The river Ribble flowed at a funereal pace. The tide was low, and the drakes and dams arranged along the water’s edge observed a minute’s silence. And then another. And another. Contemplating ad-infinitum.
It was a gloriously clear February morning following an overnight frost. The sun had the first token warmth of the year, and the air was ultra-invisible, but the mood was sombre. The day before, the police had pulled a young man from the water. His friends had been trying to find him for three weeks. Not suspicious, it was said, which somehow made it even sadder. The waves in the dock basin stood still, supporting seagulls standing respectfully.
There was hope in the moment. On the bull-nose promontory a woman in a pink puffer-jacket faced the low-slung sun and exercised tai chi. Her very public private service was respectfully observed by dockside strollers, dog-walkers and bird-watchers. A twitcher in the undergrowth said he’d seen siskins in the alders. Were those alders? They must be, he said, for that’s what siskins eat. Siskins also eat the seeds of birch. The trees looked silver to me.
A shard of ice imitated plastic, or it could have been plastic posturing as ice. Both would last forever, but one would constantly change, and frequently disappear. Closer inspection confirmed it was polypropylene. It wouldn’t go. So many polymers. The river is tidal here and synthetic jetsam proclaims the end of nature as we know it. READY SALTED shouted one packet, as if screaming a futile plea not to be thrown into the sea. High tides had supplied deep depression.
It is unlikely that the city of Preston would exist were it not for the Ribble. This seventy-five-mile serpent is the only major waterway rising in Yorkshire that dares to slither westwards into Lancashire, before spewing into the Irish Sea from a ten-mile mouth between the incisors of Lytham and the canines of Southport. Historically, Preston represents the final crossing point on the water’s seaward journey. The Romans had a camp at Walton-le-Dale, but even earlier finds have been unearthed including a prehistoric canoe. The etymology of the name is uncertain but the Oxford Dictionary of Place Names cites the likelihood of it being based on the English (or Anglo Saxon) adjective ripel or ‘tearing’. This, in turn, is thought to derive from Old English ripan ‘to reap’ or ‘to tear’.
To what angle the ancients applied the tear or rip is lost in the folds of time. It may have been the way the river cut through the land, or perhaps it was more to do with seeing it in spate, tearing along. In modern times it presents a mostly sedate motion, but as with all watercourses, it can turn merciless following the fall of heavy or persistent rain on the westward Pennines.
No-one in urban Preston lives more than four miles from the Ribble. It’s easy to take the river for granted as we tap into the labyrinthine mesh of piping that provides our water. It’s equally easy to forget the system of shit-stents that slip our effluent away. The serpentine river once supplied, and de-soiled; and supplied again downstream. It no longer does that, but even so, where would we be without it? In it. Up to our necks. It is no longer our main sewer but remains our essential drain.
The Ribble still sustains. It fuels the local ecosystem and, on sunny days like that, lifts the spirits. It is the ever-moving constant, a source of life much overlooked since the arrival of reservoirs and waterworks and indestructible bottles. A source too, of the end of lives.
A poster taped to a tree appealing for searchers had lost its vitality.
The Ribble is a perpetual presence. It’s always there. Tearing through our lifescape.
The Ribble influenced several of my fictional works, most directly The Curator featured in The Atheist’s Prayer Book and a 1981 one act play: One Bad Apple.
It weaves in and out of Ice and Lemon and also appears in Will at the Tower