Since a few busy months spent living with friends near to Merton Abbey Mills in my early twenties, I’ve been fascinated by the way in which waterways can connect us to previous landscapes, before the built environment became so dominant.
At Merton, the fast-flowing River Wandle once turned the water-mills used to produce the prints of William Morris. Ducks, furiously back-pedalling to stay still to reach the bread proffered by market-goers, appealed to my experiences of being a small component part of such a huge city as London. So, too, did the ‘Look Right’ imperious request from the pedestrian instructions near to the huge hypermarket in that area, which was once close to the site of a monastic haven – Merton Abbey – and, subsequently, the industry of the paper and silk trade.
Sources and courses of water belie an earlier way of life, when our forebears chose to settle within reach of a defendable and dependable reserve of water; the large Neolithic settlement at Chysauster, it seems, may have been abandoned soon after the well or spring above the settlement dried-up – not even the allure of the tin-trading at St Micheal’s Mount could compensate for the lack of fresh water, and the inhabitants must have moved elsewhere. From studies of the sediment distribution, it can be seen that spring lines sometimes move in response to an increase in sediment build-up, which in turn can be caused by more soil moving around when trees are cut down and their roots no longer hold the soil on slopes. Perhaps, then, the encroachment of man on the nearby wooded areas – the felling of trees for fuel, building and perhaps ships – triggered a naturally-generated signal that is was time for the settlers to move on!
Resting near to water can be relaxing in a way that few other things are; the sense of being still is enhanced by the passing water, and the reflections and noise of the current’s work on the stones of it’s riverbed is soothing, and strangely unrepetitive. Finding a tract of river in it’s natural state, however, is not always as easy as could be hoped: so many waterways that would have defined the landscape 100 years ago have now been culverted; that is, enclosed by walls, encased in concrete pipes and removed from our line of sight. In doing so, there are less temptations to sit near the water and watch its progress; fewer opportunities to hear the burble and murmur of small pebbles being moved; reduced chances to see reflections of the sky.
A river is perhaps the one place where Ovid’s contemplation on Mankind does not hold true: ‘While other creatures on all fours look down, Man was made to hold his head erect in majesty and see the sky’. In a river, one can look down, but see the world reflected.
The elongate, meandering features that define our modern landscapes are roads – sinuous tracts of tarmac that enhance the connectivity between our communities, but simultaneously decrease our opportunities to reflect on what is important. Rivers culverted to flow beneath roads can be perceived as a telling realignment of society’s values. Yet with so many opportunities open to us, as a species – largely avenues of options made possible by technology of the last fifty years – we need the reflection of rivers more than ever, so that we can make the right choices for the road that lies ahead.