S A M    F R A N C I S











a photographic and text piece from an overnight trip to an Island in the Severn Estuary, September 2022

In mid September, I embarked upon a trip to spend 24 hours upon the Welsh Island of Flat Holm situated in the midst of the murky mysterious waters of the Severn estuary. Having lived in Weston super Mare on the south West coast for the past three years and spending much time upon the coast looking out across the sea towards south Wales, I have become curious about this Island located between here and there. On clear bright days, the Island is seemingly so close that I could imagine leaping or swimming my way over to it. And after dark its flashing lighthouse beckons me there in its bright beam.

I have always lived in the west of England, and yet I have strong Welsh blood running through my veins. My father hailed from the Vallies, and my birth surname was Griffiths - a traditional Welsh name thought to mean “strong grip” which my calling to this Island seems to be having on me. My great grandfather Llywelyn on my mothers side of the family, was once mayor of Merthyr Tydfil, and was part of the first Labour party committee alongside Keir Hardie, as family history has it. Although I no longer have family that live in Wales, I have visited often throughout my life, exploring its coastlines, mountains and valleys, and I have long imagined that one day I would like to live there.  I find myself wondering if my call to Flat Holm Island may be part of an exploration of my Welsh heritage. A journey, and stop over to the potential future of a life lived there. The Island as an in between place where dreams and futures are a possibility. A hop and a step in preparation for a jump.

I was intrigued to discover that the world's first radio transmission across water was made from Flat Holm to Lavernock Point in south Wales in 1897 by Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi. This led me to think more about these connections, and the communication and conversations I was having across the mainland edges of south west England and south Wales via the Island. “Are you ready?” were the first words transmitted across the water, and as I wake early in my tent to chattering birds, and the still calmness of blue, grey and brown waters looking out towards Wales,  I wonder if this is my calling.  

As an artist I like to approach places and projects without a specific agenda in mind other than curiosity and a will to explore. To follow what catches my eye and draws my attention. To locate myself in what I find, look beneath the skin of a place, in an attempt to connect with what there is to be discovered. To attempt to creatively delve into the stories, geographies, ecologies, and histories of a place through my eyes, fingers, feet and mind.

Here, I will share some initial findings, musings, observations and explorations from my short, yet rich time upon the Island. Seeds of ideas and artworks are sprouting, my interest piqued, with further research to unfurl, and potential projects to ponder upon. Back on the mainland, I now plot a return to this intriguing place, to experience at a different time and for a longer period, an Island that I have only just skimmed the surface of with a line-cut stone...........

A study of Stone Cuts on West Beach (Carboniferous Limestone) 

A stone
With lines cut into it
Creviced deep into shoulders
Scribbled on a hard page
With no room to spare not even for a word
I take your primitive frontier under foot and raise you
A story for a crag
A pebble
With ticking hands
Held between thumb and forefinger
Placed into my mouth for a hit of salt
Surrounding your channels with wet heat
Tracing your contours with my tongue
An ocean for a tooth

Berries, leeks and blood

As a keen forager, the pursuit of blackberries is my favoured annual hunt. It is a pastime that I look forward to each year after the turning of peak summer.  With a punnet in hand, I return to my favourite spots, and seek out new ones both on countryside jaunts, as well as on roadside verges, and overhanging walls in urban places. There is nowhere that the blackberry bramble won’t inhabit. I was delighted to discover a flourish of blackberries all over the island, that in their inky fecundity were, I determined, the best of the best blackberries I had discovered all season. A pleasing surprise this late in the season.

I have been experimenting with the blood of blackberries, extracting their juices and uncovering the vast range of colours in a purplish palette to create inks to make drip drawings from, and testing various methods for blackberry portrait prints, such as the squash, the splat, the splot, and the squish.

