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New sea shanty inspired by River Avon

Everyone loves a sea shanty and this year the River Avon has inspired a brand new one: ‘Avona’, to be debuted at the Festival of Nature.

bigfriendlychoir avona shanty

In 2016 the Avon is at the very heart of the Festival, as our programme of events and activities unfolds along the river from Bristol to Bath.

Gill Bicknell, the creative director of Brave Bold Drama, is devising an amazing procession spectacle for the Festival, inspired by the river. As part of the performance, Gill has been collecting river stories from people who live beside or even on the Avon. She’s used extracts from the stories to compose her sea shanty ‘Avona’, to be sung by choirs as part of the Festival procession.

Here’s a clip from a rehearsal of the new sea shanty, sung by the Big Friendly Choir:

And here are a few of the stories Gill has collected, giving a sense of the river in all its moods:


Counter-currents by Alan Rayner

“One day in 1999, I was watching over the river upstream from Pulteney Bridge, while anxiously awaiting an appointment. It was at a time of my life when I had been obliged to take leave from work due to ‘stress’. My attention was taken by a swan feather being blown upstream over the surface, while a partly submerged leaf skeleton was being carried downstream. A duck, swimming across the river produced, in its wake, a pattern of ripples that reminded me of the shiplap arrangement of boards forming the hull of a boat. Another duck took flight, making splashes and ripples as it ran across the water. I saw in this scene a soothing illustration of how all life’s patterns are ultimately expressions of the flow of current, and it wasn’t long before I made a painting inspired by it, which I called ‘Counter-currents’ ” (Alan Rayner)

“The kingfisher treated me to a fly-past as I carried the oars down to the river bank. Early as it was, the sun was well up in the sky. It was a few days to midsummer’s day, the air was mild, the radiant morning as yet untroubled by the intrusive noise of traffic or the din of a petrol mower.

With a flask of freshly-brewed coffee at my feet and two warmed croissants wrapped in a cocoon of cloth I pushed off from the jetty. How wonderful to move almost silently through the wisps of mist lying over the water, and to have the river to myself.

Well, almost to myself.

A moorhen skittered away with her chicks, curious ducks came alongside, eager to share any bread I might have, a black cat watched from a garden. A little beyond the Boating Station the male swan was patrolling, but soon decided I was of little interest.

As I approached Grosvenor Bridge an early-morning runner paused and waved…
At Bathampton I dicovered that my attempt to keep the croissants warm had not met with resounding success, but nothing could mar the pleasure of eating my breakfast by the weir in the peace of the early morning, with a soundtrack of birdsong and lapping water, and the knowledge that the return journey was downstream.

A little while later I tested out my theory that if I sat midstream, with the prow pointing towards Bath, I could simply float home. No such luck. The boat kept turning sideways in the current and heading towards the bank. No matter. An occasional lazy dip of an oar kept the little boat heading home.

What a privilege it is to live by the river.” (Hazel Pennington)


“I’m passionate about otters, I used to think that these animals were only found in wild places well away from human habitation, like the Scottish islands or Exmoor rivers, but since I have been living in the Bristol area I have discovered they are much closer to home. Over the years I have developed the habit of checking every patch of mud for footprints, and every prominent waterside stone or ledge for otter poo (spraint).

“In the summer of 2013 my teenage daughter and I decided to become tourists for the day and follow the Harbourside Gromit Trail, I couldn’t resist tucking a small pair of binoculars into my handbag. As often as I felt I could get away with it (my daughter was not impressed) I scanned pontoons and riverside steps and, to my delight, found indisputable evidence that there was, as rumoured, an otter visiting the floating harbour.

“On a separate occasion that same summer, I was walking to my husbands office along the river. As I passed under Temple Bridge, with rush hour traffic above me, I glanced down at the edge of the path and saw a patch of spraint, a scarcely perceptible sign that one of our most beautiful and elusive wild animals was very much at home at the heart of the city, a secret I felt privileged to share.” (Gill Brown).