Hidden Histories: Walking the Kennet and Avon Canal with Andy Marks

A couple of weeks ago walked with Andy Marks, for the first time in real life after our digital Queer River walk. Andy was visiting Wiltshire from his base in Edinburgh, and this time we decided to move away from my local river (The Salisbury Avon), and walk along the Kennet and Avon Canal instead, at Devizes.

I’ve never felt the urge before to walk along a canal as part of Queer River, I’ve prioritised rivers and other wetlands, less obviously connected to industry and human transportation. But our previous walk had sparked an interest in the hidden or less known histories of waterways (including whaling and the Water of Leith), and once I started researching our local canal, my interest was piqued.

The Kennet and Avon Canal

The Kennet and Avon Canal is a waterway in southern England with an overall length of 87 miles (140 km),[1] made up of two lengths of navigable river linked by a canal. The name is used to refer to the entire length of the navigation rather than solely to the central canal section. From Bristol to Bath the waterway follows the natural course of the River Avon before the canal links it to the River Kennet at Newbury, and from there to Reading on the River Thames.

The Kennet and Avon Canal – Wikipedia

I’ve spent time with both the the River Kennet and the Bristol Avon as part of my Queer River research, and I walk along the stretches of the canal that are local to me, with my dog or my family. Like others I use the canal for leisure purposes, but I’ve never been that interested in its history. Industrial heritage has never really been my thing, the history of railways and canals has always felt like the preserve of the straight male enthusiast, and so seemingly not for me.

Map of the Kennet and Avon Canal (in red), connecting the Bristol Avon to the Rivers Kennet and Thames

My research into the Clyde however, during the Queer River, Wet Land project in Glasgow, was very much about its industrial heritage, and residencies I’ve carried out at nature reserves in the past, such as College Lake near Tring, have sought to explore the interconnected threads of ecology and industry (the site was previously a large chalk quarry used in the creation of the M1 and Heathrow). So, before Andy came down to Wiltshire, I started to look into when the canal was constructed, the kind of freight that it carried, etc.

‘In the late 1780’s canal mania swept Britain, and on 16th April 1788 a meeting of interested parties at the town of Hungerford, under the chairmanship of Charles Dundas the MP for Berkshire, concluded that a junction between the Kennet and Avon rivers would be of material benefit. As a consequence the then named Western Canal Project was born…

For thirty years traffic on the canal grew and grew, with annual receipts between 1824 and 1839 for example in excess of £42,000…. However as soon as the Great Western Railway started operating from London to Bristol in 1841, the competition started affecting canal trade. Ironically much of the canal company’s profit in the late 1830’s, came from transporting those self same materials that were used to build the railway.

As a consequence of railway nationalisation in 1948, the K&A came under the management of the Railway Executive and later under the Docks and Inland Waterways Executive (DIWE)However from the early 1950’s the DIWE effected a number of closures for repairs, and this made trading more and more difficult. …in 1955 the Transport Commission went to Parliament to close the canal.’

Kennet and Avon Canal Trust

Caen Hill Locks before restoration (c1950) – The Canal and River Trust

The canal was eventually restored by enthusiasts in the 1970s and 1980s, and now is used by people holidaying on boats, walking, cycling and fishing. It has changed from what was effectively an industrial highway, connecting Bristol to London and avoiding a sea route by ship (which was more vulnerable to attack and piracy), to somewhere people go to exercise and relax.

Connections to Slavery

While researching info to send to Andy ahead of our walk, I started to uncover snippets of information about the relationship between the canal and the transatlantic slave trade. Bristol played a key role in the trade and processing of goods from Carribean and North American slave plantations, and the canal provided a route to transport some of these, including tobacco, to London.

‘The hub of Britain’s trade with America was to be found in the slave-plantation colonies of the West Indies and the southern mainland, whose sugar, rum, coffee, tobacco, and rice made up 80 per cent of England’s American imports by 1775… in the eighteenth century, Bristol was an important processing centre for tobacco imported from plantations… The opening of the Kennet and Avon Canal in 1810 allowed a faster route for tobacco between Bristol and London.’

Jodie Matthews, Canals and Transatlantic Slavery

After learning about UK canals’ wider relationship to slavery, I shifted my focus to Devizes in the same time period, and found out about George Watson-Taylor.

George Watson-Taylor, (1771 – 6 Jun 1841), of Saul’s River, Jamaica, was the fourth son of George Watson. From 1810 he was the husband of Anna Susana Taylor, the daughter of Jamaican planter Sir John Taylor Suffixing his name with that of his wife’s family, he would become the richest planter on Jamaica. He used the proceeds to purchase a house on Cavendish Square, Middlesex and Erlestoke Park, near Devizes, Wiltshire, becoming the Liberal MP for Devizes, an ardent campaigner for the retention of slavery, and a renowned fine art collector..’

