A Good Read – Silt Road, The Story of a Lost River – Charles Rangeley-Wilson

untitled (5)I read this book in superfast time, drawn on by its underlying melancholy. A sadness of the author both for the buried and brutalised river whose history he charts and a personal sadness, hinted at but, with admirable constraint, never quite revealed.

As someone who has worked on many river restoration projects and known the teeth grinding frustration of coming up against official inertia, short sightedness and profit margins, as if these were something I personally was supposed to care about, then I fully understood Rangeley-Wilson’s anger at the tiny, self interested decisions made by councillors with hands in developers pockets. Decisions which then go on to suck the life out of a town and its inhabitants for a long time to come.

The story of the River Wye in High Wycombe, that this book uncovers, could be the story of so many of our rivers. Essential to the towns that grew up around them, bound up in our history, once beautiful and then lost under concrete. It could well have been the story of my own local river, The Beam which flows into Romford in Essex. Once an essential part of the towns brewery industry, it too now is buried under concrete with plans for its resurrection shelved in favour of a car park and shopping centre. It is a sign of the times, where we once worshipped river Gods, now our Gods are shopping and cars.

Silt Road is not an uplifting read but the universality of its subject allows us all to recognise, think about and understand the rivers which flow in and around our towns better. Towards the end of this book you begin to will the author on, hoping for a happy ending, wanting Charles Rangeley-Wilson to save his river, unearth it from its tomb and give it back to the town but it is not to be.

The book does end, however, with a little glimmer of hope. As the author sits in a café and watches the people of the town drawn to the one water feature they have left. Reaching out in order to touch and connect with this element and, in doing so, maybe connect with an inner part of themselves which, like the river, is buried deep underground.

 

Floating an idea

rescued from Sheppey - this time not by the lifeboat!

Rescued from Sheppey – this time not by the lifeboat!

Cycled to Lower Halstow on a beautiful winter’s afternoon to admire the boats and dream once again about buying one.

I have toyed with the idea of buying a boat ever since moving to Medway. Something to escape down river in on a summer’s evening to enjoy the peace and commune with the seals or, rather more intrepidly, chug across the Thames to Essex to visit the folks. But I currently have zero boating knowledge and no spare cash. Strangely neither of these small issues is likely to deter me.

This year, having spent so much time walking along the river and meeting people living in many weird and wonderful ways along its banks, the idea has really taken hold, but just what boat should I be dreaming of? a motor boat? a sail boat? a canoe? I have no idea what a cash strapped, total novice should buy and have a healthy respect of the dangers of the estuary after being rescued by a lifeboat from an ill-fated canoeing tour. Consequently I don’t know if this is one of my many crazy desires that I should squash or one of those rare moments of inspired clarity that I should run towards. Today, with the river spread out before me and all those islands and inlets to explore, every boat looked tempting.

A few weeks ago I had spent a merry half hour perusing the ‘for sale’ board at Iron Wharf boatyard in Faversham and saw an advert for a sailing boat called Katie;

‘Sloop rigged, motor sailer, twin bilge keels, roller reefed, mailsail and furling jib, £3250.’

I have no idea what it all means but it sounds beautiful.

I am tempted, too tempted but rather fear I could become like one of the inhabitants of Iron Wharf who, having spent their life savings on the boat,  realise that they don’t have the skills to keep it afloat and instead end up living in a rented railway carriage at the dock. At notice next to the boat informed me that I could rent my very own railway carriage for £10 a month. At this price life on the dockside was quite tempting too.

Railway carriage home - Iron Wharf

Railway carriage home – Iron Wharf

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.

All At Sea

065 Hoo marina

Houseboats on the River Medway

Following the sign to the Marina, I pulled up in the wind blasted car park and emerged to the lost soul howling of wind through rigging. A man emerged from a static caravan and stared at me silently.

“I’m here to meet Martin Simpson,” I said, feeling, however silently, he was demanding to know my status.

