Richard White

explorations in place and time

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Bath: the plaqued and the unplaqued

Beagles in the basement, stopped and searched on Bath’s Royal Crescent, an elopement, plaques, parties and hollow pillars. A disenchanted walk across the city, rattling railings.
44AD humanity 2
Setting off from the gallery where the red glow room call to our humanity had yet to be illuminated, but already the question was there. Outside the theatre our first set of plaques that told us nothing about the origins of the wealth or where it went, did Bean Nash die of syphilis and did the woman really end her days in a tree. Good stories so why not? The harder truth was across the road where a casino will be built faux Georgian in the open space once the playground of a school and before that a clay pipe factory.
pipe factory site for casino
Tobacco. The first legacy of the day. The plantation economy produced addiction that generated wealth for Wills. Maybe pipes went down the river but surely the tobacco came up. A commodity worth exploring.

On to the signs that ward off the devil and a collector of watercolours, Mr Braikenridge. A ‘West India merchant’, a euphemism from the era of slavery. Slaveowner. Remembered as a man of letters who gathered picturesque images of the west country, do we view the collection differently, do we see that house on the corner of Queen Square differently? No plaque guides us or protective sign indicates wrongs committed. One lump or two Mr Beckford?
21 Queen Square Braikenridge
On the way up to our mans residence we walk the Royal Crescent, where West Indian merchants retired with their families and ‘servants’.  A story of a house party. A plaque to an elopement,  representing pride or shame or just a good story involving a once famous dramatist? No plaques for slaveowners here. Were they ashamed already? We do Pitman and shorthand but other plaques no general knowledge comes to our aid. Perhaps we should have asked passers by. A stop and search story from a walker brings us to the moment, and the second point of legacy for the day: institutional racism.

We continue up the hill stopping outside the one time residence of Nathaniel Wells, slaveowner, beneficiary of the compensation claims , did he get compensation on his mother, a house slave? Mixed race Mr Wells became Britains first black JP, first black Sheriff and the owner of Peircefield house. Its gardensonce an example of the picturesque, now in ruins on the edge of Chepstow racecourse.

To Beckford’s house we share the story and add our spin, his sexuality and huge slave generated wealth which with the compensation money last him a lifetime without working a day. A story that he bought the house next door to silence a dog barking, another dog further along the crescent popped into memory. Beagles in the basement in the former girls school kitchen. Former girls school once the home of slaveowner and slavery advocate. So we review the liberal myth of Bath. Legacy number three, a language of universal human rights.
18-20 Lansdown Cresecnet Beckford
Simon Barrow former Mayor of Bath, former Alderman and, in the footsteps of Beau Nash, Master of Ceremonies. One of Bath’s Last Legal Slaveowners. …. and Jewish. Stretching the mind to make sense it all, is this assimilation or corruption?
plaqued out Circus2.jpg
Down to the river chewing this over by way of the Circus where caught in the turgid tour guided crowds we reached peak plaque. Livingstone of Africa, Clive of India, where to begin with these Edwardian era celebrated but blood stained builders of Empire? As the good man Dabydeen says, at least with some truth, a disenchantment. At the river we stop to think of prisons, breweries and slaughterhouses. On the purity of water and what has dissolved in it. What is suspended.

Blood, sweat, tears. The bodies of those dumped overboard as rebels or damaged goods.

Finally to a consideration of the possibly not contemporaneous neighbours of Mr Wilberforce, he suitably plaque along with Hannah Moore across the street, the only woman plaque spotted on our journey. But no plaque for the Reverend Scott, The Reverend Scott on whose plantation 110 rebel slaves were executed  in a brutally repressed uprising. The Reverend Scott who received more than ten thousand pounds in compensation for the ‘release’ of his plantation slaves. Scott’s wife is supposed to have a memorial stone in the nearby church. Still looking for it.

Laura fountain7


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The Finest View in Europe.

“The road from the little village of Bath to the Fountain of the Medicinal Spring, is most horribly romantic, and partakes very much of those anticipations of the sublime of Nature, which, in his progress through particular vallies, the traveller cannot fail to have frequently experienced. The narrowness of the path, and the precipices upon one side, are to strangers somewhat alarming; but the beautiful scenery with which the journey is rewarded, affords some consolation.”

