The toddler knelt on the narrow wooden bridge and watched the magic water trickle across the field along a seam between the sandstone and clay. The cool water felt good on his podgy little hand. It was comforting and connected him to another world. He watched the droplets fall from his fingers to rejoin the young river on its journey to the sea. He stretched out his arm and tried to catch the little silver fish but they were too quick for him.
His mother gently pulled him away from the stream where, two thousand years earlier, a roman legionnaire had drunk before continuing his march north. The stream had grown up over two million years. It had provided the farms and hilltop villages of the High Weald with drinking water. Further down the valley it had fed the ponds and mill leats that drove the furnaces, bellows and hammers of the iron works. The stream was the giver of life and the villagers were its guardians. The little boy knew nothing about history and The Old Ways, he was too young for such things but he remembered the cool water and the fish.
The boy stood on the bridge and watched the bus grind through the gears up the hill towards the village. He looked over the red brick parapet and watched a trout sheltering beside a clump of watercress. He’d bunked off school to catch a trout. It was not the first time he had swapped double-physics for fishing. Hidden in the bushes, he threaded the line up the cane rod, fixed the float and examined his tin of worms. He crept along the hedgerow on all fours, under the hazel and alder bushes, until he reached the weir pool.
The garden of the Waterfall Tea Room was busy with bored housewives but he slid down the high bank unnoticed and sat, hidden from view, at the water’s edge. He’d heard tales of enormous trout being fed on cake and sandwiches. The roar of the waterfall dropping four feet into the pool blotted out the gentle laughter and the chink of bone china. He chose a worm and cast upstream into the foaming water. The float shot under, the reel screeched and a monster trout jumped several times. The old lady proprietor heard the commotion, saw the boy and shouted threats of “poacher” and “police” at him from the opposite side of the weir pool. He grabbed the beautiful fish and waded downstream, the cold water above his waist, until he reached the arch of the bridge where he hid waiting for the bus home. He knew they wouldn’t follow him, they were scared of the water. His heart was thumping and he was shivering with cold but he felt safe beside the river, sheltered under the red brickwork. The trout, a two-pounder, was admired by the family and cooked for tea. The boy was worried about the old lady’s threats. He didn’t fancy being arrested for poaching. He stayed well away from the little river and the tea room.
The seaside town grew thirsty for water. A new water treatment works with large steam driven pumps and a pipeline six miles long, delivered millions of gallons of drinking water every day and the river shrunk. Downstream on the flood plain, barges could only deliver coal at high tide. A lock was built, the flood plain was drained and after only thirty years, the river was shallow and silted up.
The man parked the shiny new BMW in the layby and walked towards the bridge. Revisiting childhood haunts brought back memories but sometimes those memories were best remembered not relived. The Waterfall Tea Room had been demolished and the weir pool filled with the rubble. The lottery funded village tennis court had replaced the tea garden and a secondhand car lot covered the weir pool. The old bridge had been widened with concrete and steel, the red brick had gone. So had most of the water.
The river downstream was covered in thick weed, only the centre channel was clear. The man fixed the expensive reel to the even more expensive high-tech carbon fibre fly rod. He was not a member of the club but it was not really poaching. Nobody would see him. He worked his way downstream, pausing to drop his nymph into every run devoid of weed. Eventually he saw a movement in the water about fifty yards away and detoured into the field to avoid being seen. He knelt beside the river and cast towards the deeper water on the outside of the bend. There was an explosion in the water and a giant black cormorant took to the air. He shouldered his rod, swung it to lead the rapidly departing bird and squeezed the imaginary trigger. Twice. He missed with both barrels. The black-death circled around the valley in search of another stretch of river. He cursed the bird, withdrew to the pub and consoled himself over a pint. He was angry with the bird but was glad to have reconnected with the river. He smiled as he remembered the monster trout and the old lady from the tea room.
The Water Authority had few responsibilities and lots of cash. The river was dredged and forced into uniform channels running in nice straight lines across the fields. High bunds were formed to prevent the river escaping onto the flood plain. Each winter the river took its revenge, washing fence posts, wheely bins and even cars into the estuary. Each summer the river shrunk and the farmers were forced to irrigate their potatoes with water from boreholes. The seaside-townies complained about the hosepipe bans and the queues for bottled water.
The old man stood on the bridge, hunched over the steel railing, buffeted by the wash from the articulated lorries hurtling towards the cross-channel ferry terminal. He squinted through the tangle of blackthorn hoping for a glimpse of sparkling water. Upstream, the riverbed was stained orange by the outflow from the village’s new sewage works. The air was musty and the trout had long gone, banished by many years of abstraction and pollution. The tennis court had been reclaimed by nature; the rusty fencing enclosed a strangely rectangular collection of saplings and blackberry bushes. The skeleton of a vandalized Ford sat in the middle of the abandoned car lot. Downstream looked more promising. He shuffled along the riverside footpath, pausing to look through small gaps in the hedgerow, hoping to see the glint of sunlight on water and signs of life. He was too old to fish but he loved to be close to the water.
He stood and looked around the river valley, soon to disappear under thousands of acres of water. The tidal barrier had been built and in a couple of years, the new reservoir would provide drinking water for the seaside town. Around a bend he saw a small boy peering into the trickle of water. The woman shouted at her young son to come away from the river. “You’ll catch something if you touch that water”, she grabbed his arm and yanked him back onto the footpath. As she dragged him away the old man saw the boy look back over his shoulder. The youngster smiled at him, he’d seen the magic.
This is a true story. It was published in the Autumn edition of Fly Culture Magazine 2020.