A long time ago, on the side of a hill,
A spring of fresh water rushed upwards until
It broke through the soil and the rocks on the slope
And trickled downhill in a silvery rope.
It bubbled and sang to be free of the earth,
It danced and it twisted for all it was worth;
Spluttered and splashed and glistened and shone,
The echoes of underground caverns all gone.
Here round a boulder, there over stone,
Pushing aside the odd pebble or bone;
Down through the gullies it poured and it gushed,
Down to the valley it hastened and rushed.
It was just water, fresh, sweet and pure –
But now it was free it became something more.
The land gave it shape, it had colour and sound;
It chose its own pathway across the rough ground.
Into the dryness, where nothing had grown,
The water brought life, and had life of its own.
This hillside would never again be the same;
The torrent had presence, if not yet a name.
Spring became brook and brook became stream,
Eagles swept down to examine the gleam.
Other wild creatures crept up to the brink,
Then gratefully lowered their heads for a drink.
Deeper and broader, and ever more strong,
The watercourse hurried and twisted along.
Down through the forests and over the plains,
Joining with others and swelled by the rains.
No longer simply a glistening sliver,
The widening stream was promoted to river.
Bigger and grander, a more stately flow;
Still with a purpose, if slightly more slow.
Set on its journey and firm in its course,
Moulding the landscape with staggering force.
One more broad sweep, one final big bend,
And the river at last is approaching its end.
Flecks of blue green in a background of grey,
Weaving its mighty, unstoppable way,
Over the fens to the estuary –
Yielding at last to the call of the sea.
But whilst on the hillside the stream had drawn breath,
Arrival at sea did not constitute death.
Something was ended but nothing was dead;
Distance was conquered but time lay ahead.
Though water flowed through in perpetual motion,
Each droplet escaping out into the ocean,
As long as it clouded, as long as it rained,
The entity that was the river remained.
* * *
And so the years passed and the river flowed still,
Endlessly onward as if with a will.
Gentle in summer, its warm waters low,
But wild in the winters of rainstorms and snow.
The seasons turned on, the sun rose and set;
Centuries passed without change – and yet
Somehow, at some point, and who could say when,
Something was different, had shifted – and then…
One moment nothing but water was there,
The next, and the water was somehow aware.
Put very simply, the river awoke;
Consciousness swathed in a watery cloak.
A speck of awareness, the birth of a soul,
A billion small droplets condensed to a whole.
Was it a spirit, a nymph or a ghost?
Was it a god – some intangible host?
It didn’t know (let’s call it a he);
Only one thing was sure – that he wanted to be.
He only knew he had essence and drive;
Now he was here he was keen to survive.
Blissfully happy, a stranger to strife,
The river rejoiced in exuberant life,
Brimming with joy from each bank to each shore,
He looked at himself – and began to explore.
He studied each pebble that lay on his bed,
He listened to hear what the waterfall said.
He gazed at the sun through from sunrise till noon,
At night he observed, and reflected, the moon.
From mountain to coast he explored his extent,
He wanted to know what each different thing meant.
He learned where he twisted and where he flowed straight,
Where he was shallow and where he had weight.
He saw how the rain caused his waters to swell,
He watched in the drought how the waterline fell.
He crept to the ocean and learned how the tide
Was something he couldn’t control – though he tried.
He found every secret and near-stagnant pool,
He saw how things died as the seasons turned cool.
He watched with delight as each springtime brought change,
An assortment of life, an astonishing range.
He marvelled at pond lilies, red, pink and white,
Opening daily to drink in the light.
He loved the bright buttercups lining his banks,
The poppies and bluebells, and daisies in ranks.
He slipped through the rushes, caressed every reed,
He felt the soft touch of a sycamore seed.
He lingered at dawn to watch the wind billow
And rustle the leaves of a riverside willow.
He followed each insect that chanced by his way,
And grieved for those flies which lived only a day.
He watched over tadpoles, precariously born
In hundreds and thousands from deep in the spawn.
He trickled through shallows and seeped across bogs,
He played with the toads and their cousins the frogs.
He tickled the fishes and raced with the eels,
He teased the grey heron, disturbing his meals.
Splashing with otters and dashing with voles,
Trying his best not to flood out their holes;
Acting as peacemaker when the loud coots
Squabbled about the best nest in the roots.
