Rivulet 5: Rivers are barriers

Rivulet 5. Fifth in a series of snippets on things we learnt by walking from one end of a river to the other.

I saw a talk last year from a philosopher, about object-oriented ontology. It’s a metaphysical philosopher thing. About taking physical objects more seriously. I’m not sure I understood it to be honest. I kind of thought most of us were already taking physical objects seriously, and that if anyone hadn’t been, maybe it was philosophers…

Anyway, one of the things he said was, ‘You don’t interact with a stick by talking about it. You interact with a stick by picking it up and doing things.’

Similarly, you interact with a landscape by moving through it, not by talking about it. And that’s part of why we did all this. Walking all the way along the river, and talking to the people we met along the way, gave us a much greater appreciation of the physicality of the river.

One of the things it really brought home to us is that a river is a barrier. Yes, I know, it seems pretty obvious. You can know that, intellectually. But when you are on one side of a river, and your next gig is on the other side. And you’re on foot. And the nearest bridge is miles away. Well THEN you know what it means that the river is a barrier.

The Trent as a barrier even has a starring role in history. It held back  advancing Roman armies. From 43 AD to 79 AD the Trent marked the northernmost reach of the Roman Empire.

It held back marauding Scots. In 1745 it marked the southernmost reach of Bonnie Prince Charlie and his invading Scottish army. They turned back at Swarkestone Bridge, near Derby.

At one time the Trent formed one of the borders of Mercia. It’s often regarded as a kind of notional dividing line between the North and South of England.

Strangely, we realised from talking to people, the river is far more of a barrier now than it was a generation or two ago, and for hundreds of years before that. As we walked along the north-flowing part of the Trent, we noticed matching pairs of villages either side of the river. West Stockwith and East Stockwith, Owston Ferry and East Ferry, West Butterwick and East Butterwick. There would be a road approaching each settlement, but now going no further.

Until a few decades ago there would have been a ferry connecting each of these matching pairs of villages, meaning that these dead-end roads joined up. Also, of course, meaning that the two settlements were in daily contact. People had friends, or sweethearts, on the other side.

We stood on Main Street, West Stockwith, looking across the river to the houses of East Stockwith. You could see who’d got their curtains open or shut. You could wave at them. You could probably have shouted across, just about. But now it’s a 12 mile round trip to get there by road.

The loss of the ferries – they stopped making economic sense to run – has changed the human geography of the area, without changing the physical geography. ‘Neighbouring village’ has changed its meaning in just a generation or two.

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Announcement: Tales from the Tweed

We are absolutely delighted to announce a new project, partly funded by The Scottish Government’s Talking Science grant scheme.

Tales from the Tweed will take place in September 2013. We will walk from one end of the River Tweed to the other, putting on storytelling events in communities along the way. Each event will involve a range of academic experts – including historians, geologists, ecologists, geographers and more – as well as other professionals who work on the Tweed or in the Tweed valley.

Audience members will also share their own stories of life along the Tweed. This will be a great opportunity for different groups to get together and hear each other’s stories. It’s an experiment in landscape-based public engagement and dialogue. God bless the Scottish Government for their exemplary vision and foresight in partly funding it:-).

This project is a partnership between Bright Club Scotland, the Edinburgh Beltane Public Engagement Network and the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

More information will be online in the next few days. If you would like to be involved (as a participant, talking about your work, as a venue, hosting an event, or as a sponsor) then please get in touch.

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Rivulet 4: We’re now trying to change rivers back to how they were (as much as possible)

Rivulet 4. Fourth in a series of snippets on things we learnt by walking from one end of a river to the other.

In yesterday’s post I talked a bit about how much humans have altered UK rivers. By doing this we’ve given ourselves a load of headaches. In places we’ve made flooding more likely (as there’s now less ‘give’ in the system). We’ve messed up the ecology, reduced the fish populations (and therefore the predators like herons or otters who feed on them). We’ve given ourselves river furniture (like locks and weirs) that needs maintaining and freeing from silt. We’ve reduced the natural fertilising of farmland by silt-heavy floodwaters. We’ve built unsuitable houses on floodplains.

There are now a bunch of people working on rivers for the Environment Agency whose job is to try to put rivers back to how they were before we messed with them. A lot of time, effort and money is going into returning rivers to their ‘natural’ state. Which casts quite an ironic light on what we mean by ‘natural’, when you think about it…

But of course it’s not really possible to go back in time (we can’t knock down whole areas of housing for a start), so they have to make choices about what aspect they improve. Is it the ecology? The flood resilience? The leisure access?

Often these are in tension. A river full of debris like shopping trolleys doesn’t look that nice, but it’s a happy playground for fish, with plenty of places for small fish to hang out without getting eaten. You can say the fish are what’s important, and dismiss aesthetics. But if it looks rubbish, then people don’t use the river. And if people aren’t using the river for leisure – dog walking, boating, angling – then no-one cares about the river. And if no-one cares about the river, then who thinks EA funding is important enough to protect? And without funding, how can they improve the rivers?

The tensions are even more subtle than leisure vs ecology. For example, which leisure use do we promote? The anglers don’t like canoeists, because they disturb the fish. The dog walkers don’t like the anglers because they have to watch out for them casting their lines. Things you do to improve the river for one set of leisure users don’t necessarily suit another set of leisure users.

We hadn’t realised organisations dealing with rivers had so many interests to balance. I guess most people don’t. Most of us just get on with our lives and concerns, don’t we? Even if we going walking by rivers, we think of them as just being there.

Walking from one end of a river and finding out all this stuff has made me want to tell people about rivers a lot. And that it’s all a bit more complicated than they think. It’s made me worry about the Water Framework Directive. And it’s made me wonder how many other things I know nothing about are actually completely fascinating.

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Rivulet 3: People have changed rivers

Rivulet 3. Third in a series of snippets on things we learnt by walking from one end of a river to the other.

