A watery adventure: Exploring the inspirational landscape of Waveney
PUBLISHED: 09:36 01 September 2016 | UPDATED: 09:36 01 September 2016
To mark the tenth anniversary of the death of Suffolk writer and environmentalist Roger Deakin, Matt Gaw sets off down the Waveney to explore the landscape that inspired so much of his work
We push off from the grassy bank and get underway again. The canoe is high in the sparkling water, each dip of the paddle sending up tiny green whirlpools that we leave in our wake. It is near the start of a two-day journey along 40 miles of the upper Waveney, a river I have grown to know and love, from walking to its magical source at Redgrave and Lopham Fen, to swimming its broad-backed bends at Bungay.
My companion and I, print artist James Treadaway, who lovingly made our wooden Canadian canoe in his back garden, are motivated by a sense of exploration – a yearning for discovery in a country where everything has been discovered. Well . . . almost everything.
There’s a sense that rivers still hold some secrets. They are the veins beneath the skin of the landscape with the power to take us to the wild and watery heart of things. A doorway into a quiet and hidden world. It’s a feeling Roger Deakin, the late great nature writer and broadcaster, clearly shared. And this brings me to the second reason for our voyage. This year it is ten years since Deakin’s death and our journey is also a tribute – a recreation of a trip he took in his beloved canoe, the Cigarette – to celebrate his work and the Waveney Valley that he loved.
Before setting off I had visited the Roger Deakin Archive at the University of East Anglia to listen to A Cigarette Down the Waveney, the programme Deakin made about his voyage for Radio 4. Sitting inside a glass room with just Doris Lessing’s typewriter for company, I clamped headphones on and listened while I sifted through boxes containing scrawled notes for his word-of-mouth bestseller, Waterlog, a swimming odyssey across the country’s waterways.
There were pictures too. Images of his home at Walnut Tree Farm in Mellis, the shepherd huts he used to write in, and even the dilapidated cars he drove into hedges, leaving them to be claimed by families of foxes or hidden by roses.
And, of course, there were photos of him swimming, both in his infamously cold moat and in the Waveney. Invariably he is doing the breast stroke, his hair a dandelion puff of white sticking out above the dark green of the water. Deakin described this, his favoured swimming style, as the “naturalist’s stroke”. He said from this position in the water he had a “frog’s eye” view of the unfolding waterscape, from the tennis ball size holes of the water voles in the bank to the fat chub scudding along the river bottom.
I listened as Deakin explained how he was inspired to go on his voyage down the Waveney by a literary canoe trip made by Robert Louis Stephenson and his friend, Simpson, through Belgium and northern France.
The pair set off in 1876 in a couple of canoes, Stephenson in the oak Arethusa and Simpson in a sleek cedar wood boat called the Cigarette, from which Deakin’s own wooden craft took its name. In a wry nod to Deakin, our own slightly more cumbersome canoe has been christened the Pipe. Deakin obviously felt a strong connection to Stephenson and Simpson, claiming during his journey that he felt like he had an imaginary ghostly companion paddling alongside him. I wondered if we would feel Deakin’s presence as we nosed along the river he described as his “escape route”.
As I got up to leave, the archivist came across the room with another box. Inside, wrapped in crinkled white paper, was the Turin shroud of wild swimming – Deakin’s second skin, his favourite Speedo trunks.
No man’s land
On the Waveney the upper reaches are proving tough going. The water rushes over mud and gravel rapids before becoming slowly deeper – moving from lively source to rural river. Passing through Oakley and Scole, we lay flat on our backs under crack willows that drag their tresses in the water, laughing as we sit back up festooned in catkins like fat, fluffy caterpillars. This river is a boundary. To the left of us is Norfolk and to the right is Suffolk, but the water itself is a kind of no man’s land, somehow beyond society. It is a powerful feeling.
Passing the restored windmill at Billingford, its white fan tails luminous in the sun, we pause briefly under an old double arched bridge. The bridge offers a place of shade, but reminds me again of escape, of hiding. Not far from here, where the River Dove meets the Waveney, is the Goldbrook Bridge.
This is the point at which King (soon to be St) Edmund was thought to have hidden in 870 while being hunted by the Danes. According to the story his position was given away by a wedding party who saw the glint of his spurs. Looking around us now the only glint I can see is from the viscous scribble of snail trails above our heads. But something has been taking cover here. In among the paddle-sized swan prints pressed into the mud of the bank, we can just make out the tell-tale pads of otter.
