Storm damage to the Castle Park fig tree

Tonight I’m sitting on my sofa listening to the wind howl and rain strafe my window, and it’s making me remember the storm on 31st July, and what it did to the Castle Park fig tree.

There are a number of fig trees along the Avon, the Floating Harbour and even along the River Malago as they run through the middle of Bristol, brought into the city through trade from the Mediterranean, and they’re all thought to be seeded by accident, whether from fruit dropped off boats, or seeds brought in as ballast that floated down the river, catching hold in cracks in the harbour walls.

There are at least two fig trees in Castle Park, and the huge one, opposite the old brewery, is one of my very favourite trees in the city.  It’s thought to be the oldest of the figs, maybe helped to grow from the hot water that was let out of the brewery into the Harbour.  It’s visible in historic photos going right back to the beginning of the twentieth century, over 100 years ago – here are a couple of photos from Know Your Place, showing the fig trees in the walls in 1905, in the  1920s and in 1930 – and a very different image, after the neighbourhood that used to stand in the Park that was destroyed in the World War II bombing, and left the site devastated in 1951.

I love it in every season, and it’s something I look at every time I walk through the park.  I’ll always try to pinch the leaves between my fingers to get that gorgeous aroma.  Figs take two years to ripen, and it’s not yet warm enough for these ones to last through the winter to get fully ripe (yet), but I’ve used the leaves to infuse in custard to make deliciously figgy ice cream.

So when I heard that half of it had been pulled out of the wall by that July storm, I was devastated.  On 2nd August, Vik and I went to see what had become of it.  I took some photos of what we saw – mouse/swipe over the first picture for a slideshow, or click through to the album.

Harbour Master, fig tree

For a comparison, check out the size of what it looked like back in April, before the leaves came out:

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Two Bristol Festivals in May 2018: Walking, and Radical History

The Bristol Walk Fest is a month-long celebration of walking, with guided walks throughout May 2018, with a range of different themes, including culture, nature, history, sport and lots more.   It covers walking for pleasure and fitness, includes some photo- and art-walks, and has a specific strand aimed at older people, though they have walks suitable for everyone, including children and families.   The full programme of walks is here – some are free, others not, but book early to avoid disappointment!  You can also follow the festival on twitter, and with the #BristolWalkFest hashtag.

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I really like the work of the Bristol Radical History Group, and I can’t wait for their  Bristol Radical History Festival at the M Shed on Sunday 6th May.   They’ll have stalls, talks and walks, and you can find the full programme on their website.  While you’re there, take a look around at their projects and publications, because they do so much good work.

Shawn Sobers’ film about Newstead Abbey and slavery

A few weeks ago I went on a podcast-walk in the snow with Dr Shawn Sobers, talking about his work as a film-maker, artist, educator, curator and more.  One of the things we discussed was his work with heritage sites, exploring their links to the transatlantic slave trade, and he told me about a film he’d just finished working on at Newstead Abbey in Nottingham.

This film, Blood Sugar, was a collaboration with the Abbey, poet Michelle Mother Hubbard and the Slave Trade Legacies group – and it’s now online if you want to watch it:

Listen to the podcast with Shawn, talking about his work, here.

Avon Stories Podcast #22: Tom Brothwell’s Bristol History Podcast

As you can guess, from the fact I make podcasts, I really love the medium, and one of the ones I enjoy is the Bristol History Podcast.

This has been created by Tom Brothwell, and he interviews different historians and authors to cover a wide range of different subjects that he’s interested in, and wants to find out more about.   We sat down to talk about why he started, his approaches to history, and lots more, including some of the history about the River Avon.

Some of the Bristol History Podcasts we talked about include:

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You can find the full lists of the Bristol History Podcast episodes on Soundcloud, and you can sign up to the podcast to get all the episodes as they’re released, on iTunes.  There’s also a facebook group for the podcast, and if you’d like to send Tom any suggestions for future episodes, you can contact him at BristolHistoryPodcast [at] gmail [dot] com.

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Avon Stories Podcast #17: The Underfall Yard and its balancing acts

The Underfall Yard sits at the western end of Bristol’s Floating Harbour, a cluster of Victorian redbrick buildings, reminding us of the Harbour’s industrial history.   Over the last few years, more and more of it has been opened up, from the Visitors Centre to providing new walking routes around the end of the docks.  It can seem a bit chaotic, full of skips, piles of wood and metal, with whatever’s been dragged out of the Harbour recently – but that, to me, is part of its charm.

I’ve loved getting to see more of it during the Docks Heritage Weekend, Bristol Harbour Festival and Doors Open Days, but I always want to know more – and I was delighted when Sarah Murray, the Underfall Yard Trust‘s Community, Learning & Volunteering Manager, took me on a bespoke tour.

You can join us, as Sarah showed me some of the backstage and hidden sides of the Yard, including the Sluice Room, Engine Shed and Visitor Centre, and told me about the history of how the Yard came to be, and has changed over time, as well as showing me some of her favourite things.

A lot of our conversation was about the different ways the Yard’s work involves balancing.  It has an important role in keeping the Harbour level, protecting the City from flooding, but there are other day-to-day balancing acts, between being a Heritage site and the base of the Harbour Master and Docks Engineers; hosting tourists and businesses with very physical work; being open for commuters, walkers and joggers, while needing to close for safety reasons; and wanting to attract a good number of visitors, but not too many.  I’ve been thinking a lot about how to run a site as a living, working space, while showing off the heritage aspects, ever since.

