THE FILLING OF THE THAMES

In the late autumn of 1893, one of the driest years ever known, I went to the weir pool above the wood, and found the shepherd fishing. The river was lower than had ever been known or seen, and on the hills round the "dowsers" had been called in with their divining rods to find the vanished waters.

"Thee've got no water in 'ee, and if 'ee don't fill'ee avore New Year, 'ee'll be no more good for a stree-um"! Thus briefly, to Father Thames, the shepherd of Sinodun Hill. He had pitched his float into the pool below the weir - the pool which lies in the broad, flat fields, with scarce a house in sight but the lockman's cottage - and for the first time on a Saturday's fishing he saw his bait go clear to the bottom instead of being lost to view instantly in the boiling water of the weir-pool. He could even see the broken piles and masses of concrete which the river in its days of strength had torn up and scattered on the bottom, and among them the shoals of fat river fish eyeing his worm as critically as his master would a sample of most inferior oats. Yet the pool was beautiful to look upon. Where the water had sunk the rushes had grown taller than ever, and covered the little sandbanks left by the ebbing river with a forest of green and of red gold, where the frost had laid its finger on them. In the back eddies and shallows the dying lily leaves covered the surface with scales of red and copper, and all along the banks teazles and frogbits, and brown and green reeds, and sedges of bronze and russet, made a screen, through which the black and white moorhens popped in and out, while the water-rats, now almost losing the aquatic habit, and becoming pedestrian, sat peeling rushes with their teeth, and eyeing the shepherd on the weir. Even the birds seemed to have voted that the river was never going to fill again, for a colony of sandpipers, instead of continuing their migration to the coast, had taken up their quarters on the little spits of mud and shingle now fringing the weir-pool, and were flitting from point to point, and making believe it was a bit of Pagham Harbour or Porchester Creek. On every sunny morning monster spiders ran out from the holes and angles of the weir-frame, and spun webs across and across the straddling iron legs below the footbridge, right down to the lowered surface of the water, which had so sunk that each spider had at least four feet more of web than he could have reckoned upon before and waxed fat on the produce of the added superficies of enmeshed and immolated flies. So things went on almost till New Year's Eve. The flats of the Upper Thames, where the floods get out up the ditches and tributaries, and the wild duck gather on the shallow "splashes" and are stalked with the stalking-horse as of old, were as dry as Richmond Park, and sounded hollow to the foot, instead of wheezing like a sponge. The herons could not find a meal on a hundred acres of meadow, which even a frog found too dry for him, and the little brooks and land-springs which came down through them to the big river were as low as in June, as clear as a Hampshire chalk stream, and as full of the submerged life of plants. Instead of dying with the dying year at the inrush of cold water brought by autumn rains, all the cresses, and tresses, and stars, and tangles, and laced sprays of the miniature growth of the springs and running brooks were as bright as malachite, though embedded in a double line of dead white shivering sedge. And thus the shortest day went by, and still the fields lay dry, and the river shrank, and the fish were off the feed; and though murky vapours hung over the river and the flats and shut out the sun, the long-expected rains fell not until the last week's end of the year. Then at last signs and tokens began by which the knowing ones prophesied that there was something the matter with the weather. The sheep fed as if they were not to have another bite for a week, and bleated without ceasing, strange birds flew across the sky in hurrying flocks, and in all the country houses and farmers' halls the old-fashioned barometers, with their dials almost as big as our eight-day clocks and pointers as long as a knitting-needle, began to fall, or rather to go backwards, further than was ever recorded. And whereas it is, and always has been, a fact well known to the owners of these barometers that if they are tapped violently in the centre of their mahogany stomachs the needle will jerk a little in the direction of recovery, and is thereby believed to exercise a controlling influence in the direction of better weather, the more the barometers were tapped and thumped the more the needle edged backwards, till in some cases it went down till it pointed to the ivory star at the very bottom of the dial, and then struck work and stuck there.