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.

Chalkstream Drawings, from Wiltshire to Norfolk

I was on holiday in North Norfolk last week with my family. While there I learned about the Red Chalk visible in the cliffs at Hunstanton, and the River Hun, a short chalkstream of only 6km that runs from Hunstanton to enter the sea at Holme, just along the coast.

Walking from Hunstanton, past Old Hunstanton towards Holme, I started to notice channels of fresh water cutting through the sand dunes as the Hun made its way along behind them and opened out into The Wash. Spending a few hours exploring the beach and swimming in the sea with my son and dog, I gathered together a few finds from the high tideline, including a massive old mussel shell and a holey whelk shell, to take home to Wiltshire.

Once home I decided to draw/paint them using the ink I’ve been making from plant material that I’ve collected near my own chalkstream, the Salisbury Avon (near its headwaters in the Vale of Pewsey). Having made Dock Seed, Ragwort Flower and Black Walnut ink recently, I collected acorns with my husband on our first walk back in Wiltshire, and used them to make a new dark grey ink, together with some rust from an old trough.

I enjoyed the sense of bringing the two chalkstreams together, through my noticing and my drawing, physical acts that reminded me of a map of chalkstreams in the UK shared by Tim Sykes, which shows a band of chalk spreading upwards from the South West to East Anglia and above (map included at end of post).

You can see another recent Queer River drawing made using homemade inks, in my previous post Walking with… Researcher Andy Marks.

Thanks to Tim Sykes for this map

Blue Health with Wessex Archaeology: The Ripple Effect

‘The first six sessions of The Ripple Effect, Wessex Archaeology’s community building initiative with the Environment Agency, took place during June and July 2022. Each week we met at the Five Rivers Health and Wellbeing Centre on the banks of the River Avon in Salisbury, to talk about our plans for that week’s session, record in our project sketchbooks what we remembered about the previous week and walk out along the river to take part in creative activities or hear from invited experts….’

Ripple Effect Project Session

Follow the link to continue reading Blue Health with Wessex Archaeology: The Ripple Effect, an update on this Salisbury based art/ecology/archaeology project, written by me for the Wessex Archaeology website, including a short film by Wessex Archaeology Viedeographer Tom Westhead.

(Featured images at top: Tom Westhead)

Walking with… Researcher Andy Marks

Last week I went on a walk with Andy Marks, Doctoral Researcher with the University of Edinburgh:

‘Andrew (Andy) is a part-time PhD candidate at the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, University of Edinburgh. Andy’s doctoral research investigates community-building and activism in response to the environmental crisis, with a particular focus on gender and sexual minority groups in the UK.’

Andy had got in contact to find out more about my Queer River reserch, and after getting talking we decided to try walking together at a distance, Andy along the Water of Leith, from Leith towards Edinburgh, and me along my local river the River Avon, on a new stretch to me from the village of Pewsey, heading South.

Some of the images we shared via WhatsApp

Before walking together we shared writing that we had each written, relating to Queer Ecologies, and to Andy’s research on Queer community building and the commons, including digital approaches to building community in a time of Covid.

We planned to start and end our walk together with a Zoom conversation on our phones, and in between to share what we each noticed using sound recordings, photos and video sent via WhatsApp. I also suggested to Andy that we use drawing to record our experiences. Andy and I both draw on backgrounds in the arts and the environment, though having followed different paths through education that draw these threads together.

‘Prior to beginning his PhD, Andy received his Bachelor of Arts degree in History of Art from the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, and a Master of Science degree in Environment, Culture and Society from the School of Geosciences, University of Edinburgh.’

On the day the signal/4G my end was next to zero, and so the planned introductory conversation via Zoom turned into a series of snatched and garbled mini converstions as I walked out of the village to try and get some signal, and Andy kept trying to reach me by phone, only to hear some strange robotic voice in reply. In the end we gave up on Zoom and started to walk, draw, take photos and rely on WhatsApp to share what we each experienced by ‘our’ river. Often my photos and video didn’t send, the buffering arrow circling round and round and then sometimes sending later, out of sync to the rest of the thread.

That’s not to say it wasn’t a success, just to describe how it worked, and how the planned structure shifted according to the dips and rises in the land, and the associated strength or weakness of signal. We had talked before our walk about the relationship between urban and rural spaces, about the impact of industry on both, and how our walk/conversation could bring the two places together.

One thing I have started to do since our walk, is to reflect on the process of walking remotely/digitally along two rivers through drawing, and I’ve included the first of these above. A whale and an eel drawn in pencil and homemade botanical inks from plants that grow near my local stretch of the Avon (Walnut, Ragwort and Dock Seed inks). The whale represents Andy’s walk/river/learning, and the eel my own. As we walked Andy was joining pieces of existing knowledge about Leith’s history together, with a realisation of the role of whaling in creating local wealth and industry, sparked by encountering a large harpoon gun on the riverside. In turn, I have been learning about migratory fish including eels and the barriers that they face in the Avon and elsewhere.

Included below is a piece of video that I’ve edited together using some of the material from our walk, it’s pretty rough and quite fragmented, and thats what I wanted, to echo the nature of our communication as we walked, Andy along the urban fringed Water of Leith, and me walking across sun dried fields to gain glimpses of the lush Avon.

