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Diana Heeks – Black Mountains project (1)


Artist Diana Heeks, based in Llanrhystud, West Wales, is developing a project in the Black Mountains inspired by Raymond Williams‘ unfinished novel People of the Black Mountains.

The project comprises four, week-long visits to the region and is funded by a ‘research and development’ grant from the Arts Council of Wales.

PEAK is a project partner and supporting Diana through artist mentoring and promotion. PEAK will announce details of an open studio day and talk with Diana to conclude the project in the autumn.


“Literature has influenced and engaged me since childhood, and this book evokes feelings which I have an almost visceral need to explore in paint. The Black Mountains is a cluster of steep-sided parallel ridges east of the Brecon Beacons, mainly in Wales but partly across the English border. In two volumes this book tells a series of linked stories about the history of the area, from Neolithic times until the Norman invasion, encompassing a grand sweep across thousands of years and tens of generations, offering both a bird’s-eye view and ground-level intimacy. For many years I have read and reread this novel. Its qualities of imagination and humanity, and its sense of the influence of place, attracted me as a painter from the outset, especially as the location has long been a favourite. The stories and evoked imagery have accompanied me whilst working plein air and on walks and explorations in the actual locations and landscapes of the book. I want to attempt an equivalent in oils on canvas.”

- Diana Heeks

“Press your fingers close on this lichened sandstone. With this stone and this grass, with this red earth, this place was received and made and remade. Its generations are distinct, but all suddenly present.”

– Raymond Williams, People of the Black Mountains


Diana Heeks
Diana Heeks
Diana Heeks
Diana Heeks
Diana Heeks
Diana Heeks

First Visit  – 16-23 March 2015

Quite a multi-faceted week. Intense pleasure of being alone in the landscape. Benign weather and drying ground. I had been apprehensive about my ability to reach the hill tops, because of illness in the last year which has left me with much less stamina and physical fitness. But by going steadily that has been overcome, and I’ve achieved two climbs to sites of Bronze Age burial that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to visit.

In preparation I’ve been re-reading four stories from the two People of the Black Mountains (PoBM) books: Marod, Gan and the Horse Hunt (circa 23,000BC); Incar’s Fire and Aron’s Pig (circa 5400BC); Seril and the New People (circa 1700BC); and Bibra in Magnis (circa 300AD).

The stories can be located in the actual landscape, with the help of the OS map and the list of place names and their current equivalents today, provided at the end of each volume of PoBM.

Things seem to have fallen into roughly three categories:

• A preoccupation with Bronze Age cist sites. Of the three I visited the best example, above Cwm Bwchel, has parallel side slabs still in place, maybe pointing at Bal Mawr. Then the L-shaped remnant of a cist on top of Hay Bluff, flush with the grassy surface. And the site of the 1932 discovery in the Olchon Valley, of which there is nothing to see because it and its contents have long ago been removed to Hereford Museum. That was the inspiration for the story “Seril and the New People”.

• Looking for and examining possible relationships between the present-day horses on the hills and the depictions of horses in prehistoric cave art, of which there are many dated to the time in which Raymond Williams set his story ”Marod, Gan and the Horse Hunt”, 23,000 years ago. Photographs from the Phaidon book “Cave Art” by Jean Clottes are a rich source of imagery for this era in Europe.

• Colours: manganese dioxide (purple, brown, black), iron oxide (red, russet, ochre) and charcoal were the materials used for making early cave images, and it is interesting to realise that these colours also predominate in the present-day landscape and also to note that without giving this much consideration I have already accumulated plenty of those colours in pastel and watercolour, because I’ve favoured them for use in previous work about the Black Mountains.

Tuesday 17th March

I’d hoped to find the L-shaped remnant of a cist on top of Hay Bluff, but on the climb up, given the large patches of unmelted snow still lying , I began to feel that it was unlikely. But then there it was, clear and easy to find, right on the brow. Such an elegant sign from so long ago, the top edges of two of the grave slabs showing flush with the level of the turf. What a place to be buried! Overlooking a huge swathe of Herefordshire and the Marches.

Blue-eyed ponies; one multi-coloured but with a white face, the other apricot. Both very shaggy and long-maned in their winter coats.

Walked south for a mile along the plateau , the area where the story “Seril and the New People” begins, aiming to reach a point where I could look down into the Olchon Valley, the setting for the story of the Horse Hunt and also the culmination of “Seril”. Unfortunately had to turn back, needing to reserve time and energy for the rather treacherous descent back to Gospel Pass .

Wednesday 18th March

Up early and drove round to the Olchon Valley. A milky, mysterious light … sun with mist. Been here a few times before but not armed with enough information to identify the field of the 1932 two-cist discovery, which the farmer, James Smith of nearby Olchon Court, uncovered whilst ploughing.

Found the burial field easily, but had imagined that I could lean on a gate and survey it by eye. Not so. It was head-height above the road with a hedge and no gate to the road, so it was impossible to see into. Walked uphill towards Olchon Court for a better view and was lucky enough to get talking to the farmer who currently works the surrounding fields, who had arrived from nearby Craswall with a large bale of hay on his tractor to feed his sheep. Was given permission to be in the field. This involved going through three other fields, getting across two streams and a lot of mud. Resolve to return with my wellies.

Monday 23rd March

Went back to Olchon Court to complete the gestalt. Paced out the approximate spot using the directions in the Woolhope Club (Herefordshire Natural Sciences Association) write-up from the time. Took photos to locate the “place” in the landscape, to compare with 1932 photographs and for me to “pin down” something ephemeral … disappeared.


Diana Heeks

March 2015

For more information about Diana’s work visit:

For more information about PEAK, Contemporary Art In The Black Mountains, visit:



Arts Council of Wales


There are 4 Comments

  • 1 Miriam

    Hello Diana

    We live at Olchon Court, love the Black Mountains and RW’s book, so are pleased and intrigued to find out about your project. Did you know we had an archaeology excavation here in 2010 revealing a beautiful bronze age burial cairn probably pre-dating the cist burial nearby?
    (We too have paced the cist field to try and locate the spot.)

    As you probably know, the final story of volume 2 of People of the Black Mountains (John Oldcastle escaping persecution for his heretical religious (Lollard) beliefs) is usually thought to be set at Olchon Court, although there’s no historical evidence for that. Let me know if you are coming again and would like to call in. Miriam

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  • 4 Tessa Waite

    Dear Diana,really appreciated seeing your work at the open studio recently. Your connection to the landscape was tangible within the richness of the marks, textures and glowing layers of colour. Thankyou for your openness. Best wishes Tessa

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