Calling a river the Avon in the UK seems to be something of a habit. We all know about Stratford on Avon, the home of Shakespeare. But there are actually five river Avons in England, three in Scotland and two in Wales. I never knew that, though I had an inkling once that something was amiss when looking at the map, and I noticed the river didn’t actually link up with much above Wiltshire.
There’s a simple reason for that. Avon is based on the Welsh word for river.
So the Avon that I knew was called the Bristol Avon, as it’s near there where it starts. It’s seventy miles in length, but as the crow flies it’s only about twenty miles. The bridge at Bradford on Avon is a prime example of the river’s history, as part of the bridge is still intact from the Norman conquest. It’s a river full of history, albeit not as well known as its Shakespearean counterpart. Not as well known, because Wiltshire is more of a subtle history than other parts of Britain.
Britain is famous for its atmospheric effects. From the dragon’s breath surrounding Glastonbury Tor, to London’s famous fog, but for me there’s nothing as magical as fog and mist on a river. It comes from childhood of course … our family used to travel to Arkansas to the White River every other summer. My parents went to fish, I went because I was forced to. Which meant getting up at sunrise and heading off to the boat. The sunburns, the snakes trying to swim into the boat all came later in the day. The mornings started magically, as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and watched the mist floating over the flowing river. The White River is actually a misnomer, as it was sparkling clear. Gliding through the mist in our boat, I was transfixed as we floated through the cloud, and looking down onto the bed of the river.
It’s mid January, somewhere in Wiltshire. We’ve taken her daughter to school and we’re back at the house. The dogs need to run. It’s cold, damned cold, frost everywhere. The fog was thick and we set off towards the Avon, just across the fields from the house. She’s walking ahead of me … she’s always ahead of me. It’s one of the drawbacks of stopping to take photos. She moves like a phantom, never slowing, never stopping, leading me on and on. Taking me deeper and deeper.
We meet up at the train tracks, I help her over the fence that separates us from the tracks. She misses the sound of American trains with their whistles and clacking of coal cars on the tracks. British trains pass with a whoosh. We take for granted the time spent waiting on a train to clear a crossing in the states, we respond with frustration. She saw it as something magical, like something out of a novel. I still think of her and the smile that crossed her face every time she would hear a train whistle coming through the phone.
And then we’re in the lowlands next to the river. The sky is lighting up through the mist, everything is covered in frost, the grass crisp and crackling under our feet. The dogs sense freedom and take off into the vapor. We kiss and set off after them.
Along the river here are pillboxes left over from World War II. They weren’t for defending against the Germans coming down the river, as the Avon along here in particular is hardly navigable. Instead, they formed a defensive line against invaders crossing the river. After the war, farmers were offered one pound each to destroy the pillboxes, but that proved futile, as they are too well built and the pay sucked.
This one is overgrown with thistles, squeezing through the small door leaves one cut and bloodied. We moved on towards the river and towards a frosty wonderland.
The trees along the river are low hanging, tortured from the wind and flooding, and this morning were encased in snowy white. The frost was prickly, showing every detail of the tree beneath, shuttered in icy condensation. The fog was lifting a bit, the mist rose from the river, a trick of evaporation when the water is cooler than the air. I wondered how cold the water actually was, as the air was bitter. She turned to look at me, smiled and I was filled with a warmth I’d never known.
She was my ice queen, her dress and coat could have been from a hundred years ago, two hundred years ago, or from a fairy tale. Her beauty was timeless, the sparkle in her eyes magic. I was enchanted.
To the east the sun was lifting above the horizon. We took turns with the camera, finding the shot neither of us could see. It’s not that we were competitive. We pushed each other to be better, not better than the other. Better than we were.
And then the golden globe lifted fully above the horizon, framed in countless ways by the trees, the fence, reflecting on the surface of the river. The dogs found us and raced past our feet, sometimes standing curious as we knelt on the frosty ground to get the shot, leaning over the barbed wire fence precariously, or as we hugged to share a bit of body warmth.
It was the most magical morning I’ve known. It was enchanting in so many ways, none which required words. There was very little talking for we were both transfixed at this morning that had been given to us like a gift from the gods. We had too few mornings together – there could never be enough. The snowy morning in Avebury was magical as well, but this was our home. The river, the trees, the tall, marshy grass our Wonderland.
The morning was upon us fully then, the fog was fading and the day awaited us. And so we set off for the house. I would have lingered longer, but we had so many more mornings like this ahead of us. Or so we thought at the time.
It’s one of my favorite photos of her, looking into the river, just still and quiet. That summer she built a nest for us beneath that tree, a place to sit and watch and be together. It’s where we spent the last afternoon before we broke apart, a lifetime away from the morning that we spent embraced by the cold, the frost, the fog and each other.