The Glastonbury Footpath in the Sky

Sometimes there are things you have to do just because you can.

The Footpath in the Sky between the Zig Zag building and the Red Brick Building C is one of them.

The trouble with writing stuff after the event is that it’s very tempting to write it as you want it to be rather than how it was.

So, I hope this is really how the bridge came to be a thing.

It began with me flinging my teddy out at Red Brick in 2012 because I felt the project had lost touch with its original purpose of providing opportunities for the young.

Buildings A and B were now up and running but Building C had remained derelict, decomposing and unloved for lack of funds.

At some stage Glastonbury Trust had offered to take Building C, lock, stock and barrel, in exchange for extinguishing Red Brick’s debt of around £230,000 to The Trust. I had told Red Brick that they were mad to turn it down and GT that it was a crazy offer. For lots of reasons RBB would not even consider it.

By 2019 there was still no prospect of any funding for Building C despite a massive amount of effort, particularly from Tom Clark who had been a keen and important supporter and investor from the beginning.

He began to put serious pressure on the RBB board to take Glastonbury Trust’s offer.

I had told Tom that I would get involved again if a deal with Glastonbury Trust could be done, so I went to talk to them. They made it absolutely clear that they were no longer interested.

October 2019

In October 2019 as a last ditch attempt to salvage something, Tom set up a meeting in the courtyard in Glastonbury between Mike Jones and Gareth Mills of GT, me, and Rob Poizer who I didn’t really know and who was now a key staff member at RBB.

After a bit of sunny, but aimless and unproductive chat, Rob announced that we were all bringing so much baggage to where we had got to that nothing was going to work. Why didn’t we consider the idea of making Building C an entirely independent project and start with a clean sheet.

It was an epiphany, if an epiphany is a thing.

GT instantly said they would go for that, and when it happened they would extinguish RBB’s debt with no strings. I said that I would join in and Tom pledged the money that he had set aside specifically to get Building C roof watertight.

It was a bit of clear thinking that was almost inspired. But of course it rested on the principle that Building C would be an independent project.

So thank you Rob.

The initial reaction of RBB was positive, and we got agreement to set up the Trotskyist Cell with a kettle in the dust extraction tower on the corner of Building C which Tom had always wanted.

However, we were still stuck with a fundamental problem. Building C is not a sustainable economic proposition. This is because even at commercial rents we could never recover the capital cost, estimated at £3.6 million, of doing it up. Nobody would lend us the money, and grant giving bodies wanted to see a sustainable business plan we couldn’t produce, even by fibbing outrageously. And we only had £50K.

I am pretty good at doing things for not much money, but even if we could do it for a tenth of the official estimates, it was a lot more than we had got.

So we decided to take a different approach and also formulate a novel business concept. The conventional business plan for a project of this type is that you have to secure sufficient commercial occupation of the building to support the good things you want to do. The price you pay is that you lose most of the space you want in which to do good things. In any case, we can’t make C stand up even if we let the whole thing at commercial values so that is a bit of a non starter. However, if we could deliver a secure space without being lumbered with the burden of capital debt, we could offer that space very cheaply. It might be that if the space is cheap enough, organisations that want to come in could secure grants to get the facilities they need. In addition, instead of regarding the building as a business proposition we have to look at it as a giant art construction project, and a grand vision to do good things. Then no one is under any illusions that this is a business proposition.

So now all we need is some more money.

And if it isn’t grants we don’t qualify for, it’s got to be gifts. And that means Fairy Godmothers. And if we want Fairy Godmothers we have to persuade them that this is a project worth supporting and that we can do stuff. And isn’t a one hundred foot footpath in the sky between the tops of two old factory buildings a great way to show them that we can?

So that is how the Glastonbury Footpath in the Sky was born.

One of the problems with recording my projects is an almost pathological lack of drawings and plans. Another is that I forget to take pictures until the point at which I realise it is going to be very difficult to chart its conception and construction until it is too late. The footpath is no exception.

