16 October 2011

Not trawling but drowning

[Having finished writing this, and just as I am about to post it, I look at the accretion at its end and realise that it is going to drive Julie Heyward, who views footnotes with disfavour, to distraction. Apologies in advance, Julie.]

My fascination with the idea of drowned geographies started (back in the prehistoric days of 1977) with a Richard Cowper1: short story, Piper at the gates of dawn2. It then took a quantum leap forward when I later heard a folk song about "the trawler fleets of Trowbridge"3.

Trowbridge is a smallish town in the British county of Wiltshire. It is a fair way inland, and not near any significant body of water. The lyrics were intended as a nonsensically humorous send up of traditional sea related folk song, but they latched into my imagination and stayed there vividly. I was writing a fair amount of short fiction at that time, and tried many times to do something Cowperesque with this image of trawler fleets sailing out of a once landlocked town. It never happened, but the idea never went away, either. I have, ever since, played with maps and tried out the idea of flooding different landscapes to different contour lines – first on paper and then, in later years, digitally. To be honest, in retrospect, the maps were probably of greater interest to me4 than the nominal objective for drawing them...

All of this floods (excuse the pun) back now because I have just read Ray Girvan's JSBlog post on Floodland, which I immediately went out and bought because (a) it plays to this drowned geography weakness of mine and (b) Ray's recommendations are usually good5; it's joined the end of the "to be read" queue.

More immediately, however, I was (given this fascination of mine) obviously unable to ignore Ray's mention of a global flooding visualiser at flood.firetree.net. Hardly had I finished reading his post than I was over there and (of course!) flooding Wiltshire to see the effect on (where else?) Trowbridge.

There is, alas (or perhaps, if you are an inhabitant of Wiltshire, fortunately) no way to flood the countryside around Trowbridge to such a depth that trawlers could realistically operate out of the town. At thirty metres rise in sea level, Trowbridge would remain landlocked. At thirty five metres (the site won't do this; I had to revert to manual inspection of Ordnance Survey maps) it would acquire a coastline on a shallow lake in a wetlands region.

Despite its inland location, Trowbridge has a "Bythesea Road". At a little less than forty metres rise in sea level, this would live up to its name by becoming the town's seaside promenade.

At forty metres it would become a town on one minor arm of an inland sea (as shown in my illustration here – click it for a larger view).

At fifty, most of the town itself would be submerged, leaving two small parts of it at north east and south west on a pair of islands. At sixty metres it would disappear almost entirely, apart from a few scattered islets at the mercy of the tides just off what would now be the coast of Steeple Ashton ... in a substantial sea which would certainly support a fishing industry but not trawler fleets.

No matter ... I enjoyed the adventure of vicarious post apocalyptic disaster. Tomorrow I shall almost certainly flood somewhere else...

  1. I made no linkage then, and don't now, with J G Ballard's earlier Drowned world which, though it powerfully affected me in other ways, failed to evoke a concrete transformation of the world I know. Ballard's world was an obliterated world, not a transformed one.
  2. To answer the obvious questions: there is a clear connection with Wind in the willows, but it isn't relevant here; possibly also with the Pink Floyd album released about eight years before, though I'm not aware of it and haven't checked. There can be no direct link to Van Morrison song written about twenty years later. Pink Floyd and Van Morrison also both drew their inspiration from Wind in the willows)
  3. I can't, unfortunately, give any details of the song, as I'm unable to find any record of it ... I suspect that it was penned by the group who performed it, or by someone known to them personally, and never travelled widely enough to leave a permanent fossil record.
  4. In Tesseract (no connection with the later Alex Garland novel of very similar title), a longer fiction which I never finished but which served as the spawning ground for several shorter ones, I also tried flooding various landscapes in South Wales not with water but with time ... the further the protagonists moved from modern infrastructures like motorways or centres of population, the further back they sank into the past ... it was fun to work on. I'm a dreamer at heart.
  5. It was Ray who put me onto another superb novel in which drowned geography plays a major part: Ronald Wright's A scientific romance.

  • J G Ballard, The Drowned World. 1962, London: Victor Gollancz.
  • Richard Cowper The custodians, and other stories. 1976, London: Gollancz. 0575020962
  • Alex Garland, The tesseract. 1999, London: Penguin. 0140258426 (pbk.)


Julie Heyward said...

Being driven to distraction is bad??? Dear lord, NOW you tell me. I shall recalibrate my distraction widget this very minute

[with trusty adjustable wrench firmly in hand, peering with great trepidation into the depths of my widgetry; perhaps a bit of WD-40 to get me started ...]

Felix said...


Ray Girvan said...

Thanks for the mention. I've added the future Kent of Riddley Walker to the list.