An Unexpected encounter

Unexpected Encounter

An Unexpected Encounter (the second leg)

One thing I value about working this way is the space it opens up for unanticipated discoveries. Faced with the logistical challenge of having two boats at different points on the river, and wanting to take a companion out on the water the following week, I found myself realising – towards the end of a two-hour journey upriver – that I’d have to leave my boat at Saltford and make my way back to Keynsham by other means. Not having planned for this, I had nothing on me but my swimming costume, a map, and the paddle I had borrowed from a neighbouring narrowboat dweller. Thus my first formal walking performance piece for Tidal Recall came about by accident:

an unplanned walk from

Salt Ford


Broad Mead


(with a paddle)

I discovered a half-forgotten wilderness of railway embankments and abandoned roads, glowing and then fading as the light fell and the mist rose from the river.I encountered nettles, an old bridge, and two dogs who didn’t like my paddle, but no people on this first walking performance. So when I returned the kayak a few weeks later I decided to enact the second leg of the performance along the main Bath road.The sun was already setting as I paddled down river from Saltford, and I found myself slipping easily into that in-between space I’m trying to inhabit with Tidal Recall and my work in the fluid tense. It was a fruitful journey, but by the time I set off back it was dusk and I met no-one on the road out of Keynsham.

I arrived back in Saltford, however, in time to join the tail-end of a gathering of house-dwellers and boat-dwellers, hosted by my friends on their patch of land by the river. I entered the circle of firelight still in a semi-performative role, my bare feet provoking instant and curious conversation. The evening was a lovely one and we lingered late in the light of the dwindling fire and the waxing moon.

I had brought a small dry-bag with me on the second leg of the walk, and walked back through the cool twilight dressed in a woolly jumper, the bag with its few contents strapped to my paddle and bouncing awkwardly against my back. I quickly realised that the classic vagabond’s prop of a napkin on a stick made little sense in practice, since the swinging action of the bundle and the lever-effect of the paddle shaft multiply the effective weight of the load. Instead I nested the bag close against my back, using the paddle to hang it from, in lieu of a shoulder-strap. The physicality of the experience connected me to a historic tradition of wanderers, going beyond nostalgic representational tropes to a more embodied knowledge and a sense of shared (convergent) experience.

Adam Buck (1759-1833) 'Dick Whittington'

Adam Buck (1759-1833) ‘Dick Whittington’

Back at the studio, I began to search through archives for the origins of the classic napkin-on a stick image. Dick Whittington (the literary character is himself a romantic fictionalisation of a real-life person) was my first agent in the search. In a 17th c. watercolour he carried his jacket slung nonchalantly against his back. However, it was not until a 19th c. pantomime photo that I found him carrying the classic dangling napkin.

Further searching yielded a new word – bindle – possibly borrowed from Yiddish and used in the US to describe a hobo’s bedroll. To my satisfaction the hobos seemed to share my preference of a nested shoulder position. Similarly images of the wandering fool in tarot and other late medieval traditions, the other major source of stick-bundle images, seemed to start out with either just a cudgel or a shoulder bundle, the dangly napkin arriving later as a romanticised variation.

Heironymus Bosch equipped his wandering peddler with a kind of primitive napsack or basket, and reserved the dangling kettle (?) for his dreamlike world-turned-upside-down paintings.

Finally, one other figure appeared among the fools and vagbonds in my image search – a black slave on a Wanted poster offering a reward for captured fugitive slaves. At the party in Saltford I fell into conversation with Noel, a volunteer at the Saltford Brass Mill museum, who told me that the canalisation of the River had opened up supply routes for the industrialisation of the valley, including the Brass mill which had produced pots and dishes for exchange for slaves in Africa on the first leg of the Atlantic triangle. It seems the colonisation of Africa and the new world accompanied a more local colonisation of Bristol’s rural hinterland, each reliant on the other. Labour conditions in the mills were probably not far removed from slavery, and the profit from all arms of the enterprise would have found its way back to the coffers of Bristol’s wealthy merchant class. [Interestingly, when slavery was finally abolished (due largely to the frequent and costly slave resistance in the colonies), slave owners were paid vast sums of public money in compensation, which they used to build new mills on the Avon employing local bonded labour]. This first journey on the river has yielded the kind of layered history I was seeking, and already it is further-reaching and more entangled that I had anticipated.

An assorted library of internet-scavenged images:


7 responses to “An Unexpected encounter

  1. Thanks Jethro, I like the way you are delving into history here :-). I’m interested in your idea that the main reason for the abolition of slavery was costly slave rebellion in the colonies – I hadn’t heard that before. What is that based on? Do you think it was really the main reason?

  2. Good question. It’s something I heard recently at a discussion group on migration and want to learn more about – perhaps I should be more cautious about making the assertion here until I have read up on the history. I have come across the story of slave and servant revolts in the Americas in other contexts, too, and it seems interesting – some claim it was the danger posed by black and white workers joining arms that provoked the first attempts to engineer racial segregation in America.

  3. I seem to remember having made that same discovery of the pack-on-a-stick sometime in the past. It indeed seems that all the representations where the pack is not on the back are caricatures and parodies, or at least showing a prototype, rather than an actual individual.

  4. Hi Jethro. Thank you so much for this inspired and inspiring articulation/exploration of the logistics of walking-carrying alongside water…(as opposed to the logistics of water-carrying alongside walking, which I was grappling with not long afterwards!). There is something about the ingenuity of negotiating a weight whilst walking – the patient re-placing… I once read a book in which a character said that the rucksack he had ‘carries itself’. I understand this better now, after the yoke walk. Thank you again! Pob hwyl, Jess

  5. Hi Jethro,
    Yes, the yoke walk documentation is all now on the website I’d be interested to hear what you think if you ever have time. I oscillate between doubting it and liking it!! It was pretty emotionally draining walking round (especially the city centre circles) and finding the right way to ‘be’ in response to people’s caution or hostility at the sight of something unusual. Though there was much warmth too and some wonderful encounters. It was quite a departure for me to step back from the overtly political (in the end) and just ask people to put their hand into a bucket of water!… Anyway, I know that in some ways your FutureMuseum and flood work has trickled through and inspired me so thank you for that!

    I’m back at my mother’s in Aberystwyth at the moment, and got very wet feet walking Cai (dog) from Ynyslas to Borth and back. Something very affirming about wet feet though, in sea water (as opposed to muddy waters of Herefordshire!)

    Hywl fawr,

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