Pill to Sea Mills – with an added grass fire

One of the walks I’ve repeated is from Pill, over the Avon via the M5 road bridge and down the river to Sea Mills.  I first walked this with Tracy Homer in August last year, and then again in November, but I really wanted Vik to see it too, because there is just so much to see.  It takes in some really interesting spaces, especially the industrial ones, and it’s seeped in history – but this time it got very dramatic, as we got to see one of the impacts of the heatwave from closer than I even thought I would.

Here’s the map of our walk, from 5th August 2018:

An album of (a lot of) my photos – mouse/swipe over the first one to start the slideshow, or click through to the album

Fighting the Sea Mills grass fire

…and here are Vik’s gorgeous photos from her holga and deliberate double exposures from her Fuji PET – hopefully you can start the slideshow below, or click through for her album.


I’ve got some specific photos, some soundscapes and a mini film below, with thoughts on some of the things we saw, if you want more…

The tide looked low at Pill, when we got there.

Pill Harbour

Pill Harbour

I really want to know the story behind these footprints and finger-marks in the mud!

Handprints in the mud

Not just a trolley graveyard, but a supermarket cage cemetery.

Trolley graveyard, Pill

The sounds of the long grass on the Pill Foreshore

One of the things I especially loved on this iteration of the walk was the sea of grass on the Pill Foreshore.  The grass had grown high and then fallen (maybe because of the lack of rain?  Or maybe it always does this?) and it looked like waves, with a subtle movement among it.  The light was catching the edges of the grass in certain places, making it look blue-green, and the grass along the edge of the footpath was the only part sticking up, presumably because there was the trodden-down gap where more grass couldn’t push it down.  The seedheads made the path-line visible through it, which was useful, because under the grass layers, the foreshore is uneven and a bit treacherous to walk on.  The grass doesn’t look as deep as it is in real life, but it was always at least knee-high, often more.

Sea of grass, Pill Foreshore

Sea of grass, Pill Foreshore

Path through the sea of grass

The space under the M4 motorway bridge is such a particular environment.  The foreshore was still vivid green, as presumably the tide covers it, and water osmoses through the silt beds, but under the bridge it felt more Mediterranean, with everything looking sun-scorched.  I liked the way someone had taken  it over as their private gallery, painting portraits of celebrities on the pillars.

Patrick Stewart under the M5



I adore Vik’s double exposure of it:


And always the strange clanking noises of the motorway overhead, as vehicles crossed over certain places.  Here’s the sound by the river on the Pill side:

and what it looked like, with my back to the river

Under the M5, on the Pill side

The bridge dominates the landscape, so there’s something lovely about being under it, and seeing the Port spaces, with Wales beyond, without the height of the motorway distorting their scale.  (I really enjoy how the seedheads look against the bridge shadow.)

Looking at the Avonmouth port, from under the M5 at Pill

One of my favourite things about this walk is the views from the top of the bridge, looking back at where we’d come, and where we are going.  I take too many photos from here, but I can’t help it.

The sea of grass from above:

The path we walked, from the M5 motorway bridge

The Pill Foreshore, from the M5 bridge


The Pill Foreshore from the M5 bridge


The edge of the Avon

And the view down the Avon.  It looks so pastoral, but if we were allowed on the other side, it would seem 100% industrial.

The Pill Foreshore, with cloud shadows

The sound of the motorway from the path alongside it – it was hard to record, as the wind was so strong up there.

One day I have to make an effort to get up here at low tide, because the mud patterns fascinate me.

The edge of the Avon

Another thing that I get obsessed about are the tide lines.  For some reason they aren’t so visible on the Pill side, but they’re clear on the Avonmouth side.  I remember walking on one for the first time, with Tracy, here, and I’m having a visceral memory of the crackles as we stepped on it, how it felt through my shoes, and how exciting it was.  I’ve said this before, but the art piece I long to make, but never could pull off, would be to recreate one of these tide lines in a gallery space.

Tidelines, Lamplighter's Marsh

Tidelines, Lamplighter's Marsh

Across the bridge, under the weird empty spaces, across the roads and down the footpath between the banks of brambles well over head height, to get under the bridge on the Avonmouth side.  Here’s how it sounded:

And how it looked, with the reminder of how close the countryside is on the south/west side of the river, while the Port stretches so far on the other.

Under the M5, looking at where we'd been

On Lamplighter’s Marsh, we were surprised by the mega-yacht, Archimedes, which ended up parked in Bristol for the weekend.  It always looked like this ridiculous, laughable symbol of conspicuous consumption, more money than sense, “look at me, proles”, but never moreseo than when it was passing under the motorway.

Conspicuous consumption on the Avon

The sounds of the river lapping at the Lamplighter’s jetty, looking across to Pill

I’m really happy with this photo, taken by the Lamplighter’s Inn:

Shirehampton tree, on the bank of the Avon

But the footpath was so scorched – I missed the lush green of the other times I’ve walked here

Shirehampton Footpath (scorched grass)

I always want to look at the reed bed.  It wasn’t as tall as when I’ve been here before, but here’s what it sounded like, standing in it:

and what it looked like, looking back at the motorway bridge

Standing in the Shirehampton reed bed

The tree tunnel section here

Tree tunnel

Turning away from the river, through the 80s estate of respectable Shirehampton homes.




