Writer and photographer Jane Gifford remembers the life that swarmed around the River Avon at Batheaston just 30 years ago. This precious spot is now safeguarded from future development, but it’s in a modern reincarnation, a world away from the spreading water meadows and bustling river banks of recent history. Photographs by Jane Gifford.
I loved the quiet of the River Avon at Batheaston. The solace of the river gliding slowly by soothed away any troubles. You seldom passed a soul on the river-side path. The view was constantly changing, as the mist rose and fell in the valley.
A kingfisher often flashed by in shades of vivid blue and red. You might see one perched on a fishing post overlooking the water.
The river-banks were riddled with holes, nesting sites for these water birds and for the swallows and swifts, which swooped and banked in the skies. Occasionally, a grass snake swam across the water. Moorhens hid amongst the reeds. Water-voles, too. Cows came down to the shallows to drink. There was no formal path on the water-meadow side, but local anglers would find a sheltered spot to dream away the day beneath their umbrellas.
The river swarmed with life. Dragonflies, mayflies and damselflies dried their wings in my garden
The river swarmed with life. Dragonflies, mayflies and damselflies dried their wings in my garden. Wildflowers lined the river-banks. Teasels, bullrushes, purple-loosestrife and water lilies were commonplace, evening primroses, water-rushes and king-cups. The banks were lined with trees, especially willows, which showed the marks of centuries of management. They were regularly cut down above the heads of the cattle (pollarded) and the poles which grew back were harvested to make hurdles or use for fuel. Hurdles shored up the river banks to stop erosion. Alders were festooned with golden catkins in spring, unusual for being deciduous and bearing cones.
I was then compiling a book, The Celtic Wisdom of Trees. I drove all over Ireland looking for aspen trees, only to spot some on the river bank directly below my bedroom window. Their autumn leaves shone yellow and burnt orange. The aspens have been felled now. The wildflowers ploughed into the soil. In their place, boggy ground and pointed railings. Householders now have their view across the river.
In winter and early spring, the river regularly burst its banks, spreading out over the water-meadows, only to recede again, leaving behind its cargo of rich alluvial mud. The pasture has been saved, but the water-meadows are sadly lost. The river has been straightened, the sides banked up. The muddy footpath is eroded and the shallows gone. Sheep have replaced the cows. The sky is now virtually devoid of chattering swallows and swifts. The lapwings, herons and dragonflies have gone. Most of the trees, too. The fritillaries on the water-meadows at Cricklade are a rare reminder of how it once was.
Batheaston is now the ‘paddle-boarding centre’ of Bath. We have gained a café and lost a post office. The view across the meadows from the opposite bank has been interrupted by a wide tarmac path which leads into town, ‘The Green Corridor’. This is an undeniably popular route, teeming with walkers, dogs and bicycles – all funnelled across the water by the new bridge. ‘The Bridge over the River Kwai’ locals dubbed it. The rowers have been joined by canoeists and wild swimmers.
Those who did not know the river only 30 years ago still love this spot for its accessibility. The National Trust intend to replant the missing trees and save some of the land from further development. Wildlife and anglers have been replaced by joggers, bicycles and dogs. The Green Corridor is proving popular. But I miss the peace of the river. I miss my favourite local walk and finding a space in the river-side car park. I miss the earth underfoot and the centuries of history in the trees.