Colin Saunders' Report of the Event

SILK RIVER REPORT
               
What a fantastic, fun-filled, colourful and entertaining 10-day event this turned out to be!  I did wonder whether it was really up my street, but the cause seemed worthwhile and several of my LDWA friends were involved in organising it.  So I offered to help for five of the ten days and enjoyed the first day so much that I signed up for two more – it became a working holiday for me.  No fewer than 16 LDWA types were involved over the ten days – 14 from London and 2 from Essex & Herts – but this report reflects my personal view of the proceedings.

London Group’s Ali Pretty is a carnival designer and walking artist of some note, and her company Kinetika was engaged to make twenty silk scrolls to be carried on seven-metre tall poles (actually collapsible fishing rods) in procession beside and occasionally along, across or under those two great rivers: the Thames in September then the Hooghly in December.  Gordon Parker (also London Group), in charge of overseeing and co-ordinating routes and liaison with people and partners along the route, was dubbed ‘General Gordon’ for the duration!  Naturally these two were ever-present throughout the ten days, and the diary below indicates which other LDWA members attended, in addition to Ali and Gordon.

The event is actually in two stages, one each in England and India, and marks the 70th anniversary this year of Indian independence by linking the Thames with India’s River Hooghly, on whose banks silk is produced in the area near Kolkata (Calcutta) as well as Murshidabad, some 200 miles further north, the Mughal and East India Company capital of Bengal.  Support for the event came from the British Council, which has declared 2017 the UK/India Year of Culture, and the Arts Council, which has a funding stream called ‘Re-Imagining India’.

Each day, a short community walk visited local attractions, where sometimes entertainment and refreshments were provided.  They were attended by many local people and schoolchildren, who were suitably impressed by these amazing tall banners, as were passers-by and traffic.  I had expected the local constabulary to turn up saying ”‘Ere ‘ere, wot’s all this then?”, but those we saw seemed quite blasé.  Link walks in between connected the community ones, so that the banners were carried either on foot or river transport: ‘all the way on boots or boats’!

The Kinetika team (Ali, Jane Ford and Jo Beal) and the LDWA team did most of the banner-carrying, including the link walks, often helped by representatives of the boroughs, but local people and even children were encouraged to have a go.  The organisers would usually stay overnight in whatever accommodation could be found near each day’s finishing point (a mélange of hostels, floors and an occasional Premier Inn or Travelodge), but I went home each night.  The whole event was accompanied by photographer Mike Johnston, Guardian journalist Kevin Rushby, who wrote a daily blog (see www.silkriver.co.uk/news) and Mandakini Menon, a young Indian woman who was reporting on the event for the benefit of the team back home that is organising the Hooghly leg.

Each scroll is different, representing a different community or river on the journeys.  You can get a good idea of what they look like at www.silkriver.co.uk, and by searching for Silk River on Facebook.  Kevin’s blog includes some of Mike’s photos, in which some of the LDWA team appear, as they do in a short film of the final day at https://vimeo.com/235373024.  The banners were actually quite light, but became difficult to handle in anything stronger than a breeze.  You had to lower them under wires or trees, and the scrolls could easily catch on thorny plants, spikes or barbed wire.  Sometimes the banners had to be ‘de-rigged’ – removing the scrolls and collapsing the rods – which was a complicated process as the poles were unstable unless taped up at the joins. 

The procession started at Kew Gardens on Friday 15 September with four scrolls, and the number increased each day as two more were awaiting us at the start of the community walks, to make twenty by the time it reached Southend on Sunday 24 September.  Here’s my day-by-day commentary:

Day 1.  We convene in the lecture theatre of the Jodrell Laboratories at Kew Gardens, for an introduction by the organisers and sponsors, then start the banner-carrying in earnest.  We take them on an amble around the gardens, accompanied by an Indian dhol drummer, with time to visit the Palm House, the Marianne North Gallery and the Pavilion Restaurant.  Then the LDWA team carries the banners along the Thames towpath and across Barnes Common to Putney Pier, for embarkation on a Thames Clipper, though we’re not sure whether they will let us on board with banners raised.  The captain of the first, a jocular Scotsman, wants to help but advises us to wait for the next Clipper, which will be bigger and more suitable.  Sure enough it is, and the banners are laid out over the stern rail for the journey to Blackfriars Pier.  LDWA team: Peter Aylmer, Aysen Bekir, Joan Bullivant, Neil Cook, Samara Putris and Colin Saunders.

