January 8, 2014 § 9 Comments
Another attempt at nature writing.
Again set by my local river, but this time closer to its source.
It’s muddy on the old cart track leading down to the river, and I’m happy to be outside. Faint wisps of cumuli sit peacefully beneath an otherwise clear sky, and there is no trace of a wind to pummel me, even though I am on top of a long, low ridge known rather strangely as High Suffolk. It’s a fine day for a winter walk, but, as usual, I have not left enough time. It will be dark in less than two hours.
It is three weeks since the shortest day, and this confuses me. It’s getting lighter as the seasons nudge us closer to springtime, yet the bitter cold that keeps me indoors is still to come. Part of me will crave to be out in this stark, bare landscape feeling the earth beneath my feet, while the rest of me will demand I hibernate close to a spitting log fire – feet toasting, pen and paper on my lap – making time for pauses of nothingness that always quieten my mind.
But today I take the track that leads to the river. It is concave – worn down by the passing of many boots and hooves over the centuries – and, with the overhanging oaks and horse chestnuts either side, forms a natural tunnel. But it’s difficult to enjoy the view as I have to watch where I put my feet, picking my way through the ancient roots, which, like thick varicose veins, spread over its surface.
To the north, a stand of winter wheat pokes itself out of the soil. It is planted in the chalky boulder clay, grown sodden and claggy after all the rain. Autumn sown crops often yellow and wilt as if they will suffocate and drown, but they rarely do. Instead, the seedlings put down deep, fibrous roots in preparation for their magical growth in the spring.
Last year’s sugar beet thrives to the south of the track, and will be harvested over the next few weeks after the cross-bred Suffolk ewes have been let in to graze off the green foliage. It’s not a pretty sight. The ewes are not yet heavy with their lambs, but I still think they deserve better care. They go into the field clean, and will be herded into a cattle truck a month later, their belly fleece caked with dried mud, their delicate hooves and lower legs encased in thick layers of the stuff. It seems cruel to me.
I come to the bottom of the hill where a rusty barbed wire fence bars my way. The track clearly continues – although much overgrown – onto the Saxon church at the far side of the valley. A sign says, ‘Private Fishing. Keep Out.‘ I continue along a narrower track that follows the fence to the north. Blackening comfrey leaves rot in large clumps either side. I cannot guess why there is so much growing here – there is no evidence of a house ever being this close to the river. Perhaps they’re the consequence of bird droppings and subsequent self-seeding. Bending over the comfrey are the spiny seed heads of the bush-like burdock plant. My mother, brought up in the country, would make us a cooling cordial of dandelion and burdock, but I have no memory of whether I liked it or not.
A bridge large enough for a small tractor, with a modern kissing gate alongside for walkers, leads onto the marsh meadow. A large stream passes under the bridge through a small sluice gate draped in water mint. It seems to be jammed half open with debris, letting little more than a trickle of water pass. The stream leads to the disused watermill, and the water between here and the mill moves very slowly. It is perfect for the nervous or novice canoeist, and there are always dozens of dragonflies here in July. But the water is stagnant, and algae and pondweed appear overnight on its surface turning the water a slimy dark green.
Cattle are kept on this marsh all year round, and they are blocking my way as I swing the kissing gate open. They are a motley crew – no pedigrees here. Long legged bullocks and heifers bunch close together raising their tails at me. They are skittish, nervous – curious, yet ready to run. Rarely handled and never confined, they will be taken off the marsh in the summer and sent straight to market. I shout at them unkindly: ‘beef burgers, fillet steak, roast beef and Yorkshire pud’ – and they scatter and let me pass.
The river this side of the sluice spills over onto a neglected willow coppice on the far bank. A few trees still stand straight, but many, now with multiple trunks, lean at drunken angles. Some have fallen into the water. A cuckoo lives here in the summer, and it is a favourite habitat of the water rat.
I follow the river upstream round a sharp bend, and it becomes suddenly wider. This section is called Fisherman’s Deep. I have no idea what was fished here; it is not a popular place these days. I know there are river trout, which are still eaten even though it is said they leave a muddy taste; and I expect there are many pike in this deep, dark water; but few people eat them these days.
A concrete weir divides the river a little further upstream. The water passing over it continues on its normal river route, while the rest is siphoned through the sluice to the watermill before it rejoins the river. A mill has been on the site for at least two hundred years. Corn, flax and linen have all been processed there. It was also a good place to catch eels – many being sent, presumably still alive, to Billingsgate market.
The soft ground is uneven from the deep hoof prints the cattle have made when coming to drink. I am in ankle breaking territory. Nothing makes a sound today, and I am grateful for the peace. The cattle are gone to the far side of the marsh, no birds warn of my intrusion, no fish rise, no heron glides overhead. My eye follows the line of the river further upstream to the site of an abandoned mixed wood. It is maybe a quarter of a mile away – and there they are – a family of swans. Both parents float as if suspended above the water; their adolescent offspring between them. It is almost the size of its parents, yet still with the pale pinky brown plumage. They are like apparitions – they do not move. I watch them as the mist forms over the water as the temperature drops for the night. I turn away briefly, then look back – but they are gone. Were they really there?
A cripple of a crack willow leans into the river. Most of its branches are gone. A rope with an old car tyre tied to it dangles from a thick, dead branch. The village boys come in the summer because they know this stretch is deep.
The weir has only one function for me, and it is for playing Pooh sticks. It is also the place where my husband proposed. I collect a handful of seedless teasel stalks and throw them upriver. They hesitate, begin to spin, then are sucked over the ledge into the shallow sandy water downstream. River trout hide in the reeds where the water is still. They make their own light, flicking gently to stay stationery in the current, their bellies sparkling. The teasels have separated into single stems, and all but one has caught in the reeds in the far bank. I watch the single stem float downstream until I can’t see it anymore.