Kite kite alongside the allotments, with the distinctive Bristol Council allotment fencing.  I don’t know what it is about it, but it’s always weirdly obtrusive.  It’s not just the spikes, there’s something about the paint that is a bit aggressive and intrusive, and that’s an achievement, when it’s dark green.

Kite kite, alomgside alloments

The steps through the narrow woodland strip between the Portway on one side, and the sides of the Avon Gorge on the other.

Steps in the woods

I always want to hop the fence to stop and look at Horseshoe Bend, the reason Bristol city lost its dominance as a port – but today it was extra dramatic, with a grass fire burning on the Sea Mills foreshore.  It was clear from where it was that it wasn’t a controlled fire, and we could see the flames leaping up.

I think fires might be relatively common here, because on our first walk, Tracy and I crossed some blackened earth, with the crunch of ash, and vivid new grass – but in the context of the very, very dry summer, it felt more dangerous than normal.  I felt a bit stupid calling 999 to report it, because surely someone else would have seen it and called it in already – but imagine if everyone thought the same, and it spread? The emergency services operator was lovely, and made me feel like of course it was the right thing to do, and as I talked to him, I could see the fire engine coming up the Portway.

Sea Mills grass fire, from Horseshoe Bend

Here’s a film-ette of the view from Horseshoe Bend, after I’d called 999

We wondered if we should carry on walking in that direction, but the alternative was trudging along the Portway pavement, with all the pollution, and I knew there was a way off if the footpath was blocked.  It still felt counter-intuitive to be walking towards the fire, because that smoke kept coming into view.  Walking downhill through the meadow, with a tractor cutting the grass and baling it into straw made me think about how fast that fire could spread.


The footpath runs down with the railway between us and the river, until you pass under it.  There were fire engines in the Rugby Club field, which had a handy gate that I guess emergency services and railway maintenance use all the time.  We asked the firefighters if it was ok to keep going along the path, and they told us sure, as long as we kept to the path and didn’t go near the fire, we’d be fine.  It still felt transgressive, though, as we followed the long fire hose along the footpath, and I wondered what we’d find.

Following the fire hose

Following the fire hose

And when we turned the corner onto the Foreshore, I couldn’t believe how close we were to it.  These are a mix of 50mm lens on my DSLR, and my Olympus XA2 35mm point and shoot.

Fighting the Sea Mills grass fire

Battling a grass fire, Sea Mills

Fighting the Sea Mills grass fire

We walked past it fast, because I absolutely never want to be that arsehole who emergency services have to stop doing their work to deal with, but I was fighting myself, big time.

It felt like this was a great opportunity to take a really wonderful series of photos, with red of the firefighters’ uniform against the washed out yellow grass, the grey smoke and the pale blue sky.  I was fantasising about a photo-book, taking portraits of their tired faces, interviewing them about their work, getting close enough to record the sounds of the fire, taking so many photos.

But it also felt so wrong – as a good citizen, my duty was to keep out of the way, let them get on with their job, and not take risks.  Not because I was worried about physical danger, but because the stakes really are high.  Vik was 100% good citizen, and I was, practically, but even though I think it was the right decision, I worry that this proves I’m not really a good photographer, because maybe there was a 3rd path between being that idiot who runs towards the flames?

I don’t know, I think realistically I’d make the same decision every time, if it happened again.  I just wish I didn’t think it reflected badly on me as someone who wants to make art, even if I’m confident it makes me a good person. And yeah, I wish my brain would shut up about things like this!

It felt so strange that behind us there was this big fight against the fire, but looking ahead, and over to the river, everything looked so peaceful.

I can't believe how peaceful it looked, with a grass fire blazing behind us

We kept looking over our shoulder, to see how the fire was looking.

Fighting fire on the Sea Mills foreshore

The driftwood here is always gorgeous – sun-bleached, tactile, the most amazing, stroke-able shapes.  And I like the weird things that the tide leaves here – so different to the tide lines, things are just dropped in the grass.

Avon driftwood

Sea Mills foreshore

The path skirts the rugby ground, and under the railway bridge again, and walking up the side of the River Trym, I always like the way the fence looks, in every light.


There was a harbour here in Roman times, but the walls date back to the Napoleonic war.  I’ve been here quite a lot, as part of this project, and every time, I think about how great, how strange it is that these harbour walls are so low key – all that history!  I wonder how it looked, back down over the centuries, and what was around it, who worked and lived here.

All the time, the fire was still burning behind us.

Sea Mills harbour

Steps to the Avon

The Portway is this loud presence on the viaduct overhead.  One of the things about bridges is always how different the views can look, taking in both sides from the middle, but it feels especially so here, standing on the weir that tries to keep the Avon out of the Trym.  Looking east, to the green space where there would have been a Roman town, and I’m sure, a flood plain (I bet it still is, at Spring Tide) and looking west, under the Portway arches to the Avon.

Sea Mills weir - looking east up the Trym

Sea Mills weir - looking west to the Avon

We were hot, and tired, and SO grateful to the lovely Matt Gibson, who came and picked us up and gave us a lift back for coffee – that’s above and beyond the call of friendship, and I appreciated it beyond words.

Such a dramatic walk!

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