Repeating a walk: November adventure from Pill down the Avon

It took me a long time to be happy with the fact that a lot of my practice involves repetition and re-visiting places to see how they look at different times.   I think part of this is doing a photography degree, where no project lasts more than 5 or 6 months, and each time it’s about doing something new.  But one of the things my final project – and even more, my post-uni life – taught me was the value of the everyday, and how re-visiting can add depth and value in ways that continually jetting off to exotic new places can’t.

When I walked from Sea Mills across the M5 motorway bridge and down the Avon with my friend Tracy Homer in the summer, we talked about how we should definitely take that walk again, and see how it looks in different seasons, and what else we can discover.  So last week we did it again, with changes – our November walk to see how the autumn looks.

Map, and click on the flickr album to see more photos, taken with my DSLR + 50mm lens and my Olympus XA2 35mm film camera.  Below I have a selection of my favourite photos and thoughts about the day, along with some mini films and some sounds I recorded.

Wind on the Avon

The Avon at Pill

The first difference about the walk is, of course, the tide.   There’s that old saying that you never cross the same river twice, but with the huge tidal drop of the Avon, and how much it changes over the course of each moon, let alone with the changes rain brings.   But I was still surprised at how high the tide was in Pill, with everything reflecting.  The river swells and ripples, with wind patterns forming and changing everything, rippling in the sun.   It’s one of the things I want to film, one day, if I can find a bridge that’s stable enough to hoot a camera up to.

We stood on the steps to what had been the slipway last time, where the ferry used to run to the Lamplighter’s Inn, looking at where we’d walk later (“don’t fall in!”) and set off.

Steps into the Avon

Last time we’d walked under the M5, and had a bit of an adventure trying to find a way onto the bridge, with scrambling and pushing through undergrowth, but this time we were sensible, and after a bit of a look at the Pill Foreshore, went to find the cycle path.

M5 roadbridge

The theme of the day was “wow, look at the LIGHT!” and after what had felt like an eternity of grey, dreich days of rain, where the sun never appeared, it was fantastic to be bathed in this autumnal light, golden against the sky that rushed through every change from vivid blue to slate grey.   We’d been stalking the weather forecast, and had the first mini cloudburst as we got up onto the bridge, but it had said after this one shower, it would be a sunny day.  What could possibly go wrong?

Pill cyclepath

Up on the M5 bridge we could see the changes since last time – the landscape golden-yellows with the greens, the footpaths and desire lines more clearly etched into the grass.   It’s such a strange space:   like last time, we had to shout to be heard, standing between the battered metal fence, with gusts of air pushing at us as lorries ran past, and the vibrating fence on the other side.   The light was changing continually, as the clouds flew overhead.   I have a tiny film-ette of the wind on the water, but I couldn’t do it justice.

I was trying to record the noise of the road, but everything came out wind-damaged, and I could never capture that volume, either.   So strange to look over the side and have this peaceful view of water, sky and land, and from behind this relentless wall of sound.

The Avon from the M5 motorway bridge

Wind on the water

Last time, it was all about the patterns on the mud, branching up from the water.   This time it was the shifting surface, and the crenelations of the grass, like little paws, or where something had been nibbling away at the land – and of course, looking ahead at where we were going next.

Avon texture

Over the bridge, which takes so long, then down the stairs and across the large empty space.  Under the M5, on the Avonmouth side, it sounds like this:

Across the busy road, and down what looks like the least inviting footpaths, onto Lamplighter’s Marsh.  I love that name, and I’m torn about trying to find out more about it, because it’s so romantic, I don’t want to spoil my illusions.

M5 bridge

It’s a strange nature reserve, but I love it.   So urban, so un-picturesque, but it’s one of the places I am so happy to have discovered through this project.  You walk down the tarmac path, with the motorway making strange clunking noises overhead.

It’s got a lot of strange empty stretches of tarmac, remnants of buildings among the brambles, with a huge fence enclosing piles of rocks under the motorway.   But wow, the light off that tarmac on a day like that!

footpath

Last time we took the official path curving away from the motorway, but this time we found a gap in the stand of brambles, a path along the edge of the bridge towards the river, so we took that one.

Avonmouth docks from th Lamplighters Marsh

I will always poke around under road bridges if I can, and now I’ve had that coach tour around the Royal Portbury and Avonmouth docks, it’s even more fun to see them from other sides.  And the way the Avon just stops is fascinating to me.  The view kept changing, as rainclouds massed and moved on over the end of the river.  Beyond the bridge, towards Avonmouth, there was a platform over the river, and I clambered down onto it (getting ankle deep in silt at the bottom of the steps) to listen to the water.

There’s that thing about how just as our eyes are so much better than camera lenses, our ears can focus on one sound over another.   I was thinking how loud the lapping water was, but my recording was more the noise of the bridge next to me.

