Caught by the River

River Witham: Scenes from the Waterside

Neil Sentance | 5th October 2011

illustration by Jonathan Gibbs

By Neil Sentance.
1949: Bonfire

Dad said the best night of the year was 5th November, Bonfire Night. He would build up the bonfire for weeks before on the river bank, piling up kindling and windfall branches from the park, adding old Victorian washstands stripped of their marble tops and huge rosewood chiffoniers left unsold at the market, alongside any flammable detritus from the still weed-strewn bombsites off Bridge End Road. Then came the big event – Dad’s sister and Mrs Hipwell made the guy, stuffed with the News of the World, and people from all around would turn out. Grandad, the local ARP warden and fireman during the war, was in charge of lighting and controlling the fire – nothing happened till he came home from working on the Lipton’s van mobile shop. Brown-suited, well-shod in patent leather shoes with spats, black lacquered hair waved back from his high brow, he would go about the lighting without fuss, pencil stub behind his ear, woodbine in top pocket, or vice versa, never sure which would find his mouth first. Then he’d strike the match, the first flames crackling at the tinder line, and the fire grew, a heat-haze penumbra flickering up the side of the vaulted kilns of the maltings on the opposite bank.

Grandad would then let the fireworks off, not so many, just enough to rip the sky with a booming blast of coppery sparks. Afterward, everyone would pick out their roast potatoes from the belly of the fire and natter with mouths full. Dad would watch the line-graven faces of the grown-ups shining in the ember light, cast in a pre-electric glow. Nearing midnight, folks would start to clear up, and then walk off home happy, a few hours sleep ahead before the Barfords’ factory hooter next morning.
Dad would look on, hands deep in his pockets as the cold bit, as Grandad went methodically about the closing rites. Pushing the dwindled fire into the Witham with the tip of his holiday shoes, the smouldering remains would die with a brief hiss. The seams of ash and lumps of clinker sank beneath the waterline and washed under the arch of the bridge, away downriver and into the soot-black night. Grandad would take Dad’s hand and without a word walk back through the gate of the river house.

Click here to read other Scenes from the Waterside
The author and the editors would like to thank Simon Lewin at St Judes gallery for his help in finding the correct artist to illustrate this column. Thank you Simon and thank you Jonathan for your fine work.