River Lane

…not surprised should the river suddenly
Yield a hundredfold, every hunger appeased.

Elizabeth Jennings – Men Fishing in the Arno

Until the 1960s the Eastern Electricity Generating Board operated a coal fired power station in the heart of Peterborough tucked away behind Bridge Street on a site currently occupied by an Asda superstore. This brutalist brick structure with it’s fat single chimney squatted unacknowledged in the urban landscape like a monstrous stove in a back room.  The station’s twin turbines were cooled by water extracted from the River Nene close to Town Bridge and returned to the river via a concrete culvert a few hundred yards upstream. Between these two points, steaming ominously winter and summer, ran a short canal parallel to the Nene, known to everyone as The Cut.

At the business end of The Cut, water seethed from metal grilles below the turbines, cooling as it made the short journey under a footbridge, and along the canal to the culvert where in the early morning you could watch carp rolling across the concrete bar.

To reach The Cut you swung your bike through the sharp 180 degree turn by the Crescent Bridge into River Lane and almost immediately dropped out of sight. You passed reassuring the shape of the Friends Meeting House and its tree-shaded garden, some respectable bungalows and the odd semi but beyond these the road’s character quickly changed. Past the last streetlight the metalled surface became a dirt track and the lane itself narrowed to a tunnel bounded on one side by a seemingly endless brick wall which screened the marshalling yards and coal stores that fed the power station’s furnaces. In the 1950s this wall had a brief moment of celebrity when questions were asked in Parliament about the sheer number of bricks needed to build it at a time of national shortages. The other side of the tunnel was formed by brambles and a scrubby hedge that hid a travellers camp and the feral dogs which acted as its gatekeepers. When you finally emerged into the open and crossed the footbridge over The Cut the transition was complete. You may have been no more than a long cast from the city centre but something had undeniably changed. You had entered an area of semi-industrial marginal land where the rules were quite different from those at River Lane’s more respectable end. 

 Life here seemed to operate outside normal social constraints. A sense of lawlessness hung in the air which to an adolescent boy was like the first intoxicating taste of freedom. It was a place of uneasy calm disturbed by occasional brutal fights, of air rifles and shotguns in the hands of traveller boys, of daylight drinking, industrial architecture and dangerous, reed-filled water. Beyond the reach of respectability, in a very important sense off the map, River Lane was the sort of place that gave parents nightmares.  At 13 it became the centre of my world.

To a boy with time on his hands and a fishing rod the Cut offered a vision of unlimited promise. A vast untapped potential lay just below the steaming surface, unacknowledged by the urban dog-walkers, smokers, and loved-up cider drinking teenagers. Bleak, Roach, Gudgeon, Rudd, Perch, Pike, Tench, Carp, Chub – all gathered in the warm water outfall. Most were tiny hook-bothering tiddlers of an ounce or two. But this small fry attracted predators. Jack Pike swarmed the Cut. A Gudgeon casually hooked through the body behind its dorsal fin on a triple hook and dangled below a fat orange float would bring them out. The surge of excitement as the bulbous float dived through the surface and disappeared was a narcotic hit ridiculously easy to repeat. 

Among the regular fishermen there was a strict hierarchy. We youngsters were tolerated provided we didn’t get in people’s way. Among the adults were a few quieter, serious men who had a standing we youngsters could only dream of. From time to time a photograph would appear in the local paper of one of them cradling a Carp weighing 20 or 30 pounds which they had extracted from the narrow confines of the Cut,  concrete evidence of the miracles we instinctively knew were possible here. When someone  hooked a fish of any size the Cut was immediately galvanised. As word spread people would set their rods aside and make their way along the bank to watch, all attention focussed on the moving point where the line sliced through the surface. The assembly was  act of affirmation, almost of worship as the congregants silently anticipated the moment the waters of The Cut would offer up the fulfilment they had surely been promised.  

The day it happened to me was entirely unexpected.  I was fishing with a tiny hook on light tackle on an grey windless morning when my float dipped, and as I struck felt as if I’d embedded my hook in a log on the bottom. I was just debating whether I dared try to pull myself free and risk losing the hook and float when the log began to move. Trying desperately not to panic I let the fish run and carefully picked up the strain.

Slowly people began to gather. An older man settled in beside me to offer support – Take it gently, let him go, that’s it, you’re doing fine. And all the time my rod was bent in an impossible arc as I tried to balance the pressure on the running fish against the low-breaking strain of the line. Others appeared bringing landing nets which were laid ready on the bank. A discussion began among the crowd.  Carp, they decided. Had to be. Look at the way it’s moving. Couldn’t be anything else. For almost an hour I played my fish surrounded by men I knew well by sight who had never before acknowledged my existence. Now they were willing me on. I was mentally and physically exhausted by the time my quarry finally came into view, and the men set aside their landing nets and silently dispersed back to their own concerns. 

I’d hooked a pike. Not even a particularly big one. Worse, I’d foul-hooked him in the tail. And the effort it had taken to land him was entirely caused by the necessity of hauling him through the waters and hazards of the Cut backwards.

