January 3, 2014 § 23 Comments

A first attempt at this ‘nature writing’ lark! Feels very different to writing stories. Any feedback would be lovely – but I don’t feel I quite know what I’m doing yet!


            It’s about ten minutes on my bike to the shallow glacial valley, and downhill for most of it. I let the wheels take me as fast as they want, then chicken out half way down under the concrete flyover. The brakes squeal too loudly and the frame judders, reminding me the bike’s overdue for a service.

The river cuts East Anglia in two, forming the boundary between Norfolk and Suffolk. It’s been a symbolic divide for hundreds of years. The north is flatter and exposed to the icy winds; its flint houses, like its people, standing square and sure of themselves. Suffolk is softer. It undulates, its light is gentler on the eye, and many of its inhabitants still live in the houses made of wattle and daub built four hundred years ago.  Roofs are still covered with a thick layer of straw, each topped by a decorative ridge unique to its thatcher; or if the house is close to the river, the thatch is made of the longer lasting, more expensive reeds. Suffolk is closer to London, and it shows: people, cars, and life in general, seem to move faster.

This river – which draws me to its banks when my mind refuses to be still – begins about twenty miles west as a spring surrounded by a sedge marsh. It’s the home of the rare fen raft spider. Like many arachnids, it has strange habits I prefer not to think about. This elusive creature, which favours life in the old peat diggings, injects its prey with digestive enzymes and sucks out the victim’s insides that are transformed by some primeval alchemy into a nutritious soup. I have never seen this happen nor seen the emptied skins that result, and I remain quite content just to read about it.

            The valley is full of cattle now, as it always is in summer. Mostly owned by one family who, according to modern folklore, fetched up one day in a gypsy wagon and finding it suited them, stayed. This was forty or fifty years ago. I sometimes wonder why so few sheep graze this wide flat marsh, as they would do far less damage to the soft ground than the heavy hooves of cattle in a wet summer. But few farmers here seem to favour sheep, except perhaps the incomers from the cities – the so called hobby farmers – who often keep a handful of rare breeds that look pretty in a paddock next to the house.

            The road is flat as it follows the river’s path. I stop often to look at something that catches my eye, parking my bike in the hawthorn and alder hedge, or against a stubby oak or bowed crack willow. I learned early on in my cycling career that it made more sense to dismount and watch the heron cruising silently overhead, rather than careering into a ditch with a buckled front wheel.

Part of the marsh has been fenced off into a small holding pen. A young cow stands passively, her head lowered, shoulders slumped, as she watches over what is probably her first calf. It is dead. She has guarded it now for three days, and it pains me to look. Her water bucket is nearly empty. There is plenty of grass, but she does not chew the cud. She has clearly stopped eating. Why does the farmer not come? Should I knock on a few doors? I know I won’t because I don’t want her grief disturbed.

            There are dozens of strange webs at the entrance to the meadow. They appear in a long line, as if by design, on the banks of a dry ditch leading down to the riverbank. They’re always there, even in the winter, but I have never seen the spiders. Their webs are funnel shaped. There are many species that weave this type of web that carry a painful or even dangerous bite, but a quick look on the internet the first time I discovered them told me they were common residents here, and quite harmless to man or woman.

                        I come to a small hamlet and turn down a lane towards the river, stopping by the old millhouse and its line of terraced cottages. The brick bridge, heavily discoloured by yellow and orange lichen, has two arches: one to take the weir water, the other, much bigger, is fed by water passing through an open sluice. Some of the stories I write begin their lives here. Some need the silence of a hot, dry spell to be born; others demand a violence, that disturbing energy that comes from the overwhelming river as it bursts through the arch bringing farmers’ rubbish, whole limbs of trees, and once, a bloated black and white cow. These stories always come too quickly – they bombard me and demand to be written down then and there. But unless I hold some overriding image in my head, I can’t retrieve them – even after cycling home as fast as I can and sinking into my thinking chair with a mug of tea.

