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.


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!



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…



Rain on the Parade: Canal Bicentenary

Yesterday, Sunday 16th October, the Shipley area had a big occasion — the Bicentenary celebrations for the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. The canal was finally completed through to Liverpool in October 1816. But it’s worth remembering that its construction period dated all the way back to the early 1770s – when it was begun with cuts linking Skipton, Bingley, Shipley and Bradford… This area is key to the history of Britain’s longest singe canal.

IMG_1840To commemmorate the bicentenary, the Leeds-Liverpool Canal Society’s historic cargo boat, the Kennet is making a journey along the entire 126 miles of the canal. Having started off from Leeds on Saturday, it was coming through the Bradford area on Sunday.

Act 1: Shipley (or, The Silence…)

Getting off the train at Shipley station, in  a light drizzle, I headed past the Fox and across the main Leeds Road towards the little alley through to Gallows Bridge. Crossing the bridge to get down to the canal towpath, I then walked the short distance from there up to Shipley Wharf, expecting to see some signs of local celebrations. But the place was completely deserted.


Apparently, news of the bicentenary had not, er, floated any boats in Shipley — despite the town owing much of its history to the canal. To be fair, walking from Gallows Bridge I did pass a few stray people standing around under umbrellas, who might possibly have been waiting gamely for the Kennet…


… But it wasn’t until getting to the bridge under Salts Mill Road that I found the first clear sign of celebrations… a rosetted Rob Martin (former chair of Saltaire Village Society) waiting with his smartphone… His mission was to call the bell ringers in Saltaire Church as soon as he caught sight of the Kennet coming west…

Rob was sheltering sensibly from the drizzle, which was getting steadily heavier. He and I had a wee chat about what was happening in Saltaire. “You’ll find them under the bridge.” He said. “You won’t be able to get past.”

Act 2: Saltaire (or, Waiting for the Bells…)


He wasn’t kidding about finding people under the bridge. This was the huddle beneath Victoria Road as I  came past Salts Mill. Didn;t look like many people from a distance, but it turns out there was a whole world under there! Hall Royds brass band were pom-pom-pomming away to try to keep everyone’s spirits up…


And then past the bridge, lots of anoraked people were waiting on the towpath under rain gazebos (good bit of planning there by somebody!).


I tucked in and stood around chatting. The general point of agreement was that everyone was patiently waiting for something to happen, but nobody was really sure what it would be or when. It all seemed classically English, somebody pointed out. Standing around in the rain for no apparent reason, but merrily cracking jokes about our own foolishness…

With no sign of the Kennet, still — and not even the church bells to herald its arrival — I decided to nose around the temporary signage that had been posted on the towpath, sandwich-board style, to mark the occasion… This was my favourite bit…


As this colourful diagram-map confirms, we were standing alongside one of the oldest stretches of the canal (which of course predates Saltaire itself — it’s a key reason why Titus put the village here). Although apparently a stretch at the other end was also completed around the same time. It was a bit disappointing, though, that the signage (which seemed to be generic to the whole canal) didn’t do anything further to highlight the specific local history and significance of the waterway…

But never mind that — someone had convinced the Lord Mayor of Bradford that this anniversary was locally significant, and he here was now, complete with Bradford-crested brolly…


And where the Lord Mayor goes, cameras also go. Just along the towpath I found a soggy-looking camera crew from BBC Yorkshire. They were there for Look North, they told me. Saltaire was clearly the scenic choice for telly…


After much damp waiting from all concerned, the bells finally sprang into life and – shortly afterward – the Kennet hoved into view, heading slowly west… They looked at first as if they were going to try and moor in front of the brass band, just past the bridge…

IMG_1865… But then they seemed to decide that there were too many people huddled in there and it would be better to head a bit further along to a more open bit of towpath… Which is understandable but rather ironic given that the huddle was there to greet the boat…

IMG_1872So here’s the scenic shot, complete with Kennet, Salts Mill, and lots of brollies…


