Saturday, 2 April 2016

Psychogeography and Poetry in Old Bristol

Now that Project Breadcrumbs is nearing completion, I'm starting to think about what I want to focus on next as a poet.  Landscapes - both rural and urban - have always fascinated me, which is fortunate because I can combine that interest with another passion, which is walking about a bit. And as writers from Wordsworth, Coleridge and Blake, to Thoreau and Dickens, to Woolf and Rowling have attested, the two drives - to walk and to write - are often inextricably linked. 

Having recently moved house to an area I knew well as a child, I've been enjoying wandering around the lanes that run along the back of almost all the houses, though they contain little more than dilapidated garages, brambles and puddles.  There's something secret about them, and they also hotwire my childhood in a way that the streets and roads I've been familiar with consistently, throughout my life, don't. 

And there are other, more exciting lanes to be explored in the centre of the city.  Much of  old Bristol that survived the slum clearances of the Victorian era and post World War I was either obliterated in the blitz in 1940-41 or subsequently demolished by a council intent on building a wholly 20th century city.  But down by the Church of St John the Baptist, the last remaining stretch of the ancient city wall, the city remembers itself in the shapes of the lanes that echo the walls and the River Frome, now culverted and buried under tons of concrete.   

I've known these lanes all my life.  For many years, my mother worked as a legal secretary in nearby Albion Chambers. My father would pick me and my sister up from our grandmother's house in Bishopston on a Saturday lunchtime and we would drive to town to meet her from work, before stopping at the chippy to pick up dinner. 

He would park in Small Street outside the tobacconist and confectioners and point out things to me like the old stone step into the Chambers, worn by the feet of countless Bristolians over centuries - and since replaced, probably for reasons of Health and Safety.  

Years later, I also worked in the area, in an office in St Lawrence House (now fashionably graffitied and converted into student accommodation), the windows of which looked out directly onto the tower and clock of St John's.  

However, despite being in thrall to them since earliest days, it was only when I went on A Guided Walk Around Mediaeval Bristol a few years ago that I really started to get a feel for their history.  On that walk I was introduced to the 15th century topographer, William Wyrcestre, and learnt that back in 1480, Nelson Street was known as Gropecunt Lane; that in the middle of the crossroads that marked the centre of the settlement, where the High Cross stood in Wyrcestre's day, there was once a waymark hawthorn tree (now a traffic bollard);  that a ship with an oak mast and a stripy sail was found buried in mud under the tower of St Stephen's Church during 15th century renovation work, thus indicating the original course of either the Frome or one of its subsidiary streams in the marshy delta that existed before wholesale drainage and re-routing of the river took place;  that the concrete car park off  Bell Lane was the site of the Jewish Temple prior to King Edward I's Edict of Explusion in 1290.  (Almost 200 years later, Wyrcestre, a man of learning, was so ignorant of Judaism that he repeated a rumour he'd heard, namely that Jews worshipped an idol named Apollo.)

William Wyrcestre also gave me a poem, reprinted below. 

Here are some photos showing the shape of the now lost city walls.

Leonard Lane

John Street

Because its contours are, like the Frome, buried under layers of rubble, concrete and tarmac, it can be quite a surprise to discover how significant the hillock upon which the city was originally founded actually is.  This becomes most evident on Leonard Lane, where a doorway will suddenly take you down 22 steep steps to the next street, St Stephen's Street. 
Yesterday, while I was maundering about in town, I also decided to find the site of an etching by Charles Bird I recently bought, the same one that hung on my grandmother's wall when I was small. I remember being fascinated then to discover that this romantic (romanticised) scene was of somewhere in Bristol, now long vanished.  It says on the back that it is the Frome ... but where is the bridge?  
Oh, look ... could it be? ... Fairfax Street with Union Street above it?
Of course, when I got home, I looked online and someone else had already beaten me to it, and in colour. Even so, unearthing buried rivers under buried roads is what I want to do next.

Here's my poem about walking around Bristol in the company of William Wyrcestre.  It's from my collection, Map Reading For Beginners, published by Indigo Dreams.

William Wyrcestre Dreams Of Bryggestowe

Ditchers, digging through silt
to strengthen foundations, discover a relic.

‘A boat,’ William tells us in Latin,
‘with sails of striped canvas,
a main mast lofty as a tree.’

His Bristoll’s a modern-day port,
yet the names of its streets
conjure mudflats and creeks,
long after its rivers were tamed
and rewritten in mortar and brick.

William’s a wanderer like me
though topography, not stories, is his passion.

He’s obsessed with measuring space,
pacing quays and sizing buildings,
plumbing drops with knotted rope.
He fathoms every well and drain,
reveals the length of Gropecunt Lane,
not what goes on there.

When my attention wanders too,
he stops at the crossroads and relents.

‘Dynt the Pumpmaker,’ he says, ‘heard tell
how once a hawthorn flourished
where now stands this splendid Cross.’

But all I see’s a traffic bollard,
yards of tarmac, withered grass.

‘And here,’ he adds by a concrete car park,
‘in deep vaults beneath these walls
the Jewry made a heathen temple
to exalt their tin-pot Lord, his name
Apollo, folk do say, or some such idol.’

©Deborah Harvey 2014

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