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Essay: The River - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
Essay: The River

It rises in the fields of a small farm, on the very border of our county, where three counties meet.  These fields have been farmed, both as arable and as grazing lands, for a thousand years.  

Before that, this was forest, in fact as in law; and before that, this coombe, this cwm, that gives its name to the farm, was a route: naturally, for it provided a way for the same reasons of topography that explain why it is here that a river rises.  Around it, the downs crowd close, with their own ways, ridgeways, looking down upon the farm and the headsprings of the nascent river: downs with old, odd names, names abraded to nonsense in the current and the common tongue, yet hinting at some mysterious, half-glimpsed past, over time immeasurable, when the true names of them were names to conjure with.  There are barrows and tumuli upon the downs, hedgehogs – mortuary chambers crowned with trees – and Neolithic fortifications; and with their usual eagle’s eye for terrain, the Roman military engineers set their legions’s camps upon the chalk.  The coombe where the farm now fatly sits, richly prosperous, has undoubtedly been manured with blood.  Here Neolithic man passed, trembling, in small bands, alert to the danger of other men, more alert still to the danger of predators, and most alert to the numinous presences of his dire gods as he made his way, suffused with awe, to the great ritual centres of the Plain.  Here the Celts followed, after, when all Britain was theirs, before ever the eagle of Rome or the white Saxon horse or Odin’s raven was seen.  In perfect order, armour glinting in the sun, with measured pace upon metalled roads, sited to follow the river’s line or ruled straight upon a map, disdaining mere nature’s obstacles, the legions marched past, imperially secure, their cadence certain and sure, their empire known to be eternal and assured.  Here the Saxons had a herepath, a herpath, a war-way, up which Alfred’s fyrd came with shock of war to meet the Dane; here the Normans came, with fire and sword and slaughter, and iron rule after.  Beside the river, strip lynchets show the long labour of the mediæval ploughman, where was the placid and unhurried pace of the patient ox-team.


This is where the river is born.  Here is the first source of the river that begins as a chalk stream, beloved of trout and angler alike, garlanded with ranunculus, and that creates an eponymous valley between ridge and down and the Great Chalk Plain, a vale of towns and cornlands, mills and trade and arable land, sheep and cattle: cheese to the surrounding chalk.  Here rises the river that named the town – once the county town, but long since decayed to quiet retirement, three county towns ago – the town that named the county; the river that there joins others of its county to form the great afon that broadens and slows as it wends its way out of the shire and through another to the sea, to the sea at the harbour that debouches into the great bay, crowded with shipping, steely with vessels of war, bright with pleasure craft.  To the sea, the salt and bitter sea, where all rivers meet at last and lose themselves, the Channel seas, the Narrow Seas of historic renown, of gale and tumult and the thunder of war; there to be reborn as the clouds drive inland once more to the downs, the chalk aquifer, and the rain seeps through to rise in springs at the little coombe farm where the river rises to run yet again and eternally in its cycle to the sea.


Let us follow the river, the rover, the running of the waters.


Sodden clouds, gravid with rain, drive inwards on great gales, from the Bristol Channel to the north-nor’eastwards, up from the Channel waters to southwards, it matters not.  What matter are the rains.  The armada of clouds split their hulls and founder, sinking, their cargo of rain lost and spilling.  This is treasure trove.


The chalk is porous.  The rain that falls upon the ridges and downs is falling, in effect, into a stony sponge.  The marine Upper Cretaceous chalk – a permeable and highly absorbent limestone, calcitic – drinks the rain in and filters it, more efficiently even than the Jurassic oolitic limestones of the scarped Cotswold cuestas.  The rainwater is naturally slightly acid, and as it flows through the chalk aquifer, it erodes and dissolves the chalk, creating soil that weathers down to such lowlands beneath the downlands escarpments as the small coombe where our river rises.  The clear, pure water that springs from the chalk is richly mineralised, and its load of solute chalk charges it.  It supports, therefore, little in the way of suspended matter, and does not precipitate muddy sediments; its bed is flinty, gravelled, where the flints that embedded in the chalk settle to form the riverbed and the dim, sudden-flashing world of the trout.  Clear and temperate are the waters of the newborn chalk stream, and regular is its flow: these things are the gift of the chalk aquifer to the river, naturally regulating the flow of waters, naturally maintaining the springing headwaters at a temperature of some ten degrees.


