Walk no.7

Veiw from Dundry

Walk with Pete Harrison (artist) and Jim Dixon (archeologist). Malago springs to Avon New Cut.

The aim of today was to walk all the way from the spring to the Avon, attempting to trace the whole river and share ideas with Pete for the public walks we will develop for April. I meet Pete and Max in town, and catch the bus to Hartcliffe to start our walk. We iupstairs and watch the streets slip by through the streaks of a torrential downpour. I find the bus stop that Anton had shown me,  and lead the way up the muddy hillside, Jim trudging ahead whilst Pete slips in his city shoes. The veiw from the top is even more striking than I remembered, bright light bursting through the rainclouds and Bristol spread out before us.

We decide to stay as true to the river as possible, so we follow the stream downhill from the spring, and through woods until the path squeezes behind a small gasworks and leads us out to the back of some houses. Here, amongst a pool of strewn and charred papers, I find a music box. It’s wet and broken but still plays its tune. Loosing ourselves for a few minutes in residential streets, Jim picks up the scent of the river again, and we follow the Pigeonhouse stream through Hartcliffe: the path moving between a rubbish dump and strangly beautiful glens. Hazel catkins catch the light when the rain stops. There are wiers made from shopping trolleys. We see a rat swimming  in the water but the current is very strong and he is swept downstream looking like he’s lost control.


The river disappears under Hengrove Way, and there’s a large pond next to a new ‘Lakeside’ development. I think this is where Pigeonhouse Farm once stood, and the large industrial building that’s being developed was a Tabacco factory. From here, the Pigeonhouse stream continues through Crox Bottom, a surprisingly rural wooded valley that leads you onto Hartcliffe Way a little further south than Manor Woods. There’s an interceptor here as well, taking water underground to join the Malago storm tunnel.

From here we go south through Manor Woods and into Bishopsworth, warming ourselves for a while in the lobby of the swimming pool. We walk back through Manor Woods, and up the Greenway into Bedminster. I tell Pete and Jim some of what I’ve learnt from my previous walks. We talk about books and journeys, and the translation of direct experience into something else.

It takes us six hours (with breaks and meanderings) to reach the Avon New Cut, where we stand on the north bank and see with glee the two huge outlets that mark the end of the Malago.

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Walk no.6


Walk with Helen Adshead (NETWORK  South Bristol) and Kathy Derrick (Bristol City Council). Bedminster station to the Victorian Interceptor, and back under the railway to Whitehouse Lane.

Helen and Kathy work for the council, monitoring the health of Bristol’s rivers, encouraging people to explore them, and supporting community groups who work on conservation. They were intrigued by this project and what might come of it. Helen organises an annual walk along the Malago, which is well attended by those who live near to the river and intrigued ramblers. Kathy said something that really struck me – that the Malago is more like a jigsaw than a continuous route. Each bit you come across has a different character, and belongs in a different community. This rang true with my experiences of hunting for the river over the past few days – and trying to piece it together in my head.

They were able to tell me a bit more about the architecture of culverting, and when the river was re-directed. They also took me back past Bedminster station and onto Whitehouse Lane, where there’s the final section of the Malago before it disappears under Asda. This bit flows (or limps) through a square channel. It passes a garage and there are several large tyres dumped in the water.  Then there’s a sharp corner and a remarkable floodgate, once again out of proportion with the volume of water.

Kathy explains that they conduct water quality tests every month for all of Bristol’s rivers, checking for pollutants. The also do surveys on the number of shopping trolleys found in the waterways. Shopping trolley sightings can be reorted through Bristol City Council and there is a service to fish them out. The data is available online at www.bristol.gov.uk/rivers

Before we go our separate ways I ask Helen exactly where the Malago emerges into the Avon New Cut. There are two places – the storm tunnel that goes from Manor Woods underground and carries most of the water, and the tunnel that takes the trickle we have followed under Asda’s car-park. She shows me on a map and tells me how to get to a good viewing spot on the other side of the river. She tells me to look for a large tidal gate that covers the tunnel outlet. When it’s been really raining, there’s a surprising amount of water pouring out.


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Walk no.5

Wingmill Hill

Walk with Maggie Hughes, local resident and member of the Kingfisher conservation group. Cotswold Road to the bottom of Windmill Hill.

Maggie and I had lunch at the Windmill pub, just round the corner from her house on Cotswold road. She told me with great enthusiasm about living with the Malago at the bottom of her garden, and the wildlife she sees from her window. There’s a magpie making a new nest at the top of a slender silver birch, and she shows me how it’s dismantling last years nest to re-use the sticks. It’s like us taking a scaffolding pole in our mouth, she says.