The Kennet was decked out in bunting celebrating the “uniting” of Yorkshire and Lancashire through the completion of the canal. Red roses on yellow, and white roses on blue. And rather wonderfully, there was a big red and white rosette (a giant version of the ones that volunteer stewards like Rob were wearing) carefully sequestered in its own waterproof plastic bag…

The boat crew got off and the official ceremony got underway. Rather disappointingly, though, the ceremonials seemed to consist entirely of a photo op for the Lord Mayor. He duly posed for various shots with other someones, and with the costumed lady bargee to advertise the Canal Society’s Navigator beer… although to be fair I’m not sure the Mayor was quite sure what this bit was about…


Anyway, the pictures were taken, the camera crew packed up, and everyone sort of drifted off. No speeches. No celebratory brass band serenade for the boat and the Mayor. Just a sort of general uncertainty as to what was happening. As I say, it all felt rather endearingly English…

Act 3: Hirst Lock (or, Something Lasting)

Drifting away from the general shuffling at Saltaire, I continued walking west, up to Hirst Lock. Here, I came across a lasting piece of signage marking the bicentenary…

IMG_1887This rather elegant noticeboard (helping to mask the eyesore view of the neglected old garden centre greenhouses beyond) has historical information about the canal’s significance in the area, and recommendations for walking routes. It’s a nice addition to the visitor offer in the Saltaire area, but it’s the work not of Bradford Council or UNESCO — but of that fantastic group of neighbourhood volunteers, the Hirst Wood Regeneration Group.

Here on the lockable ‘news’ panel on the new noticeboard is news that HWRG have won, just this last week, a national award from Biffa — the waste disposal company — whose sponsorship enabled the construction of Hirst Wood’s new Nature Reserve (which opened last year on the other side of the canal). Well done indeed!

This year, HWRG have been continuing to maintain and develop the nature reserve, while also taking very seriously their “adoption” of a stretch of the canal — from Dowley Gap aqueduct, through Hirst Wood itself, Hirst Lock, and down towards Saltaire as far as the sports club. This adoption is apparent not only in the new signage and walk routes, but in strategically placed benches at intervals along the towpath, carved with the HWRG initials.


These benches are a really welcome addition for walkers, enabling them to sit down and take in the surroundings for a bit. This sterling work by HWRG seemed somewhat overlooked, though, by the official celebrations. The Kennet duly arrived at Hirst Lock…


…and then motored on straight past, with a few merry waves to the bystanders…


Yet with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps, Hirst Lock would have been a much better place to have the official brass-band welcome and Mayoral moment — not only to acknowledge the new HWRG contributions to the canalside, but because there’s so much more space for onlookers! Instead of being crowded in a huddle on the towpath under the bridge, people could have spread out and appreciated the occasion a bit more. And the act of the boat going through the lock is also much more visually engaging for spectators than what had happened at Saltaire… But what do I know?


As the Kennet disappeared off towards Bingley, the sun finally started to appear through the clouds, and Eddie Lawler rounded things up with a rendition of his beautiful new song, “Canal Child” — written specifically to mark the occasion (“I’m a canal child, born on a boat, brought up to keep the whole family afloat, for one hundred and twenty six miles…). The lyric celebrates the children who worked the canals back in the 19th Century, and the original idea was that Saltaire Primary School would sing the song with Eddie — there’s a verse or two specially written for them to sing chorally. In the event, though, not enough of the children’s parents were able to commit the time on a Sunday to bringing their kids and picking them up again, so (rather disappointingly) this plan had to be shelved. The song will instead be recorded with the kids this week, at school, as a video document instead.

Still, Eddie performed the song beautifully on his own, and against the appropriate backdrop of HWRG’s other new piece of canalside signage — a colourful mural also created with Saltaire Primary School children, under the supervision of Sharon Snaylam. It shows Bingley Five Rise to the left, Hirst Lock to the right, and canal boats in between. It’s a lovely, vivid piece of work in bold colours, which would not (at least in my view) be out of place in a modern art gallery. And it’s also fully waterproofed! 

