When you teach a child to really love Nature, they will love it for life. It becomes them.
This is my love story.
It’s beautiful how Life is constantly flowing and changing, showing you Her different faces at different stages of your life. And nowhere can you know Life as intimately as you do through Her many rivers.
In my youth, as a (south) Hampshire girl, the rivers I knew and loved were the Test, Itchen and Hamble. My parents are New Forest folks, and we often went for long rambles here, mushroom-hunting in autumn and long drives in winter. In summer, we picnicked in the woods. My parents, who are both biologists, know the Latin name of every single plant that grows here, as well as the folklores. I remember the book on river insects in my father’s study, The Brook and Its Banks by Reverend J Woods, written sometime in the 1800s, which accompanied us on our long walks, which made me fall in love with insects as I glimpsed their inner world amongst the mushrooms, rotting tree trunks and riverbanks. It felt as if those halcyon days would never end. Later, I would bring my children here to impart to them the magic I found here.
Last summer, we went for a walk along the Hamble in Fareham with my brother and it was as if we never went away, as if we never grew up, though we could now legally order a pint of beer at the Jolly Sailor, the sweet old-fashioned pub on the Hamble. Imagine my surprise when my 28-year-old son mentioned that on his second date with his girlfriend, he kayaked with her up the Hamble to the Jolly Sailor. Though like his siblings, the river of his childhood is the Serpentine in London, where they grew up. They used to cycle along its banks and sailed their paper boats in its genteel waters, and in my children’s time, London became magical.
I thought I knew London well. I thought I knew all her rivers. But towards the end of 2015, when I fell ill, I fell in love with the Thames for the first time. Before that, my acquaintance with this great river had been cursory. Here’s a photograph of me enjoying a glass of wine in October 2015, outside the Southbank Centre, smug and chubby-cheeked.
Two months later, I was so ill that I could barely walk. Slowly, patiently, my partner taught me to walk and run again, along the banks of the Thames on cold winter nights. He made me walk when I had wanted to curl up in a ball and die. But walked we did, and later, we ran as we had always done, side by side, his masculine stride matching my “girly” one. I felt as if I knew every cobblestone from Battersea Bridge to Fulham. The expensive cars zooming past in the beginning of our walks to the less-known parts as we walked further west. Sometimes, we stopped by the deserted riverbank and skimmed flat pebbles in the moonlight. Once, I paused and picked up a whirligig beetle that was swimming round and round, and showed it to him. Many fascinating river insects go un-noticed, living in the depths of the river, hiding under rocks, crawling along the foreshore or drifting on the surface of the water but without them, the fish population would be without food. He had laughed at me, at my weirdness, and I knew then that I was getting better.
I came back in summer that year with him, to this ugly, lesser-known part of the Thames. I was still thin and gaunt, but I had started living, and this time, he the city boy, pointed out the dragonflies and the damselflies, the pondskaters and the boatmen to me with a wry smile on his face.
Magic is here, on the River Thames. Come count the dragonflies with me x