Reading Water: mud and mussels

Glass indigo postcard

Thursday 14th January 2021

I parked by the boatyard, as it seemed there was a way to join the tidal path which ran from Topsham up through the reedbeds, but was told very clearly that the boatyard was ‘completely closed’. After a few minutes chatting, the owner relaxed a little and explained how to get to the beginning of the path, through a little gate just up on the road behind us. He also admitted, that in 20 years of living by the river, he had never walked up the path beyond the M5 flyover, suggesting it was ‘very muddy’. I told him that was why I was there, and we parted, wishing each other a lovely day. I found the little gate but still had to walk the best part of a mile to access the river, which I found strange for all the houses that I passed – so close and yet so cut off.

I got down to the water at the ‘Rec’, or recreation ground, which always makes me think of a ship’wreck’. I wanted to do some mudprinting, but figured it would be best at the end of the walk, when I could take things home to dry, so instead I studied the foreshore and was rewarded with most of a bottle, then another, then a whole one. Clearly this was some kind of bottle dump, and they were just lying there, being uncovered by the tides.

I hadn’t really come prepared for a large amount of fragile finds, so padded them out in my rucksack as best I could and headed upstream, past dilapidated jetties and smart garden gates. The reeds were tall and swayed back and forth in the breeze, the sunlight turning this cold winter expedition into a summer stroll. I reached the boatyard from the other side, slightly annoyed that it had taken me about an hour to get back to where I started, but realising this was part of the story – how we are cut off from nature by planning and private ownership, and wondering how we can change this. The hulk of the M5 bridge loomed over me – the single reason I would not want to live here, with its constant roar of traffic. Beyond this I was into fenland wilds of giant reeds, flooded paths and a feeling of being what the French call ‘dépaysée’ – ‘feeling not at home, disoriented’, but literally ‘uncountried’. This can be negative, but today just felt like that feeling you get on holiday of all things new, and strange and wonderful.

My bad decision on parking meant that I would have to walk all the way back along the front, or a mile or two along the busy Topsham road, so I took the more scenic route and headed back the way I’d come. At the boatyard I spied a few mussel shells, which I have been collecting for another project, so I bent down to pick some up, and realised that there were literally hundreds of empty, unpecked-by-birds mussel shells of all sizes, from no bigger than my little finger nail, just at one spot.

‘… and I filled
A big handkerchief with blue

(‘Mussel Hunter at Rock Harbour – Sylvia Plath)


Mussel indigo_sq sm

Mussels are grown in the Exe, and there are large beds of them further downstream.

I did some very windy mud-printing, and set off, with large, wet rolls of paper to get back to the car. The little gate was firmly locked, with a number keypad and a sign, only visible from this side, that this 5 metre stretch of lane was very definitely private. I backtracked and wound my way for about a mile through the estate, out onto the busy main road, tired, cold and with aching feet back to my car.



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