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.