field notes

Walk 8: Sightseeing

On the first day of December and the last workshop of the series, we set out to circle the island.


We were a group of writers, media researchers, advertising execs, teachers, engineers, crossword writers, arts programmers and poets.  Setting out, we were relieved and nervous that we were working with people that all spoke such different strains of a common language. We chatted and introduced ourselves and pointed and nodded and made notes about what we thought we had seen, but when we got back to Spike Island we realised we’d all taken a very different walk. Different moments had spoken to us, out there bobbing along the harbour.

Some saw the arguing lovers, others the steam cranes. Litter. Canoes. Weather. The Dry Dock. Our feet. Overheard conversations. A lost glove. The waves. God’s Garden (No Dogs Please).

god's gardenOthers plotted out our movements as if we were walking through mappable space.  Others took readings of our excavations, seeing how far we could dig through the tarmac.


Popping into MShed, we were able to walk around the world of Google maps for a few moments, only to head back outside and find ourselves checking our route on our phones and looking at print outs of maps and aerial photographs from Bristol City Council’s archives to keep ourselves hovering between planes.

We talked about the function of the walk, about the conversations between us.  And we talked about the writing being a translation of ‘a moment’.  And how this project might be better understood as a chain of translations of all the shared and private moments we moved through in the first hour of the workshop.

Now the project has come to an end, I have started to think about the closing of ‘the moment’, both as a pocket of time or experience and as an action of turning, moving around an axis, whether that movement takes place between looking at a map and trying to overlay that aerial outline onto your horizontal pathway through outbuildings and caravan parks in a tangle of a city or whether that means moving from one language to another, turning one thing into another, one line of sight into two.

cut up

After warming ourselves back up with coffee and mince pies (eagerly welcoming the first of the festive month!), we set about flattening these ‘moments’, writing them out and through each other.  We initially wrote alone and then shared and rewrote, some in partnership. Some participants started to cut and paste new texts using previous participants’ work and all of us decided to structure our pieces around the perspex sightseeing guide (pictured above) which variously declares:






Then, the thrilling task of miniaturising the poems on plastic to compose a collection of pocketable sightseeing guides to disperse across the city.  Here are some of the final pieces:


you are here steps god's garden boatholespalimpsestbooklet

Walk Six


We walked out in search of a place where the city begins and ends, where the river chatters away into its own mouth.  We walked to the harbour gates where the Floating Harbour and the New Cut mix together and run out to the Bristol Channel and jumped across to a smaller island where you can walk along the top of the harbour gates.



We crossed back over and walked through Underfall Yard, a working boatyard halfway between Cumberland Basin and Baltic Wharf, recognising a restaurant boat from downriver was in the dry dock.  We could see its spider plants and tables, high up in the air.


We wanted to walk in circles, to get lost and end up where we started.  We started collecting circles like they were full stops or white pebbles leading us back out of the woods.  Hopping from mooring post to mooring post, we met Edwin. And found a coconut in the weeds.  And walked until the moon came out, another white pebble against the bright November sky.



judyLocal short story writer Judy Darley used the circle frames from one of our earlier walks, taking us back to the beginning, to structure a lyric narrative for two voices.  We wrote around each other, leaping from one circular frame to the next, producing this pleated poem of first loves, last loves, a guilty city and coffee-rings: C O N C E N T R I C


Walks Four and Five

horwoodWalks Four and Five returned again and again to the site and story of John Horwood’s death – and began with a visit to the macabre and fascinating object that is what remains of it all.

Cutis Vera Johannis Horwood.

‘The Real Skin of John Horwood’ is a book in the collections at MShed.  It is also a work of abject documentation, a true corpus, a kind of poetic object. The book is bound in the skin of Horwood who was flayed after the execution that was ordered by the trial that is documented in the pages of the book by the surgeon who sketched the deceased and coincidentally also operated on the murderer’s victim’s fractured skull before her death.   Horwood was the first man to be hanged at the New Gaol on Spike Island, on the theatrical gallows at the end of what is now the car park of the very same museum that holds his skin.  The story folds over and over.


Along the way, we searched for Trin Mill, a buried mill pond outside of the city which now gives its name to a small housing development on the very edge of Spike Island, and looked through maps of the city that drew out a sequence of imagined islands, one over the other.  We could almost navigate with this 1750 map by John Rocque, if we squinted long enough.  Eventually canal boats became galleons and we could take a short ferry across to Prince Street to reach Arnolfini. It seemed every corner we turned took us to another turning: a man turning into a book, a thrown stone that turned to murder, a gate house that turned into gallows that turned into a garden at the end of the car park of a harbour warehouse that turned into a museum for a city that turns itself over and over.


Pauline Masurel led a mapping project that would have challenged Rocque himself.  Using index cards and arrows we drew out a direct line that charted our walk in a series of translations from this to that.  We then reworked this as a single sentence that moved us through each transformation in turn, sometimes propelling us through the vibrating changes of a single word. The “flawed” city that opens this piece, for instance, arrived out of an encounter with the room-sized floor map of Bristol at MShed and a discussion of Spike’s Island’s fractured narrative.  In amongst vital conversations about the nature of collaborative work for writers, a strange wheel of fortune rolled in.  You can read the sentence here.

