Caught by the River

Caught by the Stort

24th December 2010

An occasional correspondence from Angela Lambert:

The weather has been too bad even for a head-down, collar-up trudge, but this morning I decided it was time to strike out along the riverbank. I want to make a willow wreath and decorate the front door. I’ve seen several beautiful ones in magazines and newspapers. I got double the pleasure from these as the prices made me laugh so much. So, boots on, secateurs in pocket, down the hill and round the side of the Rose and Crown.

The river is a solemn backdrop today. The plain background to all the seed heads and cobwebs bedecked with heavy frost. A solitary cygnet still in his dirty grey plumage looks as if he has been rolling in the slush. In this subdued light the water looks as if it has curls of oil on it. I throw a pebble, which bounces and skids on what turns out to be swirl-surfaced ice. I look about the bank and prise a rock from the mud. With glee I raise it high and sling it onto the ice. There is a satisfying crunch and splash. The ice shatters and the pieces sink. The water bubbles and the pieces of stained glass bob to the surface. The water eddies round the shards and then makes widening circles round the rough shapes. An ice-kaleidoscope.

I warm as I walk the frozen mud. It is safer than I thought underfoot so I stride on, past some stunted willows, to something better. There are two huge birds standing like jet bookends as I turn the bend. I get closer and see they are coots but with plumage plumped up to three times their normal size. They look like nightclub bouncers in their black padded jackets.

A chugging noise brings a small craft into view. A guy in fluorescent gear mans the metal box of a boat. The ice now looks and sounds like glacier mints being tumbled into a sweet jar. As he pulls level we grin and wave silly semaphore at one another. I watch the wake of washing ice and turn my thoughts back to willow for the wreath. I spot two good trees with long lengths of willow to spare.

On days like these you need to be as concerned with finding a safe spot to cut it from, as you are with the length and quality of the willow. It’s fine if I don’t lean out too far. I cut, and being nearly done, I see some beautiful long lengths. They are just that bit farther out, over the river. I think about leaning out and imagine falling in – a winter version of the Lady of Shallot. I could do the flowing hair and pale skin but the whole Pre-Raphaelite beauty would be lost by the big boots and the huge black beret, which, being too big for me, keeps slipping down over my eyes. If ever I am to be a beauty it won’t be because I do sartorial perfection.

I reflect that the cautious recce is all a bit pointless as, true to form, I’m going to do it anyway. There is a point where I hang out over the river suspended as much by fear as the log I’ve got my boot wedged under. I cut the willow and edge back to safety. I turn for home and a tree sings with small birds as I walk. Tiny, brittle, miraculous creatures in their size and spirit.

Back up the hill I drink hot coffee and eye the willow. I weave the first piece round into a rough circle and add some more. I finish the coffee and assess which side needs extra. It sits now, drying out from frost and sap. In a few days it will get its makeshift embellishments. Last years got a bit of holly and ivy. The wreath from the year before looked very regal with an old-fashioned dressing gown cord wound round it. This year I’ve got a few old fifties baubles from a charity shop to wire on. Other wreaths will surely say a more sophisticated merry Christmas to passers by. It will be left to mine to speak with heart and of the river.

(The River Stort is a tributary of the River Lee which it joins at Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire at Feildes Weir. It begins in Langley Hills, near Clavering, in Essex. After flowing through Bishop’s Stortford, the river continues as the Stort Navigation for another 13.25 miles (21.32 km) through Hertfordshire past Harlow to Feildes Weir near Hoddesdon, where it joins the River Lee). (Wikipedia)