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.

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