The Journey

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.

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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.

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Day 19 – Gainsborough to West Stockwith

Miles walked: 5.5

Weather: Mainly sunny, but cold and windy

One reason we were glad to push on to Gainsborough last night was there was an Aegir predicted for this morning. We’d been thinking that given our laggardliness, we weren’t that likely to get up in time to walk from Marton to Gainsborough in time to see it. But even we could manage to see it if we were on site.

The Aegir is a bore – like a tidal wave coming up the river. It’s named after the Norse god of the sea. The Vikings invaded down the Trent, and a lot of the place names round here reflect that influence. They used to say that the Aegir was when the sea god was angry. And that he would take three lives a year.

A big Aegir can be 5 feet tall, and travels down the river ‘at the speed of a galloping horse’ (thank you again, Mr Fort). It’s caused by a big tide coming in, magnified by the funnel of the Humber Estuary. The Bristol Channel does the same funnelling for the Severn Bore.

I’ve read in lots of places that the Trent and the Severn are the only two rivers in Britain with a bore, but according to wikipedia, there are ones on loads of British rivers. It’s just that the Severn and the Trent ones are the largest and most reliable.

The Trent Aegir varies in size and the Environment Agency has a handy prediction chart on their website. Aegirs vary in size from one to five stars. In the whole of 2012 there were only one or two star bores predicted. Today’s was supposed to be a two star. The EA chart said it should come at 9.52am, but every local we spoke to said it would be an hour earlier than that.

We came down for breakfast at 8am, expecting an Aegir at 8.50ish. Ross finished eating quickly, and went upstairs to pack, planning to come back down for 8.50am. At 8.40am I was just mopping up my egg, when the guesthouse woman shouted, ‘It’s coming!’ from her kitchen. I could hear a sort of rumbling noise. I ran through, and we both leaned over her sink to watch a swell of water travel upriver, sloshing and breaking at the bends. Locals 1, Environment Agency 0.

It was maybe a couple of feet high. Two things surprised me about it. One was that the front looked more like a swell, a rise in the water. It didn’t break like a wave. The other was that the water behind the front, while not quite as high as the wavefront, was much higher than the water ahead of it. It wasn’t like a wave travelling along the river, it was like a higher step of river barrelling upstream.

You could see how you wouldn’t want to be out in a canoe on it.

Ross was disappointed to miss it. I tried to reassure him it hadn’t been that impressive. We finished packing and frantically googled for places to stay in West Stockwith (where we were due to perform at 3pm), or a few miles further on from it. We discovered that the Waterfront Inn, where we were due to perform that afternoon, did B+B. We phoned and they said they had been doing up a new room and it might be ready in time. ‘We’re hanging the curtains now’. We felt like the Queen.

West Stockwith is only 5.5miles on from Gainsborough, so we had plenty of time. Of course this meant we could go for a cup of tea. We headed into Gainsborough, where Reeds Coffee Shop had offered to host an event. Sadly we’d already arranged West Stockwith when we heard from then, but I’d said we’d pop in on the way and do something little if there were people around.

There were no customers in the coffee shop when we arrived, but they gave us a lovely (free!) pot of tea anyway. The sun was shining (despite the cold wind) and they were so nice in the coffee shop, that we warmed to Gainsborough a lot. A few people came in and we eavesdropped on their chats about the Aegir. Mainly they discussed how the predictions this year are totally off, when last year’s were really good. ‘I bet they’ve got a new man doing it’, was the diagnosis.

Heavy rain was predicted for the next couple of days, and Ross had left his waterproof at Mum and Dad’s. We headed further into town to look for a charity shop. Gainsborough Market Square was a lot nicer than our wanderings last night had suggested. Although there were still a lot of dead pubs and derelict buildings. Several people we spoke to later said, ‘You should have seen it ten years ago – it’s so much better than it was.’

I found an amazing fringed cardigan in one shop, which I decided was appropriately storytellery, and light enough I could bear the extra weight of carrying it. I have a bit of a charity shop addiction. Ross found a semi-waterproof jacket, with bright yellow arms (‘I look like I’m disguised as a wasp!’), and we had a nice chat with the staff about the Trent and the Aegir.

We set off to see Gainsborough Old Hall, pausing outside the shop to argue about the best way to get there. The woman from the charity shop saw us looking at the map and came out to help. She walked round the corner to show us the way and point out other sights of interest. People in Gainsborough were really so nice. Occasioning, of course, more smugness about the North from Ross.

Gainsborough Old Hall was a striking timber-framed Medieval manor house. We decided this was the perfect setting for Ross to play Greensleeves on his ukelele. There’s a little video of him doing that below.

We set off, eventually, for West Stockwith, and strode along in the sunshine. We arrived at the Waterfront Inn at 2.30 and they immediately made us a lovely cup of tea. It’s set looking out over a marina and feels like the seaside. We loved West Stockwith.

