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…
twitter @walknowlive

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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.

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Year of walking early observations

I am about half way through this year of walking, essentially a series of monthly recces for future projects and walking though of ideas. This is what I have learned and what I have observed:

  • An informal collaborative social network approach seems to work….list of 20 walkers to date
  • Social media is no replacement for old style participatory arts development…need to take this further and bring in wider networks
  • Walking tours are popular..making the transition to something collaborative is a challenge, people expect to be led on walking tour
  • Story/narrative is vital , a clear storyline reinforces the narrative structure of the walk itself and thus gives a walk coherence. Cf HonouringEsther
  • Sound, both oral testimony and other voices and music help generate depth and engagement for walkers and online
  • Walking and social media is not something many feel comfortable with…I can walk and type only twisted my ankle once.
  • Live online active participation is rare but the number of people engaged especially in the almost live facebook updates is considerable acrtoss a range of projects
  • Length of walk, in time, as well as time to build relationships amongst wlakers on foot, enables an audience and audience online participation to build
  • Length of walk in distance builds respect, those meeting walkers or following online recognise that an effort has been made
  • Staged, themed stopping points for talk/ drawing/ capture of sound and images/gathering thoughts produce timed clustering of live postings, the audience knows when to check in, walkers, especially those new to social media feel some sense of solidarity.

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Going down the river

First steps today exploring a bigger project developing the work on Bath’s Last Legal Slaveowners and getting into larger legacy of slavery.Bath start

Those boats did not set off to West Africa empty. They carried goods some of which must have been made and transported down the River Avon to Bristol. River energy used in the manufacturing process as well as its flow harnessed for transportation.

Brass. Brass goods. Cloth. What else?

What else went down river to Bristol and on to West Africa to be traded for human beings?
Saltford lock1
Thinking of the people who worked in those mills in the cold wet banging deafening stone built brass mills where the water turned hammers beating the metal into bowls, incessant trundling of stone rollers, roar of the furnace  and in the cloth mill the nimble fingered children and women on the clattering looms. This was a valley of working noise and smoke.

The coal mines are long gone, the scars in the hillside landscaped away. The mills survive as street or house names romantically converted. Mill owners long gone to big houses or next speculation bankruptcy. Salford Brass Mill water wheel occasionally turns as evidence of work once. The product of the labour less well documented.

Twerton Mills bridgeIs my history all messed up or could it be that the products made by the sweat and labour of Wiltshire and Somerset men and women was used to trade for their enslaved brother and sisters along the coast of Africa. What kind of legacy does that give us?

Bath River alley

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River Crouch Festival Walk day 2

Waking up to the river, a great expanse of wet grey and small boats. Tonight as the dark gathers round the pool of lights on the timber ship up the river I am reflecting on this day in the distance a line of orange street lights. Southend.

Today we crossed the river for the first time. A walking day but not extreme either in distance or weather. Summer grey clouds and a wind that drove the spattering of rain dried us off just as quick. Two  flags fluttering in the wind driven by the motion of the boat: we returned with three. This was Burnham’s day the Mayor turned out to greet us and children from the local primary school came to launch their paper boats and hand to us a box of memories for safe keeping across the river.
Burnham brief the mayor
A good gathering of potential walkers greeted us at the quay the result of some good networking with U3A and slowly the school children and parents gathered out side the yacht club. Why Corinthian…?the tweeted question was never answered…maybe Burnham is  twinned with Greece..could be an empathetic link. The Burnham community flag was unfurled and local artist Alan invited us to get into position to see the paper boat launch.

