The Pull of the River
Tuesday, August 31, 2021
Continuing with recommendations of books on the theme of water:
The Pull of the River by Matt Gaw is an exploration of the UK's waterways "from the smallest tributaries to stent-straight canals and thick arteries that pump toward the sea. Over chalk, gravel, clay and mud. Through fields, woodlands, villages, towns and cities to experience places that might otherwise go unnoticed and perhaps unloved." Travelling in a homemade red canoe, Gaw makes his way down the Waveney, the Stour, the Lark, the Granta, the Colne, the Otter and other rivers -- sometimes alone, but most often with his friend and rowing partner James Treadaway. The text is an aquatic travelogue full of natural, social, and folkloric histories of each waterway; it's also a poignant portrait of a friendship bonded in adventure.
In the book's longest journey, Gaw and Treadaway follow the Thames from the Cotswold countryside to the middle of London, starting at the river's unprepossessing source at Thames Head near Kemble. Gaw writes:
"It is trying to rain as we turn off the main road and lope over a muddy track. A miserable, wind-blown drizzle. A mizzle. The path bends past a scrapyard filled with shipping containers and broken-down cars. To the right, the double lines of rail track race each other to the horizon. We cross and head over a stile and past an old wall, shoulder blades of dry stone jammed together and crusted with thick skins of bright white lichen. In front of us the field slopes up to a small copse with a straggling line of old thorns tracking through the centre. And then we see it. A stone, guarded by an old ash: a flecked marble plinth that marks the source of the Thames: 'The Conservation of the River Thames 1857-1974. This Stone Was Placed Here to Mark the Source of the River Thames.'
"Directly in front of it is a small pit lined with stone. There are records that a well stood in Trewsbury Mead as late as the 18th century, surrounded by a wall measuring some eight feet. The wall was demolished, eroded, or shouldered down by cattle, and the well filled in, leaving just this tiny Andy Goldsworthy circle of oolite stone; a font to hold and offer up clear water; a cairn signifying both beginning and end.
"River sources are places of intrigue, portals from the underworld to this world, where water pulses, pumps or just trickles from mysterious beds to glint and dance in the sun. They are places of transition from the dark to the light, the starting point of a symbolic circle that sees a river rise to journey to the sea and return with the rain. In Norse mythology 'Hvergelmir', which means something like 'bubbling boiling spring', is the origin -- the source -- of all living things and the place to which everything will eventually return. But behind all the power and personality there has also been wonder; a sense of human curiousity at how something so great and powerful could spring from something so small. After all, to journey to a source is to go backward -- against the flow."
As they follow the river north and east from Crickdale to Lechlade-on-Thames (not far from William Morris' Kelmscott Manor), Gaw reflects on the mythology and sacred history of Britain's inland waters:
"At Castle Eaton, the church of St Mary the Virgin is nearly dipping its toes in the water, its stone gold blushed with pink. A site of Christian worship since the 12th century, it is a place that was probably special for people long before that.
"Rivers have often been connected with the spiritual world, sources of life and death. It's one of the reasons there are so many gods, nymphs and myths associated with them. According to legend, for example, the Wye, the Severn and the River Ystwyth all share the same story: all three were nymphs conceived from must, rain, snowmelt, moss and marsh and born to the Lord of the Mountains, Plynlimon. When the day came for them to leave their home, to set out into the world, Ystwyth headed west, taking the shortest route to the coast, meeting the Irish sea by the town that would take her name. Hafren went next, winding through England and Wales, travelling for long miles before she reached the Bristol Channel; her shimmering route became known as the Severn. But the third daughter, Vaga (the Latin name of Wye and meaning wandering), wanted neither to rush nor spend time in the world of men. Instead she chose a quieter route, whispering through hills and crags, seeking out the wild places where beauty lived on. She sang through the valleys and forests: a song for the porpoising otter; for the salmon; for the curtseying bob of the dipper; for the kingfisher, whose jewelled back she softly kissed. She danced and darted, joyful, serene, all the way to Hafren, who rushed back upstream to meet her and guide her on, towards the sea.
"History overflows with rivers that are regarded either as divinities or possessing other-worldly powers. It should be no surprise that the Thames had the same treatment. No one is quite sure when Old Father Thames was first evoked, but there is plenty to suggest that those living by the river have been paying their dues for hundreds if not thousands of years. An Iron Age shield was dredged from the depths at Battersea in 1875 and ancient votive offerings are still constantly uncovered along the river, picked from the strandline by mudlarks and archaeologists.
"Perhaps its personification as a god, or the creation of myths around it, was a way of understanding the river and its changes; the act of worship an attempt to control or impose order on water that has the power to shape and fertilise land, to give life and to take it away. The divine river helped to make sense of the mystery, the beauty and the destruction of the natural world.
"Some suggest that Old Father Thames has links to other gods. Peter Ackroyd says Father Thames 'bears a striking resemblance to the tutelary gods of the Niles and Tiber'. The Roman river god Tiberinus certainly shares key characteristics with him: the beard, the locks, the aversion to clothes. Ackroyd suggestions that Old Father Thames's hipsterish follicles could represent the braiding channels of the river's flow. But whatever his past, Old Father Thames has come to be a personification of the river in both good times and bad. He has been seen as a revered guardian while also caricatured as a rude and filthy tramp, during the pollution of the 19th century, surrounded by dead fish and rotting livestock, offering up his children Diphtheria, Cholera and Scrofula to those who lived and worked on his waters.
"We continue slowly, taking a left bend, with the sun gilding water that is retreating from the fields. The current, no long funnelled by obstacles, slows to a glugging jog. At Kempsford there is another church named for St Mary, where Edward I, Edward II, Henry IV and Chaucer were all said to have worshipped.
"The arrival of Christianity may have meant the disavowal of the old gods, but the rivers continued to be sacred places, with plenty of churches built on their banks. The Thames is certainly a river of saints. A swelter of them. Birinus, apostle to the Saxons of the west, who baptised converts at Kemble and Somerford Keynes; St Alban, Britain's first Christian martyr, who parted the waters on the way to his execution; St Frithuswith, Frideswide, Frideswith, Fritheswithe, Frevisse, or just Fris, founder of Oxford Priory and patron saint of Oxford University, who summoned a holy spring from the earth. Relics too have found their way to the water's edge, from the spear tip that was said to have punctured Christ, to the skeletal hand of James the Apostle. But on this stretch, it seems that St Mary holds sway. The Mother of God on the mother of rivers."
The Pull of the River is a lovely book, from its start in Roger Deakin territory through beaver sightings in the West County to the final expedition through a Scottish canal. I particularly recommend it to readers unable to make such journeys themselves (for any number of reasons, from pandemic restrictions to disability) but who long to do so nonetheless. I count myself among those readers. There are days when memories of my own wilderness adventures seem like another life altogether, and I fear I'll never get there again. Books like Gaw's, and the other water-themed texts discussed last week, help bring the wild world back to me, and I am exceedingly grateful for it.
The art today is by Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), who was born in Cookham, a small village by the River Thames in Berkshire. Spencer trained at the Slade School of Art in London, served with the Royal Army Medical Corps and the Infantry in World War I, and was an official War Artist in World War II -- but aside from these periods he spent most of life back home in Cookham, painting gardens, flowers, landscapes, boatyards, village life, and religious works in which villagers stood in for biblical subjects.
To see more of his art, please visit the Stanley Spencer Gallery site.
The passages above are from The Pull of the River: A Journey Into the Watery Heart of Britain by Matt Gaw (Elliott & Thompson, 2018). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and the artist's estate.