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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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.

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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?