The river Avon and me – Part 01

I love waterways.

I’m not sure I can explain it. All I know is that I love them. And for the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to live next to some.
There was the New River in Enfield. I would walk past it on my way to work, watching a family of coot live and grow throughout the seasons. It was my moment in the day to pause and forget about any worries I had. There was the river Lea in Enfield. It was further from me and I did not visit often, but it was always a pleasure to take a day out along its banks. There were industries, kayaks, fishermen, families, boats, and all sorts of life around it. There was the Thames in Richmond. I use to live within walking distance of it for a while. It was a completely different river, a mightier one I didn’t dare trade in. It lived according to the tides, sometimes overflowing to remind people it is still wild, still have the power of its long travel through England behind it.

There were other waterways too. The Regents Canal that would lead me to a climbing wall, to the London zoo, to happy memories of time shared with a friend. The Beverley Brook was a heaven of peace in a crowded, noisy London borough. The trickle of the Vesle marked the end of the village I grew up in and the beginning of adventure. The steady flow of the Canal latéral de l’Aisne would bring me to childhood friends.

Waterways have always been a part of my life, and I’ve always loved them. That is, until now.

I live within cycling distance of the river Avon. I see it everyday on my way to work. I often pause to watch the gulls dance in the air while below the muddy banks form intricate patterns of lines and shapes, making me wonder if those patterns are the same a few miles away at the estuary. And in those moments I love the river. But it is not an unconditional love as it was for the New River, for the River Lea, for the Thames, for the Beverley Brook, for every other waterways I’ve lived next to or explored. And I don’t know why.

So this year, I’m embarking on a mission. I’m going to find out what’s missing, or what’s added. I want to love the river Avon. I want it to become my river as the other ones have been. I don’t have a plan on how to best do this. But I’m starting with walking the river Avon trail. I want to see it at ground level, at the slowest speed I can go. So in that spirit, on the 10th of January, I packed a day bag and headed for Pill, one end of the trail.

The tide was out, leaving an empty basin of silt exposed and boats stranded on the shore. The land appeared barren, as if someone had pulled a plug and drained the river. The houses around were silent and closed. I felt like the only person in this area of Somerset. I knew I was wrong but the wintry scenery was not reminding me of warmer days. I remembered the ebb and flow of the Thames in London. It too is a tidal river, but not like the Avon. The tidal range of the Avon is the second largest in the world. At Avonmouth, it can rise and fall as much as 14 metres twice a day, and in Bristol where I live, the water level can change as much as 12 metres. Pill is in between the two, and looking at the empty riverbed, it wasn’t hard to believe those numbers. I pondered briefly if those drastic changes were hindering my relation to the river, making it change its character too often for me to grasp it fully at any time.

I cast one last glance at the mud below and walked away. The path veered from the river immediately, passing through a park. I dropped my skateboard to the ground and pushed away. Standing on the board, I glided along on the asphalt as the flow of the water above the silt. I passed a few dog walkers but mostly I had the place to myself. There were play area and benches, views over the countryside, and the constant hum of the motorway just behind. I paused as I noticed it and looked at the bridge in the distance. In the past, this wouldn’t have been there. Instead, there would have been the constant noise of boats and seamen. The stretch of water between the Bristol Channel and the Port of Bristol was notoriously difficult to navigate, and Pill was a place to stop and let experience pilots guide big boats up the Avon Gorge to Bristol. But those pilots have long since disappeared into history books. The way into Bristol is now by road.

I rolled on, spotting familiar cycle route signs. I looked for a red barge on a blue badge, the official trail waymark, but no trace of it were to be found. I didn’t see it for the entire day. The River Avon Trail was not announced. I knew it existed. There was a website for it, even a guide, and definitely a path. But you wouldn’t know this without digging around online.

I kicked my skateboard up and attached it to my bag. The ground was no longer tarmac. Soft mud cushioned my steps and dirtied my boots in a few seconds. Houses disappeared and long expanses of fields opened the view to the right. On the left, the brown murky river passed quietly. Above its bank, a train rattled every now and again. And higher still, the traffic of the busy A4 gradually replaced the hum of the M5.

There was no one on the water, not even birds. And there was no one on the path but me. The river was mine but I couldn’t bring myself to love it. Maybe it was the emptiness of the landscape. I walked on, my steps squelching in the mud. I stopped by an opening in a ditch that let its water fall into the Avon. I heard water for the first time, an outpouring of life into the silent river. A couple of cyclists passed me by. We smiled at one another and I began to appreciate the river more.

