Under the Arches

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Traffic paused on Langport’s Bow Street for an unusual spectacle on Sunday 22nd March, as a Parrett Flatner made its way up the road for probably the first time since the high street flooded at the start of last century. This time the boat wasn’t floating. Instead it was carried in procession from the historic port at Bow Wharf, to the arches beneath Langport Town Hall, where it will be on temporary display.

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The procession went by land because access to the river isn’t possible, as the only slipway, by Black Bridge, is currently not in a useable condition. With the help of the Environment Agency, however, residents hope eventually to see the slipway back in operation, and access to the river made available again for all to enjoy. The boat will be formally launched as part of the Langport Festival in June, when summer water levels provide easier access to the river. Seila Fernandez Arconada and Jethro Brice – the artists leading the project – arranged the celebration to thank some of those who have been involved in the project so far, without whom the project could never have happened.

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Workshops at the Curry Mallet Primary School

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Thanks again to the staff and pupils at Curry Mallet Primary School, who hosted us for two really rewarding sessions. We split the day between the older and younger pupils, and worked in groups across year groups to make sure everybody could take part. There were some really creative ideas and compelling images.
One group focused on recalling how the water flowed over a bridge, another set out a detailed landscape of saturated fields trans-sected by brimming rhynes. Others came up with inventive ideas for the future, including an under-water truck like a wheeled submarine, which would remain stable on the ground and not float, as well as a couple of space-borne craft. I was struck by the detail of some children’s observations and recollections – the precise way water over-spills the raised banks of a river, or the fine feathery branches of pollarded willows strung out along a rhyne.

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What an incredible, talented and entertaining group of young artists – we hope to see you all again!

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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.

The cycle in

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This was our first research trip for Some:when – a chance to meet people, learn about the place, connect with the water, track down information about the elusive Flatner, and start piecing together plans for making the boat.

To get to Langport we decided to take the train to Bridgwater and follow the waterways inland, cycling cross-country to get a feel for the watery landscape of the Somerset Moors and Levels.

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As far as we could, we followed the River Parrett – tracing in reverse the planned journey of the Flatner. Close as we were to the water, we barely saw it – instead we found ourselves cut off from the river by the high embankments, hemmed in between pumping stations and dusty hedges.

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The brief spectacular views of the river showed us a rapidly changing scene, from the mud slicks and buried bicycles of Bridgwater to bucolic, leafy bends, canal boats and herons. Further upstream, we came suddenly on the signs of dredging – long armed diggers perched above smooth-sided, geometrical slopes of clean-scraped mud. A small sign beside a row of riverside houses read ‘Dredge the Rivers’ in vivid red paint. Signs were everywhere: warning signs, planning notifications, road closures, and – scrawled across the road in white spray paint – ‘Flooded To Here’.

The view from Burrow Mump had transformed. We had each been here before, earlier in the year, to see the broad silvery reaches of the Winter floods. I recalled the flocks of wildfowl strung out along field edges, wheeling lapwings, and swans bright against the dark strings of willow. Now two buzzards circled, lazily calling, above hay meadows and lush green fields. We refilled our water bottles at the King Alfred Inn and set off towards our first rendez-vous at the SAW offices in Langport. The road dipped between lush meadows then wound its way into a cluster of steep hills. Gradually we climbed above the floodplain and made our way into Langport.

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