Last September, I used public footpaths to follow the river between its source and Overton, where it once powered several mills. The source itself was dry, which surprised me. I later discovered that the rain soaks into the porous chalk bedrock, and stays there until the chalk – a natural aquifer – can hold no more. It is then slowly released at spring points, where hill chalk and valley clay meet. So it is to be expected that the higher springs would be dry at the end of a fairly dry summer. Perhaps I would have known that if I had studied geography or, perhaps, grown up in chalk country rather than on midland sandstone.
The river had worn a pleasingly curved path over a meadow, but it wasn’t there at the moment. I crossed a couple of dry “fords” before our ways parted. The first actual wet bit of the Test that I found was a series of large muddy bits at the side of a small road, but these were soon lost behind high hedges. It wasn’t until I reached Overton itself that I encountered anything convincingly like a river.
Here, at a place called Flashetts, the Test had already passed the Quidhampton paper mill (where banknotes are still made – although not, I think, using water power), and I could see the mill race of the next old mill building. The river was surprisingly wide and fast, albeit quite shallow. A true chalk stream, it runs clear and cool over a stoney bed and it sparkled in the late summer sunlight. Under the trees it ran darker – Flashetts is a place dominated by water and by trees – but on this hot, sunny afternoon the green-filtered light and the shimmering water was a refreshing sight. Although it was peaceful and quiet while I was there, the tyre swing tied to a sturdy alder suggested that it would not remain so once school had finished for the day.
The alder attracted me for its fabulous shapes – convoluted roots and scratched bark, revealing not only faces but also lizards and other, nameless, creatures emerging from the fabric of the tree. I liked the river and the sheltering foliage for the soft textures and calming colour. I liked the car tyre – a reminder of modern life, a mundane relic reimagined as an adventure in this magical place. I wanted to draw attention to these contrasts without divorcing them from one another.
(with tyre swing)
12 x 16 inches, inks on kaolin-coated board.
Media note: All the inks I use have a high light fastness rating. Most are pigment inks and are sold as “India(n) Inks” – this term traditionally refers to the black ink made from lampblack, which is the black that I use in these drawings, but some manufacturers use it to describe their ranges of similarly robust coloured inks.
“Idyll” is part of a ongoing project documenting the upper reaches of the River Test in North Hampshire.