Contra Flow | Fay Musselwhite

An account of the Rivelin Poetry Walk, Sheffield, Saturday 1st March 2014

The Rivelin Valley (click to enlarge). Original map courtesy RVCG (see bottom of post for link); adapted and re-annotated by Fay Musselwhite (poem titles in italics)

As soon as I moved to Sheffield I needed somewhere to walk my dog, and not having a car it had to be nearby.  So when someone I met in the street, on my third day in town, told me there was a river, I was keen to try it.  I followed directions down to where the Rivelin passes behind the fire station just before joining the Loxley at Malin Bridge, and found, to my surprise, a corridor of stunning countryside a short walk from my home.

I’ve been dog walking here for fifteen years, and poetry has emerged, most of it from the mile and a half stretch of river between the ‘S bend’ – where the Rivelin tunnels under Rivelin Valley Road – and Rivelin Post Office, which isn’t a post office anymore, but marks the upstream end of the publicly accessible Rivelin Valley.  For the poetry walk to happen on this section of river, and be reachable by public transport, it was necessary to begin at Crosspool shops. So it’s from there, soon after 1pm on a bright early spring afternoon, that just over twenty of us, including dogs and children, set off to cross Manchester Road, and walk among houses for ten minutes, till we’re at the countryside’s edge: a spot just off Hagg Lane with a panoramic view of Stannington on the next hillside, though the valley we’re heading for is obscured by trees.  Horses in a small fenced field come over, but all we offer is words.

Fay Musselwhite introduces 'Contra Flow' (photograph by Mary Musselwhite)

‘Contra Flow’ (photograph by Mary Musselwhite)

Brian Lewis of Longbarrow Press introduces The Footing, which is the book we’re publicising this afternoon.  He also talks of the poetry walk practise that Longbarrow has established in Sheffield over the past six years.  These events, he says, ‘enable the poem to move into the world, and the world to move into the poem.’  I then make my own brief introduction, explaining that the walk is called Contra Flow after one of the poems, but particularly for the story-told-backwards nature of its journey: we’ll be walking against the river’s flow so as to apprehend it more fully, meet it head on, take greater notice of it as a current, a force, an entity, than if we were to walk with its direction. Before we begin the descent into the valley I read a short poem.

Most of us take a sedate and surprisingly long meander round and down, some use a near vertical path, impossible without the opportune jutting-out of occasional rocks to form staggered steps.  We convene in a riding school’s field, in sight of an old Water Board marker – a stone with initials carved on it – stuck up in the grass.  Electric fencing prevents us approaching, but conservationist Graeme Hodgson points out the direction of another similar stone that some of us can just about see, and explains that they show the route of an old disused underground conduit that runs from the water treatment works all the way to Crookes Valley Park.  The park was the site of reservoirs built in the eighteenth century to meet Sheffield’s water needs, but the town grew rapidly, due in part to the tremendous success of local industry, and by the mid nineteenth century was facing a major public health crisis.  This led to the Water Board’s keenness to gain some control over the flow of water into the city.  Meanwhile, millworks on the Rivelin were in decline due to their comparative remoteness, so in the 1850s the Water Board bought every mill-powered factory on this river, though industry continued for decades after.

Tom's RPW pics 1Mar14 022

Contra Flow: Graeme Hodgson highlights the route of a disused conduit (photograph by Tom Salmon)

We proceed down through the riding school, our progress noted by one horse in particular. After we cross Hagg Lane (again), the river’s long sigh becomes louder and more urgent, and even on such a crisp spring day, there is a tangible rise in humidity. We follow the mud track down to meet the Rivelin itself, cross it and gather by the distinctive round lake at the Hind Wheel factory site.

From my earliest dog walks here, I wondered about the iron and brickwork remnants.  Then, as I gradually learned more of the industrial history they represent, I realised that by way of the exceptionally fast flow of local rivers, this landscape was responsible for Sheffield being what I already knew it to be: the steel capital of the world.  The worked part of the Rivelin had twenty mills along it: the furthest out being Uppermost Wheel, a little beyond Manchester Road, while Grogram Wheel was the last before the Rivelin flows into the Loxley at Malin Bridge.  All of these are still in evidence today.

The Hind Wheel (by Tom Salmon)

Contra Flow: at The Hind Wheel (by Tom Salmon)

The Hind Wheel is the oldest mill site on the Rivelin, recorded in use from 1581.  The dam is where water was stored to feed, at various times, one or two wheels of ten or eleven foot diameter.  They were installed at the place we’ve arrived at, between the weir and the dam, and they powered up to eight or ten cutlery grinding troughs, situated where scrubland now is on the other side of the footpath.

