February 01, 2014

The drowned world

I'm in Wales – just. For the next two weeks I'll be staying at the UK's only residential library, Gladstone's Library in Hawarden, Flintshire; they have granted me 'writer in residence' status, and it's here that I will begin my next project, a short, non-fiction book about rain. I say 'just', because I'm only a little way over the border; the road from Chester, where I got out of the train, to Hawarden runs for a short way along it: "Wales on yer left, England on yer right," as my Scouse cabbie explained. Eventually we swung left. "Yer in Wales now, love."

I got the train north from London Euston yesterday. It poured with rain all day, and the view from the window was dim and grey. The fields looked waterlogged; many had standing water, and here and there it picked out the ghosts of medieval ridge-and-furrow that would otherwise be lost to the eye. In one pasture a new river had formed, winding like loops of molten silver – or perhaps it was an old one that had come briefly back to life. Yet the south-west, we hear, is far worse; large parts of the Somerset Levels are entirely underwater and have been for a month, with accusations flying about whose fault it is and what must now be done. And still the rain comes. When I slept, last night, I dreamed the world outside the beautiful Library building was a calm and endless sea.

It would be easy to bring that dream of isolation into being, to live here for a fortnight without venturing outside – it really is that beautiful and that self-sufficient. But I wanted to understand where I was and to locate myself in the landscape, so this morning I put my hood up and went for a walk in the grounds of Hawarden Castle. I have a special permit from the Library that allows me to go into Bilberry (or 'Booberry') Woods, which are mostly mixed beech and sweet chestnut with some conifer. Pheasants squawked like rusty gates at my approach, and in the distance came the dull report of guns.

The woods were very wet. The dark trees dripped, and their trunks were green with algae. Everywhere the paths were thick with clinging mud. Where especially deep puddles had formed they had spread outwards like a bruise as people tried to find a firmer footing around it, churning the ground up more in the process. Here and there were stagnant pools lined with beech mast, and little rills were finding their own way between the trees. The sound of water was everywhere.

The Broughton brook flows through the wood and once powered a water mill, now a very beautiful ruin. Built in 1767 and used to grind corn, the huge, wooden undershot wheel is still in place, and there are tumbled cogs and millstones, too; you can see the sluice and remains of the millpond, too. As far as I can make out the last miller died in 1910.

This was cutting-edge technology in its day, and a brilliant use of the power of water. But somehow, in the last century, we've forgotten how to work with it; we build on flood plains, we let rivers silt up, we allow marshes to dry out. We think we can exclude water by the power of our wills – but water doesn't work like that, something our ancestors understood, but which we, with our greed and our strange modern amnesia, may well have to relearn.