When you’re starting off with a project like this, in a totally new area, you spend a lot of time banging your head against a brick wall. Or I seem to anyway. You don’t know who to talk to, so you keep approaching organisations but getting stuck at the switchboard. You spend half a day carefully composing a sprightly and engaging email, which gets totally ignored by the recipient.

In my view, things like organisational diagrams are works of fiction. People vary so much in what they think their job entails. There are some people who seem to get everything done in organisations, and know everyone in the field. They are the ones you want to get hold of.

Julie Wozniczka from the Central Rivers Initiative was one of those people. She knows everyone to do with the Trent. Julie clearly cares very much about her job, and about the river. She got straight away what we were trying to do, and how it furthered their aims. Once I’d found her, everything really took off.

Julie was a mine of useful information. I spoke to her several times on the phone, and every time my pen couldn’t keep up taking notes. She told me that 85% of all river courses in the UK have been changed by humans.

That doesn’t mean, 85% of rivers have had a bit of them changed, somewhere. It means that if you took all the lengths of river in the UK and laid them end to end, humans have altered 85% of that total length. Only 15% is in a natural state.

People have dredged rivers to make them deeper for bigger boats to travel down. We’ve put in artificial banks or walls to stop them flooding, or for ease of loading and unloading freight. We’ve put in locks and weirs, for a variety of reasons of our own convenience.

Most rivers in their original states would have been wider, shallower, messier, with numerous channels and little islands in amongst them. Often surrounded by marshes. Think of the Thames through London – it looks almost like a giant canal. Originally it would have been nothing like that. It would have been a sprawling, marshy, river/land mashup. There’d have been many shallower channels, with islands dotted about.

Most of us in the UK have no idea what the natural state of rivers is.

To a great extent we can blame the Victorians for this. Boo for the Victorians! They liked to make things neat and efficient.

But it began much earlier. 2000 years ago the Romans were dredging rivers and digging artificial channels, so that they could transport goods by water where they wanted to. I always think of the Romans as the spiritual brethren of the Victorians – so uptight and busy inventing things and conquering places.

The Romans probably built the first canal in Britain – the Foss Dyke, in 120 AD – so they could transport fleeces and wool to Lincoln, from the River Trent. We stopped at Torksey Lock, where the Foss Dyke begins and spoke to the lock-keeper and he told us all about it.

He said it’s always assumed the Romans built the Foss Dyke (and he thinks they most probably did), but strangely there are no known records of it from the time. Given what bureaucrats the Romans were, that seems surprising. But maybe it suggests that altering water courses was so commonplace it wasn’t worth commenting on…

And thus began two thousand years of messing around with rivers, which has had all sorts of consequences. Tomorrow I’ll tell you a bit about how we’re messing with rivers today.

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Rivulet 2: Bargees, barges and boatmen

Rivulet 2. Second in a series of snippets on things we learnt by walking from one end of a river to the other.

Part of the disappearing way of life on the waterways, that I talked about yesterday, was its terminology, which we started to learn.

Bargees were the men who drove narrowboats along canals. (It’s narrowboats on canals because they have to be narrow.)

Barges were the bigger boats that went along the wider rivers. But the men who who drove barges were called boatmen.

You mustn’t call boatmen bargees, they get offended.

All clear?

Boatman or bargee, it was often a hard life. One old guy in a pub in Stoke told us about his Granddad the bargee. As a kid, the guy used to go on a Saturday to help his Granddad. He’d ride the horses to the farrier to be shod. The horses walked so far they needed new horseshoes every week.

The Granddad transported loads of paper up the Trent and Mersey canal. At one point there was a tunnel over a mile long. There was no towpath through the tunnel, for the horses to walk along, so his Grandma would walk them around, while his Granddad ‘legged’ the barge through the tunnel. This meant lying on his back on top of the boat, pushing it along with his legs against the roof of the tunnel. For a mile.

We mentioned this story to Les Reid of Newark Heritage Barge (Les is an absolute mine of information about the history of shipping on the Trent) and he laughed a dismissive laugh. Pushing a narrowboat for a mile was nothing, he implied.

He told us about one apprentice boatman whose master used to make him pull a barge all the way down the Foss Dyke from Torksey to Lincoln. That’s trudging along the towpath with a rope around his middle, pulling a barge single-handed for 11 miles. Most people would have a horse do that, but this guy saved money by getting the lad to do it.

A photograph of an old black and white photo from an information board. Picture shows a rather fierce-looking couple, between them stands a horse, the man is holding it's bridle. Beside the woman, sitting on the ground, is a dog. Behind them is a narrowboat. The caption below it reads, 'A boatman and his family on the Trent and Mersey Canal at Rugeley, c1890-1900. Horses were used to draw the narrowboats, and couldtransport up to one hundred times more weight on water than on land. Image courtesy of Staffordhsire Arts and Museum Service.

This photo is from a canal-side info panel and shows a bargee, his wife and their narrowboat. The writer obviously didn’t talk to Les Reid about terminology…

The boatmen would live aboard the barge, with their whole family. The wife and the kids would all have jobs to do, and they’d all live and sleep in the small cabin at the end of the boat. It could get pretty crowded, so the older kids might get farmed off on other boatmen who didn’t have families, as apprentices. Sometimes they’d be treated kindly and like part of the family. Sometimes, as with the lad who was made to push a barge from Torksey to Lincoln, they were treated pretty harshly.

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What do you learn by walking from one end of a river to the other? – Rivulet 1

Last September, me and my boyfriend walked from one end of the River Trent to the other. As you do. It’s 185 miles long, in case you’re wondering.

I know it’s pretty unimpressive in world terms. The Nile is over 4,000 miles long. The Amazon and the Yangtse not much shorter. But the Trent is the third longest river in Britain. This is only a little island, you can’t go far without hitting the sea.

In fact, the Trent goes to a lot of trouble to get as long as it does in the small span available. It starts in Staffordshire, and then goes down a bit, along a bit, then up again, in a great big ‘U’ shape, before joining the Humber Estuary north of Scunthorpe.

