In Their Footsteps: a view from Stow Hill

On the anniversary of the Newport Rising, Dylan Moore encourages people across Wales to get back in step with their Chartist forebears.

On November 4th, 1839, thousands of people from the valleys of south east Wales marched on Newport, intent on freeing fellow Chartists who had been taken prisoner in the Westgate Hotel. The events of that November morning – an exchange of fire that ended with around 22 dead and many more wounded – were to become known as the Newport Rising, the last attempted armed insurrection on mainland Britain, and a major moment in the history of democracy.

A team of artists – Richard Parry, George Gumisiriza, Ned Heywood and myself – have been commissioned to lead the creation of a work of art along the route of the Chartist march, from St Woolos Cathedral at the top of Stow Hill, to Westgate Square at the bottom. It will celebrate Newport’s role in the development of democracy and the journey of human rights around the world today.

The theme of In Their Footsteps was suggested by a pair of walking shoes we found seemingly abandoned near the side gate to St Woolos cathedral. Their owner was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps they had been left for somebody else to use?

Ceramicist Ned Heywood will lead community workshops to forge an army of shoes from the clay-mud of the Usk. Some may be sandals, some will be military boots; others might be brogues or baby’s booties – whatever people suggest might represent the people of Newport now. High heels near a postbox will subtly evoke the suffragettes as well as managing to hint at the abandoned stilettos of today’s nightlife and sore feet after a night of dancing; further down the hill may be the flip-flops given out by Street Pastors. Shoes encourage participation on foot. You see things differently when you’re walking. Shoes can indicate personality, occupation, status. They are evocative of their missing owner – and they mean different things in different cultures.

The trail will bring people together, it will combine the temporary with the permanent, and it will link St Woolos with the Westgate. We are exploring the possibility of marking the trail’s beginning with an 1830s milestone – just as November 4th, 1839 was a milestone in the history of democracy. And although the commission centres on Stow Hill, we are determined that arrival in Westgate Square should not be the end of the journey, though there might be a milestone there too. From the place where the 22 fell, we plan to follow those who continued freedom’s journey. 22 pairs of feet chiselled into the paving stones at the bottom of the hill will face outwards, away from the carnage – to Westminster, to Cardiff Bay, to the future.

In Their Footsteps will be launched with a day of celebration in spring 2017. We want to invite people from across Newport and the Gwent valleys to be involved. We want to throng Stow Hill in our thousands, to walk not only in the physical footsteps of the Chartists to launch a heritage trail – but to walk as they walked, to step into their shoes in our time. Just as the men of Tredegar and Abertillery, Rhymney and Nantyglo, Blackwood and Blaina, left their valleys and marched on Newport, we’ll be leaving Newport and heading to Downing Street, to remind today’s Prime Minister about what happened here in 1839 and of the simple fact that underpins democracy: power belongs to the people. It won’t be the art that matters, but the action it inspires.

Dylan Moore is Artist in Residence for ChARTism on the Hill, a project delivered by Newport Live and funded by the Chartist Commission, Heritage Lottery Fund and Newport City Council.

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