With their ooze, drip, gore and vast scarlet pigments, I have been thinking of the juice of these berries as blood. This has drawn me to begin investigating the fascinating practices and histories of bloodletting which has been used over time and across cultures for rituals and also for health.  Ritual bloodletting was used by the Mayans to provoke trance-like states in order to communicate with “dynastic ancestors or underworld gods” at significant points of the year and life journeys. Carved animal and fish bones were often used as the instrument, and bark paper for the collection of blood. This stained paper would then be burnt to release the smoke of spirits during ceremony. Bloodletting has also historically been used as a medical practice to cure illness and restore health, and was used as a treatment for cholera. At the tail end of the cholera epidemic in the late 1800’s,  a cholera hospital (and crematorium) was built upon the Island to quarantine patients away from the mainland to prevent its spread. A vial of blackberry juice sits upon my shelf like a blood sample. The practice of withdrawing the bloody juice of these berries during my experiments, seems somehow violent and sacrificial in this context.

Blackberry splats

Wild Leeks (Allium ampeloprasum)

I was enchanted by these sculptural wild leeks scattered all across the Island, and  Flat Holm is one of only five places in the UK where they are found. Standing up to 6ft tall, they had gone-to-seed by September, their skeletal globe seed heads dance a high jig in the westerly winds, elegant and gracefully footed.

Wild leeks with blackberry blood

Although there are only several main pathways here, there are infinite options and ways of navigating ones way around the Island. Each walk mapping a new route. Each step on new ground. Each thought a slight deviation from the last.  On my final meander around the island shortly before boarding the boat to take me back to the mainland, I notice splatterings of purple tinged bird excrement here and there. The abundance of both blackberries and elderberries make them a crucial food source for birds that inhabit the Island. Apparently this purple dyed guano is commonly seen here, and is likely to be from members of the thrush family, particularly blackbirds who are resident on the island, along with redwings and fieldfares who visit in the autumn and winter to feed on the vast harvest of purple berries.

Guano with Berries

There is also a significant breeding colony of over 4,000 pairs of lesser black backed gulls that inhabit the Island during the summer months, though have since flown to their post-summer destination by the time I was there. I am informed that they are not to be reckoned with and have been witnessed to dive-bomb those who wander onto their patch of the Island. Known opportunists, they have been observed eating plastic, blocks of cheese and even carrying off a Chihuahua in their beaks.

The Island doesn’t have a wide variety of food sources for birds, and the gulls who are notorious scavengers, are believed to often fly over to landfill sites on the mainland for more sustenance. This makes me wonder why such a large colony of these birds have opted to make the island their returning home. Could it be for similar reasons that us humans are drawn to Islands - for the peace, quiet, and space away from the great hubbub of mainland life.


Island (n) a piece of land surrounded by water. Isolated. Detached.
from Old English īgland, iegland "an island," from ieg "island"
Isle from Latin ‘insula’


Island (v) islanding / to island / islanded
to become an island / to island onself
I am islanding

‘To Island’ is to take oneself off somewhere. Somewhere where a feeling of being adrift or marooned might occur. When upon, or inhabiting a somewhere island, one can be certain to be unmainlanded whilst still finding one's feet upon some form of land. Not quite set adrift. Out to sea and yet not. A destination that is over there on its own, and not here with all this. ‘To Island’ is to take space for oneself, for solitude, isolation, separation. Yet how do, and can we transform ourselves into an islanding state? An island is still land, yet with an I in it. That is, I or even you. Yet what for the ‘S’? Could it be plural of I as in ‘I’s’, as in mine, or even ‘ours’.........

As someone who values solitude and time away from other people, and human-filled places, the dreamy fantasies of isolated wilderness places, and deserted Islands is enticing. These kinds of outlying places and far-flung spaces can inspire creativity and newness of thought that can often be harder to come by with the equally enticing distractions of everyday life. To live a simple, slower pace of life even for a short while appeals. To visit the Island as I have here, is to consciously allow, or even incite with intention, the space and time for sways of imagination and swells of creativity to occur. In Gilles Deleuze’s ‘Desert Islands’ essay, he speaks of the sacredness of being on an island and how when deserted on an island we are encouraged to create things both in our own way, and in new ways altogether. “Dreaming of islands—whether with joy or in fear, it doesn't matter—is dreaming of pulling away, of being already separate, far from any continent, of being lost and alone—or it is dreaming of starting from scratch, recreating, beginning anew.” It is this combination of creation and separation that has drawn me here, and what I have come to explore.

