River Parrett Trail
River Parrett Trail
The River Parrett Trail is a regional footpath route approximately 50 miles long which follows the River Parrett from its source in the hills near Chedington in Dorset through a variety of landscapes rich in wildlife and environmental interest, including the fragile and sensitive wetland area of the Somerset Levels and Moors and the Special Protection Area and National Nature Reserve at its mouth at Steart on Bridgwater Bay. The Trail was developed as a sustainable tourism initiative between January 1995 and December 1998, by the local authorities working in partnership with statutory and voluntary organisations, with landowners, farmers, businesses and individuals. The project received a grant of £240,609 ECU (£187,000) from the European Union ‘Life’ Programme for the four year project, towards a total budget of £415,830 for the development of the Trail. It is seen as a model for the integrated development of a long distance path involving public access, the local community, business development, green tourism and the arts and crafts.
In the early 90s, Take Art!, Somerset’s rural arts development agency, was looking for ways to develop and extend participative arts opportunities, including artists’ residencies, in the local communities of Somerset. At the same time South Somerset District Council wished to advance its aspiration to be one of the best Districts for walkers outside the boundaries of the National Parks by developing a riverside path to add to its portfolio of similar long distance paths crossing the district. Take Art! took the initiative to raise support and funding for a feasibility study into the development of a long distance path along the River Parrett, and subsequently commissioned and managed the study. It was funded by the three Somerset Districts through which the Parrett flows - South Somerset, Sedgemoor and Taunton Deane - with Somerset County Council, South West Arts and the Somerset Arts Development Group.
The study was undertaken in 1993 by Peter Milner, an artist himself. He looked at the whole Trail, and developed a proposal for the project which considered a practical route by foot, the environment and history of the area, tourism and promotion potential, local economic benefit, the involvement of local people and the role of artists and craftspeople, including the themes they might consider and the materials they might use. He also proposed a unique way of combining the differing needs of the agricultural community, environmental imperatives and the local population. It sought to bring together the key players – local authorities, farmers, local people, conservation bodies, small tourism businesses, artists and craftspeople from the area – answering the needs and concerns of each interest group. The feasibility study formed the basis of a successful bid for funding to the European Union ‘Life’ Programme by the River Parrett Trail Partnership.
The project demonstrates a new methodology for developing green tourism, by weaving together five complementary strands in order to create a balanced and sustainable infrastructure:-
- reating access by clearing and upgrading the route along public footpaths
- tourism promotion and management to stimulate local economic development
- conservation of sensitive and fragile environments
- involvement of local people to promote care and understanding
- interventions from artists in the form of residencies, workshops and commissions
Role of the Arts
The arts are central to the way in which all aspects of the Trail have been developed and realised. As well as the practical task of clearing the Trail, refurbishing and replacing signage, stiles, bridges and gates, 24 artists were commissioned to make 29 art and craft works. These include cones made from living willow by Clare Wilks, a poem facilitated by poet Tony Charles cut into beams along a canal by lettercutter Andrew Whittle, sculptures at Ham Hill by Evie Body, two bridges by Keith Rand, a tower bird hide by architect Wilf Burton and artist Tony Eastman, a sculpted panel by Louise Baker, seats by Walter Jack and Keith Rand, an interactive visitor centre at Langport by Jenny Dack, Peter Milner and Charles Camm, and a number of stiles, gates and waymarkers. In addition, 21 small ‘clues’ – illustrations etched in metal plates – have been commissioned and placed at points along the Trail from which walkers can take rubbings. There have been at least 20 residencies at schools and colleges by artists in visual, performing and verbal arts, and several arts projects involving youth groups and community groups producing at least four community celebrations, two CDs of music and several publications exhibitions. An education pack has been written and piloted by five local primary schools. A regular programme of community events, arts workshops and guided walks was organised throughout the four year project.
The River Parrett Trail Journal was published every six months or so from Winter 1996. It covered news and articles on artists’ commissions, schools residencies, community projects, events and publications, and reported on upcoming projects. It was distributed in the local area and more widely to promoted the work of the project in progress. In Spring 1996, the first River Parrett Trail Guide was published containing maps and route descriptions, as well information on accommodation, transport, eating and drinking, and local attractions. It was revised and republished in Spring 1997 in the form of an A5 folder with a stapled contextual booklet on the whole Trail and a number of separate folded sections printed on coated paper with the Trail map and route instructions on the inside, and detailed practical information on the locality outside. There are also loose-leaf sections covering practical information, the ‘clues’ and the arts and crafts commissions. The Trail Guide was conceived as an integral part of the whole project, and another way of employing the work of locally based artists in the form of specially commissioned ‘clues’ and illustrations based on local stories and history. A colour leaflet promoting the Trail and the Trail Guide has been produced in large quantities for widespread distribution in Britain and abroad to target tourist markets.
