voices other than their own.

The children use this space for empathy to produce outstanding work. But there is more to it than this. They are seeing beyond themselves and understanding different viewpoints. And we seem to need this now more than ever in our world, to build communities, to break down barriers between people and to see beyond prejudice. That is why it is so important that children can make maps from other minds, imagine being other. What Ava is doing, what all of the children are doing, is mapping a way to a better world.

Offord community, their shadows and the enormous beetle (photo credit: Majiek Platek)
Offord community, their shadows and the enormous beetle (photo credit: Majiek Platek)

Places, names and invisible lands


Map showing the names of places in the Antarctic

Drawing the snakey snakey path

(by Deb Wilenski) How do places get their names?  How do you name a new place where nobody has lived before?  CCI’s third Fantastical Cambridgeshire project with Round House Primary Academy took place on the Love’s Farm development in St Neots.  This 160 acre new-build site has over 1400 homes, a primary school, shops, open space and community facilities and was entirely constructed and named between 2009 and 2017.  During CCI’s project the school children played with renaming their streets, landmarks and empty spaces with a strong sense of imagination and adventure. 

I wondered who we could involve in a wild exchange about naming and human habitation.  I couldn’t help thinking of a place with recent human history that on the face of it seemed as far away as you could get from a Cambridgeshire housing development.  But as you will read in the conversation below there are fascinating parallels between Love’s Farm and the continent of Antarctica; a place seen for the first time only 200 years ago making it the most recently occupied and named place on earth.

Image of Antarctica; a place seen for the first time only 200 years ago

There is another interesting comparison too.  The homogenous 21st century architecture of Love’s Farm stands on fascinating archaeological ground.  An ancient map sits beneath the new map on the surface.  Look up Antarctica on google maps and no matter how far you zoom in, the vast central ice sheets remain empty and white.  But what lies beneath?  It turns out that there is a map of invisible Antarctica which reveals a very different land.

I interviewed Dr Kevin Hughes, Environmental Research and Monitoring Manager at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) about names for new places and underground maps.  From an unlikely geographical comparison, we set off on a fascinating journey.

Q:  Does the comparison I’ve drawn between the newness of developments like Love’s Farm and the wilds of Antarctica make sense to you?  Are there similarities in how we create a human map of these places?

When I first thought about this exchange, I thought how does this work?  But actually the idea of coming to a new place in the UK, naming the streets and creating an identity, there is a comparison.  In Antarctica you’ve got a whole continent that has only had human beings fully aware that it is even there for less than 200 years.  1819 was the first time it was ever set foot on.

We produce maps of the Peninsula (the part of Antarctica claimed by the UK) at the British Antarctic Survey.  There are lots of names on the map and they have all been officially recognised by the UK Antarctic Place-Names Committee.  I talked to one of the people on the committee yesterday and he pointed me towards this book (Antarctic Peninsula: A Visitor’s Guide), the last chapter of which is all about place names.

Map of the Antarctic Peninsula
The Antarctic Peninsula

Q:  Is naming a place in Antarctica a complex procedure?  How does it work?

It’s an official meeting now but there are a discreet number of people who meet and deliver names in as consistent a way as they can.  A lot of the Antarctic Peninsula is named after the people who first went there.  The first sealers went up to King George Island, named after King George IV because they were planting the flag for Britain.  But there have been expeditions by the French, by the Belgians, more French, by the British, the Swedish, and they all stamp their own names on the different areas.  On the website of the Antarctic Place-Names Committee apc.antarctica.ac.uk you can zoom in anywhere you like, every one of the red dots is a name and it will tell you where that name has come from.

Map showing some of the themes for place names

Map showing some of the themes for place names

So that’s one way of naming.  Another way is having themes. You have to bear in mind that a lot of these areas were explored sequentially and so it depended what was prominent at the time.  Some of them are named after composers and music.  We’ve got Beethoven Peninsula, Monteverdi Peninsula, Shostokovitch Peninsula.  This season I’m going to a place called Finlandia Foothills, named after Sibelius’ Finlandia Suite.  But also there’s an area where they’ve named glaciers and mountains after Irish musical instruments or there are names from Moby Dick, Churchill’s War Cabinet, Homer’s Iliad, it can look quite random.

Q: In Love’s Farm the children named some places according to their physical appearance – a huge clearing was called The Vast Vacation or there was Hairy Swamp and Shredded Wheat Hole.  Other names were emotionally evocative; The Cornfield of Happiness, Snake Shadow, Bleeding Heart Close.  Are there names like these in Antarctica?

There’s a good example here it’s called Deception Island. It’s actually a collapsed volcanic caldera, which is still active, so you can sail through and be completely surrounded by this ring of rock.  It’s called Deception Island because you don’t know what you’re going to get until you sail inside.  In many places there are features that are named after the physical nature of the place, or things that happened on the day it was first visited; Cape Disappointment, Inexpressible Island.

Map of Deception IslandMap and aerial photograph of Deception Island

Aerial photograph of Deception Island

Q:  When you go to the Finlandia Foothills how will the naming process work, can anyone suggest a name?

We’ll spend the day on the hill doing our sampling and our remote sensing and at the end of the day we’ll be quite tired and hungry and we’ll cram into our little pyramid tent and make our dinner.  We’ll start thinking what shall we talk about tonight?  I know, let’s talk about what we’re going to name some of these features. We’ll just chat about it and see if anything comes to mind, or we’ll think up a particular theme.

And what makes something worthy of being named? 

As far as I understand we tend to give names to things that need a name.  If you’ve got a management plan or you’ve got an operational reason or it’s a prominent feature for navigation, it will get a name.  Otherwise where would you stop?  In the Finlandia Foothills we’ll probably name some of the mountains, some of the valleys, some of the ice streams.

The second comparison I drew between Love’s Farm and Antarctica was the striking contrast between the surface map and what lies underneath.  I imagined that under the Antarctic ice is another invisible land.  Do we know what is there?

Image of transantarctic mountains poking through the ice

In the centre you’re talking about up to 4 kilometres of ice on top of the landscape, this high dome of ice which covers the bottom of the world.  It’s considered there’s no life of any real substance underneath the ice.  On the surface of the ice you might have a few microorganisms that have fallen out of the sky, or been blown up into the sky and rained down and over tens of thousands of years they’ll get buried and become part of the ice but they are only a tiny fraction and they will be unviable.

