A peaceful, calming, stress free day spent beside one of England’s beautiful chalk rivers. What better place to be on a hot summer’s day.
Willows weep over the cool stream, their branches casting shadows into the crystal clear water. Sunlit patches light up the stream bed, while lush trees and bushes clothe the banks with relaxing green. The reflected sunlight flickers on the gnarled trunks of the overhanging riverside trees, as the water flows silently past.
This is a place to still a distracted mind as our inner self slows to the gentle pace of the stream and we become in-tune with its peaceful rhythm. Mesmerised, we watch the water weed, mainly water crowfoot, swaying gently in the flowing stream, our eyes ever looking for fish. A plop and some ripples catch our attention. Was that a trout or…?
George Butterworth may have had a scene like this in mind when composing his peaceful ‘The Banks of Green Willow’. His premature death in the First World War was such a great loss to us all. This was one of only 3 orchestral pieces he left. How we wish there had been more!
The fisherman’s hut in the distance reminds us that these chalk rivers, like the Test here, are world renowned for their fish. As we watch the waters, the imagination quickens, expecting any moment to see one of the brown trout for which these rivers are famous. In the lower reaches, anglers have also been reporting increasing numbers of Salmon or Sea Trout that have made their way upstream, passing the ocean liners in Southampton Water on the journey.
Apart from the hum of gnats dancing over the surface of the water, silence reigns – delicious, cool, refreshing. It does us good to be here. Later, as the day cools, there may be the twittering sound of swalłows as they dart across the river looking for insects.
These chalk streams have their own moods. Today, the river Itchen here, is in the lazy, laid-back, summer mood. In winter, after heavy downfall, it may be a different place. But now all is quietness and calm. A wise swan floats idly midstream as we dreamily watch a leaf float past, once again children playing pooh-sticks. The leaf glides and twirls in an eddy, then is momentarily halted by an emerging branch of willow, before it carries on its relentless flow. We wonder how far downstream it will be in an hour’s time.
Sir Edward Grey, who served as Britain’s Foreign Secretary from 1905-1916 used to know this stretch of the Itchen river bank well. A few years ago a friend introduced me to his delightful ‘The Cottage Book’ in which he records his spring weekends spent with his wife, staying in their small tin cottage by the river. They spent their time fishing, walking the river footpath, exploring the surrounding water meadows with their rich flora and watching birds. Later he records of one evening by the river:
“It was as if one’s own being was soothed and in some way refined by the stillness, the gentleness and the sweetness of it all.”
This was such a contrast with his stressful work at the Foreign Office. The clouds of war were growing on the Continent, leading to his famous speech in the House of Commons in 1914, ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe…’ No wonder this peaceful place was such a refuge.
Today, despite the ravages of the M3 motorway, the river still retains some of the peace that Sir Edward knew. Looking down into the clear waters we see some of Keats’ minnows and half wish we had brought a childhood jam jar to dip and see more closely.
‘pebbly beds; Where swarms of minnows show their little heads,
Staying their wavy bodies ’gainst the streams, ‘
We wonder what surprises an underwater camera might reveal, but the thought of fishing doesn’t appeal to me, though I know it brings much pleasure to many and one can easily become ‘hooked’! I prefer to leave the fish undisturbed.
But we can’t stay forever by these delightful still waters. We will probably have to return to the noisy, restless maelstrom of a motorway or main road. Those returning to London will race along the M3 as it carves its destructive way across the peaceful charm of this lovely valley. At least we can carry with us memories of quiet days spent beside peaceful chalk streams like these. It wilł help keep us sane in this madly frantic world.
Thank you for joining me. Keep calm and cool!
Next Time – ‘Ffald-y-Brenin – a place of Blessing’
Top Featured Photo by David Dixon – Creative Commons