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SILTings: The Trail of the Blue Porcupine

At 11am on Saturday 5th June 2021, blue porcupines will start to appear at various secret locations around the streets of Gravesend. The porcupines will hide in plain sight for a week.

Sarah Sparkes: Blue Porcupine 1, mixed media scupture, 2021
Sarah Sparkes: Blue Porcupine 1, mixed media scupture, 2021

Together they form a two-mile trail around the town. But to discover the porcupines and complete the trail, porcupine hunters must decipher a series of clues.

The trail starts at LV21 and to take part you will need your smartphone, so that you can communicate directly with the Blue Porcupine HQ.

Each blue porcupine that you discover will reveal a password which, when keyed into your smartphone, unlocks a video clue. If you solve that, it will lead you to the next porcupine.

You can complete the trail in one outing or you can tackle it in stages, over the week.

And if you are not up for a walk or you’re not in the area, well there’s no excuse. You can also follow the trail remotely, from the comfort of your own armchair, via Google Streetview. The online resources will also go live on June 5th.

All you have to do is find and photograph all the hidden blue porcupines, to win a chance to become one of three, first ever porcupine hunters to be inducted into ‘The Order of the Blue Porcupine’. Inductees will be presented with a rosette at a special ceremony aboard LV21 on Saturday 12th June.

The mysterious blue porcupine

Gravesham Coat of Arms, 1975
Gravesham Coat of Arms, 1975

The blue porcupines marking the Trail are inspired by the mysterious blue porcupine that has featured on Gravesham’s Coat of Arms  since medieval times.

On the current Coat of Arms, originating from 1975, it appears as a ‘sea porcupine’ – a heraldic mythical creature, part porcupine, part fish – and stands opposite and facing ‘Invicta’, the white horse of Kent.

On Gravesend’s first Coat of Arms (circa 1568) the porcupine appears as a land creature , with legs rather than a fish tail and a chain around its neck, at the helm of a boat.

 

Image from 1568 Coat of Arms, reproduced on the gate of Milton Church, Gravesend

This earlier Coat of Arms has been described as:

…..a boat with one mast….a sail furled, proper, rowed by five rowers hooded and cloaked, with oars and anchor, steered by a porcupine, azure, chained and quilled…

As far as I know, there are only a few places around Gravesend where you can find the original Coat of Arms. It is reproduced on the gate of Milton Church; there is a magnificent mosaic in Gravesend Market; and it can be seen embroidered on banners in St Andrew’s Church.

It has been said that the imagery on this Coat of Arms inspired Edward Lear to write his nonsense poem The Owl and the Pussy-cat.

Mosaic in Gravesend market

Edward Lear’s father, Jeremiah Lear, lived in Gravesend for many years, so Edward was a frequent visitor. Lear senior was buried in Milton churchyard in 1833, although the plot is not marked.

When I was a schoolboy, the emblem moved around the town, emblazoned on the chests of scruffy youths, including my own, on the blazer badge of Springhead School. I didn’t realise the creature steering the boat was a porcupine, though. I thought it was a bear!

Duncan Grant: Springhead School
Me as a Springhead yoof
Springhead School blazer badge
Springhead School blazer badge

 

The porcupine is native to the Americas and Africa, and is also found in Italy, so how on earth did it come to be on Gravesend’s Coat of Arms?

Well, one explanation might be that there was a link to the Sydney family of Penshurst Place in Kent, who added the porcupine to their family crest in the 16th century, as a result of a connection with King Louis XII of France.  In France the porcupine was a symbol of invincibility and Louis XII adopted a porcupine as his personal emblem.

Tomb of Frances Sydney, Countess of Sussex in Westminster Abbey
Tomb of Frances Sydney, Countess of Sussex in Westminster Abbey

In particular, it’s use on the Gravesend Coat of Arms could be a tribute to Sir Henry Sydney and may refer to his authority in governing and regulating barges and boats on the Thames at that time.