(Beckford W:  A descriptive account of the Island of Jamaica)

Join me on foot or online Saturday 28 May

Saturday, May 28 Bath School of Art and Design Sion Hill, Lansdown   BA1 5SF

Open the conversation. Meet at reception 11.00. Approx 3 mile walk. Return approx 13.00.

ud stepped logo small versionin conversation

Opening and closing on foot. Walk and talk. Listen. Sense. Consider the views.

A free and open conversation in which artists, writers, thinkers and anyone else who wants to join in can engage with themes that correspond with the best of our aspirations and the worst of our nightmares.

11.00 Open the conversation, stretch minds and legs on a networked walk to

The Finest View in Europe (but it may cost you to get in! Please fill in the contact form if you are coming and we can get a group discount)

Out of the enchanted city, over the fields, up the hill and back again down the road. Disenchanted.


1330 for 1400 – 1700   Lecture Theatre

Utopia, Dystopia and Catastrophe

Guest speakers include:

  • Kate Rigby, the newly appointed Professor of Environmental Humanities at Bath Spa University and author of Changing the Climate: Utopia, Dystopia and Catastrophe;
  • Linda Williams, a specialist on human-animal relations, climate change and mass species extinction; and
  • Rachel Withers, writer and critic, focussing on art and ideas.

17.00 Wayfaring in the Enchanted City

The conversation continues in the café, online and on foot walking through the heart of utopian Bath, approx 19.00 arriving at “Bath’s Artisan Quarter” for exhibitions and the utopian/dystopian pub, The Bell, in Walcot Street.

In the two walks opening and closing the day I hope you will join us, share thoughts and generate resonances on utopian/dystopian aspects of the city. Follow and contribute @walknowlive and #walknow #utopiadystopiaSomerly Beckford book title

more from this book by William Beckford of Somerly (our man’s cousin) here:

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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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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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Walkout Sunday a planner

Walkout Sundays continue into next year….walking, talking, building a social media conversation, see how far it goes as the days lengthen. Walking out on enchantment…towards disenchantment?

Here is an outline plan:

Sunday 3 Jan: recce for a walk to the unmarked graves of Bath’s Victorian poor.

Sunday 7 Feb: No walk.  Returning from Germany  Forced Walk: Honouring Esther we walk on the Thursday and Friday 4 and 5 Feb…why not join us…on foot or online?

Sunday 6 March: Saltford loop….out on the tow path and back on the old railway line (or back on the bus if you prefer…)

Sunday 3 April: Saltford loop reversed (or meet at Saltford times tbc)

Sunday 1 May:  Bath to Avonmouth on the River Avon Trail (early start)

Sunday 5 May: A walk via the ornate Victorian graveyard at Smallcombe to the unmarked graves at the Workhouse burial ground
Sunday 3 July: Bath to Chewton Mendip
Sunday 7 August: Chewton Mendip to Bath
Sunday 4 September: tbc
The common theme in all this is enchantment/disenchantment…how to see, reveal, articulate other less comfortable truths and stories from the places, locations we walk through.  The walks are participatory and any information, stories, myths or rumours that you can bring to this the better. These are creative walks and walkers are encouraged to make and share work through the walk.

At first exploring more on the slave trade and the legacies of slavery and empire…the focus is on the Brass Mills on the Avon, one of which survives at Saltford. Brass goods were made here for trading in West Africa for slaves… I am interested to exploring stories of goods made near Bath using the energy of the river Avon and traded in the first leg of the triangular trade …. what went down the river, what came back…humans, trade, sweat, brass etc. Was the currency of the slave trade manufactured along the river just outside Bath? What survives in stories and ghosts of those places….

We will walk through the remains of early industrialisation, a coal field and ghosts of Bath’s engineering past all now smoothed, concealed perhaps, in a romantically landscaped valley…
how does it feel,
what stories will start to surface….how to tell them…
As the days get longer I want to explore an idea around the memorialising and the treatment of poor people and those unable to work in Bath, in particular I want to start to develop a walking route from Chewton Mendip into Bath finishing at the Bath workhouse burial ground by the Red Lion at Odd Down. Walking, talking and the undeserving poor?


walk out 2

Walks to the View 2: 1 November to Beckfords Tower


The city shrouded in mist, the enchantment materialised. Strange cold creamy flat light past the Abbey and up to Queen Square. The first great iconic architectural project of Georgian Bath. At once admiring its formerly austere grandeur and thinking of Dabydeen’s idea of triumphalism we looked for house numbers and plaques. I checked the sun sign supposed to ward off witches on the wall of the haunted house, the polished brass of the solicitors and at the end of the top terrace, entwined in creeper branches, number 21. Residence of George Weare Braikenridge, slaveowner and antiquarian, memorialised for the latter.

