An Alternative Take on World Heritage Weekend

It’s been a crazy busy week, so I’m only just now catching up on here on the blog — to say a few words about last weekend’s events in the Saltaire area. It was the Annual World Heritage Weekend celebrations for Titus Salt’s Victorian mill village — part of a worldwide celebration of UNESCO-designated heritage sites. Saltaire has been participating for 5 years now, but this was the first year when the Higher Coach Road estate was officially ‘on the map’ for the Heritage celebrations (as you can see from this map, from the WHW leaflet)…

Higher Coach Road falls comfortably within the “buffer zone” which restricts planning within sight of Saltaire (subject to UNESCO approval), and of course the whole area that the estate is built on once belonged to Sir Titus Salt. But the residents chose to mark the occasion by celebrating their own “heritage” as a post-war council estate by hosting a 1950s picnic … for themselves, and anyone else who wanted to join in….

The 1950s picnic was initially the brainchild of resident Ruth Bartlett, pictured below in this rather curious picture that appeared in the online version of theTelegraph and Argus

Ruth is pictured here having (no) tea poured for her by myself, Steve Bottoms. The T&A photographer, having turned up at the very beginning of the 12-4 slot during which we’d said the picnic events would occur, found that not that many people were there yet (because, seriously dude, who turns up at a party in the first minute?), and so asked those of us who’d dressed up to pose with embarrassed grins for the camera…

Ruth and I are seated here in the “outdoor living room” that was Multi-Story Water’s contribution to the festivities. Cleverly assembled by Anna Parker from visits to a string of charity shops, this installation of 50s furniture and nick-nacks was well populated over the course of the afternoon, as people came and sat down on the surprisingly comfortable furniture to enjoy the sunshine. (it was behind a cloud when the photographer came, naturally…)  That blue folder poking out from under the coffee table contained a selection of stories I had prepared about the area and its community and watery histories. I read these on request, in response to people picking titles from a menu we provided… such as “The Malicious Mr. Pickles”, “Higher Coach Road in the Ice Age” and “Ten Minutes of Madness (The Derwent Avenue Murderer)”. This was our “streaming service” for an age when most people didn’t have television yet… and it seemed to go down remarkably well! Some of the stories prompted considerable discussion. One resident, for example, shared her memories of working at Salts Mill in the 1970s — because she remembered as a co-worker the victim of the murder in my “ten minutes of madness” story (a black tale for a sunny day – it proved an unexpectedly popular choice!).

Ruth and I had also collaborated on writing this leaflet, launched on this occasion as a joint effort of MSW and HCR Residents Group (the image shows the inside of the ‘gatefold’). In this slightly-tongue-in-cheek “heritage” leaflet, which will also be available from Saltaire Visitor Information Centre, we wanted to make the case for this estate as “Saltaire’s Other Model Village” — a development planned to blend in with its green and pleasant environment, which residents still take great pride in.

Here’s another of the shots from the T&A, with Saltaire’s towers visible in the background. Dressed in their versions of the 1950s are the current and recent chairs of the Higher Coach Road Residents’ Group — Pam Ruppe and Stewart Gledhill — who are flanked on either side by Kat Martin (left) and Lyze Dudley (right), both part of the Multi-Story Water team who dressed up for the day.

Now, it does rather look from these pictures as if nobody else was there… which is not in the least bit true. (I’ll shortly be uploading lots of shots taken by our own photographer for the afternoon — just got a technical access issue to be resolved so I can see them!) It was a perfect day for sitting out in the sun, for a chat with neighbours — whether enjoying food from the sandwich and cake stall masterminded by Irene Townend and other HCRRG members, or a little storytelling, or listening to music. We had “the bard of Saltaire”, Eddie Lawler, playing live on his acoustic guitar, and also a collection of old 78 rpm records from the 1950s that we played on the little machine pictured below (with which I was asked to pose for the most embarrassing photo op of the afternoon…). The most popular tunes turned out to be Cliff Richard‘s “Please Don’t Tease” and Brian Hyland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” (which several picnickers seemed to know word for word by heart, and sang along…). Admittedly both those tunes were actually released in 1960, but what’s a year between friends? This is when a lot of people would have been moving onto the estate anyway: construction began in 1957, but continued until the early 60s.