The gravels are the natural home to trout and grayling.  The river water, clear and constant in temperature, is not now acid, as it was when it fell as rain, but slightly alkaline, as well as rich in minerals, and is the natural home to ranunculus – and to watercress in vast beds.  And it is the larder of the fish: small invertebrates, the occasional frog, and, most especially, wonderfully visible in the clear waters, pupæ, larvæ, nymphs, and adult insects.  From this happenstance of their diet, coupled with, in times past, their place in our diet, has come about the trout’s great role in the noble, gentle art of fly-fishing.  The trout’s role, and the chalk stream’s, also: there is no water resource on earth more carefully and more continuously managed by man.


But with or without the anxious care of anglers, the river flows on.  Let us follow.


From its first source, even where the young river flows through a single field, it divides the land; even in but a single meadow that it transects, its complex influence makes the lands on either bank subtly different to one another.  Even here, in its swaddling-clothed infancy, the river shapes the land, and the life of man.  And most of those who dwell upon its banks accept the shaping, and the fields on either bank are differently maintained in accordance with the river’s will, one in corn, perhaps, and the other given over to pasturage.  The fields are hedgerowed, a patchwork, but where the hedgerow does not demark the bounds, the river runs.


Moulding the land, the river flows on.


The ‘diving rill’ that is our young river – not yet having acquired its other and better-known name – in its valley has midwifed six villages in its short course, here beneath the chalk escarpments.  It has been farming country since 3500 BCE.  The villages of this vale of the diving rill have evocative names, memorials of families long gone, monasteries long suppressed, ancient potteries, the hill, and the long bridge: the first bridge over our infant river.  Cattle and sheep and corn; grazing lands, fallow fields, the penning of the beasts in the fallow lands to dung the soil for the new crop: these cycles are immemorial. 


And where the land supports these crops and beasts, fills granaries and larders, sets the distaff to spinning and the churn to the making of butter and cheese, men will live, and congregate in villages the better to use the land and its richness: land and richness that are the gift of the river.  In these nucleated settlements, trade might thrive, and life seek a level higher than mere subsistence; and from Saxon times, at least, there was in each small village by the river in this valley, a parish church.  The Saxon churches were wooden, or wattle and daub, but mean or great, they were an entry into a world of spirit that raised men above the level of the beasts who shared their cottages.


And here, already in its youthful course, our river’s banks are bordered by trees, the staff and support of human habitation and tools for the hand of man.  The willows stand in rank and file, pollarded for centuries, at once nature’s doing and man’s artefact. 


It was here, in the villages of this valley, beside our young river, that Great Alfred gathered the men of Wessex and set forth to front the Dane at Ethandun.


Now the shadows of men with long implements over their shoulders, that the sun above the downs casts upon the immemorial turf, are no longer the shadows of villeins going to their fields or the Saxon housecarls setting forth for battle with spear and pike, but of tweedy retired colonels going to the water to cast a fly, and water-bailiffs and fishing managers wading out in the morning’s mists to cut and clear the ranunculus, the crowsfoot, from the waters.  Ranunculus, flourishing, declares that the river and the trout are flourishing also; but ranunculus unchecked is a threat to all.


The river flows on, clean and clear and cool, mineral-rich and highly oxygenated, and the trout rise to the fly.  We must follow on, downstream.


The river broadens, now, and its valley broadens with it, the downs and ridges drawing away from its bed to give it space.  The last villages of the vale of the diving rill are before us, and the manor that briefly dominated the valley: no mediæval manor, this, but part of the spoils of the Reformation, for before the break with Rome, both in Saxon and in Norman times, from before Domesday Book to the fall of Plantagenet at Bosworth, the lords of the valley were lords spiritual, and the feud was vested in the abbey chapter.  A new stream joins our river, rising from a lake in the clay-lands that once supported a small industry of crockers – the West Country word for potters.  Our river is truly a river now, and takes its best-known name.


The country to either side presents a new pattern: green and common and wood now interleave themselves with the fields and meads.  The next settlement has a compound placename, of which the second word is ‘Marsh’, and a marsh it is, as our river matures and begins to spread itself in the flatter lands, amidst the clays, in a complex soil environment of greensand, chalk, and weathered clays.


Downriver, then.  Just past the marsh is our first town, named for its ancient Minster.  The river here is a young and tireless god, creating the land and the life of the land.  The chalk downlands, the six hills round, shelter the town – in both senses, from hostile weather and from hostile men alike, for three hills of the six were first fortified in the Iron Age.  The chalk continues, also, its ancient role as aquifer, watering the land below, and there was a great forest near when first men built the town, as well.  The downs are prime pasturage for sheep, the greensand is a perfect garden, and the meadows are rich with corn.  The town of the Minster is at the very centre of Alfred’s ancient kingdom of Wessex, and was destined from the first to be a corn market.  But none of this would be were it not for the river, the creative god who is also a servant, on whose broad and untiring back the carriage of commerce is borne, from the Minster’s town through town and city to the far port on the Channel at the river’s mouth.  Portway and Silver Street are broad avenues of commerce and trade, but the river is above all, bears all, creates all; it is the river’s doing that there is the Minster town, much less that its power and port, its commerce and consequence, were memorialised by the pens of Leland and Daniell, Aubrey and Celia Fiennes, as what Cobbett approved as ‘a very nice town: every thing belonging to it is solid and good’.


