‘The River of Life is a magical place’. These are the opening lines of last year’s Christmas pantomime, performed by home-grown talent and inspired by the twisting Wye valley. It is an unknown and quiet part of the country, with Herefordshire at its core. We do not all sing of the beauty of the river that binds us all, but we all love it. We all need it. We are joined by the thing that nurtures the soil we stand on and the fields we eat from. The show’s costumes and set made a lovely afternoon of entertainment, but beneath the words coming from the mouths of children was a truth.
The Wye is not big, not long, not wide. She is not clean, nor warm, nor home to any unique wildlife. And yet she is ours, carrying the sweet mist of the mountains into the lowlands, the towns and cities that feed off it. She is the heart of the land. It is a rare day when the boat club is not out in the early morning sun, dodging families in canoes and children swimming with dogs. There is a community that the river has created. A community bound by its fascination for this secluded space.
I found a spot by the river one day when I was barely taller than the ferns on its bank. The shouts of family far behind me, I wandered into a land of my own, where I would discover magic that would stay with me forever. It would inspire me to write and create wonderful worlds of my own. It called to me in a way that I hadn’t known before. At first, I thought it had no voice but then it proved me wrong, singing softly while I thought. I believed there were magical creatures hiding in the bushes, watching me, and I instantly wanted to be their friend. I called for them, but there was no reply. Seconds later, I had to leave, but I will always remember that time.
I have sat in that one spot all my life.
At four, I hunkered down in the mud, smearing my first taste of adventure over my face while my mother protested that I would get dirty. My knocking knees were well below the waterline, the rest of me shivering until my grandfather lifted me onto his shoulders and saved from the cold. As each droplet fell off my feet back into the river, I watched them.
At seven, fresh with grief and longing for one last fireman’s lift from him, I sat on the bank and watched the water go by. I understood, for the first time, how life flowed and ebbed. I didn’t like it. Still, the river flows on. The breeze gave me that much-needed kiss and the water sang its mournful song to the tune of my thoughts. Peace, at least. At last.
That peace lasted me for a long time. I felt it in my mind and on my skin, at home, in school, at rest. When I moved, the sound of the river rattled through me, smooth and as beautiful as any symphony. Sometimes, I wondered why I heard it in the roar of a train and the laughter of my father but never in the voices of my friends. It acts how it wants. It does whatever it sees fit. And I loved it for that. It made me want to do the same.
Over time, though, the peace faded and life returned. I went back to the river, my life barely recognisable. But the river never changes and there she was, as if she had been waiting for me.
At twelve, I braved the cold of winter to swim with my dog, an overfed Labrador. He played as if he had never seen water before and the river welcomed him without question. Digging at stones and licking at the banks for snails, he barked his happiness for all to hear. He jumped for the deepest water without fear. I laughed as he dunked himself under the water and came up again, sneezing and bouncing on his hind legs. I laughed and the river laughed back.
As that same laughter echoed down the years, it faded and eventually became tears. The River of Life flows always on, and with that movement came fear and anxiety. I was growing up and the time to leave Neverland was fast approaching. But still, I sat by the river.
At sixteen, I nursed my first heartbreak there, wiping snotty tears on my sleeves and trying not to think of him. Trying not to think that I might want her instead. Trying not to think of the piles of work on my desk, of the war raging in the fibre cables overhead. I shut my eyes, listening only to the flowing water. A woodpecker chirped in the trees above. A cow grunted in the field opposite. The calm that has followed me for all of my life seeped back into my chilled bones until my whole body relaxed and I was finally smiling again. I suddenly wished that my grandfather was here with me, lifting me over his head; or that my dog, now hobbling in the first throes of arthritis, was swimming in the water again.
I was alone, but that was okay.
I carry that realisation with me everywhere I go. Each time I come back to the riverbank, another young girl sits there, and I imagine her, too, in the hardships of heartbreak. I wish her luck and move on, sometimes looking back over my shoulder in search of my past self, who sat there so earnestly one day in winter.
And now, when nature twists in its course in ways we cannot predict, the river still is there. Still flowing, trickling through the land along her way. I wonder if she knows how we watch her, amazed by something that might not really be so complicated after all. She moves as if nothing in the world matters other than reaching some other place away from here. I don’t know where.
I no longer sit at the edge of the river. I have moved on, to somewhere bigger, although I don’t know if it is better. It is certainly louder. More water but fewer rivers. Canals aren’t quite the same, although they try; I hear the voice there, sometimes. It is dry and worlds away from the free-flowing river bound by mud and ancient oaks, rather than miles of concrete.
I hope someone else sits there now, peering into the water and letting it heal them. I hope some other little girl is being lifted from the cold by her grandfather. I hope another dog has taken the place of mine who, still limping through life, has no energy for rivers now. I hope it has not been forgotten, that place of magic and joy, tucked away behind a market town that has not held a market in fifty years.
I hope the River of Life has more life in it yet.