After the picnic wound down, and we’d packed up the outdoor living room, Kat and I made our way to Fanny’s Ale House, for the first of three Saltaire-area performances this weekend of This Island’s Mine — the short play celebrating the history of Dockfield, which I discussed in detail in my last blog post. Again, it was nice to be complicating the “official” heritage story of World Heritage Weekend, by drawing attention to another, less celebrated Shipley neighbourhood. (In Dockfield’s case, the major developments occurred not in the Victorian or post-WWII periods, but at the beginning of the 20th century, when Shipley Council built Dockfield Road, Dockfield Terrace, and local works for gas, electricity and sewage). And on Sunday afternoon, in the bar of Salts Sports Association (just across the river from the Coach Road estate), it was a particular pleasure to perform the play for an audience made up of members of the Higher Coach Road Residents Group…

This Island’s Mine ends with a speech from Kat (based on interviews with Dockfield residents) about how, for all the improvements in living conditions we have nowadays, we’ve perhaps lost something of the sense of close community that was experienced by many local residents growing up (in the years when this was still very much an industrial town). This was a sentiment that I recall being expressed particularly clearly to me by some of the people sitting at this table — Stewart and Pat, Irene and Barry — when I first met and interviewed them back in 2012. So it was a particular delight, with Higher Coach Road Residents’ Group having become such a dynamic source of community identity over the last couple of years, to be sharing this story with them. It turns out that, just because something seems to have been lost, doesn’t mean it can’t be rediscovered with a little goodwill and ingenuity — because that sense of community may well still be there, lying dormant, and ready to sprout again…

That’s Barry in the middle of the shot above. He grew up in Dockfield, and has lived on Higher Coach Road since the 60s. He contributed some great new additions to the collection of memories we’ve been gathering around this little play. And on the right in the image below is Steve, one of the most active current members of HCRRG, who went straight off from Salts to visit one of the older residents on the estate — as part of a “befriending” scheme that the group has started, to tackle the problem of isolation experienced by some. HCRRG is doing some amazing work now… I salute you all.

And so, back to Fanny’s Ale House, and the last of our scheduled performances of This Island’s Mine this weekend. For an audience that included Rob Martin and Molly Kenyon, the dynamic Saltaire duo who really got the World Heritage Weekend celebrations established as an annual thing these past five years (this year they’ve finally been able to step back a bit and let others take the lead). So it was great to share this with them too! That’s Rob’s knees in the bottom right of the shot below — after Kat had managed to attack them by accidentally knocking Rob’s pint off the table with one of her props… The perils of live theatre! Fortunately nobody was hurt, and the show continued once the glass was swept up by Fanny’s quick-reacting staff…

A particular highlight for me of this last performance was the way that the audience took it upon themselves to animate some of our table props… Below is one spectator’s interpretation of a story Kat tells, at the end of the piece, about canoeists being attacked by swans on the canal outside the Amber Wharf flats… So OK, it’s geese not swans, and a skateboarding lego man not a canoeist, but that is the spirit of improvisation!

Happy World Heritage Weekend everyone. A great celebration of past, present, and – perhaps – future…

This Island’s Mine – performing Dockfield

This was the scene just last night, in one of the flats at Amber Wharf. That’s the new-build properties next to the canal, in the Dockfield area of Shipley.

Sitting at the end of the table is Kat Martin, my co-performer in This Island’s Mine, the two-person play that we’ve devised and written about the history of Dockfield, and the close relationship that industry and residents have always had here with the River Aire, the Bradford Beck, and the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. This was the latest in a series of performances we’ve been giving in homes and pubs/clubs over the last week or so.

The other folk in the picture are last night’s audience (who prefer not to be identified by name, but were happy for me to share this pic), and strewn across their kitchen table is the “stage” of our drama — a map of Dockfield built up during the course of the play, using ordinary household objects from Kat’s shopping bags. Meanwhile, this was the view out of the window…

This particular flat overlooks what was once the junction of the Leeds-Liverpool and Bradford Canals. That’s Junction Bridge, built in 1774 at the same time as these sections of the canal network, to allow horses to get across from one tow-path to the other. This junction features prominently in our story, during the play, and it’s been one of the fun things, in performing it, to be able to point directly to where we are “on the map” as we speak. We’re talking about places and things that our audiences know well, but bringing a different perspective to them. So far, the reactions have been great!

One of the key locations on our map is Saltaire Brewery, whose main buildings were built as an electricity works for Shipley Council at the beginning of the 20th Century (later nationalised under Yorkshire Electricity Board). We were privileged last week to present a public performance of the play in the beer yard outside the Brewery Tap — on a gorgeous April evening in the setting sun (which kept everyone just warm enough!).

The picture above was snapped early in the performance (at a historical moment when the fields of Dockfield-to-be are farmers’ fields, yet to be built on… hence the animals) by Janet Wojtkow, one of our spectators… Janet is the partner of Tony Gartland, the Brewery’s founder and owner, so she took particular pride in snapping this picture…

… at the moment when we talk about how the former electricity works (represented by the light bulbs) is now the Brewery (represented by the bottle of Blonde). I actually had to pause mid-performance for a moment while Janet took the picture — much to everyone’s amusement. But that’s one of the nice things about the informal, round-the-table set-up for this play… there is a script we’re following, but people can also interrupt, ask questions, make observations, and we try to improvise satisfactory responses. It gives the show a lovely sense of liveness and one-off-ness every time we do it.

