Connecting with the River, January 2017

Blog post, published 20/2/2017

plungen jan 2016 orig

Dawn at Plungen, near Glastonbury January 2017.

The new year begins with a fiery red sky in the east; the river has already risen quite a bit, and over the first weekend of January it rises three more feet as Storm Gertrude arrives. I was away in Devon for a few days – and there the rain lashed down, the leat burst its banks and washed down the road – by the time I return the water level in the Brue has dropped again and the river seems somewhat tamed, though evidence of a near-flood is everywhere along the river bank. Plenty of standing water has appeared in the fields nearby, and the starlings are enjoying the temporary lakes. In days gone by such rain would have created a flood right across the levels, which would have stayed until March or April. Silt would have been spread across the land and would have fertilised it, and next summer’s grazing would once again have been the best available. Now it carries a distinctive smell that lingers for days, and fertilises only the muddied banks.

The river is sometimes placid and sometimes wide awake; sometimes choppy (if it’s windy) and sometimes smooth as a mirror; sometimes moving fast, sometimes barely at all; sometimes carrying plenty of flotsam and sometimes not. One morning I notice a dead animal lying near me down the riverbank, half covered over with broken up reed stems.

At first I think it’s a badger, then perhaps an otter, caught in the recent storm. In fact it turns out to be a fox. I have a real affinity with foxes; if I was the sort of person to take on a ‘medicine name’ then it would be Walking Fox. I don’t know what has happened to it – it has an injury to its abdomen, but I have no idea whether that’s what killed it or whether it happened after it had drowned. I committed it to the river anyway: I found a piece of wood to help it into the water, and it somehow ended up floating slowly downstream with its front paws caught over the wood, facing forwards whilst making its final journey. As it gradually disappeared the starlings came over, more than I’ve ever seen there before, wave after wave of them, emerging out of the mist and passing overhead, then disappearing back into the mist on their way up the river.

On my way there, my approach to the river was along beside a rhyne that is actually the Bradley Brook, which takes a sharp turn to the left and follows a straightened section to join the redirected river: a deep, wide straight rhyne was created. This was all engineering work done in the twelfth century, when the Mill Stream was made a mile or so further down; somehow it reminds me of the Somerset Rhyne near Westonzoyland, the barrier that crucially held up the Duke of Monmouth’s army on their approach to the Battle of Sedgemoor, and meant that they failed to take the king’s troops by surprise. The result – not just the lost battle but the cruelty of the reprisals that followed, and the legacy of Judge Jeffries’ bloody assize – is something that doesn’t leave me. It feels like a disaster that befell ‘us’. I wonder sometimes whether I was there.

The pools of water in the fields approximately pick out the old course of the river, where it used to flow much closer to Wearyall Hill. The ground is waterlogged and the level in the river changes from day to day depending on rainfall and tides. The world is particularly wet one morning; the river is proud, sweeping down towards the sea and carrying a profusion of debris, higher than the fields beside it and approaching the top of its floodbanks. Another storm now would create a serious flood. Instead of rain however, there is biting wind across the low flat land around the river, and the first real frost of the winter occurs half way through the month.

Each morning I aim to reach the river before sunrise, in time for the starlings flying over. I find myself fascinated by the changes from day to day in their flight patterns: sometimes flying high, sometimes close to the ground; sometimes in large formations, sometimes in small groups. I can’t figure out what leads to the differences. My first assumption is that it’s the weather, though this doesn’t seem to be the case – wet weather, clear weather, cloudy, windy, colder, milder, never seems to match the changes in the starlings’ flight pattern. Occasionally there appears to be a small group that has been here all night, or maybe they are outriders that arrive before the main fly-past. I come to the conclusion that the differences are mainly to do with whether they intend to travel further inland, or whether they are already looking out for a stopping-off place for the day.

Thick white frost, the coldest of the year … Thousands and thousands of starlings, high overhead … Clear sky, bright orange on the eastern horizon …