IMG_1928As onlookers began finally to disperse, a group of the Hirst Wood Regen volunteers lined up for a celebratory group photo in front of the mural. Third from the left is the HWRG’s dynamic secretary, Pauline Bradley-Sharp — and third from the right, local Green councillor Kevin Warnes, who actively supports the group. I’m afraid I don’t know the other folk here, but nonetheless, I salute you all! Fantastic work making the canal and its surroundings seem loved and cared for. 

The Kennet will continue its journey across the Pennines all week, arriving in Liverpool next weekend. No doubt there will be more celebrations in other locations along the way. For me, though, this was a day that highlighted the value of hard work and longer-term thinking over empty ceremony. And the importance of carrying an umbrella.



“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.


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.


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!



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 (

After the Bradford flood: who scrutinises the scrutinisers?

Just before I get to Bradford… a wee nod to the fact that, this last Wednesday, September 28th, I was busy in Leeds with a fine group of actors, remounting the promenade performance After the Flood. An attempt to reflect on the impact of the Boxing Day floods in the city, from a number of different angles — including the ‘expert’ view on how to mitigate future flood risk — this piece was originally created for the Leeds Waterfront Festival in June (Multi-Story Water in collaboration with Simon Brewis’s Common Chorus Theatre). This week’s one-day-only revival enabled us to show the piece to some important people, and to get it documented for a film version we’re planning. For more info and images, look under the ‘Performances’ tab above…

Kat Martin as "Poppy", a Kirkstall flood victim

Kat Martin as “Poppy”, a Kirkstall flood victim

The following day, 29th September, Bradford Council published its “Flooding Scrutiny Review” — a “Report of the Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Committee” (henceforth, COSC) into how the council and its officers had responded to the Boxing Day floods in Shipley, Bingley, Keighley, and other affected areas of the Bradford district.

Or at least, I think it was the following day… The document is dated, on its cover page, “Wednesday 29th September 2016”, but since the 29th was actually a Thursday it’s difficult to know what exactly we’re talking about here. And the Bradford Telegraph and Argus was reporting on the Scrutiny Review a full week earlier, on September 22nd.

Unfortunately, this glaring, front-page error is far from being the only mistake in a poorly proof-read document that is littered with typos. The Committee’s apparent lack of scrutiny and due care with respect to the publication of its own report seems sadly symptomatic of their general approach to the overall task. That’s a pretty strong claim on my part, but let me break it down: 

1. “In-depth review”. 

The report tells us that, at a Council meeting on Tuesday 19th January (and yes, that actually was a Tuesday), the COSC should “undertake an in-depth Scrutiny Review into the effectiveness of Bradford Council and its partners in dealing with the floods…” Well, if this review is in-depth, I hate to think what “light touch” looks like. The entire report, once you remove front matter and appendices, is less than 10 pages long (in not-very-dense type, with lots of spaces). We quickly learn that the Committee’s “scrutiny” actually consisted of three “listening” exercises:

i. Looking at responses to an on-line survey, which was open to the public between April and July, and produced “75 responses”. This figure is also broken down into the areas that the responses were received from (15 from Bingley, 11 from Shipley, and so on), but the total of these figures only adds up to 62, so who knows where the other 13 went… (again, poor proofing…).

ii. Attending two information-gathering sessions, held on 21 and 26 July in Shipley Library and Saltaire’s Victoria Hall, respectively. (So, nothing in Bingley, Keighley, etc.) The latter was held at 2pm on a Thursday, automatically excluding anyone who has to work for a living.

iii. Attending one further information-gathering session, held on 25 August, this time with the Council’s relevant flood management officers and “external officers” (presumably people from the Environment Agency, etc). 

What the Scrutiny report does is simply present a blow-by-blow account of what people said to COSC members in each of these three contexts. Nowhere in the report is there any actual analysis — or, dare we say, scrutiny? — of what was being said to them, by whom. The process seems simply to have been “you tell us something, we’ll write it down, and then we can say we’ve scrutinised the situation.” One is obliged to ask what, if anything, COSC was doing on this report between January and July, since everything in the document appears to have simply been collated in July and August.

