The UK Islands Project: Bardsey

by Morwhenna Woolcock

Morwhenna is part way through a self funded, UK islands project. Last year she visited one island a month and this year she is creating artworks in response to her experiances.

“I didn’t know in advance what form or materials I’d use for each artwork and the idea was to let the island experience inform each piece. Also, rather than creating the artworks in the order I visited them – I went with which island was speaking to me most loudly to be unleashed creatively.

The first turned out to be Bardsey Island which I spent a week on last August. I found it a fascinating and spiritual island and although it wasn’t one of my favourites from the 14 I visited, there was something about it that got under my skin.”

“Bardsey [Ynys Enilli] can be found off the tip of the Llyn Peninsula, North Wales and until I’d started this project I’d never actually heard of it.  I discovered that it was a site of Pilgrimage which reached it peak during the medieval period and that three trips to Bardsey was equal to one trip to Rome and any pilgrims making the journey would be blessed by the Pope.

This fact encouraged me to write to the Pope, even though I’m not religious, I wanted it to be a part of this Island experience. Receiving a reply was very unexpected and surprisingly exciting as was the gift of a rosary that I took with me to the island.”

“Bardsey is a difficult island to reach due to the fierce currents that swirl around it, and it was touch and go if we’d even get there. My Partner, Richard, joined me on this trip and we opted to stay at the Bardsey Bird Observatory. One of the things I discovered as part of this project was that anyone is welcome to stay at Bird Observatories and being a bird expert isn’t a prerequisite. This was great news as I knew a few birds but am no expert.

Whilst on the island I created a Bardsey Inspired Postcard which was sent to Ian, one of the volunteer wardens I’d actually met on Skomer Island, as he’d spent time on Bardsey himself.”

“I had the idea to create an artwork that combined elements of Bardsey and Illuminated Medieval Manuscripts, which came about as a result of the Island’s layers of history and its importance to pilgrims. I wanted to create a modern version so researched illuminated manuscripts and the kinds of materials that were used. This quest led me to the British Library, and then closer to home – Downside Abbey, as I discovered they have a large collection of Illuminated manuscripts and it’s actually only a short drive from the Arts Charity I work part-time for.”

 “Seeing examples up close made me realise that they weren’t at all perfect and that I’d been trying (and failing) to create something that I just couldn’t with my current skills, so this helped a lot. By realising that: a) The illuminated manuscripts had flaws, were often smudged, repaired and were no where near as perfect as the digital versions I’d been looking at. Some even had ‘school book style graffiti’  B) I’d never tried calligraphy before and its an art unto itself that requires years of practice. C) It was totally OK that all my animals seemed to appear with their own character as most of the animals in original illuminated manuscripts bare little or no resemblance to the actual animals they are trying to represent.

Once I’d accepted all this it really freed me up to continue to experiment and to finally complete this first piece.”

“I used a mix of materials – Fabric painted with gesso, Vellum which I stitched with gold thread into the fabric, gouache, inks and photographs. It became a much more textural piece in the end. I wasn’t trying to create an exact replica, I was trying to create something that had a feeling of Bardsey island and of my visit there. Something that told a story.

After working through the ‘its not good enough” and being frustrated with my efforts’ I was actually really pleased with the final result. Now I need to work out how to mount or frame it.”

“Here’s my explanation of each element to the story:

1. The huge cross that represents the 20,000 saints believed to be buried on Bardsey: Islands were seen by the Celts and Celtic Saints as portals to the Otherworld. So often coming to Bardsey would be for the sole purpose of reaching your final resting place.

Some days the island was so misty you couldn’t see your hand in front of you, making a walk to this cross next to the Abbey ruins a rather eerie experience.

2. The Seal: They absolutely surround Bardsey and you can see them quite close. I discovered that if not treated, you can actually die from being bitten by a seal as their mouths are so full of harmful bacteria. Yikes! After learning that I didn’t get too close to them.

3. The letter from the Pope: Had to include that!

4. The Bardsey Apple and a Brenda Chamberlain Fish: There is an apple tree that only grows on Bardsey, but apparently its not actually very nice.

Brenda Chamberlain,a Welsh artist, lived on Bardsey for 15 years [1947 – 1962]. Bardsey is a very creative island and is home to the poet Christine Evans and the Willow and Wool Weaver Jo Porter.  There is also an annual Artist Residency Programme run through The Bardsey Island Trust and the Artist there when I visited was Carole Sherman, who I did a wonderful workshop with.

5. The moth and beetle: Just some of the insects we saw. Each morning we had the opportunity to join the opening of the Moth trap [some large tubs filled with egg boxes] to study what had crawled into the trap the night before. Everything is released and logged in a note book.

6. Zoltan the Skomer Puffin & Wren:  I was given a sponsored Skomer Puffin and the soft toy that came in the pack I named Zoltan on account of his ring number. Zoltan joined me on the island visits. The wren is the talisman I took with me in the form of a necklace. For each Creative Adventure I have a different talisman that is linked in some way. I chose the wren as some islands have their own wren subspecies and it also holds personal connections for me and my family.

7. Bardsey Bird Observatory and the Owl: Where we stayed we had a really warm welcome and learnt so much about the island and its wildlife by staying there. The owl in this piece is a bit funkier than the one we actually saw, and if you look at illuminated manuscripts often the animals and birds look nothing like real life, as if they’d  been drawn from the monk’s imagination. So, I let myself off the hook!

8. The Yellow Boat of Hope and the Sea Monster: We were taken across the water in a bright yellow boat and it was a really rough crossing which made me think of the sea monsters often depicted in old maps. As I was painting in its details I realised that this monster also represents mental health as I struggled a bit physically and mentally on this particular island adventure. I think everyone could benefit from a Yellow Boat of Hope.

9. Pretty much every Island has a lighthouse and the Bardsey Island one is a smart square one.

10. Merlin/The King of Bardsey/The Spirit of the Island: Legend tells of Merlin living in a cave on Bardsey and this island also used to have its own kings in the early 19th century. One was called King Love. The Crown is now in the Maritime Museum, Liverpool.

11. Richard and I about to climb the Bardsey Island Mountain: and a Manx Shearwater, amazing birds who fly in under the cover of darkness to their nests and make the most unusual noise.

12. The GPS coordinates share the location of a small artwork I created whilst on Bardsey and left in the Mountain…so if you ever visit – you might find it’s still there…

13. The text was very kindly translated into Welsh for me by Sian Stacey, the Island Manager.

“In addition to actually visiting the island I loved the research and discovering the amazing resource of Downside Abbey on my doorstep, trying materials I’ve never used before such as vellum and dip pens and the feeling of satisfaction once it was completed.”


Morwhenna completed 12 island visits in 2017 and will be keeping us updated with the work she creates, inspired by each of her island adventures.

Check out Morwhenna’s blog for more photos and details about her Creative Adventures.


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