A feel for the Parrett

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The River Parrett runs like a vein through this part of the Levels… it channels the flows of the landscape and brings life to it. Touching and listening to the water, we got to understand more in-depth this strong relationship of the land with the water. This river is like a thread linking the themes of the valley – it carries different types of water, different traces of history and therefore different meanings. This river contains the stories of the surroundings, its reflections show another angle on the landscape and how images can merge with its flow. It acts as a lens, and only being suspended, floating on the surface, can offer us this different perspective.

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Many stories have been told about the floods and the river. The media, the locals, the experts translate into words what their actual relationship with the river is. However, the watery heritage of Somerset is more than that, and by being immersed in this research, looking at it from different views and different perspectives, already we begin to see the depth and complexity of this relationship between the land and the water, and how people have adjusted themselves to it, and it to them. We both have been looking at Somerset for few years as one of the interests in our research. However, by being in the river I could see all the points of view coming together in one drawing that so far is just a sketch, and will be many more sketches, during this project and future ones.

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“Eyes can see widely: They can cross a river in full flood”.  (Tswana proverb)

A welly of water will do

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We were sitting in the library when the phone rang, books stacked about our feet and on the little side table. We had divided the morning between phone calls and local history books, on the trail of the elusive Parrett Flatner. So far we had three interesting photographs, and one promising conversation. Now on the phone was Ron Coombes of Bineham City Farm, kindly inviting us out for a look at his hand-built punt, recreated from the original specifications of Colonel Hawker

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Cycling as fast as we could in the baking sun, we made it out to the farm just in time to catch Ron on his lunch break. He took us out to the barn to admire the boat, a long, low craft built constructed from light timber and marine ply, painted a wintry pale grey. Holding his hand to the side of his Wellington boot to show just how little water was needed to float the boat, he described the extent of the Winter floods and the trips he’d taken wild-fowling with his dogs when the Levels were submerged.

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Standing by the boat with the sun at our backs and the cool musty smell of the barn before, our quest at last began to take on material qualities – the feel of the marine plywood, the weathered texture of the flaking paint, smells of straw and wood, oil, rust and dung. The swallows among the rafters and the wet nose of the dog gently sniffing about our ankles. This wasn’t exactly the boat we were after, but its flat bottom and homegrown feel gave us a taste of what we were after. Ron said the boat has carried them for miles across the floodplain, needing very little to keep afloat. Running aground on the mud, it takes only a quick shove to get going again. It seems an ideal boat for access and mobility in an unstable and unpredictable water-scape.

At the back of the house, another boat lay upturned on the narrow lawn, a battered fibreglass dinghy propped beside the rusting garden gate. Ron marked out the line for us, where the water had reached halfway up the  drive. The house, the yard and the cattle sheds were safe on high ground, but a boat was still a handy thing to have about.

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Cycling back, we stopped besides golden fields of sunbaked corn beneath an innocent blue sky. The smell of warm earth, tarmac and milky thistles revealed nothing to our of the wet, waterbound Winter months.

Encounters in Langport – how spontaneity generates collaboration

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We’ve opted for an open and spontaneous approach with this project – floating an idea and seeing where it takes us, following the threads that arise from collective responses. The research trip was directed by the people we met, pointing the way to new encounters with particular places or people. Their interest in the project has in turn shaped our own, bringing different approaches and expertise to flesh out our original ideas.

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We met some great people, whose enthusiasm and knowledge have helped us explore or resolve some of the big questions that face us. We were able to look at construction of the actual boat, floating different suggestions and even testing out some possible materials in an impromptu living-room experiment. We explored the historical and social background, talking to people about their experiences, consulting local books and historians. We began to immerse ourselves in the space, exploring Langport and its surroundings, sought out community groups in order to know how they would like to engage with the project , and even took a canoe out onto the River Parrett, to explore what will be the final event of this project, the Flatner‘s journey downstream from Langport to Bridgewater.

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The journey Some:when has started is vibrant and beautiful. Thank you so much to everyone who has made it a success so far – thanks to Carol, Steph, Josh, Lorraine, Ron, Cara, Hannah, Claire, Alan, Angus, Janet, Caroline, and everybody else who made us feel welcome and inspired.  More updates to follow soon!