Burnham outside RCYC2The school did not have a twin across the river, only some land, Wallasea.  About to become the largest bird reserve in Europe, so the mayor told us but perhaps this lack of a structured connection with people across the river was a mistake.
Burnham paper boat launch2
Excited school children all tagged and risk assessed walked onto the pontoon and in the distance we saw their creations open up to flat paper and flow away on the fast falling tide out to see. Proud parents looked on. I was given a decorated shoe box of casts of interesting and strange things found on the northern river shore, the memory box, to care for and carry across the river. Great concept but I am not sure the children understood it, the idea of a biodegradable time capsule was perhaps a bit too conceptual.  I loved it but did not feel that I was carrying something precious to them or to Burnham. The full story did not seem to have been told but the flags photos and Facebook begin to fill the gaps.
Burnham memory box
Across the river with the memory box and two flags on the Burnham Ferry, we walked the sea walls.

Burnham ferry1First to the west through old shipyards and over looking timber yards,  a ship unloading and the air rich with the smell of creosote. We walked and talked and the dynamic resumed. A returning walker and child from yesterday carrying the banners and the U3A walkers hoping to do a bit of bird spotting but game for discovering ghost crossings  and the Great Festival Walk!
Wallasea walk3

Creeksea ferry pub3
At last we came to the RSPB reserve and the landscaped under London mud from cross rail, here the Wallasea flag was exchanged for the memory box. Wallasea memory box handover

The box will be buried and GPS tagged so that in a virtual world it will always exist even if the box and its contents return to the soil. One wonders if anything will be left in this world, in the actual memories of the children of the workshop and the specific object they found and cast.

Walking back we saw the last flight of a Vulcan bomber and I remembered a bored school day brought to life when one such flying triangle roared hedge height my long distance stare out of the classroom window. A Hurricane flew over sounding like a flying bentley, it barrel rolled over my head . I shouted and clapped. Walking and talking again, diving stories, home made wet suits, Portland Harbour, Clarks shoes and sandwiches for parliament. Visiting the Taj Mahal. Love.
Creeksea ferry lane 2
The walk brings it out and connects. Bitterness and missed opportunities fall into place, fall into perspective. We move on.

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Honouring Esther Day 3 raw

Belsen disenchanted. Roaming. Soil

Our day begins with another round of rummaging in bags for lost things and continuing battles with roaming data and mobile devices. Not quite sorted but in the metaphoric lens with which we are viewing this experience it reads as loss and discovery, the ebb and flow of memory and communication.
Belsen Roundhouse windowserased
Its about layers and what we tell ourselves and are told about each one. What happens when you dig through them and question through. Lorna took her first soil sample from the yard of a house built within the barbed wire perimeter of the Waldeslust camp. A pile of earth pushed aside from the building work, dark and sandy. Perhaps Esther trod on that earth. New house, white walls, shoes outside on the porch, dog barking and as I stood guard on that strange and rather furtive new ritual the central heating kicked in. Only steam from the chimney. Mix of guilt and catharsis, maybe they were just  ignoring us.
Waldeslust soil1
On to Belsen following the route of the walk where in all the emotion I discovered that this too was a landscaped terrain. Doubly so. After the war with the huts burned and the dead buried in the vast mass graves, the German Administration was ordered to turn the place into a memorial. The grounds were tidied up, much of the remaining historical evidence apart from the graves erased, hills and hummocks were raised and paths created, trees felled and a management system introduced.  The iconic watchtowers were taken down and the fences and barbed wire all dumped into a bomb crater and buried. Crucially the entrance was changed to the current one, disconnecting the place from the barracks and the orientation towards the railway. More recently a new management system has been introduced and some archaeological work has revealed the footings of buildings and buried tracks. Fashion and changing ideas yes but something more than the barbed wire was buried. Wild boar disregard it all and recently near the edge of the woods a wolf was seen.

