Improving the studio with reclaimed materials (= how not to spend any money)


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Someone recently gave me some floorboards they ripped out of their house and it prompted me to make some new shelves for my studio. It’s quite tricky to reuse tongue and groove floorboards, because they split like mad when you wrench them up, so I wasn’t sure enough of it would be usable. But it was. I spent a very happy Sunday afternoon pulling nails out of them, then used the best bits to make my shelves. I’ve been watching Adam Savage’s Tested Youtube channel, which has lots of ideas for workshop storage. He has this concept of ‘first order retrievability’ which means that any tool should be retrievable easily without having to move something else. Drawers are places where things go to die. This inspired my paintbrush/pencil/tool rack. I also made an organiser cabinet using a Proplex floor protection sheet I had and offcuts of ply and MDF. The Proplex attracts dust by static electricity, which is annoying, and wasn’t as rigid as I’d hoped, meaning I had to reinforce the drawers with cardboard. The cabinet was marginal from this point of view: all the materials were free, but it took a long time to make – probably longer than I should have spent on it. The ply and MDF scraps I used had multiple lives: they came from a previous projects of mine as well as their original uses. I like it when materials can be reused multiple times. All this work inspired my son: he made a battleship out of the wood scraps and burnt himself with the glue gun while doing it, thus initiating himself into the ranks of makers



Untitled drawing, Matthew Herring, 1999.
Untitled drawing, Matthew Herring, 1999. (© Matthew Herring)

To escape, over Christmas, I went out for a walk around the suburbs near my home in York, one afternoon. I took Iain Sinclair as an imaginary companion, or rather, he brought himself along, as I’d been reading his London Overground, a book about a walk Sinclair took around the route of the London overground railway with the filmmaker Andrew Kötting. The presence of Sinclair turned a stroll into a minor odyssey. I tried to weave into my walk some sensitivity to the psychological lie of the land and to deliberately cut across my usual routes. I started on Beckfield Lane: a mile long and dead straight. Someone once told me it was bombed by a Zeppelin during the First World War, because the Germans thought it was an airstrip. Most of the houses were built after then, so it’s part of the twentieth century semi-detached sprawl. The school I went to (recently demolished) was at one end and I used to think of the whole as a huge neurone, with the school as the cell body and the road as the axon extending to where I then lived at the other end. Beckfield Lane takes its name from one of the original open fields of Acomb, before enclosure. It runs along a ridge from which you can look downhill towards York Minster and the city centre. It’s a road for going along rather than across, so my first attempt at escaping the spell of Acomb (or entering into it) was to cut down through a snicket to Jute Road, heading down into the valley of the eponymous beck, now hidden. All the streets in the ex-council-estate area on the Western slope above the Beckfield beck are named after the city’s connection to the Vikings and the Battle of Stamford Bridge (there’s a Tostig Avenue). 

I headed towards a small copse called Fishponds Wood, a numinous place where the Beckfield beck seeps to the surface. The fishponds are gone, but what remains is a crescent of dense marshy woodland, neglected by all but the obligatory band of ‘friends of’ and hidden behind a stockade of council houses with tiny gardens. A significant local road is called Carr Lane and I imagine Fishponds Wood as a relic, or descendent, of that primordial carr, as if every neighbourhood needs its weep hole where things hidden can come to the surface.  The Fisher King’s wound kept eternally fresh. Again, neurone-like, the copse reaches out its thin tendrils into the cellular mass of Acomb. A sliver of green. 

I cut across its muddy, dank gloom of black twigs and snared crisp packets, failing to ask the right question, and on, past the back entrance of St Stephen’s churchyard, to Beech Grove, another relic. I can’t remember the name of the estate, long gone, which the avenue of massive beech trees once led to (the fishponds were also part of it). A double row of Egyptian temple columns, leading nowhere. Another illegible fragment of a different time and place parcelled up as ‘green space’ and left embedded, like shrapnel or scar tissue, in the cell culture of housing development. I imagine they tried several times, but failed, to blow the trees up, like one of those Icelandic boulders inhabited by fairies which the road builders are forced finally to go around, having wasted a good kilo of dynamite.  

