First published on Caught by the River
The River Avon, Bristol, June 2013
I walk along the floating harbour in search of the woodlands I know are further downstream of the Avon, high above the city of Bristol. The harbour is a story of new developments in a variety of different colours and states. One sign by a small park warns of its private nature – no sunbathing, no dogs. Another building is skeletal, multi-storey car park-esque. It always makes me laugh how the images of what a development will look like become less a promise and more a threat when they’re in this half state – it will be finished. Together, these buildings are gently grotesque. The death of England’s once great ports is a boon to the property development industry. Just like in Liverpool and Manchester, old buildings which once provided lifelong employment and were a focus of global trade have become bars, shops, restaurants, apartments and offices, transient spots for the aspirational middle classes and upward to work, frolic and recover. But that’s not the whole story. There’s a revolt against the tidying, the ornamental planting, the exclusivity and boredom. At the water’s edge is red valerian, a Mediterranean flower that has escaped into walls and pavements across England and grows here in the cracks between the stone where daisies also blush pink. Together these plants are the punks of the gentrified waterside, the Pussy Riot of the floating harbour. I clench my fist and salute these wildflowers.
The Avon bends north and in the distance I see the mighty Clifton suspension bridge bursting from the wooded limestone cliffs. But I’m getting lost on my map in trying to locate the path to Leigh Woods, confused by the A370’s spaghetti junction. I cross a footbridge and then a few roads and find the river itself, a prehistoric mud swamp that’s brown in its entirety. Gulls are making prints, lesser black backs, herring and common gulls, they rule this city totally. When I opened the door to the room where we’re staying I looked out of the window and met the fierce eye of a gull. I cross a bridge plastered with posters protesting against plans for buses to pass through. Gulls below see me and act a little tentative – I wonder if they get any trouble from people up here, in this well hidden spot, maybe kids with air rifles. Parkland opens up, the suspension bridge now clear, I aim for the trees. The Avon and I both flow in the same direction. The wheel of a trolley reaches from beneath the mud, as does a traffic cone and a road sign, fragments of a world of transport now mired. I pass underneath the bridge and its black strip across the sky catches in my vision through the leaves of the trees. Up ahead comes a left turning and the entrance into Leigh Woods.
The path appears carved from the gorge. The banks are denuded of trees, covered in hartstongue fern, panting as they soak up the light. The path is steep and wild, riddled with chunks of the limestone that defines this landscape. The slopes become more wooded as I climb, hazels grow amidst single ash trees, with a good number of wych elm and some oak. A chiffchaff sings somewhere, as does a blackbird, a song thrush pipes its beginnings. A month ago there would have been much more, but the breeding season is beginning to take its toll on the songbirds, they are growing quiet. That said, a moment of rest and silence brings more songs: the aborted music of a coal tit, a robin squeezing its thin medley out through the thicketed scrub of young trees. A trio of East European students pass me where I sit, a young woman speaking pointedly. They don’t notice me, so involved in their conversation. The Poles I know all speak in their native tongue with such passion, you’d think their world was at stake.
I happen upon a settlement that the interpretation board renders some 2300 years old. The banks were perfect for the defence of the river. I walk along the ridge lit by red campion and struggle to imagine the scene. Farther over on the other side I find the first common spotted orchids of my summer, taking them by the throats with the tips of my thumb and finger.
Back amongst trees, the wind blows through and I notice the rumble of the city, the searing sound of cars around the River Avon. I wonder how the hunter gatherers would have lived in dense woods like these. People today are enlivened and stressed by the proximity of others, as well as their distance. The woodland peoples, before they began exploiting the clearings at the edges will undoubtedly have been driven by a fear of wolves and bears, creatures that were made extinct in England. I ask two ladies and their dog in passing if they know how to get back onto the riverside and they shrug, they don’t know: ‘I think you just have to find a slope and go for it.’
I head on down a side track and the limestone rocks return, cutting out a steep, rugged path into the wooded hillside. At the end there’s some light, colours move across the gap. I’ve found the edge. The view opens out and the murmurings of vertigo appear with the river, the road and the gorge. It is a bizarre and beautiful sight. An oak is dead and beheaded above me on the precipice, how frightening for the woodlander who had to cut that off. Slick ferns grown from its mossy trunk like attempts at wings and feathers. The track isn’t at an end here and so I sense an exit. On the way down it crumbles under foot and so I’m thankful for the fistfuls of hawthorn wood that I can hold as I descend. And as I do I think of the settlers rushing to defend their land from an invasion on the Avon, flying down to the river with spears, arrows and other weaponry to hand. You see, I only have a camera and binoculars. I live in the age of observation.