Last year (2023) I went on a journey. It wasn’t one to a far off foreign or exotic land, neither was it one that I expected to make, yet is has been as uplifting and amazing as any journey I have undertaken and has had the same touching effect on my heart and soul.
It all began when Tim Sykes, a PhD student at Southampton University, approached the Hidden Wiltshire’s Facebook Group seeking to recruit participants to help his research into winterbournes. He required volunteers to visit one of these temporary rivers at least two times a month and keep a personal diary in which they expressed their feelings and emotions reflecting on their relationship with the river as it went through its annual cycle of flowing, ponding and dry phases.
The study interested me, but my qualification to be involved was tenuous.The Bourne River, near where I live flows all year. Therefore, I had no past knowledge of the seasonal variations of the river outside of the flooding in winter and the water’s height appearing low in dry summers. I had, however, visited the RSPB Winterbourne Downs Reserve and observed with some amazement the dry river bed as it snaked through the reserve, and as the river also ran through the neighbouring settlement of Newton Tony, I felt that if I visited there I could possibly be involved. Happily it was agreed that I could take part, and as a family member had once lived for a short time in Newton Tony, the location was deemed a good one.
I was delighted to be chosen and set about planning my visits. Initially, I had been full of the explorer spirit. I was determined not only to visit Newton Tony but to also investigate the whole of the river from its source to its confluence. I had poured over OS maps of the full extent of the waterway marking out the locations in villages and the countryside where I could be by the river. Sadly, in the open countryside there was very little that was not on private land. It was going to be difficult to get away from civilization. I therefore decided to ask the warden of the Winterbourne Downs Reserve if I could visit the winterbourne there. This would allow me to contrast my feelings when being by the river in the village to those of a quieter location. Happily the warden agreed, but she was doubtful if I would see any water, as the river did not flow at all in 2022. So, after completing the necessary paperwork, etc. I was able to visit the reserve once a month.
I was all set, but at the start of the study there was something that worried me. It was the fact that I had spent most of my years writing technical reports, where expression of emotion was not appropriate. I wondered if I could really communicate my feelings fully in a document? Further to that an idol growing up was the logical Mr Spock from Star Trek. Had I modelled myself too much on him to be able to fully understand how it was that I felt? Would everything be merely "fascinating"? Happily, Tim had provided a helpful questionnaire and as I hadn’t come across any Vulcans in my family tree, I decided I probably could, with practice, be able to articulate my feelings. So, after a slightly shaky start, I soon got the hang of visiting the river and writing the diary entries.
My first few diary entries were more observational. I felt that the view across the Winterbourne Downs was ancient and beautiful; the village was surprisingly full of activity and sometimes noisy and the area of the reserve was peaceful and at times otherworldly. All of these observations were written as seen, but I had made a start. Furthermore, these locations started to develop a special meaning to me. I looked forward to visiting then and quickly grew to love them.
Against all the odds the river had risen in January, and this had filled me with an almost childlike excitement. I was going to be able to see all of the phases of the river, and my overwhelming emotion was joy. Now, at every visit I was eager to see what was happening with the river. Was there something new to see at my special locations? I also started volunteering for the RSPB at the Winterbourne Downs, where I found myself making new friends, enjoying working to improve habitats to help nature and at the same time visit the river.
During my visits I also met and spoke to a number of villagers of Newton Tony. All of them were very friendly, and many were happy to tell me about their experiences of the river. It was as though the waterway had made a connection between us. One time, I and my companion even ventured into the village hall for morning coffee and cake, my fears that we would be viewed as strangers were instantly dismissed as we were heartily welcomed and as I chatted I learned more tales of the river. Whilst I was there I noticed a beautiful collage on the hall wall depicting the village and its river in full flow. This wonderfully reflected the importance of the river to the village. So it was, that part of my journey was finding the lovely community of Newton Tony and enjoying my chats with the villagers.
It wasn’t long after I had started the diaries that my desire to see the river in different locations subsided. With every visit, the river at this chosen location was meandering its way into my heart, very much akin to its meanderings through the village and the Winterbourne Downs. The now familiar and precious features of the village and the landscapes meant I didn’t want to see others. I had found a location that I had grown very fond of.
