“Meonbridge” and the River Meon…

In the early days of my publishing career, I used this picture of the river as part of my promotional “branding”. I still occasionally use it, for it’s a picture that I love:

© Carolyn Hughes

This is a view of the river, very close to where I live. It’s not a grand river, for it is only twenty-one miles in length, and for much of that length it is a somewhat shallow chalk stream – in summer months, at any rate. The river rises in the South Downs, near the village of East Meon, and winds and meanders – how aptly is the river named! – through the other villages of the Meon Valley, until it rushes, broader and deeper, out into the sea, the Solent, to the south of Titchfield.

The fact that the Meon is a chalk stream is a matter for celebration, as such streams are rare: of the 210 rivers classified as chalk streams in the world, 160 are in England, and we have several in Hampshire and one of them right here, a few hundred yards from my front door…

The peace and beauty of the Meon’s landscape – with its gently flowing stream, the occasional heron fishing at the river’s edge; the lush water meadows, sometimes occupied by grazing cattle; the odd rushing weir; and the few surviving stone and brick arch bridges that span it at various points along its length – are, you might think, reason enough to use a photo of it to illustrate my social media pages. But there was a little more to it than that.

If you already know my novels, the Meonbridge Chronicles, you will of course put two and two together and conclude that these novels are almost certainly set in the Meon Valley. I will confess, however, that you will not be able to find “Meonbridge” on any map, or indeed any of the other local geographical features referred to in the book. Meonbridge is a fictional village, a fictional manor, but one that, in my imagination, is located broadly here, with the river Meon running through it, and the hills of the South Downs (aka “Riverdown”) rising behind it.

But although Meonbridge is fictional, in my heart and mind it lives and breathes. That really does sound corny! Yet it’s true. And the river plays a part in all the Meonbridge stories – and sometimes as a river to be feared.

Our daily walks often take us alongside the River Meon and, as we walk this way often throughout the year, we do of course observe how the river changes.

In the spring and summer months, it is invariably a gentle, soothing, tranquil sort of river. Folk take picnics, blankets and umbrellas (to the areas that are not protected for the sake of the wildlife), and spend warm afternoons relaxing on the river’s banks, letting their children paddle in the cooling shallow waters.

In the warmer months, the river is host to various other creatures apart from children. We quite often see cattle paddling too (which, to be honest, might be a good reason not to let your children do the same, if you’re downstream of the cows!!).

© Carolyn Hughes

And, always a delight, we often see shimmering blue damselflies (actually called the Beautiful Demoiselle), seemingly sunning themselves on a leaf, as the river meanders past below:

© Carolyn Hughes

You can of course see trout, large and small, and sometimes you might be lucky enough to spot a blue and orange kingfisher flash from branch to branch, then dive into the sparkling waters for a fish. You can fairly easily observe grey herons and bright-white egrets, stalking the shallows for a meal.

© David Hughes

But there are other creatures too, mostly hidden from view, which are part of the reason for the conservation protection. Water voles and otters have returned to the Meon after years of absence:

Water Vole (actually seen at Titchfield Haven, at the sea end of the River Meon) © David Hughes

By the way, if you’d like to know more about the conservation work that’s going on in the Meon Valley, click here: http://www.meonvalleypartnership.org.uk/projects

So that’s the summer Meon. But, in winter, especially after a prolonged period of rain, the Meon can seem anything but tranquil. Swollen with lots more water, it is deep and its passage vigorous. It bursts its banks and floods into the water meadows (as of course it is supposed to do!). Looking down from one or other of the bridges that cross the river – both footbridges and road bridges – you can often see a veritable torrent surging, sometimes alarmingly, very fast and very close to the bridges’ undersides.

The summer Meon wouldn’t usually be a source of fear but, in winter, I can well understand how frightening and dangerous it could be…

And, seeing it torrent-like just a couple of weeks ago brought to mind a passage towards the end of A Woman’s Lot, the Second Meonbridge Chronicle, when a child falls into the icy, winter river.

In the story, it is January and fresh snow covers the river meadows, and many Meonbridge families have gone there to play… It might have looked a little bit like this:

This is actually a colour photograph – my goodness I bet the water’s cold! © 2010 David Hughes

[…]

But then a child shrieked, and Susanna spun around. The shriek was followed by a great splash, and other screams. Glancing at the children huddled at the river’s edge, she saw at once that Maud was not among them. She cried out and stumbled towards the riverbank, as fast as the snow would let her.

