Just spent yesterday drawing and sketching with the Inside Out Art Group in Ruthin. Despite the fact that it’s only forty minutes away, I’ve never actually been to Ruthin – I’ve been through there, on my way to the coast, Anglesey and point deeper into North Wales, but never actually stopped in Ruthin itself. I don’t know why I hadn’t – the place is great.
Ruthin is a small market town, not dissimilar from Oswestry. Unlike Oswestry, however, it’s managed to preserve a lot of its older buildings – and make use of them. The result is a charming little cluster of old – some very old – buildings up on the hill around the market cross. The County Hall and the Town Hall are both fine examples of robust Victorian provincial civic architecture. I didn’t get time to go inside, but the Town Hall has a Market Hall attached to it that seems well-used. Around the market cross itself are some picture-postcard Victorian half-timbered houses and some brightly-painted cottages cheek-by-jowl with a couple of much, much older buildings – a fine 14th century hall with a grand timber porch, for example. And for all you contemporary antiquarians, there’s even an Arthurian relic near the market cross in the form of the Maen Huail stone.
We were in town for the art, and stopped first at the Oriel Canolfan Grefft Ruthun – the Ruthin Craft Centre. Two great exhibitions there: Wendy Ramshaw’s jewellery and gates, and Richard La Trobe-Bateman’s bridges, bridge models and chairs. Two very different makers, but with similar themes: geometry, order, simplicity. And yet, in amongst all that geometric simplicity was a lot of other things: in Wendy Ramshaw’s Rooms of Dreams, there was a hint of something darker and slightly more mischievous than the slightly 1930s fascism of her Hyde Park Gates suggested. And even in David La Trobe-Bateman’s zen-like simplicity there was, I felt, an exterior push towards the monumental that I suspected the maker instinctively resisted. In both of the exhibition spaces there seemed to be references to that old maker’s tension between the artist and the craftsperson-for-hire; between the aesthetic of the maker and the demands of the client. Very interesting.
Lunch, and then over the hill, past the market cross to Ruthin Gaol. This Victorian jail now houses the Ruthin County Archives, but a good portion of it has been opened up as a museum and visitor’s attraction. A bit of a curiousity: part social history time-capsule, part hi-tech storage facility, part architectural survivor. I’ve always been a little bit wary of “attractions” – too controlled, too directed, too many “interactive displays” or interpretation boards to really allow you to get a feel for a place yourself. Having said that, one of the great things about Ruthin Gaol is that, despite the fact that it is an “attraction” and your visit is very much directed, there are still plenty of surprises. From the displays of prisoner art from the 60′s and 70′s, to the weirdly sinister “Scotch Cap”, to the grey inhabitants of the cells, to the vault of the upper storey of the main wing, there were unexpected discoveries around every corner. I must have taken hundreds of photographs – including the ones below of the little model of the gaol that caught my attention (wish I’d had a pinhole camera!).
I don’t know about everyone else, but I certainly came away brimming with ideas. I’ve got a couple of sketches for prints scribbled away in my sketchbook that I’d like to work up. Something about the vault of the main wing and those curious grey dummies in the cells. Anyway, I’ll post more about that as my ideas develop. We wandered up from the gaol, past the market cross and towards Ruthin Castle in glorious – and unexpected – sunshine. The centre of the market town was a maze of tiny streets and crooked alleyways just crying out to be explored and drawn. But time was running out, and we were flagging. So we settled on tea on the side lawn of the Ruthin Castle Hotel, accompanied by a peacock scavenging dropped bits of buffet lunch from the wedding party which had taken over the baronial Victorian gothic interior. Four big pots of tea, Welsh cakes and bara brith -a perfect end to another great Inside Out sketching day. A big thank you to Sandy who suggested Ruthin as a venue in the first case, and to June and Julie for their tour-guide advice for the day. For everyone that couldn’t make it, we’ll be heading back to Ruthin for another visit before long, I’m sure. I’m certainly going back before too long.