Helping the ducklings a flurry had tossed
So far from their mother that they had got lost.
Greeting the deer which came, late in the day,
To have a quick drink before darting away.
In the broad mouth of the river he tried
Befriending the lobsters swept in by the tide.
He followed the big flocks of curlews and snipes,
And studied the seagulls of all different types.
But whilst all the creatures who lived near the water,
Felt almost to him like a son or a daughter,
For they were the closest to family he knew –
In truth they were still too remote and too few.
He might wish them well, but they could not reply;
He might save their lives, but they wouldn’t know why.
He could play with their babies, if such was his whim,
But all of these beings were nothing like him.
Despite all the life he had watched all around,
With all of its power to delight and astound,
It paid him no heed, no more care than a stone.
He felt truly and deeply and sadly alone.
* * *
Aware he was different, he fell in a mood,
And passed many years in a petulant brood.
Crying along with each rainstorm and shower,
Angry at minnows and bored with each flower.
He rushed and he gushed and erupted in flood,
Turning the meadows to miserable mud.
And always, however engaging the day,
His waters – and mood – stayed an obstinate grey.
But then came a springtime that seemed like a balm,
And suddenly, somehow, the waters fell calm.
Like the yearly return of the snowy white geese,
A cycle had passed – and the river knew peace.
And so he relented and patiently tried
To use his own nature as some sort of guide.
He knew what he was now, accepted his lot.
“I’m the soul of this beautiful river, that’s what!”
He understood ‘what’, though he didn’t know ‘why’,
And as to his loneliness, this was his cry –
“I mustn’t despair, because why should it be,
That somewhere, there aren’t other rivers like me?”
And now he observed, as his confidence grew,
That, to his surprise, he could do something new.
It seemed, as his life had grown longer and longer,
His essence of being became ever stronger.
Because a strange incident one day occurred,
When he was admiring a small wading bird.
His waters whipped up in a miniature storm,
And a splash of his substance took on the bird’s form!
An excellent copy, with feathers and wings,
A tail and a beak – all the right birdy things.
The river thought, ‘Goodness, well what do you know?’
And called to the real bird a friendly hello.
They talked for a moment of worms and the weather,
Then went for a stroll on the mudflats together.
Before their encounter had come to an end,
The river believed he’d at last found a friend.
* * *
And so very soon, it became quite the norm
For his water to take on some small creature’s form.
He could conjure the shape, when it was his wish,
Of a duck or a toad or an eel or a fish.
(He tried making flowers, spent hours as a reed,
But it wasn’t much fun, somehow, being a weed.
So despite a brief dalliance with plants, it would prove
That his time became focused on things that could move.)
Seeing the world through an animal’s eyes,
He could mix with its fellows in perfect disguise,
And using its senses was happy to find,
He could easily chatter with those of its kind.
He soon learned to gossip with several green frogs
Who sat every night on some half-submerged logs.
He joked with the jackdaws and laughed with the lambs
Who played hide and seek round the legs of their dams.
He argued with ants and he buzzed with the bees,
He sang with the songbirds which perched in the trees.
He nattered with newts and consulted with crabs,
Cried with the cormorants, shouted at shags.
His talks and discussions were certainly fun,
And quite the most interesting thing that he’d done.
(Though he might have remarked, that the thoughts of a sparrow,
Or other small creature, were really quite shallow.)
He tested his strength, and was pleased that it grew;
First he could only make one swan, then two.
Whilst three or four trout were at one time his goal,
Before very long he could conjure a shoal.
With mammals, he worked his way upwards in size,
Exploring his borders in various guise,
Until he could make, as a matter of course,
Something as large as a stag or a horse.
But as to his limits, it soon became clear
That this new talent worked only really quite near
To his own true location, his real water’s span,
And between his wide mouth and the place he began.
In the shape of a rabbit, he found he could pass
Quite some way from the bank – hopping over the grass.
But as he went further, he’d get in a muddle
And the rabbit would, sadly, turn into a puddle.
And as to the air – he could fly like a bird,
And look down on himself, which was slightly absurd.
But, just like the rabbit, he found once again,
That flying too far meant he’d turn into rain.
He tried it repeatedly, flying up high,
Enjoying his magical view from the sky.
Scouring the land, hoping that there might be,
Some glimpse of a neighbouring river to see.