Karen and Stu, the couple who ran the pub, were so kind and welcoming. From the first moment we arrived, locals were coming in for a quick pint to catch up and have a chat with them. They were all interested in what we were doing and happy to tell us stuff about the history of the place and the life of the river in times gone by.

Ross immediately declared West Stockwith his favourite place we’d visited. Of course we later discovered it’s actually in South Yorkshire – the only place we’d been that was in Yorkshire. He’s such a Yorkshire snob.

It turned out that when we set up the performance time, they’d thought we would be going on somewhere else later that evening. In fact they’d have preferred us to do it later when more people were around. I can’t properly remember the conversation we had when setting it up, it was a shame we hadn’t all realised this then and could have scheduled things differently. We discussed it with them and agreed to do it later on when more people were around, but of course there wasn’t a chance to let lots of people know.

We chilled out and wandered around, exclaiming at how nice West Stockwith was in the sunshine. About 7pm we started the show, to, admittedly, a small audience. One couple in particular though were really supportive and interested. They came to talk to us afterwards, and bought us drinks, and they were utterly lovely.

She used to be a local news journalist, we talked about how your balance your responsibility to journalism with your responsibility to your humanity. He was born in a Leeds terrace, but joined the army at 18, became an engineer, and did well for himself.

They’re both retired now, and clearly still totally in love. She’d grown up in Lancashire, but moved this side of the pennines to be with him. They bickered about who’d swept who off their feet. They have a pet blackbird who they rescued as a fledgling from the neighbour’s cat. ‘People think I’m eccentric, but I don’t care at all.’

Once again I thought what a joy it’s been to meet some of the people we’ve met doing this. It’s really been all about the people.

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Day 18 – part b, an evening in Gainsborough

After getting back to Gainsborough, we went out in search of a pint and some food. We wandered about the night-time streets of Gainsborough, finding nothing but shut-down pubs, some people drinking cider in the street, and some lads having a fight outside a chip shop. It was a bit depressing.

The only things open seemed to be a garage, several fish and chip shops and a dingy looking chinese takeaway. We got a takeaway and a bottle of wine from the garage and retreated to our guesthouse, wondering at the fact it seemed to be the poshest place in Gainsborough. It was right next to the bridge and had a fabulous sweeping staircase – it must have been a grand ‘Gentleman’s residence’ when it was built. Now it’s surrounded by derelict buildings, but has an air of trying to keep itself above all that.

The woman running the guesthouse had been perfectly nice to us, but I bridled a bit at the ‘Please only put as much water in the kettle as you need’ sign by the teamaking stuff in our room. I don’t need telling to be eco-conscious, and if I did, I don’t suppose a little sign would work. It also said in the ‘room guide’, ‘Guests are welcome to eat takeaways in the breakfast room’. Which I took to mean, ‘Don’t eat takeaways in your bedroom and make it smell’.

Essentially, we weren’t very at ease. It was ab0ut half ten by now. We tiptoed into the breakfast room to eat our takeaway, had a whispered conversation about whether it was OK to use their bowls, then shovelled in our indifferent chinese as quickly as we could. We then couldn’t work out what to do with the now dirty bowls.

In paroxysms of petty-bourgeois embarrassment, I insisted we couldn’t just leave them on the side for the woman to find in the morning. Ross, with his unintellectual but unerring instincts, said, ‘I don’t feel very comfortable here. Leaving the bowls would be a way of being more comfortable.’ But once we’d talked about it for ten minutes neither of us were likely to feel comfortable about anything. We took the bowls upstairs and rinsed them in the washbasin using ‘luxury bath and shower gel’ as detergent.

Ross told me I was turning this into one of those British sitcoms that are all about social embarrassment. He predicted that we would end up in more and more ridiculous situations trying to deal with the bowls, and eventually get caught naked half-way up a ladder, balancing silver candlesticks on our heads, with no way of explaining anything about the situation. We stifled our uncontrollable giggles and tiptoed out to the garden with our wine.

There, an unexpected gift, there was a little decking area at the bottom of the garden, looking out over the river and the bridge. We drank garage forecourt wine out of thimble-sized toothglasses and watched the river in the dark.

The tide was coming in, which we still find primeval and fascinating. You could see the turbulent currents and the power in it. We discussed how people’s attitudes to the river have changed as we’ve travelled along it. It’s something I hadn’t really expected. Or maybe I’d expected it intellectually, without really knowing what it would mean.

Here the river is a thing you could never ignore. Everyone knows someone who’s drowned in it. In Stoke you could cross from one side to the other if you’d got wellies on.

Here in Gainsborough, so many people work on the river too – and years ago it would have been many more. Gainsborough used to be a bustling port town. Now road and rail transport has taken over, the town is a shadow of its former self. The river gives, and it takes away.

