I wrote this description of a place where I often walk as a result of attending a course run by Aberystwyth University called ‘Writing Ecology: writing your square mile’. The tutor was the Welsh poet Chris Kinsey. It was held at Gladstone’s library in Flintshire (www.gladstoneslibrary.org) ; a unique place to stay, especially if you have some writing to do.
It is an early July afternoon and the sun is hot. I walk towards the roar of the weir through a patch of scrubby willow and alder that flanks the west bank of the Lune below the blocks of council housing. A small island sits just below the weir and there are always water birds on its stony shore or in the sheltered shallow water of the channel on this side. Today I see nine mute swans, one Canada goose, one grey heron, one coot, a colourful male wigeon and the usual bunch of mallards, mostly drab brown females. A good collection.
My personal name for this scrap of land in the river is ‘Heron Island’ because I nearly always see herons here. Today’s lone heron is unusual. I have counted up to fourteen of them on this side of the island. They often stand in a ragged line along the stony shore, shoulders hunched, inscrutable, like small versions of the Easter Island statues.
While I am counting the birds, three cormorants rise up from the far side of the island, and fly upstream, sinuous black arrows against the blue sky. I walk on and can now see the weir wall. The brown Lune waters turn a steely grey as they pour over the weir. There was a lot of rain yesterday and the river is high. This fast flowing freshwater meets the salty sea here, below the weir, at high tide and then flows under the four city bridges before it broadens into estuary and enters Morecambe Bay.
To continue above the weir I have to go back up to the road that runs along the river and skirt round the edge of the sluice gate pond before dropping back down to the river bank. On the pavement I look down into the deep pool with its rusty iron footbridge arching over it. Cars pass by behind me as I admire the first yellow flowers of the water lilies, and the fresh green of the reeds bordering the pool, not yet overcome by the Himalayan balsam that is now entrenched along both river banks.
The pool is still and seemingly empty in the sunshine. I think back to a chilly January afternoon at the beginning of this year. I was heading back past the pool after a brisk winter walk with my dogs. A tree trunk was half submerged in it, swept downstream by storms and caught by the weir. A circle of large ripples was widening on the surface of the water. I stopped to look. There must be something big in there. I waited, and the ripples continued to grow. In the middle of them a patch of what looked like muddy brown fur appeared briefly. Not a fish then. After a few more glimpses of brown fur I found myself looking directly at a large otter as it poked its head above the water, looked around and then dived back under the tree. This was my first view of one of otters now settled further up the Lune, and at such an unexpected spot, where the river meets the edge of the town. The otter was exploring the pool, continually diving and surfacing, only a few feet away on the other side of the stone wall. It suddenly started to rain, sharp cold bullets of water, and my old dogs, oblivious to the presence of the otter, grew restive. Reluctantly I walked on, leaving the otter to its search.
Today, in very different weather, I walk on past the calm pool and down onto the path leading upstream. The river is wide here above the weir, its fast flow held back by the two curving arms of the weir walls, with the wide fish ladder in the middle, welcoming the salmon home. Although these walls were constructed only about sixty years ago there have been weirs here since at least medieval times. There are a group of seven more swans on the far side of the river, close to the wooded bank that hides the industrial estate behind it. We have altered the shape and flow of the river but every time I walk here it feels like this watery place is the dominion of the fish that leap in and out of the water and the water birds and other creatures and insects that live on it.
I walk on up the river, onto the aqueduct that carries canal water over river water, and back along the other side. As I reach the weir wall on that side two cormorants launch into the air in front of me. They check their flight until a third flies up to join them. Are these the same birds I saw at the beginning of my walk? They fly downstream, marking my way home.