Somewhere on my route I saw the word ‘Hob’ or ‘Hobstone’ and a destination presented itself, a justification or galvanising principle for what had till then only been a mere walk to get some air: the Hobstone on Hob Moor. I set my sails southwards and felt the pull of the Hobstone, the vagueness of its features forming in my mind like a stalagmite. From the straightbacked Victorian shopping row of Acomb Front Street I cut down through the Arts and Craftsy posh bit of Acomb which loosely hangs around Hobgate and Moorgate, eschewing those alternative sites of myth, Holgate Windmill and West Bank Park (site of the fake Alpine ravines and cliffs of the former Backhouse Nursery). Trying too hard to avoid the known route, and pulled by the obscure gravity of the Moor, I tried to follow the most direct line and prospect for a way through to the Moor down a street called Queenswood Grove (gravid consort of the nearby Kingswood Grove, where I lived until I was four). This circuit of a street, shaped like it’s trying to draw the belly of a pitcher plant, led me round in a circle and no way through to the Moor was there. I was forced to pay my dues to the labyrinth before I was allowed on the Moor (itself a labyrinth). 

I found the Moor where I knew it to be. I noticed a stone-built Victorian house by the entrance to Hob Moor School at the bottom of Green Lane: imagining it when it was built, all alone on the lane leading from Acomb to the Moor, surrounded by fields. A flashback. Striking out for the Hobstone greatly increased the distance of my walk, beyond what I’d intended. It’s out on a limb; not really in Acomb at all. The stone, a badly eroded effigy of a knight about two feet tall, sits next to a plague stone next to the path in a limb of Hob Moor known as Little Hob Moor, which is cut off from the main Moor by the East Coast Main Line railway. It is, in fact, close to Tadcaster Road, the old Roman road into York from the South West. The stone was placed in its present position in 1717, but the carving predates that (13th century, if I remember correctly – or 14th). An inscription on the reverse, now gone, read: “This image long Hob’s name has bore who was a knight in time of yore and gave this common to ye poor”. For some strange reason, the knight faces towards the Moor, not away from it so that it would face you as you enter the Moor – it stands at an entrance to the Moor. I remembered it as a deeply pitted and misshapen knub of limestone, like a chewed pencil rubber sticking out of the ground, with no trace that it had ever represented a knight.  

A long stretch of walk took me across Hob Moor to the stone. It used to be on my cycle route to and from work, so memories of that time arose. My father used to walk his dogs there when I was a child: always clockwise around the perimeter, never anti-clockwise. One Christmas Day he brought me here to try out a boomerang I’d got. My father had the first throw and it smartly disappeared into the ditch or the hedge and was never found; he promised he’d buy me a new one, but never did. There used to be two or three old railway wagons which football clubs used to change in, but these were burnt out and are now gone. Motorbikes used to tear up the scalloped edges of the old brickworks, until barriers were placed at the entrances to the Moor. The line of the narrow-gauge railway leading to the brickworks is still clearly seen: a lone bush on the line of it turns out every spring to be one half elder and one half hawthorn. The Moor is windswept and mysterious. 

According to the ‘friends of’, the name comes either from Robert (Rob/Hob); from the trickster and marsh-spirit Robin Goodfellow; or from a name for the Devil. I can’t accept the Devil, but a minor (and folkloric) trickster cum ignis fatuus makes sense. Strange lights do hover over the Moor on dusky winter’s afternoons, even if they are just railway signals. Edmund Wilson swimming baths (now gone and replaced with a Lidl), lit up, used to be the guardian presence of Hob Moor for me; its twin concrete chimneys seeming, against the moving clouds, always to be falling and never landing, like Andrew Kötting with his resurrection jig in the film Edith Walks. 

I reached the Hobstone. It looked knightlier than I remembered – shield and the shape of a head could be clearly discerned – gazing back towards Hob’s Moor, the diminutive squirt’s view blocked by the embankment of the East Coast Main Line. If this Hob was a Robin Goodfellow, he was a severely eroded and impotent one, trapped in a crumbly block of limestone well on its way to the status of mineral content of the local soil, ridiculous as the Stone of Scone.  