‘Study for Patrons and Lovers of Art’ by Pieter Christoffel Wonder
(George Watson-Taylor – left)

Although I’ve found no direct links between Watson-Taylor and the canal, he was MP of Devizes in an era when the trade that the canal brought to the town would have contributed to its prosperity, alongside local industries such as textiles manufacturing and brewing . He benefiited hugely from the slave trade, and actively campaigned against its abolition. He owned an estate nearby at Erlestoke Park, where I’ve walked through the woods and along the side of a lake, that was created from a dammed stream as part of his landscaped parkland.

He was a well-known patron of the arts and a published poet, a rich and influential man with roles in government, who also hosted royalty at his Wiltshire estate. A prime example of how individuals could benefit both financially and in terms of social status, though their involvement in the slave trade, his lavish spending eventually saw him fall into debt (owing the equivalent of £38 million in today’s money). After initially leaving Wiltshire for Holland, he died in Andy’s part of the world, Edinburgh, in 1841.

Mr. Watson Taylor was surrounded by a degree of splendour, which it has been well said, might have excited the envy of royalty itself, his mind was scarcely for a moment at ease – he appeared to have an insatiable thirst for something he did not possess … He could not for a moment have thought of the money he was expending…

Devizes Gazette, 1832

Printed research to share with Andy
Queerness and Colonialism

If you’re wondering what all this has to do with Queer perspectives, it might be useful to have a read of my earlier post ‘Why Queer?‘. Looking at a canal, river or other watery environment from a Queer perspective isn’t just about my sexuality or gender orientation, it’s also about allowing different voices and histories to be seen and heard, whether that’s those of my collaborators, or others whose lives are innextricably linked with that place’s history.

I’m not black, and I’m not a historian, but that doesn’t mean that the slave trade shoudn’t be an important thread in my research, as I come to know the K&A in new ways.

To most, the word queer is inextricably tied to notions of sexuality that stray from (or oppose) heteronormativity. However, queerness in many realms of black liberation theory is rather equated with otherness. For example, disability may be considered a form of queerness as it strays from normative views of a “good” body. Since blackness has historically existed in the margins of American society, it essentially becomes synonymous with queerness from a theoretical standpoint.

Dr. Sophie Bjork-James, Assistant Prof of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University

The relationship between colonialism and queerness is a rich and complex subject. I’ve written before about climate justice and the impact of homophobic attitudes/laws in countries such as Jamaica on the lives of LGBTQ+ people. These attitudes, in the Caribbean at least, may stem partly from the sexual abuse of enslaved black men, sometimes called Buck-Breaking, the rape of male slaves by white ‘masters’.

A new perspective on the Quakers Meeting House, venue for my and my husband’s adoption preparation course.

One last key factor in choosing the focus of this research was my son’s Jamaican heritage. I want to do all I can to understand the experiences of his ancestors, including how their enslavement contributed to the wealth and cultural heritage of our local area, and how it informs our experiences of living here now, as a queer, multi-racial family.

Our Walk

On the day of our walk together, I collected Andy from where he was staying. We parked at Devizes Wharf, to start a walk that would see us following the canal towpath out from the centre of Devizes, and downhill past the the Caen Hill locks, ‘one of the longest continuous flight of locks in the country – a total of 29 locks with a rise of 237 feet over 2 miles‘ (The Canal and River Trust).

I brought with me print outs of some of the documents and webpages that I had used for my research, together with crayons to make rubbings onto them, pens/pencils to write and draw with, and small sample pots for anything that we wanted to collect. After our distanced, digital walk, I wanted for us to be able to respond to and record the physicality of the canal infastructure, incuding the cast iron, wood and brick, layered over printed passages on the canal’s colonial links.

Andy’s Reflections

Having walked together(ish) digitally along the Water of Leith and the River Avon a few weeks before, encountering James face-to-face in Devizes felt like meeting an old pen-pal in the flesh. We were both taken aback by each other’s height and remarked upon how strange and reaffirming it was to encounter one another as physical entities and not just avatars floating on a screen.

We set about walking and chatted about the histories of the buildings along the canal at Devizes. We’d both read the Canal & River Trust’s ‘Canals & Transatlantic Slavery’ report, so this was a springboard for our initial conversations. Having spoken about the challenging legacies of whaling in the context of Leith and the murkiness of tracing the material production of contemporary digital technological devices, a canal seemed like a challenge to further lean into the cultural geographies of the UK’s contemporary waterscapes and to examine some of the hidden channels that connected our river journey to the lives and histories (human and non-human) of those who constructed the canal, and those for who the canal was constructed.

