I love waterways.
I’m not sure I can explain it. All I know is that I love them. And for the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to live next to some.
There was the New River in Enfield. I would walk past it on my way to work, watching a family of coot live and grow throughout the seasons. It was my moment in the day to pause and forget about any worries I had. There was the river Lea in Enfield. It was further from me and I did not visit often, but it was always a pleasure to take a day out along its banks. There were industries, kayaks, fishermen, families, boats, and all sorts of life around it. There was the Thames in Richmond. I use to live within walking distance of it for a while. It was a completely different river, a mightier one I didn’t dare trade in. It lived according to the tides, sometimes overflowing to remind people it is still wild, still have the power of its long travel through England behind it.
There were other waterways too. The Regents Canal that would lead me to a climbing wall, to the London zoo, to happy memories of time shared with a friend. The Beverley Brook was a heaven of peace in a crowded, noisy London borough. The trickle of the Vesle marked the end of the village I grew up in and the beginning of adventure. The steady flow of the Canal latéral de l’Aisne would bring me to childhood friends.
Waterways have always been a part of my life, and I’ve always loved them. That is, until now.
I live within cycling distance of the river Avon. I see it everyday on my way to work. I often pause to watch the gulls dance in the air while below the muddy banks form intricate patterns of lines and shapes, making me wonder if those patterns are the same a few miles away at the estuary. And in those moments I love the river. But it is not an unconditional love as it was for the New River, for the River Lea, for the Thames, for the Beverley Brook, for every other waterways I’ve lived next to or explored. And I don’t know why.
So this year, I’m embarking on a mission. I’m going to find out what’s missing, or what’s added. I want to love the river Avon. I want it to become my river as the other ones have been. I don’t have a plan on how to best do this. But I’m starting with walking the river Avon trail. I want to see it at ground level, at the slowest speed I can go. So in that spirit, on the 10th of January, I packed a day bag and headed for Pill, one end of the trail.
The tide was out, leaving an empty basin of silt exposed and boats stranded on the shore. The land appeared barren, as if someone had pulled a plug and drained the river. The houses around were silent and closed. I felt like the only person in this area of Somerset. I knew I was wrong but the wintry scenery was not reminding me of warmer days. I remembered the ebb and flow of the Thames in London. It too is a tidal river, but not like the Avon. The tidal range of the Avon is the second largest in the world. At Avonmouth, it can rise and fall as much as 14 metres twice a day, and in Bristol where I live, the water level can change as much as 12 metres. Pill is in between the two, and looking at the empty riverbed, it wasn’t hard to believe those numbers. I pondered briefly if those drastic changes were hindering my relation to the river, making it change its character too often for me to grasp it fully at any time.
I cast one last glance at the mud below and walked away. The path veered from the river immediately, passing through a park. I dropped my skateboard to the ground and pushed away. Standing on the board, I glided along on the asphalt as the flow of the water above the silt. I passed a few dog walkers but mostly I had the place to myself. There were play area and benches, views over the countryside, and the constant hum of the motorway just behind. I paused as I noticed it and looked at the bridge in the distance. In the past, this wouldn’t have been there. Instead, there would have been the constant noise of boats and seamen. The stretch of water between the Bristol Channel and the Port of Bristol was notoriously difficult to navigate, and Pill was a place to stop and let experience pilots guide big boats up the Avon Gorge to Bristol. But those pilots have long since disappeared into history books. The way into Bristol is now by road.
I rolled on, spotting familiar cycle route signs. I looked for a red barge on a blue badge, the official trail waymark, but no trace of it were to be found. I didn’t see it for the entire day. The River Avon Trail was not announced. I knew it existed. There was a website for it, even a guide, and definitely a path. But you wouldn’t know this without digging around online.
I kicked my skateboard up and attached it to my bag. The ground was no longer tarmac. Soft mud cushioned my steps and dirtied my boots in a few seconds. Houses disappeared and long expanses of fields opened the view to the right. On the left, the brown murky river passed quietly. Above its bank, a train rattled every now and again. And higher still, the traffic of the busy A4 gradually replaced the hum of the M5.
There was no one on the water, not even birds. And there was no one on the path but me. The river was mine but I couldn’t bring myself to love it. Maybe it was the emptiness of the landscape. I walked on, my steps squelching in the mud. I stopped by an opening in a ditch that let its water fall into the Avon. I heard water for the first time, an outpouring of life into the silent river. A couple of cyclists passed me by. We smiled at one another and I began to appreciate the river more.
I walked on a little more relaxed, a little more appreciative of the waterway. Villages came into view on the north bank, bringing wildlife with them. There was the surprise squeak of a field mouse that I never saw, and the shrill call of gulls in a ballet over the water. In the field behind, blackbirds replied. And for an instant, I forgot about everything else.
