Towards the Mouth of the Axe and the Source of the Brue

Blog post, July 29 2014

The River Brue above Bruton

The river Brue above Bruton Last Friday and Saturday I planned two more walks along the river: on Friday from the village of Cross (where I have walked to before, along the river Axe), along with some people from the Sufi meditation group that I have joined; and on Saturday from Bruton up to the source of the Brue, with the men’s group that I meet with regularly. This would have meant the completion of walking the river in sections, with the next step being to do the whole walk in one (which will take several days). It was a good moment to recap:

“I have felt particularly inspired by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee’s ‘Four Point Plan’ in response to the devastation of the environment, the first point being Witnessing. In order to focus this practice in relation to the environment, I wanted to find something specific to focus on, preferably something local, rather than the state of the planet in general which – for me – would be too diffuse and also too emotionally and politically loaded. At the same time I heard about the film by and about the Kogi people of Colombia, ‘Aluna,’ in which their central message is that “You don’t have to abandon your lives, but you must protect the rivers.” Again, ‘the rivers,’ all the rivers of the world, would be too big and diffuse a subject for me to focus on effectively; but our local rivers, the Brue and the Axe, felt like the answer.

“These two rivers have quite a history. For instance, the Iron Age Glastonbury Lake village was sited alongside the former course of the river Brue and its people moved around extensively by boat. In post-Roman, Celtic and Saxon times, islands dotted along the course of the river became isolated hermitages inhabited by saints, attached to Glastonbury Abbey; the mysterious and watery landscape of the Somerset levels contributed much to the atmosphere of the Arthurian romances. However, during the early medieval period the two rivers were severed form one another, for reasons to do with commerce and perhaps power politics: the Brue, which used to flow north from Glastonbury past Godney and Bleadney before joining up with the Axe in the Cheddar valley, was redirected westwards and was effectively turned into a canal, which now flows into the sea at Highbridge.

“The Axe, which had formerly been a major (if meandering) trade route to the sea, became silted up and very much diminished. This took place in the context of massive political and economic rivalry between Glastonbury Abbey and Wells Cathedral, which were by far the two largest landowners in Somerset at that time. More recently the levels have become extensively drained and given over to modern intensive farming, which has been very productive but also very expensive in terms of the continuous pumping and extensive drainage works that are always needed, and which are now beginning to look untenable in the face of global warming and rising sea levels. This part of Somerset and its waterways, therefore, form an interesting microcosm of the planet and the impact of humans and our increasingly materialistic priorities on the natural world.

“I took to going out walking, initially across the levels in order to trace the former course of the Brue between Glastonbury and Bleadney. With the help of an ordnance survey map, I was remarkably successful and I feel I could now give a convincing account of where the river used to flow. This activity also had surprising results, in particular meeting or getting in touch with several people who live along the course of the river, or who have a long-standing interest in aspects of its history, and who I would probably never have connected with otherwise. I have also done quite a lot of reading, about the river’s history and natural history, and I have become fascinated with the subject. I have sought to get to know the river(s), by walking along the Brue from Glastonbury to Bruton and along the Axe from Bleadney to Cross. I have yet to go canoeing, or to plunge in and go swimming, but both of these are on my agenda.

“In the middle of all this I was able to watch the film. I found the film astonishing in several ways, and straight away knew that the thing I needed to do is to visit the mouth of the river Axe and to find something that would serve as an offering to take to the source of the river Brue. This has something to do with linking the two rivers back together in my own psyche, but really I have no idea what if any effect this action will have, in fact there is a part of my mind that thinks it is irrational and probably quite mad. Nevertheless there is some other part of me that seems to have no choice but to follow this impulse, to trust that there is a very good reason for it that will presumably come clear to me later.”

The River Axe and Brean Down in the background.

Friday was a lovely day, though we never quite made it to the mouth of the river. Several people had dropped out, and in the end it was just two of us who made the walk; and it turned out to be further and more challenging than it had seemed from just a look at the map. In particular the last stretch contained a number of obstacles, including a railway line and a cement works, and a deep muddily ditch, and also it was getting late and we had to reach the car in Brean Down car park before 6pm when it would be locked shut. In the end my friend went to hitch a lift to the car whilst I tried to cover the last part of the walk on my own; until I reached a sign saying ‘strictly no admittance beyond this point, clay pigeon shooting in progress.’ I then cut across country and got to the car park just in time, though sadly we never actually got to the mouth of the river.

I was carrying a medicine bundle that had been put together at the showing of ‘Aluna’, where everyone had been invited to hold it to their hearts and to send their blessings back to the Kogi. I also still have my intention to find an offering to take to the source. These imply some kind of impromptu ritual – which I think a number of people would like to join, though they would prefer just a short walk from the car park to the beach rather than ten miles or more. I’m sure that will still happen at some point.

Somewhere near South Brewham

The stream somewhere near South Brewham

Saturday was also a great day. The only thing was … it turned out that most of the time we weren’t actually following the river Brue. We set off alright from Bruton, past the dam (‘flood defences’) that have been built above the town and along the footpath near to the river. Perhaps it was when we found ourselves in a field with a very large bull and decided to climb over a fence, and to paddle barefoot along the river itself (it’s really only a stream once you’re a little way above Bruton); perhaps it was then, I’m not sure, but we ended up following the wrong stream and getting completely lost.

I had a long look at the map the following evening. So far as I can make out we diverged from the Brue fairly early on and followed a tributary – which is un-named on my map. This took us in a wide circuit around the village of South Brewham, and if we hadn’t decided – as time was getting on – to cut across the fields, it would eventually have led us to a spring somewhere below Alfred’s Tower.

It was a brilliant day anyway, we were all like young teenagers splashing our way upstream; but the Brue proper goes through the middle of South Brewham. The highest spring shown on the map is just off the ‘Macmillan Way’ that leads along the top of the Mendip ridge, not far from the same road that we eventually found (further downhill) when we decided to walk back to Bruton. I think everyone is up for trying again before the summer is out, though perhaps it would be much easier to drive first to the top of the hill and to work our way downstream.

I am left to ponder why it might be that I couldn’t quite make it, on either day. This is, after all, a spiritual quest and not just a country walk, so I am happy to accept that everything can have its significance and that the timing will have to be right. The day before I left I read more about the Kogi, about their understanding of the offerings that they leave in significant places. This is to carry out the action in ‘aluna’, on the level of spirit, and this direction of acting from the inner world outwards does seem right. It does help to explain the purpose behind taking an offering from the mouth of the Axe to the source of the Brue, to reconnect the rivers in a psychic way. Also, I have decided to meet Llewellyn, when he is next in London in a month’s time, and perhaps initiating any ritual is best left until after that.

In the mean time, I am feeling a profound sense of getting to know the shape of the landscape, upstream and downstream from Glastonbury; and of feeling so much better connected to my local environment.