Posted in Highbridge on Sunday 3rd December 2006 at 6:48pm
I haven't read much this past year. Somehow the changes at work and at home haven't left me time to devour printed matter like I once did. Another factor has been the mission I set out on, to begin to understand some of the theoretical and historical background behind the fiction I've enjoyed in the past few years. The sometimes dry and frustratingly elitist nature of this makes it hard to consume in anything but short bursts, but it has in someways been worthwhile. Oddly though it has shown that some of the stranger things we were getting up to around here back in the early 1990s - mainly in terms of music, and in particular the Traumatone project - had a strangely situationist twist to them. Thinking of the present, I find myself having lived a whole year back here in Highbridge. True to form, I've spent little time here in some ways, preferring to zip around the country as usual. But I'm aware of the constant change and redevelopment here in ways I wasn't when I lived elsewhere. There is a sense of tension in Highbridge which dates back to my earliest memories of the place. Back then, I understood it in its' Thatcher-era context as a poor relation of Burnham. Home to the unwanted and unmanageable elements of the community. The Moorlands Estate was famous only for topping suicide statistics at some grim nadir during the 1970s, and some areas of the ailing market town appeared to have lain untouched since the railway boom of the 19th Century. As industry and agriculture declined beside each other, Highbridge slid into what we saw as irreversible decay. It was the place where we were told we shouldn't go on summer bike rides. Highbridge was too far.
I suppose my reevaluation of Highbridge began when my sister moved to the Moorlands Estate. It still had it's problems, and the impressions I took from doorstepping during the 1997 Election campaign still seemed relevant in parts. But year by year, block by block, the housing and the surrounding areas appeared to be settling into quiet normality. The family names which used to strike terror into the heart of a King Alfred's schoolkid now referred to slightly portly men in their early thirties, wheeling double-buggies into town. My parents own move to a Highbridge address cemented this shift for me. I now had to take notice of Highbridge as a separate entity. Finally, last year I found myself moving here with a sense of positivity and contentment which I hadn't experienced in the preceding several years in Weston. Partly, this was down to feeling like part of a geographical community in ways I simply hadn't previously. Highbridge has a a fierce pride shown mainly in the overwhelming wish of many of its residents to shake of the ever-present 'and Burnham' from it's name. There is even a guerilla independence movement which whites-out our classier neighbour from the signboards on the A38 and other approaches to the town. But Highbridge is still changing - and mainly at the hands of Propertylink South West, a seemingly unstoppable development company which to its credit mops up brownfield sites and erases 'eyesores' overnight. Sadly, the resulting developments when they finally appear after seemingly interminable delays and lengthy construction periods, are rather characterless blocks of dwellings which seem to be planned with little thought to their effect on the environment, community or the creaking infrastructure of a town which has been dragged to it's knees by a Council keen on keeping our neighbouring town 'clean and tidy'.
Still feeling sick and longing for movement, I took a walk this evening to one of the more recent new zones. Disappearing under an archway beside our new convenience store I emerged in what will be a car park for the new flats. To my surprise and delight, a pair of rather old buildings have been restored as shop fronts. They must have been out of sight for some time, tucked away behind the building which previously occupied the area. It's unclear if they were originally shops, and it's going to be necessary to drag a longer-time resident away from the bar long enough to ask them. From here though, things deteriorate. The new blocks tower above the low, Victorian buildings of Market Street and are packed closely together in the sliver of land which was the course of the River Brue, diverted along a straight alignment south of here. A snake of road leads westwards from the development, up a steep bank to gain the main road south of the original bridge over the deleted river. The effect is to isolate the new blocks in a damp hollow. There is no way out to the nearby riverbank, though this may change when the contractors dump is removed from the site. Even then, there is I'm told an ancient dispute about land to the south of Market Terrace and Bertha Terrace which would likely prevent completion of the walkway along the river to the Railway Station. This isn't a comfortable spot, and despite what I imagine could be wonderful open views across the Somerset Levels, I'm reminded of the sense of claustrophobia and gloom which Moorlands once exuded. The planning errors of the post-war public housing era are being repeated by the private sector, and I can conjure up a bleak future view of this blighted enclosure with little effort. And still it continues, just a few metres from my home an old garage and filling station which had served for years as a few makeshift corrugated-iron shops (including the superbly named 'Millennium Kebab') has gone, the site cleared and the ancient fuel tanks finally excavated from the long covered forecourt. A new view from Church Street into the playing fields and beyond has opened - letting light and space into the busy street - but this will soon be enclosed by more blocks of housing built to meet quotas rather than to serve needs.
So, trudging back as it began to rain I proposed to myself the creation of the Highbridge Psychogeographical Association. It's just me now, but I'd welcome local historians who want to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future, or indeed speculative developers who want to re-anchor with the past. Highbridge has always been disputed territory - where industry met agriculture, where the brackish Severn tide meets the meandering Brue drain, where road met rails at an uneasy crossroads, where the same clock told three different times at once. Whichever of the clock faces you consult, it's high time to explore this curious and proud old town in new ways.
So should you see a portly figure in a parka snooping around your newly purchased buy-to-let investment, just think of me as a harmless but culturally alert neighbourhood watch scheme...
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.