Tales from the Tangled (River) Bank: Lamplighter’s, Landfill and Lichens

By Dr Pippa Marland

Last month, three community walks took place at Lamplighter’s Marsh, a brownfield site in the Bristol suburb of Shirehampton notable for its biodiversity and its role as a wildlife corridor between the city and the rural areas that surround it. The walks were organised by the Land Lines research team as part of the Being Human Festival – a nationwide programme of events dedicated to celebrating research across the humanities, and run by the School of Advanced Study, University of London in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy. The purpose of the walks was to explore the extraordinarily rich social and natural history of the area. Each one was led by a naturalist – Steve England, Rupert Higgins, and Ed Drewitt, respectively – who talked us through the resident flora and fauna. We were also joined by members of the community group Friends of Lamplighter’s Marsh (FOLM), whose purpose is to protect and enhance this unique landscape; John Knight, John Hastings, and Stephen Judd were on hand to tell us about the area’s complicated industrial past and about the habitat restoration initiatives currently in progress.

The Bristol-based nature writer Tim Dee, who was also present on two of the walks, believes that a kind of ‘singing in the dark times’ has begun, and that, in the face of the grave environmental challenges that are beginning to define our era, the edgelands of cities ‘might come to the centre of our lives and mean as much to us as any wilderness ever might have done’. On the three ‘Landfill and Lichens’ walks, the participants were encouraged to think about how post-industrial landscapes like Lamplighter’s Marsh that lie, often largely disregarded, on the edges of our towns and cities, might be the very places to ‘sing’ about, and to bring to the centre of our lives. The events could not have taken place without funding from the Being Human Festival, the huge enthusiasm and expertise of FOLM, and support from the Shirehampton Community Action Forum (SCAF), and A Forgotten Landscape (AFL) – the latter a project devoted to restoring the heritage of the lower Severn Vale Levels. Participants from the three walks also sent in a range of their own photos and observations, some of which are used here with kind permission. The final walk in particular was documented by the photographer and film maker Andy Thatcher and the artist Luci Gorell Barnes.

(Photo by Andy Thatcher)

Lamplighter’s Marsh is an archetypal edgeland. Part of the floodplain of the River Avon, it is a strip of land that runs between the river and, on its northern edge, the Severn Beach railway line and busy A4 road. It stretches as far as the M5 motorway bridge, beyond which the Avon flows into the Severn Estuary at Avonmouth. The place has been inhabited since Palaeolithic times, and was largely in agricultural use until the mid-19th century when the West Town area was developed as a significant industrial site. Brick, tile, glass, iron and lead works were established here, which in turn led to the digging of ‘borrow pits’ at Lamplighter’s Marsh that were subsequently used for municipal garbage. These industries were relatively short-lived, most of them ceasing production by the end of the 19th century.  A railway station opened at Shirehampton in 1865, serving the Severn Beach Line, which still connects the centre of Bristol with Avonmouth. The railway sidings at the north western end of the Marsh were used as a base for a construction site in the late 1960s and 70s when the M5 was being built, and later when it was widened. Only a small area of the original marsh habitat survives in the centre of the site. Given its riverside location and the fact that it has its own landing stage, Lamplighter’s Marsh has also been intrinsically involved in Bristol’s maritime history. The Avon has the second highest tidal range in the world and was from the 13th to the late 19th century a busy shipping route into the city.

During the First World War the area of the Marsh known as the Daisy Field was the site of one of the largest Remount Depots in the UK, and over 300 000 horses and mules passed through here on their way to the Western Front. Both the service personnel and the animals who lost their lives in the war were honoured here on Remembrance Day this year when the Daisy Field trees and bench were decorated with red and purple poppies.

