Richard White

explorations in place and time


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a disenchanted May Day walk out and over the Avon

Sense-ing the legacies of slavery and slaveownership
Join me recceing a section of the River Avon up from Avonmouth to Bristol Temple Meads  Sunday 1 May.
Meet at Avonmouth train station at 10.00.
Its about 10 miles up the gorge, towards Bristol, under the Clifton suspension bridge… an all day walk.
Should be spectacular but maybe not for those who suffer from vertigo as the walk begins crossing the Avonmouth bridge!

Its always good on these things to travel with companions on foot and/or online. On this walk I am beginning to think about how this would work as a return journey to Bath…what came up the river as legacies of slavery and slaveownership.

Lots of ideas bubbling away from the rotting worm eaten boats that had to be clad with copper to ward off the Caribbean worms, the sweet stuff and tobbacco leaves to fuel the addictions and all kinds of wealth. Eels? Ill gotten gains, ideas of justice and human rights.

How will this be expressed in what we make of what we see? Do join me, share what you know and we’ll start to find out…
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notes from a days wayfaring down the river Avon from Bath to Bristol

Along the tow path from Bath to Bristol, setting out with a thought intention or purpose of sensing the legacies of slavery and slave ownership on the river.  At first confronted by my childhood and a tricky entrance.
Bath entrance Albion
My chosen path along the river was closed for the reconstruction of the Destructor bridge.  It carries a crossing between the Argos warehouse carpark and the council depot; home to the city dustbin trucks and recycling centre. Already a queue of cars engines running waiting for the gates to open and there to leave their magnolia cuttings in exchange for duty done Bath green smug satisfaction. The old bridge was a ramshackle rattling military seemingly temporary construction leading to gasworks and once derelict industrial heartlands of the city. New sleek swift money buildings rise context free from these sites. New anonymous des res needs new shiny bridge;  across the other side of the grey river I could see it shrink wrapped waiting to be slid into place. Will such a bridge earn its predecessor’s powerful name?

Between two myths of England I tried to find the entrance, and found an enchantment.  St George was Turkish if those stories are to be believed and Albion connects back to a notion of Englishness from before the Peasants Revolt. And the plaque we got planted in Swindon. In the days of Thatcher’s Poll Tax, a council intent on making its mark named a civic building Wat Tyler House. We chose the words of Tyler’s comrade, John Ball:
“Nothing will go well in Albion until all things are held in common”
A phrase once heard in a small US town: Albion, Michigan.

Chasing such obscured appropriations the entrance did not reveal itself. Disenchanted. A wall with discontinuities compounded by mythology.  I continued at a distance from the river along the Upper Bristol Road where a bouncy castle caught my eye. Contained behind railing spears and named Treasure Island. Awash with thoughts of pirates, galleons, maps I remembered the well loved story and its scary telling.The parrot, Robert Newton’s iconic ooaarjimlad performance. And the menace deep inside it, the Black Spot. I walked on, now on the tow path towards the waters weir roar and the story or more its context haunted me…was this a legacy of the Atlantic trade, the more I thought about it I couldn’t find a black face in the telling. Does Treasure Island warrant a re-telling for new times. Is the bouncy castle its metaphorical presence, what would Treasure Island disenchanted say.

Treasure Island

Riffing on islands walking along the river towpath. A newly discovered name for the island on the other side of the lock where great clattering wool mills once stood. Dutch Island. Now the bus depot. Hard flat tarmac behind old walls enchantment but no romance, sealed in stories of those who worked there and where the products of their labours were sold. No bouncy castle on Dutch Island. My thoughts moved on as I walked deeper, beyond sadness that the Dolphin our summer pub by the lock by the small humpback bridge the millworkers crossed, is permanently closed.
Haile Sellassie was here1
I followed the path once taken by Haile Sellassie in exile. In my modern eyes photos show him with pride, dignity and melancholy, like a lion of Longleat but with a human intelligence and self awareness. In his imagined steps I thought of the spirit of empire he appealed to and the metallic brutal modernity he was caught up in. The romance of the exile that connects to the Caribbean back and forth over the Atlantic, a network of intent and consequences with Britain at its core. The mesh.

It was a long days walk and for the most part I journeyed alone, slipping in and out of the enchantments offered. Strange portals opened and closed, embankment clearing on the old Great Western Railway appeared to show a gateway..but perhaps simply revealing the construction technique. Hard work forgotten. I looked for the memorial tree before Saltford, it had been felled. I found another.
plastic crap7
Almost keeping pace with the flow. The river now as leisure: rowing, walking, sailing, fishing. Where before it had been work, food, fuel and communication. I looked for the old fords and imagined the river shallow and wide. Freshford. Bathford. Saltford. Swineford. I saw plastic in the flood blasted trees, caught like flowers, closer shredded in the thorns, no natural disaster here just chuck away plastic normality accepts the mess and continues to reproduce it. How did we get to a place like this I thought as we looked across the river to the former chocolate factory emerging from its plastic wrappings as luxury housing. A hundred yards down river from a brass mill where the currency of slavery was made. Who picked the cacao, how did it get to Keynsham. What went down this river what came back up….
Cadbury's behind trees2
Two of us now walking and wondering if there had been an Avon Bore like the one on the Severn, a great wave moving powerfully up the river. Into the gorge and under the bridge. Passing the last weir where the river was first tamed we were on the edge of the city. Coal mines, smelters and furnace remains, once the stinky east end of Bristol, poisoned lands forgotten, reclaimed, landscaped. Heritaged. A great green tube embedded in the cliffs carrying effluence from today’s city, lycra cyclists whizz past and the bins overflow with responsibly bagged dog shit. The gateways of Bristol opened and closed: so much to think about so much to carry so much to care. To take into care.
Bristol Avon harbour feeder3
and the river kept on going …. in its man made shredded plastic lined and muddy cut scar, flowing out to the sea.