I have a meeting in Taunton at 11am. According to Google maps, it’s a 2-hour drive. I follow the instructions dictated out loud by my phone the whole way ‘at the roundabout take the third exit and stay on the A303′ etc. and, 75-miles later, duly arrive in good time. Thank you Google maps.
Where exactly am I though? I’m in front of the council offices in central Taunton – a late-80s piece of low-rise architecture with odd shapes and angles next to the town swimming pool – all brick and windows with blue PVC frames surrounded by a large pay and display car park, which thankfully accepts phone payments. Welcome to Taunton.
I’m greeted warmly at reception – my name badge and security pass are all ready to go – and so it begins… Ian, my contact in the council introduces himself and we have our meeting, discussing my approach and methodology to the project, where the boundaries are, what my strategy is and how I propose to make the most of my days in Taunton… My strategy is simply to walk – to invite local people to show me their town by coming for a walk with me – or telling me where to go. I won’t do my normal thing of going straight to Tourist Info or the web to find out as much as possible about the place myself. Instead, I’ll let it unfold and discover it as I’m led. I’ll reach out to people and build a portrait or map of their town by what they choose to share with a stranger, albeit an/their artist-in-residence.
My strategy is simply to walk – to invite local people to show me their town by coming for a walk with me – or telling me where to go. I won’t do my normal thing of going straight to Tourist Info or the web to find out as much as possible about the place myself. Instead, I’ll let it unfold and discover it as I’m led. I’ll reach out to people and build a portrait or map of their town by what they choose to share with a stranger, albeit an/their artist-in-residence. Ideally, I’ll walk with a group of people, so we’ll get multiple ‘special places’ to go and create a route for each walk that is unique to the group. We’ll all learn something and see through each others’ eyes – they’ll take photographs for each other of things they notice along the way.
So, in the meeting, we grab post-it notes and my map of Taunton and write on each note a local group or set of people I could approach to come walking with me –
35 minutes later, we have a spreadsheet (Ann, ArtsTaunton project manager, wastes no time entering the data into her laptop) with over 60 potential groups I could contact… A great start?
We decide to walk to our next meeting (lunch), which is with Jolyon from Somerset Wildlife Trust – one of the key organisations that has championed protecting and developing the green spaces and waterways of the area for many years and who have already made a hugely positive impact on the quality and diversity of Taunton’s great outdoors. I feel very privileged to be part of helping take this forward already. We talk about the River Tone and Longrun Meadow, about otters, local wildlife and initiatives, other artists, other walking projects, what’s already been done. It’s fascinating. It’s fantastic. I leave with yet more contacts and a bag full of SWT maps, trails, projects for kids and info. This is what I always do, let alone with anyone else’s help – I fill my bag with papers, leaflets, flyers – dates, logos, events, things going on, urls to visit later… collecting, gathering… later sifting, sorting…
We walk back along the river, past the graffiti otter (part of a Somerset ArtWorks project) on the brick wall overlooking one of the streams of the Tone, past the graffiti under the new-looking bridge (not part of an arts project) and past shadows and colours and textures and reflections in the water which I pause constantly to take photos of, as if that will help me digest it all, taking it all in in tiny bite-size shots. I know I’ll be leaving again by 4pm to drive home again, and my next visit is at least a week from now… everyone else is busy and keen, having helped launch me on my way, to get on with their own other projects.
Our next meeting is at Brewhouse, the local theatre and arts centre. It’s quiet, being mid-afternoon. We meet Dion, who’s the hub of learning and engagement there and she suggests some of her workshops and groups I could possibly approach. She runs a group for young people which sounds perfect – local teenagers with attitude and opinions. She agrees to ask them at their next meeting. One step closer to the first official walk of the project already.
A short hop across the river over ‘Morrison’s Bridge’ (why?), across another huge car park and we’re back at TDBC (Taunton Deane Borough Council) HQ, which I now have stored as my ‘workplace’ in Google maps. The afternoon seems to have evaporated in planning already, but it feels like we have accomplished quite a lot. Where are we now? Our engagement list is up to 76, I nearly have my first walk booked in, I’ve met 3 key people active locally in the community and I’ve collected lots of stuff…
And now I’ve just got to get in the car and drive back to Dorset for two hours in the opposite direction…