This conversational approach is also designed to elicit further contributions from the audience after we complete our story. The talking continues… At the Brewery, for instance, Janet shared the full story of why Saltaire Brewery is not in fact located in Saltaire but in Dockfield (it would have been in Salts Mill, it seems, but for the untimely death of its owner Jonathan Silver – and the subsequent hesitations of the interim manager). And this was just one of the additional tales we’ve been told… Take Geoff Roberts, for instance, pictured here in blue just behind my head on the right of the picture…

Geoff worked for decades in water quality control — for Yorkshire Water and its predecessors — and following our tales of Dockfield’s sewage works and plumbing, he told us how his very first work assignment, as a new employee in 1973, was to visit the pumping station next to the footbridge at the bottom of Dock Lane (again – very much part of our map!) in order to remedy a fault. It was quite the trip down memory lane. This performance at Shipley’s Kirkgate Centre was also attended by some with even longer memories, who told tales of Shipley and Bradford in childhoods before World War II.

Our most responsive and vocal audience so far was at Baildon Woodbottom Working Men’s Club last week, where our audience was almost entirely made up of people who grew up in Dockfield itself, in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Since the characters that Kat and I play — Barbara and Danny — are amalgams based on interviews with a number of folk of this sort of age (and also a bit younger… we’re deliberately vague about exactly how old the characters are), the performance sparked especially vivid memories from those watching. In the picture below, on the right, Tony Brannon is offering an observation, mid-performance…

… and you can tell its mid performance because the objects on the table are different from those we end up with at the end (see below!). Truth to tell, Tony had been one of my interview sources, and he’s also a regular at the club, so for him the performance really was like an extension of our previous conversations. He and the others became as much a part of the show as we were — in fact our 30 minute running time stretched to more like an hour, with all the interjections, observations, and debates prompted by our script! Personally, I loved the way that the line between ‘play’ and ‘audience’ became almost indistinguishable…

… and for all that they corrected — or at least disputed — some of our “facts” (as Tony said, everyone remembers things differently anyway), this audience was also especially appreciative of what we’d made. Mary (in the foreground on the left in the picture above) was especially keen, after the play, to know why we’d chosen to focus on Dockfield. She seemed delighted by the thought that the place she grew up in — the landscape of her own childhood, if you like —  was being celebrated and remembered in  a play (however low-key and informal it might be as a play). I had the sense that her own sense of pride in the specialness of that place was somehow being confirmed by this outside intervention. And she had a few additional stories to tell of her own — like the way that the railings along Dockfield Terrace had been cut down during the war, to feed the urgent need for metal for the war effort…

What I’m really proud about with this play, so far, is that it seems to “work” in different ways for different audiences. For these people at Woodbottom Club, it provided an opportunity to look back and remember together — they carried on talking for hours (literally) after the performance, but were still thanking us for this “special evening” when they left. Conversely, our hosts last night at Amber Wharf are relatively new arrivals in Dockfield, and so the play helped to ground them in the history of the place and answer some of the questions they had about it. In the end, I suppose, that’s the great thing about storytelling… a story has a shape of its own, but it can mean different things to every spectator, depending on the interests and experiences they bring to it.

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Postscript. This was tonight’s performance — Wednesday April 19th — at Saltaire Brewery Tap. This week we came inside (no setting sun to warm us this time), and were joined by the biggest and most diverse audience we’ve had yet… Diverse in terms of both age and background. Gathered in two rows around our table, they included long-term Dockfield residents, more recent arrivals, and visitors from right out of town!

Indeed, among those present were a family from the Midlands… theatre and cinema enthusiasts who had come up to see the “magic lantern” collection at the Bradford Media Museum (an old-fashioned form of colour slide projection), only to discover that the collection has been shunted off down to London. They seemed delighted by our show, though (as if reassured that the North had managed to keep some culture of its own!). Despite knowing nothing about the Shipley area, they said that the history of industrialisation — that we tell through the microcosm of Dockfield’s story — was one they very much recognised from their own Black Country background.

“You’ve invented a new paradigm”, one of them told me afterwards. I confessed to not knowing what he meant. “A new model for doing plays,” he explained. “You could take this format and tell the story of anywhere.” And I suppose you could…  Personally, I wouldn’t claim to any enormous originality in the format of this piece: the component parts come from a range of theatre forms. But it’s true I haven’t seen them combined in quite this way before, or for quite this purpose (telling the up-close story of a place, through the use of characters, rather than the story of characters, that’s set in a place). As I say, though, what’s most special to me about this piece is the way that it seems to invite such spontaneous, conversational responses — even as we’re performing it.

