You did not burst your banks today…
River goddess your fearsome torrent pouring
from here to the sea how many times do I have to stand in you,
no, to drown in you, to know you are never the same?
What rites would you have me keep, Riga Belisama, as I walk beside you?
Long have I kept this piece of your humble mudstone close to my heart
(which I must give back should I ever leave), renewed your waters,
lit your candle, created for you a little temple
and cleared Fish House Brook – just one of your dirty daughters
running from one of the estates to the sea.
I have seen your many colours –
red, blue, green, grey as concrete bollards.
What is a river without a goddess or a goddess without a river
meandering, twisting, to the sea, like our own blue blood to our heart?
Sometimes I see you as a goddess but most often you are being a river,
fulfilling your purpose, delivering water, divine water-bearer.
To be one with your flow on days like this is a blessing,
to walk so close to the edge knowing I could be carried away
by your rush of waters, by your rush of deadly words,
but you did not burst your banks today.
I wrote this poem after my daily walk beside the Ribble yesterday during Storm Christoph. Contrary to the flood warnings the river did not burst her banks but came very close, the water lapping at the edge, at high tide. It’s not often we can walk so close to a force of nature, to a mighty goddess, whose might could destroy us if we take a false step – an experience awe-inspiring and humbling.
We were lucky, here in Penwortham, that the river did not burst her banks. Upriver Brockholes Nature Reserve has been forced to close due to the access road flooding. People from Didsbury and Northenden in Manchester, Maghul in Merseyside, and Ruthin and Bangor-on-Dee in North Wales have been evacuated. This must be a doubly awful experience during a pandemic. The combination of the virus with flooding feels like an ominous portent of decline and I fear worse is to come.
The first time I saw major floods on the Ribble was 2015 and she has flooded almost every winter since. In response, the Environment Agency and Lancashire County Council have implemented the Preston and South Ribble Flood Management Scheme, which will raise the current flood walls from 1.2 metres to up to 2.2 metres, with a glass screen at the top so people can see the river, and build new ones.
Some of the trees on the banks, such as the row of elms near the Continental pub, will be dug up to make way for the defences. Five new trees will be planted for each tree removed, but it will be forty to fifty years until they are the size of the original ones. Local people have asked for the old trees to be made into benches.
More positively, some of the area, which is now Preston Junction Nature Reserve, rather than housing, due to the Save the Ribble campaign, is going to be kept as flood plain. There are plans for the creation of a new wetland habitat with ponds with dipping platforms, species-rich wildflower meadows and grasslands, wet woodlands, and orchard trees.
My local stretch of the Ribble, where I have been walking for nearly forty years, is going to change dramatically. How long the defences will keep people’s homes safe I don’t know. As this past year has shown, our safety from the forces of nature, small and large, is very much illusory. The climate and the world are changing. The river will burst her banks again. Yet, on her banks, we find the very first snowdrops, who have weathered the floods. A small sign of hope in these apocalyptic times.