James kindly brought along some arts materials and sampling bottles for us to experiment with the materiality of our shared queer river walk and to see how creative practices could reaffirm or ease the tensions we found when trying to mesh together our digital walks. The challenges of representational methods of creative practices continued to make me feel as uneasy as they had a few weeks earlier.

I really struggled with trying to translate our conversations, which were darting and spreading minute by minute, along with the breeze, the water, the boats, the smells, the sounds, the passers-by, and the sheer depth of the histories that were cemented into the stonework, and which continued to channel the waters and their supported ecologies from lock to lock. We took rubbings and other mimetic transfers of our surroundings: the rain on the paper, a Devizes bramble smudged over a text reciting histories of slavery and canal industry, and a doodle copying the movement of a cracked paving slab on top of a portrait of a renowned canal industrialist.

We chatted in between my failed attempts and discussed the idea of capital, colonialism, commons and trespass. We considered what queer trespass looks like and how trespassing in spaces, like queer transgression, can feel relative to each person. We spoke about queerness and our shared feeling that our sensitivities towards the more-than-human composes a defining feature of our queer identities. We discussed queer parenting, river justice, climate justice, eco-anxiety, Black Lives Matter, and trying to reconcile the landscapes of colonialism and climate breakdown. We talked about changing identities – from online to in situ – and the commodification of community-building.

And before I knew it, we’d hugged goodbye and I was on a train from Pewsey (having accidentally nabbed James’ stationery – sorry again!). I returned home and stared at the notes that I’d made on our walk of interesting things that James had said and held on to his scavenger methodology – “I gather and later on, hopefully it’ll all make sense” and “offer up your paper to the flies”. I looked at what I’d gathered and instead of wanting to stitch them nicely into something quaintly retrospective, I wanted to continue with our playful experiment with joining our river walks and to take them to the non-human.

Andy under the road

I took some paper with the rubbings I’d collected from Devizes – some water-stained from the Devizes rain and others coloured with Devizes bramble-juice – and placed them in the three sample containers that James had shared. I walked to Leith and drew up some water for each sample, including a Leith bramble, a reed and a leaf. Like little worlds, these sample tubes bring together the material traces of different lives and histories and mesh these in watery ways – the brambles running into each other and James’ words suspended in the Leith water, resting beside a Leith reed.

In a somewhat queer way, I enjoy that the sampled materials will continue to change past recognition as the materials breakdown within the tubes. They also feel like a souvenir of a moving experiment in relating with James and with the waterscapes. However, like canals and digital technologies, I’m now considering the plastic tubes, their production, and the murky obfuscations that continue to lurk in the background of these Leith/Devizes/Andy/James samples. I take a picture to send to James.

Andy’s samples screenshot
What Next for Queer River? (back to James)

My time with Andy has been so rich, and our conversations so open, that I’ve been left with multiple questions about my practice (in a very good way). I’m also grateful to Andy for his kindness and generosity in coming to Wiltshire to walk with me.

A few days after we walked along the canal, Andy also interviewed me online for his own research. I find being interviewed about my practice a really useful process, as it helps me to stop, and to reflect in a different way.

Here’s a few questions that I’ve chosen to spend some more time with…

  • How else might I explore the relationship between the embodied experience of a watery landscape and the digital media which I use to record and share that experience with others?
  • What aspects of our contemporary communication systems are hidden to me now, just as some of the history of the canal system was – the extraction of metals for phones and computers for example – or the energy use of internet servers/clouds (I hardly know what language to use to describe them, it’s something I take so much for granted, and yet understand so little).
  • And the one that has struck me most personally, is Queer River a means of queer community building? Am I, as I heard myself telling Andy in the interview, building a community one walk at a time?

Queerness and colonialism is a subject that I’ll be returning to in future posts. I’d be grateful for recommendations of reading/viewing of relevant content by black authors/makers in the comments. Thank you.

Published by James Aldridge

Visual Artist and Consultant, working and playing with people and places. Based in Wiltshire, UK

4 thoughts on “Hidden Histories: Walking the Kennet and Avon Canal with Andy Marks

  1. Ah, I love your work and questions so much! I walk on the K&A every day and ponder similar thoughts.

    As I was reading your article I was thinking of an author whose work I love and, since you asked for book recommendations, thought I’d send this along. It’s a bit of a tangent/tributary but I love Alexis Pauline Gumbs https://www.alexispauline.com/books, queer, Black feminist. Her book Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals https://www.akpress.org/undrowned.html is gorgeous! She has so many other (queer) projects too. Thanks for your beautiful work, I love the intersection of the nature/art/queer (nature is SO queer!!!)/decolonising.

    Penny Fellbrich, MFT pronouns: she/her/hers http://www.PennyFellbrich.com


    1. Penny, thanks so much for your feedback and for the book recommendation too – Undrowned sounds fascinating and I’ll certainly be following that up, and looking into Alexis Pauline’s work in more depth.


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