Swimming with the River

My first post for a while, it could have easily had a different name. Following the format of other posts I was planning on ‘Swimming with… Margaret Gearty’ or ‘Swimming in the River with Margaret Gearty’. But after my swim in the River Frome with Margaret, I was left with a realisation that we weren’t really swimming in the River but were swimming with it, two of the countless elements flowing together.

Margaret swimming

I first met Margaret through my friend and collaborator Chris Seeley and workshops that I ran with her at Ashridge College, exploring with PhD/Masters students the role of arts processes in action research, in particular the way that such processes can bring awareness of embodied experiences, and our relationship with place.

‘Margaret Gearty is an action researcher, consultant and educator whose work and passion is all about how the simple human matter of storytelling can be combined with reflective and participative action research to stimulate important learning and change for individuals, communities and organisations.’

New Histories website

Since then Margaret and I have become friends, meeting from time to time to share our practices and passions, including Margaret’s ongoing research into Poetic Activism. Margaret has recently written a blog post called Poetic Moments which, she writes, draws on ‘… my experiences of river swimming, I explore the poetic as it arises in my life. This piece invites you to consider what the ‘poetic’ is for you too.’

I approached Margaret to walk or otherwise spend some time with me and a river of her choice, as part of my Queer River research. She invited me to swim at Farleigh Hungerford in/with the River Frome. The River Frome that we visited rises to the south of the town of Frome and travels north on its way to join the Bristol Avon at Freshford, a different section of the same river that I walked along with Joe Jukes (see Walking with… Queer Geographer Joe Jukes).

As I wrote in Crossing Points – Views from a Bike and Wetlands and Wellbeing: Queer Perspectives on Blue Health, I’m keen to explore how different ways of experiencing rivers (whether by walking, cycling, canoeing or swimming) can affect our perspective on and understanding of them, This post just begins to share the learning that comes from swimming with a river, I’m planning on following it up with more river swimming again soon.

Included here are some of the photos and videos that I took as I swam with a tiny waterproof camera around my neck, before climbing out, drying off and eating a picnic together in the sunshine. The words that we used as we reflected on our swim, and swimming with rivers in general, seemed really difficult to find. The experience of swimming in that stretch of the River Frome, was to me, one of letting go of existing ideas/experiences, and allowing new ones to take their place.

Trying to make sense of it now in this blog, the mental images feel slow and shadowy and my existing language doesn’t quite fit. I’m keen not to force my experience into an artificially precise form. For now at least, the blurry, drippy images and the sensations they evoke, seem a better fit. Sensations that opened me up to an awareness of being part of a larger whole, one river body among many.

‘In opening up to our droughts, seepages and inundations, that are also animal and elemental, we are reminded that our humanness is alsways more than the bonds of our skin. By tuning into these bodily molecularities as lived, we might also attune ourselves empathically, to other bodies of water beyond us… we could say that in these molecularities, we tune into an original elemental empathy that is always there, swimming beneath the surface.’

Bodies of Water – Astrid Neimanis

Plant stem details

The key feeling I have taken away from our swim, was that I was experiencing myself as one of the elements that makes up a river. I wasn’t looking down on it (at the water) from a bridge, I wasn’t walking alongside it (the water and bankside vegetation) either. Damselflies were fluttering inches away from my face, my arms and legs were working hard to keep me afloat, my toes were reaching out to find solid ground when I grew tired, and if lucky either found rough stone, soft smooth silt or branching roots. Whether I could reach anything with my toes at all was always an unknown, as the green/brown water kept its depth and its contents a secret from my eyes.

Looking up at the banks

The bankside vegetation started around the level of my face and continued far up above me, from Yellow Waterlilies to Purple Loosestrife and tall Alder trees. A Moorhen family stood on floating iris stems and watched me struggle by, less fit than I thought I was, and no threat to them in their home environment. I was enveloped, surrounded, immersed, and after a busy few weeks of work and the frienzied end of term at my son’s primary school, my mind felt washed clean.

