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.

A Draught of Clear Water

Clare Crossman reflects on her experiences of rivers and their flow, and the value of poetry in our relationships with 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!