The River Thames has always been a leading character in the history of Gravesend, so the portrayal of a boat on the Coat of Arms is not unexpected. A bit of searching on the British History Online website provides a possible explanation for the rowers.

Order of the Blue Porcupine - Sarah Sparkes and James M'Kay
Order of the Blue Porcupine – Sarah Sparkes and James M’Kay

 

 

In 1377, Richard II commanded the sheriffs of Kent and Essex to erect beacons on either side of the Thames, at Gravesend and Farnedon. These were to be lit to provide early warning of enemy attackers coming up the river.

Unfortunately, the beacons proved useless. Soon after they were in place, the French sailed up the Thames and plundered and burnt Gravesend.

To help the town to recover from its losses, Richard II pronounced that the people of Gravesend should have the sole privilege of rowing passengers by water from Gravesend to London, a journey known as ‘the long ferry.’

It is probable that the rowers in the Coat of Arms represent the Long Ferry rowers, although why they are hooded is unclear – although, you’ll probably have noticed, the hoodie remains a very popular item of clothing in Gravesend even today!

The Trail of the Blue Porcupine
The Trail of the Blue Porcupine was devised collaboratively by Gravesham-based poet and spoken-word artist James M’Kay and London-based artist Sarah Sparkes. Sarah made the porcupines, while James worked out the trail and devised the clues that porcupine hunters will solve as they walk.

LV21
LV21

Although they have both been fascinated by the blue porcupine for some time, James and Sarah had never met or worked together until they were introduced by Päivi Seppälä of LV21. She commissioned them to produce the trail as part of SILTings  – a programme of new artwork and performances created in response to the forgotten stories and hidden histories of the Gravesham riverfront.

SILTings runs from the 4th-6th June 2021, and is one of four Creative Estuary commissioned creative cultural projects with Estuary-based producers and artists, to contribute to the Associated Programme for Estuary 2021.

Sarah Sparkes as the Blue Porcupine in Hell or High water on LV21, film by Gary Weston
Sarah Sparkes as the Blue Porcupine in Hell or High water on LV21, film by Gary Weston

Sarah Sparkes is a visual artist and curator, whose work is inspired and informed by myths, folklore and, particularly, ghost stories. Currently, she is painting 101 ghost stories in 101 weeks. She also runs the visual arts and creative research project GHost which explores guests, ghosts and hosts, through seminars, exhibitions, screenings and performances.

Sarah Sparkes: 101 GHost Stories 20 - 'and this is where I saw it' Gouache on cotton rag paper, A6 size, 2021
Sarah Sparkes: 101 GHost Stories 20 – ‘and this is where I saw it’ Gouache on cotton rag paper, A6 size, 2021

‘Myths are histories that have become stories,’ she explains. ‘They travel lightly by word of mouth from generation to generation. The hierarchy will put things in writing and say, this is our history, this is what you have to believe. But folklore is a way that everyday people can own their histories and carry them forward.’

‘And quite often, they stand testament for things that have been suppressed or repressed,’ she continues. ‘Folklore is where that stuff is hiding. That is why these stories are so powerful and that’s why, I think, the blue porcupine is such a powerful character.’

Sarah first encountered the blue porcupine  back in 2013 when she visited Gravesend with a group of walkers and artists to plan the Inspiral London Walk which finishes in Gravesend. Inspiral London are now partners on the Trail of the Blue Porcupine and are also listing the Trail on their website.

Banner in St Andrew's Church, Gravesend.  Photo by Sarah Sparkes
Banner in St Andrew’s Church, Gravesend.  Photo by Sarah Sparkes

‘I was walking around Gravesend and I saw in St Andrew’s Chapel, a banner with this extraordinary creature, like a big rat at the front of a boat, and I wondered what on earth it could be,’ Sarah remembers.