We discuss dilemmas and legacies with the archivist Bernd Horstmann, charming friendly and supportive. He had managed to get us in to visit the rest of the Belsen story still held behind barbed wire. Deep in the Nazi built military camp occupied by the victorious British and now returned to the Germans we saw buildings where survivors of Belsen were cared for and where some died and where buried. We saw their meeting places and heard echoes of their stories. Most impressive of all was the vast Round House once a concert hall, once makeshift hospital, now echoing, empty and cavernous. Full of ghosts. The British military have handed it over in full working order. The German uniformed soldier at the gate spoke German to our ears and we reached for our ID, hearing us he slipped back into scouse. Strange alliances of language and accent. The remaining few who stayed rooted in the place when their fellow soldiers and families were sent back to England. Along with the site and buildings including churches and shops and cookhouses, a new built secondary school for 500 children, also stands empty. Cold War front line spaces idle and silent. Meanwhile refugees trudge their way to makeshift camps. History knocking on the door.
Belsen Roundhouse interior1
Discovering Belsen walking through the ghost entrance as Esther did when it was hard real and deathly 71 years ago, welcomed by an icy blast of wind and rain. The landscaping tells its story, the horror is not concealed. At the stone I remember the slow dissolve to life I tried to create in July. Again I am overcome. I hear Esther retold talking about the shakey sensation of early fever, the creeping awareness of death approaching, saying to to herself and to her dead mother that she had done her best, she had tried to make it, to tell the story but that she feared she would not be able to carry on. Thanks to the soldiers she did, we will be there on Friday to ensure that the story continues to be told.

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Honouring Esther day 1 and day 2 raw

 Day 1 Hannover airport 31/1/16

Lost keys found, dark motorway dash to the airport, weaving the car through the stockyards and abandoned parking lots. The satnav leading us blindly into the sodium lit desolate space at the edge of the city. Here we left the car, the familiar disorder and last comfort of our car/home. On into the glistening night to the bright lights and panic space of airport departure lounge.

We hand over our bags, the great bag with everything: my bag of electricals, my boots, warm clothes, Christmas present Kendal mint cake and clean underwear. Rushing rushing to the departure lounge where, in order we are called row by row to our seats. With barely a moment to bicker we are on the plane and the fairground adrenaline kicks in as we lurch into the sky. Such a rush as to momentarily blow all thoughts of carbon impact out of my head.

Through the cloud and out to a golden dawn and we turn and head into it over a cotton wool ocean. I finally read Peter Jackson’s book and sense his shock at discovering, far grimmer than the stories of the refugees that occupied the bunkers, that there on the edge of his patch of Luneburg Heath there was a mini horror story from the Holocaust.

Waldeslust, earthy joy of the forest, Lager 3, Judenlager a camp for Polish Jewish women, where Esther and others were held as slave labourers for the Nazis who finally marched them to Belsen on 4 February 1945. And so from there 71 years later, on Thursday , we will walk the same route.

All this has been preparation……

Flying over the forests and clearings, seeing the great rivers snaking their ox bowed way to the mist, thinking of Lancaster bombers following the river to wreak destruction. Thinking of Jonny’s airman who walked back from Poland saved by his art. Navigated by my Uncle Reg the alltitude destroying his lungs, seeing him in a Celle cafe as I ate dense yellow omelette with cranberry sauce dusted in icing sugar. It was the texture of a lung.  The first food on this side.

The big bag of electricals did not arrive, the devices did not connect easily. They had been told us far too much of what they thought we wanted to hear but reality is different. I seethed with anger and declared word war on British Airways as still with no sleep we drove out into Germany; I learned to flydrive the hire car: 6 gears with dash board fruit machine for distraction. The engine stops disconcertingly at traffic lights but so beautifully, the mirrors fold away and lights blink demurely when it locks.

A welsh woman in the same cafe commends us and a feeling that we are doing something special begins. A botched attempt to drive the route satnav get us lost and found in the carpark at the Bergen Belsen memorial. Cold and grim. Trees dark, the forest. Growing witnesses in the mist and drizzle. We are not ready we are not ready we arrived too quick. We didn’t even get out of the car but pulled out and drove on. Across the road I look out to the path and the woods at first imagining us arriving on Friday and immediately found myself looking into the face of living death, the women, a young emaciated Esther shuffling towards us. Relentlessly

End of the day still no bloody bag and I am incandescent. We meet with the amazing Annette Wieneke, her partner and daughter and share immediate crises, slowly real affinity blooms and we look from face to face at ourselves  seeing our reflections in this strange moment in our histories. Annette’s book a labour of love written as a young mother 20 years ago, Lorna making sense of her past and her mother’s story from 70 years ago. Entwined in their histories, like the routes of our walks. Tough rocks that the glacier of time and history has not worn smooth.

