Illustration by Jerry Hoare
Words by Lucy Anna Scott
Lately, I’ve grown fond of winter. This has come about because I am, most days, at home taking care of two small (and energetic) children. However fierce and damp it looks from the windows, it’s often the case that there is no other way to save our sanity than wrapping up and stepping through the front door.
If there isn’t (too much) rain, we will make it as far as the river, which passes by on the other side of our suburban town. Although we are 68 miles from the sea, the water here remains tidal, and it rises and falls twice a day with the rhythm of the North Sea tides.
I think of all the ways the river will appear to us in the coming months. If I venture to the river at night, I might find a thick mist floating over its surface and hanging off tree limbs. On another day there may be a flock of birds using the waterway as a route to the placid lakes of the nearby park. If it snows, we will stand amid rusty reeds furry with frost and watch islands of ice slide by.
But when we arrive today the river is high, mighty and agitated. Standing on the bank I notice the wind whipping along the river, bringing with it little drops of water. I close my eyes to feel it rush over me. It’s familiar, like a bold breeze fresh from the ocean, and I think of holidays.
The last of the windfall apples are scattered along the towpath; bracken by the water is slumped but a rich bronze. My kids start to immerse themselves in scaling the limbs of a willow, set back from the water, whose remaining leaves are a bright yellowish-green.
There are flashes of vibrancy, too, in the clumps of emerald-green water mint waist deep at the edges of the river, and in the peach-tinged white trunk of a birch in the distance.
Perhaps I’d never notice such colour earlier in the year, when there is so much of it about, when the Indian balsam was pink, or as we were plucking berries from the hedgerows. We are less passive today, a more dedicated trio of treasure hunters, I think, as my son is excited to find fungi camouflaged by leaf litter.
It’s on days like this that I am closer to the heartbeat of the organic world. I used to loathe winter for its sleepiness, but nothing is ever really still. Though the circulation of nature becomes more subtle, it remains a forceful progression that moves us all forward with it. The frosts and snow are necessary to everything that grows around us now, and later.
Not far from the leaves I’m shuffling about in, in the earth below, there are organisms in numbers I can barely conceive. Scientists say there are more microbes in a teaspoon of soil than people on the earth. It was once thought that the cold weather slowed down their activity but latterly, it seems this is not the case.
So fungi, earthworms, nematodes and bacteria are as busy as ever, recycling redundant roots and plants into fertile, crumbly, nutrient-rich hummus. I brush away a layer of topsoil, hoping to find a thick and wriggly earthworm to show my sons. I do but unwittingly uncover some tidy bundles of white egg sacs in the process. Inside are hundreds of baby spiders keeping warm. This soil is their incubator, and promptly I cover them back up.
A glimpse of the life only inches beneath is a brief insight into the biochemical processes that are underway, preparing the river and waterside for spring life; a mysterious alchemy that makes the canvas blank again, an empty space for the snowdrop, daffodil or bluebell, and the fresh green buds that will be tightly packed with promise.
It’s only 16 miles long, but this historic canal is one of the finest places to see epic displays of winter birds, including the infamous starling murmuration.
Wander the towpath at dusk and find vast flocks of starlings heading for roosting sites at Slimbridge Wetland Centre nearby, where a quarter of a million of these birds have been known to gather for this awe-inspiring seasonal phenomenon.
Follow the birds to Slimbridge where there are other impressive displays across the wetlands. Every night, white-fronted geese fly over the grounds in their hundreds. While it’s too dark to see them, the sound of them en masse is arresting. Even a slight disturbance will send large groups up into the air with a cacophony of noise.
Deliberately flooded at this time of year, it’s common to see tens-of-thousands of birds feeding on the waters. Slimbridge has recorded European wigeons, golden plovers, dunlin, curlew and lapwings in their thousands, along with internationally important numbers of spotted redshank.
Plan your day out along the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal with our online guide.
Posted on 08/11/2019