Saying that, if we take Lake Vostok which is one of around 400 sub-glacial lakes (liquid lakes under up to 2.5 kilometres or more of ice) the theory is that in some cases they may have been completely isolated from the rest of the world for millions of years, and there might have been independent evolution of these microbial species.

But what I can show you is this.  This map is called Bedmap 2 and the idea is to map what is underneath the ice. 

Image of Bedmap 2 map showing what is underneath the ice

These Transantarctic Mountains that just about poke through on the other map are actually a massive chain.  And the Gamburtsev Subglacial Mountains, these are the size of the Alps, but they’re completely buried.  The only reason we know they’re there is because of ground penetrating radar.  These are the sorts of graphs they produce, that show different ice structures but also the surface of mountains, the topography under the ice.

Map showing mountains buried by ice

Q:  Do you get excited about working there still?  This is the first time I’m looking in detail at these maps and it’s amazing.

I do!  I work as a biologist in the geo-politics of environmental protection but there are people in my organisation who are absolute world experts on what’s beneath the ice, and what that tells us about the geology, what it tells us about how Antarctica came together.  Because 30 million years ago there was no ice in Antarctica.

Q:  What does it feel like when you are somewhere nobody has been before, standing on a continent which so few people have ever seen or mapped?

If you’re on a research station it can often be quite busy and cramped and actually quite claustrophobic.  The difference is, if you go deep-field, you get dropped off by your little aircraft, and you’re there with your mountaineer who’s going to help you out, and the same kit that was used by Scott 100 years ago, it hasn’t been really improved upon… then you realise I’m on an island, with someone else, and this island’s the size of Wales and we’re the only people here and we know we’re the only two people.  It’s amazing.

Kevin Hughes counting penguins in protected area called Lagotellerie Island
Kevin counting penguins on Lagotellerie Island, Antarctica

Snowdrops and superpowers


(by Deb Wilenski) For our day with the oldest children at Offord Primary School, we took real and fantastical plant life as our focus.  Both the school orchard and the Millennium Green are rich botanical environments and we had already found green walnuts to make ink, as well as gigantic thistles, a ‘pink tree my nan planted’, and tiny plants growing on molehills. 

We took as our inspiration the plant-hunters and illustrators of past centuries, who often took huge risks to obtain specimens or record them.  The children fully embraced the idea of botanical adventuring.  They climbed high in trees, explored tangled undergrowth, and crossed water in the Millennium Green by balancing along a fallen tree to get to ‘the island’.

Plant-hunters - Children in a tree

I shared some of the children’s detailed discoveries and fantastical drawings with Flis Plent, Head of Learning at Cambridge University Botanic Garden and a director of BGEN (Botanic Garden Education Network) and asked four questions to explore the connections between the children’s explorations and her own memories, experience and specialist knowledge. 

Her answers below are full of wonderful stories and observations - of seed collectors past and present, a terrible-smelling plant, snowdrops with chemical superpowers and an oak tree that smells, fantastically, of lavender.

How far have you travelled as a plant hunter and did you find what you were looking for? 

I haven’t travelled to hunt for plants but recently one of our horticulturalists travelled to Vietnam on a plant hunting expedition.  They were looking for lots of very rare plants and were lucky enough to find seeds of some of them which we will now grow back here at the Botanic Garden.  Here is a picture of the seeds they brought back drying out on sheets of newspaper in their hotel room in Vietnam.

Piles of seeds drying on newspaper
Seed drying

Hundreds of years ago plant hunters risked their lives searching for new plants all over unexplored parts of the world. They didn’t have hotel rooms to dry their plants in, and often slept in the open air or in small tents.  Some of the stories of their adventures are quite hair-raising, with tales of them being attacked by tigers, swept away by raging rivers and getting lost regularly in dense jungles and up snow-covered mountains.

What is the most other-worldly plant in the Botanic Garden and what makes it so strange?

I think the strangest plant we have here is the Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanum) which flowered here quite recently.  This amazing plant is from Sumatra in Indonesia.  Here is a picture of it as it was opening in our Glasshouse Range in June this year.

Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanum)

It doesn’t flower very often, but when it does the flower structure is absolutely huge. Ours was 1.36m, but they can be as big as 3m tall.  On the first night that it opens the white structure in the middle, called the spadix, heats up and produces the most terrible, terrible smell – a bit like rotting flesh or stinky cheese.  The smell is produced to attract beetles which pollinate it.  When it flowers it also attracts huge numbers of visitors to the Garden.  We stayed open at night so people could come to visit it and smell it – even though the smell is terrible.  I love hearing what our visitors think it smelled of.  Here are some of the things they told me:  It is worse than the smelliest socks ever…It smells like my brother’s trainers… It smells like my baby sister’s nappy…It smells just like the food bin in our kitchen when nobody empties it.

Are there plants which are surprisingly strong or surprisingly delicate in the gardens?

One of my favourite plants are snowdrops.  They look really delicate and flower at the coldest time of the year.  But they have superpowers – inside the cells of the plant are chemicals which act a bit like anti-freeze (like the stuff you might spray on a car window in the winter to melt the ice).  So even when it is freezing and snowing these brave little plants can still hold their heads up high!


If you could combine any two plants which would you choose and what would their plant ‘offspring’ look like?

I love plants which smell nice, like lavender and honeysuckle and I also love old gnarled trees that live for a long time, like oak trees.  So if we could combine a huge oak tree covered with flowers with the scent of lavender that would be amazing!

The Black Ground: Bideford Black


The Black Ground: Bideford Black

(by Deb Wilenski) The last day of our Fantastical Cambridgeshire residency at Offord Primary School was spent making a whole school ‘map of the night’, picking up children’s shared and strong interests in night-time creatures, sounds and stories.

Thinking forwards to the Fantastical Offords Map that Elena would make, I decided to offer a way for the children to invent and name their own night colours – mixing the last of our home-made walnut ink with acrylic paints, charcoal and chalk pastels.  I hoped some of their invented colours would help determine the dark palette of the map itself.

The children’s enthusiasm for this process, and the beautiful, poetic list of names for black that emerged, led me to look for a ‘wild exchange’ about darkness, journeys, colour processing and naming.  Visual artist and researcher Lydia Halcrow came to CCI’s Fantastical Mapping event at the Forest of Imagination in Bath, and she turned out to be the perfect exchange partner.

In her written and illustrated ‘journey’ below, Lydia shares some of her own work with Bideford Black Pigment, responding to the children’s names for black and their experiments with colour, place and map-making. 