But none could be spied, so he sought out instead
The flocks of wild birds which passed high overhead.
The migrating geese, and the swallows that flew
From lands far away to the homes that they knew.
He wanted to ask them of all they had seen
And what lay beyond the horizons of green.
He wanted to stop them and see if they’d say
They’d seen dozens of rivers along their way.
He rose up beside them and flew beak to beak,
But they were too busy and tired to speak.
And if, very rarely, one began to reply,
He’d find all too soon he’d drop out of the sky.
* * *
So he turned his attention instead to the fish,
And tried to explain the bare bones of his wish
To the salmon which swam every year fast upstream
To the pools where their offspring would presently teem.
“Can you tell me,” he asked them politely, in turn
(Though their manner was rough and their faces were stern)
“Have you ever, when swimming about in the sea,
Seen or heard tell of some river like me?”
But the fish, if they heard him, did not understand,
They had only one thought – to lay eggs in the sand.
Their tiny minds knew only instinct and smell,
Of other things, they were unable to tell.
So once more he hatched an alternative plan.
Selecting the largest of fish, he began
Changing the patterns laid out in their scales,
In colourful hues, from their heads to their tails.
Painting with algae, with mud and with sand,
He drew out a map of his path through the land.
Until from his tireless and beautiful sketching,
A message was written, a natural etching.
On many such fishes he wrote out his plea,
And sent them all out to the wilds of the sea.
Then waited impatiently for their return,
Excited of course about what he might learn.
As soon as the fishes swam back with the tides,
He looked with great care at the marks on their sides,
Hoping for some sign his map had been seen,
Hoping for contact – but that was a dream.
Fish after fish he examined with care,
But no other map did he ever find there.
Year after year he repeatedly tried,
But no other river-god ever replied.
These were dark times, as the knowledge had grown
That he’d probably always be truly alone.
The mad torrents raged and the wild rapids swept
As the poor lonely river dejectedly wept.
But something was coming, a change in the world!
A new phase of history proudly unfurled.
The wind felt it coming; the sun, too, was wise;
But the river was in for a massive surprise!
He would soon be distracted, his spirits quite raised.
He would soon be excited and shocked and amazed,
By his greatest adventure since his first drop began.
It was time now for Old Father Thames to meet – man!
* * *
One sunny morning, quite late in the spring,
And not knowing what this fair day was to bring,
The river was trickling and bubbling along,
When all of a sudden he heard a strange song.
What creature was this, that made such a sound –
Which spun through the air and rose up from the ground?
He was certain this singing was not from a bird;
The song was like nothing that he’d ever heard.
He swirled to the riverbank, all in a flurry,
So curious he found himself quite in a hurry.
He peered through the reeds, wondering what he would see
And was all of a sudden as dazed as could be.
A beautiful maiden sat comfortably there,
Arranging her tresses of flowing gold hair.
Her eyes were deep pools of the gentlest blue,
So subtly reflecting the river’s own hue.
Her lips were rose red and her skin was pale white,
Her dress was the colour of summer sunlight.
Her voice was pure joy and her song was so sweet –
Now here was a being the river must meet!
And so as the young girl – a poor farmer’s daughter –
Lay down on the grass and looked into the water;
What should she see, swimming there with the fish,
But a glorious young man – and her own secret wish!
He rose to his feet and stepped onto the land,
And stretched to the maiden a welcoming hand.
“Sweet gentle creature – don’t worry, my dear.
I mean you no harm, you have nothing to fear.”
The maiden looked into his handsome young face,
And felt her own heart start to flutter and race.
“But where have you come from?” she asked in a rush.
“You’re not from our village.” Her face was a-flush.
“I live on the river,” was the young man’s reply.
“I’m sort of its guardian.” It wasn’t a lie.
“I could show you its prettiest, most secret places,
Where the kingfisher swoops and the dragonfly races.”
He sat down beside her, on the soft grass,
And she hardly noticed the next hour pass,
As he told her of places that she’d never been,
Described to her sights that she’d never yet seen.
She looked at his face and his eyes as he spoke,
Wishing she dared give his chin a soft stroke.
Man, God or Nymph – what he was she cared not.
Her heart was soon given, her childhood forgot.
With one gentle kiss, their love was declared,
And tender endearments between them were shared.