Walk Three

bridgescoverThe shelter of the bridge drew out a corridor of still water in the New Cut, outlining the old route of the ferry that once carried ten thousand people a week from Southville to Spike Island.  You can still see the ramps that people lined up on, where now low tide reveals a lost bike, a shopping trolley, the green mud.

wappingwharfWe walked over the bridge, over the ricochetting echoes of the ferry, over the route of a wedding day procession from the church to Brandon Hill, over the line between life and death as we approached the remains of Bristol’s New Gaol. The old prison walls are now almost exactly replicated in the bright orange swags of developers’ promises: hotels, houses, homes, here.  But not yet.  Until interest picks up, the old New Gaol is a car park.

car park

And, underneath the tarmac, the site of an old rope walk – a long, recursive pathway where ropes for the docks were stretched out and wound – is recalled in the design of Wapping Wharf.


Rope walks were historically difficult, uncomfortable sites of labour, sometimes dangerous sweatshops and now rebranded as shopping centres, as in Liverpool, and car parks here in Bristol.  A different mode of repetitive action, perhaps.

And still acting as gate to the car park is the gate to the New Gaol.  It has erupted into forest and, by shadowy turns, takes us from entrance to exit to no place at all.

gateBuilt as a grand gatehouse to the enormous new prison built here in 1820, the archway was altered to include a ‘drop’, a trapdoor for public hangings.  The body of first man to be hanged here in 1821 would have been framed within the enormous bulk of the gate.  A grim theatre for those crossing the river from Southville.

This first man was none other than John Horwood, whose skin was subsequently flayed and used to bind a book containing the legal papers from his own trial.  The book is now held in the collections at MShed, whose car park now also sits on the site of the old prison, the old rope walk and the last walk of John Horwood.

We set our course back to the Mud Dock Deli, to shelter from the rain and to drink (delicious) coffee.  We began to feel a little better, a little more able to talk about the trees pushing up the roof of the house that saw men walk to their deaths.  We started to write together, bridging sentences between us.


We were building an exquisite corpse, we were walking the rope of the sentence between us, handing the fraying end to the next writer and seeing how far they can take it before we fall as those men did through the gate which was a welcome which was a way in which was a way out which was a doorway which was a trapdoor which was an exit which was a trip which was a drop which was a ditch which was a pitch which was a stripped back skin which was a length of rope which was a rope wound round itself which was the rope walk, the turning of the text against itself, against your skin, in, out, gone.

The resulting text, R O P E W A L K, is a strange thing, full of echoes and happy, unhappy coincidences and the evidence of writers bridging gaps between each other and the messy history we park our cars on.

Walk Two


Taking a cue from National Poetry Day last week, we set out in search of water.

This time, turning away from the green slick of the tidal Avon, we headed for the Floating Harbour, a vast ’80 acres of tidal river’ pinned in to create a busy inland port.  A sealed body.  A container for water, for trade, for the choppy glitter that the tourists’ packet boats trail between bars, galleries, restaurants.  A Floating Harbour?  Like a money float, we thought, perhaps?  A bottled supply of buffer, delay, duplication, constancy.

We started to sketch the water, taking notes, reading the momentary alignment of passing boats as if they were snatches of conversation, sentences, overheard.

field notes


We looked at the water, realising we kept describing the surface skin: peaks, mirror, rippling, movement, splash, wake.  A fisherman catching roach suddenly drew a vertical line out of the depths and we paid attention.

We tried to take a sample of the water from underneath what we could see.  It looked the same, but quieter.

We were talking a lot about writers’ practices, the daily routine and the relentless rolling of the day into night when some writers begin and others pack up.  We started to talk about the containment of time, the allotment of schedule, of discrete moments, of split vision.  We started trying to look at the water, this bright band of movement from left to right, in segments.  To think: we were here, we will be there, though, at some point.  And we must be back here by 4pm.  We talked about the water as a model for writing.  The surface as semantics.  The hidden mechanics of the moving body underneath, the rolling movement of narrative, time, force.  We were dealing with the fine ripples, the muscular flick of a repeated wave caught on the foreshore, that we framed in a little guide for looking made especially for this workshop.


Six frames of reference, moving around the reassurance of you are here: you will be here, you were here, you could have sworn you were here, you wish you were here, you will never never never be here no matter how hard you try.


We used this model of looking, splitting our attention across six points, six times and focussing on brief moments of alignment, of interruption.  A boat glides across, a seagull drops from the breeze, a fish splutters up the fisherman’s line, the Pyronaut.  We started to notice other containers for water and we had other conversations about writing poetry, about prose, about writing for academic purposes.  Containers each.  And ways we shape our time, our attention.


We started with the same scene, the same water.  And amongst us, we wrote very different accounts of our walk.  A meditation on water, a short story, a sequence of poems, a conversation, a promise.  And in many ways, all our responses were all of these, just split and layered across the surface in different arrangements.  Some of these will be appearing here in time.


The next walk in the Spike Archipelago series is Sunday 13th October at 2pm, meeting at Spike Island foyer.  We will be exploring the buildings, developments and missing structures of Spike Island.  Please do join us!  Contact for further information.

Walk One

September 22nd, 2pm.  We listened.

We collected water.  Wheels.  Haptic feedback.  Spit.  Birds in the mud.  Sliding.  Children swearing.  Singing.  Running along train tracks.  Generators.  Tide.  Echo.  Hiding from the rain under the bridge.

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birdprintboxseed grate  spitslide