A RIVER RUNS THROUGH
The soul is now a rather unfashionable concept, but it’s still a convenient label for that part of ourselves that defies biological definition, and is the source of our creativity. That the river and the soul should be twinned comes as no surprise - from the beginning of human existence rivers have been regarded as mystical and numinous. For primitive people the sight of water trickling out of a rock was a miraculous, life-giving event. So fundamental is the association that the words for river and birth - and sometimes for the birth canal itself - are the same in many old languages. It has also been used as a symbolical or mythological conduit into the underworld - the realms of death. The river is a good, if overused, metaphor, not only for all things spiritual, but also for the narrative journey of life itself.
The word Eden has associations of paradise, though the name was given to this river in another language where the syllables meant something else. Eden is on my birth certificate and Eden is where I now live, in an old mill perched on the bank of the river where it enters a natural gorge between sandstone cliffs at the Bongate end of Appleby. I can watch the river’s variations through my window as I write, the delicate patternings of light and shade, the constant changes of mood. The murmur of the weir provides a continuing soundscape through every night and day. I know the riverbank intimately. When I wake in the morning I can watch herons disputing territory above the weir, red squirrels bolting across the footbridge, spawning salmon in the gravel beds. Once on a deserted morning a family of three otters walked along the foot of the weir - and once we surprised a bird of prey lifting a duckling off the water. It’s a source of continuing fascination and delight.
The riverside at Bongate is a beautiful, peaceful place, but it hasn’t always been so. The mill stands on an ancient way, guardian of an important ford over the River Eden. The hollow lane that leads down to the ford has been trodden some seven feet deep below the level of the land by a vast procession of long-forgotten people who’ve walked this way for thousands of years since the end of the last Ice Age.
Living here I feel very close to the flow of human history. Mills have stood here for a long time and the foundations of the weir date back to Roman times. Modern repairs gouge up blackened oak beams as well as more recent medieval masonry. Local archaeologists have told me that there would once have been an altar to the gods of river and track-way, where travellers could make offerings before they crossed the ford. There would have been no shortage of travellers either - all east to west traffic across Stainmore came through Appleby. It was probably the equivalent of the ‘last homely house’ before the wild uplands of the Pennines.
After the Romans, the Vikings came up river, fighting, farming and fishing. They built a little church here on the ‘holme field’ opposite the mill, according to one source. The Vikings often built their churches over the sites of pagan worship and the ford over the river at Bongate seems to have been just such a place. After two restorations, little remains of the original church now - parts of a hog-back tomb taken away to a museum, some exquisitely carved masonry incorporated into the wall above one of the nave windows. But the Vikings gave their name to Appleby and one of the most valuable Viking finds in Britain, the Ormside Chalice, was excavated a couple of miles up river from the mill.
Born in the peaceful second half of the 20th century I find it difficult to imagine living on marginal land fought and bargained over and repeatedly laid waste. But over the next 200 years Appleby was overrun by Norman invaders only to be burned and pillaged by the Scots, then re-taken by the English, before plague decimated the entire area - thinning out what the marauders had left. By the 14th century all was ‘ruin and desolation’ in and around Appleby. Even more recently, in 1745, Clifton Moor was the location of the last battle on English soil between Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Scottish army and that of the Duke of Cumberland. The Highlanders were defeated and then massacred and eyewitnesses spoke of bodies floating in the river and the tragic rounding up of those who had escaped into the surrounding countryside. Many of those captured were not professional soldiers but either young boys or old men, as recorded by a local observer.
‘I saw the poor wretches brought into Appleby, little, ill-looking creatures, their heads and feet quite bare, and the most wretched rags on the rest of their bodies, far from sufficient to cover them . . . scoffed and hooted at by the rabble which ran in multitudes about them, their feet all wreathed with clods of mire, mixed with blood; ready to faint with hunger and the horror of their condition . . . ‘ It’s hard to think of the kind of atrocities we see beamed from distant countries to our television screens taking place here.
But the river too, like its history, has a dark side. In winter it metamorphoses into a brown monster - scouring the river banks on either side, submerging the garden and the car park, rising up the front steps, before bullying its way through the doorway into the cellars. Three or four times in ten years it’s risen high enough to flow through the whole ground floor. This has been a terrifying experience; the mill is suddenly in the middle of the river, buffeted by tons of water surging through windows and doors. The sheer force of it is awesome. But the mill was built to take the river - a sturdy industrial structure disguised by an elegant Georgian facade that looks more Italian than Cumbrian, built by a continental architect after the great flood of 1822 - which must say something cautionary about its predecessor!
I look up from my office window to Appleby Castle high on the cliff above the river - and this is how it was intended, since the mill was owned by the castle and Bongate takes its name from the bondmen who lived there in their insanitary hovels, fording the river to gain access to the castle. I like to think, as I tap out words on my computer keyboard, of that other, earlier authoress who lived there and put pen to paper in the 17th century. Diaries and letters were the only valid forms of writing for women 400 years ago - anything else was presumption or immorality. ‘Men are for the public, women for the private sphere,’ one man wrote, reprovingly and with devastating accuracy. The few women who dared to publish their writings in small private editions circulated among friends were often castigated as whores. The surviving diary of that great non-conformist Lady Anne Clifford is a source of great delight. Reading it I can’t help wondering what she might have done without the constraints of the time.
This has been a place of strong women. In the 14th as in the 17th century it was a woman who ordered things. Elizabeth Clifford, whose husband died in the crusades in 1393, was granted the sheriffwick of Westmorland in her own right and lived at Appleby Castle for 30 years. Her medieval tomb in Bongate church was inexplicably broken up when Anne Clifford restored the church and the fragments of her effigy were incorporated into the wall, until 1886 when they were rediscovered and reassembled. I often go to look at her tomb and wish that I knew more about her life story and why her monument was so viciously destroyed. Unfortunately, unlike her descendant Lady Anne, she left no diaries or letters to provide clues to the mystery.
Surrounded by history and beauty, supported by such role models, what better place could there be for a writer to live? But sometimes the scenery is more of a distraction than a source of inspiration and it’s more tempting to leave my desk and walk up the river than to pick up a pen. As I walk I often think of the words of Richard Jeffries, 19th century author and visionary, confronted by ‘that far space, full of soul-secrets . . . ‘ No one could express so eloquently that state of ecstasy engendered by being alone in a wild and beautiful place. ‘Everything around is supernatural; everything so full of unexplained meaning. . . . From earth and sea and sun, from night, the stars, from day, the trees, the hills, from my own soul - I stand this moment . . . face to face with nature, face to face with the supernatural, with myself. My naked mind confronts the unknown.’