So, what is a river? A river is the breath of a valley. It is the distillation of everything that is washed by rain within the bounds of a line that rides the hilltops – of meadows and marsh, thickets and woods, springs, ditches, drains, of verges crushed by tyres, tarmac laid in a railway yard, antifreeze on a road, shit out of a pig farm, bleach from a sink: a river inhales it all, for good, or bad and exhales the breath of a valley. A river is a living thing and it is inviolable. But beyond this grating, somehow everything is changed. Here beside the ticket machine, before the water corrugates over the sill and falls into the culvert, it is a river. It is thin, washed out, and flows over litter as much as sand. But it is a river. Confined between brick walls, drowned by shadows, half resuscitated by glimmers of daylight, still it is a river. But forced into that underground channel, to run through concrete pipes in the pitch black, unheard, unseen it has become the ghost of a river. A memory.
pg. 12 Silt Road
Thursday evening, I’m on the M40, on the way to High Wycombe in search of a writer and a river.
My notes from the evening include a word list describing the audience assembled on the second floor of the really rather wonderful High Wycombe library: civic, elderly, articulate, expert, eccentric, pedantic, knowing and comfortable.
With Shloer in hand and cheese straws held at rakish angles, this was a gathering of Wycombe’s finest.
The reason for the excursion was a reading-cum-talk by Charles Rangeley-Wilson author of the recently published Silt Road.
Silt Road is a book of so many parts: it’s the record of a journey; a story about a rather modest Chiltern chalk stream; a meditation on place and history and layers of history; it’s part auto-biographical, part diary, part allegory, part historical research; above all it’s a divination and virtual exhumation of a lost river. Robert Macfarlane eloquently describes the book as:
A rich dowsing-out of a lost river and its stories; a passionate pursuit of landscape ghosts.
The book is a gem, and proof positive that any subject, no matter how outwardly modest or seemingly unassuming, when subjected to intelligent scrutiny and an inquisitive mind can be a revelation; and provide a means by which we can go on:
a strange journey through a small wedge of richly wooded landscape that, because of its perceived blandness, we might have been inclined to overlook. The moral is that blandness is manufactured; the real world beneath is layered with history and pulsates with wonders. Sinclair McKay (Review in the Saturday Telegraph 20.04.13)
Rangeley-Wilson’s efforts to track the River Wye from spring(s) to Thames are a struggle, both actual and psychological, as the river that haunts his thoughts, keeps disappearing… under roads, into culverts, beneath light industrial buildings, through fences, and into parks and gardens. His is a fruitful and worthwhile struggle nonetheless, as he’s able to forensically peel back the present, to reveal a fascinating history beneath.
Over twelve chapters we learn about the workings of chalk streams and water meadows, and about geology; of Sir Francis Dashwood and the Hell-Fire Club; of mill-worker rebellions; of bodgers and chairmasters and conflagration; of the shaming poverty of the Newlands slums; of how trout got to Australia and something of the sanctimonious machinations of local bureaucracy.
At times there’s a melancholy air to the book, as if a miasma has risen from the river, to corrupt everything that’s vivid, positive, natural or good. There’s a sense too that perhaps, after all, there is no possibility of redemption, and that human selfishness and self-centredness combining toxically with our disregard for history and place will snuff out beauty.
If this all seems too gloomy a hypothesis to be the stuff of a good read, think again! I’d really encourage you to stick with this book, as ultimately it’s both affirming and hopeful.
If we acknowledge that we all have our own private Eden, our imagined picture of perfection, and spend a lifetime seeking to reach it; then through his relationship with a lost river I have a powerful sense that, by the end of the book, Rangeley-Wilson has got at least a little closer to his own private Eden, and surely that can be no bad thing?
‘By turn learned and lyrical, this is a great swirl of a book – luminously well written, and as intriguing as a cabinet of curiosities’. David Profumo