A simple map of the course of the Trent, showing the major towns it passes though: Stoke-on-Trent, Burton-on-Trent, Nottingham, Newark, Gainsborough, and passing near Scunthorpe

All I can say is, much as I’d like to do the Nile one day, it took us three weeks to walk the Trent. It seemed long enough to us.

We got blisters, and sore feet. We had adventures. We had arguments on towpaths. I burst into tears on more than one occasion. We learned a lot about working together. We got stung by nettles. We had so much fun I’m now 7½ months pregnant…

(I like to think Tales from the River was a good training ground for parenthood. You’ve got to give yourself little obstacle courses in life, haven’t you, to make sure you’ll be able to cope when the big stuff comes along?)

We did all this because… well, because it seemed like a romantic idea and we wanted to be modern-day troubadours. We put on shows along the way – storytelling and playing music everywhere from the back rooms of pubs to a university conference centre. It was partly a mythical adventure, and partly a great big experiment in new ways of doing public engagement. Our shows were all about the Trent – its history, its geology and our journey along it.

We learned loads about rivers, and the River Trent particularly. My personal prime directive is that real public engagement is a two-way process, where you have to be willing to change too.

This journey changed our view of rivers and the Trent in all sorts of ways. Not least because the Trent now feels a bit like someone we know – we followed it from being a tiny trickle, to being a half-mile-wide river. You get attached. But I’ll leave the emotional journey for future posts…

I started writing, trying to answer the question, what do two people who knew almost nothing about rivers and about the Trent learn from making a journey like this? And the post started getting too long. So I’m chopping it up into bits and will post them one by one.

Think of them as rivulets. So here is rivulet the first:-

“Towns have turned their backs on the river”

I can’t remember who said this to us now. But walking North out of Newark, along the river, past crumbling warehouse that would once have been a bustling waterfront, I knew what they meant. It was similar all along the Trent. There’s the odd strip of regenerated bars and cafes. But most of the time when you’re walking through towns along the river it’s all cracked concrete, broken windows and buddleias growing out of guttering.

On old, clearly abandoned, warehouse with broken windows and bushes growing out of it, by the water

A canal-side warehouse in Stoke on Trent

Parts of towns and cities which used to be central hives of activity are now unimportant, forgotten, somewhere you wouldn’t walk on your own. The thoroughfares of commerce have moved elsewhere. The river’s still there, the town’s still there, but… the town has turned its back on the river.

Towns like Newark and Gainsborough used to be significant inland ports. I’d never even heard the term ‘inland port’ before we walked down the Trent. Raw materials like tobacco, cotton, food stuffs would come from overseas, often from the empire, down the Humber, down the Trent, to Gainsborough or Newark. There they could be transferred into smaller vessels and sent – via river and canal – on to industrial centres like Nottingham, where they’d be processed or manufactured into finished goods – cigarettes, clothing, etc.

There was a whole way of life based around the freight on the river, which has now almost disappeared. Since WW1, river and canal freight has been in decline, as roads and rail became cheaper and more convenient.

In Newark, we met a man called Les Reid. He’s been fascinated by the river since childhood. He used to bunk off school as a boy, and get lifts on barges going up the river. His Mum would come looking for him at Newark wharf and be told he was probably in Scunthorpe, but not to worry, ‘cos one of the captains would bring him back later.

Les Reid, is a man in his late 60s who somehow looks exactly like you expect a captain to look. Weatherbeaten face, wearing a checked shirt and a fisherman's cap and has a grey beard and a half-smile. He's standing on the deck of his barge, you can just see part of the river behind and he's holding some bits of wood in his hands.

Les Reid, on the deck of his barge

He spent his working life on freight barges on the Trent. He can identify any barge that worked the Trent, just by hearing its whistle. He knows all the stories and the families. He’s spending his retirement re-fitting one of the old barges and creating Newark Heritage Barge, to celebrate and record this disappearing history.

Les is bitter that the local council don’t support the work he’s doing, but would rather put their heritage money into a Civil War Visitors Centre,

“The Civil War was – what? – three years of the town’s history. But they don’t care about something that was part of the real life of the town for a hundred years or more!”

Les really deserves his own feature article. If you ever want to know anything about shipping on the Trent, he’s your man.

Newark wasn’t the only place you caught glimpses of a disappearing way of life. It was just the only place we came across someone trying to preserve it. As our journey went on we became a magnet for people’s stories about this disappearing world.

We’d be having a cup of tea in a pub, someone would point at our backpacks and ask where we were headed, and when they heard, some old guy would come over and tell us about his Granddad the boatman. I feel kind of responsible now for carrying those stories along with me and making some sense of them. That was something we never expected when we set off on our adventure.


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Evaluation 1: The basics

I’ve not done a full-on summative evaluation for Tales from the River Trent like I’d do if this was a work thing.

This was a self-funded, hobby project. But I’m enough of an evaluation nerd that I have done some thinking about it – both for our own interest, and in case it’s useful/interesting to others. So here’s a quick post of the basics.

What were we trying to do?

In formal terms, we had some practical objectives:-

  1. Walk 185 miles from one end of the River Trent to the other, on our own two feet.
  2. Over three weeks, 1-21st September 2012
  3. Doing storytelling and storysharing events on the way.
    We hoped that people in communities along the way would be interested, entertained and informed by our events. And that it would give people a chance to think about and talk about their relationship to the landscape.
  4. Document it as we went – so people could follow along from home and even interact with us – using blogposts, twitter, photos and recordings.
  5. Experiment with a new form of public engagement – as far as I know no-one’s walked along a river telling stories as a form of public engagement before – try variations, find out what works and what doesn’t work about it.
  6. Learn stuff about rivers in general and the River Trent in particular.
  7. Have fun and an adventure:-)

How did we do against these objectives?

1. Walk 185 miles from one end of the River Trent to the other, on our own two feet.


OK, we cheated one bit near Alrewas where we were really knackered and depressed and getting behind and we took a bus to get to where our gig was. We thought of going back the next day to make up the ground, but we decided we weren’t doing an endurance event or a Guinness Book of Records attempt and it was probably OK just to get some sleep.

