Waterlight: A River to Sail Away On…

It was still only June and it has been beautiful. Warm and light, the woods close to the river have been high with cow parsley. We have been back to Meldreth Primary School to share the results of the filmmaking day we spent with the children of Year Six on our walk along the section of the Mel.

In the time in between, they have edited and considered their two-minute pieces and we were treated to a wide variety of approaches and themes. Many of the films were a plea to save the environment, some were very visual looking closely at certain places on the river reflectively and imaginatively — using close-ups of flowers, stones, and water.

Photograph: James Murray-White © 2018

Ghost stories

We were also treated to two ghost stories inspired by Topcliffe Mill. One used an imaginative history of the Mill to create water ghosts rising from the weir. A convincing and beautifully written piece:

The next morning, she awoke to the sound of whispering in the halls. Walking out, she saw nothing but incoherent speaking could still be heard. Then the lights began to flicker and doors began to slam.

‘Hello’ Sarah called. ‘are you the Turner girls’? there was no reply. However water began to run under the door, as if the mill was flooding.

The other, written by three boys sharing ideas, created a monstrous troll who came after anyone who threw litter and rubbish into the river.

The refrain they invented on the walk home was:

We know a troll who will take your soul
And bury you in a hole
If you litter the enchanted river!

Be afraid those who throw plastic bottles and crisp packets into the Mel.

Very afraid!!!!!!!!!!!!

James also showed his film of the day we had out, which caused great hoots of laughter, when people shushed other people while I was talking, and when a group of boys had no qualms about posing for the camera, already knowing they were stars.

Through the water meadows

There has also been the delight of visiting Sheene Manor and being walked through fields close to the river by its owner. Here another spring rises in a meadow that feeds the river Mel for a short time. Originally and still a water meadow when the water level is high, this was farmland until the bypass was built between Meldreth and Melbourn in the 1970s.

Once, the water meadow was rented out to watercress growers and children would sit all day watching the river for stickleback. Despite this nostalgia, the land here was a working farm and because it has stayed in the same family some of it is now planted up with willows for cricket bats and the gardens are beautifully managed and kept by the current owners. I think of this place as where the Mel meanders . . . there is a deep green pond with an island on it where the chickens lived . . . there are small bridges   . . .  even a small river can have meanders . . . stop to fill a water meadow and a mill pond at Sheene Mill. Before continuing away across the playing fields. What I have discovered is that rivers directly fed by springs are spontaneous; they pool, making the landscape of lakes, ponds and stream spontaneously, on a course entirely their own.

Photograph: James Murray-White © 2018

Stream of consciousness…

Following this train of thought, I look up poems about rivers for children and find this included in the primary poetry curriculum, by the performance poet and children’s author Valerie Bloom. It describes the experience of being on the water meadows and momentarily beside two rivers and the unbounded energy of 32 eleven-year-olds perfectly.

The River

The river’s a wanderer,
A nomad, a tramp
He doesn’t choose one place to set up his camp.

The river’s a winder
Through valley and hill
He twists and he turns
He just cannot be still

The river’s a hoarder
And he buries down deep
Those little treasures
That he wants to keep

The rivers a baby
He gurgles and hums
And sounds like he’s happily
Sucking his thumbs

The river’s a singer
And he dances along
The countryside echoes
The notes of his song

The rivers a monster
Hungry and vexed
He’s gobbled up trees
And he’ll swallow you next

- Valerie Bloom

Also included is Walter de la Mare’s poem Silver, with its evocative conjuring of the countryside at night in moonlight. One of the poets my mother read to me, I am pleased it has stood the test of time. It finishes with these two enigmatic and exact lines about a river;

And modeless fish in the water gleam,
By silver reeds in silver stream.

One of my favourite poems from the twentieth century, and less known than Not Waving but Drowning, is Stevie Smith’s uneasy direct monologue poem simply entitled River God:

I may be smelly and I may be old,
Rough in my pebbles, reedy in my pools

But where my fish float by I bless their swimming,

which despite its dark theme — ‘But I can drown the fools…’ — uses language

‘hi, yih, yippity yap, merrily I flow’
‘Hi, yih, do not let her/Go.

to create the river’s spontaneity and dispassion.

Photograph: James Murray-White © 2018

But — my imagination being formed what must seem to most eleven-year-olds as a hundred years ago by a mixture of “Alph, the sacred river in caverns measureless to man” (Khubla Khan, Coleridge) and Blake’s “pebble of the brook” (The Clod and the Pebble) and in the olden days when there was no pollution and everyone wore smocks — I digress, and will stop now for the moment, apart from thanking James, Bruce, Mrs Willan and Year Six at Meldreth primary school.

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