21 Queen Square

A crowd of tourists towing bipperty bopperty suitcases on wheels trundled past. On up Gay Street, two slave owners residences identified there, and into The Circus. The first time in a long time I have walked around the circle with its strange masonic hieroglyphs, it felt dark and oppressive. Here slaveowners residencies their names un-plaqued neighboured heroes of Empire: Livingstone, Clive of India and others unremembered but materialised in dark metal oblongs. A coach purred past and another disgorged its tourist load to walk towards the Royal Crescent. I heard a shout of my name, a fellow walker arriving late had guessed that we might be heading to this part of the City. For those who want to follow the money into the foundations of this architectural wonder, the signs are clear. Its the detail we are trying to reveal as in the detail we find human lives.

18 Royal CrescentOn to the Royal Crescent it vast curved expanse looking out into mist. Some of these houses were social housing not so long ago. Family silver sold off. From the future and across the globe we were arriving asking questions and raising sensibilities about power and wealth. History catching up on the past, knocking on the door of the present. The legacy in Bath of transatlantic slavery seems so silent…but then who would want a badge on their door saying “James Markland slaveowner and advocate of slavery lived here”. On Park Street we identified the home of one Nathaniel Wells, his mother, Juggy,  an enslaved house servant; in 1837 he received £1400 9s and 7d on the basis of the ownership of 86 enslaved people on St Kitts. Maybe he owned his mother? Despite his African heritage, I read, he was accepted into the elite society of Monmouthshire, and even before this payout, was the Sheriff of the County. The layers and complications of the story and our mission multiply. An enchantment has many layers, the story of a mixed race slaveowner retiring to Monmouthshire intrigued us.

Park Street

Looking up to the roofs and parapets of Park Street I remembered my return from distant lands to a lost love. This too was social housing then. Climbing out of the former servants bedroom window and sitting before a low wall, the enchanted city lay below us. Not quite renewing. Remembering a view, sustaining a moment of affection. An encounter with a man puffing, redfaced on his way back from the gym brought us back to the moment, he told us of a black man painting the railings and how he had identified the decaying and uncared for house opposite as a slaveowner’s residence. I checked the email he gave me but doesnt connect.

Through the green below Lansdown Crescent along to the residence of William Beckford himself memorialised in standard dark oblong metal plaque…no mention of the origin of his wealth….but then why would you? Plaques for places are one thing plaques for people are difficult. How are guilty secrets memorialised. Does Hitler’s house have a blue plaque? Mosley? Enoch Powell? Where to begin and end….some have plaques but their crimes go unmentioned just as others have plaques and the origins of their wealth go unmentioned. A New Zealand Maori idea that we balance on the shoulders of all those who went before us, ancestors good bad indifferent are part of us and make us. All of us.

ghost pub signThe mists settled. We walked past the old Art School buildings at Sion Hill, the clean arc of Somerset Place now preserved like a museum sculpture, sterilised of student creativity that occasionally challenged its triumphalism. To the beginning of the Cotswold Way our enchanted path into the English countryside, down steps and slippy leaf slopes, under the gibbet of an old pub sign, des res home now the sign no longer swinging in the breeze. Down yes down further to the brook and at last out into fields. A feeling of release. Magpies. A keening buzzard hunting. Farmers warning to unwary/unwelcome? walkers. We walked up into clout, mist enveloping us. Cloaking the City below. Concealing the tower ahead.

Beckfords towerBeckford Tower barely visible in the mist, atmospheric cemetery below suitable Halloween conditions, although it was the day after. Sexuality and slaveownership glossed here but the stories told for those who asked. Us.

More on Beckford’s Tower and the Hare and Hounds another time.

The questions on how to memorialise remain. A plaque seems increasingly not like a good idea…its not a judgement on the people who live in those houses now. But how to locate the stories, the followthemoney and bear witness to the misery and horror in popular consciousness. How to make the contemporary connections.

A performative walk in witness, a sharing of knowledge without blame and shame for those who live there now. A motif. A reconciliation with the past that may help us with the present.

Thinking more on this and I would welcome feedback and contributions.

Next time we stay in the city and maybe look for ways of breaking out of the enchantment from within.