“We are all caught by a river. This, I think, is what catchment means. Every fragment of landscape slides to one river or another and our feet are sucked into the mud wherever we stand… A river is mire than the ribbon of flow at the foot of a valley. It is the distillation of that valley. A river is the expression of us and we are rooted in it. The meandering relationship between the shaper and the shaped is revealed time and again: the rivers of childhood surge through memory and water the formation of the self. Rivers are in the blood. Rivers get under the skin. Rivers stay with you when everything else moves on.”
– Charles Rangeley-Wilson
There was a brook near the house I grew up in. For a small child, trying to explore and play, the banks were high and the trickle low. There was a noticeable difference between summer and winter and you could stand on a rickety wooden bridge and peer down. Later, once I’d grown a little more, I could clamber down to the water. Splash about in wellies. You wouldn’t want to go barefoot. It wasn’t that sort of stream. Getting back out was harder, wet boots slipping against the muddy slopes, hands grasping at clumps of grass and pulling your body weight up with the faith that the roots would stay loyal.
I looked it up recently. It flows into the Mersey. Not surprisingly. But I’d never thought to think about it before. This was my brook, this little stretch, and I spent very little time thinking about where it came from and where it went after. My world was contained, and with that, so was the flow of the water.
Had I been a more courageous or adventurous child, perhaps I would have followed that stream bed in my little blue wellies. Perhaps I would have twisted and turned with it, the water level rising and rising until it flooded my boots, drenched my socks. Eventually sweeping me off my feet and pushing me along until the brook-now-river spat me out into the Mersey.
The Mersey was a feature of my life. Echoed by the Dee on the other side of the peninsula. We went on the ferry across the Mersey on a school trip. I remember my finger had been trapped in a toilet door that morning before we left. We traipsed round the slavery museum and walked around the docks. But like most people, when I traversed the river, it was normally going under not over it. The Kingsway and Queensway tunnels. You needed to have change to get through. These days I suspect they take credit cards. An anxious child, I always held in my mind that question, what if? What if the weight of the water became too much and the tunnel could no longer bear to stand up? What if it started to crack? What if? What if? These worries echoed through the tunnel until we emerged into daylight. Stunned by our survival.
The River Dee on the other hand, was exclusively crossed by bridge. No ferry here. No tunnel. From the Wirral, you can see across the Dee to Wales. You can walk out into the Dee at low tide to reach the uninhabited Hilbre Islands. Again, what if? What if? Rung loud in my ears as we crossed at low tides. Warnings of sinking sand and a vivid imagination. What if? What if we got the tides wrong and were stranded on the island? What if? Always, what if?
A safer way to experience the Dee is to stand on the front at Parkgate with an ice cream in hand. The water itself is too far away to touch and the land between is marshy and is now an SSSI – A Site of Special Scientific Interest – I believe. The river used to reach the walls. It used to crash up and over them. It fed into an open air swimming pool, my Granma told me about it. Perhaps, a hundred years earlier, here too I’d have heard those endless what ifs?
You would think, from this, that perhaps I don’t like water. But I do. I love water. I love the sea, rivers and lakes. I love their beauty but I have a respect for their darker side too.
Leaving the brook behind, I headed east to the River Ouse and the Foss. York. A town built on rivers. A town which once had a healthy respect for water. Floodplains allowed the river to rise and fall, allowed her to live on her own terms with her own rhythms. These floodplains have been built on in places, showing no respect for a river who bursts her banks many times in a year. An attempt to control the uncontrollable.
Sited where the Foss joins the Ouse, York was a very strategic settlement. The two rivers providing natural defences as well as communication and supply routes in and out. Romans built jetties and wharves and warehouses here. Vikings arrived with their shipbuilding and navigation skills. York, through the Ouse, was connected to the entire world. Liverpool would come to echo this, the Mersey replacing the Ouse when it comes to commerce today.
By the late sixteenth century, larger sea going ships couldn’t reach York, the rivers were filling with sediment. Shortly after, in 1715, Liverpool’s first dock was built. I moved in the opposite direction to trade. York’s rivers, no longer used for commerce, today host pleasure boats, historical cruises and an ice cream boat.
The riverbanks gained importance as the river itself lost some of hers. This fertile land was used for agriculture and today there are four SSSIs along the banks in York; Clifton Ings and Rawcliffe Meadows, Fulford Ings, Naburn Marsh and Acaster South Ings.
For me though, it is not the trees or shrubs or flowers or rare beetles which make the river Ouse a magical place although they do add their charm. For me, meeting the Ouse as an adult in a new city, it is the memories that pull me, that draw me into the currents. I met the Ouse in a more academic, detached kind of way. The way that adults meet rivers. There were no wellies splashing or scampering up and down banks. Instead, the Ouse is a patchwork blanket with strands of emotion tying together moments and woven with facts.
The Ouse will always be the river I walked along with my love. It will always be the night I went for a walk with my close friend and it rained and we were tipsy and took off our shoes and ran home. The conversation I had with another close friend about the death of her mother. The days when depression had wrapped itself around my heart like bindweed and threatened to squeeze my lungs and I stood staring and staring on a platform over the river. There was the night I returned from a protest and it was pitch dark and my friend walked me home despite going far out of his way and we encountered a creepy shadow and both held our breath. Sitting on the steps, watching geese scare overly brave tourists. Ducklings floating by, defying the strength of the currents. This river undoubtedly runs through my veins.
For the second and third years of my life in York, I would walk along the river path to town. Doing so makes you acutely aware of the seasons and cycles, the life of the river. Some days that walk would be impossible, underwater. Other days it was borderline and the waves would lap dangerously close to the path. The river wove itself into my life in those years, I became attuned and aware of her character. She has her twists and turns, her placid days and her violent deadly moments. She is both life giver and life taker. We have our own rhythms, but both are the same.
Apart from my first and fourth year in York, I have never been more than a stones throw from the Ouse. One of those years my bedroom looked out onto a tributary of the other river, the Foss, but that was a year of intense depression and detachment and I never knew that beck like I do the Ouse.
The Foss, thought to be from the latin fossa, meaning ditch, is a stranger to me. The waters run and mingle and become the Ouse and it is only when coupled with my river, that I know the Foss. It is like the partner of a friend. You see them through the eyes of your friend, you know them as part of your friend but you do not know them truly, not in their own right.
“The many waters I’ve known as part of my own personal world – rivers, streams and lakes – have taught me, shaped me, and given me a sense of values.”
– Thomas Moore
The Mersey, The Dee and The Ouse. These are the rivers which run through me. These are the rivers which shape me.