I walked on a little more relaxed, a little more appreciative of the waterway. Villages came into view on the north bank, bringing wildlife with them. There was the surprise squeak of a field mouse that I never saw, and the shrill call of gulls in a ballet over the water. In the field behind, blackbirds replied. And for an instant, I forgot about everything else.

As I approached Bristol, I entered the sheltered space of Leigh Woods. Trees enveloped me but their bare branches allowed for a view of the Avon. It began to change here. It felt wider. I knew this was most likely not true. Maybe if it was the reflections of the buildings and the sky ahead that made it looked that way. I paused often to watch the clouds in the river and made slow progress on the trail. I wasn’t in a rush anyway. I was here for the river and I needed to let its pull on me work its magic. It wasn’t quite like the draw of the Thames or the New River, but it was the beginning of something.

A long lorry drove past on the A4 and jolted me out of my reverie. I looked across the water to the unceasing lines of vehicles and wondered if they were not one of the cause that were keeping me away from the river. I do not like traffic sound and sometimes find it hard to block it out. It overpowers smaller natural sounds, making them disappear into the forest unless you actively pay attention to them. It felt like they were masking the river, the new thoroughfare erasing the old.

I continued on the path, human noises growing louder as the traffic of Clifton Bridge added its chorus to the A4. I was getting into Bristol now. The mud underfoot stopped to be replaced by tarmac. I unclipped my skateboard and rolled away from the cacophony of the road network above the Cumberland basin.

In a few kicks, I was within familiar territory. There was the Bristol marina and up ahead the floating harbour. Instinctively I headed for the north bank of the Avon but halfway across a bridge, I stopped. I wasn’t here to speed away from irritating aspect of the riverside. I was here to explore and get to know the Avon. I turned around and went back to the south bank and walked into the Underfall Yards. I had seen the old chimney from afar but I’d never quite ventured to it before, always passing in nearby streets. I was about to roll away when I was stopped in my track by the 78 feet (24 metres) long replica of the Matthew propped out of the water. Raised above ground, the boat looked even more impressive than on water, and I couldn’t help but wonder again how John Cabot made it to North America in the 15th century on such a small vessel. We have ocean liners today, big massive metal boats shaped like unsinkable tanks that look sturdy and safe. But this boat was only a caravel, a small wooden sailing ship. I sat down for a moment and listened to unseen workers carry out maintenance in its belly.

The maddening criss-cross of roads over Cumberland basin was just behind me and yet, I couldn’t hear it. A few metres from it I had found an island of stillness. The water was calm, people were on foot, and the only noises were of men working on boats. I felt like the river was its own here. It was controlled by men but it was allowed to breathe and live.

Bristol used to have a tidal harbour, grounding ship into the silt bottom of the river at low tide, causing damages to the hulls and hassle to commerce. So in the early 19th century, William Jessop created a dam and a lock not far from the harbour to control the water level. The excess flow was diverted into the freshly dug New Cut which was allowed to reveal its silt bottom while ships were safely docked in the level water of the floating harbour. The Underfall Yards where I was were crucial to its operation with its sluice system and I marvelled in at the feat of engineering.

After a while I got up and went on with my journey. I knew exactly what lay ahead. I would pass the SS Great Britain, the large tourist attraction forcing me to veer away from the river before returning to it and meet the old rails of the Bristol Harbour Railway. Trains used to run between the harbour and the train station but nowadays they go back and forth from the SS Great Britain to the industrial cranes at the end of the harbour, transporting tourists, train lovers, curious locals, and children.

I zigzagged my way between the rails, sometimes on foot, sometimes on the board. I wasn’t alone here. A handful of people were enjoying a scenic walk along the river. On our side of the river, boats of all sizes and shapes were docked along its edges. On the opposite side, Bristol coloured houses brightened the day, and all around us gulls danced and fought with one another provided a show in the air.

I reached the M-Shed, my favourite museum in the city, and sat on a pillar for lunch. This was the end of the harbour and the end of my walk for the day. I like it there. You can read Bristol’s history by sight. Often the replica of the Matthew is docked there, welcoming people on board for a tour or a private party. Opposite, the once Baltic trader three-masted barque Kaskelot rest, and further beyond, skateboarders practice their tricks while shoppers and arts lovers meander along the water’s edge. Back on the south bank, tall cranes are a reminder of Bristol trading heyday’s in the 1950s. But this is gone now, the smoke, the noise, the business of commerce. Instead there is the gentle footsteps of passersby, the conversations of people, and the clatter of plates and cutlery from the thriving restaurants and cafés along the goal ferry steps.

