17 June 2021, The Tablet

Trouble in paradise

Trouble in paradise

‘Part or the river’s beauty’: cattle crossing the Exe
Photo: Alamy, Mark Passmore


A prize-winning poet longs for the summer to come so she can enjoy the countryside near her home in Devon, yet fears it is has become a place of polluted rivers and forbidden footpaths

From my village, you get to the Exe through a stile, ducking down wooden steps hazardous with nettles, and on to a footpath that runs along the river’s edge. This first stretch is owned by South West Water. It backs the cricket pitch and is lined with elderflower and young oak. A sign says “No Trespassing” and warns of cameras, but generations of villagers have bathed here. Once, while swimming, I met a water company employee. It was blindingly hot and she was trussed up in waders and waterproof dungarees, with a tape stretched over the river, using a gauge to measure water flow. She didn’t mind me, thick-thighed, staggering awkwardly over the stones in my swimming costume. She joked she was over-dressed.

Does anything mind, once I’m in the water? The fish come to mouth my feet. The sand martins swoop overhead in impossibly fast pursuit of flies. The kingfishers, who are shy of humans on the bank, zip in their straight bright lines a metre over my shoulder as I swim, startlingly iridescent, startlingly direct. Do I disturb the damselflies, as I watch the blue males mate the green demoiselles in strangely buckled loops? Once I saw a female inch down a stalk and pause on the edge of the water as if doubting herself, then continue into the river to inject her eggs into the underwater portion of the stem. All the time a blue male guarded her submersion, darting overhead, protecting his genetic material. Perhaps my presence worried him. Then there is the mink I once looked up to see, sinuous and snakelike in the reeds. It stopped and looked me in the face, then poured itself back into the grass, and I saw what I had not seen – the holt in the roots under the willow, and the waiting sand martin burrows like an open snack machine.

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