Like most artists I know, I knew Megan Clark-Bagnall’s work before I knew the artist, and I knew the artist long before I knew the person. After today I feel like we speed-dated a friendship, going from acquaintances and occasional workmates (Megan and her some time collaborator Ali Brown employed me last summer to work on their M2AIR project; residencies for children, please take a look) to, at the very least, people who now know a hell of a lot about each other’s personal lives, character, and foibles.
Megan’s response to my initial email was an immediate YES! And through subsequent communications she expressed a preference for walking somewhere local and when she suggested the Bristol and Bath Railway Path (BBRP) I was sold – I have lived in Bath for 14 years but have never walked this path, and it would be this project’s first point-to-point walk.
I just had to spend all of the time between Walk 002 with Simon Lee-Dicker on March 10th and this one with Megan on May 14th finishing up the middle year of my MA and I’d be ready to concentrate on the project again. With that in the bag (A link will appear here if I ever choose to write about it) on May 7th I turned my attention to the route. It looked like we would head out of Bath on the riverside path and pick up the BBRP after a mile or so, then drop back down to the Avon on the outskirts of Bristol, from where it would take us in to Temple Meads station and I would catch a train back home. Thirteen miles, all told. More about that later.
The weather had been hit and miss for a week or so but on Tuesday the 14th of May it was glorious and, as I walked in to Bath from my home on the east side of the city, my heart sang with the birds and hummed with the bees – I closed my eyes and remembered the glory of last summer on the Pennine Way. There still hasn’t been a single day that I haven’t thought about it in what must be over a year by now. At the station I bumped into Natasha Kidd, course leader in Fine Art at Bath School of Art and Design, and we talked about Bath’s failure to retain its art graduates – where are the installation and video artists in this beautiful city? Drowned out by bronze hares and rainy street scenes, I suspect. Bath is in dire need of an artist-led contemporary space and studios, so perhaps we can do something about that, but that conversation is for another day.
After a brief wait for a platform, Megan emerged from the station and came bounding over, sunglasses and smile to the fore, and our walk began. Megan had brought some bread she had baked and we stopped at Sainsbury’s to pick up cheese, hummus, olives, and some amazing TREK coconut and chocolate protein bars. In the early part of our walk, conversation centred around our adopted cities of Bath and Bristol (I’m from Newcastle upon Tyne, and Megan is from Derby) and what they have meant and now mean to us. It’s interesting how one’s perception of a place evolves alongside one’s requirements of it. Home ownership, marriage, children – all the stuff we didn’t have when we first moved south – are parts of our lives now and with those commitments comes responsibility. I remember being told that as I was becoming a parent I would have to find a ‘proper’ job and be proud of the fact I had ‘had a go’ as an artist. Truth was I was only just beginning to have my go, and becoming a parent only strengthened my resolve to somehow make it work. Striving to turn my dreams into realistic ambitions and then achievable goals seemed to me to be a pretty good example to set to my infant flatmates, no?
In the beginning (it was 9:30am) we spent a lot of time looking out for cyclists and figuring out the hello-etiquette of this route. The best we could figure was that within about half a mile of the city, you say nothing. You march, head-down, into the mass of concrete, metal, and glass, but in the middle bit, which is slightly more rural, a nod or a hello is more often than not reciprocated. The cyclists are more chatty in the middle, too, as they seem less concerned with winning their own personal app-bound race against themselves.
‘I know nothing about nature’ said Megan as I pointed out a coal tit flitting through a hawthorn tree, early on. Hawthorns down here still surprise me with their scale. It’s mainly a hedgerow tree where I come from, so to be alongside their thick trunks looking up towards a tangle of branches is unusual still. I love everything about the hawthorn – its jagged, lobed leaf; life-giving berries in early winter; and of course the beautiful white blossom that freckles it at this time of year.
Other trees were pointed at and named; horse chestnut, ash, birch, and the unmistakable oak. The stand-out feature of this walk was the conversation, both in terms of how easily it flowed, but also the fact that it never really broke that flow. The BBRP is one long, unbroken footpath that is impossible to lose. The only time we stopped to refer to a map was around twelve miles in, when I needed a wee and Megan knew there was a Morrison’s coming up. It turned out to be a mile away, probably the quickest and least comfortable mile of the day.
Our views for most of the route were restricted by the trees that line the path. Having them occasionally open up to reveal a hint of a landscape became something of an event as we identified Kelston Round Hill (twice), the (decommissioned) Cadbury Factory at Keynsham, which Megan told me a sad story about in which the factory workers lined up to watch the final bar of chocolate – a Double Decker – make its way along the production line through a chocolately guard of honour. Very sad.
We stopped at Avon Valley Railway in Bitton for lunch, where we dined on those delicious pickings from Sainsbury’s with Megan’s bread and my pre-made sandwich of mozzarella, beetroot chutney, and rocket on toasted sourdough. I know, and it was a delight. The coffee at Avon Valley Railway was absolutely shocking, but combined with our lunch it gave us the necessary pep to hit the trail once more and strike north, for Bristol and ice cream.
The conversation ranged from Megan’s plans for building a back garden studio, to how my children are getting on in school, to storytelling (both to children and as an artist), and future projects.
We talked about Megan’s nascent capsule wardrobe and my shift to black trousers and teeshirt in February 2016. No joke: IT CHANGED MY LIFE. We discussed ADD/ADHD and autism/asperger’s, none of which we know masses about, but all of which we feel we have experience of to varying degrees. On the subject of later life diagnoses, I mentioned that when I was 13 I had my own fantasy football league going on, but that not a lot of football happened, and that it was more about the cataloguing of players and their individual abilities, and it’s only now, almost thirty years later that I am beginning to (sort of) make sense of why I was doing that.
‘Oh,’ Megan said, ‘So you were making stuff up and filing it?’
Yep. And that’s what I’m still doing now with these walks!
On the back of that, I brought up the topic of mental health and we discussed the precariousness of being an artist and the necessity for balance in life and the importance of taking time out, of being away from art for a bit, and I hope that these walks, though framed by my own artistic practice, allow my fellow artists and walkers to do just that. This project was initiated by my search for the answer to my friend Derek’s question ‘what’s the difference when an artist walks compared to a non-artist?’ and I put that question to Megan at about the ten mile mark. Once again it came back not to the artist doing it differently – you don’t have to be an artist to go for a walk and notice things – but that the artist then responds to it by creating something that wasn’t already in the world, be that a poem, a painting, or a documentary piece that covers the walk and all that it entailed. For the first time the old saw ‘I could have done that’ came up, as it was felt that maybe there was an element of that in the initial question. I am sure there was, although not from a position of arrogance or disrespect on Derek’s part, but rather from a need to see my position as ‘walking artist’ justified, and I think that’s fair.
I’d like to thank Megan for this walking experience. It stands out for its maplessness, its distance and duration, and also for the fantastic company along the way. You can find out more about Megan Clark-Bagnall’s work HERE. Please do take a look, she is an amazing person, even if she did make me do 17 miles on tarmac and 20 miles all told…