Five Rivers – Beginnings

29 June 2016 // Five Rivers

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Words and pictures: Malcolm Anderson

My jacket ruffles in the wind like a crisp packet being opened in a quiet pub and as a shadow skids over the pages of my notebook big fat splodges of rain fall, landing with an audible plop. My words smudge on the page but before I can close the dogeared pages and pack it in my pocket the shower has gone, the sun reasserts its authority and it’s spring again.

I’m sat up on the edge of the chalk escarpment that runs across the northern edge of the Pewsey Vale, having climbed up from Alton Barnes, past the white horse, over Adam’s Grave and onto the summit of Knap Hill. Across the valley floor towards Burlinch Hill and Alton Priors light patches chase shadow across rippling fields of deep blue-green early season barley. The grasses around me as I sit shift endlessly on the breeze, sounding like summer on a Dorset shore. In the now-clear sky a skylark is singing his heart out only a few meters above me.

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Unseen to the south of me runs the River Avon, meandering gently on its way to Mudeford and the sea. The trout season has just started and over the last few weeks the river has felt like it’s coming to life, its river banks erupting in green. It’s the river that has me up here on top of the world, or rather, it’s a long term plan regarding the river. One that I’ve procrastinated about for too long.

Some time ago – and it must be close to 15 years now – I found a copy of Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald’s The Hampshire Avon while browsing the shelves of the sadly closed Water Lane book shop in Salisbury. A plain cloth cover the colour of early summer peas captured my attention on the shelves as it sat amid the dusty brown spines around it. The light brown cup stains on the front and the back did nothing to reduce its appeal to me, they just added to the air of a book that had been handled and read more than once. So I bought it, took it home, read it through twice and shelved it.

In the intervening years it’s moved house with me at least four times, survived a flood and eight months in a storage locker. I’ve taken it down off shelves from time to time and dipped into bits of it and then slid it back into place, right there between Hippisley Cox and Treves. Lodged in my mind was the germ of an idea that I could redo his walk all these decades later. I wanted to explore the valley properly myself and document its current state, but although Vesey-Fitzgerald provides a great historical record of the Avon valley as it was in the late 1940’s, it just didn’t quite connect with me. Arguably not much has changed in geological terms but the valley and the way he talks about the people he meets doesn’t gel. It’s felt a bit Darling Buds of May.

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That changed last summer while enjoying the quite frankly splendid Caught by the River stage at Port Eliot festival. Ambling up the hill to get some Thai noodles I stopped and had a rummage through one of the stalls selling bits and bobs (old toys, books, maps – that sort of thing). I wasn’t really looking to buy anything, I was at a festival after all, why go shopping? Anyway, there, mixed in amongst a thousand other things I found a cloth Ordnance Survey map from 1940. Sheet 167 to be precise, Salisbury. As I opened it up something clicked. I was looking at the OS map that Vesey-Fitzgerald would have been using. The colours used, the type face, in some instances even the points of interest marked are so different to the modern day map that in some strange way his world just made that little bit more sense.

Then I moved house, lost the map and was pre-occupied settling into a new life. The idea of the journey sidled off, replaced by other more immediate thoughts and plans. But last week, while sorting out some camping stuff, I found the map.

So here I sit, on top of the world, looking south over the valley of the Hampshire Avon (also known as Salisbury Avon and Wiltshire Avon). I’ve re-read the book and now have a plan. I’m going to redo Vesey-Fitzgerald’s journey from here to the sea, but rather than just re-write it for 2016 I’m going use the book as a reference point for my own exploration, sixty-six years later.

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VF started his book up here looking for the source of the Avon so it makes sense for me to start by doing the exact same thing. I take my musty cloth map out of my backpack, check which way I’m heading, pack it away and whistle for the dog that is busy sniffing rabbit holes along the fence line.

It feels good to start something that’s been there in the back of my head for so long, so under a fanfare of skylarks I put one foot in front of the other and set off. Somewhere beyond the Giants Grave and Wooton Rivers and over towards Burbage, I’ll find water.

Malcolm Anderson on Caught by the River/on Twitter

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