A Draught of Clear Water

‘Here are your waters and your watering place
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion’

Robert Frost, Directive (1946)


I grew up in Gravesend in a flat, in a hotel, that looked right on to the Thames opposite Tilbury. Even with the gruesome definition of the word ‘graves end’ (where bodies were sent out to sea in Elizabethan England) I grew to love water. There were tugs, giant white star liners, and cruise ships; everything floated and passed my window. The river also removed painful things towards the sea.

I was not allowed to be afraid of water and was taught to swim when I was three-and-a-half. I was allowed to stare into the running depths of the river from the top of the wall that ran along it, my hand held so I would not fall in.

I am always returning to rivers, or they have never left me. The wild ones of the North of Cumbria where I was an adolescent, and the weir-dotted Lune in Lancashire with its sea breathing; and now in south Cambridgeshire, the chalk stream with its pools and springs which is the River Mel. This stream runs the length of the high street of my village. It is only short. It rises in a crystal lake with springs coming from a chalk culvert, it forms a passageway between two villages and across fields. Lived on and with, it turned mill wheels for bread, it grew watercress, and young men fished!

Clear water light

Whatever the size of the river, the surface always catches the light. The continual flow seems to tell of how everything constantly changes and moves forwards, despite meanders and diversions. The sound of water is a small music that is healing, and is always pouring and washing the world away. Rivers constantly make libation and, unless blocked or polluted, are a quiet salvation. A river too is always working, powering waits and mills, enabling travel, providing food. A river is about paddling, boats, kingfishers, afternoons of delight. The River Mel holds a constant temperature. In winter it has its own mist, fog and fret.

In the introduction to his Oxford Lectures given in 1995, The Redress of Poetry, the great northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney draws on water to define the scope of poetry. Beginning with the Robert Frost poem Directive, Heaney writes

‘The poem is like a broken drinking goblet stolen from the playhouse and dipped in the mountain stream because it too offers a clarification, a fleeting glimpse of the potential order of things ‘beyond confusion’, a glimpse that has its own reward. The poem provides a draught of the clear water of transformed understanding and fills the reader with a momentary sense of freedom and wholeness.’

Later on he writes ‘but in the end, the poem is more given over to the extraordinary, than to the ordinary, more dedicated to the world renewing potential of imagined response than to the adequacy of a social one’.

A deep argument

Poetry as a ‘draught of clear water’ filling the reader with ‘a momentary sense of freedom and wholeness’. This metaphor is such a beautiful one: reading a poem like drinking a glass of clear spring water. And water and poetry providing transformed understanding, freedom and wholeness.

The river Mel, a draught of clear water
Photograph: Yvonne Chamberlain © 2018

There are deep arguments from poetry then not to let the river become polluted, clogged up, unavailable to consciousness to the whole bodily system of a human being in the Anthropocene.

Poetry explains why never being far from water, as this landscape is,
asks to be celebrated and explored. We come from water; primeval fish grew feet and found land out of a watery soup. Our bodies are 80 percent water; without it, we could not live, we release it in our breathing and skin, then collect it as rain. H2O is a most mercurial element. Tough and vital in its texture. Along its length here, we are connected by it and can work together.

Filming the River Mel

James Murray-White introduces his role in the Waterlight project, filming the local environment and activities. He reflects on his connection to this river and to water as he begins his work filming the river Mel and those who hold it close. 


I was immediately attracted to this project when Clare mentioned her ideas, because it focuses on exploring this little 13 mile stretch of river, meandering through two beautiful villages. And it touches deeply into our human connection with rivers — a deep dive into a watery anthropological journey.

Growing up not far away, in the village of Girton — which has a small stream at its woody edge, where I spent many a happy day splashing in the water and building dens nearby — I know these flatlands and fens well. They are engrained into my very soul, and I resonate with the Benjamin Britten lines from ‘Peter Grimes (1962)’ :

“I am native here, rooted here.
By familiar fields, marsh and sand, ordinary streets, prevailing wind”

Clare’s words dive deep into the history and human connection to the Mel, from a tragic drowning, through to a very close examination of the “dragonflies, cool places”. It’s been a wonderful honour to walk much of the Mel with her and get to know some of it, pause where she was inspired to write, and to point my camera and capture some moments in time.

My interest has been to take time and capture the ripples and eddies in the water, the wind through the leaves, bushes, and rushes, and to hear and listen to what the wending waterway tells. I thought I saw the back of a vole scurrying off behind me one cold January morning, after I had been filming at the [AREA around back of playing fields – Stockbridge Meadows?] in the early blue hour of a snowy day, though it might have been the cold causing me to hallucinate!

