Archive for February, 2013

Walking with Clare Thornton on 18 February 2013

February 25, 2013


I am walking with Clare. Clare was at University with me but in more recent years our paths have crossed mostly at live art festivals. The frantic bustle of festivals leaves little time for proper talking (lots of people, lots of work to see, lots of interruptions, lots of half-spoken thoughts and unfinished sentences…) I’ve been looking forward to the opportunity for a more concentrated conversation.

We meet at St Mary Redcliffe Parish Church just before noon. It’s a brilliantly bright day, with winter chilliness jostling with spring freshness. We begin by taking a turn around the impressively Gothic church, its stained glass catching and projecting the sun. The Chaotic Pendulum, a permanent installation which tips recycled water into a cross beam – it’s impossible to predict with any certainty which way the water will tip each time – serves as a reminder that life is unpredictable, that some things cannot be known, and that this uncertainty is a wonder. No mention is made of an all-knowing God (though science is given a bit of a kick).

Leaving Redcliffe’s we turn west, down Redcliffe Hill and on to Commercial Road, looking over the hospital and passing the M-Shed – an old transit shed turned into a museum that tells the story of Bristol. Today, we will pass many cultural buildings which will alert me to just how little of Bristol I have seen. Though I have visited lots of times, I always travel with a specific purpose, which tends to take me down the same routes (Bristol Temple Meads-Arnolfini-Park Street-Bristol University).

As we walk beside the New Cut, Clare tells me of her mum’s recent death. I am so glad we are here, walking side-by-side, ear to ear, the sun on our faces, away from the noise of the city, of art festivals. On Cumberland Road, beyond God’s Garden (Open Today), we see our first daffodil of the year, blooming vividly yellow, impervious to the dustiness and stoniness of its roadside habitat. We are amused by a sign that reads ‘A day without olives is like a day’. A sign of the chaotic quotidian? A little further along is a house coveted by Clare – as if aligned with the olive sign, it seems transplanted from warmer Mediterranean or further-flung climes – fronted with palm trees, painted a desertish-red and boasting a flat sun roof. The hedge beside us chirps with a gathered flock of sparrows.

A pedestrian/cycle path brings us closer to the River Avon (Festival Way; Route 41 National Cycle Network). At the edges of this tidal Avon New Cut are banks of sludgy shiny mud. On the other side of the railings and railway tracks is Spike Island (another first for me), where Clare works, and a little further along the Bristol Record Office and CREATE, the walls of which are the canvas for multi-coloured graffiti (though none of it by Banksy). In the far distance, a row of the coloured terraced houses for which Bristol is famous. We pass a model eco-home (closed) and head towards a spaghetti junction of motorways. Brunel’s spectacular Clifton suspension bridge is suspended ahead of us, high over the Avon Gorge. (The bridge has tantalised me for many a year.) In the scruffy Cumberland Basin, Clare tells me about Brazilian artist Maria Thereza Alves’ Seeds of Change project. Ships involved in the European trade would dock here and dump their ballast – made of earth, rocks etc – onto the river bank. In the process, they were also dumping seeds which in time would germinate, changing the Bristol landscape.

Crossing one of the locks, but failing to find a pedestrian route out of the dock, we climb a railing to get onto the overpass. In this concrete jungle some well-intentioned but foolish council committee has tried and failed to make a pleasure garden. Not even the skateboarders have taken up residence – garden benches sit in abandoned isolation, the concrete landscaping is cracked and crumbling, flowerbeds are unplanted. At the end of the bridge, what would once have been a desirable Georgian property has its curved handsome wall intruded upon by a hulking steel motorway-sign sitting just inches away from windows. On Hotwell Road Clare points out another bench, this one looking bewilderingly out onto multiple lanes of traffic and a brick wall. A little further along, we come across the unique Colonnade houses which, in spite of the busy road, retain something of their former grandeur, with porches and colonnades supporting a second story. A plaque on the wall informs us that a hot spring rose out of the river mud near this spot.

Just beyond the Colonnade lie the remains of the Clifton Rocks Railway – a funicular railway inside the cliffs of the Avon Gorge (closed in 1934 but a secret transmission base for the BBC during WWII). We follow the narrow pavement hugging close to the cliffs of the gorge, arriving at a public footpath sign: ‘Zig Zag Path to Clifton’. Steep steps lead us upwards, gaining height and views. Graffiti instructs us to ‘Be Happy’. The sun streams through tall ivy-clad trees. At the top of the aptly named Zig Zag Path, we make our way to the suspension bridge, walking out to its dead centre. I am delighted to be standing here, rather than viewing it from a distance. The bridge sways under foot. It’s a long drop down. Though hazy, the view to the horizon is spectacular, the eye following the course of the river, then roving over the panorama of rolling hills.

Back on solid ground (with legs still a bit jeely), at the top of the Rocks Railway we throw some loose change into a charity bucket (for railway preservation), aiming and failing to hit a bell. Caledonia Place (a hint of Scotland?) leads us into plush Clifton, onto Richmond Terrace and round some back streets to a hidden, unassuming treasure – the Lido (a subscription bath first opened in 1850 and re-opened in 2007). People swim lazily in the outside pool, whilst those inside snack on tapas and homemade cakes. We join them – the minty scallops rank amongst the best I have ever tasted. I like Bristol. It’s good for the spirit. As are unknown routes. And the company of a friend, sharing her thoughts and stories during a long-overdue walk.

