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.
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
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.
Local historian and conservationist Bruce Huett shares another enthusiastic response for the Waterlight film, this time at Royston Probus Club at Royston Golf Club on 10th October.
Although the film showing following a sumptuous meal, accompanied by wine, attention was riveted on the screen throughout.
After the showing a lively discussion ensued, encompassing mills, otter hounds, the spiritual nature of water, local fishing and even beavers. The group were very interested in the history of the maintenance of waterways and I was able to describe findings from 13th-century manorial records, enclosure documents, 1950s flood prevention correspondence and the work of the River Mel Restoration Group on how this had evolved.
Members had interesting accounts about other streams they had visited around the country and it was distressing to hear that a local stream in Foxton (described in The Common Stream by Rowland Parker) and the Guilden Brook were now dried up. Someone remembered fishing here and catching dabs.
The group were particularly impressed with the way that the powerful imagery supported Clare’s evocative poetry, effectively set in a historical, social and environmental context. Several members of the local photography group were present and commented on how well the film shooting captured the “spirit” of the river.
The group were so impressed with the film that a walk will be arranged next year to experience the river in more detail, including, of course, the local public houses. The link here is that water for the local beer would have come from the Mel in days now past.
It has also resulted in an invitation to show it at the Royston Ladies Lunch Club next year.
Editor note:Probus clubs are a spin-off from Rotary for retired people to meet socially, often over a meal. Royston Probus Club holds lunch meetings at Royston Golf Club on the second Thursday of each month (starting at 12.30 for 1 pm), with a guest speaker approximately every other meeting.
Local historian and conservationist Bruce Huett updates us with the latest screening of the project’s film, at the Community Hall in Melbourn on 25th July.
On a very hot and thunderous night, we welcomed over 60 people to the Melbourn Community Hall to watch the first public showing of the Waterlight film. We had to open doors on both sides of the hall in an attempt to provide a through-breeze, although this provided an added local rural atmosphere to the proceedings as the neighbouring church bell practice was in full swing. More people kept arriving, we had to quickly unpack more chairs, and the hall was filled to capacity.
Clare gave a brief introduction to the background to the making of the film and then there was an appreciative hush, occasionally punctuated by appropriate laughs or intakes of breath, as the film unfolded. Despite the conditions, attention was riveted to the screen and the ending received with enthusiastic applause.
During the refreshments break people mingled and exchanged their memories of the river triggered by the film. The audience was made up of a wide range of local residents, some actively involved with the river or who had lived around (or spent time in) it. Anthony and Sylvia Hopkinson, previous owners of the Bury (the property at the source of the stream) were present. The manor had been in Sylvia’s family for many generations. They said the film brought back many happy memories of their times there and Sylvia was genuinely touched by a photograph of her grandmother included in the film. Another attendee identified a girl in an old photograph (with a jam jar for fishing) as her mother (this picture, below, features on our Taming the Mel page, part of the section on The Story of the Mel ).
Many commented on how the film had brought out the wonderful character of the stream, a stream which had been transformed over their lifetimes. However there was also much discussion of the current problems facing the river, and similar ones in the area. One person mentioned three rivers he had visited recently: Little Willbraham, Cherry Hinton Brook and Potton Brook, all of which had dried up in stretches.He also mentioned a recent talk by a civil engineer on the problems caused to these steams by over-extraction and inappropriate design of runoffs from housing development.
People had also come from other groups associated with river conservation in Cambridgeshire and one group were keen to try and carry out a similar project on their local nature reserve. Obviously we have offered to help as one of the aims of the project was to distribute knowledge amongst communities.
In fact the backbone of the project, as well as the artistic side, has been community engagement and the combination of the website, memory capture events, activities with school children and now the showings and lively discussions has amply fulfilled this objective.
We now look forward to future reporting of showings in Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire and at festivals further afield.
We’re delighted to share two short clips from the Waterlight film. The first shows local walker Chris Ranner and his dogs enjoying the river, and the second features Clare reading her poem, Vaughan Williams at Warren Bank.
An extract from the Waterlight film, showing footage of local walker Chriss Ranner and his dogs enjoying the River Mel. Filmed by Nigel Kinnings for the Waterlight Project. The Waterlight Project on Vimeo.
An extract from the Waterlight film, showing footage of the River Mel with a voiceover from Clare Crossman reading her poem ‘Vaughan Williams at Warren Bank’. Filmed by Nigel Kinnings for the Waterlight Project, including footage by James Murray-White. The Waterlight Project on Vimeo.