(by Lydia Halcrow) The blackest black, Bideford Black, once mined, once useful, now trodden over, overlooked, over trodden. I start walking on ‘The Black Ground’ - it’s an area of shingle accessible at low tide at the point where the Torridge and Taw estuaries meet, it leads me along the river Taw towards Barnstaple, past rusting hulls of ships now marooned along the banks of the silted up river, past concrete and metal jetties reaching out like crumbling arms into the water, waiting for a cargo that comes no more, past the remains of the power station, served by a river that holds no ships and a railway that holds no trains.  As I walk along the Taw Estuary, at low tide the soils shift and change, I step over clay, first red then silver, onto sand then mud flats, feet sinking fast.

Abandoned ship Taw Estuary
Abandoned ship Taw Estuary

The walks are in some small way a means to record and map this place and my experience of walking there, this embodied experience, this experience of embodiment. An antidote to the smooth screen of the digital age. A way to feel the land, the texture of the ground underfoot, to mark time with my feet, to unpick the surface and find remnants of past histories and other feet and creatures that have gone before me. Then as the estuary narrows a little towards the old port of Fremington Quay, once an epicentre for trade of pots and clay with the names of ships on the museum logs as a small echo of the past:

Mado II
Kathleen May
De Wadden
Narwal Tweelg

Here as the river narrows slightly and becomes more river than conjoined with sea, here with my bare hands I can scrape a little of the black, black earth and press it between my fingers. It is waxy like the make-up it once made, like a black lipstick, a kohl disguise. And the metal plates I wear under foot record the textures of the ground I have passed along, the scratches and lines etched into them oddly mirror the sand at low tide after the sea has left its tiny wave like indents.

Metal Plates
Metal Plates

Here I collect just a little of the earth and take it home, where I dry it, grind it to the lightest of powers and mix it with printing oil, bashing it down and smoothing it out over and over again with a heavy stone pestle to make an ink to print from. Here I put the inked up plates in a printing press to make a record of the contact of my boots with the ground.

Here I draw small sketches onto OS Map 139 that I use to navigate, in the blackest of inks, Bideford Black Pigment sometimes smeared on top. The drawings are snapshots of this landscape that submerges me. As I finish one, I start another with a few more footsteps in between. Slowly each segment of the map fills up and then I paint over it, with a watered down white – the antithesis to all of this black. It half buries the drawings, but they are still there, small ghost images poke through of past histories and my past existence in this place. And then I start again, the walk continues and so too do the drawings. Another layer as I move forwards, all the time measuring the texture of the ground with my feet and the metal plates. All the time recording the shapes I make using the GPS of my phone in my back pocket – so technology has its uses after all….

The Black Ground ii
The Black Ground ii

As I walk and as I record I wonder if my own map, that engulfs the OS map beneath is more accurate, a more honest description of this place and its materials than the roads, paths and contours that lie partially submerged beneath. How is it possible to map and record a place in all its complexities and histories, all its layers and ambiguities. How are these materials of this place but also part of its history and use, its industry and settlers? What small marks do I leave behind as I pass through it, how long will they last? How can I record them?

I think about the water, the endless ebb and flow of the tides, rising up the mud flat and the beaches, up to the ships, salt water adding to the rust, speeding up its entropy. I work with ink and ice, melted onto paper to try and draw time, as the ice melts the black inky mixture makes its way across the paper, the ambient temperature dictating its speed, the density of the ink as the water evaporates. Thicker lines of ink mark a pause in progress before the water moves onwards, taking more paper, moving across this miniature landscape.

Ice Drawing iii
Ice Drawing iii

I wonder why the black pigment, the black ink and pen draw me towards them, I think that perhaps in this world of infinite possibilities and endless decisions, the black and the white is comforting. The materials come from the ground, just as all life does if we trace it back far enough, just as we all will if we trace life forward. By limiting the materials to black and white and the greys between, the texture and the layers emerge as the focus, the drawings and paintings become the surface and are about the surface, the ground underfoot.

Lydia is a visual artist and researcher based in the South West who makes paintings, drawings and prints that respond to walks in a place and to a sense of abandonment or entropy. She has an MA in Fine Art and is currently working towards a Practice-Based Fine Art PhD.   You can explore more of Lydia’s work here  www.lydiahalcrow.com

We seriously did see a spaniel



(by Deb Wilenski) In CCI’s Fantastical Cambridgeshire projects with school children we often see a lively exchange of ideas and approaches to exploring; the many ways children invent to journey together into familiar and unfamiliar locations make an intriguing list.  We decided to take some of these ways to the Forest of Imagination, a four-day festival at the University of Bath, to see if other children and adults in a different location, might like to explore in these ways too.  Independent artist Laura Magnavacchi also joined us to help facilitate and document the workshops and try out the games as a new way of working with children for herself.

Game 1 –  Maps and messages from other minds

We offered children’s hand-drawn maps from locations in Cambridgeshire and invited people to use these to navigate around the Forest of Imagination, recording what they discovered in words and images.



Small rolls of paper with ‘messages’ from the children at Offord primary School invited participants to explore the Forest as other animals or other people, because as Martha (age 7) said: If you learn to explore like a mouse you can learn to explore like anything.

I explored as an old lady, I strated at the age of 70 and ended at 100 by Ava aged 8

Girld in a meadow

Game 2 – A city gone wild

The theme of the festival was Where we feel at home and focused on exchanges between urban and wild spaces.  We offered a wealth of printed images from sources as diverse as children’s den-building in our Fantastical Cambridgeshire locations, houses designed by children in our ArtScapers projects, intricate structures made by animals and ‘wild’ architectural design.  We invited visitors to use these in collage, drawing and projections to build a new ‘city gone wild’.


Game 3 – Mapping from dusk to dawn

We played a compilation of wild sounds recorded by bio-acoustic engineer William Seale, alongside two large-scale visual prompts from illustrator Elena Arévalo Melville - a list of ‘names for black’ invented by Offord Primary School children making colours for night-time  and a long night pathway inspired by Elena’s Fantastical Offords map.

The taxidermy fox sat quietly in the night corner, where dark cushions and eye pillows encouraged people to lie down, listen, travel into the night, then add drawings to our map of night-time.



Classes from Swainswick Primary School, Twerton Infant School and St Andrew’s Primary School tried these out for us on Friday whilst on other days people dropped in and played together, often coming back to add more to their work as new ideas came to them.

Classes from Swainswick Primary School, Twerton Infant School and St Andrew’s Primary School

The games helped to transform the space at Edge Arts, filling the room with new ideas and creations shaped by this community. We will be publishing the games for others to play with in the autumn so keep in touch on info@cambridgecandi.org.uk if you’d like to know more.