We did walk loads more than 185 miles overall though, cos there was plenty of walking off route we did at various points.

2. Over three weeks, 1-21st September


Incidentally, we were incredibly lucky with the weather. Do you remember how wet last July and August were? It would have been a nightmare if we’d walked the Trent any earlier in the Summer.

As it was we had glorious sunshine nearly every day (ending up with one-sided tans from walking in the same direction all day) and only got rained on three times. Which in Britain is some kind of miracle.

A screenshot from the metoffice app, on my phone, showing happy yellow suns all day. For Long Eaton.

The Met Office app looked like this a lot.

A screenshot of the metoffice app, on my phone, forecasting heavy rain for the next few days. In Scunthorpe,

It only started looking like this at the end

Learning point: If you want to do a walking project in Britain, I strongly recommend planning it for September. (Although looking at the Met Office’s historic weather data, maybe we were just lucky…)

3. Doing storytelling and storysharing events on the way.


Although, among the many things that didn’t work out quite how we’d hoped, some places we’d turn up to do an event and they obviously weren’t really expecting us, or no-one had come to see us. So we’d be faced with a pub beer garden full of people eating their Sunday lunch in the sunshine and not expecting Tales from the River at all.

Out of bloody-mindedness and optimism, we’d do the show anyway and tell stories and play the ukulele at them. But it’s beyond even my powers of stubbornness to order a field full of innocent diners to break into small discussion groups and do exercises I set them. I may be descended from teachers, but there are limits.

So some places we just did storytelling and music shows. Some places we had the discussion afterwards too.

(Or, on one memorable occasion, we turned up to a completely empty venue. We just went to the pub. You had to get pretty zen about it all.)

Overall, we did 15 events, attended by approximately 170 people.

4. We hoped that people in communities along the way would be interested, entertained and informed by our events. And that it would give people a chance to think about and talk about their relationship to the landscape.


I think. Some people anyway. I’ll ramble on go into this in more depth in a future post (series of future posts…). Cos really this is the big question, and it deserves more than a paragraph.

5. Document it as we went – so people could follow along from home and even interact with us – using blogposts, twitter, photos and recordings.


This included:-

  • Daily blogposts
  • After the first few days, short audio logs daily
  • Uploading photos several times a day (899 photos in all)
  • 932 tweets altogether on the #talesfromtheriver hashtag, from 68 unique tweeters (although the majority of tweets were from Sophia and Ross). There were also lots of reply tweets from people not using the hashtag.
  • 122 comments on the blog
  • 26,766 views to date on the website

6. Experiment with a new form of public engagement.

Check. In spades. So much so, we’re planning a new project based on this. We’ll be announcing all about it shortly. Watch this space.

7. Learn stuff about rivers in general and the River Trent in particular.


I’m going to write a series of blogposts on some of the stuff we learned. If you’ve got any particular questions or things you want to know about, let me know in the comments (or on twitter, or by whatever channel you prefer…) and I will try to accommodate.

8. Have fun and an adventure:-)


We had so much fun I’m now 7½ months pregnant…

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How to pack for an epic journey: The bumbag

You may think that bumbags are uncool. You’d be right, bumbags are desperately uncool. However, I have reached that sad but liberating time of life when I care much less about being cool than about practicalities. Bumbags, when you are long distance walking, are incredibly handy.

The thing is, you can’t really wear a handbag with a rucksack. But the stuff that’s in your rucksack is hard to get at while you’re wearing said rucksack. And taking it off is a faff and requires stopping. So where do you put your phone, lip salve, money, fags…basically all the stuff you need every five minutes? A bumbag is the perfect answer.

A woman in her early 40s, with long brown hair, wearing a red top and a red rucksack (yes, they clash slightly), and a black bumbag. It's a very sunny day and she's smiling at the camera and squinting her eyes.

Me, sadly looking very little like Xena

This one I found in a charity shop and is black and kind of smoothly shaped, so it’s not too offensive. But if anyone ever finds a stylish, cool-looking bumbag, a bumbag that doesn’t make you look like an American tourist (sorry USians), but instead makes you look like Xena setting off on a quest, then let me know. I’ll pay you in tea, home-made jam and weak witticisms.

A black bumbag in the middle of the picture, with it's contents neatly (well, neatly-ish) laid out around it. There's millions of them, I'll explain in the text.

Tardis-like, the bumbag seems to hold more stuff than seems possible…

But what to put in the bumbag? My packing here has been refined on long-distance walks over many years, and most recently on three weeks along the River Trent. It is, of course, specifically adapted for that situation, and for my habits and preferences. So, for example, if you don’t smoke, I’d leave out the tobacco…

Contents of front pocket

The contents of the front pocket of the bumbag, laid out beside it. Essentially a close up from the last pic. Contents listed and explained in the text.

From left to right:-


Essential kit for the modern-day, online-enabled troubadour. I was once described as a techno-hippy. I do love my phone. With this I was able to take photos and upload them immediately, write blogposts, post on twitter, check maps, and a million other things. This meant people could follow our journey from home in real time. Just about…


As mentioned, not essential kit if you don’t smoke, obv. And clearly smoking is bad and stupid. But if you are a nicotine addict, a fag break does make a nice little thing to look forward to when you are tired and trudging along in the rain.


I would recommend having a source of fire even if you aren’t a smoker. I once spent four hours on a Lebanese mountain-side, in the dark, in December, before being rescued by the Red Cross.

I was bloody freezing, and spent much of that time trying to start a fire with two sticks (unusually for me, I didn’t have a lighter on me). Turns out it’s really impossible to light a fire with two sticks. Moral of the story: You never know when a lighter might come in handy.


I know not everyone uses lipsalve. In fact my mate Ros has a theory that once you start using it your lips get addicted to it, but if you don’t start, you’ll never need it. She may be right. Although I am now a lipsalve addict and find it very handy, especially when I’m outdoors all day.

