Story trail playlist – Track 1

For those of you planning to follow our story trail in search of the geocaches and zappar codes, I’m starting a suggested playlist of songs that are connected to the themes and images in our story.

Here’s number one: Stolen Shark by Rozi Plain, a beautiful and strange track from Inside Over Here. If you like this one, her whole album is well worth purchasing, and YES, this track does contain a little hint to an element of the Towpath story…something to listen to while you wander the trail.

The story trail opens on October 6th, the first day of the Manchester Literature Festival, and it will be open every day throughout the festival.

Counting fifty millionths of a nanosecond…

As you already know the story for the trail is all about water... I don’t mean just water as an environment, but the threat that is facing water. And the biggest deal I think is that no one knows what the consequence is. Yes, we know seas are warming, becoming more acidic, and that obviously threatens the marine life already balanced to the chemical make up of the sea, but what actually will happen is really anyone’s guess.

Our story is not concerned with the sea, per se, but the water in the canals and rivers of Manchester. (Although you could argue, that just as all oceans are the same body of water, the cycle is delicate and interconnective) There is a prophetic element in our story, dealing with the various possibilities of what will happen to our water in the future.

flotillaWe found research about water memory suggesting that water is more fragile than we’d suspected, to the point where the hydrogen bonds within its molecular structure can be broken down within fifty millionths of a nanosecond. This has potentially disastrous outcomes when you consider the ongoing degradation of plastics – what generally ends up in the water: be it canals, drains, the sea. All the plastics that have been made are still in existence in some form. Plastic breaks down and breaks down to microscopic particles, but as yet it has not completely disappeared. Water, fragile as some suggest, is vulnerable to this morphing of plastic. In some, possibly not too distant, future it may no longer be written as the familiar H2O compound but a new unfamiliar descendant. Cue mythological creatures that have adapted to such an environment….


Coordinates, waypoints, trackables and hints

Our first geocache has been planted and submitted! It has already been reviewed and approved on so for the very keen ones out there, you can go and look for it immediately. This one is a teaser cache, giving some background information to the story, and also has been a test process for us as it’s the first cache we have hidden.


I’ve only been geocaching since the beginning of this year, and introduced the rest of the team to it during our June production lab. Since January, I’ve found caches in Brisbane, Melbourne, Munich, London, Farnham, Southend-on-Sea, Manchester, Llangrannog, Allgäu, Porto and maybe somewhere else I’ve forgotten … but this is the first one that I’ve hidden. And as I learned, it is not something that can be done lightly.

There is the container and contents to consider, and the task of finding a good location. A new cache should be at least 161 metres away from any existing caches to avoid saturation, and for our project we also need narrative-appropriate places. Maya investigated locations, found hiding places, and asked for permission if necessary, while Michelle crafted the containers and we all contributed to writing the contents. Once the cache was in place, I submitted it to both and – but before I could do this, Maya had to provide accurate coordinates for the cache’s location. This is not as easy as it sounds – GPS devices have a margin of error, and many things from the weather to satellite movement to nearby buildings can affect the reading.

There’s also quite a bit of new lingo to learn in the geocaching business. OK, coordinates I understand, but waypoints? I know what a hint is, but coming up with a clever one is a fun challenge. What about all those acronyms – TFTC, DNF, CITO and more? The first two might be guessable once you start hunting for caches – “thanks for the cache” and “did not find” are common acronyms to see in the logs. CITO stands for “cache in trash out” which is part of the environmentally-friendly philosophy of geocaching. Happily, there is a glossary of geocaching terms for newbies so if you stumble upon a travel-bug, as I did recently in Llangrannog, Wales, you can find out all about it.


The travel-bug was my first trackable; the idea is to move them from one cache to another, logging the journey on the web with comments and photos so that others can follow the journey of the trackable.

We haven’t included physical trackables in our caches for Tales from the Towpath, however the story itself is a sort of trackable that moves from one cache to another all by itself – it’s up to you to track it as you go. Have fun!


No Spoiler Alerts

With most of the story written and tallied (all of it won’t be completed until we have YOUR contributions once you’ve walked the trail) I can confidently say I would have never written this story on my own.

