Whispers on the waterways

Back in the mists of time, before there was a network of roads or even trackways to get from place to place, it is thought that our ancestors relied on waterways to travel around our island and beyond. It would seem likely that they also traveled around these islands along shallow coastal waters. Even after the Romans made sturdy roads to travel the length and breadth of the country they still used rivers to get around. The Vikings were masters of the waterways, traveling across the sea all the way to North America and trading along the great rivers of Europe and Russia. The way that waterways have connected our islands and communities on mainland Britain has always fascinated me. This project is a way of exploring those connections and hopefully making new ones. You can follow this project on Instagram too, look for: whispersonthewaterways.

Message in a bottle

The idea came to me to make a message in a bottle without that would eventually biodegrade. I was fascinated by the Guinness Advertising campaign in the 1950s where they dropped bottles into the world’s oceans as part of an advertising campaign. In each bottle was a certificate from Neptune himself. These bottles are collector’s items today.

Natural, biodegradable materials

I made a pearwood plug to fit into the Elder tube

I wondered if I could make a vessel to hold a message that wasn’t made out of glass or plastic, that someone might find and message me back. I was thinking about this project just before storm Arwen hit in November 2021, it caused a huge amount of damage across the North East of England and brought down thousands of trees. Storms Malik and Corrie in January brought down even more. I was shocked by the sheer number of trees that I had known all my life, lying down in ditches having been cleared from the roads. I wondered if it would be possible to use some of this wood to make my vessels. Not far from my house an Elder tree had been brought down. It is a marvelous wood. The branches have a pithy core that can be poked out with a tent peg to make a very satisfactory tube. I could plug the ends with bungs made from other woods to make a watertight tube or so I hoped. I didn’t know how watertight the Elder tube would be. I needed to do some testing.

Testing the waterproof ink

I took a piece of elder branch about 15 cm long, poked out the pith, and whittled some of the bark off it. If my vessels look like twigs, no one is going to pick them up and find the message inside. I took a bit of seasoned wood that had come down from my pear tree and fashioned it into a bung. I put the bung in the tube and then set the whole thing to dry on the windowsill for a couple of days. The Elder was still green and as it dried it should shrink around the pearwood bung.

My next thought was about the message, what should I write it on, and what with? I had some nice watercolour paper leftover from another project, that would be good for the message. If the paper did get wet hopefully it would still hold together. I now needed some waterproof ink. I could have used a Sharpie pen but that didn’t really seem in keeping with using natural materials so I bought a bottle of drawing ink. I had hoped to be able to use a quill, but the quill was too thick to write legibly on the tiny slip of paper so I used a dip pen instead. I had everything I needed for the test. I sealed the tube with a bit of an Oak twig then I put it in the kitchen sink for a few hours.

Opening the tube was harder than I thought it would be. I had to use a pair of pliers to get the Oak bung out but this was a good sign that the seal was watertight. To my relief, it was dry inside. I realised that it was going to be difficult to get the paper out of the tube and that in the future I would need to attach a thread to the paper to pull it out of the tube. As it turned out I had some linen thread that I had leftover from making plastic-free kites that would do nicely.

Vessel number one ready to launch

River Wansbeck 3 pm 6 February 2022

I dripped beeswax on the join to keep the water out

I was nervous about getting vessel number one ready to launch. I was worried that the second bung I put in with the threads hanging out would not keep out the water, so I took a beeswax candle I had made (bit of a failed experiment) and dripped the melted wax on the join between the bung and the tube. This was a job that I could have used three hands for and so the tube was singed just a little!

The message in vessel number one

Vessel number one was as ready, I took it down to the river and after attracting the attention of the Sunday afternoon dog walkers, I threw it into the center of the river from the bridge. The river was flowing quite fast, we had had quite a bit of rain in the last few days, but vessel number one got stuck in an eddy and actually came back upstream and went under the bridge! I went to the bank of the river to keep a close eye on what was going on. It swirled around in the eddy and looked like it would get stuck behind a rock. On a summer’s day, I would have waded in to get it but it was a freezing cold February afternoon. A few minutes later, it broke free from the eddy and headed downstream. I watched it as far as I could and then climbed up the bank to the path to see if I could see it from there. I couldn’t it was gone. I looked along the reeds at the edge of the river and I saw; a plastic cup, a pink plastic thing, and a Marks and Spencer carrier bag but there was no sign of vessel number one. I hope it is making its way along the river. How long will it survive? I’m not sure. I hope someone finds it and is curious enough to open it and sends a message back.

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