But lipsalve is also a good emergency salve for any chafing. (Chafing in delicate areas is quite common when you’re doing a lot of walking and sweating). It also burns really well, so if you haven’t got lots of kindling to hand it’s good for helping to start a fire. Put some lipsalve or vaseline on some cotton wool (a tampon will work) and it goes up like billyo. There you see, you learn something new every day…


I’m assuming the usefulness of this is pretty self-explanatory. I never go anywhere without a penknife (except aeroplanes, obviously). This is a Victorinox Swiss Army Knife Spartan. It has everything I’m likely to need.

The knife is handy for cutting everything from bits of rope to tomatoes.  It’s also got tweezers, a pokey thing, a tin-opener, a bottle-opener and a corkscrew. There is nothing more annoying than having a bottle of alcohol you can’t get into…

(Second row)

Solar-powered torch

I’ve got several torches – including a head-torch and a maglite. This one is by far the most useful, and it cost about £3 and came on a keyring. It’s small and easy to use, so for all those times when you need a torch quickly (e.g. you can’t see to put a key in a door) it’s right there. I’ve had it for about 5 years and it still works perfectly and I’m sure I only put it in the sun to charge up about once a year.

One of the best things about it is you switch it on using a slidey thing that stays in place once you’ve slid it. (A lot of keyring torches only give you light when you are holding down the switch). It sounds stupid, but I’ve lost count of the times this has been useful, cos it means you can hold the torch between your teeth while doing something with your hands. Trying to untangle guy-ropes in the dark, that kind of thing…

Button compass

It’s amazing the number of times you are out walking and take the wrong path, or lose track of where you are on the map, and having a compass helps you realise where you are. (‘Aha, I’m facing South, not North!’). For this kind of thing you don’t need a proper big compass, just something that will give you a rough idea of direction. A button compass represents excellent value for its size (also price, I think it was 99p).

Yes, boyscout know-it-alls, you could use the sun, but not if it’s really cloudy, or night-time.

My phone does have a compass on it too, but given how quickly the iPhone runs out of charge, you’d be a fool to rely on that.

Contents of left-side pocket

Some sachets of salt, pepper, sugar. And a hippy necklace.

From left to right:-

Hippy necklace

When you’re walking all day, in walking boots and anorak, you don’t feel very mystical or glamorous. Well I don’t, anyway. When you’re troubadouring and have to do a performance when you arrive somewhere, it’s handy to have some way of changing your appearance a bit. Partly just as a way of signalling to yourself that you’re changing mode. Putting on a costume always helps you get into a different headspace.

But also, people have certain expectations of what a storyteller will look like. It helps them to suspend their disbelief if you can play in to that a bit.

I found a necklace didn’t take up much room but made me look a bit more storyteller-y. And the fact of going and putting it on helped me to ‘get into character’.

Sachets of salt, pepper and sugar

Yes, I am your Gran. I can never resist picking these things up. But sometimes you could really do with some salt, or an extra sugar, or whatever, and it’s incredibly handy to have them in your pocket. And they don’t weigh much or take up much room.

Contents of right-side pocket

A sachet each of mayonnaise, ketchup and vinegar

Sachets of mayonnaise, ketchup and vinegar. As above, with the salt, pepper and sugar, these are just so handy to have, when you find yourself in need of them. I may also be a bit obsessed with dinky/handy things. Ross has to stop me picking up more of these everywhere we go.

Main pocket

Loads of stuff, listed below

Left to right, top row:-

Bank card

Obvious why this is needed.

Spare carrier bag

I always have more carrier bags in my rucksack, but it’s handy to have one to hand as well. You never know when you might need it. Trust me, you don’t want to hear the story about the tampon.


The powermonkey is a charger for phones or other devices. It’s amazing, I love it, it saved our lives so many times (well, OK, that’s hyperbolic. It saved our ability to have a working phone…). You charge it up overnight and it can refill an iPhone with charge twice over.

When you’re using your phone all day and have intermittent access to electricity (for example, if you’re walking along a river…) it’s indispensable. It was my leaving present from Gallomanor, and a better leaving present I’ve never had.

A7 sized notepad

Perfect for jotting down events or thoughts you want to remember. As well as having it in my bumbag I’d put it by the bed at night. Ross would wake up to find me scribbling notes on my impressions of the previous day. Or new crazy plans for future adventures.

Also good for phone numbers, addresses, to draw little maps or sketches to illustrate things… And for if you get chatting to people and they want to know the URL of your website and you haven’t had the foresight to get little cards or flyers printed. Basically, it’s surprising how often you suddenly want a pencil and paper.

Filter tips

Ignore if you aren’t a smoker. I’ve tried, but I really can’t think of another use for these…


See above re notepad. Also doubles as an emergency spoon for stirring tea.

Bottom row, left to right:-


You need to buy things sometimes. Mainly tea.


It’s amazing how often B+Bs have lots of early-morning noise and when you’re walking all day you need your sleep. These ones are from Boots and I love the little case they come in.


Trust me, you don’t want a headache when you’re walking all day and then putting on a show.

Memory stick

I don’t think we used this actually, but I always like to have some extra memory to hand, just in case.

Hard copy of list of venues with times and postcodes

I learnt long ago when I used to work in TV and was setting up film shoots that you ALWAYS, ALWAYS have a paper copy of all key info. You never know when your phone or computer is going to die, or have no signal or something. It’s also often a lot quicker to look at a piece of paper than to load info on your phone.

Sewing kit

This is one I got in a hotel room one time. You may have noticed by now that I have a weakness for dinky handy things. But I do love these little sewing kits. Everything you need for an emergency sewing repair, in a little handy packet.

I used it at one point to fix a button that had come off. And Ross repaired a rip in his trousers, thereby protecting his knee from evil nettles. Without a sewing kit you’d be really stuck for stuff like this, wouldn’t you?


So there we have it, a truly extensive collection of useful things, all taking up hardly any space at all. And when you are spending three weeks doing fairly complicated things, while walking along a river, with only what you can carry, small but versatile and useful things are the order of the day…

If anyone has any suggestions of other cool things they would add, then I’d love to hear it. (I should point out, I did have lots of other stuff in my rucksack, these were just the things I thought I needed easy access to.)