Not willing to turn on my heels and return the way I’d come, I took the path which branches from the one I’d come on and went in the direction of York Railway Pond. This was new territory for me: in all the years I cycled past the Hobstone, I never once bothered to explore the path that branched off at that point and I never knew about the pond. Another foreign body in the tender meat of post-Victorian York, surrounded by a protective callous of suburban back gardens (various styles of fencing) and legitimated by a Council-sponsored noticeboard for the ‘friends of’. York Railway Pond is a sink hole which leads directly into the very mush and marrow of the earth; slate grey and frigid it is and frequented by fishermen (/kings). The way there from Little Hob Moor is guarded by an out-of-place row of Victorian terrace houses with an oddly Magrittesque feel – they are dark when the sky is light. Then a newish yellowbrick estate complete with serpentine roads that lead nowhere and a little swing park (so that the soft skinned yellowbrick youngsters don’t have to run the gauntlet of thistles, cowpats and working-class people on Hob Moor before their carapaces have hardened into those of cynical fag-smoking teenagers). Then a strange green corridor that spirals down to the omphalos of the pond itself (it truly is like the siphon hole of a huge buried mollusc). I walked (anticlockwise) round the pond, signs warning me of the dire consequences of a dip (apparently, rats pee in it). It seemed like a fitting coda to the Hobstone, this motionless whirlpool at the centre of it all guarded by gnomic fishermen. If the Hobstone is the head of the worn hobnail which holds the world together (or the axle on which it turns), and Fishponds Wood the unhealable wound, then the pond is a dark grail.  

After a votive pee against the railway embankment, I headed back home. It was getting dark and four crows perched atop four elder trees on the far edge of the Moor.

Spider spotting

Pholcus phalangioides, woodcut by Matthew Herring © 2016

I’ve got interested in identifying spiders. I got myself a copy of a great book called Britain’s Spiders by Lawrence Bee, Geoff Oxford and Helen Smith with some birthday money and I’ve rarely been away from it for long. There’s something very fascinating about learning all the different types of something (plants, birds, spiders etc) and it opens up a door to noticing and appreciating a whole world which is right under your nose. My son Conrad (5) is also getting hooked and I’m pleased about that. He used to ask me to show him the spiders in the shed long before I bought the book. My daughter, on the other hand, has decided (and decided is the word) she’s scared of bugs in general. I was somewhat phobic about spiders as a child and I think this has fed my current fascination (I have the sense that that’s not an uncommon route into arachnology). My beginner efforts at spider identification are faltering, but here are some of the types Conrad and I have been appreciating. 


Zygiella x-notata (missing sector orb weaver) 

These small silvery grey coloured spiders commonly weave their webs on the frames of windows and there are dozens of them all round the outside of my house. They are sometimes known as missing sector orb weavers, because they leave a section of their webs without any of the spiral threads (the webs look like garden spider webs with, literally, a missing sector). A single thread leads up from the centre of the web outwards to where the spider is hiding. At night they come out and sit in the centres of their webs – I’ve been checking on them with a torch when I go out just after dark to put the ducks to bed. 


Steatoda bipunctata (false widow spider) 

I’ve found one of these under the overhang of the roof of the coal shed, the odd one out in a row of zygiellas. It also only comes out at night. The web it weaves is a random muddle of sticky threads and nothing like the neat zygiella webs – it’s like the house in the otherwise neatly kept street with the overgrown front garden and the guttering falling off. The spider is a small thing with a round, brownish waxy abdomen with four tiny indented dots on it.  


Clubiona comta (sac spider) 

Ioana found one of these in the washing basket. It is small, sandy brown and furry, like a tiny mouse. The spinnerets form a prominent cone on the tip of the abdomen (not visibly divided in two). We put it in an empty icecream tub and it started to make a little silk tent in the corner. I’m assuming the species is comta on the basis that it’s the most common (and it was small). 


Amaurobius sp (laceweb spider) 

I found one of these under the lid of my compost bin (along with a number of other spiders I couldn’t identify and a large house spider I managed to sit on and which I fed to the ducks). I think they’re very attractive: mostly dark brown but with yellowish/creamy markings on the abdomen. I’d probably have assumed they were immature house spiders without the book. They make an untidy lacy sort of web, as the name implies 


Pholcus phalangioides (daddy longlegs spider) 

I’ve appreciated these spindly little blighters for years and they are all over our house, but I recently learned they eat house spiders, which is hard to believe. They are so spindly that they are almost invisible. They live up in the corners of the room near the ceiling. I noticed some time ago that they jiggle rapidly if you disturb them, presumably to make themselves harder to catch. They’re like little oscillating atoms. I like the fact that they are usually upside down with their abdomens pointing upwards, like tiny jam jars. 


