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.

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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!

More details here: http://www.walknowtracks.co.uk/projects.html

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