Sunday, 2 September 2018

I have often walked down this street before...

Ho illustrious passers-by and greetings from the windward side of town! A veritable map of discovery was last week found amongst the library shelves, who knows for how long it had been there? Never before has an A1 folded sheet of paper probably brought more unexpected joy to a normal working day in providing a treasure map of sorts offering an insight into the architectural history of Taunton, Somerset.
Printed in 1975, Taunton: A look around the centre is an illustrated and annotated map designed by Richard Guise with historical advice from Mick Aston and John Hunt produced for the European Architectural Heritage Year. It was amazing to see just what has changed in the last 43 years (this map was made prior to The Brewhouse Theatre being built, being one such example) and what has largely remained the same. Particularly when it comes to some of Guise’s opinions about the potential uses for space in the town, development of the river and ambition/opportunities present which he has annotated on this map. I wonder how many of them were his own opinions or those gathered from his experiences working with the Civic Society (which now doesn’t even exist!)? Some of them are a little cynical, which makes it even more interesting that it was printed at all when one thinks of similar ‘historical’ maps for the public that are almost lacking in personality for fear of unsettling things. For me, this is interesting as many of the ideas he presented over forty years ago echo the sort of comments collected during a public art consultation project I worked on with Taunton Deane Borough Council and Somerset Art Works in 2010 called, ‘Routes, river, rail’. 

The aim of ‘Routes, river, rail’ was broadly speaking to come up with creative ways of consulting different groups of people in the community and put forward ideas and proposals for how the routes between the train station, river and public spaces such as Firepool, Goodlands Gardens and Tangier within the town could be connected. It was to look at things such as lighting, surfaces, pathways, land-markers, signage, bridges and how different groups have different needs or aspirations of these spaces. Artistic practice was a way of collecting those ideas and proposing ones that could be made reality, it included things from gorilla gardening, painting bridges and creating literally easier to navigate pathways through urban areas (this led to the removal of a part of fencing where Goodlands Gardens meets the bridge on North Street). The ‘could be made’ and ‘proposed’ being the two difficult parts of that sentence. I do not like to dwell too much on past projects, but this one probably had the most significant impact on my understanding of art outside of the academic world, I had graduated a few months before, and into the politics and reality of what art means to people outside that protective art bubble I was so used to. It was when I first discovered blogging and it was a big eye-opener, not all for the better or for worse but made me aware of the attitudes and values that different groups had towards art; some resistant, some open, some hesitant, some confused. I think I was confused too, that suddenly art wasn’t about me, ‘the artist’ and something I was actively making/doing but could be something that we as groups were doing, through walks, talking, making maps, postcards and listening. It put me in touch with some amazing people, Transition Town (who still do a lot of Green activities that included Gorilla gardening), Stefan Jennings (who was commissioned to build the Willow Cathedral in Longrun Meadows) and furthered my links with The Brewhouse Theatre and working with people like Tim Hill on projects such as ‘Sounding out Somerset’ during the Olympics in 2012. 
And though this is all long over the affects of it remain and I am still interested because I still read and see and am party to the impact of developments and changes happening within the town I live in. Finding this map is like finding a missing piece of the puzzle and could have only helped what we were trying to do then and undoubtedly what other groups of people are still trying to do now. It seems to take a lot of repetition before any progress can be made or in order to be listened to. A list of statements from this 1975 map that still hold relevance as follows,
“It’s sad that we so often turn our backs onto rivers in towns.”
“Important skyline”
“Views out over the town to the Quantocks.”
“Two important trees form an effective end to the view down middle street.”
“Blank expanse of wall…ideal for a mural.”
“Why does the highest point in the old town strangely lack drama or a significant building?”
“If we’ve got to have Gasometers why not paint them in good strong colours and designs …they won’t go away because we paint them sky blue.”
“Goodland Gardens -an attempt to attract people back to the neglected river.”
I wish we had had this map in 2010! The politics of this aside the discovery of this map still presents an inspiring example of creative map-making as a way of understanding and learning about place. Maps put facts into context and present snippets of information without overloading people. I learnt several new things such as;
St Johns Church on Park Street was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott.
In Victorian times there used to be a workhouse somewhere behind the hospital on East Street.
Musgrove, Galmington, Trull Road and Sherford were sites for the ‘Well-to-do villas built on the windward side of town away from factory smells and fall-out.
In Medieval Taunton the Bishop’s Vivarium later to became Vivary Park.
Taunton was one of the first towns to have street lighting in 1886

I am interested in ways people process information and ways we learn a sense of place, why (for example) this map was more appealing and interesting to me than reading a book on the history of Taunton or visiting the museum? How many other people think the same? This is a very visual way of communicating information and offers locations or vantage points where people might go to see these things first-hand. There were little bits of personal history within this map in particular that appealed to me, from the fact it was printed by Barnicotts of Taunton (where two members of my family worked) to its statement of Crown Walk as being a ‘Potential for events, kiosks, exhibitions -at present a bit sad, wide and empty’ which was before the in-shops were built and my family had a fruit business based there (ironically, I feel it is in danger of becoming a ‘bit sad’ again) and the reference to Taunton having the largest Industry for shirts and Collars in 1896 being the collar factory, where Fine Art students at Somerset College (where I studied) had an art exhibition in 2012. I appreciate this will be irrelevant to most people but I mention because it highlights a more universal truth about how places have resonance, you unfold a map out of a place people know and recognise and automatically they are looking for connections, things they recognise, where they live, where their grandparents lived, where they went to school. It is an opener to a host of other conversations. 

In 1975 the purpose of this map was made as a way of presenting current thoughts of the time, ideas for the future as well as illustrating the evolution of the town throughout history.  Forty-three years later and it is still a presentation of the history of the town but has also become a form of social-history in itself. It is not just a map of architectural history, it is a map of the thoughts and values of the people (the civic society) who made it at the time. Attitudes will have changed, things listed on this map as ‘Taunton’s Top 10’ may no longer be the same. The history is still there but to someone like me in their early thirties or younger this map is now also history in itself. I like the idea that one-day maybe an updated map could be made, an unvetted one that did not have to conform to a council-led directive, but one that reflects the current values, opinions, stories and aspirations of people living in Taunton today.
Maybe? It is something to think on. If anyone has any thoughts on this or knows more about this map then please do get in touch via my contact page. I would be interested in hearing from you.

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