Categories: General | 5 Comments

Day 21 – Scunthorpe to Alkborough, the end

Miles walked: 8.5

Weather: Rain, rain, rain until lunchtime. Then just clouds.

A journey like this is an odd thing. In a sense, you have a goal that you’re heading towards – the end of the river. But it’s not like you want to reach it. If what we wanted was to go to Trent Falls, we could have just got a bus there. What we wanted was to walk the river.

We’ve spent three weeks heading for Trent Falls, so there’s a sense of excitement at nearing our goal. But now it’s like the last day of your holiday. We’ve loved this adventure, we don’t want it to end. We feel conflicted.

I woke up early and Trent Falls immediately popped into my head. I knew I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I carefully slithered out to avoid waking Ross. Downstairs Sadie was fixing the kids’ breakfasts and they were all getting ready for school. In the rhythms of family life, it felt like a companionable little haven. I cranked up the laptop and tried to catch up with blogging.

Sadie and Rob got in touch with us through couch-surfer, where we’d posted a plea for hosts along our route. They’ve been following our progress all the way and been lovely and supportive. It was great to be somewhere people got what we were about and what we’re doing. It felt like they were part of it. But it did mean that every time I started a funny story, I’d suddenly realise half-way through that I’d put it on the blog and they’d probably read it. Normally people don’t have to know how recycled your funny lines are.

Rob was going to come and walk this last day’s stretch with us. Looking at the incessant rain, I felt kind of guilty we were dragging him out on what was clearly not going to be our best day’s walking.

We were also about to walk off the edge of our OS map – I was too stingy to buy the last one, cos it covered so little of the route. ‘How hard can it be to follow the river when it’s this big?’, I’d thought, from the comfort of home. Now I worried we were going to inflict our vagueness and ineptitude on a kind and blameless host. Ross says I worry too much about things. I call it consideration. After all, he thinks it’s OK to leave the toilet seat up in other people’s houses…

We agreed we’d set off walking at 10am from this side of Keadby Bridge, where Sadie had picked us up yesterday. It’s about 15 mins away by car, but Rob’s been reading our blog, he suggested we set off at 9.30am. Obviously we were ready about 9.45am, so we reached the  car park by the bridge just in time.

A guy called Terry, who I knew from twitter, kindly came to meet us there and explained the best route to take. Terry’s a keen canoeist and environmentalist. He’s canoed the length of the Thames, the Severn and the Trent – the three largest rivers in Britain – and lives near the bank of the Trent just north of Scunthorpe. He canoes on the Trent as much as he can, picking up any litter he finds on his way. He told us he’s 61, but I’d have guessed 50. Keeping active and doing what you love is obviously good for you.

Ross and Rob's backs, walking along a road in the rain.

Walking in the rain

Armed with Terry’s directions and the last mile or so of Ordnance Survey map, we set off into the rain. There’s wharves along the east side of the river here, so we were walking a bit inland, along the road instead. Fast, but cheerless.

After a bit, the road bent back to the bank, and suddenly we found ourselves just a few yards from the river. We realised with a start that it was days since we’d been this close to the water. Since Holme on day 17, we’ve mainly been walking on flood defence embankments or roads, both set a little back from the Trent. Here the embankment was much lower than it’s been for days. We wondered what happens when the river’s in flood. But maybe, it being so wide here, it takes a shitload of water to raise the river even a foot or two.

A large, industrial-looking boating loading from a small nearby wharf. You can't really tell in the picture, but it looked like coal to us. The picture's taken from a few feet from the edge of the water, maybe 100 yards downriver from the boat. It's grey and raining.

Picture shows a wide river, low levee to the side (maybe only 2 or 3 feet high). In the distance some industrial looking buildings. It's grey and raining.

We got as far as Flixborough Wharf, but ‘No entry without full safety equipment’ signs persuaded us to detour round that. 28 people were killed here in 1974 when a chemical plant exploded, safety-consciousness seemed pretty reasonable. The Flixborough explosion was something the audience yesterday at Scunthorpe Arts Centre talked about, obviously a significant event in local memory.

It happened on a Saturday when the plant was lightly staffed – if it had been a weekday, hundreds would have been killed.

Two months prior to the explosion, a crack was discovered in the number 5 reactor. It was decided to install a temporary 50 cm (20 inch) diameter pipe to bypass the leaking reactor to allow continued operation of the plant while repairs were made.

Wikipedia, Flixborough Disaster

The temporary pipe ruptured. One woman said her aunt was a nurse at the time, and she remembers the bodies lying outside A&E, because there wasn’t enough room to deal with all the injured. Another woman remembers how everyone in Scunthorpe heard the explosion, but they weren’t sure if it was one of the steelworks or if it was the chemical plant. So many people had friends or relatives who worked at one or the other, they all headed out to try to find out what had happened. People were also all out for a Gala that day. The roads were chaos and the emergency services could only get to the site by screaming down the hard shoulder. She was just a kid, but remembers it vividly.

The wikipedia page makes sad reading, for the lack of safety-testing and expertise that lead to the explosion, and for the cover-up afterwards. 1,800 buildings within a mile of the site were damaged in the explosion. The 18 employees in the control room were killed instantly. The plant was rebuilt, in the teeth of local objections, but it closed down a few years later anyway. The price of nylon had dropped, so it didn’t make money any more.

We skirted the site, but then cut through yet another industrial estate, heading for a footpath disappearing tantalisingly off the edge of our map. It amuses me greatly the way industrial estates usually have numbered roads, that sound (pace New York), incongruously glamorous.

A bent and battered looking roadsign reading 'First Avenue'. There's a heavy-duty fence behind it and it's obviously an industrial estate.