Walking on the wildside


A wild exchange with Fredi Devas, producer and director of Planet Earth II:‘Cities’ responding to ideas from Offord primary school children.

Wild hyena walking the streets of Harar (image: Fredi Devas)Wild hyena walking the streets of Harar  (image: Fredi Devas)

(by Deb Wilenski) Since day one animals have featured strongly in our Fantastical Cambridgeshire project with Offord Primary School.  Children have explored as other animals, listened for and recorded animal sounds and drawn real and fantastical night creatures.  Many of the children are inspired by wildlife film makers and adventurers.  I spent a memorable morning with Harry and Flynn (aka Steve Backshall and Bear Grylls) tracking and filming a wild panda and magic horses (Martha, Ruby and Angel) in the undergrowth at the Millenium Green. 

More than 10 million people watched each episode of the recent BBC series Planet Earth II and many of them were children.  As I work with the 5 to 10 year olds at Offord it is clear that they are already great observers and imaginers of the natural world.  They share ways of seeing and thinking with some of our most brilliant film makers.

For this wild exchange I talk to Fredi Devas, producer and director of Planet Earth II series finale ‘Cities’.  Taking Martha’s map of the school orchard as a starting point we explore how to see through animal eyes, lifelong relationships with animals, places we call home and fantastical forests of the future.

Martha’s map of the school orchardMartha’s map of the school orchard

Harry’s orchard fox with fox-tail calligraphyHarry’s orchard fox with fox-tail calligraphy

Martha (age 7) called her map of the orchard ‘A walk on the wildside’.  She told me: ‘If you’re under 5 you can walk a baby squirrel, if you’re over 5 you can walk a cub and if you’re over 18 you can walk a mummy and a daddy fox‘.  What was your relationship with wildlife like as you grew up?

Before 5 I was living in the countryside in France.  We had donkeys and chickens and cats and a dog.  I was going to a village school and I had enormous freedom to roam miles with my friends.  My best friends lived about a mile away on the other side of the valley and my parents would let me just head over.

There was one road to cross which had no traffic and the rest of the journey was forest.  We had strong vines we could swing on and we made loads of dens.  There were ruins, maybe 13th century ruins in that forest, so we had a real Mowgli set-up.  I was totally surrounded by nature then and I loved animals.  When I was 6 I said I wanted to work with animals and when I was 8 I looked up the term ‘zoologist’ and told everyone that I wanted to be one. 

When I was 16 I discovered Darwin’s theory of evolution and I was fascinated especially by cultural transmission, this new idea.  That was the start of my brain being really engaged.  My school had such a view of liberal thinking and encouraging debate around spirituality, quantum mechanics, way before we could really understand it.

On my first day with Hawks class I invited the children to explore their school orchard as themselves but also as another animal.  They were brilliant at it and later in the afternoon many of their maps were drawn from this perspective.  Are there aspects of your job that ask you to imagine being the animals you’re documenting?

Snake’s eye view from up a tree (Ava)Snake’s eye view from up a tree (Ava)

Fredi filming peregrine falcons from a New York skyscraperFredi filming peregrine falcons from a New York skyscraper

When you’re filming I think it’s really important to try and get inside the eye of the animal, the mind of the animal.  One of the hardest shots we are tasked to do is the ‘point of view’.  If you’re doing the point of view of a pigeon for example, you certainly don’t move the camera around like a pigeon moves its head, because that would be impossible to watch.  But what you’re trying to get is an idea of ‘this is how they might view the world’.  You’ve got artistic licence for not going literal but trying to be illustrative. 

I think the most fantastical piece in the Cities episode is when we did the hyper-lapse sequences in cities in Asia looking through the city lights.  When I was dreaming up those sequences I wanted you to see the environment from a bird’s eye view as if you’re an animal venturing into the city for the first time.

Shanghai city lights (image: Fredi Devas)Shanghai city lights (image: Fredi Devas)

Looking down on the traffic we’re condensing space and time to say: this from different animal perspectives is going to look ridiculously busy, like it does with time lapse; look ridiculously alien with all the city lights; and look really hostile with all these buildings racing up.  All to provoke an emotional response which must be what I’m thinking animals might feel when they first come to the cities.

It seems that children can easily conceive of lifelong relationships with animals that are both ordinary and fantastical.  They don’t believe we need to grow out of these connections.   Did Martha’s ‘Walk on the wildside’ map remind you of other relationships you have encountered?

Langurs on rooftops in Jodhpur (image: Fredi Devas)Langurs on rooftops in Jodphur (image: Fredi Devas)

I’m going to tell you an amazing story about the connection between people and wildlife in India.  The langur troop that we were filming in Jodhpur went every day between 3pm and 5pm to one roof-top and they were fed by a family there. 

In January 2011, at 1:27 in the morning, the grandmother-in-law who had been feeding the monkeys for many decades died.  And in India when you die all the family is around your bed and it’s very quiet.  It’s quiet before you die and it’s quiet after you die, and the family stays there until the morning. 

Half an hour after the grandmother died the male langur walked into the house.  This is at 2 in the morning.  Their roosting tree is about 250m away, down in the valley.  The male langur comes in, puts his hand on her feet on the bed, and then runs out.

There’s a big square window above the grandmother’s bed with no glass in it and when the family look up the entire troop is sitting around that window.  They don’t know how long those monkeys have been there, but they’re all there, all the young ones and all the mothers.  They would normally be sleeping in the tree, 250m away, they never sleep on the roof-tops.  And they stayed there all night until dawn and then they left.  They didn’t make a sound. 

When the lady told me the story she wasn’t telling it to me like I’m telling it to you, like this is mind-blowing, it was more like ‘well the langurs had a connection so they came’.  That’s one of the things I find so extraordinary; I don’t know if this is within your definition of the fantastical, but this spiritual connection is so alive in the way they welcome animals into the city there.

The relationships with the langurs in India and the hyenas in Harar (Ethiopia), who are fed by the city’s butchers, are both extraordinary and everyday.  Do you think this is only possible when you have a spiritual connection or a long tradition through time?  Can we start new relationships with animals?  The children I work with seem to think we can.

Here’s a really interesting example which we filmed but which didn’t make it into the episode.  There’s a clip on the Planet Earth II website called ‘The biggest long-eared owl roost in the world’, so you can see it there.