And still the river, lined with trees, preserves the virtue of its origins as a pure and rich chalk stream.  Let us follow the river.


The river now is not only god and servant, creator and beast of burden, it is a force applied.  We are in a stretch now of weirs and mills, from hamlet to village to market town.  We are in the heart of the Valley of the River, and it provides for all things: the corn that grows, the trees that are builded in structures and shaped to tool and cog, and the overshot motive power of the mills that grind the corn; the irrigation of the fields for graze and for fodder, the driving force of the mills that spin and weave and felt and nap: woollen mills, tucking mills, fulling mills.  That men do not go hungry and naked, still more that men go well-fed and gowned and with gold in their purses, in a land in which, as a Lancastrian parliament once enshrined in an Act, the wealth of the wool towns was ‘ever the livelihood of the poor commons of this land’, all this: the riches and the civic accomplishments, the great churches and the noble buildings: all this is the gift of the river.


On down, with the waters as they wend to the sea.


Chalk and river gravel and greensand outcroppings, the valley and the river.  Sheep and corn – barley, here – here the soils are light and easy to the plough, but thin, requiring manure each wintertide.  There is a village here, once a town in law, with a market charter, but a village always in all the ways that matter, here where a winterbourne, an intermittent tributary, joins our river, and where a good ford crosses it.  It has been settled since at least the Bronze Age, and is one of a number of Roman villas that the river in its time supported: civilised places, with mosaic pavement floors still arresting and charming after almost two millennia. 


The need to manure the thin soils had led the village folk to close-fold their flocks on the cornlands at night and to pen their sheep in the arable land at the end of the year, to dung the fields, but there was not fodder enough to see the sheep through the winter, and all but a remnant sufficient to restock the herd were slaughtered each year.  The river provided a solution.  Indeed, it was the river that had provided the first remedy, for it was the willows of the river that made the hurdles that were used to close-fold the sheep of nights, a portable fencing.  But there was a better way, and the river was its key.


Beginning in the 1620s, those who farmed and grazed their flocks by our river began to construct the great water meadows, the floated meadows that so transformed the land and its life.  The Harnham Water Meadows Trust describes the process:


In constructing, or floating, irrigated meadows the purpose was to cover the grass with a thin blanket of water from the chalk stream. There was an elaborate network of hatches and channels to distribute the river water over the surface of the whole area to be irrigated and to drain it off; creating in the process the means, by management of the water, to provide a constantly moving sheet of water. This maintained the grass at a steady temperature, protected it from frost and deposited valuable silt and sediment around the roots.


There was a much earlier growth of the grass providing the ‘early bite’ grazing in the months up to April or May when the downland grazing was poor and the hay stock exhausted. Larger flocks could be kept over winter to enrich the arable. Later in the year one or more hay crops could be taken. The Wessex chalkland was ideally suited to this development. The fast flowing streams were easily diverted and the water came direct from the aquifers, or reservoirs, in the chalk, lime rich and at a constant temperature.


A water meadow is a man-made pasture irrigation system operated at the discretion of the farmer. The aim is either to increase total grass production, or bring it forward in time during the agricultural year. The operation of water meadows, a practice known as ‘floating’ (sometimes ‘drowning’) is based upon skilful construction and year-round management. The high degree of management differentiates them from grazing marshes and from flood meadows and other naturally flooded areas.


Water meadows cause the grass to grow by bringing production earlier in the spring (by as much as one month) through warming the soil above 5oC. These trigger temperate grass growth producing the early bite for grazing animals. Otherwise, irrigation re-wets the soil to produce a hay crop later in the season while the flowing water used in floating supplies oxygen to the sward during floating and, importantly, the water contains fertilising sediment containing nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous.


The practice was known in medieval Europe, but it is in the ‘Wessex’ region of southern England during the post-medieval period that water meadows reached their zenith.  After irrigation events in winter and early spring (that varied from a few days to several weeks) the meadows were drained and animals were turned out on them to graze.  Although today it is largely cattle that are seen on the meadows of the … Valley, historically it was sheep that were central to the rural economy of Wessex.  


