Our broken river

Kingfisher by Peter Trimmings

Kingfisher by Peter Trimmings

I took a paddle upriver last week, along one of the most beautiful parts of the River Stour outside of Canterbury.

My volunteer group were busy on the bank pulling Himalayan Balsam, an exotic plant, which, if allowed, would cover the banks and shade out all the native plants. I paddled ahead to look for more exotic plants, Japanese knotweed, giant hogweed, garden escapes which had run amok.

I paddled in a kayak we had found dumped some months previously, the holes patched with gaffa tape with a woodworm riddled paddle found at the back of the workshop. But the kayak was water tight and the river beautiful. Rafts of water crowfoot flowered mid channel, the river clear and gravel bottomed, banded demoiselles, tiny blue and green jewels flitting mid channel, little groups of sapphire males fighting over resting places, favoured leaves and pebbles.

I paddled past banks lined with water forget-me-not and woundwort, trees with creeping roots clambering over and under and through broken walls of Victorian bricks built by shirt sleeved and braces men of long ago. Willow overhung the channel, forcing me to duck and dive through swampy undergrowth, a kingfisher vanished in a flash of brilliance up ahead.

This part of the Stour is all that’s left, miles of river either side of Canterbury have been destroyed by riverside developments. Once quiet backwaters, opened up to public gaze, trees cut back, wildlife disturbed all in the name of public access as if we had a right, a right to every tiny inch of the countryside, as if we can’t be happy to leave some places untouched and unknown, some places for the wildlife alone.

But is any part of our countryside now undamaged? Among the rafts of water crowfoot were plastic bottles and crisp packets. Shopping trolleys, carried by currents from supermarkets in town, lay along the banks, fishing wire hung from trees, waiting to ensnare birds wings and legs. The river smelt of phosphate, misconnected drains and sewers leaching poison into the river, a dead fish lay in front of one outlet, and further upstream crept the ever reaching tendrils of housing development. A new town of riverside flats was being created on the bank, the spoil and plastic pipes tumbling down the embankment, smothering the vegetation, cascading soil and silt into the river to cover the gravely beds downstream.

Sometimes, I am ashamed to be human, part of the same race that would arrogantly and blindly wreak such havoc on other living creatures. I would shut down this part of the river, remove the footpaths, so no to riverside access and, yes, even ban me and my kayak. I would say no more. There is enough access to the river, we have a right to no more. I would leave this part, this small little section alone, leave it to the fish and the water vole and the kingfisher, allow it to be a secret place once more and visit it only in my mind.

Notes from the Island

12 on the beach at darnet

I forage for driftwood and, after the winter storms, find plenty of old planks and logs washed down with the tides. Getting a fire going proves harder than I had imagined, but after a few false starts with a cheap lighter and some torn pages from my notebook I succeed . I watch the sun going down on Midsummer eve while my little saltwood fire burns down to ash and my jacket potatoes slowly soften in the coals. The tide rises and recedes, the wind picks up. I am sticky from salt spray and sweat and my eyes sting with smoke but I am proud of my fire, feeling like a survivalist chick.

What would you take to a deserted island?

toasting a successful first day

I have always loved islands. When faced with troubled times or too much of life and people I have often chosen to vanish to an island. Once to the beautiful Holy Island in Northumberland, to retreat to a place where the causeway was covered with the tide for much of the day. Twice to the Scilly Isles where I revelled in the luxury of doing nothing. Now I am off on the second leg of my Estuary Life tour and am going to spend the solstice on a deserted island in the Medway river. I am being ferried across  by hovercraft on Saturday evening and will spend the longest night of the year in blissful solitude.

But what do you take to a desert island. I have chosen my book, an ancient Richard Mabey book on wild plants and I have chosen my piece of music, Diamond Mine by King Creosote and Jon Hopkins, my luxury? I guess it’s my camera although it might be toilet roll!  But I am hoping the real luxury is to spend 24 hours on my own, to be transported somewhere with no one and nothing to be responsible for, no e-mail, no phone, no lawn needing mowing and house needing cleaning and work demanding to be attended to. I wish to leave a note on my inbox and on my door, a message on my phone.

Gone to the Island, back soon.

Lizards Alive!

moses face Moses in garden

What do you do when you find a dragon on the road?

Driving to the Isle of Sheppey in Kent passed the fabulously named Bedlams Bottom I spied something on a bend in the road by the river . At first I thought it was a suicidal rabbit and then a piece of cardboard but..no… it was a bearded dragon. Seriously far from home, sunning himself of the tarmac and about to meet oblivion under the wheels of a car.

 

A reptile native to Australia should not be wandering around Bedlams Bottom. What could I do? What would you do? We turned round and went back for him. He probably wasn’t feeling too perky having presumably been abandoned some days earlier by some heartless fiend who had got bored with him or possibly squeamish about feeding him live crickets. Maybe because he wasn’t feeling too well he proved surprisingly easy to catch and stuff into a boot bag where he thrashed around a bit before emerging to eye me suspiciously I guess thinking…’Now what?’ Now What indeed?

 

Surreptitiously I just happened to have a garden full of fish tanks, having had five given to me by a friend a few days earlier. I had been thinking what on earth am I going to do with all these fish tanks…I don’t keep fish, but now I knew. We sat around looking at him while he sat on a log in a tank and looked at us. My Lithuanian housemate came home and sat there looking at him too.

“We should keep him,” she said.

“That’s all very well Erika,” I told her, “But he eats live food. Live crickets.”

“No,” she said in amazement. “Has no one told him it is 2014!”

 

Maybe someone had, as a few days later, now in a larger tank with 5 crickets he appeared to be showing no interest in them. Despite Erika and I carrying the tank around the garden to ensure he got the maximum amount of sunlight. Despite daily hot baths and massage, he was showing no interest. If anything the crickets appeared to be eating him.

“Maybe he’s vegetarian,” Erika surmised.

If he was he was also showing no interest in the delicacies placed in front of him, dandelion leaves, cucumber, pepper, even the first strawberries from my plants, elicited no response.

 

I knew I had to make a decision. Bite the bullet and buy him some proper lighting or give him away. I was for the latter. I phoned friends, friends of friends, a rescue centre but no one wanted a dragon that week.

“We keep him,” Erika says. “We should name him.”

What do you do when you find a dragon in the road? Well, if you’re me, you give in to the suspicious but slightly lovable eye, the comical grimace, the pleas of your housemate and you spend £100 on lights, you apologise to the crickets but fling them in anyway and you name him… Moses, found down by the river among the rushes and rescued by a slightly crazy princess!