Country diary: where old willows lean

Simon Ingram

Four days of rain, then there’s a break in the weather and the sun shines through. Water stands deep on the village road. Geese are walking around in the middle of it, perhaps mistaking it for something more persistent.

A twisty little river, a couple of metres wide, runs through this place, the Gwash; I go to see how it is doing. Like rivers of its size, it is so sensitive to rain, rising and falling like a pulse. I find it high, and spread, its clip brisk, and coloured the disturbed brown of a deluge.

Just here on the Gwash there are two bridges: the human one you cross, and a natural one you imagine you might. It’s a big willow that has twisted with time from the vertical to the horizontal, an arboreal “r”, and thrown an arm across the river. It doesn’t land on the other side: at the far side it’s poised, tantalisingly too high off the bank to be a sensible leap. But I climb into the branches anyway, because it’s been a while – and it’s nice to be out in the sunshine. I skitter, regretting wellies, then slide out above the river, as far as I dare.

They’re remarkable, these willows; one just down the bank there has a split in the base big enough to squeeze through. Most have derelict trunks, exposing innards, like half collapsed houses. The tree I’m in has a scored base like ancient rock, all deep grooves and lichen, its gaps and hollows filled with spider fluff and the willow-leaf confetti of autumn. As I get higher, the branches become younger, slender. They look strong, but they bend in the breeze, the leaves chattering. Lower down looks brittle with age, but stands fast.

I look down through the storeys of the tree below to the water. It’s high enough for the leaves to play on the surface, like trailing fingers. Beyond, the view through branches is of scudding grey cloud, and bucolic countryside, all sheep and steeples, lit by that sun you get after rain. A local son, John Clare, wrote a sonnet about this river, its light and shadows “where old willows lean”. It could have been here, today.