Getting my ducks in a row

May edition of the Remote Water series from our Visiting Research Fellow, Bevis Bowden

At last, I’m back in my kayak and back on the water. Pushing out from the bank and being caught by the stream, followed by those first paddle strokes, was simply great. My kayak is named Bathsheba after Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd character. A name to conjure with and a reminder to myself to approach this project unconventionally. I have been filming the stretch of the Thames from Godstow to Kings Lock since November 2023 for my project Remote Water. These are the topographical bookends for my film - lock to lock.

I have a notion: what if you could lift out this stretch of water between the locks in its entirety and see it is a single living organism and considering it as that. Visually this reminds me of the non-terrestrial intelligence that the character Dr Lindsay Brigham encounters in James Cameron’s 1989 film The Abyss and the use of an experimental liquid breathing diving suit enabling diving to great depths. Our perspective of water is often a body to look into, or float on. Think of John Everett Millais’ painting Ophelia, 1851-2. In Michael Andrews’ painting Melanie and Me Swimming, 1978-9, the mechanism of suspension appears absent.

I have begun to learn the stretch of river between the two locks - its rhythms and importantly the natural life that inhabits it. I have watched its hypnotising flow from the bank for months. But now I’m in its stream I’m having to re-learn it. I’m seeing it now from the river’s point of view. The winter months have revealed some of its secrets. Fleeting glimpses of some its rarer residents have disturbed its otherwise metronomic rhythm. Of course, a sighting of an otter, albeit fleetingly, has been a highlight and a psychological lift during the wet and windy months. But I have also taken great pleasure and enjoyed the company from its more regular inhabitants. There is just something about waterfowl that can raise a smile.

I enter the water now with different intentions for the film. The idea has developed - I have new protagonists for the film, new angles to explore which I’m very excited about. This is what happens when you have the time and space for an idea to develop. At times I wonder if I can keep up with the river. It’s constantly changing and especially now. Spring has taken an unstoppable firm hold. Vistas that I discounted during the winter are revealing themselves under a new guise and views that I have grown familiar with are disappearing behind new growth. Soon much of the river will be invisible from the bank as the reeds grow high. The river will become a secret corridor - a world within a world. Months of being alone on its riverbank and at one with nature are being replaced now with the seasonal increase of human presence. It’s great to see so many people enjoying the river as a life tonic as the days have lengthened. I admit, I miss ‘my’ winter river. But it is of course not mine, it’s everyone’s to enjoy. And we are all the better for it. But please, please take your rubbish home with you!

Filming can be frustrating and it’s not without its challenges especially when your talent hasn’t read the script. The decision on where to film on any day is often based on an assessment of prevailing conditions. Godstow is dominated by South Westerly weather patterns. It’s a windy location with limited shelter. Wind and filming with long lenses present you with challenges. I previously mentioned the Cat’s Cradle Conundrum. In this instance the elements pulling against each other are wind strength (and whether it’s constant or variable), camera position, the focal length of the lens and whether the lens has image stabilisation. These are the variables in front of the camera’s sensor. The next variable, and the nemesis of every filmmaker (whose camera uses rolling shutter technology as opposed to having a global shutter) is the dreaded Jello Effect. This is a visual warping of the image and is created because the camera exposes progressively across the sensor for each frame exposed. An object that moves within the frame’s exposure renders itself distorted. A global shutter exposes the whole sensor in a single burst. You could ignore all these variables and rely on image stabilisation in post-production but it’s a digital process and can only work on what it’s given. But this is all well and good but, in the moment, when an Otter suddenly appears all of this is forgotten and just maintaining the Otter in the frame and in focus becomes your priority. I found myself recently willing a Swan to swim through my carefully composed frame in a particular way. Fortunately, Swan behaviour does allow for non-negotiated retakes and eventually the Swan obliged and gave me the shot I was looking for. It’s all swings and roundabouts.

It’s just not wildlife I’m having encounters with. I was talking to Sebastian on the access road to Kings Lock. He was lamenting the loss of the willows along the riverbank. Their branches providing perfect points of attachment for swings over the water. There are good reasons for pollarding a tree, but it can appear brutal to see. For Sebastian’s daughter, at least for her generation, she won’t be able to swing out across the river, let go and swim back to the bank. An alternative does exist - a frayed rope hanging from a pipe under Godstow Bridge. But all I can imagine here is a Banksy intervention. The thunder of the A34 above is just not the same as the sound of Skylarks suspended above. Skylarks are ever present in the meadows that straddle the river upstream of Godstow Bridge. There is a simple joy in listening to their song as they rise and fall in their invisible columns of air. Of course, pollarding is part of an ongoing programme of river management, I get that but why they couldn’t have left a single bough to swing from seems to be a missed opportunity. That single gesture would have gone a long way. Mind you whether you would want to be swimming in the river is another thing?

I have watched the water levels rise and rise over winter. I can still see the lines of flotsam way out into the meadows on either side of the river as makers of the flooding. But now the levels are receding. The balance has been tipped. The ground water is resolutely leaking back into the river. But it won’t be long before the lack of water hits the headlines!