When I’m not writing
September 17, 2020 § 13 Comments
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 fast, then chicken out half way down under the concrete flyover. The brakes squeal and the old frame judders.
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, stand square and quiet. Not like the folks who live in cities. Suffolk is softer. It undulates, its light is gentler, and many of its people still live in houses made of wattle and daub built four hundred years ago. Roofs are 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 reed. Suffolk is closer to London, and it shows: people, cars, and life moves 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 gruesome 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 its insides that have been transformed by some primeval alchemy into a nutritious soup. I have never seen this happen nor seen the emptied skins that result. I remain 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 anything – a flower, a tree, roadkill – 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’s dead. She has guarded it now for three days, and it pains me to look. Her water bucket is nearly empty and her udder is tight. There is plenty of grass, but she does not chew the cud. Why does the farmer not come? Should I knock on a few doors? I know I won’t because somebody obviously knows about it.
There are dozens of strange webs by 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, and it’s clear if any insect fell in it would never get out again. 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 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.
I remember I’m hungry. Today I am lucky. The wind is behind me and pushes me up the hill.