Frenchman’s Creek is a frequent location for solitude and my frenzied painting sessions; a meeting place for the oaks and the tides, it is a dreamy secluded narrow stretch of estuary that branches off the Helford - that river at the top of the Lizard Peninsula. Here the oaks grow right down to the muddy shores, their feet and arms bathing in the saline and brackish waters.
'Egrets mud and oaks'. 2015 mixed media on linen. ©Kurt Jackson
At high tide the serpentine branches creep in and out of the surface like Loch Ness monsters and at low water the empty creek is a contorted mass of revealed and exposed roots wearing their hanging coats of seaweed. The oak forests rise above the estuary with the two banks almost meeting above to enclose this secretive world, tunnel-like to echo with the waders’ calls and cast reflections down onto the waters or shining mud below. When the late low autumn sunlight lights up the fall’s foliage and this is mirrored beneath in the lazy tidal reaches, it can be extraordinarily beautiful; oaken orange, sienna, rust, shot through with spangles and streaks of mercury from the wake of the shoals of mullet swimming through the reflected oak leaves.
'Fireside pyjama bottoms Frenchman’s Creek Cottage, Helford, Cornwall'. December 2014. mixed media on museum board. ©Kurt Jackson
Frenchman’s Creek cottage is a small and secluded abode set deep in this valley. Nestling into the hillside amongst the woodland but within hearing distance of the trickling stream. This is a peaceful setting but also a place of extraordinary atmosphere.
We have stayed in this cottage for over 20 years. I come here to paint, write, walk, swim and collect my thoughts, Open the door and it is all there, the swaying trees, the scent of the creek, the birds’ calls on the water. And then the cottage itself is delightful; vernacular and cosy, full of history but always with that glorious woodland streamside soundtrack in the background. At night you step outside into pure unspoilt darkness, the flit of a bat, the owls calling but no lights just the cottage’s small windowpanes to attract the moths.
'Robin ticking, damp evening'. 2014. mixed media on wood panel. ©Kurt Jackson
The creek and surrounding oak woodlands are a sum of their past historical chapters. Culturally, industrially and agriculturally this place has had dramatic interferences; mining, forestry, charcoal burning, flower growing and livestock have all left their mark. Now largely healed and peaceful, the creek with all those resonances of Daphne du Maurier’s novel still in place, is now recognised as an important surviving fragment of ‘Atlantic temperate rainforest’. Written about by both wild swimmer Roger Deakin and by the ecologist Oliver Rackham– the sessile oak forest and associated populations of moss, lichen and ferns are now seen as special and internationally important. The oaks themselves are coated in thick layers of growth, literally dripping with other plant colonies clinging to them. Under this tree canopy the forest floor cascades with her seasonal displays of snowdrops, wild garlic and bluebells, with wood anemones, wood sorrel and all the ferns. Here the bastard balm hides and rare Cornish mosses lurk amongst the vetches and cow wheat.
This is a fragile place, a delicate and ancient piece of land and water – a beautiful place to linger, watch and witness. The slow tides, the seasonal shifts in dress, the day and night all is worthy of capture and celebration on my boards and paper and canvas, on the page on my lap and back in the studio.
Kurt working on one of his paintings. ©Kurt Jackson
As the tide drops I find enough level ground to unroll my canvas with the creek spread out in front of me, gradually being revealed in all its glorious shininess. The wet mud reflects the seasonal tonal foliage or lack of it above, but below the fallen oak branches and trunks are always present – charcoal and umber strands snaking across my composition. When the tide returns it brings with it shoals of feeding mullet and reflections of the sky and trees – yet more subjects
'Kurt Jackson: Frenchman’s Creek' runs until 17 February 2020 at the Jackson Foundation, St Just, Cornwall. Please visit the gallery's website for seasonal opening times.