Richard White

explorations in place and time

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Workhouse Walk 1

Workhouse Walk 1… a reflectionFront of workhouse

We gathered outside the imposing entrance to Bath’s former Workhouse, above us the old clock permanently stopped at twenty past six. What time was that? A time when the the arms finally rusted up and jammed. A time when the old spring ran out of energy. Wound down. Dead time. A clock that now no-one needs to wind again now that we carry precision digital time with us. The clock face dark and the gilt if it ever was, peeling from hands pulled down, pointing down as if with no further strength to even resist gravity.

The Workhouse bell rang.

A digital recording. W:house Exhib bell

The bell now permanently displayed in its wooden heritage case. The stub of clapper, an amputated tongue, deep inside. The museum crane held the bell and as it released from the wooden form it began to breath and ring and resonate. A ring from the past, a bring out your dead ring, not a school bell ring, not really an angelus ring, no peal of bells, no joy in the sound of that single struck note.  This was the ring of Workhouse time echoing down the painful years not from the chapel but down the corridors and across the yards from that central all-seeing all-hearing panopticon.

The Workhouse bell rang

And we heard it soaking into the hard flat stone walls, around the yards where women shredded rope and men broke stones. A sound once heard from the top of the hill, a warning, a structure. The day divided. The new routine signed by sound and policed with fear. Within these walls Bath’s poor were packed by the Poor Law Guardian, those forced off the land and drawn to the enchanted city where time was increasingly unified and measured in ticks, tocks and chimes rather than sun, moon, tide and pulse.

The Workhouse bell rang again

For perhaps the first time in seventy years in the corridors and hard walled yards the sound of the bell tolling. This time it was me and it cast out the sound in my head of the Summer Time Blues. The rock n rollers demise, mangled outside Chippenham he finished up on the old Workhouse then like now renamed more gently as St Martin’s Hospital. Eddie Cochrane died in Bath’s former Workhouse and like many famous and wealthy visitors to the city he got a plaque. This is where he died. The bell rings for him and all those who died in Bath’s Union Workhouse.


We walked on, through grim workyards, along rough hewn stone walls and roaring road out to the burial ground off the Wellsway. In the centre of the field we gathered and John talked about the 3000 dead buried there, Bath’s poor who had no one to claim their bodies or the wherewithall to bury them. The field undulates, slow ripples of former lives. In the centre a slight mound, the mowers can’t decide whether to circle or skim. In the past there have been stones here, now these again moved to the side but standing there we saw more stones forcing themselves to the surface chipped by the mower blades. Something is coming to the surface, is there a DIY memorial being made, cleared and remade here?

Bearing witness

The Workhouse bell rings for the Workhouse dead

As it never did, only ever ringing to mark the hours of the working day. Eddie Cochrane gets a plaque, he died there but no memorial no plaque for more than 3000 dead in Bath’s Workhouse Burial Ground. The field is not even marked on the map.

We walk on.The boundary markers and lines of Wansdyke. Retracing old walks and cross country short cuts to the bridge over the railway line. The arrival of railway time. Work time. Factory time. Cold dead regular systematic clock in clock out industry time. A new time that had to be internalised by those who had for all generations lived with the time of the seasons, the time that connects with life. Ring out the dead indeed.

Cross country short cuts

We walked down through the trees following the Lyncombe brook, John washed his face in the gush of a cold water spa. Through Widcombe where once Workhouse schoolmaster Mr Winkworth walked his boys. We were retracing his steps, preparing for the long walk in July. Onto the canal where once perhaps there was work but now there is leisure. Spat out into the city under the great black modernist bridge.

The bell rings for the penultimate time on this short Workhouse Walk

Site of the Offices

At the site of the Poor Law Guardian’s office. Here the bearded Victorian patriarchs of the enchanted City sat in judgment over the poor, deserving and undeserving. Their offices, prone to warm water flooding, were finally demolished to reveal the Roman Baths “in all its splendour” . A city built on slavery, built by slaves, rediscovered. And in a country still basking in the wealth generated by  empire and slavery, the Victorian poor? Some fought back, resisted, but many worn out, injured, disabled, too old, too young, were hidden from view, warehoused in the Workhouse until they died. Today they remain hidden from view.

…and finally to the Museum of Bath at Work, the enchanted City of leisure appropriately has a museum of Work. Here temporarily the Workhouse Bell sits in its wooden form, silenced.

W:house Exhib openingbell and bust

The bell rings again for the last time today.

Workhouse walks continue. Do join us!

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Doing time in Somerset and Portland

Portland B-Side Festival for the last weekend of Katrina Palmer’s piece  The Loss Adjusters. Not quite a locative media piece but certainly more than an audio trail.