The image at the top of this post is a woodcut of a Pholcus I made during my residency at Top Shed, Norfolk, in 2016.

Filey Bay walk 

Filey Bay
Filey Bay. Image © Matthew Herring


Feeling the need again to just look ahead of me and walk, I went to Filey Bay, a favourite place. A windy day and partly overcast, light and clouds alternating like disordered thoughts; the tide just beginning to ebb, a sliver of beach appearing in front of the sea wall at Filey. I set off south along the thin sabre-curve of the bay, towards the start of the Flamborough Head cliffs four miles away. I wanted to be on my own, quite frankly, to sweat out a certain muddle of thoughts, but the beach was busy until well past the Reighton Gap caravan site. People radiated out from different points of the bay – Filey, Primrose Valley, Hunmanby Gap, Reighton Gap – but they rarely ventured far from their entry point, even the dog walkers.  

I’ve started to find it more and more odd that people view the beach as a place to let go of thinking, as if here, beyond the edge of the great ant hill and out of reach of employers, tax men and worries, there is nothing left to shackle them to the necessity of thought. The beach is as blissfully blank as a crisp, unslept on hotel bed; the sea, an impeccably discreet and dedicated night nurse, wipes the beach’s fevered brow clean of all cares twice daily. And so here you can pitch your stripy wind break and lay down your trusty picnic blanket, beneath forty feet of boulder clay cliff made of rock ground and pulverised to fleshy mud by groaning, creaking glaciers crushing their way across the terrain of the North Sea and giving succour to the weird shapes of butterbur and coltsfoot. Here is an excellent place to play rounders and show your toddler how the shore is littered with the partly decomposed mesoglea of thousands upon thousands of moon jellyfish, proclaiming that death will triumph over you too.  

And so, a misanthrope and buried in my own self-aggrandising daydreams, I strode forth, overtaking far more casual strollers and those tethered to dogs and companions. I should have worn a hoodie so that I could have pulled the hood around my face in order to feel even more like a monk. Filey Bay is a place where space seems relative, expansive, changeable, like in a dream. Time shrinks with the tide and you get places quickly and it surprises you, or it expands away and you seem to be going backwards, away from your destination and against the direction you are actually walking. The curve of the bay means that you can see every point along it from every other point, you are never out of sight of where you are going to or where you have come from. Before I knew it, I was at the further reaches of the beach and the people thinned out. The last trickle of humanity was a group of teenagers who picked their way down the path, barely discernible from the beach, that takes you up onto the high chalk cliffs. I owe to them the fact that I found the path myself. 

The change is very sudden and you find yourself in another place, although the distance is not very great back to the Reighton Gap caravan park. Ahead tower the sheer chalk cliffs of the headland, swirling with gannets. Chalk boulders from a series of rock falls block the way and must be clambered over. Smaller chalk pebbles, mixed with flint nodules, have been swept into neat banks at the foot of the clay cliffs. The rounded stones have fissures that look like the sutures on a skull; the effect is of half buried skulls, some hobbit sized and some gargantuan and misshapen. Strange twisting valleys choked with willowherb and brambles divide the final stretch of boulder clay deposit before it gives way to chalk. The sea has sculpted the sand into hard undulating ridges that tire the feet – somehow, reality never gets caught out: the sea never forgets to create and recreate these shapes. 

Wading through pools of water left by the retreating tide, I get caught out by how deep they can suddenly become. Places which are wild resist human movement: one of the things I like about Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People is the sense it gives of how difficult travel was in those days across a land of marshes, woods and rivers. Familiar place names juxtaposed with an unfamiliar terrain. In one of these pools I nearly catch myself on a curved sheet of iron jutting out of the sand; part of the wreck of a steam cargo vessel called the Laura, which foundered on this beach in 1897. The Laura’s two boilers were just starting to be revealed by the tide. There are several wrecks along this stretch of coast, including a First World War submarine which is hard to reach. The striking thing is how something so large can be rendered down into a few fragments, like a whale that’s been stripped down to a few bones. The Laura was dismantled for scrap – I don’t know why they left the keel and two boilers. The keel emerges sometimes from the sand, like a bad memory, or a ghost, only to be covered up again. 

