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River Parrett Trail

Location: Bridgwater, Somerset, UK

Artists: Tony Charles and Andrew Whittle


Navigators is a sequence of twelve short lines, written by local people working with writer Tony Charles, which have been carved in 5 inch high letters by lettercutter Andrew Whittle into twelve massive wooden beams spanning the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal at Albert Street Cutting. The project took place in 1996 and was amongst the first commissions along the River Parrett Trail, a new long distance path integrating public access, the local community, business development, the environment, green tourism and the arts and crafts. The philosophy of the arts programme within River Parrett Trail is to evoke and articulate the history of a place through the arts and to involve the community in a deeper understanding and connection with their surroundings. The groups of two or three words on each beam provide a percussive counterpoint to the walker’s tread along the towpath, calling up the skill and toil needed to create the deep cutting and tunnel, and echo its subsequent industrial use as a main freight route, before its current reinvention as a place for leisure and relaxation.

The Location

The River Parrett Trail follows the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal from the point south of the town where the river and canal run side by side, to Bridgwater Docks just north of the town centre. The canal and towpath run in a deep cutting beneath the level of the town streets and through tunnels under three arterial roads. Its construction represents a considerable engineering and physical achievement. The canal was originally opened in 1827 for the transport of a variety of freight including coal, limestone, clay, timber, grain, cider, animals, and passengers from Taunton to Bridgwater Docks. After a brief period as a main route, the coming of the railway in 1842 led to a decline in its use and the eventual deterioration of the fabric of the canal. The whole canal was restored to working order over the decade up to 1993 and is now well used by local pleasure boats and walkers.

Peter Milner had identified Albert Street Cutting as an evocative site for a commission during his work on the feasibility study for the River Parrett Trail Project of 1993, when he walked the proposed route of the trail which at this point follows the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal. Here the canal runs between high walls made from local brick and into a long dark tunnel under Albert Street towards the Docks. The cutting partly collapsed in 1968 and was rebuilt and the walls were braced with twelve vast timber beams running side to side above the water. It is an atmospheric place, presenting a different face of Bridgwater, away from the traffic and streets above, and now only used for leisure. He saw it as inviting an intervention which would celebrate its significance at the forefront of the transport of the time but which would not interfere with the space itself. The sequence of beams provided the right format for a piece of work which would unfold during a walk along the towpath, giving a sense of journeying and discovery.

Project Proposal

In his later role as Project Co-ordinator for the Trail, Peter Milner was responsible for proposing locations for projects and the form they might take. He included the Albert Street Cutting project idea in one of the earliest groups of proposals he brought to the Arts Working Group in late 1995/early 1996. It was for a community poetry project that would explore the extraordinary atmosphere of the cutting, and the enterprise, trade and human endeavour connected with the construction and use of the cutting and tunnel. A sequence of words resulting from this process and refined by the poet could be designed and cut into the beams by a lettercutter, with the possibility of fuller texts on metal plaques on the walls of the cutting from which visitors could take rubbings. The outline proposal was agreed by the Arts Working Group.

Poetry Project

Having proposed the location and conceptual framework for the project, Peter Milner handed over the management of the community project to Chris Sidaway, Arts Officer for Sedgemoor District Council and Richard Crowe, Director of Bridgwater Arts Centre which hosted and managed the community poetry project. The contract for the writer was advertised in South West Arts Literature Newsletter and details were also sent directly to several writers known to Working Group members. The contract was for six days work, four workshop days with local people and two days for preparation and summary work, offered at a fee based on the daily rates for artists recommended by South West Arts. The written brief included some background information on the building and use of the Albert Street Cutting and the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal, and additional historical information researched by Chris Sidaway. The criteria for the selection process were the quality of the poet’s writing and experience of running workshops with a variety of people. Tony Charles, an artist and writer from Somerset was chosen at interview.

Bridgwater Arts Centre, with support from Chris Sidaway, took the lead in the community poetry project, contracting the artist, organising the week of workshops and attracting a range of participants. The poetry workshops were advertised in the town to children and adults, and the Arts Centre had also made direct contact with users at a drop-in centre in Blake Street, near to the canal. Tony Charles ran daily workshops for five days at the Arts Centre during the May half term week, starting with three open workshop days, respectively for children, adults and a group of addicts and people with learning disabilities from the drop-in centre. On the fourth day, a group of fifteen people worked together, self selected from those had been at the open workshops, and on the final day, the same group created an installation and drew together a performance in words and song at the Arts Centre.

