The Sound of the River

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,Β 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 mesmeriseΒ 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.


63 thoughts on “The Sound of the River

    1. Of course, Myfanwy, be my guest! I am just simmering with ill-concealed outrage that this has happened to you: you know we have South Hill Park here, and its funding is in a dire state: what we would do without it I shudder to think. I’ve put the link to your post on Twitter and will do the same with FB. All the best. How tragic that short-term thinking might rob the community of what is rightfully theirs.

      1. Thanks Kate. I have never seen such badly manipulated figures. I know statistics can lie, but this has really opened my eyes. There are suggestions that they need the money to pay off the sacked CEO who tried to blow the whistle! The grounds are open, so if you are in the area go and see it while you can. There is another petition in the village shop. It’s a beautiful little village.

  1. I have lived all my live in or very close to one of the few major cities of the world that does not have a river. They fascinate me, probably for that reason.

    This home is on a ‘spruit’ a little stream that can be almost non-existent or a serious invader of the common gardens here. It can only be seen from home in winter when the trees lose their leaves (and if the bamboo has been cut down)

    African rivers have inhabitants of the truly dangerous kind, so our rivers have very different tales and histories

      1. reading of the great grey greasy Limopopo all set about with fever trees……. how the elephant got his trunk, childhood memories that come back

        not really the polite rivers of Europe

  2. Sometimes I am really quite jealous of the European (and most the rest of the world) and their endless and unbroken history. I love reading about these towns and places with their rich and ancient history. Everything, even the rivers, have so many stories. It’s a strange and alluring world to someone born and raised in a city of 2 million that did not exist a century ago.

    1. It is captivating event when one lives in the midst of it all, Connor. It is Side View, a South African blogger, who reminded me of the flip side of this: every inch is crowded with signs of man, and we don’t get the wide open spaces and freedom from man’s fetters that you do.

      Me, though, I love it πŸ™‚

    1. Well worth a visit, Rosemary: the mills are a little shopping centre now, and you used to be able to sit and have a cup of tea and a Devon scone right on the edge of the river. Magic.

  3. What a beautiful description of our inner desire to be near water, it is a source of life and peace. I grew up in a city with two rivers and they were vital to the city as they transected the downtown as well as the University area. I then moved to a city on the Atlantic Ocean and that is when I really began to gain an appreciation of the hypnotic power of the sea. Our next move was to a town near San Francisco and the mighty Pacific is just an amazingly powerful ocean.
    Now we reside in lovely Charleston, South Carolina, and we have 5 rivers and the Atlantic Ocean. It is a paradise for many reasons, not the least being the wonderful waters surrounding us. We have a small boat and will take it out and explore all the rivers and creeks and it is so peaceful and calming, the land just looks so different from the water.

    1. It does, doesn’t it, Lou? I remember taking the kinds out in a little boat on the Thames at Windsor and thinking just the same thing. It’s no longer a way of getting goods to and fro, but it’s a totally different perspective all the same.

  4. Beautiful and so gorgeously true. Whenever I find myself needing to recalibrate my core it is to the Edisto River I go. It is a lazy black river – no white thundering torrents. But the slice of sky that accompanies its path through the cypress trees that line its banks is my balm.

    Thank you – I needed that image for the next few days.

    1. Hi Alice, and thank you for that beautiful comment. Good to hear from someone through whose heart a lazy black river flows πŸ™‚ And you’re right about the sky: the water frees it and the sense of light around it is magical.

      All the best with the next few days.

  5. A lovely, meandering write, Kate. As a water sign, the spirit of the water both calms and invigorates my muse. Sadly, frozen vistas are not as inspiring. (btw, just signed on to spotify, Wagner, yes! must add to my list, thank u)~

    1. Can’t have a Spotify list without Wagner, Angela πŸ˜€ You are right about water: what else could encapsulate such a paradox, and be both calming and invigorating all in the same moment?

      Just a quick word, too, to reinforce how much I’m enjoying your prose writing at the moment- really inspiring stuff. One gets carried along in the current!

  6. ahh, a river runs through it. Yes, rivers have always been a part of my life but not so much now. Perhaps that is what is missing and I haven’t taken time to notice. As a child, I spent every weekend on the river and my uncles named every fishing hole on certain maps.

    1. Who knows when we will be called back to experience those early childhood pleasures, Tammy: when we least expect it, an opportunity will arise and serendipitously, there you will be on the water again, just as if you had never been away.

  7. Such a lovely place your Ivybridge (Wikipedia has several photos) and much history, too. Another of the perks of reading here, Kate, is that we’re often afforded the opportunity for armchair travel. πŸ™‚

    I’ve lived near either a river, a lake, or an ocean most of my life, and cannot imagine a happy life too far from one or the other. Now, when I need to see a river, I simply take a quick drive to visit my sister: (taken from her sunroom at Christmas time, and yes, that’s the infamous Simon).

    The caretaking job I spoke of the other day was located just east of this spot on the North Fork Stillaguamish River, where we had not only the water but the majestic mountains into the bargain!

    1. Ivybridge is beautiful in a Devonian kind of way: nothing to the scapes I see in your links though! It is good, I think, to have a life through which rivers have always run.

