A Perfect Place to Play: Memories of the River Mel

Our latest guest post comes from Chloë FitzGerald, PhD, who shares her childhood memories of play in the River Mel. Chloë is Research Fellow at the University of Geneva and works on implicit stereotypes and prejudices, occasionally dipping her toe into creative writing. She grew up in South London with a few years in Meldreth, studied in Bristol and Manchester, and has lived in Italy, Canada, Switzerland and France. Chloë is now settled in rural Catalonia.


Safe under the bridge

Swirling up first are those superimposed ‘memories’ that come from looking at old photographs. Circa 1984, I appear to be emerging from toddlerhood with golden wispy hair, a few curls at the nape: splashing, paddling, my hands grasp the skirt of my sundress as I delight in the water. I am under the railway bridge in Meldreth, at a point where the Mel was very shallow, interspersed with pebbles — perfect for a tot to play safely. A niggle arises as I look back now, my senses whetted by parenthood; what of the thundering groan of the trains as they passed over the bridge? Grandpa (the photographer) may have had to rush to calm a startled child. Yet I have no memory of fearing the trains, whose trundling I used to find comforting when heard from my bedroom at night.

Chloe Fitzgerald, aged 3, at play in the River Mel
Chloe Fitzgerald, aged 3 (1985), at play in the River Mel

A treasure on the bank

Another scene: I am older, perhaps nine or ten, and no longer live in Meldreth, but visit my grandparents often. We were lunching at the Sheene Mill. I loved to play in the garden and we would often move outside for dessert and for the adults to enjoy their coffee and cigarettes. It was a splendid sunny day, the kind of day that basks in the eager appreciation heaped on it in England or in similarly mouldy and damp climes. An only child, I was used to the company of adults, but on this occasion, had made a friend and we were playing happily in the garden. The excitement of a great discovery was eagerly shared with a family friend and my faithful play companion, Jane. We had found a treasure: a speckled egg in a ducks’ nest on the bank of the Mill pond. (We did, of course, leave the egg safely in place, as instructed by Jane.)

Rooted in play

Roc & Nana at the River Mel, 2018

The Mel has witnessed many, many happy games of Pooh-sticks on its numerous little bridges in Meldreth woods. Faded snapshots from memory become glossy again as I joyfully teach the game to my own tot with his grandparents. The careful choice of a stick; thick and knobbly or thin and spindly? He doggedly insists on the big fat sticks, despite their sluggish movement. The annoying mother in me attempts to teach him my throwing technique to avoid getting stuck in the weeds, but Roc, true to his name, lets it wash over him. As we watch the progress of the sticks in the clear water — clearer now than it ever was in my childhood — through the weeds, past the logs, over the stones, I am transmitting something to him, a fragment of my past. I want to loop him to this part of me. He is growing up in such a different land; an abundance of hilly vineyards, olive groves, and almond trees, but no streams to be found. For the village people I live among I am an anomaly, a wanderer, bafflingly untethered to any landscape. But I do have roots of a sort, and some of their tendrils cling to the banks of the Mel.

 

Chloe Fitzgerald, aged 3, at play in the River Mel
Chloe Fitzgerald, aged 3 (1985), in the River Mel

You can explore more memories of the river on our dedicated page, Your Waterlight Stories – and why not send in your own? Use the Contact page.

Writing the River

Our second guest post comes from poet and novelist J.S. Watts, who looks at the many contributions of chalk streams to English literature. J.S. has also written two poems for the Waterlight Project —  Life Line and Time Flows Through — which you can enjoy along with other contributions to the literature at the Waterlight Poems section of our site. 


At the beginning of this year I was very happy to be asked by Clare Crossman to write a guest post for the Waterlight Project blog. I’d already written two poems for the project, plus the Cambridgeshire village where I live is close to Melbourn and Meldreth and has its own spring and chalk stream, or it may be a part of the same water flow as the River Mel. That’s the nature of chalk streams and rivers, they split, merge, separate and conjoin and it’s not always clear to the uninitiated what is a tributary to what.

Writing the River - Tributary of the Rhee, Bassingbourn-cum-Kneesworth Photo by J.S. Watts)
Tributary of the Rhee, Bassingbourn-cum-Kneesworth (Photo: J.S. Watts)

Anyway, I was delighted to say yes and then Clare said, “I was thinking a piece about literature associated with chalk streams might be nice.” Okay, that suits me. I’m a poet and novelist with a degree in English Language and Literature, so what better than to write about literature? I picked up my pen enthusiastically (I tend to draft most things longhand. It’s something about the flow of the words) and then reality hit. To write about the literature of chalk streams and rivers, I really need to know where those rivers are, the names of them and then research the writers associated with them. In other words, I need to know the geography and possibly the history of chalk streams. It turns out an English degree is not so well suited to sussing out the ways of the chalk.

