The river is a powerful force, especially now that it is swollen with last week’s rain. For much of its length the river gives the illusion of being inert; a soft-brown gently flowing mass that moves down an imperceptible gradient on a course that will, eventually, bring it to the sea. It is only where the river is divided, with part of its volume squeezed through a narrow weir, that its true power is revealed in a roar of spray and noise.
This winter river is very different from that of late summer and it is difficult to picture how it looked just a few short months ago. It is brown, rather than clear and the lush growth of aquatic vegetation has long since gone, rotted down and now part of the detritus held in suspension like some full-bodied broth. The bank-side willows are bare, their slim fish-shaped leaves cover the banks like a mass of sardines, once silver but now brown with the stain that decomposition brings.
While there is an air of decay about the river, the riverside creatures bring a sense that spring will soon be upon us and the river will once again return to life. On bright days, early Mistle Thrush and Great Tit can be heard singing, while three Great Spotted Woodpeckers indulge in ‘chase-me’ games high among the bare branches. The Grey Wagtails are often heard calling, their bouncy flight catching the eye as they move up and down the stretch of water near the weir. They have bred here in the past but in recent years have favoured a different nest site further downstream. It seems that there are still sufficient insects along the river to sustain them through this difficult season. A pair of Goosander hints that these sawbills might breed on the river again this year, a new and recent pattern that adds an exciting dimension.
The other week I heard of an Otter sighting a mile upstream; a cub just a few weeks old and the first confirmed breeding record for some years. It is another encouraging sign but, with the river rising by over a foot in recent days, I worry for its safety and hope that its mother will have found a secure holt. There is something remarkable about the river. Perhaps it is its changing moods, matching the seasons but also, in some small way, independent of them. The fact that on a bright summer day one part of the river can be shallow and babbling like the proverbial brook, while another, shaded by the willows, can be dark and sullen. Even in the depths of winter the river can be many things, always changing and ever my companion.