Along the River Exe: A Photo Essay by Andy Thatcher

Later this month the Land Lines / Being Human Festival community walks will be taking place at Lamplighter’s Marsh in Bristol, where the M5 crosses the River Avon as it meets the Severn Estuary. Ahead of these events we are delighted to publish a photo essay by film maker and photographer Andy Thatcher, focused on another of the M5 bridges, this time over the River Exe in Devon. The images are accompanied by Andy’s meditation in words on the entanglements of the human and natural in this edgeland site.

Andy will be the official photographer for the final Lamplighter’s Marsh walk. You can find out more about the events here:

You can also find more of Andy’s stunning photography on Instagram.

Andy’s commissioned documentary short film, Walks of Life, premieres during Two Short Nights at Exeter Phoenix on November 30th.

Andy Tatcham 1

The M5 crosses the tidal River Exe at Exminster Marshes. This is a little over a mile before it ends at Junction 31 – or begins, depending on how you look at it – 170 miles from its other terminus at West Bromwich. Whether of beginnings or endings, it’s a grand gesture, especially when the sun rises or sets, and the concrete piles, piers and roadways add their own interpretation of whatever the sky happens to be doing.


The eight lanes of commuters, caravaners, Eddie Stobart drivers, boy racers, hay carriers, touring bikers and National Express passengers aren’t the only traffic. Passing beneath are kayakers, paddle-boarders, ramblers, runners, dog-walkers, salmon, eels, egrets, black-headed gulls, swans – and the River Exe itself. The bridge has its loiterers, too. Workmen dangling in their harnesses from the underside carry out continual repairs. Cattle summer there, before lorries ship them away in advance of winter floods. Kingfishers and herons perch, though whether waiting for fish, or simply just waiting, I’ve asked neither them  nor the anglers with their green outfits and iPhones. Dirt bike tracks and a graffiti gallery clustered around the Westernmost piles are traces of nocturnal lingering. What the seals are up to, God only knows. And then there’s me.


I’ve been running this way for years, but it’s only been this year that I’ve been out with my camera, thanks in no small part to my Sony A7iii’s generous low light capacity. I’ve been fine-tuning my photography in 2018, spurred on by a couple of appearances in The Guardian, and looking for a focus. The M5 bridge has it all: grandeur, history, geometry, a place to explore the weather and plant-life as they run through their annual performance. Its beauty shrugs aside the pretty, and in spite of the vastness of this collonaded structure, it affords a solitude ideal for striking up an intense, almost obsessive artistic connection.


There are fifteen or so spots where you can frame a really good shot juxtaposing bridge, canal and river banks, and surrounding fields, marshes, pylons and trees, and I’d thought I’d be done after a few visits at different times of day. However, having repeatedly returned, sometimes on consecutive days, a limitless interplay of shifting variables has emerged, especially when the sun shines. The bridge is a structure of great textural and geometric complexity: depending on the sun’s position in the sky – changing throughout each day and each year – its many surfaces pick up sunlight and cast shadow differently to create continually evolving shapes and patterns. Watch the bridge when there’s scattered cloud, and the piles will also light up and dim in random succession.


The water adds another variable. A windless day turns the canal into a mirror, as does high or low tide on the Exe. Sunlight bouncing off the water throws oak shadows onto the undercarriage, 60s light show patterns if the surface is disturbed by idling swans or ferocious canoeists. And that’s even without considering the life around the bridge – the changing textures of the reeds, trees and wildflowers, the pink, yellow, green, blue, red cyclists, the flocks of pigeons.


These photos form part of a long-term investigation of a strip of edgelands which stretch along the Exeter Shipping Canal from the city centre’s quay to the open estuary at Turf Locks. It’s also part of my research into edgelands for a Masters in Film and TV at the University of Bristol. The strip is abundant in unconventional beauty, unexpected encounters with the non-human world, and hints of stories worth telling. I might often escape to Devon’s open moorland and cliff paths, its wooded rivers, rocky bays, green lanes and farmland, but it’s here I encounter my world, my era, in all its contradictions and complexities. This being so, I’m looking forward with great enthusiasm to joining Land Lines and the Being Human Festival on the Landfill and Lichens walk at Lamplighter’s Marsh, where Bristol’s M5 bridge crosses the Avon.


All photos by Andy Thatcher

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