Daisy Field Remembrance
(The Daisy Field, photo Juliet Le Feuvre)

West Town was bombed by the German Luftwaffe on the night of January 16/17th 1941, which destroyed many of the remaining traces of the its industrial past. After the Second World War, and up until 1976, much of the area was used as a landfill site. In this century, as nature has continued to re-encroach on Lamplighter’s Marsh, it has been recognised as a haven for wildlife and rare flora, as well as a valuable recreational space for the local community. FOLM Secretary John Knight explains: ‘In 2010 Lamplighter’s Marsh was part of Bristol City Council’s Wild City project targeting “the needs of the most deprived urban communities in Bristol… and a range of priority groups…” It was designated a Local Nature Reserve in September 2015. FOLM was set up in November 2015 to improve access for people and encourage scarce plants’. The Marsh is also a Site of Nature Conservation Interest. Notwithstanding its new protected status, the landscape still has its industrial uses. Again, as John Knight told the walking groups, ‘by the M5 bridge there are the underground pipelines that provided fuel in World War II to the huge underground tanks at Berwick Hill adjacent to the M5, aviation fuel to USAF Fairford during the Cold War and, currently provide 50% of the aviation fuel to Heathrow and well as linking into the UK wide Government fuel pipeline system’.

(Photos Pippa Marland)

Each of the three walks was distinctive in its own way – not least because of the different weather on each of the three days, from the bright sunshine of the first walk, to the mist and cold of the second, to the persistent heavy rain of the final event. But on each one the leaders and the participants joined together to weave a rich collective narrative of the place.


Walk 1, 18th November 11am

0858 low water, 1524 high water, medium tide 10.2 metres.

This walk was led by Steve England, who, as well as possessing a vast knowledge of natural history is also an expert in bush craft. As soon as Steve arrived he made a dream-catcher fish out of rods from the willow tree that stands on the river bank at the starting point of the walk, and plucked some edible plants to show the gathering walkers.

(Photo Juliet Le Feuvre)

John Knight spread out a map of the area on the wall at the entrance to the Marsh and talked us through a 360 degree virtual tour of the surrounding area before we set off into the Marsh on the distinctive ‘Yellow Brick Road’ path.

(Photo Juliet Le Feuvre)

Steve was accompanied by Paul Golledge, a bird of prey handler, and he, in turn, had brought two special captive-bred avian guests with him. As we paused to admire the new bee bank (created as a habitat for mining bees by FOLM volunteers) Paul introduced us to Stan the kestrel to show us an example of one of the wild species to be seen around the Marsh. Later he also brought out Pippa the Little Owl, who proved to be particularly photogenic.

(Photos John Knight)

Identifying the wild clematis draped from the brambles, Steve stripped some of the already loose bark from the plant, and with the help of a fire steel and a King Alfred’s Cake (a fungus with the formal name Daldinia concentrica) along with several brave volunteers, demonstrated how to make a fire by dropping a spark onto the fungus and blowing on it to get it to glow, then piling the stringy bark on top and blowing again till it took light. He also, of course, gave instructions on how to extinguish the blaze completely before we moved on!

Steve had also brought some food supplies with him. As we grouped together around a hawthorn tree, newly liberated by FOLM volunteers from a thick blanket of brambles, Steve offered us bread and his delicious home-made hawthorn chutney. Later, from a different bag, he produced skulls of animals known to live on the Marsh – roe deer, muntjac deer, fox and badger. According to FOLM Chair Stephen Judd, the local badgers are still excavating some of the Victorian landfill and occasionally unearth old bottles.

(Photos 1 & 2 Juliet Le Feuvre, 3 Pippa Marland)


Walk 2, 21st November 11am

0532 high water, 1211 low water, medium to spring tide 12.2 metres.

The second walk was led by Rupert Higgins, again an excellent all-round naturalist, with particular expertise when it comes to birds and plants. Rupert got everyone thinking about the idea of ‘invasive’ and ‘non-native’ species – both in terms of the distinction between the two terms, and in relation to the difficulty of establishing a timeline or full rationale for classification for the latter. Some of the plant species which have established themselves here – for example the Hoary Mustard which grows alongside the path – arrived with the grain ships visiting Avonmouth Docks. Rupert also brought out very clearly one of the most fascinating aspects of the place – the way in which human and natural history have intertwined to co-create the habitats that now exist in the area. For example, the limestone ballast and broken concrete at the former railway sidings are poor in nutrients, but support plants such as Viper’s Bugloss, sedums, and lichens.

Ironically, one of the reasons why this area of the Marsh was kept clear of the ubiquitous brambles that constantly threaten to take over the place – allowing the Bugloss to establish itself and gradually spread down the ‘Yellow Brick Road’ – was its use by youngsters with scrambling bikes who constructed an unofficial course. A lovingly-tended memorial at the side of the path pays tribute to a boy who lost his life here in a bike accident. The hard standing where the M5 bridge box section girders were constructed is home to the Ceratodon conicus moss, which was thought to be extinct in Britain until discovered at Lamplighter’s in 2010 by Peter Martin. As Rupert noted, the microhabitat of this moss was ‘almost accidentally created through innovative habitat management works carried out by Bristol City Council without any specific thoughts of mosses’.