‘It is one of those rare moments when my usual restlessness leaves me. In other parts of my life, I often wonder if I’m in the right place, doing the right thing. It’s an anxious uneasy feeling. That I must strive to get on. That there may just be a more important elsewhere I need to be. But here, in the river, such questions are stilled..’

Margaret Gearty – Poetic Moments

Thank you Margaret. More again soon I hope…

Wetlands and Wellbeing: Queer Perspectives on Blue Health

I’ve recently been in contact with Helena Russo, Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Lead at British Canoeing. Helena got in touch after a colleague heard about Queer River through my piece in Nick Hayes’ most recent book The Trespassers Companion.

Helena’s colleagues at British Canoeing are themselves involved in work around river access (see this recent piece Canoeists Make Waves About Right to Paddle in English Rivers in The Guardian), and river custodianship (see here on work addressing invasive non-native species).

James in the River Avon at Salisbury (photo: Leigh Chalmers)

Talking to Helena, and gathering together research on wellbeing and wetlands ahead of my work on The Ripple Effect project, led me to thinking that a new Queer River blog post might be helpful, which looked more specifically at the links between the following themes:

1. The importance of enabling and sharing a diverse range of experiences of/perspectives on rivers and other wetlands, whilst considering the barriers that exist to such equality of access

2. The impact that access to rivers has/would have, on the wellbeing of the individuals concerned and that of the rivers themselves, should such access be enabled.

The themes of this post, will hopefully help people reading the blog to better understand how the different elements of Queer River relate, as well as helping me to focus my thinking as the project moves forward.

Drawing with Alder Cone ink. Cones gathered from a tree by the River Avon

Yes, there are multiple threads running through my Queer River research (I’m also currently researching the impact of the changing climate on UK wetlands birds for example), but they can all be traced back to this central focus; the importance of coming to know and care about rivers, if we are to restore them to health, and receive the benefits of a healthy ecosystem in return. People of all identities and backgrounds need to (and have a right to) be brought into relationship with rivers, through methods which engage our bodies and our creativity.

The ways that we come to know a river depend on our relationship with the world, which in turn is informed by our identity (sexuality, gender, disability, ethnicity), our previous experiences (whether welcoming and enjoyable, threatening or excluding), the roles we play in everyday life (archaeologist, ecologist, artist), and also the means by which we access the river (through walking, by bike or by canoe).

Our son swimming in the River Usk at Crickhowell

Individual wellbeing and ecological wellbeing are inextricably linked. Through coming to know a river, and being moved by that experience, our awareness of the importance of rivers and their health is increased, with positive knock on effects for our behaviour towards them. If we are unable to access rivers and other wetlands, because of physical or cultural/attitudinal barriers, then we are unable to experience the benefits to our wellbeing, and unable to gain the knowledge that enables us to care for them in return.

I’ve never paddled a canoe, although that’s something I’m hoping to change soon, in order to gain the perspective that paddling along my local waterways might bring. I had made some assumptions that canoe clubs might not be a comfortable space for me to enter as a queer man, that it would all be a bit macho and competitive, and that’s not uncommon for queer people in a sports context.

One in ten LGBT people (10 per cent) who attended a live sporting event in the UK in the last year experienced discrimination because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, and 66 per cent of lesbian, gay, bi and trans people felt that there were problems with homophobia and transphobia in sport and that this acted as a barrier to LGBT people taking part’

Stonewall – LGBTQ+ Facts and Figures

Riverside walk interrupted – River Avon near Pewsey, Wiltshire

I’ve also had to change my initial plans to walk the length of my local river, the Salisbury or Hampshire Avon, when I found that very little of it is accessible to the public, because of private ownership and management for fishing.

‘In England and Wales less than 4% of the 41,000 miles (68,000km) of rivers have public access. That figure drops to 2% if smaller watercourses less than 3m (10ft) wide are taken into account.’