George Eliot stayed in Gainsborough in 1859, a hundred yards from here, just the other side of the bridge. The Mill on the Floss is based on Gainsborough. It’s thought the site of Dorlcote Mill in the book was about 250 yards the other way, to the south. I looked at the water and thought of her seeing it with her novelist’s eye. In the book Tulliver the Miller, so conscious of his lack of book learning, is the only one who seems really aware of how capricious and dangerous the river is.

We watched the derelict buildings along the riverbank, in the glow of the lights from the power station. We sipped our thimbles of wine and hummed songs about rivers. Two and a half weeks of walking along a river telling stories may have addled my brain, but it felt like a romantic moment.

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Day 18 – Dunham to Marton/Gainsborough

Miles walked: about 14

Weather: More glorious sunshine. I definitely think the river goddesses have been smiling on our trip.

I’ll give you a bit of advice for free. If you ever stay in the Bridge Inn in Dunham, ask for one of the rooms at the back. There’s no double glazing in the pub. The sound of lorries barrelling up the A46 right past your ear from 6am onwards is not the best wake-up experience I’ve ever had.

In some infuriating way, Ross managed to sleep through the lorries, so I didn’t even have any company. I decided to have a bath and read more of Tom Fort’s most excellent book about a journey down the Trent. I’ve begun to feel that the inestimable Mr Fort is our guide on our epic journey. He’s always been everywhere before we have, and clearly done far more thorough research. There’s a fascinating gem on every page. Today I read up on the draining of the Isle of Axholme and the commoners revolting against it. ‘Go commoners!’, I thought.

I got up and tried to catch up with blogging. The landlord made me a cup of tea and pottered. It was most companiable. He doesn’t do breakfasts, but had made us a packed lunch, in lieu of the evening meal we’d arrived too late for. This consisted of pork products and a great deal of carbohydrate in various forms. The packed lunch:-

  • Crisps
  • Mini cheddars
  • Cake
  • Jumbo sausage roll
  • Two sandwiches each (i.e. four slices of bread each) – one cheese, one ham.

A nutritionist might quibble with the lack of any kind of fruit or vegetable matter, but a hungry walker in need of calories had no argument with it.

Eventually the landlord indicated that he needed to go out and do some errands before opening at 11, so I went and woke Ross up with a cup of tea. Having lots of curly hair, Ross always looks adorably comic when he’s just woken up. However, I womanfully resisted the urge to get back in to bed, and contented myself with taking the piss out of him.

We set off, pausing only to look at Dunham church. It was lovely, but apparently closed last year because they couldn’t raise the money to repair the roof. Ross did some yoga stretches in the graveyard, it felt very peaceful. At this point we thought we only needed to do about 8 miles today, so felt pretty relaxed. We planned to visit various interesting things on our way to the village of Marton.

We crossed Dunham bridge. It’s a toll bridge, and because of a royal charter granted ages ago, it’s the only road bridge for ten miles in either direction. To protect the investment of the Dunham bridge company who built it. As walkers we didn’t have to pay the toll, hurrah! We’d have liked more bridges to choose from for our journey though. There are huge gaps between bridges along this stretch of the Trent, which adds complications to planning a walk along it.

We made good time, striding along the flood defence embankments. Everything’s so flat around here and the sky is huge. Cottam power station was looming at us from the distance, and looking a lot nearer than it is, as it’s so big. We seemed to walk for miles and still be no nearer to it. It was like the eye of Sauron, following us wherever we went.

Eventually we passed the power station, although it still seemed near to us for miles after. We made it to Torksey Lock not much after 12. This is the start of the Foss Dyke – the first canal ever built in England. If you’d asked me to guess the date of Britain’s first canal I’d have guessed 17something. In fact it was built in 120AD, by the Romans. It connected the Trent to the Wytham, so they could take stuff to Lincoln, and then out to sea that way.

We found Neil, the lockkeeper (or, The Keeper of The Lock, as we like to think of him). Torksey Lock was very pretty and made me think of childhood holidays to Cornwall. Neil told us that it takes about 2 days for water to get from the early Staffs bit of the Trent to him, and probably another day to get to the Humber. We felt like slackers.

After a most excellent cup of tea at the lock tea rooms (and a fairy cake that cost only 30p!), we pushed on to Marton. This was a lovely little village, and we saw an old windmill near Trent Port, as we entered the village. We found out later that’s now a holiday cottage, which seemed a bit of a shame.

We found the Village Hall and proudly admired our poster on the noticeboard. Chatted to some guys fixing the roof. They didn’t know where the community archaeological dig was, but they did advise us that Gainsborough (the town up ahead) was ‘a shithole’. They were from Gainsborough, so I guess they are allowed to say that.