Day 2.  We raise yesterday’s banners on the Millennium Bridge then walk through the City to Christ Church, Spitalfields, where the community walk starts.  There’s an awkward moment outside 19 Princelet Street, Europe’s first museum of immigration and diversity, where a neighbour loudly berates the curator for organising music in the street without consulting the residents.  So we don’t go inside as planned but shuffle onwards, undeterred, through Tower Hamlets, who are hosting today’s events, passing houses where immigrant Huguenot silk weavers plied their trade.  We visit the Mulberry School with its famous ancient tree of that ilk, which is significant as mulberry leaves are the food of silkworms.  In Commercial Road there are gasps of horror as a banner hooks onto a high, wall-hung clock, well out of reach, then incredibly an arm appears from a second-floor window to release it.  The community walk finishes outside the Museum of London Docklands, but with admirable restraint I don’t pop into the adjoining Wetherspoons and carry on with the banner team to Island Gardens.  The overnighters are staying at a very basic hostel that is part of the nearby Great Eastern pub, where one man is trying to run the bar and reception as well as cooking meals, so John and I abandon our plan to sink a quick pint and go home.  LDWA team: Aysen Bekir, Joan Bullivant, Neil Cook, John Pestle, Colin Saunders and Lonica Vanclay.

Day 3.  It’s a day off for me, but four banners are carried, rolled up, through the Greenwich Foot Tunnel to the Cutty Sark, where two more are collected, then on to the Clock House Community Centre in the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich.  The Royal Borough of Greenwich is supposed to host today’s events, one each in Greenwich and Woolwich, but something went wrong in communication and the planned visits don’t go very well, although the Emergency Exit Arts Festival at Galleons Hill in West Thamesmead is a fun climax, with the banners processing spirally to the top of the mound, behind dhol drummers and the gyrating bottoms of carnival dancers.  Back at Woolwich Arsenal, a send-off is delivered by beautifully-clad Indian dancers – and tired banner-carriers can still throw a few shapes!  Watermen on the Woolwich Ferry carry the banners (six now) across the river to North Woolwich.  LDWA team: Aysen Bekir, Neil Cook, Paul Lawrence and Lonica Vanclay.

Day 4.   The LDWA team convenes at the north end of the Woolwich Foot Tunnel, then it’s a route march with six banners to St Margaret’s Church in Barking to pick up two more.  Impressively, two are taken on board a raft to be floated a short way down the River Roding, then we visit the community-run Greatfields Park and get fed at the Sue Bramley Children’s Centre.  I have business to attend to, but the community walk continues to Barking Riverside and the LDWA team carries the banners on to Rainham in Havering Borough.  LDWA team: Peter Aylmer, Joan Bullivant, Neil Cook, Colin Saunders and Lonica Vanclay.

Day 5.  We meet at Rainham station to carry eight banners across the marshes, beside the Thames and along the London Loop to the RSPB reserve centre at Purfleet in Thurrock Borough.  The community walk starts here, and charismatic local guide, Mike Ostler, entertains us with stories of Dracula, whom Bram Stoker had moving here after landing at Whitby.  At last I get to visit the Heritage and Military Centre, which has always been closed on my previous Loop journeys.  We continue to the modern and most impressive High House Production Park nearby to be shown around the Royal Opera House base, where scenery and costumes are made.  Kinetika too are based here and the overnighters will be sleeping on their floor!  LDWA team:  Peter Aylmer, Aysen Bekir, Joan Bullivant, Colin Saunders and Lonica Vanclay.

