Acclaimed as an angling writer, Charles Rangeley-Wilson (Christ Church, 1984) has decided to venture into ambitious writing territory. Silt Road crosses the Sensitive Plant school of personally-voiced nature-writing (think J A Baker’s The Peregrine, W G Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, or Robert McFarlane’s The Old Ways) with the introspective and anarchic new psychogeography (like Will Self’s columns, Iain Sinclair’s Down River, and Stewart Horne’s Down and Out in Shoreditch and Hoxton). Richard Mabey and Paul Farley combined the two approaches to haunting effect in Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness, but Silt Road, though undoubtedly fascinating, succeeds less well.
The chosen lost river is the humble Wye, after which High Wycombe gets its name. Its degraded and hidden course through that urban sprawl began to obsess Rangeley-Wilson after he happened to park up in a lay-by off the motorway and saw it disappearing forlornly through a culvert. That experience leads to numerous fleeting visits back to High Wycombe and its environs in search of the river’s past state and present fate.
The factual content is superb, but the writing is high risk, alternating high-flown metaphor and terse immediacy. It occasionally succeeds, but can rise to pretension (“This ancient voice of the valley has been drowned by cars, trucks and asphalt, drowned as surely as if a dam of concrete had been built between the hills, and the old river now lay ten fathoms down, mute in the pit of Tartarus”) and sink into bathos (“I’m sitting at a desk shitting out introspective banalities as if I’m passing kidney stones, hour after hour, getting nowhere.”)
But the author’s idiosyncratic researches offer juicy meat in the orgiastic doings of Sir Francis Dashwood’s Hellfire Club at West Wycombe, where one of the sources of the Wye debouches from a temple mound deliberately designed to resemble a vulva. There is a sober moral message about how local self-interest thwarted a Victorian public health inspector’s valiant attempts to improve the slum dwellings that lined the river in High Wycombe.
Geology gets a look in, too, with illuminating disquisitions on William Smith, John Woodward and T H Huxley. Best of all is the exploration of the lost mills on the lower river, and a celebration of Stanley Freese, who compiled a history of them in the 1930s. Fish, dreamed about and real, wend their way through the narrative, coming to a climax toward the end of the book when, in the book’s most splendid digression, we read of a Salmon-Fishing in the Yemen-like attempt to take trout fry from Britain – including particularly fine specimens from the River Wye – to Tasmania.
There could be no greater contrast to Rangeley-Wilson’s wistful and personal elegy on a lost river than Richard Mayon-White and Wendy Yorke’s colourful and informative celebration of the nature reserves that have in recent decades been established all along the banks of the Thames. Exploring the Thames Wilderness goes a long way to restoring faith in modern environmental conscientiousness, revealing as it does how much time, effort and money goes into conserving the wild countryside along the river’s banks.
Richard Mayon-White, for many years Senior Clinical Lecturer in the University’s Department of Public Health and Primary Care, has been exploring the Thames all his life and has been a River Thames Society river warden for the last ten years; Wendy Yorke is Projects Manager of the Thames River Trust. Their combined forces have produced a splendid new approach to the river. We all know about the Thames Path, but how much do we know about the wildlife habitats beyond the banks of the river between the source at Kemble and the estuary’s official end at the Nore, near Southend?
Around Oxford alone, twenty-four reserves are described between Wytham Wood and Radley Lake. The book explores the river in eleven sections, each of which has an introduction about the character and history of that part of the river, giving details of the reserves, including map references and seasonal opening times, and describing a circular walk that takes in one or more of the reserves along that stretch. The final chapter is about river conservation, and appeals to readers of the book to get involved themselves, offering a tempting range of opportunities for volunteers. Stunningly illustrated with photographs mainly taken by the authors, this is a book to be used – but also to treasure.