Something else I noticed was that the frequent visits to the same spots by the constantly changing river was allowing me a deeper insight into the small nuances of the seasonal changes. In the winter there were snowdrops and vibrant dogwood then came the catkins, celandines and other early spring flowers. The village sounds were increased by the cawing of the nesting rooks. In April the toads crossing signs went up in the village and the riverbed vegetation began to be more noticeable. The blossom appeared on the trees and the river was much reduced but still flowing. By May the abundant cow parsley was vigorously growing by the riverbed. This surge of growth was also partially obscuring the view of the river on the Winterbourne Downs. Then the river, little more than a trickle a week before found a new lease on life. Signs went up by the ford in the village indicating a flood. The river could be seen clearly again as it flowed through the horseradish and hemlock water dropwort. This renewed vigour was unusual and it would not be the only time that the river would show a defiance in conforming to its usual pattern of flow. A capricious nature that I found intriguing, and perhaps added further to my kinship with the winterbourne. However, the increased flow did not last long and by late spring the river was drying up and was almost completely hidden by the vegetation in the village. It appeared as though the village had been re-wilded - a wonderful sight.
Summer arrived and with it wild flowers such as dog roses and knapweed, there was also an abundance of butterflies including, to my delight, Marsh Fritillaries. I, alongside the other volunteers, had earlier helped with the planting of some of the Marsh Fritillary food plants, so it was amazing to think that I could be helping the population of this pretty butterfly. By mid-summer the river was completely dry, this was something I hadn’t been looking forward to. However, having spent so much time by the river by now my relationship with it had changed. I was no longer just the observer of nature struggling to understand my feelings. Having for many weeks contemplated my emotions by the river. I found that the river had in fact become my confidante and companion, its ever changing state also reflecting the ups and downs of my feelings and at the same time giving me new insights and perhaps a better understanding of myself. I had developed a sense of kinship and love for the river and I believed it could have more to show me even when dry. I knew that if I was upset or had a problem I could come to the river and start to work things out.
September saw warm misty days which created a mystery to the landscape and the village. The riverbed had been cut in the village but soon it rebelled and new growth appeared. Although we had sun-dogs in the sky indicating cold air high up in the atmosphere, autumn came late, the trees staying green until finally turning colour in November. November saw another change too. The riverbed started to appear wet. By mid-November puddles were appearing and by the end of the month the river had risen, and although not deep it seemed wider than previously. The river had come full circle, and I too felt part of that circle with the now familiar to me sight of the water flowing through the village and the Winterbourne Downs. But the capricious nature of the river was again evident as the river had risen very early which meant concern for the village. My feelings were mixed, I was so glad to see the water again but I felt a concern for what might be to come. So it was that in the last month of my diary, things were to change again. We had more rainfall the river continued to rise. Its flow, depth and width much more than I had seen previously, already it had washed some of the bank away near the ford. The darker side of the river, the one that the villagers spoke most about, was being revealed to me. It seems that there is much more to know about this river than I have encountered in my year of visiting this lovely stretch of water. I will definitely return to visit it and to learn more.
You might ask if being by the river on the reserve was different to that of the village? The answer is yes, but it is complicated. The stillness in the countryside and its almost otherworldly aspects allowed for quiet contemplation and the soothing of jangled nerves. Whereas the river in the village was good for camaraderie and lively interest, all being so important for wellbeing.
I do hope that this blog inspires some of you to find your own special safe place, by a river or even a winterbourne where you can do some quiet inner reflection and perhaps have your own journey, a journey to better understanding yourself and growing to love the surroundings you have chosen.
Since my diary entries the water in the winterbourne in early 2024 has continued to rise. My thoughts are very much with the villagers and the flooding. It seems the rise of the river this year is a one in ten year event. Some local roads around Newton Tony are closed, and sandbags are out. The flooding is reflected in other areas of Wiltshire and England but it is incredible to see so much water now in the village where not more than two months ago there was none.
Special thanks to Tim Sykes, Nicola Quinn and Ken.
If you are interested to learn more about Tim’s research you can follow him on X at Tim Sykes (@RiversandPeople) /X
If you have an interest in helping wildlife and want to volunteer to help at the RSPB Winterbourne Downs Reserve then contact Nicola Quinn in this link https://www.rspb.org.uk/days-out/reserves/winterbourne-downs.
There are other groups such as Wiltshire Wildlife trust that also call for volunteers https://volunteering.wiltshirewildlife.org/index-classic
If you want to know more on the rivers we have visited see the recent posts below or listen to the latest Hidden Wiltshire podcast https://www.hiddenwiltshire.com/podcast