Maggie is part of the Kingfishers, a local group who look after this stretch of the river, doing litter picks, trimming back brambles, and keeping an eye on goings-on. She is outraged by the plan that’s been mooted to build a ‘Rapid Transit Route’ over the Malago – burying what’s left of the river in Bedminster to create a route for a bendy bus. She is part of the ‘Save the Malago’ campaign.

She takes me down to the cycle path and talks with passion about the birds nesting in the trees, the colours at different times of year, and how well used the greenway is. I have passed this spot multiple times now, but looking at it with Maggie, this small stretch of the river takes on new value and meaning. She tells me how last year she bought some waders for the clean-up, and was very glad she did, because she ended up thigh-deep in quick-mud and had to be hauled out with a rope. Maggie has an elegant way of moving her hands as she speaks, describing the life of birds, or the swift movement of an eager litter-picker.

As we walk, we meet a woman with a young child. They creep slowly along the path, sometimes stopping for the girl to point at a back garden and proclaim ‘Maaa’. Yes, says the woman, it’s a cat.

Back at Maggie’s house, she shows me a book about this area. On the front page is an extract of a song by Adge Cutler (of the Wurzels) called ‘Moonlight on the Malago’: a tribute to the lovely ladies of South Bristol.

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Walk no.4


Walk with Anton Bantock, founder of the University of Withywood and the Malago Society. University of Withywood to Hartcliffe and Dundry slopes.

Cycling down to Withywood, I arrive at Anton’s house at 9.30. He invites me in whilst he finishes his muesli, and I have some time to look around before we go. The front room of the house is lined with books, many of them leather-bound, and every available surface is piled high with papers, files and magazines. At the far end of the room, a man bends over a drawing board, meticulously recording something from a huge volume in front of him. It looks like a scene from a medieval library. Anton introduces the man as his friend and helper, without whom domestic affairs would go out the window. He tells me that although his papers may look in disarray, he knows exactly where everything is, and most of it gets used. Anton is in his seventies, a slim man with a grey beard and a quick mind. He dons a flat-cap, flings a scarf about his neck and picks up his walking stick before ushering me out of the front door.

We catch the no.76 bus two stops down the road to Hartcliffe, another 1960s housing estate that merges seamlessly with Withywood (to an outsider at least: I have heard that in fact these areas are very tribal). Anton begins the walk with a tour of Hartcliffe centre, where a huge Morrisons and adjoining car part dominates a new shopping development. He explains how he was part of the steering committee that helped consult locals on this development, but he was disappointed with the lack of imagination that went into the final outcome. He gazes over the car park, and describes his vision for a pedestrian and child-friendly pathway and play area. We then turn around and look south, to where Hartcliffe abruptly ends, and the green of Dundry hill rises behind it. We walk up a wide stretch of grass between houses before climbing steeply up the muddy path that leads to the top of the hill. I am impressed with Anton’s fitness, he pauses occasionally for breath, but I slip more often than him. This stretch of grass is very littered, and Anton comments on it, but he says he thinks it’s the youngsters and he forgives them a lot, for at least they have a place like this to come and play. As we gain height, we stop to gaze back over the city. This is a most striking place, because the edge between the city and countryside is so sudden. From the top of Dundry ridge this is very apparent: looking North, the green slopes down until it meets the edge of Hartcliffe. Looking south, its very rural – green fields, hedgerows, farmland. Anton tells me he feels vibrations in this place of very ancient human habitation.

We follow the ridge a little way, through tangled woods, and muddy paths. There are many springs up here, and in several places the path is interrupted by a muddy trickle as a stream finds its way downhill. And then we come upon the ‘Malago Spring’: a spring which in fact flows into the Pigeonhouse stream, but was landscaped and made into a feature as part of a millennium project. It’s very pretty – a curved stone wall with clear water tumbling friskily out of a hole, then running over flat stones with (slightly illegible) lines of poetry carved into them. Anton tells me that this water is meant to have healing powers, and there’s an elderly lady in Withywood who swears that it heals the sores on her legs. He occasionally takes her a bottle of Malago Spring water, and she lifts her skirt to show him how much it helps! Anton takes off his glasses and splashes water from the spring into his eyes, and drinks a little. I also drink some, and find a discarded plastic bottle which I fill with spring water.