Acknowledgements: Special thanks are due to Kat Martin, my wonderful co-performer in this piece, and to Simon Brewis – our director, who also guided us skilfully through the play’s development phase, from my initial draft script. Simon also took the pics of the Woodbottom performance. Thanks also Janet Wojtkow (whose pics I pinched off our Facebook feed, where she’d uploaded them), Paul Barrett (for the Kirkgate Centre pic), and Ruth Bartlett (for tonight’s Brewery pics).

Thanks for bearing with us…

If you’ve tried to look at our site in the last few days, you may have been warned off by virus detectors. We got hacked by someone in Bangalore who put malware on the site. (Aargh!)

We think this is fixed now, but please bear with us while we get things back up and running properly. There are a few blog posts we’ve meant to share in recent days, which we couldn’t because of these unwanted visitors…

If you’re interested in our short play about Dockfield, This Island’s Mine, we can confirm planned performances at:

Kirkgate Centre  – today, April 12th, 1pm

Saltaire Brewery Tap (Dockfield Road) – today, April 12th, 7pm

Saltaire Brewery Tap – Wednesday April 19th, 7pm

Fanny’s Ale House (Saltaire Rd) – Saturday April 22nd, 7pm    (to coincide with Saltaire’s World Heritage Weekend)

Further dates to be confirmed.

Please note: this is an intimate performance designed for small audiences. You are welcome to just turn up, but if you would like to ensure a spot for one of these performances, please call or text Steve at 07504 417323. Alternatively, we can arrange another time/date/place to suit you! We’re taking this as it comes and trying to respond to audience interest as it arises.

 

Flood Response @ Armley Mills

It was a pleasure and a privilege this last Thursday evening, December 8th, to have the opportunity to perform Too Much of Water, my one-man show about the Shipley flood last Christmas, at Leeds Industrial Museum — aka Armley Mills. The occasion was the opening of a special exhibition titled Flood Response. A single room in the basement of the museum is jam-packed with varied, colourful, striking exhibits documenting the impact of the Boxing Day flood in (mostly) Leeds. As the title implies, the exhibition looks at how communities in Leeds, especially in Kirkstall and Armley (the mill itself was directly hit by flooding), responded to the flood, often by showing a surprisingly festive spirit of resilience and co-operation, and thereby turning a crisis into a form of community-building. In the same spirit, the exhibition itself is labelled a “community exhibition”, and as such is composed largely of material donated by members of the public, rather than being professionally produced or commissioned.

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The curator of this rather remarkable display is Chris Sharp, pictured here on the right — his first big project for Leeds City Museums. He’s done a tremendous job (I really do recommend you visit). The exhibition was officially opened by Councillor Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council, pictured below during her speech, during which she spoke with real passion about the city’s response to the flood crisis..

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To Councillor Blake’s right here is Councillor Lucinda Yeadon, deputy leader of the council and (more to the point in this context) the ward representative for Kirkstall. As such, she was directly involved in the community response to the flooding along Kirkstall Road, and she really does seem to be one of those (rather too rare) politicians who inspires the confidence and affection of her local community. The exhibition opening itself was attended by quite a diverse crowd of invitees, enough to pack out the exhibition space, but here too the spirit of inclusion was apparent. This wasn’t just the predictable collection of luvvies and bigwigs you might expect to see at an exhibition opening, but a cross-section of people from the local community who had got involved in the flood response effort, in one way or another. (And here’s a few of them…)

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I’m very pleased to say that Multi-Story Water’s own contribution to telling the story of the Leeds flood response is on display as part of the exhibit (which will run for six months). Our promenade performance After the Flood — devised for Leeds Waterfront Festival in June — is on display in a new film version. We completed editing just in time for the exhibition opening. And OK, yes, some kind of technical glitch meant that the film file wasn’t playing on the digital screen designated for it on Thursday (i.e. the one to the left of this chap’s head, in the picture on the left), so it had to be temporarily installed on  an alternative screen at ground level. This hiccup should be resolved soon, though. And in the meantime you can also view the film online… Just look for After the Flood under the “Films” tab on the menu bar above… 

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This is actor Kat Martin — who you can just about see on the screen in the exhibition shot above — performing ‘live’ in After the Flood, as “Poppy”, a young woman whose family’s business on Kirkstall Road was badly affected by the flood. (The doll’s house represents the business, and the small figures are Poppy’s parents…) I’m really rather proud of this piece, made in collaboration with Simon Brewis’s Common Chorus Theatre, but on Thursday night, attendees at the opening were too busy milling and chatting to concentrate long on a video screen… Instead, after the speeches were over, they were invited upstairs to the museum’s cafe space for my live storytelling performance, Too Much of Water (both it and the ATF film were requested by Chris Sharp for the exhibition and opening – thanks for the opportunity, Chris).

