Sunday, 22 February 2015

River Walks - Sunshine and Snow


I took a bus to Coldstream. Just beyond it is the bridge over the Tweed, that marks the boundary between Scotland and England.


I remember cycling on the bridges over the Rhine, the river forming the border between France and Germany. (I wrote about this in The Winter King on the German Border )

There was the main road bridge, Le Pont de L'Europe,


and the passerelle, for foot passengers and cyclists.


This rather modest bridge, and the river Tweed which it crosses are somewhat less dramatic than those other bridges and the river Rhine, though there is a common theme, a recurring one for me, that of finding good coffee. The coffee shop in this small town has a name like Stanwins, and there is something of winning about it, in its bright interior, (it's on the sunny side of the street) and inside everything is off-white,  walls, tables, chairs, counter, and one woman sitting by the window, reading a paper, and the sunlight illuminates the interior like a painting, like Woman in the Morning Café. She steps out of the frame, still carrying the sun with her, welcoming, cheerful. We're very quiet today she says, as she puts down her paper, goes behind the counter.  I bet you're busy in summer I say, lots of tourists. Oh yes – locals too, they're very supportive.

As she makes the coffee I ask her if there are river walks around here. She tells me there's one which goes from one end of the town to the other.


I'd been thinking of something longer, a path that followed the river for some way but the one she mentioned took me almost to the boundary bridge. I cross it, into England.


On the other side a small wooden signpost announces a path to a destination ten miles away. I know I won't go that far, but it's the kind of trail I'd been hoping to find. For a while it skirts the river then goes uphill through the wood.


On the top of the ridge, a clear path, sunshine, and that lifting of the heart.


The river curved away. The path continued at the side of fields with stiles over fences. Flat landscape. The path came out onto a road and that's where I lost it. I walked towards a signposted village then followed another wooden signpost to St Cuthbert's, but it led to the river then petered out. From the river I had to climb up a steep and muddy bank to get back onto high ground. Thorny brambles clawed at me.  I tried to investigate what might have been another trail, which might lead to what was marked on the map as a dismantled railway. But the undergrowth was too dense. So it was back to the path and the signpost, the road, and the path to the bridge and the border.



As I was looking at the pictures to put up on this post, I was listening to a programme on the BBC World Service, about Martha Gellhorn, one of the very first women war correspondents, (she started in the Spanish Civil War) an intrepid travel writer, whose writing I admire very much.


And I thought about how, as well as physical trails and paths, there are literary trails, to do with writers, their writing and their books, the places they have visited or lived in, the places they write about, the places where you read them, and how these can all become intertwined, and how discovering a book by Martha Gellhorn, which I'd long wanted to read, and one by Ella Maillart, who I had not then heard of, set me off on a path of discovery which continues, as there are still books by Martha Gellhorn, Ella Maillart and Annemarie Schwarzenbach which I haven't read yet. I wrote about that initial discovery in this blog post

The sunlight glitters on the snow and flakes fall, half melted, from the branches.

The water is the colour of melted snow. Greenish-grey.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

River Walk - Flood

I arrived at the bus stop just a few minutes before it was due. Good timing I thought, since they only run once an hour. This bus stop is what might be quaintly described as the middle of nowhere. I don't think that, because I know exactly where I am so it cannot be nowhere, only a few minutes away from a small town, twenty minutes from another small town and another twenty to my home. Which could be described as, if not the middle of nowhere, at least on the periphery of nowhere. I enjoy peripheries, edges, borders.  Places that are neither one thing or the other, with no claims to either, not claimed by either, toying with the possibilities of both.

'Nowhere' is full of life. The wind, which had been absent in my walk along the river, has returned.  I'd reached the stop on the main road via an old railway track, a raised embankment, bordered by trees, overgrown in some places, but with a worn path along the middle showing it was still used by some who were in the know. But I had only discovered it by looking at the map. 

This picture of the old railway path was taken at a different time, a clear and sunny autumn day

Most people will drive past in their cars and know nothing about this sheltered path, screened by trees from the road. Which makes it something secret, hidden, undiscovered. I share it only with those whose footsteps have kept this narrow path clear, unknown people who I feel a kinship with, we form an invisible community screened from the outside world whose sounds we can hear in the passing cars, but which can't be seen because of the raised embankment and the profusion of trees, many slender silver birches, which have sprung up in the past few decades since the railway track has been returned to wilderness.

I wonder why I feel a little tired, as my walk had only lasted a couple of hours, then I remember the steep slope I had to climb, up from the river bank. It was wooded and near-vertical and without the trees it would probably have been impossible. I grabbed hold of a branch or trunk. It was the steps in between the tree handles that were difficult, as the muddy ground meant that almost every step I took slipped back a little. And I couldn't slip back too far, not with that near perpendicular slope, with the brown and swollen river at the bottom.



The hardest steps were when I grabbed the trunk of a tree, near its roots, then had to lever my body up towards it and finally get my feet behind it, as if the trees formed a ladder and so I reached the next rung up and could lean against the tree's immense solidity with its trunk supporting me. I would pause to catch my breath, consider the density of these beings, their unconditional support, their uncomplaining grace, their grey-skinned reliability, this hard shaft between my shoulder blades. This is what love is. Trees have the solidity of freedom, while we, the human bees, nest in them, draw honey from their sweetness, and move on. 

I looked higher up the slope, or to one side, to discover the next rung in this ladder to the top, the next tree to help me. Progress was slow.

When I first looked at the map it showed a dotted line that closely followed the river, but the river had swallowed the path, which was why I had to climb up through the wood, to reach the minor road that led on to the old railway track which took me back to the main road. No, not surprising I was tired. 

I watched the cars go past and looked at the sky which had lost its brief blue and was now furred with a greyish-yellow velvet smear, a covering that held a tinge of excitement, just the possibility of snow.



Its trunk lay across the path, on a downhill slope to the river bank. I don't know how long since it fell; long enough for rumour or rumble – to get around. The gardeners, forest workers, tree-fellers, tree clearers, they were right behind me. They looked at the red raw trunk almost in disbelief, the prone ship, the splintered wood, it became rotten you see, one said to me, and then, in a high wind – hop! down it came.

They discuss chain saws and cranes and motorized means of pulling it out and I wonder how long it had grown there and when I climbed over its vast trunk, I got stuck astride it, legs dangling from the wet bark, riding this red-brown ship.

River too, (once I slid down the bank onto the path again) like a ship, carried on something else much bigger than itself. It floats past in silence, brown and opaque as if it had swallowed sound. And has swollen with it, round, with smooth moving circles on the surface, like thick cream mocha dripped from the sky. 


In the forest, later, broken branches snap underfoot. The river is the same colour as the ground. There are no passengers on this ferry. No birds sing, on the path. 

I don't want to look at the river (so I say) but the path has vertigo and my feet slip in the mud. And I don't want to slip any closer to the river, and a silent squirrel runs down a tree and vanishes into undergrowth. I look away, but my eyes are drawn back to this silent circling brown surface that seems to be sliding along on something else.


Further on, the hungry river has swallowed the path, and that's when I have to climb uphill, holding onto tree trunks, pulling myself up, hand over hand, stopping frequently, to catch my breath.