The landscape is determined by the course of rivers. Over timescales longer than anyone might imagine, the eventual action of a flow of water, combined with the sediment it carries, has the effect of producing a range of hills. These outcrops of rock, crystallised together even deeper in prehistory, now stand forever apart – only intimate by comparison with continents, which, also being hewn of the same rock are parted even over the horizon by the more colossal effect of an upwelling of magma from within the earth.
But this is not the case in the town. Here it is the course of roads which mark out the shape of the landscape and make neighbourhoods strangers by the rift of a motorway. In town, roads lay out the physical and mental geography of our places of habit, and our sense of distance and relationship between places is predominantly built around roads. Much like a river, the tributaries of a major road flow together from the saturated ground of residential or commercial districts – homes saturated with people, shops and businesses with TVs and pizzas, all leaching and oozing out of the smaller side streets into the main thoroughfare and in turn merging to a flickering, swishing flow of people, TVs and pizza.
The power of modern engines tends to efface from our consciousness the rise and fall of the land that takes us from home to the carpet warehouse, and the distance traveled home with a roll strapped to the roof-rack is perceived by the familiarity of the roads and the speed we pass along them. We wouldn’t take a detour down unfamiliar side streets which offer unexpected views across the valley when we might meet a lorry going the other way and have to reverse between lines of parked cars with the rear-view mirror partly occluded by a roll of carpet. Instead, we pull out from a 30mph onto a 50mph: the buildings recede further from the window, the detail of passers-by waving frantically becomes less easy to discern until finally, on the four lanes of the motorway, with the price tag flapping in the slipstream, barriers and lines of trees screen the surroundings from view completely. Here, no signage is permitted except that which instructs drivers – although sans serif reminders of watercourses which pass beneath the carriageway are there, if you notice them. We don’t: our attention is occupied by the carpet slowly unrolling over the side of the car.
The most picturesque cities are those which climb hillsides, framing views and yielding depths of perspective a flat landscape will never offer – or perhaps those where grand layout schemes have replaced the visual tangle of past occupation and thrown up these effects in the built environment. If we follow the contours of the view a few geological steps backward from the enchantment of the postcard, we know that watercourses of some sort are present, stirring up silt, cutting out the hills. And most cities wouldn’t even exist if the gathering of routes across a bridge or the natural harbour formed by an estuary wasn’t there – they owe their existence to a flow of water. On the postcard you might see the rivers passing under celebrated bridges – the Thames, the Seine, the Danube, but the majority of tributaries, streams, brooks and ditches are confined to dank culverts over their entire course.
And with all the tarmac in the town, most of the rain no longer makes its way into rivers anyway. The downpipes from roofs and drains by the roadside all flow into sewers, and a diluted foul effluent is carried to a satellite realm. These treatment works are not like parks: they have no benches to sit and watch the water frothing and foaming through the silhouettes of scots pines, the drum with a conical roof is where sediment settles and digests, not a bandstand. The sign that demarks the outfall only warns of its danger.
Occasionally heavy rain may bring a watercourse more closely to our attention, when it spills its banks, seeps under the kitchen door – when the sewers overflow back into the rivers with a soapy perfume mixed with organic decay. The floodplain that lies under these suburbs marks itself out as canals along roadways and ornamental lakes where there were roundabouts. A fertile silt is laid down across shop floors. This time the pictures are in newspapers and not on postcards.
On a sunny afternoon we might stroll along the bank of a celebrated river, watching the cascade of a weir, pleasure boats passing up and down – but mostly, we are unaware of rivers, passing silently through culverts and ditches, invisible to us. The water that cut out the hills and put this place on the map is unknown.
At the bottom of the hill by the sports ground is a bus stop. Of all the people who wait there, one lady I have come to recognise – always in a smart suit and modest black heels. Perhaps she works in a legal practice – one that does commercial litigation or traffic offences. If your work was a bit more more human, you might wear something a bit more individual – perhaps a memorable piece of jewellery. Strangely, I can’t recall ever having recognised anyone else at that bus stop, but some weeks I see the lady every day – perhaps the weeks when I am most punctual. I feel compelled to say hello – but what would I say?
By the bus stop is a ditch. During drier months, it contains a little water, trickling along, catching leaves in the net of a shopping trolley – but after periods of persistent rain, the trickle becomes a definite stream. Perhaps one day I should ask the lady if she has noticed the dich behind the bus-stop.