Pushing on, we repeat Deakin’s incantation of place names from Cigarette Down the Waveney. Wortham, Roydon, Diss, Skole, Billingford, Hoxne, Brockdish. The rhythm of the words match the strokes of the paddle and our muscles are now almost working without thought, our brains only woken from their slumber with the hiccup of a moorhen or the hissed warning of a swan, its back laden with fluffy grey signets. This river is truly alive.
From watercress, reeds and hemlock rise dizzying clouds of banded demoiselle damselflies. One amorous pair take a break from their acrobatic mid air copulation and land on the front of the canoe, their blue bodies still locked together and their fluttering wings marked with a black spot like an inky fingerprint. The water is full of lilies here. Their yellow flowers are still tightly closed, but their stalked buds periscope out of the water charting our progress. As the paddles disturb their submerged leaves I think of how Deakin said they reminded him of “crumpled underwear” in a washing machine.
We see our first kingfisher near the beautiful old mill at Hoxne, shooting overhead like a gas flame – dipping and turning to show us its orange belly before disappearing over a field. Two more soon follow, roaring past on afterburners while piping to each other with what sounds like some annoyance. Perhaps we are ruining their fishing. I think we are close to the mill race where Deakin made camp, a favourite place in late summer for giant puffballs. He described seeing so many they looked “like the rows of bare bottoms of swimmers getting changed”.
We navigate weirs and bridges, sweating gently in the heat but cooled from the spray from the churning paddles. The light turns to gold as the evening steals in and we decide to stop for the night just before Wortwell, heaving the Pipe through sucking mud and into a field. We brew tea and take warming sips of rum from tin mugs while we watch a barn owl hunt silently along the river bank. Exhausted we retreat to our sleeping bags, like land-locked caddis flies, marooned but cosy.
Real or reflection?
The morning brings mist and a herd of suspicious cows, staring at us with dark eyes as we hurriedly pack and push off. They low a soft ‘good riddance’ as we paddle to the centre of the river and then skip alongside us excitedly for some time before going back to the serious business of chewing the cud. It is a relief to sink back into our watery world. The light seems softer here and the sounds muffled. Even in our remote camping spot the rumble of milk tankers and cars could still be heard, but now screened by the tall banks, the noise of roads is replaced with ripples and the lulling shush of water on wood.
I always intended to swim the journey, but my first dip was unexpected. Passing under a low-slung willow I lose my balance and topple head first into the water. Surprise and panic give way to delight as I bob to the surface like a cork. The water is refreshing but not cold, and it feels silky next to my skin. It is too deep to touch the bottom, so I swim slowly to the bank where James, grinning, manoeuvres the canoe alongside and I clamber clumsily back in.
Stopping for lunch near Bungay, we head on past the ruins of the castle where the canoe is borne on just a few inches of crystal-clear water thick with fish. The river grows steadily deeper and broader, becoming a true Broadland waterway, as it loops around the town like a watery lasso.
It’s almost as if someone has plotted its course by drawing round their thumb. Without any wind the water looks like a sheet of dark volcanic glass, reflecting trees, birds and hedges. Arctic explorers can sometimes experience a ‘white-out’ when the snow-filled sky blends with vistas of ice and sometimes I feel I am close to a ‘river-out’. The water is swelling to fill every sense and it’s hard to tell real from reflection. The horizon is dizzying, fluid and coppery.
The spell is only broken by the arrival of rain. A bone-shaking thunderclap followed by marble-sized drops of water that cause the river to dance and boil. James and I shiver into waterproof jackets and paddle into the storm, gliding under trees for respite from the aerial barrage. It’s not hard to see how the river rises in conditions like these and evidence of where high water has been is all around us.
The run-off has stacked sticks and silt against the low lying branches, creating muddy beaver dams we are regularly forced to clamber over, swearing and heaving the heavy hulk of the Pipe behind us. Riparian to arboreal in the blink of an eye.
It is deep into the evening when we arrive at our final destination, Geldeston Lock. Soggy and exhausted after 11 hours on the water we order a pint and squelch back outside the pub where the Pipe is pulled up on the riverside. Roger Deakin finished his trip here by toasting the Cigarette, Robert Louis Stevenson and the Arethusa. We echo his words and then raise our glasses with paddle-sore arms one final time.
“And here’s to the Pipe, and here’s to Roger.”