The Malago and South Bristol 1988
Looking south from the centre of Bristol you can see a long, high hill with a church tower at the west end. This is Dundry Hill, made up of lias clays, surmounted by limestone. When rain falls on Dundry, it percolates through the permeable limestone on the top until it reaches the impermeable layers of the lias beds and it surfaces as a line of springs on the north flank of the hill to become a number of streams, two of which are known as the Malago and the Pigeonhouse.
The name Malago may come from the words which mean mischievous, or ‘ill-flowing’ and its reputation for causing problems reached a peak in 1968 when a sudden storm in July caused extensive flooding in and around south Bristol, but the Malago in particular flooded East Street in Bedminster to a height of two feet, and a man died trying to save some women stranded by the floods in Hartcliffe.
As a result of this flooding, a project to control the water was started and much of the stream became culverted and either was no longer visible, or it ran through concrete channels. Although this is clearly of great practical benefit to thousands of people, it also meant that these streams became disregarded, as they were invisible in many cases, or inaccessible. The open sections running through channels seemed to invite widespread rubbish dumping, items found ranging from washing machines, supermarket trolleys and stolen, burnt out cars and motorbikes to dead dogs and chickens.
However, from parts of south Bristol as you look towards Dundry Hill, it is possible to discern a green swathe, a ‘greenway’, running from the slopes of the hill right into Bristol. It is even more clear on a map, the course of the stream can still be followed from the countryside to the heart of Bristol.
It was with this ‘vision’ in mind, of a greenway which could provide car-free access to the country or the city, that a group of people (including myself and partner Peter Milner along with teachers, artists, musicians and performers some of whom went on to form Changing Places Environmental Arts Trust – no longer in operation) came together to create a playscheme in the summer of 1988, on a recreation ground next to a section of the Malago in Bedminster, with the theme of reviving the ‘spirit’ of the Malago.
With the support of local people and Bristol City Council (who could see the potential for this greenway as a cycle/pedestrian route into and out of the centre of the city), a number of events were organised over the week including rubbish clearance of the stream, model boat and ark making, the creation of an arch of reclaimed supermarket trolleys dredged from the stream, and a musical procession and performance starring the ‘Spirit of the Malago’, a human embodiment of the stream!
Phase 2 1990
Based on the success of this project, the ideas were eventually developed into the more extensive and formalised “Malago and Pigeonhouse Streams” project in 1990 and was developed in conjunction with Travelling Light Theatre Company, Groundwork Trust (still going, here) and UK2000 who funded the project. It took place in 8 schools (two Secondary and 6 Junior) located near the Malago and Pigeonhouse streams, and a Community Park Farm and a City Farm close to each end of the streams over the summer of 1990.
The aim of the project was to stimulate and increase awareness in these local water courses. It began with a visit to each school by Travelling Light who gave a performance of ‘Waving Goodbye – the story of how the sea was sold’ a play devised by the company about the pollution of water which raised various issues on the themes of responsibility, involvement and a sense of place and belonging.
This performance was then followed by three workshops in each school run by Winnie Love – a performer with Travelling Light, and myself – artist and photographer. These workshops further explored the issues raised by the play, the first one was a visit to the section of stream nearest to each of the schools where the children took photographs, drew, wrote poems and songs, listened and collected materials. In the subsequent workshops in the schools the children made collages with the photographs, compiled displays with other material and developed a performance.
In July 1990 approximately 200 or so of the participating children and all the work they had produced – the photographs, displays and performances – were brought together for a day of celebration at Hartcliffe Community Park Farm where each school presented their performances in turn in a huge barn. Another feature of the performance was an ‘articulated’ and ‘animated’ sculpture created by artist Steve Joyce during workshops at the Hartcliffe and Windmill Hill City Farm sites made from scrap collected by the children from the streams.
I also created my own response to the waterways, environments and the discoveries we made with the children by making an enormous collage in the shape the two streams made on the map using photographs taken at each of the schools, the two city farms and the Travelling Light performance of Waving Goodbye. When all the pieces were assembled it came to 16ft in length and was displayed in the stairwell of Groundwork Trust’s offices in Bedminster for a while and at the South of the River Show event in Victoria Park.
This day of celebration was also part of the South of the River Show, the South Bristol Arts Festival, the theme of that year having been Roots and Routes.
28 years later
Partly as a result of the interest created with these initiatives, the Malago and its immediate environment had considerable work carried out on them by Bristol City Council with local groups of residents and volunteers; some sections were made more accessible, others had paths and lighting installed, the stream itself was dredged to improve the flow, and a signed route was initiated for cyclists and pedestrians for part of its length and leaflets produced. Now it features in cycling maps and travel planning websites, however, it has also come under threat from the Metro Bus scheme.
It seems people are still ‘discovering‘ the Malago and engaging with it creatively as if it’s uncharted territory – as we probably believed we did ourselves so long ago!