Around the millennium, we moved to be near the sound of the sea.
We succeeded in spectacular fashion. From our little village just inland we could hear the maroons go off when the lifeboats were called out; we could drive just up the road to a wide flat beach surrounded by rugged Cornish cliffs. We had our fill of that wild sound, but I never felt it was quite me.
Then my daughter became more than idea; a pending arrival. And we took ourselves away from that far-flung peninsula to the mariner’s city of Plymouth, and even further: to the foothills of Dartmoor.
We settled in a town called Ivybridge, and I met the sound which enriches my life like music: the sound of a lusty Dartmoor river.
The Erme is an ancient source of wellbeing for the people of Devon. It powered mills which made the area prosperous. It rises in the centre of South Dartmoor near old tin mines; it follows the ancient Abbot’s Way and passes bronze age enclosures and tin miner’s huts on its way into the little town of Ivybridge.
Imagine parking your car in a municipal car park and pottering along to the ticket machine to pay your money. And then, taking your bags, you head towards the tiny town high street, and become aware of a roaring, a great sonorous energy forming the backdrop to the comings and goings of the villagers with their shopping bags and pushchairs and sensible shoes.
To get to the town you must traverse a wooden arched bridge, under which bubble the cauldron-white waters which have careered here from the moor.
On a lazy Summer’s day it is loud. But after torrential rain it bellows, like some broiling serpent, through the town.
I used to stand there, after a storm, absorbing the manic sound energy, the white-water foam over the lucent green-black rocks. When Maddie was born, she sat in her pushchair and listened. I would long for her to tell me what she thought, but you can’t hurry child development. She absorbed the natural mayhem, and who knows what her tiny unconscious made of it. The river is buried deep in her being.
Man lives by rivers for so many reasons: for transport, for food, for leisure. But I would posit that it fulfils one more invisible function: it feeds the soul of the settlement.
When I was a student I was, for the first and only time, trapped in the centre of a city. I did not like it. My soul yearned for something wide and flat which promised something beyond brick walls. The experience made me weep for those who have no choice.
Two rivers rescued me. Rivers which weave through the most stunning landscapes and end up meeting their end in the heart of an industrial landscape. The Test and the Itchen enchant tourists for miles and miles but by the time they passed my back window they were grey and broad. Folks call the expanse Southampton Water.
I could look out of my pokey student Victorian terrace on the hill above, and see the space. And the river running nearby eased the city claustrophobia.
Our stories have accorded the rivers their own spirits.
Take the water horse, white like the rapids or gleaming green-black. It goes by many names across the Germanic world: kelpie, nuggle, glashtin.
Beautiful beyond words, its mane is always dripping wet and its skin like a seals. It hides with one eye above water to watch for passers-by; or poses as a little lost pony, tempting unfortunates to get on to its back. Once mounted, the rider is doomed. He or she is carried into the water, never to return to land.
The Nixie are immortalised as Wagner’s Rhine Maidens. We meet them in Wagner’s Das Rheingold as guardians of treasure hidden in the Rhein. They are the ones who labour to keep the gold free of a curse.
And enchanting and chilling are the Rusalka: fish-women who lived in the flowing weed at the bottom of rivers. At night, it was said in Slavic traditions, the women would come out and dance in the fields beside the rivers. Good-looking men should beware: the women would mesmerise them, and lure them to a watery grave.
Look at a river and, for some of us, words are not enough. Our hearts fill full to bursting, and stories must follow to bridge the gap between the magnitude of our awe and our ability to express what we see.
I am left wondering who is the spirit of the little river which flows from the rocky heights of Dartmoor, through my heart, and onwards out to the open sea.