The mystery of the blue porcupine caught her imagination and she began to research the heraldic symbolism, its place in the history of Gravesend and how its story might be developed and made relevant through art.

‘I like the idea of art that is really centred in the community and captures people’s imagination,’ Sarah says. ‘Art that makes people see something about where they live, celebrate it, embrace that and then make work about it themselves. I really want to make this magical, wonderful creature, the blue porcupine, a significant part of Gravesend, for the people of Gravesend.’

The Blue Sea Porcupine, Sarah Sparkes, Gouache on paper, 2020
The Blue Sea Porcupine, Sarah Sparkes, Gouache on paper, 2020

In 2020, Sarah was invited by curator, Caroline Gregory to contribute to Hell or High Water a weekend of art on LV21, exploring transitions, adversity, survival and transformation.

The art that Sarah planned, Azure, Chained and Quilled, was a performance piece portraying the blue porcupine being released from its chains and navigating the lightship to safety. Sarah made a blue porcupine puppet and head dress for the performance, which moved from the Gravesham Arts Centre, along the Thames foreshore and on to the deck of LV21.

Because of Covid the event took place virtually. Sarah’s live performance did not go ahead but it was filmed and is still available to view.

 

James M'Kay performing his Poetry ay St Andrew's Church, Gravesend
James M’Kay performing his Poetry ay St Andrew’s Church, Gravesend

If you live around here, you may know poet James M’Kay from his live spoken word performances at venues in London and Gravesham, or through Reverb Chamber, the monthly neighbourhood poetry nights that he hosts at Cafe No.84.

James first encountered the blue porcupine when he moved south from Newcastle.

Over the last year, during his lockdown walks around Gravesham, James has occupied himself by inventing a parallel, fantasy landscape, imagining fantastical  stories about the areas he walks though.

He is excited by the lack of ‘facts’ surrounding the story of the blue porcupine because, he explains, it leaves space for people to imagine their own stories.

‘The blue porcupine is a Rorschach Blot,’ he says. ‘It’s a tool for telling stories, which can be whatever people want, to express however they feel about the place. I have my own ideas. I think I know why the porcupine is in that boat, who it is that are rowing, and why they are going away, but I don’t think I’m prepared to say just yet.

‘Everything I’m planning to do with Blue Porcupine is encouraging people to make up stories because I think a little playfulness is what we need after all we’ve been through recently.’

Before they collaborated, Sarah and James had each imagined different stories about the porcupine in the boat. To Sarah, the porcupine is female. James sees it as male, so they have agreed to use ‘they’ as a pronoun when talking about the porcupine .

Sarah is troubled by the porcupine being, apparently, tethered to the boat.

Sarah Sparkes: Blue Porcupine Stencil, 2021
Sarah Sparkes: Blue Porcupine Stencil, 2021

‘The porcupine seems to be both a slave and a heroic figure,’ she say. ‘It has got a chain around its neck, like a collar, which I think is really sad. But yet it’s a kind of figurehead. It’s the navigator. It’s the seer. It’s finding the way. The oarsmen aren’t looking where they are going but the porcupine is.’

James disagrees. ‘Yes, the blue porcupine has a chain around its neck,’ he counters. ‘But I think it is a mayoral chain. I think the blue porcupine is in charge. He is steering the boat.’

James and Sarah are hoping that through the Trail of the Blue Porcupine, they will perhaps uncover new information about the story behind the porcupine, or that people will report new sightings of the image around the borough. They certainly hope that the event will stimulate many new imaginings of the porcupine’s story.

If you have any information or wish to share your stories, factual or imagined, please either comment on this blog or contact James and Sarah directly, through the links given below.

A Blue Porcupine Festival

Blue Porcupine Headdress, Sarah Sparkes, mixed media, 2020
Blue Porcupine Headdress, Sarah Sparkes, mixed media, 2020

For the future, James and Sarah are hoping to organise a Blue Porcupine Festival in Gravesend.

