The Captive River


Image: Pixabay


Released from the house, from fairy lights and the pressure to eat more sugar, I wander up the hill, supposedly to buy bread and milk, but really to escape and breathe air that doesn’t smell of pine and cinnamon and the vinegary tang of last night’s red wine.

I’m disappointed.

There’s no ice out here, no sparkling clarity and breath-fogged air – a midge cloud batters my face, warmth collects uncomfortably under my coat and the Christmas gifts of hat and gloves have to be stowed in my shopping bag before I’ve taken twenty paces.

The supermarket is a five minute walk from our front door ‒ down the winding slope of the burial ground, past the last two remaining gravestones, commemorating an engaged couple who slipped beneath the choppy waters of the Severn on a pleasure cruise over a hundred and fifty years ago.

But I need to be in the world for longer than the graveyard will give me, so I turn up Dunkerry Road, towards the council flats and the playground painted with purple galaxies and flaking stars. In a couple of days’ time, the pavements will teeter with recycling boxes, dreary with crumpled wrapping paper, shedding spruce trees with ribbons of tinsel still clinging to balding twigs. But not today. Today, let’s pretend Christmas is still with us, before midnight on the 31st murders the season for good.

Back down another hill, past that mysterious heap of blackened banana skins that’s grown every time I see it, a fresh yellow caste added to its peak every day.

Crossing the road by the station, I zigzag through the steel bars that keep out bikes and joyriders and I’m in Cotswold Green. It’s not ancient, never a medieval focus for May poles and summer fetes, but an absence, a hole created when wartime bombs levelled a terrace of houses that no one had the energy or focus to rebuild once the skies went quiet.

I keep clear of the grass, cautious of what dog walkers haven’t bothered to clear, though we clambered the slopes in August to pick blackberries for a crumble and there’s a sloe bush somewhere, though it’s hard to remember exactly where in the tangle of thorns.

On the tarmacked footbridge I stop to look at the Malago River running beneath. Barely a river, more a brook, sliding over a bed of concrete slabs and energy drink cans. It’s tamed, this stream, culverted in parts, encased on one side by a Victorian sandstone wall, girders spanning the water to stop the blocks slipping down the bank.

I’ve read a plaque, a website ‒ something ‒ that says the Malago was once a danger to those terraced houses, before they were turned to brick outlines in the grass. There was a flood, people stranded – drownings. Hard to imagine the river had such power – now an irrelevance, caged and subdued to allow first the railway, then the road to dominate it.

A train clanks close by, halts and clanks again, a crocodile of coal carts bumping behind. A blackbird flies low above the water, chip-chip-chip and back up into the trees.

There’s graffiti on the bridge – sprayed by whoever created the muddy path that disappears beneath. SECRET HQ it reads in garish tangerine and I hope it was written with irony. I imagine the hidden space under the tarmac, under my feet, and think of dripping water and trolls and the excitement of being able to watch passers-by without being seen, avoiding thoughts of nitrous oxide canisters and cigarette butts and I don’t want to think what else is really there.

The rain plops loudly on the drum of my umbrella and I know I’ve been too long, that I’ll be missed, that strip lights and packaging and canned music wait for me in the supermarket and I that can’t avoid them.

But for a little while, the green corridor of the river belonged to me and the sparrows and that was enough.




30 thoughts on “The Captive River

    1. Yes, so true. I’m no country girl – far from it – but I do love to watch the bees buzz in the garden, the bats fly over our house, love to plant flowers in the garden. Even little moments like that have healing properties I think

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Jane. Yes, amazing how nature can exist so happily beside concrete and steel. Gives me hope every time I see weeds seeding by the pavement, buddleia growing in gutters 🙂


      1. I grew up with a railway cutting, or rather the valley of a stream that led into a railway cutting, as my playground. Our garden led into it. It was glorious. Still is.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It’s these little alleys of neglected nature that are a lifeline for some species, though I’m guessing ‘brown field’ sites spewing with rose bay willow herb and buddleia will become increasingly scarce under the pressure to provide more housing


  1. You’ve conjured up the starkness of this bleak urban landscape so well, as is your wont and your unique skill. Pleased to see you’ve visited the Malago again — I remember you did another piece about it a year or so ago, and with just as much atmosphere.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Chris. Ah, the hedged in Malago. Lost tributaries are fascinating, aren’t they? Baffling how that little trickle was once a threat. Makes me think of London’s hemmed and covered rivers, all culverted and tucked away that were once the centres of so much activity and life. Must be a metaphor there somewhere. Thanks so much for reading Chris

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I liked it a lot. Sometimes, when I’m walking through town, I try to imagine what it looked like when Barnstaple was no more than a small riverside settlement. I’d like to know exactly where the trees stood, and where all the secret hiding places were.
        I wish I could think myself into the past.

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      2. Ah, me too! I think it’s part of the reason I love writing historical fiction – it’s the closest I’ll get to riding in a time machine. I find old black and white photographs of familiar places fascinating, seeing where the slums were off our local shopping street, where the theatres and cinemas were that are now Brighthouse shops and Cash Converters. And the fact our local, rundown precinct – that has little left in it other than an Iceland, a British Heart Foundation shop and Farm Foods – is called St Catherine’s Place after the medieval religious house and hospital that stood there … it sets my mind spinning! Imagine the nuns tending the sick where the big freezers are, the subdued coughs and moans of the ill and dying. Is there a burial ground there, under the greasy spoon cafe or the vandalised tree in the centre of the concrete? Don’t get me started on this Jane, or we might be here all day 🙂

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      3. So, like me you, hate old buildings being demolished… all that history being wiped out as if it has no significance. The Liberal party in our area used to be swamped with councillors who happened to be builders, so they decimated our town quite a few years back. We lost a few buildings of historical importance. I call it See oh are are you pee tee I oh en – that’s a cunningly coded message.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Certainly sounds like a questionable way forward! So sad, tearing the historic heart from an area. We need modern buildings when the old ones fail us, but why tear down the old just for the sake of it? Forgetting the past is a crime I think

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