Caught by the River

River Witham: Scenes from the Waterside

Neil Sentance | 7th March 2012

illustration by Jonathan Gibbs

by Neil Sentance
1985: Viking Ramblers

I recently found a bleached colour photograph of Bob and Joe in an old glue-stuck album. It’s from the early 1970s. They have cigarettes on the go, Players Navy Cut most likely, and are standing by a blue Ford in fading sunlight. As they blink into the camera, they don’t look much like brothers. Bob is dark, angular and lean, brilliantined hair swept back from a high forehead. Joe is stocky and fair-skinned, hair white-grey and cut short, military fashion. They look nonchalant, ageing men nearing retirement, loafing in worsted Sunday suits. They seem at ease with each other and the sumpy and vulcanised reek of the old cars they drive and tend at the weekends. Never had much money but never known much want either. They smoke their fags, have outings on the weekend, see the grandkids, go to the agricultural show. Sunday dinner out is with the missus, occasionally tea at the new British Home Stores café in Nottingham. In summer there are social trips to Skegness – the bus stops en route at the Three Kings, the medieval pub at once-Norse Threekingham. Numbers are chalked on the bus wheels and whoever pulls the number out of a hat that accords with the pub stop, wins the kitty. Otherwise they rarely stray far from home, that last generation of stayers. But they’ve seen plenty of life through staying put.

They were born on the moor, in the first village (once a Viking hill colony) on the Great North Road a mile out of town, within a year or two of each other during the First World War. There were abundant other brothers and sisters too, living cheek by jowl in a small ironstone cottage in Pond Street, not far from the site of a Civil War battlefield – the legend was that Cromwell had lodged next door. Their old man had once been a professional soldier, and took the king’s shilling as far as South Africa, but came home after the Great War and settled to working the land, as so many before him. As kids Bob and Joe often cycled down Belton Lane to the Witham, now forming a skittish serpentine curve through the parklands on the northern edge of town. Here they had some hard-won seclusion, away from the cramped concessions of home. They played at the Towthorpe Hollow Ponds, natural spring-fed tarns bordered by tall thickets of reeds, a good hiding place. They tinkered with their bikes, propped up against ancient alders, deer-gnarled and rugged trees out of place in a park of exotic plantations of horse chestnut and lime. Fishing the ponds a little, when the estate men weren’t around, they mostly just nattered and smoked by the paths, lives absorbed in football and engine oil.

As they grew up, they have might gone home via one of the three inns on the High Street, limestone-built alehouses all known locally as the ‘top, middle and bottom’ and never by their real names, but there was scant money for ale. Then along Green Street to the meadows known as the Wong, where livestock were once gathered prior to the journey to market. Then home to Pond Street via a footpath by the village green known as the Hemplands, or by way of Spring End where upwellings fed the pond at the junction with the High Street. Years later, it was here that Joe, escaping the police, drove his motorbike into the water, jumping off at the last moment, rodeo fashion. He had used an old Oxo cube label in the road-tax disc-holder (at that time they looked very similar to the real thing), but a copper had clocked him and chased him down Whipperstall Hill and Beggars Lane. Joe would have loved the chase. Reaching the pond, he submerged the Norton so it was out of sight and sauntered off home. Next day he retrieved the bike and dried the magneto engine parts in his mother’s range overnight. Every nook of the landscape was a token of their story.

By this time, Bob was apprenticed at Parkers the Bakers, delivering loaves on his three-speed bike. On sunny weekends off, he’d keep the bike on the road, doing the 120-mile round trip to the east coast for a swift hour of bracing sea air. Married at 22, he became the mobile shop driver for Liptons the grocers. He settled down and moved into town, a damp end terrace house on Bridge End Road by the Witham, where his son, my dad, was born on a wartime January Saturday.

The line of the upper Witham snakes along the borderlands with Notts before breaking out at the limestone escarpment at the Lincoln Gap, then forms the arc of an unlucky inverted horseshoe that hangs on the hook of the county town at Brayford Pool. In our town, twenty miles upriver, it may have been a navigational aid for German planes. Bombs dropped all over town, the Luftwaffe aiming for the Hornsby tank armaments plant or RAF Bomber Command’s No 5 Group at St Vincent’s House just up the hill (where later the Dambuster raids were devised) or the East Coast railway line. The long rows of drab Victorian terraces smearing out from the slums of Witham Place towards the cemetery under Halls Hill endured many raids. A backyard Anderson shelter a few streets away suffered a direct hit. Clumps of rose-bay willow herb, the fireweed, thrived in the bombed out gaps among smashed brick walls and splintered timber, and blood-red wall valerian grew out of twisted iron bedroom fireplaces left stranded and exposed mid-air. Bob’s house survived, only losing the odd windowpane and roof slate, the river waters always close at hand for dowsing incendiaries. Bob often later said the river had saved the family several times over. The Witham was his talisman, at the time he needed one most.

