I’ve watched barges trundle past – even in my lifetime they were piled high with coal – and wondered at the mysterious oxbow lakes, past which I walked with our lurcher and my dad or grandfather.
I wonder if a river and its characteristics have a bearing on the mood and ambience of the towns and villages along its course? I’m sure the slow, laconic wandering of the Ure through Boroughbridge must have lent some of its serenity to the town.
Once Boroughbridge was a major transport hub, offering rest, sustenance and accommodation to travellers and horses. Before that, the Ure was a significant link in the trade of wool from Fountains Abbey to the Humber and beyond to Italy and Belgium. Nowadays, everything in the town seems to progress at the same pace as the Ure.
Further north, the half-hearted attempt to canalise Thirsk’s little river – Cod Beck – to improve the town’s connectivity to the Swale, which began in 1767 and was abandoned soon after when the railway arrived, reminds Thirsk and Sowerby dog walkers that chances must be seized at the opportune moment.
Meanwhile, the beck, which starts above Osmotherley, steadily attempts to return to its original, willow-lined course. Slow and steady, a bit like the town, it might eventually get there.
The Swale, which takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon word Sualuae, aptly means “rapid and prone to deluge” is more dramatic and its upper reaches are full of industrial history dating back much further than canals. The Romans mined lead from the hills overlooking its dale.
After sudden and heavy deluges sediment containing lead ores are often deposited on the flooded fields further down-stream. I’ve seen numerous cases of lead poisoning in cattle and sheep grazing on recently-flooded pastures as stock have inadvertently ingested the toxic heavy metal. The Swale certainly leaves its mark!
Recently, following the opening of my new vet practice in Wetherby – a serendip-itous opportunity involving an old friend and a former colleague – I’ve found myself becoming reacquainted with another old friend – the River Wharfe. As a teenager, I spent many weekends running along its banks, honing my cross-country endurance. By the time the Wharfe arrives at Wetherby, it has lots of tales to tell.
The hectic turmoil of the Strid gives way to more gentle sections, flanked by pastures of grazing sheep. Optimistic fishermen stand knee-deep in an attempt to outwit trout.
It has witnessed the history of a 12th Century Augustinian monastery, irrigated fish farms and tempted ambitious kids across stepping stones. I swam in it once, racing in one of my early triathlons. Near the halfway point, when swimmers had to circumnavigate a buoy that indicated a change of direction, I was overtaken by a competitor. I swam, in my mind heroically, but in practice hectically. He was walking and he strode past me through the now shallow water at much greater speed.
Despite this embarrassing moment, which still haunts me, of all Yorkshire’s rivers, the Wharfe is still my favourite. I’m glad to have the chance to rediscover its gentle charm.