The Fight for England’s Rivers – www.bbc.co.uk

When researching Blue Health, I came across some inspiring work that The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust have been carrying out at Steart Marshes on the Severn Estuary over the last few years. Work at Steart has combined habitat creation, flood mitigation and blue prescribing, with related blue prescribing projects taking place at Slimbridge and The London Wetland Centre. Blue Health is a key interest of mine, which I touched on in the Walking with… Artist and Researcher Catherne Lamont-Robinson post, and hope to return to explore in more depth with Catherine and others in the future.

‘We conducted pilots with individuals diagnosed with anxiety or depression at the WWT Slimbridge centre. Participants took part in a two-hour session per week for six consecutive weeks, in which they went bird-watching, tried bird feeding, had a canoe safari, estuary walk and picnicParticipants said that the wetland site provided a sense of escape from everyday environments, helping them relax and feel less stressed. As a result our findings showed significant improvements in mental health across a range of indicators, including mental wellbeing, anxiety, stress and emotional wellbeing.’

WWT website – Blue Prescribing Project

Sewage Pumping Station by the River Avon at Patney, Wiltshire

This recognition of the reciprocity of human/ecological wellbeing displayed in the work carried out at Steart Marshes, is something that I keep returning to in my own work, and which will be at the heart of The Ripple Effect with Wessex Archaeology and The Environment Agency.

“This year sees the start of the Environment Agency’s approved scheme, The River Park project… which will reduce flood risk within Salisbury whilst creating wildlife corridors and improving biodiversity by connecting green spaces. Wessex Archaeology have worked closely with the Environment Agency team and local artist James Aldridge to create The Ripple Effect… This project is designed to improve people’s wellbeing through positive engagement with the local environment, the community and each other. There will be engagement with people across all generations through walks, workshops, creative moments, and shared experiences.”

Leigh Chalmers – Wessex Archaeology Heritage Inclusion Development Specialist

Untitled – drawing on paper

The value of queer perspectives is something I’ve explored a lot in previous writing/presentations, including A Queer Path to Wellbeing – a piece that I wrote for Climate Cultures – and this video recording of a discussion on the Queer River themes, Talking with… Mark Leahy and Art dot Earth. I’ve also written before about climate justice, and the unequal impact that climate breakdown is having/will have on LGBTQi+ people (as well as disabled people and people of colour).

Mental ill health also disproportionately affects members of the LGBTQi+ community. Statistically, LGBTQi+ people experience a higher levels of anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. Taking a look at Stonewall’s LGBTQ+ Facts and Figures , and the prejudice that queer people continue to experience in everyday life reminds us why:

42% of LGBT+ school pupils in the UK have been bullied in the past year, double the number of non-LGBT+ pupils (21%) (and) Two-thirds (64%) of LGBTQ+ people in the UK have experienced anti-LGBT+ violence or abuse...’

Rubbish caught in a grille o the River Frome

My methodology in the Queer River project, the walking, talking and making with others, itself has a therapeutic benefit, certainly for me and hopefully for those I walk with too. It’s one of the key reasons I started the project. I’m a kind of guinea pig. My own experiences help me to learn about the role of art in blue health, and to trial ways of working that can then be translated into participatory contexts – in education and the community.

I hope that this post is enough to set my Queer River research in a more specific context, and by doing so, that my learning can be shared more widely. The context is an intersecting one, of access, wellbeing (individual and ecological) and wetlands. One within which organisations such as British Canoeing, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and Wessex Archaeology, are active, and working to develop models of good practice.

Langford Lakes Reserve – Wiltshire Wildlife Trust

‘We can all learn about ourselves – what we like, who we are, how we relate to the bigger picture of life – by immersing ourselves in natural systems. This allows us all to blur the boundaries between ourselves and the rest of nature, to experience ourselves as part of… everything that is. It’s healthy for us as individuals, and it’s what the wider world needs from us too.’

James Aldridge in The Trespasser’s Companion by Nick Hayes

If you would like to share your own examples of organisations and communities engaging with rivers to enhance river and participant wellbeing, particularly (but not only) if you’re exploring the experiences of LGBTQi+ people or the role of art, please do get in touch.


