The AA Guide to the British Countryside is now out of print. It was a hefty volume; thick spined and well thumbed; a reference book, not a book for carrying in your knapsack as you yomped down shadowed green lanes or across fields towards a distant stile. Yet it celebrated grand attractions and intimate views: from an old tree topped hill fort scarce noticed, to field patterns, to towns, cities or magnificent vistas; it celebrated special places up and down our isles and made places feel special in turn. It was designed no doubt, for long nights poring through its pages, planning roads trips; in reality it was a homage, suffused with a sense of place born of countless years of nature and man weaving their patterns on the land.
One of the glories of the guide was shining a light on the uncelebrated. One such uncelebrated place was the Blithe valley; a short stream, rising east of the Potteries and heading east again and south before joining the Trent. The name is thought to be Old English from gentle, which is perfectly apt; it is only a small river, which meanders lazily and somnolently through its willow lined valley, wet meadows and hedgerow still persist . The Guide, rather understatedly, described it as “the quintessential English country scene”.
It was mistaken though: the quintessential English scene is next door; the next stream draining into the Trent watershed heading east, the Swarbourne, is more hidden, and quite different in character but equally everyday, equally unnoteworthy, so much so that like the many scenes like this, we take it for granted. The Swarbourn is a river of only 10 miles from source to confluence. Rising in the ancient Needwood Forest, unlike most streams, its valley is tightly bound through both its upper and middle reaches; it has more purpose, directness, yet remains humble.
The source is a hidden spring amongst trees and leaf litter. Its foot, where it quietly merges with the Trent, you would hardly notice: there is a water meadow, bowing grasses and stately, tall reeds and then it is gone; only the Swans, surfing the short rapids here notice its influence. Between is the valley. Whilst it is narrow and steep sided it is not soaring. Cloaked with rich and varied woodlands in a patena of greens and browns; narrow paths snaking up through dappled shade, the verticality is emphasised, but it is a show. Lower down, the floor of the valley leads the eye on to a close perspective, shortening distance with softening trees and sharpened at its edges by unruly hedgerows of hawthorn and beech, reaching out into the road, brushing legs. Oaks, sporadically planted in the hedge, mark boundaries, overlooked corners, intimate meeting places. The river is never far away. Bridges here are simple affairs and now more beautiful because of it; low walled, flaking brick and stone; the arches unseen, easily filled by rising flow. Fords are common too, with rutted lanes bouncing down to the rippling, running water, faster flowing over the drift-line.
In places the valley opens up just a little; but here the views explode out: a distant Church tower, a stand of brooding Scots Pine waiting to be climbed, a whale-backed field with the slow shifting spots of black & white cows; nearer to is an old cornmill, with apple trees dangling long arms over a speckled green pond, before squeezing in again, cramming the landscape back into a postcard window. The valley is its own world; longitudinal, like stops on the line.
(Image: copyright, John Waterhouse; www.johnwaterhouseartist.co.uk)