Regionally there was the sheep-corn system, a truly remarkable integrated agricultural system of soil, water and nutrient management. Water meadows had spread rapidly since the sixteenth century and their success depended upon their production of animal products (notably sheep meat and wool), on producing a reliable hay crop and boosting the productivity of cereal crops grown on the thin chalky soils of the downland located adjacent to the valley bottoms.  Animals were turned out on the meadows by day (usually to graze at very high stocking densities) and herded by the shepherd to be ‘folded’ on the cereal land by night.  Their dung and urine thereby provided fertiliser for the crop.  As time progressed, it was the impact on the cereal land that was economically most significant; the corn representing an important cash crop for the farmer….

*** Surviving water meadow systems are a part of the heritage of Wessex.  More than a mere historical curiosity there is great interest in them from landowners and farmers, from conservation bodies (such as the … Trust) and local authorities in seeing their preservation and re-instatement. They provide not only living archaeological monuments but are also systems providing important habitats (including habitats for wading birds and the southern damsel fly) and environmental functions including fertilisation and detention of floodwater. Recent research is showing their ability to trap sediment, utilise phosphorus and maybe modify the temperature of river systems in a beneficial way. 


And so we follow the river.


We pass three communities of some importance, at least to me.  One bears the name of our river, unchanged.  The other two are a manor and sub-manor of some note.  But we must follow the river a trifle further, to the town that bears the name of river’s to(w)n, the caput of the county of old, from which the name of the shire derives.


This was the ancient capital of the Wessex kings before Winchester came to hold that honour, and long remained the administrative centre of the county.  It was renowned for its pomp and power, its mint and its merchantry, but most of all for its learning, for it was here, in the year and on the very site that Alfred broke the power of the Danes, that the Abbey was enlarged and reformed, to adorn the realm with scholarship.  At the Benedictine abbey, St Edith would light a lamp of learning that flames yet, and, princess and scholar both, would make the Englishwoman a force to be reckoned with ever after, with kings themselves glad to sit at her feet and nobles urging her to accept a terrestrial crown, which she declined in favour of a celestial one.


Here, also, another chalk stream river joins our river, and the great afon is born of their marriage; and across the river is the cathedral city, site of the greatest of all English cathedrals.  Its burgesses and merchants were the rival of any in London town – one, thrice its MP and four times mayor, ‘imported dyestuffs, almonds, fruit, fish, soap, tar and iron, and engaged in piracy on the high seas, and his personal contribution to the royal levy of 1449 was 2% of the total of £66’ – and its pre-eminence in cultural life was attested by the stays of such as Wren (a local lad made good in London), Turberville, Boyle, and Pepys.


Yet none of this would exist were it not for the river, the existence and benefit of which was the reason why the see was removed to this new foundation from its previous waterless site on the downlands, and the cathedral city founded.


But we must leave the close and the cathedral, and the water meadows that the brush of Constable adorned, and follow our river, now joined by others into the great afon we must henceforward journey down, through a succession of stately homes and their great parks.


The valley has now spread almost to either horizon, broad and flat, and the mature afon has begun to spread itself in meander and oxbow.  To either hand, the ancient tumuli still emerge from the everlasting land, and the Giant’s Chair surveys the river’s floodplain.  Where our river rose in what was once forest, farming is but a few thousand years old; at the first market town it created, men have farmed for five thousand years.  But the lands where we now are have been inhabited and farmed for seven thousand.


This next village of so long a habitation is notable for its ancient moot-place, its real ale brewery, and its ford, where the good road passed on its journey from the seaport to the cathedral city: all these, the gifts and consequences of the river and its shaping of the land.  Here also is the ancient cuckoo fair, the harbinger of the springtide.  Nearby, the heirs of Lord Nelson long dwelt, in the shadow of the Immortal Memory: and the river, responding, takes us on, towards the sea.


And as we leave the village of the ancient moot, we leave, also, our county, and enter the next, whence we shall proceed to that third and final county where the afon will meet the Channel at last.


Here is the village of the broom moor, with its Giant’s Grave and its Mizmaze, and all its long history of Bronze Age settlement and monastic endeavour.  Here the river has long supported wood and forest, farm and field and ancient fort, weir and mill and The Shallows.  The river, resource and road in one, bears all, and provides all.


And it bears us away, towards the sea.


Like all rivers, it is in no hurry to lose itself in the great, salt sea, and its meanders now are wide.  In those sheltering arms lies the old market town of the ford and bridge, a notorious smuggler’s town adorned with a mediæval seven-arched bridge of great purity of line.  It is no wonder that it attracted the artist’s eye of Augustus John, who made his home there in the last years of his scandalous and brilliant life.