Walking back down the hill, Anton points out the lack of clear pathways on Dundry, and explains that in past years he came up here with clippers and cut back the brambles, but he no longer has the energy. It does have an air of neglect, and there’s no way I would have found the sprig without a guide, there’s no sign from Hartcliffe. Ramblers do walk on Dundry Hill, but apparently few local people use this green space that’s literally in their backyard. We catch a bus back to Anton’s house, and he shows me his beautiful illustrations and hand drawn maps of the area. He invites me to the Malago Society talk that evening and I decide to stay in Bristol for another night.

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Walk no.3

manor woods entrance

Walk with Peter Coates and Clare Hickman, historians. Windmill City Farm to Manor Woods.

We all had a bit of trouble finding the farm. Clare and Peter don’t know this part of Bristol well, so we were all entering new territory. Peter was wearing a felt hat, and looked like an explorer. I had picked the farm as a meeting place because I thought the Malago ran around the edge of the site. I asked some of the guys standing in front of the building, and they said it doesn’t run through the farm, but round the edge near the industrial estate. One of them told me that he used to fish for crayfish in the Malago.

We walk under the railway and onto the path that follows the Malago around the base of Windmill hill. These historians are inquisitive:  full of questions, wonderings, and proposals of how and why the river does what it does.  Peter says, this little trickle will eventually mingle its waters with the Atlantic, it’s a bizarre and mind-boggling thought.

As we continue, we find a large and elaborate flood-gate and tunnels in a sunken pit in the middle of St John’s Lane. There’s a little water in the bottom but nothing to merit such serious engineering. Clare thinks it looks Victorian, which means it would pre-date the Interceptor and flood tunnels built in the 1970s, and so presumably dealt with a lot more water at one time. She notices a large warehouse called ‘Malago Vale Estate’ which she thinks sounds rather romantic.

Going into the recreation ground we focus on the rubbish, which is abundant. Peter is highly interested in why it is that people throw so much litter in natural areas. Clare asks if it’s just that we notice it more. I think that there’s a human psychology around rivers washing stuff away, cleansing us. The Malago probably used to have a lot more nasty waste in it – sewage and industrial waste in the 1800s-1900s. But the shopping trolleys, tyres, bottles, clothing, tin cans, and random toys and electrical equipment are quite a depressing sight.

We reach the industrial estate on Lynton road, where the Malago is lost to a pedestrian until it re-emerges at Manor Woods. Hartcliffe Way is a busy, stinking road. Here you truly feel like you’ve lost the Malago. But following Vale Lane past the Shell garage, the Hand Wash Valet service and the Dulux warehouse, you come across the entrance to Manor Woods. Suddenly a green space opens before us. The dip where the river used to run is clearly visible. Clare and Peter are intrigued by the Interceptor, again it seems such a substantial structure for an apparently small volume of water. But the sound of rushing water is enormously satisfying – here the river feels alive. As we walk up the woodland path, Clare wonders whether this area was landscaped during its time as part of the Manor. There’s a very steep drop down to the river, and she describes how 19th century landscaping of estates included such dramas as blowing holes with dynamite to create an artificial gorge. I think that this drop is natural – the river winds its course without channelling – but the trees mostly look too young for an ancient woodland. I read in ‘My Manor Woods’ book that the woods were hit by a landmine in WW2, could this explain the sharp cliff?

Peter tells me about one of his research projects, looking at military training areas that have been closed to the public for many years. Although these pieces of land (such as Solsbury Plain) have regular artillery fire launched into them, there is no human intervention, and their ecology is incredibly rich and diverse. He tells me about the fairy shrimps of Solsbury plain that make their homes in the puddles that form in bomb craters, and are transferred by the wheels of tanks. I am amazed.

We all breath a sigh of relief to be away from the road, and Peter says that for a moment he believed himself to be in the countryside. This sparks a discussion about why it is that we crave the sensation of being in a ‘natural’ environment – how in some ways this is just as shaped by humans as the city streets – and how some people would have a reverse reaction, feeling uncomfortable and endangered in a woodland. The contrast between this section of the Malago, and the litter-strewn ditch in the rec. ground is enormous. Peter says, poor unsuspecting river, it’s flowing merrily on its way through the woods, but little does it know what awaits it around the corner. Clare says, it doesn’t even have the power to cleanse itself anymore.

Further up in the woods there are several huge oaks, which must be two or three hundred years old. Each one has a human-sized hollow at its base, blackened from burning and adorned with graffiti. Peter asks, is this a local art form? We reach the other end of the woods and double back to see an information board. I get out ‘My Manor Woods’ to show the historians the time-line it contains. According to the book, Viking longboats once travelled up the Malago, and the Romans would have used the river to transport stone from Dundry quarries to the Avon. Peter is very struck with this: I’m astounded, he says, that this little stream once contained enough water for vessels to traverse it. I tell them about the 1968 flood, in which several people died, cars were washed away and houses wrecked. Margaret (the birdwatcher) told me of a woman who was saved by her hair – as she was swept off in the torrents of water, a man hanging onto a railing grabbed her bun and rescued her.

