The following extracts are my contribution to a collaborative project that charts the course of the river Wensum as it flows across Norfolk. Writers including Nick Acheson, Caroline Davidson and Jos Phillips contributed work on history, personal memories and nature from the source of the river to its merging with the river Yare east of Norwich. The final piece formed part of a publication sold in aid of the campaign to stop the Norwich Western Link Road. For more on the campaign, visit https://www.stopthewensumlink.co.uk.
All illustrations by Kate Baczkowska
A borrowed moment, tucked in between my work and my daughter’s college timetable. Just the two of us today. At seventeen, she has the luminous beauty of youth: dark eyes, a tangle of red hair and a sense of the romantic that makes her say, ‘here. This is where we should stop’.
Here is a strip of grass between the river and a lane so quiet that no traffic will disturb us. Its an adolescent river at this point, not far from its source and in a hurry to be somewhere else. Green streamers of weed move restlessly with the current and yellow water lilies float on the surface – their flowers the only hint of sunshine in an afternoon that smells of soil and grass after rain. Sitting on my coat, I make tea in a flask and we drink it strong and black from tin cups, sharing a tub of sunflower seeds, dried fruit and bitter, dark chocolate.
‘Remember the otter?’ Kate asks.
A few months before, we’d been swimming in another Norfolk river and were letting the warm sun dry us as our feet still dangled in the water. A soundless change in the ripples of the river caught our eyes and a large otter came close, trod water for a moment and watched us, quizzical and unafraid. It left without breaking the surface of the river, more water than muscle and flesh, so at home in its place I was left feeling a splashing and clumsy intruder.
I’m tempted to slip into the cool caress of the river today. It’s not just the cold that stops me. A recent report has shown how England’s rivers are contaminated by sewage and chemicals from farming: the water in front of me looks clear, but what it carries, unseen, is in question. Once, millennia ago, the people of these islands left offerings of bronze and gold in their rivers, swords and shields and daggers laid in the shallows like a prayer. Now we see them as drains to take what we do not want out to sea as fast as the waters can flow. What will it take, I think as we leave, what will take to once again honour the life and the lives of our rivers? I don’t have a bronze dagger to offer, only a fragile hope that things can change and handful of sunflower seeds. We scatter the seeds on the bank and smile as a robin darts towards them.
Metal gates, padlocked across a track between empty buildings. Sparse words and a fresh, neon pineapple scribbled on red bricks and boarded up windows. This time, I cannot get in.
Years ago, a council official opened the gates and left me alone to survey the marsh between two rivers: the Yare to the south and the Wensum to the north. I walked to where the land ran out, mapping willow scrub and reeds, stumbling on tussocks and hidden ditches scented with water mint. A muntjac had scuttled for cover and I’d looked for otter spraint beside the Wensum.
On the river bank, more derelict buildings mark the Deal Ground, where once boats brought cheap pine or ‘deal’ to make crates for the nearby factories. A ghost-name, a reminder that the river once carried the wealth of the city: shoes, spices and mustard, flour, wool, coal and steel; wood to be sold on Timber Hill and madder plants for the Madder Market. Dye from the tiny flowers once leached from a textile factory in the city and stained the Wensum as scarlet as blood.
Soon the ruined sheds will be replaced with houses and apartments. Their views will be expensive, across a marsh protected and re-branded as a nature reserve. The latest plans show the houses raised above the increasingly likelihood of floods. Leaving the locked gates, I wonder about those plans and if building on stilts will be sufficient; enough to survive the changes humanity has wrought on the water and tides.