Anyway, here I am, as pictured/tweeted by Geoff Roberts…

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When I originally performed this piece in Roberts Park, for Saltaire Festival, it was mid-September and the Christmas tree and jumper seemed amusingly quirky. Since then, I have performed it around the country (Exeter, London, Cambridge, Manchester, Leeds), and I’m aware that by now — in December — I’m in danger of looking like I’m just trying too hard to be seasonal. Be that as it may, the performance was very well received by attendees at the opening, several of whom made a point of introducing themselves afterwards and thanking me personally (which was very nice – thankyou!).

What people find moving, I think, is the piece’s focus on some of the smaller, more human details of how people were affected by the flooding (the script draws from interviews with a number of people in the Shipley area, who are represented by the small wooden figures). I was especially flattered by the suggestion of one senior flood risk officer, who saw the piece on Thursday, that anybody who works with people affected by, or at risk of flooding (be it for the Environment Agency, local council, or whatever) ought to see this piece, because it will help them reflect on what it’s really like to be in those circumstances. High praise indeed.

On the other hand, I heard on Friday — from another friend who couldn’t attend the opening — that a couple of his colleagues at the Environment Agency, who had been at Armley Mills to represent on Thursday, had felt slightly uncomfortable watching the piece. They wondered if I was attacking the EA’s warning efforts in Shipley around the time of the flood. I’d just like to say, publicly, that I’m really sorry if they felt that way, because this was never my intention. Yes, certain details are documented in the show, as seen from the point of view of my interviewees, that might perhaps be seen as not reflecting all that well on the EA, but I was very careful in writing the piece not to make any comment either way — simply to represent the facts as best I could establish them, and let spectators draw their own conclusions. And I do make the point in the show that the Agency too, in its own way, was inundated on Boxing Day — struggling to keep up with the pace of events as the crisis unfolded in multiple towns, in multiple catchments, simultaneously. They, too, are only human.

With that in mind, I’ll close here by pasting in Scene 5 of our After the Flood film — “the Agency Man”. Hopefully this provides some sense of just how tricky the EA’s job is, in terms of Flood Response – often having to be all things to all people. In my (finite) experience, they usually do a great job, in often very difficult circumstances.

There’s Yorkshire Life in Salt’s Waters…

It’s almost the end of October, so this is a bit slow off the mark, but I’m belatedly proud to say that the Multi-Story Water project was featured in a two-page colour spread in this month’s edition of Yorkshire Life magazine.

IMG_1993There’s a nice overview of the project here, but the piece is specifically supposed to be flagging the launch of our downloadable audio guide, Salt’s Waters, which you can find in various digital formats at this web address. You can pick up a printed leaflet with map from Salts Mill (second floor, leaflet stand by window), from Saltaire Visitor Information Centre, or from Kirkgate Centre in Shipley (or you can print your own off via the website). Frankly we haven’t done enough of a job of advertising this sound project on this blog — but Yorkshire Life can explain a little more for you…Larger versions of the text on these pages are pasted in below.

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Salt’s Waters is intended as an alternative heritage guide to the Saltaire area — which gets visitors out beyond the immediate confines of the mill village, and exploring the area to the Northwest via river, canal, tributary becks and numerous other water features. The circular tour takes you from the bottom of Victoria Road, up to the ruins of Titus Salt Junior’s ill-fated Milner Field mansion, and back to Saltaire via Dowley Gap. Along the way there’s narration, voices from the archive, sound effects, and original music by Eddie Lawler — including “The Ballad of Little Beck”, written especially for this Salt’s Waters (Little Beck is the stream dammed as a boating lake at Milner Field).

The guide is also intended to tell some of the less well-known “heritage” stories of the area. For example, on Track 4, as walkers head west from Roberts Park through the Higher Coach Road estate, the story turns to the building of the estate in the 1950s — showing how significant this area too is, in its own right, and how connected it is to the Saltaire story. This is a connection Multi-Story Water first explored in our “Green Route” performance tour back in 2012, so it’s nice to get it on the “permanent record”, so to speak…

You can of course choose to listen to the audio simply as a podcast, without doing the walk, but Salt’s Waters is very much designed to be experienced in situ — with your eyes providing the “live movie” to accompany the soundtrack… Do give it a try some autumn weekend, and let us know what you make of it… Thanks!