I unpacked my sandwich and took it all in. Here, at the harbourside, I was in love with the river. I basked in this feeling because I knew it was only fleeting. I loved this place, this harbour, but not the whole waterway.

My sandwich finished, I hopped back on the skateboard and pushed my way home. I was no closer to an answer to my original question. But I felt I had got to know the river Avon a little bit more intimately. Knowledge I had gained from books and the Internet was a little more concrete, helping me to understand who the river Avon is today. I am not in love with it, not like the other waterways of my past but I was left a little smitten, hopeful that this spark would grow. There is still half of the trail to go, and then miles and miles of water to explore in Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, and Somerset. There is still time. The river is not going anywhere and neither am I.

Advertisements

#30DaysWild – Week 04 and a bit

Make room for nature!

This is a cry from The Wildlife Trusts, urging us to remember nature and pay attention to it during our everyday life. Nature isn’t something to be enjoyed during our time off and lose sight of when we fall back into our daily routine. It is a home that needs to be nurtured and taken care of constantly. But this, is too easy to forget.

So this month, I, and hundreds of people across the British isles have pledged to be a little more wild. Here is what I chose to do during the second week. Catch up with week 01 here, week 02 here, and week 03 here. For daily update on what I’m up to and spotting around me, follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Day 22

The day before I had pedalled away from home with no destination in mind. It didn’t matter that I would have no bed for the night, I was sure to be able to find a spot of grass somewhere in Somerset to lay down in. And sure enough I did, ending and beginning days in my favourite way: outside. Breakfast over, I cycled on, home a vague destination to reach before sundown. I found small roads and dirt roads, a long beach and plenty of head wind, long grass and insects against my bare legs, and birds happily flying and singing in this season of plenty.

Day 23

I was cycling once more but this time to commute along the Avon New Cut. As I’ve written before everything is green along its bank, a monochrome world only broken by the brown flow of the river. So when this spot of purple appeared, I immediately pulled the brakes to inspect what they were. My botanical knowledge being quite poor, I turned to the Internet and was told those are common mallow (malva sylvestris). I’m okay with identifying trees, but get completely lost when flowers and other plants are involved. I want to be able to name the world around me, know it and make it mine, but I’m so often frustrated by the difficulty of browsing through endless Google pictures. Do you have resources you find particularly helpful?

Day 24

I had a date with the library before I had to rush to the post office and then work. It was all a bit of a blur until the yellow of this label caught my eye. ‘Be happy, and smile‘, it said. So I did. I raised my eyes, looked at the trees and the breeze swinging their leaves left and right. And I smiled. And I was happy, my perception that little more acute again.

Day 25

Since returning from my mini cycle tour in Somerset, everything had been frantic. I found myself having to cram so much outside of work, I was running like a headless chicken most of the time, only stopping for sleep. So that evening, I decided to drop my plans of video and sound editing and sat in the garden with a cup of tea. The sun had set but there was still some light. I listened to the children next door playing quietly, the birds singing the last of their songs, and the traffic dying down on the road nearby. And gradually, the stillness that had escaped me for the past few days began to return.

Day 26

The clouds had settled in, turning the world grey once more. But it’s near impossible to find a monochrome dullness in summer. Instead there were yellows and purples glowing bright in the grass lay-bys, and pinks and blues of flowers in the cracks of the pavement and buildings. I was reminded that it’s not the blue skies that make summer.

Day 27

Work over, my partner picked me up and we headed to mid-Wales. We drove out of Bristol without a problem, A roads soon replaced by B roads and the familiar sights of Gloucestershire by the Shropsire Hills. Mounds of earth rose and we slowed often to watch them undulate in the landscape. We crossed the border between England and Wales several times, a squiggly lines that doesn’t care for roads. But soon the signs were in Welsh, and we swapped B roads for small lanes, finding our way to the yurt we had booked. We lit the fire, settled in, and watched the world grow dark with a glass of wine in hand.

Day 28

The forecast was for rain and clouds all day. And it was correct, mostly. We didn’t see the sun that day and we got damp but it didn’t stop us enjoying a walk in the countryside. I had hoped for right of ways through fields and meadows but we were advised against it if we didn’t fancy sinking into mud and muck. We didn’t and took to the lanes instead. Tarmac under our feet didn’t mean nature wasn’t all around. Sheep grazed and called one another, snails make their slow way to where they wanted, and the vegetation glistened under the rain drops. Four hours went before we reached the yurt again.

