Blacktop Rain

…and other secret joys

Budock Creek

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View of the creek and Penryn Bridge

View of the creek and Penryn Bridge

Here’s one from the archives. I submitted this piece as part of my MA course and its probably the piece I was happiest with and still enjoy reading. It also makes me feel incredibly homesick for Penryn. I’ve added some pictures for visual interest.

*

8:20  It’s my first morning in Penryn and I’m awoken by the seagulls squawking and squabbling with one another on some important seagull matter. Eventually I will grow accustomed to the sound and my sleeping brain will learn to filter them out, but for now I roll up the blinds and look out at the creek.

8:25 I sit at my desk with the window open. It’s not quite the season for open windows but I’m hoping the cold air and the smell of the creek – a half freshwater, half salt water smell (a hint of coal fire drifts in too) – will inspire my work. When I moved to Penryn I chose this house next to Budock Creek because I pictured myself sitting at my desk by the window and pausing every now and then, at the end of a sentence, to look at the tidal changes being played out on the creek and to watch the seagulls performing their daily routines. That has become my life, I look out at the creek every morning as I drink my tea. I pause from my writing to watch it, and whenever I cross the metal bridge that spans across to my house I stop to watch the changing tide. As I’ve watched the creek and learnt more about it I’ve come to see that this quiet stretch of water, lined with houses and apartments, has, in the past, told a very different story. Even 40 years ago it was anything but quiet. There would have been the sounds, drifting up from Exchequers Quay of Freeman & Sons Ltd granite works: the clinking of metal chisels on hard stone, the grinding of granite as each block was unloaded and stacked, the sighing of horses, sweating with the exhaustion of pulling granite blocks from the quarry, and later on the grinding of traction engines that replaced the horses, and the shouts of men directing the crane, to the left, left a bit more, now down, slowly, slowly, stop. From Fox Stanton, the timber importers, comes the percussion of wood banging against wood, and the intermingled smells of fresh cut timber and smoke. Across the creek the sounds of bones being ground and the smell of manure drift from the West of England bone and manure factory. Penryn was once a town packed with different industries, as well as the factories lining Budock Creek there was an iron foundry, a tan yard, a lime kiln, and coal yards, gunpowder mills, paper works, and shipbuilding and repair yards. As well as the various trades, including cattle, which would wander in to the houses and shops as they were driven down to the quay. This industrial history had been converted in to living space, its sounds replaced by children playing, the occasional car driving past and seagulls squawking. Mostly the creek itself has reclaimed its voice and can be heard at low tide, chattering away to itself.

9:00 The tide is out and the creek branches into smaller streams, their surfaces broken into diamonds by the morning light. The world is still waking up and a haze hangs over the town, obscuring the white houses up on the hill. A faint glow of sun light shines on the granite walls that form the creek’s banks and their usual dull, dirty cream colour warms in the light. The creek is quiet in its half awake state, only the chirp chirp of a bird interrupts the calm. I sip my tea and notice a man, in the window of a house across the creek, sipping his tea and watching the water too.

11:30 Low tide reveals the river bed and its collection of detritus, mostly bits of plastic, twigs, leaves and seaweed. A large red sign on the bridge prohibits the mooring of boats. The sign has been ignored and a worn out, deflated motorboat – the ghost boat – has been tied to the bridge with blue rope. Its only passenger now an empty beer can.

The ghost boat

The ghost boat

12:32 It’s Sunday and I decide to pack myself some lunch and walk to Flushing. The walk there takes me away from Budock Creek and along its neighbour, Gluvia Creek. Together the two creeks flow into the Penryn River, forming a silty dragon’s tongue. In turn, the Penryn River is part of a larger system of rivers called the Carrick Roads. In Bob Dunstan’s book about Falmouth and Penryn he describes the Carrick Roads as being shaped like ‘a giant right hand’. On reading the book I misread it as ‘a giant’s right hand’ and I think I like that description better, as though it wasn’t geological time, but the hand print of a giant, stumbling and steadying himself on the land, that formed the drowned valleys of the Carrick Roads. As I walk along the path that passes through woods and graveyards, along beaches and fields, I keep looking back across the water at Penryn. I’m reminded of a quote I’ve come across in various places, including the town Museum, by Peter Mundy, a seventeenth century travel writer, who states that Penryn… presents as fine a prospect as any town in England… One book I read decided to be a little more honest and include the entire quote, which ends …but coming into it you will be deceived by your expectations, in regard of the uncleanness and unevennesse of the streets… I think Peter Mundy has it the wrong way round. From a distance Penryn doesn’t look impressive, its water frontage is modern and lines with warehouses and shops, and its surrounding hills are covered with new housing. As I’ve watched the creek I’ve come to appreciate Penryn’s smaller details.

13:56 The tide is starting to come in and an old man is stood on the bridge with a bag of bread, feeding the ducks. There are three of them, two males and a female. The female stands on a patch of river bed that hasn’t yet been submerged and preens her feathers. the two males seem to have lost interest in the bread, but the old man carries on throwing it into the water in a meditative state, his eyes fixed on the same patch of river bed. A seagull takes up the task of eating the unwanted soggy bread. It looks clumsy and uncomfortable on the water, as though its ballast is top heavy, so that its tail feathers stick up in a half-mooning pose. The female duck has lost her perch now to the incoming tide. An elderly couple and their two dogs cross the bridge and share pleasantries with the old man. Hello, beautiful day, isn’t it? Yes, beautiful day. The shadow of a seagull wheels up the side of the house across the creek, before alighting on the roof to meet its owner.