For a time, while gathering this information and trying to map it in my mind onto how the river is now, I couldn’t help but picture the industry as an almost rustic endeavour.  I found it hard to grasp that the grinding wheels and troughs were housed in buildings; that all down the river there were huge factory sheds where workers stood or sat at gritstone grinding wheels to sharpen cutlery and tools.  It would be loud, the air specked with metal and grit, sparks flying up and all the debris falling into the river.  It was a proper industrial environment, like Attercliffe in East Sheffield – noisy, dirty, dangerous, full of noxious substances, the likelihood of grinding wheels exploding, and whatever other industrial accidents.  There’d be bosses and workers all cutting corners, horses and ponies carrying goods, materials, etc.

So far, this thread of the Rivelin’s story hasn’t quite made it onto the finished page for me, though it is on its way, and features in a sequence I’ve written about the Loxley flood.

In the meantime, human use still litters the river: these days it’s leisure litter.  Graeme (who’s also my partner) regularly brings home bagfuls of dumped bottles, cans, food wrappers, etc.  Then there are fishermen, many of whom take their dangerous debris away; others don’t.  One afternoon, I was at home when Graeme phoned to tell me he’d found a moorhen in distress right here on the grass by the water, and he was bringing her home to try to rescue.

Because they hide in plain sight, are safe when visible in trees and on water, birds provide some of the most dynamic entertainment and intrigue at the river.  Moorhens, coots and mallard ducks, also: heron, kingfisher, jay, crow, various tits and finches, dipper, wagtail, robin and sparrow are regularly seen, other species occasionally too.

We walk around the dam and on a little further, till we divert a few paces into the scrub so as to be heard above the river’s gush.  We stop by an ancient wall greened and softened by moss.  This is the outer casing of Plonk Wheel dam which held water to power up to four or five grinding troughs in the latter part of the eighteenth century.  Built in 1737, originally as a sawmill, this was one of the earliest works on the Rivelin to be decommissioned.  It’s been unused since perhaps as far back as 1814, so is the part of the industrial river that nature’s had longest to claim back.

The river’s story falls into two chronologies: one being this human exploitation over the last five hundred years (longer on some other Sheffield rivers), during which time the harness it endured puts it in the realm of post-traumatic landscape.  The other time scale is the long and deep natural history of the valley, encompassing life cycles on micro and macro levels: the layering of life and death that makes the ground we walk on, and the ancient shifts, flows and drops by which the river is here. More recently, I’ve helped a little with the resistance to Himalayan Balsam, and so realised how it could all look without those human interventions. And how much depends on the knitting of detail. The next poem focuses on a small natural event.

On from the Plonk Wheel, we follow the old stone path by a part of the river that seems quite eerie to me.  It’s a straight fast section where the water is almost level with the land, so not seemingly remote; it nips along briskly in its own groove muttering as if it has a secret.  On quiet days, there’s something about how the current meets weir-remains on the riverbed that produces a sound like people talking and laughing on afternoon radio just too low, or detuned, to quite catch what they’re saying.

As we pass Swallow Wheel dam, we look over the water to where the land slopes up toward the road, and anticipate the setting for the next poem. Himalayan Balsam is a problem throughout the Rivelin Valley, and several years ago this whole area was riddled with it. Though the task’s never over, Graeme has been instrumental in reversing its current colonisation attempts along a considerable stretch of the river, with many areas now yielding a new diversity of native vegetation.

Around the Swallow Wheel weir there are whirls and eddies, where sticks, leaves and bits of twig have gathered around a river-swept tree stump, shaped like a massive human heart, lodged in the shallows.  Graeme describes how this mass of marauding timber was washed downriver in heavy rains a few years ago, how it rested for many months on the crest of Frank Wheel weir, upriver from here, then arrived at this spot sometime last autumn.  Since then it’s formed a makeshift dam beside the path, and upgraded the trickle that always found a way round the far side, to a decent waterway, now the main flow.  Back when the river drove the work, it would’ve been someone’s job to check and clear the channels, now it’s down to the Rivelin Valley Conservation Group who do a lot for the coherence of river and footpath.

We stop just before the impressive Wolf Wheel dam, at a place where the path opens out, and the river corners into an inviting beach with a huge section of felled tree laid out as a bench.  There’s a long-established steep cobbled path leading down here from the road, which meets a bridge to where other footpaths cross the farmland beyond the river.  We call this ‘electric bridge’ as it has cable attached underneath, presumably taking power to the fields.