We did find the dig in the end, off the Littleborough Road down to the Trent. Almost everywhere we went through on this stretch of the river, there’d be two matching villages either side of the river (West Stockwith and East Stockwith, etc). In the olden days there’d have been a ferry, and anyway, everyone in the village would have had a rowboat. So the village across the water would have been the nearest place. Now there’s no ferries, it can be a 20 mile round trip by road to get to the village on the other side.

Marton and Littleborough are either side of the river and would have been connected by a ferry. A Roman road (now the A1500) went straight through both of them, and both would have been sizeable settlements catering to travellers. There’d have been cafes, taverns, shops selling stuff travellers need, markets, etc.

The dig is on some farmland at the point where geophys suggests two old Roman ditches used to meet. These were possibly property boundaries. We talked to the archaeologist and she said they’ve found lots of Roman pottery so far, including a lot of rooftiles. They think this means it would have been a fairly high-status house, rather than an agricultural building – not a Governor’s villa or anything, but perhaps a merchant’s house.

I asked what the difference was between ‘normal’ archaeological digs and community digs like this one. She said there’s always a lovely atmosphere at community digs. You aren’t under time pressures because the land is about to be built on, you’re doing it just for the joy of the archaeology. Also, volunteers aren’t jaded about archaeology and they’ll all be really jolly. And they often bring cake.

We set off again to try to find somewhere to stay. Marton’s only B&B – the Black Swan Guesthouse – had no rooms. But John the owner was an incredibly nice man, and set to to find us somewhere to stay that night. He got us a room in Gainsborough and even offered to drive us there. I said that would be cheating as we’d miss out a big bit of the river. He countered that we couldn’t walk along the river to Gainsborough as most of it was through private land, so we’d have to walk along the road anyway. We compromised on him driving us part of the way, until the bit where the road actually has a pavement.

Ross smugly pointed out that the further north you go, the nicer people are. John really couldn’t have been nicer, or gone more out of his way for us. I kept apologising profusely for our ineptness.

We settled in to our rather grand guesthouse in Gainsborough – right by the bridge! – and then got a taxi back to Marton. At Marton Village Hall a trio of old ladies were already waiting for us, and as the time of the performance drew near, more arrived. We ended up with about 12 older ladies, and one guy. They were apologising for the poor turn out, while we said, ‘No, this is a big audience for us!’

Apart from Nottingham Uni, all our biggest audiences have been in little villages. We’ve developed the theory that this is because in little places, it’s easy for word to go around. If you’ve got hold of the right local person, they’ll tell everyone. Hester, the community development officer for Trent Vale Partnerships has been so helpful for that in this strecth. For every little community she’d know exactly who to talk to to make sure everyone knew about it.

The Marton audience were fantastic. It was only the second show we’d done without Dad, which threw me a bit. I’m used to being able to do 5-10 minute segments, between his songs. Then when he’s playing I can get ready in my head what I’m going to do in the next bit. Here, I didn’t have that. After about 30 mins of me talking, I realised I wasn’t sure what to do next and there was going to be no chance to pause while something else was happening and gather my thoughts. I’m afraid I rather trailed off rather than finishing with some oomph.

However, the ladies were lovely, and they all happily chipped in with their memories of the river, questions about our journey, bits of history. There must be something special about living in a little place that has got a history going back at least 2,000 years.

The thing they were most struck by in our tales was how the Trent starts as a tiny trickle. To them it’s a huge impassable river that people can drown in. Walking along the whole river gives you a glimpse of how people’s views of it change. I suppose people in Stoke on Trent would be amazed to think of it being a massive, dangerous river.

I grew up in Nottingham, where the river is sizeable. But thinking about it, until the last couple of days, I suppose I vaguely thought it carried on much the same from there to the sea. Stupidly, I didn’t realise it would get so much wider. And although I knew intellectually that it was tidal from Cromwell Weir onwards, I didn’t really process that. Yesterday afternoon when I glanced round and saw the tide coming in up the river it totally took me aback. Look, look, the river’s flowing backwards!

The Marton audience were all brilliant, but one woman in particular stuck in my mind. She reminded me a lot of my Auntie Angela when she was younger. Unsentimental and down-to-earth in that country way, but kindly, and with a comfy, capacious-looking bosom. She said she wonders about all the people who’ve lived there for thousands of years, and where they all are. There’s only people in the church yard from the past few hundred years. Where are all the others?

She also said she’d have given us a cup of tea earlier if she’d known. Did we want one now maybe? We’d have loved to go round for tea, but it was getting late and we needed to get back to Gainsborough. So she gave us each a sweet she had in her pocket, and when we explained we weren’t sending a hat round or anything, we were just doing this for the love of it, she gave us a pound anyway, and told us to buy a cup of tea with it the next day.

