Monday, 2 April 2012

Walk 26: The Last of the Brook - Stroud end of Slad Road

New leaves by stream
Our early summer has worn off.  After a week of temperatures in the teens and 20s, it's now not much more than 10 degrees, with a cold wind, though there is sunshine among the clouds.  I'm setting out to see what I can of the very last part of the Slad Brook, from where I last saw it to where it finally disappears into a major culvert close to central Stroud.  This is not so easy, as the brook runs behind numbers of private houses and a series of factories and workshops, like a footpath through a shooting estate - tolerated, but not (I have the impression) particularly welcomed.  In fact there only a few places where I can go to see it.  The first is Little Mill Court, a newish development of red brick houses which run right up to the back of the industrial estate in Libby's Drive.  From the far end of this road, I can just see the back of the Rycote factory, and catch a glimpse of the point where I last saw the stream, leaving the Rycote grounds.

In this estate, the stream is well below road-level, with steep banks, and is firmly fenced off on the pavement side with railings and heavy-duty fencing.  On the other side, the gardens of the houses slope right down to the water and most are either open to it, or have gates in their fences suggesting that their owners at least go and look at it now and then.   The brook runs behind one set of houses and in front of another for 50 yards or so and then disappears into a square concrete culvert covered by an iron grille which carries it underneath the road and into a different part of the estate.

Even here in this patch of neat and regulated housing, the stream gathers the last remnants of the countryside around it.  By the bridge which carries the road over the culvert is a young chestnut tree growing right down on the stream bank, its sticky buds bursting beautifully into leaf at my eye level, and further back are a couple of big pollarded willows and smaller trees growing on the bank. The stream is flanked by brambles, the odd wild buddleia, nettles and similar.  A patch of daffodils makes a bright spot under the trees.  A tiny path runs erratically along part of the bank – possibly a badger path?  The fences are no doubt a health and safety measure, but they also suggest a concern to keep this wildness at bay.

Little Mill Court
Part way along this first section is a concreted outflow with a fair amount of water coming into the main stream from the uphill direction, which could be either a tamed tributary, or just a water run-off from the houses higher up the hill.  On the other side of the bridge, the stream reappears from a neat concreted hole into a narrow, vertical-sided, stone-faced channel in front of another set of new houses.  It's even further below me now, and the opposite bank is buttressed by blocks of stone in cages of wire mesh, and topped off with severe iron railings.  The houses, built within the last few years, still look very new, their sharp edges and stark colours not yet mellowed by time.  On this side, the wall also has a crown of railings.  20 feet below, the stream runs on almost silently beside a small fringe of bank overgrown with grass, the hardier sorts of weeds and several burgeoning buddleias.  Neater and more domesticated bushes planted in the gardens opposite are pushing through the railings as if trying to see their wilder cousins below.  There is a minute children’s play area on this side of the railings before the stream disappears into more concrete.

From Slad Mill
Now the water travels under the beginning of Lansdown Road, underneath the handsome brick buildings which were once Slad Mill and are now residential apartments, to emerge on the other side behind the gardens of houses on Slad Road. From the car park by Slad Mill, I get a glimpse of it running straight as a silver arrow into the distance, flanked by more concrete and iron, but also by white cherry blossom and the unrealistically luminous green of a newly-leafed weeping willow.

Where does it go from here?  Stern signs warning ‘Beware Steep Bank and Water’ suggest that it runs beside the car park of the Salvation Army housing at Streamside, still running parallel with the main road.   Further towards Stroud, I turn off the road, following a  footpath sign down a concrete path past a bank studded with the golden stars of celandines, to a concrete bridge where I’m suddenly overwhelmed by the noise of water.  On the left, the stream appears from behind houses and plunges down a three-step weir with great force.

When this weir was new, not so very many years ago, it must have looked very stark and stern, but now the concrete wall is softened by a bead curtain of trailing bramble, and various plants and small trees are growing into the stream at the top of the weir. A yellow-chested wagtail flits up from the water as I arrive, and settles on a branch above the water where he poses for a surprisingly long time, long enough for me to coax my recalcitrant camera into focusing on him.

The weir and the wagtail
On the other side of the bridge the stream calms down and disappears behind the concrete backs of several light industrial buildings. It’s possible to get down onto a small bit of overgrown bank beside the bridge which gives a view of the water under the bridge and a brief sense of having re-entered the world of the stream.  On the flanking wall, someone has abandoned, or possibly concealed, a bottle in a bright blue plastic bag.  There is a fair amount of general litter in the stream here, the penalty of being in such close proximity to lots of human beings.  There’s something joyful about the weir, though, with its multiple waterfalls flashing in the sun, its tresses of brambles, and the jaunty yellow wagtail.  What’s odd is that the noise of the weir vanishes utterly as soon as I return to the main road, so that if it hadn’t been for the footpath sign, I wouldn't have discovered it.  I've been travelling along this road regularly for five years, and up to now I had no idea of the existence of the weir.

The very final glimpse of the Slad Brook is less joyful.  After passing another block of buildings I turn down an unnamed and slightly gloomy alleyway which leads to a scrubby open area of backs of buildings and car parking, and also to another tiny bridge and a view of the stream running behind old workshops.  Here are big iron gates saying ‘Danger Keep Out’ and ‘No Unauthorised Access’, more heavy-duty railings. and an iron grid allowing access to a big box on the wall which announces itself as a ‘River Level Measurement Station’ provided by the Environment Agency.  This, I'm guessing, has been installed since the Great Flood of 2007 when this end of the Slad Road was deep under water and people were jet-skiing on it.  Hard to imagine that now, looking at the stream, so small and close-trammelled in its concrete channel.  On one side are the red brick backs of old workshop buildings and on the other, more concrete and fences.  There are no banks to speak of, but nevertheless the stream still keeps its fringe of greenery, plants growing between the bricks, ivy and brambles climbing up the walls, small saplings sprouting from the water itself.  Nature takes every space you give it, and in some strange way I find that reassuring.  Underneath this little bridge, the stream vanishes into an altogether more final culvert.

The last bridge
An odd walk this, with quite a different feel to it from all the others.  For one thing, it’s the shortest section of audio I’ve recorded so far.  I've got used to talking to my sound recorder as I walk alone through the countryside, but feel massively self-conscious about doing it in the town, and there’s no doubt that this is now the town.  As I stand taking photographs of the last view of the stream as it disappears into the culvert, a woman leans out of her car and asks suspiciously what I’m doing.  When I explain that I’m photographing the stream (to reassure her that I’m not some sort of industrial spy), she tells me that there’s another bridge (she means the one by the weir), in the sort of tone that suggests she’d rather I wasn’t on this bridge.  OK, that may be paranoia, but I’ve noticed that other people (not just me) get more paranoid in towns.  Someone with a camera is just a regular sight in Slad village, with its fine views, but a source of suspicion in an alleyway in Stroud.

After this, the stream is underneath the buildings - possibly, or possibly not, in its culvert.  I'm told that in some of these houses the stream runs in an open channel through their cellars, and a few months ago, when work was being done on this end of the Slad Road, it was possible to hear the stream gurgling sepulchrally below the hole in the road.  But in any case, this is its last public appearance before it flows into the river Frome somewhere below central Stroud.  And beyond this point I’m no longer in the Slad Valley, by any stretch of the imagination. So this is the last of the valley, and my last view of the brook.

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