This June, British Canoeing’s cleaner rivers initiative, The Big Paddle Clean Up, encourages river users to get involved in cleaning up their local river:

We want everyone to have access to blue spaces and enjoy the many benefits of being out on the water. But our waterways are in crisis from plastic pollution. As paddlers, we can make a real difference to our blue spaces as we can access those hard to reach places and remove plastic from our waterways.’

Running from 4th to 12th June, you can find out more about how to get involved here on the British Canoeing website.


On a related subject, I was recently commissioned by Wessex Archaeology to contribute to their new Heritage Feel Good pack, launched during Mental Health Awareness Week:

the Wessex Archaeology Heritage Feel Good Pack sees us using heritage, archaeology and place as the ingredients for the activities within the pack.

My Following the Water activity pages are designed to support people to map the movement of water through their homes and beyond.

You can download the Heritage Feel Good Pack here.

The Ripple Effect with Wessex Archaeology

Next month sees me beginning an exciting new river based project in Salisbury with Wessex Archaeology. The Ripple Effect (#RippleEffectSalisbury) links with the Salisbury River Park project, and although not specifically a part of Queer River, will be informed by and inform my ongoing Queer River research.

The Salisbury River Park Project responds to the increased flood risk to Salisbury city centre from climate breakdown (see the image below for areas currently at risk – https://flood-map-for-planning.service.gov.uk/), as well as the need to improve riverside habitats for wildlife and improve access to the river for local people and visitors to the city.

Salisbury City Centre

I have worked with Wessex Archaeology’s Leigh Chalmers, Heritage Inclusion Development Specialist to inform the development of The Ripple Effect, and Leigh and I have spent time with Andy Wallis, Salisbury River Park Project Lead for The Environment Agency, in order to understand the changes that are being made to the river corridor.

The river in question is the Salisbury or Hampshire Avon, which is also a primary focus of my Queer River research, and whose headwaters pass close to my village in the Vale of Pewsey, Wiltshire.

I’ve spent quite a while walking with the River (see previous posts on that here) and with others who live or work near/on it, and am really looking forward to sharing and developing my knowledge alongside Leigh, Wessex Archaeology experts (including the subject of my first Queer River post, Marine Archaelogist Dr Claire Mellett) and project participants.

River Avon at Patney

Here’s a short description of the Ripple Effect project from the Wessex Archaeology website:

Wessex Archaeology’s Heritage Inclusion specialists will be working alongside local artist James Aldridge to tell the story of Salisbury’s relationship with the River Avon over time, through people, place, and purpose. ‘The Ripple Effect’ project is designed to improve people’s wellbeing through positive engagement with the local environment, the community and each other. With the launch of ‘The Ripple Effect’ the Salisbury River Park project will be able to engage people across all generations through walks, workshops, creative moments and shared experiences.

In addition to the directly human dimension, our experts will help bring these workshops to the next level by shedding light on what archaeology can tell us about the ecology and environment of the Salisbury River Park area in the past, and how the biodiversity improvements the scheme will deliver help to re-establish aspects of these past ecosystems and ensure the city’s wildlife population continues to thrive in future.’

See here for the full post on The Ripple Effect from Wessex Archaelogy.

I’m particularly interested, at this stage, to see how the changes that are made to this city centre river, combine flood mitigation, habitat improvement and riverside access for people. It’s a subject that is close to my heart and one that I explored with my Queer River Wet Land. collaborators in Glasgow, as we walked together along the Kelvin and the Clyde, in the lead up to COP26.

River Park Project works in progress – April 2022

Leigh and I are also working together on the Well City Salisbury project this Spring. Although the projects will focus on different areas of the city, and work with different sections of the community, it will be fascinating to see the crossover between them, with both using art as a way to engage with and map experiences of place and benefit wellbeing (The Ripple Effect will start slightly later than Well City and take place over two years).

Of course, the Salisbury Avon is also a chalkstream, which connects nicely with another project that I’m currently working on, Living by the Ash Tree Waters with Andover Trees United, through which I’m learning loads about chalkstreams, winterbournes and their relationship with local communities, supported by knowledge gained through an earlier Queer River walk with Ecologist Tim Sykes.