M5 motorway bridge

Once I’d climbed back onto land, it was all about the changing light, and the mud, and the weird debris lying around.

Under the M5

We’d seen this pair of chairs from the bridge, in a pile of flotsam and jetsam, and none of my photos worked at all.   But I can’t stop thinking about them – who placed them there, because they couldn’t just wash up like that; why set behind each other, rather than next to each other; who sits in them, and what are they thinking; and of course, why I didn’t take that other angle OMG.

Lamplighter's Marsh

We walked the tide line along the silt bank, moving south-east, on this curving line of tiny sticks and twigs.  In August they were dry, and cracked under our feet, shining in the sun, but this time they were soft, and gave slightly as we trod on them.  I always love walking with Tracy, and how our conversations range over so much, especially photography, and I think about things we talked about for weeks. And there is nothing like walking with someone who understands just breaking off a conversation to look, because they’re doing it themselves too!   We had so much of “do you remember last time?” and talking about what we’d seen then, and how it was different now, and how it will be different in the future when we walk it again, in winter and spring.

Tideline

Of course I’m romanticising the waterline, because the twigs and driftwood, and how they lay together, pointing in the same direction, but meandering in curves along the edge of the bank, is beautiful.  The line reveals a change in the land that’s not visible with the tall grass, the same way beaches have tide-lines of shells and tiny pebbles to show high tide.   I want to photograph this from drones, and make an installation of it in an artspace… but I’m ignoring all the plastic, and bottles, and less exciting debris.  A discarded needle and beer cans, and that’s part of it too – and the roar of the motorway following us as we walked the silt banks.

You have to come off the banks at the enclosure of intriguing boats that I’d love to poke around, and onto a neat tarmac path that meanders itself, for no apparent reason.  Down a small road, and then take the path to some river structure, and along the silt banks past the sea scouts hut, marveling at how much the tide had already dropped since we started, the Pill slipway that had been completely submerged, now appearing.   I wonder what’s the lowest it gets, and it’s a note to self, aim for low tide one day.

Pill from the Lamplighters'

We rounded the corner, and where last time we took the footpath, politely mown with the brambles trimmed back, this time we took the desire line along the bank.   In summer the grass was too high to see it, making it treacherous to walk, as the silt is full of hidden holes, but this time it was perfect.

Desire line along the Avon bank

It took us all the way up to a huge stand of reeds, and the path went right inside, and I couldn’t not go in too.

Standing in a reed beed

In the reeds

I always am fascinated by reed beds.   I love the way they move in the wind, and the sounds they make, and how the light hits them.   I’ve never walked in one before, and it was magical.   The reeds are all taller than me, and they closed behind me immediately.   The noise is huge, as is the feel of them as they sway in the wind, bowing almost flat around me then pulling back again, like a tide of their own.   Drifts of pollen wafting away in the wind, catching the light. The feel of the dry stems on my skin, and catching in my hair, and the sound, and the way they looked against the blue sky on one side, or the white on the other, revealing the sun as they moved.  It was perfect, and I want to do that again and again and again.

We went back onto the path, where we were above the reeds, and that was a different view – the wind rippling the tops of the fluffy seedheads like it had the surface of the river, and the wafting pollen another meander.  The path took us through tree tunnels, past structures and objects, and this illusion of rurality, belied by the sounds of a mower, and traffic.   Look one way and it’s the river, trees, nature – look the other and it’s a fence around manicured sports pitches.

We climbed off the path and back down onto the silt banks, stopping to pick bright red apples, grown from a core chucked into the bushes or, I’d like to think, washed up by the river.  They were tiny, with this carpet of apples on the ground giving off that sweet orchard smell, and the taste stayed on my tongue as we walked, through another cloud burst, following this tiny desire line, feeling like we were the only people for miles as the river curved ahead.  Of course that changed whenever we looked to the left, and when we had to climb the bank and walk through the estate of houses, to find the next path.

This one runs between allotments on one side, with the railway line in a cutting on the other.   The rain was brutal, like being pebble-dashed, but we were protected by the plastic sheeting behind the fence, and then the trees, as we entered the oak woodland.

“Woodland” makes it sound too grand – it’s a strip-let, between the Portway on one side, and the cliff dropping to the railway and the river below on the other.   At times it’s just a few metres wide, with steps built into the hillsides to get up and down the steep banks.   The path yellow with oakleaves, through green undergrowth as we watched for the spot a tree has fallen over a fence, creating a serendipitous gap above Horse Shoe Bend.

I’ve said this before, but this is the curve of the river that put an end to Bristol’s life as a major port.   It’s a tight curve that is even more treacherous because of the huge tidal drop.   Boats would get stuck, and as the water level fell, break apart, blocking the whole river.   I don’t know why the Victorians didn’t build a canal to bypass the curve, but instead they built Portishead harbour, and then the Portbury and Avonmouth docks, and the big ships left the city.