The document ends with half a page of “Concluding Remarks” and one page of “Recommendations” — although these are mostly just broad aspirations. Since there has been little to no real, informed analysis of the situation, these brief recommendations can give little indication as to how the suggestions involved should actually be achieved.

2. The Council doing itself a disservice… 

Quite the strangest thing about this report is that it seems simply to assume that the Council’s reaction to the floods was inadequate. One of the “key findings” is that “it was clear from the [online survey] responses that the only assistance that residents felt they had received was from Flood Support Groups…”  Now, it is certainly a very good thing that the amazing work done by voluntary groups in Bingley, Shipley and elsewhere is given due recognition in this report, but the implication of this wording is that flood victims universally felt they had received no support from the Council. And I can confidently say that this is simply not true. 

Many of the the people I have spoken to personally this year, as part of my research into the Shipley area flooding, have volunteered the opinion (without my even asking them) that the Council was actually very helpful to them — whether it was in terms of, for example…

– the provision of skips in which to dispose of flood-damaged goods

– the £500 council tax rebates that they received, often very quickly, directly into bank accounts, to help with short-term repairs and clean-up

– the later offer of £5,000 flood resilience grants to help with flood-proofing at-risk properties against future incidents

– the efforts made to clean out blocked gullies, etc., to ensure better surface drainage in flood-risk areas

I’ve had all this reported to me by affected residents. And in point of fact, all of these forms of support (and more) are acknowledged in the report’s section on information gathered from Council officers. But the Councillors on the committee appear to have made the assumption that the officers weren’t doing a good enough job, because they had been told people felt unsupported.

And yet… it doesn’t take a genius to see that if you hold an online survey of responses to the Council’s handling of the flood, the chances are that the people responding to such a survey will be — almost by definition — the people who have felt let down. And many of them no doubt had a right to feel let down. But that doesn’t mean that everybody felt let down. It’s simply that people without complaints don’t tend to fill in reports of this sort (or, indeed, to attend public meetings on a weekday…). Had the members of COSC actually made the effort to go out and speak to people where they live (as I have, and as have council officers and EA officers, in fact – because I’ve seen them doing it) they would have gathered a more balanced picture.

3. Communication, communication, communication…  

The most persistent strain throughout the report is the belief that communication with the general public, from the Council and EA point of view, needs to be improved. “Marketing and communications are a key area for improvement”; “Bradford Council and its partners needed to be more pro-active [in communicating] key information”; “For communication to be effective…”; etc. Indeed, one of the final recommendations is that “Council staff involved in emergency planning receive training on communicating key flooding messages…”

This really is the pot calling kettle black, given that the report itself exhibits a very poor model of communication — both in the efforts that COSC actually made to communicate with the public during the review (an on-line survey and two public meetings is surely the bare minimum required), and in the slapdash way it then communicates its alleged findings. Indeed, one of those findings is so badly written that it is literally incomprehensible:

Members were also concerned about the confusion surrounding the use of flood resilience grants, as well as half of the properties affected by the floods had actually received flood resilience grants and that that had of the properties that had been flooded had actually applied for flood resilience grants.” (p.11)

We are given no information as to what “the confusion” around these grants might have consisted of, but we are certainly left confused by the sentence.

Embarrassingly, the poor writing even extends to the Committee’s recommendation to an external partner, the Environment Agency:

Recommendation 6: This Committee recommends that the Environment Agency ensures that all residents and businesses that have been affected by the flood are on the flood alert system and that flood alert messages should be circulated much early.” [sic] (p.13)

Leaving aside that typo, this statement exposes just how little the Committee has actually comprehended about the tricky realities of flood risk communications. Reacting to complaints from members of the public who wished that they had received automated flood alert calls sooner, COSC simply passes this on as a recommendation. But I have spoken to residents who knowingly chose not to react to the phone calls they did receive — partly because of the “cry wolf” problem that occurs when you have received a call, in the past, that proved to be a false alarm. The fact is that, even with the best scientific tools available, rainfall remains an inherently unpredictable phenomenon (you never know exactly where or when a cloud will decide to burst…), and so flood risk predictions necessarily have an element of educated guesswork about them. If calls were to go out earlier, there would be less accurate data involved, and thus more guessing…  Calls would thus run the risk of being more inaccurate, and this would further increase the likelihood that people will ignore them when there is a real problem coming. This is fairly simple stuff to understand (I am not a scientist, by any stretch), but the Committee doesn’t even seem to have considered it.

