Caught by the River

Pleasures of…February

4th March 2019

Celestial bodies, river baptisms, and early morning otter-spotting: Matt Gaw, author of ‘The Pull of the River’, shares moments from the month just passed.

February 1
The dog pulls me into February. Tugging at her leash, nosing and rootling into a frosted morning lit by a horned moon of carved, white bone. It is early. The cars still parked and prettified by iron-filings of hoar frost, their windscreens decorated by goose-feather patterns of ice. The robin has only just started to sing. The whole world feels glassy. Quiet. As if one loud noise could shatter it all.

I feel exhausted. This time last year I signed a contract for my second book, with the first, The Pull of the River, then still to come out. A tremendous act of faith or recklessness by the publishers, I’m not quite sure which. Either way, throughout Christmas and the past month, I have worked around the clock to get it ready for the deadline: both wanting January to last a lifetime and to finish in a heartbeat.

We walk to the park and back, Lyra trotting ahead, her piggy-whip of a tail swooshing faster as soon as she realises we’re homeward bound. The streetlights are clicking off and the lessening of their glow makes the moon’s light harder, colder.

For the rest of the day I shuffle around. I feel like I should be active, go for a run or a swim, to make up for a desk-based January, but all I want to do is nest. I set fires, make soups and sit with the dog.

Lyra has abandoned her bed and now only naps if someone is next to her on the sofa. I know I am probably making a rod for my own back by allowing it, but, at the moment, I love it. My wife, with some degree of accuracy, says it’s because I’m needy. I close my eyes as Lyra scrambles up my chest and curls up. Snuggled. Snuffles. Nasal grunts.

Lyra’s name fell from the heavens, one of Ptolemy’s 48 constellations, but she smells decidedly earthy. I bury my face in the saddleback markings on her side, sucking up a fur-scent of biscuits, mud and dark chocolate. Her warmth sinks through my skin.

It is a couple of months since Lyra arrived in my life and I don’t think I could be without her now. I remember her first night here. She had been unwell, her tiny stomach bloated and uncomfortable. My neighbour, a seasoned dog-owner, had told me to stay upstairs no matter how much she cried.

But I couldn’t. I set up a sleeping bag on the sofa and by midnight she was tucked in with me, her snout stuck under my chin.

I look down at her now, at the thin white stripe that runs from forehead to black-cherry nose. I trace it with my finger, following the curve of her skull to eyebrows, which look like they have been plucked and painted back on with thick brown makeup. She grunts, licks my hand half-heartedly, then falls asleep.

February 6
I eat more biscuits than I reasonably should and start writing again. Gingerly at first. I am a peeling sunbather returning tentatively to the lounger. I felt the same way after finishing the last book, as if all the ideas and words had gone. My head, hollow.

I find myself typing almost automatically. Two or three place names, and then a list of words that they conjure. I’m not sure of the point in what I’m doing, what I hope to achieve. I look back at what I’ve done and try to identify themes, to see if something will grow. I haven’t worked like this before. But I like the sense of stitching together fragments, the freedom of making sense of my own mind.

More biscuits. The dog, sitting on my feet, looks up at me, licking her chops hopefully, waiting for crumbs. At the moment, crumbs are all I have.

February 9
Up to Bradfield Woods this morning. The wind rattles and knocks through the coppice, sending the hazel catkins dancing like yellow worms on a hook. I usually wander here, but today I have a purpose: I’m here to research an article about the 50th anniversary of the Public Inquiry, which saved this wood.

Bradfield Woods is really made up of two interlocking woods: Felshamhall Woods and Monk’s Park.  It was back in 1966 when the bulldozers came for Monk’s Park and in the space of months, more than 100 acres of ancient woodland fell.

Pictures taken at the time show a scene of grim destruction, a no man’s land of mud, shattered wood and grubbed up roots. What remains, a beautiful wood, coppiced for furniture and fuel in the same way as it was more than 800 years ago, exists because of the efforts of determined villagers and the knowledge of Oliver Rackham.

As the bulldozers worked, they secured various Tree Protection Orders, before fighting and winning the subsequent Public Inquiry: presenting detailed evidence of the wood’s cultural and ecological importance.

I walk along what would have once been a woodland ride, but which is now a perimeter path. To my left, a few veteran trees, I guess those with the TPOs, are scattered around in empty arable fields.

I head to a birch whose smooth bark I know is covered in arborglyphs: names, signs, dates and carved hearts. Some of the cuts look fresh but many more have ballooned with age, stretching with the trunk’s growth like an old tattoo on a beer belly.

I love this tree. It is a living record of family, sweethearts and friends, of walks, shin-barking scrambles, of summer shade and shelter from spring showers.  I run my hands over the marks and think about how when they were made, this birch would have been surrounded by wood. How these carved symbols now represent both love and loss.

February 12
A longer walk today, down to the River Lark, and then following its course north through town. What would take an hour by myself takes three times longer with Lyra.

She’s still not used to walking on a lead and is given to stopping suddenly with legs braced, only moving after repeated cajoling and the promise of treats, which seem to have crumbled to dust in the pockets of every item of clothing I own. For large stretches I give in and carry her inside my coat, enjoying her snuffles and being able to open up my stride.

The day is cold and clear, but Bury St Edmunds is shrouded by a cloud of steam coming from the sugar factory. The beets, which litter fields and roadsides like giant molars, are still being boiled down, and the air is thick with their sweet, turnippy fug.

