Charles Rangeley-Wilson introduces a new book of drawings of Norfolk rivers by Tor Falcon
When I first met Tor she had already caught the habit of rivers. She was meandering down the River Wensum and had dropped me a line to ask questions about her new watery obsession – the rivers of Norfolk – about their natural and unnatural stories, and the environmental pressures they faced.
I suggested we meet by the river. It was a chilly day and I took the long walk in with my dog. By the time we found her, Tor had finished work for the morning and was shivering with cold. Molly helpfully tried to add paw-prints to the picture.
Tor had chosen a spot just below the old railway line, where swords of burr-reed pierced the still surface and a stately willow framed the receding mirror of water. To make the point that it was a complex and dangerously fascinating journey she was embarking on I nodded at the scene she had drawn and showed her how the plants, the stillness of the water and the shape of the river and banks all told a story. I showed her how you could see that the river had been diverted and straightened centuries ago, that these were old water-meadows, that were lost meanders in the woods all around us, that the river had been dredged too in the post-war years. Norfolk’s rivers are nothing if not a palimpsest of history, of man’s shaping and shifting influence on the landscape.
Tor’s book reflects that perfectly, the pictures and text working in a mutually reinforcing harmony. John Ruskin passionately believed in the ‘intellectual lens’ of the eye. Drawing, wrote Ruskin “enabled students to say and to see what they could not otherwise say or see, and it also enabled them to learn certain lessons which they could not otherwise learn”. By drawing they gained a power of the eye and mind wholly different from any other discipline or means of understanding. I kept thinking of Ruskin as I read and wandered through the gallery of Tor’s book, because he also said: “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw plainly. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion—all in one”.
I hope she won’t mind me saying that Tor was modestly self-effacing about the authority with which she might write the words in this book. But I guessed before I read it and know for sure having read it, that her eye, her skill as a draughtsman, her power to really see gave Tor all the authority she needed, ‘a power of the eye and mind’. The result is a marvellous, eclectic work that is part travelogue, part cultural and natural history, and of course a wonderful exhibition of images which tell the same story in a different way. The story of Norfolk’s rivers.
Norfolk is a rich waterland, even if its secret, often diminutive, and always quiet waterways aren’t ever the foaming cataracts of the Romantic imagination. The river that first entranced me was a tiny Norfolk stream. I only ever saw it from the back seat of the car as we drove by each fortnight on our way up from London, but every time I’d ask my Dad to slow down – it’s my favourite place, I’d say – and in the end he got so used to the request he’d slow down without my asking. The river fell over a small cascade behind a bus stop in the little village of Ingoldisthorpe: it was an utterly quotidian spot, but for me the little beck was all ‘swirl, chatter and burble’ just as Mole observed of Ratty’s beloved Pang. Watching it flow, if only for a few seconds, seemed to feed a deep and instinctive fascination.
Stop anyone walking by a river and ask what that river means to them: their answers will all be the same. They will say how it is peaceful, how they go there to get in touch with nature, to slow down, to wash away the cares of life, to paddle and play. Beside water we are all children again, alive to the beauty of the world, ready to learn. The river is the best schoolroom of all. Through her drawings and words Tor has composed a fascinating and evocative guidebook.
Rivers of Norfolk is available to buy here via Tor’s shop.
An exhibition of drawings from the book is on display at Norwich Castle Museum until January 2020. More information here.