Where the Avon Meets the Sea

Last week I drove down to Christchurch with my friend and colleague Leigh Chalmers from Wessex Archaeology, with whom I’ve been working on the Ripple Effect project in Salisbury. I’ve been planning on going and seeing where my river (the Salisbury or Hampshire Avon) meets the sea for ages, both to inform my Queer River work, and to start planning a visit for the Ripple Effect group later this year.

We spent some time by the rivers in Christchurch itself (where the Avon joins the Stour), visiting the Redhouse Museum near the harbour and filming some of the Mute Swans, and then moved on to Hengistbury Head and the visitor centre there, walking up to look around us and take in the bigger picture of the two rivers becoming one, flowing out past a spit of land and into the English Channel.

From Hengistbury Head we could see back down the estuary to Christchurch, across to The Needles on the Isle of Wight to the south east, and westwards along the coast to Bournemouth and Poole.

On a recent visit to the New Forest Heritage Centre Archive with the PaC (Practicing Artists Commoning) Artists’ Group, I’d spent some time looking at old maps of the local rivers and their relationship with the sea. One map that grabbed my attention was a sketch of how the rivers Avon, Stour and Solent might have looked back when the Isle of Wight was still a part of the mainland.

My time with Wessex Archaeology has helped inform my understanding of the processes that have shaped the River Avon over millions of years; its relationship with local people, the land and the sea. Research with PaC has helped fill in the gaps in my knowledge as the Avon moves down through Hampshire along the Western edge of the New Forest. My research into chalkstreams as part of Living by the Ash Tree Waters has sparked a fascination with the way that chalk, flint and other rocks were formed, and the interplay between geology and river systems.

The Heritage Centre helped provide us with so many different threads that we could take up and share with the Ripple Effect group, from the trade routes that linked the Iron Age port at Hengistbury with the Mediterranean, to the migratory bird and butterfly species that visit the area each year, the plants used in glass-making along with local sand, and the ironstones that led to quarrying in Victorian times and threatened the foundations of the Head.

I sometimes get a little self conscious about Queer River. I wonder if through working on a succession of river focused projects I’ll start to be seen as a bit of a one trick pony, but the subject of rivers is so vast, even when following the story of just one river, and the possibiities for journeys through place and time so rich, that I keep on exploring and learning.

On our walk around the Head, we stopped to play with small paper boats that I had made as part of the Well City Salisbury Earthworks 2 project, turning slowly in the breeze on dark woodland pools. Whilst at the beach I gathered a few finds (stone, metal and plastic) to add to a new boat that I’ve been building at home, woven from plants that grow in my garden (itself only half a mile or so from the beginnngs of the Avon).

I’ll be having an exhibition this Summer at Pound Arts Centre in Corsham, Wiltshire, drawing on my work with rivers, which will combine artwork made to document my Queer River journeys, with drawings and films made since, and other new pieces made specifically for the exhibition. I imagine that my woven boat and others like it wil be included in some way. I’ll add more details here as they’re confirmed.

Published by James Aldridge

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

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