Under the video are Andy’s reflections in his own words. We are meeting in real life in September to walk together along a single river, and between now and then I’m going to be spending more time reflecting on the relationship between my own practice-led research and the digital.

Talking and walking with Andy has sparked so many thoughts and questions, that I’m not able to include them all here, questions about where the physical ends and the virtual/digital begins and how this relates to knowing rivers in a time of crisis.

Does the virtual even exist or does the very naming of something as virtual deny its physicality, its materiality and its impact on us and wider ecosystems? What does the commons look like when it’s facilitated/enabled through digital communication? These are new areas of focus for me, but something that Andy has been exploring for some time. Thanks again to Andy for taking the time to walk, be playful and to share his own reflections in writing.

“Online and hybrid online/offline worlds offer a range of ways in which the digital is helping queer the notion of ecologies, offering new configurations of human/nonhuman interaction”

The Queer Life of Things: Performance, Affect, and the More-Than-Human – Anne M. Harris and Stacey Holman Jones.

The sound waves were completely distorted when James picked up the phone for our digital Queer River Walk. Cracking and leaping in pitch, only a few words were decipherable before ‘re-connecting…’

“Hello shall we use WhatsApp for now and then chat on zoom later as I don’t think it’s going to work here?”, James messaged. “Sure thing”, I said, and we began our river walks.

I have walked down the Water of Leith many times. Leith is my home and the Water of Leith is central to its landscape and history. Not only was it close to home, but the Water of Leith and I had a queer (in an LGBT+ sense) introduction. I first knowingly connected with the Water on a date with a guy from Edinburgh. We took a romantic walk down from the West End along its banks to the Shore. Since that date, I have walked down the Water of Leith more times than I can count with my partner. My partner (a different person from the aforementioned date, I should note) and I regularly walk down it and enjoy the variety of places and spaces that it traverses and shapes. Whilst my experiences along the river have, I guess, been queer in some way – in the sense that I’m queer and most of the people that I walked down the river have been queer – my relationship with the Water of Leith itself has felt pretty normative. I’ve cycled alongside its paths to meet friends and I’ve taken walks with the dog for a pleasant break from urban living.

And yet, when I began the walk with(out) James, the Water of Leith felt new, under-investigated and almost playful – a whole arena for queer experimentation. For one, I have never been on a river walk solely with the intention of describing it to somebody who was not physically there, let alone someone that I haven’t met face-to-face. James’ absence, and the inability to videocall for the majority of our shared digital walk, meant that I would have to be far more attuned with the river and its surrounding landscape in order to try to communicate my experience of the place. Every image, voice recording, and personal anecdote felt far more important than they would if we were walking side by side. James had no other way of learning about this place. He was unable to experience this landscape independent of my body and the digital technologies that I was using – what it felt like to go through, with and by the Water of Leith. I felt a bit like his avatar and he mine. In order to connect the Water of Leith with James, I really had to connect with the Water of Leith – I felt like a strange intermediary in my own walk, like a kind of human modem.

Another reason for the Water of Leith’s sudden novelty was the curious playfulness that the walk encouraged. It’s hard and awkward to describe what it’s like to walk down a river ‘on your own’ whilst trying to record your experience for someone else. Even more so whilst they are also sharing the same hybrid journey from their route. It became increasingly exciting to record and share things for James. Each message like a new gift to a stranger who I was walking with, but not with. James was in my phone, but also somewhere out there. Any technological malfunction or loss of signal was not a barrier to our walk, but a simply fun twist to move with and see what happened on the other side.

James’ phantom presence also made me feel a little braver. I’ve always wanted to go in the river, but always felt a little too shy. However, as I’m sure anyone who has been to the river would know, the concrete banks and urban surroundings don’t cry out ‘step inside, you’re in nature now’. But something glitched and James’ pictures of Pewsey, with its lush banks and isolation made me feel somewhere between Leith and there, why shouldn’t I put my feet in just for a few seconds?

When I put my feet into the water, I was excited to connect with the water course in a different, more intimate way than I have done before. I was also excited to document the experience and to send it almost immediately to James – to say ‘Look! James, I’m in the water! What are you doing with yours?’. I found myself looking through my phone’s camera and visually experiencing the act through what I would then send to James, frustrated that he would not feel my feet or smell the dusty, salty summer breeze. A dog interrupted and came to say hello to the strange person who was paddling in the water. The owner, slightly wary of my solitary escapades in the water, called the dog back quickly with a confused smile. I felt very alone in that second, but also wanted to tell James in a drawing about what had happened.

The walk was short, but rich in communication – in relating. It was a fun experiment in queering the binaries between collaborative experiences that are either in situ or remote. There was nothing ‘unreal’ about our meshed walk – we were, in many ways, intimately walking alongside one another IRL (in real life) and relating with the landscapes that we ambled through; however, we were also evidently very distant – I couldn’t (for the most part) feel the dry grass that James walked through, but only know a less directly relational imprint of that landscape, a phantom. But I definitely felt like we were walking in two places at one time using digital technologies. Two queers, two phones, two rivers and a very queer river walk.

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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