Thinking like a River

By Kavanagh, P. J. | The Spectator, March 29, 2008 | Go to article overview

Thinking like a River


Kavanagh, P. J., The Spectator


Century, £14.99, pp. 310, ISBN 9781846051692 £11.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 'Y ou can tell a river-lover. They cannot help but pause on a bridge to investigate what lies beneath.' It is hard to imagine anyone not doing that, but our author is a generous soul and wishes to include us all in his passion.

I wanted to celebrate the ways in which rivers stirred spirits and set imaginations alight; to learn how they were worshipped, and then abused and overlooked ... I needed to make a river journey; the question was, which river?

He chooses the River Trent, which cuts across England from west to east, more or less dividing south from north, 170 miles of it before it disappears into the Humber; but he chose it, surely, because he knew nothing about it and wanted to find out. In order to be as close to the river as possible he decided to do the journey in a punt, designed by himself.

First, a meticulous man, he had to find the precise source, and after many local misdirections eventually he does: 'I thought of Speke and the Nile, and Lake Victoria ... A chipped concrete pipe, a weed-choked hole in the ground.' A mile or so later, this amalgamation of insignificant streams passes under the first road bridge. He stands on the bridge looking down at it (you can tell a river-lover), it was reasonably clear but the colour of gravy because of the muddy bottom. 'It wore a sombre look, as if it had just heard the bad news that Stoke lay ahead.' His designer-punt awaited him at Trentham, downstream of Stoke, brought there on a trailer by his wife. Before he joins it, however, we have been taken on a meandering journey round Aristotle, Thales of Miletus, and the River Maeander itself, 'a byword for its muddiness and proverbial for its tortuousness'. We also learn of Trentham Hall, commissioned by the second Duke of Sutherland in the 1850s, designed by Charles Barry. It cost a quarter of a million pounds: vast, filled with treasures. Within 20 years the streams from the expanding Potteries had turned its lake into a stinking morass. The house was uninhabitable; in 1906 the library was sold, in 1907 the paintings -- 'the Holbeins, the Hilliards, the Lelys and the rest'; in 1911 the magnificent edifice was pulled down. Now, post-Potteries, the lake is healthy enough to sustain large carp, and pike and tench. And the Trent itself runs clean, a little river again instead of an open sewer, which may be some consolation for the loss of the great house, and the chimneys and kilns of the Five Towns. …

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