As she reached the bank where Maud had fallen in, Susanna could see her little head, hatless, bobbing beneath the flowing waters. Then she surfaced, let out a single cry and, gulping in some air, tried to clutch at the overhanging vegetation. But her mittened hands couldn’t grip the soft, grassy stuff and she was drawn back into the river’s current. Susanna’s ears were ringing with Maud’s cries, and her heart was pounding from the terror of it. Her little girl!

Susanna plunged into the water, and its coldness took her breath away. Her skirts at once were heavy, dragging at her legs. She could scarcely move, and the flailing Maud had already passed her by. Susanna panted out a cry of desperation, then heard another, louder, splash. Looking up, she saw Walter was waist-deep in the river, downstream of her, his arms spread wide. As Maud tumbled towards him, she bumped into his outstretched arms, and he grasped her tight. Then, lifting her up, he held her to his chest and waded the short distance to the bank.

Susanna struggled from the water and, still panting, ploughed through the snow towards them. Eleanor was already there, helping Walter to clamber out. Susanna took Maud from his arms, and hugged her close.

‘As well the river weren’t too deep or running fast,’ Walter said, trying to catch his breath.

‘She might have been swept away,’ said Eleanor, a sob rising in her throat.

Poor little Maud was only four, and a child for whom the river had already brought great tragedy. That morning two weeks ago, as we observed the river in spate, I could well envisage her tiny body being overwhelmed by the tumbling waters and tossed along by the river’s rapid surge. How terrified she would have been, and how frightened too her stepmother, Susanna, at the prospect of her drowning…

***

Remembering that passage, I then thought about other passages in my books where the river has played a role, and not always a happy one, whether it was winter, summer, autumn or spring…

The tragedy that little Maud’s family had already suffered was a key scene in the First Meonbridge Chronicle, Fortune’s Wheel. The river plays an important part in that book – the river itself, the flour mill built on its banks to serve the manor’s needs and, most crucially, the mill wheel that harnesses the river’s power to drive the stones that grind the grain. In Meonbridge, the Meon proves it can be anything but “gentle”.

This passage is set in the autumn, in September, so the river would not have been at its highest, though there had been a lot of rain in the preceding months. But, low or high, the rushing waters close to the mill – in the mill race – could prove extremely dangerous…

Joan Miller, already grief-stricken from her losses in the Black Death, is missing, together with her recently new born baby (Maud). Her friends Susanna and Eleanor join the search for her…

[…]

Susanna looked desolately at Eleanor. ‘You and Tom carry on looking here, Harry, and we’ll look all round the croft.’ She took Eleanor’s hand and drew her away behind the mill buildings towards the river. ‘I can’t think why they haven’t looked down here.’

Eleanor felt sick with dread. ‘Perhaps they couldn’t bear to?’ and Susanna nodded bleakly.

It wasn’t long before their worst fears were confirmed. No more than a few yards from the place Henry claimed he and his brother had already searched, they found Joan. The river was still swollen from the months of rain, and the race that fed the mill wheel was a torrent. The two women stood together by the wheel, not able to hear or speak above the deafening roar of the pounding water, both dreading to look down beneath the paddles. Each gripped the other’s hand and steeled herself to look, and there was Joan, with her dull brown shift and her pale matted hair, at the bottom of the race, tucked under the wheel. It was difficult to see her in the low light of the early morning, but there was no doubt it was Joan.

Susanna gasped and burst into tears, and Eleanor, trying to be brave, threw an arm around her shoulder. ‘Susy, we must go and tell Henry.’

Susanna nodded. ‘Let me.’ She clasped Eleanor briefly then ran back to the mill.

Moments later, a great cry went up and it was clear Susanna had told Henry the terrible news. Shortly they, and Thomas, came running down to where Eleanor still stood, staring down into the rushing water. Thomas howled and threw himself down on the bank of the race, thrusting his arms into the water as if he could reach Joan from there, and his brother tried to pull him away, telling him it was too late.

Then suddenly Susanna let out a cry. ‘Where’s Maud? Oh, in Heaven’s name, where’s the baby?’

Now it was Henry’s turn to throw himself down and search the surging waters for another, tiny, body. ‘I can’t see her. I can’t see her, Tom!’

But Thomas was rocking back and forth on the grassy bank, his arms over his head, whimpering, and couldn’t hear his brother.