Day 29

The day began with an outdoors breakfast before we had to pack our stuff and head away from the yurts. Eager to see more of the Shrophire hills, we drove in their direction, selecting a different route than the one we came through. We slowed often, stopping the car for a good look at the views and a walk in a forest. I breathed in the smell of wet rotting earth and for a moment all was still and quiet in me.

Day 30

30 days have passed and it ends as it began, in my garden. I’m no longer suffering from the flu, the spittle bugs have gone, and the flowers have transformed. And I’m a little different too. I’ve gained new knowledge, I’ve tried new things, and I’m a little richer in life.

Bonus video

To keep up to date with what I’m up to, follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

#30DaysWild – Week 03

Make room for nature!

This is a cry from The Wildlife Trusts, urging us to remember nature and pay attention to it during our everyday life. Nature isn’t something to be enjoyed during our time off and lose sight of when we fall back into our daily routine. It is a home that needs to be nurtured and taken care of constantly. But this, is too easy to forget.

So this month, I, and hundreds of people across the British isles have pledged to be a little more wild. Here is what I chose to do during the second week. Catch up with week 01 here, and week 02 here. For daily update, follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Day 15

I moved to Bristol in winter and at the time, the part of my commute photographed above was barren. It was a tangle of branches, the browns and greys of the barks mixing with the fences and buildings around. I could see robins dart about or stay still on a tree. And I wondered… How would all this look in Summer? It is like a tunnel of leaves, green overpowering the grey of the tarmac and engulfing the fences around. The buildings are lost to me making me forget I’m in a city. Birds darts in between trees but I only see them in flight, their homes and feeding station hidden by the foliage.

Day 16


When I’m at work there isn’t much time for nature. I have to get up, go to work, come back home, do the usual chores, go to bed, start again. But there is always my commute and lunch time. I may only have half an hour, but even in the centre of Bristol it’s easy to find a spot of grass within a two minutes walk. I have found one and it has become my lunch time spot. I lay down on it, eat my sandwich/soup/salad, and close my eyes. Or I pick up a book and read, because books are the best lunch dates.

Day 17

A day off brought me and my partner to Oxford. We meandered in the city centre for hours, not quite able to get lost in such a confined environment, but always escaping the bigger streets for narrow ones. Spires rose, yellow stones encased the colleges away from commoners, and all around nature made its home in the cracks of the architecture. As the heat of the day was not relenting, we retreated to the Thames and walked along the water until we found a quiet spot to dip our feet in and watch the natural world and humans go by for a while.

Day 18

It was time to head back home but not via A roads and the motorway. Instead, we drove into the Cotswolds, stopping at Burford for a long walk in the countryside. There were quiet tarmac lanes but also plenty of meadows and fields where I was free to take off my shoes and let the grass cushion my steps. I wish I could walk barefoot more often. We found a river and I took a swim before we had lunch by the water, the ducks always hoping for some of our food. We drove away but stopped again at the sight of another river. The water was very shallow but that didn’t stopped me. I jumped right in and walked in it for a while, the coolness of its water a blessing on such a hot day.

Day 19


Back to work, my everyday routine was broken by small birds on the cycle path by the Avon New Cut. I stopped my longboard and watch them attempt running away from commuters. I wondered what they were but work soon took over my mind and I dismissed the question. But on my commute back home, the little birds were still there, hoping about. I stopped and watched them for a while longer than I had in the morning. And it hit me. Those little baby birds are baby seagulls. And in that instant I realised I’d never seen one in my life, or had never paid enough attention to notice. Eventually I got back on the board, happy beyond belief at having seen and recognised those creatures we too often think as mean and ugly.

Day 20

Darkness was beginning to fall upon the city when I made my way home. I had spent the day at work and the evening at the Bristol Bike Project. I had seen nature on my commute but hadn’t paid more attention to it than usual. So on my way back, I slowed down and stopped by the river for a while. All I could hear was the distant hum of traffic and the slow rumble of trains. And there, above a bridge, gulls had congregated, all still and silent, a sight I could have easily missed had I not stopped to take in the evening atmosphere.