The Loss Adjusters: Katrina Palmer

We begin entering a shopfront office in Easton Portland, up on the top of the island the town has barely changed in the decades I have been visiting, a chunk of isolated Yorkshire that somehow drifted south. Looks hard and grim even in the summer sun. Poor. Strange half open shops with sun bleached goods half heartedly displayed. A town that sat above the high tide of the wash of Olympic cash, the tide now receded, life continues. Heavy flat bed trucks trundle through with huge chunks of stone strapped to their decks. Holes in the ground get bigger, a cricket pitch, a church, standing alone as the ragged quarried cliff edge approaches under the brambles, the process of extraction continues. Not at any great speed, but it is inexorable.  The extracted rock has been used to build the cities and temples of the old empire and the strong houses of the new from St Paul’s Cathedral to the United Nations HQ in New York. The Cenotaph is made of Portland stone as are all the official British and Commonwealth war graves. There is a part of a foreign land that will always be Portland. Something of this Jurassic island becomes imbued with the dreams, stories, sorrows and memories of all those people in distant cities but at the same time something of this island is shipped out …. and its not just hard white stone. So what is left?
That broadly was I think the context of Palmer’s work, The Loss Adjusters, were the ones trying to work out what had been lost and how to compensate for it perhaps. Something more than the physical fabric of the island, something more had been undermined, ‘destabilised’  well spoken queens english they whispered in our ears. Strange to walk into that abandoned office shop front on the high street, the Loss Adjusters had left and so had the author, still trying to complete her story. We wandered the office willing the photocopiers and faxes to burst into life and the phones to ring, but the story we were being told was working on another dimension.
strimmers and grave diggers
Out on the island and weaving through old quarry workings, the boundary and fence of the cricket ground a green island on the island not yet eroded. Crossing a busy road we walked to the quarry’s edge and listened again. Looking across the graveyard of packed and finely hewn memorial stones towards the old church and prison beyond, we picked up a story. A convict, a body, a burial, an unaccounted-for corpse hidden. Something that came out of the quarry that should have stayed in those depths. We looked for the convict grave digger pushing his wheel barrow and heard the man strimming the long grass in the graveyard. Daily maintenance of the stability, echoes of another place.
wheelbarrow walk
Walking the narrow vertiginous track between quarry edge and cemetery wall almost giving way to your panic, feelings in legs and ears, palm sweating. Dont stop now. Keep walking. Dont look down into the open raw wounded belly of the island.  Thoughts of the gravedigger shifting that unaccounted for mass on his wheel barrow every night like Sisyphus.
At the church we bypassed the Wren myth and strimmer, sat again and listened. The quarry mens daughter described their bond to the island. Looking at the fine cut teeth of the memorials each with their back to the prevailing winds a story of patriarchy and rape unfolded. The island as woman, destabilised, the Loss Adjusters more than just complicit in riveting her to the stone. Powerfully echoed by the old recordings of the stone cutters, their work song and rhythm inexorable until the stone cracks. In the breeze a discrete public announcement cable tied to a lamppost that the burial ground is identified for ‘mineral extraction’ flapped. A dark bird on a gravestone.
listening to the quarrymans daughter
We walked back along the far edge of the quarry past huge cut white stone, some of it like frozen shrimps revealing the shells and forms of the creatures that had died and sunk to the bottom of that warm shallow sea so many millions of years ago. Their crushed lives became the stone, a passing echo of the crushed lives on the island told this piece. If the Loss Adjusters are complicit, with the substance removed and the office closed and ghostly who can tell this tale. Well spoken outsiders are not bound to the stone in the same way as the convict gravedigger or the quarrymen’s daughters. At the pub on Easton High Street a group of women dressed in carnival dragon outfits, raucous.
And for the second quarry visits in a week….

Step in Stone: Artscape in Mendip Quarries

Deep time in Somerset. Walking with Step in Stone in the Somerset Quarries. Out of these vast holes in the ground came stone to be broken and graded for roads and runways. Motorways, military runways and the foundations of nuclear stations. Once the mythical Swampy tried to stop an access road being built to take the stone out. Damming the source. Condemning the locals to the endless roar of trucks. The road got built. Stone millions of years old. Compressed life.
We gathered at the Somerset Earth Science Centre for a minibus ride into a maze of lanes and gulleys that would eventually lead us to Westdown/Asham Quarry. To follow a trail of art works down into the quarry on the way lead artist Fiona Campbell offered orientation on the art works and botanist from Somerset Wildlife Trust and quarry expert from the centre offered orientations on pretty much everything else.
 Somerset pyramids2
Given the scale of the stage, the story of the stone and what has become of it the art work we saw on this trail was largely overpowered by the context. Fiona’s work referenced the creatures that had lived in the seas and had eventually formed part of the stone all those millions of years ago. The work was made from scrap but not materials found on the site. There was something about brought in materials by humans and non humans that needed to be further explored. The huge ‘toast rack’ like ancient pyramids where once gravel was graded and the unofficial art in the form of graffiti offered other challenging readings to the artwork and to the location.
 sea creatures scrap
As ever found myself thinking about the people who worked there and that enormous absence left by their presence. In the distance we heard the rumble of trucks and  imagined the sound and power of the blasts that broke the rock loose from the ground. Beside the track a fast running stream and slowly life reclaiming the surface…grasses and mosses, flowers, shrubs and small trees. A once blasted open area colonised by silver birch and I thought again of that place in the birchwoods of eastern europe.
 lime colour stage
A stage surrounded by birch and hazel decorated with the ancient colour of the quarries red, black and white…a human geometric design but the colours from the same palette as prehistoric cave paintings.
At last my doubts were silenced as we walked towards a circle of chairs in plastic, they looked white like a Ku Klux Klan gathering, then I saw the water and the grass, life reclaiming this from the inside. Sally Kidall’s piece ‘Lest we forget: is enough enough?’  was a powerful statement in the space working at each scale and wandering through it I thought of the Somerset quarry men and their Portland counterparts. What had been removed and where it had gone. Perhaps there is something of the Mendips in the roads we drive on, it all seems such a huge and terrible waste of life. For some the return of wild life as flora and fauna was seen as a sign of hope, amused that garden shrubs were colonising the surfaces alongside the birch, hazel and elder out of the valley. In an instant of geological time the sediment of hundreds of millions of years had been removed and used, the cycle continues but however dense and green the thickets that form here slow time has been interrupted. Deep time exposed. Something very violent had happened in this place, committed by men, with the story of the Portland quarryman’s daughter in my head, I was in mourning.
 chairs ghosts
chairs people quarry
Not sure if the artwork here entirely lives up to the enormity of this place, the project continues, this visit only scratched the surface, but it moved me deeply.