On Diglis Island

Something rather curious is happening on this slip of land in the middle of the River Severn in Worcester

Diglis Bank

 

The Ring is an exciting new arts programme celebrating a 21-mile circle of waterways in the West Midlands, known as the Mid-Worcestershire Ring. These canals flow through the urban and rural landscapes of Worcester and Droitwich, linking the Droitwich Canals, Worcester & Birmingham Canal and the River Severn.

The Ring has invited local and international artists to create public artworks inspired by the canals’ social and industrial history, culture, community and wildlife. We caught up with one of these artists, Rich White, who plans to create a large-scale sculpture on Diglis Island, a sliver of land in the middle of the Severn in Worcester.

Rich, tell us about your background as an artist.

I’m a sculptor. I generally make large installations, built on site, which are about the site they’re built on. It’s all about the location, a sense of place, how people respond to that space and how the space responds to people.

What experience do you hope to create for viewers?

I’m a big fan of pieces that pique your curiosity, so you’re compelled to look a bit more. And when you do look a bit more, there’s something more to see. I often make things that are maze-like or have doorways – something you can get inside. I love it when you find a little opening, you pop your head in and there’s something there. That sense of mystery and discovery – rewarding the viewer who ‘finds it’ – is what I try to create in my sculpture.

Can you give us an example?

I once created some work in a 1970s block of flats in Brighton. When the building was being constructed, the contractors had to knock down a row of houses. There was one person who wouldn’t move out – an 89-year-old lady. The contractors knocked the houses down on either side of her, built the block around her and waited for her to die. When she did, they knocked down her house and completed the rest of the building. When I heard this story, I wanted to take it a step further. What if she didn’t die? What if she was still living within the walls? I built a fake wall across the back of the gallery and knocked through a human-sized hole at one end of it. So, as a viewer, you’d enter the gallery, see pictures hanging up, and notice a massive hole in one of the walls. You’d peer in, enter the hole, then walk down a passageway that leads to a little room – the old lady’s room. I kitted it out with doilies, throws, a little bed and items she’d collected on her wanders at night. Even if you’ve not grasped what the story is, you’ve still got that sense of finding a secret. For me, that’s enough.

Tell us about Diglis Island.

I’m surprised at how little-known the island is, considering how unusual it is. It was created in 1844 to help regulate the water level to allow boats into Diglis Dock. To make it, they carved it out from a bend in the Severn – they literally cut a slice through the bump. At its peak, around 80 people would have been working on the island, building and fixing lock gates, dredging the river and maintaining the stretch of waterway.

What else can you tell us about its history?

The island has intrinsic links to key events in our history you wouldn’t expect it to have. During the Second World War it was fortified with barbed wire, trenches and loophole windows in the buildings. Because it was a key route into the country for fuel tankers, it was a viable target. The island was also used an early warning station during the Cold War.

And what’s the island like now?

The working population dwindled to around 30 people in the 80s, when jobs, such as gate-making, were sent elsewhere. Now there’s a skeleton crew, including a lock keeper. There’s the island’s sole resident, Joyce, who lives in the middle cottage. She’s fantastic. When the island floods she just goes upstairs and waits it out. There’s a pewter sculptor occupying the old blacksmith’s. There’s an orchard at one end of the island, and a little allotment. The island’s still living – not quite the massive life it had, but there’s still things going on.

What will you be creating on the island?

It will be an architectural form, visible from the mainland. It’s going to begin in February – a small part of it will be visible, then as the months progress I’ll keep adding to it. It will grow until around June, when the full thing will be constructed. If you’re a regular on the towpath, you’ll see this thing grow as you pass by every day or week.

Can visitors get up close?

There will be a series of hour-long trips to the island for small groups to see it up close. These will start when the structure is finished, throughout June, July and August. Dates are yet to be confirmed – we’ll keep you posted.

Find out more about Rich White’s work on his website. The Ring is part of the Canal & River Trust’s Arts on the Waterways programme. To find out more, visit The Ring website or follow @TheRingWorcs on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

Rich White