After writing a post not long ago on a book about a small provincial river in France – it seems more than fitting to follow up with a book about a small provincial river in England. Charles Rangeley-Wilson’s just-released book Silt Road: The Story of a Lost River unearths (quite literally) the meandering path and lost history of the Wey, a more or less obscure river about halfway between London and Oxford. The Wey is but seven winding miles in length and one can drive from its source to the point where it disappears forever in a half hour. But with dual epigraphs from Yeats’ poem “The Song of Wandering Aengus” and from W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, Rangeley-Wilson signals that Silt Road is ambitious and intends to transgress typical book categories.
The premise of Silt Road is simple: the author, a well-respected authority on trout fishing around the world, becomes intrigued and then obsessed by a local stream that seemingly harbors the occasional trout. Efforts to track it from start to finish fail, as the river keeps disappearing underground, under highways, into drainage culverts, beneath buildings. The hide-and-seek game of where is the river soon leads to why and when. Why does the river disappear so often and when did all that happen? As it turns out, Rangeley-Wilson’s obsessiveness is matched ounce for ounce by his dogged research skills, and slowly Rangeley-Wilson peels away at the strata of history literally beneath his feet and the rather astonishing history of the Wye is revealed. We learn about the erotic exploits of the well-named Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-1781) and his randy fellows whose gatherings in the wood by the Wye were both satanic and priapic. We learn that much of the local machinery destroyed by the Luddite riots of the 1830s was thrown in the Wye. We learn that the local beech forests (now nearly wiped out) supplied the wood for the classic Windsor chair and that chair makers in the area were producing 4,500 chairs a day late in the nineteenth century. We learn that, until specimens were exported from the Wye, the entire southern hemisphere of this planet had no trout.
It takes a bit of hubris and a dash of humor to give a book about a polluted little river in England a title that will surely call to mind the great Silk Road that once spanned Asia, but I give Rangeley-Wilson credit for keeping me thoroughly engaged. His message is that, properly told, local history can become universal. As a reader, I felt as if I had stowed away in Rangeley-Wilson’s rucksack as he tromped around the fringes of English villages and conducted his research, employing everything from satellite maps to aging reels of microfiche to interviews in local pubs over a few pints. Silt Road pays polite homage to Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn in the way Rangeley-Wilson blends the genres of history, exploration, autobiography, and such, and also in the use of his own snapshots and reproductions of historic images and documents as illustrative material. But Rangeley-Wilson can also veer off into the industrial wastelands and working-class districts more frequently found in the books of Iain Sinclair.
I also give him credit for insisting on depth rather than breadth and sticking with his subject for the entire book. (It helps that he writes damned well.) This is a book that is already being compared to works by Roger Deakin and Robert MacFarlane, two authors who can’t seem to stay in one place for more than a chapter. As much as I appreciate Deakin’s classic Waterlog, I find it a bit disconcerting that every chapter begins by setting off for new territory. I often feel that Deakin was at his best when he just stayed home and wrote about his own backyard. In Silt Road, Charles Rangeley-Wilson sticks to his own neighborhood and it pays off.