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Silt Road: The Story of a Lost River Paperback – 3 Apr 2014
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"A rich dowsing-out of a lost river and its stories; a passionate pursuit of landscape ghosts." (Robert MacFarlane)
"A work of extraordinary power and resonance" (Melissa Harrison Financial Times)
"Passionate, persuasive and personal…it is an elegy to a fascinating world of which many of us have lost sight" (Anthony Sattin Sunday Times)
"Superb book… Its story is an acute example of the criminal disregard our nation has had for these remarkable rivers" (Mark Lloyd BBC Countryfile)
"Silt Road is that rare ting: a book that is able to marry exacting research with imaginative fluency, told in language as pliant and revealing as water" (Earthlines)
The story of an obsession: Charles Rangeley-Wilson goes on a quest to find a hidden river, uncovers our vanished wilderness and the history of an English landscape lost from viewSee all Product description
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Top customer reviews
The River Wye is a small chalk stream that slides through an equally small part of England. This book follows the river from its source in porous chalk to its eventual disappearance in the concrete culverts of High Wycombe.
Chalk streams are (possibly) the epitome of the southern English countryside – slight, small, managed rather wild, but still holding a vision of something larger and more grand.
This is a book that is “haunted by rivers” as Norman Maclean may have said – for while the river still exists today in some form it is the old river - the one that was lost – that dominates the book. The physical loss of the river and the lost industry that it once supported are the central planks of the book.
We meet chair makers, millers, trout fisherman and trout themselves – all of which needed the river and most of which have been lost.
In a history of one small place, I think the author is trying to write a story that has wider application, and in many ways he succeeds. The story of this lost river is matched in the loss of natural places world wide – when a place is no longer valued or understood, it is easier to let it be lost. And to make sure such places are protected they need to be valued; while clearly not an original idea, this book contributes to the idea that we need to reconnect to the landscape around us to ensure its survival. Landscape is not something that can be viewed in the same way museum pieces can be – it needs to be lived, experienced.
However, the book does seem always seem to flow comfortably from page to page. In the sections which look at the landscape of the river and the author reaches for an emotional or philosophical response, the prose seems to slow and become labored. I found myself rereading a number of sections, where the sentences seemed to falter mid-phrase. These sections contrasted with the more “historical” sections – especially the account of bringing trout to Australia – where the book is a real page turner – crisp, succinct and flowing. In my opinion these were the best parts of the book.
So, in summary I found the book a little two paced – rather like the pools and riffles of a stream itself – and I suppose different readers will find charm in either part.
Loosely structured as a personal diary of repeated pilgrimages through the valley of the Wye, the diary's inner and outer landscapes reflect and reveal each other. The story of how humans came to bury this river is one that builds in evocative, fascinating "concentric rings of growth" like the industrial heartland and housing estates of High Wycombe itself.
It's not all about Wycombe, however. Much in the manner of WG Sebald, a wide range of black and white illustrations are carefully placed within the narrative, and sidelights include dream sequences, geological stratigraphy, the workings of water meadows on the Herefordshire Dore, Sir Francis Dashwood and the Hell-Fire Club, Luddite rebellions, sacred springs, how trout got to Australasia, and the toxic rivers of the underworld.
The cumulative effect is powerful and haunting: a work of literature which invites us to ask ourselves searching questions about the sort of landscapes we've created and now, sometimes, have the opportunity to restore. Highly recommended.
The simple answer (not mentioned in the book) is that at the time the river was buried the Oxford Road, that ran alongside it was literally that: 'The road to Oxford' and the amount of traffic needed a pragmatic solution. It's interesting also that the replacement M40 flyover at Loudwater and the devastation it caused to the river is another main focus. So perhaps you can say it was Oxford's fault the river was buried and trashed in High Wycombe!
But the book's not really about that superficial layer. The Wye river at High Wycombe is just an anchor to meditate on 'natural' time beyond the yearly cycle that we are consciously engaged with (super-year time I suppose you could call it) and the relationship between the human and natural worlds. The human world is represented by the town of High Wycombe and its written history, and the natural world represented by the river and Charles' totemic trout whose home it is.
It's a mundane position in the scheme of things but the book makes you see the interface between these two worlds here as an exemplar of a wider balance/fault-line/battle/relationship between the human and natural worlds and also contextualises it with the long natural history that brought it about in that place and time . It just so happens its in the physical form of the River Wye in this case because he's spotted something essential going on there.
This book brought out themes that I hadn't thought about much before. It has definitely changed my outlook, and for the better I hope.
I recommend this book. Just flow through it like a trout in a chalk river and see how different and energized you feel at the end.