Incidentally, that other point about residents being put on the flood alert system is again indicative of COSC’s ignorance of the facts it purports to be investigating. Several times the report refers to people needing to be registered onto the call system, but no mention is made of the fact that such automatic opt-in (i.e. you have to choose to opt out, not opt in, if you live in a flood zone) has been government policy since the Pitt Report of 2008. Where people did not receive these calls — on Branksome Drive, for example, in Shipley — it is because of an Environment Agency oversight in application of the system (for which they have already apologised). So this recommendation is, in short, a bit like telling your grandmother to suck eggs.

4. Who needs experts? 

For me, these last points about how poorly informed some of the report’s findings and recommendations are, seems indicative of a general lack of interest or trust in what the “experts” on the issue of flooding might have to say. The experts are, in this instance, the flood officers for Council and EA — i.e. the people who spend their professional lives dealing with the complexity of these issues of when and how to alert those at risk. Yet their comments are treated in this report as being of considerably less significance than the comments of the general public in the first two (all too sketchy) “listening” exercises.

I am not, of course, saying that the public’s concerns should not be treated seriously — they absolutely should. But the public is not the place to look for technical solutions. Right at the top of its “key findings” chapter, the Committee reports having been “made aware of various issues and concerns. Some of these focused specifically on flood prevention by looking into river dredging…” (p.6). It’s not surprising that dredging should be the first thing mentioned here, because it’s the go-to solution for anyone who has read a tabloid newspaper. In fact, the obviousness of this solution has become an article of faith for some, as is evidenced in the comments feed underneath the T&A article on the report: “Yes dredge the rivers to lower the water level, its so simple, why can’t the Councillors see that?” Yet anybody who has spent any time looking at the dredging question (and I am certainly no “expert” on this) knows that it is very far from being “so simple”: it’s expensive, rarely cost-effective, it can increase flood risk downstream of the dredged area; it is damaging to the ecosystem, etc. etc. But why listen to all that complicated stuff when the “solution” is so much simpler? As Michael Gove announced before the Brexit referendum, “people in this country have had enough of experts“.

Unfortunately, this line seems to sum up the approach of Bradford Council’s scrutiny report on the Boxing Day floods. Why get into any detail with our scrutinising? That would require us to actually learn something! We’ll just listen to what people say to us, in a small, arbitrarily selected set of listening contexts, and then write down a summary of what they said. Then we’ll write down some things we think might be a good idea, based on not having thought about any of this for very long. And we’ll call these recommendations. These recommendations might well suggest things to be done that have, in fact, been being done for years anyway (e.g. leafleting homes about flood risk). But who cares, as long as we can claim to have scrutinised something and given our own council officers a gentle kicking in the process, to keep them in their place. I mean, nobody’s going to read this report anyway, so we don’t even need to proof read it, right?

The depressing thing about all this is that it seems, basically, to represent politics as usual. And judging from the T&A article on the report, that’s also what we’ve had in the response to it. The Committee is Labour-dominated, so the leader of the council’s Conservative group says that the report doesn’t go far enough – “he said the council needed to prioritise flood prevention work far more.” And of course he would say that, because it’s his job to oppose Labour. Never mind that it was a Conservative government that cancelled flood prevention schemes up and down the country as part of its austerity drive… when there’s a political football to kick, just kick it.

When you have politics as usual, you have politicians sounding off at each other. What you don’t have, it would seem, is them actually thinking carefully about what a river is, what a flood is, or what the best-informed responses to an incident like this might be.

So much for scrutiny.