Back in June when we first came together to discuss our interests: what we wanted from the story, what we wanted others to get from it, and what we cared enough about to focus on; we cooked up this mythic idea, spanning from 1804 to 2060, with reincarnated characters, super-evolutionary species and a water deity.

helenI don’t know what the others thought then but I was thinking how the hell are we going to pull this off? Naturally I didn’t voice the doubts. Just smiled courageously and offered to start the draft of the present time frame. Don’t look up. Don’t look down. I kept telling myself. One small step. Etc etc. Sure it was baffling at times. You know how annoying it is when time-hopping stories just don’t add up, if something happened in the past that disintegrates the place or humans involved in the future scenes? Well, we had a few near misses. And a few events that couldn’t have happened in places that hadn’t been built yet. And a few of those moments when you just don’t know what the hell is going on…

The beauty of collaboration is that someone spots the glitches. Not everyone can be totally close to the each element of the story, so there’s always someone with that gorgeously benign and essential ‘objective eye’, that cunning mirror that reflects your ambition and mistakes, illuminates them. So between the four of us we’ve created this amazingly fluid, playful story that could not happen anywhere but Manchester and will hopefully live on in all readers’ minds and hearts whenever they walk the streets and waterways of the city.

And that’s just the story content, I couldn’t have begun to make zappars and formatted geocaches by myself.

Collaborative writing, tools, and pirates

‘Have you ever used PiratePad?’

That was Helen, our digital artist and wrangler-in-chief of all things tech. For the uninitiated (like me): PiratePad is a free online collaboration tool for producing text documents. It’s a beta-version basic word processor that allows more than one person to work on one document simultaneously.

Most of the online reviews talk about business and administrative applications. Helen, however, had used it as part of a live performance not too long ago, so she could see the creative potential. Back to the first question: who’d used it?

Maya had, once, at a transmedia workshop at MadLab, as part of last year’s Abandon Normal Devices festival. Sarah and I were entirely new to it.

We were in the midst of our development lab in June, and we’d hit the point in our collaboration where we needed to start knitting ideas together. In past collaborations I’ve been part of, this has been the point where pieces of paper are thrown all over the floor* and we try to agree on who will work on what. Much discussion, many notes, and then everyone takes a piece of text away to work on it alone. Next, a flurry of Word documents are emailed back and forth with increasingly long suffixes: v4, v4FINAL, v4FINALFINAL. Emails go missing. I never really know which is the most recent version. The process feels slow, and confusing.

This time, Helen sent each of us a link to a new PiratePad session she’d opened. It looked (after a while) like this:


A draft text for the teaser cache (one of six that we’re planting across central Manchester as part of the story trail). Everyone invited to the Pad gets assigned a unique text colour, and pretty soon you’re collectively skidding rainbows across the screen.

A draft text for the teaser cache (one of six that we’re planting across central Manchester as part of the story trail). Everyone invited to the Pad gets assigned a unique text colour, and pretty soon you’re collectively skidding rainbows across the screen.


You know those energised conversations you have with people who really get what you’re on about? The ones where your brain sparks with shared excitement and ideas? It felt like that, but we were capturing it. An accelerated thought process, four brains on one document in real time.

An hour went by, and then another. Tangles of logic were smoothed out, and the story grew in four colours. Punctuation was changed, a new piece of dialogue added. I’d have an idea I wasn’t sure of, say it out loud to the room, and by the time I’d finished talking, the words were appearing on my screen, except better, more precise than my first stumbled thought. We talked throughout the whole thing.

We have also used more traditional methods of collaborative writing, but have increasingly been using PiratePad for both drafting and editing. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a creative collaborative writing tool. It’s a little glitchy as it is beta, so don’t forget to save and copy your work regularly, but it’s one of those things that’s so simple and so good, I can’t believe no one built it until now. It can be used by people in the same room together, or across a continent with a voice-only Skype call.

One PiratePad session open on everyone’s computer, and three creative hours fly by. I love it. I’m converted. I’m a Pirate.

*We still threw pieces of paper all over the floor. Had to be done.

Site Visit with Cream Tea

CastlefieldSo off we went for a site visit to Castlefield, the narrowboat that’ll be the venue for our performance, It’s owned by the Bridgewater Heritage Boat Company who operate from Worsley, so a whole new section of the Bridgewater Canal for two of us and a whole new experience – crusing on a narrowboat – for two of us. Inevitable then we were a bit excited.

castlefield 2

Worsley itself is a magnificent testament to the age of canals – with a grand sweeping pedestrian bridge over the canal with gorgeously neat sets and curved dressed stone at the bridge’s entrance.