Clambering underneath the chalk cliffs is an intimidating – and dangerous – experience, and I daren’t go far, even though I know I have several hours before the tide starts to flow. Easy to slip down between the boulders with a broken ankle. Would anyone find me? There is another ship’s boiler, broken and covered in rough barnacles, a short distance from the Laura. This comes from a trawler called the Diamond. Boilers from a further three (at least) trawlers can be seen between here and Flamborough Head (I’m indebted to Lee Norgate’s website for information about these wrecks). Interesting what survives longest of things: boilers from steam ships, tests from sea urchins, bones, shells, names, memories. 

I sat on the rocks and tried to write notes. Somehow, stopping moving stopped me thinking. I noticed a dark shape a short distance away which turned out to be a cormorant, its head tucked mournfully into its back feathers. I approached it and sat next to it. It woke up and approached me, probing its narrow beak towards me, and then veered off behind me when it realised I wasn’t a source of food. I suppose it was sick or injured – though I couldn’t see an injury. I thought about trying to take it to a vet or animal sanctuary, but carrying a struggling bird four miles back to Filey didn’t seem an option. I hoped it would die before gulls found it and left it be.  

I decided to try to head up onto the cliffs via the path that I’d seen the teenagers use. This did indeed take me by a windy route up to the top, where I joined (and discovered) the Headland Way. I only had time to walk a couple of miles along the cliff top – I was some way off the buildings of the RAF Bempton World War Two radar station when I turned back. Gannets rise overhead and perch metres from the path. Perilous to try to approach for a better view of the colony, but I could see dark coloured juveniles on ledges. Inland a combine harvester was at work. You can see all the way to the sea on the other side of the headland and down the coast towards Spurn. It’s unusual to be able to see such a recognisable feature from the map of England on the ground, but you can more or less see the whole headland from the Buckton cliffs. Inland is a landscape of arable fields. The village of Speeton perches on a prominent knoll, which reminded me of the knolls which are often occupied by farms in the flat southern plains of Iceland. A three storey farm house with all of the upper windows bricked up intrigued me. Louis Aragon, in Paris Peasant, has a great line about (as far as I remember) a red checked table cloth teaching you about the mysteriousness of the world. A triangular field filled with gone-to-seed thistles all shedding fluff in the wind and swaying slightly does the same thing to me. 

I had to turn back because I’d left my family with friends in Filey and they were getting ready for home. I could see Filey quite clearly, but it took me a long time to get back there. By the time I was back down on the beach it was nearly deserted – and massively wider, due to the tide being fully out. The narrow, crowded beach of a few hours earlier (not dissimilar to a gannet colony) was gone like a mirage, replaced by the aching empty space I’d sought in the first place. Thousands of blobs of jelly, the last remains of moon jellyfish, led the way like breadcrumbs. I reacclimatised myself to humanity by eating fish and chips from a carton while the kids wet themselves in a fountain marked with the directions of all the Shipping Forecast sea areas.  

The Stinky Bee Bush, an owl and the skull of Thomas Browne.

We have shrub in our garden – I think it’s a type of photinia – which, when it flowers, attracts bees like nothing I’ve ever known. The flowers are rather small and white-ish and give off an overpowering yeasty smell. Ioana finds the smell unpleasant and we call it the Stinky Bush (I quite like the smell). I was tempted to grub it out until we noticed how much the bees love it. You can stand underneath the dome of leaves and flowers (the bush is starting to take the form of a small tree) and imagine you are in the midst of a humming beehive. The sound is as powerful as the smell – you’d think that an entire hive was swarming. Tiny white petals speckle the path. It’s in flower at the moment and several times today as I’ve passed to and from my shed I’ve stopped under the Stinky Bush and enjoyed the sight, sound and smell. Most of the bees are honey bees, but I’ve also spotted several types of bumblebee: tree bumblebees, garden bumblebees and one buff tailed bumblebee. (We have a poster with different types of bee in our sunroom, and I’ve been trying to learn the different types).