I have long looked over at Flat Holm Island, and its neighbouring cousin Steep Holm from an almost fixed position on firm land, from a coastline that has fixed edges, albeit that are receding at an increasing pace. The Islands have become so familiar, set into the long oceanic landscape, that it has felt almost like I knew them somehow. Forming part of the landscape rather than being separate from it, which paradoxically is what Islands are by their very nature and geography. The Islands’ enduring presence set into the long-view of distance becomes known and felt, even in the fog of long brown days. The knowledge that they are there despite not always consciously paying attention to them is comforting. I think how this is often the case with the things we fill our own homes with. An age-old note, or photograph pinned to the fridge. Things we have carried around with us throughout our lives; a found object that once reminded us of a time and a place, that has long sat upon a shelf gathering dust. So embedded in the fabric of one's domestic surroundings that it has long become overlooked. Things that when visitors enquire about them, we are taken aback to look at them anew. Compelled to reignite their stories.

Whilst on trips further down the south west coast, I have been surprised by the changes in the Islands’ appearance seen from different locations. They have seemed closer despite being further away. There was a time I wondered what the solitary landmass in the middle of the sea was, only to realise it was Flat Holm Island obscuring the view of it’s cousin from this position.  The lay of its land mass morphing unrecognisably with the rise of the sea, and the shape-shifting horizon line.

I had long thought that Flat Holm Island was long and thin in shape and form, and yet when upon it, I find that instead it has a far more circular, or more accurately an oblong shaped profile. Neighbouring Steep Holm also seems to sit much closer to this Island and is larger than it appears to be observed from the edge of the mainland. Sitting upon the low slung edges of the Island with the same swelling body of water at my feet, looking out towards the location that I am so familiar with looking at it from, I find I can barely identify where that is.  The land and location seems unfamiliar and almost unrecognisable, despite inherently knowing that it is where it is, I find I am doubting.  I struggle to summon the sense I have of looking out from there to here, to where I look out from here to there now. Switching my view in reverse feels strange. The newness of this different perspective, uncanny. The atmosphere of the Island seems to have shifted through my gaze and position. My inner compass is uncalibrated, and I don’t know which way to turn, or which way to look.  It’s as if I am standing upon stilts, that my body does not know how to steady, and my legs do not know what to do with.  I cannot fathom it all and feel quite disoriented. A touch giddy and lost at sea. My position uncertain, my grounding as murky and unsure as the long estuarial tides. My sense of self and of place is becoming unfathomable. I am neither here nor there, yet in all places at once. Islanded and yet grounded. Nothing looks the same, and nothing is the same and yet is. In an attempt to position myself, I walk to the highest point on the island near to the lighthouse. I can see land and sea and life at each 360 degree turn. I turn in rotations to see what happens to my sense of spatial orientation, and am struck that whilst all around me is sea, I am also surrounded by land. Signs of life just four miles away over the water, clutch the south Wales coastline; domestic buildings and those of industry, roads travelled, and even the glints of windows and flashes of lights. This close proximity to the mainland on both sides of the estuary's throat suddenly makes me feel exposed, conspicuous, and surrounded. The notion of being deserted and isolated on an Island is challenged.

I know I am safe on the Island, and do not feel unsafe as such. Yet I find that I am experiencing a sense of exposure that brings about a feeling of acute vulnerability. It’s heady, yet I can also feel it lightly rumble in my gut. I am unseen and isolated, and yet feel highly visible and seen. A bit like the lighthouse. Alone here, away from all of the people over there. I have this peculiar thought that I am just one person versus many hundreds or thousands of people who occupy the coastline I am looking over at. And all of those pairs of eyes looking over here and seeing me, with no way I can see all or any of them in return. Despite fundamentally knowing this is a distorted perspective and wholly impossible, the idea of it spins me. It feels like something akin to stage fright that mirrors my real life fear of standing in front of a room full of eyes all silently looking at me as I shrink in light terror, dying to shrivel into a liquidy mass upon the floor.