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There’s also a side-bar that they’ve added about our short film Wading to Shipley, which has been available online for 3 years now (see under the “Films” tab above), but which the writer for Yorkshire Life seems to have taken a shine to…

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“Week of Action” at Saltaire WI

This Thursday, I dusted off my one-man show Too Much of Water for the first time since Saltaire Festival last month, and presented it at St. Peter’s Church for the October meeting of the Saltaire Women’s Institute (WI)…. It was a very thoughtful, attentive crowd.

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I’d been invited by Ruth Simpson, who is the “Climate Ambassador” for this WI branch — a title which she herself finds rather falsely grand, but which indicates the organisation’s commitment to working environmentally, and to do what it can to mitigate climate change. Ruth gave a short but moving talk at the beginning of the meeting, to provide context for my performance — explaining that this is the Climate Coalition‘s “Week of Action” on climate change. Apparently, the coalition — in which WI is an active partner nationally — used to be called “Stop Climate Chaos” (in fact it still has that name in Scotland and Wales) but was rebranded to de-emphasise the “fear factor” implicit in the word chaos. Instead of playing on fear, the policy now is to emphasise the need for collective action on behalf of the things people love. Ruth spoke about how her own sense of engagement with these issues is motivated by a concern for things she cares about personally — the local, natural environment being prominent among them.

This is where Too Much of Water seemed to fit in well, because the performance — in telling the story of how the Boxing Day floods affected a range of people locally in the Shipley area — emphasises the kind of simple, personal, domestic details that tend to get overlooked in mainstream media coverage of flooding. It also concludes with some verbatim comments from my interviewees detailing their own conversations about how the climate seems to have changed over the years (less snow in winter, more rain, less distinct seasons, etc.). There was audible agreement from the audience on these points during the performance — and afterwards I was told by several people that, although they wouldn’t consider themselves “eco-warriors”, the piece had really made them think about how local, personal experiences connect with the big picture of the need for action on what is happening globally with our climate. This was pleasing to hear, because Too Much of Water was written with these concerns very much in mind, but — because it was originally a festival piece for the park — I also didn’t want to bang people over the head with a “message”. I guess the aim is to gently invite people to think further, for themselves, about these issues.

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Among the other people present on the evening were Elaine Gilligan, from Friends of the Earth, who briefly spoke to underline some of the points made by Ruth and myself, and engaged in conversation with members during the informal exchanges over refreshments that followed. I hadn’t met Elaine before, but we had a good chat ourselves, and she was very complimentary about the performance (always nice to hear!).

A number of WI members introduced themselves to me, including one young woman whose name I didn’t get, but who apparently reads this blog regularly! So hello, if you’re reading this — do make yourself known by leaving a comment below, if you like! And sorry I got distracted away from speaking to you properly.

I was distracted, I think, by Stewart and Pat Gledhill, of Higher Coach Road, who had been kindly and quietly helping to pack up my stuff, post-performance. Stewart made the wonderful little card models of local landmarks that form an important part of the performance, and since he and Pat had been unable to see the piece at the Festival (they were away in Scotland that weekend), I had invited them along to see it this evening.  I was very pleased to find that they liked the piece a lot! Stewart also took the pics included in this blog. Thanks Stewart and Pat, for everything!

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Too Much of Water will appear again on December 6th, at Armley Mills Museum in Leeds, and December 7th, at the John Thaw Studio Theatre, University of Manchester. I also have gigs for it in Exeter and Cambridge in November, so the Shipley/Saltaire story is travelling afar… If you’re interested in bringing it back closer to home, just drop me a line (stephen.bottoms@manchester.ac.uk).

Flood memories at Saltaire Festival

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If you’re at Saltaire Festival this weekend, do check out The Power of Water — an exhibition specially created for the festival, and on show in an amazing attic level gallery at Salts Mill, which isn’t normally open to the public. The show’s title is intended to link together two significant historical landmarks — this year’s bicentenary celebrations for the completion of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, and the major floods that hit the Aire Valley on Boxing Day. The exhibition’s main emphasis is on photographs of the floods — mostly selected from entries sent in by local residents, accompanied by some professional material alongside them. These are given wider context and resonance by the carefully chosen quotes on banners like the ones shown above.

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The striking thing about the way that the exhibition has been hung is that the photographs are unframed… They’re simply affixed to a wooden runner down the length of the roof space. Presumably this simple, lo-fi approach reflects the limited funds available for the exhibition (Saltaire Festival is run entirely by volunteers, and it receives only very limited funding from external sources). But for me there’s also something really apt about this method of staging. Given that the homes of many of these affected by the floods had to be stripped back to bare brick (see for instance this previous blog post), the distressed, unplastered walls of the mill provide a really poignant backdrop for the pictures. The photos almost give the impression of having been salvaged from somewhere and put on display as forensic evidence… which, in a sense, they are.