I’d really wanted to see the Curve in autumn colours, and was a bit grumpy everything was blanketed in rain, and getting worse, but there was blue sky in the distance, so we had a drink and ate our sandwiches, and 5 minutes later the curve was in the sunshine, with the light turning the river silver.

I think I took 100 pictures, and we moved on, before the next rain could get us.

The viewpoint

The reason this sneaky viewpoint is so special is that the “official” ones have these huge fences in the way that drive me crazy.   I’m guessing it’s to protect the railway, as well as walkers, but coming down the next steps to what should be a fantastic view, but has this giant fence in the way is so frustrating!  And then onto the Portway, for a pair of benches and a bin with another fence, that just makes me laugh every time I see it – then back on the path, through woods that open up into a meadow, and views of the city, and more rain.  Downhill through deep brown ferns that are as tall as I am, up and down the stairs through the woods, detouring to follow signs to a picnic area that was just a glade by the Portway, following the path down until we were slipping in the mud along the edge of a school field, and under the railway.

This is someone’s favourite spot, with a firepit full of GCSE textbooks, bad graffiti on the brickwork.  I really love this place, this gateway between spaces, and the way the silt banks reveal themselves again.

Footpath

Footpath to Sea Mills

The rough grass, windswept, and the things the river had left it in.  “Do you remember, last time we were here, the grass had been burnt, and we were walking on ash?   Remember how it felt?”   Talking about art and sounds, and listening to the wind in the grass, the road noise fainter here.  And then turning a corner, and the path squelching under our feet, laughing at each other as we slipped and slid.

We stopped at Sea Mills, waiting for the sun to come out from behind the clouds, so Tracy could take a photo of “the red, red bridge” in all its rusty brightness.  The sky looking ridiculous, unreal, shafts of light pointing up from the clouds that were grey with glowing edges.  The mud-banks silver with the light bouncing off the water, the rivulets dark against the shine.

Waiting for the sun to come out from behind the clouds

It was low tide at the harbour, and we talked about stopping there, but the sky looked great, so we walked on down the path, towards Bristol, as the fields on the other side of the river changed to the woodland lining the Gorge.

It’s always a risk at this point, because after Sea Mills, there are no more bus stops, no more buildings, nothing but the cliffs of the Gorge and the Portway.  A week or so before I’d walked through the nature reserves on the other side of the Portway, and up through the Goat Gully, but this time we took the Avon path, along the river banks, past sloe bushes and more reed beds (with a strange incursion into one of them – a burnt out space?).

And we probably shouldn’t have stopped to look at it, because the rain kicked in when we were too far down to turn back.   We got to a picnic bench, admiring the graffiti on it:  Lordy Lordy Lordy, which was apt, because suddenly we were in the middle of a vicious hailstorm, lumps bouncing off us, and off the table, hitting us on the backs of the head.   We took shelter crouching in the sloe bushes, laughing at how fast it had changed, and our terrible luck.

Reed bed

Reed bed

I’ve got to admit, it was worth it for that diptych, and I want those photos framed and hanging on my wall to remember that moment.  Of course the hail stopped as I tried to film it, but it turned into a downpour, and we pulled on all our waterproofs, tucked away our cameras, and headed on.

The problem with this part is the footpath stops, and you’re back on the Portway, and wow, that’s unpleasant in the rain.   The traffic noise is always loud as it ricochets off the cliffs, but in the rain it doubles, and we were shouting again to be heard.   Huge trucks speeding past, the kind ones seeing us and diverting around the puddles, if they could, while the less kind ones drenched us.   It was a proper downpour, the views misty with rain, and at that point all you can do is keep walking – and talking, of course, because there’s nothing like getting fired up about politics to give me the energy to keep going those last kilometres!

CNV00030

So many things I couldn’t take photos of because the rain was too heavy.   All the mud, and water, the structures and outlets along the riverside, and puddles of course, and the bad buffing on the concrete box that protects the road under the Suspension Bridge – squares of different coloured paint on different pillars, unintentional art from terrible attempts to get rid of graffiti, inadvertently looking more striking than any of the tags.   We got off the road as soon as we could, walking round Cumberland Basin, and being amazed how quickly the road noise fell away.

Of course the rain cleared off as we reached the shelter of the Underfall Yard, for coffee and cake, and to put all our wet clothes on the radiator while we warmed our bones.   Our last rainbow of the day, the third or fourth, none of which I could photograph properly.   Soon we’ll be walking it again, on a frosty day in winter, or in vibrant spring sunshine:  “Do you remember how good it felt to get coffee?   Do you remember laughing in the bushes? Do you remember how cold and wet we were?”.  I can’t wait.

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