Kikinda is a town in Serbia and in the last 15 years long-eared owls, which are normally very shy birds, have been going into Kikinda town square to make their roosts during the winter.  There are now 750 owls in one roost in Kikinda town square.  The ones in the wild are much much smaller, around fifty birds.  They’re doing it because it’s normally at least two degrees warmer in the city and cities are where some of the mature trees are left.  When the shooting season starts it frightens the owls out of the trees in the fields, they are actually less disturbed by the traffic than by the shooting.

Long-eared owl in roost, Kikinda (image: Marko Rupena for the Wall Street Journal)Long-eared owl in roost, Kikinda (image: Marko Rupena for the Wall Street Journal)

These are long-eared owls, they’re beautiful big birds and this relationship is not religious, it’s not a long tradition and yet very quickly the inhabitants of Kikinda are recognising it’s putting them on the map.  Economically, lots of people are coming to visit, but it’s also the idea of what it means to call home ‘home’.  That idea of why you belong somewhere, something that’s as special as saying: ‘I come from Kikinda, yes that town with the largest long-eared owl roost in the world’.  And this charismatic animal that you are linked to might then draw you into the love of birds, the love of wildlife.

I’d love to ask you about the grove of ‘Super-Trees’ in Singapore – the fantastical man-made landscape there.  The Super-Trees remind me of children’s inventions and drawings; this radical idea of a forest in a city extending vertically from a small footprint on land.  Does it feel fantastical when you are there, or a bit like the relationships we’ve talked about, is it becoming part of everyday life?

Botanical gardens, Singapore (image: Fredi Devas)Botanical gardens, Singapore (image: Fredi Devas)

What it feels like changes when you’re there.  It’s extraordinary when you first see it, it’s captivating, and it’s a new futuristic look.  Those gardens are almost an entire ecosystem; the plant waste is burnt and digested in such an efficient way that it cools all the greenhouses.  You can walk around the platforms in the Super-Trees and there are 300 species of epiphytes growing on them, they are really amazing. 

And then at night the lights come on!  At first I’m there thinking ‘but I know all about light pollution and what it does to wildlife, and these plants are going to be so confused’…but it attracts so many people.  It’s suddenly cool to be hanging out at a botanical gardens.  And because of it there are birds coming in and making their homes there, there are loads of butterflies and bees and they’re so clever about their planting that they are making three-tier forests that are attracting huge densities of insects.

It's amazing and it’s very clever.  But after a while there I crave the wilderness, I crave zero management.  But that’s my personal reaction.  I’ve grown up I suppose in the wild whereas other people have grown up in the city.  This is within the realm of the city, still within their comfort zone, but bringing nature to them.  So I really champion it.

Spectrograms and singing ice


(by Deb Wilenski) I wanted to interview William Seale for Fantastical Cambridgeshire to explore a wonderful contradiction; the human desire to discover things as they really are, and the desire to experience unbelievable worlds.  It’s a rich combination that sits at the heart of our Fantastical Cambridgeshire project and many other CCI endeavours.

William’s work as a bio-acoustic engineer is factual and faithful to the natural world but seems to have great potential for the imagination too.  When we share William’s sound recordings at Fantastical Cambridgeshire events people of all ages are captivated.  His recordings have prompted extraordinary drawings, vivid memories and new investigations.

I met with William to discover what the ‘fantastical’ means to him and to reflect on children’s explorations of wild sounds from our current project with Offord Primary School.

Image of a spectrograph

In your work recording and analysing wildlife sounds there is a great emphasis on capturing natural sounds as accurately as possible.  Do you think the fantastical sits well with this kind of focus?

Yes, I think it probably does.  Some of the things I set out to record sound just how I’d expect, and there’s no big surprise there, but other things are quite different.  Obviously, none of it is supernatural but it does often have an other-worldly quality to it.

What have you been really surprised by?

Well it’s not a very dramatic sound in a way, but the peacock butterfly.  When it opens and closes its wings if it’s disturbed during hibernation it makes a kind of swishing sound.  I recorded that years ago and then I heard that there was something ultrasonic there too.  The original equipment I’d used couldn’t record ultrasound, so I recorded it again.  I was expecting more swishing sounds that went higher and higher but suddenly there was this very sharp clicking (clapping hands together sharply).  I hadn’t expected to hear that.

When you’re recording how much are you interested in the patterns and surprises of the sounds themselves and how much are you trying to discover what the sounds are being used for?

It’s both really.  The reason I got into sound recording was because I loved hearing the sounds.  And the fact that a particular sound would often take you back to somewhere, to a particular location - like I hear yellow hammers and I go to Devil’s Dyke.  I wanted to be able to capture that, sort of put it in a pot.  And the great thing about sound is that with a very high degree of realism, you can capture that sense. 

When I worked with the five and six year old children at Offord they were fascinated by finding, making and recording sounds.  How old were you when you first became interested?

Listening for moles in Offord School orchardListening for moles in Offord School orchard

My first recollection of being really interested in hearing wildlife sounds was when I was at prep school in Cambridge.  It was break time and my classmates were probably playing football or something and a song thrush started singing at the top of a beech tree.  I was amazed by that and I just stood there listening to it. 

My mum always says that I had a great interest when I was in my pram!  We walked down the road where there used to be a rookery, and I would sit up in my pram and really take a keen interest, so maybe it goes right back.

You’ve got some extraordinary looking equipment here.  It’s fascinating to see some of the machines that have recorded the sounds you’ve shared with us and turned sounds into images.  Can you describe some of the technology?

It’s much easier now than it was when I first started.  In the mid-1980s when I got involved in the bird book work (Birds of the Western Palearctic, vol 1-9, 1977-94) we were sent open-spool tapes from the British Library, a compilation of a particular species.  And then we had this machine, this very fantastical machine, a spectrograph.

It’s a bit like if you took a washing machine and cut it in half, so it’s half the height, with a whole load of dials and things on the front, then stuck a tall biscuit tin in the middle on the top.  Round the biscuit tin you put this sensitized paper, and underneath the cover it had a big metal disc.  You plugged your recorder in and 2.4 seconds of your recording came round, slowly.  You then put the paper on some springs and had to switch the machine into a mode where it sounded like a washing machine!  It went round really fast and there was a stylus you had to engage which gradually went up the paper and burnt a pattern in it. 

So you’ve got these puffs of smoke and sparks and this funny smell and you just watch as the pattern gradually appears.  We’d try to work out what the pattern was.  It was like opening Christmas presents, you really didn’t know.  You’d get these fantastical patterns and the patterns helped you remember the sounds.