This is because I pretty much know where I am going, and where I am going to finish up. I am just not entirely sure how I am going to get there. This is not usually a problem because if I get it wrong, no one is going to die. However, in this case they probably are.

So whilst I glibly explain that we are merely talking about a couple of bits of string with a slatted footpath suspended from them, even I realise that it will turn out to be more complicated than that if I really don’t want to risk killing anyone.

And this is where Nick Maclean comes in. He is an extraordinarily talented structural engineer who has devoted his professional life to less rather than more. Safe is safe he says. There is no such thing as twice as safe. You can’t have a multiple of “Good Enough”. Either it is OK or it isn’t. He explains it by the current risk averse culture, and fear of litigation which leads engineers to build in ridiculous margins of safety. He has saved important buildings and shedloads of money for clients all over the country. And this project won’t happen without him.

Nick was involved in the whole Morlands project right from the beginning in about 2000 when the dreaded SWERDA ( South West of England Regional Development Agency ) took over the site. He was originally involved in the Red Brick project until he was fired by those who didn’t know what they were doing.

He has always regarded it as a beloved project that got away! He is delighted to be back, and seems to share my simplistic view of the bridge as a couple of bits of string tied down at each end and with a footpath hanging off it. But he knows how big the bits of string have to be, and how to tie them down at each end to be safe.

Much more importantly he shares the rather childlike enthusiasm the small group of us has of the project as a whole and the vision that drives it. And he agrees to do it as a present since I know we can’t afford his professional fees. Tom has given me £10,000 to do the whole thing, more than half of which is going on the scaffolding towers at each end to support it and provide the access.

Apart from those built out of hand knitted grass by isolated Peruvian Indian tribes, the average cost of a western attempt to span anything like the 100 foot we are attempting seems to upwards of ten times our budget. This is slightly sobering since the others at least have some purpose but ours has absolutely no function at all but to spark the imagination. And this is where writing after the event is useful.

Had this been a contemporary journal I would have treated you to endless anguish about whether it was indeed a complete waste of time and money, and just a vanity on my part. A number of important people said that if we were going to spend £10K, it was madness to spend it on something as completely pointless as a peruvian style rope bridge, and that we ought to spend it directly on Building C. They might have been right.

December 2019

Tom, and a small group of us ignored them, and I think we were right. It is a great attention grabbing folly which is exactly what it was meant to be. It was probably just before Christmas 2019 when I, Chris Black and Gee and Nick sat in the Zig Zag Building together and sketched out the bridge and the entire project of the gradual renovation of Building C and why we were doing it. This is what vision is about.

January 2020

So we began work clearing the dust extraction tower on January 13th 2020. Actually “We” is an exaggeration. I started, and it was filthy and disgusting. This was in part due to Stuart having left a freezer half full of food and ice lollys in 2012 and buggering off, and in no small measure to Chris Black who had gone to a great deal of effort to make it the ideal pigeon loft heaven and had done pretty well. It was deep in pigeon shit.

This is one of four hoppers that collected the dust, which may have been produced as part of the treatment of the sheep skins.

Once I had got most of the rubbish, dust, and pigeon shit out I had decided to build a staircase up it and then knock a hole in the wall through to Building C so that you could see what a massive job it was and be inspired to become a fairy godmother.

So now you can see what a massive job it is and can think about being a fairy godmother.

With impressive haste I had organised Tony Chapman to get the scaffolding towers up at either end of the bridge, and by the end of February the two supporting towers were in place. This was in anticipation of Beckery Island open day planned for April 12th 2020 which in fact got cancelled because of Covid. Nick was looking at the figures for cables and I began to build a little mock up outside the dust tower which was to become Tom’s Trotskyist Red Cell Cafe, and HQ for the entire project.

This may not be a great photo of the scaffolding, but Tony Chapman and the lads have done a good job and there it is.

On March 25th or thereabouts it was Covid lockdown. I did as I was told and stayed at home for about ten weeks. It was lovely weather and Claire and I went for lots of very nice bike rides and I was surprisingly hardly bored at all.