“You’re here to meet Martin Simpson,” he repeated, eyeing me in a way which made me feel I was dressed as a dog’s dinner not in jeans and a duffle coat.

He stomped away through the puddles to another porta cabin.

This was not the start to my journey I had imagined when I had decided to set out on a mission to meet people living in alternative homes on the North Kent Marshes.

Thankfully Martin arrived, full of jolly breeziness despite the bleak weather.

“The site manager,” he told me as we made our way through the houseboat marina along an assortment of wet gang planks and metal walkways above the mud, a scene reminiscent of Oliver Twist.

Martin on the gangway

Martin on the Gangway

At the end of the walkway we boarded Martin’s huge tanker, climbing down a steep wooden gangplank. The tanker was painted a sunny yellow and topped with a gravel beach.

“The neighbour’s cat uses it as a litter tray,”said Martin. We looked out from the deck towards the squat fort on Hoo Ness island and away to the right the coastline stretched to the industrial cathedral of Kingsnorth.

“You have the best view on the whole marina,” I said as widgeon paddled beneath us in the shallow and oystercatchers piped along the bay.

Martin looked at it sadly. He knew he did but still he was planning to move.

Down in the beautiful living quarters we settled down with cups of tea on the leather sofa and Martin told me the story.

The site owner had been making life increasingly difficult for Martin.

“He doesn’t like the fact that I have a lot of female friends. They’re just friends,” Martin emphasised “but now he’s stopped me having more than 4 people on here at once.” A rule, it turned out, applied only to Martin.

The previous summer Martin had used his prime position on the estuary to take others out kayaking, wanting to share the beauty of the area but recently friends had turned up in the car park to find a sign telling them that ‘Martin’s event is cancelled.’

“He’s jealous,” I suggested.

Martin shrugged. One of the other boat owners had given it to him straight but without malice. “You’re face doesn’t fit.”

To tell the truth it probably didn’t. Martin had come to living on a houseboat from owning a 5 bedroom house in the ritzy waterfront village of East Farleigh. Here he had owned a waterfront property and kept a boat for pleasure cruising across to the continent. A sticky divorce had left him financially on his uppers.

“Poverty brings a lot of people here,” he said “but they choose to stay.” Martin loved the way that living on the river confronted all your senses, the way the tide rose and fell, the light changed, the noises of water hitting the boat in the storm. “The water gives me energy,” he said. “It affects me, the tide changes and so does my mood.”

Martin had built his life back up, from living on, what had once been his pleasure boat, he had bought and renovated this tanker into a swish bachelor pad, using his skills as a builder and architect. Now he owned a portfolio of properties. He spoke proudly of being a ‘Bargee’, a river gypsy but I could see why maybe he didn’t blend with the other boat owners.

He was moving the boat in a few weeks to Rochester Bridge, to an upmarket marina where, he hoped, his face would fit better. Here he hoped to bring together his experience of property development and on board living to convince the council to take seriously his vision of building a series of houseboats which turned with the tide, offering ever changing views of the river. These boats could provide affordable accommodation for people in a natural setting.

“But you need to change people’s mindsets,” he said. “They see houseboat owners as the rougher end of society, they think we make the river look scruffy, but all I see is new waterfront developments stripping all the character and community from the river and building ugly concrete walls. I want to make people see that they need to support the bargee’s and their way of life.”

Martin was being positive about the move, he needed to change, to maybe sell the boat and create something new but, as he looked out of his windows across the expanse of the estuary and spoke of his love for this every changing landscape, he suddenly said “I’m going to have boats 6 foot away from me on either side in Rochester.”

Martin spoke of the river as one community, a community which ended at the shoreline and, as we walked back down the gangplanks to the car park, other boatowners, emerged, swathed in waterproofs and offered him help with acquiring the tugs he would need to help move the boat. There was community spirit here but it was still a community where one man’s mean spirit and inverted snobbery could drive another away from his home.

Martin on prow of boat