The Spring Tide Bore was a silent one, apart from the natural sounds of the river, the incoming sea and birds. It was both melancholic and beautiful. The bore surfers respectfully stood down. This may be the first time ever, and hopefully the last, that a pandemic has resulted in stand-down. Knowing I am unlikely to ever get such a chance again to experience it with wonderful weather and a natural soundscape, I relished every minute of filming.
Spring tides are usually a highlight of the Severn Bore Surfing year. This year, on 8th, 9th and the 10th a four-star bore was due to occur every morning. Living in Newnham on Severn, we get to see the bore as it first manifests, having been channelled between a narrow part of the river between Awre and Bullo Pill, it enters the horseshoe bend, then races around the wide corner at Westbury on Severn. From there is gets funnelled tighter and tighter as it approaches Minsterworth. Many surfers enter the river at Arlingham and Newnham, with a few joining a little before, around Awre and Bullo Pill.
I usually make a simple documentary, unedited footage with top and tailing then uploaded promptly – filming the bore arriving then passing. But I also make video art, films that dig deeper into the nature of the river, look closely at the particularity of this fantastic phenomena, which I have the privilege of witnessing regularly at the bottom of my street. I draw, photograph and film the Severn constantly. I wrote about it in my book – Severnside, an Artist’s View of the Severn.
Every morning, when I awake, I look out of my bedroom window to see how the Severn is that day. I touch base with it.
Many people watch the wave form at Newnham, then rush upriver to other locations to see the bigger, louder, powerful waves, which give instant gratification to the people that witness them. Personally, I prefer the long slow arrival of the wave as it manifests, then hanging around to watch the drama of the fill. At this point you can study the conflict between river and sea evidenced by bidirectional tides, whirling vortexes and sea-horse waves.
Bore-watchers often line the riverbanks on both sides, some travelling many miles to see the surfers ride the waves (or not!), while enjoying the safety of standing on dry land, rather than quicksand. Various buzzing airborne things fill the sky – paragliders, drones and microlights – while other watchers ride in small boats with noisy engines. The landscape acoustic is added to by the bells of St. Peter’s Church ringing, alongside transatlantic planes overhead and trains nearby, creating a considerable cacophony of sound. It’s not easy to hear the natural sounds, but that is fine with me, because I love the celebratory events few days per year that the Severn is a social destination. The majority of the time, people can enjoy the quietude. But it does mean that one can never encounter a high tidal bore in peace.
This year, April 2020, was very different. There were airborne risks for the surfers. With lockdown, only essential journeys were permitted, and the bore-surfer community respectfully stood down. The risk of injury was far outweighed by the risk of spreading Covid 19. Social distancing would be impossible for those lined up on the crest of such an unpredictable and exciting wave.
It was truly a unique moment in time for those who could walk to watch the bore that week, and, like me, those that filmed it. The surfers know I often do the first film of each event, posting them online as soon as I can, often before the wave has got as far as Minsterworth. I have asked for a one-day amnesty in the past, a chance to film without all the noise distractions. It was a perfect storm in some ways, one I took very seriously. I felt honoured to be asked to film it and share it with the surfer community so they could see it.
I am an optimist. What I am sharing in this film is evidence of river-knowing. I allowed the tides to reveal themselves through a series of static camera shots that followed my eye as it flitted around, searching for tiny events to capture. Shot in short spurts. While the camera filmed one scene, I scouted for the next and calmly redirected the lens, again and again. Some scenes are very short, others unravel over a longer period. My eye revisited sites to record slow progressions and shifts or followed a floating object on its journey. I wanted to share with viewers how the sea and the river negotiate their territory. And of course, the river eventually succumbs
Once it came to the editing stage, I was keen to keep it loyal to the timeline of filming, not modified in terms of speed or direction. Some shots are close-up, some long distance. The source audio is camera recorded, so some wind noise is evident. Then there is the most distinctive element of the film – the kulning song. That needs further explanation here.
Kulning is the word for the ancient Swedish herding call, that has its roots in the Nordic medieval age. Because of its special high-pitched sound, it was used to communicate with animals and creature through very far distances.
As well as being an artist, I produce arts events in non-gallery locations. A few years ago, I explored the possibility of commissioning a composer to write a kulning song that, instead of calling in animals, would call in the bar. I had a vision of that in my head and earlier this year I experimented with animated drawings, trying to create a simulation of how that might be. You can see one of those tests here.
When I began to edit the April tide footage, I sought some suitable music to help me create a rhythm that would anchor the cuts. After many attempts at finding something suitable, I tried a kulning song. On Spotify I found the perfect track, recorded by a number of Swedish performers, apparently for a radio programme. The two voices you hear on the film at Eva Rune and Susanne Rosenburg. They kindly gave me permission to use their sounds for which I am very grateful, and Ivor Richards did a great job of polishing the audio.
It is the singing that expresses both my love of the Severn and the yearning of the bore-viewers when they await the arrival of the wave.
What I hope is conveyed in the film is the detail of the flow, the strange thing that happens when a river pursues its route towards the sea with dogged determination, as the tide turns. It is nothing less than amazing to see. The seagulls on the bank caught my attention and I love the way the water filled the screen, while the birds did their best to stay until the last moment, hoping to snatch a fish from the cusp of the wave. Had the bore surfers been around they would have scared the birds away.
I want to thank the surfing community for their caretaker role of the Severn – I can only imagine how sad they must have felt. Fingers crossed for the future tides.
Meanwhile, we proceed with lockdown and social distancing, enjoy the river, but respect that it can be a dangerous place too. Watch, look and listen – you will be well rewarded for doing so.