However, by the end of May I was beginning to lose the plot over what the latest rules actually were, so I went back to work.

June 2020

You will just have to believe that I am a better builder than photographer, but this is most of the basic team at that time. We are missing Beccs and Matty.

By now Wednesday mornings had become a bit of a thing and a regular chance to meet and talk about stuff. On one of these I had asked everyone in turn to stand on a step with a broom handle in each hand to see what height of handrail would make them feel safe on the suspension bridge. I took an average and then lowered it just to make it a bit more exciting.

One of the disadvantages of not carefully recording each stage in the design and construction is that you won’t learn how to build one by reading this.

These are the only drawings I can find and I don’t really understand them myself now!

Most of us know the general principle of building one of these things. You fire a light string over to the other side of a ravine with a bow and arrow. Then you use that light string to pull over a heavier one and so on until you have one you hope will be strong enough to hold the final bridge, and then you pullover another one so you have a pair. You fix them at each end.

So the first bit was made a lot easier because we didn’t have a ravine and could just amble from one side to the other. Nick had calculated how thick the steel cable needed to be since we had never seriously considered plaiting our own from Patagonian bog grass. Fixing at each end was also a lot easier than having to wedge the ends into rocks and hope for the best. We had reinforced concrete flat roofs at both ends so that was simple. Basically, big bolts through holes should do it. In fact we used anything up to 20mm stainless steel stud with nuts and washers that Nick said was more than enough. We used heavy duty wire strainer turnbuckles to get the tension in the two main cables exactly right. This means not only getting them equal but getting the right amount of “drop” from end to end. The less the drop, the stronger the cable has to be, but the firmer it is to walk on.

Whilst Nick Maclean had specified a rating for each component such as cables, shackles, chains, strainers and clamps, we did need to make sure that each element came with a proper stamp like a hall mark to say that it really was up to the standard it said it was. This exercise was a very good example of the shortcomings of online shopping and the importance of a physical shop with people in it who know their stuff.

Bristol Rope and Twine by the Feeder Canal is such a place.

It is piled high with every type of rope and cable you can think of. Every inch is suffused with the aroma of hessian and hemp and sisal, jute, flax, the faint hint of the oily smell of heavy duty chain cutters and machines that will swage cables to create permanent eyes at the ends. And Paul, who knows everything about everything we needed. Nick and I spent a very happy morning there assembling a kit of parts. We were able to make sure that the bits fitted together and decide any compromises that we needed on the spot.

The photos show quite a lot of things I need to tell you about if you want to know the details, but you probably don’t need to. I had decided that the path itself was to be made of composite decking cut up into short treads, over 200 of them. They are made of 50% wood or bamboo cellulose, and 50% recycled plastic and are pretty strong. I had also assumed that we were going to have to build the bridge out from one side, and that this would involve one of us out at the sharp end adding a tread at a time whilst dangling from a harness fixed to the two main cables. This was the bit I wasn’t looking forward to even though I wasn’t suspended over a ravine in the middle of nowhere. I am not good with heights and cold. The fact that this involved only one of those two things was little consolation.

I can’t remember when exactly, but I had a bit of a brainwave. By threading the treads on an extra pair of bottom cables, and fixing the side netting to the short suspension cables which would slide along the main cables we could make the walkway from the safety of the roof on one side and simply pull it over from the other side a bit at a time! This doesn’t exactly count as genius but it was a pretty smart idea and it worked…just! And as Nick would say, just is enough, and therefore fine.

So the picture shows the two main cables with their orange shackles connected to the adjustable bits and into the roof.

By the way, it is these two cables and their fixings to the roof which are doing almost all the work of making the bridge work. Numbers of people have asked me about the scaffolding and how well it is fixed to the buildings. The answer is not that well, but it doesn’t matter. The key to the strength of the scaffolding is that it should take the WEIGHT of the bridge transferring all the effort straight DOWN. The horizontal PULL is between the bolts at each end of the cables through the reinforced concrete slab of the roof.

