Monday, 15 October 2012

The Mill Leat

Birch tree on the leat

The Mill Leat

That autumn morning, the sun came over the line of hills just after 8 o’clock.

Before that, there was a golden glow in the clear pale sky, faint at first, then ever stronger,  illuminating the long curving line of the hills. The hills made a black line on the horizon, where they met the sky. Along the top of the hills there were dark green conifers, then green fields further down, where sheep were grazing .

 Above the pitched slate roofs of the houses in the valley, pebbledash bungalows in the foreground, bigger stone or white-rendered villas beyond, smoke rose in the still air between the alternating tall evergreen columns and spreading branches of ornamental trees in a scene of classical serenity.

Down from the high hills, through the valley ran the mill stream to join the river.

The stream ran differently every day: chuckling along on fine days; in a roaring torrent after rain. Once, in the depth of winter, it was blocked entirely by ice floes piled up in irregular rectangles- a mini-ice age, an arctic in miniature. The rocks and pebbles it ran over were large and small, some were old slabs of masonry, some were whinstones bearing traces of fossil remains.

The former mill leat was a beautiful geometric shape; a clear-cut, tapering curve of fine bright green grass, trees and shrubs, sparkling with yellow wildflowers in spring and pink-and-white cuckoo flowers in summer. Now, in autumn, the grass was strewn with the golden leaves of the great birch trees that grew there and overhung the ditch that ran along the outer curve of the leat, alongside the road from the little town that curved round on its way up the hill.

A low stone wall, made of great granite blocks, as mighty as if for a castle, was set in the rough turf on the north side of the stream,  some distance back from the edge. This rampart ran along the whole length of the leat from its widest point near the bridge, to the point of the curve, where it ended: the petrified prow of a great stone ship, anchored for ever,  high above the rocks in the stream below. Boys played here. They could climb down from the prow onto the rocks, and back up again. Here, too, the ditch joined the stream, and the great round mouth of a storm drain gaped in a tantalizing ‘O’.

The arched footbridge across the stream joined the big old houses on the north, along Well Road, to the scheme on the south side. It was a busy bridge, crossed and recrossed by school children, men with dogs, women with prams and shopping, youths on bikes. A metal fence ran along the roadside; one of the rails had been broken for years in a place where generations of short-cutters climbed over or through the rails. On the scheme side of the river was a flat open green grassy park, the water meadow, that flooded after heavy rain. Children played football in the park; there were swings and a see-saw. The park was bounded by two bridges: the arched footbridge with its wooden railings at the east end, and, at the west end, the road bridge and its embankment. You could edge under the road bridge, foot by foot, along the narrow ledge.

In the ditch with its puddles, dead leaves and wild flowers, its buttercups, dandelions, ladies smock or cuckoo flowers, an alder had seeded itself. Blackbirds often hopped there. Down by the stream,  ferns grew and a dark-leaved viburnum,heavy with crimson berries.  All along the banks of the stream were trees great and small:  alders, field maples, hornbeam, hazels, ash trees, yews, rowans, elders, limes, oaks and willows. The birch trees dropped their gold and green leaves onto the soft green grass; their trunks were silvery and mossy, their branches reached high into the clear blue sky. After high winds,  their fallen twigs were scattered all over the leat, the right size for bows and arrows, for waving and chasing and throwing into the turbulent water of the stream.

Along the stream’s south bank, near the water’s edge, were stray traces and remnants of a forgotten fence:  short metal uprights, handy now to hold onto, to step down onto a patch of sand or into the stream.

Birds flew and perched and hopped on the leat – rooks, pigeons, robins and blackbirds.

From the leat you can look up to the hills that circle this valley. Because the hills encircle the valley, this is a special place, once called ‘a cauldron’, where weather was made and it was sacred.

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