In between measuring up the performance space and discussing the script we managed to ooh and ahh at the extraordinary Barton Swing Aquaduct whose mechanism is such it can swing while holding the canal water in it, and enjoy the stacked cream tea (at lunch time) that comes with the trip.

cream-tea-on-boatMy advice: don’t have breakfast. They’re extraordinarily generous.Two and a quarter hours later, we’re full of possibilities for what the performance can deliver, scones and a wonderment for canal travel.Bridgewater canal

Falling for the Medlock

IMAG0266Back in the baking months of this gorgeous summer, Maya and I had a research day to follow the course of the River Medlock – find where it rose and where it sunk beneath Manchester. And for me, as an outsider to Manchester, to get a feel of the maze of culverts and open waterways this city straddles. We were on bikes so our ability to zip about the streets added to the thrill of the chase.

medlock tunnelI can’t reveal everything we discovered that day on this post as it would spoil your treasure trail hunting, but one thing safe to share is how fascinated I was with a river so shallow (and so cluttered with tyres, unpaired shoes and other rubbish) can hold such a potent place in my imagination. How the discovery of something I previously knew nothing about and is, for the most of my time in Manchester, out of view, can have such influence when I walk the streets. It seems to echo the pace of pedestrians overground: that very ordinary element of a city has suddenly been heightened. It’s current, depth and hydro-dynamism is increased by its invisibility. Of course, this apparent absence is what love affairs are made of.


SapientNitro sponsors Tales from the Towpath

SapientNitroWe are really excited to announce that SapientNitro are sponsoring Tales from the Towpath! Here’s some information about their work:

SapientNitroSM, part of Sapient® (NASDAQ: SAPE), is a new breed of agency redefining storytelling for an always-on world. We’re changing the way our clients engage today’s connected consumers by uniquely creating integrated, immersive stories across brand communications, digital engagement and omni-channel commerce. We call it Storyscaping, where art and imagination meet the power and scale of systems thinking. SapientNitro’s unique combination of creative, brand and technology expertise results in one global team collaborating across disciplines, perspectives and continents to create game-changing success for our Global 1000 clients, such as Chrysler, Citi, The Coca-Cola Company, Lufthansa, Target and Vodafone, in 31 cities across The Americas, Europe and Asia-Pacific. For more information, visit

Storyscaping® is how we help our clients create experiences and tell their story in ever-present and never ending ways by marrying imagination with systems thinking. The power and intimacy of story is enabled through a vast interconnection of technologies and platforms that weave into the lives of connected consumers and make it ever-actionable, regardless of where or when a person comes in or out of it. Whether they’re experiencing it in advertising, social conversations or clicking the buy button, Storyscaping® creates a ubiquitous presence for a brand’s story and promise in this always-on world of possibilities. And now we’ve literally written the book on it to share our approach and methodology. Visit to learn more.

Cache construction ahead

I spent the weekend making caches for the geocaching element of our story trail and have discovered that what was once a familiar part of my life has now become a relic: film canisters. I managed to root out three of them between Maya’s house and mine, and am at a loss as to where all the others have gone. Ten years ago they were commonplace, and now they sell on ebay in listings marked specifically for geocaching. I’m glad that these handy little containers are finding a new niche in a digital world.


Little pieces of the towpath story will go in each cache. Follow the breadcrumbs for more...

Little pieces of the towpath story will go in each cache. Follow the breadcrumbs for more…

Learning to Zap

img_zapbot_cust_200A couple of months ago, I’d never heard of Zapcodes; now, I’m learning how to make them. Zapcodes are an augmented reality version of QR codes, allowing people to access multimedia content by pointing their phone or tablet camera at a special icon.

Our initial idea for the story trail part of this project was to use QR codes, but Maya had seen a Zappar demonstration at the London Book Fair and suggested that we investigate the possibilities of this new technology. “Augmented reality” itself is not a new concept – in fact it’s been around for more than 100 years. My friend and fellow artist Tamiko Thiel is part of the AR group and has been creating virtual installations since 2010, in locations from the Tate to the Hagia Sophia. There seems to be an increasing buzz around augmented reality, as new apps make it possible to do more with it, and more people have devices that can display it. The Zappar app and Zapcodes make AR technology more widely accessible, and in particular make it easy for the likes of me to create and play with the codes.

In my initial experiments, I created layers containing images and audio files, then moved on to clickable buttons and video clips. Soon I’ll be ready to start creating the content and codes that we’ll use as part of the story trail for Tales from the Towpath – watch this space!