Caught by the River


15th March 2008

Andrew, Robin & I have been working on ideas for books for the last few months and just yesterday concluded a deal with Mathew Clayton at Cassell for what will be our first one. It will simply be called “Caught By The River” and it will be an illustrated collection of writings / meditations on rivers of the British Isles. We will be approaching our wish list of writers this week to ask if they would like to contribute pieces on their favorite rivers. We’ll tell you more about it as we get people on board but I can tell you that it will be released on 16 June next year.

With that in mind, I was excited to see this in todays Telegraph;

For centuries the Trent has been a battleground, trade route and cultural divider. In his new book, Tom Fort explores one of our great rivers

When I told people I was intending to journey from one end of the River Trent to the other, the response – even among the more geographically enlightened – was one of quizzicality laced with ignorance. “Ah, the Trent,” they’d say. “Where does that rise, exactly?” “North of Stoke.” “And where does it reach the sea?” “It doesn’t. It joins the Yorkshire Ouse to make the Humber, which goes into the North Sea past Hull.” “The Humber, eh? Mmmm, interesting,” as if I’d been referring to one of the lesser rivers flowing into the Sea of Okhotsk.

At 170 miles, the Trent is Britain’s third-longest river, after the Thames and the Severn. It once rivalled the Thames as a trade route, opening the way between the industrial Black Country and the sea. Historically and culturally, it divided England, North from South. Armies bent on conquest marched across it, the Romans garrisoned it, Cavaliers and Roundheads fought each other along it in some of the most bitter engagements of the Civil War.

In short, the Trent is one of our great and significant rivers. Yet these days it hardly registers on the shared consciousness, except for those from the counties along its course (Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire, in case you’re wondering). It goes its quiet way through the heart of England, unsung, uncelebrated, almost unnoticed.

I was as oblivious as anyone. Then I decided to write a book about rivers, about our relationship with them, about how we have used and abused them, and worshipped them and wondered at them. To do it, I needed to undertake a river journey. The obvious choice would have been my local river, the Thames, except that it’s been done to death by writers. So I thought: why not the Trent? And I went in search of it.

With a river, you must start at the beginning. I located the source of the Trent (it isn’t where the books say it is) in an unkempt field below the Staffordshire village of Biddulph Moor. For its first few miles it is no river, but a tiny, dark, secret brook, and I had to walk it. I did my best to follow it through Stoke, but it kept disappearing from sight, as if hiding its face from the landscape of urban dereliction around, or hoping that no one would know it is there.

At Trentham Gardens, just to the south of Stoke, I stopped walking and started floating. I launched my boat – a punt, a lovely, light, sleek, elegant thing made for me by my friend Jon Beer, who used to write about fishing in these pages and is remarkably nifty with his hands. Jon was keen that, the boat being a punt, she should be punted; but his demonstration of the art of punting ended with him flying off the end, smacking into a landing stage and cracking a rib, whereupon I went off the idea and decided to paddle and row.

Until recently the Trent’s appointed function was to remove the industrial and human wastes of the Midlands. As a result, the river was hideously polluted, biologically defunct for much of its length, and you would have been mad to try boating on it. Now that the industry is gone and water treatment is vastly improved, it is restored and cleansed – a river once more, rather than a sewer.

It is also deliciously peaceful. I drifted down from Trentham through a pleasant land of extreme greenness, through meadows grazed by innumerable cows, past sleepy villages and the occasional welcoming pub, beneath willow branches and bridges old and new. I hardly met a soul on the water, and precious few beside it.

Sometimes I camped, which was an adventure for me. But I wasn’t purist about it, and when I came upon a riverside hostelry where I could secure the boat, I gladly gave myself over to the exquisite pleasure of a sprung mattress, clean sheets, hot water. At Burton upon Trent I actually stayed in a hotel, although soon after breakfast I was coaxing the punt over a weir in the centre of town, giving some amusement to the passers-by.

