Well, that was a walk, that was, and even though it’s over, it’s hard to let it go.
Well over one hundred people gathered in the Ale House in Stroud for the stroll through Stroud up to the cemetery, and then other people, attracted by our purpose, joined us as we made our way through town. It was a most – literally – moving sight, to witness such a number of people making their orderly way along Nelson Street and up Bisley Road. It must be a long time since those streets saw such a scene: a scene of gentle, studied pilgrimage.
I was feeling a little nervous as the clock approached four, our starting time. I expected twenty people, but was beginning to wonder that we might have fifty; Angela Findlay, my co-presenter thought seven would turn up, with the threat of rain; I then began to witness an almost biblical sight as more and more and more and yet more walkers, visitors to the town, artists, notables and historians relentlessly surged into the front bar, like some epic flood.
We met in the Ale House not just because of the excellent beer festival, but also because a key text for our walk lies upon the wall in the front bar: a commemorative 1842 plaque praising the beneficence of the workhouse overseers. I contextualized this with an introduction about Chartism locally and nationally; Angela contextualized this with a prologue about the relationship between Stroud’s workhouse and the cemetery.
Next, some performance: I read a poem about the paupers’ graves; Gemma Dunn, visiting from London, read a first person account of the May 1839 Chartist mass-meeting on Selsley Hill, and Tim Johnston from Historic England read a 1795 anonymous threatening letter from Uley.
It was hot and humid and full to the gunnels, and after each speaker had alighted from their stool in the thronged room, our troupe made its way to Nelson Street. It looked almost Pied Piper-like – but this was a collective walk that broke down the barriers between guide, performer and audience: the line of walkers seemingly had its own collective mind, as well as both a conscious and unconscious sense of direction.
I came up the rear – and joined the orderly assembly by the Black Boy clock. The little triangle of land, opposite, with its overhanging tree, provided a natural stage and here we discoursed on General Wolfe, Stroud Scarlet, rioting weavers, Gloucestershire slave owners, local parish registers, the Black Atlantic, the black boy clock, and counter-memorialization. Janet Biard read a first person account from the 1825 riots; Chris William spoke of forty years ago when the Black Boy flats were the teachers’ centre – one of his tasks was to wind up the clock every three days; John Marjoram spoke of his time with the clock, too; Trish Butler gave each walker a copy of a Stroud Scarlet poem, in the spirit of active counter-heritage.
I found this utterly moving: the sun was shining, we were reclaiming the streets – we had to make way for one car only in the half an hour we were there in Castle Street – and such a open air meeting was a compelling medium for a discussion on 18th century history: entirely in the spirit of the subject matter in a lah di dah self-referential post-modernist sort of way. There was also talk of psycho-geography and mythogeography, but time marches on and we needed to walk up Bisley Road to the cemetery.
A long line of walkers made its sentient, serpentine way along the pavements: this was an absolute spectacle in itself, and to witness one hundred people making their studied way up the steep incline of Bisley Road is something I will never forget. It’s hard to find a parallel or simile for such a sight – there probably isn’t one. It was a unique and ineffable experience. Thanks to Stroud Fringe for making it happen.
Angela addressed us from the front of her house; she spoke of its history as the Cemetery Gate Lodge, former home to the Cemetery Superintendents, and the symbolism of the sculptures in the cemetery, before before leading us to the chapel, where she spoke to us from the back of a waiting and handily placed open van. She spoke of the ecumenical nature of the internments and Pauline Stevens informed the crowd of the comprehensive research available on the Stroud Local History website. Other members of the audience added their thoughts too, in the spirit of this shared experience. Angela spoke of her work on memorialization and counter-memorialization.
It was now time to move to the area of the paupers’ graves. The audience was visibly moved by Angela’s recitation of her research and previous art installations, counter memorials to those long forgotten by history. A litany of the occupations of the buried indigent inmates of the workhouse, gleaned from the Death Records and revealing Stroud’s industrious past, plus details of the rudimentary nature of their graves, left an almost tangible, numinous atmosphere in the leafy, shadowed gloom of the graveyard. A fellow walker later told me that he was moved to tears by Angela’s gentle evocation within such a mute yet haunting landscape. I know from other later conversations that he was not alone.
Jim Pentney concluded with a few words about our Allen Davenport Chartist pilgrimage along the banks of the River Thames. Jim held aloft the stone he has carved from Allen’s birthplace at Ewen; we are taking this to the Reformers’ Memorial at Kensal Green, where Allen’s name appears. Finally, in the spirit of the shared collective experience of our walks and explorations, Jim said that all are welcome to join our Thames side ambles to London; information will appear on this website.
Some of us then retired to the Crown and Sceptre for some excellent and varied beer, where Angela, enthused and overwhelmed by the huge and positive response, thought that we really should put it on again next year. She most definitely has a point: as I first left the Ale House, some visitors who couldn’t get into the bar for the introduction, had already asked me if we could reprise the event.
What a day: well, that was a walk, that was; it’s hard to let it go.