The Stinging Nettle Atlas

The stories we tell about ourselves are constructed within the physical boundaries of the places they occur in and these geographies are a crucial part of our personal narratives. The Stinging Nettle Atlas is a collection of written and visual maps about my rural childhood on the North Downs in East Kent with my 5 sisters and explores themes of girlhood, place and freedom.

In making this work I brought together memories and imaginings in a process of retrieval both of my childhood landscape and facets of myself that were produced in that environment.

Here are 3 excerpts from this work.
Dad drives back from a battery near Folkestone. He carries a crate to the orchard and spills ten pullets into dazed sunshine. New feathers push through waxy pink skin and they soon learn how to scratch for worms, fluffing up into warm brown hens. We bring them buckets of layers mash, and find their eggs in the dusty barn. We make omelettes, and have eggs boiled, scrambled and baked in the oven.

Dad and I step into the barn and close the door. He shows me how to hold the head in one hand and neck in the other. I twist hard and pull, and her vertebrae give way. Click and she is gone.
Chicken map

The soil creeps
After church we drive over the Devil’s Kneading Trough to Wye. The hillsides are furrowed as the soil creeps in an endless game of Grandmother’s Footsteps. Particles of earth roll downhill propelled by the weight of the water they carry. They dry out and pause for a moment, Grandmother turns, the water seeps back in and down they roll again. This monotonous game ribs the ground and grazing sheep press the ridges tight with their small, insistent hooves.

Other families fly kites on the blustery hill but we never stop here because Mum and Dad say rare plants grow in the fragile white earth that we could easily destroy with our clumsy feet. I gaze from the car window and words turn in my head with the wheels,
If all the world were paper
And all the sea were ink…

Our world is chalk. Adonis blue butterflies hover over orchids, adders doze in the long grass, and the scabious bows its humble heads to the wind blowing in from the sea.

The soil creeps

Dad’s pipe is clamped between his teeth. He dusts the snow off my coat, tugs my wet mittens back onto my hands and sits me behind Charlotte on the sledge. Julie was a winter baby and this toboggan made of blonde wood with steel runners is her birthday present. Dad pulls us around the garden while Julie and Caroline skip along behind.

Julie tows us out through the gate and onto the lane but the contours we know have vanished. Only the bare hedges rise recognisably from drifts on either side. Julie has boundless energy and the cold does not seem to touch her. Tirelessly she drags us up and down the silent road. Caroline’s cheeks are pink with excitement. Cottontail trots alongside. My hands are stiff in my wet mittens. Clenched in winter’s grip even the sea has frozen. The northeast wind cuts through my coat, tightly buttoned over a scratchy jumper. Charlotte hauls me along behind her but I am rigid with cold and topple over yet again.

Every winter, Baltic winds sweep in from the North Sea bringing more snow. The phone is dead, there is no electricity and we have to use Calor gas and candles. The roads are blocked and we cannot get to school. Even the snow fences strung across the fields do not stop the drifts that now fill the lanes. The snowplough is parked at the crossroads and we tug at wires and plugs in its engine in the hope of disabling it so we don’t ever have to go back.

We take the toboggan down the lane to Echo Valley where the field falls away steeply on two sides. We drag the sledge to the top and hurtle down, two at a time. When it is my turn I fall off half way. The next time I manage to cling on until we reach the dark line of trees at the bottom. I am scared that we will not be able to stop and will plunge through to the lane below but somehow we are saved. The twins start a snowball fight. A missile thumps onto my back, and snow slides slowly down inside my boots and by the time we arrive back home my wet coat cuffs have rubbed my wrists raw.

Snow has been falling all day. Dad gets the train back from London and collects us early from school. The sky is heavy as we stop to buy groceries in Wye and the car cannot make it up the steep hill home so we leave it near Coldharbour Farm. Dad tells us to empty our school bags and we tip our homework and pencil cases out onto the back seat. We fill our satchels with fish, milk and bread and trudge up Wye Hill, past abandoned vehicles with icy windows. At the top of the downs the wind whips up from the frozen marshes. We walk across the Devil’s Kneading Trough and bitter needles of ice pierce our faces. Buoyed by Dad’s encouragement we wade through drifts that fill the sunken lanes, past Zig Zag Farm and up the next hill to Folly Town. He says we are the ones bringing provisions back to Mum and Becky waiting in the dark at home, and we continue as heroes, marching through wonderland.