Deemed unfit for active service, after work Bob drove a lend-lease American ambulance. Then there were nights on ARP warden duty. On his Monday afternoon off, he’d drive an undertaker’s hearse. The levels of exhaustion are hard now to comprehend. His main hobby, shared with Joe, was tinkering with old cars. He’d acquired a run-down 1929 Triumph, but after Coventry was destroyed by bombing in November 1940, spare car parts were hard to come by. But Joe was some kind of improvisational genius and fixed it up, and they laid up the wheel-less car on bricks in the allotment next to the Witham, waiting for the better times. Joe moonlighted from his factory job as a cinema projector at the Empire Theatre, when it was still gas lit and unelectrified. The projector had a petrol-driven generator. Joe, of course, siphoned off the petrol for his motorbike and the generator would run out of fuel during a film, stopping it mid-reel, catcalls ringing out in the dark. But his carefree life changed when on his bike he was hit by a drunk-driver. After months in hospital, he emerged a wrecked man, forever after with a nervous shake. I remember him now, bent uneasily over a motor part, his hand trembling over the head of a screw. It was painful to watch. He’d get there in the end – ‘never is a long day’, he’d say, and there’d be a heavy moment of stillness as the screwdriver at last engaged with the cross-head. Air seemed to rush back into our lungs.

In the polar winter of 1947 Bob delivered groceries to the far-flung Withamside villages that were otherwise cut-off. Snow drifted up to the top of telegraph poles in an arctic spell lasting, he remembered, eight weeks and three days. The flatlands beyond the Witham source were also counterpaned in a temporary beautification of snow. But the Fenlanders struggled to feed families and farm stock. At Skillington, near where the river rises, buses and trucks stopped off the main road at the Blue Horse Inn and left engines running all night, in the days before antifreeze, to stop the diesel solidifying in the fuel tanks. Bob drove into the village knowing he might not be able to get out. The eleventh-century church was white-towered, flat pale light refracting through the iced-over stained-glass. After Bob dealt out the rations, his van was stuck in the snow and it took farm labourers working for hours in a whirling blizzard to dig it out again. Then he went on, in the scattering daylight, to the village of South Witham where the river was held fast by ice. Here Bob tried to thaw out in the Angel Inn, fortified with tots of rum supplied by the famous blind landlord, before attempting the long trip back. The country folks remembered him ever after.

It is the winter of 1985. I wheel the bike out from the shed. It is a Viking Rambler, 10-speed derailleur gears, burnt-orange frame, racing handlebars. I strike out into the silent lanes in a land of heavy clay. Some fields are stippled with blackened stalks of burnt stubble; others are just long shallow declivities of rich soil. Wind-bent lone trees stand tall on the horizon. I head out down the school lane, into the low sun, past the council houses and the wellfield cricket pitch. The hedgerows are still deep at this time, in this part of the midlands. I go past the footpath that cuts through the middle of cornfields to the gentrifying pub, until lately a sawdust-floored farmworkers’ inn, now a chintzy eatery for the newly monied. I turn down the back lane and bike alongside the trickling West Glen River, a tributary of the greater fenland river, the Welland. Rabbit-cropped downlands are beyond the ditch. Sometimes I bike up a gravel track to The Lodge, a tumbledown Victorian cottage romantically sited on its own hill, or up to the pond, where my uncle fishes while smoking his liquorice-paper roll-ups. But today, I go past the small stone cottage with the pictures of John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart in the window – the home on the range – and keep going, feeling the wind at my back, and cycle faster past the peafields and droving tracks. I reach the Roman road, the High Dyke, and onwards under the London–Edinburgh railway line, and through to Woolsthorpe. I get to Skillington and cross the Cringle brook and then over the county border, seeing the yellow and black insignia of the Viking Way on a gatepost. This was a favourite Sunday drive when I was a small kid. I think of the indulgent grandad Bob and great-uncle Joe who took me on these trips, and later to the football and Trent Bridge Test matches, and taught me snooker and billiards. They had both died in the last few weeks. They left behind their stories of this place, their place in it. The breeze gets up and dust rises off the fields as I wheel the bike around and turn for home.

Click here to read previous Secenes from the Waterside.