As the main cables run over the scaffolding all that force is straight down with absolutely no force at all trying to rip the scaffolding off the building. Where the cable runs over the horizontal bar there is a vertical pole support direct to the ground and it is that vertical support which is all the scaffolding has to do. So there you are. Easy!

If you look carefully at the picture you will see a pair of smaller cables fixed to the two silver anchor bolts with their adjustable turnbuckles. These are the bottom structural cables. It is not that easy to see but lying loosely on top are the floor treads with two more cables threaded through them. These are waiting to be clipped one at a time to the side netting and the top and bottom cables and suspension stringers to build the bridge one tread at a time.

The picture below show Kaz and Sam doing just that. In fact most of it was mostly built by Matt and Becks with me over the other side pulling, but Sam and Kaz were around for the picture,

and I haven’t got one of Matt and Becks because I was usually over the other side pulling! By the end of Phase one I still hadn’t learned to spell Bex or Becks or Beccs or even Rebecca, which considering how important she was, is pretty pathetic really!

The side netting came from a firm who sell sports and safety netting and was custom made to fit. I think we used about 600 x 60 mm Karabiner clips to hold it all together. I had experimented with dangling bags of cement off various clips until they broke, because they were the one component we could not get a rating on. This meant that I had to convince Nick that they were “good enough”.

Pulling it over gradually became more and more difficult, and about a third of the way out it somehow got tangled. I insisted that it be me that went out to sort it out, because ultimately it was my responsibility, and the buggers let me! Towards the end we were using the good old tirefort (look it up if you feel the need to know what a tirefort actually is) to get extra pull and I was worried we would break something, but we made it.

Various people have asked me whether I needed planning permission to build this, and I must confess I have no idea!

And we didn’t bother. I don’t see why we should really, since no one is going to live in it, and it isn’t really a building. I am also currently having an interesting discussion with Building Control, who have yet to persuade me that they have any real jurisdiction over a work of art on private land you can climb on if you want to! They charged me £1000.00. I wrote them a letter explaining all this very clearly and asking for our money back.

August 6th 2020

I don’t how to tell you this, but I need to.
I think it was shortly after lunch. A few of us were standing on the roof of the tower on the Building C side fiddling about adjusting tensions and nuts and bolts and stuff on the bridge.

My phone went. My son Nick had been found dead at home in Bristol. He was 53. It was my youngest, Ben, nearly 50 who had found him. Ben struggled to tell me and I think I went into an instant state of suspended animation which I guess must be my alternative to abject panic. I told the others what had happened, and Ben not to move because I was on my way. By the time I got there only the police had arrived.
It turned out to be a massive heart attack and a tragic accident. Despite all the rude things I have ever said about the Glastonbury cuddlies, the love and support that was around that site on that day was real and unstinting and I will remember it forever. Thank you.

August 29th 2020 Complete!

This is Chris Black and Tom Clark, Noah, Matt, Voijte ( even more scared of heights than me) Gee, me on my way over, and I am pretty sure it would be Becks on the other side.

Apart from Tom Clark, I think Rob’s daughter Fern has run and danced across it more than everyone else put together.

A couple of years ago or so, Chris Black had a great exhibition on the top floor of the Zig Zag at which I had met Hal. He had made some very beautiful geometric metal sculptures with light. I thought they were great. There was little doubt in anyone’s mind that the bridge needed some how to be lit. So I rang Hal and asked him if he would like to devote a bit of thought to how it might be done. He said he would. The result was inspired. He got sort of gel coated warm white LED filament a bit like a giant Haribo disgusting sweet, but a hundred feet long, and put it in cheap poly plumbing waste pipe. It had to be the cheap stuff because it is translucent. Then he split the pipe and fixed it over the top rails of the bridge.

Here are a few pictures of how fantastic it all looked.

I also commissioned the stunningly beautiful spire and the fantastic mural. There is a lot more detail about both of them on the Building C Life Factory page.

So there it is.


Because we could!

On February 18th 2022 we took a bit of a battering from storm Eunice and Rob Poizer took this pretty dramatic video clip of the bridge being blown and whipped by the wind.