Day 6.  I leave home at 4 am in order to be in time to board the luxurious launch, Edwardian, on whose deck ten banners will be raised during a very special and magical crossing of the Thames from Purfleet to Dartford and under the QE2 bridge, linking two terminals of the Belgian car-carrying company, Cobelfret.  We’re togged up in hi-viz jackets to walk beside the approach roads and through the wharves, alive with artics, and there’s an anxious moment when my scroll snags high barbed wire, but is freed without damage.  It must be quite a sight for traffic on the bridge, but no accidents are reported!  Entertainment on the way into Dartford town centre is provided by singing schoolchildren and a guitar-playing strolling minstrel, who turns out to be one of Mick Jagger’s nephews, then Indian dancers perform in Central Park.  I disgrace myself by leaving my rucksack containing several scrolls at the park café – I dread to think of the consequences if they had gone missing!  The banners are rolled up for the long link walk beside Rivers Darent and Thames to Northfleet.  LDWA team: Peter Aylmer, Pete Colley, Jeff Golland, Colin Saunders and Dave Williams.

Day 7.  The ground of Ebbsfleet United FC provides the start today.  It’s the turn of Gravesham Borough to play host, a role that its jovial mayor clearly thoroughly enjoys.  We are serenaded by more singing schoolchildren, then the renowned Rock Choir entertains us from a bandstand on Windmill Hill with hits from the 80s and 90s, while us (by now twelve) banner-carriers dance a conga.  We visit Europe’s largest Sikh temple then the former Trinity House lightship, LV21, and I take my third boat trip of the event by going home via the ferry to Tilbury.  LDWA team: Peter Aylmer, Aysen Bekir, Pete Colley, Colin Saunders and Lonica Vanclay.

Days 8 and 9.  I miss these days to catch up on work at home, but the team continues on its merry way by crossing back to Thurrock Borough on the north side of the Thames, visiting Tilbury’s Passenger Cruise Terminal and fort, then Coalhouse Fort and the former Bata factory village at East Tilbury.  The final link walk is 18 miles long and doesn’t start until after lunch, so finishes at Leigh-on-Sea in darkness.  LDWA team (Day 8): Aysen Bekir, Joan Bullivant and Cathy Phillips; (Day 9): Joan Bullivant, Jeff Golland, Joelle Gérin, Cathy Phillips and Dave Williams.

Day 10.  Dave and I are at Leigh-on-Sea for the climax and the biggest attendance of the event, with representatives from all the boroughs through which the procession passed – except Greenwich!  It starts in glorious sunshine outside the Peterboat pub with some rather lengthy but interesting talks by a local potter and a cockle fisherman.  Then we set off for Chalkwell Park (more Indian dancers) and fortify ourselves for the toughest challenge for us banner-carriers.  First comes a four-mile slog along the sea front in a stiff breeze that is fortunately onshore, as an offshore one would surely have rolled us down the asphalt slope onto the beach.  Yet that’s nothing compared to the Herculean labour that awaits us along Southend’s world-beating, mile-long pier.  Despite heroic attempts to proceed with banners raised, the wind is even stronger and it soon becomes all too clear that we will only reach the end with banners down, but we make it.  Several hundred of us and all twenty banners gather in the pavilion for final speeches and thankyous, then up comes Waverley, the world’s sole surviving sea-going paddle-steamer, also celebrating her 70th anniversary this year.  I’m lucky enough to be among the team that cruises back to Tower Pier.  All twenty banners and carriers are lined up along the side as we sail, providing a spectacular end to a wonderful event.  But there’s still work to do after disembarking the banners, as all twenty must now be derigged, fishing rods collapsed and scrolls packed away.  Some have been damaged during the journey and Kinetika must effect repairs for the second leg in India, whither Ali and Gordon will be going.  LDWA team: Peter Aylmer, Aysen Bekir, Joan Bullivant, Neil Cook, Linda Fordham, Joelle Gérin, Colin Saunders and Dave Williams, plus Peter Woodward from Kinetika.

Colin Saunders

Click on this link to access the Silk River Website & photographs of the event

http://www.silkriver.co.uk/uk-walk-photos/