Caught by the River

Muddy Waters

Danny Adock | 9th February 2013


Danny Adcock finds the Wye in spate.:

The last time we were on the banks of the Wye it was Autumn. During the day, in bright sunshine, the river glittered, while at night it was black metal sliding past frost-tinged banks. We stayed in Symonds Yat West then; high above the river in one of the homes clinging to the side of the gorge like the raven nests opposite. Far below, in Symonds Yat East, the Saracen’s Head Inn was reached by either a fifteen minute drive, or a short walk down a steep path to a hand-pulled ferry. These hand-pulled ferries – basically a rope strung across the river over which another piece of rope is hitched along – have existed since the Roman era, and have a mainly tourist role today, though in the nineteenth century there were more than twenty such ferries between Ross-on-Wye and Chepstow. Today, in late January, the Saracen’s Head ferry had been left stranded between a fence and a wall by the falling waters, and the torrent rushing past bore no resemblance to the lucid river of a couple of years ago. Luckily this time we were staying in the pub itself, and so would have no need of a ferry to get a pint.

There’d been sunshine when we left Norfolk, but it seemed that no sooner had we glimpsed the Malvern Hills than they were masked in rain and low cloud, fading in and out like the radio signal. The rain continued most of that first night, a gently prattling conversation on the awning outside our window, and on our first morning I could see one less of the steps that ordinarily would meet the ferry opposite, but that currently led directly into the river’s quarrelling water, brown with mud and branch and goodness knows what else brought down from Wales. As I sat watching the river I noticed something black struggling on the current that turned out to be a rook. There were two others still airborne, raucous calls reverberating across the gorge, that were paying close attention to their struggling comrade which, with a bit of frantic swim-flapping, managed to make landfall next to the ferry steps. Obviously exhausted it heaved itself a foot or so up the bank, and was promptly set upon by its two former comrades who took turns pecking it viciously about the head. The collective noun for rooks is a parliament so maybe they were taking after the human occupants of our parliament, and not hesitating in kicking one of their own when down, or maybe as rooks are monogamous there’d been some sort of domestic. Whatever, after a couple of minutes they got bored and flew off, leaving a pathetic-looking black bundle of feathers on the river bank.

Seen in action spate rivers like the Wye are remarkable things, and even though our first full day in Herefordshire had been characterised by bright sunshine, when I drew the blinds on the second morning there were no longer any steps visible; the river had risen by perhaps four feet overnight. Like a hangover, the effect of the previous day’s rain was now becoming apparent, and it had the potential to be a very big headache for some people. However the thing about spates is that they can recede as quickly as they can rise and, after another day of sunshine, on our third morning the river had dropped again, and I could now see more steps than when we first arrived.

Driving west from Norfolk we’d seen the rivers Nene, and Great Ouse, both over their banks and smothering swathes of farmland. That sight, and the anger of the Wye that we’d seen at first hand, brought the flood warnings and news items about people’s homes being under threat for the umpteenth time into sharp focus; we really don’t need any more rain for a while.