Project Diary

In our Project Diary, Clare Crossman shares her reflections on events and other activities for the Waterlight project.

Waterlight Project Diary

Diary 4: September 2018

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.”

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.

Diary 3: August 2018

In Topcliffe Mill — where James and I spend an afternoon this month — are two anonymous poems from the 19th century, telling stories of theft and murder at the mill in the middle ages. Derring-do, robberies, and hidden treasure: the mill lends itself to adventures and ghosts. 

James, Bruce and I have seen quite a lot of each other in terms of planning, and arranging future events for autumn and winter. Our meetings usually take place at lunchtime in the pub. 

People often refer to the ‘dog days’ of August but it is one of my favourite months as many people are away and the pace of life slows. In ancient times the whole of August, because celebrations depended on where the equinox fell, was called Lammas: a time of ripeness and grains. Closely related to Lugh and Lughnasa in Ireland, these gods were of sun, light, harvest, fullness and their female counterparts were Ceres — the Roman goddess responsible for fertility and for helping people prepare and preserve corn — and Greek Demeter, the goddess of changes: the dark mother who sees summer tilting slowly in the harvest towards autumn. There are many stone carvings of these goddesses holding bunches of wheat.

Topcliffe Mill
Photograph: James Murray-White © 2018

Nothing can grow without water; we come from water and are largely made of it. So, it has felt entirely appropriate that James and I have spent an afternoon filming in the mill at Topcliffe in Meldreth. Everything remains: the millstones for grinding, the sluice and its gates, the hods to hold the grain, the sheer steps up the narrow towers, the great cogs of the machinery all powered by water. Kathryn Betts the owner of the mill house and mill tells us that she and her husband have looked into restoring the old mill wheel there, with its overshot water power. If that was possible, they could begin to make flour again. 

Diary 2: May 2018

In mid-May James, our conservationist friend Bruce, and I 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.  

Diary 1: May 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.