The river path goes close to the factory before ending near the Tesco supermarket, where the Lark – one of only 200 chalk streams in the world – is half encased in concrete. It was here that Roger Deakin sat in his car and cried about what had become of the river. The Lark, the Jordan of the Fens, where people came to be baptised up until the 70s, has been reduced to a carpark puddle.

Yet even here, the weak trammelled flow is still re-connected by the occasional blue dart of a kingfisher, is still pricked awake by the dagger beak of an egret.

I think it was the sight of the river here and the birds that made me want to canoe the Lark. It was a stomp, splash and paddle of reclamation and discovery. Both a taking back and a getting to know the river kind of trip.

It was this river that gave me a sense of childish adventure: of a world that although still geographically small, seemed endlessly big.

February 12
Rain again. Through the night and into the morning. Water sluices off pavements, fills up the muddy paths where I walk the dog and wells up from drains.

At home I think about the Lark, how this winterbourne river will be singing again with water. Winterbourne is such a lovely word.  Life and flow. It reminds me too of my daughter, Eliza, born on the winter equinox into a world of snow.

I go into the garden and check the canoes piled up on a wooden stand – probably the first and only useful thing I have ever made with my bare hands.

I flip the Pipette over and check for cracks and problems, before going into the garage to find the rest of my gear. I dust off a life jacket. Soon.

February 15
I take Lyra further afield, out to West Stow and Kings Forest. It is the edge of the Brecklands, a strange land I have come to love, that feels right in its wrongness.

I let her off the lead for the first time. It’s something I’ve been dreading doing, fearing that she would run and never stop. She skitters away and then comes back, falling in with my steps and then asking to be carried as if the world has suddenly become too big for her.

We head to the river again. All paths seem to lead to the Lark. This stretch has been restored and, now fed by the rain, it chuckles through riffles and bends.

February 16
The moon is beginning to sink as I drive away from the house. Low on the horizon and waxing towards full. A gleaming fish belly with an ottery bite taken from its left side. On the radio the World Service is on, delivering news of cancelled elections in Nigeria and trade disputes with China. I turn the volume down and wipe sleep from my eyes. The clock says 4.15am. There’re not many things that can drag me from my bed at this time but the chance of seeing an otter is one of them.

I meet my friend, the photographer Sarah Groves, at Hen Reedbeds and walk along the river wall. The twilights are melting into each other. Astronomical makes way for nautical, the highest points of the sky blueing from the rays of a sun which is still hidden beneath the horizon.

Light bleeds slowly down, is reflected up by the river and creeks, which also cradles the bright, white spots of Venus and Jupiter: glinting like sewing needles half pushed through dark denim.

The river here is beautiful. The Blyth’s name comes from the Old English “blithe”, meaning “gentle or pleasant” and there is certainly a gentleness here. A soft coming together of water and mud flats accentuated by the pre-dawn light. The tide is low and it’s hard to see what is water and what is shimmering mud: the course of the river lost in an archipelago of salt-crusted land and briney, winding creeks.

Sarah points out slipways made by otters belly-sliding into the water, a path of transformation from hump-backed land-lubbers to liquid muscle. There are tracks in the mud of the creek too. We sit and drink tea and watch them disappear as the tide creeps in.

February 24
After a week of sap-rising sun, the day is bright and clear. Finally, for the first time this year, I’m back on the river. In fact, it feels like an age since I’ve been on the water, it was probably back in November when the world had started to tilt towards winter.

It’s longer still since I’ve canoed this stretch of the Lark: back in summer with the children, leaning over the canoe’s sides, pointing out the blistering circles from rising fish. Before that it was with James, as we paddled to the Great Ouse through knifing wind, the water so thick with ice, we had to smash it with our paddles.

I’m with James again today. Him in front, the engine, me ruddering from behind. We go slow, shielding our face from sun-scalded water as we round meandering bends, passing the pill box and scrubby fields, to where the river really becomes a fenland waterway.

Light on water is always bewitching and today the ripples from the paddles strobe gold up on to the reeds: flicker across the chests of a few waggle-tailed swans.

The river here is above the land, a result of drainage, which caused the peat to dry out and become one of the lowest points in the country. In some of the villages along the river the land pulls away from brick and stone like gums from teeth.

The route, little-by-little, straightens. Some might say it is boring but being on the water is joy enough. There is a simple pleasure in the movements of the paddle. The metronome rhythm of it all. No effort. No thought. Life reduced to the simplest basest elements. Water, land, flesh and boat.

There is a sense of freedom too, not just through the change of movement and immersion in a different landscape, but in the idea that rivers, so often a border to county and country, are a no man’s land. Outside of society, outside of laws.

We turn around at the Ouse and paddle back, stopping off by the stone marking the spot of the river baptism of Rev Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Prince of the Preachers, in 1850.

Writing in his autobiography, he said how, standing in the water, “my timidity was washed away; it floated down the river into the sea, and must have been devoured by the fishes, for I have never felt anything of the kind since…I lost a thousand fears in that River Lark.”

Hot from paddling, we jump from the canoe and swim against the weakest of currents, roaring and laughing at the cold. A baptism of our very own.


‘The Pull of the River’ is out now in paperback, published by Elliott & Thompson.