‘Ever since I saw the blue porcupine in St Andrew’s Chapel, I’ve had been harbouring this ambition to do a Blue Porcupine Festival in Gravesend,’ Sarah reveals. ‘I imagine it to be like Jack in the Green in Hastings with costumes, parading and everyone getting involved. When Päivi talked to me about doing this project, I sketched a costume based on the mosaic that is in the old marketplace and I imagined that at some time in the future, this could become part of a blue porcupine festival.’

 

James believes that the blue porcupine movement is going to have a momentum of its own.

‘I think we’re going to have trouble catching it!’ he says.

As the blue porcupine is part of the Coat of Arms, there are no copyright restrictions in relation to the use of its image.

Sarah Sparkes: Blue Porcupine puppet, 2020
Sarah Sparkes: Blue Porcupine puppet, 2020

‘One of the things that I absolutely love about the blue porcupine is that it doesn’t belong to anybody – not to any particular community, organisation or group,’ James says. ‘If you’ve got anything to do with the Borough of Gravesham, you’re entitled to use the blue porcupine to tell whatever stories you want with it, which I think is great. I’m looking forward to Blue Porcupine Bitter, Blue Porcupine cocktails, Blue Porcupine tattoos. I think the people of Gravesham need to start running with it. It’s our porcupine!’

James has started the ball rolling. His blog is called Blue Porcupine Poems and Things.  And he has one more idea, inspired by his own experience of the success of The Angel of the North in bringing the community together in Gateshead.

‘The week before they put it up, everyone in Gateshead was saying, what a load of rubbish, but a week later they were calling it, “our Angel,”” James recalls. ‘So I think, at the very end of the promenade, that little bit that juts out, would be the perfect place for a massive 30-foot, major, iconic piece of porcupine art – illuminated at night obviously so that all the ships coming up the Thames would see it.’

‘That’s where I think we should be going with this!’ he laughs.

More Information

Order of the Blue Porcupine - Sarah Sparkes and James M'Kay
Order of the Blue Porcupine – Sarah Sparkes and James M’Kay

The Trail of the Blue Porcupine

The trail launches at 11am on Saturday 5th June 2021 on the quayside outside LV21 and is available throughout the following week. It is also available online. Clues for the Trail of the Blue Porcupine will go live on YouTube on Saturday 5th June 2021 

Join the Blue Porcupine Fan Club on Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/Blue-Porcupine-Fan-Club-100823918862979/

Follow the Blue Porcupine Instagram: @theblueporcupine

Sarah Sparkes: 'Azure, Chained and Quilled', on LV21
Sarah Sparkes: ‘Azure, Chained and Quilled’, on LV21

 

SILTingshttps://lv21.co.uk/projects/siltings/

The Estuary Festivalhttps://www.estuaryfestival.com/

Creative Estuary https://www.creativeestuary.com/

 

 

James M'Kay ©Tim Goddard
James M’Kay ©Tim Goddard

 

James M’Kay

Blog: Blue Porcupine Poems and Things
https://blueporcupinepoemsthings.substack.com/

Soundcloud: Poet and Reciter James M’Kay
https://soundcloud.com/mckay_poetry
https://grandbabybeat.bandcamp.com/releases

Sarah Sparkes 

Sarah Sparkes: 101 GHost Stories 16 - 'Licht Und Blindheit' Gouache on cotton rag paper, A6 size, 2021
Sarah Sparkes: 101 GHost Stories 16 – ‘Licht Und Blindheit’ Gouache on cotton rag paper, A6 size, 2021

Instagram: @thesarahsparkes

Website: https://www.sarahsparkes.com/blog/

GHost website: https://www.ghosthostings.co.uk/

Liverpool and Taiwan ghost stories:  http://www.theghostportal.co.uk/

Senate House Ghost Stories: http://ghostsofsenatehouse.blogspot.com/

New Art Projects: http://newartprojects.com/artists/sarah-sparkes/