Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Malcolm Anderson

Malcolm Anderson | 8th January 2019

Shadows and Reflections: the annual collection of postings in which our contributors and friends consider the events that’ve shaped the past twelve months. As we begin the new year, Malcolm Anderson looks back on 2018:

I’m sat overlooking the river Dart as the day slowly creeps in, a faint orange smudge rising off to the East somewhere across the dark shadowy valley towards Fleet Mill.

It’s mid-December and I’m down here with the whole family staying in a marvellous big old Devon long barn which nestles in a wooded cleft in the landscape.  In the darkness I’ve walked down the lane, through the farm and down the stone walled lane towards the river.  My head hurts – too much prosecco last night/this morning.  Unable to sleep, dehydrated and slower of foot than usual I’ve got up and headed out for a walk before everyone else wakes up. Fresh air helps.

Mungo sits at my feet as I rest for a bit, feeling myself and the world come alive.  Mist curls downstream as the light shifts, the orange sky becoming purple then a whitewashed blue.  The reed beds below me come alive with the sound of birdsong, alien songs to me.  It’s strange to not recognise anything.

The air smells of salt, and earthy tang of low tide mud.

It all feels very far away from home.


It still feels a little strange to be settled somewhere.  To have had three years of stability, rooted in one place, connected to a small parcel of land.  In the back of my mind I half expect Savages Cottage to somehow be stripped away from me, to feel that painful wrench once more and be back in my post Drove Cottage fog.

About a month ago the log burner in the cottage broke at the same time as a ridiculous electricity bill of £1600 for night storage heater use over the summer came through from the energy company.  Immediately I panicked. Should we leave the cottage? Will we have to? Would the landlord decide not to replace the log burner?  A deep breath, a calm conversation. The scaffolders arrive next day to work on the chimney and three weeks later a new log burner is installed.  The energy company admit that it is most likely a dodgy meter and we make a plan to monitor it.  But the first instinct was the learned one, the flight mode, the hard learnt world-is-out-to-get-me moment.

I suppose the fact that the first instinct is dread at the thought of leaving Savages tells me something about how important it’s become over the years.

Leaving work, a weight lifts as we come through Rangers Gate and into the estate. Although we’re only ten minutes from the city that pockmarked white gate marks a line in time and once inside the estate we are back counting time in months and seasons rather than hours and days.

There’s a comfort to the measuring the passing of seasons, a feeling of knowing what’s coming.

The bare branches of winter expose their wooden skeletons, giving glimpses through hedgerows into areas of the estate that are closed off and hidden for the rest of the year.  The snows when they come, sadly too infrequently, cut us off for a couple of days in perfect bleached isolation. The twenty-year-old night storage heaters don’t give off enough heat and the wood burns too quickly in the old stove.  I work at my desk wearing fingerless gloves and two jumpers.  The top corners of the upstairs rooms grow mould and condensation runs down windows every morning, with the exception of those days where it ices over instead.

Spring bursts in with vibrant exuberance. The garden takes up all of our spare time. New beds to be dug, old beds dug over once more. Planting, weeding, mowing. Growth.  Hares dot the landscape, visible amongst the young crops.

Outside of the garden the mayfly period is good to me and I get out to fish with friends on the chalkstreams, just not as much as I should.

I spend a day on the Heddon on Exmoor that will stay with me for the rest of my life.  If there was such a thing as a perfect river, for me this would be it.  Small, overgrown, wild. Full of fish, although actually catching them seems less important as the years go by.  I get as much from the conversation I have with the stream as I wade, swim or simply sit as I ever do from catching fish.  Often the conversation is entirely one sided and I just listen to the important things it has to tell me, but sometimes I talk of my day and it obligingly listens like a good friend, even if it thinks I’m nuts.

The House Martins arrive as spring gives way to summer, and this year summer seems to go on and on. One of those summers you remember as a child.  Right up until the Port Eliot festival, where once again we are rained upon mightily by the banks of the Tiddy.  Rain aside the festival as always is fantastic.

The garden starts paying us back for all the work and we’re inundated with fruit and vegetables.  The gamekeepers drop us in the odd bit of venison and my Greek friend brings rabbit and pigeon over. We eat like beggar kings at the bench outside, serenaded by the sound of owls and sit in quiet companionship, mesmerised by the milky way.

The landscape shifts from green to gold as grasses dry out and crops ripen.  The harvest happens quickly, contractors working until the early morning to get crops in before the weather breaks.  The bare fields mean we once again see the deer and hares as we drive home each day.

Autumn is spent mostly sawing, chopping and stacking. I feel a little overwhelmed by the quantity of logs required and become a bit obsessed in trying to prepare for the winter.  The garden gets cut back and tidied. Beds seem barren after the fullness of summer.

Colours shift once again, oranges giving way once more to bare branches and the pale yellowed stubble is tilled back into milky coffee coloured fields.

There’s a pattern to life that has come to fit us out here.

My granny once gave me a tapestry she’d made that reads ‘A house is not a home until love dwells within’.

Well this house, despite the effort required to be here, the cold, the constant mud and the rough edges is home.  In fact, perhaps it is actually because of all those inconveniences and hardships bringing us all together.

Either way, it is very much a home.