Caught by the River

Wet

8th February 2020

Jon Woolcott on rain, rain and more rain

November brought a deluge. In Yorkshire the Don overflowed, drowned properties and isolated communities. Near Matlock a woman was swept away by the waters and died. In the middle of a febrile general election campaign, flood-hit areas became weary destinations for camera crews and party leaders in brand new wellington boots, trying to look decisive and attempting to avoid Cnut comparisons. In the south, where I live, it was simply wet.

It’s low and flat in Dorset’s Blackmore Vale, a thick, heavy grey-blue clay floor, which holds water and drains slowly. It rained, and then it rained some more, every day for weeks.  The earth sucked at our feet, and darkness settled over us. Neighbours complained that water oozed up around flagstones in their houses. Every step on the fields and in gardens was a squelch; at first ancient watercourses and ponds were again revealed, then new ones were made.  Within weeks of moving in, ten years ago, I dug a trench along the edge of our land close to a bank to drain ankle-high water. This autumn it filled and flooded the little meadow under two oak trees, their wide trunks and bark stained black with wet. Recently fallen leaves darkened, curled and rotted fast. Our boots muddied, our trousers muddied, our coats flecked with mud, sometimes our faces too. I wondered if the water would reach the floor of the chicken coop, on raised ground. It did not, but the hens paced stickily in their run, drank from muddy puddles, stayed high up when they could, shuffled about in damp bedding.  Across the fields towards the next hamlet the fields flooded.  Key Brook, a steep sided narrow and reedy channel in summer, an insignificant tributary of the River Stour which you can cross using a short wooden bridge when walking between the settlements, became flat and wide, a slow shining river. We called this apparition The Danube: big, curving and permanent-looking, as if a large and thriving nautically minded city might spring up overnight along its shores. In fact it briefly attracted small groups of wading birds, who were not fooled for long. At the other end of our hamlet the lane flooded and became impassable to vehicles. Walking with a friend, my wife saw a canoe making its way along this short stretch of road. 

Rain brought its own silence, keeping humans indoors and smothering sound. When I ventured outside for necessary tasks, or because a headache reached for my temples, everything was slow and quiet. I cut, by hand, the taller saplings in a narrow copse opposite the house where two hedgerows meet — these had threatened to cut out the late evening light next summer. I slithered through a gap in the hedge and worked between the hedges under a bruised sky, sawing and lopping through short, wet, dark afternoons. My woolly hat became sodden, its green fibres matted and coarse, sometimes snagging on leggy brambles which pulled it off my head and left it hanging in the hedgerow like a large rotting fruit. The smell of damp, deep and fungal, clung to clothes. My old thick black coat soaked at the shoulders and cowed me, made me hunch. My thin legs in black jeans protruded from the coat’s hem; I must have resembled a strange and huge hedge-dwelling corvid. Dragging some wood from the copse to the lane, I surprised a neighbour, escaping his house for a walk. Startled at the Crow-Man lurching at him and dragging sticks for what could only be an early nest, he half asked, half shouted, wide-eyed with shock, the first thing that had been on his mind: “Is It Green Bins This Week?” I dragged the wood slowly up the lane and piled it on wet grass – at some, unidentifiable, point in the future, when it’s dry, we’ll cut it again for kindling and for small logs, and pile it in the abandoned old metal truck that I had heard was once used for new-born lambs,  and is now slowly rusting into our earth. Rooks dimmed the grey skies further and other birds were silent. The wood looked ready for a bonfire, but it would be a sorry beacon flashing a warning across the land: too low here and too wet. 

It’s only going to become more like this. In a decade in this place it’s snowed properly three times, each time cutting us off briefly. In the 1960s, a one-time resident told me, when the fields flooded in winter they would freeze, creating an impromptu and informal ice rink for the children who grew up and moved out. This has not happened since we’ve been here, but it’s rained more than ever, an eerie and soaking reproach to our summer droughts, which in turn bring their own dead, shining silence. Steve, who cut our few hundred yards of hedge with a brutal flail in midwinter, could not remember a wetter period in twenty years. 

We’re exposed; on the edges of the Vale the wind runs fast, unencumbered by hills before buffeting the houses here, its first challenge in miles. Cutting the wood across the lane may have made it very slightly worse.  Sometimes, standing outside in the mornings I fancied it felt and smelt like sea-breeze, splattering lightly against my cheeks, although we’re far from the coast. My father-in-law, who lives a few miles away, had a neighbour who grumbled: “the weather’s coming up from Weymouth”. The town was where the Black Death made first landfall in England in the fourteenth century, and somehow, it’s retained some local notoriety as a source of threat.  Our window frames rot slowly, our wooden front door will have to be replaced again soon; its predecessor had wind-blown holes at its corners. This autumn black spores of damp spread into cold corners inside, creeping across ceilings and where walls met. From the upstairs bedrooms in our own crow’s nest, I could see the storm fronts racing in, one after another, dragging their Elephant’s Breath clouds with them, each one tinged with a forbidding purple, rain sheets obscuring the long line of hills which divide the county from north to south. We continued with our tasks, work, habits and routines. But the wind and rain were bringing their message to all quarters, raising the earth with wet, soaking into our lives.

*

Jon Woolcott lives in north Dorset. He works for the publisher Little Toller, and for Cranborne Chase AONB. He is writing a book about the hidden and radical histories of the south of England. 

Follow him on Twitter or Instagram.