By Jarvis Cocker
The River Porter is visible at the side of Sheffield’s train station. It runs through a concrete channel for about 20 yards before disappearing into a tunnel. Sometime in the mid-Eighties, myself and some friends decided to follow the river as far as possible. At first we attempted to stay out of the water as it appeared very polluted: large, oily globules the colour of ketchup covered the surface. This soon proved impossible and we waded though the knee-high water, hoping not to contract an industrial disease. Sometimes the river would run through a dirty brickwork tunnel for a quarter of a mile of so (which was quite scary, seeing as no-one had thought to bring a torch) and then it would emerge in another part of town – never where expected. It seemed quite amazing to discover such an adventure in the middle of the city we had grown up in and which we all professed to be totally bored with.
I suppose this discovery must have given me a taste for river exploration, as next year I attempted to navigate Sheffield’s largest river, the Don. This flows mostly above ground, though it has many weirs along its length which make it slightly treacherous. I had purchased an inflatable dinghy from a jumble sale, so this trip had an altogether more official air about it. I was living in an old warehouse in an area known as the Wicker and the river flowed directly past. One summer afternoon, myself and a friend blew up the boat and set off on our adventure. And an adventure it was.
After a couple of close calls with weirs, we began to relax and enjoy our journey. We were travelling downstream se we didn’t have to do much rowing, and somehow drifting past familiar trademarks from a different angle seemed to fill us with excitement. At one point we were enveloped in steam from a neighbouring factory and I began to have a feeling that maybe we were involved in some kind of South Yorkshire re-creation of Apocalypse Now – it was like the river had decided where it wanted to take us.
The journey continued and the landscape began to get less familiar. We saw some gypsy kids using bread crate to kind-of ‘sledge’ down a weir. Some parts of the river were almost stagnant, with large, evil-smelling bubbles rising to the surface. We had seen quite a few fishermen along the route, but, as we approached Rotherham, we came across a man attempting to shoot fish with an air rifle – whilst uttering the immortal words ‘Stitch that, you bastards!’ Maybe this scared us slightly; anyway, soon after that we deflated the boat and got the bus home but not before marking our end point with a pile of stones and vowing to finish our journey at a later date. Of course, this never happened and the boat got punctured in a later incident – but that day has stuck in my mind as one of the happiest of my life, so I couldn’t entirely rule out going back to continue it one day – even this long after the event.
Taken from the Caught by the River book, A Collection of Words on Water. On sale in our shop, priced £12.00