“Do you know where the stream rises – or if it has a name?”
We’ve waited there enough times, the lady and I, to have noticed the stream. Every time the traffic lights change a queue forms in front of the bus stop and you can take in the drivers – singers, smokers – lone travellers, those with passengers – but if your mind wanders you need something non-human to fix your eyes on, as you wind back the centuries to when this was a cart track. At the bottom of the hill is a little stone bridge, carrying the traveller on the last few miles of his journey, over the brow of the hill to take in the view of the port beneath him – of a new life ahead in the new world, uncertain prospects, the life of the lanes and cart horses left behind as he follows his stream to the sea.
“Do you think the travellers realise they are crossing water? In your legal work, have you come across this little stream – perhaps something to do with flood risk and insurance?”
Perhaps the lady in the smart suit was more occupied noticing those without road tax – faces she might recognise in local police station when she goes to represent them.
From here, the ditch runs along the bottom of the sports ground, in a tangle of undergrowth as shouts and balls pass across the football pitch above – then through a small wood at the foot of the supermarket car park, where the litter all carries the same logo, trolleys coming and going. Beyond that, it crosses between houses, impossible to follow – except for one point where there is a footpath: past the garages, over a footbridge and towards the church that once formed the centre of the village. As a right of way, this footpath has been here for centuries, linking the old manor house with the church. You can see it on maps as far back as any cared to make them.
There’s also a painting of this bridge somewhere at the back of the museum – beyond the mummies, Japanese ceramics and Roman coins, up staircases and along silent corridors filled with an imperceptibly even warmth, humidity and lightning. Somewhere there is a room for local painters from the early 19th Century – a time when the football pitch was still grazed by cattle, and the manor house whose wings and ranges have shifted and settled since Saxon times was yet to be demolished for the factory which later made way for the supermarket. Before carrier bags and shopping trolleys filled the brook, the water was darkened with spilt fuel oil, and before that there were fields.
In the gallery you are aware of your every footstep, every breath disturbs the desiccated artefacts of past cultures; with every look light fades and degrades their fabric. The grip which connects you to the material present leaves fingerprints which condemn these objects of pride and memory to decay, leaving only their whisper, somewhere in the clamour of the busy streets outside. You hear your heartbeat quicken over the air conditioning. Through the doorway a different wallpaper.
In the corner is a painting of a boy sitting on a stile. Behind him a path crosses fields to a church tower, and in the foreground a wooden plank footbridge crosses a stream. Where does a boy escape to think of a future outside this village, sailing through storms across the Atlantic, to land and opportunity? Sitting here, gazing at the water slowly chattering over the riverbed, the cows lying in the grass chewing over the quiet afternoon, watching you ruminate your thoughts. You feel the spray of the waves sting your cheeks, the sails crack in the wind. Is it the wind that blows you to the new world? Would this water still be trickling if you had stayed? You remember the villagers waving goodbye as you set off on horse back, over the hill and down into the valley below where the rigging stands almost as tall us the churches. How long till you step down onto a foreign quay to find a new life? Will you think back to this village, the cottages only a few bricks away from tumbling down, the farmyard only a few bricks from being swept away for a wider road? The fields where you scared crows for a few pennies now grounds for the fine houses of the owners of the ship that carries you. Will you think of them?
Then the clocktower strikes the hour and brings you back to the stream below, the cows still staring. Then the lady sitting next to you stands up: the bus has come round the corner, late as usual. No doubt you’ll see her again tomorrow. Your gaze falls down into the ditch: someone’s lost a football – you don’t fancy scrambling down the steep sides through the brambles to get it.
By nightfall the clouds had cleared, unveiling the full moon to command the freezing stillness in the valley. The few little cumulus clouds glowed bright on top, devoid of colour, beneath cast in such sharp shadow as to give them solid form, cliff edge promontories, breaking waves caught in a camera flash: pieces of other times and places conjured for us by the bright night . Just here, where the road starts to snake down the hillside towards the city a horse watches over the road from the gate. The only sound his breathing, freezing in clouds of vapour in the air. The face of the moon is reflected in his dark eyes, watching over the empty roadway. From here, the city lies below as dark shadows either side of the glinting ribbon of the river, drawing out the geography from above, the spire of the cathedral the only other discernible landmark in the blackness. Perhaps some smoke from chimneys hangs with the frost over the parks and playing fields.