I met several dog walkers that morning, and we discussed wildlife, though it has been noticeable that I’ve not seen much while walking, sitting, and filming. This makes me want to return often, without cameras and kit, and just sit. Here’s my appeal to be simple riverside wildlife watchers — much in the way fisherfolk are, sitting meditatively, rod poised above the water; for us all to bring a little stillness inside, and sit, for just a few moments or longer by water and in fields, listening and watching, connecting to the call of the wild, within and without.

It’s also been a real treat to meet with Bruce, either walking by the river, hearing about the work of the River Conservation Group and his sightings of various birds and fowl over the years, previously high in numbers and now down. And to be with him hearing stories from the elders in the villages of their engagement with the river over the years, and see him enthusing youth at the school. And then, in his inimitable style, as he weaves it all up from this tiny stream out to his journeys across the far Himalayas, the waters of the Ganges and in and out of Tibet, with the water spirits showing their power too!

So it’s been a deep dive, through and along this waterway, meeting at the confluence and seeing the ripples go off and reverberate in different ways. Filming the river has been a slow, ponderous process, working with the light and weather conditions: it’s involved standing in fields trying to get a shot of the river through swaying cow parsley, watching happy dogs wading in the water through these very changeable seasons this year, getting to know a swan, and dealing with the variables of recording interviews and ambient sound out in the open air. We’ve got Clare’s wonderful rich word ways and Bruce’s active meanderings, and I’m throwing now my footage from various days, times of day, and situations, into the pot, and this website. Soon a film or some short films will emerge, dripping from the Mel!

Vaughan Williams in Meldreth

Clare Crossman shares her research into the time that composer Ralph Vaughan Williams spent in Meldreth. His work collecting the music and words of local folk singers has preserved an oral tradition that he saw was at risk.


Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge from 1892 to ’94. In 1906 he and his wife Adeline came to Meldreth for a summer holiday and they returned for visits in 1907 and 1908. In 1906 they leased a large house called The Warren at the North end of the village where it stood on its own, surrounded by fields.

He cycled a great deal and as Meldreth had its own station it was easy to make day trips through the surrounding areas, near the river Mel. He collected songs in Orwell, Bassingbourn, Fowlmere, Little Shelford and Royston. He rode out to pubs where the singers traditionally performed: in Meldreth it was Ginger Clayton; in Fowlmere it was Hoppy Flack; in Bassingbourn, Mr Harmonin; Orwell Billy Waggs. He may have been told about the source singers by Lucy Broadwood, Secretary of the Folk Song Society but many songs could have been collected by chance encounters. Most of the singers were farm workers or in the labouring trades.

From Hoppy Flack in Fowlmere, he collected May Song and Lord Ellenwater. Nothing much is known about Ginger Clayton in Meldreth, as he does not seem to have been resident there; but John Valentine Harman (Harmon) was an agricultural labourer who lived at the Tan Yard in Bassingbourn with his wife and seven children. The Lakes of Cold Fen was collected from him.

Most of these people would have been illiterate so they sang their literature, as in the oral tradition, and Vaughan Williams collected the tunes first and words later as he believed these folk melodies were dying out. Much of his annotation is held in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Room of the British Library. Many of the songs were known to him in other variants and the words were available as published broadsides but they were sung in this area and known by those who sang them and heard by those who listened.

Songs from this area of south Cambridgeshire include:

  • Lakes of Cold Fen (Bassingbourn 1907, text from traditional sources)
  • Lord Ellenwater (written down in full as sung by Hoppy Flack, Fowlmere)
  • Cambridge May Song (as sung by Hoppy Flack, a Christian version of traditional pagan May songs)
  • Georgie (from an unnamed singer, Fowlmere 1907)
  • The Green Bushes (Mr Wiltshire, inmate of Royston Union 1907, text traditional)
  • The Trees They Do Grow High (Ginger Clayton, Meldreth text completed from Broadside).

The words and stories had a long tradition, but the tunes were important to Vaughan Williams.

Joan Baez sang a version of The Trees Do Grow High:

The trees they do grow high and the leaves they do grow green
The days are gone and past my love that you and I have seen
It’s a cold winters night my love that I must lie alone
My bonny lad is young but he is growing.

O father dear father you have done me much wrong
You have married me to a boy who is too young
O daughter dearest daughter if you’ll stay along with me
A lady you will be while he’s growing.

We’ll send him to college for a year or two
And then perhaps in time my love the boy will do for you.
We’ll buy him white ribbons to tie around his waist
To let the ladies know that he is married.

I went unto the college and looked over the wall
I saw four and twenty gentlemen a playing at the ball
One of them my own true love, but they wouldn’t let him come
Because he was a young lad a growing

At the age of sixteen he was a married man
At the age of 17 the father of a son
At the age of eighteen on his tomb the grass grows green
Cruel death had put an end to his growing.

I’ll make my love a shroud of the Holland cloth so fine
And every stich she put in the tears came trickling down
I’ll sit and mourn all on his tomb until the day I die
But I’ll watch o’er his child while he’s growing.

