This work was commissioned by Dumbworld, as part of their Ambulatory Arts programme, a series of immersive interventions experienced on foot across the city. It was performed as a rehearsed reading, as a sketch for something to be developed.
It’s close but it’s not right - Waterworks walk
Brown&Brí with Stephen Sexton
What will die with me when I die? What pathetic or frail form will the world lose?
The Witness, Jorge Luis Borges
It’s good, but it’s not right is a twilight walk around the top lake at the Waterworks Park in north Belfast with new writing performed within a painterly landscape of light. Nine jetties are points of departure for a series of messages spoken, inferred, rotated, repeated, skewed, misheard or missed entirely. These signals are codes to decipher and dreams to read, proof of humanity, transmitted in hopes of a connection.
In motion through this landscape we have found a place to reflect on our position as observers within an expanding universe, and consider lost contact, broken across expanses of time and space.
The walk took place on 30 th August 2023, for a small group of 10 people. Below is the script. From jetty 6 onwards a light begins transmitting “It’s close but it’s not right” in morse code, out across the city.
[Top gate, bridge]
In the first half of the 20th century, Edwin Hubble observed that galaxies appear to be moving away from each other, leading to the currently accepted Big Bang Theory. In 1998, scientists discovered that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.
As the universe expands exponentially with time, its density will decrease, and echoes of the Big Bang will shift to lower intensities and longer wavelengths, eventually becoming absorbed by the interstellar medium. In this way, all evidence for the Big Bang will disappear. How will observers in the far future infer our motives, ideas, our existence?
My friend is up on Cave Hill tonight. We are HERE in the Waterworks.
In this landscape we’ve found somewhere to reflect on our position as observers within the expanding universe. For us it’s somewhere to think about lost knowledge, and things broken across expanses of time, as bodies move apart.
Welcome. Stephen is our guide…
It’s the upper, ‘wilder’ lake, and its nine jetties, which form the focus of our walk today.
[Three jetties - 1]
[...] a deep ditch filled up with dead leaves, and the tracks of a wolf in the black mud where the woods begin.
Not long after the end of the last ice age, the Belfast Waterworks were designed by the engineer William Dargan to provide water for the city. As Irish Naturalist Ranald MacDonald writes, [the upper lake] of the Belfast Waterworks […]is the larger of two ponds occupying an angle formed by the meeting of Cavehill and Antrim roads. The water supply to the pond comes mainly from the Mile water Burn, a small river which rises several miles to the north in the marshy ground lying between the summit of Colin ward Mountain and the western slope of Cave Hill.
[Three jetties - 2]
[...] the man, while still a boy, had seen [...] the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners.
The Waterworks functioned as a reservoir for only twenty years from its establishment in 1840 and, since, the lakes have been used for recreation. Swimming galas and speedboat races began in 1929; the sailing of model yachts was allowed. By the 1930s, public bathing and diving were allowed here; Tom Boyce, who operated the Ormeau ferry, provided 12 rowing boats for use in the Waterworks.
During the second world war, the Luftwaffe mistook the Waterworks for Belfast’s dockland. North Belfast was devastated by incendiary bombs, killing approximately 750 people. Water from the Waterworks was used to extinguish the fires in the surrounding areas.
The Belfast Corporation, who bought the Waterworks in 1956 and opened it officially as a public park, partially filled in both reservoirs following safety concerns. There were firework displays, band performances and the exhibition of a horseless carriage.
[Three jetties - 3]
There were firework displays, band performances and the exhibition of a horseless carriage.
The lakes were stacked with trout for anglers; manmade islands encourage waterfowl to breed. You can find greylag geese and mute swans, as well as mallards, tufted ducks, coots, pochards, goldeneyes, cormorants and great-crested grebes and green parakeets in the park. You can also find redwings and fieldfares feeding on the grass.
The bells calling to prayer awake him.
“The whistling language of Pyrenean shepherds, which became extinct in the 1950s, could transmit the contents of the local newspaper up to a distance of three and a half kilometres. […] Sometimes, in the Pyrenean foothills or the mountains of Provence, where wall and rock faces act as sounding-boards, a conversation in a village square can be followed in perfect detail far beyond the village itself.”
The sonic properties of the Waterworks and the surrounding hills are yet to be fully studied, however the connection between Cave hill and the top lake is undeniable.
“Anyone who has ever tried to shout across a field will know that transmitting messages this way is not as simple as it might sound. A long-distance vocal telegraph system requires at least as much surveying skill as the pre-Roman road network. Shouting anything comprehensible from a hilltop is practically impossible: sound travels far more efficiently along valleys and quiet rivers.”
The expansion we talked about is in the far future, not the ‘here and now’. But we wouldn’t say that things HERE exist whereas things which ‘not here’ do not exist. The same is true of NOW.
For my friend on the mountain, time is moving slightly faster than it is for us down here. Her experience is true, our experience is true. There isn’t one single true time..
Bodies move apart at different rates, and things are lost all the time.
