The Avona Project: Festival of Nature, June 2016
When the Festival of Nature organisers called us they asked for a "spectacular" public engagement event about the Avon River, and that got us thinking.
The result was our Avona Project: a public engagement project that is our biggest one yet. Involving hundreds of community members aged 3 to 93, several community choirs and collaborations with the sculptor Sophie Howard, Bristol Forest School, country band Red Ray and The Matthew ship, we feel we delivered a "spectacular" to be proud of.
Avona, the central character in our spectacular, is a goddess and the Spirit of the Avon river. She was designed by Derrick Ababio, an 8 year old student at St Peter's Primary, Bishopsworth. She was created in willow and recycled materials by Sophie Howard, and decorated by students and staff from St Peter's Primary. Avona had an attendant giant kingfisher also created by students and staff from the school.
Avona processed through the crowds at each Festival of Nature: in Bristol on 12th June, Keynsham on 19th June and Bath on 25th June. Members of the public would help to carry her long river-like skirt and also to wave river-streamers to recreate the river around her so she felt at home. She was a truly spectacular figure.
Once Avona arrived at each Festival, she listened to a performance of her song, the Avona Shanty.
The Avona Shanty was the other public engagement element of the project. We began by calling out to the people of Bristol, Keynsham and Bath for their "river stories." Their dreams, memories, worries or wishes that were in some way connected to the Avon river.
The response was overwhelming and fascinating. We had contributions from children as young as 3, houseboat owners, rowers, walkers, nature enthusiasts, people who remembered the river as it once was and people who are working to ensure the river and its wildlife remains healthy in the future.
We took these stories and transformed them into the Avona Shanty, a song of the river. We gave the song to several community choirs to learn and perform at the Festivals. Riff Raff, Big Friendly Choir and Bring Your Own Baby choir sang to Avona in Bristol, accompanied by the African Sambistas. In Bath Avona was sung to by Song Club and Riff Raff choir. In Keynsham she heard her song performed by Red Ray and the Reprobates, a local country band. They liked her song so much they are recording it for their next album.
Here are the lyrics below in full, some with connections to the original river stories. We'd love to know what you think of them.
The Avona Shanty
We had river stories from all these places, (including the Chew River tributary at Keynsham). We liked how many of the names were to do with mouths and eating!
A fantastic river story was a man who saw an otter eating a fish from his car in rush-hour traffic! Another river story talked of how the river had calmed someone after receiving bad news.
Hotwells Living Memories group gave us some great river stories from the past. Many remembered the SS Great Britain's return on 19th July 1970. And the time as children they tried to sail in a drawer!
A river story from the 1960s. Being a rowing coach was clearly a hazardous occupation!
Many river stories told how the docks and Bristol Harbourside has changed completely from an industrial space to a place for leisure.