Eleanor Rycroft is a Historian of walking & theatre. She documented a women-led night walk, taking a route that is historically associated with sex-work, connecting the walk, and its participants, to a lineage of night-walking women.
On the 23rd of July, 2022, Bristol Steppin Sistas and researchers from the University of Bristol, walked on contested ground, taking a route down Ladies Mile and skirting the perimeters of Clifton and Durdham Downs, in Bristol.
The Downs hold a central and symbolic role in Bristol’s history. In 1856 the Society of Merchant Venturers promised “to maintain the free and uninterrupted use of the Downs” [….] leading to The Clifton and Durdham Downs Act of 1861, that preserved the Downs for all Bristolians “for ever hereafter open and unenclosed”.
The preamble to the Act says “Whereas there are in the immediate neighbourhood of the city of Bristol two downs or commons which have from time immemorial been open, and largely resorted to as places of recreation for the inhabitants of Bristol and its neighbourhood, it is expedient that they should be so maintained”.
However, even from its inception, the idea of the Downs as belonging to all Bristolians has been troubled. In 1871, a plea for a “People’s Park” was made: “You will say we have Clifton and Durdham Downs, but these are mainly for rich people who can afford to live in that neighbourhood.”
This historic tension between Clifton residents and wider Bristolians in relation to the Downs remains, coming to a head recently in a legal battle between the Society for Merchant Venturers, and the organisation Downs for People. As Bristol 24/7 reported:
Downs for People learned at the end of May 2020 [..] that the zoo had been granted a licence in secret that allowed it to park [on the Downs] for another 20 years, from the beginning of 2020 to the end of 2039. […] In a settlement out of court […] the Downs Committee and Bristol City Council, agreed that the green space will not be used for parking for activities that don’t [take] place there in the future.
Downs for People member, Susan Carter said “We are most grateful to all those who have helped us fight this case. Let this be a warning to those who would trample on the rights of ordinary Bristolians”.
The place of the Downs within Bristol is also problematically implicated in their part ownership by the Society for Merchant Venturers, who play a key role in Bristol’s history through their role in the Transatlantic slave trade. The Society’s connections to slavery have led Downs for People to call upon them to relinquish rights to this land and return it wholly to the people of Bristol. The pedestrian occupation of the space of the Downs by women of colour was therefore a politically significant act.
The route we took also had an important place in terms of the city’s history of sexuality and gender. The lavatory where we gathered on Durdham Downs was a lesbian meeting place in the 1930s according to the ‘Know Your Place’ map project as well as a memoir by toilet attendant, Victoria Hughes. The immediate area was also a cruising spot for gay men.
More well known is Clifton Downs’ connections to sex work with records stretching as far back as 1884. According to Victoria Hughes memoir, Ladies Mile was a notable site for sex workers before and after the Second World War. Hughes notes it heterotopic nature: “Just as the ladies with the right accents used to ride their horses along there on Sunday mornings, the Marys… offered another kind of ride after dark” (Victoria Hughes, Ladies Mile (Abson Books, 1977) p10-11). While Hughes’ memoir contains just as much judgment as it does information about sex work during that period, it shines a light on another sort of nightwalking with which this area is associated.
Historians have argued that the label of ‘nightwalker’ emerged alongside prohibitions against women walking at night in the 17th century. At this point in time the association of night-walking with male criminality is displaced onto women and perceptions of their deviant sexuality, with the aim of social and sexual control.
This condemnation of night-walking women remains to this day and early modern ideas continue to condition the view of women who walk at night, affecting their safety. The route that we undertook would have represented real danger to us if we had walked it alone: as recently as May 2021, Clifton and Durdham Downs have been the site of the sexual assault of women. So – again – while the Act of 1861 promotes that Clifton and Durdham Downs should be a place of “recreation for the inhabitants of Bristol”, distinctions between Bristolians along lines of class, race, sexuality and gender have historically and continually hindered their freedom to use it.
On the 23rd of July, 2022, we walked back against our exclusion from night-walking as women, defying its associations and its dangers. The soundscape of the event captures the stories and reminiscences shared by Bristol Steppin Sistas as they reclaimed this land through walking. We all occupied space from which we have been historically denied, and in doing so, exposed women’s – especially women of colour’s – lack of freedom to walk where they like, when they like.
The questions that our sound designer, Alice Boyd, asked were intended to elicit honest responses, and we were thrilled with the diversity of feelings that our walkers had about the walk. The soundscape is intended to be a transparent, albeit edited, record of the event, and at points the sound quality suffers a little because of rain. At 10.54, incidentally, you can hear, very faintly, the sound of a car horn, and then a man shouting at 10.56. While we were largely left alone during our walk, it is interesting that our unusual act could not be left completely free of comment and disruption. Whether the beep was one of criticism or solidarity we will never know.
Here’s Alice talking about her experience:
When Ellie reached out about this project I was incredibly excited. After two years of working mostly from home due to the COVID pandemic, I had been looking for more ways to get into the field with my compositional and sound work. I was struck when watching C’mon C’mon, Mike Mills’ 2021 film about a radio journalist played by Joaquin Phoenix, by the following quotation on interviews: “The work offers the subject a chance to speak of things they have never spoken of. A chance to see themselves as subjects worthy of time and attention. The work offers the subjects the creation of an image of self, the distributions of which they cannot control, on a global scale, in perpetuity.” Previously, I hadn’t thought much about sound recording and interviewing, however C’mon C’mon highlighted both the power of the medium in giving people a platform, as well as the ethical considerations of the editing process. I wanted in!
On the day itself, the trials and tribulations of sound recording in the field became apparent. It started raining and I had to quickly figure out how to balance an umbrella over my sound equipment, while also holding the microphone in one hand, the questions in the other and maintaining conversation with the interviewee. It was fascinating listening to the women speak about their experiences and their thoughts on walking at night, particularly when they contrasted with one another. Common themes began to arise. All unanimously agreed they would likely not do the same walk alone. Many had stories about feeling unsafe at night. Many wished they could do it more. I hope that through the compilation of the interviews, each women felt their voice was heard and that the diversity of the stories told give a insight into the various ways women feel when walking at night.
This text is the third in a series of the artists shortlisted for the Sound Walk September 2022 Awards talking about their work.