Something, or an infinite number of things die in each death
[Mary walks ahead to Jetty 6]
And, of course, let’s not forget our old friend, Paludestrina jenkinsi, Jenkins's spire shell, otherwise known as the New Zealand Mud Snail. Its presence here is remembered fondly by Randald MacDonald, writing in 1938:
I noticed several small shells on the surface of a stone near the bathing place on the upper pond of Belfast Waterworks. I took some specimens which I felt certain were fully grown Paludestrina jenkinsi, but these unfortunately were lost. […] The water is let out of the upper pond for a depth of about twenty feet every year, so there is a considerable area of mud exposed. It was while looking among the stones which line the margin of the pond, that I noticed on the mud a number of brownish-yellow patches. These I found to be composed of shells similar to those I had taken alive in July. This time I felt quite certain of the species, and later Mr. R. J. Welch confirmed the identification. I believe this is the first time that this species has been recorded for the north or Antrim side of the city.
I can remember when I was about seven or eight, maybe younger, some woman was staying next door with close friends in the terrace where I lived, opposite the Waterworks, and we went for a walk. Anyway, we found ourselves in the [...] grounds and that was at the time when it was illegal, you were not allowed to be there. And that was my first impression I ever had of masses of bluebells. A whole sheet of bluebells and that was absolutely lovely. Of course we were trespassing. Bundles of bluebells in our arms, you know. I don’t remember how we would have got in - I think we must have gone up round the hill - I really can’t remember. I have this vivid memory of a big wall, a big stone wall, well it ran [...] right up the Antrim Road, oh I don’t know how far. There were no houses on this side of the Antrim Road, just woods and that was where I saw the bluebells.
[Long straight, MORSE CODE, slower pace, Connolly laps us]
Unless there is a universal memory
When Champollion visited Egypt after famously deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs, he was the first person since antiquity who could read and understand the buildings, the place, the whole landscape. All those records, somehow their meaning, their significance had been lost. Until the Rosetta Stone was discovered and the dots were joined. Things are lost over time.
Similarly we can know something of the ancient Celts from the Solitude football grounds. The land had been know as Solitude since at least 1785 when the property which formed the Oldpark Estate was acquired by a wealthy businessman who built ahouse on the land and called it Solitude. The house of Solitude would have stood where the top lake is now. It was demolished to make way for Dargan’s water works. It is thought that the name came from an ancient fort, known as diamor, or ‘a solitude’.
There was a day in time when the last eyes to see Christ were closed forever.
“One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realized then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: ‘I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor’. Sometimes I would mention this amazement, but since no one seemed to share it, nor even to understand it (life consists of these little touches of SOLITUDE), I forgot about it.”
Today, we’re looking at basalt which looks like the emperor, from which you can see Scotland sometimes, or the Isle of Man, which, according to some people, was the land dug out of Lough Neagh and thrown into the Irish Sea by one of the giants.
Napoleon Boneparte’s nose was discovered behind the Waterworks, sometime in the 19th Century, according to Glenn Patterson. Napoleon was sleeping up there, where he had a dream about a tunnel between France and England.
“The first proposition to unite England and France was made in 1802, by Monsieur Mathieu, whose plans were laid before the First Napoleon, then First Consul, and were afterwards exhibited at the Luxembourg and public galleries in Paris. They have, however, long since been lost, and with them the proposed method of carrying out the work.”
Napoleon dreamed of “an artificial island mid-channel “to rest and breathe the horses.” (Building the World, p. 761).
Things are lost all the time.
In a stable lying almost in the shadow of the new stone church, a man with gray eyes and a gray beard, stretched on the ground amidst the animal odors, meekly seeks death like someone seeking sleep. The day, faithful to vast secret laws, continuously displaces and confounds the shadows in the wretched stable. Outside stretch the tilled fields, a deep ditch filled up with dead leaves, and the tracks of a wolf in the black mud where the woods begin. The man sleeps and dreams, forgotten. The bells calling to prayer awake him. In the kingdoms of England, the sound of the bells is already one of the customs of the afternoon, but the man, while still a boy, had seen the face of Woden,had seen holy dread and exultation, had seen the rude wooden idol weighed down with Roman coins and heavy vestments, seen the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners. Before dawn he would be dead and with him would die, never to return, the last firsthand images of the pagan rites. The world would be poorer when this Saxon was no more.
We may well be astonished by space-filling acts which come to an end when someone dies, and yet something, or an infinite number of things, die in each death—unless there is a universal memory, as the theosophists have conjectured. There was a day in time when the last eyes to see Christ were closed forever. The battle of Junín and the love of Helen died with the death of some one man. What will die with me when I die? What pathetic or frail form will the world lose? Perhaps the voice of Macedonio Fernandez, the image of a horse in the vacant space at Serrano and Charcas, a bar of sulfur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?
[END, at bridge]
As the universe expands exponentially with time […] all evidence for the Big Bang will disappear. The day, faithful to vast secret laws, continuously displaces and confounds the shadows
Things are lost all the time
something, or an infinite number of things, die in each death
‘I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor’
and that was where I saw the bluebells.
I took some specimens […]
A whole sheet of bluebells
[…] but these unfortunately were lost.
and that was absolutely lovely.
Things are lost all the time
Today, we’re looking at basalt which looks like the emperor
The upper wilder lake
12 rowing boats
There were firework displays, band performances and an exhibition of a horseless carriage.
What will die with me when I die? What pathetic or frail form will the world lose?