THINK of Coxwold and probably your first thought is of Shandy Hall, Tristram Shandy and parish priest cum provocative writer, Laurence Sterne.
His simple grave stands against the church wall, out of the wind’s blast, but another grave in this hillside churchyard is at the root of actress, writer and director Hannah Davies’s audio-walk and art installation piece, Within This Landscape.
Hannah’s mother, herself an artist, died in a car crash on the winding North Yorkshire roads. Hannah was 12, the second eldest of seven children, the first daughter. When she was told her mother was gone, her feet took her out of the house, whereupon she retched. For those who have not lost a parent so unimaginably young, this physical image, maybe for the first time, gives you a sense of that loss.
Hannah’s is the voice on the headset that you hear describing that moment in the tenth and final sequence of listening points on a public footpath route, mapped out around Coxwold, that sets off from the Fauconberg Arms and concludes on a churchyard bench looking away from the graves and out across Yorkshire at its most verdant. By the bench is the last of the art installations by Hannah’ sister, Jessica Watson-Cainer.
For Jessica too, Within This Landscape has been cathartic. On the wall by the bench, a photo frame, melted candles in cabinets, an oriental dragon ceramic, all mark their memories of their mother.
As I sit in the late-summer sun and reflect on Hannah’s beautifully told story and Jessica’s accompanying imagery, I understand why Hannah talks of the “eventual sweetness of loss”, how it has taken on a silvery softness, in the passing years. Both sisters are mothers too now, adding to their appreciation of their mother, whose art-making in an attic had to be sacrificed to the nurturing so many children.
I may well not have been alone in playing the last two audio “tracks” several times over, partly because Hannah’s soul-baring thoughts are so moving and yet life affirming too, but also because her autobiographical piece makes you appreciate family, face the roll of life’s dice, be alive to the importance of living it to the full, all the more.
What’s more, in the summer of Le Grand Départ, you are reminded again of Yorkshire’s rural splendour, and yet Hannah admits she struggled to find her place within it as a child moving from city life divided between Leeds and York into Oulston at seven, into a house with an ever expanding family and a growing boredom that led her to run away.
For all the sadness, there is humour too, not least in her recollections of riding her truculent horse Bracken. The map indicates you should listen to this sequence while walking, but it is impossible to resist resting by a gate, looking up to the Kilburn White Horse.
Hannah and her sister Jessica may both live in York, but they each have found their place within the Coxwold landscape too, and found a place for their mother within their landscape of memories: a place of serene, sweet sorrow, but loving admiration too.