We wandered, unglamorously, round the industrial estate, having to backtrack a bit due to my mistaken map-reading, until we found our way out the other side. I felt guilty some more for us dragging patient Rob on our rainy perambulations. Once we were on the footpath we nominally sheltered under a railway bridge and ate a sandwich. No time for cups of tea today. We headed up the hill, past Burton Woods in the rain, and eventually found ourselves in Burton upon Stather. Another pretty but real little place we’d never have had occasion to visit if we weren’t following a river from one end to the other.

After some google mapping and guesswork, we headed through the churchyard and took a footpath that seemed to head along the ridge-top. Until google maps realises that you can walk along footpaths – or even seems to know they exist – it’s a complete joke them pretending to have walking directions. No, I’m not making a 5 mile detour along roads when there’s a footpath taking me exactly where I want to go. The footpath has been there for probably hundreds of years longer than the road, how come you don’t know about it? Call yourself a map?

It stopped raining about now, and we strode through the dripping woods, feeling like Robin Hood (well, I was, anyway) and rescinding our cynicism about the Met Office’s predictions. Terry, the canoe man, had driven up to Alkborough and walked back along the cliff top to meet us. He walked with us the last stretch.

Not long after we met Terry came a gap in the trees, and suddenly we could see Trent Falls ahead of us. It’s not a waterfall or anything, so I don’t really know why it’s called that. It’s just where the Trent joins the Ouse and forms the Humber Estuary. There isn’t actually a River Humber per se. No, I didn’t realise that either, before I started researching this. Bit of a swizz, eh? The Trent and the Ouse do all the hard work, and then the so-called Humber steals all the glory…

Big sky, and a huge, curving river in the distance

Pretty much same as above, slightly closer

I’m not sure I can put into words how I felt. But obviously I’m going to give it a shot.

There was a real joy and a sense of excitement that the end was in sight. Being the closet romantic that I am, it felt mythical, like we were in an epic poem, or Lord of the Rings. Until now, we’d been just doing stuff, and however fun it was, it was just mundane, familiar stuff. Mainly, it must be said, walking and drinking tea. Suddenly I felt the urge to call up the elves, cast a spell, toss my raven-black hair* in the wind. I wanted an enchanted sword, and to start declaiming in cod-Olde English, ‘Stout companions, the end of our quest draws near and we fain must soon part ways!’

I probably read too many fantasy novels as a teenager.

We couldn’t quite believe we’d nearly done it. And we felt obscurely proud of the River Trent – our stout companion and trusty guide, these past few weeks. ‘We knew you when you were just a little trickle, and now, see how you’ve grown!’

Terry told us that just before the confluence, the Trent is about 3/4 of a mile across. In Stoke-on-Trent it’s a stream that wouldn’t come half-way up your wellies most days. At Biddulph Moor it’s little more than a muddy bit of a field. And look at it now.

We finally broke out of the woods and found ourselves by Julian’s Bower, with the confluence and Alkborough Flats wetlands below us.

Me and Ross standing by a turf-cut maze, with the confluence of the rivers behind us in the distance.

We made it, ah!

This was our Plan A venue for the last event, but although it had stopped raining, it still seemed a bit too wet. Plan B was the Paddocks Tea Rooms (run, gloriously, by a woman called Mrs Ogg), so we headed round the corner to there.

Ross holding a cup of tea, outside a modern-looking building with a blue plastic sign that reads 'Paddocks Tea Rooms'. If you look carefully you can see a 'Tales from the River' poster in their window.

Ross’s brother and his girlfriend had very kindly driven two hours down from York to see us do our last event. And Sadie had come to pick Rob up. It felt like a little get together. We ordered tea (of course), and Terry, to add to all his other kindnesses, treated us to bacon and egg butties. With all due respect to Bev Gibbs, I think this was the best bacon butty I’ve ever had.

We then began our last show. Quite a few people had come along to see us – mainly from the local WI and the local history group. But there were also a few people who’d just been in the tea rooms anyway, and some of them felt the need to carry on talking as loudly as possible throughout the show. Even though they were furthest away from us and could easily have talked to each other more quietly. To be fair, I suppose we were interrupting their dinner without asking.

There was also a toilet door just behind me that had a theatrically loud creak, an incredibly loud milk-frothing machine, and an unceasing crashing of crockery from the kitchen area. It was one of those spaces that’s all hard surfaces, with no soft furnishings to absorb sound, so it must always be really loud in there. Ross, sound engineer that he is, has been explaining the acoustic properties of different spaces to me as we’ve gone along.

However, after three weeks of this, having endured interruptions from dogs, dinners, engines, ice-crushing machines, locks, rain and parental offers of pork pie, I am unfazed by such things, and carried on regardless. Ross managed his bit with aplomb – for the last few days he’s been doing a story too, to help break things up a bit, now we don’t have Dad and his songs.

I could see he stumbled slightly over the fact that he was telling a story about him and his brother when they were kids, and that his brother was right there, and not expecting it. But Ross carried on like a trooper. The old ladies loved his story. It’s the twinkly eyes and mass of curly hair that gets them, I reckon.

They all shared their memories of the river afterwards, and said we were welcome in their village any time. High praise indeed!

Part of me wanted brass bands, champagne, the Mayor turning up and handing us bouquets of flowers. But this was appropriately mundane and tea-themed. Part of us still couldn’t believe we’d done it. Even now (I’m writing this five days later, due to, you know, sleep and stuff) it seems incredible.

We set off in Sam’s car up to Ross’s Mum’s house, feeling a mixture of emotions. Happy and contented, but sad it was over. We almost wanted to set off walking straight up the Ouse to York. After all, it was right there! As we drove, Ross and I were hatching plans for our next river…

*It’s brown actually, but if this were a fantasy novel, it would be raven-black. Also my breasts would be bigger. And I sure as hell wouldn’t be wearing baggy beige walking trousers.

Categories: Recordings, The Journey | 2 Comments

Day 20 – West Stockwith to Scunthorpe

Miles walked: 13

Weather: Rain, lots of rain.

This was the day the weather gods stopped smiling on us. It was chucking it down, and predicted to carry on doing it for most of the day. And the next day too. We consoled ourselves with The Waterfront Inn’s excellent cooked breakfast while we glared out of the window.

