Country diary: a short swim to an island in need of love


I’ve been eyeing the island below the weir for a while. There’s an Environment Agency footway over the sluice from the far bank, but to cross that you need keys, or the chutzpah to climb three locked gates and ignore a lot of signage. From this side, though, the only barrier is the water itself. As I watch, a grey wagtail flourishes up and over, as if stating the obvious.

Decision made, I strip, hide my clothes, stuff phone, towel and a bin liner into a dry-bag, and step into the river’s chilled green silk. It takes just 30 seconds to cross and scramble into a world whose specialness is the kind generated by the hocus-pocus of property law. Almost nothing brings my attentiveness closer to that of a wild thing than trespass.

The upstream end of the island is a wreck of timber and flood detritus. The middle has a thuggish flora of nettle, briar, ground elder, giant hogweed with its dermatoxic sap, and seedling Himalayan balsam that will soon fill the air with its fusty pink stink. I step carefully and gather bottles, cans and fishing-tackle packets. Near the sluice is a sagging tipi made of hazel poles and the clear plastic wrap used to bind goods on to pallets; and inside, more bottles and cans than I can safely swim with.

The island on the River Derwent at Kirkham, North Yorkshire, is made up largely of shells of freshwater molluscs.

It seems everyone with a claim here is betraying it: the Environment Agency, the litter louts, the farmers whose failure to keep soil and fertiliser on the land clouds the water and favours invasive plants. In a misanthropic fug, I almost miss the goat willow catkins, the candy-coloured butterbur and the Van Gogh-ish exuberance of lesser celandines clustered in the thickets of hawthorn and hazel. I almost miss that the island is largely built from shells: the chalky whorls of aquatic and terrestrial snails, freshwater mussels and uncountable millions of fingernail-sized pea cockles. I almost miss a tall beech tree with branches well spaced for climbing.

But when I reach the silty tadpole-tail end of the island and find the intermingled footprints of otters and herons, it’s like seeing ghosts. The kind of ghosts that ask you to reconsider what you have. Next time I’ll bring a canoe for the trash and do a better job of loving.


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