***

In the spring, when the river has become more tranquil, danger can lurk nonetheless, if wicked people choose to set a trap. In this passage, from the Third Meonbridge Chronicle, De Bohun’s Destiny, the children have gone to their favourite part of the river, where the meander has formed a little pool. As it’s spring, the water is probably still quite chilly but flowing sweetly enough. Young Dickon loves the river and is a strong swimmer and, normally, he wouldn’t be in any danger… But, for Libby, who has no experience of swimming, the river does hold fears…

[…]

Dickon couldn’t wait to try the water. ‘Come in too, Libby,’ he said, pleading, but she shook her head.

‘You know I can’t swim,’ she said, pouting. She couldn’t, but it was also true that she was far too shy to take off her kirtle in front of Dickon, even though she’d got her night chemise on underneath.

But Dickon was happy enough to strip down to his braies, and sitting on the bank, he dipped his feet into the water. He squealed. ‘God’s blood, it’s cold!’

Libby tutted. ‘You shouldn’t swear, Dickon. Your grandmama would scold you if she heard.’

Dickon screwed up his eyes. ‘I never do it when she’s around.’ He shivered. ‘So, shall I jump?’

Libby giggled again. ‘You know you want to.’ And he nodded and rolled forward into the water. He submerged his whole body and almost at once bobbed up again, gasping. But then he laughed and swam the few strokes towards the overhanging trees. They were just starting to come into leaf, and the branch tips dipped and dabbled in the water.

Dickon dipped and dabbled too, but then he ducked beneath the willow, and all of a sudden, he was yelling.

[…]

Libby jumped up and ran to the water’s edge. ‘Where are you, Dickon?’ she called. But then she saw his arms thrashing around just behind the dipping trees. They were only feet away, but the pool between her and them was deep, and Libby was fearful of the water.

But then Dickon was screaming ‘Libby! Help me!’ and she began to sob.

‘What’s wrong?’ she cried.

And, as his head bobbed up above the water, Dickon yelled ‘My leg!’

Libby didn’t know what to do.

‘My leg’s caught!’ cried Dickon. ‘Help me, Libby!’

And, despite her fear, she plunged into the water, still fully dressed. It wasn’t quite as deep as she had thought, and she found she could bounce along the bottom towards the trees, though her skirt was billowing up around her and making it difficult to move forward. But shortly she reached Dickon and grabbed at his outstretched arms.

‘Pull!’ he cried, and she did. But Dickon screamed.

‘My leg’s caught in something,’ he whimpered, ‘and it’s hurting.’ Then he too was sobbing.

Poor Dickon!

***

And finally, in this passage from Children’s Fate, the Fourth Meonbridge Chronicle, it is summer, but Bea, a young woman who, like Libby, has no experience of river bathing, finds the idea of wading the river a little frightening despite the relative gentleness of its summer current. But she has no choice…

[…]

Bea cursed herself for not running away at once when Ma first came to warn her. Even so, if she was quick, couldn’t she still escape round the back of the cot? … Down by the barn at the far end, she was sure she could get into the river. Though she’d have to wade across, and she feared it might be deep just there. She remembered, years ago, the current sweeping little Maud Miller off her feet. She’d nearly drowned. It frightened Bea to think she herself might slip or lose her footing in the water and topple in.

Yet would drowning be any worse than being beaten to death?

[…]

She fought her way through the tangle of vegetation, down the whole length of the overgrown croft till she reached the ramshackle barn right at the end. She found a landing stage, mostly hidden by the plants growing thickly on the river’s edge, where she supposed someone once long ago had tied up a small boat, though now the platform was rickety and rotten. She wished a boat were tied up now, to save her having to wade across. But, when she peered down into the water, it didn’t look too deep, though it was running swiftly.

She lifted the hem of her kirtle and tucked it all around into her belt. Then she stepped onto the platform and sat down. The structure wobbled a little but, dangling her feet into the chilly water, she eased herself off, hoping she’d not topple over. She sighed in relief when she found the water came up only to her knees, though the current still buffeted her legs, threatening to tip her over. It wasn’t far to the other bank, but she was nervous and held on to the staging for a while, before she slung her satchel across her body and struck out into the middle of the river. She took it slow and steady, planting each foot carefully, determined not to be afraid.

***

You might be interested in other posts that I have written about the River Meon:

____________

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4 thoughts on ““Meonbridge” and the River Meon…

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed my books, Heidi! Yes, I am working on book five, though it will be a while before it’s available, and there will be a sixth. After that, I don’t yet know… It depends on whether the characters have more stories to tell!

      Like

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