Almost as far downstream as Nottingham, the Trent is left pretty much to its own devices. It twists and turns, races over its shallows, comes to a stop in its pools, following its whims. But when it meets the Derwent and the Trent-Mersey Canal, it becomes an Official Navigation, and its character changes utterly. It becomes wide, slow, ponderous; impressive in the way big rivers are always impressive, but a touch dull to those who have known it in its carefree youth.

It’s also hard work. Instead of dipping the oars or the paddle when I had to and taking a breather when the current did the work for me, I had to row. And row. For two days a fiendish wind blew upstream, and if I stopped pulling for a moment, the punt – mainly plywood with the odd chunk of oak – started scooting back the way we’d come. A little way below Newark, the Trent becomes tidal, which means big and hazardous.

Huge gravel barges churn up and down, and there are even cargo ships below Gainsborough. It was no place for a punt, I was strongly advised. So I took the coward’s way and exchanged my valiant craft for a sturdy bike and pedalled the 70 miles to the river’s end, which I reached one steamy summer’s afternoon, with thunder muttering over the flatlands of Lincolnshire.

Here the Trent is very wide indeed, very brown, threaded and coiled with competing currents, distinctly intimidating. I sat at its end, trying and failing to come up with some profound insights. All I could think about was how far I and this water had come; the way in which the tiny blue thread on the Ordnance Survey map covering the source had grown into the broad ribbon here. Which wasn’t very original, but is still pretty amazing.

Life’s essence
From Chapter 1

For some, the wonder of the physical world is concentrated into mountains. For others it is the seas, the troposphere, potholes, deserts, flowers, bees, bogs, birds. For me it has always been rivers, and always will be; and when I no longer have the strength to wade them, or even sit beside them, they will still be with me, their life in me.

Leaving aside the metaphysics, rivers are also workers. They did not shape our planet in the first convulsions of creation, but they did make it fit for our use. They broke down the rock to make the soil on which crops might be grown and animals fed. They fed the earth, they gave the power to turn the stones to grind our bread. Even now they provide the water we drink and wash with, and in many places they are the source of the energy that heats and l
ights homes.

We could live without mountains and we could go to the forests to obtain wood. But we could not do without rivers. They nurtured the first settlements, giving birth to the notion of society. Settlements grew into villages, villages into towns, towns into cities, always beside or near moving water. To build monuments to their gods, men turned to rivers. The bluestones of Stonehenge were quarried in Wales, shipped around the coast, then floated up the Avon. Abbeys, priories, cathedrals, temples arose beside rivers because that was the only way the rock hewn from distant hillsides could be brought to the places deemed appropriate by the priests.

Invaders struck along rivers. Castles were built to defend river crossing points. When thoughts turned from making war to seeking trade, eyes focused on the river, too. Rivers separated realms, acting as lines to be defended or breached. But they also connected peoples and places.

To the philosophers, rivers seemed to fuse the human and the divine. Their element rose from within the ground and fell from heaven. They offered an analogy of divine purpose: infinite diversity sprung from a single design. It was obvious that, to succeed, Man must placate and honour the river in order to gain access to its power and potential.

Berth & rebirth
From Chapter 6:

By now I was hot, seat-sore, sun-blasted, thirsty, weary and getting anxious about where and how I would spend the night. My plan, inasmuch as I had one, was to find somewhere to camp, then camp. But I am not naturally the outdoors type, and my experience of camping was slight, hence the anxiety.

I was lucky. The river flowed along the edge of a village called Burston, where there was a steel footbridge over the river. Just above the bridge was a big willow, with a miniature bay and a shelving beach at its foot, just right for the punt. I pulled her up and tied her to the tree.

It took me an hour and a half to get my tent up. By then darkness was gathering. Sticky with sweat and suncream, annoyed and ashamed at my ham-fistedness, I sank into my collapsible chair to cool and calm down. I watched the river as it curled around a high, sculpted bend into my little beach. The bank was pitted with the holes of sand martin nests. The surface was molten silver, streaked with gold, whorled and marbled by the competing threads of water. In the course of that day the Trent had left its infancy behind. It had acquired depth, strength, purpose. It was aspiring to be a river.

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