This was a lovely commission from Exeter UNESCO City of Literature and I’m very grateful to them for the opportunity to make some new work and learn more about the River Exe.
I have also been asked to create an exhibition of work for St Nicholas’ Priory, and this will form part of that. We hoped to show the work in January, but have had to postpone, so keep an eye here for details.
For this project I wanted to follow the course of the River Exe from Exeter to Riversmeet in Topsham, walking along the east bank, reading poems and texts about rivers that I feel are relevant or inspiring and collecting objects and materials to make an artist’s book. The river had other ideas, so the walks were broken and meandering, much like the river itself.
The piece is called ‘Reading Water’ – a term used by people who fish, by sailors and surfers, trying to understand what is happening on and in the water’s waves, currents and tides. The root of the name Exeter is ‘Isca’, meaning ‘water’, so this piece is both ‘reading Exeter’ and ‘reading the river’.
I invite you to read the water if you are able to walk, kayak, swim, or cycle along and around the river. Many of the poems are available online, which I invite you to read and ponder, or find your own books or poems that spark your imagination. Perhaps you want to make your own book, or write your own words about this river or another river.
The final piece is a book of cyanotype prints of water, fragments of poems and objects that I found while walking, some natural, some manufactured. Some of the poems I read are about wildlife in rivers, some are about rivers far away and remind me how we are connected to other places and times by water.
As the river water is part of a great cycle of nature, the book has been made using re-purposed paper (lining paper, wrapping paper, paper salvaged from an office fire), home-made glue (wheat flour, water), home-made oak gall ink (including oak galls, rust, wine found in an Exe Valley nature reserve, wine vinegar and river water), ascorbic acid (lemon juice), mud from the Exe, natural chalk and cyanotype using river water.
Where possible, I have linked to an online source.
This poem reminds me to let go of the worries in life and look at the bigger picture. Walking along the river during lockdown has helped me do this, I get caught up in the birds, the water, the light and the sounds of the river and start to relax.
Mussels are an important industry on the Exe, and I found many shells on my walks, especially close to Topsham. This poem is so rich in imagery, and links me through mud and mussels to somewhere thousands of miles away.
‘Acorn’ – from Robert Macfarlane’s Lost Words
Many different kinds of young and ancient oaks border the river Exe, and I found lots of acorns blackened by the mud.
Hundreds of years ago, this estuary would have been busy with oak sailing ships bringing people and cargoes from far-off lands. This poem is one of my childhood favourites.
High up in Exeter’s flood defences I saw tiny fish sheltering in the shallows. The river is home to many species of fish – it’s hard to spot them in the muddy waters, but there are plenty of fishing spots along the riverbanks.
‘Ink’ – Bruce Bond
These poems connect with other rivers around the world, and are a wonderful reminder for me of the many different nationalities of people who call the Exe Estuary home.
‘Kingfisher’ – Richard Price (from A Spelthorne Bird List)
There is a resident kingfisher (or at least one) that I have seen several times darting between the Customs House and the flood defense channel, with its electric blue plumage flashing in the sun.
‘The bird is faithful’ – Jon Ur Vor
My father chose this poem – he has always been able to quote poems at length. He learned them when he was young, and for many years it only took a word for him to launch into a remembered poem. ‘The Brook’ is another reminder of how small we are in the great scheme of things – ‘men may come and men may go, but I go on forever.’
The rhythms of this poem are wonderful – echoing the fast-flowing water – and the final words reminding us that our lives impact on nature.
Topsham was once the second largest port in England after London, and hundreds of ships were built and launched there. One ship, called HMS Terror, took part in the Battle of Fort McHenry in America, during the 1812 war between the United States and the United Kingdom. ‘The Star-spangled Banner’ was written about this battle, so the River Exe is linked with one of the most important events in American history.