(Photo John Hastings)

As we reached the old railways sidings, we paused to listen to the nature writer Tim Dee talk about his new book Landfill, which explores his fascination with the way in which gulls have come to our landfill sites and into our towns and cities to live alongside us, and his dual interest in the birdwatchers who obsessively follow them. Thinking about Lamplighter’s Marsh, Tim suggested that it was a good example of Charles Darwin’s ‘tangled bank’ – an analogy Darwin put forward in the closing paragraph of The Origin of Species:

‘It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us’.

(Photo Andy Thatcher)

For Tim, what Lamplighter’s Marsh shows us so graphically is the need to understand that we humans are also part of this entanglement – are integrally involved in a community of life – and that whatever we do, for good or ill, impacts on the other inhabitants of the tangled bank of the Earth. Tim himself, while appreciating the advances we are making in waste management, was slightly mournful of the fact that food waste no longer goes into landfill sites and so the era of the inland gulls may be coming to an end.


(Photo John Hastings)

On this day we were richly rewarded with signs of the Marsh’s non-human inhabitants. Walk participant and birdwatcher, Ken Blake, sent us his bird list for the morning, reprinted here with his kind permission – a beautiful found poem of the skies and hedges:

blackbird, pied wagtail, house sparrow, wood pigeon, collared dove, magpie, blue tit, robin, redwing, black headed gull, goldfinch, chaffinch, dunnock, redshank, greenfinch, curlew, herring gull, jackdaw, wren, starling, lesser black backed gull, feral pigeon, crow, long tailed tit.


Walk 3, 24th November 11am

0737 high water, 1429 low water, spring tide 13.4 metres.

The final walk of the series took place under dark skies and persistent rain, but the walkers remained cheerful and spirited. The walk was led by naturalist Ed Drewitt who, while possessing an encyclopaedic knowledge of natural history in general, did a marvellous job of bringing our attention to birds and their sounds, identifying them by their song when they were hidden from view. With a digital birdsong scanning wand, Ed was able to play us a clip of the song we needed to listen out for in order to identify a host of small birds in the trees and brambles around us. We were also graced by the appearance of a weasel chasing a vole. ‘Like a little orange sausage’ was the group’s consensus description of the former.

(Photo Andy Thatcher)

About half-way along the ‘Yellow Brick Road’ we paused and broke into a spontaneous discussion of the meaning of rewilding. As Ed explained, in these post-industrial brownfield sites, rewilding is not just a case of abandoning the place and allowing nature to ‘take its course’, but (in a manner that chimes powerfully with Tim’s ‘tangled bank’ reference) often relies upon careful management to nurture different habitats and prevent dominant species from crowding out more vulnerable ones. This kind of restoration and conservation activity is exactly what FOLM, in collaboration with the Parks Development team at Bristol City Council, is involved in. This prompted discussion among the group about what landscape means to us and what we mean to landscape. A walk participant from Australia mentioned the Aboriginal belief that ‘country needs people’ – the idea that we should adopt an ethic of care rather than abandonment, and accept the responsibilities that our participation in the natural world brings, and so benefit the landscapes we live and move within.

(Photos Andy Thatcher)

Lamplighters-Marsh-map-24.11.18 (1)

This map of the final walk was created by the artist Luci Gorell Barnes – a touching and eloquent summary of what we saw, what we learned, and what we said. She brings out beautifully the sense – that emerged from the totality of the experience of the walks, including the knowledge imparted to us by the naturalists and FOLM members, and the reflections offered by Tim Dee – of the complete entanglement of human and natural histories in this place. And, in the midst of the dark times that Tim mentions, it was inspiring and heart-warming to see the evidence of how much this place is already cherished by FOLM and the local community – how much it has already been brought to the centre of their lives – and to catch a glimpse of how it might also be cherished and embraced by others, including, of course, the three bands of Being Human ‘Landfill and Lichens’ walkers.

(Photos 1 Andy Thatcher, 2 John Knight)

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