Chalk streams — an English phenomenon

I resorted to the age-old traditional writer’s technique of searching the Internet. According to the Waterlight Project website there are only 210 chalk streams in the world “and 160 of these are in England”. Another website asserts there are only 200 globally and 180 are in England. The World Wild Fund for Nature states, “there are only about 200 chalk streams in the world, and most of them are in the southern half of England (with a few in France).” I guess it’s how you add up those confusingly merging rivers, streams and tributaries, but regardless, it’s clear that chalk streams are a very rare and English phenomenon.

The next question is where in England are they? My online research indicated they were mostly in Southern England, but basically followed the line of the chalk from Yorkshire to Dorset, flowing through the East Riding (Guess what? The River Hull in Humberside is a chalk river. Who knew? Well lots of chalk stream experts, obviously, but I didn’t until now), Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Hampshire and into Dorset (not forgetting a trickle from Kent across the southern chalk and into Hampshire). Based on that, the southern chalk streams flow across the countryside and counties once known to Jane Austen, Richard Adams and Thomas Hardy. So far so good and quite impressive in literary terms.

Here we have the landscape described in Thomas Hardy’s poem In Front of The Landscape,

 … And the coomb and the upland
Coppice – crowned
Ancient chalk-pit, milestone, rills in the grass-flat
Stroked by the light

The names of the chalk streams and rivers that flow throughout England as a whole resonate to the landscapes and histories of their respective areas. In addition to the sometimes brown and murky Hull there are the clear and glittering Lymn, Cam, Granta, the Test, the Itchen and the Avon. There are also the Loddon, Ver, Piddle, Kennet, Frome and many, many more. The list goes on.

River Avon along the Woodford Valley Photo by J.S. Watts)
River Avon along the Woodford Valley (Photo: J.S. Watts)

Exploring chalk streams in literature  

I then made the mistake of Googling (other search engines are available) the literature of chalk streams. What came up, over and over and over again, was fly fishing. Apparently it’s a thing in relation to chalk streams and lots of people have written at considerable length about it, including Charles Kingsley who (rather appropriately) also wrote The Water Babies (where an abused child chimney sweep falls into a river and is transformed into a water baby) and Westward Ho! Charles Kingsley was rector of the Parish of Eversley, Hampshire for thirty-five years and knew the chalk streams and rivers of the area well, especially the River Blackwater (a tributary of the River Test).

From what I can tell (I don’t fish myself), the good fly fishing streams seem to be located significantly around Berkshire, Hampshire and Wiltshire, but there is at least one chalk-based anglers’ paradise in Lincolnshire. There are, after all, between 160 and 180 of these special, light-catching watercourses and though serious fishing does not appear possible in all of them, the healthy streams do seem to boast a fecundity of fish.

 No Fishing - River Avon along the Woodford Valley Photo by J.S. Watts)
No Fishing – River Avon along the Woodford Valley (Photo: J.S. Watts)

Indeed, another book constantly referenced in terms of chalk streams and fly fishing is The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Grahame lived in Berkshire and the clear, sparkling water of his river bank tales, teaming with fish, lush flora, rats, voles, moles, toads and other small mammals is seen by many as stereotypical of the chalk stream environment in which plants, fish and animals thrive. Grahame’s animal characters also like to fish and spend much of their time paddling around in boats.

Moving away from fly fishing, I stumbled over the rabbits of Richard Adams’s Watership Down. They live their communal lives in a typical chalk landscape and, in one particular scene in the novel, escape down the River Test on a punt.

Chalk streams in literature - Punting in Cambridge Photo by J.S. Watts)
Punting in Cambridge (Photo: J.S. Watts)

Something in the water 

Poets too have played around on punts and written poems about the chalk water experience. In Cambridge, Wordsworth’s poem Lines Written While Sailing a Boat at Evening was allegedly inspired by a walk along The Cam:

How richly glows the water’s breast 

Before us, tinged with evening hues,

Whilst the water down the road and the river at Grantchester was immortalised by Rupert Brooke in his poem, The Old Vicarage Grantchester:

Oh! there the chestnuts, summer through,

Beside the river make for you

A tunnel of green gloom, and sleep

Deeply above; and green and deep

The stream mysterious glides beneath,

Green as a dream and deep as death.

Clare Crossman, no mean poet herself, frequently writes about the chalk streams surrounding her South Cambridgeshire home and, as noted earlier, even I’ve managed to create two poems for the Waterlight Project based on the oral histories of local residents.