There’s something beautiful in the way we brush lives with people as we pass through. I wish them all well, and I hope they think as kindly of us as we do of them.

Then incredibly kind John gave us a lift back to Gainsborough. We felt bad, so offered to tell him a story in exchange. We therefore spent the drive telling him the story of why Burton beer was the best. Ross playing ukelele in the front seat, me leaning in from the back doing the talking. It was our most bizarre performance of the trip.

John asked if we’d found most people kind and helpful on our journey and we said, ‘Very much so!’ He firmly believes most people are kind and good, but the media focusses on the the minority who aren’t and the bad things they do, so everyone ends up scared in their houses. We agreed. This trip has shown us nothing but the kindness of people 95% of the time.

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Day 17 – Holme to Dunham

Miles walked: About 15, we think.

Weather: Mostly cloudy, although the sun came out in the early evening a bit.

On Monday, we really didn’t want to leave Bev’s house. The bed was comfy, the bath deep, the company congenial. Every time we turned round she was offering us more bacon sandwiches, or another cup of her excellent tea, and we’d start wagging our tails and nodding sheepishly. So we caught up a bit on blogging and sound editting, taking turns on the laptop and bickering. But eventually, we could postpone the evil moment no longer.

We packed up the tent and sleeping bags Bev was lending us for the next stretch, hitched up our packs, and promptly sat straight back down again. Our packs were more than double the weight they had been now. We just couldn’t face walking the remaining 65 miles with the extra weight camping would involve.

We all three of us pulled out our phones and set-to trying to find a B&B near South Clifton for the night. Nothing that didn’t involve a sizable detour off the Trent and (given it was well into the afternoon now) we didn’t want to add too much pointless walking to our journey. Eventually Bev found us a pub in Dunham-on-Trent that did very reasonably priced rooms. (£40 for two, including evening meal! The Bridge Inn in Dunham definitely wins for value…) This meant walking about 4 miles further than we’d intended that day, but at least it was on the river. Bev drove us to Holme (on the opposite side of the river to North Muskham, which we’d walked to the day before), and we set off, considerably lighter than we had feared.

It was now 3pm, due to get dark at 7.47pm, with about 15 miles to go. We needed to get a bit of a step on. So when we reached an impassable spike-topped fence by Cromwell Weir, and had to backtrack over a mile to cross over a ditch filled with murky water and surrounded by barbed wire and nettles, we weren’t in the best of moods.

Despite the time pressure, we decided to have a morale break when we were once again level with Cromwell Weir. This meant having a drink of water and some flapjack, sitting under a tree. Sat there, contemplating the fact that we were only about half a field to the left of where we had been almost an hour ago didn’t do as much for morale as we’d hoped.

We pressed on, marching as fast as we could, and wondering why we ever left the hallowed grounds of Casa Bev. Everywhere was flat, the sky was huge and we passed a lot of gravel workings. We decided we didn’t need to follow each turn of the river and getting to Dunham before dark was a higher priority. So we took a track just past Girton that went amazingly straight for about 2.5 miles. We were covering the ground fast, but I was still stressing about nightfall approaching.

We’d planned to walk up the East side all the way to Dunham Bridge and cross there, but I really wasn’t looking forward to walking along an A road in the dark. Happily, we then remembered that Fledborough Viaduct was opened as a foot and cycle bridge recently, so there was another option. We got to the viaduct and decided our lives were too short to take the long cycle slip road to get onto the bridge, so we scrambled up the bank. It looked like this was a popular route with local kids.

The viaduct was huge, and it was pretty cool to cross it. Although we didn’t get the views we were expecting, as it’s got big high iron sides, well above head height. Efficient Victorian engineering, eh?

By the time we got down the viaduct on the other side it was pretty much dark. We had to do the last mile or two guessing our footing and checking the map by torchlight. Every so often there’d be a sudden whiff of manure, and we’d realise we’d trodden in another sheep poo in the dark. At least there was no faffing about taking photos and we made good time.

We eventually staggered into Dunham at about 8.30pm and the Bridge Inn was almost the first thing we saw. It seemed like the pub that time forgot. It reminded me of the pubs near Skegness where my Granddad would play dominoes when I was a kid. Although there was only one silent drinker, and the landlord watching telly.

Richard, the landlord, was a nice bloke though – used to be in the Royal Engineers, watched a lot of factual telly, knowledgeable without being a bore. A few more folk came in about 10pm. They told us stories about the Trent and showed us photos of the floods in 2000, with one end of Dunham Bridge under water.

Then I was writing a blogpost and Ross was uploading photos, but we could hear them at the bar, swapping river stories and talking about the history. He whispered to me, ‘See, we got people talking about rivers, even without doing a show.’