But not even the painter’s skill, nor all the meanders of a reluctant river in flatter land, can stay the waters on their way to their destiny, to the harbour and the sea.  We follow on, past gravel pit and fat farm, past weir and mill, to the old cattle market town, now a centre of brewing, and a portal to the New Forest: the rhyne-wade town, where Monmouth was held after the pitiful failure of his mad rebellion.


We are in broad country now, and the towns are increasingly given over to tourism, to support of the boating interest, and to service as dormitory towns for the next great conurbation.  But the river is responsible for it all, as it has ever been: a river now fully matured, broad and slow and deep, and no longer recognisable as the pure chalk stream of its origins.  Because it meets the Channel in a bay, and both that bay and the afon’s own mouth face east-south-eastwards, it is not tidal for very much of its reach, and it never knows the tidal bore that Severn knows; but soon enough, it will cease to be fully sweet, and begin to become brackish with the influence of the sea.


But that is downstream, past these pastures and woods, past these farms and forest margins.  We are borne down.


The river is in no haste to meet its destiny, in the arms of the sea.  The course splits, to merge again, and doubles back upon itself.  Yet the waters continue their ceaseless flow seawards, and we with them.


And we are now in the third and last of the counties on our journey, although this is a new thing: the county we have just left traditionally held this area.  The gulls scream overhead, the sound harsh to ears more accustomed to the skylark of the great chalk, and the scent of the sea is in our nostrils.  We are come at last to the city of the harbour, where the River Stour meets our afon, to the city between the two rivers, the tween-ham, once one of Great Alfred’s royal burghs.  It was a Bronze Age centre, and an Iron Age market (the ironstone boulders attracting craftsmen, with smelter and smithy), and a Roman vill, before the Saxons came to hold it.  The Normans seized upon it as a fortified point and erected its great priory as well, on a site that had been given over to the work of God since the year 700, making it a place of consequence ecclesiastical and military alike.


And here, at last, our river comes to the tidal basin, to the embrace of the sea, and beyond the bar is the great bay, where warships pass and gaily-coloured pleasure craft of sufficiently shallow draught dart into the small harbour within the bar, where once there were fleets of war and trade – never so many as at nearby Southampton or Portsmouth, but enough, from the days of Claudius Cæsar to those of Bluff King Hal – bound for Gaul, bound for Normandy and Anjou, bound for France.  Here the river and the River Stour, meeting it, are filled with small sail, and the gin flows like the rivers, and Tory hails Tory from yacht’s bridge to yacht’s bridge, resplendent in blazer and flannels.  And in the bay between the mudflats and the great Isle offshore, on the skirts of the Forest, the waters rise again to the skies, to become the rain that falls on the downland where three chalk counties meet, and seep through the chalk, and rise in springs at a small farm in a coombe, to flow as our river once more to this harbour, itself, like all that is between, the gift of the river, its creation and work, shaping the land and man’s life upon and in the land.  History is now and England.


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12 comments or Leave a comment
From: lunaedraconis Date: September 30th, 2006 07:09 am (UTC) (Link)
I love you.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: September 30th, 2006 03:20 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you.

You're very kind.
From: tree_and_leaf Date: September 30th, 2006 03:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
Lovely. And nice use of Eliot at the end...
wemyss From: wemyss Date: September 30th, 2006 03:53 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you.

And any learned suggestions are welcomed for its improvement.
serriadh From: serriadh Date: September 30th, 2006 06:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
That's beautiful. Your writing always has such an elegaic quality to it that's quite touching.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: September 30th, 2006 08:23 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you.

It's a shame, really, isn't it, that the elegaic mode seems so appropriate to discussing the threatened countryside.

But, truly, you're too kind. I'm so glad you found good in it.
serriadh From: serriadh Date: September 30th, 2006 10:56 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Thank you.

It's not just that the countryside itself is threatened, it's more that a whole way of looking at our countryside and our history - an appreciation that it matters, if you like.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: October 1st, 2006 12:50 pm (UTC) (Link)

Yes, well.

Wasn't it Betjeman who said, 'Who runs the country? The RSPB: their members are behind every hedge'?
wren_chan From: wren_chan Date: October 1st, 2006 05:24 am (UTC) (Link)
Wemyss, love, may I print this out that I might take it to my Creative Writing professor and ask him is this, then, what you mean by prose poetry?
wemyss From: wemyss Date: October 1st, 2006 12:48 pm (UTC) (Link)


... As you wish.

I'm honoured.
wren_chan From: wren_chan Date: October 1st, 2006 04:45 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Well...

Glee! *snugs* And it's no less than you're due, truly.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: October 1st, 2006 05:20 pm (UTC) (Link)

You're too kind.

Thank you.
12 comments or Leave a comment