IMG_1659Down at Roberts Park, there’s another blue banner advertising what’s on… I’m rather chuffed about the prominent place here for Too Much of Water, a one-man, half-hour storytelling performance written and performed by yours truly. The piece, which I presented in the park last weekend, is based on interviews with some of those in the Shipley area affected by the Boxing Day floods. It provided some further reflections on the overwhelming “power of water”, while also seeking to entertain a festival audience…. Not an easy balance to strike!

IMG_1628This is me in Roberts Park last Saturday, mid-performance — as snapped by Barney Lerner. All the pics in this blog were taken by audience members and posted to social media, where I grabbed them from. As you can see from this image, the audience consisted of both adults and children (there were a lot more adults standing behind the seated kids), and I’m personally really pleased that the show seemed to hold the attention of both older and younger spectators.

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Irene Lofthouse: “A sensitive, thought-provoking piece that highlighted the tragedy of people’s experiences, but rippled with light humorous touches. The use of simple props (loved the Xmas jumper) and dolls made it accessible to all ages – and children at the performance I attended were as interested as the adults. Barbie and the Bard illustrating local people’s trauma was inspired.”

IMG_1630To capture a sense of what happened up and down Shipley ward — between Branksome Drive in the west and Lower Holme to the east — I used a bolt of blue cloth to stand in as the river (as seen here in close-up shots by Vanessa Hawkin), and miniature wooden figures to represent some of my interviewees. The resemblances weren’t great, because the figures were store-bought and I just had to arbitrarily assign identities! Much more recognisable were the landmark buildings represented by card models made by my good friend Stewart Gledhill (thanks Stewart!), the chairman of Higher Coach Road Residents’ Group (HCRRG).

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IMG_1637In this shot above, that’s Baildon Bridge and Woodbottom club to the left (east), then the four houses of Aire Close, then New Mill, the Boathouse Inn and Roberts Park’s Half Moon Cafe and cricket pavilion, then Hirst Mill at the far end (a bit too close to Saltaire because [a] none of this was to scale, and [b] I messed up my placements a bit in this particular run of the show…

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Graham P. Glover: “I wasn’t sure what to expect when I saw there was going to be a theatrical/comedic event at the Saltaire Festival around the Boxing Day floods which touched so many people’s lives in this area. However I found the event very thought-provoking and poignant. Steve’s use of models and the fabric for the flowing and ever expanding river that day worked brilliantly. A very entertaining show with some audience participation – the Christmas jumper and waterproof trousers were just the ideal costume too.”  (I was sweating like a pig in those, truth be told, especially the Sunday…)

IMG_1638This picture from one of the performances on Sunday (as snapped by Nicola Murray). I’d had to reposition myself because the sun was so bright. On the Saturday I had my mini-Aire directly parallel with the real thing (and the real Boathouse behind me), but on Sunday the sun was burning right above the Boathouse and would have blinded people, so I shifted round so my back was to the path to the footbridge. Anyway, I’m just glad that — title or no title — we were not affected by rain.

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IMG_1643Audience responses on both days were really positive, and I even had a few people asking where they could send donations to flood relief charities. (I recommend Yorkshire Voluntary Flood Support.) Some of my interviewees also turned out to see the show, and it was really great to see them — weird as it must have been for them to hear their personal stories recounted in this way. A huge thanks to all of them.

Thanks too to those people who have been interviewed by me this year, about the floods, but didn’t make it into the show at all. I had way too much material, and had to make some tough decisions about what to include and not. But who knows, maybe some of the other material will find its way into another show…

Thanks to everyone who came. It was great to see you all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This weekend at Leeds Waterfront Festival!

The Multi-Story Water project moves downstream along the Aire a few miles this weekend — to present two special promenade performances for visitors to Leeds Waterfront Festival. Both are completely free of charge for spectators, so do come along!

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There’s another chance to see Seven Bridges – a hit at last year’s Waterfront Festival. This playful walking tour of the Leeds waterfront between Clarence Dock and Granary Wharf features Steve Bottoms and David Calder as “Don and Ron” (two rather questionable executives, planning for future redevelopment) and guest stars Eddie Lawler, on guitar and lead vocals.

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We also feature a brand new, family-oriented piece, After the Floodcreated in collaboration with Leeds’ Common Chorus Theatre Company. During this unique, self-guided tour of the area around Granary Wharf and the Dark Arches, spectators meet a series of characters seeking to come to terms with the flooding that hit the Aire Valley on Boxing Day. Some have been directly affected, others are planning for future defences. It sounds serious, but there’s a theatrical, visual, and sometimes comic emphasis that should make it accessible and entertaining to all.

Director Simon Brewis has written this great blog post about the process of working on this new piece. Check it out.

We hope to see you there!

