Caught by the River

One River For Another

Jamie Collinson | 27th January 2021

Jamie Collinson trades in the LA River for the Wey.

I’ve recently exchanged one river for another. As I’ve written here previously, for several years I walked the Los Angeles River footpath every day. In these months of uncertainty and working from home, I was more grateful for it than ever – the jungly stripe of green in the middle of the water, the familiar characters and the birds: green herons, hawks and kingfishers. The dry cold in winter and the dry heat in summer. The endless blue sky and sometimes the drama of the LA rain. I never seemed to tire of it. 

But my family and I had planned to return to the UK one day, and the pandemic and various other pressures hastened things. We weren’t the only ones – on the quiet streets of our LA neighbourhood, the usual people walked their dogs and lined up for coffee, everyone masked because you have to wear them outside there. But more and more U-Haul trucks were appearing, idling at curbs and parked on driveways, people dragging their goods across lawns and heading for somewhere else. Where? I asked them. Most were going somewhere less urban – back to the places their families lived, Colorado or Kansas or Oregon. All of a sudden, people said with a shrug, you might as well live anywhere. 

We now live a stone’s throw from the river Wey. It could hardly be more different. The water is deeper and a dark winter green. It slides along in strange, shapeless planes, like squiggles drawn softly into the surface tension of the water. I’m getting reacquainted with mud – so much of it – and the cold and the mist; the sharp, icy drape of fog against the flesh of my face. Los Angeles made me unused to cold and turned me into a wimp.

Before the last year ended, I was gung-ho about the move and I didn’t miss LA at all. Since it has, there have been a few pangs. I miss the mountains, and I miss both the people and the wildlife. I lived in the city for eight years and fell in love with it. But I walk the Wey and I imagine what it’ll be like in spring. I think I’m going to swim in it. 

Instead of fashionable Angelenos, road bikers and the homeless, there are friendly home counties people walking their dogs. I’ve listened to audiobooks as I’ve walked the path – recently Graham Greene’s The Human Factor. Men, and one very memorable woman, move through the November gloom of London to make calls in telephone boxes and meet for club lunches. Our anti-hero commutes to Berkhamsted, chooses a bicycle over a car and struggles to limit his consumption of whisky. Drink looms large. The language is honed and the plot taut as my cold flesh.

Except for the mud, everything is very clean on the river Wey. In LA the trees and reeds were wreathed in river trash, most of it pointing in the direction of the flow from the rare occasions the water level rose. I remember the hot stink, the occasional needle, the little homeless camps and the bigger ones. An osprey – a bird key to my novel – eating a fish on a concrete bridge’s buttress.

The Wey is narrow and green, genteel and smoky. There are sodden water meadows and flickering brownish birds I’ve yet to identify. Serious looking canoeists scythe along it, the equivalent of the road bikers on the LA River bike path. It’s beautiful, and very different, and it’s where I am now. There will be wildlife to discover that I haven’t as yet. And come spring, unlike the LA river, I’ll even be able to jump into it.