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§ 23 Responses to Marsh

  • This is exciting and real writing. I loved this Rachael you really showed how nature has a visceral impact on your imagination and how it informs your words, breathing life into every single word and full stop. I could actually hear the rush of the river. Very hard to pick just one bit that was my favourite but I thought the following extract was wonderful – “others demand a violence, that disturbing energy that comes from the overwhelming river as it bursts through the arch bringing farmers’ rubbish, whole limbs of trees, and once, a bloated black and white cow.”
    Sent from my BlackBerry smartphone from Virgin Media

    • Rachael Charmley says:

      That’s pleased me very much. Thank you, John. So happy the words had a visceral effect, too – I am trying to take the reader with me to the valley and make them feel the power of it.
      Your comments are much appreciated, as always. 🙂 🙂

  • mikesteeden says:

    Imagery with a dark edge to it. Works well for this reader. A third through it felt like there may be a body to be discovered along the way. Indeed there was – had it not been for your express intent to concentrate upon nature I would have anticipated that the body be human. In short I enjoyed this very much – but then I didn’t expect otherwise!

    • Rachael Charmley says:

      So glad you enjoyed it. It was quite hard not to weave a story in – but I wanted to see if I could do it without.
      Thank you sir, your feedback is much valued. 🙂

  • NEO says:

    Love it, I feel like I can see it and I’ve never been within a thousand miles.

    While we wouldn’t know what to do with a wet summer, our experience is that sheep eat the pasture so short that cattle starve (and sometimes kill our pastures). They’ve also been the cause of some of our range wars, for that reason.

    One of your best, I think! 🙂

    • Rachael Charmley says:

      Thank you! I’m very uncertain about writing in this way. Makes me realise how little I know about this landscape.
      On a practical note, the trick around here is to let the cattle eat the grass when it’s long, then put the sheep on to finish off. They’re also better fertilisers than cows.
      So pleased you liked it. Made my day! 🙂

      • NEO says:

        You have the gift of describing it very well though.

        That would work, although it need more rain than we get, many of our pastures are pretty brown by the middle of July, and sheep have never been as popular here, anyway.

        Turnabout is fair play, your story made mine. 🙂

        • Rachael Charmley says:

          The problem with sheep as I remember, is that they have only two aims in life:
          1. To escape
          2. To die prematurely


          • NEO says:

            Cattle have propensity (especially black ones) to wander about the roads at night, other than that they seem much the same 🙂

  • Rachael Charmley says:

    You’re right. Usually when there’s no moon either…

  • Beautifully descriptive writing but there is a definite under-current here of everything being not quite what it seems. You have a wonderful way of painting a picture which draws the reader in. As a ‘Fen Tiger’ myself (although I’ve been away such a long time it seems unnatural to use this term) I appreciate the contrast you made between the two areas of East Anglia – hints also as to a darker and lighter side to your writing.look forward to more!

  • Miranda Stone says:

    I like how you not only describe your natural surroundings here, but you also weave a story into the narrative as well. At times almost whimsical, while at others painful to read (such as when the mother cow grieves over her dead calf), you’ve beautifully portrayed the endless cycle of nature, with its innumerable births and deaths, and the living that takes place in between. Lovely work, Rachael.

    • Rachael Charmley says:

      Thanks for your encouragement, Miranda. I really agonized over the punctuation, but it was good fun to write. It’s certainly a start, and I’ve got a lot of material in my head I could use.
      Thanks for your time, Miranda.

  • exiledprospero says:

    Rachael, you’ve created a wonderful atmosphere and your form is good as you start and end with the bicycle—smart bookends for a literary journey.

    My only criticism is the penultimate paragraph where you return to the subject of spiders—is it necessary? And mentioning searching the internet somehow spoiled the rich, visually appealing landscape you created for us (but that’s just my technophobic self speaking).

    But overall, scrumptiously well done!

    • Rachael Charmley says:

      I agree on both counts. Was unsure about the reference to modernity, so left it in. As the piece stands there are definitely too many spiders lurking about- it unbalances the piece. Either the first reference goes, or I add a few other creatures. Thanks for your comments and your time. All much appreciated. The weather is disgusting here and my thoughts turn to warm islands…

      Sent from my iPhone


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