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Day 16: Newark to North Muskham

Miles walked: About 7

Weather: Some cloud, sunny spells

We actually only walked as far as Averham yesterday, a couple of miles from Newark, and then Mum and dad had picked us up in the car, so we could get to the castle on time. The river splits just south of there, and we’d walked along the west branch to Averham (pronounced Airam, Ross keeps complaining that places round here aren’t pronounced how they’re spelled, whereas I think that’s normal. His favourite is Belvoir – pronounced Beaver. What’s wrong with that, eh?).

We’d been told that the river splits because they cut an artificial channel, so they could make the river go through Newark. But in fact, Rene, the ranger at Newark Castle Gardens, told us that’s a myth. The river always split in two just south of Newark. However, the family who controlled the West branch had deepened it at some point, reducing the flow through Newark, and leading to all manner of court cases about it.

We decided to follow the east branch today, on our journey to North Muskham, because that meant walking through Newark, and gave superior tea drinking opportunities. Bev dropped us off at Farndon, so we did miss out a bit of river (from the split to there), but as we’d walked an equivalent distance along the other branch, we decided that wasn’t cheating.

As usual, we set off later than planned. We then, when we got into Newark, stopped in the centre for a cup of tea at the Royal Oak. This was a lovely pub. It looked like an old coaching inn and was full of old boys playing dominoes. The jolly landlord called me sweetheart in every sentence and served us two excellent pots of strong tea, with real milk, a choice of white or brown sugar, AND a free biscuit. All for £1 a pot! What more could one ask for?

They even had bar skittles set up, and Ross was duly trounced by a ten year old. The lad proudly announced that he could even beat his Dad and I could well believe it. It seemed like a proper community pub and I loved it. Ross thought I’d complain about being called sweetheart, but I don’t have a problem with that at all, when it’s done out of friendliness.

We set out once more to North Mushkam, realising we needed to get a move on. As usual. We took the west side of the river from near the castle, then had to swap to the east side at the footbridge a couple of miles later – both for footpaths, and for avoiding getting stuck at the confluence, where the two halves of the river re-join. There isn’t a bridge over the bit coming back in. This left us with a problem though, as we needed to be on the west side for North Muskham.

The walk was full of derelict remnants of Newark’s past as a port and transport hub. We also passed more sewage works, train lines and power stations. The audio below captures some of the sounds of this walk, as well as discussing the show at the castle, so I’m repeating it from yesterday.

The only bridge we could use was the one taking the A1 over the river. The A1 used to be called the Great North Road, which is far more heroic sounding. The numbering system for roads may be efficient, but it lacks poetry.

We had to scramble up a bank, through scrub, spiky trees and nettles. Then clamber over the barrier and walk across the bridge on a tiny pavement about a foot wide, while huge lorries swooshed past us at 60+ miles an hour. All I could think about was how it would only take one of them to swerve slightly and we’d be crushed against the barrier, or tipped into the Trent below us. That bridge seemed very long.

We then had to scramble down the other side, through more scrub, spiky things and nettles. At the bottom we crawled under another spiky tree, then kind of limboed ourselves over a barbed wire fence, backpacks and all, like some sort of extreme yoga exercise. Only to find ourselves in the midst of another huge path of nettles. These ones were vicious and were even stinging me through my canvas trousers. We are getting very good at finding ways through places we obviously aren’t supposed to go through.

Ross was complaining about how his ukelele kept catching on things, and I just kept swearing at the nettles. But eventually we fought our way to the footpath down the riverbank, and marched off towards the Muskham Ferry Inn, rubbing dock leaves on our posteriors as discreetly as we could. Having overcome all obstacles we were in high spirits and singing as we strode along. I sometimes worry we scare contemplative fishermen as we pass.

The Muskham Ferry was a lovely pub. I asked for the landlady, and the barman said, ‘Who shall I say… *glances at maps, boots and general dishevelled appearance* Oh, are you the walkers?’ Top marks Sherlock.

We got a good audience, in the pool room. Jim from the local history group had come out, and he acted as our barker, rounding people up. He’s a larger than life character, a folky and a bit of a performer, so he was perfect for the role. If only we’d had a Jim at every venue!

We got about 20 folk and they seemed to really enjoy it. They laughed and clapped in the right places, anyway. And they had things to say about the Trent in the discussion bit. There was a guy there whose Grandparents had had a farm on Biddulph Moor (near the source of the Trent), and another who used to live by the Trent in Nottingham, in the Meadows. It’s funny how many people we meet have moved from one bit of the Trent to another.

We then had a great roast dinner, provided by the landlady, bless her. And went off in Bev’s car to look at Cromwell lock. We buttonholed the lockkeeper and learnt a load of fascinating things from him, but that will need to wait for another blogpost I’m afraid. We then all went back to Bev’s and had another lovely evening and more thought-provoking conversation with Bev. Pretty perfect as a Tales from the River day goes!