Oh he is dead and buried and in the churchyard do lie
The green grass grows over him oh so very high
I once I had a sweetheart but now got n’er a one#
So fare you well my true love forever.

The tune she sings is in a major key whereas the tune collected by Vaughan Williams is in a minor key and far more wistful and melancholic. You can hear it sung with this tune by Bert Jansch when he was singer with Pentangle.

To hear the rest of the songs you may need to come to the concert which is on March 8th 2019 with Penni Mclaren Walker and Bryan Causton at the Hub in Melbourn … More details anon.


Notes

In the writing of this piece, I am greatly indebted to Cambridgeshire folk singer Mary Humphreys whose careful research in manuscripts at the British Library and the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library has made the task of finding these songs very easy. Her book Folksongs collected in Cambridgeshire is published by Hedingham Fair and is available directly from her site.

A Classic English Chalk Stream

Clare Crossman introduces the river Mel and the new project she has launched to explore its nature and communities. 


The river Mel is a classic English chalk stream that I have walked in all weathers for the last 18 years and in winter it can indeed be sullen, especially when just below the A10  when it becomes full of crisp packets, plastic bottles and other things which just happen to be dumped from cars. It is only the painstaking work of the River Mel Restoration volunteers who have slowly removed this from the river there.
The river links my village, Meldreth, with the next village, Melbourn, and is a well-worn route crossing fields and through woodlands used by dog walkers, runners, and children on their way to Melbourn village college.
As TS Eliot says in the poem Dry Salvages, ‘The river is within us, the sea is all about us’ and for me, the river Mel close to my home has always been a consolation, a healing force, and a surprise in that it is different every day. Consequently, it inspired a short sequence of poems, published in my last collection The Blue Hour (Shoestring Press 2017). They have in turn inspired Waterlight, this film and community project about the river, which includes interviews with people who have lived close to it all their lives, children’s poetry, music and new poems from local writers. The film is being made by my friend, filmmaker James Murray White.

River Mel, Meldreth. Photograph: Yvonne Chamberlain © 2018

Even though short and hidden, the river Mel has its own beauty and as Eric Schumacher wrote many years ago, Small is Beautiful. There are vistas, meanders, pools and changes. Different depths of water, reeds, grebes, coots, the heron that lives there and the white egret which has taken up residence as well as the dart of some kingfishers. 

According to Tristran Gooley’s anthropological book How to Read Water, it is a healthy river and its flow shows no sluggishness even at low water. It passes under small stone bridges and through weirs, creates ponds at mills and was clearly once lived around, in and on and was at the centre of village life. Just about wide enough to float a canoe, it can be swung across … and it joins the River Rhee (a tributary of the Cam) just outside Meldreth.

River Mel, Meldreth. Photograph: Yvonne Chamberlain © 2018

Recently James and I were granted access to the garden at Melbourn Bury where the Mel rises. It was a beautiful day and the water clear as a bell. It was explained to us how the lake in the garden contains several springs which when the water is low can be seen coming out of the ground.

If there is very low water a small culvert which looks like a well gushes, turns into a waterfall as water is pumped from the aquifer in the heath just before Royston. The lake is so large that the former owners had built small bridges to be able to cross it at the edge as it literally just pools out where the water rises and is full of reeds and yellow flag iris clear and shallow.

The river leaves the lake at a small weir which is really a funnel for the water, which then broadens into a wide chalk stream surrounded by trees and fields. The place is idyllic. The large garden was, in Edwardian times, opened to the public to boat on the shallow lake and to visit to see the snowdrops in spring. The lawn boasts an ancient Mulberry tree en route to the river. After Melbourn Bury the river crosses into the local nature reserve at Stockbridge Meadows where it is possible to paddle, wade, and just enjoy the cool.

In mid-May James, myself and our conservationist friend, Bruce, took Year 6 from Meldreth Primary School on a filmmaking and poetry writing walk on the section of the river behind Meldreth High Street, through woods and fields, past the mill and up to the church field. Everyone was given an iPad for the return walk.

The outward walk was used for collecting ideas and impressions. We were lucky that it was a beautiful day, so grass fights and playing Pooh Sticks were also involved, particularly as some of the children did not know what Pooh Sticks was. There was a queue to see how it was played. Despite dire warnings about children’s contact with the natural world, this year I noticed that several of them knew common plant names e.g. clover, buttercup. Boys were seen picking cow parsley and looking at it closely in wonder (for the first time, I think). And I have to say, the speed at which they can make short films about their experience that morning was breathtaking.

River Mel, Meldreth. Photograph: Yvonne Chamberlain © 2018

This first post on my blog is for all of those who supported our crowdfunding appeal. You enabled us to raise a further £1,2000 from our local parish solar funds and we are very grateful.