Armed with some preparatory research into the history of the canal, Tony Charles took a strongly practical approach to the workshops, opening up the senses of participants by taking them out to the cutting, to walk beside the canal, and to speculate on its importance for trade and how it might have felt to be one of the labourers building it. Then working with the spoken word, he encouraged the participants to come up with words and phrases about the canal and to experiment with different ways they could be put together. Through a dynamic process of pinning up the resulting words and a shared creative process, lines and whole poems were gradually developed. Each night, he typed up the resulting work so that the body of ideas, words, phrases and whole poems were captured and expanded upon as the week progressed. By the end, some powerful individual poems, joint poems formed of cut and paste phrases and resonant groups of words had emerged. Tony Charles then spent time after the project refining and distilling from the whole week’s project to come up with a sequence of twelve short lines for the beams in the cutting. He also wrote a longer poem drawn from the ideas, stanzas and fragmentary material including oral contributions from the whole group, with authorship shared between all participants, and himself wrote a number of poems including a second sequence of twelve lines which could be carved into the reverse side of the beams, if funding should become available.

Letter Cutting Commission

Meanwhile Peter Milner had secured the enthusiastic permission from British Waterways, owners of the canal, to place a public art work on the bracing beams, and set about finding, briefing and contracting a artist for the lettercutting part of the project. Dorset based artist Andrew Whittle had been suggested by members of the Arts Working Group and recommended by other artists, and Peter Milner approached him to invite his interest in the commission. The twelve groups of words were to be carved in sequence into the twelve beams at Albert Street Cutting, to be read moving from the south towards the docks and the entrance of the Albert Street tunnel. Andrew made a site visit to see the cutting and the canal, to assess the state of the beams, their dimensions and the practical problems involved in working in situ in this location. He confirmed that the beams were probably ‘greenheart’, a close grained water resistant hardwood imported from South America which would respond well to the sharp incisions of wood carving tools, but found that they were moss covered and rotted for the upper 20% of each beam. With the condition of the wooden beams in mind, he came back to Peter Milner with three alternative proposals for the work – lettering picked out in copper nails, stencilled and painted letters, and cut lettering. After discussion, they decided on the cut lettering despite the potential problems the softened wood might produce.

After designing a letter form suitable for the situation and the materials he had to work with, the artist then made full scale drawings of each set of words in letters 5 inches high, to check how much space each group would need. He found the final line was too long for the beams, but in discussion with Tony Charles discovered that that the poem had not been finalised and that it would be possible to make adjustments. They eventually resolved the problem by deleting one line of the poem, and redrafting the last two lines into three shorter lines. With the final form of the poem agreed, he was able to give a quotation of eleven days for the work, based on an estimated time to cut each letter, preparatory design work and travel expenses.

The plan was that the actual cutting should be taking place on site during Somerset Art Week 1996, with a listing in the Art Week brochure. Peter Milner was responsible for the practical arrangements for the artist’s access to the beams. He approached British Waterways to borrow their flat bed metal barge used for maintenance, which they moored on the canal at the YMCA adjacent to the cutting. By chance, the day he visited, the barge had a temporary scaffolding superstructure having been used to make repairs to a bridge, and he was able both to secure permission for use of the barge and to hire the scaffolding for the duration of the commission. Thus Andrew Whittle’s first task on arriving from Dorset each day was to collect the barge from its moorings at the YMCA and to move it, powered by an outboard motor, to his work site. He also had to be aware of the timetable of the pleasure boat Peggoty Tom which took on passengers at the YMCA and travelled either up to the yacht basin on down stream to a pub. When Peggoty Tom was due to pass, he had to move the barge to a wider part of the canal until the pleasure boat had passed by before resuming his work.

The artist’s eight days working on site were largely uneventful, interrupted only by interested walkers especially in the early evening. The cutting of the letters went largely as anticipated, although in some places the wood was fairly soft beneath an apparently sound skin. However, he had discussed his concerns about the condition of the beams with Peter Milner, and he knew that the commissioner was prepared to accept the limitations of the materials. He reported only one negative incident, which was both dangerous and frightening, when he was showered with stones by school children from the wall high above the canal.

The words on the beams are a powerful presence in the cutting and have a timeless quality. They have clearly become an integral part of the place, illustrated by a recent incident recalled by Tony Charles when he saw a group of children on bicycles whizzing along the towpath, the boy in the lead shouting out the words on each beam as he passed underneath.

© Copyright Joanna Morland 2001