Contra Flow (photograph by Mary Musselwhite)

Contra Flow (photograph by Mary Musselwhite)

Before the stone steps taking the footpath up to the dam is a patch of boggy ruin where the Wolf Wheel factory buildings were; in its day making work for up to seventeen razor and table knife grinders.  Not long ago, this area was deeply colonised by Himalayan Balsam, and though it’s slimy and craggy to work there, Graeme has persevered and we don’t now expect to see more than a couple of stragglers this year.

Himalayan Balsam has much in common with that other invasive species Japanese Knotweed: both owe success to their quick-growing nature, and this shows in their shared bamboo-like stem structure.  I recently read someone’s childhood story, from 1960s Bristol, where Japanese Knotweed was rampant on local wasteland.  It seems that its exotic-looking stems led the group of children playing there to favour jungle warfare type games.

Perhaps it was for the same reasons that a similar thing occurred to me when I came out to help Graeme balsam-bash last year.  On the steep bank that separates Wolf Wheel dam from the goyt, it was hot and tropically close, but up on the slope behind the Swallow Wheel dam, Graeme had been at work for several evenings, and had cut himself a grid of access paths through plants that were eight to ten foot tall.  A little cooler here, but these carved-out straight lines seemed to describe human living space, gave the terrain a recently abandoned primitive urban atmosphere, and conjured stories of war atrocities in Vietnam, Malaysia and Burma.

Wolf Wheel dam is the biggest on the Rivelin, and some records say the factory here was active for nearly two hundred years, until 1918.  Two houses visible from the path (when trees behind the dam are bare) on Rivelin Valley Road were built to live in by the Windle family who worked this mill in the first half of the nineteenth century.

After the narrow path beside the dam, we follow the river to Frank Wheel, and gather by where its buildings were.  Walking upriver means we approach each mill site by its building end; this is because the power wheel was always attached to the downriver end of the dam that serves it.  As those buildings all collapsed and disappeared long ago, we’re left in many cases with a leaky wall and boggy ground, which accounts for the moss furring at Plonk Wheel, and for the crisscross of rivulets through the Wolf Wheel ruin.  And here, at Frank Wheel, it explains the swampy ground that used to pervade a wide area, and has now resolved into a shallow pond.

In 1864 Frank Wheel turned from the cutler grinding it had undertaken since 1737 to making paper. This was enabled by the availability of fresh water that travelled down from Third Coppice Wheel, the next wheel upriver, where paper was made from 1814 onwards.  The change of business at Frank Wheel may have been precipitated by the wrecking of a Loxley paper mill in the 1864 flood, where raw paper was apparently strewn about the hillsides next morning.

Perhaps it’s the slimy wall and soft ground, or maybe it’s the dark near-horizontal trees, resembling massive skeletal insects, that overhang the dam up from the footpath, that give this place a melancholy atmosphere.  As I’ve said, I found the Rivelin with my dog when I’d just moved to Sheffield, so I’ve known it longer than anyone I’ve met here, which is quite a friendship.  That dog got old and died, of course, and a few weeks later I came to the river for the first time without her, trying to make sense of her absence.

On the brief walk from Frank Wheel to the next stopping place, we pass a huge lump of stone that squats at the river’s edge.  It was one of the first natural things I noticed and looked out for here, and it gave me this poem.

To reach nearby woods we cross a tiny bridge, over where the goyt taking head-water to Frank Wheel dam starts.  In 2007, when Sheffield got the floods, it was wild down here.  All rain that hit any part of this valley had to reach this river.  It poured down from the road, from the fields above it, down this hillside, and all the vegetation was lying down in the mud like it had been combed; anything loose was strewn about, making its way down to the lowest level.  Around that time Graeme and I saw that the goyt was empty and wondered if we could do anything.

Water’s flow is of crucial importance to this day, as human needs everywhere compete with the desires of industry.  The effects of public health measures taken by the Sheffield Water Board in the nineteenth century required augmenting as the twentieth century approached, and Graeme explains how these demands were met:

‘It was agreed that a water supply would be taken from the recently dammed Derwent river some five miles away.  A tunnel was constructed, beginning in 1903, and taking six years to complete.  This was enabled by the construction of several sighting towers across the moor, the remains of which can still be seen today.  When the two sides finally met, they were only inches out of alignment.  What’s more, the tunnel came in at £13,000 under budget.  On the Rivelin side, a small gauge railway was constructed along Wyming Brook Drive to deliver materials from a supply dump on the A57.  This was also one of the first civil engineering projects to use electricity as a power source.’

So, there’s plenty to suggest that this landscape has in turn been sculpted by the industry it gave rise to.  But thinking now in a truly macro and ancient way, we can speculate as to how the river and valley were formed.  From here we look across the river and up to farmland on the high ground beyond, then we turn and look up the other hillside to Rivelin Valley Road.  We note that they share a level, and know that however long ago, up there was the ground: all this was filled in, underground.

