“Art is an organised response to what nature allows us to glimpse occasionally.”
— John Berger, from ‘The White Bird’, Landscapes, John Berger on Art,
ed. Tom Overton, London: Verso Books, 2016.
Yesterday, wearing more layers than a bag of onions as protection against ‘the Beast from the East’, my wife Lyn and I walked along the River Wey from Guildford to Send, near Woking, changing banks as the towpath required. In the mid Seventeenth Century, the river was channelled from Godalming to its confluence with the Thames at Weybridge to form the Wey Navigations, but as we followed the many bends it certainly didn’t feel as though it had been straightened and canalized very much at all. At times, we trudged and slid through very boggy mud, and found it much tougher going than our previous venture along the route last spring. Occasional runners did well to keep their footing. But the sections of the towpath which the strong, all-day sun didn’t reach were caked hard and still silvered with frost.
There was little in the way of wildlife. Three mallard drakes circled an unimpressed female. The odd few Canada geese swam past rather desultorily. A couple of celandines spread out their petal tips to mirror and soak up the sunshine. The highlight was a cow, knee-deep in water that didn’t seem able to figure out how to extricate itself from the river and back up into its field. Later, near Papercourt Lock, we came across more cattle, a herd of red polls, standing their ground along the path we had to take towards a stile. They wouldn’t budge. On the way to Woking, where last year we saw lapwings tumbling in their courtship display, there was little doing.
THE WEY NAVIGATION
Two hundred men, hardened
by battling for England’s soul,
dig far and deep and wide, embedding
bricks from Oatlands Palace
in the base and sides, recycling
its better timber for lock after lock,
and adding, in just two years,
nine miles of re-direction
to the wayward Wey, until
their third spring of labour,
when eight-blade stitchwort clusters
on the banks, meadow-edge alders
explode with titmouse giddiness,
and the young gentleman paces
a broad enough berth around
nesting swans, one dandelion day,
as orange-tips take to the wing,
for the slow-running waters to meet,
at Papercourt, to make his father’s
navigational scheme complete.