Leigh and I will be carrying out further research before project sessions with participants begin, and I’ll be adding more updates here as The Ripple Effect progresses, so please sign up to receive notifications if you’ve not already.

River Avon on a Roll

I walked from Lacock today along the banks of the River Avon, and took a roll of paper with me. I wanted to experiment with using a roll as a set of Walking Pages. Here’s a short video of the results, with some photos of my route and work in progress underneath.

The sound is fairly quiet so you might need to put your volume up!



Crossing Points – Views from a Bike

It’s been a while since I did much artwork relating to Queer River. I have other river related projects and project plans bubbling away, but recently my mind and my individual artwork have been preoccupied with exploring autism/neurodivergence.

Yesterday however,I got my bike fixed, and this morning I’ve been out and about, thinking about how the views we get of rivers from the road affect how we see and value them.

Looking down from next to the road

Back in 2018 I exhibited a piece of work called Heavenly Body, which recorded my experience of cycling a circular route which ‘orbited’ my home in the Vale of Pewsey. I used cyanotypes and sunlight to print images of plants that I found along the way, and stitching to attach objects that I collected and to embroider a map of my route. In the lead up to the exhibition (Art After Turner at The Willis Museum, Basingstoke) I experimented with ways to document bike rides, and started to think about how the experience of a place from a bike ride, differed to the awareness of that same place gained by walking.

In Queer River I have largely thought about rivers and other wetlands from the perspective of walking, although I still plan to explore them by swimming and canoe. With my bike newly fixed, today seemed like the perfect opportunity to use it to visit the points at which local roads meet and cross over the River Avon (the Salisbury or Hampshire Avon). My plan is that this is Part 1 of a series of such bike rides, and that other similar journeys will follow elsewhere.

On this morning’s ride I stopped in three locations, drawing in two of them and taking photos in the third (some men were doing maintenance work on/under the bridge, so I didn’t stop for long, although my interest was piqued and I’ll pop back another time to see what they were up to).

I thought about how we know that we are passing over a river – especially if we are in a car and travelling that bit faster – the signs that we might notice such as a line of vegetation along the riverbanks, or a rise in the road that we’d feel in our stomach. Some river bridges have signs indicating which river ithey are crossing,or more open barriers which offer a view of the water, but on high sided bridges we might not be sure whether we are crossing a river or railway line. Obviously travelling on a bike is much slower than a car, and more exposed to sensory information. We feel the bumps in the road more readily, and we are exposed to changes in wind direction, temperature, river-y smells and sounds.

On one bridge I stood up on the road and drew, whilst on another I left my bike and walked down the bank to sit by the river’s edge. Up above I felt self conscious, exposed to the drivers who I imagined watching me and wondering what I was up to, and conscious of not getting run over. Down below I was removed from the road noise, slightly hidden away and could see under the bridge to the light on the other side.

Up above, I looked down on the water and spotted heron footprints in the mud, the aerial view of a removed observer, whilst down below I felt robins and wrens flitting and clicking around me and watched a Mallard Drake fly down in front of me to land. It was cooler nearer the water, and the smell of the mud exposed by the low water level filled my nose. I was surrounded .

As I said before, this is the first Queer River bike ride, so it’s just a start. This morning’s experiences and the possibilities offered by bicycles for collaborative journeys and embodied, artful research will continue to swirl and connect in my brain, until I decide what happens next.

Art, Ecology and Autism

I’m reposting this blog post that I originally published on the Art, Ecology and Learning site, ahead of planned Queer River walks which will explore Neurodivergent perspectives:

James Aldridge - Art, Ecology and Learning

In case it hasn’t become clear through my recent posts Neuroqueer and Shedding Skin on the Queer River site, and Masking on here, I’ve recently discovered that I’m Autistic.

It’s been a massive thing to process. I haven’t had an official ‘diagnosis’ yet as I write this, as I wanted to write a post about my own thoughts and feelings before I deal with the ‘medicalised’ version. I’m expecting the assessment/diagnosis process (update on that at the end) to focus on disorders, delays and abnormalities, but I don’t see it that way.

