7 October 2008

At the Ford

It is hard to imagine that, only two months ago, during the August heat, we sat here dangling our toes in the water. The low planks of the footbridge over the ford were pale and dry then. A pair of swans and their three café-au-lait cygnets shared the river with us, hoping perhaps for a bit of bread, and rolling downstream, tumbling over and over itself, came a fist-sized mass of water starwort which caught for a moment against a bridge stanchion and then went on.

Now the swans have vanished, and so has the summer. After threatening all day, the clouds have finally darkened still more and brought rain. Coming down the hill, the storm could be seen as a grey haze cloaking the woods and fields of the next parish. It moved on to the village, enveloping the manor house and then the ancient stonework of the church. The gargoyles on the tower must have come to life almost at once, as did the yellow room-lights in some of the houses near the green.

The rain reached this spot a few minutes ago. There is no shelter to be had, only the wood, and to get there would mean a soaking. The best and only place is here, standing in the lee of an old and ivy-covered ash. The tree is at the top of the bank above the middle of the ford, overhanging the deepest water. There is not much dry space in which to wait out the rain, a few inches to stand in and no more. There is not even room to move the feet, not without risking a tumble into the ford. For as long as the rain lasts they will have to remain immobile, deprived of their freedom by the vagaries of the sky.

Any place takes on a different aspect when viewed not spontaneously, but from compulsion. This is especially so in the wet, and the effect is heightened when the field of view from your sheltering-place — be it a doorway, the arch of a bridge, or an ivy-covered ash — is restricted by the slant and direction of the rain.

The shelter of the tree extends for some way across the ford, spreading a broad tongue of smoothness across the surface of the river. From the edge of this area outwards, the momentary craters of the raindrops become bigger and deeper until they are just as big as those forming in the roadside puddles. Each one of the drops hitting the river has this last instant of individuality before being absorbed into the body of the stream. These drops have already begun their journey to the Thames and the sea; the others, landing in the puddles, in the fields, in the wood, pouring through the gargoyles, must wait their turn.

Their comrades, hordes of them, are at this moment swelling the water table below the river’s source. The river rises as a threadlike brook, but grows quickly on its way here. In the grounds below a Victorian mansion a couple of miles upstream there is even a little cascade, provided with many small flaps to break the flow — either to make the sight more picturesque or to aerate the water for the benefit of the trout. A reclining stone god, a bit decayed, supervises from his central place on the lip of the falls, and there is just enough water going past to preserve his dignity.

From there the river continues to grow, winding through a damp, rich-soiled moor which is now mainly pasture. The water is very clean, and the wild plants in this stretch bring botanists on pilgrimages from London and elsewhere.

This weed coming downstream now, though, is one of the common ones. It too, like its predecessor on that August evening, is water starwort, but its green mass, gliding into the ford, does not head for the bridge but instead is brought by a quirk of current this way.

It comes close enough to see the shape of the delicate green leaves. Starwort from stagnant water often has leaves which are broad and round. Those on this specimen, however, are long and strap-shaped, which probably means it was dislodged from a fast-flowing section of the river. Half an hour ago, as the rain began, the weed might have flowed past the stone god and over his waterfall. Now, as the rain seems to be coming to an end, it drifts once more into the main current and disappears, watched by an immobile figure of quite another sort.

The worst of the rain has moved on. It’s time to go. The sky to the west looks harmless enough. Secretly congratulating yourself on having kept dry, you climb down from the bank, cross the footbridge, and continue on your way.

Five minutes on, too far from your tree or any other shelter, your forecast is proved wrong. The rain sweeps in again, heavier than before; the dryness of your jacket, so carefully hoarded under the tree, is lost in an instant.

Nature is no respecter of dryness, or hoarders, and it may be that, as the water begins to trickle down your neck, the faintest of faint smiles is slowly forming on a certain stone face two miles upstream.

1 comment:

Elle said...

This vignette moved me as fluidly as the water it describes. As I read, I reminisced my days near London -- in particular, a car journey north to a magical place near a 1000 year-old tree.