The River is a Guide to the Land

Earlier this week I took a longer walk, from my home in the Vale of Pewsey, along the western arm of the upper reaches of the Salisbury Avon. I printed some images onto thick cartridge paper to create some Walking Pages to record my journey, and set out with the idea that I would look at how limited access to the river is, and how my experience of it is limited to glimpses of sections of the river at certain crossing points.

I ended up walking until the western arm reaches the eastern arm at Rushall, joining forces to flow south towards Salisbury. My Walking Pages lasted for about half of my walk, as I made my way via the villages of Chirton, Patney, Marden, Wilsford, Charlton St Peter and Rushall, following public footpaths and country roads, keeping as close as I could to the path of the river.

I had realised quite early on in the developent of this project that my idea of walking along the length of the river wasn’t going to be possible. In each of my walks so far, except perhaps for the first one with Claire from Wessex Archaeology, the times when I can actually stand on the banks of the river are pretty few, generally I am looking down from a road or foot bridge.

During my talk with, artist/geographer Sage Brice asked whether my research would look into these issues of river ownership and control. This longer walk felt like the ideal opportunity to start to explore how human infastructure and the river intersect to enable or deny access, and to document the vantage points from which such glimpses were taken.

Often on these walks, what I set out to do doesn’t always translate into what happens. As with the walk to find the source of the river, the river often shows me a different way of seeing and thinking about it and the wider landscape. In this case, yes I took photographs of the different bridges, the gaps in hedges, the white highlighted wrought iron barriers, and felt frustrated at points that I couldn’t get closer, but I also started to notice the relationship between the water and the land in a different way too.

As I walked along lanes, over stiles and across fields I was very aware of whether my path echoed the path of the river, whether we moved in parallel or whether my route took me away. As I walked I recorded my thoughts and feelings onto the paper of the Walking Pages:

‘I find it really uncomfortable walking the wrong way, like going against the flow. I know the river carries on but I have to turn around, up the road, to cut across again… But then I heard the swans, heard their wings. The River came to meet me, they flew directly over me, and as I wrote this they returned, lower, circling twice, as if to land. Then lower still, behind the trees to the water.’

The experience with the swans reminded me the writing of Peter Reason in On Sentience, when he writes about his own experience with swans, this time at the place where the Bristol Avon and River Frome meet:

‘One might say, well this was something that just happened as the swans went about their daily business. Yet the unexpected quality of the event washed away any scepticism: I had no doubt that it was an intentional move, a choreographed gesture from the whole River being, a reciprocal act in response to… my invocation.’

As I continued on my walk, I was increasingly aware of the shape of the land in relationship to the river, and of the birds that I noticed (or who showed themselves to me). At the start of the walk I had seen a Barn Owl, shaking the wet from its feathers from its perch on a wooden rail, quite out of place at 10am. During the walk I talked to the swans that I saw in flight and on the swampy fields between villages. They seemed like guardians of the river, its representatives on land, and were reasurring and familiar as I made my way along pathways and through villages I’d never walked through before. Woodpeckers drummed, a Sparrowhawk flew fast from the trees, and a pair of Mallards flew nearby, unseen by me but calling as they went. And then at the end, right where I stopped and thanked the river, another Barn Owl flew across the river in front of me, up into the branches of a willow tree.

I was walking with the understanding that being alongside the river wasn’t possible all the time and I wanted to make note of when I couldn’t be and how that felt. However, as the walk went on I didn’t feel so disconnected from it after all. When I walked along a road, I found myself noticing the standing water or the trickle down a drain. When I walked along the wet margins of a field I saw the soil being carried away down the slope, Everywhere I walked I noticed the gradient of the land’s surface, and how it guided the water back down towards the path of the river.

I thought again about the word catchment, and another comment from the discussion, as we talked about not being able to tell where a river starts or ends, Richard Broadbent observed in the Zoom chat, ‘Rivers don’t start or end, they gather’.

‘Everywhere I look, I see the way that land and water work together. I can’t stop noticing the gradient of the land… reading the land, understanding its hills and dips, highs, lows and flows.’

It’s taken me a while to write this post as I wasn’t sure what to write, and in some ways its still not completely resolved, but I want to share the experience while it’s still fresh. It was a longer walk than usual and the more I walked the more I stepped out of thinking and just kept on walking. Towards the end of the walk there was a surprising amount of footpaths that followed the riverbank too, and I started to feel like we were flowing together.

Then, as I reached Rushall Church (swearing quietly to myself at the wonder that was the Barn Owl marking the end as well as the start of my walk), I sat down on my coat on the grass, and asked myself a few questions:

What have I learned today? What have I gained or let go of? To be more open… open about asking, open about receiving. Open to all of it.

The river is a guide to the whole, it’s not ‘just’ a river, not separate to the rest of the world, not just one element but a connector, a bringer and receiver. It leads and shows and teaches, and I ask for it to share its knowledge with me, to be guided, supported, enabled.

Published by James Aldridge

Visual Artist and Consultant, working and playing with people and places. Based in Wiltshire, UK

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