Syrian restaurant, fresh mint tea on a Sunday night. Cold drizzle that should be snow. Still no bag, I am loosing all sense of proportion as I discover my angry phone calls are not with someone at Hannover airport but with a call centre operator in Madrid. We begin to talk in metaphors. All this is preparation. We have the tools to communicate but the only recording possible is with the mind using the body. Eyes and ears.

Day 2 Celle

A teddy bear in a museum/gallery in Celle reduces me to tears. A childhood under the shadow of the swastika. An empty room with a tin bath and a teddy. A child’s toy bears witness. I took my mother’s teddy to her funeral, it was mine too but I never forgot it was hers. The bear soaked up my tears. The squalid last days of the war, one town helped death marchers escape and hid them, in another  towns people,coerced or complicit, chased down, shot or captured escaped prisoners. The Celle Hare Hunt. The rounded up survivors were death marched to Belsen along the same route we had driven.

The bag appeared at the door this morning as if it was all normal. Sign here. Nothing stolen. What was that all about? My emotions will locate elsewhere before this is over. The bear grounded me.

The Celle Synagogue: it survived Nazi thug axes and was never put to flame as it would have set the town alight. Here new life and recovery began as Belsen survivors reclaimed the building in 1946. In the street outside polished by snow grip grit, rain and foot fall, my first Stolpersteine, ‘stumbling stones’  peoples remembering places for the people that once lived there, old people who fled to Holland but were brought back to Auschwitz to be killed, others disappeared and one my mothers age dead before she could be a mother. Here remembered.

And the meetings began. Formality at the county hall with the Landrat and the kind man, Rainer Voss, who knew the shameful stories of Celle, carer for survivor memories, proud to conserve the first post war publications from Bergen-Belsen camp and other records so diligently kept that now fuel family history research. We sit round the table a bit grilled, a bit honoured…welcomed and respected.

Some further encounters and arguments with the calm voice of the sat nav later we are seated in the Zuhlke garden centre alongside Hambuhren Tiger orchids, a display Uncle Reg, late of Bomber Command, would have been proud of. Here we meet with Julius Krizsan our local fixer and former Green Party MP, as avuncular and no nonsense as I had expected from our email exchange, local historian Irmlinde Florian, Hans Ovelmann an eye witness and Herr Zuhlke owner of the garden centre that sits on the edge of the Waldeslust site. The walk was toasted with light bulb glasses of Irmlinde’s red home brew. Prost.

We tell our story. Choice. Free will. Human Rights. The stations of our walk. Resonances. We tour the perimeter of the site and view the remains of Waldeslust, what horrors and squalor has that building seen. We see some things that Esther may have seen and we look on. Try to imagine and can’t. The tall trees are recent, the big one perhaps a sapling 71 years ago. A Narnia lamp in a thawed landscape, dark trunks and evergreens, the absence of snow adding to the macabre.

As darkness fell we had recce’d the first day of the walk, identified the stopping points and been welcomed into the home of Herr Krizsan. Things were beginning to slot into place until mobile streaming rattled confidence in the technology. Nothing feels safe, the uncertainty is edgy, stressy and transient, the emotion raw and just skin deep. We will do this. We will remember.

In this state we began our final engagement for the day with a group of women from the Bath Braunschweig Association who had come all the way from their city to hear about the project. Over a meal we tell our story. Resonances. Freedom. Internationalism. Choice. Solidarity. The themes, the stations, justice and the rule of law.

We are overwhelmed already, immersed. Tomorrow checking day two of the walk the long haul through the woods to Belsen.