My big moment ended in anticlimax. But it perfectly encapsulated the lure of The Cut. Time spent here was always about more than catching fish. What kept me coming back was the feeling that something transformative was possible here, an indication that beyond the confines of school and home, life might at any moment open into something larger.

From first light there were fishermen lining the banks of the Cut. During the day a revolving cast of anglers came and went. And in the evening as the light failed the night shift took over. Night fishing brought with it a whole new level of excitement. It amazes me now that I was allowed to go.  The Cut and its surroundings were a daunting enough prospect for parents in daylight. Darkness could only multiplied its dangers so to agree to your child to spending the night in a place where drownings or worse seemed, if not mandatory at least inevitable, was not something to undertake lightly. 

And yet here I was at a young 14 wearing several sets of clothes against the cold setting up my basket and rod at the bottom of the steep bank and preparing for my first night in the shadow of the power station. The view along the bank was like something from a medieval book of hours. Figures huddled in hooded parkas in the failing light with candles in glass jars set among the reeds, hands cupped round flasks of steaming coffee.  Soon it was too dark to see a float. Some people were lucky enough to have electronic bite indicators. We had to invent our own, trapping the line below a penny balanced on the rim of a tin can so that a bite would send the fat copper coin clattering into the metal container.

Not that catching anything seemed particularly important. It paled into insignificance alongside the sheer fact of being here, out in the world, with the prospect of the whole night ahead.

Some time after midnight I was conscious of figures moving along the bank, among the fishermen, a ripple of subdued questions and answers and flickering torches, growing closer. The police, I guessed, who occasionally turned up on the bank in search of missing persons and absconding prisoners.  A few moments later the ripple had reached my swim and the lights were on the bank above me. I looked over my shoulder through the gloom already reaching for my name and address.  My mother was standing on the bank with a heavy coat over her nightdress, my father speechless next to her. Unable to sleep she had insisted they come down to make sure their child was safe.  I was utterly mortified by this parental concern. Unfamiliar with River Lane in the daylight, their midnight visit can hardly have reassured them. It did however serve to raise the stakes for what happened later.

About 2.30 I’d left my basket and walked the bank to get some circulation going in my legs. As I came back down the steep and greasy sides of the Cut gravity took over. I descended the bank in a smooth motion, slid over the edge and into the dark water. The first sensation as I went under was how mercifully warm it was. Moving was difficult because of the layers of clothing, but my bulky jacket did at least provide a purchase for the hands that reached into the water and dragged me ashore.

Waterlogged in every layer and beginning to feel the cold bite, there was nothing for it but to collect my bike and set off along an inky black River Lane and through the deserted streets for home.  I let myself in without waking anyone. Deciding what to do with my wet clothes was too much of a problem to deal with when I had so much shaking to get on with. So I left them in a heap on the kitchen floor and crept up to bed. It’s a measure of my naivety that I was surprised by the level of my parents’ anger the following morning.

Years later as a writer who had grown up in the city I was commissioned to write a community play for Peterborough. As I researched the early history of the town and the arrival of Abbot Martin De Bec in the abbey of Medehamstede I began to focus on the area around the medieval bridge that had been at the heart of the early settlement. The first bridge over the Nene had been in 1307 after De Bec had drawn up  plans to extend the city westwards towards the riverside wharves at the end of today’s Bridge Street. Somewhere along the way I made some notes for a possible scene on the site of The Cut .

 But then in the way of these things, as the writing developed a momentum of its own, the story began to change.  Lines of narrative that felt alive slowly expanded and others that had once seemed promising receded until they no longer served a purpose and could be safely jettisoned. By the time I’d delivered the script, the Cut had swum inexorably into the centre of the piece just as it had into my life and the play had become River Lane.

And then abruptly, it was over. In a shockingly short space of time my life on the banks of the Cut came to an end and the centre of the world shifted a few hundred yards to the north. Fishing and the magic of River Lane dropped out of my life, replaced by the increasingly clamorous call of girls, the dance floor and sex.

 The family, had moved from a village near Stamford into a flat in the city centre. I was fighting a losing battle between the competing demands of ‘O’-levels and a small local nightspot playing the soul music and Tamla Motown which had colonised my life with the same urgency the river had done. A difficult period in my parents’ marriage gave me the freedom to escape each evening into the city. More often than not, the escape took me to The Spinning Wheel – a small club at the back of  the Bull and Dolphin pub, open seven nights a week, and within easy walking distance of the new flat. The perfume- and sweat-addled air of the dance floor was as intoxicating as the freedom and promise I’d tasted in the badlands of River Lane.

Geographically, not a great deal had changed. Behind the club was a carpark whose skyline was dominated by the power station chimney. River Lane, was just beyond the railway lines and the marshalling yard. So in my memory this period in all its inevitable intensity folds perfectly into the same small patch of urban landscape. Looking back it coheres into a single picture of adolescent obsession – the voice of Marvin Gaye leaking into the city night, the sweet-sour smell of cheap perfume, my first clumsy sexual encounters against a wall behind the Spinning Wheel, the clank of the coal yard, the shadowy bulk of the power station and its single massive chimney, and beyond, the dark reedy waters of The Cut with all its teeming promise.