Walking with Mary Nixon on 2 February, 2013

February 10, 2013


I am walking with my Aunty Sos (proper name Mary Nixon, née Mary Duncalf). I also like to think that we are walking with my mum, Prunie (proper name June Heddon, née June Duncalf). June was one of 12 siblings who grew up in the small town of Conwy, in North Wales. My Aunty Sos is my mum’s older sister. She moved back to Conwy just a few months ago. Our walk will take us around the town, retracing my own steps (long summers spent here as a child), Sos and my mum’s steps, and my gran and granddad’s steps. Layers of memories are trodden into the streets of this magical, thirteenth-century walled market town.

I stopped visiting Conwy when my mum died (when I was 17). Returning at the age of 43, I am struck by the things I didn’t notice as a child – the fact that Conwy is nestled beneath glorious hills (a sprinkle of snow on them today), that many of the thoroughfares of Conwy are framed by arches, even – and this seems a truly remarkable oversight – that castle walls ring the town. So today, I marvel at what I have missed. But at the same time, I find myself falling into known rhythms and routes, catching glimpses of myself as a child visiting her gran’s shop (now closed down), as a teenager working in her uncle’s aquarium (now demolished), as a student serving endless plates of fish and chips in the restaurant (now an armoury museum). We walk. Time does not stand still.

We start on Church Street – St. John’s Methodist Church, where the Duncalf kids attended Sunday school (“I never knew that”). We head to the roundabout and what used to be the Towers Restaurant, gift shop and coffee shop. The exterior looks exactly the same – white walls, black frames and doors. But the sign signals a parallel universe – ‘The Knight Shop’. What was gran’s gift shop is boarded up (though the ice cream hatch on the side wall looks like it could easily come into service again). The Tower Coffee House is closed too, but its name is at least the same, an anchor to the past. The wishing well on the patch of grass has been cemented over – no pennies for luck.

Down Castle Street – past what was and still is the doctor’s surgery, then the dentist’s. A tired-looking house, with boarded up windows, is home to a number of jackdaw sculptures perched on its roof. (Those born and bred in the town are known as Jackdaws.) A sign on the window of a shop closed for winter nudges me into the past – ‘All you need for crabbing sold here. Crab lines. Crab buckets, nets and bate.’ I wonder, though, if this memory is actually mine or whether I’ve unwittingly appropriated others’ childhoods?

We resist the allure of the National Trust’s Aberconwy House (‘The oldest house in Conwy, built circa 1300) and head for a warming coffee up High Street. The cinema has long been the Palace Bingo. I am sure mum told me stories of exchanging jam jars for tickets, but Aunty Sos has no recollection of this.

Back on to Castle Street, which becomes Berry Street. And there’s Stretford House, in monochrome. When my mum was a kid, this was called the River Grill – the restaurant owned and run by my granddad. The whole family lived in the rooms above – Aunty Sos tells of all 14 of them sharing three bedrooms, the boys stuck in the attic. I look up and down the street, trying to see through the eyes of a young girl. This would surely have been my mum’s playground, this road the one she walked daily, those windows the ones she would have looked out of, these walls the ones she would have lain behind. The River Grill is now the Conwy Kebab, Burger and Pizza House.

The arch at the end of Berry Street leads us into Bodlondeb Park, Aunty Sos pointing out hidden places where she and her pals would lure attractive boys (and where her younger sister, June, would be an irritant). The gentle slope offers views of the river. We follow the path that leads us to the back of the primary school which Sos and my mum attended. This is the first time I’ve seen it. (It’s a Youth Centre now). Then we descend Town Ditch Road, walking parallel to the castle walls. Passing on the other side of Berry Street, I am amazed at what would have been my mum’s daily view – looking down the street to the Castle that sits at its end. (It is only on our walk today that I realise my mum grew up within castle walls!)

Down to the quay, where most of what I remember has been demolished (but I remember it, so it’s still there). The Smallest House in Great Britain remains standing (though closed). And the river, always a back drop. I see in my mind’s eye hundreds of black and white photos of the Duncalf crew larking about down here. And I remember the story of Naffa falling on an anchor. And I think I might have tried water-skiing once. And I definitely enjoyed a speedboat ride.

The arch behind us – Lower Gate – also seems like a member of the family – so many of those old photos show a sister or groups of siblings striding through here, Kings and Queens of the Castle. Just behind this arch is the lane that leads to the back yard of Stretford House. Aunty Sos points to one corner – that’s where Uncle Howard prepared the potatoes for chips. Peering through the saggy grey lace curtain of the kitchen window, I wonder if some of the detritus piled up on the other side of the grimy glass might actually belong to the 1940s and 50s?

Our stroll along the quay leads us onto the bridge over the river, the castle standing full behind us. Aunty Sos has her own tales of this place. Having left Conwy nearly forty years ago, her choice to return here now surely tells a story about home.