Chalk Stream Lullaby

I do not know much about gods, but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god, sullen untamed and intractable’

This short phrase is taken from T.S.Eliot at the beginning of the rolling and wonderful, Dry Salvages, in the Four Quartets. It is said he was inspired to write it by some rocks with a beacon on the north east coast of America at Cape Ann, Massachusetts.

River Mel, Meldreth. Photograph: Yvonne Chamberlain © 2018

The river Mel is a classic English chalk stream that I have walked in all weathers for the last 18 years and in winter it can indeed be sullen, especially when just below the A10  when it becomes full of crisp packets, plastic bottles and other things which just happen to be dumped from cars. It is only the painstaking work of the River Mel Restoration volunteers who have slowly removed this from the river there. It links my village, Meldreth, with the next village, Melbourn, and is a well-worn route crossing fields and through woodlands used by dog walkers, runners, and children on their way to Melbourn village college.

As Eliot says later in the poem: ‘The river is within us, the sea is all about us’ and for me, the river Mel close to my home has always been a consolation, a healing force, and a surprise in that it is different every day. Consequently, it inspired a short sequence of poems. These are published in my last collection The Blue Hour (Shoestring Press 2017). They have in turn inspired a film and a community project about the river, which includes interviews with people who have lived close to it all their lives, children’s poetry, music and new poems from local writers, and it is being made by my friend, film maker James Murray White

Even though short and hidden, the river Mel has its own beauty and as Eric Schumacher wrote many years ago, ‘Small is Beautiful’. There are vistas, meanders, pools and changes. Different depths of water, reeds, grebes, coots, the heron that lives there and the white egret which has taken up residence as well as the dart of some kingfishers. According to Tristran Gooley’s anthropological book How to Read Water, it is a healthy river and its flow shows no sluggishness even at low water. It passes under small stone bridges, through weirs, creates ponds at mills and was clearly once lived around, in and on and was at the centre of village life. Just about wide enough to float a canoe, it can be swung across … and it joins the River Rhee (a tributary of the Cam) just outside Meldreth.

River Mel, Meldreth. Photograph: Yvonne Chamberlain © 2018

Recently James and I were granted access to the garden at Melbourn Bury where the Mel rises. It was a beautiful day and the water clear as a bell. It was explained to us how the lake in the garden contains several springs which when the water is low can be seen coming out of the ground.

If there is very low water a small culvert which looks like a well gushes, turns into a waterfall as water is pumped from the aquifer in the heath just before Royston. The lake is so large that the former owners had built small bridges to be able to cross it at the edge as it literally just pools out where the water rises and is full of reeds and yellow flag iris clear and shallow.

The river leaves the lake at a small weir which is really a funnel for the water, which then broadens into a wide chalk stream surrounded by trees and fields. The place is idyllic. The large garden was, in Edwardian times, opened to the public to boat on the shallow lake and to visit to see the snowdrops in spring. The lawn boasts an ancient Mulberry tree en route to the river. After Melbourn Bury the river crosses into the local nature reserve at Stockbridge Meadows where it is possible to paddle, wade, and just enjoy the cool.

In mid-May James, myself and our conservationist friend, Bruce, took Year 6 from Meldreth Primary School on a film making and poetry writing walk on the section of the river behind Meldreth High Street, through woods and fields, past the mill and up to the church field. Everyone was given an iPad for the return walk.

The outward walk was used for collecting ideas and impressions. We were lucky that it was a beautiful day, so grass fights and playing Pooh Sticks were also involved, particularly as some of the children did not know what Pooh Sticks was. There was a queue to see how it was played. Despite dire warnings about children’s contact with the natural world, this year I noticed that several of them knew common plant names e.g. clover, buttercup. Boys were seen picking cow parsley and looking at it closely in wonder (for the first time, I think). And I have to say, the speed at which they can make short films about their experience that morning was breathtaking.

River Mel, Meldreth. Photograph: Yvonne Chamberlain © 2018

This first post on my blog is for all of those who supported our crowdfunding appeal. You enabled us to raise a further £1,2000 from our local parish solar funds and we are very grateful. Please let me know if you do not wish to receive it and equally if there are others who would like to receive it. We hope soon to have a dedicated website for the project itself where we can upload film but in the meantime. If you are a poet please get in touch with the project if you would like notification of the poetry workshops, writing poems from local stories, memories and testaments.

Here is one of my poems from the sequence.

Crossings

The chalk stream claims its territory
in a scrap book of feathers,
watermarked weeds, pressed petals,
insect’s wings.

No fords, only tiny stone bridges 
or firm wooden crossings that would take a horse,
a herd of sheep, as was once.

Behind the church, there’s willow shelter
on the banks, picture perfect. Sanctuary
as if it was still an ancient way
full of travelling ghosts.

One minute long grass, the next chalk flat.
And it is as if nothing ever changes
and crossing is easy between banks.
Through the gate forward and back
forward and back. 

But this is the nature
of crossings, a leaving, a letting go
a threshold.

There were others here before.

Clare Crossman, from The Blue Hour (Shoestring Press 2017)

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