The boardwalk sags underfoot, the branches of a denuded oak hanging low across our path. To our right, the River Stort flows lazily, visible through a tangle of brambles and swaying alder. A solitary narrowboat is moored on the far bank and the air is tinged with the smell of wood smoke; its residents are no doubt hunkered down inside, away from the winter chill.
The Stort, a tributary of the Lea, is my home town river and it is here – where its navigable section wends past meadows and the clattering railway lines leading into Harlow Town station – that I first discovered water’s power to heal.
As a teenager, I would stroll along the towpath, watching birds I could not identify flit between branches, or casting a line into the river’s depths in the hope of snagging a perch. I rarely caught anything, but the quiet hours spent here were, in hindsight, invaluable to my wellbeing.
“Emotional stillness is the acceptance of what is,” explains counsellor and eco-therapist Ruth Allen. “There is an element of being at peace, but it’s about being at peace with the ambiguity of life.” Ruth explains that spending time outdoors can often be key to finding this state, whether it’s hiking in the mountains or walking beside a river or canal.
I’ve not lived close to the Stort for almost 20 years. Yet whenever I come back to Harlow, I feel a powerful urge to return and to stroll aimlessly along its banks, allowing it to fuel childhood memories and help me return to a more balanced and less frenetic state than in day-to-day life.
Today’s walk has added meaning. I’ve come here with relatives to spend time on a memorial bench dedicated to my uncle, who passed away suddenly in 2016. Like me, he loved this place, which was a short stroll across the Town Park from his home. As we pass along the boardwalk and emerge onto the faded winter grass leading up to a cattle bridge that crosses the water, we talk about a time I ran into him further upstream by the next lock.
It was during the school holidays and my cousins and I were hanging out together when my uncle appeared in the woods that run between the river and an industrial estate. He was ambling, a wide smile on his face as we came into view. I don’t remember if he stayed with us or wandered off for a longer period of quiet contemplation. I do remember that he seemed happy to be close to the water. As emotionally still as I am on this frosty morning.
I know where the bench dedicated to his memory is, but I find myself wanting to walk further, and I follow the river to the next bridge before turning back and walking back towards the bench. Ruth Allen talks about the importance of giving yourself permission to find a place of emotional stillness, because it’s not always easy to take time to yourself. “Because the process involves this stripping back of things around you, some people might think ‘how very self-indulgent’. But there needs to be a space for stillness – and being outdoors can offer that.”
Person-focused, eco-therapist Chip Ponsford agrees. Ponsford has an affinity with trees and their calming properties. He is particularly fascinated by heartwood – the oldest part of a tree, which sits at the centre of its trunk – and how it relates to dealing with grieving and loss.
“Heartwood is dead, and yet the tree cannot survive without it. We are always relating to things we have lost, be it people or something in our lives that no longer exists, and it remains part of us. Therapy, especially outdoor therapy, is all about learning to live with that.”
I have these words in mind as we cross the Stort and find my uncle’s bench on the edge of the water, facing away from the river and across a newly protected water meadow. In summer, this expanse is awash in wild flowers. I sit down and breathe deeply, the cool air making me feel calm, the quiet slosh of the Stort a soothing backdrop. My family comes here on 5 November each year to watch the town’s fireworks display across the rail tracks.
After a few minutes the cold begins to seep into our bones, so we head back along the towpath, watching mute swans gathering where the river widens to allow boats to turn. My mind is calm and still, happy memories floating through. It’s been a welcome chance to sit beside the river and spend time close to someone who is no longer here.