  8. What a refreshing way to start my day, Kate, and a reminder to enjoy those flowing waters that I pass by so often and take for granted, especially the grist mill a few miles away. I love the sound of a river flowing that one hears before one sees it. All this makes me want to pick the Mill on the Floss. Thanks for a wonderful post.

    1. Thanks Celi! I keep thinking of all the feng shui stuff about having a small fountain in the right part of your house! We’d never manage something like that:Mac and Felix would be forever knocking it over and Kit Kat would try to drink from it. I have not been following TheKitchensGarden for long enough to know where your water source is. I shall stay tuned πŸ™‚

  9. Water informs so much of my writing. I don’t know why it speaks to me like it does. We have this in common, Kate. I live between two rivers, but they’re really estuaries. Those falling rivers are the ones for me. We own a piece of property in the mountains, and it has access to one of those rivers. I love to hike down there, sit on a rock and forget everything else in the world. It is like I can give that moving water my cares. It takes them and washes them away.

    Lovely writing.

    (Oh, and I have tubed in the river Alice mentions in her comment above. It’s really fun to get in a tire tube and float with a cooler. πŸ™‚ )

    1. Considering the critters that live in the Edisto (and the Ashley and Cooper), not so sure I’d cast my “tube” there — wanna float with kinder, gentler things, I think. πŸ™‚

    2. I think I read one of your tubing posts a while back. One day I shall try doing just that.

      Living between two estuaries. Alice is right about that whole space-open sky thing: I can almost see the light as I read your words.

  10. I would love to have “my own” river…but alas, the closest I have to that is a stream we built into our backyard. It’s soothing and lovely and helps a lot…you’d find it very amusing, I think, to see what we have to do to create the sense and quality of “backyard” tranquility you so fully appreciate. I love the sights and sounds you’ve shared with us here. I find my way to at least glimpse the ocean at least once a week…easier because my children live in those seaside towns. It’s where I replenish…and where I immediately head if I’m chewing on stress! Keep sharing about your environs, Kate. I take a little vacation there when you do! Debra

    1. And now you have given me a vacation to the ocean, Debra! Our nearest sea is the overused English Channel. We adore it because its ours and we can see France on a clear day. It’s five hours to Cornwall and the Atlantic. Wonderful to be able to see the sea so often!

  11. I grew up with a brook through my backyard, studied by a north-flowing river, rented an apartment shouting distance from the Atlantic and the now-infamous Mystic River, and now I find myself landlocked.

    Your musings remind me how easy I feel when I’m back in my parents’ yard with that little brook tumbling out from under the street and singing it’s way into the watershed forest.

    1. A backyard brook! Babbling poetry for the asking, all the way through ones childhood! Now I know what I can hear behind so many of your words, Cameron πŸ™‚ They have an unusual, effortless fluidity…

  12. Being Piscean, I love water, being by water, and tales of water spirits and legends. I could spend hours watching the currents flow by in a sedate river, or watching the liveliest of babbling brooks, or the tides crashing ashore at the beach. You’ve fired my imagination with this post, Kate… nice one! πŸ˜€

  13. Dear Kate,
    You say about rivers that “stories must follow to bridge the gap between the magnitude of our awe and our ability to express what we see.” You’ve done that well in this posting.

    You took me back to my youth. When I was six, we moved to twenty acres out in the country. A narrow brook bisected those acres and flowed into a much wider creek, which raced south to the Missouri River. From the time I was seven until I entered the convent at twenty-two, I spent as many hours of the summer as I could sitting on the boulders by that creek. It’s melody intwined itself within my spirit.

    Thank you for bringing the memory of those days back to me.


    1. Play next to a stream or river is one of the core memories of my childhood too, Dee. Building dams, fishing for sticklebacks, playing stepping stones: a river affords so many opportunities for play of the most absorbing kind.

      Peace to you too πŸ™‚

  14. Riversong touches the soul. But loving rivers is dangerous in the mountains. They can soothe you into the deepest sleep you’ve ever known, or rise up within hours to sweep away everything within reach. As much as I love the roar of the white water, I would not choose to live near it.

  15. Kate, you express so very well how I have felt during times when I’ve had to live in cities. Since it was necessary, I’d head to the center of the city, nest in some unique flat/suite/apartment and fill myself with shots of neon.

    Being the antithesis of my preferred lifestyle, I was preoccupied and time flew.

  16. I told Dave the first time we saw the river Dart that I could live alongside it. Devon would be my choice if we had to leave here πŸ™‚

  17. Rivers, streams, and lakes. Even farm ponds. I’m fascinated and pulled to them like a magnet, and they’re everywhere in Pennsylvania. I love the water fairies, too, even though many of them are less than friendly. Such great tales!

  18. Your description, and reviews bring me to the river banks in retrospective bliss… Seems the invigorating negative ions only moving water produces, can also be transposed…through time and space. Across the big pond…Your words are awe inspiring, and paint me into my fondest memories…Bless You

  19. Lovely, Kate – they come in so many forms – some genteel, some wild and raging, and can change from one to another at the whim of the weather

    1. They do, BB. It is very human to want to imbue a spirit or a story on each. And round the world, it seems from comments, they can be dangerous too! I learn so much from this blogging lark.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s