WATER by Perran Newman
They say that man has a natural affinity for water, his ancestors having crawled out of the primeval soup, millions of years ago. I must admit to a lack of confidence when it comes to intimate contact with water, having been life saved whilst going under for the classic third time in the school swimming pool aged 13 years old.
However, water has featured in many of my favourite childhood activities and now as a near ‘senior citizen’ I find myself offering to plan and install a micro-hydro plant for a friend on the edge of the moor, so water has now become my business.
I grew up in the village of ‘Old Bexley’, mentioned in the Doomsday Book. Once an attractive village but now almost absorbed into the sprawling tentacles of Greater London. The River Cray, which runs through Bexley drove many mills and paper making was one of the activities of this corner of Kent. As a small boy, with an equally small net on the end of a bamboo stick, I fished for Sticklebacks in the Bexley Mill pond. A few years later, for I moved away from Bexley when I was 12, our gang comprising Karl, Jason, myself and sometimes my younger brother Brian, discovered a true island in the Cray, only a short distance downstream from the mill.
It was hidden from view and I remember to reach it, we had to creep into the grounds of the Vicarage, half crawl behind the shrubbery along the boundary wall and then over a partly collapsed section of wall to reach this magic spot. We believed that only we knew of its existence and I‘m at a loss to remember how we found it. The only clue might be my attendance, on my own, at the Church Fete held in the Vicarage gardens. This was my first time for many activities including putting my hand in a Bran Tub, trying to hit the rat with a stick as it slid out of a tube and buying a metal cigarette case on the White Elephant Stall. Maybe it was whilst I puzzled over a silver sixpence I had been given in my change, that I espied the island in the river.
We visited our island many times – it was only a yard wide and perhaps six long, and a stunted tree grew on it – but the Cray flowed both sides and we could stand on it and claim it as our own. We tried to dam the river on the side where it was narrowest. Moving stones already in the water to better positions introduced me to Archimedes principle – that stones were definitely lighter whilst under the surface of the water.
All boys like to fish and I was no exception. I had sampled the simplicity of catching perch in my mother’s native Finland. One only had to lower a worm on a large hook using a cork float and a bite would be obtained within seconds. The River Cray was less fecund, pollution no doubt playing a role. My father, never one to miss a photo based opportunity for a story captured one of our fishing trips for posterity in an article published in the ‘Farmers Weekly’, treasured images of childhood that I still have.
Mention of Finland brings back the sights, sounds and smells of island holidays, which we took every couple of years to allow my mother to be with her family again. The house stood a hundred yards back from and above the brackish waters of the Baltic. Beds of tall reeds fringed the shore and a traditional wooden rowing boat smelling of ‘Stockholm Tar’ in the sunshine was where I spent many hours. Peering down into the water the shoals of perch could be clearly seen even though their cunning zigzag camouflage was effective. The water was usually calm and we noticed the long time interval between a passing boat, maybe a quarter of a mile away and the moment when small waves would break and break again upon our piece of shore.
Back in Bexley, although we had a large garden in which we built an impressive ‘underground’ camp, Jason’s garden had features with excellent ‘play value’. An old sand pit was located at the end of a shrubbery and close enough to the house to enable a hosepipe to be used to generate a continuous stream, wending it’s way through the falling shrubbery to end up in the sandpit. The game we enjoyed most was building a dam to try and hold back the stream. Jason used to sing ‘June is busting out all over’ for some unaccountable reason and he generously called this play area – the boglands of Sir Perran Newman !
One toy, which would probably be considered too dangerous today was the water powered rocket. Made of a soft plastic, you half filled it with water then pressurised it using a special pump which doubled up as the launch pad. Crouching beside the distended rocket – for we always pumped it more than it said we should in the instructions, you pressed the toggle and the rocket shot skywards on a column of water, spraying you in the process and then falling to ground, usually in the neighbours garden. It was Keith Glover who had this toy, not a gang member but invited to birthday parties. In my forties, having read that he was a Professor at Cambridge University I arranged to meet him on the steps of Engineering Department. Two figures paced back and forth for a while before realising they were once childhood friends. Recognition was almost non existent, but I did learn that Keith’s dad had built their ‘television’ with its magnifying lens himself, using some parts from a wartime aircraft radar set. That was an impressive but not totally uncommon feat.
I digress somewhat so I’ll wander even further though there is a water connection. As children we became interested in maps. We decided to record our large garden, with every feature carefully annotated, the artwork being undertaken by my elder sister. I still have this coloured memento of childhood and its continued existence owes much to my ongoing fascination with maps. I only wish that I had discovered the older OS maps sooner as these would have naturally led me to explore the history of our environs.
As it was, I had a fairly ordinary fold-out map in the ‘Guide to Bexley’ that I had bought. With the freedom that a bicycle gives I set off to explore the River Shuttle, a rather grand name for a stream that joins the Cray. Tracing it backwards, peeping through gaps in fences, climbing on the saddle of my bike to peer over walls, I got immense satisfaction from tracking this stream towards its source although I never actually got very far back. Years later, the fascination still with me, I made a specific detour to see the official source of the Thames, which dribbled from a carved stone amongst undergrowth in Gloucestershire.
Coming to live in Devon some 15 years ago, I discovered the wonders of Dartmoor with its extensive industrial remains. The lure of old water courses was hard to resist and I have and will continue to spend happy hours tracing the course of long abandoned and mostly dried up leat beds that criss-cross the moor. One in particular, The Southill leat was the main subject of a talk that I gave to the History Society. It can be dated precisely to 1480 and runs for about 5 miles from Teignhead to a tin blowing mill at Southill near Chagford. Abandoned after a relatively short life, when tin processing declined at the time of the Civil War, I was privileged to be able to excavate and record a cross section of this leat. Working under supervision from archeologists who were examining the reaves which cross the moor, this experience perfectly encapsulated the multiple threads of water, maps and history that have been part of my makeup since childhood in Bexley.