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Can you step in the same stream twice?

Outdoor Living

WATER UNDER THE BRIDGE A stream and old bridge in Exmoor, Devon, UK. Pic: IDS.photos

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

It was a day out of time, beginning with an inordinate breakfast feast that would carry us through to our evening meal. And what a banquet that was! Who would have thought it?
This was no ordinary wedding. For a start the bride was my own daughter. Why, I’d hardly noticed her grow. Yet there she was, as an apparition, bouncing and laughing her way to her new husband and away into her own great adventure. Where was the small girl who crept so expertly up on sleeping deer, who nursed ailing songbirds and picked coltsfoot for her mother? It’s hard to keep a measure on the passing years. We used to joke about the metronome of seasons, to hibernate long and spring to life with February sunshine.
Family and friends took care of catering, each giving his or her best. We could do it no justice but, after working our way through dish after dish, left half, at least, untouched. Offering thanks felt woefully inadequate. “Why wouldn’t we?” they asked. “You’re our friends.”
There’s something delightful about this meitheal mentality. All were in it together, bound by the joys of giving and sharing, with but little cost to any, in a long-standing Devonshire family tradition.
The following morning I rose in early sunshine and walked the Exmoor woodland, hoping to find wild deer and maybe trout in the stream. Butterflies drew me away from the water and over heather-clad moorland ridges, into steep-sided combes and onto gentler slopes beyond.
How long since I had been here? Yet how little has changed. Those same strong beech, oak and alder that I had climbed as a boy, beneath which I had slumbered through summer’s heat. Those same lanes with their high hedges and speed thwarting twists and turns. And in the little trout stream, when I came to it, the same rocky shelves and banks of shallow gravel I had known as a child.
There was something new. When I turned stones at the broad tail of a favourite pool I found, not the clean little fishes I sought, not the slippery stone loach that lived there before, nor the blunt-nosed bullhead that kept us occupied for endless hours, no caddis in its case of sand, no wrigglers or crawlers as there ought be, but a sorry, dirty brown sludge in which nothing breathed or moved.
Disturbed, I moved upstream to another pool and waded in through a bed of last years rotting leaves. The stones which make the river bed were always so many different colours – yellow, orange, brown and even blood red, depending on the amount of iron each contained; now they wear a coat of grey, a film of algae that makes them sheer, like ice.
Close by was the old stone bridge, over which we drew trailers filled with hay and straw on long summer days. A series of powerful floods must have washed away its footing, for now the great sandstone blocks heaved into place to form a crude arch centuries before lie half in and half out of the water. This was where I learned to fish, where, so many times, we had watched a score or more of trout from our vantage point above. None of them were fit for the pan. At least they were there. And what fun they made! Though they were small we’d take them proudly home, two and three the reward for a full day’s angling, and eat them fried crisp on a thick brown crust...
The worst thing about it was not the deterioration in water quality, nor the evident shortage of river life. There was nobody around. There were no footprints along the river’s edge and no excited laughter in the surrounding woodland.
I went back to the high moor and found the sunlit air pleasingly filled with butterflies. Many were pristine and evidently recently hatched. Others, including one poor old Painted Lady with tattered wings and a tired appearance, were timeworn and near the end of their lives. I sat there on a rock, with scarlet haws above, under the gaze of wild moorland ponies and surrounded by late summer flowers.
It feels like a new chapter. Not all change is good, but what is life, without it? How do other folk make sense of it all?

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