Niagara Falls on the Frome

If anyone spotted a short girl in a red anorak geeking out with a phone camera at the EA suice gates on Tuesday afternoon, that will have been me (Jess, the arts facilitator on the project). I thought I’d take advantage of the sun bravely venturing  out, to make another tour of the ‘hood, seeking out the sites (and sights) along the river and under the motorway where nature meets concrete meets people meets water – and lots of it.

My original plan was to drift upstream, trying to capture objects, sights and sounds from a new angle than the way we might view them in the everyday; a lens through which to look at these places differently – and especially as spaces we could use to take and make ‘art’ and tell stories, whether that will be through singing, dancing, walking, knitting, acting, juggling, spoon-playing, skating, drawing, beatboxing….whatever the talents, interests and desires of the multi-skilled folks of the ‘ville may be. Like Alice’s rabbithole, I was looking for a way to fall into Wonderland, Eastville-style.

But I got far more than I bargained for at the sluice gates – which were open to allow the river to by-pass the city (so I’ve learned!) – and there was high drama as the Frome raced and frothed furiously through, creating a fine mist of spray. Like a stereotypical tourist, I just couldn’t stop filming, whilst grinning and exclaiming excitedly to passers-by ‘It’s just like Niagara Falls!’. From Eastville to geeksville…


Eastville’s Sluice Gates

Meet Melvin Wood, the man from the Environment Agency…

Melvin is one of the EA’s technical specialists, and he knows all about the Eastville sluice gates and the heavy concrete engineering that the River Frome is subjected to as it flows up to them. Melvin’s enthusiasm for concrete (a substance which – let’s face it – many of us find pretty ugly!) comes from years of training and experience, but it’s also quite infectious!

As Melvin explains it, the river has to be “canalised” in the way it is, with sheet metal piling, concrete struts, and the rest of it, in order that the river’s flow up to the sluices is orderly and controlled. This means that the Frome can safely be channelled underground at this point, to flow in culverts toward the city centre, where it connects with the Floating Harbour and the Avon. Also at the Eastville sluices is the mouth of a giant Interceptor Tunnel (it’s just below the little red-brown hut in this picture), which in flood conditions will siphon off excess water and send it rushing off down five miles of piping to the Avon Gorge: that way the underground culverts don’t get flooded (that would cause chaos at street level, with water coming up through the ground!). So basically this engineering in Eastville is vital to the safety and smooth functioning of the rest of the city. And we don’t just need to take Melvin’s word for this: Jeff Neal, one of the hydrologists we’ve met from Bristol University’s Geographical Sciences department, confirms these details. Cities are basically big, man-made machines, and they need big structures to operate smoothly.

The thing is, of course, that however important and cleverly designed this all is, it’s not particularly pleasant to live with. It’s hardly surprising if people living in this area feel a “disconnect” from the river, given the way it is fenced off in the run-up to the sluices (and flows underneath a motorway – another of the city’s key arteries…).

How could all this be made a bit less grim and offputting, we might ask ourselves? Could some creative interventions help us look differently at it?