05 January 2012

"River Axe Crossings: from Mouth to Source"

I strongly suspect 2012 is going to be a fairly quiet year here at The Happy Pontist. The myriad obstructions which clutter "real life" have obliged a fever of activity, both necessary and unnecessary, which will leave limited time for my more idle whims such as blogging.

With this in mind, it's perhaps appropriate that my first post of the year is to feature a book, Colin Sackett's "River Axe Crossings: from Mouth to Source" (2008, www.colinsackett.co.uk), in which bridges are essentially conspicuous by their absence.

Opening the book from what is normally seen as the "front", it is titled "Upstream: River Axe Crossings from Mouth to Source". Each right-hand page then offers a picture of the River Axe looking upstream, photographed from each of forty-one consecutive river crossings (weirs, fords and rail bridges are excepted, not unreasonably). This takes the reader on a journey through Devon, Somerset and Dorset, all predominantly rural counties in England's south west.

Opening from the "back", the book's title is "Downstream: River Axe Crossings from Source to Mouth", and every left-hand page depicts ... oh, you probably guessed already. The photographs taken at the river crossings are bookended by images from the river's source and mouth.

Every photograph is in black-and-white, and accompanied by a brief paragraph with details on the crossing in question, or on what can be seen in the distance. The change in appearance of the river and its banks from a tightly constrained woodland watercourse, through open fields, back through woodlands, and eventually into a wide, open floodplain is quietly interesting, and a remarkably informative way to consider the details of a highly particular landscape. You can find some example images from the book at the author's website.

Although the book is clearly a one-off, it's easy to imagine a series of similar volumes depicting other rivers, or imposing order on entirely different features of the landscape. I'm reminded of the artist Richard Long, and his landscape journeys planned according to imposition of an artificial geometry onto a survey map (one example). There is a similar sense of using an entirely arbitrary system to order a journey and hence disrupt the way we normally encounter the landscape.

Many of the photographs make clear how this particular river, flowing as it does through a floodplain of varying width, both determines how people have altered the landscape, and is affected by human actions. The nature of the river banks, often in deep cut, reflects the use of the river as a boundary, as well as its diversion past other boundaries. It also makes clear the predominantly agricultural nature of the area, cleared of vegetation which might restrict the river's ability to erode and meander.

Bridges do appear occasionally, in the distance, where they can be seen from another crossing, or by implication, whenever an image has clearly been taken from the perspective of a taller span. Although they define the entire structure of the book, they are invisible platforms, present only because they allow the photographer to stand on the centreline of the channel without getting his tripod wet. Nonetheless, you can tell a little about their nature by considering the gaps between the photographs - stretches of the river which don't merit a crossing, or where one is uneconomic.

As a pontist who normally photographs bridges as an object in their own right (the structural engineer's focus) or as an object within a landscape (a nod to architectural friends), the absence of bridges from this book of river crossings comes as something of a shock, but a welcome one. It's too easy for an engineer to forget that bridges are not only there to cross, but to stand upon, that they establish a relationship not just between the two river banks but also allow their user a very different perspective upon their surroundings.

Post-structuralists in literature have long been au fait with the possibility for the author to disappear from the text. Perhaps it is time for post-structural pontists to likewise celebrate the disappearance of bridges from the landscape.

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