RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Alchemy afoot as water of life wends its way

The Rother slides its way seaward like a grass snake.

Nature trails - The view from the top of Kingley Vale, 1850
Nature trails - The view from the top of Kingley Vale, 1850

It coils through cool green meadows under the tunnels of trees, passing churches along its banks, feeds the kingfisher and the wagtail, the roach, the grayling and the trout.

I like those brief moments in life when I can just stand on one of those grey-green bridges that are many centuries of age, and watch the water welling from the depths.

Sign up to our daily SussexWorld Today newsletter

This water from the pine-clad hills and heather moors of our county’s north borders is sand-silty or brown with clay in winter. In summer, with a full head from the springs underground, it can sometimes turn almost blue. It tumbles and shines with a million gleams of sunlight bouncing back and rippling glimmer on the undersides of leaves.

In the pools downstream below some bridges, it expands and widens into deep blackness. Here sometimes one can see fish grey as submarines in small shoals, caught for a moment cruising in the angled shafts of sun before they vanish – and you may wait an hour, if ever there was time, and not see them again.

Then on a minute’s notice you hang over the mossy stones idly musing and there is a kingfisher, drawing halcyon fire-blue in a line as taut as an angler’s dream. And somewhere down there, you know, there is a steep sand cliff guarding the water carved with a long oval hole, longer than your arm, filthy with bones and stinking with digested fish a fortnight old, where the bird has laid her polished white eggs, larger than the greatest pearls.

They are unassailable in that hellish tunnel. Rats and stoats detest the stench.

Soon high summer will have come: the alders will stand dark green in thick leaf-mail, the meadows heavy with heat and swooping swallows sweep up the flies.

Then you will hear the clashing blue sails of the banded demoiselles as they flutter in courtship, waving impossible wings which have indigo roundels as large as ink-spots.

The grey wagtails will be underneath the arches of the bridges, nests crammed into stone crevices, mossy breastwork bulging, the perfect cup soft-filled with down and deer’s hair. Some damselflies nursing eggs inside their bodies and ready to lay, are caught by the wagtails and fed to their own young.

So the alchemy of the river alters them from indigo to yellow and grey, from gauze-winged to feather, from life under, to life above water, from brief aerial flight to long summers in the sunny air.

The river provides for all of these; and all need each other. There are many different lives to watch as you stand and stare.

The Rother with its old pack bridges and crossing roads is a place to linger and let time slide underneath awhile, while you join its everlasting journey and wonder at the shortness of your own.