DANCE ON LOCATION 017: Purton Ships Graveyard, Gloucestershire, UK

Along the River Severn in Gloucestershire, several disused ships have been purposefully beached to combat erosion... and they make an interesting backdrop for a short dance film.

In Berkeley, a small town and parish in Gloucestershire, Purton Ships Graveyard lies unassumingly on the banks of the River Severn.

Also known as Purton Hulks, these ships were purposely abandoned here to combat erosion, and it is now the largest ship graveyard in mainland UK. There are 80 ships that have been beached here, but unfortunately 50 of them are no longer visible as they have been covered by various levels of silt over the years.

DISCLAIMER: This film was recorded prior to COVID-19 restrictions being tightened in the UK in September 2020.

The Severn is the longest river in the UK, and back in 1909 its banks dangerously collapsed which lead to the decision to place these shipwrecks here. It turns out that the Severn waters are rather powerful, and beaching large vessels such as these provides a barrier that helps prevent further erosion. Over a number of decades, ships were sent here as their final resting place, with the last ship being beached in 1965. Some of these ships were originally built in the 19th century, their wooden skeletons now poking out through the long grass, whereas others are much more recent and now filled with concrete.

A monument with all of the ships' names greets you as you enter the graveyard, with names such as "Katharine Ellen", "Rockby" and "Envoy" adding a certain anthropomorphism to the boats. Plaques by each vessel tell you a little bit about their history - where each ship is from and the years in which they were in operation, for me adding to the ways in which these boats developed as characters in my mind.

Purton Ships Graveyard is a gorgeous and visually interesting spot to go for a walk, and is a particularly popular spot for dog walkers (recommended by the Bristol Barkers!).

The Dance

I had never before thought of a ship as a stage, but it proved a rather interesting venue. I really enjoyed experimenting with balancing on the ship's various appendages, trying desperately to stay upright as the wind whipped at my clothes.

There were lots of other elements to play with on this ship, such as heavy metal rings to pull on. The rings provided a really tactile surface, but also an opportunity to experiment with weight bearing - this particular ship has been beached on a sharp incline, which proved rather challenging, and meant that my leaning back when holding onto the rings really was me holding on for dear life. It almost felt like I was out at sea on this vessel, back when it was alive and well. I found myself needing to constantly switch between leaning into the incline and to actively push my body in the opposite direction, almost surfing with the old ship as my surf board.

One of my favourite moments in this film is when I bend over backwards to come to lie down on the ship's concrete infill. There's a kind of awkward grace to this movement which I love - wrists and feet flexed, never pointed, but my body moving slowly towards the concrete - a grounding for me, but also still suspended in the air. It was a chance to explore movement without the weight on my feet, my legs cycling their way through the wind and my arms reaching for other elements of the ship to hold onto, as if I was both floating and sinking through the breeze.

Although I did not feel any sadness at these ships being beached here, no longer to live their sea-based lives, the word "graveyard" was at the forefront of my mind whilst making this film. As a result, some skeleton-like movements reared their head, my arms moving as if my elbows and shoulders were only loosely connected to the bones surrounding them. These movements became faster as the film progressed, the skeleton perhaps gaining more life as I explored the ship further.

I particularly like that last balance I make before the end of the film - leaning on the metal stump with just one arm, my whole weight pressing into it, as if relying on the boat for stability in the wind whipped landscape, just as the banks of the Severn rely on these boats for the land's own stability.

Interested in more dance films made around abandoned ships, buildings and buses? We've got some more posts you might like:

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