We watched the kingfisher for fifteen, twenty minutes. It sat on the very tip of a long branch, focused on the water, it’s face a little grumpy, I thought, from all the concentration. Then it dove, pierced the surface, crossed the river to another branch. Then it went to water, back to the foliage, back to the water, and to the concrete ledge where we sat, over the moon at this lately-long-sought bird sitting within reach of an outstretched arm. It was not the electric iridescence one normally thinks of, more light blue and green, fluffy rather than shiny. It seemed as much non-plussed by us as by the squabbling ducks. Z and I had stomped the River Lea for years, but today were on its curved tributary arm, the River Stort, and, having travelled to Rye Meads three weeks before on a website promise that the kingfishers were out and about, and seen none, this was not so much a delightful surprise as a genuine shock: on the towpath on the edge of Bishop’s Stortford, with the traffic belting overhead and loud groups of cyclists gliding past, a perfectly contented kingfisher, up and down to the river, branch to water to branch, before disappearing upstream towards the town centre.
The real reason for our trip was to find some Hertfordshire Puddingstone, a conglomerate of flint pebbles in a matrix of fine pale sand all cemented together by silica, and the final piece of the Written in the Rocks puzzle. But we were also along for the ride. After Bishop’s Stortford, the canalized river widened and was flush with boats and Sunday walkers. The river meanders along the Essex-Herts border, and is less managed or industrial than the Lea, its banks thick with reeds and other foliage, its towpath scuffed and narrow, its waist curled and waters clear. If it wasn’t for the locks, you would not imagine it a canal river at all, and though at one point it would have served for trade, it seemed pleasantly impractical for such endeavours. We walked on under the wings of willow trees. With the aid of a wildflower book we found Hedge Bindweed and Himalayan Balsam, Willowherb and Yellow Waterlilies. The fields and meadows revealed Common Ragwort, Goat Rue and Agrimony. With much deliberation we identified Common Comfrey (it comes in yellow and pink – today’s was pink).
At some point we realised we were passing Wallbury, an iron age sixteen hectare enclosure within an earthwork; but we wouldn’t really have known it was there without the OS map telling us so: our attempted digression to see it was thwarted by an overgrown and marshy footpath. We’d not given up our quest for puddingstone, but realised that our notion of finding it in the fields was wishful thinking, so after a good pub lunch in Spellbrook, we pressed on for Sawbridgeworth, knowing there was definitely some of the stone there in the foundations of Great St. Mary church. The stretch of the Stort from Spellbrook to Sawbridgeworth was exquisite, with flood meadows awash with purple willowherb, and ochre hay fields stretched out like humungous bales between the trees.
It is in fields such as these that a farmer might crack his combine on a chunk of puddingstone. The stones seemed to appear from nowhere, so the superstition amongst farmers was that they grew in the fields to damage crops and machinery, and many examples were destroyed. It was also used for grinding corn. I suspect the many mills on the Stort had used it, but can’t find a reference anywhere. Nowadays, it is decorative when highly polished, and is found in towns around Hertfordshire as memorials or natural sculptures. A recent find has caused some excitement in Bishop’s Stortford. I know of it through Bryan Lovell, who has posited a link between the formation of puddingstone and the period of global warming 55 million years ago (the 55Ma Event). The Event – and the puddingstone – has been an important part of the ideas behind this year’s project. I’ve even got a puddingstone poem, of sorts.
It was hot now, as we approached Sawbridgeworth. The day had unexpectedly brightened, casting long shadows as we climbed the hill towards Great St. Mary. We circled its flint walls eagerly, and there, at the base of the tower, built into its foundations, was the puddingstone. It was dark brown, muddy, but unmistakeable, with orange nuggets and fine white pebbles. Not a cracking specimen, but a result nonetheless. It is thought that puddingstone built into churches meant it was originally a site of pagan worship. But it may also have simply been used as a solid foundation. We took some pictures then looked round the churchyard. Through the trees the rolling hay fields hit the horizon while the valley dipped towards the Stort and our train back to London.