“Working with nature” on Higher Coach Road


This was the scene in Roberts Park, yesterday, as members of the Higher Coach Road Residents’ Group contributed to Saltaire’s World Heritage Weekend with a demonstration of the traditional skill of wood turning…

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That’s Craig at the pole lathe, which is powered entirely by manpower (he’s working a pedal that pulls down a carefully sprung wood branch — in shot here — to turn the pole back and forth rapidly. Behind Craig is Stewart (HCRRG’s Chairman) who spent the afternoon at the “bodger’s bench” (see below), rough-cutting sections of wood for Craig to work on the lathe. That rather refined looking chair leg had started out earlier as a rough lump of wood retrieved from leftover timbers. (Also in shot above is Rob Martin, of Saltaire Stories — one of the organisers of World Heritage Weekend.)

IMG_0815Here Stewart and Craig are observed by Paul (Kirkgate Centre) and Steve (also from the residents group). Located alongside the Canal and River Trust’s display of dummy mooring posts (for practising roping off), the wood-turning demo attracted a steady stream of interested passers-by during the afternoon.

Untitled from Steve Bottoms on Vimeo.

IMG_0833The idea here was to showcase an older piece of local “heritage” than is normally on display at the Heritage Weekend (which is, quite rightly, dominated by Saltaire’s Victorian-era legacy). As Stewart says, skills of this sort would have been used in the Aire valley for many centuries, as people worked with the available resources — wood, water, and so forth. Complementing the craft display, local storyteller Irene Lofthouse (on the left below) presented some traditional myths and legends for an audience of intrigued children – and some of their parents – while musician Eddie Lawler and I worked up verses to a song that only had a chorus (“Welcome to Our Airedale Home”) by asking passers-by for ideas.

Irene Lofthouse, Pat Gledhill, Lyze Dudley

Irene Lofthouse, Pat Gledhill, Lyze Dudley

As you can see from Irene’s face, we also had face painters on hand for the kids – specialising in designs on the theme of woodland and water… Steph and Lu, friends of HCRRG’s Facebook page convenor Ruth, have just started up in the face-painting business, and they certainly had plenty of custom yesterday!

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Meanwhile, some of the children from the Higher Coach Road estate were also represented by a display of anti-litter posters they had designed for a competition arranged by Ruth. Since the posters featured both artwork and words, they were judged by Irene (a published poet) and Saltaire artist David Starley, who was also on hand. Amelia’s entry, below, was my personal favourite…

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Later in the afternoon, when we had packed up in the park, I took a stroll west along the flood plain area next to the park — and adjacent to the Higher Coach Road estate — where some intriguing changes have been taking place lately.

At the behest of the HCR Residents Group, horticulture students from Shipley College (course leader, John Baker) came in to work on an overgrown mass of riverside willow – near the footbridge – that had been left to its own devices for years. Under the supervision of Samantha Yates, the students neatly coppiced sections of the undergrowth, and cut and cleared others.

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There’s quite a lot of wood debris to be cleared away, but John Dembecki (Bradford Council parks service) has apparently promised that it will be gone by next week. In the meantime, it sits on the grass as evidence of just how much work needed to be done here!

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Intriguingly, though, this is not just a story of overgrown willow being cut back. With advice from Graham, of Hirst Wood Regeneration Group, members of HCRRG have taken saplings from amongst the cleared wood, and planted them in the flood plain area itself, in a series of neatly grouped areas…

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Admittedly, these newly planted trees don’t look like much just yet, but they will — because it’s clear that a good many of them have “taken” in the soft ground, and are already starting to bud.

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The idea here is not only to add a new visual feature to the grassy flood plain, but to bring a little further assistance to the ground’s water retention. Until very recently, the muddy area you see in the picture above was still a giant puddle, retaining water that had built up during the exceptionally wet weather of November and December (the puddle was there before the Boxing Day flood, and long-outlasted it!). But tree roots will help to soak up some of the moisture, and hopefully to further stabilise the ground.

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Yet another “new” feature along this riverside stretch is the “host of golden daffodils” that have sprung up this spring, along the banks of the Aire itself. These were not planted by HCRRG, but appear to have grown up from dormant bulbs that must have been in the ground for years. The reason they have come up now appears to be that the Boxing Day flood swept away a large amount of dead brushwood from the riverbank, leaving the ground clear for new growth.

I joked to Pam Ruppe (HCRRG’s treasurer – pictured below in the park) that nature seemed to be lending a hand with the work that the group has been doing recently. “Well,” she responded, “you could say that we’re working with nature.” And indeed you could — whether it be coppicing, willow-planting or Craig and Stewart’s “sustainable” woodworking, this does seem to be the theme to a lot in a lot of the group’s activities. Although less than a year old, Higher Coach Road Residents’ Group has already established a clear sense of purpose and identity.

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