She promised she’d visit him, early next morn,
So he made himself human and waited from dawn.
And so, every day, and whatever the weather,
The girl would arrive and they’d spend time together.
The river was happier than ever before.
As summer wore on, their romance blossomed more.
Both were so happy to have a new friend,
Neither gave thought to where things would end.
She guessed a secret he’d one day confide.
He knew the truth, but pushed it aside.
The girl now spoke often of life in her village,
Of peace and of war, of plenty and pillage.
(He learned in this way of how people were living,
And some of it filled him with awful misgiving.)
She told of her family – father and mother.
Her friends and her neighbours, her sweet little brother.
And frequently, after a long happy day,
She’d ask him to come to her home – and to stay.
She’d ask and she’d beg, she’d hint and she’d plead,
She’d speak of the nice settled life they could lead.
And when he declined, she just couldn’t see why,
And would run from his side, and heartbreakingly cry.
“You’d come if you loved me,” she sometimes accused,
But though he adored her, he always refused.
Of course, there was no way that he could explain,
That if he went with her, he’d turn into rain!
Ten times she asked, and ten times he said no,
Unable to say why he just couldn’t go.
Until one day she left with a tear in her eye,
And he knew all was lost, and that this was goodbye.
He waited for months, hoping that she’d come back.
He tried setting forth on the long village track.
But soon the dry earth at his feet turned to mud,
And his heart, like his self, dissolved in a flood.
(Several years later, he saw her once more,
When she came with another young man to his shore.
She seemed to look wistfully into the water,
Before walking away with her beau – and their daughter.)
* * *
Time passed and so, in the end, did his grief.
He was sad that his time with the girl had been brief,
But knew, for her sake, it was better this way,
For it couldn’t have been, at the end of the day.
She would grow old and pass on, in due course,
While he remained, flowing with mystic life force.
So he put love behind him, and managed instead
To let go of the past and look firmly ahead.
Now times were changing, as mankind increased.
Clearly this was a remarkable beast!
All sorts of settlements sprang up around,
Especially close to the river, he found.
They needed his waters to drink, wash and cook,
They nourished their fields from each stream and each brook.
They put him to use, they built mills to grind corn,
Waterwheels turning from dawn through till dawn.
And one day they built a flat thing that could float,
Put in some benches and called it a boat.
They used it to travel each day shore to shore.
He’d never seen anything like it before!
Soon there were boats of all sorts being built;
Boats hauling firewood and gravel and silt,
Boats bringing treasures from far away places,
Boats going fishing, and boats having races.
(Many a time he got rather annoyed,
But their presence was something he couldn’t avoid.)
He made time to watch these new humans at leisure,
Sensing he needed to get their full measure.
Very resourceful, undoubtedly smart,
Making great strides both in science and art.
Striving for progress in every endeavour,
Co-operative, curious, inventive and clever.
But also destructive and greedy and wasteful,
Exhibiting trends that were clearly distasteful.
(Like dumping their waste in his life-giving water,
And sometimes indulging in conflict and slaughter.)
For many years, then, Father Thames watched and waited,
Until his mistrust and his fear had abated,
And because he had noticed his loneliness worsen,
He felt it was time now to talk to a person.
So in the dark nights he would practice once more,
Taking the form of a man, like before.
And this time, his talent was pleasingly stronger;
He could venture much further, stay human much longer.
He made himself garments, from what he could glean
By studying some of the men he had seen.
A jerkin, some sandals, a cloak and a belt;
A reasonable attempt at decorum, he felt.
And so he set out, one fine day, for a walk,
Looking for someone with whom he could talk.
And soon found a fisherman coming unstuck,
Complaining that he wasn’t having much luck.
“What’s wrong with the fish today? Nothing will bite!
I’ve tried all my tricks, but I can’t get it right!”
The fisherman noticed a stranger nearby,
And asked him if maybe he wanted a try.
Now Father Thames had a soft spot for his fish,
And causing them misery wasn’t his wish.
But he wanted to help, so he took up a seat,
Reflecting that mankind had also to eat.
Watching the stranger choose the wrong bait,
The fisherman thought he was in for a wait.
This newcomer was clearly no expert, and yet –
The fish were now jumping right into his net!
.. To be continued (throughout the ages, including key events in history, up to the present day)