But the river will not flood again: the Malago has been subdued.

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Walk no.2


Walk with Max Drake, herbalist. Avon new cut to Manor Woods.

Today I walked with Max, the herbalist. I met him by the giant Asda, next to the river Avon. This is where I believe the Malago joins the Avon, but we couldn’t get close enough to peer over and see where a pipe emerges. Moving south from the Avon, we go under the railway by Bedminster station, where we find a cycle track, and the first glimpse of a littered stream.

As soon as we’re off the road, Max starts to notice plants. He tells me that urban hedgerows are just as abundant as rural ones, and that these edges are places of great variety. On the first part of our walk we see cleavers, yarrow and willow, and Max describes their medicinal properties, and how to make different treatments using these plants. He is particularly fond of cleavers (sticky weed) as it’s a wonderful Lymph tonic. The Malago goes through a tunnel and re-emerges in a recreation ground, where it’s surrounded with abundant plant-life and litter. There’s tin cans, plastic, a shopping trolley, a croc. Max notices a troll bridge and tells me how to use yarrow to prevent bleeding. We come to the end of the park, and the river goes underground again: disappearing under an industrial estate edged with impenetrable harris fencing. As we take a detour along a busy road, he describes how to make chickweed lotion for skin irritations.

We come to the northern entrance to Manor Woods, the sun is shining, and it’s a relief to see this small green lung after the stinking road. Max is talking about an 11th century herbal: the Leech book of Bold. In it, all illness is described as coming from one of these three sources: being shot in the leg by an elf; being hit by flying venom; being hit on the head by a troll in your sleep. Max explains the logic (!) in these explanations, and how some of the cures are medically valid.

In the woods, we find ground ivy, which makes a tea to treat respiratory problems. We discuss the use of nettles and dead-nettles, and how the latter has evolved to disguise itself as a stinging nettle for protection. We smell the wild garlic, and I ask Max about mugwort, which will come out later in the year. It’s apparently a mild hallucinogenic, and appears in stories of witchcraft. It’s a herb that you give people at the start of a journey.

Walking back later, I pass through the recreation ground and there’s gang of teenage lads hanging out in a mildly threatening manner. But I think they’re just listening to ringtones.

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Hunting the Malago

Road from Dundry

Having said goodbye to Margaret, I walk south, into Withywood, an estate on the edge of Bristol. Walking down the main street, there’s a veg shop where I get a roll for lunch, a chippy and a pub. The housing is all post-war, and there’s a slight air of neglect. I am looking for the source of the Malago, but am just guessing where to head, based on a map I looked at Margaret’s house. I walk along Queen’s road, and come to the edge of the city. I climb a winding road up Broadoak Hill, the traffic storming past. I ask a girl by the gate of the stables if there’s a footpath. She tells me there isn’t, despite the sign on the gate. I can find no way off the road and into the fields – but I can see lots of streams flowing down the sides of the road, or being piped underneath it. I stop to ask a woman who’s sweeping her front yard if she’s knows where the source of the Malago is. But she says there are loads of springs up there on Dundry slopes, and there’s a stream in everyone’s garden. When the traffic stops for a moment the hill is alive with the sound of running water.

I give up hunting the Malago and walk back down the hill, calling in at the ‘University of Withywood’: the home of an eccentric and remarkable local historian, Anton Bantock. He founded the ‘Malago Society’ which archives the history of Withywood, Bishopsworth and Bedminster. His bungalow is  full of books and papers, with boards of Spanish vocab on the wall. He’s a fountain of information and local stories.  I asked Anton about the name of the river, and he said there are many different ideas. The one he told me that I liked the best is that in Shakespeare, the word ‘Malacho’ means mischief maker. And the Malago, with it’s fondness for flooding, makes its own mischief.

Anton used to teach at a local school, and back in the 1970s he helped the children to write and produce a musical called Malago. This tells the story of the Gods and nymphs who used to inhabit this valley, but were driven away by humans and their industrialised mess.  Only three remained (the Malagojusted Nymphs). The story ends:
‘They became coarse and vulgar. They wallowed in the filth they had tried to stem… and invented dances, which they still perform on the heaps of garbage and human detritus heaped into their once pure Malago …They still resent travellers. Anyone who dares to follow the Malago to its source will encounter all kinds of obstacles placed in their way by our Malago nymphs.’

So now I know why it was so difficult to find.

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