Water Histories at Chard Spring Festival with Anna Chrystal Stephens. A response to the ‘spirit of water’ in Chard, researching and referencing the heritage of water in the town. A Culturally Chard project coordinated by Somerset Art Works, April 2022 – May 2023.

During a series of workshops at Holyrood Academy, Anna Chrystal Stephens and a group of students explored water within the land beneath our feet. Learning traditional water divining techniques with tuition from professional dowser Jon Warfield, interpretations of the landscape shifted after the re-examination of known ground and attempts to imagine hidden flows beneath. In collaboration they made the video piece: Mystery Rain Rods. Questioning knowledge, truth and fiction the group recorded their strange and free explorations of water around and under the school grounds, creating music, a co-written text and film footage which Anna later edited. The film plays on a loop alternating with a slideshow of the learning and production process. 

The 3D works on display include a structure with an image of a crinoid fossil, an ancient animal which looks like a river; this was alive when the Chard area was underwater and is now housed in Chard Museum. The photograph of the crinoid is printed on a soft surface stretched over a frame. The second fabric print shows hands holding dowsing rods loosely, ready for an expedition around the town. These sit alongside a rail of costumes used in the film, designed and made by the students with Anna, during the Holyrood workshops. 

The publication Riverbed is a collection of artwork made by members of the Nightingale Group and members of the public who participated in Water Histories workshops. The sessions included hands-on art making in relation to the local environment, activities around natural resources and the industrial and street architecture of Chard’s water history. The booklet is risograph printed, the original artworks are monoprints derived from research images and project work, paintings using ink made from edible and medicinal plants from Chard Reservoir, and water related words and translations collected on a word board.    

About the day: The students and I gave a presentation about the workshop and film making process, explaining how working together we learnt about water divining and undertook explorations of the school grounds, learning and guessing about what was below, the students mapped possible flows and discussed their likelihood. We talked about our intuition, scepticism and about fictions vs reality, beliefs, and our own creative journey. 

Working on the Water Histories project has been a journey through local geology, through the town centre and out to the reservoir, through industrial history to environmental conservation.  It was fantastic to share the project with visitors who came to see the artwork.

A summary of my talks and discussions on the day: Initially I was looking at the water seen above ground; the highstreet streams, the industrial remnants like the canal, this led to a look at the pipes and the controlled water supply which has existed since 1928. This led to a search for the town springs, many of which are no longer visible. The search is depicted in the first film I made (which can be seen earlier on this blog).  

Water drew life to its source and eventually human communities with their man-made conduits, sanitation systems and industry… and some times these industrial interventions were reversed, for example Chard reservoir represents a rapid transition from a large scale human manipulation of the landscape for industry, to a flourishing ecosystem where biodiversity is protected.

Humans have sought to control water but if we follow it’s pathways we learn about our interdependence with the landscape as our most precious substance flows often beneath our feet – even when our feet are dry. Although not many people’s feet are dry in this town if the anecdotes of people stepping in the street streams are anything to go by. We learn of our ability to move towards water with our bodies, intuiting the route of our greatest survival need. The modern high street streams of Chard flow down both sides eventually, arriving at different seas, because of where the watershed lies. 

The land has been shaped by water, glaciers which melted 2 million years ago and valleys carved by rivers. Now, in turn, this shape dictates the journeys of our local water, to different far away destinations. 

The second fabric print (above) shows hands holding dowsing rods before an expedition around Chard, this was with Jon the dowser and Gerrie, Elaine and Sheila from Chard museum.

Copies of the Riverbed publication (below) were available on the day and we have some left so it is possible to request a free copy.  

Community-led cultural activity celebrating Chard’s historic town centre Culturally Chard is the Chard High Street Heritage Action Zone cultural programme, funded by Historic England, Arts Council England and the National Heritage Memorial Fund.