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.

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A bicycle love affair

When I was in secondary school, my parents drove me to our nearest Decathlon store in France to get a bicycle of my own. I don’t remember how old I was, I don’t remember what I was wearing, and I don’t remember who exactly who was with me, but I do remember the bicycle. It was dark blue with yellow brakes and ‘Decathlon’ written in big letters across the frame. I couldn’t touch the floor of the shop when I tried it on. But I loved it. It was to be my bicycle. Even though I was too short for it, my parents bought it. The idea was I would grow into it and wouldn’t need another bike for a long time. They were right. The next bike that came into my ownership was bought from my own money as a grown-up with a proper job.

Now modified by my uncle for work in the fields of northern France

I did everything and went everywhere with that first steed. I knew nothing of bicycles. I couldn’t fix a puncture or even tighten a screw. So by the time I was 19, the handlebars were loose, the saddle was wobbly, and the brakes near unusable. But it worked. It took me from A to B. It wasn’t particularly safe but I knew the bicycle so intimately that it didn’t matter. I trusted it.

Then I moved to the UK and became an au pair. The family let me use one of their bikes but I hated it. So I remained on foot that year. But then, I got a job and began saving for a new ride. Little by little and with the help of birthday and Christmas money I purchased my first bicycle as an adult. It was a Brompton folding bicycle. It had a black body and white extremities . I couldn’t afford something that didn’t fold. I just didn’t have the room and my living/working situation almost demanded that I ride  folding. I took it everywhere, and like my previous bicycle, I didn’t care if it wasn’t fit for purpose. It took me to work, it took me to the shops, it even took me to Scotland.

I still didn’t know much about bicycles. I couldn’t fix a puncture (but I learned to tighten screws). But that didn’t matter. I could still get from A to B. That is until I got a puncture and spent an entire afternoon learning how to fix it with the help of YouTube.

Life changed again and I fancied a full-sized bicycle. I didn’t have a lot of cash to expand and just wanted something fun to ride. So I walked in a second-hand shop and bought a gorgeous dark blue Dawes Londoner. It only had one speed but that suited me fine. As I gained confidence in the streets of London, I kept the folding bicycle in the cupboard more and more and wheezed around in the capital on this new steed. It even took me to Cambridge once.

By then, the touring bug seriously got hold of me, and while I loved my Brompton, I wanted something more suited to the task. So I began to save, hatched a plan to explore Portugal from my saddle, and eventually bought a sky blue Oxford Bike Works. By this time I knew how to fix a puncture and how to change brake pads (in theory). And these were all the skills I needed to feel confident to set off in the Iberian Peninsula for four months. This bike has truly taken me places. It has taken me from A to B, but mostly it has enabled to be get lost and travel with no destination in mind. I trust this bike so intimately, it’s like an extension of my body when I get on it. And while it’s a delight to ride, it’s also very heavy. And today I fancy something lighter to nip into work, something easier to carry for day rides and week-ends microadventures. None of my bikes can give me that, so it was time to get a new one.

My single speed put up for sale, and with money from my birthday, Christmas, and job, I started to look around and found a red, white, and yellow old school Graham Weigh bicycle at a local second-hand shop. I hopped on it for a test ride and fell in love. My feet couldn’t touch the ground and my body was falling forward but I knew it was the bike I was after. I tweaked the saddle and stem, and it was perfect. I swapped saddle, I got new bar tape, I changed pedals, and there it is. A new bicycle. One that will stay with me for years to come. And this time I know how to fix a puncture, I know how to change the brakes (in practice), I know how to tighten bolts, and I even know about pedals, bottom brackets, chain, brake levers, bar tape, saddle, panniers, racks, tyres, inner tubes, and more. I still don’t know much about gears other than they can make you life easy or hard. But then, it doesn’t matter. I’ve lived this long without knowing about it, I can spend a few more years blissfully ignorant.

I haven’t ridden many miles on it yet and I don’t have the luggage I want for light touring, but that will come in time. The days are getting longer and I’m hatching plans. There’s a whole lot of Somerset I haven’t explored, most of Wales and a huge chunk of the Cotswolds I’ve never seen. But that will soon be rectified.

Album – Passage – A cycle journey through Spain and Portugal

In March 2016 I left my home in the UK to cycle in Portugal. My panniers were full of camping gear, road essentials, and microphones. From the beginning of the trip I knew I was going to record a lot of sounds. I had no idea what I would produce out of those sounds. I imagined simply sharing the files, creating a sound map, maybe integrating them in a story in words. But never did I think, I would create an album.

When I came back home in July 2016, I was at a loss of what to do with all of my material. I wanted to share my story but I didn’t know how. Writing about it felt trivial. There was (and still is) nothing exceptional about what I did. I pedalled a lot of miles, slowly, and with a lot of breaks, in Spain and Portugal. I am one among hundreds of others.

Sharing the sounds as they were felt not enough. There was so much material, so many stories behind each sound. I wanted to give them more meaning, a way back into the world that was more than a dump of files on SoundCloud.

I struggled and beat myself up for not doing anything. Times was ticking on. I’d been on my journey, it was now time to share. But a friend reminded me that no, I didn’t need to share my story immediately. In a world that seemed dominated by the speed of social media and instant gratification, I forgot, I didn’t need to share straight away. I was allowed time to digest, time to forget and move on, time to come back to my memories. So I did.

I went on living life, creating a new home for myself, exploring new areas, building new friendships and stories. Until July 2017.

Out of the blue, Thaniel from Humanhood Recordings got in touch. His first message had nothing to do with creating an album but soon the conversation veered that way and I saw an opportunity, the possibility to find a home for my field recordings.

So I got to work. Evenings and commute time often taken by thoughts and questions about the album, days off spent staring at the audio editing software, moving files here and there, altering them, deleting everything, and starting all over again. Until late November. The album took shape, became as ready as I could get it, and it was time to release it into the world.

As I worked on the sounds, my sister worked on the booklet, and the album was complete. Get the booklet for free here.

There are no words in the album, albeit the ones from passer bys and friends from the road. The sounds are the story. But if you want something less metaphorical, the video below sums up four months in five minutes. All the photos can be found on Flickr. And if you want specific stories, you’ll just have to get in touch and ask.

Listen and buy the album here.*

*If the cost of the album really is a barrier, let me know. But before you get in touch, consider that your money will help a small label and me get more content like this in the future.

Open your ears

If you’ve followed my #30DaysWild journey this year, you will have noticed videos appearing at the end of my weekly reports. Simple videos, a minute long, basic editing, and sound.

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you will have noticed more and more sound files appearing in my posts. Field recordings, challenges, videos.

I listen. And I want you to listen too.

I began my sound journey in 2015 and I’ve since noticed that not many people listen to the world. We photograph it, we shape it into words, but we don’t listen to it. And yet, hearing is one sense we cannot fully block out (not unless we go to great length). It’s there, passive most of the time, and I want to change that.

I created Nature Sound of the Month with this goal in mind, to encourage people to listen to the world around them, not matter how trivial the sounds. But Nature Sound of the Month has run it course, with the last challenge issued in August.

But my mission is not over. Instead of challenging you to listen and record, I’m shifting gear and bringing the sounds to you. There will not be rare sounds from deep within the Amazonian forest, nor will there be unusual sounds from unexpected events. It is and will be every day sounds, the thing that you and I hear but don’t listen to.

One video at a time, a minute at a time, I want you to pause, open your ears, and listen.

New videos will go live on my YouTube channel every other Wednesday. I will share them on the blog the following day. Be  sure to subscribe to  my channel to be the first to listen.

An update on my 2017 goals

Six months have passed since I set myself goals to achieve by the end of the year. A lot has happened in those months and it’s time for an update.

  • Learn European Portuguese

    I have been learning a lot of vocabulary and I am confident enough to handle basic conversations. I understand soap operas when I have Portuguese subtitles on and I can read learners’ books. But I have not practised the language with a tutor or Portuguese person. I want to use a website called iTalki to help me improve but my work hours have made it difficult to arrange any kind of schedule. So instead I have gone on with a pattern of fuelling my vocabulary with a side of listening and reading.

    Lately I have let this goal slide. Other commitments have taken priority over learning Portuguese and I find myself struggling to maintain my daily practice. I am aware that I have overgrown simple vocabulary learning but alternatives are more time-consuming – which doesn’t help me timetable them in a busy schedule.

    But, I have began a new job with more regular hours, and this I hope, will make it easier to make time for iTalki tutors and boost my language skills.

    One thing I have completely given up on are the videos. They took me too much time for not enough return. So only one video was ever produced.

  • Take a photo every day

    At the beginning of the year, I used Splodz very helpful monthly prompts to help me focus and remember to take a photo a day. But I soon gave it up as the habit became more ingrained in me. My eyes automatically catch details and I remember to stop to take them in and capture them. I have gone through days when no photos have been taken, but most days I do and I’m happy with that.

    Follow me on Instagram if you want to see all those (almost) daily shots.

  • Record a sound every day

    This goal has been dropped back in April.
    I started this exercise to push myself to listen and use my recording equipment more. And I do. But recording every day proved too much. Instead of pushing me creatively, the process began to hamper me. I would grudgingly record a sound which resulted into a bad recording. Then I would have to spend hours at my computer to edit what I had captured instead of devoting time to other sound exercises that I found more valuable. At first I pushed through, thinking it was a hump to go over. But the feeling of time lost and wasted never stopped. So I stopped.
    I did not put my recorder and microphones away. Instead I took the time to develop a new sound specific project, one that forces me to listen and record regularly, but also one that is more meaningful and encompassing. But more on in another blog post (coming soon…).

    Follow me on SoundCloud if you never want to miss one of my recordings.

  • Other goals included

    -Setting up a new blog: this is probably not going to happen but I’m fine with it.
    -Sharing the sounds and story from my journey through Spain and Portugal: coming in September and December.
    -Going on a longboard microadventure: this is probably not going to happen.
    -Walking the West Highland Way with Zoe and Jenni: due to work issues, this is not going to happen for me but other plans are afoot.
    -Exploring the areas around my new home: this is well underway.
    Reading a book by a Portuguese author every month: this is going well although my library is running out of Portuguese authors.

Overall I’m happy with how I’m doing with my goals. There is room for improvement but setting myself targets has provided a focus I wouldn’t have otherwise had.

Have you set up goals and resolutions for the new year? If yes, how are you doing with them? Are you on track?