The Lune through Lancaster (2): Skerton Weir
Skerton weir, between the Aqueduct and Skerton Bridge, is the boundary between river and estuary.
Although the corn mill was demolished in 1950s, the weir continued as a popular place of relaxation and play: to sit beside its pond-stillness and patterned cascade, to swim placidly or racily behind, walk adventurously along, slide riskily down, fish from, a place of informal gathering, social experience, rites of passage, where local kids did their growing up, Skerton beach.
It was rebuilt in 1970s, “a nasty piece of engineering”, “extremely dangerous”, “lethal at high tide”, definitively separating two worlds, of the river, Environment Agency and the estuary, Port Commissioners, crossed only by diminishing numbers of salmon and the occasional errant jet skier. No one goes near it.
The average water level is 3 feet. At 12:15am, 6 December, 2015, it rose to 13 feet. A foot of rain had fallen in 24 hours, and the flow was the highest ever recorded on a UK river. Storm Desmond.
This evening the swans float perfectly reflected. Long ago, when everything was taken for granted, and looking back everything had significance, I watched one take off, and ‘a door open as it passed from a small dark room into a golden world of limitless possibility.’ [Letter 13.]
On the opposite bank 16 herons stand in a row, like grey and white umbrellas stuck in at the points. Sometimes grooming, the occasional wing adjustment, but mostly standing still, as if time does not exist. In the trees above perch 20 cormorants, black as absence. They pass my window each morning, heading for the sea, flying fast, eager commuters.
I am walking by the river hand in hand with Angela, between bridge and weir. It is 3am. I have been to the Friday night dance in Morecambe with my brother, the only time, for we inhabit different worlds. My brother introduced me to Brenda and Angela, bouffant hair, petticoated dresses, stiletto heels. I danced with Angela as never before or after, she sparkled on the dance floor as if illuminated by the spinning mirror ball, light on her lightning feet, turning and swaying in perfect balance, leading all the time while moving backwards and appearing to be led, avoiding my mistakes adroitly and turning my errors into stylish moves, navigating us around the dance floor and between shuffling couples unerringly, round and round in a breathless whirl, as the music stops a big smile. She is a burler and mender, a skilled trade. The guest group was the Beatles. In two weeks they will release “Love Me Do” and change music. In two weeks I will go to university and my life will change. My brother has shown me the panther he carved. It took my breath away. The curved surfaces I had to follow with the touch of the prints of my fingers, the muscled limbs tensed for action, the backbone taut as a bow, sinuous as a snake; motion stilled, distilled; a frame from a film and the whole film in that frame; ferocity caged and yet innocent energy; vitality trapped and yet freedom expressed. My brother should go to art school. At Christmas he will get engaged to Brenda and continue as a joiner, an excellent tradesman.
We are walking over the memory of the cottages they demolished to build the flats, Wimpey’s contribution to the International Style, ‘more is less’ commented my art teacher. ‘My Nan had one of the cottages,’ Angela says. ‘Just here.’ She stops, looks down, looks out. ‘I loved the river. Always different. We girls’d wade over when it was low, like now, skirts tucked in our knickers, for a dare, getting shouted at from the bridge, birds on the islands, sea birds I suppose, black and white, darting movements, long pink legs and sharp red beaks, as if they’d been rummaging in a corpse, we’d scare each other, ‘look out, you’re going to step in it!’ Next week full, fast, like sliding lead, hardly getting under the bridge, going round the bend like a racing car, carrying tree trunks like battering rams, birds perched on them, expecting to see houses with people clinging to the chimneys, “Help! Help!”, like at the pictures. Sometimes it’d come through the cottage, in through the front out through the back. Never deep, we’d sweep it through, no lino, Nan quite liked it, “keeps the flags clean”. Broke her heart when they moved her into the flats. Tenth floor. I moved in with her – dad trouble. She didn’t live long. On my own. Fourteen. Waking from dreams, looking out at – no, for – the river. Once, just once, in that luminous moment of just waking, I caught it full to the brim, still as mercury, in the deepest silence of the night, at the moment it arrived at its highest point, like a breath held, before it let go, the beginning of its long flow out. I imagined myself lying on it, looking up at the full moon, being carried away to … Just once.’ Her voice far away. Her hand warm. We walk on.