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Day 15 – Gunthorpe to Newark

Miles: about 14

Weather: Glorious sunshine, again. The river goddess is still smiling on us.

We set off from Gunthorpe early (for us) about 8.45am. It’s a part of the river I’ve walked along many times, so it was nice, but kind of strange – so much of the time we’ve been walking in places we’ve never been before. It felt odd, in a way, to be walking along river bank I’ve walked along hundreds of times over the past ten years Mum and Dad have lived in Gunthorpe.

I was even more teachery than normal, pointing out sites of interest to Ross. I’m sure that was very interesting and educational for him… We tromped along pretty effectively, but still made surprisingly poor time to Fiskerton, getting there at about 11.30am. We’d pinned our tea hopes on the Bromley Arms, but they were cruelly dashed as we arrived to find the pub shut. By immense god fortune though, a stag party were outside, wanting to buy 30 pints of rubbish lager. They’d sent a scout to track down the landlord and get him to open early. It’s not often one’s happy to see a stag party…

They were all dressed as Robin Hood and his merry men (as you do), which looked a bit uncomfortable in the heat. They asked about the ukelele, and we explained our strange mission. We offered to tell them a story, but they seemed more interested in the rubbish lager…

The Bromleys Arms tea was excellent. He even gave us three teabags in one pot of tea, so the tea was actually strong enough.

For the last part of the walk, Ross had been rehearsing, playing his ukelele, as we walked along. The event was in Newark Castle Gardens. We felt properly troubadoury today. We made it just in time, after Mum and Dad picked us up in Averham and arrived at a sunny castle just before 2.

We got an audience of about ten people – all sitting on chairs on the grass, cos Mum and Dad decided we needed chairs. It went well I think. My lovely friend Bev Gibbs came along, which gave me an excuse to say, ‘Is there anyone here from Burton on Trent?’ when introducing the Burton beer story. We like a bit of audience participation.

It was interesting talking to Bev about it afterwards. She’s doing a PhD at Nottingham Uni on ‘Scientific Citizenship’. A lot of her research is about informal science engagement and things like science festivals. She said she was surprised at the way the show kind of connected people in a place to other places along the river, giving them a different sense of the river.

That had been part of my thinking with it, but something I’d almost forgotten about as we go along, focussed so much on the day-to-day and minute-to-minute practicalities as we are. But the way the river connects people and places, and the way we are physically travelling along that connection, was part of what makes it seem real and powerful to me, as an idea.

You’ll have to forgive the rushed nature of this post, but I’m horribly aware I’m days behind on the blog and want to catch up at least. Thinking properly and writing well will have to wait til after we’ve finished… I guess what’s really going around my head from the last couple of days is the way Bev, and her questions, has made me step back again and think about the big picture and what we’re trying to do with Tales from the River.

She asked why we’re walking it, rather than driving or cycling or whatever. I’ve got a sense of the answer, but I couldn’t quite formulate it. It’s to do with actually physically moving on your own two feet through the place and the landscape. We’re travelling in a way humans have used for thousands of years – our ancient ancestors could have done this journey. Neanderthals could have done this journey. They wouldn’t have had compeed, and OS maps, but still. Or maybe it’s just that walking from the source of a river to the sea sounds mythical, and some part of my brain likes to pretend I’m Gandalf.

I still can’t pin it down, I suppose. But there’s something about it that makes me happy we are doing it on a lot of different levels. And it was really lovely staying with Bev. Not just cos she’s a lovely friend and made us bacon sandwiches and plied us with wine and was a perfect hostess. But because she asks good questions. And I like that…

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Day 14 – Gunthorpe Village Hall

No walking today, just errands and a show in the evening. As we’ve spent all our money (mainly on tea I think, boringly), I had to go into Nottingham and try to take money out of my online savings account. Unfortunately, as it’s a savings account that I very rarely interact with, I had to do this armed only with the cashcard and a smile. I didn’t know the PIN number, customer number, or basically any of the security information.

I had this conversation with the branch manager that mainly involved him suggesting solutions which I then had to stymie with further evidence of my rubbishness. I ended up telling him about Tales from the River, to explain why it was no good him sending me out a new PIN to the address they have for me, why all my paperwork was in storage 300 miles away and why I kind of urgently needed the money. God knows what he wrote on the form, ‘Customer is engaged on improbable long-distance trek.’

But he authorised an emergency transfer, bless ‘im, and the teller, Leah, who did all the paperwork and sorted me out couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful. I worked in a shop years ago and I know customers mostly only complain and never praise all the good service they receive. So I’d like to say, hurrah for Nationwide Building Society Nottingham branch!

That evening’s show at Gunthorpe Village Hall was great. I’m proud to say that we were the first people to perform on their new stage. It’s only a little platform about 18 inches tall, but still.

