A River Runs Through it......

Rivers, or more accurately water, seems to have an almost gravitational pull on me. “Down by the river” or “Should we have lunch at Goats Water” are phrases of palpable appeal. Water can convert any journey into something more interesting, an afternoon walk round a lake, far better than round a football oval. The lexicon of water is different here, without pools, meres or ponds but rich in dams. No becks, burns, ghylls or rhylls, but we do have creeks - Dead Horse Creek being a favourite.

I don’t think that it is any surprise that on the times I have returned to the UK I have sought out the watery places that I once knew. As a kid I burnt the hours of youth fishing, staying at the water’s edge long past any hope of a memorable catch, of a catch worth boasting about the next day. The repetitive cast and recast of float fishing in a river - trotting for chub and barbel or if the truth be told, anything that came along. Even when I lived in the NE of England, in a city blighted by decline and the arrogance of government, I still sought out water. The North Sea at Roker beach on a Sunday morning, cold, even on a hot day. A glimpse of the cloudy Wear as it made its way to a sea once rich in fish but now haunted by the ghost of shoals long past and dying echo of industry.

After the Wear I moved to the Tyne, one valley north, to a town with a similar history and a broken river. The riverside was far from fashionable, but the shoots of regrowth could be seen in small, dark bars and cafes without chips on the menu. But it was not the lower Tyne that attracted me, with its oily water and public wastes. The Derwent was the river that held me there. Winding through oak woodland, shadowed by a dead rail line reborn as a country park. There were Dippers by the river, water beetles in the flooded bank-side grass and Stone Flies in the river rubble. Arching across the river was a viaduct that once carried the rail line, proof if it was needed that not all architecture brutalises the environment. In the scrub around its foundations we dug small pools which were soon rich with wildlife.

But further north again was a river like I had never really seen. The Coquet was almost untouched from source to sea. Neither dammed nor polluted you could cup it in your hands and drink it for most of its course. I never fished it, but I did kick the gravel and hold a net downstream to see what I found. Stone Flies well over an inch long marched up the mesh and thrashing in the nets depths were lamprey, jawless fish. It’s the only time I have ever seen them. Small trout flickered in the pools and the riffles bubbled with life. This was a pin point day, to be carried forward with you while other days fade, and if the truth be told I have no idea where I was, apart from the fact that I was on the Coquet, and we were, just, in a national park. I suppose with the means I could find the place again, but I know it won’t be the same - it couldn’t possibly be.

Then I moved was to a place with only one lake, which still confuses people by being The Lake District or The Lakes. Tarns, meres (some of which are windy), and waters were surrounded by thwait and ghylls. The names were stamped onto the landscape like the archaeology of settlement long gone. Almost every stone and step, brook and beck was named, open fell sides where water trickled, were named and held to valley farms and distant times. In places the water still flowed over wheels and was stored in dams that powered mills and hammers of industry. It may have been a national park, but it was not a natural park.

And then in the blink of an eye I was in one of the driest places on Earth - not admittedly in the dry heart - but a place that was dry enough to be in drought from most of the time I have been here. Australia. Much of the decade or more I have been in Australia has been dominated by the lack of water. And absence made the heart grow fonder. Whatever water there was had an even greater pull, and local dams, lakes and rivers had an almost irresistible pull on both me and the wildlife. Trips to the north where the rain still fell and the rivers flowed made me miss my own local patches of water even more. They were a holiday from an absence, wonderful and green, but distant and foreign despite the convenience of currency, conversation and road rules. Northern Australia was a foreign country and its boundaries were marked with flowing water and the fall of rain.

Closer to home I sought out smaller places where water gathered and in the half light of morning or the failing evening light some transformation comes over even these places. Ringed by footpaths, traversed by board-walks and studded with litter, these are not secret places by any means. But at times they manage to summon a spirit that makes a passing counterfeit of solitude.

Small fish dart in the water edge weeds, and larger ones swirl in the distance. Herons peck and stab in knee deep water, grey and silent, slow moving and graceful. A frog's worst nightmare, a fish's last sight. Ducks float and dive, gather where path meets water, waiting for bread, forsaking weed. Chestnut Teal, Pacific Black Ducks, sometimes Hardhead, more often than not large ducks with white neck rings and a farmyard history. Puddleducks on urban ponds, stories made real.

And around the water, with roots that can drink through the heat and the dust, trees and bushes grow that give shelter and food to creatures small and large. Swamhens, purple as a princess' robe, strut with confident ownership over reed beds and hated willow. Their cocky acclimatisation to human presence shattered by a lolloping dog, too far to chase them but wolf like enough to scare them. Grey Fantails in the bushes, busy, unstopping. Fairy wrens on the ground, a White Naped Honeyeater, Noisy Miners and Wattle Birds. Each one dashes with the urgency of food and mate and nest. Little Pied Cormorants dive and pop to the surface, always away from where you expect, always away from where you focus. All with the background of traffic noise and the whir of lycra clad cyclists and the pant of iPod runners. Such places may not be as well known as the wetlands of the north, people do travel half way round the world just to stand and stare, but they are still important. Little pockets of wetness, of wildness, of green, breaking the sweep of grey.

But of all the watery places I have been, one calls me back more strongly than any other. Not the Lakes with its grand views, well worn paths, poetry and history. Not the rivers of the north east. Not even the flooded lands and rich wildlife of northern Australia. The place I see most often in memory's eye are the pools that sit below the ancient landscape of Priddy. Sitting in a bowl in the limestone Mendip hills, with thick plants and the buzz of dragon flies. The hill top horizon is ringed with ancient barrows, grave sites that marked the boundary between the here and now and the hereafter. This is a landscape that has spoken to people for many thousands of years. Back in the time when knapping was something you did to flints, not something you did in the afternoon, this landscape, with its water and plants, with its dragons and fish, caused people to put down the tools that would feed the body and build structures that were about their understanding of the human condition. The need to have places that are more than just spaces, places that are special. Places that connect.

As a kid I spent hours there, catching obliging perch and the occasional rudd. This seems less popular now. But the frogs are still there, and I suppose the fish are too. Snakes slid through the grass, adders and grass snakes, probably brought by the frogs. Newts blundered, drunk, over sunken stems and in the grass by the willow - native here and welcome - orchids pushed spikes of purple flowers to the sky. A barn owl hunted the reed beds, a Merlin flashed past. Butter yellow flowers studded the grass, and down in the dip of the land you could catch the flash of water, rippled by the breeze.

In my own mind there is no clear division between the memory and the reality of these places, for believing a place to be so, may make it be so.

“Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. I am haunted by water”.

(With apologies to Norman Maclean)


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