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.
December 6, 2014 § 3 Comments
November 11, 2013 § 24 Comments
There are three cats, five girls and me. I lean against the banisters in the front hall waiting for action. I hang out with a dustbin, a pile of wellies and a giant ball of cat fluff. No one does housework so the old rectory pongs of cat. They belong to Sam whose real name is Doctor Samantha Huntingdon-Carmichael. Her dad’s a rear admiral who brays like a donkey telling the girls they would have a very nice garden if only they bothered cutting the lawn. The mower he gave them gets rusty in the woodshed with a nest of harvest mice in the grass catcher.
It’s my job to pick up local gossip, and I find out Sam does experiments on animals in the basement of the Psychology Department at the university, and no one’s supposed to know. But Angela, who lives upstairs, tells stories about pink-eyed rats with wires stuck into their brains, and beagles that like John Player Specials and cough a lot. Sam’s cats are the only creatures that talk to me. They say they got rescued – from what they haven’t a clue – but the one who’s called One has only one eye, Two has neither, and Three – who used to be a tom – has a limp and a wobbly scar between his ears.
I am newly painted green, and came from the shop behind the cathedral, next to the alley where the choirboys aren’t supposed to smoke. Rosie polishes and oils me when she remembers, and she bought me a wickerwork basket she’s tied to my handlebars and fills with food from Tesco’s every Friday before the boy with the long hair and dark brown voice comes over. Weekends are boring because he has an Austin Healey 3000. When they’re not in that, they’re in her room catching up on sleep.
I like dodging the ruts on the cycle path into town, and trying to run down the public school boys with their silly hats. When the sun’s out the tourists come out – all with stupid Hawaiian shirts and cameras – so I try and run them down as well. It’s a good life.
The boy with the soft brown voice takes us to live in a cottage in the middle of nowhere and paints me lots of different colours with little tins of Airfix paint. But there isn’t anyone to talk to anymore. His snooty ten-geared racing bike never says a word, neither does the barn owl with the very nasty habits. The rabbits living behind the shed were very chatty, but they disappeared after a man in a Rentokil van came and threw something that smelt bad into their warren and blocked off the holes.
But it’s holiday time, and Rosie says we’re going to Wales. I only have three gears so I know there is going to be trouble. It won’t stop raining. Waterfalls splash down the mountainside and flood the roads, and I spend the night against a tree with the grumpy racing bike, while Rosie and the boy giggle in a tent and eat baked beans out of a tin.
It takes her two hours to push me up Llanberis Pass, and fifteen minutes for me to imagine what having a coronary will be like as she rips my brake pads to shreds slithering down the other side. But Rosie doesn’t care – she doesn’t even dry me off afterwards.
When we get home, things start looking up. Rosie and I go out every day as she’s got a job the other side of Beccles marshes. But she spends a lot of time wobbling with her mouth open as herons glide overhead, or jamming on the brakes as she never looks where she’s going. My chain gets noisier, and my screws get looser as she races over the marsh being chased by nosey cows. But Rosie doesn’t seem to notice. My joints are creaking and my frame is twisted. I need a rest.
Then a new bike appears. It’s a Claude Butler, and it’s new, and it looks like it goes faster than me. It arrives the same day as the JCB. As it’s digging some big holes, a cement lorry arrives. The boy with the soft brown voice begins throwing stuff in the holes: bits of old boat, rusty metal, paint tins; in fact anything goes in that looks like it isn’t any use. The boy looks at me, picks me up rather roughly, then puts me down again. The Claude Butler sniggers.
I’m wondering where Rosie is. The cement is streaming out of a long pipe filling up the holes, and the boy has his hands on his hips and he’s grinning. Then he suddenly turns, wheels me roughly to the hole, and chucks me in.
The cement is cold and sticky. Rosie appears and starts waving her arms about. Her face turns pink. I see her lips move, but I can’t hear a thing. The cement keeps coming. And now I can’t see.
It’s dark in here, and I’m cold. When is she coming to get me?