Day 21

The summer solstice has always been cause for celebration. When I was a child in France, musicians would take to the street and play through the day and night. If it was a school day, I was left free to wander the streets, following the notes that attracted my ears. As I grew older, Music Day became a small pause in the midst of exams, a relief that it would soon all be over and summer would finally begin. And then I moved to the UK, a place where there is no Music Day, not like in France anyway. So I took to spending time outside, immersing myself in nature. At first, it was simply long walks in London, making the most of the long day. Gradually, I began to escape the city, exploring the countryside and sleeping outside. And ever since it has become a tradition. On the summer solstice, I pack my bag and go on a microadventure. This time, I pedalled away from my front door and into Somerset (but more on that later).

Bonus video

For daily update, follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

#30DaysWild – Week 01

Make room for nature!

This is a cry from The Wildlife Trusts, urging us to remember nature and pay attention to it during our everyday life. Nature isn’t something to be enjoyed during our time off and lose sight of when we fall back into our daily routine. It is a home that needs to be nurtured and taken care of constantly. But this, is too easy to forget.

So this month, I, and hundreds of people across the British isles have pledged to be a little more wild. Here is what I chose to do during the first week. For daily update, follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Day 01


On the 30th of May I suffered from a violent flu attack, leaving me barely able to walk. On the 1st of June I could walk a bit more but decided that the nature reserve was just too far away. Instead, I lay in the garden, letting the sun warm my skin. Half conscious, I noticed a white trail on the flowers below the tree laurel. Upon closer inspection, I noticed it looked like spit. Intrigued, I turned to the Internet and began to learn about the spittle bug that will grow into a froghopper. Everyday, I take a moment to pause and look at the cocoon. Soon, the bug will emerge and I probably will never see it again. After all, with an acceleration of 4,000 m/s2 over 2mm when it jumps, I am unlikely to spot it.

Day 02


I was back at work but my commute was made shorter by being given a lift into town. But that didn’t mean I would be deprived of nature. Work is encased in glass and concrete, but outside, plants find ways to develop around our structures. Like this flower I shared on social media. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew I liked the simplicity and smallness of it. A few minutes went past, and people soon told me I had photographed a geranium robertianum, also known as herb-robert. I was glad for the help as I often find it difficult to identify plants (less so with trees). What resources do you use to help you name the plants you see around you?

Day 03


I had managed a day at work and was back for another one. I was again driven into town, but I was early. So I paused a moment by a church and watched a jay hop about in the sun. It looked happy jumping from one spot to another, and I could imagine it delighting in the sun and its warmth. But soon it flew away and I left the grass and sun by the church for the concrete and artificial light of work.

Day 04


I had managed two days at work but I was still feeling incredibly tired. I wanted to get out and enjoy the sun after my shift but had no strength left for it. So I did the next best thing. I picked up a book and began reading about the natural world around me. Uncommon Ground by Dominick Tyler is a wonderful book. It is adding a rich layer of vocabulary to the outdoors. What I thought was nameless or long forgotten is now named, described, and intimate.

Day 05


Just as I began to feel myself again, the rain arrived accompanied by gusts of wind. It didn’t make for a pleasant walk after work as drops lacerated my exposed face. But all around me, they fell on nature and man-made structure alike, hanging, conglomerating, and letting the light bounce off their surface.

Day 06


The rain continued sporadically but the wind picked up, making a downhill walk much harder than it ever is. My garden turned into a patchwork of leaves. Green on green it was very monochrome but in puddles they took to life and twirled with the drops, a dance to a music only they could hear.

Day 07


The wind lingered but it was out of breath. I on the contrary was feeling stronger and for the first time since my attack of the flu, I decided to hop of the bike and cycle to work. The main roads soon faded from view as I pedalled by the Avon New Cut, the familiar sight and sound of the river a delight to my eyes and ears.

Bonus video

For daily update, follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Pedalling Portugal – Photo report

In early March 2016, I found myself in a deserted coach station in Spain. At my feet lay my bike, wrapped in industrial size bin bags. Next to it, my four panniers rested in a line ready to be mounted on the racks. And I stood in front of them, the reality of my journey slowly sinking in. Eventually I hooked the panniers to their rightful place. I got on the bike and off I went. This is what I saw.
For 32 weeks, I will post a batch of photos every Monday morning.
Later words and sounds will come. But for now, I’m going to share what I experienced through the photos I took. If you miss a post, go to this page to find all the links.

I left Santiago on a coach as I needed to get to France quick so I could visit my dad. I got back on the bike in Irun and cycled along the Vélodyssée for a while, met up with my dad, cycled along the Loire à Vélo for a bit, met up with my mom and little sister, ditched the bike in favour of coaches and trains as I got reunited with my partner once more and we set to explore pockets of France. I couldn’t have wished for a better end to my journey.