Water makes its own bed which deepens as it flows through, eventually carving out whole valleys, but it needs a dip or crease if it’s to become a river.  I’ve been out to near where the Rivelin begins and I can see that it arrives in several tiny streams, gathers itself and sets off to find its way here. There’s a notion that rivers which occur in this way follow the line of fallen trees, which collect water, then rot to form a channel.  According to Alice Oswald, ‘dart’ is old Devonian for ‘oak’.

It’s amazing to see the land reclaim its own.  We’re gathered by a tree that’s lain here for some time, and we can see how the tips of it have disappeared and are indistinguishable from the ground; eventually that will be the case for the whole trunk, maybe leaving a hump where the root ball was. We know this. But we don’t usually see the tree fall, like Graeme and I saw this one gradually succumb seven or eight years ago.  We were walking along the path, perhaps just passing Boulder, when Graeme noticed its top twigs travelling through the scenery.  He nudged me and pointed.

Contra Flow (photograph by Tom Salmon)

Contra Flow (photograph by Tom Salmon)

We get back on the path, and soon we’re where we can look across to see the last of Black Brook as it white-tumbles its rocky fall into the Rivelin.  The tributary is named for the peat that used to be dug up round its source up at Lodge Moor, and its arrival here is responsible for Third Coppice Wheel being able to manufacture paper through nearly the whole of the 19th century.

For the clean water essential to such industry, they ran an aqueduct from the top of the waterfall over the river to factory buildings on this side.  Somewhere on this steep bit of ground they had a paper mill, two drying houses, a rope shed, rolling house, store and stove, as well as domestic buildings for people and livestock.  The Rivelin still turned the millwheel for power.

Protruding from the mud is the curved top of some kind of metal tank left behind by the papermakers.  If it’s round, then it’ll be seven foot in diameter.  Perhaps it was a boiler or water storage tank.  Down by the river, the remaining brickwork gives a marvellous insight into the ingenuity of water redirection.  And in the water you may witness an instance of the river flowing against itself: turbulence caused by riverbed disturbance, or by the torrent of Black Brook, or it could be the channelling remnants of its industrial past.

It’s fitting, then, to end this life-told-backwards walk with a poem about how the Rivelin gathers itself and sets off.  Some years ago, we went to find the source of the Rivelin, and though I tried for a short while to convince myself otherwise, it was clear to me that I couldn’t write my poem from there, mainly because the terrain and atmosphere reminded me far too much of the opening pages of Alice Oswald’s Dart.  On walks nearby at Fox Hagg, however, I’d seen unnamed tributaries of the Rivelin trickle and pour out of near-vertical craggy land.  So instead I began the tale there.

I’m drawn to the idea that rivers, which now bring corridors of nature into city centres like Sheffield, were unwittingly responsible for delivering the industry that made them.  Also by how these rivers begin fresh and free, but for many centuries were harnessed for work as they matured.  Having a teenage son when we visited the source, and especially on seeing some of the meandering and messing about the Rivelin does before finding its groove, made comparison with the life of a young person – as yet not truly aware of how the yoke of work will channel his or her energy – seem pleasingly apt.  But it’s not only in Sheffield that rivers brought us to town, and the macro comparison is far more compelling.  Over the past several centuries humans have moved as a race from rural to city life; each decade we’ve removed ourselves further from nature’s jurisdiction, and it seems we may now risk losing our way on the earth, if we continue to turn away from nature’s guidance and nourishment.

The Rivelin tells all these stories.

In keeping with much other writing about Sheffield’s working rivers, I’ve used the word ‘dam’ to mean a confined body of water that now functions as a lake but used to store head-water for the power wheel.

Ball, Christine, Crossley, David, and Flavell, Neville. 2006. Water Power on the Sheffield Rivers (second edition). Sheffield: South Yorkshire Industrial History Society .

Rivelin Valley Conservation Group website. Click here to view and download the original map of the Rivelin Valley walk.
The Footing microsite. An anthology of specially commissioned poems on the theme of walking, with contributions from Angelina Ayers, James Caruth, Mark Goodwin, Rob Hindle, Andrew Hirst, Chris Jones and Fay Musselwhite (the latter’s Breach sequence includes the poems ‘Boulder’, ‘Contra Flow’, ‘Path Kill’ and ‘Impasse’). Click here to view further images of the Contra Flow river walk (taken by Emma Bolland).

The audio recordings of poems embedded in this post are also available to hear as a continuous sequence (click on the first track, ‘Eggs’, to begin the sequence of nine poems):

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