View from St Thomas Street

View from St Thomas Street

15:02 The weather has started to warm up and I decide to follow the creek into the woods. Budock Creek is also sometimes referred to as College Creek and the woods are known as College Woods. This is because a theological college called Glasney once stood at the head of Penryn’s two creeks. Little remains of the college today, it was closed down during the dissolution of the monasteries and its granite stones were raided by the town for use in other buildings. I follow the creek to the end of my road where it disappears from view as its passes beneath a row of houses. It reappears again at the end of College Ope, a passage way between two columns said to have once been part of Glasney College. As I follow the path past College Fields and into the woods I lose the creek again before finding it under the viaduct. From here the creek starts to meld with its tributaries, which get lost in a confusion of small water ways, trees, shrubs and weeds. I seem to have lost the path now and I find myself scrambling through ever denser green growth. The flowers I had been told carpet the woods in spring are no where to be seen, with the exception of a single primrose, upon which a lone bee rests. Eventually I find the path again, which stops at a wide section of river, through I no longer know whether its the creek or not. I step slowly out into the water, hoping it won’t spill over the top of my Wellington boots, and stop in the middle, feeling the cold pressure of the water against my boots.

15:43 I’m stood at the bus stop on Penryn Bridge, looking out at the harbour and the activities of people cleaning and fixing boats. Penryn Bridge is a fixed concrete and granite bridge, but at one time Budock Creek was spanned by a steel swing bridge. The would turn at a 90° angle, allowing boats to enter the creek at high tide in order to load and unload cargo at the various workshops and factories that lined it. Around the beginning of the 20th century the amount of traffic crossing over the creek began to far outnumber the boats passing along it and in 1925 the Mayor of Penryn suggested that the swing bridge should be replaced with a fixed bridge, a suggestion that led to disagreements among Penryn’s residents and officials. the Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall, fed up with the ongoing dispute, referred to Budock Creek as that small corner of mud. The building of a fixed bridge finally began in 1931 and was completed in 1935. the only traffic I see on the creek is the occasional canoe or rowing boat.

16:40 The tide is coming in, bringing with it a skin of flotsam – feathers, leaves and grasses – which the ducks nibble at. As the tide flows in, the creek flows out and the two meet, ruffling the water’s surface. The air is layered with smoke from the pub’s chimney and the sun shines with fake promise. The train passes by and the usual collection of seagulls wheel in the air, like dust motes caught in an unseen current. All change, all change. This is the final destination and the seagulls are a fluster of passengers. The ducks converse with throaty rattles. They are talking to one another in a language I will never understand because the referents are all out of line. I live by the creek and they live the creek. They see the land from the water. It is cold and the world outside my window is drowning in frog, like hazy water filling up a glass.

The creek bed

The creek bed

17:05 I have half a loaf of stale bread, so I decide to feed it to the ducks. I go out through the back door and sit down on the stone wall of the bank. the ducks must have seen me coming, they’re already making their way across the river towards me. I start ripping off chunks of bread, making sure each of the three ducks gets a fair share. A seagull lands on the roof of the house across the river from me. It starts calling out, food food food food food. Before long the air in front of me is a confetti of white wings and yellow beaks. I try throwing bits of bread up into the air, hoping they might catch it mid-flight, but they refuse to reform. A young seagull in its dappled grey coat sits on the water squawking pathetically. I throw bread to it but the older seagulls always get there first. Two black crows hover cautiously at the periphery, waiting for me to leave so they can feast on the remains.

17:34 Coming home I stop on the bridge to take in the later sunlit view. The river is high and has its usual grimy film. I imagine dipping my hand in and lifting it away with the film attached, like the skin on warmed milk. I look down into the water, it is full of petals, leaves, and the husks of seeds. A white plastic bag floats down stream, undulating with the current like a jellyfish. the ducks arrive, they must think it’s dinner time, but I have nothing to offer them. I’m certainly not going to share the expensive Cornish gingerbread biscuits I’ve just bought from the corner shop. They settle for dipping their beaks into the grimy film, finding something in there that passes for food. the sun is going down behind me and lights up a blossom tree as it shines through the pink wafer petals. the seagulls sing and I listen, trying to discern what they are saying. What? What? What? What? What? Profound or confused? Questioning the meaning of everything or failing to understand their own being? What? Eventually the calm is disturbed by a fellow bridge-crosser and I move on, back to the flat, back to a warm cup of tea and Cornish gingerbread biscuits.

18:15 As the lights grows faint the seagulls wheeze like emphysemic old men.

The Famous Barrel next to the creek

The Famous Barrel next to the creek

19:34 It’s my last night in Penryn and we decide to go to The Famous Barrel for a pint. It’s still light when we get there, so we buy our pints of Tribute and take them into the beer garden. We pick a table near the creek and sit talking and sipping our beer in sight of the water. It’s dark by the time we leave and the owl is out, twit twit twit, but there is no who in reply. There is a spring tide lapping up onto the bridge and we stop to look at it. Egged on by beer my friend decides to do his balancing act on the bridge railing. Don’t fall in! My shouting unsettles the ducks, who are resting on the ghost boat. They quack and ruffle their tails, so we leave them to their sleep and seek out the warmth of our houses.

23:11 As I lie in bed trying to sleep I listen to the creek and realise that it doesn’t just have one sound. There are the sounds of water on water, water on mud, water on rock. One part of the river makes a sound like bath water draining. Another part is more like the sound of someone disturbing a bucket full of water with their fingers. Somewhere in there is the sound of pots being washed. I focus on this sound as I go to sleep.

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Author: Naomi Racz

I am a nature writer, with a particular interest in urban nature. I also write about social media and work in communications with an NGO.

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