The 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.
We 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.
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.
Built 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.