There is a female blackbird in our garden which has become quite tame. I think it might be a youngster. Today, as I was doing some DIY work in our living room, the bird came in through the back door into the room. It pecked at the crumbs the kids had left and didn’t seem unduly fazed when I moved quite close to it. Later on, I spotted it further into the house, in the hall. I assumed that was as far as it went, but much later on Ioana found it trapped in our bedroom. It had pooed on our bedspread, on some of Ioana’s paperwork, on the floor, on the bedside table, on the windowsill and on the landing windowsill. The poo stained the paintwork berry black (or insect black). I cornered it on our bedroom windowsill and caught it. When you hold a bird in your hand you are surprised how strong, light and lean they are. They feel like they are made of nothing but bones and air.


A few weeks ago, I went for a walk quite late in the evening down the river Ouse at Poppleton, near York. I wanted to write a blog about it at the time, but never got around to it. I did take some notes, but they were merely a list of things I’d seen. So this is an exercise in trying to capture a memory that is on the point of fading. (I’ve been reading Norman N. Klein’s The History of Forgetting – which is about forgetting and Los Angeles – so the decay of memory is something that’s on my mind. Klein, in an appendix, talks about how the act of recalling a memory causes it to decay at a physiological level. A memory is altered each time it is recalled).

The colour of the walk was undoubtedly white. How to describe the texture of the neglected strips of field nearest the river? They had something of the rough exuberance of overgrown industrial wasteland; a rich mixture of tough plants. Communities of plants in rapid flux rather than a stable, static mixture like you get in a mature flower meadow. A certain plant species takes over one season and throttles everything else: a monoculture. Then just as suddenly it retreats or vanishes altogether, to be replaced by something else, leaving swathes of dry stalks or seed heads. The shifting realms of plant species hide (and reveal) the human activity of working the soil beneath – ploughing, planting, reaping, driving vehicles, digging out drainage channels and water supply pipes and the like.

There were whole massive swathes of dandelion clocks. Elsewhere there were thousands and thousands of groundsel clocks – tiny versions of dandelion clocks. The effect was surreal, somehow, like something from a twisted reimagining of a fairy story; something commonly seen but presented in an exaggerated, extravagant form. The may blossom (hawthorn) was out. May blossom seems to encrust the trees like plaster of Paris or coral; the heavy sprays of blossom resemble grasping calcified fingers. Fleshy closed fists of yet to flower hogweed were rising up among the cow parsley. White deadnettles were for some reason in abundance, especially along the top of the riverbank. Mealy white willow catkins polluted the air with fluff like asbestos fibres. Dried remains from last year: collapsed hollow stems of Himalayan balsam; reddish coloured tall stubble of something I couldn’t identify at the distance I saw it at; a crooked white stem of hogweed like the beckoning skeletal finger of an aye-aye.

And then a white barn owl appeared directly in front of me about six feet above the path. It spotted me with its round black eyes at the same instant I spotted it, and it wheeled away immediately, as if stung. I watched it cruising this way and that over the far side of the field for quite some time. Then it rested on a branch at the edge of a poplar copse a hundred yards or so ahead of me. I could see the tiny white shape of it clearly, until I approached too close for its comfort and it flew off. (A few months previously, I saw what was probably the same owl, or its partner, in the middle of this copse, where a small iron footbridge crosses a stream. The owl flew out from under the bridge as I crossed it).  When I had passed through the copse and out alongside a large field of light green barley, I saw the owl again. It was cruising again, over the barley, at some distance from me. It veered towards me and I thought it was going to fly right up to me, but, again, it suddenly spotted me and pulled itself to a mid-air halt and did an about-turn. I had taken it by surprise twice at about the same distance. I’d seen its small round human-like face fix on me twice.

On the way back to the start of the walk, I had a photo in my mind of the skull of Thomas Browne, the seventeenth century author of a set of diverse and eccentric books which have a following to this day among writers I admire. Browne’s skull was stolen when his grave was accidentally disturbed in the nineteenth century and not reburied until the 1920s. A photo was taken of it at some point, which is reproduced in W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, a book I’d just re-read (a book also about memory and forgetting). In this photo, the skull is viewed in profile, resting on three volumes of Browne’s work. The jaws are without teeth, giving it the look of an old man, and there is what looks like a twisted piece of wire holding the jaws slightly open, as if Browne is speaking. The skull has thoughtful cast to its brows.