I am conscious that what I am experiencing is cognitive and even conceptual, yet disorientation is not a wholly unfamiliar state. The artistic and analytic approach in itself often insists on going through a process of disorientation on the road to discovery and creativity. Artists often place themselves in situations that are ambiguous as part of a creative process in order to explore different ways of looking at, or being with things that do not have fixed meanings. This is a fertile space, pregnant with possibility. It is where the good stuff lives. It is also a transitional, and often murky space filled with complexity and confusion. It isn’t always easy. If one can wiggle ones curious tentacles about in there long enough, bubbles may rise to the surface filled with new meanings, connections, discoveries, and perspectives. Here, the bubbles take the form of a pulse, a throb. I witness a pause taking place between the mainland, the sea and the Island that makes everything seemingly move in slow motion. I find these contractions of time and space bewildering, and my sense of location is evaporating like morning mist on the sea water. A kind of spatial disorientation is happening. It is not entirely unpleasant or distressing, more than curious, inexplicable, and mysterious. I ask myself, is this what it is to Island? If so, I surrender myself to it.  My mind, body and spirit acclimatising to the contours of the Island, thoughts mulching and bubbling in mystery.

Islands by their very nature are defined by mystery, and having recently been to the Greek islands, there is nowhere more enigmatic than the vast archipelago of around 6000 individual islands. Some large and inhabited, and some small and wild, each reaching out of the Aegean sea like a bale of trailing turtles. And with almost as many fantastical mythologies of seafaring heroes, sky-bounding goddesses, and underworld miscreants held in the arms of that oceanic landscape, it is unsurprising that our Island illusions are as quixotic and romantic in their attributes. Or to go one step further to say that “the essence of the deserted island is imaginary and not actual, mythological and not geographical. At the same time, its destiny is subject to those human conditions that make mythology possible”. (Deleuze). So we dream and imagine and so……

It is considered by sailors that to remain stable whilst out at sea one must look out towards the horizon where it’s unfailing flatness, and clean sharp line defies its continuous motion which never truly stays put or remains the same. This may be no different from looking at anything from a different position. A garden appears different depending upon your viewpoint and at different phases of the year. Looking out through a window from the house or out in the garden looking back in reverse is a different view entirely yet it is the same thing. Yet there is something about the framing of this vision which can define, extend, limit and shift what is seen and how, depending upon how open we can make ourselves to changing perspectives and perceptions. What we can glean from this, and how, and what we do with it is what matters. Art and creativity does this. It allows and even insists upon multiple responses and interpretations. No view or gaze is ever the same. Its inter-ness reaches tentacles into deep places and dips its limbs into unknown waters with the hope of emerging with treasures of curiosity that form part of any creative or thought process. These different positions gently encourage that we not be set upon just one stance, and instead to adjust, or at least challenge, and look at the thing in questions from varying viewpoints. And if we can bear the uncertainty it is good practice to do so. Yet contemporary living, long-ingrained cultural conditioning and personal tendencies, the pressure of taking a firm position on things can often make this a challenge. The proposition then is to see how our imaginations can reach beyond initial perceptions, and be ok with not forming conclusions and knowing for certain something to be true, real or known.

When one thinks of an Island and of Islanding, what may initially come to mind is the aesthetics and fantasies of an archetypal desert Island. An eden-like dream place made from the sun and scattered with palm trees.  A place that we can go to, to get far away from the buzz and hum of everyday live and mainland living. A place far out in the ocean with no land in sight, and nothing but the enticing endlessness of far oceans, and deep skies. A place of solitude, detachment, separation, where we can ‘get away from it all’ for a brief hiatus, a pause. We want our Islanding to be finite and temporary, not endless and forever. The line between the white Island fantasy and nightmarish desertion is thin. Nobody wants to be marooned all alone for time immemorial. Metaphysical poet John Donne’s sermon from which the well-known metaphor “no man is an island” was lifted, speaks of our innate human need and desire to be and to feel connected to others and to life and the world around us. That “...every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” after all.   We are not isolated beings, we are interdependent by our nature, and not just us humans, all life depends on each other, forming symbiotic relationships even if we aren’t always actively aware of it.

