River is the Venue (RIV) is a partnership project with 44AD, Art at the Heart of the RUH and research academics at the University of Bath, funded through their Public Engagement Programme.
The focus of the project is on historical flooding events in Bath and the fascinating local stories that can be found in the archives.
Amongst various community workshops and activities, the project has commissioned a series of public artworks by local artists, resulting in a trail of temporary outside installations/sculptures related to key historical flood sites in the past 200 years.
As part of the commission Edward Bettella produced 4 short soundscapes inspired by recurring themes of flooding in Bath:
The unstoppable force of nature and the incessant, rhythmic sound of rushing water: the River Avon has always been a source of beauty and calm, while simultaneously posing the threat of flooding and destruction.
Bath is built partly on a floodplain and has always been at the mercy of floodwater. Early records mention the Great Storm of 1703 as a ‘violent Tempest’ that affected much of South-West England. Since then there have been at least 30 recorded incidents of serious flooding and there may have been more.
Imagine the sounds that might have been heard in the build up to a major flood; recorded descriptions of the 1809 flood, which followed a violent thunderstorm, recount how 3 houses were washed away and 7 people were killed at Bedford Street. A baby was described as being carried downstream in its cradle, while many animals lost their lives during the severe floods.
Livestock were some of the biggest casualties of flooding in Bath. It is easily forgotten how important horses were for transportation before cars, and many people kept animals in their backyards for food, such as pigs and chickens. One story from the 1866 flood tells of a lady who refused to be rescued from her home near North Parade, as she had moved her pigs to the upstairs bedroom to protect them!
Time and again the people of Bath had to rebuild their lives after a flood; some were only a few years apart, such as those in 1914 and 1918, which would have given people little time to recover and rebuild. Insurance for property damage is a modern creation, so before this existed many people would have had to rely on themselves and the charity of others. There is a well recorded history of relief funds being setup by local magistrates, clergy and the Mayor in response to floods.
At the same time, there is a long recorded history of flood prevention schemes being proposed and then rejected by the local authorities on the basis of cost. One of the earliest recorded proposals dates from 1824, when civil engineer Thomas Telford proposed a scheme that involved widening channels to improve the flow of the river and prevent a build up of water. As with later schemes this proposal was abandoned on the basis of cost.
Residents of Bath debated the merits of investing in a flood prevention scheme, as some argued that major floods were random acts of nature and may only happen occasionally. But the records do not concur with this assumption; between 1900 and 1968 alone there were 13 recorded major floods in Bath, which averages at roughly 1 every 5 years.
2018 is the 50th Anniversary of the 1968 flood, which was the last major flood in Bath before the Bath Flood Protection Scheme was implemented. But it was actually the preceding disastrous flood of 1960 that changed opinion and created a sense of urgency. Chief Engineer Frank Greenhalgh not only put proposed a scheme that was technically effective, he also understood the history of failed proposals for flood prevention in Bath. The 1960 flood cost £1.14 million in damages and repairs, while the proposed prevention scheme would cost £1.4 million. This clear comparison convinced the majority that a prevention scheme would be the right course for the city.
As serious flooding in Bath becomes consigned to history, we must remember the words of Frank Greenhalgh, that the success of the Bath Flood Protection Scheme depends upon ‘the continuous maintenance of the river channel and control apparatus’. The city owes it to those who have suffered from historical floods to ensure that these words are adhered to.
All music written and produced by Edward Bettella.
© 2018 Edward Bettella. All rights reserved.
These soundscapes feature audio recordings from freesound.org: