Monthly Archives: June 2013

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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