Listening to your sound recordings in our ‘Tent of Sounds’ children and adults have loved finding visual codes and shapes for the sounds.  When you look at those spectrogram images do you hear the sounds in your head?  Is it like looking at musical notation?

Image of empty music staves

Sonagram of goldfinch song (reproducing the pattern burnt by the spectrograph)

Sonagram of goldfinch song (reproducing the pattern burnt by the spectrograph)

Well it is like that, because it shows time against frequency.  You get a gradation of darkness in the patterns as well which gives an idea of amplitude.  And then you can see things.  Like here (at 0.8 seconds in the image above) the bird is using two voices.  The syrinx in a bird is where the two bronchae meet, and the two sides are controlled independently.  A starling is brilliant at it.  A starling can mimic two species simultaneously, one with one side of its syrinx and one with the other side.

The other fantastical part is we do a lot of slowing down to hear the structure of these sounds, but the bird is thought to have a time resolution about ten times better than ours.  So if we slow a recording down by a factor of ten, we will start to hear the level of detail they are hearing.   I think as humans we sometimes make the mistake, we listen to a rook and think that’s just a simple sound, but there’s a lot more going on, rooks are very intelligent.  It doesn’t sound musical to us but there is a lot of complexity.

In the children’s drawings from Offord animal sounds often carry messages between one animal and another.  They have a very social purpose.

Seb’s Rabbit conversationSeb’s Rabbit conversation

I loved seeing their drawings.  Of course, it’s actually what a lot of sounds in animals are.  I am really interested in the function now.  I think the last recording I made was a burying beetle.  I set the equipment up, found a burying beetle in something disgusting out in the field.  My mum’s cat is an avid hunter and so I gave the burying beetle a dead mouse and it didn’t seem to take much interest for a while.  Then I suddenly realised it had in fact made a nest.  Most insects lay their eggs and there’s no further care but burying beetles have this very pronounced maternal and sometimes paternal care.  

They make these stridulations – their bottom sort of wobbles around and they produce a squeaking sound.  So I’ve recorded that.  But now I’m wondering, was the sound actually made because the beetle was being disturbed, so it was telling me to go away?  Or because of its nesting behaviour, was it something else?  I read that they do communicate with their young, so I’m intrigued.  There is a group at the Zoology Department researching burying beetles so I must get the recording to them.

I asked the children what sounds they would most like to hear – you became this mythical person for them who could make anything happen!  One of their requests was ‘a walking tarantula’, another was ‘a spider spinning its web’…

Well this piece of equipment here which I completed this autumn, well nearly completed because I’m not quite happy with part of it, that’s for the spiders on their web.  This is the one I used for the ladybird on the grass stem – it’s made from an old shaving mirror.

Image of piece of recording equipment

Image of piece of recording equipment made from an old shaving mirror

Are there sounds you haven’t recorded yet that you want to record?  What’s at the top of your wish list?

It had been the bombardier beetle but I then got that, which is a remarkable thing.  Hmm, I’ll have to think, because I tend to blunder along and then something comes up…

William expanded this list in an email weeks later, and told me about one of the most fantastical sounds I’d ever heard of:

After you left I got thinking more about which sounds would be on my recording wish list (grew rather long, ranging from Death-watch beetles, leking Capercaillie and a big Raven roost, to a Western Australian dawn chorus and a tornado and yesterday afternoon I added another one…singing ice.  I was in Cambourne (without recording gear) by one of the part-frozen lakes photographing a fabulous sunset when I suddenly became aware of unworldly, almost bird-like, chirping sounds in a sort of echoing ricochet pattern…singing ice.   I’d heard a couple of other people’s recordings, but never expected to hear it for real.  It made my day.

A world of sounds


(by Deb Wilenski)

Lucas (age 6) fantastical creature from EynesburyLucas (age 6) fantastical creature from Eynesbury

Daniel (age 6) tawny owlDaniel (age 6) tawny owl

In many of our projects with children in the outdoors, real and fantastical creatures are discovered in extraordinary lands – deep underground, under water, high in the night sky.   We have seen wonderful visual representations of these, including Lucas’ drawing which has become the Fantastical Cambridgeshire logo.  But what do these creatures sound like?  What are the everyday and extraordinary sounds of life in Cambridgeshire?

To expand our languages of mapping in this project Cambridge Conservation Initiative introduced us to local bio-acoustic specialist William Seale.  William has spent years of his life recording amazing sounds in ordinary places, if the inside of a wasps’ nest can be described as ordinary, or the underground cocoon of a moth, or the nursery roost of Pipistrelle bats.

William on the banks of the river Ouse behind Eynesbury Primary School, listening to the underwater sounds

William on the banks of the river Ouse behind Eynesbury Primary School, listening to the underwater sounds

William made a special compilation for us of sounds from Cambridgeshire and at two recent events in our Fantastical Cambridgeshire project we have played these as an acoustic ‘performance’ in our Tent of Sounds for visitors to listen to and explore. 

Each time people have been fascinated and surprised at what they are hearing.  Listening takes time too, and in the Tent of Sounds people slow down.  Reading William’s titles for his sound recordings takes you into new and magical lands.  You begin to realise that our human world, so noisy in many ways, is only a small part of the auditory story:

Frog & Toads calling underwater without blowing bubbles

The first outing for the Tent of Sounds was Eynesbury Fantastical Blitz Day

The first outing for the Tent of Sounds was Eynesbury Fantastical Blitz Day but we also set it up as part of Cambridge University’s Festival of Ideas in the garden of the Faculty of Education.  We invited people to draw as they listened.  Children found precise and beautiful ways to represent sounds on paper.  Parents, grandparents, other adults joined in.  A whole gallery of sound illustrations developed through the day.