To be fair though, we probably picked the best three weeks of the year to do this walk in. Three days of rain in three weeks is pretty lucky.

The Aegir was due again this morning, at 10.17am here in West Stockwith, according to the Environment Agency. Based on yesterday, we therefore expected it a bit after 9am. We were trudging along, discussing whether to try to record the sound, and how to stop the recorder getting wet, when it came.

You know when there’s a car coming and two people comically try to get out of the way in different directions? Ross ran to the water’s edge. I ran up the embankment where I thought I’d get a better view. Neither of us thought to get our phones/cameras out in time, never mind the recorder. We’d be rubbish reporters.

I got to see more than I had yesterday, but it was only a one star and not half as dramatic as ones you see on YouTube. The swell was maybe 1-2 foot high. It was cool to properly see it though, and for Ross to see it too. It would be a shame to spend three weeks on this pilgrimage of homage to the river, and not see it. Although we talked to a woman in Gainsborough who’s lived there 16 years and never seen it. ‘I’m not good at mornings’, she said.

The lovely couple from last night lived in the next village north – funnily enough called Gunthorpe, the same as my parents’ village. They’d invited us for tea, and we were very happy to see them again. And also to get out of the rain for a bit. We even got to meet Beaky, their pet blackbird. We told them about Molly Leigh and her pet blackbird last night. Dad wants to meet them now and play them his Molly Leigh song, ‘Because how often do you meet someone who’s got a pet blackbird?’ I can’t fault his logic there.

Apparently Beaky was fractious because he likes to come out of his cage and fly around in the mornings, but they’d kept him in because of us. I asked what they did about him pooing on things. ‘Follow him around with a cloth. What else can you do?’, they said.

A blackbird in a birdcage

Beaky the blackbird

It was lovely to see them again and hear more of their stories. They were such a kind, happy, sparky couple. As we left I asked Ross if we can be like them when we’re old, and he said OK, so fingers crossed.

A long, straight, flat road, in the rain, with a man with his back to the camera walking along it.

Ross trudging in the rain

Even though we were plodding along in the rain, we talked about how much we’d loved West Stockwith and this part of the river. We’ve been saying for a while we want to spend a week or so relaxing after this – writing up notes and taking it all in. We’ve been trying to think where and how to organise it and suddenly we found ourselves wondering if we could rent a cheap holiday cottage round here. Subsequent googling hasn’t turned up anything though. It’s not really the sort of place people have holiday cottages. What sort of idiot goes on holiday to the River Trent? There’s a caravan park, but we don’t have a caravan. I don’t suppose anyone wants to lend us one for a week?

We marched along through the rain – you don’t want to be hanging about in it, do you? We were going along the road which runs alongside the river here, and were making good time. You end up entering a sort of zen-like state where the miles just melt away. In a couple of hours we were at West Butterwick, with only about 3.5 miles to go to Keadby Bridge and 2 hours to get there. Of course this meant time for more tea.

The rain had stopped and the sun come out by now, sort of. We sat in a beer garden, bemoaning our wet socks and lauding the reasonably-priced tea. How so many places can charge £2 a cup I really don’t know – it’s mainly just hot water. In this part of the world it seemed it was £1 a cup everywhere. Very sensible. We entertained fantasies of buying the broken down farmhouse we’d just passed and doing it up…

We made it to Keadby Bridge on schedule, and walked across it, which I didn’t like. I don’t mind being high up per se, but I get vertigo if I can see down near my feet (like if there’s gaps in stairs, or those glass walkways you get in some buildings). I’ve talked to a lot of people who are the same, god knows why they put those things in buildings. I had to make Ross hold my hand.

A part of the machinery of Keadby Bridge. It looks very Victorian engineering...

It was an impressive piece of engineering though. It was originally built to open, for tall ships to come through. We were told by locals that the bridge worked by water poured into a counterweight at one end, but if I’m reading wikipedia right, it was actually electrically powered. We were also told that they stopped opening it when a railway line was added to the bridge in the 60s. Wikipedia says that’s wrong too – that it was last opened in 1956, but had been a railway bridge ever since it first opened in 1916.

There’s a great Pathe newsreel of it in 1933 here. No sound though, you’ll have to imagine a plummy-voiced presenter for yourselves.

Lovely Sadie, who we were staying with, picked us up the other side of the bridge and drove us to the Arts Centre, which is partly in an old church. It was another small but appreciative audience, and the first outing for my new fringed storytelling cardigan.

A glamorous-looking woman... OK me, in a pair of mud-spattered walking trousers, standing and waving my hands in the air, wearing a black cardigan that looks a bit cloak-like, with red fringing on the bottom. Ross is sat beside me on a chair, playing the ukelele. His jeans are tucked into his hiking socks, but I think he looks cute. He's got dark curly hair and a beard.

Me in the awesome new cardigan

We asked what they found the most surprising thing about the show and one of the girls who was there on work experience said, ‘That anyone would walk all the way along a river.’ Yeah, I wonder about that too, my dear.

Scunthorpe’s was tiny until they started mining iron ore there in the late 19th Century, then it grew massively in size. It’s a town built on iron and steel, not based around the river at all. In fact, the river’s a couple of miles to the West. This was the first town we’d been to since about Stoke where the river wasn’t something people had a relationship to. Most of the people at the talk never go to the river or even think about it. They were friendly though. This is the North after all.

Sadie picked us up again after the talk and took us home. They’d got an amazing bath with the taps in the middle, so we had a bath where no-one had to have the tap end. What a fantastic invention. I want one. It was a lovely evening, and we were fed up handsomely on lamb, mashed potato and veg. After all the cooked breakfasts and sausage rolls we’ve been living on, we’ve started craving vegetables. Sadie even did our washing, and Rob told us stories about meeting Tony Benn at the Tolpuddle Festival. We couldn’t have felt more at home. We went to bed feeling a bit sad though, that tomorrow is our last day.

Categories: The Journey | 2 Comments

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