So how do I see it? Well that’s a work in progress. To discover you are autistic at almost 50 is pretty mind-blowing. Looking back at your life and realising why you are the way that you are – the good bits and the more challenging times. But basically if I wasn’t autistic I wouldn’t be me, and…

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Shedding Skin

Here are some photographs that I took last summer using algae and plants from my pond. These followed on from the chalk and water experiments that I’ve written about previously.

I’m looking at these images again as I explore masking and neurodivergence (see Masking a recent post on my artist’s blog), and start to plan a thread of Queer River work/walks that focus on neurodivergent perspectives on/experiences of place (also see my previous Queer River post Neuroqueer).

Neuroqueer

I’m beginning to explore the significance of neurodivergence to me and my work. Thank you to Rachel Clive for introducing me to the phrase/concept of neuroqueer during my time in Glasgow. Here’s a few images and quotes, to gently start the ball rolling on this exploration, in the context of Queer River.

‘I coined the term neuroqueer in a paper I wrote for a grad school class in the Spring of 2008. Over the next several years, I played with it in further grad school papers, in private conversations, and in the ongoing development of my own thoughts and practices. The concept of neuroqueer, or of neuroqueering (I’ve always seen it as a verb first and an adjective second), increasingly came to inform my thinking, my embodiment, and my approach to life. …just like queer, the adjective form of neuroqueer can also serve as a label of social identity. One can neuroqueer, and one can be neuroqueer.

Nick Walker

Untitled Drawing – 2021

Neuroqueer is both an identity and an ethos, an adjective and a verb. It’s meanings are varied, but all converge around an intersection of neurodivergent theory and queer theory. In the same ways that queer theory is opposed to cisheteronormativity, neuroqueer theory appears to oppose neuronormativity (the societal forces that privilege neurotypicality over neurodivergence).

Beyond Binary Wiki

Untitled Drawing – 2021

‘The neurodiversity paradigm is a specific perspective on neurodiversity – a perspective or approach that boils down to these fundamental principles:

1.) Neurodiversity is a natural and valuable form of human diversity.

2.) The idea that there is one “normal” or “healthy” type of brain or mind, or one “right” style of neurocognitive functioning, is a culturally constructed fiction, no more valid (and no more conducive to a healthy society or to the overall well-being of humanity) than the idea that there is one “normal” or “right” ethnicity, gender, or culture.

3.) The social dynamics that manifest in regard to neurodiversity are similar to the social dynamics that manifest in regard to other forms of human diversity (e.g., diversity of ethnicity, gender, or culture). These dynamics include the dynamics of social power inequalities, and also the dynamics by which diversity, when embraced, acts as a source of creative potential.

Planet Neurodivergent

Queer River, Wet Land – Recording of Online Sharing Event

I’m glad to be able to share this recording for those of you that were unable to make the Queer River, Wet Land sharing event last month, which took place as part of The Dear Green Bothy, with The University of Glasgow,

What can queer perspectives bring to creative explorations of river health and river futures in a time of climate breakdown?

Join this special sharing event to explore the learning that has emerged from the Queer River, Wet Land collaboration, and to deepen your own creative engagement with rivers.

The Dear Green Bothy

As well as my own reflections, the event featured presentations and discussions from Professor of Performance Practice Minty Donald, artist/geographer Sage Brice, theatre practitioner Rachel Clive, and Madrid-based landscape architect Malú Cayetano.

Please follow this link for the full recording:

https://deargreenbothy.gla.ac.uk/event/queer-river-wet-land-sharing-event/

Our Animal Bodies

After spending a while focusing on other rivers and people’s experiences of them, I felt the need to spend time with my own local river again this week, the River Avon as it passes out of the Vale of Pewsey and starts heading down towards Salisbury.

I decided to focus my walk on the other animals that I’d see or find evidence of there, the river of non-human life that flows with the water. I wanted to exolore how I sense their presence through my body, as my legs carry me past them and the signs that they have left behind.

Here’s a little taste of the path I followed and what showed itself to me along the way…