May (5) The sound of a ladybird climbing up the grassMay (5) The sound of a ladybird climbing up the grass

Imogen (age 5) Number 2 soundImogen (age 5) Number 2 sound

Cleo (nearly 7) A map of pitches, high and lowCleo (nearly 7) A map of pitches, high and low

Sam (age 4) Caterpillar, cocoon, butterflySam (age 4) Caterpillar, cocoon, butterfly

Sam (age 10) Fox and background sounds, and the sounds of shrews fightingSam (age 10) Fox and background sounds, and the sounds of shrews fighting

Eddie (age 7) The different sounds

Lara (6) Robins, bluebirds, owl, and these are the sound wavesLara (6) Robins, bluebirds, owl, and these are the sound waves

Lois (12) Dragonfly taking offLois (12) Dragonfly taking off

Malcolm (age 69) Fox barkMalcolm (age 69) Fox bark

We mapped sounds in words too.  On a large board we asked people to note their favourite Cambridge sound.  By the end of the day we had a whole cityscape of connected sounds, from William’s recordings of bats and ladybirds, to the roar of the river outside The Mill, my daughters sleep sounds and to end the day, the clink of a glass of wine. 

map of favourite Cambridge sounds

In our current Fantastical Cambridgeshire residency at Offord Primary School the seven, eight and nine year olds have explored their school orchard and the Millenium Green across the road as themselves, other animals and other people.  Our next stage of mapping will include the different worlds of sound that meet in these places, and we hope William may be tempted to come and make new recordings too.

New inhabitants for Eynesbury


(by Deb Wilenski)

To extend Wild Exchanges at CCI’s first Fantastical Blitz day, I created a comfortable drawing ‘lounge’ in the playing field of Eynesbury Primary School.  Our exchanges with Gallit Shaltiel and Mary O’Malley were shared with visitors, and these, along with children’s work from the school project, formed the basis for exchanges during the day.

There was a comfortable carpet with cushions to lounge around on and invitations to play with pattern, design and detail, inspired by Mary’s work and the children’s finely drawn botanical images.  I also offered a large board for building up a town of spaces and inhabitants to join Gallit’s responses to the children’s drawings.

Children’s drawings from Year 1 and Year 3Children’s drawings from Year 1 and Year 3

Setting up Fantastical Blitz Day Image

Our first fantastical inhabitants and patterns moved in to Alfie’s ‘house’ drawing just after the school gates opened.

Oli (age 6)Oli (age 6)

Alex (age 4)Alex (age 4)

Alfie (when in Year 1)Alfie (when in Year 1)

They were joined steadily by new people and creatures, including a golden bear, a golden werewolf, and a highly-patterned version of Ash’s (Year 5) character.

Ash (Year5) and Sonny’s mumAsh (Year5) and Sonny’s mum

Sonny (age 5)Sonny (age 5)

Sonny (age 5)Sonny (age 5)

Some people drew for a long time, others rested and watched.  There was time for trying something for the first time, as adults found they could draw after all, and time to make second versions if you weren’t happy with the first.

Fantastical Blitz Day ImagePhotographs by Maciek Platek

Fantastical Blitz Day Image

Sonny (age 5)Zach (age 8) A bird inside another bird version 1

Zach (age 8) A bird inside another bird – versions 2Zach (age 8) A bird inside another bird version 2

And there were many conversations about the freedom of working this way.  Taking children’s work as the starting point for exploration and creative expression allowed people to play, to improvise, to be bold, and to be happy with what they made.

We loved the idea of the Wild Exchanges…. I didn’t necessarily think of them as children but just as people with interesting ideas.  (Katherine and Gregory from Manchester)

From Eynesbury to Stockport


Gallit Shaltiel untitledGallit Shaltiel untitled

Alfie (Year 1) and Alex (age 4) green and blue drawingAlfie (Year 1) and Alex (age 4)

(by Deb Wilenski)

Gallit Shaltiel’s drawings attracted lots of attention at Eynesbury Fantastical Blitz.  The process of Wild Exchange was easy to see in the way she had begun with children’s images of characters and places, then worked through her own ‘doodles’ to the final images of creatures made from buildings made from creatures. 

Many of our visitors wanted to have a go themselves drawing directly over printed images of the children’s work, drawing freehand, or combining tracing and drawing together.

Katherine Lane –Serff (age 53 as she noted on her work!) borrowed Ash’s bold character to re-enact her own day so far, picnicking by the river, near the bridge and swans. 

Ash (Year 5) drawingAsh (Year 5)

Katherine Lane-Serff drawingKatherine Lane-Serff

As she looked at Alfie’s house image, which Gallit had used so richly, she remembered making tall house drawings of her own.  Back in Stockport Katherine sent two images of these to share with CCI and some thoughts about the process of creative exchange:

Gallit tall house

Gallit tall house

Line drawing of a tall house

I have been following CCI and its work from afar for a while and it was lovely to join in with some activities first-hand.   My husband and I were both students at Cambridge, and the date of a college reunion coincided with the event at Eynesbury last weekend so we called in on our way there from Stockport.

Working with ideas from children seems to give one permission to play, and not worry too much about the result. It's also a nice reversal of the usual school art thing where children look at the work of (usually) adult artists. I can imagine a whole website devoted to facilitating online playful artistic exchanges between artists of any age and type.

Here are two of the houses I spoke to you about on Saturday. The houses themselves are purely ‘fantastical’, but the objects are not.

The black and white card is the first I did, and depicts the interests of the friends for whom I drew it. The second is a Christmas card I drew for a folk trio called The Young'uns, and the objects portray many of the songs I had recently learned at one of their singing weekends.

It's interesting to revisit these - the only two of which I have copies. The style clearly became less free as I turned out Christmas cards in quantity. I think I prefer the less tidy one.

Observation and fantasy


Mary O’Malley, Mental Map #4

Mary O’Malley, Mental Map #4

(by Deb Wilenski)

Our Wild Exchange with American artist Mary O’Malley brings together some of the Eynesbury children’s detailed botanical drawings, and Mary’s own meticulous and fantastical compositions.  In this second post from the exchange (you can read the first here) Mary describes how her urban childhood in Malden, Massachusetts, gave her a longing for nature, and lead to a combination of organic pattern and idealised fantasy in her work.  She begins with a quote from an amazing textbook of decorative patterns published more than 150 years ago.

That whenever any style of ornament commands universal admiration, it will always be found to be in accordance with the laws which regulate the distribution of form in nature.  
Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament , 1856

I love how you talk about the children’s work and seeing the pieces they made is fascinating.

My work is about exploring the connections between manmade ornament and decoration and the structures and patterns that occur in nature. I’m interested in how we as humans strive to connect with nature and experience transcendence or the divine through pattern and decoration, as in the dense patterning and ornament that we often see on devotional buildings or objects.

I grew up in a very urban area and have lived most of my life in or near the city, and had always longed for a deeper connection to nature. This longing for nature finds its expression as a fantasy of nature—an idealized version of the real thing. My drawings are not exact renderings of plants or flowers, but rather hybrid depictions of imagined flora and fauna. They are organic and unnatural at the same time. When I sit down to make a piece, I use a variety of source material, including observed nature as well as decorative arts, and all forms of man-made ornament.  

