For as long as we have existed we have understood water to be a powerful and mystical element, and shorelines, islands, and river crossings places of great significance. Fords would have been the first way in which we crossed rivers and streams. Bridges of the simplest kind – logs or whole tree trunks – would have come next, but stone is more stable and longer lasting than wood, and soon stepping stones took their place, followed by the simplest bridges.
Many thousands of years later these ancient river crossings still have the power to intrigue and fascinate us. It’s astonishing how many people make excursions to see old bridges or to walk on stepping stones. Perhaps the ability to stand safely above the water is what draws us. When I was a child, to see the flood tide rushing through beneath me at Four Mile Bridge was a thrilling experience. I knew how dangerous the swirling, foaming water was, but I knew the bridge kept me safe ̶ no matter the power of the water it couldn’t sweep me away. The old packhorse bridge at Watendlath, a favourite picnic spot when we moved to Cumbria in the middle fifties, was always intriguing; of course it hadn’t been built for children but it had a sense of being child-size, and so we loved it.
Stepping stones are subtly different from bridges, since in general they’re found where the river is shallower, its bed smoother and the water usually flows more gently. I have many memories of playing on a variety of stepping stones in Yorkshire; and have enjoyed finding them here in Cumbria. I can still picture the stepping stones on the river at Goathland on the North York Moors, where we often visited or stayed when I was very young, and remember the thrill of being able to walk to the middle of the river dry shod and watch the minnows swimming past me. I was very young, four or five perhaps, and filled with a real mixture of emotions; nervousness, excitement, pride at my ability to reach from one stone to another – perhaps I would slip and fall in, but it didn’t matter if I did since the water was barely knee deep – so I almost wanted to, it would just be part of the adventure. On really hot days we paddled and played in the water around the stepping stones, and in our games they became seats, tables, or defensive barriers against the ‘enemy’.
I’m not quite sure of the reliability of my memory, but I think there are stepping stones across the river by Bolton Abbey, and if so, they would have been crossed by us since that was another of our regular Saturday or Sunday afternoon outings.
In Borrowdale there are stepping stones just upriver from Grange. They look to be pretty old and waterworn and are large enough to make even the most nervous feel secure as they cross. I’ve passed them several times in recent years, and have often wished I had time to take my boots off and cross them barefoot – always the best way to to go over stepping stones – and then cool my feet in the water. The stepping stones between Ambleside and Rydal, which seem more recent, aren’t quite so encouraging. Though they’re fairly close to each other, their top surface is narrower and the river is a little deeper at that point. I haven’t yet gone across them, since I haven’t been sure my walking boots would grip them well enough.
Last year a friend and I were looking forward to crossing the stepping stones on the Afon Braint in Anglesey, but unfortunately they were totally submerged by the high tide
– we couldn’t even glimpse them under the water – so we had to turn back, disappointed and rather cross, since the guide book had misled us about them, and there was no other form of crossing for a couple of miles.
Perhaps stepping stones could become a part of a short story – a dangerous crossing of some mosses, a mystical labyrinth of stones set through an ancient marsh or bogland.
I must give that a try some day.
Picture 1 Packhorse bridge at Watendlath;
2 & 3 Stepping stones between Ambleside & Rydal; 4 Anglesey, there are stepping stones somewhere beneath the tide flooding into this river. (Sorry, I took photos from the Borrowdale stones but not of them. I’ll take some next year.)