About 20 people came to see us, and several of them weren’t even our relatives. There was one contrary man, who seemed to want to interrupt and criticise all the time, and show how much he knew, but who then refused to engage in the storysharing bit. I found that quite odd. I mean, here’s a part of the event deliberately designed to give everyone a chance to say things, but you don’t want to say things in it. However, you do want to say things when other people are talking on stage.

When he first arrived we were putting out chairs. He made a beeline for me, and pulled out a photo. It showed him standing with a foot each side of a small stream. I said, ‘Is that near the start of the Trent?’ He said, ‘You reckon you’ve been there. Don’t you know?!’

Perhaps this is a failing on my part, but one small stream looks much like another to me. I didn’t stand at Biddulph Moor memorising each tussock of grass, in case someone set me a photo-based stream-identification puzzle later…

He told us, before the show, that he lived on the Trent, a few miles beyond Gunthorpe, and that we should pop in for a cup of tea in the morning, when we were heading towards Newark. I don’t think he enjoyed the show though, cos the next morning he phoned me, basically to dis-invite us. He described exactly where his house was, then said, ‘We’ll look out for you and wave at you as you walk past.’ It was most odd.

In the part of the event where people got chatting about their stories, he and his wife sat stony-faced, not talking to anyone. I set my brother on the old guy,  circled round the other side and sat down next to his wife. I smiled and said, ‘What Trent stories can you tell me?’ She looked nervous and said, ‘Oh, I don’t have any stories.’ and fell silent again. I asked what her earliest memory of the Trent was, and she started telling me about the pleasure boats, when she was a girl, before the war.

The boats went from Victoria Embankment in Nottingham, to Colwick (about 3 miles away), where there used to be an artificial ‘pleasure beach’. They’d go on a Sunday and eat ice creams and build sandcastles. It was like a trip to the seaside, for people who couldn’t make it to the seaside. They’d loved going to Colwick.

I’d had no idea about this. I was fascinated. But then the husband turned round and started telling me statistics about locks on the Trent and she went quiet again. It’s funny, the things you learn doing this walk.

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Day 13 – Day off, sort of

We had a total day off Tales from the River-ing. No walking, no performing. So of course I was going to London to speak on a panel for #scicom21. Ross said to me, ‘You know, normal people would say, “I’m walking the River Trent then, I can’t do it.”‘ But of course, I agreed to do it ages before we’d set a date to do Tales from the River. Anyway, I wanted to go, and see old friends, etc.

However, when I had to get up at 6.45am on my ‘day off’, I didn’t feel so keen, it must be said. But it was a great day, with some interesting sessions. And it was lovely to see old coursemates and other science communication people I know. But I’m mainly going to take this as a chance to share some thoughts I’ve been having about rivers.

One old friend I was talking to, Liam McGee, used to work for the Environment Agency. He told me that years ago, the EA did some research in Stoke-on-Trent. They stopped people in the street, in Stoke-on-Trent, and asked them what river flowed through the town. Over 50% didn’t know.

Now of course that sounds very funny – the clue’s in the name, people! – but having followed the Trent through Stoke, I can see why.

A sad and neglected looking Trent, with weeds growing round the sides and some rusty pipes and barbed wire going over it.

The Trent, in Stoke

The river is tiny there, and most of the time you can’t find it. It flows under roads, in between houses, it’s neglected and overgrown. We were wandering round carparks swearing at our OS map, going, ‘It must be round here somewhere!’

Ross trying to look at an OS map, by a busy road, and looking confused. Ross has a beard and dark curly hair and is wearing a rucksack.

The Trent isn’t a feature here, the way it is in Nottingham. So even though it’s what the town was named for, and even though in a roundabout sort of way it’s responsible for the town’s former prosperity*, it’s been forgotten.

Similarly (well, not very similarly, but bear with me), when I was doing the google map for the route page, I discovered you can’t get google maps to follow a river. If you put two placemarks in a place where there are roads, google map can draw a route between them, along the roads. But you can’t do the same thing with a river.

Essentially, the map doesn’t really know the river is there. Roads are more real to google maps than rivers are. It barely bothers to give the rivers names.

This seems crazy to me. Surely, rivers are exactly the kind of feature the earliest maps were invented to show you? Rivers are major (often impassible) features in the landscape. They’ve been there for thousands (tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands) of years. To our ancestors they really mattered. But to google maps they are less real than the roads humans have made in the last few years and decades.

It says something sad to me about the way we regard the natural world, and what we think is important. And about our alienation from it.

*A geographer told me that part of the reason Stoke made its fortune from pottery, is that it was lucky enough to have a seam of good quality clay, next to a seam of coal (to fire the kilns with). As the river cut through both it had exposed them, and this is most likely why people around Stoke realised their luck and started using both to make pots.

Categories: The Journey, Thinking | Leave a comment

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