As I approached Bristol, I entered the sheltered space of Leigh Woods. Trees enveloped me but their bare branches allowed for a view of the Avon. It began to change here. It felt wider. I knew this was most likely not true. Maybe if it was the reflections of the buildings and the sky ahead that made it looked that way. I paused often to watch the clouds in the river and made slow progress on the trail. I wasn’t in a rush anyway. I was here for the river and I needed to let its pull on me work its magic. It wasn’t quite like the draw of the Thames or the New River, but it was the beginning of something.
A long lorry drove past on the A4 and jolted me out of my reverie. I looked across the water to the unceasing lines of vehicles and wondered if they were not one of the cause that were keeping me away from the river. I do not like traffic sound and sometimes find it hard to block it out. It overpowers smaller natural sounds, making them disappear into the forest unless you actively pay attention to them. It felt like they were masking the river, the new thoroughfare erasing the old.
I continued on the path, human noises growing louder as the traffic of Clifton Bridge added its chorus to the A4. I was getting into Bristol now. The mud underfoot stopped to be replaced by tarmac. I unclipped my skateboard and rolled away from the cacophony of the road network above the Cumberland basin.
In a few kicks, I was within familiar territory. There was the Bristol marina and up ahead the floating harbour. Instinctively I headed for the north bank of the Avon but halfway across a bridge, I stopped. I wasn’t here to speed away from irritating aspect of the riverside. I was here to explore and get to know the Avon. I turned around and went back to the south bank and walked into the Underfall Yards. I had seen the old chimney from afar but I’d never quite ventured to it before, always passing in nearby streets. I was about to roll away when I was stopped in my track by the 78 feet (24 metres) long replica of the Matthew propped out of the water. Raised above ground, the boat looked even more impressive than on water, and I couldn’t help but wonder again how John Cabot made it to North America in the 15th century on such a small vessel. We have ocean liners today, big massive metal boats shaped like unsinkable tanks that look sturdy and safe. But this boat was only a caravel, a small wooden sailing ship. I sat down for a moment and listened to unseen workers carry out maintenance in its belly.
The maddening criss-cross of roads over Cumberland basin was just behind me and yet, I couldn’t hear it. A few metres from it I had found an island of stillness. The water was calm, people were on foot, and the only noises were of men working on boats. I felt like the river was its own here. It was controlled by men but it was allowed to breathe and live.
Bristol used to have a tidal harbour, grounding ship into the silt bottom of the river at low tide, causing damages to the hulls and hassle to commerce. So in the early 19th century, William Jessop created a dam and a lock not far from the harbour to control the water level. The excess flow was diverted into the freshly dug New Cut which was allowed to reveal its silt bottom while ships were safely docked in the level water of the floating harbour. The Underfall Yards where I was were crucial to its operation with its sluice system and I marvelled in at the feat of engineering.
After a while I got up and went on with my journey. I knew exactly what lay ahead. I would pass the SS Great Britain, the large tourist attraction forcing me to veer away from the river before returning to it and meet the old rails of the Bristol Harbour Railway. Trains used to run between the harbour and the train station but nowadays they go back and forth from the SS Great Britain to the industrial cranes at the end of the harbour, transporting tourists, train lovers, curious locals, and children.
I zigzagged my way between the rails, sometimes on foot, sometimes on the board. I wasn’t alone here. A handful of people were enjoying a scenic walk along the river. On our side of the river, boats of all sizes and shapes were docked along its edges. On the opposite side, Bristol coloured houses brightened the day, and all around us gulls danced and fought with one another provided a show in the air.
I reached the M-Shed, my favourite museum in the city, and sat on a pillar for lunch. This was the end of the harbour and the end of my walk for the day. I like it there. You can read Bristol’s history by sight. Often the replica of the Matthew is docked there, welcoming people on board for a tour or a private party. Opposite, the once Baltic trader three-masted barque Kaskelot rest, and further beyond, skateboarders practice their tricks while shoppers and arts lovers meander along the water’s edge. Back on the south bank, tall cranes are a reminder of Bristol trading heyday’s in the 1950s. But this is gone now, the smoke, the noise, the business of commerce. Instead there is the gentle footsteps of passersby, the conversations of people, and the clatter of plates and cutlery from the thriving restaurants and cafés along the goal ferry steps.
I unpacked my sandwich and took it all in. Here, at the harbourside, I was in love with the river. I basked in this feeling because I knew it was only fleeting. I loved this place, this harbour, but not the whole waterway.
My sandwich finished, I hopped back on the skateboard and pushed my way home. I was no closer to an answer to my original question. But I felt I had got to know the river Avon a little bit more intimately. Knowledge I had gained from books and the Internet was a little more concrete, helping me to understand who the river Avon is today. I am not in love with it, not like the other waterways of my past but I was left a little smitten, hopeful that this spark would grow. There is still half of the trail to go, and then miles and miles of water to explore in Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, and Somerset. There is still time. The river is not going anywhere and neither am I.