Keeping to the East of England, but heading north, there are the Lincolnshire Wolds where Alfred Lord Tennyson spent much of his life. The River Lymn flows close to the area around Somersby where Tennyson was born. Stockwith Mill on the River Lymn is quoted as the inspiration for Tennyson’s poem, The Miller’s Daughter:

I loved the brimming wave that swam

Thro’ quiet meadows round the mill,

The sleepy pool above the dam,

The pool beneath it never still,

There is also this particularly vivid description of the chalk mill-stream from the same poem:

Still hither thither idly sway’d
Like those long mosses in the stream.

Or from the bridge I lean’d to hear
The milldam rushing down with noise,
And see the minnows everywhere
In crystal eddies glance and poise
The tall flag-flowers when they sprung
Below the range of stepping stones,
Or those three chestnuts near, that hung
In masses thick with milky cones.

One discovery I wasn’t expecting in my trawl through the Internet was that the poet John Keats, who as a former Londoner I have always associated with London and Hampstead, wrote his famous poem To Autumn after an evening walk along the River Itchen near Winchester:

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies

And I could go on. As I continued to look for literary links to England’s Chalk streams I kept finding more and more poetry that had been written about the chalk’s glittering waterways. These poems are not necessarily as renowned or accomplished as Keats’s iconic To Autumn, but are still lovingly soaked in the bright waters that criss-cross England’s chalklands. It must be something about the shining, clear waters of this nation’s chalk streams that inspires writers to put pen to paper and causes their words to flow.

Tributary of the Rhee, Bassingbourn-cum-Kneesworth Photo by J.S. Watts
Tributary of the Rhee, Bassingbourn-cum-Kneesworth (Photo: J.S. Watts)

J.S. Watts is a poet and novelist. Her work appears in publications in Britain, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the States and has been broadcast on BBC and Independent Radio. She has edited assorted magazines and anthologies.

To date, J.S. has published six books: poetry collections, Cats and Other Myths and Years Ago You Coloured Me, plus multi-award nominated poetry pamphlet Songs of Steelyard Sue and her most recent pamphlet, The Submerged Sea. Her novels are A Darker Moon – dark fiction and Witchlight – paranormal. Her next novel, Old Light, is due out in Summer 2019. For further details see www.jswatts.co.uk.

To see more of J.S.’s photos please go to  http://wouldbephotography.blogspot.com.

Reflections on Water, Reflections on Climate Change

In the Waterlight Project’s first guest blog, poet Kate Swindlehurst begins with an imaginary journey along the Cam, Rhee and Mel as she reflects on the history of the river and impacts of our changing climate on our environment and in poetic responses.  


Photo by Kate Swindlehurst
Photo: Kate Swindlehurst

Cambridge, January, the dead of winter. Sometimes, when the weather is fine, I’m tempted after swimming to walk along the river rather than head straight home. These days I rarely swim anywhere other than in a chlorinated indoor pool and it’s 50 years since I had a dip in the Cam but early mornings along its banks can be magical and I like to think that its water still holds a part of me. Although geography has never been my strong point, I let my mind wander upstream to Grantchester and south, following the Rhee to the point where it receives the River Mel at Malton and then tracing the course of the Mel towards its source in Melbourn. Along the way I might meet my friend and poet Clare Crossman walking the dog or perhaps film-maker James Murray-White with his camera and I imagine the Cam reaching out to welcome the waters of the modest stream.

I’ve only walked Meldreth’s river a couple of times but the Waterlight website provides a compelling multifaceted picture of this small waterway, its flora and fauna, its geology and history. Poems and photographs, anecdotes and reminiscences and conversations come together to create a living map of memory and connotation which takes the reader beyond this particular chalk stream.

Tindale Washpool, photo by Richard Knights
Tindale Washpool, Photo: Richard Knights

Like Clare, I spent much of my adult life in Cumbria: not the Lake District, though that was in visiting distance, but close to the Eden Valley, a more remote north-eastern corner of the county where I learnt to dread the winter, its short days of horizontal rain and near darkness, cloud sitting stubbornly over the fells. The streams there spill over sandstone rather than chalk, carving a pathway through the soft red rock and there is Roman graffiti on the cliffs above the Gelt and the Irthing. I remember skinny-dipping in the Washpool near Tindale and the briefest splash in the River Gelt at Jockey Shield. Even though it was midsummer, the water was cold enough to turn my limbs blue.