I continue to wander the Island and come across the warden doing his rounds. I tell him about my observations, and we speak about the Island’s paradoxes and contradictions. How there is an inherent feeling of safety being on the island away from it all, and yet also an underlying sense of the potential threat of invasion from all aspects of the Island’s one mile perimeter. He tells of occasions where unexpected watercraft have arrived, and the shock of encountering passengers walking around the Island when he thought he was alone. He talks of feeling protected by the distance and yet feeling protective of the Island itself as its guardian. Of the peace that this distance brings on its tail, yet also the loneliness it can prompt.  Being alone for long stretches of time, aside from planned visitor trips coming from the mainland, can bring on what’s known as ‘island fever’; a feeling of claustrophobia, alongside disconnection with the wider world. With just one warden who spends three weeks out of four on the Island with occasional volunteers for company, it isn’t really an inhabited Island as such, and yet it has a long history of occupation and so bears many traces of a long-peopled place. You only have to walk around the island to encounter the remainder of forts, pits, barracks, pathways, brick tunnels, and even a hospital, and a farmhouse to tell of this. The fact that it was fortified during war times with soldiers on lookout duties around the Islands perimeter, only adds to the sense of potential invasion I felt earlier. Real or imagined.

I arrived on the Island with an intention and willingness to discover even a slight sense of this long desired place. And I departed with an impression of deep awe and inquisitiveness mixed with a short salty dose of ambiguity. The way in which we see things, what our gaze falls upon and what it reads and interprets is often arbitrary. The task then is simply to interpret and find meaning and intrigue with purpose and curiosity, the underlying essence of a place. Never quite understanding, or knowing for certain, nor wanting to.  Knowing with a hole blown into it, opens the space wide for the unknown to reside, float and swirl around, where the propagation of creativity and thought can make smoke. I have become familiar with some sense of what it is to ‘Island’ in this way and at this time, if nothing else besides blackberries, blood, shit, rocks and seed heads.

Forts,  Mortar, Green, Blue and a Fog Horn

I am Island

I am Island. Floating yet anchored somehow, tethered by the teeth of the sea.

I am Island. Seemingly still and yet in slow motion, I'm drifting around on the spot.

I am Island. Existing inbetween with a mind of my own, connected to you and though not.

I am Island. Whole and complete, though there’s no other one quite like me.

I am Island. Breathing into my sides with my eyes on the flat of my skein, so I can look at the whole of the sky.

I am Island.  With a sea gulls nest lodged in my mouth, while cabbage whites rest on my eyes.

I am Island. Your insular friend, I am here when you need to escape.

I am Island. Long-suffering cousin out on a limb avoiding such things as the dramas that float in on the winds.

I am Island. You may alight on me, all you day trippers and overnight fishers, tread light on me though as you come.

I am Island. Come take a step up onto me, and smuggle a new destiny in long salty wishes and dreams.

I am Island. You are welcome to come to me, to relax and recline, yet then please do leave me alone.

I am Island. No need for permission for all those winged things, breeding upon me in throngs.

I am Island. Cracked open and sunburnt with long-toothed ambitions to float away further someday.

I am Island. Alive and yet dying, drowning at the hands of mankind who pick slowly away at my limbs.

I am Island. Craggy old secular thing, open all hours for deep conversations and things.

I am Island. Made from constituent parts, I know what it is to be water and grit.

I am Island. Of rock and of wind and of earth and of silt and of piss, shit and blood and of stone.

I am Island. I know much about seasons, and changing and history, I know all about how paleontology goes.

I am Island. I know also of death and of birth and of living, and I know all about love, grief and loss.

I am Island. I’ve been here for as long as I know, covered in barnacles as ancient as bones.

I am Island. I am nothing without water, fire, earth, moon and distance and air.

I am Island. I am your fantasy, tell me of yours and i’m there.

I am Island. And so too are you, as much as you really can bear.