The writer Nicola Chester asked contributors to respond to the themes of Place, Protest and Belonging, which make up her memoir On Gallows Down, for a series on The Clearing. Here Jane Lovell writes of Exmoor flooding.
The roar is unremitting. It has rained for days and Hoar Oak Water is supercharged, barrelling down from Exmoor through chasms of churning pools and falls, bursting through shale and sandstone, peat and root of gorse and heather. You can taste it in the air, clean and sharp as wet stone. Locals say that when the river is the colour of ale the salmon are running. This is also the time of the rut. The stags are gathering on hillsides. There’s a touch of copper in the leaves. It is a time of change.
This valley was formed in the Ice Age and although its landscapes change with the weather and the seasons – even with the hour as deep shadows cast by hillsides drain both colour and warmth – there is a timelessness that is reassuring. In these uncertain days when we are constantly reminded of the Earth’s instability, this place is a form of sanctuary. Few people walk this path; it is easy to imagine ourselves in another existence. We discuss our chances for post-apocalyptic survival. It’s a thing we do. Everything is here – possibilities of hydro-electricity, clean water, fish, fungi and venison, woodland for fire and shelter. It is also sufficiently remote to avoid easy detection.
The sheer sides of the valley are a jungle of ferns. Laggy trees searching light grow impossibly tall, their limbs wreathed in mouse-tail mosses and lichens. From the top of a listing ash, a buzzard watches us pass. The path is high here and level with his gaze. I am caught by the brooding black of his eyes. He lifts and, collapsing his wings, descends into the ravine below.
At the confluence of Watersmeet, where Hoar Oak Water meets the East Lyn, the path cuts steeply down. At water level, you can feel the turbulence in the air. Between the tumult of falls and the dark slide of deep water, white splashes on rock betray the resident bird life. Disturbed by our approach, a dipper darts downstream. He is swiftly joined by a mate and the pair skim away just above the level of the river. Dippers are the only truly acquatic British songbird and are superbly adapted to their environment. We have watched them, many times, simply walking into a current that would have us struggling to maintain our balance, even at ankle-depth.
A little further on, where the valley widens, we catch a glimpse of yellow. A grey wagtail flits past, describes a sudden arc, then twists like the cellophane on a sweet to land bobbing at the waterline. Another follows and they take to the air in a dance of rising spirals, catching the light like the flourish of a fan. The speed and synchronicity of their chase is breathtaking.
Such delicate birds, slender and streamlined from the points of their sharp beaks to their long, wafer-thin tails, the wagtails have not only adapted to this environment, but to its unpredictability. This riverscape is dynamic, constantly changing. Pools dry and fill then become one with the swirling river. Boulders emerge then disappear below the frenzied surface. New waterfalls appear as the torrent crashes through every crack and crevice. And the wagtails adapt, on an almost daily basis. Their Latin name, motacilla cinerea, describes constant movement and the colour of ash: a reminder, perhaps, that nothing is forever.
Towards Myrtleberry Cleave, the valley narrows, forcing the East Lyn faster along its course. The roar becomes uncomfortably loud. We have to shout to be heard. Although probably due to the wind, the unrest of the trees and the charged air seem to be caused by the power of the water.
It seems a similar turbulence has hit the human world as our awareness of anthropogenic climate change has deepened and the feeling we are being funnelled towards environmental crises causes deep unrest at many levels. Unlike the birds, we seem to be at odds with the current, the flow, the speed of change. Our response, as a species, appears chaotic. At best, hope and a sense of urgency combine to create action, but those that strive to achieve change are often the people without real power. At worst, fuelled by the negativity and cynicism of the media, we have spiralled down to a point of defeatist inertia in a dark corner of the matrix.
Scientist and activist, Jane Goodall’s latest publication, co-authored with Douglas Abrams, is called The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for an Endangered Planet (Celadon, 2021). She speaks of the ‘resilience of nature to recover from the harm we have inflicted and the resilience of the human spirit in the face of loss and devastation’. It’s what we need to hear. Without hope, there is no motivation to change.
As we approach Lynmouth and the confluence of the East and West Lyn rivers, we pass the Middleham Memorial Gardens. We pause at the strange apparition of a child’s twisted bedstead in the branches of a tree, the tree having grown in and around the spindles, absorbing the bedframe into its growth. A poignant notice tells us that in the flood disaster of 1952, the entire hamlet of ten cottages was washed away. The bedstead is all that remains.
Over a hundred buildings were destroyed or damaged that night. Cars were washed out to sea and the lighthouse was demolished. Thirty four people lost their lives and hundreds were made homeless. It has been described as the worst river flood experienced in the UK.
It took six years to rebuild Lynmouth. The river was diverted and embankments were built. The confluence in the centre of the town was widened and is now contained within fifteen meter walls. Seventy years later, holidaymakers walk along streets that used to be a riverbed. Most have no notion of the changed landscape, the measures put in place to contain the volatile rivers.
At the end of our walk, the East Lyn, although lively, does not seem threatening. Below the bridges it merges with the West Lyn and continues a short distance to the sea. The outgoing flow meets the incoming tide in a flurry of converging waves. Herring gulls perch on stones and boulders strewn across the riverbed. Mallards forage in the backwater pools. A crow struts along the waterline, eyeing the shallows for the curl or squiggle of invertebrates.
It’s been estimated that, in just 24 hours, 90 million tonnes of water fell on North Devon and West Somerset in August 1952. Who knows what the future may bring but, for the moment, the town of Lynmouth has adapted to the wild and unpredictable Exmoor weather. Adapting to natural disasters is something humankind has always done. Adapting to unnatural ones, ones arising from our lack of respect for the planet, may prove more difficult, unless we pull together, unless we have hope.
Jane Lovell is an award-winning poet whose work focuses on our relationship with the planet and its wildlife. She has been widely published in journals and anthologies. Her latest collection is The God of Lost Ways (2020). Read more about Jane and her work on her website or follow her on twitter.
Nicola Chester is the author of On Gallows Down, published by Chelsea Green and available from bookshops, including Little Toller’s own in Beaminster, and online here.