Then from somewhere amongst the silent hills, by moonlight as flat as paper cutouts, comes a sound – at first a rumbling, then as the higher ranges come into earshot, a dull metallic chattering, like a doorknocker, rapping for our attention incessantly. A propellor aircraft coming up from the south. It flies overhead, crossing the face of the moon, heading out over the valley, taking the sharp shadows of the moonlight and folding into flat planes, like a cardboard model. The shadow of one of the little clouds passes over the field and hides the moon from our view. Something drops from the aircraft, and at once bursts alight like a firework – an iridescent green, as bright and as silent as the moon, falling towards the city below. The horse turns from the gate and looks down towards the silver ribbon of the river. His hooves crack the ice, where damp ground has filled the depressions of earlier steps. The metallic chattering grows: more planes pass overhead, out across the valley, then bank off to the west. In the valley below there are now lights, points of orange glowing like beacons in the monochrome landscape. Then more planes come overhead. This time there is plenty of light to see their cargos drop, plummet down towards the fires below and explode, sending up plumes of flame until the bowl of the valley is picked out against the greyness of the landscape in firelight.
From the little footbridge, the church tower and the trees stand like etchings, newly printed on paper white by the moonlight. Behind, the sky is lit up red as the city below burns. Beneath, the water still chattering in the darkness, talking over the course it will follow, on down the valley, and into the burning city. From here in its youth in this village, it drops deep amongst the trees and has a change to gather for a moment, in a pool caught behind a weir, a relic of some past industry. An old oak watches over the water, the few branches of its failing framework reflected in the water, outlined against the glowing sky – and from the glow, a fine ash slowly falling, landing on the water’s surface. In the eddies by the bank, the quiet onward flow carries the grey dust on the still surface, preparing itself to drop over the weir, down to the tidal limit beyond the trees, and on into the night. Soon, it will be pumped from the river, through a fire hose in streets strewn with debris, the landmarks of daily life now alight on all sides. There, a little trickle will run down over the hands of the fireman, unnoticed as he watches the jet fall into the rising flames, catches sight of the moon.
A pair of feet splash through the water, toes slipping over the slimy rocks of the riverbed and scrambling up onto the bank. It’s hard to get your shoes and socks on when they’re wet – but this immersion wasn’t planned. Here, down in the valley, there’s a rope hung from one of the few remaining boughs of the hollow oak where you can swing over the water – and if you’ve avoided a soaking that way, take your risk walking back across the narrow top of the weir.
A little further into the trees, amongst the mounds and hollows of past activity, the chassis of a vehicle lies rusting. It’s difficult to work out exactly what the vehicle would have been as there seems only to be part of the framework and it doesn’t seem to resemble anything that may have rattled along the road above. A few flaking pieces of paintwork remain, and a few of the lights still have rusting bulb holders inside them. You can still sit in the driver’s seat and move the gear stick and turn the steering wheel. What future are we dreaming of today? With the engine running, looking out over the weir, the rusting frame slowly sinks into the crisp ochre bed of chestnut leaves. As the water runs away down the valley, what is it carrying? The driver thinks back to the playground of bomb-damaged buildings as he changes gear, shifting through fragments of memory: dens built out of fallen bricks and window frames, friendships formed on a seesaw made of floorboards. The colours of the leaves blend in and out of the texture of the rust, slowly eating into the lines of the window edges or the threads of bent bolts sticking out from them. As winter passes the frost will force off flakes of the rusted metal and holes will be eaten through the panels of this van or bus or whatever it was. As the leaf litter piles and decays on the seats, the form will gradually be lost, rusty flecks amongst the rusty leaves.
We’re late back for tea – running as fast as your legs will carry you up the path to the road. Running along, in the openness of these wide streets, houses with gardens backing onto the woods that drop down into the valley. It’s a far cry from playing in the ruins of bombed houses – out here, almost in the countryside.
It’s a dull afternoon and it has started to rain. Beneath the oak, raindrops pluck their little circles over the surface of the pool; water drips from the planks of the footbridge, the church tower lost from view in the dampness. A little trickle of water has collected at the side of the road by the bus stop, running down the hill and falling into a drain before it reaches the river.