River Stones

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Posted on April 7, 2013


We walk across the field and instead of crossing the narrow wooden bridge, we clamber down to the pale drawn backs of the limestone slabs that embrace the tight bend of the river.

Yesterday, when it rained, the river rushed, and the limestone was three or four feet below the water’s surface. Today, much of the water has already drained away; what’s left runs in a pale peaty-brown curl between hard stones. In places it settles where the rock has been hewn by centuries of flow, and takes on the colour of the rock - an oyster-shell blue - or the grey of clouds. Smaller stones and pebbles shine inside the pools. The next time the rain comes and the river rises they will be picked up, thrown about, and carried along, scraping the rock beneath them before being laid to rest once more.

I stop beside one pool where the rock has been worn away and an unlikely three-petalled aperture appears between water and sky. Beneath it, the water is golden yellow, reflecting the leafless trees inside this shape, like a church window with burnished stained glass. The limestone sides of the pool are soft and smooth as a seal’s back, and the light catches the faux window to give it the sheen of a skirt hem, white silk lining black velvet, frozen mid spin.


The river is travelling downhill, from Dent head towards Dent village, and from there it winds its way to Sedbergh in a gradual descent. Here, it seems at first glance to be flat, but of course it isn’t, and it falls in small cascades every thirty or forty metres. The river is slow and humble, its song a soft shimmer of falling water that’s the backdrop for birdsong – long tailed tits, blue tits, black birds, robins – and the grumbling of sheep further afield.

I notice a single stone, as big as a beach ball and almost as round, nestled to one side of a small cut in the limestone. Rob says it’s a Kugel stone, a stone that’s easy to move despite being extremely heavy. Maybe that’s the case, but I don’t try and move it. It sits well where it is, and the river will carry it forward when the conditions are right.

Further down the limestone gives way to a pebble bed and the river reclaims the surface, so we get out and walk along the grassy bank. When we come to the stepping stones we see that yesterday’s rainfall has been enough to submerge them. I take off shoes and socks and walk across bare foot. The initial feel of cold water is invigorating and I smile. Half way across and I can't help releasing whoops and eeks as my feet become numb and the chill begins to creep up my ankles like mercury rising. The lost sensation makes my feet feel like stone. But it’s only 11 steps from one side to the other, and when my feet are dry(ish) and back in my boots they warm up.

New energy shoots from my soles to my soul, quickening my step.

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