You can see another clip, featuring another of Clare’s poems – Waste – in our previous post The Waterlight Film Premiere, which gives a summary of the earlier, invitee-only screening at The Plough in Shepreth.
Local historian and conservationist Bruce Huett, a core member of the Waterlight Project team, updates us on the latest successful milestone — the local (and national!) premiere of the film we’ve been working on throughout the project.
Over fifty people crammed into the upper room at The Plough in Shepreth to watch the first showing of the Waterlight film of the river Mel. Expectations were high as many of those present had helped to fund the project. After the excited hum of attendees exchanging experiences of the river and their involvement in the film all went silent as the lights dimmed and the opening sequence started with gentle sound and evocative images of the river. All was quiet for the forty-odd minutes of the film. When it ended there was a spontaneous eruption of applause and the lights went up to reveal an audience enraptured by the film.
A brief discussion period elicited only praise for the production and stimulated some discussion on issues of water levels and problems of extraction and potential danger to wildlife. Representatives from the River Mel Restoration Group were able to give the audience the benefit of their extensive understanding of the issues and the efforts they were taking to ensure the Environment Agency was aware of the situation and were taking action.
We were lucky to have representatives from local conservation groups including the Melwood Conservation Group, Cam Valley Forum and the Cambridge Conservation Initiative.
The Melwood representative described the film as “really lovely- actually very moving at times! We thought that the balance between speech, poetry, music and visuals was just right — and the poetry was especially enjoyed.”
The chairman of Cam Valley Forum, an organisation supporting river conservation in the Cam Valley, posted on our website “Your poetry and the Waterlight film were greatly enjoyed by everyone. I thought the eclectic mix of genres in the film was so special and genuinely unique in my experience. It was a wonderful word and picture image of ‘place’ and human belonging, of local history, social history, natural history and much more. The weave of the stream’s images and sounds with your descriptive poetry was technically excellent and deeply memorable. I can’t wait to see it again.”
The wanting to see it again was something expressed by several of the attendees and we are hoping for a good attendance at the next showing a the Melbourn Community Hall at 8pm on 25th July.
We were very glad that many of those who had sponsored or helped to fund the film were present. They were unanimous in their appreciation that the money had been well used to provide a community asset. The representative from TPP (a major science research company in Melbourn, who was a significant sponsor) lived locally and said that the film would encourage him to spend more time with his family exploring this wonderful local environmental resource. He described the film as “very loving, a visual caress”. The company wrote: “it sounds like the perfect piece of history for the village to treasure!” — exactly what we were trying to achieve: a heritage resource as well as something to be enjoyed now.
Others described the content as “captivating”, “mesmerising”. The event also provided opportunities to investigate wider showing of the film and there is a possibility that it will be shown at DEFRA (the government department responsible for the environment), at a Cambridge Conservation Initiative venue in Cambridge and a Cam Valley Forum event as well as festivals etc.
We were very appreciative of the support given by the owners of The Plough. They were very welcoming and supportive and also helped out with ensuring the AV worked well, etc. An excellent venue with a great range of beer and beverages!
We are delighted that this first step in the film distribution has been so successful and we are now planning exciting further distribution plans. Watch this space! In fact, as I write this we have excellent feedback from fellow project team member, filmmaker James Murray-White, who has been showing the film during a visit north:
“Very positive screening here this afternoon at Expressing the Earth, with the Scottish Geopoetics Institute here in the Borders… Most folk loved the range of ways we covered the river, and the organiser raved about it showing off the best of British folklore culture, something he craves as a Gaelic speaker from the Isle of Luing. And one of the participants, a film-poet, was in tears: turns out she grew up in Melbourne and it took her right back to a happy childhood in the Mel! She’d love to join us for a screening some time, when she’s back in Cambridge.”
Included as part of the screening was this extract from the film: Waste features Clare Crossman reading one of her poems to highlight problems of waste and pollution of our watercourses, such as the Mel.
You can find more of Clare’s poems for the Waterlight Project — and poems from other contributors — at our Waterlight Poems page. And Clare’s website includes many more of her poems.
For details of future screenings of the Waterlight film, keep an eye on our Upcoming Events page or sign up for news via the Receive Updates link on our Contact Us page.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Even though short and hidden, the river Mel has its own beauty and as Eric Schumacher wrote many years ago, Small is Beautiful.There arevistas, 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.
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.
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.