In the village there is a river

IMAGE: Martin A. Smith

IMAGE: Martin A. Smith

By Martin A. Smith:

In the village there is a river.

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that along the edge of the river there is a village.

It is not a big river, or a grand river. It is a small river, alive with trout, which slowly, gently makes its way down from the hills and the mountains, skirts the four ruined castles that give this place its name and passes through to the world beyond.

As it approaches the village it first passes a couple of houses, both with chickens running around the garden, then a ruined factory full of broken windows and rusting machinery. This was a textile producing area and every town or village on a river had a mill. When the industry became too expensive the mills and factories were shut down and left to decay. Now all towns and villages with a river have a ruined factory.

A part of the factory in this village though has been turned into a visitor centre for the castles, another part into a restaurant that has a Michelin star, luxury out of decay.

The river continues past the restaurant, the town hall, the bakery (open every day except Tuesdays) and the post office (open Tuesday afternoons and usually runs out of stamps)

The post office used to be a night club and, rumour has it, a brothel.

The river runs past the car park and away.

It is a large car park for a small village. It is used by the tourists visiting the ruined chateaux on the top of the hill and is the site of the old station.

A village this size wouldn’t normally justify a station, let alone a nightclub, or indeed a brothel. But they were not for the village; they were for the goldmine further up the mountain.

But the mine didn’t last long, the station closed, the nightclub became a post office and the village returned to being a small quiet village with a large car park for the tourists.

Along the river’s edge running adjacent to the car park there are large sloping walls. Flood defences built with granite and concrete and cement. The gentle river seems trapped at this point, encased between the mountain on one side and these defences on the other. They seem incongruous, ugly, unnecessary.

I do not know if they were they built to protect and support the railway line, or built later as part of the car park. But I know that they are unforgiving and I wondered why they were built so.

Then it rained and we watched as the water rise.

And suddenly the walls looked small and insufficient. People ran to remove their cars and protect their homes from the onslaught.

It was only for two or three days but the rain was relentless, obliterating the view across the valley, shrinking the world to a few feet in front of the window.

Swept down from the mountains by the crying winds the rain and the river it fed brought whole trees past our doors, broke the banks upstream and some villages were evacuated.

But the walls were enough. The river was contained and the rain eventually stopped.

The water started to subside and the village could relax, this battle with the elements was over. The locals met and discussed the water, how many leaks their homes had, the after effects of the flooding, all thankful their homes remained intact. Because for a time it was not certain.

In the village there is a river, and there is still a river and there is still a village and the walls that seemed incongruous, ugly, unnecessary kept us safe.

Martin A. Smith is an artist and composer whose work is concerned with the emotional response to the nature of place, memory and environment.

This piece is part of a gently ongoing project to discover the story of a small village in France.

From the hills above Frigiliana, Andalusia

IMAGE: Marcel Krueger

IMAGE: Marcel Krueger

By Marcel Krueger:

I guess it was worth it, schlepping my overweight, 39-year old body up the hill. I had set out early in the morning and walked through the valley of the Higueron river, with the white houses of Frigiliana disappearing to my left and the Chillar ridge rising up to my right. Then I huffed and puffed up the 400-meter hill, and now sit on a stone on top of the ridge, with the brown and green flanks of the Sierra de Enmedio rising into the blue sky, early bees are busy around me in the morning sunshine, and across the Mediterranean I can see Africa through the haze. But as this is the Anthropocene, there is also the surf of the nearby coastal motorway soundtracking it all.

Before I make my way down the hill and to breakfast again, I wonder what a Castilian foot soldier might have thought, when stomping through the same hills hunting for Moriscos, descendants of Muslims under Castilian rule who were in rebellion in the 16th century. Probably the same thing foot soldiers have thought from the Crusades to Auschwitz: 'The man paid me for it, so best get over with it'. 

Stoned: Castlerigg, Cumbria

Image: Caroline Millar

Image: Caroline Millar

By Caroline Millar:

Between an ancient, yellowed road atlas, an OS Landranger and a limited phone signal, I crept slowly along peering out for a trustworthy brown sign to tell me I was somewhere legitimate. I needn’t have worried. About twenty cars were parked up near the entrance. So much for Wordsworthian solitude.

Along the verge were signs of semi-permanent habitation. Gazebos strung out from the backs of vans created temporary shelter and marked out territory. Plastic picnic tables, cans of Tyskie lager, dogends and a single shoe told of long nights.

Looking back I don’t know what I expected to feel, but it wasn’t shame.

I almost overlooked the stones at first, my attention drawn instead to the people who’d set up camp inside. Within the stone circle sat another circle of hippies; crusties as we’d once called them, the dogs-on-string and lentil brigade, what my parents would call layabouts. A group of men their hair in dreads sat draped in duvets drinking early morning cider. Women with wilting flowers in their hair spread nutella on toast for unwashed toddlers. In the middle of the stones a white pile of ash from a dead camp-fire, empty packets of instant noodles and a didgeridoo.

I’d last been to Castlerigg about twenty years ago. As a student at Newcastle the Lakes had been an easy bus ride over the Pennines. It felt like I was there every summer, but in truth I think it wasn’t more than twice. In memory, my boyfriend and I turned up at the campsite late in the evening to be met by a red cheeked farmer crunching into an apple the same colour as his cheeks. He devoured our money with the same gusto as his apple and pointed to a wet field. For some reason his face has stuck in my head though it might be mixed up with the farmer from Withnail and I, the one with his foot wrapped in a plastic bag and a randy bull.  But re-watching Withnail was such a constant of my student days that fact and fiction are hard to separate.

That night we’d walked from the campsite across dark hummocky fields to a dream-like wood panelled bar. Like characters in a John Carpenter film we holed up inside, nursing our cheap bitter, dreading the call for last orders that signalled a long night in the cheap barely two person tent. When we walked down to the stone circle later with a take out bottle of wine, it was totally empty. I lay on my back, my bare feet placed on the stones wondering where all the stars had suddenly come from.

It was probably the Romantics who ruined places like Castlerigg by suggesting that by communing with old rocks we could find a way back to our primitive selves. Now we strain towards empathy at every heritage site, as if summoning the spirit of past is the only authentic response.  As I walked round the stone circle this time, I willed myself to feel something. I studied the alignment of the stones with the surrounding mountains trying to see how the entrance lined up with the Skiddaw and Blencathra. I ran my hands over the rough lichen-covered surface and even tried to hug one.

Disappointed, I headed back to the car, stopping on the way out to read the ubiquitous interpretation panels. They pictured illustrations of Bronze Age people looking a lot like the couple from The Joy of Sex. Long hair, beards, flowers in their hair. They were eating, drinking, watching the stars, having sex, playing instruments, sitting round the fire, pondering their future. Just like the hippies now.  It was me that was out of time and place here. What I’d felt in the stone circle was shame. The middle-aged hippies at Castlerigg were the real deal. Whilst I sought a relationship with the stones safe in the knowledge my hire car was parked near by and B&B already booked, they slept next to them, as I once had, before I grew up.

Caroline Millar is project manager for Discovering Britain - a series of interpretive walks run by the Royal Geographical Society. She also writes creative non-fiction and short stories inspired by the Kent Coast where she lives. Check out her blog – lights of sheppey

Caroline’s essay from Faversham Creek appeared in Elsewhere No.03, available from our online shop.