A hundred years ago a stroll along the Mel would have been a very different experience, passing osier beds and mills, the steam laundry and brewery. Like its larger cousin in the north, it has also been subject to flooding, with hindsight attributable in large part to human activity or rather the lack of it. As the mills and brewery closed and arable farming replaced water meadows and osier beds, there was no longer a vested interest in maintaining the waterway.

Flooding & our changing climate

Carlisle floods 2015. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Carlisle floods 2015. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Back in Cumbria, rivers burst their banks three times while I was living there, with devastating consequences for thousands of residents across the county. Although each instance was prompted by record rainfall, there were clearly problems arising from large-scale development on the flood plain and an overloaded Victorian sewage system, compounded by inadequate flood defences. Families hit more than once struggled to afford the rising cost of insurance, so suffered a double impact. I vividly recall driving the long Warwick Road into Carlisle years after the 2009 floods, past skip after skip still standing outside ruined houses. Just before I left Cumbria for good, I rented out my house to a family who had just finished refurbishing their property when they again fell victim to flooding in 2015.

Globally, flooding is one of a number of indicators of our changing climate, with particular communities under repeated threat of losing their homes if not their lives, and with wildlife especially vulnerable. I recently attended an evening of poems on the theme of Climate Change, hosted jointly by Cambridge Conservation Initiative and Magma Poetry.

Poetry as opportunity

Magma - the climate change issue
Magma – the climate change issue

The event celebrated collaborations between eight poets and eight scientists and conservationists. As well as highlighting the damage we have inflicted on the planet, the outcome celebrated “the way arts practice can challenge and reshape approaches to contemporary conservation”, according to author and environmentalist John Fanshawe. Much of the work expressed a strong sense of loss: Jos Smith asked “Would you hear / The silence of lapwings, of thrushes?” Claudine Toutoungi said, “the last kittiwake has / no comment”. Nancy Campbell’s photograph Greenland Dogs No Ice pictures the two animals looking rather lost in a snow-free environment. And whilst Kathleen Jamie stresses the importance of advocacy in our response to nature, giving voice to aspects of the natural world, she has found her ability to write poetry silenced in the face of climate change.

John Kinsella is anything but silent, regarding poetry as an opportunity for protest and an integral part of his activism, which affects every area of life. He stands fast and roaring in the face of the bulldozers which raze the forest to the ground in the development of Western Australia’s Wheatbelt. Here he describes “the chainsaw effect”:

It is not subtle. It is not ambient…
…gung-ho,
blazon, overconfident. Hubristic
to the final cut, last drop of fuel.

Body of 'Splash' the Dolphin. Photoby DBCA
Body of ‘Splash’ the Dolphin. Photo: DBCA

Kinsella comes from the Swan River area of Perth in Western Australia, familiar to me at one remove in the person of Georgiana Molloy who, in 1830, arrived there from her native Cumbria with her new husband to establish a colony. I came upon her first in the herbarium in the Sainsbury Centre at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden and her extraordinary story, emerging from a stifling religious Victorian background into an independent pioneer with a passion for plant-collecting, became the subject of one of the short stories inspired by my residency. Kinsella enabled me to see her from a different angle, not only as a first-rate if undervalued botanist but also as a representative of a colonial past responsible for the wholesale theft of land from its indigenous peoples. For Kinsella, Swan River is also the site of damaging pollution, its population of dolphins dying tangled in fishing line or poisoned by toxic chemicals.

Photo by Kate Swindlehurst
Photo: Kate Swindlehurst

A quieter response to climate change came from Polly Atkin who also, coincidentally, lives in Cumbria. Her sequence Notes on a Transect echoes her conversation with British Trust for Ornithology’s Blaise Martay in form as well as content and reflects the joy in our relationship with the living world that both “kept returning to” in their exchange. Polly also records Blaise’s excitement – at the return of ospreys and beavers, for example – and the importance of excitement in building connections and instigating change.

I found both excitement and joy in Anna Selby’s Flowers in the Volcano:

At my feet, the impossibility
of three purple violets
shaking in the dark.

As I make for home along the Cam I’m thinking that these two qualities, excitement and joy, are also reflected in the Waterlight project. I love the way it marries the essential nourishment we gain from both words and water. Underpinned by dialogue between the arts (poetry, prose, image), considered and heartfelt responses to the natural world and a practical commitment to the messy business of effecting change, this local project is inspiring in its reach and its achievements. 


Kate Swindlehurst is poet and writer of short stories, novels and Parkinson’s & the Tango Effect: My Year on the Dance Floor, “a personal account of the physical, social and emotional benefits of my tango habit, and I believe it makes a significant if modest contribution to the data from the perspective of the dancer with Parkinson’s.” You can discover more of her work at http://www.kateswindlehurst.com.