The River Parrett Trail Partnership Steering Group is the governing body of the Partnership and embodies the political commitment to the project by the partner organisations. It was formed to develop and submit the original project bid, and subsequently to manage it, meeting quarterly. The Partners were the four District Authorities through which the river passes – South Somerset, Taunton Deane, Sedgemoor and West Dorset Districts, Somerset County Council, British Waterways, Country Landowners Association, English Nature, Environment Agency, National Farmers Union, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Somerset Wildlife Trust, South West Arts, Take Art!, West Country Tourist Board and Cannington College. South Somerset District Council took the role of lead authority, co-ordinating the Partnership, handling finances and overall project management. Dorset County Council has recently joined the Partnership.
On a day to day level, a Management Committee of Senior Officers from the Countryside, Tourism and Arts Services of the five Local Authorities, South West Arts and the Director of Take Art! met bi-monthly to oversee the operational aspects of the project. Three working groups for Countryside, Arts, and Tourism, comprising officers from the five Local Authorities, and led in each case by the relevant South Somerset officer, met as often as was required to take practical decisions and move forward the delivery of tasks. As well as the Somerset County Arts and four District Arts Officers, the Arts Working Group included the Director of Take Art!, a representative of South West Arts and an artist.
The partner Local Authorities each committed officer time from their departments covering conservation/countryside/rights of way, tourism/marketing and arts, to lead on delivery of the project on the ground. The Arts Working Group had devolved responsibility for the commissions and residencies including contracts, overseeing progress and installation on site, and each Arts Officer took responsibility for managing projects and commissions in their district, including ongoing maintenance. A freelance Project Co-ordinator, Peter Milner, was engaged full-time throughout the four year period of the project to lead the development of the Trail in all its aspects, and to co-ordinate and monitor the activity and efforts of the partner organisations, principally the Local Authorities.
When the Life programme-funded project ended in December 1998, the future management of the Trail was reviewed. It was agreed that the River Parrett Trail Partnership Steering Group would continue meeting every six months, but that the Management Committee would be reconfigured subject to a revised and clarified role. The Officer Working Groups would meet as and when required.
A Business Development Officer, Garry Hamilton, was appointed in September 1999, initially on a one year contract which was subsequently extended for a further 18 months, with funding from the four Districts, the two County Councils and the Countryside Agency. His primary role was to promote green tourism and business opportunities along the Trail, including promoting the Trail itself nationally and internationally at conferences, and guiding representatives from other councils and governments who visit the Trail. The post was managed by a Management Committee which comprised three tourism officers, a countryside officer and an arts officer. Special management meetings took place periodically to look at particular topics, attended by additional officers as relevant.
A newsletter, Parrett People, is produced and circulate free, covering developments on the Trail and articles on local history and attractions, and a new leaflet is being produced featuring a number of circular walks not included in the Guide, which have been developed in association with the National Trust, and a link to the Brit Valley Way in Dorset.
The four District Councils have signed a maintenance agreement for the fabric of the trail and the art commissions along it. The Business Development Officer’s role includes taking an overview of the maintenance of the path and its signage, furniture and artworks, with the assistance of a Ranger, and liaising with the relevant countryside or arts officers over repair or replacement. Whilst the countryside departments are set up with budgets to allow regular replacement of stiles and signs as they deteriorate, this is problematic for the small arts budgets of the District Arts Officers and the maintenance of the art works has still to be satisfactorily resolved.
In 2001, Management of the River Parrett Trail merged with the much longer established Levels and Moors Project which covers much the same geographic area. A further programme of art and craft commissions and community arts projects, funded by the Regional Arts Lottery Programme, has been taking place since 2002 including a residency by a disabled artist looking at increased access to the Trail, a community project and temporary installation by Michael Pinsky at Bridgwater Docks which has led a permanent commission, and the commissioning of a new pedestrian bridge near the River Parrett Trail Visitor Centre in Langport.
For further information contact River Parrett Trail: Richard Bradford, Levels and Moors Officer Tel: +44 (0)1458 210790, Fax: +44(0)1458 210415,
© Copyright Joanna Morland 2001