Although I strive to be as precise and meticulous as I can when I draw, I am human and my lines will never be perfect. However, it’s the imperfections and evidence of the human hand that make them interesting. Making this work is very time and labor-intensive, and puts me in an almost meditative state while I’m working.  My hope is that the viewer can also enter this meditative space while viewing the work.

Mary O'Malley
New Hampshire, 2016

Mary O’Malley, Garden Study #1

Mary O’Malley, Garden Study #1

Mary O’Malley, Altar #2

Mary O’Malley, Altar #2

I will be offering concertina sketch books containing some of these intricate drawings alongside those from the children at our first Fantastical Blitz day this weekend.  Each book has plenty of blank pages for new artists to record plants and patterns as they journey around Eynesbury.

Miró-like shapes and spaces


(by Deb Wilenski) Artist and teacher Gallit Shaltiel has been working over the last month with some of the Eynesbury children’s images of places, characters, and symbols.  In this second Wild Exchange post (the first can be read here) Gallit describes how she has drawn copies of the children’s drawings to fix them in her memory and then worked simultaneously with shapes from the original drawings and characters from her own imagination.  She shares images of work in progress too, and the first final images - of creatures made from buildings made from creatures.

I became really interested in the drawing by Alfie (Year1), which is a built structure made of boxes and triangular shapes.  It reminded me of Paul Klee paintings.  I had the urge to fill the spaces, but this time the shapes suggested characters from the other children’s drawings.  I have approached this image many times now, sometimes drawing directly over it, and at other times drawing from memory.

Pencil drawing of a built structure by Alfie (Year1)

Alfie (Year1)

Paul Klee paintingPaul Klee Three houses by the bridge (1922)

I have enjoyed exploring a number of my own versions of some of the characters as they suggest so many possibilities…the Miró-like shapes and spaces of the figures have made me want to fill them with pattern.

Gallit Shaltiel sketches, drawing on children’s buildings and characters

Gallit Shaltiel sketches, drawing on children’s buildings and characters

Gallit Shaltiel sketches, drawing on children’s buildings and characters

Gallit Shaltiel sketches, drawing on children’s buildings and characters:

Pencil drawing by Phoebe (Year 5)Phoebe (Year 5)

Pencil drawing Anthony (year 1)Anthony (Year 1)

Pencil drawing by Harry (Year 5)Harry (Year 5)

Pencil drawing Charlie (year 5)Charlie (Year 5)

Pencil drawing by Ryan (Year 5)Ryan (Year 5)

The main approach I have found myself taking so far is to turn the ‘environment’ spaces into creatures themselves. I like working intuitively and having the opportunity to respond to children’s drawings really brings out playful intuition.

Gallit Shaltiel, Stick LegsGallit Shaltiel, Stick Legs

Gallit Shaltiel, UntitledGallit Shaltiel, Untitled

Gallit’s process of combining, memorising, and inventing drawings can be explored at our first Fantastical Blitz day this week.  CCI’s Cabinets of Curiosity will offer existing images to play with and a chance to add new ones to this growing exchange.

Mary O’Malley


(by Deb Wilenski) A particular kind of drawing is being picked up in our Wild Exchange with Mary O’Malley.  On a very rainy day the children from Eynesbury took shelter in the church opposite their school, with which they have close connections.  Many of the drawings the children made there and are intricate, representing the decorative substance of the church building or the flowers outside in the churchyard.  At school images of trees and flowers had been drawn with composed precision.

A pencil drawing of a flower by Oliver (year1)Oliver (year1)

Phoebe (Year 5)

Ana (Year 5)

Pencil drawing of images of a tree by Shakira (Year 5)Shakira (Year 5)

Image of feet from a stained glass windowTwo details from the church

I was struck by the importance of plants as symbols and sources of patterning and by the desire some children have to make neat, exact drawings.  I was also reminded of the botanists and plant illustrators Maria Sibylle Merian (1647-1717) and Mary Delaney (1700-1788) who were fascinated by plants, patterns and accuracy. 

When I first came across Mary O’Malley’s work it seemed to sit in this tradition, and then I discovered her imagined landscapes and mental maps.  The combination of observational detail and precise patterning with deliberately fantastical worlds in these works, made her a perfect exchange partner.

I’ve shared images with Mary of children’s ‘botanical’ drawings and photographs of decorative details in the church.  She is using these as a prompt to remember where her own fascinations came from and will write particularly about the connections between flowers, maps and landscapes in her meticulous drawings.

Mary O’Malley Mental Map #2Mary O’Malley Mental Map #2

Work by Mary O'Malley can be purchased here.

See second post in this series here.

Mary O’Malley Imagined Landscape #1

Drawing and doodling


(by Deb Wilenski) Gallit Shaltiel is a visual artist, illustrator and educator. Her work includes drawing, photography, paper cut-outs, and projection. A number of the children’s drawings reminded me of the sketchbook ‘doodles’ she posts online.

Gallit Shaltiel (from sketchbook)

Gallit Shaltiel (from sketchbook)

Recognising the value of marginal drawings and doodles, and beginning with images from the children that are not necessarily finished or part of compositions, Gallit is creating new work inspired by some of the children’s characters, symbols, and places. 

Pencil drawing Anthony (year 1)Anthony (year 1)

Pencil drawing Ash (year 5)Ash (year 5)

Pencil drawing Charlie (year 5)Charlie (year 5)

We were both fascinated by Johnny’s ‘imaginary city’ (Year 5), drawn in Eynesbury market place - a collection of close-knit buildings that seemed to be asking for occupation! 

Johnny’s ‘imaginary city’ (Year 5)

This exchange continues a process of drawing and suggestion that CCI artists Filipa Pereira Stubbs and Sally Todd began in their explorations of maps with the children.  In a previous post they describe how: 

using words and letters as our inspiration, we also drew worlds of words, and big bold patterns and stories began to emerge. Together we thought about what and who inhabited our world with us - water, roads, houses...dogs, bees, parents, school friends...imaginary creatures, aliens, and exotic animals.

We will be sharing Gallit's new work here over the next few weeks. More images of the children’s original drawings, and some of Gallit’s initial responses, will be offered in our collecting cabinets at the Eynesbury Fantastical Blitz day – for borrowing, adapting and doodling.

Pencil drawing

Pencil drawing

Gallit’s work in progress showing how some of the children’s characters (in the centre of the page) are beginning to change.

See second post in this series here.