I took some photos of things we talked about – they’re mostly January photos, grey and dull, with a few others I’ve taken over the last few years (mouse over or click on the photo to get to the slideshow)

Underfall Yard

For more information about the Underfall Yard, head to their website – and follow their excellent instagram and twitter, for day-to-day glimpses into the Yard and their work.   There’s a lot of information there, about their history, events that they run, visits for schools and colleges and other groups – as well as how to volunteer at the Yard, in different roles.

If you want to know more about boat building at the Yard, I have a mini-podcast with John Raymond-Barker of RB Boatbuilding, with photos of what it’s like inside The Big Shed, over here.

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You can download this podcast directly from the Avon Stories Soundcloud, and sign up for all the future podcasts via the Avon Stories RSS and subscribe on iTunes or Soundcloud to make sure you hear all the future stories.  You can also follow the project on twitter and instagram, for regular photos of the rivers and water in Bristol.

 

Avon Stories Podcast #16: Exploring the New Cut, and finding out about its Friends

Back in August, Roy Gallop, one of the founders of the Friends of the Avon New Cut, took me for a walk along the Cut, down the Chocolate Path and back along Coronation Road, and told me all about this man-made river route – the huge trench that takes the tidal river Avon through the city of Bristol.

The Cut was built to enable the river route to be turned into the fixed-height Floating Harbour, to try to keep Bristol as one of the most important ports in the UK.  Now, the Cut is an urban nature reserve, a green corridor that’s home to a wide range of flora and fauna, and the Friends of the Avon New Cut (FRANC) have worked to celebrate and protect it.

Map used with kind permission of the Friends of the Avon New Cut

But this is a sad podcast for me too, because it reminds me what we’ve lost.  Roy and I spoke about how the Cut has been neglected, and left to gradually collapse, and since we took our walk, the whole of the Chocolate Path has been closed for the foreseeable future, due to erosion.  It’s so depressing that this fantastic car-free route has been lost to the city, but I’m very glad we recorded this while we could.

Please do check out the FRANC website, and join them on their walks and talks, events and litter picking days.  You can also buy the book about the Cut that Roy published and download their walking guides.  And of course, follow them on facebook.

You can also explore the New Cut throughout history, with maps of Bristol before and after it was built, and photos and drawings and much more, on the Know Your Place website.  You can find out more about KYP in this podcast and post.

Here’s the route of our walk – and I’ll add photos to this post tomorrow, too.

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You can download this podcast directly from the Avon Stories Soundcloud, and sign up for all the future podcasts via the Avon Stories RSS and subscribe on iTunes or Soundcloud to make sure you hear all the future stories.  You can also follow the project on twitter and instagram, for regular photos of the rivers and water in Bristol.

Avon Stories podcast #15: The unloved landscapes of Sylvia Crowe, with Wendy Tippett

The Cumberland Basin to Ashton Gate road system is this complicated tangle of roads passing above and below each other, with endlessly confusing ways over and through it for cars and pedestrians alike.  It’s generally seen as a brutalist concrete nightmare, but back in the 1960s, when it was built, it was seen utopian and futuristic, full of exciting new ways to live in a city, with vibrant spaces and an urban park.  These included a market place and piazza on the Northern edge, a service station, a new hill, playgrounds under the roads, and of course, the viewpoint up the River Avon to the Clifton Suspension Bridge, all designed by Sylvia Crowe.

Despite having no formal schooling after leaving school at the age of ten due to TB, Crowe was an important British twentieth century landscape architect, working on everything from vast Forestry Commission schemes, New Towns, power stations and reservoirs, down to private gardens.

These Bristol spaces must have been incredible to see at the time, with a giant fountain spraying up between the raised lanes of traffic, and a nautical-themed playground overlooking the Entrance Lock.  The problem was that no one had predicted how fast car ownership would increase, turning what were vibrant spaces into discarded concrete no-man’s-lands.

Sylvia Crowe Cumberland Basin Bridges, Landscape Plan. Coloured up by Wendy Tippett, with our Avon Stories walk marked up in red line. Ref. Landscape Report, Cumberland Basin Bridges & Ashton Gate Junction, April 1964, University of Bristol Library

Sylvia Crowe Cumberland Basin Bridges, Landscape Plan.
Coloured up by Wendy Tippett, with our Avon Stories walk marked up in red line.
Ref. Landscape Report, Cumberland Basin Bridges & Ashton Gate Junction, April 1964, University of Bristol Library.

Landscape Architect Wendy Tippett took me walking through the northern parts of the road scheme, and told me about how the spaces would have looked in the 1960s, including the design elements that are taken for granted these days, and why, ultimately, it failed.

You can join us on the podcast we recorded on the walk, with photos and lots of links to old photos and plans below.

Sylvia Crowe Cumberland Basin Bridges & Ashton Gate Junction, Aerial View.
Ref. Tippett, W., Unloved Landscapes Dissertation, 2014.

Wendy Tippett is the Landscape Director at Andrew Kenyon Architects in Bristol and Conservation Trustee of Avon Gardens Trust, and you can follow her on her twitter.   I highly recommend her guided walks, they made me see familiar spaces with new eyes – if you’d like to arrange one for a group, or talk to her about Sylvia Crowe’s work in Bristol, you can contact her on wendy [at] andrewkenyonarchitects [dot] co [dot] uk.

If you’d like to know more about Sylvia Crowe, there’s a brief biography on the Landscape Institute website, and there’s a description of the Cumberland Basin site on Parks and Gardens.

Since we recorded this podcast, Bristol 24/7 has reported that there are plans to sell off and re-develop a lot of the site, so this is likely to change again in the future.

I retraced the walk Wendy took me on in December, and my photos (DSLR, 35mm and 120 film) are in this flickr album – click on the first photo and a slideshow should start.

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