Many of water’s properties are quite bizarre. It is the only chemical that can exist as a solid, liquid and gas at ambient conditions. Felix Flicker in the Magic of Matter.
It’s his real name, by the way.
Although of course I already knew this, we all know this – well I didn’t know that it was the only one, though I knew of no other – it’s only recently that I had become fully aware of this wondrous fact. And I had found it hard to get anybody to share my wonder. As Dr Flicker says elsewhere in the book, it takes work to see the magic in the familiar.
But I can’t say I’d worked at this. It had been forced upon me by my experiences of the magical, overwhelming power of water this summer, in Greece of all places. Greece of dry rock, dead summers, burning heat. But also, this summer – last summer – phenomenal rain. During one downpour (of course pours are always down, that’s gravity) I drove past a waterfall that looked superficially like a regular waterfall, one that might have a name and a reputation and a continuous or at least semi-continuous existence, a river suddenly come upon a sheer drop and diving down over the rockface in multiple interwreathed channels, but it was a rockface that in most summers would stay dry for months, and if you touched it in the evening you would still feel the heat of the sun upon the stone.
I’d been thinking about water for months when, the other day I arranged to meet some friends in Foyles and when I arrived I found Dominic, who is studying physics, looking at the Flicker book and he showed it to me and I opened it to read that bit about the bizarre properties of water. Dominic told me that ambient means in the real world, happening naturally, i.e. not in laboratory conditions.
I came back from Greece to our heat and drought which seemed almost as anomalous and strange as the floods in Greece. But that was a long time ago now. Now water is always and everywhere. It surveys the pavements and finds that they are bowed. It explores my roof and finds a way in. Thames Water cannot contain it or channel it or keep it flowing the way it should flow: they are digging the road up again. Could anyone count the number of times they’ve done that in the last 25 years? Parts of the road have been dug up at least four times in the last few months. The park is saturated, the soil can hold no more and the water slowly rises up above it. On dull days the whole city and the sky are the colour of dirty water.
Years ago – I can’t count them, but we’re talking about the beginning of the telecommunications revolution or the digital age, a phase after the proliferation of satellite dishes, some of which still squeak and sway in the wind around here – years ago they dug up the pavement in Manor Road, stuffed another pipe or cable down there and hastily repaved. So many short lived enthusiasms, so many short lived technological wonders, so many entrepreneurs and opportunists with hundreds of TV channels to offer, and many trees became short lived too as the contractors sliced and chopped through their roots. Along some sections of the pavement they left slight dips, scarcely noticeable when it’s dry, forming puddles after rain. Over the years, millimetre by millimetre, the dips have deepened. Here’s a picture of one on january 3rd, a time when Britain doesn’t seem to know what to do with all the water which presses down and lies so heavily upon it and when the air also is heavy with water vapour, fine drizzle and rains of all varieties.
When autumn leaves which didn’t get swept up are added to the stew we have the beginning of a new ecosystem. Of course it won’t last long, not long enough for mosquitoes and other insects to set up home and breed, because sooner or later the council will get round to cleaning the pavement with one of their busy little machines that will sweep and suck up all the water, leaves and mud. If they didn’t, sycamore seedlngs would certainly germinate there this year. They pick their moment, when water isn’t actually lying in the puddle but the dirty new skimming of soil-in-the-making is still nice and wet, and off they go, quickly putting their tap roots down through cracks in the pavers into the sand and clay below, (and reminding me of one of my own lines from the 1980’s: London’s own tree is the sycamore: where ever the city rots, it roots.)
Is it rewilding? Probably not the right kind of ‘wild’. More foreign wild than native, patriotic wild, buddleia and sycamore in a thirty years war.
Going back just one more day: January 2nd, Hampstead Heath, clear and blue.
Since the floods of 2002 they’ve done a lot of flood relief work on the ponds, so that they can store more water in the event of heavy rain, although Pond Street was inundated again in 2021.
The ponds run in a chain along the valley of what used to be the river Fleet. The steep new edges mean that there’s only one place now in what I believe is officially the ‘model boating pond’ which gives easy access for dogs, a muddy corner on the north east side, overhung with willows, leading to shallow water. I coaxed her in, she tried three times before she got up the courage to swim off out of her depth in unknown water.
The east side of the pond is neatly edged with solid retaining timbers. These faced the low winter sun, and vapour rose from it, tiny clouds, you couldn’t call it steam, vapour like pale-grey smoke, twisting in the light breeze. All around the ground was saturated. I hadn’t walked on real mud, noisy, sticky, for ages. All the little paths were sodden and deep with mud; crowds of people strolled along the tarmac. The temperature couldn’t have been more than about 7 degrees, yet already the water had changed shape, and was rising up, like a first premonition of next summer’s drought. There was even a miniature, dim rainbow.
Why is water vapour sometimes visible and sometimes invisible? How can water turn to vapour when, in spite of brief sunshine, it’s only a few degrees above freezing? Why didn’t I learn a little physics. This sight appeared to me just at the time when I was realising the power of water to shift its shape and fly gently up, against gravity. And then I remembered in Savernake forest a year ago, white in the morning sunlight, branches on the oak trees were steaming, though the frost on the ground was still not quite melted.
The crowds on the heath were thickest that day on the high ground, as if it were the moral high ground, high above the watery valley, gathered ceremoniously there to view the vast and wicked city below
ps. Ok, now I see that the waterfall on the road to Anavriti doesn’t in fact look like a regular waterfall. There is no sign of water worn channels on the rugged cliffs. Once again I’m indebted to the sobering influence of my photos. But I still think that the crowds on Parliament Hill are waiting for the end of the world. Or for the dove with the olive branch.